From Hilary Hahn to Dame Emma Kirkby, meeting music's finest ambassadors

Martin CullingfordFri 22nd February 2019

It's not just the music that matters - it's the people behind it too

There are two ways of writing about classical music, particularly music on record. One is to focus on repertoire, without which of course bows would lie idle, keys unpressed and voices silent. The other is to explore it via the musicians who perform it. Because however much artists might claim that they’re merely servants of the composer, when you put on a recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, you’re not just listening to Bach, you’re listening to, say, Hilary Hahn’s Bach – or Giuliano Carmignola’s, or the Bach of Rachel Podger, Alina Ibragimova, Itzhak Perlman, Yehudi Menuhin or whoever it might be. They each interpret the music in their own unique way. Otherwise, you’d never need a second recording of any piece of music, and our reviews pages and the entire recording industry would be pretty much redundant.

That is why, in Gramophone, at the root and heart of everything we write are the people behind the music-making. Take the diverse figures in this month’s main features. Riccardo Chailly, who through 40 years on Decca and in roles at the helm of some of the world’s finest musical institutions, has indelibly shaped ensembles and audiences alike. Or Kirill Gerstein, whose questing approach to repertoire makes him one of today’s most compelling pianists. Or the multi-faceted team behind the recording of a major modern work – composer (in this case Gabriel Jackson), conductor, producer, performers, libretto arranger … 

We meet even more artists in our weekly podcasts, the most recent including the thrilling virtuosos, pianist Jan Lisiecki and violinist Hilary Hahn, as well a special 70th birthday podcast in which Editor-in-Chief James Jolly interviews Dame Emma Kirkby. Our podcasts are free – you can subscribe wherever you usually get your podcasts.

My interview with Hahn had a memorable coda. We’d discussed the way that Bach’s music, despite – or perhaps because of – its profound spiritual depth, lends itself better than almost anything else to such a wide variety of situations. Hahn performs solo Bach every day, whether that be on the Wigmore Hall stage, at children’s concerts, or even knitting circles – but it’s quite clear that each occasion is just as valid as any other. ‘You don’t have to engage with all the analytical side of it in order to have a personal experience listening to it,’ she reflected. ‘I say personal experience, because every person listening is coming from a different place to be there that day, there’s a different thing that happened to them that morning, there’s a different thing they just walked in from.’

And I then got to experience one of her daily Bach performances. We’d met at the studios of Classic FM, part of Global Radio, where, on a Friday afternoon, as in many organisations, company-wide colleagues gather to socialise. This time they got an impromptu recital from Hahn as well. She introduced the Andante from Bach’s Second Sonata as a meditative way to draw the week’s events together, and as she played, it was extraordinary how the dynamic in the room changed, as people were indeed drawn in, drawn together, reflectively, and respectfully. A reminder of just how important such open-hearted ambassadors for music as Hilary Hahn are. And a wonderful reminder, if one were needed, that it’s not just the music that matters, it’s the people behind it too. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

This article appears in the March issue of Gramophone, available now

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Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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