Wednesday, 19 December 2007

British Music in St Petersburg

We end our posts for 2007 with another piece from Boydell music editor, Bruce Phillips, pictured here in front of the Glinka Capella.

British music does not travel, it is said. Having been dismissed by a 19th-century German critic as ‘the country without music’, Britain produced a whole generation of fine composers and instrumentalists towards the end of the Victorian era and beyond into the twentieth century, most of whom remain relatively unfamiliar in the concert and recital halls of continental Europe. Hats off then to two intrepid promoters of the cause of British music, Edward Clark and Rudi Eastwood, for dreaming up and bringing to fruition their bold conception of a month-long festival of British music that ran from 31 October until 1 December in St Petersburg. Thirteen concerts, recitals, and other events in a variety of spectacular venues offered the Russian concertgoer a chance to sample a wide spectrum of music from Purcell and Boyce to David Matthews and Michael Finnissy, taking in a tasty smorgasbord of music by such composers as Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, John Tavener, Matthew Taylor, and John Francis Brown.

The roster of performers mixed British and Russian soloists. The orchestras and ensembles were all Russian, taken from the incredibly wide pool of highly talented musicians available in St Petersburg. Sponsorship was raised from several British composer and charitable trusts and foundations, the British Council, British Airways and other sources. One of them was the John Ireland Trust, the Trustees of which were attracted by the idea of having Ireland’s piano concerto played in Russia, quite possibly for the first time since it was written in 1930, by a rising star in the UK pianistic firmament, Tom Poster, under the direction of Rudi Eastwood, a graduate of the St Petersburg conducting class. The orchestra was that of the State Academic Capella and the final concert of the festival took place on Saturday 1 December in their magnificent concert hall, popularly known as the Glinka Capella.

As soon as we heard the magical sounds of Delius’s wonderfully evocative On hearing the first cuckoo in spring we knew that we were not going to be disappointed, and the orchestra negotiated this (to them) unfamiliar music as to the manner born under Rudi Eastwood’s firm control.

Then Tom Poster, fresh from his triumph in the 2007 Scottish International Piano Competition, delivered a fluent account of Ireland’s masterpiece, Eastwood proving well up to the challenge of keeping the orchestra and soloist together, no mean feat in the last movement which was taken at an impressive speed. So great was the audience’s acclaim for this performance that Mr Poster sat down once more and played us Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s charming piano piece Farewell to Stromness, thus ensuring the inclusion of the Master of the Queen’s Musick in the list of composers represented.

St Petersburg is the largest city nearest the Arctic Circle and thus presumably furthest away from the Antarctic. It was perhaps appropriate that the final work should be Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica, the symphony he fashioned from the score he wrote for the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. The plan to show the film at the Dom Kino earlier in the week ran up against technical problems, but happily no such pitfalls attended the excellent performance by the orchestra, complete with wind machine, soprano soloist and chorus of women’s voices.

I also attended a challenging piano recital by the pianist Jonathan Powell which took place in one of the gallery rooms in the house of the painter Isaac Brodsky. One’s eyes were drawn to a magnificent portrait of Chaliapin while one’s ears took in a wide ranging anthology of unfamiliar and technically challenging British piano music from Sorabji to Finnissy all played with supreme assurance by Mr Powell. One’s ears were grateful for the occasional relief provided by music by York Bowen, Frank Bridge, William Baines and John Foulds, and also by Powell’s own attractive piece Barcarola. Only when we returned for a second visit to this fascinating collection of paintings by Brodsky and his contemporaries did we see tucked away the portraits of Lenin and Stalin—Brodsky having been the only artist allowed to portray Lenin in the early days of the Revolution.

At another concert, this time in the hall of the Sheremetev Palace, the Modus Quartet, a fine ensemble of young players from the St Petersburg Conservatoire, played Sir Malcolm Arnold’s second string quartet, and were joined by Tom Poster for a grandiloquent performance of Elgar’s Piano Quintet. The first work in the programme was Tavener’s settings of poems by Anna Akhmatova for soprano and cello. Only after I had returned to the UK and studied the excellent Companion Guide to St Petersburg by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes did I realise that Akhmatova had lived there for many years after the Revolution.

Audiences at all the events were good, and their appreciation of the chance to hear so much unfamiliar music was palpable. There are plans to repeat the festival next year, and one can only applaud all those involved, either as administrators or performers, for having successfully brought off this deeply impressive event. More information can be found at their website.

It only remains for us to wish you a very happy Christmas and a peaceful 2008. We will begin the New Year with something about Lord Berners.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

What Next?

Paul Griffiths is one of the University of Rochester Press’ favourite authors. His biography of Jean BarraquĆ©, The Sea on Fire, is a scholarly and imaginative triumph, while his collection of occasional pieces and reviews, The Substance of Things Heard, was described as “illuminating, translucent, sagacious” by the TLS. Griffiths is also an accomplished librettist, and here he writes about recent performances of his collaboration with one of modern music’s greatest composers:

New York, December 12, 2007: Yesterday was Elliott Carter’s 99th birthday, celebrated with the fourth and last performance of a terrific production of his lone opera, What Next? A librettist’s point of view may not be unbiased, but for me this was the best presentation the piece has had. Jeffrey Milarsky, conducting the young AXIOM ensemble, led a musical performance that found so much rapture, wonder and wit in this extraordinary score, and Christopher Alden directed a staging that brought the drama of disconnection into tight focus. There was also an outstanding cast. Susan Narucki gave a driving intensity to Mama's pleadings, Katherine Rohrer was lustrous and warmly firm as Stella (a brilliant idea to make her star song so sexy), and Amanda Squitieri was dazzling in the coloratura role of Rose. Morgan Smith made sense of Harry or Larry as a young man whose anger bursts out as song, and Matthew Garrett let us hear the vocal magic Zen retains in his bewilderment. Ninety years younger than the composer, Jonathan Makepeace sang the part of Kid trimly in tune. That the production took place at all was due to the faith and campaigning energy of George Steel, who, as executive director, has remade Columbia University’s Miller Theatre as the prime venue in the city for exciting music and adventurous programming.

Having seen his opera staged in his native city, Carter now moves into his second century with undiminished creative energy. In the past year he has written, apart from several smaller pieces, a piano concerto that Daniel Barenboim will feature at the centenary concert in Carnegie Hall a year from now.

The New York Times agreed. Stay tuned, as they say, to this blog for something special on the Elliott Carter front in 2008.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Chosen Press

We’re pleased to announce that Boydell has entered into an agreement with Chosen Press to distribute their books worldwide. Their first title, a fascinating anthology of writings by and about Gerald and Joy Finzi, edited by Rolf Jordan, was published earlier this year and has already earned some enthusiastic reviews. From Boydell’s point of view, we felt it fitted nicely with Diana McVeagh’s biography of Finzi, and we were won over by Philip Lancaster’s philosophy of publishing books that he felt needed to be read. However, in case any of you are considering getting in on the publishing game, first read Philip’s story of getting The Clock of the Years into print:

The publication of our first book was rather a steep learning curve. Although, editorially, it had been in progress for a couple of years, the final days were rather fraught! We had worked up the typesetting of the volume in-house over the few months prior to our fixed publication date (an immovable feast, since the date had been long advertised as part of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival), and it was therefore with great relief that we finally uploaded the files to our printer’s server. Or rather it should have been. The book text was fine; the jacket was an entirely different matter. A few days later we had a phone call from the printers, stating that there were numerous issues with the jacket, and that it would be easier if they spoke directly to our designers. Er, that will be us then. Despite our careful measurements, it was apparently too short; and most importantly, we had not appreciated the tonal differences between two means by which one could produce the dominant colour on the dust wrapper: black. Surely black is black, isn’t it? Obviously not.

This would have been fine, had we not been working in deepest darkest Herefordshire at this critical time, in a mobile telephone blackspot (one had to travel about 4-5 miles to get reception) and away from any internet communication. This was further frustrated by the fact that our Quark file corrupted and we couldn’t make the necessary alterations. Why did we ever decide to go into publishing?! At whatever the cost, we had to ask the printer to take it into their studio and sort it out themselves.

These problems delayed the final production, and it was a great worry as to whether the book would be ready in time for the launch. However, our printers, Cromwell Press, turned it round wonderfully quickly, and so on the morning of the book launch we were able to make a 110 mile diversion to collect part of the stock, making it to Gloucester only just in time for the launch lunch.

Next time you look at the book, pay particular attention to the dust wrapper, and admire the wonderful unity of the black colour across the jacket!

Monday, 3 December 2007

Discovering Mahler

Recently AbeBooks ran a competition based around new music books from Boydell & Brewer. The feature included the following interview with Donald Mitchell which gives some background to his new book, Discovering Mahler. Those of you who are not frequent visitors to the AbeBooks site might have missed it, so here it is again:

Boydell: Why have you called the final book in your four volume series Discovering Mahler?

Donald Mitchell: The essays represent in detail the history of my own personal discovering of Mahler and also the history of the evolution of comprehending Mahler and his music in cultures, and the UK in particular, which had been so long delayed.

B: When the first volume, Gustav Mahler: The Early Years, was published in 1958, Mahler’s music was something of a specialised taste. Fifty years on, it seems every conductor with a recording contract undertakes a complete cycle. Why has Mahler’s music taken so long to assume its place in the core repertoire?

DM: Two factors, I believe, were crucial. The tragic interruption of the Second World War and the fact of an obstructive British musical culture which for decades was antipathetic to the culture that gave birth to Mahler.

B: Mahler supposedly told Bruno Walter, who was admiring the view from the railway station near the composer’s summer home, “Don’t bother with that – it’s all in my music!” Do you find Mahler’s music “pictorial” in this way, or was he pointing to something more elemental in the music?

DM: On this occasion it is probable that it was the view itself, which is not to suggest that Mahler was a ‘descriptive’ composer or uninfluenced by the landscapes, sights and sounds, which were part of his daily experience.

B: In Gustav Mahler: Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death, you demonstrated how the composer’s early sketches shed important light on the reading of works such as Das Lied von der Erde. What approach to the middle and last symphonies have you adopted in Discovering Mahler?

DM: I concentrate on the forms of Mahler’s symphonies, and especially those from his middle and final periods. There is nothing quite comparable elsewhere in the history of the symphony. While I explore each symphony as a discrete work, running through this collection of essays is an implied overview of the oeuvre as a whole, of Mahler’s startling and wide-ranging creative journey.

B: Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony seem close to the ultimate expressions of farewell in any artist’s work. Had Mahler lived, would he have had much more to say?

DM: Absolutely, yes. One need think only of the unfinished Tenth Symphony and what extraordinary creative musical responses for the future it embodied.

B: You revised your earlier volumes when they were published in paperback by Boydell & Brewer. Have you said all that you set out to say on this composer?

DM: I should be very surprised indeed if that proved to be the case. Almost always when I hear a work with which I suppose myself to be entirely familiar I discover something that I had not noticed – not heard – before. Mahler’s works are never-ending in the new challenges they represent. One is always a few steps behind him. I have done my best in the current volume to close, reduce, some of the gaps. But I have no doubt at all that new discoveries will continue to be made in the future by others and myself.