No clues in his octet of discs for the Desert Island, nor in his belief that Waka Waka is Shakira’s best song, but Nick Clegg’s admission a couple of weeks ago to the fragrant Jemima Khan that he ‘cries regularly to music’ reminded me of my own ‘little weakness’. Do I listen to music because I am sad – or am I sad because I listen to music? Haven’t we all reached out to art for solace, and found only more despair? My brain tells me that all these minor-key feelings are pretty revolting, a post- Diana incontinence that simply will not do; but my heart refuses to get into line. Just the memory of the Eric Coates march, the diminutive, stiff-upper-lipped Richard Todd as Guy Gibson, and the scene near the end when he is told that his beloved dog has been run-over, and he strides off down the tarmac to ‘write a few letters’, is more than enough to get me started. How about you?
To get you in mood here is Billie Holiday with her version of Gloomy Sunday, a bleak little number by the Hungarian Rezso Seress. A huge hit during the war, it was nick-named ‘The Hungarian Suicide Song’ in America, and actually banned by the BBC until quite recently. The climactic phrase in the piece ‘my heart and I have decided to end it all’ turned out to be prophetic as Seress, a Jew who had survived the Nazi death camps, attempted to end his own life by first jumping out of a window in Budapest, and when that failed to do the job, choking himself with a guitar string.
Robert Schumann’s febrile art reached it’s apogee early in his short and troubled life, before the expectations of producing on a larger canvas, and failing to do so successfully, drove him to anguish and melancholy, his life ending with self imposed exile in a sanatorium. His wonderful collection of piano pieces Kinderscenen (Scenes from Childhood) typifies this easy grace, and here we have Traumerei (Dreaming) played by one of the masters in this music, Vladimir Horowitz, playing it as an encore in one of his last concerts, in Moscow’s Great Hall. The emotion, his and that of the audience, is clear to see – and hear.
The origins of Across the Wide Missouri, or Shenandoah are uncertain but probably date back to the early settlers in America around 1820. Although used and abused in many movies over the years, it retains a moving dignity and nobility that is perfectly caught here by Keith Jarrett, at the time recovering from a debilitating bout of chronic fatigue syndrome which threatened to end his playing career.
The vocal and orchestral audacities to be found in some of the operas of Richard Strauss are well known and if, in addition, you seek the seventh of the seven deadly sins (see Jonathon Green last week), there is plenty of lust to gaze upon in both Salome and Elektra. But the old wizard had an unequalled lyrical side too, and the Four Last Songs and Der Rosenkavalier are perhaps the high point of his unique art. Die Schweigsame Frau (‘The Silent Woman’) is a late work (Strauss was over 70 at the premier), and undoubtedly one of his least successful operas. But it contains some wonderful music, and here we have the heartfelt closing aria Wie Schon ist doch die Musik (‘How Beautiful Music Is’), sung by the great Finnish bass Matti Salminen.