Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

When the English contralto Norma Procter died a few weeks ago at the age of 89, readers remembered seeing Kathleen Ferrier in her audience at Norma’s London debut, at Southwark Cathedral, in 1948. This was typical Ferrier. Six years before she had been a switchboard operator in Lancashire with no hopes of a music career. Now an international star, she took every opportunity to offer support and encouragement to others on the way up. Hearing that Norma was studying in London with her own teacher, Roy Henderson, Ferrier invited her to stay over at her own West Hampstead flat rather…

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The trouble with keeping records is that library science has yet to devise a method of telling you where any piece of music will be just when you really need it. The Schumann piano concerto, for instance. If I look under Schumann, I find two versions. But then there are four more under Grieg – that’s how the record industry likes to pair them up – and heaven knows how many more in box sets of the lifetime works of individual great pianists. Online, it’s no easier, since the same recording will crop up a dozen times under different covers…

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There is no wholly recommendable performance on record of Mahler’s third symphony. The earliest, by F. Charles Adler in 1952, is faultlessly idiomatic, as is Jascha Horenstein’s 1970 LSO account, but both are marred by inferior orchestral playing and poor sound. Claudio Abbado’s 2007 DVD from Lucerne is as good as it gets, though even a lifelong Mahlerian like Abbado struggles with the lop-sidedness of this amalgam of nostalgic pastoralism and saloon-bar philosophy. No-one can satisfactorily explain what Friedrich Nietzsche is getting at in the fourth movement contralto solo. It’s just odd. If you listen just to the second disc…

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In the dying years of the Soviet Union I became aware of dozens of symphonists who survived on the fringes of musical society, tolerated by the authorities but never given a proper hearing. Once I got past the immense, historic figures of Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Galina Ustvolskaya, both pivotal in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, I kept discovering other samizdat composers who, for some reason, seemed to speak my language. At a time when western musicians were subjected to a dictatorship of style and serial ideology if they wanted to get on the BBC, these covert Russians were free to…

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REVIEW: of the new Simone Dinnerstein classical album Mozart in Havana; and INTERVIEWS: with pianist Simone Dinnerstein (and with pedagogue and activist Solomon Mikowsky). What happens when a nice girl from Brooklyn, a bad boy from Salzburg, and a precocious passel of Cuban children of the Revolution all get together? If the parties in question are acclaimed pianist Simone Dinnerstein, composer Wolfgang Mozart, and the members of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, the answer is Mozart in Havana – Dinnerstein’s new album, debuting April 21 from SONY Classical, and destined to be one of the most talked-about classical recording drops of…

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Do not be put off by the cover, which shows two Victorians of different gender having a pre-Raphaelite snog. What they look like post-Raphael is left to the imagination, as is any thematic connection between Gilbert Baldry’s The Kiss and a set of Schumann pieces that evoke male friendships. Not long ago, record companies employed picture researchers and their covers bore some relevance to the music inside. These days, the images seem to be picked by a computer linked to the Amazon sales chart. Do not be put off either by the coupling of Schumann with a record newbie whose…

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Never a big Easter bunny, I generally receive the springtime festival releases with the same excitement as I’d feel about a Placido Domingo Christmas record. What comes round, comes round. This one, however, is pure class. The international Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak opens with a Litany to the Virgin Mary that is slow, devout, soulful and twenty shades lighter than one might expect from a Polish Catholic ritual. Kurzak has never sounded sweeter or more comfortable on record. The little-known Litany is followed by the more familiar Stabat Mater and capped with Szymanowski’s third symphony, the ‘Song of the Night’…

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It’s raining Rachmaninov concertos and I’m not sure the roof can take any more. The past couple of weeks have brought Vanessa Benelli Mosell on Decca, Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion and now the exuberant Khatia Buniatishvili on Sony. Benelli and Hamelin both play with London orchestras, neither sounding on peak form. Khatia is seriously challenged by the Czech Philharmonic, who are in terrific shape under Paavo Järvi’s baton. Benelli’s pairing for the C minor concerto is the Corelli Variations, which she does rather well. Hamelin matches the D minor concerto with Nikolai Medtner’s long-neglected second concerto, a curiosity that falls…

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The Barbican’s season opener last September was one of the great Requiems of my life. The London Symphony Orchestra had a spring in their step as they came on stage, the chorus had been seriously souped up by director Simon Halsey and the conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, waited at least half a minute until complete silence prevailed before he began. And silent it stayed. I have seldom sat among a more rapt London audience, not a cough in eighty minutes. Every individual in the orchestra displayed ferocious concentration. And, best of all, the quartet of soloists – Erika Grimaldi, Daniela Barcellona,…

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Hard to know whether to give this confection one star or five. The dominant voice is the mandolin of Chris Thile, an instrument probably unknown to J S Bach who never wrote for it, but used often in modern transcriptions of his works. It sits more comfortably in a Bach score than, say, a tenor sax, but that does not make it remotely authentic. The other instruments at play here are a cello and double bass. What hits the ear from the off are clever, virtuosic trio adaptations of anything from a solo keyboard fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier to…

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