Saturday, 25 October 2014

Masters’ farewells: Strauss and Parry

Until I worked on the programme notes for a very curious concert a month ago at St John’s Smith Square which I’d been asked to talk before and during, I wondered what Tim Reader, conductor of the newly-formed Epiphoni Consort (pictured below on the day of the concert), and his colleagues were thinking of: could great-blaze masters Richard Strauss and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry have much in common?

It soon became clear: Parry’s six Songs of Farewell, of which I only really knew the first from All Saint’s Banstead days, ‘My soul, there is a country’, are total valedictory masterpieces in their sphere, equal in their own more extended, specific way to Strauss’s Four Last Songs (by the way, the top picture should have been a sunset, but I settled on the rainbow we caught on a drive back from the high Maiella range in Italy’s Abruzzo region to our lodgings in 2009 simply because we were playing what I still think may be the best 4LS I know on disc – Harteros’s with Luisi and the Staatskapelle Dresden – and had to stop the car to listen to ‘Im Abendrot’).

Parry’s medium is a cappella choral writing, from four to eight parts. His instrumentation has never struck me as anything special, though well-padded orchestration supports those earlier panoplies ‘I was glad’ and ‘Blest pair of sirens’ well enough. But leave him alone with a choir, and wonders result. Listening and score-gazing, I marvelled at the modulations and the word-sensitivities, most moved by what would be a perfect funeral anthem, ‘There is an old belief‘, a nuance-perfect setting of a poem by John Gibson Lockhart. The one to hear on CD is the incomparable Tenebrae's (the Epiphonis are very much of that ilk) but I'll settle for YouTube's Vasari Singers, a notch below both - you may need to look up the words, which are essential*.

Tim asked which of the six I’d recommend for performance; after some discussion, I’m flattered that we settled on this and its successor, the very rich realization of Donne’s ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’. 

I knew the Epiphoni Consort would be first-rate, and the choir's interpretation of Strauss’s Deutsche Motette, the toughest work on the programme, was infinitely finer than the BBC Singers’ Proms performance (no wobbles, richer body of sound, better soloists – I already knew that Catherine Backhouse is a star, and I loved the tenor sound of William Morgan). But I was pleasantly surprised by the instrumentalists’ contribution. The Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra is an amateur ensemble, of course, and with the usual attendant problems of intonation, but what a difference it makes when a conductor is firm of purpose, as James Lowe was in Tod und Verklärung. Sounded to me, too, as if they had imported a professional first trombonist, and the horns were very fine, too.

Biggest surprise of all was how well soprano Charlotte Newstead coped with the insanely long phrases of the Four Last Songs: the top isn’t the freshest, but the middle range was golden, the overall assurance again streets ahead of the Proms singer, Inger Dam-Jensen.As a result, this one actually moved me.

Enjoyed, too, working on the note for Brahms’s first choral gem, the Geistliches Lied he composed at the age of 23, even if it was a tad thrown away right at the start of the programme. I haven’t tuned in to any of Radio 3’s Brahmsfest, but I’m more in love with this genius than ever thanks to three programme notes for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Exploration of the profound Horn Trio led me back to the fabulous recording by Isabelle Faust, Teunis van der Zwart and Alexander Melnikov. I hadn’t listened properly before to Melnikov’s performance of the Op. 116 Fantasien. It totally won me round to the 1875 Bösendorfer on which he plays here: the Allegro passionato has a tumultuousness which just doesn’t sound the same even on the most resonant of contemporary Steinways. Anyway, Melnikov is one of the relatively unsung greats, and this confirms it. None of his Op. 116 is up on YouTube, so I've settled for his performance, on said Bösendorfer, of the Op. 4 Scherzo.

As for the piano concertos, now that I’ve done proper homework on them I’m  even more eager to hear my idol Elisabeth Leonskaja in a never-to-be-repeated evening of both with Okko Kamu conducting the SCO – worth travelling to Glasgow or Edinburgh to hear, I’d have thought. One special fascination was cued by a typically brilliant observation from the late, lamented Calum MacDonald. He points out that Brahms’s manuscript words ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini’ below the violin melody of the First Concerto’s Adagio may refer to more than just the Latin Mass. They’re also the inscription above the entrance to the abbey where Hofkapellmeister Kreisler seeks refuge from disappointment in E T A Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, my second-favourite comic novel (Don Quixote will always remain No. 1).  As this was also one of the young Brahms’s favourite books, and he was himself known as Kreisler by his circle, the connection seems plausible. At any rate, it furnished further quotations from Hoffmann for the note which link back to the concerto’s turbulent opening.

I’d forgotten that Hoffmann lived in Bamberg for a formative four years, shortly after which he brought out his first collection of tales, Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner (annotators also overlook this when writing about Mahler’s forest funeral march in the First Symphony, also in Callots manier). So apart from the unreal, extensive and other-worldly beauty of Bamberg which so overwhelmed me when I was there recently, the Hoffmann connection was a bonus. 

The House-Museum was closed on the days I was there, but we walked around the square which embraces not only the great man’s poky dwellings but also the theatre where he was engaged, first unsuccessfully as the director and then as machinist, scene-painter and composer. 

Its interior is, I’m told, preserved as it was, but the shell is modern. At least it includes his own caricature on the glass

and there's a recent statue of writer and cat in the space before the theatre.

In a street winding up one of the town’s seven hills, the curiously-named Eisgrube leading to St Stephen's Church, there’s also the door-knocker which in Hoffmann's most fantastical story The Golden Pot turns into the face of the ugly old Apple Woman of the Schwarzthor. The tale is nominally set in Dresden, but it seems imbued with the more medieval atmosphere of Bamberg.

My cicerone, Matthias Hain of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, told me the famous knocker now turns up everywhere – as candy, mementoes etc. I had no idea, and saw none. Anyway, it was good enough to turn me back to re-reading the tale. And I feel in a mood for Murr again; but there’s Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers to surmount first. And I owe a few reflections on the second reading of Doctor Faustus here. Eventually. Long-overdue Norfolk Churches Walk chronicle next, with apologies for work deadlines getting in the way.

*so here they are:

There is an old belief,
That on some solemn shore,
Beyond the sphere of grief
Dear friends shall meet once more.

Beyond the sphere of Time
And Sin, and Fate's control,
Serene in changeless prime
Of body and of soul.

That creed I fain would keep
That hope I'll ne'er forgo.
Eternal be the sleep,

If not to waken so.


Geo. said...

Here, Philip Barnes conducted CHHP's Songs of Farewell sometime back with the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, but interspersing other works in between the CHHP movement. I have to confess that despite the efforts of people like Jeremy Dibble and HRH The Prince of Wales, there are very good reasons why Parry's music hasn't been revived much (the omnipresent 'Jerusalem' at the LNOP and elsewhere aside), namely that most of what I've heard on recordings is pretty "meh" music, at least among the orchestral music.

Agree with you that the Proms performance of Strauss' Deutsche Motette was a strain at times to listen to, even on iPlayer, because of the one unfortunate soprano who just wasn't quite up to cutting the mustard there.

I have tuned into bits and selections of R3's "Brahms Experience", even though I don't consider myself a particularly devoted Brahmsian. As a host, Tom Service is Tom Service, as you'd expect. Still, a nice pick of artists, like Robert Plane and Daniel Hope.

David Damant said...

Would you really say that Don Quixote is a comic novel? Rather like saying that Moby Dick is about a whale

Susan Scheid said...

I'm ill-equipped to weigh in here, but, as always, I enjoyed the listening and viewing tour, so here goes:

When it comes to voice and text, I'm much more able to identify when the match goes wrong in the composition than the finer gradations of what goes right. I did find the score for the Parry piece, and beyond the first layer of attractive music that came immediately to my ears, I can see, at least a little bit, what a deft job he does of weaving the vocal lines. It does seem an odd combination, though, with the Strauss. (It's hard to think, really, what would be a "right" combination with the Four Last Songs.)

I do always enjoy learning of the trail of connections. Here the literary-musical connections have me wanting to get hold of the Fantasy Pieces in Collot's Manner, so it's gone on the list to search for when next in NYC. Bamberg does look quite magical, and you've added to the store of magic here--that doorknocker alone! (I have found The Golden Pot online and set it aside to read.)

I'll be interested to know how you get on with Joseph and His Brothers, and of course what you take away from a re-read of Doctor Faustus, a book I'm sure I'd enjoy reading that a second time, too.

David said...

Geo.: I assume you're not including the Songs of Farewell among the 'meh' music? I told Tim I'd like to hear all six distributed in a programme just as you describe. My Parry list is small, though - these, 'Jerusalem' of course (for all its ubiquity it IS a great setting, and I'm so glad he turned to Blake, Milton, Donne, Henry Vaughn etc), and 'I was glad', which was always my church choir's chosen parting shot on cathedral courses (we got to sing the 'vivat regina's in Silver Jubilee Year. 'Blest Pair of Sirens' just has the manner of grandeur, not the substance, to my ears.

Sir David: yes, of course DQ is a comic novel, if we must have categories. Nothing to stop a comic novel sounding sadnesses and depths about the human condition. Not all of Murr is comic, either.

Sue: I think the Songs were more closely linked in the programme with Strauss's Deutsche Motette, composed only a few years before them - and for all its splendours, I actually prefer the Parrys.

The Fantasiestuecke in translation cost a fortune (£56 was the cheapest I found on the net). I did order up the two volumes of Serapionsbruder stories in a strange reprint - those contain many of the weirdest stories, and the sources of Tannhauser and Meistersinger of which Wagner was so keen to cover over the tracks. Trust you've read Tomcat Murr, though - that is THE greatest.

Susan Scheid said...

I have NOT read Tomcat Murr (so many gaps in my reading!), and it is on my list to find when I'm in NYC. Same this side of the pond on Fantasiestuecke, but sometimes something turns up second hand, so we shall see.

I have queued up and am listening to the Strauss motet and the Parry farewells. Yes, certainly, more closely linked to the Parry than the Four Last Songs. Also, though it may mostly have to do with the Strauss recording I found, which is on the shrill side, the Parry seems better constructed for voice to me, though I'm not very attuned to choral music, to say the least.

Speaking of filling reading gaps, by the way, I'm reading The Snows of Yesteryear, which you'd recommended--and which had been on my list, but not findable at the time. With your spur, I went ahead and ordered it. A remarkable window into that place and time it certainly is. Thanks for that.

David said...

We all have these gaps (one day I'll get round to Moby Dick) and Tomcat Murr's Life and Opinions are not widely known outside Germany. IMO you can't do better than Anthea Bell's translation for Penguin - no idea what the German is like, but it reads so beautifully and wittily, she's got to be one of the best. It also has an excellent introduction.

Strauss's demands on the chorus are insane - all those top and low Cs (and the odd C sharp). Parry just gets closer to the nub of his texts, methinks.

Glad you're enjoying the Rezzori - how could anyone not?

Susan Scheid said...

Yes on the Rezzori, and thanks VERY much for the Bell translation recommendation--getting a good translation is 3/4 of the battle. Interesting what you say about the demands on the singers in the Strauss. I did have a sense, but then it might be the recording, that the singers were flailing about trying to catch some of those notes.

David said...

It's curious, isn't it: I always wonder how reviewers who don't know the original language have the audacity to say 'this is a good/the best translation'. Nevertheless a certain confidence and flow inform the best, and I always look for work by Anthea Bell now.

Plunging into War and Peace for the third time, and with my old Penguin edition in tatters, I snapped up the Vintage edition, with a translation by that redoubtable pair Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky, simply because the whole of the first paragraph, bar a phrase or so, WAS IN FRENCH. As Tolstoy intended, and just as he footnoted translations - apparently wrongly half the time, weirdly - so do they. The introduction, by Pevear, is an absolute model of summing up the essence of the novel, too. Such a joy to get my NBF Harriet Walter to record the chunks that pertain to Prokofiev's setting, too. She goes straight to the heart of the matter - and all this between matinee and evening performances of Henry IV. The woman is a total star and a thorough professional. And a good linguist, too.

Catriona said...

Thank you, David, for the J G Lockhart poem, which I must have seen before, but did not remember.

David said...

It's strong, Catriona, isn't it? I suppose I was a bit embarrassed by the directness, but as I typed it out I felt the truthfulness of it. Presumably you know Lockhart better than I.

Hoping to see you at Leonskaja's Brahms double whammy in the Usher Hall. Unmissable. Her lunchtime yesterday was just so natural and right and poetic. Catch it on Radio 3 Listen Again if you haven't already heard it.

David Damant said...

I would agree of course that Don Quixote is a comedy ( and as you know I hold that the masks of tragedy and comedy are the same - it depends on how we look at it/them ). I suppose that I would only suggest that the word "comic" because of other uses seems to take away from the seriousness of the work.

Don Quixoe was ( according to a source which may not be relaible) one of Adolf Hitler's favourite books. He reflected that it captured the end of an era "ingeniously".

I cannot get very far with Moby Dick as I find the prose convoluted. But it is about Life, not about the whale.

David said...

We might need to know about Hitler's curious relationship with Wagner. That Don Quixote was one of his favourite books seems to me of no interest at all, if you'll forgive the impertinence. Anyway, Richard Strauss 'got' it, which is much more important.

Any great book - you encourage me to speak loftily - is about Life, ie more than its purported subject, or it wouldn't have much to say to us. I've been consistently surprised by books about purportedly unsympathetic issues or people - Elfriede Jelinek springs to mind - which win us over by their human perspective.

David Damant said...

I of course agree completely with your second paragraph above. As for the first,well I would need about 50 column inches......

David said...

Don't even think of it... Let's examine the minds of the artists, not the psychotics who achieved nothing but death and destruction. All the works Hitler may have liked for various reasons are infinitely bigger than him.

Susan Scheid said...

I do always wonder about those kinds of comments on translations, too. I think the best one can tell who isn't conversant in the language translated, may be whether the translation "reads well" in English. You now you have me noting, by the way, when I next get to NYC, to check which translation I have of War and Peace (I think I may have 2, actually). Would love to hear Harriet Walter read sometime, from all that you say. And speaking of reading aloud, I too have not been able to get far at all with Moby Dick. When I've had this issue with a few other books I feel I ought to read, I've got hold of an audio book. Well. In this case, what was I thinking . . . and more to the point, what was Burt Reynolds thinking in doing an audio book of Moby Dick!

David said...

Well, well. Burt Reynolds and Moby Dick are not names I would ever have expected to see in the same sentence. But one never can tell. The big question is, abridged or unabridged? There actually is a complete War and Peace on Naxos Audio Books, read by a very nice gentleman I've met at lunch, Neville Jason. I think he recently completed tout Proust...

Geo. said...

My "meh" evaluation of Parry's music is based on hearing recordings of the orchestral music, where the recordings are fine, but the music just didn't do it for me. BTW, by sheer luck on teh interwebs, the review of that SLCC concert with CHHP's Songs of Farewell is still available here. I probably should give Songs of Farewell another shot, at least from a recording. I'll admit that I think that the live SLCC performance was my first time hearing them.

Susan Scheid said...

The one we had was unabridged (I am careful to look for that, though one could be fooled). I notice there is now a set of "classics read by celebrities." Not a selling point for me, I must say. Is Neville Jason a good reader? He certainly earns hero status for reading all of Proust! (We have and loved the unabridged War and Peace from BBC. As I recall, you had some qualms about it, but for us it was the best of company on a long vacation drive. Ian McEllen's Odyssey was a terrific driving companion as well.) But I'm way off point here, so I shall stop, except to say I want to go to Bamberg!!

Susan Scheid said...

McKellen, that should have been!

Johanna Saarinen said...

Hi David,
It's Johanna here, President of Committee for Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra. I only just received a link to this review; thank you for your kind words. Also, I'm very proud to confirm that the trombonist in question is the BCO first trombonist, Mr Roy Young. Not a professional but might as well be! We are very fortunate indeed to have such strong players in our wind section.

David said...

Kiitos, Johanna, and how splendid to know. London is full of musicians in so-called amateur orchestras who are not professionals but might as well be. Anyway, that concert was a shining example of how with a good conductor at the helm - I assume you thought the same - a performance can shine as bright in its purpose as one by a leading London orchestra.

And I see I left Sue unanswered, for once. I met Neville Jason at lunch, very nice man, and I'm about to find out as he has recorded the unabridged War and Peace, which I need for the war scenes now I've run out of budget to pay Dame Harriet Walter (fabulous).