Archive for tchaikovsky

Opera North’s Queen of Spades

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 20, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Neil Bartlett’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s great opera of gambling, of secrets, of love and death opens at Opera North today. Bartlett – making his operatic debut – picks his key moments from the production:

Tchaikovsky’s score for The Queen of Spades is an extraordinary thing. At once expansive, excessive and opulent, it’s also strangely interior; the real action of the opera takes place largely inside one man’s head. As heroes go, no-one is more solitary, more at odds with his world, than Herman. At key moments in the show, I’ve chosen to sweep all the glamour of the 19th century setting aside and present him with brutal simplicity.

The second act of the show opens with a grand masked ball – a scene that could easily drown the music in frocks and glitter. The task here was to connect the disconcerting theatricality of the masquerade with the deeper themes of obsession and fatality that run through the music.

A chorus is much more than just a group of people – they’re a team who can act as one, amplifying an emotion or gesture on stage to a scale that a solitary performer can never dream of achieving. Put the simplest action – knocking back a drink, in this case – in time with music as theatrical as Tchaikovsky’s – then amplified by the number of people you’ve got in the chorus, and the gesture can acquire an extraordinary kick. The simplest tricks are the best.

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Russians

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.

Classical Music: Who Cares?

Posted in Food, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

A survey reveals that Britons are clueless about classical music. A third of participants have never listened to the genre and 4% wrongly identified a type of Italian cheese ball as a composer.

One in three people (33%) have never listened to classical music and 4% of those surveyed wrongly identified Bocconcini – small Italian cheese balls – as a composer. The Reader’s Digest survey of 1,516 people also found that most were unable to link composers to their masterpieces. Three out of four (75%) did not know that Elgar wrote Pomp and Circumstance, and 27% did not even know he was a composer. Sixty-eight percent did not know Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture.

The Welsh were more likely to own some Vivaldi or Wagner, with 72% possessing at least one classical CD compared with the British average of 59%.

Most participants (61%) said they liked classical music, with the older generation much keener than the younger generation.

Gill Hudson, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest, said:

As our survey shows, there’s clearly an appetite for classical music. I suspect that a combination of uninspired teaching and the elitism that surrounds much of the genre has alienated many people, hence the lack of knowledge of some of the greatest classical music and composers of all time. Classical music at its best can be moving, life-enhancing and uplifting. It should be accessible to all.

(Press Association)

First Class Second Class Composers

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I remember fondly the BBC producing a series under this heading many years ago which highlighted works of great merit by lesser-known composers. Their craftsmanship, ideas and structure were in no way inferior to the works of the big names, but they simply didn’t make it to the forefront, possibly because they didn’t have the volume of output, or that they weren’t the big hitters like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, et al.

This is especially noticeable in the field of chamber music, where works by Spohr, Berwald, Hummel and many others stand comparison with any of the big names.

My post title is of course a quote from Richard Strauss, who saw himself thus. On another occasion he said “I know more about music than Sibelius, but he is the better composer”. I think that is a profoundly truthful remark.

Other composers in this category I would list as Ravel, E. J. Moeran, Dutilleux, Massenet and Gounod.

If my memory serves me right, F.C.S.C.C. had its heyday before the advent of round-the-clock Radio 3 and after the primitive days of the Third Programme, which started at 6.00 p.m. then shut down four hours later.

Igor Stravinsky conducts L’oiseau de feu

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

Here are some of Stravinsky’s thoughts on other composers, taken from Robert Craft’s less than reliable book Conversations with Igor Stravinsky:

I remember seeing Mahler in St. Petersburg. His concert there was a triumph. Rimsky was still alive, I believe, but he wouldn’t have attended because a work by Tchaikovsky was on the programme (I think it was Manfred, the dullest piece imaginable). Mahler also played some Wagner fragments and a symphony of his own. Mahler impressed me greatly, himself and his conducting.

Rachmaninov’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl. He was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. That is a great deal.

Ravel? When I think of him, for example in relation to Satie, he appears quite ordinary. His musical judgement was quite acute, however, and I would say that he was the only musician who immediately understood Le Sacre du Printemps.

Satie was certainly the oddest person I have ever known, but the most rare and consistently witty person, too. No one ever saw him wash – he had a horror of soap. He was always very poor, poor by conviction, I think. His apartment did not have a bed but only a hammock. In winter Satie would fill bottles with hot water and put them flat in a row underneath his hammock. It looked like some strange kind of marimba.

We – and I mean the generation who are now saying “Webern and me” – must remember only Schoenberg’s perfect works, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Herzgewächse, Pierrot, the Serenade, the Variations for orchestra and the Seraphita song from Op. 22. By these works Schoenberg is among the great composers. They constitute the true tradition.

If I were able to penetrate the barrier of style (Berg’s radically alien emotional climate) I suspect he would appear to me as the most gifted constructor in form of the composers of this century. His legacy contains very little on which to build, however. He is at the end of a development.

I would like to admit all Strauss operas to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant banality. Their musical substance is cheap and poor; it cannot interest a musician today. I am glad that young musicians today have come to appreciate the lyric gift in the songs of the composer Strauss despised, and is more significant in our music than he is: Gustav Mahler.

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Fluffing

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on March 11, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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The French horn opening of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 must be one of the most nerve wracking first few bars for any instrumentalist, so totally exposed. It has to be perfect to set the atmosphere for the rest of the symphony. And surely any bassoon player who has to start Le Sacre du Printemps must get nervous. This solo is not supposed to sound as though the player is coping comfortably, even though that’s how it always does seem to sound these days.

Stravinsky was reported to have said that he wanted the bassoon solo to sound “as if striving for the unattainable”. He also added that he thought that the solo ought to be raised by a semitone every decade, as techniques improved, to get the same effect.

Whilst the beginning of Le Sacre du Printemps is an exposed entry for bassoon, it is also an orchestral excerpt which is standard fare for any aspiring bassoonist. So if you are good enough to be principal bassoon, that’s something you’ll be expected to play in your sleep. It is no different from a dentist taking out a wisdom tooth or a tree surgeon 10 metres up removing a branch. Difficult job, but that’s what he/she is trained for.

It is a nervy solo, although one that would be well within the capabilities of any principal bassoonist worth his salt, these days. By the way it’s no more fraught than the solo at the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, but for wholly different reasons. It’s very hard to play that lower register of the instrument in tune, very smoothly, very quietly and with perfect control.

I think that if you are a professional musician and you go into a concert fearing that you will fluff it then you are probably in the wrong profession. Sure, mistakes happen and the best players can cover up, but if you sit on the chair, you should be up to the job.

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