“The voice of an angel.”

If ever there was an over-used, even lazy, accolade applied to a great singer, “The voice of an angel” is surely it.

What makes this attempt at the highest possible praise even more meaningless is that I’d be surprised, although obviously very excited, if there is anyone who has the authority to make such an assertion.

The legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini (1876-1957), was so widely lauded in his craft that he may have felt he’d acquired God-like status: so when he used the term about the Italian soprano, Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004), most would have sat up and assumed he knew what he was talking about. She had one of the most beautiful voices of the twentieth century – and, perhaps unusually during her prime, she was no slouch when it came to acting.

Such a combination meant that the press were quick to make comparisons between her and Maria Callas, with whom she is supposed to have had a life-long rivalry. There was something in that, no doubt, but I suspect that if both were alive today, they would say that this was a myth which suited both of them nicely, thank you. Competition between two parties in any field rarely does either side much harm.

Tempting as it may be, it is shallow to state “I’m in the Callas camp” or “Tebaldi for me” – their voices, although in the same range, were very different. I posted on the dramatic, sometimes imperfect, voice of Callas last year in one of her most defining roles, Tosca, so now it is time to indulge in the voice of Tebaldi.

What’s the first thing that enters your head at the mention of the name Bellini?

I won’t believe you if it wasn’t ‘Cocktail’.

Maybe art-lovers will recall the fifteenth century painter, whose “Mother and Child” is still my favourite picture in London’s National Gallery.

Image result for bellini mother and child

But Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35) would be the right answer here, a Sicilian composer whose short life left an operatic output which is right at the heart of the repertoire today. Whether your part in one of his operas was a gooddie or a baddie, you were always assured of the best possible tunes: he just wasn’t all that interested in characterization, the music was everything.

Here is a prime example. Today’s choice comes from ‘Norma‘. It is an opera with all the necessary, and slightly unbelievable, ingredients, which make up a good tragic drama. Two women, both Druid priestesses in Gaul, and therefore bound by an oath of chastity; and yet both in love, initially unknown to the other, with the same man – who just happens to be a Vice Consul in the Roman army, with whom war may be imminent.

One of them, Norma, the High Priestess, even has two sons with the Roman, whose abbreviation of his rank now strikes me as being wholly in keeping with what is to come. It does not end well.

Before that, Norma pleads with the gods to avoid war and the inevitable consequences which a liaison with the enemy would bring. ‘Casta Diva‘ is her prayer, a truly gorgeous melody which will be familiar to many, but perhaps not in this version.

I’ve no idea if this is the “voice of an angel” or not. But if it’s the first thing I hear after closing my eyes for the last time, I shall feel mildly encouraged. Click on the image below and judge for yourself.

 

“A flower between two chasms.”

“If you’d rather wait, please hold and one of our advisers will be with you shortly.” These are the now all-too-familiar words of misleading comfort designed to reassure us while we wait for our mobile phone company to deign to speak to us.

Before arriving at that point, we have gone through the tortuous process of selecting anything between options 1 and 9 on our keypad, with further, and subsequently further, options – quite often landing us up exactly where we started. But if we should reach the invitation to hold, that is when the trouble starts.

Of two things you can now be certain. The first is that you have at least ten minutes of waiting ahead of you (“we are receiving an exceptionally high level of calls today…”). The second, worse, is that for our entertainment we are now going to be subjected to the loudest, most untuneful modern music known to man, presumably in the expectation that most of us will not be holding the phone to our ear, but placing it in on loudspeaker while we skip through emails and blogs like this.

So why, amongst the never-ending choices we are given, is there not the option “to hold in silence, press 1; to hold with modern music, press 2; to hold with classical music, press 3; to hold with jazz, press 4: to hold with…”? You get my point.

A very close friend of mine is a matrimonial lawyer. Happily I have not yet needed his services on that front, but on the occasions I call and am put on hold, I find myself entirely at ease, listening to the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata no.14 – dubbed the “Moonlight” by Ludwig Rellstab in 1832, five years after its composer had died. Rellstab had likened its very well known 1st movement to moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne.

This passage, an allegretto, which simply means moderately fast, is just a few minutes long and Franz Liszt, one of the most accomplished of all pianists, aptly likened it to a “flower between two chasms”, a reference to the first peaceful movement and the third highly tempestuous one.

No one, not even Beethoven’s wife, if only he’d been lucky enough to find one, is going to pretend this is particularly sophisticated, but few would deny its lighthearted charm and cheerful melody. Beethoven endured a stormy and troubled life in the midst of chaos and bloody upheaval in Europe at the hands of the ambitious Napoleon. Much of his music can sound like a struggle itself, a reflection of his eccentric personality, his peripatetic nature (he moved 33 times in 35 years), his lifelong failings with women, his dreadful personal hygiene.

And worst of all, he was (a composer, remember) losing his hearing from about 1801 and was as well as completely deaf for the last years of his life. Imagine writing the 7th Symphony like that!

Beethoven broke the musical rules. Even the ‘Moonlight‘ sonata, from which today’s choice is taken, begins with a slow movement. His legacy is huge and there is much we can dip into in future posts. For the moment, let your spirits be lifted with this allegretto, here played by Daniel Barenboim, now more well known for his conducting, but one of the very finest Beethoven interpreters.

And mobile telephone companies take note: waiting is bad enough, but having that wait accompanied by an indescribable din only increases the impatience. Give me this option and I’ll be charm itself by the time you get to speak to me.

 

Summer loving with Mahler

I have been distracted over the last few weeks, which accounts for radio silence. It’s this small matter of sport, which seems to have a habit of occurring in bucket-loads around this time of year.

Queens, Wimbledon, The Lions tour, the Open. And cricket, of course, with a Women’s World Cup thriller thrown in for good measure. All of it absolutely absorbing, conveniently programmed with minimum clashes, the sadness at the completion of one event soon forgotten, and quickly compensated for, by the start of the next.

And on the subject of distractions, the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter (born 1955) has long been another pleasurable one of mine. I have been looking for an excuse to post on her for a while, but have always felt that what I put out must, in my humble opinion, be the best that can be found. In the world of singing, there is much competition, and previous pieces have fallen to better interpreters.

Until now.

I have written about Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in an earlier post. There is little dispute that he was one of the most respected, and feared, conductors of all time; but his relations with orchestras and musicians were strained and volatile, leading to frequent separations. It was a characteristic which spilled into his personal life: he had numerous affairs, often with married women. He was nearly twice the age of the beautiful flirty Alma Schindler when they met. It was not a happy marriage. The celebrated architect, Walter Gropius, four years her junior, demanded she leave Mahler for him and put his feelings in a letter – but addressed the envelope to her husband in error. #justabitawkward. (The Mahlers persevered, and Gropius married Alma after her husband died. It did not last.)

In the midst of all that symphonic noise, real and metaphorical,  Mahler’s marriage to Alma yielded the only love song that he ever wrote. ‘Liebst du um Liebe‘ is one of ten songs he set to texts by Friedrich Rückert and stands alone for being the only one in strophic form – a setting to a few, here four, verses with the tune repeated. The simple message in the song is that if you love for beauty (v1), youth (v2), money (v3), do not love me, look to the sun, springtime or the mermaid.

But if you love for love (v4), then yes, love me. Love me forever, and I will do the same.

Apparently Mahler hid the song in the front of his copy of the ‘Valkyrie‘, expecting his wife to stumble on it by way of a surprise. Quite why he expected her to do that is beyond me, and clearly her, too. After a few days, he gave up waiting and announced that he’d take a quick look at the ‘Valkyrie‘, whereupon, lo and behold, the song fell to the floor. Joy unbounded, Alma records they sung it at least twenty times that day. (In between distractions of their own, no doubt.)

You probably won’t have the time or appetite for that, but at only just over two minutes, more than once would not be a surprise. As love songs go, they really don’t come much better than this.

And why van Otter? For the sheer sweetness of it, and her attention to the meaning of the words, especially the palpable tenderness in the last verse, ‘Liebst du um Liebe‘. Listen out for that sigh of love: little wonder Alma went ecstatic.

 

 

 

Mmm…Dvorak, probably

When you’ve exposed your senses to any kind of art form over a reasonable period, they become trained to identify different styles, be they musical, visual or literary. Without knowing it, and without even trying, we develop an instinct that enables us to assert with confidence,  “Sounds very like Beethoven” or “Looks very like a Cézanne”.

Instinct doesn’t always work, of course. Over a few decades of listening to music with my late father, there were, inevitably, times when something tuneful and seemingly ‘recognizable’ would leave us frustrated, probably because the melody appeared to sound like one composer for a few moments, then someone completely different the next.

In time, we soon realized that when such a situation arose, a fairly reliable guess would be Antonin Dvorak, about whom  I wrote in September last year. One of 14 children, he was expected to follow in the footsteps of his butcher father: happily he had other ideas, even though he took some persuasion, from the likes of Brahms, to spread his wings away from his birthplace, some twenty miles north of Prague.

In due course his travels would take him to the USA, where classical music hardly featured, and where he can take much credit for its subsequent resurgence in popularity. His ‘New World‘ symphony is now amongst the most frequently played in the repertoire, although you won’t find me posting on that any time soon.

But Dvorak wrote good tunes, and here is one. His Rondo for ‘cello and piano was written in 1891 to show off the skills of the cellist, Hanus Wihan, to whom he later dedicated his ‘cello concerto (lovely, lovely work). If you’d never heard it before, you might easily think it could be by Brahms, for it has much of that man’s nobility; but in the end, you would land up thinking “Mmm…Dvorak, probably”, because it has a playfulness about it which you would struggle to find in the music of Brahms.

Some have said its theme is sad, even morose. Wistful, maybe, but there is nothing overtly sorrowful about it: Dvorak hardly gives the piece time to dwell on sadness and instead skips it along,  with a brief diversion to display the virtuosity of the instrument. But the opening tune is never far away. Michaela Fukacova gives a heartfelt, focused and unflashy account, no unnecessary head-tossing or distracting facial expressions here.

It adds up to a few minutes of a very addictive melody. If you listen to it before going to bed, expect to wake up to dididum, dididum, dididum, dididum, dididum, dididum, dididum in the morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lament for London

Most of us will never be lucky enough to be invited to share our eight favourite recordings on Desert Island Discs, but almost all of us, of whatever musical persuasion, will at some time have toyed with our choices, either in our minds or discussing them with others. Often it can be just as hard deciding what to omit, as what to include.

Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony and Bach’s St.Matthew Passion would be my only non-negotiable entries, but after that, I’m just as likely to need Aretha Franklin or Annie Lennox on a desert island as Mozart, Chopin and countless others. Deciding what to leave out becomes a difficult exercise.

Unless, or maybe especially if,  your name happens to be Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the very finest lyric sopranos of the last century. In July 1958, she was welcomed on to the programme by its creator, Roy Plumley, after the deliciously formal introduction of  “How do you do, ladies and gentlemen?” She then went on to select her eight favourites – of which only one did not feature her own voice. In later years, she would protest that the format had not been explained to her properly, and that she had understood the brief was to select from her own recordings the ones which had come to mean the most to her.

Methinks, however, the lady doth protest too much. First, she was gracious enough to include one other piece (not a singer, of course); and secondly, you only need a couple of minutes of listening to be clear that she is attempting to justify her approach from the start.

Which some might say was not entirely inconsistent with her personality. When writing about Schwarzkopf, an artist no longer with us, I find myself torn between not speaking ill of the dead, and knowing that the deceased cannot be libelled. But only briefly: by most accounts, she was a fairly ghastly woman, an unrepentant member of the Nazi Party, and something of a bully in masterclasses. She was, however, blessed with a lovely face and the most exquisite singing voice, which was enough to melt the heart of my late father when he picked up her telephone call at work some twenty five years ago.

And so there are times we just have to suck up our prejudices in order to enjoy the output, even if I’ve always found it easier to appreciate a performer in any artistic field if he or she seems, well…likeable. Shallow, maybe, but true.

Anyway, as Ronnie Corbett might have said in this context, I digress, so back to the music. Twentieth century opera can spook a lot of people, not without reason, but there are some notable exceptions who stood up for melody against a background of fashionable atonality. One such champion was the Austrian-born and US naturalized Erich Korngold (1897-1957), who was declared a genius by Mahler before he was 10; and so gifted a pianist that when his mother was asked how long he’d been playing the piano, she’s reported to have replied “Erich has always played the piano.”

Against such head-inflating odds, Korngold turned out to be a thoroughly engaging, likeable man, in much demand as a composer of countless film scores, earning him Oscars and further nominations, as well as other chamber music and a popular violin concerto. Compilers of indices are not over-tarried when it comes to composers beginning with the letter K, but I hope you will spare yourself a few minutes to indulge in this real gem.

Marietta’s Lied, from his opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), composed 1916-20,  pays more than a nod to the greatest of all writers for soprano, Richard Strauss. It is about the dream of a widower who falls in love with a dancer, Marietta, who is the double of his late wife, the two of them becoming rivals in the dreamer’s eye. It is an aria with a gorgeous, almost aching tune, a hymn to times past and the frailty of human life.

This recording did not catch Schwarzkopf’s selector’s eye. With its horribly ironic title and underlying message, it now forms a fitting lament to the tragedy in London. Though sorrow becomes dark, come to me, my true love…Death will not separate us. If you must leave me one day, believe, there is an afterlife.

 

Beethoven sheds some light.

When I started posting these modest thoughts on matters musical last year, the most consistent advice I received was to ‘stick at it’. Perseverance in the mission ranked above all else.

I can’t argue with that. But, as I’m sure any writer of blogs would attest right now, the sombre mood in the country makes it is very hard to write about anything remotely light-hearted, for fear of appearing insensitive. Journalists have been forced to feed us a truly miserable diet: in a world of 24 hour news, all of us are in some way sharing the tragedies and chaos which seem to be defining 2017.

Some years seem to work out like that. I distinctly recall 1987 falling into this disastrous category: the Zeebrugge accident; the Hungerford massacre; the great storm in October; the collapse of financial markets; the IRA bomb at Enniskillen.

It has reached such a level that the effect can be to put us in a frame of mind in which we actually don’t want to relieved or cheered – making the task of writing a post consistently that much more difficult.

And yet there is such a thing as balance. Because in the end ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.‘ No matter what your religious persuasion, and yes, even if you don’t have one at all.

Dudley Moore (1935-2002) was not only a wonderful comedian, but a highly accomplished musician. His parody on Beethoven, using ‘Colonel Bogey‘ as its tune, is sufficiently respected for it to have been played by concert pianists as an encore. The piece has many references to specific Beethoven compositions, but it is the capture of the great man’s style which shines through – in particular Beethoven’s protracted endings.

So here, amidst all the darkness, and certainly not to deny it, is a brief sprinkling of light.

 

 

Schubert brings comfort.

Like everyone else, I have been left bewildered by what has been happening in this country over the last few months. To even attempt to answer the ‘why’ is futile: nothing I have ever experienced in my lifetime has been so utterly incomprehensible.

It is a long-held tenet that music has the power to heal. I’m not too sure about that, but it definitely has the ability to unite and to comfort – in whatever form; whether it be in the message sent out by the formation of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, or the truly inspirational 23 year-old, Ariane Grande, in Manchester last night.

23. 23.

Music of any kind, you see, doesn’t actually have to say anything; sometimes, it just is. That is its gift. Each of us takes from it something different, a different reaction, a different emotional feeling.

I was on the point of posting something altogether more light-hearted this week, but that will now have to wait.

Instead I am steered to this recording of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ . Before you hang up on me, thinking ‘oh, I know this one, no need to listen here’, I urge you to spare yourself six minutes, even if not right now, to listen to this rendition. Most of us are familiar with the Latin version, assuming, wrongly, that it was Schubert’s intention to set the music to the Catholic prayer. It was, in fact, composed in 1825 to a liberally translated setting of Walter Scott’s ‘The Lady of the Lake‘. This, therefore, is in German.

This is a remarkable account on several fronts. The American soprano, Jessye Norman (born 1945) has one of the most beautiful voices you will ever hear; her German diction and pronunciation are perfect; and her understanding of this piece is palpable. Norman has a reputation for occasionally taking things at too slow a pace, but any such accusation here would be ill-judged.

It is well accompanied, even if at times the piano sounds like an LP slowing down. Norman, however, never wavers. Far too many people bellow this out. Norman sings it prayerfully and with a tenderness in the quieter passages, even on higher notes, that surpasses all others I have heard. Above all, it is authentic and straight from the heart.

Here, then, is my musical offering of comfort.