Culture means whatever Brian Micklethwait says it means.  
Category Archive • Classical music
January 25, 2005
Changing times for the Philharmonia

Prospect Magazine has revamped its website. If I understand the rules correctly, you can read quite a few of their pieces when they first come out, for free, for a few weeks, and then you have to pay for them, either at about a quid a go, or with a £25 annual sub. Please tell me if I've got that wrong.

Prospect is, I think, very good, which is why I bother with a web operation which charges. Normally I wouldn't.

So anyway, that means that you can read this most informative piece about the Philharmonia Orchestra by their regular classical music writer, Stephen Everson.

Everson makes many telling points, of which I have picked these, for the somewhat ignoble reason that they have also mostly been made here:

It is ironic that as the quality and enthusiasm of orchestral musicians has increased, so the interest in orchestral music within the general culture has declined so markedly. "We're in a period now where the broad population of this country is totally unfamiliar with orchestral music and reluctant to enjoy anything that requires some investment of time and thought. Our world is shrinking by the day because of the overwhelming impact of popular culture. When I was a kid, although I didn't grow up in a musical family, you were always aware of orchestral music on the radio because there was the light programme, and the home service. The musical language you grew up with was the basic harmonic tonality that underpins music from the Renaissance until the present day. Now that language is almost entirely foreign because rap music and garage and house have no harmonic references at all. It's purely linear. People's experience of great music is now negligible. If you put on Dvorak's New World Symphony, over half of the audience are hearing it for the first time."

This next bit was particularly interesting to me, because I saw this coming, as I am sure did many others. Not only are public subsidies harder to come by, but corporate money is getting harder to extract, because the generation that now runs these things, both public and private, grew up with the Beatles, rather than with the Proms on the Third Programme.

This has consequences for the orchestra's ability to find commercial sponsors. When Whelton first went to the Philharmonia, he found he could raise about £800,000 a year, and spend only half a day a week doing so. "You'd go to one company and put a proposal, and there'd be a yes or a no; if it was a no there'd be another ten companies you knew were interested. Chairmen of boards and managing directors were from a generation that was passionate about music and opera. But those people have retired. In the main, the people in those positions now have no interest in high culture. First of all they're with each company a very short time, secondly they're driven entirely by adding shareholder value, and thirdly what we do is something alien to most of them … they'd prefer to take clients to a football match."

And then Everson homes in on how film music is surviving as one of the few routes from popular culture to classical music. It's not that much of it is classical music, in the sense of being great and part of the classical canon. It is that it is at least, unlike most music these days, written in the same language as classical music.

More fundamentally, it requires orchestras to rethink how they can build and maintain their audience. "Most people's only relationship with orchestral music these days is in the cinema and occasionally the television. We gave a concert of film music in the Festival Hall recently that was sold out, and in the middle of it we did the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th Symphony and the overture to Figaro. The people listened to those pieces with just the same level of concentration as they did Star Wars. They loved the emotional impact of that music – that's their starting point now. I wrote to a critic the other day who complained that we were putting the Rachmaninov 2nd piano concerto in a concert and I said look at the symphony it's with, which was Prokofiev's 5th. Now, I think that's central repertoire but 3,000 people probably heard it for the first time that night. Familiarisation is the only way to build the audience. If you can get the public from film music to, say, Pictures from an Exhibition and then to the Rachmaninov 2nd piano concerto and then on to Prokofiev's 5th, they've got one more piece in their repertoire. If we don't succeed in doing that, our audience will become narrower and narrower. When I came to the Philharmonia, it was the last season that you could do even very mainstream concerts at the Festival Hall that would be packed to the gunnels."

Prokofiev's 5th has long been a favourite of mine, ever since I was first persuaded by a record reviewer to buy the Karajan DGG version, which is still regarded as one of the best.

Everson also ruminates upon the soon-to-be undertaken revamp of the accoustics of the Royal Festival Hall, which is the performing home of the Philharmonia.

Here's a picture of the RFH, seen from the downstream of the two new Hungerford footbridges.

RFHsaxS.jpg

The Festival Hall is a place I might well go to more often if the accoustics were up to scratch.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:09 PM
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January 24, 2005
The Yggdrasil Quartet plays lesser Schubert

Usually when caught short for a posting with midnight approaching, I shove up a picture, either hand done by some dead bloke, or one of mine done with my camera. But tonight, I'll give a plug for a CD, by the Yggdrasil Quartet. Funny name that: Yggdrasil. Still, I shouldn't grumble. I expect there are places in the world where "Micklethwait" raises a bit of a smirk.

SchubertDeathMaidenBIS.jpgAnyway, the Yggdrasil Quartet's recording of two Schubert quartets is, the bit of it I've listened to, very fine indeed.

I bought this CD because BIS have a reputation for superb recordings and all round technical excellence. I think that there is a special pleasure to be had from a really good recording of string quartet music, even if you can get used to a bad one. I was not disappointed. The CD cost me only £3, which is all part of how happy it made me. (I wouldn't dream of paying the full wack for a CD with pieces that I already have lots of CDs of.) So far I've only listened to the non-famous quartet on it, Number 10 in E flat major opus 125 no. 1.

I don't know this quartet very well. I know Death and the Maiden, the other piece on this CD, but not Number 10. And the less magnificent a piece of music is, the more important is the sound that it makes, and the sound that this piece makes in these hands is real Rolls Royce stuff.

Critics are fond of praising technically less than perfect string quartet playing to the skies and beyond. What matters to them is the music , and not the sound that it makes. With some music, I agree. But with string quartets, I really like it when the harmonies are truly harmonious to the point of heavenliness. So much of string quartetness is harmony that if harmony is done badly, that utterly spoils it.

My most favourite string quartet performance of all is the Quartetto Italiano's recording on Philips of Beethoven's Opus 132, the slow movement being a high point. This music, as composed and heard by the already deaf Beethoven, sounds perfect, absolutely perfect. And the playing of it must be absolutely perfect too. Musical but imperfect is, for me, no use at all. And the Quartetto Italiano make a sound that is as near to the sound of heaven as you will ever hear on this earth, which as far as atheist me is concerned means ever full stop.

I wouldn't put the playing of the Yggdrasil quite in this class, but it is very good. And maybe their Death and the Maiden will be even better.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:12 PM
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January 14, 2005
The Chilingirians and Raphael Wallfisch at Conway Hall

Last time I went to a concert, I promised myself I would write about it here, but took the task too seriously, procrastinated, and eventually failed to write a word.

Well, earlier this evening I went to another concert, and this time I am damn well going to put something about it here, however feeble or unpersuasive.

The venue was the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square. The musicians were the Chilingirian String Quartet (keep scrolling and clicking until you get something), plus another cellist, Raphael Wallfisch, and the music was: the Beethoven Street Quartet in F opus 18 no 1, the Bach Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 in C minor, and the Schubert String Quintet in C major D956. The Chilingirians did the Beethoven. Wallfisch then did the Bach. Then, after an interval, all five of them together did the Schubert.

The weak link in the proceedings was the leader of the quartet, Levon Chilingirian. I feel like a swine for saying something like this, but it is true. After all, this was music making of the highest order, and nitpicking seems churlish. Nevertheless, I spent the entire time he was playing wishing that I could find it in me to enjoy his playing more than I did. Maybe the accoustics didn't help him, in particular when he played high notes, and maybe he toned down his playing of high notes a bit, and maybe this affected his control. Whatever the reason, whenever he was up there and out on his own, and should have been rhapsodising like an angel in flight, I found myself thinking that it was all rather earthbound and scratchy and lacking in rhythmic certainty. Only when he played low down and was harmonising with the others did the quartet playing, or quintet playing, suddenly have that real, hear-a-pin-drop, magic about it. I've not had time to put on a recording of any of the music I heard this evening, but I intend to, and when I do, I expect to hear just what it was I was missing this evening.

Wallfisch, on the other hand, was a revelation, especially in the solo Bach, which of course involved no playing whatever by Levon Chilingirian. The utterly simple Sarabande, devoid of double stopping or of any complicated skittering about, was especially affecting, as was the way he immediately after it launched into the Gavotte that followed, with infectiously foot-stamping elan. In his hands this music really danced. I now am listening to the highly regarded Fournier DGG recording of this music, just to get the names of the movements right (given that the programme was mute on the subject), and frankly, I remember Wallfisch's playing as far more fun than Fournier's now sounds. Although maybe being able to look at the charming expressions that played on Wallfisch's face made it all sound better than it really did.

In the Schubert, Wallfisch merged with absolute precision into the ensemble around him, and again, I found his facial expressions fascinating, communing this time with his fellow musicians. He looked like Napoleon, but nice.

The other cellist, Chilingirian regular Philip de Groote, a very fat man indeed who moved nothing except his left hand fingers and his right arm when playing (too much effort, presumably), was exactly everything that his leader was not quite. Despite not appearing to notice that they were even there, he harmonised perfectly with Wallfisch and the rest of them, and was in general a beautifully sure foundation to the two ensemble pieces. When the spotlight beckoned he was more than equal to it. Much the same applies to the other two Chilingirians.

It was a fine, fine evening. But had there been a first violinist in the same class as the guest cellist, it would have been a great one.

The Schubert Quintet is one of the great masterpieces of Western chamber music, and despite my complaints about Levon Chilingirian, this performance certainly made that fact very clear. Far better a concert where you know it's great but where you are left feeling that it might have been even greater, than one where you are left wondering what all the fuss is about.

This is a picture I took at the end.

Chilingirians.jpg

Not one of my best, but good of the chairs and music stands.

The event was organised to commemorate the life of a lady called Miriam Elton, who died this year. Miriam Elton spent her last days at the Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted, Herts. They're now raising money to build a new version of this place, and the money raised by this concert will be going towards that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
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December 17, 2004
I love Late Menuhin

Happy is the classical music fan who adores a musician who used to be adored by millions but who has now gone out of fashion with younger listeners. Everything is available on CD (as an after-echo of the man's huge popularity) but it is now available second-hand for next to nothing.

MenuhinBandW.jpgI give you: Yehudi Menuhin.

Correction. The orthodoxy now seems to be that Early Yehudi Menuhin is (and remains on CD) very fine, when his violin technique was faultless. However, this kind of technical fineness is now ubiquitous, and now recordings are better, so ... Late Menuhin, however, is not fine at all, because his violin technique was suddenly not faultless. And he even became one of those sad instrumentalist/conductors, who conducted because he couldn't play properly any more.

I don't go along with any of that, other than the bit about the fineness of Early Menuhin.

On the strength of Early Menuhin genius, and at a time (the 1930s) when 1930s recording quality was all there was, a whole generation of adoring fans bought everything he did, then and later, and either liked the later stuff also or were disappointed. But they bought it. Then they started to die off, and now those unfashionable Late Menuhin CDs languish in cardboard boxes in the market for a quid or two each.

For me the Menuhin experience really began when I listened to a Late Menuhin (1970) recording with Wilhelm Kempff of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, in A major opus 47.

I don't usually like pieces for only violin and piano. I realise this is not a very elevated thing to say, but when I listen to such pieces I think: What is this for? What is it saying? The point being that it had better be saying something, because the actual sound of the thing is so dull. Piano trios now, with all those luscious chords, they're completely different. Ditto most violin concertos. Ditto almost all piano concertos. They sound great. Piano trios and violin concertos and piano concertos sound so great that they can often say nothing at all for all I care, other than: hey listen to this! But a piece for violin and piano has to really say something to me, or I'm not amused. (I find violin and piano music dull in way that I do not find either either solo violin music or solo piano music boring. Why is that?)

Please do not confuse this with objective critical description of actual music. I am trying to describe how I feel about these things. If you feel differently, do not be affronted, just a little bit baffled, and you might even want to stop reading this. Because, above all, I do not want to persuade you that you dislike the sound of a violin sonata even if you actually like it. I would hate to give you a dose of false consciousness.

MenuhinKempffBeet.jpgAnyway, this is where Late Menuhin comes in. Late Menuhin was, for me, the supreme master of using his violin to actually say things. Every note he plays has a meaning, an emotional charge of some kind. And what is more: a good one, the right one. That Kreutzer sonata performance with Kempff amazed me with its total eloquence, quite unlike anything I had ever heard before when listening to this piece in other hands.

What I love about Late Menuhin, whether violin playing or conducting, is that, faced with a world in which he must suddenly live within technical limits (unlike in his glorious youth), either his own or of the other musicians he must now make do with, his response was not merely to try to correct those technical limitations as best he could (which I am sure he did do his best to do), but also into making every note mean something. Even more than Early Menuhin did. In his youth, Early Menuhin was often (it sounds to me) content to let the music just flow through him, with no technical friction, so to speak. There was no added value (in modern business parlance) but, wondrously, there was hardly any subtracted value either (apart from what the old recording subtracts). Which is how most of the current generation of musicians all try to play also, often very successfully. Perfectly oiled and perfectly functioning music machines, you might say. Personal hi-fi kits. But when, for Late Menuhin, the friction suddenly cut in, he had to live with it, but made damn sure that he always always always, every fraction of each passing second, added something. That's how it sounds to me. His playing became a triumph of eloquence over technique.

For me, Late Menuhin was the Laurence Olivier of violin playing. But whereas Olivier often got on my nerves by imposing his own rather bizarre meanings upon something which already, automatically, means something, namely words, Late Menuhin imposed much better and thought-through meanings, based on a lifetime of excellent music making and musical study, upon something that has no such automatic meaning in the way that words do, namely … music.

When I listen to Late Menuhin playing something like the Mendelssohn violin concerto, I realise that nice though that usually sounds, that too can often mean very little, when many others play it.

The most extraordinary case of a Late Menuhin triumph that I have recently heard is the Late Menuhin recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto.

As I have written here before, this is an extraordinarily difficult piece to bring off.

Two things tend to go wrong with modern perfect-machine performances of this extraordinary piece. First, because the thing is so ferociously difficult to play, and because the idiom (as with the Mendlessohn concerto) is so culture bound and elusive, the perfect machine player, time and time again, does actually introduce a lot of friction. And second, that plunges our poor perfect machine musician into a world he is utterly unused to.

To switch metaphors, the modern musician functions like a perfect window, or tries to. He stands between you and the music, and his idea is to let you see the music perfectly, through him. When this plan goes wrong, his usual recourse is ferociously, even desperately, to clean the window. Which is often counter-productive. Any meaning he may have detected gets lost. Windolene gets all over everything. Blah blah blah. Mess.

Late Menuhin is quite familiar with these dilemmas, because he lived with them every day. He did his share of window cleaning, but what he would also do was, as it were, talk about what you could just about, okay, see through the window. Yeah yeah, sorry about the window, but never mind, look at that, he would say, at that little house next to the trees, with the late blossom on. Look at this tiny wisp of smoke here, these clouds, the strange light at this time of day. And look, there's a storm coming. Through those bigger trees? See it? I'm right you know. (Smile.) A Late Menuhin performance is like a permanent running commentary on the music he is playing.

For my money (which as I say doesn't need to be much) Menuhin's playing is technically adequate, given the extreme excellence and fascination of the commentary that always accompanies it.

To speak thus of commentary is probably not quite right, because it suggests an imposed meaning rather than a meaning found within the music, but this is the best I can do for now.

MenuhinElgar1.jpg    MenuhinElgar2s.jpg

That Late Menuhin Elgar performance, with Sir Adrian Boult, is now almost universally denounced (and thus now seemingly unavailable – I can find no suitable link to it) as not nearly as good as the early one by Early Menuhin with Elgar himself conducting. And this Late Menuhin Elgar recording is a supreme example of all of the above. (By the way my picture of this earlier recording is the Naxos redo, which seems to be somewhat preferred to the EMI version, and is the one I have.)

I had spent decades obeying the critical orthodoxy about this (see what I mean about critics muck you about if you let them) by carefully not listening to it. But following a series of good experiences with Late Menuhin CDs, I finally came upon a second hand version for next to nothing of the Last Menuhin Elgar. And when I finally did listen to it, I loved it. Loved it. Late Menuhin doesn't always play things exactly as he wants to. But you always know how he is trying to play it, and how he is trying to play it is utterly marvellous. That's how it sounds to me. It's somewhat like a great but rather elderly actor doing Hamlet.

(By the way, I rather think that I first heard snippets of this Late Menuhin performance of the Elgar Concerto on a Radio Three Record Review comparison of all the various versions of the Elgar Concerto in which the reviewer hinted at a similar attitude to Late Menuhin to the one I now have. Can't remember who that was.)

I also love Late Menuhin's conducting, and buy everything of that I can get hold of cheaply. But let that wait for another posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
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December 10, 2004
A few quota links

This link to this Samizdata posting today about more Fritz Werner Bach, plus a reminder that I continue to churn out stuff for here, will probably be your lot today.

Well, here is a nice picture of Medellin, which is in Central America somewhere, I think (Columbia?), which I tried to steal from Harry Hutton's picture gallery. "Public" means, I can do that, right? (I mean, what the hell do I know about intellectual property. I signed up for that CNE gig to find out about it, not because I know anything about it already.) But I couldn't make that work.

That big church on the right looks to be quite something, and it still towers over its surroundings.

Flickr seems to be getting very popular nowadays. Can it show pictures as big as I like to, 800 by 600, filling most of your screen? That Medellin picture ought to be as big as possible, I think.

JP, your New York pictures will go up this weekend, I hope, big as possible, but I promise nothing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:49 PM
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December 07, 2004
Rostropovich gets a cello concerto by not asking for it

From a Gramaphone review (June 2003 issue) by Ivan March of this DVD, of Rostropovich playing Shostakovich Cello Concerto 1 and the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto:

When he came to know Shostakovich personally in the 1950s Rostropovich wanted to ask him for a cello concerto. Fortunately he never did: the composer's wife later told him that only if he did not ask or mention his wish might Shostakovich produce something out of the musical hat. She was right and in 1959 the great cellist's restraint was rewarded.

And what is more it was rewarded with another cello concerto, Number 2, which was also dedicated to Rostropovich. Not surprising, given how well he played the first one. That old recording he made for CBS (now Sony) with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra was one of my most treasured LPs.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:45 PM
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November 25, 2004
£1 each

Over the years I have watched the rock bottom price for second hand and bargain give-way loss-leader classical music CDs fall, slowly but surely. What I mean by this is the lowest price that a serious classical CD will be offered for. I don't mean something from the front cover of a magazine with lots of mere snippets; I mean the real deal. A decade ago it was about £5. A few years ago it was about £3. Now, it is £1.

AFiverS.jpg

Click on that to get it bigger and more legible.

I bought these five CDs from Neil's classical CD barrow in Lower Marsh (which is the same street as Gramex the second hand classical CD shop is in), a couple of days ago. They aren't all of them all that super-desirable. But they are the real thing. Real classical CDs, of great music, very well performed and recorded. I've just listened to the Jupiter Trio CD, which was released only this year by the way. It is excellent, the Shostakovich in particular being outstanding.

Prices still have a bit of falling to do. These CDs were £1 each, but others at Neil's were £3.50, and some were as much as £7.50. Gramex often charges only £3, for older stuff, and sometimes only £2. But Neil has now set the floor for the market, in London anyway (which is, frankly, all I really care about – this is why you live in a city for goodness sake) and all the others will be dragged down.

The charity shops are all over the place, often charging more than the full price for their CDs. That's one of the signs of a plummeting market, when the amateurs often charge more than the pros, because they just don't know what has happened to the market they've wandered into.

Naxos CDs are starting to look overpriced.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:59 PM
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November 18, 2004
Different performances really can be different: Barenboim plays the Emperor concerto

I am a fanatical, not to say pathological, collector of different CD performances of the same favourite classical music pieces. This morning, prodded by an emailer, I was checking out different versions of the various Beethoven piano concertos.

To this end, yesterday, I put on the Barenboim/Klemperer recording of the Emperor Concerto, number five, which I remember liking a great deal when I last listened to it.

Yesterday, however, when I played it again, I did not like it nearly so much. Barenboim's piano phrasing seemed relentlessly wrong, even ham-fingered. I did not enjoy the performance at all. How very odd. How come I used to like this performance so much and now liked it so little?

BarenboimEmperor.jpgAlthough after playing it I did put the CD back in its case, I did not return the case back to its place in my CD shelves, and this morning I realised the mistake I had made. I had not been playing the Barenboim/Klemperer version of this piece. I had been playing the later version done by Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic from the keyboard, with Klemperer nowhere to be seen or heard. I made this mistake because both performances, in the packages I have of them, come in a box of three CDs, because both had "Barenboim" on the spine, because both are from EMI and logoed in the same way, and because the spines of both are the same EMI red colour. I am now listening to the real Barenboim/Klemperer performance, and it is very bit as good as I remembered it as being.

This episode tells me two things.

First, there are limits even to what Daniel Barenboim can do, musically. Maybe he can play the piano part of the Emperor perfectly, while simultaneously conducting an accompanying symphony orchestra, but on this particular occasion, in my opinion, he definitely did not manage to do so satisfactorily, let alone as well as he did with Klemperer.

And second, I was reassured that different performances of the same piece really can be so very different. Possessing as I do so very many multiple copies of different favourite pieces, I am often, frankly, unable to hear much difference, and fear that I have wasted tons of money and yards of space by purchasing pointlessly duplicated pieces which might as well be straight copies of the same disc for all the difference they make. But here was a self-inflicted blind test of my own abilities as a listener, and I passed. My own ears, even when misinformed, did not let me down. I spotted a big difference even when I thought that the two versions I was actually comparing were not two versions at all, but one and the same. So hurrah for me. I can do this! And hurrah for all those different versions of things, because they too may really be different. (See this posting for another such comparison, this time between two different performances by different soloists of the Brahms violin concerto.)

Of course what you really want is for the different versions not to be different from each other by being good or bad (as was the case with these two Barenboim performances – and with those Brahms performances also, see above), but by being good in one way, or good in another. Fast and good or slow and good. "Classical" and good, or "romantic" and good. And as it happens, that emailer I referred to above did alert me to just such a contrast.

However, blogging is blogging, and the rule to follow is: one thing at a time. I am not Neville Cardus, and must not presume upon the attention span of my readers by continuing a posting even when an obvious opportunity for a break presents itself. So, more on this topic later, maybe, I hope.

Late: and the moral of the above, put next to this, is that opinions on these things can differ wildly. Maybe I should have another go at listening to that Berlin performance.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:05 PM
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November 07, 2004
Hybrid SACD

A few years ago a battle of the gauges began, to see what kind of CD, if any, would replace the regular CD, for playing music.

And the winner is: Hybrid SACD.

This is a Super Audio Compact Disc, which means that it will sound even sexier than a regular Compact Disc, provided that you have a zillion quids worth of SAS (Super Audio Stuff) to play it on, but which, being also "hybrid", will in the meantime play on a regular old coal-powered CD player such as I still have, and will go on having for the foreseeable future until the price of the new kit drops enough (see below).

HybridSACD.gif

Hybrid SACD is a format developed by Philips and Sony and combines a SACD (ie physically a DVD layer) with a CD layer.

Both layers are read from the same side, which means that the SACD layer must be reflective for the red laser but will transmit the infra red CD laser. Such discs can then be played on both a CD player (which will read the CD layer) and a SACD player.

The original idea may have been to get us all to replace our old CDs, the way we replaced our old gramophone records and cassettes, and what is more go back to buying CDs at "full price" instead of for a fiver or less. But that won't happen. The great CD bonanza of the eighties is not going to be repeated. CDs are okay.

On the other hand, if they want to sell me a Hybrid SACD for the same price as I now pay for a regular CD, to play on a machine which I don't yet have, but in due course will have because it has become as cheap as a regular CD player (see above), well, then, okay.

But if they think that all of us who love, e.g., the Elgar Violin Concerto are going to rush out and buy Hilary Hahn's new DGG version of it, just because it is a Hybrid SACD, and pay DGG an extra tenner for the privilege, despite the fact that the reviewers say it is boring, they will have to think again. A few may splash out on the new format. See the Karajan Beethoven below, which was recorded in 1963! But not enough to rescue business-as-usual.

HybridSACDs.jpg

This is a photo (click to get it more legible) of a New Formats classical music flier that came with a DVD I bought recently of Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall. (Worth a go second hand at £6. Not worth remotely the full asking price, from what I hear.)

This is not a new world. It's just the next bit of what really is business as usual, concerning which more anon.

The most interesting thing about Hybrid SACD is probably the re-design of the plastic case which they are using to flag up which is regular CD and which is Hybrid SACD, concerning which more anon also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:59 PM
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November 06, 2004
"May your merciful countenance be gracious unto us!"

Those Fritz Werner Bach CDs were everything I hoped, the second ten being just as wonderful as the first ten. And the second ten were even cheaper, hardly more than twenty quid at the Bond Street branch of HMV (which is in Oxford Street just across the road from Bond Street tube).

Particularly wonderful is track 2 of Cantata BWV 78, which is on CD 3 of these second ten. This is sung by the lady choristers. Werner, and in particular his harpsichordist, who I see now was Marie-Claire Alain, accompany it with a bounce and a joy that I have never heard before. It has become fashionable these days to talk about Bach writing dance music. I've never really heard this myself, until now.

Googling for "Bach Cantata BWV 78" revealed that this particular Cantata certainly seems to strike a lot of chords with a lot of people, and this second movement especially.

Here, for example, the writer zeroes in on this movement, and helpfully supplies the words, to save me typing them in again, in both German …

Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten,
O Jesu, o Meister, zu helfen zu dir!
Du suchest die Kranken und Irrenden treulich.
Ach, höre, wie wir die Stimme erheben, um Hilfe zu bitten!
Es sei uns dein gnädiges Antlitz erfreulich!

… and English.

We hasten with weak [feeble], yet eager footsteps,
Oh Jesus, Oh Master, to seek after your help!
You tirelessly seek out the sick and those who have gone astray.
Oh, hear us, as we, our voices raised, pray for your help!
May your merciful countenance be gracious unto us!

The way Werner and his ladies do this makes it sound as if this is already happening.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:49 PM
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Barenboim looking strange

Barenboim2.jpgThese photos of Daniel Barenboim at the temporary until-it's-redone-properly Warner Classics website, especially the three colour ones, are very strange. They make him look not like the quite old gent that he now is, but rather as if he had been made up to look old about thirty years ago, and photoed then. I think it's the fact that they forgot to grey the eyebrows and eyelashes. Maybe he dies his eyebrows and eyelashes black so that he can influence orchestral musicians just by moving his eyebrows and eyelashes up and down, but I doubt this. More probably he is of a physical type whose eyebrows and eyelashes are the last of his hair to turn grey. All the same, it looks odd to me.

Maybe there's been photoshopping, in particular beefing up the colour contrast, and this has had the effect of making him look unreal.

I'm not trying to undermine Barenboim's status as a musician, which is very high and deservedly so. Several decades ago I saw him conduct in London, Mozart mainly, including piano concertos from the keyboard, but especially the late Mozart symphonies. Something about the way he conducted, something about the kind of sound he seemed to want from an orchestra - long legato paragraphs and sonoroties, elbows and armpits as well as just hands, made me think even then that he should in due course be Georg Solti's successor in Chicago, which he later was, and that he would (like Solti) one day make a notable Wagner conductor, which he now is. Even in Israel.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:38 PM
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November 03, 2004
Melvyn Tan's Beeethoven sonatas – and Ronald Brautigam (again)

I recently rhapsodised here about some Mozart piano sonata recordings by Ronald Brautigam. And that got me thinking about how Beethoven piano sonatas sound on a similar instrument. So when I came across a bargain box of Beethoven piano sonatas played by Melvyn Tan, on Virgin, five CDs for a tenner, I grabbed it.

TanBeethoven.jpgAt two quid a throw you can't be disappointed, and actually this is pretty decent playing. But in Tan's hands, I don't find the fortepiano adding much, and I do find it subtracting quite a lot. Again and again, when Tan plays, I found myself thinking that, if this is how it sounded when Beethoven himself played these pieces, then what Beethoven would have wanted them to sound like would be how they do typically sound to us, played on the modern piano.

I found Tan's rhythmic habits somewhat disconcerting. Again and again, I felt that the smooth flow of the music was being needlessly mucked about with, but maybe this is just the result of what I am used to hearing rather than what I ought to be hearing.

I would now love to hear someone else doing those Mozart sonatas on the fortepiano.

And I would also love to hear Ronald Brautigam playing the Beethoven sonatas. (How many (forte)pianists do you now think that of?)

I suspect that I would not especially like the Mozart, but would find Brautigam's Beethoven absolutely thrilling.

When writing about Brautigam's Mozart sonatas, I said that Mozart piano concertos don't sound nearly so good on the fortepiano. Yet, I completely forgot about this posting, in which I rhapsodised also about Brautigam playing the Mozart D minor Piano Concerto, on the fortepiano. This man can really play.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 PM
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November 01, 2004
Reubke's Piano Sonata

FellnerReubke.jpgWarner's are just about giving away lots of discs in HMV Oxford Street at the moment, and one of the more interesting of these gifts (actually it cost £1.99) has been an Apex CD by pianist Til Fellner, playing Schumann's Kreisleriana, and Julius Reubke's Piano Sonata. Stupid cover graphics (like all of this series except the ones with Yehudi Menuhin on the front), but perfectly decent playing, so far as I'm any judge.

I love music for organ plus orchestra – Handel Organ Concertos, Poulenc Organ Concerto, Saint Saens 3rd Symphony, you name it. But I have an aversion to solo organ music, perhaps because it is for ever connected in my mind with compulsory school chapel, a form of compulsion I seem to recall resenting above all others. (Eventually I took to skipping it. The Real Rule under the Official Rule seemed to be that if I didn't boast about this, which I didn't, they wouldn't make a fuss either. They, or some of they, must have known.) Accordingly, the only thing I knew about Reubke until now was that he had perpetrated solo organ music. So to hell with him.

But now with this Piano Sonata disc, at a mere £2, I am willing to give him a go. It's on the CD machine now. Snap verdict: it sounds very like the Liszt Piano Sonata. This is not surprising, since Reubke was one of Liszt's most favourite pupils, apparently. But even given that fact, the resemblance is extreme. So, if you like Liszt piano music, this is highly recommendable. I quite like it. But this is the kind of music, I think, that responds to great playing, of the sort that causes people to say "the playing was better than the music". Fellner is good. I would like to hear someone like Richter, Gilels or Lazar Berman doing it. I'd like to hear someone playing it to the gallery, instead of tastefully.

Reubke died in a hotel room at the age of 24, according the sleeve notes of this CD, but it doesn't say how or why. Nor could I learn this from any other source. Was he a huge loss? Maybe. We'll never know.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:58 PM
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October 29, 2004
Fritz Werner rescues Pierre Pierlot

FritzWerner.jpgSo, Fritz Werner's Bach Cantata recordings are wonderful. But have a read of this, from the sleeve notes:

Fritz Werner was born in Berlin on 15 December 1898. At the end of the First World War he was taken prisoner by the British, and he only began to study music in 1920. In 1936, on the recommendation of Wilhelm Kempff, he was appointed organist and choirmaster of the Nikolaikirche in Potsdam, a Neo-classical church designed by the famous German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Two years later, in 1938, Werner was appointed to Potsdam's Garrison Church, the Prussian "Holy of Holies" where the Prussian Kings were buried. At the outbreak of the Second World War he fought in the Polish campaign and in the battles around the Maginot Line in France. The Nazis then gave him the job of Musikbeauftragter in Occupied France. In this position, part of which put him in charge of music for the radio, he came into close contact with the composer and director of the Paris Conservatoire, Claude Delvincourt (1888-1954), who, like Werner, possessed humanist qualities which were widely recognised. Another part of Werner's job was to send French musicians to Germany for travail obligatoire (forced labour), and his protection of many of them made him a much-loved figure in the musical life of Occupied France, which he upheld with conviction. An illustration of Werner's compassion is contained in a charmingly mischievous anecdote concerning the twenty-year-old oboist Pierre Pierlot, whose playing features prominently in this Edition. Pierlot was told that he had to go to Königsberg in eastern Prussia for forced labour. He replied that his father would not let him go because it was too far. By the time the German official involved had found out who his father was, Pierlot had escaped his clutches. But not for long; a month later the German bumped into him again in the orchestra where he was principal oboe. Pierlot hid as best he could behind his desk until the leader called out "Pierlot, give us an A!". The German pretended he had heard nothing. He was Fritz Werner. After the war, when Erato needed a first-rate oboist to play in the Bach cantata recordings in Germany, Pierlot eagerly offered his services by way of thanking Werner, to whom he owed so much. The story has it that when Werner apologised to Pierlot for not at once recognising him because he looked so well, the oboist replied: "Since you Germans were driven out of France we can eat as much as we want, just as we used to. And, by the way, you look much better in a shirt than in a uniform". In August 1944 Werner again became a prisoner, this time of the Americans. He later returned to Germany, where he was interned in the Heilbronn-Böckingen camp, from which he was released in 1946.

The spine-chilling phrase here, just in case you missed it, was that bit about his protection of "many of them". So, Werner saved Pierlot, and "many of them". Good for him. But who did he not manage to save, or worse, who did he choose not to save? I'm not saying he's evil, but it certainly seems that this man got pretty close to some evil things, an impression that is reinforced by this biography of Werner (which is where I found the photographs of him), which, on the matter of Werner's war, has only this to say:

In 1936 he stated his career as a church musician at Berlin and Potsdam, where he became Kirchenmusikdirektor in 1938. He served as organist at Potsdam until the outbreak of World War II, when he left Germany and became a music director of the German radio in occupied France.

After the war he returned to Germany, settling this time at Heilbronn. …

My guess would be that Werner, like many other of his musical compatriot contemporaries, loved and worshipped music above everything, and did as much as he had to, and as little as he had to, to become a good and successful musician in those bad, bad times. Anybody know any different to that? All I really know about this man is his Bach conducting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 PM
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Fritz Werner in context - an unreliable and personal account of Bach interpretation since the war

FritzWerner2.jpgI have long admired the Bach Cantata recordings made by Fritz Werner for Erato in and around the 1960s. His performance of Number 30 – "Freue dich, erlöste Schar" – is my all-time favourite recording of any Bach Cantata, by anyone.

So when Erato recently issued a couple of ten CD sets of all the Bach Cantata recordings that Werner made, for the bargain price of less than £3 per CD, I eagerly snapped up the first ten, and having got stuck into these I intend also to buy the other ten. They are wonderful.

Bach interpretation since the war can be divided into three phases, which have overlapped in time and are inevitably somewhat blurred at the edges.

Phase One. Solemn, deeply meaningful, but too slow. Extreme case: the Karajan DGG Brandenburgs. See also Klemperer. Bach as Bruckner. Fifties to seventies, when this style was shut down by the record companies.

Phase Two. German church cantors who specialised in Bach. Karl Richter, Helmut Rilling, Fritz Werner. Faster, but still grand. At its best: radiant. I like all of these performances. Rilling is still going, as if Phase Three (see below) had never happened. But best of all of these is Fritz Werner. I am a devout atheist, but I cannot help noticing that these men were/are all Christians. Timing: late fifties to seventies and in some cases (Rilling) seventies onwards.

Phase Three. The "authentics". Eighties and nineties onwards. I cannot be objective about this style, because basically I hate it. At its worst: totally un-transcendent, landing like a ton of bricks on the first beat of every bar, recorded by fussy little men with names like Trevor and Ton (although the absolute worst one of all is called "Reinhardt" – see the Samizdata link above), who look (and – more to the point – radiant the spiritual atmosphere of) spare parts managers rather than conductors. God knows what these people actually believe they are saying with this music. (I told you I couldn't be objective.)

Perhaps I ought to add a Phase Four. This is: the Bach Collegium of Japan directed by Masaaki Suzuki.

These are wonderful performances, done by honest-to-God Christians, which somehow make the best of the authentic style (which I do admit has a best – clarity, sparkle, even Phase Two type radiance, which Phase Two itself can often lack – Suzuki was actually taught by Ton, see above).

But unfortunately, whereas the Werners and the now deeply unfashionable Rillings can be got very cheaply, for around a fiver or less, these Suzuki performances (on BIS) are ultra-fashionable, are sold at full price, and have yet to appear on the second hand market or in the bargain boxes at the big new-CD stores like the HMVs of Oxford Street. £17 for three cantatas is too strong for me. I have a few of the early issues of this wonderful series, got second hand before it became widely realised just how wonderful it was, but after about number 10 cheaper copies just haven't been obtainable.

I can find no reference on the Internet to the newly packaged bargain boxes of the Werner recordings, even though these are already available brand new in some of the big London stores, like HMV. The Warner Records Internet operation is, as of now though presumably this will change, beneath contempt.

All of which began as a the briefest of brief intros to a piece about what Fritz Werner did during the war, which I will now do as a separate posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:51 PM
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October 25, 2004
English is shorter

I'm listening to the new LSO Live Falstaff conducted by Sir Colin Davis, or at any rate to the sound it makes, and this sound makes me want to pay attention to it seriously some time very soon, perhaps by watching the DVD of Falstaff by some other people that I picked up very cheaply a few weeks back.

Meanwhile, here is a picture, of the back cover of the Davis/Falstaff CDs, which perhaps goes some small way towards explaining why English is doing so well these days. It occupies less space. It uses fewer letters to say the same thing. It is shorter.

I have sort of known this for a long time, but this really brings it home:

FalstaffBackS.jpg

I took it out of the plastic case to reduce reflection. (No self portrait this time, I'm afraid.) As often here (but not always), click to get it bigger, i.e. in this case somewhat easier to read.

The opera itself is sung in Italian. Where would Italian come in this comparison? In the middle, alongside French, I'm guessing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:39 PM
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October 18, 2004
The New York Times on drug use by classical musicians

Here's am NYT story that I can link to from here. It's about performance enhancing drugs, but the performances in question were not athletic; they were musical.

RUTH ANN McCLAIN, a flutist from Memphis, used to suffer from debilitating onstage jitters.

"My hands were so cold and wet, I thought I'd drop my flute," Ms. McClain said recently, remembering a performance at the National Flute Convention in the late 1980's. Her heart thumped loudly in her chest, she added; her mind would not focus, and her head felt as if it were on fire. She tried to hide her nervousness, but her quivering lips kept her from performing with sensitivity and nuance.

However much she tried to relax before a concert, the nerves always stayed with her. But in 1995, her doctor provided a cure, a prescription medication called propranolol. "After the first time I tried it," she said, "I never looked back. It's fabulous to feel normal for a performance."

Ms. McClain, a grandmother who was then teaching flute at Rhodes College in Memphis, started recommending beta-blocking drugs like propranolol to adult students afflicted with performance anxiety. And last year she lost her job for doing so.

College officials, who declined to comment for this article, said at the time that recommending drugs fell outside the student-instructor relationship and charged that Ms. McClain asked a doctor for medication for her students. Ms. McClain, who taught at Rhodes for 11 years, says she merely recommended that they consult a physician about obtaining a prescription.

Ms. McClain is hardly the only musician to rely on beta blockers, which, taken in small dosages, can quell anxiety without apparent side effects. The little secret in the classical music world – dirty or not – is that the drugs have become nearly ubiquitous. …

Fascinating.

In sport, there is widespread agreement that drug-enhanced performances are not "real", although all the word-of-mouth I hear says that drugs are ubiquitous in athletics also, and the difference between the successful athletes and the ones who get banned is merely that the successful ones are more skilful at hiding what they are doing.

In classical music the debate is much more about whether drug-enhanced (or maybe that should be: drug-enabled) performances are actually as good as non-drug-enhanced(abled) ones. Use of such drugs is very widespread, says the NYT article …

But some performers object to beta blockers on musical rather than medical grounds. "If you have to take a drug to do your job, then go get another job," said Sara Sant'Ambrogio, who plays cello in the Eroica Trio. Chemically assisted performances can be soulless and inauthentic, say detractors like Barry Green, the author of "The Inner Game of Music," and Don Greene, a former Olympic diving coach who teaches Juilliard students to overcome their stage fight naturally. The sound may be technically correct, but it's somewhat deadened, both men say. Angella Ahn, a violinist and a member of the Ahn Trio, remembers that fellow students at Juilliard who took beta blockers "lost a little bit of the intensity," she said. Ms. Ahn doesn't use the drugs, she said: "I want to be there 100 percent."

Indeed, the high stakes involved in live performance are part of what makes it so thrilling, for both performers and audiences. A little onstage anxiety may be a good thing: one function of adrenaline is to provide extra energy in a threatening or challenging situation, and that energy can be harnessed to produce a particularly exciting musical performance. Performance anxiety tends to push musicians to rehearse more and to confront their anxieties about their work; beta blockers mask these musical and emotional obstacles.

For me, classical music is the drug.

Next: drug enhanced blogging …

My thanks, as so often, to Arts & Letters Daily for the link.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 AM
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October 08, 2004
Ronald Brautigam plays Mozart piano sonatas on a fortepiano

You know how some pieces of classical music sound wonderful when played on the right instruments and nothing like so impressive on other ones. Think especially of the Bach Double Violin Concerto (deranged for harpsichord and orchestra) or the Beethoven Violin Concerto (ditto piano and orchestra). Played on the right instruments, this music is wonderful, but with the wrong instruments it is extraordinarily diminished. Fun to listen to but … put it this way, "fun" says it all.

RonaldBrautigam.jpgBut now, I have discovered another such contrast, and this time in a good way. I have just been listening to some truly excellent CDs by Ronald Brautigam of Mozart piano sonatas played, not on a modern piano, but on a fortepiano, which is what they had just before they had finalised the modern piano, or pianoforte.

I have heard Mozart piano concertos played the usual way, with a modern piano and orchestra, and the "authentic" way with a fortepiano and orchestra, and in my opinion the comparison entirely favours the modern piano. Played on a fortepiano, for example on the CDs done by Melvyn Tan or Malcolm Bilson, these pieces sound small and constricted, strictly eighteenth century, and in a bad way. Played on a modern grand piano, by a modern grand piano virtuoso, they take wing magnificently. Indeed, one of the very first pieces of classical music that ever grabbed me by the throat was the Mozart D minor Concerto, K466, played for me first by Ashkenazy, later by Katchen and Barenboim.

But, unlike the Beethoven piano sonatas, which are every bit as magnificent as the Beethoven piano concertos, the Mozart piano sonatas have always seemed to me to be a bit of a let down. They have several pretty tunes. But that's all they were, pretty. Like those Mozart piano concertos played on a fortepiano, they seemed small, even insignificant. I've got wonderful CDs of these pieces, by the likes of Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Ushida, and (above all) Sviatoslav Richter, but even when Richter plays them, you feel that it is the player who is magnificent, rather than what he is playing. It's great playing, but not of great music.

But with Brautigam, and his wonderfully strong sounding fortepiano, all that sense of disappointment vanishes. This music sounds truly great.

When a fortepiano plays along with an orchestra, what you hear is a keyboard instrument that isn't strong enough compared to the orchestra, and the music is diminished. But when the fortepiano plays on its own, especially the way Brautigam plays it, and recorded the way Brautigam is recorded, and with music by Woflgang Amadeus Mozart for precisely this instrument, with lots of reverberation, it sounds positively orchestral. It sounds bigger than a piano. It's a piano and a harpsichord, the best of both worlds instead of the worst. And the Mozart sonatas, which sound small and female (in a bad way) on the piano, sound grand and orchestral. Or something. In truth I am not sure why exactly this music sounds so magnificent, but magnificent is how it does indeed sound, on these CDs.

I got them because somebody died, and Gramex, the second hand CD cathedral in Lower Marsh, got the lot. There was a feeding frenzy about two weeks ago, which I completely missed, and which is presumably when volumes 1, 2 and 6 got snapped up. But I still got volumes 3, 4 and 5, for £4 each. Cheap at twice the price, although at twice the price I would have said no. More fool me.

It isn't every day you discover a whole new collection of unreservedly great pieces by … Mozart. But today, I did.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:23 PM
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October 04, 2004
Thoughts on DVD opera

Incoming email from Alan Little:

You might find this interesting, from Tyler Cowen et al's excellent libertarian economics blog Marginal Revolution: The DVD format is taking over the classical music world, especially opera.

I don't think music DVDs will be all that relevant for me. Even if they're as cheap as CDs and have at-least-as-good sound quality (I know audio-only DVD is supposed to be great, albeit a stillborn format; I haven't really seriously listened to how good movie DVD soundtracks are), they're still not relevant to my music-listening life. I mostly listen to music while doing other things, whereas a DVD expects you to sit down and give it your undivided attention. With a toddler in the house my attention is almost never undivided. I would consider buying DVDs if they were cheap and there was an easy way to get the audio off of them into a usable format (CD or mp3) – I do know how to do this but it's laborious and I really don't think I could be bothered on a regular basis.

The point passed on (from Klaus Heyman of Naxos) by the Marginal Revolutionary Tyler Cowen about DVDs of opera is that opera on DVD is now starting to sell massively better than opera on CD, i.e. opera with only the sound. Thus, although DVD-ing an opera is presumably at least as bothersome as merely recording it, and copying the DVD is no easier, DVDs of opera, because many more are willing to buy them if the price is right, are now roaring down the supply/demand curve, and are thus finding their profitable price to be way below that of opera on CD.

Which is obvious, because opera is a dramatic thing as well as an audio thing. I am so obsessed with classical music that I have lots of CDs of operas, because I love the sound they make. But trawling through the libretto to find out what the hell they are singing about (seldom in English of course) is very irksome, and you miss lots of excitement by not being able to see, e.g. Wagner giants or Queens of the Night or Czars of Russia or Kings of Egypt, plus all their assembled minions. Obviously. So, although I can just about be doing with opera on CD (I bought the new René Jacobs Marriage of Figaro only yesterday), opera on DVD has already been a godsend to me.

I also have a few operas on VHS, but they are terrible. They look terrible, and above all, NO SUBTITLES. DVDs, in addition to be far nicer to look at, DO HAVE SUBTITLES. This is crucial for me.

I like DVD operas even when the production is weird, as they tend to be for Ring Cycle operas, for example, with dams and goldfish bowls instead of the Rhine, 1920s society hostesses instead of Norse Goddesses, and (my favourite Wagnabsurdity so far) scruffy librarians waving enormously long spears in the Boulez/Bayreuth Gotterdammerung. (Is the idea is that they are losing their grip, having inherited power that they no longer know how to use? Maybe that's it.)

(Wagnabsurdity. Did I just think of that word? I mean, I did, but who else has?)

However, what Alan Little says about undivided attention is also very, very true. When I sit down to watch a DVD, any DVD, I have to look at it and listen to it, and I have to look and listen continuously or I lose the plot, literally. This also is very irksome, and DVDs don't answer this problem. They are this problem, as Alan says.

Now I agree that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony packs a hell of a lot more punch if you concentrate on that all the way though also, but the fact is that if you do a blog posting or some work-work or something during the second movement and completely ignore it banging away in the background, but then tune in again to the last movement, you can still get a lot out of that experience. Music, to refer back to this quote (which I notice Alan also liked and quoted) music happens now, and if all you do is tune into it now, having ignored all that went before, you get a great deal of what it is saying. Tuning into an opera now, in the middle of an act, means you miss the point.

To put it another way, DVDs of opera have the potential to break out of the ghetto of being listened to only by people who already love this music, like me. Opera can be, as it used to be before the gramophone was invented, in the vanguard of classical musical publicity, instead of staggering along at the rear the way it has for the last fifty years or so. (Opera arias are a complete other matter!)

I need two things before I go mad with operatic DVDs.

First (originally I put this second – but actually it is first), I need for the DVD opera sellers to stop trying to gouge twenty five quid per opera out of me, and to settle for a tenner. After all, that's all that they now charge me for Lawrence of Arabia, which was a hell of a lot more of a bother to make even than an opera DVD. It may not seem fair to them but sorry, twenty five quid is more than I can get into the habit of spending. (Economics – I am becoming more and more convinced – is all about the cost of habits rather than just of individual items.)

And second, when that negotiation between supply and demand has finally been settled in my favour, for lots of DVD operas if not all of them, I will then be wanting a good fat book called Opera on DVD, which surely must exist, but which I never seem to come across in bookshops, even in the shelves groaning with guides to classical CDs. The Internet is great at giving me the best price on an opera DVD that I have already decided I want, but I need to decide what I want in the first place. Anyone know of a book like that? Or a website? The point is not prices, in the sense of £11.99 instead of £14.99. Once I know what I want, I can keep an eye open for it, and buy it when I see it cheap enough. Or, I can finally get into the buying-stuff-from-the-Internet habit, which so far I have not done because I like to combine shopping with taking some exercise. What I want is comparative reviews, of things like, say, all the four regularly available DVDs out there of Turandot (plus of the new DVD of Turandot which has just come out), which are descriptively helpful as well as (which is fair enough) opinionated, so that even if he hates it I will be able to tell that I might like it, or vice versa, so that I know what I am looking for.

I'd even consider regularly buying a monthly magazine entirely devoted to opera on DVD, with opera on CD only mentioned in a sneering little page near the end laced with yet more DVD propaganda.

Caution one. Forget about video. It has to be DVDs. (See above.)

Caution two. I don't want an "Internet Site" where I can spend thousands of happy hours chatting about why the Levine New York Met Ring is better/worse than the Boulez Bayreuth Ring, and why the latest one from Germany is barking bonkers etc. etc.. I do not have these hours. More fundamentally, such hours would not be happy. I am not that fond of my fellow classical music enthusiasts. Mad, sad bastards the lot of them, as good as, as far as I'm concerned, and I bet that's just how most of them feel about me. If all that Alan Little and I had in common was a liking for classical music then – no offence (as people say when they are about to be offensive) – I wouldn't be interested. Happily he is also a blogger, and a general discusser of all manner of other things that also interest me. An entirely different proposition.

Even if both of those conditions are fulfilled I probably won't go mad. I like opera, every now and again. Real opera lovers love it. Obviously. (As this person would say. Good that she's found her blog voice again.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:26 PM
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September 22, 2004
How Vaughan Williams travelled from modern London to ancient Israel

RVWSymphonies.jpgTonight I am listening to: A London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams. And I have chosen the mono version done by Sir Adrian Boult with the LPO, from this boxed set of all but the last of the nine RVW symphonies.

I do not offer a general review of this lovely piece, with an exhaustive explication of exactly what makes it so lovely. I just wanted to make what I hope is one interesting observation.

I refer to the second movement, "Lento", and in particular to the lovely tune in this second movement, which we first begin to hear (on this particular recording anyway) at about 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

To me, this tune could have come straight out of the sound track of a Hollywood biblical epic. It would have sounded completely in place had it occurred, not in a piece celebrating London, but in a story celebrating the life of, e.g., Jesus Christ. I'm thinking in particular of the scenes in Ben Hur where Jesus is seen, but only, by us cinema viewers, from behind. We see that archetypal hair-do, evocative of all that is magnificent and history-changing, yet at the same time consoling and loving, but only Charlton Heston gets to see Jesus' face. It's been a long while since I've seen this movie, and heard the actual music that Miklos Rozsa wrote for the Jesus scenes, but I do definitely seem to remember them sounding very similar in atmosphere to this London Symphony tune.

There is, by the way, a distinct whiff of similarly Israelite harmonies in Vaughan Williams' glorious Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and, for that matter, also in the original Tallis anthem which that piece was inspired by.

And now, that tune has come and gone. The third movement is back to the hustle and bustle (and also the Georgian stateliness) of London, as if Israel had never been thought of.

All of which leads me on to wonder about this whole musical nationalism thing. We are constantly told that particular harmonies evoke particular national moods or national landscapes. I wonder. I suspect it may be pure association caused by the constant placing together of certain sorts of music with certain sorts of imagery and certain sorts of national myths and stories, the actual connection being accidental. Had the music chips landed only somewhat differently, Dvorak could have sounded unmistakably Italian and Tchaikovsky unmistakably Finnish.

That the music of Vaughan Williams of all people made me think of ancient Israel rather than of ancient or not so ancient England is a particular irony, because RVW of all people is credited with creating an "unmistakably" English sort of sound, the one dismissed unkindly by Elizabeth Lutyens as cowpat music. (Scroll down to the start of para 2 of the review linked to.)

So: Vaughan Williams. Unmistakably English, except when he sounds unmistakably something completely different.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:34 PM
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September 14, 2004
The rhythm of grief

A further thought about how music consoles the grieving (see the previous post).

Think of how grieving people often move rhythmically, like musicians, obsessively and repetitively following the rhythm of the kind of rather rapid breathing you do why you cry inconsolably. Think also of how Shakespeare, in one of most famous lines of all, uses repetition to communicate Lear's grief at the death of his favourite daughter: "Thou'lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never."

Maybe that says something about how music chimes in with the needs of the very miserable.

On second thoughts, what that probably tells you is how to describe grief with music. And music like that isn't necessarily going to make you feel any better. Worse, if anything, would be my guess. And I would further guess that you need music with long smooth lines to it, that contradicts and changes such grief stricken rhythms, to console the otherwise inconsolable.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:50 AM
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Richard Bittleston explains the power of music to Jessica Duchen

It is diabolically hard to write about music. You grab overwrought and inexact metaphors taken from religion or from nature. (Heaven, hell, mountains, waterfalls, etc.) I don't like that, unless God is explicitly mentioned or unless it's something like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Or, you can resort to musical jargon about descending sevenths and transition sections and key changes, and so forth. Which can work if you can do it, but on the whole I can't. Or, which is what I prefer, you focus on banalities, about which you can at least be more precise, like what the CD cost or how nice the lady playing it looked in her pretty dress.

In the latest (October 2004) issue of the BBC Music Magazine, however, there is to be found a paragraph which manages to be exact about the nature of music, and about its power to move, and quite profound at the same time, or so I think. Religion is alluded to, but not in any way that compromises on precision. On the contrary, the religion thing is cleaned up and clarified, I think.

It is from an article by Jessica Duchen. The article itself is not, I believe, on line and linkable to, although Duchen now has a classical music blog. Duchen's article, entitled "Musician, heal thyself", is about why music – classical music especially – consoles and comforts the people whom it consoles and comforts. Duchen herself says that she was much consoled by listening to Bach when her mother was dying, and by playing Janacek on the piano when her father died. But she also spoke to many others whom music had also comforted.

Why does music have such power to support during the most demanding times of our lives? Why does it carry us through when nothing else can? …

Among those Duchen spoke with was a certain Richard Bittleston, "an organist and special minister for music in the Unitarian Church who has also worked in music therapy".

'… I once played a Schubert impromptu at the funeral of a musician,' he says. 'It had been his favourite piece and its impact was highly charged, both negatively and positively. The positive charge was the fact that here was something that was still alive. The music communicated an idea about eternity that we would never be able to put into words. It made a particular impact on the musician's wife, who wept profusely. …'

Yes, but why does it do this? Now we get to the bit that I really like.

'The ultimate power of music,' continues Bittleston, 'is that it temporarily demands you to exist in the present. There are no problems in the present! The performing arts are unlike other art forms, which are tied up with anything but the present. In music you can literally leave your problems behind, because they're not there. That would be a very Zen Buddhist way of looking at what music is. In Christianity it was once argued that music transports one through the gates of heaven. But what they were really saying is the same thing - it transports one not through the gates of heaven, but slap-bang into the place where you actually are, which is the now. That process dissolves all problems, at least for a time. I think this might be defined as heaven in some circles.'

Now. That doesn't say everything about music for me, because in addition to its now-ness, there is also the way it progresses (especially Western classical music), the way it brings the immediate past into now and sets up an immediate expected future now. So now is not all that is going on. But to get all this past and future stuff you do have to concentrate on that nowness, or you lose it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:26 AM
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September 11, 2004
CDs are fine – it's CD players that don't last

That, at any rate, has been my experience.

Take just recently. My latest clutch of second hand classical acquisitions included a double CD of assorted chamber music by Louis Spohr (at a mere fiver from Neil's barrow in Lower Marsh) and this SACD/CD hybrid disc of the Brahms Violin Concerto, played by Joseph Swenson (scroll down – it is there), on Telarc (for £:3.50 ditto). Excellent bargains both, and notice that, in my part of the market, SACD seems to command little in the way of a premium. (I bought it as much to scrutinise the new and – presumably – they think – improved CD case that SACD/CD hybrid discs come in.

The Brahms is a lovely piece which I can't hear too often, and of the Spohr discs, follow the link above, scroll down, and they end by saying this:

MDG Gold are releasing some wonderful recordings and should be given the appropriate accolades. This is an exceptional double CD set of previously released material that will give Spohr’s chamber music a significant boost and gain him many new supporters. Superbly performed and recorded this is a release worthy of inclusion in any serious collection.

So thank you Neil of Lower Marsh, very much. But I only feel this now, after the difficulties I am about to recount were surmounted.

Because, both these fine recordings misbehaved in my hitherto very satisfactory Marantz CD-48 player. The Spohr went haywire on side 1 track 3. The Brahms played for a while but then went completely crazy, jumping hither and thither like a mad thing, and eventually deciding that there was "no DISC" inside, regardless of the fact that there plainly was. With the Spohr disc, I blamed the Spohr disc. After all, most stuff is playing fine, so it has to be the disc, right? But then, when the Brahms disc was playing its evil tricks, I thought, hang on, maybe I've been here before.

A few years ago, a great many of my CDs started misbehaving, and I thought that (a) CDs don't last and had finally starting melting into oblivion, and that accordingly (b) Western Civilisation was now at an end. But then I thought, for no reason that I can recall, but I did, that maybe it was my CD player. So I bought another. My tastes in fi are relatively low – medium at best - so this was not an especially painful procedure. (What matters to me is adequate sound with no clicks and jumps.) And sure enough, from then on, almost all CDs except those which had quite clearly been stampeded upon by hippopotami worked fine. Western Civilisation could proceed with undimmed excellence.

So, when these Brahms and Spohr discs started misbehaving, I tried them on a different CD player, which this time I already possess. My Goodmans GPS 280 digital radio cum CD player. And guess what: no problems. None at all. The entire Goodmans GPS 280 cost only £100 or thereabouts, so it isn't the technical splendour of its CD player that is making the difference, simply the fact that the Goodmans GPS CD players is working properly, while the Marantz CD-48 is not now working so well. Nearly, because most things still play fine on it. Just not quite properly.

Come to think of it, I do seem to recall some mugs falling out of the mug cupboard on the Marantz CD-48. So maybe the descending mugs jerked the CD player out of alignment, or made some connection dodgy, or something.

Could this not be mended, for less than the price of a new CD player? Maybe, but who needs the grief of finding out. Have you ever tried to get a piece of electronic equipment mended? – after it's out of warranty, I mean? I have. Never again. They charge an arm just to tell you what needs doing and whether it's worth it, and actually doing it costs the other arm, and a leg. Forget it.

Our world is not now organised to mend things. It organised to make things. So, if your thing is not working, throw it away, and get another. Okay this doesn't work with cars yet (although give it time), but this is definitely the rule to apply to something like CD players. So that is what I will do.

The reason I mention all this is that, commenting on a piece I did on Samizdata about books, which also mentioned CDs in passing, Andrew Duffin had this to say about whether the CD format will last:

Well if it does you had better make sure you buy good ones; none of them seems to last more than about ten years before the information becomes unreadable.

Stick to books I say. And vinyl for your music.

But I have many thousands of CDs which are the best part of twenty years old (including many second hand ones which were at least a decade old when I bought them), and the only time I've suffered a plague of jumpings and clickings is just before I replace a CD player, i.e. now, and that previous time. Apart from that, no worries.

So maybe, probably I would say, Andrew Duffin just needs a new CD player.

Further thoughts. CD copies tend to cause problems, in my experience, more so than factory done originals. Plus: could there be any significance in the fact that, like many of those copies, both the Spohr and the Brahms discs mentioned above are gold in colour rather than silver, on their playing surface? Does that make things harder for a very slightly wonky CD player to deal with?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:51 PM
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September 08, 2004
Sarah Chang plays the Dvorak Violin Concerto

The Proms. They're televising them all of this week. They take place in the Royal Festival Hall. The accoustics are controversial, but the place looks wonderful. Here's how the inside looked on the telly:

Chang1.jpg

It was an all Dvorak programme, with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. For me the highlight was a fabulous performance of the Violin Concerto, given by Sarah Chang. She's an American, with parent originally from Korea.

Her technique is ironclad, and you knew that if this was how it sounded, this was how she meant it to sound.

Chang2.jpg

Which might have been why she was no obviously enjoying herself so much. I would too, if I could play beautiful music like this, as beautifully as she did.

Chang3.jpg

The rapport between her and Mackerras and his orchestra was excellent throughout.

Chang4.jpg

And the audience went predictably mad at the end. Here's one of those fading-from-one-to-other TV snaps I like so much, which saves me the bother of showing the audience clapping, and the performers lapping it all up, in two separate pictures.

Chang5.jpg

Mackerras and the orchestra did the New World Symphony in the second half. I've nothing against this piece. It's beautiful. It's not its fault that it gets played so often. It's a fine piece, and they played it very finely. It was just that, for me, this evening, Chang playing the concerto was the thing.

This Concerto is not quite as well known as the Beethoven, the Mendelssohn, the Brahms, or even the Bruch. Maybe it's the glorious Dvorak Cello Concerto that makes it seem less wonderful than it really is. Ditto the Dvorak Piano Concerto, which is held in even lower esteem, for equally mysterious and bad reasons.

Chang has recorded this concerto, for EMI.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
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September 06, 2004
Architecture and classical music on the telly

My TV system doesn't record digitally, and the analogue reception is garbage. Eventually I'll have some kind of Tivo/hard disc gismo. Meanwhile, life's too short to lash up an answer that will be obsolete soon anyway. So I generally now either watch stuff when it's on, or not at all

This evening I watched the first of four shows on BBC3 about guerrilla homes, which means little boxes craned onto the top of bigger buildings, or just lashed up without planning permission buit prettily enough then to be tolerated, from a kit of parts. Said presenter Charlie Luxton: "Planning permission sucks." Go Charlie. Now tell us what you think of property rights. Maybe you think they suck too? But without them, it's anarchy, and not in a good way.

Then I watched a Channel 4 documentary about the design of the new tower they're building in New York to replace the Twin Towers. I seem to recall hailing the idea of teaming Libeskind with SOM's David Childs as a good one. This show made it look like a complete mess. The Childs design would have been pretty good. The Libeskind design would have been pretty good. The Childs/Libeskind/Governor of New York design looks like it's going to be pretty bad, with a stupid, pointless point stuck on the top, in a way that has damn all to do with what is underneath it. Scroll down here for more about this show.

And then I switched to hearing the last bit of Messiaen's Éclairs sur l'Au-delà…, on BBC4. Very fine, by the sound of it, as supplied in their customary fine sound by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Rattle.

Here is a link to the CD they've recently done of this piece. I think this will sell very well, and that in three months it will be havable in HMV Oxford Street for way less than full price.

I have been trying to like Messiaen's piano music recently, but have yet to succeed. The Turangulila Symphony sounds just that tiny bit too slushy and Mantovani-ish for my taste. This sounded rather better. On the strength of what I heard, I want the CD of all of it. When it's come down a bit.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
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July 29, 2004
Zuckerman's Elgar Violin Concerto again

I've now listened to it again on the radio, and can report that Pinchas Zuckerman's performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto last Sunday at the Proms was fine, contrary to what I guessed at when I first half listened to it. There were occasional imperfections of tuning, and some of Zuckerman's phrasing was not quite to my taste, being a little too swoopy and glissando-ed for my entire liking. But it certainly wasn't the "mediocre" performance I thought I had half heard on the night. Quite the reverse. The Prommers gave it a loud ovation, and they were right to.

So, apart from the obvious, not listening carefully enough, where did I go wrong?

I think there were two things happening which had me confused about this performance. First, I think the sound on my TV is very unsuited to bringing out the best in the performance Zuckerman gave of this piece, and to performances of violin concertos generally, come to that. Digital radio, plugged into my medium-fi, was far better. By lowering the treble and beefing up the bass, as is my taste, I spared myself the scratches and hisses that often go with violin concertos, especially difficult ones with lots of vehement bow-hitting-the-strings-really-hard passages. Thus purified, the excellence of Zuckerman's performance sang through, past all the scratching and hissing I heard, or think I probably heard, on Sunday.

But second, I now think that I blamed the messenger for the message. Simply, I now believe that I like this piece less well than I told myself I liked it. I especially don't care for the first movement movement.

Listening to the radio this afternoon, once this thought had occurred to me, I realised how much more beautiful the orchestra tended to sound than did the violin. And whereas on the night I blamed Zuckerman for this (regarding the piece itself as beyond criticism), now I think I blame Elgar. All that scratching and scraping. How much more beautiful those orchestral legatos sounded, with their long and generalised string sound, with discreet brass and woodwind reinforcement to create that unique Elgar sound.

Notice that the quality I am complaining of in Elgar's solo violin writing is the very thing that my TV's scrappy sound system with its excessive treble and inadequate bass emphasised. All that frantic scratching and scraping. On the TV it was all an order of magnitude more scratchy and scrapy.

I listened to several other performances of this piece before hearing Zuckerman's performance again, as I promised I would, and none of them ,ade much of impression on me (although I did find myself admiring the one by Kyoko Takezawa with Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on RCA). And I think it was the music I was failing to respond to. After all, if a young Zuckerman, a young Nigel Kennedy, Heifetz even, didn't work for me, it must be me and the music that are not in sync. With messengers like that, it has to be that the message itself is unwelcome.

Please don't misunderstand me as saying that you shouldn't like the Elgar concerto, or worse, that you should stop liking it on my account.

The slow movement and the final movement, with that long and soulful cadenza, are better, for me. And Zuckerman played those movements very well indeed, although again, with the occasional tiny blemishes of tuning and phrasing that would probably be redone in a studio recording. But if I had really been enjoying the music such things would not have bothered me. I would have tuned in to the wonderful things that Zuckerman was also doing, with what is, I know, for many many people, a wonderful concerto. Definitely my loss.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:35 PM
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July 27, 2004
Wanted: a critic

I now want a critic, to tell me if Pinchas Zuckerman's performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto at the Proms on Sunday night really was as mediocre as I suspect it of having been.

Basically, I just thought there were too many duff notes and badly phrased phrases. Zuckerman's playing sounded to me choppy and ugly, in a way I certainly don't recall from having for many years owned Zuckerman's recording of this wonderful piece with Barenboim and the LPO. So, I switched off and did something else. I didn't switch off the TV set, on which he was playing. I just switched off my mind and ears.

Because of that, I have zero confidence in the satisfactoriness of my response, which could just have been wrong. If you want a critic to tell you about this performance, I am not it. Although this performance didn't grab me, that could be because I just wasn't in the mood to be grabbed, and if God had been the soloist I might still have allowed my mind to wander. I don't think that's what happened, but I really can't be sure. Maybe, for example, it was the fussy looking gestures of conductor Sir Andrew Davis (whom I have never much enjoyed looking at when he conducts) that also put me off.

The announcers and non-critical responders rounded up by the BBC to react to Zuckerman's performance had nothing bad to say about his playing, but they never do. They are there to accentuate the positive and make you keep on listening, and there is usually something positive to say about any half adequate performance. And then they talked with Zuckerman himself, and that was all about how wonderful it was to be playing Elgar in England with an English orchestra, and about how Zuckerman has to teach American orchestras how to play this music. He has, after all, recording this piece twice, and played it in concert halls all over the world, many times.

So now I find myself genuinely curious to learn if my casual impression matches with anyone else's properly considered opinion. Was it just me, or was this a decidedly imperfect performance? And I ask, because I truly want to know, the way most people who say "Was it just me or …?" are not truly asking.

Sadly, I can find no reference via google to anyone else's response to this performance, so here's what I will do. I will listen to that first Zuckerman recording, and to maybe a couple of other recordings, of this lovely piece. Then, I will listen (which may perhaps be more focussing than listening and watching) to the repeat of this concert that Radio 3 is broadcasting on Thursday afternoon. Much of the point of this posting is to remind me to do just this, despite the fact that there is a Test Match starting that day. And this time I will try to listen properly.

If no other critic will oblige me with a considered opinion of this performance, I will have to do the job myself. Assuming I manage to do this, I will report back.

But that's not my central point here. My central point is that concert reviewers do definitely have their uses. They educate the tastes of their readers, by either reinforcing their confidence in their judgements, or by undermining that confidence. Both processes are valuable.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
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July 24, 2004
On watching the pianist play

Today I got a DVD for next to nothing in a remainder shop, but a DVD with a difference. It was of a very good pianist (Zoltan Kocsis), playing some classical piano pieces.

One of the pieces was Beethoven's last piano sonata, Opus 111 in C minor. Maybe experts would find some faults with Kocsis' performance but I couldn't.

Watching him scorch his way through this amazing music made me realise that listening to CDs of piano music is a quite different experience from watching it being played as well.

When you watch a pianist at work, you know, a fraction of a second before it happens, what will then happen. When you see that right hand reaching out to the right and descending ferociously towards the keyboard, you know that what you are about to hear is going to be high, and loud. With a CD you have no clue as to what will hit you.

I believe that watching Kocsis' playing enhanced my enjoyment of it. It's almost as if your eyes are helping out with the listening. Your ears receive incoming data about what the music is doing, and so do your eyes.

This made me think of two other things. First, it made me remember a guy called Joseph Cooper, who used to appear on a classical music TV quiz show. One of his tricks was his "silent keyboard". He would play some piece on it, and all you could hear was a subdued clattering noise. What was the piece? Any real pianists watching this could always tell, and I often could too.

And the other thing this made me think that there is an opportunity here for a comic piano act, where the right hand descends with great ferocity onto the top end of the keyboard, and the comic pianist leans forward with enormous classical music type intensity toward the place of contact between his hand and the keyboard. But no loud high noise ensues, because Mr Comic Pianist pulls back from the loud noise at the last minute. Instead, his left hand, utterly unwatched by his intense classical music head, and hidden by his body as it leans forward with classical music intensity, plays a very low, very soft note. Maybe a Debussy type chord. The pianist turns in amazement to see what his left hand did. The point being that this is typically not what happens when you see a pianist play.

When you watch a conductor conducting an orchestra, you often know how loudly people are going to play, and who is going to play. But you don't know what they are going to play. You really don't know how it's going to sound. But with a pianist, you pretty much do know, just before it happens. As I say, this changes things. And it particularly changes things when the composer is late Beethoven, because with late Beethoven you never know what will come next. Unless, that is, you do.

I hadn't really taken all this in before. Well, it interested me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 PM
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July 21, 2004
BBC4 TV cock-up alert

Tonight on BBC4 TV I was lucky enough to hear a snatch of Magdalena Kozena singing some songs by Novak (before incoming phone got in the way), at the live Prom they have just shown. She didn't look nearly as glamorous as she does in her publicikty stills, but she has a truly beautiful voice and made wonderful use of it this evening. I have CDs by her, but have never heard her sound so good.

Classical music on TV is often somewhat of a waste of all that camera work, but when someone is singing in a foreign language, the subtitles are a real help.

Later in the concert, however, there was an extraordinary moment, at 9.29 pm to be precise. Jiri Behlohlavek was conducting a very nice performance of the Prague Symphony by Mozart. Except that during the last movement the proceedings were jarringly interrupted by a plug for the latest manifestation of the rerun of Robert Hughes Shock of the New series, about Modern Art. And then it was back to the Mozart as if nothing had happened.

Imagine being the person responsible for a grotesque cock-up of this sort? And I wonder if any reference will be made to this interruption, now that the concert is over they are all clapping?

Here comes the same advert again. And now a voice says: "You're watching BBC4." Yes dear, I know, but do you know what BBC4 just did? It would seem not. Now they are showing a little programme about Bollywood movies. No apparent realisation of or apology for what happened.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:46 PM
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July 13, 2004
Beethoven's Ninth is great after all

There's a new season of Proms starting this Friday. Last year I went to a prom, and heard Esa Pekka Salonen conduct a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony which combined being note perfect with being completely boring. In fact it was the most boring performance of a Beethoven symphony I have ever heard. While it was happening I thought: is it just me, or is this very boring? Then, next morning, I read the critics, and they found it very boring too. So critics do have their uses.

However, ever since that boring performance, I have had something of a phobia about this piece. Perhaps Beethoven's Ninth Symphony itself is boring, I found myself saying. So those critics didn't do a complete job for me. I have listened to the occasional CD of this piece since then, but you know CDs. They all have a tendency to be note perfect and boring too. With a lot of music note perfect is good. But with Beethoven's Ninth it means you aren't trying.

TennstedtBeeth9.jpgAnd then, today (yesterday by the clock), I finally experienced the cure, in the form of this fabulous BBC recording of a live – and how! – performance of this might work conducted by the late Klaus Tennstedt on September 13th 1985, also at a Prom.

This performance is everything that the Salonen performance was not. Tennstedt makes everyone play and sing as if their lives depended on it, and every note means everything. I put it on after breakfast just to hear what it sounded like and an hour later I was conducting the finale as if my life depended on it. For once, all that solo singing at the end didn't sound absurd, with the tenor Robert Tear sounding especially fine to my ears.

This grump didn't like it, and moans about the accoustics. I thought the accoustics only added to the drama of it all.

This guy, on the other hands, seems to have liked it a lot:

Voici la présentation des sept dernières parutions. Surprise majeure, avec une exceptionnelle 9e Symphonie de Beethoven par Klaus Tennstedt, avec le London Philharmonic le 13 septembre 1985 et, en solistes, Mari Anne Häggander, Alfreda Hodgson, Robert Tear et Gwynne Howell. Il s'agit d'un concert bouleversant, à peine entaché par quelques flottements orchestraux dans les 2e et 3e mouvements, où tout converge vers un finale électrique, avec des chanteurs galvanisés par la baguette de Tennstedt …

My French is very approximate and I'm not sure what those "flottements orchestraux" were in the second and third movements. But isn't it good to know that in France they conduct their symphony orchestras with baguettes?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:03 AM
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July 10, 2004
Sándor Végh redirection

SandorVegh2.jpgOver on my Education Blog I have just posted the kind of posting that makes me wish, sometimes, that it was just Brian's Blog, and think, sometimes, that it ought to be just Brian's Blog. It's about the education of musicians, and is based on a snippet from a book by Susan Tomes, the pianist (now) of the Florestan Trio, and (formerly) of Domus.

The villain of the posting is Sándor Végh. I mention him because in addition to finding the photo of him over there, I also found the photo here, which is very striking I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:46 PM
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July 07, 2004
Adrenalin alert: Serkin plays Mozart's Piano Concerto Number 19

My name is Brian and I am addicted to classical music. So far so good. Nothing wrong with that. But my name is also Brian, and I am addicted to classical CDs. Not quite so good. But we classical CD addicts can give ourselves a fix from a fixed collection. We can handle it.

However, my name is also Brian, and I am also addicted to buying classical CDs. Bad. What that means is that at the moment of discovering the bargain I get an adrenalin rush of joy, quite distinct from any adrenaline rushes I might later get from actually listening to the thing.

Luckily for me I am only addicted to buying bargain classical CDs. Buying a full price CD is something I only do about once a year, and any adrenalin rush associated with that is entirely the result of listening to the CD, never merely with the buying of it. But there are an awful lot of bargains out there these days.

SerkinMozart1920.jpgYesterday I found this CD in a bargain CD shop, at way less than what the record company is asking. Serkin playing Mozart piano concertos 19 and 20, both wonderful pieces, both wonderfully played. Serkin was still at the top of his form when he made these recordings, which he wasn't by the time he recorded some more Mozart piano concertos for DGG.

Mozart's Piano Concerto number 20 is famously fine, but number 19 is wonderful too, and this was the recording by means of which, in the long gone age of vinyl, I got to know it. 19 is unusual in that it has a dance type episode in the middle of the last movement, involving a different tune to the regular tune, not unlike the comparable episodes that occur in the finales of Beethoven's first two piano concertos. For some reason Mozart had never done this in a piano concerto before – same speed, different tune –and never did it again, although Number 20 has a fast outburst in the slow movement, and Number 13 (I think) has a slow passage in (I think) the finale.

I get the biggest adrenalin rush of all when a favourite LP from long ago, which the record company has ignored for decades, finally makes it onto CD, and I find it going cheap, in a carboard box, sold by a fat sweaty man in a white T-shirt with strange messages on it, who knows nothing about classical music and doesn't know what a bargain it is and how much more he could have charged me for it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:32 PM
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July 04, 2004
Brahms chamber music for strings on the piano

I've been enjoying this rather odd disc. It's another Naxos, this time of Brahms chamber music for strings, but re-arranged (by Brahms himself) for two people to play on one piano.

Time was when this was how musically educated people typically enjoyed their music. Untypically, they would hear the occasional concert with a symphony orchestra and a famous conductor. But that was very rare. Meanwhile, the family hi-fi was the piano, played by one of them. With others joining in with singing or on other instruments.

Four handed piano arrangements of pieces that only an orchestra could do real justice to, or, as in this case, only expert string players, were thus, before real hi-fi, a staple of the music business. And such is the state of the music business now that it makes as much sense to do the first or second recording of a couple of these four-handed piano reductions as it would to do yet another recording of the real things.

MatthiesKohn.gif The particular CD I've been listening to is of Brahms String Quartet opus 67 and of his String Quintet opus 88, played on the one piano by Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn. Are they, like so many of the people that this music was first re-arranged for, a husband-and-wife team? I don't know, but they have been playing this kind of music together since 1988.

As I said, I've been enjoying this disc, but not quite as much as I had hoped to.

To my ear, there is just a tad too much of the feeling that these people are not so much playing this music, as playing through it. In the quicker and rhythmically strong bits, it sounds find. But in the slower bits, you really miss those long legato lines, and it sounds not so much like a performance as like a run-through. The long lines of the piece, instead of flying slowly forward like hovering birds, snap apart into disjointed little tinkles and fall to the floor. Thus it is that, in the slow bits, it sounds that fatal little bit like expert sight reading. What I heard was two musicians contentedly and expertly acquainting themselves with the facts concerning what the notes are. What I wanted to hear was a true performance.

It sounded to me, in other words, much as it must have sounded when this music was first played, by its first customers.

I would really love to listen to a disc of two of the following doing this kind of music: Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, Andras Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Alan Schiller, or maybe Evgeny Kissin. Or: try Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter. This music, arranged this way, needs people to play it who are better than it is. You need pianists who can dust onto it that bit of magic that expert string players routinely bring to this music. It needs pianists who can caress magic out of a keyboard. Matthies and Kohn are, for me, just that tiny little bit earthbound.

I want to qualify this strongly. Matthies and Köhn are excellent pianists. All I'm saying is, they aren't quite at the very top of the tree, and that their performances of this music made me want to hear it played by a couple of pianists who are. I can imagine many listeners singling this disc out for possessing the very quality that, for me, it didn't quite possess. For many listeners, this CD might have just the magic which, for me, it didn't have.

I bought the CD - second hand and for even less than the Naxos price of £5 - to hear what this stuff sounds like, and to get to know these pieces (two of my very favourites) that little bit better, by hearing them dressed differently, as it were. This I definitely succeeded in doing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
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June 20, 2004
When the music starts …

I love that moment in train movies when the train finally starts, and with it, the music.

CruelSea.jpgYesterday I watched The Cruel Sea on the telly, and to judge by that, it's the same with ship movies. I realised that I was actually watching this movie properly for the first time in my life, because the beginning was completely new to me, even though I know the book well. Exquisite stuff from a young and beautiful Denholm Elliott as one of the officers, squaring up with silent contempt to Stanley Baker's bullying First Lieutenant ("And don't you forget it!"). Then as later, this superb character actor could make putty out of star actors, for as long as he was aloud to be in it. (He got drowned a little later.) Anyway, when, after the introductions and a spot of training, they finally sailed off to war for real, the music started, just the way it does when the train starts up in The Silver Streak or in Murder on the Orient Express.

There are quite a few symphonies which work like this as well. The music starts at the start, of course it does. It has to. It's music. But it doesn't go anywhere. It merely establishes itself, pitches its tent, takes control of the ship, packs all the passengers into the train, introduces itself to itself, so to speak, often with quite a fanfare, but with no sense of motion, of going anywhere. And then when that's all done, the music really starts, that is to say, it starts out on the journey that will be the substance of the symphony. Two symphonies especially spring to mind – Elgar One and Mahler Two –and I'll bet that if you listened to them, you'd pick the exact moments that I'm talking about.

With classical music, this sense of a journey getting under way is often achieved with a change of key, with further changes as further progress unfolds. With movies, the simple fact of music itself is often the announcement of the beginning of the real journey. Either way, these are precious moments. (I seem to recall writing here about the corresponding moment in The Dam Busters, when Barnes Wallis finally cracks one of his model dams and the water (and the music) suddenly gushes forth. But I've had a look through the archives, and apparently this is my first mention of this classic moment.)

I had a date later in the afternoon, and wasn't be able to watch all of The Cruel Sea. But it has been out on DVD for a while and I will get it if the price is right.

I wrote most of this posting while The Cruel Sea, what I watched of it, was still in progress, and noted down in particular the Jack Hawkins line: "… how to die without wasting anyone's time …". That sums up a whole generation – doesn't it? – the last of them leaving us only now. This was a hell of a journey, in other words. The phrase "face the music" suggests itself. For us, that's Fred and Ginger. For them, that too, but also rather more.

The Cruel Sea even managed to make Donald Sinden sounds non-ridiculous. Now there's a first, or maybe a last would be more accurate.

Also, while googling for links, I learned that Alan Rawsthorne did the music. I like Rawsthorne's music. He was, I believe, one of those Communists whose views about world politics (if not about the local misfortunes that may have given rise to them) I loath and detest, but whose approach to art I like a lot. I particularly recommend this Chandos disc of his piano concertos. And if you follow that link you will also find, just below, info about the Naxos disc of (almost) the same pieces, also very good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:57 PM
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June 08, 2004
First it doesn't grab me – then it does

As I have often confessed here, I think, I am not as disciplined a listener to classical music as classical music listeners are, I imagine, often imagined to be. I just love the stuff so much, and love to have it on, in the background for when I am concentrating on something else, or in the foreground when I either attend to it or it forces itself upon my attention.

Being thus undisciplined, I can report on a phenomenon which a more devoted listener might be less aware of, which is the strange habit of a piece of classical music grabbing me, after three or four hearings of it (perhaps by a different performer) during which it did not grab me. The fact that, during all this, I am making little conscious effort to grab it I think throws this phenomenon into sharp relief, in a way that might not happen if I paid active attention myself, all the time.

Part of it is time, and part of it is the performance. Time, during those early listenings, lays down the foundations of the piece in your subconscious. Your subconscious then gets to work on it, and tunes into it, and works out what it is about, learns the piece's lingo so to speak, and eventually it passes all this up to Conscious Command and your mind is ready to make its Great Leap Forward and fall in love with the thing. Never having fallen in love with a human being, I can only guess that similar mental processes apply with that, but I bet they do. In fact lots of learning experiences are like this. They are not logical accumulations. They are delayed pattern recognition.

The performance can matter, if only because bad (by which I merely mean bad to me) performances can place a permanent barrier between me and the music. I hear, and go on hearing, what I don't like about the performance, rather than the music itself, as if stuck looking at the dirt on a window pane. Sometimes, I listen to one performance a number of times, and … nothing. Then another performance, and it all snaps into place. And then when I go back to the previous performance it all falls out of place again.

SaitSaensTriosNaxos.gifExample. I have two performances (actually several more than that – but I will concentrate on the two that matter for these purposes) of the Saint-Saens Piano Trio No. 1 in F major opus 18, a lovely piece, I think, especially given my general liking for piano trios in general. The first CD of this piece I acquired was done by Ian Brown, Marcia Crayford and Christopher van Kampen, of the Nash Ensemble of London, who are fine musicians all. But, the piece made little impression on me.

Then, I acquired the Naxos CD of the two trios opus 18 and opus 92, and the opus 18 suddenly sounded completely wonderful, as played by Rebecca Hirsch, Caroline Dearnley and John Lenehan, otherwise known as the Joachim Trio. The slow movement is especially wonderful, the way the Joachims play it. So then, back to the Nash players, and in particular to the slow movement, and again: nothing. So, performance does often matter, a lot.

But performance isn't the whole story. I vividly recall first getting to know the Brahms First Piano Concerto, with the recording of it made by Barenboim and Barbirolli in the late sixties. For the first two or three goes, I reacted as the very first audiences and critics probably did. What is that? Where's the tune? It goes nowhere. It's ugly, like a pile of rocks. And then on about the fourth or fifth hearing, it hit me for six, and I have loved the piece (and this particular recording of it most especially) ever since.

These thoughts were provoked by having possessed for some time now the EMI recording of the Ysaye unacompanied violin sonatas by Frank Peter Zimmerman, a violinist I hugely admire, without any great impression being made on me by this music. But now I'm listening to Ilya Kaler play these pieces (again for Naxos), and they sound utterly amazing. The only reason I didn't use these two CDs as an example of what I've written about is that I have yet to go back and try Zimmerman again, to see what happens then.

Naxos. The blogosphere loves you.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:07 PM
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June 05, 2004
Simon Mulligan plays Alexis Weissenberg

Weissenberg.jpgI'm listening to a very cheap impulse buy in the market yesterday, the Sonate en état de jazz (1982) by Alexis Weissenberg, played by Simon Mulligan on the piano.

Weissenberg has had a distinguished career in the recording studio as a solo pianist (I especially like this CD), and this piece sounds like one of the ways he passed the time in between playing Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and the rest of them. He writes in his autobiographical note about "the monotonous life between suitcases and concert halls". One can see and hear him, late in the afternoon when he should have been practising his Beethoven for the concert to come, instead freewheeling away on his rehearsal piano. And then one day, he thought, why don't I write this down …?

Being a classical man, he felt no need (or I'd have fled in disgust) to add drums and plink-plink-plinking from a bowless double bassist in sunglasses. But being a man of his time, his mind turned to jazzy modulations rather than only to the solemnities of whatever composition classes he may have had in his youth, even as those solemnities have left their mark.

Well, that's what it sounded like to me. I bought it simply to find out what sort of music this man composed. I've long ago given up expecting to enjoy CDs of this sort. But I liked it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:37 PM
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May 29, 2004
A very promising Mozart Figaro

Figaro.jpgThis morning I listened to CD Review, as is my custom of a Saturday morning, and their record of the week was a performance of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro which sounded way above average. Mid price, they said. I might just be buying it right off the shelf at HMV.

The thing is, I've never really taken to opera, and if you do take to Mozart (as I do, big time, the symphonies and piano concertos, the wind serenades, the string quintets, ) then you are missing the thing that is, so everyone says, at the very core of Mozart's output. The piano concertos, for example, especially the last movements, abound with operatic references, and I heard someone say the other day (in what context I have totally forgotten) that for Beethoven music was blah, and for Brahms (or someone) it was blah blah, and for Mozart it was … singing. So to get Mozart, the more you know about his operas the better.

I love the Magic Flute, but that is because (at any rate in large chunks – although excluding the Birdcatcher bits) it is Mozart's least "operatic" opera, nearer to an oratorio, or even one of those symphonies where there just happen to be singers at the front. The Mozart operas where people do things like hide in cupboards and sing lots of recitative have never appealed to me - i.e. The Marriage of Figaro. So this just might be my foot in the door.

What I liked about it was that the women singers sounded like sexy young women, rather than singing battleships. There was a touch of the Broadway Musical about it all, not least in the fact that, if you knew Italian, you would actually have been able to make out the words that they were singing, and how they felt about it all. The Joan Sutherland/Cecilia Bartoli style, where the sound disappears into the back of the throat into a homogonised sound whose purpose is to get itself to the back of a too-big opera house rather than the meaning to an audience in a smaller and nicer opera house, has never appealed to me. The microphone was invented to do away with this nonsense, is my opinion. And in a recording studio, they have microphones, don't they? So, let's for god's sake hear the words properly, and let them for god's sake sound like the young humans they are supposed to be, and not just middle aged opera singers. (I went to an English National Opera performance of Madame Butterfly a few years ago, and although it was sung "in English", I could not make out one damn work that MB sang. Everything was just woor woor woor, with only the consonants changing. Ridiculous.)

So, like I say, what I'm saying is, I might just buy this.

And it's not even a DVD.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:46 PM
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May 19, 2004
Phew!

This from today's Guardian:

A valuable Stradivarius cello narrowly escaped conversion into a handsome CD rack after being found in a Los Angeles skip, it was reported yesterday. The cello, which belongs to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is said to be worth nearly $2m.

The cello is one of only 60 by the 17th century luthier Antonio Stradivari still in existence. The LA Times says it was found by a nurse, Melanie Stevens, three days after a musician from the Philarmonic left it on his front step after coming home tired one Saturday night. She gave it to her boyfriend, a carpenter, who offered to turn it into a CD rack.

Almost as priceless as the cello is the home video security footage which shows it being stolen. Police said the grainy video showed a young man on a bicycle struggling to make off with the instrument, crashing into some dustbins on his way.

Peter Stumpf, the cellist from whose porch the Stradivarius was taken, spoke to the press yesterday to express his relief that it had been found. "It's been an enormous weight on me for the last three weeks," he said. "It's difficult to express how that has felt."

How about some unaccompanied Bach?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
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Nielsen symphones by Osmo Vanska

BISNielsen34.jpgToday I bought a second hand copy of a CD conducted by a man whose CDs are only just now coming into the second hand market at prices I will pay, namely Osmo Vanska. Please sprinkle dots over both the 'a's in Vanska.

The music was Carl Nielsen's Symphonies Number 3 and Number 4, with 3 being a particular favourite of mine. I particularly like this comment here, to the effect that …

His brass choruses make this "Bruckner meets Charles Ives."

This is especially true for the first movement of Number 3, the so-called 'Espansiva'. When I first acquired a CD of this piece, the DECCA one by Herbert Blomstedt (again, weird modifications are required for the 'o' there) with the San Francisco Symphony (the recording that gave rise to the above comment about Bruckner and Ives), I went crazy for this particular movement. When that happens with a piece of music, you are seldom subsequently ever quite satisfied with any later performance, no matter how much it is admired by others. I just sounds wrong, to the exact degree that it differs from your First Love.

So it was with Vanska's performance of this movement. It just didn't sound right, given that my idea of what does sound right has already been fixed irrevocably for me by Blomstedt. But the subsequent three movements of Vanska's Number 3 made a big impression, especially the second, slow movement, which I think I actually prefer to Blomstedt. It certainly sounded great to me, especially the doleful yet assertive string harmonies, immediately recognisable as Nielsen. This guy didn't think this Nielsen 3 of Vanska's was all that good, but (my earlier love affair with Blomstedt in the first movement aside) it sounded wonderful to me, and certainly well worth the way less than half price I paid for it.

I let the CD run to the end, i.e. to the end of Number 4, but frankly I had only so much attention to give to this music, and it snapped at the end of Number 3.

It was actually worse than that, because I found myself taking an early evening nap during Number 4, even though I was wearing headphones, turned up quite high, and even though this is extremely passionate, not to say violently loud music. I often slumber during performances, including quite loud ones, as do many others I'm told. And then later you lie in bed, in complete silence, wide awake. What's that about?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:35 PM
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May 13, 2004
Thoughts on the Shostakovich argument

One of the things that the blogosphere is particularly good at is telling you about big arguments. This is partly because you seldom have to take the word of the actual writer you are reading. You can, if you doubt him, follow his links and see if the views he is denouncing or endorsing make sense to you.

There is also, given that I am especially keen on blogging about music, the fact that it is easier to write about an argument, if it just happens to be an argument about music, than it is to write about music itself. (This was something I always sort of knew, but now, having tried to blog regularly about music, I really know it. Time and again, I find my limits reached with phrases like: "very nice", "excellent", "not very good", etc. Shall I bone up on all those techical terms I've been neglecting for most of my life? Probably not. Real musicians are never going to bother with my writing, so if I suddenly started talking in continuous Italian, where would my actual readers, assuming I have any besides Alan Little, be?)

Shostakovich.jpgAnyway, what with arguments being easy(er) to write about, one of the more interesting things I have learned about classical music since I began blogging about it has been the argument about Shostakovich's attitude towards Stalin and towards Soviet Communism generally. Alan Little seems to know not a lot more about this argument than I do, but he knows of and has linked to people who do know a lot more, or who think they do, and I have found this very interesting. I have long loved Shostakovich's music, but (for reasons which I will here elaborate on) have tended not to bother with the Great Testimony row, until recently.

All my judgements are tentative and will probably never be more than that (for reasons which … reprise), but what I now think about this is that basically Shostakovich's heart was probably in pretty much the right place all along, but that exactly where your heart is when Stalin is breathing down your neck is a hard thing to be honest about, and hence for others to judge accurately, or even to make a judgement about that means anything.

Take one of the items on this list of classical music's dirty little secrets (Mozart all sounds alike, Liszt is trash, Schoenberg never sounds any better, etc.), to the effect that the triumphantly upbeat finale of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony is "perfectly sincere".

Perfectly? Just how "sincere" is it if someone points a gun at you and says: Sing a happy tune! – and you do, convincingly? Maybe that is being sincere, after a fashion. After all, you did mean it to sound happy, and it did. Your life depended on it. But, did you, at a deeper level, "mean" it? That, it seems to me, is the kind of argument we are dealing with here, and to discuss Shostakovich's intentions when composing his Fifth as if we are arguing about just what John Lennon had in mind when he composed Imagine, with all the artistic freedom that John Lennon had when he composed Imagine, is, well, a failure to imagine what really goes on when a man like Stalin gets to rule a very large country.

It's not that I am uninterested in the duckings and weavings that Shostakovich chose to/was forced to execute – the signing of this condemnatory proclamation, the penning of that impeccably Bolshevik symphony with its impeccably Bolshevik words, the silence when others were protesting, etc. etc.. It's just that, well, what would you have done, if you were your country's most prominent composer, and your country was the demanding kind of place that the USSR was for all of Shostakovich's working life? That Stalin and his numerous slaves forced Shostakovich into this or that Bolshevik obeisance, or even that Stalin created an atmosphere within which Shostakovich "chose" to do this or that and refrain from this or that (I believe that this is the real meaning of totalitarianism – the victims end up choosing to do what is at first only demanded of them) doesn't really prove much one way or the other about what Shostakovich "really" believed.

*

A further point. Whereas Bolshevik obediences on the part of Shostakovich mean little, his disobediences mean, it seems to me, rather more. There is a logical imbalance in the evidence, rather like the imbalance that Popper describes in scientific evidence when most of it proves something, but little bits of it disprove something. The bit that disproves is the bit that matters! After all, if Stalin is ordering you to say one thing, and you mostly do, but sometimes don't, those don'ts count for rather more than the obedient stuff … don't they?

This was, after all, the attitude of Stalin and the Stalinists when such dastardly infringements were committed in the first place. You were as bad as your worst outburst of complaint. If you called Stalin a murderous bastard, and they caught you having done it, then no amount of listing of the number of times in which you had proclaimed him to be the Father of All The Virtues would save you from the camps or maybe even from death.

Suppose that Shostakovich was a "fundamentally" loyal Stalinist who only blew off the occasional bit of anti-Stalinist steam. If the anomalous outbursts are interpreted by posterity as meaning that "basically" Shostakovich was an anti-Stalinist whose public mask of faked obedience (such as the finale of the Fifth) occasionally slipped, that is no more than Stalin himself deserves. This will mean that posterity has treated Stalin in the exact way that he and his henchmen treated everyone else.

Not that I think for a second that Shostakovich's complaints about the world he found himself in were mere anomalous outbursts. If they were, then those fifteen string quartets were one hell of an anomaly. As was the first of the Cello Concertos (which I am listening to right now), and as were many, many others of his pieces. You just cannot listen to the entire body of this man's music – film music, grovelling symphonies (try Number Two (scroll down) – just read the words!) and all – and conclude that this was a "sincere" supporter of the rulers of the world he lived in.

*

Final point. Stalin did admire Shostakovich, I think, more than the other more obviously "Stalinist" hack composers, which is how Shostakovich got to stay alive for so long. He was not killed on the basis of his most anti-Stalinist moment! And I think that requires a bit of explaining. Why Stalin killed people who were blameless needs no explaining. That is what he did. But why did he keep Shostakovich – who was not "blameless" – alive? The answer to that question, I believe, also helps to explain how this Shostakovich argument got started. But I'll keep that for another time.

*

Final final point here. Notice how this ruckus about the secret, "real" attitude of Shostakovich throws light on the idea that great music and great musicians are inherently, morally good.

After all, why does it matter what Shostakovich thought of Stalin and Stalinism? Stalin was a monster and Stalinism an abomination, and if Shostakovich disagreed that was surely his problem, right?

Not quite. Shostakovich is now acknowledged as a Great Composer, his works as part of the "Canon" of Classical Music – as the inclusion of his name in that list of "dirty secrets" illustrates. And the reason why it matters what this Great Composer of Classical Music felt about Stalin is that Great Composers of Classical Music are … automatically people of moral wisdom and profound insight! This is why it actually matters what Shostakovich "really" thought. If he liked Stalin, then this proves that the rest of us ought to as well, more than most of us actually do.

It proves no such thing of course. Which is why, ultimately, this argument doesn't engage me as much as it seems to engage some others. I don't need to believe that Shostakovich was a Great Man in order to believe, as I have always believed ever since I first heard his music, that he was a Great Musician. (I happen to think that he was a Great Man too, but if I became convinced that he wasn't, it wouldn't spoil my appreciation of his music.) But I do believe that the inherent moral excellence of classical music, and classical musicians (an even more questionable assumption) hovers over this debate.

It seems that this is an idea that not even the Nazis could destroy. And insofar as they did damage it, Shostakovich has done a lot to reinstate it.

Which sort of proves that Shostakovich was himself Good as well as Great. He may not have been wholly good, in that he failed at all times and in all ways possible to do what he could to topple Stalin (an accusation that also applies to pretty much all of Stalin's contemporaries), but he was good in that he composed a lot of music that sounded good, that is to say morally good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:16 PM
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May 10, 2004
Rob Cowan – Robert Volkmann's Serenade no 2 – piano trios

I very much enjoy the radio manner of regular BBC Radio 3 classical music presenter Rob Cowan.

Radio 3 presenters have recently taken to swooping up and down with their voices, in a manner which suggests that they have been on a course and that one of the headings was "communicating enthusiasm". I find this somewhat annoying. But Cowan needs no such voice making-over, because he has always talked enthusiastically without having to be told. (I even met the guy once, in Gramex, one of my second hand CD haunts, and he was just as nice in person as he is on the radio.) I therefore find Cowan a pleasing rest from the rather forced excitement of the other presenters.

VolkmannCD.jpgI now have another reason to be grateful to Rob Cowan, which is that on Sunday morning he introduced me to an entirely new piece of music which I had never heard before, and which I liked a lot. (Usually with music on the radio, I either don't want to own it on CD or I own it on CD already.) The piece is by the nineteenth century composer Robert Volkmann, his Serenade No 2 for strings. It sounded really good. Happily I recognised the name of the conducter he mentioned, and was able to find the CD on the Internet. I insert the cover of this CD into this posting mostly for my own convenience, to remind me to keep an eye open for it in the second hand shelves, and to see if it might even be cheap enough to buy brand new.

I see that Volkmann also wrote other things thought good enough to be worth recording, including some piano trios. I have loved piano trios ever since I first started buying gramophone records. I recall with particular pleasure the Supraphon records of piano trios, most notably by the Suk Trio of the Dvorak op 65 and the great Tchaikovsky trio. These performances I now have on CD now, of course. But Volkmann is an entirely new name.

Suitable musical game to go hunting for inevitably gets harder to find as you get older and more knowledgeable. Also, priority inevitably shifts from getting new stuff to listening properly to what you already have. So this is a nice reminder of how music was when I was first finding out about it in my teens.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:26 PM
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May 08, 2004
Bryan Magee on great music and great performances of great music

Magee.jpgOne of my more favourite books about artistic matters is Bryan Magee's little volume entitled, in a sneekily modest yet accurate way, Aspects of Wagner. I was provoked into thinking about this short but stimulating volume by reading the article about Shostakovitch that Alan Little recently linked to, in which both the Jewishness (musically) and the non-Jewishness (by descent) of Shostakovitch is gone into. Shostakovitch not Jewish? I had always – I don't know – assumed that he was.

And the Jewishness (by descent of course) of such an extraodinary proportion of the creative artists and intellectuals of the last hundred years or so is something that Magee both describes, and – with the (very surprising for such a vicious anti-semite) help of Wagner – explains.

Having nothing to say today for myself, I dipped into this little book to see if I could find a quote about the Jews to put up here. The trouble is, however, that the argument is such that you never want to end the quote (a constant problem with good writing which you are trying to quote – I often find this with good pieces of journalism also). I did, however, find this striking passage about musical interpretation which can just about survive being amputated from its context and savoured separately:

"Great music" said Schnabel, "is music that's better than it can be played." A simple but eloquent demonstration of this can be got by comparing the Brahms symphonies as conducted by Toscanini and Bruno Walter. Under Toscanini they are played with an almost demonic ferocity and drive, and are deeply disturbing. Under Walter they have a glowing, autumnal relaxation and warmth, and are deeply consoling. Neither conductor transgresses the letter of the scores, nor their spirit. Yet the sum of what they bring out in them could not possibly be combined in a single performance. The acidity and cutting edge of the one entirely precludes the loving embrace of the other. High tension and heartsease are mutually exclusive. Everything each gives us is unquestionably there in the music, but for every element that is realized in performance some other has had to be sacrificed.

I like that.

And now I am reminded that Magee has written another book, which the first of the reviewers here is better about Wagner (and about Wagner's anti-semitism) called The Tristan Chord. I must get hold of that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:04 PM
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May 06, 2004
"Demanding"

Two interesting letters from the latest issue of BBC Music magazine. The first is from Crispin Harden of Bath:

I seize my pen in response to the BBC's latest adulatory Mozart season. Mozart is not the 'Shakespeare of Music'. He's merely the pundits' current favourite, wearing the yellow jersey like many before him. Only a fool would deny Mozart his place in the front rank, but it's a long front rank and different composers stand there for different reasons. The sad truth is that Mozart is the least demanding of the great composers, which makes him the natural choice for a shallow, passive, ignorant age.

Personally I don't find any of the great composers "demanding", except in the sense that they demand my attention and get it, and I love to listen to their music for hour after hour after hour. I don't find listening to any of them in the slightest bit of a struggle, in the sense that I have to force myself to concentrate, or have to work to enjoy it. Sometimes I don't pay attention, but that's different. And sometimes the music (as with Beethoven, say) communicates struggle and demandingness, and that is also different. I find it no strain to listen to the Egmont overture, merely because Egmont himself struggled (to liberate the low countries from Spain, wasn't it?) and Beethoven communicates this struggle. I find it just as easy to listen and just as hard to ignore Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Nielsen or Shostakovitch as I find it easy to listen to and hard to ignore Mozart. I think I detect a whiff of the "no pain no gain" theory of artistic response. This can sometimes be true, but isn't always and that's putting it mildly.

Opera on CD (as opposed to on DVD and with subtitles), I do find demanding, in what I take to he the sense Harden means. When I do endure the pain of attending to the libretto, I generally gain. But on the whole I decide that life is too short to be forcing myself to do something no one is paying me to do. Learn the words and the story with DVD and then wallow in the CDs is my usual strategy now.

Nevertheless, it makes a change to see someone swimming against the Mozart tide, of which I am a tiny ripple. And I think I know what he is getting at. Mozart is relentlessly sweet, as well as constantly more than that.

But that sweetness can be the very thing that others find "demanding", in the sense that they have to force themselves not to be put off by it, as if forcing themselves to drink coffee with three times too much sugar in it. We don't live in a shallow age, or no shallower than previous ones. What we do live in is an age where there is so much stuff worth attending to that we generally, and quite rationally, want what we do attend to to speak to us at all levels, rather than merely at some deep level that has to be preceded by lots of uncomfortable pot-holing.

And the other interesting letter that caught my eye is from Michael Bordeaux (I think – they spell him Michael Bourdeaux), who I seem to recall (if it is indeed Bordeaux) as an energetic fighter against the ills of the sort his letter complains about, at the time when they were first happening. Bordeaux recalls how Galina Vishnevskaya was forbidden by the rulers of the USSR to take part in the premier of Britten's War Requiem in 1962, because they suddenly reaslised that it was an event about religion as well as "peace". There should have been a Russian, a German and an English singer. As it was, Britten (and Britain) had to make do with a German and two Brits: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau , Peter Pears, and Heather Harper. (Personally I always preferred Harper to Vishnevskaya, but that is not the point.) Bastards.

Unlike Bordeaux, I'm an atheist. But I do love the War Requiem, and especially the Dies Irae, which is a Dies Irae in the Verdi Requiem class, I think. That's another piece all about struggle and demandingness, but which I have no trouble paying attention to.

Galina Vishnevskaya did sing in the classic Britten recording of the work. Harper only got around to recording her part in this mighty work with Richard Hickox thirty years later, which for her was somewhat later than would have been ideal.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:49 PM
[1] [0]
May 04, 2004
Oh what a rogue and peasant slave Trevor Nunn is (or: why I prefer dead entertainment to live entertainment)

Today I found myself in Waterloo Road, and the walk back home took me past the Old Vic theatre. They have a production of Trevor Nunn's Hamlet running there, and it's being much talked about. So I went in to see about how much it might cost for me, or maybe me and a friend, to see Trevor Nunn's Hamlet.

The crappiest seats to watch Trevor Nunn's Hamlet, where you don't actually get to sit down at all, to watch Trevor Nunn's Hamlet, are £10. The crappiest seats where you do get to sit down and watch Trevor Nunn's Hamlet are, if I remember it right, £12.50.

TrevorNunn.jpgThe genuinely decent seats for Trevor Nunn's Hamlet are £37.50. This is way out of my league. No offence to Trevor Nunn's Hamlet (keep reading, we'll get to offending Trevor Nunn's Hamlet quite soon now) but this is more than I can afford. What if I really like it and want to go again, to Trevor Nunn's Hamlet? What if I want to take another friend to Trevor Nunn's Hamlet. That's a whole trip to the South of France.

One of the more annoying affectations of the British subsidised theatre is that even when a production clearly has a Big Star Performer, as here, they nevertheless list the actors in alphabetical order. So who the hell is playing Hamlet? Impossible to tell.

No problem about telling us all about how important Trevor Nunn is though. He gets start billing on the posters. You'd think he was playing Hamlet. "Trevor Nunn's Hamlet." As they say in America: please. You do eventually learn, if you follow that link and read past the big picture of Trevor Nunn, that Trevor Nunn's Hamlet is actually being acted (as opposed to directed/produced) not by Trevor Nunn as you might have expected, but by a certain Ben Whishaw, 23.

Guess who's playing Gertrude. Correct. Mrs Trevor Nunn.

In case you are confused, and given that Trevor Nunn doesn't actually act Hamlet in Trevor Nunn's Hamlet, did Trevor Nunn perhaps write Trevor Nunn's Hamlet. No again. Trevor Nunn's Hamlet wasn't actually written by Trevor Nunn at all, but by William Shakespeare (1564-1616). True. Not Trevor Nunn at all. Trevor Nunn just told the actors where to stand and organised the rehearsals. Just for that, Trevor Nunn gets to have Trevor Nunn up on the poster in big letters. TREVOR NUNN.

Pass.

Franciscus4.jpgI made my way to Neil's barrow of second hand classical CDs in Lower Marsh, prior to visiting Gramex, where second hand classical CDs are sold indoors. Gramex had few pickings, but at Neil's barrow I got a CD of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor opus 132, which is by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and which is one of the peaks (one of a set of peaks in the form of all the late Beethoven String Quartets) of Western Civilisation, played by the Franciscus Quartet, or by Franciscus Kwartet as it says on the front. It's a Dutch production, recorded in Delft in 2003.

Price: £1.

I've just listened to it. It's excellent.

If I could watch a second hand DVD of Trevor Nunn's William Shakespeare's Hamlet for, say, a fiver, as many times as I wanted, and with as many friends as I wanted, then I might be interested.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:26 PM
[1] [2]
May 03, 2004
Photoblogging (1): questions

I share the high opinion that people seem to have of these photographs.

Thanks to Adam Tinworth for the link.

I particularly like this one. By this I mean, this is the kind of picture I myself like to take, and wish I could get looking as pin sharp as this, where pin sharpness is wanted, and as artistically blurred as this where that is the objective.

PhotoblogRestDetail.jpgLet me now try to do one of those thumbnail procedures, in which I link from a small detail of the picture here to the real thing separately, but uploaded to my own … thing.

Back soon.

Well, that seems to be working. My Graphics Guru is coming round later today, and I wanted to be able to show him some homework I'd done.

So, about these Chromasia photos. They are extraordinarily good photos, from the technical point of view. They are, in particular, perfectly focussed. Plus, they look magnificent even on my little Brand-X computer screen.

So Question: how does he/she/they do that? Is the secret a better camera than my Canon A70? Or is it that he/she/etc. know how to take better pictures than I know how to take? Is it a matter of pushing the right buttons on a cheap camera rather than having a more expensive camera? Or to put it another way: Should my next step be a better camera, or some lessons in how to use my existing camera? If the latter, can anyone recommend a good course in London for someone like me, where I could learn a decent amount cheaply and quickly? Any suggestions welcome.

Further question: I notice that the Chromasia guy(s) do the large version of their pictures at 700 times 526 size. Is this a good choice? I am hoping to set up a photo-archive myself, to enable those who like my photos to see more without the rest of your being bored to death. What is the best size for this? Have Chromasia get it right? Or is larger a bonus?

My originals are much bigger than 700 by 500. Would people like to be able to see the mega-huge original? Should there be a three tier arrangement? Thumbnails, then single screen friendly versions, and finally, behind that, the mega-huge original? That might make sense. Bear in my mind that I have no plans ever to try to make any money with my pictures, and don't mind even if someone else makes quite a lot and me nothing. I just enjoy them and hope others do too.

BenGrosvenor2detail.jpgHere is my latest photo that I like. It's of this extraordinary boy, playing the Ravel piano concerto on the TV last night in the final of the Young Musician of the Year tournament. He didn't win although he did play excellently, and I think many would have tipped him.

This is a classic click-and-pick job. I took about a hundred photos while he was playing, and I think this is the best, because it captures what I think it must be like (a) to be a real musician, and (b) to have a a real orchestra playing along with you. As with the previous picture of this boy, it was of a TV picture in transition from one shot to another. TV in Photoshop mode, you might say.

In future, I will make all little pictures on the right the same width, within each post I mean, but don't have time to do this now. Live and learn.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:13 PM
[7] [1]
May 01, 2004
Walton finally wins the Battle of Britain

In the latest Gramophone (paper only) comes news that:

A new DVD release of The Battle of Britain will reunite the film with the original soundtrack by Sir William Walton.

Walton was initially commissioned to compose the score for Guy Hamilton's 1969 film depicting the decisive serial conflict that took place in the skies over southern England in 1940. Although recorded, it was replaced by a score commissioned from Ron Goodwin, with only Walton's Battle in the Air sequence remaining. One explanation for the decision is that Walton's score was not long enough to fill an accompanying soundtrack LP.

In 1900 Timothy Gee, who as the film's assistant music editor worked closely with Walton, tracked down the original recording to the garage of Eric Tomlinson, the recording engineer. He then persuaded MGM, who are releasing the DVD, to restore Walton's music to the film.

He recalls that many people working on the film opposed the decision to scrap Walton's score. 'I think it is now more in tune with Guy Hamilton's concept of the picture,' he said.

I thought I did some blogging about this, but haven't been able to disinter any. But I do vividly recall instantly noticing the Walton music when it cut into the original version of this movie, and being very impressed. Although, I think Goodwin's music is also very good, especially the triumphant German march at the beginning. (I did find a posting about Goodwin's music for Where Eagles Dare.) Would that this were a straightforward replacement of rubbish by gold. Alas, not. Still, I'm looking forward to this DVD. (here and here are links to more on this topic.)

As for the film itself, it's another of these real events with made-up people jobs, which I really really wish they wouldn't do. (Think Charlton Heston in Midway. Urrgh!) I mean, if you can have the likes of Dowding, Park and Leigh Mallory for real, why not the real pilots, and maybe a real wife or girlfriend or two? I suppose there are all kinds of legal and confidentiality reasons, but all the same, when I see a historical movie, I want it to be as accurate as possible. I don't want to be learning things that ain't so. A lot to ask from the movies, I know. At least with these TV drama-stroke-documentaries which lots complain about but not me, they try to get things accurate, and when they can't because it isn't known, they say so.

Despite all that, I do love The Battle of Britain, made-up pilots, no William Walton, and all. It even has Laurence Olivier in it, and I still like it. That's rare for me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:30 PM
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April 26, 2004
Another prodigy courtesy of the BBC

Yes, another prodigy has been unearthed by the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, in the form of an eleven year old pianist called Benjamin Grosvenor. No less a personage than Noriko Ogawa (yes, she does look nice doesn't she?), who is one of the judges, described the occasion as "historic".

BenGrosvenor.jpg

Yes and no. To say it again, there have never been so many wonderfully capable classical musicians as there are now, but what will they actually spend their lives playing, or failing that, doing? What will it be like for the also-rans? As I asked yesterday of Jennifer Pike, what will it be like for Benjamin when the years go by and the amazement at him being able to do this when only eleven has faded?

They haven't announced the winner of tonight's keyboard semi-final, but I would be amazed if Benjamin Grosvenor doesn't win it. The others, compared to him, all sound also-rans to me.

Once again, it seems that this competition was all recorded, way back in February this time, judging by that blog posting I linked to above. So is the final, where concertos are played, to be shown by the BBC on May 2nd, live as well, or also recorded?

The last semi-finalist, a slim, dark haired chap called Otis Beasley is playing Chopin, very well. But I'd bet on Ben Grosvenor.

The decision has just been anounced. "Quick and unanimous": Benjamin Grosvenor.

Jennifer Pike looked like a grown-up, even at the age of twelve. Benjamin is very visibly only a boy. She was remarkable. This kid is downright spooky. I will definitely be watching the final.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:40 PM
[1] [1]
April 25, 2004
Red Priest upstages the nice young ladies

Last night I watched a lot of classical musical TV, all of it on BBC4 TV, in the form of two shows that I had marked in the Radio Times to watch, and one that I just stumbled upon, of which the one I stumbled upon was the most interesting.

The first show I had already decided to watch was Chiao-Ying Chang playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 at the Leeds Piano Competition of 2003. But I tuned into BBC4 a bit before that, and so it was that I stumbled upon a group called Red Priest playing Vivaldi.

Red Priest consist of just four musicians. The boss is a guy called Piers Adams, who has something of the look of Neal Hannon of Divine Comedy. He plays - and I know this doesn't suit with bossing anything, but there it is, this is what he plays – the recorder. There's a violin lady who looks somewhat like Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. (That's how she does her hair anyway.) There was a somewhat older cello lady with short hair and somewhat older, but good at the cello. And there was a somewhat geeky guy who played mostly harpsichord, but who also did some some support violin playing. But although this guy didn't look so exciting, he sure behaved strangely when he was doing a barking dog with his violin.

RedPriestVivaldi.jpgThey were playing one of the Vivaldi Four Seasons concertos, in a programme of "Early Music". They played it with lots of special effects, which is fair enough, because the original is full of special effects – although you wouldn't know it from the average Brand-X performance of these pieces on CD.

Early Music usually means Classical Music so Classical that you iust know that although maybe you like it, no one else does in any numbers, and that as far as the ongoing history of music, this is a backwater, going nowhere. And the rest of this Early Music programme consisted of exactly this kind of thing. Oxbridge graduates in a line singing motets, or whatever they were, in a manner which shrieked of Arts Council grants. Solemn and safe gatherings of viol players, violing away in a manner that you've heard a hundred times, in the unlikely event that you care for such stuff.

But Red Priest are entirely different. They weren't doing yet another "historically authentic" exercise in museum curatorship. They were doing a cover version. Seriously, that was the phrase that Piers Adams used when he was interviewed. He was using Vivaldi's music as the basis for a hyper-theatrical hyper-exciting entertainment, with lots of Hammer Horror costumes and Hammer Horror harpsichord playing, and general leaping about and ripping into the music, in a manner more like that manic pseudo-folk-singer who used to play the flute in among singing on Top of the Pops about a thousand years ago, than like your usual Early Musicians. (Commenters please offer some names, so I can say, yes that's it.) It was great.

And the irony is that I reckon is was probably far more authentic than your average authentic performance, because Vivaldi was nothing if not an entertainer. But if that's wrong, who cares? Entertainment and genuinely musical music is what matters, not mere accuracy of recreation.

Then I heard Chiao-Ying Chang do (as it turned out) her (for she was a she) Beethoven. And then later I listened to the final of the Young Musician of the Year 2002 tournament, basically to hear Jennifer Pike play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. The Beethoven was okay, and the Mendelssohn was better than okay. But is the music profession going to make a serious living rehashing these same old concertos in the same old style? And if if a tiny few such people can make a living, what will it prove artistically?

Which is where Red Priest come in. There was an air of busking-in-the-tube desperation to entertain about their act which lifted it a level above the usual dreary, heard-it-all-before classical event. I know it must sound strange to say this, but I really feel that they have a tighter grip on what the problem is with classical music nowadays and what it makes sense to do about it, than does either of these two tremendously nice young ladies with their Beethoven and their Mendelssohn. Pike, as I say, is exceptionally good at the violin. But, unless she is given new stuff to play besides the stuff that she now plays - and I include in that condemnation the dreary stuff (if the same I heard at the semi-final was anything to go by) written by her doting father, who is a Professor of Composition and who looks like it – her life will be downhill from now on. She may have a fine old time playing the same old stuff, but fewer and fewer other people will care, once the novelty of her being that good when aged twelve has worn off.

But Red Priest? Vivaldi?!?!?!

Yes. I believe that part of the "future of Classical Music" is to be found in this huge mismatch between the huge number of and extraordinary technical excellence of the latest generation of classical musicians, and the lack of demand for the number of symphony orchestras that the world would have to contain to employ them all, what with being able to listen to recordings of all the classics. They should be playing Red Priest videos in all the music schools, because the atmosphere they give off is what Successful Future of Classical Music events are going to be like.

And not a drum kit to be seen.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
[2] [1]
April 22, 2004
Jennifer Pike

I have been watching the BBC Young Musician of the Year show, on BBC4 TV, and having my sleep patterns deranged dreadfully, because I can't videotape digital TV properly and have to listen to it when it goes out or not at all.

Tonight I watched the string semi-final. There were two very good older-teenage girls playing the violin, and a very good older-teenage girl playing the cello. There was a older-teenage guy playing the cello, also very good.

And there was Jennifer Pike, aged twelve, playing the violin.

jenniferpike.jpg

Usually I can't pick winners in circumstances like these. For example, the other night I watched a lady called Yuma Osaki play the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto for the Leeds Piano Competition of 2003 (also on BBC4), and it sounded fine to me. But Artur Pizarro was unimpressed by it, and said she should have fifth instead of third.

But I picked Jennifer Pike to win tonight in about three seconds. She was an order of magnitude more confident than the rest of them. With the others, you hoped they'd play it well, and on the whole they did. With her, you knew she'd play it well, and you just listened. Truly, truly amazing.

It was only when I went a-googling that I discovered what I should have noticed in the Radio Times, which is that this was a recording of the 2002 Young Musician of the Year competition. And to my complete non-amazement I learned that she had won the whole thing that year.

In short, I was not the only one who was impressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:52 AM
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April 11, 2004
Malcolm Arnold's Ninth Symphony – saying more with less

I've been saying here that I like the symphonies of Malcolm Arnold, but I don't actually know them all that well, in the sense that if you played me a bit of one of them, I couldn't number it, whereas with most of the Shostakovich symphonies, which I know really well, I could. What I can tell you about the Arnold symphonies is that I like them in the sense of knowing that I am going to know them better, and and to like them even better, than I do already.

Anyway, encouraged by what Lynn Syslo says here about it, I put on one of the CDs I have of Arnold's Ninth Symphony. I chose the one by Vernon Handley, and was especially struck by the second movement, the Allegretto. The whole thing is great, but this movement especially is particularly beautiful.

arnold9.jpg

The bad news is that I am now listening to the Naxos version of this piece, conducted by Andrew Penny. I'm at that same second movement. And the impact is nothing by comparison. Handley finds a stillness which I found extraordinary. Penny goes for a more "swirling" effect, but for me the result is very earthbound and mundane by comparison.

Shostokovich definitely looms large as an influence, or at any rate as a definite comparison. What Arnold here demonstrates, like Shostakovich, is a willingness to be very simple. Two instruments, such as a flute playing up high and a bassoon playing down low, carry the tune (and a very love tune it is), without any of those frantic complications that modern "modern" music seems to demand, in order to be modern. Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony is a deliberately frisky little thing compared to Arnold, and more to the point compared to Beethoven and Mahler, but in this respect it is very like Arnold's Ninth.

I remember being very struck by something Daniel Barenboim once said, about Shostakovich, along the lines of: "Look at the score, there's nothing there." He meant this as an insult. But to me, this is a compliment.

Barenboim does lots of "modern" music, all of it that I have heard being, to my ear, utter dross. While he has fun threading his way through the complexities of the "scores" he likes, the audience sits with its arms folded waiting for the damn things to end. Shostakovich, and Arnold, communicate a lot, and often with extremely little. But this is good.

Digressing even more, I've often wondered if Barenboim is responsible for his wife Jacqueline du Pré not having anything to do with Shostakovich, and in particular the two cello concertos. No 1 especially was already a big hit when Du Pré was playing, thanks to Rostropovich. I'd love to have heard what she might have done with this.

All of which began simply as: Try Arnold's Ninth, you might like it!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
[4] [1]
April 03, 2004
On living with and not living with Mozart

Charles Hazlewood's attempts to interest us in the life and works of Mozart have certainly been getting my attention. Last night I watched the final part of the drama documentary The Genius of Mozart, in and a bunch of actors in ancient outfits both acted out and were "interviewed" about Mozart, while Hazlewood in a modern outfit commented, like one of those modern TV military historians striding about on a battlefield.

Opinions differ about the legitimacy of mixing the rules up like this, but I liked it, a lot. After all, a play is, when it comes down to it, the opinion of our contemporaries about what happened, not the thing itself. And why shouldn't historical characters be interviewed the way real people are interviewed about Dunkirk for the History Channel. I thought that Emma Cunniffe as Mozart's wife Constanze was especially affecting, convincing and memorable.

Talk about mixed feelings. Constanze adored Mozart and was adored back, and she shared her husband's adoration of music. And she knew right away that he was a great composer, what with Haydn telling everyone who would listen. Yet she lost baby after baby. And although Mozart may have been a musical capitalist, he was a sadly incompetent one when it came to making or keeping money, and being married to him was a bit like having another baby to look after.

mozart2.jpg But then there was the music. Hazlewood rightly, both in this drama-documentary and in subsequent shows on BBC4 TV and on BBC Radio 3, made much of Symphony No 40 in G Minor, K550. But then I am hopelessly biased, as this would be the one piece of music, if I were forced at gunpoint to pick just one, which I would choose as my absolute all time desert island favourite.

I recall writing a decade ago or more (towards the end of this) that Mozart's G Minor Symphony seems perfectly poised between the classical and the romantic, the world of outward stateliness of form and the expression of inner feeling. Hazlewood made rather more of the inner feeling aspect, and he made it clear that as far as contemporaries were concerned, this music was all over the damn place, like some kind of natural disaster, like an earthquake or an erupting volcano. That makes sense. Those of us who now love it now hear the similarities between this music and the much more mundane stuff that Mozart's contemporaries were then turning out. Salieri and Mozart, in the age of electro-pop, do sound very alike, and to an ear unused in classical music completely alike, I dare say. But in Mozart's time there was no electro-cacophany to force them to hear the classicism of Mozart's late symphonies, their controlled-ness, their formality, their eighteenth-century-ness.

What applies to Mozart's contemporaries also applies to an expert like Hazlewood, who thinks himself so completely into the shoes and ears of Mozart's contemporaries that he too is liable to, not miss, but maybe under-react to the continuing classicism of Mozart's late works, to the extraordinary way that he managed to pour his musical lava into the regular shaped musical containers of his time, albeit somewhat expanded ones. But this is only a matter of nuance, and I don't want to turn this into some kind of fight. I loved all these shows, and I learned a lot from them.

Things like the movie Amadeus are all very well, but they contain too many made-up non-facts for my liking. The big talking point about this TV series has been how solemn and sensible this Mozart was compared to the Mozart of Amadeus, but the thing I didn't like about Amadeus was the way it convinced everyone that poor old Salieri had murdered him. Nonsense, of course. Mozart died too soon for the same reason his babies did, which was that in those days, people did.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:02 PM
[3] [0]
April 02, 2004
Spohr string quintets on Naxos

I share the widespread admiration among classical music fans for the Naxos label, and must endure none of the discomfort it inflicts on musicians by paying them only what they have to be paid, or any of the grief he has made for the other classical music labels by doing the job so much better than them.

Yes, other labels put out stuff for a fiver, but only with their teeth gritted, as it were, after they have tried it on at £16.99 and all prices in between. By the time they do deign to cut the price down to super-bargain, I generally either have it (mostly second hand) or don't want it.

Like thousands of others, I often buy Naxos discs speculatively, of music unknown or almost unknown to me. A year or two ago, having once upon a time long ago owned a gramophone record of a symphony by someone called Kraus (Joseph Martin Kraus, 1756-1792), and having liked it a lot in a Sturm und Drang sort of way, I was delighted to have the opportunity to acquire more Kraus symphonies, courtesy of Naxos, and these discs have not disappointed either in quality of music or of performance.

spohr5t.gifAnd now I have had a similar experience with the music of Louis Spohr (1784-1859), having recently acquired volumes 1 and 2 of the three Naxos discs of Spohr String Quintets. If you enjoy, say, the Mozart string quartets and quintets, and also the later quartets, quintets and sextets of Brahms for strings, then this music might also hit the spot for you. The music is continuously interesting, and it helps that the playing is excellent, and the recording very pleasing.

Actually, these discs don't conform to the pristine Naxos pattern of starting out as bargains. These performances were done a decade ago and put out at full price on the Marco Polo label (linking to this directly doesn't seem to work, so go to the Naxos site and click where it says "Marco Polo" at the bottom), Naxos' expensive brother label which specialised in music otherwise unrecorded. But "otherwise unrecorded" has not been a formula with the legs of the basic bargain label. The music may indeed have been otherwise unrecorded when it was first recorded, but time and again, that hasn't lasted, and Marco Polo seems to be winding down. That Marco Polo discs have been on sale in HMV Oxford Street at £2.99 a throw would certainly suggest this.

marcopol.gifSo, as I say, these Spohr quintets started out as a full-price non-bargain in the early nineties from Marco Polo. But somehow I don't resent this procedure when Naxos does this, probably because Marco Polo was off my radar at the price they were asking.

Meanwhile, although the basic white Naxos label does now put out a steady trickle of ex-Marco Polo stuff, and it has also acquired some discs from the now defunct Collins label, nevertheless, the heart of the Naxos operation is new recordings for a fiver. As far as I was concerned, the Spohr String Quintets felt like a new release, and I only later discovered that they were re-issues.

I'm looking forward very much to volume 3.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:11 PM
[1] [0]
March 31, 2004
Chairman Mao is dancing on the radio

Speaking (posting) as I was about recently classical music that I like, the BBC is now playing, live from Bournemouth, The Chairman Dances, by John Adams, a terrific piece. The Bournemouth Symphony is being conducted by their permanent supremo Ms Marin Alsopp. It's a terrific piece, and one of the few popular hits that has recently added itself to the repertoire. It's the opening number of a concert that will later feature the Tcaikovksy 1st Piano Concerto and the Brahms 2nd Symphony. What is more, the audience will now be enjoying it just as much as I am. This is no mere sit-through-the-ghastly-modern-rubbish-until-the-real-music-starts music. This is music-music. It is occupying the spot where they might instead have been playing Beethoven's Egmont Overture or perhaps a Haydn symphony, and it is not at all out of place.

If you don't know what it sounds like, well, it's the kind of music they play in TV documentaries when they're trying to communicate how rapidly some rapidly developing city has been rapidly developing, by showing speeded up traffic at night, and vast floors full of flickering computer screens, suggestive of electronic money wizzing hither and thither.

The piece is a orchestral revamp of music from Adams' opera Nixon in China, which, along with Akhnaten by Philip Glass is one of the few recent (i.e. my lifetime) operas I an actually enjoy.

The Chairman in question is Chairman Mao, and I shudder to think what fatuous political misjudgements the piece embodies, what with Adams being a darling of the US Bush-despising classes, whom I in my turn despise for despising Bush. (By now Adams has probably done some ghastly piece about 9/11 which oozes moral equivalence if not worse.) But the piece, which is subtitled a 'foxtrot', sounds great, and I don't care.

Nixon in China was completed in 1985, so it definitely gets in under the wire put in place by Alan Little. Akhnaten was finished in 1987.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:59 PM
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March 29, 2004
Recent classical music I like

Alan Little asks if there is any classical music written during the last forty years that he might like. Before posting that question, he sent it to me as an email. Is there anything I like?

Well, as he already notes, late Shostakovich is a good place to start. I love the final symphony, number fifteen, and the last few string quartets, and the Viola Sonata, the one that quotes Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

But I also hear other things from time to time that tickle the ear. For example some weeks ago I heard a snatch of a recent Thomas Adès string quartet that sounded really good. It was on CD Review one Saturday morning, but I can't google my way to anything more specific. I do remember, though, that members of the Endellion (I think it was) String Quartet were talking about this. Hearing that made me think that maybe it's opera I hate, rather than Thomas Adès. But then again, I quite like the operas of Philip Glass and John Adams or at any rate the sound they make, so maybe I just like string quartets, all string quartets, so much that I even like a string quartet by Thomas Adès.

I like the nine symphonies of Sir Malcolm Arnold. Number seven was completed in 1973, number eight in 1978 and number nine in 1986. I see that I'm not the only one who thinks of him as our Shostakovich.

I'm sure I'll think of more.

One more thing occurs to me, which is that how these things are performed can be extremely important.

Take Messiaen. Okay, not very recent, but recent enough to put a lot of people off, including me. I have two recordings of his Vingt Regards Sur l'Enfant Jesus for solo piano, each as unappealing as the other (the Naxos one, unfortunately, being especially ham-fingered to my ear, which is a shame because that's the one lots will be hearing). However, on another recent Saturday morning, I dozed off during CD Review and then dozed on again, so to speak, and I found myself listening to a stunning performance of what turned out to be one of the Regards, played by Pierre Laurent Aimard. I now want that recording also, a lot. And I also want his equally raved-about recording of the Ligeti piano etudes. I have the Naxos disc of Idil Biret doing these, but suspect that she doesn't do them right.

And, although it's even less recent, I recall attending an utterly enthralling performance of a string quartet by Alban Berg, given, appropriately enough, by the Alban Berg String Quartet. In the first half they played Schubert. Close but no cigar, as the Americans say. Then in the second half: Berg. Cigar.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:47 PM
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March 20, 2004
A Brussels souvenir

I spent most of last week in Brussels, giving a talk, creeping around in the office of my hosts and sitting in on some of their meetings and catching up with their (good) news and their (even better) gossip, and wandering about in Brussels taking photos.

jongen.jpgOne of the things I like to do in unfamiliar cities is buy a classical CD as a souvenir, so when, on Wednesday, I chanced upon an all-classical CD shop I went in and said: I've got a huge classical CD collection, but I'm looking for a souvenir of my stay here, what can you suggest? The man suggested this CD of the string quartets of the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen (1873-1953). (Scroll down to the fourth CD listed here.) The price was under a tenner in my English pounds. It wasn't a label I'd ever seen before. The man said the music was "interesting". I like string quartets, both the things themselves, and the noise they make. Done. This nice man sold me precisely the kind of thing I wanted him to sell me. Go capitalism.

And they are interesting. The first (1894) is very definitely late nineteenth century, and the second (1916) is equally definitely early twentieth century, but both have many individual moments. The first movement of the second in particular reminds me very much of Ravel, and in particular of his string quartet (completed in 1903). I am now listening again to the first one, and that reminds me of Brahms, although not so much his string quartets, more the fruity sonorities of the quintets and sextets.

That's all I'll say about these pieces now. It always takes me a while to get to know music of any interest or complexity. I don't even know if Jongen's second quartet was his last. I guess yes, but am not certain.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:00 PM
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March 19, 2004
Mozart the entrepreneur

I'm watching Charles Hazlewood conducting and talking about the Mozart D Minor Piano Concerto No. 20 K466, which I have loved since early childhood when I first heard it. It's all very persuasive and interesting, and it greatly helps that the guy playing the fortepiano (i.e. the modern concert grand piano in the making, but still a bit clunky and pre-industrial – a kind of musical Missing Link) is Ronald Brautigam, who can really play.

Just before this BBC4 TV programme there was, on BBC2 TV, a drama documentary about the relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold. The essential claim here was that the depth of feeling expressed by Mozart in his music is traceable directly to the dramas and sufferings of Mozart's own life.

However, Mozart is not the first composer to have suffered intense and painful dramas. The question is: why was he able to express such personal dramas, if that's what they were, in his music?

Mozart was, as Hazlewood himself said, one of the first musical Romantics. And he was this because, in addition to having the musical genius to bring this off, he was also lucky in the external circumstances he had to live with. He was a Romantic because he could be. The D Minor Piano Concerto was given its first performance not in an aristocratic drawing room, but at a subscription concert. The music in this piece has quite plainly escaped from the control of the old courtly power structure, and is expressing the tempestuous personal dramas and hopes and passions of a whole new class of creators, dreamers and lovers, and the show was organised, promoted, and conducted from the keyboard by Mozart the capitalist, as well as by Mozart the musician.

mozart.jpg

And in case you think I am shovelling my own ideological interpretations onto a much more decorously statist event, and upon an equally decorously statist BBC programme, let it be emphasised that Hazlewood himself used the word "entrepreneur" to describe Mozart. It's not just me saying this.

I wonder how Mozart would have functioned it there had been telephones in those days. (See the comment here from Zulieka about, about Daniel Barenboim.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:53 PM
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March 12, 2004
Shostakovich redirect

I have a posting up at Samizdata, reflecting on the fact that Dimitri Shostakovich was a very nervous man, and on why, and on what effect this had on his composing. There are already some good and useful comments.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:34 PM
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March 07, 2004
Barenboim versus Pires

Yesterday morning on Radio 3's CD Review, Evgeny Kissin was talking about playing Bach. Did he plan to record any? His answer included references to others who were doing it so well that he hesitated. Murray Perahia and Andras Schiff were not surprises, but I was intrigued that he mentioned Daniel Barenboim's live Goldberg Variations, which I possess. I have it on now, and at its quite frequent best I am liking it hugely.

Listening to Barenboim's playing provoked me into thinking what is so special about his playing (when it is special) and what is so unsatisfactory about it (when it is unsatisfactory). And I think I have it.

barenboim.jpgBarenboim as a pianist is still a conductor, and he always was a conductor from the very start of his life as a musician. The only difference is that when playing the piano he is his own orchestra. But Barenboim the interpreter is quite separate from Barenboim the pianist. Barenboim the interpeter stands outside, and watches and conducts (which would be why he finds it no great strain also to be conducting an orchestra while playing the piano). For Barenboim, piano playing involves an out of body experience. The as-good-as-it-gets interpreter of music, Barenboim the interpreter, always wants Barenboim the pianist to do something very good and interesting, but all too often Barenboim the pianist doesn't quite bring it off, either because he may not be the world's greatest pianist (I don't know), or perhaps because he is too busy doing that conducting while he is playing, or perhaps because he is too busy, generally, being Daniel Barenboim. When Barenboim (the pianist) plays, you usually know at once what he (the interpreter) is trying to do. Sometimes he does it, and sometimes not. He is the sort of pianist who makes his own errors glaringly obvious even to someone like me.

When I say mistakes, by the way, I'm not talking about fluffed notes, which are rare with Barenboim, as with any regularly recorded player. What I mean is when he clearly isn't getting the effect he clearly wants.

I think this "model", so to speak, of Barenboim's piano playing explains a lot both about why those of us who admire Barenboim's piano playing admire it so much, and why those who can't stand it can't stand it. I love the exposure, the daring, the accessibility of it all. I can get right inside his playing, simply by stepping into the crowd and looking around me. It's like watching Bernstein conduct. It's all there, out in the open. Mistakes? Well, what do you expect if your reach is so ambitious? But for the can't-stand-it crowd, the very essence of how Barenboim sets about playing the piano is completely, inherently wrong. They often don't like what he is trying to impose upon the music, and they utterly despise the whole idea that he, as an "interpreter", is "imposing" anything on the music, and especially on his playing of the music, in the first place.

With other pianists, someone like me is at a total loss to work out what (if anything) is wrong, because with them, there is absolutely no distinction between "interpretation" and playing. The two are absolutely the same thing.

mjpires.jpgOn BBC4 TV, straight after that chamber concert I wrote about last night (the one where they all wore black), there was a programme about the Portuguese pianists Maria Joao Pires, teaching students at her home in the country. Here is a pianist whose entire teaching method is based on ensuring that there is never, never any discernible difference between "playing" and "interpretation", to the point where if you need two different words for the process, you simply aren't doing it right. If she ever hears a pupil's head ruling that same pupil's heart, or fingers, she shouts out and complains. Your heart must go straight to your fingers. Your body, your mind, your fingers, all must be one. To hell with the bar line, she kept saying. It doesn't exist.

Which contrasts with that conductor I met, who, asked to pick out three rules for conducting, picked rhythm, rhythm and rhythm. I don't think you could conduct properly if you felt – that is to say talked – about music the way Pires does. Well, you would need a very good orchestra.

If Pires ever addressed a London orchestra the way she talked to her students – "you must feel it in your heart, in your body, you must not be ruled by the machine, it must be organic", etc. – they would sit there stony faced, and then the leader would say something like: "You mean you want it a bit slower." (My instant, intellectually unmoderated response to this woman was: go back to Hell you emotional fascist bitch, and keep your clammy hands off my soul. That is not what I think of her, for she is a very good pianist and her pupils adored her. But it is what I felt, for an instant.)

That Kissin praised Barenboim so highly may also say something about how he functions as a musician. (He too is both adored and reviled.) I wonder if he will ever do any conducting.

Final thought: is this at all a Jew/Gentile thing? Barenboim is very Jewish. I feel rather Jewish too. I'm thinking of that emotion-but-with-emotional-distance thing, which Jews do so well, which I like so much, and which Wagner complained about. It was hearing that word "fascist" come out of my mouth in an earlier paragraph that made me wonder.

A FEW HOURS LATER: Here is now my one word answer to that "Final thought": is this a Jew/gentile thing?: No. These decidedly dubious categories simply disintegrate under the spotlight of further thought. What Wagner saw, or thought he saw, was no longer true by the time he died. And Pires was quoting Mahler, saying: "The score gives you everything about the music except what is important." You could just as plausibly - i.e. not plausibly at all - say that a pianist "conducting" his own playing - or for that matter other people's playing - is like a Nazi dominating himself - and others - in the service of his ideology. So does that make Barenboim a Nazi, just because this may be how he plays the piano, and because he conducts? Forget it.

I don't like deleting stuff of substance, however wrongheaded or ill-thought-out, but this time I was sorely tempted.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:29 PM
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March 06, 2004
Why are so many people dressed in black these days?

I'm noticing it all around me, wherever I go. People entirely dressed in black.

I'm now watching a chamber music concert from the Barbican, on BBC4 TV. And all the musicians are wearing entirely black.

This works well. Black is black. There can be no argument about whether a garment is or is not black. It either is black, or it is not black. So, provided all their visible garments are black, they end up looking like team players, even though in all other respects their garments are completely of their own choosing. Convenience, and style.

But it isn't just classical musicians; it's everyone. Take a random picture of a crowd in London. What you get is black.

I never realised I had a blog posting in this until now, so I haven't been opportunistically snapping people in black. I have just been doing it anyway, in the natural course of photographing other things. It took me about one minute to dig out this picture from my photo-archives, which shows you exactly the kind of thing I mean. It was taken at Victoria Station, just near where I live, because I liked the way the station framed the view of the distant cityscape and because I had some idea of blogging about how the camera sees very warm and very blue colours when the eye sees only grey. But in the process I snapped a typical clutch of People In Black and here they are:

peopleinblack.jpg

It's not total. There are some guys in light coloured trousers, and another guy in a beige top. But on the whole: black, black, black.

I can't be the only one to have noticed this. Come to think of it I have girl readers, who probably know about fashion and all that. Maybe they can enlighten us all. I.e. me and my boy readers.

What is going on here? Does 9/11 have anything to do with it? Is Nazism on the rise? (Guess: no. Another guess: the memory of Hitler's Black Shirts had to dim as a precondition for this happening.)

Is it something to do with the Baby Boom getting old, and needing something Dignified yet Not Done Before to do with their clothing? It is noticeable that black clothing and the grey hair of the rather elderly piano player do look rather good together.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:09 PM
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February 26, 2004
"The right to get on with the job"

To be rather more serious about the Norman Lebrecht piece linked to in the posting below, here is his final paragraph:

The lyric arts will never thrive until executive directors are allowed as much executive freedom as the managers of any industrial installation. The key to running a good arts centre is not a bottomless budget or flow of singing talent but the simple, straightforward right to get on with the job.

Which is one way of looking at it.

Here is another. When you have a job that a lot of people understand, or think they understand, your hands are bound to be bound more tightly than if the job you are doing is one that hardly anyone else even realises exists, let alone even pretends to understand.

Suppose you are the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, circa 1970. You get to rule the roost, unless you are content to let someone else run your life for you in the manner of Elvis Presley, simply by virtue of being the only person who really knows what you are doing.

I did the pamphlets for the Libertarian Alliance for twenty years. I got paid nothing, but the principle still applies. Before the Internet, most people had no clue what I was doing. Why all those stupid pamphlets Brian, that no one is reading? Everyone else was obsessed with publishing, in large numbers, and distributing, in large numbers. If they couldn't do that, then what was the point? I knew that the important thing was that stuff was getting written, that some people were reading them, and that around all this writing and reading a London libertarian scene wasforming itself. Distribution would happen, by one means or another, some day. So long as the pieces were written in a way that would survive the delay, I knew I was doing something valuable, if not immediately so than some day. And because only I really understood and believed in what I was doing, I was pretty much left to get on with it, as I thought best.

Then came the Internet, and suddenly there was a mass distribution channel available, and everybody suddenly saw the point of what I had been doing. Also, lots and lots of people started writing (because now they could instantaneously publish) similar stuff to what I had been editing.

At which point I stopped enjoying it, because at that point I was suddenly surrounded, like Norman Lebrecht's beleaguered arts administrators, by people who understood what I was doing. I started to feel like a slave, doing what everyone expected. If lots of others could now see what needed doing, they didn't need me to be doing it any more. One of them could do it. And since, as I say (and unlike Lebrecht's arts bosses), I wasn't even being paid, I said to myself: enough. I made way for someone who doesn't have my problems doing what is expected of him by others.

And now I'm doing something else that lots of libertarians think is a waste of time, and which most of them have no clue about, and I am back to enjoying myself and doing things as I want.

So now back to those arts managers of Lebrecht's. The reason their hands are tied is because the institutions they manage have been part of the scenery for many decades, and have accumulated supporters and donors and helpers and underlings, all of whom know what is being done at least as well as whoever is nominally in charge, and all of whom have opinions at least as valid – or so they think – as those of the supposed boss.

The idea that somehow, in circumstances like these, the boss can be magically given more authority than reality will actually allow him is, well, unreal. To run such institutions as these, you need people who positively expect their hands to be bound up in bureaucratic tape and procedure, and who know how to live within such limits and make the best of them.

For Lebrecht to get the kind of arts managers he wants, they would have to be doing something radically different and new, and whatever he may say about it, the people now running opera houses and symphony orchestras are not and cannot be doing anything radically different from one decade to the next. "Radical" doesn't mean putting on slightly different operas in slightly different ways, or daringly deciding that the LSO should produce its own CDs. These moves are business as usual, slightly adapted for the changing times. Good business, admittedly, but hardly radical. Radical would mean something like completely rethinking the meaning of opera, and that isn't going to happen in a conventional opera house. It can't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:31 PM
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February 23, 2004
Classical past – classical future

I did a posting yesterday on Samizdata about old classical recordings, mentioning these two in particular:

menelga.gif      heifbram.gif

These are this one and this one in this list of Great Violinists.

The comments are piling up, of which I like this one best so far, from Alan Little:

Look at those wartime Furtwängler recordings we talked about a while back: they are out of copyright, and whoever has the master tapes seems to be willing to let pretty much anybody (anybody who is willing to pay, presumably) have a go with them. The result being that there are several CD editions of all of them, and whole usenet discussions about exactly what slightly-off speed the original tape recorder was running at, whether it is better to accept that the tape recorder was running at a slightly off speed and therefore have the CD sounding a little sharp, or to try to correct it and risk introducing some other distortion or "unauthenticity", etc. etc. etc.

There's also a marvellous article by Peter Gutmann singing the praises of early recordings by Joachim (the great nineteenth century violinist the Brahms violin concerto was written for) , which goes into how in that era western classical music was improvisational and performers were expected to make more contribution than just "playing the dots" in a technically perfect manner.

Twentieth century classical music making was, historically speaking, very, very strange, and the more I think about it, the stranger I am certain it is going to seem to future generations. Basically, the entire profession "played the dots", to use Alan's phrase. Most of the time they were playing pieces by people they couldn't talk to or play along with, the way the pop people play along with each other (the pop composers and players being all mixed up with each other). The "authentic" phase which erupted once normal recordings had been made of everything only took to extremes a trend that had been established in modified form ever since recording began, and in some ways served to correct some of the extremes (of non-improvisation for example) of those normal recordings.

Soon, the classical (for want of a better word) profession will revert to true normality, with the composers and the players going back to being the same people, improvising confidently, because the composers will be right there on the stage or in the studio and available to encourage or frown instantly.

The reason I get so exercised at what a ghastly non-musician Thomas Adès is is that he is doing the most important thing in classical music right now, on which all else depends, namely composing, but is doing it hideously badly, to enormous acclaim from all the idiot critics, and to utter indifference from the rest of the universe. The critics are touting him as the Next Big Thing, but he is nothing of the kind. He is a weird after-echo of the old twentieth century regime, in the form of a sort of living reconstruction of a Dead White Composer, who relates to current classical music making pretty much as Beethoven does, but with the one little little problem that he ain't Beethoven.

What is needed in the classical world is not a steady trickle of Fake Great Composers, but a healthy flow of genuine lesser ones (from which posterity can be left to pick the great ones at its leisure), who can make use of all those violin and cello skills by writing entertaining music that will pay the rent. Adès doesn't pay any rent. He consumes rent. He is a classical music asset stripper, whose career will last only as long as idiots are willing to throw money at him in exchange for the simulacrum of greatness.

The film people are the nearest thing we have to a profession of this sort, but I have yet to hear anything from that fraternity that is not drearily derivative. The best that they now contribute seems to me to evoke olden times, by writing olden style music, as and when that is needed, for olden times films.

Oddly enough, one of the people who gets nearer than most to doing the job well is the much scorned (by critics rather than by punters generally) Vanessa Mae. But that's a different posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:13 PM
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February 21, 2004
Thar fyar char arve clarssarcarl myar zarc

Thomas Adès has been much touted as Britain's version of the future of classical music. I don't see it, myself, that is to say, I don't hear it. His much touted opera The Tempest just sounds to me like every other Brand-X subsidised recent opera that I've ever heard, tuneless and pointless. The result of having the words sung opera-style by opera-style singers is that you can't hear them, and the result of the orchestral backing is to turn everything into emotionally meaningless modern-music wallpaper. I listened to quite a lot of it on the radio last Wednesday, and it just sounded like re-heated Schoenberg left-overs. Now I'm watching it on the telly (the Scotland v. England rugby having finished), and although it is being sung in "English" – i.e. operatic wah-wah-wah Arnglarsh – they have subtitles for you to make out what the hell is being sung, which are needed, let me tell you. For if you care, I mean, which I do not.

There are two rules for this kind of operatic composition. First, the singers sing "tunes" that are almost, but not entirely, constructed of randomly tuneless notes. If they sang truly randomly, then every half hour there would be an actual tune, just by the law of averages. This never happens. Second, the particular form the non-tune-ness takes is that each note has to deviate by about four or five notes from the previous note that is sung. Often this results in mere see-sawing. Occasionally the next note is higher than the previous one and the one after that goes still higher, or the same thing downwards. This non-tune has no connection whatsoever with any meaning that would, without all this non-music churning away, be discernible from the words, in the event that one could hear what they were.

In this version of The Tempest, Shakespeare's plot has been approximately kept, with the obligatory moral promotion of Caliban and moral demotion of Prospero (this I learned from a Radio Three announcer rather than from the damn thing itself), but Shakespeare's words have been rewritten by someone now alive, in the manner of the appalling and superfluous New English Bible (may it burn in Hell). This was probably wise. I once saw an opera done in the same musical manner by someone called Humphrey Searle, based on Hamlet, and using Shakespeare's original words, thus:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .thart. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . .bar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .quarss. . . . .
. . . . . . . . .nart. . . . . . . . . .ars. . . . . . . . . . . . .
.Tar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .charn
. . . . . . .ar. . . . . . .bar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .tar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . thar. . . . . . . . . .

Etcetera. Not a success. By being made to listen to a modern-operatically fucked over version of Shakespeare's original words you were constantly, for every single second of this absurd ordeal, reminded of the difference between artistic excellence and artistic idiocy. So replacing the Shakespeare Tempest with an idiot Tempest for this Tempest was a wise precaution.

This Tempest does seem to be a little better than that Searle/Hamlet absurdity, but only a little. To be exact, sometimes everyone sings fast and incomprehensibly in the idiotically up and down style. And on other occasions everyone sings v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-l-y, in the idiotically up and down style. It is this tiny concession to theatrical effectiveness and meaningfulness which presumably has got all the critics gibbering that this is a Great Occasion, the Most Hotly Anticipated piece of blar blar blar, etcetera, ever in the whole of human history since the last piece of garbage like this we tried to make other people besides us excited about.

This is producer art. Everyone agrees that it is great, except almost everyone. And, without caring tuppence about it, almost everyone is paying a great deal more than tuppence for it. If the people who say they like this nonsense had to pay for all of it, it would surely cease at once.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:39 PM
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February 20, 2004
More on Transcendental Values

I'm working on a rather unwieldy posting with lots of photos which I don't want to rush, so it's fobbing off time.

So, about the previous post, the one where I disagree with Dennis Dutton, and by way of elaboration: what I think happened was not that twentieth century classical composers, and artists in general, just stopped believing in transcendental values, exactly. Nor was it a case of positively wanting something different, and nastier, as I think I implied in the previous post, in fact as I think I said. That wasn't it. What happened (I now think on further reflection) was that the traditional tonal language of music became tainted in their ears, and representational art became tainted in their eyes, by what it started to be used, in the twentieth century, to celebrate. To be blunt about it, artists felt that traditional art got stolen by hideous politicians.

Take Mondrian. I'm no Modern Art expert, as regulars here well know. I'm an innocent when I go to art galleries, which has its uses and generates its own insights. But I do recall reading something somewhere, in some Art Book, about why Mondrian turned his back on representational art. It was the politicians. It was that vile God, the one who was on "our side", everywhere, right in the thick of all the fighting. I refuse to tell stories with my pictures, he said, because the stories now told by representational art are all monstrous. My paintings are not of anything. They are themselves. They have no meaning, other than what they simply are.

It was as if the artists went on strike. The world wants us to tell lies about God, and about Workers, and about Aryans. Well we won't. And if that means we tell the world a great Nothing, then so be it.

We refuse to sing in tune. Tunes are tunes of spurious glory. Tunes marched the West into the slaughter of the trenches, and tunes wave a blood-sodden red flag or a swastika. Screw tunes.

That, I think, is how Transcendental Values factored in to twentieth century art. It's not that the artists abandoned them, more that they recoiled in horror at the way that monsters hijacked the traditional means of expressing Traanscendental Values.

But Dutton's notion that the problem was merely technical, if that's what he truly said (and I realise that I am often wrong about these things), remains, I humbly submit, quite wrong.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:54 PM
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February 19, 2004
I disagree with Dennis Dutton!

There's a first. The paragraph which I think may be somewhat wrong is the second of these two that follow. "Murray" is Charles Murray, and the offending excerpt is from this review essay

Murray is right to stress the importance of meaning it – of commitment in the arts. He tells of the stonemasons who sculpted gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals. They worked with passionate devotion, even when their handiwork would be invisible from the ground: God would see it. I discovered a similar aesthetic psychology in my own fieldwork in New Guinea, where serious artists view a carving created for a dead ancestor differently from one knocked off for tourists. Much of our own art and entertainment is shallow and flashy, made neither for God nor ancestors, but for a market.

But, accepting this does not mean that transcendental values form a principle necessary to explain high achievement in the arts. Consider the history of music. Murray makes it clear that the invention of polyphony led to more complex structures that, along with improved instrumentation, continued through the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth. The Himalayan heights of music were reached 150 years later, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. If there is progress in this period, it is the progress of artists who responded to the problems and potentialities inherent in musical tonality. New instruments, developing popular audiences, a sense of formal experimentation, and above all the maturing of tonality were the driving forces for the great flowering of music through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was, in other words, the birth, flourishing, and exhaustion of organizing structures, not transcendental values, that provided the most important motor for music development.

I think, on the other hand, that the nineteenth century was positively pulsating with transcendental values, and that it was these very values which ran out of steam during the early part of the twentieth century. It wasn't that the possibilities of tonality had been exhausted. It was that the composers were no longer as interested in pursuing those possibilities. Tonality no longer said what they wanted to say. They lived in horrific times, and they wanted horrific music. Dutton may well be right that you can have great art without transcendental values, although personally I doubt it, but he has picked a bad example to illustrate his claim. That's what I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:54 AM
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February 17, 2004
John Holloway plays Biber

biber.jpgHere's another posting, in the manner of this previous one a few days ago, about a CD of rather obscure music that is well worth investigating if you like that sort of thing.

I'm talking about a double disc of violin sonatas I have recently acquired, composed by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704 or 1705 - there seems to be disagreement), and played by period violinist John Holloway. These are the so-called "Mystery Sonatas", and if you scroll down at Holloway's site, you'll find a reference to these discs. The recording of them was done in 1991, and it has recently been reissued as a bargain double. I got it at HMV Oxford Street, for a mere tenner. It is very fine.

I was provoked into purchasing these discs by hearing what I now realise was a far more recent and even more remarkable recording by John Holloway, also of Biber violin sonatas, on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday February 5th. On that morning we lucky Radio-3-ites heard Holloway playing Biber's Violin Sonata No. 3 in F, which dates from 1681. It is a truly extraordinary piece, full of super-virtuosity and high spirits of the sort you would expect more from something written by Bartok, or maybe by some gypsy violin king. I will keep an eye open for this disc in the second hand shops – and for anything else by John Holloway come to that, because he is an amazing musician. (I see that he has done some Bach violin sonatas also.) Until now, Holloway was to me just an obscure name, but that has all now changed.

My particular bugbear about "period" musicians, which I have often blogged about, is the way so many of them come down like elephants descending from airplanes without parachutes on the first notes of every bar. Holloway doesn't do this. When he plays it, it still sounds like music, rather than like some mad old music teacher beating time, and nothing else.

More to the point, he really sounds - and again, as so many period musicians seem to make a point of not sounding - like he wants to get the absolute most he can out of his instrument, and make it sound just as glamourous and exciting and enthralling and effective as he can, as Biber himself also used to do, apparently. Biber didn't play his sonatas while thinking: "I must be careful not to make this sound like Tchaikovsky." He played them for all they were worth.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
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February 14, 2004
Nakamatsu plays Wölfl

wolfl.jpg

I read a somewhat dismissive review in the latest Gramophone (that's only the link to the mag – the review is paper only as far as I can discover) of this new CD of four piano sonatas by Joseph Wölfl, the once famous piano virtuoso and composer. His dates are 1773-1812, and since then he has pretty much only been remembered as a bit part player in the lives of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). I couldn't, to illustrate the point, find any web page devoted to the man himself, rather than just occasional mentions of obscure and deleted CDs of his music. But then I came across this CD for £4 in one of my regular second hand CD haunts (maybe it was that Gramophone reviewer unloading it), and, since the pianist is one of my recent favourites, Jon Nakamatsu, I gave it a go.

And it is really very good. It's not Beethoven and it's not Mozart, and it wouldn't make sense to say that it is in between. More a case of inhabiting the polished and pleasingly decorated floor between those two stools. But it's good. The pieces are sometimes elegant, and sometimes more turbulent than elegant, in a manner I've not heard the exact like of before. Nakamatsu plays them a whole lot better, and made a whole lot more of them, than that Gramophone reviewer said, in my opinion. I especially enjoyed the last movement of Op. 33 no. 1.

And a little googling reveals that Anthony Holden of the Guardian also liked this CD a lot.

This kind of thing won't pay the rent for the entire classical music industry as it still now tries to operate, but it deserves a nod of praise nevertheless.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:44 PM
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February 06, 2004
Friendly film music

From tonight's Friends:

Chandler to Monica: "What are you singing?"

Monica to Chandler: "It's Bolero from Ten."

Chandler to Monica: "It's the Ride of the Valkyries from Apocalypse Now."

Chandler was right, naturally.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:40 PM
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Why pieces of music are more popular if they have a number – an economic speculation about art consumption

Classical music fans like me have a mysterious fondness for pieces of music called, thrillingly, something like: "No. 14, opus 27 no. 2", rather than "Moonlight". I'm being ironic you understand. Also, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14, opus 27 no. 2 and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata are the same piece.

But whence the preference for numbers? Is it pure snobbery, nothing but a perverse pleasure in the esoteric which scares off the vulgar hoards, and nothing else? Maybe that's part of it. There is a shallow thrill to knowing "about" classical music, as well as knowing it, and feeling cleverer than the rest because you do.

But there is a more mundane and respectable consideration at work here, it has just this moment occurred to me.

The reason why numbers are good is that works of art with a number are ... more numerous! There are likely to be a lot of them!

It's a simple matter of economics. In rather the same way that you are more likely to start a business if, other things being equal, you stand to make a lot of money if things go well rather than merely a little, music fans (I'll stick with music, because this is what I really know about) are more likely to investigate a piece of music if, in the event that they like it, they know that there is going to be more of the same to enjoy.

Suppose you adore the Symphony Fantastique, by Hector Berlioz. Many do, for it is a fine piece. But me, I'm irritated by it. Why the hell, if Berlioz was good enough to write such a fine Symphony No 1, did Berlioz not rattle off another five, for all those who take a liking to the Berlioz way with a symphony?

Suppose that Beethoven had only written one piano sonata, the Moonlight, instead of the thirty two that he did write. I surmise that the Moonlight itself would be less popular than it is now. After all, if you gave the Moonlight a try, and liked it, there's nowhere else to go. As it is, if you like the first Beethoven piano sonata you listen to, there are thirty one others to enjoy, and isn't that great? So, all the more reason to give the first one you consider a go.

When you first learn about Brucker's symphonies, say, you pretty soon learn that there are nine of them, and you learn this long before you have heard all of them. Generally you hear all the chatter about the three final and particularly great ones – 7, 8 and 9 – and you hear them first. (That's a guess. I'm really talking about me.) But the mere fact of knowing that they are called 7, 8 and 9 tells you that in the event of you falling hopelessly in love with these mighty pieces, there will be a further six Brucker symphonies to wallow in. (Actually there are eight more Bruckner symphonies, because Bruckner wrote a Symphony No. "0", and even, if you please, an even earlier one now called Symphony No "00"! This was because he wrote them, then "withdrew" them, refusing the dignity of the titles No 1 and No 2 until he had works he considered worthy of such nomenclature, and then these early and at first unnumbered works were disinterred by scholars. You probably didn't know that, did you, you pathetic prole.)

Thus it is that obscure composers who, whatever their shortcomings, did at least write a lot of, e.g., symphonies, such as Arnold Bax (7), Havergal Brian (31 I think, or maybe 32), tend to do better than they would have done otherwise. I'm not saying that Bax is all that bad, or for that matter than (Havergal) Brian is all that good. I'm just saying that, other things being equal, numbers are enticing.

Although music is the taste I know most about for these purposes, I think it was painting that first got me to notice this tendency. The world of painting, it seems to me, is a world which rewards painters who stick with the same themes for longish periods. Think of Mondrian. Think of Bridget Riley. Think of Monet, solemnly doing the same haystack in a dozen different versions. Incomprehensibly creating a vast, matching set of works, rather than hopping about from one genre to another is, for a painter, a smart move. Concentrate, lad.

The usual explanation for this tendency to concentrate is, I guess, that this is how to create really good stuff. You stick with the same formula and perfect it, and you can't perfect it unless you stick with it.

But I think if you look at the situation from the point of view of the consumer of these vast aggregations of similar but not identical works of art, the reason for the success of artists who plough their one idiosyncratic furrow with bizarre determination and single-mindedness makes a little more sense.

I'll stop now, because this is an idea I have only just had, and it may be rubbish. I haven't lived with it, or kept an eye out for anyone else saying it. There are no links in this posting, because I am aware of no one else having said this, and before investing too much effort in this notion I need to know that I'm really on to something original here, and probably I am not.

My guess is that many a music critic has said something a lot like this, in passing, but hasn't quite realised that there is here a defence against that "number snobbery" charge, rather than a mere description of the nature of this alleged snobbery. That, I now surmise, is the original bit of this hypothesis. But even there I could be quite wrong.

Has anybody else said this?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:40 AM
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February 05, 2004
When critics disagree

LSOBr2.jpgToday I bought the latest issues of the Gramophone and of the BBC Music magazine.

Both of them provide reviews of the new LSO Live recording of Brahms 2nd Symphony and Double Concerto conducted by Bernard Haitink.

In the Gramophone, Richard Osborne calls it "an exceptional new disc", and says of the recording that it is "rich and immediate" and that it "brings out in gratifying measure the tactile quality of Brahms' writing." The symphony he calls an "imposing and beautifully shaded" performance. And Gramophone editor James Jolly picks this disc as one of his top ten recommendations of the month.

In the BBC's Music magazine, Misha Donat says this:

With Haitink at the helm of the LSO, this ought to be a sure-fire success. Alas, try as I did, I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for what are actually rather middle-of-the-road performances that seldom catch fire. Certainly, the Second Symphony is one ofBrahms's more relaxed works, but it's not without its darker moments - the fortissimo passages in the first movement's development section, for instance; or the minor-mode central episode of the Adagio, with its passionate string tremolos. In Haitink's hands everything is neatly in place, but the music's drama and intensity are underplayed. …

The Double Concerto, he says:

… fares rather better, thanks to some sensitive playing by the orchestra's leader and principal cellist, Gordan Nikolitch and Tim Hugh. But again the finale is short on exuberance. …

But he didn't like the recording.

This new release is not helped by an over-analytical recording, liberally laced with echo, which lays every detail bare, but conveys little idea of the overall sound-picture.

The reason I was so interested to see what they thought of this recording is that I already possess it. So what am I supposed to think? Am I to enjoy it, or not to enjoy it? Am I to be delighted by the richness and immediacy of the recording, or disgusted that it conveys little idea of the overall sound-picture?

My God. I'm going to have to decide for myself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:20 PM
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January 29, 2004
How Classical Music lives on in the cinema

Norman Lebrecht is a desperate doom-spreading protagonist for the future of Classical Music, and in this piece from earlier this month he tries to persuade himself that it is doing okay. I, on the other hand, note Classical Music's travails, confident that nothing this huge could possibly disappear without trace or subsequent influence.

And classical music does remain enormous in its cultural presence. Says Lebrecht:

… According to three Classic FM surveys, 15m people in Britain have a liking for orchestral music. About half of them listen to classical radio ...

Lebrecht is desperate to entice some of these millions into concert halls to sit through concert performances. Why? Don't know. He just is. Doesn't want his orchestral pals to have to switch to tele-marketing, presumably. And, live music is good for you, presumably. Drums and guitars bad, like carbohydrates in the Atkins diet.

Me, I'm coming to regard the future of Classical Music not as a desperate struggle, but as an obvious fact. It may not be a fact which keeps five London Symphony orchestras is permanent business, in fact if it did I'd be amazed. And rather disgusted, because that would be bound to involve a hell of a lot of subsidies from unconsulted taxpayers and shareholders. But survive it will, in some form, and since it will survive, it is bound to have creative consequences.

Perhaps the most interesting immediate after-echo of classic Classical Music is to be found in film music. While the official classical composers disappear into their various never never lands of atonalism, and then minimalism, and now … I can't remember, but I had it written down on a scrap of paper and I'll let you know … While the official classicals are off, you know, doing their feeble feeble things, and giving their first and last performances of each other's feeble feeble pieces, the ancient voice of the symphony orchestra continues to blare forth in the background of epics like the Lord of the Rings and Matrix movies. Those moments when classical music is at its most rock and roll, so to speak, such as the Dies Irae in Verdi's Requiem (or for that matter the Dies Irae in Britten's War Requiem), or the rhythmic string patterns of the more aggressive tank warfare music in Shostakovitch's symphonies, have resulted in a whole new epic style of film music making. I hear it every time I browse through the DVDs in EMI Oxford Street. Guitars do not jangle. Drums are often quiet. No, that's an orchestra doing that. Strange creatures with funny ears say portentously platitudinous things, and fifty violinists and violists and cellists are fending off the dole in the background.

I prefer listening to Verdi's actual Requiem, Britten's actual War Requiem, and Shostakovitch's actual symphonies, to listening to all the various film scores that have been influenced by such music, so I'm probably not the best person to be discussing the nuances of the work of John Williams or … all the other guys who write rather like John Williams. I can only offer small snatches of musical recollection from among my years of movie watching.

Consider 2001: A Space Odyssey. You really don't have to be very musically well informed to know that the music Kubrick chose for that was classical. Who could forget the rocket slowly inching its way towards the huge space wheel to the sound of the Blue Danube? But by the time I heard that, I had already been transfixed by the music Kubrick had already used at the beginning, that amazing thing with the drums and organ and brass. Wow, I thought, that was really something. It turned out, of course, to be Also Sprach Zarathustra, by not-Johann Strauss, that is to say by Richard Strauss. The music for 2001, or more precisely the feeling about music that 2001 tapped into, was crucial to the future of Classical Music because what it said was: Classical Music has a future. It will go to the stars in our space ships, alongside drinks machines, video-telephones and the boredom of interplanetary travel. (In the Alien movies, they hibernate. Me, I'd stay awake for longer, and listen to the complete Haydn string quartets or the complete Bach Cantatas.)

Or consider another movie from long ago, called The Lion in Winter, the one in which Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn played Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. The music for that was done, I just happen to remember, by John Barry, who cut his cinematic musical fangs on early James Bond movies. Twang twang bang bang doo-wop doo-wop. But faced with the job of evoking the dynastic rivalries of twelfth century Anglo-France, Barry resorted to a more classical idiom. It had the rhythmic insistence of pop, but he got a chorus and an orchestra to actually play it. I am not claiming that this was any sort of musical landmark, with ripples spreading onwards and outwards I'm just saying that this is typical of what happens when cinema composers want to step beyond the pop they got started in, or the contemporary action adventures they then move to when they get too old to do pop. When they want to evoke a bigger, older, more universal, more future-proof world, they reach for the classics.

Although, I just did some Lion in Winter googling, and the film is now held in higher regard by others besides me than I realised. So maybe it was a musical influence, and not just a musical symptom. Not much is said about John Barry's music in the stuff I've seen, but I remember it as having a huge effect on the atmosphere of the film, and accordingly a huge influence on the success of the film as a whole. And if that's so, then the other musicians will definitely have noted this.

And hello (googling "John Barry" as well as just "Lion in Winter" this time), what's this? Apparently John Barry got an Oscar for it. That would definitely have been noticed by the other musicians.

Whatever. What I'm saying is that thanks to Lions in Winter, Star Wars, Matrices and the rest of them, the basic musical grammar of classical music will go on being pounded into new generations. It won't go away. Universality equals Beethoven, is the subtext of all this. And since when did people ever turn their backs on universality.

There's a lot more going on with the non-death of Classical Music than mere film music, but that will do for today.

Expect comment from Michael Jennings, who really does like his film music, but oddly, has no fondness for traditional Classical Music itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:10 PM
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January 27, 2004
Electric Review on John Cage etc.

I've been concentrating a bit on my Education Blog during the last day or so, so I am now going to palm you off with someone else's writing. It's Allen Buchler, the music critic of the Conservative electro-organ of cultural commentary, Electric Review, writing about the performance of John Cage's 4'33", which was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Laurence Foster at the Barbican on January 16th, and televised live by BBC4 TV.

I've been fretting for some time now over the relative ease with which I find I can write about the visual arts, and the relative ease with which I can fling up illustrations of what I'm writing about, compared to music, which I find a lot harder to describe or illustrate, by comparison, for the kind of people I imagine to be the readers of this blog. So this chunk of writing fills a definite gap here.

The score of this piece (which was available for purchase in the foyer at the price of £4.33) is simplicity itself. Silence is to be maintained for the stated period, divided into three sections, the lengths of which can be arbitrarily determined. Although the piece was originally conceived for piano solo, the orchestra rose to the challenge and gave a technically faultless performance. I do however have serious reservations about the interpretation.

And the convenient thing about that is that you all know, approximately speaking, what silence sounds like. No need to link to that, or have a box at the side full of it.

The enigma of 4'33", which Cage himself was careful to maintain, is whether it is serious or is a joke. The joke aspect is apparent to us – it is music catching up, 25 years late, with Duchamps. That there may be a serious – or at least non-trivial – point to consider in this jape (as with Duchamps), I have tried to adumbrate above. The only way in which you can try to catch both these (and any other) aspects is to play the piece absolutely po-faced.

The performance interestingly demonstrated this. Foster mounted the podium and lowered his baton as the indication that the work had commenced. Nobody stirred – not in the orchestra, or even in the audience. The absence of coughing or spluttering was in fact astonishing. No-one wanted to break the spell, to giggle, to boo – we were genuinely held in suspense, the more so as we had no idea at what point the first section would end, or indeed what we might do at this release. As it happened, when the baton was raised to mark this event, we did, remarkably, what we always do — cough, mutter to our companions, stretch a little. This was also in its way interesting, but then I am afraid Foster broke the spell – he drew out his handkerchief and, in the time-honoured affectation of the orchestral maestro, mopped his brow. So now we were all safe – it was clearly just for laughs. The last two sections were marked by a notable lack of concentration compared to the first section, particularly after a further lapse at the end of the second section, when the orchestra-members turned the page of their parts.

Well, it is certainly a valid interpretation of 4'33", but not, I fear, one that reaches its full potential. But perhaps the perfect 4'33" is as elusive as the perfect 'Ring'.

Buchler is a conscientious reviewer, and if you are at all interested in the more serious American composers (Antheil, Copland, Cowell, Ives, Schuman (nothing to do with Robert Schumann)) of recent times, I recommend that you read the whole thing, and for that matter track down Buchler's other writings for Electric Review.

(By the way, Alice Bachini also comments on 4'33", here. And she supplies some sort of link to it.)

I was reminded of Electric Review's continuing existence by my friend Bunny Smedley, who also writes for it. Bunny herself writes about the visual arts, her line being that Modern Art is something that libertarians in particular, but non-lefties generally, ought to relax about and enjoy rather than fulminate at, as I sometimes do here and expect to go on doing. I suspect that I take Modern Art more seriously than she does. Guess: she thinks that at worst Modern Art is stupid; I think that at worst Modern Art is evil.

Bunny's latest piece deals at length with the same Philip Guston whom I wrote about here the other day but only very briefly.

My thanks to Bunny for the email, and my congratulations to all at Electric Review for their most interesting publication.

I have long known about Electric Review. (As I say, Bunny is a friend.) But I have refrained from linking to it because until now I couldn't get the links to work properly, and feared that others might have the same experience. Worse, I didn't want even to read it, in case – as I am sure would have happened constantly – I wanted to comment about something in it here. Very annoying. I'm glad to say that all such nonsense is now a thing of my past. Electric Review has now had a retread of some complicated sort and all now seems to be working fine.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:09 PM
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January 19, 2004
When art forms mature

Alan Little says they don't make movies like they did thirty years ago, and asks: do art forms have a life cycle, and are movies at the end of theirs?

Is it just that any art form quickly mines out the worthwhile ideas that are within its reach and then has nothing left to say or do? There’s certainly a strong case for arguing that with, say, western classical music – a couple of hundred years of sheer exuberant wonder from circa 1700 to 1900, then picking over the remains? Or the "literary" novel. And mass communications may make the process faster – jazz lasted, creatively, from the 1920s to at the latest the 1960s. Maybe cinema just managed a decade or so more than that at both ends and is now a zombie art form too. I hope not.

I found myself itemising all the great symphonies written since 1900, in a comment on this at Samizdata a few weeks back, and I amazed myself. The big surprise for me was discovering how many Mahler symphonies date from after 1900, which I had not appreciated until now. Number 4 onwards, I discovered. Until now, all I'd done was listen to these monsters, not read the sleeve notes. So the "picking over the remains" phase can still be amazingly impressive. Gustav Mahler is a fine example to think about, because many contemporaries thought his stuff derivative and decadent and self-consciously knowing and just generally rubbish, in lots of the ways that art is rubbish when it's done by people who know everything that has been said for the last two hundred years and are scraping the barrel for new things to say. What those contemporaries missed, I'd say, was the depth of feeling under all that kitsch and cleverness and which demanded all the kitsch and cleverness in order to express itself.

Also, despite things now seeming so lively to us until 1900 at least, I bet you there were people just as clever as Alan Little saying in 1850 or thenabouts that whatever they called classical music in those days (music?) was already zombified. Come to think of it, didn't Wagner say pretty much exactly this about "Jewish music" of the Meyerbeer, Mendlessohn variety? Mastery of surface forms and formulae. A big nothing where the real depth ought to be. Wasn't that what he said?

Wagner appallingly overdid his protestations that Jewish artists were/are uniquely incapable of depth, but I do think that he had a point. Could it be that as an art "matures", it gets easier to do basically second-rate, formulaic stuff that nevertheless is sufficiently satisfying and well-produced to keep the manufacturers of it in business. Indeed, maybe that's what "maturing" means. People learn what a core audience will tolerate, and how to fake greatness for them, and they then serve it up year after year. Meanwhile there is at least as much truly great stuff still being done, but it is harder to find and takes longer for posterity to dig out and celebrate.

I don't think that this model explains the decline (and I think it was decline) of "classical music" in the late twentieth century. What happened there was more like a recoiling in disgust from the established forms and a conscious refusal to churn out formula stuff and pay the rent. What wouldn't they now give for a Meyerbeer! I'm not sure if Alan is right about art forms getting mined out, but the late twentieth century classical bosses certainly believed this themselves. Sadly, they were unable to find any other forms that were remotely as popular as their old ones. The Pop industrialists (Jazz, then R&R, now … whatever the young people call it these days) were way ahead of them on that, and they still are. (I think "classical" might catch up, but that's a whole different post.)

Getting back to movies, maybe posterity will decide that Steven Spielberg was a basically formulaic hack, a movie Meyebeer, whose work served to create an impression of general movie zombietude in the minds of people like Alan Little (and me also, I rather think, although I was much impressed by Schindler's List), but that other less mechanically done stuff (Wagner before he got noticed, Schumann) was still being produced, under the radar so to speak. In general, I have the feeling that your average Hollywood movie maker now knows, one way (Quentin Tarantino) or another (Mr Average Movie Exec), too much about too many past movies, and spends too much time either "homage"-ing (Tarantino) or churning the formulae (Mr AME).

There's now an interesting little flurry of appreciation in my corner of the blogosphere being stirred up around Whit Stillman 's movie Metropolitan, a flurry provoked by this piece, and to which I have been contributing. This is obviously a movie which thousands now adore, yet it still can't be bought in London on DVD. (Stephen Pollard said in a Samizdata comment: expect it any month now.) Is this perhaps the kind of movie that posterity will dig out and celebrate more?

This posting started off as just a little something to deal with the fact that I'm busy this evening, and need to get my daily duties here out of the way. So I did my little nod to Alan, and the idea was to leave it at that. Nice one Alan. Then it got out of hand, basically when I found myself disagreeing, and in general, you know, thinking about it. Which is just what Alan himself said later in his posting.

Hmm. This started out as something throwaway to write on the train after a weekend of being ill, and is heading towards altogether more mentally strenuous territory of "is the phase space of possible art forms getting mined out too?", and "what is art for anyway?", which I don't propose to even attempt in the remaining ten minutes of my journey to work.

This second little Little quote above makes we want to ramble on some more here about how I also often sit down, as in this case, to do a short post and end up doing a long and profound one instead, and to ruminate upon the goodness and badness of setting yourself the task of doing something every day, and what sort of writers benefit from such rules, and what sort do not, blah blah. But like him, I will cut it short and leave that stuff for another time.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:00 PM
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January 10, 2004
The Verbier piano festival on the telly

I'm watching Evgeni Kissin and Martha Argerich play a Mozart piano duet on the television. It certainly adds something to one's appreciation of the music to see them playing it. I think part of the reason it is so revealing is that they need to communcate with each other to make the performance work, and thus they communicate also with the rest of us.

Listening to the same performance on the radio would be to listen to what they actually played. Watching them play as well as hearing it means being told how they wanted to play it also. And we all know how profoundly the human nervous system is influenced by what it expects to see, or in this case what it expects to hear.

When you google: "Kissin" and "Argerich", you get a mass of references to solo piano pieces which they have both recorded. You get them as rivals. But now Argerich refuses to play on her own, which I won't complain about again. (Argerich is overrated, basically because a lot of people think she's God, but she is still very good. Except in Mozart piano concertos.)

Now there's a bunch of famous string virtuosi – Sarah Chang, Gidon Kremer, Nobuko Imai, Vadim Repin, Christian Tetzlaff, Yuri Bashmet, Mischa Maisky – playing a joke piece by a German guy, which is a pastiche set of variations on Happy Birthday to You. I don't know whose or what's birthday it is. They all seem to be enjoying themselves greatly. Why can't real compositions be more like this? It seems that this is not allowed. Sooner or later these people – not these particularly people, but their massed pupils – are going to have to play entertaining music not all that unlike this joke piece, but for real. Or starve or get jobs as computer operatives. It won't be long before these are their real choices. Maybe this joke piece, which is only one up from something by Gerard Hoffnung, is these people sensing what their future is going to be about.

Now they're playing the Bach concerto for four pianos and orchestra. Fatty conductor James Levine has joined them, to play piano. And there's Michael Pletnev as well. This must be one of the most expensive performances of this piece ever. But it's also very good. Plenty of bounce and dance about it. I love Bach keyboard concertos played on the piano, as well as on the harpsichord. Now the slow movement. Delicious. They're all sitting absolutely still while they play, and that's also how they're playing it of course. Now the finale. I'm just going to listen.

Finished. Wonderful. And it's the Verbier Birthday Festival Orchestra, so I guess it's the Verbier Festival that is having its birthday.

Now they're going to play Rossini's overture to Semiramide, arranged for eight pianos. They started with a joke tuning session. No much they can do about that, with pianos, so ha ha.

Sarah Chang is a real looker, and she's on the cover the latest BBC Music Magazine. Meanwhile, Gramophone has the equally gorgeous Helene Grimaud. I wonder if that also is a sign of things to come. Answer: it's probably a sign of things that have already arrived. Chang is a terrific musician, no doubt about it. Grimaud, recently signed by DGG bothers me, after what I thought was a decidedly average Bartok Third Piano Concerto at last summer's Proms.

Now the eight pianists are doing the Ride of the Valkyries. It sounds great.

I have never witnessed anything at all like this before. I am musing about how many of them have recorded Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto. I have CDs of Argerich, Kissin, Lang Lang, Pletnev, and Andsnes. Now they're doing mad Americana on all those pianos, like arrangements of Stars and Stripes For Ever. The hour and a half went by in a flash.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:45 PM
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January 06, 2004
Me on Lebrecht on Samizdata

I have one of those started for here but ended up there bits, about Norman Lebrecht, up at Samizdata.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:32 PM
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December 28, 2003
The secret of conducting – as personally told to me by a conductor

Today I had lunch with a real live orchestral conductor, by the name of Julian Gallant. Nice man, as are his wife and brand new baby, whom I also met.

While Olga and baby were in another room feeding and being fed, I asked Julian one of the more interesting things you can ask people who have interesting jobs, or jobs of any kind really, which goes approximately as follows: "You're on your death bed and have only a few minutes to live, and it turns out your grandson has just shown up and he wants to do what you did. What do you tell him? Secret of your work in thirty seconds. Go."

He first answer was simply: rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Then he said: be clear, clear, clear. Then he said: help them. Rhythm, clarity, help. And don't show off.

Not bad. He didn't have to think very long about it either.

Gallant and his Russian born wife Olga between them run, conduct and musically direct the Russian Chamber Orchestra of London and they also run a closely related enterprise called Ensemble Productions, closely related meaning that they organise events involving other musicians as well, and dancers too. Scroll down here for some future events, some of which I intend to go to myself, and report on here. There's also a link to more information about the Russian Chamber Orchestra.

And then my host took me to visit and have tea and fruit cake with a lady called Elena who is a choreographer. The real thing. She works for all the top London companies, and has also worked on movies, coaching movie stars. Which is hard, apparently.

You blog about it. Eventually it starts to happen.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:30 PM
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December 16, 2003
Alan Little on Fürtwangler and me on blogs being here tomorrow

Alan Little emailed me today about an interesting piece he has up at his blog about the unease he felt listening to – and liking a great deal – a Wilhelm Fürtwangler recording of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, which was made in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic. However the points he raises struck me as being of more than merely "cultural" interest, as the date and the city has probably already suggested to you, so I linked to and commented on his posting at Samizdata.

I also thank him for linking back to a piece I did here, way back in September, about Hitler's love of classical music.

One of the things I most like about blogging is that your better bits have a habit of sticking around and being linked back to. Not by very many people, true, but the more I experience it, the more I disagree with the "here today gone tomorrow" complaint about blogging. In fact, I would say that the most important difference between being on talk radio (which I still do occasionally but did a lot more in the past) and doing blogging is precisely that blogs are not "gone tomorrow". At present most blogs have a far smaller readership than the audience of the radio stations I've chatted on, but the difference between readership and audience is, for me, all the difference. Talk is indeed gone, almost immediately. Writing can stick around, and the software that bloggers use ensures that at its best, that is just what it does.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:57 PM
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December 05, 2003
Symphony orchestras on Transport Blog (yes really)

And the other cultural blogging I did recently, to excuse the fact that I haven't done much here for the last day or so, was in a couple of comments on this, concerning the number of symphony orchestras there are along a (at least symphonically) rather remarkable railway line from Washington DC to Boston, via Philadelphia and New York, and Baltimore, and also (for symphonic purposes) Wilmington, New Haven and Newark.

UPDATE: In a futher comment, Michael Jennings reveals that he does not know how many symphony orchestras there are on the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:27 AM
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December 02, 2003
Denis Dutton on Charles Rosen

This is, I think, a fabulous piece of writing, by Denis Dutton about a book by Charles Rosen. By this I mean that I not only agree with just about every word of what Dutton says, but that I also think he strikes exactly the right tone when agreeing, or disagreeing, with Rosen.

Dutton makes the excellent point that an odd effect of the recording of classical music is that performing fashion has recently done a somersault. The first few technically satisfactory recordings of the standard repertoire tried to be as standard as possible, to be that "all round best version" ("safest" version!) that the BBC picks out on Saturday mornings. But now that there are dozens of such standard interpretations, the search is on for non-standard ones. We punters now dig out the eccentricities of early twentieth century virtuosi, and purchase new recordings by similarly wilful artists of our own time, who have suddenly leapfrogged over their more careful contemporaries. Well, that was me making these points. Here's how Dutton makes them:

Rosen is right that recording has altered how we regard musical works, but I’m not so sure he's exactly on the mark here. It does appear that the early recordings of complete sets were purchased mainly for repertoire. But one of the problems facing the classical recording industry today is that the market is saturated with repertoire. What will sell will be a performer – a big name pianist, for example, someone like Evgeny Kissin giving a fresh view of standard repertoire. A discount importer nearby to where I live has bins of CDs of standards – Sibelius symphonies, Brahms concertos, Chopin, and the like, all in adequate performances – for 54 cents each. At that price, the standard repertoire is no longer the issue: it is finding something new to do with it.

Rosen notes that "the eccentric and portentously personal interpretations by artists of the 1920s and 1930s" were not suitable for the later decades after the introduction of LPs, when a “faithful reflection of the composition” was more important than a unique, personal performance. He then disparages as a "myth" the notion that pianism was "more free in the grand old days of the past." But listening to the standard, so often tepid and correct, recordings of the 1950s, I’d say the atmosphere then was less free, and that a saturated market for repertoire today has actually forced pianists (or allowed them) to present themselves with something like the swagger of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If, as Nietzsche says, a dying culture goes out in the blaze and sputter of fireworks, then the piano is dying in pretty spectacular fashion, with the likes of Argerich, Pletnev, and Volodos. Rosen does remark that depending on how you listen, some old performances can seem "breathtaking and knuckleheaded, dazzling and revolting." True; but compared to fifty years ago, there are more, not fewer, pianists playing like that.

Dutton is also very good on the defects of classical musical modernism, without just spluttering in rage about it. It is tempting to copy and paste about a yard more of his stuff, but I will content myself with this:

I'd not mind at least some discussion of the possibility that Boulez’s piano music just isn't as good as Liszt's.

Personally I'm not over-fond of Liszt's piano music either, but that's just me.

Thank you Arts & Letters Daily. Thank you, a lot.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 PM
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November 28, 2003
The New York Philharmonic – stuck in the past

In the latest Spectator, Petroc Trelawny, a regular voice in British classical music broadcasting, writes about the current travails of the New York Philharmonic.

Basically, Los Angeles and San Francisco (under the leadership of Salonen and Tilson Thomas) have made the jump, away from safe and solid programmes of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and so on that appeal to the traditional but ageing classical audience, and towards more adventurous fare which at least gives them a chance of a future. Meanwhile, the New York Phil has just appointed as its music boss … Lorin Maazel!

Maazel is classical music living dead. He's a fine conductor. But everything I've ever heard him say, or read about him, tells me that he takes the future of classical music for granted, and regards actually having to, you know, do anything to secure that future, anything risky, as being just too undignified for someone of his supreme grandeur to contemplate. He wafts about in his opera cloak, issuing orders to trembling orchestral musicians, his head stuck in a vanishing age, imagining himself to be at the top of his tree, seemingly unaware that it is rotting. He has recently been recording Richard Strauss, and Sibelius (again), for RCA, to, er, mixed reviews. He never seems to have a go at anything recently composed, no doubt on the not unreasonable grounds that most of the stuff recently composed is garbage. But the good stuff has been recorded to death, and if they can't find new music and new audiences, these orchestras will themselves fade away. Taking no risks is the ultimate risk that is doomed to fail.

Salonen, Tilson Thomas, and Simon Rattle in Berlin of course, know that both orchestras and audiences now have to be seduced and charmed and jollied along. Orchestras no longer care to be tyrannised over. If new audiences are not sought out, they will disappear.

At the heart of running a great orchestra nowadays is having a hall to play in with good – preferably great – accoustics. Rattle got that built in Birmingham. Salonen now has it in Los Angeles. I don't know the situation in Berlin, but I've always assumed it to be pretty good there too. (It was good enough for Karajan.) In New York, they have the Avery Fisher Hall. Inadequate, apparently. They've been trying to manoeuvre their way into Carnegie Hall, which has great accoustics, but that doesn't now seem to be working. Instead, they're going to try to refurbish the accoustics in Avery Fisher. Dodgy, apparently, according to Trelawy. Could be a costly failure.

Could this be a moment for another big lump of what David Sucher calls "starchitecture"? (I can't find the actual word here, but the principle of the thing is all explained in this posting – the money raising, and the need to get it right at ground level.) Well, they have thought of that, but the descendants of Avery Fisher have vetoed it, because Avery Fisher Hall would have to be destroyed to make way for the new place and Avery Fisher might not end up being as immortal as he is now. The Disneys of Los Angeles seem to have contrived to behave rather more generously, but there you go, I guess this is New York and a deal's a deal.

All of which is a great pity. I mean, it's not as if they don't have money in New York. The problem now is that classical music is not offering New York anything enticing to spend it on. Except non New York orchestras when they play at Carnegie Hall.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 AM
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November 18, 2003
Classical tidiness

Alice Bachini also has some interesting musings about the appeal of classical music.

Music by famous pre-C20th composers is very controlled and ordered and tidy, compared to the stuff that came afterwards. It's pleasing to the ear in ways that make total unquestionable sense, like the harmonies of the spheres. It reassures one that all is well and the miraculous patterns of the universe are reassuringly both unfathomable and still in place.

During the twentieth century a critical mass of people, and I know exactly the feeling myself, lost the urge for tidiness, many advanced-thinking romantics already having lost it during the nineteenth. Something to do with the fact that the world was felt to be getting too tidy. While achieving tidiness was a desperate battle for almost everyone except a few stately home owners, art expressed that same yearning, for a utopia that was as controlled and unmessy as the everyday world was uncontrolled and messy. The wildness of nature used to be regarded as just badness to be subjugated, and turned into ornamental gardens.

But once Everyman finally moved into the Utopia of Tidyness, otherwise known as suburbs, life became intolerably organised for Young Everyman, and crazy rock and roll conquered the universe.

My suggestion for re-establishing the popularity of classical music: a serious but not completely fatal global nuclear war.

Incidentally, the piano sonatas of Beethoven don't sound quite as sweet and nice to me as they evidently do to Alice. But most of them are pretty much like that, I do agree. Beethoven, sweet and nice? Yes. He wasn't all raging and cursing and triple forte.

However, Beethoven's music must have sounded very different to his contemporaries. We hear the similarities between Beethoven and what went before. They heard the differences. And even we can hear that the Hammerklavier Sonata is somewhat disruptive of the harmonies of the spheres.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:30 PM
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November 17, 2003
The songs of Schubert

Today I wrote a piece for Ubersportingpundit about rugger, and have little time for anything much here. Sorry and all that.

So a brief reflection on the songs of Schubert and on the idea of artistic progress.

Today I listened to a recent CD acquisition, which was of Markus Eicher, baritone, accompanied by Jens Fuhr, piano, doing a selection of Schubert songs for Naxos, including one of my very favourite tunes of all time, An die Musik. These are two unknown names to me, but the bloke in the market wanted only £1.50, so what was really to lose?

And the thing about Schubert is that I think he makes everyone who sings his songs sound a better singer. I don't know why this is exactly, but I do have a theory, and half an hour in which to offer it here. It shouldn't take that long.

Basically, I believe that the liede, the German indoor, non-electronic, singer and piano, song reached its first and highest peak of perfection with the songs of Franz Schubert.

Artists, especially not very good ones, but including some very good ones indeed, are fond of talking about progress, and the implication of such talk is that art is like science. Each discovery only opens up new artistic vistas. Artists, like scientists, stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.

But this isn't really accurate. To me, it makes no sense to talk of later song writers "improving" on, say, An die Musik. The thing is already perfect. Progress in art is only in such mandane things as how many people can get to read it or listen to it, or how loud you can play it, or how colourful the colours are, or how much money you can amass by creating it. The closer it gets to talking about what really matters in matters artistic, the less the idea of progress really means anything.

What really happens is that artistic circumstances change, often radically. This isn't especially bad or especially good. It's just a fact. One day, you make music with pianos. Later it's done with microphones, and then with microphones and electric guitars. Now it's computers, the internet, and so on. This isn't progress, in any deep way. Nor, which some people also say by a sort of equal and opposite illogic, is it degeneration. It's just that times change.

Within each little genre, however, it does make sense to talk about progress, although even then such talk can be confusing and pseudo-scientific. What happens is that with each little new clutch of the means of artistic expression, there is a quite short period of struggle, and then really very quickly, a plateau of perfection is reached, and from then on it's the devil of a job to do any better than the first best pieces. The very first rock and roll tracks from the late fifties are still among the very best. I recall doing a posting here about a similar moment of early perfection that the first oil painters reached.

And that's what Schubert's songs are like. There's no sense of strain about Schubert's songs, in the sense that Beethoven's symphonies were a strain, or the more elaborate songs by the Beatles. They often express the extremities of human experience, but they do it with absolute artistic confidence, serenity even. You get no feeling that Schubert thought for one second about being artistically advanced or about making artistic progress, or even gave any thought to the fact that, as far as writing songs for voice and piano, he was standing at the summit of what was to become a vast mountain range, but one that would never get any higher, just different. He simply wasn't thinking about anything except making each song as exactly right as he could make it.

And because he wasn't straining after anything in the way of self-conscious effects, he never asked the singer to do anything that isn't totally right for a singer to be singing. Thus, singing a Schubert song leaves the singer free to sing it absolutely perfectly, undistracted by any stresses or strains, or by any imposed agenda without which it makes less than perfect sense. And that is why singers sound better singers when they sing Schubert than when they sing anyone else. It happens again and again.

Or maybe I just love Schubert. And maybe all I'm saying is that his songs sound perfect to me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
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November 13, 2003
Menuhin's education

There is a big piece today on my Education Blog about the early efforts of Yehudi Menuhin to master the violin. Expect more Menuhin-related stuff here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:37 PM
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On the difficulty of recommending music to other people

Johan Woods has kindly appended the following comment to an earlier post here about Malcolm Arnold, in the course of which I compared the career and music of Malcolm Arnold with that of Shostakovich.

Are there any particular pieces from both Shostakovich and Arnold that bears any resemblance to each other, or are they only similar in that of their lives?

If one is interested in listening more to Shostakovich (or Arnold for that matter), what do you recommend as a starter?

Paragraph one is quite easily answered. No, I know of no straightforward resemblances. The similarity is more in the way that both wrote very conventional and upbeat film music, and then used the same language to say deeper and more angst-ridden things with their more serious stuff. Also, they are approximate contemporaries. Shostakovich Symphony 9 has an air of circus clown absurdity and angst about it that I also associate with Arnold. My problem is that although I have discovered Arnold, I don't yet know my way around all his works, and know very few of them all that well, yet.

Paragraph two is a swine to respond to. I never know how to recommend music to other people, and when asked to do this I hum and mumble and then offer a very short list of the pieces that first got me interested. But just because I have long loved the First Cello Concerto of Shostakovich, or the First Violin Concerto, or the Second Piano Concerto, or Symphonies 5, 8, 9, 10 and 15, and later 7 and 11, doesn't mean that these are the places for Johan to start. String Quartet 8 is very popular, although I find the final one, 15, a whole lot more moving and intriguing at the moment. I also love the 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87. As for Arnold, Symphony 5 is a popular favourite these days, but I find 6 more intriguing just now.

I remember once trying to interest a friend at university in classical music. He was a true friend and he was truly showing interest. So I played a succession of pieces that I thought might be accessible, easily "understood", tuneful, approachable, and … nothing. It might as well have been dishwater for all the tastiness he could find in it. Finally I said to hell with it and resumed my listening to Bartok's Fourth String Quartet, which I happened to be playing through at that moment. This is considered fearsomely "difficult" by those who know about these things. And my friend also heard that and loved it, because it was the nearest thing that classical music offers to the kind of drug driven rock and roll he favoured – being violent, rather discordant, full of heavy gypsy rhythms and cross rhythms, especially in the rather dry and edgy sixties CBS recording I had of it by the Juilliards. Indeed he got it a lot better than many people coming to the piece with a background of Beethoven and Mozart listening tend to get it.

In short: sorry mate, pass. Keep your ears open. Buy some cheap CDs, suck, and see. That's what I did.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 PM
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November 12, 2003
Malcolm Arnold

I picked up some super-bargain CDs in the local gay charity shop yesterday - £3 each – in the form of three Malcolm Arnolds and a Richard Rodney Bennett.

The latter, which I played first, struck me as undistinguished. There was also a piano concerto, and something called "Concerto for Stan Getz", and other bits and pieces with only that wonderful Waltz from Murder on the Orient Express making any great impression. But I'll give it another go soon, and see if anything grips. At least he's trying to be tuneful and popular and entertaining.

The Malcolm Arnolds are much more promising. There's Arnold himself conducting his Third Symphony, and a film music disc, neither of which I've yet listened to, and there's one of his two string quartets, which I have just have listened to.

Arnold is our Shostakovitch. I'm not just saying that. The parallels are really quite striking, most notably in that Arnold also churned out a mass of music for the movies, and that his more serious compositional style is not so much a rejection of all that tunefulness and professional middle-of-the-roadness as an ironic distancing from it, while at the same time not very secretly quite liking all that and doing lots of complicated things with it and weaving into it lots of folk and folk-like melodies, real and made up.

Arnold had no Stalin to torment and stimulate him by issuing life-threatening critiques of pieces that he, Stalin, disapproved of. Arnold's problem with his serious stuff wasn't being officially disapproved of, so much as the Western horror of being insufficiently attended to, first for being too modern, and then later for not being modern enough, although compared to most serious Western composers he did pretty well and was always busy with commissions.

Athough politically he had it easy, Arnold suffered even more severely than Shostakovich did from what are politely called "inner demons", who seem to have more than made up for the lack of external demons but are perhaps not as glamorous for outsiders to reflect upon. He wasn't ever completely unhinged, the way Schumann ended up being, but he suffered from bouts of extreme unhappiness, often provoked by personal misfortunes (notably the loss of a daughter) but then severely reinforced by his own inner temperament. There's a lot of this torment to be heard in his more serious music, together with the effort to keep it at bay. Arnold didn't write as many symphonies as Shostakovich (the score there being 15-9 to Shostakovich) and not nearly as many string quartets (15-2), but the similarities between the two are nevertheless rather striking. To my ear, they both developed a similar musical language, and they both used it to express similar things.

I have worshipped Shostakovich ever since I heard a talented schoolboy at Marlborough thrashing out the first movement of the first cello concerto during a competition, and then immediately acquired the CBS Rostropovich LP and played it to death, and then the fifth symphony. Much later, when I was starting to suffer from the problem of knowing everything and having everything, or thinking that maybe I did, I started listening seriously to Arnold's symphonies. I now like these a lot (and recommend the bargain set of these on Naxos), and I think I'm going to like these two quartets a lot also, especially number two. There's another whole paragraph and more that could be written about how Arnold is also our Bartok, the second of the string quartets being particular provocative of that thought.

Some of those reading this may over the years have whistled that very catchy tune that introduces the BBC TV show called "What The Papers Say". Arnold wrote that. It's a snippet from the first of his English Dances, Set 2, op. 33.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:17 PM
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October 28, 2003
Bernard Levin on the power of Wagner: "We may fear the great emotions …"

I've started to read a book by Bernard Levin called Conducted Tour, about his travels around Europe's music festivals during 1980.

In the introduction Levin writes of his particular musical tastes and early musical experiences. He has this to say about Wagner audiences:

It was only many years later, when I began to notice that there were more clergymen in the Royal Opera House on Wagner nights than at performances of any other composer's works, and that most of them were alone, that I also began to wonder what it was in Wagner that appealed to me so much, and what it was that I had in common with the clergymen and Shaw, and for that matter Hitler. We may fear the great emotions, but we need them, and if we cannot allow them into our lives directly, we are under the necessity of bringing them in vicariously, and therefore, we like to think, safely. Whence the clergymen, Hitler, and me. And whence, at last now, the weakening hold.

I like that. "We may fear the great emotions, but we need them, and if we cannot allow them into our lives directly, we are under the necessity of bringing them in vicariously, and therefore, we like to think, safely." That, it seems to me, captures a lot about the appeal not just of Wagner in particular, but of classical music, indeed music itself, generally. Music is emotion without any kind of involvement other than emotional involvement. It is involvement without a price, other than the price of being addicted to the music itself, the drug/disease metaphor being one which Levin makes much of, especially to describe Wagner of course.

And nowadays we know all about the relationship between emotional involvement and disease, more than Levin did when he wrote this. Music, you might say, is the safest sex there is. It is sex without sex.

Thinking of music this way also explains, I think, why people like me are so keen on owning music, by owning the physical objects that make it available. By owning a CD of some music, I diminish its power over me, because I can then play it whenever I want. I no longer depend on some dealer to give me my fix.

A thought process I notice in myself goes a stage further, in the form of precautionary CD purchasing. I buy a CD before I've ever heard the music, just in case I become addicted to it, and hence would find myself hopeless deranged by having heard it once, on the radio or at a concert, but not then being able to hear it again and again. Classical music – I need its power to stir in me the great emotions, yet I fear it.

Sub-hypothesis: hurling yourself head-first into contemporary pop music is an entirely different – indeed emotionally opposite – thing to becoming enthralled by classical music. Classical music supplies another world, and hence an emotional distance. Loving classical music doesn't involve having messy love affairs with people who wear powdered wigs and have servants and who travel about in bumpy and inconvenient horse-drawn carriages. (As various other genres of twentieth century popular music sink into the history books, the same applies to being a fan of them.) Time lends emotional distance. The actual people who did it are all dead – or old, which amounts to the same thing for these purposes.

Hurling yourself head first into the pop music of your own time, and in particular of your own adolescence, on the other hand, means getting all messed up by it and involved in it, and involved with all the other people who love it, and having messy love affairs and sexual flings with them. A pop music concert is a true community. A classical audience, by contrast, is a mere assemblage of the separate.

(Thought: The Proms defy this general categorisation, which might be why Proms and the Prommers inspire such love, and such loathing. Prommers treat classical music as if it was contemporary pop music.)

I realise that I am confirming a widespread popular stereotype here, of the classical music nerd who fears real life, in the form of real emotional entanglements. But I can't help that, because I believe that this stereotype, like so many stereotypes, is rooted in the truth.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:16 PM
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October 22, 2003
There's regular time and then there's Gramophone time

Every time I mention anything here about the Gramophone, the magazine that puffs and (if only to make its puffs count for something) complains about the latest classical CDs, I have to deal with its weird dating habits. I don't mean its attempts at romance, I mean its weird way of selling an issue in the middle of May with the word "July" on the front. I don't know the full explanation for this odd practice, but I do know part of it.

Part of the reason for this weirdness is that in Gramophone-world the year has thirteen months. There are the regular months that you and I are familiar with, and then there is that strange month which occurs around now (i.e. between November and December in Gramophone-world time), known to the classical music recording industry as the month of the Gramophone Awards. A separate and otherwise undated issue of Gramophone is issued containing the news of who has won all these awards this year (which is 2003 by the way, not 2004 as you might now be fearing – that much of the regular calendar still remains as we know it).

The strange thing is that in this Gramophone Awards issue, not only is there news of all the Gramophone Awards winners (for 2003). There is also a great gob of regular reviews just as if this was a normal month of the sort that the rest of us are familiar with. Not only do we learn that this year the Gramophone Awards record of this year is the Zehetmair Quartett's recording of Schumann string quartets on ECM, that the conductor Marin Alsop is the Gramophone Awards artist of the year, and so on and so forth. We also learn that the Editor's Choice for Record of the Month, for the month of Gramophone Awards, is Magdalena Kozena's CD of French Arias by Auber, Berlioz, Bizet, etc., on DGG, together with the Editors choice of all his other favourite CDs of for the month of Gramophone Awards.

Odd.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:38 PM
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October 17, 2003
Geza Anda – Herbert von Karajan – BPO – Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in b flat major op. 83

You never know when it's going to hit you, and it just hit me again. I'm referring to Classical Music, which a few hours ago now, before Friends and Will and Grace and Scrubs and Have I Got News For You and all the other Friday night amusement on British TV now, just reached his vast fist out of the musical wallpaper and gripped me by the throat.

I put on the Brahms First Piano Concerto and it duly thundered away for its allotted forty five minutes, in a way that impinged upon me hardly at all. Very nice. So then put I put on the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, and half way through the first movement I went for a piss, and it occurred to me when I was on my way there that it was on rather loud, and that it might be disturbing the neighbours. The fact that it hadn't been disturbing me at all until I noticed how loud it was when I was in the next room isn't logical. But there it is, that's how it was. So anyway, I paused it, switched off the loudspeakers, put on my headphones, connected up my headphone, and resumed it. Bloody hell, it was fabulous. It was one of, I now realise, my favourite recordings of this much recorded work, the one done in 1964 by Geza Anda with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic at the height of their combined powers.

It may have helped that the sound was switched up to something a bit louder than my headphones could really handle. This served as a satisfactory substitute for the now obsolete idea that the musicians ought to be struggling with music which is beyond their power to perform, which I am sure used to be an intrinsic part of the appeal of pieces like this. Will the soloist hit all the notes? Will he remember it all? Will the horns fluff their big moment? Will they all manage to stay together? Of course you know the answer to all such questions with a CD, which means that this sense of possible catastrophe just round every corner has to be recreated by other means, and my headphones (£9.99 in the market about ten years ago) do that job splendidly.

Geza Anda was Hungarian, I believe, and made another favourite recording of mine from the days of LPs, in the form of the Bartok piano concertos with fellow Hungarian Ferenc Fricsay, and his Hungarianness surely helps for this Brahms piece also, which is likewise full of gypsy cross-rhythms and such like. And the Karajan accompaniment is absolutely fabulous, wonderfully lush and vigorous and forceful and sonorous. This Brahms recording, unlike the Bartok of which much has been made ever since they first did it, is one of those lesser recorded beings deemed not worthy of having photographs of any of the musicians on the front of it, or even of the composer. No, it merely has some old houses on it, which puts it only one up from a box of chocolates or a puzzle. But second rate it absolutely is not. It's terrific.

Karajan is terribly unfashionable these days, the basic complaint being that he was just too good. The music he made was too beautiful. He was, you might say, the opposite of my headphones. But in this Brahms he uses his extreme musical excellence to take the music to its outer limits, rather than to make it sound merely comfortable. And anyway, what's wrong with perfection I'd like to know. Not all music makes its impact by sounding impossible to play. Lots of it is just beautiful.

Or then again, maybe it was just me, and maybe I had just been storing up inside myself the readiness to pay some serious attention to some music, and this just happened to be it.

I've been googling to try to find a link to this recording, but all I got was huge lists which it was buried in the middle of. But I was reminded in my googlings that Anda made another recording of this same piece, also with the Berlin Phil, but this time with Fricsay conducting. Yes, the very same accompanist as in the famous Bartok. This is considered better than the Karajan one, because Fricsay (having made far fewer recordings) is considered as brilliant and "musical" as Karajan was bland and power hungry. And guess what, I have that one also. I'd forgotten about it. I shall try that soon as well, also with the headphones, and hear how it compares.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:34 PM
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October 14, 2003
Classical good sense from Gary Graffman

In the latest issue of the BBC Music Magazine (November 2003), there's an article by the now 75-year-old Gary Graffman, who was a star concert pianist until injury cut his performing career short. For the last eighteen years he's been the head of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, which trains performers and composers. I'm not aware of this piece being available on the net, and I accordingly quote from it at some length.

When I started out as a pianist, in the late Forties, there was no such thing as an American orchestra that played – and therefore, was paid – for 52 weeks a year, and the salary of an orchestra player was not a living wage. And since there were far fewer concerts than there are now, opportunities for soloists were a fraction of what they are today. At that time there were only two major American concert management organisations with a total of about 40 pianists between them. This year's Musical America Directory lists over 600 pianists. And I can't even begin to compare the number of existing orchestra and arts organisations with those of 50 years ago. So perhaps we should be worrying more about glut than decline.

The audience for serious music has grown apace, too. Fifty years ago, New York had only one large concert hall and, aside from Horowitz, Heifetz and Rubinstein, very few performers filled it. I remember often sitting in a half-empty Carnegie Hall to hear New York Philharmonic concerts conducted by Bruno Walter, Artur Rodzinski and Dimitri Mitropoulos. In those years, though, nobody expected the world to beat a path to Carnegie Hall.

I wonder whether a good part of today's distress about 'declining' audiences has been caused by the unrealistic expectations of arts administrators. Do any of them actually remember what the music business was like in those longed-for Good Old Days? I think if they had been around then, they'd be a lot more realistic now. Meanwhile, greed rears its head: many administrators, carried away by uncharacteristic success in recent years, have come to believe that their potential audience is unlimited. As a result of this insatiable hunger for expansion – ever more performances in ever larger auditoriums – musical activities have gradually been stretched far beyond demand. And so the music marketers, chasing their tails in the endless search for the larger audiences needed to pay for the costs of the endless search for larger audiences, have begun to tamper with artistic matters. Pops music and potboilers, video enhancement, light shows and 'crossover' artists have begun to invade the symphony concert hall with results, I fear, that will succeed only in alienating true music lovers.

I think its crucial to understand that the demand for serious music is – and, in my opinion, always will be – quite finite. In any culture, at any time in history, interest in the arts has been shown by only a small minority of the population. It is neither a necessity for survival nor an instinctive human response. In most cultures this instinct has been an acquired taste. But I think we must also bear in mind that not every person, no matter how well educated, will necessarily become interested in what is known as 'classical music.' So what? Nobody is trying to get me to attend a wrestling match; why should I try to make someone who prefers wrestling to Beethoven attend a symphony concert?

I call that a breath of fresh air, don't you? You don't usually get perspective and sanity and sheer common sense like that from a performing artist.

The thing is, the classical music recording industry may be in all kinds of mess, but the appreciation of classical music is jogging along fine. And all those recordings, done by Horowitz, Heifetz and Rubinstein (and Gary Graffman) are out there working their magic.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:40 AM
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October 10, 2003
Ceremonial angst – radio delight

Well there goes the opening game of the Rugby World Cup. Australia 24 Argentina 8. Not a classic. But it will not surprise Brian's Culture Blog readers that Wendell Sailor scored the opening try of the tournament. Not that any of you care, you Pommy-loving Pansy Poofders.

Is it just me or are sports tournament opening ceremonies getting more and more of a pain? It probably is just me, but I found this one especially dire. Working on my computer to take some of the pain out of it, I thought for a brief moment that I saw a burning swastika out of the corner of my eye, but it was just some Aboriginal figure, burning symbolically, or something. The Australians are apparently still at the Bogus Dancing Natives Stage of their relationship with their original locals.

In general, the thing reminded me of the rubbish that briefly went on inside our Dome on millenium night. Remember The Dome? The show was indeed dazzling, i.e. it had lots of colours and costumes and arsing about by huge gangs of people marching this way and that, and overweight women singing, but so what? It was a huge relief when ageing blokes in normal suits appeared, to make short and forgettable speeches about the forthcoming tournament that actually had something to do with the forthcoming tournament. I ought to watch Grumpy Old Men tonight (BBC2 – no link that makes sense and you don't have to search through for ten minutes – bloody internet), which is not the Matthau/Lemon movie, but a "documentary" of grumpy old Moaning Heads moaning grumpily about speed bumps, designer labels the internet, etc., but I'll be out.

My new digital radio continues to delight, so I switched the TV sound down (off if any music was involved) and listened instead to Arthur Schnabel playing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto (I now realise I already possess this on CD but no matter), one of Rob Cowan's morning picks for Radio 3. It was followed by William Schuman's Third Symphony (not to be confused with Robert Schumann's Third Symphony). Cowan chose the early Bernstein New York Phil CBS (now Sony) recording, which sounded beefier and more effective than the later DGG remake by the same team that I have. It's a splendid piece and it quite cheered me up.

Have a nice weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:32 PM
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October 05, 2003
An interesting blogging experience

I've just had an interesting blogging experience which I think throws an intriguing light on the subtleties of how specialist and generalist blogs interact with, compete with, and yet also help and feed into each other.

There's no doubt that my doubled-up specialist blogging obligations, here and here, have caused my other only semi- (blogging) obligations to suffer. I have written less for Samizdata of late than I would like to have. And have written hardly at all recently for Transport Blog or for Ubersportingpundit (even though I have automatic posting rights at those blogs also – I really must get back into the swing of posting at those, especially Ubersportingpundit, what with the Rugby World Cup, for which England are much fancied, fast approaching). So blogging here can definitely cause blogging elsewhere to suffer.

Sometimes, however, having a specialist blog outlet for something causes a piece to get written which might never have got done at all had there only been a big generalist group blog as an available outlet for it.

Over the last couple of days, I've written a big piece sparked off by me purchasing of a new digital radio. On the face of it, this piece was going to be pure self-indulgence: the boring details of Brian's domestic listerning habits, blah blah. Only the existence of Brian's Culture Blog, the entire purpose of which is for Brian to self-indulge, enabled this piece even to get started. Yet by the end of it, earlier today, I found that I had a really quite Good Essay under my fingers, and I thought, this could go on Samizdata. It's technological as well as musical. It throws a little light on all manner of commercial as well as artistic matters. There's a pop music angle, and there was even, at the end, an Internet angle, in the form of a sting in the tail of the tale about Downloading Music For Free Off The Internet, a subject of perpetual Samizdata fascination, because of the intellectual property debates we constantly have over there. So, to Samizdata the piece duly went.

Not only will the piece obviously get more readers there than here; I even reckon that there are people who will read it there, but who would not have read it here even if they'd come across it here. Why? Because a good reason to read anything is that others are reading it besides you. A piece about classical music etc. at Samizdata is a whole lot more significant than the identical piece about classical music etc. here.

So here was a case where my specialist blogging preoccupations actually helped me to write a piece for Samizdata.

I am now listening to BBC Radio Three on my digital radio, plugged into, as I explain at Samizdata, my regular CD playing kit. Fantastic.

And I'm listening to a wondrous performance of the Dvorak Piano Quintet, which is making more sense and more fun out of this piece than I've ever heard before. Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic. Sarah Chang and Ilya Gringolts (violins), Nobuko Imai (viola), Frans Helmerson (cello), Emanuel Ax (piano) – how's that for a line-up? Five players and five different record companies, according to my calculations. so good luck to anyone who tries to issue that as a CD in the next ten years.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:48 PM
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October 02, 2003
Testing testing

hahn2.jpgThis is a picture of the outstanding young violinist Hilary Hahn, partly because I think she is outstanding, but mainly because I'm trying to get text alongside a picture and not just above it or below it, and Hilary Hahn's picture seemed like a nice idea, what with her looking so good in it.

The hiatus in Hahn's website activity is presumably because she has recently switched from Sony Classical to Deutsche Grammophon, for whom she has recently recorded a CD of the two Bach violin concertos, the double violin concerto, and the violin and oboe concerto. I've not heard this, but have heard all her earlier Sony records, and all are excellent.

Michael Jennings suggested something, which eventually, after I had tried several different places to put it, worked. Definite progress. So far so good. But now I want to be able to insert a wider margin between the picture and the text at the side. Can that be done with simple html commands? Or do I have to modify the original picture and put a blank bit to the right of it? That seems rather clumsy, and surely there's a better way. And unless I am mistaken, and that's been known to happen with me and matters computational, there already a little tiny margin around the picture now. On the preview I've been looking at, the picture is a bit in from being entirely properly aligned. That's not good. That's not how pictures in blogs are supposed to be. They are supposed to be LINED UP.

Don't be surprised if this posting does strange things, like change a lot, and/or disappear. Comment if you like, but take nothing for granted.

UPDATE: Actually saying what you did, exactly, means that it is liable to happen again instead of say what you did, so I will just say that I tried what Alan said for the margin right thing, after a hiatus working out what the hell he'd said exactly, and it worked, just as I wanted it to.

For the benefit of Alice I put something along the lines of %&_)$+)marginrightoverabit^&*)andlinethepictureupontheleftyoumoronicmachine$^%&*)&*^. So try doing that.

Micklethwait's law of how hard computing is say: everything hard until you know - then everything easy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:27 AM
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September 25, 2003
More on Solitaire and music listening – and another Micklethwait's law

Natalie Solent doesn't have a commenting system, so I will (rather ungratefully) correct her here. She very kindly refers in passing to a piece I did about "half listening" (her phrase) to music. She goes on to talk about how I and Steven Den Beste (Natalie offers no link to a particular posting by him) "try to tease out why exactly people can half-listen to some music but not other music". This may have been what Den Beste was writing about, but I was writing about what activities can be combined with listening to any music, not "half" but almost completely, and what can't. Solitaire can be combined with listening to music perfectly, was my central point.

In my earlier post I did an afterthought update, but I still didn't get it right. I said that Solitaire has the psychological effect of causing you to listen to the music, and that it creates a kind of psychological barrier to any distractions. The Solitaire blocks out Third Party notions that might take your mind off the music. I now realise from alert introspection that this is wrong. It is perfectly possible (a) to be doing Solitaire, (b) to have music on but not to be listening to it, at all, because (c) one is thinking about something else. What Solitaire does is physically, in the external world, reduce the chances of such distraction from the music. You can't play Solitaire and simultaneously get wrapped up in a book, because your hands cannot physically pick up the book and open it if they are occupied with Solitaire. Your eyes can't look away from the screen. So you don't read, because you can't. The internal workings of the brain have nothing to do with it. But it is perfectly possible to just think of something else, and go awandering mentally. After a spell of doing exactly this I realised that the Solitaire thing had to be clarified yet again.

So: to sum up. Solitaire combines extraordinarily well with listening to music. You go into an automatic Solitaire trance, just like an automatic driving a car on a dull motorway trance, which enables another part of your brain, the more conscious part, to give full conscious attention to something like music, which is not competing with the same bits of your nervous system. But Solitaire doesn't guarantee concentration. It merely alters the odds in its favour.

As for the type of music my whole point was that while Solitairing I was able to listen carefully to a rather trivial Beethoven piano sonata, but while doing a blog posting, I completely ignored the Hammerklavier Sonata. That's not the music making the difference. It's what else I was doing.

Nevertheless, I am genuinely grateful and flattered by Natalie's reference to this stuff about Solitaire. It obviously, pun intended, struck a chord. It was a good piece. Too bad it has been so chaotically presented, in what amounts now to three separate postings.

There's another Micklethwait's law: the better the idea, the more chaotic will be the manner in which you present it. This sounds like merely a particular application of Murphy's law. But Murphy's (otherwise known as Sod's) laws are about how purely random events will go against you. This inverse ratio between quality of concept and clarity of expression has a cause, namely that when you get hold of an interesting and new idea (a) you haven't lived with it long enough to get it throughly organised in your head, and (b) if you know it's an interesting idea you are liable to get excited, and that deranges your presentation even more. My Solitaire stuff was not afflicted by (b) because frankly I didn't think anyone would give it a second thought. But it was affected by (a). I hadn't ever said it before, so my first attempt to say it was a muddle. And perhaps I should add (c) I was still thinking it through, even after I had started to express the idea.

End of posting sign-off joke: the second half of the above paragraph was also afflicted by the very law which it attempts to describe. Hah!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:19 PM
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September 23, 2003
Pollard – bad at ranking art but good at provoking me

It's late, I've just had a pint of lager, and I have a phone call I want to make really soon. So, just to say, by way of meeting my daily quota (one), that Stephen Pollard has up at his recently revamped blog one of his typically argumentative and in-your-face pieces to the effect that Beethoven is just plain better than the Beatles, so there. Which is a lot more true than false, I would say, if you are only allowed those two boxes to put your response in. Sample paragraphs:

We’ve been here before. Christopher Ricks came at it from the opposite perspective in the 1970s, arguing that Bob Dylan’s lyrics were great poetry. A couple of years ago he argued that Dylan’s song Not Dark Yet ranked alongside Keats's Ode to a Nightingale. Others have made similar comparisons, such as Eric Griffiths’ consideration of Talking Heads alongside William Empson in his Cambridge lectures during the late 1980s.

I look at what they say, at their specific, detailed, academic attempts to equate the two, and my reaction is simply to laugh. To me, it’s self-evidently preposterous – about as convincing as arguing that a finger beating time on a desk is as musically rich an experience as an Angela Hewitt performance of a Bach Partita.

Okay. Keats's Ode to a Nightingale outscores Bob Dylan's Not Dark Yet in the Pollard great-ometer.

But what about Salieri compared to Benny Goodman at the height of his considerable powers? How about the (numerous) wind quintets of Reicha, compared to … Jimmy Hendrix? Which wins between the Concerto for Two Clarinets in E Flat Major op. 91 by Franz Krommer (1759-1831) – a work of which I am very fond, especially when it is played as well as Kalman Berkes (sprinkle central European squiggles to taste) and Tomoko Takashima play it, on the Naxos CD of this piece, together with the two Krommer solo clarinet concertos op. 35 and op. 36 – and, say, Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins (also terrific in my opinion)? I'm just trying to establish a principle here, the principle being that Pollard is not making nearly as much sense as he seems to think he is.

Of course a great orange is better than a bad apple, and a great Ferrari is better than a clapped-out Ford Fiesta. But how does a clapped out Ferrari compared to a brand new Ford Whatever-eo, fresh off the Ford assembly line?

What I'm really saying here is: category error! Maybe Christopher Ricks and Eric Griffiths were indeed trying to "equate" this thing with that thing, although personally I doubt that they were doing any such thing. But I don't "equate" the Rolling Stones with Haydn merely because the two of them have some musical virtues in common, which they do.

If I can also find it in five minutes I'll link to the 2 Blowhards piece which says that marking works of art out of a hundred and arranging them in order of merit is a mug's game. Otherwise I'll just mention that one of them did say this, somewhere, somewhen. (Couldn't find it quickly. Maybe part of the previous sentence will turn purple at a later hour.)

However, although as a music critic Pollard doesn't do it for me, as a provocateur journalist he certainly knows his business. He is bating the likes of me with this piece, and I have risen to the bate by responding in the required manner. I hope he's happy. Seriously, I hope he's happy. I mean that. We have many friends in common.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
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September 16, 2003
Tempo, legato and the authenticists – with musical illustrations!

Like so many things involving computers, the internet, etc., I knew it could be done, and one day I would do it. I just never got around to it. But this guy knows how to do it, or has friends who do. I'm talking about putting snippets of music in a piece of blog text which you can play just by clicking, same as you can click here to get to the article I'm referring to.

What is more, these musical snippets are used in a way that make genuine sense. You can't communicate the full grandeur of the St Matthew Passion or the joyous genius of the Pastoral Symphony in a few mere seconds, but you most definitely can communicate a lot about the different tempos that different conductors adopt when conducting them:

We're seeing the Vivaldi-ization of Bach: gloom banished, minimal variety, implacably crisp, bouncy. And the slim 'n' speedy virus has infected good conductors. When the well-reviewed 1989 John Eliot Gardiner recording of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" appeared, as a Gardiner fan I ran to get it. This time the great chorus of lamentation that begins the "Passion" was indeed an occasion of mourning: I'd blown 20 bucks. Gardiner takes the chorus of lamentation at near-gigue tempo. Jesus is crucified, his performance cries. Let's dance!

To see what I mean with the piece's mournful opening movement, compare the early '70s recording by the distinguished Bachian Helmuth Rilling with Gardiner's. Gardiner's is nearly 20 percent faster – and Rilling's was faster than Herbert von Karajan's and Otto Klemperer's recordings of a few years earlier.

What it amounts to is that the influence of the early-music movement is turning everything into dance music. And the virus is spreading in the repertoire. Compare the tempos of Beethoven symphonies in the classic '60s Karajan set with a recent "authentic" set by David Zinman: Nearly every movement of every symphony is several notches faster in the newer one. In addition, the musical phrasings, the commas and colons and semicolons, are glossed over in favor of momentum.

Let's compare beginnings of Beethoven's "Sixth Symphony," the "Pastoral," whose first movement is titled "Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country." Here's Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1960s. Now here's the beginning from a late-'80s original-instrument set by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I admire that band, that conductor, and much of this set, but I don't know what planet Hogwood's "Pastoral" is on. Our traveler is jogging too fast for happy feelings – he's anaerobic. Hogwood's tempo is nearly three metronome clicks faster than Karajan's, whose tempo is on the brisk side for his time. But Karajan wouldn't even rate on today's dog track.

It cheers me up no end to find someone else on this planet besides me who prefers Helmut Rilling's Bach to John Elliot Gardiner's, and especially Rilling's wondrous seventies Matthew Passion, which I've been searching for complete for years ever since I got a highlights CD, and which I finally found in a bargain basement set a few weeks ago.

Fashion is a peculiar thing, and the seventies aren't now, fashionwise, most people's favourite decade. But when it comes to performing Bach, the nineteen seventies were definitely my favourite decade of all. Recording had got as good as it was going to get, so no worries on that front. The lugubrious speeds adopted by Klemperer and Karajan in Bach (I find Karajan's set of the Brandenbergs to be intermittently absurd) had been speeded up enough to give Bach back his bounce, in the bouncy bits. On the other hand, speeds were not yet as absurdly speedy as they later became.

My particular problem with authenticity is not so much tempo (I like those Zinman Beethoven symphonies) as with that "bounce" thing, in particular the tendency of many authenticists to land like a ton of bricks on the first beat of every bar and to treat legato as some sort of crime. Once again, I feel that they may have slightly overdone the legato in the fifties and sixties, got dead right in the seventies, and then later they went berserk with the bounciness. (See this
Samizdata rant.)

Blah blah blah. My more important point here is that now you can, if you wish, touch wood, and thanks to Jan Swafford, actually hear something of the things I am – okay, and he is – talking about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:38 PM
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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."

Janacek:

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
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September 13, 2003
Tom Utley on cultural false consciousness – on only being happy afterwards – Richard Strauss

The central skill for liking culture is not to let others bully you into pretending to like what you do not like, or into pretending to dislike what you do like. To live a happy life, in other words, try to avoid cultural false consciousness.

And if one of the skills of excellent writing is to confess to a sin that lots of others know they are guilty of too, but hadn't yet got around to admitting to themselves until the excellent writer confessed it out for them, then this Spectator article by Tom Utley is truly excellent.

It is by no means a bad thing that so many of us (if I am right) go around pretending to enjoy the finer things in life, when they don’t really do all that much for us. We do far less harm than the unashamedly philistine, beating each other up on the terraces at Millwall. But one can push a pretence too far. If Buccleuch gets his 'Madonna of the Yarnwinder' back, as I earnestly hope he will, the Dumfriesshire and Galloway fire brigade should be given new instructions: in the event of a fire at Drumlanrig, save the Duke, who seems a nice old buffer, and let the Leonardo burn.

The sad thing is that Tom Utley still seems to confuse the aesthetic and the moral. There is no necessary connection between deciding that you don't much like Leonardo's paintings and assaulting people at football matches. If you don't like Leonardo, don't bother with him, and don't fill the newly empty hours by assaulting people. Is that really such a hard rule to follow? Most "philistines" are not bad people. I don't much like sitting through concerts, staring at paintings except in attractive female company, the operas of Rossini in any circumstances or on any medium, Baroque music played in an excessively authentic style ditto, so I don't endure these things. Nor do I beat people up. Nor do I write Spectator articles recommending that Leonardo paintings be left to burn just because I don't personally care for them.

The same kinds of things can be said of Patrick Crozier, who also picked up on this piece.

It is a bad thing that Tom Utley has wasted so much of his life making himself unhappy with what others consider to be great art but which he didn't like. Unhappiness is bad.

However, the news for Utley is not all bad. His time wasn't completely wasted. What Utley and I clearly both enjoy is writing cleverly. He even gets paid to write cleverly, but he does it cleverly enough to suggest that he would do it for nothing if no one paid him, and probably he does in such things as clever letters and emails to friends and family. And now that Utley has trudged through all those art galleries and castles and sat through all those concerts, he has all kinds of things to write about cleverly, as this article of his proves. He will have learned things. Even so, it's a bit sad that he had to wait until he's middle aged (and thus qualified to write for the Spectator) before learning one of the basic rules for how to enjoy yourself.

I have a category of experience which I label something like: didn't make me very happy but happy to have done it. When David Carr took me to a Premier League football match at Stamford Bridge, frankly, my mind did wander a bit, Utley style. And of course there was lots of annoying travelling involved, as always when you actually go to things. But the recollection of that event is pure pleasure, and I would hate now to be without that memory. It was Roman Abramovich's first home game as the owner of Chelsea. Fascinating. I was entertained only on and off at the time, but afterwards I loved it.

At the risk of going on far too long, I do want to add one more thing here, which is that I do truly love to listen to classical music CDs. There's no false consciousness there. I love them. If you're happy to take that on trust, if you already see the point of this point, if you don't give a toss about Richard Strauss, and if you have other things to do now, fine. Stop reading this now.

A long time ago, I once, for those of you still with me, had a little spell of worrying that perhaps I didn't really love classical music and that I only pretended to myself that I loved so as to feel superior to all the people who didn't love it. And then I went to the cinema and saw a frankly rather dreary (I later decided - Utley style) film called 2001 A Space Odyssey. But the start wasn't dreary. And it had this fabulous music. At the time I had no idea about Richard Strauss tone poems, and the habit of stitching unaltered classical music (or for that matter unaltered pop music) into movies was not nearly as common then as it is now. So I just thought that some Hollywood hack had had, so to speak, a rare on day. Most of Hollywood made-for-the-movies music strikes me as dull, dull, dull – whether orchestral, jazzified, poppified, or, now, I suppose, danceified or hiphoppified. But this 2001 music struck me as genuinely arresting. I thought: Wow, can I buy it?

Well, of course, it turned out that I could. It was one of my team, and I've loved all those grandiose Richard Strauss tone poems ever since, not just the opening of Also Sprach Zarathusthra (the now famous 2001 music), but also the Alpine Symphony and Heldenleben. Even the much despised Sinfonia Domestica.

And there's another taste you aren't supposed to have, according to some snobs who like to make subtle distinctions between kosher classical music and the rest. And if you do like Richard Strauss, you are supposed to like the strident and decadent and often rather discordant early stuff like Elektra and Salomé, but you aren't allowed to like the mushy stuff like Rosenkavalier or the somewhat ridiculous stuff (in the sense that the programmes are ridiculous) like Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica. The sublime Metamorphosen and the equally sublime Four Last Songs are also verboten because by the time Strauss wrote them the style he used was way out of style, so you can't love those either.

Oh yes I can. As Alice Bachini might put it: Our Hero now waves his wooden sword at a gang of gibbering Culture Snobs who withdraw from the stage in disarray.

I apologise if this posting has been rather long and a bit grandiose and self-centred, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:21 PM
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September 12, 2003
Two dogs that aren't barking

Waffle warning. In my opinion the only reader who is likely to really enjoy this will be me in about ten years time. It's a ramble over pretty well trodden ground. (It is also, and not coincidentally, the first time I've done one of those "MORE" things at this blog, I think.) But it's done now and might as well go up.

Yesterday I was in HMV Oxford Street trawling for more classical bargains. The default price for good recordings that have been around for a while is now about £3, yet they are still trying to sell new stuff for around £16 or even £17. Presumably they'll get some buyers, but not enough to count for enough.

(See what I mean about well trodden ground.)

Two new things struck me, the first something I have been tracking for several years, and the second rather new.

First, the new formats like SACD etc. are still not taking off. You can see what taking off means if you visit the DVD movies section of the shop, or the nearby computer games section. That's take-off! Well, SACD ain't. Certainly not in the classical department. Maybe somewhere else they are selling SACD etc. power ballads. Maybe. Meanwhile, things like the Barenboim Beethoven symphonies in the new format are stuck away in a poky little corner, just beyond that huge spread of Naxos CDs. If they thought they were going to be able to re-record the entire core repertoire like they did when the CD first exploded … well we punters aren't damn well having it. The plain fact is that recording quality reached its peak in about 1955, with those fantastic RCA recordings, and all else has merely been getting all recordings to be as good as those ones were. Good enough is good enough, in fact it is excellent. CDs were the big leap, because they don't get scratched and clicked, which was brilliant. A tiny bit better recording is nice, maybe, but frankly superfluous. We all know that the next big leap forward is getting the music from the Internet and making computers into Hi-Fi kits, a process that is well under way. Another kind of shiny disc in a case is entirely beside the point. It reminds me of digital tape, which always struck me as like lighting a fire with more sophisticated and hi-tech stick-running.

The other thing I have started to notice is that opera on DVD, much to my disappointment, would also not seem to be selling very well. My guess would be price. If you can get classic movies for £9.99 and falling fast on another floor of the same shop, who will pay £30 for an opera? It looked a reasonable bet a few years back, especially when you consider the ridiculous price of live opera. But, we punters are (I'm guessing) guessing that there are big price falls to come, and we are waiting. For a tenner a go, I'd kit myself up with all my opera favorites, such as they are. For thirty a go, forget it.

Of course there is another possible explanation. These new things are selling, but not in shops, and certainly not in shops like HMV Oxford Street. They're selling in specialist shops, but above all they're selling on the internet. You can't yet legally and easily download all this stuff for a quid a go. But meanwhile you can buy it without sweating your way through crowds of tourists or faffing around with car parking. That would make sense.

So, a posting that started out being about classical music ends up being a rumination upon retail selling. Speculation: as genuinely new products come on the market, depending on high-tech, the shops that try to stock such stuff often fail to make a go of it. The punters resort to the internet, and the business is gone. The big shops will never see the thing again, no matter how big the business eventually gets. Internet shopping is a habit - one I've yet to catch, incidentally - and once you have the habit, you don't need shops for the stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:28 PM
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September 05, 2003
On what Hitler did to classical music by loving it

Today's New York Times has a review of Taking Sides, which is about the interrogation of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwδngler, just after World War 2.

… Unlike Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, conductors who fled Germany during the Nazi era, Furtwδngler chose to remain. Wooed by Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels, the man thought by many to be the world's greatest conductor allowed himself to be lionized by the Nazis and lived a privileged existence. Such was Furtwδngler's status and importance to the Nazis as a high-minded trophy that he wasn't even pressured to join the Nazi party.

Furtwδngler conducted the Berlin Philharmonic at Hitler's 53rd birthday, but ingeniously devised a way to avoid saluting the Fόhrer. The radio announcement of Hitler's death was accompanied by Furtwδngler's recording of Bruckner's majestic Seventh Symphony.

I haven't seen this film myself, but this review got me thinking once again about the love affair between Nazi Germany and classical music. A few months back I did a Samizdata posting about this. It started as a relatively light-hearted observation to the effect that an amazing number of film villains (most notably the ultimate recent film villain Hannibal Lector) love classical music. But by the end of the posting I was saying, much more seriously: it was the Nazis. They were the ones who connected classical music to villainy.

The movie pointedly compares the solemnity of German high culture with the boisterousness of American popular culture in back-to-back scenes of a German concert audience listening silently to Beethoven in a soaking rain that pours through a bombed-out roof, and American soldiers jitterbugging to a swing band playing "Route 66." The implication seems to be that the Germans' silent reverence for Beethoven is similar to their acceptance of the Nazis' agenda, which warped elements of the same mystical romanticism into national hero-worship of a tyrant and his symbols.

"Classical" music is now pretty much a living corpse. Lots of people still love it, but we love it on the same basis that earlier generations would read and love Greek plays or Latin poetry. And I'm thinking, would classical music be in such an advanced state of museum-itis, so to speak, if the Nazis hadn't been doing their worst while worshipping the stuff.

It wasn't that everyone suddenly decided that this music was wicked. It was just that it was no longer possible to say that it was definitely morally uplifting. Before Hitler, classical music was moral. After Hitler, it merely sounded moral. After Hitler, music like this couldn’t be composed to say the deepest and greatest things any more. It no longer rang true. Not to potential composers, anyway. When Hitler dies and they play Bruckner's Seventh (which is magnificent music, by the way, truly magnificent), Bruckner's music can't ever have quite the moral stature that it had before. From then on, if you're a composer, you're going to say to yourself, whatever else I do, I mustn't try to write Bruckner's Tenth. Deep feeling. Massed strings. Long, grand, slow movements. Tempestuous finales. Urrgh. You can almost smell the Zyklon B.

As I say, I don't think the audiences saw things like this, in fact we know they didn't. But the composers just couldn't keep on as if nothing bad had happened to classical music. It was as if there was a fifty-year-long, partial strike. And now the message – the non-message, that is to say – is finally making its way through to the audiences. In Germany in particular, the "classical" story has been especially arid and desiccated. How could it possibly have been otherwise? And without Germany going full tilt, classical music could only be a shadow of its former glory.

Meanwhile, the classical music equals villainy equation swept unchallengeably through the popular culture. Many of us might have wanted to challenge this stereotype. But how could we? It was too close to being true.

Okay there were lots of other things going on. Electronic guitars, microphones for singers, shortening attention spans, the emancipation of the electronic media, teenagers with serious pocket money, the Baby Boom. Little things of that sort. But it really didn't help that Hitler loved this music. It really didn't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:56 PM
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September 03, 2003
Orchestral socialism

A great comment has just appeared at my Education Blog, on a piece about how schooling cranks out socialists. Classrooms are centrally planned, and the people who thrive in them spend the rest of their lives believing that that's how it should always be. That kind of thing. And then I flew off at a tangent about the alleged bullying nature of sports jocks.

Here's what Stephanie Herman added:

Well, I don't have any comment on the bullying by sports participants (although I did write an article on bullying and economic incentives on my website), but I do agree that the centrally-regulated classroom could lead the intellectual toward socialism. The same is true in centrally-directed symphony orchestras. I used to play in one, and have yet to meet a capitalist II violin player. :)

:) indeed, but also, given how I adore symphonic music but abhore socialism, :(

Seriously, this makes me want to write a long but good essay speculating profoundly about the relationship between the work of (and remuneration of)classical musicians and the beliefs of classical musicians. But these are the small hours. I'm tired. The choices are (as they usually are when I'm wide awake come to think of it): short and sweet, or long and ugly. No contest.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:34 AM
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August 26, 2003
Solitaire and listening (and I mean really listening) to music turn out to go together very well

I've had little time for culture today, but here's another of my little insights into the nature of the musical listening experience, to put alongside earlier postings of a similarly inconsequential sort such as this one.

My starting point is Solitaire (the electronic game that comes packaged with Windows), to which I am addicted. I'm not proud of this, nor am I desperately ashamed, and maybe "addicted" is a bit strong. I just find that from time to time I like to have a little session of Solitairing, and while doing this, I have made an interesting discovery. While playing Solitaire, I can actually listen, and listen properly, to classical music.

Contrast this with something like writing, even writing something as light in weight as this little piece. When I'm doing something like that, entire movements of volcanically wonderful music can go by without me paying any of it the smallest attention, and electrodes planted in my brain would, I am sure, prove this. But when I play Solitaire, the electrodes would be buzzing and swaying in time with even the gentlest and most unobtrusive music, such as the lesser little Beethoven piano sonata I listened to today, opus 14 no. 1.

Presumably this means that Solitaire has become automatic. I'm not getting any better at the game, not the way I play it, any more than some old man out jogging is getting any faster at long distance running. It's just that we like to do it, and from time to time I hear things from those who care for the elderly to the effect that my Solitaire inclinations are very probably good for me, rather than pointless. They keep the brain cells exercised, but without straining them too much. Solitairing means that my brain will last a little longer.

Nevertheless it is a very odd thing to watch myself placing a red ten on top of a black jack, while simultaneously appreciating the phrasing of the piano player in a piece of Beethoven. Asked to guess about such a thing, I would have said that the same part of the brain that plays Solitaire would be needed to listen to Beethoven. But, provided I play Solitaire in a suitably trancelike manner, it is not so. It is the Solitaire that "goes in one ear and out the other", rather than the music, even as my mouse hand continues to go through the proper Soliltaire motions. Odd.

UPDATE next day - August 27: I realise, thinking about it some more, that it goes further than this. Solitaire actually helps me to listen to classical music by being a substitute for concentration. One way to listen to classical music is ... to concentrate. This means preventing any other thoughts besides the music from entering your head. Solitaire does this automatically. It erects a mental barrier that stops me thinking about anything else, and thus I listen totally to the music. (That Solitaire puts me into a Solitaire trance obviously helps also.)

I noticed this just now. I had finished working on one of the postings above, and I decided to do a burst of Solitaire to recharge the batteries, or something, and immediately I started to listen to the music that I had on. Which previously I had been completely ignoring.

And what was that music? It was the final piece of the three Beethoven piano sonatas on the CD that I was also playing yesterday (Alfredo Perl on Arte Nova for those interested), and which I found on pause when I got up this morning. And whereas last night I had been paying close Solitaire-induced attention to Beethoven's Piano Sonatas No 9 in E major op. 14/1 and No. 10 in G major op. 14/2, this morning I had been ignoring Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major op. 106, known as the "Hammerklavier", and the biggest, grandest and one of the most demanding (to player and listener alike) of the thirty two Beethoven piano sonatas. !!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 PM
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August 25, 2003
Classical music

I've always loved the Rolling Stones, who are being worshipped on BBC1 as I write.

This is because I have always loved classical music, and the Rolling Stones are classical music par excellence.

The Beatles were great, yes, but they were what I would call "imaginative". Their songs were composed, with all their la-di-da tunes that went wandering off all over the place, under the influence of all sorts of drugs, and with all manner of orchestral instruments in the background. The best Rolling Stones tracks are like discoveries. They weren't so much composed as dug up, revealed as always having been there. Their best tunes, by which I simply mean their great, popular rock and roll standards, have the same absolute rightness about them as have the cantatas of Bach, the string quartets of Haydn, the piano concertos of Mozart, the songs of Schubert, or the symphonies of Beethoven. Ah, they're playing Brown Sugar now. Everyone loves that, and count me in.

Lots of people loved the Rolling Stones because they were rebels. I loved them because they were musical … not conservatives exactly, but the originators of something which musical conservatives from then on would always want conserved. I never took to all that sex drugs rock and roll lifestyle stuff. It frightened me back then and it frightens me still. For many of my contemporaries it felt like a personal liberation. To me it looked like the alpha males on the rampage, and alpha males are always scary to all the gamma and delta males, and I was a timid little creature way down the Greek alphabet, plenty of brain but no hormones to speak of. Everyone has their ideal age, and nineteen was absolutely not mine. I think that those who said that all that stuff was a threat to social decency and social order were quite right. But then there was that beautiful music.

If you want to go all Music Professor about the Stones, I suggest you concentrate on the first few bars of those best tracks. The best Stones openings are sheer genius. How they work is: you put together your Stones track (this is if you are a Rolling Stone – I'm not suggesting you try to imitate this procedure with your stupid little band) with the words and the tune, the lead guitar part, the bass guitar part, and the regular drum beat. Then you introduce each bit separately with the least obvious and most rhythmically mysterious one coming in first. Often this would be a guest instrument, like that cowbell thing for Honky Tonk Women. Or it would be a regular instrument played in a really weird way, like the guitar playing at the start of Gimme Shelter. But sometimes it would just be the offbeat lead guitar riff (riff? is that the word?) as in Brown Sugar. Anyway, you add the various musical lines in ascending order of musical obviousness, and finally the machine is up and running. When it works, this kind of thing takes you to musical territory only previously inhabited by such things as the opening of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata or of things like Mozart's Dissonance String Quartet (where the key and the tune is kept a secret for about fifteen bars much as the Stones start a classic track by keeping the rhythm a secret). Now we've just had the opening bars of Start Me Up, and the game there is you can't for the first second or so work out what the rhythm is. Rhythmically, a parallel would be the opening bars of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, where you can't tell if it's in 3/2 or 2/3 or whatever it's called. DA di di DA di di, or DA di DA di DA di. Central to all this is Keith Richards, as already stated here: one of my all time favourite musicians.

This all may sound rather Pseud's Cornerish, but the point I want to make here is, it's the music. Not the drugs and the drug busts, Marianne bloody Faithful, the stupid funny voices and the imitations of them by their youngers and worsers on the telly. It's the music. The fact that this music used to emerge from Human Threats to Everything Decent didn't matter. It didn't matter when it became clear to everyone that the Rolling Stones were actually pillars of society and no more of a threat to the Establishment than Dame Thora Hird, and that it will soon come out of old men who wouldn't be out of place as characters in the Goon Show. All that is a good laugh and everything, but is of no consequence to me. It's the music.

As for going to Rolling Stones concerts, I think I would feel much the same about that as I find that I do about going to live football matches. I prefer it on CD.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:04 AM
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August 21, 2003
Musical starchitecture

This scheme is not one that I have so far paid any attention to, which is odd, given that it combines my two most serious obsessions here, namely modern architecture and classical music. (I'm seldom serious about movies. I just like them.)

I'm talking about Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the financial history of which is told in a New York Times article today.

The Music Director is happy.

"What does this do for the city?" said Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish-born music director of the Philharmonic, a tousle-haired and still boyish figure at 45. "I'm quite amused by the fact that the hottest ticket in L.A. is a classical music/architectural event, not some Hollywood thing. I'm going to enjoy that. It won't happen again."

My last contact with Esa-Pekka Salonen was attending a prom last year in which he conducted a fascinating and spirited performance of Shostakovitch's 2nd Symphony, which has a chorus at the back of it singing maniacally about agricultural productivity, and which I loved, and in which he then conducted a dull and spiritless albeit note perfect performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which also has a chorus at the back, singing about joy.

This maniacal building, I'm guessing, is just the kind of maniacal place which Salonen most likes to perform in.

My question: What are the acoustics of the place like? About that, this particular New York Times article is silent. Frank Gehry is described triumphing over the scheme of one of the billionaires involved to domesticate Gehry, as it were. (Shades of this.) Did an acoustics expert have the right to veto this weird object until he was satisfied? I do hope so.

This at least suggests that some people are serious about getting such things right.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:02 PM
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August 18, 2003
The economics of CDs and DVDs

This Guardian has a story today about how the Internet, instead of wrecking the music industry, is reviving it, by forcing it to lower its CD prices.

But the economics of the Guardian piece is all over the place. Success is defined as total money spent, which, now that people are spending the same amounts of money on more and cheaper products, is holding up. Profits are falling, says the story, but that doesn't matter.

Oh yes it does. The record companies may be shifting their existing product at fire-sale prices, but these numbers won't encourage them to record new stuff.

For the time being, they can still make some money with their biggest selling pop artists. But the future of the music industry remains uncertain.

I've been noting the fall in classical CD prices for some time. I can't help noticing that sellers of CDs are now aware that one of my alternatives is to get hold of a copy of the CD in question by borrowing and copying it. The morals of this may be as wobbly as the Guardian's economics, but wobbly morals, unlike the grim certainties of economics, don't stop things happening. The basic, low-as-it-gets price for a quite decent but long available classical CD is just £. This compares very favourably with the bother of copying. That's what I paid, for example, for a very decent recording by Maria-Joao (sprinkle Spanish squiggles to taste) Pires, of Mozart's piano concertos 13, 14 and 23. Before ubiquitous CD burners, this would have set me back £3. at least.

It's the same with books. The price of books very exactly reflects the bother of photocopying from a legitimate copy, both in terms of how easy it is to get hold of a copy, and how easy it is to actually photocopy it. Not very, which is why remaindered books can still fetch several quid, despite their low tech nature – in fact because of it.

What's holding CD prices up, still, is that there are still plenty of listeners out there who can't be doing with this internet malarkey and still want to have an entirely separate system for music to the system they have for internet surfing or emailing or doing their homework. I'm one of these neanderthals. Soon we will all be dead. As we die, the Internet will gradually mutate into one vast, free, jukebox. For many it's that already. But not me. I like CDs. I like the idea of owning music, in the form of an object for each clutch of pieces. I feel about CDs what an earlier generation felt about LPs and what an even earlier one than that felt about 78s.

But I'm noticing that with movies my psychology is different. The knowledge that truly high definition movies for the home are yet to arrive, and the fact that a favourite movie does not immediately demand to be watched four more times (while a treasurable new CD demands exactly that), all make me less bothered about owning movies on DVD. If their purchase price resembles the cost of hiring, I'll buy. Over about twelve quid, forget it.

It doesn't help that DVDs come in ludicrously space-consuming boxes. At some point, I might seriously consider switching all the movies I do own on DVD into CD-type jewel cases. I mean, what nincompoop thought, after the electronics industry had sweated blood to get the info boiled down into a beer mat, that the way to package DVDs was to make them take up as much space as possible. I guess, what with VHS tapes, they were just addicted to big fat rectangles.

Plus, I suppose when they introduced DVDs they reckoned they'd charge forty quid for each one and that the average punter would own about twenty of them in his entire life.

But we punters are smarter than that. We know that the marginal cost of copying a movie is zero, near enough, no matter how many gazillions they may spend making the damn movies in the first place. We always knew, having watched the price of CDs drift downwards over the last two decades, that DVDs would soon move downwards too, and if they are still asking twenty quid for a favourite movie, to hell with them. We only buy a quarter as many of the damn thing. Ergo, DVD movie prices have plunged a lot more quickly than CD prices.

Soon there will be DVDs in the charity shops, just as there have long been quite decent CDs there.

The longer term future of both music making and movie making will become much more dispersed, and diverse. More will be done by people who just want to make music or make movies. Money will still be just as important, but in a different way. The typical customer of the new age will not be a passive listener or watcher, but an active creator.

A bit like blogging. We don't make money with our blogging. We are the customers – for bandwidth, for blogging software, for cameras and flash cards so we can decorate our blogs, for designers who can tart up the look of our blogs, for nicer screens, for nicer speakers to play each others' tunes.

The new age, in other words, will not be an age in which canned music and canned movies make the money. What will make the money will be the cans and the canning equipment. The instruments.

That's enough. Probably already too much. Sorry if it was all too boring and obvious.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:12 PM
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August 12, 2003
Cool Beethoven

This is nice, from Alice B:

A brief culture blog

The beginning of Beethoven 5. It sounds exactly like someone going "uh-oh" (with a stammer).

Then they realise it's even worse than they thought, and drop in pitch slightly. "uh (uh-uh)- ohh..."

I noticed this because I heard kids singing it. Whether they got it off some smart-ass cable cartoon or made it up themselves, I don't know. Still, cool.

Indeed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:11 PM
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July 29, 2003
Nigel Kennedy disease spreads to France

Gramophone is cleverer at finding stuff in The Times than I am, because they found (their report - in their September (I know: ?!?!) 2003 issue - is paper only, so far as I know, so the link is just to the general Gramophone website) this:

Renowned French pianist François-René Duchable reportedly plans to end his concert career this summer by destroying two grand pianos and his recital clothes. According to The Times newspaper, he will then set off around France on a bicycle with a keyboard on his back giving impromptu performances.

Duchable revealed his plans in an interview with the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, in which he attacked the piano as a symbol of bourgeois society, said the recital format was too restrictive and criticised the musical system for its 6litist approach. 'I have had enough of sacrificing my life for one per cent of the population,' he said. In the first of three farewell concerts he plans to send a grand piano crashing into Lake Mercantour, in the second he will set his suit on fire and in the third he plans to make his piano explode in mid-air.

Duchable said he wants to be 'more honest with my own artistic requirements. 1 could give concerts with a commentary and perhaps participate in off-beat festivals, for example, 1 could play on water. 1 could play for children, the ill and for prisoners, without ostentation.'

"Without ostentation." Ah, but that's cruel.

On a more serious note, I actually sympathise with this guy. I mean, you sign up for what you are told all through your childhood is a pinnacle profession, the purest of the pure and the best of the best, and it slowly dawns on you that you are just this peripatetic museum curator, and the people in the audience are just sitting there thinking that their CDs of the piece are better. I can see how that might unhinge you. I can see how that might make you want to blow up pianos and set fire to your clothes.

I have a CD of Duchable, playing Beethoven piano sonatas. It's pretty good. He wasn't such a bad museum curator. But (and this is all part of what he's saying) he won't really be missed.

Duchable is dead wrong about bourgeois society, though. Bourgeois society is good. And he is as typical a bourgeois as you could hope to meet, trying to make something interesting of his life, instead of just plodding along doing whatever boring thing he was brought up to do.

If he plays his cards right, he could end up with a greatly enhanced career, and a really big house. A chateau, as they call it over there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:11 AM
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July 25, 2003
Hold the front page

Stop whatever you are doing. Put down that paint brush. Forget your digital camera. Cease working on your novel. Abandon your erotically aroused beloved. That plan to be a millionaire before you are thirty? - Make it thirty one. Instead, pay attention to this.

Tenor Placido Domingo has been awarded the European Culture Foundation's culture prize for his life's work.

Domingo, 62, was awarded the honour for being "an outstanding singer, actor, conductor, director and promoter" of music, said foundation deputy chairman Walter P von Wartburg.

The Spanish opera star was also congratulated in a letter from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who wrote: "Your talent, your sincerity and warmth build bridges between all borders, languages and cultures."

On Saturday the singer hosts a concert held on Lake Constance's Mainau Island, as part of an opera festival in the region shared by Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

I have a very good friend who has a standardised reaction for this kind of thing. It goes:

Be still my heart.

Be still my heart.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:02 PM
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July 22, 2003
Stephen Hough – smacking the mountain rather than making one

Last night's Prom (that's Promenade Concert for all you massed ranks of non-Brits) featured one of my favourite pieces, the Brahms First Piano Concerto. I'm hoping for great things from Digital Radio, but meanwhile I had to make do with my rather poor analogue radio with its CD player that no longer works, and more to the point with its diabolical London SW1 analogue radio reception. Given these sonic limitations, I concentrated on the piano playing of Stephen Hough.

I have to say I wasn't impressed, or not enough, and if you aren't sufficiently impressed by the pianist in this profoundly impressive concerto, that's not good. I'm pleased and a bit relieved to see that this Telegraph critic shared my doubts about Hough as the pianist for this piece.

I'm spoilt by the recording industry. I first got addicted to this piece with the magnificent Barenboim/Barbirolli/EMI recording, and since then I've heard all the others I could get my hands on, including (most impressively) Gilels, Serkin, Arrau, and Leon Fleischer. The resplendent Barenboim performance still heads the list for me, despite the various imperfections which helpful critics have later pointed out to me.

But how could you possibly perform the Brahms D Minor perfectly? What matters that you create a mighty wall of sound, mighty enough for this mighty mountain of a piece. Barenboim does this. He seems to draw forth the power of the piano in a way that doesn't really seem possible, and of course the massive sonorities that Barbirolli draws from the New (i.e. the old) Philharmonia help enormously. But whereas Barenboim makes a mountain, Hough last night merely seemed to be smacking away at the rock face with a mountaineering axe. Something to do with peddling perhaps? I don't know. But it sounded all wrong to me. Choppy, percussive, petulant and small.

Apparently (again see the critic linked to above), the thing to have been listening to last night was the orchestra (Ivan Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra), who later in the evening did wonderful things with Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. I skipped that, but Radio 3 will be broadcasting the entire concert again tomorrow afternoon, and I hope I'll be able to fit in listening to the whole thing, and especially the symphony. It depends what else crops up. And maybe radio reception, which comes and goes here, will be better then.

In a way, radio reception of variable quality is rather exciting. When it's good, you get a real sense of occasion.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:28 PM
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July 09, 2003
Martinu's symphonies are great – but you can bin almost everything else he wrote as far as I'm concerned

I have once again been listening to a symphony by Bohuslav Martinu, this time his Symphony Number 6, known as "Symphonic Fantasies" or some such thing, in a wonderful old mono Supraphon recording by the Czech Philharmonic and Karel Ancerl.

(Sorry, but I don't know how to do things like put the little circle above the "u" at the end of Martinu, or the spike on top of the "c" in the middle of Ancerl. If anyone can direct me to a page on the Internet where such things are explained, I'd be most grateful.)

Martinu's symphonies are totally wonderful. One of the very first clutch of CDs I ever bought was the set of all six Martinu symphonies by Neeme Jarvi (two dots over the "a" there, which again is beyond my contriving). These were made in the late 1980s, but remain very admired. Every time anyone else records one of these pieces, the reviewers say: yes well it's quite good, but it's not as good as Jarvi. I agree. These are wonderful performances and wonderful recordings, which capture the unique sound world of Martinu's symphonies wondrously.

The cliché about Martinu, referred to whenever yet another of his pieces has been recorded and is being reviewed, is that he wrote too much stuff and that most of it is junk. I agree with this. To my ear, the symphonies are an order of magnitude more splendid than almost anything else he wrote. I love the symphonies so much that for close on twenty years I have bought recordings of anything of Martinu's that I could, and yet in his entire output there is only one other piece of Martinu's that impressed me as much as all the symphonies have. It's called "Bergerettes", and I used to have a delightful recording of it by the Suk Trio, on vinyl. As for the rest, it is all of it dreary, repetitious, rhythmically relentless, utterly forgettable, utterly third rate tedium. Chunk chunk, clug clug, bonk bonk, scrape scrape. The symphonies are to the rest of his output (especially the chamber music) what flying is to staggering about on crutches.

I recall writing here about a similar contrast applying to another Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak (more impossible squiggles), whose symphonies are likewise all of them wondrous, and whose string quartets are likewise very dull and monochromatic by comparison. With Martinu, all that applies also, only more so.

It is often said that particularly famous and prestigious art forms can be off-putting, and that the wise artist might do better to steer clear of them and find his own more modestly appropriate forms. But what if the prestige of the art form puts the artist on his metal and makes him do better than usual? Brahms was said to be terrified of trying to follow in Beethoven's footsteps, but he rose to the challenge in the end, I would say. With Martinu, you get the feeling that when he was banging out one of his tedious little trios or quartets or sextets, taking not a lot longer to write the damn thing than it takes to play it, he was working privately, as it were. He didn't fear public opinion. He didn't mind if he made a fool of himself. Which meant that from where I sit, that's exactly what he did, again and again. But when he wrote symphonies, he slaved away at it until he really had something. This, he knew, was Martinu putting himself next to Beethoven and Brahms, and he didn't want any sniggering and tut-tutting. And, for me, it was mission accomplished.

Moral: some people should avoid writing too much, too often. They should work away at it, polish it, and bash away at it and redo it, until it is truly ready and truly good, and until it will stand comparison with the best.

Hm.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:52 PM
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July 08, 2003
Pressing the pause button is not as big an interruption of a piece of music as you might think

As so often with a blog posting, you find yourself writing the title, and then find that you've pretty much said everything that is on your mind. But just in case I am being a little cryptic, I will expand.

I'm now playing a recently acquired CD, the Hyperion recording of the Edward MacDowell piano concertos as it happens. Very nice. I love piano concertos, and I love the sound they make. MacDowell PC1 has a particular pleasing slow movement.

However, just before that movement ended, nature summoned me urgently to make a different sort of movement, and I pressed the pause button, and went you know where.

While seated you know where, I read, at the conscious level of my mind, the first few pages of an enticing little book about Einstein called Einstein and the Birth of Big Science. However, underneath, above and beyond my reading of that, so to speak, the tune of the MacDowell PC1 slow movement was held in my mind, as it were in suspension. So, nature having been placated and the Einstein book set aside, there remained this tune in my head.

Now here's the thing. I didn't any longer know what this tune was. Was it the tune I had just been listening to? I wasn't sure. I pressed the pause button again (which reverses the interruption and resumes the playing) and of course, the tune I had rattling about in my head was the exact tune that then resumed. So what happens when the flow of music is interrupted is, thanks to the way the brain handles the situation, not so much of an interruption as you might think. (The parallel with doing two or more things at once with a modern personal computer springs to mind at once.)

But, interesting further observation. I'm now into the third movement, and have quite forgotten that slow movement tune. I no longer need to remember it, I suppose. Whereas that tune was where I was standing, my journey interrupted, now it is gone, and I need to be concentrating on the next part of the musical journey. Seriously, if you told me to hum that slow movement tune, on pain of death I could not now do it.

Nevertheless, we all know enough about the brain to know that the tune is there in my brain somewhere. A hypnotist could probably excavate it and make me hum it perfectly, in a minute.

Which leads me to speculate that an interruption of this sort might actually cause me to get to know this tune even better than I would have done normally, without interruption. The interruption process obliged my brain to go to work to deal with the interruption, and as a result my brain paid more attention to that tune than it normally would have done, without interruption.

One thing the definitely happens just before you pause is that you do definitely listen to that which you are about to pause. You can't help yourself, and why would you want to?

What on earth does all that prove? You tell me, if so inclined.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:52 PM
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June 18, 2003
Peacemaking and temper keeping

I'm watching what I think is a rather under-rated movie, The Peacemaker, which stars George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.

What I especially like about this movie is that the two lead characters, Clooney and Kidman, would in most versions of such a movie story, have had at least one all-out slanging match by now (I'm about a third of the way in), before duly bonding and going after the bad guys. But although they've had several chances to scream and yell at each other, they haven't taken them. Which is entirely right, given the sort of people we are asked to believe that they are, top notch anti-terrorism folks doing ultra-high pressure work. An inability to control emotions under conditions of argumentative stress would not be a (non-) quality that you would want such people to have. They argue their conflicting cases forcefully, but they never let it get personal.

Which also means that they avoid another thuddingly predictable action movie cliché. Instead of consummating their personal relationship, the happy boy-gets-girl-girl-gets-boy ending has them embarking upon such a relationship.

I particularly liked the establishing-of-character scene in which a lady politician lists all the rambunctious and criminal things the Clooney character is alleged to have done while stopping some poison gas finding its way from Russia to Iraq. "Yes ma'am, that is correct." In general, the Clooney character is very convincing, to my eye.

The weakness of the movie is that it has a deeply unconvincing villain. Who – yes, you've guessed it – loves his classical music.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:20 PM
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June 03, 2003
Jon Nakamatsu

Presumably one of the purposes of a blog like this is to recommend works of art - or, in the case of classical music, performances of works of art - which might otherwise not come to the attention of interested readers. Recommending a recording by one of the all-time greats is somewhat superfluous, although it can still make sense if you've something special to say about it. But perhaps it makes more sense to give a tiny blog-push to a career that has never quite caught fire, or to one which, although crackling along nicely, is still in its early stages.

In this latter spirit allow me to commend to your attention a beautiful Chopin CD, by Jon Nakamatsu.

I first heard this on Radio 3. I often start Saturday morning by listening to the BBC's Record Review, but don't always get up before or while starting to listen to it. Sometimes I doze off again. So it was one Saturday morning about two years ago. When I re-awoke it was to the heavenly sound of this recording, and in particular to track 5, the Fantasy on Polish Airs op. 13, which I notice is listed at the top of the list on the cover of the CD.

And it is no wonder, for it is a wonder. It is not one of Chopin's very greatest pieces, but all disbelief is suspended during Nakamatsu's playing of it, the delicacy and accuracy of which is remarkable. As a reviewer at the site reached by my first link above says:

Mr. Nakamatsu's Chopin interpretation is absolutely beautiful and poetic, and it does not suffer from the quirky eccentricities that some performers add into their interpretations - instead, it is fresh, clear, precise, dynamic, and captivating.

Exactly so.

There are many ways for piano recordings to be wonderful, and being "perfect" is only one of them. Nevertheless this is very special indeed. I can sum up the pleasure I get from this CD by saying, first, that I entirely agree with and like and admire what Nakamatsu is trying to do with each piece, and second, that I have never had more strongly the feeling that the pianists is getting exactly, in all possible respects, what he wants.

Nakamatsu's most recent recording is of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, a favourite piece of mine. I have not heard this, but am not as impatient to hear this as you might expect. This is because this is not a piece which responds well to "perfect" performances, or even performances which aspire to perfection. My favourite performances of Rachmaninoff 3 are the ones that go for broke, and which get far further than a perfectionist like Nakamatsu might dare to attempt. I may take all this back when I hear Nakamatsu in this pece, but reviews I've read suggest that my fears may prove justified. (By the way, I now have a copy of the recording that I wrote about at the other end of that link.)

But the Chopin disc is wonderful.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:18 PM
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May 30, 2003
Being an enemy of subsidies is not the same as being an enemy of what is being subsidised

While googling for a link to the Kempff/Leitner/Beethoven recordings discussed in the posting immediately before and below this one, I came across a site called the Enemies of Classical Music, which ought to be fun.

However, if entry number one, John Ashcroft, is anything to go by, it is not so much fun as dishonest, politically motivated nonsense.

Ashcroft is quoted saying these two things – this:

"The average guy [who] wants to go down and see Garth Brooks at the country concert, he doesn't get a federal subsidy, but the silk-stocking crowd wants to go to watch the ballet or the symphony orchestra, they get a subsidy."

… and this:

"I tend not to be an individual who has invested a great deal of my life in opera. Now the opera gets a subsidy from the National Endowment for the Arts, but, by and large, Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks don't. Those of us who drive our pickups to those concerts don't get a subsidy, but the people who drive their Mercedes to the opera get a subsidy."

Ashcroft may or may not be an "enemy of classical music". From this evidence it is impossible to tell. What he definitely is is an enemy of the unfairness, as he sees it, of subsidising classical music but not other more popular kinds of music.

Personally I go further than Ashcroft does in either of these quotes. (After all, you could interpret his words as a plea for subsidies to the likes of Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks.) I oppose subsidies to any sort of music, Nelson, Brooks, opera, the lot. And I defy Matthew B. Tepper to call me an enemy of classical music just because I don't agree with him about the government subsidising it.

I genuinely believe that subsidies for classical music have harmed classical music, especially what passes for "new" classical music. Subsidies have helped to separate new classical music from new regular music, and thereby helped to drain the life out of it. It's a point of view. And certainly not one based on hating classical music as such.

I won't expand on this point of view now, as I have a busy day in front of me. I need to get my blogging duties done and my living room dusted.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:31 PM
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Out of tune!!!

I'm listening to the Kempff/Leitner/Berlin Philharmonic/DGG recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos, and now to number three in C minor, one of my all time favourite pieces. First movement. Slow movement.

And it is out of tune.

It is amazing how many recordings, especially for some reason piano concerto recordings, are thus disfigured. This one, I think, has the piano badly tuned so that the upper registers are flat compared to the rest, and the woodwind is sharper than the strings. I can't be sure precisely what is wrong, or all that is wrong, but something very definitely is, let me tell you.

Not everywhere in the performance, it seems. We've now reached the last movement, and the orchestra sounds okay, and now so does the piano. But the first two movements were horrible.

I don't have perfect pitch. I can't, that is to say, sing exact notes out of nowhere or tell you if someone else's notes are sharp or flat if I have nothing to compare them with. But if two notes are supposed to be the same and are actually very slightly different, I can tell, and so, I should guess, can most music lovers. So what were DGG thinking when they arranged for "Prof. Elsa Schiller" to do the Production of these recordings? It was basically her fault, yes? I've never heard that name in any other connection whatsoever, and I'm not surprised.

Is it intrinsically hard to achieve proper tuning when you are making a recording? Are are some recording venues treacherous from the tuning point of view? Do performances that sound fine to the naked ear on the day emerge from the machines all mis-tuned and hideous? Is that what's happening? If so, it is not surprising if some major recordings go haywire in this respect.

What is not pardonable, however, is that reviewers so seldom pick up on these things. I've never read of this particular performance being disfigured tuning-wise. But trust me, it is. And I seem to recall very similar and if anything even worse tuning problems afflicting some of the Barenboim/Klemperer/EMI recordings of the same pieces, and I've never read anyone complaining about that either. Extraordinary. Occasionally magazines like Gramophone get grumpy letters to the editor complaining in the manner of this posting, but the reviewers seldom rock the boat by dissing the products of the major labels for being thus deranged. Only obscure and powerless labels get slated, or individual string players for not playing properly in tune (for which the producer can't be blamed except insofar as he should perhaps have made them do it again).

Maybe I have better ears than I thought. Perhaps some people don't like classical music for the simplest of all reasons. They don't hear it.

I'm listening now to number four, which sounds much better. The problem was only with the first two movements of three.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:50 PM
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May 22, 2003
Brilliant Classics making the pace

I've never listened to all of Dvorak's string quartets at one go, so I was looking forward to doing this with my newly purchased super-bargain box of the lot of them (for £12 for 10 CDs), played by the Stamitz Quartet.

I was disappointed. All but the late, famous ones, notably the "American", Op. 96, seemed to me to be like musical wallpaper, but in a bad way. I don't know if this was the playing of the Stamitz Quartet, or the composer's fault, or my fault, but something was wrong.

I had hoped for better. All the Dvorak symphonies, including the very earliest, are charming works and I recommend all of them, for example in the Phillips recordings made of them all by Witold Rowicki and the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s. Symphonies One and Two probably outstay their welcome a bit, but at least you start by giving them a welcome. Most of the quartets just seemed dull.

The other bargain box of string quartets I got on the same expedition was of the complete Beethovens, made in the 1960s by the Julliard Quartet, and the contrast was immediate. These are great from the word go, of course, and there is no question of the excellence of the playing either. A genuine bargain, this time at £15 for a mere 8 CDs.

Could it be that writing string quartets is more difficult than writing symphonies? With an entire orchestra, you can take refuge in musical colour. When writing for the string quartet, there is no special effects hiding place. Maybe a musical expert can explain.

Meanwhile, how about those prices. There is, as I said in a Samizdata comment yesterday, a real atmosphere of fire sale about the big London CD stores these days. CDs released only months ago have already done the price plunge. And these box sets are being virtually given away. I hate the packaging. I far prefer jewel cases to these horrid little cardboard mini-LP-sleeves. But at £2 per CD, how can I resist? (Sorry, can find no links for these CDs.)

One of the giveaway signs of a genuinely collapsing market is when the second hand shops don't know how cheap the stuff is in the brand new shops, and where half the punters don't either. The default price for the cheapest stuff in the second hand shops is now about £3. In the "new" shops, you can find things for about £1.50. This is new. The new recordings are not selling nearly well enough, and the big labels are eking out a living recycling older and older stuff, at cheaper and cheaper prices.

The big labels, in other words, aren't waiting to be destroyed by the likes of Brilliant Classics. They are becoming Brilliant Classics themselves. The classical music business is spinning ever deeper into its long predicted black hole.

The actual making of new and interesting recordings of classical music is fast becoming a economically irrational hobby, rather than a business. It is moving, in other words, in the opposite direction to that recently travelled by Britain;'s national newspapers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:29 PM
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May 06, 2003
The delayed action effect of classical music

Let me go back to that question again, that I referred to a couple of days ago: "Why Are We Scared of New Music?" It reveals that Radio 3 has a very odd idea of what "music" actually is. Because of course by "music", they actually mean only the "serious" sort of music, the music that is offered as the successor music to the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc. Nobody is very scared of the latest offering from the Sugarbabes. Is that not "music" also? Of course it is. Radio 3 people, as opposed to regular people people, live in a split musical universe, divided into proper music, and Sugarbabe rubbish music that is music of a sort, if you like that sort of thing, but isn't real music, proper music, musical music.

What's going on here? And why, to repeat the original observation, is "new music" so much more disliked and ignored than new art (i.e. visual art) and new literature.

Or to put it another way, why has this bizarre distinction between "new music" and pop music persisted, when literature and the visual arts have seen the boundaries between the High and the Popular become blurred to the point where High is just as much popular as high, and Popular ditto? What has been different about music?

Here's another of my suggested-but-not-sure see-what-you-think answers.

Briefly, the problem has been (A) that "classical music" is so damned good; (B) that "classical music" had to be performed, and (C) that "classical music" has had to be recorded.

Start with (A). Western classical music is not just ordinarily successful art. It has been overwhelmingly successful. It is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. And although most of it was written before electronic recording and microphones and CDs and even radio broadcasting were ever thought of, the way it is produced, with what the pop people call "accoustic" instruments has persisted.

This is (B) because of the very nature of music. Once a painting or a sculpture is done, it's done. You need careful owners and museum curators, but no further creative effort is needed from anybody. To realise how different this is from music, imagine a world in which Leonardos had constantly to be, so to speak repainted by contemporary artists, before we could enjoy them. You can see how this activity would cut into the creative time of these same artists. The whole balance of the painting profession would shift towards to dead past and away from the living present, and leaving "modern" art to either a coterie of insignificant self-styled successors to Leonardo who frankly didn't register much, and to an equally insigniticant, in terms of cultural grandeur and prestige, pop art "industry", which would of course nowadays be rooted in photography, the visual equivalent of twentieth century electronic sound technology.

Recording has (C) further intensified this difference.

What the recording of classical music did was further to yank the balance of power within the music-making profession away from the here and now and back to the dead and gone. If you were a composer living and working in about 1960, you had to be a mighty important composer (Stravinsky? Britten? Shostakovitch?) to be regarded as a more significant musical personality than Herbert von Karajan, the top dog conductor of that time. And this despite the fact that Karajan composed hardly a single note of music himself and spent his entire life performing pieces by other composers, most of them dead.

It was recording that made Karajan such a significant figure. It was his huge catalogue of recordings that made him the enormous musical force that he was.

But now the job of recording all the classics is done, and this bizarre interlude of musical history, when the most important "high art" musical activity was not composing music but recording that which had already been composed, is now over, and something like normality is now able to re-assert itself.

But the form in which this re-assertion is occurring is that this split, between the high and the low, the posh and the pop, has been pretty much resolved and negotiated almost out of existence, still lingers in music, and is only now being seriously tackled. Sir Simon Rattle, Karajan's successor at the Berlin Philharmonic, cannot have the cultural centrality of Karajan, because all those recordings of Beethoven symphonies and concertos and Mahler symphonies and song cycles have now all been made. Rattle goes through the same motions eagerly enough, but it can't possibly pack the same cultural punch, which means that discussions like this one, about "why people are scared of new music", take on a sudden new intensity. When Karajan was in his pomp, it didn't matter. It was enough that people flocked to buy recordings of the old music. Now, it does matter. I already have many sets of the Beethoven symphonies. I refuse to pay full price for yet another set, even if it is by Sir Simon Rattle. I might pay £20 for this set. £50? Forget it.

In my earlier posting, I pointed out that people who go to classical concerts are expected to sit still and listen, and this pisses them off. But where did this rule come from in the first place? It is not carved in stone that to listen to an orchestra play Mozart you have to be sitting still and not saying anything. How come this archaic rule still persists? It's because only now have classical concerts lost their cultural pre-eminence. In the days of Karajan and his Berliners, the audience was glad to sit in silence, as if in a cathedral. Now, it's the Okay Philharmonic conducted by Sir George Not-Half-Bad (but not a patch on Karajan), so now the rules start to feel wrong. The audience starts to grumble and shuffle and yawn and say: why are we bothering with this? The musicians retaliate with "new music", which this time has to do well, and this time, since it's no longer Karajan or some such grand figure fixing the audience with his beady eye and telling them to sit still and listen, the audience doesn't want to sit still for and listen to any longer. To hell with it. Suddenly, we're back in the world of Mozart, where the servants made music and the audience weren't even willing to stop chattering. Pop music, from the time of the Strauss family onwards, has never not been like this. Yet the institutions of "serious" music-making are only now beginning to adapt to this extreme mismatch between form and content.

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the culture-sphere, is my story for today. It's a story of delayed action. Problems which other arts have solved decades ago, are being seriously confronted by musicians for the first time only now. No wonder the musicians are baffled by and envious of the other arts. No wonder they say: Why us? What's wrong with music? My answer is that they are the victims of the past successes of those decomposing composers. Only now are the Living Dead of classical music settling back in their graves, to leave "new music" to the living.

That's part of the story anyway. As always with Art, the full truth is always far more complicated and elusive than any one short essay can possibly make it seem. But as what the mathematicians call a "first approximation", my story is better, I submit, than most.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:21 PM
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May 04, 2003
How music traps you but how the visual arts don't – thoughts provoked by lebrecht.live

On BBC Radio 3 Norman Lebrecht is about to host a discussion under the heading of : "Why Are We Scared of New Music?" (The above link takes you to the topic of the June show, but this is May. I can't find any direct mention of the May show other than the mere title.)

I wonder what they'll say. If the purpose of such programmes is to stimulate thought, then the mere presence in the Radio Times of the title of this programme has done the trick with me. I will be taping this show (while listening to Quote Unquote on another radio set), so maybe I'll have more to say about this after listening to that tape, but meanwhile here are some thoughts on the matter.

I'm going to be mundane rather than profound, because it seems to me that there are some very simple things to be said about the difference, say, between looking at a piece of sculpture and listening to a piece of music that the radio people may miss in among all the profundity they will no doubt (and quite properly for this is Radio 3) plunge into.

When I enter an art gallery and confront a piece of sculpture two things are very different from the experience of going to a concert and starting to listen to a piece of music.

First, I can leave an art gallery at any moment without in any way straying from the etiquette of the event. Walking out of an art gallery is not rudeness. It is simply what you must eventually do anyway, and you can do it whenever you want, without anyone looking askance. With music at a concert, walking out before it has finished is not the idea. You can do it, legally speaking, but it is a deviation from the basic routine.

Second, walking out of a concert before the music finishes is deeply unsatisfactory in another way. Simply, you do not know what you were missing. Music in a concert hall is a profoundly linear experience. You get the experience in a pre-arranged line of moments, and you cannot browse about along that line, and make up your mind whether you want to dig deeper, the way you can with a sculpture or a painting.

On the other hand, when you first confront an item of visual art, you immediately learn a huge amount about it, and about whether you want to view it and reflect upon it more, or to walk on or walk away. In this sense viewing visual art is a hierarchical experience, not in the sense that your father or your boss tells you to view it, but in the sense that you get supplied, in the nature of the thing and in the nature of the way you see it, with a rough outline of what you are being offered, into which you can dig deeper, wherever you like, and in whatever degree of detail you like. You get the big map, and you can zoom in at your leisure at any point on the map. And you are not at any stage in this experience in any way trapped in it.

So, what I'm saying is that – unless you are being dragged around a gallery by somebody else who has no concern for your response, which can happen of course – concert music traps you, while visual art doesn't.

Recordings of music are a somewhat different matter. You can browse through a CD when you are on your own at home, at least in the sense of dipping in at different moments and fast forwarding. But even that is difficult. You don't really get much of an idea about it without subjecting yourself to at least some of the music's linearity, by surrendering at least a little of your attention to it for a while. Nevertheless, it is a common fact of the CD industry that people (I'm most definitely one of them) who will risk a few quid on perhaps unwelcome music in a way that they absolutely refuse to risk time in a concert hall. CD buyers are much more "adventurous" than concert goers. But of course they are the same people! What is really going on is that a concert is much more of an "adventure", that is to say more of a risk of serious unhappiness, in a way that wasting a few pounds on a horrible CD is not.

Incidentally, the written word, and most especially the printed word, is often touted as the ultimate in "linear" artistic experience. (Think Marshall McLuhan.) Not in the sense I mean. When you pick up a book you can work out an amazing amount about it in a couple of minutes, by glancing at the contents page, if any, and by dipping in it at random, which is an inherently easier thing to do with a book than with a sound recording, I submit. And when you read a book, that's an inherently individual experience, and if you stop you don't have to barge past anyone else's legs to get away. It's between you and the book.

Poetry readings, now, they're a different thing altogether. I have the suspicion that if it was considered routine for all novels to be "first performed" by being read aloud at public, shared events, we'd all be pretty scared about that also. And how popular would art galleries be if you had to sit in a particular chair and stare at the stuff, for a prearranged time?

None of this has anything to do with either the intrinsic or the it-just-so-happens-now niceness or nastiness of the visual (or literary) arts as opposed to the musical arts. I have (and have had) thoughts along those lines too ("new" music? etc.), of course, but for here, for now, they can wait.

By the way, I have taped lebrecht.live and listened to it intermittently, in among interruptions, and it seems they also covered the "trapped" issue, in among, as I said, more profound things. I'm looking forward to settling down to the whole thing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:05 PM
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May 03, 2003
Architecture and music

I've used my blogging time today to comment on this at 2Blowhards, here, here, and here. In particular, I have been recommending this article.

Meanwhile I have been listening to another favourite piece of music. Dvorak's Piano Concerto is liked by me a whole lot more than it seems to be admired by the classical music world generally. My favourite recording of this is the first one by Rudolf Firkusny on the Westminster label, almost certainly because this was the version I got to know it with. There's a greatly admired recording also on EMI by Richter. (He's accompanied by that famous under-achiever Carlos Kleiber, who can do no wrong in the opinion of most reviewers. So why doesn't he make more recordings then? Wanker. And something equivalent also goes for Martha Argerich, who is fast becoming one of classical music's most over-rated phenomena. She refuses to make solo piano recordings because she reckons music making is about teamwork not egoism. She has no problem with doing piano concertos, though, which are not egotistical at all. Or something. Maybe she just gets lonely. Silly woman. Or maybe one of her husbands has dosed her with a version of socialism that forbids solo piano recordings. Whatever. But I digress.)

Other pieces by great composers which deserve to be better known than they seem to be:

J. S. Bach: Cantata BWV 30. I especially recommend the recording of this on an Erato two-for-one set by Fritz Werner, where the opening and closing chorus (same thing) is a wonder to hear.

W. A. Mozart: Divertimento No. 11 in D Major, K 251. I have yet to hear a recording of this I didn't enjoy. I especially love the Menuetto (Tema con Variazioni).

That'll have to do for today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:48 PM
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May 02, 2003
The difference between Schmid and Perlman

One very good way to listen to a great recording of a great piece is to listen to a not-great recording of the same piece first.

I don't know why – curiosity I think, I hadn't listened to it lately – but, whyever, I put on the Arte Nova recording of one of my favourites, the Brahms Violin Concerto. Arte Nova is a me-too version of Naxos which puts out one decent performance of all the best classical music for a fiver a go, and their in-house violinist is a chap called Benjamin Schmid. He does the Brahms.

So I start listening, and I say to myself, this doesn't sound quite right. He's good, but is he great? Nothing sounds quite right. Each note seems to be about 0.000001% out of tune. The beginnings of the notes don't sound quite the way they could. He is good. He can play. If I heard this in a concert, I'd not be growling and wanting my money back. But I don't know, it just sounds like a "could do better" performance to me, he's clinging to the cliff rather than standing

I wonder. I just wonder, I say to myself. Am I imagining all this, or is there someone on the shelf here who really could do better? I switch off Mr Schmid and put on one of my absolute favourite recordings of this piece, the first EMI Perlman recording, the one with Giulini conducting. Long introduction, which is better because it has more base in it, which I like, and because Giulini of all conductors can do those long legato paragraphs that I so like and which they all so liked in the late nineteenth century when this piece was composed. Also, everything is absolutely perfectly in tune.

Enter Perlman, and the miracle unfolds. It's true. Everything is just right. Everything is perfectly in tune. Every note begins in its own distinct way, the exact way it should. Every note, every phrase, every paragraph, means something. In fact it means everything.

Perlman plays the piece a bit slower than is usual, perhaps because of Giulini, perhaps because he wants to, never mind Giulini. This is asking for trouble. Play a piece like this slow, and if every note is not a miracle, you draw the most cruel sort of attention to its unmiraculousness. Could do better and several minutes longer. But of course Perlman makes it work. You savour every instant and bless the tiny extra moment you have to enjoy each moment.

When I think how many decisions a violin soloist has to make per second in a piece like this Brahms concerto, I am astounded at Perlman's achievement.

Take tuning. All music buffs know this, but any non-music buffs who have followed me this far may not know that playing western-scale music in tune is an art, not a science. Our great clutch of notes and key signatures embodies a universe of tiny compromises, which pianists don't have to bother with while they're playing because the tuning is all done, for better or worse, but which violinists have to bother with all the time. As do singers of course.

There are some pieces – the Brahms violin concerto sounds to me like one of them – where every bar seems to be a tuning trap. Another way of putting that might be to say that the tunes wouldn't sound right on a piano, because each one has to be "compromised" in a slightly different way, depending on the notes before and after each note that you are actually being played. Listening to someone like Mr Schmid play this piece, and you wonder (a) what's wrong, and (b) how the hell anyone could ever play this piece perfectly if this guy can't. And then you listen to Perlman, where everything just sounds perfect.

And that's just the tuning. Tempo, legato, vibrato, everything-else-in-Italian-you-can-think-of-o. It all has to be decided about and got right.

Perlman isn't deciding about all this by being a supercomputer who just decides things very fast, any more than I decide what's in front of me by knowing all about electromagnetic waves. Well, not as much more as you might suppose. Instead of (or as well as) that, he brings to bear a tradition of violin-playing and violin-tuning and violin-phrasing on everything he does which spits out the right answers like one of those WYSIWYG programmes where you don't have to think about the machine code, just about how you want it to look. Perlman is one of those people who can look at the score of the Brahms, hear it, and then WPHIWPP (What Perlman Hears Is What Perlman Plays) it, without any further fuss. Oh, he thinks about all manner of bits in the piece when he's preparing it and practising it. He gives immense thought to how he wants us to hear it, and his taste is beyond reproach. But once he's fixed that, out it comes. And what's more he is so totally in command of what he's doing that he can introduce those tiny modifications in response to what the conductor is doing (in this case also a super-great musician) and thus make everything sound even more exactly right.

Genius.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:09 PM
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April 17, 2003
Classical music strikes back

Music of the sort that I mostly listen to comes out of a music box rather than out of actual musical instruments played by actual musicians at a concert, or, if you are really grand, by people in your living room or even by your brilliant self in your living room. Treating classical music as musical wallpaper is considered by many classical music lovers to be immoral, but I can't be bothered with that attitude. I do love Great Music, but I also love the sound it makes, so I frequently have it on in the background.

Often whole movements of Great Music will go by without me paying them any attention whatsoever, but about once a month, very approximately, something extraordinary happens. A piece of music leaps out of my music box and compels me to pay attention to it. I stop whatever I'm doing and either switch it off and resume my work, because I can't take the interruption, or else I continue the interruption to whatever I was doing and really pay attention. I never know when this will happen and thus when a decision, listen or don't listen, will have to be made.

The most recent occurrence of this sort was when Alfred Brendel's most recent recording of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto forced itself upon me. (This recording is part of a complete set of all the Beethoven piano concertos.)

This piano concerto is a high spirited piece written by the young Beethoven for him to show off his talents as a pianist. It is full of the joy of life, and I'm sure than one of the reasons it grabbed me was that at the moment when I had thoughtlessly put it on (because of liking the sound that it makes), I myself had just been seriously cheered up (by some nice blog comments, as it happens), so the music matched my mood. And I found everything about the music and the way it was played wholly delightful.

Brendel is nearing retirement and maybe he finds it hard to believe that everyone will stay interested in the music he still plays, perhaps because he himself now knows it so well. Whatever the reason, he now often highlights phrases in a rather schoolmasterish fashion, in a way which I sometimes find tiresome. A recent Mozart piano concerto recording of his with Mackerras is, for me, rather spoilt by this kind of thing. The tempo gets yanked about from bar to bar. Hardly a phrase goes by without Brendel having something fascinating to say about it, so to speak, but all this in music which, if simply played well and in time is a slice of heaven. It's like being fussed over by a waiter in the world's best restaurant.

And he did the same in the Beethoven, egged on by conductor Simon Rattle, who is a similarly didactic sort of musician.

And I loved every single second of it. Every inflection, every nuance, even little dig in the ribs or eager little emphasis or thoughtful slowing up, either from Beethoven or from Brendel or from Rattle, seemed to me to be totally perfect, and perfectly suited to the music.

I never know when this sort of this will happen. The most vivid memory I have of such a musical interruption was when I had Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra's Erato recording of Tchaikovsky's Pathethique Symphony on my headphones. Now you may think that it would be hard to ignore something like that, but my powers of indifference are formidable, and I am capable of actually sleeping with my headphones on and blaring. But not, it so happens, on that occasion. Then, I found myself listening. Soon, tears were streaming pathetically down my face, and I was Tchaikovsky's temporary slave.

The usual attitude towards classical music is that one ought to "make an effort", "put something into it", and so forth. But I treat it the way an eighteenth century aristocrat treated his servants. The burden of grabbing my attention is entirely on the shoulders of the music. If it does not impinge upon me, so much the worse for it.

What the modern electronic music box has done is to reverse the power relationship between classical music and its audience, that was established, I believe, in its modern concert-audience-equals-silent-congregation form by a nineteenth century conductor by the name of Richard Wagner. He it was who established the modern practice of dimming the lights in the opera house. Until then, it was up to the performers to impose themselves upon their audience, like a stand-up comic now.

Now, the gramophone and its successors has turned all that upside down yet again. Yes yes, thank you Mr Mozart! That will be all. Too many notes. So click, off with it. I am the master now.

Except that sometimes the music rises up from its Dead White grave and demands my attention.

I find these experiences deeply satisfying. I don't like the idea of paying attention to great art out of mere duty. How would I ever truly know that I liked it?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:17 PM
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February 14, 2003
Higglety Pigglety Crap

Just because I haven't recently been writing here about culture, that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about it, and thinking about writing about it. Nevertheless, my hopes of hitting my stride have yet to be fulfilled. I'm still trying to find my voice, and picture my readership.

Part of it is I realise that my cultural tastes are not as elevated as I would like them to be. Even my taste in music depresses me somewhat. For although I love the great canon of classical pieces that everyone else loves (minus most of opera except Mozart, Wagner and Puccini), I simply can't be bothered to listen to most of what is offered now as the latest "classical music", and find myself only echoing Ayn Rand's views on literature. Apparently someone once said to her that her stuff wasn’t exactly in the Mainstream of American Literature and she replied: "The mainstream of American literature is a stagnant swamp."

Last night, via my newly acquired digital TV attachment, I found myself watching and listening to one of last year's Proms, consisting of two works by Oliver Knussen conducted by the man himself. One was called Where The Wild Things Are and the other was called Higglety Pigglety Pop! Physically, Knussen is a very substantial figure, but I am afraid I found the music itself – the idiotic classical-style singing of it especially – utterly risible. Plain embarrassing. Stagnant swamp. And ten times more embarrassing for trying to be funny. There was a whole line of on-purpose badly dressed singers in jumpers and tracksuits all classical-singing away as if their lives depended on it – as I suppose their lives do, poor wretches – grinning idiotically at the "jokes" they were singing so idiotically, and it's a long time since I've seen a group of educated English people look more ridiculous.

If this kind of rehashed Schoenberg is supposed to be the future of classical music, how come a third of the seats were empty, and how come also that about a third of those who were present looked like they were only clapping at the end because they didn't want to hurt the wretchedly massive, sweating, only-fifty-years-old-but-heart-attack-any-year-now Knussen's feelings, and because they knew that TV cameras were present? And why weren't all those present who, like me, despised it all completely, throwing vegetables and waving football rattles and abusive placards? Because it wasn't worth it, is why. This stuff is dead in the water. No need to attack the corpse. Just let it sink.

But now here's my problem. Although the above is my definite opinion of Knussen, were I to be faced by one of those erudite explanations …

Oliver Knussen is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of his generation. He is often labelled a 'minaturist', partly on the basis that he hasn't written many long pieces of music but also because his scores are extremely concentrated - 'every note counts'.

Much of his music is characterised in its construction by the manipulation of small musical cells and, in his mature works, by polyrhythmic musical textures. But that alone doesn't account for the imagination that has produced works like the Fantasy Operas 'Where the Wild Things Are' and 'Higglety, Pigglety Pop!' and settings of texts from Walt Whitman to Winnie-the-Pooh.

… of why I am completely wrong about Kussen's music, and how it will echo down the ages alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius and the rest of them, my only answer would be a not very much elaborated version of an old cartoon caption I once saw. A child is facing a plate of gunk which the adults around him are telling him he must eat, because it is good for him. Says he: "I say it's spinach and I say to hell with it."

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:17 PM
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February 05, 2003
"In real life it's a different story"

I promised myself my next posting here would be about Shakespeare or something. But then I saw this, which is very funny, and actually, even in a Shakespeare kind of way, quite profound.

Opening paragraph:

In the online world, I, Hankscorpio74, am known to be charismatic, tough, quick-witted, and tenacious as a copperhead snake. Like my namesake, Globex Corporation president Hank Scorpio, I am roguish and unflappable, possessing the confidence and flair of 20 men. Unfortunately, all of that changes when I drag my cursor down to "Shut Down" at the bottom of the "Special" menu. For all the admiration and respect I command in chat rooms, in real life, it's a different story. Oh, how I wish I were more like my online persona.

Me too.

My BCBlog persona reads Shakespeare constantly, pausing only to re-read Crime and Punishment. I read crap by comparison, most of the time.

But I do genuinely like to have classical music on, even if I don't listen to it properly a lot of the time. Future posting: How I like being able to shut Wagner up with one press of the finger when I've had enough Wagner and how he might not have liked that very much – "funny, yet strangely profound" Instapundit. (I wish.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:02 PM
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January 04, 2003
On recovering from illness

Recently I have been ill, and am not yet fully recovered, and this is an experience that does interesting things to one's aesthetic responses. Music is sometimes said to have curative powers. (I seem to remember a passage in King Lear, when the King is recovering from his little episode, to this effect.)

Music doesn't cure. This is to get it the wrong way around. But when one does recover (for all the usual dull medical reasons), one also recovers one's ability to respond to music. Chemicals, hormones, brain patterns, or things in the brain/mind/body now unkown, having been temporarily deficient or dormant, return with renewed strength, all the more wondrous for having been assumed permanently dead.

It so happens that one of my favourite pieces of music is one that was actually written to celebrate this same sense of renewed response and of renewed life, the Adagio - "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit in der lydischen Tonart" – A restored one's holy song of thanksgiving to God, in Lydian Mode – from Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor op. 132. I'm not a godist myself, but I can entirely understand that desire to thank someone, rather than just one's own mere bodily functions, for that extraordinary feeling of wellbeing that recovery from illness bestows.

Beethoven's last few string quartets are delightful. Highly trained classical musicians, having spent several decades learning that proper music can't be composed this way, find them immensely difficult. They are deranged, yet they are late Beethoven and so must be great and cannot be dismissed as mere eccentricities. Therefore they must be brain-splittingly profound. Also, Beethoven was by then totally deaf, the ultimate personal disability in the whole of human history, and so God forbid that he might simply have been enjoying himself.

To the lucky hedonist like me, who loves classical music on the same basis that, and with no more profundity than, others love American Multiple Choice Icecream, the late quartets are no more difficult to understand or enjoy than the singing of a loved one in the shower. Delightful tunes come and go. Gorgeous harmonies (like that adagio) simply announce themselves without introduction. Movements merge into each other. Some movements are far too short. Others oscillate between pop song and academic mind-gaming. Busking in heaven.

Beethoven's sense of fun is under-represented in the official image of the man. Yes he stole fire from the Gods, but having done so he proceeded to juggle with sparklers as well as to forge ferocious pieces of tempered musical steel like the Fifth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony, remember, ends with an Ode to Joy.

I first listened to those late quartets in the recordings of them for Philips done by the Quartetto Italiano in the nineteen sixties, and I still particularly love and admire those performances, now available in two mid-price double-CD sets.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
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