Contemporary Music – why?

Last night, to get to a wonderful rendition of Bruch’s first violin concerto, I had to sit through a work called Feast During a Plague by Sofia Gubaldulina. I’ve never heard of her but with Bruch and Prokofiev on the menu, I had filed the piece under “how bad can it possibly be” and bought the ticket anyway. The other two pieces were worth the ticket price. This was not. In answer to “how bad can it possibly be”, the answer is truly, unequivocably awful.

Apparently some people – I don’t know who, whether they really exist or how high they were – have called her the world’s greatest living female composer. I have no idea why. I really have no idea why. I don’t know how the orchestra suffered through it and I believe they have to again tonight in Charleroi. For the first time in my life in a concert hall, with a high quality orchestra on the bill, I heard an audience boo a performance. This is highly rare. If they got applause, it was for suffering through this piece.

I loathed it. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of much atonal output anyway – I think it’s self indulgent trash for the most part, and this was utterly devoid of a melody. It had some structure yes, but who cares when ten minutes in you’re wondering when the torture is going to be over. When you see her name being mentioned in sentences with Shostakovich, it’s the sort of stuff that makes me vomit. Shostakovich – whether you like him or not – wrote singable melodies. The second movement of his second piano concerto is a truly beautiful thing (if not the rest of it) and in one of his Jazz Waltzes he has given us a truly amazing short work whether you hear it played by an orchestra or a piano or two (there are a fair few transcriptions around), it is wonderful to listen to.

There is a recording of this Gubaldulina work somewhere on YouTube where at least one of the ten commenters described it as “lovely”. It is anything but. It is unmelodic, harsh discordant mulch with too much running around by the percussion crew. We use the world “lovely” to describe Rachmaninoff’s 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. We use the world “lovely” to describe Puccini’s arias. We do not use the world lovely to describe self indulgent atonal compositions that should not ever have the indulgence of being performed and imposed on a paying audience who would not pay money for it if it were the only work on the bill. I cannot imagine that this is the Gewandhaus’s best selling album by any stretch.

From what I can see, the audience hated it. They were fidgety from about 10 minutes in, and shortly afterwards, they started chatting. There was a large group of bored teenagers in who loathed it. We have one of the top violinists playing Bruch like an angel afterwards but this nonsense lost a bunch of young people. Orchestras need young people. It’s why the hell we have concerts of computer game music all of which is better than this. It’s why we have concerts of Hans Zimmer’s music.

I understand the need to schedule new music. But for the love of god, if that new music is atonal please don’t schedule it with Bruch, or Prokofiev. She might have been a contemporary of him and Shostakovich but it’s no wonder they are known and she is not so much.

I love the BNO. I love the Henri Leboeuf hall in Brussels. I’ve been to some stunning concerts there. But whoever programmed that needs to explain why they programmed that with the Bruch and Prokofiev. It was an awful, awful choice, completely counter to the beauty of the other two. It didn’t complement them. People left that concert hall at the interval (as they do for Bartok symphonies).

Contemporary music doesn’t have to be like this. At the end of the day, if you want to play atonal crap, you have to accept that not a lot of people want to listen to it and without an audience, what is music anyway? Meanwhile, people like Ludovico Einaudi are selling out major arenas as did Ennio Morricone.

You might judge people for liking that simplistic crapola and not being sophisticated to recognise the true genius of Feast During a Plague. But there is a reason that when people are asked who their favourite composer is, it isn’t this that they are answering. Nothing from the atonal world comes close to matching a Bach or Mozart.

This was not music. I never again want to hear it.

March 2024 Concert Diary

Okay, a few concerts to mention in passing.

Alice Sara Ott is a wonderful concert pianist and you should definitely go and see her while you have the chance. Her Chopin preludes interspersed with (good) contemporary compositions in Brussels a few weeks’ back was a wonderful.

Maxim Vengerov probably is the best violinist in the world at the moment although Hilary Hahn is probably close. Last week he played Sibelius in the National Concert Hall in Dublin and despite some issues in the opening movement, it was truly glorious. In addition to the Sibelius, David Brophy and the NSO in Dublin gave us a Haydn symphony, and also Beethoven’s 7th. It was a night to savour. The brass section was a little overly loud but David Brophy is an excellent conductor with a very broad range of capabilities. He conducted the Beethoven from memory (together with the repeats) and I know he also did the Davey concert the week before as well. He is possibly Ireland’s best classical music asset at the moment and yet somehow, I think over rated.

Benjamin Grosvenor played Liszt 2 with the OPRL from Liege in Brussels on Holy Thursday. The OPRL are an excellent orchestra, treating us to wonderful Liszt Preludes and something by Strauss cannot remember what – beautiful. Sucks how talented he was when he wasn’t such a nice person. The Liszt piano concerto was accurate, finger secure and a bit underwhelming. I expected more but the piano was somewhat lost in the orchestra and I didn’t find it to be a particularly engaging performance for its accuracy and security. It’s a pity because that Liszt piano concerto is a stand out concerto, full of fire and drama. But it wasn’t really like that on Thursday night and I’m not in a hurry back. Given the coverage he gets on line, and especially in UK classical music coverage, I was expecting something more.

Sergei Khachryan came back to Bozar to play Bruch’s iconic first violin concerto on Good Friday. The concert was sold out and absolutely worth it for the experience of hearing him play; I wasn’t aware of him but have to note him as an excellent soloist, with all the passion that the concerto demands and then some. Two encores by Isaye (third and fourth sonata movements from what I remember) and an audience who truly loved him. But well they might. He rescued them from what was an seminally awful opening work, by Sofia Gubaldalina called Feast during a Plague. You will find a recording of it on YouTube where some elitist misguided idiots call it “lovely”.

The Romeo and Juliet ballet extracts from Prokofiev which followed the break was lovely. The Feast during a Plague was not but I’ll write on that separately.

Alexandre Kantorow and the HKPO at Bozar, Brussels, 9 March 2024

I didn’t realise when I was booking the concert tickets, but the performance of the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Alexandre Kantorow was the opening concert of the Clara Festival of music in Brussels. In one way, it didn’t matter.

Looking at Alexandre Kantorow, it’s really hard to absorb just how young he is, how recently he won the Tchaikovsky and just how much buzz there is around him. He’s 26 years old. I remember when I thought that was ancient. But that was 40 years ago. Maybe 35 years ago.

He was scheduled to play Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’s the case that I would never pass by a chance to hear a piano/orchestra work by Rachmaninoff, and this was the second time in six months I was up to see this, albeit with a very different orchestra and a very different soloist. As usual, I hunted for seats that gave me an optimal view of the piano keys, and found myself in the front row. I was very glad to be there because watching Kantorow touch the keys of a piano is a remarkable experience and almost mind altering to be frank about it. His pedalling style is intriguing. I don’t understand how he does it, in the same way as I don’t understand how Yuja Wang does it with high heels (although that is still more easily understood that Kantorow pedalling with zero purchase on anything; just hanging in mid air).

So, to the performance. It was extraordinary. These pieces, they are standard repertoire, and you could cynically say there’s nothing more that can be said with them that we haven’t already heard from superstar pianists in the past. But Kantorow, there’s something special about how he plays, how he physically approaches the keys (and the pedals), almost as though he is sculpting sound from the air. Watching him play is as much a performance experience as hearing the notes sounding that result. I would have given anything to sit in a solo recital in the same seat just to see what he does with Liszt and maybe some more Brahms.

The standouts for me were the 15-20th variations. I don’t usually pick out pieces like that (especially not in that work as I think it stands complete). I would cheerfully listen to and watch him play those almost ad infinitum. He reinforced the cinema images I have always had from them (black and white moves of the interwar years) and the interplay with the orchestra was just * chef’s kiss*.

He gave us one encore, a piece of Brahms, one of the waltzes from Opus 39. I’m not sure what arrangement he played whether it was A major or A flat major. I note this only because I spent some time looking for it this morning and I found it existed in several forms, all done by Brahms himself. I find the A major arrangement for solo in my sheet music. The touch was delicate and in only the way that Brahms could compose, full of yearning love. I added it to my to be learned list but of course I’ll never play it like that.

Opportunities to hear him play should be grabbed.

The rest of the programme consisted of a commission for the orchestra by a Hong Kong based composer; as contemporary pieces go it was listenable and enjoyable. I suspect it will stay in their repertoire. The main event following the concerto was Brahms’ mighty first symphony. This is a piano blog but I will acknowledge that on the symphony front, Brahms and Sibelius, they the men. This was wonderful. But really, the highlight for me was Kantorow.

BRU: Flagey Capucon and Trifonov

Back in June, when I was at Kissin, I was browsing the upcoming dates for Flagey and noticed that Messers Gautier Capucon and Daniil Trifonov were coming to play some Rachmaninoff in February. It seemed a long long way off last June but the day finally arrived on 7 February.

I’m going to be frank here: Daniil Trifonov is, in my experience, the best live concert pianist bar none at the moment and I’ve seen Yuja Wang, Lang Lang and Evgeny Kissin and Daniel Barenboim and Khatia Buniatishvili. So I would go to watch him playing variations on a nursery rhyme or any of the pieces on my 40 pieces learning list. Gautier Capucon plays the cello which isn’t really my instrument but I seriously appreciated his daily pieces during Covid and I cannot deny that he is a superlative musician. I had wanted to catch him live for a while. So, concert date was basically a marriage made in heaven.

The programme consisted of Debussy and Prokofiev sonatas in the first half, and then Rachmaninoff in the second half. I am not at all familiar with either of the first half sonatas, which is my own fault. They are beautiful and contrasting in style; to my mind rather mournful. The playing was masterful – there is something very special about how Trifonov balanced the depth and might of the Model D Steinway to allow the cello to sing. I enjoyed it very much but really, I was there for the Rachmaninoff more than anything. It was on a far higher plane than either of the two first half pieces. I read a comment once that Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata was not really a cello sonata as such, but a sonata for piano and cello. I tend to agree with this, especially after Wednesday night. I think the piano part could stand alone as a sonata in its own right; it has also many, many little sketches that you find littered around his concertos. Quotes, if you like.

On Wednesday, the two musicians played as equals. Where in the Prokofiev and Debussy, the piano very much tended to the accompaniment, in the Rachmaninoff, it was an equal partner in the endeavour. I loved it. Everyone around me loved it. I resolved to find the sheet music because I wanted to learn it.

There were two encores, Vocalise by Rachmaninoff and the Dance of the Knights by Prokofiev. The latter was particularly striking – I would like ot learn that too but it’s not something that my precious little Kawai digital will be able to fit. I’m also not sure if there’s a piano transcription currently available. I need to check.

With all due respect to the cellists amongst us, for me the highlight was the piano playing. I first saw Trifonov playing Rach 2 about 7 years ago in the Philharmonie in Luxembourg – I had no idea who he was but I would go to any concert of Rach 2 that I happen across. He does things with a piano that I lack the capacity to describe; but he makes me feel, oh how he makes me feel. I was so glad I did not miss him this time (I wound up on a waitlist for him last year). I really hope next year he comes back and plays a concerto with one of the orchestras here in Brussels. I would love to see him in that context again. Gautier Capucon will be back to do a masterclass at the Elisabeth Chapel in Waterloo in March.

All told, a wonderful evening. For the Rachmaninoff, Gautier has a recording with Yuja Wang. It is beautiful but far from being the same experience; the piano is some steps back and of course, nothing matches the sound of a grand piano in the flesh.

Vikingur Olafsson at Bozar, Brussels 29.10.23

Goldberg Variations

Summary: if you have the opportunity to go you should. This tour is already one of the iconic ones and will be spoken about for years.

I struggle to describe the experience. Watching him was like watching many very different people; from a teenage boy, from a gaming nerd, from a middle aged woman, to the 40 year old man, to a church organist. All there on the stage before me.

I’ve never seen an audience so tense (apart from the coughing men, that is). Pure silence waiting for the last vibrations of closing notes to die away. Many different sounds from the one Steinway D on the stage. Perfectly controlled voices. It really was extraordinary.


BRU: Flagey: Rachmaninoff150 Day #01

The Brussels Phiiharmonic and Flagey are running a series of Rachmaninoff concerts to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth and while I will miss the two concerts dedicated to the second and third piano concertos, this weekend included the first and fourth along with And Supporting Pieces. I will pick up Piano Concerto No 1 along with Rimsky Korskakov’s Scheherazade later today but I want to post briefly about last night’s concert. Details of the festival are here.

The soloist is Boris Giltburg, artist in residence in Flagey at the moment as I understand it. He is a Moscow born Israeli pianist in his late 30s and for some reason, last night was the first time I had come across his work. This surprises me. He was excellent. Last night he chose to play a Fazioli and I think this is the first time that I have seen a piano that was not a Steinway or a Yamaha in years. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t see a Steinway. I like Faziolis so this pleased me. And I was in Row B. I know they are somewhat of the cheap seats and “the sound is better further back”. But. I like to watch the soloist and in this respect, Boris Giltburg is definitely worth watching.

The programme for last night was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, An American in Paris by Gershwin and then, the fourth piano concerto, sometimes the forgotten of the four brothers, as it were, often overshadowed by the Symphonic Dances (which if it was programmed near me this year I somehow endeavoured to miss which is a pity because that is a mighty piece).

The Paganini was superlative. There isn’t really any other way to describe it and I doubt any other performance will match it for pure power and delicacy. I suspect the piano in part had something to do with that – for me, the piano personifies a river running through the countryside of the orchestra for that piece (and sometimes that countryside is frozen, covered in frost and snow with ice on the surface of occasional pools of still water) and the sound of the Fazioli definitely enhanced that image for me. Equally, the fourth piano concerto was an outstanding performance – it is hardly surprising that Giltburg picked up standing ovations for both performances and will probably pick up a few more customer’s for today’s concert this afternoon. I liked him very much; he provided one encore from the Moments Musicaux, one with which I am less familiar but glitteringly beautiful nonetheless.

Touching on the Gershwin, I have to confess he is not really my favourite, and I couldn’t actually remember ever listening to An American in Paris but I must have because it was extremely familiar to me. Maybe I heard it quite often when I was very young. That being said, the performance last night was top flight. I’m left with the feeling that in the repertoire, this should be performed much more often. I would also tend to suggest that it is a piece that really bears being heard live rather than in recorded format.

After the concert, there was an Aftertalk, questions and answers with the conductor and the soloist. It was something I’ve never experienced before but I have to say it was fascinating. It touched on the challenges for both composers, the changes Rach made to the fourth piano concerto a couple of years before he died, how it fitted into his dire for American citizenship before he died. The presenter prior to the concert suggested this was a jazzy concerto and in discussion afterwards, I would venture to suggest that isn’t quite right, at least in the final revisions; I learned there are elements of jazz impro in the first edition of the concerto. But for me, again, it evokes snowy scenery rather than the jazz view of the United States o the 20s. Emigrés fall between several cultures and I suspect Rach is no different in that.

On the question of Gershwin it was pointed out that he wanted to be taken seriously by the classical establishment; that he had been an immensely musical theatre composer – I have heard this store more recently of course with Andrew Lloyd Webber. In Europe at least, Gershwin is seen as a great composer and has been for the last 40 years at least. Giancarlo Guerrero, who conducted, is fascinating in this discussion and he notes that in the US, Gershwin is still seen as lesser despite this being the first great American symphonic piece. It’s an interesting perspective and that discussion is one why those after concert discussions can be fascinating and extremely fascinating.

Anyway, I came home and took out the 18th Variation transcription for solo piano and had a go at it again. My god it is so lovely, I should put more work into it, despite the Bach two part invention that stands before me like an undesirable but necessary Everest (once I am past that, Bach will be carefully selected rather than imposed).

7 October, Rachmaninoff with the Brussels Philharmonic, Guerrero and Giltburg.

Leif Ove Andsnes – Henri LeBoeuf Hall, Brussels

Just before I went on holiday, I was lucky enough to catch Leif Ove Andsnes playing Beethoven 5 in Brussels. It’s the second time I’ve heard that piece although previously it was with Daniel Barenboim as soloist.

Leif, I have always wanted to hear, playing the Nokia jingle if that was what it would take. I’ve missed concerts before for various reasons.

He was excellent. There is something quite delicate about how he plays, and he fades into the music. I enjoyed it very much. I’m sorry in one way to have been sitting behind him up high.

Beethoven 5 is one of my favourite concert pieces – up there with Saint Saens 5 and Rach 2 – and for a while it was a piece I did not think people could play disappointingly. Barenboim was somewhat disappointing the night I heard him play. It made me think that that concerto in particular is maybe a younger man’s game. Andsnes is one of those younger men and he made it count.

Evgeny Kissin at Flagey, June 20, 2023

I discovered quite by chance that Evgeny Kissin was playing in Brussels in June, so I went looking for a ticket. This was…difficult. I believe I got the last one. I want to thank the group of three that booked 3 of the last four seats. Made my life easier.

I have been fangirling over Evgeny Kissin for a very long time. He put out an album called the Chopin Album, sometime around 1994 or 1995 which I found out about on a programme on BBC Radio 4 (198kHz LW back in the day). It sounded interesting, they spoke highly of this [then] young talent, with plenty of assurance and a very promising album of piano music recorded in Carnegie Hall. I bought it as soon as I could find it. To this day, one of the best collections of Chopin music that I have ever heard and a comprehensive collection of the man’s stuff. What particularly stood out for me when I was like, 22 years old, was the 3rd Sonata.

Hearing him live was, for a long time, a dream objective. I caught him touring Hammerklavier pre-Covid, but this time, he presented an altogether more varied programme, including some Bach (never my favourite), some Chopin and some Mozart, before a second half devoted to Rachmaninov. The Chopin was one of the Polonaises, which I remember from the album I mentioned above. That being said, someone in the meet and greet queue tried to persuade me it could not possibly be Chopin.

Well it was. Definitely Chopin. I loved it. I’ve never heard it played with such verve, such imagery. If I had to choose a word to describe it, I would choose the word “cinematic”. Huge epic scenes swirled across the edges of my imagination as he played.

I am not yet very familiar with the Rachmaninoff solo repertoire apart from the preludes (which isn’t very logical to me as I otherwise love Rachmaninoff) but the performance was superlative and the couple of pieces I did recognise (the closing prelude in C sharp minor aside….) were mind altering.

The special thing about this concert is although he is very definitely the best concert pianist in the world, he makes you want to play. He is very, very inspiring to watch/listen to.

For me, this is one of the very best solo piano concerts I have been to. I would have gone again if it had been practically possible for me to do so.