MODERN & RELEVANT
There is a muliplicity of reasons for the wide gulf between classical and popular musics and most of them are nonsensicle. Prejudice is fostered and maintained on both [or more] sides. One audience views its music as of greater intellectual or spiritual value than the other's. Because certain music might require a higher level of technical knowhow or virtuosity, it is possible to argue that this format is of greater importance. It may be enduring quality or contemporary relevance which swing it for some. it could be the sophistication of the required technology or the closeness to historic roots which impress others.
All these points of view are fundamentally polluted by the basic belief that what I choose to like is more valid than what someone else chooses and my justification is more reasonable than theirs. In other words, snottiness.
One particular way that the lovers of much classical music have shot themselves so badly in the foot is to cling on so preciously to the notion that a [fairly large] number of pre-20th century composers and musical forms were the benchmarks to judge everything else by and that this list is sacrosanct and never need reviewing. Anyone not holding this creed who hears much of the available catalogue will soon come to the conclusion that most of the 'Old Masters' did indeed write some wonderful tunes, songs and composite works, whilst also turning out a heap of dross alongside them. I have rarely heard this type of critical comment made by persons who listen almost exclusively to classical music.Have you ever heard any of them suggest that even Mozart and Beethoven might have written and published a certain number of pieces which have no place in today's musical cannon? I bet you haven't.
An extension of this addled thinking leads to the belief that the golden age is over and anything new is suspect and has to be of extraordinary quality before it's even worth considering putting in front of the common people for their appreciation. Thus the number of 20th and 21st century composers 'the man in the street' can name can possibly be counted on just one hand. Even listeners to the likes of Classic FM will probably only need their own hands and feet to count the list they can enumerate. Therefore classical music is ghettoised as being for the intellectual, the highbrow, the better-off, those who are capable of understanding it etc. This is probably the desired effect originally intended by the upper classes in less enlightened times - it kept the common citizen in the pub where they could enjoy rowdier more suitable pursuits and away from the concert hall, where nicer people could feel safe and superior. The effect is maintained by preserving the notions that you have to wear a tail suit and dickie bow to the opera, that you can't clap when you feel you want to, booing is only allowable if certain recognised guardians of morality sanction it by expressing outrage, that it is best to be able to follow the score and comment is only allowable if you can demonstrate technical knowledge and know all the italian terminology. It is necessary to approach the music with a degree of solemnity and to go out for a good time is very very secondary.
Thankfully, not everyone who matters takes this approach. Many times I have commented on the fact that Naxos produces excellent music at reasonable prices and I wonder why other classical labels insist on maintaining their ridiculously high prices. Perhaps its more of the type of thinking that equates quality and price - the classical 'cogniscenti' buy their records from Hyperion and Chandos because one's instinct marks them out as being of superior stripe! Thankfully I see some of these labels struggling to keep their heads above water and hope eventually to see them sink without trace. They are welcome to ressurect themselves in a more realistic and democratic guise when they feel sufficiently chastened.
Not only does Naxos give us all the 'Old Masters' performed by top class orchestras at prices we can afford, but it also issues quite large numbers of discs with music by modern composers and explores fields most traditional labels would be frightened to touch for fear of losing cash. Fortunately this policy probably operates in Naxos's favour as they find themselves with little or no realistic competition in these fields.
Anyway the point of all the above diatribe is that this month most of the review copies I received from Naxos happened to be twentieth century music. So if you are one of those who has been manipulated by the way the industry operates into not exploring modern 'classical' music then I hope to illustrate how rich and varied the available material can be. I firmly believe that there's something to suit the taste of almost any true music lover. And the comprehensive notes provided with each recording will arm you with enough jargon and background knowledge to beat any musical snob at his/her own game!
Toru Takemitsu: A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden etc Naxos 8.557760
Bournemouth SO, Martin Alsop
You'll have guessed no doubt that this music comes from a Japanese composer. Takemitsu was the first from his country to gain an international reputation for his composition. Although, sadly, I have never found any particular 'Japanese' characteristics in his work, he does have a 'touch' akin to the feel one gets from oriental painting and lettering - one where the space is as important as the filled in bits, and there's a tremendous sense of colour in his music. The notes tell us that he was influenced by the likes of Debussy and Stravinsky - a fact that is clearly borne out by the richly tonal nature of the music. At the risk of sounding a bit of a pseud, I have to say that, to me, the sound is very visual. One can find the music creating images of moving landscapes and moody atmospheres. Then one's not surprised to discover that the contents list includes' Three Film Scores for String Orchestra'. In fact I believe the advent of film did a lot that could have helped Classical Music advance its image and dragged it screaming into the modern world. Sadly, by & large, that boat was missed. Takemitsu is just one of dozens of composers who were working hard to make the dream a reality but the musical establishment let them down by its resistance to change. This CD helps redress the balance by bringing top quality composition to a forum into which anyone who has the inclination can be [almost] freely admitted. If you haven't got the admission fee, perhaps your local library can help you bypass the turnstile!
This fabulous vocal music from Australian composer Malcolm Williamson, who was appointed Master of the Queen's Music in 1975, spans choral styles from across the centuries but feels very modern yet at the same time, eternal. One gets mental images ranging from Gregorian Chant right through to the Khatachurian and Ligeti atmospherics in Kubrick's '2001- A Space Odyssey'. The opening work is aptly entitled 'Symphony for Voices' and illustrates perfectly what a fine instrument the human voice can be, and when combined with others how powerful an orchestra can be created. It also helps to dispel the idea that choral music needs necessarily to be religious in content - it being a setting of poems by fellow Australian James McAuley. English Eccentrics Choral Suite is similarly based on poetry - this time by Edith Sitwell - the title speaks for itself - the music is as quirky as the title! The gorgeous 'Requiem for a Tribe Brother' is religious in nature and was written in reaction to the death of a young Aboriginal friend, specifically for a 1992 performance by the Joyful Company of Singers who actually sang it at the composer's funeral in 2003.
This CD grabs you right from the word go. The first work, Bogurodzica, opens with a machine gun like gattle of the side drum. The choral & orchestral bursts which follow leave you in no doubt that there is struggle and strife on all sides. It builds up and dies back in relentless threatening waves. A final triumphant shout suggests there is resolution, but one is left wondering.
Piano Concerto starts with Andante con moto sounding rather like it might be a classical version of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, or of Eno's Music for Airports. Very restful inducing a mental alpha state. Minimalistic - like one of Steve Reich's phased pieces - you don't want it to ever end. Sadly, it does. The second movement Corale is quite different and much more solemn, perhaps reminiscent of the more sombre parts of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and in a couple of places the 'Here come the planes' section of Laurie Anderson's O Superman. Those planes take off in the 3rd Movement Toccata and we find ourselves embroiled in a heavy dramatic conflict of epic dimensions - the piano persistantly pounding and soaring strings underlining the urgency of the situation. The denouement comes swiftly and decisively. But, strangely, it all seems unresolved. One is left somewhat unsatisfied but maybe this is an accurate reflection of real life in that one can never be sure of a happy ending. This is a truly magnificent piece of writing and deserves to be widely known. Maybe Naxos should consider releasing it as an 'EP' as it should be heard complete but on its own . The rest of the music which surrounds it on this CD album is excellent but Piano Concerto is absolutely superb and would stand well on its own feet if allowed to.
Siwa Mgla is again quite different, starting with an uneasy equilibrium which threatens to collapse at any moment. This situation is reinforced when a somewhat uncomfortable vocal is added, then swiftly joined by some ominous percussion and worried strings. Suddenly.... horns blare, kettle drums thunder, then another mournful refrain from the baritone - instability builds like an approaching earthquake might unsettle the local dogs and cattle. Then a shaft of sunshine, but is it just the lull before the storm. I fear so. I leave you to decide.
The final offering Koscielec 1909 is a symphonic poem which once more seems full of foreboding - perhaps this is Kilar's trademark - if so, he's a master of it and he should perhaps write scores for horror or sci-fi movies. Both restful in tempo and worrying in content, this is like a disturbing dream. you'll remember the feeling but possibly not the detail. So next time it comes round it will be just as terrifying.The musical equivalent of Quatermass and the Pit.
I feel I cannot recommend this record strongly enough. It represents everything I admire in modern music but fear that the majority of people will never be aware of it. Naxos is doing its best to bring us this material, but they need as much encouragement as we can muster for them!
Please help by hearing the music, then spreading the word.