Category Archives: Music

Paul Hindemith

Hindemith has a certain reputation as being academic and dry as a composer. Certainly he was a craftsman who used form following Bach to construct his huge output of compositions. To ignore him however you will miss a great deal of pleasure from works which include rhythmic bite and express a real depth of feeling. In his early years during the nineteen twenties he was regarded as avant-garde producing works, like Sancta Susanna, which caused consternation (it still does) and some near riotous music, as in the first Kammermusik.
You hang around waiting for ages the suddenly, like buses, two turn up at once. Two DVDs of Hindemith’s opera about the obsessive goldsmith Cardillac have just appeared. A series of murders mystify the townspeople. Eventually a pattern emerges pointing to Cardillac himself.
I had the opportunity of hearing Paul Hindemith conduct on two occasions, each concert containing his own music together with that of Anton Bruckner. To me Hindemith’s use of brass particularly echoes Bruckner. The finale of the Mathis der Maler Symphony is a case in point.
In one concert with the London Symphony Orchestra Hindemith included his Concer Music for Brass and Strings and the orchestral version of “Das Marienleben” sung on this occasion by Theresa Stich-Randall whose death has recently been announced. Bruckner’s Third Symphony completed the programme.
Das Marienleben began as a cycle of seetings of poems by Rilke for voice and piano. Hindemith selected some for orchestration. They are moving. A recording by Karita Mattila I find very satisfying.
On the other occasion Hindemith combined a performance of his American Requiem “When Lilacs Lat in the Dooryard Bloom’d” with a Bruckner Mass. The Requiem seems to have become highly prized by Americans with their stirring settings of the words of Walt Whitman. It is also closely associated with Robert Shaw who commissioned the work and made a fine recording for Telarc with his own Chorale.
At Covent Garden I saw a performance of the opera Mathis der Maler conducted bt Esa Pekka Salonen. I find the story of the man, again an artist, moving and enlightening. It introduced me to the paintings of Grunewald, including St Maurice. Hindemith was inspired by the Isenheim altarpiece giving titles to the three movements of the Mathis Symphony. In this production Peter Sellars brings in peasants with Kalashnikovs and Molotov Cocktails! Unfortunately I had to leave before the end to catch the last train back to Birmingham.

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Mahler performances recorded and live

As I write the Sixth Symphony plays under Michael Gielen and the SWR Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden. Quite an arresting performance with clear and detailed sound. I started a period of listening again to performances of his works after my wife gave me a copy of Mahler’s letters to his wife Alma.
I think my first Mahler disc, on vinyl, was Solti’s account of the Fourth Symphony with the Concertgebouw, an orchestra closely associate with the composer in his lifetime when Mengelberg encouraged him at a time when he was struggling to be understood. I still like this account which seems a straightforward approach with a fine soloist in Sylvia Stahlmann in the fourth movement. However I have just listened to Mengelberg’s account which seemed to me extremely revealing. His close association with Mahler must surely have provided an insight: for example the use of rubato, apparent on the piano roll that Mahler played himself, is likely to be idiomatic. Rattle’s account with the CBSO is also of interest when he takes the opening with a change in tempi, reversing the usual way it starts quickly the slowing. This is claimed to be in accordance with Mahler’s wishes.
I added Solti’s performance of the First Symphony to my collection, which again I still enjoy for its dynamism, although Abbado’s account with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is even more so. I have this in a tape cassette collection along with Tennstedt’s performance of the Fourth which I very much enjoy. Lucia Popp like Stahlmann has the right innocence in her voice for the finale,
I was present at the live recorded performance of the First Symphony which Rattle gave with the CBSO in Symphony Hall. He also included the Mahler song cycles alongside the Nielsen Symphonies. Somehow this didn’t work for me. I love the objectivity of Nielsen and somehow I couldn’t enjoy the Mahler songs which are such an important influence on the earlier symphonies. I treasure recordings of the Songs of a Wayfarer and Kindertotenlieder by Fischer-Dieskau under Furtwangler and Kempe.
Mehta was the conductor of the recording of the Resurrection Symphony on vinyl, with Klemperer and the Philharmonia on tape. I heard Klemperer live at the Royal Festival Hall in this work, and presumably his associations with Mahler give this a special place. I like this sober, but powerful approach.
My recording of the Third Symphony was again with Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Bernard Haitink. Again I have acquired this on CD coupled with an early work. When the DVD appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic, again with Haitink, I couldn’t resist it. I see he is performing it in Chicago as newly appointed Music Director there. I have not heard this is the concert hall as far as I remember – ah yes I did attend a performance at the Promenade Concerts at the Royal albert Hall in London in 1962 when Norman Del Mar conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with Helen Watts as soloist. also at the Proms in 1963 Colin Davis directed the First Symphony also with the LSO. At this same concert Luigi Nono conducted his Cantata “Sul ponte di Hiroshima.” In August 1964 there were two noteworthy Mahler performances I heard at the Proms. On 13th was the first performance of Deryck Cook’s performing version of 10th subsequently made famous by Rattle This was conducted by his friend composer Berthold Goldschmidt with the LSO. On 24th Charles Groves led the combined Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and BBC Northern Orchestras, soloists and choirs in the mighty Eighth Symphony. It was Groves with the RLPO who, we wre told, introduced Mahler to Rattle. On vinyl I chose Kubelik (along with the 7th) while on CD I have Mitropoulos’s account in addition to Rattle with the CBSO.
Barbirolli’s Fifth (with the New Philharmonia) was added to the LP collection. Although he takes broad tempi this is a gripping account. Fond as I am of Barbirolli in Elgar and Vaughan Williams, I’m not always so persuaded in some other repertoire (I can’t take to his 4th with the BBCSO and the sleigh bells seem to have been replaced by someone hitting a tin can!), although I went to some of his concerts and remember an outstanding Sibelius Second and Nielsen Fourth with the Halle. I have both the Fifth and Ninth (with the Berlin Philharmonic) on CD. This year I heard the Welsh National Orchestra give a remarkable account of the Fifth in Hereford Cathedral at the Three Choirs Festival. It was under Owain Arwel Hughes. Fantastic playing from these young players.
I have returned to Jascha Horenstein with the Stockholm Philharmonic in the Sixth. Again I attended Horenstein concerts in Birmingham and Cheltenham with Bruckner and Brahms in the repertoire, but I regret not Mahler. I found a wonderful account of Das Lied von der Erde with the then BBC Northern Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic with the late Alfreda Hodgson as an affecting soloist.
I reported elsewhere of the performance of the Ninth Symphony Barenboim gave with the Chicago S.O. (He conducted the East-West Divan Orchestra in the First.) On disc I had one of the Karajan performances with the Berlin Philharmonic, the other on CD. Barbirolli, Rattle (with the Vienna Philharmonic) and Bruno Walter on CD are on my shelves.

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CBSO Thomas Dausgaard

I had thought this CBSO concert was due sometime next year but noticed it advertised in the Radio Times. I had seen a relay of Thomas Dausgaard conducting the Nielsen Violin Concerto from the BBC Proms and thought it a remarkable performance although I forget who the soloist was (Nicolaj Znaider?) I decided to take myself to Symphony Hall. This was broadcast on Radio 3 and the concert can be heard on line for a limited period.
Dausgaard’s conducting style appeared strange and at first disconcerting. He dispenses with a baton and uses both hands to effect in bringing in players. In the Brahms/Haydn Variations that opened the concert he didn’t continually beat time, but just indicated entries and dynamics- a bit like lighting the touch paper on a firework and standing back. I thought this was most effective in the Sibelius Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham. I often felt this work somewhat jaded, preferring the Nielsen Concerto, but not this performance. Hearing the opening live was quite magical with virtuosic soloist against shimmering hushed strings. He is a formidable player, but it is interestin tosee he is still portrayed as if a newly discovered artist when he has been around since the early nineteen nineties!

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Steel Pulse

Steel Pulse‘s first album was Handsworth Revolution in 1978. It spoke eloquently about Black experience in Britain and Birmingham epitomised by Handsworth. This is another example of the artistic incubator which celebrates the vibrant diversity of the area. Handsworth Revolution also gives testament to the inequalities faced by their communities. Inequalities echoed in the death of Mikey Powell now two years on and still without explanation of how or why he died. There will be a memorial event in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham on 2nd October.
A film has been released about people who have died in police custody. The Mikey Powell Campaign stands in full support of others who have suffered grievous and painful losses in this way.
Steel Pulse is still on the scene as is shown in a recent interview. While injustices continue in our midst a sustained campaign is regrettably still necessary.

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The West Eastern Divan Orchestra in Ramallah

The orchestra dreamed up by Palestinian academic and author, the late Edward Said and continued by their music director Daniel Barenboim reached a high point in its concert in Ramallah. The concert was packed out. For it to happen
at all much behind the scenes negotiating at government level was necessary. The orchestra is based in Seville and documents were needed to get beyond the checkpoints into Ramallah. Then playing surrounded by heavily armed soldiers is not an every day occurence even for those of Middle Eastern origin. More.
What sort of impression is this imaginative project making? Clearly there are mixed feelings. When awarded a prize for music in Israel Barenboim used the occasion, in the Knesset, to speak out about the petty humiliations that Israel constantly deals out to Palestinians. Certainly Barenboim has succeeded in upsetting some Jewish opinion, but some of the musicians made their own comments after the Ramallah concert.

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Carl Nielsen

Having watched and listened to Nielsen’s Fourth from the BBC Proms, greatly enjoying Osmo Vanska’s performance with the BBC SO. It was the third movement’s intensity which most impressed with its calm and breathtakingly quiet episodes and exquisite interplay of woodwind as a prelude to the eruption of the finale. I was surprised to hear the announcement that it was first performed at a Promenade Concert in 1965, the centenary of the birth of both Nielsen and Sibelius. John Barbirolli was the conductor of the Halle Orchestra in a concert which included Haydn’s Symphony no 83 “La Poule” if my memory serves me correctly, and Beethoven’s Eroica. I was present at this concert and still have memories of this fine orchestra and conductor.
The music of Nielsen appealed to me because of its objectivity. After the slowing down of music over long time spans in the nineteenth century, Nielsen becomes a breath of fresh air, rediscovering the movement which was second nature to classical composers like Haydn. The Fourth Symphony was completed in 1916. Robert Simpson in his book on Carl Nielsen 1952) speaks in terms of exploding nebulae which is how the work begins. It is clearly influenced by a world at war, but it is life affirming as its title “Inextinguishable” denotes. Nielsen was very much unknown in the UK until around 1950 when Tuxen brought the Fifth Symphony to the Edinburgh Festival and gramophone recordings became available. The Fourth is the first of Neilsen’s 6 symphonies to deal with conflict. The first three are out going and don’t appear to be much troubled, apart from the boy lazing on the pier in the Four Temperaments (no 2) when something drops into the water to disturb his peace.

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War Requiem

I was listening to Kurt Masur in conversation with Andrew MacGregor this morning (16/07/2005) He is a fascinating figure given his experiences in the life and times he grew up. We learned that he fought in the German army and was one of few survivors from one battle in which he fought. In East Germany he worked in a devastated Dresden before taking up his post of DIrector of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in neighbouring Leipzig. Masur has long since been a champion of Mendelssohn in this context, reminding us that this Jewish composer was banned in Nazi Germany. The War Requiem also strikes a chord in him in its quest for peace. It’s first performance in Coventry in 1962 links it to Dresden in their shared experience of devastating aerial attacks.
I listened to the Coventry performance on the radio, but managed to get a ticket for it’s second, the London premier, in Westminster Abbey. I remember queuing outside on a foggy December evening. Britten himself was present and his slight figure accompanied the Queen Mother in procession following this moving occasion. Even then I was feeling that the Royal occasion, connected as it is with the military, was at odds with the pacific nature of this work which Masur placed along side the Missa Solemnis and St Matthew Passion.

Mozart Bi-centenary 1956

The final concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s European tour was on 6th February, 1956, celebrating two hundred years since Mozart’s birth*. This was the first time I had been to the Royal Festival Hall for a concert – although I remember the 1951 Festival of Britain when the concert hall was just one of a variety of spectacular structures on the South Bank.
In the concert there were two symphonies: no 35 the “Haffner” and no 41 “Jupiter”. Joining the orchestra for the A major piano concerto, no 23, was Clara Haskil, Rumanian born, and now stooping and looking frail. As various newspaper reviews make clear the performance belied appearances.
Clara Haskil was thought to be outstanding as a performer of Mozart and her recordings are still sought after. She became a close friend of another legendary Romanian musician, Dinu Lipatti. Haskil had become widely known quite late in her career, although many wonder why since she had started performing at an early age. As a young woman it is said that her performances had the same characteristics. After her death following a fall an annual piano competition was started at Vevey in Switzerland which had become her adopted home.
The 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth is fast approaching and we’re in a different world. Many Mozart performances in the mid twentieth century had become slow and over-refined. The rise of the period instrument movement, while initially unconvincing, led to a re-evaluation of performing which was a revelation and refreshment. It is interesting to read in Norman Lebrecht’s book “The Maestro Myth” how some of the leading conductors, notably Karajan, had held back the tide of people like Harnoncourt in a highly politicised commercial world of music.

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Barenboim: the Concert

April 6th. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra are performing Mahler’s 9th Symphony under their Music Director, Daniel Barenboim. A reception has been arranged after the performance.
I have not seen Barenboim conduct before, nor heard a performance of Mahler’s Ninth, live that is. I certainly had not appreciated the use of the orchestra where you can hear so many unusual combinations of instruments and strange effects. It’s clearly familiar territory as Mahler with Viennese waltzes or military bands breaking through. Full orchestra is pretty impenetrable, well it is for me. All it does is make the constant noise in my left ear louder. The closing pages had to be heard to be believed in the sustained hushed string playing. The movement of people around me was noisy in contrast. The huge audience were clearly caught up in this and there was not a single interruption.

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