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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye

 

Licorice Sticks

The complex mechanism on a modern clarinet (Photo: Bob McEvoy).

“To what?” I suppose you could justifiably enquire. The expression is old jazz slang for a clarinet because of course, clarinets are usually black. I’ve sometimes heard orchestral players use the term but only when they’re joking, drunk or both. When I was a music student in London, I used to share a flat with a clarinetist. Unlike me, he was an extremely diligent student and practised his clarinet for hours every day. When he wasn’t practising he was sorting out reeds with which he seemed obsessed. He used to buy Vandoren clarinet reeds in Paris, returning with several boxes which would then be carefully sorted and graded. This was followed by more hours of practising. All this endless labour paid off because he eventually became a world-class professional musician.

Although the clarinet has a permanent place in the modern orchestra, it wasn’t always thus. And it wasn’t always black, either. The instrument first appeared during the early years of the eighteenth century and it was a clever development of a simple reed instrument called the chalumeau (SHA-loo-moh). The word is still used today to describe the low register of the clarinet. It looked a bit like a wooden tenor recorder to which someone had stuck a few brass levers here and there. By the late eighteenth century more keywork had been added to make the instrument capable of playing more technically demanding music. Usually made of boxwood, these early clarinets were light brown and didn’t acquire the licorice colour (and the complex modern mechanism) until many years later.

The “standard” clarinet is actually part of a much larger family of clarinets some of which are now so rare that they’re encountered only in museums. Nowadays, you can sometimes spot the small E flat clarinet and the bass clarinet in orchestras. The enormous contrabass clarinet rarely makes an appearance. It’s an odd-looking contraption and looks more like a science-fiction military weapon that a musical instrument.

Johann Stamitz (1717-1757): Clarinet Concerto in B flat Major. Jaehee Choi (clt), NFA Project Orchestra cond. Charles Neidich (Duration: 16:55; Video: 720p HD)

Johann Stamitz was one of the most prolific and important composers of the mid-eighteenth century. He wrote nearly sixty symphonies and invented, if that’s the right word, the four-movement symphony which remained a standard format for years to come. In the early 1740s he was appointed as Musical Director to the Elector Palatine whose court was at Mannheim. Stamitz was in charge of the court orchestra and he developed various orchestral techniques (including the rapid ascending figure known as the Mannheim Rocket) and brought the well-disciplined orchestra considerable fame. It was once described by Dr Charles Burney as “an army of generals”. Years later, Mozart heard this orchestra and was especially impressed by the clarinets.

It was once thought that this work of 1755 was the first clarinet concerto ever but modern research has shown this is not the case. The Stamitz concerto is played here on a modern instrument and it’s typical of the court music of the period, exhibiting the much-valued classical ideals of dignity, poise and elegant melodies; qualities from which Mozart would later take inspiration.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra. Martin Fröst (clt), Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 15:35; Video: 720p HD)

Few composers have the gift of writing music that sounds truly American but Copland is one of them. You can almost sense the vision of a vast prairie with distant hills; a pastoral landscape bathed in radiant early-morning sunshine.  Copland started the work in 1947 and scored it for strings, piano and harp. It was commissioned by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman who evidently paid two thousand dollars for the work, a considerable sum in those days. There are just two movements, linked by a cadenza – a standard part of most concertos and usually intended to display the soloist’s technical skills. The first movement is slow and expressive, full of what’s been described as Copland’s “bitter-sweet lyricism”. The cadenza introduces some of the Latin-American and jazz themes that dominate the lively second movement.

This is one of the best recordings around: not only a brilliant soloist but an incredibly good chamber ensemble. Just listen to the sparkling and virtuosic coda section from 14:15 onwards and the thrilling glissando on the last chord! As a teenager, I used to have a treasured LP of this work featuring Benny Goodman himself. But the playing was urbane and over-polite, as though Goodman was attempting to shake off his jazz persona and sound like a “classical” musician. This stunning Norwegian performance is much more exuberant and leaves the old Goodman recording rather in the shadows. Sorry, Benny.

 


Japanese Delights

Composer Yuzo Toyama.

Let’s start with a Quiz Question, so please sit up and look as though you’re interested, especially those people shuffling around at the back. Now then, can you give me the names of three 20th century Japanese composers? This is not too difficult because if you cast your eyes down the column you will see that I have generously given you two names already, but what about a third? Let me try to jog your memory. You might recall the name of Toru Takemitsu who is perhaps the most revered among 20th century Japanese composers. He composed hundreds of works that combine elements of Eastern and Western music and philosophy, to create his own unique sound landscape. More than anyone, Takemitsu put Japanese music on the map.

Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japanese composers have tended to look towards Western musical culture as well as drawing on elements from their own traditional music. Komei Abe was one of the leading Japanese composers of the twentieth century and his First Symphony of 1957 is a good introduction to Japanese classical-music-in-the-Western-style although it’s a curious mix of musical idioms. The prolific Toshiro Mayuzumi composed more than a hundred film scores and if you’d like an entertaining musical experience, seek out his Concertino for Xylophone and Orchestra. Kunihico Hashimoto was another leading Japanese composer whose music reflects elements of late romanticism and impressionism, as well as of the traditional music of Japan. The strange thing is that Japanese orchestral music simply doesn’t seem to have caught on in the West. There’s no obvious reason why this is the case. At least, I cannot think of one.

Yuzo Toyama (b. 1931): Rhapsody for Orchestra. Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Eiji Oue (Duration: 09:54; Video: 1080p HD)

Yuzo Toyama is a native of Tokyo who studied with Kan-ichi Shimofusa, a pupil of the German composer Paul Hindemith. The Rhapsody for Orchestra is probably the composer’s best-known work. He is also known as a conductor and for years held the post of chief conductor with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. In case you are wondering, NHK stands for Nippon Hoso Kyokai - the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. In 1960 Toyama conducted the orchestra on a world tour on which the orchestra performed several of his most popular works. His most important musical influences were probably Bartók and Shostakovich and he is fond of incorporating Japanese traditional music into his work, drawing on folksongs and the classical Japanese dance-dramas of Kabuki theatre. Toyama has written well over two hundred compositions and has received numerous awards in Japan for his contributions to the nation’s musical life. The Rhapsody for Orchestra dates from 1960 and it’s is based on Japanese folk songs in which traditional instruments, including the kyoshigi (paired percussive wooden sticks) are blended into a conventional Western orchestra. You’ll notice distinctive Mikado-like moments from time to time. The work starts with thunderous percussion so don’t set the volume control too high. With excellent sound and video, the performance looks superb in full screen mode.

Takashi Yoshimatsu (b. 1953): Cyberbird Concerto, Op. 59. Hiromi Hara (sax), Shinpei Ooka (pno), Shohei Tachibana (perc), Shobi Symphony Orchestra cond. Kon Suzuki (Duration: 26:21; Video: 1080p HD)

Yoshimatsu is also from Tokyo and like his compatriot Toru Takemitsu, didn’t receive formal musical training until adulthood. He left the faculty of technology of Keio University in 1972 and became interested in jazz and progressive rock music, particularly through electronic means. Yoshimatsu first dabbled in serial music but eventually became disenchanted with it and instead began to compose in a free neo-romantic style with strong influences from jazz, rock and Japanese traditional music. He’s already completed six symphonies, twelve concertos, a number of sonatas and shorter pieces for various ensembles. In contrast to his earlier compositions, much of his more recent work uses relatively simple harmonic structures.

This curiously-named work is technically a triple concerto and the ornithological reference reappears in his Symphony No. 6 written in 2014, subtitled Birds and Angels. Yoshimatsu described this concerto as alluding to “an imaginary bird in the realm of electronic cyberspace.” It’s a concerto for saxophone in all but name and uses a free atonal jazz idiom for the soloists against a conventional symphony orchestra. It was composed in 1993 for Hiromi Hara who performs it on this video. The three movements are entitled Bird in Colours, Bird in Grief, and Bird in the Wind. There’s some brilliant playing from these talented young musicians with a lovely haunting second movement and a joyous third movement with some fine brass writing and a thunderous ending. If you are into eclectic modern jazz this video, with its superb sound and video, will be right up your soi. As Mr Spock in Star Trek might have said to Captain Kirk, “It’s classical music Jim, but not as we know it.”


Just a Song at Twilight

Composer James Molloy (1837-1909)

You can probably sing that famous line even though the song was written before you were born - and probably before your parents were born. The song has an interesting tale behind it. For a start, the words were not written at twilight but at four o’clock in the morning. The insomniac writer was one Graham Clifton Bingham, the son of a Bristol bookseller. He was a prolific writer with 1,650 song lyrics to his name. Just a song at Twilight is the opening line of the chorus to a song called Love’s Old Sweet Song which was published in 1884 with music by the Irish composer James Lynam Molloy. Some of Molloy’s music became so popular in the early 20th century that it gained almost folksong status. He wrote still-famous Kerry Dance in 1879.

Love’s Old Sweet Song was extremely popular during the 1890s when the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were all the rage, especially in London. In 1898 The Gondoliers was premiered at the Savoy Theatre, running for over five hundred performances. It includes a song entitled When a Merry Maiden Marries and the opening bars bear more than a striking resemblance to Love’s Old Sweet Song. When Sir Arthur Sullivan was accused of stealing part of James Molloy’s melody, he denied it with the famous response, “We had only eight notes between us”.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Coro a boca cerrada (Humming Chorus). Schola Cantorum Labronica, Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Andrea Colombini (Duration: 03:18; Video: 720p HD)

Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly has an even more interesting background. The story is somewhat convoluted and I shall try to keep it short. So please sit up straight and try and look as though you’re interested. In 1887 a semi-autobiographical French novel appeared, entitled Madame Chrysanthčme written by Pierre Loti, the pseudonym of Louis Marie-Julien Viaud who was a French naval officer and novelist, known for his stories set in exotic places. The novel told the story of a naval officer who was temporarily married to a Japanese girl while he was stationed in Nagasaki. The plot was based on the true-life diaries kept by the author. The novel came to the attention of the French composer André Messager who used it as the basis for an opera of the same name, first performed in Paris in 1893.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, an American lawyer and writer named John Luther Long published a short story entitled Madame Butterfly. It was also based partly on the Pierre Loti novel and on the recollections of his sister who had been to Japan with her husband. The American playwright and theatre producer David Belasco adapted Long’s story as a one-act play entitled Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. After its first run in New York in 1900 the play moved to London where by chance was seen by the Italian composer Puccini who decided that it would make a good opera and arranged for an Italian libretto to be written. Four years later, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was premiered at La Scala in Milan. Unfortunately, it was not particularly successful, largely due to inadequate rehearsal time. The composer revised the work five times and his final version of 1907 is the one that’s performed today. It has become one of the world’s most popular operas: the tragic love affair and marriage of a naive young Japanese girl to a thoughtless and callous American playboy Naval Officer.

The Humming Chorus is a wordless, melancholy tune heard from off-stage at the end of Act 2 when the Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), her child and her servant Suzuki are waiting at home one evening for the return of the American husband whose ship has just in the harbour. They are unaware of the devastating news and subsequent tragedy that is about to unfold.

Frederick Delius (1862-1934): Summer Night on the River. Orquestra Clássica do Centro (Portugal) cond. David Wyn Lloyd (Duration: 06:37; Video: 1080p HD)

Delius is one of those composers whose musical language you can usually recognise within seconds. In 1911 he composed two short tone-poems for chamber orchestra, the first one being his more well-known On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.  The two pieces were written at the Delius house in the French village of Grez, near Fontainebleau. The garden faced the small River Loing where Delius spent many hours in contemplation. This river was the inspiration for the lilting music of Summer Night on the River. Delius was gifted at creating a sense of atmosphere in his music and in this piece the vague, water-colour harmonies create an impressionistic picture of evening mists settling over the river. You can almost feel the shifting waters, the gentle rocking of small boats, the darkening of the skies and the deepening of the colours.


Minor Thirds

WW2 British air-raid siren.

A long time ago, when I was two or three years old, we lived in an English village not far from the town of Crewe. Every few days, I remember hearing dull, booming thuds which my mother assured me were caused by trucks bumping along the road outside. This seemed a bit unlikely as we rarely saw any trucks in the village. The noise was in fact coming from German bombs exploding in the distance. Crewe was known for its large railway junction and its enormous railway engineering facility for manufacturing and overhauling locomotives. During World War II, military tanks were also built there, so the town naturally became a favourite target for the German Luftwaffe. The air raids were preceded and followed by the distinctive wailing sound of air-raid sirens which were installed in almost every town and village in the country. Sadly, for many people the air-raid siren was one of the last sounds they heard.

At that tender age, I used to tinkle around on my grandmother’s piano. My earliest musical memory was the discovery that the notes B flat and D flat played simultaneously sounded almost exactly the same pitches as the wailing air-raid sirens. I was tremendously excited about this revelation though no one else shared my enthusiasm. Perhaps they were more concerned about the bombs. Years later, I discovered that the notes B flat and D flat create a musical interval called a minor third. You might be wondering what it sounds like, especially if you can’t tell a B flat from a wombat’s armpit. Think of the song Greensleeves and sing the first two notes. Or sing the first two notes of the Beatles song Hey Jude. Then imagine those two notes sounding together. That’s a minor third, assuming that you’re singing in tune.

The distinctive sound of the minor third helps to create the character of music in minor keys. Some people describe the minor key as dark-sounding, soulful or heart-rending. Many folk songs in minor keys tend to stay in the minor throughout, but if a symphony is described as being in a minor key, you can be sure that it will drift into a bright and sunny major key sooner or later. Strangely enough, during the late eighteenth century, composers tended to avoid minor keys. Only two of Mozart’s forty-one symphonies are in a minor key and Haydn, who wrote over a hundred symphonies, chose minor keys for only seven. Only two of Beethoven’s nine symphonies are in a minor key. This might be a reflection of contemporary Viennese public taste because as the Romantic Movement surged across Europe during the 19th century, more symphonies appeared in minor keys. But let’s explore two less well-known symphonies, both in minor keys and both equally rewarding.

Charles Ives (1874-1954): Symphony No. 1 in D minor. The Perm Opera & Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Russia cond. Valeriy Platonov (Duration: 38:39; Video: 720p HD)

Considered the grandfather of American music, Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut. This attractive work is the first of four symphonies and was composed between 1898 and 1902. It’s written in a late romantic European style and the second movement is exceptionally beautiful and moving, evoking an atmosphere similar to the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The scherzo is delightful with a tuneful dance-like trio section while the last movement is a real tour-de-force with thrilling brass writing.

Later in life, Charles Ives was among the first American composers to engage in daring musical experiments which included elements of chance. He also experimented with tone clusters and “polytonality” a word which means music played in several different keys at the same time. However, all this proved too much of a challenge for most audiences and his music was generally ignored, largely because of the relentless dissonance. It was Ives who famously said, “Stand up and take your dissonance like a man.”

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op. 43. Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia cond. Dima Slobodeniouk (Duration: 53:56; Video: 1080p HD)

Scriabin’s Third Symphony is subtitled The Divine Poem and was written between 1902 and 1904. The work marked a significant step towards Scriabin’s personal musical language and has a visionary quality which was only hinted at in his earlier works.

Scriabin liked a massive orchestral sound and at times, he turns the orchestra into an ensemble of soloists; each contributing points of detail to a complex web of sound texture. It’s been suggested that his emotionally-charged, highly personal music reflects the notions of nineteenth century existentialism and the mysticism of the famous, if slightly dotty Madame Blavatsky of the controversial Theosophical Society. Anyway, if you enjoy romantic, orchestral wall-to-wall sound, Scriabin’s Third Symphony will probably be right up your soi.


Sailing the Seas

Goethe (by James Posselwhite)

When I was a small boy and living on a grey island far, far away, there was a framed print on my bedroom wall which displayed the French text of an old Breton prayer. It included the line ma barque est si petite; votre mer est si grande. At the time, I assumed it meant “My bark is so small; your mother is so big”. I pondered the possible meanings of this Delphic sentence for considerable time until my mother gently explained that in French barque means “boat” and mer means “sea”. The Breton prayer finally made sense.

Only the other day, someone reminded me that the word barque is related to the Italian barca which also gives its name to the musical word barcarole. This was a type of lilting song popular with Venetian gondoliers, the triple metre being vaguely reminiscent of the slow and measured rowing strokes used to propel the boat. The word was sometimes used to describe instrumental music in a similar lilting style. The very mention of boats brings to my mind John Masefield’s short poem, Cargoes which begins theatrically with the line, “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir”. And if your maritime history is a bit hazy, I shall leave you to find out about quinquiremes for yourself. Assuming of course, that you feel it’s worth the effort.

Unlike poets and painters, few composers seem to have found inspiration from the sea, let alone boats. Delius wrote a lovely orchestral piece called Sea Drift and both Britten and Elgar used sea themes. Vaughan Williams wrote a Sea Symphony and the lesser-known Granville Bantock composed a Hebridean Symphony. Oh yes, then there’s Ravel delightful piano piece called Une Barque sur l’Ocean. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (GER-ter) was an extraordinary multi-talented individual and was one of the greatest German writers, thinkers and scientific theorists of all time. I mention him because in 1795 he wrote two short and but oddly expressive poems called Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Although they have only eighteen lines between them, these two poems inspired musical works by several composers, notably Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schubert.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 112. Warsaw Boys Choir, Frederic Chopin University of Music Symphony Orchestra, cond. Krzysztof Kusiel Moroz (Duration: 08:50; Video: 1080p HD)

Mention the title and most people will think of Mendelssohn, because in 1827 he wrote an orchestral concert overture of the same name. However, twelve years earlier, Beethoven had set the same poems as a short cantata for choir and orchestra. This small masterpiece has been described as “one of the most overlooked works in Beethoven’s output”. It’s thoroughly charming and beautifully performed by these young musicians from Poland and recorded in top quality video. Incidentally, Beethoven actually knew Goethe well and had admired Goethe’s poetry since his youth.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage mean more-or-less the same thing. But they are exact opposites. In the days of sailing ships, a totally silent, calm sea with no wind was cause for alarm. The first poem is about a ship hopelessly becalmed and going nowhere, while the second one describes how the wind lifts and the vessel joyfully continues its journey towards land.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Overture, The Flying Dutchman. National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain (Main Orchestra) cond. Howard Williams (Duration: 09:54; Video: 360p)

The Flying Dutchman is a Wagner opera about a legendary ghost-ship destined to roam the oceans forever. It was written in 1841 and inspired by a real-life event. In his 1870 autobiography Mein Leben (“My Life”) Richard Wagner tells how he was inspired to write the opera following a stormy sea crossing he made from Riga (now in Latvia) in July and August 1839. It had been a particularly bad year for him and he was heavily in debt. He was forced to leave the country illegally with his long-suffering wife Minna and Robber, their enormous Newfoundland dog. The voyage was neither calm nor prosperous because they encountered mountainous seas and ferocious storms, one of which almost wrecked the ship. The voyage should have lasted a few days but it turned out to be a nightmare lasting three and a half weeks. You can still sense the terror of the storm in the opening bars of the overture. This is a spirited performance by one of Great Britain’s youngest orchestras, splendidly conducted by Howard Williams.

And just in case you’re still wondering about the Breton prayer I mentioned earlier, here it is in full:

Protégez-moi, mon Seigneur,

Ma barque est si petite,

Votre mer est si grande.

I can’t help wondering whether Richard Wagner might have uttered rather similar sentiments during his horrific voyage in the summer of 1839.

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Echoes of another Age

 

Dumbarton Oaks: it’s not much but it’s home.

One day a good many years ago, during my time as an impoverished music student in London, I was ferreting through the records in a second-hand music shop and came across one of those unusual 45rpm classical recordings. It was a performance by the London Mozart Players (founded in 1949 and still going strong) and featured Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. I’d never heard of it before, but the music was by Stravinsky so I bought the record without hesitation.

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We have to thank the absurdly-wealthy American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred for this curiously-named piece. To mark their thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938, they commissioned a new work from Igor Stravinsky who was then one of the superstar composers and musicians of the day. As a result of the commission, he wrote the Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra while staying near Geneva where his eldest daughter was fighting a terminal battle with tuberculosis. The work was first performed in the grandiose music room of the Bliss house, rustically named Dumbarton Oaks. For years, I had pictured a homely, rambling country house with roses and wisteria everywhere unaware that Dumbarton Oaks was actually an enormous nineteenth century building of palatial proportions, situated in Washington’s up-market Georgetown neighborhood. Even so, the name provided a convenient and enduring nickname for the concerto. As fate would have it, on the day of the first performance Stravinsky was also in hospital with tuberculosis (though he lived to tell the tale) and the ensemble was conducted by the legendary Nadia Boulanger.

During the 1920s, Stravinsky had become profoundly interested in the so-called neoclassical approach to composition which he claimed to have invented himself. This drew on some of the musical principles vaguely associated with the so-called Classical Period in European music which was roughly between 1750 and 1820.  Although Stravinsky wrote some of the best-known neoclassical works in the repertoire, other composers - notably Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartók, Milhaud and Poulenc - were also influenced by neoclassical ideas.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra (“Dumbarton Oaks”).  Geneva Camerata cond. David Greilsammer (Duration: 16:02; Video: 1080p HD)

If your knowledge of Stravinsky’s music is through the well-known ballets written before the First World War, this work may come as a surprise. Stravinsky first explored the neoclassical approach in his ballet Pulcinella which dates from around 1920 and was based on melodies presumed at the time to have been written by the eighteenth century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi. As it turned out, they weren’t but the ballet began Stravinsky’s long fascination with neoclassical principles. Perhaps “neo-baroque” would be a more appropriate description for this composition, because the Concerto in E-flat is a three-movement work written along the lines of a baroque concerto grosso. Unlike a solo concerto, this type of work contrasts a smaller group of instruments with the entire ensemble. It’s scored for ten stringed instruments, a handful of woodwind and two horns.

You’ll hear fascinating echoes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 emerging through the light and airy textures, with snippets of melody that sound as though they’ve come from dance music of the thirties. The light and delicate second movement is followed by an energetic finale that’s full of melodies, shifting accents and driving rhythms and although the music turns the clock back to the eighteenth century for its inspiration, the sound is pure Stravinsky.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Symphony No 1 in D (“Classical”). Baltic Sea Philharmonic, cond. Kristjan Järvi (Duration: 13:59; Video: 1080p HD)

Prokofiev wrote this work during 1916-17 which puts Stravinsky’s claim to be the “inventor of neoclassicism” on somewhat dodgy ground. Prokofiev was in his mid-twenties and already a successful composer with several operas, ballets and other orchestral works to his credit including the first two piano concertos. The Classical Symphony draws on the musical style of Haydn for its inspiration and has become Prokofiev’s most popular orchestral work. The work is scored for small orchestra and the format is pretty similar to a classical symphony except that the traditional minuet is replaced with a gavotte. Prokofiev uses musical techniques that Haydn would have recognized, yet the musical language is unmistakably his own, with sudden changes of dynamics, jaunty playful rhythms and characteristically spiky melodies. There’s a lovely lyrical second movement and the elegant gavotte contains surprisingly satisfying twists of harmony. Incidentally, you might get the impression that the conductor Kristjan Järvi isn’t doing very much in this video, but the beautifully transparent and virtuosic performance betrays the fact that that a huge amount of careful preparation work must have been done at the rehearsals. The brilliant finale is a scampering movement which contains plenty of lively tunes. There’s an especially catchy one, first heard on the flute (at 10:26) that you might find yourself humming for a long time afterwards.


A Time and a Plaice

  

Gérard Souzay c. 1958.

The other day I made a list of pieces of classical music inspired by fish. Yes, it’s sad, I know. Here we are in one of South East Asia’s most vibrant cities and I am sitting at home making lists of music about fish. I really must get out more often. As it turned out, the list wasn’t exceptionally long, perhaps because few composers find fish suitably inspiring. Debussy wrote a piano piece about a goldfish, but it’s in the key of F sharp and hopelessly difficult, at least by my limited pianistic standards. Another French composer, Erik Satie composed a piano piece called The Dreamy Fish and in 2005 the British composer Cecilia McDowall wrote a jolly number for alto saxophone and strings with the curious title of Dancing Fish.  At the age of twenty-four, Benjamin Britten composed a rather serious song for voice and piano entitled Fish in the Unruffled Lakes. And before I forget, fish are depicted in the Saint-Saëns piece Aquarium from “Carnival of the Animals”.

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And that, you might be relieved to know, is about it. The prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness wrote a short but captivating work called And God Created Great Whales, which was premiered in 1970 and blended recordings of whale sounds with those of an orchestra. And yes, I know that whales are not actually fish but from a distance they look as though they ought to be. And that’s another thing. Did you realise that the whale is the closest living relative of the hippopotamus? It’s not exactly relevant to this column, but I thought you might be interested. Anyway, perhaps the most well-known fish song was written by Franz Schubert using a poem by someone confusingly named Christian Schubart.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Die Forelle. Gérard Souzay (bar), Dalton Baldwin (pno). (Duration: 02:06) (Audio only)

We tend to think of Schubert as a composer of symphonies and chamber music but in his day, he was best-known in Vienna as a songwriter. Among his six hundred songs, this one, entitled Die Forelle (“The Trout”) is probably his most famous. Schubert was only about twenty when he wrote the song in 1817 and it’s not difficult to understand why it became so popular. The melody has a kind of folksy charm and the sparkling piano accompaniment suggests a fish darting through rippling waters. There’s no shortage of excellent performances on YouTube, but I find myself returning to the old 1967 recording made by Gérard Souzay in which pianist Dalton Baldwin provides a splendidly articulated accompaniment. Souzay was one of the finest baritones of his time. He brings a delicacy and lightness of touch to the song and a compelling sense of style which few other singers can match.

Franz Schubert: Quintet in A major (“The Trout”).  Zoltán Kocsis (pno), Gábor Takács-Nagy (vln), Gábor Ormai (vla), András Fejér (vc), Ferenc Csontos (db). (Duration: 42:47; Video: 480p)

The popularity of Die Forelle encouraged Schubert to write a set of variations on it for the fourth movement of his Piano Quintet, which he completed the following year. Instead of the conventional combination of string quartet plus piano, Schubert scored this work for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass but strangely enough it wasn’t published during his lifetime.

For such a young composer it’s a remarkable work. If you are new to Schubert’s chamber music, here’s a great place to start because Schubert’s skills as a song-writer are much in evidence throughout. The work is simply packed with tunes. There are several recordings available on YouTube but this Hungarian performance is one of my favourites, recorded in 1982 in the opulent Congress Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The recording is getting a bit old in the tooth, as the audio and video quality will testify, but these wonderful musicians give a captivating performance to which I listened with admiration. The phrasing and articulation are superb and there’s a splendid sense of elegance and style.

They take the third movement (21:04) at a fair old lick and this is surely the fastest I’ve ever heard it played. In contrast, the start of the theme and variations on Die Forelle (24:40) begins almost dreamily. Schubert weaves the original fish song into wonderful melodies of Mozartian elegance, especially during the lovely cello solo. But just wait for the stunning show of pianistic bravura in the fourth variation (27:57). A lively and engaging last movement brings the work to a satisfying conclusion with several false endings, perhaps a glance back to Haydn’s “Joke” quartet. If you have an hour to spare, treat yourself to this exceptional and delightful performance, enhanced with a glass or two of cold, crisp dry white wine and perhaps a few slices of smoked salmon. Or even smoked trout, if you are a purist.


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