• Also

I was reminded the other day of a concert I played in many years ago, at the end of a particularly riotous student orchestral weekend somewhere deep in the Berkshire/Oxfordshire countryside.  If there had been smart phones back then, a pic of the poster would have been whizzing around social media.  It was quite a programme.

Romeo and Juliet  Tchaikovsky

Symphony  Webern


Sprach Zarathustra  Strauss


• Along in the Sun and the Rain

A reflective song to mark the centenary of the birth of Woody Guthrie.

The meteorological topicality is coincidental.

• Dudley Moore Trio

Three of my prized possessions are the first LPs that Decca issued of the Dudley Moore Trio: The Other Side of Dudley Moore (1965), Genuine Dud (1966) and The Dudley Moore Trio (1969).  Sadly, these LPs have never been released as individual CD albums and you have to search around for some of the tracks.  The Other Side remains my favourite and features five of Moore’s own compositions: ‘Lysie Does It’, ‘Poova Nova’, ‘Take Your Time’, ‘Sooz Blooz’ and ‘Sad One for George’.

The skies have been very grey today, so to bring a belated ray of sunshine here’s Moore playing ‘My Blue Heaven’, written by Walter Donaldson in 1924 with lyrics by George Whiting.  It’s not the version included on The Other Side but a live performance given during his comedy show with Peter Cook, Not Only… But Also, probably in 1966.  Chris Karan is on drums, Pete McGurk on bass.  They were a phenomenally gifted trio, relaxed, inspired and cool.

• Arnold Böcklin Self-Portrait (1872)

I’ve been fascinated by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin for years and was very excited when I saw so much of his work in Basle a few years ago (though this self-portrait was not there – it’s in Berlin).  I’d known his Isle of the Dead (1886) in association with Rachmaninoff’s wonderful symphonic poem of 1908.

This upload has a cover photo that’s not really appropriate for the piece, but it’s a fascinating audio document.  The composer recorded The Isle of the Dead with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1929.  As I believe is quite typical of performances of his own works, it is brisker and less indulgent than many others.

Oh yes, Böcklin’s self-portrait. He painted it in 1872 and it has come to haunt me recently, though not in a lugubrious way.  Happily, he lived for another 29 years after he made it.


• BBC Music Magazine ‘The Great Composers’

I don’t have it in for the BBC Music Magazine, I really don’t, even if it sometimes gets its knickers in a twist (last year, the December issue came out in October).  But I can’t help reacting to the special supplement that comes with the current May 2012 issue. Two days ago, I had a long train journey home, so I had plenty of time to read BBC Music Magazine presents The Great Composers.  It doesn’t get off to a good start when the fonts, quill and distressed MS paper are bog-standard code for an outdated perspective on classical music.  The MS paper is so distressed that the staves offer six lines for the price of five (pace any guitar-playing readers).

The big question, however, is raised by the concept.  OK, any compilation of ’50’, ‘100’ or ‘x’ will propose disputable lists, so the compilers (I assume they are plural in this case, though no details are given) are never likely to satisfy the demands of the individual or even of a broader audience.  This particular exercise, whether worthy or foolhardy in intent, seems designed from the cover to appeal to a very basic understanding of greatness, itself a dodgy yardstick.  As to the word ‘essential’, it has been so traduced, not least by Radio 3’s appropriation since its revamp last autumn, that it is now meaningless.  And what exactly is implied by ‘biggest names’?  Biggest in which sense(s)? Is the name now more significant than the music?  Or should I just accept this as inherently empty promotional puff?

Take a look at the nine names that have been highlighted.  Are they ‘in no particular order’, as heard on TV talent shows when they read out stage winners?  The list hardly inspires confidence that the remaining 41 composers will break out from an ultra-safe, tired popular-classics notion of ‘great composers’/’biggest names’. The final information tells us that there’s a ‘Foreword by Katie Derham’.  I always thought that a Foreword was intended to bring new insights, an interesting perspective on what follows.  Not here. Nothing of any substance whatsoever. The two volumes of the child-friendly Ladybird Lives of the Great Composers (1969) were pitched at a higher level.

There is an inevitable discussion to be had on this selection of composers.  There’s hardly a mainstream name that isn’t included, but that doesn’t mean that every one of the 50 is ‘great’.  There are also some threads that skew the selection.  Eight British composers, not including Handel, garner 16% of the total coverage: Britten, Byrd, Elgar, Gibbons, Holst, Purcell, Tallis, Vaughan Williams.  Barber, Bernstein and Copland represent the USA.  In both these cases, and elsewhere, questions can be raised as to the international significance of some of the ‘names’ when set against their compatriots or (near) contemporaries.  There is Gibbons but not Gesualdo, Rimsky-Korsakov but not Mussorgsky, Barber but not Ives.  There’s Grieg and there’s Sibelius, yet no Nielsen.  A slightly desperate case is made for Saint-Säens, partly because of his high standing during most of his lifetime, but of how many other composers could the same not be said?  Notably, none of the Second Viennese School – Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – is represented.

The greatest disparity emerges when considering the number of entries for composers born before 1900 with entries for those born in the 20th century.  There are only five of the latter (10%): Copland (1900), Messiaen (1908), Britten (1913), Bernstein (1918) and Pärt (1935), who is the only living composer among the 50.  I need hardly elaborate on the glaring omissions, such as Ligeti, Lutosławski and Stockhausen among the deceased or Birtwistle, Dutilleux and Reich among the living.  [This observation ties in with the imminent launch of Tom Service’s contemporary music guide at The Guardian online (starts next Monday), with a taster article today ‘The five myths about contemporary classical music’ (what, only five?), which has already elicited a sizeable response.  Definitions of ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern classical’ have been doing the rounds in anticipation; see Tim Rutherford-Johnson‘s short but telling contribution to the debate.]  What is patently clear in The Great Composers is that there is barely any inclusion of music that is more than mildly challenging on a stylistic or (a)tonal level.  The game is given away in the ‘5 Essential Works’ side panel for Bartók: ‘Listeners who fear Bartók’s music may be too astringent for their taste …’.  For heaven’s sake, this is 2012, not 1962 or 1912.

Fortunately, things get better with the 50 composer profiles themselves.  The magazine has called on some of the best English-language writers on music (39 in all), including Nicholas Anderson (Bach, Handel), David Cairns (Berlioz), Misha Donat (Bartók), Erik Levi (Grieg, Shostakovich), Roger Nichols (Debussy), Curtis Price (Purcell) and Michael Talbot (Vivaldi).  Stephen Johnson (Bruckner, Mahler, Schubert) and Bayan Northcott (Haydn, Holst, Wagner) contribute three entries each, while Jessica Duchen writes four (Chopin, Fauré, Liszt, Schumann).  There are some interesting pairings, such as the composers Hugh Wood on Brahms and Colin Matthews on Elgar.

Each entry is c.900-1000 words long, with two summary panels as additional parts of the format: ‘A Life in Brief’ (5 dates) and ‘5 Essential Works’ (each with a recommended recording).  It’s not clear if these panels were written by the named authors.  I rather doubt that the ‘5 Essential Works’ were, as they show a surprising editorial slackness. We learn that there are only preludes in Bach’s ’48’, that Brahms’s Piano Concerto no.2 is ‘deeply humane’ (meaning what exactly?), that Britten was written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, that Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is ‘operatic rather than a stilted work for the church’, and that the word ‘mixture’ is plural (entry on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony).  And that’s not to mention clichés such as ‘achingly beautiful’ or slip-ups like ‘paen’ and ‘coersive’.  Sad.

The composer profiles, however, are very readable and range from composer portraits to polemical essays.  Some take a straightforward chronological approach, especially where the pre-1800 composers are concerned.  Some of these are nicely creative, such as John Tyrrell’s opening gambit with an illuminating incident from late in Janáček’s life.  Matthews takes the prize, however, for his opening one-liner: ‘Imagine Elgar without his moustache’.  Some feel that they have a case to make for their subject.  Where Humphrey Burton tries valiantly to persuade us about Bernstein, but doesn’t quite convince, Levi’s entry on Grieg will encourage many to pursue the composer’s music further.

There are essays focusing on reception, such as Cairns on Berlioz, or those that take a main theme and pursue it through selective repertoire.  Stephen Johnson does this with Bruckner (a sense of place), Northcott likewise with Haydn (humour and radicality) and Holst (four reasons for gratitude: ‘music, the Cotswolds, RVW, and having known the impersonality of orchestral playing’).  Christopher Cook muses on Puccini and gender inequality, while Gerald Larner explores arguments about Ravel’s mental condition through a discussion primarily of Boléro and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

For me the star turn is Gerard McBurney’s essay on Tchaikovsky.  Eschewing the chronological, ‘let’s mention the principal works’ approach, McBurney focuses solely on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.6.  He gives a brief but coruscating example of how the composer was viewed in the mid-20th century, following this by tackling the now generally debunked ‘suicide note’ interpretation of the symphony and its finale.  What he brings is real musical evidence (including the sketches), based on Russian folk genres of the melody-lament (he acknowledges Nancy Ries’s work in this field) and the (unrequited) love song.  Together they shape the finale as a ‘love-lament’ (my inverted commas).  McBurney’s entry, although at one end of the spectrum of approaches taken by the 39 authors, is a model contribution and I shall listen to the symphony’s finale with fresh ears.

Editorial concept and execution ✭✭
Individual composer profiles ✭✭✭✭

• Plink-Plonk

Tom Service in his Guardian article today – ‘The five myths about contemporary music’ – referred to a current derisive term for contemporary music, ‘squeaky gate music’.  Does anyone know how long this has been in use? When I was a student, the description ‘plink-plonk’ was the most common, but I don’t know when that started either.* Perhaps someone has already done some research into such terms and their chronology.  I’d love to know more.

Princess Margaret

Thinking about the term ‘plink-plonk’ earlier today, I remembered an incident that occurred when I was working at Radio 3 in the early 1990s.  Each November there is a Festival of Saint Cecilia concert in aid of the Musicians Benevolent Fund.  It is a tradition for a member of the royal family to be guest of honour and to be presented to people involved in the concert beforehand.  I met Princess Anne before the 1991 concert and was also introduced to Princess Margaret the following year (I dug up this photo this afternoon).  I was towards the end of the line and was introduced as the Head of Music at Radio 3.  I bowed obsequiously and crushed her hand.

Princess Margaret, who was the most musical of the royal family, looked me straight in the eye and half-whispered: “Can’t stand it when it’s ‘ding-dong’. Switch off when it’s ‘ding-dong’.”  And with that she moved on.  Only later did it dawn on me that she was referring to ‘plink-plonk’ music on Radio 3.  Perhaps she’d got it muddled up with Leslie Phillips’s famous catchphrase.  By all accounts, she enjoyed a bit of ding-dong herself, as well as gin-gin.  I doubt that she ever drank plonk.


* If you search online for uses of both these terms, they have been appropriated for positive rather than critical purposes:

• www.squeakygate.org.uk is a Cambridge-based charity: ‘Squeaky Gate is an extraordinary and creative charity, empowering people through music and the arts. We deliver a wide programme of live performance, creative training and accredited learning, focusing on producing and performing strong and original work.’
• http://www.plinkplonk.co.uk/ is the website of a harp teacher in Tunbridge Wells.

• Fats Waller – Don’t Let It Bother You

As a pause in these posts is imminent, and it’s nice to leave a soundfile to fill the gap, I’m returning after too long a break to one of my favourite jazz pianists, Fats Waller.  I posted on his The Minor Drag, First Recordings, Stealin’ Apples (as composer) and The Spider and the Fly last August and September.  Here’s the track which has been top of my list ever since, as much because of its relaxed ensemble playing as Waller’s stride piano and mugging to mike. Grey skies?  La-de-da-de-da-de-da-da, zing, zing, zing!   My, my.  Yes, yes.

• Even a piano needs to keep warm …

… but at what cost to its piano-ness?

Joseph Beuys Infiltration Homogen für Konzertflügel (Homogenous Infiltration for Concert Grand, 1966)

Afterwards, I asked how it felt.

• Isoldina

I’ve been meaning to post this track for a while.  I first heard it on BBC Radio 3 and chuckled out loud.  I’m still chuckling.  It’s perhaps the wittiest piano parody of Wagner in a line that includes Chabrier’s Souvenirs de Munich (c.1887) and Souvenirs de Bayreuth (1888) by Fauré and Messager.  The French certainly knew how to prendre le Michel out of Wagner, but Clément Doucet brings such a gentle yet inappropriate joie-de-vivre to Isolde’s Liebestod that it’s impossible not to smile.

Doucet (1895-1950) was born in Belgium, studied with a pupil of Liszt, visited the US in the early 1920s and came back as a versatile jazz pianist with an enviable but light stride piano style.  He played at Le Boeuf sur le toit in Paris and consorted with luminaries such as Cocteau, Chevalier, Piaf, Rubinstein and Casals.  He and his piano partner Jean Wiéner laid into Bach, Chopin, Dvořák and Liszt as well as Gershwin and a host of popular jazz numbers.  You can find 38 of their remastered tracks on Les Rarissimes de Jean Wiéner & Clément Doucet. Les Années folles on a 2-CD EMI Classics album (2005).

Here’s Isoldina on an original Columbia 78 (recorded in Paris on 14 September 1927) – thanks agfamatic91!

And for anyone who wants to try it themselves, here’s the sheet music too.

Doucet_Isoldina (1927)

• Cheap Flights

One of the highlights of my recent trip to London was an hilarious evening spent in the company of Fascinating Aida. I was eager to see them again after almost 30 years – their first visit to the Queen’s Festival in Belfast in the mid-80s is still imprinted on my memory.  The two original members now have ‘maturity’ on their side and are even more outrageous, like favourite aunts or grannies behaving badly.  It’s topical satire at its best, musical cabaret with flair, debunking everything left, right and centre.

My favourites are their piercing ‘Bulgarian’ ditties with killer punch-lines – brilliant (we had 13 of them last week).  If there is anyone out there who doesn’t know Fascinating Aida, try to catch them next year (they’re touring the UK until mid-April).  In the meantime, here’s their YouTube hit ‘Cheap Flights’ (over 3 million hits) with bonus plugs and clips at the end.


Those of a sensitive disposition turn away now, as here comes a second clip.

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