Thursday, October 19, 2006

My Music in London 1945-2000: Nicholas Kenyon's review for The Tablet

John Amis has been for a long time a witty and perceptive observer of the musical scene in this country, most recently in the pages of The Tablet. But it comes as a shock to realise, from this hugely entertaining new collection of his writings, quite how far back his encyclopaedic musical memory goes. Here he is assembling players for Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia in 1946, reviewing the first-ever concert of the Amadeus Quartet, hating Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite, loving Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, hearing Alfred Deller at the start of the early music revival, and despairing of some of the more recent manifestations of contemporary music.

How the musical landscape has changed over those years! Amis writes warmly of the first-ever performance of a Janacek opera in Britain, conducted by a youthful Charles Mackerras (“a most exciting evening in the annals of opera-going”); he struggles with a first hearing of Boulez’s Structures, losing his way in the score in the distinguished company of Walton and Norman Del Mar (“I am not going to write off Boulez until I can admit to understanding him”). The half-century of which he writes has witnessed seismic changes in the repertory, technology and social role of classical music; Amis, without embarking on grand themes or extensive analysis, just makes us feel exactly what it was like to live through it all.

He always recognised great performers immediately, but was arguably less sure about music (as witness his summing up of the 1957 season: best young singer Joan Sutherland, outstanding young conductor Colin Davis, and best new composer, er, Carlo Martelli). But it is to his great credit that he lets these judgements stand and does not edit them out. He is not afraid to dismiss Messiaen’s giant Turangalila Symphony in 1954 as “a sticky glutinous pudding which appals and fascinates at the same time”, but in the added little postscript notes to his unaltered reviews (called HS for hindsight) regrets making “such a Charlie of myself” by questioning a new Britten song cycle. At heart one feels that Amis responds best to lyricism, to emotion and to melody, perhaps born of his (ultimately disappointed) desire to be a great singer; modernist brutality, however powerful, passes him by.

Old reviews are not as dead as yesterday’s newspaper because they bring the history of performance to life, and that is ever more important now that musical studies are turning their attention from examining works in abstract to discussing actual performances. Here Amis conjures up great moments with Klemperer in Beethoven, and lambasts over-indulgent Brahms from Bernstein. His writing is always cheerful, snappy, down-to-earth, and represents not the views that would make him seem enlightened or avant-garde, but the genuine reactions of the concert-goer in the stalls. The first half of the book contains reviews written for The Scotsman, whose London critic Amis was for two decades. In the second half of the book, more relaxed jottings from recent years, he writes about many of the sacred cows of musical life: Amis saw the need to rebuild Glyndebourne long before they did so, questioned the patronage system in Aldeburgh and so fell slightly out of favour. Benjamin Britten and his uneasy influence loom large here, and of special interest to Tablet readers are two sections about George Malcolm and his pioneering work at Westminster Cathedral, giving the boys voices “the sort of sound they had in the playground”, the texture which inspired Britten’s classic Missa Brevis.

This self-deprecating, whimsical collection of notes from our musical life will entertain all those who have enjoyed Britain’s extraordinarily adventurous and rich post-war scene. The next project should surely be to transcribe some of the countless, revealing interviews with musicians that John Amis recorded over the years. They are now, like this book, a part of musical history.

Nicholas Kenyon is Controller, BBC Proms, Live Events & Television Classical Music

My Music in London 1945-2000
John Amis
Amiscellany Books, £18.99
To order, follow this link.

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