Saturday, July 04, 2015

Honeymoon music-making, and a story about Brahms

Rattle (left), Zimerman (centre) and the LSO: a night to remember. Photo: Amy T. Zielinksi

The honeymoon is underway over at the Barbican: Sir Simon Rattle is here for his first concerts with the LSO since The Announcement a few months back. On Thursday night he kicked off this stint with his orchestra-to-be, offering a high-octane programme of Brahms and Dvorak.

The LSO, let's face it, needs him. We need him, too. He offers a taste of the genuine passion that should be at the heart of musical experience, yet all too often isn't as others let its precedence falter under the competing weight, variously, of intellect (necessary, but in balance), power (less necessary), greed (not at all) and ego-building pretension (aagh...). Rattle is, for music, pioneer, evangelist and born leader; and while raising such high expectations for his forthcoming tenure at the LSO is obviously dangerous, it's hard not to notice that everyone is hoping he'll be the best thing that's happened to us in a good while.

The fact that he was able to bring Krystian Zimerman with him to play the Brahms D minor Concerto says much about his persuasive nature, since this titan of a pianist is, sadly, now among several greats who no longer willingly subject themselves on a regular basis to the many and varied iniquities of London.

Rattle in action. Photo: Creative Commons
Rattle conducts like a man in love with music and with life; and the orchestra responded to him like a purring cat experiencing sunshine and tuna fish. One almost expected it to roll on its collective back and let him stroke its tummy. The sheer sensual gorgeousness of sound he draws from them is light years away from Gergiev's heavy-duty ferocity; no less visceral, but with different intent, different texture - speaking to the heart as much as to the gut.

A second half of Dvorak tone-poems and a joyous, high-stepping Slavonic dance as encore was a surprising but refreshing choice of repertoire - something else we need from the LSO and Rattle is a healthy injection of unusual pieces - and when delivered with such narrative charm and all-giving warmth (y'know, Mrs Rattle is Czech), it convinces, lingering in the mind. And Zimerman's Brahms found conductor and soloist in more than exceptional accord.

When I interviewed Zimerman for the first time back in c1990, I quizzed him about that special intensity that seems to drive his playing. He commented that he likes to play on the very edge of what's possible. Sometimes it seems he goes beyond it. This Brahms was one such occasion - and how excellent to hear, once more, that white-hot quality that so compelled in the young pianist, and that remains intact and alight in his late fifties.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 is the creation of a very young composer; the first sketches date from 1854, when he was all of 21 and was considering writing a symphony, soon after Schumann's attempted suicide and incarceration in the Endenich mental hospital. Several permutations later, the drafts evolved into the D minor Concerto. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the Adagio was a "gentle portrait" of her - and the theme apparently sets the unheard words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine", from the Requiem mass, in tribute to Schumann, who by then had died.

So far, so beautiful - but what about that last movement? Some approach it as an austere, Bachian-Beethovenian counterpoint exercise. Zimerman brought us a Hungarian dance. When have we ever heard it sound quite so alive and aflame?

It makes sense, too. Think about it. Variation 14 of the Brahms 'Handel Variations' is extremely similar to this movement's main theme in certain ways: a lively, staccato, syncopated number with strongly marked rhythms, trills flying around and a running semiquaver bassline; and it follows from the sultry variation 13, verbunkos style. The two variations make up a lassù and friss. You can almost feel Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend and Hungarian violinist par excellence, peering over his shoulder and picking up the tribute with a brusque nod of thanks. Perhaps it's not only youthfully exuberant; perhaps, complete with that pernickety fugue episode, it's a portrait of Joachim to complement the portrait of Clara? It would not have been the first such piece Brahms created, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Who does that leave for movement no.1? It's been said before that the opening plunges, with Schumann, into the Rhine. This music feels like a soul in existential crisis. As Zimerman and Rattle bounced ideas off each other, plumbing the extremities of the score, the anguish and struggle behind Brahms's conception shone out as vividly as if they'd poured descaler over its furred-up contours and brought it to life new-minted. Zimerman's moments of pianissimo playing at times seemed almost to shock the orchestra into matching him. The balance never faltered; Rattle's support let him fly up to the sun on wings that can take the heat.

Is this a sign of things we can look forward to when Rattle arrives in earnest? Bring it on.

Next summer Zimerman is scheduled to come back with him, too, this time for a spot of Beethoven.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Edward Gardner bows out

Photos both by Richard Hubert Smith

Yesterday Edward Gardner took his final bow as music director of English National Opera after the last night of The Queen of Spades.

The new incumbent, Mark Wigglesworth, steps up in the new season. We love Mark too, but we are going to miss Ed like the blazes. I have no doubt that the brightest of brilliant futures awaits this thrilling, charismatic and galvanisingly energetic musician. The good news is he's coming back to do Tristan & Isolde next year.

ENO sent out a range of pictures from the event. Below, John Berry, flanked by the orchestra, bids farewell to Ed. I hope the figures high above them are not representatives of Arts Council England.

Watch the Tchaikovsky Competition Prizewinners' Gala NOW

The Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and St Petersburg has concluded with a storm of controversy in some departments. OK, let's face it, that is perhaps par for the course in contests of this magnitude. Today is your chance to see and hear the winners. It's on NOW at

The Prizewinners' Gala is taking place today at 5pm GMT in the Mariinsky II concert hall, St Petersburg - and you can watch it live. Valery Gergiev will also be announcing the winner of the Grand Prize - the one overall winner from the five categories of piano, violin, cello and voices male and female.

Piano: Dmitry Masleev (Russia)
Cello: Andrei Ionut Ionita (Romania)
Voice (male): Ariunbaatar Ganhbaatar (Mongolia)
Voice (female): Yulia Matochkina (Russia)
Violin: No first prize awarded. Second prize: Yu-Chien Tseng (Taiwan)

The whole competition has been live-streamed on and the contestants' performances are all up there for you to see - and make up your own mind about these young musicians.!/xv-international-tchaikovsky-competition-on-medicitv-second-gala-concert

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The other Prokofiev

I had a lovely interview a few weeks ago with Gabriel Prokofiev: composer, grandson of Sergei, founder of Nonclassical and composer of a Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra which is now on the new secondary school Ten Pieces list compiled as a music resource for schools by the BBC. It was in the Independent while I was away in Turkey. Here is a longer version with a good few chunks of bonus material.

Gabriel Prokofiev is pondering, over a Turkish lunch in Bethnal Green, a surprise development in his career as composer. The BBC has picked a movement from one of his most famous compositions to date, the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, to feature in its new Ten Pieces list for schoolchildren aged 11 to 14. The list is second stage in an initiative that began with a nationwide project to help schools introduce younger pupils to ten pieces of classical music.

This concerto’s mix of a contemporary invention – the scratching and sampling of a DJ on turntables – with a traditional classical format exemplifies Gabriel  Prokofiev’s musical inventiveness and looks like a perfect choice to introduce secondary school pupils to the sometimes mysterious spheres of contemporary classical music.

“I’m thrilled about this – I couldn’t believe it,” Prokofiev says. “I’d heard about Ten Pieces and I’m a big fan of the project. It’s worrying that music education doesn’t seem to be thorough enough – there could be a lot more – and this is a very efficient way of introducing children to some key repertoire. It’s exciting to see a contemporary piece in there and hopefully it’s a chance to encourage young people at the age when you’re developing your taste in music and deciding which genres you’re into. I’m hoping that this will help to bring contemporary classical into their list of choices.”

If you see the name ‘Prokofiev’ on a musical list, you might well assume that it indicates Sergei Prokofiev, one of the best-loved composers of the last century. Gabriel, who turns 40 this year, is his grandson – and in many ways he is a chip off the old block, sharing with Sergei an intent gaze, high cheekbones and a quiet, concentrated demeanour.

In other ways, of course, they are very different. Although he says he feels a strong affinity with his Russian heritage, Gabriel Prokofiev seems a Londoner through and through, living in Hackney Downs with his partner, a French-Congolese academic and author, and their three children whom he ferries to primary school in a cargo box attached to his bicycle. His studio in Bethnal Green is in a crumbling 1960s block that, he says, is facing potential demolition. The urban flavour of his music remains powerful: a mix of driving rhythms, gritty timbres and outlines, and a lyrical thread lurking under the surface that sometimes recalls the sardonic irony and fantastical textures of his grandfather’s works. His Violin Concerto, premiered last year at the Proms by Daniel Hope, evokes a narrative about the outbreak of the First World War and included marches with an unmistakably Prokofiev-like bite.

It’s entirely deliberate, he says: “I grew up listening to my grandfather’s music. My siblings and I were aware as children that we were getting some extra attention because of him – and I think it made me a bit self-conscious. I love his music, he is my grandfather and there are so many fans that it’s natural people get excited about it. But I’m quite relieved that there hasn’t been too much comparison.”

Grandpa Prokofiev
The fear of comparison, he says, made him at first over-hesitant to become a composer. “As a teenager and in my twenties I was definitely intimidated,” he admits. “Any creative process is hard graft and though you can have wonderful moments of inspiration, finishing a piece requires a lot of work. I think I was intimidated to do that. So I focused a lot more on popular music, making electronic and dance music and playing in bands. I found another way of making music. But as I got more confident and ultimately had a strong enough drive to want to do classical music, I realised I’ve just got to get on with it. As I was writing my first string quartet I planned that I was going to use a different surname - and the thought that I’d be presenting the piece not as ‘Gabriel Prokofiev’ actually freed me up a bit.”

Was he not tempted to stick with popular music – bigger sales, more income? “Sometimes I wonder if I should have stuck longer at it,” he admits. “But I was trying to juggle everything and sometimes when I was involved in a project and should have been going to record industry parties and networking, instead I was in my studio writing a string quartet. Ultimately I couldn’t help myself: I really wanted to write classical pieces and eventually I got some orchestral commissions and decided it was an unmissable opportunity.

“In pop, although you can earn more money, it’s a much more thankless world. I had run-ins with record labels because suddenly you had this weird feeling that your creative control is slipping away – they’d wanted you to make it sound more like the track that had just been no.1 last week, you had to make sure your music fitted in with certain DJs’ playlists – this whole side holds you back. For a classical commission, they never give you strict creative criteria; maybe they’ll specify the duration and the instruments, but there’s more emphasis on being original and doing your own thing. With pop music, when I started to get into the more commercial area, that started to bring with it more restrictions and requirements to conform, and that was creatively frustrating. I’d find that sometimes I’d made stuff I was really pleased with, but it turned out it was a bit too original or too quirky, and people would say ‘it’s a bit far-out, what about something like this?’, and play me something I found mundane and unimaginative. Often I felt people were making judgments just because something had been successful – it wasn’t always about the quality of the music.”

Prokofiev’s father, Oleg Prokofiev (Sergei’s younger son) was a painter and sculptor, a prominent figure in the movement known as the Nonconformists – Russian artists whose abstract work did not meet the criteria of state-approved socialist realism. His second wife was a British art historian who was allowed to travel to the USSR to research; after she died tragically young; Oleg was permitted to come to her funeral in the UK, and defected to the West while here. Gabriel’s mother was Oleg’s third wife, Frances, and he grew up in Greenwich where the family settled,

Echoes of nonconformity pepper the composer’s musical life too. Not least, a decade ago he started a record label called Nonclassical, which has evolved into a veritable movement in its own right. He says the name was largely coincidence as it derived from a pop label he had been running, entitled Nonstop – “Originally it was going to be Nonstop Classical, but that was too much of a mouthful,” he remarks. “Then the penny dropped...” Launching Nonclassical, he was among the first to devise classical club nights – presenting classical music in a nightclub setting that would feel normal and everyday to younger people and help to create a new audience. The organisation now runs a monthly event in east London.

“I’m always surprised how many young musicians and composers don’t question a status quo that gives them so few performances and reaches such limited audiences,” Prokofiev remarks. “It’s natural that we need to find ways of getting our music out there more and reaching our own peer group. A lot of different things motivate me; one is that there’s a lot of great contemporary music and it feels unfair that it’s not made accessible to many people. You can sit back and blame radio and TV, but the other option is to get out and do something about it.

“Having played in bands, I was used to this idea that you write a piece, then you gig it and your friends come and hear it. I felt strongly with my classical stuff that it would appeal to my peer group, but when it was performed in the traditional classical setting most of the audience would be twice my age – there’s nothing wrong with that, but it seemed a real shame that my friends weren’t there. That was a big motivator in getting Nonclassical going – just thinking you’ve got to present classical music like other music, in a more day to day approach, and for me that seemed pretty obvious. If you’ve put a lot of work into composing a piece and rehearsing it, then to have only one performance is criminal.”

His Concerto for Turntables is likely to have a great many more performances now that it is on the Ten Pieces list; and Prokofiev has his work cut out with a string of commissions, including more concertos – a favourite medium, he says – and more works involving dance and drama. He has also been asked to add some new musical creatures to the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns and is trying to decide which to pick. I’m about to suggest a cat – when I remember that possibly the most famous cat in musical history is grandpa Prokofiev’s, in his perennial childhood favourite, Peter and the Wolf. “Probably a no-go area,” Gabriel smiles.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Congratulations, Tchaikovsky Competition. You have an all-male piano final.

We are not amused. Can it REALLY be the case that no women, not even Maria Mazo, were considered good enough to have a try for the final? Or is it same-old same-old yet again?

The piano jury is all male too.

The cello jury includes one woman. The cello final also includes one woman.

The violin jury includes three women. The violin final also includes three women.

Make of this what you will, because it all seems so wonderfully coincidental that I am stumped.

You can watch the final live, and catch up on earlier rounds, on, here.

Good luck to them all and may the best, er, man win.