More views of – or before – Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)
There were two UK premieres in the hour-long programme for Cambridge Summer Music Festival (@cambridgemusic) :
Handel (1685–1759) ~ Suite No. 2 in F Major, HWV 427
Harold Meltzer (1966–) ~ Iconography
Sidney Corbett (1960–) ~ Yorick’s Skull
Beethoven (1770–1827) ~ Piano Sonata No. 31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110
Of course, no Cambridge audience without someone being superior to the music or the performance, @cambridgemusic, with slighting comparisons— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) July 29, 2015
Tanya Bannister (@TanyaBannister) had mounted the scores of both premieres on large pieces of cardboard – not elegant, but eminently practical (as she told us) to avoid relying on a page-turner being able to follow them (and so daunting him or her) :
One was reminded, not a little, of Pierre-Laurent Aimard's sensational recital at Aldeburgh Festival (@aldeburghmusic) in 2014, passing folded-out score after score of Études by Debussy, Chopin, Bartók, Scriabin, and, most of all, Ligeti from in front of him – all in his determined order of playing – to the music student next to him.
(Or, during this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, of the fragments that – indeed – confronted Florent Boffard (except that, a few double-takes apart, he seemed to be confidently in control of them) on the music-stand for Boulez’ Piano Sonata No. 3 during the Boulez Exploration, hosted highly informatively by Julian Anderson (with knowledge about, and recordings of, all things Boulez)**.)
The second work, not just through being longer, made a stronger impression : it felt as though Sidney Corbett might have been studied with Messiaen (or just have studied his work ?), because one heard some of the latter’s typical, mature chordal structure (and even sounds that occur in some of Messiaen’s more inaccessible works for piano). However, Corbett also made much use of repeats, both repeated passages, and chords that were played several times, and those repeated chords were handled very well by Bannister, making them meaningful, and not in any way merely dutiful :
Her playing, and the chapel’s acoustic, suited Yorick’s Skull perfectly, and, fearless of the density and challenge of the work (as was Bannister), it was well received by the Cambridge audience. Despite the programme-notes for (Meltzer’s and) Corbett's works, one might not have been able to hear much of Beethoven’s Opus 110 in the composition, but it was certainly a fitting preparation for its spirit and sensitivities, and one would welcome the opportunity to hear it again.
If one had felt that Bannister was not in touch with Handel***, one had no hesitation in realizing that this was not only untrue of Beethoven (or of these contemporary composers with whom she had collaborated), but that this was actually one of the so-called late Beethoven sonatas with which one was not very familiar. (Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, and the one known as Hammerklavier (Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106) do tend to steal the limelight ?)
One listened for the material from / via Corbett and Meltzer a little, but most one listened to Bannister playing music that must have presented some puzzle to contemporaries (as one had remarked, the week before, with Melvyn Tan’s playing of the immediately preceding work with Opus numbering, Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major (Op. 109) (as part of a concert in the Festival with The Škampa Quartet)) :
The playing convinced one of a connection with Beethoven, and what he was about here with this sometimes fragmented (and often thought-provoking) music, although much of the detail has been lost to – what legal circles call – effluxion of time. Suffice to say, though, and before going on to what else marked it out, that the performance deserved better than the reluctantly middling approval of the woman (referred to by the opening Tweet) who had facetiously dismissed the new works with a laconic phrase each : one has to be strong to restrain homicidal thoughts that anyone could be so grudging of pianist and composer’s work.
The very open sounds of the ruminative first movement feel, in harmonic terms, as if they are buzzing to modulate and develop, and Bannister gave direction to that emanation : through such things as being assured both in executing runs and in establishing the role that Beethoven had given them there, throughout she showed a very definite sense of the work as a whole. Even into the brief second movement, Beethoven is keeping much material in reserve, rather than ‘opening it out’ : it may begin with a definite impression of itself, but it is one that proves far less certain, even tentative (in ways that slow movements in sonatas from ‘the middle period’, although likewise in the minor key, are not).
With the closing Adagio ma non troppo, just as we could hear Bannister bringing out some of the inner parts in the writing, which meant that we did not just follow the upper line(s), so the programme-notes also usefully drew our attention to elements of the construction of the fugal sections (not just by describing it as an elaborate slow-movement-plus-fugue sandwich, but by expanding on that summary, and analysing the use of thematic material).
Perhaps, unlike the sonata (from 1820) that Tan had played days before, which found comparative freedom in the variations with which it closed, this one (whose autograph score is dated 25 December 1821) elaborates a mixture of complexity and finding resolution by employing the form of the fugue. (Just as Beethoven was to do in 1825, with its original placing within the String Quartet in B Flat Major (Op. 130) of what separately became the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133.) In Bannister’s rendition, not only was the performance of extremely high technical quality, but, in its musical arc, we were able to trust her to guide us, and the emotional depths of the work were therefore always readily apparent.
* The notes about the pieces, in the Festival programme, had reminded one of ‘the historical nexus’ against which Beethoven wrote latter works of this kind (i.e. his life – please see below), and [der] Heiliger Dankgesang of the third movement of his String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132. [In full, Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (not to be mistaken, by non-Germanists, for the earlier Heiligenstadt Testament… – please see below).]
One reads on the web-page for the quartet on Wikipedia® :
Beethoven wrote this piece after recovering from a serious illness which he had feared was fatal because he had been afflicted with intestinal disorder during the entire winter of 1824–5. He thus headed the movement with the words, "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode).
** One thing, amongst many, that we learnt about the Piano Sonata from Anderson was that contemporaries of Boulez had condemned him for using something as eighteenth century as the trill (just as Boulez had sought to correct Xenakis and Cage – without referring to them by name, in an essay, before producing this work – by showing how a piece could be written whose structure would vary between performances, but without resorting to chance). However, it is a sound that one associates with his writing for piano, without it ever seeming like a relic of the baroque or classical past, and a device that Corbett was happy to use.
(In the morning session of Boulez Exploration, also in The Britten Studio at The Maltings at Snape, Anderson had been with Quatuor Diotima, for a presentation about, and performance of, Livre pour quatuor.)
*** In all honesty, before Tanya Bannister explained her programme (and how Beethoven had looked to Handel, more than to Bach, for his fugues), one could already tell that she does not normally play Handel.
NB The paragraphs that follow are principally for those who wish to know more in a critical vein Movements that resembled what Scarlatti sonatas sound like, when over-romanticized by a modern style of playing, had alternated with Glenn Gould’s fast Bach take on, say, movements of The Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) [or French Suites (BWV 812–817)], i.e. Handel had marked it Allegro, but it was being played more like Vivace, if not Presto :
Somehow, though, Gould has an air about him that carries it off (or, depending on one’s point of view, he ‘appears to get away with it’), but there is, of course, a debate to be had about what ground there is for expecting Mozart, say, to be performed in more or less the same way that we perceive to be Mozartian - with or without modern performance practice / instruments.
Yet, at Aldeburgh in 2014, Ian Bostridge gave us A swaying, snarling, even spitting Schubert for our times, effectively so. However, on the other hand, one had to say of Sollazzo Ensemble, the winners of the Young Artists’ Competition at York Early Music Festival in 2015 : If one were told that this was not meant to be a Balkanized take on works by fourteenth-century composers, or that they had set texts in Italian, one could not credit it.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)