Great to see my bonny back in the saddle, beard and all. This is the first concert of a series of 3 by the Philharmonia which was underwritten by a private family trust and partnered with Classic-FM, but it wouldn’t hurt to throw them a few extra dollars around this time.
Before we get to what I think will be a nice and fair assessment of John Wilson’s new recording, a word to some people.
I have always been aware of the tacit agreement that exists between my screen persona Simona Wingand her fans, but let me now take this apt opportunity to state my position clearly: You all have my blessing to do whatever you want with me in your fantasies.
Because whatever you want to do with me in your fantasies is nothing compared to what I want to do withJohn Wilsonin mine. So, go for it.
Now on to Korngold.
I didn’t realize this was still a thing in the music world, but apparently opinions continue to be strongly divided as to whether Erich Wolfgang Korngold—a true heir, by the way, to The Great Mittel European Romantic Tradition—deserves inclusion in the canon some snooty farts call the Classic Repertoire. You know, the one that has Bach and Beethoven and all those other cats. It’s no secret that when you mention the name Korngold, the average music lover’s first thought is of upmarket movie soundtracks (Anthony Adverse—The Adventures of Robin Hood—The Sea Hawk—Captain Blood) and likely never gets around to the fact that Korngold wrote, among other things, the most luscious symbolist opera of the 20th century, Die Tote Stadt, in 1920, and a hell of a gorgeous violin concerto 25 years later:
So it seems like every generation there has to be one nut who comes along and says, Let’s run Korngold past the hoi-polloi again and see if he’ll fly—and if you think I’m talking about you, John Wilson, you’ve got a swelled head. Because the nut I’m talking about is the nut in the CIA. The anonymous nut who got The Company to fund an enterprise back in the early 70s called “The Golden Age of Hollywood Music” and hence to elevate Korngold to the status of Hollywood Royalty—but through his film scores and his film scores only.
But that story later.
We’re here right now not just to size up a new Korngold recording, but to honor the decades-long musical relationship of Andrew Haveron, violinist, former Leader of The John Wilson Orchestra, current Leader of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and conductor John Wilson, whose career in orchestra building started at the age of 22 and hasn’t stopped since.
Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, their latest Chandos release, was going to get my attention with or without the Winsome Lad of Low Fell anyway, as I’m a sucker for this particular style and era of music. But I was glad to learn about their actual friendship as well; for me it explains why the perfect communication that’s so evident here between Haveron and my John (and through him, to the estimable RTE Orchestra) has some of the magic of Barenboim+du Pré, back in the brief days when those two were cooking hot with Elgar.
This is soloist Haveron’s star turn: a warm, fresh, intimate—revelatory even—rendition of a piece that, let’s face it, is kind of like the “Nessun Dorma” of violin concertos. But this is John’s success too. So much of my bonny’s gift for conducting Korngold, as we know, has to do with his insistence on a technique his PR people call “shimmer” but is actually wrist vibrato on strings, a technique in fingering I learned about and taught myself when I was 14 because I liked the sound it made, although when the orchestra teacher put it down for sounding cheap and sloppy I quit it.
But I know the sound of shimmer and you do too. The John Wilson Orchestra practically patented it. John himself still calls for it whenever he conducts Tchaikovsky. It’s in all the high-toned movies of the 1930s (examples above). It’s also in Rouben Mamoulian’s classic film musical Love Me Tonight (complete film here) courtesy of Paramount’s musical director Nat Finston, who understood what he was talking about when, in a certain musical scene, he said he wanted “crying violins”. I could tell what he was talking about when he told me this story 46 years later.
Lastly, a word about the strings in the fourth movement. Yup, there was that “John Wilson Orchestra shimmer”, that famous wrist vibrato anyone who’s ever picked up a fiddle recognizes and has to have come to terms with fairly early in training. We used to wonder if it made our playing actually sound better, and it depends. The Russians and Mittel Europeans used it a lot a hundred years ago. Some call this type of playing now “period playing”. My old boss, Rouben Mamoulian, called this style of playing “crying violins”. He claimed it was his idea to use it in the musical Love Me Tonight, in the “Isn’t It Romantic” sequence.
Most people* seem to discount the idea that Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho is actually a near-perfect work for strings (given that it was written exclusively for strings anyway) and that, given the right setting, is a very listenable chamber piece that doesn’t need to reference the film. Here’s the Tippett Quartet performing this arrangement by Richard Birchall at Kings Place, 2011.
John Mills, Jeremy Isaac, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, and Bozidar Vukotic: the London-based Tippett Quartet.
* Like Mister Grumble. This is the second-most heated debate** between us: whether or not movie music (for narrative films not musicals) can be considered truly concert-worthy.
** (The most heated debate between us is whether Oswald did it or not. This one gets us both really het up, as one of us has a slight connection with the actual case.)
The leader of the Tippitt Quartet (circa 2011), John Mills, is also the leader of The John Wilson Orchestra to date.
On the 12th of September, 2019 my beloved John Wilson appeared at the Koncerthuset in Copenhagen conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, starting off with cellist Andreas Brantelid performing the Saint-Saëns concerto, and finishing off the evening with Holst’s The Planets, which John has perfected to his satisfaction, conducting as he did in 2013 the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Leeds in 4 of the 7 Planets.
Here’s the Goddess’s chosen one, Jacqueline du Pré, playing the concerto with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, her husband Daniel Barenboim at the podium. In the time they had, they did not squander the gift that was given to them to make music together.
Behold the worst review my bonny John ever got and I cherish it because it’s so on the money. But first things first. Samuel Barber completed this Violin Concerto in 1939; a work in three movements, it lasts about 22 minutes. I’ve got this classic 1964 recording and it’s one of my yummier ones.
From Bachtrack: Exaggeration and Disinterest Mar John Wilson’s CBSO Programme
Simon Cummings, 08 April 2019. Great composers—or, rather, their greatest compositions—have a tendency to be able to shine through less than ideal performances. This was the situation that faced us in Symphony Hall last Saturday, though it’s important to stress that the root cause lay not with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, or their Chorus, or with either of the evening’s two soloists, but with conductor John Wilson.
Wilson’s approach to all three works on the programme could be summarised as ‘filmic’. It was as if each piece wasn’t quite adequate on its own terms but needed to be given the kind of superficial gloss that might make it suitable for Hollywood. The resulting effect of this was two-fold: exaggeration of the works’ more obviously lyrical or bombastic high points, and a kind of disinterested flattening of their less show-stopping sequences.
Thus, the contrasting episodes of Copland’s Appalachian Spring felt less like components of a single, overarching continuity than the vagaries of a narrative that kept changing its mind. At its most relaxed, as in the deliciously sleepy, dawn- and dusk-like music with which the works begins and ends, Wilson seemed to have little idea what to do, allowing its inherent prettiness to sound with indifference to pacing, shape and nuance. Only when the material became conspicuously excited did Wilson do the same, leading to a more appealing rendition of the assorted Allegro sections, which were lively and fun. (It’s interesting to note that Symphony Hall’s renowned acoustics, supposedly good for everything, audibly struggle when presented with small orchestras performing tight, crisp rhythms such as those in the Copland, on this occasion making the CBSO sound more than a little swamped.) But in hindsight these only made it more apparent how flat was the rest of the work, with clunky gear changes and a weak sense of connection.
The nature of the material in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto played much more into Wilson’s wheelhouse. The lyrical first two movements contain much that is redolent of silent film scores, which therefore suited the cinematic treatment they received. The sweetness in the music often felt rather cloying and over-earnest—where Copland had been likeable, Barber seemed to be spending all his time desperately trying to get us to like him–but the sense of dialogue between soloist James Ehnes and the orchestra, clearly heard here as equals, was highly engaging.
The Violin Concerto is a problematic work at the best of times, due to its weird structural combination of two emotionally-charged movements followed by an evidently bolted-on presto finale that appears to stem more from a desire to satisfy the demands of the original violinist than from the same creative impulse as the rest of the work. Yet on this occasion, Ehnes’ enthusiasm in the finale was a huge relief, his breakneck fingerwork rising above the robotic pulse laid down by Wilson. Best of all, though, was Ehnes’ even more unstoppable encore, a performance of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata no 3 that took real risks, resulting in such nail-biting excitement that the concerto was almost immediately forgotten.
For all the issues that had manifested in the Copland and Barber, nothing and no-one can stand in the way of the juggernaut that is Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Wilson’s tendency to exaggeration was matched by Walton’s own overblown response to Osbert Sitwell’s libretto. To stunning effect, particularly in the first half of the work: testifying again that the devil has the best tunes, the combination of orchestra and chorus (who, on this occasion, augmented by the University of Birmingham Voices, were simply enormous) during Belshazzar’s unbound, sacrilegious revelries was an absolute riot and hugely involving. Considering the downfall that we all knew was coming next, one almost felt guilty for enjoying it so much.
Bass-baritone Božidar Smiljanić was by turns mesmerising, moving and borderline prophetic as soloist. His take on the introduction to Babylon was masterful, moving abruptly from proudly rattling off a list of valuable commodities to a stern, almost witheringly prolonged articulation of the word “slaves”, concluding with a tender lament for the “souls of men”. Likewise, the almost laughably undramatic moment when the libretto sums up almighty judgement in the wake of all the ungodly merriment in just a single sentence, Smiljanić made profound, as if he were heralding not merely the end of Belshazzar’s days but everyone’s.
Again, though, the music’s more inverted, painful episodes lacked weight, Wilson making them brisk and functional, mere lulls before the storms. When these came, they were overwhelming—how could they not be? But it was just such a shame that the most powerful moments of the concert, such as these, were for the most part in spite of John Wilson’s best efforts, rather than because of them.
Counted among one of the greatest cellists in the Golden Age of String Players, George Neikrug has died, the day after turning 100.
Born in New York, at age 24, Neikrug met D.C. Dounis, a Greek pedagogue, whose revolutionary approach had a profound influence on the young cellist. “Trying to tell you about Dounis’s teaching is like asking me to tell you about a whole science like biology,” Neikrug said. “Dounis put very much emphasis on the most basic things I did like how I played a down bow and an up bow. He would show me how to play a down bow and an up bow and then I would play through a whole piece and he would sit there and practise with me. If he caught me doing one thing wrong I’d have to do it over again so I learned this tremendous amount of concentration…”
It was thanks to his studies with Dounis that Neikrug resolved to devote his life to teaching at schools including Detmold, Oberlin, the University of Texas-Austin and Boston University, whose arts faculty he joined in 1971.
In 1960, Neikrug performed “Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque“, the final work in Swiss composer Ernest Bloch’s 1916 Jewish Cycle. with the NBC Symphony at Carnegie Hall and Leopold Stokowski, who described the cellist’s performance as “unforgettable”.
John’s striving for “The Hollywood Sound” may be a new thing for his popular audience in England, but over here it’s been part of our musical history since before the Second World War. In 1939 violinist Felix Slatkin and his wife, cellist Eleanor Aller Slatkin, founded the Hollywood String Quartet. Their uniquely American style of playing strings quickly won the HSQ recognition and praise from critics around the world when they essayed works from the Classic Repertoire.
Said the Gramophone Classical Music Guide of their 1951 recording of Arnold Schoenberg‘s piece: “This was the first ever recording of ‘Verklärte Nacht‘ in its original sextet form and it remains unsurpassed.”
In the liner notes of one of their other recordings, Paul Shure remembered: “Dynamics were a very big part of our work. Our discussions were always about dynamics and a little bit about tempi, and nothing else. We played with vibrato except where there was a particular effect to be had—no dead left hands were allowed.” This sounds so similar to what JWO concertmaster John Mills said in the web series Sarah’s Music: “John asks us, the strings, to play with so much vibrato that people’s family photos should fall off the TV sets. We’re effectively trying to recreate the sound of the studio orchestra.”