Sunday, August 12, 2007
Are words the new music?
A thought provoking week. Lunch on Thursday with an old friend who had a very successful career in classical music. He was complaining about the inane chatter of the current BBC Radio 3 presenters, and said he now listens to talk based Radio 4 most of the time, and heard there the Rudolph Dunbar documentary I wrote about recently. That made me realise that the last two BBC radio programmes I have praised here were both talks on Radio 4 about musicians, about David Munrow and Rudolph Dunbar to be precise.
The next day my wife and I presented our first Community Chest programme on Future Radio here in Norwich, UK. (Photo above shows us trying to work out how we can slip 70 seconds of Nancarrow's Player Piano Study No. 2B into the station's computer driven MOR playlist to mark the tenth anniversary of the composer's death). The two hour programme was 80% talk with live guests in the studio discussing public art commissions, farm shops versus supermarkets, the Baha'i Faith, and young people as victims of crime. The whole show was a blast, the guests enjoyed themselves, the time flew, and the station manager seemed well pleased.
Words seem to be becoming my new music. In addition to Britten's Noyes Fludde, with it's central spoken part for The Voice of God, my CD player has been hosting much Stravinsky recently, including Oedipus Rex, The Flood, and A Sermon, and A Narration and a Prayer, all works with narrators. And further proof comes from another CD set that has been sharing the personal playlist with the Britten and the Works Of Stravinsky - it is also a work with a prominent role for a speaker.
Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder is fiendishly difficult to capture on disc with its six soloists, choirs, eight flutes, five oboes, seven clarinets, three basoons, two counter-basoons, ten horns, six trumpets, one bass-trumpet, one alto-trombone, four tenor-bass-trombones, one bass-trombone, one counter-bass trombone, one counter-bass-tuba, much percussion, four harps and a celesta. Too often recordings of these massive forces are marred by thick and muddy textures that seriously diminish the impact of Schoenberg's extraordinary score. The Simon Rattle reccording made with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Philharmonie Hall, Berlin in 2001 is an example of this opaque sound, although it is not surprising as the Philharmonie is not noted for producing flattering recorded sound even with moderate sized forces.
My reference Gurrelieder on disc has long been Pierre Boulez's CBS recording. This was made with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and various choruses, and was superbly engineered by Bob Auger in the capacious West Ham Central Mission in London. I bought it when it was first released on vinyl LP in 1975, although it is now, of course, on CD. (Follow this path for a fascinating article by Bob Auger and producer Paul Myers on recording the Gurrelieder - it was captured in 1974 in both stereo and surround-sound SQ quadraphonic formats). A colleague of mine at EMI sung in the choir for the recording, and recounted how everyone was so mesmerised by Boulez's passion for the work that the combined forces continued recording well beyond the alloted end of the last session when it looked as thought the recording might not be completed in the scheduled sessions.
I didn't hear Eliahu Inbal's Gurrelieder, recorded with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, when it was first issued on Denon in 1993. But its re-release at super-budget price (£7 in the UK) on Dutch independent label Brilliant Classics gave me an opportunity to sample it, and I am very glad I did. The performance is excellent, if not quite up to Boulez's persuasive advocacy. But the recorded sound more than makes up for any minor deficiencies in the performance. This is the best recorded account of the Gurrelieder I have heard by a long way. The sound has space around it, there is a believable sound stage, and real attack and slam. I listen to a lot of CDs, and this Frankfurt Gurrelieder is as good as anything I've heard from disc for a long time.
There are two reasons why it is sonically outstanding. First, Denon engineer Detlev Kittler avoided the temptation of using a large number of 'spot' microphones to capture the huge forces. Instead, fewer judicially placed mics capture a coherent sound picture. The second reason why the sound is so good is that the acoustics of the recording venue are so good.
I worked in Frankfurt for a time in the 1970's, and then the old Frankfurt Opera House (Die Alte Oper) was still a fenced-off ruin after being burnt out in a bombing raid in March 1944. Die Alte Oper re-opened in 1981, but although the original exterior was retained the interior is a completely new multi-purpose complex including the Grosse Saal, a modern 2500 seat concert hall using a lot of old-fashioned wood to give outstanding acoustics (see photo below). It is here that Eliahu Inbal, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and their choirs and soloists recorded the Gurrlelieder, and the results are revelatory.
If you don't have the Gurrelieder in your CD collection this bargain price re-release from Brilliant Classics is unmissable - if you like Wagner and don't know the Gurrelieder you are missing a real treat. Even if you have the excellent Boulez or Ozawa accounts (or any of the other versions in this comprehensive listing) you really should sample Eliahu Inbal and the glorious sound of Die Alte Oper Frankfurt for your local equivalent of around £7. It even comes in classy packaging which makes a change from Naxos' utilitarian graphics, and includes an excellent essay on the Gurrelieder plus full texts.
This meandering path reminds me of a story about Dies Alte Oper which rather nicely captures today's theme of words and music. For a number of years I attended the Frankfurt International Book Fair on business. A few years ago I checked the concert listings when I arrived in the city, and noticed a performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony in Die Alte Oper. But unfortunately it seemed unlikely that I would make it as I had an important distribution deal to finalise with one of the leading German book distributors.
The large German company I was dealing with was quite switched on to classical music, and had the distribution rights to German retail book stores for Deutsche Grammophon. I met with their young and dynamic CEO in their booth at the book fair, and was fortunate to tie up the deal by the end of the afternoon. As a business courtesy I invited the CEO to dinner that evening. But I was mighty relieved when he pleaded another business commitment - I was free to dash to the Mahler.
Quick sprint back to the hotel, change out of the business suit, and grab a cab ride to Die Alte Oper just in time for the Mahler. As my taxi pulled up outside the concert hall another cab pulled up behind me. Out stepped the CEO of the German book distributor with his wife.
The Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra are at the BBC Proms tomorrow (August 13) with a programme of Weber, Mahler and Brahms orchestrated, appropriately, by Schoenberg. And now follow this path for an interesting take on contemporary composers from Frankfurt based Daniel Wolf.
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