Seclusion Discs – Owain Browne

We have asked our friends and tutors, while they are marooned in isolation, which 8 tracks mean the most to them, so we can share some new listening ideas with you and find out a bit more about them. This week, baritone Owain Browne, introduces his picks.

A graduate of the Opera School at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Owain has since studied at the Flanders Opera Studio in Ghent. Recent performances include Luzifer in ausLICHT for Dutch National Opera at the Holland Festival, and Sulpice in Jackdaws OperaPLUS performance of The Team Mascot (aka. Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment). He says of his selections,

“Music has been a very important part of my lockdown experience. At first there was silence: long-anticipated projects cancelled and no desire to listen to or make music as a reminder of what I was missing. Gradually music crept back in and one of the great positives of this experience for me has been the rediscovery of my love of music, making and listening, for its own sake. Pieces that I’ve not properly listened to for a decade or more have been welcomed back as old friends. Choices do not come easily to me and this list could of course have been much longer. Symphonies are slightly over represented but it was playing symphonies as a young violinist in youth orchestras that first kindled my love of music. There are some notable omissions, especially in the realm of sacred music, but I had to choose just 8 tracks and here they are. These pieces have all moved me deeply at some point during this period.”

Track One: Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
The familiar made strange. This piece has become a vital part of my daily existence, providing as it does the backdrop for my morning attempts at yoga and writing, and I find its meditative quality as part of a routine very comforting. Max Richter’s ambient, minimalist style might seem incompatible with the florid excess of the Italian baroque but I encourage you to try it. In “recomposing” the concertos he excised about three quarters of Vivaldi’s music before looping and layering the remaining fragments. It may sound like it’s produced entirely from samples remixed on a computer but the whole thing is played live with only a few moments of optional electronics.

Track Two: Monteverdi – Si dolce è’l tormento (Rolando Villazon and Le Concert d’Astrée – Emmanuelle Haïm)
Sometimes you don’t want to be cheered up and simply want to dive head first into your misery. That desire is for me the essence of this song on the topic of the “sweet pain” of unrequited love which holds faith despite infinite sorrow. The song is attributed to Monteverdi and was published in a collection of songs under his name by Carlo Milanuzzi in 1623, but there is some suspicion that Milanuzzi was using Monteverdi’s more famous name to bolster the popularity of his album. Whatever its provenance, its raw emotion still speaks to us with immediacy from over 400 years ago. Some people perhaps don’t always associate early music with such emotional directness but for any that see it as the realm of cold or stuffy academia I offer this recording as a refutation.

Track Three: Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 4 in f (Herbert von Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic)
During lockdown and with time on my hands to listen to long works, I’ve found myself turning to symphonic music as the ultimate escapism – scenes, stories and emotional journeys can be conjured in the imagination. For tragic drama I can’t beat the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony. The movement is a conflict between themes of misery and despair and themes of hope leading to precarious, ephemeral joy. The ominous brass fanfare of the opening looms like fate over the whole thing and every time it returns it brings back a sense of calamity or inner turmoil leading eventually to the ultimate musical “all is lost” moment in the coda. Here the opening fanfare is flung high by the brass and the music seems to hang over us like a great wave before coming down on our heads in three crashing blows before emotional defences are overrun and we are engulfed in a flurry of brass and strings. I originally meant to include just the first movement but you can’t leave the story there! There is a happy ending eventually, to this Tchaikovsky symphony at least.

Track Four: Sibelius – Symphony No. 2 in D (Paavo Berglund / Helsinki Philharmonic)
I’ve listened to a lot of symphonies while enjoying my government-mandated hour of exercise outside and I think now that there is no better “walking” symphony than Sibelius’ second. The whole piece feels like a literal journey with the movements evoking a succession of Nordic landscape scenes with wide open plains, vast imposing cliff faces, mountains and fjords.

The last movement strides forwards with renewed purpose as our destination nears but seems to take you deep into a swirling snowstorm, pressing on with bent back and face downward. If you time your arrival right then wherever your destination the final coda gives you the feeling of entering a mighty hall of ancient kings and heroes – even if you’re in Asda.

Track Five: Mahler – Symphony No. 2 The Resurrection (Zubin Mehta, Vienna Philharmonic 1975)
Monumental symphonies like this seem incompatible with modern life. If a feeling can’t be summed up in 280 characters or a 15-second TikTok clip then it can’t be easily shared. Before lockdown it had been a long time since I last made time to properly listen to this piece which was once a great obsession of mine – the first symphony that I really discovered as a teenager without being introduced to it by someone else. I have a pile of recordings of it but there is a vibrancy to this version that I keep coming back to. Apart from anything else, it has some brisk tempi and comes in slightly shorter than most others: a mere 81 minutes!

If the whole thing feels a bit daunting, the fourth movement – an orchestration of “Urlicht” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn – stands alone well. It’s an island of calm and a moment of deep repose after the existential howl from the climax of the third movement has faded and before the earth itself heaves and quakes in the final movement.

Track Six: Mozart – Don Giovanni (Claudio Abaddo, European Chamber Orchestra)
Choosing any opera extract here was difficult but eventually I settled on the final scene of Don Giovanni which begins with the fourth wall breaking down as the Don addresses the orchestra and they play snippets from other operas of the time, including Mozart’s own. Donna Elvira then enters for one final attempt (L’ultima prova…) to get Giovanni to change his life, to which he says “Lascia ch’io mangia – e se vi piace, mangia con me” (Let me eat – and if you like, eat with me) before toasting wine and women. Then any sense of reality that the piece maintains descends into the realm of gothic horror. The ghost of the murdered Commendatore arrives as invited for dinner, and drags the unrepentant Don off to hell. The composition of this work was rushed (some accounts have the overture written on the morning of the premiere) and the libretto has a confusing, almost dreamlike quality where scenes are disconnected and a coherent sense of time and place breaks down – in stark contrast with Da Ponte’s other two libretti for Mozart (Cosí and Figaro) – but the piece is sublime with a startling modernity that often makes you wonder how the history of music might have gone had Mozart lived even a decade longer.

Track Seven: Steeleye Span – Thomas the Rhymer
“Listen to this, it will blow your socks off!” So says Alan Partridge as he slides the cassette of “The Best of Steeleye Span” into his car stereo. If that’s not recommendation enough I don’t know what to add. This music is for me forever associated with car journeys. It was ever in my Dad’s car and I’ve found myself continuing the habit, albeit sometimes slightly self consciously. Most of all though I associate this music with driving around Somerset from school to school with wonderful colleagues and friends while working on Jackdaws OperaPLUS projects; an experience that this year sadly has had to be cancelled – postponed hopefully for a future year. Roof off, sunglasses on and folk rock blasting out of the sound system for all the presumably grateful citizens of Frome, Great Elm, Mells and beyond.
Or listen to the whole album… for dedicated listeners!

Track Eight: Beethoven – String Quartet no 13 in Bb – V. Cavatina
Late Beethoven has moments of almost impenetrable complexity with violent rhythmic chaos and shocking dissonance but these are contrasted with periods of almost naive simplicity that rarely fail to have a deep emotional effect. This cavatina is one such island amid the raw excitement of the B-flat major string quartet. Most of the movement obsessively explores the same simple melodic formula like a circular thought pattern or the effort to recall some memory just out of reach. When the music finally breaks out into a new section, it does so into a strange and unexpected distant key with a heartbreakingly hesitant melody that seems to struggle to speak. The 1994 film “Immortal Beloved” staring Gary Oldman as Beethoven is a slightly guilty pleasure but the musical design was by George Solti and it is this piece that is used for Beethoven’s deathbed scene. It is also the final track on the golden records aboard the two Voyager probes that have left our solar system and are now in interstellar space: humanity’s last word “to the makers of music, all worlds, all times.”