Monday, 3 August 2015

Classical chats

Some colleagues see their blogs, in the words of one, as a 'shop window' for their writing. I say, write about whatever takes your fancy, ignore the tips about keeping it short if you have a lot to say, and if you please yourself, you're bound to please at least one or two others. This may look more like a 'shop window' entry but I also wanted to record several supremely pleasurable and easy meetings over recent weeks, the most recent being with my loyal friend in Prokofiev studies Fiona Noble (formerly McKnight, whom our beloved Noëlle Mann entrusted to take over the running of the Prokofiev Archive until its unseemly departure for New York some time after Noëlle's death) and Petroc Trelawny, who needs no introduction, pictured above before a pre-Prom event last Wednesday

There have been so many, of course, at various festivals, and I marvel at how one thing leads to another, which must be how it works when fine musicians gather friends and friends of friends for rather special smallish-scale events like the wonderful Southrepps Festival in north-east Norfolk, which serendipity in the form of friend Jill having just bought a cottage in the lower village led me towards. Plus of course the common denominator of superb young violinist Ben Baker in two more of the loveliest places imaginable -  the East Neuk of Fife and the very special town of Pärnu in the south of Estonia. More anon here on Pärnu and Southrepps, but the East Neuk and Pärnu festival pieces are already up on The Arts Desk too.

That's Ben and his very charming Estonian girlfriend Marike Krupp, who led the Pärnu Academy Orchestra and also played in the superb concert of mostly British string music conducted by Ben Johnson - yes, tenor Ben Johnson - at Southrepps on Saturday evening.

The chats go back a bit - at least to 11 June when I once again interviewed Vladimir Ashkenazy, this time about Sibelius before a very fine all-Sibelius programme with the Philharmonia. The new dimension this time was getting to talk more, both before and after, with his instantly likeable Icelandic wife Þórunn. She too is a fine pianist - they met and fell in love when she went to Russia as a performer, and though I seem to have forgot so many details already, I think she subsequently took out Sibelius recordings - she first came to know the composer's music when playing Mozart with the National Youth Orchestra, a member of whom turned up at the event - since only the Violin Concerto was really well known out there at the time. Here they are in the green room before the talk.

We also talked a bit about Nielsen, whose Sixth Symphony - which had just left me reeling at the time of our meeting - Ashkenazy is going to conduct with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, of which he's hugely fond. We talked about why the Vienna Phil in Odense just didn't 'get' the 'Inextinguishable' Symphony and Þórunn thought the general situation might be attributable to what one German had told her - that they were afraid of the depths. Or rather of the special sort of depths in Sibelius and Nielsen, because they certainly don't fear the depths of Beethoven and Bruckner. But those, of course, are of a quite different order.

Karajan was one rare exception, of course, and it never ceases to amaze me what he did well. I no longer listen to his Beethoven and I can't bear the thought of all those symphonic performances conducted with the eyes shut. But many of his opera performances I have kept on the shelves, not just because of the golden ages of singers in the early 1960s and late 1970s, but also because he really seemed to 'get' Puccini, at least on his own hyper-sensuous and expansive terms.

The Saturday before last, I went into the BBC Radio 3 studios at Broadcasting House to chat live with the excellent Andrew McGregor about a new bumper box of Karajan's opera recordings of 26 operas, several times two, on 70 CDs. And yes, I have heard every note, even if some of the classics I already knew well and only revisited in part. You can hear the results for the next three weeks on the BBC iPlayer here (the Karajan Hour begins just after the 1hr33s mark), but just to reiterate with the cover artwork in which DG excelled, and which features, of course, in the natty packaging, among the opera sets I didn't know the two biggest surprises were this

for the lightness and humour of Papageno's music - Gottfried Hornik the best I think I've heard - as well as for the seriousness of Tamino's quest (Francisco Araiza is also superlatively good on the Marriner recording); and this

not just because Katia Ricciarelli is a much, much better Turandot than you might have thought possible, in the studio at least (I thought Callas and Sutherland never sang the role on stage either; David Zalden below corrects me re Maria's early years) but above all for the sonic extravagance, which I think the Act 1 finale we played brings out so well. I also hadn't clocked first time round what a well-rounded, text-conscious Brünnhilde and Wotan Régine Crespin and Thomas Stewart made in Act 3 of Die Walküre - this has gone up to the top of the list with Jones and McIntyre for Boulez.

Finally, back to the main man last week, and I knew Fiona would be an excellent sharer of Prokofievian wisdom because she did an amazing job in a pre-Prom event we shared two years back. It would have been nice to chat with Anthony Phillips, but they hadn't been able to track him down. And so all went, I think, swimmingly in our whistlestop tour of the five Prokofiev concertos, and to what they told us was the first packed house of the season in the Royal College of Music's Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall - certainly it was the first time they'd had to open the gallery.

Lively audience, excellent cues from Petroc and a good questions sequence, which of course you don't get to hear in the 20-minute interval slot, edited at astonishing high speed by our expert producer, Rebecca Bean. Everything, in short, but the main event itself for me, because my self-imposed Gergiev embargo remains firmly in place after further stupidities he's uttered, namely about Obama and Syria. He really should keep silent. But I cycled home to listen to it all on the radio, and though a bit on the heavy side, the three pianists acquitted themselves well and the sequence worked (though perhaps, as one earthly representative of SSP, I would say that, wouldn't I?). Trifonov's Third Concerto, perhaps predictably, was the highlight.

Biggest chat ahead is my one-man show on the Sibelius symphonies before the first of the Proms cycle on 15 August - namely a Sibelius Study Day at my local church, St Andrew's Fulham Fields from 10 to 4. If you'd like to come along, contact me at and I'll send you a flyer with fuller details. The image I had to use is one I have as my screensaver -  a shot I took of sunset over the lake and the bird island I swam out to at Savonlinna, happy memories of the most delicious bathing ever.


Laurent said...

You are so lucky to be able to attend numerous Festivals and meet the artists, how very wonderful. Europe does offer a wide choice. I agree with your take on blogs and writing, it is personal so you can write as much or as little as you like. It is for one's own pleasure after all.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Here’s the comment that flattened me on listening to your CD review of the Karajan opera boxed set: when asked whether you’d recovered from listening to all 70 CDs, you mildly said, “I could have gone on.” To use an old cliché, I could no more do what you do than I could fly. Wonderfully dramatic to close on a blast of Turandot.

We’re listening right now in our online music discussion group, among others, to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 2, so it was a particular pleasure to hear the Proms discussion about the piano concerti, not to mention hearing a snippet of Prokofiev playing his Piano Concerto No. 3 AND learning about Gershwin likely copying his clarinet solo in Rhapsody in Blue from a passage in the concerto!

Did you happen hear Yuja Wang’s debut performance of the Second Concerto with the Berlin Phil with Paavo Järvi conducting? I really enjoyed it and suspect I’ll go back to watch and listen (on the Digital Concert Hall) again at some point. Speaking of Paavo Järvi, thanks for the alert of your TAD article about your time in Pärnu. The story about the student waitress is emblematic, isn’t it? I recalled stopping in a shop in Tallinn the day after the Song Festival and mentioned it to the shopkeepers. Well, of course, one of them had sung in it. As the Rev. Jenkins said of Wales in Under Milk Wood, Estonia can certainly claim that “We are a musical nation.”

On the “shop window” idea, I was amused to think back on the first time I encountered your blog, which wasn’t a music post at all, but rather your Darwin/Downs post. So, lots more to explore here, but for now I’ll just say I love your photograph of the sunset over the lake in Finland. It reminds me, in the “feel” of it, of the great Gallen-Kallela painting of Lake Keitele.

David said...

Laurent - I feel that too, of course. And sometimes as the dreaded critic you're viewed with suspicion or aloofness, but not in Parnu where socialising with the most articulate and welcoming musicians just got more and more pleasurable. Paavo J was very insistent on our joining in, and so we did. Of course, when it comes to writing the crits just a bit of distance is probably wise, at least until after you've written them - for instance, I didn't see the players after the Schubert Quintet yesterday because I didn't want to be influenced in anything I wrote.

Anyway, you and Sue adhere to the 'write what you want and feel' rule, good examples both (and Will too, of course). Sue, it really was a huge pleasure visiting or revisiting those classic opera sets - and digging into the EMI versions in several instances, too. We don't have too many singers around in quite that league at the moment, and that isn't just nostalgia. Harteros was the first Verdi soprano to come along where I thought, yes, that's up to Freni's standard.

The connection between Wales and Estonia is an interesting one - small nations with huge singing traditions and festivals. And of course I now have to wait four years to hear what you experienced last year.

The Keitele picture is the one in the National Gallery, right? We were talking with our restorer friend about how it's been appropriated for a much-maligned exhibition where musicians talk about a painting of choice. And apparently there's all sorts of babble about nature noises when this is one of the stillest pictures on earth. Any resemblance in one of my favourite pics, albeit at taken at a very different time of day, was entirely intentional.

Must listen to that Yuja Wang performance of the Second Concerto - time was when very few pianists would even touch it (I remember when Kissin was scheduled to record it and got cold feet). I did hear Wang perform the Third Concerto with Abbado in Lucerne, very clean and clear but I don't remember it in the way I do Trpceski's panache.

David Damant said...

David, quite a lot of people say how lucky you are. I prefer to refer to Francis Bacon -

-Fortune is blind, but she is not invisible

-A man will succeed in what he most intendeth


David said...

Well, Sir David, that is very generous of you. What I might say is that I'm lucky re The Arts Desk being there but I kind of willed the sort of places I got to go to. And so resented an accusation that I hoovered up the trips - I'm not a freebie chaser, and I gave others the chance in plenty of cases (which they usually couldn't make). But not in pursuing Nielsen, the Jarvis, the Bergen segment I heard.

I've been to enough festivals where one feels marginal or the atmosphere isn't very nice (Verbier starfest, for a start). And so age and experience force one to sift, and to try and keep company with the musicians one knows are excellent human beings too. But in the case of discovering Parnu, I put it alongside the trip with film buffs to Ingmar Bergman's Faro as one of the luckiest experiences of my life.

One other thing I might add to Laurent's comment, which I know wasn't quite meant in the sense you take, is that there are plenty of rich and rare little festivals in America and probably Canada too.

davidzalden said...

Callas did sing Turandot live -- quite often earlier in her career.

Laurent said...

Well indeed in Ottawa, we have ChamberFest in the Summer and it is of high quality and well attended. There are other festivals in Niagara-on-the-lake and in Stratford,Ont. I just find that the atmosphere in Europe is different.

David said...

Well, Mr Zalden, so she did: I should check my facts. But I'd never seen an image of her as Turandot other than the splendid one on the EMI cover. Having gone to Google images, I see there's an equally good costume for her in her Buenos Aires days.

Laurent - might it be the intentness of the audience? I must say the crowd in St James's Northrepps was incredibly intense in its quietness; as the filmmaker there said, it's rare to get that sort of symbiosis with listeners and players.

David Damant said...

The somewhat cold voice of Eva Turner suited the role of Turandot perefectly

David said...

Let's say 'steely'. It was rock-solid, and I'd love to have heard her live (read Linda Esther Gray's biography, referenced in an early entry). But I also like the idea of Turandot having willed her merciless role as avenger, yet having warmth in the tone from 'In questa reggia' - Sutherland and Ricciarelli are fascinating because of the tone colours they bring.

Howard Lane said...

David, you could have called this post “Classical Gas” if you remember that rather splendid instrumental hit from the 60s, or even if you don’t. But while gassing is ok between friends it could be taken as a bit of an insult I suppose. I’m very jealous of your Vladimir Ashkenazy meeting - was it the first? He has always been a hero of mine although I don’t really know why. I know little about him except he seems like an antidote to Gergiev. I have an enduring memory of him playing Schubert and Schumann sonatas in a church hall in Stromness for the St Magnus Festival, in his trademark white polo neck.

I can’t get to the Sibelius Day although Claire is coming, as I have Melodians duties. And sadly it won’t be on iPlayer unlike your Karajan marathon which I will be able to hear again, and will do as it was far too much information for one listening, or even a few.

Susan, thanks for the heads up on the Yuja Wang concerto, I will track it down. She is my heart-throb since seeing her Proms performance of Bartok’s 2nd, with Andrew Litton and the RPO in 2011, and I see she is repeating it this season with Michael Tilson Thomas. I don’t think my newly acquired wife/long-term partner will mind my adoration - I don’t object to her Jonas Kaufmann infatuation.

The link between Prokofiev and Gershwin was a jaw-dropper, wasn’t it? Could there be lots more cross-fertilisation between the old and new worlds from around that time? Another big surprise was finding out that Charlie Parker tunes were based on Gershwin songs, an amazing recycling of African music into jazz into popular and classical and back to jazz, at which point the walls between jazz/blues/classical/contemporary/world and all types of music for me came tumbling down. The rest, as they say, is noise.

David said...

I don't remember 'Classical Gas', Howard (and so good to see you back in print); am I just that little bit too young (since a certain brand-new spouse told me how old you're going to be soon)?

I interviewed Ashkenazy in a pre-performance talk a couple of years back on Shostakovich, when the Philharmonia were playing in the QEH while the Festival Hall was being refurbished (the advantage of that was that we got symphonies 6 and 9, which too often fall through the programming net). Slightly dreaded it because he seemed fixated on certain aspects of the Shostakovich history at a conference I'd attended at the Carnegie Hall. But he was charm itself, if occasionally disarming in his directness. So much nicer than Vasily Petrenko (much as I admire his conducting). Never heard him as a solo pianist live, only in a trio. I think he stopped playing solo here after some spiteful reviews.

Can see why straight men might be attracted to the vivacious Ms Wang - ditto Khatia Bunaitishvili, such a tigress. My only male heartthrob in the musical world is baritone Mariusz Kwiecien.

Sure there must be more connections. It's so funny to hear the puppets' dance from Petrushka in a Paul Whiteman arrangement. The Khorovod from The Firebard pops up as a cheesy song about the moon recorded by Lauritz Melchior. Later there's Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto for Benny Goodman. My favourite jazz/classical fusion is Howard Brubeck's Dialogues for Jazz Combo (guess whose?) and Orchestra (Bernstein's New York Phil - do you have Bernstein's 'What is Jazz?' CD? You'll know it all, but fascinating the way he presents it and the examples he chooses).

Howard Lane said...

I'm sending you the Classical Gas link in its original and solo guitar versions. I only realise now that "classical" refers to the guitar played, not because it's an orchestral piece, because it's a big band not an orchestra! But then I was very, very young when I first heard it. Very young...

I have the CBS Masterworks Portrait LP with Dialogues, Ebony Concerto and other Stravinsky pieces conducted by himself, and Bernstein conducting the Brubeck and his own Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. I am listening to vinyl more now I have replaced a defunct turntable. According to Dave, Brubeck père complained about going to the concert hall to hear the "sympathy" orchestra because walking on the car park stones hurt his feet.

I'm sorry Ashkenazy had bad reviews. He went down a storm in Stromness! I thought he had just given up the piano stool for the rostrum like Barenboim.

Shin-ichi Numabe said...

I also listened to podcasting of the broadcast of BBC Radio3 in Japan. I am extremely delighted to hear you and Fiona talking cheerfully about Prokofiev (and to see her in a recent photo). The unexpected likeness between Serge and George surprised me a lot! Do you think it's a kind of influence or a mere chance resemblance?

David said...

I remember how sad/angry you were, Shin-ichi, about the Prokofiev Archive's removal to New York, and so I'm glad that you heard its last Goldsmiths incumbent and the passionate defender - in vain, alas - of its right to stay at Goldsmiths chatting so happily about our Main Man. Noelle would have liked it, I think.

Interesting that both you and Howard remarked upon the Third Piano Concerto/Rhapsody in Blue connection. It was, as I said in the talk, Barbara Nissman's 'find' at a Prokofiev in America study day, and she had the added advantage of playing the Rhapsody's opening glissando on the piano - presumably as GG conceived it - straight after the piano's run into the first variation of the concerto's middle movement. Indisputable, I think. The two works were close in time, early 1920s - though I'd need to check whether Gershwin did in fact hear the PC3 in Paris before his own premiere (it's unlikely that he was at the Chicago first performance).

More grist to Howard's mill about jazz connections: heard the most imaginative performance of Ravel's G major with the fabulous Bavouzet at the Proms on Friday, and of course there is plenty of Rhapsody in Blue, or at least blue-note music, in that. It has to be the liveliest piano concerto in history alongside Prokofiev's PC3.

Yes, I have that vinyl copy too, though I'm glad Dialogues and Prelude, Fugue and Riffs did appear in CD incarnation on 'What is Jazz?' Another vinyl I won't get rid of because of the sleeve, though I also have it on CD, is Bernstein's later EMI recording of Milhaud's La creation du monde and Le boeuf sur le toit. The image is of Leger's set design for the Swedish Ballet's Creation.

Thanks for Classical Gas link. Look up MOdern Toss's collage of Proms clips with a rather unusual new soundtrack...

Catriona said...

Coming late to this, David, to pass on that a pal greatly enjoyed your 'interval chat' on Prokofiev.
Interestingly, given the comments above, I heard a snippet of a Ravel concerto and, before being told what it was, thought that it was Gershwin. As regards Prokofiev himself, more and more I hear echoes of his music in Bernstein's.

David said...

Thanks, Catriona, and hope you're up there enjoying the best of the Festival. Here at the Proms we're steeped, yet again, in Sibelius, and that's fine by me. So the concerto you heard must have been the G major, and the Gershwin bit would have been the second subject of the first movement. Have still to write about friend Susie Self's Gershwin entertainment in North Norfolk, where both she and mentor Michael Finnissy, a fabulous pianist for the evening, linked Gershwin to Berg, very pertinently.