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Tag Archives: Martin Widden
Contributed by Martin Widden
This concert on 30 January 2020 was given by a quartet of violin, viola, cello and piano – a fairly unusual combination, because the modern concert grand can easily drown out the three strings. But Mozart, that brilliant pioneer in all things musical, wrote three works for this combination, and of course he set a very high standard for everyone who followed in his footsteps. Even though the modern grand piano is far more powerful than the pianos of Mozart’s day, he wrote in such a way that (in the hands of skilled performers) the strings always seem to be equals of the keyboard instrument.
Not only were the three Mozart piano quartets object lessons in how to write for this group of instruments – they are also marvellous pieces of music. So it was entirely appropriate that this concert opened with a Mozart piano quartet, K 493 in E flat. It formed a highly satisfying beginning.
The second item in the programme was a piano quartet by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. Vasks was born in Aizpute in 1946 into a Baptist family. At that time Latvia lay behind the Iron Curtain, and his Baptist faith prevented him from studying composition as he wished. He therefore moved to neighbouring Lithuania, where he was able to study at the conservatorium in Vilnius. Since the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1991, he has been able to travel and work elsewhere, and has followed a mildly international career, working in Sweden, Austria, Estonia and (surprisingly) Wales, where he was composer-in-residence at the Presteigne Festival in 2006.
His music is sometimes considered minimalist, and is compared with the works of Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Arvo Pärt and George Crumb. The quartet is skilfully written and was remarkably well played, since the performers had had rather limited time for rehearsal. However, its duration of some 40 minutes didn’t seem totally justified by the rather repetitive material.
The concert finished with the Opus 25 quartet by Brahms, written when Brahms was reaching the height of his powers. All four movements of this quartet are wonderful music, but possibly the final movement, a gipsy rondo, is the most outstanding. It finishes with a fast section marked presto, which is very exciting music, to which it is easy to imagine dancing taking place in an increasing frenzy.
The three string players, who have taken the name Moricosta Trio, are all members of the BBC Philharmonic, so they are used to playing together; and Martin Roscoe is a well-loved pianist who lives locally. They played together remarkably well, and this was a very satisfying evening.
Contributed by Martin Widden
Some music is composed to celebrate a person – probably the best known example is Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, composed in honour of Napoleon, although Beethoven later withdrew the dedication in disgust at Napoleon’s declaring himself emperor; some portray an actual event, such as Verdi’s opera The Masked Ball, about the very real assassination of King Gustav of Sweden in 1792. But music is usually a self-sufficient form of art, existing without needing to refer to any external person or event. Nonetheless, two recent recitals in the Great Hall have been programmed to respond to the present situation in the world.
The first of these was a performance on 7 November by English Touring Opera of The Silver Lake, by Kurt Weill. (Weill was the composer who collaborated with the playwright Bertolt Brecht on The Threepenny Opera, which includes the well-known song Mack the Knife.) The story of the opera centres on an impoverished youth, Severin, who steals a pineapple and is shot and wounded by a policeman, Olim. Conscience-stricken at what he has done, Olim visits Severin in hospital, and from this follows an increasingly fantastical story, leading the pair finally to a silver frozen lake, which they are able to cross and make their way to a new future. On the bare Great Hall stage without scenery, and to the accompaniment of a 30-strong orchestra, ETO gave a compelling performance of this story about poverty, hunger and deprivation. It is particularly encouraging that, as at all ETO’s performances, the chorus was recruited locally from choirs based in and around Lancaster.
On 5 December, the Great Hall hosted a recital entitled The Labyrinth by the Israeli-American pianist David Greilsammer. Based loosely on Janacek’s suite On an Overgrown Path, this was a series of short pieces, generally improvisatory in nature, by composers ranging from the 17th century German JJ Froberger, via CPE Bach and Mozart, to the contemporary American Philip Glass. The recital lasted only about 70 minutes, but afterwards Greilsammer returned to answer questions from the audience, and it was here that he remarked that he had put together the programme to reflect the chaotic times we are living in. It was a very interesting series of works which made sense in his hands, even though in the printed programme it looked like a random list. Greilsammer was able to master the varied styles of the pieces very convincingly.
Review by Martin Widden
Some years ago, with help from the Friends of the Lancaster Concerts, the University bought a new Steinway concert grand piano for the Great Hall. Our old Steinway had reached the stage where good pianists were complaining about the state of it, and seemed quite likely to start refusing to come to Lancaster. Having this new piano has enabled the University to bring excellent pianists to Lancaster to perform in the concert series. Last week’s concert was one such, with a recital by Eric Lu, winner of the first prize in the 2018 Leeds international piano competition.
His programme opened with the A minor Rondo by Mozart. This late piece by Mozart, dating from 1787, is full of emotion, and Lu captured this excellently in a sensitive performance. He followed this with the six Klavierstücke by Brahms. These are serious pieces, demanding the deepest insight from the performer, and again Eric Lu was able to tap into this very well despite his relatively tender years (he is 21).
After the interval, we had Handel’s Chaconne in G major, a series of variations on a theme. Handel’s skill in developing this short and simple theme into complex and mesmerising variations is remarkable.
The recital ended with the second sonata by Chopin – the one that includes as its third movement the well-known funeral march. This is a virtuoso piece, which was played with complete confidence by the pianist.
The performance of this varied and well-balanced programme by Eric Lu was highly satisfying. He evidently studies the music so that he becomes fully aware of the composer’s intentions, and his technique is so assured that he is able to communicate these to the listener very clearly.
This was an excellent recital in every way – possibly the best piano performance of recent years in the Lancaster series of concerts, and a fine end to the 2018-19 concert season.
Review: BBC Phil plays the Great Hall
The concert given in the Great Hall on 7 February was the first by the BBC Philharmonic since they were re-appointed as the University’s Orchestra in Residence in December. The large audience proved once again that concerts by a full symphony orchestra are a sure-fire hit: the concert was a sell-out. It featured two substantial works: a clarinet concerto by Edward Cowie entitled Ruskin’s Dreams, and the sixth symphony of Tchaikovsky.
A Lecturer in Music at Lancaster from 1973-1983, Cowie is not just a composer, but also a successful painter, particularly of birds. In his programme notes for the concert, Cowie suggests that his life has some parallels with Ruskin’s: both were painters, both were sufferers from some form of mental illness. These overlaps can surely be of very limited significance. Still, the clarinet concerto was, it seems, inspired by Ruskin’s life and works, and by Lake Coniston, which is where Ruskin spent his later life. Whilst he was at Lancaster in the 1970s, Cowie’s compositions were miniatures, so it came as a surprise to find him writing skilfully for a full symphony orchestra. It’s too soon to know whether Ruskin’s Dreams will enter the regular concert repertoire.
Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony is nicknamed the Pathétique, a name suggested to him by his brother and accepted by the composer, and the music clearly suggests self-pity. There are several possible reasons for this. One is that Tchaikovsky suffered severe personal problems due to his homosexuality and the failure of his marriage. What is more, composing symphonies did not come naturally to Tchaikovsky. A symphony is an extended work for orchestra, usually in several separate and contrasted movements, with a formal structure, particularly for the first movement: this form was established in the days of Haydn and Mozart. Being essentially an emotional composer, Tchaikovsky could not flourish under the constraints imposed by this form. His sixth symphony is not only an expression of his personal misery, but it also seems to echo the spiritual hunger of our age. It is always a popular item on an orchestra’s programme, as it was in the Great Hall. The BBC Phil clearly know the symphony very well and they gave it full romantic value.
The composer conducted the first performance of the symphony in St Petersburg in early October 1893. He made some small revisions for the second performance, planned for later in the month, but before that could take place, Tchaikovsky had unfortunately died. This symphony uses the orchestra’s resources to the full, and the BBC Phil rose to the occasion very well.
Contributed by Martin Widden
Review: Leeds Piano Competition Winner gives first-class recital
The Great Hall concert on Thursday 1 November was a solo piano recital by Anna Tsybuleva, winner of the 2015 Leeds Piano Competition. The Leeds competition has become, in its short life of just over 50 years, one of the world’s foremost piano competitions, so an excellent performance was expected – and so it proved.
Leeds is not especially renowned as a centre of classical music. OK, Opera North is based there, and their operatic performances are excellent; but opera is another country entirely from piano recitals. How has Leeds managed to develop its solo piano competition to the point where it is known throughout the musical world and beyond, and can attract the most talented young performers to compete?
The competition was the initiative in 1963 of Fanny Waterman, a well-known Leeds piano teacher. In developing the competition, she was helped by her husband and also by Marion Thorpe, then Countess of Harewood. The support of many other people was clearly valuable; but what is obvious is that Fanny Waterman had the vision, and also, crucially, the drive to realise it – as is attested by the fact that, fifty-five years on, she is still active, now as a Life President of the competition.
The competition has a number of partners: the University of Leeds is the Principal Partner, together with Leeds City Council, Steinway and Sons, the BBC, the Hallé, the Oslo Philharmonic….the fact that this list is long and includes many eminent names from the world of classical music is a clear indication of how much effort has gone into building the competition up from scratch.
Anna Tsybuleva’s programme for the first half of the concert concentrated on the piano writing of Beethoven, in which she demonstrated the originality, even eccentricity, of Beethoven’s composing. His Fantasy op 77 is a quite extraordinary piece. It was unfortunate that there were almost no notes on the music in the programme – as it was, the printed programme provided a short biography of the pianist and a very short history of the Leeds competition, but almost nothing on the music being played.
In the second half, Tsybuleva played some of the major piano works of Chopin, in which her playing combined superb lightness of touch and clarity of articulation with a wonderful musicality. This was a first-rate recital in every way.
A final point of interest: Fiona Sinclair, Associate Director of Lancaster Arts and organiser of the Great Hall concerts since 2010, has recently been appointed Chief Executive of the Leeds Piano Competition from 2018 – in fact, she has already taken up her new post. In the past eight years, Fiona has contrived on a limited budget to put together interesting programmes played in the University’s Great Hall by fine performers. She will be missed from Lancaster: it will be interesting to see what she can do with ‘the Leeds’.
Contributed by Martin Widden
Contributed by Martin Widden
The composer J S Bach was very skilled at reusing pieces he had composed for other purposes, a practice he often adopted to enable him to meet the many tight deadlines he was set by his employers. But the St Matthew Passion is unusual among Bach’s major sacred works in having been composed as a whole, rather than being put together or adapted from music he had on the shelf. A devout Christian, Bach evidently regarded the composition of this work as a highly important matter in his life – it is tightly structured, and we are told that the manuscript is much more neatly finished than those for most of his works.
In these relatively faithless times, it fortunately isn’t necessary to be a Christian to appreciate the wonders of this work. The Passion is an account of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, a tale that includes capture, denial, betrayal, and appeal to the instincts of the crowd (as we know, they preferred Barabbas, a known crook, to Jesus, and Pilate washed his hands of their decision). It is a dramatic story, and Bach’s treatment of it exploits the dramatic potential of the story to the full.
The University’s 2018-19 international concert season opened with a performance of the St Matthew Passion by English Touring Opera, presented in Lancaster Priory Church. The principal soloists sang their parts from memory, without books or copies. They were thus able to move around the church engaging the audience with eye contact. As a member of the audience, it was sometimes a little unnerving to be addressed from a distance of only a metre or two by a powerful singer, especially if you weren’t quite expecting it, but the dramatic effect was very strong, and to have the piece performed by an opera company seemed completely appropriate.
The story is told by the Evangelist. This is a big part – very reasonably, it was shared among several singers – and as they sang in German, it was useful to have surtitles on screens at the front of the church. The part of Christ is always accompanied by sustained strings, representing his halo remarkably effectively. The chorus was formed of local singers. Putting all this together is a considerable logistical triumph, since there is little time for rehearsal with everyone present, but no hitches were detectable on the night.
English Touring Opera are performing the St Matthew Passion at some eleven locations around the country. To witness and be part of one of these performances was a great experience: we were fortunate that one of them was given here in Lancaster.
Review: Debussy 100
The present year, 2018, is being observed as the centenary of Debussy’s death right across the musical world. Why the fuss about Debussy?
Debussy’s music is unlike that of any previous composer. Indeed, the music critic Paul Griffiths has written that ‘if modern music may be said to have had a definite beginning, then it started with the flute melody, the opening of the Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy.’ This opening phrase, whilst not atonal, is not in any key; furthermore, the rhythm is not in any obvious metre, and the whole feeling is of improvisation and of freedom from the constraints of key and rhythm.
In the Prélude, Debussy conjures up very effectively not just the sultry afternoon heat in a wood, but also the thoughts of the faun in Mallarmé’s poem on which the music is based. He went further than any composer before him, and probably more successfully than later composers, in revealing in music the workings of the subconscious mind.
In the concert in the Great Hall on 22 March, students from the Royal Northern College of Music celebrated the life of Debussy by performing a varied programme of some of his lesser-known works. The concert opened with Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane, written for harp and strings – which was excellently played, particularly by the solo harp. This was followed by the Rhapsodie for alto saxophone, arranged for saxophone and ensemble.
Between these works, a chamber ensemble performed Erik Satie’s Sports et Divertissements, arranged by the composer Dominic Muldowney. This is a set of pieces written to accompany an album of drawings by the illustrator Charles Martin; each of the pieces has a corresponding short poem. At the side of the stage sat a narrator, a Rees-Mogg lookalike in a Norfolk jacket and cap, smoking a pipe. The whole thing was very droll.
The concert closed with arrangements for orchestra of four of Debussy’s Préludes, originally written for solo piano. Some of this was serious stuff – but some was surprisingly funny.
Reverting to L’après-midi d’un faune: there was something of a scandal in 1914 when Nijinsky danced to this music, because his dancing exposed the erotic undercurrent in the piece. Since then, many dancers, most notably Rudolf Nureyev, have done the same. Both before and since, other composers, notably Richard Wagner in his opera Tristan and Isolde, have attempted to portray in music sexual desire and even orgasm, but none of these attempts reaches into the subconscious as Debussy did. His music is unique. If anyone reading this is around in 2062, perhaps they could promote a celebration of the bicentenary of Debussy’s birth.
Contributed by Martin Widden
Review: Kathryn Stott
It is often asserted that the sound of a violin improves in a period when it is being played quite intensively. And not only the violin – similar claims are made for other stringed instruments. Such claims are widely believed by musicians, but although careful scientific tests have been done to examine the truth of them, unfortunately no one has managed to prove that such improvements actually occur.
A piano is a very different case, because every piano is a complex mechanism, which could suffer if it is not given some exercise. The University’s Steinway concert grand, which sits silent in the corner of the Great Hall more than 99% of the time, could undoubtedly benefit from being played more.
The Steinway was given plenty of exercise at the recital given on 1 March by the pianist Kathryn Stott. The three Danzas Argentinas by Ginastera (1916-1983) are percussive and highly original compositions, written by Argentina’s foremost composer when he was aged only 20 – the pianist clearly enjoyed playing these exuberant pieces. Another test for both pianist and the Steinway was provided by Percy Grainger’s arrangement of the love-duet between Sophie and Octavian, from Der Rosenkavalier, by Richard Strauss. As the programme note said, Grainger particularly admired Strauss’s music for its ‘sumptuous vulgarity’: there is no way to perform this music without luxuriating in this, and Kathryn Stott did so.
To prepare the audience’s palate for these excesses, she opened each half of her concert with two arrangements of works by Bach, the Siciliano arranged by Wilhelm Kempff from the second lute sonata, and the cantata Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, arranged by Myra Hess. These pieces are very far from vulgar, and Kathryn Stott played them excellently, demonstrating both her own versatility and that of the piano.
The arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring had been played by Hess herself in London’s National Gallery on 10 October 1939 in the first of the long series of lunchtime recitals she curated every weekday without fail throughout the Second World War, and beyond – a total of almost 2000 concerts spanning a period of more than six years. She was supported in this by Kenneth Clark, the then Director of the Gallery, and was created DBE by King George VI for her contribution to maintaining the morale of the people of London during the War. Incidentally, those concerts were very informal. There was no advance booking, and audience members were free to walk in and out as they pleased between movements, or indeed to stroll around, lean against the walls, or sit on the floor. And why not?
Contributed by Martin Widden.
Review: Kabantu at the Nuffield
Five young musicians in line across the stage of the Nuffield, one of them squatting over a bongo drum. This was Kabantu, the Manchester-based band that played in the Lancaster Arts Concert Series on 17 February.
As well as the drum, the line-up consisted of violin, cello, bass and guitar, all of whom played standing up – which for a cellist is a highly unusual thing to do. It’s achievable if, as here, the instrument is fitted with a long enough spike to raise it to a playable height. So: no chairs.
No music stands, either. The group plays from memory and/or by improvising, so they don’t need any copies.
Very little electronics on show either.
All this fits with the influence of busking on the group. Four of the five musicians met at the Royal Northern College of Music, where they were classically trained, but in this group they have extended their range into a much broader spectrum of styles. Their repertoire spans from Scottish traditional tunes, Bulgarian folk music, Israel, South Africa and beyond, performed with remarkable skill on their instruments, or by whistling, or in some cases by all five musicians singing excellently in close harmony.
It is unusual for the International Concert Series to feature what was in effect a fusion performance, but it made for a very enjoyable evening.
Review: Xue Fei Yang plays classical guitar
In her solo recital in the Great Hall on 8 February, the Chinese guitar virtuoso Xue Fei Yang chose a programme that gave her ample scope to demonstrate a wide range of techniques of playing the instrument. The earliest composition on the programme was the Suite in G minor for lute BWV995, by J S Bach – transcribed by the composer from his suite no 5 for solo cello, written around 1723. Bach’s transcription of his own suite succeeds very well on the guitar, even though the technique of sound production on a guitar or a lute – plucking the string, essentially – is completely different from that of playing the cello, in which a bow is nearly always used and legato can be achieved. Xue Fei Yang drew a remarkable variety of tone from her instrument, plucking the strings sometimes with her finger nails, sometimes with the flesh of her fingertips, and sometimes with a combination. As well as a slow and contemplative sarabande, the suite includes several faster dance movements: two gavottes, and a gigue as the final movement, which were played most fluently. Although Bach’s cello suites are written mostly for a sequence of single notes, he manages to imply the harmony so clearly that the listener is not troubled by there being just one note at a time. These are marvellous compositions for the cello, never bettered by later composers – and Xue Fei Yang performed the transcribed music very well.
She further showed her mastery of guitar technique in the Sword Dance by the contemporary Chinese composer Xu Chang-Jun. This is based on a poem by the poet Du Fu (712-770), who according to the concert programme is acclaimed by many as the Chinese Shakespeare.
In the second half of the concert, Xue Fei Yang played a series of short pieces, all but one of them by Spanish and Brazilian composers. These were most skilfully played, but it is less satisfying to listen to a set of short, unrelated pieces than it is to hear an extended work such as the suite she had played in the first half of the concert.
It must have been a testing evening for the soloist, who sat in the centre of the stage with just one small microphone in front of her. She used a hand-held microphone to introduce some of the pieces, but she seemed to have a cold, and, with her Chinese accent, this made much of what she said hard if not impossible to understand. If she was unwell, to play a brilliant solo concert for two hours, much of it from memory, was a remarkable achievement.
Contributed by Martin Widden.
Review: Scarlatti and Cage in the Great Hall
Domenico Scarlatti (born Naples in 1685, and so an exact contemporary of J S Bach) wrote over 500 sonatas for harpsichord, nearly all of them short and in just one movement of simple AABB form – two halves, each of them repeated. John Cage (1912-1992) also wrote short keyboard sonatas, also nearly all of AABB form, but only sixteen of them. They were all intended to be played on a ‘prepared’ piano, which entails placing screws and bolts between the strings, together with rubber rings, plastic strips and an eraser, all of whose positions are precisely specified. This produces some strange sonorities – in some cases a thud rather than a musical sound.
In the Great Hall on Thursday 26 October, the American pianist David Greilsammer performed an interesting programme in which eight Scarlatti sonatas were alternated with seven sonatas by Cage. The University’s two concert grand pianos were placed end to end on the Great Hall stage, with Greilsammer sitting on the piano stool between the two keyboards, so that when he had finished playing one sonata, he could swivel quickly round to the opposite keyboard and begin on the next sonata, by the other composer. The programme of fifteen sonatas was played without a break or an interval.
Scarlatti spent much of his active life in Portugal, where he was employed as the harpsichord teacher of Princess Maria Barbara. In spite of, or more likely because of, his musical isolation, his sonatas are fascinatingly quirky and distinctive. They would of course have been played on the harpsichord – the piano had not yet been invented. When Greilsammer entered and positioned himself on the stool, the lights were dimmed to the point where it was impossible to read the programme, which rather defeated the object of having it.
He opened the first Scarlatti sonata playing ppp – so quietly that some of the notes barely spoke at all. Then he suddenly switched to playing extremely loudly. What was the point of these extreme contrasts? It was unclear, but they were very unsettling. Of course, if the Scarlatti sonatas had been played on a harpsichord, in which the strings are plucked rather than struck by hammers as in a piano, such contrasts would not have been possible. This would have been more appropriate. It would also have been impossible to open so very quietly.
The Cage sonatas were a complete contrast. Although completely written out, they sounded quite free, and of course their genre is totally different from the sonatas by Scarlatti. Greilsammer seemed more at home in this modern American music than in the Scarlatti sonatas, where his idiosyncratic performance seemed to this critic too self-indulgent.
Having said this, it was an interesting recital, no doubt introducing many members of the audience to Cage’s music.
Contributed by Martin Widden.
By Martin Widden
It was once the convention that a concert would begin with a work by a composer from early times; the programme would then move chronologically through pieces by successively more recent composers. A concert by a string quartet might open with a quartet by Haydn (1732-1809), the composer who virtually invented the genre. Next might come a quartet by Beethoven (1770-1827), and the concert might perhaps close with a piece by Dvorak (1841-1904).
Not so the programmes put together by the Brodsky quartet: in their Great Hall concert on 19 October, they rejected the obvious chronological order, opening their performance with a new work they had commissioned from the Japanese composer Karen Tanaka, born in 1961. This was followed by the 4th quartet by Shostakovich. Written in 1949, while Stalin was still in power, the quartet takes a considerable risk by including Jewish themes, or at least music that is Jewish in character. Shostakovich’s music had recently been denounced, and he had been dismissed from his post as professor at the Moscow Conservatory, so he was extremely hard up. Despite this, the quartet evokes the horrors experienced by the Jewish people during the Second World War. The players gave it their all, to the extent that the leader broke a string during the performance. He returned to the stage after an absence of less than a minute; remarkably, the players carried on as if nothing had happened. The quartet was not performed until 1953, after Stalin’s death.
In the second half of the concert the players focused on a particular musical form: the fugue. (For those unfamiliar with this form, a fugue is based on a simple theme – the subject (a single line of notes), which is played at the outset. This subject theme then enters successively at different pitches, and all are developed together with further entries, so that the whole becomes a fascinating and complex work.)
Towards the end of his life, J S Bach composed The Art of Fugue, demonstrating the range of possibilities of composing in this form, and also his own skill at composing in the genre. This is pure music, which can be performed on any instrument or group of instruments, provided it lies within their range of pitch. The Brodsky quartet played two pieces from The Art of Fugue in their concert, showing convincingly that the string quartet is an excellent medium for performing this music.
They followed this with a fugue for string quartet by Mendelssohn, a brilliant demonstration of his skill as a composer for this group of instruments.
They concluded their concert with a performance of the Grosse Fuge opus 133 by Beethoven, originally composed as the finale of his opus 130 quartet. As its title suggests, it is a massive work, taking some 17 minutes to play. The publisher persuaded Beethoven to compose a shorter and less demanding movement as the conclusion of this quartet, which was published as opus 130. But the original fugal movement, now known as opus 133, remains a towering achievement.
This concluded a fascinating concert: excellently played by the Brodsky quartet, and a great start to the 2017-18 Great Hall concert season.