ENDNOTES, January 2016
In this edition: Tribute to Pierre Boulez * Brahms at the Barbican * Romantic English violin concertos from Tasmin Little * Enescu chamber works
The classical music world was in mourning earlier this month with the announcement of the death at the age of 90 of the composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez – a titan of 20th-century music. I first encountered the music of this remarkable man in the early 1980s, through a broadcast from the 1981 Proms of Notations (given by the Orchestre de Paris) and by attending an extraordinary concert the following year of Répons – a multi-dimensional, electronic discourse, with the composer conducting – not at the Royal Albert Hall – but at the venue of the Royal Horticultural Halls. The audience sat on the floor in complete concentration, while Boulez – an expression of extreme seriousness on his face, and deliberate, almost “scientific” hand gestures (no baton was used) – directed every facet of what was, for me, a completely new musical language. Yet despite his revolutionary approach to music, his wish to explode old traditions, Boulez was a formal and immaculate man; appearing in white tie and tails, or dinner jacket, to conduct not just his own works, but – what are now – the (dare I say) conservative staples of the concert repertoire: Mahler symphonies, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe (his Berlin Philharmonic interpretation on Deutsche Grammophon is, to my mind, unrivalled) and the operas of Wagner.
At the 1987 Proms, Boulez conducted an unforgettable performance of Schoenberg’s immense, neo-Wagnerian, febrile and psychological Gurrelieder, and on the podium exerted a powerful, disciplined hold over his vast orchestral and choral forces. More recently, there were recordings, world tours, and at the Royal Festival Hall (as I recall, some 15 years ago) a definitive performance of The Rite of Spring with his old orchestra, the BBC Symphony. The news of Boulez’s passing came, strangely enough, during Radio 3’s series, “New Year, New Music”, and it made me thumb through my (vinyl) record library, to locate an old collection which I bought in 1982: Eclat, by Boulez, and other very advanced and atonal scores by George Crumb and Dlugoszewski. I remember taking the record along to the Proms performance of Répons, in the hope of securing the great man’s autograph on the copy – and to my surprise (as I had imagined an austere character) Boulez was extremely friendly, light in manner and very willing to converse – answering my garbled question about modern music with passion, persuasion and pleasantness. Regular readers of Endnotes will know of my own interests in romantic and late-romantic music, and it is true to say that the music of Boulez is not always to my taste. But there are works of his which – whilst not being immediately understandable – do repay study and concentration, and have their own strange beauty. We will remember this figure of 20th-century – and 21st-century music – with deep affection, and for his wonderful conducting and recording of Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok, Mahler and Wagner.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s reputation for modern music performance came about partly through the pioneering work of Boulez, and on the 12th January this versatile ensemble took to the platform of the Barbican Hall in the City of London with maestro, Semyon Bychkov, to perform Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Haydn, and the work of modern German composer, Detlev Glanert – born in Hamburg in 1960. Glanert’s piece, a BBC Commission, was a homage to Brahms: Brahms-Fantasie – ‘heliogravure’ for orchestra – the term heliogravure referring to the early photographic process of aquatinting a picture. Glanert, in effect, has produced a complex but accessible modern tone poem, in which the mechanics and energy of Brahms are condensed and re-processed through a contemporary prism. The beginning resembles the opening of the 19th-century composer’s First Symphony, but from thereon the orchestra engages in the building of numerous gear changes and patterns; and especially noteworthy was the infectious acceleration section about halfway through – which I have to confess brought Shostakovich to mind, more than Brahms! However, a satisfying work and an unusual curtain-raiser – and a chance for the BBC SO to show its masterly, easy handling of this non-standard repertoire piece.
Next came Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1, a bright, spirited work from 1764 and a showpiece for the soloist (in this case, the expressive Paul Watkins). A beautiful sense of peace – of a gracious world of the past – radiated from the Adagio middle movement; the whole work serving as soft, refreshing rain between the two heavyweight, large-scale orchestral dramas which flanked it. And the Brahms 1 certainly lived up to its reputation under Semyon Bychkov, who – Boulez like – ordered and spotlighted the various orchestral sections, bringing out (through his slowing of pace at key moments) phrases and ideas that are sometimes lost or overlooked. For example, the last passages of the final triumphant movement seemed to be coiled back, restrained even – only for the energy to spill out and burn at a higher level – almost like an actor or orator saving his breath and speaking his lines with extra depth. In the second movement, the pathos of the oboe solo (and some clarinet playing of equal beauty) seemed more vivid than in countless other renditions of this much-played symphony; and I had a deep sense of this part as representing a sort of “summer music” for Brahms, a pastoral movement flowing with all the noble grace of the Rhine.
Romantic music, this time from early 20th-century England, comes by way of a new Tasmin Little Chandos CD (catalogue no. 10879): the Violin Concerto of 1912 by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and the Concerto by Haydn Wood – a composer better known, perhaps, for his light music and London landmarks. Coleridge-Taylor was, in his day, a man who gained enormous recognition (he is most famous for his cantata on the life of Hiawatha), a composer admired by Elgar who was dubbed the African Mahler, following triumphant visits to the United States. His Violin Concerto strikes a serious tone throughout, and has many moments which remind us of the sound-world of Tchaikovsky. A noble opening utterance from the full orchestra is repeated much later on, giving the work a sense of beginning and arrival, but the entire journey (just over half-an-hour in length) is given extra elevation and dramatic engagement by the playing of Tasmin Little – whose violin gives voice to all the finely-written and touching ideas which flow throughout the piece. Her belief in this music is clear: this is a work which can stand alongside that of Elgar, and although it does not have that overwhelming surge, impetuousness or depth of his concerto, it shows us that Coleridge-Taylor was an important figure in the English musical renaissance.
For the somewhat sweeter Haydn Wood concerto, Tasmin Little again finds hidden depths to a score which might well be forgotten or ignored (and I use such words, simply to point out that Haydn Wood – because of his light-music trademark – is seen by some as not a “proper” composer – i.e. not for the programme advisers of the major orchestras). Fortunately, conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic have no hesitation in accompanying Tasmin Little in her quest of rediscovery of two wonderful works from English romanticism.
Finally, we pay tribute to another Chandos issue – a collection of chamber music by the Moldavian/Romanian, George Enescu (1881-1955). The Schubert Ensemble have taken to the recording studio, to set down what must be one of the finest Quintets of the 20th-century – Enescu’s Piano Quintet dating from 1940. The composer studied with the French master, Gabriel Fauré, and there is in this Romanian music, certain traces of his subtle influence – an atmosphere of glassy reflection, a melancholy yet a pleasurable melancholy to savour, and a hope of some celestial world to come. There is, too, great power of vision from Enescu, and a sense of the spirit of his ancestral country, and it is a mistake to think that chamber music cannot match the vigour of orchestral showpieces. (Surely Elgar’s Piano Quintet is one of his most powerful works?) A hugely enjoyable recording, which also includes the Trio (which is thought to have been written between 1911-16), and the Aria and Scherzino (c. 1908). The performers are: Remus Azoitel, Alexandra Wood and Simon Blendis, violinists; with Douglas Paterson, viola. The cellist is Jane Salmon, with Peter Buckoke, double-bass. William Howard is the pianist. The recording bears the following catalogue number: CHAN 10790.
Next time, we hope to bring you news of the 2016 English Music Festival and a new recording from its CD arm, EM Records. But I would like to end with one small observation… I began by mentioning the death of Boulez. This month, another artist – the rock musician, David Bowie – also departed this world, and his demise was mentioned at some length on BBC Radio 3. I doubt whether Radio 1 or BBC Radio 6 Music ever mentioned Pierre Boulez.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review.