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April 12, 2006

Off Circuit - Erich Zeisel's Requiem, John White's 70th Birthday Concert, and the Navarra String Quartet

Posted by David Conway

Erich Zeisl's Requiem
Alyth Choral Society and Orchestra
Nothwestern Reform Synagogue, Temple Fortune, London
2nd April 2006

John White's 70th Birthday Concert
Wilton's Music Hall
9th April 2006

Navarra String Quartet
St. James's, Piccadilly, London
10th April 2006

Three events I have attended over recent days give some indication of the astonishing musical variety available off the beaten track to Londoners, if we keep a weather eye open to spot them.

Erich Zeisl (1905-1959) features in the authoritative Grove Dictionary of Music, which lists his songs, instrumental and choral music. The music of his which is most often heard, however, is not given a mention; namely, the scores to such films as Lassie Come Home, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. For Zeisl, born a Jew in Austria, despite a promising start to his career in Vienna, found it soon overshadowed by political events, and escaped in 1938, first to Paris and then to the US. There he quickly found, as did many similarly displaced musicians, that the only hope of earning a living was not by writing masterpieces in New York, but by heading out to the Hollywood studios. Whilst Zeisl scraped a living on the music production line there, (normally without credits), he felt isolated and unhappy, and convinced that his genius deserved better. Given the fates of the many musicians who ended in the concentration camps, including composers such as Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff, it is difficult to feel too much pain on Zeisl's behalf. However, the enterprising Alyth Choral Society gave us an opportunity to judge the composer at first hand, with a UK premiere of his Requiem ebraico, a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92 for choir, soloists and orchestra.

Over the same weekend, the work also received its Israeli premiere with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Doubtless that performance was more polished, although it can scarcely have had more commitment than that of the Alyth ensemble, which is based in a North London synagogue, and has been active for nearly twenty-five years under the guiding hand of its founder Viviene Bellos (who also sang, very finely, the soprano solo part in the Requiem). We also had the benefit of a prefatory talk by Michael Haas, an expert on the Entartete Musik (forbidden music) of the Nazi era, which told a not unfamiliar story – a youthful prodigy, a song published at the age of fourteen (sounding to me something of a rip-off of Brahms's Serious Songs), an early Austrian State prize (for a Catholic mass), a ban on publication, a return to Jewish roots in exile.

And the Requiem itself tells this same tale. Highly conservative in its style – think somewhere between Brahms's and Kodály's choral music with the occasional added orientalism – it was written in the years 1944-45 to commemorate the composer's father, but at a time when perhaps the full catastrophe of Central European Judaism was not yet fully known; therefore clearly more full of the spirit of sorrow than of anger. But what, ironically, fully places its composer in context is the Requiem's closing passage, a fugal chorus squarely in the tradition of Bach via Mendelssohn. In its way this well-crafted but ultimately uncompelling piece, hovering between two traditions honoured by its composer, is a metaphor for the tragic comedy of German-Jewish relations of the preceding 150 years. Perhaps Hollywood was indeed the right place for Zeisl's genuine talents; one's chastening conclusion is that not everyone whose voice is suppressed is necessarily worth listening to.

Still very much with us, fortunately, is the spectacularly prolific English composer John White, whose 70th birthday was celebrated with a concert event containing a wide selection (forty-seven in fact) of his 152 piano sonatas, played by nine pianists. Many of the performances were world premieres. White also has to his credit over twenty symphonies and forty ballets, as well as a wide range of theatre and other occasional music. Not only this, he has brought into being numerous ensembles to perform not only his own music but that of his contemporaries, many with evocative names such as "The Garden Furniture Ensemble" and "The Instant Dismissal Symphony Orchestra".

White has worked closely with many of the most original composers of the British avant-garde of the past 50 years, including Cornelius Cardew and Howard Skempton, but has never had any ideological problems about wishing to engage with the widest possible audience. As with one of his idols, Erik Satie, humour is often present in White's music, but the music itself is by no means a joke. Essentially tonal, favouring bare textures and static or parallel harmonies, often featuring a melody in single strand or doubled at the octave, many of White's sonatas, mostly one-movement forms which the composer has compared to the sonatas of Scarlatti, are creatures which explore his audition of aural space in a variety of techniques. Whilst the spirit of Satie is often present, so too, explains White, are those of Bruckner -

the dignity and magnificence of diatonic chord progressions and unswerving metre;
Alkan –
the exposition of mysterious order;
Scriabin, Medtner, Schumann and others. White spoke of the pleasure of "rediscovering" some of his sonatas in preparing for the concert and how they seemed to have changed since he gave them birth –
this one started off as a chartered accountant, but in the meantime she has become a glamour model.
Others of the sonatas are indulgently romantic take-offs of dance music or transcriptions of his theatre music. The great variety, all of which is clearly refracted though the prism of an original musical mind, is in itself a celebration of music.

I arrived when the event had already been going for three hours, but caught the interview with the composer, who came over as genial and affable as his music, and the last set of sonatas, beginning with Sonata no 1 played by its early advocate Colin Kingsley. This three-movement piece (the composer describes the first as being "reasonably behaved") dating from 1956 clearly sets out the sound-world which the composer inhabits. The Irish pianist Mary Dullea, who had organised the event, gave a very convincing performance of nine sonatas, of which the bluesy no. 132 and the programmatic no. 96, The Caledonian stood out. The Caledonian was:

inspired by a newspaper article describing a train journey in the company of some Scottish football supporters.
Neil Immerman played the violent tango of no. 108 and also no. 24 -
in which the virtues of long-distance running are represented in a favourable light.
Finally the composer himself, an excellent pianist (and also I understand a virtuoso on the tuba) played a selection of the most recent works, including no. 152, completed this January. More are underway – we heard as an encore a study for no. 153. There is a CD containing 18 of White's sonatas available as an import, played by another associate of the composer, Roger Smalley; excellent as it is, it obviously can't capture the high spirits of this occasion. Here's to the next 70 years and sonatas 300 and onwards.

I must by the way say a word about the venue for the concert, Wilton's Music Hall. That Wilton's, originally built around 1860, has survived at all is a miracle. Behind what appears to be a row of dingy houses at the back of Cable Street this relic is now undergoing a slow (because expensive) restoration. In the auditorium, the barley-sugar columns, decorated balcony and barrel-vaulted roof are starkly in contrast with the bareness (to date) of the rest. Let us hope the work can be brought to a successful completion. Like White, it is eccentric, British and living in Hackney, and thus eminently worthy of celebration.

Lastly a brief mention of the concert of the Navarra Quartet at St. James's, Piccadilly as part of the London String Quartet Festival, where they played Mozart's Quartet K589 and Shostakovich's Third Quartet. At some point I must write a feature on the lunchtime music in London's churches, although admittedly only a small percentage is of the quality of this recital. This young quartet, which is three-quarters Dutch (the cellist being English) was formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2002. Look out for them. The Mozart performance was attractive, and by the third movement intense, but they launched into the breezy, confident opening of the Shostakovich with great aplomb and kept up the tension and captured the audience's imagination all the way though to the dying fall of the spare last movement.

The St. James's website lists forthcoming lunchtime recitals.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Good to read of the John White concert. As a teenager, I took part in a workshop he led at Morley College, making some amazing combinations of sounds with Swanee whistles.

It was part of a programme devsed by Cornelius Cardew, whom you mention. [shamless plug coming up...] A major biography of Cardew by his long-time friend and collaborator John Tilbury is due to be published. It should make interesting reading

Posted by: quaver at April 13, 2006 12:52 PM
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