Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Concerto Guide: Brahms, Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77

Last week we looked at the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky which was composed in 1878 (which I neglected to mention) and is in the key of D major. This week I am going to take up the Violin Concerto of Brahms which was also composed in 1878 (big year for violin concertos!) and is also in D major. The great Violin Concerto by Beethoven is another in D major. Why is D major such a popular key for violin concertos? The answer has to do with the tuning: the strings of the violin are tuned G D A E:

which means that you have easily available not only the tonic, D, but also the subdominant, G, and dominant, A. As a bonus, the E string is the dominant of the dominant. This is of great advantage in writing virtuoso figuration and polyphony. Great advantage to the player, that is! While you can play in any key on violin, some keys offer more possibilities with less effort. Guitar concertos tend to be written in keys like D, A and E major for the same reasons.

Brahms' model for this piece was the Beethoven Violin Concerto and it vies with it for length and seriousness. Brahms did not find an opening as brilliantly original as Beethoven's (which I talked about here), but he followed the Beethoven model (and the 18th century model in general) in giving the orchestra a substantial opening in which a number of themes appear before the entrance of the soloist. But he departs from the 18th century model as far as harmony goes. Schubert was one of the first to widen the scope of harmony so that both the major and minor modes were virtually interchangeable and this is Brahms' practice here. The opening for the orchestra simply outlines tonic harmony in D major (with the rich resonance of violas and cellos doubled by bassoons):

A nice eight-measure phrase ending with a half-cadence on V. This is followed by a phrase in C major and then this theme in the violins:

This is a strong statement in D minor, but is followed by a continuation returning to D major. This is telling the listener that the key of D is going to include both the major and minor versions. Before the solo violin enters there is another theme that even more strongly presents D minor by means of its viiº7:

Bear in mind the key signature is two sharps. Then, at measure 90, we finally have the solo violin with this cadenza-like phrase:

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The violin continues with a lot of (very lovely) figuration that simply repeats the kinds of harmonies we have already heard in the orchestra (a lot of D minor) before finally presenting a theme which turns out to be that opening we first heard in low register, now given in a very high register:

This is followed by more varied figuration and then the solo violin takes up a theme that we heard in the orchestra just before the solo entry. This provides an energetic, rhythmic contrast and makes use of that open E first string to add a pedal over the harmonies. The key is A minor:

(Mind you, in the last measure he is tonicizing the dominant E.) The next important theme we hear is given to the solo violin and seems like a new one. This is a device used by Mozart: as the problem in concertos is that you have two expositions, one for the orchestra and one for the soloist, how do you make this interesting? What Mozart often did was give some entirely new theme(s) to the soloist.

This is the most distinct theme we have heard so far, the only one we are likely to go away humming and he has been saving it  until now, measure 206! Though this theme is new, it also sounds awfully familiar (the mark of a great theme) and the reason is that Brahms has been preparing for it since the beginning. It is solidly in D major and has been set up in subtle ways. The outlining of the triads, plus the hemiola (turning two measures of 3/4 into one measure of 3/2), plus the arpeggio eighth-notes have all been heard before. This is a trick that Sibelius was very fond of. Each of his symphonies tends to have One Big Theme that he prepares you for from the beginning. For example the big theme of the last movement of the Symphony No. 5 we hear in a nascent form at the end of the first movement.

The development is shared pretty equally between the orchestra and the soloist, though she gets to introduce one new theme that is a variation on previous material:

The recapitulation starts at measure 381 and is as you would expect. Brahms did not write a cadenza for this concerto. Most soloists seem to play the one by Joachim, who consulted with Brahms on the violin writing and gave the premiere. He opened the concert with the Beethoven Violin Concerto!!

I won't say anything about the other movements as I think this is enough analysis for today. Let's listen to my favorite violinist Hilary Hahn, with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Richard Taruskin

A couple of years ago I put up a post praising one of the greatest musicologists in history: Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875 - 1940). Musicology is quite a new profession, dating only from sometime in the late 18th century when the study of history became of great interest. There were a few predecessors like Charles Burney (1726 - 1814) who wrote a multi-volume history of music and, after extensive travels in Europe, an illuminating survey of the state of music on the continent. These are among the first of their kind in any language. Here is a portrait of Mr. Burney:

The other great musicologist of this first generation was the German Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749 - 1818) who, of course, criticized the work of Charles Burney. Here is an image (engraving or woodcut?) of Forkel:

Since then there have been hoards, hosts, armies of musicologists. Musicology is all study of music except performance and composition and it includes history, theory and whatever it is that those "new" musicologists are doing--queering the nuance or something. But I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. I mean, to praise Richard Taruskin.

Prof. Taruskin, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, is a musicologist like none other. As author of the Oxford History of Western Music, it is probably safe to say that he knows more about more music than anyone alive--or who has ever lived, for that matter. But that five-volume work of detailed scholarship, published in 2000, was about recounting music history and had to preserve a certain neutrality. If you really want to get a sense of the sheer critical power he wields, you need to read his essays on the ideologies, politics and out-and-out lies that are promulgated about music. We find these perspectives in his collections of essays such as Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance, where we find his magisterial puncturing of some of the pretensions of the early music movement or The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays where he explains why the informal ban on performing the music of Wagner in Israel is perfectly reasonable and how ideology in academic composition departments makes so many composers "useless". Here is a photo of Prof. Taruskin:

A good many people read Prof. Taruskin and find him boorish or neoconservative, and that was my reaction the first time I read him. But with more exposure (I have now read all of the Oxford History, two collections of essays and most of his monumental book on Stravinsky) I have come to realize that he simply describes things as he sees them and he sees them very clearly indeed. He is not an arrogant man, as many have claimed. While he knows a very great deal, I don't think he pretends to know absolutely everything! I was standing beside him at a musicology convention a number of years ago at a lecture being given by a Russian musicologist on modes in Russian music (one of Taruskin's specialties). The Russian musicologist (whose name I forget) was describing a particular mode that was used by Tchaikovsky and Prof. Taruskin asked for an example. Without hesitation the Russian said that you could find several examples in volume six of the complete works of Tchaikovsky and he mentioned some choral music and perhaps even a page number. You rarely see someone like Taruskin coming across some new information about music, but this was such an occasion and he simply nodded in acknowledgement. I think people sometimes find him arrogant because he does not hold back an instant to deflate a pomposity or errant ideology or simple lie about music and its history. And, heaven knows, there are lots of them!

So I have come to the conclusion that in the person of Richard Taruskin we have, not just the leading musicologist of our time and the greatest public intellectual writing about music, but one of the greatest scholars of music to have ever lived, the equal of Charles Burney or Donald Francis Tovey. I don't agree with everything he says--I think he exaggerates the influence of neo-classical tastes on the early music movement--but, given sufficient evidence, I am prepared to admit that he may be right even about that. But who is right and who is wrong is, in the final analysis less important than the methods and means used to reach a conclusion. Richard Taruskin exemplifies the highest standards of scholarship, analysis and fearless research into music. For this, I doubt we can honor him enough. You might want to pick up one of his books and have a read...

Prof. Taruskin started out as a performer and in the 70s and 80s played viola da gamba with the Aulos Ensemble. I used to own an LP of Josquin des Prez on which he was a performer, but sadly that is long since lost. Here is a performance on viol and lute of one of the pieces on that album, In te, domini, speravi:

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Two Musical Diversions

Classical music is supposed to be something serious. It is, after all, High Art. You have to dress up and sit quietly while other very well-dressed people render, with great exactitude, the Profound Thoughts of Great Composers. And sure, there is certainly a fair amount of truth in that. For a few concerts, at least. But this blinkered view of classical music is far from complete. A great deal, probably most, classical music is, and is intended to be, simple (or not so simple) diversion. A relief from the worries of the day. A delight and pleasure.

As examples, I want to introduce to you two of my favorite pieces by Mozart. By happenstance they are both called, by him, divertimenti, though they are very different pieces. The first he wrote in his youth, in Salzburg, where he was in the employ of the archbishop, in between two visits to Italy, where he was given great honors and exposed to the best of Italian music. We don't know what the occasion was, but the just-turned-sixteen years old Mozart wrote three divertimenti for strings, each with three movements. Most divertimenti from this period have, as we will see, more movements, but 18th century composers were not too fussy about following that sort of rule.

My favorite is the third one, K. 138 and it begins like this:

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This is an eight-measure sentence that isn't quite typical. What Mozart could do, even as a very young composer, is compose a seemingly endless flow of beautiful, balanced, fresh and delightful melody. Perhaps this is a consequence of his Italian journeys. The movement that I love the most is the meltingly beautiful Andante, the second movement:

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The phrase that really stands out is not the conventional first one (eight measures, but at this slow tempo probably best seen as two periods, the first ending on the tonic and the second on the dominant). No, it is the next eight-measure sentence with its heart-breaking Corelli seconds that catches the ear. It ends with a full cadence in the dominant followed by a five-measure extension using a repeated cadential formula. The last movement is a sparkling Presto.

Let's listen to the whole piece. This is Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra:

The whole piece is, in that performance, just a bit over 13 minutes long. Much later, towards the end of his life, Mozart wrote another divertimento that, while it does follow the typical divertimento format of an opening and ending allegro with two slow movements interspersed with two minuets and trios, in all other aspects completely transcends the genre. For one thing, instead of being for winds or mixed ensemble, it is for string trio, very nearly the first string trio ever written. It is also a formidably long piece, not much short of an hour in length. Each of the first two movements, an allegro and an adagio, is as long as the whole Divertimento K. 138. But it is not a complex piece, with excessive virtuosity or dense textures. It has the simplicity of great maturity, as if the music had been distilled down to its essence. It was written in 1788, the year of his last three symphonies and the "Coronation" Piano Concerto. Here is the beginning:

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I just posted a performance of this the other day, but I didn't say anything about it. We don't know anything about the circumstances of the composition, but it is dedicated to a fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg, from whom Mozart frequently borrowed money when he was short. In his book The Classical Style Charles Rosen comments on this piece that after showing his mastery of writing for the string quartet in the years 1782 to 1786 Mozart went on to expand the scope enormously in the two great string quintets of 1787, then with this piece he does something no other composer except Bach really succeeded in: mastering how to concentrate musical texture into only three voices. As Rosen says, this string trio really stands above all others and offers a model, in its transference of the multiple movements of the divertimento into a piece of chamber music, for the late quartets of Beethoven, which often exceeded the standard four-movement layout. Without further discussion, let's listen. The performers are François Fernandez, violin; Ryo Terakado, viola; Rainer Zipperling, cello:

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the name of this second divertimento! It is the Divertimento, K. 563 in E flat major.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

You can't go far wrong by just being bold as one twenty-one year old shows us. Here is the story of how Al Kooper got his start in the business--by sitting in on an iconic recording session and just going for it. Wow, how many people do you know that would have this level of self-confidence?

[I somehow don't think this would work with, say, a recording session for a Beethoven late quartet...]

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Don't we all long for the day when a person would be much more embarrassed to be caught listening to Ke$ha or Kanye West than to be caught viewing Japanese pornography?

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The best portrait we have of J. S. Bach, after being in the US for many years, is returning to Leipzig where it will be part of the Bach Archive:

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Pablo Villegas is apparently the Next Big Thing in the classical guitar world. He has just signed to be represented in the US by CAMI Music. Here he is playing the Prelude No. 1 by Villa-Lobos:

Is it just me, but doesn't that sound rather like a pretty good graduate student in guitar performance, but rather heavy-handed? Quite a few little flubs and some unfortunate buzzes...

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Julia Wolfe has been awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music for the piece Anthracite Fields. Only excerpts from that piece are on YouTube, but here is an earlier work for string orchestra, Fuel:

I need to listen more, but my first impression was that that sounds a bit like an Anger Translator version of John Adams? If you don't catch the reference, one schtick at the recent White House Correspondents dinner was President Obama stating something in his no-drama, cool mode and then having it immediately repeated by his Anger Translator, Luther:

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I'm not quite sure exactly what we should learn from this, but some interesting research has been done, using Spotify, on people's listening habits as they age:
What I found was that, on average…
  • … while teens’ music taste is dominated by incredibly popular music, this proportion drops steadily through peoples’ 20s, before their tastes “mature” in their early 30s.
  • … men and women listen similarly in their their teens, but after that, men’s mainstream music listening decreases much faster than it does for women.
  • … at any age, people with children (inferred from listening habits) listen to a smaller amounts of currently-popular music than the average listener of that age.
What I'm not sure of is what this might imply as regards classical music?

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Over at Sinfini Music they are introducing us to the latest crossover artist, Chilly Gonzales. His piece Green's Leaves (hmm, that reminds me of something...) sounds rather like a Paul McCartney/George Martin arrangement. Think of a sunnier She's Leaving Home or Eleanor Rigby. With 37% less inspiration:

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I attended a youth symphony concert last night that I may well do a post on. In the meantime, let me put up one piece that they performed that was the outstanding composition of the concert, Arvo Pärt's Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. This is the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Pleasures of Music

The plural is intentional. Music is all about pleasure, really. Yes, despite what many apologists for classical music say, even me in one of my deluded moments, the reason we listen to music, any music, is for the pleasure of it.

But there are many kinds of pleasure.

You could lay out different kinds of music in an array or spectrum ranging from one extreme to another. You could have the most cerebral music at one end and the most somatic or corporeal at the other. You could instead organize music along a spectrum between simple and complex or between intimate and public, between quiet and loud, between brief and lengthy.

We usually think in terms of "genre", when we think at all about different kinds of music. By genre is usually meant one of various forms or styles of music such as polka, symphony, EDM, glam rock, blues and so on. But this is rather a grab-bag of different criteria: polka is a national dance with a particular musical structure; symphony is a large orchestral work in several movements, each with its own structure; EDM, standing for electronic dance music, is as much a social event as a musical form; glam rock is a sub-variety of the genre of rock music typified perhaps as much by the costume as the music and blues is a traditional form of folk music associated with black people in certain areas of the US. So there is no real consistency in the definition of "genre". But this is how most people classify and identify music. If you like blues and they advertise an evening of the blues, then you might go.

But it all comes back to pleasure. Music can fulfill many roles from the facilitating of sexual congress to profound meditations on mortality, but it does so by giving us some form of pleasure.

This simple statement is wildly at odds with a great deal of what composers, especially composers in the 20th century, had to say about it. Here are some quotes to ponder:
“The aim of music is not to express feelings but to express music. It is not a vessel into which the composer distills his soul drop by drop, but a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal.” --Pierre Boulez
Now there is a clever false dichotomy: he assumes that we think the aim of music is to express something and then denies it. No, the aim of music is not to express anything, but to give pleasure.
“Whether one calls oneself conservative or revolutionary, whether one composers in a conventional or progressive manner, whether one tries to imitate old styles or is destined to express new ideas - one must be convinced of the infallibility of one's own fantasy and one must believe in one's own inspiration.”  --Arnold Schoenberg
Again with that assumption that music is supposed to express something, but with the addition of the infallible mystery of the composer's fantasy.
"One can not too often insist that in music it is the composer's inner world of tone and rhythm which matters, and that whatever technical means he chooses in order to give it structure and coherence are subject to no a priori judgment whatever." --Roger Sessions
And the listener matters not at all.
"If it is art it is not for everybody; if it is for everybody it is not art." --Arnold Schoenberg
This is one of the most famous statements of the doctrine that there are values in art higher than those of pleasure and beauty. This is a very seductive doctrine indeed, with a long history, and one that often leads people to accuse classical musicians of elitism. Now I don't think there is anything wrong with elitism, as long as it is earned, but the real problem here is that it leads to what Richard Taruskin calls a "divergence of interests" between the composer and the listener. This is caused by discounting the pleasure of the listener in favor of the fantasy or methods of the composer, what he terms the poietic fallacy.

My view is that the fantasy and methods of the composer have as their proper end the pleasure of the listener, but again, with the understanding that there are different kinds of pleasure. In other words, I am claiming that the fantasy and methods of the composer are merely instrumental to the true and final good of the listener's pleasure.

Some music is hard to appreciate if it is severed from its social or artistic context. I'm often critical of hip hop and rap, partly because of what seem to be impoverished musical means, partly because of the crudity of the accompanying videos, but seen in context there are certainly pleasurable examples. Here is one used to accompany the opening credits of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift:

That's "Six Days" by DJ Shadow and, listened to in context, it works just fine. We have lost the context of a lot of historical music, but if you are a bit accustomed to the style, that doesn't seem to matter. The social context of the Viennese divertimento is long gone, but we can still enjoy the delight and freshness of the music. Here is Mozart's Divertimento in E flat, K. 563, for string trio:

Let's go back to what I was saying about different kinds of music and how you can categorize them other than by the usual genres. Let's take the spectrum simple to complex for example. Some music is very simple:

That is a little minuet in G major that is from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, J. S. Bach's wife. It is not actually by Bach himself, but by the minor composer Christian Petzold. But is very popular nonetheless, despite its simplicity. Here is a very complex piece:

That was the Klavierstück V by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Both these pieces are for keyboard, one very simple, the other very complex. From the point of view of the composer's fantasy and methods, the Stockhausen is obviously the more important, significant, whatever adjectives you prefer. But from the point of view of the listener's pleasure, i.e. from the aesthetic point of view, the complexity or simplicity is simply not the issue. But I'm not going to make the error of simply assuming that you will enjoy the Petzold minuet more than the Stockhausen. Perhaps you hear it as trite and hackneyed and prefer to delight in the unexpected gestures of the Stockhausen. But in either case, it is not the composer's methods, nor the complexity or lack of it that is the source of aesthetic value--it is rather the pleasure you derive.

Let's pick two examples on a different spectrum, but by the same composer. Here is the Cavatina from the String Quartet in B flat, op. 130 by Beethoven:

That is a very intimate piece in many ways: it is for string quartet, meant to be played in a modest-sized room for a small audience, and it is also extremely intimate on the emotional level. Here, on the other hand, is Beethoven in a very public mode: the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op 67 for full orchestra, meant to be played in a large hall for a large audience:

Here there is likely no question of widely different aesthetic worth--both these pieces are recognized as being pinnacles of Western music--but the pleasures they evoke are certainly very different. The Cavatina stirs depths of sorrow while the Symphony inspires feelings of strength and power.

I want to leave you with a bit of a puzzle: if it is certainly not the case that classical music has a necessarily humanizing effect (how could the jailers at Auschwitz listen to Schubert in the evening and return to the torture and slaughter in the morning?), is it possible for some music to have a dehumanizing effect?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Concerto Guide: Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35

Three years after completing his First Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto in a single month while taking a rest cure in a Swiss resort on Lake Geneva. Here is the Wikipedia article which gives some interesting details about the initial reaction to the piece.

It was this piece that was my introduction to classical music. Before hearing this, at age 17 or 18, my exposure had been very limited. Where I grew up there were no concert halls, no orchestras, just the occasional traditional musician like my mother, who was an "old-time fiddler". There were no radio stations broadcasting classical music, either. So when a friend of mine put on an LP of this piece one day, it was a complete revelation.

Listening to it now I am struck by a number of things: first of all, it is a tremendous advance over the First Piano Concerto that I discussed last week. This piece is much more coherent in its structure. The whole first movement is based on one theme and some variants of it. It is very protean, however and the variations on the theme are extensive. Oddly enough, I am reminded of a Mozart piano concerto. Like Mozart, this whole movement seems spontaneous, flowing freely. The violin dominates throughout. Indeed, we don't get much of a tutti until measure 127! There really are only three major tuttis in the movement: that one, another that sets up the violin cadenza and the coda, shared with the violin. A tutti, by the way, is when the whole orchestra is let loose. Usually, in this concerto, it is only parts of the orchestra, accompanying the violin.

The movement starts with a brief orchestral introduction before the violin enters with a lyric mini-cadenza, followed by its statement of the theme:

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The second theme, which is really a variation of the first theme, is presented on the violin as follows:

Here is that first big orchestral tutti:

Here is a variation in G major for the solo violin:

And here is a variant using dotted rhythms:

One fascinating thing about this concerto as compared to the piano concerto, is how very lyrical it is, another way in which it reminds me of Mozart. Tchaikovsky is not the only one to display much more lyricism in the composition of a violin concerto as opposed to a piano concerto. We see something similar with Prokofiev, whose piano concertos are often very percussive, but whose violin concertos are very lyrical.

Let's listen to this superb performance with Itzak Perlman and Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra:

Monday, April 27, 2015

Facing the Music

I've referred to an ongoing interview series at the Guardian before, but I haven't mentioned the title of the series which is "Facing the Music". The latest installment is an interview with Carolyn Sampson. Now it is entirely likely that she is a wonderful singer and excellent musician (her debut recording, Fleurs, is just out--no reviews on Amazon yet), but it is hard to tell from the interview. Here are some excerpts (read the whole thing, at the link above):
What’s your musical guilty pleasure? 
Wham! (yes, the 80s English pop duo)
Is applauding between movements acceptable?Yes. Spontaneous applause is always acceptable. I think it’s great to group songs, or movements, but I also think it’s wonderful when there is an immediate reaction from the audience – be it a laugh, an intake of breath, or applause. It means that they’re with us, and relaxed enough to respond. 
What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?
A lack of fear. As performers, we should be relaxed on stage and be aiming not at perfection but at being our best on that day, and communicating with the audience. The audience should also feel comfortable and free to respond (see above).
What was the first ever record or CD you bought?A Boney M album. On record 
Do you enjoy musicals? Do you have a favourite?Yes, I do. I enjoy most things. I’m a very good audience!Starlight Express made a big impression on me as a child. It was such a spectacle. I had a tape of the songs, to which I sang along with passion. 
How many recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies do you own? Do you have a favourite?
Hmmm … I think I once had some of the Beethoven Symphonies recorded by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. But I’m not really sure!
Which non-classical musician would you love to work with?Those who know me won’t be surprised that my answer is George Michael! He has a beautiful voice and is a great musician. 
Imagine you’re a festival director here in London with unlimited resources. What would you programme – or commission – for your opening event 
An event in which I get to duet with George Michael. 
What do you sing in the shower?
Whatever I’m currently learning. Or Hey Mickey, by Toni Basil. 
I think I have included all the relevant responses. So my question is, is there anything there that would lead you to think that she has had an adequate musical education? Is she familiar with the classical repertoire? Does she have the depth of aesthetic and cultural understanding to interpret great works of music? She might well have. But the impression you get from the interview is that she has all the cultural depth and musical understanding of the mythical 14 year old girl from Cleveland. Would I rush out to hear her sing Schubert? Not bloody likely! George Michael, indeed!

So this is the problem with the watering down of classical music and bowing down to the gods of pop music: it drives away those people who really do appreciate classical music. Now there's a winning strategy for ya!

Let's give Carolyn Sampson a chance to show what sort of singer she is. On YouTube, most of the selections are early music: Purcell, Bach and Handel. Here she is singing a wonderful song by Caccini: Amarilli mia bella:

Great job. So I guess the point of the interview and the new album with its repertoire of Britten, Debussy, Poulenc and others, is to move her career from the early music ghetto to wider acceptability. But again, trying to sell yourself as some kind of pop artist who happens to sing classical music seems, well, counterproductive.