Another Beethoven Symphony Cycle? Why?

Why do we have yet another Beethoven Symphony cycle? Its is, in fact, a fair question as well as a good exercise to answer it.

The question is important only if there is a willingness to answer honestly and critically what this question implies. Implicit in this question  is the place of importance we have given these works in our culture. New recordings are only justified if the music has something to say to us the 200 some years after their composition. For me, that was the one of the questions I was asking when I started listening to this series of  on demand concerts from CBC Radio 2 and the Vancouver Symphony orchestra, conducted by Bramwell Tovey.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra have always been a fine band of musicians. Like all good orchestras, they shine brightly when they have good leadership and sound dismally bad when they do not. Over the past decades there have been a number of missteps in the choice of leadership. The current choice is not one of theses mistakes. Bramwell Tovey is undoubtedly the best conductor this orchestra has had in decades. In the past three years I have heard the orchestra all to infrequently live. But on those occasions I was impressed. The season closer a number of years ago spotlighted a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” which was nothing short of brilliantly played. It is a difficult piece for the players, difficult for the audience. If it is not well played it is incomprehensible to the audience. That performance was a winner on all counts!

We come to 2008 and its cycle of Beethoven symphonies; which I am sorry to say I did not hear live. However, the CBC recorded them and they are currently on the CBC Radio 2 Concerts On Demand site. There are five concerts in all and they run consecutively. So I decided I’d listen to them in that order just to follow Beethoven’s creative process as it developed chronologically.

Beginning with the First symphony, as I listened more my interest grew and rather than wearying with the task of listening to some 8 hours or more of music, I found myself listening more attentively. The more I listened the more I realised that I was listening to an important musical event. It is rare for a cycle of anything you name is fabulous across the board, but this won comes pretty close to doing just that. There is an infectious bristle and excitement in the orchestra’s playing. When you have playing of this high caliber from and orchestra you become increasingly aware of the music’s inherent worth, its inherent value spanning two centuries.

By the time i got to the second symphony I was completely won over. This music and this performance made me laugh and smile. This performance almost makes you want to get up and dance!  Wait! This is a clue for us to note in judging this cycle.

The classical symphony in its most clearly defined examples, like those of Johann Christian Bach, is clearly a development of the Baroque dance suite and its rhythmic vitality comes from dance, music and movement.  The two early Beethoven symphonies are more closely aligned with those of the 17th century, but clearly far more extensive and serious works. None the less, they retain this link with the past. Bramwell Tovey and the VSO let his quality shine through. It is always cleanly executed, rhythmically sprung and if you’re not careful, you may end  up dancing. The last movement of the 2nd symphony in D major, with its hick-up opening theme… made me laugh. I thought instantly of the “YEEP” when someone sits on a whoopee cushion. More laughter and this Beethoven Symphony cycle shows promise!

Symphony No. 3 in E flat major was another special performance! The orchestra is again in fine form again and every note is in place! These are turning out to be performances to remember. The horn section fo the symphony shines in the second movement. The audience is as quiet as you could expect, clapping at the right spots and only once clapping between movements. When the final notes of the Eroica sound, the audience bursts into a more than enthusiastic applause. I am guessing at this, but I thinik there is an especially loud and noisey response from the audience when Tovey acknowledges the French Horns. I emphasize the guess work here, this is not a television production and so I can only go on what i would expect from a performance like this one.

The sound engineering on these recordings is superb. Sound engineer Don Harder seems to get better and better at his craft as time goes on. Engineering is really a science, but good sound engineering seems to be somewhat of a black art or wizardry which not everyone who has the knowledge seems to be able to master. There is more than simply getting the equations and calculations correct. One has to be able to understand the sound of a room, how to place microphones to overcome or take advantage of its idiosyncrasies. Harder is one of these individuals.

There is much more to talk about here, but i’ve said enough for one post. I’m going back to listen to these broadcasts again! You should to — these are a special performances.

I started writing this post a week and a half ago. The Monday I had started listening at home then was going to continue whilst I imaged some of the iMacs at the Education Centre where I do volunteer work. The school has a fibre optic connection to the Interent because they have designed and host most of the online courses offered by the Vancouver School Board. Of course the bandwidth is just fine and I managed to listen  to a good portion of the  cycle.

I was quite excited about the fact that this material was available to students here in Vancouver. However when I returned the following Wednesday, I found CBC Radio 2 ‘s site blocked with a red band across the screen saying “Access denied Reason: Internet Radio”. Huh? Yes, the Vancouver School Board has blocked students from listening to the Radio 2 on demand broadcasts.

It is just to much of a coincidence that on Monday I listen to some on demand broadcasts from the CBC and then on the following Wednesday the site is blocked by the VSB’s filters. Slowly but surely the VSB’s filters are blocking access to some of the most useful things on the internet. Do you know why? I do not have any idea who or why anyone would do such a thing. Surely this is not a carefully thought out decision on their part! How much more close to George Orwell’s 1984 can you get? Oh! right! we past that years ago but just how much more Orwelian can you get?

The Fate of Contemporary Composers and their Compositions

The competition piece at the Inaugural Knigge Competition at the UBC School of Music has me thinking about new piano works again. All the works we now consider part of the standard repertoire started life the same way. They were new, unheard compositions which could easily have ended up in the dust bin or completely forgotten. This can easily happen if a work does not get into the hands of competent musicians or if it simply cannot aquire escape velocity. By escape velocity I mean the same thing as a Mars-bound explorer needs a specific speed in order to escape earth’s gravity. Any new work needs the same, except it is measured in numbers of performances. I have no idea what that number is but it is certainly more than one.

This weekend at the Knigge competition, composer Michael Tenzer‘s piece, entitled ‘Invention’ got at least 8 performances. All the performances were good. Some were more convincing than others. As you would expect, the performance by the competition winner was the best. But the question remains; who will ever hear this work again?

Some music is difficult to understand. Composer Robert Schumann’s earliest piano works were almost unintelligible to the average concert goer in the 19th century. Mostly, his work was played at private concerts attended by the inteligencia of the time. We have no such system now. If Kreisleriana were written today, who would play it? Who would hear it? It is quite likely it could remain on the shelf for decades.

Serge Rachmaninov’s first symphony failed miserably because of a drunken conductor who cared nothing for the music and inadequate rehearsal time. It was nearly completely destroyed and only reconstructed from orchestral parts after the composers death. It is actually a magnificent work.

I have no answers. Only more questions. We have no viable distribution system for these works. We have no way for a curious music lover to even find them. I think it only appropriate that I leave this post unfinished.

Knigge Competition Winners Recital

The winners of the Knigge Competition in are as follows:

  1. Scott Meek, originally from Winnipeg Mantioba.
  2. Devon Joiner, Vancouver, British Columbia
  3. Magdelena von Eccher, Lethbridge, Alberta
  4. Christine Desjardins, Montreal, Quebec

The question about competition winners is always about consistency — that is can they do it again, and again. The answer for all of these performers is a resounding yes. You should look for all of the three award winning runners up in the future. As they continue studying, they will improve greatly.

Scott Meek again stands out as a finished pianist. There is no doubt in my mind that he can stand along side any of the biggest names in the world of concert pianists and hold his own. His playing of the Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux is as fine a reading as I’ve ever heard from the likes of even Sviatoslav Richter.

Of course I will be accused of grandstanding and over exaggerating. I deny that vehemently. There is a point during a performance, where you know that the performer has the strength of vision, the depth of understanding to paint the sound canvas with all the colours and drama the composer imbued his score with. In Rachmaninov’s case, that is the broadest of strokes the Romantic composers could use. It was crystal clear that Scott had control of the brush and knew how to paint the canvas with his own unique view of the composers work.

His Scriabin was as manic and frenetic as you would expect from the best Scriabin performers. The next work on his program showed off his uncanny ability to swtich gears and play in an entirely different style from another time period entirely and make it sound like it belonged in the program with the other more modern works.

The Mozart Fantasy in c minor K. 475 is justly famous, but is as enigmatic as it is famous. I confess that I have until now, not heard a performance I thought was convincing. Scott’s performance convinced me that the work was justly famous. Thank-you Scott.

With the required new composition by UBC composer Michael Tenzer, he showed himself capable of taking an unknown work, learning it, and performing it in a manner which made the work convincing as a composition. That is not easy to do with a work no one has heard and in a style he is unlikely to know well.

The last work on the program was the Ginastera Piano Sonata no. 1, opus 22. I have not heard this work for many years. It is rarely performed, unfortunately. It should be. It is a brilliant recital piece. Its fiendish difficulty should have convinced a few more pianists to attempt it just to prove they could play it. Unfortunately, we are more likely to hear Islamey; Balakirev ‘s massive error in judgement! This afternoon’s performance was exemplary. Scott managed the difficulties with apparent ease. I know the ease was only apparent, but part of the virtuosity is in making the impossibly difficult look dead easy.

One does not usually think of a classical piano recital in terms of visual effects, but there are times at which you had to actually see what was happening to appreciate it. There is a passage near the end of the work, the toccata-like section with the repeated notes in the base in a hammering spanish jota rhythm–left hand and right hand alternating like jack hammers. It appeared like one of Scott’s hands was poised motionless in one position above the keys for those minutes. This is an optical illusion which you are clearly aware of because you can hear that the sound coming from the piano means that the pianist is moving his hands–yet one hand appeared motionless in space while the other hand appeared as a transparent blurr near the level of the keys. As I said, you had to be there to believe it! This, I believe, is a YouTube moment if ever there was such a thing! Sadly, likely the frame rate of the video would not be sufficient to capture the action of the pianists fingers.

The instrument the competitors played on was in top form as well! It threw no unexpected curve balls Scott’s way–unlike the previous day! The problems present in Scott’s Rachmaninov the previous day were simply not there as I knew would be the case.

I anxiously await the next opportunity to hear Scott Meek play!

The First National Knigge Piano Competition Winner: Scott Meek

I was going to give a rundown of the days performances at the inaugural Knigge Piano Competition at the U.B.C. School of Music. However, on second thought, there is really no point in rehashing what the jurors have already done. There was a clear winner today. Of all the competitors, Scott Meek stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Scott’s program was challenging, Rachmianinov, Scriabin, Mozart and Ginastera. His performance of the Rachamaninov Etude-Talbeaux opus 39 No. 5 in e flat minor was flawed only by his miscalculating what the instrument was capable of. This meant Scott had pushed the instrument to its limits before the biggest climax of the piece. However, what I found out after was that the piano technician had altered the voicing of the instrument after Scott’s rehearsal the evening before. Scott could not have known that this had taken place. What is to his credit in this situation was how fast he was able to adapt the the new state of the instrument. By the end of the piece he had taken into account the new voicing and for the rest of his performance, he targeted his climaxes perfectly. The succeeding two Scriabin Etudes (opus 42, no. 4 and opus 65 no. 3) were brilliantly executed.

Listen to his performance of the Scriabin Etude opus 65 no. 3 from his DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) recital at Indiana University last year.

Placing the Mozart after the two luxuriant romantic works was a calculated risk. Either it would work splendidly or fail miserably. In this case, Scott brought the transition from romantic to classical splendidly. The advantage of the placement in this position on the program is that it underlined the subtle streak of romanticism many people hear in Mozart. It is interesting to note that E.T.A. Hoffmann, the literary Romantic novelist, composer and music critic, considered Mozart a romantic composer. How different that is from our perception of Mozart!

The stunning moment in this short recital was Scott’s performance of Alberto Ginastera’s Sonata No. 1 opus 22. This is a fiendishly difficult work to play. It requires not only bravura piano technique, but also the subtle colourations found in Debussy’s writing. Accomplishing both as well as he did says that he is a pianist who’s reached a point where we must consider that he is one of Canada’s leading young pianists. The finalists will be heard in recital at the U.B.C. School of Music this Sunday at 2 PM. This is not to be missed!

The Competition Conundrum

The Competition Question: This is likely the most serious question we, as stewards or the serious music in the Western European Musical tradition. By serious music, I mean music which is, in and of itself an artistic, personal or philosophical statement or argument. In other words, it is music without words, music which stands as a statement in and of itself. I do not know of any other musical culture or heritage that has developed its music in a way to embrace statements like we make with musical tones alone.

That said, how does a young artist become known? In the distant past of the 19th century, you would play at various private salon’s and soirée. Public concerets arose from these private appearances. The material performed at concerts was entirely differnet than what appeared on public concerts. Clara Weick made her first performances in this manner and later with the assistance of her piano teacher father was able to become a sensation.

These days there are no equivalent to the Salons or Soirées of the 19th century. All we have is the concert stage and the competition. The competition rose in importance during the 20th century “Cold War” between the Western Block countries and the Soviet Block countries. The competition became a propaganda tool. While the compeititors were really competing and their desire to play well was sincere, the results were tainted by judging that was frequently slanted towards one side or the other. It was expected that someone from the Soviet Block countries would win the U.S.S.R. Tchaikovsky Competition. While there were some notable exceptions, the corruption of the results was almost complete.

That is not to say that the winners were not really good. They were, For example Grigory Sokolov is a Tchaikovsky competition winner and it is steadily becoming clearer that this is a pianist of true integrity and worthy of note. Others have simply faded from the public eye.

That said, we will never know about the heart ache and tears shed by competitors who should have won or placed but were set aside by Cold War politics. The Cold War is now over, but the politics of that war have been replaced by new set of politics – the politics of teacher’s cliques and the competitiveness of Academic institutions. It is sad, but true that a new face never wins the big prize– that almost always goes to someone who is already known to the jury. This type of prize by jury has even filtered down to the level of the local amateur piano competitions.

Just exactly how do you explain to a talented young player why he didn’t win, when he turned in what should have been a winning performance? How do you translate the jurors cryptic comments about metronomes and counting when there are only one or two lines of comment about a performance lasting up to 10 minutes and taking months of preparation? I have recently been put in that situation and has made me think anew about how we shepherd young players from youthful amateuers too seasoned adult performers capable of making a living playing their instrument.

At the same time, we sit on the edge of a precipice. An old order is coming to an end and something new will take its place. The traditional ways of publishing music are now outdated and outmoded. What once took dozens of skilled tradesman, huge investments in printing presses and the creation of cumbersome metal plates now can be done by a single person using a lap top computer. The output from programs like GNU Lilypond, Finale and Sibelius is press ready. It can also be distributed over the Internet and printed by any home inkjet or laser printer. The traditional publishing industry is on its last legs. There is no need for this layer of complexity in our distribution systems.

Likewise, during the late 19th and the entire 20th century it was possible to “publish” a recorded performance. There are huge repositories of recorded performances owned by the companies that package these performances for sale. Of course, these performances can easily be copied and distributed by anyone with a lap top computer. That is what is known as P2P or Peer to Peer distribution on the Internet.

Those publishers or distributors are now disparately trying to salvage and keep their old model alive by litigation. They are demanding stiffer penalties and extended life for their copyright repositories. At this point, the Public Domain is now on life support. Probably nothing published in my lifetime will leave copyright during my lifetime. Likely things published near the dawn of the 20th century will still be copyright when I am no longer here.

You see, the picture is bleak. How does a young peformer (or any performer for that matter) proceed in this new world? Perhaps the answer is partially in the past as well as in the new Internet technologies.

The salon and soirée disappeared because people began communicating in a different manner. We use our own homes for entertainment less and less. More and more our communal activities take place in larger venues. At least that is the way things were at the close of the last century. However, something new is now possible. The Internet holds promise for new methods of communicating.

Let me enlarge on this. Up to now, most of my friends are drawn from those people I meet in my day to day life. It has not been possible for me to meet with someone in Australia or the U.K. simply because of distance. The Internet has changed this. I now have someone I consider a very close friend in Melbourne Australia. I had not considered or planned this. It happened in the virtual world of cyberspace in much the same way as it does in real life. Friendships can now grow and flourish inspite of distance.

Technology had now made video conferencing a reality. Imagine if you will, a Salon or soirée which takes place in cyberspace. Imagine a piano lesson or even a master class which takes place in two or three places at once, the meeting space being in a virtual space in cyberspace. This can now be done without the intervention of a third party publisher or even coordinator. A peer-to-peer network will suffice given sufficient bandwidth and well designed software.

Some things like this are now happening, but they are under the sponsorship of major telecoms acting as the third party publishers. In reality, this added layer is not needed. Currently the need is artificially placed there because of the bandwidth limitations placed on what the telecoms call “residential” customers.

This article should have a conclusion, but it is not written because I do not know how to conclude it. I just don’t have enough information, nor do I know the road forward.

An Intrinsic Understanding of Schumann’s Style

I have often despaired at the few recordings of this magical work there were in the catalogue, even fewer found its true voice. That said, you know you’re in for a treat when, from the first note, you are convinced that, at least for the present, there is no other way it could be performed. This is my immediate reaction to Lief Ove Andsness‘ performance of Robert Schumann‘s “Piano Sonata no 1 in f sharp minor”. There are far to few recorded performances like this and far to many where you wish the performer were more comfortable with the style.

I truly love this work. Despite the fact that it is so often critisised as being disjointed and awkward (and I disagree vehemently!) Andsnes manages to make it sound like a sonata should; that is a long essay or novella on his musical subject. The sonata begins with what Schumann called a fandango, but unlike the introductions of Haydn other classical period composers, it is no short introduction but a short piece by itself – though I would not extract it and play it as such. It has its own discrete beginning and end, and that is one of the main differences between Schumann’s essay in sonata form and what we expect from the classical form.

The work was written in the time period between 1837-1838 along with Carnival, the Davidsbundlertänze, Kreisleriana, the G minor sonata and the Fantasy which Andsnes plays on this recording as well. The works all, by Schumann’s own words, have one subject; Clara Wieck, his intended bride. It is likely not an overstatement to say that there has never been such an outpouring of love, passion and friendship directed at one person in music! Everything is there, all his thoughts, innermost feelings—the things most of us keep hidden deep inside. There is a kind of clear, incisive and overwhelming honesty in Robert Schumann‘s writing. It rushes over you like the ocean’s waves as the tide does as it rushes towarads high tide. You hear the ebb and flow, the ever-rising tide and you know you will soon be enveloped in it. You do not run in fear, you wait for it to happen—enjoy, love it, and defend it. Defend it because it has its enemies—Philistines as Schumann called them. This sonata has not had such a sympathetic exponent in a long while.

Maurizio Pollini’s performance on Deutsche Gramophon is usualy thought of as the best performance available (and it is still in the catalogue, should you like his cool, cerebral performances), however, his is a cerebral reading of this work and it fails ultimately because it misses the direct appeal to the poet’s inner feelings which characterize the romantic poets and writers of this period. You will not find Ritter Gluck sitting quietly beside you, nor will you find the flights of fantasy contained in E.T.A. Hoffmann‘s Fantasiestücke. This is where Lief Ove Andsnes succeeds brilliantly, and Pollini fails.
The second movement of the f sharp minor sonata is an almost literal translation of a song Schumann wrote some years eariler “An Anna”. Andsnes plays it exquisitely, evevn bettter than the Arrau recording of it I owned on vinyl.

The Scherzo is where Mr. Andsnes shines. The long passages where Schumann’s writing is obviously a dialogue between the two hands, are particularly convincing. There is a real dialogue happening in Andsnes’ playing. He doesn’t merely play the notes, he imbues them with meaning just as Schumann thought the performer should do. Just listen to the recitative-type Intermezzo which interrupts the Scherzo to hear an absolutely convicing reading of this music.

The transition into the last movement can be problematic, but Andsnes is completely convincing here to. The recitative which again interrupts the last movement is convincing in Mr. Andsnes hands, he makes this movement sound as if it really belongs to the work as a whole. One wishes that more pianists would play Schumann’s piano music with such sympathy and understanding.

Schumann’s writing is often shocking in the way it moves from idea to idea, sometimes hardly finishing before beginning another—leaving the listener cut off in mid-sentence from the idea. This was not accidental. It surely is another sign of Schumann’s fascination with Hoffmann’s writing and ideas about the Romantic movement’s rejection of the stale, but at that time, unenlightened enlightenment ideals. Andsnes does not shy away from these phrases even when they seem to fly off past the end, as if cut off in mid-sentence. This is most obvious in the second movement of the Fantasy. This is a treacherous movement for any pianist, not just the legendary ending, but each phrase needs careful calculation so as not to miscalculate the virtuoso ending Schumann devised. This is one case where a note perfect ending is quite serendipitous! It is almost impossible to play perfecftly in a live performance. All those not perfect perfromances you hear on CD have had multiple takes or have been edited!

Andsnes plays this movement as well as any I’ve heard and if this were a live performance I’d be tempted to leap to my feet applauding. The two works on this CD make an intersting pair. One, the Fantasy, Schumann called a “deep lament for Clara..” expecting that he would never marry her. The other, Kreisleriana, written after Clara’s acceptance but before the acutal wedding, Schumann writes to Clara “.. you will hear yourself in every bar …”. And that you will for Schumann used the theme from Nocturne from Clara Weick’s own composition “Soirées Musicales” as the theme for the first movement. With it, he creates magic. The movement is a fascinating study in almost but not quite being in C major. He withholds any resolution to the tonic key until the very last chord. By then you ache to hear it.

You won’t go wrong choosing Andsnes version of these two masterpeices. I will most certainly be looking for more of Andsnes Schumannn recordings. He has an intrisic understanding of this composer.

An Enchanted, Lyrical Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto

On Friday November 2nd, at a packed to capacity  Chan Centre concert, I heard one of the finest performances of  Pyotr Il’ch Tchaikovsky Piano concerto number 1 in b flat minor I’ve ever heard. That said, I’ll choose not to comment on the orchestra (made up of students from the U.B.C. School of Music)

From the first step onto the stage, Devon Joiner showed the confidence of a seasoned performer. Since I had no preferred seating, I was seated in the choir loft above and behind the orchestra. I thought i might not be able to see the pianist adequately. However this was not the case. I had a bird’s eye view of at least one half of the keyboard and the last quarter of the right hand side. (this is a case where the supposedly worst seating possible ended up to be the best!)

A performers demeanor as he steps on stage can sometimes make or break the the relationship with the audience. From his first step onto the platform his cool, calm confident manner set the audience at ease.  . He is a confident, extremely well poised, intelligent and musical player. He has technique to spare, but he did not waste it as many pianists do in this piece, and turn the piece into the side show show barn burner it is usually presented as. Each time textures changed or rounded a new corner in this difficult score, I knew how carefully he had prepared the score. I heard  more Tchaikovsky in the work than I ever have before.  Tchaikovsky gives  virtuoso ample opportunity to show off, after all, It was after all, written for one of Nikolai Rubenstein, Russia’s most famous pianists of the period, however, showmanship never overshadowed the lyrical Tchaikovsky we know so well from works like his Violin Concerto.

Glittering passage work and thundering octaves are not the only test of virtuosity. By far the most difficult virtuoso passages are the ones with fewer notes; they ones with hushed pianissimos and exposed, simple melody. The ability to keep the audience’s attention when the drama is less melodramatic is, perhaps, the ultimate test of a virtuoso. Devon Joiner passes that test with flying colours. One of the tests of a great pianist is his ability to show his audience a new and compelling view of what he plays. Devon succeeded.

Making the connection from the big theme at the beginning with the rest of the movement is not an easy task. The tune overshadows the rest of the work for most of the audience. I am certain, that is the only thing most people ever hear in that piece. Devon Joiner managed to make it sound more like the integrated whole it really is. I hope that in the future, he keeps his own voice and does not give in to the demands of conformity the competition circuit has successfully imposed on so many young musicians.

Music commentators for many years have claimed that since Tchaikovsky tacked on the tune after the work had been completed that it has nothing thematically to do with the first subject and the development section. This simply isn’t true. There is a connection, Tchaikovsky didn’t simply pull this tune out of the blue, even though it was an afterthought.

Too my ears, he sounds very much like a student of  Jane Coop (currently head of the keyboard department at the U.B.C. School of Music). However, since I must confess that I am not exactly unbiased. I have taken lessons with Ms. Coop. As a teacher she is as conciencious a teacher as you could ever wish for but she never imposes own view on her students interpretation. So, although Ms. Coop’s guidance is very clear, I could still hear Devon’s very exciting and personal view of this concerto. I hope I hear it again many times. If you have a chance to hear Devon perform, by all means take it. You have a chance to hear one of the up and coming leading lights of the classical keyboard!