Brief Encounter

Lawyers love Brief Encounter for all the right reasons, of course.  But also for the magical passage where Trevor Howard’s cut-glass voice lists the appalling diseases that shaped 20th and 21st century jurisprudence on causation: pneumoconiosis, anthracosis, chalicosis and silicosis.  Mesothelioma was not mentioned as it was not identified for another 20 years.  There is nothing romantic about any of them.  But as Alec explains preventative medicine to a spell-bound Laura, it is already obvious that Rachmaninov will be needed.  Famously written after a period of terrible writer’s block, his Second Piano Concerto was dedicated to his hypnotherapist Dr Nikolai Dahl.  Another reason to be grateful to the medical profession in a time of coronavirus.

My personal favourite? Ashkenazy and Previn again in the second movement.  Very fine and extracting every ounce of Russian emotion from this wonderful score on YouTube.

And, for those who are interested in such things, Rachmaninov himself with the complete concerto on YouTube.

Two wonderful modern recordings for you to stream, buy and savour.  Zimmerman with Ozawa in glowing from Amazon.

Or Andsnes with Pappano and the Berlin Phil, live and thrilling from Amazon.  When the big theme in the last movement comes back with a thunderclap on the drums it is as if the world is about to be put to rights.  And it is.

You don’t need any excuse to play this concerto four times straight through…….


Moving on, isn’t it interesting how many violent (and particularly warmongering) films have borrowed or generated great music.  I thought of Walton’s Score for Henry V and am passing by the most obvious war-film (for a moment) in favour of Platoon and its use of the Barber adagio for strings.   Here is a shortened version of a programme note I wrote for it some years ago:

“There’s no reason music should be difficult for an audience to understand, is there?” 

So said Samuel Barber towards the end of his life. He was essentially conservative in outlook and musical style. His big break came when Arturo Toscanini agreed to conduct the premiere of a piece adapted for string orchestra from his early string quartet.  It became known as his Adagio for Strings, and gave him immediate and lasting fame.   In Alex Ross’s memorable phrase, “while so many of his generation favoured lean textures and brief motifs, Barber produced long melodic lines and rich orchestral textures, leaving audiences with the feeling that they had consumed a high-protein meal.”  That high-protein effect would have appealed to Toscanini, who was not generally in favour of modernity but had a famous taste for good red meat.  And so it was Toscanini who conducted the premiere of the Adagio on 5 November 1938 before an invited studio audience, with the performance being recorded for posterity.  Toscanini subsequently took the Adagio on tour, ensuring its rapid exposure and acceptance world-wide.  It is said that, at the end of the first rehearsal, the great maestro declared it to be “Semplice e bella” – simple and beautiful.

The Adagio acts as an elegy for the depression generation, having a sense of yearning that is not dissimilar to Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.  As was said by Aaron Copland’s biographer, it “holds a central place among America’s most introspective musical ruminations.”  Copland admired its absolute sincerity and, from the first note, it has a spellbinding quality.  Not everyone liked it.  One Ashley Pettis, of the Federal Music Project, dismissed the Adagio as ““authentic” dull, “serious” music – utterly anachronistic as the utterance of a young man of 28 in A.D. 1938”

Mr Pettis has proved to be one of a small minority as the Adagio soon became one of America’s musical calling cards.  To quote Alex Ross again, “whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio for Strings plays on the Radio.”  It had achieved this astonishing status even by the end of the 1939-1945 World War.  Strauss finished Metamorphosen, his elegy for the destruction of Munich, on 12 April 1945.  On the same day, two other events happened.  In Berlin the Philharmoniker played a concert that included music indelibly associated with the Third Reich: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bruckner’s Romantik Symphony and the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung.  After the concert, it is rumoured that members of the Hitler Youth distributed free cyanide capsules to the audience.  On the other side of the Atlantic Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, and Barber’s Adagio was played across the continent.

Here is it, played by the New York Phil conducted by Thomas Schippers on YouTube.

To buy, I think this is the same wonderful 1965 recording from Amazon.

Or Lenny Bernstein with the added joy of Isaac Stern playing the violin concerto from Amazon.


And so to Apocalypse Now.  I have to admit that I find the scene with the helicopters strafing villages to the sound of the Ride of the Valkyries profoundly disturbing.  Partly because what is on screen is simply horrid; but also because it is a complete perversion of Wagner’s original context.  The Valkyries gather on a hilltop while preparing to take the souls of heroes to Valhalla.  Anyone who was lucky enough to see the Pappano Ring cannot have failed to find the staging and singing (and playing) of their Ride one of the highlights of the cycle.  Of course, the rest of Act 3 of the opera does not go quite according to plan as Brunhilde has decided to defy and disobey Wotan, her father.  That leads to one of the greatest farewells in music.  It has nothing to do with helicopters and despoliation and the pity war distils.

Anyway, it has to go into the list and here is a version by the Berlin Phil conducted by Barenboim, who has done more to break down prejudice (including that engendered by and against Wagner) than anyone else.  I have to say that his conducting in this clip is remarkably stiff, for reasons I cannot identify.  Magnificent playing.  Not necessary to play this four times straight through.  The timpanist makes me laugh, though I am not entirely sure why.

And so to a film moment that made me shout out loud the words “Oh for god’s sake!” in the cinema, to the extreme embarrassment of my family.  Cate Blanchette’s “Elizabeth” is a marvellous film in many ways with a fabulous soundtrack by David Hirschfelder.   It has almost everything and everyone: Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud, Geoffrey Rush, Eric Cantona camping it up quite outrageously (with his collar turned up, of course), and Joseph Fiennes providing the love interest as the ultimately traitorous Robert, Earl of Leicester.  Having discovered his treachery, Elizabeth decides not to execute him but confronts him in a moment of high tension.  And what comes next, but … Nimrod.    I couldn’t help myself.  Sorry.  No, not sorry.

Here is Barenboim again.  Very very slow, but effective.  Apparently a homage to Solti by his magnificent Chicago Symphony on YouTube.

There are literally dozens of wonderful recordings.  My favourite remains the LSO conducted by Monteux, with a very nice Dvorak 7 to boot (though the Dvorak is not as good as Kerstez) from Amazon.

Even older and more magisterial is Boult, also with the LSO from Amazon.

For a more modern and pretty well faultless recording, I don’t think you can really beat Elder and theHallé on their inhouse label: CD HLL 7501 from Amazon.

That’s all for now.

by Jeremy Stuart-Smith