Counterpoint by Mark Nicol – Music for the festive season

| December 22, 2020

Hi, festive folks! There’s surely something for everyone in Santa’s Music Bag here. And it’s all categorized, as per wish, under the four big Rs.

Kids been making an X-rated ruckus, driving you mad? Spouse complaining, put up that tree, or where’s our pudding? Maybe it’s that neighbour who’s played ACDC for five days straight? Here’s what you need:


See that stereo dial marked V, turn it full clockwise at precisely 5am, 1/1/2021, and –

Mahler, Das Lied von Der Erde, Bernstein/NYP.

Yes, Gustav hits for the knockout straight off with this one. Never such a piece that starts, not just crescendo, but in full battle flight. Perfect for that neighbour.

The only consummate canvas from Mahler, beginning to end. Achieves everything in this sinuous, heart-wrenching, rollicking, then mystically tragic score that he had lifelong strived for. Transcends the sentimentalism, histrionics, naivety, and waywardness that tended to soil earlier monstrous canvases. An apotheosis work.

Bernstein doesn’t read the score, he, the premier vocalists and NYP live it.

The ending is perfect counterfoil to that blazing, affirmative beginning. It is one long rent diminuendo, recollecting the song of the Earth, until the blue, vanishing point of … ewig, ewig … ever, ever

And, if that neighbour has thence been lulled into a false sense of security, hit this:

Shostakovich, Symphony 10, 2nd Movement, Previn/LSO

I ran an ongoing audio-war with this short militaristic masterwork. (Builder’s laborer clone takes residence, aims at bullying preeminence in idyllic country town, next to wallflower classical musician.)

Shos aimed this piece, as caricature, upon his dead nemesis, Stalin. The violent rap, rap, rap-rap-rap motto is the dreaded knock on the door, in the middle of the night. This Josef threatened upon Dmitri, for writing a dissident opera.

Mahler conceived a self-fulfilling tragic life for himself. Shos had it thrust upon him, had to write happy agitprop endings for cryptic works of eerie gravity, tragedy. A genius composer, not wont to produce many lyrical or idyllic gems. Wonder why?

Previn – under-appreciated, fantastic conductor, multi-talented, multi-wived. (Listen to his CD with Doris Day.)

Ok, we’ll surrender to the ‘goodwill to all mankind’ theme. But, maybe you’ve just had enough of cheesy Xmas carols, Chevy Chase, and crackling, cackling noises? Here’s what you need.


Turn that knob to mid-range, put on headphones with the household still slumbering, grab a medicinal and enter the realm of pure ethereal magic:

Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit, 1st/2nd Movements, Pascal Roget

When I first discovered this I felt I had lifelong been waiting – just to hear this music, this expression, to live in this shimmering exotic dreamworld.

1st Movement, Ondine. The siren who lures lovers into her castle built of waters. What could be more liquid, dazzling, enticing than this unfolding ripple of delight.

2nd Movement, Gibet. A doomed soul lays dangling by a neck-noose, by the mere thread of the subtlest persistent ostinato. In the realm of transitory transfiguration, the sensual diverging harmonies say, as of the soul at that quintessential moment:

The sceptre of rose-red shores, stagnant on evenings of gold, is this white flight you place against a bracelet’s fire.

Roget’s sometimes washy playing? Perfect. Ravel may be an impressionist. But he is also a clinical classicist, an artificer, unlike Debussy. Too much precision, lack of pedal in Ravel overexposes the cut lines, curt form.

Which brings us to another little New Year’s tippler, another impressionist masterwork, rendered in the most lucid luscious light …

Debussy, La Mer, Abbado/Festival Lucerne

Debussy throws all vestiges of any Wagnerian influence, summonses all of the exotic, subtle techniques he had acquired, invented, to create an amazing world of sonorous, picturesque revelation. For the Wagnerian Romantic School the aesthetic tenet is ‘striving to become’. Debussy denounced not just the formal, metrical, tonal rigidity of that Germanic art.

He also eschewed the basic aesthetic, forging an art devoted to celebration of the evanescent, of just being. (Or, an aestheticized rendering thereof).
La Mer, the free flow and majesty of the sea, the wind’s whisper with the waves.

Abbado? Underrated, not the show pony. A performance unparalleled, a master conductor and his select performers.

(Pity about Mahler 2 on the same CD. Great rendition, true. Abbado’s motivation? Mahler 2 was the only Mahler Debussy heard live. Called it ‘too Slav’, walked out. It is a monumentally impressive but monumentally imperfect canvas.)

La Mer? One paramount treasure of the Western musical canon.

Ok, so the household is waking now. Time for repentance, some truly cheery fare.


Honestly, you could listen to this on granny’s grinding gramophone, and it will still sound fantabulous – to anyone who has a musical ear.

Rita Streich, Waltzes and Arias, RSO Berlin

Bells? You want bells, joy, and radiance? Then listen to this unmistakable resonance of Rita Streich in full coloratura flight. Joi de vivre is listening to this marvellous instrument of God sing Fruhlingstimmen. The lark makes magic of every track, playful or poignant.

Asked how she achieved such perfection? Practice, practice … and then more practice. The result sounds anything but.

Is it playful rejoice ye seek? Then who could it be, but that pallid little fellow, penner of the one perfect symphony (G Minor), the congenial fare of sundry keyboard, violin concerti, the titillating operas, grave requiem and one petite nocturnal musical.

Treat yourselves to a quaff of the best Gurwitztraminer Riesling, sit back, relax.

Amadeus the Amazing, Flute and Harp Concerto, Karajan/Berlin

Apologies to unaccredited soloists, but it is that diminutive genius who shines at his most unassuming but brilliant best here. O some can do so much with so little, whereas most can do so little with so much.

Yes, this Mozartean palette is pared of all the harmonic and contrapuntal complexities of Bach, relieved of all the spiritual gravitas. By God! Where was the world heading?
Perhaps, just to a lyrical celebration of sheer joy.

Stocking fillers? What about a few jewels? Instances where performing artists transcend anything that the composer might have hoped for.

Gyórgy Cziffra, anything by Liszt, but certainly the Rhapsodies, Transcendental Etudes. Not for the faint-hearted, the iron fist in the velvet glove. The God of Liszt can mangle Chopin, toss it off as effeminate dross. Plays the Revolutionary Etude at lightning speed with very little peddle. Try that, after you’ve mastered Für Elise.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo, Debussy, Preludes Book I. The master of precision, mechanical and aesthetic, reads and renders Debussy as no other. A detached aristocrat. But, o the beauty, when he has the right text.

(Yes, we’re naming horses for courses here.)

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Richard Strauss, Songs. Strauss’ favourite soprano, pouring liquid gold around these jewels, Morning, Four Last Songs. Captures every sinuous tension, reads the extraordinary harmonic sophistication with deft, delicious artistry.

Listen to those gliding glissandi, the rarest hold over inflections of intonation. Beyond masterful. I can care not that both performer, composer were accused of sympathy with that notorious megalomaniac. As per the Messianic one, imprisoned by that bastard, I hear only the radiance of aspiration.

Almost a jewel?

Anne-Sophie Mütter, Mozart, Violin Concerti. And she’s the only one to do any Bach solo violin work expressive justice, but has not recorded.

A rough jewel?

Valeria Mignaco, John Dowland, Clear or Cloudy Lute Songs. You’ll have to listen through blemishes in this teaser for the Renaissance song. Tears? Dowland is master of melancholy. But just an increment of poor intonation can make me lachrymal. More work on the diaphragm, less on affectation?

Let’s throw in a pressy from the Joker.

Nicol, YouTube, marknicol7, Christmas Cards. We need cards with pressies. (A bit botchy, only midi not a real performance.) My sardonic retort to teacher at accredited Music School, asking students to arrange that ‘ubiquitous carol’. Asked to help the hapless, offered this sarcastic essay.

Damn, I’ve broken form here. What was that fourth category, the fourth R, the one that should give clarion call to all our New Year’s hopes?


(No, nothing to do with some posthumous, indecent release from James Brown).
You’ll need to slap on thongs, put butt on esky, drench down a frothy for this one. Ladies, come closer.

The Knack, My Sharona. Yes, give the bird to Helen Reddy, and, as per depth of lyric, sophistication of sentiment, hereby proclaim:

2021, Year of the Man!

My best wishes to all readers. Thanks for your forbearance. Here’s to peace, prosperity for all living creatures in 2021.

Or a close facsimile, at least.