Spring, spring, spring – Beethoven’s way

Hello. How are you doing today? In a combined state of bemusement and uncertainty, I suspect. And not a little anxious, too.

It’s not often I can feel confident in making such an observation in a post which I am pleased to see has now reached more than 100 countries.

As someone who has lived with MS for 20 years, and used a wheelchair for the last dozen, I am more than familiar with the new phrase which has recently entered our lexicon, ‘self isolation’. (With typical and stoical humour, an elderly aunt has just called it ‘solitary confinement’.) Having worked in an office environment for much of my career, I cannot hide that it was a rude shock to be robbed of the social interaction which came with this affliction.

But you adapt. And of one thing you can be certain: amidst all the fragility, you are going to experience acts of extraordinary kindness and thoughtfulness. You may equally discover, maybe surprisingly, but with enormous joy, that you can be a driver of these qualities yourself. Over the years I have been the grateful recipient of many, some large, some small. All made a difference.

Whichever side of the equation you are on, these acts will not only give you strength, but they will also ingrain in you an attitude of gratitude, and faith in the general goodness of fellow men and women. The challenge, for that is what it will be, is for this early resolve to be nurtured and maintained.

It has become one of the motivators for these posts. That music crosses borders and is a universal language is not merely accepted, but something of a cliché. And yet, with the aid of technology, it does allow me to share your company for a few minutes wherever you may be. It enables me to communicate with friends and loved ones whom I may not see for a while – and many whom I have never met, nor likely ever will.

Spring officially began two days ago. There is a plethora of music to celebrate this season of blossom, birdsong, and beginnings anew. Once again I am drawn to Beethoven and the pure sweetness of his Violin Sonata No.5, so called The Spring (posthumously), and in particular, the first movement. There is an abundance of recordings available and you would not think it possible to hear such a variety.

One thing, however, became apparent: speed and unity in this piece are what matters most. The movement is marked Allegro – quickly – and anything falling short of that loses the skip and freshness in the music. And what sweet, sweet music! You might think that unity is a given, but the moment one instrument dominates the other, notes are quashed – and they are all worth hearing.

A 1973 recording by Itzhak Perlman on violin and Vladimir Ashkenazy on piano meets the brief. It is something of a dream team, both of them on equal terms with the other. Ashkenazy has recently retired, and his Beethoven playing is amongst the best there is.

A final word. Today in the UK we celebrate Mothering Sunday. Many, if not most, of us will not be able to share the day with them as we would normally. A mother’s love, like music, endures forever. So this post is dedicated to your mother, or you as a mother yourself.

‘Where words end, music begins’, once opined some sage. And so, enough said.

Click on the image for a reminder that spring brings hope of better things to come –















Comfort music

One of the great conundrums in music, any music, is the extent to which our choice of listening reflects our mood.

Obviously if you’re feeling all Tigger-like, you’re not going to go and dig out a funeral march. But if you’re erring on the Eeyore perspective of life, you’re hardly going to seek out an Alleluia tonic.

In the space of a few weeks, the country’s mood has shifted seamlessly from the ennui of Brexit to the fear of Coronavirus. Neither of these emotions is conducive to feeling chipper, and it makes selecting appropriate music in a lighthearted way all the more challenging. Oh, for the elation that swept the land when in 1981 Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, and Botham and Willis overcame the Aussies! ‘Bliss, [indeed], was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be young [as I was] was very heaven.’ And then some 30 years later the collective high spirits as the Olympics came to London.

Two things are now clear: we are in need of consolation, comfort and care; and without in any way seeking to trivialise the current climate, a little amusement would not go amiss either.

Which is why my quandary has directed me to two pieces today, in the hope that between them both there will be something here for everyone. Step up J. S. Bach, and Victor Hely-Hutchinson.

Bach wrote just one concerto for two violins, probably around 1720, but what a gem of intermingling dialogue it is. In this recording the canary-coloured-clad Anne Sophie Mutter shares the three movements with different members of her ensemble. The first, marked vivace, meaning lively, upbeat, is taken at a very sprightly lick and the final allegro almost has each violin chasing the other; but in the midst of these outer movements Bach slots in a largo ma non tanto, slowly but not overly so, which gives lie to the belief of some who find his music unmoving. It is an exquisite eight minutes, imbued with melancholy and comfort as one.

I am indebted to a first cousin for bringing the second piece to my attention. Victor Hely-Hutchinson, about whom I have written a couple of times before, was my great uncle and a child prodigy. He was still at Heatherdown prep school, so maybe not even in his teens, when he set Edward Lear’s 1871 poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, to music. I’m not here to read anything particularly insightful into this, for it is, after all, ‘nonsense verse’; but at its heart is an endearing trust – two completely incompatible beings sailing into the unknown ‘for a year and a day’. Looking out for each other. A message for our times?

I can’t hide a huge pride that this top rate trio, Mark Padmore, Roderick Williams, and Julius Drake, saw fit to perform this. It may be fun and playful, but it is far from kitsch: Victor conveys the gentle rocking of the boat from the opening bars, and the blending of these two lovely voices underlines the harmony between the two characters, heading into the unknown together.

‘There may be troubles ahead, but while there’s music and moonlight…’

Click on the images.




A different kind of Austrian

One thing that bothers me about cookery programmes, for which my appetite has long been satiated, is the equal enthusiasm the experts express no matter what they dish up.

I mean, please, how is is possible to rave about offal, oysters, anchovies and the like with the same effusiveness as crème brûlée, Sachertorte, sauce béarnaise? It has left me with the constant suspicion that chefs, just like the rest of us, are averse to certain foods, but to admit it would be a betrayal of their art.

Finding top musicians fessing up to a particular dislike of a composer can be just as hard. But I am not a musician. Today I am setting myself, and in doing so responding to, a challenge. You will know that the purpose of this blog is to share music that I love. Today, dear reader, I am going outside that brief. And well out of my comfort zone.

I did a quick look back on the last 100 posts and was pleasantly surprised to see that we have covered 45 different composers. There remain some glaring omissions on the list (him, Liszt, being one of them), so there is still plenty of material out there.

The image at the top of this post did not crawl there by accident. ‘Symphonic boa constrictors’ was how Brahms described the symphonies of the Austrian composer, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Bruckner was the eldest of 11 children. He learnt and played the organ with precocious skill from a young age, but seems to have suffered a lifelong inferiority complex. It’s perhaps not hard to see why. He was constantly put down by his teachers; his symphonies were not well received in his life, and he was something of an odd-ball: he dressed strangely in over-sized clothes; he was obsessed with numbers and teenaged girls, to whom many he made unsuccessful marriage proposals, remaining a bachelor to the end, a lifestyle almost certainly driven by his unwavering Catholic faith which seems to have persuaded him that anything other than a virgin would be sinful.

And he was quite odd-looking, too.

I wonder if his lack of self confidence goes some way to explaining the length of his symphonies. Let’s give this a simple comparison: his first nine symphonies total about 10 hours of listening – Beethoven’s nine symphonies, about 6. The average length of a Bruckner symphony, 65 minutes, is the same length as Beethoven’s longest, his ninth. There’s a lot of repetition. Sometimes it can feel as if the piece has finished long before the music stops.

If you are looking for jollity, you will struggle to find it here. Bruckner’s symphonies are works of profound solemnity.

I accept fully that it is all a matter of taste: I know some who say he is their favourite composer. And I also accept whenever I  have heard a live performance, the sheer monumentality can be an overwhelming sound.

So what’s the problem for me?

The man is a tease of the highest order. With Mahler, whether you like his music or not, he never fails to deliver the climax: the crescendo always delivers what you are hoping and waiting for. Bruckner, by contrast, could have invented the term ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ long before any Brexit negotiations: endless passages of promising foreplay, leaving you expectant, and then…NOTHING!

At the risk of emulating one of his shorter symphonies, I will deter you only a little longer. The Scherzo of his 7th Symphony is about as light as he gets, albeit with its own weighty moments. Günther Wand (pronounced Vand, not Wond, however fitting that might be for a conductor) was one of the true experts in Bruckner’s music, a reputation achieved from his ability to secure lengthy rehearsal times. Here he is in his late 80s, extracting a sound full of colour, contrast and clarity. It is one of those rare passages which does not demonstrate my frustration, and hence one I enjoy – and it’s not a bad tune either.

I may yet come round to him more, and I have certainly enjoyed this mini exploration.

Oh, and in an exception to the chef analogy, I did find one musician who wasn’t crazy about Bruckner – Leonard Bernstein. I’m not the greatest fan of Lenny, but he did write the best musical of all time and I won’t debate that.

Click on the image – thoughts welcome!