Tag Archives: The Sixteen

The Gramophone Awards

            Just back from two weeks in London and Paris, including a visit to the Gramophone Awards on Friday afternoon. It’s been more than a decade since I last attended the Awards. I remember them at the Savoy Hotel (I think), a slightly more glamorous but sedate affair. Now they’re at the Dorchester and they roll along with polished professionalism. Classical musicians, disciplined by the rigours of meter and rhythm, know how to give a snappy thank you and get off the stage. No long speeches and only a few moments of unseemly self-promotion. The affair is surprisingly fun, and a good chance to make a wish list of recordings you’ve missed over the past year (must lay hands on Charles Mackerras’s recording of Martinü’s Julietta Fragments).

            A young string quartet from France, the Quatour Ebène, walked off with the Record of the Year, a surprise given the strong contenders and emotional favorites also in the running. But it was good to see a young group, and a chamber group, get the top prize, and the speech given by violist Mathieu Herzog was charmingly aw shucks. At one point, he pulled out his cell phone camera to take a snap of the audience.

            I begrudge none of the winners their awards. But there were some disappointments and surprises. I was rooting for the Boston Early Music Festival’s recording of Lully’s Pscyhé, really a remarkable accomplishment, to win in the Baroque Vocal category. Festival by festival, the Boston players get stronger and more cohesive, and their track record of opera on disk is something that deserves wider and higher recognition. The festival is run rather provincially, unfortunately, which is one reason I think it hasn’t become quite the international draw it could be if it was better organized. But their opera offerings are always worth the effort, and the Lully recording is impressive by any standard. The award went, instead, to Harry Christophers and the Sixteen, for a disk of the Handel Coronation Anthems. They were also nominated in the Choral Category for their disk of late 19th, early 20th century British choral standards (which I thoroughly enjoyed, as readers of this post will remember).

            The only downside of the awards was the loud and buxom woman sitting a table away who was hitting the vin rouge and blanc as fast they brought it. She was very handsy with the large, saturnine fellow next to her, and they both talked and sneered and grimaced through all of the performances (including some lovely samples from the winning Contemporary recording, the NMC Soundbook, which I haven’t heard and now want very much to find). It was piggish behavior, and something innocent Americans think shouldn’t exist in the imaginary land of English politesse. Dodging pools of vomit on the streets of Soho shatters that naïve illusion, but you don’t expect supporting evidence from a formal occasion of music types. I wonder who she was?

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In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

Every so often I feel obliged to try loving something that, through long neglect, prejudice or the unthinking incorporation of someone else’s poor opinion, I’ve come to believe I don’t, can’t or shouldn’t love. Twenty-five years ago I did this with the novels of Jane Austen, which I knew mostly from English television adaptations, generally distinguished by their wanton disregard for good lighting design. And of course after a few pages of Pride and Prejudice I was hooked. Now the old spinster’s novels are on a perpetual agricultural rotation system, each one lying fallow for two to three years until I’ve forgotten enough of the plot to give it another whirl.

          Today, it’s the late Victorian and Edwardian Anglican choral masters of England—the men who wrote music for the grandchildren of Austen’s characters. A new disk, by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen (Decca) has softened my initial resistance. The Sixteen are one of the finest choral groups out there, and if you think of them (as I too often do) as an early music group, then you’ve missed their frequent forays into later repertoire. “A New Heaven” includes music of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Charles Wood, Charles Villiers Stanford, John Stainer, Herbert Howells, among others, and concludes with John Rutter, who is known to almost anyone who has sung in a Christmas pageant or service.

          I dislike the grandeur of the music and its smugness, and I don’t trust the piety. There is a difference between simple, direct expression of religious belief, and expressions that aim at coaxing simple or lazy minds into passive reception of religious ideology. I think this music very often falls into the latter category. This is not religious afflatus naturally expressed in a grand, collective way, it is the soundtrack for a religious pageant, meant to wow the senses, dull skepticism and leave the listener feeling good about something: The Church? The State? Both, perhaps, in some disturbing confusion of God and England.

          Americans know the sentiment that pervades most of these pieces from the slow, stately trio from Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, the obligatory processional for every high school graduation ceremony. It isn’t a particularly military march, more of an old man’s march, old men carrying too much regalia and feeling good about their accomplishments. This is the essential mood of so many of the works on this disk.

          But they are addictive. The recording includes two works by Parry which rise above the others in their seductive pomposity: “I was glad,” a coronation anthem originally for Edward VII, and “Jerusalem,” a crowd-pleasing paean to England that is de rigueur at the Proms festival, music so sumptuously certain in its equation of England with God’s Own Chosen Land that old ladies hyperventilate when it’s played. I can make you wet yourself in three notes, Parry seems to say with his admittedly infectious melody.

          Both pieces are more familiar from grander settings, including Elgar’s 1922 recasting of “Jerusalem” from a choral bonbon to something that compares well with the best passages of John Williams’s score to “Star Wars.” I like both works in their smaller settings and the  larger versions would be out of place on this recording, which is often remarkably intimate in scale.

          Consider, for instance, Howard Goodall’s setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” It floats along and rocks its gentle head from side to side like some mildly sozzled occupants of a rowboat after finishing a picnic of wine and cucumber sandwiches. Granted, Goodall first wrote this tune as the theme music to the BBC hit sitcom, “The Vicar of Dibley,” but never mind. Why not add television to the Church-State nexus of good feelings?

          So why have I played this damn fool disk twenty times over the weekend? It is beautifully sung, especially the soprano solos of Elin Manahan Thomas. And for every quibble above, there is a quibble with the quibble. The origins of a good tune have never disqualified it from religious use. The medieval song L’homme armé was secular in origin, before it colonized Renaissance settings of the mass. And as for the general equation of Church and State, well, that’s problematic, but the State in these pieces is very often imagined as landscape, or a beautiful place. The general sentiment that pervades the poem of Jerusalem (based on Blake) is clear from the first verse:

 And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

 Dark satanic mills? That’s for another essay. The point is, the poem (as appropriated by Parry)  is self-satisfied, but not aggressive. Even the stately marches heard in so many of these pieces are at least not bloody-minded, forward-driving, off-to-war marches. I’d rather see a slow procession of “Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,/ Old, learned, respectable bald heads,” than an animated parade of idle young men put to sinister uses.

          It’s also important to give the disk its due as an historical statement. I found this from the program notes very interesting:

           Modernity and the intellectual challenges of modernism were not the chief concerns of men such as Hubert Parry, Stanford and Howells, at least in their sacred choral works and other music for church use. The same can be said for John Rutter and Howard Goodall. Rather, they have all combined eloquent musical invention with a level of craftsmanship analogous to the skills that helped to build and decorate Britain’s great cathedrals, parish churches and college chapels.

          So this is backward looking, decorative music, a remarkable admission in the booklet of a CD. But it’s also music that does indeed grow out of a tradition, a garden separate from the more general course of music history, and not an unpleasant garden to linger in. I can’t seem to leave it, perhaps because it seems to me if you can figure out this music, its appeal and its danger, you have penetrated to something very important about the very best and worst of living a civilized life.

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