Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Which signifies more Martinu, Mahler, Mozart and Musorgsky arr. Shostakovich in Belohlavek's BBC Symphony concert on Saturday, more Mozart with Mendelssohn from the Jerusalem Quartet on Sunday, and more Musorgsky arr. Ravel down in Cardiff Bay on Monday. I'll throw in poet Masefield as a postscript, too (guess this is going to be another long 'un, my apologies to Cressida and others who bemoan the excess of text - just enjoy the pictures). Above is Martinu's own image of himself as some sort of creature with a beak, adorning the three BIS recordings of his symphonies which included my Building a Library choice of the Fourth. I was going to announce that you can actually get all six for less than the price of two in a Brilliant Classics box for little over £8 on Amazon, but just as I was looking for the link, it seemed to have disappeared.
Saturday evening's concert programme, broadcast on Monday and available on iPlayer for the next four days, was even more cunningly planned than I'd thought - four times four movements, each in effect a symphony. Teenager Mozart's so personable and charming 29th marks a beginning of sorts to the symphonic adventure - Haydn was there already, of course - and Martinu's First represents one of the extreme directions the symphony could take in the 20th century. Jiri, although using more strings than I'd expected, kept the Mozart light and clear; the finale bristled with life.
Flavour of the year Gerald Finley (photographed above by Sim Canetty-Clarke) then gave us a vocal symphony of Mahler's intricately-scored songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. 'Das irdische Leben', a poverty-'Erlkonig' ballad, made a grim first movement. The scherzo, St Anthony's sermon to the fishes, would of course find its counterpart in the Second Symphony, so quirkily and freshly played with weird hiccoughs the other week by the LPO under Jurowski. While in the symphony 'Urlicht' follows, the slow movement here was that greatest of all the songs before the Ruckert Lieder, 'Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen', with its heartbreaking, heartbroken exchanges between the ghost-soldier and his girl. And the donkey-judged song competition between cuckoo and nightingale dominates the finale of the Fifth Symphony. So it was cleverly sequenced, performed with all Finley's slightly reined-in professionalism and perhaps more memorably etched by the pointillist orchestra (I've never heard such detail in these pieces).
It's a bit heretical of me to say I switch off in chunks of Musorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, especially as for some reason I seem to have become the BBC's Musorgsky Man. That unforgettable portrait of him by Repin, incidentally, tells only one, rather late story, though he was getting that way by the time he wrote his greatest song cycle. Anyway, fascinatingly though Shostakovich cordons off the orchestral sections in his orchestrations, I wonder whether the actual musical content always rises to the gist of the poems. But Death as Field Marshal was magnificent, Finley suddenly showing us that he can do the stentorian bass-baritone stuff. I still feel he isn't quite an artist on the edge; does the Canadian in him stand guard? Nevertheless, his was undeniably classy singing.
Martinu's symphony for Kousi (pictured with him above in another shot from the Martinu Centre in Policka) blew us all away. It was, no doubt, very loud and insistent in that way the Barbican always emphasises (play a piano and you get a mezzo-forte). But Belohlavek kept rhythmic energy sharp and clear, could have encored that supreme jazz-tango scherzo and sent us away exhilarated but exhausted. Gosh, Martinu does ask a lot of his listeners as well as his players.
The parallels between Martinu and Mozart fusing childlike naivety with supreme sophistication were reinforced by the Jerusalems' Wigmore coffee morning concert (I'm sorry, but is offering a free glass of sherry likely to attract a younger audience?). Marco Borggreve took this photo of the four likeable lads.
When we reached the ineffably blithe 6/8 finale of the K589 (B flat) Quartet, I was reminded of the chirruping piano and harp who add their say to the first moment of repose in Martinu's finale (about 1hr40mins into the iPlayer broadcast, if you want to pinpoint it). Both composers tap into the inner child but never resort to faux-naivete. Mozart's slow movement, as J put it, reading my thoughts, was indeed 'like bathing in light', one idea pouring forth after another. And I must say that, much as I enjoyed the full-bloodedness of the Mendelssohn quartet which followed, Mozart carries the palm for giving each of the players lovely and personal things to do; Mendelssohn's writing is more orchestral, less individual. For me, the Jerusalems are right at the top of current string quartets for communication, compounding my awestruck ongoing admiration for Faust/Melnikov and the Rasumovskys.
Out of the great grey Babylon on Monday for the western wastes of Cardiff, not as yet one of my favourite cities, for a Radio 3 recording of Discovering Music.
As with Manchester, there's a heck of a lot going on, and if the revamped Cardiff Bay area, feeling as producer Chris Wines said even more desolate than an English seaside resort out of season, is a bit of a dog's dinner architecturally, the facade of the Wales Millennium Centre can hardly fail to impress. Don't ask me what the straw bales are doing in the foreground.
The texts, I was delighted to discover, are by Welsh poet laureate Gwyneth Lewis, whose Sunbathing in the Rain ('a cheerful book about depression') is a little masterpiece. The Welsh words mean 'creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration' and the English reads, simply, 'in these stones, horizons sing'.
It looks good from the side
and lit up at night, even if by the time I photographed it there was hardly anyone around to see it.
I also enjoyed encountering for the first time the BBC National Orchestra of Wales's new 350-seater Hoddinott Hall, exactly the kind of thing the BBCSO needs to replace Maida Vale.
Here I arrived at 4 to go through the paces of my 'guest appearance as Russian music expert' with Charles Hazlewood and pianist Ashley Wass. Ashley was playing not only snippets of Musorgsky's original piano Pictures at an Exhibition - look at the manuscript, hardly the slovenly work of an habitual drunk -
but also two late piano miniatures, 'Une larme' and 'Au village'. I'd written off the 'tear' as salon sentimentality; hearing Ashley play it so feelingly changed my opinion about it completely. As with Ilse Weber's Terezin songs interpreted by Anne Sofie von Otter, simplicity can be of the essence. 'Au village' was fascinating, too: it struck me on the spot that it's a harvest song, with solo and response followed by a dance in which there are several surprising bars of gypsy or Jewish music. Here's Ashley, of whom I want to hear much more, just before he rushed back to London:
Charles and the orchestra did a very characterful job on the Ravel orchestration, not exactly subtle, but very visual: they have a superb first flautist, who peeped masterfully in the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, and the tuba, sax and trumpet solos were all well taken. There's no end to what you can learn about Musorgsky and Pictures. Chris enlightened me with the idea that 'Bydlo' is related to the funeral march of Chopin's Second Piano Sonata. Here he is with Charles after a hard-working afternoon and evening.
And chatting to the very amiable as well as highly accomplished Polish first bassoonist, Jaroslaw Augustyniak, I was surprised to learn that 'bydlo', pronounced 'pidwo' and meaning 'cattle', was a derogatory term of 19th century Polish aristocracy towards peasants, still used by Stalin in the 20th. So the picture of hard labour becomes even more pertinent.
Well, I think we were all happy with the results, which will be up as a filmed webcast in perpetuity as well as a Radio Three broadcast in a couple of weeks' time (tbc). And I enjoyed a steak sandwich with Chris in one of the theme park cafes afterwards, the view
from my luxurious room in 'Cardiff's only five star hotel' - special rates, for those who complain that the BBC is throwing its money around (believe me, it wasn't, for my appearance, at any rate) - and a 9am stroll around the harbour before catching the bus back to Cardiff Central. Here are two brooding shots on a grey morning pierced by silver light from time to time:
And the Masefield? Well, what serendipity that only last week I'd remembered a fellow classics student at Edinburgh University who knew 'Cargoes' off by heart and used to recite it as a party piece. And what a sonorous paean it is, contrasting ancient poetry with modern prose. The reason it crops up is because on Cardiff's Mermaid Quay there are a series of sculptures inspired by what are perhaps Masefield's most celebrated lines after 'Sea fever'.
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon* coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
I don't think Masefield allowed for the starlings on the dirty British coaster, though. And I'm still puzzled why the homage should be there in Cardiff Bay. While Ivor Novello was christened David Ifor Davies in the Welsh capital, and duly honoured with a rather homely monument alongside the Millennium Centre,
Masefield was born in gorgeous Ledbury - not far from the border, but that doesn't make him a Welshman. Maybe it was his time on the HMS Conway that gave him honorary Taffship.
So farewell to the Bay for now. Lucky Welsh to be imminently getting a Mariinsky double bill of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and The Nutcracker - I've provided the notes at an envious distance - as well as a Bryn and Valery double act.
*Forgot about that stanza, so didn't hunt it out among the sculptures to photograph it.