Saturday 30 September 2017

Out of Time: The Music of Alfred Schnittke

When I was a nipper, just getting the Russian music bug, it seemed that Alfred Schnittke was the natural successor of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and all those other Russian composers who had broken into the Western cultural consciousness. You don't seem to see his music on disc or in concert all that much any more, however, and I'm not sure why. I've written something over at Bachtrack, though, with the hope that you might be tempted to fire up the YouTube and dip into the music of this challenging but very rewarding composer. Here's me getting a bit florid on the subject:

"Schnittke’s music is nervy, fragile, and its textures delicate stuff. Even at its most vigorous and agitated, it seems that if we could hold it to the sun, light would bleed through. Past and the present exist together here. Like cities, all music is built on the ruins of the old, but in Schnittke, the sound of centuries otherwise lost to us is still there, like ancient wallpaper revealed where new layers have peeled away. The frisson is in the ragged overlap between both; neither old, nor new, but something else, a distant memory that resurfaced just a moment ago."

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

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.