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New York Times: A Summer Music School for Stars, Amateurs and Students

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The writer Michael White was at Dartingon 2016, for the New York Times

 

DEVON, England — Medieval manor houses often come with ghosts, and Dartington — a 14th-century estate in rural Devon — no doubt has its share. But they don’t rest in peace during the summer.

On a recent sun-scorched afternoon, the sound of trumpets blasted from an attic by the gatehouse while piano duets thundered from the hall, and a cacophony of wind ensembles, string quartets and opera filled the outbuildings.

The Dartington International Summer School and Festival was in business, with nearly 300 people on-site: some to listen, some to learn, but most of them to play or sing. And they epitomized diversity, with star names like the pianist Steven Osborne, the trumpeter Alison Balsom and a 96-year-old former World War II navigator who came to polish up his violin technique.

The festival, which ran from July 30 to Aug. 27 this year, blurs the usual divide between professional and amateur. It is a cultural democracy, peculiarly English in its way, though driven by the worldview of a wealthy American, Dorothy Elmhirst, who acquired the manor house and its estate in 1925.

 At that point the estate was semiderelict, but Ms. Elmhirst — a daughter of William C. Whitney — and her husband brought it back to life for a utopian experiment in how to live rewardingly, responsibly and ethically, with arts and crafts essential to the plan.

Over the years, the Elmhirsts set up a progressive boarding school and art college. They hosted thinkers, writers, artists and musicians. The liberal ethos they espoused spilled across into the nearby town of Totnes, which became (and still is) a retreat for ’60s peace campaigners and aromatherapists.

Utopian dreams, though, have a habit of not lasting. Ms. Elmhirst died in 1968. The money started to run out. The boarding school was closed in the 1980s. In 2010, the college moved away from the estate, subsumed into another institution.

Apart from an on-site foundation that runs courses in sustainable living, the chief surviving statement of the Elmhirsts’ vision of utopia is the Summer School, which Dartington’s governing trust took on in 1953 and has been running ever since.

To some extent, with its teaching component, Dartington bears comparison with American festivals like Tanglewood or Aspen. But it is the mix of professionals and amateurs that sets Dartington apart. Among the names in residence this year was the Heath Quartet, perhaps the most impressive and dynamic of the newer British string quartets, performing concerts in the evening (but as a trio, because the group’s second violinist was unwell). By day, though, they were teaching attendees as varied as serious music students, surgeons, judges, businesspeople and retirees, all of whom pay to be there. Their fees — a week’s worth of concerts and courses is around 400 pounds, or $524, plus optional accommodation — keep Dartington afloat.

The Heath Quartet also served as the tryout band for composition classes run by Judith Weir, the Master of the Queen’s Music, testing works-in-progress by postgraduate students.

“It’s been an interesting process dealing with this crisis of a missing player,” Ms. Weir said. “The quartet ideas the students came with were preoccupied with balance and ensemble issues. But converted into trios, the concerns are now more soloistic — which has been productive in its way.”

Dartington has always thrived, though, on the unexpected. There is a complex daily schedule of events, and all the public concerts — three per night across the four weeks of the school — are organized well in advance. The highlights in the final week were Mr. Osborne playing Debussy with fierce magnificence, a “Carmen” conducted by the English National Opera’s former music director Sian Edwards, and a Fauré Requiem conducted by one of the original King’s Singers, Nigel Perrin.

But as Dartington participants acknowledge, some of its most memorable moments are spontaneous. People meet, relationships develop, projects spring from nowhere.

“Brokering relationships is part of the job here,” said the pianist Joanna MacGregor, the school’s artistic director. “One of the things I try to do is embed young, student performers into concerts alongside the big names, to give them a sense of what it’s like to work at that level.

“Dartington has always attracted charismatic figures: Stravinsky, Britten, Imogen Holst were all here,” Ms. MacGregor continued. “Peter Maxwell Davies was one of my predecessors as artistic director. It’s an ongoing legacy. And a big attraction for the students and amateurs who come is to make contact with these master musicians. Meet them over breakfast. Go to their classes. Learn from them.”

One of this year’s most remarkable events was a duet by the gifted student pianists Thomas Ang and Joseph Havlat, both of them still at the Royal Academy in London but already performers of powerful presence.

When they weren’t giving concerts, they too were playing for composition and conducting classes, or helping captains of industry three times their age to master Bartok.

“What I like about this place is the lack of barriers,” Mr. Havlat said. “The stars, the amateurs, the students — everybody works together, with no obvious hierarchies. And playing for amateur classes, I get confronted with music I’d never see in college. Someone turned up yesterday wanting to run through Honegger’s cello concerto. A discovery.”

Dartington discoveries include the fact that serious musicians can have interests beyond serious music. This year offered Alfred Brendel lecturing on Woody Allen, and a Charlie Chaplin film with live accompaniment from Ms. MacGregor backed by a jazz ensemble. Regular participants fondly talk about years gone by with Buddhist monks and alphorns in the tiltyard. Eccentricity is not discouraged.

Whether it can flourish in the future, though, is a unanswered question. With no public funding for its day-to-day existence and the Elmhirst money largely spent, Dartington Trust is struggling, and there has been much debate about what it should do to “take the vision of the past into the 21st century,” as the trust’s chairman, Greg Parston, puts it.

Plans to commercialize the estate, which would have halved the Summer School’s accommodation, have been criticized and dropped. But the trust’s website prophesies collapse “within five years if we continue as we are.”

Perhaps the quirky, English-democratic charm of Dartington is unsustainable. But there are many who would fight to keep it, and Ms. Weir is one.

“It’s not just that it does extraordinary work,” she said, “but that it stands for something. It’s this country’s version of how we do music. Isn’t that worth holding onto?”

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When did you first hear Messiaen’s music, and what was its effect on you?

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There are two very strong memories: George Benjamin insisting on playing me the fifth movement of Turangalîla on an LP when we were students together (I thought it sounded like cosmic carousel music, beaming out of a tiny little record player) and, a couple of years later, seeing John Ogdon play Vingt Regards.

By that stage I played a few movements myself, but I was immensely moved by Ogden’s emotional fragility and virtuosic strength dealing with this huge work. It was a complex experience for me.

How universal, in your view, is his appeal? Is this music for children or does it require adult perspectives?

The length of some of his pieces or movements probably creates a problem for children; but in my experience young children absolutely love something loud, dissonant and exciting. There’s a thrilling amount of colour and swirling movement in many of his works, to delight someone young – Joie du sang des Étoiles being one example. And anyway there are many entry points; I would have thought that the story of the first performance of Quatuor pour la fin du temps would fascinate teenagers working on World War II, and along the way they’d find some of that music enthralling. I think most of us can’t take in everything, immediately.

What of its challenges to the performer? Are there particular challenges unique or definitively peculiar to Messiaen?


For pianists, if you’ve played Bach, they’ll be resonances in Messiaen’s constant fascination with numerology and counterpoint. It doesn’t make the music dry, but it gives it fantastic, Gothic architecture; the music is always underpinned by foundations that are rock solid. There are flashes of Liszt (see the climax of, say, Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus) and of Mussorgsky: George told me that the two operas he wanted his students to study were Pelléas et Mélisande and Boris Gudunov. Yvonne Loriod was known as a Mozart player when Messiaen first met her; by fourteen, she performed all of Mozart’s piano concertos; even in her sixties she wistfully wished she was asked to perform them all again (she was his muse, and forever attached to his enormous piano writing; I don’t think it occurred to any promoter to ask her to play something else.) But I often think about that when I play Messiaen, about Loriod’s tremendous classical hinterland.

But there are two things that will always be a challenge when first playing Messiaen: the size and speed of his chords (those modes do become second nature, eventually, but only after several years); and his asymmetric rhythms. Messiaen was deeply immersed in Greek and Indian rhythmic patterns, right from the start, and it takes time to convey these with naturalness. They shouldn’t ever sound stuck or ‘difficult’. I got hold of his monograph Technique de mon language musicale while I was still a student – and he lays open his style and influences very transparently, with many examples. Highly recommended – you can practice your French too! (Although I think there may be an English translation online these days.)

Some people might mention physical and mental stamina in regard to performing Messiaen’s works (Turangalîla is 80 minutes, Vingt Regards is two and a quarter hours without a break; even Quatuor is fifty-five minutes. But I think this is part of a long tradition; I think of The Art of Fugue, Goldberg variations, Diabelli Variations. As well as Wagner and Bruckner.

What is the extent of his emotional/spiritual/expressive range?

I hope you won’t mind if I quote my opening liner notes on Vingt Regards here:

Vingt Regards is massive, almost unruly in its overflow of energy and colour, teeming with gorgeous sonorities and intellectually rigorous ideas. Each movement is quite literally a meditation on a theological aspect of his Roman Catholic beliefs, yet the contemplations are meticulously and dramatically paced: they can be serene, fierce, languid, rigidly doctrinal or even humorous. The nearest equivalent I can think of to the contradictory forces held within some movements is the work of the metaphysical poet John Donne, whose Holy Sonnets contain surprisingly forceful imagery -‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for,you/As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend’.

The other truly remarkable quality is Messiaen’s knowledge and love for Eastern music and philosophy. Like the American composer Lou Harrison, he challenges our Western notions of time and structure. The whole work of Vingt Regards may well represent the austere and magnificent edifice of a Gothic cathedral, but the detail and pacing of each movement owes much to Hindu rhythms and the sonority of the Balinese Gamelan.

….Every time I return to the score of Vingt Regards, I am amazed that a work so ambitious and diverse can be built upon unifying building blocks that are in themselves so simple and repetitive. In that sense there is much in common with Bach’s The Art of Fugue, which is equally intellectually rigorous, built on one unadorned fugue subject in D minor. The unifying key in Vingt Regards is F sharp major, heard in hushed tones at the opening, and thunderously at the end. F sharp major, both as a straight tonic chord and with its more luxuriant added sixth, stands almost as an icon throughout the work.

….. Certainly in these pieces we really see Messiaen’s view of God, his Son, the Virgin Mary, Angels and birds  – but we see far beyond the material world and begin to contemplate abstract ideas, as well as feel the passion of Messian’s beliefs, rooted in sensuality as well as theology. Sometimes ‘regard’ is translated as ‘adoration’, but even Messiaen added often quite impressionistic subtitles in an effort to explain the title; he sometimes expanded on the structure of the music and the implied iconography. There are many ways to appreciate Vingt Regards – as a technical achievement, an act of faith, an emotional rollercoaster. It is a tribute to the depth of this masterwork that its meanings are as infinite as all the global references Messiaen draws upon.

Messiaen’s music is quite troubling precisely because it isn’t binary; it holds Catholic dogma alongside wild rapture, and often the most lengthy pieces are built on simple ideas and repetitions. Some familiarity with poetry of the Book of Revelation is useful, and a willingness to live in the stratospheric, occasionally circular world of birds. There’s a handful of works that have definitely entered the mainstream – Vingt Regards, Quatuor, Turangalîla but I hope eventually others will be more frequently played too, like the ravishingly beautiful Couleurs de la Cité Céleste, the song cycle Harawi, the Stravinskian Oiseaux Exotiques, and Et Expecto. Also his most compressed, soulful and succinct birdsong writing, the very late Petites Esquisses, almost his last gift to his wife.

 

Notes on Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus

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Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus was composed in Paris, March-September 1944, during the liberation of the city. The symbolic significance of the date is hard to avoid: it marked Olivier Messiaen’s own liberation from prisoner-of-war camp (where he wrote the sublime Quartet for the End of Time) and the publication of his radical treatise on composition, which was to herald the most influential composition classes in Europe for the next forty years. An explosive work written for his pupil, Yvonne Loriod (who was to become his wife), Vingt Regards is massive, almost unruly in its overflow of energy and colour, teeming with gorgeous sonorities and intellectually rigorous ideas. Each movement is quite literally a meditation on a theological aspect of his Roman Catholic beliefs, yet the contemplations are meticulously and dramatically paced: they can be serene, fierce, languid, rigidly doctrinal or even humorous. The nearest equivalent I can think of to the contradictory forces held within some movements is the work of the metaphysical poet John Donne, whose Holy Sonnets contain surprisingly forceful imagery -‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for,you/As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend’.

The other truly remarkable quality is Messiaen’s knowledge and love for Eastern music and philosophy. Like the American composer Lou Harrison, he challenges our Western notions of time and structure. The whole work of Vingt Regards may well represent the austere and magnificent edifice of a Gothic cathedral, but the detail and pacing of each movement owes much to Hindu rhythms and the sonority of the Balinese Gamelan.

Every time I return to the score of Vingt Regards, I am amazed that a work so ambitious and diverse can be built upon unifying building blocks that are in themselves so simple and repetitive. In that sense there is much in common with Bach’s The Art of Fugue, which is equally intellectually rigorous, built on one unadorned fugue subject in D minor. The unifying key in Vingt Regards is F sharp major, heard in hushed tones at the opening, and thunderously at the end. F sharp major, both as a straight tonic chord and with its more luxuriant added sixth, stands almost as an icon throughout the work. The four main themes that Messiaen identifies in his introductory note are:

the Theme of God – heard in all the main movements once it has been played in full in the opening movement; pitched against birdsong in no.5, transformed into a lullaby in no.15 and re-iterated majestically at the climax of no.20

the Theme of the Star and the Cross – more snake-like and sinister; introduced in no.2, it comes back in various disguises, most notably in the heavy Regard de la Croix

the Theme of Chords – a sequence of four four-part chords which ring out throughout

the Theme of Love – based around F sharp major and passionately displayed in no.6, heart-stoppingly in no. 19.

There is no one English word that could adequately translate ‘regard’. Certainly in these pieces we really see Messiaen’s view of God, his Son, the Virgin Mary, Angels and birds  – but we see far beyond the material world and begin to contemplate abstract ideas, as well as feel the passion of Messian’s beliefs, rooted in sensuality as well as theology. Sometimes ‘regard’ is translated as ‘adoration’, but even Messiaen added often quite impressionistic subtitles in an effort to explain the title; he sometimes expanded on the structure of the music and the implied iconography. There are many ways to appreciate Vingt Regards – as a technical achievement, an act of faith, an emotional rollercoaster. It is a tribute to the depth of this masterwork that its meanings are as infinite as all the global references Messiaen draws upon.

1. Regard du Père

Regard du Père, the opening movement, may have the lush harmonies of the French salon, in Messiaen’s favourite key of F sharp major, but it’s played at such a mesmerically slow pulse the effect is hypnotic and timeless. Messiaen will go on to develop this Theme of God with astonishing complexity. Here you encounter the first of many seemingly contradictory styles; the warmth and depth of the repeated chords reminds me of an almost Lisztian soundworld, while gently re-iterated C sharps in the right hand gives us the first glimpse of the gamelan.

2. Regard de l’étoile

3. L’échange

The next two pieces, Regard de l’étoile and L’échange, are shorter and sharper in contrast. After the sensuality of the opening movement, they’re more cerebral, and certainly fiercer. The first sets out the theme of the Star and the Cross, starkly played four octaves apart and in a strict Greek metrical rhythm. The Exchange is even more unyielding, with a technique Messiaen calls ‘asymmetric enlargement’; from a small riff of descending thirds and ascending octaves, the music develops over a long crescendo, the intervals expanding in each direction, as humankind grows. There’s a bar of silence towards the end, which I always hear as a silent echo of the thunderous octaves.

4. Regard de la Vierge

5. Regard du Fils sur le Fils

The fourth movement, Regard de la Vierge, is the first of many tender lullabies in the whole work and inevitably such tenderness is linked to the Virgin Mary. This contemplation has a charming off-kilter rhythm, almost a  calypso. The preceding movements have all represented the Divine, and here there’s a very simple and beautiful human element being introduced; Messiaen marks in the music ‘tendre et naif’ and imbues it with ‘la pureté’. The scherzo-like middle section brings a sharp spikiness, evoking dance rhythms, xylophones and birdsong.

Regard du Fils sur le Fils develops that birdsong considerably, with the delicate and spirited singing of a blackbird and a garden warbler. But the piece starts, and finishes, with a remarkable rhythmical canon, placed over the Theme of God. The canon subject is based on three Hindu rhythms, and staggered between the hands by altering the metrical relationship; this produces the effect of stasis, yet the harmonic language of the original F sharp major theme somehow irresistibly pulls the music forward.  At this point, in a complete performance of Vingt Regards, the music is begins to deepen and broaden out; already themes are re-emerging, transformed, but the textures, despite the multi-layering, are still transparent.

6. Par Lui tout a été fait

If you ask any pianist what are the truly nightmare movements to play in Vingt Regards, chances are they’ll tell you nos.6 and 10. This isn’t just because they’re long movements, which they are, or because they make unreasonable virtusoic demands on the player, which they do, but because they cram in such a lot of information at high voltage. “By Him all things were made” touches on in some detail Messiaen’s interest in numerology, being the sixth movement and describing the six days of creation. Put simply, in this movement Messiaen has written an enormous fugue, with countersubjects and triple canons; in his notes on the piece he mentions Bach’s Art of Fugue and the fugue from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. Nothing can prepare you for the audacity of constructing a dense fugue that after nine pages begins to unravel backwards, like a colossal piece of engineering. A stretto on the fugue subject leads to the theme of God, ‘victorieux et agité’, alongside the Theme of Love. The mammoth coda section is an ecstatic shout on the theme of God, so repetitive with the odd kink it seems to foreshadow the work of Steve Reich (pretty surprising). Every single note of this movement is derived from either the fugue subject or one of the four themes – the final flourish is a splashed Theme of Chords. As a piece of compositional technique, this movement, rarely played out of context, repays serious study;  to play, it represents one of the Everests of the cycle.

7. Regard de la Croix

8. Regard des hauteurs

9. Regard du Temps

A trio of shorter, more direct movements follow to vary the dramatic pacing. Regard de la Croix quotes the theme heard back in the second movement, but treats it almost as a slow blues, with heavy, grief-stricken chords. In wonderful contrast come the cheeky birds in “Gaze of the Heights”, who dance round each other, sing, play, quarrel and fly off. Regard du Temps, which expresses mysticism and timelessness, has a wonderfully relaxed chorus woven into a triple canon, beautifully voiced and spread wide over the piano.

10. Regard de l’Esprit de joie

Regard de l’Esprit de joie is the equivalent movement to Turangalîla Symphony’s fifth movement – loud, bright, and maddeningly difficult to play: a clash of Western jazziness with Hindu dance rhythms. It opens with a passage Messiaen calls ‘thème de danse orientale at plain-chantesque’ which gives you a good idea of what to expect. The middle section attracted me many years ago because it seemed to slip into pure boogie-woogie in the left hand. A new theme, the Theme of Joy, is developed. Despite the now-familiar ‘agrandissements asymetriques’ technique the movement is more irrepressibly joyful and gaudy than the notorious no 6 –   more Blackpool Towers than Durham Cathedral. It ends with a flourish of birdsong, after which many pianists take the opportunity to lie down.

11. Première communion de la Vierge

After the crazy rumbustuousness of L’Esprit de joie, the sublime Première communion de la Vierge takes us back into an inner world of contemplation and tenderness.  Of course, the opening chords in the left hand are the Theme of God transposed into B flat major; but above are delicately effective swirls of hemi-demi-semiquavers Messiaen charmingly calls stalactites. Although the music does find more forcefulness in a dance-like section, it winds down again with a pedal-point passage said to represent the beating of Baby Jesus’ heart. I find this movement infinitely moving and intense.

12. La Parole toute-puissante

13. Noël

What follows is designed to shatter the calm you may be feeling. The all-powerful Word is an extraordinarily punchy little movement, with a tam-tam ostinato that accompanies a monody constructed around three ancient Greek rhythms. There’s a simple and terrible aspect to the Word, which will be built upon later in the eighteenth movement. Christmas is surprisingly noisy too. A gorgeous middle section representing the Holy Family is framed by a carillon, clangerous xylophone figures and a tam-tam. There’s an effectively brutal end to this movement, where a reprise of the middle section is ruthlessly cut off by the tam-tam figure.

14. Regard des Anges

The third of these noisy movements is Regard des Anges. This is a powerfully repetitive piece of music, where a strophe (a rhythmical canon in three parts) is enlarged upon four times. We hear the fluttering of angels wings, and a depiction of the athletic angels from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, who blow brass instruments with the sonority of trombones or Tibetan trumpets. Messiaen regards angels in the same way as he reveres birds (who also make an appearance in this movement); higher, purer beings, nearer to God both metaphysically and literally. Throughout Vingt Regards birds can be hilarious, gentle, sleepy, melodic and triumphant; the angels by contrast are definitely Old Testament. But the final page holds, for me, the best image of these rather fierce angels: when told of God’s plan to unite himself with the human race, ‘la stupeur des anges s’agrandit’ over twenty-three bars of an ever-augmenting octave sequence. Their jaws quite literally hit the floor.

15. Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus

“The Kiss of the Child Jesus” is the best-known of Vingt Regards, and most often played as a substantial solo piece. It’s stunningly beautiful and lyrical, treating the Theme of God as a slow-motion berceuse, adding birds, dances, tone clusters, and all the passion of a high romantic Ballade. After the  opening section the music becomes playful in ‘le jardin’; slowly the arms of the child Jesus extend in love, before the climactic kiss. The highly-charged passion of this music reflects on Messiaen’s involvement with the Tristan myth throughout the 40’s (present in his choral work Trois Petits Liturgies and Turangalîla Symphony), the bringing-together of spirituality and sensuality: of Roman Catholic iconography and Eastern eroticism. The movement ends with distant cuckoo calls, and a cadence straight out of a jazzy love song.

16. Regard des propheètes, des bergers et des Mages

17. Regard du Silence

As at the end of Première Communion de la Vierge, Messiaen decides to break the atmosphere with short and aggressive movement. The “Adoration of the prophets, shepherds and Wise Men” starts with a march-like figure, going into a nasal, Middle Eastern monody: what a shame the piano can’t play quarter-tones. The movement has great wit and vigour.

Regard du Silence, on the other hand, returns us to the world of the first and fifth movements, in a more sophisticated and yearning way. As at the opening of the fifth movement, there is an intricate rhythmic canon, marked ‘ppp – impalpable’. The delicate arpeggios in this movement are directly linked to Debussy’s Preludes, combined with Messiaen’s modal harmonies. The movement drifts off into infinity.

18. Regard de l’Onction Terrible

Apocryphal and angry, the “Gaze of the Awesome Anointing” is in some ways the hardest movement to pull off in the cycle. As a piece of music, it could only work in context of the whole work; it brings together Balinese music (the technique of simultaneously accelerating and decelerating) and a scene from the Biblical book of Revelation, depicted on a stunning 14th century tapestry of the Apocalypse at Angers cathedral. The Word of God is shown as Christ on horseback, brandishing a sword amongst thunderbolts, at war with the world; musically the movement is based largely around a brass chorale. The ‘awesome anointing’ referred to is inspired by Psalm 45: ‘Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things…’

19. Je dors, mais mon coeur veille

“I sleep, but my heart keeps watch” is the penultimate movement of the cycle. Silence is used throughout this piece, and silence has the last word. Based on the Theme of Love, the music progresses to a very long F sharp major added sixth chord in this piece; marked ‘ppp – extatique’, I always feel this is the very heart of Vingt Regards. The movement needs very little explanation except to quote Messiaen: ‘The Angel drew his bow across the viol, producing so sweet a sound that, if he had continued to play, all who heard him would have died of joy…’

20. Regard de l’ Église d’Amour

The massive final movement brings together all the themes, angels, birds, bells, gongs and tam-tams that we’ve heard in the previous two hours. It really sums up the grandeur, solemnity and vast scope of Messiaen’s ambition; starting with three sections which repetitively exploit the ‘agrandissement technique’, with the marking ‘confusing, menacing’, we cross a bridge passage of carillons and bells which sounds extraordinarily like a snatch of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (an opera that Messiaen always asked his students to study) before reaching a tumultuous re-working of Theme of God at the end — unhurried, majestic and moving.

 

Joanna MacGregor

 

CROSS BORDER: Bach and Shostakovich, Chopin, tango and Deep South blues

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The Cross Border programme is a musical sketch of my life: from the Bach preludes and Gospel songs I played as a child, through to my first jazz love – Thelonious Monk – and my first ‘difficult’ composer – Charles Ives; from my travels across the Deep South of the United States, and first journeys in Latin America. Of course I play a lot of other music, and happily experiment or collaborate, and make thrilling new discoveries: but these are my touchstones, and together they form my North Star.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Four Preludes and Fugues

Even when I was a little girl, Bach was an essential composer for me. Why? Well, I thought he was jazzy and incredibly cool. His music always seemed to dance and sparkle, with wit and sharpness. His voice told a story, and it had immediacy – even while I attempted to play his fugues and pick through the counterpoint.

As an adult musician, I still turn to Bach almost every day. His music is clarity itself, yet it provokes all kinds of problems to be solved, technical and psychological. There seems to be almost no extraneous information on the page – tempi, touch and articulation – and yet there’s an enormous amount to uncover, in terms of stylistic choices. Ornamentation, colouring, to pedal or not pedal: all the things pianists mull over, worry about, experiment with and ultimately change over a period of years (compare Schiff’s early recordings of Bach with his more recent ones).

The story of how Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues came to be written is a Cold War tale. Sent against his will to Leipzig, as a cultural ambassador in 1950 (for a festival marking the bicentenary of Bach’s death) he found himself morosely sitting on the jury of the first international Bach Competition. (No doubt he visited Bach’s grave, newly laid at the Thomaskirche.) Impressed by a hitherto unknown Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva, who came prepared to play all 48 preludes and fugues, he returned to Moscow and composed 24 of his own, in five months. This monumental project was given a premiere, and subsequent majestic performances, by Nikolayeva. Shostakovich hadn’t studied Bach, or earlier music, as a student at Petrograd Conservatory; both his teacher Glazunov and the conservatory’s founder Rimsky-Korsakov thought Bach was boring, and music started with Haydn and Mozart. The Leipzig trip, and the revelation of Nikolayeva’s playing, produced an instantaneous reaction in him. Some of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are like lightening.

Bach Prelude and Fugue no 1 in C major BWV 846

The opening prelude is perhaps the most famous piece Bach wrote, initally composed for his children, and Anna Magdelena, his second wife. Followed by a smooth 4-part stretto fugue (where the fugue subject constantly overlaps).

Bach Prelude and Fugue no 2 in C minor BWV 847

Spiky, jazzy, witty prelude and fugue. I was in love with Jacques Loussier’s recording of this when I was a little girl.

Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue no.19 in E flat major Op 87

I’ve chosen to go to the related key of E flat, which in Bach’s world (with three flats) depicts the Trinity, and in Beethoven’s, heroism. Shostakovich’s prelude sounds heroic, but edgy. The fugue in particular (in 5/4) is highly chromatic, and full of anxiety.

Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue no 15 in D flat major Op. 87

One of the high points of Shostakovich’s cycle, and is often played by pianists as a stand-alone piece. The prelude is a wild, drunken waltz, and the fugue a staggeringly crazy chromatic whirl, with constantly changing time signatures.

Frédéric Chopin   

Six Mazurkas

Op 6 no 1 in F sharp minor

Op 17 no 2 in E minor

Op 59 no 2 in A flat major

Op 30 no 3 in D flat major

Op 17 no 4 in A minor

Op 50 no 3 in C sharp minor

Chopin’s fifty-eight Mazurkas form one of the greatest collections of piano literature – some say the greatest. Subtle, soulful, energetically witty, tragic and dramatic, they can be viewed in a multiplicity of ways: as a diary of Chopin’s most private thoughts; his laboratory for trying out new ideas and techniques; and as a way into his absolutely unique style of playing – improvisatory, intimate rather than showy, often reflective, passionate. Lastly, Chopin’s Mazurkas represent remembering: his family, his homeland and above all Polish folk music and culture.

For younger and older pianists, amateur and professional, the Mazurkas are very attractive. Most are very short, but provide a rich landscape of ideas and emotions. They’re harmonically sophisticated, but totally understandable. They’re also revolutionary: the composer Robert Schumann immediately grasped their political nature, understanding that their open fifths, peasant dance rhythms and modal tunes were an open, and continuing, protest against Russia’s invasion of Poland. ‘If the Russian Tsar understood how dangerous these simple melodies were, Schumann wrote, ‘he would forbid this music. Chopin’s works are canons buried in flowers.’

Lost Highways, American Journeys

Charles Ives (1874-1954) The Alcotts (from Concord Sonata)

Thelonious Monk (1917-82) Monk’s Point

Traditional Deep River

Professor Longhair (1918-80) Big Chief

Traditional Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down

American music always was big draw for me. It has a unique way of being classical, jazzy, contemporary and traditional all at the same time, and I grew up playing Gospel hymns like Deep River and Ain’t No Grave in the local Gospel church. America’s first great classical composer, Charles Ives, was gloriously anarchic, and drew on gospel hymns and brass bands, but The Alcotts is a gentler piece, an improvisatory meditation on the opening ‘Fate’ theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – alongside American folk and parlour songs.

I was given a cassette (remember those?) of Thelonious Sphere Monk playing jazz solo when I was 14. It was all very difficult for me, but to try and get to grips with someone I knew intuitively would be an anchor (those harmonies! that great way of poking and coaxing the piano!), I lovingly transcribed the quirkily humorous Monk’s Point, with a great stride left hand. Don’t believe people who tell you Monk had a bad piano technique: he knew exactly what he was doing. Not only one of jazz’s greatest innovators, thinkers and composers, but a great player too.

Curious about the South, I got into the habit of visiting Mississippi and Lousiana, where I rifled through old music shops and caught music played in bars, tiny festival stages, clubs. The inestimable Professor Longhair is a giant of New Orleans music, and his seminal Big Chief – particularly its left hand riff – single-handedly invented funk: as Dr John says, ‘Professor Longhair put ‘funk’ into music; he’s the father of the stuff.’

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)

Six Tangos arr MacGregor

Tanguedia

Buenos Aires Hora Cero

Milonga del Angel

Michelangelo 70

Soledad

Libertango

Astor Piazzolla was a master of the bandoneon – the Argentine accordion – and single-handedly re-invented Argentina’s greatest musical form, the tango, with a great deal of controversy. Spending his childhood in a poor part of New York (where his parents worked for the Mafia), he headed back to his hometown Buenos Aires at 16, and formed his own orchestra. It took him 20 years to conquer the hearts of the aficionados – and his melting pot of modern jazz, classical and folkloric Latin music so incensed tango purists that he regularly received death threats, adding to his already tumultuous private life and financial failures. Really big hits, like Milonga del Angel and Libertango, ensured Piazzolla was finally recognized as genius, whose dark music is steeped in Hispanic, Italian and Jewish ideas.

 

Gramophone Magazine Diary: Mexico, George Crumb, Nina Simone and Adrian Mitchell

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 To Mexico with Britten Sinfonia for a short tour – my first visit there. Last minute hiccups on the final master of Live in Buenos Aires – a previous master version seems to have got through under the wire – so I’m running through Terminal 5 at Heathrow trying to sort things out with my engineer and not set off the security alarms. The 11 hour flight is (comparatively) restful. We have one night in Mexico City before heading off early the next morning, so I and most of the orchestra head off to the Opera bar downtown – a fantastic old place with carved wooden booths and revolutionary bullet holes in the ceiling.

The next morning we travel 4 hours north through the mountains to reach Morelia, a jewel of a city with the most beautiful 18th century Spanish colonial architecture. We’re opening their music festival, considered to be the Salzburg Festival of Mexico – it’s a huge international programme. After a quick lunch I head off to the concert hall early – I’m directing a programme of Bach (two concertos), MacMillan (his dazzling 2nd piano concerto), some Dowland arrangements of my own, Gismonti and Stravinsky. The piano is in bits, and the (very good) piano tuner is on his hands and knees looking harassed. Is there another piano in Morelia? After a few false leads the answer is no, so we decide to quickly put the piano back together again, rehearse for three hours with the orchestra, and he’ll stay up all night.

By the next afternoon the piano is looking and sounding much better – not great, but OK. This opening night is a major cultural occasion: last night there were fireworks outside the cathedral, TV and radio are here, and I and the players are waiting patiently by the side of the stage while various politicians make short speeches. We’ve been told 15 minutes; 35 minutes later I’m slumped in the corner, violinists are improvising duets, others are lying on what was the TV station’s sofa backstage. Musicians are like racehorses, and if the race is this delayed we all start tearing the place up. Finally we’re off, and we have a lovely time: it’s not an obvious programme but the audience are really warm and receptive, leaping to their feet at the end of the MacMillan and giving us another ovation when we start playing Piazzolla encores. It’s a great start, and afterwards there’s a swanky reception in the town hall, clearly originally a 17th century palace. We are serenaded both by a Scottish bagpipes band (all Mexican) and a family of folk musicians. I have to emphasize not all our concerts are this glamorous.

I leave Morelia before nine the next day, but before we go I ask my driver to show me the carpet of flowers that’s traditionally created here every year by Indian women from the surrounding villages. They’ve stayed up all night and are gently making the finishing touches to a carpet that curls  through the street  for a third of a mile, made of rose petals, berries, leaves, and fruit, with images of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, the sun and the moon, local saints. It’s breathtaking and goes all the way up to a riotously decorated church, full of painted fruits, vines and vegetables. I’m so happy to be here.

Our next concert is in a completely different venue, the vast auditorium on the campus of Mexico City University. It’s got a glamorously resonant, sharp acoustic, rather like Birmingham Symphony Hall. Before the concert we wander up to the roof terrace and discover members of the Mexico City Orchestra having an impromptu salsa party. Aha! One of our second violinists is a demon salsa dancer and immediately joins in.  How can I resist? Tom the orchestral manager plucks us away 20 minutes before the concert begins. We’re playing slightly different repertoire here and again there’s a really warm reception from the audience. Back the hotel, this is the orchestra’s last night (I’m staying to do a solo recital) and Jackie Shave, the leader, decides she doesn’t want to stop playing. There’s a spontaneous play-through of Bartok’s first string quartet in one of the hotel’s conference rooms. I sit at the back and reflect on how brilliant, and dedicated, musicians are.

Before my final concert I decide to do some sightseeing. The Anthropological Museum is awe-inspiring, the Gallery of Contemporary Art cutting edge. But my heart is won by the much smaller Museum of Folk Art, in a refurbished old fire station; three floors of lovingly-curated ceramics and textiles, children’s toys and macabre, fantastical animals, Day of the Dead figures and Trees of Life. I admire how proud and passionate Mexicans are about their culture, and how the collection wittily mixes the domestic with the spookily surreal. Just like life.

I have one more date with Britten Sinfonia, in Madrid’s Auditorio Nationale. So I fly in from Mexico, and race along to the Prado. What a collection – Bosch, Botticelli, Vaslasquez, Zurburan, El Greco, Goya. I’m in heaven: it’s dark, menacing, powerful, like the best Schnittke score.

I arrive back in the UK and immediately go to Cambridge to play a recital of Bach and Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. I’m either sleeping 11 hours a night or two. I drop in on James Mallinson and listen through to a recording I made a while ago of Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi with the Dutch soprano Charlotte Reidijk. It’s planned for a box set release of Messiaen (with Vingt Regards and Quatour  pour la Fin du Temps) around the time I play Turangalila performances with Gergiev and the LSO. We gossip about the recording industry, orchestras, the usual thing. It’s always very calming working with James; I’ve learnt such a lot about recording from him.

It’s one of those weeks. I’m playing two big Crumb pieces as part of the BBC Total Immersion Festival at the Barbican, and as I come off the stage after the first one I’m told he’s in the audience, try and remember to give him a bow. Crumb actually here!!!  A direct link back to Ives, Cage and all my American pioneer heroes. I hope he doesn’t think my plucking, scraping, whistling and singing is too awful. His music is marvellous, meticulous, spiritual and damn difficult. Afterwards I’m dazzled by his kind, laid-back West Virginian voice, the lightly gracious way he carries himself. I also admire his decision to be a recluse.

The next day I start to write the brochure notes for Bath Music Festival; this is my fifth programme. Polly (my producer), the marketing team and I have been discussing the design and layout for weeks, but now is the time to write it all up. I love doing this, but it’s a conundrum: Kathleen Ferrier celebration, 150 words? Hugely complicated collaboration between English National Ballet and jazz trumpeter Arve Henriksen, 100 words? The jazz programme, folk, contemporary, chamber music – all have to be written about with passion, enthusiasm and brevity. I take a phone call from Irvine Arditti, on a crackly line from Minneapolis, to finalize the quartet’s rather exciting programme of Birtwistle, Beethoven and Dusapin. (Make a mental note to give Harry B. a ring.) Break off to go to the 100 Club in Oxford to play in Limelight, a new venture to promote classical music in this historic rock n’roll venue. It’s absolutely rammed and I play Bach, Crumb and Piazzolla to a completely attentive audience. Only the girl serving at the bar recognizes my encore, though: ‘That’s my favourite piece of Nina Simone!’ she exclaims as she hands me a pint.

Last concert this week: tribute to the late, great Adrian Mitchell, subversively witty poet and political agitator, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. His wife Celia has asked me to play some Satie (Adrian wrote a terrific play about him) and I’m sharing the stage with fantastic poets – Carol Ann Duffy, Brian Patten, John Berger, Roger McGough, Jackie Kay and many others – all of whom read one of Adrian’s poems and one of their own, and tell lovely, funny stories about him. It’s the most moving, rich, and emotional occasion. I resolve to be more like a poet, and see the humour, fun and mystery in everything.

This is me going home now, to my piano waiting for me, up in a tower by the sea. On it is my battered, much-loved and much-marked score of Vingt Regards. I’ll make a coffee, turn to movement no 6, set the metronome slow, and sigh with pleasure. This is what I live for.

(November issue, 2012)

 

Chopin: The Complete Mazurkas – ‘Canons buried in flowers’

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Chopin’s fifty-seven mazurkas form one of the greatest collections of piano literature – some say the greatest. Soulful, witty, and often dramatic, they can be experienced in a multiplicity of ways: as a diary of Chopin’s life; as his laboratory for compositional ideas; as a testimony to Polish culture and his elegant improvisation. Most of all, Chopin’s mazurkas represent memory. Sealed into each are childhood ghosts and bittersweet love, conflict and resignation.

Mazurkas are immediately captivating, to every kind of pianist. Most are very short, yet the rich detail of the music is extraordinary: Chopin rarely repeats a rhythm or harmony the same way. He often taught these mazurkas to his pupils to make them think about phrasing and tone production at a sophisticated level, which they found very challenging. (I recommend a lovely book – Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin, Pianist and Teacher, As Seen by his Pupils – for eyewitness accounts.)  All contemporary listeners were impressed by Chopin’s poetic imagination, noting he had a prodigious technique but chose to deploy it carefully and intelligently; he was interested in the quality of sound, particularly soft timbres. In a typically amusing passage Berlioz wrote: ‘There are unbelievable details in his mazurkas; and he has found how to render them doubly interesting by playing them with the utmost degree of softness, piano in the extreme, the hammers merely brushing the strings; so much so that one is tempted to go close to the instrument and put one’s ear to it, as if to a concert of sylphs or elves.’

There’s also a great deal of passion in the mazurkas; some of them are as demanding, physically and intellectually, as Chopin’s longer ballades or scherzos. Robert Schumann immediately grasped the embedded nationalism, characterising the Polish dance rhythms, modes and bagpipes as a rebuke to Russia: ‘If the mighty autocrat of the north knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in the simple tunes of Chopin’s mazurkas,’ he wrote, ‘he would forbid this music. Chopin’s works are canons buried in flowers.’ And pianists have been drawn inexorably to their ambiguity. One of the joys of studying this music is to have an excuse to lose oneself in great interpreters: Horowitz, Rosenthal, Friedman, Michelangeli, Argerich, Ferenczy and many others have delivered wondrous readings of these masterpieces. But for many, Rubinstein – who made the first ever complete mazurkas recording at Abbey Road London in 1938 – still stands alone. Listening to his deeply empathetic, impetuous playing is compelling: physical warmth collides with reflection and intimacy. It was this recording which established the mazurkas as an urgent body of work.

Chopin worked simultaneously with French, German and English publishers, so there are several lifetimes of work ahead to disentangle scholarship issues. Already there are six more mazurkas made available since Rubinstein’s first recording; now we’re all used to editions with posthumously published pieces at the back of the score. I’ve taken the simple decision to play them in order of composition, and to follow the intense unfolding of a composer returning to the same place again and again: from Chopin’s first mazurka to his last.

The Earliest Mazurkas (1820-1829)

KK IVa No.7 in D major ‘Mazurek’

KK IIa No.2 in G major ‘Prague’

KK IIa No.3 in B flat major

Op. 68 No.2 in A minor: Lento

Op. 68 No.1 in C major: Vivace

Op. 68 No.3 in F major: Allegro ma non troppo

A short curtain raiser of Chopin’s earliest mazurkas, written between the ages of ten (his first editor’s claim) and nineteen. They are delicious – cheeky and light – but also contain the building blocks of his mature work: chromaticism, a gift for melody, subtle shading, syncopation. Op.68 No.2 gives a hint of sultry melancholy, while the mysterious middle section of Op.68 No.3 lays out a Bartókian interest in folk music. Curiously this is the only instance of a possible match with a known folk song, Oj Magdalino.

Four Mazurkas Op. 6 (1830)

No.1 in F sharp minor

No.2 in C sharp minor

No.3 in E major: Vivace

No.4 in E flat minor: Presto ma non troppo

This first published set already speaks in a psychological, searching way, with a conversational, intimate voice. The lovely accents and open fifth harmonies opening No.3 are reminiscent of Bartók’s Rumanian dances, while No.4 (the only mazurka in E flat minor) is a wonderfully compressed, knotty little piece, a 24-bar labyrinth. Chopin returns to ‘circular’ composition several times in the mazurkas.

Five Mazurkas Op 7 (1830-31)

No.1 in B flat major: Vivace

No.2 in A minor: Vivo ma non troppo

No.3 in F minor

No.4 in A flat major: Presto ma non troppo

No.5 in C major: Vivo

Op.7 opens with one of the best known of all the mazurkas, with tipsy rhythms and downward leaps of 9ths and 7ths. Note the enigmatic folk-fiddle tune over a drone bass in the middle. (This mazurka was so popular Chopin encored it twice at a concert in Glasgow in 1848, playing it completely differently the second time.)

The second mazurka in A minor – like Op.68 No.2, achingly melancholic – is a favourite amongst budding pianists; here I include two variants in bars 23 and 27, Chopin’s improvisations quickly scribbled down by a student. Just as Chopin likes to write certain material in A minor, his character of C major in No.5 is often rustic, and slightly giddy. It doesn’t actually have an ending, but loops round and round, senza fine.

KKIV No.1 in B flat major (1832)

Four Mazurkas Op 17 (1832-33)

No.1 in B flat major: Vivo e risoluto

No.2 in E minor: Lento ma non troppo

No.3 in A flat major: Legato assai

No.4 in A minor: Lento ma non troppo

The short, posthumous mazurka in B flat major which precedes the next set was published in 1909. It could almost be a sketch for the far more suave Op.17 No.1, with its elegant nonchalance and corps de ballet middle section. Chopin’s mazurka in E minor (No.2) is a regretful Parisian chanson; this was one of the twelve mazurkas the opera singer Pauline Viardot arranged for voice and guitar, with the composer’s collaboration. The A flat mazurka reveals a composer who loves to improvise on his material, with beautifully Schubertian, enharmonic transitions. Mazurkas in this key often elicit a dream-like fluidity from Chopin, the repetition digging deep into memory.

When Horowitz returned to London in 1982, I slept outside the Royal Festival Hall to be sure of getting a ticket. Of all the pieces he played at his recital, the miraculous Op.17 No.4 is the most vivid memory. Chopin’s pupils nicknamed this mazurka das Trauergesicht – ‘the mourner’s face’ – and its porous, unresolved quality has inspired many later composers.

KKIVb No.3 in C major (1833)

KKIVb No.4 in A flat major ‘Szymanowska’ (1834)

These two mazurkas (not published until 1930) present two sharply contrasting styles: robustly merry and wistfully delicate, floating away on the breeze.

Four Mazurkas Op. 24 (1834-35)

No.1 in G minor: Lento

No.2 in C major: Allegro non troppo

No.3 in A flat major: Moderato

No.4 in B flat minor: Moderato

No.1 in G minor displays Cossack swagger. The highly original C major mazurka is a gossamer piece, with the fragment of a Lydian melody that pulls us back to Polish folk music. The relaxed, improvisatory feel of No.3 leads into the darker ambiguity of the fourth in B flat minor, an ambitious, almost symphonic work: the longest mazurka so far. No student was ever able to satisfy Chopin playing the soft unisons in the middle of this mazurka; they could never play delicately enough for him. ‘One was barely allowed to breathe over the keyboard, let alone touch it!’, one said. What a bleak voice at the end; similar to the ending of Op.30 No.4, and the recitative of Op.67 No.2.

Op.67 No.1 in G major: Vivace (1835)

Op.67 No.3 in C major: Allegretto  (1835)

Both written in 1835, but published posthumously. The first paints a village fair, with bagpipe fifths and stomping thirds; the C major mazurka is a reticent waltz.

Four Mazurkas, Op 30 (1836-37)

No.1 in C minor: Allegretto non tanto

No.2 in B minor: Vivace

No.3 in D flat major: Allegro non troppo

No.4 in C sharp minor: Allegretto

Conversational, full of pathos, beautifully brief: another chanson opens this set. No.2 in B minor is a clever, cunning piece. It has a terrific chromatic sequence, as well as a trio tune that repeats the same two-bar phrase eight times, over different harmonies.

The third in D flat is a big-boned, generous mazurka – almost a polonaise – marked risoluto and con anima, for Chopin meaning ‘with heart’. The fourth is one of Chopin’s supreme works in the form, and recorded by many great pianists. There are many moods here – impressionistic, nervy, yearning, and passionate – and the work is complex, dark: difficult to capture. Music analysts from Schumann onwards have written about the rules-shattering seventh chords – a sequence where the music literally seems to dissolve – towards the end. The final stark voice could have been written by Janáček.

Four Mazurkas Op.33 (1837-8)

No.1 in G sharp minor: Mesto

No.2 in D major: Vivace

No.3 in C major: Semplice

No.4 in B minor

‘Chopin’s forms seem to grow ever brighter and lighter’, wrote Schumann of the Op. 33 set. That’s certainly true of the gorgeous peasant dance of No.2 – a depiction of the tavern, Chopin told his pupils – and the delicate beauty of No.3 (his pupil Lenz called this an epitaph of the mazurka, ‘the weary flight of an eagle.’) Chopin was furious with Meyerbeer, when he remarked Chopin stretched his rubato in this so much that it sounded in 4/4, rather than 3/4.

The set opens with a hint of tragedy in G sharp minor, and closes with one of the longest mazurkas, in B minor. Chopin taught this highly developed piece as if it were a ballade; at the end a soft bell tolls, and the sudden arrival of heavy chords sweeps away the cohort of ghosts, he would say.

Four Mazurkas Op.41 (1838-9)

No.1 in E minor: Andantino

No.2 in B major: Animato

No.3 in A flat major: Allegretto

No.4 in C sharp minor: Maestoso

One of the solemn funeral marches that seem to crop up in the mazurkas – always in A minor – opens the set powerfully here. The mood is lightened by an ebullient, virile scherzo in B major, and a quirky, asymmetrical waltz in A flat which seems to wander off down the road, like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. The most famous Op.41 mazurka is a slow burn, of maestoso dance and revolutionary fervor. It ends with a call to arms (like another C sharp minor mazurka, Op.50 No.3) – Schumann’s canons buried in flowers.

KK IIb No.4 in A minor: Allegretto ‘Notre Temps’ (1839)

KK IIb No.5 in A minor ‘À son ami Emile Galliard’ (1841)

Two more posthumous mazurkas. The first is another funeral march, resembling late Schubert, with an operatic chorus in the middle section. ‘À son ami Emile Galliard’ is terrifyingly passionate – angry, even – with (unusually) an octave passage evoking Chopin’s great supporter, Franz Liszt.

Close friends, but with entirely different temperaments, Chopin confided to Liszt: ‘I’m not suited for concert giving. I feel timid in presence of the public; their breath stifles me; their curious gaze paralyses me.’ Paris critics loved comparing the two composer pianists. Balzac: ‘You should judge Liszt only once you have had the opportunity to hear Chopin. The Hungarian is a demon; the Pole is an angel.’ Lutèce: ‘Besides Liszt, all other pianists are eclipsed, with a single exception: Chopin, the Raphael of the piano.’

Three Mazurkas Op.50 (1841-42)

No.1 in G major: Vivace

No.2 in A flat major: Allegretto

No.3 in C sharp minor: Moderato

The mazurkas written in the final years of Chopin’s life become complex. The first two of this set are miniature sonata forms, although the material is clearly intended to be attractively light. Not so the remarkable C sharp minor mazurka, which weaves in Bach-like counterpoint and argument. The coda is one of Chopin’s most remarkable harmonic sequences, with a torrent of audacious chromaticism and insistent transformation, before the final hammer blows.

Three Mazurkas Op.56 (1843)

No.1 in B major: Allegro non tanto

No.2 in C major: Vivace

No.3 in C minor: Moderato

The first of these three mazurkas begins in a minor key: a beautifully ambiguous opening, before finding its way to the home key of B major. Containing two lighter, scherzo-like episodes, there are linking sequences that sound surprisingly contemporary, before an extended, relaxed coda in right-hand sixths. The middle mazurka returns to the awkwardness of C major. Chopin disliked this key, complaining that it made a pianist’s hand fall unnaturally on the piano keys; the first scales and exercises he taught to his pupils were always in B major, far more elegant and relaxed. Here C major produces an earthy, modal peasant dance, with stamps and kicks.

Nothing could contrast more with the C minor mazurka, perhaps Chopin’s most philosophical. Questioning repetitions lead to a long bridge section, finally reaching a hymn-like second subject and development. This mazurka has the depth and range of a sonata movement; its closing passage is remarkable for the inner processes at work, both reflective and haunted.

Three Mazurkas Op.59 (1845)

No.1 in A minor: Moderato

No.2 in A flat major: Allegretto

No.3 in F sharp minor: Vivace

The opening mazurka in this set is as elusive as Chopin’s Ballade no.4. It doesn’t develop so much as unfold; the composer’s harmonic handling – particularly a ‘false return’ in the very distant key of G sharp minor which effortlessly melts back into A minor – is miraculous. Berlioz wrote: ‘virtually nobody but Chopin himself can play his music and give it this unusual turn, this sense of the unexpected…his interpretation is shot through with a thousand nuances of movement, which he alone holds the secret.’

And then he gives us a warm music-hall song, before returning to the stylish power of F sharp minor, with insouciant triplets and snaps.

Three Mazurkas Op.63 (1846)

No.1 in B major: Vivace

No.2 in F minor: Lento

No.3 in C sharp minor: Allegretto

Chopin returns to shorter, simpler forms that are warm (B major) then frozen (F minor). The third mazurka is very different from the grand C sharp minor mazurkas that have gone before. This is klezmer music from Eastern Europe: ironic and wonderfully cultured, with a dash of counterpoint at the end.

The Final Mazurkas

Op.67 No.4 in A minor: Allegretto (1846)

Op.67 No.2 in G minor: Cantabile (1846)

Op.68 No.4 in F minor: Andantino (1849)

The last three mazurkas reveal Chopin at his most lean. No drama, but the poet speaks simply and directly; the harmonies have a devastating clarity.

The final brief mazurka in F minor was traditionally known as the last piece Chopin ever wrote. It was left as a sketch, assembled by his friend, the cellist Auguste Franchomme, and subsequently edited by Julian Fontana. There is circularity and openness in the form; melodic ambiguity; and compressed, Tristan-like chromaticism. In its shadows, it sums up Chopin’s long journey: as a composer of extraordinary insight, his mazurkas a witness to human vulnerability and longing.

© Joanna MacGregor

 

‘Quavers at the speed of light’: Harrison Birtwistle’s music is devilishly difficult to play and has floored conductors and musicians alike but, says Joanna MacGregor, even his most fearful pieces are meant to be fun

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The_Guardian

 

This year – 15 July 2009, to be precise – is Harrison Birtwistle’s 75th birthday. It seemed a good idea – well, absolutely vital – for us at the Bath International Music Festival to mark the occasion with some kind of celebration. But what started out as one concert quickly became several performances of different shapes and sizes, not all of them conventional. We have a theatre group retelling classic myths for children, an installation of electronic music in the ghostly workshops of the Museum of Bath at Work, an open-air marching band, big percussion pieces and intimate chamber works. All this climaxes in a big, ritualistic extravaganza of choral and brass music at Bath Abbey, with 70 performers.

One formal type of concert simply wasn’t enough to do justice to the complexity and magnitude of Harry’s output and personality. I wanted to make some connections between his music and some of Harry’s favourite Tudor and Elizabethan composers, to get children involved, and invite local students to share the stage with professionals. Birtwistle’s music is often considered so complex that only a certain kind of “specialist” musician can play it, but I want to open the door marked “Danger – New Music” for young people early on.

2012-03-birtwistle-sir-harrison-london-copy

It’s easy to label Birtwistle a “hard” composer. Some readers might remember switching on the Last Night of the Proms a few years ago for a comforting singalong only to be confronted by Panic, a sensational piece for sax, percussion and orchestra, which apparently traumatised the shires for several weeks afterwards. I remember listening to Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs testily demanding to know exactly who he was writing for. But composers don’t get up in the morning wondering who can they upset today – the good ones don’t, anyway. They write what they hear, and express what needs to be expressed. Like sculptors, they patiently hew and shape their music, often following a private narrative arc from piece to piece. They write alone, slowly and diligently. Some of them, like Harry, find their voice very early on and examine their personal mythologies carefully with each new work.

The problem with “hard” classical music is that the audiences can be self-selecting, aided and abetted by some critics who imply you need a PhD before you’ll be sold a ticket. But you don’t need to control the music, or fight it. If you let it happen, you’ll be surprised at how beautiful, deep and lyrical even the most challenging contemporary scores can be. Sure, Birtwistle’s written some very loud, dissonant music (let’s not panic about Panic again); but I find it exhilarating, rather than threatening, and it’s never without some kind of emotional punch. The melodic lines may be angular or stratospheric, but they’re unmistakably melodies.

The first time I worked with Harry was on his huge piano concerto Antiphonies, in 1992; I was asked to take over an extraordinarily complex score at the last minute, and flown out to Paris to meet the conductor, Pierre Boulez, in IRCAM, his underground labyrinth of electronic studios. Boulez thought the piece very tough and asked me to work through the entire score with him at sight. (This, in case you’re wondering, is the stuff of musicians’ nightmares: trying to sightread Birtwistle in front of Boulez.) The orchestration (for huge forces, including a massive battery of percussion) was so dense you could’ve walked into it like an Anish Kapoor installation. I loved the music, the depth and fierceness of it; the way it went absolutely against the idea of a conventional piano concerto, and the way we all had to cling on for dear life, even in Boulez’s supremely capable hands. Those first three performances with the Philharmonia, in Paris, Antwerp and London, were formidably powerful – even if the critics weren’t crazy about it – and 18 months later we recorded it in Amsterdam, with a somewhat less friendly Dutch Radio Orchestra. There was much complaining, particularly from the string section. At the end of tense recording days, I remember weaving in between trams with Birtwistle, whipped by below-freezing winds, and diving into snug bars very late. (The recording turned out very well, despite the high-noon atmosphere.)

Complex modern music always has antecedents. I’ve never met a composer who doesn’t have a strong affinity with the past; often they’re reworking, reimagining or just plain arguing with what’s come before. You can find out a lot from the company a composer keeps, and there’s a nice line to be traced from the early English composers John Dunstable and John Dowland to Birtwistle: it’s a shared quality of mystery and melancholy, of shadows and pauses and memory. The first piece I remember hearing of Birtwistle’s, and falling in love with, was Meridian, a love song scored for mezzo soprano, chorus and ensemble. It entwines the glorious poetry of the Elizabethan lyricist Thomas Wyatt with Christopher Logue. I can remember with absolute clarity how I felt at this performance, more than 30 years ago: I was lifted up and transported, by this rapturous music, to a place where the deep past and present meet. This quality in Birtwistle’s music is a gift for programming: there’s nothing more satisfying than forging links between ancient and modern worlds, so the listener can engage with contemporary music on two levels. Birtwistle revisits rituals, myths and stories over and over again, and there’s a sense that his music is one long processional, emerging from a distant past, circling slowly round, and back again.

Finally, remember all composers are human beings. They have family lives, friends, gardens, hobbies, like you and me. Because he’s known for long, involved scores, it comes as a surprise that over the years Harry has written several brief, intimate piano pieces, which I’m getting some young students from Bath Spa University to play for him (he will be attending all the concerts). All have lovely dedications to newborn grandchildren, or close friends; they’re usually brief lullabies, or tangos, or humorous little exercises in rhythm with a metronome. And even his most fearful music is intended to be playful.

Some years after Antiphonies, I premiered a huge cycle called Harrison’s Clocks, five pieces based on John Harrison’s 18th-century maritime clocks. Boy, they were hard – millions of notes, with fantastically complicated rhythms travelling at the speed of light. Many other pianists at the time quaked, turned pale and shook their heads. But everything moves on – that was more than 10 years ago, and what’s considered unplayable gradually becomes – well, not exactly easy, but possible. Harry told me that recently teenage pupils at the Purcell School had split the piece up, taken a movement each, and played them to him. On the phone the other day, sorting out some details for our Bath concerts, I mentioned to Harry I was spending the rest of the evening in the company of these fiendish Clocks. I must’ve sounded glum. “But they’re not hard!” he exclaimed in his soft Lancashire burr, trying to cheer me up. “They’re fun.” And I thought, yes, he’s right. Just because they’re complicated doesn’t mean they’re not fun.

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/may/22/harrison-birtwistle-classical-composer

When Dmitri met Johann: Limelight Magazine, Australia

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Even when I was a little girl, Bach was an essential composer for me. Why? Well, I thought he was jazzy and incredibly cool. His music always seemed to dance and sparkle, with wit and sharpness. His voice told a story, and it had immediacy – even while I attempted to play his fugues and pick through the counterpoint.

As an adult musician, I still turn to Bach almost every day. His music is clarity itself, yet it provokes all kinds of problems to be solved, technical and psychological. There seems to be almost no extraneous information on the page – tempi, touch and articulation – and yet there’s an enormous amount to uncover, in terms of stylistic choices. Ornamentation, colouring, to pedal or not pedal: all the things pianists mull over, worry about, experiment with and ultimately change over a period of years (compare Schiff’s early recordings of Bach with his more recent ones). So why intertwine him with Shostakovich?

There’s a fairly swift answer to this – I was asked a few years ago to broadcast a live recital of Bach and Shostakovich preludes and fugues on the BBC, and I think they were expecting me to play two separate ‘showcases’ of each composer with some clear blue water (and 200 years) in between. But I thought it might be more challenging to weave a path from one to the other, as an unbroken arc. How would it feel to follow one famous Bach work with Shostakovich’s reply? Which composer would ultimately feel more contemporary, or mysterious, or shocking? Bach’s preludes and fugues are famously diverse. They can be springy and light, serious and spikey; they can be tragic, mystical, or humorous. They are (short) marvels of compositional elegance and profundity. Although Shostakovich’s homages are brilliantly engineered, can he really compete with the Godfather of classical music?

The story of how Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues came to be written is a Cold War tale. Sent against his will to Leipzig, as a cultural ambassador in 1950 (for a festival marking the bicentenary of Bach’s death) he found himself morosely sitting on the jury of the first international Bach Competition. (No doubt he visited Bach’s grave, newly laid at the Thomaskirche.) Impressed by a hitherto unknown Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva, who came prepared to play all 48 preludes and fugues, he returned to Moscow and composed 24 of his own, in five months. This monumental project was given a premiere, and subsequent majestic performances, by Nikolayeva. Shostakovich hadn’t studied Bach, or earlier music, as a student at Petrograd Conservatory; both his teacher Glazunov and the conservatory’s founder Rimsky-Korsakov thought Bach was boring, and music started with Haydn and Mozart. The Leipzig trip, and the revelation of Nikolayeva’s playing, produced an instantaneous reaction in him. Some of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are like lightening.

The choices that I made in this sequence were key-based and narratively driven (I decided to stick to Bach’s Volume I). I wanted to open with the most famous, translucent work Bach ever wrote, the C major prelude, and allow Shostakovich’s reply – a meltingly beautiful, C major sarabande. Then the jazz kicks in, in Bach’s C minor work, with a robust and bracing reply from Shostakovich in the related key of E flat major. And so the composers tail one another, conversing in connected keys, but with astonishingly different tonal palettes, philosophies and textures. Each composer is tough – if they write melancholic music it’s pure melancholy; if it’s effervescent, it scorches the score like fireworks. Bach plumbs the depths with universality. Shostakovich can write music laced with sarcasm, which then transforms into 20th century existentialism and futility. Both can be extremely funny.

Shortly after playing in Australia I’ll be returning to London to speak at a Neuroscience conference about the effects of music. I know nothing at all about neuroscience other than performing, writing or listening to counterpoint does something very positive to your brain. Multiple voices talk, argue, explicate and then resolve. (There must have been a good reason Brahms wrote a fugue before breakfast every day). It’s an academic technique and a compositional tool – but what both Bach and Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues really do is speak directly to their listeners. Their music is contemporary, urgent and powerful.

March 26th 2014

 

Beethoven, Ligeti and Liszt

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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor WoO 80

Beethoven seemed to have forgotten he’d written thirty-two variations in C minor. When he heard the daughter of the piano-maker Streicher practising it, the conversation (according to Thayer) went like this: ‘’Whose is that?’ ‘Yours,’ was the answer. ‘Mine? That piece of folly mine? Oh, Beethoven, what an ass you were in those days!’’

Beethoven may have been annoyed at the girl’s playing; he may have been annoyed at himself for writing something pedagogical; he may have been infuriated the variations were so popular – it was an immediate hit (after publication in Vienna in 1807) amongst professional pianists and amateurs, hungry for shorter, acrobatic pieces. His irritation might also hint at the complicated relationship with his friend and rival Johann Hummel, whose virtuosic playing and works were considered far more valuable during Beethoven’s lifetime. A young Liszt tried to take lessons from Hummel, but couldn’t afford his fees.

Despite Beethoven’s grumpiness, 32 Variations on an original theme in C minor remains supremely popular. The ‘original theme’ is a falling, chromatic eight-bar chaconne, and irresistibly catchy. The ensuing variations are a mere eight bars long, and deal with the basic stuff of playing: repeated notes, arpeggios, thirds, octaves, fast scales. Yet the piece is transcendental too, with cross rhythms and constant surprises – pure Beethoven, in daring, assertiveness, and contrariness. Only Beethoven could have written such an elongated, dramatic return of the theme at the end: a mighty river slowly and irrevocably bursting its banks.

György Ligeti (1923-2006)

Musica ricercata

I           Sostenuto – misurato – strigendo poco a poco sin al Prestissimo

II         Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale

III        Allegro con spirito

IV        Tempo di Valse (poco vivace – ‘à l’orgue de Barbarie’)

V         Rubato. Lamentoso

VI        Allegro molto capriccioso

VII      Cantabile, molto legato

VIII     Vivace. Energico

IX        Adagio. Mesto (Béla Bartók in memoriam)

X         Vivace. Capriccioso

XI        Andante misurato e tranquillo (Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi)

‘We play with the music and the music plays with us,’ Ligeti wrote, a game-playing, quixotic character. His scintillating piano miniatures Musica ricercata were composed between 1951 and 1953, when he was still living in Soviet Hungary, catching pirated broadcasts of Boulez and Stravinsky at night. This work, too, has a pedagogical surface – the first piece jazzily hammers out one note (A), the second two notes, the third bounces around in major and minor thirds and so on, until the dream-like homage to the Renaissance keyboardist Frescobaldi unveils stretto polyphony (the ricercata of the title), using all twelve tones. But these pieces also burst with rage, fear and grief – with instructions like ‘insistent, spiteful,’  ‘as if panicking,’ ‘play as if mad’ – as well as burlesque humour. They’re small tight fists, punching out pranks, barrel organs (‘à l’orgue de Barbarie’) and keening laments. Each movement outlines the quirks and obsessions Ligeti was to explore thoroughly in his eighteen études and the Piano Concerto thirty later – endlessly falling, textural chromaticism; extremes at either ends of the keyboard; mystery, violence and humour occupying the same space.

Music riceracata seems both an act of remembrance and a leap forward. Ligeti studied composition with Sándor Veress at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest between 1945 and 1948; their relationship was cut short when Varess fled to Switzerland in 1949, after a close friend was executed for treason. Ligeti wrote a great deal about his teacher’s music, and especially admired his set of seventy short pieces for piano students, Billegetömuzsika, officially translated as Fingerlarks. (The literal translation is the much more Rabelaisian Waggling Music.)  These were small but perfectly formed examinations of piano technique: scales, phrasing, dotted rhythms, broken chords – each with a specific folk music source, carefully identified in an index at the end of the volume. Ligeti’s scrupulous use of counterpoint and canon, and the building blocks of music – thirds, fifths, octaves – shows a conscientious apprentice pleasing his master, in between the jokes and the fights. He even takes a bagpipe tune (Dudanóta) from Veress’s collection and turns it into something both more complex and airy in the seventh movement of Musica Ricercata. His own flight to the West late in 1956, trying to follow Varess to Berne – on foot, in the dead of night, across the patrolled border – was traumatic and difficult, and he was detained as a refugee in Vienna.  Right up his death in 2006, Ligeti’s life had a pattern of itinerancy, despite – ostensibly – settling in Austria.

There’s a curious relationship between Gyögy Ligeti and Stanley Kubrick.  Famously, Ligeti had no idea that Kubrick had helped himself to three of his major works (Lux aeterna, Requiem and Atmosphères) in 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. No idea, that is, until he happened to see the film in a Viennese cinema. (MGM eventually paid him a modest $3500 for copyright permission; $1000 of that had to be handed over to his lawyer.) In his very last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Kubrick uses the second movement of Musica ricercata many times, most climactically when Tom Cruise’s character is unmasked at a bizarre, upper-class orgy.  The visual and verbal edits of the mock court scene were matched to the music precisely, brilliantly capturing its frightening, ceremonial coldness, including the sudden stabs on a high G in the right hand. ‘Stabbing Stalin through the heart,’ as Ligeti told his biographer Richard Steinitz, many years later.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Nuages gris

La Lugubre Gondola I

Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde     

By 1880, Liszt – that most charismatic and generous of musicians, in youth and middle age fêted and adored throughout Europe – had reached old age, and his late piano pieces are a repertory of doubt and despair. His contemporaries shrank from these elliptical, troubled works. They heard short fragments of anguished dissonance, bolstered by Beethovinian thunders of bass tremolo, and didn’t like it. A conspiracy of silence surrounded Liszt’s late works until relatively recently; music writers conceded they foresaw Schoenberg’s atonality, and Debussy’s impressionism.

As the great Liszt musicologist Alan Walker points out, reducing these pieces to ‘fragments of sonic history’ does them an enormous disservice. They’re not attempting to solve the problem of tonality, but they are poems of immense emotion and ambiguity. Nuages gris (August 1881) may well be the ‘gateway to modern music,’ but the

grey clouds were autobiographical. Liszt had a severe fall the month before, and his serious injuries brought on all kinds of ailments, including dropsy, asthma, and chronic heart disease; he was also slowly going blind. This tiny piece creates an atmosphere of desolation with admirable economy – particularly from such a virtuosic composer – and drifts away, keyless.  (Strangely, it’s also featured in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.)

In autumn the following year, Liszt went to stay with the ailing Wagner, Liszt’s daughter Cosima, and their son Siegfried at the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice.  Playing whist every night (he had to let Wagner win occasionally!), he was hounded by a vision of Wagner’s cortège floating across the lagoon. Two elegies, La Lugubre Gondola I and II, composed in December 1882, work through Liszt’s morbid fascination with funeral gondolas, which he watched from his upper window onto the Grand Canal. Liszt’s premonition was correct:

he said goodbye to Wagner in January 1883, and in February Cosima accompanied her husband’s coffin through Venice by gondola, then by train to Bayreuth. (Wagner had possibly overheard his own elegy being composed.  Cosima wrote in her diary that Wagner ‘described [Liszt’s] new works as ‘budding insanity,’ and finds it impossible to develop a taste for their dissonances.’)

Liszt composed his magnificent and greatest paraphrase, Isolde’s Liebestod, in 1867, when Cosima was leaving her first husband – the conductor Hans von Bülow – for Wagner. It was a messy, painful time. Liszt had admiration for Wagner’s genius while deploring his behaviour, and broke off relations altogether with him for five years. (He dearly loved Cosima, but had a difficult relationship with her; she refused to see him after Wagner died.) Liszt was intimately acquainted with Tristan und Isolde, having conducted the second public performance from the manuscript in 1859. With judicious use of arpeggios, tremolandos, and repeated chords, he creates textures shimmering with orchestral incandescence, and his pedal markings show the attention of a subtle performer: the first half of Liebestod is played almost entirely with the soft pedal. Arpeggiated chords in both hands add imaginary harps and pizzicato basses. Students often brought this paraphrase to Liszt in his old age, in public masterclasses and private lessons; as Alan Walker remarks, ‘he must have asked himself what they could have possibly known of its inner significance….it may be Wagner’s music, but it is of Liszt that we think; at its centre it contains a bitterness of heart – for those with ears to hear.’

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)                                       

Sonata in C minor Op.111

I           Maestoso – Allegro con brio e appassionato

II         Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

Beethoven’s last sonata broke all the rules; the hero of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus thought it represented ‘the farewell of the sonata form.’ It certainly changed the game entirely.  Sonatas continued to be written, but in new ways, as Liszt exemplified with his heroic Sonata in B minor. As with the 32 Variations on an original theme, Beethoven wrestles with the keys of C minor and C major. The taut emotional turmoil of the first movement gives way to a floating spirituality in the variations of the second:  ‘a final testimony of his sonatas, as well a prelude to silence,’ according to Alfred Brendel.

To say that that this sonata (composed between 1821 and 1822) is influential is an understatement; so I’ll just mention two different examples. Chopin references the first movement of Op.111 twice. The opening gesture (three ferocious, falling diminished sevenths) is replicated at the beginning of his B flat minor Funeral March Sonata; and he quotes the final nine bars of the first movement in his Revolutionary study. Secondly, Beethoven and ‘the invention of jazz.’  We all know that jazz arose from the Deep South, but the sforzandos on the second and fourth beats of Beethoven’s famous ‘jazz variation’ invent a kind of wild swing before swing was even thought of; the metrical relationship between each variation is still hair-raising to look at, even now. Despite calling the piano ‘an unsatisfactory instrument,’ Beethoven went back to basics in this movement (the stuff of thirds, octaves, arpeggios and trills) and ‘gently placed us on the edge of eternity.’ As Brendel says, ‘simplicity as a result of complexity – distilled experience.’

Joanna MacGregor