A Winter’s Journeys

I’m still on my regular travels to the South coast, augmented this season by some Premier League tourism such as my trip to Anfield in January, so I’m still getting through my classical CD collection at a rate of knots. In fact, the end is now very much in sight, but the biggest single-composer marathon is now just in its early stages. When I last reported in early November, Winter was just underway and I had reached the end of the P section in my alphabetical trawl through my collection. As we emerged from the darkness, I reached the end of the V section and, as I don’t have any discs by composers whose names begin with Q (does anybody?), I will be considering the R to V guys (yes, they are all guys) in this blog.

After the turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is) delights of Rachmaninov and Ravel – two very different styles, despite them being almost exact contemporaries – my R section is dominated by still-living composers. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians must be amongst the most important works of the second half of the 20thCentury – I remember seeing it performed by Reich himself and his ensemble at a late-night Prom a few years back and it was mesmerising, as it is every time I play the CD. Probably more than any of the composers who emerged from the “minimalist” movement and rescued “serious” music from the blind alley it was heading down, restoring it to something you can listen to and enjoy while managing at the same time to move it in new and interesting directions, he has remained true to its original principles. Even his most experimental pieces, like the early and seminal It’s Gonna Rain, have an addictive quality. 

I first encountered the music of Max Richter through his soundtrack to my favourite American TV drama series of the current century – The Leftovers. I think my favourite of his albums (and he does, unusually, seem to compose “albums” rather than “pieces”) is The Blue Notebooks, but the highlight of my listening on this occasion was to go through the full 8 hours of Sleep, a relaxing and soporific work designed to be played through the night while the audience nods off. It’s possibly not the best thing to listen to while driving, but I thankfully managed to stay awake and enjoyed it all. The box set of CDs also includes a blu-ray recording with the entire work, so one night I intend to listen to it in my bedroom, as intended.

I noted in my first blog about my musical journeys (A-B CDs, July 2020) that there are often single definitive recordings of works by contemporary composers such as Adams, Glass and Reich, though that was beginning to change. However, in the case of Terry Riley, who may well have been the original minimalist, there are a number of recordings of his seminal work, In C, and they are all very different, even in terms of the instruments featured and the duration of the performance. I have two versions, including the wonderful 25th anniversary concert featuring Riley himself. 

So, after back-to-back variations on minimalism from Reich, Richter and Riley, I turned to the behemoth which is the letter S (a cornucopia comparable to B and M). Starting with the gallic whimsy of Saint-Saens and Satie, it then proceeds via the high German romanticism of Schubert and Schumann to a gallery of the most important composers of the 20th century, reflecting both the musical and political upheavals of that era.

Before getting on to that, though, I need to say a few words about Schubert: one of my personal favourites (in my top three or four, for sure) and another of my largest collections. In musical terms he is the very embodiment of the phrase “less is more”. All his is best stuff is written for five performers or fewer but is so subtle and affecting that it works so much better that way. I would struggle to think of a more perfect musical work than the string quartet D804, the piano sonata D960 or the string trio D929. The other late quartets and, of course, the string quintet contain movements and sections which freeze me in my tracks (again, not great for driving). Then there are the songs: a whole universe of emotion conveyed by just one voice and a piano. The song-cycles are the summit of his achievement and Winterreise has to be my favourite. I was listening to Schubert at the end of November/beginning of December, so not in the depth of winter, but it certainly takes you there. I very much enjoyed revisiting the cycle again on TV at the end of February, when John Bridcut’s much awaited film Winter Journey was finally transmitted on BBC4. Following Schubert with Schumann was an alphabetical imperative, but very much an anticlimax. His quartets are fine, but he is very much a Schubert wannabe.

And so on to the 20th century gang. Schoenberg, of course, preceded Schubert alphabetically, but the rest of them formed a formidable and exhilarating grouping which accompanied my travels through the depths of winter. I can’t really comment too much on the significance of Schoenberg because most of his works in my collection are from his early, late-romantic period, such as Gurrelieder or Transfigured Night, rather than his later, massively influential atonal pieces. I understand the significance of atonal music and the experiment of serialism, but I don’t get either pleasure or interest out of listening to it and this, for me, is the crux of the issue as regards the music of the middle years of the 20th Century – who is it for? Much of the most avant garde work seems to have been written for the music expert rather than a general audience and thus becomes an academic exercise rather than living art. 

However, the works of four other composers whose names also all begin with S tell a very different story about 20th century music. Shostakovich is, for me, the greatest composer of the mid-20th century and, indeed, his creative period stretches from 1925 (he wrote his first symphony when he was 19), to his death in 1975, so he literally spans the middle years of the century. His symphonies, concertos and string quartets are of consistent (high) quality, though you can certainly discern development in the symphonies and quartets. Some tend towards the experimental, while others, like the 12th symphony, are clearly written for a wider audience and this balance exists throughout his career. Sometimes you even get that balance within a single work and Shostakovich was capable of making sudden and wonderful shifts of mood and approach (the mad oompah march in the middle of the 8th symphony is a particular favourite of mine, especially on the Solti recording). If it hadn’t been such a dangerous and tragic situation, it would be tempting to speculate that the baleful censorious influence of the Soviet system and of Stalin in particular had the effect of steering Shostakovich in a direction which actually made him a better composer. Finding his way through the minefield certainly made him a more subtle one.

Jean Sibelius, by contrast, was in such total harmony with the Finnish nation and its aspirations that he became, and remains, its musical voice, much as Chopin was for Poland. Before this revisiting of my CD collection, I would probably have told you that he wrote two really good symphonies (the 2nd and 5th) and a few other reasonably good ones. Hearing them all in order, I now realise that all seven of them fall into the “really good” category, though the 5th does still stand out for me. There are many recordings of the complete symphonies, but the cycle by the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gibson (on the budget Chandos label), is my favourite.

Continuing the theme of how shifting national fortunes in the turbulent early and mid-20th century affected composers whose names begin with the letter S, we come to the case of Richard Strauss. The vast bulk of his considerable body of work was composed before his association with the Nazi regime and the compromises that involved, but his style was not particularly affected by that association in the same way that Shostakovich’s was by his position in Soviet Russia – but then, Shostakovich spent the whole of his career in that position while Strauss could afford an easy semi-retirement with his artistic reputation already secure. Most Strauss is conceived on a grand scale, whether the orchestral works or the operas, though one smaller-scale late work I particularly enjoyed, and which I recognised as a gap in my collection as part of this exercise and acquired accordingly, is Cappriccio – an opera about the staging of an opera.

The one Strauss work I come back to time and again, though, and which means so much to me that it would certainly be on my fantasy Desert Island Discs list, is the Four Last Songs. It is staggering that this highly romantic piece was written in the ruined Germany of 1948 and it stands both as a lament for a lost culture and a defiant gesture against the prevailing musical direction of the time – the most beautiful of anomalies. Schwarzkopf’s version is rightly marketed as one of the “recordings of the century”, but Gundula Janowicz with Karajan and the Berlin Phil is the best of the three recordings I have.

The last of the four 20th century giants I am considering together was also affected by the upheavals of the century, but, unlike the other three, was not tied to one country, but was, at various times of his life, a Russian, French and American citizen. Stravinsky was certainly an innovator, though it is his early ballets which were mostly responsible for this reputation. The Rite of Spring is my favourite and the Bernard Haitink recording I have is exhilarating. I also enjoyed the Symphony in C and The Rakes Progress (Gardiner’s excellent version) from his middle, so-called “neoclassical” period, after which he turned to Schoenbergian serialism about half a century after it was first introduced at the time when he himself was actually making some worthwhile innovations. I can’t comment on any of it because I have no recordings – anyway, the minimalists were soon to appear to rescue the world of music…..er….haven’t I already said that? Looks like this is where we came in.

It also looks like I’ve spent far too long on the letter S, so I’ll skip quickly through the Ts and Vs (no Us, like Qs). I spent a few very pleasant hours in the company of each of Tallis, Telemann and Vaughan Williams and considerably more in that of Vivaldi (lots of concerto sets), but there are two big names that I just cannot take seriously any more, if I ever did, and, of course, part of this whole exercise was to weed out the stuff I won’t be bothering with from here on in. Tchaikovsky is now just pure mush and bombast to me – only the 6thSymphony is ever likely to impinge on my consciousness again. Verdi, I will admit, can at times be a great tunesmith – unfortunately, he seems incapable of embedding those tunes into anything with a semblance of musical coherence as a whole. He should have stuck to the “greatest hits” approach. The two of them will be joining Brahms, Bruckner and Grieg in my junk folder.

So, I am now on to a composer I am extremely familiar with and have been throughout my life, but whose works I am already really enjoying becoming immersed in once again. I have multiple copies of his lengthy pieces, too. He comes alphabetically right near the end of my collection, so I can now start blogging some musical lists based on my listening journeys of the last three years, as well as re-considering what his works mean to me. As the man said, it ain’t over until……

In the meantime, I haven’t been finding that much on TV to enthuse myself, but will be back to it in my next blog anyway.

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