30 December 2012

Annual Musical Highlights

Sometime in September the first request comes in; Can you select a disc/performance/artist/work which, in your opinion, is the finest of the year?  As most magazines and newspapers run a retrospective of the year which includes some mention of classical music, there is no need for this blog to do the same, and it is certainly not my intention to turn this into the electronic equivalent of those round-robin Christmas epistles which have come in for such a pasting by the media this year.  I’m not sure why they have suddenly been made the source of so much ire.  Like women priests and gay marriage, I have no basic philosophical objection to round-robins, I just object to the kind of people who indulge.  Women priests are so often, in my experience, aggressive to the point of outright hostility in their proclamation of their right to administer the sacraments, while those who feel the need to make a public display of their same-sex relationship all too often hide behind outrageous self-parodies involving silly clothes and affected voices.  Similarly, those who send out round-robins usually lead lives of such terminal dreariness that they seem to find pleasure in afflicting their boring existence on those whose lives are much more interesting.  Not that all round-robin writers fall into that category.  The end of this year was much darkened by the absence of the annual missive from my old friend Donald Hawksworth.

Donald Hawksworth (1930-2012)
Donald and I first met when he was on an extended ABRSM examining tour of the Far East in 1987.  He lived a truly eventful life and his annual letters detailing his multifarious activities over the previous 12 months were best read with both a stiff whisky and a world atlas to hand.  He was an insatiable traveller who, usually travelling on a shoe-string and relying on strangers he met along the way to accommodate him and point him in the right direction, managed to live life, as they say, to the full.  I recall the momentous year when, while on an examining tour of Malaysia (he was at Taiping at the time), he was informed by that his house in Scotland had been completely destroyed in a gas explosion.  Upset only by the loss of his Steinway, Donald realised there was no point returning to Scotland until the house had been rebuilt, and sending instructions to various people back home, he set off on a world tour which took him to the Philippines, just in time to get caught up in a military coup, to Fiji, just in time to find himself half-way up an erupting volcano, to New Zealand, just in time to catch a major earthquake and finally to the USA, where he got caught up in a major shoot-out between police and drug dealers.  All this was recounted in Donald’s round-robin almost as an afterthought – for him, the interesting thing were the people he met and the mountains he climbed.

Donald’s death in April was just one of many sad things which led to my regarding 2012 as about the worst year in living memory.  But while I could bore everyone with tales of woe and despondency, without a shadow of doubt, nothing has been so depressing that a goodly dose of decent music could not lift my spirits, and it is in gratitude to the unfailingly uplifting effect certain recordings, performances, compositions and musicians have had on my year that I offer this personal retrospective of 2012’s musical highlights.
Naxos 8.573049

Even as I write, I am relishing a lovely disc of music by Gabriel Jackson.  Beautifully sung by the ever-magnificent Vasari Singers and magically recorded on the Naxos label in the chapel of Tonbridge School, the headline work is the Requiem, and while that might seem an antidote to any feelings of joy, so richly expressive is Jackson’s writing and so warmly affectionate is Jeremy Backhouse’s direction, that the overriding mood is one of profound optimism and contentment. 

My Choral Disc of 2012 - LSO0728
But much as I am enjoying that disc, the choral disc which most effectively lifted my spirits this year and which has been a constant companion ever since I first heard it, was a splendid account of Fauré’s Requiem.  (I assure you this obsession with Requiems is not symptomatic of a fundamentally depressed state; just a reflection of the ultimately uplifting nature of these composers’ response to these age-old texts.)  Here we have another of Britain’s excellent choirs, Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short.  With members of the London Symphony Orchestra adding more colour and depth that one normally expects to hear from a performance of the John Rutter arrangement of the work, what really makes this disc so tremendous is the Bach pieces which precede the Fauré.  On their own, they receive decidedly uninspiring performances.  But the cumulative effect of Bach plus Fauré is to shed a whole new light on the latter, bathing it in a glow of such radiance that one cannot but be profoundly moved.

My Record of 2012 - ODE1191-2D
That, though, was not my personal record of the year.  That accolade goes to a two disc set of orchestral music by Erich Korngold.  There’s a sumptuous account of the Sinfonietta, which is wonderful enough, but there is also the first ever recording of the complete incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing.  Ingeniously scored for a chamber ensemble (with a prominent part for harmonium) this is, for me, the great musical discovery of the year.  Sitting on a train held up interminably by flooded tracks in some God-forsaken part of northern England, all sense of anxiety vanished whilst listening to this lovely and ingenious music.  A glorious performance from the Helsinki Philharmonic under John Storgårds, and a ravishing recording to boot on the Ondine label.

There were plenty of music eccentricities which brightened up my year.  Not the least of these was the sight of Singapore’s Orchestra of the Music Makers performing Delius’s Paris at the Cheltenham Festival.  Turning up at one of England’s most twee towns on the wettest July day ever recorded, with an 11 hour flight and minimal sleep behind them, playing Delius to an audience with an average age of 70 all of whom knew the work far better than anyone on stage, was a pretty ridiculous spectacle.  On top of that, conductor Chan Tze Law managed almost to fall off stage when a misguided stage hand moved the stairs away, and pianist Melvyn Tan could barely see the orchestra or conductor from his position in the corner of an ante-stage.  Nevertheless, the orchestra won over the audience and while I know they can, and usually do, do a lot better, I suspect many Cheltenhamers went back to their sodden homes feeling uplifted.  The weirdness didn’t stop there.  At the post-concert receptions, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK put the final gloss on the evening by proclaiming that, for Singaporeans, Cheltenham was synonymous with “young girls and fast horses”.  Ah, that all diplomats showed such contempt for political correctness.

The ultimate sadness for me in 2012 was being obliged to leave my beloved Singapore and, especially, my work with the students at the Yong  Siew Toh Conservatory.  Without a shadow of doubt, I can say that my brief time at that fine institution was about the happiest of my life, and certainly  it was among the more musically enriching.  My former students continue to keep themselves in my consciousness with a welter of kind and informative emails, but it is their musical prowess which lingers longest in the memory.  One of the best performances I experienced there came in one of the Monday concerts given in March.  This included a performance by Chinese pianist Zheng Qingshu, who almost convinced me that Liszt was worth listening to.  She gave a great performance of the Second Concert Etude, and I don’t recall ever having been so uplifted by hearing Liszt before. 

Much of the sorrow I have experienced this year has emanated from Malaysia.  My home for several decades, I saw it rise and then fall musically, witnessing, towards the middle of the year, it hurtle towards self-destruction.  All that we had dreamt of and worked for fell apart, those of us who cared enough to comment were subjected to vicious verbal (and in some cases physical) abuse, and it seemed as if serious classical music in Malaysia had gone forever.  But among the students populating the music department at Middlesex University, I came across Isabella Pek, and a lengthy tutorial with her suddenly made me realise that there was still hope in the face of the self-inflicted carnage from Petronas.  Isabella is a competent composer and arranger, very good at her duties in RTM of arranging music and adapting Malaysian melodies for popular public consumption.  In most Malaysian eyes, that would be good enough.  But her bosses in KL decided that she would benefit by studying overseas and, eschewing the mind-numbing mantra “Malaysia Boleh!”, gave her a grant to enable her to spend time at Middlesex studying composition from foreign experts.  I am not sure what I admire most; the intelligence shown by the RTM people in sending one of their composers to the UK in order to expand her horizons, or the determination of Isabella both to show her bosses that their money has not been wasted while refusing to abandon the style of writing which has so obviously satisfied Malaysian audiences.  Both of these I find incredibly uplifting.

2013 can barely be less grim for me than was 2012, but I sincerely hope that all of you who read this will have a very successful and happy and healthy 2013.  You can be sure of lots of interesting stuff to read here on this blog – even if it can never quite live up to the fascinating glimpses of world life as viewed by the late, great Donald Hawksworth,

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