Thursday, 6 February 2014

LSO launches Panufnik Centenary

After the glut of composer anniversaries in 2013, this year’s list looks considerably shorter. Strauss will be dominating the opera houses, of course, but let’s hope that the concert halls find space in their schedules to celebrate the work of Andrzej Panufnik, whose 100th anniversary falls on 24 September.
The LSO made a great start yesterday evening, with a concert featuring two works from opposite ends of the Panufnik spectrum: the Sinfonia Sacra, a bold statement of defiance against Poland’s Communist rule, and Lullaby, a quirky little microtonal number with some surprising twists. The event, and indeed the entire centenary, is being promoted by Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz Institute (I wish somebody would promote British music the way Poland does theirs – effortless superiority only gets you so far), and plenty more events are planned. The LSO will be returning to Panufnik in October, with a performance conducted by Antonio Pappano, and there will be some chamber music concerts at Kings Place. There are also apparently “extensive UK summer festival plans yet to be announced”, but I couldn’t possibly speculate about what that might refer to.  He’s a composer well worth getting to know better, and 2014 is shaping up to be the ideal year to do so.
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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Melnikov Shostakovich Wigmore Hall 4 Feb 2014

Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues, book 2
Alexander Melnikov (pn)

Alexander Melnikov’s recorded Shostakovich is a known quantity – accolades for his CDs of these works take up half his programme bio – but nothing prepares you for the live experience. Melnikov is able to perfectly express the paradoxical mix of introversion and intensity that characterises this music, while carefully shaping the dramatic arc of every movement. He takes the music to the dynamic extremes that Shostakovich specifies, but without ever compromising the evenness of his touch or the roundness of his tone. And he finds myriad ways of expressing the composer’s inner world, the insecurities behind the bluster, the intensity behind the lyrical lines, and the directness of expression behind the most complex of fugal intrigues.
Melnikov’s technique, at least as presented here, is profoundly Russian, but never to the point of cliché. Every note is a statement, and whatever poetry he might express through his playing, it is always based on a very defined relationship with the keyboard: the beginning and end of each note is always very clear. Much of this music is very loud, but the thundering dynamics never compromise Melnikov’s tone. As the dynamics rise, often through very long crescendos, Melnikov just keeps putting in more power, yet his body movements hardly change. Wherever this intensity comes from, it produces a clean, unlaboured fortissimo that fully justifies the composer’s many extended passages at this dynamic.
On paper, many of these Preludes and Fugues look surprisingly simple, with open diatonic harmonies and foursquare rhythms. But under Melnikov’s hands the music becomes considerably more complex. His rubato is often extreme, although a regularity is maintained through his ability to apply the same amount of give and take through the entire course of a long movement. He is also able take the dynamics right down to a whisper, and still fill the hall with sound, such is the roundness and warmth of his tone. He doesn’t run the works together into a cycle, but rather treats each as a separate unit of expression, requiring its own palette of colours and range of internal contrasts. Shostakovich will often begin a prelude with a jolt, an emphatic statement of the theme or a bracing introductory flourish. Melnikov presents these directly and without interpretive extravagance, the better to surprise the ear. Then, as the movement progresses, it gradually becomes clear that not everything is as it seems: simple and direct textures take on dark overtones, extreme rubato breaks up repeated figurations, and thematic statements bubble up from the middle of the texture to unexpectedly dominate.
Melnikov’s is an extreme reading in many ways, particularly in terms of the dynamics and rubato, but it is a confident and carefully controlled one too. He cites Richter as an inspiration, and many of the Richter’s finest traits find their way into his playing, particularly the focussed intensity and the dark poetry that the two pianists find in Shostakovich’s work. The Wigmore Hall is the ideal venue to hear Melnikov in this repertoire, the roundness and richness of his tone are well projected by both the piano itself and the hall’s warm acoustic. Drier and more formal readings of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues also have a place, but Melnikov’s readings seem truer to the spirit of the music, and to the complex and inscrutable character of the composer himself.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Professor Alexander Ivashkin 1948-2014

The cellist and musicologist Alexander Ivashkin died last night at the tragically early age of 65. Sasha was one of the most important champions of Russian music in the West, and promoted the music he loved with phenomenal energy and enthusiasm: performing it, writing about it, and encouraging others to do the same. He was an inspiring teacher as well, and many of his pupils, myself included, owe him a great deal, not only for the knowledge he imparted, but also his infectious enthusiasm, and, equally importantly, the opportunities he found or created for others to make music and to make a living out of it.
I first met Sasha in 2000. He had just moved to the UK to take up a chair at Goldsmiths. He was exactly the man the college was looking for: Russian music and performance studies were (and still are) two of the department’s greatest strengths, and he was able to take over the running of both. My plan was to do a PhD on the music of Schnittke, and I too had come to the right place; not only was Schnittke Sasha’s favourite subject, but he was also unquestionably the world authority on the composer’s music.
Over the following seven years (I take full responsibility for my slow progress), Sasha guided me patiently through my research. He felt very strongly that cultural barriers between East and West led to misunderstandings about Russian culture, and led to great Russian works being sidelined elsewhere. So to study Schnittke with him was to study the cultural context in which the composer worked (and few composers have incorporated their cultural context into their music as comprehensively or as successfully as Schnittke). Within a few months of our first meeting, he had organised a trip for me to Moscow and St Petersburg, armed with a list of phone numbers and addresses of key figures in the Russian musical establishment. I’m very lucky now to have many professional contacts and close friends in Russia, all thanks ultimately to Sasha. He was equally passionate about promoting younger musicians and scholars from Russia, and using his contacts in the West to provide them with opportunities. One of my close Russian friends, who is now an established academic is St Petersburg, told me this morning that he and many of his colleagues owe everything to Ivashkin.
Sasha had clear ideas about what was worthwhile and what was not worthwhile, musically speaking. If he was enthusiastic about, say, the work of a young composer, he would immediately find ways to promote it. If their music was for cello, he would perform it. If it wasn’t for cello, he’d persuade them to arrange it. Similarly, promising young scholars would find themselves invited to present their work at high profile seminars, would be introduced to his many contacts in the world of academic publishing, and would be presented with all sorts of imaginative ideas about possible funding ideas for their research projects.
But if something was not worthwhile, he’d make sure you knew. On one occasion I went to a masterclass he was giving for undergraduates at RCM on the Schnittke Piano Trio. He took to the stage and began his introductory address. Then he spotted me, trying to look inconspicuous at the back of the hall, stopped mid-sentence and shouted out “Gavin, what are you doing here? You’re wasting your time.” Er, right, hello Sasha. Nice to see you too. I wasn’t wasting my time, of course, and learnt a great deal about the work that afternoon, even if he assumed I knew it all already.
Sasha was very generous in his professional dealings, but liked to keep his private life private. The name “Sasha” was his one concession to familiarity, and nobody who knew him personally referred to him any other way. But his desire, and ability, to keep his long illness private attests to a certain personal distance between himself and his colleagues.
There was always warmth, though, in any personal contact with him. When I learnt of his illness, around September last year, I sent a card, and he responded with what were clearly heartfelt thanks. He wasn’t much of a facebooker, but anything he did post was usually about things that mattered. I remember putting up a picture of our daughter Elsa the day she was born, and a comment immediately appearing beneath “Congratulations. Big Russian hugs to you all.”
Some of Sasha’s thinking was very Russian, so much so that it could be hard, from a Western perspective, to find a common point of reference. He was a big believer in numerology, in numbers and dates being auspicious or having particular significance. He and I have a book in press, Schnittke Studies, to which he contributed an article entitled “The Schnittke Code”. The reference to Dan Brown is entirely deliberate. I spoke to him one autumn a few years back when he’d just come back from a holiday where he’d read The Da Vinci Code. I don’t think he really rated it, but he said that its popularity demonstrated that Westerners were just as interested in numerology, codes, and esoteric/religious significances as were Russians, just less able to admit the fact.
Similarly, Sasha’s “Schnittke Code” examines Klingende Buchstaben, a work Schnittke wrote for him, in terms of the hidden numbers and messages within the notes. Some of it seems quite fanciful, especially the claim that Schnittke predicts the age at which he would die in codes that are embedded in the music. But it didn’t seem fanciful to Sasha, and nor would it, I suspect, to Schnittke himself.
Much of Sasha’s writing on Schnittke concerns the consequences of the composer’s ill-health, a topic that neither Schnittke nor any of his advocates could ignore in the last 10 or 15 years of his life. Both Schnittke and Sasha read much into the parallels between the composer’s last years and those of Adrian Leverkühn, the (anti?)hero of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. From that perspective, Schnittke’s decline and early death could be seen as the playing out of some kind of fate. Whether we accept that or not, Schnittke’s death at the age of just 63 was clearly a very great tragedy for the music world. And now Sasha too has left us at a similarly young age, living just two years longer. Perhaps his is the death predicted in Klingende Buchstaben. I’m sure both men would have warmed to that idea, not that it makes the loss any easier to bear.
RIP Sasha. This is how I’ll remember you best: