Music and Me

For the last few years I have made a point of exploring lesser-known classical music. As someone who listens to a lot of music every single day – I am a writer and music is simply part of the fabric of my life – I know the major repertoire well and still listen to Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Clementi, Vivaldi, Elgar, Bruckner and many well-known others. But I have found real pleasure in exploring music rarely played on the concert stage.

I do have a process. I subscribe to The Gramophone and BBC Music magazine and assiduously read their reviews of newly released CDs or re-released music and they often include music by composers new to me or neglected.

One example is Sir Charles Villiers Stanford – who taught composition at the Royal College of Music (1883) and was Professor of Music at Cambridge (1887). He died in 1924. He wrote seven symphonies, some wonderful choral music (including a Requiem and Stabat Mater) as well as several chamber works, including seven romantic string quartets. It is the kind of music my mother loved to listen to – she was a violinist in the Bradford youth orchestra and may well have played his music, especially since Stanford had a long association with the nearby Leeds Triennial Music Festival.

Stanford was Irish, something that can be “caught” in his orchestral music where he references Irish folk tunes and rhythms. He used his ability to connect words and music in his operatic works, the best of which is The Traveling Companion.

Another “discovery” has been the music of Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813), who lived a lot of his life in Vienna but was from Bohemia. He was incredibly prolific – 73 symphonies, 100 quartets, 95 scared works and scores more other pieces. Not all of this output has been recorded, but what has been captured that I have in my collection is well worth listening to. I can commend the Cemesina Quartet’s recording of his late string quartets (Opus 33), his very wonderful Stabat Mater and the selection of symphonies recorded across five CD’s for Naxos by Uwe Grodd and the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia.

Sometimes one finds music one rather wishes one had not. For example, I have met and had a beer with the Finnish conductor, teacher and composer. A big man and wonderful interpreter of Sibelius and Brahms  (his recordings of their symphonies are a must-have in anyone’s collection), he is also a prolific composer – over 345 symphonies so far, for example. The trouble is many of these are simply dreadful. His string thirty quartets – labelled as “post-expressionist” – are in this category together with some of the so-called symphonies (more accurately, “snipettes”).