Sunday, 12 March 2017

Now is the night one blue dew…

As Louisa May Alcott once said – or words to that effect – you should never meet your heroes; although, mostly, I have found her adage to be quite incorrect. And yesterday evening, in Cheltenham, offered up yet more glorious proof. Ever since chancing upon her divine voice, and exchanging thoughts with her keen intellect and considerate personality – all across the digital divide – April Fredrick has long been someone I have wanted to encounter in the flesh – even if only to hear that voice…

But it is that voice we must pay attention to – I want to say Heather Harper, such is the almost-mezzo evenness (even creaminess…): but this is Janet Baker as soprano… – painting pictures with each word, each note, each pertinent melisma. (April’s microscopic rubato and expression simply on the duplet of “quiet” is transcendent… – and captures in one word her persuasive, apparently guileless rendition: the enunciation of a rich sincerity. The technique is imperceptible.

…unhindered by anything but my own deficient ears.

“That voice”, is so, so pure, though, that the very molecules of air it cuts through seem proud, seem glorified by their elemental excision. It floats, too, when required (and effortlessly, too); but even its most reserved confidences have the power to carry to the Pump Room’s furthest corners (where your weeping correspondent silently sheds a private tear or twelve).

In all my years of music, I have never experienced a timbre quite like this – one with such a direct line to the core of my soul (bypassing my mind; and even my heart). It gives the impression of being another instrument; and yet the meaning emerges crisp from the evening air wrapped around the small child she has so instantly become. The face and body elucidate, too: every sinew in unison; as entranced and enraptured by this music and its performance as those around her. It emerges, newborn, spontaneous; oblivious to the ‘real’ world. This is happening only now, in a newly-created truth: deep in that youngster’s mind.

It is rare that music evokes such true rapture; that its performance is so powerful as to transport us so very far afield.

You hear what I was trying to say, heard my heart as I sang… when I was pouring my whole heart, soul and craft into the intensity, honesty and lived reality of that moment.
– April Fredrick (personal correspondence)

And this work could – surely must – have been written for April (although she tells me that she will understand it more as she herself grows older; and therefore better sing it – which I both believe, and am astonished by). Even in rehearsal, that voice projecting into the orchestra – sharing it with them and David: so that they, too, understand, acknowledge, and share in this child’s transfiguration (April’s word, not mine) – it refuses to be dissipated by Pittville’s Regency dome.

This is surely Barber’s masterpiece – and with an alluring, haunting melody at its heart that recurs both in the piece, and frequently in your mind, willingly, for many days after… – and should therefore be so much better known; more frequently played (especially as in this recording: such an honest, intelligent, compassionate reading from everyone involved – and infused with April’s individual experience and affection). I have to be candid, and say that I found it one of the most difficult musical works and renditions to review: not only because of its piercing beauty, but also the emotive reactions and sensations it continues to provoke in me. My habitual pile of scribbles took a long time to emerge: my pad, at first, left blank at the music’s undeniable impact. I had to stop, and take a long, deep breath of the fresh Warwickshire air… – such is its power.

There is not really that much more I can write here that I didn’t state in my original review of the same piece, above – Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – recorded live with the same conductor; except to express my continuing astonishment at the stunning range and depth of Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra’s proficiency (even after the remarkable performance of “the saddest music ever written” which preceded it). However, I really should have remembered their soul-bruising rendition of the (so, so much sadder) Largo from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Even so, I would still have been flummoxed. For, perhaps, this – amongst all their amazing qualities – is their USP? The ability to never stop surprising: no matter what the challenge; the genre; the technical necessities; the force (or lack of it) required.

They are the most perfect accompanists, of course: absolutely in harmony with April; watching every subtle gesture of David’s; struggling, themselves, not to be moved.

What I was even more astonished by was the ‘dimensionality’ of April’s performance. Listening to the CD, you can – somehow – feel her breaching the boundaries, the limits of that medium’s communicability: reaching out to you (just you). And, yes, of course, there is a reason we all travel to concerts to experience the mayfly notes of live music; but, again, she transcended even that: not just opening up that third dimension, but taking us beyond, into something so personal, so intimate. Not just breaking the fourth wall, either; but entering a microscopic fourth dimension, where only you and she exist: bound together by the music and such intense concentration… and, of course, intense and instant belief: a bubble so fragile, and yet so infrangible.

Normally, knowing the tears would flow – and, my goodness, as torrents… – I would close my eyes, and let them come; but, here, I would have been a fool to do so. (I have written so many times, on here, about the difference between ‘acting’ and ‘being’ – but this seemed beyond either. She simply inhabited that small child’s space – her “sphere of possession” – from the very moment the music – and oh, what music! – commenced.)

At the end, the look of loss on her face, of almost astonishment: her lips quivering; biting back the almost-tears. And yet this was the same countenance that had expressed so much anticipatory delight at the arrival of a streetcar. Never has a performance been so immersive. So real. So tangible. The return to stark reality such a painful, electric-shock jolt.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

“The saddest music ever written” is, of course, the moniker oft given to the same composer’s Adagio for Strings – which, as gorgeous, and tear-jerking as it is, isn’t even his saddest (for which, parts of Knoxville must be truer contenders… – especially that ending…); and which, possibly because of my hearing loss, I prefer in its original form: as a key part of his enthralling, cyclical String Quartet in B minor, op.11. [By the way: it was even voted the world’s “saddest piece of music” by BBC listeners! (However tempted, I make no, ahem, further comment: lest I am accused of even more snobbery than usual!)] It is an extremely beautiful piece of music, though; and an extremely challenging one with which to open a concert: David requesting stillness from the string players of the CSO – and them rewarding him in kind.

However, as David pointed out, just before the afternoon’s rehearsal began, the climax of the work is in a major key; and is followed by a sequence of major progressions. “All is context”, said April. And perhaps we only hear this music as mournful because we have been told it is so. (The lyrics of Knoxville are similarly equivocal. Those final – perhaps even cruel – words, above, are guaranteed to make one doubt; weep, even. But can you securely capture the emotions behind those tears, in your own words…?)

Used as I am to (and so in love with) the sparseness of the Orchestra of the Swan, this was fabulous stuff. Rich, rich string playing – but still with space between each line: so that melodies emerged deep from within the large expanse. The cellos’ moment (led by Stephen Pett) in the sun was particularly glorious. The low quiet entry after that high, held zenith of throbbing ecstasy thrilling in its contained earthly growl. And, yes, I could hear that famous release as exultant: a cry of pleasure rather than of pain…. [The same could be said, too of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – or Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – surely?]

Bar this small arrangement of an excerpt, Barber is virtually unknown over here – as are far too many wonderful North American composers: Walter Piston (the king of modern classical orchestration); Virgil Thomson; Elliott Carter; and George Rochberg (try his stunning Fifth Symphony), being a select few, amongst a truly great many worth listening to. And amongst those still alive are some truly legendary names: Ned Rorem; Terry Riley; John Luther Adams; and my current personal favourite, Paul Moravec. We may think of classical music (whatever that is) as a European pastime: but I really hope that David and the CSO are proving, with this series, that there is so much more to it than that; and that it flourishes in all parts of the world. In fact, in some ways, the States are in the lead – if my experiences over there are anything to go by – their symphony concerts attended by audiences not dominated by any particular age-group: no matter the age of the music programmed. If only….

After the interval, following the form of the previous concert (which, sadly, I missed), we were treated to Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 in G. For some reason, apart from the Cello Concerto and the ‘Hovis’ Symphony, mine and Dvořák’s paths haven’t crossed very often; and, when they have, I must admit to being just a tad dismissive. But this was glorious…!

Writing what my dad calls “a good tune” may seem to be a long-lost art, nowadays: but, actually, there are still quite a few composers who do have that knack – and, actually, I think it’s always been a tough one; and therefore possessed by very few. Undoubtedly, Dvořák was one of those lucky minority – like his contemporary, Brahms – and from whom they poured. My problem, perhaps, in the past, is that, because he makes it sound so darned easy, I may have mistaken his greatness for glibness. [It’s a bit like Paul McCartney, I suppose: just because he wrote Mull of Kintyre (with Denny Laine) and The Frog Chorus, we mustn’t forget that he is the genius songsmith behind Scrambled Eggs – nor one of the very greatest bass guitarists. (Sometimes, you just have to look past the surface sweetness to see the deep, deep talent that lies beneath.)] But Dvořák was extremely gifted in the melody department. Not only that, but he knew how to develop, to harmonize, to counterpoint and combine, and to orchestrate those tunes… – all to great effect.

That he wrote the Eighth in around a couple of months is all rather depressing… – especially as he created a whole ’nother type of symphony in the process… – but it makes me wonder why he has never been ranked alongside Mozart as a precipitate creator of genius: a composer who manages to produce melodic and euphonic beauty; so deceptively ‘easy’ to hear; and yet, on paper, truly a work of art – of emotional, harmonic, and instrumental complexity. Studying the score the day before the concert, I gained newfound, and instantly profound, respect – and even affection – for this man.

The opening, plangent, legato, tenor chorale in the clarinets, bassoon, horns, trombone and (especially) cellos – almost Elgarian (and almost a march) in its pathos and richness – is a perfect, ravishing example of the man’s fantastic faculty. Yet there is something hesitant about it; something pleading in all those accidentals. This is both subtle and intensely beautiful; and though marked Allegro con brio, was given enough (somehow almost andante) room to breathe by David – with some lovely harmonic touches from the CSO’s second bassoon and trombone, pizzicato violas and double-basses. A transformation to suspended violins, twinkling flute and piccolo; an almighty suspenseful crescendo… – the template for the whole first movement, really… – but all we are led to is a temporary world of thunderous (but still ravishing) tumult: perfectly portrayed by this incredibly talented orchestra; as was the world of mouthwatering mystery which followed (including some, er, ravishing horn calls).

Even when the CSO’s almighty, muscular, pitch-perfect brass are finally let slip, it is not always inevitable that Pittville’s chandeliers will rattle. But here, only a short, hushed, delusive woodwind passage – underlined by murmuring second violins – separated that crystal from an intense fortissimo storm! Again, though, pianissimo soon asserted its rights; its thrilling dominance. And so it went on: that faux Elgarian tune heralding each ‘half’ of the movement – each one an almighty fight between might and light.

It seems there is a dark side to Dvořák that I was unaware of (even though, all week, people have kept telling me what a “genial joy” this work is… – perhaps my troubles run deeper than I think…?). Even when led to redemption, the music feels uncertain – little scampering demons creating an undertow of menace. And, although the label on the front of my score says “G major”, this symphony begins in the darkest form of G minor I think I have ever heard. And yet, somehow, in amongst all that angst, the composer manages to throw in more melodies (major and minor) than he has a right to – manages to make them all play nice with each other (through sunshine and through rain) – and produces something that, although it has its roots in Beethoven, Brahms, maybe even Mendelssohn (as well as Bohemian folk-song), manages to sound exactly like none of them. [Okay. It’s stupid o’clock in the morning; and I’m struggling to explain my conversion on the road to Cheltenham Racecourse. Try reading this – which I’ve just dug up. (I couldn’t imagine I was the only one having problems.) He just about manages to make a little more sense than I do. (Just.)] By the way, whatever the cause for all that darkness; in the end, the clouds clear; and the impression we are left with, before the Adagio begins, is one of warmth and well-being… – and, miraculously, somehow, it doesn’t feel at all forced. (And there was me thinking it fitted perfectly with the preceding pieces: emotion piled upon emotion.)

This is remarkable stuff – Mahlerian (although with touches of Bruckner – or even Wagner – in the brass) in both scope and fulfilment. Even more so, I suppose, when I opened the score expecting pretty tunes (and, yes, knowing the Cello Concerto, etc.). And, yes, we do get those (with attitude). But first, I have something in my eye I need to sort….

The Adagio, for all its beauty, is just as ambiguous as its predecessor: opening with a gentle ebbing and flowing in the wind and strings; and retaining much of that movement’s closing warmth. But it made me wonder, somehow, if we were in some mystical garden, or perhaps sat upon some enchanted beach. And then, yet more of that sudden unrest! But, just as quickly, all was quiet again.

There is, of course, more of that “scampering”, too, in the strings: but less demonic, this time; and less noticeable… – probably because the flute and oboe (of Catherine Billington and Tessa Pemberton) are singing the most beautiful, almost oriental, descant over them: one that leader Caroline Broekman will soon take, espressivo, for her violin. This time it is Puck who is in charge, maybe? (David would make such a good Robin Goodfellow!) No malevolence, as such; just a little warped fun: “Ill met by moonlight”.

But, forte, now: joined by the trumpets and horns – and then trombones and timpani – perchance the rejoicing rude mechanicals; or the king’s men coming home…? But even their triumph is short-lived; and the strings briefly return us to the opening world of Barber. Pillar and post; post and pillar. Contrast after contrast. And yet… somehow it all hangs together. A Mahlerian horn call: and everything bursts into life – including the opening, and that incredible soaring tune: this time, with as much majesty as it can gather. (The horns were spectacular – even for them – so definitely deserve a namecheck: Tom Kane, Laura Morris, Kelly Haines, and Charlotte Montgomery.)

It is hard not to hear this music as programmatic: as a precursor to the worlds conjured up by Richard Strauss. But we do not need to know what agenda, what hand we are guided by – the music is more than sufficient. Eventually – after more marvellous tunes than you can shake a stick at… – we are led to a misleading build of intense, concentrated, lush Romanticism: which, seemingly, after all that has gone before, now cannot even bear its own weight, as it implodes so slowly that it simply seems to fade with time and tide… the faint calls of seagulls (first heard as the movement opened) echoing overhead leaving you only with shivers at the top of your spine, ending only at the curl of your tiniest toe. Perhaps it was a dream, after all. I certainly didn’t want to waken.

Maintaining the symphony’s general ‘theme’: even the tempo markings of the third movement are antithetical: Allegretto grazioso and (finally) Molto vivace. And, just like the first movement, it begins in G minor, and ends in G major. [Okay, we’re only halfway through: but how anyone could describe this as “cheerful and optimistic” music is completely beyond me. Even if the last two movements consisted solely of the orchestra chanting the word “Happiness”, and laughing in time – which, admittedly, would be quite disturbing… – I cannot see how this symphony could be classed as merry. So far, it has been quite darkly emotional, with moments of surface lightness.]

Anyway… this is a waltz: so a good chance the amount of bonhomie is going to be raised considerably. But… there is a gentle feeling of melancholia keeping the movement grounded, despite the marvellously subtle orchestration (he wrote, with all the passion of a newly-baptized convert). Butterflies – their wings a thousand shades of colour and light – glimmering and glistening through the air, cascading like so many ephemeral waterfalls. The CSO’s violins singing with all their might. [My goodness! Ravel could learn a trick or two from this!]

The trio – if it be such – is a gentle rejoinder; a tad more lyrical. Not too emphatic – an outburst in the strings, trumpets and timpani only really half-hearted and brief: the woodwind gradually building and fading from it – yet giving it the chance to repeat. But, again, it is cut short… – although lingers awhile. The first part of the movement recapitulates, rather traditionally, leading to the Coda – …a very strange beast indeed! Not only Molto vivace, but in 2/4 time – so no place for any kind of self-respecting waltz! But it works! Rapid bars grouped into threes. Crash; bang; wallop! At! Last! Joy! (Hush. Hush. Hush. Whisper. Who. Dares.Hu-uu-ssshhh.)

A little relief then: but any sweetness only masks the core bitterness – it is not the root taste; not the one that will linger long on your palate, once all the others have long faded. Here, perhaps, lies regret – or fading anger. Something lost; but never forgotten. And yet the words most attached to the closing Allegro ma non troppo – a “complex theme-and-variations” are conductor Rafael Kubelik’s:

Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle – they always call to the dance!

And yet what we are about to encounter is tempestuous – emotionally and musically – Prospero – initially – at his most incensed. [Bohemian folk-tunes are obviously carved out of granite, and then dipped in Kevlar. They’re certainly not for the twee and faint of heart.]

And, of course, the CSO’s trumpets (Paul Broekman and Chris O’Riordan) are the best in the world! (Now the chandeliers should be very afraid!) Led in by the gentle timpani beats of Roger Clift (thoroughly enjoying himself, on his pedestal at the back of the stage), the cellos (players of the night, one and all) give voice to one of Dvořák’s most transcendental themes – which, once echoed by the violins, actually turns into something quite vicious, before morphing into a war dance that seems to contain every emotion every experienced. Sung by the flutes, it is much more gentle; but the whole orchestra brings tumult, especially in unison. The brass and timpani foreworn us of mayhem – but it only arrives in instalments.

This is a movement which, in its variations, repeatedly challenges each section of the orchestra – but the CSO pull it off with utter panache. (I know I keep saying this: but they could give many a professional orchestra a run for their money – probably because they never ever rest on their laurels.) There may have been furrowed looks of concentration on every single players’ face… but, my goodness, this was playing of the highest order: batting that tune back and forth precisely; at all volumes; and in all combinations. Fearless, too.

But they saved the best – and loudest – for last (as did Dvořák). After some heart-rending beauty – hinting at all that had gone before – the theme, transformed into a new, breathing entity, back in those hard-working cellos again; the clarinets stating its original form… – finally, all subtlety removed, the CSO’s devilish dervishes hammer us into submission: banishing all thoughts of sadness. And so happiness finally triumphs! Fantastic! Smiles all round – and huge heaps of well-deserved applause.

And yet I went home with Cathy White’s thrumming harp in my ears, and April’s angelic voice…

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently…

May God bless my people.

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