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.



Menacing Prokofiev

Ballet is a divisive art form. And not just for the performers.

I am not amongst its greatest fans, and will no doubt fall foul of many experts when I align myself closely with Bateman’s view ‘that most ballets would be quite delightful if it were not for the dancing.’

When you consider that early 20th century Russia was a period abundant with ballet compositions and personalities (Nijinsky, Pavlova, Diaghilev, Markova) I was surprised to find so many eminent native writers and composers who are considerably more scathing than Bateman. Tolstoy described ballet as ‘lewd’; Schoenberg as ‘not a musical form’. Chekhov’s appraisal takes some beating – ‘I don’t understand anything about ballet. All I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.’

You do not need to be a forensic historian to know that the above period in Russia was a time of unimaginable turmoil. The first thirty or forty years of the 20th century in a regime under Stalin were so ruthless, bloody, and unforgiving, that they could almost be said to have been rescued by the arrival of the Second World War. It was not a time when you would expect the arts to thrive; but whilst they struggled, they were not stifled.

Sergei Prokofiev’s life-span of 1891-1953 would come to bridge all this terror. An only child, born in Ukraine, he had a precocious talent at the keyboard, and an arrogant personality with it. He rubbed people up the wrong way, and his modern approach to composition wasn’t welcomed in either America (to where he fled initially) or Europe. And to be the creator of anything, words, art, music, in his homeland was to risk mysterious disappearance unless it conformed as expected. Even his Spanish wife, Lina, was dispatched to a labour camp under suspicion of being a spy.

So it is hard to trace much happiness in the man’s life, which ended at the age of 50 on exactly the same day as Stalin, but he must rank as one of the foremost 20th century composers. Nowadays, he is most widely known for his setting of Peter and the Wolf, but his music for Romeo and Juliet goes a long way to supporting Bateman’s view of ballet at the top of this post.

Today’s thrilling rendition from this ballet, The Dance of the Montagues and Capulets, has been used for countless backdrops, most notably The Apprentice (a neat irony, as Prokofiev was far from being a model student). Here, however, you will get a little more when the mood softens as Juliet joins the dance; only for a solo saxophone to remind you that trouble is not far away. It is a menacing passage.

Romeo and Juliet was my first of very few visits to the ballet. Some 35 years ago I was approached by the gorgeous, statuesque, Liz at work. She had a spare ticket, would I like to come, I’ll do the tickets, you do dinner? Dutch up front, no mistake. I wonder what became of her. I’ll avoid the obvious Shakespearean question.

Turn up the volume: this is a great version, opening with a discord of real terror.






Rain and Sun, Beethoven’s way

Somebody recently asked me which of Beethoven’s nine symphonies is my favourite.

After going through them quickly in my head, I could only reach one certain conclusion. “As long as it’s not the ninth, my favourite would have to be the one I’m listening to at the time.” That’s how hard it is. I exclude the ninth, because it just doesn’t connect with me, despite it having perhaps the most exquisite of all his symphonic slow movements.

That said, as I get older, so have I come to appreciate more the pieces by composers introduced to me in my younger years. In that context, I have not the slightest doubt that if you were to ask me which one piece I would recommend to anyone wanting an introduction to classical music, it would have to be Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, more usually known as The Pastoral. 

Which still doesn’t make it my favourite Beethoven symphony.  Unless I’m listening to it.

I have written about Beethoven once or twice before in these posts (Search Bar reveals all), but the one thing to remember with this awkward genius is that all the ‘rules’ of music, or perhaps, more accurately, ‘accepted conventions’, meant nothing to him.

He might reasonably be defined as an advocate of Goethe’s assertion that “…Rules will destroy the true feeling of Nature and its true expression.”

Beethoven led a desperately sad and introvert life, a man of obsessive habits, craving for love without success, dogged by almost total deafness for his last 15-20 years, a man whose creativity nevertheless ranks amongst the very highest, for some the highest, whilst seemingly happy to surround himself with appalling filth and indulge in copious quantities of wine, a propensity inherited from his even-more-thirsty father. But he was born, in 1770, in Bonn, a city which attracted prodigious musical talent; and he landed up in Vienna, where music thrived.

There is so much which could be written about him, none of it dull, but I suspect you might scroll down the page to alight on today’s choice, and perhaps you already have, so I must resist.  But imagine, if you can, the ability to produce such music against a backdrop of war, Napoleon, riots and revolutions in Europe that would make today’s shenanigans look like a picnic. Upheaval was rife.

Beethoven’s love of the countryside is well documented, and his 6th symphony, first performed in 1808, is a deliberate portrayal of this.

Unusually, (surprise, surprise), this symphony has five, rather than the typical four, movements, all of them with a specific title; and movements 3, 4 and 5 run into eachother without a break.

Many of you will be all too familiar with this and hence wrongly, from my own experience, dismiss it as not worth the time. But this is music which does not require its titles: I distinctly recall playing this to my young children and asking them to tell me what came to mind. “Sounds like thunder.”

Genius, I thought. Beethoven, of course, not my offspring, sadly.

So here are the last two uninterrupted movements. The first starts with a few spots of rain, building to a climactic, almost scary, thunderstorm, before subsiding with the occasional distant clack, and merging into joyful thanks in one of music’s most famous melodies. As the storm abates, it is easy to imagine the sun breaking through with a rainbow.

This is honestly the best piece I can suggest to anyone wanting to embark on a classical music discovery. That is why you should listen to it, however well you think you know it, to appreciate just how clever the man was.

If you really can’t be bothered, try playing it to someone who does not normally listen to this sort of music, just to see if it elicits the same response as my children. (I may have given them a tiny steer by mentioning ‘weather’, but no more.)














A visit to Norway with Grieg

Those of us old enough (or perhaps I should more accurately say interested enough) will recall that before the days of the Premier League, football teams were ranked in Divisions.

My father and I would rank composers and artists in the same way. There was no fixed number in any Division, but it was always accepted that Cézanne would feature high in Division One and I’m not sure how far down you’d have to go to find Gilbert and George.

I popped ‘Grieg’ into the search bar of this blog the other day, and answer came there none. Although recognized as one of the great Romantic composers, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) cannot sit alongside the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert; and accordingly he finds himself firmly in our Division Two.

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Hang on, I hear you protest, what about his Piano Concerto, one of the most popular of all? And yes, this, along with the Peer Gynt suites, are enough on their own to guarantee him musical immortality. His music is to Norway as that of Sibelius was to Finland: he created an instantly recognizable Norwegian identity, drawn largely from folk-song, and few would begrudge his influence, especially on the likes of the Frenchman Ravel.

So here is a piece from the Peer Gynt Suite, sung, rather than fully orchestrated. Solveig’s Song, is a reminder that however awful we may be (and in Henrik Ibsen’s five act play Peer Gynt was about as amoral as it’s possible to be) there is always the chance that somewhere someone is holding a candle for us: Solveig was abandoned twice by Gynt, but what a forgiving maiden she is! Here is the translation:

The winter may go, and the spring disappear,
Next summer, too, may fade, and the whole long year,
But you will be returning, in truth, I know,
And I will wait for you as I promised long ago.

May God guide and keep you, wherever you may go,
Upon you His blessing and mercy bestow.
And here I will await you till you are here;
And if you are in Heaven, I’ll meet you there.

This is a recording by the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. It’s a beautiful melody, the sort of music which his big fan Tchaikovsky must have had in mind when saying “What charm, what inimitable and rich musical imagery!…What interest, novelty and independence!”  (Not sure Tchaikovsky would have made the most riveting critic, but he had other things going for him.) Try joining in at the second verse – it’s not easy.

Norway was a sparsely populated country, a mere two million when Grieg was born. A measure of his popularity and esteem in his homeland was that between 30-40,000 of them lined the streets at his funeral after he died of heart failure.



Intimate Schumann

On the home page for this blog, I allude to the fun of coming across new music for the first time. Today I want to share one such personal experience which has completely captivated me since stumbling on it on Facebook.

I wrote about Robert Schumann (1812-56) in February last year. He had a life defined by chronic depression and it can’t have been a breeze being married to Clara Wieck (after huge protestation by his parents and experiments with countless others, most likely both sexes) whose talents at the keyboard were superior to almost everyone at the time. Robert’s own extraordinary gift at the piano was cut short prematurely by a finger injury.

His parents were not in favour of him becoming a musician, law was the preferred route of his mother.  His is truly a sad, complicated and tormented story, which I cannot hope to convey fully here, the marriage alone is now the stuff of folklore, a life riddled with self doubt, drink and a suicide attempt. It ended in an asylum.

But his legacy is music which goes right to the heart, as this little offering will demonstrate. I will be gobsmacked if you don’t instantly replay it.

“I do like the oboe, don’t you?” I remember being asked by an elderly companion many years ago at a prom concert. It took me slightly by surprise, because I hadn’t been especially aware of it during the piece we’d just heard.

And no, actually, if I’m honest, it doesn’t feature amongst my favourite instruments. Never has. Altogether too penetrating. Which has not stopped it being given some glorious tunes, notably the opening of the second movement of Brahms’s violin concerto, prompting one violinist to refuse playing the piece while someone else got the best tune.

And then I heard this, the second of Three Romances for oboe and piano, a piece which fits Hector Berlioz’s definition of the instrument perfectly – “The sounds are suitable for expressing simplicity…gentle happiness, or the grief of a weak soul.”

There is nothing particularly virtuosic about this, but the melody and the performances by Céline Moinet, one of the world’s finest oboists, and Florian Uhlig on the piano, are very special. Apart from the music, it took me a few hearings to understand why it entranced me so much.

It is actually quite simple: it is the absence of clutter. Two musicians in a bare space, no colour, with no sheet music, thereby enhancing eye contact and complete union. They are not just playing with eachother, but to and for eachother. Moinet plays effortlessly, no big breaths (just look at the opening note!), no uncomfortable grimaces that we often see on the faces of oboists. It’s almost as if she’s ‘miming’.

At the piano Uhlig accompanies sensitively, always in contact with his soloist. Listen to that left hand, ever present but never in danger of suppressing the oboe. Schumann marks the piece Einfach, innig, meaning simple and intimate. Accomplished here in spades.

You can tell I loved it from the start. I hope you will share my brief addiction to it.


Dreamy Rachmaninov

It is hard to believe, but the prospects for the future popularity of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music as expressed by critics of the day were about as on the mark as a renowned weather forecaster in October 1987.

In the late ’70s, I recall reading, with growing anger, an article in the FT, confidently asserting that my young hero, the much lamented Seve Ballesteros, was a flash-in-the-pan talent which wouldn’t stand the test of time.

I don’t understand why people make such predictions. You rarely look clever. I think someone once assured us that television would never catch on.

Rachmaninov’s life, 1874-1943, spanned tumultuous times in world history. He detested the Soviet regime and took his family to Europe and then the USA. Despite the huge success of his 2nd Piano Concerto, probably now the most popular in the entire repertoire, he was plagued by a lifelong low self esteem across all his gifts of composing, conducting, and performing.

As a pianist, few, if indeed any, have come close to his mastery and obsession for accuracy. He had enormous hands which could cover a twelve note spread, an inevitable consequence being the inability of many with smaller paws to play his music at all.

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He was a bit of a scowler (I challenge you to find a single decent picture of him with a smile).

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He would barely move at the keyboard, not unlike Horowitz, to whom he paid the ultimate compliment that he played his 3rd Piano Concerto better than the composer himself.

Nowadays we associate Rachmaninov with big sweeping tunes, very much in the romantic, nostalgic, vein of Tchaikovsky (one of his outspoken supporters). His 2nd and 3rd piano concertos have been immortalized in different ways in the films ‘Brief Encounter and ‘Shine‘.  If he were alive today, I am certain he’d be giving John Williams some stiff competition.

It is a wonder he went on to compose a second symphony after the disastrous first performance of his first, not helped by a conductor who’d let alcohol get the better of him. But the second, first performed  – perhaps as a safeguard – by the composer himself,  was an instant success and it is the third movement which forms my offering today.

Allow me to make a plea with you. If you don’t have time to listen to this now, save it for another day: if you’ve never heard it, it is some of the best reflective music you could ever wallow in; and if you do know it, you are unlikely to have heard many better renditions. An orchestra is a whole, made up of talented individuals – and the individual talents here are as good as it gets. Switch everything else off, close your eyes and reminisce.





Scarlatti’s 3-minute dash.

Every year a piano competition was held at my school. I never dared enter it, of course, because there was little room for fakers like me (old piano players never die, they just fake away, goes the adage) who would never have succeeded in fooling the most amateur of judges.

But I enjoyed attending them. Not just for the variety of skills, but as much for the diversity of pieces and the personalities of those who performed them. For all, no doubt, this was the culmination of several months’ work; and yet the approach to their task on the day was often a spectacle in itself.

I recall one hot favourite taking an eternity to settle himself on the stool, constantly adjusting its height and distance from the keyboard, before embarking on a prolonged silence to get himself in the zone for launching into a Beethoven sonata.

A polite invitation by the judge to start was all that was needed to derail the poor scholar and condemn his performance to the merely incredibly impressive, rather than the X factor required to win.

I forget who did win that year, and with what, but the stand-out moment for many of us was when the next competitor, following some twenty minutes of Beethoven, had the temerity to arrive at the piano and finish his piece within a matter of minutes. (I may have the exact details slightly wrong after over 40 years, but that is certainly the gist of it.) For a competition, that takes some chutzpah.  His choice, brilliantly performed, but lacking in sufficient gravitas to earn him credible consideration from the judge, was a sonata by the Italian Baroque composer, Domenico Scarlatti. His dates of 1685-1757 make him a near exact contemporary of the great man himself, J.S.Bach, (1685-1750), although there is no concrete evidence of Bach ever having even heard of the Italian.

Not much is known of Domenico, one of ten children, and the son of a musician, so we won’t tarry on biographical details. He is now most famous for having composed over 500 sonatas for the harpsichord. That’s a fair amount, so unsurprisingly many of them last only a few minutes and in one continuous movement, unlike their Classical equivalents of 50-100 years later.

So there is no need for you to be concerned at the prospect of today’s choice being an entire sonata by Scarlatti, for it lasts barely three minutes, here played by one of the world’s greatest living pianists, the Argentinian Martha Argerich (b.1941). She performs live only rarely these days and in truth has always been something of a recluse, despite her tempestuous and colourful life, but what a gift!

Take this encore as an example of her style. On she bounds, lobbing her hanky into the piano, and then dashes off this sonata K141, then bouncing off the seat before her left hand is off the keyboard. Before doing so, she treats us to three minutes of outrageous virtuosity, with repeated notes and frequent crossovers, at a pace which actually succeeds in bringing out the different discussions in the piece far better than any I have heard taken slower.

It’s hard not to marvel at this, and I hope it will be new to many of you.