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MUSICWEBLOG July-August 2005

Reviewer: Robert Hugill

Friday 15th July

Just signing off a compilation disc entitled Life is Beautiful ordinarily such things are rather doubtful, just an excuse for companies to recycle existing recordings that youíve already heard. But in this instance the recordings all come from ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Company, so I was able to get to know a number of fine artists that Iíd not come across before, along with a striking new piece by Ross Edwards, called Dawn Mantras, written to be performed on the sails of Sydney Opera House Ė now that would have been something.

One track, by Saffir Ė The Australian Guitar Quartet, entitled Rumba Flamenca, had me wanting to wave my arms and dance along to the music, rather a difficult feat when riding a bicycle through Central London. Most of my review listening is done on my bicycle. Though stopping to make notes does rather impede progress when late for work, you canít beat cycling through Battersea Park on a sunny day with something fine on the headphones as a sound track. Once the ABC disc is signed off, Iím moving on to pastures new; the first of a batch of discs of Jewish music from Naxosís Milken Archive project.

Monday 18th July

The first Milken Archive disc, a selection of concert pieces dating from between the wars; a period when cantors made tours of the USA and expanded their activities by adding secular concerts to sacred duties; much of the repertoire is sacred, Psalms etc. But, because they were for concert venues rather than synagogues, the pieces are accompanied by orchestra. Rather disappointingly the disc does not use original orchestrations but modern ones. Effective as they are, I did wonder whether the originals would have been so richly romantic. This issue of returning to original material is something that bothers me, probably in a way which would not bother the originators of the material. But in our poly-stylistical times, I think it is important to know that what we are listening to is true to its own style; something that really affects me when listening to modern recordings of Broadway shows.

Wednesday 20th July

A little niggle that keeps bothering me; increasingly disc booklets do not carry a full track listing, you have to keep referring to the back of the jewel case for this. So you end up juggling jewel case, booklet and portable CD player. I know itís just a matter of economy, but I long for the days when you could look on the inside front cover of a booklet and get full track details and credits. Whilst on the subject of CD packaging, is it only me who has trouble opening compact double CDs, where the 2nd CD is stored behind the first and accessed by cunningly hinging CD support out; Iím invariably befuddled by such things.

Friday 22nd July

Just started Mayrís Sisara telling the biblical story of Jael and Sisara, where she liberated the Israelites by pretending to seduce Sisara and killing him with a tent peg. Mayr wrote it in Venice for the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, so it is written for female voices. The plot is quite similar to the gruesome tale of Judith and Holofernes (except Judith chops off Holofernesís head) set by Vivaldi for the Ospedale dei Pieta. It seems curiously strange that these young women were encouraged to enact such gruesome tales; perhaps it was felt that the strong female subject matter made it particularly suitable for all female performance and that the moral of the tale would be suitably uplifting for the girls. Mayrís version for the dreadful deed is quite understated, no big dramatic killing to get the girls going, so thatís OK then!

Mayr was born just 7 years after Mozart. He settled in Italy and lived long enough to teach Donizetti and become known as the founder of Italian opera. One of those wonderfully Ďwhat if?í stories where we start fantasizing about what Mozart might have done and who he might have taught if heíd lived until 1838 (Mayr died in 1845).

Tuesday 26th July

A real change of tone, Gavin Bryarsís Laude, contemporary works written for early music specialist, soprano Anna Maria Friman, which seek to convert the shape and feel of the 14th century Italian Laude into the contemporary world. I love the shape and feel of these pieces, partly because they chime in with my own composing concerns, recreating old forms and mixing the old and the new; much of my own works involves writing in existing forms (masses, motets) and I find that I am constantly inspired by the shape of old melodic forms like plainchant. Where Bryarsí work is astonishing is the simplicity of it, some of the Laude are written for unaccompanied soprano or just for soprano and tenor; this is really composing without a safety net. Bryars, of course, manages it brilliantly. My next aim is to hear some of these works live and a couple of them have given me ideas for possible future concert plans for my own consort.

Tuesday 2nd August

Plans to review a disc of Gregorian chant over the weekend were scuppered by the limited liner notes. Though the disc includes a substantial general essay on chant, there is little detail about the individual chants. More annoyingly in the track listing they are referred to by type (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia etc.) rather than giving the actual title or even any text. So I must retrieve my Roman Gradual from church; the review is on hold until I am able to do so.

So as a complete change, a disc of Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven; it never fails to amaze me how technology can help reveal so much of the original personality of the pianist. Mark Obert-Thorn has removed much of the surface noise and what is left is quite acceptable; I was repeatedly struck by the detail and immediacy of the playing. Schnabelís is a very free technique, you feel that he simply went into the studio and recorded the item off straight. And this helps to maintain the illusion that you are listening to him in the next room. Will succeeding generations feel the same about our highly engineered studio productions today?

Thursday 4th August

And now for something completely different, a disc of Mantovani recordings from the 1940s and 1950s; it is on Guild, a label which I have previously associated mainly with choral music, which just shows how much attention I been paying.

For those of us over a certain age, Mantovani is forever linked to Sunday afternoon radio programmes and the sound of cascading strings. In fact, this distinctive sound was created by the composer-arranger Ronald Binge in 1951.

Mantovaniís father was a violinist at La Scala, but seems to have toured England with Italian opera companies and the family settled here in 1912. Mantovani was talented young, playing the Bruch violin concerto at 16 and going on to make a career in light music. Like many itinerant musicians he took work with small palm court ensembles, working in restaurants, hotels and theatres.

In the late 1970s I played in the Edinburgh Light Orchestra and one of the old guys playing there had made his career in palm court ensembles. This meant that he could turn his hand to playing a number of instruments, but on the violin (his first instrument) his technique was remarkable, he utilised portamento to a high degree and coated everything with a strong, wide vibrato - a distinctive sound, but one that integrated into an orchestral string section only with difficulty.

Thursday 11th August

Iíve now moved on to the Oxford Camerataís Tallis disc from Naxos, with their fine performance of Spem in Alium. My appetite was whetted by listening to David Wulstanís recording of the work with the Clerkes of Oxenford. This astonishing version, transposed up so that the sopranos are perpetually hovering above the stave, is beautiful but not one which can be compared to other, more recent ones. According to a singer friend, Wulstan was only able to get the light, transparent high soprano sound by using a succession of 15 and 16 year old girls, older singers were unable to sustain the high lines.

When it comes to modern recordings, its more a question of what sort of ĎSpem in Aliumí do you want, something that tries to approach clarity or a glorious acoustic mess. This latter approach is inevitable with some of the older, choral recordings but the advantage is that they give you a firmly balanced wall of choral sound. Other recordings use 40 solo voices and much depends on the recording venue and acoustic; it is perfectly possible for 40 solo voices to produce an acoustic wash of sound if you use a suitable resonant acoustic. I am still waiting for a recording which reduces the reverb to a minimum and gives us 40 closely recorded lines; it would be fascinating, but probably not something to live with as your regular recording.

Wednesday 17th August

If you dislike a particular recording then this can often make for good copy, similarly if you enjoy a recording; the problem for me is when I am indifferent, I can find nothing concrete to say. These thoughts occurred whilst reviewing a Vienna Boys Choir disc from the Naxos Milken Archive, with performances of pieces by Sholom Kalib and Abraham Kaplan. The pieces are both quasi-liturgical, one sets the Psalms in Hebrew the other excerpts from the Sabbath services. Liturgical music can transcend its origin to become simply great music, just think of Blochís Sacred Service or Frank Martinís Mass. But quite often sacred music can only aspire to be useful, to aptly fulfil its function within the liturgy; composers must write within the confines of the liturgical requirements and the limitations of performers. Not everyone can be like Rachmaninov and fulfil detailed liturgical requirements whilst producing music of genius.

Which raises the interesting question, should an Anglican reviewer, who sings regularly at the Roman Catholic Latin mass, be reviewing Jewish music. My view tends to be that if a disc is issued by a mainstream label then it should be capable of being appreciated by the non-specialist so my review is perfectly valid. Of course, if you reverse the situation then you get some interesting conundrums. What would a Jewish reviewer make of music by one of the dimmer scions of Anglican church music such as Charles Wood? Could an observant non-Christian find anything within the Anglican tradition of Psalm singing?

Friday 20th August

Iím finishing the week by listening to the new Hilliard disc of music by Stephen Hartke then Iím off for a few days holiday next week. But I hope to make a start on the BIS complete ĎPeer Gyntí which integrates the Grieg music with extracts from Ibsenís text. I just love the sound of the Norwegian language so canít wait. When not working, I never get much reviewing done as I am such a butterfly listener when at home; there are too many other distractions. I need the discipline of the concert hall, opera house or the bicycle journey to concentrate my mind.

Robert Hugill







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