A different kind of Austrian

One thing that bothers me about cookery programmes, for which my appetite has long been satiated, is the equal enthusiasm the experts express no matter what they dish up.

I mean, please, how is is possible to rave about offal, oysters, anchovies and the like with the same effusiveness as crème brûlée, Sachertorte, sauce béarnaise? It has left me with the constant suspicion that chefs, just like the rest of us, are averse to certain foods, but to admit it would be a betrayal of their art.

Finding top musicians fessing up to a particular dislike of a composer can be just as hard. But I am not a musician. Today I am setting myself, and in doing so responding to, a challenge. You will know that the purpose of this blog is to share music that I love. Today, dear reader, I am going outside that brief. And well out of my comfort zone.

I did a quick look back on the last 100 posts and was pleasantly surprised to see that we have covered 45 different composers. There remain some glaring omissions on the list (him, Liszt, being one of them), so there is still plenty of material out there.

The image at the top of this post did not crawl there by accident. ‘Symphonic boa constrictors’ was how Brahms described the symphonies of the Austrian composer, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Bruckner was the eldest of 11 children. He learnt and played the organ with precocious skill from a young age, but seems to have suffered a lifelong inferiority complex. It’s perhaps not hard to see why. He was constantly put down by his teachers; his symphonies were not well received in his life, and he was something of an odd-ball: he dressed strangely in over-sized clothes; he was obsessed with numbers and teenaged girls, to whom many he made unsuccessful marriage proposals, remaining a bachelor to the end, a lifestyle almost certainly driven by his unwavering Catholic faith which seems to have persuaded him that anything other than a virgin would be sinful.

And he was quite odd-looking, too.

I wonder if his lack of self confidence goes some way to explaining the length of his symphonies. Let’s give this a simple comparison: his first nine symphonies total about 10 hours of listening – Beethoven’s nine symphonies, about 6. The average length of a Bruckner symphony, 65 minutes, is the same length as Beethoven’s longest, his ninth. There’s a lot of repetition. Sometimes it can feel as if the piece has finished long before the music stops.

If you are looking for jollity, you will struggle to find it here. Bruckner’s symphonies are works of profound solemnity.

I accept fully that it is all a matter of taste: I know some who say he is their favourite composer. And I also accept whenever I  have heard a live performance, the sheer monumentality can be an overwhelming sound.

So what’s the problem for me?

The man is a tease of the highest order. With Mahler, whether you like his music or not, he never fails to deliver the climax: the crescendo always delivers what you are hoping and waiting for. Bruckner, by contrast, could have invented the term ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ long before any Brexit negotiations: endless passages of promising foreplay, leaving you expectant, and then…NOTHING!

At the risk of emulating one of his shorter symphonies, I will deter you only a little longer. The Scherzo of his 7th Symphony is about as light as he gets, albeit with its own weighty moments. Günther Wand (pronounced Vand, not Wond, however fitting that might be for a conductor) was one of the true experts in Bruckner’s music, a reputation achieved from his ability to secure lengthy rehearsal times. Here he is in his late 80s, extracting a sound full of colour, contrast and clarity. It is one of those rare passages which does not demonstrate my frustration, and hence one I enjoy – and it’s not a bad tune either.

I may yet come round to him more, and I have certainly enjoyed this mini exploration.

Oh, and in an exception to the chef analogy, I did find one musician who wasn’t crazy about Bruckner – Leonard Bernstein. I’m not the greatest fan of Lenny, but he did write the best musical of all time and I won’t debate that.

Click on the image – thoughts welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

Strauss and the horn

 

The scene I am taking you to now is a modest flat with no electricity or running water. We are in Munich in 1883.

It is the dwelling of the Strauss family. The highly gifted Richard, about whom I have written once or twice before (search bar for details), is now 19. Richard is the son of Franz, the principal horn player in the Munich Court Opera, and Josephine, the daughter of a successful and wealthy brewer.

Quite where the notion came from that it is not done to marry trade, is beyond me. Marrying the daughter of a brewer is surely one step to securing a life of wedded bliss. And I married trade myself. (Leather has its own perks, naturally, but I’m not sure I can link them to this post.)

Back to that flat. Imagine a conversation between horn player father and precocious son which, in an updated version, might have gone something like this.

– Hey, Dad, I’ve written this concerto for horn and orchestra. It’d be great if you would be the first to play it. What d’you think?

– Oh wonderful, good lad, let’s have a look, shall we?

Pause. Quite a long one.

– It looks fantastic, son, but the thing is, not sure how to put this…I mean, seriously?

Crestfallen young prodigy.

– I thought you’d like it.

– I do, oh yes, I absolutely do. It’s just that it’s so difficult. There’s no way a man of my age can play that without doing himself a serious injury. Sorry, son, but that top Bb is way out of my range these days. ’Fraid you’re gonna have to find someone else for this.

The horn is perhaps the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play. In order to get some orchestral experience, I was taught it to a pathetic level (not my teacher’s fault) in my teenage years. My position in the brass section can only be described as fleeting.

So I have a little understanding of Strauss senior’s qualms. That gives me only a slight advantage, because I am sure it will become apparent to anyone listening to this last movement of his first (of two) concerti for horn.

The concerto is less than 20 minutes long and is more or less seamless through its three movements. These last six minutes are technically fiendish but filled with relentless exuberance. It requires the highest level of breathing control, a demand displayed effortlessly  by the late Barry Tuckwell in this concert some thirty years ago, (so the picture is not the best). Tuckwell died last month and was one of the few of whom it can be fairly said was a master of his craft.

This is a live performance, don’t forget. In the course of a hundred years, many improvements have been made to the instrument – there were no valves on Franz’s horn, for one thing. Even accounting for that, there are no luxuries of a second take in the studio, and yet I can detect only one duff note. You will find versions which may appear a little smoother in sound, but Tuckwell was not one for caution: this is a gutsy, brassy, no-holds-barred performance, with a great tune, too.

And as such, an approach which, I suspect, the youthful Strauss would have happily endorsed.

I never reached three figures with a bat in my hand. I notice, however, that this marks my 100th post! Ton up. Thank you for all the kind comments you send, they are much appreciated – please do pass it on to others.

Click on the image below –

 

 

 

 

Beethoven – the answer to life

 

Forgive a slightly longer missive: Beethoven demands it.

You are going to read, and probably hear, a great deal about this complex man during 2020, this being the 250th anniversary of his birth.

I am no expert, no musicologist, just an amateur enthusiast, but Ludwig van Beethoven gets my vote as being one of the most influential people ever to walk the planet. The simple truth is that he threw away the rule book, and nothing in music, perhaps even the wider arts, was the same after him.

I remember the precise moment I first heard his music. I was taken as a young child to one of the early Charlie Brown films. Along with Linus and Snoopy the dog, Schroeder is Charlie Brown’s closest friend. But the other passion in Schroeder’s life is Beethoven. He is, you might say, nuts about him.

During the film, Schroeder plays the slow movement from the Pathétique sonata, and I went home resolved to learn the piece. (Battling the two outer movements came some years later. This became something of a pattern for me – ‘Oh, I could play that!’, only to discover that Beethoven rarely composed simple stand-alone works.)

Readers of these posts will know that Schubert is my favourite composer. And yet if I  had to single out the composer who has had the greatest impact on me in so many ways, it would have to be Beethoven. In the context of classical music, I am minded to replace the word ‘music’ in John Miles’s famous lyric to read ‘Beethoven was my first love and he will be my last.’

Why so?

It may sound hokey, but in Beethoven’s music you have everything of what it means to be human. Schulz’s cartoon above is more than just funny. Beethoven’s irascibility, temper, sartorial obliviousness, hopeless love-life, manifold dwellings, and general defiance of almost everything, are well known; as is his near thirty-year struggle with deafness, surely the cruellest possible affliction for a musician.

All of these traits and frustrations are writ large in his music: never before has the personality of a composer been so glaringly exposed in his output, be it symphony, concerto, sonata, overture, choral or chamber. All his music articulates life itself.

Lest you feel tempted to charge me with spewing out sentimental nonsense, let me try and demonstrate it with a piece of music with which you may not be familiar.

Beethoven wrote sixteen string quartets, a format first used by Haydn, then developed by Mozart. Conveniently, these fall into three periods in his life, early, middle, and late; and it is the slow movement of one of the late ones, no.13, which sums up humanity more than any piece I know.

Oh no, he’s going all heavy on me now, I hear you groan. Hold on.

Nothing demonstrates the difficulty of writing about music better than this. That’s because the Cavatina, as it is called, has no tune per se that will leave you humming it later. It’s not about melody, it’s about feeling. Marked molto espressivo, you may not ‘get’ it at first. I didn’t. But after a few listens, you will want to submit to its profound and ineffable beauty, yearning for it to go on when it comes to a sudden halt. At its centre is a searing violin. The music soon engulfs you in this heart-wrenching blanket of tenderness. About half way through comes a brief ‘choke’, a change of tempo, and it is widely believed that a blotch on the original score is a teardrop from the composer.

Beethoven could only hear these notes in his head – he couldn’t try it out on a keyboard. Composed less than two years before he died, you can feel the aching sorrow of his condition, but also a sense that after all the bang, crash, wallop we tend to associate with Beethoven, this, more than anything else, (and he wrote some truly gorgeous slow movements) is the purest summation of the man, his music, his life – and, by extension, humanity itself.

If that consigns me to Pseuds’ Corner, well – show me the way. But not before you’ve clicked the image.

 

 

 

Farewell to Christmas with Cornelius.

With impeccable timing I have just completed, through a combination of luck and discipline, the Christmas edition of The Spectator. In turning the final cover and consigning it to the waggerpaggerbagger beneath my desk, I say farewell to the season. (It was, incidentally, a Christmas-crackeringly good read.)

Tomorrow, the 6th of January, marks that occasion formally. The visit of the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus, The Epiphany, gives me the perfect excuse to share my favourite Christmas melody with you, which I last did at the end of 2016; so it doesn’t seem overly early to re-issue it with a different singer, and one of my favourites, Gerald Finley.

Back in 2016, I put together the content for the programme for the concert in St.Paul’s Cathedral in aid of MS. It is there in full on YouTube, (Finlay about 10 minutes from the end) and the performaces of singers and actors still bring a lump to my throat. One of the thrills of being at the heart of the rehearsals on that day was having an element of control, enabling me to ask Gerry to sing it once more – not, of course, because there was anything wrong with the first rendition, on the contrary: it was so utterly delicious, that I just needed to hear it again.

What I had forgotten, and this applied to all participants on the night, is that professionals don’t give it their all in rehearsal. Something is always held back for the performance itself, the result being that however prepared you think you might be for what is about to follow, an unexpected variation, be it emotion or emphasis, will be thrown in – and suddenly the eyes fill up. And so it was that night. I remember shedding a tear during rehearsal of one the spoken pieces, then declining the offer of tissues just before the concert after I’d left my handkerchief in my wife’s coat, insisting, “I’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t.

Many have told me this was the lovelist version of The Three Kings by the German composer Peter Cornelius (1824-1874) they had ever heard. Poor old Cornelius: he did, in fact compose a number of works, including three operas, and was friendly with, and influential on, Wagner and Liszt, but he is now chiefly known for this.

But if you’re going to be known for one piece alone, you could do worse. Christina Rossetti published her poem In the Bleak Midwinter in 1874. We are all familiar with the sentiment in the final verse of offering the heart in the absence of sufficient means to bring anything else: if you listen to the third, final, verse here I think Cornelius might just have got there first.

And so farewell, Christmas. My thoughts and heart to you wherever you are for 2020.

Click on the image for another version by Gerald Finlay –

 

 

 

Farewell to 2019 with Berlioz

Anger is almost always a wasted emotion.

But it is a sad reality that anger above all else will define for many of us the year 2019. Domestic political anger. National anger. Geopolitical anger. Racial anger. Climate change anger. Protests everywhere around the world. 2019 will go down as one of those years where the mood in the UK was continually laced with vitriol, and a lack of tolerance for the opposite-held view. At its worst, it culminated in acts of unimaginable violence in broad daylight, in supposedly one of the freest and most coveted capitals in the world.

There were some glorious moments, too. Who will ever forget this one?

But there were not enough of them to counter the dominant mood. Which is why we need Christmas this year more than any I can remember. At its heart is the story itself, an event of which I recall the esteemed journalist, Paul Johnson, when asked if he believed it, replying,  “Of course it’s true, you couldn’t possibly make something like that up.” Many will have attended church services in the last couple of days without having done so all year; and then there are all those carol services. We hear them year in, year out. And still we come.

We do so, I believe, in recognition of the fundamental goodness that ultimately binds us together. Of all the words in Chrismas carols, two very simple ones which we breeze through every year, ‘Comfort and joy’, go a long way: we would all love both, but comfort is what we all need, because none of us is without some fragility. And fragility is right at the heart of the Christmas story. Christmas brings with it the opportunity to extend the hand, a momentary glance, or just a directed silent thought, of comfort.

Music can come to our aid here: its ability to take us away from ourselves can lead us to a place where our minds become less troubled.

I am not an avid listener to the music of one of the first great Romantic composers, the Frenchman, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), but I cannot let the 150th anniversary of his death pass without a nod in his direction. During his lifetime, he was never appreciated in his native country and you would struggle to find a complimentary critic. Felix Mendelssohn observed, “He makes me sad, because he is a really cultured, agreeable man, and yet he composes so very badly.” His output is not huge, but it is generally large in scale, so that except for the occasional overture and Symphonie Fantastique, he is not a regular feature in the concert repertoire.

About the only piece to have won any acclaim in his lifetime was the oratorio ‘L’enfance du Christ‘. Within it, and written as an isolated work before the rest of the piece, ‘The Shepherds’ Farewell‘ has earned its place in Christmas music, as a passage not of glory and joy, but as a prayer of comfort and tenderness for the infant child. The words – ‘God go with you, God protect you, guide you safely through the wild!’-are by Berlioz himself, an almost life-long agnostic; and all of them in keeping with that need for comfort.

Some thoughts on the music. There are three verses, all opening with a handful of notes on the oboe. You might think a piece like this would open with something altogether softer, a flute or clarinet, but the oboe is a masterstroke – as it has been in other famous pieces, such as the second movement of Brahms’ symphony or the second movement of his violin concerto. (One celebrated violinist, Pablo de Saraste, actually refused to play the piece, because he wasn’t going to just stand there waiting while an oboe, of all things, played the melody in full before him.) And later, of course, there is Dvorak’s New World symphony, where the oboe melody is now synonymous with the Hovis ad. (Other brands available.)

Any number of choirs sing this beautifully, but I have deliberately eschewed the cathedrals, so that the oboe gets a proper airing. When it comes to Berlioz, few have been a greater champion than the late Colin Davis, and there have been few choral conductors of his equal in any generation. This beautifully tender recording dates back to 1961.

So farewell, 2019. This is my final post of the year. I have not been active enough this year, but we have been moving into our new house, so I hope to redress that in the months ahead. Wherever you read it and listen, you do me a very great honour by allowing me into your lives for a few minutes. My hope for all in the coming year is for a little more kindness and generosity of spirit.

I wonder what 2020 vision will reveal in December next year…

Click the image for musical comfort –

 

 

 

 

 

Mussorgksy’s imagery

 

Charlie Brown, of Peanuts fame, often had the mot juste. Two, in this case, simple words are all that’s needed to encapsulate how most of us feel in the UK right now.

The ennui can be enough to stop you writing a blog; and yet I realise it’s exactly the reason for doing so. For a few minutes I have the pleasure of steering you away from the ugly vitriol which pervades our political pigpen – and that, alliteration – is yet another thing which is weally winding me up wight now. Our current leader, have you noticed?, has a particular propensity for practising prolonged pompous pronouncements, peppered with diatribes on dithering , delaying, deceit and denial.

So it’s a touch ironic that I’m turning to the Russian composer, Modest Mussorgky (1839-1881) today. It’s a strange name, Modest. First you commit perhaps the most selfish thing possible by gifting the world a reflection of yourself; and then you foist upon your creation a name, meaning moderate or restrained, as if by way of an apology.

Sadly his musical output did little to disabuse this. Nowadays he is chiefly known for works like Night on a Bald Mountain and his opera about another Boris chieftain, Boris Godunov. He was a highly gifted pianist, but he struggled with the subtleties of orchestration, causing many, including Tchaikovsky, to be uncharitable in their assessments of him. Even his teacher, Mily Balakirev, concurred that “Yes, Mussorsgky is little short of an idiot.” Despite the success of Boris, he did not get a good press.

Time for some belated balance. In 1874 Mussorgsky composed a fiendishly difficult piano piece in ten movements to celebrate the pictures of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, known as Pictures at an Exhibition. Its main theme, The Promenade, which filters in and out of the piece to reflect the different mood of the viewer as he wanders through the exhibition, was used in the 1980s political sitcom, The New Statesman, (when did we last see one of those?) featuring an MP called Alan B’stard, many of whose irreverant views have turned out to be spookily prescient. It was a part specifically created for, and acted by, the late Rick Mayall, and is comedy at its very best. Dig it out on The Youtube.

Classical music often seeps into our minds in ways like this. We know or like the tune, and can be content to leave it at that; but a little more digging adds to its appreciation. Today’s passage is the last of the ten, a picture for the design of the Gates at Kiev. Don’t go looking for them, the project got cancelled. (Another taste of things to come?) This final part comes from the orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel in 1922.

Brace yourself: this is a stonking sound, so don’t hold back on the volume. It’s precision playing. As you listen to it patiently,  you will hear how it expands and unfolds, bringing back the original theme, and culminating in a thundering, majestic finish.

I suspect Mussorgsky’s life was not a particularly happy one, and a high dependance on alcohol from an early age did for him at just 42. His grave has long since been covered by tarmac, but he gets his fair share of visitors: it’s now a bus stop in St.Petersburg. This famous portrait by Repin was done just days before died.

Click on the link and forget our political shambles – albeit with the help of some music applied to a political satire.

 

 

Autumn

Forgive me if I strike a slightly sombre, or maybe just reflective, mood with this post. Over the years, especially as my own seem to pass ever more quickly, I have found the season of autumn to be an unwelcome visitor.

It is a reminder, however beautiful the colours may be for a few days, that there is decay in everything. As I write, rain is lashing down and strong winds are stripping trees of what leaves remain – to reveal the nothingness, the skeletons, that lie beneath.

Yes, I know it is part of an essential process, you might even assert a long-term harbinger of spring; but I cannot look at it that way right now. It is, for me, more of a summation of things past, of things gone for ever, whether they be happy events, of which I was fortunate to share many this summer – or people who are no longer here.

Anniversaries fall throughout the year for all of us, obviously. But autumn. Autumn, in its greyness and early nightfalls, has its way of bringing them all together. Which is why it is particularly apt that in the Christian calendar the feast of All Souls should be commemorated at this time of year.

So today I will be brief with my own words and let the music of my favourite composer, Franz Schubert (as if you needed telling) do the work. Many wrongly assume that Schubert’s brief life – just 31 years – was a sad one. He was, in fact, much loved and loved almost as much. I have no idea how many of his 600 songs or more I have heard, but this one, Allerseelen, set to the words of Johann Jacobi and written for the feast of All Souls, captures precisely my feelings of autumn and what it brings.

This version by Ian Bostridge is in the throat-lumping category. Each of the three verses has exactly the same melody, yet each is treated with different colour and emphasis, at times assertive and others almost whispering and yet never losing the note. Add to that the crystal clarity of his diction and you have 4.5 heavenly minutes to savour and reflect.

And no, you do not need to be a Christian or even a person of faith to appreciate this. All of us, at some stage, will wish this for those we have loved. Here is the translation (by Richard Wigmore) –

May all souls rest in peace;
those whose fearful torment is past;
those whose sweet dreams are over;
those sated with life, those barely born,
who have left this world:
may all souls rest in peace!
The souls of girls in love,
whose tears are without number,
who, abandoned by a faithless lover,
rejected the blind world.
May all who have departed hence,
may all souls rest in peace!
And those who never smiled at the sun,
who lay awake beneath the moon on beds of thorns,
so that they might one day see God face to face
in the pure light of heaven:
may all who have departed hence,
may all souls rest in peace!

 

And here is the music, click on the image –