Showing posts with label Bach. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bach. Show all posts

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Five alternatives to Mrs Bach

The fuss over the Mrs Bach and the cello suites film is getting up my nose, and not in a good way. Of course it makes a good story. But do we really need more tales about women in music who didn't really do things, when there are so many who did, provenly so, but are not recognised for it?

When women musicians make it onto the silver screen, they tend to be there for the wrong reasons: for writing their man's music, which they clearly didn't; for having married Schumann; for being sister to an irritating prodigy (take a bow, Nannerl), or for people having released recordings under their name that they didn't actually make (three cheers for Ms Hatto?).

Still, the film studios clearly prefer the fanciful, so here are a few ideas for my next novel...

Cosima Wagner: true author of Parsifal?
1. An EU directive enforces the opening of the last Bayreuth archive. It reveals that Cosima wrote Parsifal.

2. Beethoven was great at the piano, but wanted everyone to think he could write for the orchestra as well. He paid a very accomplished lady to write nine symphonies for him and planted references to an "Immortal Beloved" in his letters to throw everyone off the scent.

3.  Emma Bardac's letters emerge from the Bibliothèque National explaining that she was not only lover to Fauré and wife to Debussy, but put them both through certain kinds of intimate therapy that unleashed suppressed emotions in their music.

4. Jenny Lind turns out to have inspired not only Felix Mendelssohn with great passion, but Fanny Mendelssohn as well.

5. Tchaikovsky's remains are disinterred for research into whether he was poisoned. The coffin contains the skeleton of a woman.


...Meanwhile I'm off to Presteigne for a lovely Alicia's Gift concert with piano darling Viv McLean at the Assembly Rooms, tomorrow (2 Nov) at 3pm. Do come along if you're in the area. Info here.


Sunday, September 07, 2014

St Matthew and St Mark?

It was one of the hottest tickets in town yesterday: the semi-staged performance at the Proms of the Bach St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle conducting, direction by Peter Sellars. Add to this the Berlin Radio Choir, singing from memory, an all-star cast and a packed Albert Hall that was ready for anything...

Well, almost anything. We were not quite ready for the utterly devastating performance that Mark Padmore gave as the Evangelist. In Sellars' concept - sometimes convincing, sometimes less so - the Evangelist carries everything, experiencing the emotions and traumas of each character, supporting them, leading them, suffering in their place. Christ - the astounding Christian Gerhaher - is a distant figure, seated above the orchestra and outside the action through the first half, then entirely off stage for his scant few phrases in the second. The Evangelist lives the drama and is its focal point. The beauty, nuancing, clarity and stillness of Padmore's voice would have been enough to carry the night on its own, but his every move magnetised us and convinced us that he felt every anguish, every burden and every lash. If the British music business had not already given him a virtual sainthood by repute, they certainly should now. (Gerhaher, of course, is just as magical, but has frustratingly little to sing.)

The staging has its ups and downs, many of them literal. A lot of rushing around is involved and sometimes one wished they'd keep still for a few minutes. Yet some extraordinary images unfolded that also enhanced the music at a profound level, notably through the interaction of the instrumental soloists with the singers, moments that carried a plethora of meanings. Sometimes the players seemed to represent the soul, the conscience or the better self; perhaps even God, or Bach in place of God? Magdalena Kozena sang 'Erbarme dich' kneeling at the feet of her violinist; Camilla Tilling in 'Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben' stood in close quartet with her oboists and flautist; Emmanuel Pahud, no less, beside her right shoulder. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu stretched up towards an unattainable oboist in the organ inset; bass Eric Owens appeared to pray for mercy before a vengeful virtuoso fiddler. 

Rattle's tempi were largely very brisk, sometimes too much so - occasionally I longed for an old-school influence to bring back a little more time for breath, contemplation and refulgence, since some of the intricate instrumental writing whooshed by to somewhat unsettling effect. But the magic was there all the same and the moments of stillness stood out all the better. The episode that brings the whole work together is (I feel) the final bass aria, 'Mache dich mein Herze rein' - here he understands, accepts and transcends all that has gone before. If that doesn't do its job, nothing does. It worked. 

My personal frustration with the staging is mostly due to the sonic impact, as it entails much clonking about and some directional echoes which are the fault of the RAH's acoustic, not the performers. Still, there's much to chew over: the presence, or lack of it, of Jesus himself (we might ask: is he real?), those intimate dialogues between singers and instrumentalists, that soul-searing performance by Padmore. 

Would less be more? We can feel the suffering in the music; we don't need to see it. The spiritual catharsis of this work, like Parsifal's, is perhaps better internalised if there is not too much to observe and assess: that process puts us outside ourselves, switches on our objective brain and mutes the intuitive, emotional plane that's necessary for the full cumulative effect to reach us. (Btw, I am not religious in any way, shape or form; yet perhaps that makes the spiritual dimensions of Bach and Wagner all the more meaningful.)

What seemed at the time a long, hot evening now haunts for its ineffable beauty, its deeply human quest for meaning and its all-consuming, tour-de-force performances. 

In the foyer I spotted the head of the LSO, who may or may not have been clutching a metaphorical butterfly net. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Mache dich..."

Pick an occasion - any occasion - in the history of music at which you'd have liked to be present... Today I'll choose the Bach St Matthew Passion as conducted in 1829 by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The performance was organised by the young composer and his actor friend Eduard Devrient and the work enjoyed probably its first outing since the death of Bach himself, some 80 years earlier.

Apparently they only used about half of it, and Mendelssohn made plenty of changes to the harmonies, orchestration and vocal lines - but it still had the required effect. Goethe, hearing of the occasion, sensed its significance, saying: "It's as if I heard the roaring of the sea from afar."

Mendelssohn's aunt, a friend of CPE Bach's wife, a pupil of WF Bach and hostess of one of Berlin's finest artistic salons, had a number of Bach's manuscripts in her possession, including the St Matthew Passion. She presented it to her gifted nephew when he was 16 and consequently changed the course of history. Imagine a new world hearing it - even half of it - for the first time. "To think that it took an actor and a Jew's son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!" Mendelssohn remarked.

Mendelssohn, born into a Jewish family, raised as a Lutheran after his parents' conversion, and a practising Christian for the rest of his life, saw no need for a conflict between his background and his faith. He achieved a unique point of balance that allowed him to embrace both - despite the widespread atmosphere of low-level anti-Semitism around him (I'm sorry to see that even Clara Schumann made snide remarks behind his back). In the bicentenary year, 2009, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies once remarked that he regarded Mendelssohn as "the prophet of light". I'm with him on that.

As for Bach, he takes us into another world. The St Matthew Passion makes us live the story and its processes as if from the inside. It offers music that cleanses the soul; even if you approach it as drama rather than religion, it doesn't seem to mind and will still work its wonders. It offers, too, an oasis of calm, reflection and redemption, along with a massive dramatic catharsis that might be felt especially keenly by anyone who has lived through the loss of a loved one. When my mother died, 20 years ago, I could listen to nothing else for months.

Here is the last aria of the St Matthew Passion, "Mache dich mien Herze rein". It's a marvel in its own right, heard alone; but at the end of the whole it arrives as a purifying sunrise after three hours (or so) of anguish, soul-searching and tragedy. It's sung here by the great baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Have a good Easter, all.






Wednesday, October 10, 2012

How to get Bach in a big way

A tip-off from James Rhodes just sent me over to a thing called Reddit and there, dear friends, I found this. An introduction to JS Bach for complete beginners. Someone going by the pseudonym of "voice of experience" who can explain exactly how counterpoint works, and does so with more clarity than the whole of certain music faculties I could mention, in language that not only reads easily but is, as you'll see, kind of contemporary. The response? A thread of comments that begs, nay gasps, for more. There's a hunger for explanations to put across what the masterpieces of music are all about, and no need for those explanations either to be the equivalent of chewing sawdust or to airbrush out the difficult bits. Give it a go.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Triumph of the Spirit

Viktor Ullmann's opera The Emperor of Atlantis, written in 1943 in Terezin, is a centrepiece of English Touring Opera's new season and opens at the ROH Linbury Studio on Friday. Here's a slightly longer version of the piece I've written about it for today's Independent. Before the first performance some early evening events will include a short interview that I will give with Anita Lasker Wallfisch, cellist and survivor of Auschwitz, where Ullmann, his librettist and most others involved with the creation of this opera met their deaths.

Also, do see ETO's video about the opera:






In 1944 the Nazis released a propaganda film entitled The Führer Gives the Jews a City. Terezin, in north-west Bohemia, was the place in question: it had been turned into, supposedly, a show-camp, a smokescreen to blind the world to what was really going on in the other concentration camps. The film – an elaborate hoax – showed artistic individuals within Terezin engaging in creative activities, giving concerts and even putting on their own operas. It did not disclose the grimmer reality that more than 50,000 people were crammed into living quarters designed for 7000, where thousands were dying from starvation and disease. 

Much of Prague’s Jewish population was deported to Terezin, including a number of brilliant musicians and intellectuals; and, perhaps in a terrible irony, they were indeed able to pursue their creativity with what facilities were available. But after their deaths – many of them in the gas chambers of Auschwitz – the musical achievements of Terezin’s inmates, including the composers Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa, lay forgotten for decades, until in the 1970s efforts began to be made to rediscover them. 

This autumn English Touring Opera is taking up the cause of one of the most substantial works forged in these extraordinary circumstances: Ullmann’s hour-long opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis). In a new production by ETO’s artistic director and chief executive James Conway, and paired unusually with a staged Bach cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, it will be seen at the Royal Opera House for the first time (in the Linbury Studio), and will then enjoy its first-ever UK nationwide tour. 

Over the past 15-20 years the composers of Terezin have started to be widely recognised, though usually their works appear in programmes themed around Terezin itself. Now Ullmann’s opera will be required to stand as a mainstream work in its own right.

The libretto is by a gifted young poet Peter Kien, who was also imprisoned in Terezin. It is a black comedy poking fun at a dictator who faces a predicament when Death goes on strike (the original title was Death Abdicates). No prizes for guessing which dictator it satirised. That makes it all the more remarkable that the work reached its dress rehearsal in 1943 before the authorities spotted the nature of its content. Once they did, the performance was cancelled, the opera was banned and those involved were put on the next transport to Auschwitz. Ullmann and Kien met their deaths there in 1944.

Before Ullmann was forced into his last train journey, he gave the opera’s manuscript to a friend, a former philosophy professor, for safekeeping. Its survival seems miraculous. Yet it was only in 1975 that it was performed for the first time, in Amsterdam. The first British production was at Morley College in 1981.  

Ullmann more than deserves wider recognition. Born in 1898 in Teschen, Silesia, he was from a family of Jewish background that had converted to Catholicism; both he and his father served in World War I, and the young composer’s experiences in the conflict between Austria and Italy fed into The Emperor of Atlantis

He became a composition student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna and later of Alexander von Zemlinsky in Prague; his repute as a conductor soon grew as well, though he was dismissed from his post at a theatre in Aussig an der Elbe for selecting repertoire that was too adventurous. Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, he established himself in Prague as writer, critic, teacher and lecturer until he was deported to Terezin in 1942. His output includes many excellent art songs and chamber music, as well as an earlier opera, Fall of the Antichrist

James Conway of ETO first directed The Emperor of Atlantis some years ago in Ireland; he felt it produced a powerful impact. “Ullmann was a fantastic composer,” he declares, “and I think Peter Kien was a beautiful and poetic writer. The opportunities to perform operas that have a truly poetic script are few – usually in opera, the words have to serve music and narrative. Here narrative is less important, while a visionary quality is more significant, involving political, social and spiritual discussion about life and death. It’s a brilliant depiction – perhaps of aspects of Terezin, but, even more, of a state of being.”

The music is a fragmented and eclectic mix of cutting-edge contemporary style, jazz influence and pastiche: “It literally goes from Schoenberg to vaudeville in the space of two bars,” says the conductor Peter Selwyn, who is at the helm for the tour. “It has moments of extraordinary lyrical beauty. And suddenly the drums come in and you’re whisked away into a showpiece number.”

The Bach Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, has been specially orchestrated for almost the same forces that the Ullmann employs – including the saxophone, but minus the banjo – to unify the two soundworlds. “The Ullmann finishes with a chorale, so the evening will end with a mirror of the way it began,” Selwyn points out. “The Bach cantata concerns the triumph of the spirit and of humanity in the face of death and despair. And the triumph of life over death is the message of the chorale at the end of the Ullmann. That’s the message that we would like the Ullmann to have, bearing in mind the circumstances of its creation.”

“I want the evening to have a consonance about it,” says Conway. “There’s something about dying that declares the richness and integrity of life, and that declares we do not go nameless to death. That effort to take away names and histories we will resist. This opera is a beautiful testimony to the artistic lives of people at Terezin. Even though I insist that the piece has a life independent of the Terezin context, one can’t ignore it. And at the end of the piece I wish there could be applause for Ullmann, Kien and the performers who were taken and murdered before there could be a premiere.”

The Emperor of Atlantis, English Touring Opera, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, from 5 October 2012, then on national tour until 17 November. Full tour details at http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/tour-dates/autumn-2012

Monday, September 24, 2012

A musical party game for the 21st century

Our new neighbours invited us to dinner the other day and showed us their latest musical toy. It's called Sonos and it is a wireless hi-fi system. It's controlled by a little palmtop remote computer thingy. All you need is a subscription to something like Spotify or Napster and a speaker in the right spot, and bingo: you have, literally at your fingertips, a vast library of music of any and every genre.

So here's the game. You choose a theme along which you'll make your selection - our host decided we should do "Guilty Pleasures" - and you pass the Sonos to the left, each taking a turn to add a piece of music to the queue, without letting anyone see what you've chosen. It's easy to use, though you have to watch out for those guests who like to click "Play next" instead of "Add to queue", hence overriding everything programmed beforehand, and simultaneously manage to set the thing to the whole of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

But once you've rapped that particular person over the knuckles, you hear Joseph Calleja right beside Tom Jones, Elvis next to a Schubert Impromptu, a selection from The Nutcracker beside a track sung by a pleasant, distinctive voice I didn't recognise, who turned out to be SuBo.

You get chocolate brownie points for choosing something on the evening's theme that nobody expected from you. It's not always easy to predict reactions: my Serge Gainsbourg choice seemed to leave everyone cold (how?), but I earned a round of applause for 'Careless Whisper' (we were all young in 1985...). And a bottle or two of Merlot later, our hostess, who says she listens mostly to rock music, astonished us all by singing along to The Queen of the Night.

The commodification of music? No, that happened decades ago. Instead, here comes something that can totally change the way we listen to and explore music. Take your average suburban dinner party: a CD of Vivaldi or Bocelli goes on in the background and nobody really notices it unless it's a problem. The Sonos, though, became the centre of our evening. We zoomed through the genres, talking about the music we enjoy and why we love it, each of us hearing music we'd never normally listen to, each of us surprising the others by revealing a character trait through our choices - or, indeed, a secret guilty pleasure.

Novelty value? Undoubtedly. But it's a little more as well. Like blogging back in 2004, this is a whole new and revolutionary notion. The old divisions can vanish: a Bach fan can admit fondness for Billy Joel, but also a rock chick can can discover she enjoys a spot of Wagner. Instead of "classical music" being ghettoised beside a soaring quotient of different popular genres, everything becomes fair game in the Sonos game.

Let's get rid of the division of music into popular and classical. Let's just have music as music. Just as Saint-Saens said, there is only good music, bad music...and the music of Ambroise Thomas.



Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ebenezer Prout. Not invented by Dickens, or anyone else

Following a link in a lovely article by Angela Hewitt about preparing The Art of Fugue, I just rediscovered "Old Ebenezer Prout"'s perfect way to remember the subjects of all the fugues in The Well-Tempered Clavier. It works a treat, especially the one about the little hippopotamus. And they are a delicious insight into the fads, foibles and mindset of Victorian England (Prout's dates: 1835-1909). Just for fun, here are the words for the lot. Followed by Angela's performance of the B major Prelude & Fugue from Book 2 - "See what ample strides she takes"!

Here is an excellent article by Macolm MacDonald about what Prout, a distinguished musicologist, critic, composer and teacher, was really about. He's worthy of a starring role in a Dickens novel, but happily he was 200 per cent real.

Meanwhile, Angela's article is here. I am doing an interview with her in the Royal Festival Hall on 2 October, before the first of her two recitals.

Book I

  1. He went to town in a hat that made all the people stare.
  2. John Sebastian Bach sat upon a tack, but he soon got up again with a howl!
  3. O what a very jolly thing it is to kiss a pretty girl!
  4. Broad beans and bacon...(1st countersubject)...make an excellent good dinner for a man who hasn't anything to eat.(2nd countersubject)...with half a pint of stout.
  5. (Subject) Gin a body meet a body Comin' through the rye,
    (Answer) Gin a body kiss a body, Need a body cry?
  6. He trod upon my corns with heavy boots—I yelled!
  7. When I get aboard a Channel steamer I begin to feel sick.
  8. You dirty boy! Just look at your face! Ain't you ashamed?
  9. Hallo! Why, what the devil is the matter with the thing?
  10. Half a dozen dirty little beggar boys are playing with a puppy at the bottom of the street.
  11. The Bishop of Exeter was a most energetic man.
  12. The slimy worm was writhing on the footpath.
  13. Old Abram Brown was plagued with fleas, which caused him great alarm.
  14. As I sat at the organ, the wretched blower went and let the wind out.
  15. O Isabella Jane! Isabella Jane! Hold your jaw! Don't make such a fuss! Shut up! Here's a pretty row! What's it all about?
  16. He spent his money, like a stupid ass.
  17. Put me in my little bed.
  18. How sad our state by nature is! What beastly fools we be!
  19. There! I have given too much to the cabman!
  20. On a bank of mud in the river Nile, upon a summer morning, a little hippopotamus was eating bread and jam.
  21. A little three-part fugue, which a gentleman named Bach composed, there's a lot of triple counterpoint about it, and it isn't very difficult to play.
  22. Brethren, the time is short!
  23. He went and slept under a bathing-machine at Margate.
  24. The man was very drunk, as to and fro, from left to right, across the road he staggered.

Book II

  1. Sir Augustus Harris tried to mix a pound of treacle with a pint of castor oil.
  2. Old Balaam's donkey spoke like an ass.
  3. O, here's a lark!
  4. Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle! The cow jumped over the moon!
  5. To play these fugues through is real jam.
  6. 'Ark to the sound of the 'oofs of the galloping 'orse! I 'ear 'im comin' up Regent Street at night. (Countersubject:) 'Is 'oofs go 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, on the 'ard 'ighway.
  7. Mary, my dear, bring the whiskey and water in—bring the whiskey and water in.
  8. I went to church last night, and slept all the sermon through.
  9. I'd like to punch his head...(countersubject:) ...if he gives me any more of his bally cheek.
  10. As I rode in a penny bus, going to the Mansion House, off came the wheel—down came the bus—all of the passengers fell in a heap on the floor of the rickety thing.
  11. Needles and pins! Needles and pins! When a man's married his trouble begins.
  12. I told you you'd have the stomach-ache if you put such a lot of pepper in your tea.
  13. Great Scott! What a trouble it is to have to find the words for all these subjects!
  14. She cut her throat with a paper-knife that had got no handle. (Subject, bar 20:) The wound was broad and deep. (Bar 36:) They called the village doctor in: he put a bit of blotting-paper on her neck.
  15. The pretty little dickybirds are hopping to and fro upon the gravel walk before the house, and picking up the crumbs.
  16. Oh, my eye! Oh, my eye! What a precious mess I'm getting into today.
  17. I passed the night at a wayside inn, and could scarcely sleep a moment for the fleas.
  18. Two little boys were at play, and the one gave the other a cuff on the head, and the other hit back. (Countersubject:) Their mother sent them both to bed without their tea.
  19. In the middle of the Hackney Road today I saw a donkey in a fit.
  20. He that would thrive must rise at five.
  21. The noble Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up the hill, and marched them down again.
  22. O, dear! What shall I do? It's utterly impossible for me to learn this horrid fugue! I give it up! (Countersubject:) It ain't no use! It ain't a bit of good! Not a bit! No, not a bit!, No, not a bit!
  23. See what ample strides he takes.
  24. The wretched old street-singer has his clothes all in tatters, and toes showing through his boots.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

JD on R3 today

I'm on BBC Radio 3's CD Review this morning at approx 11.05, chatting with Andrew McGregor about six Bach and Bach-ish discs. Not least, the Goldberg Variations on the accordion. Tune in here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mns4j

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Sunday Bach treat from Myra Hess

Dame Myra Hess plays Bach's Toccata in G, BWV916. Recorded in 1950, this performance is full of personality and poise, good sense and rhetorical flair.

Someone needs to write a new biography of Hess - a great woman, a towering artist and a real emblem of her times. Existing books are out of print. I have run to earth a copy of Marion McKenna's, but it tells us everything except what we really want to know.

But perhaps Hess's playing tells us the most, and always will.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not Messiah

It's not Handel's Messiah. It's a playlist from a very naughty music-lover.


I've been listening to the thing again - it's hard to avoid it at this time of year - and OK, yes, it does have that certain je ne sais quoi. It's a great piece. He wrote a good old tune or several. But just every so often, wouldn't you like to hear something else instead, or even as well? Leave aside obvious substitutes like Bach’s Christmas Cantata, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and much nice music by John Rutter; as for The Nutcracker or The Four Seasons – Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi are great, but enough’s enough. My list features some seasonal music that rarely gets a look in, having been shouldered aside by wall-to-wall Hallelujah Choruses.

Elizabethan Christmas music
If ideal Christmas music is decorative, celebratory and sumptuous on one hand, and intimate, domestic and fun on the other, then the Elizabethan era had it all. Families with space and cash tended to be musically literate in those days, and they might have gathered on winter evenings to sing madrigals or play music for viol consort. Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols recorded their selection of Elizabethan Christmas Music in 1989, complete with a quirky attempt at ‘authentic’ pronunciation. Composers include William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins and more.
Recommended recording: Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, Red Byrd, Rose Consort of Viols, AMON RA CD-SAR46

Praetorius: Renaissance Christmas Music
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) was a Lutheran from North Germany. His works are characterised by rich and sympathetic choral writing, similar at times to his greatest contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi – but Praetorius’s music remains rooted in Lutheran chorales, so the effect is gentler, simpler and more streamlined than that of the musical lion of Venice. His most often-performed work is probably the gorgeous carol ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’, but I’ve picked a recording of some Christmas-friendly choral pieces that doesn’t include it.
Recommended recording: Viva Voce, BIS, BISCD1035

Bach transcriptions for piano
The term ‘Baroque’ was originally coined to evoke something extravagant, irregular, complex and extraordinary. If you enjoy musical pearls at their most baroque in every sense, then try transcriptions for solo piano of movements from Bach’s cantatas, violin works and concertos, made by some of the finest virtuoso composer-pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are hundreds, and Hyperion has been releasing a substantial series of CDs of them. The latest disc features transcriptions by Saint-Saëns and Isidor Philipp: life-enhancing, high-spirited triumphs of virtuosity that would spice up any Christmas.
Recommended recording: Bach transcriptions, Vol 10: Saint-Saëns and Isidor Philipp, Nadejda Vlaeva (piano), Hyperion CDA76873.

Liszt: Weinachtsbaum (Christmas Tree Suite)
Franz Liszt’s bicentenary is nearly over, but not quite. It’s a good excuse to seek out his Christmas Tree Suite, a set of 12 short piano pieces based on carols and lullabies, including ‘In dulci jubilo’ and ‘Adeste Fideles’. Written in 1866, they are tender, charming and lyrical, far indeed from the barnstorming heft of the Hungarian Rhapsodies and the romantic tumult of his B minor Sonata. Instead, this is Liszt as besotted grandfather: he dedicated the suite to his five-year-old granddaughter, Daniela. Coincidentally, her mother – Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, who later eloped with Wagner – had been born on Christmas Eve in 1837.
Recommended recording: Alfred Brendel (piano), Regis RRC1378

Saint-Saëns: Christmas Oratorio
This is a real buried treasure. Possessing extraordinary gifts himself, maybe the 23-year-old Saint-Saëns, writing in 1858, also expected much from his performers: the solo parts are extremely demanding to sing, which might be why the ten-movement work doesn’t pop up often enough. Involving chorus, five soloists, organ and a small orchestra with prominent role for the harp, it strikes a lovely balance between Bach-inspired churchliness and the boulevardier charm that came so easily to Saint-Saëns. Christmas with the French bourgeoisie at its tasty best.
Recommended recording: Noël, French Romantic Music for Christmas – Bachchor Mainz, L’Arpa Festante München/Ralf Otto, Deutsche HM 88697366582

Honegger: Une cantate de Noël
The Swiss-born Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was among Gabriel Fauré’s last pupils at the Paris Conservatoire. This short Christmas cantata was his final composition and has proved one of his most popular – not that that is saying much, since his works remain shamefully neglected. Written in 1953, it captured something of the spirit of the times. The opening section, on the words ‘De profundis clamavi’, seems a postwar evocation of an existential ‘dark night of the soul’. But from there the music opens out, as if candlelit by the succession of carol fragments that flicker through the musical fabric, weaving a spell of increasing enchantment. Combining texts in French and German, it’s perhaps a message of hope for lasting peace.
Recommended recording: James Rutherford (baritone), Robert Court (organ), Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum, Dean Close School Chamber Choir, BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales/Thierry Fischer, Hyperion CDA67688

Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus
Messiaen’s most famous piano work – 20 ‘regards’, or meditations, on the image of Baby Jesus – includes a movement entitled ‘Noël’, but there is far more to this pianistic tour-de-force than that; more, too, than the vivid colours, crunchy textures and dizzying intricacies of the French composer’s unmistakeable style. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, wrote these astonishing pieces for Yvonne Loriod, whom he later married: she was a virtuoso pianist whose abilities inspired him to new heights of invention. His passion for her, for God and for music unite in a kind of mystical celebration that has rarely been matched. Super-demanding yet also super-rewarding, Messiaen’s music can cast Christmas in a whole new light.
Recommended recording: Steven Osborne (piano), Hyperion CDA67351/2

Piazzolla: Cuarto Estaciones Portenas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)
Who needs Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons when you can have Astor Piazzolla’s? The Argentinian composer, who would have been 90 this year, studied in Paris with the eminent professor Nadia Boulanger. He aspired to haut-classical grandeur, but Boulanger spotted that his heart lay in the music of his homeland and advised him to go home to Buenos Aires and explore it. His personal sound-cocktail mingles sophisticated classical expertise with the sultry flavour of the tango.  His Four Seasons were inspired by Vivaldi’s; the ‘Winter’ Tango is a wonderful example of vintage Piazzolla.
Recommended recording: Tianwa Yang (violin), Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Giancarlo Guerrero, Naxos 8572271

Elgar: A Christmas Greeting
A gentle parlour song accompanied by a piano and two violins, this is the most intimate of all these Christmas suggestions: a setting by Elgar of a poem by his wife, Alice. It seems to conjure a cosy and very British type of Christmas in its domestic, hearthside greeting from one partner to the other and back again. And it is heartrendingly Elgarian, with those wonderful arched melodic contours and sense of yearning characteristic of his finest music.
Recommended recording: Worcester Cathedral Choir, Donald Hunt (conductor), Jeremy Ballard (violin), Robin Thurlby (violin), Keith Swallow (piano), Hyperion CDA66271/2

MacMillan: Veni, veni, Emmanuel
James MacMillan’s percussion concerto, taking its title from the medieval plainchant for Advent on which it’s based, was written for Dame Evelyn Glennie in 1991-1992. It is possibly the celebrated Scottish composer’s biggest hit, clocking up hundreds of performances. Structured in one arch-shaped movement, it lasts some 25 minutes, fills with mesmerising rhythmic trickery and marvellously imagined noises, with percussion instruments both pitched and unpitched, from vibraphone to cowbells. Impress your Christmas guests with your contemporary music savviness by playing it full blast.
Recommended recording: Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Scottish Chamber Orchestra /James MacMillan, RCA 828766428520

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bach to basics

Saturday Bach time again, and here's a masterclass with Andras Schiff to show us how.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How desperate are YOU?

Or... A Little Black Humour for Tuesday Morning. To begin, here's some music.


It's a tough old life, being a musician. Many of us in this field are reared by doting parents who, along with our schools, convince us at the tender age of 0 that we are born to be stars and have a talent second only to that of Johann Sebastian Bach. By the time we're 20, we've usually begun to understand that this isn't the case, and to wonder how we can make ends meet in such a cut-throat field. By 40, some of us are still at it.

How desperate are you? What does your future hold? 
Take the JDCMB quiz to find out...

1. You can't get a recording contract, so you produce your own CD. Do you:

a. Send a well-presented package to an 'artist-led' label and invite the manager to lunch with you, your sponsor and a famous advisor like Ivor Chestikoff to discuss market gaps and interesting repertoire.
b. Do it all yourself, hiring a good PR and making sure your distributors are reputable and respected, but neglect your practising in order to organise everything. Then you give a concert to launch the disc...
c. Decide it's not worth doing at all: it's got to be DG or bust. You devote yourself instead to learning the 48 and writing about how your interpretation is the definitive one and that nobody else knows how to play Bach properly. Only at that point do you make a demo disc and send it out with your tracts to blind everyone with your expertise.
d. Do it all yourself, but decide that PR and advertising is a waste of money: only word of mouth counts. You always carry a supply of your CDs, so that if a music critic happens to turn up at your mum's 80th birthday party, you can talk to him for half an hour about your achievements and give him a copy to take home and write about. You know he wants it.

2. Your sponsor hires the Wigmore Hall for you. Do you:

a. Plan your programme carefully, featuring the works Ivor Chestikoff says you're best in, and tactfully try to avoid the concert being on a Monday evening or a major public holiday. You engage a good PR person at least six months in advance, organise a drinks reception after the gig to which you can invite more potential sponsors, critics and all the people to whom you 'owe one' for their support over the years. You practise like the blazes, give some trial runs at friendly private salons and make sure your concert outfit fits you snugly and elegantly. On stage, you forget about everything but the music.
b. You decide you're going to play Bach's 48: 24 in the first half, 24 in the second, everything by memory, even though so far you've only learned 12 of them. You love a challenge! And what an opportunity: this could make you a real splash. You're so busy memorising the fugues that you forget you need to publicise the gig until a week beforehand. Oh well, perhaps Facebook and Twitter can sort it - "Please RT".
c. You don't need to do PR - everyone will come to hear you anyway, because you're the best, even if nobody knows it yet. It's all down to luck in any case.
d. You splash out on a Vivienne Westwood outfit, have your photo taken in it and put it on your Facebook page and website. Then, to save money, you write your own press releases, though there's no time to have them checked or proofread, and you badger every publication and website with them, plus phone calls, sending emails four times if no reply comes within the first day to the first one. Finally, on the underused blog section of your website, you embed the tags "Vivienne Westwood", "Luciano Pavarotti" and "Katherine Jenkins" to ensure more hits. 

3. You've managed to get backstage to meet a famous conductor. Ivor Chestikoff introduces you and the maestro holds your hand, gazes into your eyes and says it's a great pleasure to meet you. Then he tells you to call his secretary to arrange an audition. You do so; the PA says you can go to play to him in Los Angeles, Berlin or Hong Kong. You can just afford Berlin if you go on a budget airline, but it's in the middle of your holiday. Do you:

a. Cancel the holiday and go to Berlin, taking the pieces that Chestikoff has suggested that you are good at and that he knows the maestro will respond to well. You arrive the night before and make sure you're well rested despite your nerves. You arrange to fly back on the last plane on the day of your audition to save the hotel bill. When the maestro asks you what you're doing later that night, you explain you have to get back home to prepare for your concert in three days' time.
b. You can't bear to miss your holiday. You decide to go to LA and you twist a sponsor/parent's arm into paying your fare and a cheap motel for two nights. You get there ready to audition the next day - but you're jet-lagged. Will you play your best? Will you notice the inference when the maestro asks you what you're doing later that evening?
c. You laugh and say you couldn't possibly afford to go to LA or Hong Kong and you can't miss your holiday, so what about looking further ahead? The PA checks the schedule and suggests October 2012 in Moscow or Sydney. 
d. You choose whichever is soonest - hang the air fare and the holiday. You play the most difficult piece you know. You wear sexy clothes and you smile a lot. When the maestro asks you what you're doing later, you're free. He invites you to dinner and you go; you get a bit starry-eyed that you are quaffing expensive champers with the maestro and he's flirting with you something chronic, even though he is decades older than you and you'd maybe hoped he'd be fatherly and caring. Then he suggests you go up to his room where he can give you some of his latest CDs. You don't have the contract or a promise of a concert yet, but you go. You will do anything for your art. 

Results:

Mostly a: Your feet are on the ground and you have a good chance of achieving a certain amount of recognition; with luck and talent you might have a breakthrough. Do you take enough risks to get the extra edge of danger that sets concert halls alight? 
Mostly b: You take risks, but you're erratic. If you hit the jackpot, it'll probably be by sheer fluke. You may have something special to offer; or you may find yourself passed over as a harmless eccentric. 
Mostly c: Take a teaching diploma or business course, or learn to touch-type. You may need a job.
Mostly d: You're desperate. Very desperate. Someone will notice. See 'Mostly c'.