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Never been asked … Dominy Clements in discussion with violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved
Peter Sheppard Skærved has established a career as one of the leading violinists of his generation, and his appearances both as leader of the Kreutzer Quartet and as an internationally renowned soloist on recordings for labels such as Métier/Divine Art, Naxos and Toccata, are evidenced by a respectably long list of reviews on the MWI site.
I was a little surprised therefore to see a comment of his on Twitter, “I have never been asked a question by a music critic.” To a reviewer like me this definitive statement was akin to throwing down a gauntlet, and in no time a mini-discussion ensued which as quickly became an opportunity for something more substantial.
DC. Part of the reason for my response to your remark about music critics was a connection I felt as a common experience amongst musicians. One would expect perhaps to be approached by interested journalists after a performance, but this would seem to be the exception rather than the rule. What are your views on this, and what would you prefer to see?
PSS. I made the remark, to be honest, out of a degree of sadness that a vital part of the dialogue is missing in the way that the narrative of music develops. Music-making is a collaborative activity, and I have been blessed with the opportunity to collaborate, since I was a teenager, with amazing people.
The reason that I play the way that I do is the result of these conversations, and I feel that reviewing has tended to be insulated from these dialogues. We recognise that the conversations between Berg & Krasner, between Stravinsky & Dushkin, Bartók & d’Aranyi, Brahms & Clara Schumann, Mendelssohn & the boy Joachim are part of the fabric of the pieces which result. It seems as if we have forgotten to notice that we are living in the golden age of collaboration, right now.
When I began my career, it was clear that, with the broader church of reviewing (newspapers, periodicals, even new music reviewed in Country Life), it was natural that reviewers were involved in the shared narratives: an obvious example is Meirion Bowen. They took such a lot of notice of what was happening in the conversations between collaborators and their writing, whether we disagreed with it or not, was a vital part of the shared conversations between players and listeners. I have unfortunately lost count of the number of times that a reviewer (in recent years) has reviewed a major new work, expressing an opinion on it before they could possibly have time to assimilate it, and without even dropping the composer or the performers a line to say: Can I ask? I had in mind the first recording of a big new quartet by one of our most respected/controversial composers: a piece which had taken the composer two years to write, which had been through workshop after workshop, and then a recording (supervised by the composer) and produced by the players. The reviewer received an advance copy of the disc on a Thursday, and had published a slightly disparaging piece on it in the weekend paper. The review was clearly written in ‘real time’, listening to the disc. There’s no way that anyone could begin to have a grasp of a piece like that on one hearing, and if there’s a rush, talking to the artists might help. I know of no player who would not be delighted to be part of such a dialogue.
But there’s another dialogue which I think that it behoves us to take seriously. The world has moved on from the authoritarian days when Hanslick and ‘Corno di Bassetto’ (Shaw) were setting standards for reviewing both good and bad, and sometimes simultaneously. The audience are/is not passive figures, but part of the dialogue (more about this later).
DC. As a reviewer myself I will occasionally enquire about something with regard to a recording, but I know there has to be a point at which personal contact can have its effect on objectivity when it comes to critical texts. From the performer’s point of view, do you have any comments with regard to striking a balance with these interactions?
PSS. This is a really good point. You are a rarity, in my experience. It’s very clear to me that objectivity is very far from much of the dialectic, which I think that there is, between criticism and performance. But let me give an example of where critical objectivity often isn’t. In 90% of cases, composers will for instance demand that performers choose the rugged, craggy, true, rendition of a phrase – a version more interesting to them than exactitude. I remember George Rochberg (reviewreview) making a German orchestra laugh, shouting at them: ‘I don’t care what I wrote, and I am too old to care that you think that I am mad! I want something else!’ There was a pause, and then laughter. My point is that it is the dialogue between composer and performer which often pushes the performance to a craggy truth which exposes the performer to critical opprobrium. Being exposed is our job. I don’t mind. I just wanted to mention it!
This ‘exposure’ lays the performer open, vulnerable. Many composers understand this, and there’s a tacit mutual acknowledgment that the performer is ‘out there’ as an advocate, because they have the chutzpah to risk all. All too often however, reviewers assume that what they hear and like or don’t like is not the result of soul-searching, of discussion, and of risk-taking. I think that this is particularly a problem in the UK, which has a notoriety for public sight-reading. I often wonder if this has seeped into reviewing, a tendency to wonder whether a sense of danger, or a challenge to the letter of the score is the result of under-preparation.
So here’s the heart of the matter. I have never sat down to work with a composer, in conversation, workshop, rehearsal, and even in the last run-through before a concert, and not had them change something. Of course these changes are often insubstantial, but we both know that tiny adjustments can have enormous outcomes. Recording Robert Saxton’s tremendous quartet Songs Dances & Ellipses I was struck by how Robert spent twenty minutes working on the trajectory of the opening gesture of this half-hour arch. I found out on the last page, which has a first violin ‘freak-out’. He knew that if he worked carefully to get the quiet undulation of the opening just right, I would be thrown, howling, off the precipice at the end. The result was shattering and inchoate: not what is in the score, but what the composer wanted.
But this takes me to the music of the past. I am not a specialist in new music, but I have found that working with living composers has given me some ideas as to how to approach the works of the past. There’s no question that working on the (disturbing) Forautograf of the Kreutzer Sonata, trying to puzzle out the breaking of Beethoven’s highly-charged friendship with the initial dedicatee, Bridgetower, was powerfully informed by the experience that I have of the collaborative process. Naturally I have had composers to whom I was very close, die. I found, that this did not change our working relationship that much: they still nag me in the middle of the night. This is another plank in my conviction that all music, by living composers or not, demands that we respect it: by questioning it, looking for its fluidities, ambiguities and challenges, which always lie far beyond ‘getting it right’.
DC. My question on Twitter was “Which composer/piece gets you out of bed with a spring in your step of a morning” and your reply was “whichever one I am practising!” No doubt you are consistently engaged with stimulating new works, but are there touchstone composers or pieces to which you return on a regular basis?
PSS. You are asking me to do something which I somewhat disingenuously resist. Writing this, I thought that I was going to give you an answer, but I realise that I simply can’t. So it’s just what I am doing right now; my practice for concerts over the next three weeks, just in playing, recording order: 8 Mozart Sonatas, Tallis (my transcription of ‘De Profundis’ for solo viola), David Gorton ‘Lachrymae Variations’ for 15 Strings, John Ireland ‘Threnody’, Nigel Clarke/Malene Skærved ‘Pulp & Rags’ & ‘ Dogger Fisher…’ for speaker and 13 Strings, Michael Slayton-‘Sursum’ for Quartet, Mihailo Trandafilovski ‘Mosaic’ for two violins, 30 Tartini Solo Sonatas, Xenakis ‘Mikka’ & ‘Mikka S’, Widmann-Etude 1, Evis Sammoutis ‘Nikosia Etudes’, Lachenmann ‘Toccatina’, Philip Glass ‘Strung Out’, Paul Pellay ‘Slivers’ and David Matthews ‘Three Chants’. That gets us to June 2nd, and I am leaping out of bed in excitement about it all!
Of course there’s another way of looking at it. I am very moved by the kind of commitment which is demanded of an actor, who will play whatever part they are playing fully in the time that they are studying, rehearsing and performing. I don’t think that the discussion of: ‘On a score of 1 to 10, how great is this music?’ has any place in the making of music, and it has no place in the rehearsal room. When we perform some-one else’s music we have the enormous privilege of trying to be the vessel through which they speak. We should do everything that we can to honour that privilege.
DC. Resulting in daunting titles such as Paul Pellay’s Thesaurus of Violinistic Fiendishness (Métier MSV28527 reviewreview) you certainly have a reputation for taking on new pieces and working closely with composers. No doubt each interaction has its own unique character, but in exchanging ideas and pushing the boundaries do you find yourself more often the one being challenged, or are composers rising to the challenge of exploring your prodigious technique?
PSS. I have no technique except that techniques which emerge from the music which I play. This is not facetious. So when I pick up a composer such as Biagio Marini (a fascination at the moment), I am allowing him to refashion what I might/can do on the violin. This communication is only possible because I have experienced the magic of the composer pushing me over another cliff. But here’s the rub, I don’t believe in transferring technique from composer to composer. I was very influenced as a child by the testimony of the old musicians who played on the astonishing concert recordings made in London by Ginette Neveu. They observed that her technique was totally different for each piece that she recorded. That lodged in my 12-year old mind, and then I found that working with composer to composer, that each of them demanded that there should be a physical transformation to their music. Studying Berg with Louis Krasner as a 19 year old, I was astounded to realise that he demanded that I reconfigure my physique, moment to moment, to reach the colour and meaning of Berg’s imaginings. What seemed extreme then, has become the norm for me.
It’s interesting that you brought up the Pellay. The origin of this titanic ‘world’ for solo violin was a 2 minute firework which Paul wrote for me to premiere in Munich. I told him how much I loved it, and he looked a little sheepish and said ‘there’s a little more’. Seven books later (2 ½ hours) there it was!
DC. I’m intrigued by ways in breaking down the disconnection – perceived or otherwise – between ‘classical’ musicians and audiences. Most people have no idea what sort of work goes into bringing music to the level of performance, especially with highly demanding contemporary music. The appearance on stage can therefore seem like a kind of miraculous alchemy and indeed perhaps something to which it might feel hard to relate. Do you have thoughts on this?
PSS. I think that the web has been a fantastic tool in ‘opening the workshop door’. I have found that the online audience loves to know what happens at the practice desk, and the strange counterpoint between what is prepared for the stage and what is prepared for the ‘never never’. I am obsessed with practice, with the nightly office - for me between midnight and 4am - when I can take my time with the music which fascinates me. I have found that there is real interest and enthusiasm for communicating ‘from the desk’. So I have a simple mic there and very often record bits of what I am working on, together with any texts or thoughts that come to me. I constantly get fascinating feedback from this – from a class of school children in Brazil, a poet in India. They often respond before the process is finished, and, of course, become part of the work, just like your questions are now, part of the work.
The alchemy of the stage is not possible without the audience. They are not witnessing something, but they are making it. I have found that Busoni was so right about this. Things happen in the chamber music between players, composer and listener which transcend all of our expectations and preparation. I am only comfortable when I feel that the audience feels that they are ‘musicking’ with us/me, and the celebration of a concert, is that we do this together.
DC. Another element of mystery, especially with violinists, is the aura surrounding instruments and long-gone makers such as Stradivarius. You are fortunate to have such an instrument made available from the collection of the Royal Academy of Music. In the end we are all just curators of such objects, and they lead lifetimes that extend way beyond our own in both directions. What goes through your mind each time you open that case, and do you have ways of describing that special interaction between a player and a great instrument?
PSS. Actually, these days, I have moved into a more variegated relationship with the making tradition. I have been focussing on three generations of the Amati family in recent years, so much of my work has been on an extraordinary 1629 Girolamo, as well as releasing the first of my ‘Great Violins’ (Athene Divine Art) series on an amazing instrument made by his father Andrea in 1570 (it really is mind-boggling). My work on Ole Bull resulted in the rediscovery of his ‘Pearl’ made in 1647 by Girolamo’s son, Niccolo Amati, which had not been heard in public for a century. Disc two of the series, inspired by work on Bull in Bergen, is recorded on that instrument, which is probably the most perfectly preserved 17th Century violin I know (Athene
ATH23205). I recently completed a project linked to the Waddesdon Room at the British museum on a spectacular (huge) Maggini, made in Brescia in about 1590, and my new Schubert disc (Sonatas with Square piano) is recorded on a totally German-speaking violin by Leopold Widhalm in 1782. Stradivari is very much in my mind, so I am just about to release the recording of the Bach cycle made on Joseph Joachim’s 1698 Strad, and in November I will play a concert on the two ‘golden period’ Strads (one in baroque, one in modern setup) at the Metropolitan Museum. But what goes through my head when I open the case of one of the amazing instruments that I am privileged to play, is the instrument as witness to history, and the haptic nature of what we do, that touch, vibration is passed on. Once something has happened to an instrument it never forgets it, and our job is to set those tones ringing, alongside new ones of our own.
DC. You’ve worked extensively as a chamber musician and as a soloist both with and without ensembles and conductors. Variety is the spice of life, but do you have a favourite environment or collaborative setting when developing a concert programme or particular work?
PSS. As you will probably have guessed, I duck questions about favourite environments and collaborators. A ‘collaborative setting’ which has become very important for me, in a public way in recent years, is ‘blue-green’ space. I am just finishing up a two-year project for Dover Arts Development and the Dover Museums group (DMAG), called ‘A flash between darknesses’. They challenged me to respond to the idea of Kent and the anniversary of World War I. The resulting work revolved around two years of repeated long-distance walks along the Pilgrim’s ways from Winchester to Dover (usually 25-30 miles in a day), then seeing what welled up in terms of music, literature, history, writing and painting. I have been a painter as long as I have been a violinist, and in recent years composers and some of the arts organisations that I work with, particularly the Pharos Foundation in Cyprus, have forced this into the open air and public eye, which is very nice of them. Walking has always been one of the wellsprings of my work, but now, there’s a new focus: the Royal College of Art commissioned a chapter from me about the 30 odd mile walk along the Thames from Hampton Court to my house in Wapping (‘Walk.Practice’), and now there’s a project in the offing with the RSPB. This has begun with a series of small paintings. It’s not all countryside, much of the inspiration comes from the repeated walks across central London and my fascination with the layers of architecture, history, and myth that these walks evoke. This also links to the work that I am doing with Evis Sammoutis in the extraordinary atmosphere of Old Nicosia, in Cyprus – we began by improvising in ruined buildings on the Green Line, in the workshops of carpenters and metalworkers, in traffic, in a coffin makers…. This is resulting in a series of Etudes, and then moving on to a ‘Nikosia Concerto’ which is going to have links across Europe and all the way to Atlanta. Michael Alec Rose and I have taken a particular view on walking with our ‘Il Ritorno’, a large scale solo work based on walks and time spent on Dartmoor. The National Park Authority got excited about this one, the premiere takes place at Moretonhampstead Church on the Moor next month. My favourite collaborator on the path is my wife, the writer, Malene Skærved. When she walks with me she fills her pockets with scraps of paper with the words that come to her on the path. These jottings have formed the basis of the works for speaker and string ensemble, which she has developed with my long-time collaborator and friend, Nigel Clarke.
DC. To what can we look forward from Peter Sheppard Skærved in the future, and do you have any particular dream projects in mind for the longer term?
PSS. That’s a big question. There are many on the way. One of my favourite, which has been in development for about 5 years, is called ‘Tågen letter’ (the mist rises). It was initially inspired by Carl Nielsen’s tiny piece for ‘The Mother’, and then the discovery of his first composition, a Polka for solo violin. My father-in-law the writer Garrison Keillor, then gave me the complete collection of 356 Danish ‘fiddle dances’ which were collected by region at the end of the 19th century. I have spent a lot of time learning them (and making workshop recordings of about 200 so far), and seeing how they relate to the greatest repository of solo violin music, historically, the thousands of unaccompanied dances for one or two violins, published across Europe annually in the early 19th century. Schubert’s only works for solo violin are dances. I love all of this repertoire, and as an honorary Dane (by marriage) I have been waiting for this project to find its feet. I never force an idea: when it’s time, it will find a road. If it doesn’t then it was still a lovely idea, and can still enjoy it, until it naturally takes wing!
I am, much to my surprise, an optimist, and I love what I do. We live in the most extraordinary times to be artists. I cannot think of any time of greater variety and quality of musical creation, and never in our history was there more of a dialogue between past and present. This should be celebrated. There’s no money, but that should not stop us. In Worldly Goods Lisa Jardine pointed out that the richness of the Italian Renaissance was due, in part, to the fact that the nobility and merchants of Florence and Mantua were in colossal debt to the banks, and all their precious collections (papal crowns, jewellery etc) were in the bank as security on loans which would never be paid off. So they had bare walls to cover. The result was the greatest explosion of new art ever seen: the glory that we all know, unmatched in its embarrassment of riches, as I see it, until our time. And it’s a joy to play a small part in that.