March 2009

Pre-contest thoughts on Menuhin.

March 25, 2009 15:44

I`m not entering the competition but I do want to pass on my kudos for a very imaginative challenge.   It might wake one or two people up who have fallen into the fashionable habit of Menuhin bashing.  I think Perlman made a very significant remark on `the Art of violin` when he suggested that when Menuhin was on form there was no one better.  I think he meant it.   Menuhin on form was objectively better than anyone ever in certain areas.  One can see hints of this in the DVD of the Beethoven concerto although he was quite old-  watch his left hand in the cadenza. After that it is simple a question of sound preference.
I love most of todays players and would certainly never denigrate what they do and the sacrifices they have made to get there but put on an old recording of Menhuin in the same repertoire and they often sound dulll and flaccid inspite of the awesome chops they can display.  Somehow they just lack the samer burning life force.  I have actually seen Menuhin botch and botch again the Berg violin cocnerto while the packed hall gritted its teeth and then he just played one note and it was like a benediction,  a present from God. The whole hall just let out a collective sigh of thanks for that revelation.
Many theories have been presented as to why he had so much trouble with his palying as time went by.  They are all good and probably somewhat true but I feel it differently.  I think that whereas most great violinists play within their limitations (which are huge compared to the rest of us) Menuhin deliberately searched for the most extreme aspect of human experience and then tried to distill it back down to the normal human rtange. Such an approach is truly demanding and dangerous and he paid a price. Similar players have not survived for long-  Hassid springs to mind.  Player s such as Milstein on the other hand just let us glimpse the demon as an extension of their art.  (Listen to his recording of the Dvorak concerto and you can hear it escaping to a degree that is not usually present in his art)
For what its worth the Menuhin recordings will remain a central part of my collection for all time and for the naysayers I say `Go listen some more. Use your heart as well as your ears; your feelings as well as your critical faculties because at the end of the day,   only all of you can possibly hope to begin appreciating what Menuhin had to offer.

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Occam's Prune

March 24, 2009 16:08


There is a new duet up at my favorite freebie site: IMSLP.  Vitali (of dubious Chacconne fame)duets for two violins and basso continuo.  About the level of an easy Corelli sonata.  Very pleasant material.
Thought for the day.
I believe it is really important to practice shifting intervals of a third or more in double stops as soon as possible and that this kind of work can actually take precedent over regular double stop scale practice if one is pushed for time.   Perhaps there are two main reasons for this.
Firstly,   the biggest obstacles to any kind of shifting is a failure to release any pressure on the side of the neck in both the index finger and thumb.  This is perfectly applicable in smaller shifts of course, but when we extend the distance to be shifted there is actually more time for one to notice that one has not released enough.  Indeed, while a short shift is sort of possible with the squeeze on a longer shift will protest volubly.   The second reason for this kind of work is simply because one retains the shape of the hand better working in double stops.
Another thing that has been on my mind recently apart from my cat is the question of over analysis.  I think we should know exactly what we are doing and be able to break things down into component movements to the nth degree. However, I have noticed that this doesn’t always give one the results one is striving for. Indeed, it may actually work against one simply because by paying such strong attention to our analytical part of the brain our internal vision of what we are trying to do gets smudged.   Suppose for example you wanted to play a simple bowing exercise using about a quarter of the bow at the tip.  Perhaps it involves three notes on a down bow and one on an up (or vice versa or whatever) spread over four strings.   In the process of working out how to this as efficiently as possible one may start ignoring what is actually coming out of the instrument or what the bow is actually doing.  By ret6urning to the simplest premise , `I am going to play the singe note for its full length with a good sound and think of nothing else.` Once that has been done one then simply thinks about and simultaneously plays the next note three strings away without paying any attention to any of the process of getting there.  In other words, have the mind only in the exact moment where presumably the current note is and then the next note is going to be.  By eliminating the intervening analysis one can often solve technical problems by letting the body do what it needs to do.  This is basically the Occam ’s razor of violin playing.



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A toast to technology- may it be toast!

March 15, 2009 21:10


I just spent an hour writing a wide ranging and thought provoking blog on intonation.   Then my computer crashed and blew it away.

May its chip be mated with a hyena.

Grumpy beyond belief,



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The macro end of interpretation?

March 9, 2009 15:38


more idle thoughts.... to make an interpretation emerge from the instrument is best understood in technical terms.  Suppose one were to call this the micro end of the interpretation construction scale..  Without the big picture (macro) at the other end one is not really going to know what to use the tools for.  A few examples for want of anything better to do;)
One of the greatest versions of the Sibelius was by Heifetz. He felt that in order to play it well he needed to visit its place of origin.  This is a very simple but profound thing to me. In my mind one can have a greater sense of what one is trying to achieve in Italian baroque sonatas for example, if one has strolled around and soaked the architecture of Florence, Venice and so forth. One reason I think Oistrakh could play the Sibelius so well was his long and bitter experiences travelling across hideous frozen expanses to perform for a handful of fur wrapped babushkas.
One of my favorite concert works is a set of deceptively simple pieces by Martinu. The notes take about ten minutes to learn but I wasn’t really getting it. After I read about how he was a sick child and his father used to carry him up a tall bell tower (his work place) everyday and leave him staring out of the window at the sky I felt I could visualize the kinds of sound he was trying to get on paper. But it still didn’t resolve the issue of the awkward accents and sudden time changes in the fast movements so I asked my accompanist who just happens to be Czech what the intention of this was. He told me that in olden times, rural wedding held in bars included bands that had a peculiar quirk. They would be playing along as normal and then out of boredom or whatever would suddenly throw in a different riff as a competition between friends to see if they could trip one and other up.  By imagining precisely this scenario at a drunken wedding party the whole picture finally made sense to me. And what could be more complete than a disembodied view of passing clouds and the earthy clunk of farmer’s boots on a muddy floor?
One of my favorite conducters here in Japan is called Imura. He is primarily an opera conductor and brings many of the ideas he gleans from this field across to his orchestral work. Time and time again he stops the orchestra and asks specific players `What image, what character do you see here? What are you actually trying to represent?` This is really crucial in Japan because such an approach is truly rare.   One of the few times I have conducted I was working on Carmen and it was clear that the orchestra, although of a relatively high standard for amateurs, was not at all clued into  what it was about.  I talked a litlte about the image I had of Carmen as this incredible fiery gypsy woman dancing around a fire with a slit skirt and little beads of sweat on exposed leg. Dark flashing eyes etc. It seemed the point was well taken and as we began again I got an astonishing image from the music being produced. There was a campfire but the woman dancing around it was not only wearing a kimono but doing the exact opposite of what Carmen would do because Japanese women tend to express sexuality by what you don’t see.  It was an extraordinary example of how musicians were unable to transcend their own cultural mores to achieve a specific end.
Probably you play the Mozart e minor violin sonata. That was written at the time of his mothers death and to my mind, is a very deep reflection on this and how life changes. Reading the Mozart letters is important , but just keeping this thing in mind tends to prevent one from banging out the violin chords with a triumphant `Look at me!` as so many students seem to want to do.  They are a gentle full stop. A metaphor for one life ending and a muted celebration of continuity in the stately dance of the second movement..
Hope this amused,

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Bang for your Bucks?

March 8, 2009 15:54


Working on the general principle of `if you are broke, buy some CDs,` I splashed out again this weekend.  Spent a –huge- sum of money, even by Japanese standards, on ASM`s new Mendelssohn set.  So the 64000 dollar question, `was it worth it?`
The set includes two disks one of which is a DVD of her playing the Mendelssohn concerto life with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Masur.   This is a great performance. Highlights include her trademark use of non vibrato for extended passages such as the melody before the cadenza and the link passage between the 2nd and 3rd movements.  In the latter case the orchestra politely refrained from vibrato and the effect was just gorgeous. Whether that was spontaneous or not I have no idea but who cares?  A very telling reminder that orchestra and quartets of the early 20c did regularly play without vibrato and produced music of great beauty.  (Another artist of today making this point in stunning fashion is MR Gringolts.)   Another awesome moment occurs when the violin and flute play in unison in the second moment with the camera focused on the flute players face as she plays with such unanimity with ASM you can almost hear her thinking, `good heavens , this is extraordinary.`   Original colorings are another feature.  ASM takes the a#fd ddd, af#d ddd, triplets near the beginning which are more typically played first on the g string and then the d (or repeated on the g) and does the opposite. Plays first on the d string and then jumps back to the g string for a beautiful effect.   Or the repeated e string harmonics in the last movement where she jumps cleanly the first time and slides the second for variety. Another small detail I liked was how she started the trill sequences with trills that themselves began very slowly and sped up. As the trill got higher this effect was relinquished giving the whole trill passage a sense of increasing excitement rather than just a set of equivalent trills.
 The other outstanding aspect of this performance is the way she finds spaces to put the breaks on and give the music a mental breather.  Lots of little musical `corners` that make the difference between a competent player just playing all the notes and a real artist.   It was interesting to see her start the slow movement so quietly given that her sound can clearly dominate a whole orchestra. This sudden shyness was quite calculated and showed the later sections of the movement up to greater intensity. On the down side she has a peculiar mannerism I have noted in other recording of holding off on the vibrato and then splurging it on long notes with the bow following suit. She does this once too often in the slow movement making it just one small step less than perfection.
The documentary on the DVD seems badly constructed and banal.  Flashing between shots of Vienna (yes we know its cool), ceilings and chit chat it seemed as uninformative as it is haphazard. Perhaps for German speakers or the English version contains deeper content?   The DVD also has the D minor piano trio with Andre Previn and Lynn Harrell.  Frankly, this is a poorly matched trio that sounded under rehearsed. Andre Previn is not really up to the piano part and ASM over wide vibrato and relentless approach makes the whole thing sound ham fisted and extremely cold.  Interesting that in the documentary ASM mentions the difficulty of making a recording with no orchestra present. Whether she was over compensating out of desperation or not I don’t know but Andre Previn looked like he needed to go back on the life support machine.  Interestingly, the sound engineers have substantially reduced the roughness and added an element of warmth to the CD recording (which is the same thing!) . It remains however, vaguely unattractive to my ear, lacking in charm and tranquility between the moments of passion and fire which are sadly lacking in the piano anyway.
The violin sonata is given a compelling performance on the CD and it certainly needs to be played more often (but not that often…) A well created work but the first movement seems to me rather pedestrian as a talented composer finding his feet. The slow movement is nice and sleazy and the last a charming sort of moto perpetuo thingy all of it kind of paying homage to Bach, I guess.
All this begs the question why on earth release DVD and cd of the same works?  It seems a rather poorly planned project that could have been improved by for example including a recording of the first concerto instead.  Perhaps an encore arrangemement or even the less played second piano trio which is a real deep piece of work.   All in all I don’t feel I got full value for money but if you have the money go ahead anyway- we have to get out of this recession somehow.
My second investment was much cheaper,   (Jacqueline Du Pre Remembered) but annoying in another away.  If there is anything more annoying than an Englishman being phlegmatic it is an upper class twit indulging in hyperbole.  Yes,   I know DuPre was one of the greats but we could learn that from more music and less waffle and the relentless close ups of her face throughout the DVD demonstrated very well what we all know- her body ran the gamut of emotions from A to Z but actually began to feel vaguely pornographic after a while.   Good for nose fetishists I suppose. A pretty lazy attempt at a true representation actually.  A few more interviews with for example, Baremboim,   and some excerpts of her master classes (which I attended as a lad- quite extraordinary) would have shown that she wasn’t just a tragic artist who stopped playing but that her life entered a different and substantial phase after she left the concert platform for good.   What made this DVD worth owning however, was the slow movement of Beethoven Piano Trio no 5 with Zuckerman and Baremboim. Now this is trio playing. Three hearts and minds as one.  Zuckerman didn’t quite have the resonance to match DuPre but his rather tight focused sound provides an excellent foil and he turns some phrases of mind blowing musicianship.  This is how it should be.
The only other thing that nagged at me as I watched this was the faintest suggestion that unless you came from a very privileged background and had an awfully jolly, plummy voice then a decent music education for young talent is –very- hard to come by in Britain.  Class and privilege was a powerful thing when I were a lad.  Back to my cardboard box.

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