So, My Beloved John Wilson, When Are You Going to Conduct Vaughan Williams’s 6th? (Answer Below!!!)

I see your master plan, John. You did Symphonies 1 and 2 last year; this year you’re doing 3, 4, and 5 (but not in that order). And considering the rest of the year you’re going to be busying yourself with Massenet, then the Proms (two shows Friday, 9 August 2019), then I suppose you’ll go on tour with The JWO for the holiday season (UPDATE 27 JULY 2019: NO, THEY’RE NOT!) . So…I’m figuring sometime early next year for no. 6, right? If not early next year, sometime next year…?*

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6 in E Minor
Sir Roger Norrington, Conductor
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (1997)

* I was right! My bonny’s performing Vaughan Williams’s 6th in Nottingham on 15 January 2020 with the BBC Philharmonic (in a program that includes “In the Fen Country”, also by Vaughan Williams).

Roger NorringtonNorrington is the conductor who believes in using no vibrato. “Wobble” he calls it.

And what about 7, 8 and 9? Are we going to hear them next year, or the year after? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s Vaughan Williams’s Symphony no. 6 I’m really after. What a strange piece of music. Even without comparing it to Symphonies 1 through 5, it’s still a strange piece, though intriguing enough for me to want to listen to again and possibly again. (And of course I am eager to hear you, flame of my heart. What a wondrous thing you’ll make of it…)

 

Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto, op.14, Played by Isaac Stern with the New York Philharmonic and Conducted by Leonard Bernstein

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.

Barber Violin Concerto

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.

Violin Concerto “Anne-Sophie” Played by Anne-Sophie Mutter, with the Composer Andre Previn (6 April 1929 – 28 February 2019) Conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra

“Andre was one of the most talented musicians I have known. The trouble is, he was too easily satisfied. He would work with us on a piece and we’d get to a certain point and give a really good performance. Then we’d come back to do it again and he was not interested in going any further. Among conductors, the great ones are always dissatisfied, always trying to go beyond. Andre, once he had done a piece, he had done it. That, for me, explains his decline. He had nothing to drive him on, so he became weary and limp.” ~Anonymous Musician

Previn Mutter.jpegThis is what a string composition written by a loving colleague with a background in film music sounds like.

William Walton Conducts His Viola Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Riddle, 1937

The Viola Concerto by William Walton was written in 1929 for the violist Lionel Tertis at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham; Tertis however rejected the piece, and composer/violist/teacher Paul Hindemith gave the first performance. The work was greeted with enthusiasm and brought Lancashire-born Walton to the forefront of British classical music.

William Walton.jpg

In February 2017 my beloved John Wilson conducted the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra in a rendition of the Concert with Canadian-born violist Lawrence Power. 

Schelomo by Ernest Bloch, Played by George Neikrug and the Symphony of the Air, Conducted by Leopold Stokowski

Counted among one of the greatest cellists in the Golden Age of String Players, George Neikrug is still with us at 99(!), teaching and playing—all the more remarkable for the fact that two years ago he was completely bedridden due to compression fractures in his back. Wonderfully his students, past and present, have rallied around him with financial help and words of encouragement, gratitude and praise. A student himself and chief proponent of the revolutionary string methods of DC Dounis, Neikrug’s students consider him to be the Einstein of string teachers.

Neikrug

Here he is performing “Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque”, the final work in Swiss composer Ernest Bloch’s 1916 Jewish Cycle. Stokowski recorded it with him and called Neikrug’s work “unforgettable”. (Part 2 here.)

Thanks to old friend, violist Vivi Erickson, for remembering her former Boston University teacher for me.

The Hollywood String Quartet and the Hollywood Sound

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 when 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 classical 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.”

Hollywood String Quartet

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 (above): “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.”

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor: Jacqueline Du Pre, Cellist; Daniel Barenboim, Conducting the London Philharmonic

du pre, barenboim
Jacqueline Du Pre (1945-1987) and her husband Daniel Barenboim—the most romantic, tragic musical love story of my generation

Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, op 85, his last notable work, is a cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire. Elgar composed it in the aftermath of the First World War, when his music had already gone out of fashion with the concert-going public. The piece didn’t achieve wide popularity until the 1960s, when a recording by Jacqueline du Pré caught the public imagination and became a bestseller. This film recording is from a 1967 program from the BBC.