Tuesday, September 22, 2015

800 Words: Frank Shipway (Parts I II and III)


In this time of trouble, I've gotten more from listening obsessively to the Alpine Symphony than virtually any other activity in my life. The Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss is everything in music we've lost - the good and the bad, which stand next to each other unashamedly in a brilliant, Breughelesque aural canvass that reminds us of just how timid our music's become in the century since the work's premiere.

This is, almost beyond doubt, the greatest recording I've ever heard of Strauss's Alpine Symphony. A no name conductor with a C-list orchestra - so often these are the miracle performances that put the corporatism of capital cities in the shade. To be sure, the playing's a bit shaky at times, and the storm section is a little underpowered, but who cares? Has there ever been a performance so awake to the many possibilities of this piece, the stupefyingly graphic onomatopoetic detail, the harmonic rhythm and textural clarity, the incomparable dignity of Strauss's last and deepest (I'm completely serious) orchestral statement?

Amid many mediocre ones, there certainly are other very fine recordings: The composer himself made a wonderful one in 1941 - amid the dim sound, you hear a naturalness of pacing that makes this allegedly bloated work seem as classically proportioned as anything by Mozart or Mendelssohn, surely a feat only possible in the hands of a musician of equal talent to those masters. Franz Welser-Most, the most self-effacing interpretive personality among today's conductors, seems to do his best to copy Strauss tempo for tempo, and downplays the vulgarity to the point that we seem to be hearing something as natural as Schubert - a very fine, if downright bizarre performance in the way that it's so normal-sounding.  Rudolf Kempe, a German musician to the marrow but with a completely un-Teutonic elegance - marshals the Staatskapelle Dresden to an almost Beethovenian dignity from what sounds so blowsy and vulgar in other hands. Andre Previn, ever the showman, gets captures the piece's encyclopedia of orchestral sound effects in stupefyingly vivid detail - from the Vienna Philharmonic no less, an orchestra which prizes its dignity like a Hawk does her eggs. An ailing Lorin Maazel, only in his final few years a musician worthy of his massive fees, stretched the usually less than 50 minute work to 67 minutes with the Philharmonia orchestra, and gives a performance of glowing luminosity. Christian Thielemann gives a live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic that, for whatever reason, sounds as expressive as his recording was lethally boring (though for all I know, it might be the same performance...). In my first listen, I thought Francois-Xavier Roth tries to load the first half with virtuosity and the second half with metaphysical depth, but didn't realize that you can't divorce the two in this symphony (and for some reason I forgot that his name wasn't 'Franz'-Xavier Roth), but upon relistening, I realize that it doesn't matter, and perhaps you can separate the two with far less trouble than I previously thought. And a similarly little known conductor to Frank Shipway (at least in the West), Kazimiriez Kord, gives a performance of truly exceptional virtuosity - I listen and think to myself that perhaps this is how Carlos Kleiber would have conducted it. But until now, no performance could take the place in my heart of Fabio Luisi's performance with the Staatskapelle Dresden at the Proms, which was the first performance to make me take the work seriously as more than just a showpiece of a composer running out of ideas. Even after hearing Shipway, there are details of this Dresden performance of which I have never heard their like in any other. Luisi's occasional subtle effects to increase the piece's inherent bravado only makes the piece sound still greater.

But except for Thielemann, none of these conductors have anything in common with Shipway's approach, for the simple reason that none of the others are combing the score for every nuance of its astonishing diversity of expression. It is not in the nature of most musicians to do so. How many conductors would have been flexible enough to take their time to let every detail speak to its proper weight, and still blaze forth in a hail of virtuosity when the music demands the exact opposite approach? There is a rain of good conductors - BohmBlomstedt, Janowski, Jansons, Bychkov, Harding - who come undone in this piece by the fact that there is nothing particularly memorable about their performances. Doubtless we'll get another generic one soon from Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic. Carl Schuricht does his best to imitate Richard Strauss's performance, but he can't quite do it and the result sounds as though he skates the surface. A legend like Bernard Haitink gets bogged down by the sheer metaphysical weight of the score and completely misses the joie de vivre, whereas another legend like Georg Solti completely misses the depths that lies beyond the score's miraculous surface, while the most legendary Straussian of all - Herbert von Karajan - does what he so often does, giving the score everything it needs but oxygen and a beating heart beneath the astounding skill. I'm probably too hard on Karajan. There's a part of me that wants to declare his electrifying recording without parallel as everyone else does; but there is something truly disturbing about musicmaking so electrifying yet so cold. This is a performance for the work's Nietzschean source material - truly magnetic and superhuman virtuosity, almost always capturing precisely the right color for the right moment. And yet, if Shipway is organic, then Karajan is eugenic. He achieves this amazing sonic document without any sense of human expression, as though reminding us that nature exists without the human perception of it, yet might be recreated to the last detail by a spectacularly engineered human machine. Truly, it's an extraordinary and deep performance in its way, but the way in which it's extraordinary makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Could any other conductor have captured both the surface exuberance and the unfathomable depth that lay behind? Surely Furtwangler or Bruno Walter would have, ditto Leonard Bernstein and Celibidache in his prime, or Carlos Kleiber and Victor De Sabata. Perhaps Kubelik or Barbirolli or Monteux or Beecham or would have, or Georges Pretre to name a less obvious name, and perhaps even Simon Rattle or Manfred Honeck still could if they ever took the piece on. Charles Munch and Leopold Stokowski would have probably erred on the side of flash, Eugen Jochum and Klaus Tennstedt on the side of depth. I have yet to hear Andris Nelsons in this piece, but I have very high hopes, as do I have Christian Thielemann's remake in Dresden. I once valued Daniel Barenboim's recording, and one would think his mixture of philosopher and showman ideal for this piece, but in relistening to it, his recording with the Chicago Symphony is a strangely diffuse performance. The chemistry of Barenboim the metaphysical striver with the Chicago Symphony, acme of orchestral virtuosity, was always awry. A musician as great as Barenboim could never truly fail, and like Rattle in Berlin after them, they made the best of a bad marriage, but Barenboim should never have gone to Chicago.

Could any contemporary of Shipway's do it? The England of his generation produced some truly extraordinary batons, but none of them was particularly extraordinary in quite Shipway's way. Charles Mackerras, perhaps the greatest of their generation in any country, would create a performance in the Kempe mode - not capturing every detail, but getting all the essentials correct for a great performance. Colin Davis would have captured the grandeur, but been utterly embarrassed by the comic kitsch. John Eliot Gardiner wouldn't touch this elephantine piece with a ten foot pole, and Norrington would have been fascinatingly perverse. Vernon Handley would have never been interested in it. Perhaps Andrew Davis would have made something of it, depending on the side of the bed he woke up on on the day of the performance. Edward Downes would have been dreadfully soporific, and Neville Marriner would have been far too timid in the face of such aggressive music. Perhaps Wyn Morris would have made a fair go of it, but we have scant evidence of the conductor Wyn Morris was. Much Beethoven and Mahler, impressive too, and nothing else.

(Elgar doesn't get better than this)

But compared to Shipway, we have a veritable encyclopedia of the artist Wyn Morris was. And if the recorded evidence is anything to go by, Frank Shipway's talent may have dwarfed even Wyn Morris, but we'll never know. Frank Shipway, just as he was finally to get his due as a great conductor with a record contract to set down a complete Strauss cycle, died in a car accident at the age 79. All that's left is scant evidence of a gift that might have equaled the very greatest the world's ever seen.


Even in postwar England, the finest musical culture in the Free World of its time, there was no place for Shipway on the national stage. Think of how amazing a place postwar London must have been for music. At its center was Benjamin Britten, along with Shostakovich, the last lion of the classical canon who roared before popular music subsumed us all. As only a giant can, he expressed not only his own experience, but the experience of entire nation's, and spoke to the entire world about the gay experience, the experience of the outsider, the experience of innocence lost and corrupted. At his side was Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom in what might have been his dotage wrote masterpiece after masterpiece. Just behind them, a chorus of talents who sometimes touched on mastery - Tippett, Walton, Finzi, Constance Lambert, and Malcolm Arnold, along with a number of composers of generic accomplishment like George Lloyd, Edmund Rubbra, Herbert Howells, Arnold Bax, Lennox Berkeley, Alan Rawsthorne, William Alwyn and many others whose names haven't even lasted fifty years but could count on performances in their own time. Even composers of personal, countercultural vision who embraced the latest European techniques like Humphrey Searle, Elizabeth Maconchy, and Robert Simpson could get performed. Even if amateur eccentrics like Havrgal Brien, Lord Berners, Cyril Scott, and Kaikhosru Sorabji, could not count on performances for their often quite demanding music, the fact that their work was known testifies to the fact that there was a centralized musical culture to which all paid attention. Talented composers of an extremely different bent from their older colleagues - like Harrison Birtwhistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Geohr, Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Gavin Bryars, all found places within the firmament to be performed, and even if there was much grumbling along the way, with comparatively little resistance from the establishment.

London had five professional orchestras which in any week could give performances of extraordinary quality, and being the center of worldwide classical recording, there must have been more than a dozen ad-hoc freelance orchestral enesmbles operating at any given time. Even the names of orchestral musicians like Hugh Bean, Reginald Kell, Jack Brymer, Leon Goossens, and Aubrey Brain, still ring quite a bell to obsessive music lovers. Every mid-size British city had its own orchestra, and the quality programming of the BBC ensured that British musical audiences were the best educated and most passionate of their time. There were extraordinary native conductors like Beecham and Barbirolli, and extraordinary immigrants continually roaming around London like Klemperer, Krips, and a bit later, Sir Georg Solti. and extraordinary immigrants roaming around the provinces like Jascha Horenstein and Rudolf Schwarz and Constantin Silvestri. This doesn't even begin to cover the gamut of extraordinary singers and soloists, both native and immigrant, who lived in London during the postwar years.

The quality of this musicmaking was not particularly extraordinary in the annals of music history. What was extraordinary was that it happened so late in the game - popular music was still merely a highly successful niche pursuit in England while it long since conquered America. England was a musical village in which no matter how unique your personal musical vision, you were practically guaranteed to find a reasonably sized musical audience, somewhere in your country, that was sympathetic. No musician was an island. Its like existed neither in America nor in France nor in Italy nor in Germany, and seems to exist nowhere today.

And still, there was no room on the A-List, or even the B-List, perhaps not even the C-List, for Frank Shipway.


Every music snob has their weakness for a period when music was never better. Some testify to their broadmindedness by keeping it a secret, others partisanly shout their preference from the rooftop. As much as my heart will always belong above all others to the classical: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and by extension Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and to a lesser extent Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak. But my infatuation is for the late Romantics - Janacek, Elgar, Puccini, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Nielsen. The Belle Epoque and Fin de Siecle does relatively little for this blogger in painting, and the literature is sometimes hit or miss, but the music, my god the music...

I think I've finally hit on what I love. This was the moment in history when music, already probably raised to its pinnacle by Mozart and Beethoven, was the most crucial of all arts to the world's well-being. Never could more people have appreciated music on so complex a level - appreciated not only as a passive art on recording as it mostly is today, but as an art which you actively study with profound humility: a piano in every home with multiple people to play it, chamber and choral ensembles everywhere made up of family and friends, and reading music was considered part of basic literacy. So engorged was the world on this most powerful of drugs that the best composers were expected to write works of massive length and breath, incorporating the most culturally relevant topics from philosophy, history, and politics, and still expect to make it accessible (albeit still quite challenging) to a universal audience. If music can render emotional experience into sound, why can't it render whole philosophical concepts as well? Without music, philosophy is merely words on a page which we must interpret to understand, but music would make philosophy into a living experience. All it takes to create is musical geniuses of unlimited perception and cosmic ambition. And yet was it ever truly done again by a composer who came of age after World War I?

In its way, music has never been so complex an enterprise ever again. Sure, we can now write music full of polyrhythms and dissonance unlimited, and who but a small niche cares? Around the corner from Puccini and Strauss was the disease of recorded music, the drug that made music, that most powerful and dangerous of all arts, omnipresent in our lives at the click of a button. Never again was music an awe-inspiring force but a simple fact of life. Music became accessible enough that it couldn't help but be trivialized, in so-called art music as well as in popular music. In a single generation, it turned the most musically accomplished and adult populace in world history into spoiled musical children - with music that grew ever less complex and ever more infantile.

Milan Kundera inveighs against it again and again, and puts it much better than I ever could:

“As early as 1930 Schoenberg wrote: "Radio is an enemy, a ruthless enemy marching irresistibly forward, and any resistance is hopeless"; it "force-feeds us music . . . regardless of whether we want to hear it, or whether we can grasp it," with the result that music becomes just noise, a noise among other noises. Radio was the tiny stream it all began with. Then came other technical means for reproducing, proliferating, amplifying sound, and the stream became an enormous river. If in the past people would listen to music out of love for music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, "regardless whether we want to hear it," it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don't know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can't tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form): sewage-water music in which music is dying.”

- Milan Kundera, Ignorance

"The music (commonly and vaguely) called "rock " has been inundating the sonic environment of daily life for twenty years; it seized possession of the world at the very moment when the twentieth century was disgustedly vomiting up its history; a question haunts me: was   this coincidence mere chance? Or is there some hidden meaning to the conjunction of the century's final trials and the ecstasy of rock? Is the century hoping to forget itself in this ecstatic howling? To forget its Utopias foundering in horror? To forget its art? An art whose subtlety, whose needless complexity, irritates the populace, offends against democracy?   The word "rock" is vague; therefore, I would rather describe the music I mean: human voices prevail over instruments, high-pitched voices over low ones; there is no contrast to the dynamics, which keep to a perpetual fortissimo that turns the singing into howling; as in jazz, the rhythm accentuates the second beat of the measure, but in a more stereotyped and noisier manner; the harmony and the melody are simplistic and thus they bring out the tone color, the only inventive element of this music; while the popular songs of the first half of the century had melodies that made poor folk cry (and delighted Mahler's and Stravinsky's musical irony), this so-called rock music is exempt from the sin of sentimentality; it is not sentimental, it is ecstatic, it is the prolongation of a single moment of ecstasy; and since ecstasy is a moment wrenched out of time-a brief moment without memory, a moment surrounded by forgetting-the melodic motif has no room to develop, it only repeats, without evolving or concluding (rock is the only "light" music in which melody is not predominant; people don't hum rock melodies).   A curious thing: thanks to the technology of sound reproduction, this ecstatic music resounds incessantly and everywhere, and thus outside ecstatic situations. The acoustic image of ecstasy has become the everyday decor of our lassitude. It is inviting us to no orgy, to no mystical experience, so what does this trivialized ecstasy mean to tell us? That we should accept it. That we should get used to it. That we should respect its privileged position. That we should observe the ethic it decrees.
   The ethic of ecstasy is the opposite of the trial's ethic; under its protection everybody does whatever he wants: now anyone can suck his thumb as he likes, from infancy to graduation, and it is a freedom no one will be willing to give up; look around you on the Metro; seated or standing, every single person has a finger in some orifice of his face-in the ear, in the mouth, in the nose; no one feels he's being observed, and everyone dreams of writing a book to tell about his unique and inimitable self, which is picking its nose; no one listens to anyone else, everyone writes, and each of them writes the way rock is danced to: alone, for himself, focused on himself yet making the same motions as all the others. In this situation of uniform egocentricity, the sense of guilt does not play the role it once did; the tribunals still operate, but they are fascinated exclusively by the past; they see only the core of the century; they see only the generations that are old or dead. Kafka's characters were made to feel guilty by the authority of the father; it is because his father disgraces him that the hero of "The Judgment" drowns himself in a river; that time is past: in the world of rock, the father has been charged with such a load of guilt that, for a long time now, he allows everything. Those with no guilt feelings are dancing.
   Recently, two adolescents murdered a priest: on television I heard another priest talking, his voice trembling with understanding: "We must pray for the priest who was a victim of his mission: he was especially concerned with young people. But we must also pray for the two unfortunate adolescents; they too were victims: of their drives."
   While freedom of thought-freedom of words, of attitudes, of jokes, of reflection, of dangerous ideas, of intellectual provocations-shrinks, under surveillance as it is by the vigilance of the tribunal of general con-formism, the freedom of drives grows ever greater. They are preaching severity against sins of thought; they are preaching forgiveness for crimes committed in emotional ecstasy."

 Milan Kundera - Testaments Betrayed

(the next one is not entirely true but mostly...)

"At jazz concerts people applaud. To applaud means: I have listened to you carefully and now I am declaring my appreciation. The music called "rock" changes the situation. An important fact: at rock concerts people do not applaud. It would be almost sacrilege to applaud and thus to bring to notice the critical distance between the person playing and the person listening; we come here not to judge and evaluate but to surrender to the music, to scream along with the musicians, to merge with them; we come here to seek identification, not pleasure; effusion, not delight. We go into ecstasy here: the beat is strong and steady, the melodic motifs are short and endlessly repeated, there are no dynamic contrasts, everything is fortissimo, the song tends toward the highest range and resembles screaming. Here we re no longer in those little nightspots where the music wraps the couple in intimacy; we're in huge halls, in stadiums, pressed one against the next, and, if were dancing at a club there are no couples; each person is doing his moves by himself and together with the whole crowd at the same time. The music turns the individuals into a single collective body: talking here about individualism and hedonism is just one of the self-mystifications of our time, which (like any other time, by the way) wants to see itself as different from what it is."

Milan Kundera - Testaments Betrayed

Perhaps there's an argument, not much of one but an argument nevertheless, to be made that what truly drove Old Europe insane was music. When photography made visual art accessible to all, perhaps the result was the Belle Epoque. But when recording made music accessible to all, perhaps the result was World War. The German speaking lands, ever the center of musical discourse in its Golden Age, was accompanied by the martial strains of Wagner and Strauss - misinterpreted though they might have been. America and England and France were accompanied by the strains of a new, simpler music that gave the audience what it wanted - Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, even Carmen and Noel Coward, great though they are, make few if any metaphysical demands. With the passing of the old Germany, the age of transcendent metaphysics was over, and in place of this quasi-mystical quest for a greater self came a conception of us as nothing more than a bundle of neuro-physiological wires that needed no greater transcendence than pleasant feelings as often as possible.

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