Archive for September, 2009

Schumann’s Scoring

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on September 19, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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Maybe if Robert Schumann’s symphonies were to be played on “period” instruments, Mahler might not have found it necessary to rescore them. Or maybe Schumann’s scoring is so bad they need work done on them anyway.

Mahler’s rescoring of the Schumann symphonies in order to make them more transparent had become necessary because of the development of the size of the orchestras as well as that of some of the instruments.

As becomes now clear with the use of period instruments and orchestral sizes, Schumann did not orchestrate his works so badly at all. Some of the now rather greasy sounding doublings, especially in the winds, do sound transparent on “period” instruments.

The opening of the Symphony No. 1 played on valve horns at the original pitch, i.e. a third lower than normally heard (as natural ones cannot cope with this, the original scoring), makes a real difference. The horns which define so much of the festive character of the Symphony No. 3 sound really exciting, and the clarinets in both the original as the revised versions of Symphony No. 4 do colour the piece – as a more protruding solo violin does as well.

So, Schumann’s orchestration sounds “fatty” more because of being played on instruments for which it basically wasn’t meant, than because of Schumann’s supposed lack of experience/knowledge of orchestration.

But it depends which of Schumann’s orchestral works: there is a marked difference in the orchestration of those from after 1850 (including the Third Symphony and the 1851 version of the Fourth), with much more doubling of string parts in the wind, and cellos and basses generally playing together most of the time, than in those works from the 1840s. It was at this point that Schumann moved to Düsseldorf and took charge of the orchestra there, which was somewhat smaller than the Leipzig Gewandhaus which had earlier been his basic model (the Düsseldorf orchestra seems to have had about 50 players, at least in 1852, though these were occasionally augmented for big festivals; the Leipzig orchestra had 60). Also the string players were of a markedly lower standard, as attested by Wilhelm von Wasielewski; Schumann brought him over from Leipzig to be leader of the Düsseldorf orchestra. My interpretation is that Schumann’s late orchestration is pragmatic, designed to get the best results out of the forces he had available on a regular basis at that time. With that in mind, when using larger and better orchestra, I do believe there may be a case for considering Mahler’s modifications, or those of Felix Weingartner. However, it should also be borne in mind that Schumann advocated, in a letter to Franz Brendel in 1847, a section of a Universal German Society of Musicians for “the protection of classical music against modern adaptations”, and to research “corrupted passages in classical works”, about which he had published an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

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Brown Bread: Keith Floyd

Posted in Food, Obituaries with tags , , , , , on September 16, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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“I’ve not felt this well for ages.”

Sad news of the death of Keith Floyd. What a great character. All these celebrity TV chefs should be grateful to him for their current high profiles.

I loved the way he used to introduce each recipe as “another cooking sketch”.

I’ve just watched the Channel 4 documentary in which Keith Allen spent a weekend with Keith Floyd at his home in Provence – which was shortly to be taken from him in a divorce settlement. What strange synchronicity that it was shown the night of his death.

It is a fascinating film, Floyd is clearly not a well man, but his opinions and manner are as forthright as ever – the language is not for the faint-hearted, especially when venting his spleen on “celebrity chefs”.

It is also quite sad, Floyd being deeply moved by the arrival of the estranged daughter he hadn’t seen for ten years – a set-up by Floyd for the camera? Probably, in the hope that the presence of a TV crew would aid a reconciliation. Sad too, as Keith Floyd had aged so much since I last saw him. He said he sought solace in alcohol because he was often lonely. He was a great character and had a warmth and humanity about him despite the rough edges. He will be missed.

I hope Channel 4 will show Keith on Keith again, do try and watch it if you can.

The quote I’m left with is from the very beginning of the film, where Floyd says:

“I probably drink more red wine than I should, and smoke more than is good for me, but it’s my life and that’s the way I want it.”

The darker side of this attitude to life is pointed out in the Daily Telegraph obituary:

At its worst, his bon vivant style and turbulent relationships had seen him come to rely on whisky. With a bottle in the bedside table, “I felt I had to have a few large glasses before I could even get downstairs.”

R.I.P. Keith Floyd 1943-2009

Britten’s Gloriana

Posted in Music with tags , , on September 7, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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What’s the present opinion of this opera? I know there was a lot of controversy about it at the time it was first put on (1953).

I think it had revivals in the ’60s (Sadler’s Wells), and more recently, and I think the general opinion now is that it was originally misunderstood and underrated by the gala first night audience who weren’t really people to appreciate a new opera.

The irony is that it was originally planned to have a ballet on the gala night and it was Britten’s supporters who campaigned to have Gloriana then instead of later.

I still find Gloriana uneven, indeed I think it’s the first work in what I regard as an uneven 20 years in Britten’s output until Death in Venice. But it has its moments: I think the end is tremendously moving, and the two lute songs in act one introduced me to the unique world of the Elizabethan lute song, so I’m very grateful for that.

I had heard so much of the negative response to Gloriana in 1953, so when I finally saw it for myself I was surprised by how good it was. It was either ahead of its time, or simply unsuitable in the eyes of most for what was supposed to be a celebratory occasion. I wonder what those who chose Britten as the composer for this occasion thought he would come up with? He wasn’t likely to write Merrie England. It was never going to be simple patriotism and a rosy view of a golden age.

I suspect one reason why it is still comparatively neglected is that it is, I imagine, expensive to stage. It has to have a grand production with grand Elizabethan costumes (modernising it would be ludicrous, though that doesn’t necessarily stop directors), it has to have dancers. The title role is wonderful for a good dramatic singer. I think it deserves more productions.

I think that during Benjamin Britten’s lifetime it was rare to find a moderate, impartial view of his music. On the one hand there was the Mitchell-Keller brigade who seemed to think every note he wrote was a masterpiece, on the other, equally wrong, were those who wrote him off as all clever tricks. I always felt he was a substantial original composer who had written some great stuff, but lacked the depth and vision of Tippett, for instance.

Up to Billy Budd I think his music is immaculate, brilliant, and I can hear all those works repeatedly with endless delight, my favourites being the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Peter Grimes, the Spring Symphony, Abraham and Isaac and Billy Budd itself.

From Gloriana to Owen Wingrave I feel there are lapses where he’s scratching for ideas to get the piece finished. The Sanctus in the War Requiem for instance, and its increasing dependence on Verdi as it progresses. The last two movements of the Cello Symphony are a disappointment after the first two, and I think one church parable was enough. And for me he’s out of his depth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as much as Strauss would have been writing an opera on Maurice.

I think he went through a difficult time realising he wasn’t a wunderkind any more while younger composers were turning to serialism. Then suddenly he seems to say ‘to hell with this, I’m just going to be myself’, and writes Death in Venice and from then on he was back on the rails (although sadly not for long).

Brown Bread: Keith Waterhouse

Posted in Obituaries with tags on September 5, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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I’ll never forget seeing Peter O’Toole in Waterhouse’s play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell in London twenty years ago.

R.I.P. Keith Waterhouse 1929-2009

Brown Bread: Simon Dee

Posted in Obituaries with tags , , , , , , on September 2, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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He was the first person to broadcast from pirate station Radio Caroline.

Simon Dee, DJ and TV talk show host (after a bizarre interview with actor George Lazenby, who had been smoking cannabis and who outlined at length his theories about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the show was dropped), forerunner of stars such as Chris Evans and Jonathan Ross, said to be the inspiration for Austin Powers, has died of bone cancer at the age of 74.

Anybody remember him as the camp tailor in The Italian Job?

Simon Dee’s story is a strange one, perhaps worthy of a stage play or film, in the manner of “Telstar”, the Joe Meek biography.

For a little while last year, I thought Jonathan Ross was going to emulate Simon Dee’s rise and fall, but a combination of Ross’s business acumen and the BBC’s craven weakness prevented that from happening.

R.I.P. Simon Dee (Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd) 1935-2009

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