Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Trumpets Three-Wise Silverflamed

Ludwig Van and his acolyte Alex (Malcolm McDowell), in Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange
In my review of orchestral music by E.T.A. Hoffmann I contrasted his ecstatic, ultra-Romantic description of Beethoven's 5th Symphony with the well-crafted but rather conservative classical music Hoffmann created during a period of great ferment and experimentation in the musical world. Zip ahead 150 years to this description of another Beethoven Symphony, no. 9:
Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.
This, of course, is A Clockwork Orange, the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, which combines the language experiments of Joyce and Spike Milligan with the dystopias of Huxley and Orwell. Music looms large in the novel, as it did in Burgess's imagination, if not so much in his life. "I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels," he said, "instead of a novelist who writes music on the side." But this was not to be. Though he spent much more time writing music late in his life, it was always seen as a side-line. He never gained traction as a composer. Now, nearly 25 years after his death, there are only a few discs of his music available on CD and the streaming services. Is it time for new interest in Burgess as composer?

It's the Ivy League to the rescue! Paul Phillips, Director of Orchestras and Chamber Music at Brown University, has put together the first CD of Burgess orchestral music. Naxos, with its tradition of musical excavation, was the obvious label for the project. Phillips, in his excellent liner notes, characterizes this music as "a hybrid of Holst and Hindemith", but there are many reminiscences as well of the honourable tradition of English Light Music: Percy Grainger and Eric Coates especially. And when things get more dissonant, I'm reminded of French composers like Milhaud and Poulenc, though curiously nothing sounds as English (here Vaughan Williams and even Elgar) as the Marche pour une révolution, written to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

Though this is all, for now, when it comes to the orchestral music on disc, there is a concert recording from the BBC that's up on YouTube.  The excellent Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic in Burgess's tribute to his home town, A Manchester Overture.

With that 25th anniversary of his death coming next year, it seems like a good time to sit back and take a look at the artistic life work of Anthony Burgess as a whole. The unfortunate over-sized role of A Clockwork Orange due to the notoriety of Kubrick's film has given us a skewed picture of Burgess the novelist. Hopefully there might be a new balance as well between Burgess the writer and the composer, though judging by what we have so far, I don't believe things will change too awfully much. It's encouraging to see a new disc of piano music coming this summer, and I'm hoping Phillips might record the Third Symphony for Naxos in the future. My droogs and I might listen to some of the music occasionally, but for me Anthony Burgess will still be the author of the Enderby series and Earthly Powers.

This new disc from Richard Casey will be released on June 3, 2016.

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