Posts Tagged 'classical'

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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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

Parallel Lives I: Jacqueline Du Pré

As a new family memoir pours cold water on the saintly image of the multiple sclerosis-stricken Jacqueline Du Pré, it seems a good time to objectively review the contributions to classical music of the cult performer. Du Pré shared ‘parallel lives’ with three other extremely popular and sometimes wayward musicians – the English singer who succumbed to painful cancer; the American singer who immortalised ‘Ol’ Man River’ but was shunned by his own country which suspected his political beliefs, and the eccentric Canadian pianist who suddenly stopped performing to become a recording recluse. All four carved their own inimitable niches and their recordings live on as poignant reminders of their art. But how have their reputations survived?

Jacqueline Du Pré
Who was she?
Jacqueline Du Pré was born in Oxford in 1945, into a highly musical family. When, as a very young child, she heard the cello for the first time, she insisted that she should learn to play it, and revealed astonishing musical gifts. She studied with the great William Pleeth and made her recital debut at the age of 16 in 1961. She soon became a member of a loose group of musicians who performed chamber music together whenever possible. She and pianist Stephen Bishop (now Kovacevich) had a torrid affair and made a wonderful record during it, but he was replaced in her affections by the extremely upwardly mobile Daniel Barenboim, and they married in Israel in 1967.

The affliction
The already hectic tempo of Jacqueline Du Pré’s life got still faster and no one was surprised that she began showing signs of fatigue at the beginning of the 1970s. In 1973 it turned out, however, that she was suffering from multiple sclerosis, and she soon lost the feeling in her limbs, and had to abandon playing, though she went on teaching. The disease, if the new book is to be believed, had terrible psychological effects too, and Du Pré’s personality, already monstrously egoistic, was soon unmanageable except by her nurse. For the last years of her life she was wholly incapacitated, and she died in 1987.

Why the cult? The music…
She was famous from her first recital at 16, not only because of the passionate intensity of her playing, but because she was such a vital presence. She also quickly made a speciality of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which she played with an abandon that vanquished any lingering notions that Elgar was a reserved Edwardian – in my view,the piece is ore moving if you take that traditional line, but in the late 1960s Du Pré, abetted on her recording by the heart-on-sleeve Sir John Barbirolli, swept all before her, and that has remained the most famous recording of the work ever since.

…and the woman
The image of the healthy young girl investing her music-making with such wild energy, vigour and passion and then being cut down so cruelly by disease has only heightened the cult value of Jacqueline Du Pré. Documentaries have been made and there was even a play about an instrumentalist cut down by physical illness (Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One was staged with Frances de la Tour in the lead and later filmed with Julie Andrews).

Why is she in the news?
It was never any secret that Du Pré had a private life as passionate as her artistic one, but this month sees the publication of a new book by her brother and sister in which her ruthlessness is revealed – in humid prose which does no one any favours. Eager to dispel any image of saintliness, Du Pré’s brother and sister want to show the Jacqueline they knew and they don’t pull any punches. She is portrayed as a voracious man-eater, on one occasion sleeping with her brother-in-law. When he heard about the book and fearing perhaps that his personal life would be raked over, Du Pré’s husband Daniel Barenboim is said to have asked ‘Why couldn’t they have waited until I have gone?’ The hype is set to continue as the film rights have already been applied for and casting is well underway – Emily Watson, Oscar nominee for her role in last year’s Breaking the Waves is rumoured to play Jacqueline – and another biography by family friend Elizabeth Wilson will soon be published.

Reputation verdict
In her approach to music she was very like her fellow cellist Rostropovich, in that she hugged everything she played in an embrace so intense that it tended to wilt if it wasn’t a robust Romantic growth. In some of the chamber music which she performed with Barenboim and occasionally others, she had to subdue her temperament somewhat. It is always clear, though, that her favourite musical marking was espressivo, which is just what some listeners find winning and what repels those who sometimes like a degree of continence in performances.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

The Great Spanish Tradition (2/2)

The magnetism of Spanish music
Spain was burdened with monolithic political and religious structures; its rulers delighted in pageant and military might; when they sent their ships to invade England they placed such unwieldy cannon on their decks they couldn’t be armed and fired in time to ward off the English defenders. No surprise then that a country revelling in spectacle should develop a taste for great battle symphonies for organ or instrumental combinations. This even entered mass settings. Joan Cererols (1618-80) suffered, like all Spanish composers in the seventeenth century, from the absence of music printing in the Iberian peninsula, and his surviving scores are characteristically thin on musical specifics. However, they do include an accompaniment line, indicating the use of instruments. His Missa de Batalla (Battle Mass) is splendidly arranged for three choirs and may be (we will never know how authentically) accompanied to splendid effect by strings, wind and percussion.

No discussion of Spanish music would be complete without mention of the numerous foreign composers attracted to its native idioms. In his numerous keyboard sonatas Domenico Scarlatti was inspired by the strumming of the guitar, which by then dominated the plucked-string repertoire, and many years later nineteenth and early twentieth-century composers vied with each other in their works in the Spanish style. Some of the greatest music in this vast category was by Debussy and Ravel, whose achievements in their turn had a profound effect on Spanish composers.

Vernacular opera in Spain was, as in most countries, constantly threatened by Italian opera. However, the zarzuela proved resilient. It was Spanish opera with spoken dialogue, much like German Singspiel, but older (the earliest known specimens are by Juan Hidalgo and date from the end of the seventeenth century). In spite of various challenges mounted to it, native Spanish opera revived greatly in the nineteenth century and has been prospering ever since.

Nationalism was the key to Spain’s resurgence as a musical force to be reckoned with. While Lalo, Chabrier and numerous others were churning out superficially Spanish music, Felipe Pedrell was drawing some illustrious native pupils into his midst as he promoted his country’s rich literary and musical heritage; among them were the second great triumvirate of Spanish music – Albéniz, Granados and Falla.

The twentieth-century resurgence
Spanish regional idioms and dances, such as jota, habanera, fandango and seguidillas, again came into their own. All the warmth, the dazzling colour, the racy modal harmonies, the tempestuous vocal idioms were rekindled in the music of these composers. Alongside it one hears music of the greatest delicacy fully worthy of the Golden Age. Albéniz and Granados were truly sons of French impressionism; but their sensitivity to colour and effect in Iberia and Goyescas is quintessentially Spanish.

Falla went further in his often astringent harmonies and gaudy orchestration. He knew Stravinsky’s music intimately: one can hear Petrushka clearly in The Three-Cornered Hat. But unlike some of the others, Falla was not content with touristic Spanish effects: he wanted to distill the Spanish soul. As he grew older he abandoned the folk influence in pursuit of communion with the great masters of the Spanish Renaissance; his unfinished oratorio Atlántida was to have been the definitive expression of this.

In more recent years Spanish composers such as Roberto Gerhard finally recognised the New Viennese School, especially Schoenberg. Spain was and in some ways still is a conservative environment for its musicians. Its vitality owes everything to tradition: more than in almost any other European culture, the close union between popular and art music has nurtured and enriched the work of Spain’s many fine composers. That many of the names cited above are little known to music lovers suggests that we are only slowly unravelling one of music’s best kept secrets.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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