Archive for September, 2010


Hongkong’s Glorious CD Shops

Apart from the occasion on which I had the temerity to suggest that Alasdair Malloy’s British musical entertainments might not be entirely relevant to an audience of Malaysian school-children, no post on this blog has generated so much response as my assertion that it is impossible to find a satisfactory retailer for classical music CDs in Singapore. It seems that, while almost everybody agreed with me, most seemed to think the situation was an inevitable consequence of a retailer’s need to make a profit: “CD shops are in business to make money”, “Classical is a niche market and we are lucky that some shops still carry classical CDs”, were among the comments I received in response.

Here we go again! Classical music-lovers gleefully leaping on the minorities bandwagon. Wow, look at me! I am a member of a minority! Aren’t I courageous in being able to swim against the huge tide of public popularity? When are classical music lovers going to grow up and accept that theirs is NOT a niche market and is far more widely enjoyed than they are prepared to accept. All the evidence points to classical music as a growth area in both live and recorded markets, and I have come to the conclusion that the mis-perception that it is a dying art is actually promoted by those who prefer to feel part of a deprived minority than just one of the crowd.

Singapore’s classical CD scene (and Malaysia’s too – although we all agree that’s a lost cause) maybe moribund (to quote Chang Tou Liang’s wonderful description) but before all Singaporeans lie down and let the dreary crossover and appalling fake-opera singers take over, they should take a trip to Hong Kong. If anywhere is a Mecca for classical CD lovers this is it!

I needed to get hold of a recording of Francois Borne’s Grande Fantasia on themes from Carmen in its orchestral version. There were a few other things I needed and, knowing that I had to be in Hong Kong this week, I didn’t risk the blood-pressure-rising trawl through the deeply depressing CD shelves in Singapore shops, but decided to wait. Arrived on Thursday and, after a couple of meetings, jumped on the MTR to Mongkok and the rarefied atmosphere of Sun Cheong records. I spent a good 45 minutes there, browsing their vast stock of independent labels, picked up six CDs and only as I was about to pay did I realise I’d forgotten all about the Borne. The incredibly helpful and knowledgeable staff took about three minutes to look up and jot down the eight discs it was on from their own online database (compare this with HMV Singapore’s use of the three-year-old Muze Classical Catalogue and, even more ridiculously, the Penguin CD Guide), but regretted that while the flute and piano version (on Capriccio and Danacord) were in stock, the orchestral version on ABC Classics, Pearl and Vanguard recordings were not (“I can’t tell how quickly I can get Vanguard – they’re very intermittent. Pearl seems to have discontinued it. I can get the ABC Classics but it will take a fortnight”). They also pointed out that the orchestral version was available on EMI and Bis, neither of which Sun Cheong stocks, but directed me round the corner to Win Win records in Lady Street; “Would you like me to phone them and see if they have it?”. I prefer to browse, so with a promise that I would be back and order the ABC Classics if my search proved fruitless, I set off.

I regret I had not experienced the CD haven which is Lady Street, Mongkok before. Not realising that this is back to back CD emporia, I dived into the first shop I saw, picked up a couple of Delos CDs and an original Russian Melodiya, and then realised that there was neither Bis nor EMI here. Back to Sun Cheong, but then, turning the wrong way out of that store, I found next door yet another great stockist of classical CDs. In short, I spent two hours in four shops, all of which were thoroughly stocked with different labels, crammed with customers and with helpful – if often non-English speaking – staff. I found the Borne, not in Win Win, but two doors away, in the most amazing shop I have ever been in.

CDs (classical, Chinese, ethnic and jazz) lay around on tables – no shelves – rather like a church jumble sale. Clearly I was never going to find what I wanted, but a member of staff who asked if he could help, went straight for it and plucked out the EMI version. I stayed on to try and fathom out the filing system, but it defeated me. Who cares. I found what I wanted and ended up with over a dozen other CDs which, even as I am writing this, I am enjoying – Rachmaninov’s Aleko on Melodiya is the one at the moment.

So, before all Singaporeans quietly allow their CD shops to fade away in the mistaken belief that it is an inevitable consequence of the current msu8cial climate, let them look to Hong Kong, where Classical CD shops are very much alive and kicking. It’s worth the air fare just to see how the other half lives! But one thing occurs to me: Malaysia – no CD shops but a fantastic orchestra; Hong Kong – loads of CD shops but a somewhat ropey orchestra. Should we read anything into that?


DFP Organ Recital News – part 2

Following the huge success of the first organ recital of the 10/11 Season, I’m putting out details of the next scheduled recital which will take place in Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, Kuala Lumpur, on Sunday 16th January 2011 at 11.30am. If the demand is as high as for the first recital, you would do very well to book your FREE tickets NOW; contact the box office on 03 20517007 or at

The recital is called “Eight Short Bachs” and includes all eight of the popular “Short” Preludes and Fugues attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), although possibly written by one of his students, interspersed with eight of the short Interludes composed by the iconic German organ composer, Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933). It has been said of Karg-Elert that he possessed a “genius for creating atmosphere within the space of a few bars” and that is certainly the case with these tiny miniatures, mostly less than a minute in length. They are almost tailor-made for the DFP Klais so, alongside the musical genius of Bach we will experience the kaleidoscopic colours of the true Romantic organ.

Here’s the programme;

Prelude and Fugue in C (BWV553)
Interlude in C “Peaceful”
Prelude & Fugue in Dm (BWV554)
Interlude in the Phrygian mode “Tranquillamente”
Prelude & Fugue in Em (BWV555)
Interlude in Em “Pomposo”
Prelude & Fugue in F (BWV556)
Interlude in Fm “Alla Musette”
Prelude & Fugue in G (BWV557)
Interlude in G “Calmly”
Prelude & Fugue in Gm (BWV558)
Interlude in the Mixolydian mode “Moderato”
Prelude & Fugue in Am (BWV559)
Interlude in Am “Tempo moderato”
Prelude & Fugue in B flat (BWV560)
Interlude in C “Festivo”

In response to a number of people who asked for it, I am going to hold a question-and-answer session after the 40-minute recital. In the meantime, I’m trying to create a mailing list of DFP Organ Supporters. As these are free recitals, we don’t hold any records of who bought tickets, so we cannot contact those who are specifically interested in the organ. I’m planning some themed events – including talks, visiting recitals and opportunities to see around and play the DFP Klais – but need to know who would be interested so I can contact them directly. So, if anyone reading this is interested, please can you send your contact details to me at Don’t expect any response for a month or two.


A new season in Kuala Lumpur

This weekend has seen the start of the new concert seasons of both the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS. It’s always nice that this is made into a special, celebratory occasion, and in the past we have had open days, quizzes, fun events in and out of the hall and a veritable musical jamboree. After 12 seasons, however, MPO and DFP have both become firmly established in the cultural calendar and there is no need to make quite such a splash – after all if Malaysians don’t know it’s there already, they’re not likely to care about it anyway – so the weekend was given over, rightly, to the core business; four concerts and a talk about the musical highways and byways of the new season.

The big winner of the weekend was Italy, whose composers dominated the three orchestral concerts. Think Italy and you think opera, and as I’ve already observed in this blog, the masses seem to have gone bonkers over singers. Probably their interest has been fired by the Idol and Got Talent franchises, but if their passion is for the quirky assortment of dubious talent which is mostly paraded on those shows, the kind of vocal talent they experienced at Saturday’s MPO Gala Concert would have come as quite a shock. The programme the American soprano Nicole Cabell gave them was predictable enough – even down to O, Mio babbino caro – but she delivered it with rare conviction, authority and insight. She’s an intensely musical singer, short on flamboyant mannerisms and dramatic flourishes, heavy on control, integrity and precision. She was, perhaps, a little fazed by such a small concert hall, and consequently rather understated her delivery; her voice didn’t always reach every corner of the auditorium – a little more panning up and down and side to side might have helped – but even then, the artistry behind the voice blazed through. I was stunned by the radiance she brought Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, and the audience adored the lot, even if her Saturday encore – Summertime – didn’t (somewhat surprisingly) really hit the mark.

Supporting her but by no means confined to her albeit modest shadow, the MPO reminded us that they aren’t just another orchestra. On the kind of crackling form they were on on Saturday, they are a towering presence in the world of live orchestral music and, despite having just suffered a period of extended silence – although they have been surreptitiously filling in their time with some recording when Ramadan, coming on top of the northern summer break, made their season break the best part of two months long – they are still there, up at the top, mercilessly showing every other orchestra in Asia (and quite a lot beyond) what good, in terms of orchestral playing, really means. There isn’t an orchestra within 6000 kilometres to equal the MPO in terms of quality, consistency, musicality and collective virtuosity. That enviable level of collective music-making has remained a constant throughout the previous 12 seasons and over the terms of three chief conductors. The foundation was laid in quite remarkable fashion by Kees Bakels who showed just what wonders could be performed by a pair of astute and profoundly perceptive ears. He was succeeded by Matthias Bamert who, despite a general lack of rapport with the players not helped by a rather dubious team in the management office, not only maintained standards but oversaw an imperceptible but undeniable increase in the MPO’s musical perceptiveness. This season marks the third and final one under the watchfulness of Claus Peter Flor. In many ways the most “hands on” of the three, he’s driven the orchestra onwards and upwards, combining Bakels’ ear for sound with Bamert’s brain for interpretation, and added his iron determination and instinctive judgement to give the orchestra a more sharp and incisive edge. When he leaves at the end of this season, it’s going to be a very serious loss to the orchestra, even if they don’t all realise it at the time.

The violins, possibly the weaker section in years gone by, had a clarity and precision on Saturday which is rare even in the very top flight orchestras; something potently obvious from the very opening of the Mozart Magic Flute Overture with which the programme began. What with Flor’s formidably focused direction (resorting to endearingly balletic steps in the Gounod Faust dances), the MPO’s matchless magnificence and Cabell’s awesome artistry, this may not have been, as one long-term subscriber enthused to me afterwards, “the best concert I have EVER attended”, but it was, without a shadow of doubt, the most wonderful Gala Concert so far in the MPO’s history.

That Saturday evening Gala was not, however, the official opening of the DFP season. That came five hours earlier when the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performed an “iConcert”. When I saw that title I wondered whether at long last, someone had managed to arrange podcasts of DFP concerts. Several years ago, MPYO Conductor, Kevin Field, and myself, spent well over a year establishing an internal broadcasting facility for all DFP concerts with a view to sending them out to the wider world as podcasts. We had the expertise and the technology, but it all came to nothing – if I remember correctly we were told that Malaysians aren’t interested in sound-only broadcasting and can only stomach TV shows; and with the best will in the world, DFP telecasts have yet to rise above the home-movie style. But podcasting is increasingly the fashion for communication today, so perhaps the time has come to rethink the policy.

So, if the “iConcert” wasn’t about technology, what was it about? It was – you’ve guessed it – all about Italy. An entire programme of Italian music, and not a single singer in sight. And who needed a singer when the orchestral playing was as good as it was on Saturday afternoon? There can be no denying that the MPYO is a remarkable phenomenon. When it was first mooted, I was not the only sceptic who couldn’t see how a country, renowned for churning out mechanical pianists by the container-load but without, before the MPO came along, any notable players or teachers of, say, double reed instruments, or percussionists capable of progressing beyond the drum kit or a pair of timps, could ever produce a youth orchestra able to show itself in public for many years to come. The sceptics were proved wrong and no amount of praise can adequately recognise the brilliant work done by Field in putting together such a superb orchestra; at its best it rivals many of the professional provincial orchestras in Europe and the US, and even at its worst, you never for a moment feel that this is due to youthful inexperience – just a bunch of very good players having a bad day. We had flashes of brilliance in what was a very taxing programme – incredible timpani playing in the Verdi Overture, a matchless clarinet in The Pines of Rome and a ravishing violin in the Albinoni Adagio – as well as rough patches, but even when things did not work quite as they might – the two Vivaldi concertos just didn’t come off to me (and that was by no means the fault of the soloists, and was more likely due to the decision to get the violinists to stand; acceptable for period-specialist ensembles but probably a tall order for a youth orchestra) – but Field kept it all together and the players showed remarkable stamina. The only real evidence of youthful inexperience came in their demeanour on stage – a little too much enthusiastic self-applause as if they were playing for themselves rather than the paying audience – but it has to be said the greatest departure from accepted etiquette came not from the players but from one of their MPO tutors who leapt up the stage stairs and dived through the stage door at the end of the first half, clearly feeling that the usual exits and entrances for non-performing members of the audience did not give him enough self-aggrandisement. The MPYO are tackling Mahler 1 at the end of the year. I think that’s a tall order, but I’ve been proved wrong before, and I’m looking forward to being proved wrong again.

And to add to the mix this weekend, we had the first organ recital of the newly-restored organ recital series; and how wonderful to see a capacity hall and have to send out some apologetic emails to angry customers who were turned away at the door because no tickets were left! An audience of six (it grew to 10 at one point) attended my pre-concert talk on Sunday in which I surveyed the coming season, but probably most people had already decided on what they are going to hear this year, so my work was superfluous. On the strength of everything musical heard over the weekend, this 13th season is going to be a real cracker.


Mahler Madness

Caught up in the bottleneck on the way out of the Esplanade concert hall after last night’s Singapore Symphony concert (and I have to say that you can drive across the Causeway quicker than it takes to get out of that auditorium) I was accosted by two elderly ladies who asked me, “What was THAT all about?”. They were referring to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony which we’d just heard. My immediate reply was “Don’t worry about that. It’s not intended for the likes of you or me, but for adolescent boys to enjoy in the privacy of their bedrooms”. This seemed to satisfy them, and, as the congestion eased, they tottered out happy that they were not so out of touch as they had feared.

There is a something approaching Mahler Mania at the moment which is particularly prevalent in this region. Last week the Canadian critic Robert Markow, who wrote the notes for last night’s concert, sent me an ecstatic email pointing out that “after the Mahler Second we attended in Singapore, there was a Mahler 3 by the MPO on the two days following, and another Mahler 3 in Bangkok four days after that. If this were London or New York or Berlin, one could understand the coincidence. But SE Asia?? Just goes to show how things have developed there in the past few years”. I’m not so sure I agree that it shows any measure of “development”; after all he’d probably be even more astonished if he realised that performances of such staple fare of European and American orchestras as Beethoven’s Fifth and Mozart’s 40th are very rare here, and I can hardly accept that Mahler, great composer as he is, stands in the same league as the great Classical giants. Whether you like it or not, you can’t be a concert-goer at any level in SE Asia at the moment and avoid Mahler for very long. We heard Singapore’s amateur Orchestra of the Music Makers doing Mahler 2 not so long ago, the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra is doing Mahler 1 in December, this concert season finds the HKPO doing Mahler 6 and 7, the MPO doing Mahler 9, while the SSO are having their own Mahler Festival with symphonies 4,5,6,7 and 9. True, this season covers both the 150th anniversary of the birth and 100th anniversary of the death of Mahler, and an increase in performances is only to be expected. But what we have is amounting to overkill and, I would argue, is actually doing Mahler – let alone all those genuine music-lovers and concert-goers who do not have unfettered admiration for every note Mahler wrote – a major disservice.

A problem is that Mahler wrote so little: Nine symphonies, a fair chunk of a tenth, and a fistful of songs. Including lost and incomplete works, Groves Dictionary lists just 21 separate works or, if you add together the individual songs grouped in a single publication, 61. Frankly a paltry tally. What makes matters worse is that six of those 21 are very rarely performed, leaving us to celebrate the life and death of a composer with just 15 pieces of music which are themselves ripe with self-quotations and cross references. With the best will in the world, that’s stretching one’s material very thin indeed.

Of course, as Markow points out with some insistence, the shortest of Mahler’s symphonies “lasts nearly an hour”, apparently finding such inordinate length more a badge of honour than an indication of tedium; “This is not music for the faint-hearted”, to which I might add, this is not music for the quick-witted either. Mahler doesn’t use length to expound exhaustively-argued musical ideas or cerebral complexities, but to wallow in lavish, opulent sound.

Mahler loved sound – particularly orchestral and choral sound – because he was first and foremost a conductor. And a conductor’s business is sound. What would he have done had he needed to compose for commercial or professional reasons? For a start, he wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort over each work; you can’t make much of a living when it takes you the best part of 10 years to compose one symphony (that figure based on Markow’s comment that the Fifth, begun in 1901, was properly completed “shortly before his death”). He might also have been compelled by editors and publishers to produce more closely argued and succinct symphonies; symphonies which audiences could take without feeling they have to undergo some kind of preliminary spiritual preparation. He most certainly would have been more economical with his orchestrations, and with economy of resources would have come and economy of sound and a necessary concentration on structure. In short, Mahler’s complete freedom to write what he wanted and without anything other than self-imposed time restraints, was the late 19th century equivalent of the modern-day blogger who can write what he wants at extreme length without the risk of having to be forced by an editor to get his facts right or keep it down to a few hundred words. (oooppps!!)

As an adolescent I adored Mahler. His music spoke to me of those inner feelings of passion, unspoken love and festering emotion which more usually manifest themselves in an outbreak of acne. Having first encountered Mahler in the guise of his 2nd Symphony in a devastating performance by the New Philharmonia under Otto Klemperer in the late 1960s (and I was also present at his monumental last performance of it at the Royal Festival Hall on 26th September 1971), I went out and bought a two-LP set of the work (Ormandy with The Philadelphia) and followed this with recordings of most of the others. I sat in my bedroom with the curtains closed playing these records at full volume and luxuriated in the washes of supercharged sound as I lay on my bed dreaming of whichever young girl had the most recently rejected my clumsy advances. I confess that as I matured I lost my taste for the Fifth, and the Fourth also began to pall, but I continued to enjoy the rest until this wretched Mahler year came along.

With so many indifferent if well-intentioned performances all around the place, not to mention the battalions of blindly worshipping Mahler fanatics who have been crawling out of the woodwork here, there and everywhere to add their bit to the volumes of commentary on just 15 pieces of music, I have been made horribly aware just how fundamentally dreary a Mahler symphony is and how all that hype about it being “conceived on a cosmic scale”, “encompassing the world and the universe”, “seeking answers to questions on the whole existence of man” or “tidal waves of sound sweeping the listener into another world”, is simply covering up the one inescapable fact; a Mahler symphony is too long, too self-indulgent and too loosely constructed to survive without a truly inspired performance.

Spotty youths will see my criticism of their God as not that much different from Pastor whatever-his-name-is’s ill-fated attempt to hold a “Burn the Koran Day”, and orchestral players who labour long and hard over music which is, after all, written for their delectation rather than for an audience’s, will shake their heads and say “typical ignorance from an organist”. But elderly women, at least, can hold their heads up high (osteoporosis permitting) and say to each other over the noise of the hair-dryers; “I told you it was a lot of fuss about nothing”.


DFP Organ Recital News

For those attending the Organ Recital on Sunday 19th September at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, here’s the full programme I intend to play provided the DFP Klais holds up (which is by no means an odds-on certainty). I’ve also provided some programme notes; I don’t hold the copyright to several of these, so please don’t use them yourselves without first checking with me. At the bottom of the page I also include a list of publishers and my recommendations for recordings, which I have also uploaded on to the blog for you to get a foretaste of what’s in store.

J.S.BACH (1685-1750) – Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV565).
One’s tempted to say “back by special request” here, because this is the one work that I’m always being asked to play and it does, when all is said and done, sound extraordinarily good on the DFP Klais. The story of the work is not quite straightforward, however, and here’s the note I wrote about it for the 2008 BBC Prom when Simon Preston performed it at the Royal Albert Hall;
When Peter Williams suggested in 1981 that the Toccata and Fugue in D minor might neither have been written by Bach nor originally conceived for the organ, it was as if he had doubted the authenticity of the Turin Shroud or the validity of England’s win in the 1966 World Cup final; the one thing everybody knew about Bach was that he had written Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which was also the only piece of organ music most people had ever heard. It is the most recorded organ work of all time and, as any organist will confirm, it is, alongside Widor’s Toccata, the most frequently requested organ piece. But Williams made a convincing case for the Toccata having originally been written as a violin solo in A minor, while pointing out that the Fugue was full of solecisms. Only last year in his new book on Bach he revisited the matter; “Too little is demonstrably reliable or even authentic about this famous piece for it to have anything certain to do with, or to say anything certain about, the young organist J.S.Bach.”

Whatever its true origins, somewhere along the line Bach seems to have worked his magic, possibly in using someone else’s ideas as the basis for a free improvisation which was subsequently written down. Whether that original improvisation was devised as a means of testing an organ (the mighty sustained pedal Ds underpinning slowly expanding diminished sevenths in the Toccata put even the newly-restored RAH organ’s wind supply to the test) or as a display of personal virtuosity (in which we can be certain Simon Preston will not fail to impress) is beside the point, it has defined Bach’s organ music since the time of the great Bach revival spearheaded in the 19th century by Mendelssohn.

Indeed Mendelssohn himself performed the work on a visit to Goethe in Munich during 1830. “I let loose with the D minor Toccata by Bach, remarking that this was both learned and for the people; that is, for some people. But behold! Hardly had I started to play when the superintendent sent his servant to say that the organ playing should stop at once, since it was a weekday and the noise prevented him from studying.” Here in London it’s a Sunday afternoon and, whether it’s by Bach or not, the noise from the organ should interrupt nobody’s studies. (©BBC 2008)

John Behnke (b.1953) – Two Pieces: Linstead Market and Siyahamba
There is quite a lot of cross-fertilization between my work as a critic and my role as an organist, and it was one of Christopher Herrick’s marvellous Organ Fireworks CDs (Hyperion CDA67458) sent to me for review which set me off in the direction of these pieces. I played them first in 2004 on which occasion I wanted one of the MPO percussion players to join me with the optional percussion Behnke has written into the score. It was decided that, technically and musically, the demands of the percussion parts were more suited to my baby daughter than a professional, so we missed that out, which was a shame!
Professor of Music at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, USA, where he teaches organ and directs a handbell ensemble, John Behnke describes himself as “a frequent organ recitalist, handbell clinician, and festival director who enjoys composing and arranging.” For the last six consecutive years he has received the Association of Contemporary American Composers Award, the 1999 award coming shortly after the publication of his Global Songs for organ and optional percussion.

Each of Behnke’s Global Songs is an arrangement of a folk tune drawn from various cultures around the world. The first makes use of the popular Jamaican Song “Linstead Market” which is believed to have originated in one of the Folk Games popular amongst rural communities at major festivals. These games took the form of dances accompanied by songs led by a single singer but with a chorus in which the entire group joined in. Behnke captures the dancing character of “Linstead Market” with his light-hearted organ arrangement. (And if any member of today’s audience understands the words they can join in too – “Mi carry mi ackee go a Linstead Market/Not a quattie worth sell”.) The second uses a Zulu folk song which became synonymous with the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa during the latter half of the 20th century, “Siyahamba”, and is an exuberant march

George Shearing (b.1919) – Two Improvisations:
Amazing Grace and Come Away
A few years ago the excellent Boosey and Hawkes music store in London’s Regent Street closed down and, calling in for the last time, I rifled through the stock remnants on sale and stumbled across some George Shearing in the organ section. I was amazed to discover that these were original organ pieces by this legend of the jazz piano world, so I snapped them up, little realising what true gems they were. The work comprises nine improvisations based on Early American Hymn Tunes and date from 1977. Here’s an extract from the foreword to the score;
This publication, which is available in both piano and organ editions, is a rather
remarkable venture in many ways. London-born George Shearing has created an international reputation for his musical talent as pianist, arranger, and composer of over 100 works. Yet these SACRED SOUNDS FROM GEORGE SHEARING are his first published works in the idiom of classical music.

Shearing spends an average of nine months away from his home in San Francisco each year, performing throughout the Unites States and abroad. During a recent eleven-week tour (whenever he could find a few quiet moments and a piano), Shearing would record these settings on tape with incredible speed. The slow and tedious task of transcribing the notes from tape to paper was assigned to Marcia and Michael McCabe (Major McCabe serves the United States Army as an anaesthetist at Ft. Meade, Maryland). Following this tour, George Shearing visited The Sacred Music Press editorial offices at The Sea Ranch, California, to hear the work and make corrections with the Executive Editor, Dale Wood.

Later, and while again on tour, he visited with the McCabes on the East Coast to
complete the final settings. Shearing actually created the organ arrangements as well. Wood spent hours at the organ console while Shearing suggested “Let’s solo out that line … I think we need to use a warmer registration … Full organ might do just as well as soft celeste stops … Can’t you come up with a brighter nasard?”
(©The Sacred Music Press 1977)

William Mathias (1934-1981) – Processional
My first full-time organist’s post was as sub-Organist at Bangor Cathedral in Wales. It was a wonderful time for me and while I never saw eye to eye with the then organist, Andrew Goodwin, I had a wonderful choir at my disposal (which included, briefly, the young Aled Jones and, more significantly, a tremendous baritone, Gareth Cowell, who has remained a lifelong friend) and came into frequent contact with William Mathias, who was then Professor of Music at the University. Mathias inspired me intellectually, musically and socially, and I owe him a great debt of gratitude. I wrote this note for a wonderful recording of the piece made by Huw Williams on the organ of St Paul’s Cathedral. (Guild GMCD7304)
William Mathias was Welsh by birth – he was born in Whitland, south west Wales on 1st May 1934 – and spent virtually his entire life in the Principality, serving as Professor of Music in Bangor University from 1970 until 1987. After his retirement he remained in North Wales and died near Bangor on 29th July 1992. He did have a close association with St Paul’s Cathedral, however – not least because his anthem Let the People Praise Thee O God was performed in the cathedral to a worldwide television audience of millions when it was sung at the wedding of HRH The Prince of Wales and The Lady Diana Spencer on 29th July 1981 – and four months after his death a Service of Thanksgiving for his life and work was held in the Cathedral.

A prolific composer in virtually every genre, he was particularly highly regarded for his organ music and of the 16 pieces he wrote for the instrument, the infectious Processional dating from 1965, with its spiky rhythm and witty tune, remains by far and away the most popular.

Zsolt Gárdonyi (b.1946) – Mozart Changes
A couple of years ago I did a mini-Gárdonyi festival. It was inspired by the sheer number of Hungarians in our orchestra and built around a work Gárdonyi had written for cello and organ which I was very anxious to perform with the MPO Co-Principal cellist, Csaba Kõrös (yes’ he’s Hungarian). In the end, due to other MPO commitments, we could not perform that work, but lots of people enjoyed Gárdonyi’s solo organ pieces and this one, in particular, took the fancy of a number of students who were in the throes of learning the Mozart on which it is based for their Trinity diploma.
It was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who is first believed to have coined the phrase “the King of Instruments” to describe the organ (although some sources suggest it was one of his Salzburg predecessors, Georg Muffat). Unfortunately, that was about the most valuable legacy Mozart left for the instrument for, although he was reputed to be the finest organist of the age, in Mozart’s day the organ was confined to church use and its scope necessarily restricted. Mozart improvised brilliantly at the instrument, but wrote virtually nothing down for it. But those who love Mozart need not feel too disappointed; to mark the bicentenary of Mozart’s death the Hungarian composer Zsolt Gárdonyi composed his Mozart Changes which takes the rondo theme from the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D (K576) and turns it into a piece of true organ music; although, as the title suggests, it does not remain true to its original guise.

Born in Budapest, Gárdonyi has been living in Germany since 1968 and has been Professor of Musical Theory at the Würzburg State Conservatoire since 1980. His music, which includes several organ works as well as chamber and vocal compositions, is often flavoured by jazz idioms and that is, indeed, the case with Mozart Changes. As Gárdonyi himself points out, Mozart’s original ideas “transform themselves before our eyes – as well as our ears – and disclose in their cheerful metamorphosis an additional dimension for the word ‘changes.” The piece is dedicated to the American organist Eleanor Whitsett who gave the first performance during the Oklahoma Mozart Festival on 15th June 1995.

Louis-James-Alfred Lefébure-Wély (1817-1870) – Sortie in B flat
I never really wanted to play this piece in public. I once castigated in no uncertain terms in the press an organist who had described it as “one of the great pieces of 19th century French organ music”, and felt it would be hypocritical for me to play it publicly. But pressure was brought to bear from the most surprising quarters. MPO Orchestra Manager, Mervyn Peters, walked into the hall one day while I was playing it for fun and actually sat down, listened, and then told me what a great piece it was. Then MPO Associate Conductor Kevin Field asked me to play it at a concert he was conducting. How can one resist such pressure? I couldn’t; this will be the 12th time, now, that I’ve performed it at a public recital! Here’s an extract from the Editor’s foreword to the edition I am using;
The two works by Lefébure-Wély which I now make available do not belong to the category of forgotten masterpieces; this is indeed a property which they have in common with the entire output of the composer.

That I have nevertheless edited them, is for two reasons: in the first place it is a misunderstanding to suppose that an editor, by publishing a text, thereby makes an implicit declaration concerning the quality of the same. It is my opinion [that] the lesser gods of the past too should be generally accessible; for only through their visible and audible presence is it possible to sketch the historical perspective within which the real masters have their rightful place. In addition, many contemporary organists are very interested in noisy 19th century organ pleasure. An understandable reaction to a too puritanical past, but on the other hand a movement which also has its doubtful side. The interpreter who occupies himself with minor figures does well to realize that he is dealing with lesser gods. I often detect in players (and indeed in editors) a painful lack of feeling for relativity in this respect.
© Dr. Ewald Kooiman 1984

Bach – J S Bach Organ Works Vol.6 (ed.Bridge, Higgs; rev. Emery) – Novello 7212 (1948)
Behnke – Three Global Songs – Hope Publishing Co 8057 (1999)
Shearing – Sacred Sounds from George Shearing for Organ – Sacred Music Press SSGSO-5 (1977)
Mathias – Modern Organ Music Vol.1 – Oxford University Press (1965)
Gárdonyi – Mozart Changes für Orgel – Möseler Verlag Wolfenbüttel M19.948 (1996)
Lefébure-Wély – Incognita Organo Vol.30 – Harmonia-Uitgave, Hilversum 3626 (1984)

Bach – Nicholas Danby/Lübeck Cathedral – CBS: MDK45807 (1990) 1
Behnke – Marc Rochester/Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, Kuala Lumpur – MPO: 170504 2
Shearing – No recordings have been made of this work 3
Mathias – Huw Williams/St Paul’s Cathedral – Guild: GMCD7304
Gárdonyi – Zsolt Gárdonyi/Uppsala Cathedral – Collegium Cantorum: 7320470 027264
Lefébure-Wély – Christopher Herrick/Hong Kong Cultural Centre – Hyperion: CDA66978

1 This disc has been deleted from the catalogues, but it’s worth looking out for
2 Available for download only
3 We are seeking sponsors for the first commercial recording of the DFP organ. Two programmes have been drawn up of the organ with members of the strings and brass sections of the MPO. There will be some solo pieces for organ included on both discs. Whoever offers some sponsorship will get a chance to choose an items for the discs. Contact me if you are interested.


Singapore’s Unglorious CD Shops

My mother used to trot out a little saying; “The more you have, the more you want”. Whether that was an established cliché or just one of her home-spun idioms, I was reminded of it the other day when I had to call the joiner in to extend my CD shelves at home. Since I moved to Singapore last year, the collection has increased – it’s now touching 12500 – and is in danger of taking over the house completely. And it continues to grow; even as I write, there are a dozen discs on my desk awaiting cataloguing, and I’m expecting another 10 through the post this week. There’s no way I can ever hope to listen to every CD I have, and with so many why do I let the collection continue to grow? Well, I readily confess to a certain magpie tendency (an attic room somewhere in the UK contains almost every edition of Buses Illustrated and Private Eye since the mid-1960s), but in the case of my CDs there is a professional reason for their continued presence and expansion. I review them for a living and I use them in my daily work as a writer on music. The majority of those CDs come unsolicited – editors send them to me for commissioned reviews and record labels and distributors send them to me in the hope that I will review them – but I often go out and buy them. Why, I hear you ask, when you’ve surely everything you can possibly want already?

There are three reasons why I still buy, and on a very regular basis. First and foremost, as a writer of concert programmes I always insist on listening to the music first. How can you guide listeners through a work if you don’t actually listen to it yourself? It’s very rare indeed that one of the orchestras for whom I write regularly doesn’t play something which has been previously recorded, and while mostly it’s mainstream stuff which I certainly have already, they occasionally branch out into hidden territories which necessitate a trip to the CD store. My usual modus operandi is to scan the season calendar when it appears and make a list of all the works I don’t have, draw up a shopping list and go to London to buy the necessary discs. London remains the classical CD capital of the world, so far as I am concerned, but excellent specialist shops that I know of in Brisbane, Wellington, Auckland, Tokyo and Hong Kong often come up with the goods too, especially where Australian or Asian composers are concerned.

The second reason is my insatiable appetite for new music. Show me a classical CD shelf and I’ll browse through it at length invariably picking out something I’ve never heard before. Some of my favourite discs have emerged that way.

And the third reason – and a very rare reason for me, I have to confess – is a simple desire to buy a specific CD for no other reason than I may have heard it on the radio, read a review about it or decided, on the spur of the moment, that I want it. And that’s where the problem lies.

I have to say straight off that I don’t buy CDS online; I’ve had my fingers too badly burnt in the past to do that again and, besides, with exorbitant postage rates to Singapore not to mention the familiar mantra to any of us who live in Asia; “Sorry, that item can’t be shipped to your country, choose another address instead” – yeah, thanks Amazon, I’ll just buy a house in New York so that you can deliver me a Naxos cheapie – it’s usually more trouble and costly than it’s worth. Neither do I download. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory download site. Some labels (Chandos and DG spring to mind) are excellent, but only for their own discs. If I want something which necessitates going through a general download site, I call the whole thing off. The quality is usually dire (what is it about downloads that results in you getting only a desiccated sound?) and, most problematic of all, you don’t get the documentation. Some, like Classics Online, boast that they offer it, but you can’t get it for all their downloads – and the ones for which you can are those labels who offer their CD booklets free to download in any case – and a CD without the booklet is, pointless. It’s great to listen to music, but you do need to know about the music, who performed it, who recorded it, where it was recorded, when it was recorded and so on.

Last week I was writing a piece about Shakespeare and music for a festival in Ireland and mentioned Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. I thought I might listen to it, but discovered to my horror that my recording had gone missing – probably when I had foolishly loaned some CDs to an unscrupulous music school in Sarawak. No matter, thought I, I’ll go and buy a new version; after all, the Overture is one of those hugely popular pieces that appears on no end of “Classical Gems” CDs. Out the door, jump on the no.14 bus and in no time at all (45 minutes, to be precise), I am in 313 Orchard and heading up to the 4th floor for HMV. Now HMV Singapore used to be quite good in the classical department. True, the heady days when there was a dedicated floor with knowledgeable staff in the Heeren Centre are long gone, but when I last visited HMV, it still wasn’t bad. It is now. It’s execrable. Classics have gone; Middle of the Road/Crossover is in. Who buys this stuff? Terminally deaf people, those who want a CD to hang on their car’s rear-view mirror, or are there really loonies out there who like this drivel enough to buy the hundreds of CDS which HMV stock? Judging by the non-existent crowd not milling around the shelves, this section is a triumph of aspiration over practicality, but perhaps they were driven off by the incredibly loud rap music the store was playing in the so-called “Classical” department. I persevered, but gave up when it was obvious that, unless Susan Boyle (she’s a “Classical” artist, by the way, if you didn’t know it!), Katherine Jenkins (she’s a brilliant singer, by the way, according to the CD booklet) or any of the vocally-challenged non-entities whose unchallenging CDs adorn HMV’s “Classical” department, had recorded it, it wasn’t going to be there.

To Gramophone – first Cathay then North Bridge Road – only to find the same. No “Classical” CDs but brain-dead singers by the yard and, hidden amongst them, some Lang Lang. The replacement for Tower Records in Suntec City sells, presumably, only to the elevator and shopping mall market (ie, suicide-inducing background music), and although there was a shelf marked “Classical”, I couldn’t quite see how its contents differed from those on the shelves marked “Pop”, “Rock” or, intriguingly, “Audiophile”. Sembawang Music went bankrupt last year, so that’s it. Singapore’s desire to become an arts hub doesn’t extend to classical CDs. In short, if you want to buy a classical CD, treat Singapore as you would Afghanistan, Sierra Leone or Colombia; a total and utter lost cause. I hate to say it, but even Malaysia has better CD retail outlets – and that’s a pretty desperate state of affairs. So, I can tell you categorically that a recording of the Overture to Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor cannot be found in Singapore (in the end I did buy it in KL), nor can just about any other piece of basic classical repertoire. I have no idea what the obsession in Singapore CD stores is with singers, nor why Classical music is now filed under artist rather than composer (do we take it that the Singaporeans are so musically backward that they don’t know that the person who writes music is more important than the person who performs it?), but I do know that the CD market in Singapore is dead. I am told that Classical has “no demand” in Singapore and that CD stores have been badly hit by illegal downloaders (let’s face it, you’ve got to hate music quite a lot to be one of those), but is this really true? Don’t Singaporeans want to buy CDs; do they prefer to steal instead? I find that hard to believe.

I remember giving a talk in the mid 1980s to the Singapore Gramophone Society (or some such name) and being hugely impressed both by the number who came to my talk and by their vast record collections (all LPs in those days). It was also in Singapore that, in 1984, I began my collection of CDs. I had been sent some for review when they first came out in 1983, but it was during an examining tour of Singapore that I came across the first commercial stores selling CDs – if I remember I bought up virtually the whole stock – and bought my first CD player (having had one on loan from a manufacturer up to that point) in a shop in Scott’s Road. How sad that the country which was at the forefront of this revolution in music is now lagging so far behind the rest of the world.

September 2010