Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Beethoven – from page to stage (and beyond…)

As the title of this post indicates, it chronicles a journey through and around one piece of living, breathing music – in this case, the virtuosic, Mozart- and Haydn-influenced (but, nevertheless, recognizably) Beethoven’s own Second Piano Concerto. The reason for doing so is to not only study the work on paper (invaluable as that definition of its potential can be); but also to observe the involved musicians – Orchestra of the Swan, conductor David Curtis, and especially pianist Thomas Nickell (right) – as they prepare, firstly, for its performance; then, secondly, deliver the resulting collaborative interpretation live; and, finally, record it.

I know that I am extremely fortunate in having been able to follow this process. That it takes place – as catalogued here – over only a few days is, on one hand, some sort of miracle; but, on the other, completely misleading: as I obviously cannot keep up with each individual, equally-important, contributing member in their own private preparations: for example, the orchestral oboe player repeating a gritty phrase at home, over and over, until satisfied; David’s intense study of the score, analyzing structure, form, and line in minute detail; or even Thomas, setting himself the challenge of ‘conquering’ this challenging work, spending hundreds of hours at the keyboard until the notes flow willingly from his fingertips. Please remember, therefore, that what follows – still a huge amount of hard work for all of those accomplished people now gathered together; and all of it invested in making sure that what you hear and see is as startlingly great (subjectively; emotionally; objectively; technically) as it can be – really is only the tip of a very deep iceberg: one formed from talent, effort, and love.

* The music – Wednesday, 19 July: An uncertain beginning…
* The first rehearsal – Friday, 21 July: Music as therapy…
* The last rehearsal – Saturday, 22 July: Practice makes perfect…
* The performance – Saturday, 22 July: Cometh the hour…
* The recording – Sunday, 23 July: The vinyl countdown…
* The analysis – Monday, 24 July: Write your own ending…

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Wednesday, 19 July: An uncertain beginning…
It’s been a long time since I attempted to play – or even listened to – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2, Op.19: so I sit down at the piano, and work my way (slowly) through the full orchestral score (loaded on my iPad many moons ago) – notebook and pencil perched perilously on my lap. Before I start, though, I have a flick through all the various dates ascribed to its composition (and, separately, to the last movement: which was revised, and/or replaced, at least once). The reason for doing so is that, in three days time, I will be listening to another young pianist/composer perform it – Thomas Nickell (of which, quite a bit has been written in these pages) – and I suppose I was searching for similarities, or at least synchronicities, between him and young Ludwig.

As most people (must) know, although this is labelled the second such work, it is the first of those published (a piece of juvenilia, not currently in repertoire, rendering that nomenclature accurate… – but only just):

In 1784, when he was only 13 years old, Beethoven produced a Piano Concerto in E-flat major. The reason it is probably not familiar is that its historical interest outshines its musical value by several degrees of magnitude.

Wikipedia claims that this concerto…

…was composed primarily between 1787 and 1789, although it did not attain the form it was published as until 1795. Beethoven did write another finale for it in 1798 for performance in Prague, but that is not the finale that it was published with.

…whereas Philpedia (the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s wonderful wiki) states that…

He may have started the Concerto as early as 1793, in Bonn, and continued later that year in Vienna while studying with Haydn, who was in the midst of composing his “London” Symphonies.

I shall leave the final word, though, to Roger Dettmer:

For almost two centuries, the original version of the Piano Concerto No. 2 was assigned to the year 1794, when Beethoven was 23 and needed a showpiece for his public debut in Vienna. He did introduce it in the Court Theater on March 29, 1795, during the Lenten season when Hapsburg Catholicism banned all theatrical activity. But latter-day scholarship has determined that most of the B flat Concerto – certainly the first two movements – were written at Bonn in 1789 and 1790, three years after his curtailed first visit to Vienna, but three before his return in November 1792, with a letter of introduction from Count Ferdinand Waldstein and an invitation to study with Haydn. In other words, he was as young as Chopin when the latter composed his first concerto (which, further in common with Beethoven’s B flat, was published out of sequence as No. 2). Whether or not Haydn saw it during the 14 contentious months that Beethoven was his pupil, we don’t know.
     Beethoven revised the concerto to include a new finale during his study year with Haydn. This was this version he introduced in 1795 and then further revised in 1798 for Prague, giving it still another finale. (The “official” First Concerto in C, published as Op. 15, wasn’t composed until 1797.)

This gives us an age range (Beethoven was born at the end of 1770; and Thomas turned 19, yesterday) of somewhere between 16 and 24 (and 27 for the finale which is no longer attached – which, in the end, doesn’t really help that much: except to draw attention to the fact that both were/are at the beginning of their public careers. (Whether Thomas ends up more famous as a composer, like his predecessor, I obviously cannot yet predict.)

I later confirmed my reading (accompanied by unpractised approximations of the notes, struggling beneath my rusty fingers) by listening to two quite different renditions: firstly, by Emanuel Ax (who produces some magical, seemingly impossible, subtle Chopinesque rubato in the right hand, whilst the left hand somehow holds the beat); and then by Alfred Brendel (who is more ‘classical’, but no less inspirational). After which (both being intelligently perfect in their own way), I finally struggled with Maria João Pires: who I found a little too mannered (and therefore abandoned, five minutes in…).

The result is a sort of extended programme note (the “sort” many of my readers – assuming there is more than my assumed loyalist – will be familiar with). But it lends a necessary foundation, I hope – should you wish to follow my/the journey through rehearsal, performance, and, finally, recording… – a way into analysing, and documenting, what follows (i.e. the music being brought to life by Thomas: in conjunction with David Curtis, conducting; and the Orchestra of the Swan, playing their hearts out).

Allegro con brio
The first movement has an almost military opening (insomuch as it wakes us, and calls us to arms): the two orchestral flourishes followed with gentle Mozartian refrains from the string then woodwind – immediately establishing a contrast “between a feeling of vivacity and a mood of contemplation…” (writes Scott Goddard) – the second response already beginning to extend and evolve (with some very Mozartian suspended wind) that opening, martial motif. Even here – in the emphases, and the rapid (perhaps unexpected) changes of tonality; the interplay of treble and bass – the mature Beethoven can be heard emerging: a new butterfly spreading his bright, drying wings in the sun. (There are certainly a great many more harmonic shifts, before the soloist finally enters, than in the equivalent earlier composer’s work… – and yet whose name is all too easily lined up for influence and comparison.) It is therefore worth paying OOTS (almost) as much attention as Thomas: as there is nearly always something of orchestral interest occurring – for example, some wonderful writing in the bass strings (usually cellos and double-basses; although occasionally violas, too).

Few opening paragraphs in concertos of this period (1795, that is to say four years after the death of Mozart) have placed the whole contention and aim of the work so directly and patently before the listener. Outward semblance – the instantaneous gesture that betrays the quality of an individual – and inward image, a sign of the questing mind; the one (perhaps) a matter of knowledge, the other of intuition. These two elements placed in bare opposition are to dominate the whole concerto. And it will be long debated which is the more remarkable aspect of this opening music; its potential dramatic power or its superficial appearance of artlessness. One wonders still at the ease with which these scraps of music are manipulated by a young genius and put to great artistic uses; and wonder increases the more one realizes how easily these two minute statements might have degenerated into pure banality under less poetic manipulation.
– Scott Goddard: The Concerto – Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

By the time Thomas gets underway, we may think we have picked up all the themes necessary for development: but – although similar to a phrase already uttered by the violins – what we hear is something new – “the first [theme] of any appreciable length” – and completely refreshing (technically, a second exposition). With its frequent scales and arpeggios – and the almost incidental inclusions of the opening fanfarade – this can feel quite ‘traditional’. (I really don’t want to keep repeating that other composer’s name… – even if his attempts at hiding in the shadows are not very successful. I think we just have to accept that, with “Music historians [telling] us that Beethoven was sketching musical ideas for his concertos while he was still in his teens”, Mozart’s influence is going to weave its way through – at least the first two movements – like a thread of gold: always apparent; but not necessarily contributing much other than detail, or highlighting.) “Traditional”, also, in that it requires metronomic precision, and great fluency, in both hands.

An almost cadenza-like (short) passage (with only higher strings at its climax) – even concluding with the conventional high trill – eventually leads to a break for Thomas: whilst OOTS take over with yet more development. An extended (not quite) conversation (people will always insist on talking over each other…) is set in motion between pianist and orchestra: the solo part increasingly self-assured – until a storm brews; and the opening motif returns. (And yet we are only halfway through this tour de force of a first movement!) This time, Thomas joins in much earlier, and – to begin with – elegantly: with a great deal of contemplation. OOTS, though, decide to reveal their true, inner Ludwig (the main theme in the bass); and – in the fugal cadenza (written much later, in 1809) – so should Thomas (see below): for almost four pages.

In the years 1794 to 1809, the piano underwent a rapid development, not in small part as a result of Beethoven’s demands and specifications. While the Concerto was written for a piano of five octaves, like Mozart’s, by the time Beethoven wrote a cadenza in 1809 for his pupil and friend, the Archduke Rudolph, it was for a piano of 5 1/2 octaves with commensurate increase in power and sound. Consequently, a piano corresponding to Beethoven’s instrument for which the Concerto was written, would not be able to play the 1809 cadenzas he later added to it.
– Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn: Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19

This is where – on paper, anyhoo – Beethoven demonstrates just how virtuosically capable (and confident) he was. No final trill, here: just a tsunami of semiquavers; followed by five-and-a-bit bars of terse orchestral farewell.

[Cadenzas are often composed much later than the work in which they sit (or, rather, leap…) – oft-times by the performer, of course (see below) – so I do not think it matters one jot (in fact, it gives us insight into a work that its composer (humblebraggingly?) dismissed as “not one of my best…”) that we have Beethoven looking at us, simultaneously, from both his early and middle(ish) periods. The styles only ‘clash’ if we want them to. (I had suspected, though, that Thomas – in composer mode – would perform his own cadenza. And so he did – and one extremely suited to his own, rich, pianistic skills (as it should be) – and yet also true to the spirit of the work.)]

This central movement seems to breathe, or sigh, into its passionate existence… – although the (again) martial introduction (just listen to those horns calling), leading to the piano entering with a cascade of demisemiquavers, is utterly breathtaking. The control required of Thomas (as for many a slow movement of this period) is enormous… – too much rubato killing the ‘classical’ mood. (The only time such truly becomes the order of the day being when Beethoven writes “con gran espressione” or “ad libitum” – both marking a passage so fragile and perfect that nothing except an ending can follow: an astounding finish, too, for such a heart-rending piece of music. Just listen to Susie Hodder Williams’ flute….)

Dettmer, again:

The middle movement – Adagio, in E flat major – hints at the slow movement of the Fourth Concerto to come a decade later. It is, in effect, an accompanied fantasia that resembles a carefree theme and variations, with an attention-getting solo recitative-like passage at the end.

Simply put: this Adagio is gorgeous… – and from first bar to last: the orchestral writing easily matching the pianistic… – especially when the woodwind take the lead (after a beautiful solo for Thomas): piano and strings in delicate accompaniment. It almost feels as if the entirety of this movement is composed of one long melody: occasionally struggling to break free; occasionally interrupted… – but never quite letting go….

Rondo – Molto allegro
The jollity of this last movement (“an effervescent conclusion to an altogether charming work”) may therefore – as it should – come as something of a surprise: a distillation of every wicked musical trick Beethoven (we suppose) learned from Haydn! The main ‘syncopated cuckoo’ theme (for want of a better epithet: although this is a bird raised on either steroids or laughing gas…) – initially seeming a quaver late, each time it is played. [It is just too tempting to describe the mood-switch from Adagio to Rondo as moving ‘from the sublime to the meticulous’ – such is the effort (albeit mostly invisible) Beethoven puts into his humour….] It’s also the moment you wake from your reveries thinking “I know this!” – such is its quirky reputation.

[The most famous ‘musical joke’ occurs just before the grand finish: when Thomas enters in completely the ‘wrong’ key (G major); with the ‘cuckoo’ theme finally, seemingly, stressed in the right place (i.e. the first beat of the bar). That it takes an extended moment for the orchestra to realize what is happening – although quickly enough to pull everything back into the ‘right’ key (B flat major – the key the work started in; and therefore, rightfully, should end in) – just adds to the drollery (Beethoven obviously refusing to subscribe to the fallacy that Germans have no such sense…).]

But back to the movement’s beginning…. The orchestral response to Thomas’ sprightly eight-bar exposition seems to emanate from another world altogether… – although it is not long before we realize that not only is Beethoven trying to mislead us; but that he also has more than enough ability to pull everything – all the thematic material needed (including a sly reference to the first movement’s opening “flourish”) to produce an ABACABA rondo, that is – together. Here, though, as in the first movement, perfect scale-playing is crucial; as well as intense rhythmic awareness, and the lightest of touches… – especially just before OOTS finally and emphatically slam the door shut! [That this is a huge test of all the many dimensions that go to make up a great pianist should now go, really, without saying. Instead, we should be asking ourselves if Thomas will pass…. (If you sneak a peek at the last section of this, you will find that he does!)]

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Friday, 21 July: Music as therapy…
There are three sessions scheduled for concert rehearsal: two, Friday; one, Saturday afternoon (the latter acting mostly as a warm-up for performance; sound-check for Sunday’s two recording sessions; but also to fine-tune a few minor points – yet which, in typical Curtis/OOTS fashion, result in magical transformations). On Friday, as I enter the Stratford ArtsHouse auditorium (where I feel I am becoming part of the furniture), I wonder just how much of this time will be devoted to the Beethoven. (The other works being Haydn’s stupendous Symphony No.47, ’The Palindrome’; and the greatest of Schubert’s ‘early’ symphonies, No.5 – like the Beethoven – in B flat major.) Especially as the piano is currently tucked away behind the small cello and double-bass section, looking a little lovelorn (however lustrous).

We start with the Haydn: with its opening fanfarades (a favourite word), just about the perfect pick-me-up for a wind-chilled day that feels like it belongs smack in the middle of autumn (not helped by a week-long migraine cooling my brain’s thought processes…). The blood must be flowing less stodgily through the orchestra’s fingers (and heads) than mine: enthusiastic (“ebullient” says David) life is breathed rapidly into the opening Allegro – the horns quickly settling into a remarkable, punchy accuracy. Unusually – for OOTS of late, anyway – we are treated to the scored bassoon, doubling the bassline (a nice little touch of historical accuracy that, for some reason, really makes my day). The oboes also cut sharply through the unseasonal air: “floating over a trickling stream of violins”, say my programme notes (to the extent that they also lift my spirits tremendously).

The second movement is basically an increasingly ornamented duet between high and low strings, with sumptuous orchestral refrains – yet another piece of stunning originality from Haydn (possibly the most original of all composers) – the balance and trademark transparent texture (“with a little more air inside it, if possible…” – which it was…) perfect almost from the get-go (which is remarkable, considering both the much-reduced size of our merry band; and a much-revised make-up). The coda – “a striking transformation of great beauty” – is simply ravishing. (Obviously everyone-else has had their required caffeine intake, this morning!)

Then the wicked Menuet al Roverso that gives the symphony its name. (This is where I truly awaken – although my head feels, at one stage, like it may explode… – trying to keep count of repeats and reverses.) David asks for “very black-and-white fortes” – and the result is amazing (although a decision to – additionally – repeat the da capo section totally mucks up my programme notes – although I take comfort from the fact I was only following Haydn’s – and HC Robbins Landon’s – precise instructions…)! The Presto assai finale passes by in a rush. The contrasts between the strings-only (minus basses); tutti strings (and bassoon); and full orchestral passages, are similarly “amazing”, though. Thrilling stuff!

After the (early) break, Schubert’s glorious Fifth Symphony. Yes, it shows the influence of (at least) Mozart and Beethoven – and, is in many ways, an immature work. Mind you, he wasn’t yet 20 (talking of youthfulness), and already showing obvious signs (even ignoring the amazing Lied already under his belt) of genius (especially in what he does with harmonic changes). After a first – almost overwhelmingly intense – playthrough; susbsequent little bits of finessing (for example, a couple of moments contrasting the violins and cellos: David demonstrating just how he would like a particular rhythm played); the “more impassioned” repeat is stunningly ‘open’: each line of character, structure, and tonal quality, exceptionally lucid and precise. For an orchestra that already gives its all, somehow OOTS move up a notch. The Allegro is not particularly a subtle piece of music: but, now, it breathes (and yet retains its intensity).

The following Andante con moto therefore feels more like a piece of chamber music (and a Haydnesque one, at that, to begin with… – although the lyricism is all Schubert’s…) – building to something momentous (and still with the momentum that so fuels the preceding movement). A few minutes spent experimenting with the accompanying semiquaver figure in the second violins and violas – “more espressivo” (the motto of the weekend!) – is the key, it materializes, to achieving the quality of sound required: and thoroughly remarkable, it is, too.

Constant dialogue between David and all members of the orchestra is what nourishes the rehearsal process – the resulting trust quite magical to behold. This faith, conviction, belief, assurance… though, is what also fuels performance; and guarantees the ‘specialness’ (the strength of purpose; the attractiveness; the appeal…) of every concert – no matter the programme. It is also at the heart (if not the blood that beats through it) of that “trademark transparent texture”. (By the time I write these words, rehearsal of the Menuetto has come and gone; and we are now storming our way through the Allegro vivace finale – another movement where Haydn makes his presence felt, I believe.)

I sit back, and just take it all in….

The orchestra disappears for lunch. As is my habit, I do not eat (and, anyway, even my habitually meagre appetite has been quashed by my stupid migraine). As a result, I am treated to a rehearsal of another (entertaining) kind: Thomas squashing Beethovenian bugs!

The orchestrally-accompanied playthrough of the first movement is confident and accomplished. (I wrote the word “surprisingly” in my notes – but only because Thomas’ lone warm-up had been more than enough preparation to get ‘in the mood’; and OOTS were also buzzing!) It was interesting to note that David only analysed it with the orchestra… – Thomas, as any other soloist would be, is now left to his own devices.

I miss the first playthrough of the second movement (due to a rather lovely coffee break). But, later, Thomas isn’t quite reacting how I’d expect to what may have been unexpected orchestral volumes. [I have found the oboes a little ‘strong’ for my taste, all day, though… – although this is almost certainly a trick of the ArtsHouse’s circular wooden-roofed acoustic: not helped by me sitting behind the cellos and double-basses. And I predict that it will be different when I am sat at the back of the auditorium (which it is – see below), tomorrow – when the recording equipment is all set up.]

Because of the postulated required “metronomic precision“ (see above), it is both intriguing and wonderful to see Thomas’ girlfriend Fiona acting as a happy metronome during the afternoon break: where Thomas practises his Rondo entry (and very sharply, too). There are a couple of glitches in the orchestral runthrough – but nothing major. However, I think that Thomas needs to be more confident with the ‘musical joke’ entry (which, as the weekend progressed, he was…). My major concern, though, is a seeming ‘disconnect’ between how the orchestra plays, and how Thomas reacts – or, more importantly, doesn’t. He seems to almost plough on, regardless – as if unaffected by what has just been played…. (I spend a lot of time ruminating on this: answers only clarifying themselves the following day.)

[An example of this is the lack of emphases on the closing sf chords of the new subject, at bar 49 and following. David keeps rehearsing the response with the orchestra – polishing the extended accentuation until it really sings… – but Thomas’ interpretation remains the same. However, slightly rolled chords before the orchestral conclusion become increasingly sharper… – and therefore much more effective: with the orchestra, as a result, sounding imitative and responsive. (There is a little variation, each time Thomas plays them… – and I take this as a (positive) sign that there isn’t a fixed version in his fingers; and that Thomas is beginning to feel able to stamp his mark on the performance/work.)]

David and Thomas then have a confab. And, after a hilarious attempt at the last half of the Rondo – from bar 173 (not the beginning of the movement)! – this evolves into a highly successful one. Things are looking good….

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Saturday, 22 July: Practice makes perfect…
If there is anything missing from Thomas’ performance, it is (as I hinted, yesterday) this ability to (noticeably) feed into, and off, what is happening around him. I completely understand the need to isolate yourself, visually/optically, from the audience – especially when your friends and family are on the front row – but, aurally, you should be as alert as is humanly (or, at this level, super-humanly) possible not just to the obvious dynamics and tempi (and of every other musician); but to opening yourself (and your performance) to being shaped by the music as it unfolds. (What I’m saying is that you need to be alive to the moment; to live in it – and share that space comfortably, closely, with the conductor and orchestra.)

[I (seriously) start to wonder if this is the dividing line between brilliance (the ability to play an instrument supremely well, technically) and greatness (ditto; but communicatively with other performers…) – remembering Peter Donohoe’s entrance into Brahms’ Second: it feeling almost improvised; the perfect, and obviously natural, response to (and reflecting the mood set by) Laura Morris’ beautiful opening horn call (“delicately wafted into the air”). As well as entering K414 “as if he had just heard these wondrous themes for the first time; absorbed them; and was extemporizing on them”. Or – finally – as I said of Martin Roscoe, conjuring Mozart (again), seemingly, out of thin air:

This was never a competition with the orchestra for supremacy, either – the balance was perfect; and, as with all such great musicians, communication between all involved was conspicuous and generous.

That is not to say that Thomas is merely competent – even in rehearsal, his is a truly impressive performance of some incredibly difficult-to–play music; and there are magic moments aplenty. I shall wait until the actual performance to finalize judgment.]

During the first half of the afternoon’s rehearsal, David continues to tweak OOTS’ performance – with surprisingly immediate results (and ones that – although often dealing with a single note or phrase – then influence the rest of that section, or even the whole movement). This is Thomas’ last chance to interact with the orchestra before the performance; and yet he seems to be content to treat it as a run-through – which is fine: I can only imagine the hundreds of hours already invested in this, alone at the piano. (He is obviously relaxed – as much as one can be in such an environment… – with OOTS; and especially with David. The next step – if ever needed with these forces(!) – is to impose his will on something: even if it just to ask, for instance, “Can we try that this way…?”)

The second movement is as heart-churning as I have ever heard it (David wringing even more espressivo tension and release from its introduction) – coming across as one huge, breathtaking, phrase – I imagine a pages-long slur capping its transcendent 92 bars… – building, breathing, growing, and then sobbing, chest-heavingly, to a close. The music sings; the orchestral climaxes split my soul in two; and Thomas plays the con gran espressione section as if his emotional life were condensed within it… – subtle touches of the sustaining pedal producing heavenly moments suspended in time and space. [Some (purists) would say that the sustaining pedal “romanticizes the classical” – but, as Thomas proves here, they are just plain wrong!]

Blummin’ Beethoven! And that stupid “syncopated cuckoo”! Although I agree with the decision to enter the Rondo immediately, attacca (attached), I could just have done with a couple of hours (or decades) of recovery time…. But this is brilliant, self-propelling, music – even with its pauses; grand orchestral pronouncements; flourishes; and sudden changes of direction. And yes, the “wrong key” entry makes me snigger like a small child each time it is played… – reason enough for letting Ludwig get away with blue murder, if necessary. This is what will garner the “bravo”s, loud applause, etc., I think: because Beethoven wrote it for himself; and he must have hungered for – and then fed off – the tumultuous approbation. Who wouldn’t?! This is such a great ending – especially with all its misleading diversions! And everyone – especially the echoes of Thomas’ last, twinkled pianissimo chords in the orchestra – is spot on!

In answer to yesterday’s acoustic concern: at least with the piano lid open (and me sat three rows back on the central, raised seating), the balance is perfect; and all orchestral lines can be heard just as they should be (and always are with David at the helm). That such stunning clarity exists even when playing fortissimo is a testament to everyone, really; and will never cease to amaze. [Because of the constraints of the recording process, the piano will need to be in position for the Haydn, tonight (as it is for the rest of the rehearsal): which is a shame… – but only visually. I do so enjoy watching David smile his way through such things – especially the symphonies by “the man I would most want as Composer-in-Residence”; and a man “you could have a good laugh with, afterwards…”!]

The break – and my musical musings – over, OOTS launch into the Schubert (and with a tonne – or six – of aplomb). The opening to this always conjures up images of travelling at speed… – high above the clouds; or in a horse-drawn carriage along snow-lined forest tracks… – there is something so “self-propelling” about it, too. And, being in the same key as the Beethoven, it feels an even more natural successor. There is more heart-being-worn-on-sleeve in this than the outer movements of the concerto, though. [This is just one of the things – apart from the ridiculously amazing harmonic sequences he conquered up throughout his life (here, perhaps inspired by Mozart’s 40th…?) – that makes him such a truly inspirational genius. (I would say that you have not lived until you have played or sung An die Musik – written a few months after this symphony… – but hearing it will more than suffice.) He lived and breathed his craft faster and higher than anyone before or since: his brilliant music literally flowing out of his fingertips, sincere and heartfelt to the very (too, too soon) end….]

During the sublime Andante con moto, just before it ends, the bassoons sing the most beautiful repeated phrase (reinforced by violas and second violins), before the horns fall away. Golly. Similarly, the Trio of the Menuetto (this time an octave below the first violins). Both times, goose-pimples scurry up and down my spine. A quick forensic run through the finale; and then on to the fantastic Haydn. [I close my iPad and listen: this is just about as good as it gets: OOTS being OOTS, etc., etc., etc.. (And I wonder what tonight will bring…?)]

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Saturday, 22 July: Cometh the hour…
There is heavy rain falling when I venture out to grab a bite to eat, after the afternoon’s rehearsal: so, instead of my usual relaxing wander around Stratford-upon-Avon – to stretch my legs (especially after all the sitting this has entailed) and clear my head… – I head straight back to the ArtsHouse; and plonk myself down opposite a large triptych of the orchestra, labelled “Excellent. Innovative. Distinctive.” (Well, you couldn’t argue with that, I thought!)

Gazing at the programme – which David correctly labels “a treat” in his pre-concert talk – I do wonder how it has come about. “Classical Masterpieces” they certainly are; and it truly is an interesting choice of works – obviously built around Thomas’ wish to record a cycle of Beethoven’s piano-and-orchestra works over the next few years. The concerto and the opening symphony both demonstrate – with the ghost of Mozart fluttering in the vicinity – their composers’ influence on Schubert. But why these particular works?

My theory is that the symphonies are exciting and – dare I say it? – fun to play! And, of course, to conduct…! Both of them are definitely exemplars of their ‘type’, as well – the Haydn explicitly, intelligently, witty; the Schubert one of the greatest orchestral works he produced whilst still in his teens (just like Thomas). And both are vividly tuneful.

I really do believe that every programme tells – or should tell – a story (as each of its constituents must): even if, sometimes, it’s a bit subliminal. What I take from tonight’s is that it is a cracking way to say “goodbye”, after one of the best ever seasons… (off the top of my head… four stupendous premières; Julian Lloyd Webber inciting the orchestra to the greatest performance of the ‘Great G minor’; and last week’s insanely “intense” Dvořák’s Ninth…) – and one with a sensuous classical core (one that slots into the centre of OOTS perfectly).

Talking of cores: David describes Beethoven’s “thoughtful” Adagio as “the only real slow movement in the concert” – …and thus it is perfectly placed: right at the evening’s (emotional) centre.

There seems to be even more of a buzz before the concert than (whatever passes for) usual; and the mood feels slightly different. Is it the fact that this is the last of the season; or that Thomas’ performance of Rhapsody in Blue, last week, has pulled people back? Is it the autumnal weather (in the middle of July); or, just, simply, that it is a programme that captures the imagination? Whatever it is, it’s infectious: OOTS leaping into the Haydn with yet more of that aplomb: doing what they do best, and giving their electrifying best. (So good, that the first two movements are individually greeted with applause!) The coda to the already cantabile second movement seems to hang in the air: my eyes still moist as the Menuet starts (or finishes: depending which way you look at it…). The finale – the very definition of Presto assai (going at one heckuva lick) – just makes me wish we could hear the whole thing again. But the piano lid is now being opened; and the audience appears to be holding its breath….

The orchestral introduction almost dares Thomas to give it all he has when he finally enters: but this concerto (as you will have gathered if you’ve read all that has gone before (sorry)) requires the attitude and consciousness of a long-distance runner….

Halfway through the first movement, I realize I must have forgotten to exhale: the music is flying by me, with its now-familiarity; and I am not concentrating. It takes me to Thomas’ self-penned Kadenz – playing to his percussive strength and love of the bottom quarter of the keyboard – to fully wake up (and I wonder how all the performers stay so alert; play the music with such freshness…). It is a stunning demonstration of strength and imagination – and perhaps provides us with an impression of the young Beethoven conspicuously improvising (the skill he was most famous for, at the time of the first performance). Thomas certainly seems – if this is possible – simultaneously more relaxed and intense. It is as if we are – finally – getting a glimpse into the performer’s heart and mind; and makes me wish that there was yet more of this spirit (present in last week’s Gershwin; and previous solo performances) imprinted on the rest of the performance. I may be wrong: but I sense a reluctance to ‘let it all hang out’, maybe even go for broke….

That central Adagio – all too short – grows, almost continuously, in stature: the lyrical (and heartbreaking) con gran espressione and ad libitum closing bars building on the foundation of sparkling wonderment set by the Haydn slow(ish) movement. What a shame, then, that members of the audience choose these still, calm, crystalline, quintessential moments to add their own (noisome) contributions. [I am lucky – I have heard this played several times, this week: and it has not once ceased to astonish me. (Not all difficult piano playing involves cascading octaves of semiquavers, endless trills, or crossed hands. Sometimes, it is the simplicity that is hard to find; almost impossible to dig down and deliver. Here it is found; and delivered. Perfectly. Sadly.) So it is all the others I feel sorry for: the aural equivalent of a da Vinci sketch being splattered with bright, gloss paint….]

As if to compensate, Thomas responds with a slightly-too-fast attack on the Molto allegro finale. Unless you have a built-in metronome, David’s reigning-in of this speed is almost certainly too subtle to notice. Slowing the Rondo down a tad, though, does nothing to dent the enthusiasm of all involved; nor impact the momentum… – and it is intensely, excitingly, gripping from start to finish… (even if it didn’t quite fulfil David’s perpetual need “to tell a story”, as the preceding movement had).

The biggest surprise of the night is the suddenly curtailed applause that follows (as if someone had flipped a switch). With the support that was in evidence for Thomas’ performance, I was expecting many more calls back to the stage, and an encore. But it is – sadly – not to be.

For me, it is the Schubert that is most involving. You can almost hear the young composer growing, maturing, with each bar; turning his love of Mozart (and Beethoven) into something he would actively manage, rather than be managed by….

As David said: despite its lyricism, the opening Allegro has “a lot of steel” in it – not being “a world away from the weight of Beethoven”. All the differently-marked emphases that the orchestra had spent so much time in rehearsal divining and fine-tuning giving it not only what David called “real depth”, but a wonderful, sharp, edginess. This is music that seems to have been written for OOTS, for their many strengths. It feels not so much composed as wrestled tunefully out of the very air.

The Andante con moto – just at the perfect tempo for David to “vocalize” – delivers completely on its lyrical promise. The following MenuettoAllegro molto – in comparison, is dark and turbulent. And the Allegro vivace – which, yes, I am still singing as I type… – just an OOTS tour de force…!

This is when the dam of applause finally breaks. Individual sections of the orchestra – the horns; the bassoons; the remaining woodwind – garnering huge lumps of rightful, hard-earned laudation – as does David, and then the whole orchestra. Another huge symphonic performance recognized for what it was: the magic of live performance meaning that even the moments of greatness achieved in rehearsal could not compete with this wonderful, buzzing, whole. (Something amazing happens to music when you inject an audience into its mysterious workings. With OOTS, it’s almost something you can touch… – but, somehow, it’s always just beyond the reach of your fingertips. So ephemeral – as love is, perchance… – that to grasp it would be to kill it. But let it fly… and… well… phew.)

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Sunday, 23 July: The vinyl countdown…
It is easy to believe that classical recordings are made by an orchestra playing through a piece – or a movement – until they get it ‘just so’ – the soloist just giving it their best – in one or two takes. But, with so many people involved – just like a group photo: where there’s always someone frowning, or looking away… – the odds of this happening in the time allotted are extremely low. (Coincidentally, that OOTS “triptych” – a representation of their collegiate cohesiveness, perhaps…? – seems to feature every single member smiling!) So – with an auspicious new moon at 10:46 – just after a trilogy of playthroughs of the first 130 bars or so – pianist and orchestra giving their all (as if this was a concert performance; and they hadn’t played it umpteen times in the last few days) – we head off into the unknown.

Take time to pause, and by the next new moon –
The sealing-day…
– Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I.i.83–84)

There is even more dialogue – including the disembodied voice of Paul, the producer… – than a typical rehearsal (more people involved, too); and fine-tuning reaches a new level: Thomas finally, increasingly, joins in, as well! [Frequently, the talking outweighs the music-making: but so much clarity is needed to ensure everyone is – literally – on the same page. Very occasionally, David takes (recording) time out to run the orchestra through a few bars. (What is the difference between sf and fp (in succeeding bars)? Well: you should be able to hear it – and without the score on your lap.)]

If you haven’t got something new to say in a recording, don’t bother saying it.
Glenn Gould

It’s a steep learning curve for Thomas – but, as when studying the score, dissecting the music likes this brings fresh insight. [But it prompts me to question whether I would prefer a recording with more obvious ‘Nickell-ness’, and occasional rough edges; or one that is note-perfect, but a tad more clinical/precise. I do not know. As I said to a member of the orchestra, I have thousands of CDs at home… – but still prefer (by a massive margin) to experience (not just ‘hear’; not just ‘see’… – but feel…) music live. It’s the presence, the risk, the vibrations rising through the soles of my feet; the sheer exhilaration of hearing music unfold in a way that you have never heard before (and can never hear again).]

“The concert is dead,” he proclaimed. For him, the recording represented the musical future. Mr. Gould was also among the first classical musicians to treat the recording as a distinct art form, with its own possibilities and requirements. The phonograph record, for Mr. Gould, was no more a ”record” of an actual continuous performance than a movie was a record of actual continuous events. It was a spliced construction, edited from recording tape.
– Edward Rothstein: Glenn Gould, pianist, is dead; saw recordings as art form

Even though the music is played in discrete, short chunks, everyone plays as if in the middle of a continuing performance – Thomas initially struggling with having to start in the middle of a run; but acclimatizing incredibly swiftly to the demands made of him. I wonder how tempi are kept constant; and how David ensures that each movement starts and ends at the same speed. (Is there a hidden metronome? I think not. But, then, modern digital recording can work all sorts of wonders!)

We get to the end of the first movement (for the fifth or sixth time – only a single recording of Thomas’ cadenza in the can – if you exclude his live, electric, performance). People disperse to every single nook and cranny of the ArtsHouse… – but Thomas is the first to return. Paul has a quick word…. Soon the orchestra is reassembled.

As we(!) prepare to start work on the momentous, heart-breaking Adagio, David talks about the music “sitting” (as if the members of the orchestra “aren’t listening to each other”…) rather than “singing” (that live quality that was so evident, so very present, last night). The first twelve bars are repeated: a conversation ensuing about the correct balance for the piano’s subtle entry (over a fading forte tutti). The immediate result is astounding: the detail floats like a distant peal of church bells on the wind. It is not long before the movement takes on a life of its own. It is not perfect… – but it is intensely and immensely moving. [Perhaps even more so than yesterday’s (slightly faster?) live performance… (David seems to suspect that the movement has just, almost imperceptibly, slowed, though, of its own accord…)]. The strings’ gentle interjections during the con gran espressione section are filled with concentrated, breaking pathos. Unlike last night, there is a background of resonant silence… – and my heart breaks a little more.

David questions the strings’ preceding semiquavers; wants them “driving” more. The next time through, they are precisely that: more alive than ever. Paul then details a couple of pianistic points; and members of the orchestra chime in with their queries, perceptions and clarifications. The passage is played through again; the timing more even, clearer, somehow. Then David details how he would like the pizzicati to sound. More magic ensues. Finally, a short passage centred around bar 70 is repeated and repeated; before the last five bars are dissected… – and that magical rise in the flute (and the rise and fall of the volume of the last chord) is given a little more prominence, a little more soul.

Before lunch, we have a playthrough of the Rondo. I suspect tiredness: because yesterday’s pizzazz seems to have left the building, temporarily. Perhaps it was the mention of food…?!

However – whilst I nip out for a sandwich… – a piano tuner magically appears (just like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn). Unsure what particular problems he is addressing (and wondering why I have not seen him before), I ponder on how any discrepancies (the ‘before’ vs. the ‘after’) will be ‘accounted for’ in recording. Producer Paul, meanwhile (more than capable of such digital necromancy, I’m sure…) – the voice of a sensible, reassuring and quietly humorous god… – discusses various passages with Thomas. Who then – as before – practises almost non-stop (especially the opening of this afternoon’s Rondo…). More pianistic manipulation is needed (concentrated in the lower half of the range – i.e. the bit where Thomas’ percussive nature has most effect).

I feel reassured by Thomas’ constant urge for the perfection he seeks; the experimental variation this encompasses… – but mostly the fact that, even at his mesospheric level, he practises just like a ‘normal’ person (meaning me): slowing things down for clarity; repeating phrases and passages over and over… – just a huge deal more adeptly!

The orchestra consolidates once more: stochastic moths returning to the captivating flame of harmony (and hard work). It is amazing (to me, still) just how rapidly they fuse together as one super-organism (the collective intelligence of a hive mind, perhaps…).

Back to the Rondo. Thomas appears, occasionally (nervously?) to be accelerating ever so slightly when playing the main theme; and there is therefore a resultant retardation from the orchestra. A fresh start; and all is well. As always, though, there is yet more clarity to be hunted down… – and, before you know it, an hour has passed. (I’m still giggling at the musical joke, though: so it’s anything but as boring as you might have expected.) Thomas’ final chords are now as crisp as the Lindt chocolate bar I treated myself to at lunch – and the orchestra responds in kind: some sort of mysterious osmosis having taken place.

We end with another retake of the last five bars of the slow movement; and are finished two hours ahead of schedule! Wow!

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Monday, 24 July: Write your own ending…
After living with the Beethoven for a week, and Thomas and OOTS for a fortnight, these are my (mostly positive) conclusions. They are (therefore) intended as criticism only in the constructive sense; and are only here because I have studied – in concentrated detail – the huge amounts of both talent and potential on offer – and desire (with all my heart) to see and hear these continue to grow.

I had worried about Thomas’ propensity (and flair) for percussiveness (perfect for the Gershwin and many of his solo pieces): and how it might affect the Beethoven. But I needn’t have done so: there is a concomitant lightness and deftness of touch (although, just once or twice, it is too light, and an introductory note doesn’t sound… – although I suspect this stems from differences between the private-practice piano, and the public-performance one). His other “propensity” – although much less obvious than a year ago – is to occasionally obscure the detail of brilliant runs with the right pedal: which is a pity – that “lightness and deftness of touch” makes them sparkle, particularly at speed; and Thomas should be flaunting this prowess! [I am repeatedly impressed by his playing, for example, of what is basically an extended trill (bar 306 on) in the final movement – ten movements of twelve semiquavers, in thirds – and at Molto allegro, too. (There is definitely little wrong with his keyboard technique!)]

I think my biggest ‘take away’ is that Thomas needs to seek out, and be given, much more frequent opportunities to play in ensembles: everything from symphony orchestras, through piano quintets, to working with experienced solo vocalists. His collaborative playing – as demonstrated in January (aided by genial genius David Le Page, no doubt…) – is definitely improving – but I wonder, sometimes, if his wonderful (and extremely welcome) politeness and charm actually get in the way? [This sounds as if I am painting all high-flying virtuoso musicians into a clichéd, stereotyped corner of selfish megalomaniacs! I am not. (I simply cannot imagine Thomas as arrogant as this, anyway!) But you do need to be – as in so many walks of life – assertive, if you are to succeed. (And this can be a tough skill to learn.)]

When he plays solo, I am pretty sure that you witness his true ‘musical personality’ (as I’m pretty sure we did through the ‘peephole’ of the cadenza, too…). Gloves are off, and – particularly at the modern end of the repertoire – he flies! There are no compromises; he simply goes for it. And it is wonderful to see and hear. (To see and hear the product of his heart and mind.) Sometimes there is a touch of Thelonious Monk – never mind Glenn Gould – and, somehow, he needs to inject this spontaneity, this playfulness, into his work with other people (without letting his talent go to his head… – which I am sure he will, and it won’t). He also – as mentioned above a couple of times; and as he started to in the recording sessions – needs to speak up for himself. (As my sage old piano teacher once said to me: “Only you can blow your own trumpet!”)

In other words, he needs more forceful negotiating skills, and to dig deep into the courage of his convictions (as demonstrated by the members of OOTS…). But he also needs to learn to listen hard (and actively) to others doing the same: in his direction. To experiment with your interpretation during a concert takes both bravery and experience – but, especially in the call-and-response of classical concertos, the solo playing needs to reflect what the orchestra are doing (and you, as soloist, should, of course, then expect them to pay you the same compliment).

Finally… (phew): I believe Thomas is more than capable of doing all this. (If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written it.) His wonderful performance – which it truly was – of Beethoven’s concerto demonstrates so (just not yet quite as completely as I believe he is able). I therefore look forward to witnessing the next chapter of his gifted, skilful, artistic life.

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  1. Wow! Although not able to attend this year we feel much less the poorer after reading your thoughtful and empathetic survey of the events. Your nuanced descriptions of the interplay between composer, conductor and player reads deft from my seat. Gently exposing a bit of the creative handwringing and temple rubbing that precedes the beauty was illuminating and refreshing. Sage advice in your summary which you delivered straight, no chaser. Bravo


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