" I have spent a lot of my time recently thinking how we can best draw upon the inspirational people, that were it not for lockdown, might be visiting Sheffield Music Academy. I have decided to start a “ blogcast” - a combination of a blog and a podcast. Our guests will first be asked to write about music that has played an important part in their life, sharing their thoughts and feelings and selecting performances for us to listen to. You can then email any questions that these blogs have provoked and I will select a student to go and interview our guest, selecting from these questions. we can then all hear their responses in a recorded interview."
- Martin Cropper, Music Director
Mid-lockdown, and we all need music! Those of us lucky enough to be players are desperate to get together to play, and all of us who love listening are missing real live performances. There is no substitute for live music, it’s such a different experience from listening to CDs or online, AND YET!...…. What riches there are online! Never have we had the musical world at our fingertips as we do now, with virtually all the great recordings of great works there at a click.
So here I am, responding to SMA's request that I choose one or more pieces that are very special to me, and share what I love about them, and about the recordings I have suggested. It’s perhaps the nearest I’ll get to doing Desert Island Discs!
1) Frédéric Chopin Ballade in G minor, No.1
My first piece is the Ballade in G minor no.1, by Chopin. Here are my recommendations:
I’ve always loved Chopin’s music. It has a special magic to it, as if the music invites us into Chopin’s own special world, full of such emotional sensitivity, such extremes, such kaleidoscopes of colour and texture. The first Ballade has all of this and much more. After the mysterious scene-setting of the introduction, the opening melody must surely be one of the most soulful and introspective ever imagined. Like all the great tunes, it has simplicity, and you can follow the unfolding of its structure effortlessly, as it moves from melancholy to hope and back again.
Listen to Artur Rubinstein play this melody. I’m one of the many who feel that Rubinstein brings Chopin’s music to life like no other pianist. His rubato is so individual, yet never forced, he plays with great feeling yet is never sentimental. This recording on YouTube is audio only, but you can follow the piano score on the screen as he plays. And at the start there is a fascinating statement by Rubinstein about how he relates to Chopin. The Krystian Zimerman video performance is also wonderful, it’s a joy watching his hands choreographing the music’s story as he plays.
One of the great moments for me in the Ballade, about five and a half minutes in, is when the music builds up to what is clearly going to be a crisis, some terrible happening, and then, unbelievably, at the last moment, Chopin gives us a theme of total ecstasy! Think of the moment in the Lord of the Rings just before the Ring is destroyed. All is lost on the battle field, and then suddenly……..! Well, the analogy is not that good, but it gives the idea. A few minutes later, the same rising threat builds up, and this time, there is no miraculous salvation, the tragic event unfolds. It launches us into the thrilling and famously difficult coda with its crazy jumping left hand. If you ever doubted the importance of practising scales, the end of this Ballade should convince you otherwise. Two dramatic scales, the first in octaves, the second in tenths. What do they signify? I’m sure there are lots of interpretations. But coming at the end of this fiendish coda, they certainly have an extraordinary effect.
If you fall for this Ballade, try its companion, Ballade no. 4, next!
2) Mendelssohn Quartet in F minor, Op 80
My second choice is Mendelssohn’s final string quartet, written in response to the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, herself a superb composer who never had the chance to fulfil her potential, because as a woman in those days it wasn’t possible. Mendelssohn was 37, and died himself six months after his sister. The quartet is his last major piece. Mendelssohn had been a workaholic, and a lot of his later music lacked the emotional intensity and creative genius of his early masterpieces. Not for nothing was he the darling of Victorian England for the many pieces he wrote which tend towards the sentimental. But this quartet is white-hot, both in the fury of the opening two movements and in the absolutely heartfelt slow movement.
The Elias Quartet are fantastic in this performance. Many of you will know that they were Peter Cropper’s choice to come to Sheffield and be part of Ensemble 360 after the Lindsays retired in 2005, and it’s easy to see why in this performance. By the way, there is also a vintage Lindsays live recording from a performance at the Blackheath Festival, which unluckily hasn’t made it on to Spotify. If you ever find it, give it a try! Possibly even whiter-hot than the Elias!
3) Smetana, String Quartet No.1
Maybe it’s the effect of this horrible Covid time, but my next choice is also a work of white-hot intensity, and it’s another quartet, Smetana’s first, “From my Life”. It’s a deeply personal and indeed autobiographical work, written at the age of 52, when he was being overtaken by deafness. The music is about as romantic as anything you’ll ever hear, full of tragedy and ecstasy, like the Chopin, of joys and sorrows, of care-free dance, deeply felt love and national pride for his Czech culture. At the end he depicts the high-pitched, piercing note which plagued him as he succumbed to tinnitus.
I’ve chosen the Lindsays’ recording, which was once first choice in BBC Radio 3’s “Building a Library”. It’s almost 20 years since I heard it, and coming back to it with the detachment of all those years, I can see why it was chosen, and I think you’ll agree that the Lindsays’ almost unmatched intensity is in full evidence here.
It was always exciting to play this work, but one occasion was particularly special. We had asked Berlie Doherty, author of many magical children’s books, to create a story for the annual Christmas Concert in the Crucible Studio. Peter gave her a bundle of CDs and she chose the Smetana quartet. Berlie lives near Edale, and her story is called “Blue John”. She wrote about how the story emerged from listening to the quartet: “The music moved between the emotions of joy and sadness, loss and finding, sometimes it seemed to be about dancing, and sometimes it seemed to be about loneliness. I could hear a refrain in it, voices asking Where am I? Who am I? Where are you? I could see ice and darkness and sunlight, and I thought about the caverns nearby where a rare and beautiful stone called Blue John is mined. I decided to invent a character called Blue John, a boy created out of stone, and to make up a kind of fairy story about him.”
Sometimes, a story can make the experience of listening to music even more overwhelming, and I can remember there was not a dry eye in the theatre that afternoon. If you’ve only time for one movement, listen to the third, which I remember as being at the heart of the story. Berlie Doherty’s book is still in print, (you can find it for under £6!). But sadly, there is no recording of that special collaboration.
4) Mozart: Gran Partita. Serenade for 13 Winds, K 361
Especially the 3rd movement (starts at 26’20”)
Finally, wait for it!...….not a string quartet, but Mozart’s incredible Gran Partita, Serenade for 13 Winds, K.361. (Actually, 12 Winds and a double bass!) It’s a huge work, and if you want to listen to one movement I recommend the third - it might take you straight to heaven! Peace and beauty after all the Romantic intensity of my three previous choices. This work plays a big part in the film “Amadeus”, about the jealousy of the second-rate composer Salieri for Mozart, whose character he despised, but whose music he worshipped. Here is what Salieri, in the film at least, says on discovering the third movement of this work:
“This was no composition by a performing monkey. This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God”.
Do watch the film if you’ve not seen it. And if possible, watch the whole of the live performance I’ve suggested, performed just after the first lockdown finished in 2020. It’s wonderful! Such musical and characterful playing. Maybe all the more inspired because they had had so little chance to perform for so long. In this music, you will surely fall in love with the stunning variety and colours of the woodwind family.
About Robin Ireland
Robin Ireland is Head of Chamber Music at the Birmingham Conservatoire. He was violist with the celebrated Lindsay String Quartet between 1985 and 2005. He currently plays with the Frith Piano Quartet. In 2017 and 2018 he stepped in to play with the Elias Quartet over the course of several months. His great joy and obsession, musically speaking, and especially during Covid times, is playing unaccompanied Bach, both the works for violin and for cello, on his battered and beautiful Amati viola.