Thursday, 29 September 2016

Star Trek to the oddly familiar

Image result for britten benjamin stamp
I grew up loving this, so was moderately surprised the first time I heard this.

Where does homage stop and plagiarism begin? Probably here.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

More Oistrakh, More Shostakovich

Fortunately, David Oistrakh’s valuable collaborations with Shostakovich came at a moment able to capture their development in the studio and in the concert hall. In one case, it was even able to capture composer and performer on the phone – more on that later.

The First Concerto is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most frequently listed piece in the Oistrakh discography, but at least three other pieces – the Second Violin Concerto, the Violin Sonata and the Second Piano Trio – received recordings by the great violinist.

Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op 67 (1944)

Oistrakh recording with the composer comes pretty early in the Oistrakh-Shostakovich relationship, indeed shortly before the time that Shostakovich began working on the First Violin Concerto and it’s tempting to think we might be hearing part of process that led to the composition of that masterpiece:

1946 – DO with Dmitri Shostakovich and Milos Sadlo (released a number of times on CD; most easily available on the first volume of Doremi’s Oistrakh collection)

Violin Concerto No 2 in C# minor, Op 129 (1967)

The story goes that Shostakovich intended to mark Oistrakh’s 60th birthday with another violin concerto, but was a year premature. Given the piece was written only seven years before Oistrakh’s death, in 1974, we don’t have as many recorded performances, but we have the rather significant recordings of both the official premiere (preceded by a few “unofficial” performances) and the Western premiere from London, a concert under Eugene Ormandy apparently organised at short notice. And for the really keen, it’s worth seeking out Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary David Oistrakh: Artist of the People?, which includes a remarkable phone conversation following the first performance between Oistrakh and Shostakovich, in which the composer comments “it’s as though I was playing it myself!” 

Violin Sonata in G major, Op 134 (1968)

Oistrakh’s actual 60th birthday was marked with the terse sonata and, remarkably enough, a recording exists of Shostakovich and him playing the piece in the composer’s home. Oistrakh then made the piece a part of the recital repertoire he played with Sviatoslav Richter, another remarkable Soviet musician, but one with a more distant relationship with Shostakovich.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Oistrakh Hunting Season

Classical music seems simultaneously very good and very bad at documenting itself. You want David Oistrakh playing the Brahms Concerto? Count the ways. You want a definitive list of his recordings, studio and live? Forget it. For this is the frustration of one caught, as I am, in the grip of an Oistrakh-hunting obsession: clues and signs and no definitive answers to exactly what he played and quite when he played it.

More specifically, I’m trying to ascertain just how many Oistrakh performances of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto are out there, on the way to writing something about the performance history of this piece. Shostakovich wrote the piece with Oistrakh in mind in 1948; indeed, it was while writing the concerto that the composer was denounced at a meeting of the Union of Soviet Composers. Shostakovich tucked it away and waited for a better climate, which came, in 1955, as the cultural thaw was beginning in the wake of Stalin’s death. Shostakovich conceded to a few alterations suggested by Oistrakh, and the concerto was premiered in October 1955 with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky. As far as I can tell, the first recorded performance seems to have been a tape of an early concert in New York with the NYPO and Dmitri Mitropoulos on New Year’s Day 1956, the day before the concerto’s first studio session. The studio recording has been rereleased a number of times, most recently by Sony, but the live broadcast seems only to have been released in an expensive box of NYPO broadcasts which, while I’m very interested to hear, I’m not £100 of interested.

Then there’s a 1956 live concert tape from Vienna published a few years ago by Orfeo, followed by a more familiar studio recording with the Leningraders and Mravinsky at the end of the year. Mravinsky and Oistrakh then appeared at the 1957 Prague Spring Festival, this time with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (a rare away match for Mra). We then jump to Edinburgh in 1962 for a live recording with Rozhdestvensky, which has been widely available for years via BBC Legends. I recently found a filmed performance from 1967 with the unexpected accompaniment of Heinz Fricke and the Staatskapelle Berlin. And then it’s to 1972 for Oistrakh’s final recorded performances of the piece – apparently a concert with Maxim Shostakovich and the New Philharmonia and a subsequent and easily available studio version with the same team, via EMI.

All in, if these performances all really exist, that’s nine recorded performances of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto by David Oistrakh:

January 1st 1956 – Live performance with NYPO and Mitropoulos (Released in a 10CD set from the orchestra’s own label)

June 21st 1956 – Live from Vienna with Leningrad PO and Mravinsky (Orfeo CD)

1972 – Live with New Philharmonia and Maxim Shostakovich (mentioned in this review)

1972 – Studio performance with New Philharmonia and Maxim Shostakovich (EMI)

The only one I’m dubious about is the first from 1972, as I’ve not seen any reference to any release. I’m quite sure there must be more broadcast performances tucked away in archives and it seems very likely that the 1955 premiere performance was taped, but what we have represents a remarkable record of the evolution of a performer’s way with one of the great concertos of the century. If you know any more, or can shed light on that 1972 live performance, leave a comment below.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Roger Chesterfield: Dreaming of Schubert

Veteran record producer and music critic Roger Chesterfield encounters one of history’s greatest, and apparently crankiest, musicians.

I think what began as a late-evening snifter must have turned into two or more likely three, and before I knew it – bound volume of the 1957 Gramophone on my lap and snoozing dog at my feet – I drifted into that special slumber only the older bottlings of Highland Park seem to induce. Perhaps it was the fascinating article on exposition repeats in Schubert’s later works (The Gramophone, April 1957, p.44), but the glow of the fire beside me seemed to transform into a somewhat murky scene of an enticing gathering of people, cut through with a particularly splendid turn at the piano (Schubert’s Deutsch 960, if I’m not mistaken), somewhat beyond the range of my vision. And as I approached the congregation, I happened upon a smallish plump figure standing apart, looking on with an air of depression.

I must say, I spoke before really realising just who I was addressing, but as I uttered the words, I identified my interlocutor with nervous delight.

“I say, odd place for a party”, I blurted.

“Some party when one’s music is trashed with chat and giggles!” said the man with something approaching irritation, and as he turned, so appeared the face of Franz Peter Schubert himself! Somewhat dumbfounded, I stammered and stuttered a little and received a look shot through with ire for my efforts.

“Do you presume to add further to the barrage of nonsense currently destroying my greatest work for the keyboard?!”

I replied that I did not, and then, understanding that I might not have caught Vienna’s most unfairly unloved musical son at the best of moments, remembered that on meeting one’s heroes, it was wise to pose some pressing question while the opportunity remained.

“I say”, I began, “I suppose you might not be aware, but your music is rather more appreciated in my day than it ever was in yours” – a softer look and a nod now for the great man, which I took as progress – “but I wonder if I might ask just one thing. It’s always bothered me, you see, and Alfred Brendel says it’s acceptable, but is it really alright to forgo the exposition repeat in the B flat Sonata? I imagine Brendel is as qualified to say as anybody, but it just isn’t cricket…”

I trailed off, sensing from Schubert’s tightening features that the tricky matter of exposition repeats was not the fruitful topic of conversation it seemed at so many meetings of the editorial board of Historical Record Quarterly. The next words seemed to explode from his pursed lips with all the pent up bile of one subjected to an entire Lang Lang concert:

“One question. ONE QUESTION!” – shouting now – “and that’s your question?! Don’t you people have ANY sense of priority? Not “Oh, dear Franz Peter, why was your life so tragically cut short?” Or even “Oh, how ever did you plan to end the Unfinished”? No, just more of this inane obsession with repeats and dynamics, as if I didn’t already have to spend an eternity fielding endless such irrelevances from Johannes Brahms.”

There was, needless to say, a fairly grim atmosphere developing that even the fairly blunt Chesterfield social radar had no trouble detecting. I uttered some faltering apologies before he cut in, this time in a more conciliatory manner:

“No, no, the apologies should be mine. It isn’t unreasonable to ask, but, my friend,” – I liked that, liked that a lot – “does it really matter? Play the repeats, don’t play the repeats, it’s all still there in the score. And after all, it isn’t as though anyone can’t read the score, is it!” This didn’t seem the time to inform him of the twenty-first century’s lamentable levels of musical literacy. “It’s more important that you feel and think and listen than worry about whether everyone heard the exposition the first time around. This is exactly what I’ve been telling Brahms, but his brain seems to be diminishing in inverse proportion to the size of his beard. Oh dear, here comes the cloth-eared buffoon now."

This seemed a bit harsh, especially given my recent acquaintance with some of Brahms’s splendid but neglected choral works, but as the elderly figure shuffled in our direction, the vision of the gathering and of my young Viennese companion faded, robbing me of the chance to enquire about Brahms’s recent fortunes with Clara Schumann. With a start, I snapped out of sleep as the ’57 Gramophone struck the floor, waking both me and the dog. I wondered blearily if I should raise these thoughts on the always-controversial issue of repeats at the next Historical Record Quarterly editorial meeting. Given, though, that William Fitz-Tuckwell’s recent contention that applause might be appropriate between the first and second movements of the Emperor Concerto had very nearly ended in bloodshed, I reasoned that perhaps my own fireside encounter with Schubert might not be accepted as the last word on the matter.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

13 years on, Rattle and the Berlin Phil back at the Proms

In some ways, Sir Simon Rattle’s Berlin adventure has run in parallel with my own engagement with classical music. We’re not totally alike – he’s a hugely in-demand musician touring the world with some of the planet’s finest musicians; I didn’t get out of bed today until half 10 and haven’t so far left the house – but his first visit to the Proms with his Berlin band came as I was just falling in love with the sound of an orchestra, and I’ve tried to catch his Proms visits ever since. It was with some alarm, while queuing on Prince Consort Road under a grey London sky, that I realised that that first Rattle/BPO visit was in 2003, 13 years ago. Still, the sound of a mobile phone cutting across the opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring is still fresh in the memory.

This year, he brought a pair of concerts that seemed to mirror the programming concerns of his two 2003 Proms. Prom 64 (September 2nd) weighed heavily under the mass of Mahler’s difficult Seventh Symphony, preceded by Pierre Boulez’s Éclat. This 1965 piece shimmers and judders with a fluid discourse of piano, a smattering of orchestral instruments, melodic tuned percussion and mandolin and guitar. The way Boulez’s limpid textures flow and stop, seeming to hang in the pauses like a freeze-framing of rapid nature, is entirely his own, and the handling of colour is very impressive, but for a man held by some as the defining voice of post-war classical music, Boulez’s insights seem slight to me. As someone who once covered an very long weekend of Boulez (including anexcellent Q&A with the man himself), I feel I’ve heard enough to satisfy myself that I don’t hear anything other than technique and aesthetics, nothing of the grab-you-by-the-collar immediacy of Xeankis or Ligeti  or (to further compare apples and oranges) Lutoslawksi. The fact that I feel quite so nervous writing this reflects the extent to which some in the contemporary music world would disagree.

But as a piece of programming, Éclat made perfect sense. Mahler’s Seventh also features guitar and mandolin, and Boulez’s own advocacy of Mahler was undoubtedly very important. There’s also a sense that the scale and the particulars of the Seventh must give conductors as many sleepless nights as must the prospect of tackling one of Boulez’s orchestral scores, because the Seventh is an ungainly beast that left even Mahler authority Deryck Cooke scratching his head. Essentially, it doesn’t offer the same kind of titanic emotional journey found in the Sixth or the Ninth and ends up with a rather silly sounding finale that must give conductors nightmares. Rattle played the whole thing pretty fast and pretty straight, not pretending there was any hidden depth beyond the surface drama of the first movement or the atmospheric landscapes of the central three. Mark Valencia summed it all up very well here.

The following evening, rain kept down the queues and got me to near the front of the arena for a much more satisfying aural treat. Rattle brought a new piece by Julian Anderson (who had to climb under a barrier to reach the stage and shake Maestro’s hand), an entire set of Dvorak Symphonic Dances (too much of a good thing by some way) and Brahms’s Second Symphony. The Brahms brought out the best of the Berliners’ playing (though a moment of miscoordination in the finale had Rattle nervously trying to pin down the beat) but I felt the momentum ebb away from the first movement and, while beautiful, found his attempt at Brucknerian monumentalism in the second rather distancing. Still, there’s a sense when Rattle’s in the hall that this is the Proms at its best, and it will be a shame if, given his looming move to the LSO, it’s his last with the Berlin Phil.

To finish with an aside, the issue of applause is always a tricky one, and I may one day put down my own thoughts in writing, but one audience member hit a new low but shouting “Bravo” and applauding loudly as the Berliner’s ploughed into the final chord of the Brahms. There are many words one could use, but arrogant and rude are the two that I’ll stick with for now.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Novel Approach to History: Ghost Variations by Jessica Duchen

Real people and actual events have provided rich pickings for storytellers for as long as stories have been told. And whenever a true story is told, teller and listener alike long to know what might have happened in the gaps left behind by history.

Novelist and Journalist Jessica Duchen tells the fascinating story of the rediscovery of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in the 1930s in her new novel Ghost Variations (released as an eBook in September 2016), which takes in virtuoso violinist Jelly d’Arányi, Europe on the brink of war, and messages from beyond the grave.

To coincide with the publication of Ghost Variations (clickhere for more information and to read an excerpt), Devil’s Trill spoke to Jessica about some of the issues that arise when writing a novel about people and events from history.

Devil’s Trill: How easy was it to research the historical settings and people featured in the book?

Jessica Duchen: Luckily for me, the 1930s exert a strong fascination for our own times. There is a wealth of material to read and to see – plenty of photos and film footage as well as endless books and articles about this era in Britain and Germany. In terms of background, it was more a question of where to stop than where to start.

The novels’ protagonists were another matter. Why are so many books about great “golden age” musicians out of print? One book exists about the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi and her gifted family: The Sisters d’Arányi, by Joseph Macleod. I got hold of a second-hand copy on (the site on which I spend most of my disposable income!). In fact, this was the book that sparked the novel; I bought it for information when I was researching my earlier novel Hungarian Dances, and in it stumbled over the bizarre story of the Schumann Violin Concerto’s rediscovery.

The British Library has a good-sized d’Arányi Collection, including numerous concert programmes. From this it’s possible to find out where Jelly played when, and what the repertoire was. This was especially useful in depicting the charity tour of nine cathedrals around the country that she undertook in 1933, to raise money for the unemployed. It also helped to ascertain that her presence on the concert platform reduced over the next few years. The Times Archive can be accessed and searched online, so I duly plundered that for reviews and reports. Other articles are easily available at various libraries.

Even more fascinating, though, was the tangential information that helped to build up a wider picture of Jelly’s world. She and her sisters, Adila Fachiri and Hortense (“Emilia”) Hawtrey, pop up in various books about famous figures of their day. Wherever there’s a Bloomsbury salon, an intellectual circle, a high society event, you were likely to find a d’Arányi playing the violin. And there’s some amazing correspondence between Jelly and Aldous Huxley. In the light of that friendship, you might notice a gently satirical portrait of Jelly in one of Huxley’s novels, Crome Yellow. Jelly was also close to Bartók and Ravel and inspired violin masterpieces from them both, as well as from Vaughan Williams, (“Uncle Ralph”).

I availed myself of plenty of books about Joseph Joachim, the sisters’ great-uncle, for whom the Schumann Violin Concerto was written; Donald Francis Tovey, their mentor, close friend and colleague; and Myra Hess, Jelly’s duo partner for 20 years. And more. Jelly’s friendship with ‘George’ Yeats, the wife of WB Yeats, is especially intriguing for George’s preoccupations with matters esoteric and occult, since it was through a Ouija board that Jelly first heard of the Schumann concerto’s existence. It’s not as if that took place in a vacuum. The d’Arányi sisters would have been encountering these practices for many years.

Eye-witness accounts are arguably still more valuable, offering insights hat may not be documented anywhere. I was fortunate enough to meet several people who knew my protagonists, or were related to them. I am deeply grateful to Jelly’s great-niece, Adila’s granddaughter, herself a fine musician, for her acceptance of this project; and to Nigel Hess, great-nephew of Dame Myra, for access to interesting material. I was lucky enough to meet Adila’s protégé, the cellist Rohan de Saram, and also to be put in contact by Steven Isserlis with several people who knew Jelly well – Steven’s teacher, Jane Cowan, had been a close friend of hers. Everyone confirmed that the sisters had believed unquestioningly in the “spirit messages”, and that the entire Schumann episode had left an odd taste in the mouth and they hadn’t liked to talk about it.

The more you look, the more you find. Another vital character is Baron Erik Palmstierna, the Swedish Minister in London, who wrote three books based on “spirit messages” channeled by Adila. He was the person who went to Berlin and physically unearthed the Schumann manuscript; and it was his first book, published in 1937, that released the story of the supposed Ouija board communication upon a derisive world. Some canny Googling revealed him to be utterly fascinating. His wife was a great supporter first of feminism, later of eugenics. His daughter died young during the war. His great-granddaughter became a famous supermodel and was at one point the face of Ralph Lauren…

…At some point you have to stop. I’ve used maybe a tenth of what I’ve learned.

DT: When turning this story into a novel, what did you find that you had to invent in order to tell the story?

JD: Any worthwhile fiction editor will say: “Don’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story”. Pick a genre and you must to some degree meet its expectations. Therefore turning a true-life incident into a gripping “detective” story is not primarily about setting down the facts. Get bogged down in research detail and you risk losing the reader to the greater attraction of watching paint dry.

You need to build characters who are believable and with whom the reader can identify. That’s not always easy with musicians, whose inevitable absorption in their work can (so I’m told) seem alienating. I’ve tried to make Jelly come across as lively, caring, passionate, positive, driven by her love for music and for life itself, struggling quietly against the many losses in her past. Then there’s her situation as a foreigner, at least partly Jewish, in a xenophobic pre-war Britain where fascism is on the rise; her insecurity – and later her victimisation in what today would be a fearful Twitter storm – should put us firmly on her side. This isn’t invention as much as accentuation – rather like lighting design in a theatre production.

The novel’s themes should give the story power and significance – otherwise it’s just a series of events. I was intrigued by the confluence of three tipping points: Schumann’s from sanity to madness, the pre-war world into fascism, and Jelly herself from stardom to decline – and the notion of a chance for redemption.

The theme of life after death is crucial if you’re dealing with “spirit messages”. I have invented a scene in which Jelly visits the deathbed of a former admirer/lover. The Joseph Macleod book makes it clear that she was close to this individual, an Irish-born diplomat, and that she mourned him deeply. Such a scene might not be real, but it’s needed for this canvas. Life turns to death. What then? Supposing you believe in a spirit life, yet you look over that precipice and you find nothing at all?

One crucial liberation was the extra vantage point of a completely fictional character who can watch the goings-on. I’ve invented a character named Ulli Schultheiss who works for the music publishers Schott’s in Mainz. The publishers played a vital role in the unfolding events, and their actions occasionally beggar belief. For instance, in the mid 1930s, in the heart of the Nazi era, a publisher in the Third Reich decides to send the newly discovered, propaganda-conscripted Schumann Concerto to Yehudi Menuhin? Ulli is a valuable observer; he can, for example, take us into Nazi Germany, he attends the premiere of the concerto in Berlin and he is, too, Jelly’s fervent younger admirer (something I’m told she probably had in plenty).  

One episode may shock some readers: Jelly’s less than happy encounter with Yehudi Menuhin’s father. The detail and the timing of this is invented. But I have it on good word-of-mouth authority that something similar did take place. 

DT: What did you feel happy inventing, and where did you feel you had to stop?

JD: I will fess up to having concocted a big scene involving Goebbels. Apparently the heads of Schott organised a meeting with some powerful Third Reich officials to convince them that Schott, not Breitkopf, should publish the concerto, and that Jelly had a moral right to a premiere of some kind. Given the opportunity to include Goebbels in this, what novelist would not? The detail of the argument that takes place, though, is based largely on the points raised in correspondence explored in an article in the Hindemith Society journal in 2002, kindly supplied to me by Schott’s themselves when I visited them in Mainz.

The relationships between Jelly and the men in her life are invented where necessary, but remain limited. I didn’t feel I could invade a real person’s private life to the extent of depicting a love affair. Similarly the Swedish Baron’s relationship with Adila is the topic of speculation. In later years, well after her husband’s death, he moved in with Adila and Jelly (the two sisters lived together for the rest of their lives). This situation appears to look, walk and quack like a duck; still, I’ve let well alone. One of my favourite episodes is pure invention, yet rings true to the spirit of the characters and the story. Having stormed out of the family home, Jelly ends up giving an impromptu free concert in the Savoy Hotel. Throughout the book there’s a conflict between her curiosity about the concerto and the “spirits” – and her passion for simply bringing music to people. It is her giving nature, her spontaneous love for her music and her audience, that makes her, I hope, an appealing heroine. In the end, music is redemption – the very best of ourselves – and that’s what the book is really about.

To find out more about Ghost Variations by Jessica Duchen, click here.

Thank you to Jessica Duchen for her help in preparing this article.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Chesterfield on Classical: Wagner's Clap

Devil’s Trill is delighted to post this guest blog by the veteran record producer and music critic Roger Chesterfield.

I sometimes wonder, what with Radio 3’s baffling disregard for the finer details of elite record collecting, who will sweat the small stuff when I’ve taken my stalls seat in the great concert hall in the sky. Reassurance is at hand in the form of the latest volume of Philip Philpott’s magisterial Matrix Numbers of the Lesser Known German Labels of the 1940s, which has, over the last few months, been a light at the end of the tunnel of interminable wet-weather walks with the dog. With bedraggled lab on the rug and my own fireside seat secured, a glass of Highland Park in my hand and the new MNLKGL40 (as it’s affectionately known) in my lap, the hours waltz by, the chimes of midnight barely registered among the close-typed dashes and digits lining some 1600 pages.

Perusing those lines dedicated to the much missed Bavarian imprint Schnappstein-Gimellphon, I happened upon the matrix numbers for the original release of Herrman Schnipelbrumpf’s 1947 hecklephone recital with pianist Wim Vomm, apparently much prized by hecklephiles. When released, Schnipelbrumpf’s recital covered some fourteen sides on 78rpm shellac record including – and here’s where it gets really fun – three sides given over entirely to applause. This is all the more curious given that the recital was entirely studio-recorded in Schnappstein-Gimellphon’s bespoke property, located deep in the mountains and powered entirely by hot air donated by patrons at the Salzburg Festival.

All this stirred some misremembered something deep within the Chesterfield brainvaults and I recalled a long discarded custom which was, at one time, encountered at Bayreuth in odd-numbered years, of giving a single clap some way into the second act of Dutchman, in tribute to a similar gesture once given by Wagner in 1880. Some wags carped that Wagner had simply been squashing a recalcitrant fly, but such was the strictness of observance of the custom among some Wagnerites that Deutsche Grammophon’s then-director, Ludwig Donkwurt, insisted the clap be included in Karl Bohm’s 1971 yellow-label traversal. Apparently, Gregory Peck was flown in from New York to do the honours and got it down in one take.

And then, with his customary lightness of touch, Philpott joined the dots which had been just out of focus to the poor old Chesterfield varifocals. It turns out that Donkwurt began his career at Schnappstein-Gimellphon (of course) and had adopted the practice of including applause at unusual moments in a variety of music. His belief in the “Wagner Clap” had resulted in a string of scholarly discoveries, including the revelation that Beethoven had insisted on applause after the exposition of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Once at DG, Donkwurt had a special recorded-applause unit established and one Carlos Kleiber was so taken with the idea that he led nineteen rehearsals with the ensemble, before abandoning the project and declaring their clapping “too provincial”.

Happy to resist the many entreaties to “tweet” my thoughts to the Third Programme, I communicated all of this to the director of Radio 3 via e-mail, though it is with some dismay that I report the station’s most recent relay of the Kleiber 5th was accompanied by nothing of this remarkable scholarship. No doubt the Beeb’s subscription to MNLKGL40 lapsed long ago, and those fresh discoveries nestled amongst the matrix numbers will have to remain between the dog, the Highland Park, and myself.

Read Roger Chesterfield's previous guest post: Wagner's Clap.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Proms Away

“Is it that time already?” asked an astonished colleague when I pointed out the First Night of the 2016 Proms was upon us. From my own perspective, it’s always a time of year that brings a rush of good intentions – I will listen to more; I will attend more – as well as the usual moans about uninspiring programming from the usual quarters. And I always respond by pointing out the sheer range of music must surely be something to banish the easy cynicism of the terminally unimpressed. No, there aren’t  eighteen different obscure British symphonies, but like any large cultural event, the programmers can’t simply cater for the denizens of one particular online forum.

Just look at the opening weekend. A fairly standard opening concert, admittedly, with nothing (other than, perhaps, Sol Gabetta’s singing) to frighten the horses, but after that a Proms transfer for the ROH’s Boris Godunov (original version, no less) and an attempt at period Faure to round out the weekend. Just a few days in and already a lot to catch up on; it’s usually at this point that I realise I’m not going to live up to my good intentions…

Monday, 25 April 2016

Too Many Records

I used to write for International Record Review, a fine publication which sadly closed its doors more than a year ago. On the back page, they ran a monthly feature called Too Many Records, in which someone in the classical music world would reminisce about a life spent listening. One month, the editor asked if I'd contribute one, as she fancied having a reviewer fill the back page. The magazine folded one issue shy of my moment in the sun. I publish it here for posterity.

It all began with the Russians, I think: first Tchaikovsky and then, sometime later, Rachmaninov. I must have been five or six – not too long after the advent of the CD – when I heard Kyung Wha Chung playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a Decca disc from my Dad’s modest collection of classical albums. Brahms, Beethoven, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were all near neighbours on those shelves – they were all old masters to me. But it was that Tchaikovsky that held me entranced. The ecstatic orchestral restatement of the first movement’s main theme sticks in my mind as a moment of musical joy.

A little later, piano lessons brought Bach, Schumann and Mozart, though still no musical ecstasy of the order glimpsed at age six. Not long after, a rare thing appeared in the small town in which I lived: a brand new concert hall. I remember my first visit well. An American orchestra brought Sabine Meyer, playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, along with what seemed to me an interminable Beethoven Symphony and, best of all, Stravinsky’s Firebird. The Russians, I concluded, were rather good at this classical music.

I poked at the piano and scratched away at the violin through my teenage years, though they brought more frustration than pleasure. And it might have all ended there for me and the Russians had I not, one evening while revising for an exam, picked up another disc from my Dad’s collection and pressed play. It was Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn. This was music that spoke a rich and yearning language of feelings that I scarcely knew existed (a response I’ve since discovered is not that uncommon in teenagers) and life became about finding the next fix of moody Russian romanticism.

Prokofiev followed (familiar to me from another album from my Dad’s collection – Lina Prokofiev narrating Peter and the Wolf) and then Shostakovich, who, since my Dad claimed to hate his music, fulfilled another teenage imperative. The good thing about Shostakovich, from the point of view of a collector just developing the habit, was that there were 15 symphonies and as many string quartets to find. Bernard Haitink’s Decca symphony cycle (the first complete set to be recorded in the west) became the prize, particularly as it featured dark and angular cover designs that weren’t far from the artwork emblazoned on the t-shirts proudly worn by my rock and metal loving friends.  Unfortunately, you couldn’t get a Shostakovich “hoody”; I had to make my own.

Visits to the record stores of central London helped my CD collection grow exponentially. You could, over the course of an afternoon, visit Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, then HMV and Virgin on Oxford Street, and a host of independent stores nestled down side-streets. My love of the music-megastore (which are now, incidentally, all gone) was cured by a spell working in the classical department of one of the Oxford Street giants. Said company is now a shadow of its former worth, though even a decade ago, when I was in their employ, the writing was on the wall and head office’s weekly attempts at salvation amounted to little more than shifting around the deck chairs on the sinking liner.

Most of what George Orwell said about bookshops rings true for the record store. We certainly had our own collection of what Orwell called “not quite certifiable lunatics”, some with whom you could share a joke, some from whom you hid. Just like Orwell, I was once asked for a disc for which the enquirer was without the title or artist name, but which he assured me had a green cover. Best of all was the customer who asked if we had a disc of Bach playing his own music.

There were a few old hands on the staff from whom I learnt a lot. One could remember the glory days of the record industry, when one of the major labels flew the managers of the large stores to Berlin to meet Karajan. Another regaled us with tales of the days when record signings had people queuing round the block, be it for Pavarotti or for Bernstein, who apparently necked most of a bottle of gin in a single signing session. If I miss anything from those days, it’s the company of these hugely knowledgeable colleagues, and the unparalleled opportunity to be completely abreast of the new record releases.

If I linger over this period, it’s because access to cheap and plentiful records opened many musical doors. An inexpensive Ring cycle - Janowski’s Eurodisc recording; the first digital studio set - ignited a love a Wagner (I stood through the entire Barenboim Ring at the 2013 Proms, and if that’s not love I don’t know what is). The appearance of Brilliant Classics’ “Historic Russian Archives” relit a passion for Russian music and musicians, particularly for the playing of David Oistrakh, who still seems to me the most compelling of violinists. In the years that followed, working at one of the country’s top conservatoires, I got to know many fine musicians, not least the late Lydia Mordkovitch, who entertained me with stories of her studies with Oistrakh and first hand experiences with Shostakovich.

It’s with a certain nostalgic regret that I must admit that the appeal of owning a “complete” library of every recording imaginable has somewhat worn off, either because of the limitations of space or because of the realisation that working life offers so little time to listen to any of it. I still feel a thrill at discovering, nestled in the racks of a second-hand store’s music selection, that instalment of the Rozhdestvensky cycle of Shostakovich symphonies on Olympia which has so far eluded me. Yet, for me, technology has overtaken the record; I spend far more time listening to digital radio and online streaming services than to CDs or LPs. Mine must have been the last generation to discover music, bit by bit, through physical instalments you could hold in your hand. In an age when everything is available everywhere, all the time, where would you start? That really is too many records.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Norilsk: City at the edge of the world

Evidence of the vastness of the world is somehow comforting in a time of viral vacuity and superficial instant commentary on the planet’s least interesting people. So it was with glee that I read about a distant outpost of humanity about which I previously knew nothing. Norilsk is a place known to few but inhabited by hundreds of thousands, a city of such staggering remoteness that the details of the lives of its inhabitants seem scarcely believable.

Established in the Stalin era in northern reaches of Siberia, Norilsk is a city built around some of the richest mining deposits in the world. Nickel and other metals come from the ground in incredible quantities, but life in the city is life on the edge of the possible. Winter temperatures touch -50 Celsius; buses to industrial hubs travel in convoys of 25 for safety. You can’t reach this city by road. In winter (which is most of the time) you can’t reach it by boat either. Planes are the only option. Locals refer to the rest of Russia as “the mainland”. Then there’s the fact that gaining permission to visit is incredibly hard. One extreme-travel forum I read advised those hoping to go, who did not have perseverant contacts within the city, to forget it.

It’s one of a number of cities in Russia which represent a sort of unexplored frontier. Check out Yakutsk, Magadan and Dikson for other remote Russian outposts. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy living in any of these places, but I’m glad they’re there.

Photographer Elena Chernyshova talks about her startling images of Norilsk here:

Do you live in Norilsk, or have you visited? Tell us what it's like in the comments below.