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
David Ianni (b. 1979): Obsculta.
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
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
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.
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
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.
(1843-1907): In the Hall of the Mountain King.
Combined Berlin School Orchestras cond. Sir Simon Rattle (Duration: 21:54;
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
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.
The Great Dane and the Swede who wasn’t
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
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931): Symphony No. 2 - The Four
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
“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:
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.
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.
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
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.