I'm extremely pleased that Radio has devoted several evening programmes this week to celebrating the life and work of Dame Janet Baker. She has been my favourite female singer since I first discovered her singing on the legendary Barbirolli recording of Gerontius, in my teens. There's something quite unique about the quality of her voice, but it's not only that that makes her great, it's the total commitment and incredible intelligence of the singing. I still think her recording of Mahler's Ruckert Lieder with Barbirolli is the single most perfect vocal recording I know. I am glad I was lucky enough to hear her live a few times – I particularly remember her in Gerontius at the Proms, with Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk, and Boult conducting – that was a memorable night. And I was at her last appearance in opera, Handel's Julius Caesar, at the Coliseum. Heady days! There's no-one like that around now, and I defy anyone to say otherwise.
I'm pleased to see that BBC Radio 3 is currently celebrating Sir Richard Rodney Bennett's 70th birthday in quite a big way. He's Composer of the Week this week. It makes such a nice change for them to be celebrating a decent contemporary composer for once, instead of the usual purveyors of dreary and long-winded cacophonies who are held up as models most of the time. Bennett is an infinitely more musical and genuinely worthwhile creative artist than the Maxwell Davies's and Birtwistles of this word, let alone all the other minor figures who constitute the sadly threadbare world of British classical composing today. I often reflect on how different things are now from when I was a kid, when people of the stature of Britten, Tippett, Walton, Bliss, et al. were alive and producing, and new works by them were coming out all the time and were genuine major events. There are simply no modern British composers of that calibre alive today, however much the 'new music' hacks and propagandists try to say otherwise. The only notable figures are distinctly second-rank. In fact I am hard put to think of more than 3 or 4 composers of any real, lasting worth in this country today, and R.R. Bennett is certainly one of them. It's a puzzling state of affairs
To go off at a bit of a tangent, this evening I was watching a DVD of The Doors which Mr. Wicker had kindly lent me and I’ve been meaning to have a look at for months. (On the rare occasions I listen to pop or rock music it’s nearly always classic stuff from the 60’s.) I was struck by the unmistakable death-wish theme that runs through so many of their songs; it makes it seem almost inevitable that Jim Morrison died young. But then, I couldn’t help reflecting, surely this adolescent romantic death obsession (like Keats’ ‘half in love with easeful death) is instinctively correct. How much more inspiring to go down in flames like a comet while you’re still young, avoiding all the disillusionment, tiredness, disappointments and indignities of growing old. Maybe suicidal youth have it right after all? Though I can’t think of many, of any, ways of dying that are entirely attractive or without their degrading qualities. Perhaps the way Sir George Solti went -peacefully, in his sleep? But then he was about 80.
This evening for some reason I decided to listen to The Dream of Gerontius – the recording I have with Britten conducting. An amazingly dynamic and vivid performance – I remember years ago seeing him conduct it on TV, with the same performers, I think – Pears, Yvonne Minton and John Shirley-Quirk. Sitting on the boat alone on the dark river in the middle of nowhere, listening just by firelight, the effect has been very intense and moving; it’s one of those works that can keep coming alive again and again, however many times one may have heard or even sung it. The vision is acutely moving – so much so it almost makes you wish it was all true; even though if it was it would actually be quite terrifying – but the terror, and the joy, would give such meaning to things. I think this is the sort of thing C.S. Lewis meant by calling his autobiography Surprised by Joy – for him it was a sort of surprise, to suddenly re-discover this great meaning in existence, after he had given up hope in it. I still don’t understand how it happened, though. I can believe – sort of – while the music lasts – but then….
Proceeding down-river yesterday, I just happened to catch a performance of Walton’s 1st Symphony on Afternoon Performance on Radio 3. What a great piece that is! It was a massive favourite of mine in my teens – I remembering boring everyone to death in a ‘general studies’ class at school by playing the whole of it on record; I remember Mr. Price, the Latin master, came in from the room next door to complain about the noise! Walton was such an original voice – we’ve got so used to the sound of his music we hardly notice its originality any more; hearing the piece unexpectedly and in unusual circumstances, pounding down-river, like that brought back something of the freshness of it when I first discovered the work all those years ago.