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.
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.
Monday, September 24, 2012
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Now, different leaders respond to this little Proms tradition in different ways. Last year, the concertmaster of the Budapest Festival Orchestra had a field day on encountering it and looked ready to continue with an impromptu piano recital. Duncan, though, kept his back firmly turned upon the audience and stayed put. Perhaps he was trying to make the note heard amid the din. Could it be that it was, er, drowned out?
The concerto opens, as you know, with a cadenza - that florid, organ-like toccata that leads into the far-flinging first subject (which was kindly donated to the composer on request by his star pupil, one Gabriel Fauré, who'd dreamed it up for a Tantum Ergo he'd left unfinished). Then in came the orchestra...about an eighth-tone sharper than the piano.
Benjamin went for gold, unperturbed by the hit-and-miss noises going on around him. The best is the enemy of the good, and of the vaguely OK. It is, even more, the enemy of the seriously naff. Amid a rigid, why-bother-with-rubato accompaniment (come on, Maestro Dutoit, it's not illegal to let your hair down), abysmal intonation and all the usual balance problems of the RAH, the pianist's voice shone out as a sliver of truth: genuine, unsullied 100-carat musicality. The work's ferocious technical challenges flew past as though effortless - the concerto's popularity and the catchiness of its tunes somehow mean that its exposed writing, chock-full of finger-whirling yet melodic passagework, is not always appreciated. He took the closing tarantella at a terrific lick, and the gorgeous central scherzo barely touched the ground.
Though sporting a scarlet shirt, Benjamin isn't an overt showman - he has a modest air and no pretentions. Instead, the energy of his virtuosity goes where it needs to, straight into the piano. You use your ears first to appreciate it, and so you should. I sometimes call this syndrome 'Heifetz Face'. That great violinist gave away nothing in his facial expression and indulged in no physical histrionics while performing. He stood and delivered, highly concentrated, directing the energy into the music - and what came out sounded perfect. A lot of the finest musicians do something similar. Visit your local Alexander Technique teacher for a fuller explanation about the channelling of physical energy.
I can't help foreseeing a day - 15 years ahead, perhaps? - when Benjamin might wish to put together an orchestra of his own and start directing from the keyboard. Last year at the Proms, too, he had to perform with a sort of golf handicap in the form of a boxed-in conductor ill at ease with the romantic rhetoric and grand gestures of the work in question (that was Liszt No.2 - and Liszt was a prime influence on Saint-Saëns). And yesterday, once again, it was down to the encore - Godowsky's transcription of 'The Swan' from Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals - to show what the pianist can really do in terms of limpid ebb and flow, songful, natural voicing and flowering musical instinct. It was pure magic.
Benjamin's half-hour of world-class pianism was sandwiched between a rarely heard Delius orchestral work, Paris: The Song of a Great City (pleasant, curious, rather forgettable) and a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony so crass that several times I thanked heaven that I didn't have to review it for the paper. I am through with being nice to poor old orchestras because they're doing their best under difficult circumstances and all that. I've heard the RPO do a lot better than this on many occasions, so I know they can. Cringeing in the back row, I wished they would.
This wasn't a happy night for Team GB in the orchestral world. Up at the Edinburgh Festival, the LPO's Usher Hall concert - an ambitious bells-themed programme with Vlad at the helm - was cancelled at the last moment due to a massive power failure (Edinburgh's, not theirs). They spent a relaxing evening in the pub.
Monday, December 19, 2011
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