Archive for the Music Category

Llŷr Williams plays Schubert

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on November 13, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve been away from blogging for a few days, so I thought I’d begin the process of catching up with a short review of the concert I went to on Thursday evening (9th November) at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff featuring acclaimed Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams playing music by Franz Schubert. Llŷr Williams recently completed a series of concerts in which he performed all the works for keyboard by Beethoven, and now he has embarking on another journey, this time of Schubert. The concert was recorded and will, I believe, be released commercially.

The first half of the recital consisted of the Sonata in G Major D894 (Op. 78) which was written in 1826, just two years before the composer’s death. Although Schubert was already ill when he wrote this piece it is generally optimistic in tone.    The first and third movements introduce  dance-like elements, and the final movement is a light and breezy Allegretto in the form of a rondo. The piece is tempestuous in places but  generally resolves into a more tranquil mood. It’s a well-balanced and  enjoyable piece, wonderfully played.

To close the first half we had three transcriptions for solo piano by Franz Liszt of Schubert songs:  Ständchen, Auf dem Wasser zu singen, and Ave Maria.  The last of these (Ellens Gesang III) is probably the most famous as a song but also the least successful as a solo piano piece. On the other hand, Auf dem Wasser zu singen, works well. I’m not a huge fan of Liszt and although it was interesting to hear these works in this form I much prefer them sung by a human voice with a piano accompaniment.

After the interval  wine break we had a later Piano Sonata (in C Minor D 958), written during the last year of Schubert’s life. In four movements like the piece we heard in the first half, this piece has a much greater depth and sense of drama to it (at least to my ears), at least partly because it is clearly influenced in structure and tonality by Beethoven. Perhaps it was for that reason that this work inspired Llŷr Williams to a performance of great intensity as well as virtuosity, especially in the final Allegro movement which is extremely agitated, even frenzied. As he introduced the piece, Llŷr Williams spoke of this as being like a `dance of death’. Schubert probably knew he was dying when he wrote this piece, but it’s not as bleak as some of his other late works.  It seems to me to be characterised by a sense of determination,  to get as much done as possible before his life came to an end.

Schubert died before his 32nd birthday, but he was astonishingly prolific, especially towards the end of his life, and he left a huge legacy of wonderful music. I’m very much looking forward to the next concert in this series of explorations of his piano music.





The Theremin

Posted in Music, Television with tags , , on November 9, 2017 by telescoper

The other day I was listening to the radio and heard a demonstration of someone playing the Theremin, an early example of an electronic instrument that can be played without touching it. Here’s the inventor Leon Theremin (who patented the device in 1928) showing what it can do:

I reckon it would be fun thing to show this to a group of physics students to ask them to figure out how the Theremin works! If you want  to know the answer to that question you can find it here. It’s a simple idea based on the idea that when the operator of the instrument movers his or her hands it changes the effective capacitance between them and the aerials.

Anyway, anyone who has ever watched the detective series Midsomer Murders will (perhaps unwittingly) have heard a Theremin. Here is how the theme tune  is played:


The Emerson Quartet

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , on November 3, 2017 by telescoper

It’s been an enjoyably rich week for me in terms of cultural pursuits, rounded off in fine style last night with a visit to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for a concert by the Emerson String Quartet of music by Purcell, Britten and Beethoven. On Wednesday I made the mistake of going to a concert without having had any food, so this time I sampled the bar menu at the College before the performance. Very nice fish and chips, with very prompt service.

The first half of the concert consisted of three pieces by Henry Purcell, the Chacony in G Minor and two Fantazias (in D Minor and G Major, respectively). The Chacony (from the Spanish `Chacona’ via the French `Chaconne’) is a set of variations over a ground bass, while the Fantazias have a much freer structure with the instruments often mimicking vocal lines. This was followed by the String Quartet No. 2 in C by Benjamin Britten, the last movement of which includes a Chacony as a deliberate homage to Purcell (whose music Britten admired enormously). It was actually written to commemorate Purcell’s death (on 21st November 1695). Overall, though, this is more reminiscent of the approach of Britten’s friend Dmitri Shostakovich. It is full of jagged figures emerging from a background that alternates between dark and frenetic.

After the interval wine break, it was time for one of my favourite pieces in all music, the sublime String Quartet No. 15 (in A minor) by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 132). I’ve loved this piece for many years and it became even more special to me five years or so ago when I was recovering from illness. Until last night, though, I had never heard it live.

This is a long work, taking over 40 minutes to perform, dominated by the central third movement, which is headed with the words

Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart

I take the liberty of translating the first two words, using my schoolboy German, as “A Holy Song of Thanksgiving”; Beethoven wrote the piece after recovering from a very serious illness which he had feared might prove fatal. The movement begins in a mood of quiet humility but slowly develops into a sense of hope and deeply felt joy. The most remarkable  thing about this movement to me, though,  is that the music seems to possess the same restorative powers that it was written to celebrate. I certainly found it extremely therapeutic when I was unwell.

Hearing the whole piece live has a much greater impact than hearing one movement on record, and I have to admit I found last night’s performance quite overwhelming. Judging by the rapturous applause from the audience in the Dora Stoutzker Hall, I think a great many people realised that they had just heard something very special.

Music from three very different periods, by three very different periods, all played beautifully with great passion and imagination. What more could you ask for?

Well, we did get something extra – an encore in the form of one of Dvorak’s Cypresses (No. 7 to be precise):

The Hallé at St David’s

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , , on November 2, 2017 by telescoper

Last night, as part of an ongoing effort to enjoy as much culture as I can while I still have the chance, I went to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a concert of music by Ravel, Debussy and Mussorgsky given by the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. It was a wonderful programme of music, performed with all the colour and verve and professionalism you’d expect from the Hallé.

First up we had the Rapsodie Espagnole, one of Ravel’s first compositions for the full orchestra (although in the original version was for two pianos, he orchestrated it a year after that version was published). For a piece of only about 15 minutes duration its four movements are full of changes of mood, tempo and tonality, which makes it a great piece to warm up both orchestra and audience.

Following that, we had the gorgeous Première Rhapsodie for orchestra and clarinet soloist by Claude Debussy. Written just a couple of years after the Ravel, and inhabiting a similarly impressionistic sound world, this was originally as a test piece for clarinettists at the Paris Conservatoire. The solo part was played with great agility and feeling by young Spanish musician Sergio Castello López. I’d never noticed before how similar the way the clarinet ends this piece is to the opening statement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, written about 14 years later…

And then it was time for Ravel’s little inspiration, Boléro, which is easily his most famous composition despite the fact that, as Ravel himself put it, `it has no music in it’. What he meant by that is that it doesn’t have any variation or thematic development or invention, but was written deliberately as an experiment to see how far he could get in writing a work that was entirely based on rhythm and repetition. The result was a smash hit and earned him a very great deal of money, but he grew to resent the fact that it was so much more popular than the other works he himself thought were much better. I know some people who hate this piece, but I think it’s great fun and always enjoy hearing it. Last night was no exception.

The composition of Boléro is so simple that even a non-musician like me can play it. It’s basically written in a slow 3/4 time signature on which is superimposed the following figure:

The second part is basically a repeat of the first, with the last two eighth notes replaced with triplet. The whole pattern consists of 24 notes. I once tried to count how many times it is repeated in a performance of Boléro, but gave up when I got to 100. I think it must be over 200 times.  This figure is introduced first on a single snare drum, which carries on playing it for the duration, i.e. for about 15 minutes in total. As the piece develops the same pattern is picked up by various other instruments, either alone in combination. A second snare drum joins in too. The key to the piece is to keep this all very strictly in tempo, as the piece gradually gets louder.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my Father was a (jazz) drummer. I remember once borrowing his snare drum and attempting to play along with a recording of Boléro. The pattern shown above is not that hard to play in itself, but it’s not as easy as you probably think to keep in tempo as you play it louder and louder. At the start it’s fine: you begin by tapping the sticks on the skin of the drum very close to the rim. To increase the volume you gradually move the point of impact closer to the centre of the drum, which naturally makes it louder. However, to get louder still you have to increase the distance the sticks move, and that makes it tougher to keep to tempo. Playing along at home is one thing, but playing the percussionist playing this in an orchestra must leave the drummer feeling very exposed. One mistake, any speeding up or slowing down, and the whole performance will be ruined.  Percussionists very often have little to do for long passages in an orchestral work, but this takes it to the opposite extreme. It requires constant concentration, but no variation or embellishment is allowed.  I suppose professional musicians just get into the zone and don’t think about the possibility of screwing up. Last night, Principal Percussionist David Hext looked as relaxed as anyone I’ve ever seen starting this piece and seemed even to be enjoying it too, thoroughly deserving the warm applause he got at the end of the performance.

The bolero rhythm is just one element of the composition, of course. There is a melody, in two parts. The first simple and catchy, the second bluesier and a bit syncopated. Each part is played twice, passed around the instruments of the orchestra, first individually and then in combinations. Sometimes the melodic line is doubled, but there are no complicated harmonies and the piece stays in C major throughout, apart from a sudden change of key near the very end. The second part of the melody allows the musicians to release their inner jazz a bit, playing behind or across the beat to generate the feeling that the tune is trying to escape the confines of the incessant rhythm. As is the case in jazz, this sense of tension only works if the basic rhythm is kept strictly in tempo as the crescendo builds

The third element of the composition is the simplest of all, but I feel that it is very important in determining whether a performance of Boléro really rocks. That is a rhythmic pulse based on the three beats of the underlying 3/4. When they’re not playing the melody or shadowing the bolero pattern, the orchestra play this figure and it ends up being boomed out by the timpani in tremendous style but also as the piece progresses the stress shifts between the three beats as different instruments contribute.

I know it’s a familiar piece but I really enjoyed last night’s performance. I’ll also reiterate that as well as making a great sound, a full symphony orchestra playing during a piece like this is a tremendous thing to watch, especially with the percussion section giving it some good old-fashioned welly.

Anyway, after the ensuing wine break interval we resumed with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (as orchestrated by that man Maurice Ravel).  I remember studying this in music lessons at school,as it was one of the teacher’s approved works. He never told us, however, that the `pictures’ concerned were not large-scale canvases but tiny drawings and design sketches done by one Victor Hartmann, whose sudden death led to the exhibition in question but also affected his friend Mussorgsky very deeply and inspired him to make a musical tribute based on the artwork displayed therein. Mussorgsky thus wrote the piano version which was then subsequently orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

This is another extremely popular piece, also for good reason. It’s a set of ten movements linked by a `Promenade’ theme that represents the viewer walking around the exhibition (in different moods determined by the pictures). It ends with the most famous section, the magnificent Great Gate of Kiev which provided a suitable finale to a most enjoyable and varied evening of music.

From the House of the Dead in Southampton

Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by telescoper

It has been very hectic around here since I got back from India last week, so I’ve only just found time to do a quick review of Welsh National Opera’s production of From the House of the Dead which I saw last Friday at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. I was away for the two performances of this Opera in Cardiff earlier this month and when I mentioned to a couple of friends of mine from London that I was hoping to catch it while it was on tour we decided to compare diaries and see if there was any way we could go together. And so it came to pass that we all ended up in Southampton, me returning to Cardiff through Storm Brian the next day, and Joao and Kim flying off to Cape Verde for two weeks from Gatwick Airport.

Anyway, to the Opera. From the House of the Dead is by Leoš Janáček, and is based on the autobiographical novel of the same (or similar) name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is set in a Siberian prison, in one such establishment Dostoyevsky himself spent four years of his life. It’s a grim story that starts with the arrival of a nobleman, Goryanchikov, to start his sentence. He is stripped of his fine clothes, beaten and tortured, then joins the wretched ensemble of captives until he is unexpectedly released at the end of the Opera. In between the prisoners take turns to describe their life stories, holding on to the past as people do who perceive that they have no future. There is little plot other than this series of narratives apart from a quasi-comic interlude provided by an Easter `show’, in the form of a pantomime. The work is in three relatively short acts which, in this production, run together without an interval. The whole performance lasts about 90 minutes. The picture above, taken during a previous run of this production in Finland, conveys the look and feel of this revival of a production by David Pountney that was first performed in 1982.

From the House of the Dead was written in the last years of Janáček’s life and was not performed until two years after his death. It opens with a prelude that reminded me a lot of his superb String Quartet No. 2 (`Intimate Letters’), written around the same time (1928) but whereas that work is about the nature of love, this Opera is about loneliness, isolation and brutality. The musical score is very rich and varied, but the vocal lines rather constricted, as if to emphasise the sense of captivity. It’s also really an ensemble piece rather than one in which the principal vocalists stand out from the chorus. This works very well for Welsh National Opera, as the chorus of WNO is exceptional. The Orchestra, under the direction of Tomas Hanus (himself a native of Brno, where Janáček lived for much of his life), played superbly, bringing out the subtleties of the orchestration by adding contrasting notes of optimism and hope to the intense, unrelenting darkness.

In short it was well worth the trip to Southampton, even if it did take me five hours to get home via two trains and a rail replacement bus service. This production has deservedly been very positively reviewed in the national media and I strongly recommend you see it during one if its remaining dates, in Oxford, Birmingham, Bristol or Llandudno.

G.W. – Eric Dolphy

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on October 3, 2017 by telescoper

What better way to celebrate today’s announcement of the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics for the detection of Gravitational Waves, than to play this amazing Eric Dolphy track called `G.W.’ from the album Outward Bound?

This album was recorded in 1960, and the stellar personnel listening is as follows: Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone on this track but also bass clarinet and flute elsewhere on the album); Freddie Hubbard (trumpet); Jaki Byard (piano); George Tucker (bass); Roy Haynes (drums). It’s a great line-up but listen out for the opening solo by Dolphy! Wow!

WNO Eugene Onegin

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 2, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick review of my second opera of the new season at Welsh National Opera, Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky which I saw on Friday evening. This Opera, based on a famous novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin continues this Autumn’s Russian theme, though it is very different in style from Khovanshchina which I saw last week.

The plot revolves around the eponynmous character Eugene Onegin who is dashing and handsome but also arrogant and self-centred. Young Tatyana becomes infatuated with Onegin, and writes him an an impassioned love letter but he haughtily dismissed her advances, not least because she is a simple country girl. Onegin then decides to flirt with Olga, girlfriend of his best friend Lensky who, infuriated, challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky in the duel then, in remorse, Onegin travels abroad for many years (during which he grows his hair long but apparently doesn’t change his suit). He returns to St Petersburg and attends a posh shindig only to find Tatyana all grown up and the belle of the ball. Now that she has some social standing he now finds her desirable, but it turns out that she’s married (to a Prince no less). Though she still fancies him – Heaven knows why, as Onegin is not at all a likeable character – she puts loyalty before passion, and Onegin is left alone with his regrets.

Tchaikovsky’s music is very beautiful, with memorable arias and passages for the chorus. The most famous piece is, of course, the Polonaise that opens Act III. I have to admit that although I’ve heard this piece dozens of times I never knew how to dance the Polonaise before seeing this production. Here’s what it looks like (from a rather more opulent production):

This production has a conventional design and overall look, and is none the worse for that. It’s very much a piece about a particular time and place. Classic countryside settings are contrasted with beautiful ballroom scenes using a simple but effective staging involving a wall across the entire stage with a large rectangular gap in the centre. This aperture is used as a window, or a grand door for the interior scenes but also as a clever way to suggest outdoor settings. The only problem with this device is that it does restrict the stage area quite a bit, so the ballroom scenes look a bit cramped. Costumes are in period style, their rich colours complementing the rather simple staging. Onegin makes his first appearance in black, complete with a top hat, looking rather like an undertaker.

The Opera is in Three Acts, adding up to seven scenes in all. That makes for quite a few changes of scenery and two intervals or, as I call them, wine breaks. The kind of opera I like best of all is the kind with two intervals…

Nicholas Lester (baritone) was a fine Onegin in a role that’s challenging mainly because the character is so unsympathetic; he does get to sing some lovely music. Natalya Romaniw (soprano) sang and acted beautifully, her transformation from country girl to high society lady was very convincing. Miklós Sebestyén (bass-baritone) took the singing honours, though, with a stunning vocal performance that was very warmly received by the audience. It almost goes without saying that the WNO chorus were excellent, but I’ll say it anyway.

P.S. The house was pretty much full, by the way, which is good news. I just wish more people would turn up for the less familiar works!