Saturday 28 April 2012

Mendelssohn. A lightweight composer?

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) made his first appearance as a pianist at the age of nine and by the age of eleven had begun composing.  He died in 1847 at the age of only thirty eight with his opus numbered works alone running to 121. He wrote operas, oratorios, incidental music, church music, choral works, symphonies, overtures, piano concertos, violin concertos, a wealth of chamber music and piano music, organ music and songs.

Yet for all this he is still often considered a lightweight composer. It’s true he wrote incidental music such as that for A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is considered to reflect this shallowness. It is also true that his most popular symphonies, No.3 ‘Scottish’ and No. 4‘Italian’ have a  bright and breezy feel but does this make them any less for that?

Mendelssohn’s father, Abraham Mendelssohn, a wealthy banker, was initially against his son taking up a career in music, preferring for him a more reliable profession. However, Mendelssohn continued his musical studies and wrote his first composition, a cantata, in 1820.

Between the ages of eleven and fifteen Mendelssohn wrote his thirteen string symphonies which already showed a remarkable maturity and craftsmanship.

By the age of only sixteen Mendelssohn had written what is perhaps his first fully mature work, the Octet for strings Op.20, a work that astonishes with its radiance and individuality of style.

Max Bruch wrote of the Octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written at the age of just seventeen, ‘…both works have earned immortality, but to me the Octet will always remain the greater miracle.’ Even his father had, by then, to admit that his son was a genius.

Despite these early successes, by 1831, he was still uncertain as to the direction he should take, especially after receiving a letter from a friend, Eduard Devrient, who wrote ‘…two and twenty, and nothing done for immortality..’ A harsh judgment for someone so young.

Mendelssohn’s father also had concerns about the direction his son’s music was going, encouraging him to write an oratorio, though trying to dissuade him from writing opera on the grounds that too many composers had left numerous forgotten operas.

This didn’t stop Mendelssohn from writing the comic opera ‘Die Hochzeit des Camacho’ (Camacho's Wedding) (1825) or the operetta ‘Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde’ (Son and Stranger) (1829). He also left an unfinished opera ‘Loreley’ and five operas in manuscript. Sadly Abraham Mendelssohn was proved right and these operas are now forgotten.

Mendelssohn, nevertheless, tried to oblige his father and in 1836 came the oratorio ‘St Paul’. Sadly Abraham Mendelssohn died in November 1835 and the oratorio was not performed until the following May at the Dusseldorf Festival. His second great oratorio ‘Elijah’ didn’t come until the year before his own death.

Mendelssohn’s music can stand on its own merits but often Choral Societies try to add more gravitas to Elijah than it needs, taking the work rather too seriously and performing it as a Victorian dirge rather than pointing up the Mendelssohnian sparkle and bounce. Surely it is this joy in Mendelssohn’s music that, at least in part, makes it great.

Yet it is in his symphonies, chamber music and the famous E minor Violin concerto that Mendelssohn really showed his genius. The E minor concerto is among the best loved violin concertos of all time. Even that most modern of composers, Peter Maxwell Davies, a great admirer of Mendelssohn, is said to have modelled his first violin concerto on the Mendelssohn.

I find in Mendelssohn’s chamber music some of the most attractive music he ever wrote. Mendelssohn’s chamber works may not be of the proportions of Beethoven but they are no less great for that.

Of the chamber works, the Octet must stand particularly high, but of his seven string quartets, the three Op.44 quartets and Op.80 quartet stand out as great works.

I particularly like the Talich Quartet who have recorded all the quartets as well as the Pieces for String Quartet Op.81 for Calliope. These are still available from Amazon

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The two piano trios Op.49 and Op.66 are particularly fine works especially in performances as accomplished as those on a recent release from Audite

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The Swiss Piano Trio brings all the poetry, sparkle and virtuosity to what is some of the greatest of Mendelssohn’s music. With the Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.49 they give us an emotionally charged molto allegro e agitato followed by a beautifully paced andante con moto tranquillo. The third movement scherzo is immaculately played and the work ends on an exuberant finale, played with passion and precision.

In the second Piano Trio in C minor Op.66 the Swiss Trio give all the power and thrust of the allegro energico e con fuoco that could be wanted, which is beautifully offset by the poetic playing of the following andante espressivo. The third movement scherzo is spectacularly played and the work ends with an allegro appassionato full of feeling and passion.

These trios can match anything that Beethoven or Schubert did in that medium and, in performances such as these, with well a balanced recording; I can only give this issue the strongest recommendation.

A lightweight composer? Not on this showing.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

The John Ireland Companion

I must mention a new book published by Boydell Press entitled ‘The John Ireland Companion’.             

Boydell Press
600 pages
ISBN: 9781843836865

Edited by that great champion of British music, Lewis Foreman, this is a magnificent achievement, pulling together a colossal amount of material on Ireland. Complete with a full list of works and a bang up to date discography this is a must for all lovers of British music and, in particular, John Ireland enthusiasts.

This is not in any sense a biography. That is something that has been problematic for years due to the lack of information and documentation of his early years. This was compounded by the difficulties over his estate following the death of his friend and housekeeper Nora Kirby. To find out more about that you will have to read this fascinating book.

Nora Kirby jealously guarded Ireland’s reputation to such an extent that she ran the risk of having the opposite effect. The artist, writer on music and friend of Arthur Bliss, George Dannatt, was commissioned by Nora Kirby to write a biography but gave up despite a couple of years compiling material. The reason for this was the constant interventions from Mrs Kirby by way of letters and telephone calls.

Eventually a journalist, Muriel V Searle, undertook the task and the completed biography ‘John Ireland – the Man and His Music’ was published by Midas Books in 1979. I have a tatty old copy of this biography, which is a heavily sanitised account of his life, no doubt due to the interference of Mrs Kirby.

So this new book fills a gaping hole in our knowledge of the composer and includes numerous articles about John Ireland grouped under sections entitled ‘The Man, his Circle and his Times’, ‘Ireland’s Pupils on their Teacher’ and ‘Notable Articles on Ireland and his Music’. There is also a section devoted to Ireland’s own writings on ‘Music and Musicians’, a list of Ireland’s addresses throughout his lifetime and even a short section about Ireland’s handwriting.

The book includes a generous number of photographs and many musical examples.

This huge collection of information would be unwieldy if it wasn’t so well set out and well indexed. This is a huge achievement and Lewis Foreman is owed a great debt by British music lovers for bringing all this material together in one volume.

An additional attraction is the CD that is included with this book. On this CD you can hear John Ireland talking about Stanford and Beethoven, Ireland playing two of his piano works in broadcast performances and two works in piano roll performances, as well as him conducting an extract from The Forgotten Rite.

Add to this Helen Perkin in historic recordings of Ireland’s Sonatina and a selection of songs recorded in his lifetime and you have an invaluable and fascinating disc.

At a list price of £40.00 this book is excellent value but checking on-line I see that it can be purchased for a little as £30.00. What else can I say other than, if you love British music, buy this book.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Dobrzyński ~ Chopin’s student friend

Following on from my recent Chopin blog and my blog about Chopin’s friend Kalkbrenner, I have since heard a very attractive piano concerto by Dobrzyński, a fellow student of Chopin with Józef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory.


This new release comes on the NIFC label (The Fryderyk Chopin Institute) and features pianist Howard Shelley who also directs the Sinfonia Varsovia.

Unlike Chopin, Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński (1807-1867) spent most of his life in Warsaw. As well as this piano concerto, he wrote symphonies, choral music, chamber music, songs, piano music and an opera.

Dobrzyński’s Piano concerto in A flat major, Op. 2 [1824], whilst owing something to Hummel and Chopin, is a fine work in its own right. The invention never flags from the sparkling opening Allegro brillante with a long orchestral introduction, through the beautiful slow middle movement, Adagio, to the scintillating final Rondo, Vivace ma non troppo movement.

There is much of the delicacy of Chopin in this work but also bravura writing that Howard Shelley triumphs in. This is a live performance but, other than applause at the end, there is little evidence of the audience’s presence.

The other work on this CD is the Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 14 [1801] by      Franciszek Lessel (1780-1838) a Polish composer of Czech decent who studied with Haydn. I have not had the opportunity of hearing this work but all reports seem to describe it as a much slighter piece, but interesting nonetheless.

This is certainly a disc to consider not only for those exploring the byways of romantic piano concertos but for those who simply want to enjoy an exquisite piece of music.

The BBC Radio 3 CD Review ‘Disc of the Week’ broadcast of the Dobrzyński Piano concerto is currently available on BBC iPlayer.

Saturday 21 April 2012

BBC Radio 3 Record Review – Karajan and Prokofiev

No sooner have I blogged about Herbert von Karajan being voted top of Gramophone magazine’s Hall of Fame than he gets chosen by Geoffrey Norris as the Building a Library first choice for Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.

Now I know that Karajan is not universally admired but at his best he can produce magnificent results.

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This mid-price CD on the Deutsche Grammophon Galleria label which also includes a performance of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, seems to be another case of Karajan being successful in what seems to be unusual repertoire for him.

I am not familiar with this recording but from the extracts played, Karajan seems to add a degree of grit to the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic. A complete performance of Karajan’s recording will be played on BBC Radio 3 at 11am on Monday 23rd April 2012, a broadcast that I will certainly try to hear.

Friday 20 April 2012

Chopin and Kalkbrenner

In my last blog I mentioned a certain Friedrich Kalkbrenner and the occasion when his Polonaise for six pianos was played by himself with Chopin, Hiller, Sowinski, Osborne and Stamaty.

Hyperion Records have just released a recording of Kalkbrenner’s Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor Op 61 and Piano Concerto No 4 in A flat major Op 127.

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Friedrich Wilhelm Michael Kalkbrenner (1785-1849) was a German pianist, composer, and piano teacher who spent most of his life in England and France. It was in Paris in 1831 that Kalkbrenner met Chopin, who much admired his playing, saying,’ You won’t believe how anxious I was to hear Hertz, Liszt and Hiller…but they’re all zeros next to Kalkbrenner.

Chopin later wrote,’ If Paganini is perfection itself, so is Kalkbrenner, but in a totally different way…’ Kalkbrenner listened to Chopin play through his E minor concerto saying that he played like Cramer with Field’s touch. He somewhat ruined this compliment by going on to say that Chopin ‘lacked method’ and would never go on to play or compose properly unless he addressed this shortcoming. He even went as far as marking Chopin’s manuscript of his Adagio with a red pencil saying that it was too long and repetitive.

Kalkbrenner at that time was in his mid-forties and not particularly popular with the younger musicians in Paris. He did, however, offer to give Chopin lessons in order to turn him into his own idea of a better pianist. Chopin, who liked and admired Kalkbrenner, was minded to accept the offer but  Chopin’s old friend and teacher, Joseph Elsner  was furious and said,’…the idea that anyone thought they could teach Chopin to play the piano was preposterous.’

After Chopin’s Paris debut in 1832 the issue of lessons certainly did seem preposterous with another friend, Antoni Orlowski, writing,’ He (Chopin) has wiped the floor with all the pianists here; all Paris is stupefied.’

So ended any question of Chopin’s inferiority to Kalkbrenner, who is today forgotten as a pianist or composer. He died near Paris of cholera on 10 June 1849, aged sixty-four. Chopin only survived him by a few months, dying on 17th October 1849, but aged only thirty nine.

Kalkbrenner wrote four piano concertos and a ‘Grand Concerto’ for two pianos as well as many piano works, chamber music and three operas.

This new CD form Hyperion will be welcomed by those interested in the byways of music, in the contemporaries of Chopin as well as the romantic piano concerto in general. With Howard Shelley playing and directing the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, we can be sure of being in safe hands.

Monday 16 April 2012

Chopin – What kind of pianist was he?

Chopin is remembered today as probably the finest composer for the piano, but in his lifetime it was equally his unique skills as a pianist that captivated audiences.

It was Liszt that had enthralled audiences throughout Europe with playing that was described as causing ‘…terrified pianos flee into every corner…gutted instruments strew the stage…’

So at Chopin’s Vienna debut at the Karntnertor Theatre, although he received an enthusiastic reception, there was criticism that his playing ‘… lacked vigour and volume…’.

Chopin himself accepted that his playing was ‘…too delicate for those accustomed to the piano bashing of local artists…’ It had been Liszt that had popularised a kind of virtuosity that was far from delicate.

Yet for all of Liszt’s virtuosity, Chopin was also described as ‘…so very masterly in his piano playing that he may be called a really perfect virtuoso.’

A friend and pupil, Ernest Legouve, shows the effect of Chopin’s playing on his listeners, ‘Those who have heard Chopin may say that nothing approaching it has ever been heard. What virtuosity! What power! Yes. What power! But it only lasted a few bars; and what exaltation and inspiration! The whole man’s being vibrated. The piano was animated by the intensest life: it sent a thrill through you.’

There perhaps lies the answer to Chopin’s brand of virtuosity ‘…power…but only lasting a few bars...’

He may have been a quieter player but as another pupil, Karol Mikuli remembers ‘…the tone which Chopin drew from the instrument, especially in cantabile passages, was immense…(the) energy given to appropriate passages an overpowering effect, energy without coarseness; but, on the other hand, he knew how to enchant the listener by delicacy, without affectation…’  Virtuosity doesn’t necessarily need volume.

Writing to his parents from Vienna in 1829 he said,’ I expect that criticism to be made in the papers, particularly as the editor’s daughter enjoys nothing like a good thump at her piano…’

His Paris debut in 1832 at the Salle Pleyel, was another triumph, but the concert appears to have been strange to say the least, with Beethoven’s Quintet Op. 29 played by the best musicians the city had to offer, some arias and a performance of Kalkbrenner’s Polonaise for six pianos played by the composer himself with Chopin, Hiller, Sowinski, Osborne and Stamaty. Mendelssohn had the good sense to drop out at the last minute.  Chopin played his E minor concerto which received an enthusiastic response, with Liszt, who was in the audience, applauding furiously.

The Revue Musicale reported that ‘…an abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else…’

A later concert in the Paris Conservatoire was more problematic as again his style of playing caused difficulties. He had played the first movement of his E minor concerto with ‘the best orchestra in Europe’ but his soft playing was drowned by it.

He told Liszt ‘…I am not fit to give concerts, the crowd intimidates me and I feel asphyxiated by its eager breath…silenced by its alien faces…but you, you are made for it, for when you cannot captivate your audience, you at least have the power to stun it.’

Chopin’s playing developed with time and he achieved a distinctive reputation and by 1833 he was considered the brightest musical star in Paris. It was his uniqueness that had achieved this, with a style like no one else.

Charles Halle heard him in Paris ‘…I sat entranced, filled with wonderment and if the room has suddenly been peopled with fairies I should not have been astonished…the marvellous charm, the poetry and originality, the perfect freedom and absolute lucidity of Chopin’s playing at that time cannot be described. It was perfection in every sense…’

It was also said that ‘…his delicate and slender hands cover wide stretches and skip with fabulous lightness.’  He could play rapid trills and legato like no one else producing the effect of strings of pearls or, as Hiller put it ‘…the flight of a swallow…’

Chopin had a distinctive touch; he could play the same note in various ways producing a variety of nuances. These nuances would be heightened by his use of the sustaining pedal and perhaps more importantly by his use of tempo rubato. This is where the art of Chopin playing is most important ‘…his left hand would keep strict time whilst his right had the freedom to give the melody.’ It is said that his right hand would just hint at the anticipation of a phrase or reluctance to begin it.

He told his pupils ‘..Let your left hand be your conductor and keep strict time.’

Hiller recalled ‘Rhythmic precision in his case was linked with a freedom in his leading of a melody, which gave the impression of improvisation.’

With an expression of deep thought, Chopin always gave the impression that what he was playing was a spontaneous creation. ‘The whole man seemed to vibrate, while under his fingers he piano came to life with its own intensity’, wrote another pianist.

And of a performance of his Aand F minor etudes Op.25 ‘…let one imagine that an Aeolian harp had all the scales and that an artist’s hands had mingled them together in all kinds of fantastic  decorations, but in such a way that you could always hear a deeper fundamental tone and a softly singing melody – there you have something of a picture of his playing…it is wrong to suppose that he brought out distinctly every one of the little notes, it was rather a billowing of the chord of  A, swelled here and there by the pedal; but through the harmonies could be heard in sustained tones a wonderful melody, and only in the middle section did a tenor part once stand out more prominently from the chords and the principle theme. When the study has ended you feel as you do after a blissful vision, seen in a dream, which, already half awake, you would fain recall…and then he played the second, in F minor…so charming, dreamy and soft, just as if a child were singing in its sleep…’

Chopin was careful in his manuscripts to make his intentions clear regarding the use of the pedal, however, his publishers weren’t so careful and, in many cases, the engraver took no notice whatsoever of what the composer had written and used his own ‘judgment’ when placing pedal markings over the printed copies.

It has been generally accepted, even until recently, that original editions of Chopin's works contained errors and inaccuracies, which to a large extent deformed the composer's intentions. Studies also revealed numerous discrepancies between French, English and German editions.

The late 20th century has seen an editorial tendency for editors to base their work mostly on manuscripts and original editions, i.e. the most authoritative sources, reducing the subjective intervention of the editor to a minimum.  The evolution of the piano as an instrument has of course, to an extent, influenced later editions of Chopin's works.

So how do pianists measure up to playing Chopin today? Well I for one would not like to have only one or two recordings of his works as there is no way that a single pianist can bring to a performance every aspect of Chopin’s music.

I must briefly mention that Sony Classical have recently re-issued Murray Perahia’s Chopin recordings in a five CD box set.


These fabulous recordings show a master pianist at work. Just listen to the disc containing the Op.10 and Op.25 Etudes to hear such commanding fluency, and poetry. There are probing performances of Sonatas 2 and 3 and the four Ballades are played with freshness and passion. There is only one Nocturne included, the Nocturne in F Op.15, and, such is its exquisitely paced beauty that I can only hope Perahia records the whole set one day.

This is a set that no Chopin lover will wish to be without and it comes at a low price that makes it irresistible.

A new issue this month comes from Nimbus Alliance and features Vladimir Feltsman playing Chopin’s complete Waltzes and Impromptus. Let me say from the outset that this is quite remarkable Chopin playing from an artist that has received far too little attention.


I had, of course, heard much about Feltsman before but had not heard him play, so I was keen to hear this new CD.

These are wonderful performances of the waltzes. Just take the A minor Op.34 No.2 where Feltsman brings an extraordinary poetry to the music followed by the F major Op.34 No.3 where there is quicksilver playing interspersed by a rhythmic quality that brings to mind that description of Chopin’s playing mentioned above ‘…his right hand would just hint at the anticipation of a phrase or reluctance to begin it.’

Elsewhere there is a feeling of freedom and spontaneity such as the C# minor Op.64. No.2, which is simply entrancing and played with such fluency.

In the Impromptus there is again that feeling of anticipation in the beautiful phrasing of his playing. Impromptu No. 2 in F# major op.36 in particular, has a captivating quality with playing of such limpid fluency and poetic feeling.

The recording in the Fisher Performing Arts Centre at Bard College, New York has an intimate sound well suited to the performances. The notes by Vladimir Feltsman himself are extremely perceptive and informative. By now you will have gathered that this is a special Chopin disc which I thoroughly recommend to all.

Feltsman has already recorded two other Chopin discs for Nimbus that include the complete Nocturnes and the four Ballades. Can we hope that they will continue with a complete Chopin cycle?

Thursday 12 April 2012

Is it sacrilege to chop up Wagner?

It seems that never a month goes by without there being a new recording of arias from the great operas. A look at the best seller lists will show that most of these are very popular. Furthermore, no one seems to mind that these arias are taken out of context as they can usually stand alone as great pieces.

But what about more extended excerpts or arrangements of music from operas? This seems to invoke quite different responses including the oft quoted phrase ‘bleeding chunks’, used for such excerpts, especially in respect of Wagner.

Rimsky Korsakov was quite happy to draw extracts from his operas but at least this was his choice.  Chandos  have re-issued Neeme Järvi’s fine 1984 recordings, with the Scottish National Orchestra, of overtures and suites from the operas, at mid-price.

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There is absolutely no indication that Janacek wanted anyone to make orchestral arrangements of his operas and, indeed, I think that he probably wouldn’t be very happy about it. However, Peter Breiner has done just this with suites from six of Janacek’s operas, Jenufa, The Excursions of Mr Broucek, Kata Kabanova, The Makropulos Affair, the Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead.




These suites, lasting from thirty one minutes to thirty nine minutes, can in no way give a true reflection of the complete operas but what they do give is the opportunity to listen to some very striking and beautiful music.

Some commentators have questioned the point of these arrangements and I can see why they do. To experience the full range of Janacek’s operatic works there can be no substitute for listening to the operas in full. However, the three CD’s issued by Naxos, beautifully played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Peter Breiner himself, do give much pleasure.                                                

However, the main thrust of this blog asks ‘is it sacrilege to chop up Wagner?’ I will say outright that nothing whatsoever can beat the full experience of listening to a performance of a complete Wagner opera. I would not be without my complete recordings of all the Wagner operas.

But I have to say that Neeme Järvi’s performances, on Chandos , of Henk de Vliegers’ orchestral arrangements of Wagner’s Ring cycle (Der Ring Des Nibelungen), Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, in vivid sound, are really quiet stunning.  

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Järvi directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in magnificent performances that manage to overcome the main difficulty of such arrangements, which is the loss of dramatic contrast that the operas themselves provide.  Järvi has managed to achieve this by perhaps emphasising the dramatic more than the poetic but these are nevertheless thrilling performances. What they also do is remind me to put aside a long evening to hear a full opera.

Distilling fourteen hours of the four operas that make up the Ring cycle into 60 minutes is bound to create problems, which are no less when attempting to do the same with, for example, Die Meistersinger, where over four hours of music are condensed into just under forty eight minutes.

Back in 2000, Lorin Maazel recorded his own ‘symphonic synthesis’ of the Ring cycle which he called ‘The Ring Without Words’ . This was a 75 minute orchestral ‘distillation’ of the four operas. Interestingly Maazel stated that he was ‘strongly influenced by the comments of Wagner’s grandson, Wieland, about the importance of the orchestra in the Ring’. An interesting argument.

If you really want the full experience of Wagner, with all the weaving of themes and all the poetry and drama, go for one of the number of complete sets of the operas on offer. I have particularly enjoyed a 33 CD set from Decca of the ‘Great Operas’ all recorded live in Bayreuth including Karl Bohms’ Ring cycle recorded in1967 and 1971 as well as his famous 1966 Tristan und Isolde. (sadly this set seems to be currently unavailable) or collect each opera singly and get to know each one at your leisure.

But what of the question ‘is it sacrilege to chop up Wagner?’ Am I sitting on the fence? Well perhaps, but Jarvi’s four Wagner recordings for Chandos are such that I’m not going to quibble over the rights and wrongs. I think that these CDs may be my guilty pleasure.

My next blog will look at Chopin. What kind of pianist was he?

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Karajan. The greatest maestro?

I was planning a future blog bemoaning the fact that Herbert von Karajan’s pre-eminence as a conductor had seemed to fade in recent years. Although his many recordings have stayed in the catalogue, times have moved on and others seemed to have overshadowed him.

By some co-incidence, at the very moment I was thinking about this blog, events took over, with Gramophone magazine readers voting Karajan (1908 –1989) as their top choice for Gramophone’s ‘Hall of Fame’ . EMI   have a full page colour advertisement in that same journal featuring two box sets of Karajan’s recordings made between 1946 and 1984 including Karajan’s 1950’s Beethoven cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

I remember, when Karajan was in his prime, a colleague saying to me that Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra made everything sound the same. This was a ridiculous statement that was based only on the fact that Karajan had honed the playing of his orchestra to such an extent that he had achieved a refined, richly polished sound.

Sadly he resigned in 1989 at the age of 81, a few months before his death, citing back problems as his reason, but there were said to be growing problems between Karajan and the orchestra, a relationship that was described as ‘increasingly quarrelsome’.

To my mind Karajan is still unrivalled in the great Austro-German repertoire from Beethoven onwards. True his Bach could be pretty dire (I’ll never forget trying to listen to his Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Bach Brandenburg concertos taken at an appallingly slow pace) but just listen to his 1956 stereo recording of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. This performance, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is unbeatable and is now available (licensed from EMI) on the Brilliant Classics label at a ridiculously low price.

Karajan’s recordings on Deutsche Grammophon  of the Strauss tone poems will always stand head and shoulders above other recordings and there is, of course, his peerless Four Last Songs with the incomparable Gundula Janowitz.

His Wagner Ring Cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon , that rapidly followed Solti’s Decca Ring cycle, still more than holds its own today and contains some wonderful moments . Karajan’s Mozart may be large scale but they are still vibrant and beautifully played performances.

Karajan was equally persuasive in less obvious repertoire such as his 1981 recording of Holst’s The Planets or his 1981Shostakovich Tenth Symphony (possibly finer than his 1960’s recording). .

Nobody has done more to keep the memory of Herbert von Karajan alive than his widow Eliette von Karajan, who founded the Herbert von Karajan Institute in Salzburg, to help preserve her husband's musical legacy.  More information can be found on the Karajan Institute website or the Karajan website

I’m glad to see that my fears were unfounded and Karajan’s musical legacy is still very much appreciated.

My next blog will be on the promised topic ‘Is it sacrilege to chop up Wagner?’

Thursday 5 April 2012

Why does Finland continue to produce so many fine composers?

The population of Finland is only 5.4 million and has an average population density of 17 inhabitants per square kilometre. Compare their population to Germany at 81.8 million or Britain of 62.2 million.

Given the small and sparsely populated nature of the country, it wasn’t always the case that Finland had the opportunities for aspiring composers.

The first Finnish classical composer that will be generally known today is Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775-1837) who was made popular again when Emma Johnson, the young winner of the 1984 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, chose to play a Crusell clarinet concerto to great acclaim. Her brilliant performances are available on Regis .

However, Crusell found it necessary to leave Finland to pursue his studies and career, only returning to his home country for recitals.

A new era in Finnish music began with the founding of the Helsinki Music Institute in 1882 (later the Helsinki Conservatory, now known as the Sibelius academy) by Martin Wegelius (1846-1906) and the Helsinki Orchestra Society (now the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra) by Robert Kajanus (1856-1933).

The Helsinki Orchestra Society provided the first professional symphony orchestra in the Nordic countries. Both Wegelius and Kajanus studied in Leipzig but it was Kajanus that became the more significant composer. A beautifully played performance of some of his orchestral works can be found on a BIS recording, BIS-CD-1223  performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vanska. I would recommend this recording to all those interested in hearing what was written by Sibelius’ greatest champion.

Of course the mention of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) brings us to the greatest name in Finnish music, whose works have been recorded by many artists on many record labels. BIS Records have now completed a complete Sibelius edition .

There isn’t room in this blog to mention all the other Finnish composers who followed Sibelius but I would mention just a few that are worth hearing such as Erkki Melartin (1875-1937) (Ondine have recorded his six symphonies ),  Selim Palmgren (1878-1951) (Warner Ultima did issue a 2 CD set of his five piano concertos but sadly this is not currently available), Aarre Merikanto (1893-1858) (Ondine have recorded some of his orchestral works and Alba Records two of his symphonies ), Uuno Klami (1900-1961) (an inexpensive recording of some of his orchestral works is available on Naxos 8.553757 )  and Einar Englund (1916-1999) (Ondine  have recorded a lot of his music including all seven symphonies that are well work hearing) .

In the post war period the giant in Finnish music has been Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928). Rautavaara has gone through several stylistic periods in his career: Neo-Classicism, dodecaphony and neo romanticism. Yet throughout he has maintained a consistent personal voice that has made him one of Finland’s greatest composers. His eight symphonies to date are all available from Ondine Records, as are all of his concertos and many of his operas .

ODE 1145 2Q (4CD)

ODE 1156-2Q (4CD)
Rautavaara was closely followed by Aulis Sallinen (b.1935), another composer of symphonies and operas. He, too, came to composition at the time of Modernism and dallied with dodecaphony before progressing to a form of free tonality. Whilst Sallinen’s career turned to opera after the premiere of his opera ‘Ratsumies’ (The Horseman) in 1974, he has continued to produce symphonies now numbering eight.

Try Sallinen’s Symphony No.8 and Violin Concerto to get a feel for this composer’s attractive music.

CPO Records 999 972-2
The next generation in Finnish music brought another great symphonist in the form of Kalevi Aho (b.1949). Although Aho has written a number of operas, his main focus has been symphonies, now numbering fifteen. This most recent symphony was premiered in Manchester in March 2011 when The Daily Telegraph’s critic David Fanning said of him ‘…others may match him for energy, profundity or orchestral mastery, but none…has the magic formula for all of these things at once…’

BIS Records have recorded many of his works including nearly all of his symphonies . I came to his music through Symphony No.12 ‘Luosto’, a tremendous work premiered outdoors on the slopes of Mount Luosto in Finnish Lapland in August 2003. You really should try the BIS recording (in a church this time) of this great work, full of drama and beauty.


I would also recommend BIS Records’ most recent Aho release of his Symphony No.14 coupled with Kysymysten Kirja (The Book of Questions) and his Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra, all intended to be performed together in a single concert as they were at their premiere in 2007.

Following Aho there is Magnus Lindberg (b.1958) who has managed to create a distinct, personal and approachable language. Ondine  have recorded much of his music including a four CD set of his orchestral music that is a good starting point.

ODE 1110-2Q (4CD)

I have, as you would expect, only covered a few of the significant and in some cases great Finnish contemporary composers. I can only briefly mention Pehr Nordgren (b.1944), Kaija Saariaho (b.1952), and the conductor composers Leif Segerstam (b.1944) who has written more than 80 symphonies to date, none of which I managed to hear yet, and Esa-Pekka Salonen (b.1958), who despite his immensely successful conducting career, has returned to his first love of composing.

So why then has Finland managed such a wealth of musical talent? Well the Finnish government isn’t frightened to financially support its composers. Sibelius was awarded a pension to allow him to concentrate on composition and, in more recent times, in 1994, Kalevi Aho was awarded a 15 year grant from the Finnish state. Add to this a vibrant contemporary opera scene and the many symphony orchestras and music festivals and you will have much of the answer.

The concert calendar of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras, for autumn 2002, lists no less than 28 orchestras of which 14 are professional symphony orchestras. In 1993 the new Opera House of the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki was inaugurated. The Savonlinna Opera Festival, held in the Medieval castle of Olavinlinna each summer, is the country’s number-two opera venue with other smaller ‘alternative- approach’ opera companies mainly around the Helsinki area. And just remember the size of this country.

To return to the great senior figure in Finnish music, Einojuhani Rautavaara, we come to Ondine’s latest release of two concertos and an orchestral work by this master.

ODE 1178-2

As this new issue contains Rautavaara’s Cello Concerto No.2 and his Percussion Concerto ‘Incantations’ the box set of concertos issued by Ondine and mentioned above, is out of date already and for that we should be grateful for these are two great additions to his output.

I listened to the Percussion Concerto first as I was fascinated to hear how Rautavaara would approach such a work. Rautavaara predominantly uses the marimba and vibraphone in this works with occasional use of drums, cymbals, tubular bells and crotales.

The opening is strikingly brilliant with dissonant chords. The soloist soon enters on the marimba and following a brief episode for drums, the vibraphone weaves its magic in music of great beauty.

The slow movement uses only vibraphone. This is a magical movement with soloist weaving his sound around the orchestra. The interplay of soloist and orchestra is masterfully done by both composer and performer.

The finale opens on marimba in a gentle but lively theme. The soloist moves between vibraphone and marimba creating rich sounds that run seamlessly into tubular bells (how does Colin Currie do it?) before the cadenza.  This cadenza, supplied by Colin Currie, seems to encapsulate all that has gone before.

The work ends when the marimba joins the orchestra in a restatement of the rich and weighty opening theme. There is no doubt that Colin Currie is a stunning artist.

Rautavaara’s first cello concerto dates from 1968 and was his first ever concerto. In this second concerto there is an almost continuous flow of melody from the cello throughout the work, which is constructed in the form of theme, variations and finale.

In the first movement theme, there is beautifully expressive playing from the work’s dedicatee, Truls Mørk, leading without a break to the second movement variations in which the soloist weaves some beautiful cello sounds around the soaring arabesques of the orchestra. At times, Mørk's  playing of the cello part is of such intensity that it is heartrending.

The third movement finale again follows without a break and continues with the flowing interplay of melody between cello and orchestra. After a brief stormy episode with brass, the cello soars higher and higher, against quiet accompaniment of the orchestra, into nothing.

The third work on this disc is ‘Modificata’, a 2003 revision of material from two works dating back to 1957 and Rautavaara’s 12 tone period. This may be in many ways a different Rautavaara from the later one we know today, but his individual voice still shines through in writing that is beautifully orchestrated, sensitive and atmospheric, though clearly 12 tone in its construction.

With informative notes by Finnish music expert Kimmo Korhonen, I thoroughly recommend this disc which I have listened to again and again.

See also:

Marvellously played Chamber Symphonies from Kalevi Aho

A Trombone Concerto from Finland’s Kalevi Aho