Thursday, 15 August 2013

I would like to extend a huge thank you to all those who supported the Brenchley Summer Proms (www.brenchleysummerproms.co.uk). I have been fortunate enough to be joined by some of the finest musicians I know and I found the series as exhilerating as I hope you did.

Please keep your eyes on the website to see information on next years concerts which will be based around the Saint-Simonian movement.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Adolf von Henselt in Florida

The small and excellent list of pianists who elected to perform the Henselt Concerto makes for intimidating reading for even the most fearless of virtuosi; Clara Schumann (who premiered it), Liszt, von B├╝low, Friedheim, Anna Mehlig, von Sauer (who chose it for his American debut), Klindworth (who performed it in London with Berlioz conducting), Rachmaninoff, Gottschalk, de Pachmann, Petri, Scriabin…. And yet, incredibly, it is one of the least heard of all the great Romantic Concerti – and great it is!
It is clear that Rachmaninoff, who rated Henselt’s Etudes alongside those of Liszt and Chopin for their great beauty, esteemed Op. 16 as it forms the basis for his notoriously famous C# minor prelude: The first three bass notes of the whole concerto are identical to the prelude’s ‘motto’, and the final section echoes the central episode of the Larghetto from the Henselt which is, I believe, the earliest example of four-stave piano writing. The C minor arpeggio section in the first movement is also a clear model for the opening of the Russian’s second Concerto.
It is one of the quirks of music history that the fathers of Russian pianism weren’t in fact Russian – the Irishman John Field, and a generation later the Bavarian Henselt prepared the soil for the most fertile crop of great music and great pianists in the history of my instrument. Perhaps Herr Henselt would be glad to know that after a life characterised by success in the teaching room, perhaps at the expense of success at the writing desk and concert platform (he hardly composed after the age of 30, and quit performing due to extreme stage-fright at 33), his posthumous legacy would be so far reaching; perhaps not…
On preparing the Concerto for performance in Florida next month, I must confess I feel the presence of Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt hanging over my head like a beautiful-sounding Sword of Damocles. The difficulties are of an order rarely encountered, made all the more soul-destroying by the fact that only a pianist would know! However, this is music of such rare beauty and nobility that it has to be worthwhile! In particular, the Larghetto has to be one of the most ravishing things ever composed…

Monday, 24 December 2012

On Recording and Competitions or 'In Defense of Wrong Notes'

Throughout the twentieth century the classical music world has been conditioned, and to a worrying degree, harmed by the equalizing effects of competitions and increasingly sophisticated recording techniques. These two factors have led inexorably to an ironing-out; a flattening of musical autonomy. I must concede that, if this is true, my reaction against this increasing uniformity is also, by default, a direct result of the status quo.

These are natural developments (might retardations be a better word?), which to a large degree reflect the times in which we live, consequently there is no blame to be allotted; but I do think the time has come for many musicians to think more carefully about what they are doing. The effects of music education - or do I mean indoctrination - competitive values, and an increasing pressure to be accurate above all else due to ever more elaborate editing techniques and ever more sensitive microphones have created a set of musical norms, which I suspect many musicians are only tangentially aware of.

A couple of years ago I was listening to an early recording of mine (always an uncomfortable affair) and simply didn’t recognize myself: As an inexperienced pianist, the producer took rather more control over my performance than I would be comfortable with today and the result, whilst accurate, smooth and technically competent, bears no resemblance to what I sound like on stage. If I am denied the right to take risks, go with the moment and yes, mess-up, I am left with a rather emasculated version of myself. All those little inconsistencies which make me me had disappeared leaving a rather anonymous Danny! At that point I made a conscious decision to forgive mistakes in my recordings in the name of musical integrity. I would far rather use a long take with imperfections so long as it is exciting, than neurotically patch stuff worrying what the critics will make of it. If Cortot is one of my pianistic heroes, why should I not forgive his shortcomings in myself? Art is not perfection!

Of course, it is also true that recording is not the same as performing. From the audience perspective every human ear has a little tiny editing suite inside which forgives a multitude of sins, the microphone is far more judgemental. I suppose the decision whether to leave in imperfections depends very much on what the performer thinks the object of recording is: I was discussing this matter with a violinist who edited virtually every note of a disc - his opinion is that a recording represents an idealised performance, for me it doesn’t ring true as an idealised performance doesn’t exist. Indeed, without wishing to dis a colleague, his recording compared to his concert performances was left somewhat wanting. Interpretations are evolving beings, apt to change from day to day, from mood to mood, therefore a recording can only represent a snapshot in time. When my live performances go well I have the feeling of freshly improvising learnt notes and it is that, precisely, which I now seek to capture in recording. There are, of course examples of great musicians whose performances remained virtually unchanged through their careers (Medtner, Lipatti to name a couple) but these are in the minority.

I would say that there is a difference between not being capable and not caring. In other words, if Cortot was satisfied to allow recordings with an astonishing number of inaccuracies it was, perhaps, because his musical conception was so refined, so finely honed that issues of digital accuracy became a secondary consideration. Personally, I wouldn’t wish to hear them any other way, so inspiring and inspired they are. The problem today is that people listen to CD’s more than they go to concerts. The pressure this puts on artists is that their live performances are inevitably compared to their often highly edited recordings.

As I write this, Christmas approaches fast. I propose we performers all give ourselves the gift of forgiving our own tonal trespasses in the name of interpretational comfort; we may all find that our blood-pressure has dropped by new year. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

J S Bach Flute Sonatas in Brenchley

The other day saw me at the Handel House Museum playing through the Bach Flute/Harpsichord Sonatas with the eminent baroque flautist and recorder player Lisete da Silva.

We enjoyed ourselves so much that we will be giving public performances of the same (this time with obbligato chamber organ) at All Saint's Church, Brenchley in Kent on the 19th and 26th of January, both at 5 pm with cake and fine wine in the intervals!

To my eternal shame this is music I hardly know. The B minor Sonata alone is one of the most sophisticated of Bach's creations. This is a wonderful opportunity to hear some of Bach's lesser performed masterpieces.

Lisete is an inspirational performer who takes my breath away with the passion and conviction of her performances, so I really can't recommend these concerts enough!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Why we should all listen to Weber more!


Whilst I have always loved the Weber piano Sonatas it is only now that I have added the Ab Sonata to my repertoire (previously I had only performed no. 4). This music has preoccupied my imagination in the most infectious way. I wouldn’t be alone in saying that it has, like many of his cousin by marriage, Mozart’s works, intimations of the angelic (Chopin likened this Sonata to an angel passing over the sky).

It seems to me that Weber’s importance as more than just a formative influence on Wagner’s stage dramas is ignored. A passing resemblance between the openings of the Sonata and of Das Rhiengold notwithstanding, there are other more profound links between the styles of these first generation and last generation German romantics. A subject for a book, not a blog!

1816, the date of composition of the Ab sonata is startling. It isn’t so much that the music seems not to belong to its time, because it does; more that music written a long way after could easily be mistaken to be earlier influences on it! The partly self-taught Weber developed a personal style of piano writing that was beefier than any of his contemporaries (ie, Dussek, Hummel). His piano music demands a full blooded legato in the passages that is at odds with the fleet delicacy needed in the likes of Hummel et al, and his gigantic hand-span make him into a kind of hundred year earlier Rachmaninoff in terms of muscular piano technique. This is a far from inappropriate parallel when we consider that Weber was Adolf von Henselt’s idol and as Richard Beattie Davis has pointed out, Henselt’s effect on all of the romantic Russians simply cannot be overstated. The importance of Recitativo in his Operas seems to suggest that a declamatory style of performance is frequently appropriate, especially in slow movements. For any pianist who has played both Weber and late Schubert, the silken yarns of influence that run from Haydn through to Bruckner and Wagner can be easily felt.

His sheer originality is borne out by the fact that his works generally don’t sound dated alongside the composers whom he most obviously influenced (Schubert, Henselt, Schumann). As we can see, Chopin held him in high regard, Liszt performed, arranged and even directly quoted him (see the ‘Dante’ sonata in relation to the finale of the Ab sonata) and I wonder if the first movement of the sonata (a barcarolle in sonata form) is the source from which Chopin’s Barcarolle flows so gracefully?

I’m performing the Ab Sonata for the first time next weekend at the Lamberhurst Music Festival alongside Chopin’s Op 25 Etudes and can’t wait! I’ve a feeling this Sonata will become a trusted and valued travel companion!