For the pure Rossini Joy(ce) of it

Gioachino Rossini’s straightforward approach to his music could scarcely be in greater contrast to the turbulent times in which he lived. Born in northern Italy in 1792, just a couple of months after the death of Mozart, with whom he was often compared, Rossini was a gifted child of musical parents; but his father made life complicated for them by being a French Revolution sympathizer. The arrival of a certain Napoleon on the scene did nothing to ease matters, so Rossini was constantly on the move (and not only during his lifetime: his remains were ultimately moved from France to Florence).

By the time he was 38, Rossini had become the most popular Italian opera composer, and more or less retired at that tender age, (just half way through his life, as it turned out) having written 39 operas, almost all comic. He had a gift for composing them at great speed, something which is clearly evident in the music itself, as well as shamelessly sifting in passages from his other works when appropriate, thereby earning him a reputation for being lazy; an image which was enhanced by composing in bed and frequently leaving everything to the last minute. It has possibly led to him being under-rated, even light. It served him well, though: by the time he died, he had amassed a vast fortune from his ability to follow his doctrine ‘Let us not forget, Italians, that enjoyment must be the purpose of this art. Simple melody – clear rhythm.’

The purpose of these modest jottings is to enthuse; and so to be less than polite, as I was in an earlier post, about Rossini’s most famous comic opera, ‘The Barber of  Seville‘ was hasty and self-defeating. All my foolish prejudice showed, however, was that I had been unlucky with the performances I had attended until very recently. The importance of a good and slick production with accomplished singers occupying the lead roles of Figaro and Rosina is everything here. Anything found wanting in these areas leaves the comedy flat and dull. Do it well, and you will serve your first-timers a yearning for more.   

The ‘Largo al factotum‘ aria is well known, so instead I want to indulge in the artistry of the American mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato, in Rosina’s aria ‘Una Voce poco fa‘. (Her brief introduction is a neat reflection of how Rossini packed everything in.) These few minutes are delivered so effortlessly that you could be forgiven for missing the mastery. Many singers have recorded this, but DiDonato’s version hits the mark: it has brilliant technique, breath control and pitch. It is almost tantalizing. She appears to get you ready before launching into passages of astonishing virtuosity (just after 4:00, 5:00 and 6:00).  When you have listened to it for a second time, and I urge you to do so, you will have to marvel at the extraordinary gift in a human voice. The temptation in this piece can be for the singer to embellish it with too much ‘coloratura‘, the art of adding notes or vocal acrobatics to enhance the finished article; but too much can rob you of the tune, and Rossini did not approve of it either, preferring his singers to stick to the script. This recording is not just highly accomplished, but pure joy too.

Music was not Rossini’s greatest passion. That slot was taken by food. A beef tournedos, pan-fried in butter, served on a crouton with a hefty topping of foie gras, and finished with slices of black truffle and Madeira sauce, combine to form the dish known as Tournedos Rossini. No wonder he needed the money.



Irresistible Bach

When you feel the urge to be straight up about something in script, it can be tempting to relax into an over-colloquial style. I remember once opening a paragraph in an essay at school with the words ‘Let’s face it…’, to find that its marker was of a different view. ‘Let’s not.’ were the words in the margin. But, let’s face it – we must – we cannot let the Lent and Easter season pass without reference to Bach.

For some, Bach is the greatest of them all. It was not always thus: he had to struggle to be appreciated in his own lifetime, not helped by an ill-tempered, stubborn personality, and his monumental output can only serve to conjure up the image of a workaholic, who probably would have done well to take the odd day off. He was a gifted organist, but an awkward employee, constantly in disputes and moaning about the general lack of quality singers for his work. He could hardly have been more different to the outgoing Handel, born only 81 miles away just a few days before, and whom he never even met. A serious boy from the outset, he might reasonably be regarded as the personification of the claim that ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ In short, he was. It may explain why Bernard Levin once commented that Bach’s music all sounds as if it is written in the minor (sad) key, even when it isn’t.

It is almost unbelievable that his colossal output of cantatas, organ works, chamber music, concertos, chorales and much more, did not come to be recognized properly until some fifty years after his death (1750) at 65 (a ripe age in the mid seventeenth century, when the average demise was under 30); and it was not until later in the nineteenth century that Wagner declared him ‘the most stupendous miracle in all music’. Today, 11th April 2017, marks the 290th anniversary of the first performance of his ‘St Matthew Passion‘, conducted by Mendelssohn, surely one of, if not the, most sublime pieces of all choral music ever written.

Bach was a deeply religious man, all of his works being dedicated to the greater glory of God. Do you need to be a Christian to appreciate this piece? Undoubtedly not. But will you be more greatly moved if you are? Yes, I believe so: I have attended the annual performance by the Bach Choir on many occasions. Despite my love of music, I have only once choked, (I am much more likely to shed a tear in some sloppy rom-com) and it was during this piece several years ago. At the point when Jesus yields up the ghost, there is a pause, and on this particular occasion, the conductor, David Hill, seemed to me to delay the re-start by the tiniest of moments. I have no idea if it was deliberate or not; I just know that in that one unguarded instant, the enormity of this story was made clear.

At some three hours in length, there is plenty to draw on. For those who know the piece well, I hope you forgive me for selecting one of the most famous passages; because for those of you who are not familiar with it, these few minutes go a long way to summarizing the meaning of the whole work: a lament, ‘Erbarme dich‘, not for one man alone, but for mankind itself. This weeping melody, sung here by Andreas Scholl, tugs and tugs, and with the help of a solo violin, goes on tugging. It is the most exquisite music.





A personal Dream with Elgar

We are currently basking in glorious spring weather, but Easter is still a week away. My favourite season and festival of the year, which brings with it the promise of new life, is teasing us with its proximity, but as I write we are still in Lent. And last Friday, on a heaven-sent day, we laid my vibrant and vivacious mother-in-law to rest, bringing the two poles of death and new life together in quite beautiful harmony.

There are so many pieces of music which capture this time of year, and I can scarcely believe that I am not sharing my non-negotiable-indispensable work with you, Bach’s ‘St.Matthew Passion‘; but in the context of recent weeks, I am drawn elsewhere. Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius‘, composed in 1900, is, in my book, his very best; Elgar himself penned the line ‘This is the best of me…‘ at the bottom of the score. The music is set to the poem by John Henry Newman, a Catholic convert and cardinal, which resulted in objections to its performance in a number of Anglican cathedrals: the poem tells of the journey of a Christian soul, that of Gerontius, arriving in purgatory with the promise of greater joys to come. The work is now firmly established as one of the finest of all choral pieces, and it includes several passages which will be familiar to you, such as ‘Firmly I believe and truly‘ and ‘Praise to the Holiest‘.

My mother-in-law, Dumbo, as she was universally known, was herself a convert, assisted in this transition by a Benedictine monk, who was a family friend for many years before his premature death. After twelve days of being unable to take food or water, Cardinal Newman’s words ‘Go forth, Christian soul, go forth upon thy journey‘ were being quietly recited by her bed on the 21st March, and on that same day, the feast of St.Benedict itself, they were heeded.

This simple, direct, prayer, is sung here by Gerald Finley. supported by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It matters nothing whether or not you subscribe to the Catholic doctrine: we all face death at some point and the ritual which we can choose to mark it can be a thing of enormous beauty and solace.

Whether facing, or recalling, the loss of a loved one, it is music like this which can bring comfort and encouragement to a grieving heart.