An Eroica to treasure

Having already released Jascha Horenstein’s 1957 Baden-Baden recording of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (PASC505) Pristine Audio have now decided to add the conductor’s broader 1953 account with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra to their sizeable catalogue. Back in the late 1960s while working for the BBC as a concerts management assistant I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Deryck Cooke. Being in awe of Cooke’s Gramophone reviews I’d frequently waylay him for chats about (LP) records. One afternoon we hit upon the subject of Horenstein’s Eroica, which Cooke had a great fondness for, “but not the later version,” he insisted, continuing (and here I’m relying on memory), “in the earlier version you really notice how, towards the end of the first movement, he builds the music, layer upon layer, with everything audible – woodwinds especially – so that the peroration is truly overwhelming.” Needless to say, I rushed to my local (Hendon) library, ordered the Vox lp and on receiving it was suitably impressed. Things were just as Cooke suggested they would be. The playing of the VSO is dramatic in the extreme, the timpanist often cueing a thunderous roar above the rest of the orchestra, the deep-toned lower strings almost Furtwänglerian in their contribution to the ‘Funeral March’.  According to Misha Horenstein, his cousin Jascha reportedly told an interviewer that “the first Eroica I conducted with my heart, the second with my head.”  Only the start of the finale is rather effortful for an Allegro molto but otherwise this is a most memorable performance, more so than the coupling, a 1952 version of the Eighth with Orchestre National de France which though lively enough is interpretatively unmemorable. Good sound throughout.

Beethoven Eroica Jasch Horenstein

Pristine Audio PASC 589

www.pristineclassical.com

DISCOVERING ALEXANDER VEPRIK: A musical force to reckon with

It’s said that at the time of his second denunciation by Andrei Zhdanov, Dmitri Shostakovich “waited for his arrest at night, out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” Prior to his rehabilitation at home the composer suffered untold hardships but at least he avoided a much-feared fate that was possibly worse than death: the torturous, lonely and pain-inducing Gulag. That was indeed the fate that the Ukrainian-born Jewish composer Alexander Veprik faced after his arrest in 1950. The promised eight years of forced labour turned out to be four, but still, Veprik returned home a broken man. And the effect on his music? Amazingly, inspiringly, we can sense a lightening glow somewhere beyond darkened skies, much like Yevgeny Ukhnalyov’s wonderful painting that adorns the booklet cover for MDG’s superb all-Veprik CD, Ukhnalyov another Gulag victim, six years interred this time rather than four.

In the second of Veprik’s expertly orchestrated Two Poems, at 5:16, after a poetic opening, the composer ups the pace for some highly variegated and dramatic writing, sometimes reflecting Prokofiev, at other times Shostakovich himself, but then at 9:35, quiet but promising fanfares and whooping brass signal a valiant arrival. Could we be approaching Liberty Island (echoes of Gershwin at 11:53, and the Second Rhapsody in particular – probably coincidental – seem to suggest so), an optimistic New World being traded for the shackles of the Old, though the triumphant close recalls Shostakovich, whose Eleventh Symphony seems to hover 40 seconds into the Dances and Songs of the Ghetto, Viprek’s opus having been composed thirty years earlier. Mention of Veprik’s contemporaries (the Greek composer Skalkottas seems conspicuous by his prophetic dancing presence in this same work) brings me to Sibelius whose spirit fills the Pastorale, maybe the Hasidic Baal Shem sitting by the river Tuoni, watching the long-necked Swan signalling terrible sadness yet to come. These references to other composers are intended merely as a guide to what you might expect when listening. And then there’s the last of Five Little Pieces for Orchestra, a devastatingly simple Lento, all 3:15 of it, music that seems to encapsulate the troubled but at times comforting spirit of this quite remarkable composer. The Two Symphonic Songs are also mightily impressive.

Look hard enough and you’ll always be able to find little-known music that appeals. But music of this quality, that seems to score the stream of life with such immense facility and level of intuition? Not in my experience. Among recent discoveries Mieczysław Weinberg is maybe the closest point of reference. Christoph-Mathias Mueller draws brilliant performances from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who seem committed to every note of each score. The recorded sound is first-rate and so are the booklet annotations. A potential Award-winner I’d say.

Alexander Veprik Orchestral Works

BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Christoph-Mathias Mueller

Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 901 2133-6

SERGIU CELIBIDACHE: musical phenomenon or fraud?

Some forty years or so ago I attended a series of concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall featuring the LSO under the highly controversial Romanian conductor-composer (also teacher and music theorist) Sergiu Celibidache, whose performances were often – to quote Debussy – ‘slower than slow’. They were also in many ways revelatory, but more about that in a moment. Celibidache usually refused to release his performances on commercially available discs, claiming that a listener could not have a “transcendental experience” outside of the concert hall. Zen Buddhism was a significant influence on his thinking, both musically and philosophically.

If Furtwängler and Huberman were sceptical about so-called canned music, Celebidache was positively paranoid about it. Among the few commercial recordings he made was the Brahms Violin Concerto featuring the young (and recently deceased) Ida Haendel, who adored him and claimed in interview that his prophecy that she would only grasp the musical essence of the Brahms once she turned forty, or thereabouts, was spot-on. But back to those concerts. Most memorable was a sequence of pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet ballet, ‘Masques’ (which was encored) taken at a teasingly slow tempo – it had people giggling in the aisles – and an account of the ‘Tomb Scene’ that was virtually powerful enough to shake the Royal Festival Hall’s foundations. That said, you had to be there. I’ve since heard a radio recording of the same concert and the effect as recorded doesn’t quite match up. Debussy, Dvorák, Hindemith, Sibelius and Verdi also featured. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be hearing this sort of music-making post-war. It’s surely the product of a far earlier age.’ So, what do you reckon, a visionary who viewed and felt music ‘on the slant’ (to paraphrase the poet Emily Dickinson) or a poseur, to quote my dear friend Tully Potter?

Another encounter found me working late on evening in the basement archive at Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers (where I was employed for near-on nineteen years). I had a radio with me, switched it on and ‘Celi’ was conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius Five. I kid you not, but never have the work’s closing minutes affected me more profoundly than they did on that memorable occasion. You’ll know the passage which is said to have been inspired by the sound of swan-calls, as well as a specific instance when Sibelius witnessed sixteen swans taking flight at once. All I’ll say is that I was suddenly transported, even flown skywards, so magnificently effective was Celibidache’s elevated way of sustaining the music.

Years later when I worked with the violinist-conductor Christian Gansch, a lovely guy, who was at the time a significant force at Deutsche Grammophon, I told him about  this performance. Christian had played in the Munich Philharmonic under ‘Celi’ and was in the process of releasing his recordings involving other orchestras (Bruckner, Brahms, Ravel etc) for the yellow label. He soon tracked the Sibelius down too, coupling it with the Second Symphony, now one of my most treasured cds. Then there was the Munich PO/Warners CD of Bruckner’s Fourth, the slow, ritual march of the finale’s coda initially all-but unrecognisable. I remember playing it to Bruckner-loving friends who thought it was …. wait for it …. Gorecki! Then again they hated modern music, Gorecki 3 was at that time all the rage, and they probably meant the reference as a slur.

So, to recall my challenge: Sergiu Celibidache, musical phenomenon or fraud? Do let me know which side of the fence you’re placed.

IDA HAENDEL The ‘Grand dame of the violin’ dies at 96

Writes violin expert Tully Potter ‘I have just heard that Ida Haendel has died in Miami. She would have turned 97 later this year – she adroitly took five years off her age some time ago. She was certainly among the top violinists of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and played many of the great concertos with a lot of flair. Fortunately she left quite a few recordings, although the live concert ones are often better than the studio productions – the Elgar is a good example. She used to be a huge favourite at the Proms but got swept out by some of the misguided ‘new thinking’. As an interviewee she was always interesting. RIP.

Tully was at a recital/interview that I was involved in some years ago when Ida played Enescu’s Gipsy-style Third Sonata, a performance that was more a frail remembrance than a fiery enactment of the score. But it was incredibly moving and our chat on stage afterwards found her vividly reminiscing about her peers and older contemporaries. She was razor sharp, funny and just a little mischievous. All this came out in her playing, which was probably at its greatest in the 1960s and 1970s. Lady Weidenfeld (the manager of pianist Menahem Pressler) has sent me this tribute from Ida’s nephew.

A message about, and tribute to, Ida Haendel

It is with heavy heart that I let my Facebook friends and family know that my beloved aunt, the legendary and world renown violinist Ida Haendel, passed away peacefully last night at her home in Miami. 
Aside from the fact that she is the one that kept my family alive during the war (it was because of her being a child prodigy they were taken out of Poland by the British government) I have so many fond memories of her…She was a wonderful aunt to me and I looked upon her as mom #2, as her constant travel schedule left her no time  for a family of her own. She took me on tour with her on my first trip to Asia (I carried her Stradivarius violin which she never entrusted to anyone else). She got me interested in my future career, watching CBC and the BBC film documentaries on her life, and got me my first audio job, helping to remaster old opera albums at EMI/ ABBEY Road studios in London (where I also got to hold and listen to the master tapes of the Beatles White Album). Our yearly trips to Lake George, Lake Placid and Florida  were wonderful, and going to her concerts, listening to her play with such extraordinary grace and ability were a regular part of my childhood.


I was so proud when I accompanied her to a concert in Tokyo, and I noted that the violinist at points played Sibelius off key..she turned to me and said “oh my…you caught that…you have an ear for music”. I let her know that after hearing her play so flawlessly for so long, how could I miss the errors. 
Though living far away from me, it was my pleasure and honour to take care of her to the best of my abilities (and thank god to her best Friend Ana Vergel, for always being there for her in Miami) the last few years of her life – so a bit about that life if you are interested:


A proud British subject and Canadian citizen, U.S. resident, Israeli benefactor, prominent global citizen and child prodigy, my aunt made a significant mark upon the world of music, and the lives of those she has touched with her endearing personality and brilliance in so many spheres. At a time when few if any female musical talents mastered the airwaves and drew major audiences, Ida Haendel was a pioneer. Her ability to fluently and emotionally converse in eight languages, astounding contributions to arts, culture, society in general, her legendary solo international performances and YouTube videos, has made her a noteworthy and celebrated representative of societal ethos, kindness, and talent, she has well earned the title of ‘Grand Dame of the Violin’ as one of the world’s greatest violinists. 


Wherever Ms. Haendel played; The composer, her fans and fellow musicians adored her musical brilliance, dedication to her art, and to helping the international community in any way she could. She has been headlined in articles around the globe by such labels as one of; “The Great Women Artists Who Shaped Music”, “Legendary Violinists”, “An Icon for Young violinists”, “The finest violinists of the 20th century” and “is still amazing at age 81”. Legendary conductor Zubin Mehta was in awe of her expressing “an artist who thought out every single note”, and upon hearing Ms. Haendel play one of his compositions, Sibelius himself sent her a note saying “I congratulate you on the great success, but most of all I congratulate myself, that my concerto has found an interpreter of your rare standard.” and she was considered “one of the most enduring idols of the concert platform”.


Her accomplishments and the accolades and honours afforded her are too many to list in one letter, however her history is a testament to someone who has dedicated her life to others and the world of music.
At 4 years of age, she began formal studies with Miecyzslaw Michalowicz at the Warsaw Conservatory, where she won its gold medal in 1933, the First Prize at B. Huberman Competition in Warsaw, and in 1935 was one of the laureates of the 1st International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Warsaw.


In 1936 Ms. Hendel settled in London, saving her family from the war in Poland, and a short time later, in 1937, she made her London debut at the Queen’s Hall with the celebrated conductor Henry Wood and subsequently made regular appearances at his Promenade concerts.
In 1940 Ms. Haendel became a naturalized British subject, and an exclusive Decca recording artist, one of the first classical artists in the company’s history. She has since recorded for some of the other great labels in the world, including Harmonia Mundi, and EMI CLASSICS.
She performed regularly as soloist with legendary maestros including Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), Paavo Berglund (Finnish Radio Orchestra), Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (London Symphony Orchestra), Charles Dutoit (Montreal Symphony Orchestra) and the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, a relationship that endured for thirty- five years.

In 1970 she published her autobiography “Woman with Violin”. Additionally, between the period of 1986 and 2006, Ms. Haendel sat on the jury of the International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Poznań. Ida Haendel plays a rare 1696 Stradivari violin which was revealed in her book was “as precious to me as a limb. I had found my ‘mate’ in this beautiful instrument made in 1699, which I use to this day”.
In 1952 Ms. Haendel moved with her father and mother to Montreal, Canada, to be with her sister Alice and family for many years.
As the first western soloist to be invited to perform there after the cultural revolution, Ms. Haendel played in China in the spring of 1973, just one of many cultural exchange contributions she has made to the world beyond her music.

In 1979, as Ms. Haendel’s father was aging, the family began spending most of their time in Miami, Florida with her dog Decca (named after her first record label). Ms. Haendel made considerable efforts to shape the growing classical music community in Miami, with many concerts and performances she played in, and many organized to her credit and in her honour. https://www.nws.edu/events- tickets/concerts/miami-music-festival-honors-ida-haendel/

Among her many honours she received the Sibelius Prize, awarded in 1982 for her distinguished performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Great Britain honoured her with the title of “Commander of the British Empire” (1991), she received an “Honorary Doctorate of the Royal College” (2000), and in 2006 a Doctorate from McGill University in Montreal.
In 2001, the BBC in London devoted a week of “live performances” to her, drawing on archive material interspersed with interviews with Ms. Haendel herself. There have been documentaries on her life produced by the BBC, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) , IDTV Amsterdam, Televizja Polska, and she has performed at the BBC Proms 68 times. Her reach in the old and new media is extensive, with hundreds of interviews and articles, Facebook pages, and YouTube videos, all devoted to her performances, lectures and life.
In 2006, Ms. Haendel played in Poland before Pope Benedict XVI (whom she chatted with after) on the site of the former Nazi camp Auschwitz-Birkenau performing Handel’s prayer Dettingen Te Deum with harp, as organizers wanted her to play a Jewish score. That year Ms. Haendel also gave a concert in her hometown of Chelm in a programme of Bach, Wieniawski, Tartini, Sarasate, Bruch, and Tchaikovsky conducted by Stanislaw Galonski. In honour of Ms. Haendel, her birth town leadership sculpted a statue of her as a child on a bench in the main square, and named a concert hall in her honour.

Ms. Haendel has been a staunch supporter of developing musical artists, and she has inspired a new generation of violinists including Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxim Vengerov. In 2008 she gave master classes in Keshet Eilon Kibbutz Israel, Verona Italy in 2010, and in 2012 Ms. Haendel was a guest artist at Cambridge (England) International String Academy.
Ms. Haendel conducted master classes for most of her latter years, and served as a model for so many violinists and musicians, such as the prodigiously talented Ms. Chloe Hanslip, and “The Violin Girl” Leia Zhu whose dream it was to visit Ms. Haendel a few years ago: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xptJGdQSjqk)

Ms. Haendel had dedicated her life to performing for her adoring fans, and has been a teacher and inspiration to a new generation of musicians around the world to whom she has contributed so much of her time and passion (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/preview-ida-haendel-the-razumovsky-academy-wigmore-hall-london-763203.html)
Ms. Haendel had also been a passionate volunteer in elevating the morale of the people of England during WWII when she played for the troops, factory workers and in hospitals for injured soldiers. She had raised money and awareness through benefits for Israel, and financially as well as personally supported Harmony for Humanity and the Daniel Pearl foundation, as can be seen in this video with Herbie Hancock and Sir Elton John (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiadQEF06bI) ,where thousands of people around the world joined hands in a musical celebration to support the cause.


In her Miami home, mementos of the past were all around her. Pictures with famous musicians, politicians, conductors and royalty, including those of her many interactions with the late Princess Diana and Prince Charles, Queen Fabiola of Belgium, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, all who attended and admired Ms. Haendel’s musical virtuosity.
Ida Haendel, often referred to as the ‘Grand Dame of the violin’, was one of the most significant figures in classical music this century and a proud global citizen, the world has lost a musical legend and she will be missed by all who knew and admired her, her friends and close family who loved her dearly.

Had I not been Jewish, could I have been a Nazi?

I was always an incredibly trusting child, hung onto my parents’ every word, believed everything they said even though years later, once my mind started venturing more along analytical lines, I questioned much that I had previously taken for granted, such as ‘the only good German is a dead German’. Of course, being racially Jewish and born not too long after the Camps had been liberated, Jewish anti-German bitterness was only to be expected, even from Jewish Austro-Germans. I can vividly remember standing in our North London dining room on the Sabbath watching darkly garbed people walking past the window on their way to Synagogue (which my parents virtually never attended) and unconsciously matching that image with the death-haunted tales that my parents – whose families included no Holocaust victims – had told me. Because my hard-working Ukrainian-born maternal grandfather, or Zayde, (a tailor by trade) was deeply religious, and I wanted to explore thinking beyond the materialist borders of my own household, I flirted with Judaism on a practical level, wouldn’t as much as flick a light switch on Shabbat, nor smoke (which I did in those days) or listen to music. I was defining my inner self but being a passionate lover of poetry and a potential devotee of philosophy, psychology and world religion (only as an enthusiastic amateur I might add) I was using the steps of Judaism to reach places beyond orthodox practice. Before long the open sky replaced the Synagogue’s roof and my reading ranged beyond Judaic texts to major works from disparate sources. It was my coming of age though I retain the greatest respect for genuinely religious people, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims or whoever.  

All this is a preamble to a difficult and uncomfortable admission. When at school although we had no music lessons as such, a German pianist by the name of John Gunter played at our school assembly. We got to know each other well, even wrote a song together (I was 13 at the time), ‘Far from me’ which got as far as a test (45 rpm) record and a potential performance from crooner Matt Monroe. John wrote the tune, I wrote the words, the opening line ‘Here am I, just an unimportant ripple on the sea …’ I’m sure it wasn’t terribly good (my words that is) but still I appreciated the faith that John had in me. We also shared a love of Wagner and I’d go to his pad near Golders Green – later on with my wife – listening to his 78s of great performances by Melchior, Leider, Mengelberg, Furtwängler, Karl Muck and others.

Here was a German who was most definitely good, I thought, and I was right. But one day I saw Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda spectacular The Triumph of the Will and I have to admit it thrilled me to the core. I can admit it now, but I could never have admitted it then, not even to myself. Years later I posed the difficult question: if this sensitive, trusting child, had he been born an Aryan German rather than a Jewish Londoner, could I have swallowed all the toxic Nazi propaganda? Had my beloved parents referred to Jews as evil vermin, as expendable, grasping, a bothersome drain on the nation’s resources, as inferior, both physically and culturally, would I have believed them? I’m terribly afraid that as a naïve, doting son, I probably would have done.  

Let’s say that I attended a recital by that notable, and great, Ayran anti-Nazi violinist Adolf Busch, went backstage wearing my Hitler Youth insignia and Busch affectionately put his arm around me saying, ‘have nothing to do with them son, they’re evil,’ would I have appreciated his words or believed my father who (fictionally) called Busch a ‘Jew kisser’ (a stock German reaction to Oskar Schindler after the War). Don’t forget, Dad’s never wrong.

Then, once the War was over, the Holocaust exposed, and the whole fetid business of Nazism revealed in its blood-drenched colours, would Rob as-was become newly-born, try to understand just what had been lost, either killed or catapulted into exile, millions of innocents amongst whom were great scientists, artists, musicians (performers and composers), philosophers, psychologist, poets (including the writers of the humanist Hasidic tales), novelists, academics, war heroes and so forth? I shan’t patronise the cause by naming a single one of them, but I don’t have to: you already know who they are. Could I really have forgiven my people, but far more important than that, might have I forgiven myself, a youthful innocent whose unthinking faith contributed, in some tiny way, to what happened? I just don’t know the answer to that. But what I can say is that the elevated canon of Austro-German music and literature, from Bach to Wagner (yes, Wagner), and from Hölderlin to Heine and Rilke, and so much more suggests a self-replenishing core that can never be corrupted. That I hope would have provided the basis for my new faith.   

THE AGONIES OF CHOOSING A CD TO PLAY by Hugh Mather

Hugh has kindly allowed me to reproduce this most interesting article from his own blog at hmather@btopenworld.com Do respond if you can


Many readers will recall the excellent feature entitled ‘Too many records’ which used to feature in the much-lamented ‘International Record Review’ magazine.  I suspect the title strikes a chord with many of us.  I suppose I have about 2000 CDs and 1500 LPs, as well as about 300 opera and music DVDs.   This is a far cry from when I was a boy in the 1950’s, when I had about 20 precious LPs.   In those days I spent whole weeks playing them over and over again, until I could almost sing my way through the entire works.   The performances have lived with me ever since – Menuhin playing the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos, Milstein playing the Tchaikovsky, Gilels the Emperor, Solomon playing Beethoven 3 etc.

Fast forward to the present, and I have this huge over-accumulation of ‘canned’ music.  The chance of any single CD being played is infinitesimally small, and each new CD reduces it even further.   My LPs actually sound slightly better than the CDs, if one can ignore the clicks and plops and the suspicion of a slight ‘wobble’ from a warped disc, whether real or imagined. However the physical side of getting the record out of its sleeve and putting it on is a deterrent, so I rarely bother.   And when I decide to play a CD, I go to the shelves and try to select one of the 2000.   That’s when the problems start !   There is simply too much choice.

My CDs are arranged alphabetically – so do I go for some Bach, from the top shelf ?   If so what ?  And if a particular piece, which of the versions do I choose ? It reminds me of a child in a massive toy or sweet shop – there are so many ‘goodies’ that the act of choosing just one of them induces a sort of paralysis.   Or how about some Beethoven ?   How about say one of the symphonies ?   But I have about 6 sets – which shall I choose ?   How about Karajan – or Klemperer – or Haitink – or Colin Davis – or Barenboim – or Walter ?    (Obviously I will give period instrument performances a miss !)     And then which symphony shall I choose ?  Or how about a Beethoven piano sonata ?  But which particular sonata and which of my current 10 sets (ie 320 sonatas), will I listen to ?  Somehow the choice seems inordinately difficult and paralyzing – because of the over-abundance on offer !   After 5 minutes of this agonizing and painful indecision, verging on mental torture, I usually give up completely and see what’s on Radio 3 or Classic FM – or the telly !

I don’t think I am alone in having these problems.   Some people transfer all their CDs to a hard disk, but that doesn’t solve the problem of having to choose something to play, and which performance.   Those who use Spotify or other streaming service will have a similar problem.   I heard a neat solution described on the radio years ago by the late Norman Del Mar, the well-known conductor.  He stated (as I recall) that he had numbered all his recordings, and had devised some method of producing a random order of numbers.  Then he forced himself to stick to this order of CDs (or LPs) to be played.   I think I will have to survive long enough to receive the Queen’s telegram to achieve this with my current collection !  An alternative, which most readers will choose, is to surrender oneself to the choices of radio presenters – and be either irritated or pleasantly surprised, either by the pieces or the performers they choose.  And so my CDs will remain unplayed, on the shelf.

So the chances of any CDs being actually played is very small.   Paradoxically this doesn’t stop me reading all the CD magazines (particularly Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine) from cover to cover, and salivating over the prospect of buying yet more CDs, particularly those tempting box sets of great performers from years ago, now available at bargain basement prices.   I realize that much of the pleasure derived from buying them is the guilty thrill of the purchase, rather than actually listening to the CDs, which isn’t really feasible with all those recordings.  I don’t usually tell my wife.  So it is a sort of shopping addiction, but I suppose as secret vices go, it’s less harmful than most !   The only problem is putting up more and more shelves to house them, plus the guilt in knowing that they will, in all probability, never be played.   I would be interested to see if others suffer from the same sort of paradoxical paralysis, induced by having – literally – ‘too many records’ and too much choice.

Paul Liggins commented on THE AGONIES OF CHOOSING A CD TO PLAY by Hugh Mather

Hugh has kindly allowed me to reproduce this most interesting article from his own blog at hmather@btopenworld.com Do respond …

Hi Rob.
I can only empathise with Hugh (although no salt tears for someone who has 2000 plus CDs!)
and those of us with sizeable collections will know the feeling.
Mine are arranged not in alphabetical order but chronolgical ( ie Early, Baroque, Classical et c)
I find this much more helpful when indecision strikes as you can reflect on what sort of ‘mood’ you’re in, and once a period is chosen this should helpfully narrow down the choice.
Also Hugh can enjoy rearranging his music this way and discovering all those wonderful items that he, like me, has probably forgotten that he had.
However, convincing our wives that by doing this we’re actually doing something useful might prove a little more tricky!
Best
Paul

TEACHING SCHOOL CHILDREN ABOUT GREAT CONCERT MUSIC Should the government get involved?

I’ve noticed of late various despatches that raise the important issue of classical music education in schools and the government’s failure to lend it support. Of course, all learning is of value and music in particular has been scientifically proven to have a beneficial effect on children’s thought processes. But wait a minute, is school the best entry point for a child’s musical appreciation? Shouldn’t it rather be a home-grown thing, parents taking their children to concerts, inspiring them to take up an instrument because they themselves play or even playing them cds? To deal with the former option first, imagine this situation: Dad takes little Jenny to a concert where Mullova or Vengerov are playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. Jenny has never been to a live concert before; she has no knowledge of the violin and Mendelssohn is a total mystery to her, but she’s bowled over. ‘Dad, can I have one of those for Christmas please?’ she asks excitedly, and come December 25th she unwraps a quarter-size violin. The seed is sown, not at school, but in the context of an inseparable bond between father and daughter, who egg each other on. The music is an extension of the love between them. Or there’s the family ensemble, which Jenny joins as soon as she’s old enough and able enough, simply because she wants to be part of the conversation.

My guess is that while some kids will gravitate to Mozart or Beethoven during school assembly, most won’t. Rock is the thing, music that keeps time with their quickened pulses. I started off that way (Elvis, Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly), but a long spell of illness found me discovering Wagner by accident, and from there I was up and away. Here was music that seemed to recall the passion and excitement of favourite film soundtracks composed by the likes of Steiner, Korngold or Newman.  Music heard on radio and TV can have the same effect. Then again school trips to the concert hall, to real live events, can only be a good thing. The musical initiatives of the philanthropist Robert Mayer gave countless children a chance to explore the thrill of a live concert and that, surely, must have stayed with them for life.

And there’s the crucial issue of how much you can actually teach a child. Countless musicians who I have interviewed claim that while learning to manipulate a violin neck and bow, or the keys and pedals on a piano, is often an effortful slog, unless your coordination is shot to ribbons, or virtually non-existent to start with (as mine is), learning the physical aspects of playing isn’t all that difficult. What is difficult is learning how to deal with silences, how to breathe and phrase musically. As the great pianist Artur Schnabel once said ‘I don’t think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, there is where the artistry lies!!’  He also said the he was only attracted to music which he considered better than it can be performed. So here’s a challenge for you. Take Schnabel’s 1932 HMV recording of Beethoven’s last Sonata Op 111 from your shelves. Go to the beginning of the second movement, the Arietta, listen to the way Schnabel sustains the pauses and weights the chords at an extremely broad tempo, and if you have a piano in the room, try to imitate his style of playing. If you haven’t, I’ll save you the trouble anyway: it’s impossible. Even Schnabel himself couldn’t quite upstage his former self on his later recording of the work for RCA. This is the ultimate example of Schnabel teaching me a lesson that, had I been  a great teacher, I could never have taught him.

Another example of this magical phenomenon is a music college concert I attended years ago where a friend’s hugely gifted daughter gave a brilliant performance of a violin showpiece. But for me that wasn’t the concert’s highlight. A few minutes later a very young child walked onto the stage with her harp. She played a simple folksong and I can tell you that the effect was magical, not because of the way she manipulated the notes, but because of her mastery of the silences between them. She too was teaching me what I could never have taught her, nor could any teacher.

So I suppose the upshot of what I’m suggesting here is that a love of music ‘will out’, no matter what, just like a love of art or literature. Yes, if it’s possible let’s please readmit classical or concert music to the school curriculum, but my guess is that a real appreciation of the greatest repertoire comes from outside of the school’s gates or, more likely still, is the result of an inbuilt love that was there from the start. It’s a question of pushing all the right buttons and with the potential threat of mocking peers or worst still unsupportive parents and siblings there’s a real danger that those buttons will remain under a solid glass casing for life. Still, nature here has the potential to upstage nurture. The willing home nurturers therefore have a duty to identify a ‘creative nature’ and encourage it.

Thoughts please?

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Defamiliarising the familiar

The old adage that the most powerful shots of wisdom teach you nothing new, but rather make you freshly aware of things you already know, applies with equal validity to great music. Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Two big blocks of four notes form its opening. When I first heard the work in my early teens I was at an inestimable advantage: not for me the popular ‘V for Victory’ association, or ‘Germany Calling’, or ‘fate knocking at the door’, but music plain and simple, an opening movement that puts its cards on the table, argues the toss then revisits those same cards with renewed force and clarity. Sonata Form is what it’s called, though I wasn’t aware of the fact and even if I had been, it wouldn’t have mattered a jot. Beyond that first movement comes a rolling processional, an imperious scherzo, a quietly tapping reminder of the opening motive and then, wham! Beethoven becomes Jack and the beanstalk and delivers a high-rise, deliriously excited finale. The Symphony’s dénouement achieves genuine closure. I’ve listened to the 5th countless times since, always with that same uncanny sensation – that it reminds me of what I already know.

OK, let me take another route to this same theory, one of Beethoven’s last works, composed in the isolation of deafness. Written without hearing or adequate sensory perceptions Beethoven is in effect playing mind games with us, scoring the notes its true but relying primarily on our pooled intuition to interpret them. People whose intuition functions at a relatively low ebb tend not to appreciate late Beethoven. They find the music too diffuse, formless and unhinged, certainly in comparison with the ‘early’ and ‘middle’ works (the Fifth Symphony being a good example of what I mean). I’ll quote in particular the B flat Quartet Op. 130, No. 13 in the canon, which exists in two forms, the first, or the ‘original’, a sequence of six movements, the last of which is a gargantuan ‘Great Fugue’, confrontational music, like a dramatised representation of  Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, aural lightning that rails or relaxes, thinks aloud, dances and sings then rushes to close on a tide of emotion. Amazing how Beethoven had preceded it with a beautiful love song, or ‘Cavatina’, lulling us into a false sense of security before catapulting the barbed Fugue at us. That ‘Cavatina’ has proved popular as a stand-alone piece (it’s the final item on the ‘Voyager Golden Record’, which was sent into space in 1977), while the ‘Grosse Fuge’ has also achieved a life of its own.  But reaction to the Fugue at the parent work’s premiere was so negative that Beethoven’s publisher suggested a much shorter and lighter replacement, which turned out to be the composer’s last completed composition. It’s a gaily dancing ‘allegro’, or contredanse, very pleasant but that transforms Op. 130 from an epic that ends with a massive, shock finale to a sort of likeable divertimento. Not, surely, what Beethoven originally had in mind.

Many performing quartets who deliver, or delivered, complete Beethoven quartet cycles in concert offer two complete performances of Op.130, one with the Fugue, one with the Allegro (Busch, Elias, Alban Berg Quartets) but for me there’s no contest between options. It’s the ‘Grosse Fuge’ or ‘Great Fugue’ every time.

And there’s the last quartet of all, No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, where the finale, headed ‘Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß’ or ‘The Difficult Decision’, presents us with an unexpected conundrum. It opens with a darkly agitated passage ‘Muss es sein?’, ‘Must it be?’, then jumps to an affirmative allegro ‘Es muss sein!’, ‘It must be!’ These words are precisely reflected in the music’s notation. The most popular theory about this strange juxtaposition, one backed by certain written evidence, is that it refers to an unpaid debt. But let’s ditch that idea just for a moment and return to the music. Half-way through the movement, the question returns, as if there was no escaping it after all – the end is indeed in sight. But then Beethoven shrugs it off again and you could say that what he’s suggesting to us is not ‘this is the end’, but ‘this is a new beginning’.

 

 

STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN CELEBRATION Great performances, first releases and sound you won’t believe

We’re told that 450 years ago Elector Joachim II, Hektor of Brandenburg maintained a lavish court. Inspired by his leadership an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists was set up and the ground springs of Staatskapelle Berlin trickled forth, flowing full force in the Nineteenth Century under the likes of Nikolai and Meyerbeer and in the Twentieth under Richard Strauss, Leo Blech, Erich Kleiber, Clemens Krauss, Herbert von Karajan, Joseph Keilberth, Franz Konwitschny, Otmar Suitner and now Daniel Barenboim, who in the context of DG’s fascinating anniversary set is represented by a magnificent ‘live’ Bruckner 5 from 2010, at once majestic, impulsive, well-proportioned and superbly played, in fact an ideal supplement to Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Bruckner cycle for DG. I felt so excited after hearing it that I immediately tapped out an online order for the whole cycle, having never heard it before in its entirety.

Barenboim’s November 2012 concert performances of Beethoven’s Third and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concertos under Zubin Mehta are something else again. The Beethoven unfolds with unostentatious grandeur, the largo in particular being most sensitively voiced. But it’s the Tchaikovsky that really suggests territory revisited with fresh ears: broad in the manner of Celibidache’s symphonic Tchaikovsky, with ample space around the notes, so there’s time to appreciate the sheer beauty of the master’s writing. Suddenly a warhorse becomes a unicorn, and you begin to rediscover just what an extraordinary masterpiece this is. As to Celibidache himself, opinions divide, mine included. Give me his Bruckner or Sibelius and I’m invariably hooked but in the context of this collection there are some oddities. Dvorák’s 8th Slavonic Dance is fast but wooden and when it comes to Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber there’s a rudely over-conspicuous trombone in the jazzy second half of the ‘Turandot Scherzo’, as well as additional gratuitous point-making and in Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, at 3:06 into the second movement ‘Celi’ slackens the pace, has his cellos play loud pizzicatos and allows his upper strings to rapturously blossom on a somewhat exaggerated crescendo, effective once, maybe twice, but more than that? Not sure.  Also, the marked slowing down in the finale, from the flute variation onwards, before the full orchestra returns with the main passacaglia theme. It’s the familiar old story of marking a difference between ideas applied from without or letting them suggest themselves from within the body of the score.

Celibidache tends to treat each work as a novel interpretative experiment, a process that can prove utterly absorbing – if you’re in the mood. If you’re not and would rather have music fired straight from the hip, then a conductor like Franz Konwitschny should fit the bill more securely. His view of the first act of Die Meistersinger (all eighty-two and a half minutes contained on a single cd) is as honest as the day is long, the Prelude broad-shouldered and direct, the singers first-rate, especially Josef Herrmann as Sachs and a young Theo Adam as Veit Pogner (try ‘Das schöne Fest … on track 10). The year is 1955, the venue for this live performance, the Staatsoper, and although the sound is excellent you do from time to time catch a rather audible prompter. Joseph Keilberth directs a fiery German-language account of Acts 1 and 2 of Verdi’s Macbeth, Martha Mödl an Elektra-like Lady Macbeth, with Josef Metternich sympathetically cast in the title role.

Of the other conductors mentioned in despatches only Clemens Krauss is missing from the set, whereas Otmar Suitner, always a personal favourite of mine, directs one of the loveliest accounts of Reger’s adorable Mozart Variations you’re ever likely to hear, where more than ever Brahms and Bruckner seem present in imagined friendship, the slow variations suggesting a deeply romantic aura, the wittier ones full of gaiety while the closing fugue’s OTT sense of momentum never bows under its own potentially considerable weight. The disc opens with Paul Dessau’s ‘symphonic adaptation’ of Mozart’s String Quintet K.614 and if you like Hans Zender’s refashioning of Schubert and the cavorting antics of Schoenberg visiting Handel or Brahms, you’ll love this. Dessau has Mozart bound in as if on horseback, with prominent horns, and beyond harmonically innovative inner movements, kicks up more turf with a wild, timpani-led finale. After the Reger we have music from Schubert’s Rosamunde, the Overture’s introduction an ear-splitting blare like one of Furtwängler’s wartime broadcasts.

Before continuing with the stereo material I’d like to mention some of the earlier recordings, where Staatskapelle Berlin is more commonly known as the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, 78s which have been superbly transferred (thank you Boris Hofmann, in Berlin), not all of them from DG. Electrola/HMV and Parlophone are also a significant source. Strauss’s Mozart big G minor is darkly intense, his roguish Till Eulenspiegel distinguished by considerable drive and an amazing sense of aural perspective. The orchestral playing is mostly excellent, save for the odd fluff in the horns department, and while Don Quixote sounds well prepared, cellist Enrico Mainardi makes for a rather formal Don. Strauss liked him apparently (mind you he seemed to like almost any cellist who troubled to play the rôle) but having recently heard Kurt Reher on Zubin Mehta’s marvellous Los Angeles Philharmonic recording (Decca) – the ultimate demonstration of just how good a conductor Mehta can be –  I’m now spoilt for subtlety and tenderness. Reher for me is the best Quixote on disc.

Leo Blech’s cd opens to a Mozart sequence that includes a top-speed Tom & Jerry-style Figaro Overture from 1916,  plangent Masonic Funeral Music (the work’s premiere on record we’re told), a brilliant and busy Symphony No.34, as well as some lively Bizet and, best of all, Ring excerpts with the Austrian-Hungarian bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr (described in print by Hans Hotter as ‘unforgettable’), a true heldenbariton, the voice firm and vibrant, the pitch dead-centre, easily the equal of Lauritz Melchior’s heroic heldentenor. As for the Orchestra, the brass ‘rings’ especially resplendent (forgive the pun) in ‘Wotan’s Farewell’. One hopes that a future project might involve Hofmann transferring a sequence of Meistersinger extracts with Schorr and the same orchestra recorded during performances in the spring of 1928 at Theater unter den Linden. Pristine Audio have already released a very good transfer of this set (on PACO 065) but still with the evidence of Hofmann’s work immediately to hand, I’m curious as to what he might achieve with the same material.

Otto Klemperer’s disc includes among its contents an often animated and fairly well-known Brahms One recorded between 1927 and 1928, the bass line typically solid, and a dazzlingly lifelike refurbishment of Kurt Weil’s droll Kleine Dreigroschenmusik as recorded in 1931, a cross between Cabaret and Dad’s Army, the band’s playing right on the nail.  Erich Kleiber’s ‘Vltava’ suggests an uncommonly strong current and his opening to the New World trades bright, late summer skies for gathering storm clouds. Interesting too that in the ‘Largo’, at around 2:50, he has his upper strings play without portamento, and his middle strings with, and in so doing brings out significant inner voices. In the monumental finale (or at least ‘monumental’ in Kleiber’s hands), at the point where Dvorak originally marked Allegro con fuoco (just after the last full string statement of the opening theme, at 10:26) Kleiber forges ahead and the effect is bracing at the very least.  Most conductors follow Václav Talich and broaden the tempo considerably. Kleiber’s disc also features a swift, tousled ‘live’ Beethoven 5 from 1955, rough and angry, the finale suggesting Toscanini with designer stubble.

Herbert von Karajan’s selection includes a Beethoven 7 where the opening is clipped and to the point, beyond which the vivace canters along a more leisurely path. The highlights surely are a lyrical and athletic account of Verdi’s Forza del destino Overture (1938) and a sonically remarkable genuine stereo recording of Bruckner Eight’s finale from 1944, marmoreal in the typical Karajan manner (his Warners BPO recording comes most readily to mind for comparison) but also uncommonly transparent. Wilhelm Furtwangler is represented by a superior transfer of extended extracts from the Second Act of an October 1947 performance of Tristan und Isolde with the same Tristan as appears on the conductor’s famous Philharmonia recording (Warner Classics), Ludwig Suthaus, and a rather matronly Isolde in Erna Schlüter (not that the great Kirsten Flagstad was exactly a Lolita). Coarse-sounding though the Berlin broadcast sometimes is, there’s a big payoff in its favour. Compare the two in the excited lead-up to ‘Isolde! Geliebte!’ and you’re left in no doubt as to which performance suggests the erotic heat of the moment, and which doesn’t. Also Gottlob Frick’s sonorous King Marke is an extra bonus (try ‘Dies wundervolle Weib’ on track 15), a bigger, darker, more emotive and more handsome voice than Josef Greindl’s on the Philharmonia set though I still treasure Greindl’s great depth of feeling.

Returning to more recent recordings, Pierre Boulez in Mahler’s Sixth offers an oddly literal reading of the score. Boulez takes the popular option of following the first movement with the scherzo which in this particular case falls flat because the chosen tempi are too similar. The finale’s opening has none of the chilling nightmare atmosphere that makes Karajan and Michael Gielen, in particular, so effective, though the hammer blows later on are deafening. Gielen himself is represented by Schubert and Schoenberg, a narrative ‘Unfinished’ (with first movement repeat) that calls on numerous contrasting tempos, and a Gielen speciality, Schoenberg’s expressionist symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, which ranges in tone from thunderous bass drum and snarling brass to eerie filigree (try track 12). There are various Gielen recordings of Pelleas, all of them compelling in one way or another, with differing timings or subtle contrasts, but the sheer vividness of the Berlin version should win it many fans.

A bonus cd of additional ‘recordings from the shellac era’ includes memorable performances of Wagner under Max von Schillings (most notably a thrilling Flying Dutchman Overture), a characteristic sampling of Paul van Kempen (equally dramatic in the overture to  Der Freischütz), Pietro Mascagni conducting the Sinfonia from La maschere (deliciously pointed and with plentiful portamenti), Pfitzner conducting the Prelude to Palestrina, Karl Muck cueing a tender Siegfried Idyll, and so on. So, viewed overall, a feast for the ears with many significant first-releases and useful annotations. A set to cherish and revisit frequently, I’d say.

 

450 YEARS – Staatskapelle Berlin – Great Recordings

DG 483 7887, 15 cds, c£49.00