A visit to Norway with Grieg

Those of us old enough (or perhaps I should more accurately say interested enough) will recall that before the days of the Premier League, football teams were ranked in Divisions.

My father and I would rank composers and artists in the same way. There was no fixed number in any Division, but it was always accepted that Cézanne would feature high in Division One and I’m not sure how far down you’d have to go to find Gilbert and George.

I popped ‘Grieg’ into the search bar of this blog the other day, and answer came there none. Although recognized as one of the great Romantic composers, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) cannot sit alongside the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert; and accordingly he finds himself firmly in our Division Two.

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Hang on, I hear you protest, what about his Piano Concerto, one of the most popular of all? And yes, this, along with the Peer Gynt suites, are enough on their own to guarantee him musical immortality. His music is to Norway as that of Sibelius was to Finland: he created an instantly recognizable Norwegian identity, drawn largely from folk-song, and few would begrudge his influence, especially on the likes of the Frenchman Ravel.

So here is a piece from the Peer Gynt Suite, sung, rather than fully orchestrated. Solveig’s Song, is a reminder that however awful we may be (and in Henrik Ibsen’s five act play Peer Gynt was about as amoral as it’s possible to be) there is always the chance that somewhere someone is holding a candle for us: Solveig was abandoned twice by Gynt, but what a forgiving maiden she is! Here is the translation:

The winter may go, and the spring disappear,
Next summer, too, may fade, and the whole long year,
But you will be returning, in truth, I know,
And I will wait for you as I promised long ago.

May God guide and keep you, wherever you may go,
Upon you His blessing and mercy bestow.
And here I will await you till you are here;
And if you are in Heaven, I’ll meet you there.

This is a recording by the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. It’s a beautiful melody, the sort of music which his big fan Tchaikovsky must have had in mind when saying “What charm, what inimitable and rich musical imagery!…What interest, novelty and independence!”  (Not sure Tchaikovsky would have made the most riveting critic, but he had other things going for him.) Try joining in at the second verse – it’s not easy.

Norway was a sparsely populated country, a mere two million when Grieg was born. A measure of his popularity and esteem in his homeland was that between 30-40,000 of them lined the streets at his funeral after he died of heart failure.



Intimate Schumann

On the home page for this blog, I allude to the fun of coming across new music for the first time. Today I want to share one such personal experience which has completely captivated me since stumbling on it on Facebook.

I wrote about Robert Schumann (1812-56) in February last year. He had a life defined by chronic depression and it can’t have been a breeze being married to Clara Wieck (after huge protestation by his parents and experiments with countless others, most likely both sexes) whose talents at the keyboard were superior to almost everyone at the time. Robert’s own extraordinary gift at the piano was cut short prematurely by a finger injury.

His parents were not in favour of him becoming a musician, law was the preferred route of his mother.  His is truly a sad, complicated and tormented story, which I cannot hope to convey fully here, the marriage alone is now the stuff of folklore, a life riddled with self doubt, drink and a suicide attempt. It ended in an asylum.

But his legacy is music which goes right to the heart, as this little offering will demonstrate. I will be gobsmacked if you don’t instantly replay it.

“I do like the oboe, don’t you?” I remember being asked by an elderly companion many years ago at a prom concert. It took me slightly by surprise, because I hadn’t been especially aware of it during the piece we’d just heard.

And no, actually, if I’m honest, it doesn’t feature amongst my favourite instruments. Never has. Altogether too penetrating. Which has not stopped it being given some glorious tunes, notably the opening of the second movement of Brahms’s violin concerto, prompting one violinist to refuse playing the piece while someone else got the best tune.

And then I heard this, the second of Three Romances for oboe and piano, a piece which fits Hector Berlioz’s definition of the instrument perfectly – “The sounds are suitable for expressing simplicity…gentle happiness, or the grief of a weak soul.”

There is nothing particularly virtuosic about this, but the melody and the performances by Céline Moinet, one of the world’s finest oboists, and Florian Uhlig on the piano, are very special. Apart from the music, it took me a few hearings to understand why it entranced me so much.

It is actually quite simple: it is the absence of clutter. Two musicians in a bare space, no colour, with no sheet music, thereby enhancing eye contact and complete union. They are not just playing with eachother, but to and for eachother. Moinet plays effortlessly, no big breaths (just look at the opening note!), no uncomfortable grimaces that we often see on the faces of oboists. It’s almost as if she’s ‘miming’.

At the piano Uhlig accompanies sensitively, always in contact with his soloist. Listen to that left hand, ever present but never in danger of suppressing the oboe. Schumann marks the piece Einfach, innig, meaning simple and intimate. Accomplished here in spades.

You can tell I loved it from the start. I hope you will share my brief addiction to it.


Dreamy Rachmaninov

It is hard to believe, but the prospects for the future popularity of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music as expressed by critics of the day were about as on the mark as a renowned weather forecaster in October 1987.

In the late ’70s, I recall reading, with growing anger, an article in the FT, confidently asserting that my young hero, the much lamented Seve Ballesteros, was a flash-in-the-pan talent which wouldn’t stand the test of time.

I don’t understand why people make such predictions. You rarely look clever. I think someone once assured us that television would never catch on.

Rachmaninov’s life, 1874-1943, spanned tumultuous times in world history. He detested the Soviet regime and took his family to Europe and then the USA. Despite the huge success of his 2nd Piano Concerto, probably now the most popular in the entire repertoire, he was plagued by a lifelong low self esteem across all his gifts of composing, conducting, and performing.

As a pianist, few, if indeed any, have come close to his mastery and obsession for accuracy. He had enormous hands which could cover a twelve note spread, an inevitable consequence being the inability of many with smaller paws to play his music at all.

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He was a bit of a scowler (I challenge you to find a single decent picture of him with a smile).

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He would barely move at the keyboard, not unlike Horowitz, to whom he paid the ultimate compliment that he played his 3rd Piano Concerto better than the composer himself.

Nowadays we associate Rachmaninov with big sweeping tunes, very much in the romantic, nostalgic, vein of Tchaikovsky (one of his outspoken supporters). His 2nd and 3rd piano concertos have been immortalized in different ways in the films ‘Brief Encounter and ‘Shine‘.  If he were alive today, I am certain he’d be giving John Williams some stiff competition.

It is a wonder he went on to compose a second symphony after the disastrous first performance of his first, not helped by a conductor who’d let alcohol get the better of him. But the second, first performed  – perhaps as a safeguard – by the composer himself,  was an instant success and it is the third movement which forms my offering today.

Allow me to make a plea with you. If you don’t have time to listen to this now, save it for another day: if you’ve never heard it, it is some of the best reflective music you could ever wallow in; and if you do know it, you are unlikely to have heard many better renditions. An orchestra is a whole, made up of talented individuals – and the individual talents here are as good as it gets. Switch everything else off, close your eyes and reminisce.





Scarlatti’s 3-minute dash.

Every year a piano competition was held at my school. I never dared enter it, of course, because there was little room for fakers like me (old piano players never die, they just fake away, goes the adage) who would never have succeeded in fooling the most amateur of judges.

But I enjoyed attending them. Not just for the variety of skills, but as much for the diversity of pieces and the personalities of those who performed them. For all, no doubt, this was the culmination of several months’ work; and yet the approach to their task on the day was often a spectacle in itself.

I recall one hot favourite taking an eternity to settle himself on the stool, constantly adjusting its height and distance from the keyboard, before embarking on a prolonged silence to get himself in the zone for launching into a Beethoven sonata.

A polite invitation by the judge to start was all that was needed to derail the poor scholar and condemn his performance to the merely incredibly impressive, rather than the X factor required to win.

I forget who did win that year, and with what, but the stand-out moment for many of us was when the next competitor, following some twenty minutes of Beethoven, had the temerity to arrive at the piano and finish his piece within a matter of minutes. (I may have the exact details slightly wrong after over 40 years, but that is certainly the gist of it.) For a competition, that takes some chutzpah.  His choice, brilliantly performed, but lacking in sufficient gravitas to earn him credible consideration from the judge, was a sonata by the Italian Baroque composer, Domenico Scarlatti. His dates of 1685-1757 make him a near exact contemporary of the great man himself, J.S.Bach, (1685-1750), although there is no concrete evidence of Bach ever having even heard of the Italian.

Not much is known of Domenico, one of ten children, and the son of a musician, so we won’t tarry on biographical details. He is now most famous for having composed over 500 sonatas for the harpsichord. That’s a fair amount, so unsurprisingly many of them last only a few minutes and in one continuous movement, unlike their Classical equivalents of 50-100 years later.

So there is no need for you to be concerned at the prospect of today’s choice being an entire sonata by Scarlatti, for it lasts barely three minutes, here played by one of the world’s greatest living pianists, the Argentinian Martha Argerich (b.1941). She performs live only rarely these days and in truth has always been something of a recluse, despite her tempestuous and colourful life, but what a gift!

Take this encore as an example of her style. On she bounds, lobbing her hanky into the piano, and then dashes off this sonata K141, then bouncing off the seat before her left hand is off the keyboard. Before doing so, she treats us to three minutes of outrageous virtuosity, with repeated notes and frequent crossovers, at a pace which actually succeeds in bringing out the different discussions in the piece far better than any I have heard taken slower.

It’s hard not to marvel at this, and I hope it will be new to many of you.


Crimbo limbo needs music

It’s that time of year, isn’t it?

That lull between the end of one celebration and the beginning of another. The time when many us who do not leg it for faraway climes may move from one bunch of rellies to another; or, having successfully survived that already, just stay put and while away the hours, going on ‘hearty’ yet reluctant walks. Anything, even on-line sales for items we do not need, with the sole purpose of bridging 25th December with the 31st.

There’s the pub, of course. Done that too, a few times.

It’s only the 29th today and now I’m struggling with a protracted break. And if I am, others must be, too. Even the Test match ended the day early. So – what to do?

It’s the fourth day of Christmas. Truly I never thought I would turn to the music of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and even less so, in the spirit of four, to his Four Seasons, a collection of four concertos you may think you know so well as not to hear anything new in them. Much what I  thought until I discovered this.

The redhead Vivaldi was born in Venice, where he spent much of his life composing music for an orphanage. As the first born of nine children, it was the then custom to single him out for the priesthood, a tradition I can be glad has long since gone into abeyance; but as someone who suffered from a mild form of asthma, he managed to discharge his priestly duties only rarely.

His output was indeed substantial, and he was by far the leading Baroque composer of his day. His music had a clear influence on Bach, but a voluminous legacy is not enough to guarantee long term popularity and he died in poverty in Vienna. Stravinsky was perhaps the most outspoken, calling him “greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form over and so many times over”.

The house in which he lived has since been replaced by the Hotel Sacher, and I can personally vouch for the excellence of its Sachertorte.

Few would dispute that his Four Seasons comprise his most famous work, but there have been far too many unnecessary attempts to try and jazz them up to make them more accessible than they already are. Since we are in winter now, let us stay on theme and select number 4 by that name, here played in summer yellow by Anne Sophie Mutter. So shut the curtains, light a fire, pour yourselves a drink – and be thankful you are inside to listen to this. Because it’s cold, it really is.

A discovery, I believe, of the somewhat tyrannical and self-important conductor, Herbert von Karajan (don’t waste your time putting his name into my search bar), Mutter is seen here in her signature backless dress, the very embodiment of the German phrase “ein schöner Rücken kann auch entzücken” (translating, without the same rhythm, into “a nice back can also delight”. “A nice rear can also endear” is a version of choice for some, but not here, surely?)

She is a sensational violinist, here playing amongst string instruments and harpsichord only, and the real chill, the chattering of teeth in the bitter cold, is all too clear throughout. It shivers from the start. This is another of those examples where an overfamiliar, certainly overplayed, piece can still spring an unexpected pleasure.

Click below. Now what am going to do until Sunday?

(Spoke too soon – just been informed I’m in charge of games for New Year’s Eve.)

Continue reading “Crimbo limbo needs music”

It’s Christmas – call for Victor!

I have been a little pre-occupied of late, as we have just moved house, so the blog discipline has been found wanting. But it would be wrong to let the festive period pass without a reference to the season in some way, and so here are a few minutes – or more, if you wish –  to sit back with your eyes closed and let out a contented ‘Aaah’.

It is most likely that you will have had your fill of Christmas carols by now, but this brief passage from my great uncle Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony is charm itself. I wrote about Victor, whom I never met on account of his early death at the age of 46 in 1947, in September 2016 (see ‘A bit of Fun’ or Hely-Hutchinson in the Search box). Victor was Director of music at the BBC at the time, and refused to turn on his radiators in his office during a bitter winter, for fear of it setting a bad example in straightened times. He contracted pneumonia and died.

While at the Beeb, Victor was instrumental in establishing the Third Programme, or what we now call Radio 3. He was a talented musician and knew all the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas by heart. Nowadays his compositions are rarely played, but his Carol Symphony always gets a healthy airing at this time of year.

My heart sinks when I see The First Nowell in a carol concert race card: too many verses and a slightly dreary refrain, despite some noble efforts to liven it up with descants. And yet it is by far my favourite passage in Victor’s symphony. I am attaching the whole piece here, just in case you are left with the urge to hear the rest, but for the purpose of this post I want to highlight the few minutes from 12:33.

We all have different visuals when listening to music and whilst I have no wish to influence yours, I am, nevertheless, going to give you a glimpse of mine here.

This is the scene I think Victor sets. A field under a starlit night, introduced with a few bars from The Coventry Carol which, in the minor key, evoke a mysterious mood. There is definitely a sense of something about to happen. But in a few moments, with the key shifting to major, and with the help of the harp, the listener is soon assured that this is a moment not of fear, but of magic, of wonder.

In come the violins with the theme of The First Nowell, soon joined by weightier strings and dancing woodwind, culminating with the brass underlining the emphatic statement “Born is the king of Israel”. It’s a wonderful piece of orchestration. Calm returns with The Coventry Carol and it’s not hard to imagine a group of shepherds rubbing their eyes, each wondering who is going to be the first to ask “Did you see that? Did you see that? 

That’s what comes to my mind, anyway.

If you’ve still got to wrap those presents, or need something uplifting during other countless festive chores, play the whole piece – it’s good, uncomplicated stuff, with moments such as the above, of real charm.

Manuscriptnotes (and its staff of one) wish all its readers a joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year!














































RIP Dmitri Hvorostovsky

I am greatly saddened by the death of the Siberian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He was just 55.

No, I never met him; but I didn’t meet Claudio Abbado or Seve either, and their deaths had a similar effect. Heroes to me, all of them. It is a sadness compounded by the fact that my impression of Hvorostovsky has been endorsed by all who knew and worked with him. He was blessed with an astonishing, rich, out-of-this-world voice, and a life-affirming personality to go with it.

Ah, that smile. I saw him ‘live’ a few times at Covent Garden, and it was impossible not to be totally captivated by his presence.

I am no obituary writer. His career and roles are covered fully in the press. I was just a mere fan, one of his biggest, and it is desperate to know that I shall not see him perform again.

So forgive me if I am brief. If I take up less of your time in today’s text, listen to these two clips and you’ll see in an instant what I’m finding hard to express. Both show different qualities of the man. One is a Russian folk song, Dark Eyes, which has a cabaret feel to it, by the looks of it an encore to an adoring audience after a concert in Red Square. It gives you some idea of why he was known as ‘the Elvis of the opera world.’ Bit of a hunk behind that lovely sound.

The other is the closing scene of my favourite opera, Tchaikovsky’s  Eugene Onegin. I wrote about this last year, just scroll down to October 2016 in the archives for more background to this piece. The final curtain now adds an extra poignancy.

If there is a better Onegin, I don’t want to know.What a voice. What a voice! What an actor. What a horribly sad and premature loss.