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.

Image result for caterina cavalieri soprano

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.



Sea pictures with Elgar

All of us will have memories associated with the sea. As a wheelchair user, my own have, until recently, been distant ones.

We have been taking our children to Cornwall for the last twenty years. For the last fifteen, each visit has served as a slightly painful yardstick for my MS: ‘I could do this last year, but I can’t now.’ My most frustrating annual realizations were acknowledging that my golfing days with my son were behind me, as were my pathetic attempts at body-boarding with friends and the rest of my family.

If I’m honest, I used to spend more time at the water’s edge, standing in a Duke-of-Edinburgh-like pose with my hands behind my back, gazing out to sea; invariably with something on my feet, because I have this peculiar aversion to sand between my toes and the difficulty of getting rid of it later. What’s that all about?

But this year was different. It was the first time I was able to say “I couldn’t do this last year, but I can now.”

Through the generosity of a private charity, I now have an electric wheelchair which has something of a Heineken effect. From the house we rent, with no other building between us and the sea, I was able to negotiate terrain hitherto inaccessible and wonder at a view I hadn’t seen for over ten years.

That tiny speck in the distance  is me.


And this is what I feasted my eyes and ears on: an expanse of colour and sound which unfolded gradually as my chair edged closer. I felt like a child, experiencing it all for the first time, because I had quite forgotten what I had been missing until it was there in front of me.


It is little wonder that the sea has captured the attention of poets, artists, and musicians. In music there is a wealth of work to convey its mystery and power.

Dame Janet Baker has recently celebrated her 85th birthday and it is high time this blog gave her beautiful and distinctive voice an airing. Edward Elgar, about whom I have written in previous posts (pop Elgar in the Search box for more), wrote his song cycle Sea Pictures in 1894. The most well-known, Where Corals Lie, is a poem by Richard Garnett, beckoning its reader to the sea. It is just a few minutes long, and has this lovely, slightly haunting, melody, coupled with an almost nervous beat. Baker’s rich, dark voice is a perfect fit to both words and music.

Make sure you listen right to the end: I doubt there is a better rendition – and to abandon it early would be to miss the last chord, which is sweetness itself, and one which could so easily have come from the hand of his fellow Englishman, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

‘I must go down to the sea again…’, wrote John Masefield. It is an unfulfilled desire I’ve had for many years, at last accomplished this summer.

Oh, and I even pottered around the golf course with my son, too. So that’s two things I couldn’t do last year, and now can.

Click on the image and picture yourself by the sea.







Moon Music the Strauss way.

Sport has once more interfered with my musical musings, the usual quota increased this year by the World Cup. I was not glued to every match, but it was a gripping contest in Moscow, even without England’s success – for that it surely was.

The Open at Carnoustie had all the ingredients for a thrilling last day, with over half a dozen players in the mix. The last hour promised to be the most exciting for years, until, one by one, every contender bar one decided it wasn’t for him. As a consequence, there was no multi competitor play-off, just an outright (and thoroughly likeable) champion.

Something of an anti climax. Just like the well-billed Blood Moon last Friday, whose visibility in the south of the UK was about as evident as a policeman when you really want one. (Which, aptly enough, is only likely to be, if ever, once in a blue moon.)

But it did have the effect of calling to mind one really magical five minutes of music which I encountered for the first time just weeks before. I had never been to a performance of Capriccio by Richard Strauss until this summer.

I have written about Strauss’s unparalleled writing for the soprano voice (Search on Home Page reveals all), but he was also a top-rate orchestrator (see parentheses above). Capriccio was Strauss’s last opera, first performed in Munich in October 1942. The year. Just imagine attending that evening, fully aware of what horrific misfortune could occur at any moment.

The opera does not need a lengthy explanation here: it is, quite simply, a lighthearted piece which debates (through two different suitors for a Countess) the perennial question of which art form is the more important – poetry/words or music?

They are, of course, inseparable.  The combination of the two throughout the opera is unsurprisingly sublime: at one point I counted eight different voices singing their own lines all at the same time, each unique to him- or herself, and each distinguishable within the group.

And then this.  As the Countess prepares to reflect on her dilemma, Strauss slips in these few minutes of Mondschein (Moonshine) music.  I have written about music connected with the moon in the past (in danger of repeating my above parentheses now). As the son of a horn player, he knew a thing or two about this instrument, which opens this brief passage.

There are a few recordings to choose from. Antonio Pappano can scarce do no wrong in my ears, but I think he takes it a tiny bit fast; and Barenboim’s live concert succumbs to the very smallest of blemishes on the horn.

I’ve picked one where the sound is perfect and the visuals are just irritating. So when you’ve clicked on it, I would encourage you to sit back and wallow in the sound, wishing, as I did when I first heard it a month ago, that it could go on and on and on. A single horn, then full orchestra with a couple of harps for good measure.

(The Countess’s final piece is often sung as a stand-alone concert aria. I saw Kiri Te  Kanawa perform it with Leonard Bernstein many years ago and had the pleasure of meeting them both afterwards. She, as you might expect, was divine. He, as you might expect, thought he was.)

Another new discovery. And a moon you can rely on, too.





Snape Britten

If you are ever lucky enough to be a guest at the Salzburg Festival, you would not let slip that you weren’t a fan of Mozart; or Wagner at Bayreuth.

So while at the Aldeburgh Music Festival, which I have attended for the last few years, I have kept my mouth firmly zipped on site that I am not a great lover of the music of Benjamin Britten (1913-76). It would be an act of heresy, risking immediate expulsion and a ban to return for life. Some readers will be aghast at such an admission, about one of this country’s most gifted composers, and the man who set up the festival seventy years ago with the musician and his life-long partner, Peter Pears, seen below on the right with Britten.

Image result for britten, pears

From a modest start in Aldeburgh, its popularity grew to require larger premises and hence its move to Snape Maltings. The accoustic in the 832 seat concert hall is extraordinary.

Image result for britten, pears

We listened to a violin concerto in the first half of one concert without knowing whose it was, having left the programme in the bar. There were, in my view, isolated moments of real beauty, but not frequent enough for me to really want to listen to it again – which, I admit, is exactly what I would encourage you to do if you didn’t like one of my posts.

During the interval I tentatively asked what we’d just heard, to be informed that it was the Britten Violin Concerto.

Right, I thought, I’m really glad I hadn’t known that in advance, because I’d have made up my mind that I wasn’t going to listen to it properly. But I did; and when I learnt of its identity, my reaction was that I’m glad to have been made to hear it without knowing the composer, ticked that box, and no need to seek it out again. A view I still hold.

I’ve probably lost a few of you in disgust already. How lazy. How short-sighted. But is it really any different to ditching a book half way through if it hasn’t got hold of you by then?

And yet maybe that’s one approach when listening to a piece for the first time: give it your full attention without knowing the composer, and find yourself less biased and more curious. Then see if you want to hear it again, or, better still, seek out other works by the same hand.

(The second half of the concert, incidentally, was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, whose popularity since its very first performance has caused it to be so overplayed that I would never actively seek it out. He wrote eight others, only a handful of which get a decent airing. It was so brilliantly played, however, that, much to my annoyance, I have been humming excerpts from it ever since. A different result for my prejudiced thinking. Serves me right, I know. And if you haven’t heard the piece, which includes the backing for a famous bread brand advertisement, I would encourage you to ignore my temporary boredom with it and listen to it.)

The difficulty I have with Britten is that he couldn’t stand the music of Verdi (seriously?), Brahms, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. But his output was prolific, and his 16 operas redefined English opera. I know there are plenty of exceptions, it’s just that I find much of his music to be so – how can I put it? – bloody miserable!

I am an impatient listener, but when I hear a work I do not like, I am convinced it is my fault. Not my words, but Britten’s, and that must be my admission henceforth. I’m conscious that this post is almost in breach of my mission to share pieces with you that I enjoy, and I’ve hardly bigged up Britten here – but here is one of those exceptions.

On the final day of the festival, we attended a recital given by the bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel. What a way to finish that was. Amongst his songs was this setting by Britten of the folksong Foggy, Foggy Dew. As an example of a major work, it is not; but it is a rare moment of fun, especially in the hands of Terfel and his gifted accompanist, Malcom Martineau.  The story is brilliantly told by both of them. Click below image.


We were treated to two encores. And here comes a gripe. The first was a humorous one about a dragon. After he’d finished it, with applause still strong, there were people all over this very open hall bolting for the exits to make a head start from the car parks. Can you imagine how awful that looks from the stage? And can you imagine missing this, one of Schubert’s most beautiful songs, Allerseelen, written for the Feast of All Souls? Serves them right, I say.

The last line was sung even more quietly than it is here, almost a whisper, and we heard every word. What a gem. Click again-




Opera not for you? Tosh!

I remember well the first time I went to my first opera. It was Verdi’s La traviata. Nothing particularly special about that.

Except for the fact that I was just 12 years old – and it was at Verona. And believe me there is plenty special about that. This is what my first, and outdoor, opera experience looks like:

Image result for verona opera

It was quite wasted on me, of course. We were on holiday with my grandfather on my mother’s side, and the children (that’s me, my sibs and a couple of cousins) had to be hauled along in the absence of anything better to do with them.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, today I discovered something else which was wasted on me. The main roles of Violetta and Alfredo were sung by Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi. I can’t be certain they were on duty that night, but there has to be a good chance they were.

To put it in perspective, it’s a bit like being taken to a concert at the age of 6 and learning a few years later that the lead act had been David Bowie. Or Miles Davis.

In David Hare’s new play about the creation of Glyndebourne opera house, Moderate Soprano (on until June 30th and well worth a visit if you can), its visionary, John Christie, protests his dream against his doubters with the words “There are always a thousand reasons not to go to the opera!”

A hundred years ago, maybe. Not so today. Cost? Nah. You could attend any sporting fixture for the same or less; and if sport doesn’t interest you, your visit to the hairdresser, especially if you are in the high/lowlights game, could set you back far more – and you’d do that several times a year.

The worst two, that it’s “just for toffs” or “it’s not my thing” are tosh. In most cases, they are uttered by people who have never bothered to try. For the life of me, I cannot understand why, as long as you have been introduced to the right one at an age you will remember it, the immediate urge will not be to go again. Carmen, La Bohème, The Magic Flute, Aida, Rigoletto, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro – any of these fall into that category. We took my son to Carmen, and his Christmas present to me that year was just the two of us going to the English National Opera. I rest my case.

And, little though I knew it at 12 years old, Verdi’s La traviata. Probably the most performed of all his operas, it is impossible not to warm to it. It  is the opera Edward Lewis takes Vivian Ward to see in the film, Pretty Woman (with a not dissimilar plot, except that only one has a happy ending – well, it’s an opera, what did you expect?). The tunes go on and on.

Here is one of my favourite singers, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died far too young at the end of last year, fessing up to his son why he has just asked Violetta to give him up for the sake of their family’s reputation. Lovely, lovely singing, and listen to that last note, 14 seconds of it. Opera Holland Park is staging it now to ecstatic reviews: I know nothing of current ticket sales, but I do know that a few remain on the 19th June, when the proceeds all go to MS research. Go to the website to check, you will not be disappointed.


Indulge me, I cannot resist a quick bonus. I have noticed that the music for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup is something I added in an earlier post in memory of Dmitri. Here it is again. What a voice. What a sad loss.


Happy birthday, Wagner

It’s very easy to pronounce a hasty dislike for a particular composer. Often, especially in the context of some 20th century composers, where melody seems either absent or well hidden, this is perfectly understandable.

I have less sympathy for people who say they enjoy classical music, while adding, as one did to me recently, “but you can keep Bach, altogether too mathematical, no soul, no fun”, or words to that effect. What a feast awaits him, if he can be persuaded to remove the blinkers. And that is the raison d’être of these posts – to demonstrate there will always be something, whatever views you have formed, that will make you think again.

What, for example, is there not to like in this very brief (just over one and a half minutes!) piece?



Richard Wagner (1813-83), about whom I have written once before, tends to provoke the most extreme opinions, and with good reason (see Ethereal Wagner, October 2016 to read quite how unattractive he was). Today would have been his birthday, the only thing I can detect that he has in common with my wife, so it’s an opportune time to give him another airing.

Now, if you’re not a Wagner fan, you are not alone. Nor am I, especially, but there are passages of this man’s music which transcend bias or preconception. Moments when you just have to give in and admit this is the creation of extraordinary genius. So don’t give up just yet: listen to this overture to one of his operas, Tannhäuser, and wallow in the glorious tunes. It is the longest overture ever written for an opera, but as a statement of good overcoming evil, the theme of the opera, it has few equals.

Chances are you will recognize this, but if it is your first time, this recording with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is as good as you will hear. The brass section of this orchestra established a reputation which stands head and shoulders above all the others, and it’s not hard to see why.

This deserves volume, and lots of it. I have recently become the proud recipient of an Orbitsound Dock, which has introduced me to a new quality of sound. Beg, steal, do whatever it takes to possess it, I had no idea how much the enjoyment of listening could be improved.

And if you really don’t warm to this, then I concede that Wagner is not for you at all. But try it you must.



Handel’s sense of humour

I am no twitcher, but I am lucky enough to live in an area in Kent where I am surrounded by all manner of birdsong, much of it not standard fare. A wren is seeking attention as I write this post.

The cuckoo, I accept, is not that unusual. As a solitary sound at 3.30 this morning, however, it brought me enormous comfort in my inability to sleep. More than that, it helped me to nod off eventually – and, to my huge gratification, was still there to greet me when I awoke to the dawn chorus an hour later.

My great uncle Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s perfect pitch (the ability to sing or identify a musical note) was identified very early when he uttered the words “Cuck-oo; e-c.”

The German-born George Frideric Handel moved to London in 1712 (and, with his remains in Westminster Abbey, was never asked to leave). With the big hits of The Water Music, The Messiah etc. under his belt he became a huge success, especially in the field of opera, as well as being a highly accomplished organist, who would combine these talents by introducing the premier of each opera with an off-the-cuff ditty on the organ. Barely any of his solo compositions for the instrument survive, but we are left with a group of organ concertos.

One of them is known as The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. Handel was a stout, short-tempered man, plagued by ill-health for much of his 71 bachelor years, including a later blindness which did not prevent him from playing or having a good sense of humour.

Take the second movement of this piece, a chirpy dialogue between these two birds. Handel tended to outline the main parts, but would often leave pages totally blank with the words Ad libitum, requiring the soloist to improvise as best he could. Simon Preston is one of our foremost organists and the conversation is clear. It’s also a good tune.

The eagle-eyed amongst you (note continuing of bird theme) will notice there are two pieces attached today.

If my father were alive today, he would be sharing his 61st Wedding Anniversary with my mother who told me this morning what a wonderful day that had been. Increasingly, later generations are able to share that memory with their parents, but for the moment, and in the context of this post, it is my wedding which comes to mind. What an opportunity this is to have a bit of fun.

The bride’s prerogative of being fashionably (but 20 minutes?) late was properly observed, despite her father being an equal to my own for punctuality, so the first lines of the hymn on their entrance, ‘Oh praise ye the Lord!’ were unintentionally apt. The congregation sat through a Mozart Mass, before the married couple exited to today’s second clip.

We only had a choir of four and a village organ, but with Catherine Wyn Rogers in their number, that was plenty. The late Anthony Rolfe Johnson sings this Handel refrain. Give it a couple of minutes and listen to the words which close the piece. I hope Handel might have approved.

Happy Anniversary, Mum.