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.     

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

All fat and wide

Forty-year-old Prince Hubertus Michael Saxe-Coburg hosted lunch on Tuesday at the Tower of London. It was the 175th wedding anniversary of his great-great-grandfather Albert and Victoria, heiress of the entire British Empire. They gave us the Christmas tree. At the ceremony, both wedding marches were played, Wagner's at the start, Mendelssohn's at the end, which began a trend, although most eventually plumped for one or the other. It is, after all, unusual to have both composers, antipodes in a sense, in the same programme.    

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Study Break

Clare Hammond was a success at the Andrzej Panufnik memorial day at Kings Place last November and now here she is with a solo CD on the BIS label of etudes by four different composers. She played Panufnik's studies then too, so in a sense it is generous of her not to include him here. She makes scintillating play of Unsuk Chin's Piano Etudes written between 1995 and 2003 and reviewed here by another pianist last year. She gives a fully lustrous account of three of Sergei Lyapunov's Liszt-like 'studies of transcendant execution', making special the ringing 'when you wish upon  star' melody of Nuit d'ete. She gives depth to the cursory exercises of Szymanowski's twelve studies and isolates the tremendous wit, the ragtime in th study in minor seconds, and the Latin flavour in the sixths, in Nikolai Kapustin's Etudes in different intervals. The Steinway D really feels as if it has been given an outing.


Friday, 30 January 2015

New Synaesthesia

Mrs Jones and I attend the second performance of Deborah Pritchard's Violin Concerto Wall of Water at the National Gallery where, in Room 1 by the shop, the paintings by 70-year-old Maggi Hambling which synaesthetically inspired the music are on display.  The music for twelve strings played by the Malvern-based English Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Woods plus soloist Harriet Mackenzie is a palindrome, the end matching the beginning.  This is a minimal motif comprising a long note and tiny ornament which grows into the cascading forms of the storm at its height. Hambling lives in Aldeburgh and sculpted the Scallop Shell in steel on the beach in memory of Benjamin Britten. The storm which created the paintings however happened at Southwold. The performance is followed by a discussion chaired by the long-suffering curator Colin Wiggins who is the butt of Hambling's withering contempt. 'I have to watch you, Colin, as you often make mistakes,' she said to loud guffaws. Pritchard denied the work was synaesthetic in the traditional sense in which a key or pitch is inescapably linked to a colour (Sibelius always saw F major as green), but rather the cold and warm images linked to timbres such as 'sul pont' on the violin or intervals. Both music and paintings benefited from the relationship, although the music would still have moved me without the visual images. CDs of the new work were on sale outside. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Sunday morning hit

Here's a humdinger of a CD. The choir of St John's Cambridge gives highly charged performances of the two Messes solennelles which have become immensely popular on the Sunday morning Eucharist circuit in recent years. The grinding toil of Louis Vierne's Kyrie comes over with great impact at the start of the disc with the choir rich-toned at full volume and Edward Picton-Turbevill in the console holding mastiff-like to Andrew Nethsingha's urgent beat. The combination is even more powerful in Jean Langlais' mass at the end of the disc, the choir and organ almost at odds in harmonies on the edge of insanity, the more so in the Gloria, with the organ's percussion stop tinkling camply wmong the thundering pipes. No more waiting for Sundays with them both on the same disc! The exclamation mark which Messiaen put on his O Sacrum Convivium! at the centre of the disc is an eccentricity carried on to the CD title although it belies the perfect stillness the choir achieves in its rendition. Needless to say the tuning is unfailingly accurate. The CD is a model of design with two Poulenc sets - the four prayers of St Francis and the four motets for a time of penitence - filling in between the messes and the Messiaen. This one's a big hit and not just in the world of choirs, organs and post communion coffee.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Phew that was close

'But that will mean you'll have to fight resistance from the Germans,' said the Radio 4 business correspondent to his money markets interviewee. In the past, that question might have answered with the name of a battle or numbers of dead. The interviewee had the softest Aberdeen burr. The inflections became more noticeable when they turned to the oil crisis. What a good job we didn't vote yes, many must be thinking. The Land of Winter would be looking very chilly indeed.

It's Islam wot won it!

Have no doubt that the swing towards covering up flesh respresented by The Sun calling time on the Page Three Tits is connected with Islam's insistence on headscarves. 

See they have flogged a blogger, but have been trying to flog this one for years. 

Hear the internment diary of Hans Gal read at the Central London Synagogue. The refugee had already settled in Edinburgh when the war broke out and the government decided he and his ilk were a potential threat. They shut them up at Highton, Liverpool, with a load of German POWs. 'Some,' wrote Gal, 'were flaxen haired innocents from Hamburg, but others were real Nazis, convinced even in captivity, that they were going to win the war.' The book is called Music Behind Barbed Wire, published by Toccata Press. The title refers to one of Gal's Schubertian songs (he was born in Vienna in 1890) so 2015 is his 125th anniversary. His daughter, who called him 'Gal', presented the evening. So did Martin Anderson, Toccata's founder. He said, someone once asked the composer, if it were true he'd played the piano for Brahms. 'Of course not,' was the reply, 'I was only six!' 


Friday, 16 January 2015

Jarrett jarring

The record label ECM doesn't get everything right. Presenting the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett in the classical repertoire does him no favours. He and violinist Michelle Makarski perform Bach's six sonatas for violin and keyboard, composed during Bach's Koethen days as a court composer of chiefly secular music. The lines lack finesse compared to recordings of stricter, more devoted classicists and Jarrett in particular seems satisfied with the loose edges in the ensemble. Neither have the speed of, say, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Enrico Pace on their celebrated Sony disc of the same repertoire. The depth and intensity are missing and in the end one stops listening. One day, perhaps, I'll chuck it out, but for now it goes back on the shelf to gather dust. I once loved jazz musicians, but came to the conclusion after hearing too many cliched solos delivered half asleep, that the sculpted form, worked and smoothed to its perfect form, is superior to the spontaneous improvisation. Bach extemporised from necessity, as a short-hand when lacking time to write out the perfect, thought-through form, challenging the artist who will perform it. Jazz musicians play what they can, but classical musicians play what they must.