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|Edwin Drood's Column
|9 June 2015
|In which the Drood considers how East and West may indeed be meeting at last
and suggests that we counter the iconoclasts with a universal bill of cultural rights
raising the arts to the same level as life itself.
Classical music groupies are the worst. They believe they know everything and are obnoxious enough to tell you when they think your fingering is wrong or your tempi are not exactly as given in the text or your intonation is off or your phrasing not up to par. They’re also voracious consumers of your competitors’ work, just to ensure that they always have an easy yardstick to hand with which to beat you. I happen know all this because I am one.
|Bodhisattva of violinists
Take Hilary Hahn, for example, a violinist for whom I would freely sacrifice a kidney if she needed it, a player I place in my own personal pantheon right up there with Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh. Now, to my groupie way of thinking, if Ms Hahn were only to play the Kreisler cadenza in her Brahms Violin Concerto in D minor, she would instantly attain perfection and become the bodhisattva of violinists. But no, she chooses to refuse ultimate enlightenment and goes for the Joachim cadenza, probably because Brahms wrote the concerto for and with the grudging aid of Joachim in the first place. To my mind, this is insufficient reason to neglect the cadenza that displays not only the greatest degree of virtuosity (and after all, that’s what cadenzas are for), but is also the most dynamic as well as making the best use of Brahms’ thematic material. If it was good enough for Menuhin, it should be good enough for everyone else.
But we live in a new age of cultural fundamentalism, a gut reaction to the sloppy relativism that has marked the last three decades. In this current climate, precise adherence to all aspects of the original work has become synonymous with profession of the true faith. Ergo, everyone plays Joachim. At root, this is a good thing, because serious western culture, whether music, literature or the fine arts, is considered politically suspect by most of the twittering classes, the exclusive domain of Old White Men, and thus beyond redemption. Just as well then, that its younger champions are so often female and Asian (see infra) and stubborn enough to provide a rigorous defence of their passion without making concessions. Personally I would prefer a little more latitude, but yes, I get the point.
|Belgium: home of culture
Living in Belgium gives me the privilege of enjoying some of the best serious music available. I’m referring to the “Concours Reine Elisabeth”, a gruelling competition for young soloists, which shifts its focus each year in a quadri-annual cycle, from the piano to the cello to the voice to the violin. This year it was the turn of the latter, and if the violin is generally considered the diva of instruments, then the violin concerto is surely the queen of orchestral works. And of the many violin concertos much loved by a discerning public, the empress of them all is certainly the Brahms. This is a truth so generally accepted, that five out of 12 finalists chose it as their best shot to impress the flinty-eyed jury in the final, full orchestral phase of this brutal shakedown, wherein severely talented, highly stress-resistant and courageous virtuosi battle for the ultimate prize of not only a tidy sum of money and boundless fame, but also the possession of a priceless Stradivarius for the next four years.
I did not have to search very far for a benchmark Brahms to offer you, my dear readers; one that might stand as a measure for the various excellent competition versions, of which those of Lim Ji Young, the winner, and Lee Ji Yoon, the runner up with the unfortunately similar name were the best to my ears. In a nanosecond, YouTube found me the exquisite rendering in the video below
. Ms Hahn’s playing is supremely articulate here. It has syntax. She subtly reorganizes the dynamics of sequences one has heard a hundred times and suddenly they are not only beautiful and heart-wrenching, but limpid and defined in a way that makes perfect sense out of the music’s excessive sensuality. Perhaps it takes a great Bach performer like Hahn to do this to Brahms, much as Clifford Curzon, a great Mozartian, was able to do in his day for Brahms' less-loved, but even more profound, first piano concerto.
Hahn also has a strange internal mode that occasionally comes over her, a sort of shyness as if she were looking for something she’s momentarily lost somewhere in the music. As soon as she finds whatever it was, she strikes out like a coiled spring, it’s almost scary. This momentary inwardness gives a deeply human and mystical dimension to a player whose perfection is sometimes criticised as clinical or impassive by those who confuse excessive expression with passion. Her advanced sense of phrasing coupled with her secret internal chemistry meld perfectly to enhance the yearning otherworldliness of the concerto. I can breathe in and out and peace enters.
|Trial by ordeal
Watching the Concours Elisabeth is vaguely voyeuristic. These are the young and beautiful baring their very souls, stripping themselves down to essentials for a greater good. Contrasting the almost continuous stream of amazing moments that assail ones senses with the impassive, almost bored faces of the judges is an exercise in patience. One wants to kick them. Yet they are only doing their job, a job that calls for a lack of enthusiasm and a permanent case of jaundice as essential prerequisites. But as the competition gathers steam you find yourself wondering why anyone in their right mind would want to put themselves or their offspring through such an ordeal.
There is a scene in the film Minority Report
where our hero, endeavouring to escape from a police patrol searching for him in a fully-automated Lexus factory sometime in the not-so-distant future, is literally built into a car by a series of constructing, rotating, tipping, spinning, hammering, drilling, riveting, bolting, welding and bonding, zinc bathing, upholstering, spraying and waxing robots. Much like that scarily balletic scene, the “Concours Elisabeth” is the kind of procedure you just have to roll with, once you’ve made the stupid decision to get involved. It has all the dynamic of a runaway strip-mining juggernaut as it sweeps you up, tosses you from its mechanical maw onto a conveyor belt, rolls you flat, beats you to a pulp, wrings you dry and spits you out weak and stranded onto what used to be somebody’s lawn – and that’s just the audience.
How the contestants feel is anyone’s guess, except that it isn’t, because in the meantime we know all about each of these candidates for the guillotine: whether they feel nervous or have any patent recipe for dealing with stress, whether they miss their phone, home cooking, school friends, normality, mum and dad, baby brother, etc. It is hard not to admire these ninjas of the treble clef, so young yet so extraordinarily tough, because some of the qualities most often associated with fine interpretive playing – sensibility, empathy, intuition, emotional depth – are precisely the ones that put you most at risk in a highly competitive environment. Of course, other qualities required in equal measure, such as clarity, perception, technical mastery or physical and mental endurance are exactly those that flourish under stress. One may only hope that in the judgement of the jury, the latter do not overrule or outweigh the former by their very obvious predominance.
|Musical chairs? Not!
Quite apart from the gob-smacking brilliance of the individual performances, the sheer emotional beauty of riding such a roller-coaster of lyricism and technique makes the Concours Elisabeth the uncontested highlight of the musical year in this little nation that never fails to punch above its weight in all things except good governance. Moreover, despite the punishing and even humiliating rigours of selecting the better from the good, the best from the better and the superlative from the very best that the world has to offer in young musical talent, the event also displays a sacerdotal dimension that saves it from being merely a sadistic form of musical chairs.
Because this year’s brave warriors of the bow are, in a sense, the saviours of western culture, the brightest and the purest flower of a millennial tradition, the future high priests of the classical canon, sacred repositories of repertoire. In these days, not only of mainstream indifference, institutionalized vulgarity and atrophied funding but also of dirty bombs, sacked museums, mutilated artefacts and severed heads, these young people enshrine our best hope that something good may survive the cataclysmic fall of the West that now seems almost inevitable. Therefore, what a delight it is to see that of the 69 candidates who started on this marathon of unnatural selection, 43 of them (fully two thirds) are either Asian or of Asian descent. It is the East rallying to the defence of the western classical tradition. It is the distant Orient proving the true worth of a legacy that hardly raises a yawn from the average Joe Occidental, for whom André Rieu or the dreaded David Garrett is all the violinist they will ever know or need to know.
Garrett wouldn’t get past the application stage in a competition of this class, even though, in his painfully raucous rendering of the Brahms (you can find it on Youtube, but I sincerely advise you not to) he manfully saws and wails his way – bless his rock’n’roll socks – through the Kreisler cadenza, mutilating my oft-derided favourite. But at least this course avoids equally certain shipwreck on the otherwise inevitable Joachim variant chosen by all five Brahms performers in the Concours Reine Elisabeth. Garrett’s ears may be shot by too many mega stadium events. His doubtful intonation and use of only two kinds of tone (sumptuous pomposity or strident vigour), both of which he expends liberally between his two dynamic poles of treacly pathos or bully-pulpit brash, are proof that whatever gift he may once have had has long since been entirely sacrificed to commercial considerations of the lowest common denominator ... nevertheless, I thank him for his defence of the maligned Kreisler cadenza, despite the heartless treatment he gives it. *
|The return of the samurai
Artists such as these laureates of the Concours Elisabeth are our magnificent seven samurai (except there are twelve, like the apostles), we should be very proud of them and very relieved that they and their kind exist. Their message, if the subtext is coming through correctly, goes something like this:
We have neither time nor tolerance for second-guessing. We are the instinctive reaction to a short-lived, throwaway culture of celebrity. We do NOT want to be someone’s flavour of the month. We avoid the meretricious (one of them played Bartok for God’s sake … and won the popular vote with it!). We WILL be taken seriously because life is too precious to waste and the world is too harsh and frighteningly beautiful a place to merely stand and fiddle while it burns. This, all of it, all you see and hear and smell and touch and feel and create and emote is part of the great pagoda of the arts, the works of God and the works of Humanity: all of it, all of us. Nothing should be cheap and shoddy, no one should be undervalued, no work should ever be meaningless, because everyone, everything and every moment matter. The world needs a universal charter of cultural rights that will protect and respect us all and the things we do in the name of art. We, the apostles of Brahms and Beethoven and Bartok, of Sibelius and Shostakovich, are the living underwriters of that charter.
It seems that something new is at last awakening in defence of beauty and love and passion and it comes from the mighty dragons of the East. Throw open the gates, even if a few thousand barbarians sneak in under the radar!
© Edwin Drood
* To hear the Fritz Kreisler cadenza as it should be played, I refer you to the mesmerizing performance of the Brahms D minor by a young Yehudi Menuhin under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler (see video below
), yes, the same Furtwängler whose Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was arbitrarily chosen by the Director of Sony Records as the standard maximum length for a CD.
Photo of Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), Austria-born American violinist and composer,
author of the Kreisler cadenza. Source: Library of Congress.
Hilary Hahn plays Brahms Violin Concerto.
Brahms Violin concerto in D minor, op. 77, 1st movement.
Performed by Lucerne Festival Orchestra, 1949.
Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwangler Violin: Yehudi Menuhin Cadenza : Fritz Kreisler
May not play in some countries (e.g. Germany).
Watch this video on YouTube
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