The Cellists That Time Forgot (Radio 3)

Modesty kept four great cellists out of the history books.

The Cellists That Time Forgot
BBC Radio 3

A documentary about four musicians "denied their rightful place in the cellistic hierarchy" was beautifully, solidly modelled. Julian Lloyd Webber considered four cellists - Felix Salmond, Milos Sadlo, Antonio Janigro and Leonard Rose - and asked why they aren't as celebrated as Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, Mstislav Rostropovich and Jacqueline du Pré.

Tactfully, curiously, Lloyd Webber introduced each of the players, and with contributions from music historians and conductors such as Kenneth Woods, a case was made for Salmond, Sadlo, Janigro and Rose, often using rare and unheard recordings. The programme was focused and specific. If someone described Rose's playing as "compact here" then that is precisely how it sounded.

Just as Salmond was "noble and contained" and Sadlo "a wonderful colourist" who "had huge hands; soft as a mushroom", Janigro, we were told, "looked like a hawk. Slim and swarthy - and see how it comes out in his playing. He is the thin man's cellist." How wonderful is that? Sadlo (born 1912, incredibly poor, driven to practise ten hours a day) had a uniquely "stretchy" way of phrasing things, "playing long notes without sagging - hear how he colours the sound with his fast, aristocratic vibrato: he speaks where others shout".

A recording of Shostakovich's piano trio aced this description. It was also incontrovertibly demonstrated that Salmond (born in 1888 into a family of singers) used vibrato to "spin the sound forward, always using his fat fingers to push and push the tone".

Any biographical detail was cinematic. Janigro (born in Milan in 1918 into a family of pianists, a chain-smoker with a whopping velocity in his bowing arm) would frequently take a train from Paris to Milan, when he was a student, looking for a carriage to practise in, only to be discovered playing by an agent who would burst into the carriage with a contract.

Leonard Rose (born into a family of American cellists) was once denied the chance to join the army by a doctor who had once seen him play ("A guy like you shouldn't be drafted. You are an artist.") We were then advised to comprehend the "clarity with which Rose begins his notes" during a recording of Brahms's Cello Sonata in F Major.

Sixty this year, Julian Lloyd Webber's speaking voice has some of the patience and spontaneous sympathy of Alain du Botton's (who always excels on the radio.) So when he asked his guests why none of these four great players were as well-remembered as they might be, there was a sadness in the question, as though Lloyd Webber was picturing careers inexplicably collapsing like jigsaws, without proper remembrance or understanding.

Nobody had much of an answer beyond “I think people can only remember one or two people at any given time" (and thus just reach for du Pré and Elgar) although somebody did suggest that each of the four lost cellists was relatively modest, an accomplished teacher, always in control, perhaps too much so. Ultimately it is - is it not? - impossible to say definitively why someone is the best; to entirely nail someone's weird magnetism or charisma. But this programme did really try, where so many others just sound so boringly general, like surveys or football commentary, perhaps interspersed with the occasional, small illumination. This was 45 minutes entirely free of blather.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Boris vs Ken

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis