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.