With Christmas approaching I’m squirreling through my various review piles, and have come up with these suggestions as to gifts for the music-lovers in your lives.
Pride of place must go to a sumptuous packaging of all nine Beethoven symphonies recorded onto CD by Sir Simon Rattle and his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This is an orchestra which has Beethoven coursing through its veins (the first-ever complete symphony recording was one of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, set down by the BPO under Artur Nikisch in 1913), with Herbert von Karajan its most renowned martinet conductor since the years of regular recording.
Rattle is no such podium prima donna. He and his BPO colleagues collaborate in well-honed accounts of the symphonies, joined for the 9th by Simon Halsey’s amazing Rundfunkchor Berlin, as well as impressive soloists. In a way this release is a testament to Rattle’s long residency with the BPO (almost as long as his time with the CBSO), and there are many bonuses, with interviews with Rattle, plus a documentary flying-on-the-wall about working on this Beethoven cycle, various Blu-ray video discs, and an extensive booklet (Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings).
Mention of Artur Nikisch brings us to Sir Adrian Boult, who studied under that great conductor in Leipzig around the turn of the 20th century, and to my next recommendation for Christmas.
Boult’s performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, given in Canterbury Cathedral, was the first-ever classical music production filmed in colour and broadcast on BBC2 in 1968 (dear reader, I was there, glued to the family screen), and now it has been released in a handsome DVD format by ICA.
The cathedral itself plays a major part, not least the gargoyles during the vicious Demons’ Chorus, imaginatively lit and filmed as a counterpoint to the music’s progress. And what a revelation is this performance!
Boult, despite his own manual on conducting forbidding the overuse of the left hand, lets his own left hand mirror the right so often, as his mile-long baton drops below players’ sightlines, and ensemble from the London Philharmonic Orchestra is accordingly occasionally ropey.
But who’s cavilling, when this is an amazing, valuable performance, significant for so many reasons. All three soloists sing from memory, freedom from printed scores allowing them genuine expression of body-language. Janet Baker, still at an early stage in her illustrious career, is a radiant Angel, the guardian of Gerontius’ soul, John Shirley-Quirk is magnificently authoritative as the deathbed Priest and as the Angel of the Agony, and Peter Pears is simply outstanding as Gerontius.
He makes one slip (“the hurt has wearied me”, when it should be “pain”), but so what? This is a totally engaged assumption of the role, intelligently delivered, his hands mostly clasped but occasionally unfolding to genuine effect. I’ve never heard “Use well the interval” sung so significantly. Pears was soon to record Gerontius for the Decca label under the baton of his life’s partner, Benjamin Britten.
There’s a bonus to this release, with an hour-long DVD recounting Boult’s biography from cradle to grave. Time and again we see photographs of him at various stages of his life, and always the eyes are magnetic, charismatic - such a contrast from the popular image of him as a buttoned-up military blimp.
CBSO fans will be thrilled to see footage of the much-loved onetime CBSO concertmaster Felix Kok leading the Philharmonia in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings (and I think I spied Barrie Moore, onetime CBSO associate leader, alongside him). And the whole biography is narrated by Boult student Vernon Handley.
Further Elgar comes with a recent treasurable package from SOMM, releasing gems of Elgar’s work in the recording studio previously unknown to the general public. “Elgar Remastered” brings four CDs of test pressings plucked from the composer’s own library, now in the collection of Arthur Reynolds, chairman of the North America branch of the Elgar Society.
Lani Spahr has done the remastering, there are extensive notes explaining the sometimes complicated provenance of these gems, and the delights unearthed herein are the stuff of dreams: alternative takes of the Cello Concerto, some in stereo as the result of two recording sources, as well as an historical curiosity which has Beatrice Harrison playing the Concerto’s adagio to the piano accompaniment of HRH Princess Victoria; a complete performance of the First Symphony; and too many goodies besides to mention.
Finally, a book which will be a source of delight to anyone who attends concerts. “Who Knew?” announces itself as ‘answers to questions about classical music you never thought to ask’, and is derived from a regular series broadcast since 2006 on the Californian radio station KUSC, hosted by Robert A. Cutietta, Dean of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.
There are some crass questions here, but most of them are shrewd and apposite: Why is an oboe always used to tune an orchestra? Why do orchestra conductors use a baton, while choral conductors do not? I worry about the musicians of the orchestra: isn’t their hearing likely to be impaired, since they sit so close to each other? and other questions galore.