Friday, 10 September 2010
Saturday, 10 July 2010
Moon River performed by Frank Sinatra
I find that beautiful music is one of the greatest stirrers of memory. When I was regularly playing hotels in London, the masculine half of a very polite and well-dressed older couple asked me if I knew a song sung by Nat King Cole called 'Too Young.' Being rather a fan of that era of music, I confessed that I did and even had the sheet music handy to make sure I was faithful to the tune. Surprised and somewhat overjoyed, he returned to his wife excitedly in anticipation.
When I came to their request, I looked over halfway through my somewhat exaggerated performance and to my astonishment saw that the couple were holding hands over the table, watery eyed and wobbly of lip; when I concluded the piece, I was quite taken aback and launched into a few more jolly numbers. After a while, the lady of the couple rose to leave and her husband scampered over to the piano brandishing a five pound note. "Not necessary" I said quietly, smiling. "Oh rubbish, buy yourself a drink!" I continued to play as he stood by holding out the note and I concluded the piece and thanked him for the gesture. "You know" he began "that really meant something to me and my wife. When we got married, that was a top tune and you see, we had married very young. I always thought it was being sung about us!"
There is one piece of music that fundamentally altered my perceptions of music appreciation and creation, one piece that enticed me to my first sheet music purchase, one piece I never tire of and one piece which has such warm, long-ago-and-far-away memories that I find it hard not to well up when I hear it. Moon River, the theme from Breakfast at Tiffany's composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, is known to most people.
I first encountered it during a viewing of the film with my mother, who adores old movies. A mere whippet of a lad at the time, it was very unfashionable to be so visibly affected by music but affected I was - slightly tearful in fact - and I soon made a trip to the sheet music shop in town where I purchased a copy for £2.50. At my next piano lesson, I placed it silently on the piano and waited gravely for my tutor's reaction. I had expected disapproval as she was a Chopin and Mozart sort of musician and 'popular songs', I believed, would be distasteful to her. To my surprise she adopted a girlish smile, turned to me and said quietly; "I remember this one. I'm glad you want to play it."
It is a love song, certainly, but not one which gushes meaningless phrases of admiration or worship; it is about an understanding, a blushing moment of recognition between two people. It sounds less like a person discovering the love of their dreams and more like someone finding love in their best friend; "We're after the same rainbow's end/waitin' 'round the bend/my huckleberry friend..."
There is certainly an intentional reference to the Deep South in both the music and the lyrics - many versions include plucked guitars and harmonicas - but this song has a power beyond Savannah, Georgia. This recording, though not the original, is particularly moving. Sinatra's idiosyncratic voice is showing age but this weariness is peculiarly appropriate for the song. This sequence is the most heartbreaking in the entire recording. Frank's voice and the strings swell for the climax; and a beautiful arrangement by Nelson Riddle comes to the fore - a lilting string melody that comes after ''rainbow's end" leads into a beautiful acoustic guitar which sits perfectly next to Sinatra's last few lines and then wanders up the scale and off into the sunset. Music making par excellence.
Saturday, 19 December 2009
Piano Concerto No.5 "Emperor" by L.V. Beethoven
Do not be fooled by the inclusion of Napoleon's imperial portrait. The 5th piano concerto had, apparently, nothing to do with the famous French emperor.
It was given the title 'Emperor' not by Beethoven, as he himself loathed the ruling class, but by others because of its particularly grand style. Ironically, 'the Beast' was once an admirer of Napoleon but was so enraged when he crowned himself Emperor that he tore up the piece he had dedicated to him; his third Symphony, the "Eroica." Though evidently a masterful musician and a composer of extraordinary genius, when it came to politics and reality, Beethoven was hopelessly credulous and naive.
In addition, Beethoven had a notoriously thunderous temper, earning him his sobriquet, and was frequently unfair and cruel to household staff, friends and family. He was arrogant, tough and even unfeeling - the very picture of the patricians he held in such disdain.
Though admired, he was not liked. His favour with the court in Vienna was uncertain, his social skills were poorly developed but he had a revolutionary and extraordinary approach to writing music that meant he provided a unique bridge between the old world of Classical music and the new world of Romantic music.
He influenced Chopin, among others, with piano concerti such as this in which the instrument comes to the fore; he skips up and down the keyboard with great freedom, a style which was initially shocking to the conservative audiences of Vienna, and, in this particular sequence reveals the measured majesty of his mind. Like his "Pathetique" adagio cantabile, the notes themselves are simple, the rhythm is gentle and calm but the overpowering sophistication of that simplicity is an extraordinarily difficult trick. Beethoven was possessed with these powers, and here it is shown to great effect.
Friday, 18 December 2009
Zadok the Priest by G. F. Handel
It is without doubt that George Frideric Handel wrote some of the most energetic, powerful and memorable music in history. Like many composers, he is largely known, sadly, for a handful of compositions rather than his greater body of work. His operas, though rich, emotional and splendid, were largely forgotten until the renewed interest in baroque music in the mid-twentieth century; a considerable investment of time, talent and his own money that bore little fruit in his own life.
He is mostly associated with the Messiah oratorio, the Water Music Suite and the Music for the Royal Fireworks. A closer look at his body of work reveals an impressive diversity and depth;
42 operas; 29 oratorios; more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets; numerous arias; chamber music;a large number of ecumenical pieces; odes and serenatas and 16 organ concerti. He was an outrageously fast worker, writing the entire Messiah in three weeks, a court favourite of George I and a great philanthropist.
Zadok the Priest was one of four anthems commissioned for the coronation of King George II in 1727. It has been played at every coronation since. Considering the lack of 'great' English spectacle-composition talent since Handel (apart from Elgar) this is perhaps unsurprising. However, for such a piece to hold sway in years when baroque music was embarrassingly out of fashion is testament to its power and incomparable beauty. Though the chorus, with the high trumpets, positively drips with majesty and regality, it is the beautiful strings that begin the piece that make it such a fantastic processional. This selection is my favourite sequence of that opening. Initially, the pace and the lightness of the strings indicate an eagerness and an excitement. Then, instead of remaining in the major key, Handel takes us down, albeit briefly, into the minor key from a dominant chord. Though certainly not unlike him, or indeed other baroque music, for a processional that was commissioned to be positive, encouraging and glorious, it is a risk - but one that pays off enormously. It makes the work multi-dimensional, not simply monarchist background music, adding a touch of intrigue, emotion and romance to what might have been, in less worthy hands, a bombastic, self-righteous and dated composition.
Standing the test of time, this selection is a perfect example of what Mozart and Beethoven referred to as Handel's mastery of 'effect.' The former said that "... When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt." The latter that one should, "...go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means."
Beethoven was more complimentary of Handel's powers than almost any other composer and declared him "...the master of us all... the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb."
Sunday, 15 November 2009
Stella By Starlight (written by Victor Young) - Percy Faith and his Orchestra
Stella By Starlight is one of the most beloved jazz standards of all time. Quirky, bouncy interpretations by the likes of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald have ensured that the song is kept on the exclusive playlists in the underground jazz parlors of the world, as well as in the minds of many a jazz enthusiast.
However, this 'song' started life without lyrics. It was, to begin with, merely an instrumental theme in a Ray Milland feature called 'The Uninvited.' The popularity of the 'theme' encouraged an official 'song' release and in 1946 Ned Washington penned the now famous, if slightly peculiar, lyrics for what was intended to be a big band standard.
This 1960s orchestration by the legendary Percy Faith is far closer to the original 'spirit' of the piece than any of the charming interpretations since. It is extraordinarily lush and melodramatic, something which adds to rather than detracting from the quality of the piece. The soaring romance of the strings requires this kind of tear-jerking sensitivity; the light echo at the tail end of this piece is an excellent example.
This sample picks up at the end of the second, vigorous repeat of the refrain and fades out into a beautiful violin and cello duo, with trademark Faith vibrato that brings to mind a tearful scene from a black and white movie romance, with the high echo following taking the melody up from the depths and bass of the repeated refrain to a subtle and celestial ending that slows mournfully.
The shame is, music of this calibre of arrangement is largely ignored today. It is considered to be schmaltzy, weepy and indulgently saccharine. I do not share this view. There is magic and wonderful skill in this interpretation; it is gorgeous and indulgent but it is not the lesser for it. It takes those fabulous falling chords and wrings an exquisite and startingly melodic flourish. A perfect ending to a rather perfect tune.
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
'Larghetto' from Symphony No. 1 by S. Rachmaninov
One of my favourite composers, Sergei Rachmaninov was one of the greatest musicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. A virtuoso pianist with enormous hands, the aristocratic and rather diffident Russian is probably most famous for his Second and Third piano concerti; less vaunted are his symphonic works.
Indeed, this 'moment of magic' is actually from a piece that Rachmaninov effectively disowned due to a disastrous premiere and savage critique, courtesy of Cesar Cui. Apparently, the conductor was drunk and stumbled clumsily through this work, his Symphony No.1, which resulted in Rachmaninov leaving the performance before the close and descending into a deep depression that was to prove to be a creative prelude of titanic importance. He stopped writing for years, but when he finally composed again he produced one of the greatest piano concertos in the history of music: his Piano Concerto No. 2
This sequence is from the 'Larghetto', the slow, beautiful poem sequence of the symphony. I love the elegance and tenderness of this passage. It evokes a hazy, dreamlike recreation of an impossibly idealistic past. Rachmaninov, ever the nostalgic, was often dreaming of a 'finer' time. His era was tainted with civil unrest, revolution and war; shadows which he turned from as he dreamed of the past and perfect summer days on his family's estate. Nothing is more romantic than Rachmaninov. This sequence reveals his mighty talent; some of it is reminiscent of a Borodin nocturne and it certainly has a little dash of Tchaikovsky's ponderous majesty but the feeling generated by this Rachmaninov melody is unique. That there should be such depth of feeling, such strength of imagination, such wonder in the mind of a 24 year old man is incredible. This is classic Russian romance; effortlessly beautiful.