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

Thursday 27 August 2020

Review: A Very Nice Composer

It's a delight to discover a 'new' composer, the irony being that this composer's lack of fame was directly attributed to his lack of 'newness': Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, born in Altona, Hamburg, then under Danish rule).

Carl Reinecke Symphonies 1 & 3; Plus, music from the opera, 'King Manfred'. Munchner R├╝ndfunkorchester, c., Henry Raudales. CPO

A man who avoided anything brash, outspoken, outlandish, he was cast in the mold of an upholder of the classical tradition. For a considerable part of his prodigious career, this went well, but by the end - as iconoclasts Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler took to the stage - this did not continue, his music then cast as academic and stuck in the classical groove.

Reinecke's orchestral music is superbly crafted with no consequent lack of passion, grace, force and expression. If you enjoy a great symphony, try the two found on this CD. Always feeling in the shadow of other musical greats and geniuses, Reinecke humbly dedicated himself to the service of music, as conductor, director, composer and author, the pinnacle of his career taking place in Leipzig at the Gewandhaus and Conservatory, where as a shy Danish boy he sought out the musical director, Felix Mendelssohn. Reinecke eventually became head of the finest orchestra of his day at the Gewandhaus.

 For some reason he offended Johannes Brahms who wrote of his third symphony, "Everything is so coarse and ill-bred!" Clear nonsense and damaging. To make way for the new, Reinecke was sidelined, but his considerable repertoire is waiting to be fully rediscovered and appreciated as, to quote another reviewer, "His works are distinguished by nobility and form, melodic euphony and ingenious artistic construction."

Wednesday 8 July 2020

From Monteverdi to Modernism

My usual attraction is to go for contrast, which is, incidentally, a basic requirement of musical expression, soft to loud, slow to quick, low to high, etc. Here are two recent recordings that exemplify contrast.

Christopher Rouse, Symphony 5, Supplica & Concerto for Orchestra. Nashville Symphony, c. Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos American Classics

American contemporary music is neither inhibited nor inaccessible. Rouse (1949 - 2019, my exact contemporary) and one time student of the fabulous George Crumb is where symphonic music's mantle rests today - his music a constant stream of contrasts, most notably from loud and frenetic, to quiet serenity, the transformation from one to the other often stark. Always present is the sense of being carried along, as by an automotive, the journey ever continuous. There is a highly attractive balance in his music between uncomfortable discord and soothing harmony and this is probably what made Rouse one of the most performed living composers during his lifetime. That's the symphony in a nutshell; the piece Supplica belongs to Rouse's serene world, while the Concerto for Orchestra is a tour de force for each orchestra section, each of which takes the role of 'soloist'. The USA is not a well nation today on many levels, but its music suggests an underlying strata of promise for the future.

Monteverdi, Complete Madrigals, Delitiae Musicae, c. Marco Longhini. Naxos. 15 discs; 15 'books'

Here is a veritable feast of madrigal music, secular song, whose expression reached its peak with the works of Monteverdi (1567-1643). His First Book of Madrigals for Five Voices was published in Venice in 1587 at the age of nineteen. These 'youthful compositions' formed the seed for later works that would change the art of composition for ever. The madrigal, here in Monteverdi charged with high-voltage sexual desire, delight and pain, was a quest to transform poetry into music. It became the highest form of refinement and cultural expression patronised by the courts and their followers:

This hand set the snare, this
loveliest of hands laid it midst flowers and grass,
and this hand took my heart and placed it
with such haste amid a thousand burning flames.
that I hold it captive here,
vengeance, Love, vengeance.