Sunday, 15 August 2021

Symphonies of Youth & Maturity

I'm reviewing here two collections of symphonies, the first a set of String Symphonies composed by Felix Mendelssohn, begun by him at the age of eleven, and five symphonies of Camille Saint-Saëns, the 'French Mendelssohn', the first numbered symphony of Saint-Saëns begun at the age of fifteen.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, The Complete String Symphonies, also includes Concerto for Violin and Strings in D Minor, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, c. Henry Raudales, 3 CDs, BR Klassik

 There are twelve symphonies in this set and listening through them reveals the composer's self-development beginning with C.P.E. Bach, then, in No. 4, comes an experiment with the French overture, developing on further as the composer's skills and knowledge widenened, until come works with the four movements of the classical symphony. The later numbers all have their own form, such as No. 12, with its initial fugue and an expansive final movement. All are a joy! The Mendelssohn family dining-room concerts revived a tradition of 'house music', not only for amateur guests but, increasingly professional players who took part in this intimate setting. It's a mistake to binge on these symphonies - my recommendation is for listening to just one or two at a time to imbibe their full musical flavours.


Saint-Saëns, Complete Symphonies, Malmö Symphony Orchestra, c. Marc Soustrot, 3 CDs also includes Le rouet d'Omphale, Op. 31, La jeunesse d'Hercule, Op. 50 & Danse macabre, Op. 40, Naxos

The label of 'French Mendelssohn' implies a light and inventive touch, clear in these works from the word go. Only the composer's 'Organ Symphony' (No. 3), is well known, the others should be equally so. Two of the five symphonies have no catalogue number, but this certainly does not make them any the lesser. The Symphony in F Major was a prize-winning competition entry with a wonderful final movement of theme and variations. The symphony in A Major is the first, dated 1850 and is a tribute to Mozart. If you wish Mozart had given us more beyond his final 'Jupiter' symphony, let this satisfy your appetite.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Reviews: In the Mood

Nothing can replace the experience of live music. There are, however, some pluses inherent in recordings. There is the obvious, that the choice is infinite. There is another that I'm appreciating more these days and that is the ability to choose listening material to suit your mood. Sometimes I like listening to Bruckner. Sometimes, I'm just not in the mood. Choosing what one listens to can be an interesting, self-reflective process. Here are my new CD recording choices that provide a widespread array of genres. Something here for everone, to coin a phrase.


Richard Strauss, Complete Tone Poems, boxed set of five CDs, Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, c. François-Xavier Roth, SWR Classic

The symphonic poem represents the step beyond the classical symphony, appearing in places where composers were creating a national music.These by Strauss are, for me, always a treat, full of quiet moments of repose, soaring strings and powerful brass, not to mention the endless themes and motifs. Simply the best! An addition to this is Strauss's musical epitaph, Metamorphosen, scored for 23 solo strings.

Bruckner, Symphony No. 6, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, c. Mariss Jansons, BR Classic

Choose your moment to listen to this carefully, for like all Bruckner's symphonies it is a massive listening undertaking. Commit for three quarters of an hour of intense symphonic outpouring, a relatively short symphony for Bruckner. His symphonies always adhered to the same symphonic form, but within that framework are exploited all the endless possibilities.



Girolamo Frescobaldi, Unpublished Music from Chigi Codices, recorded at the organ of Basilica palatina di Santa Barbara in Mantova, organist, Ivana Valotti, Tactus

These are beautiful short pieces of atmosphere, a stream of spiritual delight on the old organ (1565) of the Mantova Basilica. The time period from whence these came is, in music, the beginning of Baroque experiment and innovation, when Frescobaldi, from Ferrar, played a leading role in shaping the language of keyboard music.


Théodore Dubois, Piano Quartet in A Minor and Piano Quintet in F Major, CPO

Piano, Oliver Triendl; Violin, Nina Karmon; Oboe, Stefan Schilli; Viola, Anja Kreynacke; Cello, Jakob Spahn

The chances are, this French composer is new to you. Born 1837, died 1924, known in France as a composer-organist, Dubois was born in rural Champagne and his musical life developed as a child in Reims at the cathedral. These are Elgarian pieces without the angst, perfectly formed. They are so dated, but in a nice way! The oboe in the quintet is a relatively rare instrumentation so adds that little something to the experience. Easy to picture these pieces performed over 100 years ago, surrounded by the French equivalent of Victorian paraphenalia, dress, decor.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Reviews: Schizophrenia and the Sublime

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Symphonies 1 ('Classical'), 2 and 3, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, c. Andrew Litton, published by BIS

The first of the Prokofiev symphonies is short and to the point, a delightful point which is of classical perfection, hence the appended title. The second contains an extreme contrast with no holds barred and in its relationship with the first appears completely schizophrenic, as if pent up rage finds its way out before being contained prior to the next outburst. In the third, the balance between containment and release is achieved and so, as a listening experience, is less alarming. Oft-times you can hear the great force of Russian industry and militarism at play, then come periods of the composer's inner world of reflection, even calm. 


Anton Rubinstein (1829-94), String Quartets, Op47, No 1 in E minor and Op. 47, No 3 in D minor, the Reinhold Quartet, published by CPO

These two quartets are more classical than classical can be! If you are in the mood for surprise and stimulation then go for the Russian Prokofiev. If not, turn the late night lights down low, sit back and chill to these delightfully formed and expressive pieces. The Russian Rubinstein's career as a composer was overshadowed by his success as a virtuosic pianist, conductor and educator, particularly as Tschaikovsky's composition tutor, so his name may be familiar but experience of works such as these may be lacking. While Beethoven penetrates deep into the musical psyche, these quartets play with it in perhaps a Mozartian way even though they are clearly post-Beethoven.

The cover artworks on these two CDs are well-chosen expressions of their content, the first a Russian utilitarian graphic expressing power counterbalanced by artful expression, the second a seemingly peaceful idyll brimming with strong emotion.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Painting With Music

As a composer, I've developed some (to me!) interesting abilities, ideas and techniques. I'm beginning to know what I'm comfortable with and what is out of my comfort zone. Sweeping musical statements I can do but they don't come naturally. Harmonic progression I can do, but takes work. And the need to 'change key' to maintain interest is an unwanted compositional distraction. I have absorbed a whole variety of compositional facets: counterpoint, fugue, serialism, minimalism, form, phrasing, harmony, discord, sequence, repetition...  In addition, in working with groups of musicians, chamber strings, woodwind, brass, full orchestra, I've absorbed some ability to orchestrate, to choose an effective combinations of instruments for a given circumstance.

 The result that emerged is a liking for 'painting with music', by which I mean making brush strokes of short musical statements and joining them up within a context that frames them to make a whole. A brush stroke can be anything from a single note or chord to a run of semitones, from a random sequence of notes to a carefully constructed phrase, a piece of counterpoint, a scale.

 The first project using this newly-found musical canvas is a series of four meditations on haikus by Japanese masters and I chose one for each season. Here is Winter:

 The process is, first, to choose a subject and then to use that subject to suggest the atmosphere, the instrumentation and also to make some imaginative connections, for example, dividing the composition into three parts, one for each line of the music, or choosing an instrument for specific facets, like the flute for frost. These imaginative connections are somewhat arbitrary but make the music express its subject matter. Thereafter, it's a case of making those brush strokes and seeing - or rather listening to - what happens.

I apply as much theory about what could work as I can, particularly where harmony is concerned, also rhythmic phrasing, but then come endless repetitions of listening hard and making vital adjustmens to what sounds right. Somehow, the brain, which after all is the music-maker, recognises the right note and the wrong one as much for the composer as for the listener. Listen to Snow's Falling! and judge for yourself.

At its extreme, this painting-with-music can become a Jackson Pollock-esque creation of happenstance musical patterns ('stochastic' is the term used for random events, loved by experimental composers of the 1960s and 70s, John Cage springing to mind). But my method uses chance and design on the palette, alongside all the other musical colours.

Falling into this use of visual language to describe music is fascinating for a multitude of reasons.

It is difficult for a listener to cotton on to a new piece of music at the first listening, especially if it contains any challenges, but by suggesting or accompanying it with an image or images is a sure way of leading the listener in. Again, Snow's Falling! is an example, the simple image holds attention while the music plays on, weaving its detail into a coherent whole. We are used to background sound tracks creating atmosphere. Here, the opposite occurs, an image re-enforces the music's atmosphere.

 Even without the video, the haiku is enough, conjuring a strong image. These haikus are ideal subject matter as their essence is to take a particular subject, one we can all recognise from personal experience, and incorporate into it an awareness of the universal. It is a small hook and bait to catch a much greater truth.

The history of the visual arts has an equivalent in music and there are some clear equivalences that can be made in describing the development of either genre, Impressionism (Renoir, Monet/Debussy, Ravel), for example, or, in the case of my four seasons meditations, abstract expressionism, although, of course, all music is abstract.

This reminds me of a short book, Fear of Music, by David Stubbs, subtitled, 'Why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen'. Its thesis is that art galleries have no problem attracting audiences for abstract art, while music struggles to find an audience for contemporary music. Using this thread, the book follows the phases of 20th-century art together with those of music happening at the same time. Recommended!

If you would like to hear the other three haiku meditations, go to