A recent interview with Joan Baez at 78, on her ‘farewell tour’ sent me back to visit her first, heavily traditional, folk ballad albums. Hearing that pure, clear effortless voice again has been a wonderful mix of melancholy and delight. Melancholy (ah, all our youth, or whenever this was first heard) but, also the choice of songs. Most of them are ancient ancient and (I assume) carry the weight of some of the centuries they have been sung in. Many of them are about death, many about love : and still more for death and love entwined.
I have to say that listening to many of the stellar female chanteuses of today I find a curling disdainful lip curls around my ears (strange mixed image!) So many voices seem to over, sobbingly EMOTE. ‘Look how much I am FEELING – or are full of various fashionable wails and vocal tricks. I wish many of them would sit down and listen to just how much more feeling an interpretation can be which floats out the music, and lets it do the speaking. Joan sings simply and clearly, her vibrato seems to happen without force or strain.
I confess to listening to these old lays, full of women done wrong to, loved and left, (Mary Hamilton, a Child Ballade) or women who decided not to engage because they were bound to be loved-and-left (Silver Dagger), tales of death on the high seas, death in battle and they did strange things to me. Somehow her renditions seem to carry the memory of how others may have sung them over earlier generations.
Pretty silver guitar playing as well. Magic. Thank you Joan Baez.
Baez of course has also been an activist all her life. I find interesting that she was largely brought up a Quaker (both her mother and her father had been the children of ministers from other Christian traditions) That spirit of both social activism, egalitarianism and the absence of the need for a mediator between ‘the Word’ and the congregation are somehow linked with the music she engaged with. And so too is the reflective listening for the truth of the music and the words to express, so that the singer does not need to overdo her feeling for it. Here is another performer who allows the listener room.
Although knows as a fine interpreter of other people’s songs, as well as an interpreter of traditional music, she has also penned some fine songs herself Though not on this album which is all ‘traditional’ – composer and lyric writer unknown.
I have loved Bach’s Goldberg Variations since my teens; it is an essential piece of music for me. Glenn Gould has been THE interpreter, against whom I judged others. Indeed, as I have two recordings, I judge him against himself.
I bought Zhu Xiao-Mei’s 2016 recording then, with some trepidation, having found her through her extraordinary autobiography, The Secret Piano. What she said about Bach, what she revealed about herself in her devotion to, and understanding of, his music, made this listening urgent and compulsory. Would it disappoint? Could she match the perfection I find in Gould as an interpreter?
Oh my. Oh my. I can’t raise one above the other. These are so extraordinarily different, creating such a unique experience within this music, of equal intensity. Profound, visceral, spiritual, hugely reflective, totally engaged.
Listening to Gould, I am brought to stillness, in some glimmering, numinous state. The music is transcendent, touching the divine, taking me to yearning for the ineffable. Music pointing to the dispassionate stars. I would like to be freed from the bonds of matter. This is music which makes tears pour, without strain, without, even, being able to name the emotion.
By contrast, Zhu Xiao-Mei takes me to total engagement and inhabitation of my human beingness. And, whilst I never thought about the gender of the performer with Gould, from the off, Zhu Xiao-Mei’s does feel like an interpretation which is particularly feminine. I was put in mind of the willing surrender of self, the making space for the other, that supremely female experience of pregnancy. I thought/felt the presence of various Artworks depicting The Annunciation, of everything I knew about embryology, the negotiation between fertilised egg and its embedding/inception in the womb. On a spiritual/metaphorical level this has always seemed to me to be an act (even if unconscious) of generosity. Here life, the life of the other, can begin, offered a safe harbour.
This performer effaces herself, she makes room for the music. It is not a performance demanding the listener to marvel at, and admire the pianist (though we do!) Rather, we are asked to marvel at, to admire the composer, to marvel at, to admire how HE speaks, to listen to his language, to hear what he is listening to, to what he has heard and must communicate to us. I understood, from Zhu’s revealing, that this Bach is after all, human too. Deeply spiritual, deeply connecting with ‘That Which Is’ – but doing so by being deeply embedded in matter, embodied, in community. Bach was a husband and a father. The warmth of human, the challenge of human, is all in this interpretation.
With Zhu’s interpretation I found myself embracing the limitations and expressions of embodiment. Not seeking to escape from the chains of matter, glorying in them. How I would have behaved in a live concert hall, I don’t know – but I was on my feet, dancing the dynamic variations, and sensing into the dynamics of breath, heartbeat, blood flow in the more introspective variations. Both yearning skywards, but also grounded, held (happily) by gravity.
No tears flowed, instead, she led me to ‘thoughts that do lie too deep for tears’, an awareness of the divinity within (however one might define it) through its works, through all that is. This god/goddess dwells within us, Pan-theistic indeed.
I have struggled (as I am not a musician) to define the difference between two glorious, miraculous interpretations, and can only do it by their effects upon me, subjectively.
Actually, Zhu Xiao Mei herself – who masters language nearly as meaningfully as she does music, explains exactly what I find from her music, in the CD notes, which include an interview with her by Michel Mollard, who makes this interesting observation, and question
Michel Mollard: Glenn Gould retired from the world in order to deepen his interpretation of the Goldberg variations, whereas you have decided to take the opposite approach by playing the work in public throughout practically the whole of the world
ZX-M : Yes, for me communicating with my audience is crucial. I am playing for them again. It is my contact with an audience that has allowed my performance of the Goldberg Variations to mature, and I have them to thank for that.
She makes space not just for the composer, the music, but also for the listener
Unfortunately I can’t find any extended sections of Zhu Xiao-Mei on a YouTube playing Goldberg, hence these two very short excerpts from various live performances and the documentary on her life and music. The extended Gould YouTube is of his first recording of the works, 1955, taken at some lick. Zhu Xiao-Mei takes almost twice as long to play the Variations through, choosing to play the repeats, and also making something of the silence, pauses between variations
Argentina and England; music the powerful language of the heart
Happenstance took me to a concert given by the Santiago Quartet, some weeks ago. The programme was exactly what is on this CD. Captivated almost from the off, (the strange, almost sax like, edge of sexy, edge of pain violin squeals were an initial shock) I was swept away by the vibrancy, intensity and playfulness of this music, moving without hesitation between rapid extremes of exuberance, ecstasy, mischief and melancholic longing.
I knew nothing of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. His ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’ yes give the occasional nod to Vivaldi’s, but are of Paizzolla’s time and space. This is a fusion of tango, with its insistent rhythms and call to dance, with that inner reflectiveness, – be STILL and listen which is the heritage of classic concert music. That tension between still listening and – no – dance, move, whilst you can – we have such a little time to inhabit dynamic physicality was quite electrifying
The music inhabits emotional extremes, flickering instantly between oppositions, and is both intensely of its place, Argentina, but also draws the inheritance and influences from both classical music, modern classical music and jazz. It is utterly delicious.
Astor Piazzolla and Bandoneon
So to Santiago Quartet – 2 violins, ( Rowan Bell, Johanna McWeeneey) a viola, (Cressida Wislocki) a cello (Jonathan Hennessey-Brown) – joined on the Piazzolla pieces by a bandoneon (Julian Reynolds) They played with delight, intensity, sensitivity and passion, music which obviously spoke to their heart.
As well as the Beunos Aires Four Seasons, there is an altogether darker and more unsettling piece, Anxiety. I was not surprised, on racing away to buy the CD which was on sale at the concert venue, that this particular piece was one written after the composer had had serious health problems. The track Oblivion speaks both of faith and identity and was written as a film score with connections to a play by Pirandello
The final piece, by English composer Will Todd, could not be more different. The mood is far more restrained, internalised, and infused with both a very English melancholy and a final accepting quietude. This was a piece commissioned by the cellist’s mother. It also moved me intensely, though in a different way. Gone was the need to dance, the yearning was towards something transcendent.
I was even more pleased I had surrendered to the need to buy this CD from the Quartet, after the concert, and not waited to buy later on line – a percentage of the profits bought from the musicians themselves goes to MIND. The cellist, introducing one of the pieces, spoke movingly about personal history with mental health, and the importance of music ‘The Language of the Heart’ Not only the title of the CD, but the place all the music here inhabits, and the place the musicians interpreted from, and spoke from the composers’ hearts, their own hearts, to ours, listening
And…to those who might have noticed my absence – pressure of work, dear hearts, has meant for some time that I have time to read or to write about what I am reading, but rarely both. The amount which MUST be reviewed (those ARCS) is Everest like now, and no matter how much I try to tell myself I cannot open another book without addressing that must-be-reviewed pile, the flesh is weak, very weak indeed. All of us who pride ourselves (alas! pride!) on maintaining our own particular reviewing style and standard just can’t surrender to doing something simpler and less intensive than what we normally do.
I may (or may not) manage to get the odd to be reviewed pile marginally reduced over the coming weeks and months – the challenge then becomes remembering backlogs (goes scrabbling for ginkgo biloba)
“The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails”
It was searching for a You Tube video with Scarlatti piano pieces, to illustrate a post which happily brought me to the first of Angela Hewitt’s Scarlatti series CD
As Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) wrote over 500 piano sonatas, Hewitt’s intention, as I understand it, is to release more CDs, with a selection of the sonatas which she believes could work well together, as in a concert setting. They are quite short, most typically between 3 and 6 minutes. She has chosen and grouped the programme into sequences which she believes work well together, rather than the more obvious sequential, with the major and minor paired. She explains in the liner that sometimes one of a pair is weaker than the other which would make listening a more uneven experience
Hewitt not only plays these, deliciously, as if in some miraculous way music just happened to pour out from her fingertips, but she also writes liner notes of great clarity and illumination. Though the notes will I assume make even more sense to musicians, they are full of insightful pointers that open the pieces out to greater enjoyment still, for non-musicians
I know that these pieces, most of them, are clearly not easy to play – the rapidity of notes, the interesting rhythms, the fiendish, darting crossing of hands, trills, turns, dabbed at notes, but the glory is that I was not sitting jaw dropped in admiration at what must be the strength, flexibility and control in the bones, nerves and muscles of her hands. I had no sense of the effort such mastery must take. Instead, this sense of music as an absolutely natural dynamic – like water racing over over pebbles in a stream, breezes whipping through leaves
The first two lines of a long forgotten poem, Sunday Morning by Louis Macneice flashed through my mind as I listened to Hewitt dance through these pieces – many of them were indeed dance inspired, dance rhythms
Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Not that Hewitt’s playing sounds like the practising of scales, but it is quicksilver
Scarlatti by Domingo Antonio Velasco 1738
Unfortunately, I had been hoping to find a You tube of a single sonata, by Hewitt, to embed, but alas, there is none, only the short compilation by Hyperion of this 2015 CD
Volume 2 of her Scarlatti sonatas will no doubt make its appearance here in due course. I have that pleasure to explore when I have soaked myself thoroughly in this first CD
However, I did find quite an interesting series of short lectures on ‘the Scarlatti Effect’ . The other three can be found on YouTube and there are of course other videos of other Scarlatti interpreters playing some of the 500. But for the moment, just leave me with Hewitt, whilst leaves, breezes, fountains, silvery shoals of fish and brooks-a-babbling pour from her fingers
There is a fairy story about a girl blessed by a fairy, so that each time she spoke, sparkling gems of great riches, rubies, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and pearls, fell from her mouth. That must have been a bit of a burden, actually, far better to receive the gift of pouring music from fingertips!
Arvo Pärt’s transcendent music is always a deep experience, demanding attention and engagement from the listener. And whilst the musical lines may seem simple, they are not simplistic, and leave nowhere for musician or singer to hide. Without fidelity and surrender, his music can seem like some kind of technical exercise. Which is very very far from what it is.
Being lucky enough to attend a recent concert performance of Passio, sent me back to listen to The Hilliard Ensemble rendition, conductor Paul Hillier. This is a long piece, and not one for our InstaGratification Hummable Tunes culture. It is not, in any way, a ‘background piece’ and unfolds itself through its single, 70 minute, unbroken movement. How can ‘The Passion’ be properly realised, glimmeringly felt, if the journey is not undertaken, and ‘snapshot moments’ only are listened to on the hoof?
This music in its purity and careful threading and weaving, requires an extraordinary precision and control to hold the length, flow and placement of the close, dissonant harmonies.
From the crushing, almost overwhelmingly heavy opening of the piece, hopeless, doom laden, arises beautiful, single threads of music and voices, offering, surely some tenderness, some way out of despair, despite suffering. The bass, solo lines of Jesus are steadfast and firm, and musically give a kind of foundation for the other voices, and musical lines to relate to. To sorrowfully, tenderly, and in the end – not quite triumphally, but with the possibility of achieving something hopeful, out of pain, out of despair, soar. The end both breaks, and releases, the heart.
This is indeed a fabulous rendition. Though the experience, of course, of a live performance – The Façade Ensemble, conductor Benedict Collins Rice, offers an intensity that solitary attentiveness to a recording, can never do
This particular version may no longer be easily available as a new CD, though market place (used) copies are available or download on MP3. And of course, though the technical quality might be somewhat flawed, you can at least hear it on You Tube
The Hilliard Ensemble, alas, disbanded three years ago. Oh that I had ever heard them deliver this live!Paul Hillier was a founder member of The Hilliards and, later of Theatre of Voices. Hilliard was named for the Elizabethan miniaturist, I believe, rather than for Hillier, though perhaps the connection suggested itself
The extreme pleasure of Patinkin and Peters on a Sunday In The Park With George
Including a You Tube link to an excerpt from the original Broadway Production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George, in a recent post, reminded me again of the magnificence of the music.
I saw this in a stunning production at the National, with Maria Friedman as Dot/Marie and Philip Quast as Georges/George, and have heard both albums made from productions – this Off/Broadway /later Broadway, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, and a later UK revival which transferred to Broadway with Daniel Evans/Jenna Russell and have to say that for my money the Americans win hands down, heart open, ear sweet.
Stephen, Bernadette and Mandy, back in 1984, when rehearsing for the original production. Can more than 30 really have passed?
To my ears and viscera the later British CD gains more of the dialogue, and yes, Russell is easier to hear the wonderful lyrics with, as Peters at times flounders in managing the fiercely rapid fire sung lyrics, particularly in that fizzing, dizzying opening track, however, I am more aware of Evans and Russell as musical theatre performers. By contrast, Patinkin and Peters make me feel as if I am relating to Georges/George and Dot/Marie. These two, though clearly immaculate in their technique and craft, seem to sing from within the characters they are playing.
Sunday In The Park With George is my very favourite Sondheim musical – witty, intense, audacious it takes as its inspiration the 1884 painting by the pointilliste Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and follows the story of the painter himself , through using his writings and ideas about art, and his artworks, and some of the major events of his short life, and the invention of the lives and identities of the people painted in that picture – most particularly, the woman in the foreground on the right hand side of the painting, with the monkey on a leash. As Dot, Seurat’s model and lover. Act 1 takes place over the two years from 1884-1886 which it took Seurat to paint his picture, which now hangs in Chicago
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat 1884
Act 2 takes place 100 years later. George is a fairly successful installation artist, someone much more commercially driven, working the corporate world, part creative, partly with the wily cynicism of one who schmoozes but has lost his creative way through trying to second guess which way artistic fashion is heading. George is presenting his latest work, and installation structure, Chromolume Number 7, built on an initial inspiration from the pointilliste and chromolume ideas of Seurat. Marie, George’s elderly grandmother, close to dying reflects on her memories of her French born mother, Dot, and is a conscience, a beacon and ultimately a re-awakener of George’s lost truthful creative voice
Sondheim’s shimmery, weaving music, dabbing and sparkling provides a kind of musical pointillism
The album does stand on its own, but inevitably has much more bite if you know the staged musical.
Now the quality is not wonderful, but there is a Youtube video (with Spanish subtitles) of the entire original Broadway production, with Patinkin and Peters, also, without subtltles, and unfortunately cut into the usual small sections, more or less all the songs can be found from that production
I particularly love the two harmonious end of Act 1 and end of Act 2 ‘Sunday’ numbers, set against the all at sea quarrelsome dissonance of the opening Act 2 number, ‘It’s Hot Up Here’. Taken together, these reminded me of Rossini’s operas where there is often a kind of waspy, frenetic, deranged chorus piece with every character snarling confusedly, slightly deranged, and an ultimate, wonderfully uplifting harmonious and beautifully balanced resolution
Peters rather breaks the listener’s heart repeatedly with her vulnerability and generous heart quality. And Patinkin is a revelation, a very fine singer indeed, as well as actor
My only cavil for this album is the inclusion of one of the numbers, Putting It Together, presented not by Patinkin – it is an edgy, angst ridden, cynical and vituperative piece, interrupted by dialogue, in context. Instead, it is presented as a typically ‘musical theatre’ show stopper type piece, by a quartet of singers, none of whom belong in this production. It is, to my ears, glitz without heart or context. The final piece, although beautiful, again misses much – Peters in a tribute concert at the Carnegie Hall reprising one of the big Sunday chorus numbers. Which is somewhat different from the intensity coming out of the inhabitation of characters in relationship with each other, singing those numbers .
Shimmers, soaring violin, and addictive brilliance
Philip Glass I know is somewhat of a ‘Marmite composer’ – even among his fans (of whom I am one) and this particular piece of work appears to be even more Marmiteish than most.
Some regretted the early Glass turning away from much more avant-garde work, following instead a combination of minimalism and extreme romanticism, finding him become too accessible perhaps, or too formulaic, as the rushes and the glittery shimmers and repetitions he is known for, plus his lyricism, has meant he has often been the background to film, TV and commercial, with snippets of works getting regular airings.
Personally, I find his trademarks work for me well, and have only once felt he was running a little on empty and plagiarising himself – his 2011 opera The Perfect American – but that is possibly because I can’t imagine anything from Glass, in operatic form, can match Satyagraha, where the subject matter (Gandhi) met the elevation of the music. The Perfect American portrayed Disney, a darker, less elevated individual than others (Einstein, Gandhi, Akhnaten) who have been a useful fit for Glass, a Buddhist, in his operas
This particular piece was written for the American violinist Robert McDuffie in 2009 and is referred to as ‘The American Four Seasons. McDuffie had been interested in a piece which would serve as a ‘companion’ to Vivaldi’s popular work, but it was not, as far as I understand, composed as any kind of variation on Vivaldi – it was merely a work in four movements.
McDuffie did connect it more to the Vivaldi piece. Glass created a set of four solo pieces for the violin (specifically for McDuffie) to stand in place of violinist cadenzas within pieces. Each ‘solo’ now precedes one of the four orchestral movements
The order in which each movement and solo is to be played is then left to the individual soloist and conductor. That is, the interpreters decide which piece belongs to which season, and, indeed the order in which the ‘year of seasons’ should start.
Personally I found that part of Glass’s explanation – handing control to the players, or, in these days of playlists, to the listener to programme and change a playing order as they choose, a bit spurious. I chose to buy the CD for a better quality of sound than a squashed MP3. And so unless I want to be fiddling around with the remote out of some desire to play mindgames, listen from start to finish. Curiously, I’m not even particularly ‘bovvered’ to want to play guessing games over seasons. I am content with this as a wonderful piece of music. And will continue to eat spoonfulls of this musical Marmite with enormous enjoyment, again and again
Marin Alsop conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in this recording, from the European première of the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010.
Meanwhile………apologies, it was a blogger who alerted me to this recording, and I didn’t note down who you were before rushing off to buy it, more than a month ago. I can’t find who you are from any tag search – if you read this, please leave me a comment, and I can embed a link to your original post which included this, but wasn’t specifically ABOUT the piece
Lacking the plangency and heart thrill and squeeze of the original………and yet…….
The Jacques Loussier Trio – Jacques himself on piano, Vincent Charbonnier on bass and Andre Arpino on drums, here bring their jazz interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – two instruments to provide what an orchestra does, in terms of melody texture, tone and harmony, and with a much stronger emphasis on rhythm, with that third instrument being percussive.
Many years ago, in the brief period when I stopped listening to classical music by safely long dead composers, I came across a jazz version of The Four Seasons – no idea who by, I had mistakenly thought it must be Jacques Loussier, due to his connection with Jazz Bach – but I’ve recently come across this definitely Loussier version. And very fine it is too
I do have to say that the original orchestral piece, with the richness of the different tones brought by more instruments, and the dominance of melody and harmony which classical music has, over overt rhythm, is full of much more visceral, heart, soul, spirit grab than a jazz version is likely to be, for me. Classical pieces (well certain classical pieces, if well performed, and Four Seasons is one) seem to unlock my tear ducts, and I will listen, tears (without obvious simple, named emotion behind them) will pour down my face, and I will feel the music stretching itself as if into the fascia of my body. Not a cerebral response, not a ‘this is pleasant’ response, but a kidnapping, a taking over.
Anyway, this, I do like a lot, it is marvellously pleasant, and I nod along, very happily, tapping my feet, thinking all sorts of things. It is bright, it is skilful, musical, playful, inventive. And I am very happy for all those things. I do not want to be kidnapped and held hostage all the time. I can admit to being very fond of this CD. It is not the madness of the coup de foudre of falling in love, which Vivaldi’s original is for me.
Warmly, not madly, besottedly, taken out of my senses and transportedly, enjoyed. I do think there may be something particularly supernatural about the violin and its powers…………
Happy Birthday, Arvo Pärt, from The Tallis Scholars
The Tallis Scholars’ tribute to one of my favourite composers, Arvo Pärt, in his 80th year, is a beautifully executed performance of some of Pärt’s shorter choral works
Pärt is a deeply reflective composer. Many of his compositions are intensely transcendent, mystical, numinous. He is unostentatious, there is little flamboyant, bravura, glamorous expression, and perhaps because of that ability to strip to a sparse and sometimes simple core his works are profoundly intense.
The Tallis Scholars, under the direction of Peter Phillips, like Pärt himself, get their individual personality vocals out of the way, and let the music itself sing, apparently effortlessly.
My only cavil is a curious one, to do with programming and the generous length of the CD itself.
Because most of Pärt’s works, even the lightest, have such a powerful intensity it became (for this listener) too overwhelming to listen straight through to 8 works, as most of them left me rather reeling in an altered state.
Back in the old days of vinyl records, the limits of equipment and disc meant that a record was around 20 minutes maximum per side, and listening rather became structured into a roughly 40 minute whole, with a half way break to turn over. But because CDs can be far longer, the buyer can have a feeling of being cheated at paying the same price for a 40 minute CD as for a far longer one, so there is a subtle push coming from the buyer wanting more for their buck, and producers, compilers and the like stuff the package more fully. And sometimes pieces, however well written or performed, do feel like ‘fillers’
This was certainly the case for me here. There are some standout pieces, and a more modest CD length might have lost 2 or 3 of the works, and kept every piece as a stunning, shining jewel. It isn’t that any of the works are poor, it is that some of them are exceptional and I rather wanted all of them to be so. I would have lost Which Was The Son Of, The Woman With The Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar.
The opening 7 movement Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen is surely one of the jewels. Tallis use 2 voices to each of the vocal lines. This particular piece effortlessly rings with Pärt’s trademark ‘tintinnabuli’, those bell like overtones, the close, beautifully on the edge of discordance, edgy close harmonies. There is something about this kind of harmonic work which, every time, tugs the heart, and causes tears to flow. Some kind of impossible longing for musical resolution, whilst also staying within what is unresolved.
The bookend piece which closes the CD, Triodion (the opening and the closing pieces are the longest by far, each about 13 minutes) is another, different, stunner. The text of this piece is in English. Most of the pieces – all sacred texts, or extracts from the Bible, are in Latin, and the CD comes with a good liner, giving the texts in several translations
In Triodion, which must surely have been fiendish to perform, though Tallis do it seemingly without strain and effort, Pärt overlaps and opposes rhythms and sung lines in the same way that he usually does with the harmonics. He creates a dynamic with those tight, unusual harmonies which are more familiar in some of the Eastern European countries than in Western European music, and here the addition of the pleasing and diverging entry points to the sung lines is delicious, a kind of tease and tickle to the eardrum which made me shiver with delight
These two pieces in particular are the ones which draw me in, to listen and experience most closely.
I have a strange relationship with the French Classical composers (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Gounod) I find I can only take short, intense bursts of them. Sorry French composers, but an evening of French composition leaves me quickly sat(i)ed.
They serve me, perhaps, as a kind of divertissement between the more extreme fare of German, Slavonic, Russian and Nordic composers which the bulk of my preferred dead composers seem to be. You understand, I hope, I do not prefer my composers to be dead; it just so happens many of them are, but I wish longevity to the American trio of Glass, Adams and Reich (who are all ‘preferred’ in my book), and of course to the Estonian, Arvo Part.
However, every now and again I am reminded of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune and then have an extreme need to hear it.
So here is Bernstein a year before his death
The piece was originally composed by Debussy almost as a musical Impressionist painting version of a poem, with the same name, by Stéphane Mallarmé. It doesn’t follow the poem (which is a long one) line by line, but is an encapsulation of it – a faun/satyr awakes in a glade, pursues nymphs, has a pretty ravishing afternoon, and then sinks into post-coital exhaustion.
Unfortunately, though I have a book of Mallarmé poems in French, which I bought hoping to be able to simultaneously read the original from/with the translation, the version I have only has an extremely ugly, literal, prose translation which neither makes linguistic, nor impressionistic/kinaesthetic, sense
Even I know, and can hear the sonorous, languorous, exotic quality of :
Si clair, Leur incarnat léger qu’il voltige dans l’air Assoupi de sommeils touffus.
Aimai-je un rêve ? Mon doute, amas de nuit ancienne,
In fact, I think reading something in another language where you don’t know the precise meaning can often make you more aware of the music of poetry, the rhythms and percussions of consonants and the different qualities of open and closed vowel sounds.
I’m sure there has to be a better translation of ‘amas de nuit ancienne’than the nonsensical ‘heap of old night’ which the translator of my version gives!
Come on, all you WordPressers who are bilingual French and English poets, do Mallarme justice!
Set design by Bakst
The poem and of course Debussy’s music, then found another outing as a ballet piece, choreographed, and danced by Nijinsky, with designs by Bakst
Here is Nureyev, dancing Nijinsky’s choreography. Amazingly graphic, that choreography, I would have thought, for 1912!
Anyone who mentions the words ‘art’ and ‘imagination’ in the same breath as this production must be laughing at us. This is neither a pretty pastoral nor a work of profound meaning. We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent. That is all. And the over explicit miming of this mis-shapen beast, loathsome when seen full on, but even more loathsome in profile, was greeted with the booing it deserved
I believe the – ahem – loathsome profile had some kind of nod towards what is implied in the wonderful line in the Cole Porter song, bewitched, bothered and bewildered which occurs at 3 : 50 in this gorgeously torchy Ella version
And here, (back to Debussy) hopefully not overkill, is a third musical version conducted by Claudio Abbado
I find the shorter, clearly studio recording, conducted by Abbado is my preference. This may be partly to do with better acoustics in the studio, but the opening flute makes me picture and smell the dappled green forest glade, the damp aroma of earth, the juiciness of the leaves, as that faun, rippling through light and shade, delicately steps into the clearing. Not to mention the swells and subsidences of the full orchestral passages, seem both more erotic and more satiated and exhausted.
This is a marvellously erotic, filled with yearning desire piece of music. One that properly belongs to the heat of summer
I’m all afternooned out now, with three versions of this swoony music, the gorgeous images of Bakst’s designs, and of course, Rudi being really, remarkably rude!
As it is clearly art, it escapes a ‘For Adults Only’ rating. Though had I watched this at an impressionable age I’m sure it would have sent me quickly on my way to wait in the nearest forest in the hope that high cheekboned Russians, muscular and graceful, accompanied by flautists, harpists and oboists, not to mention a scrumptious picnic hamper, would arrive some time soon.
And finally…..the astute may notice there are no links to a particular recording, CD or mp3. This is because the version I had (shows how long ago) was cassette! And the equipment for playing, with reasonable sound, in a ‘music centre’ (remember those?) has long departed. Along with everything on cassette.
I wouldn’t normally be reviewing music except music from my collection, specific version. And then….I stumbled across a wonderful blog, The Classical Novice, which I immediately started following, excited to find the posts in my reader. Classical Novice may be ‘a novice’ about classical music, but explains, demystifies, educates, celebrates and enthuses about one of my life passions (classical music) with a generous, open and curious pair of ears (!)This is musical analysis I understand and engage with. As I’m NOT a musician, some of the very erudite music analysis in sleeve notes leaves me with a puckered brow and a quivering lip, taken far away from the music I love. I don’t particularly want to deconstruct it, I do want to engage with it more, through being guided into increased understanding. Classical Novice does this, and is worth many visits!
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