Friday, 24 May 2013
I'm off to celebrate someone's significant birthday today - it feels like I've known him for a very long time. It was worth it, I think. Happy Birthday, Henry!
Thursday, 23 May 2013
Australian Opera's production of The Pirates of Penzance
I used to hate Gilbert and Sullivan thinking it the worse kind of English middle class cosiness but then that was when I was a typical bolshy adolescent, passionate about the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. Many years later, I'm still passionate about Verdi but, how did this happen, I do believe that I've finally got there with Gilbert and Sullivan. I have reached the year 1879 in my progress through the history of classical music and, lo and behold, I'm in the world of G & S's most entertaining opera, The Pirates of Penzance. In 1878, I discovered HMS Pinafore, probably the most popular "show" of the the late 19th Century around the World. So popular in the United States in fact that Gilbert and Sullivan got very upset by their lack of copyright control over American performances and decided that they would premiere their next opera, The Pirates of Penzance in the USA and try to keep the money from its predicted success. Thus began the dead hand of the draconian copyright rules administered for the next hundred years by the D'Oyly Carte Opera company who held control of the rights and forbade any production that threatened to move away from the hallowed G & S tradition. With hindsight, I think it was the D'Oyly Carte that I disliked. The Pirates of Penzance is the funniest of the operas for me because it is the one where G & S put on some of their very best operatic parodies. It always seemed wrong for those two masters of parody to be held above parody themselves so the end of D'Oyly Carte's copyright in modern times when the operas have been allowed to breathe again with the lively spirit of fun that was there from the beginning. So now we have the entertaining spectacle of Australian Opera's Pirates of the Caribbean production of Pirates of Penzance and, as a great fan of Jack Sparrow, I see no problem.
G & S' Pirate King had worse indignities thrown his way in another Australian production when aging rock singer, Jon English took the role. This wonderful piece of theatrical suicide has to be watched at least, well, quite a few times as you will see. Jon English is reputed to have played the part over 1000 times. By the end of this performance he looks as if he did them all without a break. This is death by encore. I do believe Gilbert and Sullivan would have seen the joke. which is on them, on Verdi and, most of all, on the unfortunate John English. If you haven't seen this before, you have to stay with this to the end. Poor man, it nearly kills him.. I wonder what he did to upset the conductor. In case you are unfamiliar with the original, this chorus, somehow always funny no matter who sings it, sends up the Italian operatic tradition of singers singing very loudly when they are supposed to be sneaking around in silence. These rather camp pirates, even camper than Australian Opera's, are attempting a silent raid accompanied by Sullivan's thunderous orchestration. So I might not be a purest yet but Gilbert and Sullivan make me laugh - I hope they will forgive me for playing this. The pirates's chorus With Catlike Tread:
Wednesday, 22 May 2013
There's a rather sad-looking terracotta pot outside my back door. It was supposed to have been filled with the dramatic reds and yellows of my tulip bulbs, Flaming Parrot. It was the slugs that did it. Last year was slug year and, much to my disappointment, they devoured the entire crop.
This was the same pot last Spring. If it hadn't been for those wonderful fritillaries, this corner of my garden would have looked pretty dull over the last month. Luckily my other tulips, Ballerina, were magnificent this year so it was't all bad news for my favourite flowers.
I usually replace the tulip bulbs in my terracotta pots annually but last year I decided I would see if the bulbs would come back. As you can see, they didn't.
It's impossible to predict the future, I know, but I'm trying very hard to avoid a similar problem next Spring and, this week, I've ordered next year's tulips to be delivered and planted this Autumn. It will come as no surprize if I tell you I'm going for those Flaming Parrots again and some more Ballerinas. The tulip season is over in my garden now but, gardeners are optimists and I'm already looking forward to next year. I shall be keeping a vigilant eye open for slugs and snails too. Until then all I have are memories of this year's tulips and, well yes, a well-known song played on a Dutch accordion:
Tuesday, 21 May 2013
Yang Chengfu (1883-1936)
A friend sent me a video made by the German artist and taichi writer Matthias Wagner which has haunted me for days now. Herr Wagner has made pencil drawings of old photographs of one of China's legendary taichi masters Yang Chengfu (1883-1936) who was famous enough to have a style named after him, the so-called Yang-style. I don't practise this particular style and my 66 movement White Crane form, Suang-Yang is far from identical to the Yang-style but it was still inspirational to see the old master almost "in action." It has inspired me in my regular morning martial arts practice - it's shown me how little I know too.
Yang Chengfu in 1918
Matthias Wagner uses the photographed published in Yang Chengfu's book Essence and Applications of Taichiquan (1934) and has rather beautifully caught the spirit of the man and the style. All taichi enthusiasts are in your debt, Herr Wagner.
Monday, 20 May 2013
One of the wonders of living in England is when May comes round and our ancient woods burst into colour. Not just any colour though. Over the last couple of weeks our woodlands have turned blue. However you have to know your countryside to find a true English bluebell wood.
Before I moved to Lewes in East Sussex, I lived not far away in an isolated country hamlet across the road from a particularly lovely ancient wood. I went back there yesterday for a walk off the beaten track hoping that the bluebells were still in bloom.
The walk was beautiful enough without those magical blue flowers, maybe England's most beautiful. I know the Scots lay claim to the bluebell too but, one a warm Spring day in England, we, sorry Scotland, no contest.
I knew these lanes intimately after living in these parts and walking them with my dog every day. When I got to the woods, I was not disappointed. If you're not lucky enough to live near a bluebell wood then you'll just have to enjoy them here on-line. Scroll down this page and then you'll agree with me that the English bluebell is a very special plant designed precisely to gild a temperate woodland when it is in its first flush of new leaves. As to where this wood is, well sorry, I'm not telling. Some things have to remain a secret and bluebells are best appreciated far from the madding crowd.
Saturday, 18 May 2013
I'm saying farewell to Joseph Joachim Raff this weekend (see Friday's blog) by listening to his last symphony, Symphony No. 10 Op. 213, "To Autumn Time" and you can hear the whole piece by scrolling down this page to hear the excellent performance by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Stadlmair. To put you in the mood I thought I'd show you some Autumn photographs from around where I live in Lewes, East Sussex in the UK. Just click on the link at the bottom of this page and enjoy.
Friday, 17 May 2013
Joseph Joachim Raff (1822-1882)
On my chronological journey through the history of Western Classical music, I have mostly come down on the side of the established greats. The journalist and writer Bernard Levin said, wisely, that often posterity is the best judge and, mostly, he was right. I'm not going to end this project by toppling Josquin, Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy and Stravinsky from their pinacle at the top of one of civilization's greatest achievements, but posterity, right or wrong, has also been ungenerous to some also-rans. In the 19th Century where I have been musically for the last five or so years, contemporary audiences would have put two other composers on this list of the great: Louis Spohr (1784 -1859) and Joseph Joachim Raff. Nowadays most people would say Who They? One of the pleasures of my self-imposed project has been discovering their work, especially the symphonies (Spohr's 9 and Raff's 11) and realizing that 19th Century audiences weren't entirely delusional in their enjoyment of these composers who both wrote with distinctive voices. I have entered the year 1879 and, with some sadness, I have come to the last of Raff's symphonies (actually the 10th not the 11th) followed by the four dramatic and adventurously concise Shakespeare Overtures (The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello).
I have been listening to the complete set of CDs recorded by Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in splendid recordings by the Swiss record company Tudor. Joachim Raff was Swiss so Tudor were celebrating one of their own. Hans Stadlmair has given us some wonderful versions of most of the symphonies and his version of No. 10 is beautiful and tightly sprung when sometimes, in some of the other symphonies he tends to rush things along a bit as if he thinks Raff needs a bit of help in the slow movements. No major complaints though about this pioneering project even if I have transferred my loyalties to Bernard Hermann's highly theatrical recording Raff's 5th Symphony, 'Lenore,' a dramatically Romantic programme symphony about the ill-fated love of the highly impressionable Lenore. The recording was self-funded and conducted by the great film music composer and Raff enthusiast, Bernard Hermann with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Unicorn UKCD 2031). The march was often played on its own in Victorian concert halls and was definitely one of his greatest "hits." Lenore is waiting for her soldier lover to return from the war but after the army marches past, she realizes that he is not there. Raff is too easily dismissed as unoriginal when often his adventurous orchestration and subtly hidden complexities led to more famous composers, such as Tchaikovsky, emulating him.
Stadlmair also lost my enthusiasm when I came to what should have been my last Raff recording, his version of the Shakespeare Overtures which tend to sag. Just as I was finishing this Raff series, happy enough with the Tudor recordings, along comes an exciting new recording of the Shakespeare Overtures from Chandos with the Suiss Romande Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi recorded in one of my favourite concert halls, Victoria Hall, Geneva where I once sat in awe of the acoustics in a thrilling performance of Bruckner's Third Symphony with this orchestra conducted by Gunther Wand. The new recording also has what will probably become the definitive performance of Raff's lovely and optimistic Second Symphony. I have a feeling that if 75 year old Neeme Järvi carries on recording Raff then my CD collection will just have to grow with each new release.
If you are tempted by a different take on 19th Century music then I hope you will give Raff a chance. You could well start with getting the Chandos CD and hope that more will follow in this series but you also have to hear Bernard Hermann's Lenore Symphony. I'm also a fan of his Alpine Symphony, No. 7, with its grand adagio evoking Lake Zurich near his childhood home at Lachen in Switzerland. I have a brother who lives by Lake Zurich so I hope to visit Lachen one day to pay my respects to Raff.
Joachim Raff came from a humble family and was largely self-taught as a composer but he always had a strong sense of his own worth and, not being backward in coming forward, he sent some of his compositions to Mendelssohn (who recommended them to his publisher) and walked cross country to visit Liszt who offered him a job as his assistant. Even though he became one of the most famous composers of his day, after his death, Raff was only remembered for one piece of music until the 21st Century revival of interest in his work. This is the Cavatina for violin and piano (6 Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op 85) possibly written the year that he met and fell in love with the actress Doris Genast, "a lovely and extremely pale girl." It was, he said love at first sight and, it appears, the feeling was mutual. They had a long and very happy marriage eventually settling in Frankfurt where Raff was appointed head of Frankfurt's new music conservatoire.
Doris Raff 1826-1912)
Here is Itzhak Perlman playing the Cavatina, a piece still played at some point in their lives by most violin students to this day.
Raff was, apparently, not only sure of his worth but also inclined to intolerant bursts of bad temper which may have been one of the reasons why, after his death, very few musicians performed his work. He would have been shocked to discovered just how rapidly his fame evaporated. He died in his sleep in 1882 without making any provision in his will for his family because he was confident that the royalties from his works would keep them in luxury for the rest of their lives. His widow, in fact, was left in poverty and had to be supported by a whip-round by a few loyal friends who also raised funds for the rather grand memorial over his grave in Frankfurt.
Raff's grave in Frankfurt
I'll leave you and the Raff project with the third movement Elegy/Adagio from Symphony No. 10, "To Autumn Time", in F minor Op. 213. This replaced the original 3rd movement of 1879 because Doris found it too emotional, the replacement is Raff's last symphonic movement written in 1881 and, if you hear any resemblance to Tchaikvosky's 5th Symphony, if there was any plagiarism, the sin would have been with the great Russian as his symphony was written in 1888, six years after Raff's death. Listening to Raff's music, if for no other reason, has opened my ears to one of Tchaikovsky's major influences. I also hear Raff's influence with his sliding harmonies and unexpected orcheatration in the music of Richard Strauss and Sibelius. I'm happy to be moving on in my journey but I shall return to Herr Raff's symphonies whenever I want to hear this distinctive voice again.