08 December 2014

Rutterless At Christmas

Pinned to the notice board in an office where I once worked was an old yellowing cartoon apparently torn from a newspaper.  It must have been up there for years and, by virtue of having other notices pinned over it at various times, had somehow survived the passage of time.  When visitors to the office did happen upon it, it invariably induced a wry smile from those in the know, and sometimes even a hearty laugh.  Even now, I can still picture it in my mind’s eye and have a chuckle whenever I think of it.  It was not particularly well drawn or eye-catching, but the humour was in the six words which came out of the mouth of one of the cartoon characters.  It depicted a church choir singing away lustily in what was obviously a Christmas service.  As most of them sung, one chorister was clearly whispering to another as he eyed the music in his hands; “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rutter”.  (I rooted out a copy of the cartoon on the internet and reproduce it below...until such time as the copyright holders - whom I cannot identify - tell me to take it down!)

(Even the more musical readers in some countries may not get the joke, so perhaps some explanation (and an image) are necessary.  There was once a heavily marketed spread which, by use of a concoction of unpleasant sounding chemicals and a lurid yellow dye, sold itself on looking and – apparently - tasting so much like butter that even the most accomplish gourmands could not tell the difference.)

Like all really good jokes, this had more than a hint of truth about it;  Since the 1970s when he started issuing his carol arrangements to the world through the follow-up volumes to the iconic green Carols for Choirs book, the name of John Rutter has become so synonymous with Christmas that, like the cartoon choir boy, few of us could conceive of any Christmas carol concert or service without the ubiquitous Rutter carol arrangement with its saccharine harmonies and gracefully oozing instrumental descant (preferably an oboe or flute when an orchestra is present, or a sweet 8 foot flute stop when it’s just an organ).  And as the years have passed and his stranglehold on Christmas tightened, so Rutter has added more to the repertoire than just mere arrangements; now we also sing his innocuous melodies and his own sweet words.  Christmas without Rutter seems as likely as Sea without Water.

Or at least it did until this year.

Having attended no less than five Christmas Carol events in the last week alone (in a Roman Catholic cathedral, an Anglican church, a school, on a beach and, most spectacularly, in Sydney Opera House) I feel as if reality is slipping from my grasp; for not one of these has presented even the merest whiff of Rutter.  No saccharine harmonies, no gracefully oozing descants, no innocuous melodies or sweet words; at least, not of the John Rutter variety.  David Willcocks (one of the original Carols for Choirs editors) has been represented in force, as have all the old favourites in their original versions (the ones choirs were quite happy to sing before the Advent of Carols for Choirs).  On top of that there have been some novelties, some of which (Jan Sandström’s magical arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen magically sung by the massed voices of the Sydney Philharmonia Choir, Vox and the Festival Chorus dotted around a concert hall lit only by the atmospheric blue lights attached the choirs’ music folders, and  Ben Parry’s arrangement of the Coventry Carol sung with lusty enthusiasm by the adolescent tenors and basses of the King’s School choir) will live in the memory long after Christmas has past, while others (Lin Marsh’s Diamond Bright and the almost frighteningly dreary Abigail’s Song by Murray Gold) I am desperately hoping will have faded from memory long before the first Christmas tree needles have begun to drop.  But of Rutter?  Not a hint.

The Sydney Opera House managed to find almost three hours of Christmas
music without even a whiff of John Rutter 
As conductor Brett Weymark put it during his extended pep talk to the audience at last night’s marathon (almost 3 hours) Sydney Opera House Carol concert, it is not the decorations, the tinsel, the cards or the window displays in the shops which put you in the Christmas mood, it is the sound of Christmas music.  How right he is.  With most stores putting up Christmas decorations months before the event, and Christmas cards now all too often sent electronically in that easy-come easy-go manner of all internet communication, these visual things have lost any meaning.  But a choirboy singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” -  a fulsome-toned lad by the name of Mack Holz is the best I’ve heard so far this year - a brass band playing “Silent Night” (with waves breaking on the beach and the noise of passing traffic and several fire sirens forming a distinctly un-Christmassy backdrop) and a robed choir intoning “Veni Emmanuel” as incense is wafted over an Advent wreath, has the goose bumps popping up as, once again, the magic of Christmas makes itself manifest, not through my eyes but through those more direct channels to the heart, my ears.

Strangely, though, Christmas does not seem right without a “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”, a “Donkey Carol” or a delicate arrangement of the “Sans Day Carol”, and much as all Rutter sounds so alike that after a while it all merges together like the ingredients of a particularly sickly Christmas Pudding, I really do miss it when it’s not there.  Whether we like it or not, Rutter has become an integral part of Christmas and without his music, some of the magic seems to have gone.  You can have too much of it, but like butter, Rutter used sparingly does no harm at all and actually makes a very welcome Christmas treat.

28 November 2014

A Pleasing Music

“In every known culture, the ordering of sound in ways that please the ear has been used extensively to improve the quality of life.”  These words appear in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, The Psychology of Happiness.  Prof. Csikszentmihalyi has devoted much of his life to studying the psychology of happiness and creativity, so we should expect this to be a true statement.  Certainly it sounds as if it could be true, and the notion is an enticing one for anybody who wants academic support for an argument promoting the value of music in human existence.  But is it true and, more importantly, does it properly reflect the function of music?

(As it stands, this statement does not refer specifically to music, but as it comes at the very start of section in the book headed “The Flow of Music” and is followed by a statement that “one of the most ancient and popular functions of music is to focus the listeners’ attention on patterns appropriate to a desired mood”, it is certainly to music, rather than the organisation of sounds into a spoken language, that Prof. Csikszentmihalyi is addressing his comments.)

My few and feeble ventures into the realms of ethnomusicology have taught me that in many cultures music is functional rather than enriching.  Music intended to ward off spirits, to scare birds at sewing time, to mourn the dead or to accompany a sacred rite was never intended to please the ear, and in many cultures that is the only music which has been created.  Audience reactions at “world music” festivals when the functional music of differing cultures is performed, rarely touch on how the sound pleases the ear; “fascinating”, “exciting” and (I regret to say as often as not in my case) “troubling” and “incomprehensible” are the usual responses, and on those occasions where words like “beautiful” and “enchanting” crop up, it is tinged with surprise; as if nobody actually expects world music is to be immediately pleasing to the ears.  I know of many cultures in which the struggle for daily existence leaves no room for the idle and time-consuming search for something which merely pleases the ears. 

The matter of whether or not music written deliberately to please the ear is found in “every known culture” is certainly open to debate.  I am sure it is an incorrect statement, but Prof. Csikszentmihalyi (and his editors) would certainly have checked his facts thoroughly, so I am open to persuasion.  That, though, is not the real concern I have with his original statement.  What offends me most is his failure to grasp the true function and purpose of western classical music; a music certainly born of a “known culture”, even if it has now become essentially multi-cultural in both its creation and dissemination.

Western classical music can exist without sound.  It uses sound as its medium of transmission, the means by which it is communicated to the listener, but for those who create, and for a great many who are involved in it, sound is not essential to its appreciation.  On the most obvious level, how else can one explain the significant involvement in the creation of music by the deaf (Beethoven and Smetana were by no means the only composers who created great music while completely unable to hear sound)?  Logically, therefore, music must have some more important driving force behind its creation than merely to “please the ear”. 

I would suggest that only in our own time has music been written with the express purpose of pleasing the ear.  I may be wrong, but I suspect that this a (if not the) primary objective behind the music of such composers as Eric Whitacre, whose music is lovely to hear but does not stand up to closer scrutiny.  Making beautiful sounds is clearly a 21st-century thing in music; hence the proliferation of best-selling albums and high-earning artists who promote their concerts with the word “beautiful” prominent in the publicity.  But where beauty - or at least “pleasing the ear” - occurs in earlier music, I would suggest is by accident rather than design.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is deemed beautiful. It is, but I cannot accept that it was composed with that aspect in mind. I am certain that much of Bach’s music was specifically designed not to please the ear, but to satisfy the intellect and, to a certain extent, confuse the ear into feeling that the music was beyond the full appreciation of ordinary mortal man; appreciated and understood only by God, for whom it was written as an act of homage.  Hence the emphasis on complex textures – polyphony and counterpoint – which cannot be properly grasped by any human ear in one sitting.

Mozart is frequently proclaimed as the penner of beautiful tunes, audiences sit attentive in concert halls lapping up the gorgeous tunes of Johann Strauss, Berlioz is cited as a composer whose music is lovely to hear and people lap up the soothing tones of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt.  But not one of them wrote music simply to please the ears of passive listeners.  Mozart was writing for performers, aware that as often as not few people were actually listening to his music.  Berlioz had profound and burning ideas to express, and stretched the bounds of what was acceptable in order to express them; more than any other composer before the 20th century he deliberately set out not to please the ear but to shock it.  Strauss wrote his music to accompany dancing, while the music of both Tavener and Pärt is a manifestation of their deep religious convictions – music intended to express the inconceivable rather than titillate the conceived.

Different audiences take different things from performances of Western classical music, often driven by their particular cultural background, and the very universality of music, the huge variety of responses it produces, is testament to the fact that it is appreciated on a multitude of different levels.  Some listeners, certainly, enjoy it merely for pleasing the ear; these, presumably, are the shallow creatures who glibly dismiss music which does not have nice sounds as “noise”, and write off the works of some of the 20th century’s more adventurous composers as “not music”.  But enticing as it is to accept Prof. Csikszentmihalyi’s statement at face value, it is not only wrong, but represents a dangerous misconception of what music really is.  He belittles the culture which developed music to stimulate the senses, fire the imagination, focus the emotions and, in short, not just enhance the quality of life with its pleasing sounds, but to affect the very purpose of existence

16 November 2014

Musical Irresponsibility Australian-style

“It’s very irresponsible of me, I know, but I can’t resist playing this to you.  So my apologies as, for the next 13 minutes, office productivity drops and those heading for work arrive late.”  The lady presenting the breakfast show on ABC Classic FM in Australia was very certain of the power of the music she was about to play.  “Our researches show that whenever we play this, there is a marked reduction of productivity in factories and offices and our listening figures rocket.”  Even a manic radiophile such as myself finds this difficult to believe; and, if true, it only goes to show how much more involved in listening to “classical” music the Australians are than any other race on the face of the earth.  (But there again the same lady – or a different one with a very similar voice – told us on yesterday’s programme that “staying with Baroque music, here’s an aria by Mozart”, which may imply a casualness in correctitude amongst the presenters of ABC Classic FM.) Taking the statement at face value - that there is a single piece of music which, when played over the air, brings Australia to a standstill - it might tell us even more about Australian musical sensitivities when we discover what that piece of music is.

Even as I sat, with bated breath, waiting for the rambling preamble to give way to the music, I started guessing what it could be.  Knowing the amazing parochialism of ABC Classic FM (every performance involving an Australian player – even if it’s just third flute in a foreign orchestra – is associated with words like “brilliant”, “dazzling”, “wonderful”, while aged recordings of unexceptional music by long-forgotten Aussie composers are heralded as “gorgeous”, “lovely”, “amazing”) I guessed it might be some Malcolm Williamson, Don Banks maybe even Percy Grainger.  That, though, might be stretching a point even for ABC Classic FM; so perhaps more likely contenders would be Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Pachelbel’s Canon or the slow movement of the Mozart “Elvira Madigan” Concerto (although that last one gets so much airing on Australian TV where it accompanies a nasty little advert for Lexus cars, I doubt even it has the power to stop a nation any more).  Tchaikovsky, Bach and Grieg could all be relied on for potential nation-stopping moments, and, for my part, there are chunks of Stravinsky (the “Alleluias” from Symphony of Psalms), Mendelssohn (the “Baal choruses” from Elijah) and Monteverdi (the opening of Orfeo) which never fail to stop me in my tracks. 

Perhaps, though, the most likely contender would be the “Adagio” from Schubert’s String Quintet; a movement which always seems to catch you unawares with its instant ascent into the realms of the ecstatic.  I remember when it cropped up playing in the background of an episode of that wonderful UK TV series, Inspector Morse it suddenly became everyone’s favourite piece of “classical” music, in much the same way that the “Adagio” from Khachaturian’s Spartacus was when it provided the signature tune for the TV series The Onedin Line and Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela in an earlier era captured the hearts of viewers to Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night.

Oddly, though, the piece which stops Australia – or at least measurably reduces productivity – is a Schubert Trio.  Odd, because while it is certainly pleasant enough, it certainly does not have the kind of “grab” factor which makes you stop what ever you are doing to listen.  Some music has that “grab” factor, but I don’t recognise it in the Schubert Trio.  For the record, I think it was the E flat D929 they played but, frankly, I had other things to do and was not sufficiently taken by the recorded performance played over the air to listen through to the end and hear precisely which one had been played to us so irresponsibly.

I accept totally that playing certain pieces of music over the air can verge on the irresponsible.  The connection between certain pieces of music played whilst one is involved in potentially dangerous activities (notably driving) and the ability of the listener to carry out those functions safely is well researched and documented, and programme planners should (they certainly used to in my days of broadcasting) bear such things in mind when setting out playlists.  It was certainly a clever piece of presentation for the announcer to build up the Schubert in that way, but I can’t really believe it was anything more than that.

24 October 2014

Live Once and Go

The opening of the Klais organ of the Esplanade concert hall in Singapore in 2000 was marked by a series of imaginative and exciting events which did much to promote the organ in Singapore.  How sad, then, that the organ programme there seems to have run out of steam; not, I hasten to add, for want of imagination or care in planning, but because it would seem that higher management felt that the organ was too much of a niche market for the resources and energy involved in running a recital series. (Although can there be any sane person in arts’ management who does not realise that all areas of classical music – if not the arts in general – is very much a niche market?)  The actual inaugural recital for the organ was given by Thomas Trotter; and a pretty phenomenal performance it was too, with a superb programme dazzlingly played and brilliantly presented.  The next morning, a local organist was scheduled to show off the organ’s various features in another informal recital.  While Trotter’s programme had been announced well in advance, the local organist had not listed a programme, and so it caused a certain amount of bemusement amongst the gaggle of organists who attended both when, for the morning recital, it transpired that the local organist was to play some of the music Trotter had performed at his recital the previous evening.

Sadly, the local organist was no match for Trotter in terms of technique, musicianship or presentation skills, and those who had been there the previous evening found it difficult to take the morning performance seriously.  Why, we asked ourselves, would any half-intelligent organist willingly embark on a head-to-head with one of the undisputed giants of the genre?  The only logical answer we could find was that the local organist had felt that it might be interesting to hear two different performances of the same music on the same organ.  Unfortunately, so different was the latter player’s attempt from the former’s that, far from being illuminating, it was downright embarrassing.

I am reminded of that strange occurrence because a course I have been running for university students which involved comparing several different recorded performances of the same work has, because of my extended absence, been taken over by another lecturer who has suggested that, rather than compare recorded performances, it might be a good idea for the students to compare different live performances.  Initially, I could see no reason why not, but then, on deeper reflection, I now see a great many reasons why it would be an exceptionally bad idea.

Performances on record – be they studio recordings or recordings made from “live” performances – do work to the same goals.  They are performing to an individual, listening in the clinical environment of an electronic playback device.  The atmosphere, occasion and environment in which the performance is heard is identical on every occasion (and as the audience chooses the date, time and place of the performance, we can assume the circumstances are pretty much the same each time), so the different performances are, in effect, presented on a level playing field.  By comparing like with like one can come up with a coherent argument as to why one is better than the other.

Such is not the case with a live performance where the atmosphere, occasion and environment are very different each time.  Orchestras who present the same programme on consecutive occasions in the same building will be the first to acknowledge that there is a wealth of difference between these performances, largely governed by the atmosphere in the hall which is, in itself, dictated not by the music but by the audience, who may be eager, restless, be sitting in silent anticipation or noisy distraction.  A gaggle of noisy children in the front row on the Friday may unsettle the audience, while a half-empty hall on the Saturday will depress the performers.  The performance itself will be affected by perceived responses from the audience as the music progresses, and a great performance on a Friday night can become a dismal one on the Saturday not because of any change in the quality of music-making, but by the way in which the audience’s reaction colours the commitment or otherwise of the individual players. 

On top of that, as recorded performances are intended to be played over and over again, small passing errors have to be expunged; in so-called “live” recordings, those corrections are made in subsequent patching sessions which are usually done without an audience present.  I’ve recently had for review one of the few discs I know where the recording is of a genuine live performance which has not been subjected to subsequent patching; and pretty odd it is too, with wrong notes, coughs, traffic noise and a few technical blemishes from the engineers becoming disproportionately obstructive to enjoyment on each occasion the disc is played.  I’m sure those who were at the deeply impressive live performance find the recording a heart-warming souvenir reinforcing their memories of a marvellous concert; those who were not there can only wonder what all the fuss is about as an errant clarinet squawks harshly during a general pianissimo and a recalcitrant audience member coughs heartily beneath a microphone.  The music’s there, somewhere, but it’s as if you are trying to reach it through a fog of ancillary noises.

The problem with setting out to compare live performances is that they can never be assessed in the same, virtually identical circumstances as a recorded performance.  Asking my replacement lecturer how the live assessments were to be made, she suggested that three or four students should each play the same work, on the same piano, in the same auditorium and to the same audience in immediate succession.  There are huge problems with this.  If the music is not generally known to the listener, then the very first performance they hear will seriously affect their judgements of all the subsequent ones.  The first performance may be poor – full of wrong notes and errors of judgement – but it will be the one the audience uses to establish the yardstick by which the subsequent performances are measured, and if those performances are better, the audience could well think them worse, because they sound different from the first they heard.  On top of that, an audience tires of hearing the same work played repeatedly, and the last performance is likely to receive a less sympathetic hearing than, say, the second.  There is simply no way anyone can fairly compare live performances.

But, when all is said and done, what is the point?  The live performance is geared to a certain occasion and wins or loses on its own merits; interpretation of the music is only a part of the totality.  Much as we may nostalgically look back on live performances we have enjoyed – “I much preferred Andrew Davis’s performance of Walton’s First Symphony at the Proms in 1990 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to Abdul Omar with the Malaysian Symphony in Kuala Lumpur in 2009” – the distance, geographical, chronological and experiential, negates anything other than an emotional response.  By their very nature, live performances are transitory, and attempting to preserve them by comparing them with others is to fundamentally misunderstand the whole point of a live musical performance.

Our Singaporean organist may be an excellent player, be possessed of a superb technique and incisive musicianship, but I can never recognise these qualities because my judgement has been so seriously clouded by the unfair comparison I was forced to make all those years ago. 

22 September 2014

Music in the Mind

At the age of 60 I still do not know whether a condition I have experienced since my earliest childhood is a problem for me or a benefit.  Indeed, until a few years ago I assumed it was common to anyone who enjoyed music, and my suspicions that it might not be only arose when I noticed people had stopped reading newspapers on trains.

There was a time when any railway carriage was full of people so deeply immersed in their daily newspapers that silence ruled.  Conversations were virtually non-existent, whispered comments to neighbours occasioned a mass shuffling of papers as angry faces looked round to see who had broken the unwritten rule of silence, and only the intermittent cough was tolerated.  I rather naively assumed the world was deeply absorbed in the affairs of the day; the political intrigues, the commercial gossip and the woeful deeds on far distant shores.  Yet, almost without my noticing it, newspapers have gone.  In those places where free-sheets are thrust at erstwhile commuters there is a choking mass of discarded paper littering the seats and luggage racks where they have been curiosity glanced and immediately discarded, but I cannot remember when I last saw anyone on a train reading a newspaper which they had actually paid for. 

The newspapers have gone, and railway carriages are no longer silent, but people still do not look at each other or communicate with their neighbours in anything more than an embarrassed whisper.  Today’s commute is accompanied by the irritating beeping of text tones on mobile phones and the wheezing of noise-leaking earphones (not to mention the incessant on-board announcements) while, in place of newspapers, just about every passenger is wholly absorbed by the miniature screens of their electronic devices while their ears are filled with small speakers attached, usually by means of thin white leads, to a tiny device which seems to constitute the entire focus of their active attention.  I realise that, far from nourishing a keen interest in world affairs, the newspaper was merely a means by which commuters could occupy their minds; as soon as something more entertaining came along, the newspapers went out of the window.  This has made me realise that my condition is rare for, while I took (and continue to take) a keen interest in world affairs, I have never felt the need for any external stimulus to help pass the time on a journey. My condition is one in which my mind remains so fully occupied that far from craving some artificial means to keep it active, I positively resent distractions.

I once mentioned my condition to some colleagues and, as if to confirm my suspicions, most could not begin to understand what it was I was experiencing.  But one later conspiratorially took me aside to confess that he, too, suffered the same condition; “I was really worried”, he told me, “I always assumed I was a little abnormal”.  The very fact that this condition affects so few people has led me to question what effect it is having on me.  I am beginning to think that my chronic shyness, my inability to sustain conversations, my tendency to be dismissive in my comments and my total lack of small-talk are not the result of a badly flawed personality (which I had always assumed I had) but the side-effects of my life-long condition.

And what is this condition?  If it has a medical term, I do not know it (although it is perhaps related to synaesthesia), but the symptoms are easily described.  From the moment I wake each day to the moment I fall asleep my life is accompanied by music.  At any given moment during my conscious existence, there is music playing vividly in my head.  The same piece rolls over and over again, not in its entirety but in little snippets which I can edit and replay at will, until another suddenly and unbidden takes over.  On the few occasions when I wake in the night (I am a very good sleeper) the music is there, and in most cases its comforting presence helps rather than hinders me fall back into sleep.  Often I have no idea what triggers off any particular piece of music; recently I have had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Elgar’s Chanson de Matin, and regular visitors to the Rochester head concert are Franck’s Violin Sonata and Bach’s Double Violin Concerto.  Sometimes I do not even know what the music which plays in my head is, and I can, with an act of extreme mental pressure, draw in any piece at will to take over what is already there.  Usually, though, I just let the music play until its time is up. 

The Trigger for a
worrying condition
The matter has come to a head (if you will pardon the pun) since, for the last few days I have been totally unable to expunge the Duruflé Requiem from my head.  I was at a conference in London over the weekend during which much music was played and much discussion about it pursued.  I listened intently to the music and joined in enthusiastically in the discussions, but as soon as there any kind of lapse in proceedings, up popped the good old Duruflé Requiem and off I went into my strange inner world.  Coffee breaks saw me hiding in a corner dreading the attention of even my closest friends; so unwilling was I to let go of which ever movement had taken residence in my consciousness at the time; and when someone did come to talk to me just after the Agnus Dei had begun, I did rather brush him aside; which has ever since mortified me.  I see him once a year; the Duruflé is with me all the time.

I know what sparked the Duruflé off in my head.  It was a new recording sent for review from the choir of Westminster Abbey and the Britten Sinfonia conducted by James O’Donnell.  Not the best performance I have ever heard, but an exquisite interpretation of a work I have loved deeply ever since a revelatory performance of it my parents took me to in Guildford Cathedral way back in 1969.  But while the new recording is truly lovely – I think it is among the most deeply beautiful recordings I have ever heard – what runs in my head is neither this recording nor the Barry Rose-directed performance of 1969.  It is the work performed by the greatest choir and orchestra imaginable, in the most sumptuous sound and directed and interpreted as I want it; the music in my head is effectively my imagined interpretations rather than a mere echo of those I have heard before.

The sad fact is, however, that while the Duruflé is playing away in my head and occupying so much of my conscious existence, I find myself becoming dangerously introverted, dreading the company of others and restricting my utterances to gruff and terse comments which say what has to be said in as short a time as possible. My face reflects the inner turmoil, passion, grief and joy of the music (thereby sending out entirely the wrong signals to those around me) and I’m not at all sure, from the strange looks I was getting from fellow-passengers on the Heathrow Express as I headed away from my London conference, that I wasn’t occasionally muttering the sombre phrase “Requiem aeternam” out loud, like some morbidly-obsessed deranged escapee from a secure institution.

I know that a widely varied group of people read this blog.  I hope that, among them, there will be a psychiatrist or two who can advise whether I need medical attention to rid me of this crippling ailment, or whether I am one in a million blessed with a priceless mental gift.  At the age of 60, should I finally start to worry?

03 September 2014

Singapore Prom Time

The first time I heard Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony at the Proms, it got rather a frosty reception.  Indeed, I recall the Proms Marshalls, as I labelled that handful of seasoned Prommers who populated the front of the arena and issued instructions as to what and when we were to shout out, urging us all not to applaud when the Symphony came to an end.  It certainly was not the orchestral playing which upset us; we were hearing the Leningrad Phil, then one of the world’s truly great orchestras, and they were everything they were cracked up to be.  What annoyed so many of the audience was the fact that not only were they playing the version with its wholesale cuts, but that it was driven along in an urgent, businesslike manner which seemed to imply the orchestra had no interest in the music and were only playing it under duress.  They got the whole thing over and done with in under 40 minutes.

Prommers at that time (it was the very early 1970s) had recently been introduced to the Symphony without cuts and in an expansive performance milking every last drop of emotion from it by a landmark recording from the LSO conducted by André Previn, who proved that there was more than enough great material from Rachmaninov to stretch out for 59 minutes and still leave us wanting more.  If the Soviets couldn’t be bothered to treat the work properly, they didn’t deserve our applause.  Since then the British audience has felt a certain ownership for Rach 2 and woe betide the conductor who makes cuts or glosses over its emotional significance.

No such hostility was ever going to face the Singapore Symphony Orchestra who performed the same Symphony last night at the Proms.  For a start they were going to give us the whole, uncut version.  And then Lan Shui, whose over-indulgent approach to the work I have often found mildly cloying, went to town on the over-indulgence managing to stretch the work out to a near record-breaking 65 minutes.  As an orchestra the Singapore Symphony wasn’t a patch on the Leningrad team, their ensemble was persistently ragged (hardly a single entry found all players together), at times the violins seemed in something approaching disarray and wind intonation was not all it might have been.  But music is not about right notes, seamless blend or perfect coordination; it is about communication and this was as vividly a communicative performance as anybody could wish for.  It seethed passion, pathos and power, it oozed emotion, empathy and excitement and it spoke in compelling, if sometimes cloudy, accents.

From the very outset Lan Shui was determined to milk the score for all he could get.  A prolonged silence prefaced the rumbling basses of the opening figure, setting off like some heavily laden super-tanker leaving harbour under its own steam, and we had reached the end of the Largo introduction at around the same time many conductors would have had most of the first movement over and done with.  Even into the Allegro moderato, we still were battling against the current, rubato piled on not so much by the shovel full as by the JCB bucket load, pauses stretched out to heart stopping length and a general licence with the pulse which seemed the musical equivalent of atrial fibrillation.  With the second movement things began to settle down, even if occasional bursts of energy were quickly stifled by the blanket of rubato, but by the time the matchless third came along, Lan Shui had got the excess out of his system and was allowing the music to flow at its own pace.  I often describe the third movement clarinet theme as “seeming to hover on the very brink of eternity”, and here it did just that.  We did not so much glimpse heaven as look lingeringly and lovingly over it.  The Prommers have heard better; but they have heard a lot, lot worse and, as one colleague put it afterwards, you would need to go half way around the world to hear such a compelling performance again.

The orchestral untidiness was, unfortunately, rather too pronounced for comfort in the opening piece, Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila where a frenetic pace made it seem exciting but, whether from nerves, the unaccustomed acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall or simple carelessness, the SSO did not do proper justice to this popular showpiece of orchestral virtuosity.  We heard the noise the music made, but missed out on the detail.

The orchestra were on top of their game in the new work by Zhou Long, a piano concerto in all but name (its actual name was Postures).  Soloist Andreas Haefliger was superb in this somewhat hyper-active but often exceedingly arresting work, but the real strength lay in the orchestral playing.  Zhou Long’s use of blocks of orchestral sound rather than carefully dovetailed musical ideas (it was the piano which provided the connecting thread through these various orchestral effects) suited the Singapore players well and their command of what seemed quite a daunting score was deeply impressive.

However, as with most of the “world orchestras” who have performed thus far at the Proms, the SSO reserved their most dazzling playing for their encore.  Not part of their repertoire and learnt especially for this concert, they (and especially Lan Shui) astounded us all with their Waltonian credentials in the rarely-heard March A History of the English Speaking Peoples.  The blazing brass, the perky woodwind and the rich strings, not to mention the incisive percussion, all combined to create a simply stunning conclusion which made one wish that they might in future look towards Walton 1; they have the feel for this music and it certainly appealed to the Prommers who, perhaps even more so than Rachmaninov, feel a powerful sense of ownership for this music.

29 August 2014

Composer Interpreters

On one occasion I attended one of those Book Club/Meet the Author sessions where everyone reads a particular book in advance and then meets up to discuss it with the author, who also reads extracts from it.  It taught me two things.  The first was that, even where we all share a common language and come from largely similar cultural backgrounds, our responses to what we read are remarkably diverse.  A book I had read as a joyful celebration of the fundamental goodness of humanity, others saw as a commentary on the oppression of women, on the failure of Christianity to engage in modern society and as an indictment on the entire democratic system.  Characters I had seen as peripheral to the basic thrust of the story were regarded by others as significant, plot lines which I had felt drove the book along were regarded by others as distractions to the main thrust of the author’s argument and references to time and place which I had felt to be irrelevant clouded the entire perception of others.  The author, sometimes puzzled by lines of questioning and at other times apparently taken aback by the perceptiveness of his readers, gave every impression of accepting different opinions of his motives while acknowledging more than once that he “had not thought of it in that light”.

The second thing this meeting taught me was that authors are not always the best readers of their own work.  Beyond this occasion, I have heard poets on the radio deliver their lines in a totally impersonal and unconvincing manner, as well as authors stumble awkwardly over their own syntax.
Simply put, once the job of creation is done, the author’s involvement in the work is finished and the work is only enriched by subsequent interpretations made from a range of personal standpoints.  From what I can gather, that seems a pretty widespread view in the literary arts.  So why is it not the same in music?

There is, of course, one basic difference.  Unlike in literature, where the consumer (in this case the reader) is the interpreter, in music, because the language is inaccessible to the majority of consumers, the interpreter effectively adds a middle layer to the process.  Perhaps we can best see the role of the interpreter in music (the performer) as akin to that of a translator, bound by the original text, but free to communicate it in a way perceived to be most readily accessible to the consumer.  Certainly there is no parallel in the arts for the creator to be the ideal interpreter?  It is historically interesting to hear old recordings of, say, Rachmaninov performing his own music or Elgar directing his own scores, but does it in any way help us understand the music better?  I fervently believe that one of the things which makes art (or classical) music so infinitely rewarding to the listener is the very multi-layered path between creation and consumption.  By allowing the composer to perform his own music, we are missing out on a whole world of nuances introduced by the various interpreters of the original truth.
Which begs the question; Is there any artistic value in a composer performing his own music on disc?  A lot of them do it and, I have to admit, in many cases if the composer were not to record his own music, nobody else would.  There are instances where composers perform music which is neither published nor available to any other performer, while some use the CD to promote their music by suggesting that, if we like what we hear, we can purchase a download of the music from the composer’s own website.  Beyond that, however, some established composers devote much of their life to performing their own music on disc. Sent for review this week has been just such a disc, bearing the title “Hakim plays Hakim” and featuring some seven recent works by the Lebanese/Parisian organist/composer Naji Hakim. (Strangely, this is the third disc released on the Signum Classics label so entitled, yet this third one bears the suffix “Vol.1”.  Never mind; I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.)  My personal collection includes 14 CDs containing music by Hakim and performed by different organists, and I doubt there is anyone even loosely connected with the world of organ music who would argue that Hakim’s music is not of the very finest quality and deserving of interpretation by a wide variety of organists.

Naji Hakim is a brilliant organist, and his performances of music by others reveal an intense and searching interpretative mind supported by a superb technique.  But when it comes to his own music, I find his performances create a barrier rather than open a door to his musical intentions.  That barrier is part psychological; does he record it so much because he feels he cannot trust others to interpret it?  If so, surely that diminishes the artistic value of his music.  But it is also part physical; he is such a brilliant player that it is difficult to imagine anyone else performing his music so well, which rather negates the value of those who do.

I am very exercised in these thoughts because, were it anyone else playing these works, I would find fault in what sounds often like poorly controlled articulation and a tendency to let speed override technical constraints.  In some of the passagework, I detect uneven rhythmic articulation and smudgy detail; and were it any other player I would not be afraid to suggest this.  But because it is the composer, we tend to assume this is what he intended and, therefore, we cannot criticise the performance without implicitly criticising the music which, despite the fact that this disc inhabits an undiluted territory of fast and jolly music, I would not wish to do.  How better it would have been to hear someone else play this music so that we could the more easily distinguish between compositional weakness and performance weakness.  It strikes me Hakim is in danger of over-exposing himself on two fronts, and the result might be to diminish his stature on both.

Among my favourite historical recordings are several of Rachmaninov performing his own music.  But when I heard a young player attempt to emulate the lurching rubato and heart-stopping pauses the composer added to his playing (but not to his written-out scores), I was horrified and said so; to which the young pianist replied; “I was only doing what the composer himself did, and surely he knows what he wanted and we cannot argue with that?”  We can argue with it.  When it comes to performing their own music, composers no longer have exclusive interpretative rights and we should regard their performances as no more legitimate than anyone else’s.