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Update June 2017

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update June 24, 2017

Delights from a small country

David Ianni. (Photo courtesy Emile Hengen)

Long ago, when I was a small boy and the world seemed a different place, I used to listen to a science-fiction programme on the radio, The Adventures of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.  The programme came from Radio Luxembourg and was first broadcast in July 1951, the same year the station transferred from the long wave to its legendary home of 208 metres.  Few people knew that the fifteen-minute episodes of Dan Dare were actually recorded on wax discs, only two of which have survived.

The origins of Radio Luxembourg (“Your station of the stars”) date back to the 1920s and the country’s central position, bordered by Belgium, Germany and France; Luxembourg made it ideal for international broadcasting.  When the station started beaming English language programmes to the UK and Ireland in 1933, it had the most powerful privately-owned transmitter in the world.

During the 1950s and 1960s Radio Luxembourg’s commercial American-style presentation became hugely popular in Britain, especially with the younger generation and its lively shows were in stark contrast to the somewhat austere radio programmes otherwise available.  Listeners were encouraged to believe that everything was live from Luxembourg and while some of the disk-jockey shows were indeed live from the Grand Duchy, many programmes were actually pre-recorded in a dismal-looking building in Hertford Street, Central London.

In case you’d forgotten, 23rd June is Luxembourg’s National Day.  Although the country has been somewhat overshadowed culturally by its larger neighbours, music has always been important in Luxembourg especially after the establishment of the Grand Duchy in 1815.  In more recent times, the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Luxembourg Sinfonietta have become a lively part of the classical music scene.

David Ianni (b. 1979): Obsculta. David Ianni (pno) (Duration: 06:33; Video 720p HD)

David Ianni is an acclaimed pianist from Luxembourg and has composed more than a hundred works, including compositions for piano and choral music.  He has also composed chamber music, an oratorio and music for piano and orchestra.  He gave his international concert debut at the age of sixteen, performing Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

Obsculta (“Listen”) is a thoughtful work for solo piano, reflecting on the nature of silence and inspired by a text from St. Benedict.  This 2012 video of David Ianni’s performance is a visual essay by the Luxembourg filmmaker who goes by the name of Vitýc.  It was made at the Austrian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz in the southern part of the Vienna woods, and this impressive twelfth century Cistercian monastery provides a handsome back-drop to the video.

Vitýc has created a remarkable piece of work which not only records David Ianni’s performance but also reveals interesting perspectives on silence and time.  The music contains a quotation of the Gregorian chant Ubi Caritas in which the sound of softly chanting monks is skillfully blended into the video and synchronized with the piano solo.  The music itself is very approachable and reflects the composer’s personal musical style which is inseparably linked to the mysteries of the Catholic faith.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Partita No 1 in B flat major, BWV 825. Francesco Tristano (pno) (Duration: 16:09; Video: 1080p HD)

Also from Luxembourg, Francesco Tristano is another acclaimed classical pianist and composer who was born in 1981.  As a young man, he studied at conservatories in Luxembourg, Brussels, Riga and Paris before graduating in music at New York’s Juilliard School.  He made his professional debut in 2000 with the Russian National Orchestra playing Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concertoo.  Tristano is a specialist in both Baroque and contemporary music.  In 2001, he founded The New Bach Players ensemble with which he recorded J. S. Bach’s complete cycle of keyboard concertos.  In contrast, he’s also recorded the complete piano works of the Italian twentieth century composer, Luciano Berio. 

By the time Bach’s Six Partitas were published between 1726 and 1730, the composer was established as a virtuoso keyboard player.  There is no exact translation for the word “partita” and Bach used it merely as a synonym for “dance suite”.  The suites evidently caused quite a sensation among Bach’s contemporaries, for in the opinion of the German music historian Johann Nikolaus Forkel, “such splendid keyboard compositions had never previously been seen or heard”.

Each partita contains six or seven dance movements and needless to say, they’re exceptionally demanding technically.  Francesco Tristano gives a compelling performance full of verve and sprightly rhythmic playing.  The melodic lines are crystal clear, the articulation is clear and sparkling, especially in the gloriously rippling Allemande (at 02:10) and the Corrente.  There’s lovely phrasing in the stately Sarabande and the concluding Gigue takes us on a hair-raising ride with beautifully controlled dynamics and brilliant articulation.  The clarity of line reminds me slightly of Glenn Gould’s playing style, yet to my mind this performance seems to have a good deal more magic and sensitivity.

Update June 17, 2017

Good conductivity


Carlos Kleiber c. 1970.

The other day, a student acquaintance of mine asked why there is always “a man dancing” in front of every orchestra.  It took a few moments before I realised that he was referring to the conductor.  Perhaps it’s a reasonable assumption for someone not familiar with orchestral music. Not long ago, another person asked me why a conductor is necessary at all.

This is a good question, though if you’ve ever played in a large orchestra you wouldn’t need to ask.  If you are sitting at the back of the cello section for example, with a dozen double basses grunting away behind you, it’s often impossible to hear what’s going on in the rest of the orchestra.  Clearly, someone is needed to beat time and to help players come in at precisely the right moment.  During the early eighteenth century, a conductor wasn’t usually necessary because orchestras were smaller and the individual players could hear each other.

But there’s another more important reason to have a conductor, partly due to the shortcomings of musical notation.  Printed music doesn’t tell you exactly how loudly or how quietly a piece should be played or how a particular phrase should be performed.  Before the metronome appeared in 1868, composers were often imprecise about tempo.  Expressions like “a bit slower” or “getting faster” were used, which are vague to say the least.  A great deal of musical decision-making was left to the performer.

One of the most challenging tasks in performing music is not necessarily playing the right notes in the right place, but deciding how to play them.  In a small ensemble such as a string quartet the players decide among themselves, but this is impractical in a large orchestra.  It is the conductor’s job to make the musical decisions and usually spend a considerable time studying the full score of the music long before the first rehearsal. 

The full score, by the way shows all the orchestral parts - literally everything that is happening.  Individual players have their own music condensed into a single part.  The conductor also takes the role of a sound engineer to control the overall sound balance.  At an orchestral concert you may be surprised to see that the conductor doesn’t seem to be doing very much work.  This is because the work has already been done, hours, days or even weeks before the concert.

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899): Overture: Die Fledermaus.  South German Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Carlos Kleiber (Duration: 44:32; Video: 480p)

Many musicians consider Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) to be the greatest conductor of the twentieth century, yet he gave comparatively few performances and he avoided the public gaze whenever possible.  The sound track of this 1970 documentary is in German and if the minuscule English subtitles are unreadable, try switching to full screen mode.

Orchestral musicians generally don’t like being lectured but Kleiber does an unusual amount of talking, surprising for one who gave only one interview in his entire lifetime.  Initially, there seems to be a palpable sense of resistance among the rather dour Bavarian musicians but Kleiber gradually charms them with his quick thinking, fertile imagination, quirky sense of humour and his meticulous attention to detail.

The most persuasive feature of the rehearsal – and indeed the most moving, is how these no-nonsense professionals gradually warm to Kleiber’s personality, his obvious expertise and his delight in the music.  Some of them even start smiling and by the end you can sense a shared feeling of achievement.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): In the Hall of the Mountain King. Combined Berlin School Orchestras cond. Sir Simon Rattle (Duration: 21:54; Video 1080p)

This is probably Grieg’s most well-known piece: the final movement of the Peer Gynt Suite No 1.  The music was originally written for Ibsen’s 1876 play of the same name, but Grieg later extracted some of the material to make two four-movement suites. 

The enormous ensemble featured in this video is made up of six different Berlin school orchestras.  Sir Simon Rattle has been the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra since 2002 and this schools event is part of the Orchestra’s education programme.  Sir Simon addresses the young musicians in German and if your command of the language is a bit shaky or non-existent, you’ll probably appreciate the English subtitles.

Like Kleiber, Sir Simon uses metaphors and other imagery to encourage the players and get the sounds he wants.  He clearly seems to enjoy working with these young musicians.  The orchestra later plays the piece from start to finish (at 19:24) though some of the younger players are obviously struggling.  There is more enthusiasm than accuracy in the performance and I suppose this is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.  Even so, it makes for compelling and heart-warming viewing.

Update June 10, 2017

The Great Dane and the Swede who wasn’t


Carl Nielsen as a student in 1884.

What does the name Denmark conjure up for you?  Perhaps you think of the famous statue of The Little Mermaid, which has been a tourist attraction since 1913.  Or perhaps you think of the slightly odd-looking Hans Christian Anderson, famous for his fairy stories.  Incidentally, a ballet setting of his story The Little Mermaid was the inspiration for the statue.  Or perhaps the name Denmark brings more mundane things to mind like Lego toys, Danish Blue or Lurpak butter.  And talking of Lurpak butter, if you’ve examined the packing closely you may have been puzzled by those things that look like a pair of garden hoses.

They are in fact, musical instruments known as lurs, hence the brand name.  The lur is an ancient instrument once common in Scandinavia.  It was a kind of bronze trumpet up to eight feet in length and bent into an S-shape, presumably to make it less unwieldy.  Lurs had no fingering holes or valves, so players would adjust their lips to produce different notes in the same way as a modern bugle.  The lur was evidently used as an instrument of war to marshal troops and a similar instrument was used during the Middle Ages for calling cattle and signaling.

Ask musicians what springs to mind at the mention of Denmark but it probably won’t be a lur.  More likely, they’ll come up with the name of Carl Neilson, generally regarded as the country’s greatest composer.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931): Symphony No. 2 - The Four Temperaments. Estonian Festival Orchestra cond. Paavo Jšrvi (Duration: 34:08; Video: 1080p HD)

At this point, it would have most satisfying to introduce Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for Lur and Orchestra but unfortunately he didn’t write one.  Born on the Danish island of Funen on 9th June 1865, he showed exceptional musical promise at an early age.  From 1884 Nielsen studied at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen and five years later he was accomplished enough to become a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra, a position he held for sixteen years before eventually becoming an occasional conductor of the orchestra.  He’s probably best known for his six symphonies but he never became recognised as a major composer during in his lifetime.

“I had the idea for The Four Temperaments many years ago at a country pub in Zealand,” wrote Nielsen.  “On the wall of the room where I was drinking a glass of beer with my wife and some friends, hung a comical coloured picture, divided into four sections in which The Four Temperaments were represented.”

These you may recall, reflected the ancient Greek medical belief that there are four fundamental personality types, sanguine (enthusiastic and social), choleric (short-tempered and irritable), melancholic (analytical and quiet), and phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful).  Nielsen began work on the symphony in 1901 and it was first performed a year later with the composer conducting.

The first movement (Choleric) bursts with energy, while the second movement (Phlegmatic) describes a young man whose “real inclination was to lie where the birds sing, where the fish glide noiselessly through the water, where the sun warms and the wind strokes mildly round one’s curls.”  In the third movement, (Melancholic) there’s some splendid brass writing and in the finale (Sanguine) the composer describes someone “who storms thoughtlessly forward in the belief that the whole world belongs to him”.

Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970): Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra. Christopher Bartz (sax), University of Southern California Thornton Wind Ensemble cond. H. Robert Reynolds (Duration: 11:59; Video: 1080p HD)

Like Nielsen, Dahl was also born on 9th June.  This concerto dates from 1949 and is one of his most frequently performed works.  Writer Steve Swartz described Dahl’s music as “a cross between Stravinsky and Hindemith” and this is probably a fair assessment.  It’s an approachable and enjoyable work in just two movements, an improvisational first movement and a slow meditative second movement.

You’d guess from his name that Dahl was also Scandinavian, and he certainly would like you to have thought so.  He was born in Hamburg to a German father and a Swedish mother and given the name Walter Ingolf Marcus.  When he was twenty-seven he moved to the United States and changed his name to Ingolf Dahl, borrowing his mother’s maiden name.  After settling in Los Angeles he became friendly with a galaxy of famous names including Milhaud, Schoenberg and Stravinsky.  He had a colourful musical career and worked with Gracie Fields, wrote arrangements for Tommy Dorsey and was a musical arranger for the comedian Victor Borge.

Dahl also worked in soundtrack orchestras for many Hollywood film companies and for a time, he was even involved in the television show The Twilight Zone.  Throughout his life, he was secretive about his German background and claimed that he was Swedish.  Which of course, he wasn’t.

Update June 3, 2017

Distant voices


The young King Philip I.

King Philip I of Castile, also known also as Philip the Handsome, had a short reign.  At the age of twenty-eight, just two months and thirteen days after being crowned, he succumbed to typhoid fever.  At the time, there were malicious rumours that he had been poisoned by his father-in-law Ferdinand II of Aragon who, you may recall, sponsored the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

I mention all this because sometime during his brief reign, King Philip evidently requested that a book be compiled to contain music by the finest Flemish composers of the day.  In the Middle Ages such a book took the form of a “codex”, a large format hand-written volume made from separate sheets of paper or vellum and bound by fixing one edge of each page.  The codex was often illuminated with elaborate designs and lettering.  It superseded the scrolls of ancient times and was a step towards the printed book as we know it.

The request by King Philip resulted in the creation of the so-called Chigi Codex, compiled between 1498 and 1503 in Flanders, the most important cultural centre of the early Renaissance.  The Chigi Codex is remarkable for its beautifully coloured illuminations and also for its remarkably clear music notation.  It’s one of the most elaborate codices ever produced and currently languishes in the Vatican Library.  Needless to say, it is priceless.

Much of the music composed during the Middle Ages was for voices and intended for religious purposes.  Although heads of state such as Philip I commissioned musical collections, the church was the principal institution that made itself responsible for recording music in written form.  Without these laboriously-copied manuscripts, we would have little idea today of what medieval music actually sounded like.

The Chigi Codex contains fifteen works by Johannes Ockeghem and two works by Josquin des Prez, two of the leading composers of the fifteenth century.

Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497): Intemerata Dei Mater. The Mirandola Ensemble dir. Scott Sandersfeld (Duration: 07:38; Video: 1080p HD)

Nothing is known about the composer’s early life.  We aren’t even sure of the year of his birth.  It could have been any time between 1410 and 1425.  However, he became the most famous and most influential composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the latter half of the fifteenth century.  Johannes Ockeghem (yo-HAHN-nuss O-keh-hemm) was not only a renowned composer but also a celebrated singer, choirmaster and teacher.  He wasn’t a particularly prolific composer and has to his name fifteen mass settings and a couple of dozen motets and chansons for small vocal ensembles.  However, it’s reasonable to assume that over the course of six hundred years some of his work may well have been lost.

The remarkably expressive Intemerata Dei Mater appears in the Chigi Codex and it’s a non-liturgical motet in praise of the Virgin Mary possibly written in 1487 and scored for five unaccompanied voices.  It’s a work of quiet, reflective beauty in which the meaning of the words is reflected in the music.  Notice for example at 05:06, how the music takes on a sad, plaintive quality for the words “look upon us”.

Ockeghem died in the French city of Tours.  To commemorate his death, Josquin des Prez composed an obituary motet of lamentation, one of an unusually large number of obituary motets which appeared after the death of Ockeghem.

Josquin des Prez (1455-1521): La dťploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem. Salicus Kammerchor cond. Genki Sakurai (Duration: 06:26; Video: 2160p Ultra HD)

We know precious little about the early life of Josquin des Prez, often known simply as Josquin and nothing about him as an individual.  It’s possible that as a young man, he studied composition with Ockeghem.  Josquin des Prez (ZHAWS-keh day PRAY) lived during what must have been a stimulating time, because musical styles were changing rapidly, partly due to the increasing mobility of composers and musicians around Europe.

This beautiful lament is a setting of a poem by Jean Molinet entitled Nymphes des Bois (“Nymphs of the Wood”).  Appropriately, Josquin imitated elements of Ockeghem’s musical style and this expressive work is characterized by rich harmonies, purity of sound, soaring melodic lines and imaginative word-painting.  In some ways it sounds ahead of its time.

Josquin is widely considered by music historians to be the greatest composer of the age.  Martin Luther wrote about his fame and some contemporary theorists considered that his style represented musical perfection.  He was so admired that many compositions by lesser composers were attributed to him, presumably to increase sales of their own music. 

Despite its odd Latin-Germanic name, Salicus Kammerchor hails from Japan.  The singers give a sensitive and beautifully shaped performance of this moving work which still speaks to us poignantly from across the centuries.  

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Delights from a small country

Good conductivity

The Great Dane and the Swede who wasn’t

Distant voices



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