Posts Tagged ‘Marc-André Hamelin’

2014 foursomes

December 27, 2014

For the last few years I’ve looked back at my cultural year in groups of three. This year, after much attempted crowbarring of things into categories where they wouldn’t fit, I’ve decided to upgrade to fours.

Top 4 books
I bought a Kindle in January for the ostensible purpose of reading lots of out-of-copyright Wodehouse for free, but the first thing I read on it was The Pickwick Papers. I get tired of saying it, but what a phenomenal comic writer Dickens was, even by his mid-20s when this was written. It’s probably his funniest book. Drunken Pickwick:

Mr. Pickwick, with his hands in his pockets and his hat cocked completely over his left eye, was leaning against the dresser, shaking his head from side to side, and producing a constant succession of the blandest and most benevolent smiles without being moved thereunto by any discernible cause or pretence whatsoever.

Also, I cannot but approve of a book that features the pie so prominently. John Williams’ recently rediscovered novel Stoner was a book I found absolutely compelling and exhilarating. Like Middlemarch, it seems to point to the possibility of heroism even in a small and unspectacular life (that means mine or yours). Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles was a recommendation from a friend, a historical novel about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus told in unadorned but poetic language. I found it disarmingly moving and erotic. Late in the year, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman, another recommendation from another friend, which I fell in love with entirely. It’s a book of essays about transgender-related issues, and is so wise and smart and generous that it really ought to be read by anyone with the slightest interest in humanity, let alone gender identity.

Top 4 albums (classical)
One of my happiest discoveries of recent years has been the early French chanson, so I was pleased to get for my birthday, after a moderate amount of hinting, the Consort of Musicke’s recording of the 1470s Chansonnier Cordiforme, which is full of treasures. The recording of Maria João Pires and Antonio Meneses’ Wigmore Hall Recital became a favourite quickly, an unimpeachable programme of Schubert, Brahms and Mendelssohn performed with the utmost musicality. Avi Avital’s mandolin disc Between Worlds took me by surprise. The vibrancy of his playing in something like the Bartók Romanian Folk Dances is irresistible. I also started exploring Chabrier’s orchestral music, and especially the recordings of Paul Paray, which sound as fresh now as they did decades ago. (Late in the year a friend lent me Hans Gál’s Symphony No. 2, a beautiful piece that might make next year’s list.)

Between Worlds

Top 4 albums (other)
I don’t buy film soundtracks often, but I made an exception earlier this year for Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Ghost and Mrs Muir. It was one of Herrmann’s favourites, and it’s one of mine, as evocative of the sea in its way as Britten’s Peter Grimes. In October I sang the role of God in a performance of Joseph Horovitz’s Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo, which gave me a good excuse to revisit the King’s Singers recording for the first time in well over 20 years. Tremendous fun, as is the coupling, Chris Hazell’s Holy Moses, which as a child I wasn’t so keen on. I suppose I should have been listening to Joni Mitchell for ages, shouldn’t I, but it wasn’t until this year that I discovered Blue. It’s pretty good, isn’t it. But the most notable new release of the year, it’s not particularly controversial to say, is Dave Cooke’s ChuckleVision, Vol. 1. It contains music from the programme’s golden age (early ’90s, long before the Chucks started hanging out with Tinchy Stryder) and is fabulous. So many memories. A second volume is out, but it won’t be able to compete with this one.

Top 4 films
I’ve written elsewhere about my cinemagoing, but what of the films I watched on TV or DVD? It’s hard to whittle it down to four, but here goes: Double Indemnity, about which more or less everything is unimprovable upon, from the Chandler/Wilder script through the performances of MacMurray, Stanwyck and Robinson to the Rózsa score; Jean Delannoy’s 1964 film of Les Amitiés Particulières, a sensitive adaptation of Roger Peyrefitte’s novel, true to the spirit of the book and including some imaginative additions (a scene where the two protagonists play a Bach invention on the piano remains in the mind); Now, Voyager, powerful in spite (or because) of its sentimentality, with captivating performances by Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, and at its heart the pleasing idea that we redeem each other; and Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, a desperately tender drama set in Tokyo about the friendship between a student and a retired professor. The ending is jarring, but Kiarostami’s innate humanity is thrilling.

Les Amitiés Particulières

Top 4 student
I’ve been to some great student productions this year. A couple of Sondheims stand out, as usual: firstly a Cambridge production (my first) of Into the Woods at the ADC in March. The first night had a few techie problems, but by the time I went again towards the end of the run it had become something very beautiful indeed. At the start of May I made a pilgrimage to Brentford to see graduating students of the London College of Music do Merrily We Roll Along, where Claire Hutchinson’s Mary Flynn was the standout in an impressive cast. A CUOS/BATS production of Britten’s Albert Herring at Queens’ College in November was exemplary in every particular (some great production photos here); and later that month, an exciting bilingual version of Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve at the Corpus Playroom, which had some dazzlingly virtuosic performances. I’m pretty lucky to live in Cambridge.

Into the Woods

Top 4 live music
The year started on a high with an intriguing recital by Anthony Marwood, Martin Fröst and Marc-André Hamelin at the Wigmore Hall. The programme of works for violin, clarinet and piano in various permutations felt uneasy, but Fröst’s Debussy and Poulenc have stayed in my mind vividly. What a physical performer he is. It was very special to see the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing Mozart’s C Minor Mass in the chapel, a transcendent experience. The finest classical concert I attended this year was at the Usher Hall during the Edinburgh Festival, where I saw András Schiff (now Sir András) playing Beethoven, Bartók, Janáček and Schubert. I hadn’t seen him play live before; his performance seemed utterly devoid of ego, entirely at the service of the music, as the ideal performance should be. And at the end of June, Eels at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. The best I’ve seen them, I think, a sparkly and magical night.

Top 4 theatre
Two of the things I saw last year were so good that they’re being revived in the New Year, hooray! so I will be able to go again: Mr Swallow: The Musical, which I saw at the Pleasance in Edinburgh, Nick Mohammed’s ego-driven Dracula musical dress rehearsal (which is even more fun than that sounds); and My Night With Reg at the Donmar Warehouse, a flawless production of a play that has grown in stature in the 20 years since it was written. Like Reg, Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, which I saw when it came to Cambridge, is a play that might have dated badly, it is so of its time (despite the period setting), but it seemed as fresh as ever, and funnier than the film. Lastly, just a few days ago, Jamie Lloyd’s brilliantly lurid Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the first production I’ve seen to make some sense of the musical. Jamie Parker’s Balladeer and Andy Nyman’s Guiteau were among the standout performances.

Mr Swallow

Here’s hoping for a 2015 as busy and happy as this year has been. See you then!



February 17, 2014

My weekend has been piano recital-heavy, not that I would have wanted it any other way. On Saturday I saw Piotr Anderszewski at Peterhouse in Cambridge, and last night I saw Yuja Wang at the Barbican. You can currently listen to the latter recital here. Two very different recitals, but I came away from each one thinking about the same thing: the encores.

Anderszewski gave two, both by Schumann — ‘Einsame Blumen’ from Waldszenen and the Novelette, op. 21 no. 8. Wang gave five (five!) — a transcription of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, elephantine and spangly by turns, Prokofiev’s op. 11 Toccata, Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, op. 64 no. 2, the Bizet-Horowitz Carmen Variations, and finally ‘Tea for Two’, after Art Tatum. Tatum is one of those pianists it is foolhardy to try and imitate, but it was a performance of winning insouciance.

What is an encore? It’s a treat for the audience, but it’s more than that. It’s a reflection on the music that has gone before. Anderszewski’s encores, though fun, proceeded naturally from a serious programme of Bach, Beethoven and Janáček. Wang’s encores were more of a mongrel selection, a mixture of the sweet and the fiendish, as I suspect she is herself.

Recognition can be an important part of the effect of an encore. I remember a Queen Elizabeth Hall recital by Marc-André Hamelin seven years ago in which the encore, his own left-hand study after Tchaikovsky, was the most affecting piece for being unfamiliar, unlike the well known Schubert and Beethoven sonatas that formed his programme. By and large, though, the audience wants to hear something it knows. With Yuja Wang’s Rachmaninov, I could tell from the first triad what was to come, and smiled. When she got to the Prokofiev, I felt something else — a thrill, both because it’s such an exciting piece, and because I knew what it was in spite of its relative obscurity. I won’t pretend I don’t like my knowledge of music to be flattered. It’s shallow, I know. Sadly nobody asked me afterwards if I knew what it was. I did look around, I promise, but they just weren’t biting.

The encore that really blew me away was Anderszewski’s ‘Einsame Blumen’. It was just so unexpected, so perfect, in that moment. It’s a piece I play, but hadn’t for years. I almost shuddered as he played the first notes. It had a physical effect. But this reaction is particular to me. If I’d been a boy who had been practising the piece for the last month, I might reasonably have felt a little different.

Now, as usual, to the diaries of Alan Bennett.

26 August, 1999.
Switch on the radio after supper and catch most of Elgar’s First Symphony, music which invariably transports me back to boyhood and walking up Headingley Lane on a summer evening after a concert in Leeds Town Hall. The evocative power of music is, I suppose, greatest when heard in live performance. This is a recording but it still casts a spell because I have come on it by accident. Had I put on the recording myself the spell would have been nowhere near as powerful because self-induced. Why this should be I can’t think, though doubtless Proust would know.

Given how music can have such a strong effect on us when we don’t expect it, why not have mystery recitals? Pianists of the calibre of Anderszewski and Wang at any rate could make a go of it, given that people would queue up to hear them play Chopsticks. Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were famously given their premiere at a society concert in which all the music was unidentified. Although it seems quintessentially Ravellian to the modern listener, the audience then were by no means unanimous in their guesses as to the identity of the composer. The names suggested included Satie, Koechlin, d’Indy and Kodály.

Piotr Anderszewski’s recital was not entirely unlike that one, in that the programme originally advertised consisted of Schumann, Bartók, Szymanowski and Schubert. Most of the audience, I suspect, turned up expecting, hoping even, to hear that music. Was it a crushing blow to find that the entire programme had been changed? No, and to some it may have been a joy to find they had to approach the concert afresh.

The only encore I didn’t recognise was Anderszewski’s second, the lengthy Schumann Novelette. A frustration? No, a challenge! I determined the composer, then tried to work out the piece. A set of character pieces I didn’t know, perhaps? Spotify did the rest in about five minutes. A triumph for the internet.

2011 threesomes

January 3, 2012

The New Year is the signal for a bit of meme time around here. I like the meme – it’s a socially sanctioned excuse for theft. I stole this idea from a post on Becca’s Blog a year ago. So, what was my 2011 like, in various things?

Top 3 books
It was a pretty decent reading year. One book stands out among all the others, and that is Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which I began reading on holiday, sitting in Cologne Cathedral while I waited for an organ recital by Martin Baker to begin, and finished back in the UK. An utterly engrossing, lovable book. Perhaps I should investigate the family saga further in 2012. John Cheever’s Falconer was another highlight – a short novel about a university professor coping with life in prison. Like nothing I’ve read before, and Cheever is a writer with a magnificent eye for detail. On an arguably less exalted level – but no less wonderful – are Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books, all seven of which I devoured in the space of a few months in the middle of the year. His humanity and tolerance are infectious.

Top 3 CDs
Of the year’s new releases, I listened to The Prince Consort’s recording of Brahms’ Liebeslieder-Walzer and Stephen Hough’s Other Love Songs a lot. I was fortunate to be at the premiere of the Hough in the summer, and it is a work I have grown to love. Simon Standage’s Mozart violin concerti with the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood have reminded me of the beauty of this music. I also found Christian Bruhn’s Timm Thaler soundtrack tremendous fun.

Top 3 films
I watched a titanic number of films last year (not Titanic; I am not mad). I rarely feel in the mood for watching Bergman, but I found it was his films that impressed me most of all. A genius. The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, but most of all Winter Light. I’ve been watching Fanny and Alexander over the New Year, for the first time in about ten years, and am enjoying being dazzled by it anew. Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp struck me as a great masterpiece, Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook both quite irresistible, and I’m delighted to hear that there is a new print being released in cinemas in a few months’ time. And I might name any of several others as my third film, but for the sake of variety let’s say Before Sunrise, which is a lovely film if you’re of a romantic disposition. (I saw a handful of brilliant new films at the cinema too, so for an alternative three try The King’s Speech, The Guard and Tomboy.)

Top 3 live music
It was a thrill seeing Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Parsifal at ENO in February. It’s only recently that I’ve started going to see Wagner live, and Parsifal is perhaps my favourite opera. John Tomlinson was a superb Gurnemanz, and I marvelled at the economy of the scoring. It exposes as misguided the popular conception of Wagner as sprawling and overblown. Love Stephen Hough at the Wigmore though I did, I think Marc-André Hamelin provided my piano recital of the year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, playing Haydn, Schumann, Wolpe, Debussy and, as his barnstorming finale, Liszt’s Reminiscences de Norma in the composer’s bicentenary year. And last of all, Pulp at Wireless. Jarvis has still got it.

Top 3 theatre
I’m including musicals and comedy, so there’s only one echt play, and even that’s not particularly echt – namely Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which I saw just before Christmas. A breathtaking thing to behold, and quite the most I’ve enjoyed myself in any theatre, perhaps anywhere ever. A rollercoaster, and wrong to single out individual performances in a production so delicious in every aspect (not least its superb music), but I must say I thought Oliver Chris particularly wonderful, funnier than I’ve ever known him before, not to mention James Corden, Tom Edden, Trevor Laird, Daniel Rigby, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. My trip to Chichester to see the new production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was a great treat, the cast superb (in spite of some doubts about Michael Ball), and I will make a point of revisiting it in London this year. And thirdly, Jonny Sweet’s lovely solo show, Let’s All Just Have Some Fun (and Learn Something, for Once), which I saw at the Soho Theatre in January. He stands at the front giving the audience bear hugs as they come in; one cannot but love the man.

Lastly, I must add another happy discovery, which has been on the periphery of my consciousness for a while but which I only began to pay attention to this year, John Finnemore’s radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. I think its central cast of four – Finnemore, Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Allam and Stephanie Cole – must be just about the strongest and most likeable since Rising Damp. A fourth series has just been commissioned. There is no end to Finnemore’s talents, apparently. He also wrote an excellent sketch show for Radio 4, and drew a picture a day on his blog, Forget What Did, as a sort of Advent calendar last month. You owe it to yourself to have a look.

Here’s hoping 2012 is similarly happy, for me and for all of you!

Marc-André Hamelin at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

April 13, 2011

I’m just back from seeing Marc-André Hamelin in recital, and a little write-up feels necessary.

The last time I saw him was, if not a damp squib exactly, then not the rollercoaster ride I’d been expecting. I’m amazed to find it was more than four years ago, in February 2007, also at the QEH. He played three late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert. Incontrovertibly some of the greatest music ever written, but just too earnest a programme for my taste, it turned out. Tonight promised to be more my kind of thing, and looked more like a typical Hamelin programme – Haydn, Schumann, Wolpe, Debussy and Liszt.

Robert Schumann

It was Carnaval that was the catalyst for my buying the ticket, as if I needed any persuading to see this mercurial man in concert once more. I’d heard it live once before, at the Bath Festival about 10 years ago, and against my expectations at that. Richard Goode had been taken ill, and so John Lill stepped heroically into his shoes with a programme of Schumann and Chopin. I didn’t know the piece, and didn’t greatly enjoy it, which probably wasn’t helped by my sitting at the back of a long room with no tiered seating, meaning I could see nothing whatsoever.

I’m not surprised I didn’t get it when I was a teenager. I think Carnaval is a piece that rewards close analytical study exponentially. The more one comes to understand its ingenious construction, particularly in terms of melody, the more one comes to appreciate and love it. In the years since that first recital, I have studied it fairly meticulously and written dodgy university essays on it, and I continue to learn new things about it. I hadn’t quite realised until tonight, though, what a feat of endurance a performance of it must be. Any pianist is likely to require time to recover after playing it through, which may account for its position immediately before the interval in Hamelin’s programme.

Alfred Cortot

At times in the Schumann and the Haydn that preceded it, I felt some slight concerns about tempi, specifically to do with undue acceleration within fast passages. Carnaval in particular almost goads the performer into playing as fast as possible, and the failure of any pianist to keep this temptation in check can make all the difference between a phrase being dashed off with élan and thrown in the dustbin. Hamelin sailed close to the wind here, but by and large got away with it. He gave the most delightful performance of ‘A.S.C.H-S.C.H.A (Lettres dansantes)’ I can imagine, and his way of coaxing out the melody at the start of ‘Réplique’ made me think of Cortot, though with more right notes.

(Incidentally, this expectation of note-perfection from professional classical musicians in live performance is quite a recent development, and not one I am entirely in sympathy with. One risks losing sight of the wood for the trees if one focuses solely on the notes. Hamelin hit a few bum notes tonight, but they didn’t affect the overall impression his performance made. Listen to Cortot and Thibaud’s 80-year-old recording of the Franck violin sonata. No musician today would dream of releasing a record of such a performance. There are splashes all over the place, but their sheer musicianship astonishes, and there is no recording of the piece I think more highly of. Read Robert Philip’s book Performing Music in the Age of Recording – it’s fascinating on how the growth of recorded sound has altered the listener’s expectations over the past century.)

Marc-André Hamelin

If I had reservations about the first half, the second was quite staggering. I love that Hamelin persists in programming music by composers who are not simply difficult but also obscure alongside the mainstream canon. The Passacaglia from Stefan Wolpe’s op. 23 set of serialist pieces is something I am delighted to have been introduced to. It recalls the people you would expect it to – Schoenberg above all, perhaps, though Wolpe’s textures are fuller than those in Schoenberg’s piano music, and if there was one single piece it brought to mind it was Poulenc’s delicious Thème Varié, itself a theme and variations rather than a passacaglia, but sharing with the Wolpe certain structural similarities in its juxtaposition of different dance-like movements, and a sudden disarming tenderness that one expects from Poulenc but maybe doesn’t from Wolpe.

Three Debussy preludes followed in dazzling performances – ‘La Puerta del Vino’, ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’. I know the first book of preludes well, but not the second, which is quite inexcusable. Time to get properly acquainted with my copy of the Steven Osborne recording, I think.

And then it was Liszt time. Every pianist feels compelled to play Liszt this year, but Hamelin plays it constantly anyway. If you have a spare 12 minutes, have a look at this (wow). Tonight, however, it was the Reminiscences de Norma. Of Liszt’s many suits, one of my favourites is as a transcriber and paraphraser, and this is the ideal source material for the Liszt treatment. No offence to Bellini fans, but Liszt can only make it better – and does. Though I was taken aback to hear a primitive version of the Last of the Summer Wine theme tune early on. Maybe Hazlehurst wasn’t the visionary genius we all thought he was. This was the sort of performance that makes one realise why Hamelin is described so often not as a virtuoso but as a super-virtuoso, though I’m sure it’s an appellation he shuns. My pulse quickened, and I found myself gasping involuntarily, not quite able to believe what was going on before my eyes.

After a piece like that, what could anyone play for an encore? His choice could not have been more perfect. I heard the first couple of notes and sank with joy deep into my seat. It was this.

Anyway, not a bad night, all in all. And so to bed.