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July - September
2015

Christoph Eschenbach at 75 – a personal appreciation

Helmut Schmidt

eschenbach

The former Chancellor of West Germany, himself a gifted pianist, writes on his reminiscences on the occasion of the presentation of the Ernest von Siemens Music Prize to Christoph Eschenbach on May 31 at the Herkulessaal in Munich.

Music is a form of expression that people all over the world understand. And almost everywhere in the world people love European music. The music of Europe constitutes a single one-of-a-kind continuum, it doesn't require the complex, nationally determined medium of language. For this reason, it enables musicians and listeners alike to forget the conflicts of their inheritance and of their day-to-day lives.

My love for music was encouraged early on, when I was in school. It is probably for this reason that I, in the course of my career as a politician and a private individual, valued the opportunity to encounter members of the international music community. Many left a lasting impression on me. I'd like to mention Herbert von Karajan, a brilliant artist with whom one could discuss God and the world. Or Leonard Bernstein, who was a music educator as much as he was a musician. Or Yehudi Menuhin, who was both a musician and a model of morals. Or the incredibly vital Kurt Masur, a wonderful Kapellmeister as well as an imposing figure, also in the political sphere. Or the wonderful conductor Daniel Barenboim, who brings musicians from conflicting societies together and gives them a forum to make music together. Or Kent Nagano, who will be coming to Hamburg in 2016. The list could go on and on.

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The Dangerous Urtext Edition

manuscript

Jonathan Del Mar

The distinguished musicologist and editor outlines some problems in deciphering composers’ manuscripts.

In this technological age, when more and more material and information is available at the click of a mouse and with no necessity even to open the wallet, it is curious that demand for new, scholarly Urtext Editions remains healthily high. Musicians are continually searching to reach ever closer to the composer's true intentions, and hungrily seize on the latest version of the text that aims to render these intentions more faithfully than any previous edition.

But there is a danger in providing musicians with the text as the composer literally wrote it. Every composer assumed a set of norms which for him were absolute basics; but another composer would have slightly different norms, assigning a slightly different meaning to many of the same symbols. Hence the proliferation of early 20th-century edited versions, in which norms were standardized so as to communicate the generally-accepted meaning to the widest audience of musicians of all ages and cultures.

 

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The Art of the Bassoon – ‘The instrument I love’

Robert Thompson

The Art of the Bassoon

The distinguished American bassoonist writes about and introduces a new collection of his best-known recordings. James Palmer reviews the accompanying set of Robert Thompson’s recorded performances.

The bassoon has been with us for approximately 400 years, dating back to an instrument called the shawm, popular in medieval times. Over the years it has developed technically as well as dividing into bassoon and its lower pitched version, the contra bassoon. As concert halls got larger in the 1800s, there were increasing demands for instruments to produce more volume and for players to possess increasingly virtuoso techniques. This spurred the development of an instrument with a larger bore and additional keys to meet tonal and harmonic challenges. And so the bassoon as we would recognise it today began to appear, as it figured more and more prominently in orchestral and chamber music literature.

The instrument is known for its distinctive, dark tone colour, wide range and variety of character. But as many composers have discovered, from Vivaldi and Mozart to Bax, Panufnik and Andriessen, the bassoon can also be extremely expressive as a solo instrument and its warm colours enable it to sound remarkably like a human voice.

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Winterreise - eine Reise durch psychologische Unbehagen

Schubert

Angela James

The author postulates a twenty-first century approach to Schubert’s masterpiece and Wilhelm Muller’s texts.

Recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise proliferate, their interpretative slants highlighting lost love, evoking isolation and loneliness, retreating into melancholy, disintegrating into madness, waging a dramatic battle against fate, and so on. While such slants can provide very different experiences for the listener they share preoccupations with the individual and his emotional state, in line with the Romantic movement of which Schubert was an early exponent.

But innumerable critics and performers have pointed out that Winterreise is as relevant to the 21st century as to early 19th century Romanticism, so one can ask how far this can be reflected in its interpretation. Samuel Beckett’s name is often linked with the cycle – does he offer a route? The playwright’s fascination with the cycle is well-documented, but the resemblances are superficial; most Beckettian characters are engaged in an unequal struggle against a hostile world rather than being preoccupied with personal grievances, their behaviour being pretty much the antithesis of the Romantic norm.

Nevertheless, Wilfgang Holzmair and Andreas Haeflinger’s 2009 recording for Capriccio seems to move towards closing the gap (probably not intentionally!), one striking similarity being the flexible tempos. Beckett, who thought of his texts as music, gave precise indications for speeds and timing; and Holzmair responds to the Winterreise text in a way that is uncannily evocative of the rhythms in a Beckett play, rushing here, slowing up there, pausing, settling down to a steady pace before realising that his latest hope is in fact illusory.

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The String Quartets of Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen

Lewis Wolstanholme

Our celebration of the Danish master’s 150th birthday continues with an exploration of his often-overlooked string quartets.

Carl August Nielsen is known throughout Denmark as one of the nation’s greatest composers. His prolific career covers a range of genres that includes operas, solo instrumental works and a catalogue of symphonies; the latter being by which he is best recognised today. However, it is his chamber music, in particular his string quartets, that highlight the full spectrum of Nielsen’s talents, and in parallel, portray his growth as an important artistic force of the later romantic generation.

Nielsen was born on June 9th 1865 and grew up on the Danish island of Funen. His house was adorned with an ever-singing mother, a brass-playing father, and an old harpsichord that the family used as the dining table. These immediate surroundings encouraged him as a musically inquisitive child, and so, prompted by this attribute, his parents gave him a violin at the age of 6 whilst he was ill in bed with measles.

One of Nielsen’s earliest compositions is a miniature Polka for solo violin, highlighting not only his interest in composition from the age of 12, but a favourable attitude towards string writing.

At the age of 14, Nielsen earned a position as bugler and brass player in a local military band. While here, he had his first experiences playing in large ensembles, but also kept up his violin training, taking part in amateur gatherings to play the quartets of Mozart, Haydn, Pleyel and George Onslow. These gatherings shaped his early sense of quartet writing, which, as we shall soon see, influenced some of the defining features of his earliest works using this instrumentation.

 

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The Problem of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony

Robert Matthew-Walker

Bruckner

The facts surrounding Bruckner’s incomplete Ninth Symphony are well known, and constitute one of the great tragedies in the history of music. The unprecedented success Bruckner enjoyed with his Seventh Symphony, following the first performance by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Artur Nikisch on December 30, 1884, motivated the composer to continue and complete his Eighth, which he had begun the previous July. It took him just over a year to have the new symphony fully drafted, by August 1885, and another twenty months before the work was finally complete in full score, during which time Bruckner had changed the order of the two middle movements, placing the Scherzo second and the slow movement third.

Following Nikisch’s success with the Seventh, it was taken up by Herman Levi, who achieved an even greater triumph for Bruckner with the work: secure in his belief that in Levi he had found the ideal interpreter for his music, Bruckner sent him the newly completed Eighth, hoping that Levi would premiere it. But the nature of the Eighth Symphony is quite different from that of the Seventh, and Levi found himself almost totally out of sympathy with the character of Bruckner’s latest Symphony. He told Bruckner directly, in a letter, of his considerable reservations, and actually suggested that Bruckner revise the music. Bruckner must have known in his heart that in the Eighth Symphony he had achieved his greatest work, and – as we may imagine - Levi’s rejection of the score must have come as a body-blow to the ever-sensitive composer.

So it was that the conductor’s repudiation of the Symphony produced a long period of profound self-doubt in Bruckner: by that time, he had already begun work on a Ninth Symphony, in the sense that he had written down ideas that were to grow into what we have of the work, but Levi’s rejection of the Eighth and his suggestion that that work might benefit from revision caused Bruckner to abandon any further work on the Ninth – or, indeed, for a time abandon any work on his own music - and instead to enter into a period of several years during which time he revised the Eighth several times, eventually producing a new version of the work with a completely different coda to the first movement. The original score of 1887 remained unperformed until 1973, when it was played in a BBC broadcast conducted by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler. The Eighth was not the only symphony that Bruckner revised during those years: he also made new versions of several of his earlier symphonies –some of the revisions, including that of the Third, being quite extensive, and that of the Second Symphony being made as late as 1892.

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Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-72)

His Life & Music

Roger Sacheverell Coke

By Simon Callaghan

Derbyshire-born pianist Roger George Sacheverell Coke was also a prolific composer whose oeuvre includes solo piano, chamber music, songs and a significant body of orchestral works (symphonies, tone poems and concerti). From a very young age it is clear that music was his one great love and he devoted his life to the perfection of his art. Sadly however, his works have disappeared into the abyss – a fate suffered by so many English composers perhaps due to the powerful popularity of the ‘greats’ being so overwhelming – and it is only in recent years that Coke’s music has begun to be uncovered. His archive, consisting mostly of manuscript scores but also including two meticulously compiled albums of newspaper articles and reviews of his performances, is held at Chesterfield Library in Derbyshire. The British Library holds the only surviving recordings of broadcasts, the first of the 2nd Cello Sonata in C Op.29 by Alexander Baillie and Piers Lane and the second of two Preludes from Op.33, played live in concert by Maura Lympany (at the suggestion of Gordon Clark, Director of Music) at Abbotsholme School in 1970. The studio recording I made in August 2014 of the Preludes Opp.33 & 34 coupled with the 15 Variations & Finale in C minor Op.37 was the first commercial recording of any of the composer’s piano works, joining Rupert Marshall-Luck’s release of the First Violin Sonata in D minor Op.46 in launching the rediscovery of this unjustly neglected music.

Born in Alfreton, Derbyshire on October 20th 1912, Roger was the son of Lieutenant Langton Sacheverell Coke of the Irish Guards who lost his life at the first battle of Ypres only just over a week after his son’s second birthday. Roger inherited the family estate, Brookhill Hall (in Pinxton, Derbyshire) and lived there from this point on with his mother and his sister’s governess, Julie Baud. While his elder sister (born 1909) was sent for lessons in the village, the ‘man of the house’ as he now was, was enrolled at Eton College (from 1926-30) where he was a dedicated contributor to the debating society, played cricket for the school and was often to be found late at night composing under the bed sheets. At Eton, he was also able to immerse himself in a thriving music department where his own teacher Dr. Henry Ley gave frequent organ recitals, visiting quartets performed a wide range of repertoire (with works by Franck being particularly in vogue) and fellow students including none other than Roger Quilter and George Butterworth gave first performances of their own works. During his time at Eton, Coke performed in public for the first time selections from his 24 Preludes – a work that was to be very important to the composer throughout his life. He won prizes for piano performance and sight-reading for three consecutive years from 1926.

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Ferruccio Busoni - The Six Sonatinas: An Artist’s Journey 1909-1920

Jeni Slotchiver

Ferruccio Busoni

Part I of an in-depth appreciation of these greatly significant piano works.

The Six Sonatinas, written between 1910 and 1921, are Busoni’s finest and most compelling collection of compositions. Although they are not programmatic in any aspect, the set tells a cohesive story of an artist’s journey. These are deeply personal, quasi-autobiographical compositions: Each Sonatina serves as chronicle, and marks a gathering and culmination of Busoni’s spiritual searchings and growth. Fluid and timeless, the Sonatinas also encompass Busoni’s temporal world. Beginnings and departures are marked. They are a diary of contentment, of aggressive experimentation, of the war and chaos, and peace and reconciliation. The Sonatinas are contemplative works, and although all end softly, they are unreservedly expressive, with abundant contrasts and highly developed instrumental writing. The Sonatinas are also premonitory; they foretell Busoni’s orchestral and operatic language as it expands, evolves, and crystalizes.

Busoni writes to his wife, Gerda, from Colorado Springs: “No year in my life has been so full up as this one which is just over: the richest in work, experiences and achievements - and I feel that I am still going upwards. Everything good, my Gerda, is with us.” The date is 1 April, 1910, and the composer marks his 44th birthday surveying a year of fertile and extravagant artistic discovery.

In December 1908, Busoni composes the sparkling miniature for piano, Nuit de Noël, as a musical offering to the New Year. He often acknowledges Christmases, New Years, and other important dates with musical works. Nuit de Noël is a masterpiece of color and style, an auspicious beginning for the New Year. After completing his concert tours in 1909, Busoni begins one of his most prolific and intense periods of artistic achievement. From June until October 1909, his efforts appear impossible:

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