Archives for category: Classical

lambertI only discovered the picture above a few days ago, in the Getty Images archive. Taken on Wednesday the 29th of July 1931, it shows composer Constant Lambert (aged 25) and his first wife, Florence Chuter (aged 18) just a few days before their wedding on August 5th at Kensington Registry Office. Flo, as she was known, was an actress working under the name Florence Kay. She had an oriental appearance and this must have been what attracted Lambert to her. His Eight Poems of Li Po, written five years earlier, had been dedicated to the (entirely unattainable) Chinese actress Anna-May-Wong.

It took me a while to work out the location of the photo, even though I should have recognized it immediately, as I worked for almost a decade just a few hundred yards away. It was taken in Greek Street, close to where the Pillars of Hercules pub straddles Manette Street, and looking towards Soho Square. The sign on the right hand side is a bit blurred, but it’s easy to make out that it belongs to a Chinese restaurant – and a bit of research reveals that in the 1930s the Shanghai Chinese restaurant was located just here, at 8 Greek Street. It was a popular haunt for literary types (just as the Pillars of Hercules is today).

Maxim’s Chinese Restaurant in Gerrard Street (still today filled with Chinese restaurants) is usually cited as the most likely real-life equivalent to Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the establishment that gives its name to Anthony Powell’s novel, part of the Dance to the Music of Time sequence. In that novel, the fictional composer Moreland is generally understood to be based on Lambert, who was friendly with Powell. But given that Casanova actually lived in Greek Street (in 1764, at No 47), and the evidence of this photo that Lambert favoured the Shanghai, perhaps there’s a case to be made for it as well?

The Eight Songs of Li Po are beautifully scored for a small chamber ensemble, influenced perhaps by the similarly scored songs by Arthur Bliss, The Women of Yueh (1923-24), also settings of Li Po. Most are less than two minutes long, and for me, two of the briefest are the best of all. “A Summer Day” begins with a limpid, mostly white note instrumental introduction in triple time that actually sounds at its best in the piano version. It reflects the poem’s depiction of easy-going drinking and relaxing in the cool mountains. “On the City Street”, once again using mostly white note harmonies, takes up just one page of manuscript, but not a note is wasted. Initially, the meter varies in response to the text, but then the vocal line starts to rise and flow for the words “There are ten thousand houses, among the drooping willow trees”. The accompaniment then gradually peters out with a series of quiet, falling figures, a very poignant effect.


MattA stirring performance of the St Matthew Passion on Saturday night in Winchester Cathedral (by the Waynflete Singers with guest conductor Sir Roger Norrington), reminded me just how great the opening chorus (“Kommt ihr Tochter”) is. It’s ridiculous to try to analyse such a towering masterpiece in a short blog entry – and I wouldn’t feel up to the task however many words I used. Instead I’ll just summarise the most obvious things I heard once again tonight that add up to so much.

First the orchestral introduction with its ominous, 12/8 tread over a persistent pedal point and grinding harmonies, ratcheting up the tension before the choir enters. In fact two choirs enter, spatially separated and singing different parts. They represent the crowds in Jerusalem (perhaps on either side of the road) questioning each other as Jesus walks slowly along bearing the cross. And there’s a third layer, choirboys singing a simple chorale melody (“innocent Lamb of God”), soaring above the complex texture in a bright G major, which contrasts with the choir’s somber E minor. Towards the end, when it seems like all the main material has been presented, the choir takes up something new, a more fragmented, quieter and harmonically uneasy sequential passage, as the crowd starts to acknowledge its own complicity and guilt. “Look. Look where? On our offence”. After that the two choirs come together as one for the first time: “Look – behold his love for us”. It’s breathtaking.

This is one of Bach’s longest single choral movements, usually lasting around eight minutes, but it never seems long enough to me – though that doesn’t mean it should be played too slowly. There’s an urgency in the music that pushes it along and that shouldn’t be resisted. For me the reason this movement is so compelling is its mixture of explicit drama, coming from the situation and the text, coupled with music that’s expertly paced in the way it ebbs and flows harmonically and rhythmically. On top of this are the spatial contrasts between the two choirs, the choirboys and the two orchestras. It’s as if the various forces have been blocked for positions, just as actors are in the theatre. This all intensifies the drama to an unimaginable height. Norrington (who is now 81 years old), sat down to conduct the performance, but his long arms expertly traced the contours of the piece to guide and inspire the performers. Chorus Master George Castle, who did a lot of the preparatory work behind the scenes, was also on hand to conduct the Winchester Cathedral Choristers.

For a very different production with the very minimum of forces that highlights the drama (perhaps a little at the expense of the music, but exhilarating none the less) an excerpt of Jonathan Miller’s theatrical staging can be seen here.

deathAt the Oxford Bach Choir we’ve been rehearsing this nine movement, 50 minute long choral work since mid-January. But it’s often only at our mid-term longer Saturday daytime rehearsal that the music we are working on really starts to come into focus. That was the case this week when composer Jonathan Dove joined us for the day – he not only listened to and commented on our singing, but participated as well – singing the solo parts and playing the piano accompaniment during sectionals. For an Unknown Soldier was first performed on November 9 last year in Portsmouth Cathedral, followed by a repeat the following week in Croydon, both times conducted by the OBC’s principal conductor Nicholas Cleobury.  Our performance will take place at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Saturday March 14 when we’ll also be singing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

At the rehearsal Dove told us that he likes to think of himself as “a storyteller,” and the work uses a sequence of poems telling the story of what might have been just one soldier’s war – from the initial enthusiasm to enlist through to realization of the horror of war, death, and the bereavement of those left behind. Any composer choosing war as a theme has to negotiate around the overwhelming example of Britten’s War Requiem.  Dove deals with this by setting much less familiar poems of the  First World War, some by poets killed in action, and some by poets who survived.  Among them are those that Robert Graves identified (in Goodbye to All That) as “the three poets of importance killed during the war” – Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Two movements in particular have started to stand out for me as I become more familiar with the music. The third movement sets Jessie Pope’s The Call alongside Sorley’s All the Hills and Vales Along. The Call is a patriotic jingle first published in the Daily Mail, echoing then popular sentiments– and sung here by a children’s choir, as if chanting the lines in the playground. This innocence is set against the Sorley poem, which describes men singing as they march to their deaths – all to an accompaniment that sounds like bullets ricocheting. The sixth movement is surely the centerpiece of the whole work, setting the extraordinary poem Dead Man’s Dump by Rosenberg (unknown to me until now). It’s full of harrowing war images.  Here the four choral voices are locked together in jagged and dramatic homophony, with interjections from the tenor soloist.

We’ve still work to do before we reach performance standard, namely the mastering of the technical difficulties so that we can start getting the emotion across. “I can still hear the counting” said Dove as we sang through a particularly fiendish passage of alternating 5/4, 7/4 and 3/2 bars. But we’ll get there.  There are no recordings as yet, but I think this piece will prove to be popular with choral societies in the future.  Come to the concert if you can.

ViennaRevisited_E-flyer-1_248wA few signposts can help listeners navigate their way through a piece that might otherwise prove baffling. So it proved for me at the recent (splendid) performance of Berg’s Chamber Concerto by Aurora, Anthony Marwood (violin) and Alexander Melnikov (piano), part of the Vienna Revisited festival at London’s Kings Place. I had listened to recordings a few times, but wasn’t making too much progress until I read the chapter on the work from Karen Monson’s 1979 biography Alban Berg – a book I’ve had on my shelves for decades but rarely picked up. For instance, I’d noticed hints of the waltz occasionally surfacing in the first movement, a theme and variations for the piano soloist and wind ensemble. But I hadn’t noticed how, after the short signature themes spelling out in notes the names of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, the cor anglais begins the movement proper with first two notes, then three, then four as an introduction to the main theme – an indication of additive processes to come perhaps, but also, as Monson points out, a beginning in the manner of “a lilting waltz…very reminiscent of that of the Viennese hero Johann Strauss.”

Similarly the second movement adagio, in which the violin soloist takes over from the piano and plays some of the most romantic melodies in the work (though colourfully decorated by dissonance) turns out to be a palindrome. In other words the second part is a mirror of the first, with Berg reversing the thematic material and sometimes using exact retrogrades. The complexity of the musical language might easily make this process inaudible to many listeners. But, says Monson “like all alert dramatists, Berg thought very specifically about how his music might affect, move and involve his audiences”. Accordingly, he places twelve quiet and low C-sharps on the piano – the only time it plays in the adagio – in the exact centre of the movement. It can be very hard to hear in a recording, but in a live performance it is obvious, marking “a mysterious musical moment when everything turns in on itself”. The third movement brings together material from the first two, an intent made clear from the start by the dramatic joint cadenza for the two soloists, who in the performance I saw physically moved closer together for this passage.

Such things were enough to focus my attention to better appreciate the sheer musicality of the interpretation – bearing out what (in the pre-concert talk) Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, had been saying: that early disciples of the Second Viennese school had concentrated too much on the mechanisms behind the music and not on the music itself. More recent interpretations, she said, had altered that, revitilizing the music as music, not theory, and bringing it back into the concert halls for the first time in many years.

beamThe profile of Sally Beamish, a British composer living in Scotland, was raised considerably due to the performance of her accordion concerto “The Singing” at The Proms on August 1st. This 1996 work was a late replacement for the Violin Concerto (1994), due to the sickness of soloist Anthony Marwood. It was written for the virtuoso accordion player James Crabb and takes for its theme the Highland Clearances of the 1760s. Surrounding the concert were multiple radio interviews, including Woman’s Hour, CD Review, and a Proms Plus talk recorded just before the performance. Beamish’s music is often serious minded, but she can be playful as well, and has built up an intriguing back catalogue. (Examples: the Bach-inspired Chamber Concerto for saxophone quartet and strings (2008), and the somewhat harrowing, but still life-affirming Spinal Chords, written for the paralympics in 2012 – both works have been recorded).

One of the best entry points is the re-invention of a Beethoven string quartet (specifically Opus 18 No 4) in her String Quartet No 2 “Opus California”, which uses four themes from the first movement of the Beethoven as the basis for the four short movements, combining the classical influences with a West Coast sensibility. The source material for the second movement includes Beethoven’s first bridge passage, used (appropriately enough) for the portrait of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in mist. But it’s the first movement (“Boardwalk”) that is most immediately striking. The sound world of the Beethoven is recognizably still there, but the music unveils in tiny fragments, very lightly put together and occasionally coming together into a sequence of sprung rhythms that approaches jazz. It’s accessible but at the same time slightly edgy, and I can hear it being used as the opening music to a modern play – something understated, like Art by Yasmina Reza, for instance.

BennettA recent Wigmore Hall concert (27 June, 2014) featured the four male voices of New York Polyphony, singing unaccompanied. The programme included Richard Rodney Bennett’s, A Colloquy with God, which he composed specifically for the group in 2012, just before his death on Christmas Eve that year. The text, by Thomas Browne, begins “The night is come, like to the day; Depart not thou great God away”. It is a meditation on sleep and death, and it’s been set to music before by composers ranging from Henry Purcell to Vaughan Williams, W H Harris and Gordon Crosse. The 1961 Harris setting, in particular, has a particularly intense and expressive ending:

These are my drowsy days; in vain
I do not wake to sleep again:
O come that hour, when I shall never
Sleep again, but wake forever.

I’ve always been an admirer of Bennett, who effortlessly straddled musical styles from Boulez to popular film music and cabaret, though as he grew older he distanced himself from his early, more radical musical language. All credit to New York Polyphony for championing this piece to the extent of commissioning a video to help promote it, which is freely available. (The recording is also available on their 2013 CD Times go by Turns). Their performance is excellent, but for me the new layer of meaning added by the filmed narrative is entirely irrelevant and superfluous. For Bennett’s musical language in this piece is paired down to the most minimal of materials. It’s largely homophonic (like a partsong rather than a madrigal), and the melodies and sequential passage are almost subliminal, sunken in as they are within the overall textures of four equal voices.

The opening material in F minor is used for the first two verses and the last, though the rhythmic emphasis and harmonies change each time. The range of pitches is kept very tight, but in the first and third verses the music rises towards a very Purcell-like dissonance, reaching a high D flat (on the second syllable of “eclipse” and, at the end, on the middle words of the phrase “never sleep again”). The middle section builds up to its greatest intensity on the words “Sleep is a death, O make me try, by sleeping, what it is to die.” What little polyphony there was is abandoned in this passage for a rising sequence of very close chromatic block harmony. When the opening material returns (marked “tutti poco portamento”) the music slides lazily across the bar lines for the words “these are my drowsy days,” resolving into an F major chord at the very last second, providing perhaps just a glimmer of hope on “wake forever”.

GOldIt seemed particularly appropriate to go to the Wigmore Hall on Friday May 9th for a late night concert starting at 10pm to hear Joanna MacGregor play The Goldberg Variations – given the (probably mythical) back story of Bach composing the variations as an aid to the insomnia of Count Kaiserling, as first related by Forkel. Indeed the couple next to us slept throughout the entire performance, despite our position right at the front of the hall, to the left of the piano. I’d read Tovey’s famous extended essay on the Variations in the days before the concert, and it helped especially to bear in mind some of his arguments – for instance the organization and central importance of the canons, which occur at every third variation and gradually widen out from the first unison canon to the second, third, fourth interval (etc) right up to the octave. Tovey points out how Bach particularly emphasizes the characteristics of each interval in the individual treatment of each of the canons – and says that, despite their strict formality, they form the emotional heart of the work. Following the progress of these canons as the intervals become wider, an entirely audible process, is a great way of keeping your bearings during a performance.

Tovey also discusses the underlying dance forms that are used within the variations, and it’s this aspect that MacGregor is particularly notable for. Many of us grew up listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, which while quirky (to say the least) articulates the counterpoint with crystal clarity. MacGregor is at her strongest when bringing out the dance aspects of movements, with their unpredictable accents and phrases flowing freely across the bar lines. A good example is the brief but lively variation number four, in fast 3/8 time and with an emphasis on clipped quaver rhythms. It’s possibly an example of the baroque passepied dance (a form Bach uses elsewhere, such as in the first orchestral suite). For comparison, Gould’s version sounds plodding, and as it omits all the repeats is only 29 seconds long, too brief to make its impact.

From our position at the front left hand side we also had a good view of the keyboard, and could see MacGregor expertly negotiate the intricate and virtuosic cross-hand passages that result from some of the variations being written for instruments with two separate keyboard manuals. I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, and recommend the rest of the series of late concerts, including particularly interesting programmes from  New York Polyphony (June 27th) and Anne Sofie von Otter with Steven Isserlis and Bengt Forsberg (July 4th). 

GerontIn March I took part in a performance of The Dream of Gerontius in Oxford. I’ve been in two previous performances, the first with the Epworth Choir at Guildford Cathedral in the mid 1970s, the second (playing timpani this time rather than singing) at the University of Keele in the early 1980s. It’s one of those works that stays with you once you get to know it – and although I haven’t listened to it a great deal in recent years, I found I’d not forgotten it. This isn’t a typical English oratorio from the Victorian period – like Parry’s later Songs of Farewell it is profoundly religious and spiritual music, but without asserting unwavering conviction. As Wilfrid Mellers points out, it concerns “a suffering seeker after faith…the personal testament of a man in some ways similar to Elgar”, and that’s the reason why Gerontius caught the popular imagination in the way that The Apostles or The Kingdom, which toe the standard biblical line, did not.

Whatever Elgar’s own convictions, the music often reaches an intensity that (for me at least) provides just about the closest thing there is to a religious experience. Part Two – in a passage which Mellers characterizes as “celestial music” – opens with what are probably Elgar’s simplest but most beautiful bars, a brief instrumental prologue depicting Gerontius’ soul set free following his earthly death. It’s quiet and still, using step-wise parallel motion in intervals of fourths and fifths, and its underlying harmonies, though sequential, are still slightly uncertain, modal rather than diatonic. The music soon blends seamlessly into the continuation of Gerontius’ highly melodic recitative, starting with the words “I went to sleep, but now I am refreshed”. There are echoes here of Elgar’s most famous piece, “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, though the mood is very different. It’s this passage, along with the eight minute opening orchestral prelude, that are the highlights of Gerontius for me.

TippettSometimes so-called “academic” composers are derided for writing music that might be technically brilliant but has little “natural” feeling or inspiration. R O Morris (1886-1948) should be a good example. Today he’s remembered primarily as a teacher of counterpoint (at the Royal College of Music) and a writer of text books. His pupils included Gerald Finzi, Constant Lambert, Edmund Rubbra and Michael Tippett. There’s just one tiny work of his that many people will know today, the anthem “Love Came Down at Christmas”.

But Morris enjoyed a ten year period of creativity as a composer, roughly between 1922 and 1932. Finzi, at least, thought highly of his music, and in an obituary piece (quoted in Diana McVeagh’s biography) he chose four pieces representing Morris at his most approachable – Corrina’s Maying for chorus and orchestra, the Concerto Piccolo, the Suite for Chamber Orchestra and the six Canzoni Ricercati for string orchestra or string quartet – with the Toccata and Fugue for Orchestra at the other extreme and the Symphony in D (first performed on January 1, 1934 at the Queen’s Hall) somewhere in the middle. We learn from the other Finzi biography (from Stephen Banfield) that the last of the Canzoni Ricercati was rated his “one genuine masterpiece” and described as a “grave and lovely” work. But in the early 1930s Morris stopped composing and would never talk about his own work from that point onwards.

There’s little chance of hearing any of these pieces today – most of the manuscripts lie unpublished and hidden away in various libraries. But incredibly, a recording of the last Canzoni Ricercati by the Lindsay String Quartet does exist. I’ve been listening to it over the past few weeks and find it beautiful. It’s made up of three, 3 minute sections of intense fugal and canonic writing, but using themes that have the flavor of mournful folk melodies, closely related to each other. Each of the sections begins with a main theme that is immediately used against itself, and then a secondary theme is introduced around half way through and combined with the first. Towards the end there are sequential passages where aching false relations (influenced by the “golden age” of English counterpoint from the 16th century, on which Morris was an authority) predominate. Such passages recall the music of Peter Warlock, and as with most of Warlock’s work, these are miniatures. But their emotional impact and sheer density makes them seem much longer. They aren’t online anywhere I can find (expect for this electronic realization), but the CD is available and I encourage you to seek it out.

9781843838982I was completely surprised this morning by an article in the Wall Street Journal reviewing a new book: Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande, by Stephen Lloyd. Although I was aware Lloyd had been researching Lambert, I didn’t realize that the book was due out. I ordered a copy immediately.

This isn’t the only book on Lambert. Richard Shead wrote the first biography in 1973 – it was good, but rather brief, and probably constrained as to what he could say, as many of those featured in it were still alive. Poet Andrew Motion published a much larger tome – The Lamberts – in 1986, but in that book Constant had to share the limelight with his painter father George and his son Kit (best known as manager of The Who). I haven’t seen Lloyd’s book yet, but the page count (622!), the table of contents and the author’s musical credentials suggest that this will be the most thorough account yet.

My own interest in Lambert dates from a tour I took part in of his Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments (1931) at the University of Keele in the early 1980s – Peter Dickinson was the pianist. I played percussion. The Concerto is a jazz-influenced chamber work that’s savage rather than smooth and with instrumentation influenced as much by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire than by jazz bands – although Lambert was also a huge enthusiast of the music of Duke Ellington. From there I wrote a thesis on Lambert and reconstructed the score of his final ballet Tiresias, which was missing at the time. That work eventually resulted in a performance (in 1996, I think) of Tiresias on Radio 3, organized by Piers Burton Page (the first performance since the early 1950s), and in turn that piqued the interest of David Lloyd Jones, who went on to record the work for Hyperion in 1999. I was lucky enough to be at the recording session in Leeds Town Hall. So I’m really looking forward to reading the new book.