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…


This recording has been taken down, I know not why – so here is another, played by Heifetz


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.


Reflection and calm

In the last couple of days, a number of people have asked me to seek out some music which will serve to silence any ugly triumphalism (happily not too much) as well as soothe those who have been shocked by recent events: it is quite a tall order, but one man comes to the rescue. And no, it is not Elgar. Despite a wealth of talented British composers, it is slightly surprising that there is no obvious piece of music among them which, in my view, can reconcile these two very opposing emotions.

Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and as you read this, some of you are now going to be saying ‘Oh, he’s going for the last movement of the 9th’; but that would be tactless and only fuel the triumphant cause, since it is well known to be the European anthem. The second movement of his seventh symphony, however, used in countless films over the years (most recently and famously in ‘The King’s Speech’), fulfills the brief. It is not a slow movement, as was then conventional, but only slower than the one before and two after it: it is marked ‘Allegretto’, which means slightly lively. The symphony, with which Beethoven was himself well pleased, was composed around 1812, and first performed in 1813 infront of wounded Viennese soldiers. Beethoven conducted it, despite being almost totally deaf, telling those taking part that “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism”, and this particular movement had to be repeated on the night, before Beethoven was allowed to continue with the rest of the symphony.

Apart from having a few beautiful melodies, it is the steady building of the different parts which serves to make this a really stirring piece of music. Some people think it is  sad – I do not agree. It is certainly moving and soothing, but also, I would argue, optimistic and forward-looking: feelings which I think both sides of the latest argument could do well to embrace. Imagine it in its original context and see if you can apply it to a similar division some two hundred years later. It is both healing and uplifting at the same time.

I don’t know if it’s just my reading of this, but as it closes, I sense we are left with something of a question mark in its final notes, which only affirms its appropriateness as I make this post. But if it’s any consolation, Richard Wagner referred to this symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance”, which will give you the strongest hint of how that question is answered. The two movements which follow are filled with some of the most joyful music ever written by Beethoven; but in the meantime, if you feel urged to want to hear this passage again, you will not be the first. Soothing, healing, uplifting: it’s what we all need just now.

A good way to start your day…

The next few minutes of music will be so familiar that I expect many of  you will wonder why I’m bothering with it at all.  There are several reasons why I have chosen the overture for Mozart’s opera ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. The first is to introduce the  concept of the overture as a standalone piece of music; the second is to alert you  to one of the greatest operas ever written; the third,  perhaps most importantly, is that this is a particularly fine recording, which reminds me of one of the best performances I ever saw of this – not a stage, but a concert one, at the Royal Festival Hall in 1991.

Coming from the French word ‘ouverture ‘, meaning ‘opening’, an overture is simply a piece of music which precedes an oratorio or opera. In its early days, it had a practical use in Italian opera, as a means of informing audiences that a production was about to start and encouraging them to get to their seats and settle. Apart from the inevitable latecomer, modern audiences tend to be a little more prepared; which is just as well in this case, because to be a few minutes late when attending ‘Figaro’ would be to miss a gem of an overture. Unlike most overtures, where themes or characters of the opera are often introduced for the first time, this energetic passage is not a precursor to anything that follows. ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, first performed in 1786, is a lengthy comic opera, which can be hideously complicated to understand when reading through the synopsis for the first time, despite all the action taking place over a period of just one day. So I’m not even going to attempt to summarise it here, beyond saying that it was based on a play by Beaumarchais, which was banned in France because of its perceived encouragement to the lower classes to rise against their seniors: something which turned out to be rather prescient with the French Revolution only years away.

It is no exaggeration that the opera contains some of Mozart’s most exquisite music, of which he was himself proud, and I will select other golden moments in time. For now, just imagine your reaction as you sit down and hear this for the very first time: from the outset, you are immediately aware of some frenzied excitement. There is plenty of comedy in the opera, but at its heart is truth and frailty: the characters are real and their behaviour is credible. This recording of the overture is conducted by Sir Georg Solti (pronounced Sholti), who conducted it in that concert performance I attended at the Festival Hall. Solti’s temperament in rehearsal earned him the nickname of the ‘Screaming Scull’, but there is no denying the wonderful sound he extracts from his players – and it was under his stewardship that Covent Garden was awarded the title of ‘The Royal Opera’.

The late journalist, Bernard Levin, was also attending this concert, which reminded me of another trivial, but nonetheless practical, use he once suggested for this overture: taken at the right speed, it is the perfect egg-timer. If you like your boiled egg with a soft yolk and firm white, place it in cold water, bring to the boil; then play this recording, removing from the heat on the final chord. Obviously, if you prefer it firmer or hard-boiled, you can just play it again – or go for a slightly more pedestrian conductor (I couldn’t possibly say who) but that, in my view, would be to miss out on Solti’s vibrant and thrilling account.

Time for Brahms!

Of all the composers whose music I enjoy, none seems to fit into the ‘Marmite’ category quite so well as the German, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). I wonder if this is some strange reflection of the way he was received in his own lifetime: it is astonishing how vilified he was by so many composers whose lives crossed with him at some point. As far as I can see, only two contemporary musicians had any time for him, Robert and Clara Schumann, whose music will definitely be the subject of a future post; but Tchaikovsky was not alone in thinking him a ‘scoundrel’ – and a ‘giftless bastard’ to boot. (I beg to differ with his adjective, and his noun is factually incorrect.) Liszt, Bruckner, Berlioz, Wolf were all at odds with him, as, notably, was Richard Wagner. All of them resented his determination to hold on and advance the legacy of the Baroque and Classical masters, such as Bach and Beethoven, rather than push on into pastures new and avenues more adventurous. Happily he now has enough supporters to ensure that his music is widely played, even if it continues to divide opinion.

It is why I’ve always been amused by the irony that my father’s favourite composer was Wagner, while his favourite piece of music was Brahms’s ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’. He would often say to us that, on his demise, he would be greatly comforted in knowing that he’d arrived at the right place, if the first sounds he heard were that of the heavenly hosts greeting him with this piece. And so a year after that sad day, I want to share with you a movement from this Requiem, which was a smash hit when it was first performed in 1868, guaranteeing Brahms financial security for the rest of his life. When people hear the word ‘Requiem’, many instinctively (and reasonably) think of Faure, Mozart and Verdi, all ‘big hit’ numbers. Brahms’s, not written for the repose of the dead in the traditional Christian Latin, but in German with words from the Lutheran text, is a piece for the living, opening with the lines ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

At over an hour long, I cannot hope to keep your attention with all of it. But I haven’t shared any choral music with you yet, and I hope this will encourage you to listen to the rest of it another time, because it is has some ethereal melodies and dramatic moments. The movement here is ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (‘How lovely are thy dwellings ‘). It speaks of how ‘my soul requires and yearns for the courts of the Lord’. I mention this because you can really detect that longing in this recording, a tension which gives way to the calm and joyful knowledge of what those courts will promise. Semyon  Bychkov, the conductor, extracts wonderful diction, while never losing control of a beautiful mingling of voices, both with eachother and the orchestra.  I saw him conduct Verdi’s Requiem at the Albert Hall a few years ago, and it must have been a  full thirty or forty seconds before anyone dared to applaud at the end.

You will have surmised that I am a Brahms fan. If you aren’t, I am unlikely to convert you; but if you are new to his music, I hope you will warm to its heavenly and romantic nature.  I have my father to thank for introducing it to me, in whose memory I make this post today.



Another beauty…

The name of Kathleen Ferrier will be known to many music lovers, but my hunch is that it will be new to most who dip into this site from time to time. If you have not heard of her before, I am confident you will see why she was so adored in her tragically short life.

Ferrier was an English singer with a contralto voice. This is a lower range which we do not hear too often these days (I suppose Cecilia Bartoli comes closest at the moment), and at first listening it can seem slightly strange; but with each hearing, you get more and more hooked into something which is very rich, even a little dark, but velvety and so full of heart too. Once you have heard her, you will know her voice instantly the next time you encounter it: it is quite unlike anyone else’s.

The world of music was completely stunned when news of her death from cancer was announced in 1953, at the age of 41, not least because the true seriousness of her illness had been kept secret; and because, since her debut in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Westminster Abbey in 1947, she had enjoyed enormous popularity with both her voice and warm, humorous personality. She was not comfortable with the operatic scene, choosing only two roles in that field (Orfeo in Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’, and Lucretia in Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’), and concentrated her short career on the concert platform in Europe and especially London; notably in Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ (the only work by that Englishman I could not live without), and Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ (the one work in the entire classical repertoire which would always feature on my Desert Island list).

There is a good amount of recordings to choose from, but one of the things I enjoy is selecting pieces which are well known to us and then demonstrate that there is someone surprising who delivers it without equal. George Frederic Handel was born in Germany the same year as J S Bach, 1650, and spent fifty years in England, becoming naturalised British. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1759. (I wonder how many more Continental Europeans will achieve that accolade in the future.) He wrote so much with which we are all very familiar (Fireworks Music, Water Music, Zadoc The Priest etc.), as well as forty operas – amongst which ‘Xerxes’ was a complete flop; but its opening aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ has survived as one of Handel’s favourites, sung by almost every singer of note. So I accept that it is quite an assertion to make that I think this recording of over sixty years ago has not been bettered, but I am happy to stand by that.

If you’re not sure on first listening, I will not be surprised. But I will be surprised if she doesn’t grab you on the second, third – and then a few more. Perhaps slower than you might expect, it’s no less heavenly for that. The legendary conductor, Bruno Walter, is reported to have remarked that the high points in his career were ” meeting Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order.” Praise indeed.