Archive for June, 2017

Parallel Lives IV: Glenn Gould

The rise of a prodigy
Glenn Gould was born in Toronto in 1932 and died there shortly after his fiftieth birthday of a heart attack. He was a considerable child prodigy, and had a big native reputation by his middle teens. He began a career as a travelling virtuoso, but abandoned it for a life of reclusiveness and recordings in 1964, when he was only 31. His mannerisms on the stage during his brief international career were notorious. A dedicated lifelong hypochondriac, he wore an overcoat on the stage under most circumstances, and mittens. He sat at an incredibly low stool, so that his head was just about on a level with the keyboard; and he always had a glass of water on the piano, from which he frequently sipped. Most vexingly, for the home listener, he was an incorrigible hummer-cum-singer, so that, despite his recording engineers’ best efforts, nearly all his records are enhanced or disfigured, according to taste, by quite noisy vocalising, bearing no recognisable relation to the music being played.

Why the cult?
He is perhaps the object of a more intense cult than any other post-war musician. Certainly he assiduously exploited all those parts of his personality and talents which were most likely to lead to frenzied discipleship. There is even a novel by the great American writer Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, about a character who commits suicide because he can’t play as well as Glenn, whom he refers to with intimate reverence.

Reputation verdict
Gould had a passion for contrapuntal music, above all that of Bach, and a phenomenal capacity to make each voice sound separately so that his fingers seem wholly independent of one another. His most famous recording is of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, recorded in 1955. He re-recorded it in 1981, and there are several live performances available too. They command fanatical devotion or revulsion; certainly they are highly interesting, whatever else. He loathed Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and fortunately didn’t play them apart from Mozart, in a way calculated to spread his dislike. He was keen on some difficult modern music, and his Schoenberg and Hindemith are well worth listening to. He often ignored completely directions as to volume and tempo, and there is a famous concert (privately recorded) in which he plays Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, preceded by the conductor, Leonard Bernstein, dissociating himself from the pianist’s chosen speeds. It is hard to know how wilful he was, and how much was genuine eccentricity. Whatever the proportions, I find him, except in Bach and some modern music, too unpredictable and often perverse to listen to.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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Music Monday: June roundup

1. The Birthday Massacre (152)
2. Lin-Manuel Miranda (138)
3. Patti Smith (121)

Parallel Lives III: Paul Robeson

Who was he?
The great black American bass Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey on 9 April 1898, his father having been a runaway slave who became a senior Quaker. Paul was both a magnificent physical specimen and also highly intelligent and he won a scholarship to Rutgers University. He became the second black all-American player, went on to Columbia Law School, and took up acting.

What did he become?
He discovered he had a fine singing voice, as many others have, by being required to sing in a play, in 1922. Since racial feeling against blacks being lawyers was so strong, he became a professional actor-singer, starring in two famous dramas of Eugene O’Neill’s, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. Shortly after, in 1925, he began to make records of spirituals and Negro songs.

Why the cult? The music…
Robeson became a hugely popular interpreter of Negro spirituals and music theatre – his singing of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat is firmly engrained in popular culture. His interpretation of that great bass song has become definitive. But perhaps more importantly, it was his political role or symbolism which has made him such a cult.

…and the man
Paul Robeson gradually assumed the role of a major symbol of anti-racism and his whole career was as much a matter of asserting the dignity of a downtrodden people as of being a major artist. It is hard for us to judge to what extent he is that; the only visual documentation we have of him is a series of not very satisfactory films, which he himself came to realise were lending credence to the racial stereotypes which he was intent on undermining. In that inevitable dialectic in which radical protesters get trapped, the harder he attempted to establish the validity of a way of living with the dignity traditionally denied to black people, the more he enabled liberals to patronise his race and reactionaries to continue their policies.

Why is he in the news?
It may seem surprising that in the Russian Revelation series of discs, which began appearing last year, and which document certain performances given during the post-World War 2 period in the Soviet Union, there should be one of a concert given by Paul Robeson. The concert took place in Moscow in 1949, during the period when the Cold War was really gathering momentum, so that Robeson was regarded with the gravest suspicion in the United States for his communist sympathies. In the concert he sings freedom-fighting folk songs and spirituals from America and Asia. He can also be heard introducing each song.

Reputation verdict
His innocence on the political front meant that he was wholly unaware of the racism which also infected the Soviet Union, and which meant that the concert recorded in 1949 was an explosive event. The next year his passport was confiscated by the American authorities for its subversiveness. What we are left with is the reputation of an heroic believer in freedom and equality, and recordings of an extraordinary rich bass voice, which had passed its best by the time this concert was given. Alas, there is now virtually no other available evidence of his vocal prowess.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

Parallel Lives II: Kathleen Ferrier

Who was she?
The most beloved of all English singers, and deservedly so, Kathleen Ferrier was born in Lancashire in 1912. She originally intended to become a pianist, and although some vocal potential was discovered quite early, she spent the first decades of her adult life as a telephonist, only making her debut as a professional in Newcastle in 1942, having hitherto restricted her singing to the local choral society. From 1944 she tirelessly performed in the Messiah and the St Matthew Passion, leaving hardly a parish church unvisited. She only ever sang in two operatic roles on stage: in the title role of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, which was written for her, and in several productions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

The affliction
She toured extensively in Europe and the United States, but before long she was diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the breast. She had many operations, and gave her last performances in February 1953, as Orfeo at Covent Garden with Barbirolli, with whom she had forged a fruitful partnership, as conductor; during Act 2 her hip broke on stage, but she sang to the end of the opera and left the Royal Opera House in an ambulance. She died in October of that year.

Why the cult?
In a short career cut short by her tragic death, Ferrier quickly achieved a huge reputation for the warmth and sincerity of her singing, as well as the overwhelming intrinsic beauty of her voice. It’s said that her singing of the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Bach’s Mass in B minor reduced Karajan to tears – a tall order.

Reputation verdict
Her reputation has never shown the least sign of being eclipsed thanks to the imaginative policy of Decca, the company with which she made all her records. Not long after the war she met Bruno Walter, and he trained her in the great Mahler song cycles, above all in Das Lied von der Erde, which she recorded in Vienna in 1952. Walter is alleged to have said that the two greatest artistic encounters of his life were ‘with Ferrier and Mahler, in that order’. If so, he was being extravagant, but listening to her in almost anything she recorded one sees why he might have said it.

She is one of the most spontaneously appealing of singers, and in quite a wide repertoire. The thing that was clearly out of her range was eroticism, and wisely she steered clear of it, at any rate in her art. There is, I suppose it must be admitted, a certain stateliness about her singing, a slight sense that she was indeed at home in all those Anglican buildings she did the rounds of. Yet the note of passionate regret in her Mahler singing remains unequalled and she has an overflowing sense of fun which comes through most in some of her folksong recordings, though of course the best known is Blow the Wind Southerly, where the velvety quality of her voice is on rich display.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

Wordless Wednesday: Gotta collect them all!


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