… are what Mr. & Mrs. Goldberg did on their wedding night.’ The amusing quip landed a celebrated BBC Radio 3 presenter in trouble with his bosses, though his humour was well placed: at the end of the work, before the return of the iconic opening ‘Aria’, Bach rounds off his sublime 30-strong variation sequence with a folksy, tuneful ‘quodlibet’ which, as Bach’s biographer Forkel explains, invokes a custom observed at Bach family reunions. ‘This kind of improvised harmonizing [meant] that they not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.’ A joke then, and, more often than not, a pretty saucy one. This enriching variation is repeated numerous times – with its first half repeated – as played in 1981 by Glenn Gould for the sessions of the second of his two Sony recordings of the complete work. His first, made in Manhattan in 1955, was reported to have sold 40,000 copies by 1960, and had sold more than 100,000 by the time of Gould’s death in 1982.

Over the years Gould’s earlier Goldbergs have been in and out of my collection like a yo-yo. Sometimes the shock alternation of deep rumination and dazzling finger work at speed has me hooked, sometimes not. By 1981 Gould had forged a more even path from variation to variation and while his pianism is no less brilliant than it was in 1955, his mind seems more settled – and of course the digital sound is vastly superior to its analogue predecessor.  But whichever way you look at it, Gould’s Goldberg’s did as much to bring Bach to a wider public as did Stokowski’s orchestration of the organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 and Dame Myra Hess’s piano transcription of the chorale ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’.     

In April and May 1981, while often recording late into the night, Gould and the CBS
Masterworks studio team, headed by producer Sam Carter, were joined by the French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, who was making a documentary series about Gould; Monsaingeon can also frequently be heard in the recordings.

This is Gould’s 90th anniversary year and it’s also 40 years since the second Goldberg’s first release, which makes Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations – The Complete Unreleased 1981 Recording Sessions (Sony Classical 194399774229, c£110.00, a similar collection devoted to the 1955 recording has already appeared) a uniquely detailed window onto the creation of this classic recording. Spread across 11 CDs, the set includes the double GRAMMY-winning final release as well as everything recorded during the 1981 sessions, restored from the original ¼-inch analogue tapes and mastered using 24 bit / 96 kHz technology. In addition to the takes themselves, the session recordings include Gould and the producers’ often mirthful conversations, all of which are transcribed in a hard-cover coffee-table book which also contains an annotated score.

What we have is Gould performing each variation, then tailing what he plays with the first bar or two of the next variation so that he can pick up where he left off. His pleas about having played a wrong note or missed a note at the close of a phrase are lost on me, such is the level of his perfectionism. But one thing’s for sure, once you’ve travelled the course of this amazing performance you’ll know the Goldberg Variations more thoroughly than your musical friends – unless they’ve bought the set for themselves (do try to encourage them, in musical terms it’s a fabulous investment).

Gould was just 22 when he taped his first set of the Goldbergs. I wonder what the 23-years-old Japanese pianist Mao Fujita will think of his first complete recorded set of Mozart’s sonatas in say ten years’ time? There’s bound to be a second, maybe even a third, but as with Gould’s two Sony Goldbergs there’ll also likely be a marked curve of interpretative development between them. This ‘first’ Mozart set (Sony Classical 196587 10762, 5 cds, c£52.00, due for release 7th October) recorded a couple of years ago in Berlin, is brilliant, imaginative but singularly unpredictable. 

Take the opening of the so-called Dürnitz Sonata K.284, motoric and bracing, then switch to the ‘Rondeau en Polonaise’ second movement and the ‘theme and variations’ finale where tempo shifts abound, and Mozart the Classicist anticipates his Romantic future self. Even more so the great A minor Sonata K.310 when in the dramatic first movement, taken at a fairly broad tempo, because of the way chords are weighted, Fujita’s left hand releases a wealth of harmonic colour (Peter Donohoe on SOMM is similarly effective). The late Lars Vogt (Ondine) has the main theme protest more loudly and in the second movement is less intent on seduction whereas for the movement’s great central episode Gould (Sony again) effects a noble arch that’s more striking than his quoted rivals, even though their chosen tempi are far slower. Then again Elisabeth Leonskaja (Warner Classics, my No. 1 digital choice in these works) nails the work’s tragic spirit with unique authority.

In the Andante of the F major K.533/494 Fujita’s sensitive but relatively straightforward approach doesn’t quite equal Mitsuko Uchida’s fastidious expressiveness (Philips/Decca). But to subject this excellent young pianist to such close comparative scrutiny seems a mite unfair. Mao Fujita is gifted almost to excess and everything he plays makes us wonder, what might he do next? It’s a question prompted in particular by hearing him play the Sonata No. 18 in D major K. 576. The bouncy opening Allegro suggests the hunt but come the Adagio second movement and we could as well be listening to a sketch for an aria for The Magic Flute. The idea had never occurred to me before I heard this memorable recording by Mao Fujita.

Paul Zec 1940-2022

I’m sure many of you will know what it feels like to shift from the ballpark of losing your elders to the sad presence of death among those of your own generation, or thereabouts. Latest to leave me, at the age of 82, is my cousin Paul, who died this morning at 5 am, grandson to Simon and Leah, son to Donald and Frances, father to Joanna and wife to Frances (and Candy before her), much loved and respected by all (including numerous nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews), a probing thinker (Cambridge-educated, Christ College), ace saxophonist, jazz and film buff, voracious reader and above all, a funny, highly intelligent guy, as decent as he was kind. 

Years ago, when I was in my early teens, I walked out on an early-sixties equivalent of a ‘rave’ – bored out of my mind and deafened by what passed as music – trotted off to a nearby (South Kensington) pub, bought myself a pint and glumly found a seat. I looked up and there, sitting opposite, was a smiling Paul Zec, just what I needed for my late-night doldrums. Within seconds we were deep in conversation, principally about Mozart, whose works Paul adored, particularly recordings of the piano concertos by Ingrid Haebler. Mozart remained a shared passion across the years, as did the Classics generally, and a love of books. We were forever swapping recommendations – some more successfully than others (our disagreements were always good-humoured) – and Paul’s love and knowledge of philosophy helped me in my own amateur studies. Frances was a relatively late romance and I must pay tribute to her unstinting dedication to Paul, as much in the recent, difficult phase (his illnesses included having both kidneys transplanted and vascular Parkinson’s) as in brighter days when they could both enjoy life to the full. They deserved each other and they both knew that. I loved Paul and will miss him terribly as will all who knew him well and relished his company.   

Chamber of Delights from Boston

America in the 1950s and 1960s hosted some of the world’s finest chamber groups. One has only to think of the Budapest, Stuyvesant, Yale, New Music, Fine Arts, Juilliard, Hollywood, Paganini and Guarneri String Quartets, not to mention such stellar aggregates as the Festival Quartet, the ‘Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts’ ensemble and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, most of these combinations (and more) signed to the RCA-Sony stable. Many have made it to CD (though the wonderful Festival Quartet still awaits a dedicated boxed set), the Boston players most recently in a 10-disc collection (Boston Symphony Chamber Players: The Complete RCA Album Collection, Sony Classical 19439946802, c£45.00), the featured repertoire ranging from Mozart for winds or strings with or without piano, Beethoven’s winsome Serenade for flute, violin and viola, Piano Trios, Quartets and Quintets by Brahms and Schubert (with masterful pianists Richard Goode and Claude Frank), Spohr’s Nonet and a varied array of twentieth century pieces by Webern, Copland, Villa-Lobos, Colgrass, Poulenc, Martinu, Dahl, Milhaud, Piston, Carter, Fine, Haieff, Hindemith, Villa-Lobos, Coker and Barber. As to the players themselves, you could hardly hope for better; all are top-of-the-league … violinist Joseph Silverstein, flautist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, bassoonist Sherman Walt, violist Burton Fine, cellist Jules Eskin, oboist Ralph Gomberg and so forth, class acts all of them who made the Boston Symphony what it was in the mid-1960s.  And I can’t resist mentioning the bonus disc which finds the endlessly entertaining raconteur Peter Ustinov in musically illustrated conversation with Silverstein and Boston SO Maestro Erich Leinsdorf. Track 11 of the last CD also includes Ustinov talking about aspects of music that interest us all, posing as a mythical European avant-garde composer who has found ‘the 13th note’ and written a piece based on the resulting principle. He even ‘performs’ it, mimicking all the instruments in the process. A hugely enriching set this, and an ideal Christmas gift, smoothly transferred from excellent analogue originals.

Op.111: messages from angels 

We’re told that as an ‘angel number’, 111 is a clear sign of the presence of angels, and with that awareness, it can bring you profound guidance and insight from on high. Certainly, when it comes to music, 111 spells an angelic or at the very least guiding presence …. specifically with Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Prokofiev. Here are the works in question, with a few guiding remarks that I hope might prove helpful. I also append a handful of favourite recordings.

Beethoven’s last piano sonata [No. 32] in C minor Op. 111 (1821-1822), conceived while he was working on his expansive and uplifting Missa Solemnis, runs the gamut from gruff, muscular argument (first movement) to radiant acceptance (end of the second), opposite poles where initial fisticuffs seem unlikely to achieve any semblance of closure …. but they do. The first movement needs storm clouds as backing, a colossal protest that shakes you to the core, which is where the ‘Arietta’ second movement takes over, the start, sublime, the journey to the equally peaceful close admitting among its pages bizarre jazz prophesies, prayer-like incantation and finally an angelic trip home floating on a sea of trills. This ‘angelic presence’ is all the more powerful for having arrived in the wake of tumultuous gales. To do Beethoven’s C minor Sonata full justice you need a pianist who tackles it head on, confronts both angels and demons.  In my book Artur Schnabel (Warner Classics or RCA/Sony Classical) has the work sussed 100%: once heard, there’s nothing more to be said. Schnabel has covered it all. Otherwise, Claudio Arrau or Solomon (both, again, from Warner Classics) and the Russian Maria Yudina (on various labels). All four players leave you in no doubt as to what Beethoven has put you through and, perhaps, how he has changed you in the process. These are mono recordings featuring artists who had known the challenges and privations of War. Maybe that’s why their performances carry such burning conviction. 

Critics tend to be in two minds about the works that Robert Schumann composed between 1850 and 1854, but for me among the masterpieces from this period are the Three Fantasiestücke for piano, Op. 111 (1851), rhapsodic and emotionally equivocal essays that if not angelic in themselves suggest a spirit withdrawing after having experienced some overwhelming vision( the ‘Gerontius factor’?).  In fact, Schumann is said to have written them as a tribute to Beethoven’s Op. 111. In September 1851 Clara Schumann wrote in her diary, “Robert has composed three piano pieces of a grave and passionate character which I like very much.” ‘Grave and passionate’ just about sums it up, the first piece like a hectic ramble across hills in autumn, the second consistently reflective, the third, proudly assertive. As to performers of Schumann’s Op.111, my view is that Vladimir Horowitz (Sony Classical) has them under his skin like no one else: his seductive touch, the way he splits chords and phrases – leaning this way or that – brings this strange but uniquely moreish mini-suite fully to life. 

No music could be less akin to Schumann’s questioning Op. 111 than the positive, fiery, light-flooded Allegro non troppo that sets Brahms’s Second String Quintet (1890) in G major, Op. 111 in motion. Brahms had originally intended this work to be his last, but no, two clarinet sonatas and various mostly reflective piano pieces followed it. The Quintet’s first movement evokes the same sense of unsullied optimism that characterises the opening movement of the Third Symphony, music that challenges angels to play. The winsome second movement conjures ghosts as much as angels, the impassioned middle section bringing to mind unstoppable weeping for joys long past. Placed third is one of Brahms’s incomparably wistful intermezzos, angels at dusk you might say, whereas the jaunty finale toys with various dance rhythms, as if drunk on its own exuberance. This is truly one of Brahms’s greatest chamber works and among numerous available recordings is a real classic from the 1952 Prades Festival featuring Isaac Stern and Alexander Schneider (violins), Milton Katims and Milton Thomas (violas), and Paul Tortelier (cello). A performance in the million, this, like facing the sun head-on though the work’s darker aspects are also beautifully realised. It’s currently available as part of a big Sony box featuring Isaac Stern’s analogue recordings. My only reservation is that it doesn’t include the first movement exposition repeat. This is such wonderful music that it’s only natural to reach the end of the exposition and exclaim – ‘that was truly fabulous, let’s have it again!’ If that’s an essential prerequisite than I’d recommend a 1998 Warner Classics recording by the Alban Berg Quartet with violist Hariolf Schlichtig, a big, beefy performance, confrontational and warm-hearted but not quite as insightful as Stern and his mates. 

Sergei Prokofiev briefly considered dedicating his Sixth Symphony (1947) to the memory Beethoven. Although the work shares the same opus number as Beethoven’s last piano sonata (see above), one of Prokofiev’s favourite works, the dedication was allegedly borne from “a desire to carry on the tradition of lofty intellectualism and profound tragedy that characterized Beethoven’s later works.” That said, many years earlier he also claimed that his Second Symphony bore a structural relationship to Beethoven’s C minor. Not that any of this springs spontaneously to mind while listening to Prokofiev’s gnarled symphonic masterpiece, which he started work on at end of the Second World War. If there are any angels present here, they’re hiding securely in the wings. After a stinging descent on four nasty chords, the first movement is dominated by a march motive that becomes excitable then turns loudly dramatic. The largo second movement is a crying lament, the finale, fleet-footed until a sense of rage sets in just before the jubilant (?) ending. The best Sixth on disc is conducted by the man who led the world premiere, Yevgeny Mravinsky, conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic (Praga, stereo). Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony (RCA/Sony Classical) are majorly successful in projecting the work’s sense of scale – it’s a real big’un, this, and an iron-clad structure. But Mravinsky’s recording comes closer to a definitive statement.

And not forgetting …..

Max Reger Three Duets Op111a: Waldesstille (forest silence), Fruhlingsfeier (spring festival), Abendgang (evening stroll). Impassioned duets that, in terms of style, cross Brahms with Hugo Wolf, intensely communicated by Juliane Banse (soprano), Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano), Cord Garben (piano) (Koch Schwann) 

Classic recordings by Claudio Arrau

Anyone seeking a ‘go-to’ classic on Claudio Arrau: The Complete Warner Classics Recordings, 0190296245572, 24 CDs, c£73.00 need go no further than disc 10, a 1956-7 Schubert coupling, one half devoted to the disquieting ‘three Klavierstücke’ – the first of which flies off at a frighteningly fast pace – and the Wanderer Fantasy, a notoriously difficult work to bring off that Arrau interprets on the grandest scale possible. Of cause ‘grandeur’ was this Chilean virtuoso’s calling card. He was celebrated for a big, imposing tone with an intellect to match. He didn’t so much play as demonstrate, laying a composer’s cards on the table for all to see, to weigh up, to ponder and absorb, a facilitator less concerned with the niceties of pianistic colour than with the truths that lay behind the notes. That said, a 1939 recording of Schumann’s kaleidoscopic suite Carnaval (Disc 2) courts fantasy as vividly as did Cortot or Rachmaninov. His Chopin combines poetic sensibilities with a feeling for scale. In the Third Sonata from 1960 (Disc 21) he plays the long first movement exposition repeat – something that was virtually unheard of at the time – and come the close of an extremely brilliant scherzo launches into the largo without a break, something he also does on an SWR recital from the same year (SWR19054CD), so don’t suspect an editing glitch.

Needless to say Beethoven, an Arrau speciality, is generously represented, most notably with the last three sonatas, (Disc 14), Op. 111 arresting attention from the very first chords, a taut, powerfully voiced reading where the ‘arietta with variations’ second movement journeys from expertly placed chords at the beginning, through prophesies of ragtime to a sublime close. The Concertos, all with the Philharmonia, are represented complete under Alceo Galliera in stereo, confident readings that tell it as it is, and live mono recordings of Concertos Nos. 3-5 under Otto Klemperer, where the conductor’s imposing presence elevates the experience onto an altogether higher plane.   Arrau considered Klemperer’s accompaniment for the ‘Emperor’ to be ‘perhaps the finest he had ever experienced …’. The forceful ‘rum-ta-tum’ at 10:51 into the first movement is a stronger, more imperious call to arms than on the sonically superior stereo studio recording under Galliera from a year later. 

Two versions of Brahms’s First Concerto, both again with the Philharmonia, provide equally interesting points of comparison. The earliest, from 1947 (Disc 3) under Basil Cameron, is assertive and straight-backed whereas turn to the 1960 stereo remake under Carlo Maria Giulini (Disc 23) and the wheels are well-oiled, the manner more flexible and the overall impression, a meaningful partnership plumbing the depths. We’re also given a glitz-free Tchaikovsky B flat, tellingly considered versions of the Grieg and Schumann Concertos (the more lyrical sections of the Grieg’s first movement are especially lovely) and various other works. But perhaps the set’s most interesting disc, collector-wise, is the first, which opens, somewhat depressingly, with a nondescript 1921 version of Chopin’s F major Op. 34 No. 1. Turn then to track 4 and Arrau in 1928 is a quite different animal in the same piece: playful, impulsive and imaginative. Thereafter we hear him in Busoni’s ‘Chamber Fantasy on ‘Carmen’’, music by Liszt and Chopin and – this is the real prize – extracts from piano trios by Beethoven and Schubert with violinist Andreas Weissgerber and his cellist brother Joseph (both were destined to join the Palestine Orchestra, later the Israel Philharmonic). Apparently, although uncredited on the discs, Arrau was the trio’s pianist, although the Polish pianist Karol Szreter – whose playing is very similar to what we actually hear on CD 1 – is an equally likely contender.

Claudio Arrau wasn’t always the most inspired pianist on disc. Some of his Philips/Decca recordings are rather dull but these Warner Classics recordings are among his best and viewed as a whole this well produced set, which has been superbly transferred from analogue sources and is significantly enhanced by Jonathan Summers’s excellent annotations, is much to be recommended.  

An imaginary notebook that will hold you captive

The term ‘notebook’ suggests secrets potentially shared, but an ‘imaginary’ notebook takes in realms beyond the reach of dreams – or maybe nightmares. The German composer and artistic director Heiner Goebbels’ Imaginary Notebook ‘A House of Call’ (a quote from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake), which uses, in addition to the instrumental skills of Ensemble Modern under Vimbayi Kaziboni, recorded voices that Goebbels sourced from wax cylinders, news reports and ethnographic sources, opens to a noisy, fidgety, cacophonous and chaotic response to Boulez’s Répons, a call to curiosity which, if you stay with it, pays generous dividends (The ECM release is on 4858039, 2 cds, c£20:25). 

With Goebbels, one thing is for certain, ‘certainty’ itself is never on the musical agenda. The second track, ‘Always the same stone’, features what I assume is the speaking voice of the German (formerly East German) dramatist, poet, writer, essayist and theatre director Heiner Müller, the accompanying music, initially pointillist then, at around 4:33, switching to a sort of sexy, indolent shuffle. Next, we’re transported to a Berlin construction site before, in ‘Grain de la Voix’, we visit the first three of featured vintage voices in ethnic chant, acoustically recorded and colourfully garlanded by Goebbels (the instrumentation includes a dulcimer). After a tonally distinctive introduction, ‘Agash Ayak’ calls on another intensely emotive voice from afar (recorded in 1926) which in turn prompts a restlessly percussive rejoinder, replete with growling low brass. 

The Persian poet Rumi dances in next, using a contemporary voice this time, the music, which sounds improvised, approximating Middle-Eastern incantations. Perhaps the work’s most beautiful track closes the first disc, ‘Krunk’ by Soghomon Soghomonian, ordained and commonly known as Komitas, an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is widely considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music. Two voices in duet here, set widely apart and sparely accompanied.

Part three, ‘Wax and Violence’ is especially interesting. The first section, a ‘Toccata’, kicks itself into a stupor, ending with yet more ancient voices, whereas the second sets its pulse to doctored wax cylinder surface noise – ominously repeating grooves – and a Chernobyl-like hum in the background. The second and third sections recall Hans Lichtenecker who in 1931 (the date of the featured recordings) was in Namibia, formerly a German colony, where he collected what he called an archive of vanishing races. On track 3 we hear the distant voices of Nambia school children, hauntingly accompanied – no, frighteningly so, given what was soon to descend upon Germany. Track 4, ‘Some of them say’ is as catchy as anything on the set, a distant vintage solo voice cueing in (at 0:44) a modern calypso accompaniment. See what I mean about ‘certainty’ not being on the musical agenda? I’d strongly advise playing this track first. What starts out as calypso variation soon ends up sounding like an outgrowth of Charlie Parker – until the end when we could as well be listening to an eerie passage from Shostakovich’s 4th.

The last section of ‘A House of Call’ is ‘When Words are Gone’, where aspects of language – speech act, rhymes, lament, incantation – alternate, initially with a hypnotically trudging dialogue-processional. But the last words go to Samuel Beckett who poses the question ‘who speaks when words are missing?’ No-one, of course. Music does, and Heiner Goebbels proves the point with the sort of brave, outspoken eloquence that is typical of his work at its best. Don’t miss this release whatever you do.

No Jews at the Gramophone Awards?

This was my colleague Norman Lebrecht’s assertion at https://slippedisc.com/2022/09/no-jews-at-gramophone-awards/. The exact claim, ‘It has been pointed out to us that the fading [?] Gramophone magazine has, with incomparable sensitivity, scheduled its awards dinner for October 4, the evening of Yom Kippur. It is the holiest night of the Jewish year, a night when every affirming Jew in the world is immersed in fast and prayer. Well done, chaps.’

Firstly, there will be Jews at the Awards (I can think of at least two, maybe three). I won’t be, primarily for health reasons – though Yom Kippur does come into it. Regarding Norman’s ‘a night when every affirming Jew in the world is immersed in fast and prayer’, what exactly is an affirming Jew? Were a Jew to go abseiling on the 4th with a rucksack full of sandwiches he or she would still land as … a Jew. The point is to define the difference between Jewish ethnicity and Jewish religion. The former category can contain atheists, agnostics and converts to other faiths, people who are so to speak ‘non-Jewish Jews’. The latter covers belief plain and simple but even then, there’s a choice when it comes to ritual and forms of worship. 

Judaism is based on a bedrock of 613 laws or ‘mitzvot’ which Orthodox Jews observe on pain of likely punishment. This, in my view at least, is an aspect of religious superstition, which is especially prevalent among North London Orthodox congregations. What you’re less likely to hear at the Sermon on Hampstead Heath are the numerous extenuating circumstances for not fasting, as expressed in the first major work of rabbinic literature, The Mishnah.

Here are some examples, taken from Jacob Neusner’s translation (Yale University Press), p.278

8:5 A.  A pregnant woman who smelled food [and grew faint] – they feed her until her spirits are restored.

B. A sick person – they feed him on the instruction of experts

C. If there are no experts available, they feed him on his own instructions, until he says ‘enough’.

8:6 He who is seized by ravenous hunger – they feed him, even unclean things, until his eyes are enlightened.

The Mishnah is full of similar perspectives covering all aspects of the religion. Returning to Yom Kippur versus The Awards, I’d put the faux pas down to carelessness and nothing else, the wrong sort of diary. The last time this happened (2002 as I recall) the Russian-born Israeli violinist Maxim Vengerov was Artist of the Year and he was certainly present. So were other Jews. I wasn’t, having volunteered to stay away. The Day for me is above all a chance to reflect, to take stock emotionally and intellectually, to contemplate who I am and where I’ve come from – especially this year, considering that both my mother’s parents were Ukrainians who had escaped the pogroms. She was one of eleven siblings and while I stay clear of temple worshipping, that isn’t to say that some part of me hasn’t inherited a small aspect of her largely unacknowledged faith. My father loathed religion; for him, the High Holy Days were simply ‘days off’, a chance to wash the car or drive up to town. He wasn’t disrespectful but neither was he a hypocrite. In that respect I take after him, too.  I think also of my Uncle Donald [Zec] whose tomb stone we consecrated a week ago. During the last war he was in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, latterly with the Russians as heroic allies. Talk about dying at the right time (just a year ago, aged 102)! The War between Russia and the Ukraine hadn’t yet started, a War waged by the people he trusted on the community he grew from. How would he have felt? I dread to think. In the meantime, Shanah tovah to one and all.

Legends to savour

Imagine being outdoors on a day similar to the ones that we’ve been enjoying recently, warm and brilliantly sunlit. You look towards the brow of a nearby hill and suddenly, out of nowhere, a line of laughing kids in colourful dress appears running towards you. As if that isn’t enough, there’s a soundtrack, a gentle dance tune with curled edges that starts quietly and builds on a crescendo. The middle section of this magical 9th Legend by Dvorák reflects the odd passing cloud but, no matter, the dancing soon returns. Then placed fourth in this glorious series of miniatures, near relations of the Slavonic Dances as you might call them, is a movement marked molto maestoso. The opening is a dead ringer for ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ but rather than ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ here we have ‘Pomp and Poetry’.  The point is tellingly made once the ‘Pomp’ theme has passed, and the music assumes a wider range of colours. Then there’s Legend No. 7, a whimsical intermezzo, gently yet precisely pointed on a henceforth benchmark Linn recording of the Legends by the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Cristian Macelaru (Linn CKD 710, c£14).

This is a fabulous disc, a listening experience that has very few rivals in my experience, one of them hearing Sergiu Celibidache conducting the LSO in Prokofiev at London’s South Bank where, at the same venue, I also heard Rafael Kubelík conduct the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s First and Mozart’s Forty-first. I mention these performers because, like them, Macelaru knows how to trace the rise and fall of a phrase (how many conductors nowadays can do that?), delve beneath the music’s top line (middle voices are plentiful), apply subtle rubato and lay on the drama where needed. Macelaru is also a master of appropriate pacing and how to gauge musical rests. Time and again. while listening, I’d find myself muttering under my breath, ‘yes, yes, yes! This is so right!’ When I heard ‘Celi’ I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m caught in a time warp. I’m suddenly transported back 30-40 years when this sort of playing and interpretation were the norm’. They weren’t when I was sitting transfixed at the RFH and they’re not now. Also included on this exceptionally well-engineered disc is Dvorák’s rustic Czech Suite. Try the sombre opening movement or the lilting dance that sweeps in after it. I’m not saying that there aren’t other fine versions of this music around (José Serebrier and Karel Sejna for example) but Cristian Macelaru is a ‘cut above’ and demands to be heard. Don’t hesitate. This is one for the Awards shortlists.

Reclaiming the Canon for our Greater Good

When I re-joined Classic FM in 2018 and programmed for my first Edition of ‘Cowan’s Classics’ Roy Harris’s 18-minute Third Symphony, a rugged Yosemite Park of a piece, someone wrote in sniffily complaining that, as a general rule, if music is relatively little-known there’s usually a good reason why (not true as it happens). By contrast others celebrated my excursion away from the Station’s staple diet of Albinoni, Vivaldi and a certain lark soaring on high. The guys at the top expected Vaughan Williams’s verdant tone poem to beat all rivals in the annual 300-strong ‘Classic FM Hall of Fame’ but instead of the The Lark Ascending the top seat at the Hall’s table was taken by another slow, quiet, meditative musical essay suitable for the midnight hours, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I kid you not. But at least it proved that the figures weren’t rigged.

1812 is not ‘great’ Tchaikovsky but it does harbour qualities typical of the composer at his best, gentle folkish melodies, dramatic faster music reminiscent of the late symphonies and the Sleeping Beauty ballet, the latter also suggested by a lilting theme that advances a sense of false security before full orchestra, bells and cannons set up a deafening racket at the end of the piece. But, paradoxically, and in spite of Classic’s target bullseye, the mere mention of the Overture’s name to those hellbent on advancing a ‘wider appreciation of classical music’ will see you branded a Neanderthal. Times have changed drastically even since 2018. Issues such as class, gender, race, ethnicity more generally, diversity, religion, political beliefs and so forth have formed the dog that wags the tail, meaning that rather than programme ‘great’ music and forget about the composers’ origins, class status, political convictions and the rest of it you make sure that there’s a ‘quota’ of this or that category, musical quality being secondary to giving a particular section of the community a fair crack of the airtime whip. 

Part of me goes along with this, and part of me rebels, much as it does to a parallel trend focusing on lesser-known composers whose works are rarely performed but who have their very vocal supporters. 

My main beef here is regarding what’s widely known as ‘The Canon’, at the very least Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann (Robert), Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Bartók, Sibelius, Stravinsky and many more. Some have referred to the Canon as ‘ossified’ (ie having become rigid or fixed in attitude or position) but my worry is that the ‘too-well-known’ epithet will lead the unwary to divert their attentions away from these titanic figures to lesser masters, simply because fashionable enthusiasms can be seductive.

Don’t get me wrong. All good music deserves to be heard. But the losses incurred by deserting the Canon are monumental. I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for, and support of, modern music, from Adams to Zimmermann via Steve Reich, from Bernstein to Berio. But turn to the feelings of terror engendered by the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (especially under Wilhelm Furtwängler), or the profundity of the Busch Quartet playing Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet, music conceived in the isolation of total deafness. Or you might hear how the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg turns Bach’s St Matthew Passion into virtual music drama, or how Mitsuko Uchida brings a sense of indescribable beauty to the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K533, or Serge Koussevitsky draws on the tear-welling final climax of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony and you have instances of music and music-making that spell the most profound level of life-enhancement. Yes most of these are old recordings and I’m not for a moment suggesting that they and others like them should be our only access points to the Great Classics from the past.

The word I’m after is ‘balance’. There’s a grave danger, currently abroad, of shunting great concert music onto a distant siding. But the evidence contradicts this unfortunate trend. I’ve experienced countless instances when I’ve changed young lives by either taking them to concerts featuring the sort of music I’m talking about or played remarkable recordings of the same or similar repertoire. And as for wanting more working-class presenters on Radio 3, I despair. Does class really count for so much? Given the current thinking had cockney William Blake been around and approached Radio 3 for a job he may well have found for himself an extra source of income. Until the powers that be started to read ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, then he would probably have been – how should I put it? – ‘let go’!