Sunday, 31 July 2016

The jest I’ll show you here…

I walked in somewhere around figure 69 – molto allargando, con passione – the sound of a lone, warm cello singing one of the most beautiful portions of, to me, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written – that is, the closing section of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with its frequent tenuto emphases (the many markings are themselves pure Italian poetry); just before those devastating opening stopped chords return, and the work rushes, Allegro molto, to its astonishing fortissimo finish. This is music, nay artistry, of transfiguration – and, although I knew, really, I should not so rudely interpose myself, nor stay to listen to this private practice (just conductor and soloist, entranced together, in the atrium of Stratford ArtsHouse), I felt utterly compelled by such a siren call to do so.

Even without its transcendent orchestral accompaniment, my eyes glistened; my heart pumped more strongly; and the rest of the world instantly faded away. (I’m not sure those tears have completely dried, yet….)

I wonder if this is how those who were fortunate enough to attend the Barbirolli/du Pré recording sessions felt: privileged to be at the birth of one of the greatest musical landmarks of all time. It is quite difficult not to draw such comparisons when Laura van der Heijden – the Orchestra of the Swan’s new Associate Artist; and from whom this astounding sound emanated… – is just a year younger than Jacqueline du Pré was then (in 1965); and demonstrates a similar, remarkable maturity. Although, thank goodness – unlike so many other performers… – and this was evident even during rehearsal – Laura’s interpretation of this masterpiece is definitely all her own. (As conductor David Curtis said, so perspicaciously, in his pre-concert talk: she has made it so by first, wisely, returning to the source material – interrogating and understanding Elgar’s clear, precise, multifarious directions – rather than simply aping what has gone before.)

Additionally, she seems to have realized that, just because a work is known for its emotion, not all of that needs to be of the negative variety. Undoubtedly, there are many passages of profound, sublime sadness. However, there is also a great deal of joy to be found – and to be expressed. And this Laura did with incredibly fresh, youthful vigour. For instance, during the second movement Allegro molto staccato semiquavers – initially marked pianissimo and leggierissimo (a difficult trick to pull off at such speed: and yet accomplished with apparent ease, here); then building with repeated brillante crescendos to sustained descending motifs – a moving picture of Elgar cycling gaily along the top of the Malvern Hills on Mr Phoebus popped into my head! [By the way, there is no need to talk about technique, here. Laura’s playing is way beyond such considerations: rendering it invisible; hidden underneath convincing sensibilities; deep intelligence; and an apparent desire to learn, to understand. (Such attributes are remarkable for a musician of any age.)]

This is ecstasy, then, of a different kind: and at variance with many people’s simplistic impression of this as a work of constant gloom. [What is it I said last week? Oh yes: “comedy isn’t funny without a continual thread of adversity; and tragedy isn’t sad without the stout opposition of humour.”] What melancholy there is, though, here, is as deep as the oceans; and that return to the slow movement I so rudely interrupted in rehearsal, in concert was yet more profound than anything I have encountered for quite some time (and caused me to add substantially to the volume of those seas with my salt tears…).

The concerto may be the work of Elgar’s with the most universal appeal, but, paradoxically, it is the work of his that is most rooted in a specific moment in time.
     Elgar wrote the concerto in 1919, just after the Great War. Appalled and disillusioned by the suffering caused by the war, he realized that life in Europe would never be the same after such destruction. His first reaction had been to withdraw from composition, and he wrote very little music during the war’s first four years. Then, over a period of twelve months – from August of 1918 to the following August – Elgar poured his feelings into four works that rank among the finest he ever composed. [This is a statement I most heartily agree with!] The first three were chamber works in which he developed a new musical voice, more concise and subdued than his previous one. The fourth work was the Cello Concerto, Elgar’s lament for a lost world.
– Elgar – His Music: Cello Concerto – Introduction

Elgar said that he meant it to musically explore the image of a man contemplating the meaning of life. The music is rather melancholic, though it possesses moments of great grandeur.
– The Elgar Cello Concerto

Because of such history, and such descriptions (although neither is far from what I believe to be the truth), not only can one lose sight of the music’s moments of uplifting gladness, its delight; it is all too easy (and tempting; and habitual…) to then over-egg the emotion Elgar invested the score with. But, to do so – I believe – is to misunderstand its very essence.

Such passion, as Laura so beautifully demonstrated, is contained in the notes themselves (such is the wizardry of Elgar’s writing and orchestration). And, although I would never argue that any musician should not bring their own experiences and feeling with them when playing any work, I do believe that they should not then impose them on it (especially not to the music’s detriment). Performer and creator need to find a balance where both voices speak equally – and it is this quality so evident in Laura’s playing that is so utterly impressive (if not so utterly stupefying) for one of such tender age; and in such a complex work… (although I acknowledge that this is written from the perspective of a cynical old man with an Elgar fixation…).

Her thoughtful rendition showed such a keen understanding not only of this requisite harmony, but (again) of the composer’s expressed intentions – as well as how to convey them through the prisms of her own heart, mind and body. As a result, I was almost (only “almost”, mind…) left wordless.

I think the most unexpected part of her performance, though – and I mean this in an extremely positive way… – was the Adagio. Every single bar of it.

For a work I know so well that, at a pinch, I could conduct it without a score, this third movement was shocking in its emotional honesty and freshness. I truly cannot remember ever hearing it played like this: performed with such simmering fervid devastation. All I can really say – in awe – is that, in modern parlance, Laura owned it.

Of course, as beautiful as that solo voice resonates on its own, the power of the work is magnified manyfold by the orchestra. Here, David and OOTS were simply exceptional. There was space for the music to breathe (of course); for the cello to float above their rich tapestry of sound (and at its own pace); to be combative, when required, or gently (stunningly quietly) supportive. Such contrasts were almost heroic – a typically large Elgarian force mounted against this lonely, most human-sounding of instruments…. And yet, such is OOTS’ magic, that each instrumental line was crystal clear: even during the concerto’s soul-rending, plangent climaxes. This was a phenomenal performance – in every way.

After the interval, David craftily added in four short – intensely beautiful – related works: Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V (the perfect Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff and Touch her soft lips and part…); and then the two interludes from my firm favourite of Elgar’s works: his fantastic Falstaff ‘symphonic study’. Both of these couplets are so wonderfully descriptive; and yet are not so programmatic that the listener’s imagination is rendered redundant. (Special mention, here, must go to leader David Le Page: conjuring up just the perfect amount of wistfulness as Falstaff dreams of his childhood service.)

These pieces were the pivot on which the evening revolved. Ravishing enough for us not to lose sight of what had gone before; but – especially in the second Elgarian interlude: where Falstaff is entertained by Justice Shallow in his Gloucestershire orchard (with some superb tambourine playing from the sadly uncredited percussionist) – hints of the (what I can only describe as) celebratory madness to come!

Of course, there are other sides to Elgar (he is not just an introvert hick from the sticks…) – principally that of the starched collar; bushy moustache; and Edwardian, imperial bravado: mixed with that quaint English quality of restraint. Although, of course, he threw that last quality out of the window when composing the first four of his five Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches. After all, this is music that calls, incites men to “glorious” war – in fact, calls them to die… – and yet only the fifth (composed in 1930) actually captures the tangible regret (although originating from conflicting motives) of the speech which inspired their title:

                                             O now, forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove’s dread clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
– Shakespeare: Othello (III.iii.348-358)

That these pieces so stir us is probably due to Elgar’s unflagging belief – before the war broke his soul… – in the establishment; the world he so aspired (yet never really belonged) to. The Cello Concerto shows us such confidence shattered into painful and desperately sorrowful shards. Yet both aspects have the great man wearing his heart blatantly on his sleeve (“for daws to peck at”). Just in different ways.

As much as I love them – and for (quite possibly) all the wrong reasons – these marches are, realistically, simply, now, demonstration pieces (their sentiments outdated and almost certainly politically incorrect). “Look how brilliant my instrumentation is!” (And, of course, self-taught as he was, there is no greater, nor more original, contemporary orchestrator.)

“And look how brilliantly we play them!” (David letting OOTS off their leash of Elgarian introspection and control is a quite wonderful thing to behold: giving both the first and fourth of the marches equal, hunormous bucketfuls of necessary ‘umph’!)

What is actually downright extraordinary is that Elgar could use almost identical massed forces, in the concerto, to convey the subtle sound of his heart breaking.

The night opened – appropriately enough – with Otto Nicolai’s overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor. Although this begins with a most enthralling (what felt to me, at least like a) sunrise – which provoked some luscious playing from OOTS: particularly the strings… – from then on it is about as subtle as a brick (especially once Falstaff blusters his way in). Having said that (and you must make allowances for my dislike of nineteenth-century opera, of course), this was a wonderful, rousing, cheering way to begin this Last Night of the Shakespeare Proms…!

This being Stratford’s equivalent of the Albert Hall at its most festive, we just had to have Jerusalem – with some fantastic, spirited singing from the audience, of course…! – and then Henry Wood’s wonderfully witty Fantasia on British Sea Songs. I’m not quite sure how David kept control of some of this work’s cheekier moments – especially during the Jack’s the Lad hornpipe… (more of which in a moment…)

…but there was some tremendous musicianship from all quarters of the orchestra. Fantastic, precise brass – especially in See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes – magical string solos from leader David Le Page (again) and lead cellist Nick Stringfellow… – a gobsmacking, mesmerizing clarinet cadenza from Sally Harrop in Farewell and Adieu, Ye Spanish Ladies – followed by such a mournful oboe rendition of Home, Sweet Home from Louise Sprekelsen, that I may have just shed another tiny tear… – before the orchestra once more let rip in Rule, Britannia…!

Of course we clapped and stamped in that hornpipe. But David judged our attempts rhythmically-challenged, and far too noisome. So we ended the evening a tad more under control – …well, initially. Whatever bassists Stacey Watton and Claire Whitson had imbibed during the interval (they claimed it was only fresh air) propelled them to not only some great performances, but some fantastic grins and physical antics: which soon spread to not only the rest of the orchestra, but an incredibly energetic and rapturous conductor! [He had good reason to be cheerful: OOTS having been awarded funding from the Arts Council, this week, that will not only help secure their future, but will enable them to continue developing in all sorts of exciting ways!]

This was a great night. Ignoring the Nicolai (sorry), it featured British music at its very best – both in its composition and in its performance. Admittedly, it wasn’t what you would call a consistent programme, really: but the fact that it cheered as well as perturbed, bringing (roughly) equal measures of joy and pathos – and that we were introduced to yet another talented young artist with an undoubtedly great future – made it very special indeed. Everyone involved should be very proud. They have certainly earned their summer break!

I was originally going to entitle this review ‘Pomp and Circumspect’: because of the many facets of Elgar the concert revealed. However, it could be said that Mrs Maestro Curtis’s description of the evening progressing “from the sublime to the ridiculous” was just as apposite!

In the end, though I felt the night belonged, figuratively, to Falstaff: who, it could be said, not only encapsulates many of the qualities inherent in both of the previous suggestions; but who seemed to be a constant presence haunting the musical stage. The following speech from Master Fenton also ties in very nicely with the contents of Nicolai’s overture. Hence, my final choice!

From time to time I have acquainted you
With the dear love I bear to fair Anne Page,
Who mutually hath answer’d my affection
(So far forth as herself might be her chooser)
Even to my wish. I have a letter from her
Of such contents as you will wonder at;
The mirth whereof so larded with my matter,
That neither, singly, can be manifested
Without the show of both. Fat Falstaff
Hath a great scene; the image of the jest
I’ll show you here at large.
– Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor (

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Q is for Quietude…

This post was written for – and originally published as part of – The Cross‑Eyed Pianist’s A Pianist’s Alphabet series on 18 July 2016.

Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.

Why pick ‘quietude’ rather than simple ‘quietness’? Principally because I think the word has more resonance, more depth: it has a physical component, as well as one of simple silence. It is almost meditative. It is the deep breath (exemplified by Jessye Norman, perhaps) before the opening notes; and – if you’re fortunate – that precious, eternal, ethereal stillness between the final lifting of the fingers from the keys, the release of the sustaining pedal, and the subsequent applause. In both cases – even in a minimal amount of time – there is (can be, or perhaps should be) reflection, absorption, of the music inbetween.

Sometimes, music itself contains quietude (the most logical culmination of this being John Cage’s 4' 33") – although this may not necessarily mean indicated rests or pauses. Before I began to lose my hearing (which, for me, was not the descent into silence that some may expect – as Cage said, “what we hear is mostly noise”: and I experience almost constant tinnitus and occasional “musical hallucinations”), I was obsessed with a short piece, Secret Song No.6, by Peter Maxwell Davies: which, initially, appeared to begin with just a random selection of slow, sustained, intensifying single tones. Even sitting on the settee, simply staring at that page for long periods of time – in all-consuming stillness, apart from the melody weaving through my mind – trying to understand its implications, its meaning, how one could possibly interpret its ostensible simplicity – was liable to drive me crazy. It was only a sudden realization (an emergence) that “the silence between the notes is where the magic lies” which led me to some sort of comprehension, and the confidence to return to the piano, to let the music sing for itself. (Technically, it is not a difficult piece. Emotionally, I found it extremely challenging – if only because of the self‑examination it provoked. (Which one could argue is the purpose of all art…. Discuss.))

Q is also for Quakers…
…of course; and, although I am by no means religious (except perhaps in my addiction to creativity), one of their most inspiring aspects (even for me: someone whose tastes evolved in large, echoey gothic buildings resonating with Byrd, Tallis, Howells…) is the silent worship – listening for that “still small voice”. Sitting in true peace – whether alone, or with others – can be a truly overwhelming experience. It is therefore not for everyone.

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

Reading this back, I appreciate that some may find hints of mindfulness. To me, though, quietude is almost its antithesis – a momentary letting go; an untethering – although not ‘mindlessness’, per se. It is an absence of intrusion of both internal and external forces. It is a caesura – but one that you may only recognize when immersed in its fragility, its transiency, its elusiveness. What follows must be sound. The rest is silence.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Fizzy deadly nightshade cordial…

Listen, don’t mention Christopher Marlowe! I mentioned him once, but I think I got away with it all right…. So! It’s all forgotten now, and let’s hear no more about it. So, that’s two grated Tamburlaines, a Jew of Malta, a Doctor Faustus, and four Dido salads.

I suppose with a title like Mrs Shakespeare, a show like this was bound to attract Will (and Chris (and Ben)) aficionados (like me!) – so why only a dozen or so in the audience at The Bear Pit? Were the rest “i’ th’ other place” – or simply (this being the first Saturday night of the summer holidays) filling Stratford-upon-Avon’s many eateries: consuming “the food of love” (or just stuck on a motorway “In congregations, to yawn, be still, and wonder”…)? Whatever the answer, those poor souls (assuming they hadn’t seen it earlier in the week) missed out on an hour of intelligently hilarious, devastatingly tragic, powerfully insightful, full-on, perfectly-presented, multi-layered drama – not only theatre as entertainment; but, again – for me, at leasttheatre as therapy. [And, rather cunningly, (failing) therapy as (successful) theatre.]

I make no apologies, therefore, for quoting a huge chunk of the Doctor Faustus review that precedes this (and which you will also find if you click that link, directly above) – as it applies fully, here, as well:

I go to be challenged. I go to have my mind opened; my heart broken; my soul riven. I go to be educated. I go to weep; to grow – emotionally and psychologically – to laugh; to discover my place in the world that is created in front of me, as well as its relevance to the troubling complexities that exist beyond its literal and figurative bounds. I go to be absorbed into that new interior world; to escape from the old exterior one. I go to be distracted from my constant pain with an injection of a different sort of masochistic agony. I go to retain my sanity. I go to witness and admire deities transform themselves beyond the ken of us mere mortals; to mark miracles. I go to be shocked; to have my opinions and beliefs confirmed, or challenged and transformed; to see and hear and feel things that I have never seen and heard and felt before. And may never see and hear and feel again. I go because it is incredible, unreal: but also because I know I will still believe. I go because I know that, each and every time, I will emerge transformed. In other words, I go to connect to everything I am not; to have my life enriched. I go because it is Art; because Art is humankind’s greatest invention; its saving grace; its redemption; and because it speaks to me so directly, as only Art can. I also go, because, to be blunt, it is so bloody awesome!

In a way, the title of this post – a device from the play itself – sums up the contents of the evening quite neatly. I have a feeling, though – backed up by Google’s statistics (if anyone mentions “damned lies”, they can leave now…) – that people don’t come here for pithy four-word reviews. (Or, if they do, they are bound to be sorely perturbed and disappointed… – and frequently by a factor of several hundred.)

The almost unbelievably versatile Irene Kelleher, as the eponymous Mrs Shakespeare (yup, she really was christened ‘William’ by the Bard-fixated parents who we are led to believe drove her to her current dire straits) is as energetic and fizzy as Puck (if you’re reading this aloud to someone, please be careful…) – at once petite and vulnerable as Ophelia; the next moment – with just the closing of a Freudian eye – authoritative and menacing as Oberon; sometimes as quick and quirky as Touchstone; or as opinionated and simperingly long-winded as Polonius – just one of the many voices she hears internally, and proclaims with pitch-perfect gusto. (One could, indeed, say that she is one of “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral scene individable, or poem unlimited…”; and without exaggeration: not only for bundling all these into one too-short hour – in which she really does visibly age and gradually mentally unwind – but particularly as she continually juggles this variety simultaneously and successfully – unlike the poor bouncing Yoricks.) [At last! I’ve found a name for my touring theatre company! Yay!]

Her shouts (and whispers) of “Who am I?” – are they Ophelia’s; or are they her’s…? – though, are as traumatic and piercing as Lear’s mournful “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” – especially when she locks her glistening eyes on yours, and just won’t let go. (Gosh: this is brave stuff. Are you staring into her heart; or is she – more likely – interrogating yours…?) The expanding, expansive repetition of that question at so many pitches, and with such a devastating mix of emotions, thus becomes as soul-rending as his “Never, never, never, never, never.” (This is possibly the most difficult line in the Shakespeare canon to deliver – but I have a feeling that Kelleher, with her magnificently huge range of physical and vocal talents, would dissolve us all instantly to grief-stricken puddles with her rendition.)

I don’t know if it helped that I saw the RSC’s current nigh-on-perfect production of Hamlet for the third time on Thursday; or that I now know, from personal experience, so damned much about mental health (or its lack). All I can say for certain (but, probably from your perspective, with intense subjectivity) is that writer and director Ian Wild grabs both by the scruff – the ruff?! – of their necks, whilst wearing his knowledge lightly; bangs their heads together (sometimes quite violently – the oft-cartoonish nature not reducing the impact one iota); and emerges with something incredibly bruising, but immensely entertaining (as funny as Titus Andronicus, yet as tragic as The Merry Wives of Windsor…). There is a mass of intelligence bubbling beneath the surface of this script; as well as a plethora of what might be raw and open psychological wounds.

It is hard to imagine that Wild hasn’t experienced some of these issues himself. But, of course, he could just be a brilliant researcher; and the world’s best transformer of third-party information into gob-smackingly potent drama. I really don’t know. (And it really doesn’t matter.) All that counts, and all that I am conscious of, is that – with Kelleher’s mesmerizing, all-guns-blazing delivery – he hits his multiple targets over and over again with profound accuracy. Who knew that dissociative identity disorder could be so much fun (and yet without once insulting its sufferers – in fact, showing a keen comprehension of their plights, as well as unadulterated empathy)? Of course there’s an “up the arras” joke… – but the belly-laughs this provokes only underlines the agony of delusion, the pain of psychosis, with its acute antithesis.

The pacing of the play – and Kelleher’s transformation from someone to laugh at, then laugh with; to someone you sympathize with; identify with; want to rescue (knowing you can’t – these are her demons…); feel pity for (as well as feeling anger at the ‘treatment’ that fails her – a system you know is all too real…) – is perfection itself. That you leave with more questions than answers – whilst weighed down with jollity, if you will – is a demonstration of its energy and brutal, subtly-crescendoing effectiveness. As I’ve probably said many times before (as have, I am sure, so many others): comedy isn’t funny without a continual thread of adversity; and tragedy isn’t sad without the stout opposition of humour. (We left Hamlet, on Thursday afternoon, dabbing away the weeping that Horatio’s howls at Hamlet’s death had provoked. And yet the frequent tears of laughter had been, in many ways, just as scalding.)

I wish I had seen this earlier. It has the authority of a modern parable. And I am sure I would therefore have returned again and again. (Yes – however different – it has the potential, I feel, to be just as addictive – for me, anyhow – as nine-times-viewed Faustus.) It just shows what dramatic power can be achieved with minimal – but massively effective – props (the cunning set is by Davy Dummigan and Dowtcha Puppets); and an ingenious, insightful script – especially when delivered by a single, enthralling, multi-gifted actor.

From the play’s Facebook page, it would appear that it tours frequently – indeed, this is its second visit to Shakespearetown… – so it’s probably worth keeping an eye out for (cue Duke of Gloucester joke), if I haven’t, somehow, put you off. Seriously, it is incredibly funny. And vice versa. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. Honestly. It is that good. (Only more so.)

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the slaughter…

Please note…
The following review (if that’s what it is) discusses aspects of mental illness – albeit from my limited, yet intimate, exposure. It also contains far too many emphasized, italicized words and phrases; and some fabulous photographs by Helen Maybanks, courtesy of the RSC.

I am such a slow learner…. Although I have now seen the extraordinary RSC staging of Doctor Faustus eight times – and I have written before about why I thought I was so hooked (and not just because of its towering achievement and merit; and in all quarters): Only the darkness would remain: hence, perhaps, the addiction to… an unremitting nightmare way beyond hope: and which, to me, currently feels all too real… – it was a remark made by Oliver Ryan, at last night’s post-show Q&A, which finally pinned down its incontrovertible, particular (to me) compulsion. [This post is therefore dedicated, with both respect and gratitude, to Ryan; along with an acknowledgement that his insight led to it being written in the first place!]

He talked – and it felt as if it was from personal experience: although he is very widely read; with a deeply intelligent and enquiring attitude to the world around him… – about how one would even “run into a brick wall” in an attempt to stop an onslaught of anxiety: “you would do anything…”. There were additional references from other members of the company – including assistant director Josh Roche – to mental illness: especially depression (and its sometime manifestation as those pernicious panic attacks) and schizophrenia. [This is, after all, a drama where a pair of perfectly-matched actors play two interchangeable, twisted, warped-mirror aspects of the same dissevered soul; where we ourselves cannot distinguish reality, or if the action – and therefore hell – is all in Faustus’ imagination (or “discovered in his study”); and where delusion, introversion and dissociation are therefore omnipresent.]

All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.
– WH Auden: A Certain World

I thought, at first, that my obsession stemmed from the self-serving schadenfreude (an eighth deadly sin?) one succumbs to (instead of pity) when watching someone else literally go through perdition – combined with distraction, by way of complete captivation: ’Tis magic, magic that hath ravish’d me… – and, in a way, I was right. But I had also assumed, consequently, that it was the relief (a sort of dramaturgical intoxication) that emanated from such an experience which was at the root of my preoccupation. And I was wrong.

Having attended (and then helped deliver) a pain management course, fifteen or so years ago (which, in a way, emulated group therapy: there are many parallels with my current one-on-one CBT sessions), I should be (more) aware that it is the precious comradeship which develops amongst people with similar plights that is paramount. This not only creates a starting-point leading to those comrades coping better with their own suffering; but also gives them sorely-needed perspective. (In other words, there is legitimacy at the core of the two saws that “a problem shared is a problem halved”; and “there is always someone who is worse off than you” – not that the latter always bring comfort.)

What I’m trying to get at is that empathy – not sympathy – is crucial, here. And not only does this production (building on the miraculously equivocal text) refuse to judge Faustus in any way (or doppelgänger Mephistophilis) – each individual audience member having to draw their own conclusions (should they wish to) – it actually demonstrates (from my individual vantage point) an understanding of Faustus’ motives: even though (he may believe) he has only himself to blame – both for the predicament he is in; and his inability to fully commit to it. Such culpability fuels the resultant doubt and regret that become exponentially more substantial – as Marlowe’s poetry grows in intensity – the closer midnight approaches. But – from my experience and research (including a twenty-five page essay for my therapist on the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that has caused my slippery struggle with depression to slither from my grasp) – such conviction in your own failings, your own liability, comes with the territory.

In other words, each viewing is, for me, a form of therapy.

As with schizophrenia – which may be confused with, or uninformed shorthand for, dissociative identity disorder (DID) – therapy, as a word, I think, is easily misinterpreted: in this case, as (treatment leading to) a conclusive cure. However, in actuality – particularly with regards to mental illness – therapy is an ongoing, possibly never-ending, process (unlike this theatrical run). And, although it should lead to improvement, it is unlikely to be a complete emendation. [This misapprehension is equivalent to a statement that “I am better” resulting in the addressee – probably from a lack of knowledge of the complexities of my disability – inferring that I am wholly recovered; or have been mended, restored to full health. (Physiologically and neurologically, this is impossible.) Yet what I am trying to impart is that I am – however one would wish to quantify it – just having a good day (or, typically, some much smaller portion of time – perhaps the length of a good play, or concert…).]

Additionally: therapy does not happen in discrete ‘chunks’; nor is it passive – for either therapist or patient. (Nor does it involve me reclining on a chaise-longue!) In fact, it is bloody hard work; and can be extremely distressing. [In Faustian terms, you (will probably, at some stage) have to confront your demons. Mine, however, do not look like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and a droog: rather, they arrive all too swiftly on four wheels….]

People who are willing to do assignments at home seem to get the most benefit from CBT. For example, many people with depression say they don’t want to take on social or work activities until they are feeling better. CBT may introduce them to an alternative viewpoint – that trying some activity of this kind, however small-scale to begin with, will help them feel better.

Unlike the above truisms, I am of the opinion that Nietzsche was talking out of his Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen when he said (or more likely wrote) “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger”. It may apply to some – but not me; and not many that I know of who have also experienced serious disruptions to their lives (somewhat ironically including the man himself).

Doctor Faustus, though – and it has just occurred to me that the clue is in his title… – has vastly improved my quality of life with each visit (too simple a word, really for what I described in my original review as “the [utterly remarkable] very definition of theatre”). In between whiles, the ensuing penning of critiques and necessary accompanying self-interrogation (“assignments”, if you will) have helped enlarge the drama’s therapeutic – in my dictionary, an adjective aptly “relating to the healing arts” – potency. (That which thrills us, makes us stronger.)

I appreciate that many simply go to the theatre to be entertained; or [snobbery alert!] to vaunt the intellectual prowess that is evidenced by managing – just the once, Mrs Wembley – to sit through three hours of Shakespeare, or seventeen of Wagner (even if they arrived ten minutes late for their mid-row seats; drifted off occasionally; coughed and whispered in all the quiet bits; increasingly gazed at their watches in despair; fanned and/or dropped their programmes; rustled in their handbags for sweets; fired off a few Tweets; applauded, or worse, joined in with, a famous quotation, mid-soliloquy; nipped out to the loo; or appeared to be attempting several different yoga positions per scene…). I don’t.

I go to be challenged. I go to have my mind opened; my heart broken; my soul riven. I go to be educated. I go to weep; to grow – emotionally and psychologically – to laugh; to discover my place in the world that is created in front of me, as well as its relevance to the troubling complexities that exist beyond its literal and figurative bounds. I go to be absorbed into that new interior world; to escape from the old exterior one. I go to be distracted from my constant pain with an injection of a different sort of masochistic agony. I go to retain my sanity. I go to witness and admire deities transform themselves beyond the ken of us mere mortals; to mark miracles. I go to be shocked; to have my opinions and beliefs confirmed, or challenged and transformed; to see and hear and feel things that I have never seen and heard and felt before. And may never see and hear and feel again. I go because it is incredible, unreal: but also because I know I will still believe. I go because I know that, each and every time, I will emerge transformed. In other words, I go to connect to everything I am not; to have my life enriched. I go because it is Art; because Art is humankind’s greatest invention; its saving grace; its redemption; and because it speaks to me so directly, as only Art can. I also go, because, to be blunt, it is so bloody awesome!

And if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have experienced some of the greatest plays ever written, performed by some of the greatest actors ever born – the pinnacle of which, of course, is Doctor Faustus, about to end its long run in one of the greatest theatres I know. And my life would be so much poorer for that lack; and I would not know that, in the blackest depths of my despair, there could be – there was – salvation. So I will – I must – continue to go: to discover yet more reasons for going. And – of course – to be entertained…!

Monday, 11 July 2016

Not without good reason…

Nature or nurture? A debate that has raged for years; and to which I can proffer no simple solutions. Personally, I have a well-developed love of British ‘classical’ music mingled with my very essence, my marrow: one that dominates, but does not supersede. And, although my mum – my greatest musical influence, by far – also adores many of the same works (a youthful passion expressed in the huge pile of Frank Bridge pieces that currently resides on the bookcase behind my newly-arrived piano); her lifelong worship is directed at the altar of nineteenth-century opera (an art-form that I simply cannot abide). As we have grown older, we have therefore attended fewer and fewer of the same performances: although there is still a sizable overlap in the Venn diagram of our tastes. Perhaps it is, in reality, a matter of time, of age, of the period, the font of musical development in which you were baptized?

Yestereve’s concert programme – because (rather than despite) of its being built on the bedrock of JS Bach (although cemented with just a hint of my proud Liverpudlian heritage) – therefore satisfied many of my cravings for that strange blend of emotion, reserve and levity that only composers with boots deeply coated in our small island’s pastoral soil seem able to provide. Of course, it helped that the Orchestra of the Swan was, tonight, typically British (English, even) in structure – consisting only of twenty-one string players – a medium which seems to have inspired and generated some of the greatest compositions from these shores (and whose orchestral scores monopolize the shelf above my inherited collection of piano pieces).

[Hold that thought for a moment. Let it maturate, whilst I fail to build a cohesive argument for its validity….]

So, there I was, observing, in rehearsal, the intense slow movement of Bach’s Piano Concerto No.1, BWV 1052 (please read yesterday’s review for a more detailed appraisal) with Thomas Nickell; and I was struck, inwardly, by three things. Firstly, that, despite (or because of) my previous almost-microscopic reservations, Nickell was obviously developing (later confirmed by his rightfully proud, but modest, father), right in front of my eyes, into the rôle of soloist-who-is-also-just-another-member-of-the-ensemble (here, slightly smaller, tighter forces; and therefore, as pianist, a yet more important, fundamental component). Secondly, it was reassuring – although he is obviously in possession of a musical memory as prodigious as his keyboard talents – to see the score open, for reference, in front of him: confirmation, for me, that he acknowledges how crucial the frequent stops and starts, the canny comments from conductor and colleagues, are in finessing his part in any public performance. Thirdly, his astute interpretation of this heavenly, yet resolutely sad Adagio sparked a longing in me to hear him play Mozart in a similar fashion: sonatas and concertos. I am certain that his combination of innate passion and natural technique (which I rattled on about so much in Cheltenham) would produce something very special.

Later, in performance, this central movement was rendered truly enthralling. Somehow refreshed, it seemed to extend and heighten the desolate bliss even of the previous night’s graceful encounter. Not only had Nickell quickly adapted to the change of acoustics and collaborators; but conductor David Curtis responded in kind by bringing the orchestra to its conclusion, with a finger raised to his lips, in the most hushed, just-audible-enough-to-make-your-spine-crumble, ethereal whisper. (I think time may have halted, momentarily – and this was not the first instance.)

The energetic – yet still resolutely mournful – outer Allegros were, as in the previous performance, equally accomplished. Yet it is this wraith-like, shadowy portion of the concerto which continues to haunt.

The next piece to be rehearsed – definitely a case of skateboarding from the sublime to the something-else… – was Steve Martland’s utterly original – and as crisp and fresh as a newly-plucked grape – arrangement of Bach’s famous (see yesterday’s Fantasia reference) Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565: which was to open the evening.

I know the original organ work all too well: having learned it by heart whilst being taught how to murder the new (and magnificent, seemingly-jet-powered) organ in Blackburn Cathedral (a real weapon of, er, mass destruction, in my wrong hands); as well as from practising it quasi-religiously when choirmaster (and last-resort accompanist) at a nearby rural parish church.

If Elgar’s transcription for full orchestra of the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor is all about squeezing every drop of awesomeness from modern symphonic forces (however subtly, at times); then this almost polar opposite is concerned with creating distinct layers of crystalline clarity – breaking apart the original’s sometimes complex structure and dense counterpoint, and simply letting it all breathe. It exemplifies Curtis’ trademark use of space (and silence) between passages, as well as each instrument’s lines and rhythms: “But heard, half heard, in the stillness Between the two waves of the sea.” (Although what sounded like snap – or Bartók – pizzicatos – not dissimilar in aural, and physical, effect to whip-cracks: stopping you in your tracks… – at one point prompted grins all-round!)

There is immense beauty, though, in Martland’s sometimes icy sparseness (a sort of steely evolution of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, and such a radical divergence from the original instrument’s overwhelming tendency to blur and befuddle): with delicate soaring filigrees interspersed with shattering, cumulative elemental power. (Was that a reference to Jaws, menacing us from the double-basses?!) And it was a wonderful, necessary, waking shock both to my somewhat somnolent midsummer’s afternoon listlessness, and my rusty comprehension of how the familiar can be rendered so astoundingly invigorating (as well as invigoratingly astounding). The result: another (slightly bonkers, admittedly; but there’s nothing wrong with that!) bejewelled example of the orchestrator’s intelligent art (and, also, may I suggest, of this sceptred isle’s predilections). Additionally, despite (or, again, because) of its hidden complexities, and the resultant graft (some of its rhythmical tripping puzzles are Bach’s own: that opening is just as difficult on the keyboard), it is perfectly suited to Curtis and OOTS: who, of course, dazzled us with their energetic shrewdness, perfect timing, and satisfied glee.

This was such an apposite piece with which to open the evening: signalling the connections between ancient and modern (one could even say between European and British) music and traditions in a way that I don’t think anything else could (not even the previous night’s Elgarian feast; and certainly not for such compact forces). It paved the way for not only Bach’s concerto – immediately before the interval – but especially the jaw-dropping, impassioned masterpieces that were to follow.

Talking of challenging openings (and masterpieces): the first notes of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (yes, him again) – surely one of the greatest works of its kind (and written in a matter of weeks) – is a stunner! (And so are all the variations that follow… – this is an immensely difficult and complex work to pull off: requiring huge, sustained levels of concentration and ability from every single player.)

Back in our seats after twenty minutes basking in the evening sun, it was noticeable that Curtis had created a larger space than normal around himself: room to manoeuvre. And it soon became apparent why. In a nutshell, this was the performance of a lifetime: directed with some huge sweeping gestures. I know I keep on declaiming just how wonderful the Orchestra of the Swan are… – which is undoubtedly true… – but, even for them, this was a revelation. Perpetual perfection – however, whichever way you wish to measure it.

You could say, certainly, that such is OOTS’ daily olive-and-walnut bread and organic unpasteurised sea-salted goat’s butter: an impeccable combination of individually exciting ingredients; and a demonstration of their collective intelligence; cohesive dynamics (from the most powerful pianississimi to surprisingly fragile fortississimi…); tempi as precise as any Swiss chronometer (yet as changeable as the British weather…); that rare ability to convey absolutely any sensibility; and to prevail successfully upon music of absolutely any genre. (That the second violins and violas are also capable of doing such a magical, massed impression of a George Formby convention going full-out, only adds to the appeal!)

What really renders all this so magnetic, so utterly irresistible, though – that distinctive ‘device’ which pulls it all together; and clothes it in glory – is their genuine, openly-communicated relish: making all that hard work and extended development of superhuman skill appear a distant memory for them; and thus disappear completely for us. It just is what it is.

This is a joyous, skilful work – with some almost numinous changes of mood – yet full of the confidence and bright-eyed visions of youth: resulting in soundscapes that could only be Britten’s. (Think Peter Grimes, and its conjuring of the sea’s tempers; or The Turn of the Screw, and its constrained instrumentation.) He was twenty-three when he wrote this; and yet it punches with a maturity that demonstrates how some rare artists appear to emerge fully-formed. (As Peter Donohoe recently said, typically, when asked about the wisdom and full-blown individuality that contributes so much to the concertos and symphonies composed in Mozart’s teenage years: “He was born old!”)

Which, of course, neatly segues into a paean to the evening’s young soloist. (Again, my previous long-form review of his UK début probably tells you all you need to know… – but, as with my tendency to judge drama, I believe repeated viewings are necessary before establishing any true attempt at a final verdict. It also helps if you have a slightly different perspective: so, this time, I sat at the pointy end of the piano: concentrating on the sound, rather than the visuals.)

As with that first concert, the Bach could be seen simply as a wonderful warm-up for Nickell (although no less moving and impressive for that). This second evening’s climax – and most brilliant highlight (even after the Britten) – was a performance of David Matthews’ scintillating, personal, soulful, engrossing, charismatic, meaningful, heartrendingly handsome and harmonious Piano Concerto, Op.111 – and with the genial composer present: for both concert and rehearsals. (Much of that string of adjectives, by the way, not only applies to the work, but the performers, as well.)

This was the perfect companion and successor to the Britten (possibly because there is a lineage of tutorship/apprenticeship which traces directly back to Bridge) – especially with its passages of soaring, modern romanticism; contrasted with not only fantastic moments of wit – especially that too-short Tango (which, somehow, provoked a huge waterfall of weeping with its implicit humanity) – but an intense warmth.

Matthews’ integration of the piano with the extensive, and extending, stretching string orchestra accompaniment not only demonstrates how a musical form that has been around for centuries can be so incredibly relevant and contemporary; but can also give rise to an extensive, forceful, yet inclusive and immersive, beauty. I felt enveloped in its joy; pierced by its soulfulness. The bluesy Elegy – which included some sumptuous tear-jerking solo string playing; as well as crashing waves of virtuosity, and a growing rich, heartfelt melodiousness, from Nickell – grabbed me astonishingly hard (even after the impact of the moody ‘dance’ which preceded it). And it will be a long time before it lets go….

The last effusive, melodious movement provided a little relief. But, still sobbing – happiness and sadness in equal measures – all I wanted was immediately for those incredible assembled forces to play it again…. They had rewarded the composer – and us – with at least as persuasive a performance as it warranted. That such a prominent composer as Matthews entrusted the promotion of such a glorious work to Nickell – who it fitted perfectly; and who will, next weekend, give its landmark London première, again with OOTS – is a demonstration of just how briskly and surely the young pianist gains acceptance amongst more experienced musicians.

I think not only that I am about to demolish my opening argument, but also that, unless you base your conclusions solely on a composer’s birthplace, it would be difficult to categorize this tour de force in any way as purely ‘British’… – although, in my defence, there is that fantastic string writing! Not that it matters. This is simply Matthews at his transcendent best; and it is no surprise that the work has already been committed to CD. It has, for me – as I listen to it again as I write – an innate longevity: born of that “warmth”; and which seems to express a true representation of the man himself.

So, you may ask – after two such intoxicating concerts – what are my conclusions with regards to Nickell…?

Well, before I go on, let me just interrupt myself momentarily: and say (tongue ever so slightly in cheek) that if his mere presence is sufficient to raise both orchestras to such stratospheric heights (ones which they are obviously capable of reaching on their own, in all seriousness – but every catalyst helps…), then, probably I should utter no more. (Listen instead to both audiences’ loud approbation – especially in response to his Gershwin encore: yesterday even more accomplished; and yet, somehow, more relaxed… – which literally speaks, shouts volumes. This should not be the only measure of his talent and eminence, though.)

In all reality, as I wrote yesterday, there can be no contradicting the fact that his “mastery of the keyboard – however effortless and limpid in appearance – is not in doubt”. He also, in my view, crucially plays with both heart and mind – something, from my experience, that is unusual in someone so young. This, I think, stems from the fact that he is one of those exceptional (and exceptionally rare) people who has discovered – and so early on in life – that he is actually rather good at something he truly loves doing. Combine this with opportunity, and a willingness (even an overwhelming desire and drive) to stay focused on that one “thing” – not only for his own satisfaction; but so that he can venture out into the world, exploring and learning, and sharing meaning and delight as he goes – and you have all the elements necessary to flourish, to succeed.

Teenagers are supposed to rage against the world with vitriol and angst (or so I am told) – but his emotions (and the way they are so skilfully conveyed) appear (and sound) much, much more broadly-developed than that: in parallel with his indubitable technique and insight. If I finish by writing sincerely that I feel blessed and privileged to have been present at the beginning of a career that I am sure will develop further dimensions – whilst bringing a concomitant fullness to those dimensions – then I am sure you can see that those “elements” are not only all present and correct (at least from my perspective); but that they are already beginning to align: to form a constellation that will only continue to grow in magnitude and brightness.

Not only do I wish him success; but I hope that all he dreams of, one day becomes his reality. He truly deserves nothing less.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Unified arrangements of atoms and particles…

I don’t really know what I was expecting, sat in Pittville Pump Room, contemplating the Steinway a few rows in front of me, forty minutes before kick-off. All I know – now I sit down to write – was that it wasn’t this. For any orchestra to give two such immense demonstrations of prowess within a week is remarkable enough; but when the latter concert features, firstly, challenging works they have never performed before (one of them foisted on them by Yours Truly – and at relatively short notice (sorry)); and, secondly, two exacting pieces with a soloist who they have never worked with before (and who is basically – until now, of course – an unknown quantity on this side of the Pond); then you have to praise their dauntlessness, as well as their skill and sheer verve. Yes, the tension was palpable – that I could feel (and probably could have carved with a blunt chisel), sitting there… – but, two-and-a-half hours later, in the same chair, all I could sense was soaring success: and for everyone involved.

This is going to take a lot of writing, I suspect: my heart and mind are bursting with thoughts, emotions, snapshots and cinematic reels of visual and aural detail – whilst pure amazement surges through my veins… – so I think I must simply try to document things in the order in which they occurred. Therefore, as Julie Andrews once wisely suggested: “Let’s start at the very beginning”. To me, it seems like quite a good place to start.

If music were architecture, Bach’s big organ works would be cathedrals, fortresses, Baronial manors. More than any of his other compositions, these works give the inescapable feeling that one is viewing a physical structure. Every part is linked together, so that the whole thing stands immensely upright. Yet there is the distinct feeling that every single line must be there – if something were missing, the structure would fall apart. If this Fantasia and Fugue were truly physical architecture, it might be the country estate of a gentleman. It would be a place where enjoyment and pageantry were as important as nobility and seriousness of purpose, where elegance and wealth stood side-by-side with the natural beauty of the forest.

This is where I ’fess up. Yup, it was my idea to open this concert with the Elgar: and, now, having disclosed my interest (or perhaps over-enthusiasm), I hope you won’t be surprised if the following few paragraphs sound a tad biased (despite my best efforts, I promise, not to get too carried away…). Let’s rewind just a little bit further, though….

I was having a coffee with conductor David Curtis, and he mentioned that he was looking for a companion piece – preferably an arrangement of Bach – to integrate with the rest of last night’s programme: i.e. it must be ‘true’ to Bach’s original composition; but reflect the grandeur of the Liszt pieces that followed (see below). The Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, Op.86, immediately came to mind – not only because of my deep, lifelong love of Elgar (and admiration for his genius at both instrumentation and conveying boundless emotion); but also because I believed it would substantiate the irrefutably high capabilities of each section, each member, of the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra.

Elgar wrote on 5 June 1921 to his friend, the organist Ivor Atkins, “I have orchestrated a Bach fugue in modern way – largish orchestra – you may not approve. …many arrgts have been made of Bach on the ‘pretty’ scale & I wanted to shew how gorgeous & great & brilliant he would have made himself sound if he had had our means.” Far from disapproving, Atkins listened with Elgar to the work being rehearsed by Eugène Goossens at the Queen’s Hall, London, on 26 October 1921 prior to its première the following day where “It sounded magnificent”.

Initially, Richard Strauss – at a meeting with Elgar “in 1920, eager to heal the rift caused by the First World War” – agreed to adapt the Fantasia: but, regrettably, for me (well, in some ways), this other emperor of instrumentation “never kept his part of the agreement”. Also sadly: the Elgar-completed pairing doesn’t appear to receive as many performances as it should; and is therefore not as well-known, as, say, Leopold Stokowski’s scintillating arrangements of Bach – especially the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor which opens Disney’s incredible, ground-breaking Fantasia. But I believe that it shows Elgar at his most inventive (and humorous; well, apart from his Smoking Cantata…) – and it rises from the most subtle, gentle of beginnings, through eloquence and majesty, to an almost jazz-like, swinging culmination of percussive, full-orchestral domination. In other words, it is a master-class in scoring and transcribing – especially in its consummate transformation of the “dense and involved [original] in which a very un-flashy and serious-minded approach to prelude and fugue-type composition can be heard and seen” to a piece of music that is utterly joyous in affect (and yet which loses none of the technical adroitness of its source). From clever architecture, to sublime major cityscape… – or as Curtis joked: “It’s Bach – but not as we know it!”

The last time I heard this performed was in Salisbury Cathedral, ten or eleven years ago; and we were treated to the original organ work before the orchestral version. In some ways – although this highlighted Elgar’s stupendous accomplishment – for me, it slightly reduced the overall impact. Last night, though, the accumulated forces of the CSO launched this momentous concert with just the requisite amount of fanfaronade – perfectly book-ending an evening that was to finish (as scheduled) with Lizst’s “shockingly modernisticTotentanz (in effect, his third piano concerto) – indeed, one of his “strongest works” – but yet, again, sadly, not as frequently performed as it blummin’ well ought to be. (Humbug.)

Once more, though, with all the excitement, I am getting ahead of myself….

The Fantasia opens – underlined with a mysterious heartbeat in the timpani, bass drum, and lower strings – with plaintive solos from the oboe and clarinet from (I hope) Tessa Pemberton and Janet McKechnie. [You must forgive me here: I do not have a cast-list of the usual artistic suspects; and my view was obscured by a rather nice shiny piano.] These sirens are eventually joined by the rest of the orchestra: but the build is so gradual, the gradient so gentle, as to be almost unnoticeable – at first. If you didn’t know the principal theme was Bach’s, you could well imagine it was Elgar’s (or even Warlock’s) – hints of the slow movement of the spine-tingling Violin Concerto; the opening of the haunted Piano Quintet; even glorious ‘Nimrod’… – and he develops it with gentle gossamer touches: perfectly, sustainedly, longingly drawn by Curtis. It was as if we were slowly emerging from a fog, magicked by Puck; or having the dreams lifted from our eyes with one of Oberon’s potions. Almost out of nowhere (nowhere quite definable, at least), we reached a largamente climax (followed by a thrilling, gorgeous glissando from the harp); enough held back in reserve, though, for an even more magisterial ascent – just before the mist vanishes for good. Our vision is now clear. But the orchestra fades, plangently, to another incredibly beautiful oboe solo (orchestral player of the night…) – espressivo and ad libitum (and very high on the Bard Handkerchief Scale (BHS: measured in megadrops)) – in response…

…and, urgently, shockingly, we are attacked by a marauding, confident fugal army of burly infantry. Everyone gets a piece of the action – but this is Bach as rendered by Gerontius’ demons. Of course (this is Elgar, remember – he of that cello concerto…) there is great subtlety, too: the music ebbs and flows – the waves growing as the storm approaches (it seems Beethoven never left the building) – gentle interjections from the brass over rolling strings; hushed conversations between the woodwind; and then a cascade to poco allargando – all followed by an intense, concise explosion in the bassoons (wow!) and tambourine…. And the tsunami starts to roll, to gather power.

Gently at first… – stunning tempi, beautiful dynamics: the partnership between Curtis and the CSO so utterly cohesive… – but a rising, dark bass-line that Shostakovich would have been proud of; and a final, total unleashing of the rather large percussion section (their faces glowing with syncopated confidence and glee); and we are almost – almost – overwhelmed. But, as always, Curtis held just enough in reserve – the canniness of the long-distance runner, I suppose – despite the bombardment of fortississimo markings in the score – that, when we reached the sustained, final-two-bar crescendo molto (and from all-bar-one of the orchestra), I suspect that most of the audience were almost shocked out of their seats… – that last, startling tutti chord almost a cheer of purest joy! (And an extremely well-deserved one, too!)

This was a wish come true – a midsummer night’s dream rendered tangible – for me. (I may need to extend the range of that BHS.) One of the very greatest composers (IMHO) – even so soon after the death of his beloved wife and muse – arousing astounding enchantment, spells, wonders, fireworks; launching glistening spheres into orbit… – all from the seminal sparks of one of his peers. The evening could have ended there; and I would have been in heaven for weeks! But this was only the overture to an evening of even grander (geddit) wizardry.

There was a reason for the presence of that shimmering Steinway: the main purpose of the evening being to launch the UK career of seventeen-year-old pianist, Thomas Nickell – who has been dubbed “The American Mozart” (and who I was fortunate to interview, recently, for the Orchestra of the Swan’s blog). And, based solely on last night’s evidence – although he is also performing twice with OOTS over the next week (including this evening, in Stratford-upon-Avon) – his future looks not only as bright as Elgar’s whizz-bang rockets, but just as stratospheric.

The first piece he played was a wonderful contrast to the Elgar transcription: Bach’s own Piano Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052; accompanied by just the CSO’s warm and astute string section. This is probably an arrangement of an earlier work – but, as Nickell rightfully says (originally referencing the Elgar transcription):

I can only imagine that Bach would have been pleased with seeing his work rearranged for so many different sorts of ensembles, because he often rearranged his own music. The keyboard concertos are a perfect example of that because they come from earlier violin concertos, which even started out in different keys in their original violin versions. I think that re-imaginings of Bach’s works can be marvelous, and are contextually appropriate.

In our dialogue, we also discussed our shared hero, Glenn Gould – and, shortly before the concert, Nickell posted a picture of this troubled, eccentric (again, all-too-short-lived) genius, accompanied by the following quotation:

One does not play piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.

To be honest, it wasn’t those words which grabbed me – however richly true. It was the reminder of Gould’s unusual posture: hands almost flat to the keyboard; his shoulders bent so low that his nose was almost buried in-between the keys; his wrists seeming to hover just above his knees. This is how I too play from memory (despite years of chastisement from my saintly piano teacher, Arthur Bury) – although with about one-zillionth of the quality…. But the only professional pianist I have ever witnessed live (until today) who performed in an uncannily similar manner, was the late demigod Esbjörn Svensson (whose loss, for so many, is still red-raw – just typing his name brings tears…). [If you are not a fan of modern jazz, you may not have heard of him, I admit. Yet, even amongst the likes of Donohoe, Roscoe, Hough, Pollini, Uchida, I still rank Svensson as the greatest, most creative, articulate, inventive pianist of my lifetime. That he was a nice bloke, too, just makes the loss of such awesome talent so much more painful.] I therefore have an immense soft spot – a weakness, indeed – for those who crouch likewise: melding, seemingly becoming one with their instrument.

So… on to the stage walks a tall, gangly youth, with glasses and slightly floppy hair, and a self-effacing, winning smile. I would have thought him slightly older than seventeen, I think, had I not known (an impression reinforced during a later, brief conversation). Any nervousness is only visible in the occasional running of a hand through his hair, when observing the orchestra, waiting for an entry; or an almost imperceptible tug at the thin charm of a band beneath his treble-clef cuff link. Curtis raises his baton; and, for the next few minutes my eyes are focused, in wonder, to a tight beam. All I see (I chose my seating position with great care) are beautiful hands and their reflections, caressing the notes almost imperceptibly. This is a technique of minimal fuss; of economy; of grace. (I would have been metaphorically rapped over the knuckles by Mr Bury for keeping them so low.) But, my goodness, it works… – the sound that emanates from those elegant fingers is anything but economic: a huge range of reverberation – one moment, perfectly blending into the orchestral exposition; the next, shining a light on Bach’s energetic melodies and translucent structures.

I can see why Gould is an idol. If Elgar demonstrated what Bach could have done with a modern symphony orchestra to play with; then Gould showed how Bach can still be meaningful, brought up-to-date, made contemporary, with modern keyboard (and pedalling) techniques – all without lessening his impact (usually amplifying it, for me). In fact, my (strongly-held) opinion is that Gould led the way (compare, for instance, the evolution demonstrated by his two contrasting recordings of the Goldberg Variations…). Fortunately (for both us and him), Nickell neither hums loudly, nor fidgets when he plays! Neither does the confidence that flows from his fingers morph into any form of exclusive arrogance. It is obvious he is still learning, still (always will be) willing to learn; that he has absorbed a great deal from Curtis’ expertise in recent days. Nevertheless, this was a performance of both exquisite precision; and – in the central, sombre slow movement, demonstrating his real love, his profession of Bach as his favourite composer – mature romanticism.

The introduction to (and also its closure of, therefore) this Adagio was described by Curtis as “desolate”; and the strings, in Vivaldian unison, pulled hard at my heart. Again, precision with emotion. In such sparse moments, any error (of fingering, of tuning) would be as vivid as Elgar’s Roman candles; but this was exquisite, intense – and yet almost whispered. The balance between orchestra and piano was impeccable. (I accept that, at such an early point in his career, Nickell may need more immersion in such collegiate performances: but, as far as I could see – bar one single cue – his head was always raised from the keyboard in readiness for Curtis’ beat; or to indicate, with a nod of his young – but sage – head, that this was the point for the orchestra to rejoin him in creating harmonious radiance.)

The final movement went by in a blur. I was still awestruck by that fluid technique. This was not an exhibition piece – as I may have initially supposed – this was a demonstration of respect, of love, for music that sang to him – as it did, now, so beautifully, so cogently, to us.

It took me a while to get my breath back, I admit, at the interval… – but a bracing wind through the Pump Room’s doors helped tremendously!

Once we returned to our seats, then lashings of virtuosity were really unleashed. But by the orchestra. Rejoined by many of the forces necessary for the Elgar, we were treated to a sumptuous interpretation of Liszt’s Les Préludes.

This is a work new to me; and, had I had to guess at its creator, I would probably have plumped for early Wagner (who it obviously influenced) – although there were some wonderful Mendelssohnian subtleties in there, as well as some fantastic brass writing. [Tip: if you’re ever asked to choose a work for the CSO to perform, go for something that stretches the percussion and brass sections. They seem to revel in being asked to play the impossible: making it look and sound powerfully easy. (This is not to denigrate either the strings or the woodwind. Just that I know of no other “non-professional” – horrible term – orchestra who can rival the Berlin Phil for sheer oomph from the back row!)]

Although it can claim to be “the first symphonic poem”, in title; in essence, I believe Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (influenced by recent events, no doubt) beat Liszt to the draw. And not only had the earlier composer not “left the building”, neither had his storm; or, it seems, his flock of birds.

This is a gorgeous figurative work; and, having just added it to my current iPad playlist, I will be revisiting it many times. [I was going to take a saunter through the bright lights and deep shadows of the score: but I have already passed the 2,500-word, 02:00 mark; and there is a lot, lot more, still to come! (Eek.)] I tend to think (ignoramus that I am) of Liszt as solely a pianist and creator of fiendish music for that instrument – although both of his concertos feature some stunning orchestral writing… – but, on this evidence, here is the equal of Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann, even Mahler. Wonderful stuff; and if proof were needed of how magnificently the CSO delivered on its promise, then Curtis’ permanent gaze of deep, contented joy, throughout, delivered it with (extremely positive) attitude.

Then that Steinway is wheeled back into view; its lids are lifted with reverence; the orchestra goes through a tiny rearrangement of positions; and Curtis and Nickell re-enter, stage left – to huge applause.

I have only to look at the first few bars of the piano part of Lizst’s Totentanz for my fingers to start bleeding. Pneumatic hammers might be more appropriate for the percussive shocks this requires. But, my goodness, did Nickell deliver! If the Bach was a gentle – but emotional – walk in a rather luscious woodland park; this was a snicker-snacking duel with scythe-wielding Death himself. Every single person on-stage gave it their very all. But, again, there was no showmanship, no conceit – just crystalline communication built on technique and mastery (and this applies to the orchestra and conductor, as much as the soloist).

I don’t know how to describe the experience as audience member on the receiving end of such glory as anything other than being immersed in the very definition of profundity… – somehow combined with transcendence….

The work begins with a darkly colored “dance of death,” with diminished harmonies underlying the first phrase of the plainsong melody sounded forth heavily in the bass instruments, like the most somber of funeral processions. An electrifying splash of piano cadenza announces that this work will be a showpiece of virtuosity despite its serious framework. Soon the full theme has been stated and we are off on a series of character variations in different tempi and moods, with striking touches of orchestration, fugal sections, and pianistic fireworks. Though some of Totentanz shows Liszt in his most diabolist mood, there are romantic touches as well, and the canny range of moods contributes to making this brief, concerto-like piece one of its creator’s most dramatic works.

This was obviously (to my mind) intended as that “exhibition piece”. Nickell’s mastery of the keyboard – however effortless and limpid in appearance – is not in doubt; and this was the perfect vehicle to demonstrate it. But his performance – aided and abetted by Curtis and his band of deft familiars – went far beyond this. His solos were immensely thoughtful; and had that wondrous quality – which I so admire – of appearing almost improvisational. Full use was made of the Steinway’s abilities, too: sparkling high notes; those explosive bass “percussive shocks”; and everything in-between – including some awesome forceful glissandi. This was mightily impressive; and the lady in front of me kept gently shaking her head in astonishment and awe. But, for me, the best demonstration of Nickell’s abilities came in the first of the two generous encores.

Curtis had inscrutably informed me that I would recognize the first one (assuming there only would be that one… – but we weren’t quite ready to let him go, even then…). And he was right! (Of course!) One of my very favourite piano pieces (to listen to; not to mangle): Gershwin’s own solo version of Rhapsody in Blue. Instantly, we were whisked across the Atlantic to Nickell’s very own New York.

I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.

Here – even after the Bach concerto – was music that emanated from Nickell’s heart. The freedoms elicited from such syncopated splendour were given full rein. Here was a young man exploring his heritage, revelling in it, showing us how much it means to him. My stretched heartstrings burst with the truthfulness of it all – a conjunction of sorts. The right man for the job, you could say. Skill; a belief in digging deep into a score, researching its composer, its origin… before even setting it on the piano; a rugged determination “to bring something new to the piano… I don’t know yet what that might be”; a willingness to listen to everyone around him – all combined with something special that may take years to be defined.

But he is incredibly self-aware, it seems to me; and understands with conviction that this is just the beginning… – and yet demonstrates great patience and fortitude in facing what lies ahead. He is in it for the long game. That he is also a lovely guy, generous with his time – although he must have wondered just who this gushing, gibbering idiot stood in front of him was, at the end of the night – almost goes without saying. [I promise to be (a little) calmer, this evening…. (By the way, if you haven’t got tickets for this OOTS concert, in Stratford-upon-Avon, there are a few left, I am told: so grab them now – to witness not just great musicianship, but a tiny, exquisite moment of history.)]

To see all these qualities combined into someone so young is definitely to be treasured. It is extremely rare; and I know Nickell has the potential – with the support and care of those who recognize his unique abilities – to go very far indeed. At the moment, perhaps, he is a little better as a soloist than in a group: but this – with his obvious openness – will come. He is definitely not afraid of the hard effort and practice this will take. But he has foundations to build on that we mere mortals can only dream of – they are so very high, so very far beyond our reach.

And if you required yet further proof: the Rachmaninoff he played with such charm and wit, to bring us all back down to earth – and the wonderful, knowing grin as he gently tickled that last staccato note – for his second encore, said it all.

It was a privilege, a joy, a wonderment, to be there. Tonight, I feel, though, may be more special yet.