Bach: St Matthew Passion

Tomorrow I make my annual pilgrimage to The Royal Festival Hall for the Bach Choir’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

I can’t remember how long I have been doing this. An old friend introduced the piece to me many years ago and for several thereafter the two of us would make it our yearly treat. As the years passed and my eager anticipation for the event grew, others, out of curiosity and observation of how the occasion affected me, have delved into the piece and discovered its spiritual beauty – thereby kicking our little secret into the long grass.

Humph. Parade rained upon.

I wrote about Bach, and this work particular, in April 2017, so click on the link below for some more information about the man and the piece, and another excerpt, not least because there’s not a whole lot I can add to it.

Today I want to share the opening chorus with you. I have deliberately selected a version which fulfils two essentials. First the speed, which here, for me is perfect: taken correctly, it is as if a long train is pulling out of the station, embarking on a lengthy trip; as the voices come in, the train has emerged into the open air and you nestle comfortably into your seat, relishing the indulgence of doing absolutely nothing beyond letting go and immersing yourself fully into the music.

The second essential, facilitating the first, is that there are no visuals here. The Passion, whether you believe it or not, is a story of the highest drama, and this has led some to staging it. I went to one such production a number of years ago and I came away completely unfulfilled. Visuals, staging, just get in the way of the music: they can even distract you enough to take you away from it.

The piece, nearly three hours in length, would always be in my Desert Island Discs lineup. And if I had to select just one, The St Matthew Passion would be it.

In that, I recently discovered, I am in the best possible company: the late Claudio Abbado, one of my favourite conductors, unhesitatingly said the same when he was interviewed for the programme.

Click on the image – and if you can get to a performance in the next couple of weeks, you will start a habit which you will find hard to give up in years to come.

But a good one. Perhaps the best.





The glory of Sibelius

Why do you turn to music? Any music? What is it for?

It’s one of those great unresolved questions. Trying to demystify it is in itself an exercise  which will rob it of its mystery: the effect of the same piece on each of us, whatever the genre, can be quite different, depending on the circumstances.

But in one thing I think we can be united. It is corny and unoriginal to affirm that music is a universal language, a healer. Few would dispute that. It is more than that: its common and unparalleled attribute is that of all the arts it takes us out of the world we inhabit and into our souls. We need it for solace in times of sorrow, just as we do to enhance a celebration.

I suspect, however, that many of us don’t really give that a second thought. Turning to it is a simple act of instinct.

Think for a moment of those for whom such access is not available. Has there ever been a more graphic depiction of nothingness than the appalling images from Mozambique this week? We have grown accustomed to similar pictures over the years, natural disasters appear to be on the rise; but the rampant annihilation of everything for as far as the eye can see brought with it a stark reality: a total absence of life. An expanse of nothingness. I mean, just look at this. Just look at it.

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In such a context, music may not appear to serve any meaningful purpose. To those who survived, it will be irrelevant, and it is anyway unlikely that any of them would have been able to enjoy it before the storm hit. So what is the relevance or point of music here?

To those of us lucky enough to access it, the answer, I think, is the power to inspire. To cajole us to act. Uplifting music can do this, can arouse those of us more fortunate to make some small difference.

Take this gobsmackingly good tune from the last movement of Sibelius’ 2nd symphony. Sibelius, about whom you can read more in an earlier post in November 2016 (and I would immodestly suggest you do) is as synonymous with Finnish music, as Elgar is with British. He led a long life, into his 90s, despite (or maybe because of?) having a healthy diet of vodka and cigars. It is all the more surprising for the fact that the inclement climate and condition of his homeland at the time of his birth meant that the average length of lifespan was just a third of that.

The tune is huge, expansive, and everything is then about returning us to it. The combination of cellos, woodwind and brass in a quickening pace alert you to this, but it’s as if Sibelius doesn’t want to arrive there too soon. There is melancholy aplenty here, and time for inward reflection, be patient with it; but ultimately a triumphant shift into a major key leaves us almost shattered with exuberance. Ignore all the white tie and tails stuff, (Leonard Bernstein with one of the world’s great orchestras, The Vienna Philharmonic), this is a magnificent sound and you will find it quite hard to get the tune out of your head.

Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s just over 15 minutes: if you don’t have time for it now, make time for it later – it is life-enhancing music. I have an aunt who has a particular fondness for this piece: if you’re reading it, Di, this one’s for you.

Turn up the volume and let the sound take you away from the woes of the world. But maybe pause to think and be grateful for how lucky you are to be able to do so.

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Time Out with Bach

We have a pond outside the barn we are renting, and two days ago, in blissful warmth, I witnessed a truly amusing spectacle. It involved a couple of ducks.

For fear of frightening them away, I did not dare approach close enough to capture it on film. For a full five minutes, two of them, side by side and just inches apart, were dipping their beaks below the water and providing a display of perfectly synchronised feeding, their backs erect and feet flapping together. Each time they emerged together at exactly the same time, before simultaneously  resuming their coordinated display.

’A poor life this if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’

It was a scene of purest innocence. Mesmerising and joyful in its playfulness. A reminder that with all the anger around us, there are simple things on standby to lighten the mood and bring a smile.

Music can do this, too. I was tempted to share an angry passage with you today, but I will hold fire on The Rite of Spring for a little longer. It’s fabulous, dramatic, and outrageous; but it will not fulfill the much-needed escapist category.

For that we need the trusted hand of Bach. In particular, his Six Brandenburg Concertos. And, even more particularly, his third (and shortest).

If you’ve ever wondered where the title came from, it’s the dedicatee: Bach presented them to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in around 1720. (Pub quiz trivia fact number 1.)

Number 3 is my favourite, not because of its brevity or familiarity, but because of its unalloyed optimism. It has three movements, the outer two separated by a couple of chords which go by the grandiose definition of a ‘Phrygian half-cadence’. (Pub quiz trivia number 2.) It’s best described as the sort of phrase you would set to ‘Amen’. Here it acts as a moment to pause and take breath before one last assault of exuberance.

This recording gets the brief right. You have to remember that there were no conductors at the time of Bach and these pieces were led by one of the players, in this case the blond guy third left. Eye contact is therefore essential and you do not need to be a body language expert to see how much these players are enjoying their task, some, perhaps, more than others, resulting in this exhilarating performance.

And perfect synchronicity, too.

So take time out today, spare yourself ten minutes by clicking on the image below for a palliative as good as any.




Another pair of trousers

I was chatting to someone about classical music the other day who said he enjoyed having it on in the background while he was working.


I’m sure what he said was true. It’s by no means an unusual way to express an interest in music, and many a time have I heard it said, but it does highlight the fundamental difference between hearing and listening. I could never put something on deliberately while having to concentrate on anything else: it’s just not possible to listen to any music of choice while trying, for example, to read, do a crossword, learn some poetry (very good for exercising the little grey cells, be it the verse of  Shakespeare or the limericks of Nash), or even write this post.

One of those activities will not get your full attention. Here’s the thing: to derive the fullest benefits of classical music, you do need to actually listen; not least because each time you do, you will notice something different, something you hadn’t heard before. And the observation of that alone is enough to enhance your enjoyment.

The human voice is the one instrument we can all play.  You can take it anywhere and it does not require another seat when travelling (although I can’t deny there are times when a number of us wish my father-in-law would leave it at the church door.)  If you doubt the ability of the human voice to bring solace and delight, and a whole lot more besides, I challenge you to hold that view after these few minutes.

I wrote about ‘trouser’ roles last time and here is another, this time a duet. The Grimm tale (somewhat literally in parts) of Hänsel and Gretel is well known, and it is virtually the only music, an opera, for which Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) is known. (Not to be confused with the living singer of the same name whose big hit Please Release Me might have been a suitable soundtrack for the Leave campaign bus.)

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(Check out those ‘taches.)

Warning. The attached clip contains exquisite singing, but viewers may find the wardrobe malfunction distracting. Kathleen Battle in the red looks like she has been dropped into something, only parts of which have inflated on impact. Frederica von Stade is her fellow American singer.

So having viewed the image, I can promise that you will miss nothing by averting or closing your eyes. This will enable you to listen to two glorious voices in the parts of Hänsel and Gretel, singing The Evening Prayer in which they call upon angels to watch over them while they sleep in the forest. The combination of these two takes some beating.

The opera was a huge success and the story makes it an ideal first opera for younger ears and eyes.

Let your ears really listen. There is no right or wrong reaction, no right or wrong visuals which come to mind. Whatever your response, I hope it is a pleasurable one.

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So Long Farewell?

What a relief it is in these chaotic times to be able to wallow in music.

‘B*******s to Brexit’ will no doubt land up in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations one day. The so-called ‘trouser role’ in opera is the part of a man, sung by a woman, on account of the music being too high for even the highest of tenor voices. Until the days of Mozart, (mid-late 18th century), such roles were sung by men who’d undergone the op and become a castrato. Their necessity came about as a result of women not being permitted to sing in church choirs: the demands of church music required their range, but not their presence.

It was a dangerous procedure, and you probably had a 50/50 chance of survival. But for many poor families, the risk was worth it: the best castrati were the stars of their day and would earn vast sums. The effect was to preserve the pre-puberty voice, and enable it to reach dizzy heights. I will spare you the gory details, suffice to say that it didn’t entail full removal; just the severing of the spermatic chord, normally in a bath. And with no anesthetic. Bologna was a renowned centre: you might even equate the numbers of outlets with modern day tattoo parlours.

Don’t worry, I haven’t lost the plot, you’re on the right site. All this is necessary background to today’s choice, because many often wonder why male parts are sometimes sung by women. The short answer is that the church finally outlawed the very procedure it had initiated, and the castrato singer was no longer.

There are many famous trouser roles, Cherubino in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro is probably the most famous, but in another, less well-known of his operas, La Clemenza di Tito, Sesto, the lover of Vitellia is sung by a soprano. (At its premier in 1791, the year of Mozart’s sad and short life, it was sung by a castrato.) In Act 1 of, it must be said, a fairly dull opera, Sesto has this knockout aria, where Mozart jostles singer with clarinetist: in some recordings it is abundantly clear that singer and instrumentalist are trying to out-do the other.

Not here. The dialogue between Joyce DiDonato and Julien Hervé is finely balanced, both shining equally: be patient, there is some highly skilled and dramatic music here.

In the context of our current ‘rainbow of chaos’, the opening lines caught my attention. ‘I go, but, my dearest, make peace with me again. I will be what you would most have me be, do whatever you wish.’

Our government’s negotiating skills summed up by a castrato, no less.

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Epiphany: Cornelius brings Christmas to a close.

Today marks the last day of Christmas, the feast of the Epiphany. The story goes that the three wise men arrived at the stable to pay homage to the infant child, Jesus, with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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So I cannot resist one last Christmas offering, appropriate for the occasion. I posted a version of this piece in 2016, but I have yet to hear it sung better than this.

Peter Cornelius (1824-74) was a friend of both Wagner and Liszt, but he was not especially sympathetic to their styles. Although he wrote plenty of other compositions, he is one of those composers who is now known chiefly for one piece alone, in his case The Three Kings, and it is the perfect way to bring the season to a close. So today I will be brief and steer you directly to the music, with no attempt to add anything wise to the words of Cornelius, for the text is his, too.

In 2016, I was fortunate enough to play a part in putting together the Christmas concert for the MS Society in St Paul’s Cathedral. Gerald Finley sang the piece with the choir. I have struggled in vain to isolate the clip, but all you have to do is to scroll to 1.16.40 for a few minutes of undiluted nectar.  On that day, I heard it twice in rehearsal; but professionals always hold something back for the big moment, and the sound and clarity on the occasion were unforgettable.

I don’t have any prizes to hand out, but I will be very impressed if anyone can identify both faces behind him.

Click on the image and scroll to 1.16.40 (there are other delights if you want to listen to more, the concert starts at 15.17).









Music: the best of all life-enhancers

Once upon a time I used to have some influence, indeed full control, over what music was being played in the car when ferrying children. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but there came a point when I just accepted that the channel would be changed, without request, even before a seatbelt was fastened.

I suspect this presumptuous behaviour extends far beyond the Hely-Hutchinson household.

Initially I was disappointed with this. When still in a car seat, my youngest daughter had filled me with enormous encouragement when she enthused ‘Oh, yes, I really like this one’ to the strains of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Her initiation has not endured. My eldest daughter will take it in moderation, especially if I help her listen to the tune.

At about 10 years of age, my son was a little more enquiring. ‘Why do you actually like this stuff, Dad?’ And not in an aggressive way, but in a way that was genuinely seeking an understanding of my love of it. It was a curved ball: how do you answer that satisfactorily, when the simplest, but wholly inadequate response, is ‘I dunno, I just do’? When you are asked such a question out of real interest, your questioner deserves a better explanation.

Music in all its forms is the one art form above all others which can elicit the widest range of human emotions: the same piece – classical, jazz, pop – can make one person weep, another dance. There is no correct reaction: the experience, and its toying with our imaginations, is all. That, in itself, does not need to be explained: it really doesn’t mater why.

And it is the ultimate comforter.

2018 will go down as one of the most turbulent years of modern times. There is no need for me to rehearse the ingredients here. The saddest theme for me is a noticeable, and, I fear, growing sense of anger. People seem to have even less time to ‘stand and stare’; less time to communicate properly; we are all in a mad rush; stressed; too much emphasis on doing, and not enough on being. And before knowing it, our being will be done.

You will know by now that I am quite a fan of George Handel (1685-1759). Choosing music at this time is not easy, but clearly something of a Christmassy nature is apt, and Handel’s Messiah, a work lasting nearly two and half hours which he composed in just  24 days, has grabbed my attention as the perfect antidote to this division. Even more so, for Handel leaving his birthplace in Germany to live his last days in London. I hope we did not place his remains in Westminster Abbey against his will.

Listen to these few minutes of a very familiar passage ‘For unto us a child is born‘. With a little more attention, you will notice from the opening note its freshness; its lightness, in voice and orchestra. Sir Colin Davis was one of the kings of choral conducting (just noticed his second name was Rex), and the articulation requires no subtitles. And what words! ‘Wonderful! Counsellor…The Prince of Peace.’

It is a brief  passage full of hope, joy, excitement, optimism; a few minutes, if you like, completely devoid of anger. The embodiment of the ability of music to ‘enable us to pass our lives with a little sweetness amidst all the bitterness we encounter here’ – words written by Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie universelle, and just as appropriate today as they were in 1636.

Thank you for your lovely support for these humble jottings – feel free to pass on the link to friends or family, especially younger ones. Happy Christmas and a peaceful 2019 wherever this finds you.

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