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Lydia's Brilliant Glazunov

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Published: December 31, 2013 at 10:27 PM [UTC]

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,

From Lydia Leong
Posted on January 1, 2014 at 7:01 AM
Thanks for all the commentary, Stephen!

I definitely play better than I did at 12 (heh!), but not as well as I played at 16 -- at least from a strictly technical perspective, in terms of command of the instrument and raw facility. I am instinctively a more expressive player as an adult than I was as a teenager, though, and likely a better musician in a more well-rounded sense of that term (i.e., I have a much better grasp of music history and theory, the spectrum of musical works, style and interpretation of many more violinists and musicians in general, etc.)

The preparation that went into this performance also taught me a host of skills that were new to me, despite having performed concertos with orchestras in the past. A lot of that was how to cope when things go wrong -- when the orchestra gets lost, when the orchestra is in the wrong tempo (or is accelerating or decelerating unintentionally), when you make a mistake, etc. -- as well as how to convey intention and pulse clearly so that you can be easily followed by the orchestra.

I suspect that I will never again have the raw technical command I had at age 16 -- I suspect it requires more daily time with the instrument than I can give it. However, I expect that I will continue to build new skills that I didn't previously have -- especially right-hand skills and other things related to tone production, but also a variety of virtuosic tricks.

Your comment about the top notes is spot-on! In fact, my teacher has a giant TOPS scrawled across a page of my Glazunov score. This is actually rooted in a technical problem -- my vibrato in the high positions is too narrow. I instinctively don't want to hear the pitch waver, and so I've generally used a fast, narrow vibrato on high notes. This turns out to be wrong. My teacher calls it a "visual vibrato" -- visible but not audible. These notes need a relatively wide, intense vibrato. I practiced it but never got it reliable, and it's what you're missing on those tops -- the brilliant intensity of sound that the right type of vibrato would produce. Reconstructing my vibrato to be wider is one of the things I need to work on.

Some of the poetry of the concerto (the narrative, as you put it) is also lost in sound production issues. In lyrical, forte playing, the sound is fine. But I have difficulty maintaining a dense sound that will project when the dynamic is piano. Similarly, the density of the sound is often lost in more complex passages. This means that there's not enough change in tone colors from section to section.

For my Russian-style bow hold, my arm level ends up being too low when I'm not consciously remembering to keep it higher. I tend to produce volume with more bow, which results in a more transparent sound (my teacher calls this a "Mozart" sound), rather than with greater weight and a slower bow. (The ideal sound is in my head is more of that silvery Milstein sound, while my teacher wants more of that densely rich Oistrakh sound.)

The narrative in my head for this concerto is that there's an old Russian peasant being drunk and maudlin and reminiscing about his youth. :-)

Thanks again!

Posted on January 2, 2014 at 3:58 AM
`For my Russian-style bow hold, my arm level ends up being too low when I'm not consciously remembering to keep it higher. I tend to produce volume with more bow, which results in a more transparent sound (my teacher calls this a "Mozart" sound), rather than with greater weight and a slower bow. (The ideal sound is in my head is more of that silvery Milstein sound, while my teacher wants more of that densely rich Oistrakh sound.)`

Well clearly the Russian stye hold suits your physiological structure but that puts you in just a slight quandry in some senses i would imagine. One of the defining characteristics of that manner of playing -is- a fast bow speed. The first time I saw Heifetz et al. on video I was blown away by the sheer speed of thier bow usage. Not impossible of course but interesting.....
I have some other thoughts on the boil so stay tuned if you can stand it.
Have a great day with Kreutzer (or anything else)

Posted on January 2, 2014 at 9:33 AM
Hi Lydia,
sorry for making this a sort of pet project. I hope you don`t mind. I just love thinking and talking about the violin. Drunken old (Russian) reminiscing, I expect.
I@ve been looking at the passage at 3 in the Dover score (bar 24) and I have a question? In the first run the decrescendo ends before the quaver but on the quaver for the 2nd and 3rd. Is that just a printing error?
Anyway, I@ve been going over quite a few recordings of this section and it`s really quite surprising. Your performance follows the markings very honestly as a long line that basically decrescendos and pays attention to note length. But the five or six soloists I have been taking notes on are distinctly carte blanche:)
Milstein plays both bar 25 and 26 as a harmonic and Hahn changes to an up bow on the quaver as though it is an independent entity from the preceding run. Ida Haendel is never too bothered by diminuendo markings and so on.The common denominator seems to be last quavers are worthy of quite substantial tenutoing.
I may have to talk to the ethics committe about all this.
Idle nerding,
Posted on January 2, 2014 at 3:46 PM
*laugh* It's funny you should mention the rhythm of the passage at [3], which highlights a pet peeve of my teacher (whom, I think, you're acquainted with from his previous interactions).

When I first was learning the concerto, I essentially played [3] by ear, the way that I've heard it on a bazillion recordings. My teacher pointed out that the way it's usually played bears no resemblance to the written rhythm, and the modern practice of doing things the way they are on recording results in a kind of musical game of telephone, where fidelity to the score decreases over time. Consequently he was insistent about the rhythm being accurate, and for the second beat of the measures to be very deliberately placed, since the orchestra needs the audio cue. (I discovered it takes forever to try to break the mental grasp of having heard it differently on recordings my whole life!)

The change in bow on the last note of the run is the bowing that is marked in the International edition (David Oistrakh's, which as far as I know is pretty much the edition that everyone uses), with the rest of the run on a single bow. My teacher felt strongly about it being connected to the rest of the run, though, so I use the bowing that's marked in the score (which also makes it easier to taper the volume of that last note).

I think the placement of the decrescendo is an error in the Dover score (which is also what I have). In the International edition of the violin part, all three end on the last note of the run.

From Lydia Leong
Posted on January 2, 2014 at 4:26 PM
That last comment was me -- I forgot to log in first.

On the bowing, there is a fatigue issue involved in using more bow for sound, versus a compact usage and denser sound, in order to produce sufficient volume to punch through an orchestral texture. It's really about a range of tone colors, too, though -- a denser sound is different in mood than a more transparent one.

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