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.

 

Some magic with Mozart

To what, do you suppose, might Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) – don’t you just love the name?- have been referring in the following statement? ‘It is the most wonderful of all sensations that any man can conceive. It really oughtn’t to be allowed.

A number of ideas may spring to mind, some of them, perhaps, unprintable. But I bet that conducting wasn’t one of them. I now know exactly what he meant.

There isn’t a classical music enthusiast who hasn’t at some stage picked up a skewer, knitting needle or makeshift baton and waved his arms in the belief that he or she is controlling a magnificent sound. But it is rare to have that dream realized. Through the introduction of a friend, I was invited by the conductor, Lev Parikian, to attend and conduct at one of his Monday night rehearsals with the London Phoenix Orchestra.

I was allowed to choose the music, and I’m not sure why I chose Mozart’s overture to his opera ‘The Magic Flute‘, (a prime candidate for your first opera experience) especially after someone cautioned that I shouldn’t even consider conducting Mozart, until I had mastered Mahler. Mozart’s tunefulness can lure you into the misapprehension that it ought not to be too difficult, even though I knew otherwise; and it did, indeed, take some persuasion for me to give it a whirl.

Date in the diary, I bought the score and set about learning it as best I could. There was no showing off in this resolve: there were three very good reasons why I wanted to try and commit it to memory. First and foremost was my wish to demonstrate to the players that I had put in the work; secondly, my condition makes turning pages at any speed almost impossible; and finally, I just don’t understand how it is possible to follow a score and concentrate on leading at the same time. If you go to a play or concert with the part in your hand, you cannot possibly give full attention to what you are attending.

Practising to a recording is highly flattering. Whatever you do, or don’t do, the players will all sound fantastic. Being faced with some forty people is something else altogether, and I was under absolutely no illusion as to who needed whom more in this relationship. Conducting from a wheelchair brings further limitations, sight-line being an obvious one; but it was a further incentive to look at them. Far better, in such circumstances, to have the score in my head, rather than my head in the score.

Let’s be clear. These wonderful musicians could have played this piece blindfolded, and certainly without me. But what is also clear is that they were in a very good position to make me look stupid beyond words, and that is the terrifying part. Whilst orchestras want, and are waiting, to be led, the conductor can only hope that he has his team on side: without that mutual trust, disaster awaits. It is a lesson that anyone who manages people in any profession would do well to heed.

To my enormous relief, they all came in together. (In fact, I was so thrilled that I nearly started again.) I don’t imagine I will ever be asked to start the Grand National. No offence to London Phoenix, but the opening seconds can’t be so very different: you try to have everyone’s attention, and then you can only hope that they all go off together. And the opening couple of minutes is full of fences, before you can feel remotely comfortable; because, in truth, all you want to do is to start them and then get out of the way. This is the fear at the one-minute point.

We played it right through without a stop. Goossens was not far wrong: it is the human equivalent of turning on a light switch. When you’ve plunged from the top diving board, you just want to go up and do it again. To be in the heart of that sound, to really feel it, is something extraordinary. My heartfelt thanks to Lev, whose own very generous take on this, titled Eurovision and Mozart (and other matters, especially bird watching) can be read on his excellent blog, levparikian.wordpress.com and the London Phoenix Orchestra: it was a real joy.

So this is what they played. Six minutes of solemnity and comedy rolled into one.

 

Verdi: master tunesmith

If you’ve never been to an opera, here’s a plea: don’t say “it’s not my thing” until you’ve tried. The reputation that this art form has for being the preserve of toffs and the rich is nonsense and no longer supported by the facts.

Huge strides have been made by all the leading opera houses, and more recently formed festivals up and down the country, to make it accessible to increasingly diverse audiences. Language is no longer a barrier, thanks to almost universal use of surtitles. And cost? Yes, you could spend a small fortune if you wanted to, but you could also attend one for less than the average price of a Premier League football match.

In other words, it just comes down to perception and pre-conceived, baseless opinion. The trick, as a first-timer, is to find the right one. Then acknowledge that you are unlikely to love it all; but like your experience on a golf course, or any other sporting endeavour, you will be teased just enough by a moment of such utter perfection and beauty, that you are left with no choice but to return.

Opera combines theatre, design, orchestra, singing – all major art forms rolled into one. It might seem strange to sing stories, but to burst into song is something we’ve all done at some time; so it is, in fact, entirely natural. To assert that you won’t like opera before going, is to say you enjoy reading and refuse to go to a Shakespeare play: you are depriving yourself of an emotional response which you cannot imagine.

Obvious candidates for a first try are most of the Mozart operas (Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro) and Puccini (La Boheme). But perhaps a less obvious contender is Rigoletto, by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Verdi wrote 29 operas, and can reasonably be heralded as one of the top three opera composers ever. Rigoletto has a lot going for it: the moving story of a father’s love for his daughter, Gilda, who is raped by his much-reviled employer, the Duke of Mantua, and with whom she then falls in love. Rigoletto seeks his revenge with disastrous consequences. First performed in 1851, it was an enormous success.

Above all, though, this is an opera where the tunes just keep coming at you from beginning to end. It is almost impossible to single out one passage, but the quartet in the final act is a glorious melody with beautiful intermingling of voices. The hunchback Rigoletto is showing his daughter, here sung by the late great Joan Sutherland (nicknamed La Stupenda) what a bounder the Duke is. He is seducing Maddalena, the sister of Sparafucile, the assassin whom Rigoletto has hired to bump off his employer. Pavarotti, who described Sutherland as having the voice of the century, made this part of the Duke his own.

Four voices. Duke proclaiming ‘love’ for Maddalena; Maddalena replying along the lines of “I bet you say that to all the girls”; Gilda observing “that’s what he said to me” (so Maddalena had a point); and Rigoletto doing his best to convince Gilda that the Duke is a wrongun.

If you can overcome a minor visual distraction, you cannot help but delight in these few minutes. There are nearly 2 minutes of applause at the end. It’s really not hard to see why they wanted it to go on. And what a last note from Sutherland!

Go to an opera. Go to Rigoletto. And see how hard it is not to go back.

 

 

 

 

 

For the pure Rossini Joy(ce) of it

Gioachino Rossini’s straightforward approach to his music could scarcely be in greater contrast to the turbulent times in which he lived. Born in northern Italy in 1792, just a couple of months after the death of Mozart, with whom he was often compared, Rossini was a gifted child of musical parents; but his father made life complicated for them by being a French Revolution sympathizer. The arrival of a certain Napoleon on the scene did nothing to ease matters, so Rossini was constantly on the move (and not only during his lifetime: his remains were ultimately moved from France to Florence).

By the time he was 38, Rossini had become the most popular Italian opera composer, and more or less retired at that tender age, (just half way through his life, as it turned out) having written 39 operas, almost all comic. He had a gift for composing them at great speed, something which is clearly evident in the music itself, as well as shamelessly sifting in passages from his other works when appropriate, thereby earning him a reputation for being lazy; an image which was enhanced by composing in bed and frequently leaving everything to the last minute. It has possibly led to him being under-rated, even light. It served him well, though: by the time he died, he had amassed a vast fortune from his ability to follow his doctrine ‘Let us not forget, Italians, that enjoyment must be the purpose of this art. Simple melody – clear rhythm.’

The purpose of these modest jottings is to enthuse; and so to be less than polite, as I was in an earlier post, about Rossini’s most famous comic opera, ‘The Barber of  Seville‘ was hasty and self-defeating. All my foolish prejudice showed, however, was that I had been unlucky with the performances I had attended until very recently. The importance of a good and slick production with accomplished singers occupying the lead roles of Figaro and Rosina is everything here. Anything found wanting in these areas leaves the comedy flat and dull. Do it well, and you will serve your first-timers a yearning for more.   

The ‘Largo al factotum‘ aria is well known, so instead I want to indulge in the artistry of the American mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato, in Rosina’s aria ‘Una Voce poco fa‘. (Her brief introduction is a neat reflection of how Rossini packed everything in.) These few minutes are delivered so effortlessly that you could be forgiven for missing the mastery. Many singers have recorded this, but DiDonato’s version hits the mark: it has brilliant technique, breath control and pitch. It is almost tantalizing. She appears to get you ready before launching into passages of astonishing virtuosity (just after 4:00, 5:00 and 6:00).  When you have listened to it for a second time, and I urge you to do so, you will have to marvel at the extraordinary gift in a human voice. The temptation in this piece can be for the singer to embellish it with too much ‘coloratura‘, the art of adding notes or vocal acrobatics to enhance the finished article; but too much can rob you of the tune, and Rossini did not approve of it either, preferring his singers to stick to the script. This recording is not just highly accomplished, but pure joy too.

Music was not Rossini’s greatest passion. That slot was taken by food. A beef tournedos, pan-fried in butter, served on a crouton with a hefty topping of foie gras, and finished with slices of black truffle and Madeira sauce, combine to form the dish known as Tournedos Rossini. No wonder he needed the money.

 

 

Irresistible Bach

When you feel the urge to be straight up about something in script, it can be tempting to relax into an over-colloquial style. I remember once opening a paragraph in an essay at school with the words ‘Let’s face it…’, to find that its marker was of a different view. ‘Let’s not.’ were the words in the margin. But, let’s face it – we must – we cannot let the Lent and Easter season pass without reference to Bach.

For some, Bach is the greatest of them all. It was not always thus: he had to struggle to be appreciated in his own lifetime, not helped by an ill-tempered, stubborn personality, and his monumental output can only serve to conjure up the image of a workaholic, who probably would have done well to take the odd day off. He was a gifted organist, but an awkward employee, constantly in disputes and moaning about the general lack of quality singers for his work. He could hardly have been more different to the outgoing Handel, born only 81 miles away just a few days before, and whom he never even met. A serious boy from the outset, he might reasonably be regarded as the personification of the claim that ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ In short, he was. It may explain why Bernard Levin once commented that Bach’s music all sounds as if it is written in the minor (sad) key, even when it isn’t.

It is almost unbelievable that his colossal output of cantatas, organ works, chamber music, concertos, chorales and much more, did not come to be recognized properly until some fifty years after his death (1750) at 65 (a ripe age in the mid seventeenth century, when the average demise was under 30); and it was not until later in the nineteenth century that Wagner declared him ‘the most stupendous miracle in all music’. Today, 11th April 2017, marks the 290th anniversary of the first performance of his ‘St Matthew Passion‘, conducted by Mendelssohn, surely one of, if not the, most sublime pieces of all choral music ever written.

Bach was a deeply religious man, all of his works being dedicated to the greater glory of God. Do you need to be a Christian to appreciate this piece? Undoubtedly not. But will you be more greatly moved if you are? Yes, I believe so: I have attended the annual performance by the Bach Choir on many occasions. Despite my love of music, I have only once choked, (I am much more likely to shed a tear in some sloppy rom-com) and it was during this piece several years ago. At the point when Jesus yields up the ghost, there is a pause, and on this particular occasion, the conductor, David Hill, seemed to me to delay the re-start by the tiniest of moments. I have no idea if it was deliberate or not; I just know that in that one unguarded instant, the enormity of this story was made clear.

At some three hours in length, there is plenty to draw on. For those who know the piece well, I hope you forgive me for selecting one of the most famous passages; because for those of you who are not familiar with it, these few minutes go a long way to summarizing the meaning of the whole work: a lament, ‘Erbarme dich‘, not for one man alone, but for mankind itself. This weeping melody, sung here by Andreas Scholl, tugs and tugs, and with the help of a solo violin, goes on tugging. It is the most exquisite music.