September 15, 2003
Stephen Pollard on music

Stephen Pollard has a new blog, which really is a blog.

Go to the category archives, and you find music about which he has a lot to say.

About Prommers:

The real problem about the Promenaders is that they are not there for the music, but to be part of a rather sad club that meets nightly at 7.30 and is defined by a series of inane rituals. So the highlight of their evening is not Martha Argerich playing Ravel, but the chance to chant "heave" when the piano is shifted onto the stage, or their asinine mock applause when the orchestra leader plays a note on the piano for the orchestra to tune up to.

About Simon Rattle:

Last week's concert had two works: Asyla, by the young British composer, Thomas Ades; and Mahler"s Fifth Symphony. Beginning his tenure with Asyla was a neat piece of programming, as it was the final piece he conducted as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony, the orchestra with whom he earned the reputation which led to his Berlin appointment. Mahler's Fifth, however, is typical BPO fare; typical in the sense that the orchestra has played it so often they must know it by heart. Yet nothing Rattle ever does is typical. As the conductor John Carewe, Rattle's teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and still his mentor, put it after the applause had died down last week: "Tonight we heard the first authentic performance of this symphony. We were brought up on Bruno Walter"s recording with the New York Philharmonic, but Walter could never have dreamed of a performance like that. It has taken 100 years to come this far". If you think that is simply the hype of a teacher talking about his star pupil, you could not be more wrong. As one of the orchestra members put it: "I have never worked so hard since Bernstein."


Leos Janacek was the greatest opera composer of the twentieth century, and arguably the greatest composer, period. Leave aside all other considerations, his operas pass one key test: they are performer proof. Just as a poor performance of Don Giovanni or the Marriage of Figaro can nonetheless still give much pleasure, it's also true that, whilst a great performance of Katya Kabanova or Jenufa is emotionally shattering, a poor performance can also be transcendental, such is the power of Janacek's ability to blend story and music. His gift was to be able to take a powerful story and make it better by honing in on the most powerful and truthful elements. Shakespeare's Othello may be a masterpiece, but Verdi's Otello, the essence of that masterpiece, is if anything a still greater work. So Janacek's From the House of the Dead takes Dostoyevsky's silver and turns it into gold.

Barenboim and Wagner:

Barenboim's Judaism and Israeli citizenship are at the core of his personality and have prompted many of the ventures which have taken him beyond the musical world and into a form of politics. So it is all the more remarkable that it is Wagner with whom he is now associated above all other composers. The German, who died in 1883, was, of course, Hitler's favourite; his music sometimes accompanied Jews as they were sent to the gas chambers. But the current Wagnerthon in Berlin is merely Barenboim's latest attempt to rehabilitate Wagner, especially in the eyes of his fellow Jews. As he puts it: "Wagner was not responsible for Auschwitz". Barenboim is now the main conductor at Bayreuth, the annual festival in deepest Bavaria devoted to Wagner's operas. Last July, conducting his Staatskapelle Berlin Orchestra at a concert in Tel Aviv, he prompted calls (which were not acted upon) from Israeli politicians from all main parties that he be banned from future public performance in Israel when he conducted the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde as an unprogrammed encore. Not a note of Wagner's music had ever before been played in concert in Israel.

In short, a lot of interesting stuff. He's an ignorant grump about pop music, as befits a man of his age and attitude, and is particularly angry about crossover. But when he writes about what he likes, it is interesting stuff.

I haven't read much of it until now, because if I read it I'd want to link to it, and linking to Pollard used to be a mess. But it isn't any more, because now he has a real blog going.

They're still fiddling around with details, but it looks good too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:00 AM
Category: Classical music