11 September 2021

Bach In Our Time

 



My first exposure to the complete St. Matthew Passion was in a performance conducted by Otto Klemperer.  It was one of the most tedious, dreary, and boring experiences of my life – although I can’t have been much older than 10 at the time.  I remember it as painfully slow, morbid, agonisingly monotonous, and seemingly interminable, and it soured my appreciation of the work for decades.  A decade later, and a stentorian-voiced lecturer explaining in infinite detail the wonders (which for me remained stubbornly hidden) of this Pillar of Western Civilization only reinforced my sense of the work as overlong, over-gloomy and over-indulgent.  And despite having sat through countless performances, performed in many, and reviewed dozens more both live and on record, I still find it almost impossible to listen through without that underlying sense of frustration that Bach is forcing me to while my valuable life away on something which seems so utterly unnecessary.  The first time I played continuo in it was a performance conducted by Bill Llewellyn at the Leith Hill Festival.  It was monumentally slow, and I recall the orchestral fixer passing me a note after the first few hours had elapsed suggesting that if I slowed things down even more, we would all be in overtime; I did, to the eternal gratitude of the musicians, whose only regret was by the time it had finished, the pubs were all closed.  Afterwards Bill came up to me with tears in his eyes and thanked me for so fully entering into his approach to the work, which he had modelled on Vaughan Williams’ annual performance which, to all accounts, was even more low and long-drawn-out than Klemperer’s.

 

In the past decades, the slow, magisterial, deeply serious style of performance has been replaced by the lighter touch of the Baroque Brigade; those enthusiasts for archaic instruments who believe that if you use the hardware of the 18th century, your performance will automatically be better and more “authentic”.  Yet my heart still drops when I have to sit through the whole shebang all over again; and while I dutifully do, I usually regret having done so.

 

Things changed on Thursday night, however, when it was put on at the Proms by Jonathan Cohen and his group Arcangelo.  I had it on in the car in a live relay, and while I intended only to listen to a bit before turning over to the news, I found myself mesmerised and unable to switch it off until the final bars had died away.  I found it tremendously invigorating, inspiring, dramatic, and totally absorbing; he treated it almost operatically, with fast, punchy pacing and moments of spine-tingling drama.  We all know the story, but it seemed to be entirely new and fresh in this revelatory performance.  Indeed, so much did I enjoy it that last night I decided to watch it again on television, this time with a glass of whisky to hand just in case my in-car experience had been the result of a temporarily altered personality and it turned out to be just as dreary as the rest.  It wasn’t. It was even more thrilling and absorbing second time around; that is until the awful imbeciles in the BBC’s artsankuwchah department decided to put some mindless bimbo on the screen to tell us how enthusiastic she was and to share with us her kind-numbingly puerile thoughts on the performance.  (If only television producers realised that all we want to do is see the performance and are generally capable of forming our own opinions without the intrusive idiocy of adolescent eye-candy.)

 

Two things, however, struck me about this performance of the St Matthew Passion.  The first was that Bach would probably not have recognised a note of it and, secondly, while it was using old-fashioned looking musical instruments, there was nothing remotely “authentic” about it.  We have no idea what the work sounded like when it was first performed (that is, if it was ever performed in its entirely in Bach’s time), but I’m pretty sure Bach would not have danced around with such elasticity to inspire his musicians as did Cohen, who sat down and jumped up from his harpsichord with all the energy of a spring-loaded jack-in-the-box.  One thing’s for sure, at the first performance (presumably in the cold months of Lent) Bach would not have sweated with the profuseness of Cohen, nor would his soloists have ended up looking quite so drenched in perspiration.  I doubt, too, that they would have dressed in so random and casual a way, unified only by the colour black.  And I cannot imagine the raw drama and sheer edge-of-the-seat excitement Cohen brought to it in the Royal Albert Hall was what Bach would have provided his Leipzig congregation 300 years ago.  No, this was very much a performance for the 21st century, pandering to our tastes for instant gratification and our inability to tolerate long periods of musical inactivity.  And on those terms it was a fabulous success.

 

Musicians, critics, and friends whose opinion I highly value, have suggested that this was a performance which lacked “weight” and “seriousness” – qualities which Klemperer, Llewellyn and Vaughan Williams provided in abundance.  One suggested it was “breathless” and another that it was on the verge of being “frantic”.  I agree with all of that; but in my case I take those absences as positives rather than negatives.  I think the work benefitted from being given this kind of racy, punchy, and pseudo-operatic treatment, and it certainly won me over after some 50 years of indifference.

 

The question remains, are any of these styles of performance “correct” or “authentic”.  I have a niggling suspicion that Klemperer et al were closer to the mark than Cohen; I sense that Bach would have given it weight, ponderous substance, and deadly seriousness; but I really don’t know.  Certainly, he would not have recognised the immaculate intonation of the strings or the beautifully moulded tones of the wind players that Arcangelo provided us, and neither would he have recognised the grossly over-inflated tones of the modern instruments with which Klemperer worked.  Bach’s singers would have lacked the polish of Cohen’s team (and Stuart Jackson was a fabulous Evangelist) or the full-bodied rotundity of Klemperer’s (I can’t remember who they were, but when we did it at Leith Hill, the Evangelist was the wonderful Ian Partridge), but I suspect the maturity of Klemperer’s team would have been more akin to what Bach had at his disposal than the youthfulness of Cohen’s singers.  Am I veering towards the sacrilegious notion that had I heard Bach in person, I would have been deeply unimpressed?

 

In short, we have no idea what Bach wanted, expected, or even had, and while we do know a bit about the hardware available to him, there is no point in even guessing about the sound created or the way it affected the hearers at the time.  When it comes to Bach (and most other 18th century composers), an ambition to be “stylistically correct” is inevitably going to be fruitless.  So why bother?  Why not reinterpret the work as fits the time in which it is being heard and let it live on into the future to be reinterpreted as future generations think fit?  Tradition and authenticity have no place when it comes to the St Matthew Passion.

17 August 2021

Music as a Tool of Division

 

A memory from my days as an ABRSM examiner comes to mind.  A gang of us (yes, the collective noun for music examiners is “gang” and not “excrescence”, as some would suggest) was sitting in some smart hotel lounge – I am pretty sure it was the Hilton in Petaling Jaya – discussing, over drinks, the events of the day.  It is a tradition that whenever two or three examiners are gathered together over evening alcoholic beverages, the conversation revolves around that day’s candidates; it not only helps them relieve the frustrations of the job, but is a valuable means of cross-fertilisation of ideas and practices, showing how each handles the various weird and wonderful thangs that happen when nervous candidates and nonchalant examiners interact.  As ever, the discussion became increasingly raucous as the evening wore on, but we were all very conscious that the hotel’s piped music was intruding excessively.  Each of us in turn asked the barman to lower the volume, which he invariably did, but equally invariably it crept up again until it became annoyingly intrusive.  Eventually, the senior member of our gang – Douglas Hopkins – called the fellow over and said in the sweetest of ways, “Do you mind awfully switching the music off completely, old chap?  You see, none of us here really likes music”.  It did the trick, but also gave us all a good laugh; music examiners not liking music?  Perish the thought!

 

The memory was triggered by something that happened the other weekend at home.  In anticipation of my forthcoming hospital operation and to celebrate the summer, we held a garden party at which a very large number of various friends and loose acquaintances turned up.  Among these was a Thai lady whose Chinese husband had some remote connection with one of my wife’s friends.  She decided she would like to go indoors uninvited and poke around our house.  She noticed the grand piano in our front room (to be honest, it is impossible not to notice since it occupies a singularly large percentage of the floor space).  She emerged from the house asking who played it.  My wife explained that I was the musician of the family.  The Thai woman then urged me to play something for her as “she liked music”.  The party was all about being outside and enjoying our garden, but she was not going to take no, and so I went in and played her a bit of harmless Mozart.  It was clearly not to her taste, and after a few bars she moved away to carry on a conversation with someone else.  Not for the first time I was left wondering just how sincere her liking for music was if Mozart left her so cold.

 

People are only too eager to tell us they “like” music; indeed, to confess to not liking is regarded as something of an aberration.  Yet does anyone really “like” music?  I do not know of anyone who has such omnivorous tastes that they enjoy any music that comes their way.  I have fairly broad-ranging tastes, but draw the line at certain things – not least the appalling, talentless computer-generated noises which accompany today’s “music videos” – and would happily go through life without ever encountering Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony or Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory.  Yet good friends of mine adore both, while having no liking for Arensky’s Egyptian Nights or Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, both of which I “like” with a passion.  One reason there is so much music about is that no two people share exactly the same taste, and what one likes, another finds quite distasteful.  We might say we like or dislike “some” music, but to issue a blanket statement about liking all music is an outright lie.

 

The problem lies in our definition of music.  I earnestly believe (and this after a lifetime of trying to seek the answer) that music itself is indefinable.  As with water, we all know what it is for us, but could not describe its taste or texture to someone who has never tasted or touched it.  Ask anyone to define music, and they will describe music on their own terms, usually providing, not a description, but a personal emotional response to it.  People use words such as “beautiful”, “tuneful”, “harmonious”, to describe music; but I know an awful lot of music which is not beautiful, tuneful, or harmonious, yet it is still music.  How have we got to this point where so may of us claim to “like” something, when we can’t even tell you what it is we like?

 

It goes back to how music as both an entity and a function has changed over the years.  The fundamental confusion between the words “musical” and “music” also muddies the water; while the former describes a quality of sound, the latter refers to something rather more abstract, for music can certainly exist without sound.  My interpretation is that the very first true “music” had no sound – it was the ancient belief that there were harmonious sounds created by the movement of heavenly bodies in relation to each other, but those sounds were audible only to the gods.  Since that discovery of “music”, somewhere around 8000 years ago fairly simultaneously by Greek and Chinese astronomers, mankind in its continual striving to assume the powers once believed to be the sole possession of deities, has sought to have access to that sound, and has turned music from a naturally occurring entity (a science) to an artificially created one (an art).  As we have become more confident of our own god-like status, so we have evolved ever more complex and detailed music.  Music has been used through history as a tool of division – dividing the rich from the poor, the educated from the ignorant, and one culture from another.  We see this as we investigate the passage of music history.  There were periods in our history when music was accessible only to the wealthy and powerful, periods when the enfranchisement of the middle classes meant that music was made available to them, and periods when those of heightened intellectualism used music as means of distinguishing themselves from those of a less academic bent.

 

Today, however, in a society which attempts to be more egalitarian, music suddenly has become a tool of unification, based on the concept that as all humans have the same emotions, by investing music with emotions, it becomes universal.  As Marx, Lenin, Mao and a million others have discovered, egalitarianism is an unattainable ideal; someone has to rise to the surface as a leader.  Similarly, while it might be nice to think that we all share a love for music; in reality we do not and cannot.  We may all have the same sorts of emotions, but music is not about emotions, and the failure to appreciate that gives rise to all this confusion as to what music really is.

 

We musicians are continually asked things like, “Who is your favourite composer/What is your favourite piece of music/What type of music do you like best?”, and these are questions impossible to answer, for they vary according to a wide variety of factors not all of which are associated with emotions.  As I write this I am listening to a disc of Handel Organ Concertos, and periodically I stop off to concentrate on some element in the performance which I find particularly likeable.  Yet, much as I adore Handel and his organ concertos, there are times when his music irks me, and his organ concertos get seriously on my nerves.  There are also times when the last thing I want in life is to have musical sounds thrust on me.  To me silence remains the best music; it is a blank page on which I can, in the secrecy of my own mind, draw on any music I care to think of.  Before anyone can tell me they like music, they need to tell me what music is.  And as I believe nobody can tell us that, we have to go with Douglas Hopkins and accept that none of us really likes music.

29 July 2021

Music Educators - Do We Need Them?

 

A former student of mine made a comment recently about the failure of music educators to appreciate that their role was not just in training musicians to be performers, but in encouraging them to be ticket-buyers as well.  Wonderful! (thought I.) It may be some years since that student attended one of my lectures, but something I have said seems to have finally sunk in.  Of course, it had nothing at all to do with what I had tried to tell students during my lecturing career, but was prompted by an angry diatribe by another student who had become disillusioned with a conservatory course in violin performance.  But whatever the spark which ignited my former student’s comment, it is a point worth making again.

 

It is a self-evident truth – even if it is one many music educators choose to ignore – that in all probability none of your students will go on to be dazzling, headline stars.  A very few instrumentalists may make it to the rank and file of a regional orchestra, and some may, in time, be elevated to senior chairs in major orchestras, while a tiny handful of singers may, with a lot of luck, make it to the chorus of an opera company.  But as for all those myriad piano students, whose incessant practice populates the corridors of a hundred music conservatories around the world, the best they can expect is to graduate and be appointed teachers of piano at their alma mater, while the vast majority will end up as either school or private music teachers, feeding the seemingly insatiable desire of the next generation of music students to seek the unattainable goal of musical stardom.  Those who do make it to the top usually do it in spite of their education, and as often as not, today’s great performers never even went through a full course of formal professional music training.

 

The logical conclusion from this is that conservatory training is a pointless exercise, and merely raises hopes which would have been better stifled in childhood.  And so it is, if music educators regard their prime function as training the next generation of musical superstars.  I know only too many such teachers whose dream is the reflected glory of their name in the biography of a major superstar – and I note with some bemusement that those educators who help their students prepare their concert biographies, invariably urge them to include a list of their teachers even where those teachers will be totally unknown to any who shell out their hard-earned cash for a ticket.  But it does not have to be that way.  If we regard music conservatories not as hot-houses for the intensive training of performers, but as environments in which the value of music is explained and conveyed, then there is real value in advanced music education. 

 

The siren call of so many music students and educators is that music is special, that it deserves special treatment (especially when it comes to finance), and that it is an essential element in human existence.  And for us it is.  But it is not any of those things for the rest of humanity.  At best, true music-lovers seek out music as a kind of emotional fix, an addictive habit which they believe it is impossible to kick.  (Believe me, you can: I kicked the habit of music for a full year and came back to it more powerfully enthused than ever before.) But for the vast majority of people, if they are even remotely interested in music beyond its use as a background accompaniment to daily life, music is an entertainment, something on a par with cinema, television, theatre, sport, or a visit to the bar.  Classical music concerts compete with football matches and movie releases for the time and money of the public, and neither warrant nor deserve preferential treatment.  I have worked in the profession of music in various capacities virtually all my life, but I have also worked as a barman, double-glazing salesman, journalist, tour guide and bus driver, and have learnt that, while music is special to me, it is very much not for most people.  I know plenty of surgeons, lawyers, statisticians, accountants, office clerks, cooks, truck drivers, who enjoy music but could quite happily live without it, and with it circulating so freely, see no reason to pay for it through ticket or CD purchases.  So many of today’s music educators really have no awareness of the context of music within our society, because they themselves have lived lives utterly remote from the society around them.  Luckily, there are still music educators around who have persuaded former pupils that music is worth investing in as consumers rather than providers, and their students, who may have been disillusioned with the practice of music, still know the value of a live concert or a professionally-produced CD.  But it is a diminishing number, and it is diminishing because, at the very point where we might be able to engender enthusiasm for the art of listening to music (rather than playing it) we do exactly the opposite.  I have many times related the story of how, when a major pianist gave a recital in southeast Asia, none of the local piano teachers or their pupils was in the audience.  When I asked some, I was told “he wasn’t playing anything in the exam lists, so it was not relevant to us”.

 

The one thing it seems to me so many music educators fail to do is teach a love of, or, at least, an enthusiasm for, music as an art rather than as a skill.  Few seem really to know what music is, few show much interest in it beyond their individual instrumental or vocal disciplines, and few have much experience of it as uninvolved participants.  It appals me how many have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertory of their instruments but have virtually no interest in or knowledge of the wider concert repertory.  I never forget the advanced diploma student I was examining who played – superbly – one of Bach’s “48”. In the viva voce section of the exam I asked what the student considered Bach’s most significant works to be.  After an embarrassingly long hesitation, the suggestion was made that he had written “a few more preludes and fugues”.  Those great pillars of western civilization, the St Matthew Passion, B Minor Mass, maybe even the Brandenburgs had never crossed that student’s consciousness – and for that I blame the teacher.  I well recall the very first history lecture of my university days, when the lecturer came into the theatre, played a Bach Fugue subject and asked the class which one of the “48” it was.  Horrified that few knew it, or were able to recognise any of the others he played, he sadly declared, “In my day we would not have even been admitted if we could not immediately identify the subject of every one of the 48”.  To this day, I’m not sure that a comprehensive knowledge of all 48 Preludes and Fugues is really a vital piece of equipment in the training of a music student, but I get his point.  The very best guidance I ever had from one of my major study teachers (Michael Austin) was given when I was working on César Franck’s Chorale in A minor.  Austin sent me away for a month to immerse myself in every bit of Franck I could find, provided it was not organ music.  I listened to and studied the Symphony, the Violin Sonata, the Piano Trios, Quintet, the Symphonic Variations, Psyché, Les sept paroles du Christ en croix , Le Chasseur Maudit, you name it, if it was available on record or if the score was in the library, I lapped it up, and when, a month later, I went back to the organ Chorale, I suddenly felt I knew how to play it.  César Franck had become a familiar friend, and I knew every little hallmark of his individual style.  To this day I instantly recognise the sound of Franck even if I do not know the particular work.  And I followed this through with every other composer whose music I wanted to perform in public, with the result that I can instantly recognise the music by a host of major and minor composers.   It is useful, because it is as if I know these composers most intimate secrets, and eagerly seek them out when I see their names on concert programmes and playlists in order to renew an acquaintanceship with an old friend.  It is on this kind of thing that a loyal and knowledgeable audience for music is built, yet it is not being done by most music educators today.

 

There are two major problems with the recruitment of music educators which ensures that music students are getting a bad deal and are not being equipped for the realities of life away from the concert platform.  The first is the educator who has never done anything else, who has gone straight from being a student to being a teacher, and who has no experience whatsoever of the world of work outside music.  My generation was fortunate in that our professors had served national service, been called up for war duties, and had been forcibly exposed to life where music played no part. One of my own academic tutors, a specialist in 14th century chant, had served as a commander in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and brought with him all the swagger and earthiness of years spent aboard ship – it greatly enhanced his ability to communicate and enabled him to put his unique specialism in context.  The second is the educator who sees no point in teaching students outside their own discipline.  The piano professor, teaching Beethoven, who does not oblige students to study the symphonies, opera or quartets, the violin teacher who does not expose students to the world of brass bands or organ music, and the organ teacher who looks so closely at the niceties of north German Baroque that such names as Delius, Gershwin or Chopin are beyond the knowledge of their students.

 

It might be facile to say that Mozart never went to music college, never did any exams or diplomas, and studied music to the exclusion of all else, yet seems to have been quite successful.  But might not that silly statement hold at least a scintilla of relevance when we look at the way music students are taught today?

05 July 2021

A Tale of Three Orchestras

 

On June 30th I officially retired from my post as senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore, ending a close involvement with the musical life of south-east Asia stretching back almost four decades.  I had actually left Singapore over a year earlier, driven out by increasingly rigorous Coronavirus measures, so my official departure was not as heart-breaking as it might have been: I had loved my job and was distressed to be obliged to leave it because of the unfortunate accident of age.  I had loved south-east Asia even more, and the prospect that I will no longer be playing a part in the rich fabric of its musical life is still something that fills me with sadness.

 

While I had begun my life in Asia in an educational institution, and ended it in another, my Asian sojourn was predominantly occupied with orchestras.  During those decades I spent in south-east Asia, I worked closely with three different orchestras in three different countries, and saw one of them grow from a mediocre band into one of the world’s great orchestras, another develop from a small group of a few dozen instrumentalists into a fully-fledged symphony orchestra but which now feels to have stagnated – not moving onwards, but not moving backwards either, and a third, springing into life as one of the truly great orchestras of the world, and ending up as a dishevelled rag tag band of disheartened session players.  I would say that all three boast many brilliant and passionately dedicated players, and all three have worked under some inspirational conductors; what has led to their different fates is their administration and management.

 



The Hong Kong Philharmonic

Spending some time teaching organ at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts in the mid-1980s, I got to know the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and, in my capacity as a music critic for both newspapers and radio, I had more than an audience-member’s interest in the ensemble.  I reported on the opening, in 1989, of the Cultural Arts Centre, which was to become the performing home of the HK Phil, and reviewed several of the orchestra’s early concerts there.  I became its programme annotator somewhere around the turn of the century, and a few years later, after I had relocated to Singapore, was appointed its English Editor. I had seen it struggle to survive after the Handover, teetering on the brink of reduction to a small amateur band, I saw it revive under the inspirational Edo de Waart, and have been continually amazed by its progress to world-class ensemble under the directorship of Jaap van Zweden.  Two years ago, the orchestra completed an amazingly ambitious project to perform and record the entire Ring Cycle for Naxos.  The live recordings were excellent and warranted the orchestra receiving a nomination for Orchestra of the Year at the 2019 Gramophone Awards. 

 

At that point, the quality of its management team was put to the test.  Many orchestras get nominated, but only one gets chosen; and, unlike other Gramophone Awards, the Orchestra of the Year is voted on exclusively by the public.  An aggressive marketing campaign, run by the HK Phil’s tireless and committed marketing team and encouraged by a dedicated and intelligent management, ensured that most people in Hong Kong, and a great many elsewhere, not only knew about the nomination, but were encouraged to cast their votes; I do not recall ever having seen such a hard-pitched campaign to secure a musical award before, but it worked.  The Orchestra won the award, and in so doing became the first Asian orchestra ever to achieve that accolade.  Over the last months, when the pandemic has played havoc worldwide with musical performances (and Hong Kong had the additional issues of some serious civil disturbances last year), the management of the orchestra and its marketing team have worked ceaselessly to find ways of keeping the orchestra’s profile in the public eye, and with adventurous ideas about remote performances, and a whole raft of clever marketing strategies, the HK Phil has not only survived the pressures, but is coming out even stronger today.  Back in the 1980s, and especially after the Handover in 1997, questions were raised about the “relevance” of a western symphony orchestra in a Chinese city, but, again, good marketing and determined management, brushed those aside, and the level of local support for the Orchestra never fails to impress me.  It is a very fine orchestra, musically; but brilliant management ensures everybody knows and believes this.

 


My first ever venture into south east Asia was as an examiner for the ABRSM.  A mammoth tour – lasting from May to December 1985 – found me spending three months in a Singapore hotel just a stone’s throw from the Victoria Concert Hall.  After an eternity of hearing candidates struggle their way through the early grade pianos (any other instrument was unheard of in the 1980s) I needed a dose of professional orchestral music and so I went to a concert given by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  A desultory, depressing, and dreadful experience, which an examiner colleague described (harshly and not entirely fairly) as a “miserable bunch of disaffected expat players under a talentless conductor”, I recall a surly band of uninspired players performing uninspiring repertory under the baton of an uninspiring conductor.  I had thought my early experience of the HK Phil was bad; this was far, far worse.  A sprinkling of an audience gave it lacklustre support and rushed off after the concert as if being released from captivity.  In 1997, at which time I was living in Singapore, I renewed my acquaintance with the orchestra, and was conscious of signs of improvement.  A new music director was on the way, and a new concert hall just waiting for the Asian currency crash to recover, was promised.  I was asked to write some material for the orchestra, I became its programme annotator, and worked on a history of the orchestra for a book to be published to mark its 25th anniversary in 2004.  The new music director turned the orchestra round and increased its strength, while the concert hall had a revolutionary effect on it.  Playing standards exploded through the roof, and it began to attract a very sizeable audience, albeit mostly comprising transitory expats.  A visit was made to the BBC Proms in London, where they acquitted themselves magnificently, and, following a series of recordings released on the BIS label, they have just been nominated for the Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award for 2021.

 

Again, this is where the management steps in, but I fear this is where the journey may well end.  The SSO management has always been an uneasy combination of keen amateur musicians and hard-nosed businessmen; an enthusiasm for music is seen as an adequate qualification to deal with professional musicians, while the real work is in ensuring the books balance at the end of each fiscal year and maybe even show a paper profit.  That lack of real musical experience too often has revealed itself in a lack of vision when it comes to music.  Repertory has been limited, more governed by the particular enthusiasms of the management than a broader understanding of what orchestral players need to keep their interests alive.  A lavish performance of a big Mahler Symphony, or a romantically-extravagant one of a Rachmaninov Concerto being seen as the ultimate measure of the orchestra’s quality, while for its part, the local audience, largely unexposed to serious orchestral music, may enjoy these big spectacular concerts, but otherwise show little interest in what the orchestra does and none at all in the quality of its playing.  Big name soloists and conductors pull them in, but if they see a programme of Mozart and Haydn with just the orchestra to watch, they seem largely disinterested.  And the marketing department does nothing to address this.   Again, the staff are enthusiastic for music, but lack that broader view, and seem content to aim their marketing at children and families, giving off the impression that there is no need to focus on serious music lovers.  The trouble is, those who vote for the Orchestra of the Year award are serious music lovers, and I fear the SSO marketing will not reach them, and certainly not push the nomination with the same fire and vigour as did the Hong Kong team.  More than that, there is an issue of audience loyalty to be addressed.  Any of us who have ever written about the SSO know that there is a proportion of local people whose dislike of the orchestra and all it stands for, while often incoherently expressed, is nevertheless very real.  An administration team of keen enthusiasts is no match to a dedicated band of hostile opponents.  Without strong and focused direction, I cannot see the SSO progressing any further than it has; I fear it will remain a good regional orchestra pandering to the enthusiasms of a few who enjoy the sound of music and music-making perhaps more than the quality of it.

 


Anthony Camden was Dean when I was working at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, and knowing that I had recently undertaken an extended ABRSM tour of Malaysia, he asked me if I could assist him with a task he had been commissioned to do by the Malaysian government to assess the feasibility of setting up a music conservatory in the country.  All of us involved agreed unanimously that it would never work; Camden himself had been appalled at the standards of teaching he had found and was incredulous that there were, so far as he could discover, no properly trained teachers of double reed instruments in the entire country. Our report delivered, I set off to start a new life in Sarawak, that part of Malaysia which occupies a small chunk of the island of Borneo where, some years later, and totally out of the blue, I had a call from John Duffy, a friend of Camden’s, who had heard about the work I had done with him.  John had been called in to help establish a new orchestra in Malaysia; it seemed that, while a music conservatory was (then) an impossible dream, the will was there to establish a fully professional orchestra.  The idea was that, if Malaysia could attract the very best players and create a state-of-the-art concert hall for them to perform in, Malaysians might then be more inclined to take music seriously and improve on the appallingly low standards Camden and I had witnessed.  He wanted my input and, to cut a long story short, I ended up in Kuala Lumpur, assisting the British agency, IMG Artists, in creating what was to become the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.  Tan Sri Azizan, president of the national oil company (Petronas) was hugely enthusiastic, offering a site between the twin towers he was having built as his company’s headquarters in the city centre for the concert hall, and willing to pay for the new orchestra out of Petronas coffers.  No expense was spared in the construction of the hall or the hiring of the musicians, but even then, when the orchestra first got together under Kees Bakels for a preliminary play-together in April 1998, none of us was expecting quite such a fabulous sound.  And so it grew, the orchestra quickly earning a reputation around the world for the excellence of its playing, the consistency of its standards, and the sumptuousness of its sound on its home turf.  The BBC took an interest, ran, for the first time ever, an official Last Night of the Proms in Kuala Lumpur, and it was an open secret that the MPO was being groomed to appear at the London Proms.  At that point management took over.

 

Something any company in Malaysia has to accept is, no matter what it is doing nor who it is doing it for, it has to have a Malaysian at its head.  The orchestra and concert hall, being part of the state-owned Petronas group, needed not only to have a Malaysian CEO but a Muslim one at that.  From the outside, that probably does not seem a big deal; but many Malaysian Muslims regarded instrumental music as haram (forbidden), which instantly causes problems for a Malaysian Muslim CEO.  As a result, Petronas put in place its most ineffective people, who were there by virtue of being incompetent but unsackable, and, initially, the CEO happily let the IMG staff run the roost and spent his time on the golf course.  But the IMG staff left when the contracts expired, Tan Sri Azizan died, and the new Petronas president appointed a new CEO who, disastrously, claimed to “like” music.  She took a more hands-on approach to the day-to-day running of the orchestra.  It was my job to help her bridge that chasm between the Malaysian ethic of not doing much and accepting the mediocre, and the musical one of working tirelessly to achieve ever-higher standards; and I failed miserably.  The big issue came when, with the rise of petrol prices, the public started to question why they were having to pay a few sen more for their fuel when the same company was lavishing millions on a group of elite expats who were playing something forbidden by religion and therefore closed to the majority of Malaysians.  She was to appear before a government committee, and briefing her the night before, I reminded her that the whole objective in setting up the MPO was to show not what Malaysians could do, but to show Malaysians and the world that Malaysia could entice the very best in any field of human activity (this was also the period during which the Formula 1 was brought to Malaysia).  I do not think it was ever part of the plan to train Malaysians to be musicians; more to entice major investment to the country by showing it was as good as the west when it came to costly cultural pursuits.  She ignored this and promised the government committee that she would ensure that Malaysians, rather than foreigners, occupied seats in the orchestra, irrespective of ability.  That CEO was seen to have been a great success, so was moved on, and a wholly unsuitable member of the Petronas legal team was brought in to serve as the CEO under whom, it was earnestly hoped, the orchestra would simply fade away.  Sadly, this CEO turned it round and it began to restore the MPO to its once magnificent self.  But this was not the plan, and she was promptly dismissed.  Then, in fulfilment of the promise the previous CEO had made to the government committee, when the players’ contracts came up for renewal, a large number of key players – among them the very best in the orchestra whose presence ensured that the orchestra had a very high international profile – found their contracts were not renewed (mine was among these).

 

For many years the rump MPO staggered on, more a training orchestra than anything else, with young, inexperienced players brought in to play alongside their teachers – great experience for them but a miserable one for the audience.  Increasingly bad management focused its energies on appealing to the local market, which effectively meant a diet of populist music events usually featuring home-grown pop performers.  But in recent years, things perked up.  A new manager, a competent-ish CEO and a gradual build up in playing strength, saw the orchestra claw its way back up towards musical respectability.  And then it all came crashing down again.  Largely blamed on the pandemic, management felt it was no longer viable to keep in place an orchestra which never performed (the MPO marketing people showed none of the initiative shown by the HK Phil marketing people in promoting the orchestra during lockdowns), and when they come up for renewal, most of the musicians’ contracts will not be renewed.  A rump band will be left, mostly of wind players who can give credibility to recording sessions by Malaysian pop performers, and it seems inevitable that even these will eventually fade away, and what was once south-east Asia’s orchestral crowning glory will just be a memory. 

 

What these three different stories tell me is that, no matter how dedicated, talented, and skilled the musicians are, an orchestra stands or falls on the strength of its management.  Sadly, whether or not an orchestra gets the management it deserves seems to be purely a matter of chance.

02 July 2021

Could Grieg Compose?

 

Edvard Grieg visited me in my dreams last night.  He was very anxious that I should tell Raymond Gubbay that he did not like his music performed in one of those huge Royal Albert Hall spectaculars, with massed choirs and orchestras, military bands, and canons, culminating in over-the-top renditions (there is no other word for it) of the 1812.  This was clearly a pre-Covid visitation!


I have no idea whether Grieg’s music has ever been performed at a Raymond Gubbay spectacular, whether such spectaculars still take place, whether Raymond Gubbay has ever had anything to do with them, or, indeed, whether Raymond Gubbay is still alive.  (In the interests of accuracy, I have checked on the internet and found that he recently celebrated his 75th birthday, is still very much alive and active, and I even found a picture of him sitting in an empty Albert Hall.) 

 

And, to be truthful, I doubt whether Grieg really took the effort to intervene in my dreams – I suspect it was more the half bottle of Bollinger I consumed the previous evening to celebrate my father’s birthday.  But, as with all such weird dreams, I got to thinking this morning what may have prompted it.  Grieg, I have to say, has not figured significantly in my life since my youth.



The second record I ever bought was the two Peer Gynt suites on an Ace of Clubs LP (in a yellow cover sporting an image of a Norwegian fjord – how original is that!) played by the London Philharmonic under Basil Cameron. I loved it, and played it to death, and in the end my parents bought me a copy of the music to learn on the piano, which I did.  Record three was more Grieg, the Piano Concerto, which I bought as an Allegro LP (which meant it was probably stolen from another label – and the recorded sound implied a fine recording having been reproduced in a domestic environment by a shabby mono mike) featuring Robert Riefling and the Oslo Philharmonic under the improbably-named Odd Grüner-Hegge.  That became my personal anthem, a work I carried with me in my head for years, and which I more than once stumbled my way through on the piano imagining an orchestra filling in the bits I could not play.  More practically, Grieg became my undoubted favourite composer throughout my early years as a piano student, and when the Associated Board (as we called it then) put his Arietta on their Grade IV (as it was dubbed then) syllabus, I earned the first merit of my undistinguished exam career (I’d scraped through I, II and III with very low passes). Right through to my university days, I would play any of the Lyric Pieces – I adored them all – anytime I found myself alone with a piano.  My big regret was that Grieg wrote nothing for the organ.

 

The Grieg edifice I had constructed all came tumbling down with a single sentence in a single lecture during my first-year undergraduate (do we lecturers really appreciate the devastating power we have over impressionable young minds?).  Ian Macrae Bruce, our lecturer in music history, was down to give us a 2-hour lecture on Grieg and Chopin.  There I was three rows from the back sitting next to my beloved Eleri (who shortly after found Jesus, contracted meningitis on a Christian camp in Bridgend, and disappeared off the scene terminally) agape for IMB’s words of wisdom.  His lectures were always hugely entertaining – not least when he attempted to find a track on an LP and ended up destroying LP and stylus in the process – and thought-provoking.  This was no exception.  He walked into the lecture theatre, looked at us over his half-moon glasses and declared: “Ladies and Gentlemen.  I am supposed to lecture you today on Grieg and Chopin.  Let me tell you.  Grieg could not compose”.  And with that he went on to Chopin.  I heard barely a word – such was the depth of my anguish (and antipathy towards Chopin who, if my memory serves me right, could compose).  Was he right?  How could he say such a thing? Was this a joke?  One of the great things about IMB was that he would utter totally provocative statements and expect you to dispute them with him.  As first year students, we rarely had the courage to do so, not least because on the occasions when anybody did, they were shot down in flames for not having prepared their arguments properly.  I decided to investigate, and spent the next few weeks assembling as much critical and scholarly opinion as I could on Grieg and drawing my own conclusions from my own analysis of the music.  I never did debate the issue with IMB: I realised he was quite correct in his harsh denunciation.  I have rarely listened to, or played, Grieg for pleasure since then, and while, when my brother and his wife were living in Bergen, I visited them and toured the Grieg Museum and house and Troldhaugen, his music remained anathema to me. 

 

The nocturnal visitation was probably prompted by my discovery of an old copy of the Lyric Pieces when I was sifting through some old piano music, as well as a strange comment on Facebook from someone mentioning some precocious kid who had played the Grieg Piano Concerto passably well.  This morning I have sat down and played through some of the Lyric Pieces again – I am amazed that after 50 years, they still come to the fingers effortlessly – and am listening to a review copy I was sent decades ago of Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin Phil under Mariss Jansons doing the Concerto.  To say that Grieg could not compose is a bit harsh, and what IMB meant (as he did tell me when we discussed it some years later over some whisky in his office), and what I learnt for myself, was that Grieg really could not handle structure.  He was a hugely gifted miniaturist, who failed when he tried anything more than setting a simple melody and chucking in a few repeat signs to give substance to minimal invention.  The Concerto – as I discovered to my immense chagrin all those years ago – would not have stood up in a court of law had Schumann accused him of plagiarism, the Sonata is an assemblage of tunes superimposed over a strictly maintained template of 19th century sonata form, and as for the Symphony, it, to me, proves the point that Grieg was incapable of stretching ideas over the three-minute mark

 



But we now live in an age where music is not large, coherent structures, or skilled manipulation of material to give substance to a huge array of ideas and thoughts, it is small, bite-sized, easily digestible morsels of a single thought or emotion.  Pop music has been incredibly successful because it requires no involvement from the listener, and offers a single, easily accessible emotional concept.  Grieg, it would seem to me, is the ideal composer (sorry, tunesmith) for today’s society.  Yet his music seems to have fallen quite out of favour.  It does not sit happily in the context of the great spectaculars of Raymond Gubbay, or even in a concert devoted to serious music; but it should be heard by all those who like a good tune, enjoy an emotional prod, and do not want to be intellectually stimulated or challenged by the sound they hear.  Perhaps this is why Edvard popped up nocturnally along with the memories of half a bottle of Bollinger.



24 June 2021

A Forgotten Life Remembered

 


Today, it is virtually unheard-of for someone from a poor background with little formal education to rise to the top of their chosen profession.  We tend to over-educate our young people, with the result that they develop unrealistic expectations and an attitude that education entitles them to start their professional lives nearer the top of the ladder than the bottom.  Our school teachers and university professors may have studied long and hard and are often very highly qualified on paper, but few have learnt anything about life outside academia, and very few have experienced the privations of menial work with exceptionally long hours working to a shift pattern, exceptionally low pay, and workmates whose world revolves around nothing more than (the extremely vital) pay packet at the end of the day; or, in more privileged workplaces, at the end of the week.

 

At best, we might hear of the son of a London bus driver (although why is that regarded as a “lowly” profession – a bad bus driver kills lots of people, a bad university lecturer bores students) becoming Mayor of London, or an Afghan Refugee earning a place in Oxford University.  We no longer hear of children from really poor backgrounds skipping education entirely, yet rising to the top.  In short, western society does not allow for that kind of personal initiative; we have to give them what we perceive to be the best start in life, and not allow them to depend on their own wits.  Certainly the idea that the son of a London bus driver (there we go again) who left school with no qualifications at  15 and took a job in a pickle factory should, by virtue of his own determination and initiative, become both a university lecturer and a cathedral organist is completely fanciful today; you don’t get to do either without a privileged education involving, in most cases, some time spent at either Oxford  or Cambridge universities.  Yet that is exactly the story of Ernest Herbert Warrell, who would have been 116 yesterday.

 

Today, the name of E H Warrell is perhaps not one which is known outside a tiny group of ageing organists in and around south London.  He was, for a time, organist at Southwark Cathedral, and it is because of that post that he is remembered by that tiny group of ageing south London organists.  But, truth to be told, he is one of those forgotten cathedral organists who served a cathedral which was, at the time, pretty much at the bottom of the pecking league when it came to cathedrals, and whose time there was, so far as the rest of the organ world was concerned, utterly unremarkable.  I knew him vaguely because, for a time, he lived in the same part of London as I did and played the organ for a time at the same church as I went to with my family.  My father often spoke somewhat disparagingly of him; but I suspect that was driven, if not by jealousy, then by a certain sense that, as near contemporaries, they were in some undefinable way, competitors.  My old friend Peter Almond, who grew up with me in London, but stayed there long after I left (he is still there), got to know him quite well and often spoke warmly of him.  And it was Peter who, having written the preface to E H Warrell’s autobiography, sent me a copy.  I have to say it has turned out to be about the most fascinating and obsessive read, outshining just about every other organist’s autobiography despite his relatively lowly place in the hierarchy of British organists.

 

I have recently re-read Lionel Dakers’ autobiography, which is interesting only in so far as he went from Exeter Cathedral to the RSCM and so charts some important events in the world of British church music.  I was persuaded to read Michael Smith’s weird and dreadfully self-indulgent autobiography, which fails miserably to dwell on the really interesting events that coincided with his long and pretty grisly tenure at Llandaff Cathedral, and instead concentrates wholly on how the world completely failed to recognize the enormously good qualities he (alone) saw in himself.  So having come out of these two rather desultory experiences, I really was not in the mood to read another organist’s autobiography.  But I’m glad I did, and I’m hugely grateful to Peter for not only sending it to me, but phoning on a regular basis subsequently to make sure that I had read it.

 

Ernest Herbert Warrell (my father always referred to him as “John”, which was once a fairly common diminutive of the name Herbert, but he seems otherwise to have been known universally as Ernie) lived to the age of 95; my father was delighted to outlive him by an entire decade, and it was only on hearing of his death that my father seemed to find good things to say about him!  Warrell was the son of a London bus driver – his memories of his father and his working conditions on the vehicles plying London’s streets between the two world wars are deeply fascinating to me – and left school at 15 without qualifications.  His first job was in a pickle factory before moving on to a less well paid – and considerably less aromatic - menial post in a solicitor’s office in the city of London. As with so many of his generation, the Second World War seems to have raised him from an otherwise dark and undistinguished life, and reading the book you realise that a lack of education and a willingness to lie your way out of potential trouble – skills picked up in the rough and tumble of a south London working class background – suddenly elevated his fortunes.  By claiming that he knew about explosives (which he did not – he had simply read a book which mentioned them) he was appointed to the Special Operations Executive, serving in India and Ceylon.

 

In 1946, with a fairly distinguished army record under his belt, he clearly had no intention to return to the sort of life he had been leading, and ambitious to become a cathedral organist, he was able to scrape a meagre living for himself by playing the organ at various churches, and taking on some teaching duties.  Then, in 1968, he was appointed to Southwark Cathedral.  He was there seven years, and clearly found it a depressing job (he comments wryly that “it wasn’t a happy period of my life at all”), leaving fairly abruptly (“as far as I can remember I wasn’t sacked”) and spending 25 years teaching in various establishments in London.  Perhaps the most notable one of these was at King’s College, London, where he was asked to play the organ but ended up giving lectures; a task to which he gleefully suggests he was hopelessly ill-equipped (“the only lectures I’d been given up to that point were in blowing up trains and sabotaging factories…I had no idea what a university lecturer sounded like, having never heard one; I just had to make it up as I went along”).  25 years after leaving Southwark he was appointed to another organist’s post, this time at a synagogue in Harrow, and his final musical work seems to have been to oversee the demise of the Gregorian Association, which, in its heyday, had been fronted by the great scholar (and a former Gramophone colleague of mine), Mary Berry.  He died in 2010.

 

Warrell’s life was mirrored by hundreds of others; men who were born in relative poverty, had no education, but found in wartime service an opportunity to put the life skills learnt in the rough and tumble of their working-class backgrounds to their own advantage, and carried that gift on into their post-war lives, being elevated to positions they could not even have dreamed of before the war.  Few of these other lives have been celebrated by an autobiography, yet this story of a life which went far beyond all expectations even if it never really achieved recognizable greatness, makes compelling reading for those of us who live in an age where such a life is now inconceivable; we have had our own initiatives and life skills driven out of us by a mixture of over-education and a pampered society which persuades us never to take risks. 

 

This is not a conventional autobiography.  It is a somewhat incoherent assemblage of not always reliable memories recorded by his son, Chris, who only occasionally intervenes within the text.  There is a certain chronological sequence, but beyond that, it does not follow the course of life.  Rather it rambles around randomly, recalling times and events not always with credibility, and deliberately avoiding the sort of stuff you might otherwise expect to find in a properly organized autobiography.  As a result, you need to read the whole thing from beginning to end in the hope of catching the many choice moments and utterances.  But it is an absolutely absorbing read, which opens the window on a society which, while only a generation or so before our time, has almost wholly slipped from our communal consciousness.  There is greater insight in the history of early 20th century man in this slim volume than you will find in a whole academic world of study. 

 

And for those organists who see a cathedral appointment as the apogee of a professional career, it is worth noting Warrell’s own comments on the situation he found at Southwark in the late 1960s.  He describes his choir there as “grotty” and recounts a conversation with a visiting clergyman who told him, “There’s only one thing that Southwark needs. To be shut!”.  On a purely technical point, we get a glimpse of English organ styles at the beginning of the last century.  Recalling one of his predecessors at Southwark (E T Cook) he remarks that “We used to celebrate Easter Day by adding four-foot flutes to the Great”; how the world has changed since then.

 

Organists should read this book.  But so should anyone with an interest in history and with a belief that life, in this curious post-pandemic age, has dealt us a bad hand.  Warrell’s story is incredibly inspiring.


[Pulling Out All The Stops - The autobiography of E H Warrell.  128pp Paperback.  Published by Chris Warrell, 2020. £6.00]

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.