I Hear a Rhapsody

Congratulations to Martin James Bartlett

Congratulations to Martin James Bartlett, BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014.

A belated post this one, and apologies if it’s not about what you thought it was going to be about. (Thanks to Steve Fishwick, btw, for hurling that Bergonzi reharm at us last week – nearly took my head off, but I enjoyed it.)

One of the premier British classical music competitions was recently won by a young pianist doing Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. (Maybe I should be rhapsodising about the Young Jazz Musician of the Year award, but I feel like talking about this instead.)

The winner, Martin James Bartlett, seems like a nice young lad who likes a burger from time to time and wanted to dress in tails for the occasion. I approve of both – particularly the latter. Not keen on the modern trend of classical pianists dolling themselves up like some unholy cross between Chairman Mao and David Beckham. Bless him, the collar arrangement had gone a bit skew-whiff by the end, but I can well understand why it all went a bit (charmingly) wonky.

I felt some serious sympathy for the other finalists. It must be hard enough to make your mark as a percussionist or a recorder player (recorderist?), let alone when up against ten-fingered might and majesty on a crowdpleaser. Actually I thought the recorder player edged it myself, but what do I know. (And recorder is such a hard instrument to love…)

I recall watching Freddy Kempf (of the obvious lineage) winning the same comp years ago with the same “concerto” at the age of 13 (I think). That was extraordinary. At an age when most kids are struggling to decide which spot to squeeze first, this guy dug astoundingly into a profound musical work and didn’t sound like a teacher’s puppet doing it. Bartlett managed to do the same thing – and it’s no detriment to him that he had a slender advantage in years, being a positively worldy 17.

Profound musical work? I hear you spluttering. What rot! It’s a piece of populist fluff, isn’t it? Is it?


I really wanted to share some thoughts about the piece itself. Old Sergei Vassilyich gets a bit of a hard press in general, I feel. Partially, he’s rather a victim of his own popularity. Not too many people have written stuff that gets immortalised as the ultimate soundtrack to star-crossed lovers waiting for a train and a fantasy about seducing Marilyn Monroe… He also reportedly got awfully sick of requests for his “hit” C# minor Prelude in later life.

So the poor guy tends to get rather dismissed as a backward-looking soppy Romantic melodist at a time when everyone else was trying to move music forwards, and if possible, break it.

In their rush to be snobbish about popularity and modernity, classical buffs often overlook the fact that underneath the memorable, hummable catchy stuff and the bravura is a composer and orchestrator of sublime quality. (Incidentally, re bravura, the Rhapsody is far from his most fingerbusting composition – whole chunks of it are surprisingly playable even if your technique isn’t of the best.)


(As it is never referred to, even in the film Shine. And no, the Third doesn’t destroy minds.)

The Rhapsody is a remarkable piece of inventiveness and extreme compositional integration. It truly is a masterful exercise in theme and variations. Make no mistake – you may be aware that the celebrated romantic theme of the 18th Variation is Paganini’s exuberant ditty upside down and in a different key, but just about everything else that goes on anywhere throughout the whole thing, in the solo part or any desk in the orchestra, is ingeniously derived from it as well.

I say “just about” – well, Seryozha chucks one of his favourite musical preoccupations in too – the Dies Irae, a timeless doom-laden theme and beloved still of even hack film composers. It functions here (albeit loosely) as a related sort of second sonata subject. I say “chucks in”, but to me there’s something rather artistically delicious about marrying the demon fiddler’s vibrant youthful motif with the notion of the inevitability of the day of reckoning. Almost Faustian, perhaps. Maybe I’m overthinking here, but all sorts of other references are in there too – Beethoven’s fate motif for one. He may have been Russian and tall and grim-looking, but you ignore humour in Rachmaninov at your peril.

What’s more, while the variations certainly function as separate episodes, cavalcading through different styles and rhythms, they are also put together in a flowing way, broadly matching overarching three-movement concerto form (check out the key scheme).

So it’s a rhapsody, theme and variations, with a sonata-ish countersubject and in concerto structure. All at once. It’s also an athletic and honest tribute from one virtuoso to another – it certainly requires great skill to co-ordinate the goings-on between soloist, conductor and ensemble. To do all that while remaining engaging and memorable… Here’s the takeaway, useful I feel for musicians in any style – beautiful ideas, expressed clearly with a fierce organising intelligence behind them will trump claptrap every time. And don’t be too quick to dismiss pretty as stupid.

PS If you’re reading this Martin – congratulations and enjoy your well-earned Whopper. And not sure about a Fazioli for that kind of repertoire myself, but then I’m old-fashioned.

PPS I was discussing that magnificent old sot Mussorgsky’s Pictures with someone the other week. There’s another piece that is routinely (and understandably) thought of as episodic, yet is actually very tightly thematically integrated. The viewer at the exhibition has their distinctive preconceptions, which merge with and inform the different musical depictions.

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Posted in e) Rants & Ramblings, g) Classically Inclined, i) Reviews
One comment on “I Hear a Rhapsody
  1. Adam acole says:

    I knew there was a reason I liked you. Thanks for championing one of the underrated geniuses of classical music. I completely agree.

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