Vienna Piano Trio


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Vienna Piano Trio

Manchester Chamber Concerts Society

RNCM Theatre, 27 October 2014

© 2012 Wiener Klaviertrio - Vienna Piano Trio

© 2012 Wiener Klaviertrio – Vienna Piano Trio

A splendid concert.

There were three astutely chosen works.  Following the opulent melodies of Haydn’s Piano Trio in E flat major, we were given one of those ingeniously constructed artifacts that only the fertile genius of Mozart could have come up with.  It was his Piano Trio in G major, a work of potent splendor.  However, the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the closing performance of the original (1854) version of Brahms’ Piano Trio in B major.

When Brahms revised this work some decades after its original composition, in 1889 in fact, he basically cut it; his incisions pruned its branches and gave it a clearer, but an arguably more conventional form.  That’s how the mature Brahms saw the matter.  Yet unwieldy branches and weeds can, on being viewed from a different perspective, be seen as wondrous, luxuriant growths; and the original version had colour and complexity in abundance.

Anyway, the Vienna Piano Trio gave a strong performance of Brahms’ original work and allowed you to hear its beauty.  They’re all fine musicians and showed a plentiful amount of interaction throughout.  Stefan Mendl, the pianist, added a smidgeon of showmanship to proceedings but in essence they’re an efficient, well oiled machine.

At the end I reflected that whenever I hear Brahms, I like him.  But he’s not a composer I seek out especially.  Maybe I should.  And another stray thought: sometimes, More is More.

Details of forthcoming MCCS concerts can be found here.






Stefan Zweig – Abschied von Europa


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Stefan Zweig – Abschied von Europa

Curated by Clement Renoldner

Theater Museum

Lobkowitzplatz, Vienna

August 2014

Ausstellung im Theatermuseum, Gestalter: Peter Karlhuber, Kurator: Klemens Renoldner © Theatermuseum, Wien

Ausstellung im Theatermuseum, Gestalter: Peter Karlhuber, Kurator: Klemens Renoldner
© Theatermuseum, Wien

Just to revisit Stefan Zweig’s A Chess Story briefly.

At the moment there’s an exhibition at the Theater Museum in Vienna, looking at the latter part of the Austrian writer’s life and career.  In Stefan Zweig – Abschied von Europa, one room is given over to Schachnovelle.  Here you can read manuscripts and typescripts, view various editions of the book and so on.  A photograph of the room is above.

Note the chequered floor, the scale model of the Hotel Metropole – which was where the Gestapo were quartered in Vienna from 1938 – the leather great coats.  The layout of the room and the iconography may strike some as being a bit creepy, not to say problematic.  Zweig was Jewish, of course.

On a lighter note: elsewhere on the same floor, and as part of the exhibition, there’s a chess set on a table and a couple of chairs.  When I visited the museum in August, I couldn’t resist playing out the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3…

Zweig plays a part in the main exhibition, Richard Strauss und die Oper, as well.  He knew the composer and suggested writing an opera based on Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene; Or the Silent Woman.  This became Die schweigsame Frau (1933), for which Zweig wrote the libretto.

The top floor of the museum has a small array of artifacts relating to stage and set design.  This is, I think, a permanent exhibition.  The other two, Stefan Zweig – Abschied von Europa and Richard Strauss und die Oper, continue until early 2015, further details can be found here.

A Chess Story


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A Chess Story

By Stefan Zweig

Translated by Alexander Starritt

Cover illustration by Petra Börner

Pushkin Press, 2013

ISBN: 9781782270119

A Chess Story

Zweig’s novella, the Austrian writer’s last great work of fiction, was completed not long before his death.

It is a straightforward story, yet, as always with Zweig, psychologically complex.  We are on a steamship bound for Buenos Aires, where one of the passengers is Czentovic, the world chess champion.  Some chess enthusiasts take the opportunity to challenge the world champion to a consultation game and, naturally enough, he is soon beating them easily.  Until, that is, an enigmatic stranger, one Dr B, intervenes on the enthusiasts’ side and secures a draw.  A clamour ensues as they try to persuade Dr B to challenge Czentovic directly, to a match of two or three games…

Chess flowered in fin-de-siècle Vienna under the stewardship of George Marco, the celebrated editor of the Wiener Schachzeitung.  Carl Schlechter flourished in the city’s rich chess culture, going on to draw a match with Lasker for the world championship.  And the city attracted many talented players, including Richard Reti and Savielly Tartakower, leading lights of the Hypermodern School.  Hardly surprising, therefore, that Zweig gives a remarkable, if not always coherent or accurate, eulogy to the royal game in the early pages of A Chess Story:

But aren’t we guilty of being insultingly disparaging if we refer to chess as a game?  Is it not also a science, an art, poised between one and the other like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique synthesis of all opposites; ancient and yet always new, mechanical in its structure yet animated only by the imagination, limited to a geometrically petrified space yet unlimited in its permutations, always developing yet ever sterile, a logic with no result, a mathematics without calculations, an art without works, an architecture without materials, which has nevertheless proved more lasting in its forms and history than any works or books, the only game that belongs in every era and among every people, of which no one knows what god brought it to earth to kill boredom, sharpen the wits and tauten the spirit?

When Dr B is arrested by the Gestapo in Vienna and brought to the Hotel Metropole for interrogation, this wonderful game becomes his salvation.  He steals a book of master games and plays through them one by one in his mind; then later he plays against himself.  Chess offers an escape, a place of solace, a sphere where the mind can lose itself.  In time he survives, yet is damaged irretrievably.  A victim of the game’s awful infinitude.

A Chess Story is a brilliant work, excellently translated by Alexander Starritt, which might be described as a meditation on the fragility of culture and civilisation, a subject about which Zweig could speak with some authority.  Chess is used as a metaphor for myriad aids and evils, any arena of addiction and obsession – myth, fantasy, ideology, even art – where the mind may come to lose itself.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.


The Trial


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The Trial

Music by Philip Glass

Music Theatre Wales

RNCM Theatre, 22 October 2014

The Trial

As an opera, The Trial is virtually error-free.

What strikes you at first is the set: clean and clear, well-lit, almost but not quite monochrome.  And the costumes – black suits and white shirts, for the most part – share the same aesthetic: a spare use of colour, Middle-European minimalist.  Once the action gets underway, the lighting plays with chiaroscuro effects.

Philip Glass’ score serves the story, which for the most part means that it is edgy and anxious.  At the end, mind, as Josef K is slowly led out by his executioners, it became quite (well, relatively) jaunty.  Perhaps it’s too simple, but the temptation is to read this scene as a homage to Mack the Knife.  The closest we came to a conventional aria was when we got the parable (with Kafka you naturally reach for this word) of the man who comes from the country (you imagine a shetl or a Moldovan village) to stand before the gate of the Law.  Yet even then the music doesn’t meander into melody.  It served the drama of the story always.

Underlying Christopher Hampton’s faithful and unfussy libretto is the notion that while Kafka may once have been a prophet, now he is a realist (of course, Lukacs grasped this a while ago).  There is paranoia, bawdy and brutality here but that makes it a world we can all recognise.

Thus far in to the review and I’ve neglected to mention any of the performers, not even Johnny Herford, who played our put-upon hero.  My reason: they were all so convincing.  Really, it was the world of The Trial, the result of a happy confluence of many talents, that was the star here.  You were immersed in it.  This was an opera tried, tested and true.

Music Theatre Wales’ robust production of The Trial is currently touring the UK.  Further details are here.

Northern Soul


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Northern Soul

Directed by Elaine Constantine

UK, 2014

Cornerhouse, 18 October 2014

Northern Soul

An entertaining film, set like Shimmy Marcus’ SoulBoy (2010) in the ‘70s Northern Soul scene.  Supercool grooves, killer dance moves, baggy trousers and all.

There’s this bright lad, name of John (Elliot James Langridge), whose life is going nowhere.  He’s introverted, antisocial, unhappy.  Has a humdrum existence.  Then he discovers Northern Soul and the world begins to make sense to him.

What the film has going for it is, well, the music, of course.  Strong period detail and a clear sense of how dull yet violent those days could be.  Fine performances, not least from Antonia Thomas as Angela, a nurse that John takes a fancy to.  (While watching her: a memory of first touching a black girl’s Afro.)  Jack Gordon as Sean, a king of the scene/drug dealer type, was impressive – much better than the character as written deserved.  And Steve Coogan was also out and about, doing a turn as a typical ‘70s teacher, obnoxious and not averse, naturally, to using corporal punishment on occasion.

As for the story, it is in truth a bit predictable and doesn’t stray too far from the feel-good track.  It lacks any sustained sense of jeopardy.

Still, an entertaining film and it got me listening to Dexys Midnight Runners’ first album again – not a bad thing.


Kathryn Stott and Martin Roscoe


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Kathryn Stott and Martin Roscoe

Manchester Chamber Concerts Society

RNCM Theatre, 29 September 2014

An intriguing start to the MCCS season, in that the concert featured just the two pianos.

It is certainly not unknown for just two pianists to play together – Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis have done several performances along these lines in recent years – but it is a fairly rare occurrence.  What makes it intriguing for the listener is the way the pianos are used to complement, engage in dialogue and seemingly respond to each other, rather than being played as one.  And the works chosen here, in particular I’d say the Sonata in D major by Mozart and Rachmaninov’s Suite No 2, showed this diversity in identity to devastating effect.

The concert had an added significance.  Kathryn Stott is bringing her distinguished reign as Artistic Director of the MCCS to a close, with Martin Roscoe duly taking over the reins.  This was a fine occasion to mark the handover.

There is much to look forward to in the coming season, including Balkan folk music in February 2015.  Full details of forthcoming MCCS concerts can be found here.

UpClose: ‘If…’ by Bill Ryder-Jones


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UpClose: ‘If…’ by Bill Ryder-Jones

Manchester Camerata

Manchester Cathedral, 9 October 2014

Among the magnificent surroundings of Manchester Cathedral, Bill Ryder-Jones performed songs from his debut album, originally released in 2011.

Throughout, the former guitarist with The Coral was aided by a fleet of musicians, some from Manchester Camerata.

The album is a riff on Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which is Ryder-Jones’ favourite novel.  Rather than, say, the best novel ever written about a rock band: From Blue to Black by the brilliant Joel Lane.  Ryder-Jones didn’t go on to say what his favourite passage in Calvino’s novel was, though personally I’d plumb for the portion entitled Without fear of wind or vertigo.  We heard John Simm read several passages from the novel, but nothing I think from this one.

Anyway, the music here was as variegated and inventive as the source text.  And full of subtle melody.  The best moments were when Ryder-Jones’ electric guitar clashed with/played beside the Camerata’s classical instruments.  It made you yearn for some kind of rock/baroque fusion.

Splendidly fabulist fare.

You can listen to a version of If… here.

Or view forthcoming concerts from the Manchester Camerata here.

Mugyenko Taiko Drummers


Mugyenko Taiko Drummers

RNCM Theatre, 7 October 2014

Mugyenko Taiko Drummers

Now you might think that a concert featuring mainly taiko drumming (there are a few flutes and bells besides) would be a bit one-dimensional, even boring after a while.

You’d be dead wrong.  There are performances of about fourteen or fifteen works, some traditional, some original.  The rhythm (several rhythms simultaneously, often), reverberation and vibration that these taiko drummers are able to create is captivating.  Their speed, power and dexterity are incredible.  All told, it is an immensely exciting and exhilarating show.

Naturally, you seek analogies for the sounds you hear: the continuous clash of sword upon shield, an arc of rolling thunder, a clanging collision between two tanks, the tremor of an earthquake.  One piece would serve as an ideal replacement for the roar of all those F1 engines, should that enterprise finally decide to go the quieter, more environmentally friendly route after all.  But best to hear these drummers for yourself.

Mugyenko Taiko Drummers are touring the UK at the moment, full details here.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Directed by Robert Weine

Germany, 1920

Cornerhouse, 10 October 2014

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The angular sets are what strike you immediately, in particular the mountain view of the town, a jumble of houses looking like one of those landscapes by Schiele.

It’s an ingenious device, creating a distorted world which hints at the disturbed mental state of the (is this a plot spoiler, after almost a century?) unreliable narrator.  A world at once disorientating and threatening.

There are other noteworthy aspects.  As for example, the scene where Cagliari first falls on the sleepwalker who has been bought to him, his embrace openly affectionate and sexual.  Also, the close-up of the monster’s face: curiously, grossly androgynous.  He has a ghostly pallor, a dark heavily lipsticked mouth.  And the incisive use of suggestion, a mode of storytelling that is visual yet oblique: violence as shadows wrestling upon a wall, and so on.

In other respects, the film has dated.  Performances seem mannered, situations clichéd.  Of course, one can recognise that this is sometimes because other, later filmmakers have borrowed and pillaged from it.  At the time it must have been terrifying.  Also, for a silent film, it is highly dependent on interpolated text to tell the story; it’s not a ‘pure’ example of the form.

So not exactly a classic, as Fritz Lang’s as Metropolis undoubtedly is (Lang takes his structure from music, I recall, whereas Wiene takes his from theatre – this film is in six acts.  Is this significant?) but still a film that should be seen at least once.  To see what later film-makers have built upon and, equally instructive perhaps, discarded.

Moscow Rachmaninov Trio


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Moscow Rachmaninov Trio

Carole Nash Recital Room, RNCM

12 October 2014

The first of three concerts by this distinguished trio, and it was all subdued brilliance.

One of those occasions where you hoped you had earned the right to be there, but weren’t quite so sure.

Three works, music by Glinka, Arensky and Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky again, following speedily on the toes of Swan Lake.  Of these, Arensky’s Piano Trio No 2 in F minor required most attention, while Glinka’s Trio Pathétique in D minor, the shortest of the three, was easiest to enjoy.  As for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, it had everything: energy, passion, melody in abundance.  A restless dynamism, endlessly inventive.  You hoped – it seemed a fair expectation at the time – the music would never end.

The next concert, tonight, features Rachmaninov and on Thursday the trio are joined by Yair Kless for an evening of music by Shostakovich.  Further details can be found here and here.


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