Friday, 26 February 2010

the mini-series has concluded

Jane and I have loved the Grieg-Beethoven combo over the past year or so, and audiences seem to have got into the swing of things, too. Wednesday witnessed a very swashbuckling performance of Beethoven 3 and Grieg 3, and we hope to repeat it with less swash for the University of the Third Age (what a good idea that is) next week.

Ludvig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Violin Sonata No.3 in E flat, Op.12, No.3

I Allegro con spirito

II Adagio con molt’ espresione

III Rondo (Allegro molto)

Beethoven’s first three violin sonatas were dedicated to his teacher, Salieri (an Italian composer who didn’t poison Mozart). They display clear adherence to classical forms and were designated sonatas ‘for piano and violin’, with the emphasis definitely on the piano. In these early works Beethoven was writing music for the concert platform and music to pay the bills, not music driven by a need to express deep inner passions. There is a certain foursquare-ness to the design of this sonata. Nevertheless, more than its fellows in Op.12, this third work looks forwards. The opening Allegro sticks to the letter of classical sonata form, but is busting with dark, wayward harmonies and crams in far more notes than one might expect from such a stately opening. The Adagio’s extended coda gives space for plenty of jolts and surprises, characteristic of the composer’s maturity. In the final Rondo Beethoven employs his skills in counterpoint to good effect, along with a gift for folksy melody that one normally associates with Dvořák or Grieg.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Violin Sonata No.3 in C minor, Op.45

I Allegro molto e appassionato – Presto

II Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza – Allegro molto – Tempo I

III Allegro animato – Prestissimo

Twenty years separate Grieg’s second and third violin sonatas. The earlier work was carefree, experimental in form and infused with Scandinavian folk music. This sonata – and particularly the first movement – is angry, extremely simple in structure and more sparing in its melodic inspiration. The opening theme rushes around before collapsing into the more lilting second subject. The development offers mystical cascades and a violent bass, ending up in a flurry of gruff diminished chords that fade away into a quiet false recapitulation. The real recap is impossible to miss! And see if you can spot Grieg’s jazz moment just before the coda. Norway seems to exercise more influence over the sweeter second movement, a simple ABA of melodies that do the hard work and various patterns of accompaniment that don’t. In the C minor third movement, a binary AB/A’B’, we are subjected to constant buzzing and foot-stomping (A) alternating with pure romantic indulgence (B). The insistent coda may be in C major, but was Grieg protesting too much in this, his final chamber work?

Friday, 19 February 2010

bring back the Luddites!

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. I used to think I could understand most modern English prose. I also used to think that the University of Cambridge was immune to the excesses of garbled postmodern opacity. Alas, not. Here is the abstract of a paper delivered to the Literary Theory Seminar yesterday evening. My provisional verdict on it is "complete twaddle". It's not just a pointless piece of abstract musing or antiquarian interest (I found plenty of examples of those as a student, and might even have been responsible for some), it's truly, madly, deeply incomprehensible.

This essay explores how to find a way of being in the world at a time when
common meanings become scarcer and the gauntness of unmediated objective
existence starker. A recent study of the poetics of place in modern French
writing (by Steven Winspur) stresses the irreducibility of ontic presence
as itself revelatory. I argue that the way humans encounter objects and
places is more problematic, not because "absolute contingency" (Curry 1999)
is not a given but because the "way" along which it is given offers a
threshold of relation which is hyperbolic. The conditions for
re-enchantment do exist, but as part of a poverty of dependent response
making itself "less" in order to "greet" the object as sacrally given, but
in a way which does not disperse the enigmatic commonality of that

The mute presence of the non-modernist spear-grass in Wordsworth's Ruined
Cottage is at once chastened and in excess of the naturalistic. What
exceeds the naturalistic is a givenness not reducible to the conditions of
description of the object. Here a plenitude of existence is already
diminished but retains its role as gift amid the scarcity of its own
reception. This section involves some debate with Paul H Fry's radically
ontic reading of Wordsworth's poetics.

The second part of the essay reflects on some fragmentary remarks in
Merleau Ponty's The Visible and the Invisible, Jean Luc Marion's notion of
the "adonné" and the themes of call and response in Jean Louis Chretien,
before adducing William Desmond's sense of the "between" further developed
in John Milbank's writing on diagonals. The between is not a mediation but
the sheerly disjunctive porosity of being, whereby nothingness is itself
open to divine invitation.

Any ethics of responsiveness (Wheeler, 2008) should include a response to
the inaffordance of origin, not as a negative idealism, but as the apex of
what it is to live in relation to existence under the radical poverty of
gift. My argument concludes that the scarcity of origin finds itself rooted
in the hyperbolic, ie in an earth offered sacral horizons, not just
frugally from within but as an active (festive) poverty before, which
generates ritual and art.

I then began to read the paper itself, just in case it got any clearer...

creeping out of the Luddite era

Yukie kindly uploaded our recent concert onto youtube in various slices.

Mozart: Sonata for Keyboard Duet in C, KV.521

(1st mvt)
(2nd mvt)
(3rd mvt)

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op.23 
(part 1)
(part 2)

Satie: La Belle Excentrique - serious fantasy 
four odd movements

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

more letters

While I was away in a mobile phone blackspot last week my post was opened and a message left on my mobile (which I could just about pick up if I held the thing upside down while standing next to the external kitchen door of the Harby Centre, so long as I didn't move my head at any point!) by the lovely post-opener to the effect that I had passed a music exam with distinction.

I was quite chuffed, as it was the Associated Board's LRSM, the second-highest diploma one can get round here, and I'd had to wait about 7 nervy weeks to hear the result. In fact, I was awarded a distinction, which was extremely pleasing, since when I took the exam in the heady summer of 1998 (the last time I did anything exam-like on the piano) I failed!

I don't think I've got all that much better over the last 12 years, but I am sure that the ABRSM's diplomas have got a lot easier. Just compare the syllabus pre- and post-2005. Back in the good old days there was a 3-hour essay-based repertoire paper and a long listening test that included fiendish 4-part dictation... before you could get anywhere near the recital! This time it was just a long programme note and viva that was required in addition to the keyboar-based stuff.

So, chuffed indeed, but well aware that the value of the piece of paper has been roughly in keeping with the value of sterling over the past decade!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

more recent Orthodox missiology

Well-meaning attempts at proclamation-in-power, or less well-meaning cynical manipulation of religion for secular political ends has dogged the Roman Catholic Church more than any other, but the Protestant churches have been by no means free from such taint, nor have the Orthodox.

Recent missiological writings from the mainstream and historic denominations have tended to shy away from exclusivist positions and from what evangelicals would recognise as direct proclamation of the gospel. The wording of many WCC documents, and the thoughts of today's Orthodox spokespeople on mission is often rather mealy. Alternately uplifting and hand-waving, these writings express an ambivalent view of cultural power.

On the one hand, we read of the great importance of "inculturation" (granted) which 'occurs when Christians express their faith in the symbols and images of their respective culture. The best way to stimulate the process of inculturation is to participate in the struggle of the less privileged for their liberation.'

Lovely, but why is Vladimir of Kiev still celebrated (nay, revered) by the Orthodox? A brute who was impressed by a showy Byzantine liturgical celebration (aimed straight at the elites of its day) and who forced his people to be baptized in a river, thereby 'accepting the Christian faith' on behalf of the Rus, and perpetuating in a new place a 'gospel' of power and a church so violently implicated in the workings of the earthly city that its integrity as a church has often been obscured...

[The quotation is from a 1982 WCC document, Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation, recorded with approval by Ion Bria, a leading Orthodox missiologist and academic, in his Go forth in peace: Orthodox perspectives on mission (Geneva: WCC, 1986), pp.80-81.]

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

January 28th at URC

With a proper pianist playing the secondo part for Mozart and Brahms, and then a swop for the final number...

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sonata in C major, K521




This is the most beefy of Mozart’s sonatas for 4 hands, and also the final one. It was written in 1787 and dedicated to Babette and Nanette Nortrop, daughters of a wealthy Viennese merchant and pupils of the composer. Mozart considered it “rather difficult”, and since he was one of the most accomplished keyboard players in history we find no reason to quibble with that verdict. Difficult for the pianists, but easy for the audience. From the bold double-dotted main theme, the gentle second subject (which the other performer keeps trying to spice up) through various brilliant episodes and flourishes, the first movement is instantly appealing. Even the tender slow movement has its virtuoso passages, particularly the central, minor section. A deceptively simple, almost twee theme sets the tone for the rondo. The pianists keep interrupting each other, sometimes to change the mood, sometimes to amplify it, and sometimes as if to say ‘I can do better than that’. The coda is robust, and some silky chromaticism slides the music to its jubilant conclusion.

Johannes Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op.23

With a slow-moving theme built of falling scales and a date of composition just a few years after Schumann’s death, we have a recipe for a very moving work. The first three variations grow in their complexity and figuration before a dirge in E flat minor (redolent of the Horn Trio’s Adagio) almost brings everything to a halt. After that Brahms takes in a graceful Viennese waltz, a rambunctious pub ditty, a meandering study in thirds, a sinister scherzo, and a dark, angry outburst before the final variation. This is a slow march, celebratory yet tinged with sadness – not the sadness of a funeral but of warm memories of a chapter now closed.

Erik Satie, “La belle Excentrique”, a serious ballet

1. Grand Ritournelle

2. Marche Franco-Lumière

3. Valse du “mysteriex baiser dans l’oeil”

4. Cancan grand-mondain

This little suite is utterly ridiculous from start to finish – both in its musical ideas and in the challenges set for the performers, who keep jumping in each other’s way, reaching over and even crashing into each other. Originally an orchestral ballet score for the famous French dancer Madame Caryathis, Satie penned it in 1920 and 1921, before making the arrangement for two pianists in 1922. Enigmatic as ever, he commented on the work, “My music likes an atmosphere: a woman calling to mind more a zebra than a doe”. The Marche contains hints of the theme to Spiderman (particularly in its incarnation as ‘Spider Pig’ in The Simpsons Movie). The waltz “concerning mysterious kisses on the eye” (!?) is the only dark corner of the suite, but it pokes fun at various dance styles along the way before the final romp, a “very smart Can-can”.