Rock my World – 4 – And one for Mahler

 

 

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I cannot remember now why my first Mahler LP was of the 3rd Symphony, but it was.  I seem to recall I enjoyed the easy simplicity of the “Bim-Bam” movement.  The first time I heard any Mahler was a Prom concert on the radio when I was 17.  My music teacher, Eddie Dytham, mentioned how his daughter was a great Mahler enthusiast so I tried to listen to it.  Mahler on the air, as in concert halls, was a pretty rare occurrence then.  As I say, I tried to listen to it, but comprehended it not.  It was his 8th Symphony, the so-called Symphony of a thousand, as I latter discovered, and not the best introduction to Maher’s music.

 

A few years later and Mahler swam again into view when Visconti’s film “Death in Venice” with Dirk Bogarde playing Aschenbach disguised as Mahler, was shown on TV.  But it was the fifth, not the third symphony that one associates with this film.

Anyway, not long after this, I saw Ken Russell’s film “Mahler” at the local arts cinema and I was beginning to get a liking for this music.  But performances of Mahler’s works were few and far between and something like the 3rd symphony, with it’s huge forces, was played so infrequently that one felt one had to fast beforehand as some sort of ritual preparation.  The 3rd is the longest of Mahler’s symphonies, and that is saying something.

This was the time before the internet and music on demand; when, if you did not have or could not afford the record (and LPs were, relatively speaking, quite expensive) you had to wait until it was played on the radio.  I used to scour the Radio Times every week, and circle the concerts I wanted to hear, which meant mostly the evening concert, and weekends – daytime listening was restricted because of work.  But I remember an afternoon performance of Mahler’s 3rd was programmed.  So I took the day off work to hear it.

 

Determined to hear this music again, I took myself off to Harrison’s music store (I think that was the name of the shop, I seem to remember a dapper gent in a bowtie, but more, often than not, I would be served by a statuesque lady, who could pass for Hattie Jacques) and I enquired about Mahler records.  They recommended the Haitink boxes, but these were outside my price range,  So I had to make do with Kubelik on DG. They also suggested I start with one of the easier symphonies, like No 4. But it was the 3rd I wanted.

 

Since then, Mahler has become fashionable and I have heard many of the symphonies live, on radio, on disc and online, including a trip to the Royal Festival Hall for a Sunday matinee performance of Mahler’s 3rd conducted by Haitink from which it took several hours to recover.  Luckily I  had gone with my friend Gev, who had to escort me out of the Hall afterwards and walk me round the South Bank until I could compose myself once more.  Over the years there has been a tendency to over-sentimentalise Mahler with ever slower performances.  Not so with Kubelik, and although this recording will no longer be my first choice it is refreshing to hear such direct, lively and unmawkish playing.  Kubelik, unlike some conductors, lets the music speak for itself – cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression.

 

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Rock my World 3

Love and Death, or The Five Hour Orgasm

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – live recording from Bayreuth 1966 conducted by Karl Bohm with Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson.

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One of the greatest Isolde’s, the legendary dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad, gave this advice to young singers – “keep well away from Wagner.”  I would want to extend that prohibition to anyone under the age of, say 50.   Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilberth both collapsed while conducting the second act of Tristan und Isolde; the first tenor to sing the role collapsed and died after four performances.  After his break with Wagner, and before his descent madness, Friedrich Nietzsche regarded Tristan as a masterpiece “Even now I am still in search of a work which exercises such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful infinity as Tristan — I have sought in vain, in every art.” GBS regarded the music of Wagner as a fatal addictive narcotic and regarded Tristan und Isolde as “an astonishingly intense and faithful translation into music of the emotions which accompany the union of a pair of lovers” and described it as “a poem of destruction and death”.

Wagner should come with a health warning.

I have heard, seen and been moved by many versions of Tristan in the intervening years but I first got to know this work at the age of 19 via this live recording from Wagner’s own theatre.  It starred two great Wagner singers at the very peak of their careers under the white hot heat of conductor Karl Bohm.

The story of the opera is simple – boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; boy and girl forced apart and unite eventually in death.  The music however is complex and pushes the boundaries of romantic tonality to breaking point – in fact at the point when Tristan collapses into madness in Act 3, the orchestra plays a chord that technically does not exist.

Music is about tension and resolution.  Think about the musical phrase known as “shave and a haircut” – it has its musical resolution in the final cadence – “two bits”.  Without that it hangs in the air.

What Wagner does is create a tension right from the start of the opera, in the prelude to Act one, it is not clear what key the music is in, nor what the rhythmic beat should be.  It seems as if we are building up to a cadential conclusion after a few bars, but the chord is ambiguous – it is unsettled and unsettling.  In fact, the infamous Tristan chord will not be settled until the end of the opera some five hours away.  Wagner maintains this tension throughout the whole opera as it explores the illicit love between Tristan and Isolde, not just through the shifting harmonies but also by the tension between spiritual yearning and highly charged eroticism in the music.

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Impressionable youngsters with a predisposition to romantic melancholy should not be exposed to such things.

The conductor Bruno Walter heard his first Tristan und Isolde in 1889 as a student:

“So there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera House, and from the first sound of the cellos my heart contracted spasmodically… Never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never had my heart been consumed by such yearning and sublime bliss…

 

I saw my first Tristan in the topmost gallery of the home of English National Opera at The Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane.   The conductor was Reginald Goodall, in many ways the opposite in style from Karl Bohm.  The singers were Linda Esther Gray as Isolde, Alberto Remedios as Tristan, Norman Bailey as Kurwenal, John Tomlinson as King Mark and Felicity Palmer as Brangane.  I don’t think any other International opera house could have bettered that cast at that time.  I can only echo Bruno Walter’s words… “never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion…”  I spent the whole 45-minute interval between the second and third act on the steps of the gallery trying to recover.  I barely made it.

 

Rock my World – 2 War Horse

Il meglio è nemico del bene

The best is the enemy of good – or along came Furtwangler.

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The year is 1977 – or thereabouts and I was living in the top flat overlooking The Racecourse – an area of open park that was formerly, yes you guessed it, a racecourse.  I had little in the way of furniture – most of it had been donated by friends and family or obtained secondhand.  The carpet smelled a bit and the leg on the settee was wonky, there was no furniture in the kitchen but a cooker, a sink and a table, but it was all mine, as long as I kept up the rent of £6.06 per week.  (This was the 70s). The only downside was I couldn’t have any pets which meant I had to keep the Runcible Cat away from the landlord until I could get Debbie to reclaim him – it was her cat after all, I was only looking after him while she re-discovered herself in an Ashram in India.  Oh, I did mention that this was the 70s?

Beside the kitchen there was one other room which was ok for living, eating, sleeping and throwing parties.  Hidden beneath an alcove was my bed. There was a built in cupboard which was used for storing what few clothes I had, a cabinet, a settee that could double as a bed if need be and a cardboard box covered with a table cloth (which I still have, the cloth, not the box) on which stood my pride and joy – my Music Centre. I did have a TV for a while.  An old discarded black and white set, which saw me through one Christmas when friends descended on boxing day and we fell about laughing at a production of Sleeping Beauty.

But back to the Music Centre.  A combination of record player, cassette recorder and radio.  What more could you ask for?

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With this little beauty you could record direct from the radio, or from LP, on to a cassette tape so you could play and play again.  It was on this machine that I got to know the English Ring Cycle (more of that later).  One thing I didn’t tape was a radio programme devoted to Great recordings.  This was a series of afternoon slots on Radio Three that filled up the empty schedule by playing each week a critically acclaimed Gramophone Record.  The first one of the series was to be that old war horse Beethoven’s Choral Symphony – the 9th.  Yes, that old thing.  I remember banging out the Ode to Joy theme on the piano during music lessons and playing an old rusty classics for pleasure recording I had.  So I was not shall we say inspired by the prospect, but there was nothing else on and I had nothing else to do, so I sat and listened to the radio announcer talk about what made this a Great Recording.

 

It was the reopening of Bayreuth (ok, so that got my interest) after the War.  The Wagner festival was to begin, not with Wagner but with the symphony of Universal Brotherhood – Beethoven’s 9th.  The conductor was Wilhelm Furtwängler – not someone I had heard of then.  The performance began and there was something about it that made me stop and concentrate and really listen.  There was a tension in the playing that I couldn’t shake off, all the way through the first movement.  This was something different and it was like no other version of Beethoven I had heard before.

And then came the devastating thud of the drum in the second movement.

 

People talk about performances that move them.

 

I remember a production of Mozart’s Magic Flute that moved me so much I left the theatre at the end of the first act. Yes it was that bad.

 

But here I was physically moved.  Somehow, during that second mocement, I found myself on the floor.  As that powerful and disturbing second movement came to a close with the recapitulation of that drum beat approaching, I began to cry.  And I never stopped crying all the way through the 3rd movement, which I cannot remember hearing at all that time.  I had never experienced such emotion triggered by music, and by recorded music at that.  I recovered enough to begin to take in the 4th movement but by the time we reached Furtwängler’s cataclysmic ending to the symphony I was reduced once more to a gibbering wreck, no longer in possession of my emotions.

 

In some senses, I have never recovered from that experience.

 

 

 

Rock my World – 1

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Last week, a friend posted this challenge on Facebook and nominated me to take part.

Rules of the game. Copy and post this as your status, but delete my list. List 12 albums in no particular order that made a lasting impression on you, not the ones that you listen to all the time, but the ones that rocked your world when you first heard them! 1 per band/artist. Don’t take too long and don’t think too hard.

Only 1 per band/artist. Don’t take too long and don’t think too hard. Then nominate 12 friends to post their lists.

 

I have known Gail for an absolute lifetime and shared much together over the years and I could have guessed some of the albums she listed as game-changers, but there were other on the list that I don’t think I would have guessed. I have responded and thought about the 12 albums that immediately spring to mind that have made a lasting impression on, or did so at the time. I noticed how many of the albums I thought about were ones that I discovered during either my formative years either as a moody teenager or as earnest twenty-something. Of course, most of these albums would have been on black vinyl, and I still have some of them, but none have survived from my teenage years.   Though I am glad to notice that I can still be moved, if not quite shaken, by new discoveries in music.
Of course, having written the list I can now think of some albums that really should be on there but are not. Maybe I’ll revisit this and do a “B-side.”

Compiling the list, I felt I wanted to say something about why I had chosen that album and in what way it had changed my life. So, that’s what I shall do here. The albums were chosen in no particular order though I think they are roughly chronological and relate to specific times in my life.

 

Delius – A song of Summer

In the summer of ’75 I was living in a one-room bedsit in Dunchurch. I had but two LPs that I played over and over again. One of the LPs was a collection of short pieces by Frederick Delius conducted by Anthony Collins. The LP was lost many years ago during one move or another and about 10 years ago I saw it in a 2nd hand record shop (probably Henry Bohns, in Liverpool) and had to buy it. I played t as soon as I got home. It was not as good as I remembered it and I have not played it since. I have other heard since those youthful days, other performances of Delius by Beecham, Barbirolli and Mark Elder that have surpassed the performances under Anthony Collins and the LSO.
I cannot recall what made me buy this LP. Back I the 70s LPs were comparatively expensive, which is why I only had two LPs at the time, and I had to rely on low-budget LPs from labels such as mfp and cfp. This album was on the decca eclipse label, which reprinted material from Decca’s back catalogue. I think I had heard some Delius on the radio, probably “On hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring” – which is why I bought this album. I loved the English pastoral depiction of nature in this piece. Delius is one of the most English of composers and also the most cosmopolitan. He was born in Bradford – and you can’t get more English than Yorkshire – his parents were German born of Dutch origin, and Frederick was christened “Fritz” – which he later changed. Delius moved to Florida, then to Germany and Norway before settling down in France.

His short piece “On hearing the First cuckoo in spring” opens with a short exchange of two-note cuckoo calls on horn against a background of shimmering strings, more bird song from the woodwind before the strings take up the cuckoo call. The main theme of the piece is taken from a folk song with variations from clarinet and strings with the cuckoo call throughout. What could be more evocative of an English Spring?

Except the main theme is taken from a Norwegian folk song “In Ola valley.” The piece, written in 1912 and first performed in Leipzig in 1913 is the first of “Two short pieces for Small Orchestra” – the other piece being “Summer Night on the River.”

I have never lost my love for the music of Delius who is still able to conjure up in sound a pastoral beauty that is both peculiarly English and yet truly cosmopolitan and universal.