Musical Notes: Deaths in 2010

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Musical Deaths in 2010

The death on 10 November of the Polish composer Henryk Górecki is the latest in what has seemed an endless procession of such events recently. While one must expect that in each year, the world of classical music will see the light extinguished on one or more of its leading figures, the list this year seems inordinately long. The news of Górecki's death at the age of 76 came only five days after news of the loss of American mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, and a week after that of the Russian conductor and viola player Rudolf Barshai. News of the loss of these three musicians, itself came hot on the heels of the death of the great Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland, all four within the space of a month.

Henryk Górecki's international fame was largely the result of the somewhat unlikely commercial success of the London Sinfonietta's 1991 CD recording of the composer's Symphony No.3 ('Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'), conducted by David Zinman, with the central second movement sung by American soprano Dawn Upshaw. The CD has become one of the biggest-selling classical discs of all time. In this country at least, the symphony, and that second movement in particular, was played heavily on the British radio station Classic FM.

Three years older than Górecki, Shirley Verrett had battled with racial prejudice generally, the violent environment of her first husband and the religious fundamentalism of her parents to achieve her goal. They supported her desire to sing, but as Seventh-day Adventists, were utterly opposed to her having a career in opera, which they considered to be licentious. When she was good (as Carmen and in Verdi rôles) she was very, very good, but her voice could be a bit of a lottery, prone to letting her down on occasions. Later in her career she moved to the soprano repertoire, singing the title rôles in Tosca, Norma and Aïda. Making her operatic début in 1957 when in her mid-20s, she was still adding to her repertoire at almost 60 years of age. She died of heart failure at the age of 79.

Rudolf Barshai, who has died at the age of 86, was one of the finest viola players of his generation – he was a founder member of the renowned Borodin Quartet – and a conductor associated particularly with the music of fellow Russians Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. Frustrated by the Soviet system, he left his homeland in the mid-1970s to emigrate to Israel. Known for a great skill in arranging works for chamber orchestra, in 2001 he produced a Performing Version of Mahler's incomplete Tenth Symphony. His final arrangement, completed only a week before his death, is an orchestration of JS Bach's The Art of Fugue.

Dame Joan Sutherland's death at the age of 83 has turned off the light on one of the 20th Century's greatest talents of the operatic stage. If I were picking a short-list of times and places at which I would loved to have been present, high on that list would be 17 February, 1959, for the performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when she received a standing ovation that lasted 20 minutes. A year later, an ecstatic audience at Venice's La Fenice Theatre dubbed her 'La Stupenda', a nickname that remained with her the rest of her life. The title 'Greatest Operatic Soprano of All Time' has been proposed for a number of singers, but Joan Sutherland must rank as one of the bookies' favourites to win. In 2009 she presented the crystal trophy to the winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, Ekaterina Shcherbachenko. A bad fall in the garden of her home Switzerland last year resulted in her breaking both legs, since which she had been in poor-health.

In January, the American pianist Earl Wild died at the age of 94, followed in March by the British tenor Philip Langridge, aged 70. For many, Langridge will be remembered fondly for his performances in Benjamin Britten's operas Billy Budd and Peter Grimes, and for the audience-challenging works of Harrison Birtwistle.

Later the same month, the death of Lady Walton, widow of the late composer Sir William Walton (1902-83), was announced, and in May, that of Yvonne Loriod, widow of the composer Olivier Messiaen, at the age of 86. A former pupil of the composer, she became the foremost interpreter of Messiaen's piano works.

In June, the German soprano Anneliese Rothenberger (born 1926) died at the age of 85. Her 40-year career on the operatic stage began in Koblenz in 1943, before she joined the Hamburg Staatsoper in 1946. In 1971 she added a second career as a popular host on the German television channel ZDF.

In July, the American-born Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras died of cancer at the age of 84. A very modest man, history will probably note him as the man who did so much to champion the music of Leos Janacek, whose music Mackerras discovered as a student in Prague just after WWII. There was however much more to Mackerras. Possessor of a keen mind, he was never satisfied with the standard reading, and his researches threw much new light on familiar works.

A moment of breath-catching came when in the summer it was announced that the conductor Sir Colin Davis would not be conducting his scheduled appearances at the BBC Promenade Concerts due to illness. It was noted with relief that Sir Colin was back on the podium soon after the season.

Geoffrey Burgon, who died in September at the age of only 69, might perhaps not be a household name, but his music will certainly be familiar to television audiences in Britain and around the world as the composer of the scores to the hugely successful drama series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Brideshead Revisited, for each of which he won an Ivor Novello award.

Away from the world of classical music, I must mention three other names, whose loss this year is deeply felt: the great jazz band-leader Sir John Dankworth, who died in February at the age of 82; American jazz singer Lena Horne (born 1917) who died in May; and last, but far from least, drummer, band-leader and composer Jack Parnell, at the age of 87. In mid-career as a drummer, Parnell became musical director of British television company Associated Television (ATV) which produced such mega-audience grabbing shows as Sunday Night at the London Palladium; at its peak, the show could command audiences of 25 million viewers – half the population of the UK.

We shall miss them all greatly. Let us hope we can reach the end of the year without further loss.

Till next time, happy listening.

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