Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

Berlioz: Harold in Italy (Hyperion) The pianist Emanuel Ax remarked the other day that performance quality has risen so high in his lifetime that you hardly ever encounter a sub-standard orchestra. On the evidence of this release Bergen in Norway, the rainiest city on earth, boasts a Philharmonic that could be mistaken on a dull day for one in Berlin. Playing Berlioz, grand master of the art of orchestration, Bergen come through with maximum points in all departments and a deep coherence across the spectrum. My only quibble is why the local engineers record the orchestra at a level so…

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Gershwin: Rahpsody in Blue, concerto in F (Myrios) On first hearing, this seemed nothing special – a Russian-Jewish pianist, Kirill Gerstein, tackling the two Gershwin concertos with the all-American St. Louis Orchestra. Worthy cultural diplomacy but nothing that immediately gripped the ear. It took a second spin to grasp the truly challenging aspects of this undertaking. Gerstein takes the jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue and bends the rhythms in such a way that they sound almost Jewish. Remember that Gershwin’s parents were, like Gerstein, Russian Jews, and that the music the composer knew as a boy did not…

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Prokofiev for Two (DG) I’m just about old enough to remember a time when piano duos were a thing – pairs who travelled the world playing nothing but four hand. I even had an adventurous young friend who made it her business to sleep with both members of a duo, just to see if it disrupted them. Whatever happened to the piano duo? The last to make a splash were the Labeque sisters, and they go back to the early 1980s. What we get nowadays are ad hoc pairings of global soloists, who team up as and when they feel…

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Martinu: Double concertos (Pentatone) It feels like I’ve spent half my life trying to persuade people that the next composer they should discover is Bohuslav Martinu. A Czech of limitless melodic permutations, he takes the legacies of Dvorak and Janacek forward into an early modern idiom, infused by a decade of living in Paris. I know no work of Martinu’s that outlasts my interest. He is incapable of being boring. This jam-packed recording presents three of his most scintillating works. If they don’t convert you to Martinu, nothing will. The concerto for two violins and orchestra are played blazingly by…

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Mozart: Concertos (Indé Sens) The only thing that saved this release from being flung unopened into the bin was the quartet’s name and the fact that this is the first fruit of a new label. The Varian Fry Quartet, made up of young Berlin Philharmonic players, is named after an American who saved the lives of at least 2,000 Nazi refugees in the south of France, a largely unsung hero. The label is a bold French venture. But an hour of harp music with string quartet? Come on, there will be plenty of time for that in the afterlife. So…

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Geraldine Mucha: Macbeth (ArcoDiva) Late in the Second World War, a Scottish girl in London fell in love with a Czech journalist. Geraldine Mucha was a rising talent at the Royal Academy of Music. Jiri Mucha was the son of a world-renowned artist, the man who had remade the fin-de-siecle image of Sarah Bernhardt in a style as unmistakable and widely imitated as Gustav Klimt’s. Newly married, the Muchas returned in autumn 1945 to Prague where, with Rafael Kubelik, they organised the first Prague Spring Festival. When the Communists seized power, Jiri was arrested as an enemy of the people…

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William Sterndale Bennett: piano concertos (Hyperion) In half a century of listening to music, I have never attended a work by the foremost English composer of the Victorian era, a man who lived and died a few streets from my London house. Bennett (1816-1875) was acclaimed in his teens as the next Mendelssohn for a D minor piano concerto that Mendelssohn himself, sitting in the audience, found promising. Two more concertos followed before the lad was twenty, the third being praised in Leipzig by no less a contender than Robert Schumann. Bennett, on the strength of these successes, became the…

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Fanny Hensel, ‘the other Mendelssohn’: Complete Songs (Champs Hill) I’m uncomfortable with the album title. Rather than being ‘the other Mendelssohn’, Fanny was the heart of the Mendelssohn family and a fine composer in her own right – despite patriarchal suppression by her father and angry resentment from her brother, Felix. Fanny, married to a Berlin artist, kept her works in a drawer until her late 30s, when she went out and got them published, to Felix’s amazement and grudging admiration. Sadly, there was little time for her to enjoy the reviews. Fanny died of a stroke at 41 and…

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Fridrich Bruk: Symphonies 17 and 18 (Toccata) Some 15 years ago I was asked by one of the London orchestras to curate a series titled Other Russia, looking at the composers who fell or were pushed off the wayside under the Soviet Union. We were going to focus on the likes of Karamanov, Kancheli, Knaifel, Roslavets, Tishchenko, Ustvolskaya, Firsova and more. The scheme hit a brick wall when prominent conductors balked at unfamiliar repertoire and the orchestra feared a box-office frost, but it was a worthwhile exercise and one that some braver spirits should still take up. Among the names…

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Deux (Alpha-Classics) I can’t remember when I last heard a violin-piano recital that was as ingenious and exhilarating as this. On the sleeve, the Franco-Hungarian programme looks a bit odd – the Poulenc sonata written for Ginette Neveu in 1943, a Dohnanyi setting of a waltz from Delibes’ Coppélia, the full-on Bartok sonata of 1922 and Ravel’s Tzigane to close. What do these pieces have in common? Check this: On April 8, 1922, Bela Bartok gave a recital in Paris with his compatriot Jelly d’Aranyi. Ravel was the page turner for Bartok and Poulenc for d’Aranyi. In the audience were…

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