The November 2021 issue of Gramophone magazine announces on its cover: “Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – We reveal the finest recordings”. In the featured article, the ‘Top Choice’, from Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (1982), is selected on some characteristically (it seems to me) British criteria, summarised thus: “nothing flashy or artificial [whatever that means] gets in the way” and a “thoughtful account [that] will best suit listeners who find rival versions (or even the music itself) prone to overstatement”. Interestingly, in the same article André Previn’s powerfully expressive 1965 recording is faintly praised for its similar qualities as being “essentially apolitical Shostakovich”.
Are we really in an age when Shostakovich’s music is still questioned as being possibly “prone to overstatement”? Such a declaration makes me wonder if these somewhat repressed British manners might have said the same about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony eighty-four years after its composition and first performance?
The article lists twenty-five selected recordings of the Shostakovich Symphony, nine of which are treasured volumes on my own CD shelves (along with three others – a second version from Valery Gergiev, as well as recordings from Yakov Kreizberg and Krzysztof Urbanski). None, including the Gramophone critic’s Top Choice, reveals all that is to be found in Shostakovich’s exhaustively rich and profoundly expressive work. Some (e.g. Vasily Petrenko’s glorious Liverpool recording, and Bernstein’s “famously histrionic” account) are, by implication, found wanting to a degree for following valid interpretive alternatives that don’t quite gel with the writer’s own ideas.
Each time I play a recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth, I deliberately choose a different recording to the one that I most recently played, and every time I find something new in the piece; that’s why no recording should ever be considered ‘the best’. I do have a tendency to frequently replay newly acquired recordings for a while but soon, however good the performance, its expressive power wears a little thin as each interpretive corner is turned and the performance becomes predictable in a way that the composer never intended.
Before beginning this November edition of Troubleshooter I listened to Gramophone’s recommended Top Choice and I look forward to hearing it again in order to try to discover more of its secrets which, for now, strike me as comparatively less overtly communicative or dynamically engaging than Shostakovich surely intended.
The works chosen for The Gramophone Collection each month do often reveal performances that have not previously come within my earshot. The recommendations in the October issue’s comparison of recordings of Verdi’s Rigoletto proved a revelation, even when I already have at least half-a-dozen carefully chosen sets on my shelves. But, here again, no version says it all, so, while my long-time favourite recording didn’t feature among Gramophone’s recommendations, it stubbornly remains my favourite; but so many other interpretations are well worth hearing and each certainly enriches the listening experience.
I’m reminded of a Gramophone review some years ago when the reviewer described a deeply passionate and truly charismatic live recording from the Salzburg Festival of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev as “not a performance to live with”. However, firstly, it sounds like one of those performances that will remain in the lifetime memory and life-changing experience of anyone lucky enough to have been there. And, secondly, there is no such thing as a performance that any nineteenth century composer could ever have intended (let alone imagined) would be one “to live with”. For Tchaikovsky, the only possible way of anyone being able to experience his music was in a live performance with the listener physically in attendance. And there are many fine recordings of this work, each one offering something fresh and revealing, even on repeated listenings provided it’s not repeated too often. The Gergiev VPO recording is one that I return to every two or three years, and it never fails to come up fresh every time.
So, the idea of a ‘Top Choice’ for a recording of any individual work is not only a foolish concept, but surely a rather arrogant one.
In the mid-1980s, when I decided to supplement, and eventually replace, my collection of several-hundred vinyl albums with CDs, I made the naïve decision to buy just one, top-recommended version of each major work that I wanted. It wasn’t long before that decision became impractical as conductors, instrumentalists, singers and ensembles young and old brought something newly fresh and creative to their interpretations, just as generations of great musicians have always done.
My September post considered some responses to a few very new musical works. I’ve also been reading some other posts about the merits (or not) of various styles of new ‘classical’ music. By ‘new’ the writers often include everything from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) and Schoenberg’s Erwartung (1924) right up to the present day. That’s rather interesting, given that one hundred years after the composition of works by composers of earlier centuries, their music would hardly still be considered ‘new’ or ‘modern’ or ‘difficult’ to listen to.
I’m not going to add more personal views or responses or insights to a debate which has generated numerous blogs, editorials, books, articles and other media sources on the topic. However, there are many interesting and informative opinions and explorations readily available such as a 2010 article in The Guardian by Alex Ross, or Colin Eatock’s “What’s Wrong with Classical Music? or discussion forums such as Trumpetherald.com or Talk Classical or Luke Muehlhauser’s A beginner’s guide to modern classical music, and many more.
Plato is credited with the idea that “Opinion is the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding.” So, while there’s no point in being dogmatic about our opinions on new classical music, as a reviewer I often find myself desperately looking for positive comments on new works, perhaps believing that I have no right to condemn a new piece after a single hearing. But occasionally, just occasionally, a new work totally blows me away. My previous post mentioned two such works which featured in last month’s Musikfest Berlin: Heiner Goebbels’ A House of Call and Ondřej Adámek’s Where are you? (Note that those two links are just trailers, although there is a complete audio-only recording of the latter on YouTube, but, for me, the visual element is an essential part of the work). There have been a few others during the last forty-or-so years, especially miniatures such as Henryk Gorecki’s Totus Tuus and major works like James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, particularly the 3rd movement – Verily I say unto You.
Many of the world’s composer community believe that the writing of, or attempting to write, masterpieces is no longer relevant or even possible. The word ‘elitist’ has often been applied to classical music, mostly by people who have not acquired the ability – emotional experience/growth – understanding – call-it-what-you-will. If that’s what makes any music elitist, then isn’t that the same as, say, rocket science or brain surgery being elitist? And why not, therefore, call some of the more esoteric styles of popular music elitist; there’s even a style called Esoteric Pop! Whatever the logic, let’s, at least, not use the word ‘elite’ to mean supercilious or condescending in a snobby sense..
Some commentators even go as far as calling classical music ‘racist’! Have a read of Lebanese Druze composer Nebal Maysaud’s articles on NewMusicBox, especially the most recent called It’s Time to let classical music die. The sixty comments by readers of the article also broaden, develop, or offer different insights into Maysaud’s perspectives, but the fact that comments are now closed is a bit suppressive in itself surely?
In the 18th and 19th centuries concert promoters and opera houses could not have survived without satisfying the public’s huge appetite for new works. One only has to read American writer Blanche Roosevelt’s account of the days that led up to the première of Verdi’s Otello in Milan and the première itself to understand the ‘Beatlemania’ frenzy that could be generated by a new classical music work.
So what’s happened? Why have classical audiences of the past hundred years been less willing to embrace new music? There are many reasons outlined in the material that I’ve referenced above . . . or maybe there is no rational answer . . . or should we even care? . . . To each his own?
And the debate goes on with superstar violinist Nigel Kennedy’s withdrawal from a recent Proms concert in London because the host radio station, Classic FM refused to allow him to play a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Kennedy’s comments a few days after the withdrawal also make interesting reading. Is the answer to all of the above to start pulling down the genre barriers that create such counterproductive mind-sets?
With the world of music now at our fingertips, and with Europe gradually easing covid restrictions, this month I’ve been attending daily live-streamed concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall at 6.00am (8.00pm the previous day Berlin time).
From 28 August to 20 September the Digital Concert Hall is streaming many of the performances from the MUSIKFEST BERLIN. Top orchestras, ensembles, conductors and soloists from all over Europe have been performing music from Carlo Gesualdo (16th century) to world premieres, with a focus on Stravinsky to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Really?? He was still very much alive when I was analysing Petrushka at university!
The unrelenting ‘modernism’ of some of the music being played over these three weeks, including several late works by Stravinsky, has been intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking, but rarely emotionally stirring. Could it be that many ‘classical’ composers today mistake impenetrability and complexity for originality, or are their aims more about ideas than expression? Did Stravinsky’s early inspirational and charismatic momentum fail him to an extent as his success and celebrity increased? His reputation and enduring popularity would certainly be different without The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring (and what an extraordinary performance of that we heard at the festival this morning (14 September) from Les Siècles and Francois-Xavier Roth)! Stravinsky’s agent and biographer, Lillian Libman, describes how she would listen at his studio door at his home in Beverly Hills during his last years as he tinkered on a piano searching for inspiration note-by-note (And Music at the Close, MacMillan 1972).
Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with musical complexity but, together with inspiration and genuine expression, it sheds its impenetrability. And there were two new major works performed during MUSIKFEST BERLIN that absolutely stunned me. The first was the festival’s opening concert (28 August 2021) devoted to the world première of Heiner Goebbels’ A House of Call, brilliantly played with commitment and fervour by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni. A House of Call is an uninterrupted 100-plus minutes “cycle in which the orchestra reacts to voices which the composer has preserved in an imaginary notebook . . . [more]”.
For an hour-and-three-quarters I sat glued to this livestream première, sharing that first audience’s unique opportunity. For me, most importantly, it worked as a musical experience, not just an intellectual one. Whatever its background, inspiration or conceptual rationale, it overwhelmed me and drew me in with its own artistic substance. The pre-recorded voices suggested myriad resonances from my own past encounters with history, politics, travel, social and cultural issues, and, of course, music; and the orchestral commentary heightened and intensified those resonances. Perhaps the audience in the hall had programme notes but, so often with modern music, programme notes tell us far more than the music itself; they frequently tell us what the music itself fails to communicate. That it worked without such explanation or ‘excuse’ made the experience all the more momentous. Everything, from the mastery of the conducting and playing to the lighting and orchestral layout, contributed to a truly riveting and memorable experience. The performance started while players were still coming on to the stage, and the coming-and-going of many of the musicians during the performance added to the spontaneity, fluidity and humanity of the music and the music-making.
If anything, Czech composer Ondřej Adámek’s orchestral song cycle Where are you? might be described as even more modern in terms of any comparisons with conventional musical language and manners. Premiered six months ago in Munich, this Berlin performance made such an impression that I’ve rarely been more tempted, since the deaths of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten in the 1970s, to label a major new work as a ‘masterpiece’ – I suppose time will tell. And I cannot imagine that any future performers will easily surpass the extraordinary electricity generated by mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle.
Where are you? begins with expressively silent gestures from the singer before any sound, vocal or instrumental, is heard. Then the first sounds are breathy and atmospheric from both singer and players as Human Life emerges, only to begin its quest to understand why?, before creating a god (God) from whom to seek the answer . . . if only (s)he can be found; hence the title. But Life’s voice remains unheard by the God it has created, and finally a megaphone is used to amplify its pleas. The answer, we are told in the festival's programme description, is found in nature, as is made evident in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony which followed Adámek’s new work – a nice idea.
Magdalena Kožená’s ‘modern art’ dress complemented the music perfectly. What a pity that the orchestra, like most major orchestras, is still tied to the outdated and stultifyingly dull formality of white tie and tails. The presence of the white megaphone on a stand beside the singer was a rather gimmicky distraction for most of the performance as we wondered when and how it would be used. In the event, its use was justified as a visually dramatic adjunct to the texts, which ranged from Czech and Moravian dialects to Spanish, English, Sanskrit and Aramaic.
At the end of the performance it was almost disappointing, when the composer came on stage to acknowledge the audience’s enthusiasm, to find that he is just an ordinary-looking and mortal forty-two-year-old. How lucky we are that we can’t have our minds’ images of, say, Bach or Beethoven, as immortalised in idealised portraits and statuary, reduced to mere reality.
Ondřej Adámek’s Where are you? has been haunting me now for over a week. But there’s a paradox: while I long to hear and see it again ('see' because no performance is complete without being able to see the opening and closing silent gestures), I’m fearful of being disappointed in trying to repeat a rare and remarkable experience.
And, if other new works by Olga Neuwirth, Rebecca Saunders, George Benjamin and others provided opportunities for me to further broaden my experience of today’s living composers, it was Heiner Goebbels and Ondřej Adámek who provided something more deeply moving and genuinely life-affecting.
Tony Ryan has reviewed Christchurch concerts, opera and music theatre productions and many other theatre performances since the mid 1990s.
Tony has presented live and written radio reviews of numerous concerts, opera and other musical events for RNZ Concert for many years. An archive of these reviews can be found at Radio New Zealand - Upbeat
His reviews of opera, music & straight theatre and numerous reviews of buskers and comedy festival performances are available at Theatreview.
An archive of Tony’s chamber music reviews is held at Christopher’s Classics
He has also reviewed for The Press (Christchurch). Links to Tony's Press reviews are listed below:
A Barber and Bernstein Double Bill – Toi Toi Opera
The Strangest of Angels – NZOpera
Will King (Baritone) and David Codd (Piano) – Christopher's Classics
Ars Acustica – Free Theatre
Truly Madly Baroque – Red Priest
The Mousetrap – Lunchbox Theatre
Iconoclasts – cLoud
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
An Evening with Simon O’Neill NZSO
Catch Me If You Can – Blackboard Theatre
Brothers in Arms – CSO
Fear and Courage – CSO
Sin City – CSO
Don Giovanni – Narropera at Lansdowne
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Funatorium
Weave – NZTrio
Tosca – NZ Opera
Sister Act – Showbiz
Broadway to West End – Theatre Royal
Chicago – Court Theatre
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 – CSO
Homage – CSO
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
SOAR – NZTrio
Pianomania – NZSO
Rogers & Hammerstein – Showbiz
Songs for Nobodies – Ali Harper
The Beauty of Baroque – CSO
Travels in Italy – NZSO