Archive for Sergei Rachmaninov

Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2016 by telescoper

I was indisposed over the weekend so I wasn’t able to do a write-up of the concert I attended at St David’s Hall on Friday evening, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy in a programme of all-Russian music. Ashkenazy is of course best known as a pianist, but he has in recent years increasingly appeared in public performances as a conductor, apparently preferring to confine his piano playing to the recording studio. I’d never seen him in the flesh before and was surprised when this rather diminutive man bounded onto the stage and, hardly pausing for breath, started the concert. He’s obviously not one for hanging about.

First item on the menu was the Overture to the Opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin. At least the piece is attributed to Borodin, but no trace of the original score has ever been found; the piece as performed nowadays was entirely reconstructed from memory by Alexander Glazunov. It’s a rather conventional overture for the time, consisting of a sort of fast-forward of some of the outstanding themes and musical motifs that occur in the Opera.

In case you didn’t know Borodin was only a part-time composer. His day job was as a Professor of Organic Chemistry. He also died quite young – at the age of 53 – suffering a heart attack at a fancy dress ball.
Given is relatively short life and his occupation with other matters, Borodin didn’t write all that much music, but what survives is of generally very high quality, and this piece is no exception. A very nice warm-up for the larger works to come.

(Yes, I say Borodin was “quite young” at the age of 53 because that’s how old I am…)

Next up was one of the most familiar concert pieces of the entire classical repertoire, the  Piano Concerto No. 1 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Certainly the spectacular opening, with its fanfare-like introduction followed by a dramatic string theme supported by huge chords from the piano, must be one of the best-known introductions to a classical work. It’s curious though that the theme that gives it such an imposing start is not heard anywhere else in the concerto, though what follows is hugely absorbing and entertaining, if a bit theatrical for some tastes. It’s not too theatrical for me, I hasten to add. I love it.

(Coincidentally, Tchaikovsky also died at the age of 53.)

The soloist for the performance was Alice Sara Ott who played with great verve and virtuosity. It’s a piece that calls for some muscular playing, and despite her slender build, Alice Sara Ott was up tot the task. She practically lifted herself up off the stool on a number of occasions to generate enough downward force on the keys.

After the interval we had Symphony Number 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninov. The first performance of this work in 1897, conducted by Glazunov with the composer in the audience, was a complete disaster and the piece was so badly received that Rachmaninov refused to allow it to be published (and even destroyed the score). It wasn’t until 1945 that the orchestral parts were found and the symphony reconstructed that it was performed again. I think it’s a very satisfying symphonic work. Although ostensibly in D Minor it spends most of the time in major keys (F major in the second movement, B♭ major in the third, and D major in the finale).  Like all great symphonies it takes the listener on a journey through a very varied soundscape – and times wistful and  and at others exuberant. I particularly enjoyed the lengthy coda at the end of the 4th movement.

I really don’t know why this work was so savaged by the critics when it was first performed, although Rachmaninov laid the blame firmly at  the conductor’s feet. I think he would have appreciated last night’s concert a lot more than

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Gershwin, Adams & Rachmaninov

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday (Friday) being the last day of (relative) freedom before teaching resumes on Monday I took the opportunity to go to a concert by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera at the splendid St David’s Hall in Cardiff. I had been looking forward to it for some time, as the programme featured two favourite pieces of mine, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances (A Foxtrot for Orchestra), plus one longer piece that I’ve never heard live before, Symphony No. 2 (in E minor) by Sergei Rachmaninov.

There was a good crowd in St David’s last night, not surprisingly given the popularity of the pieces being performed. Conductor for the evening was Frédéric Chaslin, who led the orchestra from the piano during the opening number, Rhapsody in Blue. This is a very famous piece, and is played so often that it is in danger of becoming a bit of a cliché, especially when classical orchestras try too hard to sound like jazz musician; the piece was originally written for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. A case in point is the opening clarinet solo, which is often played like a ham-fisted parody. Not last night, though. Principal clarinettist of WNO Leslie Craven gave a very characterful rendition of the notoriously tricky opening, which seemed to inspire the orchestra into an excellent all-round performance. I particularly enjoyed seeing the cello section slapping the strings of their instruments much as a jazz-era double-bass player would.

Chaslin gave an idiosyncratic account of the piano part, to the extent that in the final solo passage before the finale he departed from the script entirely and interpolated an improvised section all of his own. Not everyone in the audience approved – there were a few tuts behind me – but it’s a piece undoubtedly inspired by jazz, so I don’t see anything wrong with doing this. I thought his ad-libbing was charming, and very witty. What I wasn’t so happy about were the changes in tempo, which were too exaggerated. I suppose conducting from the piano means you can do whatever you want, but I think he took the rubato too far. Some sections rely on strict rhythm for their sense of urgency, and I felt he got bogged down a bit in places. Still, on balance, it was very refreshing to hear an orchestra trying to do something different. Nothing hackneyed about last night’s performance, that’s for sure.

Next one up was The Chairman Dances by John Adams. This isn’t actually in the opera Nixon in China, which is what a lot of people seem to think. It was composed at the same time, but cut out and developed as a standalone concert piece. I posted a recording of this yesterday, so won’t say too much today, except that I thoroughly enjoyed my first live experience of this work. So did the orchestra by the look of it! It’s a hugely entertaining piece and had many in the audience tapping their feet along with it. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have minded getting up and dancing along myself..

Special mention has to go the percussion section of the orchestra for doing such an excellent job. The four xylophones were  a delight to listen to, and the drums, temple blocks, triangles and assorted ironmongery coped brilliantly with the intricate polyrhythms.

Then it was the interval, and a glass of wine before returing to savour the main piece of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It’s a remarkable work because it’s not only a “proper” symphony in its construction and development but also the best part of an hour of one glorious melody after another. Rachmaninov’s music is not really very much like Mozart, but they certainly had a similar ear for the Big Tune! I particularly loved the third movement (Adagio), but I thought it was a magnificent performance throughout, not least because you could see how much both conductor and orchestra were enjoying themselves.

The end of the concert was met with rapturous applause from the (normally rather reticent) St Davids audience. Now I have to find the best recording I can of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony so I can enjoy it again. Any suggestions?

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by telescoper

Another Friday evening, another concert at St David’s Hall. This time it was the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, performing a very mixed programme of pieces (by Rachmaninov, Ravel, Webern and Stravinsky). We’ve been hosting a former PDRA of mine, Chiaki Hikage (now at Princeton) and his wife Mihoko for a week so I invited them along. Chiaki gave a seminar on Friday afternoon at which he endured the usual bombardment of questions from Leonid Grishchuk, so I thought he would need some relaxation afterwards.  I even managed to get front-row seats. It turned out to be a wonderful evening of twentieth century classical music, full of excitement colour and dramatic contrasts.

First up was The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 by Sergei Rachmaninov,  inspired by a painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin and written around 1909. The rhythms of the opening passage evoke the motion of a boat moving across the sea to the island, from which point the piece develops among a cloud of increasingly dense harmonic layers into a dark atmosphere full of foreboding. It’s a piece that many probably find a bit melodramatic, but I found it both accessible and fascinating.  In fact it struck me that it wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack for a horror movie!

After that we had a short break while the stage crew wheeled in the old Steinway for the second piece, the Piano Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel. This is a relatively late piece by Ravel, written around 1930. Its three movements form a sort of sandwich, with the first and third up tempo, jazzy in style and very Gershwinesque. The second, adagio, movement is very different: longer lyrical and tender, although I still detected a jazz influence in the walking bass of the left hand figures during the nocturne passages. The piece was played in sparkling fashion by Jean-Philippe Collard. We were so close that we could hear him humming along as he played. Apparently that bothers some people, but not me. I suppose that’s because so many jazz pianists behave a similar way, as did Glenn Gould.

Anyway, after a glass of wine at the interval it was time for something completely different, the Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, by Anton Webern. This is a suite of short, intense, atonal pieces, sort of orchestral aphorisms, that embrace a huge range of musical ideas. Although  sometimes a bit cryptic, I found these pieces in their own way at least as evocative as the Rachmaninov we heard earlier. The disorientating atonality of the compositions gives them an edgy restlessness, which I found very absorbing. If they were to be used in a film soundtrack it would definitely have to be  a psychological thriller or  film noir.

The last work was probably the most familiar, The Firebird Suite (No. 2, 1919 version) by Igor Stravinsky from the ballet of the same name. This consists of five pieces, again of varied tempo and colour, ending in an exhilirating finale.

Overall it was a hugely enjoyable evening, with all parts of the orchestra tested to the limits and emerging with flying colours. I’d like to put in a special word for the percussionists, though. Perhaps because my Dad used to play the drums I always feel they don’t get the credit they deserve standing there at the back. In particular, during the Webern and Stravinsky works, the percussionists – especially the tympanist – had an awful lot to do, and did it absolutely superbly. However, all parts of the orchestra played their parts equally well under the baton of Lothar Koenigs. This orchestra has had a few problems recently so it was a relief to find them on such good form.

The St David’s Hall was only about two-thirds full, but the audience was thoroughly appreciative – especially for the outstanding performance of the Ravel Piano Concerto. I’m going to get hold of a recording of it by Jean-Philippe Collard as soon as I can!

P.S. Our front row tickets only cost £22 each. Amazing.


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