Monday, 18 September 2017

O brave new world, that has such freebies in 't!

Last night I popped on the London Symphony Orchestra's live stream of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, broadcast in full and for free on YouTube. Most of my Twitter timeline seemed to be there, at the Barbican in London, and I was able to join them, for free. Live. Did I mention it was free? And live? Well it was.

The LSO's big catch, Sir Simon Rattle, brings with him an expectation of innovation and outreach, and free broadcast on YouTube would seem one way to chip away at that thick wall of assumption about classical music's supposed remoteness and elitism. They're not the first to try this sort of thing - live online broadcasts (though very not free) have been pioneered by Rattle's previous band, die Berliner Philharmoniker; Bachtrack, too, have of late been hosting free streams (including a rather exciting one from Gothenburg this Wednesday with some rareish Shostakovich (yes please) and an actual symphony by a non-dead composer). The buzz of Rattle's opening concerts, though, seems like a sensible time to the LSO to really go for broke and reach a bigger online audience than ever before. They're doing all three Stravinsky/Diaghilev ballets next Sunday which should, in theory, be the night-in of choice for every A level music student ever.

Build it - with the world's most sought-after maestro and essentially a free ticket to events sold out months and months and months ago - and they'll come, right? Not, perhaps, on yesterday's evidence. The LSO put on a good show - high-quality sound and image, a variety of fixed camera angles (pleasingly straight forward in comparison to the swoopy BBC Proms TV coverage), pleasant and informal interval fluff, and a live chat feed if you like that sort of thing - but YouTube's own viewer counter never rose above 300, and hovered below 100 for some of the second half. Maybe their numbers weren't accurate, and maybe there were other ways of watching this that will have boosted the figures, but the data I could see suggested that we're some way away from teenage bedrooms around the planet and smart TVs in far-flung living rooms reverberating en mass to the sound of live-streamed orchestral splendour.

It's also not clear where the LSO wants this to go, and if the free model is the aim or the way into a Berliner-style monetised package. It could be a "pay us a few quid and watch on YouTube" deal with the occasional freebie intended to hook in some newbies. If it really was only 300 people watching one of the world's greatest orchestras and one of classical music's most recognisable figures, it suggests that there's a long, long way to go. And in a world of freebies, in which it's entirely possible to consume almost any entertainment for free if you know how, what is there to suggest that the LSO playing live and effectively gratis is any more worth your time than any of the other stuff that'll cost you nothing? Of course, it's really super-exciting-premium-freeness to me, and probably to you, but classical music's greatest problem isn't the price. Rather, it's the mental block that exists in the minds of the many, many people who believe it isn't for them. And we can't discount the failure of the great institutions of the art form to make the case for their own specialness.

So well done LSO, who are really trying things where others stick to the programme regardless of effect. I will pester people I know to watch it all online. But this is likely to be only one little piece in a much bigger picture. If the world does come to appreciate the hugeness of the bargain they're currently missing on YouTube, arts-marketing-types will need to have found the way to crack some much larger barriers than the cost of admission.

Overgrownpath has some interesting musings on some related issues, not least the way in which digital platforms have allowed entertainment megacorporations to monopolise culture.

The picture at the head of this blog is a screen shot from the LSO's YouTube channel. At the time of writing, the video version of the live stream has had just over 4000 views. The seating capacity of the Barbican Hall is 1943. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


He's heard this one before.
A Proms performance of Shostakovich's ubiquitous Fifth Symphony at the weekend brought out all its accumulated myths and canards, gleefully repeated by critics, programme note writers and radio presenters. They're trotted out so often, so relentlessly, that they may as well be true now, but from my little corner of the internet, I may as well offer a little corrective, because in all honesty, who else will?

If the story of the Fifth is not known to you, here's a brief recap. In January 1936, Shostakovich was riding high from the success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, an adaptation of Leskov's 1865 grim novella of the same name. Such was its acclaim that productions had already been staged in Leningrad and Moscow, but after a two-year run, the piece was to suffer a spectacular fall from grace when Joseph Stalin decided to attend a performance. Stalin's party left before the end, and a few days later an infamous review appeared in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda, entitled "Muddle instead of music". It railed against the cacophonous decadence of the piece and, in a vein which was to become very familiar to Soviet composers, complained "the power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning." It concluded, ominously, "It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

It was clear that the review followed as a direct consequence of Stalin's visit, but the extent to which he himself dictated its contents has been a matter of some speculation. It's juicier, of course, to state that Stalin himself penned the piece, though I've never come across any evidence to support this one. There's then usually a compression of what happened next: Shostakovich, who was working on his Fourth Symphony in the early months of 1936, is often said to have abandoned the piece forthwith, taking the end of the review (that it "may end very badly") as a clear hint that trouble of the terminal kind may follow if his present musical path wasn't left behind. But that's not quite true.

In fact, he remained bullish, despite the shock of the Pravda review. His close friend Isaak Glikman later recalled the composer saying "Even if they chop my hands off, I will continue to compose music - albeit I will have to hold the pen in my teeth." And, despite what you'll read elsewhere, he carried on working on his wild and complex Fourth Symphony for months; he played it for Otto Klemperer in May, four months after the review appeared, apparently with every intention of having it performed at home and abroad. And it went on like this. In the Autumn of 1936, full orchestral rehearsals were held, and it was only at this point, after a number of such sessions had happened, that the composer seems to have been convinced to cancel the Symphony's first performance. Even then, accounts differ as to quite why: some claim that the orchestra and conductor were under-prepared for the difficulties presented by the piece, though the more often accepted story has Shostakovich having a visit from some Party officials and being talked into dropping the whole thing.

Why does this matter? Well, compressing the narrative gives a very different impression of Shostakovich's propensity to take fright and his willingness to compromise artistic principles. The Shostakovich of the compressed narrative emerges far more inclined towards saving his own skin, though given the show trials and widespread executions of the period, such an impulse would be eminently understandable. The Shostakovich of reality remained committed to his artistic path for some months in the face of some very open official intimidation.

He did cave in the end, though, and modified his music enough for his next symphony, the Fifth, to be widely regarded as a "corrective". This one unfolded in a much more traditional manner - sonata form first movement, scherzo, slow movement and an apparently triumphant finale - though its more conventional form did provide the model for similarly proportioned symphonies (the Tenth, and to a lesser extent the Eighth) in which he was able to say some quite complex things. It also provided the rhetorical cipher for a new sort of musical irony, one in which the music could be viewed as saying the exact opposite of what it superficially appeared to be saying. The ending, famously, could be a glorious celebration, or it could be an utterly hollow fanfare, with tears of defeat streaming down the face as the mouth grins on.

But before we get too deep into irony, it's worth stopping to discredit the most common canard of them all: the Symphony's famous subtitle, "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism". This phrase, replete with either contrition or irony, depending on your point of view, is often placed into the mouth of Shostakovich, but it doesn't seem to have actually emerged from there. Rather, it was coined by a journalist, writing about the Symphony (I don't know who, but I recall hearing someone give the identity of the author). In Laurel Fay's biography of Shostakovich, the composer is reported as having written "one [critical interpretation] gave me special pleasure, where it was said that the Fifth Symphony is the practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism", a quotation credited to an article with the composer's name attached in a Moscow newspaper. 

So the composer seems to have acknowledged the statement (assuming that the article was written by him, which they weren't always), but he didn't come up with it and, importantly, it doesn't appear on the score as any kind of a subtitle. It may well have been popularly associated with the Symphony, at the time and after, but there's a difference between that and it being the kind of official subtitle as it is often purported to have been. Why does this matter? Well, firstly because it's not true and is frequently stated as being true, and secondly because putting it into Shostakovich's mouth suggests an attempt by the composer to shape the literal interpretation of the work in a way that he seems to have been, at all points in his career, very reluctant to do. For a long time, the statement was taken literally; latterly and in the light of the "revelations" of the now-discredited memoirs Testimony, as a statement of brazen irony equal to that signaled in the Symphony's closing minutes. If Shostakovich didn't make the statement (which he didn't) then a move in the ironic shadow-dance is subtracted and we're left to look for our answers in the music.

One more thing. If we're going to preface our quotations from Volkov's Testimony with words like "disputed" or "widely disbelieved" or "thoroughly discredited", then don't we have to stop quoting lines like "your business is rejoicing!" and, in the case of the Tenth Symphony, "a portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking"?

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Those were the Proms that were

Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms (Photo: Andrew Morris)
It's gone so quickly, especially when seen from a distance. There may be two weeks left, but my Proms are over, save the delayed TV relays and the Last Night hate-watch which, as ever, I hope none of my non-classical friends tune in for. And the distance is because I have never lived further from Prince Albert's mighty, wildly unsuitable hall, so four visits was my lot this 2017 season.

One solitary promenade in the arena meant I stood for less than any season since 2002, but that one Prom was a whopper. Rattle's Gurrelieder - effectively beginning his LSO tenure in style - was the one I'd mentally marked on P-Day (when the Proms are announced and which, now I think about it, is NOT a good name). UK people with a internets can see it on the iPlayer until the end of September, and would be advised to seek it out as, like an eclipse, it's a heavenly wonder that doesn't come around that often.

The others were all Bachtrackers - two from the BBC NOW at the start of the season (Prom 5 and Prom 6), the highlight of which was Nicola Benedetti's completely incredible performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto (and you may have heard that I like him). My last visit was last week's BBCSO performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred, which you can read about here (look out for a favorite character from Toy Story in the review. See, you want to know now.)

Friday, 1 September 2017

Now where have I read that before?

How nice to see my words appearing in BBC Music Magazine, though, what's this? They appear to be in quote marks. So now, I'm wondering, if straight quotation from my liner notes makes up a third of the CD review, does that mean I'm owed some of the reviewer's fee? Probably not, though at least I spelled the composer's name correctly.

It's Boris GOLTZ, Michael.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Igor Levit's monumental performance of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues

Birmingham Town Hall (Photo: Andrew Morris)
My long drive up to Birmingham was rewarded with an intense and riveting performance of Shostakovich’s mighty Preludes and Fugues from pianist of the moment, Igor Levit. Here’s the introduction to my Bachtrack review:

Deep into Igor Levit’s monumental Birmingham Town Hall performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s vast cycle of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, I wondered if this work was some kind of Everest for pianists. It’s rare to meet it complete, in concert. The careful, transparent counterpoint places exacting demands on its interpreters and although it’s never flashy, there are devilishly difficult corners. Success here depends upon unwavering concentration from musician and listener alike. If you fell, there’d be no soft landing, and certainly nowhere to hide. But the mountain analogy only gets you so far. This isn’t music of lofty vistas, of high-wire daring or summit-triumph. Shostakovich’s immaculate miniatures are spare, interior, and their rewards quiet and very personal. When Levit reached the final page of the last, defiant fugue – the effort and intensity registering on his face and his hands pounding out its final unisons – it was clear that this was a long, lonely and intensely moving pilgrimage to some of the subtlest landscapes the piano can paint.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Classical fans bemoan poor quality of yet-to-be-announced Proms season

A broken record

Music fans have freed extra time for whinging this year by bemoaning the poor quality of programming at the 2017 BBC Proms early, three weeks before season details are even due to be published. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of carping have been awash with complaints of slim pickings and dumbing down in the yet-to-be-announced concert series. Twitter user @classicalbore commented that there would be “not much worth seeing at the #2017Proms. Can tell already.” There have also been suggestions that Norman Lebrecht is to dust off his annual Proms-bashing article template and has been seen examining the more obscure composer anniversaries listed in the Boosey and Hawkes music diary in search of outrage-worthy omissions in the season’s programming.

Aficionados are also anticipating an excuse to whine about the dearth of British composers programmed this year, with music by such unsung greats as William Alwyn, George Lloyd and Kaikhosru Sorabji unlikely to be performed. A post on the Bax Botherers forum summed up the mood among many anoraks, complaining “The BBC think they can throw us a performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony now and then and that we’ll stop going on about music no one else likes. In actual fact, every performance of a piece by a composer not born in Britain is another missed opportunity to play one of Brian’s 31 other symphonies.”

Meanwhile, Proms organisers are expected to continue their wearisome commitment to composers who aren’t dead by including new commissions in otherwise granny-friendly concerts. Jenny Squeekygate, head of new music at the Proms, commented “Believe me, none of us like this stuff anymore than you do, but we have noticed an inverse correlation between contemporary music and champagne-related accidents in the Albert Hall boxes.  And besides, it just wouldn’t be the Proms without a 7/8ths empty Oli Knussen concert, would it?”

Friday, 21 April 2017

Harpsichordists at War

At the risk of coming off like another, more salacious music blog, I bring news of an astonishing broadside fired between harpsichordists. I don’t much care for the harpsichord and its repertoire, but the rapid rise of Mahan Esfahani hasn’t escaped the notice of my twitter timeline. He added to his trophy cabinet with victory in the BBC Music Magazine Awards’ instrumental category for his DG Goldberg Variations, but it seems his high public profile has not been universally popular among colleagues. An interview with Van Magazine this month led to a blistering response from fellow period-keyboardist Andreas Staier, who’s clearly been holding it in for a while:

“He’d sell his soul for a little publicity. A little calm would be much better. But he can’t afford it. His fame and his career have more to do with his words than with his music.”

There’s a lot more, which you can read here. It’s a patient and careful takedown from someone who really knows what he’s talking about that – though it’s certain Esfahani won’t see it like that. What piqued my interest particularly, though, was his criticism of the classical music press:

“The press is at fault here too. In none of the interviews I cited was a single critical follow-up question asked. And the media has such a short attention span that contradictory and inconsistent statements are ignored even if they occur within just weeks of one other.”

I’ll no doubt sound like yet another blog if I dwell for long on the media-PR complex that constitutes the vast majority of words written about classical music, but suffice it to say, Staier has a very valid point.

Now, I promise not to live-tweet the ensuing historically-informed flame war.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Lost City and Found Music of Z

Whenever I go to the cinema (which has been quite a bit lately) I have at least half an ear trained on the score. This is hardly surprising, given that this is a music blog, but I am often dismayed by how little attention is paid to film music by a lot of mainstream film criticism. I don’t think I’ve read any reviews that mention quite how music is used in the film The Lost City of Z (out now in the UK and I think coming shortly to the US), and perhaps the failure to notice the snatches of Ravel and Stravinsky that pop up in the film reveals something about the musical tastes of most film critics.

The Lost City of Z is a slow, meditative account of the Amazonian explorations of Percy Fawcett who, in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, paid three visits to the Bolivian jungle and became convinced he’d stumbled across the remains of an ancient civilisation. The film touches on the uproar caused by his theories, the implication being that an ancient and advanced culture tucked away in the rainforest would challenge the then-prevalent assumptions about the unique achievements of European “civilisation” (very much used in the singular).

It’s not done that well in the UK and I can see its pacing and fragmented narrative diminishing its commercial appeal, but I liked the film a lot. It looked to me like director James Gray wanted to achieve something of the tone of the infamous box-office failure Heaven’s Gate (which I actually rather like), with perhaps a touch of Terrence Malick on a good day. The lead, Charlie Hunnum, is something of an uncharismatic presence, but some fine supporting roles, particularly Sienna Miller and Ian McDiarmid, make amends.

The music, though. I had a dawning realisation during an early scene, that the chugging of a train was underpinned by a certain famous driving and stabbing moment from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I kept waiting for the next bit, but it became clear that it had been recomposed to peter out in a gentle, conventionally filmic way that left me a little troubled. Why troubled? I’m well aware that existing music is used all the time as background score in films and television. Doesn’t The Rite of Spring, though, deserve more than being repurposed as a musical backdrop, as though its only so-many-feet of filler? It’s not as though the use of the music suggested any meta-textual meaning, in the way that pop songs often do in film, nodding or winking at the audience to make a connection not otherwise apparent.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe – specifically the glorious sunrise – gets a more extensive outing, suggesting the heavenly wonder of the jungle towards the end of the film. The filmmakers have, though, chopped it and looped it to avoid reaching the music’s climactic point too early, which rather took me out of the moment. The use of the music seems more justified, particularly given that they’d have struggled to find a film composer who could match Ravel’s abilities. In this case, it’s been sensibility and mostly respectfully handled, but I’m sure the composer of the rest of the film’s music, Christopher Spelman, could have come up with some chugging, driving music to avoid the repurposing of Stravinsky’s incendiary masterpiece.

It’s a very good film and well worth seeing in the cinema, if you can. In an age of franchise megablockbusters, it’s heartening to see films like this can still be made, films that don’t pander to short attention spans and formulaic plotting. If filmmakers are going to appropriate great classical music, though, I’d like to think it’s because the moment really demands it.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Some thoughts on the passing of Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I was just this evening thinking about Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The collaboration with Dmitri Shostakovich which, I think, will come to be seen as the defining moment of his career, happened early in his life. His poem Babi Yar, about the massacre of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis in 1941, piqued the interest of the Russian composer, who selected a few more of 
Yevtushenko’s poems and set them in his 13th Symphony. The 1962 premiere was beset with problems. First, the great conductor and frequent Shostakovich collaborator, Yevgeny Mravinsky, withdrew his cooperation and refused to perform the work’s premiere. Then, Shostakovich and replacement conductor Kirill Kondrashin had to contend with their first choice of bass soloist being removed from the performance by the authorities, and the premiere only went ahead because the understudy happened to have turned up unexpectedly at the final rehersal. Yevtushenko, whose reputation was made by Babi Yar, demonstrated tremendous bravery by refusing to be cowed by Nikita Khrushchev at a meeting the night before the premiere. Khrushchev angrily stated that the poem had no place in the Soviet Union; Yevtushenko retorted that challenging anti-Semitism could only “enhance the authority of our country”.

I was thinking about all of this because, as those who know me must be tiring of hearing, I’ve been working on a fictionalised version of this period of Shostakovich’s life, and it just so happened that I had been mulling over the scene in which Yevtushenko arrives at Shostakovich’s apartment to hear a run-through of the 13th Symphony. For both men, the moment of their collaboration marked their most overt acts of political dissention. Shostakovich had always toyed with dissent but, to the frustration of some contemporaries, often retreated from a principled anti-authority sentiment, or submerged it in irony and double meaning. Yevtushenko seemed to be the most courageous of a younger generation of brave Soviet artists, but the trajectory of his career frustrated many when he too moved away from outspoken criticism of the regime. The first signs of this came when Yevtushenko acquiesced to official demands by removing references to Judaism and the Jewish victims of Babi Yar in the poem, instead emphasising Russian suffering.

Shostakovich, Kondrashin and Yevtushenko, in 1962

For some, including the Russia soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, this was the beginning of the end of Yevtushenko’s dissident credentials. In her autobiography, she reacted to the revision of Babi Yar by saying:

“He quickly learned how to pander to any taste, how to keep his nose in the wind, how to know when to bow and when to straighten up. Thus he swung from side to side, from Babi Yar to the Bratsk GES or, even more exaggeratedly, to Kamaz, in which the toadyism is enough to make one nauseous.”

Bratsk GES and Kamaz were, respectively, poems in celebration of a hydroelectric power station and a car factory. Vishnevskaya goes on:

“And when no one expected anything good from him any longer, he suddenly appeared on the speaker’s platform at a meeting of the Komsomol aktiv in the Halls of the Columns of the Palace of Unions – a meeting dedicated to the memory of the poet Esenin – and flattened everyone with his remarkable poem:

“…Dear Enenin, old Russia has changed…
…When the ruddy Komosomol chief
Thundered at us poets with his fist

“The meeting was televised live and nationwide. Judging from how soon afterward the government sent him off to some construction project, he must have taken quite a drubbing.”

Vishnevskaya then describes Yevkushenko visiting the Paris apartment of her and her husband Rostropovich, after their defection. Vishnevskaya had by this time built up quite a head of steam over what she saw as the poet’s double standards, which she unleashed on him over dinner. How could he write what he did while ordinary people suffered in the Soviet Union? Yevtushenko seems to have been amused by her moral indignation, offering no real defence. Vishnevskaya was, ultaimtely, torn between her own outrage and an understanding of the powerlessness of the individual against the forces of ideology. She ends her account with this incredible passage:

“In this vast, monstrous theatre, with our faces twisted by underground jargon, we Soviets wriggle and squirm for one another. We are actors by compulsion, not by calling, in an amateur theatre run by no one. And all our lives, we perform our endless, pathetic comedy. There are no spectators, only participants. Nor is there a script, only improvisation. And knowing neither plot nor denouement, we act.”

There’s a long and fascinating biography to be written about Yevtushenko that would take in his film career and election to public office in 1989, but two final thoughts relate to education. Yevtushenko’s last years were spent teaching literature at the University of Tulsa and I wonder if some of his students really understood the magnitude of his achievements and the import of the events through which he lived. I stumbled across some reviews of his teaching on, which are amusing and unexpectedly revealing of a great man freed from previous strictures:

“YY's classes are probably the easiest classes you can take at TU. That said, he is very difficult to listen to. He goes off on tangents the majority of the class that don't seem related to the subject material. Also, he doesn't have a syllabus because he believes they are "too constraining" for his class. Easy class, but take with a grain of salt.”


“yevtushenko is the most hilarious man in Oklahoma and slightly subtracts from the redneck nature of this two-bit town. go see him on stage... history at your fingertips. Funniest thing is when he handed out a biography of himself before the class started, what a trip!!”


“If you can't get an A in this guy's class you are a total moron. furthermore he is a good guy and passionate about his work. One warning...if he likes your paper, you have to read in front of the whole class. Keep that in mind when you write your papers.”


“insane. likes to make fun of people, i.e. me every night. however, he is fun and a breath of fresh air at this odd school-- just take the class you will get an A and you will have stories to tell your grankiddies! He once turned on a projector with an umbrella he spent 19 minutes looking for in his car. whacko poet.”

And so on.

Lastly, as a teacher, I have taken genuine inspiration from this poem, called Lies.

Telling lies to young people is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God’s in his heaven
and that all’s well with the world is wrong.
The young know what you mean. The young are people.
Tell them that the difficulties can’t be counted
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times.
Say obstacles exist they must encounter
sorrow happens, hardship happens.
To hell with it. Who never knew
the price of happiness will not be happy.
Forgive no error you recognise,
It will repeat itself, increase,
and afterwards our pupils
will not forgive in us what we forgave.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1932-2017