ENDNOTES: From first to last night
Stuart Millson looks forward to the Proms
ENDNOTES, June 2015
In this edition: BBC launches its Proms programme for 2015 * Sir Andrew Davis conducts the enigmatic Charles Ives * Tasmin Little soars in Schubert * Simon Callaghan records Preludes and Variations by a lesser-known English composer * Leon McCawley performs Rachmaninov.
The April launch of the BBC’s Proms prospectus is always a much looked-forward-to event. My own Proms programmes (preserved in cardboard boxes and plastic folders) go back as far as 1981 – and I fondly recall their old design: a humour-filled illustration of the Royal Albert Hall, with Beethoven and his ear-trumpet, and Wagner peering at us from beside the Hall. The great Berlioz operatic work, The Trojans, was performed in 1982, which prompted the programme illustrator to include the legendary Trojan Horse on the cover, being pulled into the hall by a line of straining prommers. Today, the programmes have a softer, perhaps more surreal style of artwork – the idea being to let one’s imagination run riot, and (to quote the old slogan of BBC Radio 3), to “3 your mind”! Proms 2015 certainly achieves this, with a theme of music for all – a very important idea in this age when so many people, young people especially, have little or no exposure to classical music. (A strange thing, given the instant availability of music of all kinds, across so many media.)
The Proms season runs from July until September, culminating in the famous Last Night, which this year sees the return of Marin Alsop, the Baltimore-based conductor who became the first woman to raise a baton at an event often perceived as a bastion of old traditions and avuncular conductors – who try to keep (to some degree) a lid on the uproarious, cathartic grand finale. But for the final night to mean anything, the whole season has to be savoured, and there are – what promise to be – many exciting evenings ahead, with visiting orchestras (the Vienna Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius), and symphonies by Sibelius, Mahler and Bruckner. Attempts have been made to reach out to people who would not normally go to the proms, a process which began in previous years with an “urban prom” (something which does not necessarily engage the core audience) and an evening with the 1980s’ pop group, The Pet Shop Boys, who, it must be said, did write for the Proms an original and creative “serious” work, The Man from the Future.
Despite raising some eyebrows and provoking accusations of “dumbing down”, the inclusion of non-classical music is, in fact, nothing new. In the Glock era, Soft Machine played at an experimental prom, and in 1983, I attended an all-night concert of Indian music – which followed a performance by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, which the composer dedicated to God. Although separate concerts, the Bruckner (which ended at about 9.30pm), and the Indian “Rags at Midnight” (which concluded at about seven the next morning) proved that music can bring a common, universal spirituality. But there must be a definition to life, and the BBC needs to think carefully: is the all-important need to reach out offering some factions in the artistic establishment the chance to blur the distinction between classical (broadly Western, and mainly “serious”) and styles of music which offer their audience a quite different type of experience? “It’s all music, it’s all valuable…” argue the egalitarians. It would be a pity, if at some point in the future, the Proms became simply a platform, or mash-up for all styles of music. After all, jazz, heavy metal, Rock, rap et al define themselves strongly by name and style: classical music (an imprecise, but still useful term) does the same for us. Long may Sir Henry Wood’s statue look down upon the platform at the Royal Albert Hall – at orchestras, choirs and opera companies… with the occasional foray into something quite different.
From his debut in Verdi’s Requiem at a Prom in 1970, to his famous bow at the end of his tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra some 30 years later, Sir Andrew Davis has become one of those Proms elder statesmen – joining the gallery of other musical knights, Sargent, Boult, Groves, Mackerras, Pritchard. (Nor must we forget the non-knights of the recent Proms past: Norman Del Mar, and that great Scot, James Loughran – who, with his wit and true stage-presence, was one of the best Last Night master of ceremonies we have ever had.)
Sir Andrew Davis returns to the Proms on occasions, and these days is increasingly associated with the Chandos Records catalogue. For one of his recent releases, Sir Andrew is in Melbourne, with the city’s very fine-sounding orchestra; bringing to life the music of that enigmatic American semi-amateur composer, Charles Ives (1874-1954) – on this CD, his first two symphonies. Ives seemed to belong to the world of small-town America – white weatherboarded houses in towns with wide thoroughfares and leafy avenues. Perhaps his most famous composition is Three Places in New England; a haunting score which goes far beyond any picturesque tone-painting, and takes us into a sound-world of shadows and unexpected tonalities. Ives could almost be the American Mahler – as spectral landscapes give way to the crashings and bangings of marching bands, which in turn disappear into what might be an almost religious limbo of unanswered questions.
Late-19th and turn-of-the-century America – presided over by that venerable academic and organist – Horatio Parker, had yet to develop a truly local or national style; Parker being a firm believer in the solid certainties of the European romantic movement. (It was Parker who thundered out on the Yale organ Land of Hope and Glory, in honour of Elgar’s United States visit, and who felt that even the all-American Ives should write as if he were at the Queen’s Hall or Cologne). But we should not complain about Parker’s solid old-world style, for in the Charles Ives symphonies, their compelling moments of drama and generally flowing feel (yes, reminiscent of Bruckner or Schumann) a new-world school of music is in the making. Hints of the Ives that we know are also present in the scores, as one Brucknerian ending seems almost disrupted by the sudden arrival (an out-of-step percussive march) of an over-enthusiastic town band. The listener can almost “see” the American hearties in their baseball caps and boaters on the Fourth of July! As always, the Chandos sound is exceptional. This is a recording that is well worth exploring.
Another Chandos artist of great note (and notes) is Tasmin Little. This column has celebrated her work many times, not least her definitive recordings of Elgar, Britten, Moeran and Walton. I would venture to say that her version of the Walton Violin Concerto is the best on record. But this time, we find Tasmin in the chamber world of Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Her accompanists are Tim Hugh, cello, and pianist, Piers Lane – who play the sublime Sonata, D 821 ‘Arpeggione’ of 1824, and join Tasmin in the posthumously recognised and numbered Adagio Op. 148, (written in the last year of the composer’s short life). The cerebral, sweet-sounding music of Schubert is made for the intimacy of small-scale settings – the pathos and good nature, and perfect tunes, of his sonatas finding their ideal interpreters in the Chandos performing team. Listen carefully in the second movement of the Sonata No. 1, Op. 137: here is music, which whilst not being exactly melancholy, generates a feeling of rest and reflection – the sun on a summer’s day obscured by misty clouds – only to be reinvigorated by the third movement, which seems to start immediately, with a new view and mood, carrying you away back to purpose and a jollier frame of mind. Chandos records the sounds of the instruments, almost as if being able to bottle spring air or capture reflected light from cut-glass crystal. Effortless performances (this may be a clichéd phrase) but the CD generates a mood of wellbeing; using three musicians who simply have to spin the potter’s wheel in order to create out of nothing, something of great beauty – including those earnest and bold phrases of Schubert which are often found in his symphonies. Not even these moments sound forced or hard-edged.
Recorded at the Old Granary Studios, Suffolk in the late August of last year, pianist Simon Callaghan – very much a new figure, and force, in recording and performance – has sought out, not easy repertoire or a name we know, but the complicated and almost unknown figure of Roger Sacheverell Coke. (Regular readers may recall our review of Coke’s music on the English Music Festival label, EM Records.) Coke was born in 1912, his family claiming lineage to the Plantagenet dynasty. His social position, whilst not exactly aristocratic (although semi-upper-class) was unencumbered by the usual demands of making money or earning one’s keep, and so Coke devoted himself to music – even producing a Shelley-based opera, which was decried by the musical press. The poor reaction to his work, his heavy-smoking, depression and accompanying disorders all combined to undermine this artist, and bury him in the far-flung reaches of musical history. Although achieving a measure of recognition at some points in his career, this essentially gloomy romantic found himself buried by the post-war musical establishment, keen as it was to embrace the continental, the avant-garde, the decidedly atonal. Not for them the two sets of 24 Preludes (Opp. 33 & 34) and 15 Variations (Op. 37) which Simon Callaghan has recorded for Somm: a testament to Coke’s very real and vivid creative strengths – an intense, often nocturnal inward-looking impressionism – which might lead the listener to think that an English Rachmaninov has been rediscovered.
There is a famous photograph, taken in the Proms days of Sir Henry Wood, of the conductor shaking hands with the original, wholly Russian Rachmaninov, after what must have been a dazzling performance before the London prommers. (Let us not forget that Wood brought Debussy, Delius, Berg and Rachmaninov to our concert-halls – the modern music of its day.) A romantic and an exile from his beloved homeland, Rachmaninov’s music seems to breathe the cold winds of Russian forests and lakes, and a sense of heartache, of loneliness, of a man longing for something which cannot be put into words – only music. His famously sad, lyrical but embracing Vocalise; the endless heartfelt depths and storytelling of the mighty Second Symphony; the strange, midnight atmosphere of the Symphonic Dances; the Gurrelieder-like opening of his canata, Spring – all contain the essence, or at least, a side of the composer’s character.
Written at different times of his life, Rachmaninov’s Preludes (24 in total) are an exploration of all the possibilities of the musical keys, and are – in piano form – a clear summation of everything for which the composer stands. In other words, if all the symphonies and the piano concertos were lost for all time, the 24 Preludes would still give the listener in some future barren world a connection to the heart of the Russian romantic master.
The international prize-winning pianist, Leon McCawley (also a Leeds prize-winner) has given us – via the recording facilities of Somm Records – one of the finest interpretations of Rachmaninov anyone could wish for; making the listener feel as though the Preludes were a single sequence, written at one time – such is the integrity and cohesion of McCawley’s interpretive vision and dedication. It could be said that the over-exposure of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, has taken us away from the “pure” essence of the composer – something which the Preludes seem to embody and exude. Perhaps, as a result of the achievement of Leon McCawley, audiences and CD buyers may be able to see another facet of a figure with whom we thought we were familiar.
As a final point, I would like to quote a small part of Robert Matthew-Walker’s immensely informative programme notes (for the Somm CD of Sacheverell Coke). It has a great deal of relevance for us, bringing together a view of the reputations of two romantic composers, and illustrating why “musical correctness” and the official view may not always serve the truth about the work of so many composers…
“…by the dawn of the 1960s the tide had turned against late-romanticism which Coke’s musical language maintained – one has only to consider the deplorable entry on Rachmaninoff [their spelling] one of the notable disfigurements of the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of 1954 – and the time could not have been worse for the unveiling of the magnum opus of a composer [Coke] who was perceived to be eminently backward-looking and not even fully competent in his technique.”
The Quarterly Review would like to pay tribute to the life and work of Brian Couzens (1933-2015), the founder of Chandos Records. Launched in 1979, this proudly independent label came to prominence in the early 1980’s with its recordings of British music. A memorial service in Wivenhoe, North Essex, commemorated the passing of this remarkable and dedicated figure, who pioneered so much within the recording industry.
STUART MILLSON is the Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review
Next time – we bring you reviews from the ninth English Music Festival, and of many distinguished new CD releases.