ENDNOTES – these he has loved
Stuart Millson presents a seasonal selection
A few favourite recordings… a very personal view, and an end-of-year indulgence
I have always found that the month of December, and in particular, the Christmas holiday, is a good time to settle down and listen to old favourites from my CD and vinyl collection; to retrieve recordings which were bought – and played – with great enthusiasm in the 1990s and early-2000s (Nielsen overtures, a Khachaturian symphony, film music by Georges Auric, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) and then put back upon the shelves – to be superseded by the next, fresh batch of purchases and review copies. So here is a selection of well-loved items from my collection; personal, indispensable favourites which I would like to share with readers and recommend – either as great interpretations, or as unusual or even eccentric versions which convey (to quote the title of an old Radio 4 programme about music) “the tingle factor”.
To begin with – a most unusual version of Mussorgsky’s evergreen, much-arranged, endlessly-recorded Pictures at an Exhibition. At the 2004 Proms, Leonard Slatkin (the then Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and I was there watching and listening) presented the work, but far away indeed from the familiar terrain of the Ravel orchestration. The wander through the gallery began, not with the famous noble trumpet announcement, but with a bewildering and surreal playing of the theme on percussion – the whole orchestra taking the idea up soon after. The orchestrator was one Byrwec Ellison (born 1957), leader of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and an unusual and unexpected “shaper” of this familiar music. Once out of Ellison’s part of the gallery, we move through a compelling variety of realisations, to the immense finale – The Great Gate of Kiev (a musical portrait of a piece of architecture which was never built, except in music). Nothing prepared me for what I heard in the Royal Albert Hall that night; and the Warner Classics disc (2564 61954-2), taken from the Radio 3 broadcast, still makes me take a deep breath – for “The Great Gate” comes slowly into view through a dark-sounding, deep-voiced male chorus intoning an ancient Russian chant, and then shines out gloriously through clarion brass, shimmering cymbal clashes, and the galvanising, stunning entry of the Royal Albert Hall organ. “The Great Gate” came courtesy of Douglas Gamley, a composer of music for the Hammer Horror film series, and a man clearly capable of the highest, most dramatic expressions of musical impact and drama. The applause from those 2004 prommers certainly adds to the satisfaction that you will find when listening to this remarkable disc.
More Russian romanticism, this time from the Swedish label BIS – and their sublime Rachmaninov cycle, which reaches (at least, for me) a high-point in the form of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra reading of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (BIS-CD-1279). Their conductor here is Owain Arwel Hughes CBE, an experienced and passionate advocate of this repertoire, who summons the spirit of the composer in every moment and movement: the melancholy, yearning opening, the hurtling, glittering cascade of notes and vivid, energetic action across the strings in the second movement (evoking from my memory a night-trip by train, many years ago, with a bright sky of stars visible from the carriage). Then comes the famous Adagio, and the elemental barrage of orchestral affirmation at the end – in which Arwel Hughes almost seems to hold one of the last great phrases in mid-air – in suspension – as if to prolong and enhance the grandeur and glory of the finale for just one or two more moments. By any standards, this is an exciting and deeply-felt interpretation.
From the large-scale, to the introspective, I love the delicacy and mysterious tones of Debussy’s chamber works, in particular, his Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp in three movements, and Cello Sonata (two movements) written at the height of the Great War – works most emphatically of the early 20th century; early, moderate modernism, with the composer’s tenderness felt throughout. Debussy wrote of these works, that they were “… not so much for myself but to give proof, however small it may be, that even if there were thirty million Boches, French thought will not be destroyed.” The Athena Ensemble brings great understanding and classical elegance to these enigmatic creations on a Chandos CD from the mid-1980s – the CD booklet noting the comments of the musicologist Edward Lockspeiser, who viewed the Flute, Viola and Harp sonata as in fact a “triptych of single conception.”
In the days before CDs, I enjoyed the chamber works of Debussy on a vinyl record which I purchased in France in 1981 – the record bearing the label “Musicdisc – Richesse Classique” (catalogue number MU 209). It would take a serious record collector a long time to find this rare item, but I have seldom heard either the sonatas, or the String Quartet (the main item), played so authentically – although the recording quality is not of the highest standard, and is even a little constricted and “crackly”. Fortunately, the wording on the record sleeve was translated into English, although again, not terribly well! However, the writer (unnamed) seems to summarise the record and the repertoire…
“As to the sonatas, which writing extremely refined seems to seal an inner mystery, they constitute the musical will and testament of Debussy. The first-rate interpretation in the most trifling lights and shades is of performers as famous as Bernard Galais and Claude Helffer, specialists of the twentieth century music.”
From the impressionism and warmth of Debussy, to the lands of Northern Lights, legendary warriors and mythical swans: a 1997 recording on the Finlandia label of well-known works by Sibelius, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis – not with his customary band, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but with the accompaniment of the clear, clean, lithe-sounding Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.
Orchestral mists summon up the spirit of En Saga, The Swan of Tuonela, and the players give their national and emotional-sounding best in the heroic Finlandia, and the Op. 112, Tapiola. But best of all on the collection is the lonely seascape, The Oceanides, a commission from the Norfolk Music Festival in America, at which the composer appeared and conducted on the 4th July 1914. Originally entitled Rondo of the Waves, The Oceanides is the only tone-poem by the composer not to refer explicitly to a Finnish or Scandinavian myth, but in its nine minutes builds to a great tumult every bit as exciting as En Saga. And so perfectly does it encapsulate the sense of grey seas, skies and supernatural beings materialising and dematerialising in the play of the waves (the Oceanides are sea-nymphs and mermaids), that the work almost seems to bring on a sense of loss in the heart of the listener, when the score darkly ebbs away into the orchestra’s deeper registers, slowly drawing to its close.
In the 1970s, The Oceanides appeared on a classic and vintage BBC film about the life-cycle of the Atlantic salmon, presented by the angler and naturalist Hugh Falkus. Sibelius’s music was used in the final elegiac moments, as the life of the ocean-going salmon ends in the head-waters of the river of its birth. The film – deeply absorbing and beautifully shot – is still available on specialist productions, and I am sure that anyone, including the non-countryman, would find it stimulating and moving, not least because of its use of Sibelius.
Nature-worship formed a very important part of the character of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), and alongside his Third and Fourth symphonies, his large-scale work for orchestra and two soloists, Das Lied von der Erde (a symphony in all but name, perhaps) represents themes of man and mortality, farewell and withdrawal, but also the exuberance of youth. All of these ideas flower within a heady, regenerative setting of Nature: the sections of the work bearing names such as: Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrows, The Lonely Man in Autumn, The Drunkard in Spring etc.
Mahler set Chinese poetic texts, taken from a collection of by Hans Bethge, known as The Chinese Flute – although the atmosphere of ancient gardens in the Orient and Chinese music occasionally appears and floats across a typically Austro-German symphonic landscape, a character brought out by the rasping, “dark-brown” brass of the Dresden Staatskapelle on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 453 437-2), under the brilliant Italian conductor, Giuseppe Sinopoli (known in London during his 1980s’ tenure with the Philharmonia). Of all my Mahler collection, Das Lied comes – it seems to me – closer and closer to the meaning of life.
On the subject of Mahler, the English conductor Frank Shipway died earlier this year – a figure that appeared to be something of an “outsider” in British musical life, despite having many great gifts as a conductor, and an appetite for large-scale works – Berlioz, Mahler, Shostakovich. I saw Shipway conduct on two occasions: once at a Sunday night concert of Russian romantic repertoire at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley (in about 1980), and at the Royal Festival Hall in 1984, at the helm of his half-professional, half-amateur London orchestra, the Forest Philharmonic, still based in Walthamstow. In the obituaries which appeared, it seems that the conductor’s maverick manner and his Karajan-like “authoritarianism” provoked mixed feelings from musicians. Sir Colin Davis, for example, was unsure about engaging him at the Royal Opera House, because of an almost 19th-century demeanour (Shipway was said to sweep in like a figure from another age); but for international maestro Lorin Maazel, the Englishman had great potential. He was invited to the U.S., to Maazel’s world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, and critics reported that: “The night belonged to Shipway”.
However, despite these successes, only a few recordings seem to survive of Shipway’s work, none greater perhaps than a splendid account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, recorded in Watford, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (available on TRP 096). To many, this powerfully-realised rendition (the RPO delivering all the sturm und drang associated with Mahler) was a version that came out of the blue – a surprise to many writers and observers. On the RPO’s own label, it remains a unique and treasured part of my Austro-German collection – and I recommend it to anyone who thrills to the great “darkness-to-light journey” of this immense symphonic statement by Mahler – the absolute romantic.
Finally, no Christmas edition of a magazine’s music section is complete without a mention of that central seasonal tradition – Handel’s Messiah. Today, of course, we delight in so many period-instrument renditions: a lighter, darting, more astringent baroque sound, that is so fashionable with audiences. But it is worth remembering the performance style of the 1950s and ‘60s, the years of Sargent and Boult. Decca’s 1961 extracts from Messiah, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Adrian Boult (433 637-2) – especially in the final, Worthy is the Lamb – seems to set the heavens ringing, with a solid, well-enunciated, half-operatic, half-English cathedral style of choral singing that would swallow most baroque performances. It is almost as if The Dream of Gerontius has found its way into Messiah, such is the majesty and grandeur of Sir Adrian’s reading. This is a stirring, vintage recording – and a CD which should provide much enjoyment for this season of the year.
STUART MILLSON is QR’s classical music critic