Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Rostropoviches at home

It’s not certifiably a seasonal shot, but you can well imagine the Russian equivalent of a Boxing Day scenario with Slava bowing or strumming while Galina sang – and the kids turned out OK, didn’t they? With Vishnevskaya’s departure earlier this month, virtually all of a great Russian musical generation are no more (though the slightly younger Rozhdestvensky and Temirkanov remain).

True, Russia’s number one diva could be prickly and egotistical - playing endless videos of herself to students at her Aldeburgh course, trying to organize a national uprising against Dmitri Tcherniakov’s ‘desecration’ of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. And she carried on singing roles well past their (ie her) sell-by date, only to astonish everyone with her low-key portrayal of a bewildered grandmother in Sokurov’s haunting film Alexandra.

When Vishnevskaya was good, she was great, at least up until the end of the 1960s. I reproduced on The Arts Desk an interview with her, made in 1988, about her role in Britten’s War Requiem, with a few YouTube clips. I think my favourite, though, is her later recording of Musorgsky’s ‘Where are you, little star?’ This earlier version has a rather oversophisticated orchestration by Igor Markevitch, but the artistry is unmistakable.

Here's an approximate translation for the text, written (it's presumed) by the composer in the style of a Russian folksong, which of course the music evokes:

Where are you, little star, where are you, bright one?
Perhaps you've been dimmed by a black cloud,
A black cloud, a threatening cloud?

Where are you, maiden, where are you, fair one?
Have you deserted your dear friend,
Your dear friend, your beloved?

The black cloud hid the little star,
The cold earth took the maiden.

Vishnevskaya’s was the musical death of 2012 that resonated with me most. I always had reservations about Lisa Della Casa in Strauss - a certain tension in the technique stopped hers being the ideal floaty soprano in his music. And there was a diva in the less good sense, reading about the conflicts with Hilde Gueden on the Solti recording of Arabella (though that's still my favourite). Thinking about writing something on Henze for The Arts Desk, I really couldn’t drum up enough of an all-round portrait, much as I admire a couple of his operas (the symphonies remain unexamined territory). Elliott Carter remains musical anathema – great craft, plenty to comment on there, but it doesn’t communicate to me at all.

Jonathan Harvey’s music I need to get to know – and will do, with the opera Wagner Dream being performed next year (though I do remember talking to him at a Glyndebourne rehearsal of Tristan, which he said thoughtfully had to be the richest score of all, didn’t it?). And now we hear of Richard Rodney Bennett’s departure. Shame the radio tribute had to lead with the pastiche-y waltz from the film Murder on the Orient Express, though that’s the only tune of his I can hum. I loved his duo appearances with sassy Marion Montgomery, too.

(28/12) And Brubeck? How could I have forgotten mighty Dave? I was hoping to find on YouTube the wonderfully bitter-sweet third movement of brother Howard's rather inspired Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra, pitting the Dave Brubeck Quartet against Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, but it's not to be found. So we'll have to make do with the original cover of Time Out, which I nearly wore out in my university years; I owned it in a double set with Time Further Out the second LP.

(29/12) Howard, in the comments below, reminded me of Ravi Shankar too. So I dug out my Ravi Shankar: The Sounds of India disc, in which he gives modest introductions to the melas and the instrumental combinations of ragas. There's also a useful sleeve note by composer Alan Hovhaness. I like the sound of the sitar against the tabla and tambura, of course; I marvel at the rhythmic variations; but my western ear still can't get attuned in the long term to drone-fixed music that never modulates. My fault entirely.

(30/12) There's also the enormous omission here of colossus Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though I did pay homage in A Fish-Sermon Transmogrified. DFD was the only western classical musician mentioned in the BBC Arts and Entertainment's photo-narrative of great departed. That's right, none of the above composers was included. Hurrumph.

As for the Guardian obits I’ve stockpiled, most of the subjects have defied mortality so far, and may they continue to do so.


Laurent said...

The Rostropoviches at home, perfect Soviet Family. A little staged.

David said...

Needless to say, perfect Soviet family they weren't - as the world found out in the early 1970s. Inevitably, perhaps, both became more reactionary in their old age and bowed the knee to Putin as National Treasures.

If the SU had had its version of 'Hello' ('Zdravstvuytye' isn't so snappy) this picture would have been taken for it.

Susan Scheid said...

While it may not seem so, it remains true that I am generally offline & enjoying it. It is only that once again you've offered up such a rich post that it & the related arts desk piece begged to be read. The story surrounding the creation of the War Requiem and Shostakovich's view of the piece are fascinating, for one.

As for Dave Brubeck, how I envy you that you still have possession of that album. I'm not sure, in my case, that I was the rightful owner of the copy in our household, as I grew up in a jazz-centric household and it's more likely my parents had prior claim. But I do claim this dubious distinction: when in a high school music class, I was given a chance to conduct & chose Take Five (always trying things well above my station). I'd counted out the 5/4 beat extensively to the recording and was sure I had it down. Needless to say, the "live" effort was a total fiasco. He'll be missed.

David said...

Bold indeed of the young SS - though I've never understood why conductors have such a problem with 5/4 (I get students to mimic dancers at The Rite of Spring and say 'Sergey DYAgilev' over and over).

I think I burnt my boats over Proms telly appearances by coming over a bit knowally before a performance of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique when Sam West enthused over the use of 5/4 in the second movement: 'I mean, that's Dave Brubeck - who else in classical music had done that?' And I said, I think you'll find there's a wedding chorus in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar of 1836...

Howard Lane said...

1836! I think you've trumped the various letter writers producing "earlier than thou" uses of 5/4, and also a nasty one from a Richard Carter in the Guardian, perpetuating the long running anti-Brubeck prejudice that he "wasn't in the same league as masters like Bud Powell and was sadly overrated". This is like comparing the trumpet technique of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie - as wide of the mark as could be! and ignores the genius of the compositions. Take Five is credited to Paul Desmond who more than rose to Brubeck's challenge to write something in 5/4.

Brubeck said his family were mostly cowpokes who, when they came to hear him play jazz in a club, heckled him to play the old cowboy songs they knew. His father wouldn't come to the concert hall to hear brother Howard's compositions played by what he called the "Sympathy" orchestra because he claimed that walking on the car park hurt his feet.

I only have a replica CD of Time Out (where the disc looks like a mini LP) but I still have a much cherished scratchy original of Play Bach No. 5 from 1967 by another jazz/classical crossover veteran pianist Jacques Loussier, still with us I believe. But not the wonderful Ravi Shankar, don't forget him.

David said...

Of course, Howard, Ravi Shankar, how could I forget him? I'll go and get my CD with the repro of another classic old cover.

I thoroughly agree, you can't compare incomparables.

Has there been a spate of letter-writing about 5/4? I noticed one citing Sibelius's Kullervo, a year before the Pathetique. But Tchaikovsky again got there first, with the 5/4 Sapphire Variation of The Sleeping Beauty (there in Bourne's production, which your young 'uns would love, Carla too.)

David Damant said...

I attended the premier of the War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. Galina V was supposed to appear with Pears ( British) and Fischer-Dieskau (German) but Galina was prevented at the last moment by Madame Furtseva, the Minister of Culture ( though by then not in the Politburo following criticism of Kruschev) Heather Harper took her place but the three nation dimension was lost. This manifestation of power was a principal way in which the Party maintained its grip.....decisions taken randomly for no apparant reason made everyone realise that at any moment they might find the party and the police on their backs. Galina described how she appealed ( to Ekaterina Alexeyevra - showing a certain closeness to E A Furtseva) but to no avail, though she was allowed to come over for a subsequent performance

I heard Rostropovitch play a duet ( I think Shostakovitch) with a young the end they embraced warmly and I was hit by a powerful emotion. We English ( I do not speak for the Celts) are perhaps too restrained.

Susan Scheid said...

Once more into the breach to say I only wish I had come to music as I have now much sooner, and with significantly greater discipline than I did (or do) possess. Just look at all those 5/4 examples you and other commenters have conjured up—and I sit here now even less able to count it out than I could long ago. As to that, I would not say, in high school, I was bold, but rather full of the hubris of youth. Still, I learned a bit, and learned to love Brubeck, so that's something.

But there is another reason I brave the internet to come back and see what has transpired since I wrote last. It becomes now ever clearer why I come back to your insights, recommendations, and reviews again and again. You write of Carter "great craft, plenty to comment on there, but it doesn’t communicate to me at all." Nor to me. And of the great Shankar, "my western ear still can't get attuned in the long term to drone-fixed music that never modulates. My fault entirely." True also of me.

Meanwhile, you've shown a light down the path of so many wonderful branches of music that I've not heretofore properly pursued. Right now, I'm among the Russians, and listening to Tchaikovsky as I never have before . . . thinking perhaps that I DO need to save up for a purchase of the Brilliant set.

Not to mention that, if the vendor can ever manage to deliver the CD to me here (hours on the phone and on the 4th try now; you'd think we lived in Kazakhstan), I have my DQ score at the ready and am looking forward to listening to Strauss. I’d hoped to have the Dresden Der Rosenkavalier DVD in hand for New Year’s Eve, but it, too, has been lost in transit and must be ordered yet once again.

So, back I go to what passes for the "real" world, cup of tea and book in hand . . .

With best wishes for the New Year

David said...

Sir David - I don't think I knew that about your presence at the War Requiem premiere. Hugely impressed. What a time it was - 80 year old Stravinsky returning to Russia shortly afterwards, thanks to the Khruschchev thaw. Then I was born.

Sue - for 5/4 try the magic words 'Dylan Mattingly' if 'Sergey DYAghilev' doesn't work! Rosenkavalier - the perfect New Year's Eve entertainment? Shame you won't have the lovely Schwanewilms to light up the 31st. All seasonal best to you both too, looking forward to meeting you in 2013.

Susan Scheid said...

I promise you I came over here ONLY to make sure my last comment had posted, and then you come up with DYLan MATTingly! Needless to say, had to read that one to the Edu-Mate, and we are laughing our heads off at your unstoppable cleverness. I even had to brush off my dusty arm movements to try it out! Now, back to A Place of Greater Safety (pun intended). Until 2013, then!

David said...

The sound of laughter from across the pond - that's what we love about the blogosphere, surely. Now I must think about one rather more sombre (though ultimately optimistic) personal post to end 2012...Enjoy whatever you choose to do tomorrow night.