‘The other classical musics’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 October 2015 under Books, Musings  •  1 Comment

Yesterday’s Guardian Review carried a fascinating article by Michael Church, editor of ‘The other classical musics – fifteen great traditions’, a new assortment of essays by Church and other world music experts published by Boydell Press (who also publish my books). As well as describing great musical traditions, Church points out that because of changing geo-political realities, many of those traditions are endangered, or are even being driven out of existence.

Many parts of the world have their own ‘classical musics’ which owe their existence to a combination of supporting circumstances – “classical music will typically evolve in a stable society where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has sponsored its creation by professionals. It will have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms”, Michael Church writes.

He refers to the belief that there is a ‘religious’ element to this type of music, its composers, performers and listeners seeking to be in touch with higher forces. “The image of music coming down from the gods, and being sent back up to them – with professional performers as bearers of the sacred flame – is to be found in every civilisation.” This very belief has made various kinds of classical music – and musicians – vulnerable.

A few years ago I thought of writing a similar book. I set my Google search to deliver up articles about classical music wherever they appeared. The result was a frankly alarming cascade of laments from around the world. People reported their fear that local forms of ‘classical music’ were fading away. Sometimes there was a ray of hope in the form of an initiative to keep classical traditions alive by setting up after-school clubs to teach the music and the instruments to children. But equally often there was no after-school club, just an interview with an elderly master of an instrument that nobody else in the village knew how to play.

I started to keep notes on countries where ‘classical music’ was endangered, but the list became long and I began to realise that the reasons for the situation were too varied and complex for a non-expert like me to explain. But the whole picture is still of great interest to me, so I am glad that ‘The other classical musics’ has been published, even if I felt sober after reading the end of Michael Church’s article:

“Folk musics will continue to burst forth as they always have done. But with classical music, what we have may be all we’ll get, so we should treasure it.”

Talking about Beethoven

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 October 2015 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

IMG_20151011_163620064[1]On Tuesday 13 October at 1pm I’m giving a lecture-recital about Beethoven’s opus 109 piano sonata at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh, on the edge of Edinburgh.

Preparing for this event has taken an embarrassingly long time. Practising the sonata itself is one thing, but talking about it is another. Furthermore, talking about it, followed by performing it from memory, is a daunting combination of things. A neurologist once told me it’s hard to switch instantly from left-brain (speech and language) to right-brain (creativity, music etc) activities.

The music of Beethoven’s ‘late period’ is famously impossible to put into words, because in this period of profound deafness he found a ‘soundworld’, a world of the imagination and an exploration of the spirit which went beyond anything he’d written when he could still hear people playing their instruments, or even hear himself playing the piano. As a listener you can feel what it means, but it’s very hard to analyse the effect of his late music. Nevertheless, there are ways of talking about these works; one can discuss some of the ideas and challenges they present to the pianist, as well as exploring some of the influences on Beethoven (for example, the music of Bach) when he composed the work.

Ultimately the music will have to speak for itself, for as Mendelssohn wisely said,“The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too vague to be put into words, but on the contrary, too precise.”

Come along on Tuesday lunchtime if you can!

Home from Prussia Cove

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 October 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  Leave a comment

IMG_20150925_094153292_HDRI haven’t written anything here for a while because I’ve been away at the International Musicians’ Seminar ‘Open Chamber Music’ in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. We had a week of rehearsals in Prussia Cove (see photo), and then eight of us did a week of touring, giving five concerts around the south of England: Truro, Bristol, Wimborne St Giles, Cambridge and finally Wigmore Hall in London. Apart from anything else, the tour allowed us to meet some delightful hosts and to stay in some exceptional private houses. All our concerts were great experiences, particularly the one in Wigmore Hall whose acoustics, piano, audience and sense of heritage combine to make a memorable setting.

A week of IMS chamber music in Prussia Cove is always a special experience, though it also seems to be an astonishing opportunity for the common cold to wreak havoc on a group of musicians working, eating and sleeping in the same place for a week. Every year, people seem to go down like ninepins. This time, when we went on tour, four of the eight people were suffering from ‘the Prussia Cove cold’, which made touring that much more stressful for them. I was impressed by how stoical they were about all the performances and the late dinners and late nights.

When we are in Cornwall I am always fascinated by how the natural environment, plus the company of like-minded musicians, inspires people to wax philosophical. Already on my first day there, as I fell into step with another player walking back after a rehearsal to the cottage where we were staying, my companion spoke about the passage of time, how it affects one’s perception, how valuable its effects can be, how it is expressed in music, and a number of related observations which I very much doubt would have been uttered in our usual urban contexts with their sense of anonymity and hurry.

The whole fortnight was like that. Everyone, including me, seems relieved to be in the kind of company where there are likely to be sympathetic ears for, and good responses to, anything you feel like saying about life or art. In the case of the eight of us who went off on the tour afterwards, the same spirit prevailed. Despite the boxes of tissues and the unpoetic environment of the minibus, we kept talking. This is one of the things I most value about the Prussia Cove experience.

Richard Tauber sings Léhar

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 September 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  2 Comments

A reader has reproached me for not including the classic Richard Tauber recording in my previous blog post about different versions of Léhar’s aria ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’.

He points out that the composer actually wrote with Tauber’s voice in mind, so mine was obviously a crucial omission. Here is Richard Tauber’s thrilling version from the 1930s.

Léhar’s aria

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 September 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

One of the highlights of Saturday’s ‘Last Night of the Proms’ was Jonas Kaufmann singing ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ from Franz Léhar’s operetta ‘The Land of Smiles’ (Das Land des Laechelns). Oh my goodness, what a song! So beautifully constructed, such clever and effective use of harmony, such an irresistible sweep. Its wide melodic compass brought home to me how small and unimaginative are many of today’s pop melodies, often gnawing away on just a few notes close to one another.

When it comes to admiring Jonas Kaufmann I’m up there in the front line. He has a commanding presence, he’s gorgeous to watch and his vocal technique is a thing of beauty, but as I listened to the Léhar on Saturday night I couldn’t help wondering if the song didn’t seem a bit … insincere? On the other hand, he was singing in one of the world’s largest concert halls, projecting to an audience of thousands and no doubt keeping in mind a worldwide television audience of millions, many of whom were hoping for Entertainment. How intimate could one expect him to be? The roar of approval at the end was my answer.

Afterwards I found that the song had stuck in my head and refused to go away. It niggled at me until I felt inspired to go and look up some other performances on YouTube. There are quite a few, ranging from Kaufmann himself to Domingo with Villazon and Netrebko in a sensuously theatrical trio. Thrilling vocal artistry and effortless audience appeal from all of them, but again the word ‘insincere’ hovered in the back of my mind. Surely the song isn’t meant to sound quite so … smug?

Then I came across a splendid recording by Fritz Wunderlich, still one of the most beautiful voices I know. This was much more like it!

And even better, to my ears, was a 1929 recording made in the year of the operetta’s Berlin premiere by a singer I’d never heard before, the Austro-Hungarian tenor Joseph Schmidt, who died in 1942 at the age of only thirty-eight. Here was a compelling interpretation which somehow preserved the music’s integrity while being perfectly in style; light yet heartfelt (and what delightful orchestral playing!) It’s a subtle thing, but it seemed to arrange the elements of the performance with a different sense of priorities.