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Monday, 27 October 2014

La Bretagna all'Italiana - or La Serenissima in Cambridge (Part I)

A review of La Serenissima's concert, performing with Mhairi Lawson at Trinity College, Cambridge

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


27 October

This (over)lengthy review is of a Cambridge Early Music concert given by La Serenissima, with soprano Mhairi Lawson, in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, on Monday 13 October

The programme for the evening was entitled La Bretagna all’Italiana, and La Serenissima (@LaSerenissimaUK) was led (and introduced), as ever, by violinist Adrian Chandler (@AdeSerenissima), with Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Gareth Deats (cello), Robert Howarth (harpsichord), and Eligio Quinteiro (theorbo) – the ensemble’s full complement of players, on which Adrian calls for Vivaldi concerti and the like, is given on the beautifully presented web-site, at http://laserenissima.co.uk/about/*


Introductory

For the purposes of this review (NB This gushing overdue posting is just for the first half), Adrian Chandler is styled ‘Adrian’, because one simply must do so after having been to The Eagle on a couple of occasions with Gareth (and Robert ?) and him…


The first of which was after those three, as a trio, gave their Pisendel recital during one Cambridge Summer Music Festival, material founded in the original ‘Per Monsieur Pisendel’ album (which now has a tempting-looking sequel – Santa, please note !) : an intriguing story, fascinatingly told by Adrian between the pieces (and in the CD booklet), of the expert violinist who turned composer with the help of Antonio Vivaldi, one Johann Georg Pisendel, who rightly deserves – as La Serenissima believes – to be better known.



On that occasion, La Serenissima was not, as it has sometimes done, giving an all-Vivaldi performance (though he is ever present), and that was a link with this recent Cambridge recital – along with Adrian’s continuing search for rarities, star works by other composer / violinists (Pisendel being but one) that we may not otherwise (tend to) hear.


Opening half

Programme

1. Due Canzoni da Battello ~ Anon. (c. 1730)

2. Sonata Scozzese ~ Francesco Maria Veracini (1690–1768)

3. A Scots Cantata ~ William Boyce (1711–1779)

4. Sonata II in D Major (‘Manchester’), RV. 12 ~ Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)


Mhairi Lawson began by singing two (1) Canzoni da Battello – and two further ones began the Closing half (write-up in progress), all thought to date to around 1730. At this time (and from the late seventh century until 1797), Venice was still a Republic : Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia – or just La Serenissima, from where the band takes its name**.

In the solo violin introduction to Si la gondola avere, Adrian brought out a sweetness of tone, which heralded richness in Mhairi’s voice, itself a contrast to the robust, yet delicate theorbo, before a close with violin again. In the second piece, Cara Nina el bon to sesto, Mhairi gave us more lightness, and the overall impression, with theorbo accompaniment, was less formal than in the opening song.


Neither of these Canzoni is attributed (please see next paragraph), and they typically have texts in Venetian dialect (as Adrian tells us in his programme-notes). Since he is necessarily mentally and historically rooted in Venice, Adrian provided much detail in the programme, but one also wanted to heed these short numbers – and their lyrics, fleeting as the may-fly, for there was little or none of the ruminative word-setting that we know from Handel or Bach. (And one knew that one could read over his notes later, in serene tranquillity !)


Afterwards, Adrian told us that these pieces survive, both in collections in manuscript form (in libraries, music colleges, etc.), and because they made their way into three volumes published, in London, by John Walsh (in the 1740s). (The notes tell us that there are occasional, usually sole, compositions that give Hasse, Pergolesi or Lampugani as their author.)


Adrian introduced the (2) Sonata Scozzese by outlining how Veracini migrated to London from Florence in the 1730s, and, through playing in the Entr’acte of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, came to write this piece, with its Scotch snaps, and its variations on Tweeside.

Scored for the quartet of instrumentalists, the sonata is led by the violin (rather than its having a solo part), and opens with what sounds like Scottish intonation, before becoming more Italianate – quite an extended movement, reminiscent of the dance.

Formally, there is an Adagio between the Allegro moderatamente and the final Scozzese, but it appeared to be run together with the latter, and was – not least in comparison with the Allegro – fairly brief. The Scozzese is marked Un poco andante e affettuoso – Largo – Un poco andante e affettuoso :

Before the Scots tune was stated, the movement was characterized by deft down-strokes in, and hesitancy about, the violin-writing, and it then developed with the feel of ‘The Pipes’, and with the bow skating on Adrian’s strings. In the Largo section, a little akin to that in Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 4 in F Minor***, Op. 8 (RV 297, ‘Inverno’ (‘Winter’)), there was an inward, reflective mood given by the solo violin, before we moved back to the opening theme proper at the work’s close.

In and through hearing these pieces, and seeing – if quick enough – Adrian’s agile finger- and bow-work, we witnessed how a variety of techniques and effects for violin are part of this repertoire. As, in different ways, no doubt Béla Bartók places demands on his soloist in, say, his Violin Concerto No. 2 (BB 117) – or Johann Sebastian Bach in his Partita No. 3 in C Major (whose works in this set of Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001–1006, partly inspired Bartók’s own Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117, BB 124). However, of course, delving around in and then interpreting eighteenth-century (or earlier ?) treatises on string-playing is all part of the groundwork for what we hear in performance…


Mhairi stepped up again from sitting at the side of the chapel for Boyce’s (3) A Scots Cantata – maybe, when Tom Stoppard was giving us Vienna in a craze for things Scots in his adaptation On the Razzle, that seemed a little unlikely (albeit a century later, in 1842). However, it is clear from what is in this programme that something Caledonian was afoot in London in the first half of the eighteenth century****, which the local and (as Adrian puts it) ‘imported’ composers strove to serve.

Having duly referenced the recent vote ‘north of the border’, Adrian observed that the form is essentially recitative / aria – twice. Although being Scottish may have made Mhairi’s construing her text easier, it was the least of her qualifications to perform this piece when singers’ meat and drink is conveying meaning through a tongue that is likely to be unfamiliar to much of the audience – and many may relish settings of, for example (for this is not), Burns without being able to understand every nuance.

Even so, these central words (set in the second section of recitative), probably deliberately, pose no problem to following what is happening :

These tender notes did a’ her pity move, with melting heart she listened to the boy;
o’ercome she smil’d and promis’d him her love; he in return thus sang his rising joy.


Jeanny’s reaction, then, is the pivotal moment, the impetus for Jonny’s vigorous rejoicing in the second aria, where the scoring for voice dwelt on the phrase ‘dear enchanting bliss’ as the undulating accompaniment held the tune.


Regarding why the work that closed the first half, Vivaldi’s (4) Sonata for Violin and Continuo, RV 12, is numbered amongst what are called The ‘Manchester’ Sonatas, Adrian was quick to say that Vivaldi never came to England, but that the third largest collection in the world has ended up in that city, in the Henry Watson Library (for reasons that his notes and he went into…).

It opened tenderly, with a Preludio – Largo, but became spiky and quasi-military, before seeming to resemble the counter-tenor aria ‘Erbarme dich’ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion***** (BWV 244). Next, the Corrente – Allegro, full of energy from the off, with accents and a rising scale. Later, a falling figure and highly fluid solo writing in this movement left one feeling full of excitable emotion.

The following Giga – Allgero repeated and developed its initial phrase, progressing a bit as an eight-bar blues might. Yet what was most noticeable, other than Vivaldi’s typical employment of a driving violin style, was his use of ornament and emphasis. Throughout the movement, Gareth and Adrian were in visual interplay to give and receive cues, a noticeable feature of the close ensemble of La Serenissima (as well as seeing pleasure shared on Gareth’s face in reaction to some turn, or phrasing).

To close, the Gavotta – Presto was firmly in il prete rosso’s rhythmic style, and seemed to revisit the theme from the first movement. Not beyond being crafty with our expectations, and after laying a false trail as to where he was going, Vivaldi used the note that he had set up to springboard a coda in conclusion of the piece.


Audience reception and interval

Music this good (score and playing) is infectious ! One need not just have judged the effect of this performance by the applause, for the CD stall – with Adrian taking almost no break before signing – was very busy, and with an impressive range of titles (at least one per year since the group started).

Adrian was heard to say about a very good relationship with Avie Records, and that, in almost all cases, La Serenissima itself owns rights to the recordings, and can thus keep them in circulation (i.e. it could prevent titles being deleted).

Some time soonish, a companion posting will attempt to complete a write-up of the second half without being so novelistic...


End-notes

* Through elision, a URL that looks for all the world, on a quick glance, as though it is for some dubious suppository that involves lasers ?!

** Unless one has been there, it is hard to describe how glorious it is.

*** From, of course, a set of twelve concerti in all, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention), Op. 8 – of which, Concerto No. 7 in D Minor, RV 242, is known as Per Pisendel.

**** From the Internet, it seems that Boyce was not alone in setting this material, for we have one Signior Lorenzo Bocchi’s composition, ‘The Tune after an Italian Manner’.

***** Asked in the interval, Adrian could not place Ebarme dich (which one dared not try to hum / whistle), but said that it must be coincidence, on the basis that he understands that Bach did not know the Vivaldi piece.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Virunga (2014) Q&A with director Orlando von Einsiedel (@virungamovie)

Virunga (2014) Q&A with director Orlando von Einsiedel

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


22 October (updated 24 October, and link added to @virungamovie's Facebook Q&A)

* Inevitably, contains 'spoilers' (if you can have them with a documentary...) *

Virunga (2014) Q&A with director Orlando von Einsiedel


An account of when Virunga (2014) came to The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse) for a Q&A with its director Orlando von Einsiedel, hosted by your very own Agent Apsley (@THEAGENTAPSLEY), on Sunday 12 October 2014




Prologue

To get a better idea of the appearance of the film (than, otherwise, on a simple 15.6” laptop screen), the Marketing Manager of The Arts Picturehouse (APH / @CamPicturehouse) cudgelled his 50” Internet-connected t.v. into displaying it (via that private Vimeo link) so that The Agent and he could watch in preparation.

Then, for various reasons (not worth going into), the copy of Virunga (2014) that needed to be screened had to come by the agency of Orlando von Einsiedel, its director, when he arrived on Sunday afternoon… Yet, thanks to the skill and dedication of APH’s wizard / chief projectionist, Joe Delaney, this impediment in no way stopped the film looking stunning in Screen 3 (at Festival Central) in a very short time !




As will be seen, there had been some build-up on Splatter, which may have helped account for a very pleasing turn-out at APH, not least for a Sunday matinee.


Introductory matter

After a convoluted greeting, involving how the audience had forsaken the outside to come inside to see more of the outside, we started with a mention of other recent films to consider, also either set in or relating to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and three of which had screened at Cambridge Film Festival (@camfilmfest / #CamFF) :

* Blood in the Mobile (2010)

* War Witch (2012) (it won the audience award in 2012 for best feature film)

* Black Africa, White Marble (2012) (which was the winner of the audience award in 2013 for best documentary)

* Sixteen (2013) (seen at Bath Film Festival* (since when, pleasingly, more than 100 page-views))


There was, just as importantly, an exhortation – since, as was stressed, we were watching a film in a cinema – to look at it for its cinematic qualities, and to ask questions on those first (before turning to substance or content). In other words, aspects such as feel, look, editing / cutting, camerawork, music ahead of what Virunga is about…

If for no better reason than that many a documentary’s Q&A can be prone to rush away with discussing whether what the film ‘presents to us’ is right or wrong**, rather than considering how it conveys its messages – as a product in the often highly constructed medium of film. (One recent example (at APH) was that for Return to Homs (2013), which skatingly considered this question in the host’s initial enquiries, but scarcely went near it again [whereas The Agent, for one, thought it a highly relevant one].)


Getting back to that Tweet about Hollywood now, the way in which the film builds on – and has the appearance of – a film drama had partly been where the injunction to look at the elements of its construction started. As a friend, who had been at the screening, later said :

I thought it was helpful getting people to think about ‘form’ before watching, as the content was so emotive.
[£10 to him for saying that !]


In fact, that motive had not been consciously identified as a reason for approaching the Q&A in this way, but – as it is usually part of film-making to set out ‘to say something’ – it had certainly been inherent : a matter of not getting carried away with the What before considering the How – and the Why.


Opening business

Over the closing titles, the song ‘We Will Not Go’ (music and lyrics by J. Ralph) is reprised, which is excellently performed by Salif Keita, Youssou Ndour and Fally Ipupa (along with, according to IMDb, J. Ralph ?) :

The opening question – directed to the audience, not to Orlando (but with his agreement, as the song had only recently been recorded) – was whether they had liked it, and they indicated that they had. (As to the other films, when this was next checked, only a couple of people had seen them in each case.)

Orlando was then keenly welcomed back to the front, and began by outlining how he had come to make the film (his first of feature length), essentially summed up in this quotation (taken from IMDb, and whose latter part was quoted later in the Q&A) :

The thrust of the project was to try to tell the story of the rebirth of the eastern Congo because there'd been a period of stability for a few years, and I came across the story of the park's brave rangers. And I thought their story was a sort of metaphor for the wider rebirth of the region. Within a few weeks this new civil war started, and I found out about the oil discovery. So I ended up making a very different film.


As Orlando came on to tell us, he had been aware of those films from Congo (which had come to Cambridge at Film Festival time), and had wanted to be able to say something different about the country and its situation. Yet, as he went on to say, just as the process of making / editing a film changes what it is or could be (please see next paragraph), so had events since they had arrived on the ground in 2012.


Form

As to style, Orlando was asked first about ‘the history of suppression and exploitation’ (a description with which he had agreed), which is succinctly summarized in footage and facts that are presented near the start of Virunga***. We learnt that the summary had not always been part of the film, but that it had been found essential, because, without it, people later proved not to be following what was going on.

The tick-over of that summary, with its teleprinter-style captions / titles, seems to set the pace and feel for the film, so Orlando was asked whether that aspect of how it looked had always been part of the conception of how it would appear, or only arrived at in editing. (Before the Q&A, it had been established that it was quite consciously a form of presentation that one might see, say, in the Bourne films.)




Orlando explained that there had been a desire to maintain interest, so that people would be engaged to watch, and that a drama editor [Masahiro Hirakubo] had especially been brought in to work on this aspect (although Orlando did not specify at what stage, or at exactly whose behest).

He agreed with the proposition that what we feel is rooted in what we see through four people – the two rangers of Virunga National Park (André [Bauma] and Rodrigue [Mugaruka]), its chief warden (Emmanuel de Merode), and the foreign journalist (Mélanie [Gouby]), who had already been on the ground for eighteen months – and that the crew had taken time to acclimatize to the developing situation, both with the British-registered oil company SOCO and the rebels of M23.

The Agent’s comment was that the interviews and other footage with the four principals seemed to have been shot in a plain, unforced way. Orlando also remarked on the remarkable work and person of André, acting as parent to the orphaned gorillas cared for at the centre at Rumangabo, and how André’s character had endeared him to those who met him through the film at screenings [such as at Tribeca Film Festival, as pictured at IMDb].

A woman in the audience commented that she liked the music (scored by Patrick Jonsson) – asked if she could characterize it, she said that it suited the film. Then, no one (least of all Orlando) understood The Agent’s remark that there was a smudged quality to some of the music, which thereby failed to convey this [unvoiced] message : there is a sound used in the mix that makes the texture seem to be stretched / distorted**** (almost as if the natural world, and what it means, is being erased)…

Orlando, though, spared everyone's awkwardness by proceeding to talk briefly about other qualities in Jonsson's score, for example the fact that he had used a large variety of musical instruments, some of them indigenous to this part of Africa.


Content

Regarding the statements by SOCO included at the end, and the film’s closing slides about SOCO’s continuing activities, Orlando said that the public declaration made about SOCO’s intentions had been put in context by a leaked e-mail (to which he referred), which suggested that making the declaration had been out of expediency. (However, he did not quote from the e-mail directly, or have its text to hand.)

One questioner wanted to know why some of Mélanie’s covert filming had been re-created, to which Orlando replied that buttonhole cameras are very hard to direct and that it is not uncommon to end up with footage of tablecloth, which they had decided was best substituted, in this case, in the interest of not detracting from the accompanying audio. As he had already indicated before the Q&A started, he stated that they had provided equipment to Rodrigue and Mélanie to further the procurement of evidence that both Emmanuel and his team and she already desired to obtain.

Another questioner asked whether Emmanuel de Merode is, as claimed in the film by opponents of the interests of the park (and so of Emmanuel), a member of the Belgian royal family, to which Orlando answered that he is (in some minor way), but that he had been brought in because he was external to the existing situation in Congo.

Perhaps in the same way, The Agent suggested (in relation to Tony Benn : Will and Testament (2014)), Benn’s hereditary peerage had been used against him politically to question his qualification for speaking for the working classes. (In the film’s covert recording, we had seen a bribe given to Rodrigue, heard cynicism about whether the staff of the park could really care for the animals (rather than just holding out for a better offer before withdrawing protection of Virunga), and a racist attribution of a kind of blood-lust to the Congolese people.)


A number of people who attended clearly knew of the situation (or even Virunga National Park itself in one case), and some of them, and others, commented on it or the power of Virunga. The Agent referenced Anthony Baxter’s film A Dangerous Game (2014) (his follow-up to You’ve been Trumped (2011)), where Donald Trump is permitted to have a golf-course built on the Aberdeenshire coast (in the constituency of Alex Salmond MP), despite the fact that the dunes where it is situated constitute part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) :

Orlando expressed hope that the fact that Virunga is a World Heritage Site, and that the desired mining and drilling activities are unlawful under Congolese law, can be brought to bear, along with gathering attention through the film (please see below).


Closing matter

At the very close, Orlando gave several means by which people could support Virunga National Park (@gorillacd), including spreading news of their reaction to the film on social media, giving financially to the park (through the web-site), not divesting from portfolios with interests in oil companies, but putting pressure on SOCO through them, and by signing up for updates through the web-site at www.virungamovie.com.

Since the film is being distributed via Netflix from 7 November, one can only assume that it does not have links with the oil or mining business that it would compromise. It is to be noted that Leonardo DiCaprio is also on board with the film, listed as one of its (executive ?) producers.

Many who had not asked questions came to speak to Orlando in the short time before his taxi back to Cambridge station.


To any whose questions (and Orlando’s responses) have not been recollected here, many apologies – hosting a Q&A makes one have eyes to the time, where the next question will come from, and everything about the moment, and can militate against taking in too much, beyond in outline, of what is actually being said. But Tweet @THEAGENTAPSLEY, and that can be remedied by editing in the material !

Orlando has also been interviewed by scene creek

STOP PRESS : Now see the Facebook Q&A here
NB no responsibility of any kind is taken for the views expressed in, or content of, the wholly external web-page to which this is a link



End-notes

* A film that was made with the resources and other support of the film-school in Bath, and which concerns a former child-soldier (played by Roger Nsengiyumva), adopted and living in the UK (with Rachael Stirling’s character).

** Or, which are separate (if often connected) questions, whether the film-maker has rightly or wrongly represented ‘the facts’ and / or rightly or wrongly employed these very tools of the medium, e.g. colouring one’s impression of footage that was shot without audio by the use of music and / or sound-design…

*** Some aspects of the historical summary are disputed by a user on IMDb in a review there headed Beautiful and brave film spoilt by historical inaccuracies. Orlando had answered, when asked, that it had not been easy to decide, in terms of facts and footage, what to include.

**** An effect, in fact, used by composer Ant Neely in the score to Sloane U'Ren's and his Festival film Dimensions (2011).


Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part II)

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part II)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


23 October

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part II)


On Tuesday 28 October at 7.30 p.m., pianist Freddy Kempf is due to give a recital of works for solo piano by Beethoven, Schubert and Tchaikovsky


I first heard Freddy Kempf in chamber music as part of Cambridge Summer Music Festival some years ago, when he played a programme in the hall at King’s College – Tchaikovsky’s titanic Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, and also Dvořák's Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90 (B. 166).

The power of the music, transmuted and transported by the energy of the young players, was instantly appealing. It seemed that he must be related to the German pianist Wilhelm Kempff (though the difference in spelling of the surname had gone unnoticed), whose recording of a selection of Preludes and Fugues from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) had been such a feature of my late teenage years (and, of recent years, Kempff's recordings of the Schubert Sonatas for Piano (in a boxed set, also from Deutsche Grammophon - @DGclassics)):

However, whereas other on-line pieces make no mention of the connection, a biography by Robert Cummings states that Freddy is Wilhelm Kempff's grandson. (The name, however spelt, actually relates to the German word ‘kämpfen’, meaning 'to fight' or 'to struggle' (as, unfortunately, also in Mein Kampf).)

Five years ago, Kempf gave a Liszt and Beethoven recital at The Corn Exchange in Cambridge (@CambridgeCornEx), where one highlight was the so-called Dante Sonata (properly Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, published in the ‘Deuxième année: Italie’ of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage), where the passion and drama were patent, as well as Liszt and Kempf’s musicianship.


His Corn Exchange recital on Tuesday is as Artist in Residence, and includes the late Piano Sonata in A Major (D. 959) by Franz Schubert, written, with two other Sonatas for Piano (D. 958 and 960), in 1828, the last year of his life. (There is also an earlier Sonata in A Major (D. 664, Op. Posth.), which is thought to date to the Summer of 1819, and which, as with D. 959, was not published in his life-time.)

By contrast with Winterreise, Op. 89 (D. 911), the proofs of whose second part* the dying composer famously corrected, and which was published on 30 December 1828 (Schubert had died on 19 November), these works did not appear in print until 1838 to 1839. Possibly in the same way as Beethoven’s late piano works, in which Piano Sonata No. 27 (in E Minor, Op. 90) is sometimes grouped (also on Tuesday's programme), these sonatas of Schubert’s were not easily assimilable to begin with, although now much cherished.

Favourite recorded interpretations of Schubert have included Maurizio Pollini’s of the Wanderer-Fantasie, and Alfred Brendel’s of the D. 664 sonata. Very recently, though, Imogen Cooper’s three-CD all-Schubert release of live recordings has coupled the last three sonatas with other repertoire, where, in the Sonata in A Major, we can hear the same fragmentation (and use of an advanced approach to modulation) as in parts of the composer’s late string quartets (probably most clearly in its final movement (Rondo : Allegretto – Presto), which feels to be the heart of the work).

Or even the disintegration of music and meaning of Winterreise, from where we can look down the decades to texts and settings such as, for example, Georg Büchner’s and Alban Berg’s.


The joy of the recital that Freddy Kempf is bringing us, with these late (or, in the case of the Tchaikovsky (the Grand Sonata [in G Major], Op. 37), at least mature) compositions of stature and breadth, is that it gives great scope for them to find synergy in each other, and for the pianist to discover new truths in them with which to present us.


End-notes

* The first part of Winterreise had been published on 14 January (1828), just as Wilhelm Müller's texts appeared in February and October 1827 (each part containing twelve poems).




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Report from Scarborough Jazz Festival : Nigel Kennedy, John Etheridge and Band

A reminiscence of Nigel Kennedy and John Etheridge’s Saturday-night gig at Scarborough Jazz Festival 2014

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 October

This is a belated reminiscence of Nigel Kennedy and John Etheridge’s Saturday-night gig at Scarborough Jazz Festival 2014 (on 27 September)

Delayed because the towering headache that heralded the following morning, which cannot unjustly be imputed in part to the great volume of the previous night, has seemingly erased detail, whose return has been awaited in vain…


Some pairings must always seem to be a mixture of characteristics, such as Beauty and the Beast.

If one talks more about Kennedy than about Etheridge, it was not simply that the latter was, to audience right, side on, but that his exuberance was in his music, not in projecting a persona (or, even, in the likes of touching clenched fists to celebrate playing a number).

For John Etheridge seemed present in his playing from the start, whereas Nigel Kennedy, over two sets of around fifty minutes each, put on a show, but he did take a while – most of the first set – ‘to get going’


The reasons were several-fold, but revolved around the fact that, however much he seemed to look for it, he was missing not so much a spark, for he was seeking to spark off John Etheridge in (respectfully) combative mode - which the more relaxed Etheridge graciously entered into :

So, Kennedy was tossing up a riff for Etheridge to respond or reply to : as can sometimes be the case with such duelling, this all seemed more for Kennedy’s benefit than anyone else’s, chuffed at being again with a musician whom he clearly admires, but doing little enough for the jazz with it.

Likewise, the aerobatic twists and turns in the air, on and around the violin, seemed like a classical virtuoso going through the paces, not a jazzer getting into his groove – it was impressive, not because it had a context, but because Kennedy wished it to impress, yet it lacked a meaning, a content :

It lacked what Kennedy was so far missing bringing to the set, although he had already prominently mentioned Stéphane Grappelli (albeit at a time when Kennedy was side-lining the importance of Yehudi Menuhin to, and in, how his musicianship and talent have developed) :

It was almost as if, for this gig, Kennedy had to regress to his precocious years, yet more - as if we needed it ? - so that we, too, could be reminded of who he is, where he came from, etc.

At least twice, a female voice called out Grappelli’s name from the balcony, and, although Kennedy first acknowledged it, and then said that the woman was repeating herself, he still needed to invoke what he had been taught, making a tune swing. Hate Grappelli’s tone for its sugariness as some may, no one can deny that he had swing, not to mention panache, grace, charm, and real cheerfulness.

Kennedy’s approach was fine in itself, but it meant that, in the non-electric set, one only had joy of a lovely little duo with Etheridge, and a closing ensemble piece, in which he was not just playing, but playing with swing.


Before the gig, someone had been saying that the first set was going to be acoustic, the second wild and noisy. As it turned out, this description was correct, but, as it is, only similar such generalities are now available here to give any account of it :

* Everyone, except the drummer (Mark Fletcher*), went electric, beyond the mere sense of having a pick-up for their acoustic instruments – so violin to electric violin (Kennedy), acoustic to electric guitar (Etheridge), and upright bass to electric bass-guitar (Yaron Stavi).

* It was certainly passionate, inspired, very loud, but debatably not any more jazz (certainly, at some times) than some of those whose tracks they covered, probably amongst them Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix**.

* Still, the same discussion has circled around the music of Frank Zappa – and to no more gain, or effect – so one should merely observe that the gig certainly swelled the attendance at Scarborough that night, and that everyone appeared to have a good time : the acclaim for Etheridge, Kennedy, Kennedy’s guest violinist (Omar Puente*) and the band was undeniably great.


As festival director Mike Gordon had prudently commented in the Festival booklet, We are over the moon to have such an outstanding international star appearing at our festival – I think it’s a real coup’


End-notes

* Named here thanks to the review of this gig from Yorkshire Coast Gigs.

** The name King Crimson is lurking cranially in some connection, but that may easily have been a credit given by Dennis Rollins’ Velocity Trio (or even by Henry Lowther and Nathaniel Facey) – though this nice review of Velocity Trio, also from Yorkshire Coast Gigs, mentions Floyd having been in their set…


#Confused

#MaybeEveryonePlayedFloyd ?




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 16 October 2014

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IC)

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IC)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


17 October


What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IC)


On Friday 17 October at 7.30, Cambridge Corn Exchange (@CambridgeCornEx) hosts the first in its annual Cambridge Classical Concert Series

The programme for Friday has Natasha Paremski (@natashaparemski) as soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (@rpoonline) under the conductorship of Fabien Gabel

According to the score, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) wrote his Rhapsody between 3 July (Franz Kafka’s birthday (in 1883)) and 18 August 1934 - which seems a reasonably short time, but see what follows.


Rachmaninov and Brahms

Some people like to see it as something Russian – as if pigeon-holing helps* – that Tchaikovsky’s response to success was often introspection and melancholy, or that, on the other hand, Sergei Rachmaninov was sensitive to new works of his being poorly received. (So much so that, around the turn of the century, he lost faith in his powers as a composer, but seemed to find help through hypnosis from, and conversation about music with, Dr Nikolay Dahl, an amateur musician.)

Neither composer can have been helped by the fact that the standards to which we have become accustomed to-day, not only of musicianship and of time and space to prepare works for performance, but also of seeking more to be objective in reviews of concerts and new music, did not always obtain, even at the turn of the nineteenth century. Well into the twentieth century, indeed, as well as having to make a living / become accepted as a composer, since Rachmaninov was still performing in the winter of 1942–1943 (in support of war relief) – it is thought that it was partly because of it that he died, on 28 March 1943 (in Beverly Hills, California).

The length of time that Brahms took to write his Symphony No. 1 (in C Minor, Op. 68) has been mentioned elsewhere in writing about the relatively short gestation of his Symphony No. 2 (in D Major, Op. 73) : essentially, a question at that time of seeming cramped, or inhibited, in the symphonic form, by feeling himself to be in Beethoven’s shadow.

The further link with Rachmaninov is that some premieres of Brahms’ works suffered equally for lack of orchestral preparation, not to mention the entrenched hostility of some critics : if, though, we were still paying regard to what they wrote after the first performance (in Leipzig) in January 1859, we would not be listening to Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1* (in D Minor, Op. 15). (In it, he affected to transmute material from a predecessor to the Symphony No. 1.)

As many will know, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Op. 43) is indeed rhapsodic in nature. Yet by way of what could potentially have been episodic, because it consists of a set of twenty-four variations on the theme from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A Minor (itself a Tema con Variazioni), but made effortlessly flowing.

And the piece comes with much musical / numerical resonance with, amongst other comprehensive compositions, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) Book I (BWV 846–869) and II (BWV 870–893), Chopin’s Preludes (Op. 28)**, as well as his own two sets of Preludes (Opp. 23, 28) : in total twenty-three, which, with the early Prelude in C Sharp Minor (from the Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3), cover all the major and minor keys***.

The Rhapsody is famously complete with Rachmaninov’s favourite evocation, the theme of the Dies irae, and the inestimable, graceful beauty that is variation XVIII. Not uniquely amongst his compositions, it cries out for dance, and the ballet is where, new to his work, it was first heard : the sophistication of the orchestration, the inventiveness of the inversions and transmutations, the subtlety of the transitions, must have thrilled Baltimore in 1934 at its world premiere, and its first British performance in Manchester in 1935…


Michael Kennedy’s trusty third edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music**** (though, for some purposes, one would not refuse the donation of a new edition…) rightly calls it one of his finest works, for it is simply glorious – energetic, lively, thoughtful, passionate, but also abstracted, and slightly matter of fact in a tongue-in-cheek way.

So that is certainly something to relish in the coming season !


End-notes

* Or helps anything – other than further viewing someone different as ‘other’, whereas one could try to understand him or her.

** Plus two sets of twelve Études, Opp. 10, 25.

*** There is also, of course, the so-called Revolutionary Prelude, in D Minor.

**** Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IB) - uncorrected proof

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IB)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


16 October (updated 17 October)

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IB)


On Friday 17 October at 7.30, Cambridge Corn Exchange (@CambridgeCornEx) hosts the first in its annual Cambridge Classical Concert Series

The programme for Friday has Natasha Paremski (@natashaparemski) as soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (@rpoonline) under the conductorship of Fabien Gabel



According to the score, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) wrote his Rhapsody between 3 July (Franz Kafka’s birthday, in 1883) and 18 August 1934 (which seems a reasonably short time, but composition was not always so).

It was first performed on 7 November that year, with Leopold Stokowski conducting The Philhadelphia Orchestra, and Rachmaninov playing the solo part, and they then recorded it on Christmas Eve (please see Rachmaninov and others, below).

Also in the first half is Schumann’s ‘Overture’ to Manfred, Op. 115, and, in the second, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73.


Rachmaninov and I

When I started at university, I began to get to know the works of Rachmaninov through a friend – some of which maybe I had maybe heard in passing, in that casual way of cliché because of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), itself a sort of brief encounter with compositions that, on closer listening, had a lot to offer (a view that has come to Sergei Rachmaninov more generally in the intervening years).

My friend played piano well (he had – or was to have –some impressive teachers), as well as having dedication, technique, enthusiasm and interpretative powers. So, through him, I came to love Rachmaninov’s principal Concertos for Piano (and soon bought a recording of the whole set) – as well as, at some stage (and amongst other works), the Symphony No. 2 (in E Minor, Op. 27) when he was developing / sharing his passion for it, and the B Flat Minor Sonata for Piano (No. 2, Op. 36) during his learning it…

Yet, in the days after the close of the first Lent Term, when I was spending a few days in a friend’s flat on my way home (via London), I had no notion that meeting up with another new friend from university, to go to favourite places of hers (such as The National Portrait Gallery), would introduce me to the work on this programme :

For the suggestion of going to the ballet and sitting ‘in the cheap seats’ (since we were undergraduates) seemed as good an idea as any – and there proved to be a lot of music on the bill (possibly also a ballet based on The Enigma Variations* of Elgar ?). But the obvious highlight, for dance, score and dazzling execution, was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, and being enthralled by :

* The unfolding of the variations (from the famous statement of the theme, as used for The South Bank Show)

* Possibly realizing that this was Rachmaninov (we may not have troubled with a programme) ?

* Knowing Rachmaninov’s trademark use of Dies irae theme – and hearing what he did with it here (first in Variation VII)

* The sumptuous, tender variation (Variation XVIII**), along with how the principal male dancer interpreted it

* Even spotting that Rachmaninov was using inversion here as part of his compositional repertoire


Rachmaninov and others

On which, for those who learn aurally, The Proms 2013 – in the person of Steven Hough – gives examples in a very good, brief introduction.

Or one can, again via YouTube, hear Rachmaninov himself in the beginning of the work (seemingly conducted by Stokwoski – taken from the recording made with the same forces as for the premiere ?)…



Coda : Please look here for a connection, of sorts, between Brahms and Rachmaninov (plus a plethora of further Opus Numbers !)…


Post-concert Tweets :






End-notes

* Properly, Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (‘Enigma’), another Op. 36.

** An Andante cantabile, in D Flat Major.



Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IA)

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IA)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


14 October

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IA)


On Friday 17 October at 7.30, Cambridge Corn Exchange (@CambridgeCornEx) hosts the first in its annual Cambridge Classical Concert Series

Full details of the concert (and piece about the other two works) can be found here, but, during the second half, we have this one work, which has been known to me for decades (but I have never before tried to write about) :


Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) : Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 [more than fifty years earlier, in 1877, but otherwise as with Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini : started in the summer, and first performed later that year – please see below]


We start, logically enough, with the genesis of his Symphony No. 2, at the end of the nineteenth century…


Brahms on holiday

According to the conductor Hermann Levi, Johannes Brahms began work on the symphony in the summer of 1877, when he was staying at Pörtschach [am Wörthersee]*, and the work was ‘ready in his head’ by the end of September (with the first movement on paper).

It was given its first performance on 30 December that year, in Vienna under Hans Richter. To a friend, Elisabet von Herzogenberg**, he described the first performance in these terms :

The musicians play my new work with crepe around their arms because it sounds so mournful. It will be printed on black-edged paper.


The reason being, so the story goes, that Brahms ‘amused himself by giving friends the impression that it was gloomy’. Likewise, he reportedly told his publisher Fritz Simrock that it was ‘so melancholy that you will not be able to hear it [sc. listen to it ?]’.


The Agent Apsley on holiday

Brahms came into my musical life in my mid-teenage years, jostling – just amongst the Bs – with Bach, Bartók, Beethoven for my attention (wasn’t quite ready for something of the proportions of Bruckner 6 then…).

All four Brahms symphonies (ranked in my head, usually, as 2 / 3 / 1 / 4 – or, sometimes, 3 / 2 / 1 / 4) were staples in my diet. Along with (because of pairing*** ?) his Tragic Overture (Tragische Ouvertüre), Op. 81, and Academic Festival Overture (Akademische Festouvertüre), Op. 80 (though I only now spot the contiguous Opus Numbers), and the piano concertos****.


So, when I was away with my parents, Symphony No. 2, or No. 3, might very well be in the car’s cassette-player – possibly as something of home when away ? At any rate, I was happy (even if not my family ?) to become very familiar with those affordable Classics for Pleasure recordings : The Hallé under James Loughran.

And, from the sleeve-notes, I had this received wisdom about Brahms and that joke (though, before conceiving this piece, I never troubled to relate it to what I think that this symphony sounds like)…


Back to the trickster



The typical photographic portraits of Brahms (of which that above is not one) do not encourage us to believe that, at the age of 44, he could have been a prankster. That said, appearance not infrequently belies the facts, e.g. with the eccentric looks and talented reality of George Bernard Shaw, so maybe this account of Brahms having played a joke on his friends is a misconception ?

First, though, we really need to see where this symphony fits with the others !


All four Brahms symphonies

No. 1 (in C Minor, Op. 68) – started in 1854 (or 1855), and at least fourteen years in the making (though Brahms said that it was twenty-one years)

No. 2 (in D Major, Op. 73) – 1877, Pörtschach*

No. 3 (in F Major, Op. 90) – 1883, Wiesbaden

No. 4 (in E Minor, Op. 98) – 1884–1885, commenced in Mürzzuschlag (now in Austria, within north-east Styria)


The struggle to write that Symphony No. 1 (and an earlier one, in D Minor, subsumed in the Piano Concerto No. 1 in that key) ! Yet contrast it with the fluency with which, within six months or so each, Brahms was then able to write Nos 2 and 3 – what an immense gift it must have been for Brahms that No. 1 freed him from having been looked at as the beneficiary of what Beethoven left behind him...

(Perhaps it also freed Brahms from the heights of self-criticism that had him destroy so many earlier compositions ? Even if, however, the way in which he had intended to pay tribute to Beethoven, by overtly using thematic (and even rhythmic) material in the symphony, was held against him (as if he had plagiarized) – ‘Any fool can see that !’ is what he is said to have retorted to a friend who remarked on these affinities.)


That joke in context

Some commentators have seen this, second, symphony as ‘the most happy and serene’ of all four (and, hence, Brahms’ words as a jest). In any event, Symphony No. 1 had not been performed until 1876, and then we see Brahms – away from Vienna just the following year – start Symphony No. 2 and have it performed, all within the bounds of 1877. However, need that happy release, to be able to write symphonically with such comparative ease, mean that the symphony itself must be ‘happy and serene’, as claimed ?


My unchecked recollection is that the description is more accurate of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 (in F Major, Op. 90) than of this one. Here, the opening (and longest) movement, an Allegro non troppo, pitches minor and major keys against each other, and, despite a dance-like, motile quality to the writing, feels what Radio 3’s Sean Rafferty might characterize as triste :

For it commences with what I hear as a somewhat melancholy opening theme on the horns (which, inevitably in symphonic form, Brahms brings back several times) - albeit lightened by the flute, when it makes its second intervention during the opening bars. So also, in the supposed tellings of the ‘joke’ quoted above, the words ‘mournful’ and also ‘melancholy’ appeared (NB : though in translation from German).

When a sense of lightness first comes, it may not feel like the waltz that it comes to hint at, and – with the transparency of the strings and the overlay of flute-notes – maybe we place ourselves in an Alpine meadow ? How settled we are there depends on one’s perception of, and reaction to, the saw-tooth arpeggios, uncomfortable harmonies, and, in the lower strings, almost Jaws-like disquieting depths.

Quite apart from which, as the movement cycles around itself, there are, when flute and oboe are not spinning cheerful arabesques, the cascades of droplets of notes, which, at first, fall in separate streams, and lead us to the phlegmatic-sounding horns, with notes in and over from the flute : this passage, and what follows from it, feels little like ‘happy and serene’, but instead over-tired, anxious and presciently modern music for its time.


In the shorter second movement (marked Adagio non troppo), the horn-calls, which are part of feeling tristesse, are joined by the restrained, moody reediness of clarinets, oboes and bassoons. Despite the pleasure of and beauty in an elegiac, stately, even sinuous theme introduced at the beginning, under-currents of questioning, hesitation, and doubt are here :

They are in the contributions made by those instruments (along with low brass), even if amongst suggestions – as in the first movement – of brighter possibilities. For the movement has an ebb and flow to it, as of the tide raking back down the shore. At the end, after a pause, the main theme returns, now eerily well-nigh incantatory, with timpani and clarinets in their chalumeau register – further pauses punctuate a repeated, unresolved chord, before bringing in a blazing, but momentary concord to conclude.


The Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) opens with a small group of players, as if it were chamber music. We have flutes again, and, in stating the theme, there is yet more tonally ambiguous solo writing for principal oboe, before it gives way to lively, accented rhythms, passed around the strings (with the delicacy perhaps sounding a little like the ballet-music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), with whose career that of Brahms overlapped (1833–1897)).

Although, when the tutti come, they are radiant, the movement is also marked by its use of dissonance, with only a limited development section (befitting a Scherzo). When the first theme recurs finally, oboe and flute principals, who have been key players throughout, are to the fore and, in a very brief coda, contribute elements to the muted closing chord.


The closing movement is – and not wholly in comparison with all that has gone before – passionately triumphant. However, despite being an Allegro con spirito, it also is not exclusively so :

A sinuous quality has been noted already, and it is present in the way in which the main theme seems to weave in and out, in and out, as picked out quickly by the flute, before being given a full-throatedly exuberant treatment. One, however, that stalls, after bass-notes from the strings.

Before a second theme is introduced, we have brief contributions from clarinet (to serve whose needs Brahms was to bring himself out of retirement and write so spectacularly later on), horns, oboe and – with pizzicati – flute : amidst all these woodwind elements, we continue to have, absent the tutti, centres of passing tonal uncertainty, bird-like swoopings of the principal flute and oboe, and rallentandi, full of expansive Viennese grace.

When Brahms reaches unequivocally for the major, it is accompanied with swirling, ecstatic woodwind, and builds to crashing / churning moments of rhythmic intensity, which yet die back to woodwind and pizzicato upper strings. Thus, eased by those gracious slowings-down, we cycle around, until Brahms builds up to a bell-like closing statement of the theme, with tuba, trombones and trumpets, and in which there are excited rapidly and descending runs, yet fractionally held back by caesuræ. And even in the penultimate chords, there are subtle modulations – as if we might not, after all, make it to D Major…


Joke or no ?

Not meant to duck the issue (as I have now stated my opinion), but the answer to whether we think that Brahms was serious, or joking, largely now comes down to interpretation – if hearing the symphony were not, that is, already an interpretation : by an orchestra under the musical direction of a conductor.

On this occasion, of course, it is to be the RPO working under the baton of Fabien Gabel – and maybe they can help us, with subtle shifts on the night, do various things :

* Notice detail (those flute, oboe or horn parts ?)

* Hear the effect of different emphases

* React to variations in the tonal, textural, rhythmic, or emotional landscape

* Even the simple matter of a transition between movements : via YouTube (as I did, for this piece), watch Leonard Bernstein, with The Vienna Philharmonic, run the last two movements together, without a break…

Happy listening !


End-notes

* Who was, amongst other things, a pianist, singer, composer, teacher, and music publisher, as well as the wife of an Austrian composer (Brahms, though he adopted Vienna, was German).

** A lakeside town, and established summer resort, in the far South of modern-day Austria.

*** And a few of his twenty-one Hungarian Dances – possibly the three that he orchestrated himself (and only another three of them were his original compositions)… ?

**** Though not the violin concerto – possibly because I had a practice of listening to the Tchaikovsky concerto every day without fail ?




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)