BBC Proms 2016 / 31: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite & Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev’s relatively unknown Scythian Suite is a fun four movement tale scored with the composer’s trademark sounds and textures.

The first movement blazes with technicolour peril before leading into something far more evocative, shimmering with mystery, intrigue and the distant threat of something very ugly carrying something very sharp in its hand. The high-octane second movement contains a gripping string sequence with terrifying counter-melodies in the violas and cellos and terrifying militaristic brass fanfares. The third movement, in stark contrast, extols a pleasing eastern mysticism threatened on occasion by swirling strings and bassoon. Something is overcome during the fourth movement by a benign force of some kind, after which something awe-inspiring and almost certainly naturalistic sweeps across our consciousness and makes everything better.

Musically, there’s a strong narrative underpinning the whole thing. The joy of the work on a first listen is that even without knowing what that narrative is. The music constructs such a potent image throughout. This is a work which can stoke anyone’s imagination. I immediately fall in love with it for that reason alone.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 is the original version, that intended and written down by the composer himself. It’s the version that pianists suggested he adapt it to the one we now recognise instantly as Tchaik 1 today. The most obvious difference (there are many – far too many to go into) is in the opening bars of the piano solo. Gone are the ponderous chords full of Russian portent. In the original version, the chords are given a gentler ‘spread’ treatment, making for a far more accommodating opening. As we start from a less domineering place, the musical development that follows seems more natural, less contrived.

I’m thinking this (and noting those thoughts down in my notebook) on my late-running train into work this morning. I realise quickly that I have nothing to really compare it with. I know of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto (the revised version) but I don’t know it so well that I can pick out the differences immediately. I half-know these things, nowhere near as in-depth as I’d like to think I do.

There are moments when I feel as though the material is wandering a bit and end up yearning for the more tightly-written chamber works last weekend in Verbier. And maybe not immediately warming to a sometimes rambling composition is in itself an illustration of what I do know and what I don’t. If I knew it better, I wouldn’t be dismissing bits as ‘musical flummery’.

My mind wanders a lot on the train. It takes a lot to focus.

What I end up thinking about is the tyranny of knowledge in the classical music world. On the one hand, the industry I feel most at home in is also the industry which I suspect would laugh at my apparent inability to recall basic facts about compositional style, composer’s dates, harmonic progressions, and star’s names. I’ve certainly found myself in conversations with contemporaries and associates and discovered how unable I feel I am to spit out detail on command.

I should probably try harder. Or maybe, as in the last post, I should have tried harder to remember this stuff years ago. But it isn’t the detail which interests me, or rather, demonstrating I know the detail isn’t what is important to me. What’s vital is feeling it when you hear it, and then communicating what you felt after the occasion. Explaining why you felt takes all of the joy out of proceedings and, in turn, makes you look like a self-important self-aggrandising arsehole.

At the same time, the industry demands that kind of knowledge. In some cases, if you can’t prove your encyclopaedic knowledge then you’re judged as ignorant. But, articulate that knowledge and you’re at risk of putting people off. You can’t win in classical music.

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto starts as a blissful lullaby, its main theme played in the wind and then subsequently the piano, is the most miraculous of creations. It’s a melodic idea that lulls without being too saccharin, and built into it’s very DNA is the hint that there may need to be a key change every time we reach the end of it. Sometimes I’m sure we’ve moved to a different key. Other times I’m not so sure. And I like that playfulness, that teasing quality to Tchaikovsky’s writing in this concerto. It’s a far more rewarding work than say some, if not all, of his symphonies.

The final movement bathes me in the musical equivalent of an end-of-day glow London offers every summer. A rousing conclusion to a mammoth wander through all sorts of surprisingly blissful states. This is the moment when I want the summer to go on forever. This is when the Proms presents itself its meaning to me: a daily opportunity to reflect on what I’m listening to. A summer-long workout of musical discovery.


BBC Proms 2016: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto

I ended up taking an alternative route into work this morning: Hither Green to Canon Street; District Line to Embankment; Bakerloo Line to Oxford Circus.

It always surprises me when I discover routes into work I’ve previously overlooked. Canon Street – a destination I always regard as the last chance saloon if I’m running late for work – isn’t that much more inconvenient that my usual route. I don’t know why I don’t use that route more often.

It’s a different travel experience. There’s a highly-prized space to be savoured when I arrive at Canon Street concourse after the early morning City rush. The District Line is quieter too. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an air-conditioned train. A change is (nearly) as good as the rest I had in Verbier at the weekend.

The journey helps me focus on last night’s Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. And as I do so I remember there was a time when I quite liked it. I thought it was a dead cert of a work. Pleasant. Slightly exotic-sounding. I’d gone to St Alban’s cathedral to hear my then girlfriend play it in a college orchestra concert. I thought it was true love. A few weeks late r- on Valentine’s Day as I recall – she called to say she was with someone else now and things probably couldn’t really continue.

She didn’t ruin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at all. But after Beethoven’s Op.130 at the weekend, and the opening of Brahms’ first piano quartet, I’ve become a bit more demanding. Dvorak, with his slavish devotion to folk tunes and instance that any half-decent idea should be repeated at least once, makes me feel like the whole thing is a bit of an exercise now.

The concerto isn’t as presenter Clemency Burton-Hill keenly points out, for me at least, all sadness and sentimentality. That’s too simplistic a description, perhaps even trite.

I’m the first one to respond (surprisingly positively) to a bit of melancholy. I’m also partial to sentimentality, so long as I’m indulging in it in my own company.

For me, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto has an overriding air of resignation about it. It remains pleasant to listen to, but predictable. Dvorak doesn’t really take me on a journey from one place to another. He’s only ever transported me to a place and then left me there. It’s as though Dvorak and I go on a picnic somewhere undeniably pretty but for some reason he never really explains, he leaves early to go someplace else. I’m left with the dirty plates, and the journey home to embark upon on my own.

Musically speaking, he moans and whines in the cello concerto. He keeps going on about the same point over and over again. I get the point he’s making early on in the first movement. Come the last movement, with the incessant repetitions built into Dvorak’s compositional structure, I’m irritated by his love of repetition to underline the point. Quit whining boyo. Get over whatever it is you’re obsessing about and take action.

I suspect that’s the reason I only really find the final section – the bit where it feels like we’re skidding towards the end – of interest. At that point Dvorak has taken action. He’s moved beyond the self-indulgent resignation that has gone before and said goodbye. The final few bars are a farewell, with a defiant promise of something different to follow.

In TV drama terms this is the end of a series with a promise from the continuity announcer that the programme “will return next year” as the final credits roll.

When I leave the BBC it will be those final few bars of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto I’ll listen to as I walk away from the revolving doors. To be clear, neither me nor the BBC have got there quite yet.

10 things I learnt at the Verbier Festival

1. Not being defined by your employer’s name is as much a holiday as spending two weeks on a far-flung beach in the blazing sunshine.

2. You need to know your music inside out if you’re to succeed as a performer, an administrator, or a classical music journalist.

3. Proximity is everything. The more unfamiliar the work, the closer to the performers you need to be. That way it will feel as though you’re listening from inside the music itself. If you’re emotional core isn’t touched then, you’re a cold-hearted unsalvageable bastard.

4. The audience is as important as the musicians in creating a moment to savour. Musicians engage in a conversation with their audience. That’s why musicians need us there. Concert-going isn’t a passive process. A nineteen-year-old told me that.

5. Depressive states aren’t only to be found during periods of prolonged stress or anxiety. There’s a discernible route back to them even in moments of ecstasy. Depression is something which exists in a variety of emotional experiences, good or bad.

6. If you’re listening attentively, chamber music is intense. Sometimes you need to doze after it.

7. Verbier’s Salle des Combins is a ten minute walk away from the centre of town if you’re in a hurry. Leave 20 minutes or maybe even half an hour if you want to avoid the shirt on your back looking like a sodden rag.

8. Young talented musicians face difficult choices very early on in life. Sometimes those choices are made for them, but for a handful for reach dizzying heights of technical ability and musical expression, sacrifices need to be made.

9. Be warned, the seat numbering system in Verbier’s church is counter-intuitive. It defies detailed description. Factor in extra time before a concert to ensure you’re sitting in the right seat, or be prepared for an exchange in French when someone else discovers you’re sitting in their seat.

10. There is no such thing as a shortcut in Verbier. What you think you might save in time you end up paying for on the calves and the inner thigh.

Listen to Christian Thompson from the Verbier Festival Academy explain how the residential training programme is developing the next generation of exceptional young musicians.

© Aline Paley

Verbier 2016: Beethoven String Quartet Op.130 and Brahms Clarinet Quintet

The Quatuor Ebene gave a dazzling performance of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major op.130 earlier this evening at the Eglise in Verbier. It was a monumental achievement.

Written a year before his death, Beethoven’s op.130 is a complex work taking the uninitiated on a long and sometimes arduous journey from youthful exuberance and passion, through intense loss, and ultimately into grief-fuelled mania. There is hope at the end of the phenomenally demanding finale (we heard all six movements of the original edition), but there isn’t a sense of lasting stability.

Quatuor Ebene’s committed performance throughout was what hooked me in. An electrifying presto and playful andante provided light relief amid the tempest and exuberance elsewhere. The childlike theme treated to a swift series of variations entertained but they also threatened with a dark edge.

The players shone throughout, each with a distinct personality but no one individual dominating. The chemistry between viola player and cellist was especially touching. It was the finale where they really showed their metal, intertwined with the unrelenting descent into mania and beyond, right until the end. They displayed great stamina and rose to the challenge presented by this profoundly moving score.

After the brutality of the Beethoven, clarinettist Martin Frost’s warm tone in Brahms clarinet quintet cushioned us. The lilting sweet melody in the opening allegretto did the rest.

The quintet – sensitively programme as an antidote to what had gone before – may have been a musical escape within slightly-easier-to-handle boundaries, but the group never lost the necessary urgency the work demands of its interpreters.

The second movement adagio was a ravishing serenade that strayed into near operative territory with pseudo-recitatives over which the clarinet soared with grand statements. The movement’s conclusion was exquisite.

Frost is a phenomenal instrumentalist. His fluid lines, rich, rounded tone, and effortless articulation are a joy to behold. Watching him reminds me of the difficulties I experienced trying to achieve the same – I failed dismally.

But his partnership with Quatuor Ebene made for a delicious experience, transporting those of left in tatters after the Beethoven to a place where we could at least see a beacon of hope shining brightly somewhere in front of us.

All images © Aline Paley

Verbier 2016: Bartok, Brahms and Schubert

If you want an introduction to chamber music and get a flavour of just how rewarding it can be, the Verbier Festival should be on your list.

Performances here are the product of the community spirit that underpins the Festival. The concerts are collaborations between friends whose mastery of their instrument comes in a close second to an unequivocal passion for their art.

The spirit which emanated from the stage sets the bar high: this is what the music was written for, anything less than what you see here probably isn’t worth listening to.

In Bartok’s Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano opened the programme; clarinettist Martin Frost coerced, taunted, and cajoled with a sometimes devilish balletic presence. The menacing first movement gave way to a plaintiff second featuring an exquisitely sweet high melody from violinist Leonidas Kavakos. The third and final contrast brought things to a spectacular end, violin and clarinet locked into a frenzied battle to the end. Frost’s breathing is remarkable in fast sequences like those in the last movement, so too his fluid finger work.

The Brahms Trio saw violin Kavakos come to the fore – a dramatic contrast with the Bartok before it – playing with a tone so evenly matched with his counterpart Gautier Capucon (cello) that the difference between the two instruments was imperceptible. Capucon is a remarkable force on stage: a brilliant cellist whose technique is flawless, and range utterly enthralling.

Kavakos is humble and self-effacing, but Capucon still takes care not to let personality get in the way of the instrument’s voice. As a result, the immediacy of their music-making transports the audience quickly to a higher plane. A sublime first movement was followed y a delicate playful second movement with some heart-warming connections between cello and pianist Yuja Wang.

And while the fourth movement was suitably conclusive, the notable moment was during the remarkably still third in which all the instrumentalists on stage pulled the audience in further with the quietest sound created by the smallest gestures.

Pianist Yuja Wang had her moment with Schubert’s Piano Quintet Op. 44, in what had surely, by then, been a demanding programme. Kavakos, Wang and Capucon were joined on stage, by violinist Roman Simovic and viola player Blythe Teh Engstroem.

Between them produced moments of great warmth, spirit, and precision. They worked closely together, exchanging glances and infectious smiles. The third movement was so good, the audience continued to clap at the end of the concert until the group sat down and played it again.

All images are the copyright of Aline Paley