A LIGHTER TOUCH
This was Tony’s second presentation to us. Previously (on 20th May 2015 – A Life of Song) he had given us some fascinating insights into singing, whether in a choir or as an individual. This was to be more general programme – a lighter gallimaufry.
He began as he had done last time with something that always took him back to his childhood – The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. (Correctly identified by us as by Henry Hall and his Orchestra.)
Next Mozart’s Grand Partita, the Serenade No. 10, for 12 wind instruments and double bass. We heard the finale – Allegro Molto. Tony described this as a cheerful rondo, with all the brilliance of an operatic finale in which the soloists have their own characteristic comments to make.
Then the superb clarinettist, Sabine Meyer, played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto on the Basset Clarinet, a variant that has not been heard since Mozart’s time. We heard the middle movement – Adagio. The Dresden Staatskapelle was conducted by Hans Vonk. The basset instrument does justice to the lower register. “Isn’t that a lovely tone?”
Tony’s next choice he considered as possibly the highlight of the first half: Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte – Thus do they all. A brief synopsis: Two officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo are certain that their fiancees, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will be faithful. Don Alfonso is cynical and lays a bet that within a day he can prove them unfaithful. He arranges a sham military posting and the men “sail away to war”. Dorabella and Fiordiligi bemoan the torment of having been left alone and the maid, Despina, mocks them, and urges them to take new lovers while they are away. “Do you hope for faithfulness in men and soldiers? In uomini, in soldati, sperare fedelta? The leaves, furniture and fickle breezes are more reliable than men! False tears, deceptive looks and charming lies are their primary qualities. Let us females pay them back in kind. Let’s love for convenience, for vanity!”
We were privileged to hear a recording where Tony’s eldest daughter Susan (now known as Priti) sang the part of Despina. A recording made with the Slovak Philharmonia Chorus and the Capella Istropolitana conducted by Johannes Wildner. Susan teaches these days in Vienna.
Next was a sublime discovery by Tony about 60 years ago, Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2 in E flat, Opus 90, D899. It was played by Alfred Brendel. Tony remembered when there were records in the library (now the shop kept by Dick Moffat – Poor Richard’s Books), and when Stan Butcher used to make recommendations. (There was a picture of Stan Butcher in the previous newsletter, where Bob Meadows had an interesting story about him.)
Schubert’s song Heidenroslein defies translation. It is usually rendered as Heath Rose (anybody ever seen one?) The crux of the story (it is a poem by Goethe) is simple enough. A boy says to a rose: “I’m going to pick you” and the rose replies: “If you do I will prick you”. But to no avail. The boy picks the rose and the rose has to suffer.
Another beautiful work for clarinet followed: Brahms’ famous Clarinet Quintet. The penultimate movement marked Andantino.
Then for a musical change a lovely Victorian song: Tom Bowling. It’s not strictly Victorian, as it was written by Charles Dibdin (1740 to 1814) and first appeared in 1789. Thomas Dibdin, Charles’ brother, was 29 years older than him, a captain of a ship in the East India trade who died at sea. But as Tony said it was much loved by the Victorians and again now. It was performed by Robert Tear and Mr Preview (Andre Previn for those who did not see the Morecambe and Wise sketch). Tony had brought along an album of Victorian Songs and Ballads by Tear with the words and music in it.
Next Klever Kaff. Who was that? It was her sister’s nickname for Kathleen Ferrier. Tony just mentioned that he had once sat immediately behind her as a chorus member at Glyndebourne in one of Reginald Jaques’ annual performances of the St Matthew Passion, when she swept in with her fur stole. Tony played: Blow the Wind Southerly and Schubert’s An die Musik. The second extract was from a radio tribute celebrating her art following her death: “The Incomparable Kathleen Ferrier”.
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson CBE, the tenor, who died in 2010, is still much missed. Tony was a member of the Britten Pears Chamber Choir, with a miserable choir master, but it was a joy to perform Bach’s B minor Mass under Tony Rolfe Johnson at Lavenham. We heard him in a Shakespearean song, O Mistress Mine.
To take us up to the interval, Tony played part of Sir Thomas Beecham in Rehearsal. He had promised to play something that we had never heard before and he was right. “Tommy” Beecham’s rather unusual singing voice was certainly different! Tony told us how he had happened to be in the right place at the right time when Sir Thomas placed an ad in the Daily Telegraph inviting singers to join a new choir, as he wished to make some definitive recordings before he died. Tony remembered vividly rehearsing and then performing at the Royal Festival Hall, and especially recording at the famous Abbey Road Studios. The piece Beecham was rehearsing was the Chorus of the Janissaries, from Mozart’s Il Seraglio, The Abduction from the Harem.
Tony had intended to start the second half with a recording of Peter Crompton playing Widor and Satie on the magnificent organ at the Royal Hospital School, but time was against him, so we moved to his next selection which was Benjamin Luxon singing The Foggy Foggy Dew. This was a rather folksy interpretation whereas Tony would have preferred the Britten and Pears version, but this was the one that came to hand. As he said, it was rather hard to believe that it was actually Luxon.
One of Tony’s favourite genres is French song. By way of contrast he played the same song by two different French singers: the song was Apres un Reve (After a Dream). First we heard Gerard Souzay and then Pierre Bernac. On a show of hands, Bernac’s interpretation was preferred to Souzay’s. Bernac, Tony informed us, published a book “The Interpretation of French Song” which became quite a bible for students.
Tony followed this with another comparison and contrast between Jake Thackray and Georges Brassens. Jake spent some years teaching in France and was much influenced by Brassens, although he did not merely copy him. His distinctive voice and literate, witty lyrics displaying a wide range of moods and emotions were often to be heard on television programmes such as The Braden Beat, the Frost Report and That’s Life. Tony remembered him at the Spa Pavilion and later saw him at Snape – not in the concert hall but in the café, with his guitar and just bass and drums. Which was typical Jake and his preferred style of performing.
Jake’s decline was sad. He retired to his home in Monmouth in the 1990s, where he restricted his appearances to performing the Angelus at his local church; he became an alcoholic and was declared bankrupt, dying in 2002. Such a sad end to such a stunning career.
Tony played The Blacksmith and the Toffee Maker and The Gorilla, and then again for contrast, Le Gorille, sung by Brassens. (Jake sang in English, Brassens in French.) The Blacksmith and the Toffee Maker song was new to all of us. Tony noted particularly Thackray’s wonderful articulation.
The sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque are the internationally renowned French Piano Duo. Tony saw them play at Snape on two pianos. We heard a recording of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. “All the right notes in the right order” said Tony (another reference to the Morecambe and Wise Andre Previn sketch. For those who did not see it, Eric attempted Grieg’s Piano Concerto at which Andre expostulated: “You’re playing all the wrong notes!” Eric replied that he was playing all the right notes – not necessarily in the right order!)
Less turbo charged playing of Joplin by Joshua Rifkin, the concert waltz Bethena, followed. Rifkin found fame through the film “The Sting” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, where Joplin’s music provides a brilliant sound track, but he was already a leading academic, particularly in the field of Renaissance and Baroque music. Tony saw him play at Nottingham University, sitting very close to one end of his grand piano and will always remember the beatific expression on his face!
On a music holiday in Austria in the 1980s, Tony heard Sarah Watts play. She is an exponent of the jazz bassoon. We heard an extract from ‘Watts with the Jazz Bassoon’, a piece called Hoy by Mike Hatchard. Hatchard played the piano with the Cleo Laine Quintet, and on the recording Alec Dankworth, Cleo and John’s son, was playing double bass. Tony said it was recorded at the Dankworths’ studio in Wavendon.
Tony ended his programme with The King’s Singers and Blackbird, from their 20th anniversary recording. Blackbird was written by Lennon and McCartney. As Tony had explained to us in his previous presentation, ‘Mr Carrington’ had been a master at his school, who had arrived with a young son, Simon, who went on to be one of the founders of The King’s Singers.
It had been a highly enjoyable evening. Mike who was standing in for Norman, thanked Tony but time was getting on and there wasn’t really enough time to do justice to such a varied programme, spiced with Tony’s personal reminiscences. It was certainly something special to have a recording of an opera made by one’s daughter.