I don’t really know what I was expecting, sat in Pittville Pump Room, contemplating the Steinway a few rows in front of me, forty minutes before kick-off. All I know – now I sit down to write – was that it wasn’t this. For any orchestra to give two such immense demonstrations of prowess within a week is remarkable enough; but when the latter concert features, firstly, challenging works they have never performed before (one of them foisted on them by Yours Truly – and at relatively short notice (sorry)); and, secondly, two exacting pieces with a soloist who they have never worked with before (and who is basically – until now, of course – an unknown quantity on this side of the Pond); then you have to praise their dauntlessness, as well as their skill and sheer verve. Yes, the tension was palpable – that I could feel (and probably could have carved with a blunt chisel), sitting there… – but, two-and-a-half hours later, in the same chair, all I could sense was soaring success: and for everyone involved.
This is going to take a lot of writing, I suspect: my heart and mind are bursting with thoughts, emotions, snapshots and cinematic reels of visual and aural detail – whilst pure amazement surges through my veins… – so I think I must simply try to document things in the order in which they occurred. Therefore, as Julie Andrews once wisely suggested: “Let’s start at the very beginning”. To me, it seems like quite a good place to start.
If music were architecture, Bach’s big organ works would be cathedrals, fortresses, Baronial manors. More than any of his other compositions, these works give the inescapable feeling that one is viewing a physical structure. Every part is linked together, so that the whole thing stands immensely upright. Yet there is the distinct feeling that every single line must be there – if something were missing, the structure would fall apart. If this Fantasia and Fugue were truly physical architecture, it might be the country estate of a gentleman. It would be a place where enjoyment and pageantry were as important as nobility and seriousness of purpose, where elegance and wealth stood side-by-side with the natural beauty of the forest.
This is where I ’fess up. Yup, it was my idea to open this concert with the Elgar: and, now, having disclosed my interest (or perhaps over-enthusiasm), I hope you won’t be surprised if the following few paragraphs sound a tad biased (despite my best efforts, I promise, not to get too carried away…). Let’s rewind just a little bit further, though….
I was having a coffee with conductor David Curtis, and he mentioned that he was looking for a companion piece – preferably an arrangement of Bach – to integrate with the rest of last night’s programme: i.e. it must be ‘true’ to Bach’s original composition; but reflect the grandeur of the Liszt pieces that followed (see below). The Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, Op.86, immediately came to mind – not only because of my deep, lifelong love of Elgar (and admiration for his genius at both instrumentation and conveying boundless emotion); but also because I believed it would substantiate the irrefutably high capabilities of each section, each member, of the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra.
Elgar wrote on 5 June 1921 to his friend, the organist Ivor Atkins, “I have orchestrated a Bach fugue in modern way – largish orchestra – you may not approve. …many arrgts have been made of Bach on the ‘pretty’ scale & I wanted to shew how gorgeous & great & brilliant he would have made himself sound if he had had our means.” Far from disapproving, Atkins listened with Elgar to the work being rehearsed by Eugène Goossens at the Queen’s Hall, London, on 26 October 1921 prior to its première the following day where “It sounded magnificent”.
– All About Elgar: Elgar – His Music: Orchestral Arrangements and Transcriptions
Initially, Richard Strauss – at a meeting with Elgar “in 1920, eager to heal the rift caused by the First World War” – agreed to adapt the Fantasia: but, regrettably, for me (well, in some ways), this other emperor of instrumentation “never kept his part of the agreement”. Also sadly: the Elgar-completed pairing doesn’t appear to receive as many performances as it should; and is therefore not as well-known, as, say, Leopold Stokowski’s scintillating arrangements of Bach – especially the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor which opens Disney’s incredible, ground-breaking Fantasia. But I believe that it shows Elgar at his most inventive (and humorous; well, apart from his Smoking Cantata…) – and it rises from the most subtle, gentle of beginnings, through eloquence and majesty, to an almost jazz-like, swinging culmination of percussive, full-orchestral domination. In other words, it is a master-class in scoring and transcribing – especially in its consummate transformation of the “dense and involved [original] in which a very un-flashy and serious-minded approach to prelude and fugue-type composition can be heard and seen” to a piece of music that is utterly joyous in affect (and yet which loses none of the technical adroitness of its source). From clever architecture, to sublime major cityscape… – or as Curtis joked: “It’s Bach – but not as we know it!”
The last time I heard this performed was in Salisbury Cathedral, ten or eleven years ago; and we were treated to the original organ work before the orchestral version. In some ways – although this highlighted Elgar’s stupendous accomplishment – for me, it slightly reduced the overall impact. Last night, though, the accumulated forces of the CSO launched this momentous concert with just the requisite amount of fanfaronade – perfectly book-ending an evening that was to finish (as scheduled) with Lizst’s “shockingly modernistic” Totentanz (in effect, his third piano concerto) – indeed, one of his “strongest works” – but yet, again, sadly, not as frequently performed as it blummin’ well ought to be. (Humbug.)
Once more, though, with all the excitement, I am getting ahead of myself….
The Fantasia opens – underlined with a mysterious heartbeat in the timpani, bass drum, and lower strings – with plaintive solos from the oboe and clarinet from (I hope) Tessa Pemberton and Janet McKechnie. [You must forgive me here: I do not have a cast-list of the usual artistic suspects; and my view was obscured by a rather nice shiny piano.] These sirens are eventually joined by the rest of the orchestra: but the build is so gradual, the gradient so gentle, as to be almost unnoticeable – at first. If you didn’t know the principal theme was Bach’s, you could well imagine it was Elgar’s (or even Warlock’s) – hints of the slow movement of the spine-tingling Violin Concerto; the opening of the haunted Piano Quintet; even glorious ‘Nimrod’… – and he develops it with gentle gossamer touches: perfectly, sustainedly, longingly drawn by Curtis. It was as if we were slowly emerging from a fog, magicked by Puck; or having the dreams lifted from our eyes with one of Oberon’s potions. Almost out of nowhere (nowhere quite definable, at least), we reached a largamente climax (followed by a thrilling, gorgeous glissando from the harp); enough held back in reserve, though, for an even more magisterial ascent – just before the mist vanishes for good. Our vision is now clear. But the orchestra fades, plangently, to another incredibly beautiful oboe solo (orchestral player of the night…) – espressivo and ad libitum (and very high on the Bard Handkerchief Scale (BHS: measured in megadrops)) – in response…
…and, urgently, shockingly, we are attacked by a marauding, confident fugal army of burly infantry. Everyone gets a piece of the action – but this is Bach as rendered by Gerontius’ demons. Of course (this is Elgar, remember – he of that cello concerto…) there is great subtlety, too: the music ebbs and flows – the waves growing as the storm approaches (it seems Beethoven never left the building) – gentle interjections from the brass over rolling strings; hushed conversations between the woodwind; and then a cascade to poco allargando – all followed by an intense, concise explosion in the bassoons (wow!) and tambourine…. And the tsunami starts to roll, to gather power.
Gently at first… – stunning tempi, beautiful dynamics: the partnership between Curtis and the CSO so utterly cohesive… – but a rising, dark bass-line that Shostakovich would have been proud of; and a final, total unleashing of the rather large percussion section (their faces glowing with syncopated confidence and glee); and we are almost – almost – overwhelmed. But, as always, Curtis held just enough in reserve – the canniness of the long-distance runner, I suppose – despite the bombardment of fortississimo markings in the score – that, when we reached the sustained, final-two-bar crescendo molto (and from all-bar-one of the orchestra), I suspect that most of the audience were almost shocked out of their seats… – that last, startling tutti chord almost a cheer of purest joy! (And an extremely well-deserved one, too!)
This was a wish come true – a midsummer night’s dream rendered tangible – for me. (I may need to extend the range of that BHS.) One of the very greatest composers (IMHO) – even so soon after the death of his beloved wife and muse – arousing astounding enchantment, spells, wonders, fireworks; launching glistening spheres into orbit… – all from the seminal sparks of one of his peers. The evening could have ended there; and I would have been in heaven for weeks! But this was only the overture to an evening of even grander (geddit) wizardry.
There was a reason for the presence of that shimmering Steinway: the main purpose of the evening being to launch the UK career of seventeen-year-old pianist, Thomas Nickell – who has been dubbed “The American Mozart” (and who I was fortunate to interview, recently, for the Orchestra of the Swan’s blog). And, based solely on last night’s evidence – although he is also performing twice with OOTS over the next week (including this evening, in Stratford-upon-Avon) – his future looks not only as bright as Elgar’s whizz-bang rockets, but just as stratospheric.
The first piece he played was a wonderful contrast to the Elgar transcription: Bach’s own Piano Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052; accompanied by just the CSO’s warm and astute string section. This is probably an arrangement of an earlier work – but, as Nickell rightfully says (originally referencing the Elgar transcription):
I can only imagine that Bach would have been pleased with seeing his work rearranged for so many different sorts of ensembles, because he often rearranged his own music. The keyboard concertos are a perfect example of that because they come from earlier violin concertos, which even started out in different keys in their original violin versions. I think that re-imaginings of Bach’s works can be marvelous, and are contextually appropriate.
In our dialogue, we also discussed our shared hero, Glenn Gould – and, shortly before the concert, Nickell posted a picture of this troubled, eccentric (again, all-too-short-lived) genius, accompanied by the following quotation:
One does not play piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.
To be honest, it wasn’t those words which grabbed me – however richly true. It was the reminder of Gould’s unusual posture: hands almost flat to the keyboard; his shoulders bent so low that his nose was almost buried in-between the keys; his wrists seeming to hover just above his knees. This is how I too play from memory (despite years of chastisement from my saintly piano teacher, Arthur Bury) – although with about one-zillionth of the quality…. But the only professional pianist I have ever witnessed live (until today) who performed in an uncannily similar manner, was the late demigod Esbjörn Svensson (whose loss, for so many, is still red-raw – just typing his name brings tears…). [If you are not a fan of modern jazz, you may not have heard of him, I admit. Yet, even amongst the likes of Donohoe, Roscoe, Hough, Pollini, Uchida, I still rank Svensson as the greatest, most creative, articulate, inventive pianist of my lifetime. That he was a nice bloke, too, just makes the loss of such awesome talent so much more painful.] I therefore have an immense soft spot – a weakness, indeed – for those who crouch likewise: melding, seemingly becoming one with their instrument.
So… on to the stage walks a tall, gangly youth, with glasses and slightly floppy hair, and a self-effacing, winning smile. I would have thought him slightly older than seventeen, I think, had I not known (an impression reinforced during a later, brief conversation). Any nervousness is only visible in the occasional running of a hand through his hair, when observing the orchestra, waiting for an entry; or an almost imperceptible tug at the thin charm of a band beneath his treble-clef cuff link. Curtis raises his baton; and, for the next few minutes my eyes are focused, in wonder, to a tight beam. All I see (I chose my seating position with great care) are beautiful hands and their reflections, caressing the notes almost imperceptibly. This is a technique of minimal fuss; of economy; of grace. (I would have been metaphorically rapped over the knuckles by Mr Bury for keeping them so low.) But, my goodness, it works… – the sound that emanates from those elegant fingers is anything but economic: a huge range of reverberation – one moment, perfectly blending into the orchestral exposition; the next, shining a light on Bach’s energetic melodies and translucent structures.
I can see why Gould is an idol. If Elgar demonstrated what Bach could have done with a modern symphony orchestra to play with; then Gould showed how Bach can still be meaningful, brought up-to-date, made contemporary, with modern keyboard (and pedalling) techniques – all without lessening his impact (usually amplifying it, for me). In fact, my (strongly-held) opinion is that Gould led the way (compare, for instance, the evolution demonstrated by his two contrasting recordings of the Goldberg Variations…). Fortunately (for both us and him), Nickell neither hums loudly, nor fidgets when he plays! Neither does the confidence that flows from his fingers morph into any form of exclusive arrogance. It is obvious he is still learning, still (always will be) willing to learn; that he has absorbed a great deal from Curtis’ expertise in recent days. Nevertheless, this was a performance of both exquisite precision; and – in the central, sombre slow movement, demonstrating his real love, his profession of Bach as his favourite composer – mature romanticism.
The introduction to (and also its closure of, therefore) this Adagio was described by Curtis as “desolate”; and the strings, in Vivaldian unison, pulled hard at my heart. Again, precision with emotion. In such sparse moments, any error (of fingering, of tuning) would be as vivid as Elgar’s Roman candles; but this was exquisite, intense – and yet almost whispered. The balance between orchestra and piano was impeccable. (I accept that, at such an early point in his career, Nickell may need more immersion in such collegiate performances: but, as far as I could see – bar one single cue – his head was always raised from the keyboard in readiness for Curtis’ beat; or to indicate, with a nod of his young – but sage – head, that this was the point for the orchestra to rejoin him in creating harmonious radiance.)
The final movement went by in a blur. I was still awestruck by that fluid technique. This was not an exhibition piece – as I may have initially supposed – this was a demonstration of respect, of love, for music that sang to him – as it did, now, so beautifully, so cogently, to us.
It took me a while to get my breath back, I admit, at the interval… – but a bracing wind through the Pump Room’s doors helped tremendously!
Once we returned to our seats, then lashings of virtuosity were really unleashed. But by the orchestra. Rejoined by many of the forces necessary for the Elgar, we were treated to a sumptuous interpretation of Liszt’s Les Préludes.
This is a work new to me; and, had I had to guess at its creator, I would probably have plumped for early Wagner (who it obviously influenced) – although there were some wonderful Mendelssohnian subtleties in there, as well as some fantastic brass writing. [Tip: if you’re ever asked to choose a work for the CSO to perform, go for something that stretches the percussion and brass sections. They seem to revel in being asked to play the impossible: making it look and sound powerfully easy. (This is not to denigrate either the strings or the woodwind. Just that I know of no other “non-professional” – horrible term – orchestra who can rival the Berlin Phil for sheer oomph from the back row!)]
Although it can claim to be “the first symphonic poem”, in title; in essence, I believe Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (influenced by recent events, no doubt) beat Liszt to the draw. And not only had the earlier composer not “left the building”, neither had his storm; or, it seems, his flock of birds.
This is a gorgeous figurative work; and, having just added it to my current iPad playlist, I will be revisiting it many times. [I was going to take a saunter through the bright lights and deep shadows of the score: but I have already passed the 2,500-word, 02:00 mark; and there is a lot, lot more, still to come! (Eek.)] I tend to think (ignoramus that I am) of Liszt as solely a pianist and creator of fiendish music for that instrument – although both of his concertos feature some stunning orchestral writing… – but, on this evidence, here is the equal of Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann, even Mahler. Wonderful stuff; and if proof were needed of how magnificently the CSO delivered on its promise, then Curtis’ permanent gaze of deep, contented joy, throughout, delivered it with (extremely positive) attitude.
Then that Steinway is wheeled back into view; its lids are lifted with reverence; the orchestra goes through a tiny rearrangement of positions; and Curtis and Nickell re-enter, stage left – to huge applause.
I have only to look at the first few bars of the piano part of Lizst’s Totentanz for my fingers to start bleeding. Pneumatic hammers might be more appropriate for the percussive shocks this requires. But, my goodness, did Nickell deliver! If the Bach was a gentle – but emotional – walk in a rather luscious woodland park; this was a snicker-snacking duel with scythe-wielding Death himself. Every single person on-stage gave it their very all. But, again, there was no showmanship, no conceit – just crystalline communication built on technique and mastery (and this applies to the orchestra and conductor, as much as the soloist).
I don’t know how to describe the experience as audience member on the receiving end of such glory as anything other than being immersed in the very definition of profundity… – somehow combined with transcendence….
The work begins with a darkly colored “dance of death,” with diminished harmonies underlying the first phrase of the plainsong melody sounded forth heavily in the bass instruments, like the most somber of funeral processions. An electrifying splash of piano cadenza announces that this work will be a showpiece of virtuosity despite its serious framework. Soon the full theme has been stated and we are off on a series of character variations in different tempi and moods, with striking touches of orchestration, fugal sections, and pianistic fireworks. Though some of Totentanz shows Liszt in his most diabolist mood, there are romantic touches as well, and the canny range of moods contributes to making this brief, concerto-like piece one of its creator’s most dramatic works.
– Steven Ledbetter: “Totentanz,” Paraphrase on “Dies irae,” for piano and orchestra
This was obviously (to my mind) intended as that “exhibition piece”. Nickell’s mastery of the keyboard – however effortless and limpid in appearance – is not in doubt; and this was the perfect vehicle to demonstrate it. But his performance – aided and abetted by Curtis and his band of deft familiars – went far beyond this. His solos were immensely thoughtful; and had that wondrous quality – which I so admire – of appearing almost improvisational. Full use was made of the Steinway’s abilities, too: sparkling high notes; those explosive bass “percussive shocks”; and everything in-between – including some awesome forceful glissandi. This was mightily impressive; and the lady in front of me kept gently shaking her head in astonishment and awe. But, for me, the best demonstration of Nickell’s abilities came in the first of the two generous encores.
Curtis had inscrutably informed me that I would recognize the first one (assuming there only would be that one… – but we weren’t quite ready to let him go, even then…). And he was right! (Of course!) One of my very favourite piano pieces (to listen to; not to mangle): Gershwin’s own solo version of Rhapsody in Blue. Instantly, we were whisked across the Atlantic to Nickell’s very own New York.
I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.
Here – even after the Bach concerto – was music that emanated from Nickell’s heart. The freedoms elicited from such syncopated splendour were given full rein. Here was a young man exploring his heritage, revelling in it, showing us how much it means to him. My stretched heartstrings burst with the truthfulness of it all – a conjunction of sorts. The right man for the job, you could say. Skill; a belief in digging deep into a score, researching its composer, its origin… before even setting it on the piano; a rugged determination “to bring something new to the piano… I don’t know yet what that might be”; a willingness to listen to everyone around him – all combined with something special that may take years to be defined.
But he is incredibly self-aware, it seems to me; and understands with conviction that this is just the beginning… – and yet demonstrates great patience and fortitude in facing what lies ahead. He is in it for the long game. That he is also a lovely guy, generous with his time – although he must have wondered just who this gushing, gibbering idiot stood in front of him was, at the end of the night – almost goes without saying. [I promise to be (a little) calmer, this evening…. (By the way, if you haven’t got tickets for this OOTS concert, in Stratford-upon-Avon, there are a few left, I am told: so grab them now – to witness not just great musicianship, but a tiny, exquisite moment of history.)]
To see all these qualities combined into someone so young is definitely to be treasured. It is extremely rare; and I know Nickell has the potential – with the support and care of those who recognize his unique abilities – to go very far indeed. At the moment, perhaps, he is a little better as a soloist than in a group: but this – with his obvious openness – will come. He is definitely not afraid of the hard effort and practice this will take. But he has foundations to build on that we mere mortals can only dream of – they are so very high, so very far beyond our reach.
And if you required yet further proof: the Rachmaninoff he played with such charm and wit, to bring us all back down to earth – and the wonderful, knowing grin as he gently tickled that last staccato note – for his second encore, said it all.
It was a privilege, a joy, a wonderment, to be there. Tonight, I feel, though, may be more special yet.