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Category archive: Classical music

Wednesday April 18 2018

Yes, last night the Castalian String Quartet played late Haydn (op 76 nos. 1, 2 and 3) at the Wigmore Hall.  Wonderful.

Often, when I watch string quartets in action I feel a bit sorry for the second violin and the viola.  Not with these players.  Even the most innocuous and repetitious little chords, chugging away in the background, were made to come alive.  Every note, every phrase, especially every chord, had been thought about, but unlike with some of the latest string quartets, the result was not, despite my early fears, any excessive yanking around of the tempo and general over-emphasis on passing detail at the expense of the bigger musical story and the longer musical line.  There was plenty of detail, but all in the service of the pieces as a whole.

Here they are, soaking up the applause at the end:

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And here they are taking a bow:

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I was going to call this posting The Castalian String Quartet take a bow.  But when a string instrumentalists take a bow, is that bow to rhyme with how (the lowering of the head forwards when being applauded), or is it bow to rhyme with go (the thing they each use to play their various instruments)?  The English language is, to borrow a phrase I recently heard being used to describe a rather over-enthusiastic expert on something or other, a minefield of information.

Whenever I really enjoy a live concert, I tend to rootle around afterwards in my CD collection to see what recordings I have of the music I just saw being played.  While concocting this posting, I had this cd on in the background.  Also wonderful.

I’m guessing from all the microphones that were to be seen last night, which my photos only show a few of, that there may soon be a cd of this concert.  I hope so.

Thursday March 15 2018

Yesterday GodDaughter2 arranged for me to accompany her and and a selection her singing student friends to a dress rehearsal of the ENO’s La Traviata.  Like every show at the E(nglish) NO, It was sung in English. It was also somewhat strangely directed, as operas tend to be nowadays.  So, the students were all grumbling afterwards.  What were those peculiar gestures the soprano kept on doing?  “Such torture” to have listen to it in English!

As for me, my problems were that we were the usual third of a mile up and away in the sky (but with no windows through which I might have taken photos of London’s Things), and I couldn’t properly see what was happening down there in the distance, beyond the woman in front of me’s head and those brass railings that she was able crouch down and look under.  I wasn’t bothered by all the strange “acting” that the singers were apparently doing, because I could hardly see it.  It was all I could do to decypher the English crib (and thank goodness for that) above the stage, of what they were singing (in English also (but as often as not you still can’t make out the damn words (because of how they sing them))).  But the music, by Giuseppe Verdi, which I knew only as a random bunch of tunes that I had just about quarter-heard before, is so good that I was kept constantly entertained.  Plus, I understood enough of what was going on to really enjoy it, and to really learn something.

It’s quite a story.  A young woman (the Traviata of the title) is trying to juggle short-term pleasure with and against long-term romantic fulfilment, is fretting about whether her true love can truly be depended upon, but also doesn’t want to get her true love into social trouble because of her lurid past causing everyone to think he could have done better, which will dishonour his entire family and make his younger sister much less marriageable.  Plus, she is not in the best of health and has to keep seeing a doctor.

I can remember, way back in the sixties, when it was believed that all that social pressure stuff was dead in the water.  Plus of course, in the sixties, everyone was far too young to be having any health problems.  Girls could shack up with guys and have consequence-free sex, and then live happily ever after with … whoever.  I think I remember thinking, even at the time: well, we’ll see.  And it turns out that young girls can now be “ruined” a lot like they were in olden times, that “society” has not gone away, that people still get ill, even sometimes ill because of sex, and that La Traviata is still bang up to date.

The Father of the Traviata’s True Love very much wants True Love to stop being Traviata’s True Love, and begs Traviata to give him up.  For the ENO, yesterday, this Father was sung by Alan Opie.  He was especially good.  A bloke had come on at the beginning and said that, what with this being only a dress rehearsal, some of the singers might be holding back a bit, saving it for the real show.  But you could definitely tell that Opie was the real deal.

Saturday March 10 2018

I visit the Royal College of Music quite a lot these days, thanks to GodDaughter2 studying there.  There were those Bach Cantatas.  Last Thursday there was a recital of songs by Women Composers, in which GD2 performed.  And this evening, there was the RCMIOS (RCM International Opera School) production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  All excellent.

It doesn’t feel right taking lots of photos while in the place, but here was a snap that I both liked and didn’t feel bad about taking:

image

They’re hardly going to call that snooping, are they?

The RCM is a truly bizarre agglomeration of buildings.  The corridors joining this bit of it to that bit of it are labyrinthine.  I never know where I am, if only because I am usually following GD2 around the place, rather than finding my own way around.

Here is another snap I reckoned it okay to take, of some building work in progress:

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The fact that both of these snaps feature things which are only temporary is what makes me think them not to be breaches of etiquette.  I don’t know if that’s truly right, but it feels right to me.

However, the point of these two photos is, as I later (like: one hour ago) realised, that they are both photos of the same things.  The first photo is the corridor from the inside, and the second photo, in addition to all that grubbing about in the earth at the bottom, also features the same corridor from the outside.  The outside of a corridor is not normally something you get to see, is it?

The reason I found myself inside that corridor is that it is the temporary way of getting from the main part of the Royal College to the college bar and canteen.  I took the above photo on my way from that bar and canteen to the main entrance of the College.  I was on my own at the time.

Sunday March 04 2018

Yes, some truly exceptional roof clutter, photoed by me today, just as it was starting to get dark.  The buildings all so polite and proper looking, but then on the roof, they go mental:

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There is even a bridge in there.  That aerial with its big long arms is bizarre.  Was with others so had no time to check out what all this stuff was on the roof of.

My thanks to the tree, at the front, for not having stupid leaves all over it, and thus not blocking out this wondrous view.

I find myself in the South Kensington are quite a lot these days, because that’s where I often go to see and hear GodDaughter2 and her RCM pals performing.  This time it was two Bach Cantatas.  Very good, especially the absurdly young and talented tenor soloist.  A first year undergrad, apparently.

Tuesday January 30 2018

My friends Perry and Adriana now live a short walk away from South Kensington tube.  I can now get to them in about half an hour, compared to over an hour when they lived way along and just off Kings Road, and a solid bus ride away from any tube station.

And just as good, every time I now visit them to collect the Amazon purchases that they receive for me, as I did today, I get to see one of my favourite statues in London, the one of Bela Bartok.  When I walk past that, I know I’m going the right way.

Trouble is, when I go past Bartok, the sunlight usually arrives on his back, and I get a photo like this:

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Nice windows.  Shame about the face.

So, inspired by the example of 6k (see below), I cranked up my photoshopclone and redid the photo so that I could see what the face consisted of:

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Nice face.  Shame about the windows.

You could probably combine the two, and make it: nice face, nice windows.  You.  Not me.  That kind of thing just does not interest me enough to want to know how to do it. I wanted to see the face and I did.  Mission accomplished.

Saturday January 27 2018

Well, I’m making some progress on the Wordpress front, and there will be a new BMblog, but meanwhile, the last of the photos I want to show you that I took on Jan 5.  I took the tube back home, but chose to get out at Victoria rather than Pimlico, probably to try to buy the Gramophone, which I can now, near to me, only buy there.  And because I did that, I was able to feast my eyes on this:

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That is the late afternoon sun crashing through where the trains go in an out, and bouncing off various reflective surfaces.

I like how this kind of scene permits bright colours, like those little union jacks, but turns fainter colours monochrome, like when that little girl in a red coat appears in Schindler’s List.

I particularly like this little part of the scene:

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What I love about sights like that is the way the sun turns those lights on.  No electricity is involved.  It’s pure sunlight.

Wednesday January 24 2018

Melissa Chen:

I like my music like I like my liberalism: Classical

I’ve had more nearly fifty years to think of that.  Why didn’t I?  Probably because, although the music I mostly like is classical, I also like other musics, so this doesn’t really apply to me.  But, very nicely put.

Saturday January 13 2018

Yesterday afternoon GodDaughter2 arranged for me to be in the audience (which was mostly singing students like her) of a master class presided over by American operatic tenor Michael Fabiano, a totally new name to me.  He should have been.  My bad, as he would say.  Very impressive.  Very impressive.

This event was the most recent one of these.  But they scrub all mention from there of the past, however immediate, so no mention there of Fabiano, which there had been until yesterday.

Here are a few recollections I banged into my computer last night before going to bed.  Not tidied up much.  I just didn’t want to forget it.

Sing, every note, all the time – switch off singing and then when you need to switch on again, you won’t be able to do it.

Singing is not just done with two little things in your throat.  Sing with your whole body, from head to toe.  Including your balls.  (The student singers he was teaching were all guys, two baritones, two tenors.) I hope you don’t mind me saying such things.  (Nobody did.)

You must sing to the people way up in the roof.  They must hear every note you sing.  Not just the people in the first five rows.

Don’t be afraid to take a breath - I’m a great fan of breathing when you need to breath – no seriously

First note is critical.  Final note is critical.  You can screw up in between.  But first note bad can mean they’ll hear nothing further.  Final note good, and that’s what they’ll remember.

Stay firmly planted on the floor.  Stand how you stand in the tube, when you have nothing to hold on to.  Don’t rise off the floor on your toes when it gets difficult.

Stay relaxed by going to your “happy place” in your mind.

In auditions, don’t be bound by rules that box you in.  Break those rules, do whatever you have to do to do what you do.  Applies to all artists.

Piano accompanists: play louder, like an orchestra.  Louder.  Twice as loud as that.  (He spent a lot of time conducting the pianists.)

Go for it.  (Said that a lot.) Be free.  Fly like a bird.  Never relax your wings (keep singing) or you fall to the ground.

In my opinion … this is my opinion ...

Make progress as a young singer by finding one or two people whose judgement you trust.  Follow their advice and work hour after hour, day after day, with them.  A hundred people advising is confusion.  One or two is what a young person needs.

How to make the transition from student to real singer?  With difficulty.  I began by doing 22 auditions all over Europe.  First 21, I followed the rules, stood in the spot marked X: nothing, failure.  22nd audition: disaster.  Fell over at the start, literally.  But laughed at myself.  Good middle notes, they knew I had a cold, but also a good personality.  Got work.  They trusted me to do better.

Mentor?  Renee Fleming was one.  Sang next to her on stage.  Her voice ridiculously small, on stage.  But, my agent way up at the back heard everything, and wept.  I then sat way up there myself and listened to Fleming sing equally quietly, heard everything and was equally moved

Sing oh well and sing ee well, and you’ll sing ah well.  (Think that was it.) …

And probably lots more that I missed.  But, I now find, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.  However, the length-to-content ratio of watching something like this on YouTube is such that you, if you have got this far in this posting, are much more likely to make do with reading what I just put.  So let’s hope I didn’t get anything too wrong.  Plus: more mentions of this event, with video bits, at the RCM Twitter feed.  Fabiano also tweets, of course.  More reaction to yesterday there.

There were four student singers on show, first two being baritones, and in the second half, two tenors.  The most extraordinary moments of this event came in the second half, when the two tenors took it in turns to sing things that Fabiano has presumably sung for real, as it were.  And occasionally, to illustrate a point he was making, Fabiano would sing a snatch of the thing himself.

At which point, as the young people say these day: OMG.  His sound was about four times bigger than what the students were doing.  (The first of these moments got Fabiano a loud round of applause.) Fabiano’s talk, about filling the entire 2,500 people place, was a hell of a lot more than talk.  He does this, every time he sings in such a place.  The message was loud and the message was clear.  That’s what you guys must aim for.  That’s what it sounds like.

The good news is that the first tenor in particular (Thomas Erlank), was taking audible steps towards being an opera star, after only a few minutes of badgering from Fabiano.  I think you’re great, said Fabiano, which is why I’m being so hard on you.  Fabiano didn’t say those exact words to any of the others, so that will definitely have counted for something, in Erlank’s mind.  You could see him getting bigger, as Fabiano both talked him up and hacked away at his mistakes.

Of the others, the one who particularly impressed me was the second baritone (Kieran Rayner), who looked and behaved like a trainee accountant, but who sang like a trainee god.  By the time Fabiano had been at him for a bit, he started to get a bit more like an actual god.  The sheer sound of Rayner’s voice was beautiful from the start, I thought.  As did Fabiano.

Fabiano made a big deal of vibrato, which he seemed almost to equate with singing.  But vibrato is, for me, a huge barrier.  Rayner did do enough of it to satisfy Fabiano, but not nearly enough to put me off.  I mention this because I believe that I am not the only one who feels this way.  Too much wobble, and it just sounds like wobble and nothing else.  Singers who overdo the wobble never break past that oh-god-it’s-bloody-opera barrier.  But not enough vibrato, and they don’t get to fill those 2,500 seat opera houses.  And even if they do, no OMG, Fabiano style.

Final point, by way of summary.  When each singer did his performance, Fabiano made a point of going to the back of the hall, to hear how it sounded there.  Fabiano made no bones about it that what concerned him was not how you or he felt about it while doing it, or how Renee Fleming sounded to him when he was standing on the stage right next to her.  What matters is the effect it has on the audience, all of the audience, including and especially the audience in the cheaper seats.  Are they getting what they came for and they paid for?

Deepest thanks to GD2 for enabling me to witness all this.

Sunday January 07 2018

One of the problems of getting old is that it becomes gradually harder to do more than one thing in a day.  This being why my daily postings here are often rather perfunctory.

This morning, for instance, I had a most enjoyable meeting with a friend, and then, the weather being so good, I went wandering about in Soho.  That’s two things there, right away.  Now, all I am capable of is rather incoherent rambling about nothing very much.

I did, while meandering about in the south of Oxford Street area, finally manage to track down the latest issue of the BBC Music (by which is meant classical music) magazine, which is getting harder to come by with every year that passes.  Another symptom of advancing years being that it gets harder to buy the things that you particularly like, as others who also like that thing die off.

But, good news: the BBC’s preferred best performance of the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata was a rather obscure recording by the rather obscure pianist, Peter Serkin, who is the less famous son of the famous pianist Rudolf Serkin.  I have so many CDs that I often can’t be sure whether I own some particular CD or not, and so it was with this one.  But after some rootling around, I discovered that I do possess this CD.  I love it when that happens.

And yes, since you ask, I am influenced by critics.  If someone who knows the piece in question very well thinks that this or that performance is very, very good, then I know that I will at least want to hear this performance, even if I don’t end up sharing the critic’s high opinion, which often I do.  This recommendation means I will now listen to this CD again.

The other thing I did was take a close look at a camera that I have been tempted by, but will probably not be buying, although it was interesting.  This was in a shop called Park Cameras in Rathbone Place.

Inside Park Cameras Rathbone Place I also took this photo, with the camera that I already possess:

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Good to encounter a new bridge of interest, even if it is only a miniature Lego version of an old bridge.  I have no idea why such a bridge was in Park Cameras Rathbone Place, but I wasn’t complaining.

I get the distinct impression that a golden age of bridge building arrived about thirty or forty years ago, but has now departed.  I just picture googled new bridge, and I mostly got bridges I have known about for quite a while.

I digress.

Tuesday December 19 2017

Bad news: water continues to drip from my kitchen ceiling.  Good news: I have contrived a way to divert it onto my draining board, using the lid of one of those big transparent plastic boxes, upside down so working as a shallow water capturer, with a hole drilled into it to let the water out, this side of the shelves below, all now evacuated of course.  This means that I don’t have to get up every hour of the night to empty a bucket.  The water finds its way to my sink automatically.  Good.

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Two further bits of good news.  Good, relatively speaking.  Good compared to how things might have been.

One, it turns out that the paper they use to print the sleeve notes of CDs doesn’t stick to itself when wet.  It does stick, a bit, to plastic.  But not to another bit of paper similarly soaked.  This is good news, and will significantly reduce the total damage compared to what I had feared. This was why I said “Bugger” yesterday.  Unbugger.

Two, it turns out that the guy living above me, who I had supposed to be the guilty party in this, what with him finding a dodgy-looking connection in the pipe attached to his washing machine, is another victim of this atrocity, rather than its perpetrator and perpetuator.  So, instead of being on my own in a fight with my neighbour directly above me, he is an ally in a battle we are both now fighting with whoever, above the both of us, is responsible for this crime against humanity.  Since he is an assertive, capable, early-middle-aged, educated Scotsman, I’m very glad indeed that he is on my side rather than my potential adversary.

Monday December 18 2017

A mixed day.  In the morning, Australia won the Ashes back.  And in the evening, when I got back from a photo-expedition, I found water trickling down the wall of my kitchen, the wall in question being the one behind me in the picture at the top of this blog, a wall filled with CDs, a quite large number of which had their documentation soaked.  It could have been a hell of a lot worse, but it wasn’t at all good.  I have just spent most of the evening trying to sort that out, but probably not accomplishing much.  Many pages of musical info will be stuck together irrevocably.  Bugger.

But in between those two disasters, the photo-expedition was pretty good.  I will surely show more of its results here Real Soon Now.  For the moment, following an evening spent fretting about those CDs, here is just one such result:

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I tend not to like sunsets, by which I mean that I tend not to like the photos I take of sunsets.  But if there are cranes involved, that’s a different story.  Also, for the cricket, a sunset is all too appropriate.

Saturday November 18 2017

I’ve started reading Adam Zamoyski’s Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe, the importance of the events described in this book being neatly summarised in its subtitle.  Here is Zamoyski setting the stage for, and then introducing, the Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski.

This was not so much an issue of territory as of Russia’s need to break into Europe and Poland’s to exclude her from it; yet it had brought Russian armies into the heart of Poland, and a Polish occupation of Moscow as far back as 1612. The matter had been settled at the end of the eighteenth century by the partition of Poland between Russia, Prussia and Austria and its disappearance from the map. Despite a continuous struggle for freedom and repeated insurrections, Poland remained little more than a concept throughout the next hundred years, and its champions were increasingly seen as romantic dreamers.

But the partition that had removed Poland from the map had also brought her enemies into direct contact, and, in 1914, into deadly conflict. In February 1917, undermined by two and a half years of war, the Russian empire was overthrown by revolution. In October of that year Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power, but their grip on the country was weak, and they were in no position to prosecute the war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. In the spring of 1918 they bought themselves a respite: by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk they ceded to Germany Russia’s Baltic provinces, Lithuania, the parts of Poland under Russian occupation, Byelorussia and Ukraine. A few months later revolutions in Vienna and Berlin toppled the Austro-Hungarian and German empires, which left the whole area, still occupied by German and Austrian troops, effectively masterless. The Poles seized their chance.

Under pressure from President Wilson, the allies had already decided that the post-war settlement should include an independent Poland. They had even granted recognition to a Polish National Committee, based in Paris, which was preparing to form a provisional government. But they had no authority in German-occupied Poland, and no influence at all over the Bolshevik rulers of Russia, whose government they did not recognize. It was clear that the fate of Poland would be decided on the ground rather than in the conference room, and with Russia floundering in her own problems, the Poles, or rather one Pole, took the initiative.

imageHis name was Jozef Pilsudski. He was born in 1867 into the minor nobility and brought up in the cult of Polish patriotism. In his youth he embraced socialism, seeing in it the only force that could challenge the Tsarist regime and promote the cause of Polish independence. His early life reads like a novel, with time in Russian and German gaols punctuating his activities as polemicist, publisher of clandestine newspapers, political agitator, bank-robber, terrorist and urban guerrilla leader.

In 1904 Pilsudski put aside political agitation in favour of para-military organization. He organized his followers into fighting cells that could take on small units of Russian troops or police. A couple of years later, in anticipation of the coming war, he set up a number of supposedly sporting associations in the Austrian partition of Poland which soon grew into an embryonic army. On the eve of the Great War Austro-Hungary recognized this as a Polish Legion, with the status of irregular auxiliaries fighting under their own flag, and in August 1914 Pilsudski was able to march into Russian-occupied territory and symbolically reclaim it in the name of Poland.

He fought alongside the Austrians against Russia for the next couple of years, taking care to underline that he was fighting for Poland, not for the Central Powers. In 1916 the Germans attempted to enlist the support of the Poles by creating a kingdom of Poland out of some of their Polish lands, promising to extend it and give it full independence after the war. They persuaded the Austrians to transfer the Legion’s effectives, which had grown to some 20,000 men, into a new Polish army under German command, the Polnische Wehrmacht. Pilsudski, who had been seeking an opportunity to disassociate himself from the Austro-German camp in order to have his hands free when the war ended, refused to swear the required oath of brotherhood with the German army, and was promptly interned in the fortress of Magdeburg. His Legion was disbanded, with a only handful joining the Polnische Wehrmacht and the rest going into hiding.

They did not have to hide for long. Pilsudski was set free at the outbreak of revolution in Germany and arrived in Warsaw on 11 November 1918, the day the armistice was signed in the west. While his former legionaries emerged from hiding and disarmed the bewildered German garrison, he proclaimed the resurrection of the Polish Republic, under his own leadership.

Pilsudski was fifty-one years old. Rough-hewn, solid and gritty, he invariably wore the simple grey tunic of a ranker of the Legion. His pale face, with its high, broad forehead, drooping moustache and intense eyes, was theatrical in the extreme. ‘None of the usual amenities of civilized intercourse, but all the apparatus of sombre genius,’ one British diplomat noted on first meeting him.

Pilsudski felt that thirty years spent in the service of his enslaved motherland gave him an indisputable right to leadership. His immense popularity in Poland seemed to endorse this. But that was not the view of the victorious Allies in the west, nor of the Polish National Committee, waiting in Paris to assume power in Poland. After some negotiation a deal was struck, whereby the lion-maned pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who had devoted himself to promoting the cause of Poland in Britain, France and particularly America, and was trusted by the leaders of those countries, came from Paris to take over as Prime Minister, with Pilsudski remaining titular head of state and commander-in-chief. While he allowed Paderewski to run the day-to-day business of the government and its relations with the Allies, Pilsudski continued to direct policy in all essentials. And he had firm ideas on how to ensure the survival of Poland.

Wednesday November 15 2017

On Thursday November 23rd, the latest manifestation of The Ashes kicks off:

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I took the above photo in the pedestrian tunnel that goes north from South Kensington tube towards the Royal Albert Hall, or in my case towards the Royal College of Music (where GodDaughter 2 was singing in a concert).

But look more closely.  This is not an advert for The Ashes themselves, an advert, that is to say, for the chance to watch or otherwise witness some actual cricket games.  No.  This is an advert for the means to play in a computerised cricket game.

The last licensed Ashes game was Ashes Cricket 2013. It was developed by Trickstar Games (also based in Melbourne, Australia) but was so irredeemably terrible it was comically cancelled after it had been released (it was quietly released on Steam in November 2013 but yanked down just four days later).

I knew nothing of this until now, even though I follow actual cricket very keenly.  The only computer game I ever play is Solitaire.  Blog and learn.

I wonder how the income earned from the sale of this computer game will compare with the income earned by the actual Ashes cricket games.  I’m guessing that, assuming they’ve now done a better job of it than was done in 2013, the comparison will be quite favourable. Although: Bairstow, Root, Ballance, Broad, Anderson and Cook will presumably be getting their slices of the computer game action.

Thursday November 09 2017

I have started reading Music & Monarchy, by David Starkey and Katie Greening.  What the division of labour is between these two (Starkey is in larger letters thatn Greening on the front cover) I do not know, but it certainly starts very promisingly.  I have already encountered two passages worthy of prolonged recycling here, the one that starts the book (see below), and the bit that follows, about England’s profound medieval musicality.

So, to begin where Starkey and Greening begin, here is how the introduction of this book launches itself (pages 1-2):

Music or Words? Poetry and Drama? Or Anthems, Opera and Oratorio? Which, to personalise and particularise, is the more important in British history and to the British monarchy: the anniversary of Shakespeare or the centenary of Handel? The question almost seems absurd. Nowadays there is no doubt that Shakespeare wins every time. Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays, famously described by another maker of history, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, as ‘the only history I ever read’, still shapes the popular understanding of English history and its murderous dynastic rivalries; while in their nobler moments the plays (re-)invent the idea of England herself before going on to adumbrate a larger, mistier vision of Britain:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this sea of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise ...
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea ...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings ...
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land.

Who could resist that? George III (1760-1820) for one, who confided to Fanny Burney: ‘Was there ever such stuff as a great part of Shakespeare? Only one must not say so!’ The eighteenth century more or less agreed with its longest reigning king. The bicentenary of Shakespeare, celebrated five years late in 1769, was a provincial pageant, which, despite the best efforts of the actor-manager David Garrick, made little impact outside the Bard’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon and, thanks to torrential rain, was literally a washout even there. On the other hand, the centenary of Handel’s birth (celebrated a year early by mistake in 1784) was a grand national event the like of which had never been seen before: not for the greatest general, politician or king, let alone for a mere musician.  Fashionable London fought (and queued) for tickets; Westminster Abbey was crammed and ladies were instructed not to wear excessive hoops in their dresses while hats were absolutely forbidden. Even then, demand was unsatisfied and two of the events had to be rerun.

Tuesday October 31 2017

I have been collecting all of Martha Argerich’s, formerly EMI and now Warner, CD boxes of performances at her annual Lugano Festivals.  These sets have contained an agreeable mixture of familiar and unfamiliar works, and are also amazing value.

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The latest and, we are told, last of these boxes (the Lugano Festival itself is coming to its end) contains a major surprise in the form, first up, of a solo piano performance by Argerich herself.  The surprise being because Argerich, a long time ago now, said that she would not be performing any more piano solo music.  She prefers to play along with other musicians.  Concertos are fine.  This is not an I-don’t-like-being-centre-stage thing.  When playing a concerto, she is playing along with a conductor and an orchestra.  She just doesn’t like playing on her own, without anyone else on the platform.

Until now.  From the sleevenotes:

Among the many inviting prospects was a performance by Argerich herself of Ravel’s solo-piano Gaspard de la nuit. She had also performed it the previous month in Beppu, Japan, and this marked a return for the first time in 33 years to a piece that had been associated so closely with her during her early career. She ingeniously bypassed her ban on solo performance by inviting her daughter Annie Dutoit to read the poetry by Aloysius Bertrand that inspired Ravel’s hallucinogenic and technically daunting piano suite.

Ingeniously?  That’s one way of putting it.  Tortuously might be another, not to say: bizarrely.  Anyway, I am listening to the suitably Halloweeny Gaspard now, and it sounds very good.

There are enough wondrous pianists around, still emitting wondrous solo piano CDs, for one more or less not to be a colossal issue.  But, it would be nice if Argerich recorded some more solo piano works.  All that will be needed will be for daughter Annie to provide a suitable reading of something or other to go along with each solo performance, so that Mother Martha could pretend she isn’t playing solo.  Or, here’s a plan, she could just say: from now on, I think I will do some more solo stuff.  Only a few internet idiots would complain.

My guess is that what Argerich is really put off by is not the solo performing, but all the hours of solo practising that she would feel the need to do.  After all, when she performed Gaspard, to an audience, she was absolutely not alone.  There was an audience.  I’ve just heard their enthusiastic clapping.  (Now I am listening to Busoni’s Violin Concerto, I’m pretty sure for the first time.  This is the kind of thing I especially like about these Lugano boxes.) No, it’s the endless solitary confinement of practise that she got fed up with when she had to do it, all the time, and dreads returning to.  Now, she presumably still has to do lots of private practise, but at least she can have fun rehearsing with others, as well as performing.  And chamber music is cheap enough on the salary front to enable hours of rehearsing, and also something that rewards such practise, come the performance.  It’s an ideal fit for Argerich.

So sadly, my guess is that this Gaspard was an exception that proves the rule rather than any sort of more lasting breaking of the rule, an abberation rather than a harbinger of more solo things to come.

On the other hand, now I come to think of it, on CD2 of this box there is a performance, which I have yet to hear, of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, for piano, orchestra and singers.  I love this piece.  But more to my point here, much more, it starts with quite a big chunk of piano solo stuff, before the orchestra and singers join in.

So, maybe Argerich really is feeling the need to do more solo playing.