May 1, 2013

Some music documentaries

I’ve been watching some documentaries on classical music lately.

Pianomania (2009)

pianomania This film about virtuoso piano tuner Stefan Knüpfer from Steinway & Sons was broadcast on Dutch television a couple of weeks ago. “Pianomania” follows the exploits of Knüpfer during his work with pianists like Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Alfred Brendel and Lang Lang. It’s really nice to see Knüpfer and his craftsmanship on display, the significance of which is all too easily forgotten. An important part of the documentary is the interaction between Knüpfer and Aimard, who is to record “Die Kunst der Fuge” by J.S. Bach a year from the beginning of the documentary. Their collaboration seems a fruitful one, despite the breadth of musical problems they have to solve, often punctuated by Aimard uttering the phrase: “Everything is perfect, but I have one petite question”…


Rostropovich: The Genius of the Cello

Mstislav Rostropovich c Suzie Maeder This BBC documentary offers a nice celebration of Mstislav Rostropovich, the most important cellist of the 20th century in terms of musicianship and influence. Without Rostropovich hounding all the contemporary composers he met to write cello pieces for him, we wouldn’t be able to listen to Dutilleux’s “Tout un monde lointain”, Shostakovich’s Cello Concertos nor Britten’s works for cello.

A minor gripe is that John Bridcut’s documentary can be a bit too celebratory at times. For example, I wonder about Rostropovich and the women Tully Potter mentions at one point, but quickly dismisses as not appropriate in the context of the film. But that might just be my gossipy nature…

The whole documentary is available in HD on Vimeo.


Richter: The Enigma

1420530 In a previous blogpost from a good while back I wasn’t very kind with regards to Sviatoslav Richter and Franz Liszt. I’ve reversed almost completely regarding the latter, but Richter — despite being a brilliant pianist — is still not my first choice when it comes to recordings. He is, however, a very intriguing personality, something which is also evident in Bruno Monsaingeon’s film on Richter.
It’s astounding how critical Richter is about himself and his playing, many acclaimed performances are discarded as mediocre or plain bad by him. Equally amazing is his dismissal of choosing a piano before a concert (one should just be able to play with what’s at hand) and his preference for playing in the dark. For Richter it’s all about the music, not about the grimaces and hand movements of the pianist.

The film contains a wealth of archive footage of Richter, along with several key performances. The archive footage often show a boyish, often mischievous Richter, the more recent interview sections showcase a more melancholy old man. Near the end of the documentary he makes a painful confession: “I don’t like myself.” A statement which seems at odds with the burly younger Richter, but as he found himself unable to perform in public in his later years (he mentions his loss of absolute pitch) his bitterness towards life might not be such a surprise.

The whole documentary is available on YouTube: Part 1 and part 2.


Note By Note: The Making Of Steinway L1037 (2007)

tumblr_lvu7y4cbxA1r3fjx7 “Note By Note” focusses on the one year production of a Steinway grand piano (number L1037, model D-274) and features interviews with employees of the New York Steinway factory and several well-known pianists.

It’s amazing to see how much craftsmanship is involved in the process — several stages of tuning, laborious woodworking to fit the harp and sound board — and how much of it is still done by hand — Steinway’s competition has increasingly automatised parts of the production line (including tuning) according to the documentary.

April 29, 2013

Concert: Yannick conducts Shostakovich

  • Date:April 28, 2013
  • Performer(s):Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest, Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello
  • Location:De Doelen, Rotterdam
  • Rating:★★★★☆

Yannick NŽzet-SŽguinPhoto: Marco Borggreve

Yesterday’s concert in De Doelen was a testament to why symphonic music is often best enjoyed in a concert hall. On the programme were two major works by Dmitri Shostakovich, his first Cello Concerto (1959) and the Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”, 1941). Both works were conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra with Jean-Guihen Queyras on cello during the Cello Concerto before the intermission.

The Cello Concerto, originally written for Mstislav Rostropovich, is rife with Shostakovich’ famous DSCH motif, which is masterly warped and transformed in both the cello and orchestral parts. I can imagine playing the Cello Concerto may fill a performer with dread, as it is one of the hardest in the repertoire, especially the cadenza beginning the third movement. Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras didn’t appear frightened, though, during his performance and visibly enjoyed his interplay with Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra.

“Massive” and “monumental” are two characteristics which may rightfully be applied to Shostakovich’ Seventh Symphony. It’s a monument not only because of its sheer length and historical background, but the music itself is equally powerful — shifting between militaristic marching and tender harmonics all in the first movement alone. Conductor Nézet-Séguin is an energetic presence on stage, whose kinetic performance aptly fits Shostakovich’ turbulent music.

Personally I preferred Shostakovich’ more focussed, leaner offering from before the intermission, which by no means diminishes the accomplishments of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in both works, I simply prefer the much tormented, elder Shostakovich.

April 25, 2013

Concert: Yundi plays Chopin and Beethoven

  • Date:April 24, 2013
  • Performer(s):Yundi Li
  • Location:De Doelen, Rotterdam
  • Rating:★☆☆☆☆


Well, where to begin? Yundi Li is an upcoming star from the latest generation of pianists and of the rockstar-variety in terms of popularity. Yundi won the First Prize at the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition at the age of 18. He went on to record quite a bit of Chopin and Liszt for Deutsche Grammophon and lately EMI. His most recent album contains three Beethoven sonatas: No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”), No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathétique”) and No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 (“Quasi una fantasia”/“Mondschein”). These three works, along with two Chopin nocturnes by way of an introduction, made up the programme yesterday in Concertgebouw De Doelen in Rotterdam.

The hall was packed, which is a bit uncommon these days, especially when it comes to solo recitals. The only other solo performance this season where all the seats were filled was when Valentina Lisitsa played a selection of the exciting piano transcriptions by Franz Liszt. At the Yundi concert, a remarkable amount of young Asian women were present as well, indeed a large portion of the Rotterdam’s Asian community was in attendance during the concert.

Unfortunately, the beginning of the concert was marred by the flashes of digital camera and phones. Apparently a large part of the audience thought it a splendid idea to “enhance” the music with all manner of digital shutter sounds and beeps.

As for the music itself, the Nocturnes were rather dull, and unfortunately characteristic of Yundi’s treatment of all tempi below moderato. The Appassionata sonata before the intermission was simply dreadful. Yundi’s phrasing in the technically demanding passages, combined with some wrong notes, gave the impression that the sonata was simply out of his league. The excessive pedaling also didn’t do the music any favours, several of the bass parts were an indiscernible mush of notes. Excessive pedaling might be a technique suited (but not necessarily appropriate) for Schumann or Liszt, but in this instance Beethoven didn’t benefit from it at all.

Any hope of improvement after the intermission quickly dissolved when both the No. 8 and 14 received the same rough treatment as the Appassionata. The well-known opening Adagio of the No. 14 sonata lacked any of the mysteriousness and withheld tension often heard in this audience favourite. The same could be said of any of the slower passages during the evening, they were all equally flat. Yundi just played the notes in the intended order. Only when forte markings appeared he seemed to get enthusiastic about the whole ordeal. The faster passages were again haphazardly performed and conveyed a feeling of the pianist helplessly trailing behind the music. It was as if he started a virtuoso passage and found himself with a sore lack of time to properly finish the whole phrase.

Despite all this the audience seemed to love it. It must be remarked that the Dutch concert public suffers from a severe case of “ovationitis” — even a fairly decent performance tends to receive a standing ovation. Belgian audiences, for example, are far more reserved — or very unkind, also a possibility, but unlikely.

Yundi received lots of cheers and a long round of applause. He’s also giving a masterclass in Rotterdam today, though I’m not sure he’s ready enough to impart his teachings on others. His Beethoven sure needs a lot of work.

April 7, 2013

Concert: Double Sextet by Steve Reich

  • Date:April 7, 2013
  • Performer(s):eighth blackbird, Lunapark
  • Location:De Doelen, Rotterdam
  • Rating:★★★★☆


Steve Reich is one of the few contemporary composers who regularly appear on concert programmes in the Netherlands. Kindred spirits like John Adams or Philip Glass garner far less attention, despite being important names — the former (including Reich) more deservedly so than the latter.

eighth blackbird worked together with the Dutch ensemble Lunapark on a number of compositions by several American composers, all clearly influenced by the work of Reich. The collaboration of both ensembles culminated in the performance of Reich’s “Double Sextet”, originally commissioned by eighth blackbird. The piece, scored for two sextets, is normally played by one ensemble and tape, but this evening featured the full version played by two ensembles. A riveting performance of some exciting music, at any rate.

Two works by Bryce Dessner, “O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind” and “Murder Ballads”, revealed the composer’s roots as a rock musician, as Dessner is also part of Clogs and rock band The National. That’s not to say this fact diminishes the quality of his music, on the contrary. It’s a shame none of Dessner’s forays in classical composition have yet been recorded and released.

Derek Bermel’s piece “Tied Shifts” required some stage antics of the performers which I didn’t add anything significant to the piece, in my opinion. The energetic music was great though, full of delightful references to Klezmer, jazz, showcasing some nice interplay between instruments and technically demanding solos.

Works by Tom Johnson and Dutch composer Mayke Nas were inserted for comedic effect with varying success. Nas’ “digit#2″ dragged on a bit and displayed that typical Dutch tendency towards wantonness for which I don’t particularly care.

The revelation of the evening was a work by David Lang called “these broken wings”. Lisa Kaplan, the pianist of eighth blackbird, expressed her admiration for Lang in an small introduction session before the concert. She remarked that David Lang was able to seize on one musical idea and build a great composition out of it, “these broken wings” demonstrates the power of that notion.

Listen to Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion”, for which he won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize — incidentally Reich won the same award the next year for “Double Sextet”. Lang’s Passion is a thing of haunting beauty.

September 18, 2012

Luischtert VII: Dmitri Shostakovich — Pianokwintet in g klein, Op. 57: Intermezzo

Mijn lijst met muziek die je ooit op je eigen begrafenis zou willen laten klinken is inmiddels gegroeid tot een avondvullend programma met minstens twee pauzemomenten.
Een werk van Shostakovich moet in ieder geval zeker te horen zijn en dan specifiek een deel uit het Pianokwintet in g klein, Op. 57, alhoewel het achtste strijkkwartet ook een bijzondere kanshebber is gezien de totale radeloosheid hoorbaar in die compositie.

Shostakovich schreef het werk in 1940, in een periode waarin zijn werk steeds meer kritiek begon te oogsten bij Stalin en de diverse communistische partijbonzen. Zo moest hij in 1939 zijn vierde symfonie terugtrekken na luide protesten en verslechterde de situatie eigenlijk alleen maar na de Tweede Oorlog, al bracht de dood van Stalin in 1953 bracht enige verlichting en relatief meer creatieve vrijheid.
De kamermuziek die Shostakovich schreef gedurende het communistische bewind zit bijna altijd tegen de grenzen van wat door de communisten als betamelijk werd gezien, misschien nog wel meer dan zijn symfonische werk. Het is ontegenzeggelijk moderne, twintigste eeuwse muziek, maar Shostakovich gaat nooit over de rand qua dissonantie en melodische thema’s zijn altijd ergens aanwezig. In vergelijking met radicalen uit het kapitalistische deel van de wereld als Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez of Karlheinz Stockhausen is Shostakovich op veel vlakken een behoudend componist — deels natuurlijk gedwongen door de creatieve repressie binnen de Sovjet-Unie. Dat neemt niet weg dat zijn muziek van bijzondere waarde is, zijn compositorisch vernuft is bijzonder en lange tijd — deels om politieke redenen — niet erkend.

Terug naar het kwintet. Het Intermezzo begint sober met alleen de strijkers die een simpele baslijn en het overkoepelende thema van het hele stuk spelen. Naarmate het stuk vordert zwelt de intensiteit van het spel steeds verder aan, waarbij de piano voornamelijk accenten legt of de lopende baspartij voor zijn rekening neemt, als de pizzicato gespeelde strijkers dit niet doen.

Bovenstaand is een betrekkelijk droge impressie van het stuk, de gehele compositie ademt echter, zoals zoveel werk van Shostakovich, een verstilde wanhoop uit. Dankzij de lopende baslijn schrijd de muziek onverbiddelijk naar de emotionele climax om vervolgens over te lopen in de ietwat lichtvoetigere finale van het kwartet.

Martha Argerich samen met Renaud Capuçon, Alissa Margulis, Lyda Chen en Mischa Maisky in 2006: