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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SurPRISE!

In October last year, I wrote a post about Josef Haydn (1732-1809), alluding, in particular, to his sense of humour. At the heart of this was his eagerness to engage with his audiences: a tough demand in an output, apparently, of some 340 hours of composition.

If he were alive today, I am certain he would be on the side of those who clap between movements, a debate which tends to divide listeners today almost as passionately as…well, take your pick from the current crop. Can’t imagine what might spring to mind.

Even if you are new to classical music, it is likely you will be familiar with the second movement of his Symphony 94 (out of a mere 106), which came to be called The Surprise. Haydn’s intentions were perfectly clear: ‘That will make the ladies scream’, he wrote.

And he was right.

To appreciate its effect, you need to imagine yourself sitting in the audience at its first performance in Hanover Square, London, in 1792. It’s no big surprise to us now, because, unless you’ve not heard it before, we know what’s coming. In 1792, they had no idea.

The Andante starts off innocently enough on the strings with a simple melody, which is repeated more quietly; and then, just as you are getting yourself comfortable, BANG. Everyone comes in on a thumping chord, with what the Germans call a Paukenschlag (great word, meaning kettle drum stroke).

The joke is not repeated, but the genius of the ensuing minutes is sometimes overlooked: Haydn plays with the original tune, turning it around and keeping engaged with his audience. This was more necessary than you might think – competition for their attention was high. One of his pupils, Ignace Pleyel, was in London at the same time and was very popular.

Some of us like surprises, some not. This movement reminds me of a personal experience, which only a handful of people know about, so I’d might as well share it. It is scarcely believable, but every word is true. As surprises go, this is right up there.

About forty years ago, I was to have dinner with a girl, who was going to a drinks party beforehand. She encouraged me to join her there, even though I didn’t know the host, insisting “it’ll be fine.”

Suited and booted, I rang the doorbell, to be greeted by a young girl, no more than five or six years old. “Hello,” I said, “where are Mummy and Daddy?” “Just up the stairs” came the confident reply.

And so up I went. The more I climbed, the more tentative I became. There didn’t seem to be any obvious sounds of a buzzing drinks party. These steps were just like the opening seconds of Haydn’s Andante. I turned to the girl at the bottom of the stairs. “In here?” She nodded.

So in I went. And this was the BANG moment. Mummy and Daddy were there.  But not quite as I expected. Daddy was in the bath, and Mummy was sitting and chatting to him from a wicker chair, also naked as the day she was born, glass of wine in one hand, cigarette in the other. Anyone who has seen the 1974 film, Emmanuelle, will know the image.

I was in the wrong house.

I bolted fairly hastily, although I could have taken my time, for they were in no state to give chase. Just imagine a complete stranger opening your bathroom door at such a moment. It’s fair to say, however, that the surprise was far from one-sided. I was also in some shock.

These are lovely, beautifully crafted minutes, and the conductor, Mariss Jansons, extracts a terrific sound. Haydn is so underrated, his music often used in concerts as an appetiser for something larger in scale. He is so much better than that.

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Melody is everything

‘Happy tune? Is there such a thing? If so, I never heard it.’

So, apparently, declared my favourite composer, Franz Schubert. I can’t imagine who or what provoked him to say such a thing: he may have had a short and melancholy life, but there is much in his own, huge output which contradicts his statement. And whatever your taste in music, ancient or modern, all of us can point to something that makes us happy.

I wonder, for example, if Josef Haydn, who lived for more than twice as long as Schubert, was even capable of writing a sad piece.

No. If Schubert really said this, he was just having a bad day. Or perhaps he never got to hear today’s piece by Mozart, who, in a letter of 1786, wrote that ‘melody is the very essence of music’ – a view in keeping with Haydn who said, even more simply, that ‘melody is the main thing.’

A melody, of course, can just as easily be sad. But imagine wandering  the streets of Vienna in 1786, or tucking into a little something in the coffee shop capital of the world (Mozart’s early demise deprived him of the Sachertorte, which didn’t arrive for another thirty or so years, bum deal) – and being struck with a tune like this.

I have written about his piano concertos before and many of the famous ones will already be familiar to even the most reluctant ear.

The 3rd movement of his 23rd Piano Concerto in the sunny key of A major has an infectious beginning , and whenever  I listen to it I have a real sense of Mozart wanting to reprise these opening seconds at the earliest opportunity. There is plenty of playful woodwind, but every note, it seems to me, is a means of returning us to that opening burst.  Which, obligingly, he does.

This, dear Schubert, is unalloyed happiness. I can’t believe you could have heard it, for you would surely have been cheered had you done so. Maybe you have since, because apparently the angels play Mozart when they get together.

It’s a grey day as I write. Division in our country is at its worst for decades. Yes, I know that there are very many composers whom I’ve not yet written about, but at times like this – well, thank goodness for Wolfy.

And Sachertorte.

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The Lamb of God – Verdi’s way

’Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die.’ (St. Benedict.)

Now, there’s a cheery thought to open today’s post. I cannot recall the first time I became aware not so much of death, as specifically my own mortality. With the years elapsing ever faster, it seems, it is hard to avoid the blunt reality that what lies ahead is considerably less than what has passed. St.Benedict’s encouragement preys on me more regularly now.

Today the Christian calendar commemorates the feast of All Souls. As I write, it is a glorious autumn day and whether you subscribe to a faith or not, it is impossible on a day such as this not to marvel at creation all around us – and the ephemeral nature of it at the same time. Today will be yesterday before we know it.

And the Christian faith reminds us that ‘we know neither the day nor the hour’. Obvious enough, of course, but a caution which carries more weight as the years are ticked off.

On this feast day, I ponder how lucky I am to have reached three score years, but dare not, as a young child I might have done, assume I will be granted the ‘plus ten’ on top. Carpe diem makes more sense nowadays.

The more so, when we bring to mind the many we know who have predeceased us; and, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the millions unknown to us who never experienced adulthood. Teenagers, so many of them.

Teenagers. Some of them shot at dawn by their fellow men for cowardice in the face of the enemy, when in reality they were traumatised.

Today I turn to Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Not for the first time, I know, (I’ve written about Rigoletto before) but the man had a way with tunes, and could capture heartache, passion, and emotion like few others. He was a musical giant in a turbulent Italy and in operatic terms, nothing has really come close to him in that country since. Or before, come to think of it.

So it is little wonder that his Requiem Mass, first performed in 1874 to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of the poet Alessandro Manzoni, has been viewed by many as being operatic in nature. It requires a large-scale approach, big choirs and a sizeable orchestra, to deliver sometimes deafening sounds. It is long, certainly; at about ninety minutes, it has rarely  been used liturgically, unsurprisingly, and some have tried to stage it, not very successfully in my view.

Amidst all the fire and brimstone, however, are passages of pure loveliness which tug the heartstrings to their very limit. The Agnus Dei, which is recited in a typical Christian liturgy, is one such: scored for soprano, mezzo soprano, choir and orchestra, it provides those few minutes for us to reflect on those no longer here, beseeching the lamb of God to grant them eternal rest.  Listen out for the strings whose searing ten second accompaniment towards the end goes directly to our sadness.

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I have deliberately chosen a recording which benefits from two things: first, under Riccardo Muti’s direction (not, admittedly, amongst my favourite conductors), because it is taken at a slower, and hence, reflective pace; and secondly because there are no distracting visuals.

Click on the image below. With no such distractions, you can just close your eyes for five minutes and cherish the memories of loved ones (and others) who are no longer with us, or facing that moment now.

 

John Ireland

I was taught not to open a presentation, pitch, or letter with an apology.

Having avoided that with those words, I can now apologise for radio silence.

I don’t know where the time has gone. I always dread the arrival of September, marking, as it does, the end of summer, and a quite magnolious one at that.

This year, the final Test Match against India took place after The Last Night of the Proms, the occasion which I usually accept as the vestige of summer months. But there has surely never been a more emphatic announcement of its passing than the sight and sound of Mohammed Shami’s middle stump being uprooted, to give Jimmy Anderson his wicket-taking record.

One wicket required. Last batsman. No more matches this summer.

And then, in an instant, a split second if ever there was one, mission accomplished. With it, right then, summer 2018 and my first sight of a beach for over ten years, was over. Love this view.

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None of which bears much of a connection to today’s musical offering, but serves as an elaborate excuse for my distractions. Except that the piece I’ve chosen clings on to those balmy days one last time, even if we are well and truly into autumn.

John Ireland (1879-1962) was one of those English composers whose name has been somewhat dwarfed by the likes of William Walton, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten: most likely because he confined himself to predominantly miniature works, especially for piano; and with no symphonies or operas to his name, his legacy was always going to be an uphill battle. Happily it is gaining traction.

Ireland did not have a happy childhood. His publisher father, on his second marriage, was 69 when he was born to a mother thirty years younger than her husband. With a gap like that, you’d be forgiven for expecting her to get in at least one more spouse  – but she actually predeceased him when John was just 14. His father followed her the following year.

The impression you get is that of a lost soul, but the man had talent enough to go to The Royal Academy, where many years later he taught Britten (who was characteristically disparaging about him). His personal life was a struggle. In haste, he married a 17 year old pupil; but far from repenting at leisure, they were divorced with equal haste and without consummation. Tchaikovsky did the same sort of thing, and it is widely recognised that Ireland’s tendencies were similar to the great man.

Despite his internal struggles, he has left some lovely music. Many will be familiar with the hymn My song is love unknown, a personal favourite, for which Ireland composed the music. He was organist at both St.Luke’s in Chelsea and Holy Trinity, Sloane Square.

His music comes under the banner of English Impressionism. The Downland Suite was composed for a brass band competition in 1932 (it didn’t win) and has since been transcribed for strings. The third movement, The Minuet, is possibly the most famous.

There is nothing gushing about this and it could so easily have been written by Elgar. It is in praise of the countryside, especially Sussex, where Ireland is buried.

So, yes, summer is behind us, but this is charm and Englishness at its purest.

Click on the image for one last celebration of sun and greenery –

 

 

 

 

 

Some Mozart acrobatics.

It helps to have some kind of a trigger or cue when writing these posts, but sometimes the desire to get a tune out to you is so overwhelming that I run the risk of not sharing it at all if I wait for that elusive prompt.

Today’s music is a case in point. It requires no link to anything; it is just one of those arias that once heard is loved for ever.

Mozart’s big four operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, The Magic Flute, and Don Giovanni are stuffed with melodies which are less plentiful in his others. There are individual arias aplenty in The Seraglio, but I doubt many people go around humming them with any huge enthusiasm. Or at all, for that matter.

Today I have picked an aria which was not even included in Don Giovanni‘s first performance in Prague in 1787. Elvira, one of the Don’s many, and discarded, conquests, was played by Caterina Cavalieri, who complained that her role did not have any standout arias for her to show off her skills. It’s quite possible to speculate that she felt her assets were being underutilized.

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So she asked Mozart to address the matter. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

She got herself a blockbuster of a melody all right. But it came at a price: it requires truly phenomenal breath control, and it separates the men from the boys – or whatever the female equivalent of that analogy  might be.

Don Giovanni is not just one of Mozart’s greatest operas, it is one of the greatest operas by anyone, anywhere, ever: a masterpiece which encompasses tunes galore, comedy, drama, all underlined with a clear moral message. Ingredients which combine to make it a favourite of many.

There is no need to embark on a lengthy synopsis. In short it is the story of a murderous lothario who is warned his time will come, as it does in spectacular fashion.  When the ghost of  one of his victims, the father of one his conquests, accepts the Don’s invitation to dinner, he is given several chances to repent; and in in refusing to do so is engulfed in the flames of hell.

Barbara Frittoli (b 1967) is the soprano who stands out amongst so many others in this aria Mi tradi...To sing it too slowly is to lose out on the dancing woodwind in the background, especially the clarinet, a ‘conversation’ device between singer and instrument which Mozart so ingeniously uses elsewhere. And to sing it too slowly is to cheat, because it avoids the breathing difficulties which come with speed.

There are a couple of minutes reflection before launching into the aria proper. Listen, in particular, to the passage 5.11-5.24 – thirteen seconds of acrobatics in one breath, it’s astonishing.

What’s she singing about? Oh, just the usual lament – you’re gonna get your comeuppance, you’re a cad and bounder, but I still fancy you, dammit.

Click on the image for coloratura singing at its very best.