Posts Tagged 'celebrities'

Wielders of the Baton

Whether they play different continents on consecutive nights and record everything possible with any orchestra, or loathe the limelight but always cause a sensation, conductors of the twentieth century come in all shapes and guises. Michael Tanner gives us the score.

The great age of the conductor, or the age of the cult of the great conductor, coincided with the rise fo the gramophone. The relationship between art and technology has been, here as elsewhere, fraught. Many of the finest conductors loathed recording, especially when they had to stop every four minutes, as in the age of the 78rpm record. Both Toscanini’s and Furtwängler’s greatest records, with a few exceptions, tend to be of live performances. But with the advent of the LP and of recording tape, some conductors became more attached to the studio than the concert hall, and some even learned scores in order to record them, rather than setting down, after many years, the fruits of their experience. And as recording techniques became ever more sophisticated, it was the sheer sound rather than the meaning of the music which absorbed much of their attention. The most conspicuous case of that was Herbert von Karajan (1908-89), who made a phenomenal number of records and became more interested in the control room than the podium. The other crucial way in which records affected conducting, as they did to a lesser extent other modes of music making, was that the educated musical public began going to concerts, or buying new recordings of familiar works, with the experience of many other performances fresh in their minds. Correlatively, younger conductors naturally tended to listen to the recordings of the masters to hear what they sounded like, and either formed resolutions to play in the same way – a striking example was the Italian Guido Cantelli, killed in an air crash in 1956, who modelled himself very successfully on his idol Toscanini – or determined that they would be different. But as the number of Beethoven Fifths increased, it became difficult to be different from all of them, so some very strange recordings resulted from this need to be individual. It was this factor, too, rather than any burning artistic zeal, which led to the cult of period instruments and ‘authentic’ performances.

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The Cult of the Maestro

After Wagner took conducting to new heights, baton waving was accompanied by tantrums, assaults and bitter rivalry. Michael Tanner discovers why some time keepers turned into dictators.

Conducting, now the most glamorous of all musical occupations, only got going in the form we now know it comparatively recently. All that most people have heard about its early history is that the French composer of opera ballets Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-87) died from gangrene after accidentally stabbing his foot with the cane that he was using to keep time with. More recent stars of the podium, such as Klemperer and Solti, have sustained injuries from emphatic gesturing within a confined space, but no more mortalities have been recorded; in some cases I wish they had.

In fact, until the middle of the nineteenth century the function of the conductor was to keep the players in the orchestra together, and if he could, he would conduct from the keyboard, or the first violin would give the lead. The whole notion of the conductor as a person collaborating with the composer to recreate a work originated with Wagner. While he was in charge of musical life in Dresden, during the 1840s, he raised the standards of orchestral playing to previously undreamt of heights. More importantly, he began to develop the concept of the inspired interpretation of a work, which, as a great composer himself, he was in a unique position to do. With Beethoven as his idol, he set to work on performing the nine symphonies in such a way that they could be felt to embody a whole view of life. The climax of this activity was a performance of the Ninth Symphony on Palm Sunday 1846. previously judged as unplayable and lunatic, it became a symbol of creative endeavour mixed with hope and joy. As an artistic struggle to achieve a masterpiece it reflected and served as an incentive for suffering humanity to achieve its potential.

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The Trouble with Critics!

Who are the best music critics and why? Our reviewer Jeremy Nicholas revels in that good old love-hate relationship between musicians and critics. He finds both pearls of wisdom and embarrassing blunders…

I first became a music critic at the age of three. I sat for hours with my right ear pressed up against the speaker of the family radiogram, listening over and over again to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (I still have the ancient LP – Carl Schuricht on Decca LXT2513). Clearly, I judged it to be an interesting and stimulating experience or I’d have been out in the garden beating up my younger brother playing cowboys and Indians.

An innate love of music and an endless curiosity about its manifold delights are the prime requisites for a music critic. But what are the other essentials? Do they need any qualifications? In Berlioz’s words (himself one of the finest critics of his day): ‘Where do they come from? At what age are they sent to the slaughter house? What is done with their bones?… Do they have females, and young? How many of them handled the brush before being reduced to the broom?’

Well, there have certainly been very few females. Like record collecting, reviewing seems to be a predominantly male occupation. You don’t have to be a composer. Dr Johnson reasoned that ‘you may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.’ It’s a truism that a critic should know something about all music and all about some. He should also, I think, be a professional amateur: professional in the sense that he needs to be highly trained in the history, composition and performance of music and in the ability to express his thoughts clearly in a stimulating fashion; amateur in the true sense of the word – he should remain a lover of music and its craft.

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The Romantics of the Modern Age

Liszt and Paganini were too late for records so we will never know how they sounded. But did they have any imitators? Michael Tanner listens to more recent artists on disc who come close to the true romantic performance.

We have no first-hand check on whether Liszt’s or Paganini’s playing was more extraordinary than anyone else because nothing of their playing survives on disc. But we can hear many of Liszt’s pupils; there are records of their playing and some of piano rolls made by them, which can be transferred in the best sound. As you might expect the playing shows enormous rhythmic licence, a staggering dynamic range, and a cavalier attitude towards what was written, in the interests of maximum excitement and overt expressiveness. It was characteristic of the heyday of romanticism to regard everything as telling a story, and in some of the recordings of Vladimir de Pachmann he actually pauses to tell us what the next bit means! While listening to many of these performers is a weird experience, it is often a breathtaking one too, and it would be a serious mistake to think that they weren’t serious. Many present-day connoisseurs of the piano regard Rachmaninov as the greatest of all recorded pianists, and he takes liberties that no pianist today would dare to. Compared to these ‘piano tigers’, as they were known, almost no-one shows more than moderate inclinations in the direction of that kind of playing.

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The Supreme Inspiration V: Performers & Directors

Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948)
Eisenstein, famous for his silent film Battleship Potemkin, was unusual among film directors in having a genuine feel for music. He wrote: ‘No montage can be accomplished if there is no inner “melody” to determine its construction.’

Knowing of Prokofiev’s association with his one-time teacher, the theatre director Meyerhold, and of his recent visit to Hollywood, he invited him to score his film Alexander Nevsky. This propaganda film had to be made rapidly and Eisenstein, impressed by Prokofiev’s work under these conditions, asked him to work on his magnum opus, Ivan the Terrible. An equal partnership, Eisenstein often allowed Prokofiev to write music for unedited rushes, thus allowing the composer considerable control over the rhythm and mood of sequences. Eisenstein in turn inspired Prokofiev to write some of his most evocative and emotionally eloquent music.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)
Known to his many musician friends as ‘Slava’, this legendary cellist has inspired many of this century’s greatest composers to write some of their finest works. His playing is noted for its unusual accuracy of intonation, tremendous energy and range of tone, and a compelling musicality. Graduating from the Moscow Conservatory with the highest distinction, several major works were dedicated to him including concertos by Myaskovsky, Khachaturian, and Prokofiev, with whom he formed a close friendship. Possibly most important to his career, though, was Shostakovich’s dedication of his First Cello Concerto. Britten, hearing him play this in 1960, was inspired to write several works for him: the result, after 15 years almost entirely devoted to writing vocal music, was a Cello Sonata, three Cello Suites, and the Symphony for cello and orchestra.

Other outstanding works inspired by him include concertos by Lutoslawski, Panufnik, Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain and Bernstein’s Slava overture.

David Oistrakh (1908-74)
One of the greatest violinists of his day, he was noted for his warm and powerful tone, able to be elegant or monumental. These characteristics inspired Prokofiev to write one of his greatest works, the First Violin Sonata. Many other Soviet composers, including Khachaturian, Shostakovich and Myaskovsky, dedicated works to him.

Martha Graham (1894-1991)
This modern American dancer successfully devised a technique – aimed at expression rather than display – which could serve as the basis for any dancer to develop their individual style. The most famous work written for her is Copland’s Appalachian Spring, closely followed by Barber’s Cave of the Heart, which has Medea’s ‘Dance of Vengeance’. Menotti, Hindemith and William Schuman also composed for her.

Two singer muses: soprano Cathy Berberian – intelligent, humorous and versatile – married the composer Berio who wrote several works for her, as did Stravinsky (Elegy for JFK) and Henze; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone for whom Britten wrote Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, and Reimann wrote the opera Lear.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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