Time to take a break from TV and talk about music. Actually, circumstances dictate this – at the same time as TV has started to run out of new product, my own fallback of revisiting the past through my DVD/Blu-ray collection has been disrupted by the need for regular 100 mile drives to the Sussex coast to care for my elderly mother, while my (even more) elderly father has been in hospital following a bad fall. Visits to my father, which became possible as lockdown eased, called for further driving, and now that he is home they still require frequent visits.
When I retired, I determined systematically to revisit both my extensive film/tv and music collections. The systems and methods would be different though. My film collection is arranged in a rough chronological order (though with national cinemas and the work of individual directors also factored in), so I would be starting with silent cinema and progressing through time. I clearly need to do this at home in front of my TV screen. My classical music CD collection, on the other hand, is arranged A-Z by composer, following the principles of the Gramophone catalogue (concertos/symphonies/chamber and instrumental/vocal and choral/opera) and I decided to tackle it in this order, which gives the opportunity to immerse myself in the works of each composer in turn and also throws up some serendipitous juxtapositions.
My method to date has been mainly to listen to my CDs while driving long(ish) distances by myself. I started when I got my current car, which came with a very good CD player and speaker system, in September 2017. A choice listening opportunity was my regular drive to watch Brentford home matches, which takes me about the length of time needed for one CD (so, two discs per match). The suspension of football in March put an end to that, while lockdown switched my attention to my film collection. But my latest circumstances have greatly increased my CD listening – so much so that I am now reaching the end of the Bs!
That may seem like slow progress, but a) I do have a lot of CDs; and b) so many major composers, including two of the biggest, have names beginning with B. But let’s go back a letter to the start: John Adams is one of three living American composers whose works feature strongly in my collection (Glass and Reich being the others). Adams’ works are highly contemporary and witty, much like the man himself – I once saw him conduct a programme of Frank Zappa pieces at the Proms while carrying on a dialogue with the audience. He has cornered the market in operas and performance pieces based on events from recent history – Nixon in China is probably his masterpiece, but I particularly enjoyed re-visiting his 1995 piece about the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky. One of the best things about contemporary composers like Adams, Reich and Glass is that there is often only one recording of any particular work to choose from. As they are composers of the recording age, these can be regarded as definitive versions, though in the case of all three, newer recordings of some key works are emerging, which gives a hint as to which of them may become “classics”.
The rest of my A section consists of just three discs of Albinoni concertos (mostly for oboe) and one disc each of Allegri and Arne. Albinoni’s Adagio is one of those works I can never hear without making an association with its use in TV or film – in this case Werner Herzog’s Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), in which it is played in full as the centrepiece of a symmetrical use of musical extracts.
And so on to all those B’s, starting with one of those “big ones”, J.S.Bach (I don’t have anything by J.C.Bach, who would have preceded him alphabetically, or even C.P.E. who would be ahead of them both – mental note to rectify this!). I had about 6 months of Bach-accompanied driving, starting with the Brandenburgs at the beginning of a football season and culminating in his oratorios and masses in time for Easter. I think John Eliot Gardiner’s rendition of the B-minor Mass must be amongst my most treasured recordings and this is another point of the exercise – to identify those works and recordings I will want to revisit, ideally in live performance, and those I can probably put behind me. My Bach collection also contains a number of “traditional” performances, contrasted with those on period instruments. I tend to prefer the latter, especially when the performance history has been well researched by somebody like Gardiner or Herreweghe. The Brandenburg Concertos are a case in point, as I have two recordings, one by the Berlin Phil under Karajan and the other with the English Concert under Trevor Pinnock (both on DG). The Karajan is pompous and overblown, where the Pinnock sounds like the true voice of Bach. I know which one is now behind me.
Speaking of Philippe Herreweghe (a great name to bring up when asked for a list of famous Belgians!), one of my best purchases of recent years was the 30-CD set of his Harmonia Mundi recordings, which I got for under £30 when it came out (you’d pay much more now) and which greatly increased my Bach collection at a stroke. His performances and the recordings of them are outstanding. This is one of several such bargain boxes I have acquired – others are devoted to Rafael Kubelik at DG, Bernard Haitink (live Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recordings) and Leonard Bernstein – which is another reason for my slow progress through the collection.
After an all-too-brief diversion with Bartok’s string quartets (Takacs Quartet on Hungaroton – can’t get much more authentically Hungarian than that!), it was on to the next big B – the glorious Ludwig van. This was another potential season-long fest, except it was the current, recently resumed season. The fact that I have so many multiple copies of Beethoven’s works, including three complete symphony cycles (by Karajan, Gardiner and in the aforementioned Kubelik set), plus three additional copies of the ninth (yes, I know!) meant that I had to space them out between the concertos, string quartets, piano sonatas usw. Much the same goes for my all-time favourite choral work – the Missa Solemnis (four different versions, including in the Herreweghe and Haitink sets, but Gardiner’s remains my top preference, though Haitink runs him close). The period instrument question is also pertinent to Beethoven and there has been a lot of scholarly research behind the question of interpretation and tempi by the likes of Gardiner, Norrington and Harnoncourt. When Gardiner’s symphony cycle was released, I was knocked out – hearing such familiar works so completely newly and excitingly presented was a revelation. I remember a news item at the time that Gardiner’s aunt (or maybe it was his godmother) was caught speeding and in court gave as her (very reasonable) excuse that she was so excited by listening to this set: if ever anybody deserved to get off without a fine it was her (she didn’t). Listening to Gardiner’s Beethoven 9 also reminded me of one of my favourite Proms of recent years – when Gardiner made the string section of the orchestra perform the entire work standing up! I have a simple answer to anybody who doubts the value of period instrument performances – Beethoven (or whoever) knew what he was doing.
Bach and Beethoven, of course, are widely regarded as two of the top three composers of all time, with Mozart as the other. So many lists of the greatest composers (which, like all lists are highly subjective, but good for a bit of fun) have those three at the top, though there is no real consensus about which of them is the number one (the only consistent thing seems to be that Wagner is usually fourth – at least he gets a Champions League spot!). For me, whatever the list is about, there is regularly a difference between my personal favourite and what I think is probably correct. In this case and having just immersed myself in the works of two of these geniuses, I would say Bach gets the nod, but I love Beethoven more. I do, though, have other greater personal favourites yet to come.
I’ve just one work by each of Bellini and Berlioz (and don’t really want any more!) but Bernstein’s output is marvellously diverse and, having invested in a splendid set of his works on Sony, I was able to appreciate his versatility and enjoy pieces I had not previously encountered, such as the Mass of Life. I was also able to contrast three versions of his masterpiece, West Side Story – theatrical (original Broadway cast), cinematic (movie soundtrack) and operatic (which I cannot listen to without seeing Humphrey Burton’s wonderful Omnibus documentary about its making in my mind’s eye).
There was still some way to go in my B section, though – it has a very long tail. Biber and Boccherini provided a nice diversion before a number of late 19th century hacks took over. First Borodin, then Brahms – I must say I was tempted on many occasions to use one of my favourite lines from Ken Russell films: “piss off Brahms!” (Lisztomania), because he really is, one work excepted, a monumental bore. I’m not really sure what I ever got out of his concertos and symphonies. The 2nd Symphony has some nice things, but it seems to me that the movements of his symphonies are pretty much interchangeable – none of the four has any real identity. But that one exceptional work makes his whole career worthwhile! I have three copies of the German Requiem and never thought I would listen to anybody’s version other than Gardiner’s on DG until I got my Herreweghe Harmonia Mundi set. Truth be told, there is little between them, but Herreweghe’s sheer attack in “Denn wir haben…” gives him the edge.
Benjamin Britten provided some nicely appropriate music for driving through the Sussex countryside – especially the folk song arrangements performed with Peter Pears on Decca and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings – but then it was back to the hacks. I only have one disc of Max Bruch and you actually only need one: the Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy. It sounds to me that Bruch wrote a better Brahms Violin Concerto than the one Brahms himself wrote.
But then, going back to the idea of putting things behind me, we come to Anton Bruckner. Obviously, my taste must have developed and changed over the years, but I now find his symphonies bombastic, repetitive and overlong (in a way that Mahler’s, which are longer, are not). I may go back to the eighth, especially in Jochum’s (comparatively) brisk 1964 recording with the Berlin Phil on DG, but basically life isn’t short enough (as Stan Laurel once put it) to waste precious time on Bruckner symphonies any longer.
Gavin Bryars’ works are also long and highly repetitive but utterly hypnotic, though not the best things to listen to while driving – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (in the 70 minute version with Tom Waits) basically repeats the same brief recording of a tramp singing a simple hymn over and over again, while Bryars weaves a wonderfully affecting accompaniment around it throughout and Waits improvises his own at the end. The Sinking of the Titanic is of similar length and approach, though with more variation and density.
The end of the long B tail threw up a lovely juxtaposition of (mostly) choral works from either end of the 17thcentury – from Buxtehude and Byrd. My Buxtehude collection also contained some sonatas from Musica Antiqua Koln on a disc also featuring chamber works by Pachelbel, including the famous Canon and Gigue, which again transported me back to the musical symmetry of Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser, where it is played over a field of waving grass just after the beginning and Kaspar’s vision of death just before the end.
My listening hasn’t been all classical on my drives though – I’m not a great buyer of contemporary popular music, but new albums by long-time favourites Bob Dylan and Sparks are must-haves and both have released one in the last month. Mind you, Dylan and the Maels have been going as long, if not longer, than John Adams or Gavin Bryars, so the catagorisation is a bit meaningless – it’s all great music. Both Dylan and Sparks have produced large and consistently outstanding (mostly) bodies of work over their lengthy careers. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a revelation from Dylan – I don’t need to add to the glowing reviews: it is simply staggering that he can still come up with something which enhances his catalogue so significantly. A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip however, is not such classic Sparks as Hippopotamus was. You immediately know you are looking at a Sparks album when you see titles like Self-Effacing, Onomato Pia and Stravinsky’s Only Hit on the track list, but only a handful of the tracks hit home (musically at least – lyrically they are as weird and wonderful as ever), most notably the anthemic love song (rare in the Sparks canon) All That, which opens the album. Still, we have a major Edgar Wright documentary and a musical film to look forward to from them in the near future.
Time to get back in the car, with some Charpentier to look forward to. I’m into C already.