music (general)


I spend most of my time doing either maths- or music-related things. If this is your first time here, you’re probably looking for me in either one or the other context, as they rarely overlap.

For maths/SEN info, go to this page ► 

For music/flute info, go to this page ► 

I used to do a fair amount of opera and concert reviewing. For various reasons I’ve given this up (apart from occasional lapses), but have left the archive of around 10 years’ worth of reviews available as blogposts in case of interest to anyone out there.

Image © Lou Denim/EMI Classics, borrowed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Proms Chamber Music 6: Martinů, Dutilleux, Prokofiev

I don’t go to chamber music concerts very often, and even more rarely ones where I don’t have a friend or two among the performers. It’s not that I dislike chamber music, but without complex orchestral textures and polyphonies, I find it difficult to get lost in the music in the same way. However, then along come two unmissable recitals in the same month, today’s in some ways quite the opposite of the previous – Pahud in bright noon sunshine at the Cadogan as opposed to Kennedy dim-lit and pushing midnight at the Albert – but also not without its similarities.

I nearly didn’t go, for the perhaps odd reason that I know the repertoire too well. Many years ago, as undergrad music students, we all picked a ‘specialist’ performance period for our main instrument; mine was early-mid 20th century flute music, smack in the middle of which are situated the 1940s Martinů and Prokofiev Sonatas, and the Dutilleux Sonatine. In fact, the programme was pretty much exactly what 20-year-old me would have picked for a recital (with Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir as encore). Except that 20-year-old me was not running around giving recitals, but worried and depressed because of the burning pains of tendinitis creeping steadily up my arms when I practised – the same RSI which stopped me playing (much) for years, and because of which, 18 years later, I’m typing this on a computer with ergonomic keyboard and have a box full of the different bandages, splints and wrist supports I’ve needed at various times in order to play. This is not in any sense going to be a poor-wounded-me memoir, just a little personalisation regarding how tightly the emotions of the past can be tied to certain pieces of music, and make one wary around them. Anyway, I then thought, get over yourself and your stupid wrists, it’s the principal flute of the Berlin Phil, playing stuff you know you like. Duh.

Emmanuel Pahud is not the bad boy of the flute world. Fresh and scrubbed, in a neat rumple-free suit and unnecessary tie, he looked improbably bright-eyed and perky. This would normally be concerning – if there’s one thing I dislike, it’s prim, pretty and polite flute playing – but I’ve heard him on recordings and with the BPO, so knew to pay no more attention to the going-to-an-interview-at-a-bank outfit than I do to beloved Nigel K dressing in clothes randomly pulled from someone’s dirty laundry basket. While obviously in possession of a gorgeous smooth legato across the registers, and filigree delicacy when required, what I like about Pahud is that he gives it welly, and plays around with tone and articulation effects, including sometimes allowing the kind of rough edges that remind you that the sound comes from human lips and lungs (and would have prim, polite flautists, who go through their recordings editing out every trace of breath or buzz, throwing their limp hands in the air in horror). I can imagine why some don’t like his style in certain repertoire, but for this kind of thing, it’s perfect.

So, Martinů was first up, and – typical – within half a minute I’m remembering the evil, snide old bitch of a flute teacher I was sent to in my first year at uni, and her weirdly poor sense of rhythm when it came to really-not-that-challenging 7/8 time sigs. The Martinů was one of the last sonatas I studied with her (and, neatly, the Prokofiev was one of the first I tackled with the teacher I left her for, Simon Desorgher). Anyway, having got those memories out of the way early on, I was able to enjoy the rest of the piece. I could go into detailed bar-by-bar analysis if required, but why? Martinů and Dutilleux were very enjoyable. Mr P gave a little talk between them, which was particularly interesting in terms of Dutilleux’s tone colours and “joy of sound”, although his comment about choice of fluttertongue technique “depending whether you are more gifted with the throat or with your tongue” caused two ladies near me to change colour.

The Prokofiev is my favourite modern flute sonata. (I expect my friends would assume it was Poulenc, but actually that’s my favourite flute sonata out of the ones I feel confident enough about to play in public. (*Aside* For anyone who was at Debbie’s birthday party, I can assure you I play it with greater accuracy without the copious quantities of wine in me.) Anyway, Prokofiev. Brilliant piece, although – no offense to Eric Le Sage’s piano – I always thought it deserved full orchestral backing, and would make a cracking addition to the concerto repertoire. (And for once, rather than flutes borrowing from the violin repertoire, they’ve tried to nick one of ours – to the extent of begging the composer himself to rewrite it for violin). It needs to sing, but also to shriek, whisper and growl; it requires technical acrobatics and poise, emotional intensity and a sense of humour, wine-soaked languidness and too-much-caffeine jitters. All these were present (although probably not literally in the case of the booze), plus the most ferocious spit-and-fur-flying, take-no-prisoners physical assault on the 4th movement that I’ve ever heard, which was incredibly exciting to be in the same room as, and which I hope manages to come across to some extent on the broadcast.

This is what live music is all about.

Thinking about it, my pick of Merle Noir for encore is all wrong for following Prokofiev, and although I would love to hear him play it live sometime, the frothy but lovely Fauré Fantaisie (another from the Paris Conservatoire flute competition Greatest Hits Songbook) was much more suitable for re-establishing one’s composure (for performers and audience alike). I happened to be leaving the building at the same time as Mr P, and saw him stop for a few autographs and smiley photos with fans, before being bundled into a taxi to the airport for an evening concert in another country. Nice guy too, then. And another musician to add to the list of concert schedules I’ll now be keeping an eye on.

Image borrowed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Prom 31: Kennedy plays Bach

I was both very excited and rather apprehensive about this concert, and anyone who has read my previous post on Nigel Kennedy will understand why. I was looking forward to my favourite violinist playing one of the best composers in history, but also steeled for a fair amount of waiting around, whimsical anecdotes, and interminable prog rock noodlings. The 10pm start time came and went, but the 20 min delay was, as Mr K was keen to point out, “not late because of me”, and probably due to a minor security incident or the like, plus it taking a while to ram the auditorium, arena and gallery to a full capacity rarely seen at Late Night proms.

And then, with a minimum of fuss, 45-odd minutes of solid, brilliant, wonderful Bach. On the way in I’d overheard the conversation of a couple of what I’m going to (perhaps unfairly) call ClassicFM fans who, while very keen on Nigel, were rather concerned about this JS Bach, and whether the music was going to be “all stuffy” and “difficult”. All credit to them for giving it a go, and I hope the highly-charged, exuberant and joyous Partita No. 3 in E (Prelude), which opened the concert, won them over.

The main work, though, was the Partita No. 2 in Dm in its entirety – something of a marathon. *Digression alert* Violinists – were you aware we flutes have been appropriating your music all this time? I have a couple of well-thumbed and scribbled-on volumes of unaccompanied Bach nicked from various partitas, suites, sonatas, etc. for violin, cello and whatever – all transposed to fit the flute range, broken chord appoggiaturas substituting for double-stops. And they work, because the magical thing about Bach is that it sounds good on ANY instrument. Really – any. Even tenor saxophone – I know, I’ve tried. (Didn’t work so well on theremin, but this is almost certainly due to my lack of skill – sure it would sound great if Clara Rockmore was playing it.) Anyway, the 1st movement of the Dm is one particularly frequently hacked through by young flautists, as it was on one of the Grade lists (VII?), so it was very good to actually hear it on the originally-intended instrument, and more to the point, not hacked through, but played thoughtfully, lovingly, and with each phrase given the depth it deserves. And for the rest of the movements, I’ll go with ‘stunning’, but please help yourselves from the superlative buffet.

It’s rare for me to say this, but after the marathon of intensity and virtuosity, I was actually ready for something light – a bit of baroque-jazz crossover, even. Not only does Bach work on any instrument, but it can also take being swung without sounding daft – as has been demonstrated by Swingles et al. Here, Mr K was joined by friends (whose names I didn’t catch) on double bass, guitar and drum (just the one) and used the Air “on the G string” as a launch pad for a riot of quote-heavy semi-improvised jazz shenanigans. Having been described as “all of you cats is like the most knowledgeable in the world”, no less, the audience had not emitted a single clap between movements of the Partita (saving them all up for thunderous applause at the end), but were also aware that in the jazz tradition it is correct etiquette to applaud as each member of the band finishes their solo. The obvious tension between knowing one is supposed to show appreciation at a certain point, and the orchestral fan’s ‘but- but- there’s music playing and we don’t want to make a noise and so miss a single note of it!’ was quite amusing.

Encores were all Fats Waller tunes, and they were charming. At around 11.40pm, the audience reluctantly let the man go, hopefully to enjoy a few well-deserved beers and bask in the afterglow of an awesome gig.

‘I thought, “why don’t I just start my own orchestra?”, then I’m not going to have these hypothetical discussions about what is possible and what isn’t – just do it!’, wrote Nigel Kennedy in the programme notes for this, the largest-scaled concert of the Southbank Centre’s Polish Weekend. Juxtaposing compositions by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) and Duke Ellington (1899-1974) two masters of harmony, melody, and – importantly – improvisation, and performing them with a group of performers from classical, jazz, and other musical backgrounds, it certainly promised to be an interesting evening.

The details of the program not being available in advance, it was something of a disappointment to realise that we were not to hear whole Bach pieces, but to be served up mostly single-movement snippets, Classic FM-style. After a lengthy introduction to the band, the Bach half began with the first and second movements of the Violin Concerto in E. Shortly after the start of the piece, an unexpected rattling sound could be heard, which I first assumed to be some kind of technical malfunction before realising that the drummer had decided to join in too. On further observation, it became clear that the Quintet were to provide an extra continuo group to supplement Bach’s orchestration; while the addition of pizzicato bass was pleasantly effective, the tappings and scratchings of the drum kit were just irritating… [read more of my actual review here]

And yet… I can’t help feeling there’s a back story to the subject, that doesn’t sit comfortably in a formal review context, and is better suited to a blog post. So, a companion piece, of sorts.

Back story

In 1989 I was doing GCSE Music (yes, that ages me) and the main set study work was Winter from the Four Seasons. Although I listened to what I imagine to be a damn sight more orchestral music than the average 15/16-year-old, I found the Vivaldi boring. In retrospect, the recording we had of the Four Seasons was deathly slow and duller than most ditchwater, but this is the problem – if the only performance of a given piece one has heard is a bad one, there is little incentive to seek out alternatives. Putting effort into learning to love music which doesn’t have instant appeal is a skill usually learned later in life, if ever. Then my father brought home a CD (yes, we had them back then) of said Vivaldi concerto performed by some young chap with silly hair called Nigel Kennedy, that everyone in the music trade was apparently talking about. By half an hour later I had decided that Vivaldi was well cool, and so was Nigel. By the time my GCSE Music essay paper came round, I knew Winter so well that the invigilator had to take my script from me while I was still babbling on about Vivaldi’s use of diminished 7th harmonies over a C pedal (and why the slow movement is better when it’s not too slow). *

My next Kennedy purchase was the Bruch/Mendelssohn CD, which is particularly associated for me with age 16-18. Although my teens were by no means unremittingly miserable, I had some periods of great stress, adding to and drawing from severe insomnia. During stressful periods (A-level exams, university auditions, romantic disasters, etc.) I got into the habit of listening to the Bruch on headphones in bed every night before trying to get some sleep. For some reason, it had an unusual power to calm me and temporarily make all seem well with the world. At university I used the (1991) Brahms concerto in the same way. It seems obvious in retrospect that orchestral music (both performing or listening) should be such an important part of my life, be able to give me intense enjoyment when happy, and keep me sane in times of stress/illness/heartbreak/etc. – I can’t imagine it any other way. Of course, I could make a long list of favourite recordings by Nigel and other favourite artists – but there is no doubt in my mind that these three are not only tied to particular points in my life, but played a special role in my developing relationship with music.

At university, for a while I had a poster of Nigel on my wall, to the general derision of non-musical friends (for the bad clothes) and fellow music students (for being populist), but remained unapologetic. Given that I was at that point mostly immersed in the 2nd Viennese School and the development of total serialism, the idea of me liking something because it was popular was somewhat unconvincing; besides, now and then things become Very Popular because they are Very Good. And someone wearing a tie-dyed shirt topped with a waistcoat (yes, this was the early 90s) has no business commenting on anyone else’s sartorial choices. For the record, I might mention that the walls of my student residences also featured Simon Rattle, Philip Glass, Arthur Brown and Jim Bob (although I drew the line at Ian Anderson). Visual appearance is irrelevant in my musical allegiances (although looking nice never did anyone’s popularity any harm, and yes, I mean you, Emmanuel Pahud), as, frankly, is anything they have to say for themselves. This is not to say that it’s not absolutely fascinating to hear some musicians talk (including some of the above) – just that it’s a bonus, not a requirement.

So, I’m brought back to Saturday night, and the unusual experience of  – in the context of what was overall a very enjoyable concert – being bored and irritated several times by one of my all-time favourite musicians. During the boring rambling monologues between pieces, and during the boring prog rock solos (and on the tube home) I spent some time questioning my attitudes to orchestral concerts in general, and whether I am in fact just a stuffy intellectual-snobbish stereotype of a classical muso who can’t bear anything a bit different. I didn’t come to any definite conclusions about my stuffiness or otherwise, but I did decide, as a general rule of thumb:

(a) I really don’t like hearing little snippets of larger work – something some of my operatic friends describe delightfully as ‘bleeding chunks’ recitals (albums, etc.). A concerto (symphony, opera, etc.) is a single entity, and to play a single movement is like opening a lovely bar of chocolate, snapping it along the helpful moulded divisions – and then chucking half in the bin. In fact, it’s worse than that, because each chunk is part of a more complex structure, and becomes less enjoyable when taken out of context –  like (desperately trying to keep the chocolate analogy going) eating just the icing but not the cake underneath – a quick rush, perhaps, but ultimately unsatisfying. Additionally, irrespective of cropping, it’s much harder to maintain one’s concentration in a concert made up of a lot of little pieces than a couple of long ones, which goes against the received wisdom that the ‘MTV generation’ need everything in 3-minute bites. Good music transports the listener and changes one’s experience of the passage of time; it does so less effectively if every time you start flying away, you’re swiftly brought back down to earth with a thump and the spell broken.

(b) I don’t like too much (ok, any) talking about the music or the musicians during concerts. I work with some conductors who like to talk a bit, and, to be fair, know some audience members who like to hear it, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s what programme notes are for. I’ll (generously!) make an exception for new or rare works, concerts where the composer is present to conduct or perform their own work, and a Phil Brit concert I did a while back where they got an actor to read some interesting selections from Mozart’s letters interspersed with the pieces composed at that point in his life.

(c) Crossover. Fusion. Terms which are rarely used in a complimentary manner, but this is mostly because a great deal of genre-blending music is vile – not at all the same thing as disapproving of it on principle. The most heinous kind is when ‘classical’ music is fused with pop, in a deliberately dumbed-down Easy Listening nightmare of cheese; however, apart from that particular kind, I’m all for cross-genre experimentation. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Duke Ellington, who resisted any classification of music other than ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but musical categories are certainly not clearly-defined, and there’s considerable blurring and disagreement around the boundaries (although, for that matter, no two people could agree completely over what would fall into Ellington’s two categories). It’s all a question of how well it’s done – and that, again, is very much down to personal taste.

I think that’s quite enough self-indulgent rambling from me. I don’t blog very often – does it show? Still, you didn’t pay any money for it and could have left any time you liked without anyone knowing.  Congratulations to anyone who got this far! Please consider leaving a comment below and telling me where I’ve got it all wrong.

* Edit (2013): Doing a bit of research for an article, it seems my dates above don’t add up, and this blogpost may contain historical inaccuracies. Whatevs. That’s how I remember it.

Is it a crime to mess with a great composer’s score? So shoot me.

Mahler’s Symphony No.6 has five flute parts, count’em: 1 and 2 just on flute, 3 and 4 doubling flute/piccolo, and 5 just on piccolo. Apart from the issue of whether you actually have room on stage for quintuple woodwind, on closer inspection the 5th part is only 4 pages long, a good deal of which is rests. Who are you going to persuade to come along and sit there throughout an extremely long  concert, to join in with the rest of the section for literally a few lines of music? Even worse if you have to pay good money for your extra player.

Much of the remaining is in unison with one or more of the other parts. Could it be left out entirely? No, because there are a few vital little solos, and some sections where the 5th part is the only one on pic (although at least two of the other flutes are in unison). However, at no point are all five parts actually playing five different notes. So apologies to Herr Mahler, but I have done a cut and paste job and rewritten the 4th flute part to incorporate all of the 5th as well. No switching between two scores necessary, and no missing notes.

Mahler 6, 4th movement: reduction of 4th and 5th flute parts

Edit:

Now also done a flute reduction (5 players to 4) of Mahler 7. The 5th part isn’t as ridiculously tiny as in Symphony no.6, but may still be hard to get an extra to agree to play it (or, for that matter, to fit a row of 5 flutes on the stage in some venues). This one’s a bit more complicated, with a combination of parts 4 and 5 throughout, and small changes required in the other parts too. However, still possible to do with 4 players without a note missing – just a little less tripling/quadrupling of lines. Too complicated for a single pdf, but drop me a line if you want a list of the alterations.

I decided to started writing notes about the operas I went to in order to remember them better. Because memory is not my strong point, and I’d had one too many conversations involving people saying “Remember when we saw [some singer] in [some opera] in [not actually very many years ago] and…” and me thinking ‘Nope’. I decided to put said opera notes on the interwebs because, having gone to the trouble of writing the things, I thought I might as well see if they were of use or entertainment to anyone else. Apparently they are, which is nice.

However, it was never supposed to become a pain in the arse, and sometimes I’m too busy/tired/etc. and they don’t get done. But at the very least, the idea is to keep track of what I went to where and when.

I didn’t review any concerts before 2009, and I generally don’t review things that my friends are in.

RIGOLETTO (ROH, 2014-09-30)

Simon Keenlyside (title role) and Brindley Sherratt (Sparafucile). Yeah. Also good: Aleksandra Kurzak (Gilda). Story – thoroughly unpleasant (yes, I know, but was reminded anew). Orgy scene – just embarrassing.

THE MAKROPOULOS CASE (ENO, 2010-09-21)

I wrote about this production when it was last at the ENO in 2006, and don’t have an awful lot more to add. Amanda Roocroft vocally superb but not 100% convincing as Emilia Marty. Andrew Shore (always a pleasure) as Dr Kolenaty.

SIMON BOCCANEGRA (ROH, 2010-07-02)

Managed to get a standing ticket for this, which wasn’t the brightest idea when one has chronic knee pain (and the rest…), but I wanted to hear Domingo sing live, so I did. I’d never heard the work before, and he sounded lovely to me. Various people have made their complaints in various fora, but I’m quite happy not knowing what a ‘Verdi baritone’ is, or whether a given singer ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be singing Simon B. Ferrucio Furlanetto (Fiesco) sounded pretty lovely too. Couldn’t really see an awful lot from row W (i.e. halfway to Holborn), but that wasn’t really the point.

Also: £9! To hear Domingo at Covent Garden! Journalists: how on earth can you maintain that opera is an expensive art form?

DON CARLO (ROH, 2008-06-14)

I know I enjoyed it, and that I particularly liked Simon Keenlyside (Posa), Ferrucio Furlanetto (Philip) and Erik Halfvarson (Inquisitor), but otherwise…

Edit: I did see the production again the following year, and managed some notes this time around.

BILLY BUDD – concert performance (2007-12-09)

I didn’t review concerts at this point, only fully-staged productions. Was there for Saks’s Claggart rather than Bostridge’s Cap’n Vere or Nathan Gunn’s Budd – all v good though, and superb sea impressions from the lovely LSO.

THE RING (ENO, 2004-5)

Phyllida Lloyd’s production didn’t go down too well with the critics, but I thought it was brilliant. Well, mostly. As my first live Ring cycle, having known the music for years from recordings, it made a huge impression on me and was one of the key musical experiences I had around that time that turned me into the kind of person who gets excited about opera. Wish I’d written it up, but of course, I didn’t do that back then.

THE RAKE’S PROGRESS (ENO, 2001)

Back in 2001, I wasn’t even especially keen on Stravinsky – imagine that! Literally all I remember about this is that there was a brilliant pairing of Barry Banks as Tom Rakewell and Gidon Saks as Nick Shadow.

DER FREISCHÜTZ (ENO, 1999)

Erm, this was the one with the bit in the middle that was set in the 1st world war trenches (though the rest of the opera wasn’t), with a random naked lady running around, I believe?

KATYA KABANOVA (Prague, 1996)

In Czech with English surtitles, including, IIRR, the charming “Don’t you talk to my mum like that”. And really cheap champagne at the bar.

TOSCA (?, ?)

Have this hazy memory of James Morris as Scarpia, prancing around in evil thigh-boots brandishing a whip. Or was that just a dodgy dream?

I like to think I am a fair-minded and reasonable critic who always endeavours to see the best in performers and find something to enjoy in all music.

Twas not always thus.

Here is my first concert review, written, if I remember rightly, for my (primary) school magazine when I was 8-9-ish. My dad used to take me to concerts quite a lot when I was little, which I loved. But clearly not this particular concert.