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July - September
2014

Vladimir Ashkenazy on the music of Howard Blake

Vladimir Ashkenazy photo courtesy and copyright Keith Saunders

In speaking of my new recording of Howard Blake’s piano music I must begin by saying I have been so pleased to make this record, for I have known Howard for over forty years and his music is always truly a great joy to play.

My introduction to Howard Blake and to his music came about after a recital I had given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London which was for the centenary of the birth of Alexander Scriabin. Howard came backstage after the recital and told me how much he admired Scriabin’s music, and that he would like to write some piano music for me.

This was of course in 1972, and I was tremendously flattered to learn later that he had written and dedicated some pieces to me; these were the set of Eight Character Pieces, which are included on the record, and which were later incorporated into Howard’s longer ‘Lifecycle’ of 24 pieces, each in a different key.

Howard’s writing for the piano is very idiomatic, and his piano music is obviously written by a composer who has a detailed knowledge of the keyboard – pretty much so, for, as with all genuine composers who write for the piano, there are certain passages in his music which are not quite so pianistic. The same is true of the piano music of Beethoven, for example, and also of Schumann; much of it is wholly pianistic, but there are passages which do not lie so easily under the hands. In those instances, the music takes over, and takes you with it; it may not be so easy to play, but you have to get round it.

Photo: copyright Keith Saunders

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Fritz Reiner on disc

Robert Matthew-Walker

Strauss

The acquisition several decades ago by BMG of both the American Columbia and RCA companies has meant that the resultant combined archive of recordings is truly extensive, and following those mergers we have witnessed some remarkable compilations of legendary recorded performances recently reissued in suitably enticing boxes.

For both of these great American companies, the highly distinguished German-born conductor Fritz Reiner recorded a substantial amount of the orchestral works of Richard Strauss with the two American orchestras of which he was music director – the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1938 to 1948 (for Columbia) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1953 to 1963 (for RCA). Reiner died in November 1963, aged 74.

During those 25 years, that is to say between 1938 and 1963, the recording industry worldwide went through a number of profound changes and developments, chief of which were the launch in 1948 by American Columbia of the long-playing (33? rpm) record, the world-wide acceptance of tape (instead of direct-to-disc) as the sound-carrying system, and the development of stereophonic (twin-channel) recordings. In quite a few instances, these developments led to the re-recording of much repertoire by the same artists, principally in order to take full advantage of the innovations, and the consequential blind acceptance by some music-lovers that the latest recordings (even by the same artists) were necessarily better than earlier ones – sometimes they were better, but not always.

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Dresden Semperoper Celebrations

John Hunt

Dresden Opera

One might have thought that last year’s Richard Wagner celebrations around the musical world would be hard to trump. Not so: in 2014 virtually all of Germany’s major musical centres are marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss – or Richard the Second, as his most fervent admirers are prone to calling him.

Not the least significant events, help not only on the actual birthday (June 11) but also throughout the concert seasons 2013-14 and 2014-15, are those organised by the city and orchestra which the composer held most dearly: Dresden, and its venerable Staatskapelle. This orchestra holds among its former music directors a formidable array of Strauss specialists: Ernst von Schuch, Fritz Busch, Karl Böhm, Joseph Keilberth, Rudolf Kempe, Otmar Suitner and Giuseppe Sinopoli. That tradition now appears to be in excellent hands since Christian Thielemann assumed the post in 2012.

It was of course Thielemann who presided over both the current season’s final subscription concert on June 9 (with the Vier letzte Lieder and Alpensinfonie) as well as the actual birthday concert on June 11 (with orchestral and vocal selections from all of the nine operas which had received their premiere performances in the Saxon capital between 1901 and 1938).

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John McLeod at 80

Conrad Wilson

John McLeod

The Scottish colourists - Peploe, Fergusson, Cadell, Redpath, Gillies, to name five of the finest - are by tradition painters, though in recent years the description has begun to be applied to composers also. Among these, John McLeod at the age of eighty has come to seem suddenly perhaps the most prominent, perceptive and interesting. But why so suddenly?  There is nothing sudden about McLeod’s ability to bring colour to his notes. The colours are there, as they have always been.  The word springs to mind because colour has become so strikingly the direction in which his music is going, with a new acuity and intensity.  It is the meticulousness and precision of everything he does which has brought with it a growing (though admittedly somewhat delayed) recognition by audiences that colour has actually been an aspect of his music all along, even if people have only now started to spot it, define it, and admire it. 

The BBC’s announcement that his orchestral tone poem The Sun Dances is to be given its London premiere at this year’s Albert Hall Proms by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on August 3 is surely a token of this. It will be McLeod’s first major Prom appearance - though Evelyn Glennie played his short percussion piece, The Song of Dionysius, at a Prom in 1989 -   and a timely contribution to his eightieth birthday celebrations.

Yet the reason why the piece, written for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland fourteen years ago, has been selected is surely not only because McLeod, still to some extent something of an unknown quantity in London,  deserves the recognition, but that the tints with which it is set aglow are so strongly and confidently projected. What once may have seemed to be the background of McLeod’s music has here become the foreground, assertive enough to draw attention to itself in a manner that maybe passed you by in earlier works, or at least seemed less dramatically manifest than in this one. 

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Thoughts from the ivory tower Part 2

Jonathan Del Mar

Beethoven

The distinguished musicologist muses over some of the problems in attempting to produce an authoritative edition of Beethoven’s music.

In the last issue we were faced with the dilemma: we have to produce a supposedly 'urtext' full score of the Beethoven piano concertos, yet this is a contradiction in terms, for in Beethoven's day there was no such thing as a full score of a concerto. The way in which he compiled his solo part took the absence of a full score as its starting-point. The solo part is crammed full of information to enable to the soloist to direct the orchestra; information that is sometimes inseparable from the notes of the solo part itself. In other words, the soloist might be approaching a perfect cadence which ushers in the next tutti passage, but the last notes of the solo are the dominant chord; he is left hanging off the edge of the cliff, for the tonic downbeat is no more than 'information', a mere bass line, and on top, a woodwind cue. Editions hitherto have simply invented a suitable tonic chord which might satisfyingly round the passage off.

I think we have to wipe the slate clean, go back in time, and make the solo part look exactly as Beethoven conceived it. Instead of supplying the soloist, as has been customary for the last hundred years, with only a two-piano copy in which the second piano has a piano arrangement of the orchestral parts, we need a solo piano part identical (except for the misprints!) to that originally published under Beethoven's supervision. Only a distinction in the size of notes tells the player which passages are solo (large notes), and which are in fact a continuo bass plus melody line or cues on top (small notes).

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The forgotten genius of Gavriil Popov

Gregor Tassie

Gavriil Popov

The latest in the author’s series of articles on little-known Russian composers of the twentieth-century.

In the infamous Zhdanov affair of 1948, the inclusion of Gavril Popov together with Myaskovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich surprised many; yet Popov had already been in the firing line. Twenty years previously, Prokofiev wrote to Diaghilev enthusiastically naming Popov among the most promising of all the new composers, together with Shostakovich and Mosolov. Popov’s First Symphony became the first musical composition to be banned for being ideologically incompatible in the Soviet Union.

Gavriil Nikolayevich Popov was born into a family of teachers in the Don Cossack centre of Novocherkassk on 12 September 1904. When Gavriil was three years old, the family moved to Rostov on Don where his father worked as a teacher of Russian and logic and psychology; after 1917, he became director of a college and lectured at Rostov University. Nikolay Popov played violin, sang, conducted and composed for church choir. It was for his religious beliefs that he was arrested in 1921. At six years Gavriil’s mother gave him his first music lessons, and he quickly displayed outstanding talents. By the age of nine he was accepted as a pupil by Professor Pressman at the Don Conservatoire. In 1915 Gavriil gave his first public recital – launching a dynamic career in which he played both solo and chamber recitals all over Russia. After the October Revolution he began composing, guided by Pressman and Mikhail Gnessin.

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“To Wonderful Hugh Bean with Admiration”

Hugh Bean

Nathan Milstein’s inscription on a signed photograph for the great violinist Hugh Bean who is remembered, ten years after his death, by Paul Gray

Milstein’s adjective aptly encapsulates Hugh Bean’s musicianship and personality. Although the obituaries and tributes after he died on Boxing Day in 2003 were warm and apposite, it is now timely to put into perspective his achievements in the fields of leader, soloist, chamber musician and teacher - in all of which he conspicuously excelled.

In March 1967 he was nearing the end of his tremendous ten years as leader of the Philharmonia, which had become the New Philharmonia in 1964. EMI was beginning to record its cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, and the NPO was the first orchestra involved. Sir Adrian realised he was not going to use all the allocated time for the 6th Symphony so, a couple of days before the last session, asked Hugh if he would like to record The Lark Ascending as a filler. He confessed to not knowing the piece so took the two days off to learn it. The result is still the definitive recording, now digitally remastered in various CD guises and as a download.

That anecdote exemplifies Hugh’s character and career. No grand plans, no faux celebrity status, no self-aggrandisement – just the consummate professional artist, usually in the right place at the right time.

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Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 80

Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Malcolm Miller

Reflections on the Study Day at the Barbican and BCMG Concert at Milton Court.

The thrilling resonance of the soprano Katrien Baerts accompanied by the Birmingham New Music Group under the charismatic direction of Oliver Knussen regaled a large audience at Milton Court on Sunday May 25 in a superb concert to celebrate Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday. Spanning more than five decades of Birtwistle’s career, the programme featured core works such as Tragoedia (1965) and Silbury Air (1977) alongside less familiar gems, all received with white-hot enthusiasm.

The music gained in richness following a fascinating day of talks shedding light on Birtwistle’s achievement. In the first of four presentations in the morning Symposium presented by the Institute of Musical Research (University of London), Dr Heather Wiebe (Kings College, London) explored the reception of Punch and Judy in 1968 Aldeburgh, and its iconoclastic impact in the context of the avant-garde and increasingly music theatrical orientation of the time, especially in the work of Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, fellow ‘Manchester school’ composers.

Arnold Whittall considered the symbolism of ‘night’ and melancholy in Birtwistle’s late style, the encounter with European sources such as Paul Celan in Pulse Shadows (1991-6) , and with the German (Dürer) as well as English Renaissance (Dowland and John Daniel), evinced in more recent works like Shadow of Night (2001) and Night’s Black Bird (2004). Whittall’s fascinating discussion underlined contrasts between Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies, a concern for transcendent states of mind rather than political activism, as evidenced in recent settings of David Harsent’s libretti; central to Birtwistle’s style was a sense of mystery.

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