Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

The Bamberg Symphony was formed in 1946 by ethnic Germans expelled by the Czechs in retribution for the Nazi occupation. Based in Bavaria, it acquired a sound that was markedly different from the nearby Munich orchestras, let alone others in the state. Joseph Keilberth conducted the group with distinction for 20 years followed by Horst Stein. Since the turn of the century, the sound lost something of its edge under the British conductor Jonathan Nott. Now, in bedrock repertoire, it is reassuring to find that the Czech conductor Jakob Hrusa has restored something of the original sonority, allowing the brass…

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The Greek composer Skalkottas died of a ruptured hernia in 1949, shortly after the birth of his second son. He was 45 and completely unknown, his health broken by internment in a camp during the German occupation. Possessed of a questing mind, Skalkottas enrolled in Arnold Schoenberg’s Berlin class from 1927 to 1932, learning how to write ultra-modern serialism and balancing it with his own instinct forMediterranean melody. This collection of piano pieces by the Greek scholar Lorenda Ramou contains three world premieres, all of considerable curiosity. If you’re into 20th century piano music,  this should be high on your…

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Never one to leave his audience short of music, Beethoven wrote this oratorio for an 1803 Vienna concert that already consisted of his first two symphonies and his third piano concerto. Since he only finished the oratorio on the morning of the concert, rehearsals were scratchy and the musicians bad-tempered. Even at this distance of time, it is hard to tell how they made any sense of this episodic work, which veers from flights of inspiration to pedestrian note-filling. At its most sublime – the orchestral introduction and the tenor aria ‘my soul trembles’, we hear Beethoven finding raw materials…

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One of the marvels of English music-making in the past couple of years has been the emergence of Roderick Williams in mid-career as one of the most pleasing lieder baritones of our time. Williams, who is 54, has sung Billy Budd and Don Giovanni among other operatic roles. He is also a composer. But it is in Lieder that he has found a true vocation and his performance of Schubert’s love-struck cycle captures all the colours of a bucolic landscape and the clouds of an unattainable desire. What I particularly like is that, unlike Fischer-Dieskau for instance, he neither hardens…

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This really useful series has reached a clutch of shorter pieces, all of them offering fresh insights into the life and mind of the travelling composer-conductor. In the overture to St Paul, Mendelssohn plays parlour games with the founder of his faith. The trumpet overture, opus 101, is quite literally a blast and the overture to Athalie has real novelty value. The truth is that, two centuries on, we still have no idea who Mendelssohn was. He is so adept at presenting ideas in a patina of respectability that we are left wondering if this man knew any passion in…

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A soprano at the start of her journey cuts a debut album as another reaches what must be the end. The contrasts are simply too compelling to ignore. Lise Davidsen, a Norwegian, came to attention in the Kathleen Ferrier competition four years ago, though her voice is more Flagstad than Ferrier. This is a genuine Wagnerian instrument, fully formed at 32 years old and equal to a massive orchestra. Two Tannhäuser arias are surmounted here with what sounds like nonchalance, a walk in the Bayreuth park in a really pleasant breeze. The shortcomings are exposed in a set of Richard…

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Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn: The Transitory Poems (ECM Records, ECM 2644) Nine years after their first concert ­performance, duo keyboardists Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn have finally released their recording debut. Just shy of 75 minutes, the album captures a performance staged in Budapest a little over a year ago. Eight tracks flow almost seamlessly, the pauses between them so short that the listener barely has the time to take a single breath. The players never lose focus, as they are so in tune with each other and so able to compose on the spur of the moment. Blessed as they…

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Pavarotti: Genius Is Forever, a documentary directed by Ron Howard, opens on June 6. La Scena Musicale got exclusive access to the two-hour film before the release. In the past, this acclaimed Hollywood director and producer explored the world of music with The Beatles: Eight Days a Week and, most recently, with Made in America, a documentary that involved the participation of rap mogul Jay-Z. In his new effort, Howard emphasizes the human side of Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. He chronicles his life trough a mix of interviews with the singer’s family, colleagues, live concerts and backstage footage. We are…

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A keen observer of the new music scene in Montreal, Réjean Beaucage has taken to the task of demystifying that slightly strange bird known as musique actuelle. His book on this subject, released last February, is but a logical extension of his first one of eight years ago that recounted the history of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec. In close to 200 pages, he embraces a good half a century of musical activity, its alpha point in 1961 with the Semaine de musique actuelle and further manifestations such as the FIMAV, founded in 1983 and still around to this…

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The symphonic monument Asrael, written in memory of the composer’s wife Otilie and her father Antonin Dvorak, embodies for Czech musicians what Verdi’s Requiem does for Italians – a summit of national loss and hope. Unlike the Verdi Requiem, it has never caught on outside its heartland. Its great interpreters on record have all been Czech – Talich, Ancerl, Kubelik, Pesek and now Jiri Belohlavek. To the latest interpreter the heritage must have weighed particularly heavy since he knew he was mortally ill and this recording would stand as his legacy. Never a flamboyant conductor, Jiri Belohlavek goes for large…

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