Thursday 20 February 2014

Flexatone or musical saw?

Preparing my pre-performance talk for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's concert last night, which included Khachaturian's lumpy behemoth of a Piano Concerto, I was expecting this in the middle movement:

whereas what we got was this:

Which was a pity, because the Khachaturian concerto has only two redeeming features: its opening melody, done to death, and the novelty value of what ought to be a solo for flexatone, not musical saw. The former instrument also has notable roles in Shostakovich - The Nose, The Golden Age, Hypothetically Murdered and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (for the Schoolteacher with his Gogolian question as to whether frogs have immortal souls) - Schoenberg (unlikely - the awful Variations for Orchestra) and Křenek's Jonny spielt auf; I had the lively 'Leb'wohl, mein Schatz' foxtrot lined up for the talk but didn't use it when I realised that one tantalising soundbite of the flexatone was enough if the audience wasn't going to hear it live in the concerto. Here's Khachaturian and piano, though I believe the concerto was too difficult for him to play.

For a clear definition of the flexatone, I resorted as so often to Norman Del Mar's A Companion to the Orchestra: 'the curious penetrating whine it produces is created by rapid oscillation of two little wooden knobs at the end of thin flexible strips against the broad curving metal plate, whose curvature - and hence pitch - is controlled by the thumb.'

The distinctive rattling timbre is nothing like that of the musical saw, but at least we got something in the form of consummate saw-ist, chanteuse and actress Katharina Micada, who I'm sure is the glammy lady pictured in the unattributed Wiki image above; I checked my Russian Disc recording with Nikolai Petrov as the pianist and Khachaturian conducting, and there's nothing, only violins taking the melody. David Fanning writes in his excellent programme notes: 'The instrument [flexatone] was only patented in 1922 [the concerto was written in 1936], and there is some evidence to suggest that in the 1920s and 30s 'flexatone' may also have been used to designate the musical saw, an 'instrument' known in traditional Russian and Armenian music'.

Well, I'm not convinced, since the tone-qualities are so dissimilar. Anyway, Micada has quite a career; she was off, a player told me, to Amsterdam today. And many contemporary scores do engage the musical saw; I can see why, even if it was a bit 'pitchy' last night.

But fundamentally I didn't care, since not even the virtuosity and shading of Marc-André Hamelin (pictured above by Sim Canetty-Clarke) could redeem the boggy meanders. He does Khachaturian no favours by reviving it; at his best, the Armenian can induce hilarity and exhilaration with wildly OTT scores like Spartacus, as I found at a delirious Bolshoi Ballet performance a couple of years ago, but this is (almost) his turgid worst. Anyway, here's the second movement, actually sounding more artistic in the hands of that profound musician Boris Berezovsky. The orchestra from the Urals furnishes a proper flexatonist, answering my question as to whether any still exist, though the sound is faint: he enters 2m18s in.

Hamelin disappointed, too, in his encore by bringing out yet again his unfunny-once-heard-once distortion of Chopin's 'Minute' Waltz. I'd have loved it if he'd played even only the last third of Balakirev's original Islamey.

For this, the only first-class work on the programme, we had Casella's overblown but entertaining orchestration to begin, allowing me to cue Lezginka links in the talk. Call me callow, but I didn't stay for Osmo Vänskä's interpretation of Kalinnikov's quite interesting First Symphony because a) I didn't have to - I wasn't reviewing, b) I thought I had to get up at 6am to travel to Bordeaux, though it turned out early this morning before I set out to catch the Eurostar that I'd got the day wrong and I leave tomorrow and c) I'd heard my hero among conductors Neeme Järvi conduct a really wonderful performance with this very orchestra and I don't much care for Vänskä's slightly bullying style. If you want to hear the complete concert, it's on the BBC Radio 3 iplayer for the next six days, and the Khachaturian concerto, of all things, seems to have been selected for 'clip' status which means it may never go away.

But all this Russian/Soviet stuff is small beer compared to what's happening as Kiev goes up in flames. Shame on Putin for labelling a people tired of a dictator terrorists - though there are extremists as in any situation which has gone too far - and on Medvedev for raising the spectre of a divided Ukraine, which according to many who live there - admittedly those with western contacts - is such a distortion of the situation (and latest reports suggest help for the protesters and obstruction of the military from all parts of the country, including the east).

Maybe the time for laughing at those two is over, but it's been a good way of dealing with Sochi. Peter Tatchell, whom I'm invoking for the second time in two days, produced a neat Valentine's Day card last Friday.

Seriously, my thoughts are with the poor people of the Ukraine. I watch developments with a terrible anxiety.


Michelle said...

The musical saw is gaining popularity with today's composers. String quartet & musical saw:
In this piece there is no doubt - it wasn't written for flexatone :)

David said...

I'll take a look when I have a moment, Michelle, but you're absolutely right - I was saying just that on Wednesday. Was trying to remember where I last heard it in a contemporary context - could have been a work by Grisey (though he isn't exactly one of 'today's').

Michelle said...

If there is a work by Grisey with a saw in it - I'd love to hear it!
Perhaps you heard the saw recently in a movie? The movie 'Another Earth' (which seems to be popular with teenagers/twenty-somethings) has a musical saw scene

Anonymous said...

David, no wonder that a less than enthralling concert left you wishing for the flexatone solo! A musical saw is indeed no substitute for a flexatone; and the flexatone has the superior qualities of being easily portable (fits in a shoulder bag) and cute! Luckily, a fellow enthusiast has recorded a performance of the solo from the concerto, here (, and you can really hear it. The Khachaturian Piano Concerto is familiar from earliest exposure to classical music over FM Radio, when the sort they played all seemed alarmingly overblown to my young ears (at an age when, standing next to the radio on its shelf, my ears were at the same level). If only I could have clearly heard the flexatone part, better yet seen it, I might have found at least the one bit that could redeem it for me. What fun! -- Elizabeth

David said...

Crikey, Elizabeth, you know about this too? I never cease to be amazed at your bran-chay-ness (I am in France, n'est-ce pas?)

My earliest memory of a Khachaturian concerto - it may have been the only marginally less clotted one for violin - was an old Decca Ace of Clubs LP with a tiger roaring in a cage (black and white photo) on the sleeve. A rather tacky circus with captive lions and tigers seems to me what it's all about.

No, Michelle, I definitely saw the saw in a concert (long before Wednesday's). And I don't know why, but my dim memory was of it as part of the semi-circle in the Grisey piece with the impossibly abstract title performed by Allison Bell with Jurowski conducting select LPO forces.

Susan Scheid said...

Odd to think why such a substitution would have been made. (Puts in mind your noting the Mixtur-Trautonium vs. the real bells in performances of Parsifal.) I've been out of the listening loop for the most part the last few days, to my frustration, but on seeing this post, I did at least race over and remind myself of the flexatone passage at the end of The Nose. Interesting to see that both Schnittke and Gubaidulina have used it, too, so of course I had to see if I could track down some of that. Am I right that I’m hearing it in the Prolog to Peer Gynt and the third section of the Canticle of the Sun (both pieces I’ve only started to get to know)? Such remarkable composers, all three, and so much more to discover.

David said...

Your memory/connecting skills are better than mine, Sue, though tell me you had to go back and look up 'Mixtur-Trautonium' or I'll be seriously worried. Yes, that connection is apt and hadn't occurred to me. One other that springs to mind is when woodwind substitute for the four accordions playing two chords in the Scherzo burlesque of Tchaikovsky's Second Orchestral Suite. Rozhdestvensky, who used them in his arrangement of Prokofiev's Suggestion Diabolique (I'm imagining originally for a programme including the Tchaikovsky), would never have put up with that.

I'd also forgotten the flexatone in the Gubaidulina - which I ought to know as I wrote a note for a recording of it - and I only know the Epilogue of Schnittke's Peer Gynt ballet, a stunning piece which stands by itself. An Estonian composer I met in London called Juri Reinvere is working on a Peer Gynt opera due to be premiered soon in, I think, Oslo. It promises to be another unique take on an extraordinary play.

And Michelle, I think I may have reconnected my faulty memory circuit with a chance yoking: the Grisey was Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, and in one text it follows mention of George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children - now that I did hear, and admire, at the Barbican, and it has a musical saw in it. Another song cycle with a selective ensemble to mirror the voice.

David said...

Your video clip of Berezovsky is actually of the first movement, sans flexatone.

David said...

Thanks for letting me know, David - it's hard to see the full title when downloading, and I thought that was movement two. Will change now.

Susan Scheid said...

Rest assured that, while I certainly remembered the bells substitute, I did indeed have to look up what it was! I do love what "springs to mind" for you--another piece I'll have to go back to and listen for the accordions (assuming they are used in the Brilliant set). I learned of the Peer Gynt Epilogue from you, too, by the way, the Ivashkin post, and it is beautiful. The rest I learned only when following the trail of the flexatone after your post, so you see, once again, how this all works!

And now, it's time for something completely different (as they say . . .): the sun is finally shining here and it has warmed up a bit. Such a relief!

David said...

Yes, Sue, at the risk of annoying other readers, isn't it wonderful, the way it works? But you too, dear grazer, could join an argument.

Pouring in Bordeaux this afternoon after a beautiful morning, but tomorrow will be fine again. And I'm here an extra night after the Rameau since I loved the city so much - what honey-coloured stone wonders, what a place to wander around.

David said...

BTW - you can buy a flexatone from Amazon for £10.95.

Howard Lane said...

After 2 hearings of the piano concerto I somehow missed the flexatone solo, which I was looking forward to. When is it? The first was a 1950 LP recording by Oscar Levant, quite a hero of mine from his parts in An American in Paris and in Harpo Marx's autobiography, but a rather clunky and woolly sounding recording possibly due to it's age. The second was a brighter and more lively performance by Pnina Salzman (chosen from YouTube at random). The picture of the flexatone shows rust which mine also has, so it's likely a common feature. Sadly mine has now lost both of its metal strips with the wooden beaters due to metal fatigue but is still useful for making boingy sounds by striking it with a metal beater. A bit more like a musical saw in fact but it's too small to bow.

I'm liking the concerto though, even without the flexatone. The opening theme is familiar somehow. The musical saw can be quite like a theremin reminding me of your wonderful theremin compilation recording, sounding so much like the human voice.

Howard Lane said...

Having just heard the Berezovsky on your original post I now see the flexatone part, but not too audible under the strings, so not that much of a solo. Here is the masterly Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira on Miles Davis' mysterious "Lonely Fire" from 1969, starting at around 3:50

David said...

Sir David's very helpful suggestion means you could get another one, Howard, though I doubt whether at £10.95 it would be a state of the art instrument. Trust you to be an exponent - I'm impressed and should you get beyond 'boingy sounds', I'd like a demonstration.

I did write that the sound of the flexatone in that film was weak. As Sue wrote, there's a demonstration of the solo which she has helpfully referenced. I don't know about those old recordings but I seem to remember that my old William Kapell recording - on cassette only - had it. The best version to hear it on is the rather reverberant Chandos recording with Constantine Orbelian and Jarvi conducting the SNO. There you're left in no doubt that it carries the melody line.

Reallly, though, it's not a great piece - though I'll admit that the slow movement theme, which Khachaturian said he adapted from an oriental street song, is now on my brain.

Howard Lane said...

I have only ever seen the one type so I am sure this one will be fine. I'm due a visit to my local store, Drumshack in Battersea (never Amazon), so it's on the list! The broken one has a unique sound though so it will also stay in the gig bag.

David said...

Well, however you purchase your new flexatone, Howard, it's always going to be cheaper and more portable than an ondes martenot...on which note I was delighted to see when I was in Bordeaux that our friend Cynthia Millar is playing in the Messiaen Turangalila Symphony (yet again - it certainly earns her a crust or two) this coming weekend. Only sorry I shan't still be there to hear it.

Howard Lane said...

Coincidentally I was watching an ARTE France film of the Turangalila-Symphony on Monday evening and saw the Ondes Martenot in close-up for the first time, played by Valerie Hartman-Claverie. Unlike the Theremin of which new ones are in production I assume the Ondes are all vintage instruments needing a lot of care and maintenance nowadays. Glad I don't have to cart one around! I've only been to one live Turangalila at the RFH and would love to go again.

David said...

Don't mind if I never hear Turangalila live again, Howard. At least three movements too many. But it was a milestone post-war, no doubt about it. And I'll take the loony toons and the garden slow movement any day.

Cynthia came in a car loaded with speakers and the instrument and other bits to talk to us at Morley all those years ago. Second visit was demo with recorded excerpts.

musical saw player said...

Hi David, thanks for the review.
Maybe you know, that some composers in the 20th century used the expression “Flexaton” not only for the instrument Flexatone, but also for the Musical saw. (Flexaton just means to bow a tone.) There was for example Aram Khatchaturian (piano concerto), Hans Werner Henze (opera “Elegy for young lovers”), Arthur Honegger (“Antigone”), Sofia Gubaidulina (“Sonnengesang”)
and also Shostakovich.
If you know the opera “The nose” I’d like to mention some reasons, why Shostakovich could have meant the musical saw and NOT the Flexatone:
- The Musical saw is a traditional Russian folk instrument ( > Ivans folk song, together with 2 Balalaikas)
- The Flexatone is NO traditional instrument
- Shostakovich could have come in contact with the Musical saw in Paris, where this instrument was very popular in the variety and silent movie music beginning from the 1920s
- A Flexatone can only play tremolo and mostly the tremolo is noted as for example in Schoenbergs Orchestervariationen Op.31. But there is no tremolo noted in the flexatone part in “The nose” as far as I know
- It is nearly impossible to play a diminuendo on a Flexatone (last bars of the opera), but it is the natural end of the sound of a musical saw
- The Suisse conductor Juerg Henneberger used a Musical saw instead of a Flexatone in the production of the opera in Bale /Switzerland in 2004. He engaged a Musical saw player for this difficult part. I listened to this performance and it was convincing. Especially the end of the opera was very impressing.

These same reasons could justify the use of the Flexatone in the second movement of Khatchaturians piano concerto. It is quite presumable, that Khatchaturian wanted to have the sound of a musical saw. The sound of the saw is mixed very well with the first violins, whereas the Flexatone doesn’t harmonize at all with the other instruments and disturbs the mystic atmosphere of this second movement. That’s probably the reason why the Flexatone is omitted more and more in modern performances. I already played the saw part in two performances: With pianist Nareh Arghamanyan and conductor: Alain Altinoglu and Rundfunksinfonieorchester Berlin in October 2013 and as you listened with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in February 2014.
Here is a link with Khatchaturian conducting himself his piano concerto WITHOUT a musical saw: (piano: Lev Oborin, Moscow Radio Orchestra). Why didn't Khachaturian take a Flexatone?
Greetings from Berlin
Musical saw player

David said...

Greetings, Katharina, and huge thanks for providing so much revelatory detail. Especially interesting re Shostakovich. That leaves the Khachaturian question mark. You're right, I have a recording with Khachaturian conducting (maybe I mentioned it above, haven't been back to check) without either instrument. The score gives an option for not using a 'flexaton(e)'.

Don't get me wrong, I love the artistry of the musical saw. The flexatone is just so weird that for me it's the one thing that can save Khachaturian's (IMO) awful work.

I wonder if you know the group Music for a While, whose singer, Tora Augestad, also lives in Berlin and would probably love a collaboration. Best Weill songs I've ever heard.