Whether through fearless playing or reflective writing, the artists who make us think
Performers offer us listeners many things – transcendent playing perhaps, or interpretative insight. But some of our most meaningful encounters with musicians happen when they challenge or change our perspective.
Christian Tetzlaff is one of those artists, and his new album of the violin concertos of Beethoven and Sibelius is one of those records. Even the instrument he plays – a new one by Peter Greiner, rather than a vintage violin from by an illustrious luthier of centuries past – encourages us to think differently. As he recently told me, he’s not trying to make a statement, he just thinks it’s the best-sounding instrument. It’s a relatively rare stance. Free-thinking, convention-challenging – it’s there in the playing too. Rob Cowan, who reviews the album in the October issue of Gramophone, and the musicians interviewed by James Jolly in his profile piece, all reach for terms such as ‘risk-taking’ or ‘fearless’.
For me, I was struck equally by the playing’s strangely present power in the most delicate sections, and by a tone at once both sweet and rugged in the most virtuosic ones. As Rob Cowan characterfully puts it ‘he transforms aspects of what so many have treated as a sort of Holy Grail (ie loftily reverential) into a beer tankard’. It makes you hear the work slightly differently. Even the album’s conductor agrees: ‘He’s constantly showing me, teaching me,’ says Robin Ticciati. Even when discussing the concertos, Tetzlaff can shift your perspective. He observes that both works come from the beginnings of new centuries and, Janus-like, look both backwards and ahead. We’re not far into our own new century, meanwhile, and Tetzlaff’s recording places these historic works vividly into our own moment of searching dialogue between past and future. A thought-provoking perspective indeed.
Challenging children’s attitudes to classical music, meanwhile, has always been an important aim. Last month the BBC announced it has commissioned a musical adaption of a book by Michael Morpurgo, something its commissioner Jan Younghusband hopes will follow in the footsteps of works such as Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in igniting those first sparks of passion for classical music. October's Collection work, Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, undoubtedly will have done just that for many (perhaps even you), and continues to do so. Change someone’s perspective at that age, and you’ve changed it for life.
Another musician, one as eloquent with pen as with piano, invites a yet different, complementary perspective. In his newly launched book, Stephen Hough gently encourages us to think differently – or rather perhaps just to think – about music and music-making. For while we’re of course right to always ponder ageing audiences, I was moved when Hough recalled the humbling sense of privilege he felt seeing an elderly man being wheeled to his seat to hear him play Beethoven. Should the fading days of summer still hold holidays for you, then stowing Hough’s Rough Ideas in your luggage will offer many such moments.
From Hough, from Tetzlaff, from new works aimed at children, sometimes it’s the gentle nudge to see things from a new perspective, which can make all the difference.
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