Festive euphoria

Christmas is impossible to pre-empt in a blog post. Far easier to reflect.

After a family Christmas Eve supper during which carols were sung (I hung back with the introverts all equally uncomfortable flexing our vocal chords in the presence of a familiar but otherwise uncritical audience), and a visit to our neighbour for drinks and nibbly-bits, the big day proceeded quietly and calmly. Efforts in the kitchen were deployed equally between myself and The OH, together, in consonance and without incident.

This combined with the subsequent benefits of actively adopting a low-key and pressure-free Christmas meant that for the first time in many years a blissful air descended on both of us. The Christmas spirit isn’t a construction nor is it a euphemism. Goodwill is a realistic mindset and one to strive for.

The effects of this sometimes euphoric state were down to a combination of my own thinking, some of which driven by conversations I had with family members over the Christmas break.

Underpinning the season, was an overwhelming desire to make sure that Yuletide excess was avoided. Pleasure can be derived from adopting a far more modest approach. Instead of buying in gratification, why not look for the pleasure in what you have already?

During a telephone call this evening, my 80-something mother told me this was a sign of maturity. A relief to hear given that I’m 46.

These conclusions arrived at about excess and modesty haven’t been arrived at because of my my independent working life either, it seems. According to one recently retired family member at the Christmas Eve gathering, it’s what countless new retirees have come to understand quickly after their working lives changed. It’s also what most freelancers fail to acknowledge as an aspirational value.

Within these redrawn boundaries new personal needs and wants are contained. Discovering what those needs and wants are momentarily feels like the headiest kind of gift.

So it has been over the past few days. A mixture of warmth, contentment and intense love for the people, things, and traditions that make life complete.

Expressing that provokes a rush that is difficult to contain (and handle). The experience is something akin to the third movement of Rachmaninov’s second symphony. All-encompassing beauty which can render me an emotional wreck, and has as a result seen me avoid the symphony altogether simply because I couldn’t cope with the intense emotion that pours from the score.

When you recognise what it is that’s important to you – the constituent parts of it – you simultaneously appreciate how fragile that happiness is.

At the same time, the white heat of such intense understanding forges something new: a determination to embark on a new path, a recognition of what’s possible, and a commitment to making it happen in some form or other.

If this is adulthood, then its long overdue.

The oldest symphony orchestra

St Petersburg Philharmonic are playing Rachmaninov Piano Concerto number 2 and Mahler 4 in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Sunday 27 January 2019 at 3pm. Yuri Temirkanov (pictured) conducts; Freddy Kempf sits at the keyboard for the Rachmaninov.

That’s the PR bit out of the way. Now onto the thing I’m pondering since receiving a press release about the said concert.

(For the avoidance of doubt – this is not a thinly veiled criticism of the PR who sent me the press release – I’m not an arsehole, obviously.)

St Petersburg Phil bill themselves as ‘Russia’s oldest and most revered symphony orchestra’.

I see many orchestras assert distinctiveness with superlatives about age. It’s a common thing. But I don’t really understand why they bother. Being the oldest seems irrelevant to me unless there’s a way for me as a punter to discern a better end product because of the ensemble’s age.

What difference does it make that an orchestra is the oldest? What impact does the length of time the brand name has been in existence have on the playing and therefore the experience for the audience? An orchestra is only as old as its oldest current member.

Review: Alessio Bax at Wigmore Hall

From time to time the concerts I end up attending remind me of a long-held aspiration that my reviews act as a sort of listening diary – primarily for me and maybe others – that help jog my memory. A sort of postcard of an aural memory.

Reviews on this blog don’t always turn out like that. At least, I rarely go back to them once they’re written and posted. But I’m reminded of that original aspiration, reflecting on Alessio Bax’s Leeds Piano Festival recital yesterday at Wigmore Hall.

There was something rather special about the experience. I’m not speaking for others in the auditorium when I say that – I’m not reporting it was special – just reflecting that my attention in this event was focussed more squarely on the pianist and his playing than his interpretation or the music itself. My focus appeared to be on the results of Alessio Bax’s craft and industry at the keyboard.

I first identified where my attention was focussed during the piano arrangement of Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor, and specifically the second movement adagio.

Within only seven or so minutes of the recital getting underway I experienced a unexpectedly powerful emotional response to what I was hearing. What I heard was achingly beautiful – constructed with an unusual combination of strength and courtesy – that it felt as though I’d been pinned to the back wall of the auditorium.

So unexpected was that reaction that I spent the rest of the recital focussed on what it was about Alessio’s playing that I connected with as a listener.

First, was the strength he brought to bear on the keyboard. This wasn’t bombastic or domineering, rather it was measured, controlled and efficacious.

Summoning up and deploying that strength was done in an unfussy way. Alessio Bax’s movements were fluid throughout his body, but they were also isolated which meant, from my perspective, that the energy was focussed on the areas of the body that really mattered – hands, fingers and arms.

The combination of seeing and hearing that strength meant I felt safe in the knowledge that this was a solid performer. That doesn’t mean safe and unadventurous, more that the performance felt secure.

There were examples of this in the Rachmaninov Correlli Variations (and to a lesser extent in the Franz Liszt Apres une Lecture du Dante) that called for considerable dexterity at the keyboard and, in places, rich, thick, thundering chords. These variations make demands on the pianist because of rapid shifts in pace, tone, and character often with little warning to the listener. That in itself requires stamina, and as far as I could see from row N, considerable core strength.

The second unexpected observation was Bax’s seemingly courteous and respectful connection with the sound he was producing. In truth, this observation took time after the recital to emerge for me, but its something again from my perspective which appears at the moment as a defining characteristic of Bax’s style.

At various points – usually the slowly, more introspective movements, Bax seemed to pause on chords, allowing a variety of different sounds to emanate from the piano. It was as though he was paying due respect to all of the activities the instrument was engaged in long after his fingers had pressed the keys down.

There was still pace to his playing (none of what I heard was self-indulgent) but there was time for all of us to pay due deference to the sound being produced. And that created a sense that both instrument and instrumentalist were connecting on the same level.

The Leeds Piano Festival is a series of recital showcases featuring previous finalists of the Leeds Piano Festival including Lars Vogt, Sunwook Kim, and Alessio Bax. The Festival continues with concerts in Leeds on Saturday 19, Monday 21, Tuesday 22 and Wednesday 23 May.  The concert series also features aspiring new talent – the Lang Lang Scholars.

The Leeds Piano Competition gets underway on 6 September. All of the remaining competition rounds will be streamed live on Medici.TV. The final is on 15th September and will also be broadcast on BBC Four.

Leeds Piano Competition artistic director Adam Gatehouse appeared in a Thoroughly Good Podcast with journalist Cross-Eyed Pianist Fran Wilson. It’s available to listen on Audioboom, Spotify, and iTunes.

Review: Philharmonia plays Rachmaninov 2 with Vladimir Ashkenazy

Does the world need another recording of Rach 2? I’m never entirely sure we do necessarily. If we’re going to listen to another be sure it’s a cracking one.

I’m not asking for landmark recordings necessarily (whatever they are really), but what will get the big thumbs up from me are those performances where I’ve heard something different, and when I can see how it’s worked.

Fortunately for the Philharmonia, their release of a live recording of Rachmaninov 2 with Vladimir Ashkenazy achieves that. Little wonder they were keen to release it. I imagine that record label Signum are quite pleased with it too. 

The scale of the work, its orchestration, and the inclusive style of romantic music Rachmaninov makes it tempting to wallow in places. That’s when the slow movement gets a little more drawn out (and the clarinettist goes a little blue in the face), and when the fast movements lack the drive and the oomph necessary to lift the mood. Speed, promptness and efficiency isn’t necessarily the enemy of romantic expression, where wallowing self-indulgence can be. Throughout this live performance Ashkenazy favours the former. Thank God.

First Movement

Balletic swells across the entire orchestra really bring out an unexpectedly pastoral feel, especially in the legato string subject. It’s the detail that emerges in this live sound recording which excites and intrigues – each distinct voice having a distinct personality. In the case of the horn calls, there’s a fearless quality to the sound in the context of the rest of the orchestra which (I’m a sap) breaks my heart. That range of detail is heard through the final section of the last movement too. Striking for me is the way I’m left with a growing awareness of my own emotional state after the final chord has finished sounding at the end of the first movement. I’ve not experienced listening to the symphony in this way before. 

Second Movement

Swift and tight. There’s a restless insistence underpinning the whole thing illustrated by the constantly driving speeds every time the main subject returns. Some previous recordings characterise give this movement a cantering quality. I prefer the relentless, perhaps even perilous quality Ashkenazy gives it. 

Third Movement

The clarinet solo in the third movement feels more distant in this recording. The tone has harder edges giving the effect of a brave youthful character facing the world, defiant and alone. The effect is unexpected: I want to hug this imaginary person and tell them everything’s going to be alright. The revelation in this recording is the effect on me when the main subject returns (in the strings). It’s the same material, but it feels as though we’ve reached an uneasy sense of resolution. Emotionally, we’ve come out of the ringer. We’re at one. That’s much to do with the strings softening the main melodic idea and the sweet legato counter-melodies from the woodwind. The effect is restorative.

Fourth Movement

Because the sense of resolution is more obvious at the end of the third, that transforms the fourth symphony into more of a joyously celebratory affair. This like no other recording I’ve heard feels like less of a recovery from the intensity of the third movement, more like a well-earned party.

My go-to recording (largely because it was the first recording of the work I ever heard) has always been the London Symphony Orchestra with Gennadi Rhozdhdestvensky from 1988. Ashkenazy’s performance with the Philharmonia is considerably more agile whilst still maintaining the considerable emotional clout of Rachmaninov’s composition.

Listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra play Rachmaninov’s second symphony in a live recording on Idagio or Spotify

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What happened Friday night: Me, Simon, and Leif Oves Andsnes

I asked Simon (the Other Half of 20 years, for those unaware who he is) whether he’d read my post telling the story of how he and I met on a blind date.

“I never read your blog,” he said without missing a beat. “Reading your blog would be like me rifling through your mum’s handbag.”

Disappointing, I thought. First no flowers. No card. Now this.

So, I opened the post on my iPad and got him to read it.

I didn’t really expect him to snivel at the end. I didn’t expect to snivel in sympathy either.

A special moment. The kind of reaction flowers were never going to trigger.

By and large, Friday nights follow a set routine. Get home. Clear up. Clean sheets on the bed. Open a bottle of cheap cava. Settle down on the sofa.

It’s Friday nights when we listen to music. Of late we’ve listen to too little. But, this Friday night I wanted Simon to listen to Leif Oves Andsnes’s recording of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic (find it on the latest Thoroughly Good Spotify Playlist).

It’s a surprisingly new discovery (given that the recording was released in 2012) but it does come with a cast-iron guarantee.

I first heard it a week last Friday, the morning after the Philharmonia’s gig with Tchaikovsky Competition silver medal winner George Li playing the Rachmaninov concert. Close in to the band I heard all sorts of different things I’d not heard before. A real treat.

The morning after, a painter, a plumber, and a carpenter occupied our lounge doing their work, whilst I sat upstairs in the office listening to the slow movement through a portable bluetooth speaker, snivelling uncontrollably at ten o’clock in the morning dressed in my pyjamas. There was something in this recording – I don’t normallh cry in my pyjamas.

Suitably spurred on, I tried to play the slow movement to Simon the same night but (forgive the achingly middle-class detail here), Bento’s delivery service arrived a good deal earlier than either of us had anticipated. We’d started but we never finished. Quite disappointing.

So I tried again Friday night just gone. “Listen to the melody when it comes back towards the end of the second movement,” I explained to Simon, conscious I might be trampling on a moment of discovery for him, “it’s the strings that turn me into a thick sauce.”

I wasn’t wrong. They sounded even better on the JBL 4410s in the living room. A sort of delicate hard-fought aching quality that summed up all the yearning any human being could possibly bear and then some.

There were other delights I hadn’t heard in this recording before now. There’s a leanness to the sound – I can hear both a large scale symphony orchestra and a string quartet all at the same time. That means the entire thing lacks the usual syrupy-ness. A leaner more sinewy sound reveals the complexities of the orchestral accompaniment – the aural equivalent of having a chance to look under the bonnet.

The first movement is prompt, keeping sentimentality at bay, with a tight fluid conclusion that’s gratifyingly barky and growly.

The beginning of the third movement provides much-needed mischievousness to the heartache of what went before. And it’s tight, oh so very tight, which, because of that intimate sound, makes everything feel all the more visceral.

The return of the main theme at the end lacks the usual self-indulgence. We all of us head towards to a swift but well-deserved triumphant conclusion.

Simon was converted. I suddenly wanted to discover more by the pianist. Fortunately there’s a lot to get through, including a 2017release of solo works by Sibelius. Tantalising.

Leif Oves Andsnes has two new fanboys.