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 Recording of the Week  Masterclasses

This week I'd like to take the opportunity to tell you about a DVD label devoted to Masterclasses. At first I was slightly hesitant about recommending them as, although they feature many world class musicians, they don’t actually contain full performances of any works, but I’ve watched several of them over the past few weeks and they are really fascinating and I think there is much to enjoy here (as well as a huge amount to learn) for music lovers as well as players.

Isserlis, Schiff and Vengerov
Isserlis, Schiff and Vengerov

Started by the award winning producer and director Mischa Scorer early last year, the sole aim of the “Masterclass Media Foundation” (which is also a registered charity) is to make masterclasses given by many of the world’s great musicians and teachers easily and widely available to music students, colleges and music lovers everywhere.

So far they have released 28 discs, featuring artists like violinist Maxim Vengerov, cellist Steven Isserlis, pianist András Schiff, conductor Bernard Haitink, percussionist Evelyn Glennie and baritone Thomas Quasthoff. They’ve been recorded at a variety of places ranging from London’s Royal Academy of Music, the International Musicians' Seminar at Prussia Cove to the Verbier Festival Academy in Switzerland. The Foundation has ambitious aims of building a library of at least 150 to 200 hours of audio-visual material over the next five years, including solo and chamber music, singing, conducting and composing, so if you get to like them there are many more to come.

So, what is so special about them and why might they be worth considering even if you’re not a performer yourself?

Well, I think there are two main reasons. Firstly, they provide an almost unique opportunity to get under the skin of the music, and understand what the music means to these world-class players. Much of the repertoire they’re covering is also what they are most celebrated for playing, and hearing Vengerov explain and demonstrate what Shostakovich means to him, what András Schiff feels about Bach, or what Steven Isserlis feels about Schumann is not something you would otherwise get the chance to find out. It is quite fascinating and also enriches your understanding of the works themselves.

Secondly, they demonstrate quite what a huge gap there still is between the very good musician (which a lot of the students are) and the truly world class. Time and again you hear a student play a passage and you think ‘well that sounded pretty good, what can he (or she) say about that’ at which point Vengerov, Isserlis or whoever finds countless very small points to work on in order to improve the phrase, whether it be a subtle dynamic shading, a different colour at a certain point, a different speed of vibrato towards the end or countless other things. But it is the sum of these countless little things which is what produces the world class, and these masterclasses more than anything else demonstrate that a natural ability and a superb technique is only half the way to being a great musician.

You can see a listing of them all here, or scroll through full details of them over three pages starting here. You’ll notice that quite a few of them have a short video extract to give you an idea. This can be seen by clicking on the little speaker icon underneath the picture on the website.