Great French singers of the past

Last night’s presentation by Stephen Tucker was a wonderful selection of recordings, both of French song but also of French singers.  Several of the recordings were of some vintage: for example a 1907 version of Emma Calvé singing L’amour est une oiseau rebelle from Bizet’s Carmen.  Also from Carmen, there was a 1911 recording of Paul Franz singing La Fleur que tu m’as jeté.  Franz started life as a labourer working on the roads – from roads to riches you might say.

Another example was Emile Vanni Marcoux singing Une grande innocence from Pelléas et Mélisande: the interesting point here is that the recording was made in 1910 during the composer Debussy’s lifetime.

Some of the recordings were scratchy of course reflecting the technology available at the time, but we heard a number of now largely forgotten singers in their full glory.

Stephen played a total of 20 songs and they included Meyerbeer – hugely popular in the middle of the nineteenth century – Gounod’s Faust, Berlioz and in particular Le Spectre de la rose from Nuits d’Ete.  Berlioz also composed a version of the Faust legend, Le Damnation de Faust was a failure and was eclipsed by Gounod.

We also heard pieces by Massenet, Delibes, Lalo and Duparc.  The evening was entitled Cette chanson est pour vous and the evening ended with a version of Madame, cette chanson est pour vous with Django Reinhardt.

A most enjoyable and informative evening listening to tracks and recordings one would not normally ever come across.

Peter Curbishley

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Charles Valentin Alkan

An evening of the music of this largely unknown French-Jewish composer

There are many people – even among keen classical music enthusiasts – who have never heard of this composer.  At our meeting last night (4 March 2019) this was corrected with an excellent presentation by Alan Forshaw.

It was perhaps unfortunate that Alkan lived at the time of Liszt and Chopin who dazzled the Paris public with their playing and compositions.  These are now household names and their works regularly played in concerts.  Another factor is that Alkan composed largely for the piano so there are no symphonies, operas or song cycles etc.  This narrowness of repertoire combined with the fiendish difficulty of many of his compositions may have led to his virtual disappearance.

Alkan was a prodigy entering the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 6 and giving a recital on the violin, at 7.  He was born in 1813 in Paris.  He started composing at 15 and this composition – Variations on a theme from Steibelt’s Orage Concerto – was the first piece to be played.  The second was Concerto da Camera No 2 in C# minor which was first performed in Bath, England which he visited in 1833.

We then heard extracts from Trois Grandes Etudes Nos 1, 2 and 3.  What was notable about these was that No 1 was for the left hand only and No 2 for the right.  Listening to these justifies the word ‘fiendish’.

Although Alkan composed mostly keyboard works, the next piece was the finale from the Piano Trio with strings.  We then heard four examples from Twelve Studies in all the major keys Nos 1, 5, 8 and 12.  These were followed by some extracts from Concerto for solo piano.

Alkan was overlooked by the Conservatoire when they appointed Marmontel – a mediocre talent and former student of Alkan’s – to the post of head of piano studies.  Following this acute disappointment and sleight, Alkan retired from public view for around 20 years although he did continue to compose.

He was a practising Jew being from a devout Jewish family and for a time, was organist at his local synagogue.  He spoke Hebrew.  Some of his later compositions had Jewish themes.

In some senses his life mirrored his compatriot Berlioz – 10 years his senior – who also had problems with the French musical establishment.  Berlioz composed nothing for the piano but some commentators said Alkan was ‘the Berlioz of the piano’.  They differed in that Alkan continued to follow the German tradition whereas Berlioz forged a new individual path whilst continuing to be an admirer of Beethoven.

The chair of the Society, in his vote of thanks said that, like many he suspected in the audience, he had heard little of Alkan, and Alan had shown what a remarkable and individual composer he was.  His music follows fairly straightforward musical forms – variations for example are quite easy to follow – but he pushed his technique to extreme limits.

There is a society devoted to his works http://www.alkansociety.org 

Peter Curbishley


The next meeting is on 18 March and continuing the French theme, is about great French singers of the past.

Agostini Steffani

Steffani is not a well known composer today but in his day was admired and enjoyed patronage from a number of European courts.  Born in the middle of the seventeenth century he became a chorister at St Marco’s in Venice at a young age.

Angus Menzies played a range of pieces and set them in the context of his most interesting life.  In addition to his musical and compositional abilities, he was a diplomat being sent on various diplomatic missions around Europe including Brussels.  He was also involved in the various negotiations between the Hanoverian court and the Pope concerning the rights of Catholics in that city.  He did sufficiently well to be made a bishop by the Pope.

He offered encouragement to Handel who was embarking on his career and who admired Steffani.  We heard several works including a chaconne, arias and a trio sonata.  Also an extract from the opera Enrico Leone.

His music was original and showed a blend of Italian and French influence derived from his time in Paris studying with the great French composer Lully.

The Elector of Hanover became George I of England and some of his manuscripts are preserved in Buckingham Palace.  He was made president for life of the Academy of Ancient Music in England and in recognition of that, composed a Stabat Mater (and some other pieces) from which we heard an extract.

This was a fascinating evening listening to music that most members have never heard before.  It is truly surprising the number of artists and composers who were once famous and sort after, are now almost forgotten and in the case of Steffani, undeservedly so.


The next meeting is on Monday 4 March and concerns another composer largely forgotten today, a Frenchman, Valentin Alkan.  He composed much piano music but led an eccentric lifestyle.  If you haven’t come to a meeting before you would be very welcome and it is only £3 to attend.  There is free car parking outside.  Further details look at the ‘find us’

programme 1819

Wilhelm Furtwängler

The work of the controversial conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler

Younger readers will be less familiar with this conductor who died in 1954.  Part of the problem is that he was not keen on studio recordings so those recordings that survive are concert performances.  The other problems are his involvement with the Nazi regime and that he was admired by Hitler.

The Society was delighted to welcome Dr Roger Allen who has written a book on this controversial conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler: Art and the Politics of the Unpolitical (Boydell Press 2018).   Roger is a fellow of St Peter’s College, Oxford.  The conductor left a legacy of recordings made during the turbulent period of the early part of the 20th century culminating in the Third Reich.

The first piece was the third movement of JS Bach’s Bradenburg Concerto No. 3 made in 1930.  It had an unusually large number of players, compared that is with today’s pared down recordings made with period instruments.  Yet the sound was not ‘mushy’ and the parts could be heard distinctly despite it being a mono recording.

Roger then went on to discuss the different approaches between Toscanini

Wilhelm Furtwangler. Pic: larouchepac.com

and Furtwangler illustrated with the first movement of the Eroica Symphony.  Toscanini came to Berlin in 1930 and his arrival was not welcomed by the German.  Beethoven was seen as ‘home territory’ and Toscanini was criticised for not recognising the ‘organic growth’ of the work – a theory propounded by Heinrich Schenker.    I am not sure any of us fully grasped the full import of Schenker’s theory as it applied here, but we were able to distinguish the different approach between the two conductors.  As Roger explained it, Toscanini played what was in the score – seen as being rather un-German – whereas there was a distinct sense of being ‘ushered in’ to the symphony by Furtwangler.

At Bayreuth he performed a production of Lohengrin in the presence of Hitler a keen Wagner fan.   During the war he became a kind of figurehead for the Nazi regime which led to problems when the war ended.  He was part of the denazification programme after the war and did not perform for two years.

Other pieces Roger played included part of Bruckner’s 8th and the whole of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo stringsAnton Bruckner was also popular with Hitler and he had a bust made and exhibited in Walhalla.  Again, Bruckner was much admired by the Third Reich as being an example of ‘blood and soil’ as well as being an Austrian.

Furtwängler poses difficult questions for listeners, similar to those with Wagner, an avid anti-Semite.  His close association with, and support for, the Nazis makes uncomfortable listening.  Many artists had to flee Germany and the occupied lands because of persecution so it was not some kind of passive thing.

The presentation was extremely interesting going beyond the normal music centred evenings we usually enjoy.  In two hours there was not time to explore all aspects and unfortunately we were unable to get the screen to link to his laptop.  Nevertheless, the considerable contribution Furtwangler made to the musical world was well explained.  His legacy of recordings is revered by many.  Peter Horwood, the chair of SRMS, said it had been a ‘fantastic evening’.

This was the last evening before the Christmas break and we shall be back for the second half of the season on 4 February 2019.  We wish all our supporters and members a happy Christmas and we look forward to seeing you again in the new year.

Peter Curbishley

Bach and the Leipzig cantatas

This was the title of a presentation by Tim Rowe at the Society’s last meeting where he played a selection of the cantatas composed by JS Bach during his time in Leipzig.  He was Kantor at the Thomas church.

Born in Eisenach in 1685, Bach had a difficult childhood being orphaned by the age of 10 and spent his early years living with one of his brothers.

Tim explained that despite his enormous output and his amazing genius, very little in fact is known about him as a person.  Almost no letters survive and there is no contemporary biography.  There is even some doubt about what he looked like.

Focusing on the Leipzig years, upon being appointed, Bach set about composing music for the full Lutheran liturgical year.  This was an enormous task.  Tim provided a circular calendar explaining the timetable for the various cantatas.  They were produced in an almost production line process, starting on a Monday, finished by Thursday, copied on Friday, rehearsed on Saturday and then performed on Sunday.

The performances were quite unlike the concert halls of today.  There was considerable noise and confusion as people and animals came and went.  Churches would employ a whipper to keep control of the dogs.  Services lasted hours.  People were segregated according to class.  It’s a wonder in all the confusion that he music was heard at all.

We use the word ‘cantata’ to describe these works yet it is not the word used by Bach himself.  Often pieces had ordinary generic words to describe them such as ‘church music’ or ‘church piece.’  216 of his compositions survive from this period as regrettably, many manuscripts were lost, indeed, it has been estimated that 40% are missing.  Part of the problem might have been paper since this was a valuable commodity at the time, still being produced by hand.

Bach’s modern reputation – his ‘unfathomable genius’ as Tim put it – owes a lot to Felix Mendelssohn who worked hard to revive him.  Had it not been for Mendelssohn, his music may have continued to languish in obscurity.  Mendelssohn was distantly linked to the Bach family through his maternal grandmother who was taught harpsichord by one of Bach’s sons and who collected his manuscripts.

Tim played a range of the cantatas all performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi choir under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner.  These were recorded in the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.

This was a splendid evening listening to some wonderful works by this great composer.

Peter Curbishley


The next meeting is on 5 March

 

 

 

The Case for the Unfinished

The Case for the Unfinished was the title of last nights presentation from Tony Powell.  One might be forgiven for thinking this was about Schubert’s unfinished symphony but in fact it was about other composer’s unfinished works of which of course there are plenty.  Attempts to add another movement to Schubert’s work have not been successful and indeed it is possible that what is left is indeed finished.

Tony instead started with a Night on a Bare Mountain by Mussorgsky.  The final movement was changed by Rimsky Korsakov and this was played first.  Then we heard the original version which was entirely different and a complete contrast.  The point here was that finishing another composer’s work may be acceptable if it is in the spirit of the original.

Mozart
Two evenings devoted to this composer

Another famous unfinished work is the Requiem by Mozart and this was being feverishly composed as he was dying.  It was famously finished by his pupil and sometime collaborator Süssmayr.  There are many arguments about who wrote what bit of the work but nevertheless, there is sufficient of Mozart in the piece to make it a great work of art.  The difference here is that the work was intended to be finished and Mozart was dictating ideas until his actual death.  With Schubert on the other hand, we do not know of his intentions.

Bruckner’s ninth is usually played in its incomplete form but again, a lot of material was left – indeed a substantial number of sketches and completed elements – to enable an attempt to be made to create a final movement.  We heard Sir Simon Rattle conducting a performance and he was quoted as saying that there was ‘more Bruckner in the final movement than there was of Mozart in the Requiem.’  It certainly sounded authentic although there were references to the 5th now and again.

It was a surprise to some present that Puccini did not finish Turandot but the opera was left 15 minutes or so short at his death. It was finished by Franco Alfano yet it is recognisably in the master’s hand.

After a long fallow period following the Great War, Elgar started work on his 3rd Symphony which he did not finish by the time of his death in 1934.  From the surviving material the BBC asked Anthony Payne to finish it and he worked on the project for many years.  The first performance was in 1998 conducted by Andrew Davies.  The usual attribution is to both Elgar and Payne.  We heard part of the 1st movement and most of the 2nd.

Finally, Mahler and the unfinished 10th.  Mahler left a lot of notes and a ‘short score’ that is, not a fully orchestrated version.  Mahler had discovered that his wife had been unfaithful and this added to the turmoil in his life.  Initially his widow resisted attempts to finish and fully orchestrate the score but later relented.   There were several attempts and many statements by musicians saying it shouldn’t be done.  Deryck Cooke worked on the score and this was first performed in 1964.  Alma Mahler had changed her mind once she had seen the finished work and heard a performance.  We listened to one movement which was extremely ‘Mahler like’ in its sound and development.

This was a most interesting evening and shed light on the difficulties and problems of trying to finish another composer’s work.  Composition is a highly individual activity and however many notes and sketches are left, what would have ultimately been produced can never be recreated.  But if the attempts are honest to the original composer’s style and intentions, a worthwhile result can be achieved.

The group next meets on 5 February 2018.

Members’ evening

UPDATE: 23 November

If you have arrived here having read the report in the Salisbury Journal, welcome.  Our next meeting – the last this year – is on Monday 27th and you would be very welcome to come.  £3 for non-members.

The last meeting was a members’ evening where each will present and play a piece which they particularly like and want to share with others.  A wide variety of pieces were performed:

  • it was probably the first time in some years we had heard Wolf-Ferrari and in this case it was the last 2 movements from the Jewels of Madonna
  • Mozart followed with a rare outing of Varrei Spiegarvi o Dio, an aria interopolated into another, now lost opera.
  • we do not often hear the bassoon as a solo instrument but a piece by Weber – andante and Hungarian rondo showed the instrument off well.  It can sound strained in the higher registers but the soloist managed to avoid this
  • back to Mozart and a movement from a quintet K593 he composed around a year before he died
  • Alec Roth has almost certainly never been played before and is a composer with a slight Salisbury connection.  We heard an excerpt from string quintet #2
  • this was followed by some Schubert songs – always a favourite
  • Bach and two cantatas from his time in Leipzig – BWV 8 and 95
  • there was then a mystery piece and this defeated the audience.  It was part of Symphony #4 by the Polish composer Schmidt-Kowalski and several were impressed by this extract.
  • the penultimate piece was a Chopin ballade and to finish
  • .. Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from the Midsummer Nights Dream, but played on two pianos

A very diverse programme with no clear theme except that they were pieces loved by the members.