Brahms exults ! Vier ernste Gesänge Goerne Eschenbach

Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach , Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge and other Lieder, from Harmonia Mundi, is an extremely welcome release, since Goerne has.been singing these songs in recital for 20 years, so distinctively that they have become his emblem, so to speak.  Now, at last a performance has been preserved for posterity.

“Brahms free of the thick veneer of varnish”, I wrote about Goerne’s first Vier ernste Gesänge at the Wigmore Hall. When he wrote these last songs, Brahms was facing death but  looking back on the North German tradition that he had left behind decades before, but also by extension to the defiant spirit of the Reformation. Like Ein deutsches Requiem, that in itself, in pious, obedient Catholic Austria, suggests rugged independence of spirit.  There is no heavenly afterlife in Vier ernste Gesänge.  These aren’t last songs, either, but specifically “serious”.  Thus the significance of the piano part in Vier ernste Gesänge :  two performers alone against the world.  Brahms and Clara Schumann, perhaps, both pianists looking back and fearlessly ahead.  Christoph Eschenbach and Goerne are an ideal partnership. They’ve worked together for years and both approach the work with uncompromising emotional directness.

Eschenbach’s introduction is firm, and resolute. “Den es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh, wie dies stirbt, so stirbt er auch“. Eschenbach shapes the lines around “Es fährt alles am einen Ort“, so they fly turbulently upwards, as if propelled by wind: for we are dust, returning to dust.  No Biedermeier sentimentality, but quiet dignity.  A strident chord cuts the song off abruptly. You don’t mess with Death.  Then a softer, more reflective mood. “Ich wandte mich und sah an alle“, reflecting on suffering  and the bitterness of life.  Goerne sings with such compassion that his voice conveys both sympathy and protest. For what is the human condition if the dead are better off than those yet to experience the evils of the world?  “O Tod, o Tod, wie bitter bitter, wie bitter bist du” sings Goerne, as if he were addressing Death man to man, each “wie bitter” beautiful shaped, like a genuine, personal rebuke.  Eschenbach plays the transition firmly, but sensitively, emphasizing the growing resolve in Goerne’;s voice. This is a transit.  “O Tod, o Tod ” sings Goerne, breathing warmth into the “wie wohl” which follows. “Wie wohl tust du“.

Thus the affirmative resolution of the last song and its vigorous mood. The gifts of many tongues, of prophecy and even of faith, are nothing without love.  Then the glorious line “Wir sehen jetzt durch einen Speigel”, when Goerne’s voice rises, extraordinarily clearly and bright for a baritone happiest in the lower range, as if lit from within with inner strength.  Eschenbach’s piano sings along.  “Nun aber bleibet Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe, diese drei: aber ist die Liebe ist die größte unter ihnen”  Not the glories of the world, nor status, but love, to which all can aspire.  Goerne’s non-strident, purposeful  expressiveness is, like love, both simple and extremely perceptive. Hugo Wolf, who eked a subsistence from music journalism, detested Brahms. “The true test of a composer“, he wrote, is this : Can he exult? Wagner can exult, Brahms cannot“. What a pity Wolf hadn’t heard Goerne and Eschenbach, who demonstrate that pietist purity is a form of exultation, and that Brahms can exult very well, without shouting.

These Vier ernste Gesänge will make this recording a must, but so too will the superb performances of Brahms’ nine Lieder und Gesänge op 32 (1864) to texts by Karl August Graf von Platen and Georg Freidrich Daumer, poets with whom Brahms had great affinity, Excellent booklet notes, by Roman Hinke, which explain how the Platen and Daumer songs “mark nothing less than the entry into a new, surprisingly cryptic and conflict-ridden world ….what might have led Brahms to turn to Platen’s poetic existentialism, to take his dark fantasies of the other side as the starting point of a disturbing sequence of songs”.  In  “Wie rafft’ ich mich auf“, the poet leaps up in the middle of the night, wandering through the silent city. The lines “in die Nacht” repeat, obsessively, The stars look down, accusingly : “how have you spent your life?” they seem to ask.  The following six songs reiterate this question.  Brahms chose his texts well and his settings give further coherence to the set.  A river flows past, swiftly, love ends.  From  trauma to tenderness: the three Daumer songs are gentler, closer to cosy, popular misconceptions of Brahms. Lovely piano melodies, but the last song Wie bist du, meine Königen” reaches an altogether more refined level of sophistication. Goerne sings the refrain “Wonnevoll, wonnervoll” (blissful, blissful) with such grace that it feels like a moment of rapture, pulling the whole group of songs together as an integrated cycle. Again, Goerne and Eschenbach prove that Brahms exults!

Heinrich Heine, with his acidic irony, might not seem natural Brahms territory, but the Lieder nach Gedicten von Heinrich Heine op 85 (1878) are lovely.  Sommerabend and Mondenschein make an exquisite pair.  Not many concert pianists (or conductors) have the ability to accompany song with the sensitive support a singer needs. With Eschenbach, the goal is music, not showmanship, art, not ego.  Goerne can therefore sing with pointed understatement, knowing that he and Eschenbach are on the same page, literally.  The Heine set ends with Meerfahrt,  in which the lovers drift in a little boat, past a ghostly island, from which sweet music resounds. They float past “Trostlos auf weitem Meer”. Are they lost, or have they escaped what might be hidden in the mists?  Brahms isn’t letting on, but we don’t mind as we drift on, to the sound of oars and waves. 

Original Source: Brahms exults ! Vier ernste Gesänge Goerne Eschenbach

Semyon Bychkov Tchaikovsky Project Beloved Friend Barbican

Semyon Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky Project “Beloved Friend” continues this week at the Barbican Centre, London. It’s an ambitious series connected to a series of recordings with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with concerts taking place in London with the BBC SO and in New York with the New York Philharmonic, next year. The concerts (at least in London) were augmented with a play by Ronald Harwood on the relationship between Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck, the “beloved friend” in question. Major publicity, too: flyers were distributed at the Royal Albert Hall during the Proms, almost guaranteed to get attention.  So, why are so many tickets still unsold, even for Monday’s concert at the Barbican? Tchaikovsky should sell out, particularly with upmarket stars like Bychkov and Kirill Gerstein, and interesting programmes which feature lesser known but important choices like the original 1879 version of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 2.  Although the London music scene is unusually quiet at the moment there doesn’t seem to have been much public reaction.   Even Friday’s concert with the Symphony Pathétique and Rachmaninov The Bells hasn’t sold out.  It doesn’t make much sense, since the first concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 was pretty good.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony op 58 is a huge beast, nearly an hour long, and full of dynamic extremes. Inspired by Byron’s poem Manfred it tells of a hero confronting supernatural demonic forces in a cosmic struggle that takes place in the Alps. In Byron’s time, the Alps symbolized danger, the vastness of nature dwarfing humankind. Schumann’s Manfred is Romantic in the true, wild Germanic sense. Tchaikovsky, however. was Russian and a man of the theatre, so Bychkov’s approach emphasized the expansiveness that gives the piece context.  Bychkov’s a great opera conductor, he knows how music can “speak”on its own terms.  He created the panoramic backdrop to the drama vividly: generous, sweeping lines suggesting limitless horizons.   As the tempo quickened, the orchestra soared upward: searching lines contrasting well with the sudden crashing climax with which the first movement ends.  Perhaps this is the moment when Manfred meets his mysterious half sister Astarte. What is the nature of their relationship (bearing in mind Byron’s unnatural relationship with his own half sister) ? And, why the mountains?  The second movement, marked vivace con spirito, describes a mountain spirit, one of the elementals who haunt Alpine lore. They are fairies, but also signify danger, their elusiveness defying human control.  Thus the high violin melody that flies above, and away, from the main orchestral foundation.

The third movement describes the mountain folk, who carve out marginal lives in harsh conditions, yet seem happy as they dance, presumably in pure, open air festivals. They’re tough folk and down to earth, while Manfred, though a hero, is rather more quixotic. Like Byron himself, maybe, a towering figure but one with dark complexes. Tolling bells suggest danger. The music descends into a stranger mood, sounds crashing against each other as if the earth itself was imploding,”fire” pouring forth from the rapid rivulets of sound.  Manfred fights off the evil spirits who tempt him, but chooses to die on his own terms. What might Tchaikovsky have made of this? The finale was grand, the pace brisk, craggy peaks and descents sharply defined, dizzying figures suggesting turbulence. Not mountain breezes, but perhaps something more demonic.  The organ underlined the cosmological nature of Manfred’s predicament.  Bychkov recently conducted a magnificent Strauss Alpine Symphony. Read my review here – Mordwand !   Bychkov’s Manfred Symphony, like his Alpine Symphony  were definitely not “tourist trail”.  Although the drama dissipates at the end of the symphony, textures are more refined, more esoteric, one feels that perhaps Manfred is entering a new frontier, beyond the ken of mankind. Hence details, like the horn calling the hero on, and the dizzying upwards rush towards a serene conclusion that might suggest spiritual sublimation.

This programme began with Kirill Gerstein and the Piano Concerto no 2, in the much longer original  version, like Manfred,  monumental in its traverse.  Maybe audiences take Tchaikovsky – and Bychkov and the BBC SO – for granted and don’t realize how much goes into performance at this level of excellence; things like this don’t just “happen”.  So get to Monday’s concert if you can, which features “Three faces of Tchaikovsky: the graceful, elegant Serenade with its stunning melodies; the single finished movement of the unfinished Third Piano Concerto, the composer’s last work; and the Dante-inspired tone-poem Francesca de Rimini with its portrayal of a forbidden love” to quote the Barbican ad, and Taneyev’s Overture to Oresteia.  Perhaps the most intriguing of all three concerts in Bychkov’s Beloved Friends Tchaikovsky Project.  

Original Source: Semyon Bychkov Tchaikovsky Project Beloved Friend Barbican

Eunuch Shostakovich The Nose, Royal Opera House

In  DmitriyShostakovich The Nose at the Royal Opera House, London, it wasn’t just Kovalov’s nose that got cut.  This production was a mutilation, The Nose as Eunuch, the opera stripped of its vital, creative essence.  In Gogol’s original story, Kovalov is a “collegiate assessor”, a petty bureaucrat who passes judgement, based on surface values. His Nose, however, has other ideas and runs away, taking on a life of its own, more adventurously led than its supposed owner’s.   The nose of a person’s face defines their outward appearance.  Kovalov’s nose shows him up for what he is, or isn’t.  And, by extension, the whole social order.  The Nose is not comedy, it’s savage satire. Miss that and miss its fundamental, pungent purpose. No excuses. Shostakovich is hardly an unknown composer. Moreover, The Nose,was created at a time of exceptional artistic freedom in the early years of the Revolution, when the Soviet dream represented ideals and progressive change. Futurism, expressionism, modernity, Eisenstein, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky.  Shostakovich was only 20 when the piece was written, still full of courage and hope. But even those who don’t know the background have only to pay attention to the music to get it.

Shostakovich’s score explodes with inventiveness and zany experiment.  It begins with a fanfare and the roll of drums, like Grand Opera, but opens onto mundane scenes in mundane lives.  David Pountney’s translation respects the image of smell. Something’s off , rotting perhaps, even though we can’t see it.  Despite the exuberant scoring  deliberately more circus than High Art, The Nose parodies the rich tradition of Russian opera. There’s relatively little singing, and what there is is shrill and distorted, closer to Sprechstimme than to aria.  Significantly, some of the best music for voice lies in the choruses, who represent the “ordinary” masses, and in the vignettes for subsidiary characters, all of them characterized with great gusto.  The Nose may also be the Royal Opera House’s tribute to John Tomlinson, who will never sing again but can still hold an audience spellbound by his incisive acting in multiple roles, a good foil for Martin Winkler’s Kovalov, whose  identity remains constant throughout proceedings. Part of this story is about Kovalov’s supine personality, in contrast to the vivacious spontaneity of his Nose, who doesn’t give a stuff about propriety and the right way to do things.  Winkler’s a good singer, which made his performance piquant.  The innate authority in Winkler’s voice suggested that there might, somehow, be depth in Kovalov, if only he wasn’t so repressed.  The vignettes were also well performed : honours to the ever popular Wolfgang Ablingrer-Sperrhacke, but also to the sturdy regulars of the ROH company, without whom the ROH would not be what is is.  The choruses, needless to say, were superb.

The extremes in Shostakovich’s score should also alert any listener to the true nature of the piece.  The famous Percussion interlude pounded violently: it might suggest Kovalov’s approaching nightmare, or perhaps the tension the Nose feels as it’s about to break way.  Words would be superfluous. This isn’t “comfort listening”. Ingo Metzmacher’s conducting was idiomatic and utterly expressive. The angular, jagged edges in this music are absolutely part of the meaning of this opera, as are the bluesy distortions, especially in the brass, where the lines of convention are eroded. Horns  and trumpets blowing raspberries, just as The Nose treats Kovalov with jaunty irreverence.  Wonderful playing from the Royal Opera House orchestra, who sounded as though they were having a wonderful time, escaping, like The Nose, from standard repertoire.  Shostakovich’s instrumentation is deliberately bizarre. Famously, he employed a Flexatone, a kind of whirring saw whose wailing timbre suits the craziness in the plot. He also uses a xylophone, a balalaika, a whistle and castanets, and weaves these in well with the rest of the orchestra. The high woodwinds, for example, chuckle and chatter in frantic staccato, the strings scream. This manic instrumentation reflects the plot, too, in its depiction of the variety and diversity of life beyond Kovalov’s narrow horizons.

Wild as the music is, it would be a mistake to assume that undisciplined playing would be in order. Quite the contrary.  Metzmacher pulls the wildness together so the colours stay vivid, and the players operate in relationship to each other. Again, this precision reflects the dance element in the opera, so very much a fundamental to its meaning.  The Nose was created for the Mariinsky and its excellent corps de ballet.  Dancers can’t do free for all, or they’d collapse in an unco-ordinated heap. The tightness of Metzmacher’s conducting gave them firm support so they could do their artistic thing, knowing they could rely on the pulse in the orchestra. Absolutely fabulous choreography (Otto Pichler) and wonderfully executed dancing from the members of the Royal Ballet.  Who can forget the chorus line of high-kicking Noses. The Nose itself was Ilan Galkoff.  For me, the high point was the ensemble of Eunuchs, a flamboyant drag act.  I loved their physicality: the animal energy in those limbs expressing the freedom the Nose represents!

Wonderful performances all round: the Royal Opera House at its best.  The disappointment, though, was the banality of the staging,directed by Barry Kosky. Presenting Shostakovich, and especially The Nose as feelgood West End Song and Dance Act is a travesty, a total denial of everything the piece stands for.  Kosky is popular because he gives punters what they want, nice things to look at without engaging their minds.  Obviously there’s a market for that, but it’s a betrayal of The Nose and everything it stands for.  The Nose isn’t specifically Russian or Soviet, though those elements are relevant, but its primary focus is on the way society operates through group think , based on shallow surface appearances.  So what do we get ? A Nose dedicated to unquestioning superficiality.  All those wonderful individual performances but built on the dead heart of a clueless concept.  Audiences  assume Regie means costumes, and updating, but what it really means is whether the visuals contribute to the expression of meaning. Kosky’s The Nose is bad Regie because it ignores the basic ideas behind the opera, its music and its composer.  We live in times when artistic integrity doesn’t count for much and mob populism rules.  So a lot more is at stake than just opera.  All directors have their signatures, just like conductors and singers make an individual stamp.  Kosky’s reminds me of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.  Wildly popular, but who needs the whiff of stale emissions and sordid self obsession?  We’ve all “been there” but most of us grow up and  do other things. But the punters like it, so it must be art.  That is why, for me, Eunuch The Nose was a deal breaker.

Original Source: Eunuch Shostakovich The Nose, Royal Opera House

The future of classical music

I’m often asked what I think the future of classical music will be. Here’s a summary of what I think. It’s been sitting quietly in the Resources section of my blog, but it’s time to give it some bigger play.

Here we go:


Classical music is in trouble, and there are well-known reasons why. We have an aging audience, falling ticket sales, and — in part because our audience is shrinking — persistent financial woes.

AlaskaAnd behind the numbers lies a deeper problem. Classical music has grown distant from our wider culture. We don’t connect well with the world. Most of the music we play is from the past, while the people around us are connecting with the culture and concerns of the present.

No wonder, then, we’re losing our funding and our audience.

But we’re changing — dressing more informally, playing in clubs, talking to our audience at concerts, in a thousand ways moving closer to the world around us, beginning to adapt to the present day.

And so I don’t think classical music will die. I expect it be reborn, to find a new audience, to reconnect with our wider culture, and to become a truly contemporary art.


About the ways classical music will change…

The changes will be large. And — I say this with sympathy — very likely troubling, for some who deeply love classical music the way it is now. But the old ways aren’t sustainable. Classical music can’t survive without major change.

Here are some of the changes I anticipate:

We’ll perform less music from the past, most likely much less.

We’ll no longer think that classical music is somehow sanctified, that it’s specially blessed in our culture (or should be specially blessed). Or that it’s better than music of any other kind. And our world is greatly varied now. Classical music needs to stand beside many other things, all with value of their own.

We’ll present performances more vividly, and talk about them — both in conversation and in our promotion and marketing — with genuine excitement.

We’ll reconnect with classical music’s past, with an age when it was more informal and spontaneous, when musicians improvised more, when the music had more contemporary relevance, and when the audience responded with far more spontaneity. If that’s how it was when Mozart was alive, why can’t it be that way now?

We’ll learn to speak the language the rest of our world speaks, to talk about the things it talks about. Too often we think of classical music as a refuge from the wider world. But it can’t survive that way? How can we attract a new audience, if we turn away from the world the new audience lives in?


And now, a warning. Many people in our field believe that we can bring classical music back by restoring classical music education in our schools. And by bringing classical music into our communities.

I don’t think these things will work.

Schools:  If the problem is that not enough people care about classical music, how can we build support for teaching it in our schools? Where will the money for it come from, at a time when school budgets are being cut? In an age of diversity, how can we justify a focus on classical music, when schoolkids also don’t know jazz or the blues?

Communities: If — in its present form — classical music is focused on the past, and out of touch with current culture, it will remain out of touch, even if we make it friendly and accessible. So how many people can we truly reach? How can we hope to recreate the large audience classical music had in the past, when it fit far better into the culture of its time?

And in an age of diversity, shouldn’t our communication with communities go two ways? Shouldn’t we be learning their culture, even as we teach them ours?


So the major changes that I’ve outlined are our best hope. But they have to go further. Here are some things we have to do:

We have to redefine what classical music is. In our minds — and in the minds of people in the outside world — classical music means the old masterworks, Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms. We have to blow up that idea. We have to redefine classical music as something that goes beyond any style or sound, beyond any repertoire. To me, it’s (very simply) music that’s composed in advance of performance, and thus, as we listen, can unfold with the careful flow and detail of a fine novel or film. No other musical genre works that way. Understood like this, classical music can have any sound, incorporate any musical technique. And thus it can be contemporary, can open itself to all the cultures of the world.

We need to be more diverse. How can we fit into a greatly varied world, if we’re not ourselves diverse? How can we ask support from people who don’t hear themselves in our music, and don’t see themselves among the musicians we put onstage?

We need to be more creative. We may not seem creative to the world outside us. We seem to do the same things, play the same music, over and over. We may know that this can be creative, and needs great, focused discipline. But it may not seem creative to the outside world. Because, outside our concert halls, new things are being done with music and with sound, while older music is reinterpreted in new ways. We should join the larger world in doing all these things.

We need to be entrepreneurial. To attract a new audience, we need to reinvent the way we do business. We need to perform in new places for new people, and to find new ways to inspire new people to come.

If we want to be creative — and entrepreneurial — we need to change the way we educate classical musicians. We need to teach it more creatively both to children and to aspiring classical music professionals. Everyone should be encouraged to create music, to compose pieces, discover new sounds, and play old in ways all their own.

When we play the old masterworks, we have to do it with more individuality, more fire, and more conviction. We have to treat these works as if they were new. What goes on inside them — their narrative, contrasts between one moment and the next — should be unmistakable to everyone listening, even to people who don’t know classical music at all.

We have to reinvent the financial structure of classical music. Not everyone who studies classical music can make a living from it. But those who do succeed have been decently paid, making more or less the same money as accomplished professionals in other fields. Can this continue? The old ways are wading, and with them the established ways of making a classical music living. We don’t yet know how classical music will finance itself after it’s reborn. But we’ll have to figure it out, so that classical musicians of the future can be financially secure.

And, one last time, we have to fully join the culture around us. That may not seem easy. And — as once more I say with sympathy — it may not please everyone who loves classical music now. But it’s something we have to do, and, beyond that, it’s a natural impulse for younger people in our field. It will lead them to new places, giving classical music new excitement, new conviction, and new artistic depth.

You can always find this post in the Resources section of my blog, at this address:

Already I’d make a few changes. I’d talk more about conservatory education, and how that needs to be freer, and far more creative. (See my posts on the conference at DePauw: Here, here, here.)

And I’d give more weight to my growing conviction — and this is radical — that the familiar classical masterworks are a millstone hanging round our necks, preventing us from changing. There’s nothing wrong with them, but our constant focus on them, our constant performance of them, prevents us from reaching the contemporary world.

Further reading:

Before the Crisis: What classical music was like in the old days, when it was popular. 

Timeline of the crisis: How the classical music crisis grew, from the 1970s till now.

Age of the audience: How the audience has aged, as shown both in statistics and in anecdotal data

Four keys to the future: Four steps we can take right now, to make things better.

Original Source: The future of classical music

Early Stage layered learning with Context

Liz, a 9 year old student, who began piano lessons 8 months ago, has been consistently exposed to layered learning within a contextual framing. This approach, in substance and quality, will apply to pupils of diverse ages and levels.

During our most recent lesson, Liz practiced William Gillock’s “Little Flower Girl of Paris” (Accent on Gillock, Level 2), in the “context” of balancing a Left Hand fleshed out legato melody, with Right Hand rendered harmonic seconds and thirds in staccato. Naturally, in this first week exposure to the piece, the first half was assigned, with a separate hands direction.

The affect of a bass line “sung out” with beautiful, vocal model phrasing was the springboard to the very early practicing of the Left Hand. And the “light” Right Hand seconds and thirds, with a prompt to keep the third beat “lifted,” (with a supple wrist and buoyant arms), kept the “dancing” treble from sounding like pencil point attacks.

“Balance” between hands was a resonating theme of the lesson, and how to preserve the smooth flowing bass line against the LIFTED right hand staccato harmonic intervals. (The third beat was to be, as mentioned, “lighter” than the second in a recurring off-beat set of measures)

Embracing the whole undertaking, was a consciousness of tone production, framing rhythm, with an underlying singing tone legato and staccato.

In the technique portion of the lesson, the student practiced a “C” launched Chromatic scale in contrary motion, again within singing tone context, as well as having an imbued consciousness of “scale shaping” with “destination” to cadence. (The prompt urged a peak turn around as a “sub-destination,” with the final note as a resolution or ultimate destination with “tapering.”)

The student has learned to use supple wrist forward motions to taper phrases, which also applies to her playing B minor scales, divided between the hands in three forms. (Left Hand 4, 3, 2, 1; Right Hand, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

Journeying around the Circle of Fifths in Major and Minor Progressions (scales and arpeggios) has added CONTEXT to the pupil’s learning. (Composing has also been a strong dimension of the musical journey adding even more context in the theoretical and creatively expressive realm)

All the child’s musical exposures are multi-layered. We work on the affective, kinesthetic, and cognitive aspects of practicing, with framing rhythm or the singing pulse underlying each effort from back tempo approaches toward incremental increases in tempo.

From Day one, this pupil has been immersed in the singing tone and how to produce it. (relaxed arms, supple wrists)


A lesson sample at the near 8th month juncture:

A contextual example where the student “analyzes” Gillock’s “Summertime Polka.”


The child’s very first lesson in February 2016 is documented within this blog:

There are many more blog entries of this student’s progress over 8 months time. (See Liz has her first lesson; Liz Composes, etc)

Original Source: Early Stage layered learning with Context

No and Not ! The Nose ! Shostakovich

Shostakovich The Nose at the Royal Opera House tonight, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, who is the reason why I want to go.   Metzmacher once did a series called “Who’s afraid of modern music?” confronting the notion that modern music is somehow “difficult”.  No ! and not The Nose ! A man wakes up to find his nose has disappeared. He’s the kind of guy for whom appearance means status, but the nose has different ideas.  It takes on its own life, running around town as a civic official. But even that’s not clear – sometimes it’s a body in a stretchy white shroud, sometimes it’s a piece of droopy rubber, and sometimes it’s not visible at all, and only spoken about.The Nose is funny, but it’s also farce. The libretto’s based on Gogol.  Laughs, yes, but no smiles. Sharp teeth and eyes constantly alert for danger.  Metzmacher will give the music bite.

Valery Gergiev brought The Nose to London with the Mariinsky Theatre more than ten years ago, in a season of Shostakovich operas and ballets.  Those were early days when the Mariinsky was still refered to by its old Soviet name the Kirov, and not funded and supported as well as it is now.   The Mariinsky also did The Golden Years,which was heard no less than four times in different forms that same year. José Serebrier’s recording was electrifying, the Mariinsky’s live performance marred by poor staging.  At that same time London also saw productions of The Bright Stream and The Bolt, another of my favourites.  With at least three major productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in recent years, and the bizarre, unfinished Orango, which Salonen brought to maniac life  (read more HERE),  we haven’t done badly. Besides, there’s been so much 20th century Russian music and theatre in London  (The Gambler, A Dog’s Heart, etc) that The Nose at the Royal Opera House should be a cinch.  I’m definitely not an admirer of Barrie Kosky, but hope that this new Nose will be up to scratch.

And back to memories of the Mariinsky Nose, the best of the crop that golden year 2006.  The Mariinsky Nose didn’t rub away the very important political aspects of the piece, so even though the punch of the Russian text was lost on English speakers, the imagery was clear.  It cocked a snoot at bureaucracy and conformity.  When Kovalov tried to put an advertisement in the newspaper “lost and found” it’s refused on circuitous grounds.  Vignettes flew at a hectic pace: the bagel seller who gets raped, the twins, the old dowager announcing her own death to a bunch of twitching, neurotic spinsters : a panorama of crazy life . Nothing’s explained: logic means little in this fertile procession of observations. At the end a Prince on a stuffed camel proclaimed everything’s sorted, but by then we were in the heart of mayhem, complete with banners of newsprint proclaiming HOC and COH, which were wordplays on the Cyrillic for “nose”.

Like the Royal Opera House, the Mariinsky is also a ballet house.   Thus the Mariinsky Nose blew the dance sub themes up well. For example, numerous cab drivers whirl about in frantic circles, each with a fascinating passenger within, yet the maelstrom is executed with such precision that it suggested the clockwork order of a society controlled by expectations. When the cab drivers lifted people above their shoulders – the dancers at the fringe of the group didn’t touch, but moved in tune with other bodies as if they were all one single organism. The nose was played by a superbly athletic dancer who could do backflips and twist round the singer who sang Kovalov. Effectively, a pas de deux, but the dancer obviously the master.  The point, exactly !

It was striking, too, how much the Mariinsky Nose owed to the Russian circus tradition. Of course there were clowns, but the real influence is deeper. Circus works because there’s so much happening, so fast, that the illusion is even more spectacular than what’s actually happening. Hence the highly coloured costumes, and the almost acrobatic physicality of the performers’ movements on stage. Even the massive metal tunnel (vaguely resembling a nose) created a vast new dimension to the set, further blurring the boundaries of linear perspective. At one point an angel vocalised wordlessly from the rafters, while a sinister dark angel flitted out from behind her. Circus extends the limits of what the human body can do – just as the errant nose amply demonstrates. Circus and opera both have the same goal: the creation of illusion.

Watch this space.  Friday I’ll write up the new Shostakovich Nose. 

Original Source: No and Not ! The Nose ! Shostakovich

Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination

Often I query my students about the “destination” and “direction” of phrases within a particular composition. Naturally, my questions are a reflection of a need to clarify what arrivals are significant in the transit of notes.

Part of this exploration encompasses the awareness of sub-destinations that are on the way to the peak or climax of a phrase. In addition, bundled into the journey is a framing singing tone, that requires a supple wrist, with a natural, unencumbered flow of energy through relaxed arms into the hands and fingers. (Needless to say, attentive listening is at the heart of sensitive playing, and “singing” helps to clarify shape and contour of lines)


Today, two pupils were grappling with essential elements of beautiful, well-shaped and directed phrasing as they respectively rendered a Chopin Waltz and Nocturne.

The Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, no.2 and the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 were both noteworthy for challenging the individual player to examine phrase relationships and the influence of harmonic rhythm, voicing, melodic contour, innate rhythmic flow, dynamic variation, nuance and more.

Mood-setting and changes that occurred in various sections of these compositions were also pivotal to fluid renderings.

In both these examples below, “destination” was a particular lesson focus.

Chopin Waltz in B minor

Chopin Nocturne in E minor

(Videos are edited for teacher demonstrations)

Original Source: Phrasing at the Piano: Direction and Destination