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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye

 

Update November 28, 2015

The Scottish influence

Ronald Binge in 1975. (Photo: G Potter)

If you’re Scottish (or even if you’re not), it can’t have escaped your attention that Monday 30th November is St. Andrew’s Day.  Now in case you’d forgotten or possibly never knew, Saint Andrew lived around the beginning of the first century AD and was the younger brother of Saint Peter, or so it says in the New Testament.  Of course, they weren’t saints at the time; just young fishermen who spent their early years trawling the Sea of Galilee.  Then one day, they just happened to meet You-Know-Who and as the cliché goes, the rest is history.

St Andrew has been the patron saint of Scotland at least since the ninth century.  Incidentally, St Andrew is also the patron saint of Greece, Romania, Russia, Poland and the Ukraine so he probably doesn’t have too much free time.  In Scotland, St Andrew’s Day is marked with a celebration of all things Scottish including music, dance and food and of course, one of Scotland’s most famous exports – whisky without an “e”.

But not only whisky: Scotland has also given the world a wealth of folk songs some of which have become known internationally.  The country has also been the inspiration for several composers, notably Felix Mendelssohn who visited Scotland in 1829 and subsequently wrote his Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony.  On his last visit to England in 1847, he conducted this work in front of an audience that included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  Frédéric Chopin also visited Scotland and so did Max Bruch, whose Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra is an all-time favourite in concert halls.

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006): Four Scottish Dances Op. 59. SYO Philharmonic cond. Brian Buggy (Duration: 10:00; Video: 1080p HD)

As a child, I recall my Scottish grandmother listening to records of a Scottish dance band led by the well-known accordionist, Jimmy Shand.  They played dance medleys of relentless jollity and she’d listen to them for ages, tapping her foot with lady-like gentility.  I’m not sure what she would have made of this work, composed in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival.  You can’t mistake the Scottish influence and if Arnold’s music is new to you, this entertaining suite is a good place to start.  It was written two years after the exuberant Scottish concert overture Tam o’ Shanter with which it has much in common, at least in terms of vitality and orchestral colour. 

Written in the slightly unusual 5/4 time, the first movement echoes the dance known as the Strathspey which has the unmistakable sounds of groaning bagpipes and the characteristic abrupt rhythm known as “the Scottish snap”.  It’s a wild-sounding piece but not without the typical Arnold touches of humour.

Musical ideas from Arnold’s film music influence the two middle movements and they’re full of attractive melodies.  The third one contains some remarkably beautiful music and sounds vaguely like a Hollywood take on a Hebridean folksong.  Even so, the sound is magical and really captures the sense of the Scottish landscape, something that few composers have managed to succeed in doing.  Droning bagpipes return in the swirling last movement, which turns into a brief wild and turbulent dance. 

The SYO Philharmonic is Sydney’s most senior youth orchestra and they provide a compelling account of this colourful work.

Ronald Binge (1910-1979): A Scottish Rhapsody. Barton College/Wilson Symphony Orchestra cond. Mark N. Peterson (Duration: 08:02; Video: 720p HD)

Ronald Binge’s musical evocation of Scotland is a good deal more sedate than Malcolm Arnold’s boisterous offering.  Binge was one of the most respected light music composers of his generation and for a time was the chief arranger for the Mantovani Orchestra.  Binge’s best-known composition was probably Elizabethan Serenade but he also dabbled in more conventional forms and his attractive Concerto for Alto Saxophone is now a standard work.  His most ambitious composition is the rarely-heard Symphony in C which dates from the 1970s.

The delightful Scottish Rhapsody was also written for the Mantovani Orchestra and was included in many of its concert performances in Europe and America.  Much of the musical material is the composer’s own but you might recognize two or three genuine Scottish folk tunes.  He certainly had the gift of writing music that evokes the misty countryside and the atmosphere of the Scottish glens.  There are some magic moments too – just listen to the start of the lyrical section at 03:47 when a sumptuous melody appears in the strings.

Incidentally, it was Ronald Binge who invented the “cascading strings” effect, achieved by cleverly dividing the violins so that the parts overlap each other, giving the acoustic effect of an enormous cathedral.  In 1951, his arrangement of the sentimental melody Charmaine used his cascading strings sound to full effect and launched Annunzio Paolo Mantovani and his orchestra to international stardom.


Update November 22, 2015

The wane in Spain

Manuel de Falla.

A short time ago, I suddenly realised that since this column first saw the light of day, it hasn’t featured any music by Spanish composers.  I really don’t know why, because I’ve got nothing against them.  Honestly, I haven’t.  But the fact that after the Spanish Golden Age, the country didn’t produce a single important composer for over a hundred years may have had something to do with it.

You see, Spain’s Golden Age coincided with the rise and fall of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty and those momentous sea voyages of Columbus.  It was a time when Spanish painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature flourished as never before.  Then suddenly, after decades of intense creative activity the great wane began.  Spain started to lose its influence in the field of the arts and became overshadowed on the European stage by new developments in Italy, France and Germany. 

The last great Spanish writer of the period, Pedro Calderón de la Barca died in 1681, a year that’s considered as marking the end of the Spanish Golden Age in the arts.  During the late baroque and classical periods (roughly between 1685 and 1800) although folk music thrived, virtually no Spanish composers achieved European recognition.  What was once one of the most powerful countries in Europe had become – artistically at any rate - a shadow of its former self. 

It wasn’t until towards the end of the nineteenth century that Spanish music came back into vogue but surprisingly, not because of Spanish composers.  In 1875, the French composer Georges Bizet wrote his Spanish opera Carmen and another Frenchman, Emmanuel Chabrier wrote the popular orchestral piece España in the 1880s.  A few years later, the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his Capriccio Espangnol

It wasn’t until the twilight years of the nineteenth century that Spain began to find its musical voice again, through the music of people such as Sarasate, Albéniz, Granados and Tárrega.  Incidentally, we have to thank the composer Francisco Tárrega for the iconic “Nokia Tune” which is a four-bar phrase lifted from Gran Vals, one of his pieces for solo guitar composed in 1902.

The arrival of the twentieth century brought something of a long-awaited renaissance with the music of Rodrigo, Torroba, Turina and Manuel de Falla, who was perhaps the greatest Spanish composer of the twentieth century.  He has been succeeded by a raft of younger Spanish composers who are bringing Spain back on to the musical map.

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946): The Three-Cornered Hat – Suites 1 and 2. National Orchestra of Spain cond. Jesús López Cobos (Duration: 22:08; Video: 720p HD)

If you were an artist or composer during the first decade of the twentieth century, Paris was the place to be.  Manuel de Falla moved there in 1907 and stayed for seven years.  He met and was influenced by Ravel, Debussy, Paul Dukas, Stravinsky, Albéniz and the founder of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev.  Even so, de Falla retained his interest in traditional Spanish music, especially the flamenco music of Andalusia.

“The Three-Cornered Hat” (El sombrero de tres picos) was a ballet commissioned by Diaghilev and was first performed in 1919 at London’s Alhambra Theatre.  It must have been quite an occasion.  Sets and costumes had been designed by Picasso, choreography by Massine and the performance conducted by Ernest Ansermet.  The curious title incidentally, comes from a hat worn by one of the characters in the ballet; a somewhat lecherous magistrate who wears it as a symbol of his calling.

The ballet has a Spanish setting; it uses Andalusian folk melodies and traditional Spanish dances – including the fandango, the farruca and the jota blended together into a kaleidoscope of Iberian colour and lively rhythms.  The two suites (with eight movements in total) were extracted from the ballet music and make for wonderful listening because they include all the major dances.  Even if the title is new to you, I’m sure you’ll recognise some of the familiar-sounding tunes.

Joaquín Turina (1882-1949):  Piano Trio No. 2 in B minor, Op. 76. Jestin Pieper (pno), Brittni Brown (vln), Jonathan Carbin (vlc) (Duration: 16:50; Video 720p HD)

Like almost every other composer of the day, Turina spent some years in Paris.  He was there between 1905 and 1914 and was a personal friend of Manuel de Falla who he’d met back home in Spain and in Paris they moved in much the same musical circles.

Although this short piano trio dates from 1933, the music sometimes sounds as though it’s a product of a bygone age.  It seems to cast a lingering glance back to the piano trios of Haydn and Mozart and it has a wealth of attractive melodies, rapturous harmonies and expressive key-changes.  There are some delightful magic moments too and an unmistakable but sometimes quite subtle Spanish flavour.


Update November 14, 2015

Motorola magic

 

Nikolai Zverev with his young students in the late 1880s; Scriabin is second left, Rachmaninoff fourth from right.

A good many years ago when I was living back in The Cold Country, I decided to buy a new car radio.  I chose a shiny chrome Motorola and although it looked a bit incongruous in the shabby car, it brought me a daily supply of exciting classical music.  The radio had four or five clunky levers that you had to press to change stations.  No more were needed, because back then only a handful of BBC stations were available. 

At the time, my teaching job required a twice-daily drive through London’s snarling traffic and the new Motorola helped me to avoid early insanity.  It was always tuned to Radio Three, which was (and still is) the BBC’s classical music station.  The presentation style was reassuringly old-fashioned and they broadcast plenty of modern music as well as the classics.  The chrome Motorola turned out to be worth every penny.

Recently, a friend told me that he avoided garlic for years because he thought he wouldn’t like the taste.  As a child, I had the same irrational attitude towards baked beans.  I was also convinced that I wouldn’t like the music of Scriabin and assumed that it was opaque and hopelessly difficult to understand.  The composer’s name didn’t help either, because the letters “scr” sounded too close to unpleasant negative words like scrawny, scratch, scrap, screech, and scrounge.  For a long time, I avoided Scriabin like the plague.

That is, until a Sunday afternoon one November when I was driving through an uninspiring tract of South London.  It was one of those damp, dismal winter days for which Britain is justifiably renowned and the leaden skies created a sense of gloom and despondency.  Switching on the Motorola, the car was suddenly filled with musical sunlight: warm and sensuous harmonies, melodic lines of ravishing beauty and a strange but comforting sense of timelessness.

I parked the car and listened to the rest of the work, wondering who could have written such sublime music.  Of course, you’ve guessed.  The music turned out to be by Scriabin.  It was The Poem of Ecstasy - also known as the Fourth Symphony.  The next day I went to the local record shop and bought all the Scriabin records they could offer.

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): The Poem of Ecstasy. Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Esa-Pekka Salonen (Duration: 21:44; Video: 480p)

Scriabin - like Rachmaninov - studied with the legendary if somewhat temperamental and autocratic teacher, Nikolai Zverev.  The Poem of Ecstasy is in a single movement, written between 1905 and 1908 when the composer was actively involved with the Theosophical Society.  This you may recall was co-founded in 1875 by the controversial, eccentric (and possibly deranged) Madame Blavatsky.  Her admirers considered her an enlightened psychic while critics dismissed her as a shameless fraud.  Her claims to have visited various exotic countries were largely fictitious.

Scriabin also had his share of eccentricity and evidently thought he could fly.  He once attempted to walk on the waters of Lake Geneva but was unsuccessful.  Even so, Leo Tolstoy described Scriabin’s music as “a sincere expression of genius”.

Like Debussy, Scriabin often used the whole-tone scale, creating a kind of harmonic ambiguity so that you don’t get a particular sense of key.  By the standards of the time, there are sometimes quite dissonant moments but also passages of rich flowing harmony.  It’s been suggested that Scriabin included musical depictions of explicit sex in this work, but I’ll let you decide that for yourself.  The final section of the work glows with triumph.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. BBC National Orchestra of Wales cond. Tadaaki Otaka (Duration: 16:50; Video: 360p)

I had to thank the Motorola for bringing this wonderful piece of music into my life.  I first heard it long ago - early one morning in September, “just as the sun was rising”, as the song goes.  The music, my mood and the time of day all matched and once again I was compelled to stop and listen.  Often known simply as The Tallis Fantasia, it was first performed at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1910.  The work takes its name from the English composer Thomas Tallis, who was one of Europe’s leading writers of sacred choral music during the sixteenth century.

This music just sounds so English.  It really seems to speak of gentle, rolling hills and summer meadows.  Listen to the magical effect of the opening chords, and then the feeling of suspense as the Tallis theme is played pizzicato on the lower strings.  Masterfully, Vaughan Williams develops this noble melody and weaves it into something completely new. 

The depth of feeling and the sense of Englishness in this music are extraordinary.  Ironically though, this fine performance is given by a Welsh orchestra under a Japanese conductor.


Update November 7, 2015

Estonian voices

Lluís Travesset in 2012.

If you are British or American, you might be surprised to know that the Baltic States, which lie on the Gulf of Finland, are much further to the east than you might expect.  Look at a map of Europe and you’ll see that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are stacked on top of each other between Poland and Russia.  And here’s the interesting thing; they’re on the same longitude as Serbia, Macedonia and Western Greece.  So it’s not particularly surprising that Estonian folk music sits on a kind of musical crossroads between East and West.

Here, hundreds of years ago animistic beliefs met Christianity, and spell-casting songs met Gregorian chant.  Surprisingly perhaps, despite the fact that Estonia is rich in music, the western-style culture of classical composing didn’t emerge until the turn of the twentieth century.  At that time, most of the Estonian composers and performers were educated at Russia’s St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Estonia is roughly the same size as Denmark or the Netherlands but today, it seems to have a disproportionate number of successful composers.  Many of them are writing interesting and approachable music but have yet to be invited aboard the competitive and somewhat overcrowded band-wagon of contemporary composers.  Arvo Pärt is the most well-known internationally and is probably responsible for putting Estonia on the classical music map.

Arvo Pärt has had a fascinating creative life.  In his early days he wrote in an astringent neo-classical style and was influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók.  Then he ventured into a twelve-tone serial technique but this earned the ire of the old-fashioned Soviet establishment and also proved to be a creative cul-de-sac.

Pärt went through a long period of creative and contemplative silence absorbing himself in plainsong, Gregorian chant and early choral music.  Since the late seventies, he has used his self-invented compositional technique known as tintinnabuli a kind of minimalist harmonic style, partly inspired by Gregorian chant.  Pärt’s new-found voice couldn’t be more different from his earlier styles but it’s brought him world-wide fame and had an enormous influence on other composers.

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935): Vater Unser (“Our Father”). Lluís Travesset (boy soprano), soloist of the Escolania de Montserrat with org. acc. (Duration: 03:46; Video: 1080p HD)

In the year 1025, the Benedictine community of Santa Maria de Montserrat was founded near Barcelona in Spain.  It is thought that sometime in the early fourteenth century, the choir school L’Escolania de Montserrat was established.  In modern times the school choir has achieved international recognition and gives daily performances at the Basilica to the delight of large groups of pilgrims and tourists from around the world.  The choir is made up of Spanish boy sopranos and altos, augmented when necessary with lower voices.

Composed in 2005, this beautiful and engaging work uses the German text of The Lord’s Prayer.  In 2011 the composer dedicated the piece to Pope Benedict XVI who you may recall, was Joseph Ratzinger and pope between 2005 until his resignation in 2013.  The work is scored for boy soprano and keyboard and although deceptively simple, gives an insight into Arvo Pärt’s later composing style.  It’s surprisingly moving and potent in its simplicity and directness.  At the time of the recording, Lluís Travesset was a soloist of the L’Escolania de Montserrat.

Erkki-Sven Tüür (b.1959): Ärkamine (“Awakening”) Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Sinfonietta Riga cond. Daniel Reuss (Duration: 38:03; Video: 1080p HD)

If your musical taste runs to something a bit meatier, then you could try this powerful and engaging work by the prolific Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür.  Don’t let the slightly alien sounds of the opening bars put you off because the work has a great deal to offer.

The composer, who studied flute and percussion at Tallinn Music School, was originally involved in a progressive rock band, and for a time he was the most popular rock musician in Estonia.  During the mid-1980s he shifted towards “serious” music and today he’s one of the brightest voices in Estonian classical music with eight symphonies and nine concertos to his credit, together with a wealth of instrumental music.

Erkki-Sven Tüür describes his music as “abstract dramas in sound” which “unfold in a space that is constantly shifting, expanding and contracting.”  His music certainly has a sense of expansiveness with a structure that suggests organic growth. 

This cantata was commissioned for Tallinn as European Capital of Culture in 2011 and the work intersperses twentieth-century Estonian poetry with Latin texts related to Easter.  The work is about the springtime mystery of nature’s rebirth, combining both eastern and western traditions.  Its underlying theme is the human yearning for higher spiritual awareness - something which often dominates the music of Arvo Pärt.  This is a compelling work in which the choir creates a crystal clear sound by singing with almost no vibrato.  It’s a stunningly good performance.

 


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

The Scottish influence

The wane in Spain

Motorola magic

Estonian voices