Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Classical music
I keep wanting to write about music, but (a) it isn’t easy, unless both you and your readers know all the technical terms of your preferred sort of music. And (b) whereas words go fine with music, words about music, especially if they are attempting to be descriptive of a particular piece of music, can be devilishly hard to contrive in a way that is comprehensible without being banal and superficial and generalised.
A specialist blog or website devoted to a particular sort of music, with musical illustrations supplied to click on rather than only descriptive verbiage, whose writer(s) and readers are united by their taste in that particular sort of music, that makes perfect sense to me. I don’t read any such blogs, but it makes sense. I do read old school paper magazines (I see that there is a new one of those out that I’ve not yet seen) exactly like this. But a blog about other things which from time to time goes musical, not so much. I have no problem at all with my favourite bloggers (6k and Mick Hartley spring to mind) doing postings every so often about music that they happen particularly to like. Their gaffs, their rules. But I mostly skip such postings. I possess a lifetime and more of music in the form of a vast CD collection that I already want to listen to.
So, I do not wish myself merely to do postings about bits of music that I happen to like, hoping - implicitly or explicitly - that others will be infected with my tastes. I love Western classical music more than life itself, often a lot more. But most people don’t these days, and that’s fine with me. If I thought that western classical music was about to be completely expunged from the earth any time soon, I might feel differently about trying to infect others with the love of it, but it isn’t. Meanwhile, this music is, for me, mostly a personal thing. It is not an evangelical religion. If I meet a fellow devotee, we exchange enthusiastic exclamations of love for this or that piece or performance, but I mostly refrain from inflicting such True Believer talk on non-believers.
I am evangelical and anti-evangelical about some things. If you are not a libertarian, I want that to change. You should become a libertarian forthwith. If you are a Muslim, I want you to know, now, that I think you should stop being a Muslim, now. But if you hate Beethoven and adore hip-hop, that’s fine with me, so long as you have no plans forcibly to stop me listening to Beethoven or to force me to listen to hip-hop. If you merely want me to adore hip-hop, or even to stop adoring Beethoven, again, fine. Just so long as you don’t recommend the use of sticks or stones to make those points. Insofar as you do, then shame on you. But exactly the same point applies to people who force Beethoven upon those who resist Beethoven’s charms. I am evangelical about that sort of behaviour also. Are you threatening others with Beethoven? Stop doing that, now. Do you favour such behaviour by others. Don’t even think that.
However, more general postings about music (this one being an example) about the different ways we listen to it and enjoy it, how love of music spreads or should spread (that is what this posting has partly been about), about how those who contrive it contrive it, and so on, of the sort that all music lovers can read and tune into, even as they are hearing in their own heads quite distinct musical illustrations concerning whatever is being said, that makes more sense to me, and - memo to self - I want to do more of such postings here.
The Mozart Requiem, or “Rec” (sp?) as performers apparently call it, was duly performed yesterday in the magnificent setting of Narbonne Cathedral, and was wonderful. G(od) D(aughter) 2 and her colleagues sang beautifully throughout.
However, because of an oddity of the Cathedral’s acoustics, men’s voices would often leap out in front of of the general wash of sound, like closely recorded concerto soloists. This happened when the chorus was singing, and it also happened when the lady soloists were singing in unison with the gentlemen soloists. When that was happening, the lady soloists, mezzo-soprano Alice Ruxandra Bell (GD2) and soprano Isabelle Atkinson were, at any rate as heard from where I was sitting, somewhat drowned out by the gents. The gents sang beautifully, but so did the ladies and you had to listen rather too carefully for my liking to realise this.
But towards the end came the Benedictus. In this, rather than the ladies and the gents all singing at once, there were precious moments when the ladies were duetting together, while the gents waited their turn to do likewise, the gents complementing the ladies rather than singing over them. Heaven. At which point you realised why, following an earlier performance of an identical programme in the town of Ceret last year, a repeat performance was requested for Narbonne, with identical forces.
The all-important chorus, despite my acoustic quibbles, sounded great, as did the orchestra.
My feeling at the end of the Requiem was: I wish I could hear that Benedictus again. Not right now, necessarily, but, you know, some time. Was anyone, I wondered, attempting a recording of this occasion? Following the enthusiastic ovation that greeted the performance, conductor François Ragot and his soloists returned to do an encore, and guess what. They did a repeat of the Benedictus. Heaven again.
Earlier, in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Séverine Paris was the mellifluous and utterly assured soloist. The slow movement was, for me, especially eloquent.
Attendance at this event was free of charge, which perhaps was why the Cathedral was so packed. Afterwards, the soloists said what a joy it was to be performing for such a huge throng in such a wonderful building. Being just one of the throng was pretty marvellous too.
Today, I will be journeying from Thuir to Narbonne, to hear a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in Narbonne Cathedral. I will share the car journey with G(od)D(aughter) 2’s parents, the soprano soloist, the mezzo-soprano soloist (GD2), and the baritone soloist (I wrote about his performance as Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore in June of last year). I heard a tiny snatch of these three singers rehearsing this afternoon. Despite an unforgiving acoustic (quite unlike the cathedral), and the then very incomplete orchestra, it sounded to me like it will be excellent, particularly the three soloists I will be rooting for. I heard nothing of the chorus, but conductor François Ragot is much loved by all and I’m sure they’ll do well.
Later, I also got hear a distant snatch of the piece that will proceed the Requiem, Mozart’s similarly beloved Clarinet Concerto. That too sounded very promising.
I mention all this now (now being the very small hours of the night before) because today (i.e. tomorrow) looks like being a complicated day, and the option of not doing anything more here today (i.e. tomorrow) is one that it will be very convenient to have.
For the uninitiated. I did once sit through this piece, when it was on the radio, but my mind wandered. I blame the performance. I also fondly remember the Gramophone (I think) review of a recording of it: a blank column.
After writing, several times, about how hard it is to do this, I am finally getting used to being able to investigate any strange thing that I see in London, provided that the strange thing has some strange words on it, or better yet, a strange website.
So, this afternoon, I saw this, on the front of a bus, in Whitehall:
And here is what that is about:
Capture the heart of the city’s culture. landmarks and history on our London Routemaster bus, whilst sipping on a lovely cup of tea and enjoying the exquisite tastes of France. High tea accompanied with an array of tasty sandwiches and delicious cakes and pastries. Your uniformed London bus driver will take you round The London Eye, Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St James’s Park, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, The Royal Albert Hall, Marble Arch, Piccadilly Circus, Nelson’s Column, Downing Street and more.
Adults “from” £45. And I bet all they do is point at these various Things, and talk. There’s no way they let you out to actually explore them. That would take too long. So, pass. I reckon I could go by train to Birmingham and back for that, and actually I’m thinking of doing just that, some time later this year. Take in a few canals and whatever Big Things they have up there, and then a classical concert at Symphony Hall to check out its acoustics and how much better these than the frightful acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall, and then back to Euston and snug in my bed back home the same day.
Symphony Hall opened in 1991 to immediate public and critical acclaim. With its world class acoustics and stunning auditorium it is considered to be not only the UK’s finest concert hall but also one of the best in the world.
That sounds like it could be worth forty five quid. And I’m writing this plan here to make it more likely that it will happen.
But forty five quid for a bus ride, some sandwiches, cakes and a cup of tea? Pull, as we say in these parts, the other one. Give, to coin a phrase, over.
I have been reading Martin Geck’s biography of Bach (translated into English by Anthea Bell).
The question I now bring to Bach is: What did he think he was doing? Worshipping God? Being Beethoven before Beethoven? More the latter than I had realised, it would seem.
Here is an excerpt not from the book itself, but from my English paperback edition’s introduction, by John Butt:
One idea that immediately emerges from his biography is that Bach’s relatively provincial Eisenach background was something that he never fully relinquished. In other words, he plumbed the greatest depth of experience from a relatively modest environment. Ironically, this gave his music much value in later centuries. Had this music been truly fashionable or cosmopolitan in its own age, over- filled with local relevance, it would surely have sounded dated in later years. But Bach’s strikingly profound exploration of a limited world somehow translates well to subsequent eras. The historical material is relatively easily assimilated by any to whom it is alien, yet Bach’s treatment of it is the most penetrating and challenging imaginable.
Another point that rendered him such a ‘hardy traveller’ in later ages is that he did not cultivate a deliberately idiosyncratic personality. This biography shows us that his principal means of learning was the traditional one: study and improving exemplars. As Geck observes, Bach spent many years working on the same few works, and the exact beginning and ending of the process cannot (and should not) necessarily be traced. It is as if the composer is aiming for a perfection that is not humanly achievable. The very openness of these works, coupled with their intense perfection, somehow gives them a momentum that carries them into the future.
Idiosyncratic his compositional personality may not have been, but there is no doubt that Bach’s personality was extremely strong. Geck reveals an extravagant, ‘virtuoso’ character in Bach’s fiery encounters with the council of Arnstadt. As a virtuoso, Bach seems to wish to say as much as possible all in one moment, and this develops into a more mature dialectic, between the cultivation of the greatest intensity of expression and the greatest degree of order in his music. Geck discerns Bach’s search for ultimate truth in his basic compositional philosophy of ‘all-in-one’ and ‘all-from-one’ (his deriving of the entire composition from as small a number of elements as possible). Once again, this relates to Bach’s development of the most intense musical vision from a straitened environment.
Did Bach thus cultivate a sense of individuality, a sense of autonomous art, within the context of what was basically a traditional craft-like activity? Geck suggests that there was a real sense in which Bach’s music performed a covert social function somehow sublimating, his professional problems and the various contradictions of his age, such as between church and art. In this way, Bach’s music does indeed relate to the German tradition of the following century, not least the art of Beethoven, which similarly articulates a special kind of humanity by transcending the difficulties of life.
Art as social climbing. Discuss.
It certainly worked for Bach. (And Beethoven.)
An informative piece by Rowan Moore in the Guardian, about the hoped-for replacement for the dismal failure that is the Royal Festival Hall:
It’s an amazing thing that for the sake of some fractions of a second of reverberation time, and some other acoustic niceties, and for the sake of acoustic properties that can only be described with vague adjectives such as “warm”, it is proposed that several hundred million pounds be spent on a completely new concert hall in London, to improve on the existing Royal Festival Hall (built in 1951, extensively renovated in 1964 and 2007) and the Barbican (built in 1982, extensively renovated in 1994 and 2001).
This is what Simon Rattle, future music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, is saying, and he has got George Osborne and Boris Johnson to support him. Rattle says that London needs the best possible concert hall, where you can “experience the sound of a great orchestra with brilliance, immediacy, depth, richness and warmth”, to attract the best possible musicians, which means shifting very many tons of building materials to fine-tune the vibrations of air. And if there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on in this contentious project (why spend so much in straitened times? Wouldn’t it be better to back performers directly rather than their carapace? Should so much be spent in culturally well-endowed London?), it is that the acoustics of the city’s existing large auditoriums definitely don’t work well enough.
Which means that if this project is to go ahead, it definitely, absolutely, without a shadow of doubt, must get its acoustics right. ...
Moore also writes about the surroundings. These must be nice, but not attention seeking. Satisfying for concert-goers, but not “ikonic” if that in any way jeopardises the accoustics, or the satisfaction of concert-goers. Play your shots and don’t get out, as the cricketers say.
The logic of what Moore says tells me that they should first build the concert hall with absolutely no “surroundings”, and keep on building it until the acoustics are world class.
The basic fact here is, as Moore explains, that you only know for sure if you have a great concert hall after you have built it. And a bad concert hall, well architected, will be a total failure. London already has at least one of those (or two, depending on what you think of the Barbican’s architecture), and the last thing it needs is another.
So: build the new hall, as a separate process from all the subsequent architectural tarting up. If the acoustics are unfixably bad, smash it down and do it again, until the acoustics are satisfactorily superb. When the acoustics are superb, then get to work on the surroundings, and if that is fucked up first time around, well, do that again too. And then, if anyone feels inclined, why not then slap some ikonic stuff on the top? But: one thing at a time.
This is not the usual way that big architecture is done. The usual way is to do everything at once, and make damn sure you get everything as right as you can. But then, concert halls are not your usual architecture.
Given that I am not actually seeing any visuals on a screen, sleeping through the decisive passage of play of the latest test match in South Africa only made it more dramatic.
There I was, making sure I was awake and able to start the recording of Record (as they have now gone back to calling it (it had been CD)) Review, and then getting up for a piss and a cool down before getting back to bed again for a bit of a lie in, by which time England were all out 323, with a first innings lead of 10. Before dozing off, I learned that Sinopoli’s Cavalleria Rusticana was the winning Cavalleria Rusticana in a strong field, and then I surfaced again and was informed by my other bedside radio that South Africa had lost no wickets in reply and were ahead at lunch, and then I dozed off again, and then got up properly ... to learn from my computer that South Africa were 44-5, oh no make that 45-6, correction 46-7. Game over.
That pic is the last one of these.
A lot of cricket photos these days, including most of this lot, seem to be, not of cricketers doing great things, but of cricketers celebrating having just done them. The pictures of Moeen Ali’s broken bat are also fun, but again, what you really want to see is the moment when it broke. The above photo is a refreshing exception. It shows Broad actually taking the final wicket of the South African innings, with a diving caught and bowled.
One of the pictures in this.
Ronald Harwood on Karajan
On clapping in between movements at classical concerts
Out and about with GD1 (3): Baritone borrows my charger
Church not dwarfed by anything
Paul Johnson on Mozart and Da Ponte
Ruddigore in Blackfriars
Paul Johnson on what the young Mozart was up against
An interesting front page story
Snohetta does zig zag roofs for competitive cities
Going from knowing a piece of music to also knowing what it is
The ROH bar and its floating-in-the-air drinkers
Incidental Last Friday details
To Covent Garden (1): The twisty footbridge
Photoing at the ASI party
The Magic Flute at the RCM
Pavarotti could not read music (very well)
The man who photoed the CDs in Gramex this afternoon
On the unappealingness of classical music on the internet
Having a baby can change or ruin your voice
A speculation about why Great Conductors carry on for so long
BrianMicklethwaitDotCom musical quote of the day
PID at the Times
Vespa GS in Lower Marsh
The joyful excitement of the Festival lyrique international de Belle-Île-en-Mer
Noah – Cosi at the Imax – Big Blue Cock
Happiness is a wallet that I didn’t lose after all
Christopher Seaman on conducting
The ROH from the ME Rooftop Bar
Bits of music at non-musical blogs
David Byrne on the constraints of artistic form
Quotes from there
Amazon pricing puzzle
Steve Davies talk last night
Wedding photography (6): The Wedding and the Reception
Classical CDs from Gramex
Big London Things with clutter in the foreground
A (slightly delayed) Happy New Year
England squeak through against Scotland
Knowing it but not knowing it
76 operas and a monument in the wrong place for Hermann the German
Bizarre History - Johannes Brahms did not murder cats
Shostakovich with cat
An amazon reviewer defends Alex Ross
Mozart might have become a criminal
Dawkins does better sound than God ever did
Alex Ross on Hollywood film scores
A down and up weekend
Only up to some random linkage and a little felinity
Unusual leg extension
An after-echo of the creation of the world - Burgon recycles Milhaud
How building St Peter’s Rome split the Catholic Church and how marzipan was invented in Luebeck
Scrounging Englishmen and stories too good to check
Alex Ross on Sibelius
Llyr Williams and Llyr Williams play Bach
MP3 Haydn symphonies
Ingrid Fliter has a problem with the piano
Our shortening atten … ooh look!
On Bernstein – and Previn
Handel in London – and an angelic tenor aria
“. . . and the air froze . . .”
“Dying is a fulltime business. You haven’t time to do a lap of honour.”
A little drunk blogging
On not seeing Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra
Leonidas Kavakos (and a pianist) at the Wigmore Hall
Further thoughts on Karajan’s conducting
Lang Lang crushes Yundi Li!
Cheap CDs and sopranos I’ve never heard of
Solo piano solace – John Lenehan
Mahler’s 9th in Vienna in 1938
Gramophone are putting their back catalogue of articles online for free
On classical music voice addiction
Nigel Kennedy’s amazing Elgar
Tea with CDs
Oddities and specialisms
Dominic Lawson on Herbert von Karajan
You tend to listen more carefully when something might go badly wrong
Sounding like a different country
Exciting posting about shelves
New classical music venue just down the road from Kings Cross Supplementary
The Rite of Spring sounds to me like technology rather than nature
Toshiba’s violin playing robot
Me talking about the great twentieth century musical divide
Eee PC and Brahms CDs
Pianists conducting themselves
The great DVD packaging clearout
Michael Jennings photos Disney Hall
Taking the recording studio into the concert hall
Humphrey Searle’s Hamlet is the worst Shakespeare opera ever
Photos - four transport - two artistic
At the dogs
Lots of links
Friends of Slava
How compulsion deranges the spreading of ideas
The Emperor Quartet at Conway Hall
Comparing classical music with modern architecture
Glenn Gould on the hereafter
The Joyce Hatto affair - no big deal
Cats and keyboards
He likes it - but does he understand it?
How Stephen Hough took a nap during a piano concerto (that he was playing)
The future of music
Harold C. Shonberg on how to perform Bach
Dutilleux piano music on Naxos
Other people’s photos (2): New architecture in Hamburg
Fixating on particular recorded performances
Back to the future with the virtuoso violinists
Superb Simon Hewitt Jones gig – and a couple of blogger gripes
Me and Alex talking Gilbert and Sullivan
What next for the virtuoso violinists? - Simon Hewitt Jones has some answers
More G&S - and some strange Times errors
John Holloway plays unaccompanied Bach on the baroque violin
The Pirates opens in New York
Sullivan and Grove find some Schubert diamonds
At least I got today’s obligatory posting done before midnight
Feeling Much Better
Heifetz on YouTube
Alex talks (clearly) with me (not so clear) about classical music
As if for the first time
All hail to the Rolling Stones assembly line
Samizdata cranks it out
A little transport history
Classical music Natalie
Alex is too busy - Sting records Dowland songs
Alex and Brian’s latest classical music mp3 – Saint-Saëns etc.
Zehetmair plays the Brahms
Alex and Brian talk classical music mp3 number two
Bartók outside South Kensington tube
Jeffrey Bernard is unwell but very entertaining
This month’s Alex and Brian mp3 about classical music
Debussy denounces Massenet but Puccini follows him
Beneath the treble line with the Voglers
Another mp3 - Alex and Brian talk classical music
Giving up rouge for Lisbon
Armando Iannucci on going to classical concerts - and me on not bothering
Sergei Khachatryan plays Shostakovich Violin Concerto 1
Charles Rosen on Richard Taruskin and on the socially unbound nature of some of the greatest music
Lazar Berman’s Rachmaninov 3
I don’t know the score
More about music bingeing
Thoughts on habits and on killer apps
Christmas with Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues
Thoughts after watching Abbado’s Lucerne Resurrection Symphony
The Elgar/Walker piano concerto and the future of “classical” music
This and that at 9.07am
David Zinman – Thomas Adès – Howard Shelley
Benjamin Nabarro and the Belmont Ensemble