STUART MILLSON on Domenico Barbaja, the Bel Canto Bully * Elgar, Bantock, Walton and Tchaikovsky at the Proms * A few old records revisited…
Without the influence of the domineering Italian – or more correctly, Milanese/Neapolitan, impresario, Domenico Barbaja (friend of the gourmandising composer, Rossini) the course of European operatic life might not have been so grand and illustrious. A new book, written by opera aficionado and international businessman, Philip Eisenbeiss, brings the almost forgotten figure of Barbaja (born Barbaglia) out of the shadows, and casts new light on the development of an art form now associated in the popular mind with primness and social propriety.
Born in 1777 to a humble family, and earning a living, first as a coffee waiter and then a croupier, Barbaja was no aristocrat or natural aesthete. Instead, he was a self-made man of the early 19th-century who knew a good thing when he saw it, and heard it. Virtually illiterate, he nevertheless loved the spectacle of opera, and understood the power of great voices and grand buildings. With all the despotism of the impresario and the “stolid cynicism of the gambler”, he also understood the appetites and passions of his fellow countrymen, providing them not just with high-art, but with entertainments and diversions – the opera house serving as a place of high-society indulgence as much as a temple for music. According to the German writer, August von Kotzebue, the Neapolitans were:
…the elegant savages of Europe. They eat, drink, sleep and gamble… The nations of Europe are in turmoil; Naples gambles… the earth trembles, the Vesuvius spits flame, they gamble…
Gamblers and courtesans, financiers, kings, rulers, composers, artists – all succumbed to Barbaja’s charm and his demands. Yet despite the febrile atmosphere at his artistic court, the impresario ran a disciplined administration, Eisenbeiss discussing his “management style”; his insistence upon high standards and his understanding that cultural greatness often comes from and within magnificent, stately buildings. When fire destroyed the famed Neapolitan San Carlo theatre, for example, Barbaja made sure that a replacement was built, and all within just nine months. It was to be the greatest opera house in Europe, prompting the visiting Stendhal to observe:
There is nothing in Europe, and I do not say this lightly, which can even come close to give an idea of this. This auditorium, rebuilt in three hundred days, is a coup d’etat. It bonds the people to the king to a much greater extent than does the constitution given to Sicily. All Naples is drunk with delight…
The author and his publisher, Haus, have given equally great service to the operatic cause in this entertaining and well-researched book, written by a man clearly brimming with enthusiasm for the bel canto era, the years of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. Yet it is not just the dry details of the music, of who sang what and when, that makes this portrait so compelling. Eisenbeiss plays out his operatic scenes as European history simmers like Vesuvius around his story; the shifting political and dynastic alliances of the time; competing French and Austrian armies, and the rise and fall of Bourbon rulers and assertive republics. With Napoleon and his brother-in-law carving up Italy for good measure, daily events almost mirrored the goings-on at the opera houses which Barbaja made so great. And by locking Rossini in his room, making the composer work by denying him the food and drink which were such distractions, Barbaja (who needed to meet a deadline) was probably more responsible for the development of musical genius than he could have known. Bel Canto Bully runs to nearly 300 pages, and is priced at £30.
I wonder what Barbaja might have thought of our own Royal Albert Hall, a symbol of late-Victorian grandeur and British self-assertion? Opened in 1871, the Hall on Kensington Gore has given great service to the British Empire, and was once referred to as the “village hall of the Commonwealth”. In 1941, after the Luftwaffe had destroyed the Queen’s Hall (just by the BBC), the Proms moved to Kensington, and have been there ever since. On Wednesday 24th July, braving a hot, airless and most uncomfortable day, this reviewer made his annual visit to Victoria and Albert’s coliseum, to hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a programme which combined the traditionally British and romantically Russian. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor (dating from 1877-8) and the longest work of the evening, concluded the concert: the uneasy, hypnotic slow movement giving way to the unstoppable force of the finale, an almost operatic end to a work which embodies the composer’s obsession with fate. How the BBC Welsh players (under the command of Dutch conductor, Jac van Steen) managed to produce such a perfect performance in the heat, I shall never know – as the Fourth makes huge physical demands on musicians, especially in its dashing, hurtling last few minutes. But the orchestra – distinguished by a precise, silky violin tone, elegant, airy woodwind, well-aimed and co-ordinated brass (almost light in tone, rather than blazing and heavy) – responded faithfully to their gifted conductor, causing the audience to deliver, in turn, a roar and a cheer at the end.
In the first half, the orchestra served up Elgar’s 1913 Symphonic Study, Falstaff. If all of human life is in Shakespeare, then a great deal of it has also been decanted into Sir Edward’s 35-minute-long musical portrait: the ale-drinking Sir John Falstaff and his dissolute company, his boasts and pomp, and also the touching reveries of a time there was… a time when Falstaff, as a young boy, served the Duke of Norfolk, and remembered a peaceful land of lost content. Falstaff shows Elgar as the master of orchestration and characterisation, qualities that elevated him to the European mainstream of Brahms and Strauss. For instance, there is a quirky sequence, with a bassoon centre-stage, almost like a voice, suggesting the knight’s surfeit-swelled frame, and his unsteady progress across the tavern floor. And there are many other theatrical moments in a story that takes the listener on Falstaff’s journey from Eastcheap to Shallow’s Orchard, Gloucestershire, and back again to London – to rejection and doom. A fanfare (Elgar’s trumpets always cause the spine to tingle) summons the knight and his army of yokels and scarecrows to do battle, yet there is no true heroism in Shakespeare’s troubled character. The young Prince Hal, later King Henry V, a one-time member of the portly knight’s gang of carousing friends, deals the old man his final blow, casting Falstaff away on his approach to the coronation throne with the merciless words, “I know thee not old man…” (At this point in the music, Elgar’s coronation march for the young King is a tour de force – and how perfect and uplifting it sounded in the RAH.)
It was remarked upon by the young post-Great War generation of composers, that when Elgar in his declining years attended a concert, it seemed as if one of the classical composers had returned from the after-life. Somewhat unkind perhaps, as without Elgar, there would have been no Constant Lambert, Arthur Bliss or William Walton. However, Elgar does seem to have been something of a Falstaff to men such as Walton, who in the 1920s were considered shocking and surrealist. From the scenic breadth and fullness of his symphonic study, Elgar clearly loved Shakespeare’s knight, but when Sir Edward’s music (after the Great War) was no longer in fashion, it seemed almost as if the times were repeating the young King Henry’s repudiation of the old stalwart. Falstaff may have a resonance for Elgar himself.
How ironic that the enfant-terrible, William Walton, later adopted some of Elgar’s musical mannerisms, and wrote Coronation marches for George Vl and our present Queen, and a film score for Olivier’s 1944 Henry V. And it was two excerpts from the latter which van Steen and the BBC Welsh National Orchestra brought to their prom: Touch her Soft Lips and Part, and The Death of Falstaff. Refined string playing, with a chamber-like intimacy, brought out the cinematic character of Walton’s music, and the performance made one very thankful for the BBC’s regional national orchestras.
Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), a lesser-known figure of English music (but once very famous), completed the evening’s musical array – his Sapphic Poem played with great charm and feeling by solo cellist, Raphael Wallfisch. Thanks to campaigns by the Granville Bantock Society (led by the English Music Festival’s Director, Em Marshall-Luck) Bantock is undergoing something of a revival, with several of his deeply-romantic works being played at this year’s Proms. Bantock’s music is highly individual, and nothing could contain the man’s ambitious writing; orchestral works that came near to Richard Strauss, or Mahler or Havergal Brian in their vibrant, vast colours and orchestration. Yet at this prom, we heard a slightly more intimate side to Bantock; a work with all the poetry of a Tchaikovsky or Max Bruch – especially in the Bantock encore, a Hebrew prayer melody, once again, brilliantly played by Wallfisch.
Visits to the Proms always revive old memories of conductors long gone, and great or unusual performances. In this spirit, I recently revisited some old vinyl records (still in very good condition) from my own early collection, firstly a 1971 Classics for Pleasure LP of Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Peer Gynt suite, played with all the expansiveness of a Nordic landscape by the London Philharmonic under John Pritchard (Sir John, from 1983). A veteran of many proms season, Pritchard recorded a great many “standard” works for the old CFP label. Budget price in its day, the interpretations were, nevertheless, first class, and on the Grieg record, the orchestra and soloist, Peter Katin, honour Norway’s most famous musical son. A refreshing break from modern CDs (it is a pleasure to hold a record cover and admire its artwork), my old vinyl friend, spinning round on the turntable, produced a faithful, strong, resonant sound: the sound of the whole orchestra, rather than the sharp digital spotlight which a CD shines on every instrument. In the few record shops that still exist, the Pritchard-Katin Grieg makes an appearance; and when browsing in the record sections of charity shops, I have come across several surviving copies. If you only have a CD player, all is not lost – especially if EMI chooses to re-issue the music on CD (which they have done with a number of CFP archive performances.)
Similarly, a Classics for Pleasure Borodin collection, including the heartfelt, lonely tone painting of In the Steppes of Central Asia (conducted by Walter Susskind) reminded me of just how worthwhile it is to keep old records. But there is nothing old or inferior about them: their analogue sound quality is true music. They are just as fresh and exciting to listen to as they always were, perhaps even better through the medium of a decent amplifier and good speakers. The Vernon Handley/LPO interpretation of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony also provided a most satisfying journey into our recent audio past, those Bloomsbury mists of the second movement drifting further into view with every revolution of the record. And the Handley recording of Elgar’s Falstaff (coupled with the Overture, Cockaigne), and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra from the series are now available to everyone on CD. I hope that EMI’s producers and archivists will maintain the momentum and fill the catalogue with those Classics for Pleasure.
Times change, but the record collection has survived; the LPO lined up to give unfailingly good service when the prospect of a trip to London and the Royal Albert Hall seems too much, especially in the hot weather – and when an hour’s journey on a late-night South East commuter train threatens to break the post-concert musical idyll.
Bel Canto Bully by Philip Eisenbeiss, Haus Publishing Ltd. £30. ISBN 978-1-908323-25-5
Elgar, Falstaff and Cockaigne Overture, Classics for Pleasure, CD 5-75307
Tippett, Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Britten, Violin Concerto. Classics for Pleasure CD 5-75978 2