Tuesday, June 28, 2016
One of my earliest teaching positions was at Repton School in the UK. I recently donated a letter to the school’s archives that I found silted up in my ancient piles of correspondence. It’s one I received from the tenor Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten’s companion, whilst I was a young master at the school; in it he mentions that his great uncle, Steuart Adolphus Pears, had been Head Master of Repton from 1854 to 1874, a distinguished connection that had somehow grown hazy in the mists of time. The reason for the visits in 1955 and 1960 by Britten and Pears to perform in the Repton School Subscription Concerts, sparsely documented in the annals, becomes clearer. Some of you may recognise the name Repton from the tune which is sung to the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. An erstwhile Director of Music at Repton had figured that a particular tune from Parry’s oratorio Judith was a bit of a cracker, and so in it went to the school’s hymn book supplement in 1924, subsequently baptised ‘Repton’. But what has this got to do with the subject of this week’s blog—nightingales? Not a lot, except that I was intrigued to discover another musical connection with Repton shortly after taking up my post there. One of my favourite songs had always been A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (8.120663 ), and I learned that the lyrics were written by Eric Maschwitz, a Repton Old Boy. So, this week, I’d like to develop that seed and present a number of works that have an association with the nightingale, beginning with that perennial favourite of mine by Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin. The next two pieces (and there are many more) were inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Nightingale, in which an emperor takes more pleasure from the sounds of a mechanical bird than the song of a real nightingale. Favole (8.555267 ) by Elisabetta Brusa is a suite the composer dedicated to her godson on the occasion of his birth. The second movement, The Real Nightingale and the Mechanical One, is described by Brusa as follows: “[Note] the difference between the lyrical melody of the real nightingale (flute) and the more rhythmical and less emotional melody…of the mechanical bird played by the piccolo and the glockenspiel; all of a sudden the mechanical nightingale breaks down, onomatopoeically expressed by the glissandi of the strings and by the sound of the rattle at the end of the last carillon-like section, so the real nightingale is able to triumph with its lyrical singing.” Here it is . Stravinsky’s The Nightingale (8.557501 ) was first performed in Paris in 1914; it’s a one-act opera in three scenes. Here’s how Robert Craft, the distinguished authority on Stravinsky, described the work’s orchestration: “Stravinsky’s orchestral palette…is never more exotically colourful than in The Nightingale, which is a virtual catalogue of avian imitations: tremolos, trills, appogiaturas, grupetti string harmonics, pizzicato glissandos, flautando and ponticello effects, harp and piano arpeggios, harp harmonics and the retuning of cello strings to produce harmonics on unusual pitches.” You can have fun hunting these down for yourself. Meanwhile, here’s an extract from Scene 2 (The Porcelain Palace of the Chinese Emperor): Song of the Nightingale . The Spanish composer Enrique Granados wrote two books of Goyescas, piano pieces that were inspired by his compatriot Francisco Goya and his ability to depict what Granados saw as the essence of the Spanish character. One of the Goyescas is titled The Maiden and the Nightingale (8.554403 ). The piece is basically a set of variations, but it ends with a cadenza that imitates the song of a nightingale . Edvard Grieg wrote more than 180 songs, but his relationship with singers was frequently one of dissatisfaction with their interpretation of his works. He wrote in his diary of 1906: What are singers? Nothing but vanity, stupidity, ignorance and dilettantism. I hate them, every one of them. ‘Also your wife?’, one will ask, but I answer: ‘I am sorry, but she is lucky enough not to be a singer.’ Hopefully, Grieg would have reconsidered his opinion after hearing this performance of part of his song, The Nightingale’s Secret (8.553781 ), which tells of a nightingale’s discretion in witnessing the amorous encounter of two lovers. Finally, a charming snatch that’s worth 60 seconds of anyone’s time: The Nightingale from Boris Tchaikovsky’s Swineherd Suite (8.572400 ), again based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells of the efforts of a lovesick Prince to gain the attentions of a Princess, which include the offering of two special gifts: one is an uncommonly beautiful rose; the other a silver-throated nightingale whose beguiling song is captured on the piccolo against a backdrop of harp and strings Oh, and very finally, having worked there for a while not too long ago, I can report that, sadly, nightingales are nowadays seldom heard singing in London’s Berkeley Square.
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Suzuki (BIS)Masaaki Suzuki remains most strongly associated with his own Bach Collegium Japan, but he has a parallel conducting career away from the ensemble and the composer. This all-Stravinsky disc finds him teamed with Finland’s Tapiola Sinfonietta. There’s a baroque sensibility to their performance of the suite from Pulcinella, the ballet Stravinsky crafted early 18th-century scores – Suzuki makes each note count as the individual lines combine and compete, perhaps at the expense of the music’s natural, classical lyricism. And so, while it’s crisp and pleasingly emphatic, there’s a sense that the performance is keeping a lid on the music’s exuberance. Similarly, both Apollon Musagète and the Concerto in D can sound airier and more fluid than this, but in these strings-only mini-masterpieces the Sinfonietta sounds earthy and fiery, and two out of four elements is definitely something to be going on with. Continue reading...
Aldeburgh and Oliver Knussen, so closely connected that it's always an occasion when Ollie conducts the BBC SO at Snape. Ostensibly, the theme of this programme commemorated the First World War, but frankly it didn't need an artificial angle. In true Britten, Aldeburgh and Knussen tradition, this concert was forward looking and adventurous, working very well on its own musical terms. Britten and Aldeburgh have always been outside the mainstream of British tradition, so Elgar isn't heard much here, and the oratorios and major works don't suit the Maltings. Bach, however, is an Aldeburgh staple, since Britten passionately believed in links between the baroque and the modern. So for a change, Elgar's transcriptions of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C minor. Bach often gets tellingly transcribed in every era, so transcriptions offer a glimpse into the transcriber's style. Elgar's Bach is stately, an ocean liner rather than a doughty skiff. Not top-notch Elgar but pleasant enough. It served, however, to magnify the originality of George Butterworth to whom Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his Second Symphony, an acknowledgement that, without Butterworth's vision, RVW might not have achieved so much so soon. Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad is based on the same Housman sources that inspired both Butterworth and RVW's wonderful song cycles. RVW orchestrated his songs, but Butterworth created something entirely new for his orchestral Shropshire Lad. You can recognize echoes of the songs, but the whole is a quasi-symphonic work in its own terms, sophisticated ideas expressed with clarity and originality. Because Knussen doesn't do mainstream "English" music, he approached Butterworth without baggage. This Shropshire Lad sounded remarkably fresh. Definitely not "cowpat school", but a contender for inclusion in the new age of music that was fast developing all over Europe at the time the piece was written. What might British music have been had Butterworth survived the war? With this imaginative Butterwoth still resonating in the mind, Gary Carpenter's Willie Stock didn't have much chance. Even on relistening to the broadcast, it's a work that is wonderful in concept, though less so in execution. Willie Stock was an ordinary soldier, killed in the trenches, so Carpenter adapts popular song of the time, deconstructing and fragmenting the tunes, just as the men in the trenches were blown to bits. It's thoughtful, and one feels close to poor Willie Stock but it might be best heard as part of a documentary, rather than a concert piece. Elliott Carter's Sound Fields replaced at short notice a Carter work for baritone and orchestra. Sound Fields was born when Knussen and Carter were having lunch together at Tanglewood in 2007. Since Carter wrote so well for string quartet, it’s surprising that this is his first work for string orchestra. Yet, despite the larger numbers involved, it’s diaphanous, a gently wavering sequence of chords. A single chord is played by twelve sub-groups in the orchestra, achieving startling density by simple, elegant means. Sound Fields is slow and smooth, the chords gradually enfolding out of each other. It starts with slow timbred cello, evolving towards a simpler, barely audible final chord, also cello, that seems to evaporate into nothingness. All in barely four minutes. Charlotte Bray is an Aldeburgh regular, and good, so her Stone Dancer was eagerly anticipated. It was inspired by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's Red Stone Dancer (1913-14) when western art was learning from non-western "primitive" art. Picasso, Braque, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and more. Thus the figure of a dancer, whose métier is fluid movement, depicted as solid, inanimate object. What comes over, though, is physical presence and strength. Thus Charlotte Bray's Stone Dancer moves in a series of smaller movements, each held long enough that we feel the force behind the ideas before moving on. This reminded me a lot of Rebecca Saunders's monumental sculptures in sound, which come vividly to life in performance. British music is most certainly alive and well, without a whisper of twee. And so to Alban Berg's Three Piece for Orchestra Op 6 from the same period as Gaudier-Brzeska's sculpture. Again, the idea of dance and physical forces expressed through music. In the first "piece", the Praeludium, the orchestra growls, as if invoking primitive powers. The central piece is even called Reigen referring to dance. Ländler and waltzes appear fleetingly, caught up in the swirl of the larger flow, as if the orchestra was like time itself, pulling things along in its wake. Thus the wild finale, where dance figures coarsen into march: the idea of movement made brutal Knussen and the BBCSO defined the sparkling touches in the piece so well that the contrasts with low winds, wailing brass and timpani felt savagely disconcerting.
We are in the middle of such turbulent times. And for me, music is the great healer. Yes, there is a role for Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert. And there are also times when the music of Erik Satie is able to work its wonders. Here is an example: Satie: Piano Music (complete) Performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) The 17th of May 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Erik Satie’s birth, undoubtedly one of the most eccentric and colorful figures in the early 20th century music. Erik Satie’s influence is felt in Debussy’s Impressionism, Stravinsky’s Modernism and the Minimalism of Philip Glass that followed. This 6CD set presents Satie’s Complete Piano music. The solo works are performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet with a CD of four-handed piano music performed by Pascal Rogé and Jean-Philippe Collard.
“The dragon of this production has a wingspan of 33 feet, and weighs in at 440 pounds. … The beast has three manipulators – one inside the body, one in the head, and it’s walking and flicking its ears and opening its mouth and has teeth. … Dubbed Firebird: Reimagined, the piece receives its live-orchestra world premiere at the Mann [Center in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park] on July 20, … [and] it will move on to Wolf Trap, Ravinia, the Hollywood Bowl, and other summer venues.”
From the International Trumpet Guild: Robert E. Nagel Jr., trumpeter, composer, arranger, founder of the New York Brass Quintet, and founding member of the International Trumpet Guild, passed away June 5th at the age of 91. He had an illustrious career as a trumpet player, teacher, composer, conductor, arranger, and was a pioneer of brass chamber music. Nagel was born in Freeland, Pennsylvania, on September 29, 1924. He began studying the trumpet at the age of 8. As a child prodigy, he was featured on national radio playing a cornet solo with the Armco band conducted by Frank Simon at the age of 13. While in high school he also studied piano and composition. He attended the Juilliard School of Music for one year before entering the army, where he played in the West Point band for 3 years. After returning to Juilliard, he studied composition with Peter Mennin and Vincent Persichetti. For several summers he was a student at Tanglewood where he studied trumpet with George Mager of the Boston Symphony and composition with Aaron Copland. Upon completing his studies at Juilliard he was appointed first trumpet of the Little Orchestra Society in NYC. This appointment launched a freelance career that lasted over twenty years. During this time he played with conductors Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, and Igor Stravinsky. He recorded extensively with CBS, RCA Victor, NBC, and MGM. Among these are many iconic recordings, including the 1961 recording of L’Histoire Du Soldat, conducted by Igor Stravinsky, and the Brandenburg no. 2, by J. S. Bach, conducted by Pablo Casals. He performed with the Bach aria group, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico, Yale at Norfolk, and the Aspen Music Festival. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to music was in the area of brass chamber music. He was the founder and director of the New York Brass Quintet. For over thirty years, the NYBQ performed across the US and Europe. He commissioned numerous works for the brass quintet and was a founder of the International Trumpet Guild and recipient of the prestigious ITG Honorary Award. As a composer he has written for orchestra, chamber music, trumpet method books, and arranged solo and ensemble music. To promote brass chamber music he launched his own publishing company, Mentor Music, in 1959. He served as a faculty member of the Yale School of Music, the New England Conservatory, Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, the Hartt School of Music, North Carolina School of the Arts, and Rutgers University. Survivors include his brother Donald Nagel, children Deborah Bolser, Roberta Nagel, Edward Nagel, Heather Nagel, and eight grandchildren. Funeral services will take place in Forest Hills, Maryland. In lieu of flowers donations can be made to the Gideons.
Igor Stravinsky (17 June 1882 - 6 April 1971) was a Russian-born, naturalized French, later naturalized American composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most important and influential composers of 20th century music. He was a quintessentially cosmopolitan Russian who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the century. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1934 and a naturalized US citizen in 1945. In addition to the recognition he received for his compositions, he also achieved fame as a pianist and a conductor, often at the premieres of his works. Stravinsky's compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/1947), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The Rite, whose premiere provoked a riot, transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure, and was largely responsible for Stravinsky's enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary, pushing the boundaries of musical design. In the 1950s he adopted serial procedures, using the new techniques over his last twenty years. Stravinsky's compositions of this period share traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells, and clarity of form, of instrumentation, and of utterance.
Great composers of classical music