Recording and concerts with Paul Lewis16 February 2010
A few posts back I talked about the fun of rehearsing Schubert piano duets with Paul, and we have just completed a run of concerts and a recording of the works (comprising four pieces from the last year of Schubert's life, including the great Fantasie, and two sets of variations)
Piano duet is perhaps the most difficult medium for a pianist to work in. Of course, the first thing is that it is physically awkward, with elbows jostling and fingers getting tangled up, but that's just the start. Only one person can pedal at a time, so someone has to cede control of this crucial tool to their partner who inevitably has different pedalling instincts. Even if they didn't, the instinct is initially to pedal in accordance with one's own part which can ruin the sound of the other part. On the other hand, pedalling in a way which supports a melody you're not yourself playing can be surprisingly tricky. And sometimes pedalling conflicts are impossible to resolve, forcing one to chose between the character of one part or the other.
Then there is the problem of timing. Piano notes have a very percussive start, which means that it is exceptionally hard for two players to make chords sound together - any discrepancy of more than one or two hundredths of a second is audible. This can be a serious headache for music which needs rhythmic flexibility.
Finally one has to create a good balance between the different parts, and this can go strongly against a pianist's instincts. It's the nature of piano playing that one deals in foreground and background, projecting one line above the others; it's rather rare that everything one plays needs to be in the background, even when accompanying another instrument. But in piano duet, it is extremely easy to make the texture very cluttered and to obscure the most important line or lines. As a result to play at the right level sometimes feels as if one is hardly playing at all.
So much for the difficulties. In spite of these, or perhaps even because of them, this has been one of the most enjoyable projects I've ever participated in. The process of rehearsing was great fun as it needs to be for piano duet, I think - otherwise it gets very irritating constantly being told to play quieter! As ever, playing music with friends makes all the difference. The people at the Aldeburgh Festival kindly provided us with a space to rehearse for three days, away from all distractions except for Adnams bitter and one of the best chippies in the country. Our first concert in Norwich already felt very good, and the subsequent concerts got better and better. Finally there was the recording in Potton Hall, taking us full circle back to Suffolk. This was a really inspiring experience, both for what I learned from Paul (everything he does is full of quality) and for the feeling of joint commitment and musical understanding which seemed to unite us. It will be a few months before we get to hear the result of our labours, and probably the end of the year before it's released, but I already feel confident that this is a CD of which I'll be very proud.
As a footnote, Paul has just launched his website. You can find it here: www.paullewispiano.co.uk
Turangalila and Roulette in Monte Carlo06 December 2009
I'm in the middle of a mini-tour of tax havens at the moment. Currently I'm staying with some very dear friends in Vevey, who were my hosts when I played in the Clara Haskil competition almost 20 years ago (I have a couple of concerts with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra at the beginning of this week). And last week I played Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic and Yakov Kreizberg. This was a rather exceptional experience, and not only because of the monumental feeling that Kreizberg brought to the piece. It was a much-awaited event for the orchestra and audience because he had been ill for a number of months and this was the first concert he was able to undertake as the orchestra's new chief conductor; the combination of these facts and the great performance led to the most crazy, seemingly endless ovation I ever experienced. It is one thing for an audience to love a performance but to see an orchestra respond with such respect and admiration for a conductor was really touching, and it was clear that Kreizberg got the message.
After a post-concert meal, I went to the grand casino to play roulette with Cynthia Millar, who had just performed her 100th Turangalila on that electronic marvel, the Ondes Martenot. Neither of us had ever gambled in our lives before, and strangely enough I had a really good feeling about it in the afternoon. In the event I went in with 40 euros and came out with 210! There are many activities in life where one can be successful the first time because one is not yet aware of the difficulties, and my instinct was to imagine this was the case with my roulette experience. My wife tells me she also was very successful the first time she went to the casino. But of course, roulette is a game of pure chance - there is no skill in picking the right number. I don't think you can even maximise your chances according to what kind of bet you place because the return of a winning bet seems to be strictly related to the amount of risk you take, so I suspect that a monkey would do just as well as the most seasoned roulette player. And if I think back on the day, I remember I had lost my 'lucky feeling' by the evening, and I won anyway. So why should I connect my success to my lucky feeling and not to my lack of it later on? I guess it is more attractive for the ego to imagine one has a subtle influence over these things than to acknowledge one is helpless in the face of pure chance. I think this desire to believe in a control we do not have must be true to an extent because, absurdly, there is a display beside the roulette table showing the previous 15 or so numbers to come up. What possible reason can there be for this except to encourage people to find patterns, to feel that they can give themselves a better chance of winning next time?
Computer joy23 November 2009
The title of this entry is ironic. I'm currently making an arrangement of a few songs from Porgy and Bess to perform with my wife on tour in January, and decided it might be worth investing in some music notation software. I already have a Yamaha electric keyboard which I used for practising in Singapore while Jeannie was still playing with the Singapore Symphony, and the thought of being able to play the music from it directly into the computer with a MIDI connection was very appealing. The first problem - how to hook the keyboard up to the computer? I bought a cable which looked like it should do the job, but no joy. Emails to Yamaha and the software manufacturer; no response. Much searching online for a solution, to no avail. Finally I bought another cable, 10 times the cost of the first, hooked it up to my laptop, but it didn't work. My frustration was starting to rise at a considerable rate. In desperation I tried connecting it to my PC. Still no luck. I fiddled about with every setting I could think of and to my amazement suddenly the connection was there. Funny the way technology can make one feel helpless! It turns out the instructions in the Yamaha keyboard manual were wrong.
Having the ability to play music directly into the computer is only the start of the process, however. I still have to learn how to edit what appears on the screen and this is a bewildering process. I printed out the list of keyboard commands to study - all 18 pages of them! I spent yesterday morning experimenting with them and inflicting all kinds of indignities on the British national anthem in the process. Gradually, I'm getting to grips with the logic of the system, and I have the sense that computer joy may in fact not be so far away after all.
London and Dallas31 October 2009
This has been a wonderful month for collaborations. After Hannu Lintu's Beethoven, I had the pleasure to work again with Alban Gerhardt. Playing with him is like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers - it feels completely easy and natural. It's a measure of the trust I have in him that when his D string broke 2 minutes into our Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert (live radio!), I had no concern that it would be difficult for him to get back into the flow of things, and so it turned out. Poor guy, though - I'd asked for the dressing room to be locked because I had all my stuff for this long trip there, so he couldn't get in at first. He came running back on stage to enter the dressing room the back way and that was locked too! So in all there was probably 2 or 3 minutes of dead air for the presenter to fill. The irony is, he was playing on a broken bow that he'd had to superglue that morning, and had a 2nd bow on stage with him in case it broke again.
I had to leave pretty much immediately after the concert to get a flight to New York, en route to Dallas for Rachmaninov 2 with Stéphane Deneve, and I had the greatest travel luck of my life. Since there was no longer a direct flight to Dallas by the time I was leaving London, I had to stay overnight in New York and also change airport. So I landed at 9.35pm in JFK, got straight through immigration where there was no queue, hopped in a taxi (I only have hand luggage with me) and was at my hotel in LaGuardia by 10.10! Then on the flight the next morning, I had a row to myself so I lay down for 3 hours to help kick the jetlag. I can't tell you how happy I was; such bits of luck in the middle of a gruelling schedule are godsends.
I'm in the middle of things in Dallas now. We've played 2 out of 4 concerts so far, the first a little sketchy but the 2nd great. It's so nice having friends like Stéphane and his wife Åsa to spend time with; their 20 month old daughter Alma has been hilarious too. We went to an obscenely good steak restaurant yesterday. 2 more concerts and then I'm back home, which I have to say I'm very much looking forward to; it feels like a long time since I've been able to spend proper time with my wife.
On the road24 October 2009
I've hardly been at home this month, what with a very fun tour with the Orchestre des Pays de Savoie and now a trip of 11 days taking in Finland, London and Dallas. Before leaving on Tuesday I had two days at home to catch up with Jeannie and we made the best of what time we had, going to see the fabulous new Pixar film, Up, and eating her delicious cooking. Really, she could open a restaurant if she had the inclination.
Now I'm on my way to London after playing Beethoven 4 for the first time since I was a student. It's quite an amazing piece to work on, so rich in musical substance and metaphor. What is the exact nature of the relationship between piano and orchestra in the 2nd movement, and indeed at the beginning of the whole piece? I am sure that the subtleties and complexities of the piece are impossible to exhaust, no matter how much one thinks about it. My partners were Hannu Lintu and the Tampere Philharmonic, and it was a great collaboration. Hannu is one of my favourite conductors for Beethoven - he has gentleness, wildness, and a wonderfully instinctive grasp of structure. To make music with someone like this is inspiring and it really helped me in the concert, where I didn't feel entirely comfortable (it's challenging to play a piece of this magnitude after a long break); seeing his complete immersion in the music and open smiles kept drawing me back to what a privilege it is to play music like this.
Finland is only 2 hours ahead of the UK but somehow my body clock was quite disturbed. I woke up at 5am yesterday morning (3am UK time!) and couldn't sleep again. So I watched on my laptop the infamous edition of Question Time I wrote about in my last post, as well as news reports of the event. It was rather surreal to me to see a screaming mob outside BBC Broadcasting House where the episode was being filmed, with a kind of vicious energy normally reserved for paedophiles and the like. Given that NIck Griffin was democratically elected, I guess these people must object to democracy in some way. I had an interesting talk about it to Maritta HIrvonen, who works with the Tampere Philharmonic. She said there is a party similar to the BNP in Finland which has some modest electoral success, but creates little controversy. The mainstream politicians don't seem to think that it's a terrible thing for them to have some representation in parliament; after all, their power is very small, and being represented gives them a chance to air their views, hear opposing views, and keeps them from becoming too marginalised and paranoid.
Ironically the BNP is being demonised by protestors in the same way the BNP demonises Muslims - there is no attempt to understand the position that the 'other' is taking. It reminds me of objections to the 'humanisation' of Hitler in the film Downfall. I find this mystifying. To portray Hitler as human is simply to state the obvious, and to attempt to paint him as a monster with no possible redeeming feature is not only unrealistic, it also limits our ability to understand the past. The crucial and terrible issue is - how could a man become so detached from his own humanity that he could commit such acts? So with the BNP: why is it that a somewhat significant proportion of the British electorate are willing to vote for a party that wants anyone who isn't white to leave the country? It is of course tempting to demonise people with views like this but where does it get you? You become unable to discuss with them, and find out the real source of their anxiety. Is it about jobs, or housing, or fear of people who are different, or what? That the main parties remain unable to address this became clear watching Question Time. Most of the programme was taken up challenging Nick Griffin with his past quotes in an atmosphere akin to bear-baiting, but when someone asked, "Have the Labour government's policies on immigration contributed to the rise of the BNP?", the mood became much more uncertain. The government minister said no then flannelled, the opposition spokesman said yes then unconvincingly tried to show how the Conservative policy would be better, but what no-one did was actually address the rise of the BNP. Why are ordinary people voting for them? It was the elephant in the room.
Strangely, this issue is very close to my experience of music-making. I've always had very strong musical convictions and years ago when I played chamber music I would fight for my ideas to dominate the group interpretation. I rarely liked the ideas other people presented, and somehow couldn't imagine that their instincts could be as valid as my own. More recently, I've come to realise that if I open up to someone else's ideas then I often come away with a fuller understanding of the possibilities of the music. Often, it subtly changes my own musical instincts. Above all, it's a much more interesting and engaging experience. So I've learned that examining ideas I maybe don't initially like can be very enlightening. I suspect if our politicians honestly explored the reasons why people vote BNP, they would find themselves in a much better position to counter the rhetoric and re-engage with the electorate.
Peter Hain and the BNP21 October 2009
Whenever I hear political debates, I normally end up being very glad I'm not a politician. It's not only the childish way such debates are often conducted, but also something more fundamental - I rarely have strong instincts for what should be done to solve any given problem, because I often can't make my mind up about the value of different proposals. So my gut response to politicians is much more on the level of personality than policy and in this I have one overriding conviction, that politicians should be honest. Needless to say, this ends up being rather frustrating.
The latest irritation for me was Peter Hain's letter to the BBC asking them not to allow the British National Party's leader, Nick Griffin, to appear on the debate show Question Time. For any who don't know, the BNP is a far right group proposing, among other things, repatriation of non-white foreigners (whether voluntary or forced is not entirely clear). Personally, I think the attempt to deny any publicity to such groups is completely counter-productive: people will still have these beliefs regardless of whether or not they are publicly expressed and I'd have thought it would be much more sensible to engage them in debate than try to silence them: that simply entrenches them in their views and allows them to take on the role of martyr. However, what really irritated me about Peter Hain's letter was his assertion that the BNP should be barred from the programme not because their views were repugnant (an argument which the government has been pressing to the BBC for weeks) but because their party constitution was found in court to be illegal due to a bar on non-whites membership. In Hain's opinion that makes them an 'unlawful party' and so ineligible to appear on Question Time. Given that the BNP has agreed to amend its constitution, I find Hain's stance very objectionable because I doubt he really believes in his own argument: if he did, then surely he would be pressing for the existing BNP councillors and two MEPs to be immediately be stripped of their responsibilities. Instead, it looks like an attempt on his part to use dubious legal grounds to silence the BNP. In so doing he makes himself appear foolish as well as giving perfect propaganda for the BNP - 'Look how afraid the government are of us."
On the same day I heard Peter Hain's comments I also heard a radio interview with Nick Griffin and he did something rather shocking: he answered all the questions directly. I don't remember the last time I heard that from a politician and I think there's an important lesson here. Politicians often talk about the need to reconnect with voters but invariably mess it up because they simply can't talk directly to the public. They appeared terrified of saying anything which might be misconstrued or used against them in the future. Those unafraid of giving forthright or controversial opinions, as Tony Benn was, are extremely few. The reasons for this are probably complex, but certainly involve the depressing habit of the print and broadcast media to exaggerate any minor controversy to the point of absurdity; in this climate, one can have sympathy for politicians wary of damaging not only their own reputation but also that of their party. Nevertheless, this timidity leaves a gaping hole in the political landscape that politicians like Nick Griffin could easily take advantage of, particularly on a highly-charged issue like immigration. Simply put, it is part of human nature to be selfish, and views like "Britain is for the British" will always be around. To deny this, as the main parties appear to do, leaves the BNP and their ilk to attract people who think, "No-one else is acknowledging how I feel about all these foreigners". Furthermore, there is something attractive about honesty, even if one disagrees with the opinions being expressed, and I suspect this is part of the reason that mainstream politicians are afraid of the BNP gaining in public exposure: they fear the BNP's ability not only to articulate the baser aspects of public opinion, but to attract those disillusioned by the constant double-speak coming from government and opposition alike. If mainstream parties don't have the courage to learn to speak plainly to us about difficult issues, then I think they are by default promoting the BNP's kind of divisive rhetoric which can only be damaging to our society.
NEWS: Britten concerto CD wins Gramophone Award for best concerto recording03 October 2009
Three chamber music collaborations01 October 2009
I've been to Berlin's Schoenefeld airport and back twice in the last three weeks for chamber music collaborations, the first with Nicola Benedetti in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern festival, the second with Alban Gerhardt and Viviane Hagner in the Berliner Festspeile. Then, at the weekend, I went down to London to rehearse some Schubert piano duets with Paul Lewis. Increasingly, I'm finding there is nothing to beat chamber music: concertos and solo recitals are wonderful and deeply satisfying in their own way, but making music in a small group of equals is more complex and subtle. A lot of it is down to personal chemistry: musical instincts come very strongly out of a person's character and I generally find that when I get on well with someone I also like their approach to music. So it is with all of these musicians I worked with recently.
I first played with Nicola last year and it was a great experience. To me, the to and fro of rehearsing as you try and work out a shared view of the music is as important as the concerts, and with Nicola this is a very stimulating process: she's flexible but also brings strong ideas of her own. For our concert in Germany we had a serious, challenging programme of Debussy, Prokofiev and Brahms, and we both wished we'd had more time to rehearse, but in the end the performance was pretty satisfying. She has the instincts both of a soloist and a chamber musician (she can 'take control' of the music and also respond very quickly when someone else does it), and that's a very nice combination to work with. After the concert there was something rather magical - a walk up a wide candle-lit path from the Schloss where we'd played to a schnapps distillery, where we had a wonderful meal and some of the best liqueurs I've ever tasted. Schloss Zinzow, if you're interested!
Alban I've played with many times and it just gets better and better. At the root of it, I think, is a real sense of trust that has built up over the years, which comes from a shared sense of musical and personal values, a similar joy in performing, and simply having a lot of fun together. Viviane was very easy to work with too, and did a wonderful job with the teacherous violin part in the Schubert Bb trio. After the concert Alban and I went to see Berlin's main football team, Hertha, get beaten 0-4, their 6th loss in a row. I'm not sure if Alban's more passionate about music or football, to be honest: I'm surprised he had a voice left at the end.
Finally, a day's rehearsing with Paul. We're preparing all the duet works from the last year of Schubert's life as well as a couple of sets of variations for concerts at the start of next year and then a recording on Hyperion. Neither of us had been able to prepare the music completely so we had a few Laurel and Hardy moments, but it was quite important to have this time in advance of the concerts - Schuberts duets often have the players' hands getting rather tangled up, so at times you have to slightly redistribute the notes. It's better finding out about these problems more than two days before the concerts! The great thing about chamber music is what you learn from your partners, and with Paul I'm fascinated by a captivating stillness which he can create instantaneously, a sense of complete identification with the music. Actually, I feel that a sense of stillness is one of the strengths of my own playing but the flavour of it with Paul is different somehow. I think Schubert is central to his musical identity and it's exciting to be working on these pieces with him.
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