Tag Archives: David Munrow

A Letter to a friend.

Dear  M,

The last time we spoke I mentioned a certain piece of music I had recently heard on a recording and you immediately responded in what I took to be a rather flat voice, ” Daniel Barenboim’s 50th anniversary concert”. [1.]  From the tone of your voice I gathered, perhaps incorrectly, that you  were not enamored with this recording. I can understand your reservations. But as we were speaking long-long distance, we had tno time to explore musical subtitles and as well, we had children and grandchildren to Moo about.

Recently I’ve had time to ruminate on Barenboim’s recording and other great artists recorded in front of live audiences. These ruminations and a long silence between us, are the reasons for this letter.

From the beginning, Barenboim’s interpretations ranged from interesting and sublime to  overwrought, sometimes beyond the pale of performances typically heard today. My first reaction to this recording was that Barenboim, appearing in triumph before a home town crowd as a prodigal son, had decided to unleash his impromtu passion and willingness to take chances, to create joy, as only an interpretive genius can.  His heart on his sleeve, he just took flight. Perhaps it was this flight that unsettled you.

The  Mozart Sonata K 330,  was played with the traditional rubatos, but others were added. Overall, they were larger, surprising and delightful. I prefer over all the 1957 Clara Haskil live recording.[2.]  Barenboim plays the second movement slower, giving it more gravitas.  The Beethoven, Op. 57, ‘Appassionata’ really sets out the difference between romantic  Barenboim and the classic Clara Haskil. Barenboim’s use of the sustain pedal blurred many of the lines I so love to hear in this sonata. If you wish to hear the clarity of Horowitz, hear every note virtuosity at any speed, check out the live  Vienna piano recital of Lang Lang.[3.]

Remember, this is only an assumption on my part, I could agree with your lack of enthusiasm for Barenboim’s recording. Some of the following shorter pieces lack luster, with one exception being the second Scarlatti Sonata. But I beg you to seriously consider his performances beginning with the Chopin  Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2., Db Major. When I first heard this I was stunned. Here was something definitive. A clarity of emotion, a direct path to the heart, that one rarely experiences either in person or on recordings. There is no room here for a contrived thought. This is fingers improvising without touching. Barenboim must have been outside himself, I certainly was.

For lovers of the sublime, Chopin’s Nocturne begins the final  and most thrilling part of Barenboim’s recital. His performances of José Resta’s Bailesito, Ginastera’s  Danza de la moza donosa and Villa-Lobos’ Polichiinelle are visceral. Ginastera’s  Danza reminds me very much of the Chopin nocturne with its gentle left-hand opening, nostalgia in the melody, the grandiose middle and the return with its unexpected yet perfect strokes.

Well dear  M. I’ll bring this message to an end by saying how much I am enjoying music history. As a student I started working forward somewhere around J. S. Bach and ended up playing Takemitsu. Now I’m going backwards.  Some of my findings have been discussed in earlier postings.  My latest discovery, some scholars refer to him as the West’s first composer, is Guillaume Machaut. As a friend  recently pointed out, the quality of performances of early music has increased considerably since David Munrow began his crusades in the early to late 60s.  The CD [4.] is titled Mon Chant Vous Envoy and there are seven performers, singers and instrumentalists. His music requires a revaluation of what is old and what is new.  Midway through this elegantly package and wonderfully performed CD, there appeared a work that stopped me in my tracks.

One more piece of music I feel compelled to mention, I’m sure you know it, is another sublime work in the Chopin, Ginastera, Machaut realm.  Schubert’s Die Nacht for male chorus. My version was conducted by Robert Shaw and recorded in France by Telarc. It is the first of six songs under the heading Evensong. If I should die before I wake  .  .  .

Please give my love to R and R, T, A and all the young ones, Gute Nacht.


r[1.]  Daniel Barenboim, live from the Teatro Carlo, July 19, 2000. E M I Classics.

[2.]  Clara Haskil live recording, August 8,1957, Salzburger Festspiele Mozarteum.

[3.] Lang Lang, Live in Vienna, February 27-March 1, 2010.

[4.] Mon Chant Vous Envoy, 2012-13, Elequentia.


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This is the first article in a series devoted to aspects of  composers works and lives not generally known by average concert goers. Purcell’s genius, rated by some music critics as being superior to that of Bach, is known by only a mere fraction of his oeuvre. Yet once explored in depth, his music, most admirably his vocal music impresses upon the listener a world far removed from the more systematic works of Baroque and Classical composers. Perhaps these articles will encourage readers to dig further into the life and times of other composers.

My high school band director asked me to conduct Henry Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary on one of our band concerts. I enjoyed the experience and later, whenever I heard the tune, I would recall my conducting debut. Years later I learned musicologists had attributed the voluntary to another British composer and contemporary of Purcell, Jeremiah Clarke who called the work Prince of Denmark March.

About 20 years ago I heard Barbara Hannigan sing Purcell’s The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation.  I was taken by an incredible change in the song which after the concert I described to Barbara as madness. Barbara replied,“That’s exactly what happens to her. She is coming to terms with the fact that she is going to be the mother of Jesus Christ”.

I purchased a CD of Purcell’s vocal music  with a version of that incredible song. The singer, though very good, did not take the dramatic plunge into madness. Nevertheless those songs introduced me to a Henry Purcell I had never known. For sure he has a way with words, but his ear for melodic lines and inventive use of simple materials continue for me as an ever fresh bouquet of musical delights.

I then purchased one of the finest books on Purcell,titled simply Purcell, by J. A. Westrup. Though out-of-print, it is still available from rare and used book sellers. It was my reading of this book that led me to Purcell’s operas or as they were called in the 17th century, Masques or semi-operas. In these operas one can hear irresistibly fresh and young vocal writing alongside humor in goodly measure.

The first masque I listened to was King Arthur written in 1691 to a text by Dryden. King Arthur is one  of Purcell’s greatest works. In Arthur one can hear the hallmarks of Purcell’s orchestral and vocal prowess.

Purcell was born in either 1658 or 1659 in the city of Westminster, London.  During his later years he was referred to as Purcell the divine and he is buried next to the organ in Westminster Abbey. The music played at his funeral was the music he had  composed eleven months earlier for the funeral of Queen Mary, 1662-94.

One of the shortest works in the Music for Queen Mary’s Funeral is the March for brass and kettledrums. It is also profoundly moving music. I never tire of hearing it and am always touched by the mood it creates and Purcell’s genius.

The recorded performance below is by The Early Music Consort of London conducted by David Munrow, EMI Classics, 7243 5 69270 2 5. Munrow was a brilliant musician and linguist who created a public  interest in Early Music. He employed Christopher Hogwood among others. He recorded 50 albums of early music and in 1976 at the age of thirty-two, committed suicide by hanging.

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Posted by on March 29, 2011 in Articles, Composers


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