Saturday, April 24, 2010

BBC Proms 2010 - a miserable showing

Last week the BBC published its programme for the Prom Season 2010. Of course I have looked what they had on offer in the realm of early music.

Let's see.
The ensemble Stile Antico brings motets on texts from the Song of Songs.
A concert by Le Poème Harmonique is entitled 'Venice - from the streets to the palaces'.
Musica ad Rhenum plays a programme of chamber music by members of the Bach family.
John Eliot Gardiner conducts the English Baroque Soloists in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.
He also performs Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine.
From the Early Opera Company we get Pergolesi's Stabat mater.
And lastly, the Ensemble Matheus, directed by Jean-Christophe Spinosi, brings arias and instrumental pieces by Handel and Vivaldi.
And that's all, folks!

There are 76 Prom concerts, and just one contains early music, Monteverdi's Vespers. In addition there are matinees and chamber music concerts - the latter mostly in form of lunchtime concerts. The other six concerts are all part of these two categories. Let's assume that there are about 100 events in total. If just seven of them are devoted to early music, that is a pretty miserable showing.

On top of that, the programming is anything but imaginative. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Monteverdi's Vespers and Pergolesi's Stabat mater - as if we haven't heard them many times. Equally predictable is the choice of performers, with really no new names. Nothing against Gardiner, Musica ad Rhenum or Le Poème Harmonique, but aren't there any other interesting performers and ensembles around?

There was a time when the BBC was famous for its programmes with early music on Radio 3. It was the time when I could hardly receive the channel, as I had only access to the medium wave broadcasts. The reception was miserable, and in the summer months - when I had most time to listen - the medium wave was poisoned by that dreadful cricket.

But I was able to pick up an interesting programme now and then. And I regularly listened to the inimitable David Munrow who often had interesting stuff to tell. What has happened since? Now that I have the possibility to listen to Radio 3 in digital quality there is very little which arouses my interest. Now and then there is a belch of recordings with early music, but mostly with mainstream baroque and classical repertoire.

There is the Early Music show. But if it contains recordings of a live event, we only get extracts. If a concert is good enough to be broadcast, why cut it up to pieces?

Very long ago Radio 3 presented unknown pieces by the Italian composer Legrenzi or the German Thomas Selle. Much of what was presented at that time may be much better known today. Even so, there is still much to discover, but we won't hear it on Radio 3. Because of that I listen less frequently to Radio 3 than in those days of medium wave reception.

Not that it is really better elsewhere. In my Dutch weblog I have written about the recent changes in the broadcasting schedule of classical Radio 4 in the Netherlands. It seems early music has almost been banned from the channel. The German channel WDR 3 has always had a great reputation in early music, and regularly produced CD recordings of early music. But some years ago the early music department was disbanded, and it is only now and then that concerts with early music are broadcast. WDR even got rid of its own period instrument orchestra, the Cappella Coloniensis.

Maybe it is time lovers of early music make themselves heard. A little pressure on the various classical channels would not be amiss. After all, early music is an important part of the international music scene. It seems only some managers of classical channels haven't noticed. Time to wake them up.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

East is East and West is West

Among performers of early music of Western Europe there seems to be a growing interest in the musical traditions from the regions around the Mediterranean. In particular interpreters of medieval and early renaissance music try to discover how the musical traditions of Christians, Muslims and Jews have influenced each other. Much attention is paid to the musical culture in Spain at the time the Cantigas de Santa Maria were created. It is probably the emergence of a 'multicultural' society in Western Europe which has led to this interest in the musical traditions of the East.

I would like to pay attention to three recent recordings which shed light on music of the East or confront music from the various traditions around the Mediterranean.

The first is a disc of the ensemble VocaMe (1), which is devoted to the work of Kassia, a female Byzantine-Greek composer who lived from 810 to around 867. She was born in a wealthy family and received an excellent education. She became the abbess of a monastery, wrote a number of poems and composed liturgical music, sometimes on her own texts. The similarities with Hildegard of Bingen are striking. More than 50 compositions are attributed to her, although the authenticity of about half of them is questionable. VocaMe has selected 18 pieces, all on a Greek text. They are syllabic and monophonic, but in this recording most of them are accompanied with a bourdon, either sung or played on an instrument. The result is a fascinating disc of music from a largely unknown tradition. It is Christian music, but with an unmistakeable eastern flavour.

Secondly I would like to mention a disc by the ensemble Doulce Mémoire (2), entitled 'Laudes'. The subject of the recording is the repertoire of the confraternities - often called laudesi -, associations with a spiritual and charitable purpose. In the meetings of these fraternities hymns were sung, especially in praise of the Virgin Mary. In his liner notes the ensemble's director Denis Raisin Dadre writes that during his research into the music of these confraternities "I became aware of the astonishing kinship of organisation and rituals between Muslim orders and Christian confraternities. My meeting with the Iranian singer Taghi Akhbari confirmed these intuitions." This led to a recording in which the laude as sung by the confraternities are confronted with comparable repertoire of Muslim religious orders. The laude are performed by the ensemble Doulce Mémoire, whereas Taghi Akhbari and Nader Aghakhani play and sing the music from the Muslim religious orders. Fortunately any attempt to mix the two traditions - either in the interpretations or in the musicians participating in the performances - has been avoided. That makes this disc an example of a confrontation of East and West which really makes sense.

Lastly, Alla Francesca (3) recorded a programme under the title 'Mediterranea'. "A panorama of the cultures to be found on the shores of the Mediterranean: troubadour songs, laude to the Virgin and estampies from the Trecento mingle with Sephardic lullabies and folksongs collected in Italy", according to the information on the backside. The ensemble makes use of the research into the traditional music and the performance techniques. It is a dangerous undertaking for classically-educated musicians to perform traditional music, but in my view the members of Alla Francesca are giving good performances here. They have not fallen into the trap of trying to sing deliberately unpolished or producing too exotic sounds. There are some influences of Eastern music but these are not exaggerated in a speculative way.

I cannot resist mentioning a disc which is an example of how not to confront East and West. The ensemble Celeste Sirene (4) has recorded a programme with music of the 17th century, including composers like Castaldi, Kapsberger and Marais, alongside traditional Persian music and improvisations in traditional Eastern style. Putting this kind of repertoire together on one disc doesn't make much sense anyway. What is worse: in the performance of some pieces from the West traditional Arabian instruments are used and Arabian-style ornamentation is applied. This kind of 'multicultural' performances lack any historical or stylistic plausibility.

(1) Kassia: Byzantine Hymns - VocaMe/Michael Popp (Christophorus CHR 77308)
(2) Laudes - Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre (ZigZag Territoires ZZT 090901)
(3) Mediterranea - Alla Francesca (ZigZag Territoires ZZT 090402)
(4) Gol o Bolbol: Early Music from Persia and Europe - Ensemble Celeste Sirene (Cavalli Records CCD 336)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Composing is no contest

It seems there are some people who don't like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But I don't think anyone denies his greatness. He is generally considered one of the greatest composers in history. There are more who are almost unanimously admired, like Monteverdi, Mozart and Schubert. But others may have had an important place in history, they are nevertheless controversial as the quality of their compositions is concerned. One of them is George Frideric Handel.

Not a few musicians of fame never perform his music. Gustav Leonhardt, for instance, has stated several times that he is overrated and that his music is rather superficial. Early in his career he has recorded some of Handel's harpsichord suites, and he participated in a recording of Handel's wind sonatas by Frans Brüggen and Bruce Haynes. But otherwise he has stayed away from Handel.

Likewise Philippe Herreweghe, although having recorded many of the most important sacred works of the 17th and 18th centuries, has never conducted sacred music by Handel. I am not aware of any statements in regard to Handel from Herreweghe, but I can imagine him having the same views as Leonhardt.

Recently a Dutch newspaper published an interview with the renowned bass Peter Kooy, who often works with Philippe Herreweghe and Masaaki Suzuki. He is happy to be considered a baroque specialist, but still wants to avoid some baroque composers. He mentions particularly Handel, who may have written well for the voice, but whose music is often harmonically not interesting enough and is missing depth.
Everyone is entitled to his opinion, and if a singer doesn't like a composer he does well to stay away from his music. Performing music you don't believe in doesn't make sense and does the composer, the audience and the interpreter an ill service.

At the same time it is questionable whether it makes any sense to compare composers. One can debate ad nauseam whether Bach is a better composer than Handel or than Telemann, but in my view that is pretty useless. Composers certainly preferred a style of composing, but their oeuvre also reflects the circumstances in which they lived and worked. It may be fascinating to speculate what kind of music Telemann had written if he had been appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig instead of Bach. But we will never know. And had Bach become a representative of the German Enlightenment if he had been Musikdirektor in Hamburg? It is anybody's guess.

Telemann was once considered a composer of rather lightweight music, mainly written for amateurs. That judgement was based on that part of his chamber music which was printed in the early days of the re-emerging interest in baroque music. In recent times other parts of his oeuvre have been explored and it has been recognized that there is more to him than was prevously thought.
We now know that he was able to write in the 'learned' style mostly associated with Bach, and that he had thorough knowledge of the German tradition of counterpoint and did indeed compose in that style. But he mostly did not, because he composed for audiences which didn't ask for such music. And as he embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment in regard to educating people with music he aimed at giving his clientele what it was asking for.

Likewise, Handel was writing music according to the needs and wishes of the circles he was part of. There is no reason to believe his skills as a composer were inferior to those of Johann Sebastian Bach. After all, every would-be composer - or any musician, for that matter - received a thorough musical education. But why would he write music nobody was interested in? It may be true that most of his music is harmonically less interesting than Bach's, that doesn't mean it is less expressive. There are mores ways to express affetti than harmony alone.

Peter Kooy doesn't like opera very much. That is fair enough; he is not the only one. And it is true that a singer who doesn't like opera has little business in Handel's music. Most of his oratorios may have biblical subjects, stylistically they are not that much different from his operas. And the chamber cantatas are a kind of pocket-size operas.
But that is no reason to dismiss Handel as a composer. In his operatic music, whether secular or sacred, he reaches great heights of expression. In particular many of his duets are hard to surpass in that respect.
And even outside the operatic works there are some treasures in Handel's oeuvre. As much as I personally prefer Bach over Handel, I definitely wouldn't like to miss Messiah or Israel in Egypt - two monuments of sacred vocal music -, or his organ concertos.

In my view any composer should be judged on his own merits. Composing is no contest. Comparing composers of different backgrounds and judging them out of their context is basically unhistorical. It doesn't do them any justice, not even the one who comes out on top.