Sunday, November 30, 2008

Their incredible screaming vitality ...

We went to Glyndebourne's controversial new Hänsel und Gretel on Friday. I can understand why this Hansel in a supermarket (above) and cardboard box (below) from French director Laurent Pelly may not be to everyone's tastes. But, we thought this one of the most uplifting and life-affirming evening's we have spent in the theatre for years. Special mentions for Elizabeth DeShong as Hänsel, Bernarda Bobro as Gretel (both above), conductor Robin Ticciati, and the Glyndebourne Touring orchestra. They did full justice to Engelbert Humperdink's ravishing score despite the Theatre Royal, Norwich's dry as as a bone acoustics. The rapturous reception of the Norwich audience to this wonderful evening of live music reminded me of Steve Hagen's words in his 1997 book Buddhism: Plain and Simple:
... As the millenium draws to a close, we've become jaded about great art and music simply because, with our technology, we've made it all too commonplace. When we can see reproductions of van Gogh's Sunflowers regularly, we no longer see their incredible screaming vitality. And how much power is left in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony after the hundredth hearing? (It might help to remember that for the people of Beethoven's day, just hearing it at all would be a rare event.)

To avoid becoming any more jaded I'm off up a French mountain for a while, so the path will be taking a break. Support other music blogs while I'm away, and here's some more van Gogh.

Tickets for Hänsel und Gretel were purchased from Theatre Royal, Norwich. Photo credits Glyndebourne. 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

Saturday, November 29, 2008

People no longer seem to value listening

It's not a genius prize. But I can reblog this post from Classical-Iconoclast without too much embarassment as I did not write the Gergive article; the author was another prickly music lover.

Please read this article "Why I am sorely disillusioned by Gergiev" on the blog On An Overgrown Path. Now this is intelligent, analytical, well reasoned writing by someone who knows what he is talking about. Personally I couldn't care less about Gergiev's politics but they are symptomatic of G's approach to music. I love a lot of Gergiev's work, even when he's crass. But the scary thing is that his new popularity demonstrates something even more scary in this superficial soundbite era of "instant" thrills. People no longer seem to value listening, learning, thinking. Read Overgrown Path, it is what seriously good blogging can be. I wish I could write as well as that.
If the LSO want the full score it is here. Song credit Mark A. Mandel. 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, November 28, 2008

Is this a record?

Is this a CD, a book, or a multi-media package? Is this early music, archive recording or new music? Is this classical, sacred, ethnic, or world music? Is this entertainment or scholarship? Is this Eastern or Western music? Is this classical music helping to change the world? Is this digital content or a visual feast? Is this my CD of the year? Is the music really spanning one thousand years? Is this a great humanitarian statement or a coffee table book? Is this music for a virtuoso audience? Is there really no MP3 download option? Is this music for innocent ears? Is this the perfect Christmas present? Is this 435 page full colour volume a statement that small is no longer beautiful? Is this a record? Is this the future of recorded music? The answer on all counts is yes. Or, in other words, this is Jordi Savall's latest project.

Jerusalem originated as a concert series commissioned by the Cité de la Musique in Paris to celebrate the three major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This was developed by the creative team of Montserrat Figueras, Manuel Forcano and Jordi Savall into a celebration of the grandeur and folly that marks the history of the city of Jerusalem. Everything about Jordi Savall's latest project is epic. The cast includes the usual musicians from Spain, France, England, Belgium and Greece that make up Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya. In addition there are Jewish and Palestinian singers and instrumentalists from Israel, as well as from Iraq, Armenia, Turkey, Morocco and Syria. The music from Palestine is played by the Sufi Group Al- Darwish. As well as music from Jerusalem's time as a Jewish, Christian, Arab and Ottoman city there are pleas for peace in Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian and Latin, plus a 1950 archive recording of a Hymn to the victims of Auschwitz recorded in 1950 by Shlomo Katz and a closing fanfare composed by Jordi Savall in 2008.

The beautifully balanced programme is sequenced into seven 'chapters' on two 78 minute hybrid CDs supported by a lavish colour book with background articles in eight langauges. The performances are outstanding, even by Jordi Savall's uncompromising standards. The sound quality surpasses demonstration level. There is really no need to review Jerusalem. Timothy Leary once said 'thinking is the best way to travel'. Well, I've found an even better way. Buy Jordi Savall's latest project.

Listen to Jordi Savall in conversation with me here.
Jerusalem was purchased in the UK. Release dates may vary between countries. 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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

War Requiem - the movie

Adding images to a masterpiece by Benjamin Britten is a high risk venture. But director Derek Jarman was never one to shirk a challenge, and his 1988 film War Requiem has just been re-released in a twentieth anniversary edition DVD. Jarman's dramatic visual realisation is set to, and fully respects, Britten's music. The only addition is a superb opening cameo appearance by Laurence Olivier reciting the Wilfrid Owen poem, Strange Meeting, which Britten set for Peter Pears in the Requiem's Libera me. This was Olivier's final performance, and the 82 year old actor died the following year.

Derek Jarman, who died of Aids in 1994, jokingly referred to this film as 'The Three Queers' Requiem. This is a reference to his own role as director, Britten's as composer, and Wilfrid Owen as the homoerotic poet whose texts are combined with the Latin Requiem Mass in Britten's masterpiece. The stunning and shocking film has Jarman's signature homosexual overtones, and it serves both as a Requiem for those fell in battle, and for the victims of the terrible Aids epidemic that swept through the arts community in the 1980s. It works on many levels. If you love Britten's work it is an illuminating commentary on his pacifist views. If you still don't 'get' the War Requiem, and I know there are some who don't, this film may just make the work 'click'. The only problem is that Derek Jarman's direction is so strong that it is almost impossible to hear Britten's music after seeing the film without recalling the graphic images that accompany it. In this respect War Requiem is right up there with Lucino Visconti's use of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony in his film Death In Venice.

War Requiem is viewed by many to be Jarman's finest achievement. But it was almost overlooked at the time of release as it was considered to be more music video than feature film. But the critics are right when they categorise the film as Jarman's greatest work, and this re-release will, hopefully, bring it the audience it deserves. For the 2008 re-issue an illuminating interview has been added featuring producer Don Boyd, Nathaniel Parker who plays Wilfrid Owen, and, for my money and despite Olivier's appearance, the star of the film, the brilliant Tilda Swinton as the nurse. The soundtrack uses Britten's own classic recording of the War Requiem. The DVD sleeve says 'Remastered audio of original Decca recording'. I don't know precisely what that means, but the sound quality from the DVD is simply stunning, and better than the CD transfers. In today's crazy world you can buy the DVD of War Requiem for £12, which is less than the audio original. For American readers offer a Region 1 DVD. But check before buying; although the release date is given as September 2008 the sleeve is the original 1988 version.

Below is the trailer for the 2008 release of War Requiem. If you prefer your Britten 'straight', if you see what I mean, try the Britten-Pears Foundation introductory video.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Derek Jarman's War requiem was borrowed from Norwich Library Services - can this really be true? 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, November 26, 2008

What we need are virtuoso audiences

Both of these types of pieces are essentially contrapuntal and can be very demanding on the members of the audience requiring them to become at times 'virtuoso listeners' as they penetrate the interaction and winding ways of the musical lines.
So writes lutenist Hopkinson Smith about Francesco da Milano's Fantasias and Recercari which feature on the superb new Naïve CD seen above. And how right Hopkinson Smith is about the need for virtuoso listeners. So much futile effort is being extended today on trying to reach non-existent new audiences for classical music when, what is really needed, is to develop, extend and challenge existing audiences.

For an example of a virtuoso audience look no further than any Britten Sinfonia concert. This ensemble refused to play the celebrity music director game and instead poured their considerable talents into developing a virtuoso audience that fills concert halls for everything from the Tunisian oud to Handel's Messiah. When a critic of the stature of Richard Morrison writes in the Times of a Britten Sinfonia concert that 'this is the future of classical music', it is time to sit up and take notice.

The ears of a virtusos listener are open to everything from early to contemporary music, and beyond to world music and jazz. And that is the polar opposite of today's audiences where specialisation increasingly means dualism. I shudder every time I see initiatives like the Boston Symphony Orchestra's recently announced subsidised tickets for concert goers under-40. Quick fixes to reach new audiences are so yesterday. The way forward is imaginative and intelligent programming that will turn existing audiences into virtuoso listeners, who then create a virtuous circle as marketing ambassadors spreading the word that classical music is alive, kicking and happening. It's not wishful thinking. Who would have bet on a mainstream critic like Richard Morrison enthusing over a fusion of classical and world music?

I said earlier that today specialisation among audiences actually means dualism. Here, in conclusion, is a section from Steve Hagen's incomparable book Buddhism Pure and Simple. It is as relevant to classical music as it is to anything:

For those unfamiliar with the term as it's being used here, dualism simply refers to the world of left and right, dark and light, good and bad, pure and impure. It's the psychological backdrop for our everyday world of chasing after some things and running away from others, the world in which if you differ from me, then there's something wrong with you.
More Francesco da Milano here.
Hopkinson Smith CD was purchased from the invaluable Prelude Records. If I hadn't seen it on their shelf you would not be reading about it 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

Copyright or copywrong?

Copyright hit a nerve in my recent posts on the Naxos Hansel and Gretel and the Modern Jazz Quartet re-releases. So today's story that musicians are pressing for an extension of mechanical copyright in the EEC from 50 to 95 years makes interesting reading. In the United States the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended copyright on mechanical recordings to 2067. As a result, no sound recording can be considered, definitively, to be in the public domain in the US before that date, even if the recording was made before 1923 and even if it was recorded in another country where it has already entered the public domain. This disparity between US and EEC copyright law allows recordings such as the 1953 EMI Hansel and Gretel to be copied by Naxos and others for resale in the EEC but not in the US. But the record companies are using technology to keep recordings in copyright.

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, November 25, 2008

Why I am sorely disillusioned by Gergiev

Dear Pliable, Recent postings have prompted me to return to my original story about Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra. Jfl posted a valuable article from the New York Times (8th November 2008), in which Gergiev is reported as remaining ‘unrepentant, even proud, of his role’ in the Kirov’s victory concert for Russia in Ossetia: ‘Morally, I am 100 percent sure I did the right thing.’ And as for Western criticism? ‘So what? I am Ossetian.’ Well, that’s fine, then.

It appears extraordinarily disingenous of Gergiev to accept Western patronage while dismissing his paymasters as politically irrelevant. Even more pertinent to the LSO, however, is Michael McManus’s piece ‘Podium Politics’ in November’s Gramophone. McManus, a one-time parliamentary candidate, reports that during a concert break in one of the LSO’s recent Edinburgh performances he was quizzed by orchestra members and asked: ‘What’s the truth about Ossetia then?’ McManus’s conclusion is: ‘Evidently their principal conductor had also been sharing his trenchant views with them, in no uncertain terms.’ This is utterly indefensible. If there’s one thing orchestral musicians hate, it’s being talked at, but it beggars belief that LSO players should now have to take political lectures from Gergiev. The old ‘buccaneers’ would have chewed him up and spat him out. What is going on?

Norman Lebrecht puts his finger on it in his trenchant online article Gergiev is selling us short’ for La Scena Musicale ( in October. The LSO comes a poor third behind Gergiev’s loyalty to his Caucasian origins and his Mariinsky empire. ‘The LSO used to be London’s top draw. No longer. At the South Bank, the London Philharmonic has rejuventated its concerts... under Vladimir Jurowski and Yannick Nezet-Seguin..., while the Philharmonia has received a much-needed glamour infusion from the ex-LA maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen.’ Even more damning is Lebrecht’s judgement that: ‘Against stiffened competition, the LSO has allowed itself to become an unprotected subsidiary and bag-carrier of Gergiev Global.’ Ouch!

This view is increasingly supported among the broadsheet critics. Anthony Holden, reviewing Vladimir Jurowski’s ‘Revealing Tchaikovsky’ Festival in the Observer (9th November 2008), reports that: ‘The festival also demonstrated how much the LPO has improved under Jurowski’s leadership, as has the Philharmonia... Suddenly, the South Bank has two world-class orchestras ready to challenge the recent dominance of the LSO.’ (Jurowski is seen in the accompanying photos - Pliable).

Richard Morrison, writing in the Times (26th September 2008), says of Jurowski and the LPO: ‘What impressses about Vladimir Jurowski almost as much as his insouciantly assured conducting technique and the high intelligence of his interpretations is the boldness that he shows in programming the London Philharmonic’s concerts. This isn’t yet the most virtuoso orchestra in London. But true music-lovers are flocking to hear it because Jurowski is devising such intriguing combinations of works, then coaxing his players to perform them so persuasively.’

The LSO now faces serious challenges in terms of repertoire and performance. I have already referred in detail to Sir Colin Davis’s tenure as Principal Conductor as a Golden Age on account of the exceptionally high quality of performance and breadth of repertoire, in much of which he remains not only a fount of experience but a supreme exponent. Criticisms of 19th Century bias are silenced by a procession of high quality reviews and peerless live performances that fill CD shelves and win awards. Sir Colin’s performances of 20th Century music continue to be outstanding, and he is giving premieres of 21st Century works.

Looking through the 2008-2009 Barbican season, Sir Colin is conducting 10 of around 60 home performances, including works by Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Elgar, Mozart, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Verdi and Walton’. The latter’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ was as bristling and uncompromising a start to Sir Colin’s season as one could have wished, and I have no reason to believe that the remaining concerts will not play to his strengths. I shall be hearing them.

While Sir Colin conducts 10 performances as ex-Principal Conductor, Gergiev, as Principal, is conducting a mere 11, including works by Bartok, Berlioz, Korngold, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Wagner. However, having already endured an aural battering in two concerts from the Rachmaninov ‘mini-festival’, I no longer feel I can trust Gergiev even in his native repertoire. The cavalier change of a promising programme for 29th January (see your posting) to a repeat of the ‘Rite of Spring’ and ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ from 27th January only reiterates what is already a dreadfully lazy and inept combination. In any case, I still have powerful memories of Kertesz and Haitink in ‘Bluebeard’. Interestingly, I note that ticket sales for 29th January are neither strong in the Stalls nor the Balcony and frankly terrible in the Circle. That tells its own story, and I shall be returning my own tickets to add to the great un-sold.

In the 2007-2008 season, Gergiev again conducted a mere 10 concerts and delivered, allegedly under some protest, his highly controversial Mahler cycle. Although Gergiev, like all principal conductors, extends his engagements with the LSO through its tours, what happens at home remains vitally important, and the current impression is not flattering.

Meanwhile, on the South Bank, Vladimir Jurowski is conducting 14 of 42 concerts in the 2008-2009 season as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (from September 2007) with whom he works intensively as music director of Glyndbourne Opera (from January 2001). He is also a principal artist with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). He and the LPO are on tour in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

Jurowski’s opening concert for the 2008-2009 season, challenging and intelligent, was regarded as nothing less than a manifesto: Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony, Turnage’s ‘Mambo, Blues and Tarantella – Violin Concerto’ (world première), and Ligeti’s Atmosphères eliding without a break into Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Three days later, Jurowski conducted a concert of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Hartmann’s Gesangsszene and Brahms’s Second Symphony. Exemplary planning and execution garnered the highest praise.

In October and November, Jurowski acted as artistic director of the ‘Revealing Tchaikovsky’ Festival. I had hoped that Gergiev might offer us something special on Tchaikovsky; indeed, I have heard him give a searing Pathétique. However, Gergiev’s desultory Rachmaninov mini-festival, two piano concertos and three symphonies cheek by jowl in blaring, under-rehearsed performances did not inspire confidence. While Gergiev is a man of intense emotions, Jurowski is an intellectual and philosopher, and this is apparent in the excellent Festival brochure and programming which demonstrate Tchaikovsky’s greatness by placing him in his wider musical and cultural context. Stravinsky’s Fairy’s Kiss, in delectable tandem with Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, was followed by the lovely Iolanta.

With the OAE, Jurowski presented two versions of the Romeo & Juliet Overture and a related duet around the literary connections between Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare. And so it went on, with illuminating refractions from Kalinnikov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schumann, Shostakovich and Taneyev. Pre-concert talks, chamber concerts and other diverse events provided further stimulus to an exemplary model of what excellent programming can achieve.
Belatedly, and now with much regret, I caught up with our ‘other Russian in town’ on 5th November. The hyper-sensitive Tchaikovsky found kindred spirits in both Schumann and Byron’s Manfred, and his glorious Manfred Symphony was preceded by Schumann’s wonderful Overture and Shostakovich’s tormented Second Cello Concerto. Jurowski struck a perfect balance between brooding poetry and dynamic energy in the Overture, giving space to lyrical passages without enfeebling Schumann’s propulsive rhythms. Mario Brunello’s lyrical approach to the haunted Shostakovich was superbly accompanied by the LPO’s spikey woodwinds, confidently duetting horns and tick-tocking percussion.

Jurowski’s Manfred Symphony was magnificent in its structural grip and subtle integration of disparate moods and tempi. The LPO strings striding down into the sonorous depths of the double-basses plumbed Manfred’s tortured soul. Violins were ravishing in their high-flying melodies and exquisite as gossamer at the end of the second movement, richly supported by vibrant violas and cellos. Woodwinds were a fulsome choir and richly characterful as soloists; brass were bright, burnished and refulgent. The tonal weight of the orchestra at full stretch in the first and last movements was truly awesome, and on this form the LPO is a world-class orchestra.

Although still only 36 years old, Jurowski has been causing a critical stir since his LPO debut in 2001, and a survey of broadsheet reviews attests to his remarkable gifts. Russian by birth, Jurowski’s German training and experience account for his depth in Austro-German reportoire. He is undoubtedly a prodigious talent with a refreshingly transparent technique; solos are beautifully tiered and graded, cues and dynamics are crystal clear, and with the smallest of gestures, such as a little nod or flick of the elbow, he will get the violins to nuance an exquisite phrase. Intensely concentrated, he does not throw himself about during the loudest passages.

Jurowski makes a fascinating distinction between what is expressive and emotional in music. ‘Expressivity is the active force that unlocks the emotion… It doesn’t matter what I feel about the music…I agree with Stravinsky that music can but express itself.’ (Interview with Edward Seckerson in The Independent, 19th September 2007). To see how he achieves this, watch the newly-released EMI DVD of the Met’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Mature beyond his years, Jurowski already displays the enviable ability to take an overview of a piece and yet give detail time to breathe within the space needed. He releases emotion through the subtlest expressivity, yet unleashes energy that can be breathtakingly thrilling. The LPO has done marvellously well in nurturing this exceptional talent, and music-lovers are in for wonderful treats on the South Bank.

And what of the LSO? They could have had Chailly, or maybe even Haitink in the interim, but the biggest and best catch, Mariss Jansons, slipped through the net. The Great Gordan (Nikolitch) has gone, and Guest Leaders trail in and out. The Gewandhaus’s amazing Sebastian Breuninger, by far the best in a fabulous Haitink-led Strauss concert last June, has not been seen again. As an émigré myself, imagine my surprise when I found not only Andrew Haveron (frequent LSO Guest Leader), but also the LSO’s Principal Second Violin, Evgeny Grach, guesting for the LPO! It was comforting to find myself in such distinguished LSO company.

After decades of commitment to the LSO, I now feel an increasing sense of loss. I am sorely disillusioned by Gergiev who, in his pomp, is at once more inflated yet less effectual as a musician, and I shall definitely be returning my tickets. In the interim, I can barely wait for my next outing with Jurowski and the LPO in December: Mahler’s Symphony No.10 – Adagio, and Act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I have signed on as a Friend of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Regards 'Hedgehog'

Thanks for that 'Hedgehog'. Back in 2006 I ran a post about Vladimir Jurowski titled Zen and the Art of Shostakovich. Your observation that 'Jurowski is an intellectual and philosopher' resonates so strongly with that post that I thought it worth quoting Jurowski's words again.

'When I played Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony in Russia, I put it together with his song-cycle on Japanese texts. There I am emphasising the rather tragic aspect of the symphony, which is often neglected, and also the oriental touch about the first movement. I mean like Zen, like Japanese Zen. If you listen to the flute duet in the middle of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony, with the tam-tam and the harp - it's the most peculiar music, and the only thing it makes you think of is the last movement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. That piece is totally Zen, and Shostakovich said the one piece he would take to a desert island would be Das Lied. But Russians have always had their own specific perception of Buddhism. If you read Tolstoy, a lot of his writings coincide with Buddhist thought, and I think the most Buddhist aspect of Russian culture is its passivity. Now, Shostakovich cannot be counted as passive, but this passage in the Sixth Symphony is completely static.

I discovered the Tao Te King of Lao Tse about five years ago. It's one of the most important books in the history of mankind. We were never able to have a Bible at home, but this was 1987, so Gorbachev's glasnost was beginning to have its effects, and there were unofficial booksellers on the streets. It was a Bible in Russian, and I still have it. My parents thought I was losing my mind.The way yoga changes your perception of the world is amazing. It's another kind of ecstatic experience.'
Here, to illustrate what 'Hedgehog' described as Vladimir Jurowski's subtle sensitivity is an excerpt from his interpretation of another Mahler work, Das klagende Lied, a performance that also provided the accompanying screen grabs.

Neither 'Hedgehog' nor On An Overgrown Path have any connection with the London Philharmonic or any other orchestra other than as ticket buyers. 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

Monday, November 24, 2008

Richard Hickox - contemporary music's loss

There was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour
This quotation from Luke 23:44 stands at the head of the score of Edmund Rubbra's crowning achievement, his Symphony No. 9 'Sinfonia Sacra'. The superlative world premiere recording of that work is seen below. The conductor of the 1993 Chandos CD was Richard Hickox conducting his beloved BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales. Today, the music world is reeling at the truly shocking news of Richard Hickox's sudden death on Sunday at the age of 60. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music before becoming organ scholar at Queen's College, Cambridge. His repertoire was wide, and his first performances included the premiers of The Three Kings and A Dance on the Hill by Peter Maxwell Davies. A successful international career meant Richard worked with many leading orchestras and opera companies, but the sense of loss is so great because of his unique contribution championing lesser-known twentieth century music.

Richard Hickox's driving passion was British composers. Because he championed names such as Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn and Edmund Rubbra Richard never became a jet-set conductor. We must be thankful for that; because, instead of becoming just another celebrity name on the music festival circuit, he contributed more than 300 CDs to the catalogue, including the complete symphonies of Rubbra, Alwyn, Arnold and Tippett. I spend a lot of time listening to Richard's recordings. This is not only because they are very good. It is also because, in many cases, they are the only commercial recordings of works that are never heard in the concert hall. And we are not talking about 'justly neglected masterpieces'. He championed music that has been quite scandalously ignored by higher-profile conductors, despite its obvious merit.

We have lost a truly great musical figure. Richard Hickox was a wonderful musician. But he was also prepared to devote much of his career to going where others fear to tread. That is something very rare among top conductors today. Nothing can offset the feeling of loss. But at least Richard's passion will live on in his wonderful recorded legacy.

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, November 23, 2008

Why I hate cool and ironic

The infuriating thing is that the BBC can be both so good and so bad within a very short space of time. On Saturday's CD Review on Radio 3 Jonathan Swain reminded us just how good the BBC can be. His review of the available recordings of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Job - A Masque For Dancing was a textbook example of informed and intelligent radio. His advocacy of the work was so powerful that I listened again to Tod Handley's 1984 LP of this overlooked masterpiece as soon as the programme finished.

The bad thing is that Jonathan Swain, and several other excellent presenters, have been sidelined to specialist review and overnight programmes as Radio 3 continues to trade excellence for access. Clearly BBC director general Mark Thompson never listened to Russell Brand on Radio 2. I also suspect that Radio 3 controller Roger Wright doesn't spend enough time listening to his own station's output.

Jonathan Swain's passionate case for Job was a million miles from the cool and ironic style loved by the New York in-crowd. If I need reminding why I hate cool and ironic I will return to Sequenza21's recent interview with composer Rodney Lister and his comments about Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony.

The antithesis of cool and ironic was Dutch blogger Rolf Otterhouses' impassioned 'I am so bloody angry!' on YouTube. Rolf was one of many passionate people who spoke out about the threatened closure of Dutch classical webcaster Concertzender. And their passion has produced results. Last week I reported how the Dutch culture minister had intervened in Concertzendergate. This has been followed by even better news. First the Rotterdam programme council ruled that Concertzender must be included in the city's cable programming. Then the Dutch culture minister announced he would accept a submission from Concertzender presenting their case for staying online.

The moral of this story is that being cool and ironic gives the in-crowd a nice warm feeling; while getting bloody angry actually makes a difference.

Vernon Handley's Job is available as an EMI CD. 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, November 21, 2008

At home with Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten was born in the house seen in these photos on November 22nd, 1913. The house is 21, Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft in Suffolk. It was Britten's home until 1934, by which time he had composed his Simple Symphony op. 4, based on music written in the house between the ages of nine and twelve.

The two photos above shows the attic room that was Britten's bedroom for twenty-one years, and it is here that he composed much of his early music. The top photo shows the room today; the lower one was taken by Britten himself in late 1934. On the writing desk, where he composed, can be seen a small bust of Beethoven.

The North Sea, with its many moods, is a leitmotif that runs through all Britten's music. The breakers can be heard from his bedroom, and the photo was taken by me looking out to the shore on a typically grey and murky autumn day.

This is the same view photographed by Britten himself in December 1934. The view to the sea is the same, but progress hasn't yet claimed the grass in front of the house as a car park.

This photo shows the exterior of 21, Kirkley Cliff Road, or Britten House as it is now known. The Grade II listed Victorian townhouse was bought by Ann and Colin Ceresa several years ago and has just opened as a five star guesthouse after complete renovation. My photographs are the first glimpses of Britten's childhood home after its restoration to its former glory.

This photo shows the house seen from exactly the same viewpoint at the time that the Britten family lived there. Robert Britten, Benjamin's father, was a dentist who built up a substantial practice at the house. 21, Kirkley Cliff Road remained a dentist's surgery after it passed out of the Britten family, and dental equipment was still in the house when it was purchased by its present owners.

The listed house retains may original features, as can be seen from my photo of the entrance hall.

This photo shows the fifteen year old Britten leaving for school through the same entrance hall.

The drawing room is now the breakfast room for the guesthouse.

In Britten's day the drawing room housed the all important piano. This undated photo shows the young Benjamin at the keyboard. His prodigous talent is already evident as he appears to be playing four scores simultaneously.

This is another photo of the house which was Britten's home throughout his education. Although he was a boarder at Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk and at the Royal College of Music in London, Lowestoft remained his home base until he started work with the GPO Film Unit in London in 1935. The photo below of schoolboy Britten was taken in the house when he was aged around eleven.

It is wonderful that 21, Kirkley Cliff Road has not become a stuffy museum. Under Ann and Colin Ceresa's ownership it remains a working and welcoming home, and one that can be enjoyed by Britten's many admirers around the world. Benjamin's bedroom is one of the eight comfortable guestrooms. Visit the Britten House website for more details and tariffs. I would like thank Ann and Colin for giving Overgrown Path readers this exclusive view inside Benjamin Britten's home as we celebrate his birthday.

All contemporary photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path except the header which is courtesy of Britten House. 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

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A scam by a venal London merchant

There is a version of Hamlet called the bad quarto, which was the first to be printed, in 1603. It is a pirated edition, designed by an unknown bookseller to cheat Shakespeare of his royalties. To make it, the pirate hired one of the minor actors, the man who played Marcellus, to write out what he could remember of the play. In the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were first performed, the actors were only given pieces of paper holding their own lines. They never possessed a complete copy of the script.

As a consequence Marcellus's largely irrelevant words are perfectly rendered, the speeches of other characters he shares scenes with are competent, and the rest of the play when he was not on stage is a garbled mess. It is a pointless jumble, the work of the finest mind in English literature filtered through the memory of a bit-part player, catching snatches in the wings, then scribbling them down months later in a scam by a venal London merchant. His ineptitude is funny only because we have the original to compare it to. In Marcellus's version, Hamlet's famous soliloquy begins: 'To be, or not to be, Aye, there's the point.'
From Ivo Stourton's recommended first novel The Night Climbers. It may be heresy to mention venal London merchants and that guardian of the Bard's genius, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the same sentence, but I will anyway. Last night we saw the RSC's new production of Romeo and Juliet with Anglo-Asian Anneika Rose and David Dawson in the title roles. The setting is mafia territory in the 1940s complete with knives and guns, with which I have no problem. Modern stagings are fine, if the text of the play or opera are totally respected; with Wagner's Ring providing enduring evidence that the text can survive the most bizarre stagings.

But the RSC's new Romeo and Juliet, which is directed by man of the moment Neil Bartlett, commits the cardinal sin of letting the gimmicks come between the Bard and the audience. Cheap Harry Potter-style sound effects are used to, spuriously, underline key moments in the drama, and voices are electronically processed to explain that the crypt scene, which looks like a crypt scene, is actually taking place in a crypt. Worst of all, the Prince's crucial final speech is drowned out by the on-stage musicians. It was good to see a capacity audience including many young people and school parties. Any live theatre is infinitely preferable to the dross of today's television. But is Shakespeare Hogwarts-style really the only way to reach new audiences?

And staying with venal London merchants I'm bracing myself for this committed curmudgeon's birthday treat next week. Glyndebourne's new Hansel and Gretel is set in a cardboard box and a supermarket - I joke not. I just hope there are no bleeping bar-code readers in the Glyndebourne production to mar that most sublime of all opera scores. As I write Naxos' UK copyright-exempt CD transfer of the 1953 EMI Karajan and Schwarzkopf Hansel plays. There is so much more to Engelbert Humperdinck's score than the well-known overture. The close of Act 1 is as moving as anything Wagner wrote and this super-budget priced double CD (or the more expensive EMI original) should be in every collection. Not only is Walter Legge's production lasting proof that great art has no need for cheap gimmicks, it is also one of the great achievements in the history of recorded sound.

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton was borrowed from Norfolk Library Services. Naxos' Hansel and Gretel was bought online. 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, November 19, 2008

A hero's life overshadowed

The premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice in 1954 was one of the events that changed the direction of twentieth century music. The photograph above was taken in Venice at the time of the premiere and shows Britten with some of those who helped reshape post-war music. Directly across from the composer is Peter Diamand, who was a co-founder and general manager of the Holland Festival, director of the Edinburgh Festival, director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and artistic adviser to the Orchestre de Paris. On Diamand's right is an exceptional musician whose reputation, like their face in this photo, has been overshadowed by the brilliant circle in which they moved. For the moment let's just call that person our incognito hero, or IH for short.

Our incognito hero came from a musical family and studied at a leading music conservatory. In 1930 a scholarship allowed the adventurous IH to travel and study music in the, then, political tinder-boxes of Austria, Germany, Holland and Hungary, as well as investigating stone circles in Sweden and Greek temples in Sicily by way of relaxation. Folk and early music were life-long passions, but a residency in Switzerland in 1939 to study the music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was cut short by the outbreak of war.

As the fascist blight spread our incognito hero made a truly valuable contribution by serving on the Bloomsbury House Committee refugee committee, which helped many exiled musicians from Germany and Austria start new lives and careers. IH then went on to play an important role in supporting amateur music in wartime Britain. After the war our hero continued to travel in Europe and in 1951 ventured further afield, spending two months studying the folk music of India and teaching at Rabindrath Tagore's Santiniketan University in West Bengal. This was a decade before an Indian connection became an essential entry on the CV of ambitious contemporary composers.

It was in the role of musical animateur that our hero really made an impact. From 1942 to 1951 IH lived and worked in the pioneering creative community at Dartington Hall in Devon that later played host to Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna and Karlheinz Stockhausen. From 1943 IH held the influential position of director of music at Dartington. Music critic and broadcaster John Amis described our hero's contribution there as follows:

Some of the best lectures in the early years came from IH who could talk about the basic elements, 'Rhythm' or 'Melody', in such a way as not only to instruct but to touch you by (their) exposition of the simple facts of musical life. I have seen Paul Hindemith and Artur Schnabel in IH's audience jingling pennies in their handkerchiefs to imitate percussion instruments, and loving it.
In 1952 Benjamin Britten invited our incognito hero to Aldeburgh to work as his music assistant, and IH's work included orchestrating Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb for the 1952 Aldeburgh Festival. IH held the influential position of the artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival for the 1956 and 1957 seasons and, while in Suffolk, wrote books on Purcell, Byrd, Bach and Britten. In 1964 our hero left Aldeburgh to concentrate on editing and promoting the music of a famous father who had died thirty years earlier. He was Gustav Holst, and our incognito hero is, of course, Imogen Holst, who is seen, out of the shadows, below.

Imogen Host is remembered today mainly for her contribution at Aldeburgh, and for her work championing her father's music. But she was also a very talented composer. Her compositions included a 1928 Phantasy Quartet which dates from her time as a student the Royal Academy of Music in London. This lyrical quartet shows the influence of one of her teachers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and is a noteworthy example of English Pastoralism. But the quartet is untypical of her output and it would be a pity if it branded Imogen Holst as a Classic FM composer. The 1930 Sonata for Violin and Cello was written in Vienna and its confident use of dissonance marks her emergence as a contemporary voice. The sinewy String Trio No. 1 was written in 1944 for the Dartington Trio and uses a bitonal effect with the two violins ganging up on the usual victim, the viola.

After a fallow period while at Aldeburgh, Imogen Holst returned to composing in the 1960s. Her output included the three short studies for solo cello on tunes from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book titled The Fall of the Leaf which have gained some acceptance as repertory pieces, and her 1968 Duo for Viola and Piano. The latter reflects the turbulence of its year of composition and experiments with twelve-tone techniques. In 1982, two years before her death, Imogen Holst composed her valedictory String Quintet, a magnificent work that, sadly, has yet to take its rightful place in the chamber repertoire.

Below are two striking photo portraits of Imogen Holst. She never married, but the early portrait shows her as a striking beauty. If I have achieved anything in this article, it is, I hope, to make you want to hear more of this little-known composer's music. Now here is the very good news. All the works I have described are recorded for the first time on a new CD of Imogen Holst's String Chamber Music played with outstanding commitment and technical fluency by Court Lane Music and issued on the ensembles own record label.

This is quite outstanding music which mirrors contemporary trends while retaining a unique voice. If the composer had been a male emigrée from Central Europe who spent their sunset years on the campus of a liberal arts college, I am sure this story would read very differently. But, even in 2008, the importance of geography, gender and celebrity culture mean this important new release has attracted only minimal attention. But you can rectify that by buying Imogen Holst's String Chamber Music as an MP3 download or CD here. ImHo this is music that really must be listened to with innocent ears.

Sources and suggested further reading:
- Imogen Holst - A Life in Music edited by Christopher Grogan (Boydell & Brewer ISBN 9781843832966)
- The Pandora Guide to Women Composers by Sophie Fuller (Pandora ISBN 0044409362)
- Benjamin Britten, Pictures from a Life 1913-1976 compiled by Donald Mitchell & John Evans (Faber ISBN 0571115705 OP)
- Gustav Holst, A Biography by Imogen Holst (Faber ISBN 9780571241996)
- Amiscellany - My Life, My Music by John Amis (Faber ISBN 0571139698 OP)
- Gustav Holst, links to Hindu Mysticism from International Vegetarian Union

- For a fresh view on Gustav Holst's most familiar work try York 2 playing the four hand piano reduction of The Planets.
- Gustav Holst's Eastern influenced works include his one-act opera Savitri and Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda; the latter predated the Manhattan Project by thirty years.

Other Overgrown Path portraits of women in music include:
- Elisabeth Lutyens
- Elizabeth Maconchy
- Antonia Brico
- Ray Lev
- Wanda Landowska

Header photos credit Erich Auerbach, footer is from CD sleeve. Full listing of personalities in the header image from left to right are Marion Harewood, Peter Diamand, Imogen Holst, Lord Harewood, Anthony Gishford, Mrs Stein, Mrs Diamand (back to camera) and Britten. The two men behind Britten are unidentified but are probably Basil Douglas and Erwin Stein. Imogen Holst's String Chamber Music supplied by Court Lane Music in response to request from On An Overgrown Path. All books purchased at retail with exception of Imogen Holst - A Life in Music and Gustv Holst, A Biography, which were borrowed from Norfolk Library Services. 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, November 18, 2008

This is the future of classical music

A classical chamber orchestra on the opening night of the London Jazz Festival with a Tunisian oud player? Purists on every side must have been steaming from all orifices. But this is the future of music. And it works, as this exhilarating fusion showed.

Nothing demonstrated that better than Arvo Pärt's 1977 minimalist classic, Fratres. It opened the concert, played “straight” by the excellent strings of the Britten Sinfonia under Joanna MacGregor's (below) direction, with its elegiac refrain rising and falling over a drone like a sombre ritual. Then, at the end, it was repeated as an encore - but with a difference. This time the great Dhafer Youssef (above) and the virtuoso percussionist Satoshi Takeishi added a subtle, shadowy patina of Arabic cries and whispers. It was as if the ancestral Estonian modes summoned by Pärt in Northern Europe had stirred strange, kindred echoes in North Africa. Pure musical magic.

And it wasn't the only heartstoppingly beautiful moment in this “East meets West meets North meets South” programme. Youssef's own pieces - gentle-spirited, syncopated improvisations in sophisticated metres, showcasing his stunningly pure voice (electronically enhanced with overlapping echoes), his shofar-like falsetto, and dextrous fingerwork on his Arabic lute - gained a dimension, sonically and expressively, when accompanied by the strings. Meanwhile, Takeishi, squatting beside his exotic drums and cymbals, supplied deft and supple solos, as did the ubiquitous jazz bassist Peter Herbert. And the Britten Sinfonia brought to the party some cool culture-hopping of its own. With MacGregor at the piano and Jacqueline Shave supplying fleet-fingered fiddle solos, it played three of MacGregor's exuberant arrangements of songs by the renowned Romanian gypsy singer Gabi Lunca.

Then Shave led two evocative pieces by Bartók. The Burletta from the Sixth Quartet was properly savage. But Pe Loc from the Romanian Folk Dances was the real show- stopper, with Youssef's voice and Takeishi's brushed drums again adding a mysterious and mystical subtext. No, Bartók didn't write it like that. But yes, that dedicated follower of folk fashion would have loved the intrusion.
Richard Morrison in The Times gives the Britten Sinfonia concert at the London Jazz Festival a well-deserved five stars. I don't normally reblog complete reviews. But this could be the end of Western art music.

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Classical music community 1 - Philistines 0

A news story, which has just broken in Holland, makes very sweet reading indeed. Here is a free translation:

Dutch Culture Minister halts Concertzender closure

DEN HAAG 17 NOV 17.35h - Culture Minister Ronald Plasterk has approached the Board of Directors of the Dutch Public Broadcasting System (NPO) to insist that classical internet station Concertzender remain on-air. This promise was made by the Minister in response to questions posed to him by Parliament Member Boris van der Ham (party D66).

Concertzender heard last week that the NPO would terminate its financial support as of January 1st. "I am ready to enter into discussion with the Board of Directors to figure out how the valuable contributions of Concertzender to the Dutch music culture can be given an appropriate place in a new structure," says Plasterk.

Van der Ham had asked Plasterk for clarification regarding the situation in the middle of October. According to Van der Ham the Concertzender makes a positive community contribution, with "exceptional programming of serious music which is not available from other public radio stations."
Many thanks to all those who did throw their support behind the campaign to keep Concertzender online. The match is not over yet, but it looks like it could be a good result. More proof that blogging is doing it for our time.

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

Classical music roller coaster

Here is the Zurich Chamber Orchestra putting the usual YouTube offerings to shame. The full screen version is even better.

Zurich Chamber Orchestra : Roller Coaster
by mikropikol

More innovative classical music marketing from Switzerland 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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A global classical music community?

My site traffic analysis shows that the enforced closure of Dutch classical music webcaster Concertzender was the big music news story over the weekend. As American expatriate composer Vanessa Lann lamented, the station closure is 'very, very bad for Holland (and the rest of the international listening public)' and as Dutch blogger Rolf Otterhouse wrote, the internet broadcaster is 'an innovative and enthusiast team... with a passion for classical, contemporary, jazz and world music'. Despite this there has been little interest in the fate of Concertzender outside Europe, and, to date, I haven't seen one US music blog run the story. I wonder if the coverage would have been different had an American classical music station been axed?

Update 17/11 - Dutch Culture Minister halts Concertzender closure.

More music beyond borders here.
Header image is geographic plot of all Overgrown Path readers as I write the story at 3.30pm UK time - Californians are in bed, lucky people. 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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Does the sound matter anymore?

A visit to the Norwegian website Hifiisentralen prompts me to ask, does the sound matter any more? Hifiisentralen linked to my recent Radka Toneff post, and I noticed that many of the comments on the Norwegian site included details of the member's audio system. Blogs today are full of mentions of MP3s, iTunes, SACD, 5.1 and other miraculous acronyms. But when did you last see any discussion of the other links in the audio chain - the amplifier and loudspeakers?

A while back hi-fi brands such as Quad and Acoustic Research were mentioned as frequently as record labels and recording artists. It could be that audio systems are so good today that we don't need to talk about them anymore. Or, it could be that we are so obsessed with storage and transmission media that we have forgotten the other vitally important components.

Personally, I tend to the latter explanation. It is a simple law of physics that you need large speakers to reproduce extended bass. And I'm not only talking about for listening to organ recitals. As I write the new Simax CD of George Crumb's Makrokosmos I-II with pianist Ellen Ugelvik plays. Crumb's music just doesn't make sense unless you can physically experience the visceral quality of the sound, and you need serious loudspeakers to do that. Yet, much listening today is done on PC speakers, or even worse in-ear headphones that are prevented, again by the laws of physics, from reproducing the soundstage in front of the listener lovingly created by the recording engineer. Strange when concert hall acoustics are a million dollar science.

Elsewhere there is evidence that content producers are confusing the medium and the message. So often 'perfect sound' digital recordings fail to match analogue alternatives from decades ago. While in the car a couple of weeks back I heard a Bach keyboard concerto recording bought in by the BBC from a Canadian broadcaster and aired in the Radio 3 afternoon 'graveyard' slot that should never have been allowed past the audition stage, both for sound and performance quality. Naxos has done many great things, but a thread here a while back asked whether they dumbed-down production standards. And one of my own webcasts included some unwanted ornamentations.

Perhaps the it's time to start thinking about the sound as well as the file format. Remember who said 'Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio'.

* For information the main Overgrown Path listening room has a front end of Thorens TD 125 turntable with SME Series IIIS tone arm and Audio-Technica AT-F3 cartridge, Denon TU-260 tuner and Arcam Alpha 9 CD player. The amplifier is an Arcam 10 with moving-coil phono card, and the speakers are Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803s. Sennheiser 580 headphones are also used. There is a mains conditioner constructed by our electronics graduate son to smooth the sometimes noisy rural electricity supply. The secondary audio systems in other rooms all put the emphasis on loudspeaker quality. Online sources are usually auditioned via KEF Q50s floor-standers in my study. The Thorens front-end can be seen in this article.

The Simax CD of George Crumb's Makrokosmos I-II was purchased from Prelude Records. All audio equipment mentioned in this article was bought at retail price. 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

Save the alternative classical music station

Rolf Otterhouse is not taking the enforced closure of Concertzender in Holland lying down. More power to Rolf. Check out his website here, listen to Concertzender, while you can, here.

Update 17/11 - Dutch Culture Minister halts Concertzender closure.

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