Brought to life…

Quite unexpectedly, I’ve received a message from an online acquaintance in which she reveals that she’s been to hear an evening recital by a piano duo — two pianists at one piano. And I’m duly impressed: I’ve never met the lady, but I gather she doesn’t have any particularly strong interest in music, and I’ve never badgered her to go out and hear some. I’m actually curious to know more about what she made of the pieces she heard; so far, however, all I’ve been told is this:

The Duo were technically superb – and I had the best seat in the house from which to follow the extraordinary choreography of their hands …

But I would not listen to the contemporary music they selected to play, from choice.

— All of which I suppose makes the result one that in the world of football (soccer) would be described as an ‘away draw’… What I’m going to do now is see if I can’t nudge that result into an ‘away win after extra time’. (At this point my entire football-related vocabulary is exhausted.)

First of all, I have to say that for part of the event my virtual pal was taking on works by 20th-century figures György Kurtág (b. 1926) and Conlon Nancarrow (1912-97) — and if you’ve come across those composers yourself you’ll be thinking that this must have been a pretty ‘hard-core’ concert… At the same time, however, there were a couple of works performed which really weren’t ‘contemporary’ at all. My electronic acquaintance sent me a scan of the programme — and on it was this:programmeNow, it so happens that Petrushka is one of the first Stravinsky pieces I ever fell in love with — back in about 1979 (when it was still less than 70 years old, and Stravinsky himself had only been dead for 8 years!) — so I feel a kind of pain when I discover that someone heard it played and wasn’t totally bowled over by it. So let me do a quick run across the ice with that long-handled brush and see if I’m able to get the stone to travel a little bit further. (At this point my entire curling-related vocabulary is exhausted.)

First, here’s the very start of the piece that she and the rest of the audience heard the other night (I’ve coded the video so it stops after 3 minutes or so):

If I imagine myself hearing that for the first time after the interval in a ‘live’ recital, I think I might have had slightly mixed feelings also: my ears are of the sort that find ‘piano duet’ sound quite tiring — and after 30 or 40 minutes of it, I probably wouldn’t have been in a state to take in a big piece that had such a percussive ‘edge’ to it. I suspect I’d probably have come away thinking that this was a rather arid work whose juxtaposed blocks of material didn’t really add up to much…

If anyone actually came to that conclusion the other night, it really would be a shame — for the fact is that Stravinsky’s Petrushka wasn’t written to be principally experienced as ‘a work for two pianists at one piano’: the ‘real’ score is for a large and colourful orchestra. Let me allow everyone to appreciate the losses and gains of piano duet presentation by now linking to part of the work in a fairly impressive concert performance (This extract starts a little before the point where the previous clip ended…):

Now, when my friend actually hears this clip, it will be interesting to discover if the orchestral version of the piece strikes her differently from the piano duo performance she heard first. For one thing, this version uses the powerful instrumental resources of the early 20th-century orchestra — with the piano (you may have noticed!) just one tiny element of the very busy texture. On top of which, you have to admit that the clever imitation of a squeaky barrel organ is vastly more successful when there are woodwind instruments available…

But even if this version does make a better impression, the fact remains that we’re still not experiencing the music in an entirely authentic manner — because Petrushka wasn’t composed as a virtuoso concert item, but as an accompaniment to a ballet. (At this point my entire ballet-related vocabulary is exhausted.)

Yes: the music was originally designed and structured to be played alongside a story told by means of danced action. Let’s now restore that visual element — you’ll remember that the programme shown above referred to this scene as ‘The Shrovetide Fair’ — and see how things go (This time I’ll start more or less where the previous clip started, and run to the same end point…):

Is this making a meaningful difference…? Is anything becoming clearer, communicatively and expressively…?

There’s one other piece from the score that I want everyone to hear in the duet version — and this is the fourth and final section of the ballet’s first part: the famous ‘Russian Dance’ that is really one of the score’s ‘hits’ (Stravinsky, who knew where his bread was buttered, went on to produce a succession of saleable arrangements of it…). Here it is played by our two pianists:

What I’m not going to do after that is link straight to the orchestral version of this section — because I’m hoping readers will now turn to the entire ballet and experience the segment in its proper musical and dramatic context: yes, the next clip is coded to present Stravinsky’s amazing orchestral score from the beginning to the end, and the ballet with it.

If what you’ve read and heard in this posting has intrigued you at all, my shy suggestion is that you just click on the panel and let the thing hit you without further information from me or anyone else. After all, one of the maddest and most destructive tendencies of our art-hating cultural world is the way people seem to think they need to be told about art-works before they’ve experienced them. Time was, you know, when people would go to the opera or ballet and take it all in ‘from cold’ — just as you or I are quite capable of taking in a comedy or action film ‘in one go’, without having first read up on its director, it’s ‘meaning’ — or its ending. So you’ll get nothing further from me about this story of the Shrovetide fair; the Magician with the puppet-booth — and the actual puppets: the Moor, the Ballerina, and Petrushka himself…

Well, there we are: that’s a pretty definite sounding of the referee’s whistle… And who won, I wonder, over in the world of your experience? I hope it was Stravinsky.

I wonder what my web-friend thought…?


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3 thoughts on “Brought to life…

  1. Nice one, Mark – but you ought to go to the ballet from time to time (so should all Stravinsky-lovers), as those who know Leo Delibes’ Coppelia (the complete score, not just the more instantly memorable bits) – specifically Act II, where the life-sized dolls Dr Coppelius makes come to life – will have no trouble in hearing the connections between Delibes’ late 19th-century French ballet music and Stravinsky’s very early 20th-century ballet music (premiered in France), on a very similar subject.


  2. Waw ! I am totally blown over my MD’s commentary … the only thing he failed to tell us is the Petrushka was originally a fairy tale and knowing P’s antics would help see the tunes as soooo very descriptive of his actions.

    But then again, Stravinsky is far from being on the list of my favourites composers..

    Thank you for your elucidating (?) explanations.

    Mirella ( mother of your web-friend)


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