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.

 

 

 

Something for the weekend…

A Bank Holiday weekend looms, so I don’t expect a huge following for this post; but for those of you who are able to find just five minutes, I am certain you will not be disappointed. Here is a perfect example of a piece which will be known to many, and which you may think will never do anything new for you again. I thought so myself, until I stumbled on this recording: it moved me so much that I played it four times in a row. It has a particular poignancy for me and my family, as it was the music which was sung as my beloved father’s coffin was carried into the church nearly a year ago.

Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum’ is one of six movements of his Solemn Vespers, composed in 1780 for the cathedral in Salzburg, and is often sung as a stand-alone piece. Whether you are already familiar with it or not, I found having the Latin text and English translation an added help in my appreciation of it, so I have attached it below:

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
Laudate eum, omnes populi
Quoniam confirmata est
Super nos misericordia eius,
Et veritas Domini manet in aeternum.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper.
Et in saecula saeculorum.
Amen.

Praise the Lord, all nations;
Praise Him, all people.
For He has bestowed
His mercy upon us,
And the truth of the Lord endures forever.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and forever,
and for generations of generations.
Amen.

So what’s so special about this, you may ask? It’s a simple answer. Lucia Popp was a Slovak soprano, who died far too young from brain cancer in 1993 at the age of 54. She had enjoyed a glittering operatic career in many famous roles, including some of the heavier ones of Wagner and Richard Strauss, with leading conductors at the world’s top opera houses. But for me it is in the music of Mozart where she truly shines. There is a purity in her voice which seems to fit so perfectly with his music, and it’s easy to think that Mozart himself would have been beside himself with excitement if she’d been around a couple of hundred years ago.

This is different, it really is. It is clean, beautifully controlled (especially the Amen), without excessive vibrato (wobbling, to you and me). It is a stunning account of one of the most famous of all tunes, and proves that however hardened you are, however well you think you know something, you can always be blown away by someone who is on a different level.

 

 

Today’s smile…coolness itself.

For many people, the very words ‘classical music’ can evoke aloofness. Whilst I don’t think that the attire of the highly talented violinist, Nigel Kennedy, (often featuring the colours of his beloved Aston Villa FC) necessarily makes the music more accessible; it is equally easy to see why a platform of performers all togged up in evening dress can act as a barrier. First impressions are important, and something that looks too formal risks alienating what might otherwise be keen ears. Underneath it all, though, they are all flesh and blood like the rest of us: what really matters is how the personality connects with its audience.

It is in that context that I want to share my admiration of the trumpet playing of Wynton Marsalis. Born in New Orleans in 1961, his playing covers every field of the musical genre, be it jazz, Funk, big band, baroque or classical – all with equal skill, empathy and virtuosity. Music runs in his family: his father was a jazz pianist, and three brothers play saxophone, trombone and drums between them. Marsalis has an exceptional gift, which you will see in this clip of the final movement of Hummel’s trumpet concerto; and bear in mind that this is a film of a live performance, there is no comfort of the second chance which is available in a recording studio. The clarity is astonishing, note perfect from start to finish, all conveyed with apparent ease.

You have to feel sorry for Johann Hummel. Anyone whose dates of 1787-1837 clashed so closely with Beethoven’s of 1770-1827 was always going to be up against it, and the reality is that very few came away with a really solid legacy, Franz Schubert (1791-1828) being the clear front runner. Hummel and Beethoven had their spats, although they were reconciled at Beethoven’s death, and he was also a pallbearer at the great man’s funeral. He had a good start: his father was a conductor, and  he had two years of piano teaching by Mozart, making his first public appearance at the tender age of nine. He was a very talented pianist and prolific composer, especially for the piano. His music was well received and widely performed in his lifetime; and Chopin, about whom I shall write soon, was definitely influenced by him. It was not long, however, before his popularity waned and nowadays it is the trumpet concerto which gets the most airing.

A  piece which is overplayed can sometimes hide its mastery  – as, I would argue, has been the case with Mendelssohn’s 1st violin concerto – unless it is performed by someone right at the top of their game. Hummel’s trumpet concerto may fall into this category, but when played like this, you can only sit back with wonder. Marsalis delivers a masterclass in technique, breath control and musicianship, without the slightest hint of showmanship. No offence to the other great virtuosos of this instrument, but I don’t think any of them can hold a candle to this in a live performance. You may not be able to view the clip here, but the caption will take you to straight to its slot on YouTube. I could have attached another, but I simply wasn’t prepared to compromise – Marsalis is one cool dude.

Today’s smile…stress buster

None of us likes to be told to calm down. When we’re feeling anxious, irritable or stressed, it is probably the worst advice anyone can give us. But here’s an alternative solution: if you ever find yourself in a state, a few doses of this three-minute clip will restore peace more effectively than any patronising waffle. The piece has nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, but it was hearing Prospero’s line “Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill” a few days ago which directed me straight to this trio from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan Tutte (All women are like this). I know that the context and meaning are quite different: it was the line at face value alone which was the prompt.

Cosi fan Tutte, first performed in 1790, the year before his death at the age of just 35, is one of Mozart’s comic operas, even if it has quite a serious undertone. It is an opera about love, exploring the joys and heartaches that it brings, to which Mozart sets truly beautiful and tender music. In summary, it is the tale of two engaged couples, Dorabella to Fernando and Fiordiligi to Guglielmo, and a bet which the mischievous bachelor, Don Alfonso, has with both men that their respective fiancés would be incapable of being faithful to them if they were away. To test this, he arranges for them to be summoned away to war, but also for them to reappear disguised as Albanians and flirt with eachother’s halves – with somewhat alarming success, to the extent that a double wedding to the ‘wrong’ women is about to proceed, whereupon Alfonso has won his bet and their true identities are revealed. Perhaps a little surprisingly, all is forgiven and the status quo ante is restored!

This exquisite trio is sung by Dorabella, Fiordiligi and Alfonso, as they see the men sail away into the distance. From the very first notes, you can instantly sense a gentle breeze on calm waters, as they wish them safe travels. ‘Soave sia il vento, tranquilla sia l’onda…’, meaning ‘May the wind be gentle, may the waves be calm…’, brings three voices together in a few minutes of harmonic bliss and ranks as one of Mozart’s very finest passages in all his operas. I’ve no doubt it will be recognised by almost everyone, having been used in the film ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ and countless commercials since, but only a heart of stone could not be moved by the melody and the way the voices mingle with eachother over a gently rocking orchestration.

Here is a recording from the production at Glyndebourne in 2006, the first time I really enjoyed this opera. A dose of calm. And with your eyes shut on a second hearing, allowing the sounds to just waft over you, as good as a short meditation.

 

 

Something sublime… Beethoven’s Emperor

Occasionally it can be hard to find the right words about a piece of music, and today’s choice is one such example. So apart from a little background and a few thoughts, I will let the music speak for itself: when you’ve listened to it, I am sure you will see why I struggled. But the urge to share my love of this with you was more important than the need to discuss it at any length.

Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote five concertos for piano and orchestra. In its entirety, the fourth is my personal favourite, but the slow movement of his fifth, known as the ‘Emperor’, is surely amongst the loveliest of all slow movements of any piano concerto. Although the longest of the slow movements in Beethoven’s five (stay with me), it is not a minute, even a second, too long. Composed around 1809, the piece is deserving of its name by virtue of its length and magnitude, even if Beethoven would probably not have approved the term: at the time he was writing it, he was taking shelter in the cellar of his brother’s house while Vienna was being bombarded by the French under the self-crowned emperor Napoleon. It is believed Beethoven was about 60% deaf by now, so he was unable to play its first performance in 1810 as he had done with his previous four – and his attempt to perform it in 1811 had to be aborted.

And so to the music, which can only be described as sublime, one simple definition of that word being ‘of very great excellence or beauty’. It has a dreamy, introspective quality about it, unlike the majestic first movement and galloping jubilant last. It’s as if a deliberate reflective passage, by way of a rest, is needed between them. The two tunes are gorgeous, with lovely interaction between piano and orchestra, especially in its closing moments with flute and gentle strings, and in the opening I always find myself thinking of  “There’s a place for us” from the song “Somehere” in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Bernstein was certainly a Beethoven fan, so maybe the idea is not so crazy.

The recording here is played by one of the great romantic interpreters, Alfred Brendel, who retired from public peformances a few years ago, and I don’t think it comes much better than this. As this second movement finishes, Beethoven unusually heads straight into the third (a device later used by Schumann in his only piano concerto) by letting the oboe drop a note to allow the piano to introduce the opening of a final romp…I hope your enjoyment of the previous six or seven minutes is not spoiled by being left tantalised at the end!