Sounds Unfamiliar

Rare hearing: Concert halls should take a chance on lesser-known composers like Mieczyslaw Karlowicz (Lebrecht Arts and Music) 

Have you ever heard of Frédéric d’Erlanger? Neither had I, until the other day. His Violin Concerto in D minor features in the tenth release of Hyperion Records’ series, The Romantic Violin Concerto. The same company’s Romantic  Piano Concerto series now runs to an astonishing 50 CDs. But of the myriad unusual pieces in these recordings, few are ever aired in a live performance. There’s a peculiar gulf in content between concerts and recordings and it seems to be growing wider. 

Rare works are staple fare for independent record companies like Hyperion, Chandos and Harmonia Mundi. These labels are run by individuals who are passionate about their task and understand their “product” and its market. Even Deutsche Grammophon has just taken a punt on a rare composer, Grazyna Bacewicz, who features on pianist Krystian Zimerman’s latest CD. Record collectors snap up such releases. But where are the concerts?

A couple of years ago I heard for the first time d’Erlanger’s companion work on the Hyperion CD: the Violin Concerto by Frederic Cliffe, which hadn’t been played for a century. It was a live performance — but one by an amateur orchestra. It was conducted by the enterprising Christopher Fifield, and the violinist was a passionate champion of unusual repertoire, Philippe Graffin. The orchestra’s friends and family attended, plus a few rare repertoire junkies who had been alerted. Unfortunately the orchestra was not quite up to the challenge, so apart from Graffin’s expertise, the total impression was elusive. He is the soloist on the new CD, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, so his efforts have been rewarded. The concerto is beautiful. It’s not Beethoven, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. 

Recently I went to Cadogan Hall, where a touring orchestra from eastern Europe played the most popular programme imaginable: Rachmaninov, Grieg and Dvorak. The compositions were top quality, yet familiar far beyond overkill. The place was sold out and the piano soloist superb (I was there to hear him)— but the orchestra, finishing a severe tour, sounded as if it couldn’t care less. This was sterling music, but the concerto apart, it wasn’t worth hearing. 

Surely there has to be something wrong if the rarest pieces go to eager amateur orchestras who can’t play them, and the most popular ones to exhausted pros who don’t want to? The major UK orchestras do offer plenty of reasonably unusual material — Suk’s Asrael Symphony pops up now and then, for instance. But even that is better known than most of Hyperion’s chosen concerti. Why should it be so unusual for a seriously rare work to be played by a good professional orchestra in a major hall? 

Promoters usually get it in the neck for not taking enough risks. If they’re right in thinking that only popular works sell tickets, maybe we could also ask why audiences seem reluctant to give an unfamiliar piece a chance. Why are we so afraid of unknown music that we refuse to try it at all, rather than risk disappointment? Aren’t we depriving ourselves of unsuspected pleasure if it turns out that the piece is good? We literally don’t know what we’re missing. Of course there’s a theory that the best music selects itself by its staying power over the centuries — but that doesn’t mean that lesser compositions never offer any rewards. Pieces sometimes vanish for reasons other than quality: fashion, politics, early death or plain bad luck.

Unfortunately, musical snobbery plays a part. We somehow feel it reflects badly on us if we’re seen to enjoy a piece of music that others do not approve of. There’s a crazy amount of peer pressure in this most unlikely cultural corner; audiences perhaps are reluctant to trust their own taste. That is probably why, for instance, so many innocent music lovers still regurgitate guff about Mendelssohn being “shallow” without any idea that they’re merely prolonging a Nazi smear campaign.

Sometimes a rare work does begin to catch on thanks to the efforts of a devoted musician. But after that, follow-through is needed and usually doesn’t happen. The Violin Concerto by Mieczyslaw Karlowicz is on Hyperion’s series in a gorgeous recording by Tasmin Little, and was also recorded wonderfully by Nigel Kennedy in his Polish Spirit album. Karlowicz, a major talent, was killed in an accident in the Tatra mountains aged only 32. The concerto has bagfuls of charm and captures imaginations and hearts when given half a chance. Still promoters prefer to book the Bruch, convinced that only familiar works will sell enough tickets. 

But there’s an element worth noting. It’s trust. Try this: Matthias Goerne was a little-known baritone until William Lyne, then artistic director of the Wigmore Hall, put on a recital and insisted he sing Schubert. The Wigmore audience, trusting Lyne’s expert taste in Lieder singers, turned up in droves. Goerne was soon a star. Such examples aren’t unique to London. Graffin runs a festival in a French shipbuilding town, Saint-Nazaire where, over 20 years, the local, non-specialist audience has grown to trust him to deliver good, enjoyable concerts to the point that they will attend anything, even a three-hour programme of contemporary works. It’s the same at pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s festival in Risør, Norway, which has also run for 20 years and has developed a thriving new music element for the same reason: the audience’s confidence.

Clearly we will attend music we don’t know when we trust the performers or programmer enough — just as we’ll attend a concert by an unknown performer if we like the music or trust the promoter. Build up consistent high quality, integrity and trust, and the sky might be the limit.

Let’s play “Fantasy Concert Series”: I’d like to see a major orchestra hand over two or three concerts to a trusted champion of rare repertoire as “curator”. How about   Simon Perry, director of Hyperion Records? Each concert could include at least one work that has done well in the Romantic Concertos series: the Karlowicz, Cliffe or Coleridge-Taylor violin concertos, maybe a piano concerto by Scharwenka or York Bowen. Tempt the record-buying public in to listen, create a buzz with a prestigious association; there might be a smattering of empty seats, but there’s much to gain.

Instead of fearing rare works, we should celebrate them. And if we do, that could give us a welcome respite from clapped-out warhorses. Everyone wins. But it needs risk. Who will take the first step?

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