Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

30 November 2021

Nelson Freire – a great pianist remembered

Nelson Freire and Jonathan SummersJonathan Summers and Nelson Freire (photo © Jonathan Summers)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

When Brazilian Nelson Freire died last month at the age of seventy-seven, the world lost one of its greatest pianists.

A naturally talented child whose playing was already formed by the age of seven, Freire then studied with Nise Obino and Lucia Branco until the age of fourteen.  He later claimed that he owed everything to them – ‘There was no question for them of separating work on tone from finger practice, or music from technique.  In fact, they founded their teaching on tone.  Never force it, never produce a sound that is not harmonious.’  At fourteen he went to Vienna to study with Bruno Seidlhofer and by this time already had in his repertoire fourteen piano concertos and numerous solo works.  It was not a particularly happy time for the teenage Freire and he mainly attended concerts and listened to records and in doing so, discovered recordings of great pianists of the past including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Backhaus.  ‘I listened to records more than I worked.’

Freire was also influenced by his friend, the Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes (1895-1979).  Earlier this year I was reading 'My Adventures in the Golden Age of Music' by Henry Finck published in 1926 in which there is a section on Novaes which I sent to Nelson.  He was delighted to read such a glowing contemporary account of her.

Rather than give examples from his commercial recordings to illustrate his art, I have decided to use broadcast recordings that are less well-known.  For a pianist of his standing it was extraordinary that Freire did not play at the Proms until 2005 when he was already over sixty.  He obliged with a magisterial performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Brahms, a work that puts incredible demands on the stamina of the pianist.  Freire’s performance, as always, was effortless.  He was a pianist who knew about the importance of muscular relaxation at the keyboard and the conservation of strength.  One only has to watch any of the videos on YouTube to see this, particularly his exemplary performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata from the University of Maryland in 1982.  Here are two short extracts of the Brahms performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov.

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 extract 1

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 extract 2

One of the most memorable concerts I have attended was at the Barbican Hall in February 2009 when Freire played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Lionel Bringuier.  Conductor and orchestra gave a thrilling account of the rarely heard ‘La Tragédie de Salomé’ by Florent Schmitt but the highlight was Freire’s performance of the Chopin Concerto.  The pianist enters after a long orchestral tutti with an attack on a unison D flat in both hands.  Accented and marked fortissimo by the composer, it can often sound hard and unpleasant, but Freire played it as I had never heard it before with a chordal upward sweep incorporating the notes of the following downward flourish.  When I later asked him how he got the idea to do this he looked at me with a smile and said ‘Novaes’.  Indeed, on her studio recording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Otto Klemperer Novaes plays the octave D flat with one hand, supported by a chord in the left.

As a young man Freire recorded for Columbia/CBS but fortunately, Decca Classics signed him to their label in October 2001 and he recorded both Brahms Concertos and the Chopin F minor Concerto plus many solo discs of Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Bach, Schumann and one of Brazilian music.  He did not record the work for piano and orchestra by Villa-Lobos titled ‘Momoprécoce’, a 1929 orchestration of solo piano pieces from the early 1920s, but he did play it at his last appearance at the Proms in 2012 with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop.

Villa-Lobos Momoprecoce extract

It was at the Barbican Hall on 8th December 2006 that he played the Piano Concerto No. 4 of Beethoven with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck.  In this extract from the second movement, the two distinct characters of the orchestra and piano are sharply contrasted where the pianist seems to play with an air of being resigned to his fate.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 Andante extract

One surprise I found was Freire in chamber music, and not just regular repertoire, but the rarely heard Piano Quintet in C minor by Alexander Borodin that was not published until 1938.  The BBC asked Freire to record it at their Maida Vale studios with the Prazak Quartet in 1998.

Borodin Piano Quintet 3rd mvt opening

One of the few pianists of the twenty-first century to carry on the traditions of the Golden Age of Pianism, Nelson Freire will be missed by many.  He was a shy and retiring man, a true virtuoso of the keyboard who cajoled his listeners rather than beat them into submission.

The commercial recordings, video and audio broadcasts of Nelson Freire will keep his great artistry before the public for many years to come.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

29 November 2021

Recording of the Week: The musical pillars of a medieval Indian temple

This week's selection comes from Jim Hickson, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In the British Library's sound archive collections, we have a lot of recordings of temple music – various types of song and music in dedication to any number of religions across the world, performed in a holy space.

Today’s Recording of the Week is temple music with a slight difference –music performed not only in a temple, but also on a temple.

Hampi030Some of the musical pillars of the Vittala Temple. Photo by Tom Vater’s travel companion Aroon Thaewchatturat.

The Shri Vijaya Vittala Temple sits among the breath-taking and sprawling ruins of the ancient city of Hampi, in Karnataka, India. Dedicated to Vittala, a manifestation of the god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna, the temple began construction sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries but was never finished – the city was destroyed in 1565.

The impressive temple is famous for many reasons, including a giant stone shrine in the shape of a chariot, which is pictured on the ₹50 note. It is also known for its 56 musical pillars.

Each of the temple’s eight main pillars are surrounded by seven smaller pillars. When these small pillars are struck with the hand or a wooden beater, they ring in a clear, bell-like tone. Not only that, but each pillar in a set is tuned to a different note, meaning that together they sound a scale on which music can be performed.

Vittala Temple C799/6 S1 C2 [BL REF]

The pillars are made from solid granite, with minute differences in size and shape to give them their clear and perfectly-tuned tones. Different pillars are also said to represent different instruments, some representing melody instruments such as the veena and some representing percussion such as the mridangam.

This recording – which can be found in the sound archive's catalogue, was made by Tom Vater in 1995, and it’s one of the clearest and most detailed recording of a ‘performance’ of the Vittala Temple pillars. While most other recordings demonstrate the sound of just one or two pillars, Vater’s captures the sound of several sets of notes, while insects and birds fill the soundscape behind.

The entirety of the ruined city of Hampi is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and in order to protect the temple and its pillars, it is no longer permitted to play the musical pillars. Vater’s recording gives a valuable insight into this fascinating monument of the medieval world as well as being an outstanding and intriguing document in its own right: where temple music meets 'architecturomusicology'!

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

25 November 2021

Gerry and Paula discuss Paula’s severe social anxiety

This Disability History Month, staff from across the British Library have collaborated on a series of blog posts to highlight stories of disability and disabled people in the Library’s collections. Each week a curator will showcase an item from the collections and present it alongside commentary from a member of the British Library’s staff Disability Support Network. These selections are a snapshot insight into the Library’s holdings of disability stories, and we invite readers to use these as a starting point to explore the collections further and share your findings with us.

This selection has been made by Dr Madeline White, Oral History Curator.


A photograph of an in focus coffee cup with two people out of focus in a conversation behind itCourtesy of Matt @ PEK/Wikimedia

At the British Library Sound Archive the oral history collections contain many interviews with people with disabilities, talking in their own words about their lives in full including – but not restricted to – their experiences of living as a person with an impairment. Our collection guide on oral histories of disability and personal and mental health showcases some of these collections – and we’re adding new collections in 2021, such as Whizz-Kidz’s ‘30 years, 30 stories’ oral history project.

Despite these efforts, some stories remain hidden. As people with disabilities exist in all spheres of life, their experiences and stories can be – and are – detailed in collections besides those which are explicitly labelled as ‘disability collections’. These stories are not always easy to find. The words we use to write text summaries to help make an audio recording more searchable are not always the same words that the user of the archive will search for in our catalogue. This is particularly true of the word ‘disability’, which may not have been used in the same way by interviewees and cataloguers several decades ago. It is also possible that an interviewee discusses a health condition or an impairment without specifically identifying themselves as ‘disabled’.

As I searched for these stories I reflected on one of the themes of UK Disability History Month 2021, ‘Hidden Impairments’. My challenge was to uncover stories of disability that have been twice hidden – once in the social sense of stories that often go unnoticed or untold due to the hidden nature of many disabilities; and again where the description and words in the catalogue might make them difficult to find.

The story I highlight here is of one woman’s experience of severe social anxiety, as told in conversation with her husband. Paula and Gerry recorded a 45-minute conversation on the subject of Paula’s impairment as part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of personal conversations recorded and broadcast by BBC radio and archived at The British Library. The project seeks to preserve intimate conversations between two people on a subject of their choosing, with a view to building a collective picture of the lives and relationships of people in Britain today. This methodology lends itself to very open and honest storytelling. It is unclear if Paula has ever identified herself as disabled, but her conversation with her husband is a powerful account of the impact of a hidden impairment on them both, as individuals and as a couple.

In this first extract, they describe how Paula’s anxiety manifested as constant stress, before during and after a social situation:

On negotiating social situations (C1500/719)

Download On negotiating social situations (C1500-719) Transcript

The whole recording charts the development of their relationship from the early days of their dating, through their wedding, to the present day, and the role that Paula’s anxiety – and eventually her attempts to overcome it – played in that development. Here, Gerry talks about how the extent of Paula’s anxiety wasn’t obvious to him in the early days of their relationship and the process by which he gradually came to understand the severity of Paula’s anxiety:

Explaining social anxiety (C1500/719)

Download Explaining social anxiety (C1500-719) Transcript

What is particularly moving about the one-to-one conversational style of The Listening Project recordings in comparison with more traditional, interviewer-interviewee style oral history interviews is the insight it offers into a situation or experience from two different perspectives. Some of the most touching moments of Paula and Gerry’s recording occur when Paula offers Gerry the opportunity to reflect on her condition from his perspective, as she does in the following extract when she invites him to talk about how he felt about their wedding, which was a particularly low-key affair to accommodate Paula’s anxieties:

How anxiety shaped their wedding (C1500/719)

Download How anxiety shaped their wedding (C1500-719)

Far from what Paula anticipated when she asked the question, they conclude that as much as there were moments of a traditional wedding that they’d missed, there were many ways in which Paula’s anxiety had enabled them to have the occasion that suited them both.

At the time of recording Paula had largely overcome her anxiety, having embarked in 2012 on a challenge to learn every sport at the Commonwealth Games in an effort to confront her own anxiety. Her conversation with her husband is nonetheless a valuable record of the experience of living with a hidden impairment, as well as a reflection on the social perceptions of invisible conditions and a challenge to negative perceptions of disability.

Reflection from British Library staff Disability Support Network member:

Paula’s story really resonates with me, as someone who has depression and anxiety, social situations can be a real trigger for me. When people experience poor mental health, it is very much a hidden, or invisible disability, and therefore makes it harder to talk about with other people, either to explain it or to seek help. I feel that sharing first-hand accounts like Paula’s is really important to raise awareness. Most disabilities and impairments people live with everyday are invisible to most other people, there are more invisible disabilities than there are visible ones.

Sarah

Find out more

You can listen to Gerry and Paula’s full recording on the British Library Sounds website: https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/The-Listening-Project/021M-C1500X0719XX-0001V0. This recording is part of The Listening Project (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cqx3b), a collaboration between the British Library and BBC local and national radio stations which has been capturing the nation in conversation since 2012. A selection of recordings made by The Listening Project is available for remote listening via the internet on British Library Sounds: https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/The-Listening-Project. For more information on the wide range of disability oral history collections at the British Library, consult our oral histories of disability and personal and mental health collection guide: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-personal-and-mental-health-and-disability