Monday, 24 November 2014

Alfred Schnittke at 80

Today would have been Alfred Schnittke’s 80th birthday. He didn’t live to see it of course; he died in 1998 following a decade of desperately poor health. But he’s still with us in spirit. His music has gone up and down in popularity since his death, but it has never disappeared. In fact, a handful of his works, covering a variety of genres, have achieved central positions in the repertoire. His historical status is secure.

Schnittke has always been a controversial figure. In the years since his death, the new music world has increasingly polarised into conservative and progressive tendencies. Composers of tonal neo-Romantic music have been embraced by the establishment (at least in the English-speaking world) and no longer feel the need to make excuses or highbrow theoretical justifications for what they do. Schnittke is not among that company, but for many of his critics, the concept of polystylism is just such a justification, an intellectual disguise for reactionary tendencies.

He really belongs with the Modernists. But today’s advocates of Frankfurt School progressive values are increasingly besieged and isolated, and have little time for a composer who was very consciously at the edge of that world. In fact, Schnittke actively sought to destabilise the progressive paradigm, to challenge its insularity and claims to superiority. So perhaps it is of little surprise that he has ended up largely excluded from what remains of it.

Schnittke came to global attention in the mid-1980s. He was the right man at the right time for the classical music world. Just as organisations – orchestras and record labels in particular – began to acknowledge the cultural stagnation they were causing through the continual recycling of an Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, Schnittke provided a revealing, and damning, self-image through which to play out that Angst. The whole phenomenon was a process, a fast one at that, and transience was inevitable. Another problem was the marketing line that presented Schnittke as the heir to Shostakovich, a valid comparison in some ways, but one with little relevance past the fall of the Soviet Union.

The fact that Schnittke lived and worked through the Soviet times has added an extra dimension to the debates about progression and reaction, populism and artistic worth. The American scholar Peter J. Schmelz argues that Schnittke’s advocates push his dissidence too far, and that his use of tonal idioms aligns Schnittke’s music with state cultural policy. Put crudely, polystylism is Socialist Realism.

It is a provocative polemic that contains a good deal of unhelpful exaggeration itself. Listening to Russian academics railing against this view brings back unwelcome memories of the Shostakovich Testimony debate, though it is unlikely to come to that. But Schmelz’s argument demonstrates how difficult it is to untangle the cultural politics of music written in Soviet times. Schnittke’s own political views were conservative, though he would probably use the term “traditional” himself, but his artistic outlook was not. He was much like Stravinsky, determined to retain and promote established cultural values, but in radical ways.

Perhaps that is why Schnittke’s reputation is so complex today, and so different in different parts of the world. In Russia, he is still a central figure in new music, but different generations approach his music with different agendas. However indifferent he himself felt about the political struggles of the 1980s, his music became a symbol of resistance, and many in Russia still hear it in those terms. That has caused a generation divide, with many younger musicians treating Schnittke as music of the Soviet past, with little relevance to the new Russia. On the other hand, the explicitly religious music he was writing (often covertly) from the 1970s parallels the resurgence of the Orthodox Church, creating a continuity into modern times.

In the West, Schnittke remains closely connected with the Russian diaspora. His global reputation was established by leading Soviet musicians touring his music in the 1980s, particularly Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet and Mark Lubotsky. Another important name here is Mstislav Rostropovich, already living in the West, but as keen as any of his colleagues in Russia to promote Schnittke’s work.

Many performers of Schnittke’s generation continue to champion his music. Their recorded legacy is also formidable. Almost all of Schnittke’s major works have extensive discographies, and in many cases the benchmark recording is the first, with the dedicatees providing versions that have yet to be surpassed.

Younger performers needn’t lose heart though. Schnittke’s music demands interpretation, it needs performers who can give individuality and emotion (another factor that puts it at the peripheries of Modernism). There are many significant textual issues with Schnittke’s scores, because whenever a performer suggested a change in rehearsal, he invariably said yes. He wasn’t interested in performers simply giving a presentation of the notes on the page, he expected them to live the music and to reimagine it in every performance. As a result, the recorded legacy of the music’s first performers is not definitive, whatever its quality. Performers continue to be drawn to Schnittke’s music for just this reason, and every new performance and recording has something different to say about it.

Some lament the passing of Schnittke’s period of extreme popularity, and it is a great shame that his orchestral music is not played more. But, from the sheer number and quality of recent recordings, it is clear that his solo, chamber and choral music is as popular as ever. Schnittke’s legacy remains complex, with scholars and commentators likely to debate its significance and value for years to come, but the music itself lives on because it continues to inspire and engage musicians from one generation to the next.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Scottish Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra

Yesterday, Norman Lebrecht published a blog post entitled: Scotland will lose an orchestra ‘the morning after independence.’ The text that follows doesn’t mention a source for this, suggesting he is quoting himself. Instead it gives a précis of an argument, first raised in January by critic Ken Walton, that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra would disband in the event of a yes vote in the independence referendum. Lebrecht tells us “The BBCSSO is funded from London...” as if to imply it is funded by London, and then goes on to speculate about how the, as yet unnamed, new Controller of Radio 3 might make economies to their budget. He concludes with a reference to “a journalistic view from Scotland,” which, he says, “does not markedly differ.”

Well actually it does. It differs quite a lot. The link is to an article by Kate Molleson published in the Guardian on Saturday, an excellent survey of the issues raised for classical music in Scotland by the referendum, and far more balanced and informative than either Lebrecht’s polemic or this one. Molleson cites the SNP’s white paper on the foundation of a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, which would “initially be founded on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland”. The implication is that this would include the BBC’s Scottish musicians. That’s not explicitly stated, but nor is it denied.

Molleson spoke to Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. Hyslop points out that “only two-thirds of the revenue from Scottish license fees is currently spent on BBC Scotland”, and that therefore “the future SBS could be more lucrative, and more culturally ambitious, than the present BBC Scotland.” Exciting talk, especially coming from a cabinet minister (imagine hearing such statements in Westminster).

Clearly, there is some uncertainty here, but all the indications are that a fledging SBC would have both the resources and the motivation to maintain the BBC SSO as a flagship ensemble for the new corporation. The political climate in Scotland, as demonstrated by Hyslop herself, is far friendlier to the arts than in Westminster. And the orchestra itself is in a perfect position to represent the increasingly dominant nationalist sentiment and pride. It is, as Molleson notes, one of the finest orchestras in Europe, and it is currently led by Donald Runnicles, perhaps the best, certainly the best-regarded, Scottish conductor since Alexander Gibson.

A letter from the Scottish composer Bill Sweeney appeared in the Herald on Monday making some very sensible points on this issue. The biggest threat to the BBC SSO, he says, is the BBC itself, and that “Previous axe-swings have rid [the corporation] of the BBC Big Band, Scottish Radio, Northern Dance, Midland Light, Northern Ireland and Training Orchestras without much concern for UK-national or regional sensibilities.” The letter is followed  - same link – by one from veteran broadcaster John Purser, who recounts depressing details of the BBC’s last try at disbanding the BBC SSO, in 1987. Scare stories about the end of public broadcasting north of the border are, says Sweeney “based on the idea that Scots do not have enough appetite for culture or enough smeddum to preserve and develop the rich and multifarious artistic landscape that is so evident around us.” He goes on “I suspect - and hope - that we will see a more positive interpretation of our cultural prospects expressed this Thursday.”

Right. Not that you’ll ever read views like these expressed in the (British) national press, which, presumably to further its own ends, has been deliberately underestimating the Scots’ smeddum throughout the debate. But the arts are not under threat, and the BBC SSO is in an excellent position to thrive in an independent Scotland. As with so many other aspects of the referendum, the London-based media insists on presenting as a crisis what can, and should, be seen as an opportunity.

Friday, 12 September 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Proms

What a great Proms season! A packed two months of music making, the quality almost continuously high, and a good number of real standout performances. Of the concerts I attended, almost all were excellent: Iván Fischer’s Brahms, Runnicles’ Salome, the Seoul Philharmonic. The CBeebies Prom got a middling writeup from me, but my then three-year-old daughter loved it, and has talked about little else since. Gergiev’s Mahler was the only dud I got to, and Rattle’s Matthew Passion was the only one I heard on the radio and was glad to have missed.
But all up, the Proms team has done us proud, and done far more than just keep London’s musical life ticking over while its resident orchestras are away on their summer tours. How lucky we are to have this festival, unparalleled in both scale and quality.
I’ve complained about many aspects of the Proms before, and all those issues remain. First there’s the Albert Hall (in case the image above is misleading – I’m not suggesting we drop it on Russia). The acoustic is a much-discussed and divisive issue. All I’ll add is this: Don’t sit in the circle whatever you do; you’re better off at home listening on the radio. Then there is farcical charade of only publishing the programme ten weeks before the season begins. There’s the bizarre territorial politics of the Arena. And don’t get me started on the Last Night.
None of this is going to change anytime soon, so let’s accept the Proms for what it is and just enjoy it. The flipside to the acoustic issue at the Albert Hall is the atmosphere that the venue is able to generate, and that’s a precious thing. A highly anticipated concert here attracts a buzzing audience, and the enthusiasm of Prommers is regularly cited by performers as a reason why the event is so special to them. And every concert is a real event – just look at the social media coverage.
This year’s season marks the end of Roger Wright’s tenure, and he leaves the festival as strong and vibrant as ever. Not so with Radio 3 sadly, but it’s difficult to tell how many of the station’s recent woes are down to him. Wright will be succeeded by separate controllers of the Proms and Radio 3, and the former job certainly looks the more attractive. Hopefully, the new director of the Proms can find similarly effective ways to gently reinvent the traditions, and possibly even deal with some of the bigger problems too.
In the mean time, I’m off to my last Prom of the year; a star orchestra (the Gewandhaus) doing the Beethoven Nine. That’s one of the few persistent Proms traditions I’m not going to complain about. Saturday’s flag-waiving aside, this looks set to be a fitting conclusion to a great season.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Classical Music Documentaries Online

There seems to be an increasing number of classical music documentaries on YouTube these days, but it’s hard work keeping track of them. So I’ve drawn up a list, as much for my own benefit as anybody else’s. A quick trawl around the site (and I’ll confess, that’s all I’ve done) pulls up all sorts of things I never knew existed. A lot of these documentaries date from the 1980s and 90s, a time when television, in the UK at least, took arts coverage more seriously than it does today. There are some real gems from Barrie Gavin and Tony Palmer, and later John Bridcut and Bruno Monsaingeon. I’ve stretched the definition of ‘documentary’ to include Ken Russell’s extravagances – it seemed a shame not to, and most of them seem to be here.

A large proportion of these programmes were made by the BBC, and I don’t know if the Beeb is aware that they are currently online. My hope is that the Corporation considers accessibility to be an aspect of its public service remit and is therefore happy to let us see them. If not, I hope this post won’t hasten their demise. On that subject, please leave me a message if you find any of these links are now dead. Also, if there is anything I’ve missed (and I’m sure there is), please put a link in the comments and I’ll add it. In the mean time: Enjoy!



Bach: A Passionate Life (John Eliot Gardiner) 

Great Composers: Bach (BBC 1997)

Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer (Robert Hilferty)

BBC Great Composers: Beethoven

The Genius of Beethoven

Beethoven's Eroica (Simon Cellan Jones BBC 2003)



Alban Berg documentary (Barrie Gavin, BBC)



Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger (Bruno Monsaingeon)

Four American Composers: John  Cage (Peter Greenaway, 1983)


The Women Behind The Music (James Rhodes, BBC, 2010)



The Debussy Film (Ken Russell, 1965)



Delius: Composer, Lover, Enigma (John Bridcut)



Elgar: Portrait of a Composer (Ken Russell)

Elgar - Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle (Ken Russell 2002)



Glass - A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts (Scott Hicks, 2007)


Portrait of Sofia Gubaidulina (BBC, 1990)

George Frederick Handel BBC Documentary

Liszt in the World (University of California Television)


BBC Great Composers: Mahler

Mahler (Ken Russell, 1974)
What The Universe Tells Me (Documentary on Mahler's 3rd Symphony)

The Mystery of Dr Martinu (Ken Russell)

Four American Composers: Meredith Monk (Peter Greenaway, 1983)

BBC Great Composers: Mozart

BBC - The Genius of Mozart.



The Prodigal Son (BBC, 1991?)  



BBC Great Composers: Puccini



Harvest of Sorrow (Tony Palmer)  



Steve Reich - South Bank Show (2006)



The Unreal World of Alfred Schnittke (BBC 1990)



Bogeyman -- Prophet – Guardian (Barrie Gavin, 1974)



Schubert Documentary



Igor Stravinsky Documentary



Shostakovich against Stalin, The war symphonies (Larry Weinstein)



Richard Strauss -Remembered



BBC Great Composers: Tchaikovsky



BBC Great Composers: "Richard Wagner"



Tomás Luis de Victoria - God's Composer (Simon Russell Beale, BBC)


The Passions of Vaughan Williams (John Bridcut, BBC, 2008)



Vivaldi and the women of the Pieta



Pablo Casals - BBC documentary



Wilhelm Furtwängler Documentary (BR/BBC c. 1970)

Glenn Gould – Off The Record (CBC 1959)

Glenn Gould On The Record

Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (Francois Girard 1993)

Genius within The inner life of Glenn Gould (2009)


Imagine Being a Concert Pianist

The art of Belcanto - Edita Gruberova

How to Sing Bel Canto: World Singers (1961)

Anne-Sophie Mutter Documentary "A Portrait"


Sviatoslav Richter The Enigma (Bruno Monsaingeon 1998)


Rostropovich The Genius of the Cello (BBC, 2011)


Maestro or Mephisto: The Real Georg Solti (2002)


Stokowski at 88 (1970)

The Reluctant Prima Donna

What Makes a Great Soprano?


Toscanini "The Maestro revisited" (1967)


What Makes a Great Tenor?



Imagine - The Story of the Guitar


The Harp - BBC Documentary


The Art of Violin


Birth of the symphony: Handel to Haydn (AAM)

In The Ocean - A Film About The Classical Avant Garde:


Howard Goodall's Story of Music (BBC 2013)

Leaving Home - Orchestral Music in the 20th Century