Friday, November 25, 2005

Living daylights?

I don't usually buy Gramophone. But this month Philippe Graffin's CD 'In the Shade of Forests' has made Editor's Choice and an extract on the cover CD - he's plastered all over the thing! - so I thought I'd better get a copy. Gramophone is celebrating its 1000th issue and it proves full of interesting things to read, not only the review of Philippe's disc by Rob Cowan, which is marvellous. I'll post a link to it as soon as has sorted out the glitch on its Editor's Choice page.

[UPDATE, 3 DECEMBER: Finally, they've done it! Voila!]

The magazine's celebratory articles include a section in which they've asked musical bigwigs to contribute short pieces about why classical music matters (unfortunately heralded with a picture of an audience giving a standing ovation in a plush hall dressed in penguin suits - not the most encouragingly egalitarian approach and not a regular sight anywhere in the UK except Glyndebourne!) Some are succinct and moving on the reasons why we can't live without music, others fully representative of the dense academicism that puts so many people off the stuff altogether. Here are two. Anyone want to guess who wrote each of them?

1. Classical music is unique, in that its grammar, syntax and formal construction present an abstract discourse in time roughly equivalent to that of the most ambitious architecture in space, in which thematic material of contrasting functions is subjected to variation, development and transformation in organically consistent ways, with the tonic of the home key providing a sense of direction over large spans of time - not least harmonically - making multi-dimensionality possible in time, with an ever-changing focus between foreground, middle-ground and background, which as a vanishing point enables this to happen in space. This has no equivalent throughout civilisation.

2. Think of a world without the joys of Rossini, the consolations of Schubert, the ambiguities of Mozart, the austerities of Stravinsky, the complexities of Birtwistle, the diversions of Ligeti. No, don't; it would be too awful to endure. For at least 1000 years, from medieval plainchant to Renaissance polyphony, though two Viennese schools and on to contemporary minimalism, 'classical music' has demonstrated a continuing ability to adapt, form and reform itself, and divert into new codes, discipline and shapes. Throughout this time, 'classical music' has remained universal in its language, extending its reach globally in a remarkable way. If it wasn't also about exhilaration, exultation, anguish, despair and pathos, it would not have survived or deserved to.

Identification tomorrow!

Elsewhere in the magazine, critics are asked to a) select any musician of their choice to give them a Command Performance; b) choose their greatest disc ever. It's refreshing to find Jed Distler choosing Barbra Streisand for his Command artist - and volunteering to accompany her! But the fact remains that the vast majority of musicians chosen by critics in both categories are DEAD. Is there any other field in which young creative artists have to struggle quite so hard to hold their own in the present day against the reputations of their forerunners? At least in literature, the reputations of Tolstoy or Jane Austen don't actually prevent new books from doing well. But any young pianist on CD has to battle the recorded legacy of Rachmaninov and Horowitz, while violinists are up against that of Heifetz and cellists Casals or du Pre.

I'd agree with many of these critics, of course - I'd love to have heard Heifetz, Rachmaninov or Cortot live, and I'm certainly with Rob Cowan on longing to hear Fritz Kreisler play the Elgar Violin Concerto. Still, I've also heard a lot of great stuff right here and now. As I don't write for Gramophone, here is my request for a Command Performance: