Sunday, March 28, 2010


After his early days when Debussy and Richard Strauss were considerable influences on his music, especially in the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartok’s more mature music, the music that he is best known for, is marked by the folk music of his native land and what might be called ‘expressive dissonance’. His music became percussive, eastern European rhythms dominated. But from 1939 onwards, the expression and harmonies became gentler, more accessible to ears used to less harsh harmonies and rhythms.

It so happened that in the concert given on March 18 in Blackheath Halls by the Trinity College of Music Symphony Orchestra all three works were composed by the ‘gentler’ Bartok. Curiously, these works did not reflect the more ‘dissonant’ events in Bartok’s life: his flight from Europe to America, his penurious existence, increasing bad health and death in 1945 at the age of sixty-four. The long programme consisted of the 1938 Violin Concerto, the 1945 Piano Concerto No. 3 and the 1943 Concerto for orchestra.

Of the three works, the Concerto for orchestra stands out as perfect; it is like a symphony in five movements yet also a showpiece, as you might expect, for an orchestra. There were a few very minor faults of intonation, ensemble and a lack of virtuosity, but only minor ones. This was a performance that tingled with energy and understanding, the more extraordinary, since the conductor Zsolt Nagy had only three days with the Trinity students.

Mind you, he is an experienced director, well able to pass on his expertise and feeling for the music of his countryman. The violins sounded passionate, led by Tadasuke Lijima. The orchestra plays on the flat in this hall and although one heard the higher sounds and the percussion well, much of what was played in the middle registers was not clear; the violinist, hailing from Slovenia but now living in London, Lana Trotovsek, had the measure of the concerto, musically and technically; likewise the Russian pianist Mikhail Shilyaev. The slow movement of the piano work is marked religioso, a pallid adagio whilst the finale of the violin concerto seems to try too hard and runs out of steam.

Even when he was so broke in New York that at one time he stayed in his flat because he lacked a tip for the lift man, Bartok was too proud to accept charity. The violinist Joseph Szigeti told me that the conductor Serge Koussevitsy only got the composer to accept some money by saying that his commissioning foundation insisted on making a down payment. The première of the Concerto for orchestra in Boston, conducted by Koussevitsky, was a success but during the final afternoon rehearsal one of two ladies in the audience, members of the blue rinse brigade was heard to say “Gee, conditions must be terrible right now back in Europe”.

In the fourth movement there is a passage where Bartok hoped to parody the Leningrad symphony of Shostakovich but when he slyly asked the conductor Antal Dorati if he recognized the tune he was horrified that Dorati said “yes, its Lets all go to Maxims from the Merry Widow”. Which of course it could also be.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Catharsis is the word, the release of strong emotions. That definition fits the music of Janacek. Yet until the fifties we knew it not. The Big Four were Stravinsky, Bartok, Schonberg and Hindemith. The latter soon slipped out of prominence. And then in 1951 there was a new name to conjure with: Janacek.

A young Australian conductor, Charles Mackerras, studying in Czechoslovakia had been bowled over by the music of this strange composer. Janacek had come to fame late in life but had then written masterpiece after masterpiece until he died in 1928, aged seventy-four. His music is full of woodnotes wild, totally original although not avant-garde technically, awkwardly written, stretch-players and singers, exciting music, somehow life-enhancing; even his darkest and tragic scores bring joy – catharsis in fact. Young Mackerras persuaded the sensitive director of Sadler’s Wells Norman Tucker to première Katia in the Festival of Britain year.

Janacek had arrived. Not liked at first but gradually gaining acceptance, especially in Katia’s revival in 1954 conducted by the great Rafael Kubelik. His first night was one of the most memorable I can remember. It was as if Ostrovsky’s (the librettist) The Storm had been made palpable. Our emotions were well and truly wrung. At the climaxes it felt as though the roof would crack. The Wells Orchestra, not the best in London, played within an inch of its life. One of the cellists said to me afterwards; “what happened? we can’t play as well as that!”.

One of the amazing things about Janacek is how he brings his characters to life, and his ability to compress the events of the drama. You go through heaven and hell, only to find that the act took barely half-an-hour.

Gradually we got to experience other operas by the Moravian: Jenufa, Vixen, House of the Dead, Makropoulos and even Broucek. And now every opera house produces Janacek. We have gained a master composer. On March 15 Katia was given a new production by the English National in the Coliseum. Production, cast and orchestra did the composer proud in this work, one of many inspired by his love of a woman in an affaire that never really happened; he admitted that it was an invention. Kamilla was cool towards him, she was married, didn’t care for music, especially his. There was no consummation, except, thank God, in the music that positively poured out of him.

When we arrived in the theatre, half the stage was already visible: on one side an obtruding wall with one chair in front of it; and we had seen that before recently in Covent Garden’s Tristan. When the curtain opened fully we saw that the wall went on and on, but the rest of the stage was empty, the cast could either stand or squat. The sparseness of David Alden’s production continued, the cast spotlit unencumbered by furniture. As the action continued there was much and cleverly contrived use of shadows.

Alden was clever with his singers too and they excelled: Susan Bickley made much of the ghastly, hypocritical mother-in-law; John Graham-Hall was a convincing wimpish husband, likewise Clive Bayley as Bickley’s admirer. The tenor-lover Stuart Skelton sang impressively and Anne Grevilius was perfect as Varvara. There was only one disappointment: Patricia Racette, soprano from Texas, was a fine performer, good diction, clear lines, presence but the voice was not listener-friendly. Mark Wigglesworth directed superbly and the orchestra played up appropriately.

It was a good evening at the opera. Hearts were wrung.


Jacqueline du Pré is remembered in the Wigmore Hall by an annual charity concert; this year’s took place on March 9 and was devoted to the music of Chopin, except for one work, Mozart’s piano trio in E, K. 542 which was a favourite of Chopin ‘s that he played in public in one of his rare concerts. It is one of his most intimate and tender works yet the performance revealed no feeling for style, being brusque and matter-of-fact, curious in that the performers call themselves the London Mozart Trio.

Chopin’s account opened with a peak work, his fourth Ballade in F minor which begins so disarmingly simply and developes in a remarkably convoluting way, almost like seeing a speeded up film of a rain forest, ending with a coda of a cadenza that is a seething mass of modulating brilliance. Evelyne Berezovsky, not yet twenty years of age, a Russian pianist now living in London could see through the tangled paths and guide us on the fantastic journey, the only criticism possible being that she somewhat over-used the sustaining pedal.

In another of Chopin’s recital programmes he played the last three movements of his late cello sonata, a work that often confirms the view that Chopin was not at his best when he added stringed instruments to his palette. Not so on this occasion, for Jamie Walton was thoroughly convincing and so was his pianist, Daniel Grimwood. After the interval Alison Pearce sang three Mazurkas arranged as songs by Pauline Viardot, Chopin’s friend. These are interesting but attention waned because of the singer’s dubious intonation and lack of charm.

Finally Piers Lane played the Fantasie in F minor, Berceuse and the great Barcarolle. Was it the result of waiting two hours in the dressing room that dampened the usual sparkle of this stimulating pianist? All the notes were there …

When the music falls short of interest in the Wigmore I always look at the art-deco frieze above the heads of the artists, commiserating with that central godlike creature who surely cannot be comfortable with his genitals in the grip of a crown of thorns. Beside him is some sort of scribe, copying out music but looking like Pimen (from Boris Gudonov). And beyond him is a naked girl who is suffering, a doctor friend told me, from an inguinal hernia (confirmed by the bulge below her navel).

After looking at the frieze my thoughts wandered to Chopin’s long liaison with Gorge Sand. With her assumption of a masculine name and her scruffy mannish clothes, she might at first be taken for a lesbian. But no, she was apparently a regular man-eater, flitting from one to another if they failed to come up to snuff. She confided her disappointment, for example, with her one night stand with Prosper Merimée. No merry-mating apparently. Yet it looks as if Chopin was often content and productive under her care at her house in Nohant.

For all his dandyish ways and complaints (“I am without my white gloves” he wrote to a friend from Valdemossa) how virile his music is and with genius he could compress his epic visions into small masterworks!!