Wednesday, 7 December 2016

From the sublime to the cuniculus (and back again…)


Ten days ago, I wrote

I have been fortunate to hear some truly amazing performances this year: but this was “the very best of the best” – every single musician working their socks off, giving it their all… until those ethereal, pure voices faded beyond hearing. The silence was unbearable. But so was the thought of applause.
     I had wept from start to finish. I could not have done otherwise: my mind in tatters; my heart riven; my soul shattered to smithereens. Good music will do this, of course. But only if played this well.

…but I was wrong. Not wrong in my summation. (The echoes of that night still resonate my very being as an MRI scan will your very atoms.) But wrong in believing such a glorious evening of music couldn’t be surpassed. I probably should have known better. But I didn’t. And I don’t care one fig(gy pudding). Every concert – every experience of art – is a new opportunity for astonishment (a blank canvas, if you will). To enter the arena loaded with expectations and beliefs is, of course, unavoidable. But I try, each time, to wipe the slate clean. All I bring is my prior life; my ability (and willingness) to wonder; my desire (my greed) to be naïve… – in essence, to be Gerontius stood naked before his maker: known; but unknowing.

Like Gerontius, I was rewarded with the deep cleansing pain of perfect beauty. Unlike Gerontius, this was more than momentary (and the better for it). But then – if you consider my worship of music an equivalent religion… – my experience was not dependent on blind trust. My faith was in the substantial. My holy writ, a mere mortal’s manuscript. Blobs of black ink suspended from infinite staves….


Poring over the score for Paul Moravec’s most recent commission for the Orchestra of the Swan: Nocturne for “Solo Violin, Solo Vioncello, Oboe/English Horn, Bassoon & Strings” – a “companion piece” to Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for the same forces, plus a smattering of brass, wind and timpani – it occurred to me that the earlier composer (having had a polite word or two with HG Wells’ Time Traveller) wouldn’t have too many problems understanding his successor’s work. He might be astonished at the freedoms that we now take for granted – sudden, frequent changes of key and time signatures, etc. – but I think, overall, he would be delighted – particularly with the creative freedom that comes from expressing directions to your players in your native language: for example, Moravec’s usage of “Stately”, “Playful, quick” and “Expressive” tempi; and comments such as “evanescing”, “passionate”, and “ethereal”; not to mention the absence (or ‘elastication’) of many of the ‘classical’ rules he felt – mostly – obliged to adhere to.

That the music would be so comprehensible stems, I think, from two causes: first, our reliance, still – mostly – for the composition of classical orchestral music (or whatever term you wish to ascribe to this medium/genre…) on those signs and symbols (those “blobs of black ink”), as well as the ruled lines, of our prededecessors: a melodic language that has continued to evolve – extremely rapidly, in some quarters – but whose core is set firm. Secondly, Moravec’s output is – mostly – located in the same geographic plane of tonality as Haydn’s – although the latter may, initially, be somewhat taken aback at the harmonies, chromaticism, and occasional atonality. This is not to say that the two composers therefore sound in any way obviously alike – although, go hunting, and there are what David Curtis, tonight’s incomprehensibly astounding conductor, called Moravec’s “Haydnesque… use of small motifs appearing throughout the work”; as well as occasional (confessed) hints/traits of neoclassicism – there are 224 years separating their composition, after all… – but rather to demonstrate that you can easily trace a direct line between one and t’other. (I also believe that – because of its structure; that cross-pollination of motifs across movements, etc. – Haydn would agree that this later work also readily falls into the category described by the words ‘Sinfonia Concertante’.)

To be honest, I think Haydn would be as thrilled and moved as I am, hearing any of Moravec’s music – and would thus happily see him as a direct descendant; however many generations of evolution (and revolution) separate their output. [You only have to bring to mind the slow introductions to some of Haydn’s later symphonies – and especially the staggering Representation of Chaos which opens The Creation – to realize that here was a composer who was already pushing hard at the boundaries of assonance and form(ality): one who would listen long and hard to this “melancholy beauty” (as one wise audience member described it), to understand it, and to appreciate it.]


Whatever music it is, however difficult it is, any worthwhile music will speak to any audience if the intention is right. It is all about a mindset of sharing, not showing. Music is communication, an act of love, not a display.
– Charles Hazlewood: Facing the music

Moravec’s previous works made an instant emotional connection with my heart, mind and soul: a connection which has led to a great deal of further investigation. The reason I describe Haydn listening “long and hard”, though, is that – below the apparent surface beauty – there is a whole lot more going on than may initially appear. [I do wonder, though, if his apparent ‘accessibility’ (especially his absence of ‘fear’ with respect to the use of tonality) can actually stop people digging deeper? If so, I am sure they are ‘satisfied’ – this is great music, after all: it ‘succeeds’ in many ways… – but I do worry that they are missing out on the more significant proportion of the harmonic iceberg.]


When we think of nocturnes, we may think of Field or Chopin: music, perhaps, that is to be played at night, rather than of it. However, Moravec says that the title of his new work is “rather to suggest a kind of night music” – that it is “evocative of the nocturnal”.
– Programme note

His Nocturne begins with a tangible air of mystery – one that never really, truly dissipates; order always beyond our fingers’ and our eyes’ reach… – the four stupendous soloists (David Le Page, violin; Nick Stringfellow, cello; Victoria Brawn, oboe and cor anglais; and Philip Brookes, bassoon) initially emerging as magical, majestical creatures of the night: their truncated conversations creeping over susurrating strings (that could be Vaughan Williams’ – albeit a little more atonal). Those opening sustained notes of the orchestral violins and violas almost feel like an extended theme in themselves: contributing to a first movement which seems to be always building… – pulsing like the slowest, transfigured heartbeat… – until, rapidly, it must fade away.

Throughout, though, there is interest in every player’s part; cascades of thickly-woven textures, ever opening and closing. But this being the Orchestra of the Swan – so few musicians on stage; but so much power at hand… – every thread is audible; and the soloists serve to interlace extra detail – often in unison – new colours created with each new pairing. Such wonderful transparency results… – but one that strangely obscures… – and yet each line is in balance, each filament traceable.

For a wanderer of the night, an habitual insomniac, such as myself, this feels intensely personal. It seems that Moravec has inveigled his way into my deepest thoughts; my nocturnal experiences: examining them gently, yet thoroughly, as I ponder the strangeness that darkness brings, surrounded by the comfort of a known, yet invisible, environment; but immersed within an unknown, dimly-imagined, future. Out of them he has created astonishing beauty – at once rich and sparse.

The bassoon solo’s utterance of the simple, climbing theme (a third, then a fifth) – Philip more hushed than one would believe practicable… – creates a backbone from which everything else is suspended: those three notes, their repetitions, extensions and overlaps obfuscating… until what we thought was mist solidifies, crystallizes into shadow. A closing violin ascent – David Le Page as intensely heedful as ever – taking us back to the opening bars. But where is this “creature of the night” really leading us: when, below, a wide, spread unison brings a feeling of enlightenment, of fragile calm, so momentary; and we are so soon enveloped by silence?


Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
– Leonard Cohen: Anthem

All four soloists were utterly enthralling, extremely moving – together and apart – each shining and translucent. And there was no better example of such quality than the opening of the second movement: angelic wings expanding from one solitary note. It was as if they were praying, or intoning some incantation; searching, searching; sighing… – forming a foundation for the almost religious feeling that arose. Initially, the strings were low, foundational: but expanding, growing; now overlapping with the soloists. And yet one cannot help feel that they are breaking free from what has gone before; even from the earth itself – the solo violin always soaring above, always taking the highest line; and sometimes with Victoria’s plangent oboe alongside – more shadowing than shadow.

Clarity begins to make itself known: allowing the soloists to expand their original orisons. Then a slight retardation – immense in affect; heartrending; a huge emptiness opening between high and low, treble and bass. There is something almost psalmodic about this movement – that “religious feeling” ever more apparent… – I feel as if I have wandered by (but cannot rightly recollect) a monastery of ghostly monks turned vapour. So soul-stoppingly beautiful (there is no other word). But it pierces to the very quick.

Such restlessness, too – unrest, even – always reaching, yearning, seeking… – but increasing simplicity (decreasing complexity) tugs, pulls us backward. And yet the closing ascents from the bassoon and then the cello (has Nick ever sounded quite so mournful before; so sadly human in voice…?) bring hope; maybe even fulfilment; devotion rewarded… – yet quietly, tenderly, almost imperceptibly.


Knowing of my pitch-dark explorations; my celestial observations, benchbound in the local churchyard, Moravec joked that “If there is a literal, programmatic association [attached to the third movement], it might be with mischievous little critters scampering about in the night!” Such “critters” are in perpertual motion, here: full of Moravecian impishness; dancing in a tricksy scherzo-by-any-other-name!

The duplicative textures the soloists create hover above the orchestra’s insect-like buzzing at the church’s porch-light; the solo strings soaring into the cloudless sky above. There is lots of “scampering” – but not of a frightening kind: no wicked spirit this way comes.

Out of the constant contrapuntal impatience and rapidity an almost-trio of almost-calmness surfaces momentarily – everything finally coming together. But it will not hold; and evaporates into the air, into thin air. Soloists and orchestra exchange ideas, attitudes, themes – at some points, it’s almost as if the soloists are the accompanists: holding notes over the manic mutterings of the orchestral strings. This is fun – for the critters, at least: the orchestra’s faces filled with joy! A major chord signifies its end…


…and we return to marvellous mystery and melancholy.

Of all the four constituent movements, this final one is the toughest – for the players; the conductor; for the audience. For me, it was the movement which most belonged to the night. On paper, I found it opaque – but intriguing. It has an eeriness that stems from the unknown… – what we see and feel is only a miniscule proportion of that which surrounds us. And yet, over the course of a long day, David and OOTS unwrapped its magic: somehow rendering its many challenges transcendently invisible.

By almost forcing the main body of strings into the background, hiding them almost silently in the shadows which so infuse this work, the soloists are enabled, allowed to stress its melodic qualities; the lyricism that is at Moravec’s generous heart.

The strings climb and accelerate from near-nothingness: repeatedly “evanescing”. The mastery of the soloists evoking an apparently simple serenade over the ensuing unease. The cross-rhythms which so mark this work are like scars upon the page: but emerge as scaling whispers, vaporizing almost before they have begun. Passion – but more unworldly than imaginable – thus builds in waves: pulling you in; pulling you down to the underworld, perhaps?

There are still transcendent highs, however: David (LP) then Nick with ornamental, almost baroque, solos over sustained strings. The unrest never ceases: resolution always out of reach. Victoria and Philip return with the rising motif from the first movement; but the lack of stability rules still, even as the soloists soar to ever greater altitudes.

And then the bassoon ignites even more unrest: until everyone is uttering those infernal, now terrifying scales: the violins, cellos and basses immune until the end.

And then the bassoon ignites an astonishing, breathtaking, lung-pulverizing moment of stillness (if stillness can be marked forte…); of strong serenity. The night collapses into understanding: Philip now expansively echoing that foundational theme with authority; and soon followed by the oboe and violins. One last scale from the solo cello – one last, fading attempt to destabilize paradise found – and our transfigured night is ended: with the most melancholic E major chord I have ever heard! (Is this night fading into day? Or are we simply retreating…?)


This was a rendition with wonderfully controlled playing from everyone involved. From the raw notes on the page, David and OOTS had fulfilled their potential, liberated their magic – fashioning something quite miraculous and mesmerizing – but without any loss of inscrutability.

I will be immensely sad if this is the only time I ever hear this performed. It continues the numinous trajectory along which Moravec has been travelling for so many years; and deserves repeated listenings. In summation: this was a thrilling, disquieting interpretation… – but overwhelmingly enchanting. One which left me with a mammoth lump in my throat; and several large somethings in both eyes. Just short of twenty immersive minutes of deep rapture; and a feeling of bliss… – one that remains many hours later.

Can we ask any more of music than this? That it connects directly with our souls, and leaves them forever altered…? I think not.


Several large gulps of cold Stratford air later, we heard Mozart’s/the greatest symphony. (“Heard” is such a weak word. And I will explain why, momentarily.) But let us first return to the piece which opened the concert, and that inspired Paul Moravec’s remarkable composition: Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major (Hob.I:105).

More ‘concertante’ than ‘sinfonia’ – in form, if not in weight (there are initially surprising bombastic trumpets and timpani) for the same four soloists (oboe, bassoon, violin and cello) to contend with (although they are frequently given their own space, concerto grosso‑style – it seems unfair that this genial work is so rarely performed. (Of course, you could easily argue that hiring four soloists is an expensive affair; but when you have an orchestra of this capability and depth – where not only the principals are capable of such complex solo parts – then I would contend that there is no actual case to be met.)

The opening Allegro has all the wit, melodiousness, development, drama, and contrasting ‘back-and-forthness’, that you would expect from Haydn meshing two such classical forms together; but the four-part cadenza is a real joy – no soloist really dominating; each being passed the spotlight; and ranging in emotion from the lightest happiness to the deepest contemplation (and with a nifty elaboration of the soloist’s usual end-signalling trill that only Haydn could have come up with…).

The violin part was written for Johann Peter Salomon (who also commissioned the ‘London’ symphonies): and it is therefore no surprise that David Le Page is given the greatest number of opportunities to show off….
– Programme note

Also according to that programme note (and who am I to disagree?!): “The central Andante is one of the loveliest movements I think Haydn produced – reminding me, with its explicit emotion, of its exquisite counterparts in the string quartets…” – the soloists serenading us, whilst the orchestra provides gentle, background support. There are moments of breathtaking beauty: with opportunities for all soloists to shine – but David (as stated above) has quite a few more than the others! This was a great demonstration – yet again – of how well the OOTS principals know and respect each other; and, of course, of their great collegial reserves of talent.

The finale is Haydn in stunning, operatic form! David Le Page’s opening proclamation (one of many) transforming into a wonderful – almost comic – aria with orchestral interjections. Bassoon and oboe, then cello, soon get their chance, too, as the singing becomes more lyrical, more thoughtful, more dramatic. It is not long, though, before hints of trademark wit creep into the solos; and the orchestra also return to their playful interjections. “Despite some ravishing adagio recitatives for the violin, the orchestra continually attempt to assert their will.” And although all four soloists seem, at one point, to have tamed them – it is, of course, not for very long. A typical pre-cadenza build; a very short cadenza (sadly). And that’s your lot!

[Just as a footnote… I can’t imagine ever hearing a greater performance of this: not simply because of its relative rarity, but because of the time, in rehearsal, spent finessing the smallest of details (almost as long as the Moravec, indeed). David (Curtis) is no control freak: but he certainly understands how to shape a piece of music, how to shape its story, how to share that with the players, and direct them in telling it so that we, the audience, also understand, and can follow them – and the composer – on their journey of discovery and delight. My goodness, it showed – even if you weren’t aware of what had gone on, earlier in the day, behind closed doors. (It’s all done with smiles, by the way. The whips are reserved for the critics.)]


I thought, for a while, after the interval, that I had died and gone to heaven. Perhaps, though, I had only been temporarily transferred to paradise: for, when I opened my rather soggy eyelids (joy, you understand; although never far away from its converse: knowing that so great a work – and a final symphony, at that – had been composed by someone so young; someone with so few years left to live…), my feet were still solidly planted on the wooden floor of the ArtsHouse.

As to the final work, “reverence” – as well as astonishment – is more than due. It simply does not matter whether you consider Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ the greatest symphony ever written – or merely(!) the greatest symphony of one of the greatest composers who ever lived – it will always stand as an imposing, sunlit monument to the man and the genre….
     Not only is this Mozart’s greatest symphony; but, I believe, individually, the movements that constitute it are the greatest of their kind. It is as if Mozart knew this was to be his last: and therefore put every drop of his almighty talent into producing it.
– Programme note

For someone whose main musical love revolves around a certain Edwardian gentleman with an unmistakable profile and generous moustache, but extends more in the direction of the present than the past (hence my adoration for Moravec), Mozart will always exert an unbreakable hold on me. His piano sonatas were among the first pieces I learned to play; and – as they did for Elgar [pdf] – his compositions laid the foundation of the pathway on which I took my own, tentative, derivative first steps. He has therefore burrowed his way deep into my heart, mind, soul and psyche.

Of course, this is all helped by having musicians perform his music who (apparently) hold similar beliefs. This symphony may be well over two hundred years old: but, last night, it felt as fresh as our recent frosty mornings. No fog, here, though: everything was crystal clear – and not just because (I would argue) the orchestra was the perfect size. That David and OOTS truly ‘get’ what it takes to communicate Mozart in all his moods – from delicate, almost intangible filigrees of beauty, to stupendous, gobsmacking “turmoil – the like of which would not be heard again until the opening bars of Brahms’ First Symphony” (so claims the programme writer…) – just adds another layer of marzipan onto the Bardic Christmas cake!

[If I had one, teensy, reservation, it would be that David has recently started taking Mozart’s slow movements – here, an Andante cantabile “growing naturally into a sometime-syncopated heartbeat of disturbed, doubtful desire… sighing with love” – just a tad (i.e. a couple of percent) faster than I would like. His reading, though, was utterly convincing; and, of course, without a definitive tempo marking, who am I to say that he wasn’t correct? This, after all, is one of the most subjective of musical matters! And I was, after all, weeping rather fluently….)]

There truly is nothing that meets the realistic definition of joy than the opening moments of the Menuetto – “waves of tension built and resolved. This is hope writ large and in triple-time. And yet, somehow, we are left wondering if those aspirations are ever truly fulfilled.” Only Mozart could write such a gloriously happy movement that leaves us questioning ourselves in this way. But there is no doubt about the impact of the final movement. None whatsoever. Especially when played and directed with this much conviction and talent… – just as the earlier two pieces were, of course.

So, if this isn’t the greatest symphony ever written – christened for the king of all planets – surely the elaborately polyphonic Molto allegro which completes it can claim to be the greatest symphonic movement of all time? Those thundering cascades; all that complex counterpoint rendered deceptively transparent…. And then, in the coda, those four-and-a-half magical bars finally arrive: and all the preceding five themes of this sonata-form finale are played simultaneously – as if by miraculous coincidence; and as artlessly as breathing. We may not realize, consciously, that such has occurred; but, deep within us, we know we have witnessed what can only be understood as ‘genius’. No other word is sufficient.
– Programme note


Is there any other musical ending which leaves you so filled with… well, whatever it is that completely convinces so many that there is a higher being? This is life writ as large as it is possible for any art so to do. My shout of “Bravo!” seemed tragically feeble in comparison. The squeak of a dying mouse in the middle of the Sahara; rather than an elephantine roar echoing for days around the Grand Canyon… that Mozart and OOTS so deserved. It will take me a lot of convincing that there is a greater work of music, of art, than this – whatever definition of “greatness” you wish to throw at me. And I can’t imagine it ever being played again with such gargantuan heaps of verve: so much so that the conductor appeared to punch the air with both fists on leaving the stage! But, then again, I’ve been wrong before….

Men must live and create. Live to the point of tears.

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