The following concert review was originally published in the July/August 2007 edition of Accordion World magazine (editor: David Keen) and is presented here by the permission of Accordion World.
(See our review of Accordion World Magazine).
Note: The following review consists of three sections. It begins with Peter Ayers reflections both on the concert pieces and the term "classical accordion". We then have the musings of a violinist who attended the concert and who has little knowledge of the accordion. Finally, David Keen, the editor of Accordion World, discusses what is meant by the term "Classical Accordion". ---Robert Stead
by Peter Ayers
This recital was given at Sheringham Little Theatre as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival (4th to 19th May, 2007) and classified as "Classical & Chamber", presumably for the benefit of those who wish to stay within a genre that they feel secure with.
All of the performers are (or have been) students of the Royal Academy of Music and played with great dexterity. I assume that readers of an accordion magazine will want to know how appealing the programme would be to the average accordionist. For those who are attracted by the label "classical" (which literally means "of the highest class"), they would probably have been well satisfied with the programme. However, I believe that most accordion players would not have felt so satisfied. The programme notes were confusing for the average classical music enthusiast who knows little about the accordion and perhaps the person sitting behind me was typical. Reading the programme notes aloud, he said, "For this concert, Mozart's Quintet will be performed by classical accordion and string quartet." There seemed to be a question in his voice when he read the words "classical accordion". I could imagine him thinking, "Does that mean an accordion "of the highest class" or is that a special instrument different from the run of the mill accordion that is more commonly heard?" Later on in the programme notes it refers to "the diversity of the modern‑day free‑bass accordion", but nowhere did it explain what these terms meant. Here we had an intelligent audience, most of whom had little knowledge of the instrument and yet the opportunity to explain the most basic principles of the instrument was missed. I happened to meet someone I knew at the concert, a violinist with no specialist knowledge of the accordion. I thought that it would be illuminating to hear what a non‑accordionist thought of its use in a chamber music group and so she kindly sent me her impressions, which I include in full at the end of this report.
Personally I find the use of the term "classical accordion" misleading. There are many types of accordion, with differences in their mechanical structure and tuning. They all consist of an acoustic box containing a number of free reeds where the sound is produced by the action of bellows blowing air past them. Their versatility is such that they can play music in a very wide range of styles. To call a freebass accordion the "classical accordion" is to suggest that it only plays "classical music" [whatever than means] which is both misleading and fallacious.
The recital programme consisted of works by Wolfgang Mozart, Joaquin Turina, Astor Piazzolla and two living composers, Magnus Lindberg and Patrick Nunn. The whole performance was quite short, the music lasting a little over an hour and the first "half" lasted only 25 minutes. The performances were all excellent and well appreciated by the audience. However, I feel that the choice of programme did little to promote the accordion as the versatile instrument that we know and whose promotion it deserves.
The first piece was advertised in the festival brochure as "Mozart, Andante and Allegro, K616", but was in the programme booklet as “Adagio and Allegro, K616 for glass harmonica, flute, oboe and cello ”. In the New Groves Dictionary of Music K616 is listed as "Andante for Mechanical Organ , whereas it lists an "Adagio and Allegro, K594  for Mechanical Organ. Consequently I am not sure what the piece was that I heard, even though I have heard a performance of K616, Andante for Mechanical Organ  played on the organ. It is such an insignificant and unmemorable piece that I am not sure whether it was the same piece. If it was the mechanical organ piece, then this accounts for its shallowness and lack of expression. It was certainly not a good choice as an opening to the recital. There are so many more other worthy pieces by Mozart [around 4,000 are listed in the Angermüller and Schneider 1975 catalogue] that could have been arranged for this quintet that would have made a more suitable and memorable opening piece.
This was followed by Joaquin Turina's string quartet "La oracion del torero" (The Bullfighter's Prayer), originally written as a lute quartet in 1925. It was a short work in one movement and contains some delightfully expressive tunes and maintains interest by a number of contrasts in timbre and mood, including some pizzicato passages that suggest the plucking of the guitar. The whole piece seemed to develop naturally from a quiet beginning, travelling to a more energetic section, and to revert to a peaceful conclusion, making interesting use of tone colours along the journey.
After the interval Milos Milivojevic performed the accordion solo "Jeux d'anches", written by Magnus Lindberg in 1990. Lindberg is an established contemporary composer, having written "a number of important orchestral compositions including concertos for cello (1999), clarinet (2002) and orchestra (2003)". He regards himself as an avant-garde composer and, although I have enjoyed a number of atonal works, this piece did not appeal to me. Avant‑garde composers are always looking for new ideas in preference to established styles and it is only in the future that it becomes clear whether their music has communicated, has stood the test of time and will continue to be performed. It would seem to me that Lindberg has not made much use of the main attributes of the accordion ‑ the differences in tonal variety by using different register combinations and the ability to play long legato melodies containing both crescendo and diminuendo. He did make use of the bellows for strong accentuation of notes and the use of bellows shake, which is sometimes overdone by some composers and can become a tiresome cliche. The title refers to the "playing of reed stops" and the work seemed to me to be an exercise in rapid melodic passages, using both manuals in similar manner ‑ with Manual II playing high notes above the lowest notes of Manual I, which the freebass instrument is able to do with ease. Milos Milivoievic played with great dexterity, but his facial expression seemed to reflect the great effort needed to execute the work with accuracy. It made me wonder what he thought of the piece.
This was followed by the contemporary composer, Patrick Nunn's "Escape Velocity" for accordion and string quartet, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, where he is still studying composition. Although using contemporary musical language, I found this work much more satisfying because the accordion blended in well with the strings and made much use of its tone colour, both as a contrast to the string sound and also to add to the overall ensemble sound. It uses a narrative by Hans Christian Anderson as a stimulus and the work develops fluently as a piece, making good use of tune [as essential in musical expression as are sentences in speech] and expression. It is a work that I would wish to hear again.
The recital ended with three of Astor Piazzolla's Five Tango Sensations (Asleep, Anxiety and Fear) [although the festival brochure falsely advertised all five]. These pieces were the last works that Piazzolla recorded in 1989, playing the bandoneon with the Kronos Quartet, for whom they were written. They are superb pieces and the accordion can very effectively play the bandoneon part. In fact, I have the 1989 recording with Piazzolla and the Kronos Quartet but I prefer the sound of this recital group to the authentic recording because of what I consider to be the more beautiful sound of the accordion. This is because the bandoneon is a harsher and brighter sound. The cassotto accordion is warmer and more full bodied with a smoother sound, which I think improves the overall sound. Piazzolla preferred what he regarded as the more melancholy sound of the bandoneon and said that the accordion was too cheerful and bright. However, I believe that he may have had in mind the tremolo or musette-tuned accordion, which differs from the straight-tuned freebass instrument.
The Fourth Tango Sensation "Despertar" (along with the Second "Loving") was omitted. This is a beautifully slow expressive movement, giving the bandoneon/accordion an opportunity to play solo and as a duo with the 1st violin and would have made the finale more effective by its contrast. The finale was the Fifth Tango Sensation "Fear", a fugue, which finishes with a triumphant climax - a fitting end to the recital.
The last word I will give to a fellow music teacher, whom I happened to meet at the recital. She told me that she went to the recital especially to hear Turina's string quartet "La oracion del torero", a favourite of hers. She has only commented on the items involving the accordion and these are quoted in full:
"My first impressions of the recital at the Little Theatre were that the accordion was a completely different instrument from the "piano accordion" that I am used to seeing and hearing and I wanted to be able to understand its keyboard. I have to say that I did not fully understand the layout.
The player, Milos Milivojevic, played with incredibly discreet movement and sound from the bellows and was a joy to listen to.
The ensemble worked very well together (string quartet and accordion) as the timbres from the string quartet blended well with that of the accordion and this worked well in the acoustic of the theatre. The Lindberg piece made a very strong impression for its virtuosity and use of effects on the instrument. I felt that musically, it was repetitious and used the same techniques rather too often. He climbed the keyboard in some tortuous ascending patterns with a contrary motion in the left hand and repeated this pattern several times. The impression this gave was of a steam engine leaving a station.
The Escape Velocity again used interesting techniques which had me smiling and riveted.
The Piazzolla pieces were delicious to hear as they make perfect use of the instruments. I could have felt a bit more anxiety or fear to be really picky!"
David Keen –Editor of Accordion World comments on Peter Ayer's article:
Thank you for the article Peter, perhaps I may enlighten you.
"Classical Accordion" in English terminology is the name now commonly given to accordions with the possibility of playing classical and serious contemporary repertoire. Such instruments will usually be straight tuned with double cassotto and equipped with a free bass converter mechanism. These instruments can be of varying sizes and keyboard systems in both hands giving rise to numerous variations with no standardization, which could be a problem for the development of the instrument and for composers prepared to write for it.
A new book by Paolo Picchio entitled 'La Fisamonica da Concerto ed il suo Repertoire' is currently being translated by Romano Viazzani and will be published in English as 'The Classical Accordion and its Repertoire'. The book deals with the development of the instrument and gives a detailed analysis of much contemporary free bass repertoire Scandanavian, Russian, German, Italian, Japanese etc.
Is the term 'classical accordion' misleading? ACCORDION WORLD could only agree with the contributor if the background of development is not understood.
The fact is the term is also frequently used in other languages as well as English.
Professor Owen Murray has given several talks about this matter and a brief note here may be worthwhile pending a longer article on another occasion.
'Classical' in music DOES NOT refer to high quality or the 'highest class.
The filter of time determines this in music.
'Classic' in this case is a marketing term applied in advertising and promotion of branded goods - fashion clothing, jewellery, cars, recipes for fast food etc. In the world of the arts and learning, Classical more usually refers to the style of work in a certain period of time. In music, the Classical period is usually distinguished as the period beginning with J.S. Bach's sons and ending with the death of Beethoven and Schubert and followed by Romanticism.
The piano dominated development as a keyboard instrument in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but there were many attempts to produce keyboard instruments in the Classical period, which had the ability to play legato and slowly, which old fortepianos did not. A reasonably portable keyboard instrument which according to C.P.E. Bach had, like string instruments, 'learned to sing', was what was required. On the attempts in this direction, the glass harmonica, the bogenklavier, the early harmoniums of the Buschmann family in Germany and Charles Wheatstone's instruments in England and others elsewhere, are all more or less, extinct.
What is suggested by the use of the term 'classical accordion' is that the free bass accordion has developed from the ideas about the needs of music in the classical period and the early development of free reed and mechanical instruments. The free bass accordion should be considered therefore as the heir to the repertoire developed for these instruments. The modern free bass accordion is certainly a good instrument to play Mozart's works for mechanical instruments.
Clearly there was confusion in the programme about the Mozart work. What was played by Milos Milivojevic and the Oldak String Quartet was K617 not K616. K617 in the Kochel catalogue is the 'Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica, Flute, Oboe, Viola and Cello'. K616 is correctly identified in Groves as 'Andante for a small Mechanical Organ, in F major'. The festival organizers were presumably responsible for checking the production of the programme and not the artistes.
In Alfred Einstein's authoritative work on Mozart, K617 is described "as one of his 'heavenly' works, an instrumental counterpart to the Ave Verum with an unearthly beauty..." A similar opinion is also expressed by H.C. Robbins Landon of this quintet. Did Mozart really write anything that can be described as 'insignificant and unmemorable' especially among his late works?
Expert opinions on contemporary music usually vary widely. The modern accordion has the most wonderful range of musical possibility and presents a real challenge to contemporary composers which enthusiasts should support as much as possible.
ACCORDION WORLD looks forward to the translation of Paolo Picchio's book and meanwhile invites the opinions of its readers both on the original concert review and this editorial comment. [David Keen-Accordion World Editor].Copyright 2007 - ACCORDION WORLD
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