Archive for recordings

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).

Why go to an opera house?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Have you ever met anyone who greatly prefers to experience opera by listening to complete audio recordings at home as opposed to seeing the whole theatrical event in an opera house?

There seem to me to be two different breeds of opera goer, albeit with some overlap. There are those, like me, who basically go for the total experience, music, drama, and production, and we are often disappointed. The other group can accept shortcomings in some aspects, as long as the singing is good, in fact some opera fans are really just enthusiasts for their favourite singers, the voice is all.

It’s now some time since I went to ENO or Covent Garden, as I have endured so many perverse productions that I really cannot face any more. It would be nice if recorded opera made up for my loss, but recent offerings have been disappointing, mainly due to multi-mic balances and other forms of over-produced sound engineering. I still enjoy opera sets from the late fifties and sixties more than recent ones.

This is a very complex subject. Perhaps part of me rather resents the emphasis on opera at the expense of orchestral and chamber music, especially when you consider how few decent large concert halls we have in this country.

While the music is by far the most important part of opera for me, I still go to live opera as often as I can, despite the fact that I sometimes do not like the productions. The sound of live opera simply cannot be replaced for me. I have relatively good stereo equipment, but there is something completely different about the sound in the opera house and the thrill of hearing the orchestra and singers live. I love to see productions that enhance the music for me, but often I would simply be happy if the production did not make it hard for me to concentrate on the music.

Ravel’s Bolero: Idle Thoughts

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

This is a piece of core repertoire which divides listeners sharply.

Personally, I don’t find in the least bit tedious: study with a score shows that there’s far more to the piece than most people imagine: a daring concept flawlessly executed and orchestrated (even if the stuff of nightmares for trombonists; the solo for them is one of the most difficult in the whole orchestral repertoire). Whilst I wouldn’t want to hear it every day, I’m always delighted when it turns up, especially if the conductor actually complies with the composer’s request and starts off at a steady pace and stays there, rather than pushing ever forward, which destroys the effect and emasculates the work’s power (if emasculate is the right word for such a sultrily feminine piece).

Bolero does not work well on record, but if you see it performed, it is a quite different experience. Only when you have it in front of you do you see the extraordinary concentration required by the snare drummer to keep the ostinato going against the continually shifting background of the tune.

That said, I do think that Bolero can be the most tedious piece ever. When it’s not played right that is. All too often it’s played, rather nicely, as a stock orchestral showpiece. Complete with “Oh no, not this again” 1812-style boredom from the orchestra.

Occasionally, just occasionally, it gets played dead straight, in strict tempo (vital to any sense of menace being sustained) and builds inexorably from inaudible to a mechanistic yet brutal sonic assault – though this can only ever be experienced in the concert hall. Then it’s anything but tedious.

Paul Lewis

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

With no piano lessons on offer at school and only John Denver records at home, it was against the odds that Paul Lewis rose to become our finest young pianist. He tells Ivan Hewett of the Daily Telegraph how it happened.

So how did he get into music? “Well, I grew up in Liverpool, and in the Seventies there were still proper public music libraries with big record collections. We had one just round the corner, and I spent most of my life there, picking out the piano records. I really loved Wilhelm Kempf and also Alfred Brendel.”

Humphrey Searle

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Last night, I had a bit of a listen to Searle’s Symphony No. 1. I’ve heard it described as grim and dour, but I found it rather engaging – what does that say about me, I wonder?

Anyway, Searle seems to have occupied a very difficult position in UK musical life, in the beginning too “advanced” for the conservative elements and eventually too “traditional” for the avant-garde ones.

But is there a case for reconsidering Searle’s music in the 21st century, I wonder?

I have to admit I don’t find Searle’s music has lasted as well as I thought it would when I was about 20. I used to admire the First Symphony, especially in Boult’s fine Decca recording, but I don’t often listen to his music today.

An interesting feature of the First Symphony is that he deliberately used the same series that Webern used in his Op. 28 Quartet, to show that music of very different character could be composed using the same 12-note row. At the time there were ill-informed criticisms that 12-tone music was limited in scope.

I should like to hear again his opera Hamlet which I thought better than some which have been less neglected.

Searle stated that his First Symphony bears the marks of having been written during (what we can now regard as) the early years of the cold war, hence the atmosphere of foreboding. It’s not what you’d call awash with colour, that’s true, but neither is Sibelius. I think he was just afraid that everyone would get blown to bits in a nuclear war between East and West, as many people were at that time.

Conductors’ Pay

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I don’t know about today but years ago most conductors received surprisingly little for some concerts in this country but more as a visiting artist abroad.

A friend of mine, a professional conductor, tells me that he never gets to conduct “pro” bands in the UK, only amateurs. But when he conducts a professional orchestra in Germany, Holland, Spain or Scandinavia he is usually paid an inclusive fee of about £1,200 for a single concert, with any supplementary concerts paid at 50% extra. Of course, he has to pay his travel expenses, hotel and meals out of this.

Here in the UK, where he does the rounds of several amateur bands, the going rate for a 2½ hour rehearsal is £65 and a concert is £400. These fees are inclusive of travel, subsistence, etc.

It depends hugely on exactly what they are doing, of course. Many conductors who work for opera houses will be on a yearly contract, and will get a monthly salary, usually without regard to how many performances they conduct, or how many productions they are required to rehearse and supervise up to the opening night. But this is relatively rare.

More typically conductors are freelancers who are paid per project. There is usually one fee for the rehearsal period, and a separate concert fee for the public appearances.

Recordings are different once again – the conductor will usually be paid a royalty in addition to the sessions involved in putting it in the can.

When I was an employee the argument used to avoid giving us a pay rise was always “there are so many people wanting to do your job that we don’t need to offer any more than the minimum.”

I think if this principle were observed universally a good deal of money would be saved. I’d certainly apply it to opera singers, premier league footballers, racing drivers, and heads of public utilities such as water companies.


Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I’ve just bought the Runnicles/BBCSO Tristan und Isolde. I played the Liebestod and was surprised and annoyed at the burst of applause and cheers at the end. I know it’s a recording of a live-in-front-of-an-audience concert, but I feel that keeping the applause at the end is not appropriate for a CD – especially at the end of thie work. In the concert hall one has an emotional involvement with and response to the performance, and would (probably) join in with the applause; at home the atmosphere isn’t the same, and I certainly wouldn’t be joining in with the applause.

I think that this is a purchase that will be returned to the shop.

I can’t stand applause on CDs. I’m all for capturing the atmosphere of a live performance in a recording, but there’s an enormous difference between being in the middle of an applauding audience and listening to a distant recording of it coming out of loudspeakers. Personally I would prefer there to be a longer silence before applause begins in live performances too.

The truth is that live recordings unless very special (Nilsson’s 1966 Bayreuth Isolde or Karajan’s Mahler 9) don’t bear repeated listening. It’s not fashionable to state this, but I don’t want that cough on bar 132 or whatever returning at the precise moment at every playing.

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