‘A polonaise for polar bears’

Anyone who recognizes the title of today’s post will know in an instant the subject of my choice.

If you had to push me on my favourite violin concerto, the answer would be Beethoven’s one day – and Sibelius’s another. As the temperature drops, my thoughts turn to northern Europe and so to the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). ‘A polonaise for polar bears’ is how the legendary music writer Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940) described the final movement of Sibelius’s only concerto for solo instrument and orchestra.

Sibelius had himself always aspired to becoming a virtuoso violinist, but it just never happened that way, probably because he wasn’t fortunate enough to have access to good enough teachers in the countryside (an excuse my children will doubtless lay at my door one day). Nowadays, Sibelius is best known for works such as ‘Finlandia’ and the Karelia Suite’, the former virtually becoming a national emblem for that country, as well as his seven symphonies, the fifth of which is highly popular; but all of them are characterised by broad sweeping themes, often beginning with a brief melody and building into fabulous final moments (listen to the closing movements of the 2nd and 5th if you can).

The temperature may be dropping here, but apparently the average temperature in Finland at the time Sibelius was born was just 4C, and -17C on the day of his birth in December. The countryside was a fairly bleak place in which to live, and it can’t have been easy for the young boy, who was brought up by an early-widowed mother, her mother, and two aunts. Throw in the enormous political difficulties with Russia at that time, and you have a dire context for survival.

To cap it all, his marriage later produced five daughters, all delightful I’m sure, but there is a conspicuous lack of male company here, which may account for his partiality to cigars and vodka for much of his life. There is definitely a cold darkness to be found in some of his music, especially his 4th symphony, which is plain grim in its mood for specific reasons, but the opposite is generally more true; and Sibelius was enormously popular in England and the US, reaping the financial benefits of the recent invention of recording.

This concerto did not have an auspicious debut: Sibelius had to revise it, because it was just far too difficult, and it was much better received when Richard Strauss conducted the revision in 1905. That it remains difficult is not hard to see, especially in this final movement, where the soloist is kept busy the whole way through. The score is marked ‘Allegro, ma non tanto’, which means ‘quick, but not too much’; so interpretations tend to vary enormously.

The nickname which Tovey ascribed is perfect: right from its opening seconds there is a menacing beat, while the solo violin dances relentlessly above the orchestra (building to an exquisite moment at about 2:08, which is later repeated, so stay with it). Interestingly, the word ‘allegro’ has a more general meaning in English, closer to good-humoured or high spirits, and most soloists have a tendency to attack this passage too heavily. The result can be harsh, even brash, and worst of all the dancing and melody are sacrificed.

Maybe it takes the female touch to get the balance right, which is what American born Rachel Barton Pine achieves here: it is pure and tender, merry and high-spirited, whilst not lacking in tension. The closing bars are wonderful – listen out for how Sibelius has the violin soaring up, while bringing the orchestra crashing down. It is an exuberant account.

p.s. Although Sibelius had numerous operations to clear up a throat tumour, cigars and vodka obviously didn’t harm him too much in the long term. At the time of his birth, the life expectancy in that cruel climate was barely 36…Sibelius died at 91.






A final, brief, reflection. Butterworth.

I have found myself more moved by this year’s Remembrance than previous occasions. Perhaps the two anniversaries of the 11th coming on a Friday and my late father’s birthday tomorrow have combined to make it a whole weekend of loss and pride. In any case, I  have caught myself reflecting even more deeply on the horrors of war.

One thing which stands out to me above all is the dreadful ignorance of what awaited those who served at the Somme in 1916. There is footage aplenty of young men marching with enthusiasm and smiling faces, believing, as they did, that they would be hastening the end of the war. And although we know now only too well of the atrocities which they faced, and the conditions in which they lived and died are documented and photographed, I wonder how much we reflect on how quickly their earlier expectations must have been reversed – and how the prospect of glory would have been replaced, after over 57,000 casualties on the first day of the battle, by the most incomprehensible fear.  This is what has preoccupied me so much. The sheer terror of living through it every minute of every day, as friends or comrades fall beside you, wondering when your time will come.

It is a fear which must have run through every conflict since: that contrast of peace, beauty and optimism our servicemen and women leave behind with the quite unimaginable reality check of a face with death.

I have referred before (‘In Memoriam’, August) to the British composers who fought in the First World War; in doing so, celebrating the pastoral qualities of the music of George Butterworth, who did not survive the battle of the Somme. Another, less well-known contemporary, Ivor Gurney (1890-1930 ), also went to the Front. Although wounded, he returned, was then gassed at Passhendale, and survived the war. He had shown signs of a mental disorder in violent moodswings from his teenage years (his teacher, Stanford, while acknowledging him to be among his very best pupils, also declared him “unteachable”), and he was diagnosed as insane in 1922.

Gurney was a gifted poet and musician, his poetry often conveying precisely the contrast I have dwelt on, and a writer of over 300 songs. One of these, a love song, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, set to the words of the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats, captures this beautifully.

It is just a couple of minutes, but an enchanting melody with melancholy at its very core, Gurney skillfully bringing out the sorrow metaphor of the willow (salley). It is tenderly and sensitively sung by one of our great tenors, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, whose own death in 2010 saddened so many, only adding to the poignancy of this account. I know that Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ is almost synonymous with loss and nostalgia; but this innocent song is a fitting summation of a great deal more.



Ethereal Wagner.

To come this far without having been exposed to the music of Richard Wagner (1813-83) might be considered by some to be something of a relief; but to opine on matters musical without reference to this extraordinary man, would be akin to sharing a love of literature without referring to Shakespeare.

He cannot be ignored, however divisive his music still is, and was in his own lifetime. As an individual, he had little to commend him: few would deny that he was a genius, maybe even one of the greatest there ever was, but his less favourable characteristics make it the more remarkable that he was capable of conceiving music of exceptional beauty, as I hope today’s post will testify.

Wagner is now most infamously known for his anti-semitic views and for being Hitler’s favourite composer. But that is just the sugarless icing on an unpalatable cake: he was a renowned liar, unpopular political rebel, bad-tempered, financially useless, egotistic, autocratic – and a first class adulterer. He and his first wife, Minna, were separated three times, and reconciled twice; and it was only when he’d fathered three children with Cosima, married to the conductor, Hans von Bulow, that the wretched cuckold rolled over and conceded defeat. Cosima became Wagner’s second wife, 24 years his junior.

I doubt that any composer has divided opinion quite like Wagner. There is no shortage of anecdotes to support his unpopularity – I have previously alluded to Rossini’s alleged observation that ‘Wagner has some beautiful moments but some awful quarter of an hours’; Tchaikovsky likened the end of one of his operas to being released from prison; and Mark Twain quipped that Wagner’s music was ‘better than it sounds’. By contrast, more recently, Bernard Levin was a passionate Wagnerian, as is Stephen Fry; Solti recorded the first ‘Ring’ cycle; and Daniel Barenboim conducts his music in Israel. By virtue of their own beliefs and upbringing, all four had every reason to eschew the man’s music altogether.

But if you can’t bring yourself to sit through one of his operas (they are very long), you can adopt the Rossini approach by listening to orchestral passages like this, and find yourself transported.

This is the prelude to Act 1 of ‘Lohengrin’ . Sorry, I’m going to duck the synopsis here, as it will not necessarily add to your appreciation of the piece. Allow me, instead, to focus briefly on the conductor, Claudio Abbado, my all time favourite maestro, who died in 2014. If you’ve ever, quite reasonably, questioned the point of a conductor, this man, this lovely man, will convert your doubts. Abbado was sensational. His concerts were always thrilling. He was not showy, but had a charisma the like of which I’ve never seen on the podium; an ability to bring out a sound from his players you, and even they, could not dream possible. He was famously shy, bringing out the best from those around him, not by dictating, but by encouraging them to listen to eachother. He was truly ‘primus inter pares’. With Abbado comes that extra, perhaps surprising, quality which only enhances his charisma – humility. 

Above all, as you will observe here, Abbado recognised the big moments in music: he understood and delivered what the audience wanted to hear, and in doing so would underline it three times. This is an exquisite, ethereal passage. It is nothing less than than musical foreplay, and six and a half minutes of it, before reaching a moment of pure ecstasy and then returning to the delicacy of the opening bars. The control is astonishing, this is no ‘brace yourself, Sheila’ approach. Like everything he conducts, he leaves you transfixed, fulfilled – yet wanting more. How lucky we are to have his recordings.








High drama with Tchaikovsky

I have deliberated long and hard before writing this post, but I can put it off no longer.

My all time favourite opera is ‘Eugene Onegin’ by the great Russian romantic, Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). The reason I never tire of it, is that it is an opera which captures all our human desires, vices and frailties, of love, passion, pride, jealousy, humiliation, and regret. Based on Pushkin’s tale, Tchaikovsky fills the work with the best melodies imaginable, but it is the final ten minutes I am itching to share with you: I cannot think of a better finish in any opera, musically and dramatically. This closing scene is full of longing, urgency, tenderness – and just when you think it’s all going to turn out well, you are left shattered and emotionally drained.

Very briefly, the story is about a young and lowly girl, Tatyana, who pours out her heart in a letter to Onegin (itself a wonderful scene); but who has her courage coolly and haughtily rejected, dismissed as a youthful crush. Jump ahead a number of years (here I go again with my bite-size synopsis, I’d be terrible at programme notes), and Onegin reappears at court, having excluded himself from society after killing his closest friend, Lenski, in a duel, driven by jealousy over a ridiculous misunderstanding. Shock horror: at a grand ball Onegin sees that the once lowly Tatyana is now no such thing, she is married to an elderly Prince Gremin.

In an instant, Onegin realizes what a massive error he made all those years ago. He is smitten.

In a neat act of symmetry, he pens her a similar letter, imploring Tatyana to see him. She agrees, and this final scene is a roller-coaster. The clip I have selected has Renee Fleming as Tatyana and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin. The genius of the music, and the changing keys, will tell you clearly what is going on: in short, she tells him “you had your chance, you treated me appallingly, so what do you think you’re doing having a go now, just because I’m a passport to society?” Onegin protests his love, and in a sublime moment, she near swoons and concedes she loves him.

Onegin thinks he’s cracked it. Not so fast, sunshine: despite giving glimmers of hope, Tatyana has other plans. Listen out for the remarkably clever way in which Tchaikovsky twice unexpectedly shifts Tatyana into the major key in order to take control and affirm her resolve. It’s too late, there’s no going back, she belongs to someone else and that all there is to it. The urgency and desperation escalate, but she sticks to her guns, and Onegin is left abandoned. This is a dramatic and musical combination at its very best; the acting and singing of the highest quality, on a simple set where nothing else is allowed to get in the way.

If you’ve not heard it before, it’s worth more than one listen, it will grow on you. And once it does, you will be as smitten as Onegin. It’s pure nectar.









Devotional Elgar

The aristocratic, even imperial, image of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) which some of us may have of him, an impression only enhanced by his impeccable attire and full moustache, could scarcely be at greater odds with either his background or the man’s outlook.

He was the son of a music shop proprietor, who did not have the financial means to enable him to fuel the young boy’s natural musical ability with the necessary education. Elgar grew up at a time when awareness of social class was at its most prevalent, so his humble origins put him at something of a disadvantage. If trade was not bad enough, his Roman Catholic faith alone was certainly enough to alienate him and his music in his own country for much of his life. Over the decades, the UK has embraced a multitude of different religions: it is hard to believe that when Elgar became engaged to his one of his pupils, the anglican-daughter-of-a-general, Alice Roberts, and eight years his senior, two of her aunts disinherited her. Little wonder that Elgar was, to be blunt, chippy.

Few would now challenge the view that Elgar is firmly established as our most well-loved composer. Success took a long time in the coming: his most famous work, the ‘Enigma Variations’ and from that piece, ‘Nimrod’, in particular, has become a favourite of many. The ‘Pomp and Circumstance Marches’ guaranteed him the recognition he craved, the first one of which was later set to words (‘Land of Hope and Glory’) on the suggestion of King Edward VII, and is now an unofficial second national anthem. It is music like this, however, and some of the smaller scale, slightly sugary pieces, which has caused many to lay the charge that Elgar is little more than a nostalgic composer, clinging on to the romantic traditions of Brahms and Schumann, with a sprinkling of Wagner for good measure – and that, as a consequence, he is not worthy of the acclaim he now enjoys.

Whilst I think it would be hard to make the case that Elgar broke the mould of nineteenth century music, that should not categorise his output as unoriginal: the larger works show great skills of rich and noble orchestration, and his choral works, especially ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ have some truly sublime passages. (I had the great privilege of singing in the choir of this work at the Festival Hall many years ago, and I had not the first inkling of how uplifting such an experience could be.) Elgar quoted the Victorian critic, John Ruskin, by penning the words “This is the best of me…” at the foot of the score, and it surely was. Although his faith waned by the time of his death, it his religious music (much more than the famous works above and the iconic cello concerto) that marks him out for me.

This might be slight and lightweight by comparison, and at just two and a half minutes, it is only a taster, but there is no contesting the charm of the melody. Many will be familiar with Mozart’s version of ‘Ave verum’, but perhaps less so with Elgar’s. Simple and understated, but neatly structured, the tunes are catching; and right now the only way I can get them out of my head is to write this post and move them out of the way!

Delius once wrote that Elgar “might have been a great composer if he had thrown all that religious paraphernalia overboard.” Sorry, Mr.Delius, I can’t agree – he’d be much less appreciated without it.



Unsophisticated, maybe; but charming, certainly.

Whilst the Requiem Mass is a piece of music about death, be it for the  dead or those who mourn them, the way that the brief is interpreted has varied enormously over the ages.

An inevitable consequence is that experts hold strong views about whether or not a particular version cuts the muster, almost as if there is a right and wrong way to write one. I remember asking one such ‘expert’ a few years ago whether he’d ever heard the Brahms piece, to which he somewhat pompously replied that only two proper requiems had ever been composed. I didn’t stop to ask which two he had in mind, I suspect Mozart would have justifiably filled one of the slots, but you can be fairly certain that the other would not have been taken by the French composer, Gabriel Faure (1845-1924).

And that, in fairness, is probably right: Dvorak, Berlioz, Verdi, Durufle, Britten, to name a mere handful, all wrote requiems which might be regarded as superior in terms of their construction and orchestration – but noone can be the sole arbiter of what appeals to the ear.

Faure’s ‘Requiem’ is by a country mile his most popular composition, yet the purists struggle to take it seriously. Even his fellow countryman, Poulenc, detested it, declaring it a ‘real penance’ to have to listen to it. It is not hard to see why it is treated as shallow: at only just over half an hour in length (don’t worry, you’re not getting it all here) and scored for a soprano, baritone, choir, organ and small orchestra, it suffers from having a reputation for being too calm and overly charming, as well as not being sufficiently Christian.

But Faure, not himself in any way devout or Christian, (which was, perhaps, just well, for he was a notorious philanderer) was tired of the music he had to perform on the organ during burial services and simply wanted, as he put it, ‘to write something different.’ That is certainly how the priest viewed it on its first performance in 1888, telling him that “we don’t need these novelties…” Not everyone was so hostile: in France he was a life-long friend of Camille Saint-Saens, and overseas he had admirers as diverse as Tchaikovsky in Russia and Copland in the US.

In short, its chief criticism seems to be that it just isn’t serious enough. There is certainly no fear of death or the day of judgment, more a consoling and tuneful account; and even the untrained ear can discern that the orchestration is far from sophisticated. What is hard to refute, though, is that it is a composition of lovely melodies, and surely one of the most accessible pieces of choral music ever written. So if you like a good tune, you will warm to these few minutes.

The ‘Libera me’ was written as a stand-alone piece, and did not even feature in the first performance of the full work. It is my favourite passage of the work, here sung by the Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley. It is a lovely tune, with one or two big leaps, the choir participating with its own theme, before returning to the original tune. It may be unsophisticated to many. And yet I detect a clear contrast between its reference to death and a very palpable, if irregular, heartbeat underscoring  it: that device, alone, dispels the charge of a lack of Christian hope in the piece, in a tenuous reference to everlasting life. Even the ‘Dies irae’ is not particularly menacing.

Charm and consolation have to be more welcome at death than fear and trepidation.


A bit of fun.

This week, BBC radio is celebrating seventy years since the launch of the Third Programme, or, what we now know it as, Radio 3.

The format has had to move with the times and adapt to stiff competition, especially from successful and, perhaps, more accessible commercial enterprises; but those who want to change it too much forget that it is unlikely its original purpose would have altered if such competition had existed at the outset. Listening figures were never really the goal, they were not expected to be high: it was established to introduce an element of culture, with a greater emphasis then than now on the spoken word through plays and poetry, and accordingly the impression that it was, and still is, targeted at an elite has caused many since to dumb it down in an attempt to reach wider audiences.

The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate how classical music can be accessible without having to do that: it is understandable that cost pressures mean that listening figures are now more important to justify the programme’s existence, but sticking to its original principles can achieve that without trying to compete with what others may be providing. ‘Elite’ may have negative undertones of privileged or for a chosen few – but at its simplest, it means ‘best’. That is what it should strive for.

Victor Hely-Hutchinson, whose popular ‘Carol Symphony’ owes much to the emergence of commercial radio, was appointed Director of Music at the BBC in London in 1944, and was thus a key participant in the launch of the Third Programme in September 1946, but remains something of an unsung hero in the project. He was born in Capetown in 1901, the youngest son of Walter, the last Governor of Cape Colony, but educated in the UK when it was clear that he was a musical prodigy. In his short life (prematurely ended by pneumonia in 1947 after conserving fuel in a bitter winter by declining to turn on his office radiators) he was a well-loved administrator, broadcaster, composer and conductor. He was also a very talented pianist, who knew all the 32 Beethoven and 48 Bach sonatas by heart and performed Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto (my favourite of the five) at the Proms.

Image result for victor hely hutchinson

It would be easy to wait until Christmas and post about his most famous piece. But the anniversary of Radio 3 this week gives me the excuse to share something else, and a little different. Victor had a talent for improvisation, and much of what he wrote also reveals a healthy sense of humour.

Here is one such comic vignette. It’s only a couple of minutes, but will surely bring a chuckle. ‘Old Mother Hubbard in the style of Handel’ is performed here by American counter tenor David Daniels. For those of you who have heard it before, you may think it too fast; but I have heard many versions, and it is the speed of this which gives it that extra humour.

Everything I have read about Victor makes me regret that he did not live a lengthier life, not just because he would surely have gone on to compose much more and warrant a more deserving legacy; but simply that he seemed to be a truly loveable man, who, as my great uncle, I would have so enjoyed knowing.

It’s just a bit of fun, certainly not genius, but clever; and it comes from the hand of someone who worked for Radio 3, demonstrating that ‘best’ does not have to mean ‘stuffy’.