29 October 2006

What a classic!

I can't believe I mentioned oboes, and didn't mention Tomaso Albinoni, that prolific 18th century composer of sublime oboe concertos.

When I first started listening to classical music I came to it after years of rock'n'roll, Brill Building pop and Merseybeat.

I know this means that I often missed the point: I was checking out the beat, the arrangement, the melodies. I had no idea about the development of a theme and the subtle counterpoint of several parts, for me it was, like, the sound, man.

Nearly forty years later I have a bluffer's knowledge of the classics, and I listen to them often, but I probably still miss the point a fair bit. Pop and rock remain my reference point, the music floating around in my head, and it's hard to deprogram all that.

It was J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos that hooked me. One summer evening in the late 60s I heard the opening movement of the first Brandenburg filling the house of one of my teachers. I decided that when I had a house, I would fill it with that same music. Really, that's what I've done, in all of the houses I've lived in over the years: blasted out the Brandenburgs every now and then.

I'd stumbled on the Baroque concerto and, like any pop record completist, I set about grabbing as much as I could, seeking out anything at all by Bach, but heading also for Vivaldi, Telemann, Albinoni, Corelli, Handel, and - later - Geminiani, Heinichen and Pergolesi... For me, it was like making my way through the catalogue of 60s bands, Animals, Manfred Mann, Zombies, Easybeats...

A movement of a baroque concerto might last 3 or 4 or 5 minutes, about the same as a pop or rock track, so I guess I treated an album of concertos as an 18th century jukebox, one hit after another, 18 Killers No Filler! Besides, the baroque concerto has a regular beat, no surprising time changes or long silences, fairly straightforward dynamics. It's pretty easy to get your head around that when you've come fresh from The Lovin' Spoonful or The Move, even if it doesn't go in for a danceable back-beat.

(There is a famous link between the Baroque and the Beatles: classical trumpeter David Mason was hired to add the soaring trumpet solo to Penny Lane after Paul had seen him playing on Brandenburg #2 with the New Philharmonia, just as Alan Civil had added the french horn line to For No One. Don't get too carried away with hearing Brandenburg #2 in Penny Lane, though: see Allan J. Pollock's commentary on the song.)

Thing is, these baroque cats could really, I was going to say rock, but that's not the right word.

Early on, I discovered Georg Phillip Telemann, who had a way with a sweet melody in the slow movements, but the first time I heard this the fast movement, from his Concerto in E Major for Flute, Oboe d'amore, Violin and Strings, a big smile came over me, as if I were listening to a newly discovered gem from Motown or Phil Spector. This That version, by I Solisti di Zagreb, doesn't seem to be available now.

An obsessive Stones fan I once shared a house with was onto this, and would crank out the first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in C for Diverse Instruments on his old record player in between Sticky Fingers and Between The Buttons. The version he had was a particularly rocky one, more aggressively played than the version I finally bought years later by The English Concert, but it still sounds great.

Johann David Heinichen, a neglected composer who worked in Dresden, wrote some stirring fast movements. Some of his manuscripts became available only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the CD I bought in the 90s by Musica Antiqua Koln was a result of that access. The opening track on the CD is a ripper; in fact I'd like to say it really rocks.

I might've come along for the stirring fast movements, but the slow movements grabbed me as well (the Baroque concerto often, though not always, has three movements, fast-slow-fast).

Works like Arcangelo Corelli's Christmas Concerto transported me to some other world, some ancient, leisurely world that probably never existed except in my imagination, but it was no less powerful for that.

Even the sleeve of the I Solisti di Zagreb LP had this effect, conveying elegance, beauty and scholarship at a glance, and after the noise of a Top 40 record bar it was indeed entering another world to be flicking through the classical LPs in Melbourne stores like Discurio or John Clements. Clearly, I was being seduced by the superficial trappings of the classical world as well as the Baroque concerto.

Maybe I was a bit jaded with pop after the heady years of my teens, which roughly coincided with the rise and rise of the Beatles, the British Invasion, and all that followed, and maybe I was ready to be transported to new worlds.

Over the years I've edged my way outwards from the Baroque concerto (what one Melbourne critic meanly dismissed as "Vivaldi twiddling") into, well, just about anything by J.S. Bach, and just about anything by anyone from the 18th and 19th centuries: Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak, Ravel, Sibelius are on high rotation.

But I still have that ingrained pop reference point, so that I'll hear myself saying things that would make a classical music aficionado cringe: "You should listen to Beethoven's string quartets: he was the Jimi Hendrix of his day." Well, John Coltrane or Charlie Parker of his day might be more accurate, but let's not get into all that right now, or you'll really see me getting out of my depth.