The challenge, the risk of counter-tenor singing, still fairly young as a revived technique, seems to appeal to modern audiences; it is a peculiar type of virtuosity just by virtue of the technique. It is only natural that the the counter-tenor revival took off in the 1950’s and developed in parallel with the historical performance practice movement. That was Alfred Deller who helped it take off, who started as a boy in a choir in the 1920’s and as an adult helped the Purcell revival in singing alto, and gave recitals of Italian madrigals and Elizabethan songs, but also singing contemporary opera, creating the role of Oberon for Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.[1. See J. B. Steane writing for Grove Music Online.] Philippe Jaroussky cites Deller’s very distinctive voice, and also James Bowman, who too inspired Britten, creating the role of Apollo for Death in Venice, as voices he listened to in forming his own, and forming as an artist, Bowman especially. Bowman gave his farewell concert in Paris only last November, and many good recordings exist of Deller. Now with some hundreds of professional counter-tenors in the world and they inching up into the soprano range, the hole in the Baroque and classical “instrumentarium” left by the extremely distinctive and castrato voice which tickled so much enthusiasm in audiences — and composers — in the 17th and 18th century is filling, or at least better circumscribed, without needing to resort to a false general preference or dichotomy determined by fashions between counter-tenors and sopranos en travestie, in recital or in opera, or between counter-tenors and contraltos.
The stuff of music is not stuff. Music’s physical presence, like dance’s too, is gone forever almost as soon as it is played. As Christmas and the planet Earth become more and more burdened with stuff, permanent stuff at that — at least permanently in the landfill — and people seemingly more and more frantic that they’re not spending enough money, you can feel more and more by contrast how music had to have such an enormous part of the festival. To fill an honest need of another person you love is another thing, but even if there is a physical thing involved, it is not the thing itself but the love to which the thing is a mere shadow and the mutually filled need itself. Carpeting one’s wants and feelings of insufficiency with stuff will always miss.
Back in the day, when music in the theatre manifested itself dramatically as dance and singing together — specifically ballet and opera — it did so in a myriad of different forms. Though we now call them opera-ballets (or even just operas), they can be difficult to imagine now that the two art forms are not only separate themselves, but tend to have separate audiences in many cities, sharing only their theatre in common. Conveniently, but unfortunately, the choreography has been lost in all cases and the works are revived as what we now call opera in the main. A dance of course is much more difficult to write down than music — though written music is not itself trivial, in fact, baroque composers had no desire to write down every note, and quite a bit of the creative act we now assign to composers was originally given to musicians and singers, ornamentation in particular, were and are very important and in most cases these improvisations were not thought to be written down since that would defeat their whole purpose of expressive dramatic spontaneity. These baroque operas, even the French ones of Lully and Rameau in which the dancing is particularly important, are first and foremost watched and listened to today as opera, even when some care, attention and time are given to recreating the choreography.
Tchaikovsky wrote Queen of Spades, in 1890, and one other opera, Iolanta, in 1891, near the end of his life after having promised never to write another opera because of the unpopularity of The Sorceress (1887). For theatre, these were very fertile years for Tchaikovsky. The Mariinksy first performed Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Nutcracker in 1892. He wrote Queen of Spades at a Mozartean rate in Florence where it is said he composed the music faster than his brother Modest wrote and sent the libretto scene by scene. Perhaps living in Florence gave him enough distance from the darker, more repellent aspects of the story to avoid getting run down by it, but anyhow it seems a strange subject for him to choose, especially surprising to hear the incredibly lyrical music he created for it. The antihero Hermann is repellent, but for some of the beautiful music Tchaikovsky gave him, yet even so Hermann’s are not as beautiful as Don Giovanni’s arias (and duets), but I don’t believe Tchaikovsky thought or intended his music to be as beautiful as Mozart’s.
Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto didn’t deserve to be cut. It seems to have received, in any version, the homeric epithet “Rachmaninoff’s least popular” since it wasn’t popular at the première (1927) and wasn’t much more loved after the revisions (1928 and 1941), but this is perhaps as much due to the immense and perennial popularity of the 2nd and 3rd as any intrinsic quality of the 4th, and the unpopular label seems now to be beginning to give the original version a little bit of underdog cred. The original longer version was only published in 2000, and this performance, according to the Sydney Symphony, is the first of this version in Australia. It is a fascinating case of audience expectations based on a composer’s perceived style and the composer worrying too much about pleasing them. Luckily the original was not lost. Even so it is not very long, though it does have a leisurely, operatic quality to its pacing, almost a Mahlerian pace, but with its drama turned in, more psychological and untidy than the other concerti, and so it is not as exciting as the other concerti. It does not have too solid a form holding it together, it doesn’t tell a ‘story’ with beginning middle and end as the others do more obviously. It is not linear, or at least it is taller than it is long with all those enormous, thick, rich chords which defy a simple analysis and the long runs of impossibly fast notes which are not exactly melodic — maybe more harmonic as they ring in that resonant Steinway piano — but the melodies in the piece with the exception of the opening one are more like fragments of leitmotif without staging to help explain them. The opening theme returns here and there but it seems odd in its return, almost an interruption of the of the pensive, contemplative revery of the music, almost like the sudden landing of an eagle, or an angel, or a strange golden shaft of light. But the 20th century romantic music doesn’t need a strict form since Rachmaninoff’s concept is not architectural or plastic. The wonderful thing about music is that you don’t have to worry whether it will stand up.
Huntley Dent has written on these pages “two musical instruments rise above all others in their humanity — the violin, because it comes closest to imitating the singing voice, and the piano, because it comes closest to conveying human nature.” So in the simple pairing of the two, a pair of thoughtful and sensitive musicians can ‘say’ more while ‘speaking’ less than many symphonies. Such are Anthony Marwood and Aleksandar Madžar, who play with such humanity to a listener, with originality and directness, with much thought and care. They play with emotional directness even while bravely and generously plumbing the emotional complexity and ambiguity of the difficult music they have chosen.
Who is John Cage? Does it matter? At a certain point music must “speak” for itself, allow the musician to interpret the music and the listener to have the pure experience. It can be useful and interesting to have “background” whether historical or technical, as Mark Stewert gave a little of in his introductory spiels before he played, particularly when that information helps people with the music. But often with Cage’s music so much of the idea is in the concept, in the construction that there’s a risk that the listener thinks they’ve “got it” before a note is played. This, and the strong tendency toward cult worship of Cage, is ironic considering his is so often performer’s music. Cage’s cleverness is often overemphasized, he seems either to be taken too seriously or too facetiously, which threatens to reduce his pieces to one-liners, something he seems to have reliably avoided. His music seems more composed to help people to think on their own about music, any music, without drifting between clichés and received wisdom in a deoxygenated modern world. From sometime in the 19th century, music started to come about which anyone could listen to and appreciate intuitively without any training or “background” except maybe literacy and some emotional intelligence, whereas before the French Revolution a Baroque composer could expect a great deal more technical musical knowledge from the audience. One hopes music can transcend or make a false dichotomy intuition versus intellect (nowadays maybe more a corporate misunderstanding of Carl Jung’s types, anyway the “debate” is sophomoric). John Cage’s music, and other experimentalists’, seems often explained and even appreciated from pure intellect, whether using mathematical or philosophical or religious principles, music you “get” just from the score and it’s always trippy. Music, the thing, whatever it is, you listen to while the musicians interpret and play, in the end “paints” it own background and has to be taken as the thing in itself. Cage’s music is music because it can stand on its own, make its own background even when it comes from nowhere. Mozart’s music came from nowhere and he was no innovator. As far as we know he walked about with music coming to him, the more he wrote the more came, and to ask: where did it come from? how did he think up such music? is like asking how space or time can be infinite, how a four dimensional universe can be expanding, how can we have free will, or what happens after death.
If the fugue is the highest form of counterpoint it’s because it is truly an art. No one would deny that fugues do not write themselves, yet they are based on simple, sincere imitation, the first, most obvious ingredient one hears, yet the freedom of the voices is the fugue’s sina qua non. Different voices “speak” their individual melodies, and miraculously the result is not only coherent but harmonious too, and, at least under the masters, such harmonies! From one point of view the fugue is the highest composer’s art, even over-specified, yet it is a form-texture deriving from the performer’s highest art, improvisation, the fantasy. The fugue is in a way the quintessence of music, taking something which initially seems rigid and rule-bound, well, at least over-obedient, and sheds those rules completely to become free and creative, the fundamentally horizontal linear elements become nonlinear, sounding just as sensible vertically; sound, a dumb mathematical, physical process obeying laws of time and space, is refined into an art which can speak directly to something deep inside a warm human being. So the fugue, even as theoreticians have for centuries tried to define it and the rules of its creation (without much success), culminating in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722), at the end of which he discusses fugues and how they are written, finally saying they cannot be reduced to general rules, except “le bon goût ou la fantasie.” J. S. Bach in turn put it most aptly of all… in his music.