Monday, 24 October 2016

Neglected Film Composer: Influential, or Just Really Good?

There’s nothing more exciting, at least in my little corner of the world, than researching something few people have ever bothered to investigate. So it is with film composer Gottfried Huppertz, whose remarkable music brings zest and life to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. It amazes me that this music was virtually unknown until the score was revived around 15 years ago, finally putting Giorgio Moroder’s 80s synth pop soundtrack to bed. I’m more amazed, though, that people continue to produce new scores for the film, as though Huppertz’s were anything other than essential.

What frustrates when investigating Huppertz’s life, though, is the tissue of hyperbole and assumption that fills the gaps in what is actually known. Was he really an influence on those film composers, like Korngold and Waxman, who made their way from Europe to Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s? How would we know if he was? In the absence of real tangible connection between their music, or some testimony to the effect that Korngold et al heard and learned from the scores to Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, does this supposition just equate high-quality with influential? The road ahead will certainly involve distilling what is known from what is said, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it.

If you want a taste of Huppertz’s music for Metropolis, try the video above.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Why not follow this blog?

Dear Reader

Either through design or some really inexplicable miscalculation, this blog has been receiving a lot of page views (relatively speaking) for which I would like to thank you. But questions remain – oh the questions! – such as: How did you end up here? Did you like what you read? Might you come back again? And only YOU have the power to answer them, so don’t be shy about commenting, if you read something you like or something that prompts a reaction.

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Sunday, 9 October 2016

All At Sea in the Met's Tristan und Isolde

It is, as shown by all of social media, staggeringly easy to be cynical. As I sat in a West Country multiplex yesterday, though, I felt the snark lift from my eyes and, for a few minutes, basked in the pure technical wonder of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD screening. That I am able to pop along to my local(ish) cinema and watch a 5 hour Wagner opera live and as it happens is a marvellous, nay, miraculous thing.

Staying with the wondrous, the Met sent us a performance of Tristan und Isolde that will, when broadcast on the radio, surely be one for the ages. Nina Stemme gave a wild eyed and driven Isolde that never dipped in pure emotional and vocal projection. Stuart Skelton’s Tristan was hugely persuasive too, though a little caught in the shadow of Stemme’s brilliance. The other parts (and there really aren’t that many) were universally winning, particularly Rene Pape’s authoritative King Marke. The real man of the hour(s and hours) was Sir Simon Rattle, who has talked about the lucidity he discovered in the myriad of markings written in Mahler’s personal score of the opera. That special knowledge allowed heft and transparency into the music, but the sense of flow was all Rattle’s own – note the great aborted climax which rips the lovers from each other’s gaze as Marke discovers their treachery, half way through Act 2.

But oh, the rest. Tristan begins at sea, which allows for director Mariusz Trelinski’s modern naval setting. Longing, searching, navigating, whatever, is represented from the off by the circular sweep of a radar beam, which also looks like the safety curtain buffering while the set loads. Within the circle, the thrusting prow of a ship pounds the waves like a particularly wet nautical dream. Water and flame are motifs throughout, glimpsed first in flashbacks cut like an amateur homage to Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom they were recurrent and pleasingly baffling symbols. And a great churning projection of the sea reappears whenever things get, you know, a bit choppy. Trelinski seems really uninterested in representing or heightening the emotional state of the characters, setting Act 2 in a massive dingy cargo bay, with Tristan and Isolde bumping into what look like toxic compost bins as they paw at each other. And by Act 3, the visual ideas have dried up almost completely, save for a lighter-wielding 10-year old (some sort of health and safety violation, surely) and a brief episode in a ruined house.

And so while the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera and Sir Simon and a stellar cast carved out a flowing, yearning, exhausting Tristan, the staging returned me to cynicism. Some of what I saw I liked – the big black sun that hovers above the lovers is a really creepy and magnetic image – but if the cinema-inspired Trelisnki is drawing on the symbol-filled films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the images need to suggest an enticing but enigmatic logic in a way that they don’t here. Maybe it’s a production from which more would emerge with repeated viewing, but right now, I just want to hear it on the radio.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Youth of Today

When I started going to the Proms some 15 years ago, there seemed to be a gulf in quality between the playing of some of the regional British ensembles whose appearances were peppered throughout season and the big international orchestras who rolled in at the end. These days, I don’t hear such a gap, and I wonder if the standard of playing hasn’t improved across the board. I recently heard a segment from a recording made in the late 1980s that seemed to confirm this suspicion.

Around 30 years ago, Vladimir Ashkenazy began a series of Shostakovich recordings with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Fourth Symphony was an early entry in that series: it’s a beast and surely enough to give musicians sleepless nights, but some segments of the recording were so poorly played that I struggle to understand why it was ever issued. Indeed, when Decca collected Ashkenazy’s eventual cycle on CD about a decade ago, the original recording of the Fourth was replaced with a new one with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. (It’s only fair to say that I’ve heard the RPO’s playing match that of any of the world’s great orchestras, so perhaps unfamiliarity with the music or some other factor was to blame)

It is, then, something of a sign of the times that a remarkable youth orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic, gives a really bracing performance on Youtube. There must have been some raised eyebrows when the orchestra programmed the piece, but it’s a great success – just listen to the frenzied fugue at 15:17. Gripping stuff.

Shostakovich - Symphony No 4
1st Movement

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

Friday, 30 September 2016

Tristan und The Director

A lot of air has been expended lamenting the decline in column inches given to arts coverage and criticism, so it’s good to see The Guardian Online giving apparently free reign to New York based critic Seth Colter Walls to pick apart the Met’s new Tristan und Isolde at length. NY’s Metropolitan Opera presents the meisterwerk in a production by Polish director Mariusz Treliński, which has met with a fair deal of opprobrium of the sort he encountered in Wales when his noirish Manon Lescaut was staged by WNO. It was a big ol’ mess but there were some fascinating ideas in it, but Seth goes after the way in which Treliński’s new Tristan trivialises the themes at the heart of opera

“That the director prefers to make his own pictures take precedence over the sounds and words of the opera is, in itself, notable. More important – and more quizzical – is the fact that director has elected to make an opera-wide fetish out of such a minor point in the work. The great length we have to travel for a reveal of such jaw-dropping inconsequence is just one mark of how turgid and unrewarding this staging can feel.”

But what I really like about Seth’s long-form takedown is that it does what I always wished criticism would do when I was a nipper, feeling my way into the critical language. Early in the review, he carefully establishes critical criteria, an approach to the subject, and proceeds from this point. Lack of space (and sloppy thinking) usually precludes this hugely instructive approach, but if criticism is for anything, surely it’s to offer a framework through which performance might be understood.

“Directorial license in the world of opera takes place between two poles of extremity. One one side, there is the lighter touch. This less-controversial style involves activist moves that nevertheless seek to harmonize in some way with opera as it has been historically understood. These directorial interventions might include putting the action in a new century, using modern dress, or adding some “framing device” – not in the interest of revising the drama, but rather to make its poetry more readily approachable in the moment. The opposing approach might be called the “rewrite” style, wherein the historical intention of the work holds no particular authority, and can thus be stretched, tortured or abandoned at will.”

So often, criticism fails to define its own criteria of assessment, as though the means by which we arrive at a conclusion about a thing might be self-evident. Of course, they’re not.

As for Tristan, the Met’s seems to have the fairly common sight of musicians (among them Sir Simon Rattle, Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton) soldiering on valiantly against the tide of directorial concept. Opera lovers around the world will be able to judge for themselves on Saturday 8th October, when the production is broadcast live in HD to cinemas.

Now go and read the whole review.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Star Trek to the oddly familiar

Image result for britten benjamin stamp
I grew up loving this, so was moderately surprised the first time I heard this.

Where does homage stop and plagiarism begin? Probably here.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

More Oistrakh, More Shostakovich

Fortunately, David Oistrakh’s valuable collaborations with Shostakovich came at a moment able to capture their development in the studio and in the concert hall. In one case, it was even able to capture composer and performer on the phone – more on that later.

The First Concerto is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most frequently listed piece in the Oistrakh discography, but at least three other pieces – the Second Violin Concerto, the Violin Sonata and the Second Piano Trio – received recordings by the great violinist.

Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op 67 (1944)

Oistrakh recording with the composer comes pretty early in the Oistrakh-Shostakovich relationship, indeed shortly before the time that Shostakovich began working on the First Violin Concerto and it’s tempting to think we might be hearing part of process that led to the composition of that masterpiece:

1946 – DO with Dmitri Shostakovich and Milos Sadlo (released a number of times on CD; most easily available on the first volume of Doremi’s Oistrakh collection)

Violin Concerto No 2 in C# minor, Op 129 (1967)

The story goes that Shostakovich intended to mark Oistrakh’s 60th birthday with another violin concerto, but was a year premature. Given the piece was written only seven years before Oistrakh’s death, in 1974, we don’t have as many recorded performances, but we have the rather significant recordings of both the official premiere (preceded by a few “unofficial” performances) and the Western premiere from London, a concert under Eugene Ormandy apparently organised at short notice. And for the really keen, it’s worth seeking out Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary David Oistrakh: Artist of the People?, which includes a remarkable phone conversation following the first performance between Oistrakh and Shostakovich, in which the composer comments “it’s as though I was playing it myself!” 

Violin Sonata in G major, Op 134 (1968)

Oistrakh’s actual 60th birthday was marked with the terse sonata and, remarkably enough, a recording exists of Shostakovich and him playing the piece in the composer’s home. Oistrakh then made the piece a part of the recital repertoire he played with Sviatoslav Richter, another remarkable Soviet musician, but one with a more distant relationship with Shostakovich.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Oistrakh Hunting Season

Classical music seems simultaneously very good and very bad at documenting itself. You want David Oistrakh playing the Brahms Concerto? Count the ways. You want a definitive list of his recordings, studio and live? Forget it. For this is the frustration of one caught, as I am, in the grip of an Oistrakh-hunting obsession: clues and signs and no definitive answers to exactly what he played and quite when he played it.

More specifically, I’m trying to ascertain just how many Oistrakh performances of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto are out there, on the way to writing something about the performance history of this piece. Shostakovich wrote the piece with Oistrakh in mind in 1948; indeed, it was while writing the concerto that the composer was denounced at a meeting of the Union of Soviet Composers. Shostakovich tucked it away and waited for a better climate, which came, in 1955, as the cultural thaw was beginning in the wake of Stalin’s death. Shostakovich conceded to a few alterations suggested by Oistrakh, and the concerto was premiered in October 1955 with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky. As far as I can tell, the first recorded performance seems to have been a tape of an early concert in New York with the NYPO and Dmitri Mitropoulos on New Year’s Day 1956, the day before the concerto’s first studio session. The studio recording has been rereleased a number of times, most recently by Sony, but the live broadcast seems only to have been released in an expensive box of NYPO broadcasts which, while I’m very interested to hear, I’m not £100 of interested.

Then there’s a 1956 live concert tape from Vienna published a few years ago by Orfeo, followed by a more familiar studio recording with the Leningraders and Mravinsky at the end of the year. Mravinsky and Oistrakh then appeared at the 1957 Prague Spring Festival, this time with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (a rare away match for Mra). We then jump to Edinburgh in 1962 for a live recording with Rozhdestvensky, which has been widely available for years via BBC Legends. I recently found a filmed performance from 1967 with the unexpected accompaniment of Heinz Fricke and the Staatskapelle Berlin. And then it’s to 1972 for Oistrakh’s final recorded performances of the piece – apparently a concert with Maxim Shostakovich and the New Philharmonia and a subsequent and easily available studio version with the same team, via EMI.

All in, if these performances all really exist, that’s nine recorded performances of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto by David Oistrakh:

January 1st 1956 – Live performance with NYPO and Mitropoulos (Released in a 10CD set from the orchestra’s own label)

June 21st 1956 – Live from Vienna with Leningrad PO and Mravinsky (Orfeo CD)

1972 – Live with New Philharmonia and Maxim Shostakovich (mentioned in this review)

1972 – Studio performance with New Philharmonia and Maxim Shostakovich (EMI)

The only one I’m dubious about is the first from 1972, as I’ve not seen any reference to any release. I’m quite sure there must be more broadcast performances tucked away in archives and it seems very likely that the 1955 premiere performance was taped, but what we have represents a remarkable record of the evolution of a performer’s way with one of the great concertos of the century. If you know any more, or can shed light on that 1972 live performance, leave a comment below.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Roger Chesterfield: Dreaming of Schubert

Veteran record producer and music critic Roger Chesterfield encounters one of history’s greatest, and apparently crankiest, musicians.

I think what began as a late-evening snifter must have turned into two or more likely three, and before I knew it – bound volume of the 1957 Gramophone on my lap and snoozing dog at my feet – I drifted into that special slumber only the older bottlings of Highland Park seem to induce. Perhaps it was the fascinating article on exposition repeats in Schubert’s later works (The Gramophone, April 1957, p.44), but the glow of the fire beside me seemed to transform into a somewhat murky scene of an enticing gathering of people, cut through with a particularly splendid turn at the piano (Schubert’s Deutsch 960, if I’m not mistaken), somewhat beyond the range of my vision. And as I approached the congregation, I happened upon a smallish plump figure standing apart, looking on with an air of depression.

I must say, I spoke before really realising just who I was addressing, but as I uttered the words, I identified my interlocutor with nervous delight.

“I say, odd place for a party”, I blurted.

“Some party when one’s music is trashed with chat and giggles!” said the man with something approaching irritation, and as he turned, so appeared the face of Franz Peter Schubert himself! Somewhat dumbfounded, I stammered and stuttered a little and received a look shot through with ire for my efforts.

“Do you presume to add further to the barrage of nonsense currently destroying my greatest work for the keyboard?!”

I replied that I did not, and then, understanding that I might not have caught Vienna’s most unfairly unloved musical son at the best of moments, remembered that on meeting one’s heroes, it was wise to pose some pressing question while the opportunity remained.

“I say”, I began, “I suppose you might not be aware, but your music is rather more appreciated in my day than it ever was in yours” – a softer look and a nod now for the great man, which I took as progress – “but I wonder if I might ask just one thing. It’s always bothered me, you see, and Alfred Brendel says it’s acceptable, but is it really alright to forgo the exposition repeat in the B flat Sonata? I imagine Brendel is as qualified to say as anybody, but it just isn’t cricket…”

I trailed off, sensing from Schubert’s tightening features that the tricky matter of exposition repeats was not the fruitful topic of conversation it seemed at so many meetings of the editorial board of Historical Record Quarterly. The next words seemed to explode from his pursed lips with all the pent up bile of one subjected to an entire Lang Lang concert:

“One question. ONE QUESTION!” – shouting now – “and that’s your question?! Don’t you people have ANY sense of priority? Not “Oh, dear Franz Peter, why was your life so tragically cut short?” Or even “Oh, how ever did you plan to end the Unfinished”? No, just more of this inane obsession with repeats and dynamics, as if I didn’t already have to spend an eternity fielding endless such irrelevances from Johannes Brahms.”

There was, needless to say, a fairly grim atmosphere developing that even the fairly blunt Chesterfield social radar had no trouble detecting. I uttered some faltering apologies before he cut in, this time in a more conciliatory manner:

“No, no, the apologies should be mine. It isn’t unreasonable to ask, but, my friend,” – I liked that, liked that a lot – “does it really matter? Play the repeats, don’t play the repeats, it’s all still there in the score. And after all, it isn’t as though anyone can’t read the score, is it!” This didn’t seem the time to inform him of the twenty-first century’s lamentable levels of musical literacy. “It’s more important that you feel and think and listen than worry about whether everyone heard the exposition the first time around. This is exactly what I’ve been telling Brahms, but his brain seems to be diminishing in inverse proportion to the size of his beard. Oh dear, here comes the cloth-eared buffoon now."

This seemed a bit harsh, especially given my recent acquaintance with some of Brahms’s splendid but neglected choral works, but as the elderly figure shuffled in our direction, the vision of the gathering and of my young Viennese companion faded, robbing me of the chance to enquire about Brahms’s recent fortunes with Clara Schumann. With a start, I snapped out of sleep as the ’57 Gramophone struck the floor, waking both me and the dog. I wondered blearily if I should raise these thoughts on the always-controversial issue of repeats at the next Historical Record Quarterly editorial meeting. Given, though, that William Fitz-Tuckwell’s recent contention that applause might be appropriate between the first and second movements of the Emperor Concerto had very nearly ended in bloodshed, I reasoned that perhaps my own fireside encounter with Schubert might not be accepted as the last word on the matter.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

13 years on, Rattle and the Berlin Phil back at the Proms

In some ways, Sir Simon Rattle’s Berlin adventure has run in parallel with my own engagement with classical music. We’re not totally alike – he’s a hugely in-demand musician touring the world with some of the planet’s finest musicians; I didn’t get out of bed today until half 10 and haven’t so far left the house – but his first visit to the Proms with his Berlin band came as I was just falling in love with the sound of an orchestra, and I’ve tried to catch his Proms visits ever since. It was with some alarm, while queuing on Prince Consort Road under a grey London sky, that I realised that that first Rattle/BPO visit was in 2003, 13 years ago. Still, the sound of a mobile phone cutting across the opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring is still fresh in the memory.

This year, he brought a pair of concerts that seemed to mirror the programming concerns of his two 2003 Proms. Prom 64 (September 2nd) weighed heavily under the mass of Mahler’s difficult Seventh Symphony, preceded by Pierre Boulez’s Éclat. This 1965 piece shimmers and judders with a fluid discourse of piano, a smattering of orchestral instruments, melodic tuned percussion and mandolin and guitar. The way Boulez’s limpid textures flow and stop, seeming to hang in the pauses like a freeze-framing of rapid nature, is entirely his own, and the handling of colour is very impressive, but for a man held by some as the defining voice of post-war classical music, Boulez’s insights seem slight to me. As someone who once covered an very long weekend of Boulez (including anexcellent Q&A with the man himself), I feel I’ve heard enough to satisfy myself that I don’t hear anything other than technique and aesthetics, nothing of the grab-you-by-the-collar immediacy of Xeankis or Ligeti  or (to further compare apples and oranges) Lutoslawksi. The fact that I feel quite so nervous writing this reflects the extent to which some in the contemporary music world would disagree.

But as a piece of programming, Éclat made perfect sense. Mahler’s Seventh also features guitar and mandolin, and Boulez’s own advocacy of Mahler was undoubtedly very important. There’s also a sense that the scale and the particulars of the Seventh must give conductors as many sleepless nights as must the prospect of tackling one of Boulez’s orchestral scores, because the Seventh is an ungainly beast that left even Mahler authority Deryck Cooke scratching his head. Essentially, it doesn’t offer the same kind of titanic emotional journey found in the Sixth or the Ninth and ends up with a rather silly sounding finale that must give conductors nightmares. Rattle played the whole thing pretty fast and pretty straight, not pretending there was any hidden depth beyond the surface drama of the first movement or the atmospheric landscapes of the central three. Mark Valencia summed it all up very well here.

The following evening, rain kept down the queues and got me to near the front of the arena for a much more satisfying aural treat. Rattle brought a new piece by Julian Anderson (who had to climb under a barrier to reach the stage and shake Maestro’s hand), an entire set of Dvorak Symphonic Dances (too much of a good thing by some way) and Brahms’s Second Symphony. The Brahms brought out the best of the Berliners’ playing (though a moment of miscoordination in the finale had Rattle nervously trying to pin down the beat) but I felt the momentum ebb away from the first movement and, while beautiful, found his attempt at Brucknerian monumentalism in the second rather distancing. Still, there’s a sense when Rattle’s in the hall that this is the Proms at its best, and it will be a shame if, given his looming move to the LSO, it’s his last with the Berlin Phil.

To finish with an aside, the issue of applause is always a tricky one, and I may one day put down my own thoughts in writing, but one audience member hit a new low but shouting “Bravo” and applauding loudly as the Berliner’s ploughed into the final chord of the Brahms. There are many words one could use, but arrogant and rude are the two that I’ll stick with for now.