Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Dean Francis on Bartok and Dvořák

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
dean-francisThis is the first in a new series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Dean Francis (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 25.

Alban Gerhardt (cello); Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano), John Relyea (bass), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Dutoit

Dvořák Cello Concerto in B minor (1895)
Bartók Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Dean, what was your musical upbringing?

It was really wide and varied. I grew up with my great grandparents, and they came over from Jamaica in the 1960s. I was heavily influenced by that, and was listening to blue beat and ska. In Jamaica the musical influences are really wide, so they’ll listen to a lot of country like Kenny Rogers or church-influenced stuff, Jamaican gospel and American gospel. I used to hear tapes with church services and things.

My grandparents listened to more reggae – Bob Marley, John Holt, Gregory Isaacs – but my mum was born here and went to school in West London, and she listened to stuff like Boy George and punk, Prince, The Cure, literally everything! My auntie was only a couple of years older than me and she would be listening to Bros and Mariah Carey!

My own personal influences were hip hop early on. I think my first concert was either Cypress Hill or The Beastie Boys, and the first record I bought was a Barrington Levy record, so I was all over the place really! Nowadays I think kids have a watered down view of music, it’s made specially for them. We used to listen to what our parents listened to, in my house at least – not the latest kiddie sound. There was no jumping about to stuff like Miley Cyrus, the stuff I’d listen to would be at family parties, dancing with adults.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Ice Cube. His music was descriptive of what was going on at the time in America, and it’s almost the polar opposite of the lyrical content of mainstream hip hop now. I guess his life is quite inspiring, starting in NWA and going on film. I grew up with the Predator and Lethal Injection albums at the time.

Going back to reggae I would say someone like Buju Banton, I listened to him a lot, and met him, before he went to prison. Another reason for liking him is his music is good, but if you listen to him talk about what was going on in the world, the politics of the time – living in the West you get a very different view of the politics because of the media.

Even in Jamaica, although it’s The West, you realise that people have got a lot more common sense than you might expect in relation to places perceived as ‘more learned’. They are closer to nature, doing more practical jobs and living off the land, so they have a different view of the world. You don’t get people getting bullshitted, people are smart and on the ball – and so he was telling me stuff about life and wisdom, and he was inspiring in his mindset and how driven and aware he was of whats going on politically.

More recently I would say Loco Dice, because I’ve had some good moments out with him DJing with good friends. His music has energy that brings people together, and that transmits itself in the music he plays. So that’s my three – but you could ask another time and I’d give you a different answer!

I think I tend to like music that has an energy and makes a connection with people. I get bogged down by dirge! I would always listen to something like the Arctic Monkeys over Katie Melua, say!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

The school I went to had a lot of classical music. It was quite funny and we had a teacher who drank whisky at the primary school I went to! He would play the piano, and I think he used to like Holst. It was quite good, even though we didn’t appreciate it at the time. I think everybody at some point should be exposed to the music of the world, it helps, you know?

With real electronic music and some of the music they play now, it can dumb you down because you’re not exposed to real instruments.

Really I’ve taken it upon myself to go to things, I’m not really averse to any kind of music. If people have invested their time and craft, it will be worth seeing. It’s like sport, you know, you watch it at the Olympics because you know it’s the best of its kind. There is so much classical music in films you don’t realise it’s happening as well!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I thought it would be more stuffy, but because it’s classical I would say you get an older demographic. That’s good in one way but it would be good for younger people to think it’s accessible. I think it’s a perception thing, and a shame really – it’s just music at the end of the day! There shouldn’t be that perceived snootiness. It was a really good experience though.

What did you like about it?

I like the emotion of the music. Some of the descriptive parts of moods and nature, like water and fire in the Bartók, that’s really good if a good composer can capture those moments.

What might you improve about the experience?

Not much really, but more how they can engage younger people so that it doesn’t become too stuffy.

What did you think of the Dvořák?

I liked that, especially the first movement. The second movement, it felt less interesting to my ear, but it was all really good. It reminded me a bit of a 1930s or 1940s Western, I can’t remember what. It wasn’t quite as good as the second piece!

What did you think of that, the Bartók?

I really liked the bits of impending doom, but it was also contrasted with light moments. When you’ve got a night where you’re reading the words it makes it very obvious what the composer is trying to do. It’s a like a piece of art with the audio describing the tour.

Would you go again?

Yeah, definitely. It would be a great place to take a date!

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can read Arcana’s review of the whole Prom here – and you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

BBC Proms 2016 – Bluebeard’s Castle & Dvořák Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt

gerhardt

Alban Gerhardt pictured during his performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 25; Royal Albert Hall, 3 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The course of this Prom ran true to the plot of the psychological drama that unfolded in the second half. Bluebeard’s Castle was a darkly lit tour de force, but before that we had the small matter of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto to attend to.

The best-loved of all cello concertos, this is a piece where the cello really sings, but has to come from within the orchestral sound to do so. Alban Gerhardt was the ideal vehicle, with probing insights and a wonderful, song-like delivery that brought out the best of Dvořák’s bittersweet lyricism. His duet with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra woodwind and brass, subtly but expertly managed by the seemingly ageless Charles Dutoit (now 80!) was sublime.

bluebeardThings took a much darker tone after the interval as Bartók’s first stage work exerted a chilling grip on the Royal Albert Hall. There was little to no coughing here, all eyes focused on the sonorous John Ralyea (Duke Bluebeard) and his latest ill-fated lover Judit (Ildikó Komlósi). Their exploration of the seven doors of Bluebeard’s Castle were vividly brought to life by Dutoit, using all his expertise with French orchestral music to bring out the parallels in the Hungarian Bartók’s own writing, but also finding the darkness beneath that really drives the work.

Komlósi was superb, every sleight of her eyes telling a thousand words, while harps, strings, horns, woodwind and brass all told the silvery tale in turn. Ralyea, meanwhile, brought his incredibly sonorous tones to the spoken introduction, setting the scene perfectly. Unsettling through the drama was – perhaps unwittingly anticipating The Shining, and the use of Bartók’s music in one of its crucial scenes – this was a performance holding the audience captive from the first dark note to the last.

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Jerusalem Quartet play Beethoven & Bartók

jerusalem-quartet

Jerusalem String Quartet (Alexander Pavlosky and Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 16 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07b28t8

Available until 14 June

What’s the music?

Beethoven – String Quartet in G major, Op.18/2 (1798-1800) (25 minutes)

Bartók – String Quartet no.6 (1939) (32 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below. The Jerusalem Quartet have recently recorded Beethoven’s first published set of string quartets – of which this concert’s work is the second, while the Bartók appears here in a recording made by his fellow compatriots, the Takács Quartet:

About the music

Beethoven took a little while before letting himself on the string quartet discipline. This was in part due to Haydn’s formidable example, but also because he was writing in other forms of chamber music beforehand, such as the string trio, piano trio and wind quintet. When he did finally arrive at the quartet it was with a set of six pieces that gradually challenged several aspects of Haydn’s string quartet model. Perhaps the most obvious was the use of a scherzo (a more witty movement) over the minuet, an approach Haydn was moving towards but which Beethoven perfected.

The sixth and last of Bartók’s ground-breaking string quartets is viewed as the composer’s response to the onset of war. It is a deeply profound work, especially as the composer begins each of the four movements with a slow and sorrowful introduction. In the second and third movements this gives way to energetic Hungarian dance music, with a considerable strength of feeling that on occasion is tinged with bitterness. Once the final movement arrives the slow music has taken over to such an extent that it runs throughout, providing a profound final statement for a fine if occasionally difficult work.

Performance verdict

The Jerusalem Quartet have been playing the music of Bartók for some time now, culminating in a recording to be released in the Autumn. It showed clearly in this performance, for the Sixth String Quartet made a very strong impact. Their cohesion in the slow introductions was admirable, particularly in the power of the viola and cello solos, while the sardonic dance forms accessed by the composer in the middle movements were crisp in their rhythmic execution.

The Bartók made an ideal contrast with the Beethoven, which was good humour personified – with some nice jokes around the edges and a few more brusque statements that gave clues for the master’s future development. Again the quartet have spent a lot of time with Beethoven’s early work, and they clearly enjoyed the high spirited tunes and the poised dialogue that goes with them.

As an encore we had more Bartók, the pizzicato movement from his String Quartet no.4 – and again ensemble and execution were impeccable.

What should I listen out for?

Beethoven

1:21 –  A fresh, genial start. Very polite and charming – with a first section repeated at 3:14. Beethoven then develops his ideas from 4:59 and a slight shadow appears, the music now in the minor key. This does not last long, mind, for Beethoven returns to his original material in exceptionally good humour.

9:22 – The slow movement, an equally bright and positive piece of work. The tune itself is straightforward but memorable. At 11:35 Beethoven presents a much faster interlude, but just a minute later we return to the safety of the slow movement.

15:34 – even compared to the first two movements this one – the Scherzo – has a big smile on its face, and the quartet are huddled closely together, seemingly in discussion. At 17:27 the music takes a new direction, harking back a little to the slow movement – and then at 19:15 Beethoven cleverly works things back around to the main tune.

20:38 – the last movement is again a genial piece of music, though this time there is more of the characteristic Beethoven cut and thrust.

Bartók

28:33 – a slow and sad elegy from the viola begins the Sixth Quartet, the instrument alone for some time before the others join – and from there on the mood is one of restlessness and anguish. Bartók uses some strikingly dissonant chords, but the ensemble is kept close together – and each of the four instruments has its turn to speak. The harmonic language is complex but not without a key centre.

36:59 – this time the sad melody is assigned to the cello, and takes place over an unsettling rustle of tremolos from the other three instruments. Then at 38:23 a sudden change in mood as Bartók introduces a ‘recruiting dance’ (or Verbunkos in Hungarian) – which is the music played during military recruiting. It has a bitter edge but also touches of humour on the edges. Then around 40:50 a passage of extraordinary intensity, where the piercing higher register of the cello completely takes the lead in a striking tune. The movement continues in a fraught mood.

45:30 – the quartet unite in the sadness that begins the third movement, and each movement finds these periods of reflection getting longer. When the focus changes at 47:15 it is to a ‘Burletta’ – and at 47:26 you can hear the first and second violins playing the same melody – almost – as they are separated by just a quarter tone. There is a plaintive, folksy feel to some of this music, while the louder passages have a much more aggressive stance.

53:27 – a fourth slow introduction, and this one is probably the saddest of all in mood and concentrated in feeling. The quartet is close together throughout, at times speaking with one voice.

Further listening

If the Op.18 set of Beethoven appeals then I strongly recommend the Jerusalem Quartet’s new recording of all six works – fresh and vividly recorded.

Recommending a piece to complement the Bartók is very difficult, but it makes sense to explore another work written in 1939 by the composer for strings – his well-loved Divertimento, part of a disc recorded by Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

In concert – Barbara Nissman plays Ginastera at Kings Place

barbara-nissman

Barbara Nissman (piano); Hall One, Kings Place, London, 24 April 2016

Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1, S514 (1862)

Bartók Allegro Barbaro, BB63 (1911)

Ginastera Tres Danzas Argentinas, Op.2 (1937)

Prokofiev Piano Sonatas – No.1 in F minor, Op.1 (1909); No. 3 in A minor, Op.28 (1917)

Ginastera Piano Sonata No.3, Op.55 (1982)

Bartók Night Music, BB89 No.4 (1926)

Ginastera Piano Sonata No.1, Op.22 (1952)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although his centenary has been widely reported, the music of Alberto Ginastera has been relatively little heard in the UK so far this year – making this recital from one of his most devoted pupils more welcome. Best known here for a cycle of Prokofiev sonatas a quarter-century ago, Barbara Nissman is a pianist wholly in the tradition of transcendental pianism – though such virtuosity never precludes an enquiring approach to the music at hand, as was evident in the thoughtfulness with which this morning’s programme had been assembled.

Beginning with Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz was a case in point, as the essence of all that followed is encapsulated in its cunning juxtaposition of unbridled revelry and romantic yearning while Lenau’s decidedly sardonic take on the Faust legend is unfolded. Nissman despatched it with required verve and elegance, then summoned comparable impetus in the brief yet remorseless accumulation of energy of Bartók’s Allegro Barbaro – a repost to those who had doubted the integrity behind the unremitting intensity of his musical idiom.

There is nothing rebarbative about the Danzas Argentinas as were among Ginastera’s earliest successes, the teenage composer delighting in the rhythmic élan yet also insinuating lyricism of ideas inspired by though not beholden to the folk-music of his homeland. If the even younger Prokofiev was at all less assured stylistically when making his compositional debut with his First Sonata, this one-movement amalgam of sonata aspects within a more inclusive design lacks little in the resolve necessary to integrate its wide stylistic remit.

Nissman projected it with relish, then was no less convincing in the Third Sonata that – whatever the derivation from earlier material – brings appreciably greater individuality to bear on its ingenious four-in-one structure and uninhibited yet resourceful display. Qualities which are hardly less apparent in the Third Sonata which the ailing Ginastera wrote for Nissman, its allusion to Scarlatti extending beyond the use of binary form to a rhythmic and harmonic pungency as spills over into the effervescent coda with its curtly decisive close.

After the ‘Night Music’ movement from Bartók’s suite Out of Doors had provided a welcome moment of pensiveness, the recital was concluded by the First Sonata with which Ginastera moved decisively from his earlier nationalism towards a more wide-ranging musical outlook. That said, the spirit of the Argentinian pampas is heard simmering below the surface of the bracing initial Allegro and more overtly in those disembodied rustlings which permeate the Presto. The Adagio must rank among the most eloquent penned by its composer, with Nissman probing its depths as surely as she conveyed the energy of the finale when it surges towards a coruscating close. In its amalgam, moreover, of Classical formal poise with post-Romantic expression, the piece looks pointedly from its own time to that of the present.

A well-planned-recital and a welcome return for Nismann, who introduced each piece from the stage. A pity none of the recordings on her Three Oranges label was available, as these feature a wealth of unfamiliar as well as neglected music, and well deserve investigation.

You can read more about Barbara Nissman at her website, while her Three Oranges Recordings site can be accessed here

Keith Emerson

The sad news today is that Keith Emerson, spearhead of the legendary trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, has died aged 71.

The group could be regarded as the original pirates of classical music, taking pieces by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bach, Bartók and – famously – Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition, reworking them affectionately for rock band and a new audience.

By way of tribute, here they are in their most famous arrangement of all, Copland‘s Fanfare for the Common Man:

A full appreciation of Emerson’s achievements, especially with regard to his use of classical music, will follow in due course.