If you spent your childhood years in
Great Britain it’s more than likely that you came across a series of
children’s books by Enid Blyton that related the summer holiday adventures
of four children and a dog. I refer of course to the so-called Famous
Five although this name wasn’t used until 1951, after nine books in the
series had already been published. Enid Blyton evidently intended to write
only six or eight books, but their huge commercial success encouraged her to
write twenty-one full-length Famous Five novels, as well as a number
of other series on similar themes. She could apparently complete out a book
within a week and sometimes it showed, for the plots and scenarios were
The Famous Five never grew up
with the series; they were locked in childhood forever. The books are still
selling today at a staggering rate of two million copies a year and they’ve
been translated into ninety languages. Yes, including Thai since you
asked. Out of curiosity, I bought a Thai version and wondered what the
average kid in Buriram would make of these privileged, well-educated
middle-class and slightly insufferable kids obsessed with chasing petty
Anyway, let’s turn to another famous
five, Denmark’s best-known woodwind quintet. Known as Carion they
“inject new life into the woodwind quintet genre… promising an extraordinary
concert experience.” They usually play from memory which is remarkable for
any ensemble. This freedom from the clutter of music and music stands
enables them to communicate more effectively with one another as well as
with the audience. Like actors in a play, they use movement, gesture and
facial expressions to dramatize the music and this makes for an unusual and
fascinating performance experience.
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931): Quintet Op. 43.
Wind Quintet. (Duration: 26:45; Video: 1080p HD)
In this performance the audio and the
video were recorded separately. It’s fascinating to see how the performers
interpret the music but if you find the theatricals a bit distracting at
first, do persevere because it becomes clear how the musicians have
carefully choreographed their movements. It really does seem to add an
extra dimension to the performance. Notice how the oboe and bassoon often
seem to have conversations together and at other moments the bassoon and
horn engage in a chat. There’s a splendid dramatic confrontation between
the bassoon and the clarinet at 19:26.
This work is scored for the usual
combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon and was composed
early in 1922. It’s considered one of the finest works of its type and has
a permanent place in the wind quintet repertoire. Nielsen wrote that he
“attempted to render the characters of the various instruments. At one
moment they are all talking at once, at another they are alone.”
This is a melodious and charming work
which I suppose would be described as neo-classical. If Nielsen’s music is
new to you, this would be as good an introduction as any.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Piano Quintet in A major,
D. 667 (“The Trout”).
Barenboim (pno), Itzhak Perlman (vln), Pinchas Zukerman (vla) Jacqueline du
Pre (vlc) Zubin Mehta (db) (Duration: 55:33; Video: 360p)
Just look at who’s playing! You can’t
get much more famous than these people. You might be surprised to see the
conductor Zubin Mehta as the double bassist. This is a wonderful
documentary film by Christopher Nupen made in 1969 when all the performers
were in their early twenties. It records the preparation for a concert at
London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as well as the concert itself.
The first quarter of an hour shows the
artists arriving in London and their first rehearsal. It is wonderful to
see these legendary names so early in their careers and fascinating to see
them in rehearsal together. There are plenty of laughs too, especially as
they lark around in the artists’ room of the Queen Elizabeth Hall before the
performance. Needless to say, the playing is superb and the sound quality
reveals the viola and cello parts clearly. It’s interesting to see how much
visual communication is going on during the performance.
It might seem odd to name a quintet
after a fish, but as with most things, there’s an explanation. Schubert
wrote this work in 1819 when he was twenty-two years old and incidentally,
around the same age as the musicians in the film. The fourth movement is a
set of variations on his song Die Forelle (“The Trout”) which he
wrote a couple of years earlier. Schubert was best-known in Vienna as a
song-writer and the song Die Forelle was something of a hit. His
song-writing skills are very much in evidence in this thoroughly joyful and
tuneful work. Even if you know it well, you’re bound to find something new
and exciting in this wonderful performance.
Vasks in 2007
Right then, let’s begin with a quiz
question to test your geographical awareness. Can you name the nine
countries that have a coastline on the Baltic Sea? Close your eyes and
don’t cheat. To be honest I wasn’t entirely sure until I ferreted out a map
of Europe yesterday morning. If you were to swim around the Baltic coast
from the south-west in a clockwise direction, you’d splash your way past the
coastlines of Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland,
Germany and Denmark. The swim would be over five thousand miles so you’d
certainly shed a few pounds in the process. (Incidentally, there’s no
charge for this helpful slimming tip.)
The Danish, Dutch, German, Norwegian
and Swedish names for the Baltic translate as the “eastern sea” whereas in
Estonian the name translates as the “western sea”. This perhaps is hardly
surprising given the relative positions of the countries. But then the
Finns insist on calling it the “eastern sea” even though the Baltic is
actually west of Finland. It’s all a bit confusing, possibly for them too.
My current interest in the Baltic is
because 18th November is Latvia’s National Day. The Republic of Latvia - to
give the country its full name - was founded on this date in 1918.
Unfortunately, independence was somewhat short-lived because in 1940 the
country was forcibly drawn into the Soviet Union; it was occupied by Nazi
Germany in 1941 and then re-occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. The
peaceful “Singing Revolution” began in the late 1980s and called for Baltic
emancipation which eventually led to the restoration of independence in
The Singing Revolution was an
extraordinary series of events which occurred not only in Latvia but also in
Estonia and Lithuania. If you’re interested, you can find all about it
online but it demonstrated the enormous political power of music. Choral
traditions have always been strong in Latvia. There are many professional
choirs and thousands of Latvians take part in amateur choral groups. Every
five years the Latvian National Song and Dance Festival involves around
twenty thousand singers.
Peteris Vasks (b. 1946): The Fruit of Silence.
Latvian Radio Choir, Riga Sinfonietta cond. Sigvards Kïava (Duration: 09:05;
One of Latvia’s professional choirs is
The Latvian Radio Choir which celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary last
year. It has always had a close collaboration with Latvian composers, one
of whom is Peteris Vasks - often associated with his country’s struggle for
independence. He was born into the family of a Baptist pastor and later
trained as a violinist. He eventually switched to double bass and studied
at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre.
Although his early composing style was
influenced by the music of Lutos³awski, Penderecki and the American composer
George Crumb, his later writing has become deeply rooted in the rich folk
tradition of Latvia which dates back over a thousand years. His works are
clear and communicative, with a sense of harmony and a hint of minimalism.
He’s written a large amount of choral and orchestral music along with three
symphonies and five string quartets.
This remarkably beautiful work dates
from 2013 and it’s a profoundly spiritual setting of a text by Mother
Theresa. The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of
service is peace.
Imants Kalniòs (b. 1941): Symphony No. 4 “Rock Symphony”.
Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic cond. Kristjan Jarvi (Duration:
11.37; Video: 1080p HD)
There couldn’t be a starker contrast
between The Fruit of Silence and the first movement of the Imants Kalniòs
Rock Symphony. Considered one of today’s most important Latvian composers,
he’s already written oratorios, cantatas, choral works, film music, several
operas and six symphonies. Unusually for a “classical” composer he’s best
known for his pop-style songs. During the 1960s, Kalniòs led the rock band
2xBBM which became hugely popular in Latvia. Kalnins returned to writing
symphonic music in the 1970s but still made occasional forays into popular
music writing songs for Latvian rock bands.
The Rock Symphony was composed in
1972. It’s in four movements and you can find the complete work - as well
as the entire concert - on YouTube. The first movement (performed here)
makes a special feature of the percussion section and the music begins
quietly, building up through a long crescendo to the several exciting
climaxes. It’s relentlessly minimalistic and repetitive but has superb
orchestration and a driving sense of rhythm.
Each year, the finest young musicians
are chosen from the Baltic States to form the Baltic Sea Youth
Philharmonic. Guided by its founder and Music Director Kristjan Jarvi, the
orchestra undertakes regular international tours. This captivating
performance was part of a concert given at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in
Paris. This venerable building hosted the world première of Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring in 1913 and thus has the dubious honour of being the scene of
a famous classical music riot.
Ignacy Jan Paderewski
at age twenty-four.
If you happen to be
Polish, you’ll be aware that 11th November
is Poland’s National Independence Day. By the end of the eighteenth century
Poland had been divided up between Austria, Prussia and Russia and
subsequently disappeared off the map of Europe. Over the years, the Poles
struggled to keep their identity despite the fact that in the Russian
district they were not even allowed to speak their own language. Polish
independence is closely connected with the end of the World War I and was
officially announced in 1918 though their troubles were far from over.
“So what’s all this got
to do with music?” I hear you muttering. Well, the reason is that in 1919
the first Prime Minister of independent Poland was a musician. He was also
the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Poland’s representative to the League of
Nations. I refer of course, to the charismatic Ignacy Jan Paderewski who
was a successful composer and a brilliant pianist. The previous years had
seen him give concerts throughout Europe and over a hundred concerts in both
the USA and Canada.
During the First World
War, with the help of US President Wilson and Herbert Hoover, he raised
millions of dollars of American aid for Polish war casualties. Later, as
the representative of Poland he signed the Versailles Treaty which restored
Polish sovereignty after more than a hundred and twenty years. However,
after ten months of being Prime Minister he abruptly ended his successful
political career and returned to music.
Today, Paderewski would
be called a superstar. His brilliant playing created a sensation at every
concert and his name was synonymous with the highest level of piano
virtuosity. He’s one of the few classical composers who are represented on
the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Incidentally, it was Paderewski who said, “If I
miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics
notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.”
Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941): Piano Concerto in A minor Op.17.
Konrad Olszewski (pno), Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra (Melbourne) cond.
Mark Shiell (Duration: 36:11; Video: 720p)
this sparkling concerto in his apartment in Vienna when he was about
twenty-eight. It was 1888, the same year as his triumphant debuts in
Vienna, Paris and London. It’s an exuberant work influenced by the music of
Liszt and Saint-Saëns and remarkably mature, showing a wealth of melodic
imagination. When Paderewski was in Paris, he took the completed score to
Camille Saint-Saëns for an expert opinion. The older composer was evidently
After a lively and
virtuosic opening movement, there’s a gentle, lyrical slow movement with
ravishing harmonies and it’s not difficult to see why Saint-Saëns was so
impressed. Look out for the magic moment in the bustling last movement when
the wind instruments play a beautiful hymn-like melody.
I suppose when most
people think of Polish music, they think of Chopin. Surprisingly this
concerto owes little to Chopin but demonstrates that Paderewski should be
heard more often. He really should be considered in the same league as his
“big three” compatriots Wieniawski, Szymanowski and Lutos³awski.
Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981): Colas Breugnon. Capella Bydgostiensis
cond. Maciej Niesio³owski (Duration: 15:29; Video 480p)
We don’t hear much
music by Tadeusz Baird either. His parents were Scottish immigrants which
is why his surname doesn’t sound especially Polish. From 1977 onwards he
was a professor at the Warsaw Academy of Music and was also on the staff of
the Berlin Academie der Künste. He wrote music for the cinema and theatre
as well as a lot of chamber music and four large symphonies.
You might know the name
Colas Breugnon from an overture by Dmitry Kabalevsky. Colas Breugnon
is the main character in a 1919 novel by Romain Rolland which described
rural life in Burgundy three hundred years ago. Both Kabalevsky and Baird
based their music on the novel. The Baird work dates from 1951 and takes
the form of a six-movement suite “in the old style” scored for flute and
strings. It contains some lovely writing and some wistful and delicate slow
movements in which the rich harmonies might remind you of Barber’s Adagio
for Strings. The remaining movements are charming and dance-like and
make for delightful listening.
is one of the leading professional chamber orchestras in Poland and performs
a wide range of repertoire from the early Baroque to the most recent works
of the twenty-first century.
Oh yes, going back to
Paderewski, there’s an interesting wine connection. Just before World War
1, Paderewski bought a 2,000-acre property - Rancho San Ignacio near Paso
Robles in the Central Coast area of California. He later planted Zinfandel
vines there and when they matured the wine was produced at the nearby York
Mountain Winery. It remains one of the best-known wineries between Los
Angeles and San Francisco.
Fauré in 1905. (Photo: Pierre Petit)
question-and-answer website last week someone asked if he could become a
professional violinist if he started lessons at the age of eighteen. He’d
evidently not played the violin (or anything else) before. The response
from several professional string players and teachers who took it upon
themselves to answer was a resounding “no”. Of course, there’s no reason
why you can’t start violin lessons at that age. You might even
become passably good but you’d be pretty unlikely to ever reach a
Violinist and teacher
Sue Hunt claims that playing the violin is “the most complicated activity”
known to humankind. It’s one of the reasons that top players start young.
The Japanese teacher Shinichi Suzuki pioneered the notion that given the
right musical environment, infants could learn to play the violin if the
learning steps and the instrument were small enough. Some of his beginners
were just two years old. This is unusually early and many string teachers
consider the ideal age to be between three and five. However, an
overwhelming passion to learn the instrument and the ability to concentrate
are probably more important than the physical age.
The trouble is that
there’s such a lot to learn. While the right hand has to develop a range of
bowing skills, the left hand – not normally the one used for dexterous
activity - has to do all the work producing the notes, sometimes in rapid
succession. There is no visual guide on the fingerboard, so the position of
every note has to be learned. Playing in tune is a skill in itself. And of
course, playing the right notes in the right place is only half the story.
It’s obvious that a range of musical and interpretational skills are also
needed if the music is going to make any sense. Clearly, the sooner the
child starts the better.
To qualify for any
Music College at around the age of eighteen, students are required to be
highly skilled musicians. Cellists for example, will be expected to be at a
standard at which they can manage a half-decent performance of two
particular works by Gabriel Fauré and Max Bruch. They’re staples of the
cello repertoire and every student comes across them at some point. But
they are both such wonderful works that studying them is a joy. Well, most
of the time.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Élégie for cello and
orchestra Op. 24.
Anna Grondalska (vlc), Szymanowski School of Music Symphony Orchestra cond.
Marcin Grabosz (Duration: 07:21; Video: 720p HD)
is today perhaps best-known for his Requiem and was one of the foremost
French composers of his generation. In 1880, having just completed his
First Piano Quartet, Fauré began work on a cello sonata and in his usual
manner, started writing the slow movement first. For some reason the rest
of the sonata was never completed and in 1883 the slow movement was
published as a stand-alone piece called Élégie. The first
performance was given the same year at the Société Nationale de Musique
in 1883 and was such a great success that the conductor Édouard Colonne
asked Fauré to write an arrangement for cello and orchestra. The
arrangement was premiered in 1901; the legendary Pablo Casals was soloist
and the composer conducted.
There are several fine
recordings of this work from which to choose but this one, performed by
young musicians from Wroclaw in Poland has excellent audio quality and you
can clearly hear the expressive counter-melodies in the woodwind.
Max Bruch (1838-1920): Kol Nidrei for Cello and
Matt Haimovitz (vlc), Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI cond. Daniel
Oren (Duration: 14:47; Video: 720p HD)
Strangely enough, at
about the same time in 1880 that Fauré was writing his Élégie in Paris,
Bruch was writing his Kol Nidrei (NEE-dry) in Liverpool. It was
published in Berlin in 1881 and the title means “all vows” in Aramaic. It
was one of the first pieces Bruch wrote when he took up the post of
Principal Conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic, composed specifically for
Liverpool’s Jewish community. It’s based on two Hebrew melodies, the first
which is first heard on the solo cello and comes from the traditional
service on the night of Yom Kippur.
Contrary to popular
belief Bruch wasn’t Jewish himself but was friendly with several prominent
Jewish musicians of the day. This evocative music shows Bruch at his best
with lovely melodies sumptuously harmonized. This is a splendid performance
and at 07:12 another melodious treat is in store, a plaintive Hebrew melody
that forms the second subject of the work.
Cellist Matt Haimovitz
was born in 1970 and started learning cello at an early age. He later
studied with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. Rose described Haimovitz
as “probably the greatest talent I have ever taught”. When this recording
was made, he was just twenty-one and already a successful international