Sound and vision blog

169 posts categorized "Music"

25 April 2022

Recording of the week: Everybody has something to offer

This week’s selection comes from Jonathan Benaim, Audio Cataloguing Coordinator.

Taken from the British Library’s Oral History of Jazz in Britain collection, this recording is from an interview with guitarist Ernest Ranglin. In this particular excerpt, prompted by interviewer Val Wilmer, he reflects on the notion of competitiveness between musicians.

Ernest Ranglin on competition in jazz [BL REF C122/198-199] 

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In place of competition, Ernest Ranglin sees a collaborative process, valuing the contribution made by different players. The synergy of collaboration can be perceived in the interaction between interviewer and interviewee too. Their rapport is tangible and it makes for an expansive exchange.

International Jazz Day is celebrated on 30 April. Established by UNESCO, it advocates for the positive influence of jazz, including its capacity to cultivate peace, unity, co-operation and dialogue. The description of solidarity that Ernest Ranglin gives, and the camaraderie of the speakers, neatly illustrates that ethos.

A black and white photograph of guitarist Ernest Ranglin taken on Tottenham Court Road, London.Ernest Ranglin, Tottenham Court Road, London, 17 May 1993. Photograph by Val Wilmer.

With thanks to Val Wilmer for kind permission to use her photograph in this article.

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28 February 2022

Recording of the week: A personal jazz mystery solved

This week's selection comes from Jim Hickson, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The album cover for High Flying by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The cover is red, featuring the text of the album name and artists at the top and an image of the three arists: two men wearing shirts and a woman wearing a coat and a green floral hat

I’m a jazz nut. My mental soundtrack is often filled with anonymous changes and walking bass solos. But there is one particular song that has been buzzing around my head for years and years – about a decade, in fact. That song is the version of ‘Popity Pop’, recorded by vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, on their album High Flying from 1961. Specifically, Jon Hendricks’ break-down at about 2 min. 16 sec.:

That break-down is so unexpected, so sweet and so touching; it’s an inspired moment and a great contrast to the frenetic energy of the rest of the song. I couldn’t help but become intrigued by it. It was obviously a quotation from another piece of music… but which one? I had no idea. I asked around, and no-one else seemed to have an idea either. Google was no help. I was certain that the answer must be out there. Where was it?

I searched on-and-off for years trying to find the source of that short snippet of tune, but to no avail. That was a long time ago, now, and I eventually gave up the chase and assumed that this would stay just out of my reach forever. Not that that stopped the tune from being permanently wedged in my head, floating into my mind’s ear every couple of weeks. I couldn’t let it go that much.

About my day job: I’m a World and Traditional Music cataloguer at the British Library, and as such, I get to listen to all sorts of wonderful recordings from all over the world, near and far. In December, I was cataloguing the Vic Ellis Collection of English accordion music, and I came across a tape of Tommy Beadle, a concertina player from Middleton-in-Teesdale, County Durham. I made my way through the 1977 recordings of English and Scottish dance tunes, and about half-way through the tape, I heard this:

Fairy Dell [BL REF C1128/1 C11]

Those first notes! Unmistakable, even after one or two seconds: I’d found it! I found the tune! I literally stood up from my desk and cheered in excitement and a decade’s worth of relief. On C1128/1 C11 was a recording of the tune that Beadle called ‘Fairy Dell’ and played with all the charm of those English village dance tunes. But (as the recordist was helpful enough to note in his documentation), it’s better known as ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie’, an American song written by George W. Johnson and James Austin Butterfield in 1864. It turns out that the song had a vogue on both sides of the Atlantic, and even made its way into some jazz repertoires (including those of Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller and Benny Goodman) before trickling down into the consciousness of Jon Hendricks and making its way into that beautiful cameo role in Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s ‘Popity Pop’. 

How amazing to realise the line of tradition that connects renowned jazzman Hendricks and Durham County Council road worker Beadle – and what a thrill to find that the key to unlocking my decade-long jazz mystery was hiding in the bellows of an English folk concertina in Middleton-in-Teesdale.

A special thanks to Lesley Grey and family, Vic Ellis and Mark Davies for allowing me to use Tommy Beadle’s recording in this blog.

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27 December 2021

Recording of the week: 'Kuli milimo', there is work in the house of the Lord

This week’s selection comes from Edoardo Marcarini, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Inspired by the festive atmosphere, I bring you not one but two recordings this week. These are meant to be appreciated together just like the turkey and gravy some people will have indulged themselves with this Christmas.

It’s 1973 and we are in Zambia, Brian Stubbings is currently spending his second year among the Tonga people of Kafue and surrounding areas. Over the course of seven years Stubbings will record many traditional songs sung on different occasions. This is the case of our first recording, a kutwa song sung by two women pounding grains using a mortar and pestle.

Women pound maize with a pestle in a mortar Women pounding grains with a pestle in Kalabaya village, Chief Sinadambwe chieftancy, Gwembe Valley, Zambia, 1973. Photo by Brian Stubbings.

They sing:

Kuli milimo (4x), kun'ganda ya ba nasi kulimilimo, alimwi cilabilikita yalila, wailesi njemilimo

[There is work, there is work in the house of the nurse there is work]

Kutwa Song [BL REF C1417/2 BD1]

The pounding of the mortar provides a rhythmical framework for the song, while singing makes the pounding more regular and the workload lighter.
You would probably be surprised to hear the same tune sung in a church, yet, that same melody was arranged into a Christian song by the Kafue Composer's Club, a group of dedicated students who worked closely with Stubbings.

The lyrics have been changed, and the rhythmical pounding of the mortar has been replaced by handclaps and single notes played on a kalimba, a wooden idiophone – not to be confused with the homonym lamellophone!

Here, they sing:

There is work, there is work in the house of the Lord there is work

Christian song based on a pounding tune [BL REF C1417/2 BD2]

Re-arranging popular and traditional melodies for religious purposes is a fairly common practice around the world. In fact, I was very surprised when, as a child, I found out Simon and Garfunkel’s 'The Sound of Silence' wasn’t originally an Italian Catholic song.

In this specific case the use of a traditional tune is rather important, as it signals a necessary transition from a purely European form to a more grassroots approach to Christian music that uses local tunes.

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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

08 December 2021

Documenting Bengali music in Britain

Written by Val Harding and Julie Begum from the Swadhinata Trust ahead of their British Library event 'Songs of Freedom: Celebrating Fifty Years of Bangladesh' on 16 December 2021.

In 2016 we set up an oral history project at the Swadhinata Trust aiming to document multi-generational experiences of Bengali music in Britain. The Swadhinata Trust is based in East London and is a secular group that works to promote Bengali history and heritage amongst young people. To date we have collected 30 interviews and various musical recordings that are now available to listen to in British Library Reading Rooms as the 'Bengali music and musicians in the UK Collection' (BL REF C1796).

Swadhinata Trust OrganisationBengali Women and children at Shahid Minar at Altab Ali Park in Tower Hamlets, London, for a trans-national commemoration event © Swadhinata Trust

There has been a South Asian presence in Britain for over 400 years, and music has inevitably played a part in this presence. In the first half of the 20th century lascars and seamen from the north east of India who worked for British owned ships and the Merchant Navy began to settle in London’s East End, the Midlands and Northern cities. The Bangladeshi community of today grew from these roots.

In 1971 the nation of Bangladesh was born after a war of liberation from the rule of West Pakistan, and this year, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of independence. The suppression of Bengali language and culture by West Pakistan was a key trigger in the liberation struggle. The celebration of Bengali language and culture is thus an essential and prominent aspect of Bengali identity in the UK today.

In his interview from our 'Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK' collection, Mahmudur Rahman Benu tells the story of the troupe of artists he led singing liberation songs in 1971. Like many of the interviews in this collection, it is in English and Bengali language and includes many musical demonstrations.

The history of 1971 is again reflected in an interview with singer and songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik who wrote the well known song 'Jessore Road' - inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s 1971 poem 'September on Jessore Road'. Other stories from 1971 come from two sisters, Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair, whose parents were activists in London during 1971.  Yasmin and Rumana sang as children at meetings and rallies supporting the war effort. They describe their experience in this excerpt from an interview:

excerpt of interview with Yasmin Rahman and Rumana Khair [BL REF C1796/15]

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From the mid-1950s through to the 1970s Bengali migrants to the UK faced many barriers. The late 1970s saw the emergence of community activism to fight racism, and with it, a gradual emergence of music that hitherto had been kept hidden behind closed doors. In her interview, Julie Begum explains how her experience of music started when she was a teenager in London, living in Tower Hamlets in the late 80s and early 90s. She describes how her and her Bengali friends were part of the community around the 'Asian underground sound', going to raves in warehouses where artists such as brothers Farook and Haroon Shamsher began to DJ as 'Joi'.

Since then, there has been a prolific growth of music making. Our interviews document migration and musical development in the UK, annual cultural events such as the Boishaki Mela (Spring Festival), music history from Bangladesh and West Bengal, theatre, and the music of the younger generations in the UK and in Bangladesh itself.

These areas are illustrated across various interviews in the collection. An interview with Mukul Ahmed, director of the theatre group Mukul and the Ghetto Tigers, demonstrates the integration of Bengali music and song into theatre. Present-day interest and innovation from the younger generation is illustrated in the interview with a ten-year-old performer, Anvita Gupta. The sound artist Abdul Shohid Jalil talks about his composition of Bengali inspired electronic music. The history of music in Bengal itself is also reflected in the interview with sarod player Somjit Dasgupta.

Bengali music is a broad term that encompasses musical practices in both Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. Before partition in 1947 this was one region, Bengal, sharing the same language, culture and music. The music of this region includes classical, folk and modern traditions, and notable composers of songs such as Rabindranath Tagore and Kobi Nazrul Islam. Our interviews include those who learn and perform these genres, and even present-day songwriters and composers, and the younger generation who are producing a fusion of music that reflects their Bengali and British backgrounds.

Our aim is to document music in the community and the culture that surrounds music. Our interviews are with community members and community music schools. The more professional and well-known musicians that we have interviewed are musicians working with the community, running classes and teaching, and involved in everyday community music making, such as Himangshu Goswami, Mahmudur Rahman Benubhai, tabla player Yousuf Ali Khan, singer Alaur Rahman, and teachers at the Udichi School of Performing Arts. Some of our interviewees are also people from other South Asian and non-Bengali backgrounds who participate and enjoy Bengali music.

Amongst those interviewed who migrated to this country, either as children or adults, there is often an expression of the hardship of psychological adjustment to living in the UK. For some who were practicing musicians or students of music back in Bangladesh and or India there was a period of time on arrival here when they could not find their voice and found themselves unable to express themselves through singing or music in the way they did back home. The process of overcoming this has been gradual, and only achieved through the encouragement of friends and family. These processes are succinctly expressed in interviews with Alaur Rahman, Moushumi Bhowmik and Nadia Wahhab.

We hope you will enjoy the interviews in the 'Bengali Music and Musicians in the UK' collection both at the British Library and also at the Swadhinata Trust. Please get in touch as we are always happy to hear from you regarding any aspect of our project.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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

01 November 2021

Recording of the week: Preserving the Peruvian jarija

This week's selection comes from Catherine Smith, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Last autumn, while cataloguing the Neil Stevenson Collection made in Peru in the early seventies, I gradually started to develop a mental image of Santiago de Chocorvos, a village in the central Peruvian highlands. A few weeks ago, this image was unexpectedly brought into focus by an email containing photographs and accompanying comments sent by Neil himself. It was surprisingly moving to put faces to the voices that had become so familiar.C1103 Neil Stevenson - Men ploughingMaize sowing on terraces in Peru. Men work in groups of three or four turning the earth with a foot-plough - the leaf of a lorry spring lashed to a wooden stick. They chant in rhythm to synchronise the back-breaking work. © Neil Stevenson

The collection consists of Dr Neil Stevenson’s field recordings recorded in and around the village of Santiago de Chocorvos, Huaytará, Huancavelica, Peru, between 1971 and 1972. He was there conducting research on concepts of disease and the recordings mostly document the music and traditions of the region’s various annual agricultural ceremonies and religious festivities throughout the year.

Today’s recording of the week is a jarija work chant, sung during ploughing as part of a Minga ceremony in October 1971. Minga, or Minka, from the Quechua word 'minccacuni' means 'to ask for help promising something in return'. This is a tradition of community work dating back to the Incas. The Minga recorded by Stevenson is the annual maize sowing ceremony held in September and October, to coincide with the rainy season.

The terraced plots on the valley sides are ploughed and sown by a system of reciprocal labour, carried out cooperatively by the landowners. Each owner's plot is ploughed and seeded by his relatives and neighbours. The men plough in groups of three or four, using an Andean foot-plough, called a chakitaklla. The song is intoned by the captain who receives responses from his 'soldiers' [1]. The continuous rhythm of the jarija work chant, along with the chewing of kuka (Quechua for coca leaves) and ‘frequent nips of cane alcohol’ [2] enables the ploughing to carry on at a vigorous pace for several hours.

This excerpt of a jarija, recorded in 1971, is chanted by Faustino Gutiérrez, Justiniano Bautista and accompanying workers:

Jarija chant during ploughing. Minga of Maximo Soto [BL REF C110314 C2]

Meanwhile, women follow the ploughing, breaking up clods of earth with heavy sticks called maqana. They pause from time to time to stand in a group and sing a song called the yarawi into their cupped hands.Women sowing maize on terraced plot in PeruMaize sowing on terraces in Peru. Following the men's ploughing women break up the clods of earth with wooden sticks. Periodically they pause to sing a traditional call and response entreating the fertility of the seeds. © Neil Stevenson

When the ploughing is completed, the workers gather in the corner of a terrace for a maize seed ceremony, during which the women sing the yarawi de semilla (semilla means seed in Spanish). This is followed by a fertility rite, involving the exchanging of flowers. As Stevenson puts it, ‘from this point on there is a general air of licentiousness about the proceedings’ [3]. The men then dig furrows to the rhythm of a slower jarija chant and the women sow the seed.

The work is completed by nightfall and, after further rites, the workers carry the plot owner ‘perched on top of a platform made from crossed foot ploughs’[4] back to his home where they enjoy a large meal of traditional dishes, including one example of each food that the earth provides [5]. After the meal, there is a party involving a singing and dancing competition called the jachua, recordings of which are also in Stevenson’s collection. The songs and joking continue well into the night.

In a letter to the BBC Sound Archive written in 1974, Stevenson indicated that these are rare and ‘probably unique’ recordings of the Minga tradition at this time: ‘the ceremony was previously widely celebrated in this form in Peru but is now found only in a very few places and the complete form, as I have recorded, has not been discovered anywhere else.’ [6]

The ceremony has in fact continued to this day in Santiago de Chocorvos, as this video demonstrates. In this other YouTube video, made by the organisation ‘Quechuata Rimay’, Juan Huachin gives further insight into the tradition. Juan and the interviewer demonstrate a jarija chant at 8 minutes 06 seconds.

Stevenson’s recordings inspired my contribution to the British Library Sound Archive’s NTS radio programme on work songs from around the world. The hour-long selection includes the jarija work chant featured in this post, followed by the equally haunting, yet energetic women’s yarawi song. Like in this modern recording of the ceremony (at 2 minutes 02 seconds), we can hear the men’s jarija in the background whilst the women sing.

Should Dr Neil Stevenson see any of these videos, I can’t help wondering if he might recognise some of the families from fifty years ago. Thank you Neil, for the wonderful recordings, photographs and insights.

Further reading and listening:

[1] Neil I. Stevenson. Andean Village Technology: An Introduction to a Collection of Manufactured Articles from Santiago de Chocorvos, Peru. Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 1974.

[2] Neil Stevenson. Music from Highland Peru. BBC Radio 3, 1974. [BL REF C1103/29 S1 C1]

[3] Ibid.

[4] Neil I. Stevenson. Andean Village Technology: An Introduction to a Collection of Manufactured Articles from Santiago de Chocorvos, Peru. Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 1974.

[5] Neil Stevenson. Music from Highland Peru. BBC Radio 3, 1974. [BL REF C1103/29 S1 C1]

[6] Neil Stevenson. Letter to Jillian M. White, BBC Sound Archive. 25 July 1974.

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