A deflated pupil

Isfahan cope

Along with my veneration for the Matthew Passion, you may have noticed my cognitive dissonance in confessing to some, um, lighter moments that some musos associate with it—such as Mein Gott, with Always look on the bright side of life as a fantasy encore. Sorry, but here’s another one:

Rehearsing the Matthew Passion in the Albert Hall for an English Concert Prom, during a longueur while the conductor is busy sorting out some point with the continuo, my desk partner leans over to me. I guess she’s going to share some profound insight with me about phrasing, but she whispers me this joke:

What did the inflatable schoolmaster in the inflatable school say to the inflatable pupil?

“You’ve let me down, you’ve let the school down—but most of all you’ve let yourself down.”

Just the kind of thing to get us in the mood for the Crucifixion scene…

I continue to relish this joke—all the more because of the context in which I first heard it. It goes back a long time, and one still hears it regularly; but now I wonder if it still has the same resonance for the younger generation, or if it’s more popular among those educated in posh schools before the 1980s. Returning to The life of Brian, its tone calls to mind Michael Palin’s benign marshalling of crucifixion candidates.

For more stories of musical deviation, see here.

A Shanghai Prom

SSO Prom

I’m not exactly in the mood to celebrate glossy official showpieces for Chinese modernity, but I appreciated the TV broadcast of the recent Prom by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Long Yu.

The Beeb still can’t help going to town on the unbeatable cliché “East meets West”—as if even now all this, um, International Cultural Exchange (oops, there goes another one) is some novel discovery, some audacious, exotic experiment (cf. They come over ‘ere, and China–Italy).

One of the most readable accounts of Chinese music,

  • Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989),

gives some leads to the chequered history of the orchestra. It originated in the Shanghai Public Band, founded back in 1879 by a German professor with six other European musicians. In 1907 it became the Shanghai Municipal Symphony Orchestra, and in 1919 they hired the Italian conductor Mario Paci (1878–1946; see also here), a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire; his orchestra included many White Russian and Italian musicians.

In 1922 the orchestra was renamed the Shanghai Municipal Council Symphony Orchestra. Under Japanese occupation it became the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the Jewish refugees from Nazism who swelled the city’s expat population from the mid-1930s were many musicians.

Some Chinese players were admitted from the late 1920s, but by 1938 there were still only four of them in the orchestra; paid less, they had no social interaction with the European musicians. The audiences too were mostly Caucasian.

Among the Russian musicians in Shanghai was the composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who promoted both Western and Chinese music in Shanghai and Beijing from 1934 to 1937. Bach’s B minor Mass was performed in Shanghai.

Paci was a leading light in the founding of the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1927. In 1935 he invited the composer Xian Xinghai to conduct the orchestra for a concert, but they refused to play under the baton of a Chinese. Paci was in charge of the orchestra from 1917 until 1942, when the orchestra had to disband, with many foreign musicians and conductors leaving. After the 1949 “Liberation” it was re-formed in 1950, becoming the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 1956.

One of the protagonists of Kraus’s study is the pianist Fou Ts’ong (b.1934), who studied with Paci from 1943. Seeking political asylum after the 1958 Great Leap, he made his home in London, where he became a great friend of my own violin teacher Hugh Maguire.

The orchestra inevitably suffered grievously as the Cultural Revolution exploded in 1966. Whereas Soviet orchestras had managed to maintain high standards, Chinese orchestras, even after the liberalizations from the late 1970s, took many years to develop.

I’m pretty sure most of the band would be bemused by my own tastes in musicking around ShanghaiKunqu, folk opera, silk-and-bamboo, Daoist ritual… Meanwhile the more cosmopolitan aspect of musical life in swinging Shanghai before Liberation is covered in another fine book,

  • Andrew Jones, Yellow music: media culture and colonial modernity in the Chinese jazz age (2001),

It opens with a vignette on the African-American trumpeter Buck Clayton, leader of the Harlem Gentlemen in Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese occupation. Back in the USA he worked with Count Basie; Billie Holiday, no less, described him as “the prettiest cat I ever saw”.

Buck

The Harlem Gentlemen at the Canidrome ballroom.

* * *

The Prom began with The five elements by Chen Qigang, (b.1951), a Messiaen pupil and one of the most meticulous and imaginative of Chinese composers. Eric Lu then played Mozart’s wonderful A major piano concerto.

And a suitable choice, reminding us of Shanghai’s Russian heritage, was Rachmaninoff’s final work, the Symphonic dances (1941). I’ve only been getting know the piece quite recently, but it already ranks with the 2nd symphony in my affections. Among noted recordings are those of Golovanov, Svetlanov, and Kondrashin; but given that the piece was composed in American exile, Mitropoulos’s 1942 version is a popular choice. Here’s Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1963:

Among the glories of the Symphonic dances is a solo part for alto sax—again suggesting Shanghai’s jazz background. As an encore, a smoochy and bombastic arrangement of Molihua (another perennial Chinese music cliché)—strangely endearing as a snapshot of a bygone age of Chinese symphonic writing—led into a stirring rendition of Hey Jude, with fine jazzy solos on sax and trumpet and an audience singalong (for the Beatles original, see Alan W. Pollack’s analysis; cf. A Beatles roundup).

Now I dream of a Shanghai Daoist ritual at the Proms…

Daoists

Pizzica at the Proms

CGS

As the end of this year’s Proms approaches, I went along to the “late-night” gig of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS), hot on the heels of the Vienna Phil. Much as I love the Proms (and I recall some wonderful gagaku and raga in the Good Old Days), world music has never played much of a role there. This was another kind of Passion at the Proms.

Complementing Italy: folk musicking, this is the latest in a series of posts on taranta-inspired musicking in south Italy:

and while you’re about it, try

Based in Salento, the original CGS group dates back to 1975, led by Rina and Daniele Durante. The current leader is their son Mauro, on violin—which drew me back to the less polished fiddling on the extraordinary early footage of Ernesto De Martino.

Don’t get me wrong, I love loud music; but in the hall the volume seemed excessively loud and the sound rather fuzzy—it may work better on the radio broadcast (here, for the next month). With gutsy vocals, tamburello frame-drumming, organetto, wind playing, plucking, and dancing, the combo seemed more successful when they grouped more closely on the large stage.

Of course, it’s not just about sound. Pizzica—like Bach, The Rite of Spring, and Turangalîla, indeed—demands a physical reaction; with such pieces it’s hardly possible in concert, but in this case it’s an essential part of the experience. As large concert halls go, the Albert Hall makes a suitable venue; the prommers in the Arena, whether mobile or static, always enhance the occasion.

In LCD World Music fusion fashion (cf. my final rant here), guitarist Justin Adams and Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko joined the band—though I’d still rather hear the latter playing his own music…

On this eclectic playlist, featuring scenic tracks from CGS in full MTV mode, as well as other groups, the intoxication of their live gigs features only rarely:

For the other CGS videos on that list, you may prefer the audio tracks over the glossy visuals. Elsewhere, here’s a 2013 gig in New York:

I’m really not being an old purist fogey here, but maybe what I want is the original line-up—though of course they were always seeking to be relevant to the changing times. Among several tracks on YouTube (search for “vecchio Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino”), try this:

 

Tchaik 6, conductors, applause

 

I’m reminded of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” 6th symphony (1893) by the recent Prom, a few days after his violin concerto. For audiences and performers alike, both works may seem like old warhorses—you think “Yeah yeah” and then suddenly you find yourself immersed in all this soul-searching intensity.

Among recordings, Mravinsky is a popular choice (see also this typically engaging article by Tom Service). Here’s his vivid 1949 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic, as the whole society was recovering from the appalling sufferings of war—in mourning, relieved to have survived, yet anxious, and re-internalizing dissimulation:

And here’s the great Rozhdestvensky with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, at the Proms in 1966 (alas, audio only):

I also want to feature Bernstein—mainly because I love him, but also because I’m reminded by my post on Paul Bowles, as well as John Eliot Gardiner’s recent vignette. Here he is in 1974 with the New York Phil on tour in Sydney, his stage presence mesmerizing as ever—as often, conducting from memory:

Far from the myth of the aloof Maestro-Dictator, the adulation for Bernstein is based both on the dynamic passion of his conducting and on his innovative role in the counter-culture. Norman Lebrecht, in his ever-readable The maestro myth (pp.180–205), explores Bernstein’s consecutive relationships with the New York and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras (for their Mahler, see also here, here, and here). Amidst Lebrecht’s signature exposé of the machinations of Big Business, it’s clear that Bernstein’s charisma inspired even hard-bitten musicians (for whom, see here, and here).

Mahler admired and promoted Tchaikovsky’s music, conducting celebrated performances of his operas. But though the dying finale of Mahler’s own 9th symphony echoes that of the Pathétique, it seems he never conducted it.

For Celibidache’s version, see here.

* * *

Whether or not we care to imagine the 1893 premiere, or indeed the lives of Soviet audiences in 1949 (cf. Haydn), the intensity of the Pathétique constantly deserves to be experienced afresh.

I’ve mentioned the “limping waltz” of the second movement in Taco taco taco burrito, introducing a range of aksak additive metres in different cultures.

The transition from the exhilaration of the third movement to the anguish of the finale, with the abrupt change of mood often interrupted by joyous applause, is one of those moments that continue to excite tedious controversy.

Applause between movements has long been a rallying cry for competing factions, only stimulated by the HIP movement, with conductors like Hogwood and Norrington encouraging it; but it remains a minefield. It’s worth reading this article by Alex Ross, and Chi-chi Nwanoku has revived the debate, eliciting a range of responses here.

Indeed, in the Good Old Days [sic] applause was common not just between movements but (as in jazz) even while the music is going on, as in the much-cited first performance of Mozart’s Paris symphony:

In the middle of the opening Allegro there was a passage that I knew people would like; the whole audience was carried away by it, and there was tremendous applause. But I knew when I wrote it what sort of an effect it would make, and so I introduced it again at the end, with the result that it was encored. […] I was so happy that I went straight to the Palais Royale after the symphony, ate an ice, said the rosary I had vowed…

Anyway, at the 1893 premiere of Tchaikovsky’s symphony the audience applauded after the third movement, and it’s always been common—not so much a tradition, or a superior piece of authenticity-upmanship, as a natural, spontaneous reaction. It seems cruel and pompous to deprive the audience of such a response, when the admission of is so intimidated by “rules”: when the slightest hint that what is going on here might be a dynamic social activity, or any physical response, must be suppressed. At the same time, conductors may not manage to forestall applause entirely, but they may interrupt it promptly by launching into the finale (as Rozhdestvensky did in the Prom).

In defence of the Proms audiences, a popular scapegoat for the puritans, there’s no other venue where silence is so exquisite.

Continuing to zoom out, how about the ullulations of the ahouach in Morocco, or (now I come to think of it) almost any other form of musicking?! For participants in most musical events around the world, the prissy niceties of WAM concert etiquette are mercifully irrelevant.

* * *

BTW, the opening of the finale is a “composite melody”, a kind of trompe l’oreille whereby the tune as we hear it (descending, conjunct motion) is divided between 1st and 2nd violins both playing unlikely, angular lines:

Tchaik 6

The two parts are demonstrated separately in Simon Broughton’s film Great composers: Tchaikovsky, with profound Russian thoughts from Yuri Temirkanov.

Anyone have other instances of this in WAM? It’s not quite like the hocketing cymbals of north Chinese ritual percussion, but hey.

This is one of many cases where the original antiphonal seating of the violin sections, facing each other on opposite sides of the platform, must enhance the audience’s experience. Indeed, placing them together only became common from the time of Stokowski and Henry Wood; several conductors, from Klemperer onwards, have retained or restored the traditional seating, both in the HIP and “straight” scenes.

More Messiaen at the Proms

 

messiaen

I spare no efforts to remind everyone of Messiaen‘s astounding Turangalîlabut an equally monumental (if rather less catchy) later orchestral masterpiece is his Des canyons aux étoiles (1974), which I attended at Sunday’s Prom, hot on the heels of the NYO concert.

Composed “to Glorify God in the Beauties of His Creations; from the colours of the earth and the songs of the birds to the colours of the stars and the Resurrected Ones in Heaven”, it was inspired by the canyons of Utah. It features a vertiginous solo horn part (notably the sixth movement “Interstellar call”) alongside piano cadenzas with Messiaen’s signature birdsong. The mystical intimacy of “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran” makes a tranquil centrepiece, akin to the enchanted Jardin du sommeil d’amour in Turangalîla.

Again, short of staging it at Bryce Canyon itself, the Royal Albert Hall makes a rather suitable venue. Given the work’s cosmic dimensions, it uses quite modest forces, with percussion prominent—notably xylorimba and glockenspiel, aeoliphone wind machine and geophone sand machine, with impressive solos from Nicolas Hodges (piano) and Martin Owen (horn). Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra really know their way around this kind of music. Indeed, the orchestra did the first UK performance under Boulez in 1975.

Utah

Here’s a 2002 recording conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:

And here are the titles in English:

Part 1
The desert
The orioles
What is written in the stars
The white-browed robin-chat
Cedar Breaks and the gift of awe

Part 2
Interstellar call
Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks

Part 3
The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran
The mockingbird
The wood thrush
Omao, leiothrix, ‘elepaio, shama
Zion Park and the celestial city

For more Messiaen, see tag—not least Saint François d’Assise, and Éclairs sur l’au-delà …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another great NYO Prom

I dragged myself away from the ullulations and percussion of Moroccan ahouach to go to the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s Prom. After a while away from WAM, it takes me some time to adapt to its conventions—music stands, behaviour, and so on.

But for all my reservations about WAM concerts, I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the Proms. The round building, and the arena, fosters a rare engagement with the audience. in the case of the NYO’s annual appearances this relationship is further enhanced by proud parents, but everyone shares in the exhilaration—their visits are always special (see here, and here).

This year’s all-Russian Prom was directed by Mark Wigglesworth. The highlight was his own arrangement of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, always riveting in performance. Here it is:

Prokofiev composed the piece in 1935, but soon after his return to the Soviet Union the following year it proved controversial there. Only now that I read Figes’s The whisperers do I begin to appreciate the wider context, and the tribulations of artists and common people there.

For the great Rozhdestvensky’s view of Tchaikovsky’s version, see here.

NYO 1

In the first half, following Lera Auerbach’s Icarus (2011), Nicola Benedetti performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin concerto. It’s one of those pieces that I struggled with through my teens (cf. here), focusing on the virtuosity without beginning to understand where it was coming from. And, like Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, it may suffer from familiarity, but it’s no mere lollipop (or, if you like, warhorse); it deserves hearing anew, with its plaintive wind solos. For Tchaik 6, see here.

As an encore, following her eloquent tribute to the band, Benedetti played Wynton Marsalis’s meditative solo As the wind goes, written for her. And the orchestra does a great line in encores too (cf. Hands free after Turangalîla in 2012!!!), continuing the Romeo and Juliet theme by launching joyously into Bernstein’s Mambo.

Just as inspiring an event, in its way, as an ahouach (also invigorated by the energy of young people)… The Terpsichorean muse, eh.

NYO 2

Mahler 3 at the Proms

After attending some memorable Proms this season (Mahler 10, Turangalîla, Ravel, Mahler 5The Rite of Spring)—I went out on a legal high with Mahler 3 (for which, see this post)—a kind of  fin-de-siècle middle-European equivalent of the cosmic visualization of the Daoist jiao Offering ritual.

By now I must know what I’m in for when I go to hear a Mahler symphony, but it’s always overwhelming. And Prom-goers get to hear some great orchestras, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons sounds incredible. Nelsons’ balletic conducting style reminds me of Otto Böhler’s 1899 silhouettes of Mahler.

Now that I have the time and inclination to attend concerts rather than earn a living of sorts by taking part in them, I experience a certain schizophrenia. I’ve been coming to the Proms since the 60s and playing in them since the 70s: this is my cultural background, my home base, so up to a point I might just sink into familiarity.

But with my perspective broadened by attending rituals in rural China and sessions in flamenco bars, and trained by reading books like Musicking and Professional music-making in London, I can’t entirely banish ethnographic thoughts—the genteel behaviour of performers and audience, with the latter scrupulously avoiding any bodily movements, sounds, or signs of emotion; the dress-codes; the complicated pieces of equipment like music-stands containing funny black dots on pieces of paper, on which the performers depend. And all the historical information at the audience’s disposal, like programme booklets (studiously consulted even during the concert), and the radio announcer’s suave comments—while the audience at a soul gig, or a Chinese funeral, may be still more steeped in contextual background, the WAM audience comes expecting to be educated with literate props. And tiny features contribute to the different sounds of European and American orchestras, like their different habits—even down to the way the latter come on stage early to take their places.

Youthful enthusiasm can easily be ground down by the mundane realities of professional orchestral life—a tension well observed by Alan Bennett (here, and here). But then, suddenly, one can be transported—like hearing Wu Mei decorating the funerary hymns of the Daoists (again, notwithstanding ethnography).

So while I value the informed discrimination of the insider, I now wonder if the outsider’s experience, free of such worldly distractions, is just as valid. Even jaded orchestral players cherish those rare moments when they somehow merge into a magical organism.

And apart from all that, it might seem surprising that I’m so taken with the glossy streamlined sound of an orchestra like this. Sure, you can just hear the sponsors rattling their jewellery (to quote John Lennon)—the limousines, the champagne, the alimony payments. But the pain and transcendence of Mahler’s music doesn’t get drowned under the gorgeous sumptuous sound: it’s an irresistible experience, totally immersive, all the more in the intense atmosphere of the Proms.

For all the bravado of the brass-playing fraternity, there’s no shortage of deeply musical playing there (there’s much thoughtful discussion online, like this). Apart from the solos and the blazing tuttis, it’s the perfect blending of timbre that impresses—and that too (as with the Li family Daoists) is a result of a long accumulation of experience throughout the orchestra. I love the utterly implausible idea that Miles Davis, a reluctant pupil at Juilliard, might have ended up in such an orchestra; hearing the subtly calibrated vibrato of the Boston brass reminds me of his comments (for a wide selection of posts on trumpet-playing, see here).

So among all the varied, immersive ways of musicking that give meaning to the lives of sub-communities around the world—orchestral playing is one of them! “It doesn’t get much better than that—or does it?”

And while we’re on the Boston Symphony—on a lighter note, don’t miss the Eric Leinsdorf story.

Ravel: an enchanted Prom

Rattle’s Ravel, or Ravel’s rattle

Ravel prom

After Boléro as a pulsating early overture the previous week, S-S-Simon‘s Ravel Prom was a delight from start to finish.

Even the opening Ma mère l’Oyein the expanded ballet version (1912), less often heard than the suite—was charming, chiming with the childlike world of L’enfant et les sortilèges after the interval. Here too there’s a magic garden, a princess, and birdsong. Ravel’s orientalism, like that of Debussy, was inspired by hearing gamelan at the 1889 Exposition universelle. Indeed, the organum of the oboes at the beginning and end of L’enfant reminds me of the sheng mouth-organ.

Chinoiserie is prominent in Shéhérazade too. Last year at the Proms Marianne Crebassa sang it exquisitely; in a week when we rejoiced in Aretha Franklin and Madonna, Magdalena Kožená’s singing was further cause for celebration of the wonders of the human voice.

L’enfant et les sortilèges (first performed in 1925, but not heard in Britain until 1958!) is an enchanted, enchanting lyric fantasy. In the story the protagonist is 6 or 7 years old—the same age as the girls for whom Ravel wrote the original piano pieces of Ma mère l’Oye. 

Whereas Colette wrote the text in eight days, Ravel worked on it over several years—she was in awe of the way he brought her libretto to life. Full of variety, the piece blends the comic drôlerie of the furniture, with ragtime and foxtrot, and the astounding fire aria, with the moving scene of shepherds and shepherdesses from the wallpaper leading into the boy’s poignant duet with the storybook princess.

The cat duet leads into a magical evocation of the garden. Here Ravel’s music anticipates Messiaen‘s use of birdsong and the ondes martenot, with evocative use of a slide whistle (Sachs-Hornbostel 421.221.312!—the cheese grater escapes me, though). Now it’s the turn of the animals and birds to indict the boy’s casual cruelties.

Amidst all the quirky virtuosic pastiche, and ravishing orchestration, the moments of tendresse register all the deeper, as he reflects on his errors; redeeming himself at last, the final chorus is a moving atonement.

If only a certain other public figure in the news could be converted from infantile petulant tantrums…

* * *

Both as player and concert-goer, I do admire conductors who trust to memory, dispensing with a distracting score, as S-Simon did for the first half.

As of 2020, apart from memory, the only trace of the concert is this brief excerpt.

This season’s Proms

Mahler 10 scream

Notwithstanding my admiration for Christopher Small‘s critique of the curious behaviour that is concert-going, as opposed to more communal kinds of musicking (see e.g. here), I’m enjoying visits to this year’s Proms.

So far, among the feast (nay, “veritable smorgasbord“) of musicking on offer, I’ve basked in Turangalîlaalways an overwhelming experience, as well as the NYO Prom.

The latter included Debussy’s La mer (which I played with the NYO at the Proms under Boulez in 1971!) and the Ravel Piano Concerto for the left hand (for ways of occupying the other hand, see here). Now I’m looking forward to Les enfants et les sortilèges with S-S-Simon.

Meanwhile it was wonderful to hear the Philharmonia with the great maestro Salonen (the drôle story of whose interview encapsulates Some People’s attitude to WAM!). Effectively, from the spartan pointillism of Webern he segued directly into the desolate viola line the opens the first movement of Mahler 10, before its devastating prophetic catclysm (see my fantasy timeline here; lots more under Mahler tag). Salonen conducted this first half of the concert without a baton, recalling Boulez with his expressive hand gestures and the insights of a composer. I can’t wait to hear him conduct the complete symphony live.

For Salonen’s Mahler 9, see here.

 

Rameau

Rameau

Nearly ready to try out using the bow.

We should celebrate the wonderful regional diversity of European folk cultures, notably their musics—Ireland, Romania, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and so on. But styles are just as varied within WAM (Biber, Nielsen, Janáček…).

Even among the great composers born in the 1680s, apart from Bach and Handel, let’s not forget Rameau—an early flowering of the distinctive voice of French music, leading on to Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen (not to mention Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger). If we’re conditioned by some notional one-size-fits-all baroque style, it’s most rewarding to immerse oneself in Rameau’s whole sound world—the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodic contours and ornaments, the instrumental timbres…

Perhaps we can hear “Tristes apprêts” from Castor et Pollux as a French companion to the Buxtehude Klaglied or When I am laid in earth—not to mention the hymns of mourning of the Li family Daoists. Among several fine renditions, here’s Sabine Devieilhe, backed by soulful bassoons:

Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux,
Jour plus affreux que les ténèbres,
Astres lugubres des tombeaux,
Non, je ne verrai plus que vos clartés funèbres.
Toi, qui vois mon cœur éperdu,
Père du Jour! ô Soleil! ô mon Père!
Je ne veux plus d’un bien que Castor a perdu,
Et je renonce à ta lumière.

Rameau Athens

Rameau in Athens, 1981-ish.

In my early days as a barocker I did some Rameau opera for Lina Lalandi, but alas I began working with John Eliot Gardiner just too late to take part in his ground-breaking performances.

Rameau dance

His 2007 Prom was enchanting (pre-echoes of Ravel?). The very first piece I had heard him conducting live (those funky bassoons again!) was the Entrée pour les Muses of Les Boréades (from 18.09)—further enriched here by magical (suspended!) staging, wonderfully at ease with modernity in HIP performance:

Rameau’s operas alone are a rich canon to explore.

Mahler 6 at the Proms

There’s nothing to beat the atmosphere of a Mahler symphony at the Proms. Following the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 10th symphonies this season, I just went to hear the 6th, with the amazing Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding.

Hot on the heels of the equally fine Concertgebouw orchestra in the fourth symphony, the Vienna Phil sounds like an enormous marshmallow cake, with individual personalities smothered in Schlagrahm—apart from the cowbells, evidently from a large herd. Notwithstanding changes in performance practice over the past century, standing beside recent early-music versions of such repertoire, venerable orchestras like this convey a tangible feeling of direct continuity with tradition.

And the Vienna Phil is even belatedly allowing a handful of women into its ranks—whatever next? * Here they are with a bearded Bernstein, c1977:

Here’s Barbirolli’s 1967 version with the New Philharmonia (as the old Philharmonia was then known):

And here’s Abbado live, conducting from memory, in 2006:

There’s the usual lengthy debate about the position of the exquisite slow movement (unfairly eclipsed by those of the 4th and 5th symphonies, I feel). In line with Mahler’s own rethink, Harding put it second, but I side with those who overrule the composer’s revision of the order—not so much for the argument of the tonal scheme, but rather so that the Scherzo can continue the demonic power of the first movement (as in the 5th symphony), the slow movement then making its full impact before the devastation of the finale. Christoph Eschenbach makes this argument in an interesting page where various conductors reflect on all the symphonies.

God, how I’d love to get stuck into passages like this again (from 1.10.39 on the Barbirolli version, responding desperately to the hammer-blow):M6 1

M6 2

M6 3
Let’s return to the Vienna Phil, with Mahler in more meditative vein—the divine slow movement of the 4th symphony under Bernstein, followed by the final song:

* “I dunno, where’s it all going to end, eh? They’ll be demanding control over their own bodies next. PC gone mad if you ask me.”

Passion at the Proms

Of course the Bach Passions are a regular subject of imaginative modern re-creations (Jonathan Miller, Sellars–Rattle, ENO, and so on); but the climax of the Proms Reformation Day on Sunday, John Butt’s version of the John Passion, in a certain liturgical context, was special. Note also his book Playing with history.

Like Daoist ritual (see many posts on this blog, including my Bach page!), Passions in Thuringia for Good Friday vespers varied regionally, and evolved. Of course we now attend them in “concerts”. The Albert Hall in 2017 is clearly not the Nikolaikirche in 1739—although the audience/congregation was apparently of a similar size. But having read Taruskin, and Butt’s own astute views on the HIP movement, surely we can welcome such renditions; it’s a stimulating way for us (“miserable sinners”) to experience the work anew.

Bach revised the John Passion several times; Butt recreated an “ideal” sequence based on the 1739 version (which was never actually performed!), directing with an unaffected schoolmasterly air that indeed evoked Bach the Cantor himself (cf. Robert Levin’s incarnation of Mozart).

As in Bach’s Leipzig, both parts of the Passion opened and closed with organ music and sung chorales. By contrast with the concert version (finely evoked by John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, p.343), when the orchestra plunged into the anguished dissonances of the first chorus of Bach’s music, it makes you think how a congregation still unaccustomed to their new Cantor’s style, yet unprepared (though not quite—see Gardiner, pp.347–9) for the constant flow of extraordinary creativity that they were to enjoy for the next twenty-seven years, must have thought (in 18th-century Thuringian), “WTF?!”

The focal point of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig was actually the long sermon in between the two parts of the Passion music, which at the Albert Hall was thankfully replaced by an interval (glass of wine, ice-cream…). I wonder if a talk by someone like Malala might be a suitable further exploration—since many in the audience will experience the Passion deeply despite being less than devout religiously.

Do listen to John Butt’s remarks in the interval of the TV broadcast too (from 53.10)—and I like the analogy of Richard Coles (nay, “the Reverend Richard Coles”—clever choice of presenter, BBC!) with the mass singing at Cardiff Arms Park (more ritual and sport).

Given the rowdy behaviour of Leipzig congregations in Bach’s day, perhaps the Prom audience should have been a tad less attentive?! After we had all joined in singing the chorale O lamb of God, applause at the interval felt a bit weird, but it was entirely natural as a novel response to the life-affirming ending—after the beautiful motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Handl (1550–91!), a blessing and response, Bach’s own organ chorale prelude Nun danket alle Gott, and a final rousing rendition of Now thank we all our God from the whole hall (a tune, suitably, that most members of the “audience” would know), accompanied by organ at exhilarating full throttle—all confirming joy at atonement.

By comparison, the great Passion performances of recent decades may seem more immaculate and micro-managed (“Chanel No.5″), but they remain deeply moving—like Gardiner’s version, with the superlative Mark Padmore (here). But this performance had a Lutheran simplicity that was differently moving.

Butt also notes “the different levels of singing cultivated in the church and school environments of Bach’s time,” from basic to more advanced pupils and indeed the congregation (again, cf. Butt’s interval remarks), so that the liturgy accommodated the whole community:

What we hear in concert performance is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, a culture of singing and participation that can only be fleetingly evoked in a modern performance.

This reminds me of the different levels of accomplishment within (you guessed it) a Daoist ritual group:

This dilution of personnel is a recent change, but before 1949 too, Daoist groups might recruit some extra percussionists who would gradually pick up the basic of the vocal liturgy. The substantial group of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from the 1930s didn’t come from his own family, but they had all trained from young with his uncles, and went on to become fine Daoists. In Beijing before 1949 some Daoist and Buddhist priests specialized more in the vocal liturgy, others mainly in the melodic instruments, and some village men spent time serving the temples there mainly as instrumentalists. Thus there have long been different levels of expertise, both between groups and within a single group. In the imperial era one imagines that some groups in larger towns, serving wealthy patrons regularly, might have more abstruse knowledge than poor village bands. But even within a single group—in the courts and elite temples as well as rural household groups like the Li family—there would have been a variety of accomplishments. Both temple and household groups often included a young boy just starting out on the gong, still unfamiliar with the ritual texts. (my book, pp.324–5).

Again like a Daoist ritual, the recreated Passion also features different styles of old and new music, not such an evident feature of the usual concert version. And it reminds me rather of the Li family Daoists’ concert performances of excerpts from their lengthy funeral rituals, uprooted from their liturgical context—remember, the Li band gave wonderful performances in Leipzig in 2013.

In John Butt’s John Passion at least we get an impression, in a secular concert setting, of the power of Bach’s contribution to Good Friday Vespers.

Metamorphosen

The Aurora orchestra recently performed Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen at the Proms—where, like the John Wilson orchestra, it has made an invigorating recent addition to their house bands. The piece is always a moving experience, not least thanks to its intimate chamber form, with eloquent elegiac solo strings.

(I wasn’t even going to mention their Eroica in the second half. But with the band standing, now playing from memory before a rapt Prom audience, it had all the electrifying directness of involvement that you get from a live jazz big band. As with the orchestra’s other memorized renditions, however inauthentic such a practice may be, this is the 21st century, and this is one way of communicating now.)

* * *

Strauss composed Metamorphosen during the closing months of World War Two, from August 1944 to April 1945—just as Nazi panic at imminent disaster was leading to ever-more inhuman violence. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher, to whom Strauss dedicated it.

Much I as love many of Richard Strauss’s works, in that simplistic binary trap of ours I find myself siding firmly with Mahler.

Alex Ross devotes the first chapter of The rest is noise to “The golden age: Strauss, Mahler, and the fin de siècle”. Both composers “released images of fragmentation and collapse”, yet whereas Strauss (“earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical”) often seems sumptuous and glossy, Mahler was always heartfelt. Sure, I found it overwhelming to play Elektra (composed in 1909! Just as Mahler was being fêted in New York) in Dresden in 1980. And everyone knows the opening of Also sprach Zarathustrabut how many of us bask in the passage that immediately follows it, some of the most sumptuous string writing ever? Metamorphosen is among rather few of Strauss’s works where I can detect true sincerity.

* * *

Reading through endless discussions of Strauss’s relationship with Nazism, I’m little the wiser. (For context, see Ross, pp.333–70).

Both Nazi official and anti-Nazi émigrés made the same complaint about Strauss—that he acted like “a total bystander”.

As Michael White observes,

As for Furtwängler and the others who performed under the swastika, there was an undoubted mixture of foolishness, delusion, opportunism and cowardice. You can say of all these people that they should have had more courage, more integrity, and been prepared to sacrifice careers, futures and maybe lives. But that’s a big ask. What would you or I have done? I like to think I’d have been brave, but I can only thank God that I’ve never had to find out.”

Strauss was four years younger than Mahler, but outlived him by thirty-eight years. Who knows how, or if, Mahler would have adapted to Nazism—having already been welcomed to New York from 1908, one imagines him seeking refuge there. He (rather than a host of imitators, or his estate) might have profited from the film-music boom for which he was too early, but it’s intriguing to wonder how his work might have developed over a further three decades or more.

* * *

In 1947, the year after the first performance of Metamorphosen, with Europe in ruins, the Berlin Phil recorded the threnody (“authentically”) under Furtwängler (just imagine):

For me it was another formative experience to perform it at Cambridge in 1974 under Charles Groves—in the same concert where we played the summery Mozart C major piano concerto.

As a late flowering of depth and intimacy, Metamorphosen belongs with The four last songs. Here’s Kirsten Flagstad with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia in London in 1950—when the world, however deeply scarred, was being transfigured again:

More Rachmaninoff

I’ve already posted a wonderful performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd symphony, but the recent Prom included another moving version, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. I Like the Cut of his Jib, as Adrian Chiles observed prophetically about Guus Hiddink’s managing of the South Korean football team in 2002. Nor is the BBC Scottish to be sniffed at. I loved their Mahler 5 at the 2015 Proms, with Donald Runnicles.

With typical Prom flair, the concerto and symphony were introduced by concert versions of Orthodox liturgy sung by the Latvian radio choir. You can find the whole concert here for the next month.

After the 3rd piano concerto, the encore of Vocalise led me to Rachmaninoff’s 1929 studio recording of his orchestral version:

Of all versions, you can’t beat it on theremin:

Cinema Paradiso

As a change from the Rite of Gran visits York and Li Manshan, I do hope you know Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988), and its soundtrack. Morricone’s* music comes into its own in the overwhelming final sequence—not merely sentimental but a triumph over prurient censorship. You really have to watch the film all the way through—but hey, here goes:

Even in concert, the Big Tune is irresistible—all the more so with violin playing like this, from a 2011 Prom:

In the right hands, it would sound great on the erhu too.

For more on Italian film, see here, and indeed here.

 

* Actually, it being a father–son collaboration, I should perhaps write Morricones’—hmm.

NYO Prom: The Rite

Rite

Forty-seven years after playing The Rite of Spring with the National Youth Orchestra (“Yeah, I KNOW…”), I just heard them doing it at the Proms.

In The shock of the new I reflected on the scandalous première, the ballet, jazz and HIP versions, and a rendition on organ.

Like the NYO’s other Proms in recent years (TurangalîlaMahler 9; cf. here), there’s something special for the audience in experiencing young performers relishing challenging modern masterpieces, sizzling with energy and commitment. The Rite may have become more of a repertoire piece than it was even in 1970, but it never fails to amaze. Even if I missed Boulez—who relished the sensuality as well as the violence of the piece (“Not A Lot of People Know That”—I grew up with his Mahler and Ravel too).

The complete BBC4 broadcast included a feature before The Rite with lovely paeans to the band from some of the great conductors who have worked with them, including Boulez and Rattle—the latter himself an alumnus. Our 1970 Rite with Boulez wasn’t at the Proms, but our 1971 Prom with him included more Gran visits York (sorry, I mean Igor Stravinsky), as well as Bartok, Berg, Webern, and Debussy. Wow, how awesome is that—as we hadn’t yet learned to say...

The Proms: more Ravel

I always admire Esa-Pekka Salonen in concert—and not merely because of the fine story (about his interview for the LA Phil) that I love to relay, illustrating establishment mindsets in both WAM and Daoist studies.

Sheherazade

And I can never resist a live performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade. At the Prom yesterday it was just magical. The venue itself creates a remarkable intimacy—the special communication between performers and Prommers, rapt attention, unique silences. Marianne Crebassa’s singing was exquisite: embodying Ravel’s intimate parlando style, she was always a vehicle for the nuance and drama of the text, deftly avoiding the diva trap. And Salonen conducts with suitably detached clarity. (For L’indifférent, see also here.)

Reluctant as I was to break the spell, John Adams’s grand Naïve and sentimental music eventually won me over.

Hot on the heels of my implausible link from Bach to Stravinsky, the concert began with a more convincing one, Stravinsky’s Variations on Vom himmel hoch. Reading Richard Taruskin as I am just now, I was more in the mood for it than usual.

Proms of yore: the Bach double

AM&RP

Great Proms of our time: how wonderful to have been part of the AAM Prom in 2004, with Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze, the yin and yang of baroque violin, playing the Bach double. Alas, I now find it’s disappeared from YouTube, but here’s their 1996 recording:

It’s a piece that has constantly been rediscovered by audiences over my lifetime. For my generation, brought up on Oistrakh and Menuhin (1958—canonical then, now sounding so joyless as to be hard to take), more recent HIP renditions, no less heartfelt, have given it a new lease of life.

I knew Menuhin’s jazz duets with Grappelli, but not the latter’s 1937 Paris recording of the Bach with Eddie South—accompanied by Django Reinhardt! Alas, it’s just the first movement:

For more on reception history, see my posts on a Haydn trio, Rachmaninoff—and of course Bach Passions (here, here, and here).

The Proms, YAY

“Concerts” are a niche activity within the broad spectrum of music-making in human societies. Generally I find them a necessary evil, but with the festival of the Proms getting under way today (daily for the next two months), as usual I’m all agog (yes, a Complete Gog) for my favourite concert series.

Critical of concert halls too, I’m more than happy to settle for the Victorian setting of the Albert Hall—round buildings have a distinctive ambience, and the unique receptive atmosphere of the series is largely attributable to the Prommers in the Arena.

If you think my blog is mired between populism and elitism, then get this—WAM for Yoof:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01mv2zh

That’s F hashtag minor, not A flat miner, you note.

 

Practice makes perfect

More WAM ethnography:

Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.

Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes  did.

The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):

“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!”
—John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.

(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and

“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.”
—John Wilbraham (Jumbo) on Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Noddy)

(For more orchestral nicknames, see here).

Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:

Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole piece perfectly.

After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,

“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”

“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”

Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.

Hours, days, millennia

Another feast of wonderful programmes to explore on BBC Radio 3 for International Women’s Day—women composers deserving wider attention, like those of Renaissance Ferrara; Fanny Mendelssohn, Ethel Smyth; and young composers right now. Loads more on the website—like this playlist including Amy Beach, Sofia Gubaidulina, Carole King, Sally Beamish, Joan Baez, Judith Weir, Chen Yi, Elisabeth Maconchy, Tineke Postma, Louise Farrenc… or this one, with 34 composers from Hildegard von Bingen right down to today.

And then there are all the great women singer-songwriters in pop and punk.

Hmm, one hour a day for Woman’s Hour, one day a year for Women’s Day. I do realise that they’re not entirely bound within these little cages, but still…Hey-ho. Somehow this day seems more significant this year, given the need to fight the misogyny of the current White House.

The “PC gone mad” brigade, with bees in their dainty little bonnets, may throw their toys out of the pram yet again. The often-cited riposte to the Neanderthals who bleat “Why can’t we have a Men’s Hour, eh?” is that that’s basically what all the other hours are.

slogan

While I’m about it, there’s nothing you can possibly play after Turangalîla, or even after its infinitely growing long final chord—but at the National Youth Orchestra’s Prom in 2012, they did manage to find a wonderful encore that somehow matches the spirit of Turangalîla, channelling its mood, both hieratic and exhilarating:

It’s even moving when the band gets back to clapping the composer as she comes on stage to acknowledge the audience’s clapping…

Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham

WAGZ score

Hesi prelude and opening of Qi Yan Hui suite: score showing melodic outline in gongche solfeggio, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian county, Hebei.

It was Yoyo Ma who put me onto playing the Preludes of Bach cello suites as a kind of alap. Actually, that’s how he introduced the Allemande, the second movement of the 6th suite, playing it al fresco as thanks for our group of helpers at the amazing Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road in 2002, which he was curating.

As I come to adapt the Bach cello suites for violin, I consider how to play the opening two movements of the 6th suite on their own. Should I play the Allemande first, as a kind of alap? Or else take Bach’s opening movement with majesty rather than virtuosity, at an exploratory rather than hectic pace, as a kind of prelude to the alap of the Allemande… Either way can work.

Prelude and Allemande, 6th cello suite, manuscript of Anna Magdalena Bach.

For wise words on, not to say wonderful renditions of, the cello suites, we can turn to Steven Isserlis (click here for the CD set). Here he is playing the 5th suite (the Prelude here unambiguously meditative, like both the later Allemande and Sarabande):

For another Bach Allemande that seems to suit an alap-esque style, see here.

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni likens the bariolage of the Prelude to the marranzanu Sicilian jew’s harp. The 6th suite, of course [sic—Ed.], was written for a five-string cello, but—in the current spirit of austerity—I make do with four.

While learning Bach (or indeed shengguan ritual melodies), one has to take care not to take a wrong turning. Like driving in Birmingham, if you take a false exit then you can find yourself going round in circles for hours.

Brum

Anyway, free-tempo movements (known as sanban 散板 in educated Chinese) are more commonly associated with solo genres like folk-song and qin—unlikely bedfellows. Apart from alap, one thinks of Middle Eastern taksim, or the Uyghur muqaddime (the singing of the latter ideally accompanied by the wonderful satar long-necked bowed lute). In these genres, the term “free-tempo” isn’t precise, since they do indeed have a underlying pulse.

Slow ensemble preludes called pai’r are also an exquisite feature of the lengthy suites of Buddhist and Daoist ritual shengguan ensembles. As with shengguan suites altogether, the pai’r in Hebei (see e.g. here, under West An’gezhuang) are best heard with a small ensemble, like the fantastic group of Gaoqiao village in Bazhou (audio playlist #8, from Plucking the Winds, CD #14—see commentary; this movement actually follows the opening pai’r, but itself opens with its own lengthy sanban prelude), where the heterophony of the four melodic instrument types can be best appreciated.

Such preludes are also a feature of ritual suites around Xi’an. But they are strangely absent from the suites of Daoist ritual repertoires in north Shanxi like those of the Li family—which are otherwise clearly related to the suites of old Beijing, still played in Hebei.

And don’t miss Aretha’s extraordinary alap to Amazing Grace! And the exquisite expositions of dhrupad (here and here)!!!