MIRACLES IN MINIATURE: ANTON WEBERN IN THE RAW

Original lp box cover

There’s a priceless moment worth recalling in Tony Hancock’s classic radio show ‘The Poetry Society’, which wryly focuses the ‘fifties beatnik-style avant garde and the numerous well-meaning pseuds who followed it. “Are you musical?” asks Bill Kerr, addressing a typically OTT Fenella Fielding (who plays the Goth character ‘Greta’).  “I can only tolerate Bartók and Weber,” smoulders Fielding, cocking a snook at the so-called musical bourgeoisie, or so she thinks. But hold on, why nineteenth-century Weber, who although highly original is hardly a beacon for the modern avant garde? Surely, she meant Webern, that twentieth-century Austrian master of finely tooled atonal miniatures who, when the Russian Army neared Vienna towards the end of the Second World War, fled to Mittersill near Salzburg and was accidentally shot and killed there by a soldier in the U.S. occupation forces. He was just 61 years old.

As it happens ‘The Poetry Society’ was first aired in December 1959, the very month when ‘The Complete Works of Anton Webern’ was first released in the UK via Philips and the publishers Alfred A. Kalmus and that has recently re-appeared, newly remastered, on Sony Classical (19439911902, 4 cds, c£17.25). I say ‘complete’ though strictly speaking that’s not the case, as there are various early works that had yet to surface and would only make it onto disc, in a ‘complete’ context, years later principally when Pierre Boulez twice revisited the same territory (first for Sony, then for Deutsche Grammophon). 

Luckily my local music library at The Boroughs, Hendon, bought a copy of the set for stock so that this ever-curious teenager was able to borrow the ‘complete’ edition (the charm of that all-encompassing term) and hunker down in my tiny bedroom to audition Webern’s rarefied world. I’ll never forget my initial sampling of the first track, the Passacaglia for large orchestra, just a few quiet pizzicato chords to start with, then a passionate 10-minute onslaught, very Mahlerian as I would later discover (once Mahler 9 had entered my musical orbit). The playing was amazingly intense but then Robert Craft’s superb studio orchestra consisted of numerous players who had, or would, appear on soundtracks, jazz and ballad albums and experimental orchestral collections. So it was hardly surprising that although the music seemed to hail from outer space, the glowing style of Craft’s driven performance somehow made it seem familiar. And that was just for openers. Next came one of Webern’s exquisite, gnomic vocal miniatures, one of his many settings of Stefan George, Flee in light barques, sounding as if it was recorded in a local scout hut, the small vocal ensemble vibrant and intimately communicative. Then Marni Nixon arrived, all fragility and expressive intensity, again with George’s words, ‘this is a song for you alone, of childish fancies and fervent tears …’, Nixon herself, the seductive film soundtrack singing voice of Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, Jeanne Crain and Marilyn Monroe, to name but a few, sounding heartbreakingly childlike. I could imagine her clad in white under a tree at night, her pale powdery face and ghoulish upturned smile more ghostly than anything I’d ever heard in classical song …. yet, still, so beautiful.

Countless other songs beckoned as well as instrumental pieces such as the Five Pieces for String Quartet Op. 5, where mystery lay side-by-side with violence (nos. 3 and 4), the line-up including violinist Dorothy Wade who made records alongside Sarah Vaughan and Peter Nero and cellist Emmet Sergeant, whose discography finds her in collaboration with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, the Mothers of Invention, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Zappa, Jerry Goldsmith, and Henry Mancini. I say this because it helps explain why although infinitely strange Craft’s Webern allowed for a certain strain for familiarity that seemed to sugar the pill, at least while sugar was required.

The three mature orchestral works are miracles of concise articulation and colouration. Op. 6 has at its centre an ominous funeral march with so many ‘dead thumps’ (as they sound in Craft’s airless acoustic, the bass drum sitting beneath moaning brass) while the barbed Symphony seems more thrown off than performed (compare Karajan and the BPO on DG, infinitely more subtle, likewise Doráti [LSO] in the Op.10 pieces). OK I’ll grant you that Boulez and the Berlin Phil reach out for more overwhelming crescendos in Op. 6, but there’s something about Craft’s ‘black-and-white’ (mono) melodrama that kills off any sense of sensuousness. That too has its impact.

There are many more songs, some sung by Grace-Lynne Martin, an early protégé of Stravinsky, recording his works for both Columbia and Epic records (as did Nixon), two superb cantatas, pieces for violin and cello, a string trio and an early Piano Quintet, and so forth. But perhaps the ultimate ‘give-away’ track is the penultimate one, Webern’s patiently attentive orchestration of the ‘Ricercar’ from The Musical Offering, one of the truly great Bach orchestrations. That in a sense brings us back to base, the prime mover for a composer whose credo was to use as few notes as possible, though always meaningfully, the musical equivalent of Emily Dickinson, ‘telling the truth but telling it slant’ as she would have put it. Or maybe the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is a better point of reference, Wittgenstein who ended his first major work, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, with the words ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. In Webern’s case we could adjust that closing aphorism to read ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must search among the realms of music’. And Craft’s team, for all their minor flaws, certainly make you realise that much.

BEETHOVEN, WILHELM FURTWANGLER AND THE SOUND OF SILENCE

I’d always thought that the deafening silence that greets the frantic close of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as cued in Berlin in 1942 by Wilhelm Furtwängler (Archipel ARPCD0270) was mute fear inspired by the presence of the Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Goebbels. All other Furtwängler performances of the piece that I’d heard were tailed by immediate volleys of applause but on that night a good few second elapsed before anyone dare to ‘cast the first clap.’ Frightening is what I’d call it, but apparently not unique. The most celebrated of Furtwängler’s 9ths is the one he conducted for the post-war re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival on July 29th1951, oft-reissued, most recently on a fine sounding transfer included in Warner Classics’ 55-cd ‘The Complete Wilhelm Furtwängler on Record’, not quite what it says on the box but I shan’t go into that now. 

Apparently Furtwängler was furious when during the drive home after the concert EMI’s Walter Legge seemed lukewarm about the performance, so much so that Furtwängler insisted he stop the car so that he could take a walk, cool off and gather his angry thoughts. This reaction on Legge’s part has always seemed to me ludicrous. To describe the performance as magnificent is an understatement, which isn’t to say that it will suit all moods or indeed all tastes. It’s more a happening than a performance, which opens among descending mists, confronts thunderclaps for the first movement’s stormy centre, dances demonically in the scherzo, stretches the sublime slow movement to near-on 20 minutes then for the finale, after the Biblical-sounding low string recitatives at the beginning and a long, suspenseful pause, ushers in the ‘Ode to Joy’ as if from the far distance. The theme itself builds with excitable abandon, wrapped in expressive counterpoint, while Furtwängler has his chorus distend chords where other choirs would run out of breath.  The percussive march episode (Hans Hopf, tenor) forges impatiently forwards and the fugue that follows argues a furious response. Has this movement ever sounded so compelling on disc? Or more inevitable? Not in my experience.

But in a sense the best is yet to come. At the close of the work Furtwängler takes Beethoven at his word with a reckless prestissimo, hurtles towards a precipice, then rockets high into the ether. Whatever lies below is so far down as to be invisible. At least that’s the impression given by this latest transfer which unlike its Warners rival honours a very long silence that recalls that 1942 Berlin performance. So you see … it wasn’t Goebbels and his mob who ‘inspired’ a respectful, pause but Furtwängler himself, leaving his audience mute and open mouthed. The big difference is the intensity of the applause.  Fairly standard I’d say in Berlin, but at Bayreuth, ecstatic with loud stamping and deafening shouts from the audience. On and on it goes.  OK, I know this was the post-war reopening of a major German theatre and the man on the rostrum was loved and respected beyond all measure by many music lovers, but still… what a response. 

The sound itself is set at a lower level than the Warners transfer and suffers minor flaws (some occasional quiet rumble and acetate scratch), but the dynamic range of the performance comes across with impressive immediacy, so much so that there were times when I wondered whether I was listening to the same performance. Also included (and separately tracked) are welcoming announcements, programme announcements and, in addition to the applause, closing remarks. The general idea, according to BIS, was not to change anything, ‘not to ‘brush up’ the sound, not to clean or shorten the pauses or omit audience noises within the music, but to keep the original as it was. In this way we recreate the feeling of actually sitting in front of an old radio in 1951, listening to this important concert, thus creating a true historical document.’ In other words, providing the listener with an authentic listening context. I’d say that even if you have all previous editions of this recording, add this one to them. It will likely prove revelatory. It’s on BIS BIS-9060 (c£11.50).

The greatest digital recording of a Beethoven piano sonata?

Yesterday was one hell of a rollercoaster. Health issues beckoned, both for me and for my eldest daughter Francesca (though we’re coping), and although the calming prospect of words and music promised some respite, I had no idea what to turn to first. Angela Hewitt’s forthcoming Beethoven CD (Hyperion CDA68374) was among the most recent arrivals and I was curious. How might she tackle the two greatest Sonatas, Op. 111 and the Hammerklavier? I turned first to the former, principally because at 21:04 the theme and variations second movement promised a degree of breadth unheard of in my experience. But I wouldn’t be rushed. Hewitt’s firm handing of the pitch-black, ‘no-going-back’ opening Maestoso, a musical call to arms like no other, brooked little in the way of compromise. Precise in its attack and pedalling, with rolling arpeggios (upwardly rolling eyes in musical terms) its impact beggars belief. The jagged contours of the following allegro fractured that implacable surface to some extent, letting a modicum of light shine through in the process, but the drama remained; what we were facing was an endgame. 

And beyond that? Heaven, pure and simple. The second movement’s opening Arietta bore a closer resemblance to the great Artur Schnabel’s 1932 recording (Warner Classics) than any other I know of, it’s breadth and profundity of utterance; the perfect weighting of its chords and the rests between those chords, and a comprehensive understanding of the music’s harmonic architecture, all helped nudge old interpretative values into a new context, ‘old school for a new age’ you might say. As the movement progressed, a series of variations unfolds that becomes more and more outlandish as time passes, approximating a sort of stride piano at 6:25, though the effect is more iconoclastic Sgt Pepper than swinging Art Tatum. Next comes murmuring prayer before Beethoven ascends skywards on a series of repeated figurations which Hewitt interprets with maximum flexibility. This is celestial minimalism of the most rarefied kind, though the mood intensifies before we’re ferried away on a sea of quiet trills.

Interesting that Hewitt’s breadth is mostly tellingly employed for the latter part of that second movement and although highly individual I would suggest you wrap up any preconceptions you might have about the interpretation this music, dig a very big hole and bury them. Here’s your chance to listen with fresh ears, then turn to the Hammerklavier where the Adagio is played ‘con molto sentimento’ (as marked), a heartfelt confession in preparation for the finale’s fiercely fugal putting to rights, which Hewitt surveys with maximum clarity. The first movement is marginally more relaxed than Beethoven’s very fast metronome suggests, but gains gravitas in the process. Hewitt’s accessibly analytical notes add a further degree of pleasure to the listening experience and the Fazioli piano used rings resplendent thanks to a superb recording. If this disc isn’t shortlisted for prizes in 2022 I’ll be very surprised.

Donald Zec dies aged 102

It is with considerable sadness – though with a simultaneous sense of celebration – that I announce the passing of my uncle Donald, born March 12th 1919 and who died in the early hours of this morning, 1:45 to be exact, having asked for ice cream some 2:45 hours earlier. Only Donald! But what a guy, a brilliant journalist who interviewed screen legends for the Daily Mirror for some 40 years, musician (violin then piano), Award-winning painter, spontaneous wit, raconteur, and a loving family elder who spared no effort in guiding and supporting his nephews and nieces. When in his company Donald – who could easily have waxed lyrical about his star-studded past – never spoke about himself, only about you and yours, how you were faring, how the family was doing, your career and so forth. No-one could have wished for a more loving or supportive uncle. But rather than continue further along these lines I’d like to treat you to a previously unpublished gem dealing with Donald’s early life. My thanks to his son Paul for agreeing that I put this rather lovely essay online. So here it is now, especially appropriate for the Jewish High Hoy Days. “Shanah tovah um’tukah

                              THE MIRROR ON THE WALL: Prologue

         It is nearly a century ago and so recollections of my birthplace are elusive, fading visions.  Number four George Street, London N.W.1, no longer exists.  It was obliterated in the l950s to make way for the underpass which now links the Euston and Marylebone roads. Re-named Gower Street, nothing remains to re-visit and remember.  Not that remembering comes without pain.   Still, it would have meant something to have stood outside the house again. For in its poor, crumbling but strangely secure essentials, it perfectly reflected the ethnic mix of its era. 

At number four George Street lived my parents Simon and Leah. Above us lived the the Poppledorfs, volatile French immigrants who screamed, laughed and otherwise added to the neighbourly noises-off in the tenement experience. Now and again a policeman would tie his cycle up against the railings outside, and with the bicycle clips still round his ankles, would plod up the stone steps and extract fulsome apologies from the noisy Parisiennes. He could do nothing, however, about the widow, Mrs. Coatier, who lived in the basement. At one end of George Street was a public house called the ‘Orange Tree’. Here the lady in the basement would get drunk on draught ale every Saturday night, then stagger home with more of it in a large jug and launch into screeching song, until her voice, and the beer, ran out. Widowed by the Great 1914-18 War, her grief still raw, she kept her late husband’s Lee Enfield rifle, bayonet and scabbard still fixed, outside her door. It stood like a sentry, guarding its half-demented occupant who had warned us that we touched it at our peril.  

George Street was close enough to Bloomsbury to absorb a little of its raffish Bohemian culture. But it was closer still to the costermongers of Drummond street market to know its place. The estate agents, Rutley, Vine and Gurney near the pub, was straight out of Charles Dickens. I sometimes delivered the weekly rent, thirteen shillings and sixpence, receipted by a frock-coated clerk on a high stool.  I remember him as vividly as I recall the Temperance Hospital in the nearby main road. Its ambulances ferried the infant victims of the familiar epidemics of the hard-up classes – scarlet fever, diphtheria and street accidents.   

I was too young to have witnessed the dreadful incident that plunged my family into grief. My sister Mary, at maybe nine years old, had skipped out into the street and was run over by a taxi. A half-severed foot was subsequently amputated. My parents cursed their ill-fortune in colourful Yiddish and then resorted to the ultimate consolation, this was God’s Will … Gott’ll  unz helfn,’God will help us’ became their standby comfort in times of intolerable stress. But if indeed God was helping, I witnessed scant evidence of it over the years. An innocent five-year-old, I just assumed – hoped – that since we were fed, watered, and basically educated God was at least somehow within reach. I quickly learned the basic disciplines of immigrant life – you suffered, you celebrated, you wept, you prayed and whatever the tragedy you beseeched the heavens – and then moved on. Endurance and survival. They were in the DNA.

         In my old age, the mind is densely populated with memories.  Scenes, sounds, images float in and out like characters in a play: tragicomedies involving a volatile mix of plotlines and scenarios. There were some pleasant simchas – like weddings, bar mitzvahs and golden anniversaries where amateur fiddlers played klezmer music, the elders singing weepy songs from the shtetel. These simchas were the welcome highlights in the more dominant patterns of life on George street. 

The images are vivid. There was no electricity. The rooms were dimly lit by gaslight, a combination of gentle hissing and flickering light. Our home occupied two floors in the building with sufficient bedrooms to accommodate the constant increases in the family which finally added up to eleven children, two sons, and nine daughters. The impact on my father, the need to work ever harder, was inevitable. Even as a five-year-old, I intuitively sensed the enormous burden life was for him. It was a burden he was determined his two sons would not have to endure. One day he called me into his cutting room. “Sit down.  Now watch’. Slowly he threaded a few stitches along a seam. ’You see how straight they are? Put on the thimble, you do it!’  My hands trembled. The result was a disaster. He poked me in the chest. ‘Very hard isn’t it? You don’t like it? Don’t be a tailor. Learn better. Study!’ The ragged-trousered psychology of immigrants in the 1920s.

         Number 4 George Street had its own distinctive soundtrack. At night I could hear the distinctive sounds from the tailoring workshop above; the hiss of steam as the presser, a near relative, would plunge the red-hot iron into a bucket of water, then the thump as it was placed on the ironing table, and finally the sound of a solid wooden block stamped on the cloth to release the steam. If there were enough orders to keep the piece-workers busy, I could hear Norah humming while treadling the Singer sewing machine – a minor masterpiece of wrought iron and engineering now highly prized at auctions.  As I sit in front of my large computer monitor, the photo printer to my right, smart phone to my left, a large flat screen TV behind me I think back to a moment of real magic entering our lives. The Crystal set, forerunner to the battery driven radio, was the miracle of the 1920s. My brother Philip created one using an old cigar box, a tiny strand of wire, a lump of something or other as the crystal, and some earphones bought from a market stall and then after laboriously roaming the wire over the sugar like a mine-detector heard music!        My father was the first to take the ear-phones- the eldest son recognized his duty. Simon was doubtful as usual. No time for this nonsense. There was work to do in the workroom. I remember his amazement then joy. The sound he heard was of Enrico Caruso the great Italian tenor, singing ‘Celeste Aida’. But the song of choice for the most devout Jews was Chazan Yossele Rosenblatt singing that most sacred prayer on the eve of the Day of Atonement, ‘Kol Nidre’ My father who rarely shed tears always had one glistening on his twirled moustache whenever he heard it. There were few cars in those days. Heavy goods were mostly on horse-drawn vehicles. Beer was transported on artistically decorated drays … beer lorries without sides-drawn by massive shire horses capable of pulling a heavy-laden barge along a canal. It was to a 5-year-old, a spectacular sight; the drayman wearing a long leather apron would sit high off the ground, spit on his hands, take up the reins and give the horses a touch of the whip. Their weighty horse shoes would spark lightning off the cobblestones before the drays lowly moved forward. Hard to describe the routines and rhythms of life in George Street without experiencing mixed emotions and unsettling images.

There were some episodes which I still laugh over and resonate in my anecdotage. One Friday morning my mother was preparing or the Sabbath evening. She had polished the Kiddish cup (an award to Simon by the Freemasons, Merchant Tailors); she was mixing the batter for the fried fish, when there was a loud knock on the door (there were no push-button bells, just a heavy cast iron knocker which would alert the dead). At the door was my sister Mary and her schoolfriend Winnie Twitchen (you don’t forget names like that). Winnie is cradling a wriggling piglet in her arms. A PIG in her doorway Erev Shabat

‘Look what Winnie won at the fair, mummy’.  Mummy looked and froze. Shuddered, more likely. Her smelling salts not immediately available she decided not to faint. Assimilation had taught her – dignity was called for. ‘That’s a very nice pig, no question about it … why don’t you take it home to show your mother?’. Racing through her mind was the sacred Hebrew injunction, Remember the Sabbath Day, keep it holy.’ She closed the door and as I heard it, sank to her knees with an impassioned cry ‘Oy…mein ..Gott !’

Darkest of all are the images of family bereavements. Deep feelings, even those of an impressionable five-year-old, were not spared when death struck home. The scene I can never erase is of the ritual ‘rending of the garments’ by which mourners are traditionally permitted to demonstrate their anguish. I remember standing in a line of family members as a funeral official with a razor blade went from one to another, cutting into a lapel, a cuff, a waistcoat or a bodice   A chilling ritual, enacted, as I recall, in total silence apart from the clatter of horse-drawn traffic outside. Many of the sadder monochromes I can air-brush from my mind without much effort.  But one particular image resists all attempts to drive it out of my thoughts.  Something about it remains stubbornly in focus; still there after ninety years.

                  The image is of a hanging mirror. It hung on the living room wall, a must-have art deco item in the hire-purchase homes of the 1920s. And I hated it; Not so much for the mirror itself, but for what lay behind it.

  Suspended by two chains, it leaned away from the wall. This left a convenient two-inch slot into which crucially important letters could be stored. Threatening letters. Final notices. Official documents warning of dire consequences failing an instant response. The manilla envelopes, the red-lettered final notices, the threats compounded by the intimidating rubber stamp, sprouted out from the top of the mirror like a Japanese fan. It would have made an interesting still-life for an artist, the multi-coloured documents flowering from the bevelled curves of the art deco mirror. I had no such fine thought at the time. To me, that bloody mirror symbolised misery and fear for my over-burdened parents. I felt enormous pity for them, and a kind of subliminal hatred for whatever it was that caused it. 

         This is not to say that there were not some letters which promised joy. These were mostly invitations to family celebrations which were few, but treasured. But their shiny gilt-embossed italics were upstaged by the ominous typography from assertive creditors. These produced a variety of reactions, fear and anger mostly. One early morning there was a loud hammering on the front door.  The heavy thud of the cast-iron door knocker did not suggest a friendly caller. My father, unshaven, his collar stud unfixed, hurried to the door. I heard muttering, arguing, then the door slammed. Silence. Simon came back into the room, his face ashen, eyes wild with fury. He cursed those he called ‘meine sonem’ my enemies. He thrust a parchment-thick document behind the mirror.

He turned to my mother. ‘What do they want from me?’ She put a hand on his arm. ‘Sha, Schimel, Gott’ll unz helfn.’  For once, that traditional mantra brought no consolation to my enraged father.  ‘What do they want?’ he repeated, ‘Not enough I work from morning till midnight? They want we should starve?’ Suddenly he grabbed the bread knife on the kitchen table. He held it to his throat. ‘They want I should kill myself?’  I was petrified. But also overwhelmingly saddened by this pathetic figure who was clearly beaten to his knees. My mother appeared to faint. Her eyes were closed, her head fell forward.  This vision of my mother shocked my father into sanity. He bent over her with a pitiable torrent of remorse. Now he was rubbing her hands. Then he was fanning her with a newspaper  Guilt, contrition, devotion, all tumbled out in a stream of intimate words in Yiddish. I gathered what he was saying. ‘I’ll work tonight. I’ll get more orders. Don’t worry Lyupke, everything will be alright.’ Then to me, sharply, ‘go to school.’ I went over to my mother to say goodbye. Her round cheeks were redder than usual. I sensed she had been crying.  She straightened my tie.  I didn’t want to leave her. I felt I had to say something. In those days children dared not ask intimate questions of their parents. But I had to know. ‘Are you alright?’ Not unkindly, my mother said, ‘And why shouldn’t I be. Gay shoyne; ‘go already!’ I grabbed my satchel and walked, half ran, to the sanctuary of Exmouth Street school, my mind in turmoil. That episode impacted on me as indelibly and as permanently as the camp number on the arms of concentration camp victims.  But I learned about despair… It was always there. One lived with it.

         The house at Number Four has gone. George street too. I am the last survivor of an improvidently created family of eleven children. What began in a shtetel in Odessa, scrambled into a fearful journey on a cargo ship to Tilbury Dock, and then ended with the chaotic decanting of innocents into uncharted territory A traumatic and defining journey. Not least of these experiences was the imperative of holding on to one’s religion and traditional Jewish culture within an uneasy Christian environment. Somehow, my father contrived a way through the frieze of buff envelopes, final notices, and threats of repossessions, to create a family life.  Some happiness ensued. Respectability and the crucially important human dignity, maintained.  The intimidating literature which glowered down from the wall ultimately did no permanent harm. Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity. But let me admit to a particular foolishness. In all the houses and apartments that I’ve had in my life, there was not a single hanging mirror.        

chapter one

Nobody on this ethnically chaotic planet should consider himself or herself, a member of a chosen race. The term is both arrogant and ignorant, and ultimately dangerously divisive. I was too young to comprehend this. But I had an intuitive feeling that if indeed I was one of the chosen, it might, in fact, do me no favours. It is this unease which only assimilation can somehow mitigate. Gloss over. Don’t act chosen. Don’t be different. 

THE SPECIAL STAR

For my beloved Georgie on this, our Golden Wedding Anniversary

Alerted by its silvery beam, I crept outside at dead of night … and there it was.

“Do you know how long it took to build?” whispered a mysterious voice

I shook my head

“Fifty years,” was the certain reply,

“… from the first dazzling spec – a sign of burgeoning devotion –

“The fun, tenderness and feistiness,

“Then daughters, a granddaughter –

“The joy of it all!”

‘And those tiny shadows?’ I asked hesitantly.

The voice paused for a moment  

“… shards of loss or misfortune

“sad, perhaps …. but never sad enough to mask the Star’s native brilliance.”

I could see that heavenly bodies nearby had taken on aspects of its radiance.

But this maverick miracle somehow seemed familiar, as if I was living beneath its teaming brightness for eternity

‘And is there sharing involved?’, I wondered

“Of course: the girl you met one warm spring morning and took to your heart right from the off …

“you see, the star is as much her gift to you as yours to her…

“a spontaneous exchange hinged on a single concept: love”

Riccardo Muti at 80: a revelatory retrospective

Dive into Warner Classics’ 91-cd Riccardo Muti: The Complete Warner Symphonic Recordings, involving various orchestras (principally the Philharmonia and Philadelphia) and you’re unlikely to quit the experience without reeling from the odd stimulating punch. The Philharmonia Tchaikovsky symphony cycle for example, Manfred with its roaring big drums and mushrooming tam-tam, the Fourth’s first movement with its tearfully descending woodwind lines. Muti has clearly pondered every note, as he has for Abram Stasevich’s oratorio after Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible film score (with Philharmonia forces) where electricity crackles right from the opening, and the storming of Kazan rivals anything in Alexander Nevsky for visceral excitement. And has anyone yet rivalled Muti (and the Philadelphia) in the Romeo & Juliet Suites, ‘Montagues and Capulets’ as fearsomely macho as Westside Story’s Jets and Sharks? Berlioz’s ‘dramatic Symphony’ on the same subject (also Philadelphia) opens to fugal fisticuffs among the strings before foreshadowing both Wagner and Tchaikovsky.  

A Schubert symphony cycle with the VPO runs the gamut of moods and textures, from a bright, balletic Fifth (breezy first movement) to a massive ‘Great’ C major, made even more marmoreal by the inclusion of essential repeats, where Muti slams on the brakes as he approaches the first movement’s majestic denouement (echoes of Furtwängler) and pumps at the hammering chords that close the work (echoes of Toscanini). Verdi and Rossini overtures sizzle with life, the Rossini programme especially. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring emerges from Philadelphia as an unsparing tirade whereas Petrushka projects brutality and humanity in equal measure. The five Scriabin symphonies are breath taking in the way Muti sweeps a path through their densely emotional terrains (try the second movement of No. 1, such clarity and power of attack). As to Respighi, no stereo version of the ‘Roman Trilogy’ that I know of begins to compare with Muti’s from Philadelphia. Indeed, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer it even to vintage Toscanini. You listen to the ‘Pines of the Appian Way’ and wonder if it can possibly get any louder. It does, believe me.

Muti’s Beethoven (all the symphonies, Philadelphia) is unsullied by distortion, but neither does it bow to the fashionable ‘period’ lobby. It’s big, direct, handsomely despatched and beautifully played. There are concertos with Sviatoslav Richter, Andrei Gavrilov, Alexis Weissenberg, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Gidon Kremer, Kyung-Wha Chung, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maurice André and more and then the big choral works, Verdi’s Requiem vocally spearheaded by Pavarotti, Mozart’s Requiem and numerous sizeable Cherubini pieces of which Muti is an undisputed master. This progenitor of Beethoven fits Muti like a glove, imposing music that on the one hand waves farewell to mighty Haydn while on the other welcomes Beethoven’s upcoming revolution. Vienna ‘New Year’s Day’ concerts prove how Muti can relax with style, prompting the VPO to lilt disarmingly.

There is much more besides of course, all of it subscribing to what appears to be Muti’s invariable musical credo, that honesty is the best policy and that if a work is going to make its full impact, the performance has to be well drilled, considered and poetically potent (witness a rather lovely Mozart Jupiter with the Berlin Philharmonic, again launched with all essential repeats in place). It’s also useful that in general the sound is so good and that essential information is to hand, which in this case arrives in the form of a bonus cd featuring Jon Tolanksy’s first-rate documentary chronicling Muti’s years with the Philharmonia, incorporating copious interviews, one or two of them extremely moving.

This is the third of Warners’ big orchestral boxes, the first devoted to the recordings of Sir John Barbirolli (another unmissable collection), the second gathering together André Previn’s Warner Classics trawl (maybe not quite so distinctive) and now this Muti set which viewed as a whole packs the biggest wallop of all. I’m still loving most of what I hear and can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Riccardo Muti: The Complete Warner Symphonic Recordings

Warner Classics (91 cds) 0190295008345

c£150.00

War and peace with Richard Strauss

Listening to pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s dazzling new recording of Burleske by the youthful Richard Strauss under Antonio Pappano got me thinking, for the first time ever, in terms of a Teutonic Petrushka – with similarly dizzy badinage, where piano, drums and orchestra busily nudge each other for prominence, Chamayou more fleet-fingered than virtually any of his rivals – a poet too where needs be – while Pappano and Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia leap to the challenge of responding to him with boundless enthusiasm (Warner Classics 0190295028459, £13.50 – out soon!).  It’s enormous fun, occasionally treading the as-yet distant incoming tide of jazz (a similar playfulness and sense of ‘cool’) and often prophetic of the mature Strauss.

Ein Heldenleben came some thirteen years later by which time Strauss the joker had become Strauss the philosopher, this 47-minute epic taking in a finger-twisting fiddle solo (the hero’s loving but sometimes obstreperous wife, here characterfully played by concertmaster Roberto González-Monjas), a tub-thumping battle scene, works of peace and ‘The Hero’s Withdrawal from the World’. Bearing in mind the horrors that we have all witnessed over the last year or so we might take a caustic look at the work’s second section – ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ (mean, carping woodwinds on the attack) – as a soundtrack for political mudslinging at those who have tried to row us back to safer shores.  Here as elsewhere Pappano focuses mood and colour with an acute ear, but never more so than when peace and withdrawal arrive, and the Santa Cecilia strings often play with breath-taking softness.

You may or may not know that the work closes with a reference to Strauss’s Nietzschean masterpiece Also sprach Zarathustra which in this context suggests that the idea of ‘self-overcoming’ (one of Nietzsche’s key philosophical concepts) reflects recent challenges faced and, indeed, overcome.