Archive for shostakovich

Overheard @ Concerts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

A violist friend of mine tended to have comments for every occasion. After a run of the mill, decidedly average show she’d say: “Of all the concerts I’ve ever played in – that was one of them.”

Overheard at the end of a London Sinfonietta Prom: “Well, that’s two hours less I’ll have to spend in purgatory.”

I overheard this at Covent Garden, leaving the auditorium at the end of La Traviata about 20 years ago – a little old lady to her companion: “It must be difficult if a singer forgets their lines; at least if you are a dancer, you can jump around a bit.”

After a concert of minimalist music at the Bridgewater Hall (again from my viola playing friend): “That music must have taken almost as long to compose as it took to play.”

Overheard during the first interval of Parsifal: “Don’t worry, it gets jazzier from here on in …”

Overheard during a performance of a piece by Philip Glass: “I’ll be glad when we get to the middle eight.”

A member of the band before Act 2 of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten: “Here we go … another 45 minutes of bloody A minor!”

During a performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask Of Orpheus where a female character had to do little more than come to the front of the stage and scream, a man turned to his neighbour and said, “I know exactly how she feels!”

Normally the Promenaders annoy me with their stupid chanting, but I remember a chant from many years ago, after a performance of Melancholia II: “If that was melancholia, give us depression!”

I remember overhearing a lady in a cut-glass accent give her opinion on Wagner during an interval of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Covent Garden: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about Wagner. All he does is keep repeating the same tunes.”

In the early 80s in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, I think it was the BBC Philharmonic (then called the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra). Conductor (probably Edward Downes – can’t remember now) comes on stage to conduct a Shostakovich symphony. A woman sat in front of me turned to her companion and said loudly: “We always have this modern rubbish when he comes here”.

Is Opera Dead?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Opera is a particularly tricky genre to exploit nowadays when so many of its constituent parts have themselves mutated markedly over the past fifty years, yet the usual home for performances is a building whose traditions are better suited to an outmoded form of dramatic presentation. Opera, music drama, music theatre, or whatever, nearly always seems to be lagging behind present-day possibilities, not least because it’s usually stuck in these houses which belong to a different era.

The only opera I’ve heard close to its inception when I knew it was a masterpiece (and I speak as someone who grew up in the 1970s) was John Adams’ Nixon in China.

I always think that when people come out of performances scratching their heads, and saying, don’t know, what do you think, that bit with the flutes was nice, the performance has failed. It’s got to grab you, even if you don’t understand it all at a first hearing.

How I would love to have been present at those Britten or Shostakovich premieres.

What is opera, if not a flawed art form?


Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Think of the Askenazys, Mravinskys, Petrenkos, Kondrashins, Luganskys, Gergievs of this world.

Do you think they find a hidden voice in Russian classical music that no other musician can hear?

Many experts would dismiss any suggestion that nationality has any relevance whatever when it comes to performing music but then you think of all those Russian musicians and orchestras and you have to think again. There is no question in my view that the Russians seem to have a direct line to the composer’s soul (especially apparent in Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich) that no other nationality seems to possess.

At the same time, I also wonder if the St Petersburg band and other Russian outfits get fed up with playing their compatriots’ music when on tour. Wouldn’t they like to let rip with a little Mahler, or Strauss, or Elgar, occasionally?

If you talk to Russian musicians there is a real sense of respect when they tell you that “I studied with X who was the favourite student of Oistrakh” and this kind of thing. One often gets the impression of how seriously they regarded the handing down of the flame in terms of teaching – obviously with a strong emphasis on Russian music – and this did impart a tradition in performing their native composers.

Alhough in earlier times, the results of this lineage could be surprising. From the early professionalisation of music-making with the founding of the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, and that in Moscow three years later, Russian instrumental pedagogy was for several decades heavily staffed by foreigners (especially in St Petersburg, somewhat less so in Moscow). One of these was the Jewish-Hungarian, Leopold Auer, himself a student of Joseph Joachim. Now Auer, whilst heavily influenced by Joachim’s teaching, modified the so-called “Joachim grip”, with the arm very close to the body, somewhat locked in (which was taught quite extensively in the Berlin Musikhochschule, which Joachim founded). Both Auer and Joachim inveighed vociferously against the use of continuous vibrato. Yet three of Auer’s most important students – Mischa Elman, Efram Zimbalist and Jascha Heifetz – played a very significant role in establishing this practice towards its becoming the norm in the 1920s and 1930s. Within two generations of teachers we have gone from Joachim to Heifetz – a pretty major transformation in my opinion. Auer has been characterised as the most important teacher of the violin in Russia prior to the Soviet era (I know more about Russian pedagogy between 1862 and 1917 than afterwards, but certainly various people have suggested there was a very significant shift after the later date with the new types of politicisation of musical life), yet his own style of playing and teaching seems very far from those that developed at a later date.

Similarly the Polish Theodor Leschetizky, a student of Czerny and a teacher at St Petersburg from the very opening of the Conservatory (then later in Vienna), could teach Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Mark Hambourg, Ignacy Paderewski and Artur Schnabel – all extremely different players.

Now I do believe one can talk of schools of playing, especially centered around particular teaching institutions (certain ways of playing have been predominantly taught in London, Paris, Vienna, St Petersburg, Moscow, New York, etc.) and also the aesthetic norms and demands of various localised musical scenes (certain types of player or styles of playing tend to be favoured depending upon who is awarding prizes, running concert series, radio stations, etc.). And the same for composition. But I’m not so convinced about how much the lineage counts with the best players, many of whom often move in a quite different direction to their teachers.

The influence of Mahler on Lennon & McCartney

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Seen in a recent review of a Mahler complete edition on EMI:

Mahler’s influences on subsequent generations have been extensive and wide – Zemlinsky, Schönberg, Berg and Webern in Austria, Shostakovich in Russia, Britten in Britain and Copland in America are just a few to acknowledge their debt. He also spread beyond the limits of classical music with Paul McCartney writing, “I have always adored Mahler, and Mahler was a major influence on the music of the Beatles. John and me used to sit and do the Kindertotenlieder and Wunderhorn for hours, we’d take turns singing and playing the piano. We thought Mahler was great.”

Mahler’s songs often have a folk-like simplicity which is actually very moving with hints of nostalgia, lost love, absence and grief. Some of the Beatles’ songs, especially the slow numbers, explore these emotional effects musically. They are less inclined to use folk song: rather paraphrases of the popular ballads of the interwar years, although sometimes a very Russian-sounding folk song will pop up. Their songs wander in and out of keys and often have more than three chords. They were on a higher level than most of their contemporaries, except the Beach Boys.

What we can never be sure of is the level of influence that Sir George Martin had in his arrangements and the musicians that he recommended they studied. After all, he was working with them one week and Barbirolli or Boult the next.

There is also the infamous article that William Mann wrote pointing out similarities between the pandiatonic discords that end Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and begin A Hard Day’s Night. Perhaps this encouraged the two to play (or attempt to play) Mahler’s songs.

Lennon never mentioned this, but then he didn’t mention Martin’s attempts to get him to listen to Ravel. (I forget the exact words, but Lennon is reported to have said something along the lines of “Nice tunes, but they go on too long”).

Schnittke: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

One of the approaches to Schnittke is to regard him in the same way as many do Shostakovich, i.e. in relation to the Soviet regime.

The difference is whereas Shostakovich had to respond to an ideology which was still vital, Schnittke’s music is more of a “hangover”, when the USSR had all but run out of steam. He is the “anti-Shostakovich” if you like (although his music clearly shares many similarities and Schnittke was hugely influenced by Shostakovich).

His early work is confusing, confused and aggressive; his later work is bitter, like Shostakovich’s, but tinged with a true gift for humour. It can often turn very quickly (not unlike that of Malcolm Arnold) which is either disconcerting or unsatisfying, depending on your point of view. However, unlike Arnold, Schnittke abandons tonality very readily, and is a tougher listen in many ways.

A couple of recommendations: his first Cello Concerto is an utterly typical work, abrasive, challenging and at times moving, and it is given a magnificent performance by Natalie Gutman on Regis. His first Concerto Grosso (he was the twentieth century’s most prolific composer of concerti grossi, by then a largely defunct form) is a magnificently witty piece, not to be missed.

It’s true that he was not Shostakovich, but only Shostakovich managed to be Shostakovich. However, Schnittke was, like Shostakovich, trying to find a way to write “his own music” at a time when the regime in charge of the country wanted dismal saccharine pap like Dunaevsky. Schnittke succeed in avoiding that kind of dross, and remained firmly his own man in spite of pressure to write dumbed-down drivel.

Many composers of his generation felt that the expressive vocabulary of previous generations could no longer be taken at face value. Some responded by starting again from scratch, some by treating this vocabulary in a distanced, ironic or playful kind of way, while Schnittke responded (as I hear his music anyway) by amplifying and worrying obsessively at those expressive gestures until they began to take on some meaning again, albeit often a bitter and even hopeless one.

Brown Bread: Sir Edward “Red Ted” Downes

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music, Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I’ve just heard the sad news that Ted Downes has died, with his wife, both of them drinking a fatal draft of poison at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

The son of the conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Lady Joan described today how his parents died together at the Swiss assisted-dying clinic.

He was a great man. I hope BBC Radio 3 will recognise this in its forthcoming programming. It would be nice to hear again some of his magnificent performances of Russian music, much of it neglected at the time he revived it. I think his Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 is still the best I have heard.

Everyone will have their own memories of Ted Downes, but for me it was his Verdi performances that set the benchmark for others to follow. It was remarkable how someone born outside Italy had such a mastery and affinity with the Verdi style.

Not only an outstanding conductor, but also someone who built the Royal Opera House orchestra into an astonishing ensemble in the second half of the twentieth century. The orchestra has grown from strength to strength, and recent Music Directors have benefited from the wonderful work Ted Downes has done. I know that he was very much admired by orchestral musicians.

His wonderful cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies at the Royal Festival Hall was a revelation, particularly the lesser-known Third and Fourth. A fine man who achieved much. I was sorry to hear of his death, but glad that he had the option of ending his life before it became unbearable.

R.I.P. Sir Edward Downes 1924-2009

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Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


In Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, the words “silly fellow” are set to a transposition of the famous DSCH motif that Shostakovich used extensively.

Was this deliberately making fun of Shostakovich? I am not sure that Shostakovich had made much use of DSCH prior to 1943, so it may be coincidence, but it seems so pointed from the perspective of 2009. Did, then, Benjamin Britten discover and initiate the use of the DSCH motto in 1943?

How was Rejoice in the Lamb received at the time? I would imagine that the church choir in Northampton would have been depleted of younger men as a result of the war, and that the idiom of the piece may have been difficult to grasp.

I think it’s a most beautiful, haunting piece, spine-tingling. The words are a large part of this, and I’ve been thrilled by them ever since I first sang them. I have come across people who are bewildered by them, though – the same people, I’m sure, are puzzled by the Rimbaud poems Britten used in Les Illuminations. Poetry doesn’t have to have an exact meaning that one can analyse, any more than music does.

In 1944 Peter Pears wrote to Britten about Rejoice in the Lamb, “That is still your best yet, you know.” An interesting comment, considering that when the letter was written Pears had already given the premieres of the Michelangelo Sonnets and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

Britten himself seems to have been very pleased with the first performance in Northampton, and refers in a letter to Walter Hussey (who commissioned the piece) to the “very efficient and charming choir and soloists”, who apparently learnt the piece “very thoroughly” at short notice. He also says of the organist that he had “seldom heard such rhythmic playing from an organist”. There was also a very complimentary review in The Times, saying that “the spirit of the curious, vivid poem has been caught”, and calling it “a work not to be placed in any of the usual categories, but certainly beautiful”.

I don’t think it’s known what the choir thought about it.

Music, Time and Place

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Now, here’s a question.

Has anyone got a piece of music that they strongly associate with a time in their life or a place, with happiness or sadness or some sort of significance? Also, has anyone got a piece of not particularly good music, or music that they otherwise wouldn’t have been drawn to but that has such significance in relation to a time or place that that consideration overrides all others?

Many passages in Shostakovich’s symphonies remind me of the back streets of Manchester.

In the days when I used to fall profoundly in love with particular people I tended (not by choice) to associate a passage of music with them, as Swann does with Vinteuil’s “little phrase”. The opening of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 and the lyrical theme for violin in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, for example (the women in question were both violists).

Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind is the piece I associate with my first really serious girlfriend (1978).

I never really liked Sibelius much till I visited Finland briefly after university, and bought a Sibelius tape in Helsinki to listen to on my Walkman. After visiting the lakes around the countryside, I decided to go on to see Ainola, Sibelius’s home. As I wandered in through the woods and saw the house while listening to his Symphony No. 5, his music suddenly made sense to me, and I realized that he is inseparable from the Finnish landscape. Whenever I hear Sibelius, visions of the Finnish countryside come into my mind, and I remember those halcyon days of my innocent youth.

Really, there are far too many pieces to list that remind me of times past, and people. I find it impossible to hear Elgar’s Violin Concerto without remembering a dear girlfriend who came into my life at the same time. I got to know both simultaneously. Now 26 years ago, but it never fails.

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