Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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This Friday I’m conducting the winds of the English Symphony Orchestra in a program of wind ensemble masterpieces by Hans Gál, Mozart and Dvorák. You should come- it’s going to be fantastic!

It’s no secret I’m a cellist, so I have grown up outside the wind ensemble tradition (although the wonderful Dvorák Wind Serenade actually has a significant cello part, which I’ve played many times). In spite of this, I absolutely LOVE (love!!!!!) conducting wind ensembles.

I still remember the first time I conducted an all-wind group. It was the Stravinsky Octet for Winds. WOW! The differences between conducting winds and strings are very striking to someone who has grown up playing in and conducting groups that always include string players. Wind players are fundamentally different to string players. Wind players learn their music. They make very few counting mistakes and almost never play a wrong note. They play together- AT THE SAME TIME!!!!!  It’s as if they really care that chords start and finish in an organized manner, and, in spite of the ridiculous and seemingly irreconcilable differences in sound characteristics between the different instruments, they seem to be able to come to agreement not only on when to begin notes, but how to begin them. This kind of clarity, precision and professionalism is not something one encounters often in the presence of string players.

I love conducting winds and I love the repertoire. Granted, there are not as many A-list masterpieces for winds as there are for string ensembles or orchestras (you know you have a serious repertoire shortage when you hear people describe any work by Percy Grainger as a masterpiece), but the twenty or so greatest wind ensemble works are among the most rewarding pieces to study and perform I can think of. Mozart’s Gran Partita? Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments? Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum? Hartmann Symphony no. 5? These are GREAT pieces.

Messiaen’s Et exspecto. I will conduct it for beer with any group good enough to play it.

So, every time I conduct a wind concert, I have an absolute blast and I find myself thinking that I wish I could do it more often. There should be more wind concerts. So many more people have experience of playing wind instruments- surely you would think this would all translate into a huge audience for professional wind ensembles. An audience as big and enthusiastic as that for orchestras?

Well, no. How many wind ensembles played at the Proms this year? You guessed it! Why?

Well, depth of repertoire is an issue, but the body of good music for winds has expanded hugely over the last 50 years as wind conductors have made heroic efforts to commission new works from all kinds of leading composers. Someday, we’ll have enough wonderful music for winds that we’ll never have to pretend that some of “those” pieces by Grainger and Holst are actually any good.

The answer came to me today as I was making lunch for the kids. I thought it might be a good time to listen to a recording the Dvorák Wind Serenade- one can always learn from listening. I found a live performance directed from the sarrusophone by one of the nation’s leading wind virtuosos (I’m not saying which nation!). I figured a wind virtuoso’s expertise was just the thing I, as a cellist, needed to take in as I get ready to do the piece again (I’ve conducted it four or five times and played it a good 15).

Now, I love the Dvorák Serenade the way bankers love money. The mere thought of the piece makes me smile. There’s not a bar, not a chord that I don’t adore, that isn’t infused with happy memories of playing this warm-hearted, beautifully-crafted and richly-inspired music with friends and colleagues.

And yet, but the midpoint of the first movement today, I found myself fantasizing about chewing my own left arm off. There may even be teeth marks just below the shoulder where I made a start before hitting the mute button. Here I was listening to one of my favourite pieces, flawlessly played, and I was DYING of boredom.

Wondering why there is no wind version of the Berlin Philharmonic? Well, other than a perfectly understandable fear among the public that going to a wind concert will expose them to the risk of hearing Percy Grainger’s music, the likelihood of being bored to tears has got to be a prime concern for the average ticket-buyer.

Why was I so bored? Well, I suppose the title of this blog post gives a hint. Like too many (but by no means all!) wind performances, the whole thing was one big shapeless mass of mezzo-forte. The sound was about as varied as a bowl of old oatmeal. I found myself waiting for the next printed subito forte just so I could groan in outrage when they continued prancing along with their smug, self-satisfied reduction of Dvorak’s affectionate masterpiece to high-class aural wallpaper. Something inside me snapped. Coming after two mind-numbingly bland and precious recordings of the Harmoniemusik from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (I mean really- how can anyone make Don Giovanni, DON GIOFREEKINGVANNI, boring in any medium?!?!?!), I decided something had to be said.

How does this happen? How is it that a group of professional musicians can give a televised performance of a great work that is all basically one dynamic? Surely, an ensemble that has players using double and single reads, horns and (in the case of the Dvorak) bows to make their sound can’t actually achieve a completely one-dimensional, characterless sound? Well, the sad fact is that a clarinet playing mezzo forte doesn’t sound all that different from an oboe or a horn playing mezzo forte. And all those cello pianissimi? Mezzo forte.

Of course, wind instruments do offer some amusing acoustic challenges in terms of dynamics. The flutes and oboes sit next to each other in orchestra. Of course they do- the two instruments are totally incompatible. The flutes can’t play loud in their low register, the oboes can’t play soft in theirs. Clarinets, who sit behind the flutes and oboes (so that they can smirk judgmentally at their colleagues’ lack of dynamic control) can play infinitely soft and terrifyingly loud (which reminds me- when did the bass clarinet surpass the trombones as the loudest instrument ever invented?), so I can only assume that playing an entire Dvorák Serenade mf is their way of mocking their less flexible colleagues. Bassoons really don’t seem to do dynamics at all, but one is so pleased any time they’re not a whole-tone sharp that we don’t dare get greedy. They’re trying, that’s the important thing. Horns can achieve a breath-taking range of dynamics, colours and articulations—so much so that they’re able to play in both woodwind and brass ensembles, an astounding feat of versatility. Unfortunately, most  horn players seem unable to remember what constitutes “brass mode” and “woodwind mood” and often seem to end up blasting away in Mozart woodwind pieces and tooting delicately in Bruckner symphonies.

In orchestra, players often have to project over huge string sections, so an expert flutist will learn to belt out a solo marked piano with a lot of power but with a very sweet sound. It’s loud in terms of decibels, but soft in terms of character. This is exactly right. On the other hand, there are plenty of times in orchestral repertoire when the winds don’t all have the melody, the strings aren’t messing everything up, and piano or pianissimo really means piano or pianissimo. There are even times when composers clearly want players to achieve something dynamically against the grain of their instrument’s acoustical properties. Dvorak often writes low, soft, sustained, exposed parts for the 2nd oboe. The most famous example is the second movement of his cello concerto, where the poor second oboist is left hung out to dry while the first clarinet gets to astound the audience with his/her effortless artistry in dispatching one of the most beautiful melodies ever written (to make it worse, Dvorak has the principal oboist, who could have offered his/her colleague a bit of cover, and the second clarinettist, who could have played the same part effortlessly, sitting idle, smirking in judgment). Professional second oboists spend years agonizing over this short passage. I’m told there is great and mysterious reed maker living 20 days hike into the remotest mountains of Tibet who only makes reeds for this passage. Ask any good second oboist- a 20 day hike for a reed that can make this passage manageable is time well spent.

A conductor has to accept that there are some situations in which one has to be realistic about how big a dynamic range you can ask for, but, by and large, I’ve found that wind sections of all levels of ability can do far more with dynamics than most people think, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you ask nicely, listen to their concerns, and respect that they do have to deliver under pressure, one finds that almost anything is possible. Trust is key. Your colleagues have to trust that you really have valid and well considered reasons for wanting the piano‘s softer than the forte’s (can you think of any?), and you have to trust that when the musicians say they’re really, really giving it their all and can’t physically play any softer, that they’re telling the truth and not just being lazy.

Of course, there can be push back (especially once your colleagues figure out if you’re a pianist or a string player). I once had the principal flutist of a fine professional orchestra in the USA say to his music director after my first rehearsal “Wow, this guy sure does want our piano‘s soft. Does he know what he’s doing?” Thank heavens, my colleague said “yes,” and the next rehearsal was better. There are, sadly, wind players whose (non-)dynamic approach seems to be carved in granite, but with patience and charm, even they sometimes can be persuaded to try new things. I once cajoled a flutist into dropping below fortissimo for the first time in many decades. The trumpets came up to me after rehearsal to say how lovely it was to be able to hear themselves at last. The secret to my success in that scenario? Honest answer- I don’t know. Some days you eat the bear, and some days…

After all, what bigger musical crime can there be than to bore our audience to death? It’s far better to risk the occasional sqwawk or cack, than to have your public conclude that listening to the Dvorak Wind Serenade is the most boring way to spend 25 minutes ever created. Achieving a truly enormous dynamic range in all kinds of styles and registers on the sarrusophone may be difficult, but overcoming difficulty is supposed to be what we do. If I taught sarrusophone, I’d damn well make sure my students had the softest low C of any sarrusophone players in the country, not tell them throughout their formative years “don’t try to play too soft, you might squeak.” At the end of the day, if human beings can learn to play the cello in thumb position (I still remember the pain the first time I tried it in in a lesson), get through airports without committing violent crimes and unravel the mysteries of sub-atomic particles, surely we can offer the universe a realization of Dvorak’s lovely Serenade that would enable the interested listener to guess where the great man wrote “p” and where he wrote “f.”

Next time I have to get my left-arm sowed back on, I’m comin’ for you and namin’ names, Mr. fancy-pants sarrusophone virtuoso.


PS- Apologies to any Grainger fans out there. Please don’t take my humorously-intended remarks to heart. I’ll spare you all the half page of spanking jokes I was going to make at his expense.That would really whip up a lot of bad feeling.

1 year ago | |
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Ken will be conducting this work with the musicians of the English String Orchestra on Saturday, the 13th of September, 2014 in Christ Church, Malvern.

The ESO will be repeating this work on their concert at Elgar Concert Hall in May 2015, and will be recording the complete Shostakovich Chamber Symphonies for Avie Records for release in 2016.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony opus 110a, an arrangement for string orchestra of his String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, opus 110, was the first of five orchestral transcriptions of his string quartets by his friend, the violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai. Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet stands at the centre point of his fifteen works in the genre. Shostakovich’s contribution to the string quartet repertoire stands alongside that of Béla Bartók as the most important addition since Beethoven’s mighty sixteen quartets. Shostakovich wrote the Eighth Quartet in the astonishing span of just three days between the 12th and 14th of July, 1960 while in Dresden working on the soundtrack for the film Five Days, Five Nights—a film about the Allied firebombing of that levelled that city in the closing months of WW II. When the work was published, its roots in Dresden were underlined by its dedication “To the victims of war and fascism.” Many early listeners detected all sorts of musical evocations of the city’s destruction. (I even know of one American conductor who, in an act of chutzpah and genius, persuaded the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut to read selections of his own tribute to Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five, at a performance of the Chamber Symphony version of the quartet. Any excuse to hear Vonnegut read his own prose!).

Leningrad as seen by photographer Alexey Titarenko. His images, inspired in part by the music of Shostakovich, will be included in our upcoming Avie recording

Leningrad as seen by photographer Alexey Titarenko. His images, inspired in part by the music of Shostakovich, will be included in our upcoming Avie recording

However, the true meaning and origins of this unique work gradually rose to the surface. Shostakovich was notoriously grudging in revealing anything about his music’s inner symbolism to even his closest friends, but in the case of the Eighth Quartet, he confessed early on that “I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself.” To his son, Maxim, he said, simply “it’s in my honour, dedicated to me.”

Shostakovich after the publication of

The confessional nature of the quartet is made explicit in its first four notes—Shostakovich’s musical motto DSCH, or D, E-flat, C, B. This motive first began to appear in disguised form in his Jewish-inflected Fourth String Quartet in 1948, later becoming the triumphant theme of his Tenth Symphony, premiered and published just after the death of Stalin in 1953. Never before, however, had Shostakovich opened a work with this motto, nor treated it with such intensity. The hushed, forlorn and fugal atmosphere of the opening evokes that of the opening of Beethoven’s greatest string quartet, his Opus 131 in C-sharp minor (the two works also have many structural similarities).

Beethoven’s model shows him at his most intimate and confessional, and so, too, it is Shostakovich’s response.

Beethoven's last string quartets are referenced extensively in Shostakovich's Eighth

Beethoven’s last string quartets are referenced extensively in Shostakovich’s Eighth

It is not, however, only the DSCH motto which underlines how personal this work was. Early in the first movement, Shostakovich quotes the opening of his First Symphony, the work that had launched then 19-year-old composer to international superstardom.

What had been cheeky and mercurial in 1926 has become deeply tragic and resigned by 1960.

A page later, he quotes his own Fifth Symphony, the work that had marked the central turning point of his career, and the most tumultuous point in his fraught relationship with Stalin and the Communist Party.

This musical quote points to a key biographical detail of Shostakovich’s life in 1960. After standing outside of the Party’s ruthless apparatus for his entire career, Shostakovich was finally forced to join the Communist Party that year, a step that caused him great personal shame and emotional distress. In fact, such was Shostakovich’s anguish that his friend, the musicologist Lev Lebedinsky, reports that “he thought it would be his last work—hence the self-quotations and the inclusion of a funeral march… A few of the composer’s friends knew that after finishing the work, Shostakovich had intended to kill himself; luckily they managed to persuade him not to do it.” Shostakovich went so far as to not attend the Party ceremony at which he was to be inducted- an act which could have been suicidal in and of itself.

After the meditative opening Largo, the second movement is a study in violence and madness, culminating in a screaming quotation of Shostakovich’s famous “Jewish Theme” from his Second Piano Trio.  Jewish music held a special place in the composer’s heart, and he is quoted as having said that “Jewish folk music is close to my idea of what music should be… Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair.  They express their despair in dance music.”

There is more madness in the third movement, with the DSCH motive now twisted into a macabre waltz- it is as if the composer is mocking himself.

This movement also includes a quote from the opening of Shostakovich’s recently-completed First Cello Concerto.

[Only many years later did Shostakovich reveal that that piece includes a demonic-sounding reference to Stalin’s favourite folk-song, Suliko.]

The fourth-movement is another Largo, but has elements of both fast and slow music. It begins with three short, savage chords in the strings, “And the knocks on the door by the KGB,” said the composer’s son Maxim, “you can also hear them here.”

This gesture has a second meaning, as it is also a reference to the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet (his last completed work). Beethoven underscored these three chords in his work with the words “Muss es sein?” or “Must it be?”

Lebedinsky tells us that Shostakovich intended this to be his last work, too, and this gives this quotation particular existential power. Beethoven answered his own quetsion “Es muss sein!”(“It must be!”).

Again, Shostakovich quotes the theme of his First Cello Concerto, those four now-famous short notes now presented slowly and with terrible intensity. In fact, this theme was first used by the composer in a scene called “The Death of the Heroes” from his score to the movie The Young Guard in 1947-8.

Here is how it sounded in The Young Guard:

There follow two more devastating quotations- first of the revolutionary song “Tormented by the Horrors of Prison.”

Then, in the solo cello, a quote from the Act 4 of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This scene in the opera is the one in which Katarina realizes the depth of her betrayal by her beloved Sergei. Already condemned for the murder of her husband, she now realizes the man for whom she sacrificed everything has forsaken her, and she throws herself into the icy waters of a Siberian river. Katarina, of course, took Sergei’s lover Sonetka, to her grave with her.

(aria begins at 40:09)

Here, this music is transformed to announce Shostakovich’s planned suicide- he intended to go to his death alone.

The fifth movement is another Largo, returning full circle to the soundworld of the opening, with a complete fugue on the DSCH motive. The final quote, again of his First Symphony, brings a life’s journey heartbreakingly full circle:

The work was premiered by the Beethoven String Quartet, but it was Shostakovich’s habit to organize a private reading of his quartets with his young colleagues in the Borodin Quartet. When the Borodin’s played the Eighth Quartet through for the first time at the composer’s house, their first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky reported that “We finished the quartet and looked at Shostakovich. His head was hanging low, his face hidden in his hands. We waited. He didn’t stir. We got up, quietly put our instruments away, and stole out of the room.”


Copyrighted recordings are excerpted here under Fair Use provisions of international copyright law.

Beethoven- String Quartet in F major, opus 135 performed by Masala String Quartet (Kio Seiler, Eva Rosenberg, Sheridan Kamberger, Kenneth Woods. Produced by Andrew Hasenpflug

Shostakovich 8th Quartet performed by the Borodin String Quartet

1 year ago | |
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I’m sorry- there’s simply no way that Leonard Slatkin is 70 years old. Leonard-Slatkin-001

Shhh…. don’t tell them I’m not still 45.

For many, many American conductors and orchestral musicians of my generation, Leonard was the first superstar conductor who seemed of our time and of our culture. Before Leonard, conductors were mostly mute, brooding, enigmatic figures with accents and capes. Even that other famous Leonard seemed more a product of an already distant golden age.  I first encountered Leonard Slatkin via the Saint Louis Symphony’s syndicated weekly radio broadcasts. In those halcyon days, one could hear a live broadcast of one of the great American orchestras every night of the week, and Saint Louis, at that time the kid brother alongside the giants in New York, Cleveland and Chicago, stood out under Leonard’s leadership not only for their virtuosity but for the astonishing breadth of their repertoire. Even then, I had the conducting bug, and I was fascinated to hear Leonard speak about music from Adams to Bruckner with genuine musical insight, wit and heart. To the extent I ever heard any of my other favourite conductors speak back then, they all seemed to sound either like one of Tolkien’s wizards or a Bond villain. Leonard was refreshingly American- direct, funny and wise. He was the first one that seemed be living in the world I was growing up in. It simply can’t be that he’s now 70. That I would one day get to study with the man whose radio broadcasts had already taught me so much is one of life’s little delights. In 2001, I had the great privilege to participate in the National Conducting Institute at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Leonard set up the NCI to give conductors with the talent and aspiration to lead major orchestras a chance to cut their teeth with the National Symphony Orchestra. To have a musician with Leonard’s vast experience at your side discreetly advising you on matters both musical and psychological is surely the best possible way to find your confidence working with 100 musicians of vast experience. However, Leonard is never one to hog the limelight- he made sure we all had mentors from within the orchestra also giving us feedback our work after each session. After the NCI, when I would occasionally return to Washington as a cover conductor, Leonard was also generous in sharing his time and experience. I particularly treasure my memory of a short session we had on Mahler’s Second Symphony that Leonard squeezed in between an NSO rehearsal and a session on Corigliano’s Second Symphony with the President’s Own across town. Leonard’s teaching is short of philosophical gobbledegook and long on plain-spoken insight. Every single thing he said in those few minutes proved to be pricelessly useful when I conducted the piece for the first time the following week. The sheer mathematic’s of Leonard’s accomplishment defies understanding, starting with the number three. To have led the three orchestras in Saint Louis, Washington and now Detroit puts him in a most elite club- only Lorin Maazel has led three American orchestras of similar standing. The ultimate achievement for any conductor must be to build a great orchestra- something Leonard did early in his career in Saint Louis. Today we see him re-building a great orchestra in Detroit that has come through difficult times in his own image- savvy, visionary and virtuosic. And then there is the breadth of Leonard’s repertoire.  For many years, we’ve gathered yearly “repertoire reports” on favourite colleagues and friends at my blog- an annual summary of every piece someone has conducted that year. Every year, it is Leonard whose repertoire list dwarf’s everyone else, and it’s a list that always includes many premieres, oddities, tricky accompaniments and mega-works. Put simply, Leonard seems to effortlessly conduct about twice as many pieces as anyone else in the business every year, and he does an astounding range of repertoire so well. His contributions to American music are well known and rightly celebrated, but he’s also great Anglophile, having made great recordings of works by Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Not long ago, I was in a friend’s car- he was playing a CD of the Brahms D Major Serenade, and it immediately struck me as one of the best performances I’d heard of the piece. It’s a personal favourite, but few conductors bother with it, and fewer still do it well. Of course, when I asked, I discovered it was not some glowering Teutonic maestro conducting, but Leonard. Having gone on so long, I must mention one more aspect of Leonard’s musicianship. Conductors are here to be argued over- people may love or hate your way with Brahms or Mahler- but there’s one aspect of Leonard’s conducting that is, in my opinion, beyond debate. He’s simply one of the most phenomenal accompanists who have ever stood upon the podium. Accompanying is the most demanding part of any conductor’s job. To do it well takes real technique, a gift for anticipation, flexibility, empathy, and a sense of when to lead and when to follow. It’s a job I don’t think anyone in the business does better than Leonard. I’ve heard innumerable soloists say the same thing, and veteran soloists tend to be even tougher on conductors than orchestral musicians. Leonard has one of the most remarkable skill-sets of any conductor I’ve come across- an astounding ear, an ability to grasp almost any style, a consummate stick technique and an ability to find simple and pragmatic solutions to complex musical problems. In a field not generally associated with humility, Leonard is always ready to deploy that skill set in support of a soloist or a world preimere with the same youthful zeal he brings to the great symphonic works. 70 is young for a conductor, but forget 70. Leonard remains a conductor for our time and for tomorrow. Happy forty-fifth birthday, Leonard!

1 year ago | |
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A new review from Music and Vision Daily for Philip Sawyers’ Cello Concerto, Second Symphony and Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings on Nimbus Records. Click here to read the whole thing (subscription required). A short sample follows:

“….And now here is Philip Sawyers with an effortless demonstration that the history of music can proceed in an unbroken line and that music of yesterday can easily accommodate the best products of today. As an ex-cellist myself, I know the lyrical strength of the instrument, its readiness for sardonic humour, and its almost desperate need for sensitive orchestrationif the movements of a concerto are to work. If only I still had the technique to master this fine piece, I should start learning it tonight. The opening gives a good idea of the work’s calibre.

“It is somehow satisfying to know that both the Concerto and Symphony No 2 were commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival. It is as if the noble spirit of the ancient Crystal Palace still spread its benign influenceover local music, stipulating at the same time that the Symphony should be scored for the same forces as Beethoven 7. It is a powerful one-movement work, evolving and recapitulating with a sureness of touch that makes a very cogent argument.

“There is much pleasure in observing with what freedom and resource Sawyers shows passing but fleeting respect for 12-note techniques in both the Symphony and Concertante. That is as it should be. To have piano and violin  as soloists in a concerted work is unusual. Haydn  and  Mendelssohn  had  shown that it could be done successfully, and Sawyers has also managed a work of great accomplishment. The start could hardly be more compelling.

This CD reflects great credit on all the performers, but most on a composer previously unknown to me.

Copyright © 17 August 2014 Robert Anderson,

1 year ago | |
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[Click here to Explore the Score of the companion work on this CD, Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht]

The Brahms-Wagner rivalry was largely an affair of the press, whipped up by critics like the Brahmsian Eduard Hanslick and his pro-Wagnerian rivals. Brahms actually professed great admiration for Wagner’s music on many occasions. Nonetheless, there was a time when the two men were perceived as embodying irreconcilable aesthetic approaches. In the end, it was Arnold Schönberg who succeeded in Verklärte Nacht and the works which followed it, in marrying the joint influences of Wagner and Brahms as no one had before.

Brahms’s music- its density, richness and rigour- had a profound influence on Arnold Schönberg’s development, and his engagement with Brahms’s music continued throughout his career. Schönberg’s writings about the music of Brahms, particularly his essay “Brahms the Progressive,” are among the most illuminating analyses of the older composer’s work, and his arrangement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor for full orchestra has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire. From Brahms, Schönberg learned the creative possibilities of the perpetual manipulation and development of tiny motivic cells, an approach that would eventually form the underpinning of the 12-tone technique. This kind of rigorously detailed approach to composition is already fully developed in Verklärte Nacht.  Brahms’s favourite technique of “developing variation” (a term coined by Schönberg which refers to the constant development of small musical ideas throughout a piece) is also essential in Schönberg’s music. Brahms’s approach to most classical forms differs from that of his forerunners in that Brahms’s music is almost never simply expository nor recapitulatory:  the musical material starts to develop and evolve almost as soon as the piece starts, and the process of constant change carries right through to the end.

Brahms’s Serenade in D major, opus 11, written when the composer was 25, is a symphony in all but name, and was the composers’ first major orchestral work.  It embodies the full range of his mature compositional voice.  Brahms originally conceived the piece as a four-movement work for nonet (the two Scherzi were added when the piece was re-orchestrated). before expanding on the advice of his friend Joseph Joachim who conducted the successful premiere of the nonet version in 1958. Joachim also encouraged Brahms to consider designating the work as his first symphony, and for much of the work’s evolution the two friends referred to the piece as Brahms’s “Symphony-Sereade.” However, once the two scherzo’s were added, Brahms felt the piece was definitely not “symphonic,” and stuck with the designation of “Serenade,” a decision which has no doubt contributed to the relative neglect of this glorious work. Brahms destroyed his nonet version, but in the 1980’s Alan Boustead reconstructed the lost original version of this work for solo strings, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn. One hopes Brahms would approve- he did later sanction publication of variant versions of the Haydn Variations for both orchestra and piano duo, and of the F minor Piano Quintet, which also exists in a version two pianos.

Brahms’s music is full of references to the music of his forbearers, something that is easy to miss because his own stylistic imprint is so strong. Brahms’s D major Serenade begins in folksy style:

This is  an almost-direct quote from Haydn’s final symphony, no. 104 (also in D major)

And the opening Allegro molto contains several references to the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony:

The connection to Haydn’s rustic finale and Beethoven’s evocation of rural nature is no accident- D major is Brahms’s “outdoor” key, and his later D major Symphony no. 2 and the Violin Concerto would also be full of the sounds of the countryside, from hunting horns to folk dance.

(It is also no accident that the sunny D Major morning of the Serenade is immediately preceded on this disc by Schönberg’s radiant depiction of dawn in the same key).

The first scherzo is shadowy and dark:

Relieved briefly by a warm-hearted and rustic trio:

The heart of the Serenade is the wonderful and deeply spiritual Adagio. It is the longest and most ambitious slow movement in Brahms’s orchestral music- grander than the slow movements of any of the symphonies. The great musicologist Michael Steinberg asked of this movement “what is such transcendence doing in a serenade?”  before pointing us to Mozart’s own transcendent serenades by way of an answer.

Could one hear echoes in this movement of the slow movement of Beethoven’s last symphony?

The two Menuetti are gentle, inward-facing intermezzi:

The wistful mood will be familiar to anyone who knows the third movements of the first three Brahms symphonies. Here’s the Allegretto from the Second Symphony

The tune of the second minuet is described by Steinberg as “one of the most tenderly expressive of Brahms’s whole life.”

The second Scherzo, however, is extrovert and virtuosic:

With a gregarious quote from Handel’s Messiah thrown in for good measure.

The Serenade’s Finale, like those in so many of Brahms’s D major works, hints at gypsy music and evokes a decidedly rustic atmosphere with its driving dotted rhythms.

The final pages are ecstatically joyful and exuberant. Symphonic? Maybe not, but echt-Brahmsian in every way.

— c. 2014 Kenneth Woods

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A new review from Robert Matthew-Walker at Classical Source. Read the whole thing here

A short sample follows

with regard to Sawyers’s compositions: they speak naturally, seriously, but by no means doggedly; his music is emotionally direct and always involving the intelligent listener. This is the kind of music for which many people have been secretly hoping for years. The First Symphony (commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony for its 75th-anniversary) is a superb work, in four movements, wonderfully orchestrated, sensitive, powerful and memorable. We’ll come to the Second Symphony in a moment, but on this current disc I began with the Concertante (2006), the shortest work here at eleven minutes and calling for the fewest number of players. It is a magnificent composition, in the line of a single-movement three-sectioned combination of emotional power and relaxation, drama and contemplation, superbly expressed within an underlying and unifying pulse. The music is immediately intriguing and concerned entirely with development. The preparation for the central slower section is wonderfully achieved, growing quietly (and wholly organically) from the previous concluding bars, it builds to a genuine and powerful climax before morphing into the faster third section – a true ‘coming together’ of the material.

Not the least important aspect of this release is the excellent booklet note by Kenneth Woods, who writes apropos of this work: “[it is]a wonderful example of a work written somewhat ‘to order’ which still manages to encapsulate all that is so compelling and rewarding about his music … I love the way in which a work that could have ended up ‘modest’ in all the wrong ways packs such a powerful emotional punch.” Having been deeply impressed with Sawyers’s First Symphony, I ought not to have been surprised by the sheer fearlessness and directness of expression of the Second (2008), the work of a musician who is communicative, intelligent and unfailingly musical at all times within a very wide expressive range. There are no miscalculations in this work: it is a genuine Symphony, such as Sibelius, Nielsen, Schoenberg and Shostakovich would instantly have recognised, and in no sense is it ‘old-fashioned’ – the concept of ‘fashion’ in music is as unacceptable to Sawyers as it was to those earlier masters. Power, strength and expressive range are here a-plenty, and the continuous flow of the music is gripping, travelling this way and that, but at all times utterly well-paced. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that it is written for exactly the same-sized orchestra that Beethoven calls for in his Seventh Symphony, eminently playable, lying under the fingers and totally rewarding.

Sawyers’s Cello Concerto (2010) was written for Maja Bogdanovic, and is also eminently serious and immensely impressive. From the first bars, the listener’s attention is gripped as one follows the argument, growing from the beautiful initial theme; the second movement is further proof of this composer’s quality – it is contemplative, but possessing a genuine sense of inner momentum: this is not one idea following another, but revealing a flow such as one finds in the slow movements of Brahms’s larger structures. It leads to a central faster section full of “anger and tension” (as Woods well says) but handled with complete assurance as the music returns to the mood of the opening, subsumed and at peace. The somewhat unpredictable finale sheds fresh light on this composer’s outlook: “I’ve come to absolutely love it”, says Woods – and one hopes that many more will share the experience.

The performances are totally committed and the recording quality is really fine. This is the kind of music that gives one hope for the future of our art.

1 year ago | |
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We’ve been hearing for a few years about the death of blogs.

Certainly, blogs are not dead. When I started Vftp I could find no other active conductor blogs- none.  A number of wise heads warned me that conductors should keep quiet- the more you go on record with your beliefs, the more people will disagree with you and the more jobs you’ll be locked out of.  Now there are hundreds of conductor blogs, although many performers never get much beyond their “Hi and welcome to my blog- I’m really looking to sharing all sorts of stories and insights from my fascinating life as a jetsetting conductor here! Please come back soon to join me on my musical journey!” post.

But, I can’t help but notice that many of the best and most influential blogs that have been around for a while have gone a bit quiet. Gavin Plumley shut down his wonderful Entartete Musik blog recently, and even Pliable threatened to pull the plug on his indispensable “Overgrown Path” earlier this year.

Vftp is certainly less prolific than in past years- I’ve got a lot more on my plate these days, and I’ve also said a lot of things I wanted to say, but I still find the blog is a really empowering outlet, and I still feel that having a place to articulate ideas and views close to my heart is very healthy for me.  Many of the posts closest to my heart have been largely ignored, while some of the silliest ones have found worryingly huge audiences, but every once in a while, a serious minded post about orchestral auditions, superficiality in the conducting profession or the weird and wacky Gothic Symphony becomes really popular and I realize the blog can still be an effective tool.

Bloggers may come and go, but at a fundamental level, the way in which blogs work has changed, and I find the changes deeply troubling.

In the early years of Vftp, my readership grew (from zero!) pretty rapidly, and readers fell into one of three categories. There were readers who just checked out the blog pretty regularly because they liked it or knew me- they might even have bookmarked my site, there were blog-readers and bloggers who hopped from blog to blog via people’s blogrolls or aggregators like Blognoggle, and finally there were readers who subscribed to the blog’s  RSS feed via Google Reader

Over the weekend, I had a quick look at my referral stats and saw that one reader, one, had come from Blognoggle that day. That site used to be responsible for a huge amount of Vftp traffic. Folks interested in classical music would go to Blognoggle, see what was new at the various popular blogs and hop on over to Vftp or Overgrown Path. No more, but fair is fair- I can’t remember the last time that I used the site. I’d sort of assumed they were out of business until I saw that referral.

Likewise, blogrolls are much less influential. I’ve had mine down for a while because hardly anyone used it and most of the blogs it linked to were inactive. I keep meaning to find time to give it a good edit and re-launch. Blogroll referrals to Vftp have dropped incredibly.

And then there is Google Reader, (and other RSS subscription platforms)- RIP. There are plenty of other newsreaders out there that do the same job Google Reader did…. It’s just that nobody seems to use them. Subscriptions were a great thing for a blogger. At it’s peak, I knew that anything and everything I published here would get read (or at least downloaded) by a nice solid number of readers. There was a time when one could import your entire blog to Facebook by linking your RSS feed to their “Notes” feature. When I started doing this it got a lot of my FB friends who weren’t previously reading Vftp (and they called themselves friends!) to read pretty much everything I wrote automatically. However, the long-term ramifications for Vftp were not good- pre-existing readers took to just reading everything of mine when it popped up on FB. They stopped visiting the actual site, and when FB discontinued the service, I noticed that a number of readers never quite got back in the habit of visiting Vftp every day as they had a few years earlier. Those bookmarks got deleted. Instead, they just spent more time on Facebook.

So, aggregators are forgotten, blogrolls ignored and RSS newsreaders have been shut down. What is left?

Social media, of course.

Blogging these days is NOTHING without Facebook and Twitter. Nothing. Five years ago, if I put up a post and did nothing, within 12 hours I would have attracted a decent number of readers between Vftp fans, referring sites and subscriptions. Now, if I don’t tweet and FB a new post, I might as well have not published it. I can’t speak for other bloggers, but these days, blog readership is nearly completely dependent on social media.

The good news about this is that Facebook (more so than Twitter for some reason) is a relatively powerful tool for creating virality. Since the paradigm started to change, I have had a handful of posts become insanely popular in a way nothing did in the early days.

On the other hand, It worries me that this shift of power is, really, all about power. Blogging used to be primarily fed by a decentralized system of mutual support among individual bloggers (even a site like Blognoggle was basically a blog) and readers. Blogging platforms gave individuals not only the power to publish to a world-wide audience (a truly historical breakthrough), but to decide which other writers to support.  It was a highly democratic and completely decentralized system.

Facebook is neither. Every post that goes up on Facebook is there because Facebook is looking to make money or gather information from it.  Running a blog in 2008 meant that when I published a popular new post, it wasn’t just bringing in new readers who might take an interest in me, it was also increasing the value of  the blogs of fellow bloggers on my blogroll. More readers for Ken meant more readers for Pliable. More readers for Alex Ross meant more readers for Jessica Duchen or Jeremy Denk.

Now, more readers for Ken means more profit and more power for Facebook. More readers for Pliable means more profit and more power for Facebook. I’d say well over 55% of my readership comes here from FB, especially for the most popular posts, the ones that really take off. Almost all of the remainder come from Twitter or Google searches.  Almost every reader for almost everything I write is making money for or enhancing the power of one of those three companies. 

Blogging as a platform was the first system in human history that offered any individual a chance to publish anything they want at any time for no cost at all in a format that could be accessed by readers anywhere in the world. It was essentially free of corporate influence and free of government meddling. Blogging was a revolutionary tool for holding power to account, for challenging the biases and manipulations of the corporate media, for giving the individual a voice. Five years ago, every blog post had the chance to not only spread healthy ideas and spur debate, had helped to drive readership of other blogs. Linking, blogrolls and other tools amplified this impact.

Facebook, Twitter or Google. Blogging has been completely annexed by the biggest and most powerful corporations on Earth, those with the most disturbing and intimate relationships with government and the corporate media. When I post something, it’s making money for Facebook, Google and Twitter. When I get readers, they sell ads. When people click on a post like this, Facebook, Twitter and Google learn more about that person’s interests and beliefs. When they like or retweet my work, it increases the dominance and relevance of those platforms.

Welcome to A view from the podium. Now brought to you by The Borg.

Welcome to A view from the podium. Now brought to you by The Borg.

This is not to say blogs cannot still be powerful tools. In the classical world, I think it’s fair to say that blogging saved the Minnesota Orchestra last year. Here was a situation where the local corporately-owned press did not seem inclined to help the musicians put their case to the public. Early press coverage and editorial writing seemed to overwhelmingly support the position of the board and the outlook for the musicians looked hopeless.  Public opinion ultimately turned in favor of the players as a result of the heroic advocacy of bloggers like William Eddins, Scott Chamberlain at Mask of the Flower Prince and particularly Emily Hogstad at Song of the Lark. Her tireless reportage of the way in which that labor crisis was engineered from the beginning , her ability to expose the lack of transparency and good –faith bargaining, her meticulous dismantling of all the doublespeak and misinformation, was a classic example of how the truth written on a mere blog can overpower a lie published by a newspaper with a huge circulation.  However, the readership for those crucial posts came there primarily from Facebook and Twitter and it was to those huge corporate sites that most readers returned. Where 7 or 8 years ago the popularity and impact of those posts might have increased readership at other blogs through linking and blogrolls, now it simply enhances the dominance of Facebook, because if you wanted to know the truth about the lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra, you looked on Facebook.  I don’t know about you, but I find the notion of looking for the truth on Facebook more than a little worrying.

Let’s face it, blogs have been drowning in narcissism, opinion, bullshit, typos, piracy, porn and pontifications since they first appeared. These days most “blogs” are just pages of  larger websites from newspapers and magazines- the only difference between a newspaper article or op-ed piece and a blog post seems to be a lack of editoral standards. A blog is assumed to be mostly fanciful observations and opinion- not proper journalism or criticism. That’s all fine.  Blogging was never meant to change the world- the idea of a daily web log is about as tied in to self-obsession and BS as you can get. It just so happened that platforms like WordPress and Blogger offered a thoughtful writer a tool with which to speak the truth, support fellow thinkers and change the world, all for free. Nowadays, what I publish here does little to help other bloggers and instead drives more people through Facebook, Twitter and Google. If I want to promote a new post, the best way to do it is to buy an ad…. on Facebook. The game is rigged- the house always wins.

All of this has happened without debate, discussion or strife. There has been no resistance because resistance is futile. A revolutionary tool  for empowering humanity has been gobbled up by the Borg.


PS  Please dont’ hesitate to like and share this post of Facebook. Seriously!

1 year ago | |
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“Few, though, will have heard this nonet version of the Serenade, reconstructed by Alan Boustead in the 1980s, for strings, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn. In this live recording a slightly chubby ugly duckling in its orchestral format suddenly achieves lightness and clarity. Thanks to this aptly named Stratford-based ensemble, it has turned into a swan.”

Brahms Serenade The Observer

1 year ago | |
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The music world has seen many well-deserved tributes over the last several weeks for the author, musicologist, composer and critic Malcolm MacDonald, who passed away recently after a long battle with cancer.

Critic and author, Malcolm MacDonald

I never had the good fortune to meet Malcolm (although we did exchange a small number of friendly social media greetings) but I rated him incredibly highly as a person of the greatest musical discernment. His epic book on Brahms is a rare success in the fraught world of musical biography. It’s rarer than rare to find in a single author someone who combines the patience and attention to detail to needed do the research and fact-finding needed to produce an accurate and vivid biographical portrait of a historical person, with the depth of perception and musicianship to say anything really informative and insightful about their music. My studio shelves are littered with books on Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich, Brahms and Beethoven that are full of the most appallingly shallow and wrong-headed judgements on selected works of the composers these authors have spent so many years studying. How can a supposed Shostakovich expert not “get” the Seventh or Eighth  Symphonies? How does a Mahlerian misunderstand a work like his Seventh? Why do so few Beethovenians fully appreciate the staggering genius of his early works, which are every bit as great as the music of his  Middle and Late periods, only different in style.  How can a Schumann scholar not recognize the power and originality of the Violin Concerto or the Second Symphony? Mr MacDonald seems to not only understand the greatness of pretty much every work of Brahms he discusses, his succinct summaries of major works throughout the book are full of genuine insights of value to both casual listeners and professional musicians.

Malcolm MacDonald was also a highly respected critic, whose reviews shared the same qualities of insight one finds in his books. I’ve thought for a long time that the word “critic” is one the profession could largely do without, as our modern-day usage of the word has become almost completely entangled with the practice of fault-finding.

I would suggest that the most useful critics would be better thought of as “recognizers-” people who are expert in recognizing what they’re hearing and being able to articulate what is important about it.  Finding obvious fault takes no great skill and does no great good. Anyone who is paying attention can tell when a pianist has played a wrong chord or a horn player has split a note, just as any restaurant goer can tell when their toast is burnt. On the other hand, as anyone who has ever watched Masterchef  or Hell’s Kitchen can testify, there are precious few aspiring cooks who can tell a carrot from a parsnip with a blindfold on. Some struggle to know chicken from fish, or grapes from cherries. A really great foodie, a truly enlightened restaurant critic or a real master chef is one who cannot only tell you what’s wrong with a dish, but what’s right. They can recognize the ingredients. They can recognize the cooking processes.  Given them a raw ingredient they’ve never worked with before, they can taste it and recognize the potential it has- how it would best be cooked, served and presented.

The music industry seems to be in the midst of a recognizer shortage.  Not so much within the critical establishment (they actually seem to be doing remarkably well these days at speaking out in support of new voices, especially as the blogging revolution has brought a new generation of writers into the field), but especially within the industry itself- among our decision-makers, funders and marketers. A critic is in the position to tell us “I think this music has something of real value to say, and I think it’s great we can hear it.” They can only tell us that if someone in the performing world has the guts to say “I think this music has something of real value to say and I think we should play it.”

We all need recognizers, and I find I, for one, benefit from listening to them. I do not yet completely “get” the music of Havergral Brian, but I continue to engage with it largely because people like Maclom MadDonald recognize something special in it. I figure anyone who understands Brahms so well is unlikely to wrong about Brian, so I stick with it, I keep listening, I keep investing time and energy in trying to “get” the music.

The music of Hans Gál has been very good to me artistically and professionally. Since we started recording it about five years ago, it’s found a very sympathetic reception with listeners and critics (including Mr MacDonald, who wrote favourably, and extremely perceptively, about our first couple of efforts in the Bobby and Hans series here and here).  Why did nobody before us recognize the potential of this music? It was probably an unfortunate combination of small number of recognizers with the ability to look at the score of a Gál symphony and recognize what makes it a compelling work rather than to simply identify the ways in which differs from a work by Mahler or Berg, and, more tellingly, an even smaller number of that group in a position to make a performance of a Gál symphony possible with the courage to put their hand in the air and say “I think this music has something of real value to say and I think we should play it.”

My own skills (or luck) and nerve as a recognizer, however limited, have proven to be one of my greatest professional assets. There are a lot of good conductors and cellists out there- if one can find new repertoire of real substance that has the potential of finding a sympathetic audience, it can only help your professional cause as a performer.

You would think that the offices of the world’s great orchestras and festivals would be chock-a-block with visionary recognizers. Talk for a while to anyone in artistic planning, and you’ll be astounded at how knowledgeable they are about a huge range of repertoire. But, in my experience, the industry seems to have been built to prevent critical recognition of important music from having any role in determining in what music gets played. We all know the plight of the poor composer who sends scores and CDs of work after work to orchestra after orchestra. Why does this never seem to work? Because the chances of your CD and score ending up in front of a recognizer with the guts to put his hand in the air and say “I think we should play it” are statistically impossible to differentiate from zero. The person you sent that CD isn’t hired to listen to it with a view to recognizing musical greatness, he/she’s trained to look at the name on the cover to see if he/she recognizes the brand he/she’s dealing with.

People in the classical world have built huge systems of committees, agents, artistic administration (isn’t that an oxymoron? :)) and oversight to make sure that nobody in a major arts organization is really in a position to do anoint themselves as real “recognizers,” even if they had the courage to try to. Let’s face it- it’s not really about protecting our audiences from lousy music. We would far rather present a terrible work by an awful composer who is known and established, than take a chance on a masterpiece by a composer whose name is unknown to the public.  Many folks would rather have one of the world’s greatest orchestras “conducted” by a washed-up famous soloist who knows nothing about conducting and almost nothing about score study and rehearsal management than take a chance on an unknown conductor who has learned their craft outside the spotlight. Why- because we recognize the name rather than any particular ability to conduct.

Think again of Hans Gál- the first professional recording of any of his symphonies only took place 120 years after his birth. 120 years. And the thing about Gál was this- he was no outsider, no crank, no recluse, no socially impaired nutjob. His music was promoted by major publishers, he helped found the Edinburgh Festival, he grew up in the centre of Viennese musical life, he taught at  a great university, he was a respected scholar and writer. He was a fairly well-known, well-connected musical figure. And for most of his professional life, orchestras, opera  houses and record companies and their affiliated conductors, artistic planners and producers completely and utterly failed to recognize the significance of his music.

What to do? How is a composer supposed to make their music heard? Well, if I were you, I’d start hunting recognizers. Lets face it, looking for people empowered to stick their necks out in support of the unknown at major arts organizations is like looking for tobacco company lawyers  in Heaven.

But there may be some among your friends, your schoolmates, your local music makers. If you start small, in an arena where you can build personal connections with performers and decision makers, you can start to make things happen.

Promoting your music, however, is probably a dead end, because you need to become a brand that is recognized. If you are not blessed with a name people will greet with curiosity and interest, try a new name. If I were trying to build a composition career, I’d change my name to Shostakovich, Bartók or Stravinsky and concoct a fictitious blood-relationship with my namesake if I were you. Conductors: the time is ripe for another Karajan- you could be his illegitimate 3rd cousin twice removed, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you are subsequently busted- the scandal will only enhance your fame, your name recognition.  Is there anything else you can do to become famous? Can you join a rock band or become a talking head  (or do both and join the Talking Heads?)? Maybe you can build an international reputation for running a festival (don’t try to pull any of those “recognizing” tricks on your day job, though- keep your opinions to yourself and learn what everyone else thinks is important in the industry), then reveal your compositional genius to the world once your name is known?

And for goodness sake, get your ass on Masterchef. It doesn’t matter how little you know about food, because one day, the programme manager of the Philharmonia Metropolitana will get your CD and score and say “Ah yes, Cameron Stravinsky! He was the guy on Masterchef who mistook passatta for grapefruit juice. My god- 2 million people must have seen that show. Get him on the phone! Let’s commission a symphony from him. And while you’re at it, see if he can transcribe us a Miley Cyrus song for orchestra!”



It’s great to see the positive response to this post! Thanks for reading, everyone

With hindsight I want to make one distinction hinted at above extra clear- being a “recognizer” is not the same thing as being super opinionated. To go back to the cooking show metaphor- liking this or that kind of food or hating some other dish or ingredient doesn’t mean you can actually distinguish one from the other in a blind taste test. This post is not a call for more people to be more stubborn and forceful about what they like- almost the opposite.

I think the best recognizers are those who can set aside their taste and engage with music on its own terms, rather than looking to music for a validation of their own superiority of taste and intellect. We hear best and wisest when we’re ready to be surprised and challenged by music. We grow the most as artists and listeners when we learn to recognize an idiom we’ve never been able to fully understand. Too many of us listen like too many children eat- we’re too sure of what we’re going to like before we try it.

1 year ago | |
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In part 2 of my look back at the work of the still-controversial Herbert von Karajan, who died 25 years ago this week, I share an essay from Warner Classic’s new box set of music by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, J and R Strauss and Wagner recorded for EMI. A fascinating collection- some surprises, one complete disaster (guess which one!) and some stunning performances.

It’s not unusual to hear the emergence of the Historically Informed Performance movement described as a direct reaction against the “excesses” of Karajan, and his generation’s, interpretations of the Classical and early Romantic repertoire. To be sure, the sound world of Karajan’s Philharmonia and Berlin Philharmonic is relatively far-removed from the leaner textures and tangier timbres of a fine period instrument ensemble, but in many ways, especially in his early career, Karajan’s approach to Mozart, his contemporaries and successors, was not as old-fashioned and heavy-handed as many listeners to these recordings may expect.  In these fairly early performances of several Mozart’s 35th and 39th symphonies, made between 1952 and 1960, Karajan’s tempi in most of Mozart’s fast movements are surprisingly sprightly and the Philharmonia strings play with admirable clarity of articulation and lightness. Although the slow introductions are played quite broadly, the slow movements of both symphonies are played quite flowingly, with and elegant rhythmic lilt.

If Karajan’s Mozart symphonies are surprisingly modern in their approach, his way with the Divertimento K287 and Eine kleine Nachtmusic is decidedly pre-HIP, particularly the opening movement of Eine kleine Nachtmusic, in which every bow stroke seems to have been smoothed and polished as much as acoustically possible. In moments like this, Karajan seems driven to import his gift for seamless legato into music that is clearly written staccato.

Karajan Mozart

Karajan’s approach to early Schubert has much in common with the best of his Mozart symphonies, with this 1958 Berlin Philharmonic performance of the Fifth Symphony is played with remarkable lightness of touch and elegance- qualities not always associated with the Karajan/BPO collaboration.  Love it or loathe it, Karajan and the BPO’s performance of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony is much more what we expect from this most famous coupling of conductor and orchestra—the  slow music is played extremely slowly with an enormous amount of tension, the string sound is weighty and the textures in the louder music are generally massive.  Although Karajan’s BPO was about twice the size of Schumann’s orchestra in Dusseldorf, Karajan insisted that no orchestral retouching (other than the occasional doubling of woodwind parts) was necessary in Schumann’s music, and in spite of the Berliner’s massive string section, the wind writing generally comes across with admirable clarity.

Karajan recorded both the Brahms and Beethoven cycles so frequently that it sometimes seemed that as soon one beautifully produced box set of LPs was released, he and the orchestra would already be hard at work on a remake.  In the case of the Brahms symphonies, these early recordings, made with the Philharmonia in the 1950’s, are prized by many collectors, often above the later remakes. The extent to which one prefers these or Karajan’s later versions with the Berlin Philharmonic depends to a large extent on how simpatico the listener is with Karajan’s very distinctive approach to sound and articulation. There’s no question but that each remake came closer to Karajan’s ideal of  orchestral tone, distinguished by extraordinary depth of string sound and fantastic smoothness of legato playing. However, Karajan’s producer at EMI, Walter Legge, was possibly the only producer Karajan worked with who was possessed of an equally iron will. What sets these early Philharmonia performances of the Brahms symphonies slightly apart from the  later BPO ones is a much greater attention to precision of ensemble- something which Karajan was generally willing to sacrifice later in his career in his quest for the perfect sound.  For many listeners, these early performances integrate many of Karajan’s best qualities as a Brahms interpreter (albeit without the magisterial sound of the BPO to work with) into performances which maintain a greater degree of rhythmic life and clarity of texture than his later remakes.

Karajan’ approach to Bruckner was in many ways distinctly different to that of his contemporary, Eugen Jochum. Jochum’s research led him to believe that Bruckner intended for the performers to use the modification of tempo to underline the structure of the music- hence his tendency to gradually speed up in long developmental passages or dynamic build ups. Karajan’s approach was, right or wrong, more literalistic, tending to keep tempi within a section as solid as granite. His approach is often described as both austere and monumental, and could be incredibly effective- especially when the huge sound of the Karajan-era BPO was deployed on Bruckner’s later works

Karajan’s lifelong fascination with Wagner reached its culmination in the founding of the Salzburg Easter Festival. Karajan’s stagings of the complete Wagner operas were often controversial- many critics objected to his productions, which were often directed by Karajan himself, while others objected to his preference for more lyrical voices over the more traditional massive Wagnerian voices. In the pit, Karajan insisted the orchestra play like a large-scale chamber ensemble, demanding extreme clarity of texture and lightness of touch when accompanying the singers. However, Karajan was always more than willing to unleash the full weight and power of the BPO’s sound when Wagner’s music calls for it, as in these 1957-1960 recordings of Wagner’s most popular orchestral numbers, with the Berlin Philharmonic produced by Walter Legge.

If Karajan’s Wagner was often controversial, few commentators ever doubted his way with the music of Richard Strauss. As with Brahms, Karajan’s earlier recordings of Strauss with the Philharmonia under the watchful eye of Walter Legge may lack the depth of sound and sheen of legato that his later Berlin Philharmonic performances achieve, but they generally evince a higher level or precision of ensemble and clarity of rhythm. Karajan was never known as a great musical humourist, and his performance of Till Eulenspiegel begins in rather solemn fashion, but what the performance lacks in wit, it makes up for in sheer virtuosity, especially in the later part of the work when the tempi really take flight.  Death and Transfiguration, however, was always a work that suited Karajan’s temperament and intensity.

Karajan’s recordings of highlights from the mainstays of Vienese operetta, made with the Philharmonia  in the mid-1950’s have never been out of print, and it remained music he conducted with great affection and great attention to detail throughout his long career.  This collection offers the listeners the chance to compare the classic 1955 performances of Suppé’s Light Calvary Overture, Johnann Strauss II’s Titsch-Tratsch Polka and Johan Strauss I’s Radetzky March  with those made in 1960 in decidedly more opulent modern sound.  A quick check of track timings will show that Karajan’s tempi had all slowed slightly over in the intervening years, but that the orchestra had gained in sonic opulence. So it usually was with this most sound-obsessed of conductors.

1 year ago | |
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