Archive for Ludwig van Beethoven

The Hallé at St David’s

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2016 by telescoper

On Friday evening I kept up the concert-going, this time at St David’s Hall in Cardiff (which I haven’t been to for far too long). This was the first in the new season of concerto that will run until next summer.

On the bill on Friday was the Hallé Orchestra from Manchester (which is in the Midlands) under the direction of Sir Mark Elder.

The first half of the concert featured two works, the symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel by Antonín Dvorak and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor.

The Dvorak piece is full of energy and  colour and nice tunes, but I found it rather long for what it has to say. Still, it was a good workout with which to get the Hallé warmed up.

I’m not a huge fan of Liszt. I often find his compositions showily virtuosic but rather shallow. Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto is actually much less like that than I expected. Consisting of a single movement lasting just over 20 minutes, it certainly has its pyrotechnical passages, but the piano also takes a back seat too. It’s a very enjoyable work, dazzlingly played at this concert by youthful star soloist Benjamin Grosvenor.

The second half was devoted to a very well-known piece, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“The Pastoral”). It was, however, played in an unusual way that gave it a very fresh sound. Instead of having the basses and cellos in one block, Sir Mark Elder divided them into two groups either side of the stage, one with the first violins and one with the second violins. This simple device managed to create a much more solid  sound from the orchestra, as well as seeming to lower its centre of gravity, as it were. This heightened the impact of the excellent Hallé strings and gave the whole orchestra a rich sonority that perfectly suited the elemental power expressed by Beethoven’s composition.

A very enjoyable concert. Next one, in a couple of weeks, will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”). I can’t wait for that!


Llŷr Williams plays Beethoven

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on October 7, 2016 by telescoper

Determined to enjoy civilisation as much as I can while we still have it, last night I went to a splendid concert at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff featuring acclaimed Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams in an all-Beethoven programme.

The first half of the recital consisted of the three piano sonatas (Opus 10), which are his fifth, sixth and seventh sonatas altogether. Although these are still early works by Beethoven you can already see him pushing back the restrictions of the sonata form. The first two sonatas of this set are of the standard three movement fast-slow-fast format – the first, to my mind, very reminiscent of Haydn – whereas the third has four movements and is looking ahead to what Beethoven would do in future compositions; the  second movement of this third Sonata is particularly beautiful, in a darkly sombre way. None of these pieces reach the heights of his later works, but there is much to enjoy in listening to them.

After the interval we had the Diabelli Variations (Opus 120). The amusing story behind this much later work was recounted by Llŷr Williams before he started to play it. In 1819 the music publisher and  composer Anton Diabelli hit on an idea for a kind of publicity stunt for his publishing business. He wrote a little tune (a waltz, in fact) and sent it to a number of prominent Viennese composers (Beethoven amongst them) with the invitation to write a variation on it. The plan was to parcel all the individual variations together and sell the work as a kind of advertising brochure for Austrian culture. Beethoven wasn’t keen at first – at least in part because he thought the tune was too dull – but he then he decided to turn the project on its head by writing a complete set of variations himself. He wrote the first 19 in quick succession in 1819 and wrote another 14 a few years later. The 33 variations he produced altogether cover an astonishing musical and emotional range: sometimes witty, sometimes tragic, always fascinating. Llŷr Williams aptly described this collection as “one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire”. Being almost an hour long it must be a demanding work to play, but he clearly relished performing it.

As a Jazz fan it has often struck me how great musicians in that idiom can find inspiration in seemingly unpromising tunes, turning base metal into gold through their gifts for improvisation. Last night it struck me how similar that is to Beethoven’s use of a simple little tune as the basis for the Diabelli variations. Theme and variation, that’s what it’s all about!

Llŷr Williams is currently doing a concert series exploring all of Beethoven’s piano works at the Wigmore Hall in London and these are being recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3. In fact, next week (on Tuesday 11th October, at 7.30) you have the chance to hear exactly the same programme that we heard last night. I’ll certainly be listening!

P.S. I’ll leave the pronunciation of “Llŷr” as an exercise to the reader…




Hubble + Beethoven

Posted in Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 10, 2015 by telescoper

In an attempt to get away from the horrors of the last few days I thought I’d offer this video I just found on Youtube. It features majestic, life-affirming music from the 2nd Movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major along with some wonderful astronomical images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Science and art for all humanity. How pathetic our petty squabbles appear when we think about the Universe or listen to great music.

Heiliger Dankgesang

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2013 by telescoper

Not much time to post these days, what with one thing and another, but music is always a good standby. In fact I’ve had this at the back of my mind for some time; hearing it on the radio last week gave me the nudge I needed to post it. I always feel a but uncomfortable about posting just a movement from a classical piece, but I think it is justifiable in this case. This is the 3rd Movement of String Quartet No. 15 (in A minor) by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 132).

The third movement 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 possesses the same restorative powers that it was written to celebrate. This music has a therapeutic value all of its own.

I don’t know if William Wordsworth (of whose poetry I am also extremely fond) ever had the chance to hear Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 , and in Tintern Abbey he was writing about the therapeutic power of nature rather than music, but surely the  “tranquil restoration” described in that poem is exactly the feeling  Beethoven achieves in his music:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: — feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened: — that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, —
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Stravinsky, Dutilleux and Beethoven at RWCMD

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2012 by telescoper

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, although I’ve lived in Cardiff for almost five years now, last night was the first time I’ve ever been inside the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which is situated by the side of Bute Park. The occasion that took me there was a concert in the fine Dora Stoutzker Hall by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera  under the baton of Lothar Koenigs. When I arrived for a quick glass of wine before the concert there was some nice jazz playing in the lobby which made me which I’d got there sooner, but that wouldn’t have been possible because there was a leaving do had to attend beforehand. I didn’t catch the names of the musicians but I guess they were students from the College.

Anyway, the first half of the programme for the evening consisted of a short piece called Ragtime by Igor Stravinsky and a longer suite called Mystère de l’instant by Henri Dutilleux. The first item was played by a small subset of the Orchestra and involved only 11 instruments, including a cymbalom. Written around 1918, Ragtime is Stravinsky’s personal reaction to his experience of American popular music. It’s a quirky and entertaining piece, clearly influenced by ragtime and jazz, especially in Stravinsky’s deployment of  lots of interesting rhythmic devices, whilst remaining quintessentially Stravinsky.

After a bit of reorganization of the stage a larger section of the orchestra, still including the cimbalom, returned to play the Dutilleux piece.  This was another work that was new to me. I found it absolutely gripping. It consists of a series 10 relatively short pieces played without interruption, each of which has its own distinct identity. Overall, this work put my in mind of a gallery full  abstract paintings, each having it’s own palette and texture, and the whole effect being rather cryptic and undefinable. You can actually hear a performance on Youtube here, which I heartily recommend if you’ve never heard this work in full before.

The hall at RWCMD is much smaller that at St David’s and with a seat just a few rows back from the stage I had no difficulty reading the music the violinists were playing. It’s clearly a very demanding work, pushing the limits of not only the string instruments but also the rest of orchestra. When the interval arrived I nipped to the gents for some much-needed micturition and found two of the musicians doing the same thing. I asked if the piece was as difficult to play as it looked from the music. He said “yes”…

One of the excellent things about Lothar Koenig’s choice of programme for the Orchestra of WNO is that he’s very good at choosing contrasting pieces that work very well together. After the interval we returned to a much more familiar work, the Symphony No. 4 in B flat Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven. This piece is much better known than the others we heard last night but it’s worth saying a couple of things about it. The first is that Beethoven wrote it extremely quickly, over a few months in 1806. I find that pretty astonishing in itself for such a beautifully crafted piece. The other thing is that its opening – an elegaic Adagio passage – would have seemed very unconventional at the time it was written, even more so because it suddenly leaps into a jaunty Allegro for the rest of the first movement. There’s a tranquil Adagio second movement, but the rest of the symphony is filled with that sense of purposeful exuberance in which Beethoven was something of a specialist.

The 4th Symphony isn’t as well known as the 3rd and the 5th, perhaps because it’s a bit less fiery, but the full Orchestra of Welsh National Opera gave it the  vigorous and characterful performance it deserves, while the rest of the programme reminded us that classical music didn’t end with Beethoven!

And that was the end of a very enjoyable evening. Leaving the RWCMD I discovered that the gate into Bute Park was still open – the gates usually close at twilight – so I was able to take the short cut home to Pontcanna.


Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by telescoper

Another sign that the summer is over is that the autumn season of Welsh National Opera has started at the Wales Millennium Centre. Last night I went to the opening night of their new production of Fidelio, the only opera ever composed by Ludwig van Beethoven.

I was particularly looking forward to this performance, partly because it has been very heavily plugged by the WNO publicity machine and partly because I’ve never actually seen it done live, although I have seen it on DVD and heard it on the radio. The opening night press presence and a full house added to the general sense of occasion as we took our seats in front of a bare stage dominated by a huge metal cage representing the prison about which the entire plot revolves.

Leonore has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio, and has gained employment as assistant to the chief gaoler, Rocco, in the hope of finding and freeing her imprisoned husband Florestan. To complicate matters, Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline, has fallen in love with Fidelio, which annoys her suitor Jaquino (even though he doesn’t know Fidelio is actually a woman). Leonore persuades Rocco to let her help him in the underground cells where the political prisoners are held in inhuman conditions. The prison governor, the villainous Don Pizarro, learns of an impending inspection by the minister and decides that Florestan – who has been particularly cruelly treated – must be killed to hide the evidence of his abuse. Leonore hears of the plan to murder her husband and, as the prisoners are briefly allowed out into the sunlight, she searches in vain for Florestan among them. He is still in chains below ground. Eventually Leonore and Rocco descend into the darkness of the dungeon and find Florestan, near death having a vision of an angel that has come to rescue him. Leonore looks on as Pizarro arrives and tries to kill her husband, but she stops him and reveals here true identity. In the nick of time (geddit?), the Minister, Don Fernando, arrives and, appalled by what he sees, commands that all the prisoners be released. Leonore sets her husband free.

Much of Beethoven’s music from his “middle period” – Fidelio was first performed in 1805 – is about the struggle for political liberty and social justice that was taking place throughout Europe at the time so it’s not difficult to see why he was attracted to this story. Although originally written in three acts, it is now performed in a version with only two. This gives the opera a fascinating structure. The music in Act I is clearly a nod back in the direction of Mozart, while Act II is dramatically different, with a much wider range of orchestral colour, and is clearly a look forward towards Romanticism. Another thing that struck me was that, throughout, there is much more of an emphasis on combinations of two or more voices (compared to solo arias) than you find in many other operas in the standard repertoire; an example is the wonderful Act I Quartet. Also there are no less than four published versions of the overture. Often this opera is performed with the version called Leonore No. 3, but the one simply known as Fidelio.

Unfortunately, though, the overture was where it started to go wrong. The orchestral playing was ragged and out of balance, with the brass section (especially the horns) particularly lacking in control. This carried on into Act I and seemed to affect the singers who appeared ill-at-ease. Worse, the movement of the actors on stage was bizarre: moving backwards and forwards along straight lines, or sometimes circling around each other, as if they were automata running on rails. Perhaps this was supposed to emphasize the constraints on individual liberty represented by life in the prison. Who knows? I thought it just looked silly.

Fidelio is really a singspiel (a form of opera in which the recitative is spoken not sung). In this performance however much of the spoken text essential to understanding the plot was cut so it was hard to understand the context of what was going on. I was lucky in that I knew a bit about it before seeing it, but I’m sure a total newcomer would have been completely baffled. The set was stark and minimal, and the costumes grey and nondescript – appropriately enough for the prison setting – but they didn’t do much for the plot either, especially in the pervasive semi-darkness provided by the lighting.

It was only near the end of Act I that the cast seemed to settle down. By the time the massed ranks of the supporting singers appeared for the celebrated Prisoner’s Chorus it had really started to gel.
I don’t know if words were spoken at the interval, but Act II was a great deal better, although not quite good enough to banish memories of the debacle that was Act I. The compelling stage presence of WNO stalwart Dennis O’Neill as Florestan (who only appears in Act II) gave the performance a much-needed focus, the acting was more relaxed, more naturalistic, and more compelling than in the first act, and the rousing finale as uplifting as anything you could want to hear.

Lisa Milne was a fine Leonore/Fidelio, Robert Hayward a menacing Pizarro, Clive Bayley was in superb voice as Rocco, and as I’ve mentioned above, Dennis O’Neill was great too. Also worthy of a mention was the superb WNO chorus, led by Chorus Master Stephen Harris.

I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t a bit disappointed by the way this performance started, but I’d still recommend going to see it. I’d have happily paid the money just for Act II. Perhaps it was first-night nerves anyway. I don’t do stars, but if I did I’d give it three…