> COME ALONG NORMAN – YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS! Adrian Smith






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COME ALONG NORMAN – YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS!

NORMAN LEBRECHT is one of our musical life’s treasures – in heritage terms, a Listed Building (Grade II). As a commentator on every aspect of the professional music scene he has no rival. His books on conductors, agents and the star system and, most recently, on the Royal Opera House have provided enlightenment and entertainment in equal measure. Above all, I wouldn’t want to be without his witty, waspish Companion to Twentieth Century Music (1992). And in his journalism – notably his weekly column in The Daily Telegraph – he often hits a particularly juicy nail on the head.

However, he’s not always been proved right – particularly in his obsessive gloom-and-doom scenarios. The giant recording companies may be in trouble, but as last month’s staggering total of 230 reviews published on this site showed, to talk of the impending ‘collapse’ of the classical music recording industry (one of dear Norman’s long-running predictions) is ludicrous. On another doom-laden front – the impending demise of some of our orchestras, he’s been rather quiet lately. Not so long ago, he was predicting likely casualties or, at best, probable mergers – one such, I remember, was that of the BBC Philharmonic and the Orchestra of Opera North – which, needless to say, haven’t happened.

This article has been prompted by his recent demolition job on William Walton (an expanded version of his piece in the Companion mentioned above – significantly, in the intervening ten years his judgment hasn’t changed at all). Of course, he offers some useful insights into Walton’s career and music, but much of what he writes is just plain daft or feeble. Before looking at that article, however, I want to examine some other aspects of Lebrecht’s music coverage where I find him wanting.

First, he suffers from the misfortune characteristic of so many Londoners – that for him the nation’s affairs are but London’s writ large. A few weeks ago he identified yet another ‘crisis’ – the declining repertoire, membership and performance standards of London’s choral societies, a problem shared, it seems, with other European capitals. The impression given, however, that this was not just a London problem. Outside London, except in Birmingham (the CBSO chorus a beacon in the gathering darkness) he could find no other ray of hope. He should come to Huddersfield. No doubt he thinks its 200-strong Choral Society sings Messiah morning, noon and night with perhaps the odd Gerontius thrown in for a change now and then (and Carmina Burana as the ultimate challenge). In fact it performs a judicious blend of the familiar (yes, an annual Messiah) and the not so well-known (last year, Dvorak’s Requiem and Britten’s Spring Symphony, for instance). Its concerts are not confined to its home town and it’s also worth noting that it has to turn down far more invitations to perform than it is physically able to fulfil. Also worth noting is the fact that just down the road at Holmfirth (made famous by a certain TV programme) is another thriving choral society: only half the size of its mighty neighbour but equally not just yet another Messiah-machine.

But Lebrecht needn’t come to Huddersfield: amongst other Yorkshire towns, both Leeds and Sheffield each have two flourishing choral societies, pursuing much the same kind of repertoire. In fact he ought to invest in a book published just over a year ago – Music Making in the West Riding of Yorkshire (of which I happened to be the editor) – to discover what a wealth of music making exists in these parts, and, I’m sure, in many other areas of the country (let him consult Making Music, as the National Federation of Music Societies is now known, with its 1,500+ affiliated societies, for confirmation of this). (And, in passing, has he never heard of the annual Contemporary Music Festival which just so happens to take place in Huddersfield, nothing similar to which has been attempted in our self-regarding capital city?)

Which brings me to the other serious weakness in Lebrecht’s musical armoury. Whatever the woes of the professional sector may be, amateur-music making is in a healthier state than ever – but it is a field which seems to be beneath his notice. I’ve mentioned choral societies, but my particular interest lies in orchestras. Again I speak from local and personal experience. This area boasts a number of full-sized amateur symphony orchestras, one of which I was privileged to conduct for 32 years until my recent retirement. Nowadays, these orchestras think nothing of tackling Mahler or Bruckner, Suk or Panufnik, Walton (yes!) or John Adams – and to a high, if not always perfect, standard. In so doing they greatly enrich the live music scene, particularly by eschewing the overwhelmingly safe programming of professional orchestras. Again, I’ve no reason to think that this region is unique in this respect. Visiting relatives in Bromley a couple of years ago, I heard a splendid account of Elgar’s First Symphony given by the Bromley Symphony Orchestra (incidentally, old-fashioned advertising still works: I learned of the concert only when while out walking I happened to spot a flyer pinned to a tree). I suppose we’ll have to manufacture a crisis or two to provoke the Sergeant Fraser of the musical trade (‘Doomed! Doomed!’) into turning his beady eye on this much under-rated aspect of our musical life.

Finally, his Walton piece. I assume it was just a tease on his part (I can’t believe he’s so stupid as to take his words seriously) to suggest that Walton owes his success (which, incidentally, he doesn’t deny) to his status as an icon of Northern England (‘The distilled spirit of a resourceful region’ is merely a crudely sophisticated version of ‘Ay, lad, I knew his dad well: lived an’ died next t’sound of t’mill’s hooter – a music teacher or summat like that’ – and all that rubbish.). Even more ludicrous is his assertion that ‘in a country that claims against all evidence to possess the finest health service, public ethics and football league in the world, the addition of a great composer harmlessly enhances our collective self-delusion’. No doubt the members of the chattering classes to which Lebrecht belongs believe that the peasantry out there subscribes to these views, but I myself know no one who does. This is lazy, sloppy journalism at its most dire.

Worst of all, he peppers his piece with all manner of irrelevant and snide comments on Walton’s private life. All I know of Walton’s personality I derive from the public prints, and I can’t say that I find it attractive. But I can’t help feeling that Lebrecht first makes a judgment about Walton’s character and then with this idée fixe in his mind, proceeds to work back to the music. I agree that in some ways Walton failed to achieve his full potential: inspiration gleamed fitfully in his later works, though his masterly craftsmanship never deserted him (the passacaglia in his often-derided Second Symphony, for instance, is superbly fashioned). But instead of making such a ridiculous and totally unverifiable assertion as that Belshazzar’s Feast ‘is better to sing than to hear’ (a typical example of another of Lebrecht’s weaknesses – a smart phrase is always to be preferred to a mundane expression of opinion), why doesn’t he just say what he means – that he doesn’t like the piece? And surely he can find more to say about the completion of the First Symphony’s ‘patchwork finale’ than that it ‘was interrupted by a change of mistress.’

I believe that most of Walton’s shorter pieces and film music have greatly enriched the repertoire; more importantly, his Cello and Viola Concertos significantly added major contributions to two particularly meagre areas. And even Lebrecht concedes (though even here he can’t resist some snide qualifications) that the Violin Concerto is a masterpiece.

I once believed that Lebrecht was a fastidious writer but now I’m not so sure: often despising media hype and the like, he shamelessly calls in aid for his argument that ‘the 14 film scores for which Walton is widely famed failed to earn an Oscar.’ Really! Is ‘winning an Oscar’ anything more than having been lovingly embraced by the world of showbiz? What’s that got to do with lasting artistic achievement? And, in seeking further to advance his argument he is at pains to rubbish OUP’s claim that ‘William Walton's reputation has never been higher’ (well, his publisher would say that, wouldn’t he?).

In any case, lamenting what a composer didn’t achieve rather than making a serious analysis of what he did achieve seems to me a rather pointless exercise. Chaminade never wrote a symphony; Bruckner never wrote an opera; Beethoven added nothing to the organ repertoire. So what?

Moreover, let Lebrecht beware. He must know that fashions change. Britten may have temporarily eclipsed Walton – but is not his star now on the wane? The classic cases of Sibelius and Elgar (idolised – forgotten – rediscovered) should warn him of the dangers of pronouncing the final word (which he delivers with such self-satisfied glee) on a composer’s reputation.

ADRIAN SMITH

 


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