Bush violins

Bernard O’Reilly (1903-1975), of Green Mountains fame, writing about his bush childhood in the Kanimbla Valley, NSW:

That music! – accordians and concertinas [page break]- low brow, but who is so high brow or blasé that he doesn’t secretly enjoy such music?  But best were the violins and they were played by men to whom violin playing had come as legacies from father to son and on to grandson. Their music was a thing apart, it had the quality of antiquity which is only possible where father had taught son and no outside influence or technique had been allowed to creep in.  Thinking back now it is impossible for me to say whether or not they played well from a technical point of view – you wouldn’t even think of that whilst you listened.  The violin became a live thing in their hands; it didn’t merely express their moods and feelings, but it commanded and all who listened followed as they would the Piper of Hamelin through moods of tenderness, through sorrow and through wild joy.
Are they all gone, these men? No, there is one left. Our old neighbour, Pat Cullen, of Long Swamp, has lived beyond his four score years, but in his hands, that old brown violin can still make you dance or laugh or cry.” (pages 37-38)

 
Reference:
Bernard O’Reilly [1944]: Cullenbenbong. Brisbane: WR Smith and Paterson Pty Ltd.  My copy was purchased in 1945 by Burl Ives.

Earth moving in Folkestone

SSQ Festival 2014
Two life-changing concerts this weekend, both including Finnish violin virtuoso, Pekka Kuusisto, and both in Folkestone as part of the annual Sacconi Quartet’s Chamber Music Festival.

The first was a  concert in St. Mary and St. Eanswythe’s Church that included the Sacconi Quartet and the Chamber Orchestra of the Royal College of Music. With PK, they performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and knowing they would was the main reason for my attendance.  PK’s recording of Vivaldi is the most exciting and thrilling I know.  But this live performance was on another plane entirely.  Usually The Seasons are twee and effete and smugly complacent.  PK’s recording is not that, but rather raw and rustic.  (See my comments here.) The live performance, in contrast, was sharp and edgy, thrilling and exciting too but in a different way entirely to the recording.  If Vivaldi is usually suburban Barnet gemütlichkeit, then the recording is from the wild places of Cornwall or the Hebrides, and this performance was from the mean streets of Toxteth or Mile End.

PK’s playing as always was superb. He has an amazing ability to mimic the breathy tone of a flute, producing a sound sublime, something I have heard him do before in very different work.  Yet, at other times it was if he construed the violin as a percussion instrument, not hitting it with his hand but striking the strings in a multitude of carefully-calibrated ways with the bow.  Later, in the pub after the second concert, he agreed that this notion of the percussive violin described his intention.  Violinists often see the instrument as a sort of uncanny extension of themselves, and here was an extension that was brash, direct, and forceful – someone who is here to live out loud, in Zola’s great phrase.  How different to the twee Vivaldi of most other performances I have seen.

In addition, PK treated the work as a modern work, interpreting it afresh – moving around the stage, for example, to confront directly the other players in the various duets and rounds, having face-offs at various times, and interacting physically and with immediacy in accord with the temper of each phase of the music.  The other performers responded in kind to his enthusiasm.  The acoustics in the church were excellent, so that everything could be heard well.  This was certainly the best musical experience of my life, and I feel immensely privileged to have witnessed it.

The second concert followed straight afterwards, in the primary school across the street.  We were party to a violin and electronics meditation on Bach’s Partita in D minor, by PK and Teemu Korpipaa.  The movements of the Bach were played without modification by solo violin, and interleaved with duo improvisations on what we had just heard.  This was also sublime, and had the effect of elongating and deepening the emotions invoked by the Bach, an annotation that added to the original.  It was clear the two had worked together before, and so the annotations were profound and heartfelt.

Poem: Poem VI

A poem by Derek Jarman (1942-1994), written in 1965:

Poem VI
The days are numbered,
For us, and the old man
collecting pennies under
the bridge.
For he is in disguise
and has attended the concert –
before us,
But now he plays his
violin in a way which
demands our sympathy.

(From Sketchbooks, reprinted in The Observer Magazine, 2013-08-25, page 25).
Previous poems here.

PKOM at the Wigmore

This week, I was lucky to catch the first half of a concert by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and pianist/composer Olli Mustonen at London’s Wigmore Hall.   I heard them play Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A (Op. 30, #1) and Mustonen’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, which was a world premiere.

As always with PK, the playing was superb and full of energy.   What he lacks in physical height, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm and pizzaz.  He is an extraordinarily talented violinist, and I try not to miss opportunities to hear him play.  (I have also heard him play piano, but the part was not a testing one.)

In the main, Beethoven’s violin sonatas do not impress me – our Ludwig couldn’t play the instrument nearly as well as he could play the piano, and this shows in his writing for the respective instruments.  I view these sonatas as really being piano sonatas with violin commentaries.  And, as so often with Beethoven, the music at some point comes to a stop, or nearly so, mid-way through the develoment section, like a clock winding down, and has to be re-started again.  What underlying psychological thing is going on here, I wonder, that this happens so often in B’s music?  After a while it becomes annoying, like a friend asking you the same unpleasant question every time you meet, and you end up wantIng to avoid talking with that person.

Mustonen’s Sonata was superb.  The programme notes warned us that he began as a composer of “Busonian neo-classicism”.   I thought this piece was not at all neo-classical, but also certainly not in the category of up-town modernist complexity.  The first part comprised an ever-present walking treble line of odd intervals by the violin, sequences of uneven lengths and different intervals not quite repeated exactly, with various waves of piano arising and decaying around this.   The particular odd intervals – tritones, sevenths – brought immediately to my mind some music of Australian composer Larry Sitsky, who studied with Egon Petri (1881-1962), who in turn was a student of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924).    The emotional waves of this first part were very stark.  Would I have thought of Sibelius and the forests of the North if I had not known the composer was Finnish?  I don’t know.

The transition between the second and third parts was slow and beautiful, and very moving, and the effects PK produced were simply stunning.  At one point, low trembling notes on the G string sounded like a breathy flute being played.  And a series of repeated patterns combining trills and vibrata on different fingers of the left hand, was very impressive.  Not at all clear how these effects were produced, but the independent but co-ordinated action of the left-hand fingers would have required long practice to achieve.  Perhaps the effect was partly due to rapid changes of speed and pressure on the bow, also.

It was a privilege to be in the presence of such superb music played by these two virtuosos.

Here is another review of the same concert, by an anonymous blogger.   Following the review, the blogger cites PK’s recording of Vivalid’s Four Seasons, as “restrained”.   I wonder if he or she was actually listening!    We’ve had 60 years of elegant, effete and twee recordings of The Seasons, so we know what restrained with regard to this music means.  PK’s treatment is rustic and earthy and full-blooded, as if the entire ensemble had been taken outside and roughed-up in the mud of the farmyard, and the complete opposite of restrained!   A simply superb interpretation, original, fresh and compelling.  Your milage certainly can vary, as people say.

Musical Genealogies

Thinking recently about tradition, I compiled genealogies for the lessons I have had in composition and in violin.

In composition, I once had lessons with “Gentleman Jim” Penberthy, who in turn had had lessons from Nadia Boulanger.   Although every mid-western American city was said to have had a music teacher who’d once been a pupil of Boulanger, the same was not true of Australia. As best I can determine the genealogy is thus:

  • James Penberthy (1917-1999)
    • Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
      • Gabriel Faure (1845-1924)
        • Louis Niedermeyer (1802-1861)
          • Emanual Aloys Forster (1748-1823)
            • Johann Georg Pausewang (1738-1812)
        • Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)
          • Fromental Halevy (1799-1862)
            • Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)

I am greatly pleased to find myself a composition student descendant of Cherubini, whose sublime string quartets influenced and were influenced by those of Mendelssohn. In violin, I once had some introductory lessons from Mr Leo Birsen, whose genealogy was:

  • Leo Birsen (1902-1992)
    • Jeno Hubay (1858-1937)
      • Joseph Joachim (1831-1907)
        • Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
          • Eduard Rietz (1802-1832)
            • Johann Friedrich Ritz (1767-1828) (ER’s father)
            • Pierre Rode (1774-1830)
              • Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824)

Subsequently, I have had lessons from two fine teachers whose genealogies are as follows.  My first teacher Ms Gisela Soares was taught by:

  • Philip Heyman
  • Ryszard Woycicki
    • Stefan Kamasa (1930 – )
      • Jan Rakowski (1898-1962)
        • Karola Wierzuchowskiego
      • Tadeusz Wronski (1915-2000)
      • P. Pasquier

And my second teacher Dr Claudio Forcada was taught by:

  • Goncal Comellas
    • Joan Massia i Prats (1890-1969)
      • Alfred Marchot
        • Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931)
          • Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880)
          • Henry Vieuxtemps (1820-1881)

Here, parallel indents show a student of multiple teachers.  Thus, Ysaye was taught by both Wieniawksi and Vieuxtemps.  As it happens, Wieniawksi was also a pupil of Vieuxtemps.
 

Moscow Soloists in London

This past week I attended a concert in the Cadogan Hall by the Moscow Soloists String Chamber Ensemble, led by violist Yuri Bashmet.  The concert seems to have attracted many in London’s large Russian-speaking community, and there were idling limousines outside the Hall.
Although technically the playing was very proficient, the concert and the performance left me disappointed.  First, everyone on stage was dressed entirely in black, even the soloists.   Was this a convention of undertakers, I wondered?  Second, almost nobody smiled, again not even many of the soloists.   Why so glum?  Third, a grand Steinway was used for the first concerto, and then remained stuck there on stage, like some silent, brooding animal.   All the movements of furniture between pieces was done by several of the ensemble members, rather than by the Hall staff, and it is true that the piano was moved a few inches.  But not out of the way, nor offstage.   It therefore blocked the sound (and the view) of the ensemble, and meant that the sound we in the audience heard was not projected uniformly to us.   Where I was sitting on the right-hand side of the hall I heard the two cellos and the lone double bass well, but not the violins, who were hidden by the piano.    I regard this failure to move the piano out of the way as unprofessional, although who was to blame for it is not clear.  Surely, the Hall staff should have moved it aside.
And the glumness!  The first item played was Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052) with soloist Ksenia Bashmet.  Her playing was technically excellent, although not from memory.   But the music was played with such po-faced seriousness, and without any apparent emotion.   This concerto is one of the great humorous compositions of all time, perhaps the greatest before Shostakovich’s Piano and Trumpet Concerto.  A few minutes with the score would tell you the composer was having fun as he wrote it, since it is filled with adornments and flourishes, completely unnecessary and joyful in the extreme, which feel exactly right under the fingers.   This is music written by someone who really liked playing a keyboard.   Moreover, the first movement has a rondo form, with the first theme returning and returning and returning, as if without end.   There is even a solo cadenza, which would traditionally be placed near the end of the movement, which here comes in the middle;  so even after we hear the cadenza, the movement still does not end.   This is Bach having fun.   But where was the fun or the joy from these performers?   Perhaps the fact that Ms Bashmet was not playing the music from memory meant she had had not yet internalized the score sufficiently to allow herself to have free reign with its interpretation.  This performance was not a patch on the last time I heard this concerto played – by Joanna MacGregor in Cottonopolis, a few years ago, whose physical joy at the music was evident from from the get-go.
Similarly, for Mendelssohn’s D Minor Violin Concerto, played by Alena Baeva.   Again the playing here was technically excellent, although also not from memory.   However, only in the third movement did we hear some emotion – at last, some passion and joy from the soloist in what is a very joyful movement.   The earlier movements were played, in contrast, without great passion, although very well.
The two middle soloists in the first half, Dinara Alieva (soprano) and Alexander Buzlov (cello), did smile at us after their performances, but their chosen music was less intellectually enriching.  Buzlov played a theme and variations by Rossini, something the audience seemed to like more than anything else they heard, but which I found superficial in comparison with the Bach or Mendelssohn.  I did  not stay for the second half, the concert already running too long.
Overall, I believe these performers were technically very proficient as musical performers, but not superb as communicators of musical ideas;  sadly, they did not achieve their potential on this occasion, and seemed to lack any group spark or chemistry.  Perhaps this was due to the presence of the brooding piano, obstructing complete interaction with the audience, or perhaps there were other reasons.  Oddly, the ensemble did not tune up on stage at the start of the concert:  I wonder if this explained the lack of social chemistry evident.
References:
Here is a review of the concert by Hugo Shirley of The Telegraph, who likewise noticed an absence of passion.

Concert Concat 1

As part of the diverse mental attic that this blog is, this post simply lists live music I have heard, as best my memory serves, up until the pandemic. In some cases, I am also motivated to write about what I heard.

  • Gulce Sevgen, piano, in a concert at the Gesellschaft fur Musiktheatre, Turkenstrasse 19, Vienna 1090, Austria, 15 November 2018.   This venue turned out to be a small room holding 48 seats in a converted apartment.  There were 20 people present to hear Ms Sevgen play JS Bach’s Chromatic Fantasie & Fugue in d-minor BWV903, Beethoven’s Pastorale Sonata, excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, Op. 54, and Liszt’s Concert Etude E/M A218 and Zweite Ballade, E/M A181.  Ms Sevgen’s performance throughout was from memory, a quite remarkable feat.  Her playing was perhaps too loud for the size of the room, even with the piano lid half-down. The Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn were all excellent.  I have remarked before that I do not “get” the music of Prokofiev.  His music for Romeo and Juliet is a prime example:  the famous dance with its large-footed stomping bassline conjures up, for me, Norwegian trolls not feuding Italian merchant families, as if the composer had read a different play altogether. (Mendelssohn’s and Shostakovich’s incidental music to Shakespeare, by contrast, both make perfect sense.)  The playing of the Liszt works was fluent and articulate, but devoid of any meaning; it is perhaps unfair to ask performers to add meaning where there was none, since these are simply show-off pieces, all style and no substance.  But it is not unfair to ask performers not to play such vapid, meaningless music in public.
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Firebird in Bologna

A superb concert last night in Bologna, with Orchestra Mozart and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra combining forces under young conductor Diego Matheuz.    The concert took place in Auditorium Manzoni, where I have enjoyed concerts before, sometimes under Maestro Abbado.  This hall has a relatively modern interior, almost fan-shaped, with undulating wooden walls and an undulating wooden ceiling over the stage.  The acoustic is warm, bright and fast.  The stage is only small, and barely took the forces arranged last night.   The cellos were placed in the middle, with the violas on the conductor’s immediate right, and so the sound of the violas may well have been lost.   Similarly, only the percussion and brass were (slightly) elevated, the woodwinds seated at the same level as the strings. I was close enough not to miss anything from these placements.
Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto was played by Vadim Repin, who also played Ravel’s violin rhapsody, Tzigane.  Both pieces were fiery and technically impressive, my strong distaste for Prokofiev’s music notwithstanding.   His music strikes me as truly incoherent, using types of expression (eg, multiple simultaneous keys) and modes of musical cognition that are alien to me.  My distaste is stronger than mere dislike, being incomprehension.   The abrupt change in mood, for example, between the second and third movements, seems meant to provoke the listener, as if to say, I have the power to change your attitude to this music at a whim, and to prove it, I will now do it. Who could enjoy the company of such a person?
I have heard Repin perform before, a few years ago in Barcelona (playing the Sibelius concerto).  As on that occasion, he encored with theme and variations of Carnival of Venice, a crowd-stopping showpiece of skill and effects made famous for violinists by Pagannini and for trumpeters by Arban.   This time, however, Repin began with a fiery introduction, then detoured into several bars of accompaniment vamping before launching the theme.  The vamping allowed him to signal to the orchestral musicians what to play as they joined him, something he had tried unsuccessfully in Barcelona while himself playing the theme.
The concert also included Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, in what was certainly the most thrilling, spine-tingling, edge-of-seat performance of this work I have ever heard.  Matheuz conducted from memory, which is not nothing for this jagged music, and his energy and enthusiasm was compelling.   The principal violinists had swapped places for this piece.   Before the interval, the principal for the Mahler CO, Gregory Ahss, was lead.   For the Stravinsky after interval, Orchestra Mozart’s principal, Raphael Christ, took over.   I was seated close enough to see them play, and both were very impressive.   Both people to watch, along with Matheuz.

Programme:
Maurice Ravel:  Daphnis et Chloé, Suite #2.
Sergei Prokofiev: Concerto for Violin  #1 in D Major op. 19
Maurice Ravel: Tzigane, Rhapsody for violin and orchestra
Igor Stravinsky:  L’Oiseau de feu (Suite, version of 1919).
The Auditorium Manzoni is mildly fan-shaped, a shape that is not common for concert halls.  (Another example is the art deco Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, UK, whose fan shape is much more pronounced.)  The walls around the stage and the hall, along with the ceiling over the stage have an undulating wooden veneer, which would help sound propagation in diverse directions.   The balcony overhands a large part of the auditorium, but at quite a high level, so that seats under the balcony are not “dark” in terms of the sounds they receive from the stage.

Classical Violinists

Hearing a concert by Vadim Repin, the second time I have heard him play, I thought to list all the classical solo violinists I have heard perform live (in alpha order, with the music where recalled):

  • Alena Baeva – Mendelssohn’s D minor Concerto (Moscow Soloists Chamber Ensemble, London 2011)
  • Joshua Bell – Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto (London), Mozart Concertos (Manchester), and the Concerto of Behzad Ranjbaran (world premiere, Liverpool)
  • James Ehnes (Manchester)
  • Konrad Elias-Trostmann -Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto (Sinfonia d’Amici, London, April 2014)
  • Thomas Gould – e-Violin Concerto of Nico Muhly (world premiere, London)
  • Giovanni Guzzo – Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto (L’Orchestre du Monde, under Janusz Piotrowicz,  Cadogan Hall, London, May 2014)
  • Simon Hewitt Jones (Liverpool)
  • Daniel Hope – Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto (both the standard and the original versions, London)
  • Alina Ibragimova – Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (London, 2012);  Schumann’s Concerto, with the London Symphony Orchestra (London, 2014).  Schumann wrote his concerto for Joachim (pictured), who never performed it publicly, and tried to keep it out of print for a long time.   Pity that Joachim did not succeed.
  • Cameron Jamieson – Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto (Brisbane 2011)
  • Sergey Khachatryan (Manchester)
  • So Ock Kim – Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto (London)
  • Gidon Kremer (Copenhagen)
  • Pekka Kuusisto – Concerto for Violin by Thomas Ades (Britten Sinfonia, London, 2012); Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (RCM Chamber Orchestra and Sacconi Quartet, Folkestone, May 2014); Bach’s D Minor Partita (Improvisation with Teemu Korpipaa, Folkestone, May 2014).
  • Tasmin Little – Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto (Liverpool 2003),  and (Manchester)
  • Jonathan Morton – Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D Minor (London 2011)
  • Rachel Podger – Bach Double in D min (Manchester)
  • Vadim Repin – Sibelius’ Concerto (Barcelona) and Prokofiev’s Concerto #1 (Bologna 2011)
  • Linus Roth (Liverpool)
  • Baiba Skride – Mozart and Mendelssohn Sonatas (London 2011)
  • Valeriy Sokolov – Sibelius’ Concerto (Manchester)
  • Christian Tetzlaff – Bach Partita #2 in Dm & Sonata #3 in C, and Beethoven Concerto (London 2015)
  • Richard Tognetti (Sydney, Brisbane 2009)
  • Nikolaj Znaider – Tchaikovsky Concerto (London 2015)

The drawing is Adoph Menzel’s 1853 drawing of Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), famously a pupil of Mendelssohn and a cousin of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grandmother.   Joachim taught Jeno Hubay (1858-1937), who taught Leo Birsen (1902-1992), with whom I had some lessons.

Caravan in Brisbane

While posting about great jazz gigs, I remembered one superb performance I’d forgotten to record.   On 27 November 2009, I heard a gypsy-style jazz group play at Brisbane Jazz Club.  The Club has a million-dollar location at Kangaroo Point on the Brisbane River, looking back towards the city. Watching performers against a large window showing a darkening city skyscape across the water was just magical. I hope that the club can recover from the recent floods and return to their home.

The audience that night was about 50, including tables of people speaking Japanese and Russian.  The band was advertised as Cam Ford’s Gypsy Swingers, but I’m not sure everyone was there.  The line-up included  Ian Date, leader, on acoustic guitar and trumpet, his brother Nigel Date on acoustic guitar, Daniel Weltlinger on violin, and two players whose names I failed to catch – an acoustic guitarist and an electric bass player.    Later in the evening, the five were joined by another acoustic guitarist and a clarinet player (Dan?).  The music included some flamenco (to be expected with all those guitars) and was mostly 1920s Hot Club de France-style arrangements.    Most pieces had a fast, 4/4 tradjazz beat, with the bass playing a walking bass part.    This is a style of jazz I am not fond of, since much of it sounds the same, but the players showed real skill.   The violin or the lead guitar usually played a solo over the top, or sometimes, the two – violin and lead guitar – played a call-and-response duet.    These tunes were all done with energy, enthusiasm and skill.
With the full line-up of seven, the group played an absolutely superb arrangement of Caravan, a song I have blogged about before.  The arrangement began with the violin playing the melody over guitar rhythms and an ostinato bass.    This first run through was then followed by several choruses where the melody was played  in unison first by the violin and one guitar, and then with a second guitar playing a 2nd or a 3rd higher than the unison part.  The effect of this was something like an Hawaiiwan guitar, and created a sound that was iridescent, shimmering like the flickering lights on the river in the window behind the musicians.
To me, the stand-out  performer on the night was the violinist, Daniel Weltlinger, whom nothing seemed to faze.  At one point, when the two additional players joined, he was shouting chord changes to the clarinetist while improvising his own solo at the same time.