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Haitink, Schiff and Vengerov Master Classes

Bach keyboard Partita No 2, Violin Sonata No 1; Beethoven piano sonatas Op 109, 110 & 111; Brahms Symphony No 3

The Masterclass Media Foundation MMF 001 003 & 011

Having profitably attended and written about masterclasses for many years, I welcome this initiative which aims to provide an ongoing and permanent archive of great musicians teaching; it deserves every success.

Conducting is a great mystery; we came away from a conducting class with the LSO recently having actually learnt very little and wondering whether Sir Colin Davis' willing victims got much more from it all?

Bernard Haitink warns his pupils at the Royal College of Music that within the orchestra it seems that the conductor does nothing; when you stand up in front of them it is very difficult. And so, says Haitink, is the Brahms third difficult and infinitely problematic.

In his three hours plus session we all get to feel that we begin to understand the art of conducting far better and are privileged to get closer to Haitink as a man of wisdom and humility; sometimes he takes over the baton briefly to show when he cannot find the words...

A quarter-hour with an unnamed and unseen interlocutor, during a break in the course, was disappointing. Interviewing is difficult too; asking the right questions... Haitink answered the first one by reminding us that he is not a musicologist. Several times he mentioned that he is not good with words, and most of his same points were made better in context when he was supervising one or other trainee.

Some of the aspiring conductors found it hard to express their feelings about the music in facial expression and body language; again, it was a privilege to be so close to them as they struggled to modify habit and, in one case, confessed to tension and a feeling of being 'blocked'.

A word of appreciation for the RCM orchestra who give their all throughout the long session; one cannot help noticing the involvement and commitment of several of them picked out by the cameraman...

The filming is excellent in all these examples from a quickly growing catalogue, but one hopes that this non-profit making venture will be enhanced at the least by the addition of insert notes, which surely could be produced gratis by the participating organisations, perhaps by the silent listeners at the classes? We see on screen the names of those taking part in the lessons, but those are not always listed on the DVD box covers. Indeed, alongside those of the Schiff's pianist pupil and Haitink's embryo conductors, the names of the patient members of London's Royal College of Music orchestra (a very fine and responsive one) might also be listed; some of them will doubtless go on to become notable musicians

From the Royal Academy of Music, London, whose Principal Sir Curtis Price, Principal, The Royal Academy of Music, endorses the project on MMF's home page, I have too Maxim Vengerov's masterclass on Bach's Adagio and Fugue from his Solo Violin Sonata No 1 (MMF 004). Nasrin Rashidova's lesson can really only be followed appropriately with the score to hand; it would be good if, for non-violinists, it might have in some way shown viewers the parts of the score being discussed? Of course that would be liable to increase costs, and it may be that the intended audience is mainly violinists who would own, or have easy access, to the scores being taught...

Andras Schiff's Beethoven lecture at the Royal Academy in London was quite another thing. He analysed at the piano the last three sonatas throughly, in a fluent, intimate manner (invisible mic?) which made you feel he was in the room with you. Lots of insights into detail that can easily pass you by, and with occasional illustrations from the composer's fraught manuscripts - more of those would be welcome. Listening at home, with a score on ones lap, made for three (separate) entrancing hours. [At Wigmore Hall in 2006, Schiff (pictured) played the same three sonatas straight through without interval or pause - twice in the same evening, can you believe ?!...].

That DVD should be in every music library. And worth considering by way of consolation for all the disappointed people who were unable to get tickets to hear these sonatas in Barenboim's grossly over-subscribed series at the Festival Hall...

Schiff's task teaching Bach's 2nd Partita at Prussia Cove was easier than Haitink's imparting how to conduct a Brahms symphony. He helps a gifted young pianist (one of whom before long we will surely hear more) to intensify and refine his performance, sharing his profound knowledge of a work which he believes is a pinnacle in all keyboard music.

No scores on view; both musicians have the work so deeply absorbed that points can be illustrated at the piano, with the pupil able to start anywhere and modify his playing immediately, which is rare in such classes. We are privileged to be as close as if it were happening in our sitting rooms, to better advantage than the listening fellow students at the Prussia Cove Seminar sitting behind them. Crucially, we feel we are getting to know Schiff in a way one can't in recital or concert.

Peter Grahame Woolf

There is a free sampler of the series available on request.

P.S. See a fuller review by MusicalCriticism of some of the first releases.

Forty Years of Bach's Goldberg Variations

Picture: Schiff at Wigmore Hall

Nina Drucker reports

Andras Schiff's introduction to his two performances of the Goldberg Variations

Wigmore Hall September 2008