23 September 2014

24Classics @ Paradiso

Hi everyone! 

Long time no see. Normal blogging will recommence shortly, but for now there's something else I want to talk about. 

This wednesday, September 24th Amsterdam's Paradiso will play host to a 24classics event: The Paradiso Orchestra & 24classics: Top 24 aller tijden

The Paradiso Orchestra will be joined by musicians such as Erik Bosgraaf, Lisa Jacobs, Ivo Janssen, Judith van Wanroij and Tim Knol. They're gonna be playing music from a Top 24 Music of All Time which people have voted for on the 24classics website/facebook page, so both classical and non-classical music.  

Floris Kortie, of 24classics funeral fame, will be hosting the evening. I'll also be around, giving a short philosophical commentary on Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. Anyway, it's going to be a superfun night with lots of amazing music, if you're in/around Amsterdam tomorrow evening, you should really come!

14 April 2014

Robert Maycock Memorial Writer's Prize

And again it has been way too long since I've updated this blog. Life has been very stressful, but I have some wonderful news. Earlier this month I heard that I'm one of the two winners of the Robert Maycock Memorial Writer's Prize. It still feels a little bit surreal because it's a great honour and I never expected the jury to like my review that much! 

Here's the feature, published in this month's Classical Music Magazine

16 February 2014

Sergei Prokofiev - Scythian Suite

The nice thing about being in charge of a 24Classics playlist is that it gives me a reason to both seek out new music and to go through my own collection to find suitable pieces. When your music collection has grown to a certain size sometimes you forget to listen to certain albums for months (… if not years) and the re-discovery tends to be a really happy moment. My most recent one has been Prokofiev's Scythian Suite which I absolutely love. It's fun and loud and full of brassy goodness.

Today I found out that there is a video of my favourite orchestra (the Rotterdam Philharmonic, of course) playing it (conducted by Valery Gergiev), so obviously I have to share it:

It is not the best recording because it's from a VHS tape and therefore a bit grainy, if that annoys you you can go here to see Claudio Abbado and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra play it (also a good version, but not as violent as Gergiev's). 

The Scythian Suite was written by Prokofiev in 1915 (Prokofiev was 24 when he composed it), though in its original form it was a ballet called Ala and Lolli, and it was commissioned and rejected by Diagheliv and the Ballet Russes (why it was rejected is a mystery to me, it's such a good piece). Prokofiev reworked the music into a suite, which consists of four movements and lasts around 20 minutes. It's very fast and energetic for most of these 20 minutes, and calls for a large orchestra which might explain why it's not performed as often as it should be. The piece was eventually premiered in 1916 (the first premiere was cancelled because of a lack of musicians) and apparently was quite a riot. As we can read in my favourite book on music;
"Crashing Siberias, volcano hell, Krakatoa, sea-bottom crawlers. Incomprehensible? So is Prokofiev. A splendid tribute was paid to his Scythian Suite in Petrograd by Glazunov. The poor tortured classicist walked out of the hall during the performance of the work. No one walked out of the Aelian Hall but several respectable pianists ran out."  (Musical America, November 20 1918)
I hope you enjoy it more than Glazunov did.

Other YPGTCM posts on Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo & JulietPiano Concerto No.2Piano Sonata No.6.  

20 January 2014

R.I.P. Claudio Abbado

The great Claudio Abbado has passed away. I have never seen him play live, but love many of his recordings. R.I.P. Maestro.

Read the obituaries at BBC Music Magazine and The Guardian.

18 December 2013

Favourite concerts of 2013

Well, 2013 was another impressive year for me concert-wise. It had some of the best concerts I've ever been to, and thankfully a lot of Shostakovich as well as new musical discoveries (most importantly Lutoslawski and Martinu). As I was writing this list I noticed that there's a lot of mention of Esa-Pekka Salonen, but that's just further proof that he conducts awesome programs amazingly well (no news there). Here's my five favourite concerts of the year: 

1. May 16: Shostakovich - Orango and Symphony No.4, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ryan McKinny, Allan Clayton, Richard Angas, Elisabeth Meister, Peter Hoare, Philharmonia Voices at the Royal Festival Hall
I had been looking forward to this concert ever since it was announced, and on the day itself I was giddy with excitement. The newly discovered Orango received its European premiere in a fantastic performance by the orchestra and soloists, lead by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is always extraordinary. I wish someone would have filmed the performance because it was also visually captivating, and Ryan McKinny in particular was spectacular. The Philharmonia's performance of the Fourth Symphony was one of the best - if not the best - I've heard, and I really hope they will perform more Shostakovich symphonies with Salonen in upcoming years. 

2. October 30: Schnittke - Symphony No.1, Lutoslawski - Cello Concerto, and Ligeti - Lontano, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Michail Jurowski, Johannes Moser at the Royal Festival Hall
Okay so by the time this concert came around I had gotten slightly tired of Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto. An amazing piece though it is, 3 performances in one year may be a bit too much. Thankfully I thought wrong because this performance turned out to be BY FAR the best. It was so much better than the other (also good) performances, in terms of musical interpretation by the conductor (Michail Jurowski is pretty badass isn't he?), playing by the orchestra but especially in terms of the soloist. Moser was phenomenal, absolutely amazing. And this performance wasn't even the highlight of the evening! Schnittke's Symphony No.1 is one of the most fantastic pieces of music ever written and the London Philharmonic gave such an incredible performance that even thinking about it makes me smile from ear to ear. It was a life-affirming performance that was suitably ridiculous, challenging, intense and all-encompassing. Definitely a concert I will never, ever forget. 

3. October 26: Shostakovich - Symphony No.13, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mikhail Petrenko, Gentlemen of the London Philharmonic Choir at the Royal Festival Hall
I really miss seeing Yannick at the Rotterdam Philharmonic, so of course I had to go see him conduct the London Philharmonic in Shostakovich's impressive Symphony No.13. The performance did not disappoint, Petrenko was really impressive, and the male chorus was completely on point but the orchestra in particular gave a passionate and intelligent performance of this emotional and bleak symphony. It's one of my favourite works Shostakovich has ever written and so I tend to be a little bit worried when I see it live, because what if I don't like the interpretation of the performance?! But this one was about as good as it gets, and proves that Yannick really is a great Shostakovich conductor. 

4. May 30: Varèse - Amériques and Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Royal Festival Hall
THIS CONCERT WAS JUST SO WONDERFULLY LOUD. Seriously. Amériques is just so much fun and it's so impressive to hear it live, and coupling with the always enjoyable Rite of Spring was a great move. The performance of the Rite of Spring was simply amazing, it was animalistic and organic and so rhythmically powerful and  played with unstoppable energy and drive. 

5. January 30: Lutoslawski - Musique Funèbre & Piano Concerto and Ravel - Daphnis et Chloé (complete ballet), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Krystian Zimerman, Philharmonia Voices at the Royal Festival Hall
This was my introduction to the music of Lutoslawski, which I am immensely grateful for. Musique Funèbre was mesmerizing and the Piano Concerto was stunning to hear for the first time. The performance of one of my favourite pieces ever, Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé was also faultless and made for an impressive ending to a great concert.

Other highlights: Leila Josefowicz and the London Philharmonic playing Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No.1, the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy's astounding performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No.15, Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra played by the Philharmonia and Salonen, Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra's thought-provoking performance of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, Britten Sinfonia and Pekka Kuusisto's performance of Tüür's  Lighthouseand last but certainly not least, the "Music from Dark Times" program by the London Philharmonic and Jurowski. 

18 November 2013

Francis Poulenc - Stabat Mater

Even though my favourite choral works tend to be requiems, the many Stabat Maters in the history of classical music make for quite an impressive list. Palestrina, Pergolesi, Rossini, Pärt, Dvorak, Verdi, Szymanowski and many others composed a version of this hymn. But it is Francis Poulenc's Stabat Mater that I've been listening to endlessly for the past few days, it is an astonishing piece of music. 

Francis Poulenc - Stabat Mater (playlist of the complete piece)
Performed by Orchestre de la Cité, Choeur Régional Vittoria d'Ile-de-France, soprano Danielle Borst, cond. Michel Piquemal

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a French composer. He was a member of the famous Les Six, a group of 6 composers working in Paris (other members were Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Louis Dury and Germaine Tailleferre) and composed many works, including four ballets, three operas (incl the AMAZING Dialogues des Carmélites), five concertos and a whole lots of chamber and piano music. One of the most interesting things about his musical output is that a lot of his pieces are humorous and energetic, he also wrote a lot of moving liturgical (choral) music. This Stabat Mater is one of them, others are the Litanies à la Vièrge Noire, the Gloria and Quatre petites prières de Saint François d'Assise and the Mass.

Poulenc composed the Stabat Mater in 1950, after the death of his good friend Christian Bérard. He briefly considered writing a requiem, but after a visit to Rocamadour, he considered the setting of the Stabat Mater more appropriate. The text of the Stabat Mater is a medieval hymn, and tells of the suffering of Mary as she sees Jesus dying on the cross. Poulenc's piece is divided into 12 different sections, each of them noticeably different in tempo, rhythm and orchestration. The solo soprano only appears in three of the movements, 'Vidit suum', 'Fac ut portem' and 'Quando corpus', the rest of the movements are performed by the chorus and orchestra. As usual, my favourite movements are some of the louder ones, in particular movement 5 'Quis est homo' and 11 'Inflammatus et accensus' but you should really listen to the whole piece (it's only about 30 mins long).

1 November 2013

Confessions of a reviewer #3: Being a 'fan'

There are times when I worry that my love for certain orchestras, musicians, conductors and composers makes my reviews predictable and somewhat unreliable. Or perhaps I should rephrase, sometimes I worry that other people may think that they are. I have no prentension of being some kind of 'objective' listener (which is an impossibility anyway) and I  wholeheartedly admit to being a  fan of quite a few musicians. But does this mean that I review with bad faith? That I already know how I'm going to feel about a concert before having heard anything? And that I am so biased towards certain performers that I can no longer tell whether the performance is good or not?

I started thinking about this after meeting one of my musical idols, Yannick Nézet-Séguin after his performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No.13 in London. I would go see pretty much anything he conducts (though I might need some convincing if it includes Mozart...) and have yet to disappointed by any concert he has conducted. Then I worried that perhaps this means that I am not critical enough, which wouldn't be an issue if it weren't for the fact that I write reviews...

However, there is a reason why I love these musicians. There'll have been a time when I saw them play for the first time, and it is usually this first performance that makes such a massive impression on me that  I get the urge to see the musician more often. For example, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Stravinsky's Firebird with the Philharmonia back when I was doing my BA (so probably in 2004 or 2005) and it was the most amazing thing I'd ever witnessed, the energy was tangible in the concert hall and I was buzzing for days afterwards. This made such an impression on me that I went to see more concerts conducted by him, and it turned out that this feeling the first concert gave me was repeated in every single of those performances (and sometimes even much more intensely). There's something  about Salonen's approach, musicality and choice of repertoire that attracted me in this first performance, and it is not surprising that these elements are a part of every single one of his concerts that I have been to. 

Similarly, I have never seen Pekka Kuusisto have an off day (plus he's always hilarious which helps), Nikolai Lugansky nails every piano concerto I've heard him play, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin can turn the most boring orchestral music into a raucous affair. Not to mention the fact that most of the musicians I like best tend to play repertoire that I love, I'm sure that if Salonen focused on early music I would have no interest in him. If the first time I would've seen Lugansky would've been a Haydn piano concerto I also doubt I'd care all that much about it. The music itself is so important, and musicians of course have preferences, and they have their areas of expertise, and it seems only logical that the musicians, and in particular the conductors, I love focus on repertoire that I also love. 

Perhaps the most important point is, however, that when I go to a concert conducted by Salonen or Yannick, my expectations are ridiculously high. They have conducted the best concerts I've ever seen, and so whenever I see them conduct I expect to be that amazed. Sometimes the music doesn't lend itself to quite the same level of enthusiasm but I expect the music-making to be extraordinary. With musicians that I don't know and have never seen before, I think my expectations are reasonable (of course in concert halls you don't expect anyone to suck) but never all that high. But if I take, for example, Yannick conducting Shostakovich's Symphony No.13  I expected it to be one of the best concerts of the year. What with Yannick's talent in choral conducting and the 13th being one of my favourite pieces ever, I expected nothing other than sheer brilliance. Thankfully that's what I got, and that is precisely why I admire him so much.

So how is all this reflected in my reviews? Of course one of the upsides of reviewing for bachtrack is that I get to decide which concerts I go to, and so the lack of negative reviews is mainly because I go see musicians and music I like or think I will like, and the level of classical music in London and in The Netherlands is just very, very high so terrible concerts in big concert halls are few and far between. I think my reviews are as honest, critical and genuine as they can be, and I just hope that that's good enough. 

27 October 2013

Alfred Schnittke - Symphony No.1

Sometimes you come across pieces of music that you just love instantly, for whatever reason. Schnittke's Symphony No.1 is one of those pieces for me because it's just so much fun and so chockful of different genres and references that you cannot help but be amazed and shocked every couple of minutes. It's an absolutely mad piece but for some reason it works really well. Here's Alex Ross's spot-on description (taken from this article about Schnittke on The Rest is Noise, which is definitely worth a read)
Bedlam erupts in the very first bars of this symphony, and never really subsides.  Jazz combos do not merely add flavor to the texture, as they do in many urbane twentieth-century scores, but actually take charge of the piece for considerable stretches.  From time to time the full orchestra attempts to bring the madness to a halt, with a loud minor chord heavy on the interval of the third.  This warning goes unheeded.  The second movement opens with a lampoon of mindless Baroque music that falls quickly into disrepair.  At the outset of the fourth, a trumpet plays the lilting second theme from the funeral-march movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, significant in the annals of musical satire for its refurbishment as kitsch in Erik Satie's Embryons desséchés.  The Chopin tune is the fanfare for an unrestrained five minutes of mayhem, in which Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto (among other works) fights like a wounded animal against a fusillade of sound that recalls and exceeds the most anarchic moments in the music of Charles Ives.  
Thankfully someone has uploaded one of Rozhdestvensky's recordings of this symphony onto youtube;

Alfred Schnittke - Symphony No.1 (all 4 movements: I Senza tempo moderato, II Allegretto, III Lento, IV Lento. Allegro)
Played by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, cond. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was a Russian composer. He was born in the Soviet Union but educated in Vienna, and was never particularly popular with the Russian rulers (but then again, not many composers were). In 1990 he moved to Hamburg where he died 8 years later, and he did get a state funeral in Moscow. Even though his early works were very influenced by Shostakovich, his later works are incredibly diverse and 'polystylistic'. This polystylistic nature of his music means that not only is it difficult to define/pigeon-hole, it's also very exciting and constantly surprising music. He was ill a lot but still composed many works, including 9 symphonies, 9 Concerto Grossi, 15 Concertos, and a whole lot of chamber music. From what I've heard of his music (which I am admittedly still quite new to) his Symphony No.1 is my favourite but I also adore his Requiem and his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra

On Wednesday (the 30th of October) I will be seeing this piece in concert, played by the London Philharmonic and I am so excited, I imagine it will be amazing to hear this live. Though I am slightly worried that I might giggle too much...

17 September 2013


And again, it has been much too long since my last update. I spent most of my summer back in The Netherlands relaxing and not going online too much (and also concert-free, unfortunately) but I am back in England now and really have no excuse not to start writing againI have also neglected my 24classics playlist this past month, but new tracks will appear later today or tomorrow. Just go here to listen. 

The next couple of months are looking rather exciting concert-wise. October in particular has some absolute gems, I am seriously considering going to 5 concerts which might not seem much for some, but I usually limit myself to 3-4 for monetary reasons. Difficult to resist though, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is returning to the London Philharmonic with two concerts; one consisting of works by Poulenc (including his Stabat Mater, which I love) & Prokofiev's Symphony No.7 and the other is, for me, the most exciting concert this fall: Shostakovich's 13th Symphony. Yannick is becoming a fantastic conductor of the Russian repertoire and he's of course always been a great choir-conductor so I cannot wait to see what he does with the 13th, one of the bleakest and most impressive Shostakovich works. There's another London Philharmonic concert, on the 30th of October, that I got tickets for: Schnittke's Symphony No.1. It is perhaps my favourite hilariously absurd symphony (it deserves a blogpost of its own, which will come soon) and I cannot wait to see it live. It's programmed with Lutoslawksi's Cello Concerto which, despite my love for the composer, I feel like I've seen enough this year but I'll gladly sit through it to hear Schnittke (and Ligeti's Lontano). 

In somewhat more disappointing news: I will not be able to see the MET Live broadcast of The Nose because during the live screening I'll be at the aforementioned 13th Symphony, and during the encore screening I have to teach! I really hope they release it on DVD this time around, or that some London-based opera company decides to put it on (that would obviously be even better). 

Expect a proper music-filled blogpost sometime later this week!

19 July 2013

Thomas Adès - Totentanz

So the BBC Proms with Adès turned out to be rather fabulous, Totentanz is an incredible new piece.  This is some of what I had to say on it:
The music was typical Adès in some ways, with the strings remaining in the higher register for a large part of the work, exciting rhythms throughout, and some incredible percussion moments. I would say that it is one of the best pieces he has written, with incredible depth, clarity, and some musical moments I will never forget. Adès had already proved to be a great writer for voice, not least in his two operas, and Totentanz only adds more proof of this. At times the singers could not combat the sound coming from the orchestra, but overall they more than held their own. One of the most memorable parts of the music was when from the character of the mayor onwards, Keenlyside and Stotijn sung “together” – singing different melodies and text, yet at the same time – guided by the orchestra, who eventually took over and offered a loud, stunning musical climax.
The ending of Totentanz was surprising for Death’s words to the child: “Nimm zarter Säugling an den frühen Sensenschalg. Und schlaf hernach getrost bis zu dem Jüngsten Tag!” (“You tender babe, behold the scythe’s untimely blow. Till the last day, sleep now: sleep on, consoled”). This was the first and only tender moment given to this character. Keenlyside and Stotijn entered into a duet that was almost like a lullaby, comparing rather sweetly to the rest of Totentanz. Of course, the darkness soon returned, and the last word – “Tanze”, sung repeatedly by both Keenlyside and Stotijn – was poignant and impressive.
It's definitely worth a listen. The Lutoslawski was also played expertly by everyone, and the Britten was overall not quite as exciting as I sometimes find it but this performance of the second movement, Dies Irae, was definitely all kinds of amazing. You can read my full review here on Bachtrack, but what you really ought to do is listen to the concert on the BBC website here or tune into BBC Four on the 28th of July.