Our Olympians deserve better!

I know I’ve only posted recently; but I’m sorry, I just can’t resist this. It’s a slight diversion from the norm, so I will be brief.

I’ve been glued to the Olympics over the last few days and the achievements of our athletes thus far is surely going to turn out to be the ultimate legacy of 2012 by the end of next week. But oh, the awful rendition of our national anthem, a somewhat dreary tune at the best of times! It’s a melody as well known as ‘Happy birthday’, which is why many have come to tire of it, and there has been much debate over recent years about whether it should be replaced – as is sometimes informally done with ‘Jerusalem’ at more English, as opposed to national, events, such as Test Matches. Leaving that aside, foreign versions of our national anthem are almost universally awful.

In 1961, Benjamin Britten created his own arrangement for the Leeds Festival, and the Queen was present. If you’ve ever attended, or listened to, the Last Night of the Proms, you will be familiar with it. If you don’t know it, you may be surprised that it can be as beautiful as this. The story goes that the Queen  was herself very moved on its first hearing, complimenting Britten and observing to him that she had, of course, heard it on a number of occasions.

Clearly there would be no time to play these two verses on the medal podium (although it would probably still be shorter than a number of others), but this is my good luck card to Team GB. It’s great stuff.

 

A double Mozart bill.

I doubt there can be many music lovers of any genre who haven’t heard of the name Luciano Pavarotti, and with good reason.

He was probably the most commercially successful tenor of the last hundred years, possessed of a lyric and powerful voice, especially in the very highest notes, even if it was more instantly captivating in his younger years than later. I think even his closest friends and family would agree that acting was not his strong suit, and that he would have struggled to scrape a grade at the Roger Moore School of Eyebrow-Raising – which is why I have always preferred the artistry of Placido Domingo, who was able to combine the finest singing with a thoroughly convincing stage presence. But Pavarotti’s fans hold him as the greatest, and it is easy to see why – it is, once more, simply a matter of taste.

Fewer, I suspect, will have heard of the now retired Francisco Araiza, a Mexican tenor whose early focus was in the operas of Mozart and Rossini, later branching out into larger Italian roles and even Wagner. He is now an acclaimed teacher and judge.

As if trying to persuade you of the joys of music and opera was not enough, I thought it would be a fun experiment to post two clips of the same music, to demonstrate how very different the same piece can sound, even when performed by two masters of their craft.

I have written about Cosi fan tutte before, (see ‘Stress buster’ for a reminder of the synopsis), a Mozart opera all about the joys and pains of love; since it is not littered with numerous memorable arias, this little gem is an easy pick. (And you’ll want to hear it again anyway, so this is as good a way of doing that as any.) Ferrando thinks he is winning the bet as he sees his love, Dorabella, spurn the advances of Guglielmo, and sings Un’ aura amorosa (A breath of love) in her praise. Ignore the fact that one is accompanied by a pianist (James Levine is the man with the big hair) and the other by an orchestra: focus your attention on the voice alone, then ask yourself, in the context of this opera about love, which is closer to Mozart’s aims, which has more heart, which one has more soul, which one has more warmth?

These are two sensational singers, one infinitely more famous than the other. But, to me, at least, it is the less renowned who stands head and shoulders above the big star. It shows that you can have all the singing gifts in the world, but it does not necessarily equip you to sing every role in your range. The voice alone is sometimes not enough. Maybe you will disagree, and that’s fine by me, but this only serves to highlight how different all these interpretations, in every field, can be; it is, perhaps, what stands music apart from most other art forms  – and why I so enjoy selecting for these posts what I think is the best.

 

Mendelssohn – mediocre? No!

If Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) were able to assess his own life, his only justifiable grievance would be its brevity.

One of four children, (a sister, Fanny, was almost as talented as her brother in composition and piano playing), Mendelssohn led a charmed existence: he was handsome, highly educated, well-read, a talented artist; as well as being an accomplished piano player and organist (so good, in fact, that on one occasion the organ had to be switched off after a service, as noone was going home); composer, respected  conductor – and rich.

In short, the full package and a good catch.

I suspect the fact that this child prodigy never had to struggle financially has contributed to some labeling his work as superficial, sentimental, and even mediocre.

And I must confess to having been influenced that way for many years, for which I must lay the blame squarely on my journalist idol, Bernard Levin, who wrote so persuasively and eloquently about many subjects, few more so than music. A passionate Wagnerian, whose music I can only really take in smaller doses (I’m with Rossini on this, who is supposed to have said ‘Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart-d’heures!’) Levin once wrote that he didn’t “really see the point of Mahler”; rated Verdi as a rather “ordinary musician” – and questioned why, with all the other talents he had at his disposal, Mendelssohn felt the need to devote his life to music! Having for years heard nothing much more than his big hits of the violin concerto, the Hebrides overture, incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Scottish and Italian symphonies, I had some sympathy with this view for too long, wrongly asserting it was all just too sugary. What a mistake, but one so easily made when not enough of his other choral and chamber music is played.

And here’s some evidence. The octet which Mendelssohn wrote is the work of a mature musician, but it was performed in 1825, when he was just 16 years old. It is a work of nearly half an hour, and I am attaching the first of its four movements. Eight string instruments unfold almost half the piece with a beautiful violin melody, underpinned with an energetic momentum – and just when you think it’s running out of steam on the final bend, there’s a renewed sprint to the line. When you consider his age, this is the work of a genius, no question. It’s not sugary, it’s a delight.

And so I must respectfully disagree with Bernard Levin on this (as I do on his views on Verdi), however much I admire his writing. And I took some pleasure in stumbling across this quip from Wagner about Mendelssohn in an article entitled Judaism in Music in 1850:Mendelssohn has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest of talents, the finest and most varied culture, the highest and tenderest sense of honour, yet these qualities cannot help him even once to evoke in us the deep heart-searching effect which we expect from art.’ Are not Levin’s remarks a paraphrase of that? Methinks even my own idol may just have been susceptible to the views of one of his own.

Mendelssohn died at just 38 years old, after a couple of strokes which were brought on from overwork. We have much to thank him for: not least editing and conducting Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion nearly eighty years after his death, as well as reviving his music in Europe generally. And it was also Mendelssohn who conducted the first performance of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony in 1839, a work its composer never heard played, and my all time favourite symphony.

The purists do not give him the credit he deserves.

 

 

 

 

Today’s smile…a Chopin ballade.

Wait – don’t be put off by the photo!

I have been longing to share my love of this piano piece by Frederic Chopin (1810-49). So much of his music will be well known to you, since his waltzes, etudes, nocturnes and mazurkas are played widely; less so, what I am posting about today, so I hope it will be something new to many.

Although he did write some instrumental music, notably two concertos, he wrote nothing in his brief life which did not include the piano. And brief it was: he was never particularly healthy, even from a young age, causing Berlioz to observe that “he was dying all his life”. It was probably tuberculosis that killed him, in an apartment immediately opposite the hotel from where the late Diana, Princess of Wales, made her last fateful journey nearly 150 years later.

Chopin was refined, even delicate, impeccably dressed and mannered, somewhat at odds with the writer George Sand, a dumpier, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking sexual predator with whom he had a troublesome love affair, which did not end well. Although the woman who was probably the most central figure in his life, she was not even at his deathbed. Chopin was a highly accomplished pianist who preferred the setting of the salons of Paris to the concert hall, and was quickly recognized for his talent – “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” was Schumann’s early assessment of a prodigy whom many viewed as the successor to Mozart. Apart from being born in Poland, there is nothing obviously nationalistic about his work, but it is filled with the broadest spectrum of emotions, always imbued with simple and delightful tunes, even if sometimes fiendishly difficult, as in today’s example.

Chopin wrote four ballades, a term he was the first to apply to a music composition, having been normally associated with poetry and song. The first of these is a piece full of drama, the impact of which grows on every hearing. It does not appear to have any particular reference or story behind it, but unquestionably you can detect a story of sorts unfolding, with elements of despair, yearning and hope all in the mix. It starts simply enough, with a joyful climactic moment a few minutes in, preceded by the sweetest of melodies; before launching into a blistering phase of speed and technical wizardry. The last eighty seconds, ending with an agonizing downward scale, will have you on the edge of your seat.

Unlike Vladimir Horowitz in this 1968 recording. Don’t despair in the first minute: the quality of the sound is not great at the start, and it is by no means note-perfect; but his impassive, and expressionless, approach, somehow conveys a far greater understanding and enjoyment of this work than any back-arching ceiling-gazer. You may wonder what all the fuss is about at the opening, but perseverance will be rewarded.

Tenderness, drama, colour and extraordinary clarity. I make no apologies for calling on Horowitz again: if ever there was a case of ‘less is more’, surely this is it.

 

 

One of the great love songs.

Having been a little lengthy last week, I will not deter you long with too many words with this music; because the truth is, it is not easy to articulate the beauty of this piece – text is unlikely to give it justice, beyond a little background and personal experience.

Even if you’ve never seen it, or have yet to go to an opera, almost everyone has heard of Carmen. If you have not taken this step yet, for perfectly understandable pre-misconceptions, you could do a lot worse than seek out a performance of this opera. We took my son (who I’m sure would not be overly offended if I stated that he would sound out of tune in a football crowd) to see it with a friend a couple of years ago. It was his reaction to this work which prompted the real purpose of my blog: if he could respond like this to classical music and opera, anyone could.

Afterwards his friend even commented that at one stage “the music was so lovely, I didn’t even bother to look at the surtitles to know what was being sung”. The clip I have chosen does give you the benefit of an English translation, but it’s almost superfluous.

Carmen, a French opera composed by Georges Bizet (1838-75), is the story of a raunchy gypsy with an insatiable appetite for seduction. She lures the vulnerable Don Jose, a soldier who is already attached to his childhood sweetheart; and then, once he’s head-over-heels in love with her, dumps him for the more alluring bullfighter, Escamillo. In a jealous rage, Jose declares that if he can’t have her, noone else will – and stabs her to make sure of it. That is possibly the shortest synopsis of a four act opera you will ever read, but it really doesn’t matter: all you need to know is that this work is stuffed with passion and wonderful tunes throughout which ease through the most defiant of ears. When it was first performed in 1875, it was not received well, since its subject was deemed far too unseemly; and Bizet died only a few months later, believing it to be a failure. It was the lone voice of Tchaikovsky who predicted that within a matter of years Carmen would become one of the most popular in the repertory, and how right he was.

There is so much to choose from, but these few minutes are heart-wrenchingly sublime. Don Jose, here performed by Jonas Kaufmann (one of the very best tenor/baritones around today) sings of his love for Carmen. I can’t add a word to this sound.

 

 

 

Mahler – but don’t panic!

Whether you are a newcomer to classical music or not, the chances are that there are a few composers whose very names have the potential to spook.

Just from my own experience, I suspect that Gustav Mahler may be one: it took me ages to be brave enough to listen to a whole symphony (of which there are ten), not least because they are big pieces, some of them so long that I think it was Richard Ingrams of Private Eye who gave them nicknames along the lines of ‘Interminable’ and ‘Insufferable’. I confess I go through phases with this man; but if, like me, you occasionally like or want a really loud sound, and I mean tumultuous, then this guy is for you.

Noone before him, and I suggest very few since, has been able to combine melody and weight quite like this. Today I am going to demonstrate this with only the last three minutes of his first symphony, a piece nearly an hour long, known as ‘The Titan.’

Mahler was an Austrian composer whose life (1860-1911) bridged the late romantic tradition and modernism. One of fourteen children, of whom eight died in infancy, he was of humble origins, and during his life was better acclaimed as a conductor than composer. Barely five foot tall, he had some spectacular rifts with a number of orchestras, falling out with many, because his exacting standards were so demanding that players just landed up fearing him; but he was probably the first conductor anywhere to be so universally admired for the results, especially in opera.

As a German-speaking Jew, his own music, which was almost all symphony and song focused, was banned in much of Europe, only coming to prominence in the second half of the last century; and my hunch is that his music is received today in much the same way as it was in his own lifetime – with a mixture of huge enthusiasm and utter disdain. His output was not enormous, but it is nevertheless  firmly established in the concert reportoire, so you can take it or leave it.

But not without trying first!

He won’t be completely alien to you, anyway, because almost everyone is familiar with the slow movement of his fifth symphony, made famous as the music used in the film ‘Death in Venice’, a passage which we all now associate with gloom and melancholy; although it was actually composed as a love letter for his very beautiful wife, Alma Schindler. (It does, of course, have an element of sadness in it, but that has been ridiculously exaggerated by the length of time some conductors take to play it – sometimes up to quarter of an hour, which is twice as long Mahler intended it!)

I remember thinking for a while (apologies, Mahler-nuts!) that he really shouldn’t have bothered with anything else after this first symphony, since, with few exceptions, it doesn’t for me get much better; and then I recently chanced upon a theory that this may even have been written later than some of the subsequently published symphonies, so maybe it’s not such a flippant observation after all.

Anyway, here we go with the closing moments. Imagine turning up to a concert hall in 1889 to hear this for the first time to be confronted with a huge orchestra of 100 players or more, nearly twice what people had been used to.(It wasn’t a success, as it happens.) There are ten horns playing in these final bars, Mahler expressly requiring them to stand for maximum effect. What a jubilant, thunderous sound this is!

Mahler was truly a man for scale, the large canvas, the really big moments – go and hear it in a live performance if you can. (I see the Proms have it scheduled for 8th August) He may not be indispensable for everyone, but there are times when you just want to wind the window down in the car, crank up the volume and scream for the sheer joy of life. In its entirety, this last movement epitomises exactly that: for now, just relish these few minutes – I bet you play it more than once!

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s smile…celebration

After the last couple of weeks, we are surely all a little news-weary right now. I decided that in the event Andy Murray was victorious at Wimbledon today, I felt it only right to write a brief post on some music with a Scottish theme, especially with his compatriot, Gordon Reid, having already secured the first wheelchair singles title, as well as the doubles. (Wheelchair tennis is much harder than it may appear: I had lessons a few years ago, and although the pleasure of meeting racquet with ball was enormous, the frequency of that occurrence was rare – a sudden lurch to the left or right simply isn’t an option, you have to be in exactly the right place to avoid being made to look a complete idiot.)

Max Bruch was a German composer and conductor whose life (1838-1920) bridged the romantic tradition of music with the avant-garde, but his style remained firmly in the former. Although I do know some of his music quite well, I knew very little of the man himself, and now I realize why: I’m afraid his life seems to have been wholly devoid of any interesting gossip, scandal, or even a remotely amusing anecdote (contributions welcome if you know of any), so I’m not going to delay you with a lengthy biography. Nowadays he is most well known for his first (of three) violin concertos, but also for his ‘Scottish Fantasy’ for violin and orchestra, a piece in four movements, based on Scottish folk melodies. It is the lively fourth movement, marked ‘Allegro guerriero’ (meaning, appropriately, quickly in a war-like manner) that I want to share with you today. It has a sprightly and appealing tune, and at times even seems to resemble the speedy pursuit of the tennis ball, with the occasional lob and pause for re-load, finishing with an affirming statement of conquest.

The recording I have chosen is played by Itzhak Perlman, the Israeli-American violinist and conductor. He takes it a good pace, and always with extraordinary clarity. It’s a fun, uplifting piece, which celebrates a great day for Andy Murray against his Canadian opponent – and I say this as someone who has lived in the UK for 55 years, but was born in Toronto. I’ve been wondering if my Canadian passport has recently acquired a greater appeal…

 

This recording has been taken down, I know not why – so here is another, played by Heifetz