December 2013

Lydia's Brilliant Glazunov

December 31, 2013 15:27

Well I started the new year simultaneously with stomach flu and the Glazunov performance Lydia talks about so eloquently in her blog below. (If you haven't read it this probably won't interest you). Between the fever and bog breaks my mind created a kind of long blog which I am now going to post although whether I am responsible for what I am saying is probably debatable.

I really liked this performance. Lydia says she is not happy with it but I was impressed. I listened through to the end which is one of the biggest compliments I can pay a violinist. Lydia says she will never play like she did as a twelve year old again but I have to ask why can't she play even better? Lydia, surely you are smarter now? I am an exception to this rule, by the way....

It's interesting because in a recent post Lydia talked about developing a more richer, more soloistic sound, but actually she has a great sound. Listen to the video and check it out for yourself. At this level of playing although one can (and often should) go right back to basics just like Heifetz et al. did every morning, it is not as simple as pointing out to a novice that playing with the violin upside down while swinging from a chandelier is not the best way to get a sound. So I tried to find some answers from within the performance. This is not, by the way a critique of that per se, but simply using it as a spring board to get some ideas down.

When you listen to Ida Haendel play one distinctive feature of her art is she decides that a certain note has a great deal more significance than any of the surrounding notes and she just hammers you over the head with it. One is just recovering from this with some gorgeous sonority when, 'wham!' she whack you between the eyes again. This is not ad hoc of course although for my taste she overdoes it on occasion. It all creates a logical musical structure. Heifetz was an absolute master of unerringly picking out the single note that not only made a whole phrase cohere but even a whole movement. There is an f# in the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky that no violinist has ever poured so much gasoline on and it is just perfect. (You find it) This is what I wanted to hear more of.

After that I started thinking on what is one of the most significant aspects of a violinist's art: ending a phrase. Technical issues aside it is often a question of being in the present. Human nature being what it is, many violinists, including very advanced ones, are already thinking ahead before they have finished a phrase with the result that the ending in question is chucked away in an insensitive and inappropriate way. This is very common indeed. We are often exhorted to 'read ahead' and improve our sight reading by 'learning to read further and further ahead.' I think this is in part correct but either taken too far or misunderstood. Perhaps Szigeti explains this mystery best when he says 'we should never read ahead. That is what produces banal playing. Our mind literally should be in two places at once.' Go figure... Anyway, one of the few slightly negative impressions I got from the performance under discussion was of not quite paying attention to the brilliant top notes at the end of great sweeping passages as though the soloist was relieved to have got there and was only to anxious to get the next one over with. In this way much drama was lost. Possible solution: Kreutzer no.12.

Kreutzer is the business for us fiddle players. There has to be a good reason Heifetz, Szigeti, Wieniawski et al., played these etudes right to the end of their careers. Or that Zhakar Bron teaches them in their entirety twice to his full time students. Once when they are young and again 'at an artsitic level' when they are advanced. As an aside, if I had the kind of talent Lydia has and I was coming back from a ten year hiatus I would have great confidence in using only the Kreutzer etudes.

GlazunovThen I asked myself 'When you can play a concerto like the Glazunov rather well from almost all perspectives how can one dig deeper to where the real learning begins?' Personally I would like to begin to see it unfolding as a kind of narrative. The more I have looked at this work over time the more it has settled in a kind of vision for me I cannot shake off.

That is: the first-ever extensive use of scorched earth warfare in history: Napoleon's unsuccessful invasion of Russia celebrated in the 1812 overture. The opening of the concerto is something dark and brooding on the Siberian horizon as black and menacing evil begins to awaken from slumber. The tranquillo section beginning figure four is an (probably) idyllic Russian village where peasants live out there lives and loves according to the seasons with little sense of the impending outside world. When the theme returns later in the cadenza it does not refer to the youthful innocence of rural life but rather I see an equally young shoeless French soldier with feet frozen black from gangrene. As he fall to his knees to die in the snow his last act is to pull out a picture of the girlfriend he left behind in France. The tears just freeze in his eye sockets. The same theme because the pity of war is always the fallen on both sides. The animando following this (fig29) is the tentative awakening of hope for victory and life beginning again in the hearts of frightened children. And of course the final Allegro is unrestrained joy interspersed with odd moments of doubt and returning fears as the inevitable bi-product of war.

Of course, this is just something I have stuck on top and is hardly valid for anyone else but, distinct from the idea of program music is in my opinion, the idea that the composer meant to say something or elicit something in some way beyond mere sound and pleasure in sound although that is enough for many. And who cares if it is the wrong thing?;)

Prokofiev once asked Szigeti if he could attend a rehearsal of his first violin concerto. Szigeti refused permission stating that he had developed his own ideas on the work. Justifying this action later, Szigeti explained with his customary eloquence that although a composer is a parent of a work, like all parents they have to let it go its own way at some point and that as a performer he had actually lived more with the work than the composer himself.

Anyway, thanks for sharing that thoroughly enjoyable performance. Looking forward to the next one. I think I need to get back to Kreutzer....

Happy New Year,

5 replies

A Disappointed Fan Base

December 25, 2013 17:42

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all and sundry.

I live near Nagoya City which is, depending on whether you count Tokyo as a city, Japan`s third or fourth largest. Thus it has a very good cultural base although Tokyo and Osaka are where the really big musical events take place.
In Nagoya there is a small (about 150 seats) but very fine mini concert hall built by a man who went from being a poor orphan during the war to one of the richest men in Japan thanks to his wife`s recipe for curry. Last year I attended a delightful concert there by a twentyish South American violinist who was almost a world class soloist. This is not intended to be derogatory, it is simply that given the best players in the world today are so good they can do absolutely anything this young man had a slightly limited vibrato and thus a slightly smaller tonal palette. He was the kind of player who usually ends up right at the front of a world class orchestra which is rarefied territory anyway.

As I listened to him I really felt that if he took a time out and went and had coaching from a great player, somewhat like when Arnold Steinhardt spent the Summer with Joseph Szigeti at the beginning of his career, then he could move his playing up several levels. I noticed on the program he has already recorded the Paginini 24 caprices with a fairly decent label and I thought this rather a shame in some ways. Obviously given his technique it must be a good recording but I cannot see how it is representative of his best given the above caveat. Just not quite a mature artist yet, and I doubt if he will be asked to record the caprices again so I just wondered if he could have waited and given priority to growth rather than marketing. It`s quite possible he had no say in the matter of course...

The reason I revisit this experience is that one of the small group of wealthy people who supported this concert and contributed to the splendid dinner party afterwards and the best possible hospitality etc. was telling me how disappointed they all were. The player in question is coming back to Japan but only going to play in Tokyo and Osaka. That may not be such a big deal and there may be x number of reasons for this but the size of audience has apparently been mentioned. Given the expense of travel and logistics in Japan I can understand that the net fee from such a gig might be extremely small but that didn`t seem to bother Shlomo Mintz who played in the same venue last year.

It made me think of four things: Stern, Oistrakh, Hahn and DeLay. Stern build up his listener base by playing at small venues for relatively small fees, Oistrakh travelled on a sled in sub zero conditions to play to handfuls of babushkas (probably half a love of music and half to stop his family being sent to a Gulag) and even in the present we can see Hahn on YouTube playing in small but appreciative venues and giving her absolute best. In the book on DeLay I noticed with great interest how determined she was for her students to reach out to the community
Like I said, I probably don`t know the whole story, but there is a fairly large number of people who have happy memories of a nice young man doing a great concert and enriching their lives who would like to have that experience again. This is one of the responsibilities of being a musician in my book and I have to confess a fascination with both of the above issues:

When are young artists pushed ahead too fast and lose out developmentally, and what is the responsibility of an artist towards the little people that support them so generously?

Idle thoughts,

2 replies

Love Haendels.....

December 23, 2013 21:17


When I was a mere stripling I happened to hear Ida Haendel playing the Walton violin concerto in the Proms. There was a brief passage of the most sensual double stopping in the last movement which she played so beautifully it made my hair stand on end. From that time on I always wanted to hear that same gut wrenching sadness from whoever was performing. Heifetz, arguably the greatest exponent of this concerto did not, in spite of everything, give me what I yearned for. Later, at music college we accompanied the great English violinist Robert Gibbs in the same work and his wonderful performance also failed to recreate this magical moment. I was lucky enough to be playing in a quartet with him so I suppose I could have asked him to play it 'more like Ida,' but I think it might have annoyed him.

Ida HaendelAfter a recent blog here my looney Swedish nemesis pointed out that my seeing eye armadillo probably put the mockers on any romantic potential with Ms. Haendel. Disappointing though this was it did bring back the sound of that magical Haendel moment in spades so I decided to make her my binge of the week. I actually started with her masterclass at the RCM. This also brought back less than pleasant memories for me. I was in college when the Peter Peers concert hall/opera house was finished and the college decided it wanted to cram as many players into the pit as possible in order to evaluate it's actuall capacity and acoustic. A noisy, unpleasant experience that threatened to damage instruments, but at least I can claim to be almost the first person ever to play there. The master class itself is one of of the best examples of its kind I have ever seen.

It takes a lot of experience and coaching talent to do a good masterclass and deciding what is appropriate to say or do is incredibly hair raising. Haendel took on three very talented violinists in their early twenties and honed in on exactly what was necessary, an incredibly impressive performance. More often than not she went repeatedly back to the score but then also focused on fundamental aspects of style which highlighted even painfully at some points how little young players seem to think beyond playing well technically.
After that I had to listen to her play and the 1953 Brahms has become an all time favorite although Szigeti is hard to surpass in his final recording of that work.

But the question of listening to Haendel these days can be a hard one. She has very clearly articulated her view that 'age has nothing to do with it,' as though she is still the same virtuouso who at 19 was blowing away all and sundry even though she could not yet read music.... And yet, as in the performance of the Bruch on YouTube, she is on many occasion simply unable to play certain quite basic technical passages. It is as though the memory of how to hit those notes has simply failed and all that is left is a horribly out of tune mess. Should one then make allowances? frankly I wasn't sure if I could at first but I stuck with with it because she still has the sound and I am glad I did. Sure enough there are lyrical passages of such passion and depth in the last two movement of that performance where I was just taken right back to her Walton. I wanted to go away and try, just try and play even a few notes as beautifully as she does so many wonderful passages between the detritus.

I guess she is still my idol.

7 replies

Another week another bender.

December 8, 2013 16:50

not sure if the expression 'going on a bender,' is still in fashion or not, but right now I am on sabbatical from my Kavakos bender and on one focused on Hilary Hahn.

Hilary HahnThis is a player I find myself more and more addicted to in spite of her appalling taste in burgers. Listening to her Chacconne this morning I was actually finding new sounds I had previously been unaware of. For example at one point the spaced out accompanying quavers actually sounded like pizzicato. It was a color I have never heard before in this piece. But I think it's truly outstanding quality is the way the melodic line(s) are given exactly the right weight or prominence that they are supposed to have at any given moment, as far as that can ever be true. In this respect she may be one of the most gifted performers of this work ever. The Sarabande from this partita is every bit as good. Listening to her D major Prokofiev last night one I felt this was one of the most carefully integrated versions around. clearly she knows the score backwards and aside from the absolute brilliance of the solo moments it was more like great chamber music playing which provided a lot of insight into the nature of the work. My only regret is a slight absence of ascerbic nastiness in her playing but I just don't think it is in her nature. Milstein used to say 'we have to play ugly in orders to highlight the beautiful,' and I kind of hope she doesn't lose sight of this further down the road.

The Mendelssohn concerto is perhaps with the Bruch the most juvenile tortured work in the repertoire. Your average talented teenager's granny weeps over her little Johhny Rotten playing it more or less in tune and throwing off the last movement just that bit faster than Jane Rotten from the same studio. But it was interesting to see Zukerman in his "Way They Play" interview saying it was a concerto that seemed to become more and more difficult the older one gets. Or Arnold Steinhardt citing less than satisfying performances of that work in particular at the beginning of his thankfully aborted solo career. or indeed Milstein (again) putting his finger on it by noting that the work has one foot in a more classical world and one in the romantics. The ability to fluctuate between and unify these ideas may be at the core of the problem.

Watching a slightly earlier version of Hahn playing this is what triggered this line of thought. Of everything of hers I have listened to so far it is the least satisfying to my ears. Of course she plays it beautifully and technically better than a select few, but to my mind she was still looking for deeper artistic solutions to passages that most of us are just happy to play in time and tune. At times these came across as clothes that didn't quite suit the wearer as though she had not yet found her mendelssohnian fashion sense. indeed, I felt a kind of dissatisfaction in what she was doing expressed on her face at times although it's possible that a) I'm imagining it or b) she was really pissed off with the guy waving his arms around in such a vague way on her left.

It's got an kind of integrity to it though, an artist continuously striving to find better ways of doing things both in the practice room and on the stage.
Quite a relief in this day and age.


4 replies

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