Archive for elgar

Sir Colin Davis conducts Elgar’s “Nimrod”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Variation IX from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (dedicated “To my friends pictured within”) is entitled “Nimrod” and is a tribute to A.J. Jaeger of Novello, Elgar’s publisher.

Michael Kennedy sums up the piece in his excellent book Portrait of Elgar:

Elgar admits that “something ardent and mercurial, in addition to the slow movement, would have been needed to portray the character and temperament of A.J. Jaeger.” Then follow these important words: “The variation is the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven, and said that no one could approach Beethoven at his best in this field, a view with which I cordially concurred. It will be noticed that the opening bars are made to suggest the slow movement of the eighth sonata (Pathétique).”

Elgar had written to Jaeger and said he was “sick of music” and was “going to give it up”. Jaeger wrote a “screed” in reply, “all about my ingratitude for my great gifts,” and suggested he should visit Elgar for a talk. They went on a long walk and “he preached me a regular sermon, pointing out that Beethoven, faced with his worries, had written still more beautiful music – and that is what you must do”.

[Nimrod] has become a traditional requiem for commemorating the dead; to this use of it there has been some objection, but, in appropriate cases, what could be better than this intimate record of a real friendship?

When should a conductor climax?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Toscanini was famous for claiming to adhere strictly to the score, avoiding any modification of what the composer had written, but a friend once proved to him that he was in fact making slight nuances. Toscanini admitted this saying “one cannot be a machine”.

If you play music exactly as written it sounds dull and dead. In particular a slight rubato, an almost imperceptible constant varying of the timing from beat to beat, is necessary.

The greatest interpreters are those who seem to do this so naturally that an innocent listener often doesn’t seem to notice it outwardly, though they feel inwardly that the performance is somehow more alive. Elgar in particular was famous for doing this, and in his recordings, very often he doesn’t follow the score exactly.

I read an interview with Sir Andrew Davies around the time he was embarking on recording his Vaughan Williams symphony cycle in which, inter alia, he criticized Sir John Barbirolli for “stopping to smell the flowers along the way”. That immediately rang alarm bells, since I’d always considered Barbirolli to be a glorious interpreter of RVW’s music (as indeed did the composer himself). More than once I’ve pointed out that I find listening to Sir Andrew Davies’s performances rather like driving on a motorway from London to Edinburgh: we get on at the beginning and arrive at the destination at the allotted time, but with very little sense of any landmarks along the way.

If you listen very carefully to a really convincing performance of, say, Beethoven or Stravinsky, even one which respects the score in detail, you’ll find minute variations in speed, rhythm and dynamics not marked in the score, and it’s those that give the music life and make a performance one to listen to again and again with pleasure.

What marks out those conductors who successfully build climaxes is surely their ongoing attention to detail, and the realization that these things don’t just happen, but need something to grow from. If the way isn’t properly prepared, then the likelihood is that the moment will seem imposed, or worse still, underwhelming.

Knowing exactly where the climax comes is in itself certainly not a universal talent: even more interestingly, though, different conductors may find unorthodox places for the peak, and still be persuasive (Sir Charles Mackerras in the first movement of Walton’s Symphony No. 1 is an example which springs immediately to mind).

Classical Music: Who Cares?

Posted in Food, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

A survey reveals that Britons are clueless about classical music. A third of participants have never listened to the genre and 4% wrongly identified a type of Italian cheese ball as a composer.

One in three people (33%) have never listened to classical music and 4% of those surveyed wrongly identified Bocconcini – small Italian cheese balls – as a composer. The Reader’s Digest survey of 1,516 people also found that most were unable to link composers to their masterpieces. Three out of four (75%) did not know that Elgar wrote Pomp and Circumstance, and 27% did not even know he was a composer. Sixty-eight percent did not know Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture.

The Welsh were more likely to own some Vivaldi or Wagner, with 72% possessing at least one classical CD compared with the British average of 59%.

Most participants (61%) said they liked classical music, with the older generation much keener than the younger generation.

Gill Hudson, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest, said:

As our survey shows, there’s clearly an appetite for classical music. I suspect that a combination of uninspired teaching and the elitism that surrounds much of the genre has alienated many people, hence the lack of knowledge of some of the greatest classical music and composers of all time. Classical music at its best can be moving, life-enhancing and uplifting. It should be accessible to all.

(Press Association)

Vibrato: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I must say, having listened recently to Benjamin Britten’s recording of The Dream of Gerontius that like cholesterol there is good and bad vibrato. Yvonne Minton (what a beautiful voice) represents the good creative use of vibrato whereas Peter Pears represents the bad, using it permanently. Actually performances of Elgar’s music seem to suffer from excessive vibrato generally. Did he ask for it in scores? But of course Roger Norrington went too far the other way and played Elgar with no vibrato at all … with horrendous results.

I know that Pears’ voice is like Marmite – you love it or you hate it. But comparing his performance with (for instance) a more recent Gerontius release (from CBSO/Oramo), I much prefer the passion of Pears to Lavender who (with a rather all-purpose, non-expressive vibrato) sounds rather like a rather annoyed accountant, rather than a human being about to meet his maker.

Bad vibrato is the all-time killer for me as far as musical enjoyment is concerned (it keeps me away from a lot of opera).

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Edward Elgar: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Food, Music with tags , , , , , , on October 10, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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Of late, people have tried to reclaim Elgar from the charge of Edwardian bombast, pomp and circumstance, the sun never setting on the Empire, etc., etc. But for me, something seems to happen to Elgar when he gets near a symphony orchestra, and we get the characteristic brass, middle strings and regular visits to the kitchen – notably cymbals and rolling kettles, and before long we have settled into some plangent melodic wandering.

I have really tried, but I find it very, very hard to stay in the same room as an Elgar symphony or indeed anything orchestral he ever wrote. And don’t get me started on the choral works! Now, the chamber music is, or seems to me to be an entirely different man.

I’ve always felt that if composers could be likened to food, Elgar would be suet pudding, or maybe spotted dick with thick, lumpy custard.

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Music, Time and Place

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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Now, here’s a question.

Has anyone got a piece of music that they strongly associate with a time in their life or a place, with happiness or sadness or some sort of significance? Also, has anyone got a piece of not particularly good music, or music that they otherwise wouldn’t have been drawn to but that has such significance in relation to a time or place that that consideration overrides all others?

Many passages in Shostakovich’s symphonies remind me of the back streets of Manchester.

In the days when I used to fall profoundly in love with particular people I tended (not by choice) to associate a passage of music with them, as Swann does with Vinteuil’s “little phrase”. The opening of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 and the lyrical theme for violin in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, for example (the women in question were both violists).

Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind is the piece I associate with my first really serious girlfriend (1978).

I never really liked Sibelius much till I visited Finland briefly after university, and bought a Sibelius tape in Helsinki to listen to on my Walkman. After visiting the lakes around the countryside, I decided to go on to see Ainola, Sibelius’s home. As I wandered in through the woods and saw the house while listening to his Symphony No. 5, his music suddenly made sense to me, and I realized that he is inseparable from the Finnish landscape. Whenever I hear Sibelius, visions of the Finnish countryside come into my mind, and I remember those halcyon days of my innocent youth.

Really, there are far too many pieces to list that remind me of times past, and people. I find it impossible to hear Elgar’s Violin Concerto without remembering a dear girlfriend who came into my life at the same time. I got to know both simultaneously. Now 26 years ago, but it never fails.

Authenticity: More Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

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I’ve always thought of “period” (or “original” or “authentic” instruments as we used to say) as being either the instrument the music would have been played on originally, or modern copies.

Many string instruments are in fact 18th century, but have had longer fingerboards and steel stings fitted, so presumably they could be (and in many cases have been) restored.

The idea as I understand it was to try to perform the music as it would have sounded, and as such I regard that as an interesting historical exercise, but not a guarantee of a better performance; better performances, I think, are given only by better performers.

Amongst the problems in “reconstructing” the original sound is timbre, e.g. compare the London Symphony Orchestra on recordings in the late 20s and late 60s; if clarinet tone changed that much in one orchestra in 40 years, how much might it have changed across a continent in 200 years? Another problem is what would the composer want if he knew his music was being played 200 years later? Would he insist we used hand-horns and pre-Boehm woodwind keys, or would he welcome the changes? Many composers did indeed welcome developments in instrument construction and design, e.g. Schubert and the piano in the 1820s.

So I’m far from convinced that “period” performance is always, or automatically, better. It can be, but it will depend on who’s playing.

Just to clarify, I think music is best heard on those instruments, and played and conducted by those performers, which bring out the best in the music. I think very often there was more in the music than could be conveyed by the instruments of the day.

This is why I think the late Beethoven piano sonatas need a modern concert grand, and Berlioz’ orchestral music sounds lame played on the instruments of his day; because in both cases the music was ahead of its time, in particular Beethoven’s compositions for the piano driving more robust designs for the technology of the instrument.

In terms of our own technology and the recorded legacy, the early performances of a work are rarely its best. I often think the early recordings of Elgar’s chamber music and Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, for instance, lack insight later musicians could discern, from familiarity. I exclude the composers’ own performances as presumably they had that knowledge which it took others a decade or so to learn.

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