Saturday, January 30, 2010

What I envied him was his courage

Brother Paul saw me off, repeating his assurance that it had been an honour. On the road in the bright sunshine, I found myself envying him. But precisely what was it that I was envying? The warmth of the cocoon that surrounded him? His certainty? The joy that peeped out again as we shook hands? His faith itself? To some extent, of course, all of these, but there was something else: his courage.

The truth is that I am unable to believe that when Christ said: 'My Kingdom is not of this world' he meant that it was. Among the fifty monks of Notre Dame d'Aiguebelle, it was possible to see, misty but unmistakeable, the point. The enclosing shell of the monastery becomes a symbol of what must be the ultimate truth not only of Christianity but of all religions: the Kingdom of Heaven is within. For the monks within the walls, for the rest of us, within the human heart, which has room enough for all the walls there are. We all carry within our hearts a Notre Dame d'Aiguebelle, where we can find, though only if we seek diligently enough, the things of the spirit that alone make sense of the things of the world. Brother Paul seeks diligently enough; I don't. But the reason I don't can only be that I fear to find what I am seeking. That is why I said that what I envied him was, in the end, his courage.
The incomparable Bernard Levin reflects on his stay in the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame d'Aiguebelle in his book Hannibal's Footsteps. I took the header photo at the monastery of Chartreuse du Val-de-Bénédiction in Villeneuve les Avignons, which Bernard Levin passed on the walk he describes in Hannibal's Footsteps. The old monastery in Villeneuve les Avignons is now a performing arts centre and has hosted Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain among others. Read more in Happy new ears in an ancient monastery.

Those reflections by Bernard Levin on the things of the spirit are particularly poignant. They were published in 1985 and three years later he experienced the first balance problems that heralded the onset of the Alzheimer's Disease that was to take him from us in 2004. He was one of the great journalists, broadcasters and commentators of the twentieth-century, as well as sometime partner of Arianna Huffington (née Stassinopoulos). Bernard Levin's writings roved, in his own words, across -
... injustice, the totalitarian mind abroad and at home, politics and economics, the follies and misdeneamours of those set in authority above us ("Dost thou know my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?), the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune among our leaders, the truths of history and its more numerous falsehoods, the cultural developments that, at first hailed as of eternal significance, proved as easily disposable as cheap ball-point pens ...
Bernard Levin's love of the English language, and above all its correct usage, died with him: to be replaced by text messages, Twitter and blogs. Bernard Levin wrote sublime prose, but he was also opinionated and controversial. How many critics have you wanted to do this to?

The obverse of conflict can be found in Bernard Levin's TV interview with Krishnamurti, which reminds us that in times past BBC TV and other networks did not worship solely at the altar of entertainment. Shakespeare, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner were his gods, and he wrote passionately and eloquently of them. But his writing could surprise as well as affirm. I am on the road myself for a while, and below are quotes from a column by Bernard Levin in the Times from the 1980s.
Those last minutes are as profoundly affecting as anything I have ever seen in the cinema, a theatre or even an opera-house, and I shall return to them in a moment. But long before they are reached, the audience has been pierced by the effect of this ravishing masterpiece and the poetic imagination that informs it throughout ... But then, in that sense to be a child is the noblest ambition to which we can apire ... Whether we take it or not is up to us.
What is the work Bernard Levin is writing about? I will reveal the answer when I return, unless someone posts it elsewhere first! Incidentally, you won't find the answer by Googling.

Back soon.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Any other 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, January 29, 2010

Back to back Bach

How does the Arabian Passion According to J.S. Bach featuring Arab musicians, two jazz saxophonists, a string quartet and a Lebanese singer grab you? The Arabian Passion is the brainchild of Vladimir Ivanoff, who is the Bulgarian founder and music director of the culture straddling ensemble Sarband. Ivanoff sees parallels between the story of occupation and persecution in the Middle East in biblical times, as portrayed in Bach’s Saint Matthew and Saint John Passions, and the tensions in the Middle East today. The Arabian Passion is the result, a 're-interpretation' of sections from both Passions for Sarband, the Modern String Quartet and singer Fadia el-Hage.

Transcriptions, arrangements and improvisations of Bach's works have been around for a long time. Jazz pianist Jacques Loussier is famous for his Bach improvisations while Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale is just one of many rock tracks that lean heavily on the master. But the thought provoking Arabian Passion is probably as off the wall as they come - as you can judge in my latest adventure in Chance Radio.

On February 7th at 15.00h UK time on Future Radio (with a repeat at 1.00am the morning of Monday Feb 8 for North American readers) I am playing five sections from Bach's Saint Matthew and Saint John Passions in performances by the King's College Choir, Cambridge, and soloists and the Brandenburg Consort conducted by Stephen Cleobury back to back with Vladimir Ivanoff's Arabian re-interpretation of the same pieces. I don't think it's been done before, which I know is not a good reason for doing it. But it should make fascinating listening - Sarband's closing jazz meets Arabic instrumental re-interpretation of the chorale Jesus Ging Mit Seinen Jüngern from the Saint John Passion is a real killer. But don't take my word, catch Chance Music online on Feb 7 or listen to the podcast here. And if an Arabian Passion is not enough there is Beethoven re-envisaged here.

* Listen to a podcast of the programme here.

** Also featured On An Overgrown Path are Sarband's Pilgrim of the Soul and Sacred Bridges.

I bought the Arabian Passion online. Future Radio is Ofcom licensed and party to a PRS agreement. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Your bow Sir Edward

Going through the motions kills the emotions is a mantra that should be repeated by orchestral musicans before every performance. I was reminded of this when I switched on BBC Radio 3 yesterday afternoon a few minutes into the first movement of Elgar's masterly A flat symphony. Within a short time it was clear that something special was going on, inspired and intelligent conducting was matched by fresh and committed orchestral playing. I have heard the work literally hundreds of times, but after a few minutes I was marvelling once again at just how great a masterpiece Elgar created, rather than fuming at yet another gratuitous 're-think' of his music.

Entranced, I went to the Radio 3 website to identify the conductor and musicians and was surprised to find it was Marin Alsop and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Congratulations to everyone involved, including the engineers at Swedish Radio, for making a recording that allowed us to hear Elgar pure and simple. And, incidentally, Elgar played and conducted a lot better than in many recent performances by the once great BBC Symphony Orchestra under their never ending succession of male guest and chief conductors. Based on that Swedish concert the BBC Symphony should snap up Marin Alsop as their next chief conductor when IMG Artists finally succeed in placing Jiří Bělohlávek in a top-dollar Stateside music directorship.

Marin Alsop would be the first woman chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic was also an American.

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

What price BBC music coverage?

The National Audit Office (NAO) is due to publish a report looking at how much the BBC spends on covering major sporting and music events. The corporation reportedly spent £1.5m sending 407 reporters and technical staff to cover the Glastonbury music festival last year ... The NAO said the report would look at whether the BBC provides value for money with its coverage - from BBC News website.
Do you remember someone asking what price the BBC Proms?

My header photo shows a small part of the BBC entourage at a Proms concert. It comes from my July 2006 article Summer in the City and is (c) On An Overgrown Path. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Music that overflows with optimism

Rubbra's output reveals a unity on two levels: the musical, which is readily demonstrable, and the less easily perceived religous/philosophical, which overrides the musical and encompasses almost everything he wrote. It is universal rather than sectarian, an instinctive blend of the most spiritual and mystical elements of Buddhism and Catholicism. It led to a music that overflows with optimism and a sense of well-being, though the, at times, dramatic and conflictual aspects attest to the hard-won nature of that ultimate peace and reassurance.
Edmund Rubbra's biographer Ralph Scott Grover writes in the 2001 New Grove. If Rubbra is known at all today, it is for his eleven symphonies and the violin concerto, all of which overflow with that 'optimism and sense of well-being'. But there is also some very fine and little known chamber music, including four superb quartets, that deserves to come out of the shadow of more fashionable twentieth-century compositions. The Dutton CD above comes from the adventurous chamber music group Endymion who also appeared on the excellent NMC disc of Elisabeth Lutyens music that featured here last year in print and as a podcast. A point of clarification at this point; the Dutton CD sleeve gives the performers as the Endymion Ensemble. There is (was?) a US group of this name. The UK band simply call themselves Endymion, and it is this group that performs on the Dutton disc. Endymion are also doing important work rehabilitating the music of York Bowen. The best known work on their rewarding CD of Rubbra's music is his Sonata for Oboe and Piano, Op. 100, which was written for Evelyn Rothwell (Lady Barbirolli). Other musical connections abound in this collection of the composer's chamber music. His Phantasy, Op. 16 is dedicated to Gerald Finzi. Dutch oboeist Peter Bree, who specialises in twentieth-century music (follow the path to Jules Röntgen), commissioned and recorded the Duo, Op. 156. Arnold Bax's brother Clifford wrote the 1947 BBC radio play The Buddha for which Rubbra provided the incidental music, which became his Suite, The Buddha, Op. 64. Rubbra had a life-long interest in comparative religion, mysticism, and metaphysical literature. He briefly practiced Buddhism before returning to Catholicism. His output also included some very fine sacred choral music that is well worth exploring. This includes a Magnificat and Missa Cantuariensis for the Anglican rite, and a Latin Mass and motets. All can be found on the recommended Naxos disc by Christopher Robinson and the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge below.

The Pink Floyd, Weather Report, Edmund Rubbra, and much more, in The Year is '72.
I am indebted to Leo Black's Edmund Rubbra Symphonist (ISBN 9781843833550). My copy was supplied by the publisher, Boydell & Brewer, at my request. Both Rubbra CDs featured were purchased by me. 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, January 27, 2010

Love, life and crimes against humanity

Jacques Brel has sold more than 25 million records worldwide. His songs, including standards such as Ne Me Quitte Pas, have been covered by a Who's Who of performers from Scott Walker and Judy Collins to Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone. Musicians including Leonard Cohen and David Bowie have been influenced by Brel who is a revered figure in his native Belgium and in his adopted homeland of France. So a story about Jacques Brel at the peak of his career singing on a sex education record made by a notorious French war criminals guilty of crimes against humanity sounds like the stuff of an April 1 post. But this remarkable and little known story is true.

Regular readers will know that France, monastic orders and Gregorian chant are a recurring theme On An Overgrown Path. For as the incomparable Bernard Levin wrote:
I sometimes think I would exchange all the music I have ever heard for real plainsong heard amid walls of stone.
During my recent physical and virtual travels I stumbled across a number of intriguing references to links between traditionalist Catholic communities, such as Solesmes which is famous for its Gregorian Chant, and supporters of Marshal Pétain, leader of France's collaborationist wartime government. In particular the name of French war criminal Paul Touvier kept cropping up.

During the Second World War Paul Touvier served under the Vichy regime as head of the intelligence department in the Chambéry Milice reporting to Klaus Barbie the notorious 'butcher of Lyons'. In September 1946 Touvier was sentenced to death in absentia by the French courts for treason and collusion with the Nazis. He was arrested in 1947, but escaped and was on the run from 1947 to 1966 when the 20 year statute of limitations in France abrogated his death sentence.

A lobby with strong clerical connections extracted a pardon from President Pompidou in 1971, a ruling which caused a general outcry in France. In 1973 an accusation of crimes against humanity relating to the killing of seven Jewish hostages at Rillieux-la-Pape, near Lyon, in June 1944 was filed and Touvier went into hiding again. A warrant for his arrest was issued in 1981 but it was not until 1989 that Touvier, seen above at his televised trial in 1994, was arrested in the priory of Saint-Joseph de Nice run by followers of the right-wing cleric Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre. During his time in hiding Touvier stayed in a number of traditionalist monasteries with musical connections including Solesmes and Fontgombault.

But I was most surprised to find another quite unexpected musical link to Paul Touvier. Several French sources on Touvier made opaque references to Jacques Brel. My interest was piqued by these, but the main online Brel biographies make no mention of Touvier and my search on the official Belgian Edition Jacques Brel website against the term 'Paul Touvier' returned a result of 'There is no page matching your request!'

It looked as though that was the end of the story. But further research eventually uncovered confirmation of surprising links between Paul Touvier and Jacques Brel. In an interview in French on the International Justice Tribune website Jean-Pierre Getti, the last of four examining magistrates on the Touvier case between 1989 and 1981, says:
In 1967 Touvier gained permission from the singer [Brel] to produce a sex education record for children titled “L’amour et la vie” - [Love and Life]. He [Touvier] told me that he had met him [Brel] when he was visiting Chambéry, by going and sitting at the restaurant table in his hotel and introducing himself with the words: “I am Paul Touvier, a condemned man.”

The title of the record was the vital information which allowed me to uncover the rest of this surprising and little known story. L'Amour Et La Vie was released as the Philips vinyl LP seen above with the translated subtitle of 'Conception and birth explained to children', and the producer is listed as 'Berthet'. Paul Touvier's wife's family name was Berthet and he was known to use the alias Paul Berthet. The sleeve says the record is a collaboration with the marriage guidance service of Grenoble, the nearest city to Chambéry where Touvier first joined the Milice. The sleeve note says 'This record is intended for parents and children alike. It is about the difficult subject of initiating young people into the "mystery of life".'

L'Amour Et La Vie is not listed on the official Jacques Brel discography but the Discogs website lists Brel, seen below, as singing the first track on side 2, Voir. The other tracks are sung by the Petits Chanteurs de l'Ile-de-France, a well-known ensemble directed by Jean Amoureux that was formed in 1946 and performed with artists including John Williams, Nana Mouskouri, Michel Legrand, and Sacha Distel. L'Amour Et La Vie was released by Philips, Brel's record label from 1954 to 1962. He recorded Voir for another Philips disc in 1962, so presumably the Brel song on L'Amour Et La Vie was a repeat of the 1962 track.

Philip's pressed 30,000 copies of L'Amour Et La Vie. 1967 may have been the year of the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Stockhausen's Hymnen, but the French press enthused about a new release featuring Jacques Brel, a children's choir and tracks such as Un Papa, Une Maman... Pourquoi? - 'A mother, a father... why?' Franche Dimanche wrote of "parents speaking of their love and their children" and the Catholic le Pélerin said the the record "cannot be recommended too highly".

Jacques Brel, above, was no fool. So the sixty-four-thousand- dollar question must be, was his involvement with Paul Touvier an innocent mistake, or was it something else? We have Jean-Pierre Getti's account, corrobarated elsewhere, of Touvier introducing himself to Brel with the words ‘I am Paul Touvier, a condemned man’. But Touvier's account may not be truthful as he was known to be a convincing serial liar. A 1988 Le Nouvel Observateur article tells how Touvier collabarated with Brel on a number of projects, but quotes Brel's wife as saying they knew Touvier under the name Berthet and only discovered his true identity "later".

Another Le Nouvel Observateur articles describes Touvier as Brel's secretary and says that he lived in Brel's villa in Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse from 1968 to 1971. An interview on the Europe1 website (no longer available) with journalist and commentator Claude Moniquet dates the first meeting between Brel and Touvier as 1959: which means that Brel was closely involved with Touvier for at least eight years, a truly remarkable period for the war criminal to successfully keep his true identity concealed.

Further attempts to explore Brel's motives stall in the realms of the unsubstantiated and speculative. Brel's biographer Olivier Todd, a member of Jean Paul Sartre's circle wrote that in politics Brel followed his heart rather than his head. Touvier himself said:
"Toute ma vie n’a été qu’une énorme tromperie. Je crois bien que j’arriverais à tromper Dieu ! Qu’importe ! Je suis bien à ce point où Dieu et le Diable ne font qu’un !"

"My life has big one big fraud. I firmly believe I could manage to deceive God! What does it matter! I have come to the point where God and the Devil are one and the same! ".
As well as being involved in the massacre of the seven Jews at Rillieux-la-Pape, in January 1944 Paul Touvier was linked to the murder of Victor Basch and his wife Ilona. Basch was the former president of the League of Human Rights which in the 1890s had led the defence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French army captain falsely accused of treason.

In July 1991 Paul Touvier was granted provisional release and his trial for complicity in crimes against humanity was delayed until March 1994. He was defended by the monarchist lawyer Jacques Tremollet de Villers, who later became president of the traditionalist Catholic organization La Cité Catholique. A priest from the controversial Society of Saint Pius X founded by Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre sat beside Touvier throughout his trial and acted as his spiritual advisor.

In April 1994 Paul Touvier was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of prostate cancer in Fresnes prison near Paris in 1996 and a traditional Tridentine requiem mass for the repose of his soul was offered in St Nicolas du Chardonnet, the Society of St. Pius X's chapel in Paris.

Jacques Brel gave his second and final concert in Carnegie Hall, New York at the start of 1967. L’amour et la vie was edited by Paul Touvier in April 1967. The following month Brel retired from touring after a final appearance in Roubaix, France, but he continued to work in the recording studio and in films and the theatre. Jacques Brel died of lung cancer aged 49 in October 1978.

* This article started with a series of extended conversations inside a traditionalist Catholic monastery. The Rule of St. Benedict requires that monasteries offer guests shelter without prejudice, whether they be war criminals or bloggers. But, that notwithstanding, I am grateful for the continuing hospitality and receptiveness of the contemplative orders.
* An excellent excellent 1989 article on Paul Touvier in the New York Times, but it makes no mention of Jacques Brel.
* Article and audio clips of interview with Claude Moniquet on Europe 1 website - now removed.
* Examing magistrate Jean-Pierre Getti's testimony is available in French on the International Justice Tribune Archive on the Radio Netherland Worldwide website.
* Le Nouvel Observateur archived articles of 3-9 Nov. 1988 and 1 June 1989.
* Editions Jacques Brel - official website.
* Details of L'Amour Et La Vie from Discogs website.
* Obituary of Touvier in the Independent is a well researched and balanced source with good background on the involvement of the Catholic church, but again no mention of the Brel connection.
* Brief biography of Touvier on the FranceInter website provides my illuminating quote.
* An unsubstantiated post on Brel's political backround on a Belgium blog.
* None other than Alastair Campbell has written about "the genius of Jacques Brel." I quote from his 2008 Times article - 'The extent of his [Brel's] double life, and the unpleasant things he sometimes said to his children, and about women, were perhaps the biggest surprise of my research. Yet I was pleased to hear from those who worked with him that, to them, he remained a hero. Pleased too that he was politically aware and, though not very active, basically left-wing.' Just another dodgy dossier ...
* Brian Moore's 1995 novel The Statement is very loosely based on the Touvier story. Worth reading but most definitely not a reliable source. The novel was later adapted into a film directed by Norman Jewison and starring Michael Caine.
* Most definitely a source of humour but nothing else is the 1996 London Times Online article with its accusation that 'In 1967, when the statute of limitations expired for his crimes, Touvier emerged from his monastic hidey-hole to record a song about having sex with girls called L’amour et la vie, with Brel contributing backing vocals' . Presumably the Times had problems with the translation of 'un disque sur l'éducation sexuelle des enfants'. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
* And there will always be the music. Gregorian Chant is here. Photos of Brel in this article are publicity shots used in Barclay's 2004 compilation Brel Infiniment. More on Jacques Brel here.

January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day. This date is the anniversary of the liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945 of the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Read about a little known Holocaust opera here.

With thanks to Hérisson for invaluable assistance with research for this article and the always excellent food and drink. 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 Version 1.0 27/01/2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

If you have to bear the exiles' fate

In the fireplace, a fire is burning.
In the room, it's warm,
And the rabbi is teaching the young children the alphabet.
Listen carefully children,
All that I'm telling you,
The one among you who will read the fastest
Will receive a small flag.
Learn children, have no fear,
Any beginning is difficult,
Happy is the one who has learnt the Tora,
What can a man wish more?
Children, you are going to grow up,
And you will learn by yourselves
How many tears and sobs
Are present in every letter.
If you, my children,
One day, you have to bear the exiles' fate,
Then, you will draw on your strength by gazing at these letters.

Tomorrow, January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day. This date is the anniversary of the liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945 of the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the first name in the list of camps above. My photos show the Mémorial de la Déportation in Paris which remembers the 200,000 people deported from Vichy France to the Nazi concentration camps. It is interesting that French architect Georges-Henri Pingusson's haunting design predates Daniel Libeskind's much better known Jewish Museum in Berlin by thirty-nine years.

The verses are from the Yiddish song Oyfn Pripetchik - In the Fireplace. German singer Jutta Carstensen's CD of Yiddish songs and Klezmer music made with Ensemble Trielen for the inimitable Ad Vitam label was one my personal highlights from the 2009 releases. You can hear Jutta Carstensen and Ensemble Trielen performing Oyfn Pripetchik in the podcast of my recent A World of Music programme.

Jutta Carstensen and Ensemble Trielen's CD of Yiddish Chants and Klezmer music was bought online. All photos are (C) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, January 25, 2010

The decade of the feral choir

Our word 'happy' comes from the Icelandic word 'happ' meaning luck or chance. So it was a happy chance that the first live music I heard this decade was from the Oxford Improvisers and Oxford Feral Choir. And in welcome recognition that we are not all beneficiaries of bank bonuses or BBC salaries, Oxford Improvers wisely shunned the burgeoning corporate entertainment market and made their concert free. Which is an interesting contrast to the new Serenata Festival targeted at "Classic FM boutique campers" which offers "Puccini and Pimms" with £795 ticket prices to match. I wonder what the folk at the BBC Proms and elsewhere will make of the Serenata Festival's claim to be 'Britain's first classical music festival'?

But back to the real world. The lunchtime concert of improvised works took place in the church of St. Michael at the North Gate in Oxford, which is where I took the header photo. Oxford Feral Choir was formed recently as a development of one of Phil Minton's vocal improvisation workshops, listen to audio samples of his work here. The Oxford Improvisers were formed in 2001 to continue the work of the Oxford Improvisers Co-Operative founded by jazz drummer Steve Harris and others in the 1980s. Composer and performer Malcolm Atkins is a central figure in the Oxford Improvisers and the group has released three CDs including Accession, a work created by Malcolm Atkins. Their website has a number of free downloads of performances and there is a video below. Solo 2 (Dedicated to the memory of Karlheinz Stockhausen) on YouTube is also well worth a visit.

The concert by the Oxford Improvisers and Feral Choir confirmed what jazz and world musicians have known for years but classical musicians are still reluctant to accept - you do not need a printed score to create honest, moving and thought provoking music. At the end of the free concert there was a retiring collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians. I wonder if the Serenata Festival in August will end with a collection for stressed-out bankers?

Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Now we rise and we are everywhere

A sesquialtera is a mixed stop popular in English organs of the 19th century. It uses several ranks of pipes to reinforce the fundamental and produce a brighter (Bryter?) sound.

The sesquialtera stop seen in my header photo was added to the organ in the church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Tanworth-in-Arden in memory of Nick Drake. Below is a view of the 14th century church with Nick's grave visible bottom left.

The words Now we rise and we are everywhere, which are inscribed on the back of his headstone, come from the last track on Nick Drake's final album Pink Moon, recorded in 1971. Read more in A skin too few and I am a camera - St. Tropez 1967.

The overgrown path that brought me to Nick Drake was Brad Mehldau's performance of River Man on his double CD Progression: Art Of The Trio (Volume 5) released in 2000. Wonderful solo performance of the Nick Drake classic on the video below, non-German speakers should fast-forward to 1.00 minutes.

Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, January 22, 2010

We want a wild and ephemeral music

Iannis Xenakis, who is seen above, appeared at the Centre Universitaire expérimental de Vincennes in February 1969. During the événements of May 1968 the graffiti slogan Xenakis not Gounod was scrawled on the walls of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. The experimental university at Vincennes on the eastern outskirts of Paris was created by the French government as an open and self-governing college following the 1968 riots.

Xenakis' open session at Vincennes on February 25 1969 took place three days before newly elected President Richard Nixon arrived in Paris, the first US president to visit France in eight years. During his visit Nixon met with French President Charles de Gaulle twice. De Gaulle resigned in April 1969, his reputation tarnished by his handling of the events of 1968, and he died in November of the following year. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 following the Watergate scandal. As another Paris slogan of 1968 said - No replastering, the structure is rotten.

As one would expect from a soixante-huitard blog, Xenakis is a regular fixture On An Overgrown Path and he composes in glass here. But why can't we have Xenakis and Gounod? Charles Gounod's later rococo indulgences may not be to all tastes, but there are some wonderful things in his early music and his sparse contrapuntal Messe Chorale with its use of Gregorian themes is a delight from start to finish.

The rare Messe Chorale is available on the CD below with the Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne directed by Michel Corboz and organist Marie-Claie Alain in a coupling with a two organ transcription of Saint-Saëns' equally rare and delightful Mass Op. 4. At less than £5 on Warner's Apex label you can buy it with the budget Naïve Xenakis box I featured here recently to get Xenakis and Gounod plus a Saint-Saëns bonus for remarkably little.

To remind us of those heady (in the clouds?) days here is yet another slogan from May 1968:
We want a wild and ephemeral music.
We propose a fundamental regeneration:
concert strikes,
sound gatherings with collective investigation.
Abolish copyrights: sound structures belong to everyone.
The experimental university at Vincennes closed in 1979, the site was razed and no physical traces of it remain today. The more conventionally structured Nanterre University, which was at the centre of the 1968 unrest, has gone from strength to strength and numbers centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy among its graduates. Nanterre is profiled here.

The Apex CD of Gounod and Saint-Saëns Masses was bought at retail years ago. 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, January 21, 2010

The toast of national leaders

Glenn Gould's love/hate relationship with Steinway pianos is the stuff of legend and also of a very entertaining book. In the past you could judge a pianist's career prospects by the piano manufacturer they were signed to, but all that has changed and today you judge their prospects by the agent they are signed to. So the following press release makes interesting reading:
EMI Classics has signed the superlative young Chinese pianist Yundi, formerly known as Yundi Li, winner of the 14th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Appropriately, Yundi’s first EMI release (due out in the U.S. on April 6) will be the complete Chopin nocturnes, issued to commemorate the composer’s 200th birthday in 2010. Together Yundi and EMI Classics plan to record Chopin’s complete works for solo piano.
Early in his career Yundi, who incidentally is a Steinway artist, was signed to Columbia Artists Management Inc. CAMI are the 800 pound gorilla of classical music with a client roster that includes Lang Lang, Valery Gergiev and James Levine. But several years ago Yundi moved agencies to Askonas Holt, it is suggested elsewhere that this move may have been precipitated by Lang Lang threatening to throw his toys out of the CAMI pram if he had to share them with a rival.

But being managed by Askonas Holt is no hardship; in fact they are the 799 pound gorilla of classical music with Gustavo Dudamel, Andrew Davis, the Berlin Philharmonic, and Philharmonia Orchestras among their clients. Yundi's career to date has certainly been impressive, including performing with Gustavo Dudamel and recording with Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia and also with the Berlin Philharmonic. Askonas Holt's other conductors include Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim, and, like all the big agents, they also manage orchestra tours. So the prospects for Yundi look very good indeed.

I haven't heard any Yundi CDs or concerts. But I did come back from Paris recently with EMI's 5 CD box of Georges Cziffra's Chopin recordings which I bought in FNAC for just 15 euros. That pricing indicates that with back catalogues stuffed full of excellent Chopin and Mahler recordings anniversary price deflation will be the next life-threatening disease to hit the record industry. Already Simon Rattle's 'premium' Mahler cycle (Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic & CBSO) is selling in the UK for around £2 per CD. Which is almost exactly the price I was paying per LP in the early 1970s for Bernard Haitink's and Georg Solti's first Mahler recordings. A quick Google tells me that the £2 I paid for Haitink's Mahler 1 in 1971 is worth around £23 today. Which means the real price of recorded Mahler has dropped by more than 90% in four decades. I wonder how much agents' and top conductors' fees have dropped by over the same period? As I keep saying ...

But back to Chopin. The EMI Pathé recordings in the box, which do not include the Nocturnes, span the period 1959-1979 and come in mellow analogue sound captured in the Salle Wagram, Paris and Salle Garnier, Monte Carlo. Cziffra's style, seen to extreme below in a Chopin Étude, was virtuosic yet poetic, whereas the Askonas Holt website seen above talks of Yundi's 'precise, crystalline technique'.

But there are even greater contrasts. EMI Classics' press release proudly tells us that -
[Yundi] is the toast of national leaders and has been invited to perform for the Chinese ambassador in Washington, D.C. and for the president of China, Hu Jin Tao, at Government House in a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China.
By contrast Georges Cziffra, who was the son of a Hungarian Roma, had a less comfortable relationship with national leaders and suffered three years of imprisonment and forced labour after a failed attempt to escape from Soviet controlled Hungary. Here is Cziffra's own description of that ordeal:
While in prison, I had been accorded the privilege of transporting blocks of stone. My muscles, stretched to the limit and hardened, could no longer withstand hours of daily practice. Not even my will-power was what it had been. In order that my fingers, swollen by work of a very different nature, could gradually grow used to the piano again, I was obliged to continue wearing wristbands to hold my joints in place and lessen the pain. I was to wear these accessories for quite a time to come. After leaving prison, my hands needed four months’ physiotherapy before I could go into Budapest to start looking for work all over again.
Sorry to repeat myself again. But in classical music, as elsewhere, there is no such thing as a free lunch. And talking of human rights, where is the Chinese Shostakovich?

* The text of Georges Cziffra's autobiography Cannons and Flowers, from which the extract above is taken, is available online, for which we owe a big thanks to MusicWeb International. A 40 CD box of Cziffra's complete studio recordings made for EMI between 1956-1986 is available for around £100.

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

Contemporary music at the Reich price

If there are gaps in the Steve Reich section of your CD collection you can fill them very cheaply at where Nonesuch's five CD Reich retrospective is currently available for the silly price of £14.58 including UK delivery. Music for 18 Musicians, Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices, & Organ and Drumming are just some of the works in the collection which gives an excellent overview of the composer's career to date. More on Nonesuch here and here. But is recorded classical music too cheap?

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, January 20, 2010

Vaughan Williams casts a spell

Seen on the overgrown path to Stratford-upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Arabian Nights. A quite magical evening of theatre enhanced by an evocative score by Gary Yershon which includes darbukas, lute and kamanja.

Which reminds me that the nice folk at Meredith Music Publication, Galesville, Wisconsin sent me Michael Colgrass' new autobiography Adventures of an American Composer which contains waspish anecdotes about many musical personalities including Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky. One of Michael Colgrass' stories, titled Opera Pickles, starts as follows:
My wife and I were at a party of London's musical dignitaries in 1967 when we struck up a conversation with Dame Ursula Vaughn Williams [sic], the sophisticated wife of Ralph Vaughn Williams [sic]. She asked about an opera I was writing and shared her thoughts on opera, trying to impress by dropping names and a German phrase or two.
I guess the moral of that little tale is, if you drop names at least know how to spell them.

A pilgrim's final progress is here.

Tickets for Arabian Nights were bought at the RSC box office. A review copy of Michael Colgrass' autobiography was provided at my request. 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, January 16, 2010

Taking a few bars rest

Bach soon.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, January 15, 2010

This is listening to a human mind

A wide variety of music, including some by Bach, was sent into the far reaches of outer space on the two Voyager spacecrafts in the 1970s. When eminent biologist and author Lewis Thomas was asked what music he would want sent from Earth into outer space he answered, "I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach." After a pause he added, "But that would be boasting."
My header photo shows how boasting has been made affordable. Brilliant Classics 155 CD Bach Edition currently retails in the UK for around £140. Lewis Thomas also said:
Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.
The full list of the music sent into outer space on the Voyager spacecrafts is here, Neil Armstrong's personal moon music is here, and, gentlemen, old Bach is here.

Quote credits Carmel Bach Festival and ThinkExist. Brilliant Classic's Bach Edition was given to me as a Christmas present when it was first released. 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, January 14, 2010

A star is spun

A Star PR pride ourselves on never using ‘off the shelf’ campaigns. Each of our projects is a bespoke,holistic,highly effective and targeted campaign tailored specifically for every individual client.

We leverage our media relationships to build profile, influence opinion and reach the largest possible audience . We know what media want and we aggressively persue all promotional opportunities. A Star PR have enviable and unrivalled contacts across all areas of the media, both nationally and internationally.

If you’re looking to sell records, raise awareness of yourselves or your client and are ready to become A Star, get in touch!
That copy, errors and all, comes from PR agency A Star's website. Their main business is rock acts but among their classical stable is apprentice conductor Alex Prior who has been the subject of some pretty transparent profile building and opinion influencing in the last few days. To succeed in classical music today it is not enough to be seventeen. You also need a rock star PR agency and a mother who can work the media.

Which brings me to the conductor above. I haven't seen Kwamé Ryan in the concert hall or read any provocative interviews with him, but I am hearing some good things about his conducting. He was born in Canada but has also lived in Trinidad and Uganda. Kwamé Ryan is young when compared with the truly great conductors, he was born in 1970. Despite being managed by top agency Harrison Parrot he is doing the right thing in my opinion by keeping his head down and building up experience and repertoire. Currently he is music director of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine and also of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes - the French national youth orchestra. In November 2009 he conducted Peter Eötvös’s opera Le Balcon in Bordeaux and Francis Carlin in the Financial Times reported:
... This all gives Le Balcon massively improved viability and it certainly worked its magic on the first-night audience, not least because Kwamé Ryan’s conducting of a kaleidoscope of ravishing textures was a feast for the ears.
I know which conductor I will be trying to catch in concert.

* Kwamé Ryan is of Trinidadian descent. From the island of Trinidad it is a short journey to Georgetown, Guyana where the Berlin Philharmonic's first black conductor, Rudolph Dunbar, was born. Read his story 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

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

All notes are blended in one

I got the boat to the Simonos Petra landing. A merchant in Daphni gave me a bag of fish to bring along and a letter. Fortunately, he said to leave the fish at the dock. The climb, over a thousand feet straight up in the noonday sun, with my bag on my shoulder, was a real workout - purgatory on the way to heaven.

The monastery itself is quite cool, catching the mountain breezes. It is very well kept. I received a cheerful welcome from the guest-master, Father Theologos, and was given a room that looks out on the courtyard and the katholikon, the main church of the monastery. I hope I will be able to stay here. Silence reigns here except for the birds, the wind and the water.
Contemplative silence described in O Holy Mountain! - Journal of a Retreat on Mount Athos by Fr. M. Basil Pennington (1931–2005), who was a Trappist monk at St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts, as well as a spiritual writer and teacher.

The Monastery of Simonos Petra (literally Simon's Rock) is an Eastern Orthodox monastery in the monastic state of Mount Athos in Greece. Jade, the French label that brought us The CD that nearly got away, has recently released a disc of Orthodox liturgical chant sung by the monks of Simonos Petras. The atmospheric recording was made in the monastery church at Simonos Petras by a Greek studio (Echogennisi of Trikal) in 1990 and has been licensed by Jade.

There is a lot of musical and spiritual nourishment in Hymnes du Mont Athos; but two things in particular struck me. First was the raw, unrefined and engaging quality of the the singing. This is a useful reminder of the dangers of the increasingly common practice of taking the superficially appealling essence of non-Western (and also early) music and presenting it in a sanitised form complete with Pro Tools-style polishing. It all seems to be part of the current obsession for 'completing': but what we need are virtuosos audiences who are prepared to listen outside their Western art music comfort zone, not a new genre of glossy 'world art music'. Having said that, the blemish at the start of track 1 of Hymnes du Mont Athos is unfortunate. You don't need Pro Tools to know that the leading edge of the first entry is somewhere on the digital equivalent of the editing room floor.

The second thing that struck me was how much these Orthodox liturgical chants share with sacred music from other faiths. Listening to Hymnes du Mont Athos was a reminder that the spiritual distance from Mount Athos to Vajrayana Buddhism and the Mevlevi lodges of Turkey is not that great. And that realisation brings this path full circle.

Among Fr. M. Basil Pennington's other books is Engaging the World with Merton, a journal of the time he spent on retreat in Thomas Merton's Kentucky hermitage. Thomas Merton practiced active inclusiveness, a sharp contrast to the largely ineffectual passive inclusiveness driven by legislative rather than humanitarian dictates that is all pervasive today. Amiya Chakravarty (1901-1986), academic, Bengali Poet, and close associate of Rabindranath Tagore, closes the circle in his introduction to that hymn to inclusiveness, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton.
Merton sought fullness of man's inheritance; this inclusive view made it impossible for him to deny any authentic scripture or any man of faith. Indeed, he discovered new aspects of truth in Hinduism, in the Madhyamika system, which stood halfway between Hinduism and Buddhism, in Zen, and in Sufi mysticism. His lifelong search for meditative silence and prayer was found not only in his monastic experience but also in his late Tibetan inspiration. His major devotional interests converged in what he called "constantia" where "all notes in their perfect distinctness, are yet blended in one" ... Not only in religion and religous philosophy but in art, creative writing, music, and international relations - particularly in a possible world renunciation of violence - he knew the challenge of reality.

Thomas Merton's poetry set by John Jacob Niles is here.

* Fr. Basil Pennington's book O Holy Mountain! is out of print. But it appears to have been republished under the torturous title, The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monk's Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground. Another book which has given me a lot of pleasure is a print on demand title, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise by Graham Speake, it is notable particularly for its beautiful colour photographs.

Hymnes du Mont Athos and all books mentioned were bought at retail. 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, January 12, 2010

Elgar and his dogs

Sir Edward Elgar wrote some truly great music. Gerontius would be among my Desert Island Discs if not my sole Desert Island Disc, and the two genuine symphonies would probably be on that list as well. Among his undervalued masterpieces are The Kingdom, The Apostles, the Piano Quintet and the String Quartet. But like almost every other great composer except J.S. Bach, Elgar also produced some real dogs.

Among the dogs is his masque The Crown of India. You will get the feel of the piece when I explain it was written in 1912 to celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Delhi for their coronation as Emperor and Empress of India. But perhaps I am being unfair to Elgar when I dismiss the work. It was only published in a piano and vocal score and the orchestral parts for the masque were destroyed in the 1960s. So we don't actually know what the full score sounds like in its original form.

At this point that serial completer Anthony Payne enters the story. He "completed" The Crown of India in 2008 and this version has been recorded for Chandos by Andrew Davis with the BBC Philharmonic, and the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, with the latter august body and the soloists being saddled with the cringe-inducing libretto by Henry Hamilton. I caught an extended excerpt on BBC Radio 3 this morning and all I can say is that whoever destroyed the orchestral parts in the 1960s was almost certainly doing Elgar's reputation a great favour.

But this should not detract from some of the other excellent things Chandos are currently doing, even if their website remains a model of opacity. Of particular note is a new disc of musiic by Guillaume Connesson with Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and a series of recordings of Luigi Dallapicolla's orchestral works. These should be available as downloads from the Chandos website, I just hope you have more luck finding them there than I did. More on Guillaume Connesson here, and Luigi Dallapiccola here.

Portrait of Elgar is by Michael Whittlesea. No CDs changed hands during the writing of this post. I hope someone at Chandos gets the message that their website is an excellent sales prevention tool. 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, January 11, 2010

In the shadow of Chopin

The music police are already telling us how we will be celebrating the Chopin bicentennial this year. So, never one for musical correctness, my header photo honours another giant of the piano, in status if not in stature, who is buried literally in the shadow of Frédéric Chopin. Michel Petrucciani, compositeur - pianiste de jazz, died in 1999 aged just 36. He is buried alongside birthday boy Chopin in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and his pianistic genius has featured several times On An Overgrown Path. Père Lachaise has more musicians per acre than any other burial ground, and they include Georges Bizet whose headstone is seen below. Bizet's grave is surprisingly understated for France's most famous musician and the dates on it are a sobering reminder that he was the same age as Michel Petrucciani when he died.

Adjacent to Bizet is the more contemporary resting place of Georges Enescu who died in 1955. Enescu (Enesco in France) taught Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Ida Haendel and many others and was the dedicatee of Ysaÿe's Solo Violin Sonata No. 3.

Elsewhere in Père Lachaise lies Francis Poulenc, who shares the elaborate mausoleum seen below with his niece Brigitte Manceaux. She inherited the composer's estate, only to die months after him. Does religion, nationality, or simply chance explain why Benjamin Britten lies alongside his partner, the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986), in Aldeburgh churchyard while Poulenc's partner, the baritone Pierre Bernac (1899-1979), is not buried in Père Lachaise?

Yes, I know my next Père Lachaise resident was not a musician. But the French artist Arman, famous for his "accumulations" and destruction and recomposition of familiar objects, often incorporated musical instruments into his creations.

A deconstructed cello is a prominent feature of Arman's burial site, and the playful unfinished graphics, which contrast sharply with Poulenc's po-faced mausoleum, are confirmation that 'work in progress' is going to be the next big thing. 'Enfin Seul' translates as 'Alone at last'.

Below is one of the most visited graves of any musician anywhere in the world. The Doors vocalist Jim Morrison was buried in Père Lachaise after dying in his bath in Paris in 1971. The Greek inscription on the headstone has various translations, the most favoured seems to be 'True to his own spirit'. Which makes the bottle of Jack Daniel's left by a fan quite appropriate.

But I really don't want to be issued with a thinking ticket by the music police. So below is a photo of Chopin's grave with Michel Petrucciani's in its shadow beyond the tree in the centre of the frame. This may be the first picture on a music blog in 2010 of Chopin's final resting place, but I am quite sure it will not be the last. And just wait until the Mahler double anniversary bandwagon starts rolling. That's a no-brainer for the record companies whose back catalogue is stuffed with Mahler symphonies, it's a no brainer for the orchestras whose repertoire is stuffed with the same, and it's a no-brainer for loquacious journalists and radio presenters whose Mahler spiel will go on for longer than the symphonies. Don't get me wrong: Mahler is a truly great composer. Which is precisely why we do not need to be force-fed his music for the next two years like geese being fattened to make foie gras.

Poulenc's masterpiece Dialogue of the Carmelites is here and exclusive photos of another bicentenary composer are here.

All photos were taken by me in November 2009 on my trusty but battle-scarred Casio EX-Z120 and are (c) On An Overgrown Path. Sorry there is no photo of Rossini's grave. He is also buried somewhere in Père Lachaise, but despite spending some time looking using a map we could not find his grave. Pity because his culinary memorial would have made a nice link to my foie gras reference. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk