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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).

Americana: Aaron Copland

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

So I’m spending the next year listening to a lot of American music and maybe finally getting to grips with Carter, the world’s oldest living composer.

But, I’m starting at the simpler end with Copland.

I’ve always thought Copland an excellent composer. I paid a fair bit back in December 1980 to hear him conduct the LSO. It was a superb evening apart from the noise sounding throughout the hall (a plumbing problem as was later discovered) during Quiet City. He conducted it again after, and Jack Brymer played the great Clarinet Concerto.

He certainly knew how to orchestrate to great effect. Even something as simple as Fanfare for the Common Man tells you that.

Bernstein was a bit like his mentor. The serious stuff, as in Preamble, Symphonic Ode, the Orchestral Variations and the three symphonies by Copland are well reflected in the works of his disciple.

There’s a load of American music I still have to explore. More Roy Harris, William Schuman and (if he ever wrote more apart from Street Music and Concerto for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra), William Russo and I’m not finished with Ives yet.

Edward Elgar: Idle Thoughts

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


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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Schumann’s Scoring

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


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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Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3: Complicated

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


For the real essence of Bruckner, this is the one for me.

I know the later works are musically better structured and of course I believe the Ninth to be the absolute symphonic masterpiece even in three movements, but what a joy the Third is. Bruckner seems to let himself go and could not care less, with his excessive use of brass, there is a wonderful example of this brass under Solti in the third movement. I had never heard this extension at the end of the movement, what a delight. I love this music.

This is the first of the monumental Bruckner symphonies which probably followed the experimental No. 0 and not No. 2. I especially love the polka passage in the last movement and then that wonderfully exhilarating finish.

Apparently some listeners find the closing bars bombastic; to my ears they simply convey pure innocent joy in a glorious and unexpected triumph. Bruckner might well be described as the Susan Boyle of classical music.

The history of the Third is quite complicated (first version 1873, second version 1877, third version 1889).

Until the early 1980s the scherzo in the second and third versions of this Wagner-symphonie was thought to be without a coda. Then during the research for the edition of the second version not only an intermediate version of the slow movement (1877, between the second and third versions) resurfaced, but also a coda for the scherzo of (at least) the second version (possibly for the third as well).

Haitink in his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was the first to record this scherzo-cum-coda (as he prefers the second version).

Although in terms of symphonic development and finesse the third version might be preferred (though the finale loses a lot of it impact in its straightened form), I believe the first version, with all those Wagner quotes and that juxtaposition of funereal music and dance (polka) music in the finale, is the most interesting and impressive.

I checked the score that I have and noted that the first movement marking was Mehr langsam, misterioso – an enticing Brucknerian cocktail of German and Italian. When I thought about it, I wondered what mehr langsam actually means, because grammatically it is not clear – to me at least as a fairly inadequate German speaker. It is not “more slowly” which would be langsamer. Anyway, more slow than what? Mehr (more) cannot normally qualify an adverb/adjective such as langsam. It must be used here in the sense of eher (“rather” or “more likely”). Presumably he is telling the conductor something like “if in doubt, tend towards slowness” or “go slow rather than fast”.


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