31 March 2011

An Ultimate Passion

It's Passion time again.  That season in the year when, as we approach Holy Week and Easter, choirs get geared up to perform music which, for my money, knocks spots off most of what gets aired at Christmas.

I still recall my chorister days when, on every day during Holy Week, the printed service books were in a different colour; my personal favourite was the sky blue on Holy Saturday (and why does everyone today refer to it as Easter Saturday which, as any person with a basic understanding of Christian festivals knows, is the Saturday in the week following Easter).  Each day had its own special hymns, psalms and anthems which still take me straight back to my childhood on the very rare occasions when I hear them today.  And for years as a church and cathedral organist I relished the once-a-year chance to play Widor's Toccata as a closing voluntary on Easter Day. 

One of the great Passiontide hymns of the
19th century

However, for the vast majority of music lovers, Passiontide and Easter are synonymous with rather more extended musical feasts.  I did my MA thesis on one of these, Frank Martin's astounding oratorio Golgotha. And one which I have always loved and which I performed at some stage during Holy Week whenever I was in charge of a choir is The Crucifixion by John Stainer.  As my father reminded me recently, more than anything else it contains some of the greatest hymn tunes of the 19th century; my personal favourite being the gorgeous "Jesus the Crucified".  Amongst many memorable performances I've been involved in over the years, the one which sticks most closely in my memory was in Presteigne Parish Church (in the depths of rural mid-Wales) way back in the late 1970s.  A great friend from university, Ian Dollins, who possessed a fantastic bass voice which could wipe the floor with any when it came to the bass solos of Crucifixion, was directing the choir and called in some professionals as the soloists and me as the organist.  It was a typical village organ, and when it came to the great climax of the marvellous tenor solo, "Thou art the King!", the organ quite literally expired.  By the music stand was a lead weight on a string which was attached directly to the bellows.  This let the player know how much wind was available, and when I saw it shoot upwards, with one hand I manfully pulled it back down. The string broke, and I was left with a lead weight in one hand and a massive dominant 7th to be covered by the other while somehow trying to push back in enough stops to get the wind back into the bellows.  The church's organist told me afterwards that she'd never pulled out so many stops and was surprised that some of them still moved!

Recalling "Crucifixions we had known and loved" the other day over a pint in a noble London pub with my old friend Peter Almond, he referred to a comment a mutual friend had uttered when he'd heard that Peter liked The Crucifixion.  "Hideous Victorian rubbish"!  Yes, Stainer was a Victorian – he couldn't help that – and a lot of soulless people dislike the excesses of the Victorian age, but I rather like them and I recognise, as surely does any right-thinking musician, that, while Stainer's work may not rank among the elevated choral masterpieces of Bach and Handel (although I'm not so sure about that) it is a work of true genius - rather akin to Purcell in rising above the appalling limitations of the time - serving its purpose brilliantly and surviving to this day.  Get hold of Barry Rose's matchless recording with Guildford Cathedral (the last I knew it was available on a Classics for Pleasure EMI disc 575779-2 coupled with that other great piece of Victorian Holy Week music, Maunder's Olivet to Calvary) and you'll surely agree with me.

Hideous Victorianism?

You could argue that if Stainer was a "hideous Victorian", Bach was a "hideous Hanoverian", but somehow musical snobbery allows us to belittle the achievements of one age (and nation) while elevating beyond all reason those of another.  I've often challenged those who glibly call Bach "a great composer" to justify the claim.  It's one of those truisms which nobody ever thinks to question, yet there are plenty of flaws and failings in his myriad organ chorale preludes and run-of-the-mill cantatas.  True, his outbursts of sheer genius were better than almost anyone else's, but when it comes to justifying his claim to greatness, everyone overlooks the vast bulk of his output and cites the Brandenburg Concertos, the B minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion.  I can't argue with that; they are unquestionably among the great pillars of Western music. 

And it's at this time of year that the St Matthew Passion gets its moment of glory; not so much Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of Fame" as Two and a Half Hours of Sublimity.  Again, of the innumerable performances in which I've been involved, one in particular remains firmly logged at the front of the memory.  Bill Llewellyn was the conductor (and Ian Partridge a stunning Evangelist), and he was hell-bent on rekindling the spirit of Vaughan Williams at the Leith Hill Festival by keeping it slow and weighty.  A note came to the chamber organ (me) from the union man in the orchestra – "Slow it down, we can get into overtime" – and I did, with the result that Bill came up with tears in his eyes to thank me for falling so perfectly into his interpretation.

Deeply meaningful St Matthew Passions are pretty much a thing of the past now (thankfully); instead we have brisk and light ones, often too brisk and too light to be truly a "Passion".  I could level that charge against a new recording which I had for review last week (and you can read my full review in this month's International Record Review – follow the link) but, in every respect, it is so fantastic, I would suggest it stands as one of the very best currently available on disc. I recommended it to get the elusive "Outstanding" tag in IRR (and the editor mercifully obliged) on the strength of the excellence of the music making.  But there is much more to it than that.

Coming hot on the heels of my last post in which I railed against those who see downloads as replacements for CDs, this proves beyond all doubt that there is, as yet, no proper replacement for the CD.  While the sound is magical – as everything from the Dutch label Channel Classics usually is – and the performance – from the Netherlands Bach Society under Jos van Veldhoven – exceptional in its clarity, detail and musical intensity, what makes this really special is the totality of the package.  For my review in IRR I was sent just the white-label pre-production review discs, but I have just received the finished product, and all I can say is Wow!

It comes in a sumptuous box and comprises two beautifully engraved books, one holding the discs as if they are priceless jewels, the other one of the most lovely pieces of printwork I have ever been privileged to handle.  The latter is, to put it simply, mouth-wateringly lavish with stunning images drawn from the collection of the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, elegant prose, plenty of musical quotations and a really perceptive analytical essay.  The only thing lacking is a clear listing of who is performing - it is there but takes a lot of rooting out - and when I say I eventually unearthed most of this information on pages 182 and 183, you get some idea of the extent of the information given in this hard-backed book.  The three discs are, themselves, a visual work of art. 

Even the CDs are works of art

I wouldn't like to say that this is the ultimate CD, but for its sheer magnificence of sound, performance, documentation, illustrations and general presentation, this is a fitting celebration of a season of the year in which high art reaches its true climax.

27 March 2011

Long Live the CD!

Those fortunate enough to have been at the marvellous concert given by the outstanding Lautten Compagney period-instrument ensemble from Berlin in Singapore last week may well have noticed a table set up outside the hall at which a lady was selling CDs.  I have to confess I didn't get a chance to inspect it, but I assume it was selling recordings of the musicians we had heard live; and if everyone enjoyed the concert half as much as my wife and I did, they should have been beating a path to that table to get hold of such a tangible souvenir of a hugely enjoyable evening.

78 rpm record - HMV B.8034 circa 1931
(Count of Luxembourg Waltz by Lehar - Marek Weber & his orchestra)

In the sardine-can which masquerades as the lift which, if you are lucky, heads down to the car park underneath the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory concert hall, there was apparently a small person who had not only paid a visit to the CD table but had bought more than one of the items on offer.  I surmise this because a tall man whose head poked up above my fellow-sardines was looking down at someone and saying, incredulously, "You still buy CDs??".  Like the physical stature, the voice of the CD-purchaser was similarly small and the reply didn't reach my ears, but I gather it was in the affirmative because it occasioned scornful admonishment from Mr Tall; "I gave up CDs long ago.  I listen on my iPod.  I don't think you can still buy CD players".

33 1/3 rpm record - ASD2700581 -1984
(Or Shall We Die? by Michael Berkeley -
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Richard Hickox)
 It is a sad condition of the human psyche that we assume that, just because something is new it has to be better than something old (I still tell the joke of the piano tuner in Malaysia who couldn't believe I still had a 1933 German Grand and suggested I replace it with a brand new Korean one as soon as possible).  More than that, too many people fall into the same trap as Mr Tall and become so bedazzled by the concept of "new technology" that they assume its sole functions are to replace the old and create obsolescence.  I lose count how often I am told books are "out of date", that with electronic books nobody will need physical ones again.  Of course, anyone with a working brain knows this to be arrant rubbish (and thank God Google has been stopped from its crazy notion of putting every book online by the Intellectual Property courts).  Try doing some serious research without books.  On my desk as I write this (taking a break from an extended piece I have been commissioned to write on Stravinsky's complete Firebird) are three books – Vol.1 of Stephen Walsh's monumental Stravinsky study, Robert Craft's Dialogues and a Diary and the relevant volume of Grove – while one computer screen is showing a web page about the Russian Imperial Ballet and the other, when I move away from this piece, will return to my work in progress.  There are also five CDs with their associated booklets scattered around the desk.  Get rid of the books and, as it is far too time-consuming to be continually moving from one different web-page to another (and, of course, constant cross-referencing means often needing to have two pages at least open at the same), I have to clutter up my desk with even more computers and their associated screens and paraphernalia, none of which – even the celebrated iPad – occupies less space than a book. 

CD - 2011 - Sono Luminus DSL92127
(Mystery Sonatas by Biber
Julia Wedman)
So it is with audio carriers.  There has grown up a conviction that each new carrier simply serves as a replacement for the previous ones.  Hence the oft-heard lament; "I had to replace all my LPs with CDs.  Do I now have to replace all my CDs with whatever comes next?" The answer is no.  As yet there is no replacement for the totality of the services offered by the humble audio CD.  Yes, there are much more convenient ways to access recorded music but there is more to the CD than that.  A CD is a physical thing, something you can hold you can treasure, you can read (as well as hear) and you can enjoy simply as a physical presence.  At Gramophone magazine we were recently asked to submit our suggestions for the worst ever CD covers.  It might just as well have been a request for the best covers.  Nothing to do with sound quality or the contents; simply an excuse to celebrate the irreplaceable physicality of a CD with its booklet, its elegant (usually) prose and its carefully-designed cover.
Is this a full repalcement for the above?  Can you even guess what's on it?
I don't think so!

The table at the concert hall reminded me that a CD serves as an invaluable promotional tool for musicians as well as an ideal souvenir for music-lovers.  Young musicians still aim to make a CD to use as a kind of self-contained calling card and CV, while musicians on tour need such a thing to offer to their souvenir-hungry audiences.  Many of my most treasured CDs are ones I have bought from tables set up, just like the one in Singapore last week, as souvenirs of a lovely concert; and, I must say, it makes me feel good to spend money which helps the finances of the musicians while, at the same time, giving me lots of personal pleasure.  I can't really see selling audiences a web-site address for a download, or handing out pen-drives with audio files on provides the same thing. 

So, before you laugh at me and my friends for "still buying CDs", tell me what has come along to replace them.  As things stand at the moment, the CD remains unique and irreplaceable whether you are tall or short, fat or thin.

24 March 2011

Doctored Press Report

Now Here's a funny thing.  When I fly on SIA they have long since learnt to mark my seat off with the letters "NMD" (Not a Medical Doctor) to avoid embarrassment when somone falls ill on a flight; the once cast-iron guarantee of an upgrade long since abandoned.  I've certainly been known to the Malaysian press long enough for them to know that, while the Mad Dr M (the one who masquerades as the country's unofficial Emperor) DID get his doctorate through his medical prowess, mine came as a result of philosophical research into music, specifically Frank Martin (1890-1974, if you're interested).  But I suppose it makes for a catchy headline, even if the idea that I might be playing the organ for eight days on end fills even me with horror!

Asian Organ News

For all Asian organ fans, here are a couple of recitals I'm involved with which I hope you can attend.  The great news (for you) is that they are FREE, although you do need to collect tickets from the Box Offices at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, Kuala Lumpur and The Esplanade, Singapore, beforehand.

On Sunday 3rd April at 11.30am I shall be joined by MPO Trumpeters John Bourque and William Day in the following programme;

Paul Dukas (1865-1935) - Fanfare from La Péri

With just 12 works to his credit, Paul Dukas must rank as France's least-productive composer, although his Sorcerer's Apprentice ranks as one of the best-known French works.  His ballet music for La Péri (“The Fairy”) was first staged in Paris on 22nd April 1912 and the scene is set by this Fanfare which portrays a great Arabian prince and his majestic caravan.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) – Heroic Marches
No.5 - Bellicoso (TWV50:35)
No.10 – La Générosité (TWV50:40)                              

At the other end of the scale, Telemann was about the most prolific composer the world has ever seen, producing well over 3000 different pieces of music including a set of 12 Heroic Marches for two trumpets which were published in 1728.  He gave them French titles to make them sell better (which they did) and these two are "War-monger" and "Generosity".

Jehan Alain (1911-1940) – Choral Phrygien                                                   

The first of our two centenary tributes is to a French composer who wrote mostly for the organ.  This desperately sad piece, composed in 1938, has added poignancy when we realise that two years later, at the age of 29, Alain was killed by a German bullet whilst on active service during the Second World War.

Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709) – Sonata in D (G1)
Andante – Allegro – Grave - Allegro

The son of a health inspector in Verona, Torelli was a significant composer for the trumpet producing around 100 works for the instrument including this Suonata con stromenti e tromba dated 1690.  Torelli wrote so much for the instrument not because he played it, but because of his friendship with the brilliant Italian trumpeter, Giovanni Pellegrino Brandi.

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) – Sonata No.1 for Trumpet (Op.200)

The second centenary celebrated today is of an exceptionally prolific composer who threw away 1000 works and then went on to write over 500 more including a whole range of sonatas for various instruments with organ.  The first of his two Trumpet Sonatas dates from 1962 and was written during a visit to Japan.

The Organ of St George's Hanover Suqare, London,
where Keeble was organist between 1744 and 1786

John Keeble (1711-1786) –
Double Fugue in C

We also celebrate a 300th anniversary in today's concert.  John Keeble was born in Chichester on England's south coast where he sung in the cathedral choir and trained as an organist.  He was one of the most skilled English composers of fugues during the 18th century and this example was published (along with 23 others) in 1778.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) – Heroic Marches                            
No.2 – La Grâce (TWV50:32)
No.3 – La Vaillance (TWV50:33)
To end, two more of Telemann's Heroic Marches, "Mercy" and "Courage".

Then, on Sunday 17th April at noon I shall be giving a solo recital of works inspired by religious themes as part of the Tapestry of Sacred Music, a festival running over that weekend and based at the Esplanade in Singapore (see http://www.tapestryofsacredmusic.com/2011/).  My programme for that will be;

The Organ in Salzburg Cathedral on which Mozart played as a young organist

Karg-Elert (1877-1933): Marche Triomphale - Nun danket all Gott
Zsolt Gárdonyi (b.1946): Be
thou my vision
George Shearing (1919-2011): Amazing Grace
John Behnke (b.1953): Go tell it on the mountain
Mendelssohn (1809-1847
): Sonata No.6 in
0 minor
Chorale ("Vater Unser") & Variations - Fugue - Andante
Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869): Choristers' March
Bach (1685-1750): Chorale
Prelude - 'Wachet auf
' Guilmant (1837-1911): Prière et Berceuse
Easthope Martin (1882-1925): Evensong
t (1756-1791): Epistle Sonata No.
Mulet (
1878-1967): Tu es Petra

Sigfrid Karg-Elert
Zsolt Gardonyi

The Leipzig composer Martin Rinckart (1586-1649) wrote the great tune which is sung in German to the words Nun danket alle Gott ("Now thank we all our God, with hearts and minds and voices"). 300 years later another Leipzig-based composer, Sigfrid Karg-Elert used this melody as the basis of one of his Chorale Improvisations published in 1909. Of even greater antiquity is the Irish folk tune Slane which dates from the 5th century, and of similar vintage are the words of the ancient Irish hymn Rop tu mo baile, a Choimdiu cride ("Be thou my vision 0 Lord of my heart") but they were never put together until 1927, and it was not until 2003 that the Hungarian composer Zsolt Gárdonyi prepared his Improvisation on the melody. One of the very best-known Christian hymns is Amazing Grace, which was composed by John Newton in 1779. Just as Newton is often thought to be Scottish (he was actually an English clergyman), the blind jazz pianist George Shearing, who died on 14th February this year, is usually regarded as an American, although he was born in south London. He composed his improvisation on Amazing Grace in 1977. Originating from the African slaves held captive in the cotton and sugar plantations of America during the 19th century, the Spiritual was a song expressing religious faith making use of simple pictorial language and melodies with strong rhythmic patterns. Go tell it on the Mountain ... that Jesus Christ is Born was one of the original Negro Spirituals which the contemporary American composer, John Behnke, has used as the basis of a jazz improvisation.
John Behnke


Sir George Shearing

Martin Luther wrote the chorale version of the Lord's Prayer, Vater unser im Himmelreich ("Our Father in Heaven"), and the German composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, born a Jew but converted to Christianity as a boy, wrote a glorious set of variations on it in his Sixth Organ Sonata in 1845. The chorale is first given out in solemn chords, and the following variations reflect the verses of the prayer. The first variation (the melody singing out gently above a rippling accompaniment) represents "Give us this day our daily bread", the second (above a dancing pedal line), "Lead us not into temptation", the third (the theme in the trumpet surrounded by jagged chords), "Deliver us from evil", the fourth, a dazzling toccata with the theme thundering out in the pedals, "The Power and The Glory", while a quiet fugue and a gentle Andante close the Sonata with a peaceful "Amen".



As organist at two of Paris's most important churches, the Madeleine and St Sulpice, Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély was called upon to write a vast amount of music for use in the church services. His jovial Choristers' March comes from a set of pieces designed to be played during divine service published in 1861. Probably the most important composer of sacred music in the history of the Christian church, Johann Sebastian Bach, composed several hundred organ pieces reflecting on the texts of various chorales. His Chorale Prelude on Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme depicts the parable of the virgins awaiting the bridegroom at a wedding feast as given in Matthew 25. Bach imagines the sound of the wedding festivities coming from behind closed doors while the hapless virgins call forlornly from outside. This year marks the centenary of the death of one of the most important French composers in the history of the organ. Alexandre Guilmant composed a vast amount of sacred and secular music for the instrument, his Prière et Berceuse ("Prayer and Cradle Song") dating from 1870 and contemplating the scene in the stable at Bethlehem as Mary looks lovingly at her child as she rocks him gently in his cradle.

Bach's Tomb inside St Thomas's Church, Eipzig, where he served as Organist from 1723 to 1750

Easthope Martin at the keyboard

Musically, the most important service of the Anglican church is Evensong. Since the 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, music has been at the heart of this service held in English cathedrals on a daily basis. Often the organist introduces the service with a piece of reflective improvisation aimed to set the mood of tranquillity and reflection. In 1910 the English organist Easthope Martin (who toured the USA as a recitalist under the pseudonym John Morrow) wrote Evensong just for that very purpose, and it went on to become a classic, one of its more popular arrangements being for brass band. Although we don't generally think of him as an organist, Mozart was not only regarded as the greatest organist of his age, but appears to have enjoyed playing the organ more than any other musical instrument. Unfortunately during his lifetime the Catholic Church issued strict guidelines on the use of music and Mozart had few opportunities to write anything of substance for sacred use. He did, however, compose a number of short pieces designed to be played between the readings of verses from the Old and New Testaments during the Mass, and these have become known as his "Epistle Sonatas". The first of these was composed for a Sunday morning Mass in Salzburg Cathedral, where Mozart was organist, in early 1772; some sources suggest the Epistle for the day was drawn from St Paul's Epistle to the Romans, chapter 12; "Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love". Those travelling into Paris from the north will not fail to have seen the marvellous white church high on the hill overlooking the district of Montmartre. That church, the Sacré-Coeur ("Sacred Heart") is held up as one of the finest examples of Byzantium architecture outside Turkey. As a boy Henri Mulet knew it well - his father was choirmaster there - and in later life he recalled the building in his suite of Byzantine Sketches, the last of which is a thrilling toccata headed with a quotation from St Matthew's gospel; "Tu es petra et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus te" (Thou art the rock and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it").

The Sacre Coeur inspired Mulet's "Byzantine Sketches"

19 March 2011

Singing Fun

Sitting on my desk as I write are 25 brand new, hot-off-the-press CDs awaiting my urgent consideration; the penalty, I suppose, one pays for daring to spend a few days away from home.  15 of these have already been commissioned for review by some magazine or other, while the rest are unsolicited CDs sent by artists or labels in the hope that I might feel inclined to review them.  Even when the pressure of listening time is as limited as it is now (those 15 are due in the next couple of days), I still listen to all of the unsolicited ones and, on this occasion, this has proven to be a hugely enjoyable chore.  I've greatly relished Albert Tiu's disc of Scriabin and Chopin, which is quite something, considering my acknowledged dislike of the latter's music, on Centaur (CRC3093), while I can barely bring myself to take out of the player the Vasari Singers' stunning disc of great British cathedral anthems with their unbelievably compelling account of one of the greatest of all British cathedral anthems, E W Naylor's Vox Dicentis: Clama (Naxos 8.572504).  Then there's the mightily distinguished playing of Li-Wei Qin in his Decca set of the Beethoven Cello Sonatas (889 9119) which is countered by the rather flawed sound of the Hot Springs Festival Symphony Orchestra under Richard Rosenberg on a disc of American Concertos from the Jazz Age.  The playing's not up to much and I can't get on with the half-hearted honky-tonk piano, but I'm intrigued by the music and am going to enjoy many more hearings of the Suite for Banjo and Orchestra by Harry Reser (Naxos 8.559647).  Waking up this morning to the sad news that my esteemed Gramophone colleague, John Steane, has died, I regret that I shall never now know his opinion of Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund's disc of Wagner and Strauss arias with the Tampere Philharmonic and Hannu Lintu (Ondine ODE 1168-2), but I adore it.

For me, though, the most attractive of these unsolicited discs takes me right back to my childhood and has had me reminiscing at length to anyone who will listen about Michael Hurd, whom I had the great good fortune to know quite well.  When the monthly package came from Naxos, sitting on top was a disc devoted to Hurd's Pop Cantatas (8.572505) with a cover image reproducing the front cover of the score of Jonah-Man Jazz.  We sang that at school on more than one occasion, and I loved it.  It's probably well over 40 years since I last heard it, although as with all catchy tunes I've never gone long without one of its melodies springing unbidden to mind, but to hear the gloriously vibrant voices of Ronald Corp's superb New London Children's Choir romp their way through such matchless numbers as "Jonah, Jonah, listen to me" and "I need a boat, man", took me right back to my school days (I could almost smell again my nasty ink-stained woollen blazer which always seemed to be damp, feel the wind rattling around my knees exposed between those horrible grey shorts and those shin-strangling socks, and relive those rebellious feelings towards that loathed cap burnt, along with everyone else's, on the last day in the fifth form).  Although he wrote it for another school in 1966, Hurd lived close by ours and often would come along and attend our rehearsals.  I was enchanted by a man who could not only make us all feel a million dollars with music so well written for amateurs that it never failed to sound good, but also knew so much about music, communicated his enthusiasm for it so well, and had all the time in the world for nerdy schoolboys anxious to pick his brains on their pet subject.  When I bumped into him in a Hampshire country pub some years later he was just the same and, much to my immense pride, even remembered me.  In subsequent years we even worked professionally side by side in preparing scripts.  His death in 2006 upset me mostly because it seemed to pass almost unnoticed by the musical community.  Now, at last, his music is being celebrated on disc.

What Hurd was able to achieve through the medium of the pop cantata was twofold; to create music which was easy to perform but highly effective to listen to, and to retell stories in such a way that they became indelibly implanted in one's memory.  Take the seemingly mundane text of his Captain Coram's Kids.  I knew of the Foundling Hospital – Handel's involvement effectively immortalised it – but Hurd's piece, while simply setting to music a potted history of the place, somehow implants it so firmly into the memory through the tunes which accompany each episode.  I hadn't heard previously the hugely amusing Rooster Rag – effectively a moral tale for chickens and foxes – or the retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son – Prodigal –but both deserve frequent airings. 

As I travel around and hear misguided school choirs attempt to emulate the morally degenerate and musically inept role-models foist on them by TV talent shows, I despair that the use of collective singing as a source of wholesome fun through good-quality and original music is being denied today's children.  If this Naxos disc brings the work of a great musical educator and communicator to the attention of choir directors and music teachers, it will have done more good to the musical development of society than a thousand highly-polished recordings of core repertoire.

17 March 2011

A Composer to Seek Out

This Review was commissioned by International Record Review - I hope reprinting it here will broaden interest in this very fine composer.

Within seconds I knew I was going to adore this CD and the music of Ēriks Ešenvalds. Assuming him to be a new musical voice on the choral circuit, I delved into his website and discovered that no less than 16 CDs have so far been released featuring his music. I'm amazed that none of these has permeated my consciousness yet, for if what they contain is half as good as what's here, they should be heading high up into the popularity stakes at a time when atmospheric music with a strong spiritual/mystical flavour is all the rage.

Apologies, then, if in my musical isolation I've been missing out on what everyone else is talking about, but for the benefit of those who, like me, have somehow been bypassed by this 30-something-year-old, former Baptist seminarian whose composition teachers range from Jonathan Harvey and Michael Finnissy to Richard Danielpour and Klaus Huber (and his website lists no less than a dozen more), here's a potted biography. Born in Priekule, Latvia, he studied at the Latvian Academy of Music in Riga and then appeared to go on some kind of European walkabout picking up along the way innumerable diverse musical influences (allowing him, in the words of Gabriel Jackson's booklet note, to "develop a flexible musical language" – a minor understatement, if ever there was one). He then chose to enter the church. Two years at a seminary persuaded him to devote his life to music, but he currently retains his connection with the church by serving as Director of Music for a Baptist congregation in Riga. His output to date lists 57 compositions – not a bad tally considering the earliest is dated 1998 – which, while including theatre pieces, electronic music, solo instrumental, chamber and orchestral works, are dominated by vocal and choral pieces.

And it is that area of his output to which this recording - the first CD to be released internationally devoted entirely to Ešenvalds's music – is devoted, comprising five a-capella pieces and the 30-minute oratorio for soprano, chorus and orchestra, Passion and Resurrection. The music encompasses an extraordinary range of styles. Long Road, the most recent piece here (dating from 2010) opens as if it were a simple 19th century hymn before unravelling itself into a wash of gently swaying sound complemented by a few distant tinkling bells and, apparently, some ocarinas, while Gabriel Jackson's notes point to Ešenvalds's use of "avant-garde techniques" in the 2006 A Drop in the Ocean. These, though, seem confined to some vague whistling from the choir who also indulge in a bit of whispering and heavy breathing. Stylistically varied it may be, but everything here has in common a wonderful sincerity of expression and a shimmering sense of colour which I find quite irresistible.

The major work here is the four-movement Passion and Resurrection. Recorded immediately after these same forces had presented the work in concert in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, last April, this is a performance of considerable impact, not least in the second movement when the electrifying choral cries of "Crucify" dissolve so magically into calm, plainchant-inspired music above which Carolyn Sampson floats with angelic luminosity. Cast in the role of Mary Magdalene, she manages to combine pathos, sympathy and real drama, helped along by highly evocative string playing from the Britten Sinfonia and, of course, the unfailingly remarkable choral sound of Polyphony.

If the music wasn't so utterly gorgeous, I would happily devote several hundred words to praising Stephen Layton on these totally absorbing performances. But, along with Polyphony, he set the benchmark long ago and while this is as good as anything they've ever committed to disc, the real praise here has to be reserved for Ēriks Ešenvalds whose music clearly warrants a great deal more exposure.

09 March 2011

A Disappearing Culture

One of my first jobs in Malaysia was to record the music of some 26 indigenous groups in Sarawak whose culture was likely to be destroyed by the construction of a government-sponsored mega-project.  Although I knew nothing about ethnomusicology – and was even less interested in it – I nevertheless appreciated the importance of preserving a musical culture, even one which was utterly alien to me.  A recent visit to England has made me think that the time is due for someone to be equally determined to preserve that land’s unique musical culture.  It seems to be dying out, here killed off by social rather than physical “progress”.

First performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah at Birmingham on
26th August 1846

What is so special about English – as opposed to European – musical culture? What is it that has inspired every major European composer since before Handel to make a pilgrimage to England?  Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Wagner, Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky…You name them, they went there.  Why?  They went to hear their music performed by the finest performers, orchestras and choirs in the world and before the most eager and informed audiences.  English culture is not conducive to producing creative musicians – you can count the number of international-class English composers on the fingers of a single, mutilated hand – but it produces performers, and especially team players (orchestral players and choral singers) which have long been the envy of the world.  And, for the moment, they still are, but I see the culture which nurtured this pool of great talent dying in front of my very eyes.

Some shallow thinkers like to blame it all on financial cuts, but English music achieved its greatness not as the result of the kind of limitless governmental support so many people seem to regard as a right today.  It achieved its greatness as a result of two things, and it is the loss of these that has put English musical culture into apparently terminal decline.

Hymns Ancient and Modern - the standard hymn book
of the English church at the end of the 19th century.

Although it’s unfashionable to be one today, I am proud to call myself a White, Middle-Class and Middle Aged Englishman, and like millions of other White, Middle-Class English children, I was brought up on a daily diet of nursery songs and hymns.  Before starting school I sat with my mother listening to a wonderful programme on the BBC Home Service called “Listen With Mother” in which a lady with immaculate RP enunciation (a standard to which we all aspired since it meant we could be understood where-ever we went in the UK and nobody would judge us according to pre-conceived prejudices on background prompted by regional accents) told us stories and sang nursery songs such as “Little Boy Blue”, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Ride a Cock Horse”.  When I started school, we had a daily assembly during which we sang such hymns as “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, “Hills of the North Rejoice” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away” and in class we sang nursery songs.  As a result we all had, irrespective of religion or background, a fund of musical tunes which were common to all. 

When, in later life, I was involved in teaching music and auditioning boys to join cathedral choirs, one knew that every child would know these nursery songs and hymns, and it gave them an immediate point-of-reference from which to embark on their musical lives.  As a teacher I could train students to recognise intervals by associating them with one of these tunes; a perfect fourth (“Away in a Manger”), a perfect fifth (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”), a major sixth (“Crimond”), while to assess the vocal abilities of a six-year-old potential chorister, one only needed to ask him to sing one of these songs; he didn’t have to learn something new just for the audition.  

A nice side-effect of all this common shared culture was that those of us who sang in church choirs were able to communicate to each other in a kind of code which involved hymn and psalm tunes.  It was second nature for us to call on phrases from hymns to help us with both our musical and our linguistic communication skills, and I recall a game music examiners used to play during interminable overseas tours; we would compete to see who could refer to the most psalms or hymns in a single report.  It added a lovely spice to the usually bland language of an exam report while often making the meaning rather clearer to the reader than the stock phrases most examiners call on.  That this last skill has long gone was made painfully clear to me when I read a report in a British paper about a policeman who was accused referring to popular song titles in evidence he had given before a court in a fatal shooting trial.  He was accused of peppering his testimony with such phrases as “Enough is Enough”, “In the Line of Fire”, “Point of No Return” and “You’ve got to have Faith”.  Now, in my ignorance, I would normally take these to be bland clichés from a man with little education; but it appears these are song titles by Donna Summer, Dogwood, Immortal Technique and George Michael respectively. (It seems ironic for a policeman to be quoting George Michael, a fellow who seems to run up against the law on an almost daily basis.)  How sad!  In my day it required real intelligence to slip in phrases such as “Abide with me”, “Immortal Invisible”, “In death’s Dark Vale” or “Hobgoblin nor Foul Fiend”, actual phrases from hymns which examiners have, incredibly, been able to slip into reports apparently unnoticed.

So, with nursery songs and hymns forming a common cultural heritage accessible to every English child (and for those who bemoan government cuts, I hasten to add all this was available free-of-charge), they had a head start over foreigners (with no such broadly-based musical culture) when it came to joining together in musical activities requiring teamwork, such as playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir.  And it is the loss of those two musical elements, inculcated into most English children from infancy, which is at the root of the terminal decline (as I see it) of English musical culture, and which needs urgently to be restored before England becomes a Third World Country on the musical stage.

In recent years, social historians have decried apparently innocuous nursery songs for their celebration of England’s colonial past, its involvement in the slave trade, its persecution of Roman Catholics and the horrors of the Great Plague which wiped out everybody, it seems, except the White, Middle-Class and Middle Age (hence our pariah status today).  So Nursery Songs are a no-no and poor, deprived British children, believing themselves to be so much more enlightened than we were in our childhood, are spared the malign, insidious influence of “Ring a Ring a Roses”, “Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie” or “See-saw, Margery Daw”, with their subversive lyrics (and if you want to read “the true stories” behind these once-considered-to-be-harmless children’s songs, refer to www.rhymes.org.uk).  Instead they have such wholesome fair as “Born this way”, “I Just Had Sex” and “Fuckin’ Perfect”.  The decline in English children’s linguistic skills is already painfully obvious; the musical decline is every bit as vivid.  Nursery songs had memorable tunes which you could hum, sing, whistle or make out with one finger on the piano; that’s not the case with the computer-generated, video-centric music forced on today’s English youth.

Thomas Cranmer

Equally serious is the loss of the hymns.  The cultural identity of the UK is centred around the Anglican church, its matchless contribution to the language (and with this being the 400th anniversary of the death of Thomas Cranmer, you would have thought everyone would celebrate the work of a man who devised the timeless linguistic glories of the Book of Common Prayer) and, especially, its musical treasury.  As a boy, I could walk into any Anglican church anywhere in the UK and know the service, the music, join in the hymns and sing the psalms.  I could share with complete strangers a common heritage which opened doors to all sorts of professional and social relationships.  Not any more.  Usually, when in the UK, I wander into a great cathedral and lap up the wonderful words and music of evensong, but on this visit I found myself on several occasions attending ordinary parish churches.  In each one I was on totally alien ground.  Gone was the familiar and comforting order of service (they don’t even seem to say the Creed anymore – the basic tenet of Christian faith – presumably expunged in the interest of not offending those whose first language is not English), gone were the familiar bits of music – Merbecke or Martin Shaw – usually in favour of some derivative drivel from the church’s egocentric organist, convinced he could write better music than a professional, and, most distressing, gone were the old hymns with their instantly singable melodies and their thought-provoking words.  In place of such delicious and moving linguistic gems as “Craftsman’s art and music’s measure” we had plain language (one hymn included the ghastly lines “Feel the Pain of the Violated Woman/Feel the Pain of the Unemployed” – honest sentiments, but surely they could have been wrapped up in more elegant language) sung to unsingable melodies, often derived from popular songs and invariable totally unmatched, syllabically, to the texts.

For as long as Cranmer’s legacy held sway over British society, the country was famed for its brilliant performers on the dramatic as well as on the musical stage.  Is it merely coincidence that, as England dispenses with his legacy and dumbs everything down in the name of that pernicious and wholly unhealthy concept of “multiculturalism” – a buzz-word for reducing everything to the bland and superficial – it is destroying its culture and denying itself a place at the forefront of the musical nations of the world; a place it has held since at least 1611?