Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thoughts from the Vienna woods

The Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concert 2010 will be conducted for the second time by the French conductor Georges Prêtre. Due to the television and radio broadcasts in more than 70 countries, the New Year's Concert is in terms of its international coverage the largest classical music event in the world.
That quote comes from the Vienna Philharmonic's website. Big is the new beautiful in classical music, so the Vienna New Year's Day Concert - the largest classical music event in the world - joins the BBC Proms - the world's largest classical music festival.

Of course size matters. Or does it? From 1950 to 1982 a radio programme called Listen with Mother was broadcast by the BBC. The format of the fifteen minute programme of nursery rhymnes and stories for the under-fives and their mothers was desperately tired. But nobody at the BBC dared take it off air because the rudimentary research data of the day showed it reached a large audience. But then BBC research became more sophisticated and reported not only how many people were tuned to Listen with Mother, but also who the listeners were. This new data showed that a considerable number of the listeners were long-distance truck drivers. It was rapidly dropped from the schedules.

Yes, audience size is important. But so is the quality of engagement with that audience, as veteran BBC broadcaster Libby Purves so eloquently reminded us:
All that you can do is to make - and publicise - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile.
It is my hope that in 2010 we will again start to measure classical music by its ability to sway, to inspire, to change and to comfort, as well as by its audience size.

A very happy and musical new year to all my readers.

* My header photo is, of course, not Georges Prêtre. It is Willi Boskovsky who conducted his last New Year's Day Concert on January 1st, 1979. Memories of Boskovsky here, and the story behind the recording of his final New Year's Day concert 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, December 29, 2009

Buy or live in darkness

Nielsen and Haydn arguably wrote the most life-affirming music in the classical canon. Which may explain why two sets of these composer's symphonies have been among my most listened to CDs in 2009. I have already written about Brilliant Classic's re-issue of Adam Fischer's set of Haydn's symphonies with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra and, interestingly, my Nielsen symphonies of choice come from the same Dutch budget label.

Theodore Kuchar's recordings of Nielsen's six symphonies with the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra have become something of a legend among those who have sought them out since their release by Brilliant Classics in 2007. These Czech performances are not just superb bargain priced Nielsen, they are superb Nielsen at any price. No one has put it better than Jack Lawson in his Musicweb International review:
If this Brilliant set was marketed as a Limited Edition with wooden crate and gold-plated audiophile CDs at £110, I would advise everyone to buy or live in darkness. At £11 - at full UK price for all three discs [currently £8.79 on - Pliable] - I hope you will not hesitate.
From the very first bars of the First Symphony you know you are listening to something very special. Inspired music making is captured in beautifully natural sound with lots of bloom in the Ostrava Concert Hall in the Czech Republic. So often Nielsen's music is presented as no more than a worthy Nordic cul-de-sac; but in the hands of Theodore Kuchar and his Czech musicians we hear the six symphonies for what they really are, important contributions to global twentieth-century music. Some will attribute the success of the Janáček Philharmonic in Nielsen to its mastery of Dvořák and Smetana. Others may see significance in different repertoire listed on the orchestra's website:
Ostrava's Janacek Philharmonic (116-piece symphony orchestra), is among the five leading orchestras in the Czech Republic. Throughout its existence, JPO has been a strong advocate of contemporary music. Since 1997, JPO has regularly performed new music, including works by Earle Brown, John Cage, Maria de Alvear, Morton Feldman, Petr Kotik, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Somei Satoh, Martin Smolka, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Toru Takemitsu, Edgard Varese, and Christian Wolff.

The performance of 103 by Cage (90 minute composition for 103-piece orchestra) at the festival of Music of Extended Duration in Prague resulted in a CD release on the Asphodel label, San Francisco. Under the baton of Christian Arming, Petr Kotik and Zsolt Nagy, the JPO triumphed with a program of music for 3 orchestras at the 1999 Prague Spring festival, and the Warsaw Autumn Festival 2000. JPO performed Gruppen by Stockhausen, Diamonds by Lucier, Modules 1,2,3 by Brown, and Nest by Smolka.
American Theodore Kuchar has been making quite a name for himself in repertoire that is notably absent from the programmes of higher profile maestros. During his tenure with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine Kupar's recordings have included works by Ukraine’s leading contemporary symphonist, Yevhen Stankovych and by Borys Lyatoshynsky, and he has worked with many leading orchestras in America and Europe.

Credit must also go to Brilliant Classics who have made the transition from re-issue to new recording label with flair and imagination. At the moment many classical music journalists are sharing with us their views on the important events and trends of the past year and past decade. Oh, how wide of the mark these commentaries are, with their transparent agendas of 'you scratch my back and I will scratch yours'. How few of the reviews look beyond the music mutual admiration societies that flourish in London, New York and Los Angeles. How few look beyond the press releases and the free concert tickets and free CDs that are handed out on the gravy trains of 'big music'. If I had to nominate a label of the year I would struggle to make the call between Brilliant Classics, Alia Vox, Zig-Zag Territoires, Accords Croisés and Ad Vitam; not one of which is based in the self-styled world centres of music or records with 'big name' ensembles.

For proof there is life beyond the commercial hegemony of 'big music' just listen to Theodore Kuchar and Ostrava's Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in the Finale, allegro from Carl Nielsen's Sinfonia Espansiva. This is surely the musical equivalent of divine revelation and that reviewer really nailed it in one when he wrote -'I would advise everyone to buy or live in darkness'.

Back in 2005 I wrote - If you only buy thirty-four CDs this year - buy these.

Portrait of Carl Nielsen is by Michael Whittlesea. I bought the Brilliant Classics Nielsen symphonies set 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

Monday, December 28, 2009

More questions than answers

Is identity theft a problem in post-communist classical music? Well, Collegium Musicum, which claims to represent many notable Bulgarian and East European musicians, certainly thinks so. Here is what their website says, complete with typos:
Stop the abuse of the Bulgarian musical institutions - The reputation and prestige of Bulgarian musicians abroad is ruined by scrupless people. It happens often abroad where groups of musicians with suspicious quality are presented in the name of Bulgarian musical institutions deceiving both the audience and the host organization.

A commission has been found in accordance with the Bulgarian musical institutions and communicating directly to Ministry of culture to lodge complaints against such charlatans. Many of these deceivers has been blocked by now. Victims of such a deceive are „Sofia Festival Orchestra”, “National opera and ballet Sofia”, “Sofia Philharmonie”, Opera and philharmonic society-Plovdiv” and “Symphony orchestra of Sliven”.

In case you have such information just contact us! Help us to expose the deceivers! Official information of such cases will be published as soon as possible to attract the attention of the host organizations including theaters, associations, foundations etc. that are unaware of such cases and give stage to the deceivers.
I found Collegium Musicum when it backlinked to my article about Emil Tchakarov, and the website carries a very useful tribute to the Bulgarian conductor.

Iran is in the news right now, and in that troubled country there are some different questions about musical identities. The path starts with a post in February 2009 in which I wrote:
But western classical music lives on in Iran today. American composer and blogger Jeff Harrington reports that the Iranian conductor Keyvan Yahya is planning to perform his First and Second Symphonies with the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra's recent work has included a concert to commemorate the late Ayatolla Khomeini. There is very little information on the conductor; however an unverified Wikipedia entry states ...
Shortly after I published my piece, fellow blogger Robert Marshall followed up with a linked post. Within the last few days Robert has received anonymous comments on his blog discrediting Keyvan Yahya. Robert also reports that in the Wikipedia article on the music of Iran the paragraph on Keyvan Yahya has recently been removed by what appears to be an Iranian user. In addition the Wikipedia page on the Satrap Philharmonic, which Yahya was credited as founding, has been deleted with a comment claiming that the orchestra does not exist.

To try to get to the bottom of this mystery I contacted Jeff Harrington in the States. Jeff reports that Keyvan Yahya sent emails about rehearsals and the Tehran performance in May 2009. But subsequent requests for reviews, recordings or promotional materials have gone unanswered, which Jeff thought may have been due to the continuing turmoil caused by the Iranian elections. Confused? So am I. Clearly there are more questions than answers on this story and clarification from readers with Iranian connections would be very welcome: but please, no anonymous comments.

Iran also poses more musical questions in the form of the CD seen above. Last summer I received this review copy of finished discs of a 108 minute oratorio by Iranian composer Saeed Sharifian titled Eclipse. This sets a Farsi text which, according to the accompanying material, is about the tragedy of Ashura. The oratorio is scored for orchestra, traditional Persian singer and, unusually for a work dealing with an Islamic subject, uses female voices in the soprano and mezzo registers. PR material accompanying the Eclipse discs says the oratorio is -
the first ever written religous symphonic work in the 1400 year history of the Islamic culture ... It received its premiere in the Tehran Opera House in 2003, breaking many social and cultural barriers, achieving outstanding ticket sales and huge popularity.
Eclipse is scored for Western orchestra and the tonal writing is largely derivative except for the sections using the Farsi singer. The oratorio was recorded in Romania in 2005 by the Oltenia Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Alessandru Iosub and the associated performances are noted on the orchestra's website. The copyright of the well-presented CD is attributed to Neydavood Inc, who do not appear to have an online presence. I have been unable to find any English language references to the Iranian performances, and, in an echo of Jeff Harrington's experience, requests for supporting evidence of the Tehran concerts have been unproductive. Verification of some other aspects of the Eclipse story would also be beneficial.

But there is no question that the recording of Eclipse exists and I met Saeed Sharifian, who now lives in England, briefly in July this year. You can buy the double CD here, and there are several excerpts from the oratorio on YouTube, including the one below.

Western classical music in pre-revolutionary Iran here, protest cinema here, an opera about Iranian civil rights abuses here and a woman's voice is forbidden in public 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

Lost and found

Underneath the dictionary perhaps?

What's in a name?
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, December 27, 2009

A soundtrack for Vincent

Excited by the links he found between painting and Wagner's music, Vincent van Gogh took lessons from the organist of St Catherine's Church in Eindhoven. But the lessons were not a success and the organist concluded he was dealing with a madman. Presumably Vincent was not a fan of ECM discs, because their 2009-10 catalogue does not contain a single note of Wagner's music, or of Tchaikovsky's. Talking of madmen, near the end of his life Van Gogh was incarcerated in an asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, which is close to where my header photo was taken a couple of weeks ago. And talking of meteors that burnt out prematurely, the organ in the church in Saint-Remy was used by Scott Ross in 1972 to record Couperin's two organ masses.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New forms meet old traditions

New forms meet old traditions in the church of Notre Dame de Pentecôte in Paris. French architect Franck Hammoutène's 2001 design uses a 115 feet tall front wall of translucent glass wall which can be seen in my centre photo. L'Eglise de Notre Dame de Pentecôte is in François Mitterrand's monumental contribution to the Paris skyline, the new la Défense business district. This temple to the free market overlooks the campus of Paris West University Nanterre, which was at the centre of the unrest that sparked the 1968 student riots in Paris.

In 1968 the demonstrators may have been chanting Vive la Révolution! but today financial service and technology consultancy employees from the surrounding tower blocks form a large part of the congregation for the new church. On the day I took these photos in November 2009 there was a very different demonstration of new forms meeting old traditions. Giant photos of Tiger Woods promoting the Accenture management consultancy graced the elevated walkways of la Défense while elsewhere the media speculated in equally graphic terms on the golfer's latest struggles in the rough.

New forms meeting old traditions also provides the soundtrack for my photo essay. French composer Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) is forever linked with his monumental organ cycle L'Orgue Mystique based on Gregorian chant, and the rest of his output is largely forgotten. But Tournemire was a prolific composer and his catalogue of just seventy-six opus numbers is very deceptive. Just three opus numbers (55 to 57) account for the almost fifteen hours of L'Orgue Mystique, while one opus (52) comprises a massive trilogy of oratorios titled Faust, Don Quichotte and Saint François d'Assise that has yet to be performed.

Probably most interesting are Charles Tournemire's eight symphonies. The first five were composed before 1914 and were well received in performance. But his last three symphonies, composed between 1914 and 1924, were victims of the change in musical fashions after the First World War and remained unperformed until they were recorded in the 1990s. Among them was the mighty sixth which lasts for fifty-five minutes and is scored for large orchestra, tenor solo and mixed choir.

Although Tournemire's music fell foul of fashion it is by no means reactionary and his bold scoring explores the outer reaches of tonality. Below is the 1997 recording of Tournemire's best known symphony, his Fifth (what is it about Fifth Symphonies?) in a coupling with the Eighth made by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège conducted by Pierre Bartholomée, who is a contemporary composer in his own right. The excellent sleeve notes for this CD, on which this article draws, are by Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich, who interestingly contributed an essay to a recent re-release of Iannis Xenakis' chamber music. Sadly this recording and Marco Polo's complete cycle of the Tournemire symphonies are now deleted, although individual discs remain available.

Regular readers will know that I now refuse to play the 'forgotten masterpiece by a neglected genius' game. Anyway, it would be foolhardy to pretend that Charles Touremire's orchestral output changed the direction of modern music. But these are honest compositions whose main interest lies in their origins in the period of transition from old to new in twentieth century music.

While Tournemire was exploring the outer reaches of tonality in his late symphonies, the young Messiaen was being exposed to the older composer's celebrated organ improvisations at the Basilique Sainte-Clotilde, Paris. Although Messiaen was never one of his pupils, Tournemire's influence on him is now recognised; moreover both composers were deeply influenced by the mystical elements of the Roman Rite and both wrote major works on the subject of Saint François d'Assise. For these reasons alone Charles Tournemire, the 140th anniversary of whose birth is celebrated in 2010, deserves to be recognised as more than Catholicism's most prolific composer for organ.

Also worth exploring are the symphonies of Albéric Magnard, who was a contemporary of Tournemire. Another mix of modern ecclesiastical architecture and organ music here.

My CD of Tournemire's Fifth and Eighth Symphonies was bought at retail some years ago. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Joyeux Noël

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.
Meulana Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi
Reflections of Christmas captured at Printemps Haussmann, Paris and (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Music without prior ownership

Most Sufis believe that the great religions and mystical traditions of the world share the same essential Truth. The various prophets and spiritual teachers are like the light bulbs that illuminate a room. The bulbs are different, but the current comes from one source, which is God. It is the same light; each of the individual bulbs receives electricity from a single source. The quality of the light is always basically the same, and so is the original source - from Essential Sufism.
Although Sufism is technically an esoteric branch of Islam it has also fascinated great minds from other cultures including the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. My header photo shows Titi Robin (right) and Faiz Ali Faiz (left) whose new album Jaadu Magic sets Sufi poetry. Faiz Ali Faiz was born in Pakistan and trained in Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. Titi (Thierry) Robin is a French gypsy guitarist whose biography says -
...has explored various streams following his destiny East, through endless travels with Roma and Sinti people, carrying little luggage but immense dreams.
On Jaadu Magic Titi Robin and Faiz Ali Faiz are joined by a group of musicians playing acoustic instruments from the east and west. All the tracks are original compositions by Titi Robin; their starting point are the modes and rhythms of Qawwali, but the music expands to encompass flamenco, gypsy and Indian classical music. Fusion is now a redundant musical term; Jaadu Magic is not fusion, it is new music. And thereby lies an important lesson for classical music: the bulbs are different, but the current comes from one source.

One of the most important trends in music savant during the last ten years has been the emergence of fresh, exciting and usually improvised music like Jaadu Magic created by musicians from differing cultures and performing traditions. Sadly this trend has largely passed classical music, with its heavy baggage of strict notations and equally strict performance traditions, by. The beneficiary has been that grey area where world music meets jazz and folk. This territory was once the property of ECM, but as we move into a new decade others are now beating Manfred Eicher at his own game. Artistic residencies such as that at Les Escales Saint-Nazaire in France, which brought Titi Robin and Faiz Ali Faiz together, and French labels such as Accords Croisés, on which Jaadu Magic is released, are the crucible in which this new music is being forged.

The second decade of the twenty-first century is going to be a very exciting time for music savant, but perhaps not for classical music. In the 1960s young people adopted rock as 'their' music because it came without prior ownership and without performance traditions. Young, and not so young, people are today looking for music to call their own. But, unless classical music can distance itself from prior ownership, innovative projects such as Jaadu Magic, which comes with hand baggage only, may be the future.

* Jaadu Magic, seen in the video above, was one of the albums featured in My World of Music on Future Radio on December 26th 2009. Listen to a podcast here. More on the Roma, the forgotten Holocaust victims, here.

Jaadu Magic was bought at La Friche Librairie, Paris. 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, December 22, 2009

Something to chew on over Christmas

There is some nice chewy music on Future Radio over Christmas. That is me above putting together My World of Music, a two hour special of music from different cultures and traditions around the world which is being broadcast by Future Radio at 4.00pm UK time on December 26th on a local FM frequency and over the internet. A podcast of the programme will be available a few days after broadcast. Here is the playlist together with links to related articles On An Overgrown Path:

1 - Titi Robin (guitar) and Faiz Ali Faiz (voice), Lage Jiya from Jaadu Magic: Accords Croisés AC130
2 - Jean-Rodolpe Kars (piano), Beloved of the Soul from Musique Juive: Editions de l’Emmanuel CDD0148 5.37
3 - Keyvan Chemirani (Iranian percussion) and Pandit Anindo Chatterjee (tabla), Ma maison se trouve sur le chemin emprunté par mon Coeur from Battements au Coeur de l’Orient (Percussion at the heart of the Orient): Accords Croisés AC121
4 - Driss el Maloumi (oud), Rajery (Madagaskan bamboo tubular zither) and Ballarkeé Sissoko (kora), Anfass from 3MA: Contre Jour CJ0202 6.11
5 - Jutta Carstensen (voice) and Trio Trielen, Ofjn Pripetschik from Yiddish chants and Klezmer music: Ad Vitam AV090415
6 - Ken Zuckerman (sarod) and Prabhu Edouart (tabla), Raga sobre O Gloriosa Domina from Francisco Javier: Alia Vox AVSA9856
7 - Tashi Lhunpo Monks and tantric and monastic orchestras, Ngag-ki-rolyang, Om Mani Padem Hum, Chaksten Choepa from Dawn to Dusk: Tashi Lhunpo Monastery Trust TLM250489

8 - John Coltrane, Spiritual from Coltrane Spiritual: Impulse 589 099-2
9 - Raphael Vuillard clarinet, Khaled Al Jaramani oud and percussion and Mohannad Al Jarami percussion and vocals, Zephir from Bab Assalam: Ad Vitam AV090115
10 - Pandit Debashi Bhattacharya (Indian slide guitar), Aviskaar from Calcutta Chronicles: Riverboat Records TUGCD1049
11 - Ustad Mahwash (voice), Tchi chawad ba tchehra-e-zaard-e-man from Radio Kaboul: Accord Croisés ACC100
12 - Hezy Levy (voice and guitar), Song of the Grasses from Singing Like the Jordan River: Ad Vitam AVOC 050621
13 - Jean-Rodolpe Kars (piano), Allons, exultons et rejouisoons-nous from Musique Juive: Editions de l’Emmanuel CDD0148
14 - Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar, Prashanti from Passages: Private Music 2074

* Listen to a podcast of the programme here.

Before the Christmas police start complaining the music isn't very seasonal I would point out that the title of the last track, which comes from Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar's 1990 album, means Peacefulness in English. More on that album here.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Future Radio is licensed by the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom and is party to a broadcast royalty agreement. All CDs mentioned in this article were purchased at retail price. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, December 21, 2009

You're Sibelius aren't you?

Neat vodka - not on the rocks, but poured already several degrees below freezing. The first few swallows had tasted of harsh sunlight...and only now did each glass bring the comfort of deepening shadows. His eighth symphony had been written and rewritten over and over again until, after twelve years of self-torment, he had destroyed every sketch and plan, every last cancelled note: page after page of laborious manuscript had been fed to the stove in one final act of renunciation - and release. From then on, silence. The harsh sunlight of hope the twilight of gathering despair - which was worse?
It had been a quarter of a century since that glorious conflagration, and getting drunk at least led somewhere: to oblivion.
Just then the clowns appeared.
At first Sibelius thought the three red-nosed, banana-footed entertainers had to be an impurity in the homemade spirit. they trooped around the side of the house in a small procession through the snow: the leader in long-tailed evening dress and topper, the second a white-faced pierrot, the third turning cartwheels. Top Hat piped them to a halt on an imaginary flute. They stood in the garden looking directly up at the composer.
'How's tricks?'
Not the DTs then.
A large sip to bring his visitors into better focus.
'You're Sibelius, aren't you?' Top Hat raised his invisible flute and played the clarinet solo that opened his first symphony.
'That was a very long time ago,' was the composer's only comment.
'And this?' The final theme from Tapiola, his last completed work, published some forty years later.
'Seems even longer.'
'And this?' The clown blew as if across the mouthpiece, letting his fingers caper wildly up and down the stops, but no sound came. He shrugged, then took his imaginary flute in both hands and mimed breaking it in two over his knee.
Sibelius said nothing.
Top Hat smiled up at him: 'That's done with.'
His companions joined him in a three-man chorus singing, 'Come with us, come with us! Come and join the circus!'
Ron Butlin's surreal fiction has featured here before in Bach and modern technology and Better than working in McDonald's. Today's stranger than fiction story comes from Jean Sibelius is invited to run away and join the circus which is in the same volume of Ron Butlin's short stories as my other two extracts were drawn from. And Sibelius running away to join the circus is not as daft as it sounds.

Portrait of Sibelius came from the original 1976 Decca LP release of Sibelius' symphonies with Lorin Maazel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. The artwork design was by David Anstey, who normally created rock albums, and the colouring by Laurie Richards. To make amends for reversing their handiwork I reproduce the complete sleeve above. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A legend in his own lifetime

During the second half of the twentieth century the harpsichord made the remarkable transition from almost extinct historical curiosity to concert hall staple not just for early music but also for new music from composers including John Cage, Elliott Carter and Maurice Ohana. Wolfgang Zuckermann's $150 harpsichord kits, which were launched in 1959, were a major factor in the rehabilitation of the harpsichord, and Zuckermann supplied instruments to John Cage and many other musicians from his workshop in Greenwich Village, New York.

The legendary 'Model T' harpsichord kit is Wolfgang Zuckermann's best known contribution to music history. But he had been making high quality finished instruments for a decade before entering the self-assembly market and his manufacturing business continues today under different ownership. In 1969 he published his influential book The Modern Harpsichord which advocated a return to authentic specifications for contemporary instruments and rejected the 'romantic' approach pioneered by Landa Landowska and her Pleyel instruments.

Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann was born in Berlin in 1922 and became an American citizen in 1938. He saw action in the Second Wold War in the American army, but in 1969 he sold his harpsichord business and left America because of his oppostion to the war in Vietnam. After a period in England he settled in France where he developed a successful second career as a social activist, early environmentalist and author. He has been active in drawing attention to the environmental impact of the internal combustion engine and was one of the team who created Buy Nothing Day, an international day of protest against consumerism.

As well as continuing his environmental and social activism Wolfgang Zuckermann founded the Librairie Shakespeare in the university district of Avignon, France in 1994. Today, at 87, he continues to run his English language bookstore virtually single-handed. Whenever I am in Avignon my first port of call is the Librairie Shakespeare; I took the two photos seen here two weeks ago after buying, for less than the price of a beer in a trendy Avignon bar, a rare copy of Samdhong Rinpoche's lectures published by the Theosophical Publishing House in Madras . There is no evidence at all of Wolfgang Zuckermann's pre-1969 life in his gem of a bookstore, and when I asked him if I could take his photo for An Overgrown Path readers he said in his usual modesy way 'If you must'.

An excellent Wikipedia biography of Wolfgang Zuckermann describes Librairie Shakespeare as 'a bookstore and arts center in Avignon which resolutely refuses the separation of "culture" from the issues of technology, society and personal responsibility'. As we try to find substance in the outcome of the Copenhagen climate summit and read article after article lauding the transitory cultural 'icons' of the first decade of the twenty first century it gives me much pleasure to write this small tribute to someone who, well into his eighth decade, still refuses to separate "culture" from the issues of technology, society and personal responsibility.

* Many Overgrown Paths have started with books bought over the years in Wolfgang Zuckermann's store. Just follow these links to explore some of them - Vision de ''Amen, Karlheinz Stockhausen - part of a dream, A hero's life overshadowed, and Words on twentieth century music.

Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, December 18, 2009

We wish you a merry Birtwistle

This was a scene a few minutes before the start of the Britten Sinfonia's lunchtime concert in Norwich today. A sequence of five gigs has taken the band from Krakow in Poland to Cambridge, Birmingham, London and then finally Norwich in less than a week. Today's Norwich Assembly Halls venue is right in the city centre next to the region's largest mall which was thronged with Christmas shoppers despite the driving snow.

It is worth reflecting on the music that tempted a good sized audience away from the stores and into the concert hall today. There were no excerpts from the Nutcracker, no Lieutenant Kijé or Peter and the Wolf, and not even Corelli's Christmas Concerto.

The programme, which was as bracing as the weather outside, comprised three Harrison Birtwistle works, six Birtwistle arrangements, and a new commission from young English composer to watch Christian Mason. Another composer, John Woolrich, devised the inspired programme which had yet another composer, Hugh Watkins, playing piano with seven other members of the Britten Sinfonia. BBC Proms audiences please note; the following sequence was performed, at the request of the musicians, with no applause between the works but with an awful lot after Birtwistle's concluding arrangement of Ockeghem.

Machaut (arr. Birtwistle) Hoquetus David
Harrison Birtwistle Double Hocket
JS Bach (arr. Birtwistle) Three Fugues from the Art of Fugue - Contrapunctus VII
Harrison Birtwistle Lied
JS Bach (arr. Birtwistle) Three Fugues from the Art of Fugue - Contrapunctus XII
Harrison Birtwistle Verses
JS Bach (arr. Birtwistle) Three Fugues from the Art of Fugue - Contrapunctus XVII
Christian Mason Noctilucence (World première tour)
Ockeghem (arr. Birtwistle) Ut heremita solus

Once again the Britten Sinfonia has shown that quality not compromise is what is needed when the going gets tough, and personally I have been overwhelmed by the sheer quality of the live music making I have heard in the past few weeks. Paying my own way and working within a tight budget I have been privileged to hear Jordi Savall in Paris, the Trio Chausson playing Haydn, Beethoven, Didier Gecquon and Mendelssohn in Avignon, a Gregorian Mass in a Benedictine Abbey and the Britten Sinfonia playing Bach, Birtwistle and Christian Mason in Norwich. And it hasn't finished. As soon as I hit the publish button I'm off to hear another live gig in Norwich this evening, this time it's the inimitable Belinda Sykes and her band Joglaresa.

Tickets for all concerts mentioned in this article were paid for by me. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chance chamber music

December 1st was a chance day. Having closed up our rented apartment in Paris my wife headed back to London while I took the TGV train from the Gare de Lyon to Avignon en route to Le Barroux. When I arrived in Avignon in the late afternoon I dumped my backpack at my hotel and hurried off to Wolfgang Zuckermann's Libraire Shakespeare (post follows) before enjoying a leisurely meal and what I planned to be an early night.

After the usual reasonably priced and excellent fare (and red wine!) at Les Artistes I was walking back to my hotel along La Rue de la République at 8.15pm when I noticed a large poster for an interesting concert at L'Opera. The performers were the Trio Chausson and what caught my eye particularly was that there was a composer on the programme who I had never heard of. Moreover the concert was that evening, it started in fifteen minutes and I was ten minutes brisk walk away from L'Opera.

As I do not benefit from BBC-style expenses I settled for a 7.50 euros seat in the 'gods' for the concert. This turned out to be a remarkably wise choice (chance?) as chamber music recitals in the Avignon opera house, which is a little gem dating from 1846, are given on a wooden platform built out over the orchestra pit, rather than on the stage within the proscenium arch. The reflective surface of the platform projects the sound out and up meaning the sound in the 'gods' was better than that in the stalls for many concert halls.

The Trio Chausson's performances of Haydn, Beethoven and Mendelssohn confirmed their reputation as meticulous yet extrovert young musicians. But the mystery piece was the highlight of the evening. It was Extrait du Trio - Three Portraits of a Stainless Purity by the French composer Didier Gicquel, with three movements dedicated respectively to Günther Anders, Conlon Nancarrow and Christophe Ponfilly. This twenty-minute work is atonal without being hall emptying and has the two string players doubling on banjo and thundertube. The effectiveness of Three Portraits of a Stainless Purity can be judged by the very enthusiastic reception it received from an inevitably conservative audience on a bitterly cold Tuesday December evening.

So who is Didier Gicquel? Well he seems to be a pretty well kept secret and I have been unable to find an English biography or any recordings of his music. So here is my own attempt at a biography conflated from several French sources.

Born in 1958, Didier Gicquel concentrated on composition after studying bassoon and organ. He has written around forty works principally for chamber ensembles. His style is unashamedly atonal, sometimes modal and polytonal and uses quarter tones to add colour. He is particularly sensitive to to the poetic and theatrical aspects of music and his pre-occupation with the lyrical is reflected in his compositions. Despite his low profile his music has a high standing in contemporary music circles in France and in a concert in Paris in June 2009 it was programmed alongside that of Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ohana and Francis Poulenc.

Chamber musicians and concert promoters among my readers looking to extend their repertoire would do well to follow this chance chamber music path to the elusive Didier Gecquel. Now discover some Rare Romantic Requiems in Avignon.

No photos of Didier Gecquel, so that is the first appearance I think on the blog for our Bentley piano. Photo (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Following in Olivier Messiaen's footsteps

In 1968 pianist Jean-Rodolphe Kars was awarded first prize in the Concours de Piano Olivier Messiaen. During his international career Kars recorded Debussy and Delius for Decca and an LP of Schoenberg's solo piano music for EMI. As well being acclaimed for his interpretations of Ravel and Debussy Kars established a reputation as a Messiaen specialist. He has recorded Messiaen, has lectured and written about the mystical aspects of the composer's music, and considers Messiaen to be his 'first spiritual father'. But despite this Kars, who lives in France, is virtually unknown today.

Jean-Rodolphe Kars' parents were non-practising Viennese Jews who fled to India following the Anschluss in 1938. Kars was born in 1947 and the following year the family moved to France. From 1967 onwards he followed a career as an international concert pianist. But, influenced by the faith of Messiaen and by a religious epiphany, Kars converted to Catholicism in 1977. Two years later he received a call to the priesthood, abandoned his career as a concert pianist and started studying theology.

In 1986 Jean-Rodolphe Kars, who is seen in my header montage, was ordained as a priest in Paray-le-Monial after entering the Emmanuel Community and continues to serve there today. Although he has not appeared as a concert pianist for thirty years Kars continues to give occasional lecture recitals on Messiaen and, in a fascinating twist in the path, has recently released a CD which does not contain a note of Messiaen's music. Below is the sleeve which is followed by an extract from the notes for this thought-provoking and important disc.

Jean-Rodolphe Kars has rediscovered his Jewish identity in a deeper way. He has listened and has become familiar with some of the wonderful Jewish songs from the Hasidic repertoire, and has made personal arrangements of them for the piano. Here he gives a very personal interpretation, turned towards the mysteries of the Catholic faith, without giving up the original spirit of the source of the music.
Nostalgia and exuberance alternate on this beautifully shaped and performed CD released by Editions de l'Emmanuel. It comes with excellent and English and French notes by Jean-Rodolphe Kars and as a bonus concludes with a ten minute composition by the pianist inspired by Hasidic themes. The music of the southern Sephardic Jews has now reached a wide audience thanks to the early music movement, and this CD uncovers new musical riches from the northern reaches of Judaism.

Musique Juive Hassidique has been one of my discoveries of 2009 as is evidenced by its many return visits to my CD player. But here is the rub; like many good things Musique Juive Hassidique is rather difficult to get hold of. I cannot find any trace of it on Amazon or other major online resellers and it does not seem to exist in the parallel universe of MP3 downloads. But it can be bought from the French website of Maison de l'Emmanuel and other resellers in France.

I discovered the CD and bought it for 14 euros from the excellent shop at L'Abbaye Sainte Madeleine at Le Barroux. The monastery has an online shop, but if French websites phase you email them write in English which they can handle (tip, the French for email is courriel). I have made purchases from the shop using email without problems, but you will have to pay shipping. Another discovery in the shop at L'Abbaye Sainte Madeleine generated a lot of interest here earlier this year, the music of Armenia Sacra.

On the back cover of the Musique Juive booklet is a reproduction of a painting by Bencjon Benn (1905-1989). Born to Jewish parents in Belostock near Poland's border with Belarus, Benn was imprisoned in 1941 and went underground after his release. This experience prompted him to study and contemplate the Psalms and between 1955 and 1960 he produced a series of 150 painting, each one illustrating one verse from a psalm. Above is the painting inspired by Genesis 8:11 - 'And the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf, so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth'. More music and images inspired by divine revelation in the story of a 20th century composer who influenced Messiaen, Charles Tournemire.

* I will be playing Musique Juive on Future Radio on December 26th in my A World of Music programme which also be available as a podcast. More from A World of Music here.

My header montage uses a rare photo of Jean-Rodolphe Kars from the website of Vincent P. Benitez at Pennsylvania State University; the score is Messiaen's Les Yeux Dans Les Roues from from his Livre d'Orgue. 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, December 15, 2009

Meetings with remarkable men

Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff's funeral was held in La cathédrale Saint Alexander Nevsky in Paris, which is seen in my photos. The cathedral choir is famous for its tradition of Russian Orthodox chant. In 1967, under their director Evgeni Ivanovitz Evetz, the choir recorded the superb anthology of Russian Orthodox music that featured On An Overgrown Path three years ago.

Photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, December 14, 2009

Radio Kaboul - a homage to Afghan composers

When the Soviet invasion started, Radio Kaboul continued to function as did the music school where I was teaching. The government in power exhorted the singers to interpret communist revolutionary songs. In 1992, after the departure of the Soviets and the arrival of the Mujahiddins, the music school was closed and all the instruments confiscated. The University of Fine Arts was closed as well. At the radio all the female artists were fired. With the Talibans this death penalty for cultural life as a whole was reinforced. They strictly forbid singing, even by men, as well as the instruments. Only the religous a capella singing was authorized.

I left the country six months after the arrival of the Mujahiddins, when Rābani was president. The greatest tragedy in my life was the closing of the musical lyceum. I am the only surviving teacher, the others died in exile or in the country in poverty. When my brother, Ibrahim Nassim, was forbidden to broadcast his songs, he died from sadness, like many of his friends. I want to pay a tribute to all great composers that were - Ustād Mohammad Hussain Sarāhang, who died in 1983, Ustad Mohammad Mashem, who died in Germany in 1995, Ustad Nabi Gol, who died in Kharābat in 1972, Fazel Ahmad Naymawaz, assasinated by the Communists in the 80s, as well as the young composer Wahid Qassemi.

They are all present in this CD. My best memories are the ones of Radio Kaboul, that was the happiest and most vital period of my life. Since I arrived in Europe I set myself the task of keeping alive Afghani music, in particular with the creation of the "Ensemble Kaboul" and with the help of the "Ateliers d'ethnomusicologie" in Geneva.
That extract from the sleeve notes by Afghan singer Ustad Mahwash for her CD Radio Kaboul - homage to Afghan composers really says it all. This is important music with an even more important message. Beautifully recorded, elegantly presented and also featuring musicians such as Prabhu Edouard on tabla, who we saw performing in Paris a couple of weeks ago with Jordi Savall and in Saint-Florent-le-Viel with Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya back in June.

Radio Kaboul is released on the French Accords Croisés. This label was a real discovery for me on my recent trip to France. I returned with several of their CDs and others will be featured here in the coming weeks. Radio Kaboul was released back in 2003, but the tragedy of Afghanistan is even more relevant today than it was six years ago. So I'm nominating it as one of my CDs of the year because, as I've said before, age simply doesn't matter.

* Over the coming weeks I will be featuring here a personal selection of lesser-known music from around the world, including tracks from Radio Kaboul. As part of this project, on December 26th I will be presenting A World of Music, a two hour programme on Future Radio of music taken from the featured CDs, and this programme will also be available as a podcast. More from A World of Music here, and artists are in exile here.

Radio Kaboul was bought by me in the Harmonia Mundi boutique in Avignon. 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, December 13, 2009

Chewy triumphs over cheesy

Arguably the most important change in the past decade has been the shift from the mass media reflecting public taste and opinion to the mass media dictating public taste and opinion. That exemplar of the power of the media the X Factor final airs in Britain today and as chaos theory takes effect a UK record store closes every 2.7 days and Borders UK folds. But all is not quite lost. One of the best record retailers in the world is in Belgium and many record stores in that independent thinking country display the Kwadratuur web page above and play the linked audio samples. Despite the Christmas classical releases including such crackers as Sting's If On A Winter's Night, the sole classical representative in Kwadratuur's December 1 selection was the Arditti Quartet's recording of Jonathan Harvey's Fourth Quartet, where it joined albums from Dying Fetus (sic - in more ways than one), 3 inches of Blood, Wu Fei (which I am told is worth a listen) and others. Read about Harrison Birtwistle's cheesy private passions here.

With many thanks to Bernard Tuyttens in Brussels for taking us down this path. 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, December 12, 2009

More random radio

My latest experiments with Chance Music are now available online. December's programme for Future Radio is here, the complete listing is here. It's work in progress and certainly no coincidence that one track starts with the lyric, 'Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo'. But the whole point is music has to be an adventurous experience.

Photo taken in the Rue de Fauborg St-Antoine, Paris and (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Music savant

Yesterday evening's BBC Four TV programme about the Ballets Russe proved to be yet another miserably unsuccessful attempt by the BBC to present art for those that do not like art. But one contribution stood out head and shoulders above those from the usual self-important talking heads. In a sequence filmed specifically for the programme Pierre Boulez talked briefly about the music of Stravinsky and Debussy, and his subtle authority and obvious integrity left no doubt that you were listening to one of the great minds of our time. In his contribution Boulez made the distinction between 'popular music' and what he described as 'music savant'. I have mused here before about the difficulties and dangers of categorising music, and the term 'music savant', literally 'knowing music', struck me as a very powerful alternative to the more common appelations of 'classical music', serious music', and 'art music'. In fact a veritable title given by the gods.

My header photo was taken in La Friche libraire in Paris. This bookstore, which is a wonderful example of Gallic 'culture savant', proved to be the starting point of several paths that will feature here in the future. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, December 11, 2009


Thankfully the CD format can still surprise and delight. This handsome book format box of Iannis' Xenakis' chamber music has just been released by French label Naïve. As well as 2 CDs of re-released recordings by the Arditti Quartet and Claude Helffer the added value package includes a 47 page bi-lingual (English and French) book with an excellent essay on music and mathematics by Harry Halbriech plus a discography. And if that was not enough to surprise and delight, the box is retailing internationally for less than a full price CD. I paid 16.99 euros in FNAC in Paris, but prices are even lower online. It is one in a series of fifteen newly released disc and book boxes from Naïve. Xenakis' chamber music offers wonderfully chewy music in definitive performances captured in excellent sound. And the imaginatively hyphenated typography has created the new game seen below, guess the composer.

So what about that Xenakis and Zen headline? Wasn't John Cage influenced by Eastern philosophies and Xenakis by mathematical theory? Yes, quite so. But the rules governing the use of zero appeared for the first time in Brahmagupta's book Brahmasputhasiddhanta (The Opening of the Universe) written around 628. Brahmagupta was a Hindu mathematician and astronomer who is often referred to as the father of algebra. In Zen Practice no meaning has great meaning, and is sometimes called zero mind. So, once again paths converge. As they do in the Arditti's recording of Jonathan Harvey's Buddhist influenced Fourth Quartet, and as they do when Xenakis composes in glass.

Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. 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, December 10, 2009

So that has sorted classical music's problems

December 10, 2009, For Immediate Release - The Boston Symphony Orchestra announces long term agreement with Boston Culinary Group and Gourmet Caterers. Cultural institution names exclusive food operator at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood.

Boston, MA - The Boston Symphony Orchestra is pleased to announce that two Boston-based companies, Boston Culinary Group and Gourmet Caterers, are partnering together to serve as the exclusive food service company for the BSO’s two performance venues, Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, beginning in May 2010 with the start of the Boston Pops spring season ...

BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe comments, “We are thrilled to be able to work with Boston Culinary Group and Gourmet Caterers. Both have great reputations and expertise, which will ensure that the dining experience at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood is on par with what patrons have come to expect from their concert experience. The quality of the food and beverage service has become an integral component towards enhancing the overall customer perception, and this new contract will allow us to excel in this area.”
So how well do you chew?
Header image is, of course, a Tournedos Rossini and comes via the International Wine and Food Society. 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

Reflections on contemporary music

Elliott Carter was the subject of a recent discussion between Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich and me. You can now listen to this Britten Sinfonia pre-concert event via this link. In another pre-concert event violinist Tom Gould talked to me about the music of Osvaldo Golijov, Astor Piazzolla and Vivaldi, listen here.

Reflections on Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen's 1989 La Grande Arche de la Défense in Paris were captured by me last week. Spreckelsen died before the massive arch was completed, and the final stages of the project were the responsibility of French architect Paul Andreu. Among Andreu's other projects is Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, where part of the ceiling of Terminal 2E collapsed in 2004 killing four people. That rippled reflection in the side shot of La Grande Arche de la Défense below is interesting; an independent technical investigation into the partial collapse of the aiport concourse blamed procedural and structural factors.

Joys and Sorrows, reflections by Pablo Casals was a primary source when I went in search of the great Catalan cellist.
All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path, the figure visible in the centre of the reflection in the Christmas decoration in the header photo is me! Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk