November 2020 - Gordon Pullin
O Rose, Thou Art Sick (Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings) - Britten
When I was in my earliest teens I was introduced to a great deal of classical music by the curate at our village church (he ended his career as Precentor of Norwich Cathedral). Before that I had always liked what might be termed 'popular music', in the days when that meant attractive melodies and interesting orchestral accompaniments. The male singer of the day was the Welsh singer, not Tom Jones, but Donald Peers, who always sang other people's songs, as was mostly the case until the 'Pop' scene took over. 'In a shady nook', 'Twelfth Street Rag', 'Powder your face with sunshine' etc – I have recordings of those and many others, as well as his autobiography. He was the first British singer to head the bill at the Palladium and his radio show had something like eighteen million listeners. He was popular from the late 1920s to the late 1940s and again in the 1960s. I also met Gilbert and Sullivan operas for the first time, thanks to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which travelled the length and breadth of the country, as did the Carl Rosa Opera Company, who would come to the Theatre Royal for a fortnight and perform, say, six different operas: my first was 'The Barber of Seville', but I also remember seeing them perform 'Tannhauser', 'Carmen' and 'Rigoletto'. And there were the films and performances of the great American musicals, from Sigmund Romberg and Jerome Kern to Rodgers and Hammerstein.
At school we had a Music Society, and the senior members sold programmes at all the concerts in St Andrew's Hall in Norwich, which meant we were able to go and sit in any untaken seats. I well remember sitting in the front row of the Hall and hearing the great Wagnerian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad, on her farewell tour of England. But the stand-out memory is my first hearing of Benjamin Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings'. The conductor of the Norwich Philharmonic was the cathedral organist, Dr Heathcote Statham, a very fine musician. But on the day of the concert he was ill, so Britten himself came up from Aldeburgh to conduct. The soloists were the very ones for whom he had written the work – the tenor, Peter Pears, and the horn player, Dennis Brain. Brain's father, Aubrey, had been the finest horn player of his day, but hid son Dennis was even better until he was tragically killed in an accident on the way home from the Edinburgh Festival. He loved fast cars, and there is a lovely story about him recording the Mozart concertos with Herbert von Karajan. Karajan went over to him during the recording to discuss a point in the music and found that all Brain had on his stand was an 'Auto' magazine.
My first choice of music is the setting of William Blake's poem in Britten's Serenade, 'O rose, thou art sick', wonderfully atmospheric, beautiful horn playing, with the voice briefly entering with the words of the poem. It is performed and conducted here by Pears, Brain and Britten himself.
Adagio (Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments) - Mozart
I was involved in choral music at school, but I think my greatest love was opera – especially Italian opera. I grew out of that eventually, but still, given a good cast, I find it very thrilling. Tenors, of course, were my heroes, though some of my more snooty friends did not share my liking for what I (along with such singers as Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras) still think was one of the finest voices of the century, Mario Lanza (I saw 'The Great Caruso' several times before eventually being able to buy the Video!). But I was also a great follower of English tenors. Heddle Nash I heard give a recital when I was at Cambridge; Peter Pears I have mentioned and I later met him several times – and indeed had a bit of coaching on 'St Nicolas' from him; Wilfred Brown was a particular favourite and became a friend (I conducted him in 'St Nicolas' and as a result he recommended me as the soloist in my first solo performance of that work); Richard Lewis was the 'best of the bunch', able to sing anything from Schoenberg's 'Moses and Aaron' to Britten's setting of 'The Plough Boy' (in which he whistled along with the piano part): I once conducted Bach's 'St Matthew Passion' with him as the soloist.
My second piece, however is not going to be any of these, but from another Serenade. It took me quite a while to realise just what a genius Mozart was. I knew the operas and the tenor arias, including those from the 'lesser-known' operas, such as 'Die Entfuhrung'; but much of the instrumental music, especially the chamber music, I did not know. I remember being stunned the first time I realised that all the music was in his head, so that, for instance, when he wrote out the whole of 'The Magic Flute' he started with the flute part for the whole opera, then the oboe and so on – and with never a correction in the manuscript. Phew! Here is the third movement, Adagio, from the Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments. There is a wonderful moment on Peter Shaffer's 'Amadeus', where Salieri picks up a copy of this piece and suddenly appreciates just how incredible it is, with the music playing in the background. Wonderfully soothing music, both inspired and inspirational – another world. This version is played by wind players from the London Symphony Orchestra.
Soave Sia Il Vento (Così Fan Tutte) - Mozart
Once on to Mozart I find I just has to have more, and the piece of vocal music that for me equals that Adagio is the trio from 'Cosi fan Tutte'. The two ladies involved have just been told that their male counterparts are having to join the army and as the ship takes them away they, together with Don Alfonso who has set all this up as a trap to test their fidelity, sing, to an accompaniment of waves in the orchestra, this most beautiful trio. During lockdown I searched on YouTube for a perfect version of it. There isn't one of course, but this one, with three of the finest singers in opera of some forty years ago, Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, none of them trying to outdo the others, all with the minimum of vibrato, and conducted by one of the greatest 'Mozartians', Karl Bohm, is as near perfect as it gets.
Finale, Act 4 (The Marriage of Figaro) - Mozart After two slow pieces of Mozart I feel we need a bit of frivolity as well, so here is the end of 'The Marriage of Figaro'. The final scene in Act Four takes place at night in a garden. The Countess and her maid Susanna are planning to outwit the Count, who thinks he has caught his wife with another man (who happens to be Figaro, and the person in the Countess's clothes is Figaro's wife, Susanna). The Count catches hold of his 'wife' and calls upon everyone to come and bear witness to her infidelity. Susanna, still pretending to be the Countess, begs for his pardon, which he refuses. Then another voice begs for his pardon – that of the Countess. The Count then has to go down on his knees and ask for her pardon – a really moving moment. But this is of course a comedy (though like any really good comedy it could well have turned into a tragedy) and Mozart ends with a brief, fast ensemble that takes the breath away. Here Karl Bohm once again conducts, with Dietrich Fischer Dieskau as the Count and Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess.
Grieg Piano Concerto - Morecambe & Wise with André Previn When I was at Cambridge I was introduced to an American group called the Hi-Los and also to the Yale Songbook – a collection of close harmony arrangements. I later sang in a number of groups which included these pieces in their repertoire. In my time in York we had a quartet called 'The Four Songmen', as the last was the name for the adult singers on the Cathedral Choir; our second tenor happened for a time to be Raymond Holland, who was for many years in the BCC, so it was good to renew my acquaintance with him when I moved into this area, even if he had by then given up singing. I am, however, not going to include a piece of close harmony in this particular collection, though I would certainly recommend the Hi-Los to everyone, whether singing jazz, folk or popular songs (try 'Molly Malone' for example, or 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square').
I would nevertheless like to end on a lighter note. There are a number of amusing musical 'performances' that I can watch over and over again (eg Dudley Moore singing 'Little Miss Britten' or playing Colonel Bogey in the style of Beethoven), but my absolute favourite is one which you all probably already know, and that is the Grieg Piano Concerto, as played by Morecambe and Wise and their guest, Andre Previn. Watch the orchestral musicians! And goodbye!!