Friday, January 29, 2016

Music is a powerful lens

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
That quote comes from Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood. Musicians on Abdul Malik Dyck's new album Remembered Music include his father Sheikh Hassan Dyck, Western classical violinist turned Sufi exponent Ali Keeler and Afghan rabab master Daud Khan. My deviant reading while in Morocco recently included Columbia University lecturer Hisham Aidi's 'Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the new Muslim Youth Culture' which discusses how music from hip-hop to Sufi is expressing a shared Muslim consciousness in the face of 'war on terror' policies. Writing in the prologue Hisham Aidi describes how "Music is a powerful lens through which to view the identities and movements emerging in Muslim communities".

Remembered Music was a requested review sample. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I write to discover

I write to discover, because contemplation is the art of discovering things that science and technology cannot reveal. Contemplation restores to man the spiritual breadth of which technology divests him, to objects their significance, and to work its functional presence. Contemplation is the key to individual survival today - Octavio Paz
Photo was taken by me at Thiksay Monastery, Ladakh. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

There is a world elsewhere

Bruno Walter believed that the spiritual world is of greater import than anything that our temporal world can offer. Although Jewish by birth he embraced Christianity, and was one of several notable musicians influenced by the esoteric and controversial teachings of Rudolf Steiner. The great conductor's belief in the innate spirituality of humankind found expression in his music through a process which he explains at the close of his 1946 memoir 'Theme and Variations'.
There flows from music, irrespective of its ever-changing emotional expression, an unchanging message of comfort: its dissonances strive towards consonance - they must be resolved; every musical piece ends in a consonance. Thus music as an element has an optimistic quality, and I believe that therein lies the source of my innate optimism. Still more important, however, and of decisive influence upon my life is the exalted message conveyed to us from the works of the masters, a message most sacredly expressed in the symphonic adagio. The Church knows why it calls upon the power of music at its most solemn functions. Music's wordless gospel proclaims in a universal language what the thirsting soul of man is seeking beyond life. I have been vouchsafed the grace to be a servant of music. It has been a beacon on my way and has kept me in the direction towards which I have been striving; darkly, when I was a child, consciously later. There lie my hope and my confidence - non confundar in æternum*.
That commitment to the universal message of music found expression in a remarkably prescient attitude towards diversity. Bruno Walter was a champion of the music of proto-feminist Ethel Smyth: in 1907 he unsuccessfully lobbied Mahler to programme Ethel Smyth's opera The Wreckers at the Hofoper in Vienna. Walter went on to programme the opera's overture for his London debut in 1909, and conducted the complete opera at Covent Garden in 1910. An important and little-known hole was punched in the glass ceiling obstructing the advancement of women musicians in 1928 when Walter presented a complete programme of Ethel Smyth's music with the Berlin Philharmonic. He shared the podium at this concert with Dame Ethel, thereby enabling her to become the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Having experienced exclusion because of his Jewish bloodline, Walter espoused a visionary approach to diversity; this found eloquent expression in an essay that appeared in 1912 in Der Merker and in the London Times:
I consider Ethel Smyth a composer of quite special significance, who is certain of a permanent place in musical history. Real musical productivity is so rare that we are entitled to ask whether the impression of originality created by these compositions is not attributable to their femininity. Our ears are trained immediately to detect national differences in music, but are too inexperienced to detect sex characteristics. If we had a hundred female composers we might be able to establish a dustinction between male and female music. I am, however, convinced that Dr. Ethel Smyth's thematic charm proceeds in an essential degree from her womanlness, though her work is at the same time English through and through. Yet in her case the sex question is comparatively unimportant in the presence of a talent so strong, thematic invention so original, and a temperament so deep and warm.
In line with his belief that gender and other differences are subordinate to talent, in 1936 Bruno Walter chose the African American contralto Marian Anderson as soloist in Brahms' Alto Rhapsody with the Vienna Symphony in defiance of prevailing racist mores. His gesture of defiance prompted death threats from Nazi sympathisers, but also moved one critic to ask in an admiring review; "What would Brahms have said if he could have known that his rhapsody would be a sung by a Negress?". That Bruno Walter's plea for inclusivity applies not just to women musicians, but to all underrepresented groups including musicians of colour, is given a poignant relevance by recently uncovered film of Dean Dixon conducting and discussing (in German) Mahler's Seventh Symphony.

In 1912 a young Adrian Boult heard Bruno Walter conduct Figaro, Così, and Don Giovanni in Munich. That experience prompted Sir Adrian to write in his autobiography sixty years later: "I didn't suppose I should ever hear Mozart performances of such all-round perfection, and certainly I never have again". Sony's 'Bruno Walter: The Edition', which includes the maestro's priceless performances of symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms and others, but, alas, nothing by Ethel Smyth, is a powerful reminder of how a great musician channels the exalted message of the masters. An invaluable companion to this recorded anthology is Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky's biography 'Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere' which this article draws on. The biography's subtitle quotes Shakespeare's Coriolanus as he leaves Rome. Like Bruno Walter, the hero of the play was forced into exile; Coriolanus' words are very relevant to today's networked celebrity culture and provide an appropriate epitaph for my blog - "There is a world elsewhere".

* Non confundar in æternum ends the Te Deum and translates as 'Let me never be confounded'. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Towards a pure land

This work is for string quartet with elaborate real-time electronics. The sounds of the players are diffused in space with thematic rhythms so that the flying spatialisation is integral to the structure, part of the transformation process. Using IRCAM's SPAT programme (with the help of Gilbert Nouno) it is possible to locate the sounds at any distance, at any point. This point can then be moved, like a living presence; the sound acquires an attribute closer to life, but unseen. When this movement is regular, like the repetitions of dance steps, for instance, the 'presence' begins to take on a character, a personality (though still invisible). Such music becomes a metaphor of subtle modes of being, from 'astral travel', to dreaming, to Gaston Bachelard's 'vertical imagination', to Nietsche's flying fantasies in Zarathustra, to Buddhist visualisation practices in higher meditation (etc.!). The quartet is the dreamer, the spatialisation the dream... All sorts of psychic metamorphoses are undergone by the string sound; it seems to enter into spaces like the centre of the earth - deep bass transposition - or open empty spaces. Such is the imagined relation of player to the electronic treatment. Formally the quartet is divided into 'cycles'; it is as if several lives are depicted, each dying and being reborn with traces of the previous ones. Repetition, transformation; architecture and narrative; construction, dissolution: these are the characteristics of both autonomous music and what it refers to outside itself.
That is Jonathan Harvey's programme note for his Fourth String Quartet. In it Gaston Bachelard's image of an ecstatic paradise garden is linked with the Buddhist vision of the pure land - a state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping. Dating from 2003, the Quartet uses electronics to explore spectralism, the deconstruction and manipulation of sound as an abstract medium, to expose what the composer describes as: "the materiality of the sound itself... the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of the sound'. The Fourth Quartet is available in a 2 SACD set of Jonathan Harvey's complete String Quartets and String Trio performed by the Arditti Quartet on the French Aeon label. The recordings were made in the studios of Südwestrundfunk Baden Baden and the electronics for the Fourth Quartet were provided by IRCAM, an organisation with which Jonathan Harvey has had a long association.

Jonathan Harvey had no interest in formulaic composition, and actively avoided the stylistic stasis that bedevilled many of his peers. Development was central to his work, as can be seen in the evolution from the plainsong inspired Passion and Resurrection of 1981 to the mix of acoustic and electronic sounds in the Fourth Quartet. He was a true polymath who combined a deep interest in Buddhism, mysticism and the work of Rudolf Steiner with composing uncompromisingly modern music. In Arnold Whittall's invaluable biographical study Jonathan Harvey explains how his musical path is a rejection of the obsession with individual identity and suffering found in nineteenth century music, and a move towards the pure land which he invokes so powerfully in the Fourth Quartet:
...but I wanted to solve a problem. To put it very simply, it was the problem of suffering, and it still is. This seems to me the most important problem, in fact the only problem which one should be engaged with: in art as in life, what is suffering and what is the key to alleviating it? It leads back to Buddhism. Buddha is famous of course for proposing just such a solution and it seems his whole life was engaged in the Bodhisattva mission of alleviating suffering, bringing enlightenment and releasing all beings, all living beings from samsara, the world of suffering. Be that as it may, I certainly felt that this more objective music was in the direction of moving away from this fascinating world of samsara, of suffering, in which we are interminably caught and upon which art endlessly meditates.
With his Fourth Quartet Jonathan Harvey defied the zeitgeist of accessibility. But those who reject it because of this should study Bruno Walter's 1905 essay 'On Understanding Art'. In it Bruno Walter argues that, to quote the paraphrase by Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky: "true critics, if moved but puzzled by a new piece of music, will withhold judgement and attribute their confusion to the limitations of their perception, perhaps eventually gaining a just appreciation for the work in question".

* ... towards a Pure Land is also the title of one of Jonathan Harvey's compositions for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It has been recorded on the NMC CD that featured here last year in Body Mandala - a contemporary classic? The paradise garden in my photos is the Dashang Kagyu Ling - Temple of a Thousand Buddhas in La Boulaye, France. The temple, which follows the Vajrayana tradition of Tantric Buddhism, was opened in 1987 in the grounds of a chateau in the Morvan Forest region near to the town of Vichy. Vajrayana Buddhism is also known as the diamond vehicle, and this is reflected in the exuberance of the decorations inside the prayer hall, seen in my upper sequence of photos, and the exterior of the temple, seen in the lower sequence.

In a neat example of interdependence I bought the CDs of Jonathan Harvey's quartets in Saint Dizier on the same trip to France in 2009 that I visited the Dashang Kagyu Ling Temple on. Arnold Whittall's Jonathan Harvey was bought online. All photos are (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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

CDs that should be in every medicine cabinet

Being rather ill has been a strange experience. Beethoven Quartets and Schubert Masses are meant to figure prominently in the listening of those who have wobbled slightly on the perch. But not in mine; instead I have been relishing the healing power of a composer whose music does not usually feature in my playlists or On An Overgrown Path. Antonín Dvořák's reputation as a symphonist is both enhanced and distorted by the popular success of his ninth essay in the medium, the New World Symphony. The other late symphonies, Nos 7 and 8, appear occasionally in the concert hall and No 5 turns up once in a blue moon. Which completely ignores five other symphonies, works that are genuinely, to use an overworked and much abused term, life-affirming. Clear first choice for a survey of the complete Dvořák symphonies is István Kertész with the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca. Another reviewer has remarked how their "orchestral sound pulses with life", and that sums up this definitive set perfectly. István Kertész was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest in 1923 and many of his extended family died in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. He survived the war and after completing his musical studies quickly built a reputation conducting leading ensembles including the Cologne Opera, and Berlin and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras.

Kertész, seen below, was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1968 and his classic accounts of the Dvořák Symphonies date from 1963 to 1968 when the orchestra was at the top of its game. Tragically, Kertész died in a drowning accident in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel in 1973. (In a chilling example of concatenation I had been swimming alone in a remote and inaccessible Mediterranean cove just hours before I was rushed into a French hospital in May. Memo to self, avoid sea interludes).

Due to his tragically early death Kertész's recorded legacy is small but quite remarkable. Do not be put off buying his Dvořák because it was recorded in the 1960s. In fact the opposite applies, you should buy it because of the recording date. All the recordings were made in the much lamented Kingsway Hall by legendary Decca producer Ray Minshull, and they serve as an eloquent reminder that all that is digital is not gold. There is a sense of spontaneity, including occasional quite excusable small lapses of ensemble and intonation, that makes them sound like concert performances. But above all there is a sonic impact and clarity of stereo image that puts them up there with other great recordings of all time, including the iconic Mercury recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra that date from the same period. Ray Minshull provides the excellent sleeve notes for the Decca set, and in them tells how the Dvořák cycle started when plans for Kertész to record Elgar's First Symphony were dropped at the last moment - oh, how I wish we had the Dvořák and his Elgar. But, thankfully, we do have the Dvořák which does such a valuable service in making the little known early symphonies available. The Decca box of six CDs, which includes the nine symphonies plus overtures and tone poems, can currently be bought for around £15. Need I say more?

In the string quartet literature, the merit of Dvořák's little known late quartets mirrors that of his early symphonies. His Quartet No 12 'American' is perhaps too well known. But what of Nos 10, 11, 13 and 14? All are quite wonderful healing music awaiting discovery; for starters try the Panocha Quartets' recently re-released mid-price 3 CD digipak. And while on the path of healing music Naxos' 5 CD box of Dvořák's complete solo piano music, see footer image, should be in every medicine chest. There is more on classical music and the feel good factor here.

* It is my wish that On An Overgrown Path should be remembered as something other than a victim of social media and churnalism. So over the next few days I am burying the blog by repeating some personal favourite posts. This one first appeared in July 2011.

With thanks to musical healer and therapist Lyle Sanford whose recent post on his own blog sparked this article. I am sorry Lyle, but I ran out of space before I really got to grips with my intended subject of the healing power of music. But I promise there will be a second part to this post. All featured CDs were bought at retail. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

These symphonies are not masterpieces - but who cares?

Pierre Boulez is reported to have declared "I hate Tchaikovsky and I will not conduct him. But if the audience wants him, it can have him", and to have described Shostakovich's symphonies as "third-pressing Mahler". Boulez's attitude towards another great Russian symphonist was apparently only slightly less trenchant. In 1955 Boulez was touring South America as music director of Jean-Louis Barrault's Théâtre Marigny. During the tour Boulez was invited to conduct the Venezuelan Symphony, this was the first time he had ever conducted a full orchestra. The chosen programme was typically Boulez: Debussy's Jeux and Ibéria, Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. But the parts for the Bartók failed to arrive, so Boulez substituted Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. In Joan Peyser's unreliable 1976 biography of Boulez - which supplies the infamous Tchaikovsky quote above but not the Shostakovich - she reports: "He says that he promised himself he would never conduct [Prokofiev's Classical Symphony] again, and that he has fulfilled that promise. But the fact that he did conduct - even once - what surely must be the epitome of neoclassical music indicates that Boulez could compromise".

Prokofiev was a pupil of the underrated Alexander Glazunov, as was Nikolai Myaskovsky*. Boulez's views on Myaskovsky are not known; but the Russian composer's music is well worth exploring, and the current endemic over-supply of classical music means Evgeny Svetlanov's recording of Myaskovsky's 27 symphonies on 16 CDs can currently be bought for an unbelievably low price. These symphonies may not be masterpieces according to received wisdom. But the indisputably masterpiece-free zone of Facebook has an audience of 1.44 billion. Classical music wants a big new audience; so who cares about masterpieces?

* Varying transliteration means the composer's name is also spelt Miaskovsky, as in the Warner CD set seen in the header image. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Beethoven pure and simple

We have Toscanini's Beethoven, Furtwängler's Beethoven, Karajan's Beethoven, Kleiber's Beethoven, and, if you must, Norrington's Beethoven. But where is Beethoven's Beethoven? My nomination for Beethoven pure and simple would be the LP of the Seventh Symphony conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt seen above. This great German conductor, who was born in 1900, was a product of the kapellmeister system. After studying at Berlin University he held a series of posts at German opera houses before holding the post of chief conductor of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin from 1943 to 1944. Despite holding such a prominent position under the Third Reich, Schmidt-Isserstedt was not a member of the Nazi party. This perceived political 'neutrality' counted in Schmidt-Isserstedt's favour with the occupying forces at the end of the war, so he was invited to form the Symphony Orchestra of North German Radio (NDRSO) in 1945, a position he held until two years before his death in 1973.

Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt made many great recordings with the NDRSO of the mainstream repertoire, and at the same time championed contemporary music by Stravinsky, Bartók and Hindemith. He also composed, and his opera Hassan gewinnt was premiered in Wuppertal in 1928, while his son Erik Smith went on to become a respected Decca recording producer. As well as working with the NDRSO, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt recorded Mozart and Schubert with the London Symphony Orchestra for Mercury, and Berwald for Tono in Denmark. But, arguably, his finest recordings were the cycle of Beethoven Symphonies he made with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

I bought the vinyl LP of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony seen in the photo above in 1974. When I play it on my Thorens TD125 seen below I hear Beethoven pure and simple. It is Beethoven without the refractive prism of a celebrity interpreter, but it is most definitely not Beethoven-lite. This is red-blooded Beethoven and if you want to understand what Wagner really meant when he famously described the Seventh Symphony as 'the apotheosis of the dance' look no further than Schmidt-Isserstedt. And the sound of the Vienna orchestra captured by the Decca engineers in this 1970 recording is a pure undigitised delight. To my ears the sum of the parts becomes even greater when they remain in the analogue domain without the parsing that is integral to digital encoding. Yes, my 1970s LP pressing suffers from the notorious Decca clicks of the time. But the breadth and width of the soundstage still put the digital equivalents to shame. Why do we accept that a Stradivarius can defy science and logic by sounding better than a 21st century violin, yet still deny that a 1970 LP can sound better than its 21st century digital equivalent?

Sadly Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt's recordings have not fared well in the age of the celebrity interpreter. His Vienna Philharmonic Beethoven recordings did appear on Decca mid-price CDs, but they now deleted. [Jan 2016: however they can be bought from Amazon for the astonishingly cheap price of £7.99 for all nine symphonies.] Today a slew of very fine opera archive recordings from his time in Hamburg comprise this great conductor's legacy on disc, unless you go hunting on eBay. But fortunately, there is an alternative: in 1982 Günter Wand became chief conductor of the NDRSO, and as the critic Wolf Eberhard von Lewinski explained, his interpretative style was very similar to that of his illustrious predecessor:

'Wand adheres strictly to the score without losing sight of the decisive factor, namely what lies behind the notes.'
In the 1980s Günter Wand recorded the Beethoven symphonies with the NDRSO. They may not quite reach the giddy heights of Schmidt-Isserstedt's Vienna cycle, but this is still Beethoven pure, simple, and unmissable; yet these recordings, which are captured in excellent sound, are virtually unknown today. They can still be bought at bargain price if you move quickly - Beethoven, pure and simple, has never been cheaper.

* It is my wish that On An Overgrown Path should be remembered as something other than a victim of social media and churnalism. So over the next few days I am burying it by repeating some personal favourite posts. This one first appeared in June 2011.

With thanks to Leo Carey who took us down this path. Leo actually asked me in 2009 ago to write another piece about favourite record stores, and that is how this article started. But, like many paths it went of at a tangent. To keep the record (pun intended) straight, my copy of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, was bought in 1974 from a small independent record store in Ewell, Surrey called Lesley Bond Music. It was one of those long-departed shops where teenagers listened to 45 rpm singles in listening booths lined with acoustic tiles - 1974 was the year of Abba's Waterloo but I won't go there! Having seen John Bormann's film Zardoz, which uses the Allegretto second movement during the closing scene, I was looking for an LP of Beethoven 7 and Mr Bond recommended the Schmidt-Isserstedt interpretation. At which point another path emerges, because the main music credit for Zardoz, which is available on DVD for less than a CD, went to David Munrow.  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 07, 2016

Boulez was sometimes called god in Paris

During a 2010 radio interview Jonathan Harvey discussed Pierre Boulez with me. Now that both those towering giants of contemporary music are no longer with us*, Jonathan's thumbnail sketch bears repeating:
...Boulez is sometimes called god in Paris, but anyway, he gave this thing to the world, because of his powerful personality, his absolute determination to come back to Paris from Germany, where he had decided to live until that point, and if he came back to Paris, President Pompidou would give him a large budget for creating a new institute. So it was a sort of gift to composers. I thought it was a gift from God because my first essays in electronic music were so difficult – I started in Princeton with [Milton] Babbitt, and I won’t go into all the complications but in short one would compute on a huge tape for about eight hours overnight and end up with one pathetic simple minute of sound, which probably was completely wrong and one would have to start all over again. One went from that to the IRCAM of the eighties, and there one was given a tutor. That was very important. Someone who knew all the ins and outs of what was available, the software and the hardware, and was designated to help you. That tutor, or assistant as it’s now called, was crucial, of [sic] Boulez. So composers were invited, and they got stuck into new thinking, with the help of their tutor, and began to create much much more easily, with much greater pleasure and delight, than they would in this incredibly bloody hard work they had to do before.

Well, as you say a very strong creative personality, and a strong personality, and that’s what that postwar movement needed, strong personalities, people who would really change the world, they were all strong personalities. Luigi Nono, too, and Luciano Berio. Boulez particularly, perhaps the most of all – he was able to change the politics of the musical Europe I would say, singlehandedly. And he did this of course against enormous opposition, and nasty things written about him everywhere. But he was too strong for them, you know, they didn’t affect him, they all rolled off his back, and he gave as good as he got. So I think everybody knows what he has done, he created the IRCAM, he created the Ensemble Intercontemporain, he’s created new standards in conducting the 20th century classics and later up to the present day, and of course last and not least at all, he created some of the finest compositions of the time. But if we’re talking about strength of personality, one has to admire him really, that he was so determined, and so – it’s so impossible for him to accept ‘no’ from politicians. I mean he just rubbished them, the feeble-minded ministers of culture and so on in Paris. So – would that we had someone like that!
Photo is of me with Jonathan Harvey at the time of the radio interview in 2010; he is showing me the work in progress for his last large scale composition Weltethos, which was premiered in 2011 by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. Photo and text (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

It is important to know that someone has been there

In any creative society, it is vitally important for someone to be willing to go to extremes and set new parameters. We may not have the courage to go over the edge ourselves, but it is important to know that someone has been there.
Quote is by Peter Lavezzoli from his book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. Pierre Boulez died on Jan 5, 2016. Read Jonathan Harvey's revealing thoughts on Boulez here. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Among us there are no castes

On stage I have always been surrounded by French and Gypsy musicians as well as musicians from the Eastern nations - because this mix is my universe, my world and it is the only thing which brings me the stability I need in order to live and to survive, like the balance that is found in the bosom of a large and closely-knit family. Among us there are no castes and when the time comes for singing and breaking bread, the time for dancing, the people becomes king'.
As my seventh year of blogging approaches I find myself less and less interested in rumours about the next career move of a jet set conductor or the latest hyperbole lavished by the twittering classes on last night's BBC Prom. Which is just fine; celebrity classical music is well served elsewhere leaving me to find sustenance where people rather than personalities are what really matters. Which brings me to the musician who supplied my opening quote.

Titi Robin, seen in my first two photos with 'the gypsy queen of Rajasthan' Gulabi Sapera, is a self-taught French composer and musician who plays guitar, buzuk (small Middle Eastern lute) and oud. As well as spending time with Roma and Sinti people - the forgotten Holocaust victims - he has travelled extensively in the East including a pilgrimage to Ajmer in Rajasthan, the holy city where the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti is buried. More than thirty years of travel, both physical and spiritual, have moulded Titi Robin's music, but above all it is diversity that he celebrates.

Around one quarter of the French population has at least one immigrant parent or grandparent, and this creates one of the largest global markets for world music. In French retail outlets browser space devoted to world music exceeds that for classical and there is a huge range of new world music releases which contrast sharply with the tired Chopin and Mahler re-issues from the big classical labels. France's cultural diversity and strong links with North Africa are reflected in its world music artists who long ago left behind the self-conscious fusion offerings still so fashionable in less inclusive northern Europe and North America. World music from France embraces styles as diverse and inclusive as the ethnicity of the population, burqa bans notwithstanding.

Titi Robin grew up in a rural community outside Angers in western France with gypsy and North African neighbours and this is reflected in his unique blend of gypsy, tzigane and Arabic music. In the paragraph above I discussed world music at some length, but interestingly Titi Robin rejects the very concept, as a biographical portrait explains:
Thierry “Titi” Robin is a fringe artist. He is placed within a “World Music” movement that he does not acknowledge, as it seems to him to be motivated by a profound ethnocentricity, creating a barrier between Western “ethnic” music (rock, jazz…) and others!'
My first exposure to Titi Robin's music was through the Accords Croisés Jaadu Magic album where he improvises on Sufi texts with Pakistani qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz and, quite appropriately, I bought that album last year in the capital of world music, Paris. While in western France recently I bought and spent time listening to several other Titi Robin albums and now want to share these with readers.

Gitans, which was recorded in 1993 with Roma musicians from Spain to Rajasthan including Gulabi Sapera, was Titi Robin's breakthrough album and it has been described, with some justification, as one of the best albums of gypsy music ever recorded. The title means 'Gypsies' and Titi Robin's musique sans frontières is rooted in the nomadic cultures of the Roma and Sinti which contrast with the sedentary urban culture that is the home of what is referred to above as 'Western ethnic music' and in which the celebrity caste system still rules. It was followed by Rakhi, again featuring Gulabi Sapera, which blended retained many of the elements of Gitans but shifted the spotlight to the musical traditions of Gulabi Sapera's native Rajasthan.

A path that started here four years ago leads us to the final, and for me most remarkable, Titi Robin album. In the summer of 2006 we travelled to the Roma pilgrimage centre of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Camargue in France to visit the shrine of the black Saint Sarah. In 2008 Titi Robin released Kali Sultana (Black Queen), a ninety minute largely instrumental suite. As Titi Robin explains:
The Black Queen represents the beauty every artist seeks ... she can be very violent, but this violence also makes it possible to express and to resolve things.
Kali Sultana is scored for gumbass, oud, buzuk, guitar, accordion, saxophone, clarinet and percussion, with viola and cello backing using Eastern style unison writing and Arab (or gypsy) scales. The result is mystical and hypnotic without ever losing forward momentum and the discs returned to the CD player many times during our recent travels. Strange isn't it? - if Kali Sultana was released on ECM there would be a big buzz about it, instead it remains a very well-kept secret on Naïve.

The sleeve notes for Kali Sultana are as eclectic as the music, with quotations from Sufi saint Mevlana Rumi, the yogi and astrologer Suraj Nath, poet Seanus Heaney, champion of the ethnic Kurds Yachar Kemal, poet Laure Morali, Bosnian writer Abdulah Sidran, poet and Sufi mystic Yunus Emre and African American American author Toni Morrison. Kali Sultana is subtitled 'L'Ombre du Ghazal' (In the shadow of ghazal) in homage to the poetic form used by Mevlana Rumi and other Persian mystics. These links to sufism are particularly interesting as this branch of mysticism focuses on the third and deepest component of Islam, inner life. (Practice and knowledge are the other two components). Sufi spirituality connects with inner life not by Western style integration, but by addition and rhythmic repetition, which is also a pretty good description of Kali Sultana. But Titi Robin explains it much better -
'The real journey is inside of you. Music feeds from that source, from the bottom of your heart, under your star, because there is no better place elsewhere and there is no golden age in the past'.
But even better than words is the video:

* January 2016 - It is only fair to say that, for me, over the last months much of the enjoyment of blogging disappeared as self-promotion and clickbait became more important than content, and I would prefer to lay On An Overgrown Path to rest among happier memories. So over the next few days I will bury the blog by reprising some personal favourite posts from the past. This one first appeared in 2010.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All Titi Robin CDs were bought at retail price. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

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 seen 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. 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 CD by Christopher Robinson and the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge seen below.

* It is only fair to say that, for me, over the last months much of the enjoyment of blogging disappeared as self-promotion and clickbait became more important than content, and I would prefer to lay On An Overgrown Path to rest among happier memories. So this week I am burying the blog by reprising some personal favourite posts from the past. This one first appeared in January 2010.

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

Monday, January 04, 2016

A symphony a day keeps the doctor away

That photo was taken a few weeks ago when I was hiking on the French national footpath network near Malaucène. In the distance is Mont Ventoux with cloud around its summit, and during the walk I alternated basking in the silence of nature with listening to Albéric Magnard's Fourth Symphony on my iPod. It is only fair to say that, for me, over the last months much of the enjoyment of blogging disappeared as self-promotion and clickbait became more important than content, and I would prefer to lay On An Overgrown Path to rest among happier memories. So over the next few days I will bury the blog by reprising some personal favourite posts from the past; starting with one about Albéric Magnard, which was first published in 2013.

Prescribed self-help books are an effective treatment for depression is the conclusion reached after a field trial in Scotland. BBC News reports how patients offered self-help books together with practical advice on their use, had lower levels of depression a year later than those undergoing conventional medical treatment. A psychiatrist concludes that these results show that guided self-help is effective and the health care sector should be investing in it. With music therapy gaining acceptance and advocacy for guided self-help increasing, classical music must seize the opportunity. In July 2011, following emergency hospitalisation and surgery, I wrote about the CDs that should be in every medicine cabinet, while another post that year linked classical music and the feel good factor, and a more recent one discussed how music therapy and other non-chemical tools can build neurochemical bridges between spiritual guidance and conventional psychotherapy. There are a number of composers whose music should definitely be available on prescription because of its life-affirming qualities; the symphonies of Dvořák, Martinů and Nielsen immediately spring to mind, and this post proposes that those of the little-known Albéric Magnard should be be added to that list.

Magnard was born in 1865 in Paris on the very same day as fellow life-affirmer Carl Nielsen. If Magnard is known at all today it is for his two final symphonies, the Third and Fourth, which are seen in LP releases above. What is fascinating about this composer of life-affirming music is that, like a number of musicians, he was a depressive. Magnard’s magnificent Fourth Symphony, which blazes with optimism in its finale - listen to the whole symphony via this link - was written in a state of what the composer himself described as ‘marasme complet’ – utter depression. The symphony was commissioned by the Union des femmes professeurs et compositeurs – Society of women professors and composers – and given its premiere in May 1914 just six weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. Four months later Magnard was dead, shot by marauding German soldiers while defending his home at Baron-sur-Oise; they then torched the house and in the inferno many of his manuscripts were lost.

Magnard is often linked with César Franck and Anton Bruckner, which is unfair as he has a unique voice that should be judged on its own merit. The symphonies are the best starting point for those new to his music; but I also recommend his masterly for cello and piano which is available in the excellent CD seen above on the enterprising Edition Hortus label. Also highly recommended is the Quatuor Ysaÿe's recording of Magnard's neglected String Quartet on the CD seen below which couples itwith the more familiar Fauré Quartet.

Ernest Ansermet’s account of the Third Symphony - image 2 shows my French Decca LP version - thankfully lives on as a CD transfer, as does Michel Plasson’s EMI recording of the Fourth seen in image 3. It was that 1983 EMI LP incidentally which introduced me to Magnard’s music. Hyperion has a mid-price double CD of the four symphonies in performances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce. But, in my opinion, the best way to get to know Magnard’s symphonies are the more spacious performances in the cycle by Thomas Sanderling and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra seen below. These were recorded by BIS in the late 1990s, but are now available from Dutch budget re-issue specialist Brilliant Classics. The finale of Sanderling’s passionate interpretation of the Fourth blasts out of the speakers in my study as I write and, as always, it sends shivers down my spine. Current Amazon UK retail is £13.47 for the three CD set, which makes it the best value psychotherapy session you will ever experience.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. CD of Magnard's sonata for cello and violin was kindly supplied by Editions Hortus as a requested review sample. No other review discs were used in the preparation of the post. 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 etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, January 02, 2016

New music beyond the reality distortion field

A friend whose views on both music and technology I respect tells me that in recent months he has cut his time online by 70%. That is an admirable achievement and in 2016 I hope to emulate him. In recent weeks I have absented myself from the social media defined online reality distortion field as much as possible, and instead have spent more productive time listening to music and reading. Among the recordings that I found very rewarding are Sony's 39 CD Bruno Walter Edition, the Spanish label Pneuma's Ibn Arabi compilation Morade de la Luz, the International Contemporary Ensemble performing the music of the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Francesco Provenzale's Missa Defunctorum for 4 voices from the 17th century, and Michael Hersch's epic piano cycle The Vanishing Pavillions from the 21st century.

I was particularly taken with Anna Thorvaldsdottir's In the Light of Air. Here is a contemporary composer who uses textures and forms in the same way as a sculptor. What is particularly striking is that although the textures and forms she creates in sound are startlingly original, they also exhibit, like Henry Moore's masterpieces, a familiarity that makes them accessible - video sample via this link. The impeccably engineered recording from Sono Luminus comes on two CDs: one is encoded in the standard red book CD format, the other has the same music encoded in three high resolution surround sound formats. As well as auditioning the music on my reference stereo system I was able to hear the DVD audio 5.1 24/192kHz surround version, and the benefit of the high resolution sound was immediately apparent. However I am from the last generation whose classroom was the concert hall, and I am conditioned to the spatial conventions of the concert platform as represented by a stereo image spread between two speakers. So, for me, the surround sound mix was mildly disorientating. But this caveat simply highlights the fundamental shift in the way that classical music is being listened to. This shift in listening habits from proscenium arch stereo to multi-channel surround and binaural headphones is key to understanding how to engage new audiences, but it is one that classical music remains in denial about.

Sono Luminus' inclusion of high resolution formats on a bonus disc (the two discs are priced as for a single CD) is an admirable example of technology being used in the service of art, rather than vice versa. My recent complaints about the imposition of social media's reality distortion field on classical music prompted the usual online invective of "facile-minded gibberish" and "anti-tech" from a self-appointed music technology evangelist, while the deputy editor of the BBC Music Magazine tweeted: "Not sorry to see the back of the Overgrown Path. Pompously written, it lacked both charm and meaningful content". I leave it to you to judge my style and content; however I am anything but anti-tech, and spent more than thirty years professionally involved in sound recording, digital technologies, and the Internet. I believe passionately in the value of technology in the service of art and commerce. What I object to is the misuse of technology to create a reality distortion field that serves personal and corporate agendas at the expense of art, as is happening in classical music. Which is why I will be spending much more of my time off-line in the future.

My thanks go to Alex Ross for the heads up on Anna Thorvaldsdottir's In the Light of Air. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, January 01, 2016

What will life be like for classical music after the internet?

Is it a coincidence that Sinfini Music and On An Overgrown Path are falling silent within days of each other? Cotermination may just be an ironic coincidence, because the two websites have little in common other than shared roots in classical music. But it can be argued that they are both in part, if not wholly, victims, of a technology driven change in the way we consume information. In 2014 conductor sans frontières and longstanding online writer Kenneth Woods wrote how 'Facebook ate my blog'. His post lamented how many of the best and most influential blogs are falling silent, including Gavin Plumley's erudite and informative Entartete Musik which had ceased updating a few months previously. The thrust of Ken's perceptive piece was that, to quote him: "Blogging these days is NOTHING without Facebook and Twitter. Nothing". That is a view I share,, and it is one of the reasons why I am now bowing to the inevitable.

Readers will know I have little empathy for social media, and many will simply say good riddance. But before the simultaneous exit of On An Overgrown Path and Sinfini Music is dismissed as mere coincidence, I would draw attention to an article in the Guardian by Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan which discusses the cost of social media's inexorable rise far more eloquently that I can. Central to Hossein Derakhshan vitally important analysis of the demise of blogging is that the hyperlink - which was the raison d'être of the world wide web - has become almost obsolete in online writing; which means that social media platforms now control the all-important traffic generating linkages. The stream is now the way we consume information, and the content of information streams is controlled by insidious algorithms. Hossein Derakhshan goes on to liken streamed content on platforms such as Facebook to personal television, and given the dismal content of established television channels that is a chilling analogy. The conclusion is quite clear: Facebook and other social media platforms control linkages and therefore audience for online content. And just like television, 95% of Facebook and other social media is crap; so you had better join them by churning out crap, or quit. Which means the Internet now practises a Darwinian form of selection whereby only the crappiest survive.

Hossein Derakhshan accepts the viewpoint that the rise of social media is a function of technological change; but still, quite rightly, he laments the resulting loss of intellectual power and diversity. This loss is not confined to blogs, and an earlier post here described the catastrophic damage that the internet has inflicted on the music industry. Classical music still has its head buried in the sand of the Internet desert, whereas, by contrast, rock musicians have been far more vocal in outlining the dangers of the music industry's digital fixation. Just as Hossein Derakhshan delivers an important message about music journalism, so rock musician and visionary David Byrne delivers an important message about classical music in an article that opens with the words: "What will life be like after the internet? ... I mean, nothing lasts forever, right?"

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).