Amid all the chattering about hacking it’s a relief to discover that some things don’t change and yet still, surprisingly in these tainted times, proffer sterling quality.
Amid all the chattering about hacking it’s a relief to discover that some things don’t change and yet still, surprisingly in these tainted times, proffer sterling quality. Saturday mornings on Radio 3, for instance, which this week gave us a deconstructed version of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne (or The Girl from Arles) on CD Review. I’ve been listening to this staple of the Third’s diet since long before CDs were even invented. Yet on Saturday somehow I heard it afresh and realised just how much my musical education has depended on this single 45-minute programme. We used to listen to it as children stuck in the back on long car journeys when the concentration of listening at a stretch with no interruptions made me realise for the first time that the same music could sound so entirely different when played by other musicians; it’s all about interpretation.
It also alerted me to the fact that even the ‘greats’ can get it wrong sometimes — a useful lesson, which can be applied equally well to books and paintings. Never be afraid to criticise, seemed to be the motto of the programme, provided, of course, the criticism is in the pursuit of excellence, of a ‘truthful’ performance.
This week David Nice was looking at various recordings of the incidental music that Bizet composed in 1872 for a dramatised version of a novel by Alphonse Daudet. The flighty girl from Arles never actually appears on stage but her baleful influence resonates throughout as the young farmer Frédéri goes crazy for love of her. The play has been long forgotten, but Bizet’s music was so successful he turned it into a couple of orchestral suites which have become classics of the radio repertoire. I must have heard, and dismissed, them countless times as classical wallpaper. Sub-Carmen, I always thought, never paying the girl from Arles much attention as the violins sawed and pipes piped away in the background. On Saturday, though, Nice drew me in to a new appreciation of the music, simply by his careful dissecting technique, slicing through some of the great names of conducting — Beecham, von Karajan, Stokowski.
‘It’s a pity the woodwind tuning isn’t great,’ he said about a 1950s recording by Ernest Ansermet and the Suisse Romande Orchestra. ‘Listen out for it as the woodwind goes into part song.’ Listen I did, and sure enough the clarinets, bassoons and oboes were distinctly off-key. Nice liked the rest of the Suisse Romande’s version of the piece, but ‘so beautifully does Bizet write for woodwind that I’d like more sophistication there’. Heard again, but this time with the LSO under Claudio Abbado, what had sounded sour was transformed into something so much subtler, more lyrical. David Nice’s attention to detail made me listen to the orchestration, to notice all the different things going on underneath so that I could hear for myself what he was talking about.
As a complement, I was lucky to hear on Sunday afternoon while trapped in a traffic jam Stephen Johnson doing a similar job on Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain on Discovering Music. Or rather Johnson began by talking about Debussy’s short piano study Soirée de Grenade because of its influence on what de Falla later came to write. It’s a piece I thought I knew well, but will now never listen to again in quite the same way. Johnson went through each section of the short piece unpicking Debussy’s fusion of the ‘typical’ Spanish rhythm of the habanera with the dreamy, ghostlike wail of Arabic influence. You can almost hear the muezzin floating above the music.
This staple of the Radio 3 schedule takes much longer to dissect the score, and has musicians on hand to play out what the presenter has just explained. We were given a complete performance of Debussy’s piano score (marked ‘nonchalantly graceful’ by the composer as an instruction for the pianist), by Artur Pizarro, but only after Johnson’s bar-by-bar analysis of the piece. This brilliantly alerts the ears to listen out for what makes Soirée de Grenade so special; the way it is ‘characteristically Spanish down to the smallest details’.
De Falla declared that Debussy had written Spanish music, had captured the essence of his country. Yet, as we discovered, Debussy had himself never visited Spain, let alone the Gardens of the Alhambra about which his piece is written (apart from a quick visit across the border from Biarritz to watch a bullfight). As Stephen Johnson suggested, artists, writers, musicians often create places better if they have never been there, using their imaginative empathy to seek out the essence, the essential truth. De Falla created his Nights in the Garden of Spain while living in Paris, the memories of what he had left behind fuelling his creative spirit. It’s the way radio works too, forcing us to use our imaginations, to think beyond (or rather behind) the words (or in this case the music).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 16, 2011