Playlist – Vanessa Mitchell

Playlist – Vanessa Mitchell


Parish Playlist #8

Parish Playlist #8 – Vanessa Mitchell

Before I start my rigmarole, let me say that I found listening to the music through earphones made it sound ten times better, so use earphones if you have them!

1. St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (Sung in English) : Part I: Aria: Break in grief (Soprano)Bach

In one of my several boarding schools, a small girls school of only about 140 pupils (and a high church practice in chapel, whereby some of us learnt how to swing a censor) we had a choir run by Owen le P Franklin, one of the two male members of staff, who knew Eric Greene – a celebrated tenor in his day, retired by then but still active in the music world. Every Lent we performed a shortened/edited version of the St Matthew Passion, in English (recruiting local men from Ascot to sing tenor and bass – an occasion for much girlish excitement and gossip, and getting dolled up for choir practice). For the performance, Eric Greene would come from London with bass, tenor and contralto soloists and harpsichord, and would sing the part of the Evangelist while playing the harpsichord continuo. The rest of the accompaniment was on the organ. One year, having risen through the sub-subs and the subs into the front ranks of the choir, and being head chorister that year, I sang, as was our custom, two soprano arias: ‘Break in Grief’, and ‘Jesus Saviour, I am thine’. What an opportunity! In ‘Break in Grief’ I especially liked the musical representation of ‘around’ ‘(gathers cruel foes around him’) and the twisting of the wily serpent (‘and will like a serpent wound him’). Here is Elsie Suddaby showing how it should be done – from a recording which includes Kathleen Ferrier and Eric Greene. Click here.

Incidentally, Eric Greene worked with the RNIB choir, and we went up to London twice to sing with them, which was a treat: Benjamin Britten’s St Nicholas, and A Ceremony of Carols. Memorably, a guide dog accompanied the harp solo in the middle of the ‘Ceremony’ with some gentle howling.

2. Where the Bee Sucks Thomes Arne, sung by Janet Baker

Music classes at that school consisted of sitting around the grand piano in the music room (which had a fusty smell -?sawdust and hair oil) singing such songs as Where is Sylvia?, The Minstrel Boy to the War is Gone, The Jolly Miller … and ‘Where the bee sucks’ by Thomas Arne. I liked this song and once happened to say so when its turn came up one day. Fiona Forshaw-Wilson said, not quite under her breath: “You would!” Well, Fifi, I still like it, though I admit that a group of unenthusiastic 13-year-olds singing without the benefit of a charming recorder accompaniment (that hooting owl!) would not bring it off as well as Janet Baker does on this recording Click here.

3. Four Impromptus, D 899Schubert, played by Alfred Brendel

Sometimes, on a summer evening when windows were open, we could hear Owen le P Franklin, free of teaching duties, playing a Schubert impromptu, usually D.935 no 2 in A flat. The sound floated up to the dormitories above. My favourite of Schubert’s impromptus is from Opus 90 (D 899), no.3 in G flat major. Alfred Brendel plays it beautifully – with facial expressions to match. [starting at 14’ 58”]: Click here.

Another good performance is by Krystian Zimerman. There are several by him on Youtube, one with the printed music to view. Someone has commented, and I agree, that the music in this set of Impromptus has a deep sense of space, a sense of a musical idea growing organically without fuss or struggle. What also appeals to me in no. 3 is the way the apex of the crescendo seems also to be the most intimate note, e.g. bars 10 and most of all bar 12.

4. StardustFats Waller

My mother, when a teenager, was quite an accomplished pianist. By the time I came along she had long given up playing and couldn’t be persuaded to take it up again. She told us that she used to play Debussy’s ‘Gollywog’s Cake Walk’ to her grandfather, retired from being head of a music school in Exeter, who by then had lost his memory, and would request her “to play that piece by Debussy…”, though she had only a few minutes before played it. Her collection of records prioritised the piano. My younger brother and I used to turn off the lights, and spook ourselves with the opening of Brahms’ 1st piano concerto. Just the opening — then record off, lights on. Besides piano concertos, there were recordings of Fats Waller, including ‘I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter’, a funny and touching idea. Click here.

5. Histoires NaturellesRavel

My mother once met Ravel, or at least smiled at him in a café somewhere in Switzerland. It must have been in 1934, when he went there in the hope of regaining his health (he died in 1937). This was a red letter memory for her. I love Ravel’s song cycle ‘Histoires naturelles’ (4 songs about birds, one about a cricket) to poems by Jules Renard. It’s astonishing how well he interprets the words in music, catching the behaviour and movements of these creatures. The song about the cricket (Le grillon) was the first I heard – on the car radio one day. Fancy, a song about a cricket! And how brilliantly he presents the fussy and nervous insect, and its ticking sound! The unexpected evocation of the spacious moonlit countryside at the end makes a striking contrast to the small underground world of the insect; two aspects of Nature, linked. I like Bernard Kruysen’s performance: Click here.

Translation: It is the hour when, tired of wandering, the black insect returns from his wayfaring and carefully restores order to his estate. First he rakes his narrow sandy paths. He makes sawdust, which he scatters on the threshold of his retreat. He files the root of that tall grass likely to trouble him. He rests. [the long pause in the music here was thought to be unseemly] Then he winds up his tiny watch. Has he finished? Is it broken? He rests again for a while. He goes inside and shuts the door. For an age he turns his key in the delicate lock. And he listens. Nothing untoward outside. But he does not feel safe. And as if by a tiny chain on a creaking pulley, he lowers himself into the bowels of the earth. Nothing more is heard. In the silent countryside the poplars rise like fingers in the air, pointing to the moon.

The first performance of this song cycle (1906) was given at a concert promoted by the Société nationale de musique, with Ravel playing the piano. It aroused indignant protests, throughout which Ravel, always dapper, imperturbably played on. The texts were thought to be unsuitable for treatment by a major French composer, and there was objection to Ravel’s attempt to represent spoken French rather than follow the conventions of musical word setting. Too close to ‘café concert’, sniffed critics: the sort of thing which would give Germans the chance to view French music as frivolous.

6. Der ErlkönigFats Waller

Here is a frightening and sad song, Der Erlkönig, by one of that long line of distinguished German composers: Franz Schubert. Click here.

I love the dramatic characterisation of the father, the boy and the Erl King against the desperate galloping of the horse (bravo Gerald Moore!). In this recording by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau I like the way the horse slows down at the end. (And also the ‘good night’ from the performers!) Another spooky German song involving a horse is Der Feuerreiter, Hugo Wolf’s setting of Mörike’s strange poem, here in another gripping performance by Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore Click here.

7. ConcertinoJohn White

To calm the nerves with something ‘suave and serene’, here is a movement from a Concertino by John White, written for Gemini, the chamber group which my husband Ian Mitchell leads ( This is the only Gemini recording I could find on line – from a CD released in 2018: ‘Bass Clarinet and Friends’ Click here.

8. Dancing on Daddy’s ShoesGeorge Howden

And finally, Dancing on Daddy’s Shoes – to end on a lively note, but also a slightly sad one, because the nostalgia suggests that the singer has found life difficult since those happy childhood moments – probably childhood too was hard, since they had to ‘sing away the blues’. This is from private recording of retrospective songs made by George Howden, a jazz musician who, with his family, used to live near us in East Dulwich. I like the way he sings the song, and also his lovely trombone playing: Click here.