Gadfly: Shostakovich’s Ace of Tunes

Many people venturing into classical music often avoid composers who have a reputation for being inaccessible. This is perfectly reasonable, but the adage to “never judge a book by its cover” might just as easily apply to a CD, or LP – if you’ve still got any of either of those. I am certainly guilty of pre-judging music just from the name of the composer alone, probably as a result of just one bad experience; but have, thankfully, had my hasty prejudice frequently overturned when pointed elsewhere. I recently attended a concert given by the Belcea Quartet, in which they performed Shostakovich’s fifteenth, and final, string quartet. Had I so much as overheard it on the radio, there is absolutely no doubt that I would have turned it off in an instant, but to listen to -and, indeed, to watch it- being played in the flesh was an extraordinary experience.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) had a complicated personality, and few composers explored quite as many different styles, old and new, as he. Whilst being obsessed with cleanliness, he was also a heavy smoker, and generally of a nervous disposition. If you are more prone to tuneful harmonies than experimental forays, it is easy to see why the mention of his name might put you off if your first experience was to be exposed to something similar to the piece above, of which there was no shortage.  But composing in a Stalin-led regime was a tricky balancing act: he was expected to provide propaganda in an upbeat manner, which was wholly at odds with his instincts to deliver melancholy. His work is full of despair, but he knew which side his bread was buttered too, so ‘crowd-pleasers’ were required to stay in favour. The short of it, however, is that he spent his entire life wrestling with this conflict – and ultimately veered more on the side of the inconsolable.

Amongst his extensive and varied repertoire is a substantial film score output and his work for ‘The Gadfly‘, later also used in ‘Reilly, Ace of Spies’ must surely include one of the most delightful melodies ever written. So this post is to share the charming, lighter music that he could produce in the  ‘Romance‘ of that suite, which is by no means limited to this – you just have to dig a little! Many famous violinists have recorded it, but most seem to have a slight tendency to take it a fraction too fast. Not so in this recording by Jonathan Carney, using a Stradivarius violin, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: it is a really fine rendition, starting with the melody, then dipping briefly into a passage of orchestral doubt in the minor key, before returning triumphantly, and peacefully, to the original theme.

Shostakovich once said, “In the long run, any words about music are less important than the music“. I think that’s my cue.



‘The only perfect English opera ever written’

Which one? And who said this? Some of you will know and agree; but the reality is that when Gustav Holst made this assertion about Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas‘, he was not claiming anything too outrageous at the time. Holst died in 1934, and therefore missed out on the period when English opera came to fruition: until the mid twentieth century, opera was more the preserve of the French, German, Italian and Russian languages, but all that changed with Benjamin Britten. Amongst his repertoire, some might now say that ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ could take that accolade, or even ‘Peter Grimes‘, but it would be interesting to know if Holst would have altered his view a hundred years later – about an opera first performed in 1689. I notice that Holst died just a year before the first performance of Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess‘, (with its wonderful numbers of ‘Summertime‘ and ‘I got plenty of nuttin’‘) which in my book is a stronger contender than Britten, but as always it comes down to personal taste.

What is surely beyond dispute, however, is that Dido’s lament, at the end of this short three act opera, is one of the most agonizingly beautiful passages ever written for the human voice. Henry Purcell (1659-95) focused most of his musical composition on sacred music, especially for Westminster Abbey, where he was later buried right next to the instrument he played. He is probably the first composer to be born in this country to receive any proper recognition – and you then have to fast forward a couple of hundred years before Elgar resurrected some kind of English tradition.

Dame Janet Baker (born 1933) is still the singer against whom all subsequent recordings are judged, but the sound quality is poor and so I have delayed writing about this piece due to my inability to find a more recent version which comes anywhere near her account. Until now. By pure chance, I heard this account on the radio last week and in an instant I knew this was in a league of its own; and, dare I suggest it, every bit as moving as the dame herself. The singer is the American Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died prematurely of breast cancer at the age of 52, having nursed her sister through the same final illness only years before. Good execution of this is not enough: what is really required is soul, and Hunt Lieberson delivers this in bucket-loads.

If you have not heard this lament before, there is just over a minute of recitative (singing speech) first – so don’t hang up before 1:11! Purcell’s mastery is to use the absolute minimum at his disposal to evoke a near unbearable yearning, every climbing phrase then cascading downwards, underpinned by a simple base. The cry to ‘Remember me’, repeated once and then again higher and more despairingly, is deeply moving. And don’t underestimate the effect of the closing bars on the strings either: it all adds up to three minutes of painful, tragic, beauty.


A little gem by Richard Strauss

I have written about Richard Strauss on a previous post (‘Adrenaline Rush’), but that was to share my love of his rich orchestration. Today I pose another challenge: did any composer, I wonder, understand – really understand – the true scope, range and possibilities of the soprano voice as well as Strauss? That is quite a bold assertion when you consider the huge competition; but my guess is that it would find a high level of support among sopranos anyway, of which his wife, Pauline, was one. She was about as fine a personification of the ‘prima donna’ as you could expect to meet, and their marriage was volatile; but their mutual love of music probably accounts for Strauss’s exquisite compositions for the human voice.

I will not deter you now on his operatic output, of which there were fifteen, except to allude to a comment I once heard made by Kate Royal, a fine English soprano, to underline Strauss’s mastery. The last twenty minutes of his opera ‘Der Rosenkavalier‘ would never lose its slot in my Desert Island Discs, being filled with the most sublime mingling of female voices: Royal said something along the lines of, “It’s one of those moments when you just stand and sing” – nothing else required.

Today’s piece will detain you for less than two minutes, but its three brief verses are all very slightly different, and a couple of hearings will reveal its subtle musical development. Strauss wrote over 200 songs, and many of those originally written for voice and piano were later orchestrated. ‘Zueignung‘ (‘Devotion‘) is one such, but the version I have chosen is with the piano, here played so sensitively by the renowned Strauss interpreter, Wolfgang Sawallisch.  It is a little gem, composed in 1885, set to the words by the poet Hermann von Gilm. I remember seeing the American singer, Renee Fleming, perform Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs‘ at the proms a few years ago and mentally begging her to sing ‘Zueignung‘ as an encore. Never underestimate the power of wishful thinking! I have scrolled through a number of recordings, but it is the purity of Lucia Popp I cannot resist. The touching, pining, lyrics end with the lines ‘Heilig, heilig an’s Herz dir sank, Habe Dank.’ ( Joy and bliss shall thy love impart.Thanks, sweet heart!)

There are some who argue that German is an unmusical language. It was Lady Bracknell, of all people, who, when commenting on a programme of songs in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Ernest said ‘French songs I cannot possibly allow…but German sounds a thoroughly respectable language‘. A slightly tenuous link on the face of it, but the two men had more in common than you might expect: Strauss’s controversial opera ‘Salome‘ was based on a play by Wilde.

I hope you enjoy this, it is gorgeous.