Archive for the Music Category

Britten: War Requiem

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I was back at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for an immensely powerful and moving performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. This vast work is composed for two orchestras (a standard symphony orchestra and a smaller chamber orchestra), two choirs (a chorus of adult voices and a boy’s choir) and three solo vocalists. Last night the soloists were Ailish Tynan (soprano), Gavan Ring (baritone) and Robin Tritschler (tenor), who performed with the combined forces of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and the boy Choristers of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, all conducted by David Brophy.

You can see the members of the Philharmonia Choir in position in the above photograph, which I took about ten minutes before the performance began; the choristers were out of sight in the gallery above and behind me, near where the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was sitting.

The War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral built to replace the 14th century cathedral that was destroyed along with most of the city in a devastating air raid ion 1940. It’s a remarkable work that juxtaposes settings of traditional liturgical Latin texts against poems by Wilfred Owen. The idea of doing this may have originated with the first poem Britten uses, Anthem for Doomed Youth, which itself deploys words associated with religious services to emphasize the soulless brutality of warfare:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

These settings are sung by soloists accompanied by the smaller chamber orchestra (positioned at the front of the stage) while the more traditional liturgical elements involve the larger forces arrayed behind.

I’ve known this work for many years largely through the classic 1963 recording conducted by Britten himself, with Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as soprano, tenor and baritone soloists respectively. I’m so familiar with that version that it was at first a little disconcerting to hear very different voices, but that very soon gave way into an appreciation of three very fine artists in their own right. All three were excellent last night, but I have to give extra special plaudits to Ailish Tynan, who sang with extraordinary passion in the Sanctus and Libera Me. The Latin text of the latter section includes:

Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo
dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna.
Quando coeli movendi sunt i terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis
et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Libera me, Domine.

Ailish Tynan performed this not just as an evocation of the horrors of wars past but also with a sense of anguished foreboding about wars yet to come. It was deeply moving and clearly heartfelt. I found this from her on Twitter this morning:

The first few bars of the War Requiem are enough to tell you right from the start this is music is coming from the same imagination that gave us Peter Grimes and a host of other masterpieces, and the quality of the music is sustained throughout the 85 minutes or so of its duration. There are some wonderful touches in the orchestration, such as the Dies Irae (with a definite nod in the direction of Verdi, but with tricky 7/8 rhythms). The Boys Choir was also used extremely effectively, the fact that they could not be seen (at least by me) adding to the ethereal quality of their voices. In all, it added up to an intense experience, I think for the musicians as well as the audience.

At the end of the music, David Brophy kept his arms (and baton) extended for a considerable time before gradually lowering them to signal the end of the performance. I really appreciated that several seconds of silence, which was immaculately observed by the audience. It’s good to have a time to reflect on what you’ve just heard before the applause begins. When the ovation had died down, the elderly lady sitting next to me (whom I’d never met before) turned to me and said `Wasn’t that wonderful?’. It was only then that I realised how powerfully I’d been affected. I tried to answer, but found I was a bit choked, and all I could get out was “Yes, it was”. I hope that didn’t come across as rude. It’s just that sometimes music expresses things that words can’t convey. Actually, come to think of it, that’s what it’s for.

Anyway, you don’t need to take my word for how good a concert it was, because you can watch the whole thing here:

(Please note that there are quite a few minutes of blank screen before it starts, but it is there!)

Congratulations to all the musicians involved last night for a tremendous performance, and thank you for a wonderful experience. It was a privilege to be there.


Shostakovich – The Leningrad Symphony

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , on October 27, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know. You wait 50-odd years for the opportunity to hear a live performance of Symphony No. 7 in C by Dmitri Shostakovich, and then two come along within a year. It was last November in Cardiff that I first heard this epic work in concert, and last night I was at the National Concert Hall in Dublin where it was performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Kochanovsky.

The first half of last night’s concert featured two works by Dmitry Kabalevesky (a contemporary of Shostakovich): his overture to the Opera Colas Breugnon and is Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Richard Harwood. Both of these were pleasant enough but I (and, I think, most of the rest of the audience) had their minds firmly on the main event to come after the interval.

The Leningrad Symphony is a piece that evokes particular memories for me as I first heard it about thirty years ago on the radio while sitting in a car that was driving through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night from Kansas City to Lawrence in the mid-West of the USA. The repeating theme and snare drum figures in the 1st Movement that represent the remorseless advance of the invading army had even more powerful effect when accompanied by the incessant driving rain. I’ve heard this piece on recordings and live broadcasts on many occasions since then, but had never heard it performed live until last November.

Shostakovich in a fireman’s uniform in Leningrad, 1941

What can I say about this work? Well, not much that hasn’t been said before. It was dedicated to the city of Leningrad where the composer lived, until he was evacuated during the siege, and where he wrote most of the 7th Symphony. He served as a volunteer fireman in Leningrad during the early part of the Second World War (see above), having been turned down for military service owing to his poor eyesight. Leningrad was besieged by German forces for almost 900 days, from September 1941 until January 1944, and it’s impossible not to see the work in this historical context.

Though the four movements have themes – `War’, `Memories’, `My Native Field’ and `Victory’ – this is not really a programmatic piece. It does, however, succeed in invoking the terror and brutality of armed conflict in a manner that is so compelling that it’s almost overpowering. Many symphonies have as a theme some kind of struggle between light and dark, or between good and evil, but it always seemed to me that this work is not so much like that as it is a representation of a struggle simply for survival against annihilation. Even the end of the intense fourth movement, when the music finally resolves into the key of C Major, suggesting a kind of `victory’, echoes of the previous conflict persist, suggesting (to me anyway) that this particular battle does not intend in any kind of triumph but in a sense of grim endurance that is more resignation than resolution. The composer himself, however, explained later in life that the ending represented

..the victory of light over darkness, wisdom over frenzy, lofty humanism over monstrous tyranny.

We could do with a victory of that sort these days.

Musicologists tend not to like this Symphony so much as some of Shostakovich’s others and its reputation dwindled in the West in the post-War period. Maybe it is true that it has defects when thought of as an exercise in composition, but fortunately I am not a professional critic so I am quite content to say that for me, personally, this work has an emotional impact like few others and it is one of my favourites in the whole symphonic repertoire. Last night the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra delivered an impassioned performance that confirmed everything I felt about this work but with the added dimensions that you can only get from a live performance.

At the beginning I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy last night’s performance. I thought it began at an uncomfortably brisk tempo, but once the orchestra had settled down it turned into a magnificent performance. From the immaculately controlled crescendo representing the advancing invaders that erupts into a nightmarish depiction of the ensuing battle right through to the last movement with its ending in resolution tempered in bitterness and regret, this performance had me gripped at least as much as last year’s.

In the first movement, Kochanovsky had the strings playing with a strident, agonized sound that was remarkably affecting . But the highlight of the evening came from the brass section placed in the choir stalls (four French horns, three trombones and three trumpets; you can see their empty desks in the picture I took before the start of the concert). When they stood up and let rip at the climax of the first movement crescendo the effect was absolutely thrilling. Their position high above the stage made it seem they were playing right in your face. When the glorious noise eventually subsided I realized that I had been gripping the armrests of my seat and my knuckles had turned white. I don’t think you can experience music with such intensity unless you hear it live.

At the end there was an immediate outbreak of cheering and a well-deserved standing ovation. I wish I could have stayed longer but I had to leave to catch a train back to Maynooth. (The Leningrad Symphony being rather long, I thought I might have to dash off at the end so I booked an end-row seat.) Let me at least use the opportunity afforded by this blog to congratulate Stanislav Kochanovsky and all the musicians last night for a magnificent performance of an epic masterpiece.

This Bitter Earth

Posted in Music with tags , , on October 25, 2018 by telescoper

This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares?

And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I?
Heaven only knows.

This bitter earth
Can be so cold.
Today you’re young.
Too soon you’re old.

But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call.

And this bitter earth,
May not be so bitter after all.

(Vocals by Dinah Washington with orchestration by Max Richter)

The Blue of the Night: Giant Steps from Ondine

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , , , , , , on October 17, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a quick lunchtime post before I settle down to an afternoon of marking coursework.

On Monday evening after finishing preparing my lectures and things for Tuesday, I decided to tune in for a while to The Blue of the Night on RTÉ Lyric FM which is presented by Bernard Clarke. This is a programme that I listen to quite often in the evenings as I enjoy its eclectic mix of music.

Anyway, the Blue of Monday Night included a recording of the movement Ondine from the piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel. As I listened to it, I started to think of an entirely different piece, the jazz classic Giant Steps, by John Coltrane (which I’ve actually posted on this blog here). Not really expecting anything to come of it, I sent a message on Twitter to Bernard Clarke mentioning the fact that the Ravel piece reminded me of Giant Steps. A few minutes later I was astonished to hear Giant Steps playing. Bernard had not only replied to me on Twitter, but had slipped the Coltrane track into the programme. Which was nice.

That confirmed the similarity in my mind and I did some frantic Googling to see if anyone else had noticed the similarity. Of course they have. In a rather dense article about music theory (most of which I don’t understand, having never really studied this properly) I found this:

I didn’t know at first what the up and down arrows annotating the two pieces were, but they represent the harmonic progression in a very interesting way that I had never thought about it before. The assertion is that in some sense the (sub-dominant) IV and (dominant) V chords which very common in popular music are closely related. To see why, imagine you play C on a piano keyboard. If you go 7 semitones to the right you will arrive at G, which is the root note of the relevant V chord. That’s up a perfect fifth. But if instead you go 7 semitones to the left you get to F which is a fifth down but is also a perfect fourth if looked at from the point of view of C an octave below where you started. In this way `up’ arrow represents a perfect fifth up (or a perfect fourth down) while the `down’ arrow is a perfect fifth down or a perfect fourth up. This is deemed to be the basic (or `simple proper’) chord progression.

Single or double arrows to left or right represent substitutions of various kinds (e.g. a minor third), but I won’t go further into the details. The key point is that while the actual chords differ after the first few changes because of the different substitutions, the chord progression in these two piece is remarkably similar judged by the sequence of arrows. The main exception is a different substitution in bar 3 of the Coltrane excerpt. Both pieces end up achieving the same thing: they complete an entire chromatic cycle through a sequence of basic progressions and substitutions.

I don’t know whether Coltrane was directly inspired by listening to Ravel or whether they both hit on the same idea independently, but I find this totally fascinating. So much so that I’ll probably end up trying to annotate some of the chord changes I’ve worked out from other recordings and see what they look like in the notation outlined above.


All The Girls Go Crazy

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on October 14, 2018 by telescoper

I came across this on Youtube a while ago and I quite often play it when I’m at work if I’m in need of an aural pick-me-up when I’m flagging a bit. The tune All The Girls Go Crazy is one of many manifestations of a 16-bar blues theme that was fairly ubiquitous in New Orleans Jazz. The recording is by a band led Ken Colyer who I think is on cornet rather than trumpet on this track, but the Youtube poster gives no other information about the personnel or the date. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the clarinettist sounds to me like Ian Wheeler and the drummer is without doubt Colin Bowden, one of the very best drummers in this style that the UK has ever produced. If I’m right then I think the date is somewhere around the mid-1950s, at the peak of the New Orleans revival in the UK. No doubt some other jazz fan out there will correct me if I’m wrong!

Ken Colyer (`the guvnor’) had very firm ideas about how New Orleans music should be performed, and you’ll notice that there’s much more ensemble work here than you find in the typical string-of-solos approach adopted by many `Trad’ bands of the period.

I’m going to look very silly if it’s not Colin Bowden on drums here, but for me he (or whoever else is the drummer) is the star of this performance, as it is he who is responsible for the steadily increasing sense of momentum, achieved without speeding up (which is the worst thing a rhythm section can do). Notice how he signals the end of each set of 8-bars with a little figure on the tom-toms and/or a cymbal crash, and it is by increasing the strength of these that he raises the excitement level. Notice also that he also has the last word with his cymbal, something jazz drummers are wont to do.

P.S. If you look here, you’ll see a certain Peter Coles playing alongside Ken Colyer in the 1970s. It’s not me, though. It’s my uncle Peter…

Bax, Vaughan Williams & Potter at the NCH.

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I was once again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a concert by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, this time conducted by Kenneth Montgomery. I took the above picture about five minutes before the start of the concert and, although a few more people arrived before the music began, it was a very low attendance. I don’t think the hall was more than 20% full. I’m not sure why. Perhaps Storm Callum made it difficult for some to make the journey to Dublin? I was delayed a bit on the way there from Maynooth, but I’m glad I made it because it was a fine concert.

I always appreciate it when unfamiliar works are programmed alongside more standard repertoire, and last night provided a good example of that. One piece was an established favourite among concert-goers, another I have on CD but have never heard live, and one I had never heard before at all.

The opening piece was In Memoriam by Arnold Bax. Although considered by many to be an archetypal English composer, Bax had a strong affinity for Ireland and indeed lived here from 1911 until the outbreak of war in 1914. I’ve always felt Bax’s music was greatly influenced by Sibelius, but he was very interested in Celtic culture and that comes across in his In Memoriam, which is built around a very folk-like melody. The work was composed to honour Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 uprising, who was subsequently executed by the British authorities, and was written in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion in 1916. It is a very fine piece, in my opinion, starting in a rather elegiac mood, but with passages that celebrate of Pearce’s life than mourn his death, and the ending is very moving, like a beautiful sunset.

There was then a short delay while various rearrangements were made on stage. Off went the wind instruments and percussion, and into the space vacated by their departure moved a subset of the string instruments, creating a second (smaller) string orchestra separated from the remaining musicians. In addition, the principals of the relevant sections arranged themselves to form a string quartet around the conductor’s podium. If you didn’t know before reading this what was about to be played, then that description will no doubt have led you to conclude that it must be the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is an evergreen concert piece, for good reason, and the string players of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra delivered a very fine account of it. I remarked on the fine playing of the string section after the last concert I attended at the NCH, and they did it again.

After the interval was a piece I had never heard before, the Sinfonia “De Profundis” by Belfast-born A.J. `Archie’ Potter, composed fifty years ago in 1968, and first performed in 1969 by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin. The title is a reference to Psalm 130, and some of the thematic material comes from liturgical music. In the composer’s own words:

As the title suggests, it is a musical account of one man’s own progress from despair over a particular circumstance in his life to spiritual recovery and (for the time being of course) triumph over the powers of darkness.

Although `a journey from darkness into light’ is a description that could apply to many symphonies (especially those of Beethoven), this work in five movements does not have a typically `symphonic’ structure in that it is based on variations on a theme drawn from a 16th century carol spread throughout the whole work rather than confined to one movement, alongside another element comprising a `tone row’. The juxtaposition of `traditional’ diatonic and `modernist’ serialist explorations generates tension which is only released at the very end, when it is released by the arrival of a new theme borrowed from the `Old 124th’.

That brief description of what is going on in this work doesn’t do justice at all to the impression it creates on the listener, which is of a richly varied set of textures sometimes mournful but sometimes boisterous, with dashes of robust humour thrown in for good measure. I’m not at all familiar with A.J. Potter, but I must hear more of his music. Based on this piece, he was both clever and expressive.

As a bonus we had an orchestral encore in the form of another piece by Archie Potter, much shorter and much lighter. Orchestral encores are rare in the UK, but seem to be less so here in Ireland.

After that I left in order to return to Maynooth. Appropriately enough, in the light of the piece by Bax, I took a train from Pearse station…

Moon Child – Pharaoh Sanders

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 11, 2018 by telescoper

Following the advice of novelist E.M. Forster to `only connect’, I thought I’d do just that by only connecting  two bits of news. The first is that legendary saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders is playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin next month and the second is that astronomers have been discussing whether or not a moon can have a moon and, if it can, whether it should be called a moonmoon or a submoon or something else. Well, I think such an object should be called a Moon Child, after the album by Pharaoh Sanders from which this is the title track. With a link like that, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I get offered a job as a radio presenter!