Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lone voices - the lute


The oud in my life is joined today by a lute. This instrument has already featured here many times but in this article I want to share with readers two outstanding super-low priced recitals of early music by a master lutenist.

Paul O'Dette was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1954 and after dabbling with the electric guitar at high school went on to establish himself as one of the leading players and teachers of the lute. He has made more than one hundred recordings both as soloist as an ensemble member with musicians such as Jordi Savall and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and among O'Dette's many fine solo recordings are the complete lute works of John Dowland. In 2001 Harmonia Mundi reissued several of his CDs at super-budget price. They are still in the catalogue and are quite unmissable both for students of the lute and for readers who want an affordable introduction to this most intimate of instruments.

The titles of the two recommended discs on which the lute is the lone voice aren't very adventurous but the music is. Lute Music Volume 1 is an all Kapsberger disc while Volume 2 mixes music from Milano, Borrono, L'Aquila and de Rippe. The sleeve art is super-budget cheesy so I haven't featured it here, but with retail prices around £5 ($10) or less for once I'm not complaining about the graphics. As well as lute (6-course tenor and alto on the first disc and 10-course on the second) O'Dette plays the chitarrone on Volume 1. Read about new music for the ancient chitarrone here.


Lone voices showcases musicians not featured in the 2008 BBC Proms, discover more lone voices here. Header lute image is sampled from Dr Zyg's string institute. Footer image reflects the Arab origins of the lute and was taken by me in Musée de Marrakech, Morocco. Lower image is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2008. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

BBC and Guyana - both sides now


A week passes very quickly when you have an annual budget of more than £3.9 billion ($7.8b) to burn. After a reprimand for taking commercial sponsorship and a £400,000 fine for "unfair conduct of viewer and listener competitions" the BBC turned its attentions yesterday to telling us what a jolly nice country Guyana (seen in my header photo) is. Lost Land of the Jaguar is a three part extravaganza of prime time TV which the BBC website tells us "combines stunning wildlife with high octane adventure".

During the one hour first episode the script managed to namecheck the Guyanese president a few times and take a swipe at the British government for being slow to respond to a proposed Guyanese deal on carbon credits. Lost Land of the Jaguar comes from the BBC's Science and Nature division but for an educational programme a surprising amount was left untold. There was no mention that the interior of Guyana, which featured so prominently in the programme, is a center of trafficking of men, women, and children for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor, nor that Guyana is on the U.S. Department of State's Tier 2 Watch List for failing to provide evidence of its efforts to combat human trafficking. The country's increasing involvement in the drugs trade and money-laundering was also overlooked as was the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Guyana and can carry a sentence of life imprisonment. Amnesty International's concerns over the lack of witness protection also missed the cut as did concerns over increasing curbs on the country's media.

But the Lost Land of the Jaguar did find time to tell us how few tourists there are in Guyana. Hardly surprising considering this travel advisory currently on the UK government's Foreigh Office's website: 'Crime levels in Guyana are high. There are frequent indiscriminate shootings and armed robberies. There are regular armed attacks against businesses and individuals where the perpetrators often use extreme violence. Since January 2008 there has been an upsurge in violent criminal activity. An army patrol was ambushed in Buxton (East Coast Demerara) on 23 January 2008. The police headquarters in Georgetown was attacked on 25 January and 11 people were shot and killed in house raids in the village of Lusignan (East Coast Demerara) on 26 January. A further attack on the town of Bartica (Essequibo River) on 16 February resulted in the deaths of three policemen and 10 civilians. Further attacks elsewhere in the country cannot be ruled out. While the situation persists, and the perpetrators remain at large, you are also advised to exercise caution when travelling in Guyana.'

Have a nice visit. And before anyone accuses me of being anti-BBC or anti-Guyana take another look at my header photo. It was taken in the 'unexplored' interior of Guyana but is not a still from the Lost Land of the Jaguar. I took the photo more than thirty years ago while I was exploring that extraordinary country with my Guyanese born wife. And remember who broke the story of the Berlin Philharmonic's first Black conductor.
Header photo (c) On An Overgrown Path 2008. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This man is dangerous


As I advance in years Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius touches me more and more. Elgar was a devout Catholic and the oratorio's chilling story of a soul's journey through death to judgement is, of course, a setting of Cardinal Newman's poem of the same name. Newman was the Anglican vicar of St Augustine's Oxford before converting to Catholicism in 1845 and he wrote his paen of praise to mystical Catholic theology, The Dream of Gerontius in 1865.

Another of Cardinal Newman's work, his 1845 essay Development of Christian Doctrine in which he justifies his conversion to Catholicism, was a major influence on one of the least known and most fascinating religous figures of the twentieth-century, a figure whose progressive views on homosexuality, feminism and inter-faith communities could hardly have been more distant from the prim Victorian world of Elgar and Newman.

Bede Griffiths was born Alan Richard Griffiths into a British middle class family at Walton-on-Thames, English in 1906. He read English and Philosophy at Oxford and he became a life-long friend of the writer and scholar C.S. Lewis before participating in an early experiment in communal living with two male friends in the Cotswolds. While training for the Anglican ministry Griffiths read the Newman essay and this affected him so profoundly that he too converted to Catholicism and joined the novitiate at Prinknash Abbey, which featured on these pages two years ago.

He was ordained Father Bede in 1940 and became prior of Prinknash's sister house at Farnborough Abbey where I was privileged to hear Vespers celebrated in plainsong while writing this article. Griffiths had been introduced to Eastern philosophy, yoga and Indian Scriptures by a Jungian analyst, and while at Farnborough met Fr. Benedict Alapatt, an Indian priest born in Europe, whose vision was to start a monastic foundation in India. In 1955, Griffiths travelled with Fr. Benedict to Bombay and settled first in Kengeri and then in Kurisumala for ten years.


In 1968 Bede Griffiths moved to an established ashram at Shantivanam in southern India with two other monks and it was here that he undertook his pioneering studies of Indian thought and its relation to Christian theology. Shantivanam was accepted into the Catholic Camaldolese congregation and under Griffiths' leadership the ashram developed as a center of contemplative life and cultural and religous dialogue. As my header portrait shows Griffiths wore the saffron robes of a Hindu monk and he took the name Swami Dayananda and intermingled elements of Hinduism and Catholicism in his celebration of the Mass. The photo above is a general view of Shantivanam while the lower image shows the temple where Hindu chants were mixed with the Catholic liturgy. In the foreground is the 'cosmic cross' that was one of many controversial features of the ashram.

'Going native' created tensions with the Catholic hierarchy as did Bede Griffiths' remarkably progressive views. These included believing that homosexual love was "as normal and natural as love betwen people of the opposite sex". He advocated inter-faith communities and wanted a Church that was more concerned with love than sin. He realised that God was feminine as well as masculine and was one of the first advocates of married clergy and ministries for women. Like that other great Catholic mystic Thomas Merton who also travelled to the East Griffiths believed that meditation should take a central place in worship.

More than a decade after his death Bede Griffiths' teachings are still creating controversy. The headline for this article is taken from a February 2005 article in the National Catholic Reporter which opens with these words:

'This man, Bede Griffiths, is dangerous. That the Benedictine monk died at his Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) ashram in India in 1993 at the fine age of 86 does not alter the fact--except to the extent his death intensifies our understanding of our own situation.

Griffiths, this Hindu sannyasi (ascetic), a Catholic priest, elegant in his writing, in person charming, in death could too easily be diminished into icon-only status. His is a pleasing lithograph of shoulder-length flowing hair, neatly trimmed swami beard, handsome face, kindly if penetrating eyes bordered by haloes and swirling smoke of incense.

His writings belie the image. They are danger-daring prods, cautions, lures, inducements, challenges, barbs, warnings and reassurances from a man who found nature first, and through nature God, and through God Catholicism, and through Catholicism Benedictinism, and through the monastic life, Eastern mysticism.'


Although heresy for some post-Vatican 2 Catholics Bede Griffiths views were remarkably in tune with the zeitgeist of the late 60s. He was, apparently celibate, and said that 'when I was young I might have been a homosexual' but towards the end of his life formed close relationships with several female students. His progressive views found an audience and in the 1980s he became a leading figure in Christian-Hindu dialogue and often visited the U.S. where his talks drew large audiences. He died at Shantivanam in 1993 and his work is continued today by the Bede Griffiths Trust, part of the Camaldolese Institute for East-West Dialogue based in California. Visit their website for related audio files, there are audio interviews with Griffiths on the BBC website.

Shirley du Boulay's excellent biography of Bede Griffiths, Beyond the Darkness, from which my header portrait is taken, is now available in paperback and is highly recommended. Like Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain Bede Griffiths' early autobiography The Golden String became a best seller and is again recommended although the more comprehensive du Boulay biography is my first choice.

There are fundamental differences between the teachings of Bede Griffiths and those of the Taizé Community in Burgundy, France. But they both share a commitment to inclusiveness in religous celebration, a commitment which has increased in relevance in the twenty-first century. This is confirmed by the fact that my two articles on the Taizé Community from 2006 continue to be the most visited of any posts On An Overgrown Path, read them here and here.


Now playing - The Kronos Quartet's and Asha Bhosle's homage to legendary Indian film composer Rahul Dev Burman. Elgar to Bollywood is a distinctly overgrown path even by my standards but hear me out. The form of Goan folk music known as deknii is believed to be a blend of Catholic and Hindu music (Goa's population is 66% Hindu and 27% Christian). One of the most famous deknni songs, Hanv Saiba Poltodi Vetam, was used by by Raj Kapoor in his Hindi movie Bobby. Which provides my path to the Kronos' wonderful tribute to Bollywood. While major labels such as Universal Music insist that the salvation of the classical music industry is a reincarnation of the Three Tenors (together with the shellac 78 presumably?), others, such as Nonesuch, agree with Philip Glass that 'World Music is the new classical'. Now wouldn't Bede Griffiths' life make a superb Philip Glass opera?


Image credits, header from Shirley du Boulay's biography, the two photos of Shantivanam from the Bede Griffiths Trust. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Very great composers still without recognition?


'Emanuel Moór, Donald Tovey and Julius Röntgen (above). These are three very great composers still without recognition. But I feel sure their time will come' - Pablo Casals

Now read about Furtwängler and the forgotten new music.
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Different trains


Norman Lebrecht can get it horribly wrong or horribly right. Back in 2006 he wrote that music blogs have 'nutritional value ... lower than a bag of crisps'. Which doesn't stop the Royal Academy of Music quoting this one in their 2009 prospectus.

But Norman's interview with Steve Reich, which was aired on BBC Radio 3 last night, was a quite superb example of the interviewer knowing when to keep his mouth shut and letting the subject talk. These moments are rare in radio - listen to it on the BBC iPlayer or as a podcast. But hurry because it is only there until August 4. And talking of Norman here is an interesting website.

Now playing - The Smith Quartet performing Reich's Different Trains. This Signum Classics CD also includes the composer's Triple Quartet which is recomended to readers who haven't yet 'got' Reich. Follow the Different Trains thread here and here.
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Monday, July 28, 2008

A sign of the Grimes


£14.99 ($30) for the new recording of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes conducted by the delight of the classical music industry is a fantastic bargain. But £14.99 ($30) for the same musician's acclaimed accounts of Peter Grimes and Verdi's Falstaff on 5 CDs? As the credit crunches that really is a sign of the Grimes.

More a cava moment than a champagne moment?
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Classical music plays the generation game


My link from today's An American in Berlin article points to a February 2007 article about the media ballyhoo over English National Opera partnering with Sony to install PlayStation 3 consoles into the ENO foyer. Can someone tell me what happened to this much-trumpeted initiative because a Google search can't - I can find no follow-up articles at all. But then I guess we've moved on to and Doctor Who Proms and newspaper reader offers.

Header image shows how classical music should play the generation game.
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An American in Berlin


Barack Obama's recent visit to Berlin reminded me of a visit to that fine city by another American politician.
Header photo is from my photo essay I am a camera - Berlin and is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2008. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Back soon


The Penguin Modern Classics edition of On the Road uses a detail from 'The Athletes Dream' by Larry Rivers from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. More Kerouac here and here.
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Royal Opera's stunt and storm


Stunt 1, stunt 2 and storm.

Photo is from better days at London's Royal Opera House, the 1969 production of Berlioz's The Trojans which was conducted by the delight of the classical recording industry.
Image credit Theatre Museum. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Lone voices - Arthur Honegger

'It seems to me that Honegger is one of the contemporary composers of greatest musical value. In spite of his "modernism" he refrains from going beyond certain limits. He has been influenced by modern tendencies, but he knows how to select some innovations and not others, while remaining faithful to what he may define as the idea of music - something so many contemporary composers have just abandoned' - Pablo Casals
Herbert von Karajan's recordings of Arthur Honegger's Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 are the definite accounts and rank among the classics of the gramophone. The inlay above is from Alexander Rahbari's performance of the Symphony No. 3 which is committed but, hardly surpisingly, falls short of Karajan's searing account. But I am featuring the CD Rahbari made with the BRTN Philharmonic Orchestra in Brussels for its persuasive advocacy of the little heard Symphony No. 5 "Di Tre Re".

There are links between Rahbari and Karajan as the Iranian born conductor worked as Karajan's assistant at the 1980 Salzburg Easter Festival. Rahbari left Iran before the 1979 revolution and is now an Austrian citizen. He returned to Iran as Permanent Conductor of Tehran Symphony Orchestra in 2005 but left the post after six months over a dispute about low pay rates for the musicians. The photo below from the Rahbari's website shows him with Karajan in Salzburg. Rahbari is also a composer and his works tackling social concerns include a composition titled Hunger in Africa. His recording work includes opera for Naxos.


Honegger's Fifth Symphony was premiered in 1951 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was written to commemorate the death of Natalie Koussevitzky, as was Britten's Peter Grimes. The compact twenty-one minute Fifth Symphony deserves to be revived, as does Rahbari's excellent recording which also includes the composer's 1936 Nocturne for Orchestra. The CD was released by the Austrian label Koch in 1997, but is one of many casualties of Universal Music's 2002 acquisition of the Koch catalogue.

Read about a rare performance of Honegger's King David here.
Lone voices showcases musicians not featured in the 2008 BBC Proms, discover more lone voices here. Casals quote from Song of the Birds edited by Julian Lloyd Webber (ISBN 086051305). 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lone voices - Jewish composers


This excellent new Harmonia Mundi release of music for viols played by Fretwork couples the loan voices of Jewish composers of the Tudor and Stuart courts with a distinctive contemporary voice. Although Jews were banished by edict from England in 1290 a presence remained in the form of marranos, or nominally converted 'New Christians', who traded between London, Antwerp and Lisbon. The practice of tolerating covert followers of the Jewish faith was further reinforced when Henry VIII recruited Venetian musicians from the Italian diaspora to form six-part consorts for his Private Music.

The Venetian composers of the music on this CD for viols from the Duarte, Lupo and Bassano families are now thought to have been Jewish. Their music from the Tudor and Stuart courts is interspersed in true mixing-it style with the three movements of contemporary composer Orlando Gough's klezmer-based Birds on Fire. Particularly noteworthy are the Two Sinfonias in 5 parts by Leonora Duarte, it is not often you come across women composers of the 17th century.

This is an imaginative mixture of ancient and modern in a rewarding seventy-five minute programe. Fretwork, as ever, produce a wonderful tone coupled with bouncy articulation in the klezmer rhythms, all captured in beautiful sound by Adrian Hunter. But just as Henry VIII's private musicians hid their true identity so does this fine CD. The cover (above) proclaims Production USA despite being recorded in darkest Suffolk and Deptford, England.

In a neat piece of synchronicity I bought Birds on Fire while reading a very thought-provoking novel about the conundrum of Jewishness. American author Ellen Feldman has made something of a speciality of mixing fact with fiction in her novels and I first came across her work in Scottsboro which is a fictional elaboration of the notorious trial of the same name. I must say I approached her earlier novel The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank with some trepidation but the cheesy-sounding sounding title fails to do justice to this thoughtful book.

As readers of Anne Frank's diary will know her companion in the secret annex in Amsterdam, Peter van Pels, also perished in a concentration camp after their discovery. But The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank re-engineers fact and in the novel van Pels survives and builds a successful career and marriage in America. The conundrum of Jewishness is the central theme but there are also very convincing descriptions of the blackness into which the marginalised can descend. Some of the most thought-provoking and moving fiction I have read for some time. The closing lines of the novel say it all - 'My God, have they no memory?'

Speaking of which, now I propose to tell you of Buchenwald ...
Lone voices showcases music not featured in the 2008 BBC Proms, discover more lone voices here. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The department of silly Elgar


Leonard Bernstein's notorious BBC Symphony recording of Elgar's Enigma Variations with its seven minute Nimrod has for a long time been at the head of my department of silly Elgar. But this evening's BBC Prom performance by Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra of the A Flat Symphony proved to be a real challenger to Lennie. I understand Norrington's arguments about playing Elgar without vibrato and with flexible tempi. But if it destroys the music why do it?

Now this is what Elgar meant by a massive hope for the future.
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BBC classical music sponsorship outlawed


'When I drove off the cross-channel ferry last Monday I retuned the car radio to BBC Radio 3. Within an hour the presenter had plugged the BBC's New Generation Artists Scheme so many times that I concluded she was earning a bonus for every mention' - those were my words posted here on 30 Sept. 2007.

For a long time I have been a lone voice complaining about the incessant and gratuitous on-air plugs for BBC Radio 3's New Generation Artists scheme. This week I was joined by another voice. The BBC Trust, the body that works on behalf of licence fee payers to audit broadcast quality, has outlawed sponsorship of specific BBC activities including the New Generation Artists scheme which was funded by financial giant Aviva, the world's fifth-largest insurance group. The image above is from the BBC website.

Of course it is vitally important that new musicians are supported and nurtured. But the BBC is a public body which is funded by license fee income to the tune of more than £3 billion ($6 billion) every year. So it is hardly short of the odd pound or two and is simply undermining its own credibility with these ill-conceived attempts to ape the commercial sector.

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Glenn Gould's search for the perfect free lunch


Sponsorship of the BBC Proms receives a clear thumbs-down from the top this week. Commercial sponsorship and public service broadcasting definitely don't mix. But pianists have a very long history of being sponsored by piano manufacturers. Katie Hafner's hugely informative and entertaining book A Romance on Three Legs documents Glenn Gould's obsessive search for the perfect piano and his love/hate relationship with Steinway that resulted. There's lots of fun along the way including Gould suing Steinway for personal injury and the company dropping and wrecking his favourite piano. Gould even flirted with Yamaha, but it was a Steinway on the best damn record he ever made.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Fuguing great new music from Boston


The story of this adventurous new CD of contemporary choral music starts early in the 19th century in the rural southern states of America. At that time shape notation, or 'fa-sol-la', was an important force in democratising music and it allowed Baptists and Methodists who were outside the education system to sight-read 'fuguing tunes' and simple chorales. Reforming academic musicians rejected shape-note singing but it continued in rural communities in Appalachia using old editions of hymn collections, the most widely used of which was William Walker's 1835 The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion.

Almost one hundred and fifty years after William Walker's collection was published William Duckworth composed twenty vocal transformations of the hymns in a late 20th century take on 'shape-singing'. Duckworth's 1981 Southern Harmony may have sprung from an earlier century, but it certainly isn't a nostalgic look back to a vanished Appalachian spring. In fact Duckworth is as well known for his work in the fields of electronic music and the internet, including his online Cathedral project, as he is for his wide range of more conventional compositions. His hour long 1979 Time Curve Preludes for piano were acclaimed by Kyle Gann, no less, as the first ever post-minimalist composition, and Duckworth has perfomed Eric Saties' epic Vexations as well as being associated with John Cage's music.

Five of William Duckworth's brand new fuguing tunes form the centrepiece of Surprised by Beauty, a CD from professional choral ensemble Boston Secession, and the new disc concludes with three hymns in their original 1835 versions. Boston Secession was formed in 1996 by conductor and artistic director Jane Ring Frank who is seen in my header image. Under her leadership the ensemble has been building quite a reputation for fine singing. Their style is similar to European groups such as Polyphony and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and they couple it with innovative programming exemplified by the inclusion of Hugo Distler's Totentanz on their first CD.

Gavin Bryars and Arvo Pärt, who also contribute to Surprised by Beauty, need no introduction. But Boston Secession's composer in residence Ruth Lomon does. Ms. Lomon was born in Montreal in 1930 and is currently composer/resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her multi-lingual oratorio Testimony of Witnesses is being premiered in 2009, and Surprised by Beauty includes a tantalising excerpt from the new work. Testimony of Witnesses is a concert-length tonal work scored for chorus, orchestra and soloists and the texts in Hebrew, French, German, Italian, Polish, English and Yiddish recount the experiences of sixteen Holocaust survivors in their own words. The excerpt on the CD is Transport which portrays the deportation of Jews to the death camps using the words of five victims with the orchestra painting an eerie sound picture of the train journey to hell.

Surprised by Beauty is released on the tiny Boston based Brave Records label, and I have to ask why aren't more CDs like this being released? The singing is exemplary and gives no quarter to better known professional ensembles. The sound captured in the Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts by David Liquori is demonstration quality. The duration of 52 minutes is no problem when the quality is so high, and at least a pre-concert lecture isn't used as a filler. The sleeve notes by Robert Fink are excellent. But elsewhere the minimalist sub-title and ECM-style artwork seen below (at least it is in focus) are irrelevant if not misleading. There is no need to market this disc as 'new cool', this is simply excellent contemporary choral music that doesn't require endorsement by category. Buy it from the Boston Secession website or from Amazon.

Ruth Lomon's Transport uses words by Theresienstadt survivor Else Dormitzer. Composer Viktor Ullman was sent to Theresienstadt before perishing in Auschwitz. Read about his opera The Emperor of Atlantis here.


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Where are the unplugged Proms?


Today's media section of the Independent devotes its front page and two inside pages to the party line on the Proms from BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director Roger Wright.

Today's arts section of the Independent carries no review of yesterday's BBC Prom, nor has the newspaper carried a review of any concert in the 2008 season.

In the days when newspapers took classical music seriously and Promenade Concerts were more than a media circus a reviewer described a Prom given by the conductor in my header photo as '... both convincing and moving. In human, dramatic terms often very impressive ... the final pages were absolutely right'. I was in the Albert Hall for that unplugged Prom and it was an evening I will never forget. Read more here.

Header image from Bach Cantatas. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Small is sonically beautiful


Is gnat-sized the new minimalism? One of the few critics who hasn't been down-sized writes about the gnat-sized attention-span of multi-media audiences, a best selling book describes how the internet is chipping away the capacity for concentration and contemplation and back in 2006 I revealed how the stopwatch was dictating BBC Proms programming. Bring on the Webern revival. But how long is long enough?

Image of toy piano is from Schoenhut website. Many fine contemporary composers from John Cage onwards have written for the toy piano. E.F. Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful is a must-read, especially for the BBC. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Great Prom - shame about the music


'It was lucky that (Scriabin's Poem of Ecstacy) was ecstatic, because I could detect few in the audience who were. To me it seemed that this odd compendium of mostly unrelated short pieces was designed more to hold the presumed gnat-sized attention-span of the BBC Two (TV) audience than to launch the world’s greatest classical-music festival in suitably memorable style' - writes Richard Morrison in the Sunday Times about Friday's opening Prom. Another case of music getting in the way of the BBC Proms?
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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Free classical music on the internet


'Where to find the cheapest music on the internet' is the promise in today's Independent. But, on the weekend that the BBC Proms start, the Indie forgets that there is such a thing as classical music to download. To redress the balance, here is an alternative guide to the digital revolution in the form of twelve 'wild cards' of classical downloads. All but one (thanks Bernard) have been supplied from the States by the indefatigable Walt Santner whose complete download detective work can be found down this path.

Walt and I must bracket these wild cards with a major health warning. We can't guarantee the quality or copyright status of the files which the links point at. We are not hosting these files, they are not recommendations but rather suggestions for exploration. Feedback from readers on Aces and Jokers and other recommendations via Comments will be very much appreciated.

* American works for winds with Howard Hanson - Card 1
* Transfers of Victor Red Seal 78s - Card 2
* Ethnic music including Roma recordings - Card 3
* Japanese pre-World War 2 recordings - Card 4
* Rare recordings of music by Agathe Backer Grøndahl, the Norwegian composer and pianist - Card 5
* Nine conversations about the Beethoven Symphonies - Card 6
* More CBC Radio 2 podcasts - Card 7
* Royal College of Music, Stockholm concerts with adventurous music - Card 8
* Le Nozze de Figaro - study and excerpts - Card 9
* Charlegmane Palestine + GOL - French avant garde - Card 10
* Bach Complete Partitas for Piano - Cards 10A & 10B
* OnClassical whose recordings include the Bach above - Card 11
* Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music - Card 12
* Peter Paul Fuchs' music - Overgrown Path podcast

Header image sampled from Julke Marie Smith's work on ArtRugs.com. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, July 18, 2008

BBC Proms and the art of music promotion

'Everything you wanted to know about the Proms (but were afraid to ask)' is the screaming headline for a double-page spread in today's Independent by fellow blogger Jessica Duchen. Now something I wanted to know is why there is not a single note of Benjamin Britten's music in the 2008 Proms season, and, yes, the answer is in the Indie. The article helpfully explains that he wrote, and I quote, 'music of chilly glumness'. Like The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Noye's Fludde presumably? Fortunately we are spared an explanation as to why Peter Maxwell Davies' music is another notable absentee.

Elsewhere in the article Leonard Bernstein's Mass, which is represented at the Proms by three short excerpts, gets the treatment - 'this isn't the place to explain the whole Mass - be glad they're only doing the best bits'. But I did benefit from some of the other Proms insights in the article which include 'Wear comfortable shoes. If you go in high heels, you'll regret it' and 'Don't talk, eat, snog or slurp while the music is playing.'

Classical music promotion may be a lost art in London, but BBC Radio 3's excellent lunchtime concert from the Cheltenham Festival yesterday, together with an email from helpful reader, reminded me it is flourishing elsewhere.

This Mondrian-style poster is for a 2006 concert series by the Dutch wind ensemble Calefax whose repertoire ranges from arrangements of the 14th century Libre Vermell de Montserrat through Ellington to Conlon Nancarrow. Their recordings include an arrangement of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, which, unlike some of the things going on in London, is unmissable.

More Dutch contemporary music here and music promotion here.
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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lone voices - Carlos Mena

This year, for the first time since I started the blog in 2005, I will not be posting personal previews of the BBC Proms, which start tomorrow evening (18 July). My decision is of no great importance as there is no shortage of coverage of the concerts elsewhere. The reason for dropping the previews is that I write best when I am passionate and enthusiastic about a subject, and, sadly, my passion for the Proms has failed to survive their remorseless corporate marketing as a BBC brand. For me at least, the message has been drowned out by the medium.

There are some very fine compositions and very fine performers in this year's Proms and I will be listening to some of them on BBC Radio 3 and maybe posting a few thoughts. But as the promotional hullabaloo reaches fever pitch let's reflect on the fact that the core values of the Proms, which are so celebrated today, date from 1895 when the Promenade concerts were founded by Sir Henry Wood. The BBC did not become involved in the running of the Proms until thirty-two years later, by which time the famous, and much-copied, format was well-established.

The BBC's subsequent stewardship of the Proms then suffered a two-year hiatus in 1940-1941 when the BBC Symphony Orchestra was evacuated and the concerts continued in London under the baton of Sir Henry Wood using private funding and without BBC involvement. In June 1944, to ensure the future of the Proms, Wood made over to the BBC in perpetuity the title 'Henry Wood Promenade Concerts' (it changed to the 'BBC Proms' decades later) and two months later the founder of the Proms was dead. Woods main motivation in passing the Proms title to the BBC was to guarantee their financial security. But things went pear-shaped again in 1980 when twenty concerts were lost from the Proms season as musicians went on strike following the BBC's ill-conceived attempt to save money by disbanding the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Great music has been made, and will continue to be made, at the Proms while under BBC management. But we should remember that for a third of the hundred plus year span of the concerts the BBC was not involved in their running. Those years included the key early period when the unique and priceless DNA of the concerts developed, and it would be a mistake to assume, without questioning, that the fragile DNA can survive the transition from national music festival to global multi-media brand.

I appreciate I may be a lone voice on this, although the Google ranking for An Overgrown Path suggests readers are sympathetic to my point of view, if not in agreement. But it's the music that matters, so to to celebrate other lone voices I will be running an occasional series of articles over the coming weeks featuring some musical loners who are not appearing at the 2008 BBC Proms. Back in 2006 I tried to answer the question 'what is a classic' by quoting scholar and poet Mark Van Doren's view that: 'A classic is a book that remains in print'. I don't claim the lone voices I am featuring are necessarily classics, but they have recorded CDs that I keep listening to. That's what this blog is about, not global multi-media brands. So here, on the left of the photo below, is my first lone voice.


Spanish countertenor Carlos Mena is, quite literally, a lone voice on my first featured CD. Et Jesum is a recital of polyphonic motets, antiphons, and mass sections by Tomás Luis de Victoria arranged for solo countertenor voice and accompanying laud (a Spanish lute) or vihuela. In their lifetimes the music of Victoria and other Renaissance composers was arranged for domestic performance and this Harmonia Mundi CD (sleeve below) uses a mixture of authentic period and modern arrangements.

The string accompaniments are expertly delivered by Juan Carlos Rivera (right of photo) who is joined on some tracks by Francisco Rubio Gallego whose cornet adds an almost contemporary feel to the music. The performers are beautifully captured by engineer Jean-Daniel Noir in la Iglesia Parroquial Sant Corneli de Collbató in Barcelona. The effect of these arrangements is very different to conventional symphonic and operatic reductions. The results are not miniature versions of Victoria's multi-part masterpieces. Instead they create a new sound-world which makes you listen to the originals with fresh ears. And that's what is so special about lone voices.


Find Tomás Luis de Victoria sung by American voices here.
Lone voices showcases music not featured in the 2008 BBC Proms, discover more lone voices here. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Twilight of the art director?


Dear Pliable, Lovely album cover. Above is another from Westminster that really takes the biscuit! An all-time favourite of mine. Never heard the recording.
Michael Richards, Sydney


Thanks Michael, knowing the wonderful piece you contributed about Stravinsky's Tibetan connection I thought it was an LP of music by George Crumb. Read here how Crumb was an influences on another vastly underrated contemporary composer.
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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

High art - high prices


Frank Gehry's temporary Serpentine Gallery Pavillion, seen above, is currently the hot thing in London high art. It opens on July 19 with a concert by another priest of high art, Thomas Adès. Despite the photo on the Gallery's website of Adès with baton in hand the event is, in fact, a chamber music recital. The music by Adès and Conlon Nancarrow should be stunning. But high art comes at a price - the cheapest seats are £45 ($90). For which concert goers are warned 'The Pavilion is an open structure, so please dress accordingly. Due to the unique architecture some tickets may have restricted sightline'.

High prices - best music by any twentieth century composer?
Picture credit Serpentine Gallery © Gehry Partners LLP 2008. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Talking of reaching new audiences


Even the Berlin Philharmonic started as a beer-hall orchestra.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Now for something a little more contrived

'There seems no denying the widespread opinion that photos of an orchestra performing are visually very dull. In the days when LPs were a wonderful canvas for art directors, except for putting the conductor on the cover, a classical music album with an image of orchestra on the cover was much rarer than one with something else more contrived'
- is the opening of a well-researched piece on the use of photos of orchestras by newspapers.

The article appears on the personal blog of Nat Bocking whose day job is with the estimable Aldeburgh Music. Nat's well-researched piece agrees with Julian Bream that novelty and transient fashion are the preferred currency of today's media and he concludes that if you want the newspapers to cover your music story with a picture you need a visual stunt as bait, like the one above which is linked from his article.

Now take this path to another classic misunderstanding from the conductor of those visually contrived Planets.
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Critics 1 - Composers 0


'A British composer was told to go bankrupt yesterday after he unsuccessfully tried to sue the London Evening Standard for libel. Keith Burstein ran up legal costs of £67,000 defending a test-case libel action against Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Standard, over a critical review of one of his operas' - reports today's Independent. But here's one that fooled the music critics.
Beckmesser image from apeth.org. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Happy birthday Julian Bream


Mutual friend Johnnie Warrack went with Julian Bream to the Royal Academy one year and they went into one room dominated by a large nude. Julian exclaims in loud astonishment, 'Christ, I know 'er!' Silence in that room and the bystanders wait for more. 'What a smashing pair of plonkers!'

Julian once lent his flat to the South American singer Ana Raquel while he was out of the country. She said she found eighteen pairs of evening shoes under the bed, all worn right down at the heels, likewise a cupboard containing forty-seven dirty evening shirts and a whole room full of unopened letters and telegrams.

His Dartington masterclasses were instructive and fun. On the first day one year he tried to correct one lad, playing the same passage on his own guitar and saying, 'Go on, more like that. See wot I mean?' At which the lad replied, ''S all very well for you. You've got a good box to play on. Mine's a soap box.' Julian conceded he had a point. He hadn't thought of that, so he went round the whole circle of students, playing on every instrument, and, incidentally, making almost as lovely sound on the first lad's box as he had on his own custom-built job.


Julian Bream celebrates his 75th birthday today, and those stories about him come from John Amis' autobiographical Amiscellany which also supplied the header photo for the full tribute I posted yesterday.
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Monday, July 14, 2008

Playing the music anniversary game


'About twenty years ago ... a like-minded friend introduced me to a profound and wonderful book on Ancient Chinese philosophy called I Ching or the Book of Change. It is based on the teachings of Confucius, and was used in Ancient China as an oracle. The pith of this book is about nature and humankind's place within it. There are many references to our personal ancestors, a preoccupation reflected in an almost ritualized devotion and respect to their evocation.

This is in contradistinction to the present mode of thought in the Western world whereby we hanker after novelty and transient fashion - where maturity of age, and with it the possibility of insight and wisdom, is not only neglected but has been regrettably made redundant. It seems to me that to have the gift of access to an ancient spirit may very well be the most important influence on the artist's soul, though they must never underestimate the predominance of the cultural ambience that encompasses their life.'


John Cage wasn't the only modern musician to embrace the I Ching. The prescient words above were written more than ten years ago by one of our greatest living musicians. On July 15th, 2008 that musician, who is seen to the left of the photo above, is 75. But the chance outcome of the music anniversary game and the media's hankering after novelty and transcient fashion means his birthday will pass almost unnoticed. This is despite being acclaimed for his achievements in early music and having the following works written for him by a veritable who's who of twentieth century composers.

Reginald Smith Brindle El Polifemo de Oro (1956), Lennox Berkeley Sonatina, op. 52, no. 1 (1957), Tristram Cary Sonata (1959), Malcolm Arnold Concerto for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra, op. 67 (1959), Benjamin Britten Nocturnal after John Dowland, op. 70 (1963), Richard Rodney Bennett Five Impromptus (1968), Tom Eastwood Ballade-Phantasy (1968), Peter Racine Fricker Paseo (1969), Reginald Smith Brindle Variants on two themes of J. S. Bach (1970), Richard Rodney Bennett Guitar Concerto (1970), Malcolm Arnold Fantasy, op. 107 (1971), Alan Rawsthorne Elegy (1971), William Walton Five Bagatelles (1972), Humphrey Searle Five (1974), Lennox Berkeley Guitar Concerto, Op. 88 (1974), Hans Werner Henze Royal Winter Music (first sonata, 1976), Giles Swayne Suite (1976), Peter Maxwell Davies Hill Runes (1981), Michael Berkeley Sonata in One Movement (1982), Richard Rodney Bennett Sonata (1983), Michael Tippett The Blue Guitar (1984), Leo Brouwer Concerto elegiaco (Guitar Concerto No. 3) (1986), Toru Takemitsu All in Twilight (1987), Leo Brouwer Sonata (1990).

Julian Bream's early influences included Django Reinhardt and Andrés Segovia and he attributes some of his musical genius to the Sephardic Jewish background of his mother. While studying guitar at the Royal College of Music in London Bream worked as a freelance musician for the BBC playing incidental music for Elizabethan plays. In Tony Palmer's book Life on the Road Bream explains "I felt instinctively that this was a musical period in these islands rich in beauty, inventiveness, and vitality, and it seemed to me I had a possibility to help revitalize some of this music. I had a mission almost: to present this music in a way that was not of the museum, but of now, although still retaining the music's essential spirit". His success championing Elizabethan lute music led to the formation of the Julian Bream Consort, one of the first period instrument ensembles, in 1960.


But Julian Bream is much more than an early music specialist. During his three years National Service in the early 1950s he played electric jazz guitar in the Royal Artillery's dance band and realised, to use his own words "that the future of the guitar ... is every bit as important as its past." The list of modern composers who wrote for Bream is daunting and the photo above shows Sir Malcolm Arnold conducting him in the composer's Guitar Concerto. Bream was part of the legendary circle of musicians that revolved around BBC Controller of Music Sir William Glock in the 1960s and also included Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Igor Stravinsky and Bruno Maderna.

One of Sir William Glock's ground-breaking Thursday Invitations Concerts on the BBC's Third Programme comprised the Melos Ensemble, Peter Pears and Julian Bream in a programme of Dowland Songs, Beethoven's Serenade Op. 25 and Henze's Chamber Music of 1958. Britten composed his Nocturnal, after Dowland, Op. 70 for Bream and also his 1957 Songs from the Chinese, Op. 58 for the duo of Peter Pears and Bream, and my footer photo shows the two musicians at Aldeburgh in 1974.

Julian Bream is a true animateur and his TV work includes an eight part series from 1984 exploring historical perspectives of Spanish guitar music. His duo albums with John Williams reached new audiences for the classical guitar without indulging in novelty and transient fashion and were rewarded with gold and silver discs. My header photo shows Bream and Williams relaxing between sessions for a 1971 duo recording at Bream's Wiltshire farmhouse which was equipped with a recording studio. His farmhouse recently sold for £3 million, which is a lot of lute . Bream is a true maverick whose hobbies include cricket and classic cars. His two marriages have failed to survive his bon viveur lifestyle which included a serious car crash in 1984 that almost ended his career.

There can be few living musicians with such impeccable credentials in both the early and contemporary music fields backed by a stream of best-selling albums and decades of media exposure. So why is Julian Bream's 75th birthday receiving so little attention? Let's start by looking at the BBC. In Sir William Glock's day passion and vision decided what was played on the Third Programme. Today at Radio 3, if you're not booked at the Proms, if you're not a BBC New Generation Artist or you don't have a new release to plug you are in the musical wilderness. As I write a search on the Radio 3 website for 'Julian Bream' returns a first hit dated 26 February 2006. There are no tribute programmes on his birthday and the Radio 3 Artist in Focus on Bream's birthday is pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard who has a lacklustre new disc of the Art of Fugue to flog and is playing in three Proms, including the opening concert on Friday.

But it would be churlish to blame the BBC alone for the neglect of this important anniversary. From 1958 to 1990 Bream recorded a huge and important catalogue of recordings for what was then RCA and is now Sony BMG Masterworks. Of the hundreds of recordings Bream made for RCA just nineteen are curently available, and only three of those are from the definitive 28 CD Julian Bream Edition. Two of the nineteen discs are accounts of Rodrigo's ever popular but out-of-step concerto. The Sony BMG website makes no mention of his 75th birthday and there are no celebratory discs from them. The only release to mark his birthday is an over-priced double CD from Deutsche Grammophon of very early recordings. So are the ailing record companies to blame? Well, not exactly. Two emails to the guitarist's agent requesting information for this article have gone unanswered. Perhaps it's just our current cultural ambience.

But let's forget about playing the music anniversary game. For, as the I Ching tells us there is order in chance events. And I am confident that means Julian Bream's peerless guitar playing will survive long after the novelty and transient fashions that have temporarily displaced it. Today let's celebrate his maturity of age and all the insight, wisdom and glorious music making that it has brought us. Happy birthday maestro!


What is it about table tennis and contemporary musicians?
Header quote is from Julian Bream, the Foundation of a Musical Career by Stuart W Button. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk