A bit of fun.

This week, BBC radio is celebrating seventy years since the launch of the Third Programme, or, what we now know it as, Radio 3.

The format has had to move with the times and adapt to stiff competition, especially from successful and, perhaps, more accessible commercial enterprises; but those who want to change it too much forget that it is unlikely its original purpose would have altered if such competition had existed at the outset. Listening figures were never really the goal, they were not expected to be high: it was established to introduce an element of culture, with a greater emphasis then than now on the spoken word through plays and poetry, and accordingly the impression that it was, and still is, targeted at an elite has caused many since to dumb it down in an attempt to reach wider audiences.

The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate how classical music can be accessible without having to do that: it is understandable that cost pressures mean that listening figures are now more important to justify the programme’s existence, but sticking to its original principles can achieve that without trying to compete with what others may be providing. ‘Elite’ may have negative undertones of privileged or for a chosen few – but at its simplest, it means ‘best’. That is what it should strive for.

Victor Hely-Hutchinson, whose popular ‘Carol Symphony’ owes much to the emergence of commercial radio, was appointed Director of Music at the BBC in London in 1944, and was thus a key participant in the launch of the Third Programme in September 1946, but remains something of an unsung hero in the project. He was born in Capetown in 1901, the youngest son of Walter, the last Governor of Cape Colony, but educated in the UK when it was clear that he was a musical prodigy. In his short life (prematurely ended by pneumonia in 1947 after conserving fuel in a bitter winter by declining to turn on his office radiators) he was a well-loved administrator, broadcaster, composer and conductor. He was also a very talented pianist, who knew all the 32 Beethoven and 48 Bach sonatas by heart and performed Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto (my favourite of the five) at the Proms.

Image result for victor hely hutchinson

It would be easy to wait until Christmas and post about his most famous piece. But the anniversary of Radio 3 this week gives me the excuse to share something else, and a little different. Victor had a talent for improvisation, and much of what he wrote also reveals a healthy sense of humour.

Here is one such comic vignette. It’s only a couple of minutes, but will surely bring a chuckle. ‘Old Mother Hubbard in the style of Handel’ is performed here by American counter tenor David Daniels. For those of you who have heard it before, you may think it too fast; but I have heard many versions, and it is the speed of this which gives it that extra humour.

Everything I have read about Victor makes me regret that he did not live a lengthier life, not just because he would surely have gone on to compose much more and warrant a more deserving legacy; but simply that he seemed to be a truly loveable man, who, as my great uncle, I would have so enjoyed knowing.

It’s just a bit of fun, certainly not genius, but clever; and it comes from the hand of someone who worked for Radio 3, demonstrating that ‘best’ does not have to mean ‘stuffy’.



Strauss Adrenaline rush

With children returning to school or university, I thought I might tempt you away with a slightly longer piece this week.

I hope you can set aside the time one evening to listen to this account of joy, passion and excitement, as told in Richard Strauss’s tone poem, ‘Don Juan‘. It is fabulous music, fully and richly orchestrated, with an addictive theme: if you’ve not heard it before, it may take one or two bites to fully appreciate it, but perseverance will be rewarded. It is the first music by this composer I ever heard, and he has enthralled me ever since, especially with his writing for the soprano voice, of which more on a future post.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), no relation whatsoever to the waltz-famous family, was a German composer who attracted a great deal of controversy and opprobrium because of his links with Nazism. Born into a wealthy brewing family, there was always plenty of music in the household and composition apparently came easily to him, as did conducting, a talent which secured him a number of high profiled positions, as well as some major recordings.

When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Strauss was nearly 70 and in a fairly awkward position: he was a prominent and well known individual, whose support for the success of the new regime was vital – and he had a Jewish daughter-in-law, as well as many Jewish friends; so while he never joined the party, he felt that Hitler’s love of music would be the best safeguard. So I can find no cast-iron evidence of him being a sympathizer. Indeed he would write quite scathingly about the regime, but cooperated out of self-preservation interests. But it was a stance of which many disapproved: the great conductor, Toscanini, once said “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.” A bit harsh.

The term ‘tone poem’ is simply applied to a piece of music which involves description or reference to someone or something in literature. Strauss wrote this one at the tender age of 25, but it already contains elaborate and mature orchestration. The Don was set to music by many, perhaps most famously by Mozart in his opera ‘Don Giovanni‘, but unlike Mozart’s Don, who is defiant to the last, Strauss bases this on Lenau’s account, where the Don dies in a duel. Listen out for a cocktail of passion, conquests and affairs, portrayed by big brass moments on the horns (Strauss was the son of a horn player) as well as a tender love scene (introduced by an oboe): it is all there, including the single stab by a trumpet which fells the Don to his death. There is an underlying tension throughout: even in its quieter moments, you can sense an energy bursting to escape.

Here is Georg Solti with a really energetic account. I think I recall Andre Previn (known to many as the long-suffering conductor in that most famous of Morecambe and Wise sketches) joking that this was always an excellent piece to open a concert – because the opening was so difficult, his view was that the safest approach was to get the piece underway before the welcoming applause had finished, in order to disguise any detection of the orchestra not being completely together.

In 1924, Strauss said “Haven’t I the right, after all, to write what music I please? I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy. I need it.” Here it is in spades – turn up the volume and lap it up.



Dvorak and the curse of the one-hit wonder

It’s just bad luck, I suppose, but there are several operas which are defined by one stand-out aria, often consigning the rest of the piece to something of a supporting role.

Puccini’s  ‘Gianni Schicci’  has ‘O mio babino’ at its heart; as his ‘Turandot’ has ‘Nessun Dorma’; even Donizetti’s ‘L’elisir d’amore’  has us all waiting for ‘Una furtiva lagrima‘; and Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’ (an opera I would happily never, ever see again) seems to be most well known for ‘Largo Al Factotum’. Whilst the operas of Verdi and Mozart unquestionably have their own big numbers, they are rarely alone, almost always backed up by countless others. Only a couple of nights ago, I was listening to the final, tragic act of ‘La Traviata’ and the glorious tunes just keep coming at you, one after the other: I’ll post on this another time, but today I am concentrating on one of those one-hit wonders.

Antonin Dvorak (1814-94) was the son of a butcher, whose father had been keen for him to follow in his footsteps. Born near Prague, Dvorak, a life-long train spotter, had other ideas and was an accomplished viola player and organist and was fortunate to have an enthusiastic champion in Brahms, who spent much of his time, to little avail, trying to prize him away from his native land to the more musically-established Vienna. He eventually married the sister of the girl he truly loved, an act repeated not so long afterwards by my early-widowed great, great grandfather, Henry Keppel, whose invitation by letter was opened by the wrong recipient, who promptly accepted.(Being an Admiral of the Fleet, he did not feel able to retract it, and did the honourable thing, possibly getting the best of both worlds.)

Dvorak was certainly well traveled, however, coming to the UK on a number of occasions, with a particular affection for the people and scenery of Brighton, especially the sea – of which, of course, he saw nothing at home. And he also made that famous trip to the US, where his ninth symphony ‘From the New World’ received its premier in 1893 to resounding success, and has since been regarded as the greatest thing he ever wrote.

But there were eight before that, and whilst you will often see the eighth in the symphonic repertoire, the others feature far less. His Cello Concerto is right up with the greats, and his ‘Slavonic Dances’  have wide appeal, imbued, as they are, with very detectable national fervour.

Which brings me, at last, in a sort of Ronnie Corbet route, to my main point. Dvorak also wrote nine operas, and even if you have heard of ‘Rusalka’ , most of us would struggle to name many, or any, of the others; and the chances are that you will only be familiar with the ninth’s most  famous number ‘Song to the Moon’. Like many fairy tales, its simple plot is a mixture of romance, magic and an inherent darkness. Rusalka is a water sprite who takes a liking to a prince, but the price demanded by a witch  for leaving the water and the prince’s love is a life of being mute, accompanied by the danger that if he betrays her, the only way she will redeem his love is to agree to kill him: all of which comes about.

The opera was a great success, even if not without the odd hitch on its opening night. The prince, to whom the song is addressed, was, in the context of this blog, completely Brahms and Liszt, and had to be replaced by an unrehearsed stand-in, but who, having hoped to be cast in the role himself, knew it well enough. The aria is a plea to the moon to reveal Rusalka’s love for the prince. Now popular as a concert piece, many of the world’s top sopranos have recorded it, but only very few do it justice: the fact that it is in Czech is an added complication, a notoriously difficult language in which to sing. It came naturally enough to Lucia Popp, her native tongue; and Renee Fleming does it fabulously too; but the American mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade, a name which almost has a rhythm of its own, is my favourite. Judge for yourself in this live performance: it is a sublime sound.

I’m sorry, I’ve gone on a little, but I can’t resist one last half-baked idea with you, for which I cannot trace any reference. When Dorothy sings ‘Over the Rainbow’  in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ , she is asking to be released from her dull life in Kansas. Rusalka is making a not dissimilar plea about her own existence. Lifting melodies from classical music for modern adaption is not uncommon, whether unwittingly or with deliberate intent. My ears detect an uncanny similarity in the central theme (2:23) –  I wonder if you agree. Or just see how easily you can slip into the later tune.

Solo violin is far from dull

Selecting pieces for solo violin did not use to feature highly for me. They struck me as lengthy and dull and rarely provided me with the right fix: there was almost always something more fulfilling, more substantial, and often not necessarily classical.

When it comes to the Sonatas and Partitas by J S Bach, three of each, this can be quite understandable, for in the wrong hands they can come over as mundane exercises; but in the right hands, they are something altogether different. If, like me, you thought that listening to solo violin was boring, think again – and feast your ears on this to be converted for ever.

The pieces were composed in 1720 (around the same time as the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, on which I have posted previously). The music critic Kirk McElhearn hailed them as “miracles of music, where a single violin embarks on some of the most remarkable musical discourses ever written.” I have heard them played by many of the great masters, but it was not until I heard Alina Ibragimova playing them all at the BBC Proms last year that I really woke up and realised, thanks entirely to her account, what I was missing: her rendition took them out of any exercise category and into the realms of freedom, even improvisation. They come alive, full of colour, contrast, different and very distinct voices: far from dull, they become thrilling and totally absorbing.

I am attaching Ibragimova’s playing of the Prelude to the third Partita, which will be familiar to many; but  I wonder if you will have heard anything like this before. It is easy enough to see how violinists may have viewed these as exercises, but even a scale in the right hands can become a joy in itself. This is also a good example of where the visual can enhance the enjoyment of the sound: player and instrument are as one, acting as a combined conduit to allow the music to emerge, uncluttered, and crystal clear. The result is exquisite, supporting Benedict’s observation in Much Ado About Nothing – “Is it not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” 

I hope you will be similarly converted and inspired to dig out the rest.