Sunday, January 29, 2012

Music with no name

We all impose our own associations, thoughts and mood on music. Critics and writers can often be so sure in their view of what a piece represents that it is given as fact. The four note motif which begins Beethoven's fifth symphony, for example, is supposed to represent fate knocking at the door; a description which both helps and hinders our appreciation of the work.

Titles given to pieces, often by publishers, assume and insist on a particular interpretation. So it used to be almost impossible for me to listen to Beethoven's sixth symphony without thinking of the painting on the front cover of the Penguin edition of Far from the Madding Crowd. Not because the music itself makes me think of sheep in winter, but because for me, pastoral means Hardy and Dorset. It was only when I discovered that the painting, by Joseph Farquharson, is called 'The sun had closed the winter day' and hangs in the Manchester City Art Gallery that the connection was broken.

Chopin did not give his compositions descriptive titles and insisted his publishers didn't either. He leaves the listener to make his own connections and perhaps different connections each time he listens. Whilst romantic, Chopin doesn't insist on any particular interpretation.

What better way then to explore romanticism without preconceptions than with Chopin and who better to explore with than a pianist widely regarded as the greatest Chopin specialist. Artur Rubinstein was born just 38 years after Chopin died and like Chopin was Polish. His 1930s recordings of Chopin's Nocturnes are regarded as definitive.

Once again proving that these old recordings are great value, Amazon are offering the Naxos edition for just £4.99.

Gathering Dust

In his lifetime, J S Bach was better known as an organist than a composer. So in 1721 when he presented his six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg his purpose was not to promote their performance but, by creating a favourable impression, to gain employment. In fact neither performance nor employment followed and the manuscript was to gather dust for 13 years in the Margrave's library until his death in 1734. Even then the quality of the compositions was not recognised. The music was included for valuation in a job lot with other manuscripts not worthy of being listed by composer and remained undiscovered in the Brandenburg archive until 1849. The concertos were finally published in 1850, 100 years after Bach's death.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Scratch Ensemble

Bit of a delay as disc one of the first set from Amazon had a scratch which ruined the third movement of the third concerto. Thankfully, the returns and replacement process is very efficient and a pristine set arrived this morning.

If this is an authentic sound then listeners of the eighteenth century were spoilt rotten. I suspect the musicians brought together by Mr Pinnock could knock spots off most players from Bach's era.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What next?

What next? Let's go back in time to the Baroque era (1600 to 1750) and Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Choosing music from this era is complicated by two different approaches. Purists insist that the music is authentic which means being played on traditional instruments. Others, less hidebound, have a more open mind. In the early days of authentic recordings the results could be truly awful as few musicians had the technical skills to master early instruments. But increasingly these instruments are now played with panache by a growing number of specialist performers.

Getting the sound right (in so far as that is ever possible when reproducing music from an era without recorded music) for some is just the beginning. Baroque music can seem cold and clinical - more like an exercise in advanced mathematics than audio art, but this is how a number of experts think it should be. Whilst some interpretation and colour is inevitable, there are those who will go to great lengths to avoid the 'cankerous growth of romanticism' as Gustav Leonhardt put it.

After a bit of research, I'm going for a middle way. I want to experience something of the 'original sound' but I don't want a dull, flat recording.

Trevor Pinnock, a highly respected harpsichordist, in 2008 put together a group of renowned Baroque performers and then had a rollickingly good time in the studio producing an outstanding CD (AV2119 - £13.99 from Amazon).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


I have another excellent recording of Elgar's cello concerto with Julian Lloyd Webber and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Yehudi Menuhin (PH 416 354-2). Menuhin famously interpreted Elgar's violin concerto in a way which had Elgarians complaining it lacked the austerity required of the work. He is not afraid to push the envelope and his interpretation of the cello concerto is perfectly fine. Julian Lloyd Webber gives a polished and impressive performance. But the measure of du Pre's version is that it makes this, and I suspect most other recordings, seem pedestrian and tame.

Listening to du Pre is like hearing the piece for the first time. It is utterly compelling and irresistible. The run in the first movement at 2:25 (and again at 6:55) feels positively indecent as she reaches the climax of the phrase before a lingering pause as we wait for the orchestra to complete the sentence in reply.

There is something in the tone du Pre manages to extract from the Stradivarius which seems to anticipate her personal tragedy. Eight years later she would be forced to give up performing as multiple sclerosis robbed her of sensation in her fingers and the world of a rare talent.

Listening to the recording for the first time she was unhappy with the result - not how she wanted it to sound - but she leaves behind a truly legendary recording, which has been superbly remastered by EMI.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

CD 3

The second decade of the twentieth century did not give way to modernism entirely. There was still plenty of romantic music to come. For my next CD I'll choose a romantic classic by an English composer.

In the summer of 1919, at the age of 62, Elgar was in the autumn of his life. He was not in the best of health and writing what would would be his final flourish of great music. The initial theme of his cello concerto came to him as he regained consciousness after an operation to remove an infected tonsil. It is a piece noted for its melancholic and anguished character. Elgar was an old man looking back on his life, deeply affected by the slaughter in the Great War.

In 1965, at the age of 20, with everything to live for, Jacqueline du Pre had already made the work her own. A child prodigy, she had learnt the concerto in 4 days at the age of 13. By the time of her recordng for EMI with Sir John Barbirolli and the LSO (EMI 556 219-2) she had done more to make it a staple of the cello repertoire than perhaps any other soloist, before or since.

More than most leading recordings, this one defines the music it reproduces. du Pre's inclination was towards a very free and personal interpretation. Barbirolli encouraged her to hold back a little, but the result is still a highly individual performance, charged with emotion.

Once again Amazon offered great value at £5.47 - perhaps people don't want to buy older recordings.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Strange animal noises?

The dogs usually ignore music, unless it's played very loudly when they leave the room. There must be something slightly disturbing in the Stravinsky though. My Cyrus 6 CD player and amplifier teamed with Dynaudio 52 speakers pick out exceptional detail but no enough to explain the behaviour of the Cavalier. He must have thought there were strange animal noises in the background. He started barking, then jumped on my lap and finally dashed off to find his basket.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Try it in the dark

The Stravinsky arrived as promised on Monday. Slightly thrown by the Decca branding until I worked out Phillips had been absorbed into Decca in 1999.

Fantastic recording of an extraordinary piece of music. Definitely early modern rather than late romantic in style. The atonal composition is quite a shock after Beethoven's 5th. Incredibly atmospheric. Try it on a windy night with the lights off in front of a log fire - magical...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Useful websites Useful collection of lists by era, composer and so on. Excellent source for masses of information about composers, music and recordings. Fun site to help identify some of the most popular pieces, including samples and links to iTunes and Amazon.

www.classical Useful background information on composers, music and recordings.

What next

It's time to order the next CD. But what next? Do I stick with Beethoven (there will be more of him in this collection), stick with the symphonic form, stick with the same musical era (classical: 1750 to 1830) or go for something completely different.

I want to be able to compare different styles, eras, forms and composers as I go along, so something different is needed.

The premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was literally a riot. Written between 1912 and 1913, so firmly rooted in the late romantic or early modern era, the piece was a radical departure from the usual Russian ballet music. When Stravinsky played through the score at the piano for the musical director of the Ballet Russes, Monteux thought him 'raving mad'. At the first night on 29 May 1913, early catcalls and booing quickly turned to fighting in the audience. Diaghilev tried to calm things down by switching the house lights on and off while the choreographer, Nijinski, shouted cues for the dancers, who could barely hear the orchestra over the din. Stravinsky walked out and eventually the police had to be called to close down the performance.

Valery Gergiev's recording with the Kirov Orchestra for Phillips (468 035-2PH) promises to be a fresh and lively approach to this remarkable piece. Amazon again offer excellent value at £7.49.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Two recordings

The CD arrived today - slightly delayed owing to the New Year holiday. Whilst waiting I listened to my Karajan recording with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 415 066-2), including on the car CD player on a journey to Bristol and back. This didn't work. The dynamic range of the recording was far too much for the car system. If I could hear the quiet sections over the road noise, the loud sections were deafening and I was constantly adjusting the volume.

The contrast with the Kleiber recording is extraordinary. Just in terms of recording and reproduction quality the Kleiber recording is head and shoulders above the Karajan. The engineers and Tonmeister at Deutsche Grammaphon have really done an excellent job bringing the original 1974 recording to life - so much more detail and interest; making the Karajan recording seem flat and dull.

Kleiber adds a lot more character to the piece particularly in the second and third movements. Overall it feels more real - a bit more like the original performance in Vienna, but without the repeats! Karajan is a bit too polished for me.

Not my favourite piece of music in truth; but a must have and a glorious recording.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A cold night in Vienna

The 5th symphony was first performed in Vienna on 22 December 1808. Beethoven conducted a charity concert of his music lasting 4 hours which also premiered the 6th symphony, the 4th piano concerto (played by Beethoven), 2 movements of the mass in C major and his choral fantasy, which was written for the occasion after he concluded the 5th symphony wasn't strong enough to end the programme!

The orchestra, which would have included a large number of amateur musicians, had not been well rehearsed. Playing from badly lit, hand written scores, there were plenty of mistakes. Sections had to be repeated, to the amusement of the audience and anger of the musicians. The event has been described as not so much a concert as an exercise in sight reading. By the beginning of the second half, the audience and orchestra were almost certainly frozen. December in Vienna in the early 19th century was bitterly cold and the theatre poorly heated. It is not difficult to imagine the tired musicians indulging in a glass or two of Christmas cheer during the break and perhaps being less attentive than normal when Beethoven, by then suffering badly from deafness and tinnitus, lifted his baton to signal the start of the most famous bar of music ever written.

We can only guess what the audience made of it. They would certainly have been confused, as the 5th had been wrongly described in the programme as the 6th symphony; but they must have been impressed by an extraordinary night of music.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Buying the first CD

Before buying I did a bit more research on my chosen recording. It was selected as the best recording of Beethoven 5 by Radio 3's CD Review in October 2007 and also by the website,

At £6.02, Amazon offered a real bargain. It's important to get the right edition (catalogue number: DG 447 400 2). Slightly confused at first by there being two versions: one dated 1995 in standard CD format and another dated 2011 in SACD format. Super Audio CD sounds good but a quick google search suggested it wouldn't be possible to tell the difference, so at over £17 the SACD version didn't offer good value.

Getting started

It's a wet New Year's day in Winchester. A good day to start a blog about classical music. Over the years I've bought an eclectic mix of CDs but never in a systematic way. Here's the chance to put that right. It's also a chance to improve on my sketchy knowledge and appreciation of music. Over the next 52 weeks I'll buy a CD a week to build a basic collection of the best classical music available.

There are lots of lists of what to buy. The Internet is full of them. Gramophone and Penguin publish each year a thick catalogue of the best recordings available. I'll dip into as many sources as I can and cover as many different types of 'classical' music as is manageable. I'll aim to pick what are generally regarded as among the best recordings of each piece, avoiding recordings I already have.

I'll also learn as I go about blogging, which I haven't tried before.

Where to start? No point agonising about it. I'll pick something obvious: Beethoven's 5th symphony. My 2004 edition of Gramophone's Good CD Guide lists two recordings as 'legendary': a live recording from 1933 of Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; and a 1974 recording by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Carlos Kleiber. Both CDs include the 7th symphony as a bonus and both are analogue recordings which have been digitally remastered and digitally transcribed. I assume the 1974 analogue recording will be technically better, so I'll go for that one.