Sunday, 2 April 2017

SYO - The Intrepid Voyagers

During my early teens my great aunt gave me a set of CDs from Reader’s Digest. Most of what was on them I barely listened to and I’ve forgotten much of the rest, but some tracks remain with me. One in particular lit my imagination ablaze, Mussorgsky’s ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ from his Pictures at an Exhibition, the power and expression in that piece blew my young mind. I was in my early 20s before I found a recording of the full work, this being in the days when you couldn’t stream any piece of music you wanted whenever you want. At about the same age I was first listening to the full work, the talented musicians of the Sydney Youth Orchestra have been learning to play it as one of the pieces for their Intrepid Voyagers concert tour. The tour began today with a sort of farewell performance at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, and will continue shortly with six performances in Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Germany.

Today’s concert opened with a new work by George Palmer that was commissioned for the SYO by the family of Timothy O’Brien who died last year at the far-too-early age of 20. When I saw the name of the piece, ‘In Paradisum’, I thought first of Faure’s Requiem, so I expected an ethereal work of great beauty and emotion. Instead, Palmer presented a work that moves through several moods without ever drifting into open lament or the mystical airiness of Faure’s ‘In Paradisum’. It’s a programmatic work, in that there is a story of sorts being told in the music, something explained in the program aptly enough. It is a beautiful piece, and it has what I thought of as a ‘cinematic gloss’, which is to say, there’s a filmic quality to the sound, with a vision always before and behind it, only it is for the listener to see it. What a wonderful way for Timothy to be remembered, and what a great new addition to the Australian repertoire.

Following this came Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations, a work I hadn’t heard before and was excited to discover. I’m happy to say it is signature Dvorak, with all the shifts in tempo and volume, the jaunty sections and dreamy passages reminiscent of the dark woods of eastern Europe, land of countless folktales and nightmares. But always the exuberance wins out and the work finishes on a stunning high. It’s a great piece for an orchestra, with the many variations giving them a true journey to undergo. I admit to taking an almost perverse pleasure in what I like to think of as a triangle solo. Seeing a percussionist standing there holding a triangle in readiness has too many comic connections for me not to enjoy it, but the truth is it was a vital part of the piece and rang through beautifully. And that’s one of the differences of hearing it live and seeing the performers, I noticed the instrumentation much more clearly than the blend of sound on a recording.

Finally, there was the masterwork, Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s hard to imagine a better show piece for a youth orchestra to take on tour. First, there’s its sheer power and range, from the haunting beauty of the Old Castle to the stark majesty of the Great Gate – not to forget the fun of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. Even better, Ravel’s orchestration covers the whole orchestra, giving every section and many individual instruments a chance to shine, there’s even a challenging tuba solo.

As for how these works were performed, I could not have asked for better. There were some blips, a slight strain or a wobble, but they were minor and few and far between. Most importantly, they never threw anyone off to create a domino effect, they happened and the music went on, as you would expect from musicians who are both talented and professional – as I expect many of them will be in the not-too-distant future. As they blazed into the final blasts of the Great Gate, I shut my eyes and let the music I’ve loved for so long wash over me, there was no mistaking the skill and passion behind the playing.

Well done SYO, I wish you every success for the tour and all the music to come.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Dusting off some French Piano Trios

Tonight I decided to listen to an album that's been sitting on the virtual shelf collecting e-dust for a while now, the Joachim Trio's first collection of French piano trios for Naxos.


It opens with Debussy's Trio No 1 in A, which is classic Debussy, the fluidity and gentle beauty of the music is utterly captivating. The way he can carry the soul off on a journey, like a leaf floating down a river, here it eddies, here it ebbs, swirls and stills, but always moving and always enchanting. The short scherzo in the second movement is a favourite bit for me, a rollicking interruption to the sumptuousness of the first movement before a return to the slower gloss of the third. And the finale is something of them both, it has pace and grandeur, but still with the Debussy sheen.

Ravel's drama comes next, opening with the supposed 'Modere' which I take it means moderately. The first few bars are apt to that description and juxtapose intriguingly with the high finish of Debussy, but then we're launched into a hectic patter of piano with no hint of moderation. Only then, being Ravel, we are plunged back into a slow and evocative passage with the violin riding above the sombre cello and the piano adding high and low lights to fully round out what, on its own, would have to be described as a swoon. But then comes the 'Pantoum Assez vif', a high-paced rhythmic jolt reminiscent of the Assez vif movement in his String Quartet which is simply stunning.

Again there's a mood change as the third movement dives into the depths, slow and dark, as fluid as Debussy but with water more icy and the colour of Amber. From this depth we rise high as the violin turns bird and takes wing, with the cello a playful bear cub chasing it. At least, that's where my mind went listening to it this time. And it ends on an equal high to Debussy's trio.

The album finishes with Florent Schmitt's Tres lent, a short but poignant piece that shares the fluidity of the first two but lies very much in the sadder, slower end with no showy flights to lift us back to the joys of Debussy or Ravel's finale.

While all three composers share the fluidity and somewhat sumptuous feel to the music, they all have distinctive moods behind their works. What makes this recording so compelling is the way the Joachim Trio capture those moods. There's no mistaking which composer you're listening to at any point in time. They really know their stuff.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Joy of Russian Piano II - A Modernist and a Classicist

Continuing from yesterday, today I listened to two 'Russian' (more accurately Soviet) composers who I haven't heard much of before. The first one, Galina Ustvolskaya, I'd never heard of before, but she was under 'Related Artists' on Spotify's page for Shostakovich, of whom she was a student and who defended her music when it was attacked for its modernism (see Spotify's page About Galina Ustvolskaya). I listened to her 12 Preludes but I must admit they didn't capture me entirely, although at times they were quite moving. I can understand why she was attacked for 'modernism', but I don't think that's a bad thing, you just have to be in the mood for the discord.

Going back, I found Reinhold Gliere, who's name I knew but nothing else. There's a collection of his piano music performed by Anthony Goldstone and you can hear it on Spotify here. Gliere's music is much less 'modern' and is really quite charming. It's well worth listening to, even if few of the pieces stand out. I added the first of his 25 Preludes and the second of the 3 Mazurkas to my new Dancing Piano playlist, (which will continue to grow), but the rest blend into a delightful background piano set. There is more emotion in the 12 Esquisses, particularly the Agitato, but again there's nothing that really grabbed me.

As the music continued beyond that album however I accidentally discovered his 8 Pieces, Op 39, for violin and cello. These are beautiful short pieces in a number of styles. The cello provides a deep base over which the violin skates and twirls. The Gavotte in particular took me off to that lovely space where there is only music and the light of your own stilled thoughts. If you take nothing else from this blog, follow this link to the album. It also has pieces for cello and for two cellos. The Ballad, Opus 4, is like a mini cello sonata and quite beautiful, while the 10 Duos (for two cellos) range from sweeping slow movements to rapid pieces. The slow movements are the best in my opinion, particularly the Andante, as they have more emotion than the others. Finally, the 12 Pieces, for Cello and Piano, are sumptuous works that highlight the emotional power of the two instruments together, a wonderful collection.

Keep exploring!

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Joy of Russian Piano Music - At least sometimes

I'm kicking off my classical music listening this year with some Russian piano music from last century. I started with Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas 2 and 9 performed by Ilya Yakushev in a new recording only released this year. You can find it on Spotify here.

They had what I consider Prokofiev's typical joy, with the appropriate jarring qualities for such a figure. Both sonatas were full of life and rollicked along under Yakushev's expert fingers. Prokofiev may knock you from your comfortable listening position to sit up and take notice, but he certainly never bores you.

Following that I went for some Shostakovich and found Volume 2 of the complete music for piano duo or duet. First up on the album the piano duet version of his Piano Concerto No 2. This was an upbeat piece for Shostakovich, also full of life and not without its listening challenges, but it is much smoother than Prokofiev's works. The second piece is an arrangement of Shostakovich's Symphony No 15 for piano duet. It's as monumental as that suggests, with intricate sections of what must be highly fiddly finger work and grand moments of high playing. And of course some of Shostakovich's humour comes through as the opening movement has the galop from Rossini's William Tell Overture as a recurrent theme. The second movement throws a much darker mood out, reminding us of the difficulties both these composers faced in their lives. The pianists on the recording are Min Kyong Kim and Hyung Jin Moon, and they are faultless in both the virtuosity and the emotion of the works. You can find that one on Spotify here.

After my long absence I hope to present little blogs like this more often this year, but there are no promises. Either way, remember to keep exploring the wonderful world of music as much as possible.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Today is Paul Dukas's 150th birthday, which seems as good an excuse as any to get back in to my long delayed listening project - Pieces to Hear Once a Year. And, of course, I mean The Sorcerer's Apprentice (sorry Mr Dukas).

This is one of those pieces buried in my consciousness to the point of just being a part of my makeup. From the opening swirls I know I'm being carried into a magical world which rapidly escalates into dramatic misadventure. The music sweeps as irrevocably as the enchanted broomstick and carries us along the story in such a catchy way we can't escape it. It moves from climax to almost silence in a heartbeat and we listen all the more attentively as we just have to know what's happening, then again begins the build.

The appeal of this piece is broad because it's accessible, fun and dramatic without being overbearing or heavy. Yes, it has become tied very closely to a particular mouse, but the music called to the animators and gave them such a vivid story to tell. And they told it beautifully.

Since it is his birthday, I will say, Dukas did write more than just The Sorcerer's Apprentice and his other works deserve exploring. I particularly enjoy his symphony which is similarly rolling and accessible with a charm to it. Right now I'm listening to Polyeucte, based on a Greek myth, and it's suitably tragic but again it doesn't overwhelm you with its drama or mood and is actually rich and beautiful.

Why these other pieces aren't better known I'll never understand. Give them a go.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Catch Up

It's been too long since I posted in here so I thought a quick entry to catch up then I'll try to return to my listening project.

Not much to catch up on of course, but there was the Classic 100 Swoon. As expected most of my nominations didn't make the voting list and only one made the countdown - Eliza's Aria by Elena Kats-Chernin. The upshot of the nominees missing out was I could vote for other things.

Swoons are very personal of course and it seems this year I sided with less popular pieces than usual. Selections from Grieg's Peer Gynt made it in to the top 50 which was good and not unexpected. I had to vote for them as they are probably my earliest swoons, particularly Solveig's Song which I was swooning too as a young teen just discovering music's real power.

My only other successful vote was for Faure's Pavane, another early love of mine, but it came in much lower than I expected. In fact, many of what I thought would be obvious choices only scraped into the countdown or ranked much lower than I imagined.

I had more luck in the second hundred but even there some absences seem quite glaring. Such is the nature of swoon, it's very divisive no matter how beautiful.

As I write this I'm listening to Shostakovich's String Quartet No 15 played by the Eder Quartet. It never entered my mind for the countdown, but there is no doubt if I stop typing and just listen I am transported. It takes me to a sad place, sometimes violent but generally it feels like the cold ruins of a city torn apart. Or, to quote the Smashing Pumpkins, "where the willow weeps and the whirlpool sleeps'.

Swoons are everywhere, beauty is lurking, waiting to be found. We only need to look.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Swoon Nominations

So nominations for the Classic 100 Swoon are closed and the big list will be put up soon. I nominated more than I can vote for and there were some more obvious choices I might vote for that I didn't need to nominate. Of course, last time I nominated things not one of my nominations made the voting list so it may not be an issue.

Anyway, here's a selection of what I nominated. I was impressed to see someone had already nominated one of Liadov's Eight Russin Folk Songs for Orchestra, the Hymn or Religious Song, so I just nominated the Lament. I also nominated The Enchanted Lake (which has a good chance of making the countdown I think, and The Magical Snuffbox - which unfortunately is called the Musical Snuffbox ... here's hoping they figure that out.

Sticking with great Russians, I also nominated Mussogsky's Dawn on the Moscow River from Khovashchina and The Old Castle from Pictures at an Exhibition. Slipped some Ippolitov-Ivanov in there two, the Introduction to Caucasian Sketches No 2 and At Rest and Nocturne from the Turkish Fragments - the second and third movements.

A Narnia Lullaby by Gregory-WIlliams was my most modern nomination, it has always captured me, every time I hear it I drift to another world. I don't have high hopes for it in the countdown however.

I was a little stunned when I found no Elena Kats-Chernin on the preliminary list when she has some remarkably beautiful Swoons. I put forth Eliza's Aria from the Wild Swans (which was one I thought would be there by default), and a couple of short pieces I find equally swoon worthy, including this amazing Bucharian Melody.

There were a few others I nominated but this is your lot for now.

PS Okay one more, there's a short solo piano piece by Mozart which I first heard on Gerard Willem's Reflections on Mozart album and it is pure swoon. All the genius of Mozart with a heart-wrenching beauty underlying it. This version is Mitsuko Uchida's rendition.