Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dyre desire of Light

Heading his manuscript copy of The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar quotes John Florio’s translation of Virgil via Montaigne:  ‘Whence so dyre desire of Light on wretches grow?’ One of James MacMillan’s themes in his lecture for the Royal Philharmonic Society yesterday was how we wretches today, whether religious in the narrow sense of the word or the wider, still desire the light that music’s most transcendent passages can offer us. Actually, that sounds impossibly pompous, as JMacM’s soft-spoken, reasonable speech, eschewing all mention of himself in that visionary tradition, did not. I couldn’t quite work out the connection between his opening thoughts on Blake as an example of a broader visionary vein in English art and his central assertion of the importance of Roman Catholicism in Elgar’s life and work, but it was all food for thought. Bust of Beethoven in my shot below there to mark the RPS's 200th anniversary.

It’s true, we do tend to shunt Elgar’s Catholicism rather to one side, even in discussing the composer’s most overt assertion of his faith in Gerontius (though what more do you want than the Jesuits’ ‘A.M.D.G’ - ‘Ad majorem Dei Gloria’, ‘To the greater glory of God’ - at the top of the above page?). But perhaps it’s also true – a point not addressed yesterday – that the Catholic fervour which came from Elgar’s mother, and certainly not from his staunchly Anglican father, dwindled in later years. I can’t find the quotations I want, but I still have the hunch that the 'single short remark' Elgar made to Ernest Newman on his deathbed so ‘terrible’ that the younger man never repeated them to anyone might have been ‘I lost my faith in God’ (more frivolously, on hearsay, I’d wish it to be ‘I always preferred young men’, but no more of that).

No matter; the speech threw up plenty of points for discussion and, as Jude Kelly in fine presenting fettle said, we could have sat and talked for another hour. Nice to chat briefly to The Man afterwards, and I’m hugely looking forward not only to hearing his Oboe Concerto again in Glasgow on Friday – he will be elsewhere – but also his new Viola Concerto, due to be premiered by Lawrence Power as part of The Rest is Noise festival. I think I’m right in saying, at least from checking the index, that Alex Ross in his book of that name doesn’t give a single mention to MacMillan, one of the major voices in music today – and one of my two favourites (Adams being the other, of course).

Two hours later, I was in the chair alongside venerable composer Anthony Payne, whom of course we have to thank among other things for that rather miraculous realization of Elgar’s Third Symphony, and Heather Wiebe, Virginia academic newly arrived at King’s College London. Our moderator was Tom Hutchinson of the RPS, and the theme, supposedly, was 'The Edwardian Empire: Society and Culture', obviously with special reference to the performance of Gerontius due to follow in the Royal Festival Hall.

I was wrong in thinking that Heather was there as the cultural historian; she, too, is a musicologist, this time specializing in Britten. So we all had to readapt as we launched our little presentations by way of a start. Frankly, I think the esteemed AP should have gone before me, for clearly I’d stolen some of his thunder with the line about Elgar the European; but I also managed to contrast that with the perceived notion of the court composer to Edward VII. And in any case, Anthony was so genial, wise and good at batting the ball back and forth that it all became a delightful discussion in praise of our composer’s terrific originality. Maybe an antagonist could have stirred it all up more productively, but we had fun – even if I seem to have blanked out chapter and verse in all the after-euphoria (hoping there’s a recording. 15/7 Just discovered there is, here on soundcloud, thanks to The Rest is Noise festival's impressive soundarchiving. James's talk is there too).

We were all of us, JMacM included, seated in what’s supposed to be the royal box for Elder’s performance in the evening. I can’t say it moved me much. This conductor works so hard on revelatory textures, gleaming in the hands of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and is a superb chorus master, there with every word for the LPO Chorus and the Clare College Cambridge singers who served as the semichoir. But he doesn’t strike me as having the natural tempo rubato which late romantic music like this requires. Everything seems dotted and crossed with excessive precision; you can see the wheels at work. And sometimes he’s just too slow, in the tradition of his beloved Goodall, which sank the Angel’s Farewell for me, resplendently as the ever-dependable Sarah Connollly delivered it.

I did love Paul Groves’s hard work on extracting every inch of meaning from Cardinal Newman’s text, though, and in pushing his far-from-Helden voice to the right limits of agony and exultation when needed. The clarity of this truly world-class score came across beautifully. But for me, the desired light never quite shone. Have gone over to Sakari Oramo’s Birmingham recording at home to find out what was missing, and there is all the magic in all the right places.

So, from ‘A.M.D.G’ to Bach’s ‘S.D.G.’ (‘Soli Deo gloria’, ‘Glory to God alone’). Much less heavy weather results from this week’s Sunday cantata (someone told me Radio 3 is following the same calendar as I am; I had no idea). ‘Alles nur nach Gottes Willen’, BWV 72, is one of the short cantatas for the third Sunday after Epiphany* - short, it's argued, because the choir would have got very cold at this time of year; they were allowed to slope off before the hour-long sermon. Lucky them; in my treble days we had to sit and read Commando comics under the desks.

God’s will as exemplified, perhaps, in the day’s reading from Matthew 8 about Christ's healing of a leper (mosaic above from Monreale), is all there is to it. So it makes for a rather complacent sequence, shorn of questioning or suffering The striking minor-key launch of darting, rather agitated strings slightly undercuts the chorus’s sentiments (‘All only according to God’s will’); the music was re-used, not so interestingly in my opinion, at the start of the Gloria in Bach’s G minor Mass, BWV 235.

The alto reaches to the still-lively heart of the cantata. His/her recitative turns to arioso in the nine lines beginning ‘Lord, if thou wilt’ and moves almost seamlessly into the aria with the addition of two solo violins to the cello and continuo line, fugueing in one of the ritornellos. There’s a simple, dancing soprano number and a chorale based on a text by Albert, Duke of Prussia and an old French theme used in a cantata of the previous year, 1725. There – I’ve got off lightly this week**, but I’m looking forward to being tested rather more by JSB in weeks to come. Here's another from Suzuki's Bach series, Robin Blaze replacing Sara Mingardo whom I heard on another instalment of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage 2000.

*As 'Uncle Toby' points out below, I've got my church calendar in a muddle. This year we miss out on the third and fourth Sundays after Epiphany. This is Septuagesima, so I'll have to add another cantata. But that gives me the excuse of two more (fourth Sunday and Sexagesima) next week.

**Clearly not. The Septuagesima candidate I have to hand is 'Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn', on an altogether grander scale. Shall do my duty willingly some time this week


Uncle Toby said...

Is today not Septuagesima?

David said...

Lordy, you're right - these annual variations are confusing to a non-churchgoer. I think I'd left Septuagesima out of the reckoning. Annoyed enough to have to miss the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany; now I'll have to catch up.

Laurent said...

Thank you for all the nice music I am discovering thanks to your blog.

David said...

My pleasure. I think we've just crossed over posting remarks, so just to add to your photos of skating Ontarians and the Waldteufel that Meyerbeer arr. Lambert accompanies visuals of the Ashton
Patineurs in a >January 2011 entry here.

Susan Scheid said...

Am down in NYC and Spotify-less (just an old-fashioned stereo & CD player here, how times have changed), or I would have leapt right over to Spotify to listen to some MacMillan. I think you're right that Ross doesn't mention him: perhaps an addendum is in order, eh? I only learned recently of MacMillan and have not done more than dip in once or twice. Based on your estimation of him, this is something I'll need to correct. (A MacMillan piece will be part of the Juilliard Festival of British composers, but, alas, I'm booked that night.)

Now, as for Elgar, soon as I read your post, I pulled from my CD stock here and am now playing the CD we own (LSO/Barbirolli/Baker/Lewis/Borg). Such a beautiful piece. Would have loved to hear the discussion you participated in.

Continue to enjoy your Bach series (I don't have the faintest which Sunday is which, but I love your descriptions and choice of art accompaniment. The mosaic is lovely.)

PS: should you decide Howe is indigestible, no one would blame you! Somehow, her preoccupations and sensibilities have captured my imagination, but her poetry is definitely a puzzlement, to say the least.

PPS: added this Over There, but a MOOC=massive open online course. Had the errant thought of a MOOC on music by David Nice. I'd be right in line for that!

J. Vaughan said...

I was just on Twitter moments ago, and, as has been happening since yesterday, came across more reviews of Sir Mark's LPO Gerontius from this past Saturday. When I followed the link to The Rest is Noise, I found yours, and indeed have been thinking of writing to you since, a few days ago, I received an unofficial CD copy of a 1983 live performance from Moscow, conducted by Maestro Svetlanov and with Miss F. Palmer, Mr. A. Davies and, yes, Mr. N. Bailey as soloists. Subsequent research informed, or refreshed, me that this was first issued on Melodiya LP's but presumably never on official CDs. Do you know this performance? I recall reading about it in the Elgar Society Journal, where, I think, a member of the LSO Chorus, which, with the soloists, was imported for the occasion, reported on it. I think, to be avowedly-unoriginal, that a good time was had by all, another work performed having been Belshazzar's Feast, though presumably not in the same concert.

I was prompted to have a go out of curiosity about Mr. Bailey, and, while I feel he was not bad, he was not the best I have heard either, he not putting his pianissimo, which I feel he used so effectively in the first Solti Meistersinger, to use at "where they shall ever gaze on Thee" at the end of the Angel of the Agony's solo. I expected Mr. Davies to be more-consistently heart-on-sleeve than he was, and I think he could have been more expressive with his words in places, but again he was not overly bad either in my opinion. Though I admire Miss Palmer much, particularly as a mezzo, I was not especially looking forward to her Angel, and yet she may have been, overall, the best of the lot (I have never heard Miss Connolly sing that role).

You may not have been moved by Sir Mark's performance this past Saturday, but what about his recording, one of my two current favourites, the other, it may come as no surprise, being the 1964 Barbirolli? Maestro Oramo's recording seems controversial, if not rather unliked, and two performances of The Apostles which I heard him conduct left me rather-cold, though he was the first conductor in my recalled experience to take "Turn You to the Stronghold" faster than the slow tempi adopted by Sir Adrian and Maestro Hickox.

In the package with this Svetlanov Gerontius came Sir Mark's Proms Apostles, which I bought for study purposes at a price less than that for the commercial recording from Manchester. So far, though he may have the better soloists overall in both performances, his reading has left me cold in the main (I feel the same about his Kingdom, I still preferring Sir Adrian's), I MUCH_preferring another unofficial recording made personally for me, of the Cleobury from last year's Easter at King's. He sticks closer to what I currently-understand the score to request, and, while a fair amount at least is made of Sir Mark's authentic shofar, Dr. Cleobury's seems more authentic, crudity and all!

As for Mr. MacMillan, I have yet to explore any of his music, though at least three people I respect, including yourself and another who heard this past Saturday's Gerontius, Mr. Robert Hugill, like his work to varying extents. The third individual especially-likes what I understand to be his most-popular work, a percussion concerto based on the familiar carol, "Veni, Veni, Emanuel." As for Mr. Adams, the correspondent who recorded the Cleobury Apostles for me, and much else (including the recently-re-discovered Proms Meistersinger), also recorded the Proms Nixon in China, into which I have only dipped slightly thus far. I have heard, and recall liking, at least bits and pieces of his setting of Whitman's The Wound-Dresser.

David said...

Sue - the key MacMillan pieces would seem to be The Confession of Isabel Gowdie and the percussion-and-orchestra concerto Veni, veni, Emmanuel. As I've recorded here in the past, I was most swept away by the shock of plot and music in The Sacrifice, which is the only opera apart from Nixon in China which I've experienced close to the premiere as a possible masterpiece certain to last (this rules out, of course, the fascinating but ideas-thin Birtwistle and Ades's fitfully engaging Tempest).

The Barbirolli Gerontius certainly has a great deal of the spirituality I missed on Saturday. And Baker is, of course, peerless (though I'd like to hear Alice Coote sing the Angel).

Glad the Bach series has some encouragement. I'm happy, as I wrote, to 'do' a Septuagesima cantata as well before the week is out.

Tomorrow I'll return to Howe with some time to spare.

JV - I'd heard of the Svetlanov Moscow performance, and I experienced his Gerontius in London, but it dragged and didn't convey the necessary intimacies. In fact I now remember little about it.

Elder in Elgar I am not fond of; as I suggested, something to do with his lack of tempo rubato, though he prepares extremely well. His Apostles and Kingdom I discarded, along with Hickox's, since who needs more than Boult in these works?

I hope you like Nixon in China - it's extraordinary and surprisingly richer than it might seem on a first hearing (he soon leaves minimalist premises behind). I'd love to hear the very moving Wound Dresser - a piece I know Sue loves - in concert.

Howard Lane said...

Alex Ross makes his excuses about not attempting to be comprehensive and making "certain careers stand for whole scenes" in The Rest Is Noise, so we must allow his ignoring of James MacMillan. I'm not qualified to judge whether JM follows in the footsteps of Max but that's how I see him. I remember a superb performance of Veni, veni Emmanuel with Evelyn Glennie (a prom most likely) but I'm less convinced by his melding of orchestra and rock in some of his other work, even with the great John Scofield.

Unlike Frank Zappa, also barely mentioned by Ross, who performed with large ensembles combining very intricate arrangements with jazzy abstractions, avant-garde improvisations and out-and-out blues and rock. I would have thought he fitted in much better with Ross' Mixing It agenda (remember Robert Sandall and Mark Russell's show? cancelled by somebody fatuous at the Beeb - now they've got rid of Mike Harding too, shameful - but I digress).

Although to be fair Zappa was a purist who didn't mix it up too much unless it was to quote his beloved Stravinsky. He wrote in many different styles and his orchestral works are strictly that - no electric guitars or drumkits. Lots of percussion though. He was a drummer before he was a guitarist. Boulez was a big fan and produced the best versions, as did the Ensemble Modern.

I wasn't clear what you meant about MacMillan and the other one being Adams - your favourite living composers? Now I think I see you are referring to their operatic works, more so than Birtwhistle - and Max?. Not heard much Adams - I have an old Harmonium I must dig out - rather overshadowed by Reich (and Glass but less so), although of course their similarities are really quite superficial.

There was a worth-a-listen-if-you-can-fit-it-in radio play on Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, yesterday evening, still available of course.

Colin Dunn said...

Dear David,

Thank you for your wise comments on The Dream of Gerontius. I saw you in the Royal Box as I sat up in the balcony, and I wondered what you were making of it.

Yes, it was a performance with dotted i's and crossed t's, but I enjoyed it enormously with paragraphs of it still rattling around in my mind as I write two days later. The Angel's Farewell was too slow, and Sarah Connolly was tugging rather, wanting to push it on a bit. But how the work made me ponder Elgar, his place in music in the late nineteenth-century, his fascinating harmony, his relationship with his wife’s family, the relationships between the creative and theological milieu at the time, and his use of motif (Bruce and I had a long discussion about it afterwards).
At the end of the concert a comment came into my mind. After the premiere of one of Elgar's symphonies, a lady leaned over to Frank Schuster (about whom a biography deserves to be written). “Who taught this man Elgar?" she enquired. Schuster beamed and replied "Le Bon Dieu, madam."

Your key works of James MacMillan's are right: Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Veni, Veni Emmanuel. There are great moments in Confession where he jacks up the harmonic tension like the proverbial pressure cooker, and then releases it with a different tonal centre, or a new texture.
But I'd also include Tuireadh (a clarinet quintet, also for clarinet and string orchestra) and his choral works - A New Song, St Anne's Mass, and A Child's Prayer. And a quick read of the chapter on witches and witch craft in TC Smout's A History of Scotland would be wise to get a flavour of what the poor soul Gowdie and her kin endured.

David Damant said...

If one listens to Macmillan's Mass, written for Westminster Cathedral's celebration of 2000, one can perhaps see the relevance of Belief to a composition.

Listening to the prayer consecrating the bread and the wine, tears flowed from me. The only other time was when listening to the recognition scene in Electra at the ROH, with Sue Bullock but I have foolishly forgotten the Orestes

[PS Do you have the 1662 Prayer Book? Covers the cycle of the year in pulverising detail]

David said...

Howard - though MacMillan owes a lot to Max, I'd like to think he is in a different class of communicating. I had a big Max turnabout: having spent years writing notes on new pieces for his website run by the Arnolds, I came to teach a class on him and realised I didn't even like the popular pieces. There are some interesting works in the canon, all the same.

No, Adams and MacMillan are the greats for me, period. Reich too; Glass I don't think I can listen to ever again after the appalling experience of Satyagraha. You're in for a treat in The Rest is Noise festival when Zappa's score for 300 Motels is due to be played in its entirety. I must investigate further.

Colin - sorry I didn't see more of you both than to wave as you passed us having tea. There was certainly a lot to admire in that performance, but tears never came to my eyes, and they nearly always do in Gerontius. Elder did highlight the magnificent and sometimes daring orchestration.

Schuster is certainly fascinating - Elgar's best pal after Jaeger died, hugely cultured and gay to whit. I've wondered why Elgar quotes the theme from the Second Symphony he wrote 'for Frank' in The Music Makers at the words 'wrought flame in another man's heart'? But this is my no doubt unprovable hunch that Elgar might have been gay too. There's a much more vocal faction led by my Arts Desk colleague Ismene which claims that Elgar fathered an illegitimate daughter called Pearl.

And, bringing in David - I forgot to highlight MacMillan's choral music. I'm not a fan of the St John Passion, which I found a bit forced when I heard it live. But the church anthems are superb, and a personal favourite is the magnificent setting of his great pal Symmons Roberts, trad poetry and religious text in Sun Dogs. The piece for cor anglais and orchestra about the crucifixion, off the top of my head I forget the title but it's part of a triptych, is stunningly constructed too.

As you know, Bullock in Elektra left me cold. Wasn't Elder the conductor?

1662 Prayer Book is fine for church calendar in broad outline, but no help for the changing years. The big question is how many Sundays after Epiphany we get before Septuagesima crops up - of course it varies according to the timing of Easter. Plus few calendars acknowledge the Latin 'sixth, fifth before Ash Wednesday' namings. Fr Andrew would know

Susan Scheid said...

The conversation over here goes on so rich (to borrow that great phrase from you). I will be back, but for now, perhaps Batter My Heart is a place to start for those new to John Adams: click here(Along with the Wound Dresser, of course . . . oh, and the Harmonium Dickinson settings . . . well, the whole of Harmonium, by my lights. Ah, I see a playlist in the making here. OK, off into to the wilds of the City for now! (Would that it were something more glamorous than an annual checkup!)

David said...

And the whole of Nixon in China by my lights, perhaps on the Met DVD (even though James Maddalena's superb impersonation of the President is vocally very worn now). If newcomers don't like opera, or don't have the time for a big three-act number, Adams's offshoot The Chairman Dances is an effervescent way in.

Green lights much wished - and expected - for the checkup.

Did you have trouble posting, Sue? Others have found that the 'word verification' system isn't working on any Google blogsites at the moment.

Susan Scheid said...

I did have trouble, but all seems well now. (My comment bears the imprint of trying and failing with typos and a cut and paste of my website meant for the sign-in, not the post.) But the content I stick by and enjoyed coming back to see yet more great conversation--not to mention the new post up just now! All green light, here, thanks for asking. Now off to meet a friend and hear tonight's Brit invasion at Juilliard!

Howard Lane said...

I would love to hear Nixon In China. The snippets I have heard sounded really good. What's your verdict on The Death of Klinghoffer?

Yes Max is quite severe, like Ligeti without the fun. I met him in Orkney and still have a soft spot. I was wowed by 8 Songs For A Mad King, and The Martyrdom of St Magnus which I saw in the 12th century cathedral in Kirkwall.

200 Motels, wow that's a project. I don't think it's a very good introduction to Zappa though. I would recommend The Yellow Shark or Boulez' The Perfect Stranger. Or even better the double CD Civilisation Phaze III. This was his final masterpiece using the computerised synclavier much in the way Conlon Nancarrow used the player piano but with an orchestral palate, interspersed with the Ensemble Modern and voices recorded inside a piano.

200 Motels was a rambling film project, not his best (he succeeded better with later "rock operas" like Joe's Garage and Thing-Fish, both triple albums in pre-CD days). Developed from the tedium and craziness of life on the road it featured Keith Moon with Ringo Starr as Zappa himself. An Albert Hall concert performance was cancelled due to excessive obscenity.

He chronicled the antics of his bandmates and whatever happened to him or interested him and put it all in his music in a kind of Cage-ian challenge to make art out of the everyday - “Anything, Any time, Anywhere for no Reason at All" was his motto.

A concert performance of Civilisation Phaze III - now that would really be something!

David said...

Sue - I await a report of Britmusic in New York (I can't remember which concert it is you're getting - not the big 'un with fabulous Mark Wigglesworth?)

Howard - OK, it's 200, not 300, Motels; again, I was trying to remember off the top of my head but I don't know the film or its music. You're Zapp(a)ing the comments, but in a good way. I must play my long-neglected 'Boulez conducts Zappa' LP.

Klinghoffer - opening choruses unforgettable, but patchy thereafter. And it seems to just stop instead of ending satisfyingly. A brave venture, though, especially in America (even now, for God's sake).

Susan Scheid said...

Still sifting and settling re last night's concert, but I shall report (not the Wigglesworth, that's Friday). Re your exchange with Howard Lane: agreed, agreed on those Klinghoffer choruses (which I believe are the ones on Harmonium-though saying this off the top of my head, always a danger). I recently watched an excellent DVD of the whole opera (which I saw live when first performed, oh what a firestorm that created!). I thought the DVD very good and found the opera exciting to revisit. Agreed, it's not Nixon in China, but still, I thought, well worth taking in. (I also thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Atomic. Have you seen it?) Now I have an embarrassing question: who is Max?

David said...

Yes, I saw Doctor Atomic at ENO and admired it much more than the 'trailer' fragments at the Proms a couple of years earlier had suggested. The Donne setting is a stunner, of course. Alas, we didn't get Gerald Finley but his understudy, who was OK, but still...

That you wonder who Max is reassures me that we make far too much fuss over here of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music and officially our no. 1 composer. He's written a spate of symphonies, concertos, is extremely prolific... and yet I wonder if any but the early seminal pieces will last. I wonder if he's featured in the NY Britfest? And whether he, too, is left out of The Rest is Noise. Wouldn't fret too much if he is...

David Damant said...

It was Master of the Queen's Musick from 1626 until Elgar, but then I remember some Master of the QM - Bax or (I think more likely ) Bliss - put the k back. Then in 1975 ( maybe when Bliss died) the k was removed again. I like the quaintness of the k