Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Berlin Philharmonic is in superlative shape

I read your report on Simon Rattle and his attackers with surprise and dismay (Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic failing to thrill, says critic, May 25). Contrary to what is said by a few critics, the Berlin Philharmonic is in superlative shape. Of course it is not a carbon copy of Karajan's or Abbado's orchestra. While it has fully retained its richness in Romantic symphonies, it has opened itself up to contemporary as well as to 18th-century music in a novel way. How one likes one's Mozart remains an individual matter; there should, however, be few conductors who would want it to sound like Karajan's.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure to play seven concerts with Simon. I can only say that I have never heard any playing surpass that of the BPO in the three glorious performances of Mahler's Fourth Symphony I was able to hear. In every section of the orchestra there was the same amazing quality, refinement and commitment. The same goes, in recent years, for performances by Simon of Schubert's Great C-Major Symphony and Brahms' Second, among others. Our partnership in Beethoven's Fourth Concerto at the recent Salzburg Easter Festival was what most soloists can only dream of. The orchestra's visit to New York this January, presenting four different programmes in a row, was a huge success, as well as a personal triumph for Simon. There, and at the Salzburg Easter Festival, I can testify for the rapture of the public and the complete dedication of the orchestra to its music director.

I remember the times when it was chic in Germany to look down on Karajan. Likewise, a press campaign against Claudio Abbado that claimed he had failed to rejuvenate the ageing orchestra, made him start packing his bags. In reality, he did bring a lot of excellent young players in, an effort brilliantly continued by Simon. After Abbado's long absence, he has been repeatedly received at his Berlin visits as a demi-god. The journalist who asked Simon whether he was failing to live up to his predecessors should, both for his lack of manners and his lack of better judgment, rather than be quoted, hide in shame.


Alfred Brendel, London
From today's Guardian letters

Image credit - Rombaux.be . Any copyrighted material on these pages is includedin "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to
Vienna Philharmonic in perpetual motion

In Memoriam Kenneth Ryder

"Whereas at the east end there is the altar, lectern and pulpit, each symbolizing in its own way the means of Grace, so at the west end there is a visual and aural expression of man's need to respond to that grace."

These were the words of Kenneth Ryder, organist at the 15th century church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich. He was speaking of the wonderful new organ (see photo above) built in 1984 by Peter Collins for his church. Kenneth Ryder was the driving force behind the three manual Werkprinzip instrument which is modeled faithfully on the organs of northern Germany, and is ideally suited to the works of Bach and other baroque composers. There is mechanical action throughout, and all the sections of the instrument are unenclosed.

Just as the organ of St Peter Mancroft is part of the 18th century Germany musical tradition, so Kenneth Ryder (right) was a direct descendant of the Kappelmeisters of Bach’s day. He saw music as an integral part of the liturgy, was tireless in his roles of organist and teacher, and made wonderful commercial recordings on his beloved organ in St Peter Mancroft. His house in the Cathedral Close in Norwich had an organ in the music room used for teaching and practice, and his New Year's Day Bach recitals were a fixture in the musical life of Norwich.

The following biographical informtion is taken from the sleeve notes for The Organ of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (Merlin Audio 97009CD nla). Kenneth Ryder was born and educated in London. At the age of twelve he became a Junior Exhibitioner at the Royal Academy of Music. As a senior student he studied piano for five years with Vivian Langrish, who had a profound musical influence on him, and organ with Douglas Hawkridge. He held two organ posts in London before coming to St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich in 1963.

Kenneth Ryder gave organ recitals in many European countries as well as Canada. His experience with historically important continental organs resulted in a very close collabaration with Peter Collins in the design and specification of the St Peter Mancroft organ, which in 1984, was for him the fulfilment of twenty years' standing. He was Organist and Master of the Music at St Peter's, and took part in numerous ITC and BBC television and radio broadcasts from the church.

He was responsible over the years for the training and upbringing of dozens of young musicians (left) who are now full-time in the profession both in the UK and abroad. He regarded the nurturing of young talent as the most important aspect of his work in Norwich, where he was much in demand as a teacher of both organ and piano, as well as accompanist, adjudicator, conductor and performer. He appeared regularly in the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

Kenneth Ryder retired last autumn to Aylsham, and died on 28th May 2006 after a short illness. There can be no more fitting memorial than the organ of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich.

Image credits - Orgwebs.net. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to
Bach at St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hitler's court composer was Harvard alumnus

In Leni Riefenstahl's celebrated film of the 1934 Nazi Nuremberg there is a chilling sequence as Hitler and the other leading Nazis pass through the massed ranks of the Deutsche Arbeiterfront (German Labor Front). The soundtrack for this sequence captures a military band playing Deutsche Largo, a march from the same composer as Junge Marschiert (Youth Marches), which was played as the combined forces of the dreaded SA and SS paraded down Wilhelmstraße in Berlin on January 30th, 1933 to celebrate Hitler's appointment as Chancellor.

'Hitler's Piano Player' is a new book that tells the remarkable story of the composer of these marches. Ernst Hanfstaengl was a German who was educated at Harvard, and lived in America through the First World War before moving to Germany where he worked closely with Hitler as head of the Nazi foreign press bureau. Then, in an extraordinary example of poacher turning gamekeeper he fled the fascist regime, eventially moving to the US to lead an anti-Nazi psychological warfare project for his friend, president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Ernst Hanfstaengl, (known as "Putzi"), was born in Munich in 1887, the son of a wealthy and famous German art publisher and an American mother. He spent most of his early years in Germany before moving to the United States to study at Harvard where his circle included members of the Roosevelt family, Hamilton Fish and T.S. Eliot. During his time at Harvard he also became a cheerleader for the football team and a pianist renown for his spirited performances of Wagner and other martial music. These two unlikely skills were later to heavily influence his stage-management of the Nazi rallies.


After graduating Hanfstaengl returned to Germany to perform voluntary military service before studying lithography in Vienna and joining the family art publishing business in Munich. In 1911 he returned to America to run the prestigous family owned Galerie Hanfstaengl on Fifth Avenue. Hanfstaengl remained in the US through the duration of the First World War, but following his mariage and birth of a son (whose godfather was to be one Adolf Hitler) returned to Germany in 1921.

Chance took Hanfstaengl to the Kindkeller in Munich in November 1922 to hear an unknown politician speak. The speaker was Hitler, and Hanfstaengl fell under his spell and quickly became a close friend and advisor to the future dictator, the photo below shows him with Hitler. Hanfstaengl became one of the earliest political 'spin doctors', and his bizarre achievements included allegedly devising the Sieg Heil chant, and financing the publication of Mein Kampf. His musical talents appealed to Hitler, and for years he was personal pianist to the Fuhrer specialising in spirited renditions of Wagner and Liszt. Hanfstaengl recalled that "I must have played Tristan und Isolde hundreds of times, and Hitler couldn't have enough of it, it did him good physically .. he chuckled with pleasure".

Hanfstaengl's own compositions included the marches Deutscher Föhn and Deutschland Trauert, and the monumental Volkschoral Hymne an das Deutsche Erbe (People's Hymn to the German Past). In 1932 he was assistant producer and composer for a film based on a book by Hanns Heinz Ewers. The subject was the life of the martyred Nazi, Horst Wessel, who had been murdered by communists in 1930. It was the Deutsche Largo from this score which caught Hitler's ear, the dictator commanded that it should be used at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, where it was captured for posterity in Leni Riefenstahl's film.

Below is An Overgrown Path Leni Riefenstahl photo exclusive - this may just be the first time that this photo has been published in context. It was taken inside Luipold Hall at the 1935 Nuremberg Rally. I discovered the photo last year when I was researching my article on the Siegfried Lauterwasser Collection, and Andy Eskind who catalogued the photo archive at George Eastman House in Rochester identified the cinematographer visible centre-right in the photo below as Leni Riefenstahl. The Triumph of Will was filmed the previous year, Riefenstahl was apparently in Nuremberg in 1935 working on another project.


In 1934 Hanfstaengl visited Harvard to attend the twenty-fifth anniversary reunion of his class, a visit that was surrounded by controversey and anti-Nazi demonstrations. He brought with him a bust of his favourite composer Gluck, which he planned to present to Harvard's music department. The planned gift met with little enthusiasm, although it was finally reluctantly accepted by the department's head, and composer, Edward Burlingame Hill. While Hanfstaengl was in Harvard the Nazis murdered more than 200 senior Nazis including SA leader Ernst Röhm, in the infamous 'Knight of the Long Knives' on June 30th, 1934. It was this event that sparked Hanfstaengl's disillusionment with the Nazis, and his subsequent activities included helping 'non-Aryan' violinist Fritz Kreisler to recover his confiscated property. Hanfstaengl progressively fell out of favour with Hitler and was branded 'not politically reliable'


Finally in 1937, in fear of his life, he chose an evening when Hitler, Göring and Goebells were attending a Berlin Philharmonic concert conducted by Furtwängler to cross the border into Switzerland. In Zurich he fitted in a consultation with Carl Jung before moving to to England where he was interned at the outbreak of war, and formed a piano quartet in his detention camp. With a German invasion a real possibility enemy aliens were moved to Canada, and Hanfstaengl spent further time in detention reading the Bible simultaneously in English, Greek, Latin, French, German and Dutch, and comparing the quality of the translations. When this exercise was completed he moved on to the Koran. He was finally transferred to the custody of the fledgling US government Office of Strategic Services, the wartime intelligence-gathering service that was replaced in 1947 by the CIA.


Hanfstaengl was moved to Virginia and installed in Bush Hill, a secluded property some twenty-five miles outside Washington. Here he was the star of Roosevelt's 'S-Project' which provided the White House with biographical information on four hundred top Nazis, analyses of Hitler's speeches, and a detailed dossier covering Hitler's psychological condition, education and sex life. This dossier also contained Hanfstaengl's observations on Hitler's musical tastes. As noted previously Tristan was a favourite, while Meistersinger was preferred when the Fuhrer was facing adversity. Hitler's adoration for Wagner also meant that he apparently knew the libretto of Lohengrin by heart. As well as Wagner, Verdi and selected Chopin and Richard Strauss Hitler also enjoyed Liszt and Grieg. The dictator's musical dislikes tell us more about him than his likes - he disliked Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

In an even more bizarre development the US intelligence service arranged for Hanfstaengl to record a piano recital of Debussy and his own works interspersed with appeals for Hitler to sue for peace. CBS pressed thousands of copies of the recital as a single-sided phonograph record. These were then dropped by parachute over Germany addressed to the Nazi leaders, with instructions that the packages be delivered unopened to the addressees - I wonder how many of the brittle shellac discs survived the parachute drop?. The recording of the recital was also beamed to Germany from a radio transmitter here in East Anglia where I write these words.


Eventually Hanfstaengl lost his appeal for Roosevelt's intelligence experts, and he was returned to England, from where he was transferred to a former punishment and starvation camp in Germany. He was released in 1946, but still had to undergo the mandatory denazification process. His final years were spent in Germany, where the publication of his memoirs in 1970, the continued controversy caused by his Harvard connections, and a stormy private life ensured he remained in the public eye. Ernst Hanfstaengl died in Munich in November 1975 aged eighty-eight.

Peter Conradi's excellent life of Hanfstaengl ends with his death. But there is a fascinating coda to this extraordinary story, where fact is often far stranger than fiction. On the penultimate page of Conradi's book the author writes: '(Hanfstaengl) took great pride in his grandchildren - especially Eynon, the eldest, who had inherited his grandfather's musical talent, taking an impressive twenty-fourth place in the prestigous Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in June 1974.' The pianist career of the junior Hanfstaengl seem to have been obscured by the mists of time, and my researches found no further information on this. But tantalisingly my search found a German German film actor and writer called Eynon Hanfstaengl. One of his acting roles was Count Durkheim in the 1972 movie Ludwig - Requiem Fur einen jungfraulichen Konig. The film is a cinematic requiem for Wagner's patron Ludwig ll of Bavaria, and the music credits include excerpts from Furtwängler's Tristan, and Karajan's Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. Is this Ernst Hanfstaengl's grandson?

* Hitler's Piano Player, The Rise and Fall of Ernst Hanfstaengl, Confidant of Hitler and Ally of FDR by Peter Conradi is published by Duckworth, ISBN 0715633732. The text of this article is drawn from this book, other sources, and my own research. Corrections and additions will be gratefully received, email overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
* All the rarely-seen photographs in this article (which as noted above are of the 1935 Nuremberg Rally) come from the Siegfried Lauterwasser Collection. Read the full story of this extraordinary archive, and see more haunting photographs, in my article Downfall - and the mystery of Karajan's personal photographer.
The photo of Hanfstaengl and Hitler is from Signature Books.
* One of Herbert von Karajan's more memorable excesses is his LP of Prussian and Austrian Marches made with the Berlin Philharmonic. Sadly it doesn't contain anything by Ernst Hanfstaengl, but Gottfried Sonntag's Nibelungen-Marsch is a very adequate substitute. And to preempt a shower of emails, yes, I am aware Karajan passed through the denazification process. But please do read Melissa Muller's commentary on denazification via this link.
* Leni Riefenstahl's famous film of the 'Triumph of the Will' which captures Hanfstaengl's Deutsche Largo is available on DVD.
* Although the Harvard music department's Chairman Edward Burlingame Hill accepted the bust of Gluck from Hanfstaengl there is no suggestion at all that he was in any way sympathetic to the Fascists. Hill was among the first Americans to study composition in Paris, and his innovative compositions signposted the way to many early twentieth-century innovations. He was an enthusiastic champion of French music, and wrote the first English-language study of French music from Chabrier to "Les Six."

With thanks to Garth Trinkl for prompting me to write another article on the Third Reich, and with apologies to Bernard Tuyttens for writing another article on the Third Reich. And special thanks to Carol Murchie whose research helped make the Siegfried Lauterwasser Collection article possible. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Wagner - I don't get to hear anything else

The banning of birdsong

Before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996, I was a professor of engineering at Kabul University for 21 years. They effectively closed the university. Since half the students and 60 per cent of the staff were women, there was not much university left after women were forbidden to work and study. The Taliban prohibited television, cinema, theatre, music, dance, shaving, several sports, kite flying, singing, playing instruments and other aspects of our culture, such as celebrating New Year’s Day (Nowroze). Even the cheeping of birds was against their laws. They banned artwork or photography that showed the faces of living things.

Today, long after the Taliban were supposed to have gone, Afghanistan is moving back to that sort of government again. Nobody was punished for their crimes. Now, they are actively operating once again in the tribal areas of Pakistan – training and exporting terrorists. Yet Pakistan is receiving millions of pounds as an ally against terrorism. We expected that the Karzai government would bring peace, stability and reconstruction to Afghanistan, but instead it is drowning day by day in extensive corruption. Billions of pounds of aid were spent without transparency or accountability, and worse, without any tangible change

From
an article by Abdul Lalzad in the May-June 2006 edition of Catalyst magazine. Abdul Lalzad was a professor of engineering at Kabul University for 21 years, and now teaches at South Bank University, London.


Olivier Messiaen described birdsong as a refuge ... ‘in my darkest hours, when my uselessness is brutally revealed to me’.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to
'Tis the gift to be free

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A campaign no blogger can ignore

Governments still fear dissenting opinion and try to shut it down. While the internet has brought freedom of information to millions, for some it has led to imprisonment by a government seeking to curtail that freedom. They have closed or censored websites and blogs; created firewalls to prevent access to information; and restricted and filtered search engines to keep information from their citizens.

China is perhaps the clearest example. Its internet censorship and clampdown on dissent online is sophisticated and widespread. But Amnesty International has
documented internet repression in countries as diverse as Iran, Turkmenistan, Tunisia, Israel, the Maldives and Vietnam.

Another massive change since 1961 has been the rising power of multinationals, but some companies have been complicit in these abuses. So Amnesty is increasingly lobbying not just governments but powerful firms to respect the rights of ordinary people.

The internet is big business, but in the search for profits some companies have encroached on their own principles and those on which the internet was founded: free access to information. The results of searches using China-based search engines run by Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and local firms are censored, limiting the information users can access. Microsoft pulled down the work of one of China's most popular bloggers who had made politically sensitive comments. Yahoo gave information to the authorities that led to people being jailed for sending emails with political content. We do not accept these firms' arguments that it is better to have a censored Google, Yahoo or Microsoft in China than none at all.


From the article in today's Observer launching Amnesty International's campaign, irrepressible.info, demanding freedom of expression over the internet. The campaign works by websites, myspace pages and blogs spreading the word and undermining unwarranted censorship publishing censored material from Amnesty's database of sources such as Reporters Without Borders.

On An Overgrown Path was one of the first sites to highlight the Chinese internet censorship here, and here, and here. I fully support the Amnesty initiative, and this campaign should also extend to include the widespread censorship of internet content by companies and institutions using web proxy software which was experienced by An Overgrown Path recently.

* More detail on the Amnesty International campaign via this link.

And 12 hours later it is great to see On An Overgrown Path as the lead media story on the business page of a top US web news feed:

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Access denied

Friday, May 26, 2006

BBC TV takes An Overgrown Path

Great to see the official BBC TV website (above) featuring On An Overgrown Path's behind the scenes exclusive on clarinettist Mark Simpson and John Corigliano's concerto. Great for this blog, and great for contemporary music. And I bet it's the only time John Corigliano shares a platform with The Apprentice and Jeremy Clarkson!

Follow this link for the full story of Corigliano, no - Nielsen, yes and a link to a video of Mark Simpson's performance of the Nielsen concerto.


Screen dump - BBC TV. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Quiet celebration with friends ...

Medieval mystics with musical connections


Today we literally follow an overgrown path down a narrow alley in search of a remarkable woman. She was the author of, what is believed to be, the first book written by a woman in the English language, and a thinker who is now venerated alongside such great medieval mystics as Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Antwerp.

After years of blight following severe war damage the area around St Julian's Alley in Norwich is once again a vibrant area. The surviving medieval houses are beautifully restored, new town houses and apartments are filling the vacant lots, entry-phones and security alarms are de rigeur, and the pavements are lined with BMWs and Range Rovers.

Things were very different in the 14th century. St Julian's Alley was within the medieval city walls, and the prosperous port with its thriving wool trade with Europe was a short distance away. The prosperity which made Norwich England's second city after London was celebrated in a profusion of churches, no less than 22 monasteries and convents, and the construction of the magnificent Norman Cathedral.

One of the many churches, St Julian's, was in a narrow alley leading from one of the main thoroughfares, and was one of 37 churches in the city with an attached anchorage; this was a small cell built against the wall of the church in which an anchorite or anchoress followed his or her vow of living a solitary existence. The anchorage at St Julian's was occupied by a woman, and, as was the tradition, the anchoress took the name of the church, which explains why many people today still think Julian was a man. My photo below shows the rebuilt anchorage on the east wall in the peaceful churchyard surrounded by the bustle of the city centre.


Julian of Norwich had a mystical revelation in May 1373 when she was critically ill. Following her recovery she wrote The Revelations of Divine Love over a 20 year period living as an anchoress. Julian was a contemporary of Chaucer and wrote in Middle English which means all today's editions are 'translations'. A pioneering edition published in 1901 brought her writings to popular attention, and their importance was confirmed by a Penguin edition in 1966. The Revelation of Divine Love is now regarded as a spiritual classic throughout the world, and has never been out of print over a 106 year period.


Julian's cell was destroyed during the Reformation, and the church was severely damaged by a direct hit by a bomb in 1942. After the war the church was rebuilt, and the cell was reconstructed on foundations discovered during earlier excavations, and my photo above is of the shrine in the cell. The restoration of the church, which is still accessed by the original narrow alley, was inspired by the sisters of the Community of All Hallows, Ditchingham. Today Julian's cell, the main church, and the nearby Julian Centre draw pilgrims from all around the world, and there is a flourishing contemplative Order of Julian of Norwich in Southern Wisconsin.

Now playing - Roger Mayor's choral work Julian - Mystical revelations. Hildegard of Bingen is the medieval mystic with the musical reputation, but Roger Mayor's 2002 composition is a very worthwhile addition to the catalogue with its settings of Julian of Norwich's writings. There is an excellent commercial recording made in Norwich Cathedral with the fine Keswick Hall Choir and soloists conducted by John Aplin. Norfolk based Roger Mayor (above) studied under Dr Paul Steinitz, and is best known for his sacred compositions. The hour long Julian - Mystical revelations is more Rutter than MacMillan, but the tuneful score does an excellent job in bringing Julian's writings to a new audience. The CD is available from Prelude Records.

* Revelations of Divine Love can be read online via this link.

* Follow this link for the Penguin edition of Revelations of Divine Love.
* In Search of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn (Dartman, Longman & Todd ISBN 0232518408) provides an excellent introduction.
* Julian of Norwich shrine website via this link.
* Fiona Maddock's Hildegard of Bingen - the Woman of Her Age is highly recommended. (Image ISBN 0385498683). This is the book that inspired contemporary composer James Wood's exciting, and avant garde, choral work that I wrote about in Hildegard comes to Norwich via IRCAM and Darmstadt.
* Canticles of Ecstacy is a wonderful CD of Marian antiphons, sequences and responsories sung by Sequentia. The Hildegard industry was started by Hyperion's A feather on the breath of god, read Paying the piper for an interesting slant on that best-selling recording.

All photos by Pliable and copyright On An Overgrown Path. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to The music of Taizé

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Berlin Philharmonic plays inconsequentially

While Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Berlin Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband - Alex Bruggerman in Die Welt am Sonntag on Rattle's Cosi fan Tutte.

Read how the German critics are sharpening their teeth on Sir Simon before turning on the England football team in next month's soccer World Cup in Simon Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic failing to thrill in today's Guardian.

Image credit - BBC . Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Now Hyperion discovers a French Eric Whitacre

Within days of writing my article on the surprise sales of Cloudburst, the CD of Eric Whitacre's choral music, another very interesting new release from Hyperion arrived. It was sent by those eagle-eared folks at leading classical store Prelude Records who think Hyperion may have found a Gallic Eric Whitacre, and having listened to this new CD of Pierre Villette's choral music I believe they may be right. (Photo above shows Pierre Villette flanked by Henri Dutilleux [left] and Witold Lutoslawski [right]).

Pierre Villette is not totally unknown here in the UK. His choral music was championed by Dr Donald Hunt in the 1970s when he was director of Worcester Cathedral Choir, and Villette's Hymne à la vierge, which is probably his best known work, has been performed in the annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge. Choirs in the US, Japan and Germany are also familiar with Villette's compositions. But strangely he has never been widely performed in his native France, probably because he held regional positions in a country where artistic life is dominated by Paris.

Villette was born into a musical family in 1926. He studied with Marcel Dupré before attending the Paris Conservatoire. Pierre Boulez was a fellow student but their careers followed very different paths. In 1957 Villette was appointed director of the Conservatoire in Besancon (left), the capital of the Franche-Comté region. He was dogged by ill-health and had a lung removed while still in his twenties. His health forced him to move from mountainous Besancon to a warmer climate, and he became director of the Academy at Aix en Provence in 1967. He held this position until he retired in 1987, and he continued to live in Provence until his death in 1998.

Villette's music is a product of a French musical heritage that includes, Fauré and Debussy as well as Poulenc and Messiaen , and of a French cultural legacy that includes Catholicism and the Bendictine Order. Villette was not interested in the avant-garde direction taken by Boulez's circle, instead his music drew on influences as eclectic as Gregorian Chant, medieval music, jazz (he composed an orchestral piece titled Blues) and Stravinsky. His catalogue has eighty-one opus numbers (a full list is available via this link), and he wrote chamber and orchestral music as well as the better known choral works.


Like Eric Whitacre's, Villette's music is fundamentally conservative. It is music of the twentieth century, but whereas Whitacre professes not to be heavily influenced by religion, Villette's choral works are in the sacred tradition. The new Hyperion CD, which is somewhat unadventurously titled Pierre Villette, is a wonderful introduction to his music. It concentrates on the sacred, and includes the beautiful Hymne à la vierge as well as several motets. Parallels with the Whitacre disc abound. As with Cloudburst the director is choral man-of-the-moment Stephen Layton and the recording venue is the Temple Church, London. But the choir is the wonderful Holst Singers (photo above) who, like Polyphony, are Hyperion regulars.

There is some very beautiful music here indeed. My interest in Gregorian chant and early music is no secret, and I confess that the gentle motet Salve Regina moved me in a way that nothing on Cloudburst really did. I don't think there will be too many fans among the Sequenza21 crowd, but this new CD of Pierre Villette's music should appeal to anyone interested in hearing a relatively unknown voice in the mainstream twentieth century choral tradition, and it will certainly appeal to all interested in sacred choral music. It is also a gift to the PBS programmers among my readers. All but three of the tracks are less than five minutes, and there is some fine music here with instant 'listener appeal'. All credit to Hyperion for once again unearthing some really worthwhile twentieth-century music.

Discover for yourself the music of Pierre Villette with these two substantial audio files:
Inviolata [5'15]-
Salutation angélique [2'30]-


* Pierre Villette is released on Hyperion, catalogue number CDA67539
* All CDs featured On An Overgrown Path are available from
Prelude Records .
* This article has been edited by me to form a new Wikipedia entry for Pierre Villette.
* Image credits: Header - Filomusica.com, Besancon - Lyonnaiseries: Holst Singers - Holstsingers.com. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Let the people sing.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Corigliano, no - Nielsen, yes

17 year old clarinettist Mark Simpson (left) won the prestigous BBC Young Musician of the Year competition at the weekend. He played a blinding Nielsen concerto to win, but interestingly this was not his first choice. Marc Simpson actually asked to play John Corigliano's incredibly difficult (and rewarding) concerto in the final with the the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. But the BBC vetoed his first choice of concerto because of the required resources and challenge it presented for the orchestra. With a repertoire led by the Corigliano and Nielsen concertos there must be a very bright musical future for Mark Simpson.

* See the streamed video of Mark Simpson's winning performance of the Nielsen concerto via this link

Image credit - BBC: Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to The Danish paradox - a collision of cultures

Sunday, May 21, 2006

L'Ascension - Messiaen thinks outside the box

Life today is all about boxes. Our working life is controlled by email inboxes and outboxes, commercial success is measured at the box office, entertainment is delivered by Xboxes, and we even get our contemporary music fix from NewMusicBox. But today’s superb performance of Olivier Messiaen’s L’Ascension by Julian Thomas on the organ of Norwich Cathedral reminded me of the importance of thinking outside the box.

L’Ascension is an early work by Messiaen (below) which was originally composed for orchestra as four symphonic meditations. The organ version has a different third movement to the orchestral version, and was first performed in 1936. The four movement twenty-five minute work has many of Messiaen’s signature ‘outside the box’ features including unusually slow and sustained tempi for the first and final meditations, and the use of highly chromatic harmony throughout. In the final meditation, which is inspired by verses from St John’s Gospel, the quiet, floating melody, harmonised in parallel, ascended slowly to the great Perpendicular roof of Norwich Cathedral like a prayer.

Box-like is the last description that could be applied to Norwich's awe-inspiring Anglican Cathedral. It was built by the Benedictines to a Norman ground plan, and was consecrated in 1278, but the magnificent roof and 315’ high spire date from 1463 when they were rebuilt after a lightning strike destroyed the originals. The earliest reference to an organ in the cathedral dates from the 14th century, and a succession of new organs were built, and later destroyed, either by fire or deliberately through the centuries. The present organ (photo above) was constructed in 1899 by Hill, Norman and Beard and extensively rebuilt following a fire in 1938, and is eminently suited to Messiaen’s rich textures.

Messiaen's complete organ works, including L'Ascension, are available in a highly recommended 6 CD budget priced set on Regis (RRC6001). Jennifer Bate plays the organs of Beauvais Cathedral and L'église Sainte Trinité in Paris, and the recordings were made in the presence of the composer.


That mention of Beauvais Cathedral provides a fascinating coda to this overgrown path. Thinking outside the box means experimenting, and experiments sometimes end in failure. This is well-illustrated by the Cathedral of St Pierre in Beauvais. This cathedral, which is in some respects the most daring achievement of Gothic architecture, consists only of a transept and choir with apse. The vaulting in the interior exceeds 150 feet in height. There is no nave, and the small Romanesque church of the 10th century known as the Basse Oeuvre occupies the site destined for the nave.
Begun in 1247, just thirty-one years before Norwich Cathedral was consecrated, the masons of Beauvais aimed outside the box by adding an extra 16 feet to the height, to make it the tallest cathedral in Europe. But the experiment failed, and work was interrupted in 1284 by the collapse of the vaulting of the choir (left), a disaster that produced a temporary failure of nerve among the artisans. In 1573 more thinking outside the box resulted in the fall of a too-ambitious central tower. Work stopped again, and little further building, other than repairs, was carried out.

Today we hate computers that crash. But both Messiaen's music, and the glorious, and uncompleted, Beauvais Cathedral, remind us that there is glory both in thinking outside the box, and sometimes failing. I was recently very moved by a commemorative exhibition of photographs Chernobyl, Twenty Years – Twenty Lives’. Here are the words from the introduction to that exhibition:

If all the people in the world looked in one direction only, this would have serious consequences on how mankind perceives itself. It is important that some people look around in all directions in order to describe what they see to others.

* The Messiaen performance by Julian Thomas, who is Norwich Cathedral's assistant organist, was a fund-raiser for the Cathedral Choir's US tour in October. The Cathedral Choir consists of sixteen boys (aged 8-13), all of whom attend Norwich School, and twelve men, six of whom are choral scholars. It sings regularly at six choral services a week during term and also at many of the special services held in the Cathedral – especially during Holy Week, Easter and Christmas. The choir's repertoire includes music by all the great English composers of the last five hundred years and also many works by continental composers from Josquin to Messiaen. The choir has given premières of music by many contemporary composers including Giles Swayne, John Tavener, Paul Patterson, Arvo Pärt (right -whose I am the true vine was a 1996 commission for the choir to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral), James Macmillan and Diana Burrell. The choir has toured Europe and the United States, broadcasts regularly on the BBC and features on numerous recordings.
* Churches comprising a choir and a transept without the nave make famously good recording venues. The remarkable acoustics of Merton College Chapel, Oxford, which is frequently used for recordings, are put down to the absence of a nave in this large building.
* Another remarkable church today compring a nave and chancel only is Dore Abbey on the Welsh borders which I mentioned, appropriately, in Wot no computers. Although Dore Abbey is used for occassional concerts its blissfully remote location means it is not used as a recording venue. A new organ (albeit not a pipe one) has just been installed in the Abbey, follow this link for more details and some wonderful photos.

CDs featured in this article are available from Prelude Records. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot ukIf you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Messiaen stars in early music festival

Friday, May 19, 2006

When the school children whistle quarter-tones

"In some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones-when the diatonic scale will be as obsolete as the pentatonic is now - perhaps then these borderland experiences may be both easily expressed and readily recognized."
Charles Ives died May 19 1954

* Follow this link for the Charles Ives Society
Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Tippett can still empty a concert hall

Grand piano hits a high note

Litter pickers working on the summit of Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, have made a startling discovery: a grand piano buried in scree below the peak. The volunteers were winkling cans and plastic bags from rock crevices when they spotted a large, finely varnished length of wood. Shifting granite boulders, they discovered first the top of the piano, then the entire frame complete with stringboard and pedals.

"Our guys couldn't believe their eyes," said Nigel Hawkins, director of the John Muir Trust, which maintains the most visited stretch of the 1.3 km (4,418ft) peak near Fort William. "At first they thought it was just the wooden casing, but then they found the whole cast-iron frame complete with strings." The piano was dug out intact by 15 volunteers who were clearing an area about 200 metres from the summit. The trust is now appealing for information to unearth the piano's history - from the Guardian

Now Playing - Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Strauss wrote 'I shall call my Alpine Symphony the Anti-Christian because in it there's a moral purification by mean of one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of glorious, eternal nature'. Thankfully Strauss dropped the Nietzschian sub-title, but the equally bombastic orchestral writing is ideally suited to Karajan's Berlin cohorts who revel in the music and produce quite wonderful results.

An interesting piece of trivia - the organ on the Alpine Symphony, and many other Karajan recordings, was played by David Bell. He was a senior tape editor at EMI's Abbey Road Studios and an excellent organist who was originally asked to play on one EMI recording for Karajan. The maestro was so impressed with his playing that he always asked for Bell if there was an organ part, even, as is the case with the Alpine Symphony, the recording was being made for EMI's deadly rival Deutsche Grammophon. The relationship with Karajan was so precious to EMI that they didn't dare to refuse to release Bell to play on their rival's best-selling records.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to New music scored for burning harpsichord

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The challenge of lighting Wagner's Ring


I knew it was going to be an unusual evening when, before the start of Das Rheingold, one of the musicians handed me a portable spotlight and asked me to help light the performance. We were sitting on Persian rugs arranged down the centre of a large tent, with the narrow gap between the carpets representing the Rhine (see picture above).

The Threepenny Ring Cycle was being performed at the 2006 Norfolk and Norwich Festival by the French music-theatre group Les Grooms (The Bell Boys), who are an offshoot of the Théâtre de l'Unité. The Bell Boys have taken one of the most monumental pieces in the history of music and made it their own. They have deconstructed Wagner's Ring, dissected it, carved it up, peeled away its layers, shuffled it around, tinkered with it, added some spice, condensed it, dusted it off and brought it up to date. Through this alchemy, the Bellboys have transformed and rejuvenated a piece of music that until now 99.9% of the world was allergic to.

The complete Threepenny Ring lasts for ninety minutes with a one minute interval, and is hugely enjoyable. But it is not just a fun piece. As the closing pages of Die Gottedamerung are reached the audience join Siegfried's funeral cortege and files out of the big top. But then there is a magical transformation from irony to veneration, and the music and genius of Richard Wagner shine through as the tent slowly collapses onto the performers to complete the immolation of their, and Wagner's, fantay world (photo to right).

Moments like this are rare in the theatre.

Image credit - Frans Brood Productions, Wagner Society NSW and BBC. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to And so to Wagner ...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

New choral music's dream ticket


New music can experiment, new music can reinvent, new music can engage, and new music can entertain. But the work that hits all four targets simultaneously is a very rare one indeed. Joby Talbot’s new choral cycle Path of Miracles is one of those rare works. The superb 2006 Norfolk and Norwich Festival performance by Tenebrae revealed a composition that experiments with Bunun aboriginal sounds while reinventing the Jacobean chant Dum Pater Familias. For seventy minutes the a cappella work successfully engaged and entertained a large audience in Norwich Cathedral, and produced one of the most enthusiastic responses that I have witnessed for a 21st century work. If you wanted to buy Tenebrae’s CD of Path of Miracles at the end of the concert you had to push your way through a scrum fighting for the remaining copies - now that kind of enthusiasm is very rare indeed in the world of contemporary music.

Joby Talbot studied with Simon Bainbridge, Robert Saxton, Brian Elias and Louis Andriessen. He was one of four composers commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 1997, and the resulting Luminescence was premiered by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and has since been broadcast several times on BBC Radio 3. His movie soundtrack credits include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and he writes and performs alongside Neil Hannon in the UK pop phenomenon, The Divine Comedy.

Path of Miracles is a musical journey that follows the world's most enduring route of Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, and beyond to Finisterre. The four movements of the work are titled with the names of the four main staging posts of the Camino Frances, the abbey at Roncesvalles in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the great cathedrals of Burgos, Leon and Santiago itself. But the textual themes within the movements extend beyond the mere geographical. Throughout the work, quotations from various medieval texts (principally the Codex Calixtinus and a 15th Century work in the Galician language - Mirages de Santiago, but also including the original Carmina Burana) are woven together with passages from the Roman Liturgy and lines of poetry from Robert Dickinson, the work's librettist, while one of the musical leitmotifs is the pilgrim's hymn Dum Pater Familias.

The work opens with an eerie rising glissando using a vocal effect based on the Bubun aboriginal Pasibutbut from Taiwan, in which low voices rise in volume and pitch over an extended period, creating random overtones as the voices move into different pitches at fluctuating rates. The journey, and Path of Miracles, concludes on the Atlantic coast at Finisterre, where 'the walls of heaven are thin as a curtain'. Here the pilgrim's hymn is heard in the coda, now in English, endlessly repeating and finally disappearing as Tenebrae processed out of the nave of Norwich's great Norman cathedral. An extraordinarily moving end to an important addition to the contemporary choral literature.

Resources * Path of Miracles is scored a cappella for SSSSSAAAATTTTBBBB. The score is published by Chester Novello, but is currently listed as 'unavailable', presumably Tenebrae have an exclusivity period as they commissioned it.
* The CD is on Signum Classics, catalogue number SIGCD078

* Follow this link for Tenebrae's web site, and a biography of their director Nigel Short. I am told a US tour is planned for 2007, watch this space
* The pilgrim hymn Dum pater familias and other works from the Codex Calixtinus are on Ensemble Organum's Compostela - Ad Vesperas Sancti Jacobi (Ambroisie AMB 9966)
* Web site for the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela

* All CDs in this article are available from Prelude Records
* If you can get to Spain Path of Miracles is being performed in the great cathedrals on the pilgrimage route in three concerts in July, and admission is free. Here are the details: 21 July, Iglesia de la Merced, Burgos, 24 July Monasterio de San Zoilo, Carrion de los Conde, 25 July Cathedral de Leon, Leon.

Image credits - both pictures are of Tenebrae. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Chanticleer rocks with Sound in Spirit

Risks worth taking ...

His energy has not always endeared him to orchestras or critics, some of whom equate his jet-setting lifestyle with a shallowness of preparation. Stories are legion of Gergiev turning up hours late to rehearsals, giving interviews during concert intervals and holding up the second half, and cutting his schedules so fine that they give orchestral managers panic attacks. I have heard Gergiev give concerts where he has fallen off the musical cliff-edge he creates: a performance of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto with Alexander Toradze that was sometimes hilariously out of kilter, as if pianist, conductor and orchestra had never met, let alone rehearsed. These are the downsides of the risks Gergiev takes; but when the magic works - as it does so much of the time - they are risks worth taking.

From Tom Service's interview with Valery Gergiev in today's Guardian. Gergiev is artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He also has a close association with the Vienna Philharmonic - and, from 2007, will be the new chief of the London Symphony Orchestra . . .

Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Review of now quite well known Venezuelan conductor

Monday, May 15, 2006

Censorship by web proxy

Yesterday's article about Harvard Radio station WHRB 95.3 FM included a number of occurences of the words 0rgy/ies, all in a music programming context. Many large organisations run web proxy software such as WebMarshal which, to quote their website:

When a user on your network requests access to a web page, the request goes through WebMarshal. WebMarshal then checks the requested web page against a set of rules that you (the employer) define (your internet access policy). WebMarshal then scans the page for its content - viruses, profanity, appropriateness, b0mb making, adult themes etc - a whole host of things..

Then if the rules allow, and the user is allowed access, and if WebMarshal deems the page is "safe", WebMarshal fetches the page and sends it to the users browser. It does all this instantly and transparently to your users - affording them a safe Internet browsing experience.

Some web proxy software decided that my article Harvard Radio treads where BBC fears to go did not afford 'a safe Internet browsing experience' and blocked access to it.


WebMarshal talks about 'b0mb making'. There is a deep irony here. My article was written in praise of WHRB 95.3 FM's series of Antal Dorati programmes. Dorati was a true polymath, conductor, composer, artist and communicator. He titled his brilliant book 'For inner and outer peace' after Beethoven's inscription on the score of the Missa Solemnis. Here, from his book, is Dorati writing about the menace of b0mbs:

We are aware of this danger
Or are we - really?
Are we perhaps, deluding ourselves by thinking that it will be the "bombs of the enemy" that will destroy us?


For Inner and Outer Peace can be bought online from IPPNW Concerts. Image credit - Bsthebook.com. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to 'Tis the gift to be free

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Classical music, the love of my life

So began my musical career, as a listener. I soon took advantage of a newly opened public library only yards down the road to join their fantastically new and extensive record library. And I eagerly ate up Beethoven, Mahler, then Sibelius, Shostakovich, Bach's amazing St Matthew Passion, the eccentricities of Berlioz, the purity of Bruckner, the invention of Nielsen. Discovering Radio 3, my encounters expanded. I heard a season of Rubbra symphonies in the early Eighties and have loved his symphonies ever since. I discovered Bartók, Walton, and strange noises, such as Xenakis.

Listening to classical music is a journey, not a state, an activity, not a meditation. Music is not a background noise. It's something you bring into the foreground of your experience, by engaging with it, by doing some work. Only recently have I come to listen properly to Schumann, Haydn and, especially, Bach, and begun to get that sense of rich, deep satisfaction that I first encountered more immediately as an adolescent in Mahler. I'm aware that it's easy to fall back on quasi-mystical, pretentious language when trying to talk about one's experience of classical music, but that shouldn't stop us trying. We don't talk about music enough. As someone who's never felt he's had the technical language at his fingertips, I feel all I can do is talk about it in whatever English I have at my command. I want to emote about how I feel. After a concert, I want to grab people by the lapels and tell them how lucky we are as a species that, out of all the hundreds of billions of us who ever lived, one of us managed to come up with the Goldberg Variations. But I don't, because that's not the done thing. So instead I mention that the cafe downstairs does some fabulous chocolate éclairs.

From a dazzling speech that captivated the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards on Tuesday by award-winning writer and broadcaster Armando Iannucci, who argued that we should stop being scared of expressing what great works mean to us. The full speech is important, read it via this link in today's Observer.


Image credit - Sphere Research. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to More passion for books