Sunday, 31 January 2016

The long (and winding) read:
May the First be with you…

For my eighteenth birthday, a wise, good school-friend – one of two talented violinists I used to accompany on the piano (she is now a lecturer and researcher in inorganic chemistry at Pembroke College, Oxford) – presented me with a stack of 32‑stave ruled manuscript paper. Probably because of its size, it looked even more daunting to me than the normal demands of a now-you-must-fill-me-with-words blank sheet of A4. “This is for your first symphony,” she said, sincerely. Which, even as a show of confidence – never mind some sort of challenge – provoked a scary surge of adrenaline.

I still have it: cherished (as is the friendship) during all the intervening years (and house-moves); as well as the beautiful mechanical pencil a mutual acquaintance gave me on the same occasion. Even though, in some ways, both thoughtful gifts have been superseded by technology – until my hearing went, any scribbled jottings of note (ahem) at the piano were always rapidly transformed into more legible pixels – I still hope, one day (now that I have returned to music; and music has returned to me), to fulfil their joint wish.

To be honest, I hadn’t known – even with having spent too much time perusing, and purchasing, scores in Blackwell’s old music shop in Oxford – that such an impressive striped beast existed. My only real exemplar had been derived from viewing the five-nibbed pen displayed at the Elgar Birthplace Museum and Visitor Centre: which the composer’s supportive wife, Alice, used, laboriously, to produce reams of those parallel demoralising skeletal lines, early in his career. And I had naïvely assumed that this was what all garret-dwelling geniuses did.

Now, of course, the likes of software Sibelius seem to rule (sorry) supreme. Or you can simply download a PDF of however many staves you require, to print at home – which, at one point, was my preferred method for smaller works (although I had originally constructed my own versions using desktop-publishing software). However you render your music, though, there is a massive amount of graft involved in covering those sheets with so very many notes: “The toil… the enormity of the task of writing out a full score”. You have to be immensely motivated to get to the end of that “challenge” – even once. No wonder “It caused Haydn so often to add at the foot of the last page of many of his symphonies, the words: ‘Laus Deo’ (God be thanked) that the labour was finished!”

While, in some ways, an early-starter when it comes to composing – although certainly no child prodigy – I always wrote (probably quite derivatively) for the distinct (and sometimes quaint) forces I had at my disposal: piano music for myself and friends; small chamber pieces (especially for violin and piano – although my favourite was a ‘jazz suite’ for three sisters who played clarinet, cello and trombone); the odd song-cycle; and choral works – both sacred and secular – by the bucketful. But, when it comes to larger, more symphonic works, I am definitely a (yet-to-begin) latecomer – even with the help of Walter Piston’s unbeatable, biblical Orchestration: which my parents bought me at the same time. (There may have been a conspiracy.)

These memories were provoked, a few weeks ago, by the arrival of the first orchestral score to drop on my doormat in a very long time – Shostakovich’s Third Symphony – for study ahead of last night’s (again) dazzling performance by the ever-sublime and -sensational Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the deeply thoughtful and passionate David Curtis. (I know, after their barnstorming – or, more accurately, Town Hall-storming – rendition of the Fifth, I should not really have been so taken aback: but they are so cohesive, subtle, technically and emotionally gifted, that it is impossible to think of them in any way as “not a full-time professional ensemble”.)

First performed in Leningrad, on 21 January 1930 – “the sixth anniversary of Lenin’s death” – this “new kind of symphony” (in reality, a somewhat Straussian “tone poem” – an apposite characterization from Curtis – with, I think, echoes of Berlioz…) is a work I can only remember hearing live, once – and that vaguely, many, many years ago – and therefore, not, until this month, a piece I knew at all well. Generally – even with (or maybe because of) its somewhat grandiose title of ‘The First of May’ (‘Pervomayskaya’) – it seems much less loved (and therefore performed) than many of Shostakovich’s other works: even though it is relatively short; and, I consider, extremely approachable (as well as heart-piercingly momentous).

Despite its continual, often unrelated, episodic exposition and experimentation, somehow Curtis once again (and I do not think I have ever seen him so utterly involved; so completely engrossed; so mobile…) moulded the music into a compelling, soul-nourishing, narrative arc… – thankfully, after a joyous, nimble, accessible and intelligent run-through of several of the symphony’s high points and key changes of mood (which gave everyone present the chance to prepare themselves for the coming onslaught…).

Sat in awe, therefore, in the inspiring, regency Pittville Pump Room, I particularly noticed the repeated motif of ascending and descending basslines (you could feel them rising and falling through the soles of your feet); as well as some deft, ornamental instrumental writing – quite tricky stuff, especially in the woodwind (including some literally brilliant piccolo playing from Amanda Kaye): although handled confidently and brightly by the CSO – this often wrapped around a trenchant tune: which, on paper, appears to be buried in the middle of the orchestra. In these passages – especially – the acoustic balance was jewellery of transcendent clarity and sparkle. (I will try – and fail… – not to go into too much analysis of the piece, here: partly because there is a superb, detailed account – including its place in Soviet history – written by Howard Posner, on the Los Angeles Philharmonic website (and which, coincidentally – probably because this work is a rare creature indeed – also appeared in the programme notes).)

On the very first May Day
a torch was thrown into the past
a spark, growing into a fire,
and a flame enveloped the forest.
With the drooping fir tree’s ears
the forest listened to the voices and noises
of the new May Day parade.

What I had forgotten – curiously – was (in the original score) the stirring (but maybe not wholeheartedly sincere – who can tell, with the deceptive Dmitri?) chorus at the end (hints, as Curtis surmised, of Beethoven’s Ninth?) – here ‘emphasized’ by the brass section: reminding me even more, therefore, of the thrilling final movement of that last concert. As Mark Wigglesworth writes (in notes – also well-worth perusing – to accompany “strong, idiomatic readings” with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra): “Only those with the shortest of musical memories can listen to the rousing choral finale with a sense of triumph and joy.” Posner also discusses this strange ending, in a similar vein:

If the first 20 minutes are loosely constructed and episodic, the choral conclusion is direct, forceful, and declamatory, an apt and powerful setting of Kirsanov’s words about inexorable progress [using the annual May Day parade as a metaphor for the march of socialism and justice] into the future. The orchestra’s final bars may seem tacked on and unnecessary [however] Shostakovich may have felt that the public and festive nature of the Symphonies made old-fashioned bright, major-key endings necessary, but it is difficult to make such an ending convincing when the musical language of the work has been something altogether different. In Shostakovich’s music, the old and new would always be cheek by jowl, sometimes at odds, and occasionally at war.

To be honest, I was a little sad to ‘lose’ that chorus – although it is doubled by the orchestra, almost throughout, in the original. But, for less than five minutes of quite awful Soviet celebratory propagandist drivel (see excerpt, above – Curtis was a little more polite…) – very similar to that produced, today, by North Korea – I really do understand the logistic (and aesthetic) motivation behind the decision. It certainly didn’t lessen the impact (in fact, it may well have heightened it)!

The brass, here, again, were characteristically strong, precise, and forthright (reminding me of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast at one point) – although, in contrast, the Vaughan Williams-like, almost military, hushed, trumpet call near the beginning was gorgeously ushered in by Paul Broekman. Such stunning playing from this section – ranging all the way from super-subtle to superexaltation – is possibly the CSO’s USP. (Although the intensely spirited percussionists – Roger Clift, Ros Fletcher, and Freya Ireland – also take some beating. (Ba-boom.))

Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you.
– AA Milne: The House at Pooh Corner

I adore reading through scores (especially that first time: knitting together the various instrumental strands): hearing the music in my head (although it took some time to learn to ignore the resultant funny looks that such – it would seem – ‘unusual’ behaviour often garnered on the trains back to university or home: sometimes precipitated, I admit, by the sounds also emerging as not-quite-stifled “Hums”). And yet I still savour the anticipation of turning those pristine sacred sheets. So, after such a long time, the prospect of touching them gently, like fragile holy relics, was utterly thrilling. It took me some time, therefore, to open the cover.

This, I am afraid, is when the wholesale desecration begins: not only bending back each page so it remains flat; but the scribbled exclamations and analyses; the sticky page-markers and bent corners. At one point (rehearsal number or figure 45) – and, last night, a shocking transformation – aided by a crucial, muscular assault from timpanist Paul Berrow – from pianississimo in the strings to the sudden outcry of fortissimo in the brass and cymbals – a sudden slamming-on of brakes – I had written the word “Ouch!” This was yet another moment of supreme, characteristic, orchestral control from Curtis – but credit must also go to the cellists and bassists for their courage in following immediately with a subtle, whispered, entrancing, passacaglia-like passage: guaranteed to leave you breathless (and somewhat dewy-eyed).

There are thus hints not only of the Fifth: for example, in some of the episodes of explicit lyricism (especially the Lento at figure 49, for instance) and implicit goose‑stepping; but foreshadowings of the later ‘Leningrad’ Symphony’s horrifying ‘invasion’ theme, with its terrifying, repeated snare-drum motif, at figure 37. Here, Clift shook the hall to its foundations with an instant hail of shocking, aggressive fortississimo – piercing even through the preceding, still-resonating, climactic orchestral tutti. [I must admit that I did check, shortly afterwards, that the chandeliers had not shattered…. They are obviously made of sterner stuff than I!]

Although the work is additionally haunted by the innovative ghosts of other composers – especially Mahler (as Curtis highlighted), Prokofiev and Stravinsky (the latter two especially present in the symphony’s somewhat neoclassical moments; and with hints of The Rite of Spring at figure 80; closely followed by random-yet-precise bass drum explosions – stunning accuracy and vehemence from Ireland (thus my player of the night) – during a sustained, shocking, full orchestral unison) – what will never leave me is how very young (but certainly not immature – musically or politically) Shostakovich was when he started its composition. Not quite twenty-three – “when he was still a graduate student at the Leningrad Conservatory” – and “covering those sheets with so very many notes” in less than two months! (And such discretion and wisdom!)

Coming of age so very early, it is no wonder that, later in his career, he managed to smash the (supposed) “curse of the ninth symphony”, and go on to write fifteen in total. (“Brahms was already forty-two when his First Symphony was introduced”; and Elgar only produced his first – of only two – at the age of fifty-one. (There is hope for me… yet.))

My feeling is that Shostakovich deliberately sacrificed the relatively conventional form and much of the melodic invention of his First Symphony at the altar of colourful and rhythmic effect, so that he could concentrate on honing his argumentative techniques – and that’s why the Second and Third symphonies are generally regarded as the crucibles in which he forged his mature style. Once he’d cracked that, he would turn his attention – in no uncertain terms – to the question of symphonic architecture.

What truly astonished me, though – and it was apparent, here, that the experience of playing the Fifth Symphony had seeped deep into their veins, and immersed the canny brains of the performers in an exhaustive (and probably exhausting) understanding of the Russian psyche – were the obvious large dollops of full-grown, signature, somewhat argumentative Soviet sound and frequent sardonic subtlety: beautifully highlighted by both conductor and orchestra.

The opening, soul-penetrating clarinet duo, for example – from Janet McKechnie and then Sarah Chestney – was an archetype of the beauty (both savage and subdued, submissive) that was to follow: in some ways deceptive – this is a dawn that sometimes seems to lead to unrest; to confrontation, rather than celebration. And then there are apogees everywhere (I really didn’t want to write “multiple climaxes”) – but the one that was head and shoulders above the rest, last night, for me, was at figure 78. Again, fortississimo; again, tutti; again, that ascending bassline – climbing heavenwards, to the Pump Room’s glorious dome… as the foundations vanished. (Deep breaths.)

Figure 98, though, is where the symphony finally hits the home stretch, and launches into its jubilant, communist stride: with that epic – but, to my ears, twisted – “choral conclusion”. (I believe you may be better off not knowing the words – as we were fortunate to experience here – or the possibly programmatic nature of the work. (As Curtis said, you could easily invent your own!)) In the score, I scribbled “You knew something was coming!” – and yet the anticipation produced by the forces in the Pump Room (which didn’t quite feel big enough, somehow, to contain this mass of victorious(?) sound…) grabbed me more than I could have imagined – Curtis taking one of his trademark (virtual and virtuous) deep-breaths… before launching confidently toward the finishing tape.

I was left gasping and hollow. This is the greatest music; greatly performed. As such, it emptied my soul….

Editor: So you’ve written around two thousand words, and you’re still stuck schmoozing with the Shostakovich?
Bard: Well, of course I am. I may never hear it again… – and it is rather splendid. I’m hoping, of course, that – if people ever make it this far down the page… – others will consider performing it, as a result. (Oh, the power!)
Editor: So, apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, what else was in the show?

This cleverly-programmed, cohesive concert began with the (mostly) rip-roaring Night on a Bare Mountain – or whatever you may wish to call this “musical picture” – in the usual, vivid, technically-stunning Rimsky-Korsakov version – “freely revised and orchestrated… it is scarcely accurate to describe it as by Mussorgsky”. This was as perfect an opener – an Allegro feroce wake-up call – for a series entitled Russia – Revolution and Romance – as you could hope for: immediately demonstrating the wonderful wizardry of every single member of the CSO. (Bloody hell, they are GOOD!)

The witches used to gather on this mountain… gossip, play tricks and await their chief – Satan. On his arrival they, i.e. the witches, formed a circle round the throne on which he sat, in the form of a kid, and sang his praise. When Satan was worked up into a sufficient passion by the witches’ praises, he gave the command for the sabbath, in which he chose for himself the witches who caught his fancy. So this is what I’ve done.
Mussorgsky, in a letter to Vladimir Nikolsky

It may be fiendishly famous, and frequently performed, but, here, it lost none of its diabolical power to startle – especially with Curtis at the helm: steering devilish dynamics and tempestuous tempi with infernal intelligence; stopping the orchestral orgies, several times, on a sixpence; and highlighting the subtleties and contrasts that can often be lost in its malevolent mayhem. (A particular moment of necromantic note was the build four bars after figure T – in my tatty old score, anyway… – featuring yet another of those deft, magical pauses….)

I had forgotten, though, just how murky and mysterious the coda can sound: where the music suddenly softens and darkens with the introduction of the abominable bell and hellish harp (John Stillman – my son’s former piano teacher! – extremely realistic, on keyboard); crepuscular harmonics in the cellos; and tenebrose muted violins (as well as the indication that the percussion will get a well-deserved and much-needed nap before the Shostakovich: “Tacet al Fine”). It takes courage, I feel, to subdue things as much as last night’s interpretation did (and yet, somehow, retain its eerie radiance), after the rumbustiousness of the rest of the piece. But this worked phenomenally well. The calm before the returning storm….

And there were a couple of (to my ears, extremely Russian-sounding) moments that hinted at the Shostakovich which followed (and which, somehow, made that work seem such a natural progression): the rising bass (albeit in slow motion) before figure G; and the more rapid descent – straight to perdition? – just before figure S. [Eight bars after figure P, by the way – just before the main brutal brass theme returns – is one of my favourite instrumental instructions of all time: for the cymbal part to be played “avec la baguette”. This simply means to “hit with a stick”, rather than the usual clashing together. (It does not indicate that the percussionist should perform whilst eating – or with – one of Subway’s finest… – which is the image that always, naturally, spontaneously, appears in my head. (I know.))]

This work certainly cast its spell on me….

Anyway… after the Shostakovich – and a necessary deep and long chest-filling inhale of shockingly cold, Gloucestershire air (followed by a lively, quick natter… – but no sandwich) – the evening ended – stupendously – with Tchaikovsky’s no-matter-how-many-times-I-hear-it-I-always-fall-more-deeply-in-love-with-it First Piano Concerto. [And yet I still frequently leave the concert hall slightly miffed – as I did, last night – wondering why that magical, hair-raising, inaugural fanfarade – one of the most stupendous, singable melodies ever written… – is never reprised (although the mystical transition from this ‘introduction’ is perfectly, fantastically, transformative…). Well, until you hear it performed next time. (And there’s always a next time!)]

This theme has now served its purpose as a preludial trial of strength, and it therefore fades away, to a piano accompaniment of descending chords of triplets, answered by similar ascending chords in the wood-wind…. Tchaikovsky has been blamed by the highbrow formalists for throwing away his great introductory tune. Brahms, of course, would never have been so wasteful, nor would Beethoven. But there is room in music for prodigality of ideas, especially when they are coordinated with such subtle sense of their dramatic potentialities for development, and when they employ the time-factor – that true criterion of musical form – so successfully.

It is such a well-known work that you may think it hardly worth discussing: but, re-reading Ralph Hill’s wonderful volume The Concerto (which, sadly, the great man didn’t live to see produced), I came across a wonderful, detailed essay by musicologist Julian Herbage. As well as the quotation directly above, I think it worth drawing attention to an additional small handful of short excerpts:

There is no doubt that enduring success comes only to those who know exactly what to do, and exactly how to do it. Highbrows may smile at Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor concerto, and may even be foolhardy enough to condemn it on the grounds of its popularity, but Tchaikovsky certainly knew what he was aiming at, and how to achieve his effect. “Here,” he wrote, “we are dealing with two equal opponents; the orchestra with its power, and inexhaustible variety of colour, opposed by the small but high-mettled piano, which often comes off victorious in the hands of a gifted executant.” As Rosa Newmarch aptly remarked, Tchaikovsky considered the concerto as a duel rather than a duet….

This [opening Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso], indeed, is an amazing concerto movement. It is highly original in form, especially in the subtle balance of orchestral and pianistic ascendancy. Its thematic material is entirely characteristic, dramatically contrasted and melodically unforgettable…. Tchaikovsky still retains his own individuality and subtlety of treatment.

Incredibly, I had forgotten just how much captivating, melodious development there is in this movement. Although it is so much longer, more sustained, than what remains, attraction and momentum never wane. Moreover, however tempting, those many passages so easy to rush through were phlegmatically relished by both soloist and orchestra. This was an expansive, thoughtful interpretation, with elbow-room in abundance (although I was so absorbed, it almost seemed over in an instant…).

The second movement certainly emphasizes such breadth, such luxury, in its change of pace – but still there is no rest for the soloist… – and its ending is balletically beautiful:

The whole [Andante simplice] movement, a mixture of the lyrical and the whimsically fantastic, gains an added sense of atmosphere through the fact that the strings are muted throughout.

Last night, the concerto was radiantly, convincingly expounded by the scintillating, mesmerizing, Anna Shelest – “hailed by The New York Times as a pianist of ‘a fiery sensibility and warm touch’” (and who am I to disagree?!) – who I had never encountered before. It is difficult to stamp your own identity and authority on such a familiar work: but this was an utterly fresh, individual, intense, immersive, intelligent, emphatic, sparkling reading – Shelest almost communing with the piano… – right from that majestic salutation; through the pyrotechnics of the many cadenzas (labelled as such – or not); and on to that emphatic final unison B flat. (What a finish!)

The moments for relaxation, though, are extremely limited – this is an epic work: requiring great concentration as well as technique (although such necessities were rendered invisible by Shelest’s obvious virtuosity and sovereignty). Firstly, in the opening movement – at the Poco più sostenuto – in preparation for the following stupendous tumbling chime of church bells: which leads to a moment of reflection, and then a very serious struggle for superiority – with the CSO giving as good as they got. Secondly, the Poco più mosso of the last movement – Allegro – before that final build: where the combatants finally shake hands, and join together in one of Tchaikovsky’s most stirring signature tunes (which I’m still singing, over five hours later…).

As well as exploiting the full range of the piano – of effects, as well as of range: it is sometimes all too easy to forget that this is a percussive instrument, as well as a melodious one (but not here – some of the bass notes were stupendously powerful…) – Shelest scaled the seemingly infinite mountainous heaps of octaves and arpeggios with effortless precision and natural persuasion. And, however much of the time she appeared to be blasting explosive rockets and roman candles into the air, it was her subtle, intricate, sparkling accompaniments (especially of the woodwind: who proved again, what melodic masters they are…) that proved to be the passages of greatest joy and discernment.

What a wonderful, innate, seasoned talent! (Not only that: her instinctive communication with Curtis and the CSO was a joy to behold.) I was too awestruck, at the end, to approach her… – I simply did not have the words. [And yes, I know I’ve found them now, thank you very much….]

Having survived and surmounted this “duel” – a magnificent score-draw (oh dear), I think… – Shelest returns for the other remaining two concerts in the series: performing Prokofiev’s (let’s be kind, and just say “challenging” – two hands may not be quite enough: although I am expecting it to look like a gentle stroll in the park, after tonight…), and then Rachmaninov’s (romantic – and surely the natural heir of the Tchaikovsky…), second concertos.

As a result of her phenomenal emotional lyricism and staggering craftsmanship, tonight – plus, of course, the ravishing Russian romantic spirit also evoked by conductor and orchestra – I am looking forward to these with a great deal of impatience and musical greed!

[Now, it is definitely time for my favourite cheese, chutney and gherkin… – on granary, please. Before, of course, I rush off to write the CSO a symphonic masterpiece. Probably.]

Happy Birthday, Maestro…!

Pictures courtesy of the New York Public Library – Digital Collections: Scrap book of Russian bookjackets, 1917‑1942


Unknown said...

Splendid review - many thanks. We should meet sometime as I want to chat about some ideas. I am sending the link on to a variety of Friends and friends and other players, as I know they will enjoy it too. Mike St. John

Unknown said...

Stephen, thank you so much for such an extraordinarily generous and insightful review of last night's concert with CSO and Anna. I'm so pleased that the symphony went so well, it is so difficult for both players and audience and I'm glad you felt the introduction was helpful.

Unknown said...

Dave Todd from the CSO sent me a link to your lengthy and fascinating blog and I've now signed might like to have a look at my website too, at; I also run Jill Davies