29 March 2017

A Golden Age Unappreciated

What inspired me to devote my life to music? That's a question musicians do sometimes get asked, and I find it impossible to answer.

My father, certainly, and the fact that both my parents were supportive in getting all four of us children to learn the piano.  That first piano teacher, Elizabeth James, who was both inspirational and brilliant, and whose legacy remains with me to this day, sadly unthanked or generally unappreciated.  And certainly a memorable performance of The Wasps Overture by Vaughan Williams in the Royal Festival Hall in London sometime in the early 1960s (I remember sitting back in my chair, putting my head back on the seat cushions - they seemed so large then - and giving myself up to some fabulous horn playing in a performance which, I have a feeling, was conducted by Sir John Barbirolli).

But perhaps the strongest debt I have is to Barry Rose who was the choirmaster at Guildford Cathedral.  I did not sing in his choir on a regular basis, but whenever I came under his direction, it was a moment of such inspirational glory, that I carried it with me for years.  In short, I admired him almost to the point of hero-worship, and when he moved to St Pauls, I never let a month go by without turning up for a weekday evensong (even though, by that stage, I was living in Ireland with a cathedral choir or my own to direct).


Barry Rose at Guildford in the 1970s
Sadly, the idea of church music as something to treasure and nurture with care, love and consummate quality seems to have gone by the board.  Why offer God the very best when we can make do with the cheap and nasty?  Why train a choir and organist to heights of perfection, when with a few wires, speakers and wannabe (but grotesquely untalented) rock-musicians we can relive in glorious musical monochrome the poorest moments of historic Eurovision Song Contests.  When I walk into a church and see a drum kit, music stands and amplifiers, I walk out and seek God in the nearest pub.

Organists only have themselves to blame for this.  Their incestuous fascination with the technical intricacies of their instruments, their exclusive attitude to their instrument and their acceptance of the fifth rate in music simply because it is French 19th century, north German 18th century or uses the Tuba Mirabilis 8 foot, has alienated so many (notably priests and vicars) that their demise is, lemming-like, self propelled.

My old friend and fellow-chorister, Peter Almond, rooted out from the internet (he's retired, not as mobile as he once was, and lives alone in glorious south London splendour, so he has time to trawl through the dark recesses of the web) a recording of Barry Rose and the Guildford Choir at their very heyday.  And, despite pressure of work, a pile of CDs to review, and an impending appointment at the hospital, I've given myself up to wallow in the glories of the past.  And I've come up with something I should have said years ago.

The Golden Age of British music may have been encapsulated in Gibbons, Tallis and Purcell.  It may have belonged to Britten and Walton, Vaughan Williams and Elgar.  But for me, it was the Anglican cathedral and church music of the 1960s-70s when cathedral organists were, for a very brief time in their long history, also consummate musicians, inspirational choir trainers and devoted servers of the church.  I do not find such people exist today.

As we approach Passiontide and Easter, let me share a moment of that Golden Age by directing you to something you would almost certainly dismiss today as Victorian tat; Stainer's Crucifixion.,  I like it, but accept it is not the last word in musical genius.  However, listen to that choir of men and young boys moulded to aabsolute perfection by Barry Rose with Gavin Williams showing how organ accompaniments should be played.  And if the one hour of devotional music is too much for you to bear, skip to 35:27where you will hear a simple hymn elevated to great music by an inspirational conductor and one of the finest choir trainers the world has ever witnessed.: Stainer's Crucifixion, Guildford Cathedral, Barry Rose

26 March 2017

Gardening With Telemann

This year we will be marking the 250th anniversary of the death of one of the most prolific and astonishingly productive composers of all time.  He was born in Magdeburg on 14th March 1681, died in Hamburg on 25th June 1767, and was almost certainly the most famous and widely respected composer in North Germany at the time.  On top of that he was perhaps the most innovative and adventurous composer until John Cage came along and pipped him to the top position in originality and experimentation.  The trouble is, for all his astonishing creativity, his high regard amongst his peers and contemporaries, and his shocking originality, too many today regard his music as being under the shadow of another, whose output was significantly smaller, whose scope was negligible in comparison, and whose music was so conservative and backward looking that we regard him as the end of an era, rather than the originator of a new one.

The anniversary is that of Georg Philipp Telemann who, since the Bach revival of the 19th century, has been put on to the back burner – a minimally interesting figure somewhere in the periphery of Johann Sebastian Bach’s perceived all-consuming greatness.

The trouble with the Classical Canon – where certain 19th century German music philosophers decided to create a list of the “Great” composers – is that it elevates some at the expense of others, and often elevates them far above their true worth.  Of Bach’s 1200 or so works, how many does the music-loving public really know and use as the basis for their belief that he was “great”?  Yes, the St Matthew Passion, the B Minor Mass and the six “Brandenburg” Concertos are unquestionable pillars in Western art, but can anybody say the same of the plethora of organ chorale preludes which by far and away exceed in numerical terms everything else in Bach’s output?  I would suggest, for example, that BWV731 and BWV679 count among the most dreary and uninventive of all organ pieces; and if you claim to be a Bach fanatic yet don’t know them, perhaps that is indicative of their lack of quality.  Even BWV565 is a pretty dreadful piece of writing which most composition teachers would dismiss as feeble; even though it is becoming increasingly accepted that this is not a Bach original. Yet the elevation of Bach to the Classical Canon signed the death warrant for Telemann’s place in posterity, consigning him to the dustbin of “second-raters”; composer’s whose music cannot bear comparison with that of the God like geniuses of the Canon.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly.  Ask most music lovers and students about Telemann and they will as likely as not think “boring”, “dull”, “unimaginative” or, at best, “worthy”.  And the trouble is, that attitude of second-rate has informed an awful lot of Telemann performances by those who see him as an interesting figure on the periphery of Bach’s life rather than a major figure in his own right.


The tide, though, might be changing.  And if it is going to change, then 2017 would seem an ideal time for it to happen.  Already this year I have been stunned by a number of recordings which scratch the surface of Telemann’s huge originality.  Perhaps the best example comes in a disc described as comprising Telemann’s works for “Chalumeaux and Salterio”, but which includes a revelatory Sonatine für Hackbrett.  This is not quite a genuine Telemann work – it’s a re-working of the Violin work listed as TWV41:A2 – but it is based on Telemann’s own professed fascination with the hammered dulcimer, or cimbalom, which Wolfgang Brunner informs us in his fascinating booklet notes, was an instrument Telemann encountered during his time in the court orchestra at Eisenach and with which he seemed totally captivated.  Sadly, while this disc offers a fascinating insight into an area of Telemann not previously exploited on disc, the recording is not all it might be, and I would be hard put to recommend this to those for whom music matters more than the novelty of instrumental colours.

Not so an absolutely tremendous disc of Telemann’s music for recorder and chalumeaux from Il Giardino Armonico.  Telemann, was, according to Brunner, “a passionate gardener”, so it seems strongly apt that a group calling itself “the Harmonic Gardeners” should offer such compelling insights into his music.  I reviewed the disc for MusicWeb International, from whom the CD can be obtained.  Sadly, however, you cannot get the vinyl which the record label (Alpha) launched with much fanfare and submitted for review, jumping on to the current revival of interest in vinyl.  Despite the fact that the record was only released earlier this year, when, on my recommendation, my good friend Peter Almond sent off for a vinyl copy (he’s a mad-keen vinyl person), he was told that it was no longer available.  One wonders what a record company thinks it’s doing withdrawing a potential best-seller weeks after releasing it.  Unless, of course, it was all just one big publicity stunt?  I wrote to Alpha Classics to ask what was their reason for withdrawing the vinyl product.  Inevitably, they could not be bothered to reply; why worry about illegal downloads and cut-price streaming when the record companies themselves seem determined to kill their business?
Nevertheless don’t let that put you off buying the CD – it’s absolutely fabulous.  Here’s my MWI review:

 

There are likely to be quite a few discs appearing this year marking the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Philipp Telemann, but I doubt whether any will be better than this and precious few will even begin to equal it in sheer enjoyment value. In a word, this is outstanding. It will more than likely to turn a few heads in the direction of Telemann; still one of the most under-rated composers of the High German Baroque.

Il Giardino Armonico have been around for over 30 years and in that time have amassed a remarkable discography, as consistent in its quality as in the freshness and vitality they bring to the music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Their recordings have been issued on Teldec and Decca, and they have recently moved to Alpha, who are also releasing their recordings on vinyl. Working only from the CD version, I can say the recording itself is pretty special, the sound vibrant and full of detail; Stephen Greenbank reviewing the 2-LP release found the sound there every bit as enticing as I do with this single CD. It even has that “wow” factor; when the recorder breaks into the Menuet of the Suite, its electrifying scales fair take the breath away!

Founder member and Director of Il Giardino Armonico for most of the past 30 years has been Giovanni Antonini, and he takes centre stage here with his astonishing ability not just to direct perceptive and vitally incisive performances, but to multi-instrumentalise. He even gets his brief moment alone with his flute, in a haunting solo Prélude from Hotteterre. But this is a brief taster put in at the very start of the CD as it were to lay a false trail; Telemann’s music is far more vivid, vital and vivacious and a world away from the solemn sobriety of Hotteterre. With the stately tread of the Ouverture from the Suite in A minor we are led into what must be Telemann’s most frequently performed work. Familiarity most certainly does not breed contempt here, for I defy anyone not to be absolutely enchanted by the freshness and tantalising elegance Il Giardino Armonico bring the performance. The real icing on the cake, however, is Antonini himself who is not only a superb virtuoso player and an immensely capable musician, but someone who brings huge amounts of colour, variety and sheer élan to his playing. Articulation is crisp and richly varied, while his ornamentation confidently negotiates that fine line between tasteful and flamboyant.

The C major Concerto is another frequently heard Telemann classic, and here again we have a matchless performance in which the bright, clear and open sound of C major provides Antonini with the opportunity to exhibit the beautifully bright and pure top register of his recorder, not least in the bubbling Minuet. Impeccable in their accompanying role, Il Giardino Armonico bring out a wealth of intricate textural detail to add great depth to Antonini’s graceful presence, even if around 2:30 of the Andante movement he seems to cram in rather too many ornaments for comfort in this evenly-paced account.

 The more intimate G minor “Concerto di Camera” is very much a showpiece for the flute, and with the accompaniment of just a pair of violins and continuo, Antonini has the opportunity to indulge in a few more interpretative flights of fancy, all of which exhibit a firm grasp of style mixed with a wonderful fluency of invention, alleviating the somewhat routine sequences of the opening movement.

The real oddity on the disc is the Sonata for two chalumeaux in which Antonini, playing the tenor, is joined by Tindaro Capuano on the alto. The sound is strangely rustic - it’s almost as if we had stumbled across a Tyrolean street band, but one with impeccable technical and musical credentials – and there is something indescribably endearing about these two mid-pitched instruments bubbling away merrily enveloped within the string ensemble. They sound like two love-birds in a bush, and with the recording completely expunging any action noise or other mechanical distractions, we have a sound equally buoyant and arresting. You would have to be a particularly hard-hearted soul to resist the captivating charms of this fabulous CD.

06 March 2017

The Problem with New Music


Why do musicians feel the need to apologise about presenting modern music?  In Singapore, where there is clearly an appetite for the music of our time and where mostly young audiences should not be hung up on the prejudices and pallid tastes of the past, it has become embarrassingly common for those putting on such concerts to envelop them within an almost fawning aura of apology and excuse.

Last night, for example, I attended a concert as part of the Esplanade’s excellent Spectrum series.  This is a series of concerts featuring music written within the last 100 years which, at the moment, is exploring minimalism – a musical genre which, perhaps more than any other of recent times, deliberately sets out to be accessible.  Last night’s concert was no exception, and even went further by including some not-really-minimalist pieces by iconic Singaporean composers.  The concert had an almost capacity audience. 

Yet the conductor devoted half of the time to flabbily apologising for the fact that the concert was made up of modern music, earnestly invoking the audience to open their ears to new ideas, not to feel intimidated or put off by “new” music, and to put aside their prejudices about all modern music being ugly and tuneless.  He even tried to show how much fun it could be by getting the audience to be involved in experiments as an appetiser to music by Arvo Pärt (82 this year) and John Tavener (who died over three years ago) – hardly men whose music can now be considered to be at the cutting edge of outrageous innovation.

Why?  Did he seriously believe that the audience had stumbled into the hall by mistake?  That they had bought their tickets believing that they were in for an evening of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven? 

I am sure he did not, but it has become endemic amongst those who perform and present the music of our time to pre-suppose that audiences are unwilling to accept it.  And on what grounds do they base that assumption?  On the evidence of audiences in the West who, having been subjected to the musical experiments and the Cult of the Unlistenable promoted by a group of composers who, in the 1950s and 1960s, set out deliberately to challenge and alienate in the wake of the Second World War, used to look on anything labelled as “modern” with the deepest of suspicion.  Even today, western audiences (which are demographically considerably older than Asian ones) have an ingrained suspicion of the music of the mid-20th century, even if they have no such hang-ups on the music of the early 21st. 

So why does a Singaporean audience (or a Malaysian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai or Indonesian one, for that matter) feel the need to ape their western counterparts?  The answer is, they do not, but those who put on concerts do; perhaps because of some poor experience during their studies overseas (which is a good reason why overseas study is not necessarily an entirely beneficial thing) or perhaps because they have heard second or third hand about audience reactions in London, New York and Paris to concerts of modern music put on in the 1970s.

Far from feeling alienated by the music created in our time and born of the society in which we live, we should appreciate it as far more accessible than that of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, whose lives and the societies in which they lived are so alien to our own existence that we cannot begin to comprehend what they were trying to convey in their music.  In fact, so horribly ignorant are many modern-day musicians of musical history, that their complete failure to comprehend the music of the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries results in performances which reveal a complete disregard for its original context and purpose.  Music students in south east Asia have learnt what meagre crumbs of historical knowledge they possess from equally ignorant teachers who, because the ABRSM and other examination boards do not include history in their syllabuses, feel that it is irrelevant.

Sadly it is not, and we live in an age where unthinking interpretations of old music are seen as preferable to considered and intelligent performances of modern music, simply because nobody understands what music is all about.  It does not help that modern music is so often put into a ghetto; performed in isolation of the repertory which forms its very foundations, and usually delivered in an unconventional way in a misguided attempt to detach it from familiar musical expectations.

We need to turn our way of presenting modern music around.  It is the music of earlier generations which needs to be prefaced by an apology and explanation – for all its familiarity, very few are really competent to interpret it properly.  As for the music of our time, it speaks so directly and immediately to audiences, that to try and explain it is, at best patronising and at worst, seriously alienating.

02 March 2017

Hong Kong's Revolving Ring



From the very opening moments it is clear that this is going to be a particularly fine Walküre.  The Hong Kong Philharmonic may have had a chequered past on disc (as well as in the flesh, it has to be said) but it has landed firmly on its feet with their current Wagner project and, under their musical director, Jaap van Zweden, they easily pass muster as one of the more instinctive Wagner orchestras of our time.  This is not just very good playing, it is outstanding.  It has a wonderful breadth of sound – superbly recorded in these live sessions taken from concert performances in the somewhat difficult acoustic environment of Hong Kong’s iconic wedge-shaped Cultural Centre – and Zweden masterfully manipulates the balance so that we have a gloriously rich and robust sound across the entire orchestral spectrum.  Brass is smooth and polished, never uncomfortably dominant, strings have a tremendously incisive cutting edge, especially in their lower registers, while the woodwind and percussion give it all a sense of great richness. 

Jaap van Zweden’s decision to perform Wagner’s complete Ring cycle in Hong Kong – the first time it has ever been done there and the first time ever by a Chinese orchestra – left many marvelling at his faith in an orchestra not in any way versed in the intricacies of such music, let alone in involving themselves in serious opera.  The four parts are being presented in instalments over a four-year period as concert performances.  Das Rheingold opened the proceedings in 2015, with Siegfried being done there this month and Götterdämmerung early in 2018.  Each of the four parts of the cycle is being recorded by Naxos who, let us not forget, is also based in Hong Kong. 

If Das Rheingold was good, Die Walküre is exceptional.  Much of that is down to the orchestral playing which never flags for a moment and produces a truly spectacular conclusion to Act 1 and a wonderfully exhilarating “Ride of the Valkyries” in Act 3.  Zweden’s sense of dramatic timing and overall pacing drives it all along with a growing feeling of inevitability.  His climaxes are reserved but skilfully managed, and the moments of real musical drama (as with the Wotan’s rage as he pursues the errant Brünnhilde in Act 3) are vividly conveyed.  As for the cast, Zweden has collected a particularly good team around him which may not all be at the very top of their game, but none of whom could be identified as a weak spot.

No reservations about Stuart Skelton as a gloriously robust, virile and assertive Siegmund, nor Heidi Melton’s delicious Sieglinde.  Matthias Goerne’s Wotan is uneven, often richly expressive and suitably commanding, especially in his Act 2 command to Brünnhilde to ensure Siegmund’s victory over Hunding, but occasionally he lacks the authority to be convincing, notably in his confrontation with Fricka, who, imperiously sung by Michelle DeYoung, is very much in vocal command here.  I am uncomfortable with Petra Lang’s almost screeching swoops as she sets out to do Wotan’s bidding in Act 2.  It sometimes seem that her recent switch from mezzo to soprano has left some of the control wanting as she moves from one part of the voice to another.  However, as with Falk Struckmann’s Hunding, the characters are vividly portrayed even if the voices have inconsistencies.  Particular praise must go to the group of Valkyries who sing with a remarkable sense of unity and vocal balance.  Between them they produce some of the most enchanting singing on the disc.

Any Wagner production is the result of a successful bringing together of many diverse strands, not all of which may, in isolation, withstand the closest scrutiny.  By extremely good fortune, what we have here is a Wagner production which has brought together some very impressive performers and created a singularly outstanding whole.  This Hong Kong production is turning out to be a Ring of exceptional quality.

 (This review appeared on MusicWeb International, from whom the CD set can be purchased)