As a curtain-raiser to the performance of Tokaido Road, which comes to the Gulbenkian Theatre on 23 May, the lunchtime concert the day before is an exploration of the meeting-point between poetry and music for two pianos, set against a backdrop of some of the Hiroshige prints which inspired both poetry and opera.
Pianists Matthew King and myself, together with poet Nancy Gaffield, part of the Creative Writing team in the School of English and author of the original Tokaido Road cycle of poems, spent yesterday exploring the programme which we have put together, which intersperses music by Debussy, Ravel and Matthew himself with poems from the cycle, which Nancy will be reading. There is some wonderful connectedness between the words and the music – a phrase in a poem is echoed by a rising melodic shape; the opening arc of a poem emerges out of a slowly-dying piano chord; a cluster-sonority echoes the tone of one of the Hiroshige prints which is projected above the performers. We spent several hours immersed in floating words and chords in the darkened concert-hall, playing with moving between music and poem.
The concert will take place on Friday 22 May at 1.10pm, admission is free, more details here: come and immerse yourself in time-out-of-place with music, poetry and print.
Last Friday night’s visit from the Brodsky Quartet was eagerly awaited for two very special reasons; not only was it their chance-driven ‘Wheel of 4-Tunes’ concert celebrating the group’s fortieth birthday, it was also the first formal concert in the new Colyer-Fergusson concert hall.
The programme, chosen on the night by the spin of the wheel, included turns (no pun intended!) from Professor Keith Mander, a member of the public, Music Society Secretary and cellist Aisha Bové, and our very own Sophie Meikle. The pieces the wheel chose were by Piazzolla, Barber, Golijov, and Ravel, and displayed the quartet in their customary eclectic form, whether tango-ing in idiomatic style with Piazolla or exquisitely painting the famous ‘Adagio’ from Barber’s String Quartet.
The final piece in the concert was Ravel’s String Quartet, and it was here that the Brodsky’s revealed their final masterstroke; equally robust and rainbow-hued, Ravel’s piece was shown, in the wider context of the other pieces which had appeared in the programme, to be a modernist piece, bristling with harmonic dissonances, spiky textures, sudden changes of mood and pace, and bold gestures that are often obscured by performance that prefer to embrace Ravel’s Impressionist tendencies. Whilst the quartet was fully alive to the rich and exotic harmonies and sinuous melodic lines that give Ravel this label, they also brought out Ravel’s more striking characteristics in a performance that drew fierce applause from a delighted audience.
For anyone who can’t wait until March 23 to hear the Brodsky Quartet when it comes to the Gulbenkian Theatre, news just lands on my desk of their fortieth anniversary concert at the Wigmore Hall in a few weeks’ time, on Sunday 11 March.
In an intriguing programme, the Quartet will present their own arrangement of Ravel’s Blues, the third movement of a work originally falling as part of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Post-war American jazz was rife in Paris in the ‘twenties, and the second movement of Ravel’s chamber sonata revels in added-notes, ‘blue’ notes and jazz-inflected rhythms.
The programme also includes Schubert’s enigmatic Quartettsatz, Puccini’s Cristantemi, Wolf’s sunlit Italian Serenade, whilst the second half continues the French theme, given over to Debussy’s majestic String Quartet.
The concert also marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Quartet’s Wigmore Hall début, and shows that, at forty years old, the Quartet retains all the vigour and dynamism of its youth and its unique approach to programming. Expect a concert delivered with verve and panache, although there’s no mention about cake and candles. As yet…
In the first concert, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave a dazzling performance of Ravel’s often brooding Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written between 1929-30, in which the piano part is so carefully constructed that, if you’d missed the title of the piece, you could be forgiven for not realising it was written for a single hand. Rather like the single instrumental voice in Bach’s solo partitas for cello and for violin, the single part executes both melody and accompaniment in a way which convinces the ear that there’s another part also involved. Ravel built the piano part so carefully that, when an arrangement was made for both hands, it actually destroyed the careful balancing and textural placing that Ravel had so diligently organised.
The second, late-night Prom saw a very different piano concerto, Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra of 1975, in which the piano explores distilled vertical sonorities, often at times either blending into or emerging out of the accompanying orchestral texture. John Tilbury’s delicately-balanced reading made the piano seem as though it were dripping dabs of colour into the surrounding air. Unlike the traditional concerto, which pitches the solo instrument against the orchestra and includes a solo cadenza to display the virtuosity of the instrument, here piano and orchestra are united in a sonic exploration, defeating time by eschewing the traditional three-movement structure and using instead a slow-moving, metre-less feel over a single movement. The sense of time pausing, of contemplative reflection and of the slow examination of ideas from several perspectives are concepts another Frenchman would have recognised – Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies achieve something similar in condensed form.
Working towards the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Debussy talked of composing for the piano a ‘music without hammers.’ The piano is essentially a percussion instrument: rather than strings being bowed or plucked, they are struck with hammers, and you can’t get more percussive than that. It was Debussy who began the idea of treating the piano contrary to its essentially percussive nature, and Feldman’s piece stands in the tradition Debussy began nearly a century earlier.
Two concerts, using the piano to weave two very different illusions: one to overcome the absence of a right-hand (I avoid the word ‘missing,’as the concerto certainly doesn’t suffer from the absence of the upper hand), and one to pretend the piano isn’t a piano at all. Would Debussy have approved of Ravel’s piano concerto, had he lived to hear it ? I feel certain he would have approved of the Feldman.
(You can hear the concerts for a week on-line on BBC iPlayer, and the concerts will be repeated on Radio 3 later next week).
Because it does. Doesn't it ? Blogging about extra-curricular musical life at the University of Kent.