Another beauty…

The name of Kathleen Ferrier will be known to many music lovers, but my hunch is that it will be new to most who dip into this site from time to time. If you have not heard of her before, I am confident you will see why she was so adored in her tragically short life.

Ferrier was an English singer with a contralto voice. This is a lower range which we do not hear too often these days (I suppose Cecilia Bartoli comes closest at the moment), and at first listening it can seem slightly strange; but with each hearing, you get more and more hooked into something which is very rich, even a little dark, but velvety and so full of heart too. Once you have heard her, you will know her voice instantly the next time you encounter it: it is quite unlike anyone else’s.

The world of music was completely stunned when news of her death from cancer was announced in 1953, at the age of 41, not least because the true seriousness of her illness had been kept secret; and because, since her debut in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Westminster Abbey in 1947, she had enjoyed enormous popularity with both her voice and warm, humorous personality. She was not comfortable with the operatic scene, choosing only two roles in that field (Orfeo in Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’, and Lucretia in Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’), and concentrated her short career on the concert platform in Europe and especially London; notably in Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ (the only work by that Englishman I could not live without), and Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ (the one work in the entire classical repertoire which would always feature on my Desert Island list).

There is a good amount of recordings to choose from, but one of the things I enjoy is selecting pieces which are well known to us and then demonstrate that there is someone surprising who delivers it without equal. George Frederic Handel was born in Germany the same year as J S Bach, 1650, and spent fifty years in England, becoming naturalised British. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1759. (I wonder how many more Continental Europeans will achieve that accolade in the future.) He wrote so much with which we are all very familiar (Fireworks Music, Water Music, Zadoc The Priest etc.), as well as forty operas – amongst which ‘Xerxes’ was a complete flop; but its opening aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ has survived as one of Handel’s favourites, sung by almost every singer of note. So I accept that it is quite an assertion to make that I think this recording of over sixty years ago has not been bettered, but I am happy to stand by that.

If you’re not sure on first listening, I will not be surprised. But I will be surprised if she doesn’t grab you on the second, third – and then a few more. Perhaps slower than you might expect, it’s no less heavenly for that. The legendary conductor, Bruno Walter, is reported to have remarked that the high points in his career were ” meeting Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order.” Praise indeed.




Something for the weekend…

A Bank Holiday weekend looms, so I don’t expect a huge following for this post; but for those of you who are able to find just five minutes, I am certain you will not be disappointed. Here is a perfect example of a piece which will be known to many, and which you may think will never do anything new for you again. I thought so myself, until I stumbled on this recording: it moved me so much that I played it four times in a row. It has a particular poignancy for me and my family, as it was the music which was sung as my beloved father’s coffin was carried into the church nearly a year ago.

Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum’ is one of six movements of his Solemn Vespers, composed in 1780 for the cathedral in Salzburg, and is often sung as a stand-alone piece. Whether you are already familiar with it or not, I found having the Latin text and English translation an added help in my appreciation of it, so I have attached it below:

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes
Laudate eum, omnes populi
Quoniam confirmata est
Super nos misericordia eius,
Et veritas Domini manet in aeternum.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper.
Et in saecula saeculorum.

Praise the Lord, all nations;
Praise Him, all people.
For He has bestowed
His mercy upon us,
And the truth of the Lord endures forever.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and forever,
and for generations of generations.

So what’s so special about this, you may ask? It’s a simple answer. Lucia Popp was a Slovak soprano, who died far too young from brain cancer in 1993 at the age of 54. She had enjoyed a glittering operatic career in many famous roles, including some of the heavier ones of Wagner and Richard Strauss, with leading conductors at the world’s top opera houses. But for me it is in the music of Mozart where she truly shines. There is a purity in her voice which seems to fit so perfectly with his music, and it’s easy to think that Mozart himself would have been beside himself with excitement if she’d been around a couple of hundred years ago.

This is different, it really is. It is clean, beautifully controlled (especially the Amen), without excessive vibrato (wobbling, to you and me). It is a stunning account of one of the most famous of all tunes, and proves that however hardened you are, however well you think you know something, you can always be blown away by someone who is on a different level.



Today’s smile…coolness itself.

For many people, the very words ‘classical music’ can evoke aloofness. Whilst I don’t think that the attire of the highly talented violinist, Nigel Kennedy, (often featuring the colours of his beloved Aston Villa FC) necessarily makes the music more accessible; it is equally easy to see why a platform of performers all togged up in evening dress can act as a barrier. First impressions are important, and something that looks too formal risks alienating what might otherwise be keen ears. Underneath it all, though, they are all flesh and blood like the rest of us: what really matters is how the personality connects with its audience.

It is in that context that I want to share my admiration of the trumpet playing of Wynton Marsalis. Born in New Orleans in 1961, his playing covers every field of the musical genre, be it jazz, Funk, big band, baroque or classical – all with equal skill, empathy and virtuosity. Music runs in his family: his father was a jazz pianist, and three brothers play saxophone, trombone and drums between them. Marsalis has an exceptional gift, which you will see in this clip of the final movement of Hummel’s trumpet concerto; and bear in mind that this is a film of a live performance, there is no comfort of the second chance which is available in a recording studio. The clarity is astonishing, note perfect from start to finish, all conveyed with apparent ease.

You have to feel sorry for Johann Hummel. Anyone whose dates of 1787-1837 clashed so closely with Beethoven’s of 1770-1827 was always going to be up against it, and the reality is that very few came away with a really solid legacy, Franz Schubert (1791-1828) being the clear front runner. Hummel and Beethoven had their spats, although they were reconciled at Beethoven’s death, and he was also a pallbearer at the great man’s funeral. He had a good start: his father was a conductor, and  he had two years of piano teaching by Mozart, making his first public appearance at the tender age of nine. He was a very talented pianist and prolific composer, especially for the piano. His music was well received and widely performed in his lifetime; and Chopin, about whom I shall write soon, was definitely influenced by him. It was not long, however, before his popularity waned and nowadays it is the trumpet concerto which gets the most airing.

A  piece which is overplayed can sometimes hide its mastery  – as, I would argue, has been the case with Mendelssohn’s 1st violin concerto – unless it is performed by someone right at the top of their game. Hummel’s trumpet concerto may fall into this category, but when played like this, you can only sit back with wonder. Marsalis delivers a masterclass in technique, breath control and musicianship, without the slightest hint of showmanship. No offence to the other great virtuosos of this instrument, but I don’t think any of them can hold a candle to this in a live performance. You may not be able to view the clip here, but the caption will take you to straight to its slot on YouTube. I could have attached another, but I simply wasn’t prepared to compromise – Marsalis is one cool dude.

Today’s smile…stress buster

None of us likes to be told to calm down. When we’re feeling anxious, irritable or stressed, it is probably the worst advice anyone can give us. But here’s an alternative solution: if you ever find yourself in a state, a few doses of this three-minute clip will restore peace more effectively than any patronising waffle. The piece has nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, but it was hearing Prospero’s line “Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill” a few days ago which directed me straight to this trio from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan Tutte (All women are like this). I know that the context and meaning are quite different: it was the line at face value alone which was the prompt.

Cosi fan Tutte, first performed in 1790, the year before his death at the age of just 35, is one of Mozart’s comic operas, even if it has quite a serious undertone. It is an opera about love, exploring the joys and heartaches that it brings, to which Mozart sets truly beautiful and tender music. In summary, it is the tale of two engaged couples, Dorabella to Fernando and Fiordiligi to Guglielmo, and a bet which the mischievous bachelor, Don Alfonso, has with both men that their respective fiancés would be incapable of being faithful to them if they were away. To test this, he arranges for them to be summoned away to war, but also for them to reappear disguised as Albanians and flirt with eachother’s halves – with somewhat alarming success, to the extent that a double wedding to the ‘wrong’ women is about to proceed, whereupon Alfonso has won his bet and their true identities are revealed. Perhaps a little surprisingly, all is forgiven and the status quo ante is restored!

This exquisite trio is sung by Dorabella, Fiordiligi and Alfonso, as they see the men sail away into the distance. From the very first notes, you can instantly sense a gentle breeze on calm waters, as they wish them safe travels. ‘Soave sia il vento, tranquilla sia l’onda…’, meaning ‘May the wind be gentle, may the waves be calm…’, brings three voices together in a few minutes of harmonic bliss and ranks as one of Mozart’s very finest passages in all his operas. I’ve no doubt it will be recognised by almost everyone, having been used in the film ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ and countless commercials since, but only a heart of stone could not be moved by the melody and the way the voices mingle with eachother over a gently rocking orchestration.

Here is a recording from the production at Glyndebourne in 2006, the first time I really enjoyed this opera. A dose of calm. And with your eyes shut on a second hearing, allowing the sounds to just waft over you, as good as a short meditation.



Something sublime… Beethoven’s Emperor

Occasionally it can be hard to find the right words about a piece of music, and today’s choice is one such example. So apart from a little background and a few thoughts, I will let the music speak for itself: when you’ve listened to it, I am sure you will see why I struggled. But the urge to share my love of this with you was more important than the need to discuss it at any length.

Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote five concertos for piano and orchestra. In its entirety, the fourth is my personal favourite, but the slow movement of his fifth, known as the ‘Emperor’, is surely amongst the loveliest of all slow movements of any piano concerto. Although the longest of the slow movements in Beethoven’s five (stay with me), it is not a minute, even a second, too long. Composed around 1809, the piece is deserving of its name by virtue of its length and magnitude, even if Beethoven would probably not have approved the term: at the time he was writing it, he was taking shelter in the cellar of his brother’s house while Vienna was being bombarded by the French under the self-crowned emperor Napoleon. It is believed Beethoven was about 60% deaf by now, so he was unable to play its first performance in 1810 as he had done with his previous four – and his attempt to perform it in 1811 had to be aborted.

And so to the music, which can only be described as sublime, one simple definition of that word being ‘of very great excellence or beauty’. It has a dreamy, introspective quality about it, unlike the majestic first movement and galloping jubilant last. It’s as if a deliberate reflective passage, by way of a rest, is needed between them. The two tunes are gorgeous, with lovely interaction between piano and orchestra, especially in its closing moments with flute and gentle strings, and in the opening I always find myself thinking of  “There’s a place for us” from the song “Somehere” in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Bernstein was certainly a Beethoven fan, so maybe the idea is not so crazy.

The recording here is played by one of the great romantic interpreters, Alfred Brendel, who retired from public peformances a few years ago, and I don’t think it comes much better than this. As this second movement finishes, Beethoven unusually heads straight into the third (a device later used by Schumann in his only piano concerto) by letting the oboe drop a note to allow the piano to introduce the opening of a final romp…I hope your enjoyment of the previous six or seven minutes is not spoiled by being left tantalised at the end!


Today’s smile…Bach and the cello

Of all the instruments in the orchestra, the cello is my favourite; perhaps because it  has often been observed that it is the one which comes closest to the human voice. The renowned cellist, Pablo Cassals (1876-1973), likened it “to a beautiful woman who has not grown older, but younger with time, more slender, more supple, more graceful.” Ever the wit, Sir Thomas Beecham, whom I quoted in an earlier post, once remarked to a lady in rehearsal “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands – and all you can do is scratch it.” The cello is an essential member of the orchestra, not only for underlying accompaniment, but frequently as an introducer of melodies – and, as such, a perfect candidate for solo pieces and concertos alike.

There are countless works to choose from, but I can’t resist starting with the cello suites of J S Bach (1685-1750), not least because it is about time we had something from this composer; and also because these works not only explore the full virtuosity of the instrument, but demonstrate how close the cello really is to the human voice. Composed around 1720, they are based on different baroque dances and technically very difficult to play. As a result, they only really came to get wider recognition during the last century, when a host of top players added them to their recording output. The prelude, opening the first suite, is probably the most instantly recognised, but none the less beautiful for its familiarity, so that is what I have chosen. I have gone for a recording by the popular cellist, Yo Yo Ma, who has done as much as anyone to acquaint us with these suites. He takes it at a good pace, but the separate voices are clearly articulated, and builds it up to a lovely conclusion. Brimming with feeling, it’s under three minutes, but I hope it may whet your appetite to hear more of them, they are the best company when you have time on your own.

The genius of these pieces is that just one instrument seems to be playing several parts at the same time. Legend has it that amongst themselves, the heavenly hosts play Mozart; but when performing for God, they turn to Bach. Not hard to see why.




La Diva alla Puccini

Maria Callas (1923-77) is a name known to all who love opera – and perhaps to just as many who don’t. Her colourful lifestyle ensured that she was a frequent focus of media attention, especially later in her life, when she became associated with Aristotle Onasis. She possessed all the qualities you might expect for a true diva: amongst them a soprano voice with enormous range; but, equally important, a stage presence which totally held the attention of her audience – as well a reputation for the occasional tantrum. Music lovers are divided about the quality of her voice, (and her technique was certainly found wanting from time to time),  but its power is beyond dispute, until it waned in the ’60s after a sudden weight loss, bringing her career to an early end. Of the roles she made her own, few were more dramatic than the doomed Tosca in the opera of that name by Puccini (1858-1924).

Today’s aria “Vissi d’arte”, taken from the second act, is a moving plea, in which she concludes “Oh, Lord, why do you reward me like this?” She can hear as her lover, Cavaradossi, is being tortured by the henchmen of Scarpia, the chief of police in Rome, to reveal the whereabouts of an escaped convict. Scarpia, a thoroughly unpleasant individual, has lyingly promised Tosca that if  she allows him to have his wicked way with her, he will ensure Cavardossi’s safety. Well, she’s having none of that. In a nutshell, the aria says “I’ve lived for art and love, I’ve been a good girl and said my prayers, so why, Lord are you rewarding me like this?” Sadly her pleas fall on deaf ears, as it all goes horribly wrong for everyone.

If you’ve not heard this before, you’re in for a treat. Puccini is another of those top tune writers! Be patient, it’s a slow lament, but at only just over three minutes long, it’s worth the wait. It’s all about the build up to a wonderful high Eb, a note Callas reaches without the slightest strain, as she was actually capable of going a few higher.There are obviously many renditions of this piece (a close second for me is sung by Kiri de Kanawa). I chose Callas for two reasons: first, if you asked any opera lover to name a famous Tosca, Callas would undoubtedly feature more than anyone else; and secondly, it is not just the peak which is tremendous here, but also the way Callas sings the two glorious notes which immediately follow it on the way down. The power of her voice is quite extraordinary.

When the opera was first performed in 1900, it led one critic to describe it as a “shabby little shocker”, but with its cocktail of love, passion, jealousy, murder and revenge, it has now become one of the repertoire’s favourites and most widely performed. The ending sees Tosca realise that her lover has not participated in a fake execution, but that Scarpia, whom she has previously stabbed, has ensured that it’s the real thing. The curtain falls as Tosca flings herself off the parapet in despair. The opera has a number of stories linked to it, amongst the most famous of which, probably attributed to many divas in the role, relates how one stage crew became royally fed up with the antics of the leading lady. Instead of placing a thick mattress to await her fall, they replaced it one night with a tightly strung trampoline – ensuring that the helpless hysterical heroine was seen a few more times before the curtain fell.