Today’s smile…a Chopin ballade.

Wait – don’t be put off by the photo!

I have been longing to share my love of this piano piece by Frederic Chopin (1810-49). So much of his music will be well known to you, since his waltzes, etudes, nocturnes and mazurkas are played widely; less so, what I am posting about today, so I hope it will be something new to many.

Although he did write some instrumental music, notably two concertos, he wrote nothing in his brief life which did not include the piano. And brief it was: he was never particularly healthy, even from a young age, causing Berlioz to observe that “he was dying all his life”. It was probably tuberculosis that killed him, in an apartment immediately opposite the hotel from where the late Diana, Princess of Wales, made her last fateful journey nearly 150 years later.

Chopin was refined, even delicate, impeccably dressed and mannered, somewhat at odds with the writer George Sand, a dumpier, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking sexual predator with whom he had a troublesome love affair, which did not end well. Although the woman who was probably the most central figure in his life, she was not even at his deathbed. Chopin was a highly accomplished pianist who preferred the setting of the salons of Paris to the concert hall, and was quickly recognized for his talent – “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” was Schumann’s early assessment of a prodigy whom many viewed as the successor to Mozart. Apart from being born in Poland, there is nothing obviously nationalistic about his work, but it is filled with the broadest spectrum of emotions, always imbued with simple and delightful tunes, even if sometimes fiendishly difficult, as in today’s example.

Chopin wrote four ballades, a term he was the first to apply to a music composition, having been normally associated with poetry and song. The first of these is a piece full of drama, the impact of which grows on every hearing. It does not appear to have any particular reference or story behind it, but unquestionably you can detect a story of sorts unfolding, with elements of despair, yearning and hope all in the mix. It starts simply enough, with a joyful climactic moment a few minutes in, preceded by the sweetest of melodies; before launching into a blistering phase of speed and technical wizardry. The last eighty seconds, ending with an agonizing downward scale, will have you on the edge of your seat.

Unlike Vladimir Horowitz in this 1968 recording. Don’t despair in the first minute: the quality of the sound is not great at the start, and it is by no means note-perfect; but his impassive, and expressionless, approach, somehow conveys a far greater understanding and enjoyment of this work than any back-arching ceiling-gazer. You may wonder what all the fuss is about at the opening, but perseverance will be rewarded.

Tenderness, drama, colour and extraordinary clarity. I make no apologies for calling on Horowitz again: if ever there was a case of ‘less is more’, surely this is it.

 

 

 

One of the great love songs.

Having been a little lengthy last week, I will not deter you long with too many words with this music; because the truth is, it is not easy to articulate the beauty of this piece – text is unlikely to give it justice, beyond a little background and personal experience.

Even if you’ve never seen it, or have yet to go to an opera, almost everyone has heard of Carmen. If you have not taken this step yet, for perfectly understandable pre-misconceptions, you could do a lot worse than seek out a performance of this opera. We took my son (who I’m sure would not be overly offended if I stated that he would sound out of tune in a football crowd) to see it with a friend a couple of years ago. It was his reaction to this work which prompted the real purpose of my blog: if he could respond like this to classical music and opera, anyone could.

Afterwards his friend even commented that at one stage “the music was so lovely, I didn’t even bother to look at the surtitles to know what was being sung”. The clip I have chosen does give you the benefit of an English translation, but it’s almost superfluous.

Carmen, a French opera composed by Georges Bizet (1838-75), is the story of a raunchy gypsy with an insatiable appetite for seduction. She lures the vulnerable Don Jose, a soldier who is already attached to his childhood sweetheart; and then, once he’s head-over-heels in love with her, dumps him for the more alluring bullfighter, Escamillo. In a jealous rage, Jose declares that if he can’t have her, noone else will – and stabs her to make sure of it. That is possibly the shortest synopsis of a four act opera you will ever read, but it really doesn’t matter: all you need to know is that this work is stuffed with passion and wonderful tunes throughout which ease through the most defiant of ears. When it was first performed in 1875, it was not received well, since its subject was deemed far too unseemly; and Bizet died only a few months later, believing it to be a failure. It was the lone voice of Tchaikovsky who predicted that within a matter of years Carmen would become one of the most popular in the repertory, and how right he was.

There is so much to choose from, but these few minutes are heart-wrenchingly sublime. Don Jose, here performed by Jonas Kaufmann (one of the very best tenor/baritones around today) sings of his love for Carmen. I can’t add a word to this sound.

 

 

 

Mahler – but don’t panic!

Whether you are a newcomer to classical music or not, the chances are that there are a few composers whose very names have the potential to spook.

Just from my own experience, I suspect that Gustav Mahler may be one: it took me ages to be brave enough to listen to a whole symphony (of which there are ten), not least because they are big pieces, some of them so long that I think it was Richard Ingrams of Private Eye who gave them nicknames along the lines of ‘Interminable’ and ‘Insufferable’. I confess I go through phases with this man; but if, like me, you occasionally like or want a really loud sound, and I mean tumultuous, then this guy is for you.

Noone before him, and I suggest very few since, has been able to combine melody and weight quite like this. Today I am going to demonstrate this with only the last three minutes of his first symphony, a piece nearly an hour long, known as ‘The Titan.’

Mahler was an Austrian composer whose life (1860-1911) bridged the late romantic tradition and modernism. One of fourteen children, of whom eight died in infancy, he was of humble origins, and during his life was better acclaimed as a conductor than composer. Barely five foot tall, he had some spectacular rifts with a number of orchestras, falling out with many, because his exacting standards were so demanding that players just landed up fearing him; but he was probably the first conductor anywhere to be so universally admired for the results, especially in opera.

As a German-speaking Jew, his own music, which was almost all symphony and song focused, was banned in much of Europe, only coming to prominence in the second half of the last century; and my hunch is that his music is received today in much the same way as it was in his own lifetime – with a mixture of huge enthusiasm and utter disdain. His output was not enormous, but it is nevertheless  firmly established in the concert reportoire, so you can take it or leave it.

But not without trying first!

He won’t be completely alien to you, anyway, because almost everyone is familiar with the slow movement of his fifth symphony, made famous as the music used in the film ‘Death in Venice’, a passage which we all now associate with gloom and melancholy; although it was actually composed as a love letter for his very beautiful wife, Alma Schindler. (It does, of course, have an element of sadness in it, but that has been ridiculously exaggerated by the length of time some conductors take to play it – sometimes up to quarter of an hour, which is twice as long Mahler intended it!)

I remember thinking for a while (apologies, Mahler-nuts!) that he really shouldn’t have bothered with anything else after this first symphony, since, with few exceptions, it doesn’t for me get much better; and then I recently chanced upon a theory that this may even have been written later than some of the subsequently published symphonies, so maybe it’s not such a flippant observation after all.

Anyway, here we go with the closing moments. Imagine turning up to a concert hall in 1889 to hear this for the first time to be confronted with a huge orchestra of 100 players or more, nearly twice what people had been used to.(It wasn’t a success, as it happens.) There are ten horns playing in these final bars, Mahler expressly requiring them to stand for maximum effect. What a jubilant, thunderous sound this is!

Mahler was truly a man for scale, the large canvas, the really big moments – go and hear it in a live performance if you can. (I see the Proms have it scheduled for 8th August) He may not be indispensable for everyone, but there are times when you just want to wind the window down in the car, crank up the volume and scream for the sheer joy of life. In its entirety, this last movement epitomises exactly that: for now, just relish these few minutes – I bet you play it more than once!

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s smile…celebration

After the last couple of weeks, we are surely all a little news-weary right now. I decided that in the event Andy Murray was victorious at Wimbledon today, I felt it only right to write a brief post on some music with a Scottish theme, especially with his compatriot, Gordon Reid, having already secured the first wheelchair singles title, as well as the doubles. (Wheelchair tennis is much harder than it may appear: I had lessons a few years ago, and although the pleasure of meeting racquet with ball was enormous, the frequency of that occurrence was rare – a sudden lurch to the left or right simply isn’t an option, you have to be in exactly the right place to avoid being made to look a complete idiot.)

Max Bruch was a German composer and conductor whose life (1838-1920) bridged the romantic tradition of music with the avant-garde, but his style remained firmly in the former. Although I do know some of his music quite well, I knew very little of the man himself, and now I realize why: I’m afraid his life seems to have been wholly devoid of any interesting gossip, scandal, or even a remotely amusing anecdote (contributions welcome if you know of any), so I’m not going to delay you with a lengthy biography. Nowadays he is most well known for his first (of three) violin concertos, but also for his ‘Scottish Fantasy’ for violin and orchestra, a piece in four movements, based on Scottish folk melodies. It is the lively fourth movement, marked ‘Allegro guerriero’ (meaning, appropriately, quickly in a war-like manner) that I want to share with you today. It has a sprightly and appealing tune, and at times even seems to resemble the speedy pursuit of the tennis ball, with the occasional lob and pause for re-load, finishing with an affirming statement of conquest.

The recording I have chosen is played by Itzhak Perlman, the Israeli-American violinist and conductor. He takes it a good pace, and always with extraordinary clarity. It’s a fun, uplifting piece, which celebrates a great day for Andy Murray against his Canadian opponent – and I say this as someone who has lived in the UK for 55 years, but was born in Toronto. I’ve been wondering if my Canadian passport has recently acquired a greater appeal…

 

 

In memoriam.

At the moment there is a vast amount of sport and political intrigue vying for our attention. In such a frenzied climate, I’m acutely aware of how difficult it will be for me to take you away for a few minutes; but it would also be wrong not to mark the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I think you will find this brief passage by an Englishman to be reassuring, comforting and a welcome distraction.

It is always difficult to describe in words what a particular nationality sounds like in music. It is even harder to explain exactly why a piece sounds, for example, typically French, German, or Russian; but the same can probably be said of any other art form – prolonged exposure trains the eye or ear to know over time. I don’t know what words are right to characterise British music: merely naming British composers will not suffice, because Elgar was arguably much closer in style to the German music of Brahms and Wagner, to the extent that much of his output cannot be defined as quintessentially British in the way I imagine it. When I hear myself saying “that has to be English”, it is because what I am listening to has evoked summer gardens or landscapes, one moment bathed in sunshine, the next under a shower of rain – a day, indeed, very like today: English music sounds blissfully rural.

George Butterworth was born in 1885 and belonged to a group of composers known as the ‘pastoral school’. His output was not substantial, with his key interest being folk song, something he shared with his good friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. He is best known for his settings of A E Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’, and he only wrote three orchestral pieces, all of just several minutes; but enough, I am certain, to establish that we were deprived of an enormous talent by his untimely death – as the victim of a sniper’s bullet on the Somme in August 2016. His body, like so many others, was never recovered. He was awarded an MC, and his commanding officer was not even aware that Butterworth was a composer.

The piece I have chosen to commemorate both the man and this ghastly episode is his idyll ‘The Banks of Green Willow’, based on a ballad of the same name. I am sure the tunes will be known to many of you. Its tale is a little unsavoury, but that is not what matters here: as I listen to it, it immediately transports me to those images of English countryside: it is, in short, instantly and quintessentially English. It is a work of pure charm (sun) with a brief moment of melancholy (rain), but ultimately tranquil, serene, peaceful – even heavenly. It is a fitting legacy to a life and talent cut short. We hear much, and rightly, of the works of the poets Owen and Sassoon: composers who suffered similar fates seem to be overlooked. Butterworth deserves to be ranked along with these, a fact which Vaughan Williams evidently recognised when he dedicated his ‘London Symphony’ to his old friend. This is the real sound of English music.