Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable

I’m the first to admit that not every learning journey through a particular composition will produce results we might have hoped for. After weeks or even months of methodical practicing in baby steps, we can find ourselves literally over a barrel, wading through ornaments, for example, that are crystal clear in slow tempo, but suffer paralysis otherwise.

I came up against this very wall of resistance when I dared to take on J.S. Bach’s Gigue from the composer’s C minor French Suite No.2, BWV 813. Mordants and trills permeate treble and bass, and these dare-devilish ornaments must often be executed simultaneously without taking an easy way out. In my case, after weeks of hand parceling, enlisting various articulations and rhythms in back tempo, I couldn’t clearly realize all the indicated ornaments within the ideal brisk, animated pace I’d internalized.

Immersed in a frustrating journey through a difficult dance movement, perhaps a maiden voyage at best, I refused to give up hope that in time I would integrate a plethora of ornaments into a resilient, energy-driven Gigue. Most importantly, it was during my period of introspective practicing, that I gained valuable insights about wrist spring forward motions that permitted trills and mordants to roll out without keyboard impact. Such suppleness of movement freed up energy in an uninterrupted flow down my arms. This particular insight, alone, could fuel further advances through this piece without a time deadline attached.

Because all piano study has a positive dimension regardless of short-term outcome, it’s valuable to record epiphanies as they unfold. These feed our future learning challenges and they trickle down to our students who share their individual awakenings with us.


Practicing the Gigue movement from J.S. Bach French Suite No. 2 in C minor, with a focus on wrist spring forward motions:

Original Source: Practicing Challenging Pieces: If we’re over a barrel, we can still learn something valuable


Szymanowski Songs for tenor – We mgłach

Karol Szymanowski We mgłach (In the Mist)  Songs op 2. 5, 7, and 11 with Rafała Majzner  and  Katarzynę Rzeszutek  from Duz Recordings, in Poland, continuing their specialist series on Szymanowski which began with releases of his music for solo piano.   Mazjner is a Szymanowski specialist. He won his doctorate on the tenor roles in Szymanowski’s operas, often critically clues as to meaning.  Szymanowski’s songs for soprano and piano are fairly well known but his songs for tenor less so, making this disc a must for anyone interested in this most unusual of composers. .

This recording is therefore a must for anyone into Szymanowski, but with one caveat : No texts, no translations.  Since the disc is aimed at Polish audiences, that’s no big deal.  The rest of us need to do homework, but that’;s a good thing. English speakers are so insular that they need to make the effort to find out about Polish culture, history and intellectual life.  Some texts are available (ie . Although there aren’t any good translations, in a way that’s good because it means employing listening skills – understanding the emotional content, responding to the sound of words and the shape of phrases. Active listening, not passive, involving the mind.  That’s the way to learn.  (Help greatly welcomed !). Perhaps Dux Recordings could put the texts up on their website ?

The four sets of songs on this recording date from 1900 to 1905, at a very early stage in Szymanowski’s career, when he was still a student.  Significantly, all are also settings of living poets, contemporaries ofb the composer.  Szymanowski began Sześć pieśni (Six Songs), his op  2, aged only 18.  Although the composer was to make his name as a cosmopolitan sophisticate, these songs show that his roots in Polish culture went deep. The texts here were by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1860-1940) . Przerwa-Tetmajer was both nationalist and modernist, given that Secessionism and Symbolism were forces for renewal, all over Europe.   Each of these poems is brief, butb the imagery so concentrated that meaning is left deliberately elusive.  The first two songs, in a minor key, are autumnal, but the strong piano part suggests resolve. In both songs, the image of a woman who may no longer exits. With the third song,  We mgłach (In the Mist) the vocal line curves mysteriously, like the mists and streams in the evening cool.  What’s happening ? “Bez dna, bez dna! bez granic!” sings Majzner, (No bottom, no bottom, without borders!).  In dreams, the poet hears mysterious voices calling . In the last song, Pielgrzym the line rises, swelling with hope. “Gdziekolwiek zwrócę krok, wszędzie mi jedno, na północ pójdę, czyli na południe“, (Everywhere I turn, from the north I will go south)   Immediately one thinks of the Persian song in Szymanowskui’s Symphony no 3 and in the opera Król Roger where the Shepherd’s song heralds change.   

Szymanowski’s Trzy fragmenty z poematów Jana Kasprowicza op 5 1902 (Three Fragments from Poems by Jan Kaprowicz) are epigrams, short and succint.  Mazjner’s delivery is elegant yet emotionally expressive.  I can’t find translations, but the songs are intriguing.  Łabędź (The Swan) op 7 from 1904 to a poem by Tadeusz Berent  is intense : whatever this swan might be, it’s not serene.  

Most intriguing of all, Cztery pieśni (Four Songs) op 11  (1904-5) to poems b y Tadeusz Micinski (1873 – 1918).  A long piano line moves purposefully forward. The vocal lines form patterns, words repeated with different variations.  Something obssessive ?. “Straszą mnie widma i tajemne zbrodnie” (I’m scared of ghosts and secret crimes ?)  Majzner’s voice rises in heroic exclamation.  What are these references to Druids and Thermopylae ? In the second song, we atre in an enchanted forest, like a child afraid of fairy tales.  The vocal line elides, the piano part seductively leading onwards.   Are we in the world of magical fantasy, tinged with menace, a theme that runs so often through Szymanowski’s other work ?  The pace quickens, alert with anticipation for the sounds are seductive and the imagery rich.  When we reach the final song Rycz burzo the rhythms roll in full flow. Turbulent storms, wildly churning figures in the piano.  `References To Prometheus and the mountains of Pelion.  Heroiuc singing from Majzner, almost a Heldentenor.  Defiance. But the pino rumbles ominously and the song ends, in hushed minor. “cichy, bezkresny niepojęty ból!” (quiet, endless, inconceivable pain)

Hopefully, Dux recordings will continue their saga through Szymanowski’;s songs and other works 
Pleasse see my other pieces on Szymanowski by clicking on the labels below.

Original Source: Szymanowski Songs for tenor – We mgłach

Quickening – songs by Robert Hugill

Quickening – Songs by Robert Hugill is now out on Navona Records.  Hugill sets texts by well known poets like Ivor Gurney, A E Housman and Christina Rossetti, but gives them new life. With lively young singers like Johnny Herford and Anna Huntley, this is a disc worth hearing, though it might take some tracking down as it’s not on the commercial bigtime..

Full marks to Hugill for confronting the “dark secret” of A E Housman !  In Housman’s time, same sex relationships were illegal. A man’s life could be destroyed were he to openly love his fellow man except in religious terms.  To Housman’s credit, he was honest enough to confront his feelings.  Housman has probably been set by more English composers than any other poet, but most skirt around what may have been closest to Housman’s heart. Prejudices don’t die. A few years ago I met a man who claimed to have set Housman’s complete works, but went hysterical when I mentioned gay love.

Hugill, however, chooses four poems in which Housman makes veiled references about his unrequited love for Moses Jackson, and turns them into a cycle describing their relationship.  Hugill sets the line “He looked at me, he looked at me” with suppressed excitement, suggesting an intimacy which might lie behind an innocent gaze.  But Housman misread Jackson, who was so shocked that he left England, never to resume their friendship. Thus  the poem “He would not stay for me, and who could wonder?” is set with bitter brevity. “Because I loved you better than  it suits a man to say” is Housman’s most explicit statement.  The piano part is deceptively lyrical at first. Then the poet imagines himself dead.”The lad that loved you was one that kept his word.”   The poem A.J.J. was dedicated to Jackson’s brother, but the feelings therein could also apply to Jackson himself who also died young.  Hugill’s setting of Housman’s When summer’s end is nighing (2016) written eight years after the Jacksdon cycle is a reflection on autumnal loss.

With Quickening, settings of six songs by Christina Rossetti, more melancholy brooding. Victorians got off on death. The mood is lightened by Rossetti’s girlish femininity, so the poems are set for mezzo, viola and piano.  The Rossetti songs mark a welcome break from the gloominess that shrouds the texts on this disc, which Hugill respects rather too carefully. The cumulative effects can be offset by listening to the groups of songs at different stages. There are four songs set to texts by Ivor Gurney.  More unusually, Hugill sets three  poems by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, part of a Winter Journey which bears no relation with Winterreise, being a traverse through the times of a day in winter – Morning, Afternoon and Evening.   Williams’s texts don’t sing as naturally as Housman’s do, and Afternoon is particularly wordy.  Normally respecting text closely is a good thing, but less so in this case.

Please see my review of  Hugill’s  chamber opera When a Man Knows from 2011

Original Source: Quickening – songs by Robert Hugill

Darwin depicted – Michael Stimpson Age of Wonder

Michaeel Stimpson Age of Wonders, new from Stone Records, with Maya Iwabuchi, Tom Poster and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Stuart Stratford.  Age of Wonders is a meditation on Charles Darwin, whose boundless thirst for knowledge led him to expand the boundaries of science. Darwin’s epic discoveries changed the whole way we view the world.  Darwin’s genius lay in his ability to synthesize knowledge  and develop theories based on empirical evidence.  Thus The Age of Wonders is a compendium of music and words, taken from Darwin’s writings,  developed into an ambitious panorama which runs nearly 130 minutes. If the BBC still made music documentaries, it could be adapted for film, with visual images. Historic photographs and scenes shot in the present, perhaps the Galapagos, or the Natural History Museum. Intriguing possibilities, and truly in the spirit of Darwin’s questing mind.

Age of Wonders begins with The Man who Walked with Henslow, a 20-minute reverie for violin and piano. John Stevens Henslow was a botanist and geologist, who, though a Churchman, believed in fact-based knowledge. He fired Darwin’s taste for adventure, arranging his passage on HMS Beagle.  The violin poses questioning phrases, long lines that tantalize seductively. The piano answers, at first tentatively, in single chords, then leaping in excited figures, dancing with the violin.  Although Stimpson writes in his notes that it’s based on early 19th century form, I’d venture not so, for the men involved were ahead of their time, and, in any case, swept away the certainties of the past. Darwin, inheritor of the spirit that inspired Goethe’s scientific theories and the Romantic’s explorations of the human soul.  In musical terms The Man who Walked with Henslow is very  modern though it uses conventional language, and is by the far the keynote piece, from which the rest of the material flows.  Very good it is, too, and would make a good stand alone. Superb playing by Maya Iwabuchi, well supported by Tom Poster.

From this evolves a String Quartet (The Beagle) in two movements, “Outbound” and “Inbound”, which describe Darwin;’s journey on the Beagle. The first movement develops ideas from the earlier violin/piano piece, while the second describes a merry sailor’s jig.  The section titled An Entangled Bank describes Darwin’s home at Down House, Kent, and his work on the Origin of the Species, culminating in publication. Scored for string orchestra, it’s brisk and busy, as was Darwin’s life, no doubt.  From two instruments to quartet and at last to full orchestra with Transmutations, a four-movement development of previous material, now depicting what might be Darwin’s  public life.

How one might depict the controversy into which Darwin was thrust for challenging the Bible, I don’t know. Stimpson doesn’t venture into dangerous waters, as Darwin did, but writes atmospheric figures that beg visual illustration.  He turns from music back to words with musical interludes. The late Robert Tear reads a passage from Darwin’s autobiography.  Ruth Padel reads three of her poems on Darwin . At the end, Tear reads Sam Wilberforce’s Lines written on Hearing that Professor Huxley had said that he did not care whether his grandfather was an Ape and Padel reads another of her poems, on Darwin’s coffin.

Original Source: Darwin depicted – Michael Stimpson Age of Wonder

Simon Rattle’s Stravinsky Saga LSO Barbican

In one Herculean, heroic programme, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite of Spring, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. Rattle  believes in what he does and he does it extremely well.  Rattle offers a vision of what the arts might be in Britain if policies predicated not in dumbing down but smarting up. This is how classical music should be presented, with verve, imagination and flair.  And excellence, without which “education” in itself means nothing. 
Something of Gergiev’s tortured genius rubbed off on the LSO, even if his visits were brief and unpredictable. Rattle’s been conducting Stravinsky since his youth – many in the audience grew uo with his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He’s also conducted a lot of Stravinsky with the Berliner Philharmoniker.  This saga of a programme was a test of stamina. Rattle and the LSO must have been exhausted by the end.  In two and a half hours we traversed the revolution that changed modern music, ballet and modern art forever.  This performance was more than a concert. It re-created the exhilaration that Stravinsky and his contemporaries might have felt in those brief years when the Ballets Russe ventured fearlessly into the new and thrilling.

The sense of occasion seemed to inspire the LSO, who were playing with greater pizzazz and animation than they’ve done in a long time.  A superb Firebird, in its true colours from 1910.  The Suite is all very well but this full version allows the legend to unfold properly, displaying its true glories.  All music for dance respects the human body, turning physical limitations into art.  In The Firebird, dance literally takes flight, for the Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature.  As orchestral music  The Firebird is liberated, the music flying free.  A wonderful sense of portent in this performance, low winds moaning, harps and strings sparkling.  The finesse of LSO musicianship : every detail defined with crystalline clarity. A virtual jewelbox come alive, colours shining like gems viewed through light. Yet Rattle’s instinct for drama enhanced the underlying sadness in the piece: the Prince, like Kaschchey the Immortal, cannot remain unchanged. Thus the seductive oboes and cors anglais and the mournful bassoons.  In The Firebird, Stravinsky was also paying tribute to Rimsky-Korakov’s Kaschchey The Immortal and even to The Legend of The Invisible City of Kitezh.  so the piece is haunted. Please read my piece Lost No More on the connections between Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. 

Stravinsky’s Petrushka tells a story couched in folklore terms, but it’s also an allegory of ritual magic. The puppets aren’t masters of their fate. They act out a timeless show of love and loss. Thus the stylized sequences, ideally suited for choreography : decidedly non-symphonic.  Yet Petrushka also works in oddly concerto-like form, the Petrushka theme on different instruments interacting with the orchestral whole. Petrushka outfoxes the Magician and rises from the dead.  Rattle shaped the piece carefully, showing how the “fragmented” structure  works as a kind of ritual procession. From Stravinsky to Messaien, more connections than one might expect.   Vivid “Russian” images evoked by the colours in the orchestra.

And, at last The Rite of Spring. The journey from Kaschchey to the Twentieth Century is reached, through an invocation of primeval earth magic. The future glimpsed through prehistory.  Rattle shaped the huge angular blocks of sound so they felt like shifting tectonic plates, the cymbals crashing like lava exploding from the core of the Earth.  Yet even more impressive the elusive “vernal” theme that rises, organically, like a miracle from the chaos.  Listen again on BBC Radio 3.

Please see my pieces on the other major concerts in the LSO’s This is Rattle series at the Barbican :
National Treasures : British Composers  Elgar, Birtwistle, Ades, Knussen and Grimes 
Blazing Berlioz : the Damnation of Faust

Original Source: Simon Rattle’s Stravinsky Saga LSO Barbican

Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !

Max Emanuel Cenčić  (photo Anna Hoffmann)

Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !  And it’s also the 35th anniversary of his first stage appearance, when he sang Der Hölle Rache kocht from Die Zauberflöte, aged only 6.  He went on to sing with the Wiener Sängerknaben, where he was a star soloist.  Aged 11 he was the boy soprano in Anton Nanut’s cult classic Mahler Symphony no 4. (of which more below). I first heard him live when he was 17 – still a male soprano, his voice intact and unbroken, all the more moving because one knew it couldn’t possibly remain so pure forever.  He was singing Schubert. The DOM pianist was salivating, which spoiled the performance.  But thanks to innate musicality, a good “instrument” and flawless technique, Cenčić remained a soprano by training his voice meticulously so it kept its freshness and agility.

Cenčić pioneered the modern Fach of male soprano, of whom there are now quite a few. In his 20’s he retrained it again,to countertenor, opening up a much wider range of repertoire.  Now, aged 41, he’s at the top of his profession, a megastar in the world of baroque, and perhaps the best Italianate countertenor in the business.  Cenčić’s so good, and so charismatic, that he’s pioneering the spread of that highly specialized genre. A true groundbreaker !   Congratulations, Max Cenčić, long may you reign !

Back to that Mahler 4  which remains unique to this day. Cenčić recorded it with Anton Nanut and the Ljubljana Radio Symphony back in 1991.  It was an interesting experience, since the final movement of the symphony, normally done by adult soprano, depicts a young child, singing in Heaven of the earthly delights of childhood.  I’ve written extensively about this symphony and its interpretation – please click on the label below.   In theory, why not cast a kid ?  But it’s a difficult part and requires stamina, which is why it is almost always done by an adult. Cenčić struggles, and Nanut holds the orchestra back so it doesn’t smother him. Doing M4 with a boy is thus a test, both of singer and of conductor, so it’s pretty much given that it’s almost impossible to pull off right.  Allowances have to be made. I love this performance because it sounds truly fragile and vulnerable,. The kid is dead, after all, and has suffered, which is why he gets excited about food.  For some people this vulnerability is distressing.  But that’s why it’s worth seeking out this performance.  We can focus on the sunniness of this symphony, but if we ignore the cruelty and irony behind it, we’re missing out.   For that reason, I don’t like  Bernstein’s recording with a boy treble, because he sounds too “knowing”, even a bit smug.  As far as I’ver been able to find out, Bernstein didn’t give much in the way of musical justification.  No-one else has done so since, as far as I know.

But I would not dismiss the idea of a treble outright for that reason.    On 27th September, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is conducting Mahler 4 with a boy treble with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, part of a large and ambitious programme.  The British choral tradition is stronger than in  most countries, and  British trebles are its keynote. Kids win scholarships to posh schools and Oxbridge on the basis of their singing, like football players get to college in the US.  If a treble M4 is ever going to work, it needs an unusually good singer and a sensitive conductor.  The CBSO youth choir is way above average,so this sounds promising.  

Original Source: Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !

Blazing Berlioz The Damnation of Faust – Rattle Hymel Purves Cargill LSO

Superb Berlioz Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle’s chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boy’s Choir, the Tiffin Girl’s Choir and Tiffin Children’s Choir (choirmaster James Dsy) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining.  An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.  If Simon Rattle can achieve such excellence in the cramped confines of the Barbican Hall, imagine how a world class concert hall would transform the nation’s musical and cultural profile.  We could use a few miracles.

The London Symphony Orchestra were playing as if transformed, too.  There were so many players and singers that they almost overflowed the stage area.  Projecting such sound into a shoebox auditorium can be overwhelming. On BBC Radio 3 and on Medici TV the balance might be better, but the live experience was intoxicating. Wisely, though, Rattle channeled the energy away from volume, towards shaping structure and detail with vivid attention.   Though \The Damnation of Faust lends itself to theatre, the drama lies in the music, its contrasts and imaginative conception.

On the plains of Hungary, the peasants are celebrating the Resurrection, the joyful chorus taken up by the orchestra in a jovial march.  The expansiveness in Bryan Hymel’s voice reflected Faust’s inward awakening. Spookily atmospheric playing from the LSO, setting the scene for Faust in his lonely garret. Hymel’s “Sans regrets j’ai quitté les riantes campagnes” rang with resolve. But  Christ has risen and Nature blossoms. dare Faust dream of new life ? 

A Faust as strong as Hymel, with his richness of tone and emotional depth, needs a Méphistophélès who is equally strong.  Christopher Purves’s Méphistophélès proved an ideal counterpoint to Hymel’s Faust.  Méphistophélès  senses Faust’s weak spot. “Ô pure émotion!”. Purves’s voice exuded sophistication but the authoritative edge in his voice suggested hidden malevolence.  A well-defined scene at Auerbach’s in Leipzig, where Rattle and the LSO  did the drunken vulgarity inn the music with robust humour.  Gabor Bretz (Brander) “conducting” the woozy chorus as he sang.  Though Méphistophélès may be the devil, the tenderness in Purves voice as he sang Voici des roses, suggested that Méphistophélès  might after all, be demonic Oberon, lulling his victims in sleep.  Thus the magical textures in the gnome and sylph choruses : Berlioz’s debt to Mendelssohn ?   In disconcerting contrast,  the soldiers and students march off, oblivious to danger. Like Faust himself. Méphistophélès’s sly “voice” lies in the wry clarinet melody.

Part Three begins with militarism, but Hymel’s sang Faust’s Air with exceptional beauty , his voice swelling on the line “Que j’aime ce silence”. the silence reiterated in the elusive air in the orchestra that followed.  Nice detail in the orchestration, suggesting a lute, as though Faust were serenading Marguerite, sung by Karen Cargill, her Song of the King of Thule garlanded by viola and celli. The scene where fireflies and will-o-the-wisps dance in the darkness, is so enchanting that even Méphistophélès is taken aback.   Again, Rattle’s emphasis on detail and magic paid off well. Fast paced exchanges follow,  between Faust, Margueriter and,Méphistophélès, but gain the moments of calm are even more powerful. Cargill sang Marguerite’s Romance with feeling, the melancholy mood taken up by solo clarinet. 

Perhaps the heart of The Damnation of Faust is the scene in which Faust communes with nature.  Although some variants of  the Faust legend emphasize God and the Devil, for Berlioz, a true son of the Romantic Era, Nature was divine.  Thus the significance of the aria Hymel’s  Nature immense, impénétrable et fière , which H|ymel delivered with profound authority.  Faust proceeds on his journey to the Abyss.  Hymel and Purves sang their exchange with forceful spirit. Though they wore evening dress, their voices sounded as though they were riding through the sky on dark horses. Now, Méphistophélès doesn’t bother being sauve.  Purves’s lines are reduced to “Hop, Hop, Hop”.  In Hell, the demons sing snatches of Greek and gobbledgook.  Fabulously manic performances all round.  Now Rattle let rip : massive climaxes, crashing cymbals, wailing tubas, waywardly angular lines in the chorus, like the flames of Hell.  he men’s choir walked down to the platform, and stood, singing, among the orchestra.

As for Marguerite, the harps rustled and female voices sang “Hosanna”. Palpitating rhythms in the orchestral line suggest peace, the fluttering of wings, even the idea of water (in contrast to the fires of hell). Then the children’s choirs filtered into the Barbican auditorium . Schoolkids, yes, with uniform style white shirts, but the voices of angels.  


Original Source: Blazing Berlioz The Damnation of Faust – Rattle Hymel Purves Cargill LSO