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.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Swoon - A New Classic 100 Countdown

So ABC Classic FM has announced its next Classic 100 and it's Swoon! Now there's an exciting and potentially divisive theme for a countdown.

The only definition hinted at in the About page (found here) is 'a little parcel of rapture' and really there's not much more that can be said about it. It's music that carries you away for a while, let's you sit in quiet contemplation outside the hustle and bustle of the world around and within.

And that's going to change from person to person. I have many swoons in the 'pop' music world for instance that many voters in this countdown would consider horrific noise.

That said, I think over the years of Swooning on the ABC a certain nebulous 'feel' can be applied to the theme, but I still expect some way out choices. But there's some obvious favourites too. If Debussy's Clair de lune isn't in the top 10 for instance I'll post a video of me attempting to pirouette on YouTube. I also expect the adagio from Rodrigo's Concerto de Aranjuez, Faure's Pavane, Massenet's Meditation from Thais and of course Canteloube's darn Bailero (which I can't stand) to do well.

I'm hoping for some Australian entries. Koehne's Selfish Giant features in part in the old Swoon box set and is one of my favourites on there. I also think Kats-Chernin's Wild Swans, Edwards' Dawn Mantra and Sculthorpe's Left Bank Waltz (another from the old set) should be in there.

The more immediate question is what to nominate for the list ... watch this space. Expect Ippolitov-Ivanov and some Russians. And Mozart. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin ... dang it they all wrote good swoons.

The grey matter is twitching and the heart is looking forward to drifting in peace.

Monday, 12 January 2015

New Year, New Listening Project

I'm back. Thankfully the music never left.

I'm doing a new listening project and thought I'd write about it here. It's called Pieces I Must Heat at Least Once a Year. Describes itself really.

The first piece I listened to for it was Elgar's Cello Concerto because I heard a little bit of it on the radio and just wanted to listen to it in full. It's a piece I discovered on a whim. I was looking at a sales page on the ABC Shop online and there it was on an album by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. I knew I liked cello concertos and I didn't have much Elgar at the time so I thought, 'why not?'

The disc arrived, I ripped it (I wasn't listening to many CDs at the time) and put it on my mp3 player to listen to at work. So I was sitting at my desk, earphones in, and I hit play. Those first notes knocked me off my perch, then there was that falling phrase ... I was hooked.

The rest of the concerto, to me, is a journey away from and returning to that opening section. I couldn't say much about it to be honest. It's good, very good in fact, but that opening ... blows me away every time.

I think I bought the album the same year as the Classic 100 Music of the 20th Century on ABC Classic FM, so naturally I voted for the concerto among other things. At the time I thought I'd be helping push it up the rankings a bit - my ignorance apparently. It was a clear winner of the whole countdown and hardly in need of my help. I shouldn't have been surprised, it is a remarkable piece of work and that opening phrase does speak loudly of some of the pathos and melancholy of last century.

If you've not heard it, here is what many consider the best rendition of it (first movement anyway) by Jacqueline du Pre. It's amazing just to watch her.