An Interview with Maxim Vengerov

Maxim Vengerov

We speak the day after Maxim Vengerov’s 40th birthday, which he celebrated in Geneva by giving a recital in which the Yehudi Menhuin String Academy joined him for an encore.

“It feels as if the middle part of my life has begun,” says Vengerov, who is the father of two daughters under the age of three. Concert tours, he admits, are also a way to catch up on sleep lost at home.

Though he has been to Australia to perform with orchestras in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, this will be his first tour for Musica Viva, and his first recital tour of Australia.

“Recitals are something special, because of this direct communication with the audience through music,” he says.

“In general, fewer and fewer people are going to recitals, but I’m giving a lot of recitals this season. You have to decide what you stand for. I’m a passionate recitalist, and I try to put together programmes that are full of variety. The idea is to give the audience a full spectrum of emotions.”

Does this mean that he strives for maximum emotional expression when he plays?

“No. I strive for quality of information. That is the most important thing for a musician. Because sound is like a finger-print of your body. Sound is a picture of your soul, of what is inside. Your genetic code. The information and the knowledge you’ve acquired during your life, all the things you’ve gone through – your love and passion, your experiences. The sound cannot lie. You can be technically perfect, but if something is missing for your life, then you might not understand why, but this music will not touch us.”

Two Paganini works will conclude a programme that is as high on virtuosic fireworks as it is on sentiment. Paganini’s music, once a synonym for unplayability, is today tossed off by thousands of wunderkinder around the world.

“Technical progress should and will happen,” Vengerov says. “This is a natural development. But we should never cut ourselves off from the source, from the tradition, from our predecessors. Today we have many people who can play Paganini technically well and in tune. But is it staggering? There are still only a few people who can deliver great music that is above all technical detail. There is an incredible energy in the music, and it is very challenging to perform.”

Technical excellence, though in Vengerov’s view indispensable, will always be of secondary importance.

“What is a perfect performer? For me personally it’s the person who lets the music speak for itself through the musician’s body, so that it goes directly to the hearts and minds of the listeners. Then people will open themselves up to the emotions. And that’s when the biochemical process starts. And possibly also the healing. In ancient Greece, music was prescribed by doctors as a form of medicine.”

In honour of his 40th birthday, Vengerov has given up his mobile phone.

“Fifteen years ago, when I had to memorise a telephone number, I would just hear it as a composition in my head, and then I would know it. Today I don’t even know my own numbers. Memory suffers, because life requires us to think less, to make less effort for greater results. As an artist, these are the qualities that I have to really fight for.

“Today everything has changed. Everybody likes to multi-task. We fly on aeroplanes, we listen to music on the way, we do business, there is music in the background, we take the elevator and again music is there.

“Shostakovich said, rightly, that great music deserves to be listened to with special attention. I think it also deserves to be separated from any visual effects. In other words the mission of the greatest music is to stimulate our hearing.

“We like to say that we are what we eat. We like organic vegetables and we know that we need to eat well. It’s the same thing with music. We have to be selective, and make educated choices.

“This is why we make music. It’s a form of exile from the rush.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders

Maxim Vengerov performs in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney from 28 November – 10 December. Tickets go on Sale 1 October 2015. For more information, please visit:  www.musicaviva.com.au/vengerov

An Interview with Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

There are many things to be found in Paul Lewis’s programme of Beethoven and Brahms for his current Musica Viva tour, but hilarity is not one of them. Lewis agrees with wry amusement; the same was the case for his last Musica Viva tour.

“In the last three Beethoven sonatas, there’s not a trace of humour, really.  I mean, I do play humourous music, but it just seems that I don’t play it when I go on Musica Viva tours.

“There are certainly no jokes in this programme, but the combination of Brahms and Beethoven seems to work very well. There’s a sort of story-telling, especially in the Ballades. It deals with the big stuff. I find the combination quite attractive, despite the fact that it’s not exactly light.”

Lewis points to the first of Brahms’ four Ballades, which tells the story of a son who kills his father.

“It’s astonishing. The point at which the act is committed is very obvious. I can’t think of many instances in music where murder is translated as clearly as it is in this piece.”

The journey to Brahms has been a long one for him, says Lewis.

“I have a strange relationship with Brahms. I played the D minor concerto for the first time last year; and I’ve never been that enthusiastic about the B flat concerto.  But there’s something about Brahms which becomes more attractive with time. I hear the nuts and bolts of the structure – the workings of the craft – and not so much the music. But maybe I’m getting older, because I’ve had less of a problem with that recently.

“The Ballades are more experimental, more radical than he was later. They’re just wonderful pieces.  And the Three Intermezzi – the first piece is almost Schubertian in its intimacy; and there’s a sense of opennness about them that I don’t yet feel with a lot of Brahms.  So there is a lot of contrast in the programme.”

Lewis sees a strong link between the music of the Brahms Ballades and Beethoven’s Op 111 piano sonata.

“Both the last of the Ballades and the Arietta of the 111 are very introspective and timeless music. The Arietta for me is one of those state-of-mind pieces – it really does feel as if time stops in some way.”

The last of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, written when he was almost completely deaf, the 32nd piano Sonata, Op 111, is for Lewis an exception within an exceptional oeuvre.

“I get the feeling that this is the invention of somebody who has not been influenced by outside sound, music, noise, whatever, for quite some time.  There are theories that when he writes, as he does in the arietta, both very very low down on the keyboard and very high up at the same time, he’s striving to hear what he’s writing. I think it’s something else. The feeling of distance – it’s like striding out and wanting to push the boundaries of the keyboard and of music itself.

“In many of his pieces you get this sense of struggle that somehow resolves – he answers his own questions, if you like. Whereas in 111, there’s no obvious resolution. There’s just a coming-to-terms with something. Leaving the ship behind and rising above – it’s that kind of feeling.”

Musica Viva audiences, Lewis says, listen with exceptional attentiveness.  He has no difficulty finding Musica Viva’s four core values – quality, diversity, challenge and joy – within his own world.

“In terms of my own diversity with repertoire, I try to touch all corners of it as often as I can. I don’t play all of it in public. I play what I feel I have more chance of conveying.

“Anything that’s worth experiencing is a challenge. The easier it is the more disposable it is.  Something that requires effort and investment is something that will enrich our lives – I strongly believe that. Then you feel that you’re adding something, that you’re learning something. In order to experience that, a certain amount of quality is necessary. You have to be dealing with great music.

“The joy is in the experience, in the process of enrichment. The outcome is of relief, of getting to another place, reaching another state. There’s a joy in that. It’s not an obvious kind of joy. But it’s joy.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders

Paul Lewis tours Australia 27 August – 12 September. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetLewis

On The Vine – July/August 2015

Paul Lewis

As usual at this time of year we are putting the final touches on next year’s International Concert Season, to be announced in August. It promises to be an amazing mix of the very well known alongside the entirely unknown, including a brand new production unlike anything we’ve ever presented before. Watch this space!

Meanwhile our 2015 season continues apace, with I Fagiolini flying around the country with its unique vocal insalata, and preparations already well in train for the following concert tour by British pianist Paul Lewis.

Our concerts inevitably focus on the core of chamber music repertoire – string quartets, piano trios and instrumental recitals. The latter category comprises mostly violin and cello performances accompanied by piano, but also that most rarefied form, the solo piano recital, in which a single musician sits at a black wooden box, pushing small black and white levers to conjure an orchestra of sound that invades the audience’s collective ear canal, transporting their minds to imaginary universes undreamt mere moments before.

Piano recitalists are a breed apart, and Paul Lewis is a perfect example of the species. His first performances in Australia were as a comparative unknown accompanying the Leopold String Trio in Musica Viva’s concert season of 2003. He has since emerged as a preeminent international soloist, and is now a regular fixture in the concert calendars of several continents, including this one.

For this, his fourth concert tour for Viva, he has selected a typically refined repertoire. In the centre are two fine works by Brahms, drawn respectively from the very start and very end of his career. These are sandwiched by two late masterworks by Beethoven, the composer who inspired Brahms so much that it filled him with a sense of hopeless inadequacy. Both composers helped to define the nature of pianism in the 19th century, and their compositions remain major milestones in every pianist’s life.

Lewis plays without affectation or adornment, and with a simplicity that invariably drills to the core of the music. This is truly artful performance, hiding profound interpretation beneath a deceptive veneer of effortlessness. This is, in short, my kind of music.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

Paul Lewis tours Australia 27 August – 12 September. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetLewis

Carl Vine on I Fagiolini’s Newcastle Concert

IMG_20150725_201556

A brilliant first performance from I Fagiolini on Saturday night in Newcastle. The group was excited and buoyant after a concert that most of them considered ‘the most taxing we’ve ever mounted’, to an enthusiastic audience who demanded at least one encore.

The program was beautifully structured and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. Most spectacular were the works featuring all eight voices: The Victoria motet at the opening, Poulenc’s Sept chansons  opening the second half, and the two contemporary works. Janequin’s wonderful La Chasse, for 7 voices, was delivered with all the spontaneity, energy, wit and wickedness that the composer originally intended almost 500 years ago. These were contrasted nicely with the smaller works, including three of Monteverdi’s most splendid madrigals, and Croce’s hilarious ‘Game of the Goose’ (a mere gosling at 420 years old).

Andrew Schultz’s new commissioned work, Le Molière imaginaire captured the internal nature of the ensemble: urbane, virtuosic, cultured, witty and naughty in equal measure, offering the only time in Musica Viva’s 70-year history that a performance has concluded with the words: ‘burning piss’.

The singing was exceptionally fine: eight highly contrasted characters blending into a single united voice. Robert Hollingworth’s cleverly scattered spoken introductions were each immensely charming, amusing, erudite and informative, offering rare personal glimpses into the composers, performance practice and the life of the ensemble. This is a grand concert experience that is bound to delight the rest of Australia as much as it did Newcastle.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

I Fagiolini tour Australia 25 July – 8 August. For more information on I Fagiolini, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/IFagiolini

Interview with Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini

I Fagiolini

A circus artist suspended between heaven and earth on a narrow ribbon. A capella vocal music. A cathedral. What do these things have in common?

Everything, to I Fagiolini. That particular match of elements was the vision of Perth Festival director Jonathan Holloway, and it brought the British vocal ensemble to Australia for the first time in 2012. “How Like An Angel”, which brought I Fagiolini together with Brisbane-based acrobat group Circa, went on to tour UK cathedrals to thundering applause.

“I think the way we look at music is interesting,” says group director Robert Hollingworth. “As far as the brand of British renaissance music groups is concerned, we’re not a very British group. Perhaps we are closer to British theatre than we are to British renaissance vocal groups. We’re certainly very British in that we’re good at innovation, and at seeing things in an unusual way.”

Mainland Europe, says Hollingworth, is often bemused by his ensemble’s lack of conformity to their expectations of a stiff-upper-lip formality.

“I’m interested in music with a social context. I like looking at music that was written for special occasions or to amuse people, because it tells you a lot about how people listened to music and a bit about the social setting.”

Other past projects have included “The Full Monteverdi”, a dramatized madrigal evening set in a restaurant around the idea of six couples breaking up, and “Tallis in Wonderland”, a performance/sound installation that theatrically deconstructs the concept of polyphony.

For their inaugural Musica Viva tour, Hollingworth plans to dramatise two central works: Giovanni Croce’s “Il gioco dell’Occa”, or “The Game of the Goose”, and Clement Janequin’s “La Chasse” (“The Hunt”), a viscerally descriptive and somewhat scatalogical account of a deer hunt.

“The Game of the Goose is a board game which you can still buy in shops in Europe today. We’ve done a simple staging of that, with people playing the board game.

“In the Janequin, we only meet the animal at the very end. We spend most of the piece looking for him, and finding his droppings, and seeing what state they’re in. Coiled nicely, and steaming, which means he’s in a good state. It’s full of sound effects, dogs barking, horses’ hooves, so it’s quite good fun. It’s a nightmare to memorize – I think we’re the only group ever to have done that.”

I Fagiolini

For Hollingworth, the drive to present musical works in dramatic stagings comes from the urge to communicate their content more effectively.

“There’s that Thomas Beecham quote: ‘The English don’t like music; just the noise it makes.’ We try to get people to really involve themselves in the whole piece. I think a huge issue for choral groups, given that we spend a lot of time in the 16th century, is accepting the fact that most of this music was not written to be sat down and listened to. It might have been written for a social context, or for the pleasure of those singing it, which is quite a different thing, or to be performed in church. And polyphony, of its very nature, is difficult to follow. My life in the last years has been trying to work out how to present this music to an audience so that they can get inside it.”

Though perfect intonation is important to I Fagiolini, to the extent that they spend considerable amounts of time on tuning perfect intervals, the passion of the moment in a live performance counts for more, says Hollingworth, than clinical refinement. For him, polyphony is an endless journey.

“I’m very strong about singers in polyphony finding their own line from beginning to end. This is influenced by things that happen along the way. It’s like light travelling in space – the other singers are the planets which bend the light because of weight and gravity, but there’s still a beginning and an end. There has to be direction.”

Though an avid researcher into the specifics of period performance practice, Hollingworth believes that today’s performers cannot escape the pressures of context and taste. Performance venues are larger, requiring a different vocal technique, and some things we know for certain to be historically accurate, like portamento, or the act of sliding from one note to another, are rejected by today’s performers because they are considered bad taste.

“We try to kid ourselves that we can do everything as they did before, but we know that part of it is still down to taste. And I think we should just embrace that. On stage you have to make sense of the music for an audience now.”

The second half of the concert features Poulenc’s “Sept chansons” for eight solo voices – “Erotic poetry” by Paul Eluard. Sometimes it’s just like a series of blurred black and white images. But it’s so expressive. Monteverdi and Poulenc are the two composers who really draw me out.”

Hollingworth has no difficulty in finding points of reference to Musica’s four core values of quality, diversity, challenge and joy.

“You can’t excuse a lack of quality. If we’re tremendously entertaining but we sing like dogs, I’m sure we won’t be asked back.

“You need diversity in programming. When you’re singing with a vocal a capella group you need variety, and I love to put a South African piece beside a Monteverdi Madrigal beside an erotic setting by Poulenc beside a communal dog turd chanson from 1528.

“I think it’s important to keep challenging the singers – you have to keep them fresh. And I think we’re particularly good at that in I Fagiolini. That’s why I adore Monteverdi, because you never reach 100%. But it’s lovely to aim at it.

“Music-making ought to be about sharing, actually. And that leads to joy.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders

I Fagiolini tour Australia 25 July – 8 August. For more information on I Fagiolini, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/IFagiolini

On The Vine – June 2015

I Fagiolini

In most years Musica Viva’s concerts feature some form of vocal music, from outstanding soloists at one of our festivals to world-class choirs. In this special birthday year our International Concert Series celebrates with a newcomer to our concert platforms, a unique group renowned as much for the excellence of its singing as for its collaborations with circus performers and theatre companies.

I suspect that only an English ensemble like I Fagiolini, that takes its sense of whimsy as seriously as it takes its music, could refer to itself as “little beans” while consistently delivering awe-inspiring performances. Renowned for the finesse and scholarship of its performances of Renaissance music, the group is also acclaimed for its mastery of contemporary repertoire. Its hallmark ‘themed’ theatrical programs are brilliant and amusing in equal part, featuring tantalizing, yet strangely apt, titles like Tallis in Wonderland and The Full Monteverdi.

The program for the group’s concert tour in July is a more traditional compendium of single-part a capella music, weaving a circuitous path from the 16th to the 21st centuries, zigging through Italy, France and Britain with a final zag to Australia. The first half delivers some of the greatest madrigal gems of Gibbons, Monteverdi and Janequin, ceding the second half to the modern world and Poulenc’s surrealist Sept Chansons, plus a Hymn to Awe by Welsh composer Adrian Williams written expressly for the group.

The program’s world premiere will be provided by leading Australian composer Andrew Schultz, commissioned specifically for this tour by Geoff Stearn. Le Molière Imaginaire is a setting of the last scene of Molière’s play Le Malade Imaginaire, in a new translation by the composer with the help of English writer Tim Knapman. Molière hated doctors, and this witty evisceration of “money-raking quackery” is custom made for I Fagiolini in every way imaginable.

Carl Vine AO
Artistic Director

I Fagiolini tour Australia 25 July – 8 August. For more information on I Fagiolini, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/IFagiolini

An Interview with Steven Isserlis

Stephen Isserlis

“My words are going to be immortalised,” says Steven Isserlis.

Yet again. He must be sick of it by now.

“No, it’s attention. And I’m never sick of attention!”

Isserliss has self-parody down to a fine art.

His tour for Musica Viva’s 70th anniversary season will be his 16th trip to Australia, and his fourth Musica Viva tour. How can he bear the long flight?

“I like the flight!”

Really?!

“I do. You can watch movies, you can eat a lot, you can read books – I like it. And I LOVE Australia when I get there. I feel so at home. I just love the lifestyle, and the positive attitude to life. The audiences are open. For my last Musica Viva tour I played an all-Schumann programme, and we filled the Melbourne hall twice over. I don’t think I could do that in any other country in the world.”

This time, Isserlis brings a French-themed programme.

“Well, basically Gallic – Cesar Franck was actually Belgian. And Tom Adès’ piece has a French title. The pieces go really well together.”

Saint-Saëns, whose first cello sonata he will play, has been a personal love for some time.

“A love, yes,” Isserlis agrees. “Not with the same passion that I adore Fauré, but I think he’s wonderful, both as a composer and as a figure. He was a complete Renaissance man, and that’s one of his best chamber pieces, I think.”

The composer’s mother, whom Isserlis considers to have been something of a monster, hated Saint-Saëns’ first attempt at a last movement, which prompted him to destroy and re-write it.

“I have it to hand,” says Isserlis. “I’ll read it to you. He had told her that he was worried he might not play as well as some of the other great pianists who were performing. She replied ‘…you make me ill with your fears. You are merely a coward. I treat you with contempt. I believed I’d brought up a man. I have raised up only a girl of degenerative stock. Play as you ought to play, an artist of great talent. Either you will play well, or I will have renounced you as my child.’

“Anyway, the sonata is really a wonderful piece. And perhaps she did do the piece a favour, because the original last movement was good, but the new last movement is outstanding – wonderful. A very strong, dramatic piece, a deeply-felt, beautiful, stormy piece.”

The programme moves on to Fauré’s second cello sonata.

“For me the greatest 20th century cello sonatas are the two by Fauré. I adore them. Passionately. They are completely original, and ecstatic. They are really from another world. Fauré was very frail when he wrote it, and completely deaf, and he just created this amazing world of joy. Such energy!

“I played that piece, I think, in my second recital ever. I was 15. My teacher loved Fauré. We named Gabriel, my son, after Fauré. The more you know his pieces, the more you love them. It never fails to astonish me. Fauré touches something inside me.

Stephen Isserlis

“He was not necessarily an innovator. He was writing at a time when the Second Viennese School was in full swing. Stravinsky had written The Rite of Spring long before. I suppose he was even more backward than Debussy or Ravel. But it was different. I mean, Bach was considered old-fashioned in his day.”

Thomas Adès, who is unquestionably an innovator, wrote “Lieux retrouvés” for Isserlis.

“I was very surprised when he agreed. One can’t persuade Tom to do anything. He’s got a will of iron. But then he agreed to record it, with lots of other music, and to orchestrate the piece – the first concert will be in Lucerne in 2016.”

It was Adès’ 2004 opera “The Tempest” that, as Isserlis tells it, really made him fall in love with the composer’s music.

“He’s amazing, because he takes you everywhere. He knows so much music, and he can take any language and make it his own. He has his own voice, not ignoring the past, but drawing upon it. He knows exactly what he wants.”

Isserliss tries to perform “Lieux retrouvés” as often as he can.

“Once you’ve learned it, you want to carry on. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever played in my life. If you hear it, you’ll know why. It’s monstrously hard. But it’s fun. It’s a romp. The difficulty should be incidental – the audience is supposed to enjoy it.”

Returning to familiar territory, Isserlis rounds off the concert with the cello version of César Franck’s famous Violin Sonata in A major.

“I came to know Franck’s music through Fauré. Fauré loved Franck. Saint-Saëns didn’t.”

Why not?

“Oh, they just didn’t get on. At one stage they were in love with the same woman. Eventually she went for Franck.”

Isserlis has a knack of gossiping about dead composers as though they were in the next room, perhaps a partial clue towards his trick of bringing so much life to their scores.

He can segue from Augusta Holmes, the woman Franck stole from Saint-Saëns, to his pianist Connie Shih as though the two women were contemporaries.

“Yes, I first heard her when she was 17, in Vancouver, playing Saint-Saëns, actually. And I said, ‘Who is this girl? She’s AMAZING!’

“I probably work with her more than with any other musician. She’s wonderful. Very passionate playing, very warm, also very delicate. She has been likened to Martha Argerich, and although she is very different, there is something of that instinctive, natural playing. A wonderful artist.”

Isserlis’s reflections on Musica Viva’s four core values are characteristically pithy.

Quality?

“Definitely. You need that. This implies good quality, of course.”

Diversity?

“Yes. If not perversity.”

What constitutes challenge for him?

“Tom Adès. For instance.”

Joy?

“Actually in the pieces I’m playing, it’s ecstasy. Which is still about communication. The Fauré, the end of the Franck, the last movement of the Adès – they are all very joyous. I like that in music. It’s important.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders

For more information on Steven Isserlis with Connie Shih, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/Isserlis

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,547 other followers