Chopin and the stingray

Whenever I hear Chopin, it makes me touch a scar on my hand, just between my right thumb and forefinger. The scar, you see, carries a story.

Not long after finishing secondary school – just on 30 years ago now – I went snorkelling with some friends near an old ruined pier. It was a sheltered beach with seaweed beds around, so full of life. We saw flathead and leatherjacket, toadfish and whitebait, crabs and mussels.
6008 sleeveOn the way down, one of my friends had told me how it was possible to catch a ride with a banjo shark. This shark, also known as the fiddler ray, is harmless. The trick was, my friend said, if you saw a banjo shark resting on the bottom, to duckdive down and grab it by the tail. It was fun, he said. “You just have to be sure it is a banjo shark, not a stingray.”

We had been out in the water for a good while, and despite wearing a wetsuit I was feeling the cold, and headed in to shore. I looked down and saw a banjo shark. I checked: no sign of the whip-like tail extension which marks a stingray. I dived down and reached out … With an angry twitch, the stingray shook off the sand concealing its whip-like tail extension, jabbed me in the hand, and swam away.

stingray

A stingray. Note the whip-like tail extension

The razor-sharp spine on the stingray’s tail comes with a venom which causes extreme pain. It can kill if you have a weak heart or, as happened to Steve Irwin, are stung in the chest, but if a healthy human is stung on a hand or foot, there is no real danger. I didn’t know this at the time. Blood poured out of the gash (the venom has an anti-coagulant) and excruciating pain started to spread up my arm. I did know from first aid how to handle venomous bites in general: I knew not to rush, to swim steadily back to shore. There I wrapped the wound tightly, and held it high, above the heart.

With my friends’ help, I got to a swimming pool behind the beach, and found an attendant there. He did basic first aid and, very kindly, drove me to hospital.

There was a cassette tape playing in the car, classical piano of some sort. As I held the wrapping tight on my hand and tried to breath slowly – the pain was still spreading, but more slowly – I felt both scared and a complete idiot, but the music was comforting.

“That’s nice, the music”, I said to the kind pool attendant. “What is it?”

“That’s Chopin. Heard of him?”

And so the distinctive sound of a Chopin piano piece, like this lovely etude played by Vlado Perlemuter, always makes me think of the stingray, and I touch the little crescent-shaped scar on my right hand.

  • Artist: Vlado Perlemuter
  • Composer: Frederic Chopin
  • EP Title: Chopin Favourites
  • Track: Side 2, Track 2 “Etude, Op. 10 No. 3”
  • Format: 7” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Concert Hall M 959-A
  • Manufactured in: United Kingdom
  • Year: 1961

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

The beauty and the sadness

On record covers, the great composers of classical music always look like solid members of the establishment. The cover design tends to emphasise this: lots of pillars, porcelain, baroque filigree, guys in powdered wigs. Unthreatening, respectable, venerated – and dull. Rubbish, all of it, and it so betrays both the musicians and the music.

suk trio label aThese were passionate, often erratic, artists. Many knew little or no recognition in their lifetimes, and many died young, poor or both. Only when safely dead could they be carved in marble, put on a pedestal, and become tame and safe.

But, performed well, the music cuts through all this. For no one is this truer than Franz Schubert: a prolific writer of some of the most impassioned and beautiful music ever written. His genius was not recognised in his lifetime, partly because his brilliance as a composer was not matched by his ability as a performer. He was part of the music scene in Vienna in the 1820s, but never made much money. He died, aged only 31, having suffered from syphilis and finally knocked off by typhoid. And somehow, in that short and at times dissolute life he wrote literally hundreds of songs and instrumental pieces: original, inventive, and full of passion.

This piece is the second movement from his “Piano Trio in B Flat, Op. 99”. Exciting titles are not the strong point of classical music, but get past that and just listen. Beautifully and subtly performed by the Suk Trio in a 1967 recording, this is music which is like the last leaf falling from a tree in the last light of day. It captures and transmits the beauty and the sadness of the world.

  • Artist: Suk Trio
  • Composer: Franz Schubert
  • LP Title: Piano Trio In B Flat, Op. 99, D.898 / Nocturne In E Flat, Op.148, D.897
  • Side 1, Track 2: “Piano Trio In B Flat, Op. 99, D.898, Second Movement, Andante Un Poco Mosso”
  • Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Quintessence ‎PMC-7111
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1979 (recorded 1967)

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

 

Dissolve into it

I mused a little while ago about how the Soviet Union, as oppressive and bureaucratic a society as ever shot a dissident, managed to produce great art. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter (no relation to the earthquake guy) personifies the paradox.

6009 coverBorn just before the Bolshevik Revolution, Richter’s father was German by origin. During the Second World War, this made Richter senior an automatic target of Soviet paranoia, and he was arrested as a spy and shot in 1941.

Young Richter, a largely self-taught musical genius, survived the war and in 1949 won the Stalin Prize for his music. He began to tour extensively, first in Communist countries but later – despite the political tensions of the time – in the West as well. He is widely regarded as one of the finest pianists of the 20th century. I am not qualified to judge, but his playing is certainly lovely beyond words.

Richter’s approach to music was that the player was a channel, a medium, from the composer to the listener.

The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.

This track comes from a 1965 EP released on Concert Hall, a budget reissue label. It has a lot of wear, but even so the beauty of Richter’s playing of Schubert’ “Allegretto in C Minor” shines through.

People used to weep, hearing Richter play. Even through the crackle and hiss I understand why.

  • Artist: Sviatoslav Richter
  • Composer: Franz Schubert
  • EP Title: Richter Plays Schubert
  • Side 2, Track 1: “Allegretto in C Minor”
  • Format: 7” EP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Concert Hall SMS965
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965

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

 

 

 

 

What matters is the jam

Folk music is my first love. Like a lot of first loves, we have had our ups and downs.

Folk music, you see, has a scene, and with a scene comes purists. Tedious people. I was at the more liberal and inclusive end of earnest debates about what could or should be labelled “folk music”, but still I was sucked into those pointless arguments, and didn’t see the core truth. Labels are what you stick onto a jam jar. What matters is the jam.

0028It was this song which got me into folk. I first heard it when I was maybe four.

It is a convict ballad, about a young man who is lead astray by a femme fatale. Sometimes the action is set in London, sometimes (as in this version) in Belfast. Always the singer is an honest lad doing an apprenticeship whose head is turned by the lovely young women described in the chorus.

Her eyes they shone like diamonds
You’d think she was queen of the land
And the hair that hung over her shoulders
Tied up with a black velvet band

The lyrics fascinated and puzzled me. What exactly was a black velvet band? I imagined it as something like the thick rubber bands that the postman put around letters. I also didn’t get the bit about “queen of the land”, and asked my Mum what it meant. She thought a bit, a settled with “it means they’re going to get married”. I still didn’t get it, but let it go.

Hearing the song, more than 40 years on, it is a bit hard to get excited. I know the song over-well – it is sung a lot in Australia, because the girl plants a stolen watch on the singer and he ends up being sent as a convict to Van Diemen’s Land, what is now Tasmania. This version is pretty stock standard, and full of the hearty roar which Irish folk bands felt obliged to deliver in those days.

Ah, but once I loved it, and ran around singing it in what I imagined to be an Irish accent. I even sang it in church, quietly and under the cover of the hymns, a small act of cultural rebellion on my part. Like the singer, I don’t think so highly of the girl with the black Velvet Band as once I did, but like the singer I will never forget her.

  • Artist: The Irish Rovers
  • Single Title: The Unicorn / Black Velvet Band
  • Track: Side B “Black Velvet Band ”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Festival DK-2208
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1968

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

 

 

What it says on the tin

In all of music, is there a more romantic instrument than the cello?

Rhetorical question. ‘Course not.

1063 sleeveIf you want to hook someone on classical music, take them to see a good cellist play. Or even just play a recording, and you could do worse than this, one of the most demanding cello pieces ever written. It is the work of the Czech composer Anton Dvorak, who travelled to the United States in the 1890s. He lived and worked there for several years, writing the New World Symphony for which is he is mostly remembered. But he did a lot besides, and though I have only just discovered it I rank this work, which was first performed in 1896, as a masterpiece.

Like a lot of classical music, it has a less-than-catchy title: “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B Minor”. You get what it says on the tin, but the marketing could be better. Anyway, it is a lovely piece, dramatic and beautiful in turns. The section I have chosen is the second movement which, after a brief burst is slower, quieter and more reflective than the rest of the Concerto.1063 sticker

As part of my Planet Vinyl experience I have been learning the meaning of those strange Italian expressions which appear on the liner notes of classical records. I always found them intimidating. But, much like Italian cooking, they are actually pretty forgiving, relaxed. This movement is adagio ma non troppo. Adagio literally means “at ease” but is usually translated as “slowly”. Ma non troppo is a beautiful, very Italian, phrase: “but not too much”.

The record is a 10-inch LP, from about the early-1960s. It was bought in Geelong, from a shop called Dicksons’. The original owner played it quite a bit, and so there is some surface noise. Sadly, it will never be played again. I dropped it, you see, and 1960s vinyl can be brittle … 1063 chip

But the music shines through. Playing slowly, but not too much, is Tibor de Machula on cello. Just lovely.

  • Artist: Tibor de Machula (cello); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Moralt.
  • LP Title: Anton Dvorak: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B Minor
  • Side 1, Track 2: Second movement, adagio ma non troppo.
  • Format: 10” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Philips G 05338 R
  • Manufactured in: Holland
  • Year: no date (early 1960s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog (not this one, wot has a big chip in it) are for sale via Discogs

 

Waking from a nightmare

I first heard this piece of music used on a talking book, a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It came in at the beginning and end of each chapter. The music is wonderfully suited to Mary’s tale of gothic horror, could almost have been written for it, though there is no direct connection.

“Night on Bald Mountain” was written by a Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, in 1867. Bald Mountain is a real place, a hill near Kiev, associated with witchcraft and demonic activity in Ukrainian mythology. There is an aircraft navigation beacon on the top these days, which detracts a little from the spookiness of the place, but the story of Lysa Hora (the Ukrainian name) suits the music.

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Lysa Hora (Bald Mountain), Ukraine. Photo: Daniel Baránek (2009), via Wikimedia Commons

A fortress was built into the hill, and it was used as a prison and execution ground in the twentieth century, and was the site of battles during the Second World War, which makes you think that if there were not ghosts haunting the place when Mussorgsky wrote his piece, there probably are now.

The piece is quite long, just over ten minutes, but it is really worth closing your eyes, turning up the volume and just going with it. It begins with high drama, a black mass, as witches assemble in the stormy dark and summon the Devil, and demons appear and whirl through the dark, in a dance of madness. But then we hear a distant church bell. Dawn has arrived, and slowly the demons disperse, and the mood shifts, lightens, and the piece ends with tranquility, new hope.bern front cover

For me, “Night on Bald Mountain” captures the feeling of waking from a horrible nightmare, and lying safe in bed as the room gets brighter, just glad to be awake, glad that it is day.

This performance is by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, recorded in 1965.

 

  • Artist: New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
  • LP Title: Polovetsian Dances And Other Russian Favorites
  • Track: Side 2, Track 1 “Night on Bald Mountain”
  • Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: CBS M 31844
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1973 (original release 1965)