Friday, April 01, 2005
My first classical record
What was the first classical record you bought? Mine was an LP of Karajan conducting Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the 'Pathetique', with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon 13892SLPM. I bought it in 1969 from a music shop in Reading where I was at University. The shop had listening booths with acoustic tiles, and it sold sheet music, musical instruments, and classical records.
The LP is playing as I write. I have just serviced my Thorens TD125 turntable with SME arm (a capacitor in the motor control circuit blew after 30 years) seen below. The LP sound through my Arcam Alpha 10 amplifier and B & W Nautilus 803 speakers is magnificent, when the planets are aligned beneficially vinyl can still deliver a musicality that surpasses CD. (Thankfully I have kept my LP collection, and the surfaces are immaculate apart from the inevitable pressing blemishes).
What overgrown path led me to buy that LP of the 'Pathetique'? Well, I can answer that question quite easily. Some years previously I had been taken by my parents, while on holiday, to hear Tchaikovsky 6th played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. The conductor was a dynamic young Singaporean maestro Choo Hoey. (Googling for Choo Hoey pulls up references to a conductor active in the Far East, could this be the same one? - I must have seeen him more than forty years ago).
Did that early hearing of Tchaikovsky 6 burn irreversible patterns into my neural networks a la Mozart Effect? Did the B minor key signature programme me towards an near obsession for Masses in minor keys in general, and Bach's masterpiece in particular? Was it that adiogio lamentoso last movement that inclined me towards the melancholic of the Four Temparaments? (Post coming up, time permitting, on a CD called the Four Temparaments - no not Carl Nielsen - it is an excellent new release from the innovative viol consort Phantasm, and it includes a setting for viols of the Byrd 4 Part Mass!)
Could it have been that brooding Siegfried Lauterwasser cover photograph of Karajan (this link gives an interesting perspective on Lauterwasser, who was HvK's 'court' photographer) that headed me towards a career that took me from the BBC, and then to EMI where I worked on some of Karajan's projects including his recording of Debussy's operatic masterpiece Pelleas et Melisande? That project summed up the Karajan conundrum completely, sublime music making and an odious personality. My favourite Karajan story is about when he was conducting at Bayreuth with Hans Knappertsbusch. There were just two lavatories at the end of a long corridor backstage. Karajan's personal secretary, it is said, put a notice on one, 'For the exclusive use of Herr Karajan'. An hour later a notice appeared on the other one written by Knappertsbusch, 'For all the other arseholes'.
I was also involved with others in the Karajan circle. When Walter Legge died in 1979 I created an exhiibition at short notice for the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in London. Legge's wife Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (below) viewed the exhibition before a Philharmonia Orchestra memorial concert, and complained to me that I had described Legge in the display as an 'entrepreneur.' Now I have often been wrong in my choice of words, but in that instance I am convinced I was dead right.
But the path didn't just lead me to Karajan and his circle . My second LP was Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic in Holst's Planet Suite (A strange choice, the reading with its odd tempi has long since been deleted). Haitink resoundingly disproves the rule that you need an odious personality to be a great conductor. (And also Colin Davis - interesting he has no 'personal' web site, this is a quote from the article I've linked to.. I detest all that charisma stuff. It leads to unmusical things like the pursuit of power. The older I get, the more wary I am of power. It is a beastly ingredient in our society - he said that in 1990!).
I lunched once with Haitink in the staff refectory at Glyndebourne to seek approval for the cover design of his recording of the Brahms Double Concerto with Perlman and Rostropovich (approval was given without a hint of the vanity and petulance cultivated by Riccardo Muti and others). In those days conductors had cover approval in their contracts, nowadays they have to start their own record labels to make a recording. While driving down to Glyndebourne I had been listening to Previn's first (and by far the best) recording of Walton's First Symphony on RCA. I suggested that Haitink looked at the score, and he subsequently recorded it for EMI. It wasn't a great commercial success, it was a lesson in leaving A & R planning to the professionals. (But I do remember suggesting that Previn recorded the Korngold Violin Concerto and Symphony in F sharp in the 1980s, only to be told he wouldn't touch film music. It is amazing how principles adapt to economics). Haitink later did go on to record a fine cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies for EMI after I left. I am always puzzled as to why this fine conductor never plays or records Sibelius. With his achievements recording Bruckner I have always thought Haitink would be a natural Sibelian - give me one Sibelius symphony for every ten of Shostakovich!
The Vaughan William symphonies leads me on to another musical giant whose path briefly crossed mine, Sir Adrian Boult. But that will have to wait until another post.....
If you enjoyed this post you may enjoy Downfall - and the mystery of Karajan's personal photographer