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,
Emeralds, amethysts,
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,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
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.


Chris Achenbach said...

David, I just wanted to thank you for "Building a Library" on Saturday. I thought your piece on M4 was a really well-crafted audio essay, and I support not just your opinion on the importance of the slow movement, but also your courage in stating it! Do you remember spending an afternoon in Edinburgh around 22 years ago, listening to M3 and 4? Also, just a thought: do you think Martinu may have been revisiting not just "Julietta" but also memories of his relationship with Vitezslava K? And how much might the two intertwine? Warm regards, Chris Achenbach

David said...

Chris, how wonderful to hear from you after all these years! And I was thinking about you and your love of the Third especially. Oddly enough, Lot was staying here last night with her younger daughter, and earlier they'd met Liz Holt, a neighbour in Saxe-Coburg Place who remembered her through the fabulously-named Poppy Davenport.

But to subjects which may be of interest to others - I'm sure the Kapralova link is important (she'd died in 1940, of course). But I have my own theory that the 'Julietta chords' are not so much about her as about national pride, since the first time they crop up (someone may correct me) is in the blazing finale of Janacek's Sinfonietta, finished in the crucial (for Czechs) year of 1918.

I said all this in my talk before the Martinu 1 on Saturday. I guess you're still living way up north, and not able to pop along for the second instalment this Friday? At any rate you can catch it - and me blethering on yet again, this time to Petroc Trelawney - live on R3, 7pm

All the best to you and yours. I haven't heard from Andrew in years (nor he, I guess, from me).

David said...

Sorry, not Sinfonietta (thought I'd corrected it) - Taras Bulba is what I meant (the fact that both end equally fabulously may have something to do with it.

But now it's late and our downstairs neighbours seem to be arm wrestling in cohorts, so either I go and tell them to keep it down or try and go to sleep.

Geo. said...

I'm guessing that you plan to catch all 6 BBC SO concerts with the Martinu symphonies through the season. Over on this side of the pond, I've only been able to hear one Martinu symphony live, the Fantasies symphoniques, some years back. I also heard it live once in Prague at the Rudolfinum, with Paul Freeman conducting.

David said...

Yes, Geo. - and I'll remain ubiquitous, talking before each one. It does seem a long time to wait between 2 this Friday and 4 early next spring, but that's Jiri's busy schedule for you.

At least on your side of the pond you can hear them on R3 - Friday's concert goes out live.

You can catch Gardiner conducting Fantaisies Symphoniques in Prague, too, though that sounds like a mesalliance to me. Mind you, our expert Bachian reckons he can tackle Puccini and Rachmaninov, so anything goes...

Colin Dunn said...

I was at the same concert as you with the Mozart, Musorgsky, Mahler and Martinu and I'm interested, and curious, to note how you responded to the Mozart. I thought that the BBC SO and Belohlavek rather went through the motions - a shop-bought version, rather than anything special. The Mahler was alright. Musorgsky was OK and worth revisiting. But the Martinu took my breath away. The opening paragraph of the first movement with its slow-paced harmony was splendid, and throughout the symphony Belohlavek's performance was very revealing of Martinu's placing of orchestral colour at critical moments.

Bring on Martinu 2 tomorrow. I hope my old suspicion that he never quite recovered from the creative rush of the First Symphony is banished.

David said...

So - yet anothe person who was there and whom I didn't see. Do come along to the talk on Friday at 6 if you can get away from the office on time.

I feel Jiri's Mozart, though more understated than his Haydn, has a lot between the lines and is very elegantly phrased (like his Beethoven Pastoral at the Proms).

Do you really think that about Martinu? Each of the six symphonies is special in its own way. I have come to love the much smaller-scale Second, for the Dvorakian way its slow movement starts before losing its way - a delibeate decision on the composer's part - and the hyper-bright finale.

So you don't buy the 'greatest slow movement of mid-20th century' tag on the Fourth either?

JVaughan said...

In case you would be interested, our Marine Chamber Ensembles concert this coming Sunday is to include Martinu's _Duo_ _No._ _1_, _Three_ _Madrigals_. Is this also a work you like? Two other items on this programme are VW's _Six_ _Studies_ _In_ _English_ _Folksong_ and Saint-Saen's _Septet_, with at least the infectious Finale of which I am somewhat familiar. I am obviously _DELIGHTED_ that they came up with three works connected with my experiences this month, and look forward to attending should a health issue not unduly intervene. Then, the following day if all again goes well, we have the Band playing, as it does every year, for the Columbus-Day observance at his statue in front of the Union (railway) Station. The string players for the Sunday concert will come from their Chamber Orchestra, which primarily plays for state dinners and the like at the White House but has also been giving an increasing number of public concerts in recent years. Though they have a _VERY_-small string section, Major Fettig, the Organization's Assistant Director and Executive Officer, decided to have a go at Schubert _9_, and actually made it _WORK_! Half of the Band is now on a West-Coast tour (they tour different parts of the Country each year, the practice having been started by Sousa in the early 1890's, shortly before he left to found his own famous civilian touring band), so Major Fettig will conduct for the Columbus-Day ceremony this year. He is among the most-intelligent musicians I know, as is the Director, Col. Colburn!

J. V.

David said...

There's an awful lot of Martinu chamber music I have yet to hear (which means there's an awful lot, period). Most of it is incredibly imaginative and wins plaudits from the players - only this evening I was talking to BBCSO trumpeter Martin Hurrell who was so grateful to BM for giving him such a grateful instrumental piece to play.

I love the Serenades - there's a superb disc from Ensemble Villa Musica. The combinations are so ingenious.

And did you know he wrote a piece for the Von Trapps? Wonders will never cease.

Anyway, just back exhausted from another colossal programme. The orch played like the Berlin Phil tonight, I thought - but then I would say that, wouldn't I?

JVaughan said...

Regretably the Marine Band's Website has yet to post the programme notes for tomorrow's concert, and thus I cannot find out, and then tell you, when this duo was written. I must therefore wait until tomorrow, health allowing. Yet I can tell you that it is for violin and viola, though, for some reason, the VW is being played by a clarinet instead of his beloved viola, possible shades of the Brahms _Clarinet_ _Sonatas_?

So when did Martinu write this piece for the Von Trapps, before they went into _THEIR_ exile or rather after? If the latter, can it be assumed that it was a gift from one sympathetic exile to others? Someone connected with that family gave a Christmas performance in Massachusetts back in the 90's, and I met her afterwards, though confess to not knowing if she was a daughter, a granddaughter, or, least likely of all, one of the actual Trapp Family Singers. I should probably know this, but do we have any recordings of them? I think Mr. Patrick Hayes, former Managing Director of the Washington Performing Arts Society, actually knew the Baroness.

If this is not too much "Martinu 101," how many Serenades are there, and are you suggesting, as would seem likely, that they are for unconventional combinations? Maybe I should seek out some clips.

J. V.

David said...

The Three Madrigals were composed in 1947. I don't know whether it was this or the Second Duo for violin and viola that my Bulgarian pianist colleage told me so impressed her 10 year old daughter. The programme was full of piano duo plums, but the girl liked the Martinu best! He does tap into the childlike, that's for sure.

The pieces for the Trapp family are the Stowe Pastorals of 1951, including parts for recorders. Another work I have yet to hear.

There are, I think, four serenades, all to be found on the Dabringhaus and Grimm CD I mentioned. Actually the really unconventional piece on the disc is the 1924 Quartet for clarinet, horn, cello and side drum.

How you do work me!

JVaughan said...

So, it is good to know and thanking you _VERY_ much, this duo comes from the same period as the Symphonies and _The_ _Greek_ _Passion_, as does the work for the Von Trapps! I must mention the latter to another correspondent, a fellow-Handelian who is an amateur recorder player and lover of much early music, he also being involved with the National Early Music Association. We meet at Handel and Purcell in particular, but my preferences tend to go forward from there whereas his mostly go backward, thus making for awkwardness at times. Yet he did tell me that more was written for recorders in the 20th-Century than in any period prior to that!

That _IS_ unusual, notably the inclusion of a side drum in a chamber work, though I think I can imagine it doing playful things.

Hopefully I have not overdone the working, and thank you again _VERY_ much for all your help!

J. V.

David said...

C20 recorder rep of course had everything to do with the Familie Dolmetsch (and a little, along with one part of the early music revival, thanks to the Familie Trapp).

Colin Dunn said...

David, I was wrong. Martinu 2 is a magnificent work, and so different from the number one. The scherzo has something of the Tom & Jerrys about it and it made me laugh. And I don't know why the symphony is so little performed when it would be ideal against Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite and Martinu's Oboe Concerto...

I'm looking forward to more mind-expanding concerts in this Martinu symphony cycle.

David said...

Hurrah, Colin! I can't help feeling a bit evangelical about all six. Personally I love Two especially for the incredibly upbeat finale and what, for me, is the brightest final (D major) chord in any symphony...amazing the optimism he could summon up before a temporary crash in 1943.

JVaughan said...

Yet again begging your pardon if necessary, the message which you kindly wrote on this subject seemed unclear to me and an amateur recorder player in London with whom I am discussing this. We are still wondering what a work for the maverick-sounding scoring of five recorders, a clarinet, a violin and a cello has to do with a family primarily, if not exclusively, made up of singers.

According to the notes distributed at Sunday's concert as briefly read to me, Martinu's _Three_ _Madrigals_ somehow relate to old English ones, and yet the work sounds to me like a purely-instrumental one with no seeming connection to madrigals apart from _MAYBE_ the jocularity of the outer movements. I heard a brief hint of Dvorak's "American" manner at the beginning, but no avowed influences after that so far as I know. There was, as one might expect, much double-stopping, and maybe more, plus numerous trills and fluttering figures in the slow movement. Harmonies were restless throughout. Hopefully further hearings would reveal further noteworthy things at least. I would do well to eventually get around to reading up on VW's _Six_ _Studies_ _In_ _English_ _Folksong_ to find out about alternative scorings and five of the six songs which are not familiar to me. Yet I felt they were _DELIGHTFUL_, as VW's folksong-based music usually, if not always, is for me! I enjoyed Piazolla's tango work for cello and piano, and it was good to hear Sergeant Powers play it! The two little works for solo accordion were appealing and musically-played, though I could perhaps either take or leave the duo for two trombones. The apparently-popular Saint-Saens _Septet_ was a pleasure to hear, though the musician in our building who also helps me with certain mundane tasks may be right in regarding it as not especially profound. Again I think I would like to hear the Martinu over.

J. V.

p.s. I re-read your difficult-to-entirely-understand comment several times more, and have I now correctly understood it to be saying that 20th-Century recorder repertoire has everything to do with the Dolmetschs and a little to do with this Martinu work for the Von Trapps? I regretably think my recorder-playing correspondent got things a bit wrong. Yet we still do not know what I asked about avove.
(or rather "above")

David said...

The Trapp family may have started out as just singers, but they soon added instruments and were pioneers of the early-music movement in America. Their programmes included songs and instrumental arrangements, Monteverdi figuring high on the list, I think.

My 'hard-to-understand remark' was meant to imply that they had some input generally in the revival of recorder music, even though Arnold Dolmetsch was the acknowledged pioneer.

But don't quiz me further on this subject, because it's not an area I know much about. I'm more interested in the familie Trapp than I am in recorders...