With Christmas almost here, Chris Morley suggests a few festive treats.
Now we’re in the run-up to the festive season, here are a few suggestions music-lovers might like to put on their list to Father Christmas.
The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham has always proved controversial, famous for his quips and barbs (sometimes unnecessarily offensive), and occasionally cavalier in his tinkering with whichever score was under his baton.
But he was always a stylish musician, and amazingly generous to many of his contemporaries, not least composers Delius and Richard Strauss. A new book by John Lucas brings us the most rounded portrait of Beecham to date, combining factual detail with sympathetic affection.
Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music comes with a bonus CD of Beecham rehearsing one of his “own” orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic, with accompanying notes by Symphony Hall’s own Lyndon Jenkins (Boydell Press, £25).
Ashgate Publications have issued studies of two composers with close links to the CBSO. John McCabe has had several works premiered by the orchestra, and the EMI recording of his Second Symphony and song-cycle Notturni ed Alba, conducted by Louis Fremaux with soprano Jill Gomez, became an immediate classic.
He is also a Birmingham Royal Ballet favourite, with his scores for Arthur and Edward II, and last year featured on the SOMM double-CD release of music celebrating the 80th birthday of Moseley-based John Joubert. And just at the edge of our region, he is a regular presence as composer and enthusiastic concertgoer at the Presteigne Festival.
For many years I have joined John in his quest for good real ale, and bargain recordings in charity shops – a characteristic perhaps the only omission in George Odam’s charming compilation Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe , an attractive evocation of this attractive man in his 70th year (Ashgate £35).
Somewhat more cerebral is Nicholas Maw: Odyssey by Kenneth Cloag, part of the Landmarks in Music since 1950 published by Ashgate (£35).
The longest single-movement orchestral composition in existence, Odyssey is a crucial work in the history of the CBSO. Simon Rattle only renewed his recording contract with EMI on the understanding the company would record live his performance with the CBSO at Birmingham Town Hall in October 1990 (it was issued a year later).
The occasion aroused immense critical interest, many of the London pundits’ comments reproduced in Cloag’s earnest book. Unfortunately there is no quotation from the Birmingham Post’s music critic, who juggled with a huge two-volume score on the Lower Gallery shelf during the performance whilst writing a “live” review for publication next morning. But it’s still a worthwhile read and formidable analysis, and comes with a double-CD of that CBSO concert.
Simon Rattle crops up again in a tremendous DVD release of Wagner’s Die Walkure, filmed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July last year in a joint promotion with the Salzburg Easter festival.
The orchestra is Rattle’s own Berlin Philharmonic, and an excellent cast in Stephane Braunschweig’s stark, attention-focusing production is headed by Willard White as a moving, tormented Wotan. An attractive insert-booklet includes what might have been an insightful interview with Rattle, but for the clumsy translation – unnecessary anyway, when I assume the original conversation would have been in English. (BelAir Classiques BAC034).
More great Wagner (in music and interpretation) comes with a release of Parsifal, recorded at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on May 8, 1971.
The main attraction here is the conducting of the legendary Reginald Goodall, his pacing of the wonderful score measured but so glowingly detailed. For once the title character emerges as a genuine personality in Jon Vickers’ portrayal, and a generally amazing cast includes Norman Bailey, Michael Langdon, Donald McIntyre, the lovingly-remembered Amy Shuard, and Kiri te Kanawa as one of Klingsor’s flowermaidens.
This Medici Arts release on ROHS012 is a must-have companion to the Chandos release this year of Goodall conducting Die Meistersinger at Sadler’s Wells in 1968.
But if Santa can only bring you one present this Christmas, make it the Hyperion recording of Honegger’s Une Cantate de Noel, the composer’s last affirmation of life written while he was dying from heart disease.
This is a moving journey from the depths of despair, through a thrilling amalgamation of Christmas carols in various languages (Honegger was Swiss), and subsiding into quietly confident acceptance of salvation, and I defy anyone not to be moved by it.
The orchestral writing is tautly delivered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Honegger’s compatriot Thierry Fischer, the choral contributions from the BBC National Chorus of Wales and various children’s choruses are magnificent, and James Rutherford is the eloquent baritone soloist.
Get this however Scrooge-like you might feel (as I do) about the general Christmas razzmatazz (Hyperion CDA67688).