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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How to avoid anniversary fatigue

By Norman Lebrecht / December 27, 2006

The big names in 2007 come from the north. It is the centenary of Edvard Grieg’s death and half a century since Jean Sibelius died. Both composers will be much heard, and usefully reassessed, in the year ahead.

Grieg, we will discover, is more than just Peer Gynt and the Hall of the Mountain Kings. Aside from the imperative A-minor piano concerto and a pair of string quartets, there are ten books of Lyric Pieces that, introspectively and never above mezzo-forte, bring out the limpid tone of the upper piano as no other music does. Debussy dismissed Grieg as ‘pink bonbons stuffed with snow’. Others find his simplicities deceptive and his impressionism advanced; in 2007 we can judge for ourselves.

Sibelius, once a fixture of concert life, has been sidelined latterly by Mahlerian extravagance. The two composers were antipodes. Sibelius strove for structural clarity, Mahler for emotional catharsis. On an amicable stroll outside Helsinki 100 years ago next October, they resolved to go their separate ways and never met again.

Both, however, are necessary to a balanced musical diet. A dose of cold Sibelius is a corrective to excess of self-expression – and there is much more to Sibelius than the seven symphonies, the violin concerto and Finlandia. I would happily walk barefoot to Lapland to hear a recital of his a capella choruses, stern as whale song in the white nights. Sibelius is a continent half-explored, an iceberg whose visible tip conceals a profound and monumental mind.

It is for such purposes of subterranean exploration that centenaries are made. Classical music is, at best, a museum culture which builds exhibitions around anniversaries to create a contemporary buzz and ensure that no major figure gathers mould for long. Additional exhibits of 2007 include the noble Edwardian, Elgar (born 1857 and about to disappear from the £20 note), and the Jungle Book film composer Miklos Rozsa (born 1907, author of a captivating concerto for Jascha Heifetz). It is, on the whole, a sedate year for birthdays, and for that small mercy let us give thanks after the relentless hard sell of the evanescing Mozart Year.

If you think the Mozart Effect is over, however, think again. So huge was the return on Austria’s 30 million Euro investment in the Salzburg kid that repeat performances are being planned for the years ahead. Not for 2007, with its northern contemplations, nor for 2008 which has only Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Olivier Messiaen in the anniversary book, but for every blessed year thereafter until 2014 - by which time the world will either have rekindled its passion for classical music, or switched off altogether.

Consider the sequence. The year 2009 has been staked out as the bicentenary of the death of Joseph Haydn, father of sonata form and the four-movement symphony. Haydn is a patriarch who is claimed, like Abraham, by two jostling tribes – in his case, Austria and Hungary. Both countries are building state budgets for a Haydn bash in 2009 that will flourish 104 symphonies, 14 operas and more chamber music than there are hours in a month.

That same year will mark the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel, which England will not allow to pass without a mighty commemoration of Proms and circumstance. As if that were not enough, 2009 starts the bicentennial of the most fertile half-decade in musical history. The year 1809 saw the birth of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg. In 1810, Frederick Chopin was born in Poland and Robert Schumann in southern Saxony; Franz Liszt was born in 1811 in Austro-Hungary. Nothing much stirred in 1812 when the world was intent on Napoleonic reversals, but 1813 brought forth Richard Wagner in Saxony and Giuseppe Verdi and in Austrian-ruled Parma - the twin giants of grand opera.

These five years, 2009 to 2013, have had their music festivals pre-planned in heaven for, in addition to the great romantics, they mark the births of John Cage and Benjamin Britten (1912-13) the death of Mahler (1911) and the tercentenary of Pergolesi and a couple of Bach sons. Almost the whole of musical civilisation, from baroque to post-mechanical, is magnificently represented.

It is hard not to feel a tremor of anticipation about this embarrassment of riches and the gladiatorial contests that will ensue. How, you wonder, will Mendelssohn play at the Proms against his oratorio forbear, Handel? Will Austria or Hungary win the Haydn war and can Verdi outplay Wagner on German soil? We may get a chance to sample unheard orchestral Liszt – the lovely symphonic poem, ‘What I heard on the mountain’, for instance. And Poland is bound to reinterpret Chopin as a national sounding board for post-communist confusions.

But before we get too excited, there are serious risks attached to the coming cornucopia. If there is one thing we have learned from the Mozart Year it is that over-promotion cheapens the music – not my conclusion, I hasten to point out, but that of the incoming Salzburg director, Jürgen Flimm, who is having to claw the programme back from a surfeit of marzipan balls.

If one genius year can upset the applecart, five years on the trot will test the system to snapping point. Greatness in music is a rare and precious quality. Too much immortal stuff in high concentration with little of the second and third rate will weary the ear and distort audience expectations. Giants need to be measured against those of average height for their immensity to be grasped.

All of which makes the coming years absolutely crucial to the future of classical music. Successful programming is a delicate balance of bonbons and roughage. If the music industry gets the anniversary menu right, it could spark a resurrection of public interest. Get it wrong and fatigue will set in, leaving the museum echoing to a dusty emptiness.

Uri Caine plays Mozart Winter & Winter CD ****

What better way to end the Mozart year than with a set of original variations by a master of jazz improvisation? Uri Caine has been messing creatively for some years with Mahler and Bach, painting contemporary soundscapes in a piano narrative that he augments with four or five instruments, DJ on turntables and drums. In this laconic homage to Amadeus, Caine is at his least effective when he expounds extended literal quotations from the C-major piano sonata, for instance, and the clarinet quintet. Far more evocative are his urban-noise commentaries on the two last symphonies and the time-shifts that he applies to the piano sonata’s second movement, tugging the rigid texture into realms of para-Arabian atonality. Mozart, who could improvise all day long ad libitum, would have doffed his wig to this kind of tribute.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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