A Musical Journey | Pushing the Wave

A Musical Journey

Opinion, 1 September 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Book Exchange in Islands Brygge Copenhagen
A book exchange in Islands Brygge, Copenhagen
Since the tender age of 16, I have been on an incredible musical journey with Western classical music, from initial explorations in my adolescence to discovering an entire universe, in which I continue to discover myriad wonders.

It might seem a little strange to say this, but the conductor who embodies that journey the most is Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I first came across his recordings quite early on, when I was edging my way into appreciating Mozart’s operas.

Leaving aside other forms of classical music, my odyssey into opera really began in earnest with Verdi, thanks to the introduction given to me by Harry Enfield on his Guide to Opera, which aired in 1993. From there, I experimented with Puccini but wasn’t able to grasp his music at the time. I think it was a little too emotionally direct for the sensitive yet highly repressed young man I was back then.

So I took a side step into Wagner. There, I wallowed in the shifting tones and dramatic complexities, and sensed the enormity of it all without really understanding it. The music moved me immensely, but I didn’t understand why, and it took me many years, as I am sure it does most people, to be able to hold an entire opera from the Ring Cycle in my mind, and fully live it.

The key that first opened the door to Wagner for me were the live recordings of the Ring Cycle from Bayreuth, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Hans Knappertsbusch and Wilhelm Furtwängler fanboys (and don’t get me started on Sir Georg Solti), who seemed to have inherited their allegiance to those, to me, rather staid recordings from their fathers, at the time sniffed at the bright, urgent and engaging performances drawn out by maestro Barenboim. But I knew, even in my lack of experience, that he was onto something.

So I followed Barenboim into Mozart, acquiring his Erato recording of Cosi Fan Tutti, which I maintain is one of the most remarkable in the catalogue, and then his Nozze di Figaro, which I didn’t quite appreciate as much as I did the Classics for Pleasure recording with the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Vittorio Gui.

All that to say I had a vision of what Mozart should sound like. I also wanted something specific from classical music, which was to escape. Escape from the awkwardness, and disappointments, I experienced daily as a young adult. I was of course trying to find, first, my place and then my way in the world, but I was struggling deeply with both, and never felt at ease.

I also found myself ignorant and poorly educated compared with the brilliant personalities and minds I encountered at Cambridge, and saw myself as infinitely less poised and together than the more confident students I met from private schools. (If only I had known at the time that it was largely an act to cover up their own insecurities, but I sadly discovered that much later.)

So classical music was an escape, as were, for me, the films of Merchant Ivory, the novels of E.M. Forster, P.G. Wodehouse and D.H. Lawrence (do you see a name-pattern emerging here?), and the possibilities for self-effacement afforded by alcohol.

I wanted classical music to be romantic, absorbing and transporting, so it could take me away into a cosy little world populated by the imaginations of refined individuals, who created art of the highest standards and of the most exceptional taste. Obviously that is all such teenage nonsense, and I cringe at writing that about my former self.

But those attitudes and expectations meant that I was not at all ready for opera conductors to be challenging, searching, and intellectually demanding in their interpretations. I did not want crisp, clear recordings that laid bare the mechanics of a piece’s composition, and I did not want abrupt changes of pace to highlight otherwise hidden details.

I found all that and more in Harnoncourt’s recording of Mozart’s opera seria Lucio Scilla, which I had bought simply because Cecilia Bartoli sang on it (my love of her voice and recordings could, and probably will, make the subject of another column). To my mind at the time, the recording was an abomination and stood for everything I hated about that sort of interpretation, and I instantly rejected it. (I had the same reaction when I tried Harnoncourt’s version of Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo, which I acquired because I didn’t believe he would made the same mistakes twice.)

The result was that I didn’t return to either of those two operas until I bought a second hand copy of the Complete Mozart Edition by Philips. There I was enchanted by the beautifully measured conducting of Leopold Hager on Lucio Scilla, and swept away by the power of Sir Colin Davis’s interpretation of Idomeneo.

After that I took the plunge and got the collected sets of Harnoncourt’s Mozart operas for Teldec, and gave those two infamous recordings another chance. While still greatly appreciating the Philips recordings, I found in the Austrian maestro’s interpretations so much to fascinate and illuminate. I heard the recordings, and the operas, in an entirely new light, and I was deeply impressed.

Of course, nothing at all has changed in Harnoncourt’s interpretation of Idomeneo. That has been frozen in time since the tracks were laid down in 1981. I, however, have evolved almost beyond recognition since I first placed the discs in my Arcam Alpha Plus CD player. All that I couldn’t face in my prior need to escape from the everyday I sought out and enjoyed as an opportunity to hear the familiar in a new and exciting way.

The result is I listen to many Harnoncourt recordings with great pleasure, and he has shown me a new way of listening to Mozart; one that complements perfectly those that came before.

That original escape route is of course still there, if desired, and I can be transported to an entirely different place when I listen to those recordings, it’s just that I don’t need to take to go there anymore.
This week I was back in Copenhagen for the first time since COVID, and it was, as always, a pleasure to be there.

The Danish capital is one of my favourite European cities, and certainly among the most charming. Each time I go there, I see something new.

This time I stayed in a hotel in a more residential area, on Islands Brygge. It afforded me the opportunity to see a quieter, calmer side of the city, and the chance to understand a little more of how families live in the heart of that city.

As so often nowadays, I was taken by the community spaces I came across. I am fascinated by what a city does to help people come together, so they can meet without barriers and restrictions, and where the aim is to share, both the space but also each other’s lives. I got the impression that Copenhagen is particularly good at that. (See above for just one small example.)
Finally! The next draft of the follow-up to My Life as a Dog, which will, predictably, be called More Life as a Dog, is finished!

One more detailed read-through and it will be ready to send for editorial scrutiny. I am so excited that it has reached this milestone, and cannot wait to share with you the next steps.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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A Musical Journey | Pushing the Wave