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Robert Craft, in my opinion not a particularly reliable chronicler, describes the death of Stravinsky on 6 April 1971:
The intern stethoscopes the chest, says he hears nothing, removes the intravenous tube (with all the feeling of a filling-station attendant removing a hose from an automobile tank), and remarks “Gee, he went just like that.”
While he leaves the room to certify the time of death as five-twenty, I wake V., but cannot directly tell her the truth. “He is very bad … dying … I think … no … he is dead.”
Then I go back to I.S. and hold his still-warm hands and kiss his still-feverish cheeks and forehead, during which I am certain that life is in his eyes for an instant and in that instant he knows me. V. comes, kisses him, and leaves the room crying.
(Robert Craft, Stravinsky: The Chronicle of a Friendship)
Walton certainly was a far better composer than he was a man. His personal behaviour could be quite poisonous, as I understand it, and he was exceedingly jealous of other people’s success.
Although I admire most British composers active throughout the twentieth century I am often disappointed by Walton. Clearly he was a composer of great talent and the list of his compositions whilst in his twenties and thirties contains a number of masterpieces. Belshazzar’s Feast is an exciting and dramatic oratorio, the First Symphony is a work of very considerable power and at times snarling menace. These are certainly personal favourites. After the war however there just seems to have been a long period of much more modest achievement with few works which resonate long in the memory. I try to like the Cello Concerto (1956) and the Second Symphony (1960) but there just seems to be something lacking. Walton’s move to take up residence on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples supposedly added a Mediterranean warmth to his music but to my ears it is more a Mediterranean languor, a sort of sleepy laziness. The enormous promise of the young composer seems to have dissipated. The great works which might have been expected from the older composer just don’t seem to have been written.
I remember as a young man reacting violently against what my friends and I thought was a national obsession with the music of Benjamin Britten and the neglect of composers like Walton. Now however I do have to admit that Britten was a greater composer and a composer of much more depth.
It’s decades since Tom Waits had a drink and his music has just got weirder and better. With his 17th album (Bad As Me) out, he heads for his local roadhouse (for coffee) and talks about songwriting, hard living and his fear of phones.
“I used to think that all great recordings happened at about 3 a.m.,” Tom Waits is telling me, in the conspiratorial, wasted and wounded voice that still seems made for those early hours. “So my first studio experiences, I wanted to be recording after the bars closed. I just thought that’s when it all happened. And it worked for me for a while, I guess. But I don’t believe that so much any more. I realise now there’s more than one way to sneak up on a herd of cattle …”
Waits is sitting in the back room of a roadhouse near his home town of Santa Rosa, where the industrialised farmscape north of San Francisco starts becoming wine country. Like him, the Washoe House is something of a revered and ramshackle institution. Just about every visitor since Ulysses S. Grant – who reportedly made a speech from the balcony in a state of undress after an amorous encounter on the way upstairs – has pinned a dollar bill to the ceiling, and no one has ever been desperate enough to take one down. Country music is playing on a jukebox to which Waits, ever alert, has one ear cocked, like a dog in front of a fire. A couple of times he will break off from talking to grunt a snatch of some cowboy melody.
On the table in front of him is the book he is reading, Crow Planet, about how corvids are “very much smarter than you might imagine”, a cup of black coffee (he gave up booze a long while ago, having got his share in early) and a notebook in which he keeps his ideas for songs (He occasionally reads from it at random: “Here’s one: ‘It’s good to be 40 feet tall on a billboard or something but not when your wife’s dying of cancer and you just knocked up the babysitter.’ Another ‘I wish I was a component of water and I could go off in the sun and just dry out…’). He gives the impression of being in a state both of constant startled awareness, and vague puzzlement at the world. Some of this has to do with his hair, which seems to have led a long and interesting life of its own. Unusually, he is not wearing a hat.
We are talking about his latest record, Bad As Me, his 17th, and his newfangled habit, at 61, of getting to the studio early in the morning. “These days I want to be there before anyone has had a musical thought,” he says. “If you are making a record you are the one saying ‘action’, and you are the one saying ‘cut’ and you have to be sure that the most interesting thing is not going on outside the frame. I try to pay attention to what people are doing the moment they come into the room. If they are just goofing around before we begin that may be the best thing they do all day. I have to be waiting.”
Since the musicians on Bad As Me include such legends as Keith Richards, the bass player Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), and the extravagantly gifted Marc Ribot you can see why Waits might want to be on his toes. One of the tracks on the album finds him duetting with Richards. “I’m the last leaf on the tree” they croak fabulously in unison and you are half convinced that the end times might be upon us.
In this sense you could be tempted to think that this is a glimpse of late-period Tom Waits, the home straight. The fact is, though, he has always liked the idea of being last man standing. If there has been a constant theme of his career – which has taken in two Grammy awards, scene-stealing acting roles for the likes of Robert Altman and Terry Gilliam, an Oscar nomination and a unique gift for performance that made his rare live shows just about the hottest ticket in any town – it is the constant sense of imminent dereliction. His first album, Closing Time, made when he was 24, already saw him adopting the broken-down voice of a survivor of all that life and love might throw at him. The hats he has taken on and off since as a performer, late-night barfly, all American hobo, fairground huckster, have all suggested several lifetimes of hard-won experience. Now he is finally approaching the age he has always imagined himself to be, I wonder if it feels like he hoped it would?
He gives his guttural half-laugh. “It’s the usual story. When I was younger I wanted to be older,” he says, “now I am older I am not quite so sure.”
The album is the latest in his heroic one-man attempt to include the whole history of American song in his own voice – now bellowing like a deranged Louis Armstrong, now essaying a Marvin Gaye falsetto, now groaning like Lead Belly, always very much himself. Waits likes to divide his repertoire into “grand weepers and grim reapers” or “bawlers and brawlers”; Bad As Me is no exception to this. It starts with the most convincing runaway train you’ve ever heard, Waits shovelling coal insanely, and then shifts gears between desperate, defeated ballads and the kind of “rumpus” you imagine from the party scene of Where the Wild Things Are. (“Anyone who has ever played a piano,” Waits likes to say, “would really like to hear how it sounds when dropped from a 12th-floor window.” His music satisfies that curiosity.) The band are required to do more than keep up. “It’s like Charlemagne or one of those old guys said,” he notes. “You want soldiers who, when they get to a river after a long march, don’t start rooting for their canteen in their pack, but just dive right in.”
It seems beside the point to ask Waits whether he feels a keener sense of mortality. Death has never been far from his thoughts as a songwriter (“I guess it’s a pretty popular subject among those of us still breathing,” he says.) But he signs off Bad As Me with a chilling little coda – “What’s it like when you die?” – imagining the eternal hangover in increasingly baroque similes. Is that the kind of thing that keeps him awake at nights?
“Well, I guess,” he says. “But that song started out just as a riff, taking triple rhymes, batting them back and forth. ‘Like a jail door closing, like a male whore dozing…’ And so on.” The free association lets him access some strange truths he believes. The other place that Waits has always gone to look for those surprises is in his own voice. Does its scalded range still shock even him from time to time?
“I’d like to think so,” he says. “Jimmy Stewart said he stopped making movies because he didn’t like the way he looked on screen anymore. I’m more the guy who says I look like hell but I’m going to see where it gets me.”
What started out for Waits as a stage act – the ultimate raddled crooner – became a compulsive caricature and is now a kind of larger-than-life persona that he can slip in and out of as he likes. Looking back though, I wonder why, as a kid growing up in southern California, he was so keen to advance his years?
“Probably because I knew I was going to have to be my own father,” he says. “There was a need for maturity and guidance from somewhere and I was going to have to provide it for myself – even if it meant putting on an overcoat and a hat and looking in a mirror and squinting a bit. It’s pretty usual for a kid from a broken home.”
That latter fact has always seemed the most salient scrap of knowledge about Tom Waits’s much mythologised background (“I was conceived one night in April 1949 at the Crossroads Motel in La Verne, amidst the broken bottle of Four Roses, the smouldering Lucky Strike, half a tuna salad sandwich…” and so on). When he was 10 or 11, his father – a Spanish teacher who used to drive his son from suburban Los Angeles over the Mexican border for haircuts and to listen to mariachi bands – walked out and didn’t come back. Waits became, he told one interviewer, immediately fixated with dads. He would go around to his friends’ houses not to see them but so he could hang out with their old man. At 12, he carried his grandfather’s walking stick and wore a trilby (the hats have never gone away) and he would clear his throat and ask his friends’ fathers stuff like: “So how long you been at Aetna, Bob?”
It was a natural progression to extend his search for adult wisdom to music, he suggests. I recall how he once described his childhood as “kneeling by a jukebox, praying to Ray Charles”. Did they ever meet? “I never got to know Ray, no,” he says. “But I did shake his hand at an airport once, which was a very profound moment for me. He was surrounded by a cadre of very scary-looking people. It was like a president was in town, everyone on walkie-talkies, but for some reason I just walked though and grabbed Ray’s hand. It felt like the biggest thing I ever held, just this huge hand. And I squeezed it and just said, ‘Thanks, Ray, thanks for everything.'” He pauses, looks aslant. “It wasn’t so profound for him, I guess, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Though Waits has never been a mainstream star like Charles, few performers attract more ardent disciples. Do people come up and grab his hand for the same reason now?
“There are a few people who want to let you know,” he says. “And that’s maybe profound for them, I guess. But the odd thing about this life is always that you spend half your time trying to get people to listen to you and the rest of the time trying to get them to leave you the fuck alone.”
Over the years, Waits has developed more effective strategies for deflecting invasive attention than most. His attitude to autobiography is summed up in the lines from “Tango Till They’re Sore” on his seminal album Rain Dogs: “I’ll tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past …” He has always appeared to work on the basis that if you make the yarns entertaining enough, why would anyone want to know the truth? There have been a couple of attempts at biography, notably Barney Hoskyns’s indefatigable Lowside of the Road, but Waits guards his privacy with his life. Interviewers seeking facts have occasionally crashed and burned. In response to the bland questions of an Australian TV host, Don Lane, Waits infamously spent the first few minutes of live TV distractedly looking for an ashtray. When he looked up he noted the interviewer’s discomfort. “What’s up, Don, you are starting to sweat?”
There are one or two moments in our conversation when my attempts at cod psychology are greeted with an amused sneer. “Ah I get it, you’re observing me, you’re the Observer,” but they don’t last too long. (I also work for the Guardian, I point out. “Ah, so you’re looking out for me, that’s OK then.”)
Waits’s original stage persona was born out of a similar sense of self-protective mythology. He suggests he feels a kinship with clowns, citing the Mexican hero Cantinflas as the performer he feels most sympathy with. Though he is capable of great pathos, nothing is ever quite in earnest in his music. Even his love songs carry the gruff awareness of their mechanics with them; he was compared with Kurt Weill before he knew Weill’s music or Brecht’s philosophy, but he had stumbled into the same theatrical territory.
To begin with, Waits had set about living the life his songs tended to describe. While performing in clubs, he dossed for a long while in cheap motels and flop houses in LA and occasionally lived out of the back of his ’55 Buick. In some of this, he acknowledges, he was again trying on his dad’s wayward life for size. He exorcised that ghost pretty much in his two-act musical Franks Wild Years in 1987 in which the eponymous hero torches the family home (Waits’s dad was named Jesse Frank Waits, after the outlaw James brothers). The hard-living had reached its inevitable dead end. “There ain’t nothing funny about being a drunk,” he observed, looking back. “You know, I was really starting to believe there was something amusing and wonderfully American about a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out.”
The opportunity to do so came when he met his wife, Kathleen Brennan, in 1980 on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart. He was writing the music, she was helping to edit the script. They were married at 1am a couple of months later at the 24-hour Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel in LA. His life was immediately transformed. They moved out up to the farm in Santa Rosa; he changed record labels in order to protect his musical freedom and to avoid the pressure to have hits; they began writing songs together and they raised three children.
Brennan is even more private than her husband, but he leaves you with little doubt she has been his soulmate as well as his muse. “My wife doesn’t want me to say how long we’ve been married,” he suggests. “Or, better, she likes me to say that she was basically a child bride. You know, ‘They said it was wrong, but we didn’t listen’; ‘I told her I’d wait until she was old enough’, that kind of thing.”
Brennan encouraged Waits to express the more dislocated sound he had wanted and which has given his career its adventurous longevity. “I think everyone has irreconcilable musical differences,” he says. “You know when you throw a party, you think people will show up and no one will like each other. It’s like that with music – parts of your musical psyche have never met other parts. You wonder if you should get them together. I used to think it was good to keep them apart. Now I kind of throw them in and see what happens.”
The first collaboration with his wife, the critically acclaimed, triumphantly discordant, Swordfishtrombones, was Waits’s turning point and he has never stopped reinventing. To begin with, on a very basic level, Brennan opened him up to new influences, he suggests.
“Her record collection and her library were both impressive compared to mine. When I met her most of my records were kind of stuck together with cheese and hair and oil and stuff. She had hers not only still in the cases but still in the little paper sleeve too. That in itself was something of a revelation.”
Since then, they have shared pretty much everything, (“She washes, I dry,” is how Waits describes their songwriting technique). The family firm has been extended by the presence of their middle son, Casey, playing drums on the last couple of albums. In one maudlin lament on the new record, Waits sings in time-honoured fashion: “I gave it all up for the stage.” The great thing about this heartfelt sob, though, is that it is delivered in the full knowledge that he successfully avoided the fate he describes. Has contentment ever felt an enemy to his creativity?
He pauses, laughs. “Right when you asked that the jukebox played ‘I’d like to settle down but they won’t let me.’ Merle Haggard. It’s always a bit like that. People don’t want you to be satisfied if you are a musician. And the scope for songs isn’t that great. Most songs that aren’t jump-rope songs, or lullabies, are cautionary tales or goodbye songs and road songs…”
Given the insistently improvised and homemade texture of his music, it is tempting to think Waits spends a good deal of his time out here in the sticks tinkering with farm machinery in his yard or fixing his truck. One inspiration for his music is Harry Partch, an American pioneer of the 40s and 50s, who not only invented his own instruments but created his own notation too. Waits’s music still allows the possibility of “hitting a cabinet hard with a two by four” just for the hell of it. He distrusts digitalisation.
“Music has generally involved a lot of awkward contraptions, a certain amount of heavy lifting,” he says. “The idea that it will just be a sort of vapour that you listen to out of speakers the size of a dime alarms me. It’s like injecting yourself. Or eating alone.”
He is, he says, equally wary of the ease of search and shuffle. “They have removed the struggle to find anything. And therefore there is no genuine sense of discovery. Struggle is the first thing we know getting along the birth canal, out in the world. It’s pretty basic. Book store owners and record store owners used to be oracles, in that way; you’d go in this dusty old place and they might point you toward something that would change your life. All that’s gone.”
Does he ever stray online?
“No,” he says. “But then I’m one of those guys that is still a bit afraid of the telephone, its implications for conversation. I still wonder if the jukebox might be the death of live music.”
If he feels out of kilter, he says, it’s maybe in his genes. He was leafing through a musical dictionary the other day and he came across a definition for “waits” – “They were these guys who went door to door, carolling, bringing you the news, telling you the time. I was strangely reassured by that.”
He takes comfort, too, in the fact that the future is not uniformly distributed. “If I want to walk out in the desert and heat up a can of beans on a fire, I still can. In those movies like Gattaca or whatever, the space age stuff is always all there is. But in the world there is never just one way of living. It’s more like a big junkyard. Put it this way: I’m not afraid I’m going to end up on a space station in aluminium-foil underwear.”
Music itself is the closest he gets to time travel. He gestures toward the jukebox: “The studio is torn down, all the people who played on it are dead, the instruments have been sold off. But you are listening to a moment that happened in time 60 years ago and you are hearing it just as sharp as when it was made. That remains an amazing thing to me.”
Photographs have the same ghostly quality for him. He pulls out a little camera to prove the point. “You used to be able to see the pictures of America’s 10 most wanted men in the post office, but they stopped that. I keep them on here, instead.” He flips the pictures of fugitive murderers and terrorists. “Just in case, you know.”
Does he wake up paranoid or grateful?
He gathers up his crow book, finishes his coffee, pockets his song ideas. “I don’t know. As Bob Dylan says, ‘Fear and Hope: always sounds like a comedy team to me …'”
(The Grauniad, 3 October 1958)
Within a few months, so we are promised by the big record companies, stereophonic discs will be available in this country. The question all record-collectors will want to ask is whether we are going to be faced with yet another gramophone upheaval on the scale of the L.P. revolution.
There are those who confidently believe that, ultimately, “stereo” will take first place as a gramophone medium, but because of the cost of equipment to reproduce stereophonic sound, and the greater expense of the records, that will take time. The head of one of the big companies whom I spoke to gave it as his opinion that stereophonic discs, though an important development, would not bring the fundamental changes that long-playing records have brought.
But I am looking forward eagerly to hearing the new records. Stereophony, in my experience, is important in quite a different way from that which one might expect. The first demonstrations of stereophonic tape (which E.M.I. put on the market several years ago) tended to concentrate on the effect of having the voices of singers apparently coming from different parts of the room and, in opera, apparently moving around. That is certainly an interesting parlour trick, but in practice, for serious listening, I have found such effects rather distracting. If you can hear the singers moving around, but cannot see them, it is rather like being at an opera-house with one’s head inside a paper bag.
The really beneficial effect of stereophony for the serious listener is that even with moderately priced equipment the sound is relatively fuller, and, most important of all, the ear tends far more easily to ignore any distortions in the reproduction.
I’ve always been partial to Yes from their most ambitious period. Tales from Topographic Oceans, Relayer, Drama, these represent to me the best rock has to offer.
Rock critics like to call this music pretentious, but “pretentious” only means something ambitious that failed. Something ambitious that succeeds is called “great”. Yes were great half the time and pretentious the other half. Their great stuff has a structural complexity that really hangs together in a symphonic sort of way. I’m specifically talking about the first two sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans. You have thematic contrast, development, synthesis, and a certain amount of fucking around too, but not too much. My young friend Melissa listened to this and said “Do these guys know about Mahler?”
The very end of The Gates of Delirium is one of the most imaginatively elaborated plagal cadences in all music. The chords spiral upwards around E flat, C minor, F minor, but if you listen to the persistent C in the bass you know it’s already arrived at where it’s going to end up.
Into the Lens is built around a trompe l’oeil rhythmic ostinato that somehow fits into the context of 4/4 as in 6/8.
Quite recently I heard Callas singing some Mozart and was shocked – I expected something dreadfully exaggerated but what I got was really lovely and very much ahead of its time – no fireworks, a very plain, modest way of singing, it really showed how thoughtful a singer she was and how much style she had.
Norma is a good example of what she did. She sang it more than she sang any other role. It is often referred to as a killer role; it is simply very hard on the voice. It is difficult to explain properly without you listening to her. Also, if you don’t know the music at all, then hearing her sing Norma you may well feel, well, so what!
With that piece she moved it from being usually done as almost an oratorio, severely classical in feel, to a red in tooth and claw drama. However, in doing this she really used the music rather than damaged it and her phrasing is extremely intelligent and above all musical. She had the skill of making you think it was all coming fresh out of her mouth, rather than learned by rote and coloured here and there.
She inhabited such roles rather than taking them on. Of course there were great singers before her and if you were to hear Claudia Muzio you would be surprised to hear so much of the Callas colouring … but pre-Callas. Her career was short and that was possibly in part because of the risks she took in pushing her voice, but then, if she had played safe, she would be forgotten now.
It has often been stated that Callas’s fame rested on her undoubted stage presence and dramatic gifts, and though this is no doubt partly true, it doesn’t explain her continuing popularity, or why her recordings should sell in such huge numbers. There have been plenty of other great singers/actors, whose recorded legacy is relatively slight. I can think of Teresa Stratas and Josephine Barstow, both of whom are tremendous on stage, but whose voices convey very little of that presence on record. This is where Callas is different. Her presence and personality fairly burst through the speakers. She creates drama for the mind’s theatre, as surely as if she were standing there before us. With Callas, I no longer listen to the singer, but to the story and character she is unfolding. An example of the differences would be to listen to her performance of, say, O patria mia, from Aïda, alongside Montserrat Caballé’s. Now this is an aria which never worked well for Callas. Caballé here is divine, the top C spun out in a pure pianissimo, which is literally breathtaking. I am astonished and captivated, but I am no longer listening to the opera, I am listening to Montserrat Caballé. In the Callas version, the note is somewhat earthbound and effortful to say the least, but it becomes as nothing, so wistfully has she longed for her homeland in the previous music. Indeed I can’t hear the words O cieli azzurri, without hearing Callas’s peculiarly yearning tone. Someone once said of Callas to John Steane, “Of course you had to see her”, to which he replied “Ah, but I can, and I do!”
In a Medea performance that didn’t go too well, there were murmurs and even catcalls. At one crucial plot line, where she is supposed to address Giasone, she turned to the audience and uttered Medea’s desperate plea “Ho datto tutto a te” (I gave you everything I have).
In a performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata, at the time where the Meneghinis were constantly clashing with La Scala’s superintendent Ghiringelli, Callas-Imogene ostentatiously pointed at the superintendent’s theatre box and sang “La! Vedete, il palco funesto” (“There – look: the dreadful scaffold”). In the opera, the word palco refers to the scaffold where her lover will be hanged. But this Italian word can also be used to designate a theatre box. Although Ghiringelli was not in his box that night, the anecdote was widely circulated across Italy. She made news as no other opera star has ever done before or since.
Another such incident that has passed into operatic folk lore now, is Callas’s first performance in Italy after the scandal of her walking out half way through a performance of Norma, before the President of Italy, due to illness. It was at a revival of Anna Bolena at La Scala. Such was the bad feeling that the Italian press had whipped up against her, that La Scala, fearing an incident, had positioned plain clothed police all over the theatre, and riot police surrounded the theatre outside. Visconti re-directed some of the scenes so as to give Callas a certain amount of protection on stage in case of flying missiles from the audience. Throughout the first act the audience had reacted to her with icy coldness, loudly applauding her colleagues. By the finale of the first act, Callas had had just about as much as she could stomach. This is the scene where Henry VIII finds her in compromising circumstances and tells the guards to take her to prison. Anna, utterly outraged, launches the exciting stretta to the finale with the words Giudice! Ad Anna! Giudice! (Judges! for Anna!). At this point, Callas pushed aside the guards, marched down to the footlights, and hurled the words into the audience, as much as to say “how dare you judge me”, singing the rest of the scene with a scorching brilliance, incredible even for her. The audience was completely won over and from then to the end of the opera, she had them in the palm of her hands. Word of her success apparently reached the crowds of people waiting outside the theatre, and when she appeared at the stage door after the performance, the police found themselves having to restrain not an angry mob, but hordes of fans trying to besiege her with floral tributes. Unfortunately when she returned home that night, exhausted from her triumph, it was to find the gates of the Meneghini villa daubed with dog shit and the walls covered in insulting graffiti. And we wonder why her career was so short!
As an adjunct, it should be noted that Callas actually sued the Rome Opera for not having an understudy available on the night of that walk out, and for not fulfilling their subsequent contractual obligations. The case dragged on for years, and eventually was settled totally in her favour. But it was too late. By then she was no longer singing, though the damage done to her personally and her career was immense and irrevocable.
I suppose the reason for the multifarious theories as to why her voice declined so rapidly, is testament to the fact that nobody really knows and nobody ever will. Both Renée Fleming and Deborah Voight (sopranos themselves) touch on similar theories, which is interesting. Personally, I have always felt that it was not the actual weight loss, but the diet that might have been the problem. Singers need an enormous amount of stamina to support their voices throughout an opera, and you only get stamina with proper nutrition, that is eating the right foods to give you energy, without piling on the pounds. In those days less was known about nutrition and it is quite possible that Callas’s diet deprived her of some of the necessary nutrients. That, and the punishing schedule she found herself following. A typical example is the summer of 1957. On 4 July, she embarked on two performances of La Sonnambula, in which she is in admirably secure voice, as can be heard on the recording preserved from the performances, and now available on EMI. Five days later she is in Milan to record Turandot, a role that was no longer in her repertoire and which she really ought not to have been singing. That she acquits herself as well as she does, is cause for surprise, though she does show elements of strain. However three days after the Turandot sessions are over, she is back to record Manon Lescaut, and it is here that the effects of the previous days can be heard. She sounds utterly exhausted. Indeed some of the climactic high notes are as bad as they were to become in the mid-1960s, and this is probably why its release was delayed until 1959.
The first thing of any substance I ever heard by Berio was his Concerto for 2 Pianos, on an RCA record that has never been released on CD. It remains a favourite, regardless. Sinfonia is very fine, likewise Coro. I haven’t heard enough of the Chemins or Sequenza series to make an overall call, but what I have heard was of high quality. A piece called Points on the Curve to Find, a sort of mini piano concerto, seems to bring a Reichian element into Berio’s style, and it works, too.
I’m not sure I’d call myself a fan. Some works I really love; others leave me cold. I’ve been listening to Berio for about 30 years. I don’t know which grabbed me first, the Folk Songs or the Sinfonia. I do know the LP pictured was one of my first Berio purchases, circa 1978. It’s a two LP box. I may not be a confirmed Berio fan but I’m definitely a confirmed Berberian fan. Being a Mahlerite my favourite Berio work is, of course, Sinfonia. I own Boulez and Chailly’s recordings.
A bit of Grateful Dead trivia. Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s amazing bass player, was a student of Berio’s at Mills College in the mid-60s. Berio was so impressed with Lesh’s skill as a composer, he invited him to be his apprentice in Italy. Lesh met Jerry Garcia shortly thereafter and he chose a different musical course … to the profound gratitude of Grateful Dead fans all over the world.
We’ll never know what the classical world lost but perhaps we hear a taste of what might have been during the Lesh-inspired second set Space segments during those interminable Grateful Dead shows.
Opera Chic (“I’m a young American woman living in Milan, and you’re not. I go to La Scala a lot, and you don’t.”) inspired this post by reminding me that Seiji Ozawa is back following treatment for throat cancer.
Béla Bartók’s music is beautiful. That’s the thing here. Now, I’m not much of a fan of Seiji Ozawa’s recordings. While I find his recordings generally well executed, I also find them, or at least a good portion of them, a bit on the dull side. Against this I needed to balance the fact that I haven’t bought a new version of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra for probably eight months or more. Clearly I was remiss in my duties. Sure, I could have opted for Christoph Eschenbach’s fairly recent recording, but Ozawa’s was available for a silly low price, so it got the nod. And so I undertook to listen to that most satisfying pairing of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta along with the wartime warhorse played by the still relatively new Saito Kinen Orchestra. In concert, no less.
The disc opens with the M.S.P.C. It’s a bit hard to determine what’s coming in the opening passages of the Andante tranquillo. It opens with hushed pianissimo playing, with nicely delicate string playing. But it seems a little too rounded, a little too warm. As things gradually build up, and then build up some more, things stay on the soft side. Still the tension and volume continue to build noticeably until at 4’16” a big ol’ thwack of the bass drum and full cry of the orchestra announces the arrival of the meaty (or at least meatier) part of the movement.
The orchestra plays extremely well. The only thing that really seems to be missing is bite. Sure, the strings sound nicely dissonant, but surely they should sound more astringent than they do here. Anyway, after the big outburst, Ozawa and company quiet things down again and create a nicely sinister air.
One thing that simply cannot go unnoticed is the amazing sound quality. Detail abounds throughout the orchestra, with the best sounding celesta I recall hearing and a pinpoint xylophone ringing out stage right among the highlights. Yet even with all that glorious detail the recording retains a pleasing warmth. It rather reminds me of Daniel Barenboim’s Mahler 7 recording; that is, it’s essentially a perfect sound.
So, on to the second movement. The sound captures the wonderfully played strings in all their not-too-dissonant glory, and then Ozawa changes the playing style to sound almost jocular. A minor blemish comes with the piano-percussion doubling, which lacks that last degree of snap, though the playing is solid. The Adagio opens tautly and quietly, with that razor-sharp xylophone reappearing, and the strings do their thing. Greater tension is achieved and maintained than earlier on, and the playing is deliciously colourful, and that ravishing celesta comes back to tickle one’s ears.
To close the work, all concerned play with greater tension and energy, yet maintain the glorious, rich, warm sound that has defined the recording up to this point. The strings start to sound just biting enough, and the percussion adds enough zing. What to make of it all? Well, sadly it lacks that certain something, that certain Hungarian-ness that some other notable Bartók conductors bring, and it sounds just a bit too polite at times. But it also sounds amazingly beautiful and lived-in. I’m guessing Ozawa knows and loves the piece, because so much attention has clearly been lavished on it. This will not be to everyone’s taste, but so what?
The mighty Concerto for Orchestra isn’t quite as good, though it ain’t too shabby. To start with, the sound isn’t as good. Oh, sure, it’s very high quality, and it shares the same warm overall sound of the M.S.P.C., but it’s not as detailed and precise, with the orchestra sounding like a giant blob of beautiful sound at times, not that I’m complaining. That quibble aside, there are other quibbles, but they’re mixed in with decidedly un-quibble-inducing playing. The first movement opens with nice and beefy if not super-detailed low string playing and shimmering violins. The overall effect is not exactly dark or eerie or foreboding, but it does possess a hint of theatricality. When the movement transitions to the Allegro vivace section, all the strings swell in a grand manner. Too old-world grand for this piece? Dunno. Don’t care. As for the tasty winds, well, they’re, um, delectable, but they aren’t quite pungent enough. As things progress, the strings take on a nicely sharper sound which builds up to a loud, but not edgy enough fanfare before winding up the first movement strongly.
The second movement finds the paired instruments doing well enough, though I could have done with more ‘cackle’ from the oboes, and the stage right strings really catching one’s attention when the clarinets and then the trumpets play. Some minor imperfections in the playing are so minor as to make the playing seem better. The great Elegia is appropriately sombre in mood and ethereal in sound, with fine, clear winds led by more robust oboe playing. The piccolo playing rises above the din nicely enough, even if some other recordings boast sharper, more articulate playing than here (Ivan Fischer’s, say).
“Bartók is beautiful”. Nowhere is that message more emphatically reinforced than in the interrupted intermezzo. The main theme is played more beautifully than in any other version I can recall, with the strings so sumptuous sounding that one wants the theme repeated before going on. Is it too romanticized? Perhaps. So what? As for the crude interruptions from Shostakovich 7, I must say that I found them a bit too polite. So’s the response. The carnival music afterwards is nicely done and fills the stage, but it’s not quite sharp enough – but, did I mention that the main theme is beautifully played? It is at the end, too. The finale opens with a slightly too slow and thick fanfare, but then it’s off to the races, with the entire band playing extremely well and with plenty of drive. While the sound is not as spectacular as in the opening work, it is here where one really begins to appreciate the wonders of contemporary digital recording: the sound is rich, loud, clear, and massive, without any hint of compression or hardness, at least at the volume at which I listened – just shy of concert level. All told, this is a good version, certainly better than I anticipated, though it’s not one of the greats in my estimation.
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.