Off we go

Off we go
Rick Jones, Jane Jones and Arthur Smith celebrate Shakespeare's 561st Birthday

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Nine Days' Wonder

It is Shakespeare's 561st birthday and, because he died celebrating his 52nd, it is  his 399th death-day as well. The fact that it is also St George's Day is almost too much for anyone to swallow, but there you are. You couldn't make it up. Or maybe you could. Anyway, it is time to start my re-creation of the Nine Days Wonder, the 100-mile morris dance from London to Norwich, performed by Shakespeare's clown, Will Kemp, in 1600. After a morris dance at the Globe Theatre (4.30pm) with the Blackheath Morris Men, and a short performance in Southwark Cathedral (5pm) with the comedian Athur Smith and the singer Jane Jones, I shall dance over London Bridge in the direction of East Anglia. I will be wearing  doublet and hose, a hat with bells and carrying a lute on my back. The itinerary is as follows: Romford (23 April), Brentwood (24 April), Chelmsford (25 April), Braintree (26 April), Long Melford (27 April), Bury St Edmunds (28 April), Thetford (29 April), Hingham (30 April), Norwich (1 May). I am doing this in my position as Hon General Secretary of the Critics' Circle to draw attention to the difficulties of trading in words in the internet age when the commodity has never been cheaper. We are awash with writing and drowning in free information. Writers give away their words free to the devouring computer and have no idea, because nobody buys them, whether they are worth anything. 'In the beginning was The Word,' says the Bible. It was the start of everything. Now it may be the end. I'll give you one other quote, which is more fun. 'Amazing!' said the filmmaker Sam Goldwyn on seeing Shakespeare's Hamlet, 'and all done with a feather!'

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Wonder of a Week's Work

I was thoroughly impressed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Sunday. The singers, aged between 17 and 23, rehearsed intensively for a week in Oxford and then presented a, antirely a capella concert, half of which they sang from memory. They performed the close jazz harmonies of arrangements created for the Kings' Singers, Take 6 and the Swingle Singers like seasoned professionals. It was an ex-Swingle who conducted them, Ben Parry, a man with a magical touch. He choreographed the performance too with slick, no fuss movements across the stage and even wrote the words to his arrangement of the Mozart of Figaro Overture - Look at that! He's such a prat! - a brilliantly executed setting of phrases overheard at many a tired rehearsal. He shared the podium with Tom Bullard who had arranged some of the classical items, including the excellent version of Schubert's Erl-Koenig in persuasive German, the solo split into characters, narrative, father, child and Earl-King and performed by a foursome enjoying the stage against a chorus rendering the galloping piano accompaniment as nimmana-nimmana-nim-nim-nim with only the slightest of knowing smirks here and there. Tuning, diction and precision rarely lapsed and the four members of the Swedish ensemble The Real Group who joined them for the last numbers were visibly impressed. Together they gave the world premiere of Anders Edenroth's Water which made its universal message - the gift of water is for everyone - movingly.   

Monday, 6 April 2015

Aurora Folk

There is a pleasing symmetry to the latest disc from Nicholas Collon and his excellent Aurora Orchestra. Four short New England folksongs with fine modal tunes, three of them arranged by Nico Muhly, are the corner stones. The two in the middle frame an excerpt from Charles Ives' Three Places in New England which flows serenely until the solemn tune collides discomfitingly with an aggressive hymn. Between the first two folk songs is John Adams' pulsating Chamber Symphony, thrillingly played, its middle walking bass movement gathering momentum like a pressure steamer. Between the last two folk songs is Copland's Appalachian Spring which knits together much of the foregoing as the Appalachians are the barrier that halted movement west and became the repository for much folksong among the becalmed communities. The disc celebrates a history and culture within diverse rich strains of melody, harmony and rhythm exquisitely rendered by a body of musicians in superlative form.  

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Birthday tweet

Treat daughter to Messiaen for her birthday. Others go bowling and drink coke. We drive to Cambridge, hear Visions de l'Amen in Kings chapel (see below), eat vegetarian supper in Rainbow Cafe, attend compline at nearly midnight and drive home to a brilliant new disc, L'amour et la foi - vocal music by Olivier Messiaen - on the car stereo. Well it is Holy Week. The performers are the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Concert Choir and Chamber Orchestra conducted by Marcus Creed, a graduate incidentally of Kings Cambridge. The voices sound reared on Messiaen's intervals, secure, measured, balanced and bright. In O Sacrum Convivium, the chords linger beautifully, constantly defying their expected length. For Messiaen a piece was only tedious if it never changed time signature. The consonants of Cinq rechants provide the off-beat percussion, the labials and fricatives used with the ingenuity not expected of a Roman Catholic church organist. The piety purrs. The orchestra including piano and ondes martenot colours the background of the Trois petites liturgies de la Presence divine. Birdsong is never far away. Messiaen arrived at the expressive tweet years before its time.

The Visions de l'Amen is played by Cordelia Williams and Jeremy Begbie at two Steinway grands beneath the west window of Kings chapel, the players shoulder to shoulder, but facing in different directions as Messiaen specified. The lofty acoustic robs the second movement, Amen des etoiles etc, of its funky clarity, but we emerge humming the creativity theme which runs through it all like a throbbing conscience. I tell Williams that we enjoyed the show and especially her 'putting out the rubbish' in the bass register crashes in the sixth movement, Amen du jugement. This was how Begbie characterised the outrageous chords, though Williams had wondered if it might not appear too flippant to say so in the interview. I did anyway. Flippancy be damned.      

Monday, 30 March 2015

Trouble ahead

Quatuour Cambini, French period instrument group based in Paris, plays the six quartets which Mozart dedicated to Haydn in the 1780s. Their rendering of the Spring sonata is apt for a time of year when sap is rising and nature frolicking. They play the rondo finale with freedom and zest though one is aware of the great amount of rehearsal devoted to such precision. They lose the scent in The Hunt which lacks the feeling of flying over hedges in pursuit of a fleeing quarry. One almost traces a sense of guilt. They are back on form for The Dissonance, as they play the contorted chords at the start with natural bitterness. They sense through their account perhaps a view of the trouble ahead which the arrogance of the Enlightenment had not expected, the Napoleonic bloodshed, even the rise of nationalism. Rationalism returns for the rest of the sonata, but it is now like Eden after the Fall - never the same again, innocence lost. It is nice that the booklet contains my translations from the French, but disappointing that the company still has not paid me for them.    

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Impromptu remarks

I interview Cordelia Williams who ten years ago won the piano section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. She has won other things since but that's what people remember. I talk to her about Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen which she and Jeremy Begbie are playing in the chapel of Kings College Cambridge on Tuesday. She hands me a CD as we part, a recording of Schubert Impromptus and Laendler which suits her delicately shaded, elfin touch. She makes an entertaining narrative of the Rosamunde variations and there is not an inelegant run anywhere. The triplets in the E flat impromptu are perfectly balanced and even. The Laendler are less well known. Few people danced them even during his life and it was up to Brahms to edit them when they turned up in the 1860s. They inspired Brahms' Liebeslieder Waelzer of 1869 at the top of which the composer wrote im Laendler tempo. Schubert composed them during the summer of 1824 when he took a position as resident pianist at the Esterhazy's summer palace in Zelisz, near Budapest. He wrote keyboard duets at the same time which enabled him to cuddle up to the talented younger daughter and sometimes put his arm round her. Mother showed him a sickly poem about service to God which he dutifully set for the family to sing. But that's another story. The laendler are brief, breathless spins, once or twice round the dance floor, ever inventive melodically, and always irresistible in the hands of Ms Williams. Impssible to sit any of them out.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Angel delight

Drive to Chelsea to see James Christopher's tense drama Charlie's Dark Angel at the Drayton Arms. Dark describes the plot, which benefits from Christopher's somewhat twisted sense of comedy. It is set round a well. One chap paints pictures; another frames them. Forgetfulness shrouds their past. Their partners lure them. One paints another poses. Terrific performances from Ben Porter, Kieran Gough, Joannah Tincey and Phoebe Pryce.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Leg Music

Writing a programme note for the viola da gamba player Paolo Pandolfo, I am greatly assisted by receiving his CD of music from the Drexel Manuscript, named after the nineteenth century American benefactor who bought it and donated it to the New York City Library. It contains about 30 pieces for gamba by Carl Friedrich Abel who played the six-stringed, fretted instrument, tuned in fourths like a lute. It may resemble a cello, but is nothing like it. Abel came to London in the 1750s after the Prussians had sacked Dresden where he was employed alongside WF Bach, elder son of JS Bach. In London he teamed up with another member of the family, JC 'London' Bach and established the first subscription concerts in the capital. It was a novel idea, paying for music which was neither sung nor danced to, but only listened to sitting still and not talking. Abel's gamba solos are cheerful works almost all in the key of D major. Pandolfo organises them into suites for convenience. The instrument's six strings lend themselves to playing chords as well as runs and these facets characterise Abel's music. His melodic sense is simple and rather plaintive; its application as a solo instrument gives it rather a lonely aspect and it is not surprising that it is most commonly heard these days contributing to the basso continuo, that group of players in Baroque music tasked with rendering the bass line and the improvised harmony above it in support of one or more soloists. Nonetheless this is an attractive CD, recorded with more echo than the instrument alone supplies, demonstrative of a player in Pandolfo of virtuosic skill and sensitive musicality.  

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Synthetic Disappointment

On the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the Moog Synthesiser and the tenth of its inventor's death, I attend a celebration at the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square. Foreign tourists crowd round the black jack tables and roulette wheels hosted by sullen croupiers and it is only six-thirty in the evening. The party is in a darkened room on the first floor where a hostess attaches a bracelet to my wrist, ticks my attendance on a clipboard and hands me a schooner of Prosecco. A Sony executive introduces the evening and announces the launch of a recording of Bach on a Moog synthesiser plus string quartet, the Smiths, and fiddle soloist Jennifer Pike. I remember the original Switched on Bach recording in the 1970s as my elder sister, 001, and I enthused long over its clean contemporary accounts of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions. There were certainly no string instruments involved then so it is not clear why the present disc should feature them. The Sony man welcomes the player Craig Leon on to the stage and the music begins. Most of the excitement in pop music is generated by the enormous volume and this was the formula here. One is expected to be 'blown away'. It was impossible to tell what was synthesised sound and what amplified strings. Leon played throbbing repeat notes like Mr Bean in Chariots of Fire and the quartet stared at their stands glumly, bowing like automatons Brandenburg Concerto No1, click-track earphones stopping their lugs, empty Prosecco glasses at their feet, wiring everywhere. Pike articulated the runs in the Toccata and Fugue in D minor with impressive speed, but I'd have preferred to hear the machine perform more delicately, without assistance, showing off its futuristic tones like it did in the seventies. Oh for the old days when the world was new.    

Monday, 2 March 2015

Consensual Submission

Writing a programme note on Schumann's Kreisleriana I listen again to a passionate and most graphic account of it by Jonathan Biss, recorded a few years ago on EMI. He tells the wordless story vividly, the swings from extroversion to introversion, the drinking, the burning scores, the infatuation with a particular soprano. This reminds me that I have recently received a disc of Biss playing Beethoven sonatas on his own label JB Recordings. I dig it out and find that he has set himself the challenge of an earlier Romantic monster, the Appassionata, so I listen to it and am gripped once more by his talent for carrying the narrative of a complex work through from the opening statement to the last presto exclamation. He has the enviable ability to play the fortissimi with roaring volume but a soft touch like the swell of the sea perhaps. We submit willingly to this friendly force. He finds the dark power of the Steinway and has it thrill us, not oppose us. He creates beautiful contrast between the two subjects of the opening movement and never loses sight of the character of each in the long journey through the development section. The second theme is mollified and subdued when it returns in the home key during the recapitulation, trained by the pianist to conform and not wander off to dominant or more distant keys. This prepares the ground perfectly for the soft sweetness of the Andante second movement, the theme played with a cushioned touch, the variations as diverse and explicit as a master storyteller's manifold descriptions of a principal character's personality.