This blog was inspired by Larisa`s response to my last blog.
I think the Beethoven concerto is probably one of the most frustrating works a violinist can possibly attempt. Is it classical or romantic ? Are these elemnts combned and does one`s playing have to reflect this issue? I think it was Oleg Kyla who said in his way they play interview that it took him many years to come to terms with this work. Hilary Hahn talks about how her teacher (Brodsky) would not allow her to play it until she had done all the other major repertoire.
It is one of the few works in the repertoire where there are very few satisfactory recordings by today’s players and I mean technically as much as musically. This surprises me very much because there is no doubt that in many ways today’s violin playing can be said to have advanced technically. The first thing that bothers me and leads me to discard a recording without much regret is the intonation. I only have to listen to the first soaring solo violin melody to know if I will be able to tolerate the performance because the intonation blends with the orchestra to form a satisfying whole. The players who come closest are believe it or not, at least in my opinion, Kreisler, Heifetz, Szigeti, Szeryng, Kogan and the Menuhin /Furtwengler recording. Of modern players I rate ASM in this. I suspect Ilya Gringolts would be in there but I have not heard him.
Aside from more sensitive intonation think a quality these older players had was a greater skill for recognizing that although their part `appears` soloistic it is actually merely an accompaniment to a bassoon solo or whatever. It is a degree of humbleness of great significance. Another aspect of this work is that it is a reflection of reflectiveness. What I mean by this is that older players actually took a lot more time and had lives limited by lesser ease of transport. One hears of Milstein and the like taking the whole summer off to play tennis or others like Heifetz staying at home and preparing for the coming `season.` The seasonal element is missing in the frenetic pace of modern superstars.
I am also interested in the developmental path of violinists and how it affects the later performance practice. What i mean by this is that if one looks at the repertoire list of Auer in his book and compare with the modern approach to training young virtuousa one finds that today`s youngsters are banging out major works from the age of five or six without a care in the world. They simply don`t study the Spohr concertos, `a great deal of Vieuxtemps,` and so on. Heaven forbid they often haven`t even done justice to three or four Handel sonatas as Auer recommends. On the one hand this perhaps reflects greater scholarship and taste but on the other i think something has been lost. The Ernst and Spohr concertos, for example are fiendishly difficult ; Viotti played well is no walk in the park. The Rode concertos are sufficiently serious works that Wieniawski wrote an excellent cadenza for one of them. I have this lunatic pet theory that playing these kind of works before moving onto the greats later gives very solid tools for approaching the nebuluos and chameleon quality of the Beethoven. The later requires tremendous elegance and virtuosity- it is not just something one listens to with crossed eyeballs murmuring `wow, I have found God!`
In a sense the Beethoven is a truly cruel mirror that reflects who you are as a person. If you are only a violinist and not a well rounded and compassionate human being then your performance will simply reflect that. Funnily enough, greatest `Beethoven for me that still reverberates in my minds eye was actually by a not so well known violinist (sorry Mr Parikian) and an amateur orchestra in Britain. Interestingly, I found out years later that Manoug Parikian had been an esteemed colleague of Szigeti and they exchanged letters on a regular basic in which they competed to find the most esoteric yet practical fingerings for difficult passages in the repertoire. I wish I could have gone to the RAM and studied with him ;(
One things for sure, you will never find any two violinists agreed on how to interpret this elusive score......
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Last night I was just running through the music I have to prepare and perform over the next two weeks and was somewhat astonished to see it consists of the following: Beethoven: Minuet in g, Symphony no1, Symphony no.7, symphony no 9 (last movement), piano trio in c minor, sonata no 1 in d.
And not much else….
Maybe it’s a bit of an unbalanced diet right now but there really is something about Beethoven that makes his world a never ending delight, a collection of works that can always be played better, more deeply, more thoughtfully and so fourth. They are as much a violinist’s bread and butter as the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas or Kreutzer etudes. What I think makes them ubiquitous is largely the revolution in dynamics which parallels to my mind a shift in the development of human thought and society at that time. A veritable explosion.
It is this dramatic tension within the dynamics that makes or breaks Beethoven and unfortunately at even the highest levels of performers at times it is very much the latter case. The most fundamental breakthrough that distinguishes Beethoven from Mozart I illustrate to my students simply by spreading my hands. Mozart occurs within the space of hands close together and Beethoven sprawls between widely spread hands. When Beethoven writes pp as opposed to p or ff in stead of f he means it and so must we. I last wrote a blog about playing what’s on the page being an essential part of artistry and although it is easy to see this as pedantry it is amazing how far from this initial truth orchestras (in particular wander) without a thoughtful conductor or concertmaster.
Take for example my favorite Beethoven: symphony no 7. Sorry I don’t have a score in front of me. But concerning the opening, how loud does one hear the first chord? Pretty loud. But actually the chord is only putting the key in the lock of the door. If played at maximum power then how can the middle of the introduction dramatically sweep up to ff. The difference in effect is the same as creating a mountain range or running out of ammunition…. Notice the 16th passage following a ff section that has dim. Written at the beginning. How often does one hear an immediate drop in sound rather than beginning ff and getting progressively quieter? How about the hooked dotted rhythms on open g,c and e in the second violin. I think they are marked p (as opposed to pp) but how many orchestras resist the temptation to do a slight crescendo as the figure is repeated over and over. Another common error and one of the hardest things to do is to play a whole series of Sfz within the context of piano and sustain the energy and electricity without getting louder.
It’s a real shame that we have become so used to seeing Beethoven on the music stand that we start to get complacent about these things, but it also makes it a real joy when a truly thoughtful conductor and a more intelligent management takes the time to refresh ourselves about what Beethoven meant his music to sound like. One lives for such moments.
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When Hugh Bean talked about the recording sessions in which he was concertmaster and Milstein the soloist he said of the latter’s introduction to the slow movement of the Goldmark that for him it represented the most perfect ideal of violin playing. Those phrases could serve as a model for violin playing for all time. I am always on the lookout for recordings of short extracts that correspond to those incredible criteria. One such is by a violinist it has at times been very fashionable to criticize as less than stellar: Sir Yehudi Menuhin.
The passage in question is from the recording he made of the Schubert piano Trio no.2 (available on DVD with the Franck among other things). To whit, the extended violin solo in the slow movement. During this epiphany the camera pans in on the cellist, Maurice Gendron`s face. His expression of awe and reverence is just priceless and absolutely justified. If ever an angel played the violin, this was it.
Nonetheless, that recording raises questions for me that I am never able to answer in any satisfactory way but I think do deserve something of an airing. The difficulty for me arises when I study this version while looking at the Urtext. With all due respect to (at least ;))two of the performers, they are not playing what the composer wrote. Not note wise of course, but in terms of the dynamics and articulation. Were it just in a few places it would not be an issue. But this is not the case and I have no idea if the performers were using one of the bowdlerized 19th century version of Schubert’s music that have been responsible for softening up so may of his scores or simply , dare one say willfully, expressing their artistic preferences, `This is how I feel it. This is how I am going to play it!` How can one denigrate such a profound performance? Surely if Schubert heard it he would have been ecstatic? But is it really what we should all aspire to?
I think today’s players do us a great service by applying great energy and scholarship to playing `what the composer wrote,` as far as is possible depending on when the composition was written. First and foremost must come the dynamics. The trio above would be a markedly more dramatic and violent piece if one really followed Schubert’s markings. And then nowadays we do hear distinctions between dots and dashes in Mozart performances even…. This approach has greatly enriched and challenged our performance practice and I think teachers have a real responsibility to demand of our students that they take responsibility for a rigorous study of what is actually on the page as well as questioning its veracity. The only question is, has this resulted in throwing the baby out with the bath water so that there is no longer any space for the great artist who follows Sinatra’s by-line?
Let’s hope we retain the space for both and everything that falls in between.
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I love teaching adult beginners. They are determined, talented, stubborn, and often completely messed up by life (but don’t know it ;)).
One of my favorite students in her mid thirties is so reeking with talent it’s a joke but that part of her operates on a rather intuitive, instinctive level where she is at her best. The destructive, low self esteem component of her life is in constant conflict with and denial of this talent. This typically manifests itself in me telling her something which she promptly does correctly and then comments in a slightly whiny voice (being a child is her defense mechanism against success) `Wakaranai!` (I don’t understand). Recently we started work on vibrato. Very often that is a process of either briefly explaining the concepts/mechanics (with adults) or simply demonstrating or a mixture of both followed by a series of exercises. In this lady’s case I had a feeling she might be able to by- pass a lot of this so we jumped straight in with the exercise from Basics in which one plays three versions of the vibrato: dotted quaver semi (four to a bow,) dotted 16ths 32 four to a bow, and alternating quarter notes with 16ths rhythm. The speed of the mm is gradually increased. Sure enough she could do a nice arm vibrato on this up to a reasonable speed straightaway, followed by the usual `Wakaranai! ` Then we moved onto a Dancla duet which begins with a beautiful melody for 8 bars. I suggested she use vibrato. She went pale and ....
x: `Wakaranai! `
Buri : `What don’t you understand?`
x: `What note should I try vibrato on?
Buri: How about all of them?
x) Wakaranai! (Plays with a nice sustained vibrato on all notes in her second vibrato lesson!)
Adults are funny things......
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well,I`ve finished my winter solstice and am now back in the flow . What better way to start the year than a little esotericism? Bearing that in mind here is a small challenge to the interested....
Take any quote you like from any source that has ever meant anything to you. Post it here and relate it to violin playing in some way. (The point being that it wasn`t originally, but as you know who says, `everything effects everything.`)
Try this one: `We`ve got them!`
It was, of course, among the last recorded words of General Custer at Little Bighorn. (presumably his very last was `aaaaargh.`) For me it stands for refusal to see or acknowledge one`s own problems. Perhaps a second violinist in a quartet who -knows- everyone else is out of tune.
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More entries: December 2008
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