Sound and vision blog

103 posts categorized "Classical music"

14 December 2021

A Mengelberg discovery – Mengelberg in London

Mengelberg in 1919 by Jacob MerkelbachMengelberg in 1919 by Jacob Merkelbach

By Jonathan Summers Curator, Classical Music

Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) was one of the greatest conductors of the first half of the twentieth century.  A friend of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, Mengelberg championed their works with his expertly disciplined orchestra, the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam.  As their chief conductor, which he became at the age of twenty four, he reigned supreme from 1895 to 1945 creating one of the finest orchestras in the world.  His success was so great that he was also appointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic during the 1920s. 

It is 150 years ago this year that Mengelberg was born, so why is his name so little known today?  When EMI/IMG produced their CD series ‘Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century’ in 2002, some forty conductors were represented on sets of two CDs, but not Mengelberg.  Could it be due to the fact that Mengelberg stayed in Holland at the helm of the Concertgebouw Orchestra when the country was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War?  Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted for the Nazis in Germany, yet his complete studio recordings have just been released again by Warner Classics.  Mengelberg’s Columbia and Telefunken recordings have not been systematically re-issued by the companies who own them.  Could it be that Mengelberg’s style of conducting is out of fashion at the moment?  It took a recent letter from the music librarian of the Barbican Music Library to prompt Gramophone magazine to publish a short article this month on Mengelberg and his recordings.  There is, however, a definitive 1300 page two volume biography of the conductor by Frits Zwart, recently translated into English, published by Amsterdam University Press.

One only has to hear Mengelberg’s studio recordings or broadcasts to realise that here is a conductor that galvanized his orchestra to give their all - and more.  Mengelberg, like Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, knew that an orchestra is an army of musicians that need commanding in order to get the best out of them; the conductor is the general in charge, the orchestra his troops. Mengelberg had strongly held convictions about the way a work should be interpreted, even ‘improving’ upon the composer’s directions and sometimes, the orchestration. 

Studio recordings of ‘Les Preludes’ by Liszt, Tchaikovsky’s Overture to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or Wagner’s ‘Tannhauser’ Overture amply reveal this.  Many of Mengelberg's performances have intense emotional impact, refined orchestral playing of the highest order, and, in certain repertoire, a flexibility of tempo and line that makes the music sound organic - as if it is living and breathing.

The recordings have value on many levels today.  His close relationship with Gustav Mahler gives authority to his interpretations of the composer’s music.  A live broadcast from 1939 of the Symphony No. 4 has a genuine freshness about it while the tempo he takes for the famous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony makes one realise that this movement has got slower and slower over the decades, particularly since it was used in the Visconti film ‘Death in Venice.’  Mengelberg wrote on his score that Mahler told him that it was a love letter to his wife Alma and that is what the movement represented. 

Composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was so impressed with Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra that he dedicated one of his major tone poems – ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (a Hero’s Life) – to the conductor and orchestra.  Mengelberg’s 1928 recording of this work with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is still regarded by critics and musicians as one of the best, more than 90 years after it was recorded. 

While Mengelberg spent the Second World War in Holland, some of his concerts were broadcast by the Dutch broadcasting system AVRO (Algemene Vereniging Radio Omroep) by whom they were recorded and archived.  It is therefore possible to hear some of these concerts which have been released on CD by various labels.  Unfortunately, the BBC did not record and archive broadcasts at this time, but the British Library Sound Archive holds the collection of Kenneth Leech, an engineer who recorded at home on a disc cutting machine from 1936 onwards.  Although Mengelberg had performed in London previously, it was in 1936 that he was invited to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time, and Mr Leech captured extracts from the broadcast of the 4th November 1936 concert. 

Radio Times 4th November 1936

The concert, which included Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 played by English pianist Myra Hess and ‘Ein Heldenleben’ by Richard Strauss was to take place at the Queen’s Hall, and Mengelberg and his party stayed in the Langham Hotel opposite.  Adrian Boult, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, took Mengelberg to the BBC’s studios at Maida Vale for the first rehearsal.  (Incidentally, Boult was invited to conduct Mengelberg’s orchestra at the Concertgebouw Hall in February 1940 when he gave a performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations which was recorded and archived by AVRO).  However, at the Maida Vale studios in London, Mengelberg was not happy with the acoustic of the hall, according to orchestra leader Paul Beard, who found Mengelberg to be ‘awful and unpleasant’ to work with, but described him as ‘unquestionably the greatest musician working on the podium at the time.’ 

Rehearsing the BBC Symphony OrchestraFrom 'The Sphere' November 1936

A highly detailed account of the rehearsal was published by principal violist Bernard Shore in his book ‘The Orchestra Speaks.’  Here are some extracts.

When he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time, he bowed to the exigencies of broadcasting, and only grumbled a little at having his basses and ‘celli separated. 

Tuning with him is a ceremony that may take anything from five minutes to (in extreme cases) two hours….On the first occasion this tuning took twenty-five minutes, and gave rise to his first dissertation.

This little matter of time apart, his great experience enables him to solve every orchestral problem.  In a difficult work like ‘Heldenleben’ he hears everything and sees at the same time; instantly puts his finger on a weak spot, and proceeds to clear it up without losing his temper; and never resorts to sarcasm, or the time-honoured remark that every other orchestra “plays this easily.”

His unremitting attention to technical details of every kind, as they arise, results in magnificent and confident playing, which it is doubtful whether any conductor can surpass. 

Mostly he rehearses from memory.  The whole of his first rehearsal with the BBC Orchestra was devoted to the opening portion of ‘Heldenleben’ as far as the entry of the solo violin.

Thoroughly characteristic of his methods was the way in which he tackled the great opening phrase.  Each note of the arpeggio had to be detached, in spite of the composer’s direction, because, he said, the audience should hear every note, “and if they are all slurred by the strings, there will be no definition, and the passage will only sound like a chord of E flat,” whereas he wants it to make the terrific effect of a brilliantly clear arpeggio.

He rehearses the opening as far as fig. 2 at great length.  First of all taking the violas, ‘celli and horns, until there is complete unanimity in ensemble, phrasing, intonation and style, and all traces of untidiness is removed.

Queen's Hall microphoneQueen's Hall in the early 1930s showing the single BBC microphone (circled in blue)

Leech recorded two five minute segments - the opening of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (‘The Hero’), the very opening section that had been rehearsed extensively and described above.  He also recorded the section ‘The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion’ near the end of the work.  This is an eighty-five year old home recording taken off-air, but the sound is remarkably good from the single microphone the BBC used at this time suspended over the violin section.  At once, one can hear the almost visceral attack from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, very similar to the way the Concertgebouw and New York Philharmonic commenced the work under the same conductor.

Ein Heldenleben ex 1 1936

Heldenleben disc labelThe cellulose nitrate on aluminium disc recorded by Kenneth Leech

Shore goes on to say:

Not only is this opening passage typical of his genius for producing superb playing, but it also shows his attitude to the composition he is interpreting.  Nothing will induce him to obey blindly the composer’s directions if his own experience tells him that they could be made more effective by a slight alteration.

In the concluding scene, a Mengelberg of extreme gentleness appears, capable of exquisite tenderness; and the lovely interjectory phrases on the first and second violins, during the cor anglais solo, are made to sound as if there was all humanity in them. 

Ein Heldenleben ex 2 1936

But if he cannot obtain what he wants from an artist, he will be as hard as iron and may seem to oppose rather than aid.  He has the true virtuoso’s intolerance of inadequate playing; he expects to be able to start his rehearsing from scratch, without having to nurse any weakness amongst his players.  His ear detects everything.  His particular genius is for hearing from the point of view of the man at the back of the hall.  Besides satisfying him, this redoubles the clarity for the rest of the audience.

As exciting as this discovery is, I was delighted to find that Mr Leech recorded another portion of a Mengelberg concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra two years later on 19th January 1938.  Unfortunately, the surfaces of the discs are noisier and there is less clarity of orchestral sound.  However, the recording is important for the fact that it documents another tone poem by his friend Richard Strauss that Mengelberg did not record commercially, nor does a radio broadcast survive of him conducting this work, so this is the only recorded example currently known.  The opening of ‘Also Sprach Zarathrustra’ later lodged itself in the public consciousness when it was used in the Arthur C. Clarke film ‘2001 – a Space Odyssey.’  Mr Leech probably realized that the famous opening would be difficult to record and that his cutter head would be overloaded at the climax.  He chose to record the following beautiful string section ‘Of the Backworldsmen’, then parts of ‘The Convalescent’, and finally the end of ‘The Dance Song’ followed by the final section of the work ‘Song of the Night Wanderer’.  While the recording may not be as thrilling to hear as ‘Ein Heldenleben’ it is none the less an important aural document from more than eighty years ago.  The last few notes are missing.

Zarathustra ex 1 1938

Zarathustra ex 2 1938

Zarathustra disc labelThe cellulose nitrate on aluminium disc recorded by Kenneth Leech

In addition to the Strauss tone poem, the concert included music from Gluck’s ‘Alceste’, the Third Symphony of Brahms and Hindemith’s Variations for Orchestra.  The Radio Times noted that:

Richard Strauss has enjoyed Mengelberg’s continued interest and championship.  In 1903 Mengelberg brought the Concertgebouw Orchestra to London and directed a Strauss Festival, and in 1924 he organised a Strauss Festival in Amsterdam.  Listeners will remember the magnificent reading he gave of ‘Ein Heldenleben’, which is dedicated to him, when he last conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra on November 4, 1936. It will be interesting to hear his performance of the less frequently heard ‘Zarathustra’.

Willelm Mengelberg deserves a higher profile today as one of the most important conductors of the first half of the twentieth century.  As Scott Goddard wrote in 1938:

Willem Mengelberg, who has conducted much in America and has been often heard here at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts and at those of the London Symphony Orchestra, is among the first flight, the upper ten of virtuoso conductors of the day, a position that he has won for himself mainly because he is an unbending disciplinarian and a scrupulous trainer.

It is that discipline and scrupulous training along with a strongly held musical conviction that produces the results we hear in Mengelberg’s recordings and the two newly discovered ones here amply prove that.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

10 December 2021

Classical Podcast No. 5 Clifford Curzon

Clifford Curzon by Fritz CurzonClifford Curzon (photo © Fritz Curzon. Used with permission)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

One of the great British pianists of the twentieth century, Clifford Curzon is remembered in this podcast by Callum Ross.  We trace his life and career from his early days at the Royal Academy of Music in London and hear many extracts of his masterful playing - always focused on beauty of tone and quality of sound.

Young CurzonThe Young Curzon (courtesy of Fritz Curzon)

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

30 November 2021

Nelson Freire – a great pianist remembered

Nelson Freire and Jonathan SummersJonathan Summers and Nelson Freire (photo © Jonathan Summers)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

When Brazilian Nelson Freire died last month at the age of seventy-seven, the world lost one of its greatest pianists.

A naturally talented child whose playing was already formed by the age of seven, Freire then studied with Nise Obino and Lucia Branco until the age of fourteen.  He later claimed that he owed everything to them – ‘There was no question for them of separating work on tone from finger practice, or music from technique.  In fact, they founded their teaching on tone.  Never force it, never produce a sound that is not harmonious.’  At fourteen he went to Vienna to study with Bruno Seidlhofer and by this time already had in his repertoire fourteen piano concertos and numerous solo works.  It was not a particularly happy time for the teenage Freire and he mainly attended concerts and listened to records and in doing so, discovered recordings of great pianists of the past including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Backhaus.  ‘I listened to records more than I worked.’

Freire was also influenced by his friend, the Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes (1895-1979).  Earlier this year I was reading 'My Adventures in the Golden Age of Music' by Henry Finck published in 1926 in which there is a section on Novaes which I sent to Nelson.  He was delighted to read such a glowing contemporary account of her.

Rather than give examples from his commercial recordings to illustrate his art, I have decided to use broadcast recordings that are less well-known.  For a pianist of his standing it was extraordinary that Freire did not play at the Proms until 2005 when he was already over sixty.  He obliged with a magisterial performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Brahms, a work that puts incredible demands on the stamina of the pianist.  Freire’s performance, as always, was effortless.  He was a pianist who knew about the importance of muscular relaxation at the keyboard and the conservation of strength.  One only has to watch any of the videos on YouTube to see this, particularly his exemplary performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata from the University of Maryland in 1982.  Here are two short extracts of the Brahms performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov.

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 extract 1

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 extract 2

One of the most memorable concerts I have attended was at the Barbican Hall in February 2009 when Freire played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Lionel Bringuier.  Conductor and orchestra gave a thrilling account of the rarely heard ‘La Tragédie de Salomé’ by Florent Schmitt but the highlight was Freire’s performance of the Chopin Concerto.  The pianist enters after a long orchestral tutti with an attack on a unison D flat in both hands.  Accented and marked fortissimo by the composer, it can often sound hard and unpleasant, but Freire played it as I had never heard it before with a chordal upward sweep incorporating the notes of the following downward flourish.  When I later asked him how he got the idea to do this he looked at me with a smile and said ‘Novaes’.  Indeed, on her studio recording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Otto Klemperer Novaes plays the octave D flat with one hand, supported by a chord in the left.

As a young man Freire recorded for Columbia/CBS but fortunately, Decca Classics signed him to their label in October 2001 and he recorded both Brahms Concertos and the Chopin F minor Concerto plus many solo discs of Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Bach, Schumann and one of Brazilian music.  He did not record the work for piano and orchestra by Villa-Lobos titled ‘Momoprécoce’, a 1929 orchestration of solo piano pieces from the early 1920s, but he did play it at his last appearance at the Proms in 2012 with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop.

Villa-Lobos Momoprecoce extract

It was at the Barbican Hall on 8th December 2006 that he played the Piano Concerto No. 4 of Beethoven with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck.  In this extract from the second movement, the two distinct characters of the orchestra and piano are sharply contrasted where the pianist seems to play with an air of being resigned to his fate.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 Andante extract

One surprise I found was Freire in chamber music, and not just regular repertoire, but the rarely heard Piano Quintet in C minor by Alexander Borodin that was not published until 1938.  The BBC asked Freire to record it at their Maida Vale studios with the Prazak Quartet in 1998.

Borodin Piano Quintet 3rd mvt opening

One of the few pianists of the twenty-first century to carry on the traditions of the Golden Age of Pianism, Nelson Freire will be missed by many.  He was a shy and retiring man, a true virtuoso of the keyboard who cajoled his listeners rather than beat them into submission.

The commercial recordings, video and audio broadcasts of Nelson Freire will keep his great artistry before the public for many years to come.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

28 October 2021

Black History Month – Carlisle and Wellmon

Photo of Carlisle and WellmonCarlisle and Wellmon (BL shelfmark 1SS0009976)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For Black History Month this year, I was delighted to find early recordings of two African American musicians made in London.  The piano duo team of Carlisle and Wellmon made recordings for Columbia over one hundred years ago in November 1912.

Born in North Carolina in 1883, Harry Wellmon was already established in London as a song composer while still in his early twenties in 1906.  He had previously worked at the Harlem River Casino in New York City but, as with many African American performers, found far more job opportunities in Britain and Europe.  In London, from his premises at 47 Oxford Street he wrote songs for famous music hall stars of the day including Victoria Monks. 

Sheet music of I never lose my temperBL shelfmark H.3988.r.(43)

Wellmon returned to the United States in 1909 for a year but was back in England where a son was born on the south coast in Southsea in November 1911 the mother being Lilian Riley, a confectioner’s assistant.  He formed the piano duo Carlisle and Wellmon around 1910 and must have been popular as they recorded for Columbia in November 1912.  However, Wellmon had many pursuits, primarily as a composer and music publisher, and the duo made their last appearance at the Lewisham Hippodrome in December 1915 while Wellmon continued as a solo performer the following week.  In the early 1920s he appeared in Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava and Zagreb, Bombay, the Netherlands and South America.  He appears to have returned to the United States in 1935.

George Horace Carlisle was born in Minnesota, also in 1883, and had previously toured Britain with another performer as Carlisle and Baker.  It is claimed that he was a pupil of the great piano teacher Theodore Leschetizky (1830-1915) in Vienna - whose pupils include Paderewski and Ignaz Friedman - but Carlisle's name does not appear in Leschetizky’s personal lists of pupils or his diaries. 

Leschetizky did have a few African American students.  One was Raymond Augustus Lawson (1875-1959) who was educated at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee from where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree.  He then studied at the Hartford Conservatory of Music graduating in 1900.  Whilst in Germany he met Ossip Gabrilowitsch (Leschetizky pupil and son in law of Mark Twain) who in the summer of 1911 introduced Lawson to Leschetizky.  After playing for the great master, Leschetizky declared, ‘I know that Americans are great technicians, but Mr Lawson is a poet.’  As was often the way, Leschetizky heard a pianist once, then passed them to one of his assistants for instruction, and this may have happened to George Carlisle.  He seems to have stayed in England and died during a piano audition at the Royal Oak Hotel in Ramsgate in 1963, an obituary claiming he was born in Bermuda and in his sixties: he was actually 80 years of age.

Carlisle and Wellmon made six sides for Columbia in 1912, all of their own compositions, most of which were published between 1910 and 1913.  Four are of their own songs – 'Kiss me Right', 'Go ‘Way Meddlesome Moon', 'A Prescription for Love' and 'Why Do You Wait for Tomorrow?' 

Sheet music of Go way meddlesome moonBL shelfmark H.3990.c.(6)

The remaining two sides are piano only - Chip-Chip Two Step and March, and an arrangement of the Sextette from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti – ‘in Ragtime.’  This disc was issued as Columbia 2054 in 1912 but re-issued on their cheaper Regal label in February 1914 and remained in the catalogue until August 1918.

Label of Regal disc Lucia SextetteRegal Label (BL shelfmark 9CS0000242)

The performance is only in ragtime for the last half of the recording.  The first part is in ‘classical’ style and the switch to ragtime is not such a jolt as one might expect due to the fact that it is played in a strict ragtime style – not too fast, with a firm and controlled rhythm.  With the ragtime revival of the 1970s we learnt that Scott Joplin did not want his rags played fast and directed the player so at the beginning of his scores.  Few solo piano disc recordings of ragtime survive from the era and a recording of Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag played by the United States Marine Band from 1909 is taken at a swift tempo.  Carlisle and Wellmon’s performance has elements of Joplin's direction and even though played at a crowd-pleasing tempo with dazzling contrary motion chromatic scales, there are underlying elements of the strict ragtime style from ten years before.

Sextette from Lucia mp3

Thanks to James Methuen Campbell for the Leschetizky information.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

10 August 2021

Discovery of a rare Bettini cylinder recording

Richard Copeman with cylinder editRichard Copeman with his Bettini cylinder (photo © Jonathan Summers)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

In February 2020, just before lockdown, collector Richard Copeman contacted me about a concert cylinder he had just purchased in Paris.  He wondered if we would like to make a digital transfer of it for the British Library Sound Archive. 

Concert cylinders are not common, although I previously wrote a blog about one here which gives details about these larger forms of cylinder produced in the early 1900s.  The cylinder Richard Copeman has is in its original green box with a hand written title on the label, but it has lost the label from the lid. 

Box imageImage of box label (photo © Jonathan Summers)

The date of 1899 is hand written in blue pencil on the bottom of the box.  The title also appears engraved into the edge of the cylinder. 

Inscription on cylinder edgeInscription on cylinder edge (photo © Jonathan Summers)

We know what the work is – Concertino in E flat Op. 26 for clarinet by Carl Maria von Weber, and the performer’s name is announced at the beginning.  However, the name of the recording company is not – Edison, and many others, always included the name of the company in the announcement.

Another avid collector came to the rescue in the form of David Mason who had facsimile copies of Bettini catalogues.  In one of these he found ‘Rouleaux de Concert a Grand Diametre’ and listed there was the cylinder of the Concertino with the performer’s name - Henri Paradis.

Henri Paradis

Henri Paradis was born in Avignon in 1861 and at the age of nineteen won the Premier Prix for clarinet at the Paris Conservatoire.  His teacher was the delightfully named Chrysogone Cyrille Rose (1830-1902) who had been consulted by composers Jules Massenet and Charles Gounod on the technical capabilities of the clarinet.  Rose was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 1900. 

Bettini June 1901 pp. 16-17 Edit

Bettini catalogue June 1901

As can be seen in the catalogue, Paradis plays his teacher’s version of the Weber composition published around 1879 in Paris.  After a period in L'Orchestre de la Garde Républicaine, Paradis joined the orchestra of the Paris Opera in 1890 and did not retire from his post until 1932.  He was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 1935 and died in 1940.  From 1906 he was clarinetist in Le Double Quintette, eight of whose early recordings can be heard on BL Sounds here.  The full title of Société de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments à Cordes et à Vent was shortened to Société du Double Quintette de Paris; for the disc labels they became Le Société du Double Quintette. Mostly born in the 1860s, the group consisted of ten players plus Georges de Lausney on the piano.  The personnel were Pierre Sechiari (first violin), Marcel Houdret (second violin), Maurice Vieux (viola), Jules Marnoff (cello), Paul Leduc (double bass), Louis Bas (oboe), Ernest Vizentini (bassoon), Francois Lamouret (french horn), Henri Paradis (clarinet) and Adolphe Hennebains (flute).

Paradis’s affiliation with the Garde Républicaine and Paris Opera are mentioned in the spoken introduction on the cylinder which begins with a pitch identification, something important with early primitive equipment.  Paradis plays a highly abridged version of the score but the clarity and quality of the recording are extraordinary for something over 120 years old.

Weber Concertino Henri Paradis mp3

But what of Bettini, the producer of the cylinder?  Early recording is dominated by Thomas Edison in the United States and the Pathé brothers in France – both working on various other inventions concurrently.  Bettini was a fascinating, if relatively unknown, figure from the dawn of recorded sound. 

Gianni Bettini 1898 (Phonoscope magazine)Gianni Bettini in 1898 (Phonoscope magazine)

Born in Novara, Italy in 1860 Gianni Bettini was a gentleman inventor who had a salon at 110 Fifth Avenue, New York in the late 1890s where he made private recordings of great singers and other famous people including Mark Twain.  He was then based in Paris operating as the Société des Micro-Phonographes Bettini, 23 Boulevard des Capucines and although he brought his master recordings to Paris at the turn of the century, these were all destroyed during the Second World War.  A Wikipedia article states that Bettini cylinders are rare and that ‘only a few dozen are known to exist’.  This makes the discovery of this Paradis cylinder all the more exciting.  Not only is superior sound achieved with the larger concert cylinder, but Bettini invented some improvements including the ‘Spider’ whereby the stylus was attached to the recording diaphragm by multiple legs, hence its name.  Of course, the fact that this cylinder is not worn and in excellent condition also makes a great difference to the sound. It would appear that the cylinder was recorded right at the end of the nineteenth century, but it is not certain that the date stamped on the box is the date of recording.  It appears in the 1901 Bettini catalogue. 

It was the more widely circulated recording (both on cylinder and disc) that Bettini made of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) which has survived and kept his name alive in the annals of the history of recorded sound.  Like Edison and the Pathé brothers, Bettini worked on a motion picture camera.  He died in San Remo in 1938.

Thanks to Richard Copeman for discovering it and allowing it to be shared through this blog.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

23 July 2021

Persian choral album surfaces after four decades in limbo

Choral Music from Persia CD coverCD cover courtesy of Persian Dutch Network

Guest blog by Pejman Akbarzadeh

In 1973, the Empress of Persia, Farah Pahlavi, commissioned the choral conductor Evlin Baghcheban to establish a conservatory of music for orphaned children. In this school, Baghcheban organised a choral group called the Farah Choir. The group gave regular concerts throughout the country and in the autumn of 1978 went to Austria to record their debut album. A number of fascinating Persian folk songs were recorded in Vienna, with a plan to release them in Tehran. However, the victory of the Islamic Revolution disrupted all plans, the choir was dissolved, and its conductor went into exile. 

The master tapes of the 1978 recording session remained silent at Baghcheban's house for decades. The name of the choral group 'Farah' was a reference to the name of the former queen of Persia, so releasing an album under her name was out of question in post-revolutionary Iran. However, shortly after the death of Baghcheban the tapes were transferred to Holland, where they were restored and released by the Persian Dutch Network.

This recording has a key historical value for Persian choral music. It features the first attempt, by Ruben Gregorian (1915-1991), to arrange Persian folk songs for a Western-style choir. Gregorian published the scores of his arrangements in Tehran in 1948, but recordings of his work were not previously available internationally. In his arrangements, he tried to be as faithful as possible to the original melodies, with no intention of changing or developing any part. The rest of the songs in the Farah Choir's recording were arranged by one of the next generation of Persian composers, Samin Baghcheban (1925-2008), husband of Evlin. His style is very different, showing more interest in the use of folk melodies as a starting idea, then developed using various compositional methods. He uses imitation and drone in his arrangements as well.

The British magazine Songlines has featured a four-star review for the recording and Empress Farah has expressed delight that the 1978 recording has been preserved and become available after four decades. The album "Choral Music from Persia" plays a crucial role to raise public awareness of a little known genre in music.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

 

 

05 July 2021

‘Violence, shock, life’: the sounds of Pierre Boulez’s formative years

Pierre Boulez (1968)Pierre Boulez (1968)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Dr Caroline Potter

Pierre Boulez was one of the most important musicians of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His own music is often considered forbiddingly cerebral, not least because musicologists have tended to focus on its construction, but I contend that the French literary and broader intellectual context was at least as important to the composer as musical techniques such as serialism. My research project, generously supported in 2020-21 by a British Library Edison Fellowship, uncovers the crucial impact of this context on Boulez, enhancing our understanding of his work and leading towards a more visceral, emotional response to his work.

Boulez’s reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of European modern music followed him for the rest of his long life. He was angry because music mattered hugely to him. Of course, this anger sprang from his rejection of the conservative French musical culture of his youth, from a desire to wipe the slate clean after the horrors of World War II, and surely also from his rejection of senior male role models, including his father who wanted him to train as an engineer. But, more profoundly, this violence and anger has striking parallels in Parisian artistic culture of the 1930s and 40s, and specifically from artists broadly connected with surrealism.

Antonin Artaud 1926Antonin Artaud (1926)

 One of the most important figures in Boulez’s artistic evolution was Antonin Artaud (1897-1948). He is best known today for writings including The Theatre and its Double, but for Boulez, Artaud was not primarily a cultural theoretician, but a performing artist whose work only truly existed live. It was Paule Thévenin, Artaud’s friend and later his literary executor, who introduced Artaud’s work to Boulez (she later also edited a collection of Boulez’s writings). Artaud’s final public performance took place at the Galerie Loeb in Paris in July 1947, where he read some of his texts surrounded by an exhibition of his drawings. This was an intimate space; ‘Boulez and his friends had to sit in front of the first row of chairs, and they found themselves almost ‘under’ the voice of Artaud when he was reading.’[1] Being within spitting distance of Artaud, still a charismatic performer despite his much reduced physical condition, was an experience that Boulez never forgot. Towards the end of his life, he recalled that Artaud’s performance ‘made an impression on me because what initially seemed to make no sense suddenly made sense very strongly.’[2]

Few Artaud recordings survive: there are copies of Aliénation et la magie noire (1946) and Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) in the British Library. In Pour en finir… Artaud pushes his voice to its very limits;

Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) extract

through the extremes of expression, register and dynamics, he sought to transcend the limitations of human utterances. Listening to Artaud’s vocal performance alongside the final movement of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata played by Maurizio Pollini, with its aggressive performance directions such as ‘pulvériser le son’, shows that they both inhabit a sound world where no holds are barred.

Boulez Piano Sonata No.2 extract

In the 1920s, Artaud was briefly associated with André Breton, the self-appointed leader of the surrealist movement. The French surrealist circle was a pluridisciplinary environment whose members had wide-ranging artistic and intellectual interests. Often these coexisted in one publication, as in the reviews Documents and Minotaure, whose pages provide a complete portrait of contemporary surrealism, from psychoanalytical studies of delirium to images provoking new ideas through incongruous juxtapositions. And Breton himself frequently combined photography, autobiography and fiction in a single publication; he also had a strong interest in ethnography and amassed an impressive collection of non-Western and esoteric objects.

One obvious connection between Breton’s stories – one that was particularly resonant for Boulez – is the recycling of the last phrase of his novella Nadja (1928), ‘La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas’ (Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be). At the end of ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, a short story published in Minotaure in 1934, we read this extension: ‘La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle ou ne sera pas’ (Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, exploding-fixed, magic-circumstantial or it will not be).[3] Convulsive beauty is a physical shock, an instant unmediated reaction which has the power to reunite supposed opposites. It provokes profound sensations instantaneously which according to Breton, ‘could not come to us via ordinary logical paths.’

‘La beauté sera convulsive’ is illustrated by a photo by Man Ray captioned ‘explosante-fixe’: a female dancer wearing a full skirt and sleeves, perhaps a flamenco dancer in a trance, captured in a freeze frame with her arms, sleeves and skirt suspended in mid-whirling motion. This fleeting instant captured on film exemplifies ‘convulsive beauty.’ Images, it is suggested, are superior to words as conduits of convulsive beauty, provoking as they do an instant, unmediated reaction. And moving beyond Breton, I contend that music has an even stronger power to convey convulsive beauty. Music can only exist in time and in sound; its action on our senses is literally ‘moving.’ Unlike Breton, the Belgian composer André Souris, a friend and early supporter of Boulez, understood the unique power of music; he believed that ‘the language of music was more apt than any other to faithfully relay the deepest feelings’ and that music was ‘perhaps the medium most suited to surrealist expression.’[4]

The impact of surrealism on Boulez has been underplayed: most obviously, he used a Breton fragment, …explosante-fixe…, as the title of several related works in the 1970s-90s, and this fusion of apparent opposites – explosion and stasis – is a highly apt metaphor for his music. A recording of an early version conducted by Boulez at the Proms on 17 August 1973, when compared with later versions, shows that its musical identity remained remarkably stable. This extract was recycled in later iterations of …explosante-fixe…, including the offshoot Mémoriale (1985).

Explosante Fixe (1973) extract

In a letter to Souris written in 1947, Boulez wrote that his music was about ‘violence, shock, life’ and he believed ‘this is what is most lacking, it seems to me, in every work by the serial “school”.’[5] In the work of Artaud and Breton, Boulez discovered the ‘violence, shock, life’ which is the defining characteristic of his first compositions.

[1] Sarah Barbedette, ‘Différentes façons d’être voyant’ in Barbedette (ed.) Pierre Boulez [exhibition catalogue]. Paris: Actes Sud, 2015: pp. 23-37, at p. 25: ‘Boulez et ses amis doivent s’asseoir devant le premier rang de chaises, et c’est presque « sous » la voix d’Antonin Artaud qu’ils se trouvent lorsque celui-ci profère ses poèmes.’

[2] François Meïmoun, Pierre Boulez: La Naissance d’un compositeur. Paris: Aedam musicae, 2010, p. 59: ‘[…] ce qui n’avait initialement aucun sens prenait d’un coup un sens, et un sens très fort.’

[3] André Breton, ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, in Minotaure, 5 (May 1934): pp. 8-16, at p. 16.

[4] Cited in Robert Wangermée, André Souris et le complexe d’Orphée. Entre surréalisme et musique sérielle, Liège, Mardaga (1995), p. 6; ‘la matière musicale était plus propre qu’aucune autre à épouser fidèlement les mouvements intérieurs […] [la musique constituait ‘peut-être le moyen le plus conforme aux démonstrations surréalistes.’

[5] Wangermée (1995), p. 272; ‘Boulez disait ensuite ce qu’apportait sa propre musique: la violence, le choc, la vie. “C’est ce qui manque le plus, me semble-t-il, à toutes les œuvres de ‘l’école’ atonale”, ajoutait-il.’

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17 May 2021

Recording of the week: The first recording of a complete piano concerto

This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Lockdown has given us the chance to listen to music while working from home and revisit well known recordings that we may not have had the opportunity to hear for a while. Recently I listened again to the first complete recording of a piano concerto – Beethoven’s famous 'Emperor', recorded for HMV in April 1922 by Frederic Lamond (1868-1948) with the Royal Albert Hall and conducted by Eugene Goossens.

photograph of Frederic Lamond
Frederic Lamond in 1898

Lamond was a pupil of the great Franz Liszt, studying with him in Weimar during the last few years of Liszt’s life. I actually wrote the notes for a CD reissue of this recording on the Biddulph label way back in 1998. What strikes me now is not so much the poor quality of the acoustic recording, but the rhythmic drive of the performance and particularly the orchestra; Goossens’s youthful energy is evident throughout the recording.

Eugene Goossens
Eugene Goossens

Eugene Goossens (1893-1962), born just down the road from the British Library in Camden Town, was not even thirty when the recording was made. He was from a family of Belgian musicians who began his musical life as a violinist. His grandfather conducted the first English performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1882 while Eugene gave the British premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in June 1921 with the composer present. Quite a feat for a novice conductor in this first year! Ten months later he made this recording.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 5, op. 73, E flat (Emperor) (BL REF 1CL0029360)

Lamond gives a majestic performance, full of power, virility, nobility and authority. The rudimentary recording process, whereby the players had to gather around a recording horn that collected the sound waves in the room, has managed to capture a good deal of detail without any use of electricity. One hundred years after the event, we can still enjoy the vitality and informed performance of the greatest musicians.

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