Haydn in London – last effort!

My computer has resumed alerting me in the bottom right hand corner that ‘You may have a virus.’ I used to ignore such warnings as irritants. Now I’m finding them as a rather tasteless reminder of a world I no longer recognise.

Attracted by the buzz and almost insatiable appetite for all things cultural, Josef Haydn paid a couple of visits to London in the 1790s. Back then, although the largest city in Europe, its expanse covered only a few square miles with a population approaching one million. London has now stretched to over 600 square miles with a population of nine million.

We may think it crowded now, but the density levels would have been fairly insufferable. The Industrial Revolution, the last period in history (and, as it happens, the first) to have made so major impact on our whole way of life, was in full flow. It was the age of steam, mechanisation, textiles – and burgeoning worldwide trade. And London’s air, I imagine, would have been polluted with the effects of coal burning. It would doubtless have been horribly malodorous.

Were Haydn in a position to drop by now, he would be struck by two things, one to his delight, the other to his dismay. His small and tubby physique would now be the beneficiary of the cleanest air the capital has ever known; but the main attraction of his first visits, London as the cultural hub of Europe (yes, including Vienna) would be conspicouosly absent. Theatres, museums, concert halls all empty.

If I could have imagined when I started writing these musical musings that I would ever come to number 104, for that is where we are now, I would have known instantly the composer and the piece.

Haydn. Symphony 104. But what I could not have known is how appropriate that would be. For Haydn’s 104th symphony is called The London.

Everyone is being affected negatively by this hideous disease in one way or another. I make no comment that isolation for those who entertain us is better or worse than anyone else, but since my focus here is solely classical music, this post is dedicated to them.

Here is the final movement of the symphony, played by The Norwegian Symphony under the direction of Steven Isserlis. It is marked Spiritoso, which I don’t think needs translating. Listen to the unbridled exuberance of the melody, the majesty and buzz of London at its heart – and then look at the joy which shines from an ensemble sharing the music, not just with each other, but a live audience. A joy which is now on hold.

It is reminder of the bond that music can bring. And, not a moment too soon, will bring again.

Spring, spring, spring – Beethoven’s way

Hello. How are you doing today? In a combined state of bemusement and uncertainty, I suspect. And not a little anxious, too.

It’s not often I can feel confident in making such an observation in a post which I am pleased to see has now reached more than 100 countries.

As someone who has lived with MS for 20 years, and used a wheelchair for the last dozen, I am more than familiar with the new phrase which has recently entered our lexicon, ‘self isolation’. (With typical and stoical humour, an elderly aunt has just called it ‘solitary confinement’.) Having worked in an office environment for much of my career, I cannot hide that it was a rude shock to be robbed of the social interaction which came with this affliction.

But you adapt. And of one thing you can be certain: amidst all the fragility, you are going to experience acts of extraordinary kindness and thoughtfulness. You may equally discover, maybe surprisingly, but with enormous joy, that you can be a driver of these qualities yourself. Over the years I have been the grateful recipient of many, some large, some small. All made a difference.

Whichever side of the equation you are on, these acts will not only give you strength, but they will also ingrain in you an attitude of gratitude, and faith in the general goodness of fellow men and women. The challenge, for that is what it will be, is for this early resolve to be nurtured and maintained.

It has become one of the motivators for these posts. That music crosses borders and is a universal language is not merely accepted, but something of a cliché. And yet, with the aid of technology, it does allow me to share your company for a few minutes wherever you may be. It enables me to communicate with friends and loved ones whom I may not see for a while – and many whom I have never met, nor likely ever will.

Spring officially began two days ago. There is a plethora of music to celebrate this season of blossom, birdsong, and beginnings anew. Once again I am drawn to Beethoven and the pure sweetness of his Violin Sonata No.5, so called The Spring (posthumously), and in particular, the first movement. There is an abundance of recordings available and you would not think it possible to hear such a variety.

One thing, however, became apparent: speed and unity in this piece are what matters most. The movement is marked Allegro – quickly – and anything falling short of that loses the skip and freshness in the music. And what sweet, sweet music! You might think that unity is a given, but the moment one instrument dominates the other, notes are quashed – and they are all worth hearing.

A 1973 recording by Itzhak Perlman on violin and Vladimir Ashkenazy on piano meets the brief. It is something of a dream team, both of them on equal terms with the other. Ashkenazy has recently retired, and his Beethoven playing is amongst the best there is.

A final word. Today in the UK we celebrate Mothering Sunday. Many, if not most, of us will not be able to share the day with them as we would normally. A mother’s love, like music, endures forever. So this post is dedicated to your mother, or you as a mother yourself.

‘Where words end, music begins’, once opined some sage. And so, enough said.

Click on the image for a reminder that spring brings hope of better things to come –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comfort music

One of the great conundrums in music, any music, is the extent to which our choice of listening reflects our mood.

Obviously if you’re feeling all Tigger-like, you’re not going to go and dig out a funeral march. But if you’re erring on the Eeyore perspective of life, you’re hardly going to seek out an Alleluia tonic.

In the space of a few weeks, the country’s mood has shifted seamlessly from the ennui of Brexit to the fear of Coronavirus. Neither of these emotions is conducive to feeling chipper, and it makes selecting appropriate music in a lighthearted way all the more challenging. Oh, for the elation that swept the land when in 1981 Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, and Botham and Willis overcame the Aussies! ‘Bliss, [indeed], was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be young [as I was] was very heaven.’ And then some 30 years later the collective high spirits as the Olympics came to London.

Two things are now clear: we are in need of consolation, comfort and care; and without in any way seeking to trivialise the current climate, a little amusement would not go amiss either.

Which is why my quandary has directed me to two pieces today, in the hope that between them both there will be something here for everyone. Step up J. S. Bach, and Victor Hely-Hutchinson.

Bach wrote just one concerto for two violins, probably around 1720, but what a gem of intermingling dialogue it is. In this recording the canary-coloured-clad Anne Sophie Mutter shares the three movements with different members of her ensemble. The first, marked vivace, meaning lively, upbeat, is taken at a very sprightly lick and the final allegro almost has each violin chasing the other; but in the midst of these outer movements Bach slots in a largo ma non tanto, slowly but not overly so, which gives lie to the belief of some who find his music unmoving. It is an exquisite eight minutes, imbued with melancholy and comfort as one.

I am indebted to a first cousin for bringing the second piece to my attention. Victor Hely-Hutchinson, about whom I have written a couple of times before, was my great uncle and a child prodigy. He was still at Heatherdown prep school, so maybe not even in his teens, when he set Edward Lear’s 1871 poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, to music. I’m not here to read anything particularly insightful into this, for it is, after all, ‘nonsense verse’; but at its heart is an endearing trust – two completely incompatible beings sailing into the unknown ‘for a year and a day’. Looking out for each other. A message for our times?

I can’t hide a huge pride that this top rate trio, Mark Padmore, Roderick Williams, and Julius Drake, saw fit to perform this. It may be fun and playful, but it is far from kitsch: Victor conveys the gentle rocking of the boat from the opening bars, and the blending of these two lovely voices underlines the harmony between the two characters, heading into the unknown together.

‘There may be troubles ahead, but while there’s music and moonlight…’

Click on the images.

Namaste.

 

 

A different kind of Austrian

One thing that bothers me about cookery programmes, for which my appetite has long been satiated, is the equal enthusiasm the experts express no matter what they dish up.

I mean, please, how is is possible to rave about offal, oysters, anchovies and the like with the same effusiveness as crème brûlée, Sachertorte, sauce béarnaise? It has left me with the constant suspicion that chefs, just like the rest of us, are averse to certain foods, but to admit it would be a betrayal of their art.

Finding top musicians fessing up to a particular dislike of a composer can be just as hard. But I am not a musician. Today I am setting myself, and in doing so responding to, a challenge. You will know that the purpose of this blog is to share music that I love. Today, dear reader, I am going outside that brief. And well out of my comfort zone.

I did a quick look back on the last 100 posts and was pleasantly surprised to see that we have covered 45 different composers. There remain some glaring omissions on the list (him, Liszt, being one of them), so there is still plenty of material out there.

The image at the top of this post did not crawl there by accident. ‘Symphonic boa constrictors’ was how Brahms described the symphonies of the Austrian composer, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Bruckner was the eldest of 11 children. He learnt and played the organ with precocious skill from a young age, but seems to have suffered a lifelong inferiority complex. It’s perhaps not hard to see why. He was constantly put down by his teachers; his symphonies were not well received in his life, and he was something of an odd-ball: he dressed strangely in over-sized clothes; he was obsessed with numbers and teenaged girls, to whom many he made unsuccessful marriage proposals, remaining a bachelor to the end, a lifestyle almost certainly driven by his unwavering Catholic faith which seems to have persuaded him that anything other than a virgin would be sinful.

And he was quite odd-looking, too.

I wonder if his lack of self confidence goes some way to explaining the length of his symphonies. Let’s give this a simple comparison: his first nine symphonies total about 10 hours of listening – Beethoven’s nine symphonies, about 6. The average length of a Bruckner symphony, 65 minutes, is the same length as Beethoven’s longest, his ninth. There’s a lot of repetition. Sometimes it can feel as if the piece has finished long before the music stops.

If you are looking for jollity, you will struggle to find it here. Bruckner’s symphonies are works of profound solemnity.

I accept fully that it is all a matter of taste: I know some who say he is their favourite composer. And I also accept whenever I  have heard a live performance, the sheer monumentality can be an overwhelming sound.

So what’s the problem for me?

The man is a tease of the highest order. With Mahler, whether you like his music or not, he never fails to deliver the climax: the crescendo always delivers what you are hoping and waiting for. Bruckner, by contrast, could have invented the term ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ long before any Brexit negotiations: endless passages of promising foreplay, leaving you expectant, and then…NOTHING!

At the risk of emulating one of his shorter symphonies, I will deter you only a little longer. The Scherzo of his 7th Symphony is about as light as he gets, albeit with its own weighty moments. Günther Wand (pronounced Vand, not Wond, however fitting that might be for a conductor) was one of the true experts in Bruckner’s music, a reputation achieved from his ability to secure lengthy rehearsal times. Here he is in his late 80s, extracting a sound full of colour, contrast and clarity. It is one of those rare passages which does not demonstrate my frustration, and hence one I enjoy – and it’s not a bad tune either.

I may yet come round to him more, and I have certainly enjoyed this mini exploration.

Oh, and in an exception to the chef analogy, I did find one musician who wasn’t crazy about Bruckner – Leonard Bernstein. I’m not the greatest fan of Lenny, but he did write the best musical of all time and I won’t debate that.

Click on the image – thoughts welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

Strauss and the horn

 

The scene I am taking you to now is a modest flat with no electricity or running water. We are in Munich in 1883.

It is the dwelling of the Strauss family. The highly gifted Richard, about whom I have written once or twice before (search bar for details), is now 19. Richard is the son of Franz, the principal horn player in the Munich Court Opera, and Josephine, the daughter of a successful and wealthy brewer.

Quite where the notion came from that it is not done to marry trade, is beyond me. Marrying the daughter of a brewer is surely one step to securing a life of wedded bliss. And I married trade myself. (Leather has its own perks, naturally, but I’m not sure I can link them to this post.)

Back to that flat. Imagine a conversation between horn player father and precocious son which, in an updated version, might have gone something like this.

– Hey, Dad, I’ve written this concerto for horn and orchestra. It’d be great if you would be the first to play it. What d’you think?

– Oh wonderful, good lad, let’s have a look, shall we?

Pause. Quite a long one.

– It looks fantastic, son, but the thing is, not sure how to put this…I mean, seriously?

Crestfallen young prodigy.

– I thought you’d like it.

– I do, oh yes, I absolutely do. It’s just that it’s so difficult. There’s no way a man of my age can play that without doing himself a serious injury. Sorry, son, but that top Bb is way out of my range these days. ’Fraid you’re gonna have to find someone else for this.

The horn is perhaps the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play. In order to get some orchestral experience, I was taught it to a pathetic level (not my teacher’s fault) in my teenage years. My position in the brass section can only be described as fleeting.

So I have a little understanding of Strauss senior’s qualms. That gives me only a slight advantage, because I am sure it will become apparent to anyone listening to this last movement of his first (of two) concerti for horn.

The concerto is less than 20 minutes long and is more or less seamless through its three movements. These last six minutes are technically fiendish but filled with relentless exuberance. It requires the highest level of breathing control, a demand displayed effortlessly  by the late Barry Tuckwell in this concert some thirty years ago, (so the picture is not the best). Tuckwell died last month and was one of the few of whom it can be fairly said was a master of his craft.

This is a live performance, don’t forget. In the course of a hundred years, many improvements have been made to the instrument – there were no valves on Franz’s horn, for one thing. Even accounting for that, there are no luxuries of a second take in the studio, and yet I can detect only one duff note. You will find versions which may appear a little smoother in sound, but Tuckwell was not one for caution: this is a gutsy, brassy, no-holds-barred performance, with a great tune, too.

And as such, an approach which, I suspect, the youthful Strauss would have happily endorsed.

I never reached three figures with a bat in my hand. I notice, however, that this marks my 100th post! Ton up. Thank you for all the kind comments you send, they are much appreciated – please do pass it on to others.

Click on the image below –

 

 

 

 

Beethoven – the answer to life

 

Forgive a slightly longer missive: Beethoven demands it.

You are going to read, and probably hear, a great deal about this complex man during 2020, this being the 250th anniversary of his birth.

I am no expert, no musicologist, just an amateur enthusiast, but Ludwig van Beethoven gets my vote as being one of the most influential people ever to walk the planet. The simple truth is that he threw away the rule book, and nothing in music, perhaps even the wider arts, was the same after him.

I remember the precise moment I first heard his music. I was taken as a young child to one of the early Charlie Brown films. Along with Linus and Snoopy the dog, Schroeder is Charlie Brown’s closest friend. But the other passion in Schroeder’s life is Beethoven. He is, you might say, nuts about him.

During the film, Schroeder plays the slow movement from the Pathétique sonata, and I went home resolved to learn the piece. (Battling the two outer movements came some years later. This became something of a pattern for me – ‘Oh, I could play that!’, only to discover that Beethoven rarely composed simple stand-alone works.)

Readers of these posts will know that Schubert is my favourite composer. And yet if I  had to single out the composer who has had the greatest impact on me in so many ways, it would have to be Beethoven. In the context of classical music, I am minded to replace the word ‘music’ in John Miles’s famous lyric to read ‘Beethoven was my first love and he will be my last.’

Why so?

It may sound hokey, but in Beethoven’s music you have everything of what it means to be human. Schulz’s cartoon above is more than just funny. Beethoven’s irascibility, temper, sartorial obliviousness, hopeless love-life, manifold dwellings, and general defiance of almost everything, are well known; as is his near thirty-year struggle with deafness, surely the cruellest possible affliction for a musician.

All of these traits and frustrations are writ large in his music: never before has the personality of a composer been so glaringly exposed in his output, be it symphony, concerto, sonata, overture, choral or chamber. All his music articulates life itself.

Lest you feel tempted to charge me with spewing out sentimental nonsense, let me try and demonstrate it with a piece of music with which you may not be familiar.

Beethoven wrote sixteen string quartets, a format first used by Haydn, then developed by Mozart. Conveniently, these fall into three periods in his life, early, middle, and late; and it is the slow movement of one of the late ones, no.13, which sums up humanity more than any piece I know.

Oh no, he’s going all heavy on me now, I hear you groan. Hold on.

Nothing demonstrates the difficulty of writing about music better than this. That’s because the Cavatina, as it is called, has no tune per se that will leave you humming it later. It’s not about melody, it’s about feeling. Marked molto espressivo, you may not ‘get’ it at first. I didn’t. But after a few listens, you will want to submit to its profound and ineffable beauty, yearning for it to go on when it comes to a sudden halt. At its centre is a searing violin. The music soon engulfs you in this heart-wrenching blanket of tenderness. About half way through comes a brief ‘choke’, a change of tempo, and it is widely believed that a blotch on the original score is a teardrop from the composer.

Beethoven could only hear these notes in his head – he couldn’t try it out on a keyboard. Composed less than two years before he died, you can feel the aching sorrow of his condition, but also a sense that after all the bang, crash, wallop we tend to associate with Beethoven, this, more than anything else, (and he wrote some truly gorgeous slow movements) is the purest summation of the man, his music, his life – and, by extension, humanity itself.

If that consigns me to Pseuds’ Corner, well – show me the way. But not before you’ve clicked the image.

 

 

 

Farewell to Christmas with Cornelius.

With impeccable timing I have just completed, through a combination of luck and discipline, the Christmas edition of The Spectator. In turning the final cover and consigning it to the waggerpaggerbagger beneath my desk, I say farewell to the season. (It was, incidentally, a Christmas-crackeringly good read.)

Tomorrow, the 6th of January, marks that occasion formally. The visit of the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus, The Epiphany, gives me the perfect excuse to share my favourite Christmas melody with you, which I last did at the end of 2016; so it doesn’t seem overly early to re-issue it with a different singer, and one of my favourites, Gerald Finley.

Back in 2016, I put together the content for the programme for the concert in St.Paul’s Cathedral in aid of MS. It is there in full on YouTube, (Finlay about 10 minutes from the end) and the performaces of singers and actors still bring a lump to my throat. One of the thrills of being at the heart of the rehearsals on that day was having an element of control, enabling me to ask Gerry to sing it once more – not, of course, because there was anything wrong with the first rendition, on the contrary: it was so utterly delicious, that I just needed to hear it again.

What I had forgotten, and this applied to all participants on the night, is that professionals don’t give it their all in rehearsal. Something is always held back for the performance itself, the result being that however prepared you think you might be for what is about to follow, an unexpected variation, be it emotion or emphasis, will be thrown in – and suddenly the eyes fill up. And so it was that night. I remember shedding a tear during rehearsal of one the spoken pieces, then declining the offer of tissues just before the concert after I’d left my handkerchief in my wife’s coat, insisting, “I’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t.

Many have told me this was the lovelist version of The Three Kings by the German composer Peter Cornelius (1824-1874) they had ever heard. Poor old Cornelius: he did, in fact compose a number of works, including three operas, and was friendly with, and influential on, Wagner and Liszt, but he is now chiefly known for this.

But if you’re going to be known for one piece alone, you could do worse. Christina Rossetti published her poem In the Bleak Midwinter in 1874. We are all familiar with the sentiment in the final verse of offering the heart in the absence of sufficient means to bring anything else: if you listen to the third, final, verse here I think Cornelius might just have got there first.

And so farewell, Christmas. My thoughts and heart to you wherever you are for 2020.

Click on the image for another version by Gerald Finlay –