Monday, 27 May 2013

Die Walküre, and Otto Klemperer

During the current period, it is not too often that I settle down and listen to opera; at the moment, I seem to prefer mainly chamber music. But this evening I revelled in Act 1 of Wagner's Die Walküre. Now that is music! Erotic passion at full throttle, much like Tristan and Isolde (Wagner seems to have been good at erotic passion). Only Act 1 this evening; I find the beginning of Act 2 a bit tedious, until we reach the Todesverkündigung towards the end of the act.

This evening's conductor was Otto Klemperer, in the 1960s with three excellent singers and the Philharmonia orchestra. Over the years, I warm to Klemperer more and more. Like me, he had doubts about large chunks of Mahler, Wagner and Strauss – while feeling passionate about some of their works. I love Klemperer's recording of Strauss's Metamorphosen for Strings, to which I have come late in life. And I love Klemperer's passionate conducting of Act 1 of Die Walküre.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Handel's Song for Saint Cecilia's Day

Handel's Song for St Cecilia's Day is one of his most aimiable and tuneful works. It shows Handel's mastery of melody, his genius for the human voice, and his unerring instincts about getting the most out of an instrumental band of moderate size. It's a work I've loved and turned to for a good many years now. Listening to it, one gets the strong impression that Handel really enjoyed himself writing this music to Dryden's poem.

To succeed in such high-class music, any performance needs a good instrumental band, two good soloists, and an efficient right-sized choir. For a recording, add a good recorded balance and a sound that integrates the whole ensemble without overt spotlighting.

The new recording by Ludus, conducted by Richard Neville-Towle and featuring Mary Bevan and Ed Lyon as soloists succeeds on all fronts. The soloists are not earth-shattering, but they are more than adequate. And the recording is exemplary. Thoroughly enjoyable.

It makes me want to acquire Handel's Alexander's Feast by the same forces (but with Mary Bevan's sister). However the two Delphian CDs are at a pretty high price, so I'll have to wait to pluck up courage.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Grieg's "Violin Concertos"

Since the beginning of time, music composers – and others – have arranged and re-arranged music for different instrumental combinations. Brahms' Hungarian Dances began life as piano duets. Prokofiev's second sonata for piano and violin began life as a flute sonata. Not to mention J.S. Bach, and many others … My 1954 recording of Paganini's first violin concerto with Christian Ferras is with … Pierre Barbizet (piano).

Different media rarely transfer well. The Seventh Seal (high among the ten greatest films ever made) would not make a good book, nor a good theatrical play. [For the benefit of the younger generation, The Seventh Seal is not a nature documentary, but a black-and-white film by Ingmar Bergman]. Shakespeare transfers with difficulty to the cinema. The books of the Lord of the Rings, even to devotees like me who have known them since the later 1950s, did – against all my expectations – transfer reasonably well to film. The exception proves the rule. Can you imagine the film of Les Enfants du Paradis as … a book?

Similary, chamber music, as in duo sonatas for violin and piano, is inherently different from orchestral concertos, as in the violin concertos of a Shostakovich, an Elgar or a Brahms. So it was a little foolhardy of Henning Kraggerud (aided by Bernt Simen Lund) to inflate the aimiable three sonatas for violin and piano by Grieg and to try to transform them into concertos for violin and orchestra (the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra). In my view, it just does not work. Grieg's music remains as tuneful and enjoyable as ever, but this is emphatically not music conceived for a violin with an orchestra. Had Grieg wanted to do that, he would undoubtedly have composed things quite differently.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Mengelberg in Mahler

I spent an interesting hour listening to Mahler's 4th symphony played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra at a concert on the 9th November 1939 in Amsterdam, conducted by Willem Mengelberg. Mengelberg, the orchestra and Mahler all knew each other well, so there was a fascinating air of authenticity about the performance. Was this how Mahler conducted it? (Mengelberg was present at the first performance, and worked on the conducting score with the composer).

I found the performance fascinating in the degree of personal involvement between conductor and the score. One feels Mengelberg's love of the work, and notices how many conductors – especially in the pre 1945 decades – took what was later called “liberties” with the score. Tempi are manipulated constantly. After 1945, the stern doctrine ascribed to Toscanini came to be fashionable, but there were always conductors who felt free to bring their individual thoughts and feelings to a work: conductors such as Furtwängler, Walter – and Mengelberg. In the 1950s, Toscanini and Furtwängler were classed as the leaders of the opposing traditions. In Britain, it might have been John Barbirolli versus Adrian Boult. At the present time, it might be Christian Thielemann versus Riccardo Chailly. Pre-war, Otto Klemperer was something of an exception; a major German conductor who stuck strictly to the score. We are not used to hearing music beamed through a personal medium and, to many, Mahler's 4th as played by Mengelberg will sound strange and maybe a little bizarre. In music, however, it's the end result that counts and I would rather hear Mengelberg's idiosyncratic performance as here, than Mr X's scrupulous adhesion to the letter of the score. Just as I would rather listen to Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony than hear the latest “authentic” band trying to reconstruct what they imagine Beethoven's first audience might have heard. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that is especially true in musical performance.

I like Mahler's 4th symphony (actually, it's the only Mahler symphony I like since I first met it in 1958 conducted by Paul Kletzki, still a splendid “straight” version). Everyone needs the work conducted by Kletzki, Mengelberg, Klemperer and Walter; four conductors with close connections to the work, four very different views of the work, four admirable results.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Handel's Giove in Argo

Handel's opera Giove in Argo makes for enjoyable Sunday listening. Thrown together in haste during a critical commercial juncture in Handel's later career, the composer raided his melody bank (and that of others) for a collection of attractive arias, all revolving round the usual ridiculous plot in which everyone seems to be disguised as each other. No matter; the music is first class. Handel was not only adept at writing superb melodies, but he also had a real feeling for the human voice, for the setting of words to music and, most notably, for providing varied and interesting instrumental backing to the singing. Many of the arias are re-cycled from previous works by Handel (and occasionally by others) but why waste a good tune? Unusually for a Handel opera, there are many choruses in the work; although I am usually anti choral music, the choruses here are most pleasant and make a good contribution to the work.

The performance of this newly-assembled opera is conducted by the ever-reliable Alan Curtis, who presides over a caste with no weak links. Pacing and balance are excellent, as is the recording and the playing of Il Complesso Barocco. A good Sunday as I recover from the second bout of norovirus in around nine months.

Schubert's last piano sonata D 960

Schubert's last piano sonata, number 21 in B flat major D 960 written in 1828, has long been my favourite piano sonata, and one of my favourite pieces of music. There is something miraculous in the late works of Schubert, as the music moves through a myriad of modulations, and moods change almost from bar to bar. Schubert's last works are rarely happy, angry, sad or joyful but oscillate between every possible mood of human life.

To my mind, music such as this is best played “straight” without interpreter intervention. The music in D 960 is completely self-explanatory when played as-is and this is what I find so attractive in the new recording by Maria Pires which becomes one of my favourite recordings of this work (of which I currently own no less than fourteen versions). Bravo, Maria for just playing the music.

In general, I am doubtful about making exposition repeats in music of the classical period. It seems to me that the instruction to repeat was often based on the desire to make the music last longer, or often on the knowledge that pretty well everyone would only ever hear the work in question once only, therefore the themes needed to be impressed on the listeners. But sometimes, of course, the repeat was there for reasons of structure and balance; the eighteenth century classical period set great store by the concept of balance. After around 1820, the idea of balance began to crumble, Beethoven perhaps setting the pace with the enormous finale of his ninth symphony and, orginally, the Great Fugue as the final movement of his opus 130 string quartet in B flat major (and see also his final piano sonata, with just two movements, the final variations being one long movement). Those who wish to force poor old Schubert into the 18th century sonata mold avoid the repeat in the first movement of the D 960 sonata, even though Schubert explicitly wrote bars of music to link the exposition repeat. Pianists as eminent as Schnabel and Curzon do not repeat the exposition which, if the movement is played at a true molto moderato as marked, brings the first movement in at over 20 minutes (with Pires, or 23 minutes with Richter). But, for me, Schubert was not writing a classical 18th century sonata and his music was heading towards the land of the fantasia or improvisation where classical structure was less important. Here, I have no doubt whatsoever that the first movement exposition repeat should be made, and bravo to those who do so.