• Beautiful Stranger…

Here’s another soundtrack for 2012 that won’t go away.  Hindi Zahra is hypnotic.


• Senza paura

Once in a while, a song won’t go away.  I OD’d on this in the summer, but it’s come back with a vengeance.  I can’t get enough of it.  Maybe it’s the onset of cold weather and the arrival today of a month of WordPress ‘snow’.  Help!


P.S.  Whoever transcribed the title needs his/her ears washed out.

• For St Cecilia

Happy St Cecilia’s Day!  Who knows these lines?

In England too men marked Cecilia‘s grace,
Their looks turned listening to that faultless face.
Stand with us, Merbecke, and be Byrd close by;
Dowland and Purcell, lift the theme on high;
Handel is here, the friend and generous guest,
With morning airs for her, and choral zest.

Cecilia’s blessings if you recognise them as being by that rather neglected poet, Edmund Blunden (right), who wrote For St Cecilia in 1947, in conjunction with the composer Gerald Finzi (left), whose ‘ceremonial ode’ of the same title is also rather neglected. Their work was premiered 65 years ago today in the Royal Albert Hall, London.

I came across this wonderful piece when I was conductor of the Queen’s University Choir and Orchestra in Belfast and we performed it to a rapt audience.  It continues to puzzle me why it is not better known.  It’s not a difficult piece to perform, has all of Finzi’s lyrical gifts and unparalleled word-cadences, and it has an open-hearted, celebratory quality that I cannot resist.  It’s more than a match for the revered Purcell and Handel (Blunden omits Britten from the list, though the latter’s Hymn predates Finzi’s setting by five years).  Blunden’s poem is ingenious, conjuring up fresh images and references while still giving Finzi plenty of musical scope.  It’s a marvel in itself.

There have been only two commercial recordings as far as I’m aware.  I ‘grew up’ with the Decca recording of 1978, with Philip Langridge, the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox.  More recently (2008), Naxos released a recording with James Gilchrist, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by David Hill.

The Naxos recording tries to be more faithful to Finzi’s extremes of tempo (his fast tempi are impossible to sustain), but ends up exaggerating the contrasts – the fast tempi are too brisk for their own good, while the slow tempi are often overdone.  I still prefer the Decca recording, despite Langridge sometimes seeming a little strained and despite its tendency to flatten out the tempo contrasts, even if this does result in a greater symphonic sweep.  An example of their differences lies in the treatment of the melody at ‘For all man’s martyrdom the crowning psalm’. In Hill’s hands, it’s rushed and goes for nothing, whereas Hickox gives it more than its due, but it still lifts the heart as only Finzi can.

I await an interpretation that positions itself somewhere between these two.  Happy St Cecilia’s Day!

Delightful goddess, in whose fashionings
And fables Truth still goes adorned; …

… Changed is the age; mysterious, man’s next star;
But Legend’s children share his calendar, …

… How came you, lady of fierce martyrdom,
How came you by your manifold skill? …

… How smilingly the saint among her friends
Sits, and with her fingers white and long …

… Wherefore we bid you to the full concent
Of St Cecilia‘s joyous argument, …

You can also find this recording on Spotify, but currently there’s no recording on YouTube.

• RPS 200: Beethoven & Brendel

Last week, in the Argyll Arms pub in London, the Royal Philharmonic Society launched the programme celebrating its bicentenary early next year.  I’m delighted to be playing a wee part in its roster of events: I’ll be discussing Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto with the cellist Johannes Moser in a pre-concert talk at Poole Lighthouse on 23 January 2013.  (The RPS anniversary falls the next day, sandwiched between the Poole concert and Lutosławski’s own centenary on 25 January.)  The concert is being given by the Bournemouth SO, which gave the world premiere of the concerto on 14 October 1970, when the soloist (and dedicatee) was Mstislav Rostropovich and the conductor Edward Downes.  At the same concert, Rostropovich received the RPS Gold Medal.

The RPS published this photo from the Argyll Arms on Facebook, and my immediate and predictable response was to provide a corny caption (others followed suit).  At one point, The Guardian was going to publish both photo and caption but had second thoughts, opting instead for the punchy “Alfred Brendel poses with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s bust of Beethoven. Only one of them looks pleased about this”.

For what it’s worth (stall your groans!), here’s my original effort.

Buy us a drink, Alfie, I’m bust.


• Solti, Nilsson and Grane

I’ve just been watching a new TV profile of Sir Georg Solti (the centenary of his birth was on 21 October this year). ‘Maestro or Mephisto: The Real Georg Solti’ was on BBC4 – do try to catch it on iPlayer if you can.  There’s tremendous archive footage and still photography, going back to when Solti turned pages for Bartók’s wife at a pre-war performance of Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, to Richard Strauss’s funeral, and on through Solti’s days at Covent Garden, with the Chicago SO and to his last venture, the World Orchestra for Peace.  There’s a particularly interesting section early on from rehearsals and a performance of the Bartók by Solti, Perahia, Glennie and Corkhill. (A DVD is available of the rehearsals and concert, and there’s a two-part YouTube video of the performance alone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnDjIAazHK8 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l14a-GKqHfk.)

I remember decades ago watching a documentary on Solti’s making of The Ring cycle for Decca in the 1950s and 60s, a recording that is still one of the most thrilling.  Tonight’s programme showed a couple of excerpts from the earlier documentary, but it missed out the bit which I still remember vividly.  The original YouTube video of this now-famous ‘surprise’ has since disappeared, so here is the relevant section, from another upload of the complete programme, beginning at 1:14:54 (if you scroll down the accompanying info there is a direct link to this point in the documentary).


• November Woods

Three photographs from a short walk in the wood late this afternoon, plus Bax’s tone poem, with the Ulster Orchestra conducted by the masterly Bryden ‘Jack’ Thomson 30 years ago.  Not that Bax and Elliott Carter had anything in common, but as I’ve just heard that Carter died earlier today, this comes also as a small tribute and farewell.


• Five Trees Shaded in Grey

It may also be dim and dank, but there’s more sense, strength and atmosphere in this autumnal mist (six o’clock this evening) than in you-know-what.  And that’s not to mention EMI’s tawdry decision to release an oh-so-safe CD of the novels’ ‘sound track’.  Heaven help anyone whose appreciation of its music is now irreparably conditioned by the novels.  As I wrote to one friend, the CD will win an award at next year’s Classical Brits, mark my word.  Give me a dim and dank Cornish mist any day.  I’ll now go and join the harrumphing horses in the field beneath the trees.

• On Vanishing (Bokaer-Cage)

Photo © Michael Hart, 2011

Just over a year ago, in The Cello in Art (3), I posted about the American choreographer Jonah Bokaer, who had just premiered a piece to music by John Cage at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. To mark the centenary today of the birth of John Cage, I’m posting a link to a video of that performance of On Vanishing which I discovered yesterday on YouTube.  All the info is on the YouTube site, except to observe that Bokaer himself does not appear until around four and a half minutes before the end.

• Markevitch conducting Ravel

Thanks again to my friend Justin in Madrid, I’ve been watching a video from 1965 of Igor Markevitch conducting Ravel’s Suite no.2 from Daphnis et Chloé in Japan.  It’s electrifying.

Next week, I’m going to see Rattle conducting the Berlin PO at the Proms, and the Ravel ends their first programme. It will make for an interesting comparison.  But I bet Rattle’s baton will be a good deal shorter.

• Silence is Relative

Listening to the adventurous and surprisingly fulfilling radio experience of tonight’s John Cage Prom, I’ve been reminding myself of my own encounters with him and his music.

Back in the 1970s, when I was teaching at Queen’s University, Belfast, I performed Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. This was a challenging proposition, not least interpreting his requirements for the preparation of the piano.  His list of inserted items was one of found objects, so I followed suit, using bolts, nuts, and other items that came closest to his own treasure hunt thirty years earlier.  Hence, as is clear from the photo above, plastic rawl plugs and the rubber feet of music stands, cut in half.  It was a memorable evening, at least for me, as the pitch relationship between keyboard and soundboard was contrary to custom and practice!

Later, in the early 1990s, when I was working at BBC Radio 3, I went to New York for the ‘Bang On A Can’ festival. Through my friends Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, who founded the festival in 1987, I had an opportunity to meet Cage. His gentleness of spirit was legendary, and so it was on that occasion.  The only other composer who has come near to this, in my own experience, has been Jonathan Harvey.  Both have a profound spiritual and philosophical understanding that makes my interest in Zen Buddhism mere dabbling.

The encounter with Cage that made the most impact took place when I was much younger, when I was an undergraduate.  With my fellow student Jolyon Laycock, I made a trip down to London to spend an afternoon with John Cage and his longtime collaborator, the pianist David Tudor.  The venue was a large theatre, now the multi-screen Odeon Cinema, in Shaftesbury Avenue.  We sat in the Gods, looking down on Tudor operating ring-modulation equipment in the pit and a quasi drawing-room on stage.  There were two rows of small pictures, one above the other, in identically sized frames hanging across the stage and with an armchair in front.

On came Cage, book in hand.  Silence.  He sat down and began to read.  Within a minute, Tudor started to apply ring-modulation to Cage’s voice and soon the text became unintelligible.  We were participating in a happening with John Cage.  It felt as if we were in the vortex of contemporary music and culture.  I have no idea how long the event lasted – maybe two hours?  I remember the audience becoming increasingly agitated, shouting, whistling, throwing their programmes in the air.  It was mayhem, in which Cage and Tudor, cool as cucumbers, did what they set out to do.  Then, without warning, Cage got up and walked off.  The end.

Or so I thought.  We emerged onto Shaftesbury Avenue at rush hour.  But such had been the torrent of sound inside the theatre that I heard no traffic noise.  There was silence at that moment.  Although this impression was transient, its aesthetic significance was profound.  And I remain eternally grateful Cage for this simple gift of enlightenment.

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