Jamie Cullum presents new BBC Radio 4 series Piano Pilgrimage
3 January 2014
Jamie Cullum meets Martin Heckscher, managing director of Heckscher & Company, one of the longest-running piano suppliers in the country
Jazz pianist Jamie Cullum explores the role of the piano in modern life in a new mini series for BBC Radio 4. Piano Pilgrimage, produced by Andrea Rangecroft, promises to debunk certain myths about the demise of the piano industry, as Cullum focuses on success stories across the UK.
As part of his ‘pilgrimage’, Cullum visits the London Borough of Camden where piano historian Dr Alastair Laurence takes him on a tour around the area that, only a century ago, was the world centre of the piano making industry. Cullum meets Heckscher & Company, one of the oldest piano specialists in the country, established in 1883. Managing director Martin Heckscher explains that Camden Town had a distinct advantage as a piano manufacturing base due to its excellent transport infrastructure with the Grand Union Canal and the railway network on the doorstep. In fact, by the late 19th century, at least 100 piano factories were in existence in Camden and neighbouring Kentish Town.
Cullum also travels to the Yorkshire Dales to visit one of the few places left in the country where pianos are still being made from scratch, uncovers some surprising facts about the physics of piano tuning and learns what the instrument meant for women in terms of courtship in the 1800s. Once a film student himself, Cullum looks at the position of the piano in silent cinema and learns about the resurgence of the phenomenon today at an open-air event in south London. The series concludes with a discussion on the piano’s place in pub culture, and features an impromptu sing-a-long with Rockney duo Chas and Dave.
The first episode is on BBC Radio 4 at 10:30am, 4 January
Stephen Hough awarded CBE for services to music
2 January 2014
Stephen Hough has been awarded a CBE for services to music. The award – Commander of the Order of the British Empire – was announced as part of the UK's New Year honours list. A total of 1,195 people have received an award, and women outnumber men for the first time since the Order of the British Empire was founded in 1917.
Other musicians to be honoured include Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins, who also received a CBE.
Composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who is Master of the Queen’s Music, becomes a Companion of Honour.
Hough guest edited the November/December 2013 edition of IP, which is available to purchase here.
REVIEW: Piano events at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
19 December 2013
The festival featured the world premiere of Piano Concerto No 2 Diamond Dust, by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
Recitals by Philip Thomas/Mark Knoop, Geneviève and Brigitte Foccroulle, and Ian Pace/Frederik Croene (two pianos)
Fujikura 2nd Piano Concerto, Diamond Dust, Ellen Ugelvik (pf)
20 and 23 November
This year's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) featured a plethora of piano recitals, including a two-piano day. Andy Hamilton paid a visit
Huddersfield’s remarkable two-piano day saw three recitals. The first was a series of duets on one piano by Philip Thomas and Mark Knoop, featuring sets of short pieces by Laurence Crane and Peter Ablinger, plus Cage’s Winter Music and Christian Wolff’s Duet I, and quasi a due by Kunsu Shim, a Japanese composer new to me. Even grizzled HCMF veterans found this recital – consisting of 'music that is stripped of music', according to the programme – a tough listen. Winter Music – at 15 minutes, and so with Shim’s, the only longer piece here – reminded me that Cage, like Anthony Braxton, inspired composers and musicians to transcend his own achievement, if not his originality. Ablinger’s series of pieces Ohne Titel, and Laurence Crane’s series of Duets, were equally stripped bare. Crane’s Duet No 4 instructed the pianists to 'Sing!', which they did with manly gusto – or at least, vocalised wordlessly. Crane’s ensemble music, heard later in the festival, was quite magical, so maybe I am missing something with his piano pieces, which came across as drier and less involving.
The two-piano duo of Ian Pace and Frederick Croene offered the highlight of the day’s events: Evan Johnson’s very beautiful 'atendant, souffrir’, lists, little stars. (Though the composer’s programme note was a contender for Private Eye’s 'Pseud’s Corner': 'The piece begins with a proposal for how to proceed, and declines to accept it. Instead, a series of zero points are reached, inhabited and abandoned...') Hovering behind the fragmentary material, the composer writes, is Philopoctus de Caserta’s 14th century motet 'En atendant souffrir m’estuet grief payne' – hence I assume the Old French spelling of 'atendant'. The 14-minute piece was a spacious, tremulous delight, consistently piano with lots of silences – more of a summer piece maybe, given the struggles of the coughers in the audience to keep quiet. Adam de la Cour’s Con-join was an example of theatre of the absurd, a 'bondage' piece with the duo’s inside wrists tied together in fluffy red handcuffs. The struggle, initially a matter of synchronising when to play, became more like a staged sword fight. 'The first movement is a homage to Chico Marx, the second a romantic arrangement of Mexican wrestling movie soundtracks', the composer writes – soundtracks of course very familiar to readers of International Piano.
Michael Finnissy’s Third Symphonic Etude was a deconstruction of virtuosity from Beethoven to Schumann via Czerny. Its twisting, distorting temporal effects, between and within the two piano parts – especially in the warping, deranged Romanticism of the slow section – were totally compelling. There were also two solo pieces. Frederick Croene performed Enno Poppe’s wonderfully titled seven-minute Theme with 840 Variations. (I counted only 839. Only joking.) Ian Pace performed Marco Stroppa’s Ninnananna and Moai from Miniature Estrose, tremulous too but with a much wider dynamic range, with books placed under the pedals, I assume to restrict their dynamic range.
Geneviève and Brigitte Foccroulle’s two-piano duo offered a largely Belgian programme, featuring Henri Pousseur’s Mobile (1958) and works by younger Belgian composers new to me, plus Frederic Rzewski’s modern classic, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues – original lyrics 'When I die, don't bury me at all/Just hang me up on the spoolroom wall/Place a knotter in my hand/So I can spool in the Promised Land'. This was an involving performance of a synthesis of jazz and contemporary composition; it ought to be a modern classic, heard much more in the concert hall. (Rzewski taught at Liège Conservatoire where Pousseur was director.) Pousseur’s Mobile was the other substantial piece in the programme, though here as elsewhere, this composer promises more than he delivers – the open form and total serialism sounding merely dated.
Later in the festival was the world premiere of Piano Concerto No 2 Diamond Dust, by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura. The soloist was Ellen Ugelvik, with the Oslo Sinfonietta. The composer explains, rather unhelpfully, that 'I was often thinking of ice whilst writing the piece. Light is shining on big blocks of ice and many small particles of ice'. A bottom 'A' on the piano triggers a swarm-like response from the ensemble, drawing on the harmonic field, the composer explains – at least, that’s the delightful theory. In practice, the result was a colourful, accessible piece whose welcome wore thin, as its aimless noodling, and pretty, pointless virtuosity degenerated into what Wagner called 'effects without causes'. There was no feeling of every note counting, and emotional climaxes were unearned. Fujikura moved to the UK at the age of 15 to study music, and comments that when in music college, he 'did everything I could to be a film music composer'. I’d say he’s succeeded, because his concert music sounds like film music. It brought to mind Ernst Toch’s delightful comment on being told that Erich Korngold was now working for Warner Brothers: 'Korngold has always composed for Warner Brothers'.
Menahem Pressler receives Indiana University Medal at 90th birthday gala concert
17 December 2013
Pianist and current IP cover artist Menahem Pressler has received a special award from Indiana University (IU), where he is a senior member of the IU Jacobs School of Music.
IU president Michael A McRobbie presented the University Medal to at a gala concert on 13 December, held in honour of Pressler’s 90th birthday (16 December). ‘As an internationally celebrated soloist, chamber musician and teacher, Professor Pressler is an Indiana University treasure,’ President McRobbie said. ‘The university is privileged to honour him with the University Medal, given in gratitude both for his enormous contributions to the musical arts and for his service to the university over nearly six decades.’ Pressler joined the piano faculty in 1955, and he currently holds the rank of Distinguished Professor of Music as the Charles Webb Chair.
Co-founder of the Beaux Arts Trio, Pressler has established himself among the world’s most distinguished musicians, with a career that spans almost seven decades. He continues to perform throughout the world both as a soloist and collaborating chamber musician while maintaining his teaching career. Born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1923, Pressler fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and immigrated to Israel. His career was launched after he was awarded first prize at the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946, followed by his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Pressler also received a letter from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in honour of his 90th birthday. The letter said, ‘The arts appeal to our common humanity, enrich our lives and inspire us to strive for a more perfect union. As you celebrate with family and friends, we hope you reflect with joy on the memories you have made and take pride in all you have accomplished.’
REVIEW: The Ian Hobson Brahms Series in New York
10 December 2013
‘Johannes Brahms: Classical Inclinations in a Romantic Age’ at Benzaquen Hall and Cary Hall in New York City’s DiMenna Center
10 Sept – 14 Nov
The overriding spirit of Hobson’s concert series was not aesthetic, but athletic, writes Benjamin Laude
According to popular iconography, Brahms didn’t experience a middle age. We are accustomed to the image of a youthful, adventurous Johannes with rosy cheeks and a clean shave juxtaposed with a photo of his older self, whose long beard and handlebar moustache presumably keep buried his compositional secrets.
Whether or not Brahms’s grooming habits accurately reflect the distinct stages of his creative maturity, the two portrayals serve as useful bookends to what is a rich and varied oeuvre. A cross section of that output was the focus of a recent concert series starring pianist Ian Hobson, who performed Brahms’s complete solo and chamber works for piano in 14 concerts presented over a span of two months at the DiMenna Center For Classical Music in New York City.
Hobson, who is blessed with a kind of superhuman retention that made the project possible in the first place, nevertheless seemed at every instant overwhelmed with the sheer bulk of repertoire weighing on his shoulders. In the three violin sonatas performed with Andrés Cárdenes, Hobson shunned the many characters and colours that imbue the three works in favour of a monochromatic delivery that lacked purpose. Similarly, the outer movements of the E minor Cello Sonata played with Dmitry Kouzov were absent the pathos and drama demanded by them, respectively, while the second movement Allegretto was missing its requisite lightness and charm. In every chamber performance, Hobson communicated minimally with the other performers, keeping his eyes slavishly glued to the score while his hands kept pace with the flow of the music like a courtroom stenographer. Indeed, only in rare moments did Hobson look comfortable at the piano.
Oddly enough, Hobson approached Brahms’s solo piano works in the same computational manner, regurgitating the score through a mechanical input/output process that was insensitive both to the timbre of individual notes and the relations between them. Without the actual score in front of him, however, Hobson appeared to be employing what is surely a photographic memory so that a representation of the music could appear scrolling through his head, measure by measure. It was as if Hobson was sight-reading the music in his own mind, and the performances suffered accordingly.
His rendering of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24 was nervous and unsettled in a way that gave each new variation an arbitrary character, while the fugue was too plagued with hiccups to have achieved a sense of arrival that could have salvaged the interpretation. In the two books of Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op 36, Hobson could not sufficiently meet the technical demands of the work to convey its capriciousness and bravura. The four sets of late solo works were similarly insecure in their delivery, and – though Hobson achieved an elegiac tranquility in the first Intermezzo of Op 117 that was apt and convincing – his generally jagged phrasing and carelessness of touch prevented him from confronting the subtle ambiguities of any singular work.
Herein lies the larger contradiction in Hobson’s project. In his attempt to reproduce the whole of Brahms’s output for piano, Hobson was forced to avoid the particulars that give any specific work its unique individuality and purpose. He was not playing this or that piano piece by Brahms, but all of them. He was playing Brahms in general, and in doing so he proceeded with the modus operandi of a record label that issues a complete set, bringing together several distinct pieces of music for the decidedly unmusical reason that they all happen to have been written by the same person.
Like many pianists of the past generation, Hobson has been driven to use his programming decisions to compete with the recording industry. As a consequence, Hobson has become a travelling salesman for a brand of high-end art music called ‘Brahms’ that gathers individual works into a single catalogue and treats them both as reproducible commodities and as advertisements for the esteemed genius, bearded or beardless, featured on the logo. As a result, the overriding spirit of Hobson’s concert series was not aesthetic, but athletic. He now has another feat to add to the list of Herculean labours chronicled in his artist bio. His goals lay in merely accomplishing the thing, surviving rather than savouring the music, and it is there, and there alone, that Hobson’s Brahms series can be considered a success.