Monthly Archives: February 2014

Elizaveta Agladze Interview

Young Russian-American mezzo-soprano Elizaveta Agladze has been seen as a recitalist and concert soloist throughout the eastern United States. She received her Master’s degree in Organizational Sciences from George Washington University, her Bachelor’s degrees in Music and Psychology from Emory University, and her Associate Arts degree from Emory University’s Oxford College, where she returned as a guest recitalist this fall. Elizaveta is currently a student at Galina Abiyakiy Voice Studio in Washington, D.C. and a graduate of the OperaWorks Advanced Artists Program in Northride, California.  We were so lucky to grab a few moments with her…

AGLADZE_mezzo

photo:  Shawn Flint Blair (used with permission)

Elizaveta, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed for this site.

The pleasure is all mine, Michael.

What is your first memory of hearing Tchaikovsky’s music?

I’m afraid I would be very unoriginal in answering this question – it must be the music from either Swan Lake or The Nutcracker. I don’t remember which one I heard first. When I was a child, my mother took me to the Bolshoi Theatre every year to see Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. I’ve been in love with this music ever since.

To a Russian woman, how “Russian” does Tchaikovsky’s music sound?

I find Tchaikovsky’s music to be very Russian, even though I cannot really explain what “Russian” music means. But when I hear an unfamiliar piece of music from the Romantic period, I can almost always tell correctly whether it’s Russian or not.  On a subjective level, it is something that resonates with my soul and makes me feel at home, as if the music ran through my blood. But I think many people feel that way about Tchaikovsky’s music, regardless of nationality. Tchaikovsky’s music is deeply emotional, revealing openness and great-heartedness, while at the same time intertwined with vulnerability, heartbreak and tragedy – I think that is pretty Russian.

What is the popular view of Tchaikovsky in modern Russia today?

I think Pyotr Ilyich is as popular as ever! And the fact that his first piano concerto was performed at the end of the Olympic Games closing ceremony stands as a good proof to that.

What was the first music by Tchaikovsky you ever sang? Did this make an immediate impression on you?

I played Tchaikovsky on the piano before I sang his music – the Neapolitan song, a few pieces from the Children’s Album, and later Dance of the Little Swans. I must admit that that was not my favorite music to play at the time – I was more of a Chopin girl. But, of course I was eager to learn the Dance of the Little Swans! Singing Tchaikovsky (which I started later on in life) has been a much more pleasurable experience, since by that time I had matured to feel and express his music better.

What is your favourite piece/aria/song by Tchaikovsky?

There are so many! I love singing Da, chas nastal from The Maid of Orleans – there is just so much passion and drama in that piece. My very favorite aria by Tchaikovsky, though, is Lensky’s aria Kuda, kuda from Eugene Onegin. Too bad it’s not written for a mezzo!

Here is the aria Elizaveta chose as her favourite;  Kuda, Kuda from Eugene Onegin (also known, more accurately, as Yevgeny Onedin).  Placido Domingo sings it wonderfully here…

And here is my favourite aria in an opera so rich in wonderful moments.  If you listen to the two one after the other, you will hear that each one begins with a series of descending notes.  When the main theme, heard timidly at first, returns, it truly is one of the greatest moments in all Tchaikovsky…

The whole opera may surprise you;  it is not on the same scale as Verdi (and certainly not Wagner!)  If you can find a version with a good translation, then you really are in for a tragic treat.

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A Guide to Sonata Form

Now don’t go running away…!  In order to write about much of Tchaikovsky’s music I have to let you know something about how large scale works are built up.  I promise you, if you understand sonata form, it will greatly enhance your enjoyment of many pieces of classical music.

And, as an added bonus, I shall try to tell what the difference is between a sonata, a concerto and a symphony.  It’s not difficult, I promise you…

A symphony is for orchestra, usually in four movements (fast-slow-very fast-fast, at its most basic level).  That was the pattern established by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and continued to be used by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Grieg, among many others; so we really are talking about a huge range of music here.

A concerto is music for orchestra with a solo instrument or instruments showing off in the foreground.  A piano concerto is for piano and orchestra ( a ‘duel’ between the two, Tchaikovsky thought), a violin concerto for violin and orchestra, and so on.  There are things such as double concertos, for two prominent instruments and orchestra, or triple concertos, for three.  Concertos are almost always in three movements (fast-slow-fast) although, as you can imagine, there are a few exceptions.

A sonata doesn’t involve an orchestra at all; there are piano sonatas, violin and piano sonatas, and so on.  Again, almost always in their movements, following the pattern fast-slow-fast.

But what binds them all together is the use of sonata form; almost all symphonies, concertos and sonatas will have the first movement in sonata form, which is why I want to spend a little time telling you the basics of how it works here…

Sonata form developed as a means to handle longer structures in music; the need for repetition and contrast.  It began to be used as early as the 1730s but continued to evolve right up until the twentieth century.  It’s like a road map and if you can follow the map then the music will make so much more sense to you and you’ll know where you are.  So here goes with my little, gentle guide to sonata form.  Always remember that what follows are general rules, but if you get a good grasp of them, the exceptions are never really so very different.

Sonata Form

…is usually in three sections called the exposition, development and recapitulation.  But I should start with what often precedes all of these, the slow introduction.

A slow introduction was used first in music which was intended for dance.  Its use was simply to say to the assembled revellers, “Get ready.  We’re going to start any minute now.”  Later, it is sometimes omitted but right through Mozart and Haydn, up to early Beethoven, it was merely meant as an intention grabber.

(For example, listen to the first movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104; a perfect example.  When the loud and portentous bit is over, we start the exposition.)

But we’re not quite there yet; we have to note that, since this is a site mainly devoted to Tchaikovsky, he wrote one of the grandest introductions ever.  At the start of his first piano concerto there is a monumental introduction.  Can you recall it?  It’s one of the most recognisable pieces of music in the world with those crashing ascending chords and the glorious tune above it.  But, strictly speaking, it is part of the slow introduction.  We know that because, when it’s over, it will not reappear anywhere else in the concerto.  But who would be without it?

Now, the exposition is where the composer shows us his material, simply meaning the melodic material (tunes) that he’ll be working with.  This exposition is broken down into three sections:

First subject group:  This is the first group of melodic material.  It’s rarely one single tune, more like a few of them.  But they will always be in the same key and in the same mood.

Transition:  Now the composer has to form a bridge between the first subject group and what will follow.  He has to move the music into a new key and a new mood, ready for the…

Second subject group:  This is more likely to be a single tune (or melody, or theme) but the emphasis here will be on contrast between the new material and what has gone before.  Very roughly, the first subject will be relatively fast, the second subject relatively slow and probably more lyrical.

Codetta:  Literally ‘a little ending’ to show that we’re at the end of the exposition.  In earlier symphonies (Haydn, Mozart and some Beethoven, the exposition will now be repeated just to make sure you have the two contrasting ‘subjects’ firmly planted in your head.  Tchaikovsky very rarely does this.

Now we come to the development.  This will give the composer a chance to mix up the music of the first and second subjects in all sorts of ways.  He may take a fragment of something in the first subject group and do some work on that, repeating it in different keys, in sequences and in different parts of the orchestra.  The development is the battlefield of the movement!  I may take up only a short amount of time on it here but this is the central section of the form, where most of the drama will take place.  The composer will take us to a variety of keys and contrasting ‘versions’ of the material from the exposition.

When things have returned to some sort of normality and we hear the music return to the first subject group, we are at the…

Recapitulation:  Or, simply, a recap.  In other words, the composer repeats the exposition and the themes are returned to how they were in the exposition.  Of course there will be modifications and differences in orchestral colour but we are speaking of essentially recognisable music from before. There will be no transition this time (or very little) because all of this will now be in the home key, so there’s no need for a transition to change it.

CodaLiterally, the ending; a small section at the end to round off the music.

 

Now, you must understand that I’m speaking in wild generalisations here, but that was the essence of sonata form.  You might like to try it out with something like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart.  It is short and simple, easy to follow and the lines are very clearly drawn between the sections.  Watch out, though, because in most versions you’ll hear, the whole exposition will be repeated and there is no slow introduction.  We get straight into the exposition. That said, it shouldn’t present any problems.

Here’s a quick start guide, if you will, to everything I’ve said above:

Exposition:

(No slow introduction.  We’re straight into…)

First subject group (same mood, same key)

Second subject group (contrasting mood, different key)

Codetta

 

Develpoment:

(the composer plays around with what has gone before)

 

Recapitulation:

A shortened version of the exposition, ending in the home key, probably with a little…

 

Coda: just to round things off.

 

And finally, here’s a quick analysis of the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  This is a very short and uncomplicated sonata structure.  Just go to the link and listen while looking at this guide…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDNENgxTJuM  (right click this link to open in new window)

0:00 EXPOSITION:  We’re straight in, with no introduction.  First subject group.

0:48 TRANSITION:  Moving from G major to D major (changing key)

1:04 Second subject group, a contrasting melody.

1:50 Back to the start of the piece, EXPOSITION is repeated, with the same little codetta (just a few notes.)

3:20  DEVELOPMENT:  It sounds like we’ve gone back to the beginning again but note the change and shortening of the first subject to make it very slightly more sinister.  Then the second half of that opening theme is ‘developed’ or changed or modified.

3:52 RECAPITULATION:  Note how short that last section was – those by Tchaikovsky will be much longer!  We’re effectively back to the beginning.  The only difference from the exposition here is that there is no need for a transition (change of key) because the rest of the music will stay in its home key of G major but don’t worry if you don’t notice that.

5:25 After a little tinkering with the end of the recapitulation (descending notes, quietly played on the violin) we enter the CODA to round off.

Any questions…?

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Stephen Hough Interview

Stephen Hough, born in 1961, is truly a polymath. As well as being an internationally acclaimed concert pianist, he is Chair of Piano Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where his is also a fellow. In addition, Stephen is an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in London.

He is a fine composer; the first performance of his cello concerto was premiered in 2007, played by its dedicate, Steven Isserlis.  He has also written music for piano and a number of choral works.

Stephen is an accomplished painter and has exhibited in London.  He was awarded a CBE in the 2014 New Year’s list for his services to music. 

At the BBC Proms in 2012 he gave performances of the complete Tchaikovsky works for piano and orchestra.  Stephen has very kindly and generously given us time for an exclusive interview…

Image 

Photo:  Sim Cannety-Clarke (used with permission)

Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed. It is a great honour for us.

I’m happy to do so, and delighted that Tchaikovsky’s presence on the Internet is about to increase with your new website.

Do you recall the first piece you ever played by Tchaikovsky?

I think I tinkered around with some of The Seasons as a youngster (I remember November), but the first piece I played in public was the Dumka, still for me one of the greatest tragic piano pieces. It’s as full of soul as anything written for the instrument. I didn’t play and never wanted to learn the 1st concerto as a student but one day, when I was teaching it in a master class, its magic hit me and I decided to learn it (about ten years ago).

‘June’ always brought a tear to my eyes.  When you were studying music, were you aware of a certain snobbery attached to Tchaikovsky’s music among scholars and academics?

Not really. By the 1980s, many serious musicologists were writing about Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and in Manchester we had David Fanning.

At the time, did you ever dismiss Tchaikovsky’s music as being second rate?

Never. I love music that’s intellectually tight but I also love music that speaks directly to the heart.

When you played the complete works for piano and orchestra at the BBC Proms a couple of years ago, I remember you saying something about speaking to a fellow pianist who said he would much rather play Rachmaninoff than Tchaikovsky. Can you tell us what he meant by this?

Rachmaninov was one of the greatest pianists of all time and he wrote with all of that expertise at his fingertips. But Tchaikovsky was perhaps the first composer to write a piano concerto, which he himself could not play. Musically I love playing both composers’ works but Tchaikovsky does feel like playing with ten thumbs on occasion.

When I first started out as a teacher, I mercilessly destroyed a textbook whose opening line on the composer was, “The popularity of Tchaikovsky’s music is out of all proportion to its artistic merit.” Do you think I overreacted…?

Maybe not! There have been times, particular in the more arid years of the 20th century, when something’s popularity alone was enough to make intellectuals suspicious of it (books, paintings too). It’s an understandable reaction to a cheapening and commercializing of culture but it’s obviously simplistic and at times completely stupid. I hope you recycled the offending pages though 🙂

I put it in a box labelled, ‘Silly Things People Have Written About Tchaikovsky…!’ The second movement of the second concerto is a divine inspiration, is it not? Can you account for the relative unpopularity of that concerto compared with the first? Surely it just can’t be the lack opening ‘big tune?’ 

I think there are all sorts of reasons why pieces are and are not popular. The 1st concerto was a hard act to follow but I love the 2nd concerto as much. I think the (perceived) problems with the second movement had something to do with it. The piece was heard mainly in the truncated (hacked) Siloti version until the later 20th century. I’ve written about this movement on my Telegraph blog and I offer a solution to the movement’s structural issues on my recording. It seems that Tchaikovsky admitted that there was an issue with this movement, despite the beauty of the material, and I tried to imagine my own solution.

How much research do you do, in general, to make sure you are playing the edition of the music most closely resembling that of the composer’s original score? For example, do you play the original version of that 2nd Piano Concerto’s slow movement?

Every piece has a different history. Some music exists in one, perfect version (Brahms’ 2nd concerto); other pieces went through many versions before reaching a final one (Rachmaninov’s 1st and 4th concertos). With Tchaikovsky’s 2nd there is no excuse to play the Siloti version. Not only did Tchaikovsky specifically disown it, but it turns a serious slow movement with an emotional journey into a sort of intermezzo. The lovely tune is still there but the story has changed.

Would you ever consider playing the fully completed version of the third, as prepared by Taneyev?

I listened to it and did not like the material very much. It wouldn’t have fitted on our CD set … and it isn’t really by Tchaikovsky. Nevertheless, it’s always good that such pieces are recorded by someone.

I’m relieved to hear you say that!  Does Tchaikovsky’s music ever make you smile, or even laugh out loud?

Oh yes – not just the mad Troika-type pieces, but the 1st movement of the 2nd, in its sheer virtuosic outrageousness, has a comical element. The same goes for the 1st movement of the Concert Fantasia when the pianist takes over for eight minutes of cadenzas then the orchestra go back to the beginning as if to say, “OK, enough showing off! Let’s start over again”. There are even more places in Tchaikovsky when I find myself gently smiling. The 2nd movement of the 1st concerto is so full of childlike wonder and innocence. It has a kind of magic similar to The Nutcracker.

Is it important for you to know something about the way the composer lived his life before you start seriously studying the music?

I think it usually begins with curiosity, but with certain composers the music is so woven into their lives that it’s really important to know something about what was going on outside the notes.

Did you enjoy playing the complete works for piano and orchestra?

Very much. Partly because so much of it is relatively unknown. It’s quite thrilling to play excellent music by one of the most famous composers, which is unfamiliar.

It was such an honour that Stephen found the time to speak to me.  His version of  Tchaikovsky’s Complete Works for piano and orchestra can be found here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tchaikovsky-Romantic-Concerto-Concertos-Fantasia/dp/B0037TTQ4C/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_nC?ie=UTF8&colid=1IUQGIXN4TDSW&coliid=I16LYJT2ZQNJL7

t and hough

Stephen touched on the problem with the slow movement of the second concerto.  In this set, he gives us three versions of it; Tchaikovsky’s original, Siloti’s* revision, and his own solution.

The Minnesota orchestra is on fine form under Osmo Vanska, and the 2CD pack comes with an unreserved recommendation from me.

*Aleksandr Siloti:  (1863-1945) sometimes spelled as Ziloti or Zhiloti was a pianist and a strong advocate of Tchaikovsky’s music as well as a former pupil.  Tchaikovsky would often allow Siloti to proofread and edit his music and they were good friends.  But his version of the 2nd concerto’s slow movement robs it of some of its finest moments.  In its original version, it is like a triple concerto for piano, violin and cello.  And it is beautiful.

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