18 February 2021

Shui's Rachmaninov

 Bis have released the full Rachmaninov orchestral recordings made by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra over the past decade. Here's my review from MusicWeb International.

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13 [45:32]

Symphonic Movement in D minor [14:16]

Prince Rostislav [14:30]

Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27 [61:23]

Vocalise, Op.34 No.14 [5:53]

Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44 [44:36]

Symphonic Dances, Op.45 [36:45]

The Rock, Op.7 [14:21]

Four excerpts from Aleko [14:35]

Capriccio bohémien, Op.12 [18:27]

Scherzo in D minor [4:43]

Prelude to The Miserly Knight, Op.24 [6:28]

The Isle of the Dead, Op.29 [20:02]


Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui (conductor)

rec. Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore. July 2008, July/August 2011, August 2012, July/August 2013, November 2014, November 2015.

Bis BIS-2512 [four discs - 306:11]


In 2019 Lan Shui stepped down as Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra – only the second holder of that post in the orchestra’s 40-year history.  His appointment in  1997 was followed by the orchestra’s move from the cramped and acoustically unedifying 900-seat colonial-era Victoria Concert Hall to the new, purpose-built 1800-seat Esplanade Concert Hall with its spacious auditorium, extensive backstage area and state-of-the-art (as they were then) acoustics.  Together, the changes of Music Director and performance home brought about a dramatic change in the orchestra.  Previously a mediocre band of fewer than 50 players performing to small audiences comprising mostly foreign visitors and expats, it was transformed into a fully-fledged, 96-strong symphony orchestra frequently playing to almost full houses of an increasingly engaged local audience drawn, in large part, by Shui’s preference for programming the big orchestral showpieces of the 19th and 20th centuries.  With a revitalised orchestra, a solid audience base, a top-notch performing venue and a growing international reputation, the Singapore Symphony caught the attention of Bis, who made no less than 28 recordings of the orchestra under Shui. These included the three Rachmaninov symphonies coupled with various other orchestral pieces, and these recordings, made between 2008 and 2015 in the generous acoustic of the Esplanade, have now been gathered together in a four-SACD box set.


That Shui was a protégé of Bernstein is manifestly obvious in his tendency to stop and wallow, self-indulgently at every opportunity for emotional excess, and then bustle along with almost indecent haste until it is time to stop and navel-gaze again.  For many – especially those who regard Rachmaninov as a kind of Chopin on steroids – this is the ideal approach, but it can suffocate the musical argument; as with the opening of the First Symphony, which unfolds with almost excruciating slowness, each note weighed down by an imposed significance which stifles any sense that this is leading anywhere.  But where emotion is suppressed by energy and the hustle and bustle of inner detail, Shui really draws some vivid playing from his Singapore orchestra.  The iconic Dies Irae theme is punched out with great effervescence in the second movement, to such an extent that the viola solo seems almost breathless as it fights to get its message out from under a canopy of eager pizzicato strings.  Shui also reveals an instinctive feel to pacing the approach to climaxes and, equally important in Rachmaninov, subsiding away from them, and in these his players are right there on his tails, readily responsive to his direction.  They are also prepared to give it their all when he decides to wallow in emotional rhetoric.


Almost inevitably, Shui pulls the emotional heartstrings of the third movement of the Second Symphony almost to breaking point, although overindulgence is compensated by a charmingly played, if rather thin-sounding clarinet solo, which keeps any sense of pathos at arm’s length.  But while opportunities for emotional wallowing are seized with alacrity, Shui also drives much of the music along with great impetuosity, making some of the more athletic passages (such as the fugue of the second movement) truly electrifying.  Shui’s tendency to over-state string portamentos in the finale really grates with me; but I accept that is a very personal matter, and there may well be those who find it, if anything, underdone.


For me, the most successful performance is that of the Third, a somewhat elusive work and something of the black sheep among Rachmaninov symphonies.  Shui underlines the wistfulness of it all, making sure we all get the message that this is an exercise in nostalgia; Rachmaninov in America, wishing he was back in pre-Soviet Russia where people respected him as a composer and did not just did not see him as some kind of freakish throwback, scowling at the new, forward-thinking land which had so generously opened its doors to him and paid for him to live in some luxury.  Flashes of optimism burst out in short-lived blazes of glory, which are effectively extinguished by the fire blanket of strings which Shui moulds so effectively, and even the apparent triumphalism of the final movement is played down to maintain the underlying sense of longing for times past.  This is a broad vision of the work, avoiding excessive introspection or overly dramatic climaxes, and it works extremely well; not least the exquisite violin solo in the second movement.  


The symphonies, lushly padded out by Shui and warmly played by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in the luxurious acoustic of the Esplanade Concert Hall, will provide an ample dose of sumptuous orchestral sound for many, but for those with a more inquisitive mind, it is the filler pieces on the discs which make this a particularly attractive set.  Filling the first disc (which largely comprises the First Symphony), is the movement of an otherwise stillborn “Youth” Symphony, composed when Rachmaninov was in his teens.  It is full of individual character and with the ghost of Tchaikovsky only occasionally evident; perhaps only the awkward ending shows a lack of compositional experience.  Here, Shui’s invigorating approach, injecting it with sizzling energy and vivacity, reveals a work of real distinction.  The ever-response orchestra includes some enchanting instrumental solos (notably the clarinet) and a brass section which oozes both menace and impressive power; you get the sense that Shui had his work cut out to keep this lot in check.  Immediately after the youthful symphonic movement, Rachmaninov composed Prince Rostislav, which, unlike the symphonies, has a clear and vivid programme – in this case a ballad by Tolstoy telling of a drowned knight awoken by a storm – which draws some wildly imaginative writing from Rachmaninov and some gloriously picturesque playing from the orchestra.  At times one is reminded of Lyadov’s Enchanted Lake in the dark, brooding opening (a fine exhibition of the Singapore bass section), while the timpani and harp as the storm breaks are among the absolute stars of this performance.(and are magnificently captured by Bis’s superb SACD sound).  Shui has a broad vision of the piece, and it comes across as a thoroughly self-assured musical tone-poem. 


The Vocalise which squeezes itself in beside the Second Symphony, needs no introduction.  Here it is performed in the orchestrated version Rachmaninov made in 1912.  It turns out to be a magnificent showpiece for the Singapore violins, which expound that timeless melody with a sense of yearning which seems appropriate given the rather bloated feel that inevitably comes from converting a simple vocal exercise into an orchestral showpiece.   The Symphonic Dances provide a singularly apt partner to the Third Symphony; both works written after Rachmaninov had left Russia and settled in the USA.  If the Symphony is an exercise in nostalgia, the Symphonic Dances are rather more obviously looking back (the first ends with an identical setting of the Dies Irae to that which came in the final movement of the First Symphony), and while a kind of mysterious veil hangs over this whole performance (recalling Ravel’s exercise in nostalgia – La Valse), Shui maintains a powerful dance momentum and ensures each instrumental group gets its own share in the limelight.  Perhaps the net result is a little impersonal, but as an exercise in finely blended orchestral colours, this is well worth hearing; and clearly the percussion are having a ball at the end of the last dance.


Attentive readers may have been wondering how three symphonies, the longest of which even when drawn out to its absolute limits still leaves a good 10 minutes to spare on a SACD playing time, can be stretched over four discs.  The answer comes with a collection of Rachmaninov orchestral pieces, none of them really symphonic, which comprises the intriguing fourth disc.  Rachmaninov’s very first orchestral work, Scherzo in D minor, written when he was just 14, shows, according to the booklet notes, “very little personal character”.  If that is so, nobody told Shui or his Singapore players, who invest it with great character and individuality.  True, the light bubbliness of the playing is more Mendelssohn than Tchaikovsky, and glimpses of what we now recognise as Rachmaninov are rare, but this is clearly the work of an extraordinarily talented and self-possessed young composer who, while he may have headed off in another direction, still had plenty of character of his own to put on display here. 


Other orchestral pieces on this disc are better known and already well represented in the catalogues, but these are performances which stand comparison with the very best. The Rock, like Prince Rostislav which preceded it by a couple of years, shows off the fine bass section of the orchestra, while the shimmering violins, haunting horn and skipping flute all add delightful splashes of colour, even if  Shui sometimes seems to lose the plot and the performance as a whole moves along rather uncomfortably.  Capriccio bohémien is a somewhat dark piece at the best of times (despite the title), but here it takes on an almost ominous feel with the pounding drums very much to the fore and the gypsy themes feeling as if they are drenched in blood.  The Isle of the Dead does not disguise its intentions, and even Rachmaninov was happy to draw attention to its visual stimulus.  Shui is utterly at home in music which both paints such vivid pictures and explores the full resources of his orchestra, and this is a sumptuously tailored performance, giving ample space to  the numerous solo passages as they emerge from the deep recesses of the orchestra and then melt back again.


It is as pointless a question as it is an intriguing one; what if the Bolshevik Revolution had never taken place and Rachmaninov had lived his entire creative life in Russia?  He would almost certainly have gone on to write a great deal more vocal music (he wrote 87 songs on Russian soil – none on American), and, given his instinctive feel for the dramatic, would probably have gone on to be regarded as one of the major opera composers of the 20th century.  As it is, Rachmaninov completed just three operas, but he began at least three others.  Orchestral music from two of those completed operas completes this fourth SACD.  We have here the prelude to The Miserly Knight in a somewhat jerky performance, although oozing the dark, brooding colours which Shui compellingly reveals, and a suite of orchestral excerpts from Aleko.  These work quite well divorced from the opera, the “Introduction” followed by the “Men’s Dance”, are full of Tchaikovskian bombast and melodramatic gestures delivered with relish by Shui and his Singapore players, a brief “Intermezzo” gives a chance for the Singapore strings to send out waves of gentle muted tone, although wind solos might benefit from a little more care over shaping, while the “Women’s Dance” seems rather faltering as Shui lingers a little too long and lovingly over the sensuous melodic lines.

03 December 2020

A Christmas Present for an Organist?

 Wanting a Christmas present for an organist?  This would do the trick - it was sent for me to review and here is my review from MusicWeb International.


Jenny Setchell

Pipeline Press . 256 pp.  Paperback


“Can you come to the church, as soon as you like?”  It was a call from the Dean of Derry who had gone to take a funeral at a small church on the other side of the city.  I was cathedral organist at the time and, assuming that the church’s organist had not turned up, I grabbed a black cassock, some music, and headed off to the church where I found a Dean and a posse of concerned undertakers standing around outside.  The deceased, it seems, was a spinster in her late 80s who had been living with her twin sister, who was the church organist and had chosen to play for the funeral.  Sadly, as she started to play, she died.  Not wishing to interrupt the proceedings with news of another death, the Dean had decided to go ahead with the funeral and sort out the second death afterwards.  His instruction to me was “to play as if you are a spinster in your late 80s” and I headed to the curtained-off console where, much to my horror, I found the dead organist laid out beside the stool.  I stumbled through the hymns and drooled octogenarian-spinster-style over the keys until the original deceased was taken out, at which point the local doctor (who was in the congregation) took over.  Afterwards I asked the Dean when he had been aware that the organist had died; “Only a few minutes before the service, when I noticed that she seemed to have been playing the same note for quite a long time”.


Scratch the surface of any organist, and you will find dozens of equally improbable but genuinely true anecdotes crawling around just waiting to be released.  Jenny Setchell has done just that, contacting somewhere in the region of  120 organists scattered across the globe (each of whom is given a short biography at the end of the book) and coming up with a wealth of anecdotes.  The marvel in this book is not the amount of material in it, but the amount she must have discarded to keep it in manageable proportions.  Any organist reading this book will respond to every anecdote in one of two ways: That Also Happened To Me, or That Very Nearly Happened To Me.  The fact is, amusing and entertaining as they are, not one of these anecdotes will seem in any way improbable to organists.  The people who really need to buy this book and learn from it – clergy, caretakers, concert organisers, conductors, brides, and, most especially, brides’ mothers – probably never will, and that is both a bad thing – most anecdotes are the result of basic stupidity from one of the above – and a good thing – it ensures a continually refreshing pool of anecdotes for future generations.


In any book of this nature, where the author’s job has simply been to cobble other people’s words into a coherent whole, there is an absence of clear narrative thread.  Setchell has managed to avoid too much sense of  lurching from one story to another, by mixing up first-hand accounts in the contributor’s words with second-hand retellings in the third person, and breaking the book up into several sections each broken up themselves into themed chapters. The “In Church” section includes numerous anecdotes relating to weddings.  We get a chapter on inappropriate choices of music (the complete Grand Canyon Suite was asked of James Welch, while Adrian Taylor had both to play and sing the Monty Python classic,  Always Look on the Bright Side of Life), although I feel a chapter on the problems of identifying what brides want from vague half-remembered titles or snatches of tune/lyrics might have been entertaining: I was once asked to play “that thing about the Bridegroom coming in the middle of the night”, which I took to be Wachet auf. 


Each of chapters is given an amusing title which indicates the general tenor of the anecdotes.  So, in “How to Survive Sermons Without Waking Others”, we get a plethora of all-too-familiar stories about that often interminable moment in all church organists’ lives, when music falls silent for a sermon.  There are several well-established ways of dealing with this (and most organists have experienced all of them).  A popular trick seems to be to interrupt a sermon by making a noise on the organ – Christopher Herrick did it deliberately, while Colin Mitchell spectacularly did it by accident – while others use it as an opportunity to sleep.  One of the best anecdotes in the book concerns Sir John Stainer.  He, too, fell asleep during a sermon, but what makes this anecdote so memorable is the way he so brilliantly covered the fact up.


Jenny Setchell has cast her net far wider than the anecdote-rich waters of the church, and includes a wealth of horribly familiar anecdotes from the world of concert organists.  We get a few additional ones from Gillian Weir, who provides a light-hearted Foreword to the book.  There are terrible stories of being locked out (Paul Derrett tells how he had to move his recital and its audience down the road to another  venue when the original was firmly locked against them), locked in (Massimo Nosetti escaped from an Italian concert hall by breaking into an adjacent house), and left in the dark (Gerard Brooks set off an automatic carillon in his search for the light switch in Trier).


Against such spectacular near-disasters, some of the anecdotes Setchell has included seem a little mundane.  An organist stopping a recital because of cramp hardly seems worth mentioning (although it comes via an old friend, Richard Francis, about whom I have a far better anecdote concerning a capacious academic hood, a crate of empty beer bottles, and a procession up the nave of Bangor Cathedral). Similarly, I imagine you had to be there to recognise the humour of the situation when an organist gave a recital in Japan dressed in “a cute and frilly 18th century blouse with his 20th century evening tails”.   Jenny Setchell had been there, however, for the organist in question was her husband, Martin Setchell, who figures prominently throughout the book.


Of special interest to readers of MusicWeb International will be the anecdotes relating to recordings.  I well recall my own experience of making a commercial recording on the brand new Peter Collins organ at St David’s Hall Cardiff.  Restricted to a single Sunday in cold February to get the whole programme in the can, as luck would have it, the organ played up mercilessly.  In the end, the builder had to sit inside the organ console to operate the numerous stops which, for reasons known only to themselves, refused to operate when I physically pulled them out. It is refreshing to learn that I was not alone; an anecdote concerning Mary Mozelle’s recording at Princeton makes me realise I got off lightly. She had to time herself to record between the sound of heavy machinery operating day-and-night in an adjacent building site, while Graham Barber, recording in Lincoln Cathedral late at night, was seriously distracted by the squealing of bats disturbed by so much nocturnal activity. (Trying a daytime recording in Leeds, Barber came up against a perpetually chirping bird; proving the fact that when it comes to an organist recording, you just can’t win.)


The question is, why are there so many anecdotes associated with the organ and organists?  Setchell explains this in a superbly worded introduction, and throughout, while her personal interjections are few, they offer terrific insights into a dark musical world familiar only to those who inhabit it.  Adorned with humorous drawings from Terence Dobson, thoroughly well indexed, and beautifully produced in a way which means it can be tucked away beside an organ console to provide hours of harmless entertainment – as well as a few warning lessons - during sermons, this is a most entertaining book.  A  welcome read for organists and an essential guide to those who find themselves on the periphery of the organist’s  world.


15 June 2020

Are Musicians Essential?

The Straits Times’ sister paper, The Sunday Times, ran a straw poll in yesterday’s edition asking which jobs were thought of being most essential and which were least essential during the time of the COVID-19 outbreak.  Nobody with any knowledge of Singaporean attitudes will have been in the least surprised by the results.  Top of the list came doctors and nurses, with cleaners and food sellers coming on close behind – after all, it seems that few Singaporeans can clean their own homes or cook their own food.  Equally typical of Singaporean attitudes is what came at the very bottom of the list; artists. 

Of course, this finding ignited a mass outpouring of shock and horror from Singapore artists.  Many responded in remarkably silly fashion, criticising The Sunday Times and its correspondent (why worry about the message, when you can shoot the messenger?), suggesting that the sample of 1000 respondents was not typical (I can assure them, it is!), and going on to social media ironically boasting about their newly-sanctioned non-essential status.  But perhaps the proper response should not be to fight against this finding (which, all my researches over many years, have shown to be utterly typical of Singaporean attitudes to the arts) but to question why something which we artists regard as vital to humanity, is, in fact, not considered such by humanity at large.

It's not for me to argue the case for other branches of the arts – painters, sculptors, architects, designers, actors, film-makers, poets, authors, and so on – nor even to argue the case for those involved in the pop music industry, but I do feel inclined to comment from the perspective of a “classical” musician working in Singapore.

For us, music is vital to our existence.  It’s not just that it earns our income, but that it is such a significant driving force in our individual lives that, without it, we feel we would wither and die.  We know it to be an essential conduit for our emotions as well as for our mental well-being, and its countless ancillary benefits (extended concentration spans, increased mental capacity, heightened intellectual perceptiveness, palliative influence over Alzheimer’s’, etc., etc.) need no rehearsal here.  However, that is not how anyone else sees Classical Music in Singapore, and we must ask why that is.  Have we failed to get the message across, or do we as musicians have an over-inflated belief in the value of our own art?

Many Singaporeans believe Classical Music to be alien to their society, forced on them by their former colonial masters.  In this, they have been greatly influenced by Lee Kwan Yew’s dreadful speech in 1980 when he claimed that, if a Singaporean had the sort of brain that could memorise and comprehend classical music, said Singaporean should not waste energies on music, but instead turn to a career in medicine, law, or anything else which was seen then, as now, as being “essential” to the good of society.  By stating there and then that music should be provided exclusively by “foreigners” (whatever they are in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-transitory Singapore) he indoctrinated a whole generation of Singaporeans with the notion that classical music was alien to Singapore society.  That is an attitude which still persists to this day; ask almost any Singaporean who has tried to turn to a full-time study of Classical music, and you will find somewhere in their family group, strongly voiced opposition; the common belief being that they should really be learning something which is useful and will earn them a respectable income.

Beyond that ill-considered utterance of Lee Kwan Yew, Singaporeans have, since independence from Malaya in 1965, been so concerned in building a stand-alone society, that their focus for 50 years has been on creating strong commercial and financial foundations to society.  Again, that ethic has been so driven into Singaporeans, that they see no intrinsic value in anything which does not yield immediately tangible results in either a physical object or a clearly delineated financial profit.  Classical music yields neither, so it is regarded as a peripheral activity.

Assuming that our conviction that classical music is an essential aspect of daily life is correct, to inculcate that conviction into others is a matter for education.  And that is where Singapore fails miserably.  Yes, we do have a handful of world-class tertiary music colleges and, yes, there are growing numbers of highly able Singaporean students emerging from them, but in other respects, Singapore’s music education is abysmal.  Primary and secondary schools too often approach the teaching of music as a competitive sport.  Choirs and bands are shown to be successful only by winning awards and competitions, while other aspects of practical and theoretical music are taught with the sole view of achieving examination success.  Graded exams are not seen as stepping stones towards an eventual goal of a wholly rounded human being, but as goals to be achieved as quickly and as numerically largely as possible.  In only a very few rare instances is music taught for its emotional and culturally enriching benefits.

But there is one area of music education which is universally understated in Singapore’s music education at all levels, which musicians must learn if we are to become regarded as an essential part of daily life; the role of classical music in the totality of our society.  We equip our students with the physical tools of the trade – instrumental skills and composing techniques – but we do nothing to equip them with an understanding of their place in daily society.  Yes, we show them the benefits of music when presented to care homes, hospices and schools, but for music to be regarded as essential, we need to show them how music fits into society outside these specialist (if very important) environments.  We need, in short, to teach the context of music in daily life.  We do not do this.  How many graduating students really know how music affects the generality of the society in which they live?  They perform brilliant virtuoso pyrotechnics on the piano, which excites the pianophiles and leaves everyone else cold, they write complex musical scores, which excite fellow-composers but, again, leaves everyone else cold.  We try to bring music to the “man in the street” (as we once labelled the general public) by offering free concerts and colourful musical gimmicks; but, obviously, it fails.  How do we merge our music into society?

I have long believed passionately that fully rounded musicians are those who understand their role in society.  As part of our own society with an unavoidable bias towards what we do, we cannot really step back and look at our role dispassionately.  We need to study the history and see how our predecessors squared their musical lives with that of the societies in which they lived.  Music history is currently taught too often as an exclusive, society-alienated thing.  We tell our students that Beethoven was a great hero because he worked against society, and we hold up Wagner as a social outcast, Mozart is elevated above Haydn because the former was an exception to society, while the latter quite happily absorbed himself within it.  We compound all that by placing protective boxes around composers to alienate them further from the societies in which they lived; hence Bach lived the Baroque Box, Mozart and Classical Box, Chopin the Romantic Box, and so on.  That merely serves to distance music from the society in which it was formed.  Yet, if we can teach music as something which was not apart from, but an integral part of society, we begin to see how it has been essential rather than peripheral. 

In Singapore society, classical music is certainly not essential.  But it should be, and with careful nurturing of musicians so that they are less concerned with the exclusive technicalities of their craft, and more involved in the daily context of the world in which they live, it will be.

02 June 2020

Singing is Killing

Amongst the plethora of confusingly contradictory scientific comment on the COVID-19 pandemic (it used to be called Novel Coronavirus until the novelty wore off and we realised the common cold was also a coronavirus), one nugget has earned my serious interest, and it concerns music.

Most of the so-called scientific information doing the rounds has been relayed and, possibly, adjusted according to the relayer’s bias, prejudice or wishful thinking, and in the process has lost its legitimacy.  And when I relay something a friend of mine told me, anybody would be right to imagine I am merely following the trend and reporting ersatz-science which appeals to me regardless of its scientific basis.  But my friend was, until his retirement, a highly distinguished epidemiologist who had produced some valuable research at the time of SARS.  I knew him from a choir I conducted in Cardiff during the 1970s, in which he sang bass, flanked by a pathologist (who was rarely sober) and a dentist (who rarely turned up, spending most of his time in Monaco where he had a yacht and a string of mistresses – which surprised us all since his wife, who worked as his assistant, was jaw-droppingly beautiful and probably accounted for the huge success of his dental practice). The pathologist died in a motor accident (in which alcohol played a part) and the dentist ended up in prison, but the epidemiologist went on to achieve great success as an academic, and we have kept intermittently in touch ever since.  When the latest virus first began to emerge in Asia, he was in Singapore on his way back from a World Health Organisation crisis meeting, and over dinner at his hotel, he told me that the most successful way in which such viruses are transmitted is through singing. 

Since then, I have heard more than one eminent (and not so eminent) authority on the subject of viruses and infectious diseases say the same thing.  While a cough has a spread of several meters (hence the largely universal acceptance that we should keep two meters apart), singing projects the voice, and any germs in the lungs, throat and mouth, over far greater distances.  On top of that, while, if you find yourself in the vicinity of a cough, you instinctively cover your nose and mouth, the only orifices you are likely to cover if you hear someone singing in close proximity, are your ears.  There seems no more perfect spreader for a virus which attacks the respiratory system, than a fully-trained singer.  By their very nature, singers don’t wear face masks, and in these heightened times of wishing everyone goodwill, we even look on those who sing in the streets of an evening as some kind of local hero to be admired rather than avoided.  Yet the science is there; if you want to stop the most effective means of spreading the virus, ban singing!

And not just singing in public, it seems.  In the UK at the moment everyone is going gooey-eyed over split-screen choirs where each voice is singing its part in isolation, then brought together by the wonders of Russian and Chinese-tapped communal computer programs.  In that each singer is singing from his or her own spaces, these are seen to be properly socially acceptable at a time when we must keep apart, but, I ask, who else is in the room, or the house, with the singer?  Is he or she not infecting everyone around him, even if we do not see those others in the miniature fragment of screen allotted to that singer?  In watching these communal attempts at isolationist choral singing, might we not also be witnessing Secret Virus Spreaders at work?  And in the UK, where Thursday nights were previously given over to everyone going out into the streets, clapping, banging on saucepans, and singing in support of health workers, has not the transmission rate (which we are told seems loathe to drop) been kept up by these well-intentioned but ultimately malign singers?

The irony of all this is that, during lockdown, circuit-breaker, or whatever label the politicians like to attach to it, singing has come to be seen as something to be encouraged for the social good.  Lots of people (centenarian Sir Captain Thomas Moore included) have been celebrated for their singing prowess at this time, and I have heard the usual mawkish comments from musical illiterates about how singing “is good for us”.  But beware!  It is not.  It is a killer!

With music in all its guises utterly ubiquitous in society, people have come to look on it not so much as harmless, as unremittingly beneficial.  It is beautiful and makes us all feel better (apparently).  Yet let’s not forget that music is a dangerous, potentially fatal weapon which, not necessarily in the wrong hands, has the power to do great harm.  We may laugh at the sorry tale of Lully, who stabbed himself in his foot and subsequently perished as a consequence of a musical performance.  But when an extreme Ulster Protestant threatened to kill me because I had (inadvertently) played a tune which bore (as I later learnt) an uncanny resemblance to the Irish National Anthem, and a policeman hurriedly urged me to turn off my car radio when, listening to the wedding of Charles and Diana while driving through Derry’s Bogside, fearing that, if an extreme Republican heard me, I would be unlikely to escape with my life, it did not seem so funny.  Deaths and murders have been prompted by music, singing revolutionary songs (some of which have now become national anthems) has led to killings, and operas (think La Muette de la Portici) have sparked riots.

Music is a dangerous thing, and we abuse it at our risk.  Singing during the COVID-19 pandemic is only another example of how music can have fatal consequences.

11 May 2020

The Demise of BBC House Orchestras

Hansard, the verbatim record of proceedings within the British Houses of Parliament, records a debate which took place on 27th June 1980 following the government’s decision to raise the BBC licence fee.  Those unacquainted with the way the BBC was funded then (and largely still is), should know that everyone in the UK with a television set was obliged by law to pay an annual licence, which funded not just the BBC television broadcasts, but all the radio stations and, most relevantly here, the BBC house orchestras.  The rise (for a colour television licence) was from £21 to £25, and it caused a huge public outcry, not least because the BBC regarded the rise as inadequate to meet their costs, so decided to dispense with a number of their regional house orchestras.  Hansard records the impassioned contribution to the debate from Andrew Faulds, the Labour party Member of Parliament for Warley East (in the English midlands) and a former actor who had, notably, appeared in the Ken Russell films based on the lives of Mahler, Liszt (Lisztomania) and Tchaikovsky (the Music Lovers); so he certainly had something of a professional interest.  He said; “What do the music cuts entail, in detail? In England, the Midland Radio Orchestra will be disbanded, with a loss of 32 jobs. That, of course, is in Birmingham. The Northern Radio Orchestra will be disbanded, with 22 jobs lost in Manchester. The London Studio Players will also be disbanded, with a loss of 19 part-time posts of musicians on first call. The Northern Ireland Orchestra will go, with a loss of 30 jobs, and with the hope that those musicians may get employment in a new orchestral alignment to be set up over the next year or so in a merger with the Ulster Orchestra. What those musicians do for a living in the meantime is somewhat unresolved.  Finally, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be—if I may use the phrase—scotched, with 69 jobs gone…In toto, 172 orchestral posts disappear. I have been given the figures for the cost of running each of these orchestras by the BBC. They are, per annum, as follows: the Northern Radio Orchestra, £180,000; the Midland Radio Orchestra, £220,000 the Northern Ireland Symphony Orchestra, £700,000; and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, £620,000.” 

Today it is perhaps difficult to understand why the BBC ever felt the need to have so many orchestras at its disposal; today, with six “house” orchestras (half the number of full-time orchestras it ran in the 1960s) the BBC remains a major employer of orchestral musicians and certainly has enough orchestras at its beck and call not only to meet the demands of music broadcasting, but also to get out and about at home and abroad giving live concerts as well as spending time in the commercial recording studios.  However, while we now live in an age when music has become omnipresent in our lives, too many take it for granted, care nothing about its provenance or quality, and fail to differentiate between computerised imitations of musical instruments concocted by a handful of computer geeks, and a live orchestra of several dozen highly-trained players.  When you no longer really listen, you no longer really care.

The function of those BBC regional orchestras was largely to provide the kind of innocuous, middle-of-the-road music which is so smooth and well-oiled as to slip all too easily into the background and become an accompaniment to life rather than something which causes us to stop and listen.  So, it seems, in retrospect, a natural consequence that such music should no longer be the preserve of live musicians but fodder for those who like to create musical sounds digitally.  But the computer geeks have changed the nature of background music, and as a result we have lost an entire genre of music; the music which, described as “light”, ploughed a middle furrow between serious classical works and frivolous pop pieces.  That loss is only really felt when you can go back to those heady pre-1980s days and hear one of those now-defunct orchestras strutting its stuff in fabulously re-engineered sound. 

Faulds referred in his speech to the demise of the Northern Radio Orchestra which itself had only been formed five years earlier following a huge outcry over the disbanding of the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra (NDO). Four decades after the demise of these orchestras, the NDO Project was set up with the aim of ensuring “that these superb musicians cannot be forgotten”, and it has broadened its reach to preserve the memory not only of the Manchester orchestras but also of the Midland Radio Orchestra which, itself, was formed in 1973 following the disbanding of the Midland Light Orchestra.  Comprising 25 players on strings and woodwind and with a seven-member rhythm section, the Midland Radio Orchestra worked for the first six years of its existence under the legendary Norrie Paramor.  It spent virtually its entire performing life in the BBC studios in Birmingham, although as the booklet notes tell us, it occasionally “emerged from the studio to give public concerts which were also broadcast”. This double-CD set comprises some 46 tracks (along with  three “bonus” tracks featuring small groups from the band) which gives a classic sample of the kind of thing they produced day in and day out mostly for BBC Radio 2 in the days when heavy limitations on commercial recordings played over the air (“needle-time”) made it necessary to fill most of the schedules with live and specially-recorded music.  The ending of needle-time restrictions in the 1980s helped sound the death-knell for the BBC light music orchestras.

The over-riding impression from these enchanting (and there is really no other word for it) tracks is of extremely polished, effortlessly fluent, and wonderfully balanced and manicured playing.  It does make for easy listening, certainly, but taking the trouble to focus the ears and listen seriously, reaps huge rewards; there is not only some truly outstanding playing here, but a consummate level of musicianship which today we only find when musicians get “serious”; if only we could get back to an age when such supreme quality was the benchmark even in music which places no demands on the listener.

Some of the arrangements, too, are quite remarkable and worthy of more attention than they would have got in their day.  I love the way Johnny Gregory has turned Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F into a busy, bustling toccata, and how Neil Richardson has so cleverly woven together so much authentic Gershwin to create a version of Summertime which, amazingly, does not sound like Gershwin at all.  Bernard Hermann’s version of Fly me to the moon is to die for, as is John Fox’s arrangement of Misty, Gordon Franks evokes Scottishness without it sounding in any way cliched in his version of the Skye Boat Song, and there is real pathos in his arrangement of Love Walked In. Colin Campbell’s arrangement of Mancini’s ubiquitous Pink Panther is a work of pure genius in the way it manages to replace the brass (there was no brass section in the Midland Radio Orchestra) with violins to extraordinarily convincing effect.

A trio of vocalists pops up in various numbers – June Marlow (A Fine Romance), Betty Smith (I feel pretty) and Angela Christian (Masquerade and Chelsea Morning) – evoking through their voices a style of singing long since lost, while it is good to see arrangers Stanley Black and Bernard Hermann appearing as soloists in their own arrangements - Black on piano for Laura, and Hermann on the flute in his somewhat unsuccessful attempt to condense Danse Macabre into the obligatory three-minute time slot.

While this pair of  CDs might present music and musicians from a bygone era, there is something intensely relevant about it to our own time; perhaps a timely warning that if you take it for granted, you risk losing it.  It is amazing to read that many of the recordings were originally destroyed by the BBC so that these outstanding new digital transfers, the work of Paul Arden-Taylor (who joined the orchestra’s woodwind section in 1979), have been assembled from studio backup copies and off-air recordings.  All power to the NDO Project for not just preserving this important part of British musical history, but for reviving it so effectively.

[This review appeared in MusicWeb International and the CD is available ONLY from www.northerndanceorchestra.org.uk]