classical-music.com | Fri, 14 Dec 2018 10:00:00 +0000
As well as mop-wielding Mickey Mouse, Disney’s feature-length cartoon has a gorgeously animated section devoted to The Nutcracker, including music from the Sugar-Plum Fairy, the Arabian Dance, the Russian Trepak and the Waltz of the Flowers.
Further cinematic Nutcracker delights, as a computer-animated Barbie embarks on a ballet adventure. It is, needless to say, all very pink, though our heroine does dance a neat little Sugar-Plum Fairy routine.
‘I hope I never hear that God-awful Nutcracker music again,’ complains a typically grumpy Homer Simpson. And guess what comes next? Yup, the Simpsons cast sings a Christmas medley to the tune of the Act I March.
Few musicians have fused the worlds of classical and jazz as sublimely as The Duke, whose 1960 take on Tchaikovsky comes complete with natty titles such as ‘Sugar Rum Cherry’ and ‘Toot Toot Tootie Toot’.
Two years after Duke Ellington, American rockers B. Bumble & the Stingers were inspired to create their own high-octane arrangement of The Nutcracker’s March, a version that’s been covered by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, among others.
From Frank Muir pootling around in a punt in 1976 to a 1980s office worker being serenaded by a singing chocolate bar and her hunky-chunky almonds, Cadbury’s brilliant ad campaign had us all singing ‘Everyone’s a Fruit and Nut case’ to the Dance of the Reed Pipes.
Here’s one for sharp-eyed Nutcracker spotters, courtesy of Monty Python’s 1970 sketch. As Graham Chapman enters the Richard III Ward at the Royal Hospital for Overacting, a group of King Mice pass in the other direction.
This was written for The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge to a lovely anonymous modern text – the author should step up and take credit. Chilcott’s music, of magical stillness and simplicity, brings a tear to the eye every time.
5. John David/Philip Lawson: Born on a new day (2000)
This simple, touching carol came into being when King’s Singer Philip Lawson wrote a Christmas text to John David’s 1990 song ‘You are the new day’. With Peter Knight’s perfect choral arrangement, a new Christmas classic was born.
classical-music.com | Wed, 12 Dec 2018 10:00:00 +0000
Schubert's darkly disturbing 'Unfinished' Eighth Symphony is a work that, as its nickname implies, continues to attract its share of conspiracy theorists.
The Austrian composed his B minor Symphony in 1822 and presented it to Anselm Hüttenbrenner for the musical society in Graz. Mysteriously, Hüttenbrenner only revealed it – the first two movements and the unfinished scherzo – at the end of his life.
It was not performed until 1865, turning out to be further ahead of its time than anything that had been written meanwhile. But being born, as it were, into a later era, it was treated to the musical manners of the Romantics and misunderstood. So it remained until the last 25 years or so.
It is not the sentimental journey so often heard, but Schubert’s dark night of the soul, in which the tragic chase of the first movement (echoing his song Der Erlkönig, in which the child’s harried calls to his father in plaintive minor ninths are recalled during the first subject) is countered by the second movement’s serenity in the face of disaster.
The best recording
Roger Norrington (conductor) London Classical Players (1990) Virgin 562 2272
The disaster alluded to in the ‘Unfinished’ was Schubert’s discovery that he had contracted syphilis. Sir Roger Norrington’s epoch-making 1990 recording gets the point completely. His is not a comfortable reading – but then it is not a comfortable symphony.
He sticks to Schubert’s markings, maintains the lyrical continuity through the textural contrasts, not imposing unmarked tempo changes and observing only those pauses and slowings-down which Schubert composes in at pivotal points – such as the long held horn note between first and second subjects, and the suspended single string notes in the second movement.
Norrington’s attention to detail is phenomenal, particularly in the second movement when even the big second subject repeat in the bass is subtly phrased. You may gasp at his speeds or chafe at the hair-shirt sound-quality of the period instruments, but this is a brilliant attempt to realise the spirit of the composer. Schubert was going through a bleak period, and bleakness is very much part of the character of the work.
That said, many conductors mistakenly seem to hear Mahlerian ‘leb-wohl’s (‘goodbye’) in the dying fall of the cadences at the end of both movements. But it is not a swansong, and Norrington and his London Classical Players have evidently grasped that too.
Three more great recordings
Thomas Dausgaard (conductor) Swedish Chamber Orchestra (2010) BIS SACD 1656
Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra are even faster than Norrington. Their reading is more hectic and tragic, as far away from the Romantic reverie we usually hear as its possible to imagine – it’s troubled and urgent.
The first movement is a haunted scamper, an unstoppable rush, with a climax that is a nightmare of alienation – after the mighty unison thunderbolts, the woodwind syncopations sound like terrified heartbeats. Dausgaard sticks strictly to the tempo without any slowing down or speeding up, and in the second movement the woodwind choir shape their chorus beautifully.
All this is caught with a wonderfully immediate lively recorded balance with a vital contemporary feel.
Jos van Immerseel (conductor) Anima Aeterna Brugge (1997) Zigzag ZZT308
Jos van Immerseel’s performance with Anima Aeterna Brugge is part of a complete Schubert cycle, calling on the latest scholarship and closest possible attention to the original scores, and sourcing the correct instruments.
It has a lot to commend it, including the detailed accompanying sleevenotes – though unaccountably for a complete cycle, it does not include the incomplete scherzo.
Van Immerseel doesn’t pull the tempos around like most conductors but concentrates on the dynamics. If there is one reservation, it is that the syncopated woodwind chords in the second subject are so slurred that they almost sound like one note, whereas Schubert has gone to the trouble of putting dots separating each one. It is, though, very scholarly and interesting.
Charles Mackerras (conductor) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (2000) Virgin 561 8062
What about a finished ‘Unfinished’? When Hüttenbrenner revealed the miracle that he’d been hiding for over 30 years, some pages were missing, the scherzo incomplete, and there was no finale to be found. But did Schubert finish it? He may well have done.
Many people write off the fragmentary scherzo as not worthy of the first two movements – but it is just as original, a new type of post-Beethovenian scherzo. As for the missing finale, it might be that Schubert lifted it for the first entr’acte of the Rosamunde incidental music he produced at the end of 1823.
This is how the scholar Brian Newbould produced his completed version – a version that Sir Charles Mackerras and the OAE recorded in 2000, getting close to the ideal soundworld as they did so.
And one to avoid
Sergiu Celibidache’s remastered live performance with the Allessandri Scarlatti Orchestra of Naples in 1958 does him no credit. You can hear what he is trying to do, but a very noisy ambient atmosphere disguises some very bad orchestral playing, shrill and out of tune.
Celibidache’s proverbial snail-like tempi, not unusual in many other performances, sound as thought they are going to fall of the sick bed. There are other Celibidache recordings, if you are a fan, so avoid this one.
classical-music.com | Tue, 11 Dec 2018 10:00:00 +0000
This week's free download is the third movement, Allegro, of Marcello's Oboe Concerto, performed by Katharina Spreckelsen with the English Concert, under the baton of Harry Bicket. It was recorded on Signum Classics and was awarded four stars for performance and five for recording in the December issue of BBC Music Magazine.
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2. Make we joy now in this fest (Seldon manuscript, c1450)
The original meaning of carol was ‘round dance’, and from here evolves the Medieval carol. It consists of a burden (chorus) which alternates with verses sung by one or more solo voices. There is no better example of that dance structure than here.
Pygott’s macaronic (mixed-language) poem with its mixture of sacred and profane takes the listener back to medieval forms, yet his clever use of imitative polyphony turns a delightful text into quite exquisite music.
Mouton gives us much more than a technical feat (a quadruple canon over a plainchant melody). This is without doubt one of the finest Renaissance motets for the Christmas season – slow moving harmonies, subtly controlled, yet rich in ideas.
Written not only to celebrate Mass on Christmas Day but also to honour Queen Mary’s (mistaken) belief that she was pregnant, the seven-voice texture of this carol is so sonorous and inventive that there can be no better celebration to the birth of our Lord.
classical-music.com | Sat, 08 Dec 2018 10:00:10 +0000
For such an incredibly well-known work, the genesis of Handel's masterwork was remarkably humble...
After the London ‘season’ ended in 1741, Handel turned as usual to writing works for the next autumn. One of these was a setting of a new libretto by the literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays, Charles Jennens, who had provided the text for Saul four years earlier. He described Messiah as a ‘Scripture Collection’, a series of short extracts from the Authorised Version of the Bible, somewhat different from Handel’s usual preference for oratorios based on larger-than-life characters and dramatic stories from the Old Testament.
Handel, in debt and depressed as a result, began composition on Saturday 22 August 1741, completed drafts of each Part in about a week each, and ‘filled up’ the score in a couple more days, a total of 23 days for the complete work – an astonishing work-rate, even if some numbers were recycled from earlier music (why throw away good music after its public performances?).
It was so quick, in fact, that most of us would be hard-pressed simply to copy out the music, let alone conceive virtually all of it from scratch.
Jennens was suprised to hear that Messiah was not scheduled for first performance in London: he wrote in a letter ‘it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing it here he was gone into Ireland with it’.
Internal evidence from the score, though, suggests that Handel had it in mind for Dublin rather than for the more generous resources of London. It’s modestly scored, for just strings, trumpets and drums, and it only requires four soloists, one each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
The English music historian Dr Charles Burney claims that, as a 15-year-old boy at school in Chester, he saw Handel there, en route to Dublin, ‘[smoking] a pipe over a dish of coffee at the Exchange Coffee-House’. Handel asked Burney’s music teacher, the cathedral organist ‘whether there were any choirmen in the Cathedral who could sing at sight, as he wished to prove some books that had been hastily transcribed by trying the choruses which he intended to perform in Ireland’.
A bass, a printer named Jansen, was recommended to him and a rehearsal took place at the Golden Falcon where Handel was staying. Jansen failed miserably to cope with ‘And with his stripes’ from Messiah at which, says Burney, Handel, ‘after swearing at him in four or five different languages, cried out in broken English: “You shcauntrel, tid you not tell me zat you could sing at sight?”. “Yes sir”, says the printer, “and so I can, but not at first sight”’. Some scholars have cast doubt on this lively anecdote. To others it has a ring of truth if only because it seems qutie unlikely that a reputable writer such as Burney should simply invent it.
Handel arrived in Dublin from Holyhead on 18 November 1741 followed three days later by a soprano, Christina Maria Avolio, who sang for him during his stay in Dublin. He quickly set up a series of six subscription concerts including his Ode based on John Milton’s pastoral poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso in a newly built concert room in Fishamble Street (named after the fish ‘ambles’ or stalls in the market there). The concerts were an immediate success, Handel reporting that the subscribers filled ‘a Room of 600 Persons, so that I needed not sell one single Ticket at the door’.
Attendances were no less in January, with such traffic jams that ‘Gentlemen and Ladies are desired to order their Coaches and Chairs to come down Fishamble Street, which will prevent a great deal of Inconvenience that happened the Night before’. Concert promotion was not without its problems though. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral had given approval for vicars-choral from the Cathedral choir to take part in Handel’s series. Suddenly, apparently the result of a failing memory (he was described as ‘dying from the top’), he rescinded the licence to ‘assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street’, and required his ‘Sub-Dean and Chapter to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy, and ingratitude’. Swift seems to have forgotten this change of heart as quickly as he first experienced it, and cathedral singers took part, potential ‘flagitious aggravations’ notwithstanding, in successful concerts from January onwards.
The Dublin Journal of 27 March 1742, announcing the first performance of Messiah, stressed its charitable aims: ‘For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12 April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.’
Tickets cost half a guinea each, about £45 in today’s money, but they also gave admission to the rehearsal on the 9 April which was received by ‘a most Grand, Polite and crouded Audience’. Presumably in response to such ticket sales, the Journal published an appeal on 10 April that: ‘The Ladies who honour this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops, as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making room for more company’, and on the day of the performance, delayed until the 13 April, ‘The Gentlemen [were] desired to come without their Swords’, and for good reason – the ‘Musick hall’ designed for an audience of about 600, had 700 packed into it by midday, when the performance duly began.
Information about the performers for this inaugural performance is rather sketchy. Exact numbers of singers or orchestral players aren’t known. But the orchestra was certainly led by Matthew Dubourg, who moved from London to Dublin in 1728 and from then on divided his time between the two capital cities. He was a long-term friend of Handel who left him £100 in his will. They clearly seem to have enjoyed a wry joke or two together: on one occasion, after he had improvised an exceptionally long cadenza, Handel declared ‘Welcome home, Mr Dubourg!’.
Handel presumably directed the performance from the organ, his own portable-sized instrument which he had arranged to be brought to Dublin. Of the solo singers, the soprano was Christina Avolio of whom Handel wrote that ‘she pleases extraordinary’. His female alto was Susanna Maria Cibber, both actress and singer who, according to Charles Burney, ‘had captivated every hearer of sensibility by her native sweetness of voice and powers of expression’. She had fled to Dublin from London to escape the scandal of an adulterous affair and seems to achieved public absolution when one Rev. Dr. Delaney was moved to rise from his seat after her singing of ‘He was despised’ and exclaim ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven’.
The other soloists came from the Cathedral Choirs, and also sang in the chorus. This was relatively small. Handel may have called on up to 26 boy trebles from the two Cathedrals but, for the lower parts, the Handel scholar Donald Burrows has imaginatively counted up the known cathedral men, subtracted four who were probably ordained and so not permitted to engage in secular concerts, and come up with only around three or four singers to a part – the sort of chamber-music scale to which we’re refreshingly returning today.
The performance received rave reviews. The Dublin Journal reported: ‘…the best Judges allowed [Messiah] to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’. For 268 years since, Messiah has remained pre-eminent among sacred oratorios. Through all its Classical additions by Mozart, gargantuan scoring by Sir Thomas Beecham, Crystal Palace renderings by casts of thousands (see Another fine Messiah overleaf), spontaneous ‘from scratch’ performances, up until more recent rediscovery of its original scale and character, it has never failed to ‘transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’.
classical-music.com | Fri, 07 Dec 2018 10:00:00 +0000
Following on from the successes of 2018’s live orchestral film screenings, we’ve compiled a list of the film, silent film and television performances of 2019, and where to find them. There’s sure to be something to suit everyone!
classical-music.com | Thu, 06 Dec 2018 20:00:00 +0000
HRH The Prince of Wales will be appearing on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions this Christmas, to celebrate the programme producing over 1000 episodes. It will be available to listen to on BBC Sounds from Boxing Day onwards, and will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday 30 December at midday.
Prince Charles will speak to presenter and composer Michael Berkeley, who has hosted the programme for 23 years, about the role music has played throughout his life.
His musical choices include one of the pieces performed at his wedding to the Duchess of Cornwall, as well as the work he conducted with members of the Philharmonia Orchestra as part of his wife’s 60th birthday.
The Prince of Wales also discusses his musical memories of childhood, reflecting on attending concerts and the ballet with his grandmother, the Queen Mother. He goes on to discuss his time as a student at Cambridge University where he played the cello in the Trinity College Orchestra.
‘It’s a wonderfully varied programme,’ says Private Passions presenter Michael Berkeley. “It unveils someone who passionately loves music.’