Thursday, May 26, 2016
The Scottish composer James MacMillan has released the text of a speech he is giving next week, recasting organised religion as a radical element in art rather than, as widely seen, a conservative one. He says: ‘From Elgar to Messiaen, from Stravinsky to Schnittke, from Schoenberg to Jonathan Harvey one constantly hears talk of transcendence, mystery and vision.’ Macmillan, a devout Catholic, argues that ‘despite the retreat of faith in our society, composers over the last century or so have never given up on their search for the sacred…’ He adds: ‘Perhaps that search now, as it is for any artist who stands out against transient fashions of the cultural bien pensant, is the bravest, most radical and counter-cultural vision a creative person can have, in the attempt to re-sacralise the world around us.’ Discuss.
St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich Kemal Yusuf’s flamboyant orchestral gestures sounded drastically over-scored at the premiere of his cantata at the Norfolk and Norwich festivalWith the premieres of works such as Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Vaughan Williams’s Job and Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers among its last-century credits, the Norfolk and Norwich festival has a distinguished history of commissioning new works. It’s a tradition the festival is attempting to revive. The first product of that intent was the premiere of Kemal Yusuf’s Cain, which was the centrepiece of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s concert at this year’s festival, conducted by David Parry.Yusuf tells the fable of the Old Testament’s first murder and its consequences as a half-hour cantata. Matthew Monaghan’s text presents it in five compact parts, with solo roles for Cain (baritone Alexander Robin Baker), Abel (tenor Christopher Diffey) and their mother Eve (soprano Jeni Bern); the chorus (the festival’s own) functions as both terse narrator and the voice of God. Yet it is all so schematic that none of the characters are explored in any depth, not even Cain himself. The vocal lines are declamatory rather than expressive, and Yusuf punctuates the text with flamboyant orchestral gestures that sounded drastically over-scored in the St Andrew’s Hall acoustic; far too few of them made a convincing dramatic point, or showed real musical purpose. Continue reading...
New titles, altered words, axed stanzas – composers from Elgar to Vaughan Williams brutally reworked the verse they set, and made it immortalThe composer Charles Wilfred Orr once said of AE Housman that “he wrote verse that was (a) beautiful, (b) scanned, (c) rhymed, and (d) made sense. He is, I think, to English songwriters very much what Heine was to German and Verlaine to French composers.” Heine is one of the most – and most successfully – set of all German poets, and Verlaine has inspired some of the greatest songs in the history of the mélodie. Housman, like Heine, suffered from unrequited love, and developed a simple, direct poetic style, writing lyrically about nature and ironically about humankind. There are more than 160 song cycles based on A Shropshire Lad, and while Housman was unmusical, he always gave permission to composers to use his poems “in the hope of becoming immortal somehow”.Directness of utterance in a poem is almost a prerequisite for a song composer – and explains why Shakespeare, Herrick, Blake, Burns, Byron, Housman and De la Mare have been set so often; and why composers have tended to be put off by Donne’s metaphysical conceits, Browning’s convoluted syntax and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s overly rich and cloying style. Rossetti could have learned a thing or two from his sister Christina, whose short lines and subtly varied rhythms have proved more popular with composers; and Tennyson’s remark about Browning’s Sordello was naughty but telling: he claimed that of its many thousands of lines, he could understand only two – the first (“Who will, may hear Sordello’s story told”) and the last (“Who would has heard Sordello’s story told”) – and that both were lies. Continue reading...
Rodolfus Choir/English Symphony Orchestra/English Chamber Orchestra/Woods (Avie)Elgar’s mature chamber music – the String Quartet and Violin Sonata, and especially the Piano Quintet – seems finally to be getting the more regular performances it deserves. But Donald Fraser’s attention to the quintet has gone farther still, turning the work into a fully fledged orchestral piece, a three-movement symphony, in effect. The model for Fraser’s arrangement was apparently Elgar’s own orchestration of Bach’s C minor Fantasia and Fugue, but it invites comparisons, too, with Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet.Kenneth Woods’s performance with the English Symphony Orchestra certainly shows that it is a plausible orchestral work. As scored by Fraser, certain passages, such as the second subject in the opening movement, immediately connect with the world of the symphonies and the symphonic poem Falstaff – even if describing it as the wartime symphony that Elgar never wrote would be going too far. But while Fraser’s work on the quintet does genuinely seem to give the music another dimension, his arrangement for mixed choir and strings of the song cycle Sea Pictures seems much less successful, losing the expressive identity of the familiar version with solo mezzo, and its range of orchestral colours. Continue reading...
A reader has pointed out this YouTube trailer for the new recording of Donald Fraser's orchestration of Elgar's Piano Quintet which featured here yesterday. If we accept social media reaction as a meaningful measure of audience engagement, then this new expression of Elgar's chamber music masterpiece is engaging a lot of people. Proms founder Sir Henry Wood was a celebrated advocate of orchestrations; which raises the question as to why Ken Woods and the English Symphony and Chamber Orchestras were not invited to perform the orchestration at the 2016 Proms instead of one of the four Mahler symphonies. And if anyone accuses me of repeating myself about the predictable and uninspiring BBC Proms season, I will respond by saying that if yet another appearance by Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, by Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, and Rattle and the Berlin Phil is not repetition, what is? The credo of Sir William Glock, whose strong commitment to the new transformed the Proms, should be painted in bold letters on the wall of the Proms planners' office. Here is that credo as recounted by Robert Simpson*: Glock argued with some energy that the 'central' repertoire was by now continually available at other concerts (of which there were many more than there used to be) as well as on radio or records. This 'freed' the Proms to become a festival of wider reach..."Today classical music is making the grave error in its obsessive search for new audiences of trying only to extend demographic 'reach'. Reach is as important in repertoire, particularly if the core audience is to be retained. However the addiction to demographic reach is truncating repertoire reach, which in turn abrades the vital core audience. But there is a very good reason for this: classical music is locked into a vicious circle whereby the inflated financial demands of the repertoire-challenged celebrity circus can only be met by the income generated by huge audiences. How long before the Proms move to the O2 Arena for stadium Mahler? That quote comes from Robert Simpson's attack on repertoire myopia The Proms & Natural Justice. The quote is somewhat ironic as Simpson was a vociferous critic of Glock's Proms programming, particularly his exclusion of English neo-romantic composers such as Edmund Rubbra. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
The Sufi teaches us that the music is the first thing that changes. When you have ordinary times you get ordinary music, and everything follows the ordinary music. When you have a creative time, that's when you have the powerful, creative music, not just here but all over the world. But when the music changes, when you get the junk and things are copied, you get an ordinary society. That parable comes from the autobiography of African American jazz pianist Randy Weston, and perusing the record company release schedules simply confirms that we live in very ordinary times. But there are notable exceptions, and one is the release this month of Donald Fraser's orchestration of Elgar's Piano Quintet with the English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods. Randy Weston tells how "when you have a creative time, that's when you have the powerful, creative music". The Piano Quintet was composed in the last year of the First World War, a terrible time that, perversely, inspired powerful, creative music. Speaking of the incomplete sketches for his Third Symphony, Elgar famously told W.H. Reed ""Don't let them tinker with it, Billy - burn it!"; which did not stop Anthony Payne realising the Elgar/Payne Third Symphony. But orchestrations and Elgar are less contentious: last year I enthused about the CD of David Matthews orchestration of Elgar's String Quartet with Ben Palmer conducting the Orchestra of St Paul's, and the composer himself transcribed Bach, Handel, Chopin and Parry. Donald Fraser's orchestration of Elgar's Piano Quintet is released on Avie; so once again it is an independent label bringing that rare spirit of delight to the release schedules. Or, to put it another way, I am buying the Elgar disc, but passing on Deutsche Grammophon's new disc of Gustavo Dudamel's score for the Simón Bolívar biopic The Liberator. Elgar described his Second Symphony as 'the passionate pilgrimage of a soul', and the score is headed by a quotation from a poem by Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou spirit of delight!" No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
Sir Edward William Elgar (2 June 1857 23 February 1934) was an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, not only musically, but socially. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer; in Protestant Britain, his Roman Catholicism was regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was acutely sensitive about his humble origins even after he achieved recognition. After a series of moderately successful works his Enigma Variations (1899) became immediately popular in Britain and overseas. His later full-length religious choral works were well received but have not entered the regular repertory. The first of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901) is well-known in the UK and in the US. Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, he conducted a series of recordings of his works. The introduction of the microphone in 1925 made far more accurate sound reproduction possible, and Elgar made new recordings of most of his major orchestral.
Great composers of classical music