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?

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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

FALLEN BETWEEN THE SHELVES

This new section of the blog deals with cds (or black discs, even cassettes for that matter) in your collection that are either lost and found or the victim of the ‘over-familiar gaze’, meaning, filed in practice rather than in the memory. You often forget about them – then suddenly notice … hey, I haven’t played (in this case) Philip Jordan’s 2016 Paris National Opera Orchestra recording of Ravel’s take on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (Erato 0190295877910) in a while. Let me remind myself of its virtues, or lack of them. And it was finding this disc – which had quite literally fallen between my shelves – that prompted me to start this column. I’d love you to respond with some of your own impromptu ‘rediscoveries’.

Jordan’s Mussorgsky/Ravel is masterfully balanced and paced. Take ‘The Old Castle’ where behind the saxophone the quietened orchestra – the strings especially – enhance the sullen mood. Or the tonal depth of ‘Bydlo’, the bright, mischievous cavorting of the unhatched chicks (such well articulated playing and superb sound) and ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’, wealth and poverty in contrast, Jordan drawing form his unison strings a huge sonority, though wealth and pity combine so that Schmuyle’s jittery entreaties are not entirely wasted. And what a relief that for once ‘Limoges’ doesn’t leap at ‘Catacombae’ like a badly managed tape edit. Here the quiet string playing is magical. Interesting that the booklet prints ‘Baba Yaga’ and the ‘Bogatyr Gates’ (ie, of Kiev) in Cyrillic as well as in English. Why? Well, a possible reason is that Jordan’s graphically etched readings convey the essence of Old Russia. In ‘Baba Yaga’ timpani and bass drum are spatially separated – and what impact! The final statement of the Great Gate is punctuated by ceremonial strikes from the bell and tam-tam.

As to the Prokofiev, Jordan tickles detail from every page, but without any hint of fetishistic overkill (detail for detail’s sake). The first movement is informed by an exceptionally wide range of dynamics, the second by a fastidious blend of top and subsidiary lines, whereas the third pokes fun at the ‘Classical’ connection with a light touch and the brilliantly played molto vivace finale really sparkles. It’s a superb disc – though you’ll need to contain your disappointment at a total timing that adds up to a mere 48 minutes. Still, it’s the music that’s the thing, and in that respect nothing disappoints.

The late John Goldsmith: a fearless independent who dared to record Mahler 3 when the Mahler revival was still gaining ground

Tully Potter has just emailed a group of us to announce the sudden death yesterday of John Goldsmith, founder of Unicorn Records (in 1968), husband (to Diane), father, grandfather and great-grandfather. My first contact with John was when he opened the shop The Record Hunter in Waterloo, a tall, young record nut who stocked up with the best that was going at the time, including second hand. The first lp I bought from him was the newly released Victrola lp of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with violist William Primrose and Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony. A little later I gave him my lp ‘bucket list’ which included the much-sought-after HMV lp set of Mussorgsky songs with Boris Christoff. John gave a sudden laugh, ‘ah what a shame – I had that here but Oliver Knussen bought it.’ And just to prove what sort of guy John was, the next time I visited the shop, the set was ready and waiting for me. ‘I told Oliver about your passion for it,’ he said, ‘and he concluded that your need was greater than his. So here it is’ [a paraphrase obviously!]. I was then recently married (48 years now) and Georgie and I attended a live quadraphonic demonstration of the LSO/Jascha Horenstein Mahler 3 at Hampstead High Fidelity with Bob Auger, David Foulger, John and others. It was mightily impressive and I felt fairly privileged. I also bought the various Furtwängler lp issues on Unicorn, all of them first-uk releases. I hadn’t spoken or written to John for many years though my friend John Tolansky used to meet up with him. He was what they call ‘a good egg’ and I was both happy to be reminded of him and saddened by his passing.

I learn that in later years John also founded Land of the Lakes tours escorting  visitors to the U.K. especially to his beloved Lake District and other beautiful regions in Europe. It was on one of those Lake District trips that he met Diane. Friends are invited to call on Tuesday, June 23 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Townley & Wheeler Funeral Home 21 Midline Road, Ballston Lake, NY. A limited number of guests may join the family in the funeral home (masks and distancing required). Unity Station will be open for guests who prefer to share condolences through a live video feed while staying in the safety of their vehicle. Sympathy cards are welcome but please do not send flowers. A book of memories for John is available to view at www.TownleyWheelerFH.com.

Piano Heaven: 12,267 shellac discs listed on APR’s ‘A catalogue of 78rpm Recordings of Classical Pianists’

It seems ironic that merely a week after the passing of ‘historic’ piano-recordings guru Allan Evans, APR’s Mike Spring should launch an online catalogue, years in the making, that includes over twelve thousand recordings, knowledge of which should warm the piano fancier’s heart. For example look up the Polish pianist and composer Raoul Koczalski (3 January 1884 in Warsaw – 24 November 1948 in Poznań), who studied under Chopin’s favourite student Karol Mikuli, and you’ll find 108 entries. Or if you’d rather delve among 78s made by the more familiar Artur Rubinstein, then there are more than twice as many options to read through. Beethoven legend Artur Schnabel has 144 entries to his name – or if you choose to search by recording locations, then London’s iconic Abbey Road studios show up with 1411 entries featuring the likes of Eileen Joyce, Alfred Cortot, Louis Kentner, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Tristan Risselin, David Branson, Colin Horseley, and so on. It’s a collector’s fun run and you can access it at http://www.aprrecordings.co.uk/apr78/

Race and culture: where to draw the line?

The tragedy of George Floyd’s murder and outraged worldwide reaction to it has got me thinking. With statues being torn down and cultural icons with xenophobic tendencies potentially blacklisted where does that leave Jews and guilt over ‘enjoying’ or performing the work of those who would sanction anti-Semitism? Wagner, obviously, one of the greatest composers of all time whose rabid and loudly voiced prejudice has in no way discouraged great Jewish musicians from espousing the Wagnerian cause – think of Mahler (whose Wagner even Hitler defended against Viennese anti-Semites), Friedrich Schorr, Erich Leinsdorf, Georg Solti, George London, Alexander Kipnis, George Szell, James Levine, Artur Bodanzky, Artur Rodzinski, Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Semyon Bychkov? The list goes on and on. And Wagner is merely the most obvious target. If Jews themselves can separate the man from his work, often stepping up to perform his music with sovereign command, then maybe that’s where the higher ground lies. Were we to try and identify all racists active in the upper reaches of our society, past and present, we’d have a job and a half on our hands. Current actions against ethnic minorities – yes, bang ‘em up is what I say. But to outlaw from our culture all those who have in the past harboured prejudice, either privately or publicly, would be to deprive ourselves of countless good, even great works. Views please?

A diamond in the sky: historic recordings guru Allan Evans dies in New York

 

There are people (like me) whose voices suggest someone far younger than they are while others (like the late Allan Evans) look far younger than they sound. My friend the pianist-composer Jed Distler has just informed me that Allan, one of the most significant historical audio restoration pioneers, died yesterday in New York. I’m gutted. Allan was a diamond, always concerned for others, good fun and most important as far as posterity is concerned, a brilliant teacher, scholar and an historian whose non-profits arts organisation Arbiter, which he founded in 1996, published more than 150 recordings by historic interpreters, some of them obscure to the point of previous invisibility – but always worth hearing.

I will never forget the first time we met. It was at the (London) Swiss Cottage home of Michal Hambourg (1919-2004), daughter of pianist Mark Hambourg (1879-1960) and the violinist Dorothea Muir Mackenzie (1881-?). I’d previously only conversed with Allan over the phone. He sounded like a wise elderly gent and when he answered the door, I just couldn’t square the young-looking guy in front of me (Allan was merely in his early sixties when he died) with that deep, gravelly voice. We had a ball, Michal cooking the freshest vegan meal you could imagine while reminiscing about her Dad – ‘old school’ isn’t the word, Mark’s playing as recorded was positively Shakespearean – and how they recorded Liszt together for HMV. Thereafter Allan and I kept in touch. His book on – and passionate advocacy of – the Polish-Jewish pianist Ignacy Friedman (1882-1948) illuminated the art of a player whose every recording shines like a beacon in the firmament.  Largely because of Allan, Friedman’s legacy has appeared on, for example, Danacord (who had first reissued it, on vinyl), Naxos and Pearl, with individual albums on APR, Marston and Allan’s own Arbiter label. Allan’s superb book ‘Ignace Friedman: Romantic Master Pianist’ is published by Indiana Press.

But writing on Friedman and the Liszt-pupil Moriz Rosenthal, as well numerous cd booklet notes, was far from being Allan’s sole talent. His biography will tell you that he was ‘dragged into music when first hearing the music of Gospel singer/banjo-and-guitar player Rev. Gary Davis and became his last pupil’. His recording excavations delivered to our door, in addition to copious first-releases of recordings of the great Polish-American pianist Mieczysław Horszowski, the likes of pianists Alfred Hoehn (in Brahms), Iren Marik, Madeleine de Valmalète and the ‘lost legend of Cairo’ Ignace Tiegerman – a Friedman pupil, ‘the greatest talent papà ever worked with’ was Friedman’s own assessment according to his daughter Mme Lydia Walder. You can check out the amazingly wide-ranging Arbiter legacy for yourself on https://arbiterrecords.org/  Allan Evans was a true musician, the sort of listener who because of his passion for what he heard made you want to listen all the more carefully. He is survived by his wife Beatrice and his son Stefan. God rest him.

When locking down means opening up

We’re told that we’ve reached the COVID-19 peak, that we now have to look towards a ‘new normal’, that the economy has to rise again, first to its knees, then to full height, that easing lockdown also has to be gradual. True. I can’t wait to cuddle my granddaughter again, to see my brothers, and to meet with friends or relations face to face. And yet in a strange sort of way I feel we’ve been cleansed, improved; that the ‘new normal’ is somehow better than the old, that by concentrating our funds on people who care for us rather than on useless chattels or greedy investments we have learned the real value of money. Social distancing has, quite by chance, taught us that we may have undervalued what it is to be physically close to someone, how a ‘high five’, a spontaneous hug, even an affectionate peck on the cheek can elevate the moment.

Just now I’m watching couples walk past my study window. That never used to happen, at least not often. It was a case of ‘through the car door and out again the other end’. People seem to have re-learned what it is to stroll … and I’m not talking much-vaunted exercise, which is of course important, but the chance to take in your surroundings, the beauty of trees for example, or of birdsong … and the air – how much cleaner is that, now that traffic has eased (and should ease more). And speaking of song, there’s of course music, whether making it yourself or listening to others make it; and reading those books you always intended to tackle but never had the time. Proust maybe, or Tolstoy, Dickens, or the novels of Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates. New-found talents are also important: writing, drawing, painting, photography and other ‘new’ ways of experience what used to be a dusty old, world. If you have a novel waiting in the wings – go on, write it!

My great worry is that once the locks are off and ‘normal’ is no longer quite so new, we’ll return to the bad old ways, start rushing around again, forget what the recent past has taught us, not that the economy must once again maintain a healthy complexion – that’ll happen soon enough – but that our personal economy must factor in what should be the most crucial aspect of our lives: love.

Coronavirus, Anne Frank, George Floyd and Michael Tilson Thomas: meaningful alliances

While still partially housebound by lockdown and profoundly depressed by George Floyd’s murder I prepared to spend a few enviably happy hours once again delving into the many Beethoven symphony cycles that have come my way for review. But my mind kept harking back to the Secretary of State and Social Care Matt Hancock’s rather patronising mantra on last night’s Coronavirus briefing: ‘black lives matter’. Sorry? Do we need to be reminded of that vital fact? Would it have occurred to anyone that black lives don’t matter? Then, by chance, a small package landed on my mat. Its contents, a quite remarkable work by the gifted American conductor-composer-pianist Michael Tilson Thomas, ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ for narrator (in this case Isabel Leonard) and orchestra, proof, if proof were needed, that in 1940s Holland Jewish lives certainly didn’t matter, at least not as far the Nazi occupiers and collaborators were concerned.

The philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno once famously asserted that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Sadly, we could apply Adorno’s words to numerous genocides that have happened since.   But then to experience Anne Frank’s poetic style as penned during that same period and Tilson Thomas’s affecting musical response to it rather contradicts that assertion. Tilson Thomas’s work opens, not among expected shadows, but to an incoming breeze when windows might be thrown open on a sunny spring morning, the sort of setting that would prompt any youngster to rush into the nearby fields. Still, the route to tragedy doesn’t take long to register. At the beginning of part two Frank confides, via her diary, to her imaginary friend Kitty the weight of restrictions on all Jews – curfews, not being able to sit in their own gardens, being forbidden to visit all public places (cinemas, theatres, swimming pools, sports grounds) …. Sound familiar? Superficially, very superficially …maybe. Tilson Thomas scores all this with a kicking/dancing sense of protest that harks back to Leonard Bernstein. In fact, throughout the work he realises musical prophecies that had long been hinted at by Mahler (most notably), Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Copland, even, ultimately, the ‘darkness to light’ aspect of Steve Reich’s stylistically very different masterpiece ‘Different Trains’.

Tilson Thomas’s employment of instruments is often exquisite, his sense of melody equally so and the beautifully recorded San Francisco Symphony plays magnificently. Make no mistake this is extremely memorable music. If you passed a house where it was being played you’d likely knock on the door to find out what it is. In fact, at just 42 minutes, ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ could happily be used to introduce youngsters to modern concert music, not only because it has an instant and dramatic appeal but because the (excellent) narrator keeps us gripped and the score backs up her words rather like a quality film soundtrack might. Were President Donald Trump to declare a day of National Mourning for George Floyd – which he should surely do – then ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ could well be performed in Floyd’s memory, reminding us that you don’t have to be Jewish to be murdered on racial grounds.

There’s a coupling, too, Meditations on Rilke, six reflective, and sometimes animated, settings of the great German poet whose oeuvre ranges across so many aspects of our inner lives. MTT’s work is a sort-of great nephew to Mahler’s song cycle Das Lied von Der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the fine singers here being mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. Perhaps the best place to sample would be the fourth song Immer wieder, Again and Again, about lovers lying together beneath ancient trees. Tilson Thomas’s Mahlerian credentials are conspicuous by their presence. As modern – or nearly modern – music goes, you won’t do better than either work.

 

Tilson Thomas: ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’; Meditations on Rilke

Soloists, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

SFS Media SFS 821936-0079-2

Also available for auditioning via Spotify