The lover writes

There was a man, a German soldier. It was the First World War, and he had been captured by the army of Tsarist Russia. Then there was a revolution, and the Tsar was overthrown. Then there was a civil war. All the while the man remained a prisoner, in Siberia. But a Russian woman fell in love with this enemy alien, and the two married and, in 1920, they had a child. The father was able to take his new family back to Germany, and there the child, Rita Streich, was trained in music. She became a promising soprano.

rita

Image: Pinterest

The tide of history meant that Streich, born in the Soviet Union, made her professional debut in the Germany of the Third Reich, in 1943. The Nazi regime ceased to exist two years later, but Streich was still able to sing, and did so on both sides of what became the Iron Curtain.

She was most famous for her operatic roles, but Streich was also a master of the romantic lieder of the 19th century.

This is a recording of a song written by Franz Schubert, “Die Liebende Schreibt”, which roughly translates as “the lover writes”. I have mused elsewhere about the troubled, mixed up, messy life of Schubert. He, too, was a survivor of war and turmoil. This song was written in 1819, when Europe had been bled white by the wars of Napoleon.

Perhaps it is only fitting that Rita Streich, herself the product and survivor of war and turmoil … what is the right word? Lives. Inhabits. Just is. I don’t know, but there is a communion here. Two artistic souls who have known trouble come together in a short song which carries in it the beauty and the sadness of the world.

  • Artist: Rita Streich (soprano), Geoffrey Parsons (piano)
  • Album title: On Wings of Song
  • Track: A3 “Die Liebende Schreibt”
  • Composed By – Franz Schubert
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: OASD 7557
  • Year: Unknown (late 1960s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Cow bells

Richard Strauss. Heard of him? Somehow, I got it into my head that there was a Strauss family, headed by Johann Strauss, he of “The Blue Danube” and many another waltz. And that Johann was the genius, and Richard the honest trier. A worthy but lesser Strauss, like Leopold Mozart, or Hank Williams Jr, or Julian Lennon. And so, I never paid Richard Strauss much attention.

Why I love Planet Vinyl is that my preconceptions are so often debunked. Richard Strauss was in no way related to the waltz-meister. Nor was his music anything remotely like the fine Hapsburg confections of Vienna’s golden era.

You probably know “Also sprach Zarathustra”, the building, booming trumpets and timpani which ushers in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Well, that was Richard Strauss. And he did so much else besides, including this challenging, haunting, alluring work: An Alpine Symphony.

VARIOUS

You can hear the cowbells. Image: The Telegraph

This monumental piece of music is not a symphony at all: rather it is a long series of impressionist tone poems. Taking about 50 minutes to perform, it tells the story of setting out into the mountains at dawn, climbing to the summit, and being caught by a fierce storm, before descending to safety as the sun sets. There are 22 sections, which all bleed into one another without a break. There are few dominant tunes, and the music ebbs and flows and different motifs (there are about 60) play over the top of each other. There is no way on God’s good earth that the whole sprawling thing should work. But it does!

I knew nothing about this piece when I randomly chose this record, and played it on headphones while reading a book. I soon put the book aside, and just listened to the whole thing, entranced.

Here is an excerpt. It is one of the more peaceful sections, in which the climber passes through a high meadow where cattle are grazing – you can hear the cow bells – and then gets lost in thick bushes before finding open air above the treeline. Unfortunately, An Alpine Symphony, is one of those large works for which an excerpt, to invert the usual formula, is less than a fraction of the whole. Try this out, but if you are interested in music, and its ability to wordlessly tell a story, please: find a full recording, close your eyes, and just listen.

  • Composer: Richard Strauss
  • Performers: Rudolf Kempe, conducting the Dresden State Orchestra
  • Album title: The Orchestral Music Of Richard Strauss, Volume 4
  • Track: Extract from “Alpine Symphony, Opus 64”.
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: S/5626
  • Year: 1974
  • First performed: 1915
  • This recording: 1971

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

The man with the monocle

There was a time before microphones. Think about what that meant for a singer. You had to stand on stage in front of an orchestra, and your unaided voice had to reach the far corner of the hall. It is an astonishing thing: to sing with pitch, control, feeling, as well as power and volume. It requires talent, dedication and training, and technique.

OGt-TauberTopper

Richard Tauber in his dapper prime

Microphones changed singing. From the 1930s on, it was possible to front a band and sing, and let the microphone do the heavy lifting. You could focus on timing, timbre and expression. Paradox: the electronically amplified singer can sound more natural.

So to modern ears, operatic singing is a bit of an acquired taste. The power and volume of the natural, trained classical voice seems a bit odd, stylised, artificial. It is worth making the effort, though. Before the microphone, classical singing was singing. This was how it was done, how music sounded.

One of the early superstars of recorded music was Richard Tauber. He wore a monocle. Along with a silk top hat, it was his trademark. He did not need the lens to see. In fact – well-kept secret – monocles are completely useless for helping vision. They were only ever a silly fashion item. But Tauber had a squint in one eye, and the monocle disguised that, and made him look dapper besides.

More to the point, Tauber could sing. A measure of his popularity is that long after he died (of lung cancer, in 1948), when superior recording techniques allowed other tenors to share their art, Richard Tauber’s work continued to be reissued.

I have not been able to determine when this track – one of more than 720 he recorded – was released on shellac. Guessing mid-1930s? Nor do I know when the vinyl EP reissue, with this and three other songs, came out. Guessing late 1950s? All that matters: here is a voice than has pitch, control and feeling, as and can reach the far corner of the hall. Just listen!

  • Artist: Richard Tauber
  • EP Title: Richard Tauber Favorites Vol. 1
  • Track: A2 “Liebestraum” (Liszt)
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Parlophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: REPO 7501
  • Year: Unknown

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

Mozart for shopping malls

There are times when putting on a record whisks you though time and space, and places you down in an achingly familiar yet strange world. Suddenly you are watching Sunday television sitting on a beanbag in a shag-pile carpeted lounge-room. It is 1973. The theme music from the shows of this period is distinctive, evocative. You can almost smell the faint linger of cigarette smoke in the drapes, see the burnt-orange tiled coffee table.

waldoIt is now hopelessly daggy, even a bit tasteless, especially when lovely music from the past has been put through a crushed velvet mangle and served with a prawn cocktail. Mozart for shopping malls. My dad, a classical music purist, hated this “classics up-to-date” style with the fire of a thousand suns. Listening now, even on open-minded and inclusive Planet Vinyl, ya have to admit it: he had a point.

But, hey, it was of its time. It gave musicians a living. And it transports me back to a world in which there were wholesome black-and-white television shows about show-jumping, macramé pot hangers and English country houses. There are worse places.

  • Artist: Waldo De Los Rios,
  • A Side: Mozart: Symphonie N° 40 En Sol Mineur K. 550 – 1er Mouvement (Allegro Molto)
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Hispavox
  • Made in: Belgium
  • Catalogue: 2022 004
  • Year: 1971

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Admire the calligraphy

Hearing the traditional music of China is like admiring a piece of calligraphy hanging in a temple. It is beautiful, no question. Clearly, great skill is required in its execution. But it can’t be escaped that this is a minute fragment of a rich and complex culture. The daunting truth: without a lifetime’s study and a gift for languages, you never will fully understand.

512px-Wang_Xianzi_Imitation_by_Tang_Dynasty

Image: Taito Ward Calligraphy Museum, public domain

But still, we can admire.

I visited China with my wife nearly 20 years ago. I remember once, on a street in Xian, stopping and listening to a busker, a young man playing traditional tunes on an instrument, the name of which I do not know, but it’s a distant cousin to the violin. The melodies and rhythms were unfamiliar, but the man played with passion, and there was no denying the beauty of it. Another Chinese man, listening beside me, gave me a nod and a smile. It was one of those wordless moments: he was proud of his people’s culture and pleased that a stranger was appreciating small part of it. If he had been Australian, he might have said: “Not bad, eh?”

This track is similar in style, though with a small orchestra. It from a compilation of folk tunes by various artists. As is often true of Chinese products, the English translation on the sleeve is a bit wobbly. This tune is “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”.

I do not pretend to Chinese scholarship, but I can help a bit. A “Chinese mile”, the li, is only about one-third of the English mile, and is now standardized as equal to 500 metres. “Olea” refers to Sweet Osmanthus, a small tree which grows widely in Asia. As its name suggests, this tree has fragrant flowers. Literally the tune should be called “five kilometers of nice-smelling Osmanthus trees”, which is worse than the original.

So, ignore the name. Close your eyes. It is spring, in the Chinese countryside, and the trees are in blossom. Just listen.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Album title: Kweilin Scenery | Famous Chinese Light Music (Various artists)
  • Track: A4 “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Fung Hang Record Ltd
  • Made in: Hong Kong
  • Catalogue: FHLP 201
  • Year: Unknown (1970s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Looking at a Foxconn factory

George Orwell was one of my first literary heroes. I got hooked by Nineteen Eighty-four, and went on to read everything he wrote. I don’t recommend this. His best work stands up: brave, clear sighted, a voice raised against tyranny. But don’t seek out the B-sides and rarities.

Having once been an uber-fan, though, I know his lesser works, and was reminded of one just now.

4019 AIn 1941, as the world careened into the darkest years in human history, His Master’s Voice released a recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing Carl Maria von Weber’s delightful Invitation to The Dance (the record label calls it “Invitation to The Waltz” – it’s the same thing). The disc is a bit scratchy. That happens when a record gets played on a portable gramophone in an air raid shelter. But through the crackle we hear what must, in 1941, have seemed like paradise lost: the glittering ballrooms of privileged Europe, before the world knew of the machine gun.

4019 COnly months earlier, George Orwell wrote a poem about the factory where this disc was made. It channels the same tension. On a Ruined Farm Near the ‘His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ contrasts the rural idyll of pre-industrial England – which the writer yearns for but knows is lost to him – with the intimidating power of modern industry.

The factory is:

where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers —
There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel

There was a time when making 78 rpm records out of cardboard and shellac was new, the cutting edge – terrifying even.

These same records now seem quaint, archaic, objects of nostalgia.

But imagine a young person in China, uneasy about the country’s breakneck modernisation and pursuit of wealth, looking at a Foxconn factory. Imagine the same young person writing a poem, while listening to lovely classical Chinese music on an iPhone. A lifetime ago, that was the experience of listening to this record, .

  • Artist: BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
  • A side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Part 1 (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • B side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Conclusion (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • Format: 12”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: DB 3542
  • Year: 1941

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Life intervenes

Catching the shuttle to Planet Vinyl can be hard. There is work, there is family, there are bills and tax returns. There is illness and stress. Life intervenes. But though I have been too busy to write about music, I have been listening, with open ears, and discovered some strange and wonderful things. Here is one.

Christopher Wood is a guitarist, from my home state of Victoria, Australia. In 1988 he put out an LP. It is solo guitar, a set of original instrumental compositions, independently recorded and released. Out there in the distant reaches of obscurity, it is in my honest opinion a masterpiece. Lovely, delicate compositions drawing from a wide range of influences, played with absolute assurance.

woodI had never heard of Wood, and could find out nothing about him from the usual sources, but kept hunting. I was delighted to find that he is still around, still playing, and has a website: www.christopherwood.com.au. There is an email address, and I sent him a message. After a little while, a reply came:

Hello Richard
Thank you for your kind words.
They are much appreciated.
After years of composing and playing in a reclusive environment I am currently preparing to do more recording and performing.
Regards
Chris

This is wonderful news. I still don’t know much about Christopher Wood. He is a private person, obviously, and I respect that. You get the feeling that, in the past thirty-odd years, life intervened. But he is a wonderful talent. I have put my money where my mouth is and bought his most recent release. If you like what you hear, be sure to check out his website and consider doing the same.

  • Artist: Christopher Wood
  • Album title:Guitarist
  • Track: B1 “Song of Hope”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Red Hill Music
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: RHM. CWG. 001
  • Year: 1988

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs