Moon Music the Strauss way.

Sport has once more interfered with my musical musings, the usual quota increased this year by the World Cup. I was not glued to every match, but it was a gripping contest in Moscow, even without England’s success – for that it surely was.

The Open at Carnoustie had all the ingredients for a thrilling last day, with over half a dozen players in the mix. The last hour promised to be the most exciting for years, until, one by one, every contender bar one decided it wasn’t for him. As a consequence, there was no multi competitor play-off, just an outright (and thoroughly likeable) champion.

Something of an anti climax. Just like the well-billed Blood Moon last Friday, whose visibility in the south of the UK was about as evident as a policeman when you really want one. (Which, aptly enough, is only likely to be, if ever, once in a blue moon.)

But it did have the effect of calling to mind one really magical five minutes of music which I encountered for the first time just weeks before. I had never been to a performance of Capriccio by Richard Strauss until this summer.

I have written about Strauss’s unparalleled writing for the soprano voice (Search on Home Page reveals all), but he was also a top-rate orchestrator (see parentheses above). Capriccio was Strauss’s last opera, first performed in Munich in October 1942. The year. Just imagine attending that evening, fully aware of what horrific misfortune could occur at any moment.

The opera does not need a lengthy explanation here: it is, quite simply, a lighthearted piece which debates (through two different suitors for a Countess) the perennial question of which art form is the more important – poetry/words or music?

They are, of course, inseparable.  The combination of the two throughout the opera is unsurprisingly sublime: at one point I counted eight different voices singing their own lines all at the same time, each unique to him- or herself, and each distinguishable within the group.

And then this.  As the Countess prepares to reflect on her dilemma, Strauss slips in these few minutes of Mondschein (Moonshine) music.  I have written about music connected with the moon in the past (in danger of repeating my above parentheses now). As the son of a horn player, he knew a thing or two about this instrument, which opens this brief passage.

There are a few recordings to choose from. Antonio Pappano can scarce do no wrong in my ears, but I think he takes it a tiny bit fast; and Barenboim’s live concert succumbs to the very smallest of blemishes on the horn.

I’ve picked one where the sound is perfect and the visuals are just irritating. So when you’ve clicked on it, I would encourage you to sit back and wallow in the sound, wishing, as I did when I first heard it a month ago, that it could go on and on and on. A single horn, then full orchestra with a couple of harps for good measure.

(The Countess’s final piece is often sung as a stand-alone concert aria. I saw Kiri Te  Kanawa perform it with Leonard Bernstein many years ago and had the pleasure of meeting them both afterwards. She, as you might expect, was divine. He, as you might expect, thought he was.)

Another new discovery. And a moon you can rely on, too.

 

 

 

 

Snape Britten

If you are ever lucky enough to be a guest at the Salzburg Festival, you would not let slip that you weren’t a fan of Mozart; or Wagner at Bayreuth.

So while at the Aldeburgh Music Festival, which I have attended for the last few years, I have kept my mouth firmly zipped on site that I am not a great lover of the music of Benjamin Britten (1913-76). It would be an act of heresy, risking immediate expulsion and a ban to return for life. Some readers will be aghast at such an admission, about one of this country’s most gifted composers, and the man who set up the festival seventy years ago with the musician and his life-long partner, Peter Pears, seen below on the right with Britten.

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From a modest start in Aldeburgh, its popularity grew to require larger premises and hence its move to Snape Maltings. The accoustic in the 832 seat concert hall is extraordinary.

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We listened to a violin concerto in the first half of one concert without knowing whose it was, having left the programme in the bar. There were, in my view, isolated moments of real beauty, but not frequent enough for me to really want to listen to it again – which, I admit, is exactly what I would encourage you to do if you didn’t like one of my posts.

During the interval I tentatively asked what we’d just heard, to be informed that it was the Britten Violin Concerto.

Right, I thought, I’m really glad I hadn’t known that in advance, because I’d have made up my mind that I wasn’t going to listen to it properly. But I did; and when I learnt of its identity, my reaction was that I’m glad to have been made to hear it without knowing the composer, ticked that box, and no need to seek it out again. A view I still hold.

I’ve probably lost a few of you in disgust already. How lazy. How short-sighted. But is it really any different to ditching a book half way through if it hasn’t got hold of you by then?

And yet maybe that’s one approach when listening to a piece for the first time: give it your full attention without knowing the composer, and find yourself less biased and more curious. Then see if you want to hear it again, or, better still, seek out other works by the same hand.

(The second half of the concert, incidentally, was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, whose popularity since its very first performance has caused it to be so overplayed that I would never actively seek it out. He wrote eight others, only a handful of which get a decent airing. It was so brilliantly played, however, that, much to my annoyance, I have been humming excerpts from it ever since. A different result for my prejudiced thinking. Serves me right, I know. And if you haven’t heard the piece, which includes the backing for a famous bread brand advertisement, I would encourage you to ignore my temporary boredom with it and listen to it.)

The difficulty I have with Britten is that he couldn’t stand the music of Verdi (seriously?), Brahms, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. But his output was prolific, and his 16 operas redefined English opera. I know there are plenty of exceptions, it’s just that I find much of his music to be so – how can I put it? – bloody miserable!

I am an impatient listener, but when I hear a work I do not like, I am convinced it is my fault. Not my words, but Britten’s, and that must be my admission henceforth. I’m conscious that this post is almost in breach of my mission to share pieces with you that I enjoy, and I’ve hardly bigged up Britten here – but here is one of those exceptions.

On the final day of the festival, we attended a recital given by the bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel. What a way to finish that was. Amongst his songs was this setting by Britten of the folksong Foggy, Foggy Dew. As an example of a major work, it is not; but it is a rare moment of fun, especially in the hands of Terfel and his gifted accompanist, Malcom Martineau.  The story is brilliantly told by both of them. Click below image.

 

We were treated to two encores. And here comes a gripe. The first was a humorous one about a dragon. After he’d finished it, with applause still strong, there were people all over this very open hall bolting for the exits to make a head start from the car parks. Can you imagine how awful that looks from the stage? And can you imagine missing this, one of Schubert’s most beautiful songs, Allerseelen, written for the Feast of All Souls? Serves them right, I say.

The last line was sung even more quietly than it is here, almost a whisper, and we heard every word. What a gem. Click again-

 

 

 

Opera not for you? Tosh!

I remember well the first time I went to my first opera. It was Verdi’s La traviata. Nothing particularly special about that.

Except for the fact that I was just 12 years old – and it was at Verona. And believe me there is plenty special about that. This is what my first, and outdoor, opera experience looks like:

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It was quite wasted on me, of course. We were on holiday with my grandfather on my mother’s side, and the children (that’s me, my sibs and a couple of cousins) had to be hauled along in the absence of anything better to do with them.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, today I discovered something else which was wasted on me. The main roles of Violetta and Alfredo were sung by Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi. I can’t be certain they were on duty that night, but there has to be a good chance they were.

To put it in perspective, it’s a bit like being taken to a concert at the age of 6 and learning a few years later that the lead act had been David Bowie. Or Miles Davis.

In David Hare’s new play about the creation of Glyndebourne opera house, Moderate Soprano (on until June 30th and well worth a visit if you can), its visionary, John Christie, protests his dream against his doubters with the words “There are always a thousand reasons not to go to the opera!”

A hundred years ago, maybe. Not so today. Cost? Nah. You could attend any sporting fixture for the same or less; and if sport doesn’t interest you, your visit to the hairdresser, especially if you are in the high/lowlights game, could set you back far more – and you’d do that several times a year.

The worst two, that it’s “just for toffs” or “it’s not my thing” are tosh. In most cases, they are uttered by people who have never bothered to try. For the life of me, I cannot understand why, as long as you have been introduced to the right one at an age you will remember it, the immediate urge will not be to go again. Carmen, La Bohème, The Magic Flute, Aida, Rigoletto, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro – any of these fall into that category. We took my son to Carmen, and his Christmas present to me that year was just the two of us going to the English National Opera. I rest my case.

And, little though I knew it at 12 years old, Verdi’s La traviata. Probably the most performed of all his operas, it is impossible not to warm to it. It  is the opera Edward Lewis takes Vivian Ward to see in the film, Pretty Woman (with a not dissimilar plot, except that only one has a happy ending – well, it’s an opera, what did you expect?). The tunes go on and on.

Here is one of my favourite singers, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died far too young at the end of last year, fessing up to his son why he has just asked Violetta to give him up for the sake of their family’s reputation. Lovely, lovely singing, and listen to that last note, 14 seconds of it. Opera Holland Park is staging it now to ecstatic reviews: I know nothing of current ticket sales, but I do know that a few remain on the 19th June, when the proceeds all go to MS research. Go to the website to check, you will not be disappointed. http://www.operahollandpark.com

 

Indulge me, I cannot resist a quick bonus. I have noticed that the music for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup is something I added in an earlier post in memory of Dmitri. Here it is again. What a voice. What a sad loss.

 

Happy birthday, Wagner

It’s very easy to pronounce a hasty dislike for a particular composer. Often, especially in the context of some 20th century composers, where melody seems either absent or well hidden, this is perfectly understandable.

I have less sympathy for people who say they enjoy classical music, while adding, as one did to me recently, “but you can keep Bach, altogether too mathematical, no soul, no fun”, or words to that effect. What a feast awaits him, if he can be persuaded to remove the blinkers. And that is the raison d’être of these posts – to demonstrate there will always be something, whatever views you have formed, that will make you think again.

What, for example, is there not to like in this very brief (just over one and a half minutes!) piece?

 

 

Richard Wagner (1813-83), about whom I have written once before, tends to provoke the most extreme opinions, and with good reason (see Ethereal Wagner, October 2016 to read quite how unattractive he was). Today would have been his birthday, the only thing I can detect that he has in common with my wife, so it’s an opportune time to give him another airing.

Now, if you’re not a Wagner fan, you are not alone. Nor am I, especially, but there are passages of this man’s music which transcend bias or preconception. Moments when you just have to give in and admit this is the creation of extraordinary genius. So don’t give up just yet: listen to this overture to one of his operas, Tannhäuser, and wallow in the glorious tunes. It is the longest overture ever written for an opera, but as a statement of good overcoming evil, the theme of the opera, it has few equals.

Chances are you will recognize this, but if it is your first time, this recording with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is as good as you will hear. The brass section of this orchestra established a reputation which stands head and shoulders above all the others, and it’s not hard to see why.

This deserves volume, and lots of it. I have recently become the proud recipient of an Orbitsound Dock, which has introduced me to a new quality of sound. Beg, steal, do whatever it takes to possess it, I had no idea how much the enjoyment of listening could be improved.

And if you really don’t warm to this, then I concede that Wagner is not for you at all. But try it you must.

 

 

Handel’s sense of humour

I am no twitcher, but I am lucky enough to live in an area in Kent where I am surrounded by all manner of birdsong, much of it not standard fare. A wren is seeking attention as I write this post.

The cuckoo, I accept, is not that unusual. As a solitary sound at 3.30 this morning, however, it brought me enormous comfort in my inability to sleep. More than that, it helped me to nod off eventually – and, to my huge gratification, was still there to greet me when I awoke to the dawn chorus an hour later.

My great uncle Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s perfect pitch (the ability to sing or identify a musical note) was identified very early when he uttered the words “Cuck-oo; e-c.”

The German-born George Frideric Handel moved to London in 1712 (and, with his remains in Westminster Abbey, was never asked to leave). With the big hits of The Water Music, The Messiah etc. under his belt he became a huge success, especially in the field of opera, as well as being a highly accomplished organist, who would combine these talents by introducing the premier of each opera with an off-the-cuff ditty on the organ. Barely any of his solo compositions for the instrument survive, but we are left with a group of organ concertos.

One of them is known as The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. Handel was a stout, short-tempered man, plagued by ill-health for much of his 71 bachelor years, including a later blindness which did not prevent him from playing or having a good sense of humour.

Take the second movement of this piece, a chirpy dialogue between these two birds. Handel tended to outline the main parts, but would often leave pages totally blank with the words Ad libitum, requiring the soloist to improvise as best he could. Simon Preston is one of our foremost organists and the conversation is clear. It’s also a good tune.

The eagle-eyed amongst you (note continuing of bird theme) will notice there are two pieces attached today.

If my father were alive today, he would be sharing his 61st Wedding Anniversary with my mother who told me this morning what a wonderful day that had been. Increasingly, later generations are able to share that memory with their parents, but for the moment, and in the context of this post, it is my wedding which comes to mind. What an opportunity this is to have a bit of fun.

The bride’s prerogative of being fashionably (but 20 minutes?) late was properly observed, despite her father being an equal to my own for punctuality, so the first lines of the hymn on their entrance, ‘Oh praise ye the Lord!’ were unintentionally apt. The congregation sat through a Mozart Mass, before the married couple exited to today’s second clip.

We only had a choir of four and a village organ, but with Catherine Wyn Rogers in their number, that was plenty. The late Anthony Rolfe Johnson sings this Handel refrain. Give it a couple of minutes and listen to the words which close the piece. I hope Handel might have approved.

Happy Anniversary, Mum.

 

 

Menacing Prokofiev

Ballet is a divisive art form. And not just for the performers.

I am not amongst its greatest fans, and will no doubt fall foul of many experts when I align myself closely with Bateman’s view ‘that most ballets would be quite delightful if it were not for the dancing.’

When you consider that early 20th century Russia was a period abundant with ballet compositions and personalities (Nijinsky, Pavlova, Diaghilev, Markova) I was surprised to find so many eminent native writers and composers who are considerably more scathing than Bateman. Tolstoy described ballet as ‘lewd’; Schoenberg as ‘not a musical form’. Chekhov’s appraisal takes some beating – ‘I don’t understand anything about ballet. All I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.’

You do not need to be a forensic historian to know that the above period in Russia was a time of unimaginable turmoil. The first thirty or forty years of the 20th century in a regime under Stalin were so ruthless, bloody, and unforgiving, that they could almost be said to have been rescued by the arrival of the Second World War. It was not a time when you would expect the arts to thrive; but whilst they struggled, they were not stifled.

Sergei Prokofiev’s life-span of 1891-1953 would come to bridge all this terror. An only child, born in Ukraine, he had a precocious talent at the keyboard, and an arrogant personality with it. He rubbed people up the wrong way, and his modern approach to composition wasn’t welcomed in either America (to where he fled initially) or Europe. And to be the creator of anything, words, art, music, in his homeland was to risk mysterious disappearance unless it conformed as expected. Even his Spanish wife, Lina, was dispatched to a labour camp under suspicion of being a spy.

So it is hard to trace much happiness in the man’s life, which ended at the age of 50 on exactly the same day as Stalin, but he must rank as one of the foremost 20th century composers. Nowadays, he is most widely known for his setting of Peter and the Wolf, but his music for Romeo and Juliet goes a long way to supporting Bateman’s view of ballet at the top of this post.

Today’s thrilling rendition from this ballet, The Dance of the Montagues and Capulets, has been used for countless backdrops, most notably The Apprentice (a neat irony, as Prokofiev was far from being a model student). Here, however, you will get a little more when the mood softens as Juliet joins the dance; only for a solo saxophone to remind you that trouble is not far away. It is a menacing passage.

Romeo and Juliet was my first of very few visits to the ballet. Some 35 years ago I was approached by the gorgeous, statuesque, Liz at work. She had a spare ticket, would I like to come, I’ll do the tickets, you do dinner? Dutch up front, no mistake. I wonder what became of her. I’ll avoid the obvious Shakespearean question.

Turn up the volume: this is a great version, opening with a discord of real terror.

 

 

 

 

 

Rain and Sun, Beethoven’s way

Somebody recently asked me which of Beethoven’s nine symphonies is my favourite.

After going through them quickly in my head, I could only reach one certain conclusion. “As long as it’s not the ninth, my favourite would have to be the one I’m listening to at the time.” That’s how hard it is. I exclude the ninth, because it just doesn’t connect with me, despite it having perhaps the most exquisite of all his symphonic slow movements.

That said, as I get older, so have I come to appreciate more the pieces by composers introduced to me in my younger years. In that context, I have not the slightest doubt that if you were to ask me which one piece I would recommend to anyone wanting an introduction to classical music, it would have to be Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, more usually known as The Pastoral. 

Which still doesn’t make it my favourite Beethoven symphony.  Unless I’m listening to it.

I have written about Beethoven once or twice before in these posts (Search Bar reveals all), but the one thing to remember with this awkward genius is that all the ‘rules’ of music, or perhaps, more accurately, ‘accepted conventions’, meant nothing to him.

He might reasonably be defined as an advocate of Goethe’s assertion that “…Rules will destroy the true feeling of Nature and its true expression.”

Beethoven led a desperately sad and introvert life, a man of obsessive habits, craving for love without success, dogged by almost total deafness for his last 15-20 years, a man whose creativity nevertheless ranks amongst the very highest, for some the highest, whilst seemingly happy to surround himself with appalling filth and indulge in copious quantities of wine, a propensity inherited from his even-more-thirsty father. But he was born, in 1770, in Bonn, a city which attracted prodigious musical talent; and he landed up in Vienna, where music thrived.

There is so much which could be written about him, none of it dull, but I suspect you might scroll down the page to alight on today’s choice, and perhaps you already have, so I must resist.  But imagine, if you can, the ability to produce such music against a backdrop of war, Napoleon, riots and revolutions in Europe that would make today’s shenanigans look like a picnic. Upheaval was rife.

Beethoven’s love of the countryside is well documented, and his 6th symphony, first performed in 1808, is a deliberate portrayal of this.

Unusually, (surprise, surprise), this symphony has five, rather than the typical four, movements, all of them with a specific title; and movements 3, 4 and 5 run into eachother without a break.

Many of you will be all too familiar with this and hence wrongly, from my own experience, dismiss it as not worth the time. But this is music which does not require its titles: I distinctly recall playing this to my young children and asking them to tell me what came to mind. “Sounds like thunder.”

Genius, I thought. Beethoven, of course, not my offspring, sadly.

So here are the last two uninterrupted movements. The first starts with a few spots of rain, building to a climactic, almost scary, thunderstorm, before subsiding with the occasional distant clack, and merging into joyful thanks in one of music’s most famous melodies. As the storm abates, it is easy to imagine the sun breaking through with a rainbow.

This is honestly the best piece I can suggest to anyone wanting to embark on a classical music discovery. That is why you should listen to it, however well you think you know it, to appreciate just how clever the man was.

If you really can’t be bothered, try playing it to someone who does not normally listen to this sort of music, just to see if it elicits the same response as my children. (I may have given them a tiny steer by mentioning ‘weather’, but no more.)