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Category Archives: Classical

Homage to the ones who started it all.

Keys keys keys

If there’s one thing I should be doing right now, it’s learning the piano. Not taking out the washing, not religiously checking my fantasy football team’s performance, not thinking I should probably get on with the traditional Sunday activity of ironing one’s trousers in preparation for work. I should be learning how to play that magnificent instrument.

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Unfortunately, two problems stand staunchly in my way: firstly, I don’t own one of the bloody things. Secondly, I’m inherently lazy. So, instead, I will celebrate the music that it creates. I may be covering trodden ground from previous blogs in some cases, but what’s the harm in that? Additionally, I’m going for a shot to the arm rather than poignancy.

Over the year of 2015, I have embarked on an absolute Prokofiev binge, purchasing his catalogue in healthy doses. One piece that particularly sings to me is this, the shortened Vivace piece of the fourth piano concerto in B flat. It is completely masterful, never taking a moment’s breath as it flutters through your ears; I can but exhale in deep satisfaction once it has finished.

Picking a single Neil Cowley tune is a hugely unfair task, but the mammoth We Are Here To Make Plastic neatly sums up his outrageously versatile playing style. Just ensure you make it to 2.44.

Ah, Erroll Garner. You absolute beast. Live jazz piano that will bring you out in goosebumps.

It’d be rude not to tip the hat to a wee bit of ragtime, and this Alexander Peskanov version of Scott Joplin’s classic Maple Leaf Rag is a joy to behold.

As is Morton Gunnar Larson’s turbo charged version of Jelly Roll Morton’s Finger Breaker.

Well, I could go on, and I will with those Japanese tinklers mouse on the keys. Plateau is nothing short of a roller coaster.

My favourite piano piece of all time? As stated in a previous blog, Polonaise in A flat major, op. 53 ‘Heroic’ by Frédéric Chopin, played by Vladimir Horowitz. Majestically wondrous and awe-inspiring, I don’t believe it will ever bore me.

Enjoy!

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Pure power: Igor Stravinsky

An inspiration to countless musicians, Igor Stravinsky is a name known throughout the world. His music is of the most intricate and complex nature, tearing up all the rules used in composing traditional classical music and groundbreaking at the time due to its atonal nature. This led to the infamous riot during the opening ballet performance of The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913, or so the story goes.

On a personal level, I absolutely love Stravinsky and his mad compositions, joining the millions of people who are probably far more knowledgeable than myself on the subject. However, after witnessing The Rite of Spring at the Royal Opera House last Wednesday, I feel the need to share the excerpts of Stravinsky’s music that have had a profound effect on me.

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In terms of raw power and a wonderful feeling of dread, Dance Of The Young Girls (Section 2, Part 1) from The Rite Of Spring is on a plateau all of its own. The accentuated stabs throughout the piece can not fail to force your spine into a state of rigidity, building up the terror incessantly and reaching a pinnacle from 2.09 onwards. The layering of instruments is beautiful, twisting woodwind lines contrasted with the urgently rising and falling strings. The crescendo comes to a head with The Mock Abduction (Section 3, Part 1) at 3.11, a monstrous piece of music that assaults all of the senses. It is truly magnificent and petrifying.

The Rite Of Spring’s importance in cultural significance is huge, as is Stravisnky’s music in general. It forced people to reconsider what music could mean, how it should sound and inspired composers and musicians to alter or experiment with their technique.

A final, tiny excerpt that has always stuck in my mind is a certain passage from Chez Petrushka, lifted from the ballet Petrushka. Between 0.46 and 1.00, the choice of note and lightning speed with which it is executed places me into a happy and delighted stupor.

I’m stating the obvious here, but Igor Stravinsky was a momentous force to be reckoned with. Enjoy it.

Evaporate the remaining ethanol

I’m not a fan of being hungover. There is something horribly wasteful about starting your weekend feeling like you want to crawl into a hibernation nest of duvets and bottled water, keeping contact with the outside world to an absolute minimum.

Help me out here pal.

Help me out here pal.

So what can help to ease the self loathing and anxious liver?

A firm favourite of mine, Erik Satie’s Gnoissiennes – 1. Lent is perfect minimalist music, each note of the dark melody played with maximum effect. It never fails to relax me.

The last track on Mr. Scruff’s Big Chill Classics compilation album, Serene by Nobukazu Takemura features a soothing xylophone run at 1.48 and hypnotic vocal harmonies from 2.43. A real slow burner.

Is There Any Way Out Of This Dream? by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle is lifted from the soundtrack for One From The Heart. A moody jazz number, it is a clear case of the ability Waits possesses to write such music at will.

If See You Later by Dave Mackay and Vicky Hamilton does not make you melt into your seat like a character from Raiders of the Lost Ark, then you should probably get a check up. It does not get much smoother.

Finally, arguably the most placid and relaxing composition of all time, Second Movement (Adante) from Piano Concerto No 21 in C K467 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is simply beautiful. If you need pure serenity in music, then look no further.

Vladimir Horowitz – master of the ivories

Vladimir Horowtiz is a god amongst men in the piano world – a tinkler of the ivories like no other.

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In particular, I am a huge fan of his nimble fingered renditions of Frédéric Chopin’s work. There is no question of virtuosity, it is plain for all to see.

My personal favourite, Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat Major, Op. 53 is a piece of grand proportions and is suitably majestic in the tone and style that Horowitz coaxs out of his piano. Dipping and diving between soft, intricate passages and booming chords, it is a tour de force.

Horowitz’s take on Islamey by Mila Balakirev is a frantic jaunt of devilish talent, with a dark and quiet interlude from 2.00 before rising up the registers again. It is also worth hearing the orchestral version as a point of comparison, played here by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.

Finally, ending on another Chopin piece, Etude in G-Flat Major, Op. 10, No. 5, ‘Black Key’ is a clear, live demonstration of the ease at which Horowitz plays his instrument. At just over a minute and a half in length, it is a cascading melody that is joyfully brought to life by Horowitz.

The man who made The Apprentice

I really should have resisted from labelling this blog as I have done, because really, it is an insult to this fantastic composer to be linked to a bloody reality television show. Everyone knows the theme tune to The Apprentice, and the man behind it is one Sergei Prokofiev.

Geniuses are not always the most handsome of buggers

Geniuses are not always the most handsome of buggers

While Dance Of The Knights is the most famous piece from Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet, there are so many delicious sections within the entire movement that twist, soar and blare at one’s aural sense. Prokofiev’s sense of melody and feel perfectly matches the wretched love story that is Romeo and Juliet, and having recently witnessed the Royal Ballet of Canada perform it in London, the monstrous and thunderous nature of the music is truly spectacular and, quite frankly, somewhat terrifying.

Classical music is the beginning point for any form of music today, and to not acknowledge its influence and importance is wrong. To label it ‘boring’ is criminal, especially when there are so many melodies from the wildly simplistic to the most intricate and interesting of scores. Prokofiev is one composer who managed to do it all, with the distinct Russian feel that other composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Mily Balakirev had developed before him.

I have hauled out some of the musical passages that I particularly love from Romeo and Juliet, but to do the whole piece justice and really marvel at what Prokofiev has created, find a few hours on a miserable, rainy day with which to get comfortable on a snug sofa and listen through from start to finish via some big, closed cup headphones.

Firstly, the piece for Act I, Scene XII: Masks. An eerie and instantly memorable melody, the music elegantly bobs along with the violins playing in a lower register before gradually becoming louder and higher. A highly pleasurable and oddly relaxing listen!

Secondly, Act I, Scene VI: The Fight. If Grade 25 exists for the violin, then this is the section you probably have to play to pass it. A lightning fast flurry of violins normally, the orchestra in this video take it to a whole new level. Repeatedly rising to the crescendo and falling away dramatically, stunning just about describes it. The detail in the score for each instrument of the orchestra brings this piece together to create a behemoth. The Fight starts from 8.30 and ends on a stop start passage at about 11.10 in this video. Prepare to melt in your seat.

Finally, Act II, Scene XVV: Dance With Mandolins. Another example of a section that builds progressively with each instrument (mandolin, trumpet, clarinet, cello, violin) adding another musical idea, it peaks at 1.30 with a gracefully twisting clarinet line and plucked violins. For a supercharged version, start from 11.26 in the second video.

This is but a tiny portion of the work that Prokofiev has composed, it is quite overwhelming to think of the multitude of music that could be listened to. But, if you need something else to sink your teeth into pronto, then there is also the short and other mildly famous piece that Prokofiev created…….

Believe you me, the rest of that is definitely worth forty minutes of your time.