The Sunday Times has just announced their list of the “100 Best Records of the Year,” across all genres.
We’re delighted to learn that our recording “Complete Piano Concertos of Ernst Krenek vol. 1” with pianist Mikhail Korzhev has made this year’s list as one of just 10 CDs in their “Contemporary” category.
“Moving from tonal into 12-tone territory, with arresting results. The foreshortened No. 3 is a witty, mercurial masterpiece.”
Congrats to Misha Korzhev, Kenneth Woods, conductor, producer Benjamin Michael Haas, engineer Ben Connellan, the team at Toccata, and all our wonderful ESO musicians.
You can purchase the CD via our webstore here:
Volume 2 is being released in April 2017.
Poulenc’s frothy, frivolous and rather sexy ballet Les biches does not seem, at first glance, to be the sort of piece to make a hardened muso well up with emotion, but it had just that effect on me about a week ago as I listened to it for the first time in ages.
“Les biches” conducted by Georges Prêtre, who is very, very good at this kind of music….
I’m doing a gorgeous French program this week, conducting the Poulenc alongside Milhaud’s wonderfully ludicrous Le boeuf sur le toit, the effervescent Ibert Flute Concerto, and Gounod’s delightful Petitie Symphonie for winds. I hadn’t done the Poulenc since I learned it in 1999, and it had probably been three or four years since I last heard it, but I as I made my way through the bracing and vivacious opening Rondeau, through the gently poignant Adagietto to the mad and rollicking Rag-Mazurka and the elegant Andantino to the splendidly bonkers Final, I just got more and more emotional.
The story of Les biches is not exactly a tear jerker. The synopsis of the ballet’s plot is as follows: “The action passes in a large white drawing room with just one piece of furniture, an immense blue sofa. In is a warm summer afternoon and three young men are enjoying the company of sixteen lovely young women [“Les biches” or “the does” of the title]. Just as in 18th C prints, their play is innocent in appearance only.”
On the other hand, few composers could ever squeeze as much poignancy into a few notes as Francis Poulenc. He had a genius for distilling rich, powerful and complex emotions into simple, economical and seemingly familiar musical gestures- I sometimes think of him like a French Janacek for his ability to make 2 or 3 chords or a tiny turn of phrase bring a tear to your eye. And Les biches, playfully raunchy as it is, is not without its moments of deep feeling.
“The beauty, the melancholy of Les biches results from a lack of artifice.” Jean Cocteau
However, perhaps because Poulenc had opened the floodgates, when I went on to the far sillier Milhaud (the title translates as “The Ox of the Roof”), I found it still quite emotional to listen to. Fortunately, the ensuing recording of the Gounod, dispatched with vintage wind ensemble uniform mezzo forte, was so boring I was able to regain my composure and get back to work.
So why such a strong reaction to such frivolous music?
Well, for most of us, the last few months have been a pretty deeply unsettling time.
As I was listening to the Poulenc, I was really hit by a sense of loss. It seemed to press an emotional button in me that more overtly intense composers had missed over the last few months. As the world seems to be poised on the knife-edge of a kind of abyss none of us has faced in 80 years (perhaps longer if things go really badly) this kind of sophisticated, witty, nostalgic music was really balm for the soul.
I found myself thinking rather ruefully of the post-World War II experiment in music learning , or rather trying to learn, the lessons of history through the movement that became High Modernism. The short, vastly over-simplified, version of the theory was that the Romantic/Heroic mind-set of composers from Beethoven through Liszt and Wagner to Bruckner had somehow opened the spiritual door to fascism. A new, cooler, more rational, less sensual aesthetic was called for. Music needed a lot less Teutonic testosterone and a lot more moderation and control.
It would go on to be one of the those great historical ironies that although post WW II Modernism produced many musical masterpieces, it also proved fertile ground for movements far more grandiose, totalitarian, fanatic and bellicose than anything even Wagner ever dreamed of. Wagner’s own singular mega-achievement (his four opera Ring cycle) was finally eclipsed in scale, ambition and sheer megalomaniacal madness by Stockhausen’s seven opera cycle, Licht.
Also at the forefront of the post War re-think of music’s means and meanings was Stockhausen’s French counterpoint, the great, even very great, Pierre Boulez. Boulez, himself both a composer and conductor of true genius, worked his way from being an anti-establishment gadfly, calling for the demolition of the opera houses, to becoming the very embodiment of the French musical establishment (and a man who did great work in the opera house, particularly Wagner’s own).
So the modernist rebel became something of a reactionary establishment figure, and the movement that sought to repair the damage of Wagner eventually became a Wagnerian movement. However, if Stockhausen and Boulez did not succeed in diminishing the impact of Romanticism in the 20th C musical world, Boulez at least managed to make damn sure that Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger (the talented half of Les Six) left pretty much no musical heirs.
And what a pity, because if ever there was a perfect and profound antidote to Wagnerian pomposity, it was and is the music of Milhaud and Poulenc (Honegger was a composer of fiercer temperament who perhaps lacked Poulenc’s spark of lightly-worn genius). Both Poulenc and Milhaud often managed to do what Satie hadn’t the talent, skill or the work ethic to do: to make the simple, witty, frivolous and seemingly straightforward truly beautiful and profound. Imagine a post WWII Europe in which the soundtrack was more the slow movement of the Poulenc Cello Sonata (surely one of the most beautiful essays in the genre ever written) or the opening of Milhaud’s jazzy masterpiece La Creation du monde and their musical progeny? Surely that’s music that allows us to meditate on beauty and loss without too much muscle bound misery. Surely it would have been a saner place.
The slow movement, Cavatine, from Poulenc’s 1948 Cello Sonata
As it is, today’s neo-fascists don’t have any use for Bruckner and Liszt. They’ve found industrial-scale corporate Country music and stadium rock have all the phallic energy needed for the modern totalitarian, without any messy meaning, scale or beauty.
Poulenc triumphed where Satie ( who is, I confess, a total blind spot for me. His whose music makes me want to chew my own leg off.) missed the boat. Satie went for “less is more” and ended up with ”not nearly enough” bordering on “I would have preferred nothing” or “I can never get those five minutes back again.” Poulenc went for “saying more with fewer words, speaking simply about profound things, and expressing simple ideas with profound craftsmanship” and got “total genius.”
That last point is in many ways the one that brought me to the edge of tears the other day. Yes, Les biches eschews overt profundity, but it expresses so much of life’s complexities, disappointments and pleasures with such mind boggling musical skill. What place is there in today’s culture for such lightly worn mastery of craft? I fear we’ll never again see such playful brilliance, such wise mischief.
We live in an age that is almost the opposite. Today, particularly in pop culture, but certainly to a degree in art music, we use technology to cover over huge gaps in the skill sets of musicians of all kinds. We pretend one can write great literature without a mastery of language, or a real grasp of form. In an age of autotune and micro editing, where sampling has replaced song-writing and all country music records use the same chord progression, it’s hard to imagine ever again encountering a composer like Poulenc who is so good that you never even notice his genius until you’re sobbing away listening to a one of those 10 second outbursts that make you think you’d give anything to be smoking a cigarette in a shitty apartment in 1920’s Paris, thinking about lost love and empty wine bottles and wondering when the next adventure is going to start and already knowing and accepting the heartbreak that awaits when it’s over.
Poulenc’s music is full of an intoxicating, almost desperate sense of longing, and real, aching nostalgia, juxtaposed with the most direct and unfiltered outbursts of childlike pure joy. “Joie de vivre” is a far more beautiful expression than any of its English translations, and to me, it points up the difference between mere happiness and true “joy of life.” Life is not always happy. It is full of sorrow, loss, disappointment, loneliness, terror and fear, to express, in true musical Technicolor glory as Poulenc does, joy in life, of life, is to find joy in the full mix of happiness and sorrow, delight and disappointment that we all must ultimately experience in the fullness of our lives. And so in an age where pre-packaged consumerist instant gratification and plastic instant “happiness” tries to paper over the pain of social isolation, personal hopelessness and great injustice, where autotune anthems try to down out an inner soundtrack of utter despair, vive la joie de vivre, vive la frivolité.
For the second year in a row, the English Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director Kenneth Woods have received the Classical Music Magazine Premiere of the Year nod for the Midlands. Following on the 2015 selection of the premiere of Donald Fraser’s orchestration of the Elgar Piano Quintet at the Elgar Hall in the final concert of the ESO’s 2015 Elgar Pilgrimage, Christopher Morley, longtime senior music critic of the Birmingham Post, has made the ESO’s performance of John Joubert’s opera Jane eyre his 2016 Premiere of the Year.
The ESO’s Avie Records recording of last year’s Premiere of the Year went on to be a Classic FM CD of the Week and spent 8 weeks in the classical Top 20, all the more reason to look forward to the release of Jane Eyre on Somm Recordings in March 2017.
“…. Kenneth Woods conducting an on-its-toes English Symphony Orchestra and a totally committed cast of 12, among whom April Fredrick as Jane and David Stout as Rochester were simply outstanding…Joubert as a composer is unafraid to encompass the achievements of previous operatic greats…unleashing a wonderfully engaging well-structured language of his own…”
We’re all very, very pleased and proud to see Sarah Beth Briggs’ wonderful AVIE Records recording of piano concerti by Mozart and Hans Gál get a Gramophone Magazine Critic’s Choice of 2016 from Guy Rickards in the year-end issue of the magazine. Bravos to Sarah and my wonderful colleagues in the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Congrats also to producer/engineer Simon Fox-Gal for guiding the recording process so artfully. This was a particularly wonderful project to be part of.
Available from the Downbeat Store at a special Christmas/Gramophone party price for a limited time only here:
You can read Guy Rickards’ original Gramophone review here.
“If there is a happier twentieth-century piano concerto than Hans Gál’s of 1948, I don’t know what it is…Sarah Seth Briggs gives a wonderfully balanced reading of music that seems familiar—in its Classical poise and charm—and strange (much occurs beneath the surface, especially harmonically, that confirms its modernity). Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany superbly…With crystal clear sound, this is the most enjoyable concerto disc I have heard since Krenek’s Piano Concertos (4/16) and Pritchard’s Wall of Water (5/15). Hang on, didn’t Woods conduct those, too…?”
Members of the Metropolis Symphony Orchestra reacted with public expressions of glee upon learning that their colleague, principal trumpet player Jack Hammer, had taken delivery of a new, louder trumpet.
“I’m just so happy for Jack,” said Mabel Teargarden, a violist in the MSO. “I sit right in front of Jack at the back of the viola section, and it’s such a privilege to experience trumpet playing from a distance of just eighteen to twenty-four inches every day. I’m so pleased that Jack has done this- it’s great that he’s bought this new, louder, trumpet and I really can’t wait to station myself in my chair and hear what this new, more powerful instrument sounds like when positioned right behind my head.”
Hammer’s new, louder trumpet is a custom made, wide bore instrument with extra thick plating and nuclear-fused polonium mouthpiece coated in layers of lead and military-grade armor plating. Because of the instrument’s extraordinary weight and size, the Donnerkrieg Vector 7 rests on a steel-reinforced concrete tower which sits on a custom-made reinforced acoustically reflective weight-distributing platform. “It’s just an amazing feeling to finally be able to truly express myself as an artist on my new, louder trumpet” said Hammer. “Of course, we had to do some work with the stage team at Sorrow Hall to reinforce the floor around my chair since the trumpet and stand together weigh just over three thousand pounds, but the steel and graphite panel which sits under the trumpet stand not only spreads the weight across the stage, it’s highly acoustically reflective and helps the upper overtones which I’m looking for in the sound of my new, louder trumpet. I suppose you could say that thanks to the stand and the floor panel, it’s a new, louder, brighter trumpet. I am one lucky guy!”
Old-fashioned trumpets like this are volume limited because they don’t come with a three thousand pound sound reinforcing concrete stand
The Donnerkrieg Vector 7 also replaces the traditional tuning slide with a patented “turbo boost” key which raises the instrument’s pitch in increments of 15 cents every time Hammer presses it. “What a blessing for any trumpet player” said third hornist Will Splatt, “to be able to raise his pitch as often and as quickly as he wants just by pushing a simple button. He has complete and instant control over how sharp he plays. I’m so happy for Jack- he’s really earned this!”
Others in the orchestra shared Teargarden’s enthusiasm for Jack Hammer’s new, louder instrument. “I think I speak for everyone in the woodwind section, when I say we’re just so happy that Jack has fulfilled his long-held ambition to upgrade to a new, louder trumpet,” said Lester Reed, the MSO’s second bassoonist. “We’re all so excited to experience playing our first Mendelssohn symphony alongside Jack’s new, more potent trumpet. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like sitting next to a sound like that!”
Only a few musicians in the orchestra seemed to express concern about the implications of Jack Hammer’s purchase of his new, louder trumpet. “All of us in the brass section are really happy for Jack personally. It’s just great for him that he’s got a new, louder trumpet,” said principal trombonist Ton Tahlfart. “On the other hand, for the brass section to work as a team, we all have to be able to blend, and I’m very concerned that I may now need to purchase a new, louder trombone. This is something a trombonist like me would only consider with the greatest reluctance because new, louder trombones can often cost dozens of dollars.”
But Tahlfart seemed clearly in the minority. Concertmaster Frühund Sharp was quick to express his delight on hearing of Hammer’s purchase of this new, louder instrument. “Jack is a great colleague, and I just can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sat in the orchestra playing a piece like Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or a Haydn Mass and thought, poor Jack, he’s such a great artist, but just think what he could do with a new, louder trumpet!”
Maestro Robert van Bohyarti, recently returned from a tour as violin soloist in “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Deconstructed” for violin and an ensemble of 20 contrabass clarinets and African drumming ensemble, welcomed news of Jack Hammer’s new, louder trumpet. “The MSO’s bread and butter is Classical and early Romantic repertoire. We carry a core of 45 musicians and specialize in Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, sometimes playing Brahms with the kind of smaller string sections Brahms would have worked with in Meiningen. For us, it’s just fantastic news that Jack has finally bought a new, louder trumpet.”
The relationship between artists and arts funders seems ever more complicated. It seems to me that most funders (trusts, public sector funders, private sponsors) lack the energy, time or knowledge to vet funding applications in the arts on the basis of merit or quality. The problem is compounded in music as few people making decisions about musical projects can read a score well enough to judge its merits. Instead, these days funders decide in advance who or what they want to fund, and artists have to somehow find a way to thread their artistic vision through the hole in someone else’s needle.
Take for instance a new and worthy scheme for supporting repeat performances of new musical work- it’s a wonderful idea, but the scheme has already decided which pieces by which composers they will fund. What if one wants to support one of the composers in the scheme, but the selected works are not programmable for that organization but others would be? What if a performing organization or artist thinks there are, dare I say it, better or more deserving composers not on the list? A project whose laudable goal is expanding the repertoire becomes self-limiting both in terms of the composers and works which could benefit from its support, but also limits which organization’s skills, talents and networks the funding organization can benefit from.
Has it always been thus? Why do some artists and composers become “fundable” and others, equally deserving, not? I fear it has far too much to do with the clique-ish and tribal nature of the arts. If you’re in the club, you’re in the club. If you’re not, you’re not, and you’re probably not going to be. There are many great, great artists in the club, but also plenty whose last ten projects were stinkers, but they’re still fundable because of something they did (or someone they knew) in 1974.
In an industry that seems to be crying out for innovation, an industry that oozes group-think on an industrial scale, why is it so hard make the case that something genuinely new is a good idea worth funding? Rather than subsidize the 1 percent of artists who have already made it, why not invest more in identifying extraordinary talents who have not yet had their time in the sun? It seems that we’ve reached the point where there is almost no mechanism by which a credible artist or organization can make the case from scratch that a given project is worth funding solely on merit. When you’ve reached the point at which one can only fund projects and people who are already funded, or duplicate work already being done, or commission composers/authors/artists who are already being supported, the phrase “creative industries” starts to sound ever more oxymoronic. Industry is about mass production, about churning out consumer-ready content, whether it’s cars or ten minute concert openers with catchy titles. What is creative about that? It seems our funding paradigm has actually forced us into a consumerist, semi-oligarchical business model in the arts.
Where there is money, there will always be politics, but surely there ought to be some scope for more transparency and more peer review of funding applications?
Meanwhile, I know that the best way to look after my own orchestra and the artists I want to support is to focus on making me and the orchestra fit the “who we want to fund” box. We’re very lucky that some of what we want to do is what people want to fund, and some people want to fund us because of who we are. Bless everyone of our supporters for everything they do to help make the music possible. But how do we develop new ideas, how to we find new audiences, how do we support new voices if they’re not already on the who/what lists?
What do you think?
For me, it was musical love at first sight. The first time I heard the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was on a cassette tape. I loved it so much, I kept rewinding and replaying bits of the first movement (most often the big tutti at the end of the exposition- even then I had conductor tendencies). It must have taken me the better part of 2 hours to listen to get to the end of the first movement the first time I listened to it. I was hardly new to Tchaikovsky- I’d imprinted on the Fifth Symphony and Romeo and Juliet at a very young age. But the Violin Concerto struck me as very special from the first time I heard it.
And since then, I’ve heard it and heard it and heard it. I’ve played it in orchestra a gazillion times. I’ve conducted it many times. I’ve heard performances that ranged from astounding to atrocious.
I suppose these days, it has true warhorse status- every serious violinist has learned it. One could walk the hallways at the IU School of Music when I was a student and hear 35 people practicing it at once- and almost all of them playing it damn well.
And yet, the piece remains a curiously high risk work of art, one that somehow seems to confound many performers. How can such a well-known masterpiece still be performed regularly with cuts that Tchaikovsky abhorred and which only weaken the structure of the work?
It is the nature of a such a famous piece that it will ultimately be heard in all manner of performances, good and bad, but I can’t help but feel that it gets more than its fair share of the bad. Somehow, in spite of those many performances which fall into the obvious traps (sensationalistic, routine, competition-ish), the piece survives in the hearts of music lovers worldwide.
1877 was the year of Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage to Antonia Milyukova, a former student who made so little impression on him that he couldn’t even remember when he received her first love letter. The marriage only lasted a few months, but drove Tchaikovsky to a botched suicide attempt. Rescued from the situation by his brother Anatoly, Tchaikovsky seemed to recover his focus and inspiration rather quickly. In the early months of 1878 he completed the two works he’d been working on before his marriage: the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin. Shortly thereafter he had a visit from another former student, and likely past (and possibly current) lover, the violinist Yosif Kotek. The two played through Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol, and Tchaikovsky was struck by the work’s freshness, and Lalo’s willingness to avoid the sobriety he associated with German essays in the genre. Tchaikovsky quickly set to work on his own Concerto, working closely with Kotek, who learned the violin part as Tchaikovsky wrote it and helped advise the composer on writing for the violin. Progress on the Concerto was swift, and the work was finished within a month. In the end, however, it was not to be Kotek who would bring the work to life. Tchaikovsky dedicated the new Concerto to Leopold Auer, then the leading violin soloist and pedagogue in Russian musical life. A premiere was planned for March 1879, but Auer pulled out, reportedly dismissing the Concerto as “unplayable” (Auer later firmly denied saying this) Tchaikovsky was devastated, humiliated, and the concert was cancelled.
It took another two years for the work to find a first performance, but this was not to be a happy occasion for Tchaikovsky, either. A young, relatively unknown violinist named Adolph Brodsky learned the piece and organized a performance with none other than the Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Hans Richter. Not only did the concert go poorly, it drew one of the most vituperative reviews in all music history from the influential critic Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick said of the piece that it was music “whose stink you can hear.” Tchaikovsky never forgot that review and could quote it word for word until the end of his life.
(The 75-year-old Leopold Auer shreds some Brahms)
Auer was eventually shamed into learning the Concerto, and became an important advocate for the piece, although his legacy remains decidedly mixed. To his credit, he performed the piece many times, and, perhaps more importantly, taught it to some of the greatest violinists of the new century, including Jascha Heifitz, Nathan Milstein, Mischa Ellman and Efrem Zimbalist. On the other hand, Auer insisted on making his own “version” of the work, which he taught to his many students, rewriting several passages and introducing many cuts in the score, and, sadly, many of these changes continue to appear in performances of leading violinists to this day. Auer’s changes are worse than unnecessary – they represent a major defacing of a great work of art, and a strangely enduring defacing at that.
I’ve already pointed out that Auer’s cuts and rewritings to the Violin Concerto constitute a very regrettable stain on that great violinist’s reputation. Nevertheless, we should remember one thing about Auer’s role in the genesis of the Concerto: while the piece was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s fling with Kotek, and although Brodsky would be the one who brought the piece into the world at last, while writing the work, Tchaikovsky always had Auer in mind as the soloist for the premiere, and as the planned dedicatee.
We’re very lucky that a few bits of Auer’s playing survive on recording. Although he is remembered as the godfather of the great Russian school of violin playing, Auer himself was Hungarian and studied in Vienna with Jakob Dont, Josef Hellmesberger Sr. and Josef Joachim. As the excerpt above shows, what Auer got from Joachim was a kind of super-focused intensity of contact between bow and string, and a very sustained, well-projected, even, singing sound with fantastic clarity of articulation. Auer, at least in the few clips that survive, seems to play with a more frequent and intense vibrato than Joachim.
But what did his students get from Auer, and what, if anything, does their playing tell us about how the Tchaikovsky should be played? Perhaps no instrumental pedagogue in history had so huge a legacy of astounding students as Auer. Those who come close to him in sheer numbers like Ivan Galamian and Dorothy Delay in essence gave up playing to teach full time. Auer was a formidable and prolific performer and had a long career.
Auer’s greatest students, including Oscar Shumksy, Misha Elman, Jascha Heifitz, Efram Zimbalist and Nathan Milstein were a very diverse group of distinct personalities. No fan of the violin would ever mistake Heifitz’s playing for Elman’s. Their very different takes on the Tchaikovsky, however, share a number of qualities, most importantly, in my opinion, in their fundamental approach to the use of the bow. All of them are superb lyrical players, all play with incredible focus, and an incredible sense of linear intensity. Their “voices” were fundamentally different- Heifitz with his very fast vibrato and laser-like directness, Elman with his more old-school sensibility, his elegance and aristocratic passion, and Milstein with his incredible vocal naturalness and virtuoso’s sense of courting danger- for me, his was always the perfect voice, even if Heifitz was the more perfect singer. Vibrato in their performances is generously applied, but constantly varied and colored, and often quite restrained and narrow. Somewhere in their the breadth of their interpretive differences, the vastly wide-ranging contrasts of their personalities, and the similarity and variety of their tonal vocabularies, one begins to get a sense of what the parameters of a historically grounded approach to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece might sound like, at least in instrumental terms. I’ve selected below, almost at random, recordings of three of these eminent violinists for comparison, but a curious listener will discover just as much of interest by seeing how each of these players’ approach varies throughout their career, from performance to performance, and recording to recording.
If the careful study of early recordings can help us to understand the soloist’s balance of intensity, lyricism, power, delicacy and classical clarity that Tchaikovsky seemed to have in mind when writing the piece, it’s important to strenuously point out that I can scarcely think of any piece of music which has suffered more from being learned from recordings than this one. Far too many young violinists know only their own part (we call them “top liners”), and have bypassed careful study of the full score by substituting the imitation of other artists’ (and their own teachers’) mannerisms and choices.
In fact, the rigid regurgitation of the nuances of a given recording would surely have been abhorrent to a player like Mischa Elman, whose playing is marked by such a natural, easy, in-the-moment sense of flexibility, and an uncanny ability to make one wonder if he’s improvising at times.
Rubato is the salt and vibrato the pepper of Romantic music- the essential seasonings which brings the flavor of it to life. Tchaikovsky, for all his classicism, would probably be pretty horrified to hear a strictly metronomic “the Urtext and nothing but the Urtext” reading of his Concerto, but by the time one is listening to a third or fourth generation imitation of a tempo nuance that an early 20th c. player probably only did once or twice in his career, one has blurred completely the line between engaging creatively with Tchaikovsky’s text, and not knowing, or worse yet not caring, what that text actually is. Remember, you can learn a poem in a foreign language by ear and repeat it accurately without having any idea what it means- this is not an interpretive approach an artist ought to settle for.
My advice to a violinist learning, or relearning, the piece would be to learn it from the score and to analyze it as one would a symphonic work (ask a conductor or composer how if you need to), treating the solo part as an integrated and interdependent part of the musical whole. The first movement is symphonic in both scope and character, and it’s important for the soloist to not only have all kinds of cool ideas about when to take time and all that fun stuff, but to understand the structure, to understand how each section develops, ebbs and flows. How did Tchaikovsky hear the piece unfolding its totality in his inner ear?
The second movement’s lyrical simplicity and the finale’s rustic virtuosity show Tchaikovsky deploying very different facets of his art. For all its high spirits, the Finale is just as carefully (and beautifully) constructed as the first movement. It’s lighter character puts the concerto in the same tradition as concerti for violin and piano by Brahms and Beethoven, in which the main structural weight of the work is in the first movement. However, Tchaikovsky never intended the finale to be a throwaway affair, which is why the cuts (and the rewrites to the violin part) which originated with Auer are such a travesty. By shortening the movement, they turn it into something much more empty and merely showy than the composer intended. It’s no more repetitive than the last movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto (less so, actually), and nobody would dare cut Beethoven.
It’s no surprise that a piece as popular and ubiquitous would invite performances which go to sometimes absurd lengths to stand out from the crowd. In 80’s and 90’s, the way to get noticed with the Tchaikovsky was to treat it like an Olympic sporting event and try to rack up as many world records as you could: the world’s widest vibrato, world’s closes-to-the-bridge contact point, world’s loudest violin, world’s fastest finale, world’s cleanest octaves… You get the picture. Even in concerts and recordings, the competition mentality seemed to dominate. As with the imitation of recordings, treating the work like a 100 yard dash or a powerlifting event tends to make one forget what the piece actually is- we play faster to show we can play faster, we play louder to show we can play louder.
More recently, we’ve seen a number of soloists chuck the baby right out with the bathwater of the competition mentality with performances that simply strive to be as bizarre and contrarian as possible. As anyone who has raised a toddler will know, being contrary does not always equate to being wise, reasonable, knowledgeable or inspired. Do we really need a ponticello Tchaikovsky, a Baroque Tchaikovksy, a flautando Tchaikovsky or or a fiddle Tchaikovsky? Or, for that matter, a brutalist Tchaikovsky or a metronome Tchaikovsky? All of these approaches can only be delivered by limiting the dynamic and expressive range of the violin, which seriously impairs the ability of the soloist to do justice to the structure of the work, particularly the first movement, with it’s long, gradually evolving melodic arches. A real re-think of the piece ought to be about a careful and detailed examination of the text, challenging oneself to find where the balance between head and heart lies. It’s about making millions of small decisions free from vanity, not about looking for one big blockbuster gimmick to get yourself noticed. It’s about finding 1000 ways to use and not vibrato, not simply turing it to stun or turning it off completely. Doing something novel with a piece like the Tchaikovsky is not hard- little kids come up with novel ideas for food all the time, but most folks wouldn’t want to eat roast beef with marshmallow sauce. Bringing such a familiar piece to life with total commitment and honesty is harder than simply playing the whole concerto with a bass bow. Moving an audience is harder, and far more meaningful, than simply surprising or shocking them.
At the end of the day, maybe the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto would actually benefit from a few more performances where the audience left talking more about Tchaikovsky’s genius and less about the approach of the soloist?
Not long ago, I did the piece with my friend Tamsin Waley-Cohen, who recorded this fascinating little video with some of her thoughts about the piece. I think what she says about the stylistic commonalities between the Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores is really spot on
I’ve conducted the Tchaikovsky now many times both with and without the cuts. In every case, I’ve found the cuts to be unnecessary and destructive, as are Auer’s re-writings of the solo part. However, that’s not say by any means that I haven’t enjoyed working with my colleagues in those performances. At the end of the day, it’s the violinist’s piece to make or break- the conductor can encourage, advise and suggest a little bit here and there, but at the end of the day, my job is to make their decision, whether I would have made the same decision, sound like the right decision. I’ve done some thrilling performances with the cuts, and one just hopes that someday, I can repeat the piece with those same wonderful colleagues without!
Guy Rickards, Gramophone
Join Ken in 2016-17 for
More Krenek with Mihail Korzhev and the ESO
The world premiere of John Joubert’s opera “Jane Eyre”
A new symphony from Philip Sawyers
Mahler 10 in Colorado
Robert Matthew-Walker in the July-September 2016 issue of Musical Opinion
“The performances are exceptionally good, with Mikhail Korzhev proving a terrific virtuoso and highly sensitive musician. Indeed, at that level, it is hard to imagine these works ever being better recorded. The orchestral plays with formidable musicianship and commitment under Kenneth Woods.
Ever wonder what sort of concertos exist for the violin beyond the marvelous mainstays from Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms and Sibelius? Well- there’s a lot out there.
There are a number of tremendous 20th. C concerti that are now pretty well established in the repertoire, such as those by Shostakovich (particularly his First), Barber, Berg, Bartók (particularly his Second) and Prokofiev. Then there are those works which are still relatively rarely sighted in the concert hall, but have been recorded and discussed quite broadly- Korngold’s, Shostakovich’s Second (even greater than the First), the Khachaturian (not a fan!). More recently, there are modern classics by Lutoslawski, John Adams, John Corigliano and Alfred Schnittke. All major works, none heard as often as I’d like live, but all well known among musicians and readily available on disc. Today we’re looking farther out, towards the uncharted frontier of the repertoire.
Of course, there’s no point in directing you towards completely obscure works- if you can’t listen to them, there’s really no point. Here then are 10 pieces you should listen to today. If you can buy the CD, you should- downloading a stream does nothing to support future recordings of unknown music. Vote with your pocketbook for a recording industry that continues to make great music widely available. There’s a lot more out there. This list, while “official” and “all time” is by no means exclusive or complete.
Which works do you think are the unknown gems of the violin repertoire? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The numbering/ordering of the 10 works on this list is completely arbitrary.
Schumann wrote his final orchestral work for his very close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim expressed great early enthusiasm for the piece, but made a fool of himself during a run through of it with orchestra and then suppressed the work, stipulating it could only be published 100 years after his death. The story of how the work came to light is one of the strangest and funniest in music history. The Violin Concerto has none of the quicksilver wit or boundless fluency of rhetoric that so animates Schumann’s early piano music. Instead, it is austere, strange and often incredibly beautiful music. The slow movement may well be the most haunting few minutes of music written in the 19th C- I can scarcely think of anything so sad and fragile.
John McCabe’s death in 2015 was a devastating blow to British musical life. While by no means an unknown composer, the sheer magnitude of his accomplishment remains somewhat under recognized simply because so many of his major pieces await commercial recordings and regular performances. One such work is his Second Violin Concerto, a large-scale, bold, magnificent work which combines a sort of Bartókian intensity and strength of character with a potent lyrical impulse. It was one of the pieces that those of us who admired and loved John were scrambling to record before he died. I’m still scrambling.
Yes- I am biased. This was the first piece we recorded for my first commercial CD as a conductor (for Avie). It was premiered in 1933 in the days just before Hitler’s ascension to power, when Gál was still one of the leading composers of the German-speaking world. On that occasion, it was performed by the leading German violinist of the day, Georg kulenkampff with the legendary conductor Fritz Busch conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle. The work had to wait 71 years for a second performance. The infinitely seductive, magical opening melody sets the tone for a work of sublime lyricism. It’s been compared often to the now well-established Korngold Concerto, a work I’ve also always loved. The Gál is an even deeper, greater, more important concerto.
Okay, I know the sceptics among you are starting to raise eyebrows. Two Gál concertos in a row on this list? Surely the author is just trying to sell CDs. Say what you will-Gál’s Concertino for Violin and Strings is that good of a piece. I dare say, it’s an even greater work than his magnificent Violin Concerto. And what’s wrong with selling CD’s anyway? The six years since the completion of the Violin Concerto had seen Gál’s life turned upside down. Written just after his family had fled to the UK, it is a work of serene beauty. Gál’s daughter writes of the work that “Gál did not believe in music as a sounding board for the chaos outside, but rather as a place of refuge from the chaos and an affirmation of transcendent values…” Be sure to listen to the astonishing fugue- it’s amazing music, and I was quite pleased with how it turned out in the recording.
One of the highlights of my 2015-6 season (and there were actually quite a few) was getting my first chance to conduct the music of Kurt Schwertsik. I heard his Nachtmusiken at the Mahler in Manchester festival in 2010 and thought it would be the perfect work with which to launch my tenure at the Colorado MahlerFest. Getting to know more of Kurt’s wise, sophisticated and ridiculously beautiful music has been a joyful by-product of that decision, and one of the most thrilling of his pieces is his Violin Concerto no. 2, “Alayzin and Sacromonte” dedicated to his wife Christa (“my personal advisor”). Schwertsik’s wonderfully enigmatic introduction to the work takes the form of a poem:
Under southern skies:
Birdcalls at the break of dawn
Olive trees in the fragrant heat
The wild colors of the dusk
The immensity of space in the night
Through the curtain of stars
I almost forgot the palms
It’s easy to see parallels in the lives of Hans Gál and Mieczyslaw Weinberg- both victims of Nazi oppression who had to rebuild their lives in foreign lands. While Gál escaped to the UK, Weinberg went east, settling in the Soviet Union where he became a friend and duo partner of Shostakovich and went on to compose an enormous amount of music. Like Gál, people are finally starting to rediscover and re-evaluate his vast output, and the Violin Concerto is one of his more wonderful offerings. However, where Gál’s music often comes across as a refuge from the horrors of the world, Weinberg’s Violin Concerto plunges us right into the deep end, a sound world of raw emotion and brutal contrast. It’s high stakes, high powered, very moving stuff.
Hartmann’s Concerto may not really belong on this list. It’s been recorded several times and is something of a modern classic among connoisseurs. On the other hand, Harmann’s music seems all but un-programmable outside of the German-speaking world. I first encountered Hartmann via his magnificent First String Quartet. I heard the piece on the radio- my first reaction was that it seemed there was a Bartók String Quartet I didn’t know, but I quickly detected a distinct musical personality in the music and sat in the car till the end of the work to find out what I was hearing. Within a few days I’d tracked down both quartets, the symphonies and much of the rest of his output and have been trying to perform it, without success, ever since. Written at almost exactly the same time as Gál’s Concertino, Hartmann explores darker places. Maybe some advocacy for this, probably his best-known piece, can help open the doors to more regular performances of his music in the rest of the world.
2016 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Busoni, one of the most influential musical thinkers of the early 20th C. There’s been a certain amount of criticism voiced over the fact that his music will go un-played at this year’s Proms, but it’s not generally easy music to programme. His best known work is his monumental Piano Concerto, a nearly 2 hour long musical behemoth for piano, huge orchestra and male voice choir. The Proms are one of the few organizations that could do it justice, but it would have been a massive commitment of resources. Busoni’s relatively early Violin Concerto is a more user-friendly, if less ambitious, work. I conducted it recently and found it to be rewarding for both the audience and the orchestra. The influence of Brahms and Bruch is easy to spot, and there are some charmingly blatant quotes from the Brahms Violin Concerto and his Third Symphony. Busoni lacks the kind of melodic genius that Bruch and Brahms had in spades, but this concerto is a superbly effective virtuoso vehicle nonetheless, and it has a certain quirky humor to it that I find irresistible. Played by someone like the ever-astonishing Frank Peter Zimmermann, it’s a true tour de force.
I first encountered Rautavaara’s music at Aspen in the 1990’s. We played Angels and Visitations with a ridiculously young conductor on the podium who had a gift for irritating the players like nobody I’ve ever seen. In spite of everyone’s foul mood, the Rautavaara made a huge impression on many of us, and I’ve been struck again and again by the beauty and power of his music. When I raced out to buy Angels and Visitations, I discovered the Violin Concerto in a fantastic performance by Elmar Olivera. Find it. Buy it.
The first work we commissioned in my time at the ESO turned out to be a gem. Written for the violinist Harriet Mackenzie, Pritchard as written synaesthetically in response to the remarkable series of paintings by Maggi Habling, “Walls of Water.” Pritchard’s one movement concerto is a dark and intense work, but also a very beautiful one. I don’t think it will stay on an list of “unknown works” for very long. In fact, I think it’s not unreasonable to believe that all ten of these pieces will soon be off this list.
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