June 2007

Silly concerto and fingered octaves

June 24, 2007 16:33

Everyone has a right to a bad hair day. However, having just listened to one of the crummiest violin concertos on the planet I am puzzled as to how the creator managed to make this particular metaphorical bowel movement after writing one of the best concertos of all time and following it up with a pretty good 2nd concerto. I refer to good old Mr. Bruch. The 3rd concerto starts out with a somewhat unimaginative rhythm which it repeats incessantly while doing little else for about 3 and a half hours. I may be wrong on that- it just felt that way. I think I woke up at some point where the rhythm was being repeated but the violin did have a nice melody on the e string for a few bars. Maybe its like the Rocky movies in which case we should be thankful he didn’t write violin concerto no 5.
When Carl Flesch wrote the first volume of the Art of Violin playing fingered octaves were still something of a bogeyman for violinists. The context within which he discusses them is the setting of the hand frame and the avoidance of stretching in general. He makes an exception for FOs which he used as an efficient warming up exercises for a few minutes daily while living in a cold climate. The unintended result was a an effective FO technique which apparently provoked jealousy among his colleagues. Flesch went on to include FOs in his scales book but I am not convinced these did very much to dispel the idea that FOs were an advanced technique designed to give the budding violinist trouble and possibly injury..
Personally I think the Flesch book is better suited to more advanced players although that view seems progressively more unfashionable these days. I do believe that after Flesch came a slew of approaches and exercises with regard to FOs which make learning them much easier and safer if done correctly. Dounis and Riccis book on left hand technique are two very good examples. However, I suspect the main reason why FOs are no longer taboo is that understanding of the mechanics of the left hand has moved on so far. Violin technique has moved ever up ward with information exchange, travel and greater availability of the instrument generally.
My own approach to learning them does not involve trying to do three octave scales in FOs alongside regular scales. Rather I pay much more attention to scales that don’t change string practice 131313, then 242424 then 13241324 etc. String crossing is another issue but it isn’t difficult. The key is always relaxation and small hands are rarely an issue. If a problem exists it is far more likely to be cause by tension and misuse of the body.
The practice of fingered octaves is extremely liberating as far as I am concerned. As an orchestral player it is astonishing how often the simple insertion of this slight stretch can make a passage effortless. The amount of energy one saves in a work like Dvoraks New World, Slavonic Dance no 10 or the 1812 overture is amazing. Many orchestral works end fast and loud movements with high passages on the e string followed by octave chords. The high passage wok places the hand in an extended position and when one tries to get the hand back into its `natural frame` it is often too little too late. However, in such cases, FOs may well prove to be much more reliable and in tune. I might even go as far as to say that for playing in an orchestra it is as useful to be able to play outside the hand frame in this way as it is to play in second position.

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Bad pianos and loony mothers.

June 10, 2007 22:59

Have to feel sorry for piano players. Imagine having to change instrument every time you play outside your home. It’s crazy. Anyway, our piano trio had been rehearsing in a room with a rather average upright for the last year or so. Recently it has began to deteriorate for some reason until last week I exploded. `Sorry, this bloody instrument sounds like a toy piano now. I can’t stand it any more.` The long suffering pianist breathed a sigh of relief and we found a more expensive room that houses a decent concert grand. The pianist, who is a very talented graduate from Gedai University, is now finally able to produce all sort of interesting colors and dynamics. The clarity of the voices is great. We could actually do some serious work on the music for a change. So lesson one is `Don’t waste your time working with a piano on chamber music or whatever if the piano is no good. Too much of the music is missing. You owe it to your piano player and yourself to find the best possible instrument you can.
However, since life does often consist of `out of the frying pan into the fire` I suddenly became much more aware of something about the piano player which I had been kind of half conscious of but ignoring: this lady absorbs other peoples` performances like a sponge. Her own tend to get lost on the way. I have always tended to respond to her request to borrow all my recordings of a particular work with a wry `Why don’t you just play it ?` but now I can really hear how much she can afford to let go of to be herself. In rehearsal over the last few weeks I have suggested over and over that we all play what is written on the page as near as precisely as possible without having two lines of Stern/Istomin/Rose followed by two lines of Perlman /Ashenazy/Harrell. It’s kind of tough but it makes a difference. That’s why I get a little nervous about players who learn music by listening to recordings- it takes the onus for HAVING SOMETHING TO SAY- away from the player who is enjoying –having something to repeat-!
My friend is also an unending source of interest to me since she insists on attending her 15 year old daughters violin lessons. I actually find this quite useful because the daughter has an urgent need to break away from the overpoweringly critical intellect and commentary of her mother and I find I can gently push her in the right direction. I do this by monitoring how her mother unintentionally pulls her down and then mocking the mother back while getting her daughter to not take it at all seriously. All three of us often end up rolling around with laughter.
Her daughter is an interesting problem. She first came to me with virtually all aspects of her technique horribly skewed and screwed, virtually no skills ; unable to read music and a body locked up so tight I only had to touch the ankle and there would be a spirally shudder through the whole muscle/skeletal system as she fell over drunkenly to the left of right like the Leaning Tower of Pisa on speed. I`ve worked through a lot of that with her, got her to produce a sound without pressing that actually rings and she can do much of schradieck in tune at about mm120, the Martinu Sonatina, some Handel sonatas and the Dancla Theme and Variations with considerable aplomb. A month ago her mother informed me that her daughter has suddenly started thinking about trying to get into music school.
`Of course she can’t.` she added the inevitable rider.
I laughed. `Actually I think she can.`
`But she doesn’t play her pieces that well.`
I`d been biding my time on this for a while actually because I suspected many of her daughter’s problems were tied into her use, or lack of use of, vision so I suggested she played to her mother with her eyes closed. What a fantastic transformation. Really beautiful playing. Course it might just have been blocking out the critical parental face. Hah!
Mater hasn’t been so noisy recently….

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No chocolate, chew a CD.

June 4, 2007 18:48

Having been banned from chocolate, coffee, ice cream and bungee jumping without a chord there are few pleasurable options left in life except adding a few more CDs to the collection. Yesterday was no exception and since Deutsche Gramophone has released an incredibly cheap `one hundred best recordings of all time` here in Japan it was clearly time to splash again. Obviously such a project is inherently silly but I did pull out three CDs last night which I thought worth reviewing.
The first I stuck in the player was Menuhin and Kempf playing the Spring and Kreutzer. Personally I have found over the years my Spring first movement getting faster and faster. Aside from the point that Beethoven didn’t add the sentimental title I have been very much in agreement with Rostal`s opinion that it is almost always played too slowly, part of the consequence of being hacked around by beginners too often. Plus, since it is one of Japan’s favorite recital pieces I have heard it murdered more times than I would care to remember , often by good violinist who don’t give it the time and thought it deserves. Playing it rather fast also seems to clarify the architecture of the work for me- somehow it hangs together better. Menuhin goes the other way, sort of...
He begins really slowly and makes love to every note. It’s just fantastic! The interesting thing is that by the time the recapitulation comes round he has increased the tempo so that he is exploring the music in a whole new way, but the shift is so gradual and subtle it creeps up on the QT. It takes a really great artist to pull of something like this.
Second CD was the young ASM playing Mozart 3 and 5 with the Berlin Phil under Karajan. I have long wondered where the historical support for the now de rigueur downsizing of orchestra for any Mozart in Japan comes from. It certainly isn’t Mozart’s letters which include one in which he expresses his delight at hearing one of his works with a –very- big orchestra. Harnoncourt has written against this minimalist trend too I believe. Anyway, the BPO provides one of the most fantastic introductions to no 3 I have ever heard. Huge sound but absolute clarity of voices – the effect is stunning. What can one say about ASM? Great sound, technique, phrasing etc. But I think it is fair to say that she evolved over quite a long time as a truly great artist and this still seems to me to be recording of a young person who has not yet full blossomed. It is all so impeccably (dare on say rigidly?) held in place without the subtle inflections of tempo and rhythm that really make Mozart come alive. As such it only scores a b+. Not yet the awesome player of today.
The last choice was Milstein in what I think is his best recording of the Mendelssohn, the one he made with Abbado. I do believe this is one of the all time greats. Just slashing, swashbuckling, tender, brilliant playing of such ease it makes ones jaw drop. Listening to this kind of recording tells us wannabies how far away from realizing this piece we are when we spend six months preparing it for this or that college audition or as a warm up for the `more difficult` concertos.

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