Vinyl/shellac …. the ‘good old days’ … or not?

Years ago, during the vinyl era, an old friend bemoaned the long-gone days of 78s when putting a record on the turntable was a sacred ritual: you’d play a disc containing, say, two Chopin Nocturnes (one either side), settle to enjoy the first, then pause to turn the disc over and play the other. It took time. You attended to what you were listening to and there was a certain magic in watching the playing arm journey across the disc surface in pursuit of the miraculous sounds that were emerging from the speaker (or even the ‘tone arm’ if it was a genuine 78 player). Of course when vinyl was the principal music ‘carrier’ (I’ll omit tape for the sake of focusing my point) no-one imagined that a few years hence CDs topping the 80-minute mark would enable us to put on a disc and either attend to what was on it, or not, according to our mood. My question therefore is, have we lost the knack of listening with awe? Did the effort needed to play 78s, 45s and lps help us (even make us) concentrate on what we were listening to? Is some sort of education process necessary to reclaim the value of quality home listening? Do you still play vinyl/shellac yourself – or do you think that those who do are caught in some sort of generational time warp. Your views would be welcome.

Does great music have a moral force?

Back in 1994 I interviewed that superb Beethoven interpreter the pianist Richard Goode who said to me, regarding great music, that ‘it has the potential to express powers that lie outside of context, of period, language, translation, to reach something more basic. Moral idealism, for example, which might, through music, be translated into a universal language – without the particulars.’ And without the conceptual limitations and misunderstandings engendered by mere words [as I added at the time]. These words struck me afresh when I finished listening to Murray Perahia’s new recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Deutsche Grammophon  479 8353), possibly the most moving account of this cripplingly difficult work ever committed to disc, the Sonata’s kernel – a heart-wrenching Adagio sostenuto – approximating a pained confessional in the way that only Artur Schnabel back in the 1930s managed, and then within the context of a performance that although profoundly well-intentioned was technically flawed elsewhere. For me Perahia inhabits the same elevated plane as Schnabel, Backhaus, Charles Rosen, Brendel, Yvonne Loriod and indeed Goode himself, though for me he climbs just a rung or two further up the celestial ladder. It’s a combination of control and unfettered spontaneity. Quite magnificent.

In the booklet interview with Jessica Duchen, Perahia claims that ‘often Beethoven experiences music as a liberation, reaching towards many things, even making you a better human being.’ Now this is very interesting. Think about it for a moment. Does Beethoven have a moral agenda here? In the fiery opening movement he sets out his main thesis, then there’s a discursive scherzo, the soul-bearing adagio and a vast fugal finale [played by Perahia with sovereign technical command) that surges forwards and brooks no compromise but reaches CLOSURE. That’s it! CLOSURE. The same with the Fifth Symphony – argument, nobility/repose, proud declamation, fierce assertion, triumph and … again, CLOSURE. Quite aside from the presence of chemistry and neuroscience in our make-up, what about the emotional impact of what’s happening, the element of therapy or even counselling that is syphoned through the music? The fact that we’re emboldened after listening to it is surely significant.

And there’s the curative aspect of music, too. Years ago I felt terribly ill and lay on my bed listening to Schumann’s 4th, a particular recording – Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. At the point beyond the scherzo where Schumann cues a hushed transition that eventually catapults us into the fast finale, the rush of adrenalin suddenly helped me recover. It was a physical happening – one I will never forget. Views, please?

The greatest Debussy recordings …. my choices …. what are yours?

Just for starters  …

Pelléas et Mélisande (Désormière, Warners)

Jeux (de Sabata, Testament)

Prélude a l’après … (Stokowski and his SO, Warners Icon)

Images for orchestra (LSO, Monteux, Philips/Decca)

Images for piano (Michelangeli)

Violin Sonata (Heifetz, Smith, RCA/Sony, or Thibaud/Cortot, Warners)

Trio Sonata [flute, viola and harp]  (Boston Symphony Chamber Players, DG)

Fêtes galantes (Teyte, Cortot, Warners)

La Mer (Toscanini, 1953, Guild – there are plenty of AT La Mers to choose from – also Karajan and the BPO, 1970s recording, Warners)

Préludes Books 1 and 2 (Egerov, Warners, and Michelangeli, DG – Pollini’s new Book 2 is also exceptional …. also Gieseking and Cortot and selections with Rubinstein)


… how about yours?




Classic makeovers and poetry in translation: the case in favour … with Rob Cowan on Classic FM


Another site (Friends of Radio 3) has commented that when it comes to programming music I have a noticeable penchant for arrangements. And it’s true, Carmen as reinvented by Vladimir Horowitz, Franz Waxman or Sarasate; Liszt taking on Don Juan (and countless other operas); Schubert arranged by Berio, Mottl or Koechlin (Wanderer Fantasy); Art Tatum’s Massenet or Dvorák, or Stan Kenton deconstructing Wagner (of which a New York Times critic apparently wrote ‘now I know what Wagner lacks …. bongos!), all have a strong appeal. Last night between 7 and 9 on Cowan’s Classics at I played Bach orchestrated by Percy Grainger, Mussorgsky arranged by Shostakovich not to mention Beethoven’s Second Symphony re-thought as a piano solo by Liszt and a great new recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet played on two pianos (and sounding uncannily like Bernstein). All this can be accessed via CFM’s Listen Again facility. Just so that you know, to access the programme on the CFM website click ‘Listen’ in the top right hand corner which opens a new window; after the advert, you’re then clicking onto ‘Listen Again’ which brings up an alphabetised list; and you can see Cowan’s Classics with Rob Cowan And, yes, I’ve more arrangements planned for Saturday nights on CFM, that’s for sure.

On a similar subject I think of poetry in translation, especially the wonderful ancient Chinese T’ang Dynasty (618-907) poems as reinvented by Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound (in Cathay), or as magnificently set to music – in German – by Mahler. What they provide us with is in effect another set of poems, something entirely new, rather than translations in any literal sense. Stephen Mitchell’s Rilke offers numerous other excellent examples of how those ‘without the [relevant] language’ can experience the hub of a poem’s meaning as transmitted and transformed by another sensitive poet. Both issues I think are well worth discussing.

The great conductor Victor de Sabata – a privileged Jew among the Nazis?

The charismatic Italian conductor Victor de Sabata is the subject of a handsome Deutsche Grammophon CD celebration (479 8197, 4 cds). A curvaceous post-war London Philharmonic Eroica is shaped and moulded with the utmost artistry whereas a version of  Sibelius’s tone poem En Saga from the same period piles on the excitement virtually by the bar. Mozart’s Requiem from Rome in wartime enjoys a stellar vocal line up of Tassinari, Stignani, Tagliavini and Tajo and moves seamlessly from ascetic piety to emotional warmth with apparent ease while the Berlin Philharmonic sessions include a highly dramatic Brahms 4 (the end of the finale kept on a very tight leash, a-la-Toscanini), Dances of Gálanta with more Hungarian-style inflections than many a home-grown rival, a lean and lustrous Feste romaine (what a piece!) and highly charged accounts of the Trsitan ‘Prelude und Liebestod’ and Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. Great conducting this, and make no mistake. Good transfers to CD, the Brahms sounding quite different to the version in DG’s recent ‘111 The Conductors’ set where the imaging is much more ambient. This drier version is I think preferable. Also included, a fascinating printed conversation between our Gramophone’s Editor-in-Chief James Jolly and de Sabata’s son and daughter. I shan’t spoil it for you here but you’re in for a couple of anecdotal surprises. One thing continues to perplex me though. How come the Jewish de Sabata (his Jewish mother Rosita Tedeschi was a talented amateur musician) was allowed to perform in fascist Italy and in Germany  with the Berlin Philharmonic at a time when the Reich Orchestra’s Jewish musicians were long gone? Can anyone enlighten me?

Flying high at Classic FM

Much as I have loved my years at Radio 3 – great colleagues, great music and the chance to engage with numerous enthusiastic listeners – I’m relishing the opportunity to spread the gospel of masterpieces, both familiar and unfamiliar, on Saturday nights at Classic FM, ie Cowan’s Classics at 7pm (first edition 6/1/2018). I’ve already planned the basis of my first programme and there are a couple of items I’ve certainly never heard played on the station before. This is going to be fun – especially the re-launch of the ‘Sure Shot’ idea that  Keith Shadwick and I launched back in 1992 (from CFM’s first Friday) and that Paul Gambaccini took up for his chart show the next day. The first Sure Shot is a Catalonian early-music ear-worm, noble and charismatic, and I can’t wait to scan listeners’ reactions. Please correspond