Playlists – November 2014

Gramophone Sat 15th November 2014

Notes on a scandal

Alice Sara Ott chooses 10 pieces connected with the Ballets Russes that caused a musical debacle

In September of last year, when Francesco Tristano and I began recording the disc that has just been released, we still hadn’t found a fitting title for our project. When deciding on repertoire, there was one work that was a definite for both of us: the piano version (for four hands) of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

It wasn’t only the polytonal and polyrhythmic structure that had created a milestone in the music of the 20th century that we found fascinating, but the time and conditions in which the piece was written and premiered.

During our research, we stumbled across Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, who commissioned the piece and organised its premiere.

The premiere on May 29, 1913, in Paris was a public scandal. Audience members stood on their chairs, booed and laughed at the music and choreography. Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky, who was in charge of the choreography, were deeply offended, but Diaghilev wasn’t. For him, the scandal was a big success. It ripped the audiences out of their civilised ways, it shocked and provoked. Diaghilev’s visions were oriented towards the future – he wanted to create something new and break down old boundaries.

Diaghilev, a big lover of art, had dabbled in music, painting and ballet, but had to acknowledge very early on that his talents didn’t lie in creating art, but collecting and bringing art and artists together. So he surrounded himself with composers, dancers and painters, to give them the opportunity to give themselves fully to their creativity, without being reliant on financial or commercial success. ‘L’art pour l’art’ was the premise of the group.

When Francesco and I were searching for works for two pianos by other composers who had composed for Ballets Russes and came across Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov, we were not in the least bit surprised that they had all, in their day, caused a musical debacle.

And so, at the end of the recording and after having been immersed in the music and history, the title was pretty obvious: ‘Scandale’.

A homage to a visionary and to a time when a group of people changed the art world and threw it on its head.

Sprawling piano sonatas

Jed Distler lists his choice of 10 ‘epic’ solo piano works that demand a great deal from player and listener

Some piano sonatas are epic both in size and scope, and push performers and audiences to their limits. Here are 10, beginning with Beethoven’s all-but-impossible Hammerklavier, with its optimistic tempo markings and crazy, combative fugal finale. The young Brahms came along and sort of imitated it via his thick, overextended and often exciting Op 1. Post-war serial composers needed their atonal Hammerklavier equivalent, and found it in Jean Barraqué’s Sonata, with its barrages of notes and sudden long silences. However, Paul Dukas arguably penned the most meaty and lush among long, complex and difficult French piano sonatas. Three maverick Americans follow: Charles Ives’s First Sonata is lesser known yet more cohesive and fluid than his more celebrated Second (the Concord), but fewer brave pianists have faced the craggy stylistic cross-cutting throughout Frederic Rzewski’s big three-movement Sonata, let alone Andrew Violette’s severe yet exultant two-and-a-half hour Seventh Sonata. Alkan, of course, was the ultimate maverick: who else would write a long sonata where each of its four movements becomes progressively slower? Not Medtner, whose gnarly Night Wind abounds in elaborate contrapuntal tapestry and restless harmonic motion. All the more reason to take a deep breath and cool down with the unpressured poetry and ‘heavenly length’ of Schubert’s final sonata.

French flute music

Sarah Kirkup explores the diverse sonatas and solo music written for the flute during the 20th century

The French Flute School, of which Claude-Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) is regarded as the founder, gave rise to a huge number of compositions for – and performances of – the flute during the mid-20th century. This French-influenced way of playing – broadly characterised by the use of the French-style silver flute, emphasis on beauty of tone and the use of specific teaching materials such as the tone exercises of Marcel Moyse – spread to Europe and the US. By the 1970s, however, the French School had, according to Moyse himself, ‘disappeared’ – yet elements remained in music schools and conservatoires. British flautist Trevor Wye, for example, was taught by Moyse and has published several practice books which adhere to Moyse’s principals.

I remember owning one of Trevor Wye’s practice books when I was at school, and ploughing through Moyse’s De la sonorité at music college. But more interesting to me were the volumes of French flute music thrown at me by my teachers, from Debussy and Saint-Saëns to Varèse and Messaien. This was music that really spoke to me. Yes, I liked Bach, but back then, as a teenager and young twenty-something, playing French music on the flute just felt so right. The flourishes, the gorgeous melodies, the ‘prettiness’ of it all, just appealed to me enormously.

So creating this playlist has been a trip down memory lane. The Fauré Fantaisie is one of the first ‘proper’ pieces I remember learning. For Grade 8, I played the famous Poulenc Sonata and it’s been a favourite ever since. I learned both Varèse’s Density 21.5 (so-named after the weight of platinum) and the Chaminade at music college, where I also encountered the Saint-Saëns Romance, Jolivet’s fiercely difficult Chant de Linos and Messaien’s Le merle noir (which I played at my final recital). I never fail to be mesmerised by Debussy’s Syrinx and Honegger’s Danse de la chèvre – you can practically see that goat hopping across the mountain top! – while the Dutilleux is dark, edgy, soulful and technically brilliant: the whole package. I’ve chosen flautists who have either influenced me personally and/or who have had a significant impact on the flute world. I hope these 10 pieces show you just what the flute can do – on its own or with just the piano for accompaniment.

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