Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

Universally popular in the first half of the 20th century, the music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari has vanished into thin air. A Venetian of German ancestry and education, Wolf-Ferrari rejected modernism and allowed himself to become – along with Mascagni, Repighi, Malipiero and most Italian composers – a cultural poster-boy for the Mussolini regime. This affiliation accelerated his reputational decline after 1945; he died three years later. But there is nothing ideological about his music. Nor is it in any sense reactionary. On the contrary, Wolf-Ferrari wrote romantic music because that is all he was equipped to do and he did…

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The problem with Clementi is that there are no standout works. Where most famous composers write a couple of pieces that are gripping enough to be an entry point to their output, the London-based Italian just wrote and wrote more and more sonatas at roughly the same level of invention, leaving the new listener no idea where to start. Opus 33, published by Longman and Broderip in 1794, is not a bad door-knocker. Clementi employs many of the same devices as Mozart – a seductive melody, a secondary detour and several strong teases before he delivers a resolution. There’s nothing…

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There’s a debate going on among agents as to whether it is better for an artist to have an exclusive record contract or to work across several labels. Alisa Weilerstein, who has made outstanding recordings of the Elgar, Dvorak and Shostakovich concertos for Decca, has now popped up on a Dutch label with the two Haydn concertos and Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. Pentatone is a terrific label, run by former Philips professionals. This ought to be a top-drawer recommendation. Why it isn’t is a matter of some perplexity. Weilerstein dispenses with a conductor for these pieces, which is not unusual. But…

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Numerous bids are being made in this centennial year to redeem Leonard Bernstein’s three symphonies from their fatal flaws. None that I have heard makes a better fist of it than Antonio Pappano’s new set with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Pappano, who met Bernstein as his would-be repetiteur on an opera production, has a keen empathy for the composer’s melting-pot background. From first note to last, he tones down gestural excesses and desperate self-borrowings. The Rome orchestra plays like a Broadway pick-up band – Broadway usually recruited the best players in New York – and the soloists…

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I need to declare an interest. I have described Steven Osborne elsewhere as the most interesting British pianist of his generatiom, a declaration which practically precludes me from reviewing his recordings, predisposed as I am to praise them. It’s a dilemma which I try to resolve by listening to everything that Osborne does and allowing at least a year to elapse between one enthusiastic review and the next. You’ve no idea how taxing this can be. That said, I am happily immersed in the two Rachmaninov sets of piano sketches, written in 1911 and 1916 and apparently not intended for…

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Did you know Handel wrote a St John’s Passion? Me, neither, and I’m still not convinced. This score was discovered in the Berlin Royal Library in the mid-19th century by the authoritative Friedrich Chrysander and included in the even more authoritative Halle Handel Edition. But there have always been doubts about dates and style. The credited librettist, Christian Heinrich Postel, died of consumption in Hamburg in 1705, when Handel was 20. Handel knew Postel’s work and may have asked for a text, but Postel worked mostly for Telemann and if he found time at all for Handel it would have…

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What are we to make of songs that were written for people to sing and play at home, when nobody plays at home any more? The great canon of so-called ‘art song’ (horrible term) has shifted from the drawing room to the public stage and, in doing so, has lost something of its intended intimacy and improvisation. It seems to be that English song suffers more in this transition than French or German. All too often, in a concert setting, the singer feels obliged to pop a peach in his/her mouth for declamatory purpose. The English mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly…

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The late Michael Kennedy, lifelong Telegraph critic, once told me he lost interest in new music in his late sixties. Michael had known Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten and reckoned their successors were not up to the mark. We argued about the merits of Birtwistle and Turnage but his ears were not for the turning and I respected the candour of his admission. Myself, around the same age, I am still bi-curious: eager to see what the old hands are doing and keen to hear new sounds coming through. Nothing thrills me more than finding a composer I can…

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Averse as I am to teenage prodigies, I heard Daniel Lozakovich in a Berlin nightclub this week and had no doubt from the first touch of bow on string that he is the genuine article. Sixteen years old, raised in Stockholm by Kazak-Russian parents, he gives the impression of belonging nowhere but some deep place inside himself. Fresh from a sleepless night on a bench in Tokyo airport where his flight had been cancelled, he draws energy – as the great ones do – from an audience. No-one breathed on the dance-floor during his Bach Partita. His DG debut recording…

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If I had to choose Elgar or VW for a desert island, I know which it would be. Elgar these days seems over-familiar, where Vaughan Williams loses none of his capacity to surprise. You would not automatically guess that from the opening item on this Toronto Symphony recording, the 1938 Serenade to Music, a flossy piece which is made up of bits of Shakespeare and broderie anglaise. Moving swiftly on, the 1944 oboe concerto is an exquisite wartime consolation, a promise of green fields and scones for tea when all the unpleasantness is over. Sarah Jeffrey’s reading is ideally serene,…

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