Alpine peaks and troughs

A very old friend castigates me every time I am in London for my self-imposed exile from the organ.  I haven’t played since April 2009 and I had intended to keep it up for a year.  But persuasion from the MPO orchestral manager found me back at the console last weekend to play with the orchestra in their performance of the Alpine Symphony.  I have to confess to being terrified; the last time I did the Alpine in KL (under Kees Bakels) someone went up and played the organ between the final rehearsal and the performance and changed the settings, with the result that the idiosyncratic and totally insane KL Klais (designed by an idiot and voiced, it would seem, by a committee who didn’t talk to each other) did all the wrong things at the wrong time.  Knowing the KL Klais to be in a pretty desperate state at the moment, I didn’t relish the prospect of a repeat performance, but the chance to play with the great orchestra and work for the first time under Claus Peter Flor in a work which has a really worthwhile organ part got the better of me.  Suffice it to say that, inspired by the makers of Toyota cars, the Klais crescendo pedal decided to stay open at a crucial moment on the Sunday performance and, ,faced with entering fff at a point marked p, or not playing anything, I chose the latter.  The principal trumpet will probably never forgive me for not playing his vital cue, but the shock of the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.  Result; unless and until someone does something to turn this hideous instrument into something which is both reliable and musically satisfactory I won’t be playing it again.

But I did enjoy the experienceof playing the Alpine Symphony, especially with a conductor who turned out to be exceptionally perceptive and communicative, and I don’t intend to maintain any longer my organ abstinence – only in KL.  As the principal flute said, after the brilliant Saturday performance, “It’s a great work, but you only know it is when you play it”.  He’s right, Richard Strauss’s silly programme and outrageously overblown orchestral textures (as one of the desperately over-worked clarinettists said, it has to be the loudest music ever written) seem to offer nothing really worthwhile;  the Storm section is pretty well unplayable as it’s written, and the sound effects of cowbells and wind/thunder machines verge on the grotesque.  But, somehow, it works in the concert hall.  Strauss was not one of the great orchestral conductors of the 20th century for nothing, and,  writing in an age where slavish adherence to the letter of the score was not as important as vivid portrayal of the spirit of the score, he knew that his demands would produce the kind of dazzling effects he fully intended.

By an odd coincidence, I’ve also been reviewing discs of the work which have recently been released.  My critic colleagues slather over the Naxos version – which is about the best, but is not without its serious flaws – but I’m convinced that it’s a work which, rather like Mahler 2 and 8, can never really work on disc; the sheer scale and visual spectacle of the work are too vital for a sound-only recording to be properly fulfilling.  Which makes me ponder again on the value of CDs.  Too many people know their music only through CDs.  There was the case of the idiot Malaysian “critic” who used to compare live MPO performances with his favourite discs of Karajan and the Berlin Phil, or Klemperer and the Philharmonia.  On disc, performances have to be note perfect, and are heavily edited to achieve it; after all, repeated listening in the confines of one’s room draws attention to flaws which, in the excitement and general atmosphere of a concert hall, pass off unnoticed in a one-off performance.  I love my CDs – all 7500 of them – and listen to them daily.  But in no way is a CD ever going to be a substitute for a live performance, especially one by the brilliant team of MPO and Claus Peter Flor (even if the organist has let the side down because his machine has gone wonky) and there are some works – the Alpine Symphony being one of them – which perhaps should NEVER be released on disc; the composer’s understanding of the sense of occasion in a live concert too fully written in to the score for it to work in any other context.

As a postscript, I spent Monday handing out awards to music students in Bangkok.  It was a great occasion, with 138 awards being handed out and the statutory battalions of cameras flashing every young person who came up on stage to receive their shield, their certificate but, as their hands were full, no handshake from me!  All these students had done well in their rRinity Guildhall exams and, while that in itself was a great thing, that they could be shown up in public as having done well was infinitely more rewarding for all concerned.  There’s no doubt about it; a public presentation is so much better than private success, just as a public concert is so much more rewarding than private listening.

One thing which did strike me, as it always does in Thailand, was just how superb the standards of music teaching are, how consistently good the students perform and just how warm and sympathetic the audience is.  The presentation ceremony began with live performances of not one, but two complete piano concertos – Haydn D major played by the 12 year old Chawin Chalisarapong, and the Mendelssohn 2 played by the 15 year old Nicha Stapanukul – accompanied, not by an orchestra, but by some exceptionally discreet and thoroughly reliable piano partners, Usa Napawan and Indhuon Srikaranonda respectively.  They were both outstanding performances – look out for these young players, I suspect they will go far – but most impressive was the fact that the large audience, filling the auditorium of the American University Alumni Association in Bangkok, listened in total silence to both performances; children never fidgeted, parents never took out their phones or cameras, fellow-students never showed any hint of restlessness, and all greeted each brilliant performance with enthusiastic applause, only after the third movements.  If only every audience was as intelligent and well-mannered as the Thais.

2 Responses to “Alpine peaks and troughs”

  1. 1 Simon
    March 10, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Hi Marc,
    Thanks for your blog link. Always entertaining. Liked the reference to the SSO trombone ! Never trust a man whose instrument changes shape as he plays it !!
    Now listen here, what the blue pencil is going on with programme notes at DFP ? We listened to the chamber concert yesterday. Another alien programme note was there loosely attached to the Martinu String Trio. Except it was the wrong trio. Recently it happenend with the Krauss Symphony too. Can you please put a rocket under somebody to clear your name and hopefully draw Karinas attention that all is not functioning smoothly.

  2. 2 vincent4wang
    March 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Luckily I attended the Saturday concert. A remarkable performance!

    I enjoyed both live and recorded music. They are very different. It’s like fresh cooked and canned food ; watching football live or on TV.

    Recorded music is great as you can almost hear anything you want. I cherish my 1500-2000 CD/SACDs.

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March 2010


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