Quartets

BBC4 has just reshown an interesting diachronic trawl through the archives in Classic quartets at the BBC (available online until 2nd January; see also Schubert and the Budapest quartet).

Apart from the inevitable Amadeus quartet, it features the Allegri under Eli Goren, predecessor of Hugh Maguire. Here one can’t help noticing James Barton, left-handed fiddle-player—part of a small group that notably includes Charlie Chaplin:

And among hours of harmless fun on youtube:

How can I resist reminding you that the divine Ronnie O’Sullivan is ambidextrous—though I’m not sure he stretches to Bach.

Of course, the life of a quartet (actually, any performing group that works together regularly—few are so constantly in each other’s pockets as Li Manshan‘s band) resembles that of a marriage, or (still more thornily) a ménage a quattre—that too is a topic for elsewhere (see also here).

But I digress. In the film, I love the quaint early vignettes, as if the swinging 60s never happened—the clipped tones of announcers, and musicians gamely clambering into their dinky little cars to play for expectant audiences keen to worship at the altar of High Culture after the tribulations of the war…*

And before long we will all look quaint. Closer to our times, there are vignettes from groups like the Borodin, Lindsay, Arditti, and Kronos quartets, as well as the Smith quartet playing Steve Reich’s extraordinary Different trains, and the Brodsky quartet’s work with Elvis Costello.

 

* But what of the thankyou letter to the Martin string quartet, I hear you ask?!

Sing…

As a corrective to all the glowing speeches from divas and the rapturous adulation of their fans, Bill Bailey (don’t miss his Love song!) recalls:

I was at a Whitney Houston gig, it was supposed to start at three—finally at four o’clock she comes on stage and says,
“I just wanna say, I love each and every one of you!”
and this big black guy next to me shouts,
“Sing, bitch!”

A different kind of song


As if we needed further evidence of the refined tastes of Tweety McTangerine in the cultural sphere (let alone his fawning admiration for dictators expert in brutal repression):

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/13/you-are-the-light-philippines-duterte-sings-love-song-for-trump

Call me old-fashioned, but as love songs go, I still prefer Bill Bailey’s version

The duck lies shredded in a pancake,
Soaking in the hoisin of your lies…

And we can only sigh to recall the days not so long gone when there was taste at the White House:

Schubert

The Schubert string quintet is one of those pieces that is always there when you need it. The slow movement in particular is deep in the heart of many musicians (and gratifyingly, one of those pieces that recurs on Desert Island Discs), but it’s all amazing.*

I’ve been appreciating the 1941 studio performance by the Budapest Quartet with Benar Heifetz—part of their amazingly busy recording schedule, and just as bebop was evolving:

Indeed, the group’s history makes a fascinating history of the metamorphoses of a string quartet under the conditions of the 20th century.

Benar Heifetz was the older brother of Jascha—who is quoted as saying:

One Russian is an anarchist. Two Russians are a chess game. Three Russians are a revolution. Four Russians are the Budapest String Quartet.

Which reminds me of the old Cold War joke:

What’s the definition of a string quartet?
A Russian symphony orchestra after a tour of the West.

For viola jokes, see here.

BTW, the long eclipse of WAM in Desert Island Discs since 1942, while not a sample of the general population, makes an interesting window on changing tastes.

 

*PS Anyone got a good fingering for the ending of the Scherzo?

Schubert

I’ve got a sneaky one, but hey—what do I know? Available on request… The last note  may be “hit and hope”; Hugh Maguire said he had about a 70% strike rate—better than in football, where the long high ball upfield in the direction of Peter Crouch’s head is even less reliable. But how to negotiate the preceding run is debatable too.

Ute Lemper

In My Time I’ve heard a few divas live in concert (Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming)—indeed, I’ve accompanied some (Monserrat Caballé, Cecilia Bartoli). In this blog I also praise outstanding male singers like Michael Chance and Mark Padmore.

In Italian the term divo is occasionally used, but elsewhere there’s no male equivalent of the diva, or the related femme fatale; both terms reveal male anxiety—dangerous, damaged women meeting (and luring men to) a bad end. Male behaviour, more intrinsically fatal, is not advertised thus. The chanteuse is a similar archetype. And the skewed language continues with prima donna—as if male performers are never temperamental, self-important, and demanding (yeah right).

Susan MacClary opened the way for later unpacking of such stereotypes in both opera and popular music, such as Lori Burns and Melisse Lafrance, Disruptive divas: feminism, identity and popular music (2001). And the use of these terms in English adds xenophobia to sexism—our impeccable moral virtue threatened by these loose foreign women (“They come over ‘ere, with their dramatic genius, and their perfect control of phrasing and diction…”).

Anyway, “that’s not important right now” (Airplane clip, suitably in a post on solfeggio!)—

I can’t think when I’ve been so entranced by a singer (that’s the word we’re looking for!) as hearing Ute Lemper in concert at the Cadogan Hall last week. I thought I could consign her to a comfortable old Weimar pigeonhole, but her music is endlessly enchanting. Never mind that I wasn’t quite convinced by this latest project based on Paolo Coelho, with a world music sextet—she keeps exploring. Her sheer physical presence is irresistible—as with Hélène Grimaud, it’s an intrinsic concomitant of her musical magic. Audiences hang on her every breath, every inflection of her slender wrist… I’d love to hear her in a little jazz club.

As with Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, the variety of dynamic, timbre, and vibrato that “popular” singers can command is all the more moving by being deeply personal. Once again, I rarely find perfect distinctive vocal artistry in the world of WAM. They’re all building on their respective traditions, but it’s harder for WAM singers, more burdened by formality, to convey such intimacy. Of course, Ute Lemper is also somewhat polished and controlled—less destructive than Billie and Amy; that may make her slightly less moving, but it also helps her stay alive. Her stage presence is breathtaking.

Summer holiday

Further to my mission to “delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, this is among the most extreme tests of my inkling that musics of the world are equal—in a way that my posts on more fashionable genres like Country or Punk don’t.

With my youthful (1963) awareness of popular culture then submerged beneath Beethoven and—imminently—Euripides, I was devoted to the Beatles but little else in the field. Summer holiday (the wiki entry is unusually frugal—I’m looking for an in-depth musicological analysis, guys) became an embodiment of fatuous kitsch almost as soon as it emerged from Cliff’s immaculate lips. Still, it was pretty much inescapable, even for me.

Seeking a more global comparison, if you google “music 1963”, you only get pop music. Typical! So I’ll just offer Messiaen‘s Couleurs de la Cité Céleste. Hmm. I’ll leave you to imagine new songs emerging from Lagos, or Jakarta.

OMG, I’ve just realized that my mother (who didn’t exactly have her finger on the pulse of popular culture)* must have taken me to Cliff’s film soon after it came out in 1963! However could she have done that—surely I couldn’t have begged her to take me? That would be hard to live down—a skeleton in my closet such as Bachelor Boy Cliff may or may not have.

Now I hear it again—actually listening—it’s fascinating. Those irritating catchy syncopations that Cliff seems makes a token effort to rescue from cliché, the casual triplet on “sea is”, the instrumentation (great little instrumental opening, later used insistently as an interlude, worthy of Chinese shawm bands!), the classic upward shift in key. There is some serious, um, craftspersonship going on here.

After post-war drabness, that 60s’ spirit of optimism that most of the really brilliant bands, including the Beatles, were soon to undermine… Summer holiday is a major document in the social history of the day—and one that still means a lot to many people.

 

*Talking of the Beatles, in my book on the Li family Daoists I describe their 2009 Carnegie Hall gig:

The Daoists know nothing of the Carnegie Hall, and have to take it on trust that it’s a big deal. As my mum said of the Beatles, “Well I’ve never heard of them—they can’t be famous!”

Another great theme tune

Having regaled you with the Pearl and Dean signature tune, not to mention the priceless Parks and recreation, let’s not forget Soap, whose brilliant characters were also introduced by a finely-wrought theme:

Apart from its meandering pentatonic opening “statement” (only rescued from banality by its whimsical syncopations), interrupted by a suitably weird temporary modulation and then gratuitously repeated, I love the way the Middle Eight (or rather Four), leading precisely nowhere, is peremptorily brushed aside. Nor is the kitsch orchestration to be neglected. Getting stuck towards the end, it just gives up. Altogether, How Like Life…

Wonderful as it is, reading the BTL comment

I want this played at my funeral… sums up my life really

I’m not sure that the tune quite reflects all the rich intensity of the manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse.