Looking back…

This year has resolved itself nicely. On a personal note, only a few months ago I would have assumed this year would end in discontent. The considerable improvement in my state of mind can be attributed to the beautiful things in my life — which, for the sake of this blog, means music. I hope I am not being too self-absorbed. I simply want to affirm what most people reading this already know: what a consolation music can be — how meaningful it is for many of us.

I’ve noticed some changes this year in the way I listen to music. I spend less time sitting at home listening to music and more time going to concerts, playing guitar and composing (however badly). When I first discovered classical music a couple of years ago I was in such an excited rush to hear new music that I approached many composers and their works superficially. Spending more time playing, reflecting, composing, attending performances etc. seems to me more meaningful and lasting than binge-listening online.

When I do listen to music, I close my eyes more often. This is much less trivial than it might sound. I am bombarded with visual stimuli throughout the day and this soon becomes habit-forming. My head in particular has the peculiar habit of jerking about trying to survey the room as if I were doing an impression of a pigeon. On top of that, I’m a terrible fidgeter, pen-chewer and joint-cracker. Closing one’s eyes concentrates the mind to the extent that, with a really good piece of music, I remain quite motionless and totally absorbed.

The highlight of the year has undoubtedly be the discovery of the lute repertoire. I’ve had the privilege of hearing three extraordinary lutenists perform this year (Thomas Dunford, Matthew Wadsworth and Paul O’Dette), then the joy of learning some of this music on guitar, and finally the thrill, just in the last two weeks, of getting my hands on a lute (which I’ll blog about soon).

My favourite concert this year was the early music group L’Arpeggiata performing relatively obscure works by Luigi Rossi (c. 1597-1653). Runners up include The Feinstein Ensemble performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (just two days ago), Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House, Thomas Ades conducting the Beethoven symphonies, and Monteverdi’s Vespers (annoyingly I can’t recall the performers).

I am completely enamoured of this aria from Rossi’s opera Orfeo. L’Arpeggiata performing:

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My Prejudice Against Mahler

I find myself consistently unable to like Mahler’s music. It’s not that I dislike it — I just feel ambivalent, and ever so slightly suspicious. I certainly want to like it, and I believe those who speak so highly of his music. I’m not yet ready to join the small but noisy Mahler backlash, those fed up with how frequently his symphonies are performed.

My feelings about Mahler are not particularly reasoned. It is a musical prejudice of sorts (and not my only one). Most listeners have such prejudices, and I’ve encountered many far more severe than my own. People who only really like Baroque music. People who listen to no music before Mozart (with the exception of Bach). People who have almost totally avoided 20th and 21st century music. People who much prefer symphonies. People who much prefer chamber music. People who can’t stand certain instruments.

One of my musical prejudices is for moderation and brevity. I prefer smaller and shorter music. Musical forms seem to metastasise: orchestras get bigger, symphonies get longer, scores become more prescriptive, techniques become more challenging, the music becomes more complex. It’s quite possible I’ve gained this prejudice as a guitarist. The instrument is a quiet one which, though quite capable of polyphony, is far more limited than the piano. We can pluck four notes simultaneously and strum six. The pianist can play ten simultaneously, and with greater range and far greater liberty. With the exception of the organ, I can think of no instrument more powerful than the piano. It provides the player with more possibilities than any other instrument. For many this is wondrous. For me it’s frightening. I see music as more the product of limitations than possibilities.

All that said, this prejudice does not stop me liking many things that are big and splendid. I adore the symphonies of Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Ives, Vaughan Williams, Pettersson, Tchaikovsky, Aho and many others (as well as the smaller Classical symphonies of course). I like Shostakovich’s symphonies, but tellingly I prefer his string quartets. Beethoven’s symphonies are perhaps bombastic but he achieves this great effect with the most meagre musical material — triads, the simplest of motifs. I also enjoy going to the opera. But operas are made up of a lot of short, often small things with some show-stoppers thrown in. The overture is a short symphony, the arias are seldom too long (do any exceed ten minutes?). I’m tempted to say that my favourite opera is Dido and Aeneas, intimate and a mere hour long, though it could easily be exchanged for, say, Don Giovanni or Madama Butterfly.

Confucius’s favourite follower, the one he thought the most virtuous, was the one who almost never spoke. Indeed I loathe ostentatiousness (though can be guilty of it myself) and the quality I most admire in others is humility and quiet. So it is with music too. Music that goes on and on, the type that seek to excavate every musical inch, bores me greatly. Mahler’s symphonies are that kind of music. Moreover, they are manipulative, pushing me explicitly in a particular emotional direction, teasing me, holding me in suspense for an inordinate amount of time, presenting like a peacock, boastful and grand. They can be annoyingly predictable — that inevitable, elongated swell leading to a loud drum hit and cymbal crash, rather like being hit over the head in slow motion. I prefer music that gets to the point rather than labouring unnecessarily and, perhaps, artificially.

I went to a Mahler concert this week, his Symphony No. 1 ‘Titan’. It ended splendidly, I’ll admit, and prompted rapturous applause within a semiquaver of the last note. Indeed I enjoyed the concert as I do any. The concert hall — even those as flawed as the Barican and Southbank Centre — is a magical place, especially if, like me, you go somewhat infrequently and have to journey a fair way to get there. Almost never has that spell been broken for me, so even when unsure of the music I am still transfixed by it. The Mahler also benefited from its pairing with Berntein’s Symphony No. 1. It was a theatrical symphony, brash, big, shimmering and forgettable. Bernstein was a remarkable educator and conductor but, it would seem, a negligible composer. The Mahler, coming in the second half, was a sort of relief, but far overstayed its welcome. I almost find the Mahler symphonies rude in a way.

I want to end this post with something quite different: a small and delightful rondeau by Machaut, ‘Ce qui soustient moy’. The musicologist and blogger Elizabeth Eva Leach has an excellent post analysing another Machaut rondeau, in which she begins by saying:

Most of the two-part Machaut pieces are rather neglected: you can’t make a dance out of them like you can with the monophonic virelais, and by the time you’ve assembled singers to perform Machaut, you might as well do the pieces closer to a modern four-part texture. As two-part songs are neglected by performers, they’re also neglected by musicologists, who tend to prefer the three- and four-part pieces as if these show evidence of greater artistry in some teleological narrative of contrapuntal progress. *sigh* Ok, off the early music soap box now and down to business!

VIDA Guitar Quartet at King’s Place

Why aren’t there more guitar quartets? The possibilities for new repertoire are exhilarating. How often do you get to hear the works of Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams on guitar? The guitar can be such a quiet, lonely instrument, suitable for neither orchestras nor most ensembles. How wonderful it is to see four of these lonely creatures together, and creating such a big sound!

At least there are a few guitar quartets. And VIDA Guitar Quartet are clearly among the best. I caught them a couple of nights ago. It was a Bach-themed concert: after two contemporary pieces unrelated to Bach, they launched into a fantastic arrangement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, followed by Prelude and Fugue Nos. 2 & 4 by Mendelssohn, Bacanas Brasileiras Nos. 4 & 5 by Villa-Lobos, and two Bach-inspired premieres by Laura Snowden and Howard Skempton. The third movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is on YouTube:

Perhaps it’s my decrepit speaker, but this video, impressive though it is, doesn’t quite capture the extraordinary colour of the quartet. Each part was clearly separated. They could have sounded quite homogeneous; unlike a string quartet they all share the same range, except for one seven-string guitar, and are essentially all playing the same instrument (as opposed to violins, viola and cello). However, with the right musicians the sound world of the guitar is exceptionally varied — the string can be attacked in so many ways. One gets a better sense of this by watching the short promo for VIDA’s upcoming album (the music they are playing is from Light Perpetuum by Laura Snowden):

Following an incredible mishap — a tuner that fell inside the guitar — they ended with piece by British composer Howard Skempton. He titled it Bach variation for four guitars, but it was really an arrangement of a Bach fugue (I forget which one) — the twist being that it used only natural harmonics (except for the chap who lost his tuner; he played the bass line on a seven- string guitar). It was like listening to a music box but without any hint of the mechanical. The sound was warm and round, almost perfect.

As there isn’t a clip of Skempton’s Bach varation, here is VIDA playing Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Warlock was a very strange chap indeed: an Etonian, occultist (hence his surname), composer, writer, and somewhat important figure in the revival of early English music. His pieces were clearly influenced by Elizabethan music and have a certain charm.

Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican

Brexity Brexity Brexity Brexit. This might as well have been the revised title of this opera. That, or A Brexit Fantasia with Purcellian Interruptions. Or more prosaically, King Arthur and the Knights of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee.

King Arthur is an English semi-opera — that is, a combination of theatre and opera where the protagonists are actors and do not sing. As a result, little of the music makes explicit reference to the Arthurian legend, enabling director Daisy Evans to discard the story and in its place create a ‘debate piece’, as she called it, on contemporary British politics.

Her reasoning is thus: King Arthur is a symbol of Britishness; the nationalist sentiments in the opera cannot be convincingly sung by a modern singer in light of modern developments; therefore we need a production that probes and questions. Evans does this through an incoherent miscellany of poetry spoken in between the songs and music (which needless to say she has radically reordered). From the programme:

This production isn’t about King Arthur the legend, it’s about the idea of King Arthur and the values that he embodies. The full title of the original piece is King Arthur or The British Worthy, and what we’re exploring here is whether that really is the model of British worthiness we still want to stand up for.

These kinds of questions are invariably posed by people who already have a very firm answer, but wish to be sly about it. They can always pull a face and feign innocence, saying ‘what, I was only asking a question?!’

The opera began with the singers, dressed causally, descending into the hall like a flock of latecomers. Each singer wore a plastic rectangle hanging from their neck, either in red or blue. A sign to the left of the stage read ‘Leave & Remain’ (later signs included ‘men and women’, and the inevitable ‘us and them’). Narrator Ray Fearon took centre stage and began reciting a poem from Ali Smith’s post-Brexit book Autumn:

All across the country, people felt unsafe.
All across the country, people were laughing their heads off.
All across the country, people felt legitimised.

And so on. This was set up as call and response. Fearon would shout ‘All across the country’ and the singers would shout back ‘people felt legitimised’. The scene ended with Fearon reciting The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers while the singers filmed him with their smartphones.

Later ‘highlights’ included the singers ripping up newspapers — fake news! — and a group of drunken (loutish?) men rowdily singing ‘Old England, Old England, And heigh for the honour of old England.’ One suspects this was meant to ridicule, or at least portray suspiciously, working class patriotism.

Then there was a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the triumphant song ‘Come if you dare’, neither of which one can object to in and of themselves, and the latter of which is one of my favourite songs to sing in the shower (‘Triumphant with spoils of our vanquished invaders!’) The interval came and I left. Fifty minutes of politicised and ‘modernised’ Purcell was already too much. So this is a sort of semi-review of a semi-opera, I guess.

The most annoying thing is that there was no reason for it to be so bad. Superb orchestra, superb cast, superb music, and superb story. But a spanner had to be thrown in the works because the director wanted the production to be relevant. Yet the Arthurian legend is one of the few remaining historic cultural bonds. Everyone knows about Excalibur or the Lady of the Lake. It’s not exactly an out-of-date of irrelevant story that needs to be overhauled in light of contemporary events. But obviously Ms Evans disagrees. She would rather substitute the rarity and wonder of an opera for the banality of politics.

Paul O’Dette at Wigmore Hall

I only found it about it this morning, and impulsively I hopped onto the next train, just managing to get to London in time for this afternoon recital by the great American lutenist Paul O’Dette. The programme consisted entirely of English lute music, including O’Dette’s own arrangements of William Byrd’s keyboard music. It’s a fair representation of the music of the time, often called the ‘golden age’ of English lute music (approx. 1580-1620). Lots of dance music — almaines, pavans and galliards — and popular tunes, alongside Dowland’s two ‘Farewell’ fantasies. The programme is more or less the happier side of the lute, more dance than counterpoint, more extravagance than reflection. None of this is a dismissal of the music — a John Johnson pavan is generally as artful and interesting as a fantasie, though in different ways.

Paul O’Dette played the challenging show-off pieces with apparent ease. The last piece in the programme was Daniel Bacheler’s variations on ‘Monsieur’s Almaine’, a tour de force of tremolo playing and rapid passages. His playing of the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie (P3), a slow, chromatic and contrapuntal piece of incredible beauty, was less convincing. I felt it was too fast, for one, and just not as expressive as, say, Nigel North, who manages to get that warmth and purposeful expression O’Dette somewhat lacks. It probably didn’t help that the piece was repeatedly interrupted by one man’s prolific and unstifled coughing. (This same man, as well as the woman next to him, presumably his wife, was asleep for the first part of the concert, lightly snoring.)

A very pleasant lady next to me said she found the music soothing, which it indeed is, but I also gently pointed out to her that the pieces aren’t so soothing to play, not only because of difficulty, but also because of the remarkable dissonances in pieces like the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie. Though admittedly the lute might need a venue even smaller than Wigmore Hall to be at its most brilliant. I was about twelve rows back, and even there it was beginning to sound a bit distant, despite O’Dette’s loud (and occasionally harsh) playing.

O’Dette is also an excellent writer, so I was glad to see that he wrote his own programme notes. Particularly interesting was the few paragraphs on playing Byrd’s keyboard music on the lute, how much interpretative freedom lutenists gave themselves and some of the technical challenges.

An aside, at one point I saw O’Dette adjust his frets. Lute frets are not fixed; they are gut strings tied around the neck. You can change the intonation this way (the lute is a pre-equal temperament instrument). I have wondered whether lutenists adjust the frets for different pieces, especially for different keys — perhaps he was doing this?