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I once got into a fistfight with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau outside the good ol’ Ratskeller in Berlin after I told him I preferred Hans Hotter’s performance of Winterreise, and that he (Fischer-Dieskau) had been in a slow decline ever since the 1950s.
Julia Fischer (no relation to Dietrich) was on the scene and was so turned on by my manliness (I kicked The Fish’s ass), we’ve been seeing each other on and off ever since.
She’s the greatest. We sit up all night long and drink White Russians and talk about phylogenetic profiling, the chromalveolate hypothesis proposed by Cavalier-Smith, Manchester City F.C. (of which we are both big fans), cricket, peonies, carrots, and so on …
George Crumb: Makrokosmos (1972), twelve fantasy pieces after the zodiac, for amplified piano. Vol. I Nos. 1-4.
1. Primeval Sounds (Genesis I). Cancer
2. Proteus. Pisces
3. Pastorale (from the Kingdom of Atlantis, circa 10,000 B.C.). Taurus
4. Crucifixus (Symbol). Capricorn
Laurie Hudicek, pianoforte.
Seriously, the next Mrs Stainforth.
Knowing my luck, she’s probably a dyke.
Throughout the autumn of 1835 Schumann found himself again much in the company of Clara Wieck. She was now sixteen, but the many experiences crowded into her life had ripened her personality beyond all relation to her years. Her début at the Gewandhaus on 9th November, with Mendelssohn on the rostrum, set the seal on all her earlier successes, and there was now no doubting that a great future lay before her as a pianist to whom the poetry of music mattered above all else. Ever since she was a child of nine Schumann had followed up her achievements with whole-hearted admiration; he had watched the gradual unfolding of her mind and of her heart, and now, in her eyes, he saw a look which told him the truth about their relationship. She loved him, he loved her, they had always loved each other, and he knew then in a flash of intuition that the paths of their lives would one day converge. No word was spoken, but the evening before Clara set out on a concert tour in November, Schumann came to say goodbye, and kissed her as she guided him, light in hand, down the stairs. They met next in December at Zwickau, where Clara was giving a concert, and they kissed again.
(Joan Chissell, The Master Musicians, Schumann)
It has often been charged that Robert Schumann’s orchestral works are little more than thinly-veiled transcriptions of musical thoughts that fall more naturally on the keyboard, and that he lacked the necessary skill to realize his purely orchestral ideas effectively.
I don’t think that Schumann’s orchestration is poor. It has not the instrumental relief, the colour, of Berlioz’s orchestra, but the reason is, in my opinion, in the difference between the ideas and feelings both expressed. Schumann is much more turned within himself, not very tempted by descriptions or great effects. His Symphony No. 2, my preferred, is a melancholic work that could not have the transparency of Mendelssohn or the colour of Berlioz.
The only problem with his symphonies is perhaps in the fact that the sonata form was not the ideal vehicle for Schumann’s personality. The development is sometimes reduced to systematic repetitions of the main ideas, with no real evolution. This seems more obvious to me in the Symphony No. 4 and the Cello Concerto. But in general we accept that because of the sublime beauty of those ideas.
And there is the overture Manfred, an extraordinary work, to me the best work that Schumann composed for orchestra, also conceived in a sonata form with three motifs, a real development and a very original (and disturbing) coda.
Some of the stuff Schumann did in the symphonies is fairly demanding and sometimes a little awkward to play, but his orchestration is excellent, a very unique sound world which a lot of people simply don’t get because it is rather different from what many other composers did. His symphonies can sound absolutely marvellous in the hands of interpreters who can realize that unique differentiated sound. He was basically decades ahead in some aspects of his orchestration. There are even elements in it that point forward to Debussy.
Listen to Barenboim for a very “romantic”, “full bodied” approach, Gardiner for a very lean, transparent and highly coloured sound; Sawallisch is excellent, too, he allows the sound to unfold and bloom. I also rather like Dohnányi’s Cleveland recordings. Other really great readings are Harnoncourt and Muti which get great musical results in their very different way. Muti is very compact and “classical” and achieves great transparency and finely tinted textures, while Harnoncourt’s readings are very extrovert, bouncy, very lyrical and expressive – probably the most “romantic” readings I have heard – but very “early romantic”, not “late romantic”.
Whatever some people may have to criticize about the orchestration – and some even tampered rather massively with it, like Mahler did – Schumann’s symphonies have been very popular for a long time.
Outside the music of the Second Viennese School, whose works are of course central, some other pieces are particularly special to me, though I don’t claim great things for all of them, necessarily. Here are just three of them.
Somewhere near the very top of the list come the three sets of Greek Lyrics by Dallapiccola, I think. Actually they are one of my favourite things in music full stop. Think of Webern’s concision and structural perfection and combine it with a delicate, refined Mediterranean lyricism (these are settings of ancient Greek poems). Few such exquisite pieces have come from any century and any style.
A surprise entry, really pretty obscure, is the Op. 15 Klavierstucke by Hanns Jelinek. I just love these works, though they aren’t at all barnstorming masterpieces. They were the first twelve-tone pieces I knew very well as a teenager, and are full of imagination, wit and fun. The work is divided into five books, each containing a number of pieces; Book I is four two-part inventions; Book II is five character pieces; Book III is three toccatas (including a Toccata Funebre for Berg, with some Wozzeck quotations); Book IV is three dance movements (including an utterly beautiful Sarabande, and a March clearly inspired by the Landsknecht number from Schoenberg’s male part songs) and Book V is a Suite in E major, including among other things a Bachian Prelude , a Siciliana which reminds me of Mozart a little, a jazzy Musette and an Epilogue which is an hommage to Debussy “d’un dodecaphoniste vienoise”. Each book uses the row in ever more advanced ways, until in Book V there is note repetition, free transposition and so on.
Forever linked to the Second Viennese composers in my mind will be Hugh Wood, who took a series of seminars on them when I was at Cambridge which I will never forget – truly moving occasions.
Hugh Wood is an archetypal northerner (he’s from Lancashire), bluff, down-to-earth, but he is at heart a late flourishing member of that set of post-Second Viennese composers that included Gerhard, Dallapiccola, Eisler and so on, and the eloquence and emotion with which he gave his last talk, on these three composers and their various fates, was particularly beautiful; and then he pulled out a bottle of champagne and we sat drinking, more or less, to these great musicians.
I love Wood’s three concerti, and particularly his Piano Concerto, which shows how much fun twelve-tone music can be, and is dedicated to gorgeous pouting Joanna MacGregor. It also has an admirably clear form. The first movement is springy, athletic and purely atonal. Its rhythmic vitality is infectious. The second movement, in complete contrast, is almost throughout vague, amorphous, delicate, utterly beautiful “late night” music. Gradually it takes shape, the contours and sonorities become clearer and the music is drawn ever-closer into the orbit of Sweet Lorraine, which is eventually quoted in sumptuous sound for just a few glorious seconds before a withdrawal is made. The movement is an attempt to bring together these two disparate worlds – it is for the most part a kind of twelve-tone rumba, almost, with the first movement’s vitality jazzed up a little. But there are tiny interludes, ever more magical ones, wonderfully orchestrated with soulful oboe or trumpet solos over pattering tom-toms, which although they only take up a few seconds in total, seem to contain the heart of this concerto.
And to prove the point Myleene Klass arrived at the Classical Brit Awards yesterday evening in an elegant, floor-length 1920s-style dress.
Miss Klass, 32, was of course a classical pianist before becoming a pop star and TV personality.
Classical Brit Awards Winners
Young British Classical Performer or Group – Jack Liebeck
Composer of the Year – Thomas Adès (for The Tempest)
Soundtrack of the Year – Thomas Newman, Revolutionary Road
Female Artist of the Year – Angela Gheorghiu
Critics’ Award – Verdi: Messa Da Requiem, Roma Orchestra Dell’ Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia, Antonio Pappano, Rolando Villazón, Anja Harteros, Sonja Ganassi, and René Pape
Male Artist of the Year – Vasily Petrenko
NS&I Album of the Year – Only Men Aloud, Band Of Brothers
Lifetime Achievement – Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
Striking is the crab-like progression of Brahms’s productions. He has certainly never been able to raise himself above the level of mediocrity, but such nullity, emptiness, and hypocrisy as prevail in the E minor Symphony have come to light in no other of his works. The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found its most worthy representative in Brahms.
(Hugo Wolf, Wiener Salonblatt, October 1885)
I am referring to those jewels found in Op. 116, 117, 118, and 119. These are among my favourite works for solo piano.
I am partial to the Op. 116 No. 6 Intermezzo, the lovely Intermezzo in A minor of Op. 117, the mighty Op. 118 No. 3 Ballade, and the Op. 119 No. 4 Rhapsody, a triumphant finish to this collection of mostly dark, minor-key works. And when I am in a sentimental mood, the Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 and the Romance Op. 118 No. 5 are lovely as well.
I have Kempff playing them.
They are connoisseur pieces, outside the ken of even many sophisticated listeners. They belong somewhere with the late Beethoven bagatelles or the late Haydn sonatas: not exactly forgotten, not exactly neglected, but in some netherworld one step short of the sunlight of general appreciation.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that Brahms lived just long enough to have heard the very earliest ragtime piano pieces from America and, evidently, some piano rags were played for him late in life. That conjures up a wonderful mental image for me – Brahms sitting in his flat in Vienna listening to someone play ragtime on his piano! Anyway, he supposedly liked what he heard and even expressed a desire to compose a piece of ragtime himself. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if among Brahms’ late piano music there were “Viennese Two-Step Rag as picked by Johannes Brahms” or something like that?
Apocryphal, no doubt. I seem to remember the story comes from a book called The Unknown Brahms by Robert Schauffler, published around 1933. My young friend Melissa tells me the book is not factually reliable.
Dudley Moore would have been 75 today. Here’s a reminder of what an excellent musician he was.
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
Arthur O’Shaughnessy (Ode from Music and Moonlight)
In a recent dream I had, my young friend Melissa and I were coming from a live concert, though I don’t know what was on the programme as it unfortunately began with us coming out of the concert hall. I do know the conductor was André Previn, and we were raving about the performance, which is funny because the day before she and I had been discussing a Previn recording that we both wanted to get.
The other concertgoers were streaming out of a gorgeous hall into a stunning cityscape that looked like a futuristic cross between Manchester and Edinburgh. The concert hall was a completely silver version of the Bridgewater Hall (my nearest big hall). We all were walking out towards a big lake discussing the concert, admiring the skyscrapers towering above us and a spectacular view of a bridge that looked like a more elaborate (and silver) version of the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam.
I always have dreams about musical performances. I’ve seen orchestras and pianists at concert halls, churches, warehouses, etc. I’ve also heard music emanating from various sources. Most of the music is so strange that I must call it “dream music”. It has no melody and is rugged and dark. Sometimes I’m scared by the music enough to wake up, so it has a rather tragic feel to it.