Messiaen, My Father and Steven Osborne

Cover of "Vingt Regards Sur L'Enfant Jesu...

Cover of Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus

English: French composer Olivier Messiaen (190...

English: French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Father thought Olivier Messiaen was a greater composer than Mozart. I therefore heard more of Messiaen’s music in my first 15 years of life, than I did of Mozart’s. I went to the first performance of his Neuf Meditations Sur La Mystere de la Sainte Trinite at the Festival Hall, played by Gillian Weir – from a handwritten score. As a consequence I hated Messiaen – and his music – for a long time. My Father died in April 1982. I was living in Singapore so flew home for his funeral. On the day of my Father’s funeral – May 1st, Messiaen’s obituary appeared (I think) in the Daily Telegraph. He had died on April 27th, three days after my Father. He would have thought this totally appropriate and would have loved the coincidence.

As I got older I got more interested in Messiaen’s music. I’m not a total devotee, but I do think much of it is marvelous. 2008 was the centenary of Messiaen’s birth. Over the course of that year I heard three pianists play what I think is his undoubted masterpiece – his Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus. (How does one translate this – surely not “Twenty Looks…” it must be Twenty “Impressions” or “Contemplations”… ?). They were Joanna McGregor, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Steven Osborne. It is 177 pages of what is – for much of it – fiendishly difficult piano writing, with some heart breaking quieter, slower bits. It lasts around two and a quarter hours. All pianists play with the music, and Osborne does it without an interval. I’m still somewhat in the Johnsonian mode of amazement that anyone would actually dare to play it live, without really attempting to critique their performances. All seemed to me to play it superbly.

Steven Osborne has been taking the piece round the country again this year. Three weeks ago he was at the Chipping Camden Festival. This week he performed it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of The Rest is Noise series. It was sensational. I attach a link to Andrew Clements’ review in the Guardian which summarises the piece and performance perfectly. I am only sorry I couldn’t have taken my Father to hear it.

I heard Osborne first 5 or 6 years ago. He and Paul Lewis are the leading British pianists of their generation (they play duets together), with established international reputations. However, keeping an eye on the reviews over recent years as well as having bought a number of his CDs recently – the Britten Cello Sonata with Alban Gerhard, Stravinsky’s works for piano and orchestra, Rachmaninov’s Preludes, Ravel, Debussy, Liszt, Messiaen, Alkan and more -Osborne has become one of the finest pianists of his generation. I would strongly recommend getting hold of his CDs or better still – go and hear him live. He also writes a very interesting, occasional blog – Continue reading


St Endellion Festival

The Collegiate Church of St Endellion

The Collegiate Church of St Endellion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Padmore was a guest on my radio show last year. One of the questions I asked was “when was he going to sing Gerontius ?”. I learned that he had already sung it and was going to be singing it at the Easter St Endellion Festival. (Mark is the director of the Summer Festival). This was the excuse I needed to persuade my wife that a week in Cornwall was just what was required at Easter.

The Easter Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. St Endellion is a village a couple of miles from the sea on the north Cornwall coast, about 5 miles from Rock and Padstow (as the crow flies – but longer by road). Everything happens in the church which has a mixture of styles – mainly 15th Century in the Perpendicular style. The director of the Easter Festival is Fran Hickox, the widow of the much lamented Richard Hickox, who was the major driving force behind both Festivals.

The music is varied. Chamber music, early music, choral evensong on Easter Sunday, a song recital (by Padmore), a jazz evening, and then to finish the Festival two performances of Gerontius and one of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – along with the Tallis Fantasy and a Brandenburg concerto.  Serious large scale music requiring a lot of organization and commitment. The musicians are a mixture of professionals and amateurs.

A number of elements make Festivals like St Endellion so successful. The initial spark is caused by one or two talented musicians wanting to have a Festival, and inviting their friends to come along, engendering a combination of serious music making and fun. Welcoming locals who throw themselves into helping organize, and most importantly attend, the events. The opportunity for amateurs to perform with professionals, and the chance to mix with some “stars”. The commune-like spirit amongst the wider group of performers. At St Endellion the organizers have acquired a farmhouse and out building where everyone can stay. An attractive location where everyone is pleased to be – despite the cold, the sun has shone and the countryside and sea have looked radiant.

What of the music ? The Festival opened with the eponymous Endellion Quartet playing Beethoven’s early Bb Quartet, Britten’s 3 Divertimenti, and the Schubert Quintet. Great music in a wonderful setting, to a full house. Choral evensong was as lovely as one would expect. Padmore (accompanied by Mark Wigglesworth) produced typically thoughtful, intense performances of Schumann’s Liederkreis and Janacek’s Diary of One Who Disappeared. This was the first time I had heard the Janacek live, and it gains immeasurably from a live performance. Gerontius live always knocks me for six, and it did it again despite very crowded conditions, and a couple of the soloists clearly fighting the lurgy that has been so common.

Based on the quality of the music making and the enthusiasm of the audiences I can see the Festival easily achieving its 50th anniversary – and more.

Live Music

English: Portrait painting of John Henry Newman

English: Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berli...

English: Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) in Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner Deutsch: Sir Simon Rattle dirigiert die Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO) in Das Rheingold von Richard Wagner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As someone with a significant CD collection (and even a few downloads to show that modernity does not pass me by) who has got, and still gets huge pleasure from them, I am finding that almost every “Live” concert I go to is giving as much – or often greater – pleasure than most CDs. The revelation to me has been that even if the performance has not been particularly good or inspiring, I still get things out of the concert that one doesn’t get from listening to a CD.

A Live Concert forces you to concentrate. The performance or balance or audience, even if sub-optimal, forces you to engage your mind and emotions. When a performance is particularly good, because you are catching it on the wing, there is something magical or awe inspiring about it. I have just come back from the St Endellion Easter Festival. Hearing the Endellion quartet live – despite being, I felt slightly below par – was a treat. Gerontius, with a mixture of amateurs and professionals, despite a couple of the soloists clearly fighting the flu, did not diminish the visceral thrill of hearing Elgar’s masterpiece in the flesh. Before going on holiday I went to a not-very-good piano recital in London. Although underwhelmed, it made me think more about the music being played, why I wasn’t impressed, and what would constitute in my view a very good performance.

I put “Live” in inverted commas for a purpose. I have discovered the Berlin Philharmonic’s app (downloadable for free from iTunes). It gives access to most of their recent concerts, as well as the ability to listen to future ones. The subscription is £7.49 for 7 days, or around £25 for a month. During the subscription you can listen to as much as you want. There is a free concert – Simon Rattle conducting Beethoven 4 and Mahler 1 – which is excellent. The quality of the performance (and sound) convinced me that this is a real winner. I listened via a reasonably fast wifi connection, in HD video, on an iPad, with a pair of good quality Bose headphones. The video production is excellent, picture quality is superb, and the sound is more than acceptable. I have signed up for a week, and so far have “attended” an Abbado concert of Berg and Schumann, and a Thielemann/Pollini concert of Schumann, Mozart and Liszt. Because the video is in front of you on the iPad you concentrate on the music. My conclusions so far: the orchestra are very good indeed; Rattle is in the form of his life; Abbado’s conducting look shambolic but there is magic in the way he rehearses because the results are spectacular (as he showed in London 18 months ago); Thielemann gets high marks for programming 3 Liszt Symphonic poems, but I don’t think he is all that inspiring, and Pollini has never shined in the Mozart concerti.

What the Berlin Phil are doing may be part of the future for orchestras, as they seek to find extra income and new audiences, in the way the opera houses are now making performances available in cinemas. Do try the free concert.

Play It Again

Alan Rusbridger at the mediaGuardian meeting o...

Alan Rusbridger at the mediaGuardian meeting on Changing Media 2007, session title: The future of media? See related blog post (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alan Rusbridger, the Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian, recently published a book with this title. It is a diary he kept of his efforts over an 18 month period to learn to play Chopin’s 1st Ballade well enough to play it in public. This period coincided with

Alan Rusbridger plays the piano

Alan Rusbridger plays the piano (Photo credit: Simon Willison)

the Assange Wikileaks story, where the Guardian was the UK outlet, and the phone hacking scandal where the Guardian had led the way, against the indifference of the police and the power of the Murdoch empire. Rusbridger was working 12-16 hour days at times, yet still managed to get in the practice necessary to eventually be able to perform the piece to his satisfaction in public.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I found elements in the first 100 pages somewhat irritating. By the end of the book I was reluctantly won over. As a self admitted pianophile/holic , even I found some of the detail about the problems he had with fingering and the technical problems too much. However it does give, to use Mr Micawber’s expression, a corroborative verisimilitude, to his efforts. Rusbridger is clearly a very good amateur musician (choral scholar, excellent sight reader, clarinetist able to play the Mozart concerto and quintet, and no mean pianist) and one lauds the time he takes to play chamber music with friends whenever he gets the chance.

He abuses his position as the Editor of a high profile newspaper to corner some of the great pianists of today for their advice and views on how to play the Ballade, as well as a the head of the Functional Imaging Lab at the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square as to how memory works and why he struggles to memorise music at the age of 57. The views of people such as Brendel, Barenboim, Uchida, and Hough are interesting, but it’s all a bit self congratulatory. What are more interesting and sometimes genuinely moving are the stories of some of the amateurs – like Rusbridger – for whom playing the piano is an important part of their life

What I found myself gripped by was his perspective on the phone hacking scandal. As a Times reader, lover of Sky Sport, and an alumnus of the same Oxford College as Rupert Murdoch, I somewhat naively thought it couldn’t be as bad as people were making it. It wasn’t as bad as I suspected, it was many times worse. Rusbridger, Nick Davies (the reporter who did much of the work), and the Guardian deserve every plaudit they get for exposing two very malignant cancers at the heart of British life – the criminal activities of parts of the press, and the corruption affecting the police and parts of the political class. From this perspective alone the book is worth reading, even more so if you are interested in the mechanics of learning a difficult piece of music.

He is talking about this at King’s Place on Monday April 22nd. See you there !

Good writing, magazines, and Franck

sujet: César Franck licence: source: http://ww...

sujet: César Franck licence: source: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best non-aural, musical stimulations is reading a well written article, review or book on music. I am one third of the way through Alan Walker‘s magisterial biography of Frans Liszt (three c 500 page volumes) which is both immensely readable as well as being scholarly. I am now convinced that Liszt is the greatest musician who ever lived, which I will explain when I have completed the trilogy, at some point in the future.

There are two major CD magazines which the serious collector has to read – the best known is the Gramophone. The other is the International Record Review. In recent years I have been a little suspicious of the Gramophone, as I suspect it pays more than lip service to its major advertisers. Some of the reviews are too short, and can be badly edited (by which I mean they don’t give all the information you want), and I don’t trust one or two of the reviewers. They used to have all the great writers – William Mann and John Steane, to name but two. Rob Cowan is is extremely knowledgeable but I think his natural medium is the radio, not the page.I find myself getting more and more pleasure from the IRR. It seems to take pleasure in the quality of the writing. The reviews are given ample space, they normally give the necessary information and there isn’t too much flannel. When there is, it is often a history of the work which doesn’t go beyond the bleeding obvious. I don’t always agree with their opinions but find the reviews sincere. What always gives me pleasure are the “summary” reviews. In last month’s magazine (January), there are articles on C Major’s (Record Company) release of 8 early Verdi operas on DVD; Vocal issues on the Eloquence label; Cesar Franck‘s complete chamber music and organ works ; Bruno Walter’s Mozart; and Historic recordings and reissues ( a monthly staple).

As an admission of my own ignorance I have never enjoyed Cesar Franck’s music as much as I feel I should. I quite enjoy the Symphonic Variations and the D minor Symphony. I know the Violin Sonata is a masterpiece, I think I like the Piano Quintet, and despite my general enthusiasm for the organ and knowing Franck is a first rate composer for that instrument, I don’t really know his music. According to Robert Matthew-Walker his music was very popular 80 years ago. He ascribes its falling out of favour to fashion, rather than critical perception. What Matthew-Walker’s article has encouraged me to do is put Franck on my list of composers to get to grips with and really get to know….such is the power of the (well) written word.

One of the real challenges for amateur music lovers is that we all know the music we love. Much of it is probably “great” music so we can continue to re-listen to it with great pleasure and a degree of intellectual self-satisfaction. There is an awful lot of great music out there that most of us amateurs don’t really know if we are honest with ourselves. Those with time and money might go to concerts of unknown or lesser known music. Many of us, I suspect, listen to the radio. In addition to this, well written articles and books also have a role to play – often in provoking yet more spending on CDs. So this year in addition to getting to grips with vast chunks of Liszt’s music, trying to take advantage of the Verdi, Wagner, Britten and Alkan anniversaries, I now have Franck’s music to add to the list. A very busy, but potentially very rewarding year, which I will report on later.

Khatia – Live Concerts

Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus

Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus (Photo credit: Guus Krol)

I managed to get a ticket at the last moment to hear the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvilli  in her recital at the Wigmore Hall, on a cold, snowy Monday lunchtime. She is a pretty 25 year old, wore a striking cream, diaphonous dress that was a site for sore eyes on such a miserable day, and has a mass of black hair that kept falling in front of her eyes, but didn’t seem to affect her playing. It did mean however that she couldn’t bow comfortably – if footballers can wear hairbands, why not female pianists ? Her programme was the Chopin Funeral March Sonata, his 2nd and 3rd Scherzi, and Ravel‘s La Valse.

As she started the Sonata I felt a warm glow inside me. The pleasure of hearing live music is indescribable. Given my disc jockeying activities I listen to a lot of CDs. Nothing compares with live music and the sense that an artist is ‘creating’ music in front of you. Khatia (not as a source of familiarity, but to avoid having to re-type Buniatishvilli many times) is one of a number of pianists whose inspiration seems to be the young Martha Argerich. A fantastic technique, and a tendency to play quick bits very quickly, and slow bits very slowly. I thought she pulled the Sonata around too much – but that didn’t matter. Here was an artist giving a performance of music she loved and had clearly thought about. Whether it would be the ultimate performance didn’t matter. It was valid and one likes to think Chopin would have been happy with it. Her La Valse was full of the colour and energy Ravel demands, and to show that she was still full of energy she gave a barnstorming performance of the last movement of Prokofiev‘s 7th Sonata as an encore.
I continue my love/hate relationship with the Wigmore Hall. Hate because the leg room is totally inadequate for anyone of above average height, and I believe using a full sized concert Steinway is too big for the Hall. Love because they have good programmes, and a knowledgeable audience, who are generally well behaved. However the concert was somewhat spoiled by an aged, over weight, individual sitting behind me, who went through the full repertoire of adenoidal harmonics as he nodded off to sleep and then woke with a start, on a number of occasions.
I have started reading Alan Rusbridger‘s Play it Again. There are two elements which have started to irritate me. The first is the view that Steinways are the finest pianos in the world. The one played by Khatia was not one of their most beguiling instruments with a metallic upper register, and whilst many Steinways are very good, I’ve heard many poor ones. A lot depends on the individual tuning and voicing, as well as the underlying condition of the piano. The other is his banging on about how technically difficult the 1st Ballade is. The Coda is reasonably, but compared with the two Scherzi Khatia played, it is not. I shall return to this book when I have finished it.