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This article will appear in the Spectator magazine dated October 17th

Someone somewhere recently asked me in a public forum whether I would prefer to be a singer, the conductor or a member of the audience at the concerts we give. He himself was of the opinion that he would rather be a singer, saying that the music we do is so complicated that only someone on the inside of it can appreciate exactly what the composer has achieved. If he’s right, the audience don’t stand a chance.

I rushed to my own defence, saying that the guy out front has the best of all worlds, as one would expect if he is to control the performance. He is receiving the sound without distortion, so placed that the voices will come to him equally strongly. With this immediacy he can draw out and shape the phrases, which is both a privilege and a pleasure with music of such quality. In fact I have always opted to stand as close to the singers as possible, believing that only when I can virtually touch them will I have real control over the ensemble. When there is some impediment to this – a microphone or some steps or a piece of furniture in a church – and I am obliged to stand back, I never feel so confident about the end result. (more…)

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Phillips on Cardus

The following book review will appear in the autumn issue of the Musical Times.

Cardus – Celebrant of Beauty  A Memoir by Robin Daniels

The Elusive Mr Cardus  Letters and Other writings edited by Bob Hilton

Neville Cardus has been a hero for many people for a long time now. From his deprived upbringing in the back streets of Manchester (his aunt was a prostitute); to his way with words which, Palestrina-like, seemed to be in an idiom perfectly formed from birth; to his two intriguingly contrasted yet somehow mutually supporting areas of expertise, he fascinated his contemporaries and continues to dazzle the likes of me, who once, in the pages of the Spectator in 1989, tried to write both the music and cricket columns in conscious emulation. There never was a shortage of people to pay him homage, and here, in Robin Daniels’ memoir, must be the last word in this hero worship. One can only hope so.

What was it about Neville which was so impressive? Whatever it was seemed to work for him from an early age since the Manchester Guardian, under the editorship of C.P.Scott (the All-Father as Cardus later called him), most uncharacteristically took a punt on someone who was just 28 and almost completely untried. I suspect it was a combination of the most intense underlying seriousness of purpose, a ready wit, and no obvious interest in wordly possessions. He disarmed people from the first meeting, and backed up the good impression with prose which in itself could seduce. Michael Kennedy put it best: ‘He had a flair for the telling phrase which caught the fleeting moment and gave it permanence’. And the fact that he could do this in the world of classical music and opera – a world every educated person aspired to – as well as with a mere sport – as his musical friends would put it – meant that he had an appeal across two borders. It was typical of his adroitness that in his hands they could seem linked, each giving perspective to the other. It also meant he could be photographed with desirable international stars like Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, as well as with national icons like Jack Hobbs. It was a unique double-act. (more…)

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The current exhibition at the Tate Modern (‘Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism’, until 17 May) is rich in cultural reference, apart from any reference to music. Here we have Popova collaborating with theatrical producers and designers, Rodchenko working alongside film-makers and poets (especially Mayakovsky), and everyone in a headlong dash away from easel work towards sculpture, and even architecture. It was a time of quite glorious redefinition of life and culture, taking in anything and everthing. Why is music kept apart?

It wasn’t that the musicians themselves were silent. The new Soviet authorities had a liking for opera, hoping that such an obvious art-form would appeal to the masses. Well-known operas were ridiculously recast with new libretti. Tosca, for example, with the action shifted to Paris in 1871, became The Battle for the Commune; Les Huguenots became The Decembrists (after the early 19th-century revolutionary movement); and Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar was reworked as Hammer and Sickle. At the same time composers were encouraged to explore modes of expression compatible with the prevailing revolutionary mood. Thus the new generation of Russian composers – amongst them Kabalevsky, Shaporin, Shebalin, Myaskovsky and Shostakovich – found themselves composing ‘Hymns to Lenin’ and programmatic symphonies on the problems of the steel industry. (more…)

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Someone needs to write a history of vibrato. Clearly this should be Roger Norrington: to judge from his words on Radio Three recently he has given the topic much thought and come up with some historically-based conclusions. I suspect he isn’t going to do it though because, like me, he is too busy chiselling out a new -ism on the back of his research, by which he hopes to effect yet another revolution in performance practice.

But the bare bones of the story are straightforward enough. Vibrato, both in orchestral playing and in singing, became acceptable in classical music-making no earlier than 1920. It had existed before this in more vulgar circumstances, but was resisted at the most serious level as being a cheap trick. Part of the written history I am proposing would examine just how something that was once derided could so rapidly became all the rage. There must be many modern parallels here: in styles of clothing, in habits of speech, in modes of eating. One year no-one would be seen dead wearing those clothes or speaking like that or resorting to fast food; the next year it is not only acceptable but perfectly normal, yet another aspect of contemporary living. So it seems to have been with vibrato. One year the music-hall; the next year (or so) the symphony hall and the opera house.

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The following article appeared in The Times of London on the 9th April, as part of a series of articles dedicated to Holy Week. To see it in its original form visit www.timesonline.co.uk and type in my name. It appears under the title quoted above.

The best sacred music is inherently dramatic. The drama may not be of the stagey kind, with tearful lovers and murderous villains. It is more likely to deal in joyfulness (at Christmas and Easter) or penitence (in Lent) or just in a contemplative mood. These may not sound as if they offer much scope for up-to-date drama, yet there is little in opera to rival the atmosphere that a great composer can generate during, for example, a setting of the Requiem Mass. From the light eternal that will shine on us after death, to the day of wrath when the Earth will dissolve into ashes, to the trumpet that will raise the dead from their tombs, to being led into Paradise by angels (maybe), the run of excitements can be irresistible. Verdi himself didn’t miss a trick when it came to this, though my favourite is the wonderful balance which a polyphonic composer such as Victoria can strike between contemplation and sheer terror.

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Now that the Allegri Miserere season is fully launched – the text is suitable for Lent – it seems fitting to ask why every choir in the land thinks it incumbent on them to sing this piece of music, for 150 years only ever sung within the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It never used to be so. The local cathedral choir might periodically have had a go at it – and St John’s Cambridge always broadcast it on Ash Wednesday – but nowadays performances by secular and liturgical choirs alike have reached epidemic proportions, a kind of top C fever. This is all the stranger when one reflects that most of these choirs will sing much worse than usual in attempting it. Why bother?

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People make assumptions about how other people think, and then influence the zeitgeist by broadcasting their findings. There is a circularity to this rule of thumb which is ultimately sterile, but which takes some deconstructing. One of the current such verities is that sacred music in worship is of no wide cultural relevance, either because it’s too clever and boring (polyphony), or too stupid and boring (folk masses): anyway it can be of no interest to anyone except fanatics.

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