Plucked from obscurity
Music on Radio
Friday 06 December 1996
Celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth last Wednesday, Radio 3 considered the matter deeply, for as presenter Richard Stokes explained, Loewe was admired by Liszt, Schumann, and by Wolf himself. Like worthy letters in support of barren causes, these testimonies have cut no ice with history. What counts is the chance to hear the music, which was sung on this occasion by tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Gerald Finley, with Julius Drake the ever-sensitive accompanist. And there was certainly something worth hearing: a technical control that sounded as secure and flexible as Schubert's, plus a matching sensitivity to the texts that added depth, musical insight and powerfully dramatic expression.
This was, moreover, a recital of lieder. The books briefly tell you that Loewe excelled in ballads. Finley, Bostridge and Drake told you otherwise. Starting from the premise that he was equally at home with the through- composed song, the programme made its point with Herr Oluf, a song of supernatural violence that Wagner praised as among the most important works of musical literature. Its supple vocal line and register of changing moods neatly explained the hyperbole. There were also bewitching, tender solo items, with romantic preludes and codas. And there was Loewe's Erlkonig setting, better than Schubert's according to Wagner; again, not without a grain of truth in the judgement.
Yet, for all this lasting obscurity, Loewe was no mute inglorious Milton. Thankfully, few of those exist, though for a composer of special gifts like the octogenarian Henri Dutilleux, whose work was heard in five concerts relayed from October's Manchester Berlioz / Dutilleux festival, many years can pass before appreciation arrives. In contrast, the list of American symphonists featuring as composers of the week included one, Roy Harris, whose name depended on his mute, inglorious aspect. Born in a log cabin on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, he was the very image of a musical backwoodsman. It enabled him to get away with the writing of a rousing overture on the civil war tune, "When Johnny comes marching home", and a portentous Fifth Symphony of 1943 that was full of public optimism.
If memory serves correctly, most other Harris symphonies sound not dissimilar to this one. Do composers rewrite the same piece over and again, in different guises? Though it couldn't be proven, it might explain the steadfast devotion of a composer like Loewe to a single medium, composing, in his case, over 400 songs. Brassy and bracing, William Schuman's 10th and last symphony, an American bicentennial commission from 1975, seemed to have been through many mills, the result of formulae applied from years of practice. Subtitled "The American Muse", its character suffered from proximity to Copland's early Short Symphony, a work that still sounds fresh and newly minted. A darkly romantic Symphony No 1 by Christopher Rouse showed the symphonic tradition still breathing in America. But Schuman, Copland, Harris and Sessions were the musical equivalent of our Tippett, Berkeley, Rawsthorne et al, whom time is swiftly judging. Come the millennium, they will be as distant from us as Mendelssohn and Brahms were from Elgar. Then they, too, like it or not, will also be part of tradition Nicholas Williams
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Boston Marathon runner's search for mystery man she kissed ends with letter from his wife
- 2 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 3 Frankie Boyle on Scottish independence: 'In the Interests of Unity, F**k Off'
- 4 How to gain confidence and maximise your sexual potential
- 5 Chinese theme park sets up 'death simulator' where volunteers can experience being cremated
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils