I have three Fantasias, two films and an encore, which acts as a brief apology to those who think I should have included something from Toutes Les Matins du Monde last week.  And I include something to give us all hope for the return of live music soon soon soon.

The word Fantasia itself gives another embarrassment of riches.  Those of you who are instinctively pronouncing it with an Italian accent are, initially at least, on the wrong track.  In the early days of the Second World War Mickey Mouse was in decline.  Disney had the bright idea of restoring his fortunes by making a short animated film to the manic music of Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  The short went way over budget and was never going to pay for itself, and so in 1940 Disney hit on the idea for Fantasia.  Conducted by Stokowski, Mickey Mouse and Dukas were stitched into the film along with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, The Rite of Spring, The Nutcracker, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Night on a Bare Mountain.  Released in 1940 it was still not a financial success, but has developed a cult following, not just with lovers of Mickey Mouse.

I have not done an excessive amount of cleaning and tidying during lockdown, but what I have done has given me added respect for those who do, whether at home or at work.  So here is a homage to all cleaners in a time of coronavirus.  The reviews suggest that David Zinman and the Rotterdam Orchestra is among the best recordings but I can only find it on a very scratchy YouTube.  So here is Monteux and the LSO in 1961, worth it for Monteux’s moustache alone on YouTube.

This is more modern and quite good, I think found here on YouTube.

And here, as a matter of historical interest, is the soundtrack version from the film (which I think is not as good) also on YouTube.

And now for two Fantasias for strings.

Vaughan Williams was born the son of a cleric possessed of comfortable means.  An early edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians observed that “the fact that he was not faced with the immediate necessity for earning a living may have retarded his development or may have made it possible.”  During the first decade of the 20th century he became fascinated by the language of the English folk song; and it was this fascination that eventually led him to the greatness of his mature works.  So, in 1926 one commentator could write: “Because Vaughan Williams has neglected the idioms of Stravinsky and Ravel for an ancient and commoner speech, he has achieved, after due effort, a method of expression as English as the Great Bible.”  That is certainly true of his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, written in 1910 for the Three Choirs Festival held at Gloucester.

The Bayerische Rundfunk Orchestra are not the natural first port of call for Vaughan Williams but they have just started playing together again.  And here is the moment to give us all hope for the return of live music, for the first piece they performed on coming together again was … the Tallis Fantasia.  And by pure joyous serendipity, I came across it, played live on Friday.  Don’t worry if you don’t speak German, the introduction is fairly short – and half of it is in English for reasons that will become apparent.  There are many wonderful recordings available, but this one is rather special.  And, mirabile dictu, they follow it up with a perfectly heavenly performance of the Gran Partita. Here it is.

And so to my favourite Fantasia of all: Tippett’s Fantasia, commissioned in 1953 by the Edinburgh Festival to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Arcangelo Corelli.  If you know you don’t like Tippett, think again.  You may have heard it if you were one of the 14 million who watched Peter Hall’s film Akenfield on television in 1975.  It is pastoral and cosmopolitan at the same time and worth every glorious second of time that you can afford to give it.  The classic recording by the Academy of St Martins in the Fields with Neville Mariner “still glows”.  Play it again and again on YouTube.

You can buy it in a lovely selection of English String music on a disc which was Building A Library’s first choice and is still treasure now found here. Alternatively, this looks a bit of a steal on Amazon.

And so to the encore.  A poor quality recording of a consummate genius playing Le Basque by Marin Marais.  For the geeks amongst you, this piece is normally played in C Major, which is difficult enough.  But too easy for Dennis Brain, who played it up a semitone, which makes it infinitely harder.  This was recorded at the Edinburgh Festival on 24 August 1957.   A week later he drove down overnight after a Festival concert to be in London for a recording session the next day; but he went to sleep just outside Hatfield, drove into a tree and killed himself.  And so he joined the immortals.  His self-effacing 1950s introduction says: “I would like to play you a little French dance; it also happens to be the shortest piece I know.” View it here on YouTube.

by Jeremy Stuart-Smith