Vaughan Williams 5, culture wars, and the language we use to talk about music

My latest musical squeeze is inspired by the NDR Philharmonie/Manze Beethoven extravaganza I wrote about in the previous post.

Vaughan Williams 5 (and 6) from the RLPO conducted by Manze released 18 months ago demonstrates the conductor’s love of detail which, coupled with similarly forensic production techniques, brings out silky smooth string textures, ensemble staccatos that gently but efficiently puncture the score like a staple in a 50 page document, and precision pianissimo articulation that brings me out in goosebumps all over.

The third movement lento is a particular favourite – what sounds like a love letter to someone that triggers a sense of pride, warmth, and solidity. The woodwind tuttis are the kind of creations that make me want to reach for my clarinets and find the nearest band with VW 5 in its music pad. The cor anglais is to die for. A ravishing thing.

I hear the third movement as roast beef, stinging nettles, ploughed fields, and hedgerows. It’s not sentimental or nostalgic. The character isn’t easy to read at first, but its the complexity that makes that character beguiling. Introverted for sure. There’s a whiff of self-doubt in there somewhere. But, on the whole, the character holds his or her head high throughout, self-belief growing with every dynamic swell in the score. There’s a sense of hope stitched into the score that elevates the mood, building on that innate personal resilience. And come the final almost imperceptible chords there’s a hint of resolution, as though something has been aired or laid to rest.

Questions questions questions

And there in lies the answer to the year-long question I’m posing myself: where, when and why do I interface with the art form? What effect does it have on me? And what does that say about my mood or my needs?

In the case of VW 5 even as a whole, it appeals right now because of it’s relative newness to me. I’m sure I’ve heard the work before, but I wouldn’t have been able to recall it. Hearing it this week in a recording that leads on detail and texture, it is the immediacy of the writing that appeals the most. It as though VW’s score is written in a ‘clean’ musical language that surfaces nuanced and sometimes conflicting emotional responses.

The optimism that exudes the work, coupled with that experienced discovering and responding to it over the past 48 hours is tinged with an observation about the way we talk about classical music, and the way those who talk about it talk to one another.

Over the past few months I’ve connected with a variety of organisations that seek to reach out to newcomers – online, on-air, and via the live concert experience. Common to all of these connections is the pervasive view that classical music is like a prickly bramble to the uninitiated. And beyond classical music, the idea that a deeper appreciation of music as a whole – how it works and it’s effect on us – is anathema to achieving the widest reach.

I see it in pop and rock music too. I’ve spent twenty two years living with a serious music lover whose gateway is lyrics and who revels in country, rock, and musical theatre. It’s not unusual for the pair of us to spend a long Friday night listening to comparative recordings of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park, for example. Different recordings bring different insights, forging different personal connections both with the music and with another.

Avoid detail at all costs

I am beginning to wonder whether this is the exception to the rule; that the vast majority don’t consume music in this way; that to acknowledge the impact music has on us is to set us apart and even unwittingly elevate people like me from the masses.

Is that how a love of music in all its constituent parts is seen by others? I fear it is. And if it is, one wonders whether there’s much point in trying to advocate the artform as a map accompanying a journey exploring the self.

Put another way, how do point people from music as entertainment towards the place where music has a deeper impact on the soul? Or at least point them in the direction of where music can have a deeper impact on the soul?

This isn’t a question of good and bad music (whatever that means) or making a value judgment of one genre of music or other. All genres have the potential to touch the heart in the way that VW5 has done on me this week (just in other ways for other music heard by other people). But there is undoubtedly a resistance to go deeper.

To go deeper is to hint at superiority it seems. That saddens me a great deal. Because that means the bigger challenge isn’t about writing about a particular genre in a ‘more accessible way’ in order to avoid ‘alienating the audience’. It means that the challenge is to support consumers of music as they understand the impact their chosen music has on them at a particular time. No one seems able or willing to do that.

The view from the steering wheel

Those that do feel comfortable discussing music in these terms find themselves in the middle of a culture war. No surprises really. That culture war is going on everywhere. That’s why its a culture war. Viewed from my metaphorical steering wheel, I see some questioning whether those with privilege dead or alive have the authority or right to advocate the value of music education for all. Some even question whether advocating music education for all is to deny the greater need of a ‘fair’ education for all. I’m a rabbit caught in the headlights when I consider the permutations for this particular question.

On the other side of the steering wheel I see commentators still arguing the toss amongst themselves about who is the authoritative source regarding the commentary on music. Some journalists under threat from a dwindling editor’s budget (because no one will pay for content) continue to posit that the unpaid self-publishing writer cannot be compared to the proper paid journalist in terms of knowledge, experience or connections. The ‘amateurs’ respond (understandably) indignantly. Just at the time when you’d think we’d all be united, the cheerleaders paid or otherwise are eating one another alive.

Warning: two metaphors in one blog post

I’m mindful of expressing any stronger view than that. Those who know me well will know what part of the fence I sit on and, given that the undergrowth below looks a little rough underfoot with a great many nasty looking barbs, I’m inclined to remaining sitting where I am. But what I see seems on the one hand utterly ridiculous, and the other infuriating. Everyone who talks about the way we talk about music adopts a defensive stance whenever anyone celebrates detail or dares to look under the bonnet. Expertise and passion has been demonised.

One can either argue each point (where did that get us over the past four years?) or we can go back to the core offer: the music. As I write VW5 is drawing to a close. A final call from the woodwind is passed on the strings.

The last few bars of harmonics in the first violins underpinned by a pillow of violas, cellos and basses leads to a conclusion: being resolute, and living true to our personal values is the best we can possibly hope for. Maybe, just maybe, like-minded souls will join us.

Beethoven 5 and 7 from Andrew Manze and the NDR Philharmonie

Beethoven isn’t my go-to composer. Never has been.

There’s nothing wrong per se about the man’s music. There is melody. There’s drama. In his symphonic works especially the textures in his orchestral writing are highly satisfying.

The problem is (or maybe it’s not a problem) I admire the creative achievement in the same way I admire a beautiful woman: I see it (her/them/they), I just don’t respond to it.

This odd position on Beethoven’s music (some would say contrary) is not fuelled by my usual resistance to hype of the kind we’re no doubt going to experience when Beethoven 250 gets into full swing this year. Sure, I’m curmudgeonly and despise following a herd of sheep. No. this is because there’s a hint of Beethoven leaving me cold.

But. This.

Tasty cover design; tasty typeface; brilliant music making.

Andrew Manze conducts Beethoven’s 7th symphony with the NDR Philharmonie in a release out last Friday. And it may possibly be a recording which helps me determine my ‘way in’ for appreciating Beethoven, if not actually responding to him emotionally.

Manze’s career is quite something. Back in the early days of my short-lived arts admin career, Manze was powerful force in the world of historically informed performance, in 1996 asssuming the associate directorship of the Academy of Ancient Music.

At that time there was an implicit assumption that this was the world Manze would continue to inhabit because of his in-depth knowledge, expertise and resulting reputation.

His appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2018/19 season threw light on a career I had overlooked. One which on closer inspection reveals a seamless and early transition from baroque to full-scale symphony orchestras in a relatively short space of time: 2006 working with the Helsingborg Symphony; 2008 with the Norwegian Radio Symphony; four seasons with the BBC Scottish; plus a whole host of guest spots with international bands to boot.

I think I can detect his historically informed roots in many of his subsequent symphony orchestra recordings. I hear a drier, tauter, earthier string sound thoroughout the first movement of his Beethoven 3 with Helsingborg. In fact, the strings in the second movement especially in the oh-so-quiet sections are a thing to behold – a kind of delicate precision that makes me think the idea of which can only have originated from those ‘authentic performance’ days.

And bringing out instrumental voices normally lost in the mush of a romantic sound can only be something that draws on his historically informed performance days (the opening movement of Brahms 1 on CPO from 2012 with Helsingborg features a bassoon line like I’ve never heard in Brahms’ epic symphony).

Whilst I’m not quite so enthused about his Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ with NDR from 2018, I do have this inkling that maybe the latest NDR release of Beethoven 7 is something great because of the way it echoes those same characteristics I hear in the Helsinborg Beethoven 3. If that really is the case, then its Manze who’s making that happen, because that’s the point of consistency.

There’s a starker string sound in the Beethoven 7 release, most evident in the opening of the second movement. Drier. Deader. Smoother. Everything has a chilling feel: not frightening; just something imperceptible; a question in search of answer.

And sticking with the second movement, there’s a committment to drawing out detailed articulation in the bass line. A mushier more romantically driven interpretation would gloss over those details, but here everything is given the necessary space for display.

At the same time, Manze’s speeds give the work fleet of foot. No one is languishing in tawdriness. The pulse keeps thing moving on. There is life, drive, tenacity and determination throughout.

And come the prompt final movement the all important detail that has driven things throughout is given its moment. Never has a grinding pseduo pedal-note bassline been quite so needed nor so gratifyingly experienced as 7’08” onwards. Props to the horn section whose taut articulation in the high register is something to behold. And at the time of writing I can’t quite put into words what I’m hearing at 6’32”, but I want to call on it whenever I’m in need of a bitter dispute, because with that kind of explosives in your armoury you’re bound to win the battle.

Does this recording make me love Beethoven? Does it make me think I might learn to love Beethoven? I’m not sure yet. But it does help me understand one way to appreciate his achievement: detail. There is so much detail to be heard in Beethoven’s music.

There are two bittersweet thoughts which emerge from that observation.

First, the inherent pathos in the story of a man who couldn’t hear but scored so much detail in his manuscripts.

Second, the present day assumption pedalled by those who claim to champion classical music that newcomers will be frightened off by detail.

Here is a composer whose love of detail was arguably fuelled because of his impairment.

And yet we deny the thrill of his music to those who don’t know it because we condescend that newcomers won’t understand or appreciate that detail? Tsk.

Listen to Beethoven 5 and 7 from NDR Philharmonie and Andrew Manze on Spotify

London Chamber Orchestra with Oliver Zeffman

London Chamber Orchestra plays Waley-Cohen, Mozart and Sibelius at Cadogan Hall

Technically speaking, this isn’t a concert review. Some of the experience was hampered by my unpredictable and still hacking cough, meaning I needed to duck out of the concert temporarily. Never have I been forced to leave auditorium quite so soon after a much-anticipated Concerto performance began, nor received such a clear signal so swiftly to do so as I did from the curmudgeonly audience member sat beside me.

So I ended up spending 30 minutes listening to George Li play Mozart 23 via the Cadogan Hall foyer monitors, clear enough to hear some moments of mildly disappointing intonation from the woodwind in the second and third movements; denied the opportunity to languish in LCO’s efficient lush string sound. Li’s encore (I forget what it was – Chopin?) was spectacular, prompting those of us in the foyer to lean in, focus and take a much needed moment to pause and reflect. Electrifying stuff.

Once a number of Strepsils had been administered I rejoined my plus one Lorna at the back of the auditorium for the second half performance of Sibelius’ 3rd.

Neither of us had heard it before. For Lorna it was only the second or third time at a classical music concert.

The back seat of the stalls isn’t a bad place to listen. The balcony overhang creates a cosy feel but doesn’t affect the acoustic adversely. The LCO played with spirit, enviable precision, warmth and ebullience – it makes a massive difference to me to see musicians visibly enjoying what they’re playing. Great energy exuded from the stage creating three movements of wonder and delight. I was transfixed.

The second movement in particular had a tenderness about it that was both playful and maybe even flirtatious. The gentle syncopation gave things a flirtatious feel. Deft. Listening back to Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic, it is the gentler pace adopted by conductor Oliver Zeffman with the LCO this week that I respond to more immediately. There was lift and drive, but a genteel kind of pace that created an appealing whole.

Word too on Zeffman whose generous confident conducting style seemed to draw out key musical lines throughout the concert, empowering musicians to shine. Sometimes I wanted him to take his time walking onto the stage in order to establish a more assertive presence when facing the audience. But there is a charming enthusiasm and pride in his work and the band he conducts. A strong horn section drove the Sibelius forward in the moments it needed it.

Freya Waley-Cohen’s UK premiere of Changeling displayed some enviable melodic lines for bass clarinet and violin, spikey string sequences, and enticing atmospheric scenes full of mystery and portent. A busy week for Waley-Cohen too – present at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday and at Wigmore Hall for a premiere the following day.

London Chamber Orchestra are back at Cadogan Hall on 9 February and 25 March 2020. They appear at St John’s Smith Square on 6 May 2020. They are heartily recommended.