Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

Whatever became of the Great American Symphony? At one time it was discussed with as much cocktail-hour fervour as the Great American Novel and promoted by the best US orchestras. Leonard Bernstein at the New York Phil would not program a season without a symphony by a living American. But that was half a century ago. Since the GAS has long gone off the boil, it’s almost a guilty pleasure to listen to a pair of symphonies by composers whom Bernstein admired. Walter Piston (1894-1976) was his teacher at Harvard and Howard Hanson (1896-1981) a vaunted doyen of American music.…

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The largest symphony ever written, designed for the outdoors and knocked off in six summer weeks without revision, Mahler never expected to see the 8th performed. When an impresario booked it for Munich in 1910, the Symphony of 1,000 afforded Mahler the greatest triumph of his life. He did not conduct it again and both his close disciples, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, shunned it. Its gigantic size and cost make performances a rarity and good performances a dream. I can count the great ones I have heard in four decades on three fingers – Klaus Tennstedt in London, Riccardo…

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The missing voice in modern Polish music is female. At the time of her early death, aged 59, in 1969, two contemporaries of Grazyna Bacewicz, Lutoslawski and Penderecki, were world famous and two others, Panufnik and Gorecki, were laying down tracks for the future. Poland punched well above its weight on the musical map, yet Bacewicz, alive or after, was barely heard. This was not a direct consequence of male prejudice; Lutoslawski, for one, had great respect for her music, as did David Oistrakh. Rather, it was due to personal shyness, allied to an inability or an unwillingness to begin…

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The appearance in Holocaust Memorial Week of an album of synagogue music on the Deutsche Grammophon label is a milestone of sorts, perhaps a first step towards a reckoning with the German company’s complicated past. Founded by Emile Berliner, an American Jew, DG was dominated in its heyday by an Austrian Nazi, Herbert von Karajan. One record of Jewish liturgies does not reconcile these extremes, but it does point towards a settling of memories. The album’s content is archaic. The opening of the 3,000-seat Oranienburger Strasse synagogue in 1866 marked a high point of civic confidence among German Jews. Its…

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In 1824, while waiting for the the ninth symphony it commissioned from Beethoven, the Philharmonic Society of London ordered a backup symphony in D major from the Italian-turned-French composer Luigi Cherubini. The Society had been founded ten years earlier to perform music by ‘the greatest masters’, notably Beethoven, Cherubini and Carl Maria von Weber. Cherubini did his best to sound great by imitating everything Beethoven did around the time of his first and second symphonies. Trouble is, Beethoven moved ahead in giant strides while Cherubini got stuck. The D major symphony has big gestures and a few half-tunes, but nothing…

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With Australia in flames, Italian cities choked by smog and parts of Canada enjoying an unseasonal thaw, I’m listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony, a lament for pre-1914 rhythms of life. The composer, who served in his 40s as an ambulance driver on the French frontlines, had seen too much there ever to imagine that the old ways could be resumed, a recognition that intensifies his regret. The 3rd symphony is a requiem for rolling hills and ancient hedgerows, for arts and crafts, for simple pleasures in candlelight. A new recording by Martin Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra…

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Half a century ago, in January 1970, the young Riccardo Muti gave this symphony its western Europe premiere in Rome with the RAI orchestra and the wondeful bass Ruggiero Raimondi. The performance was semi-samizdat. A score had been smuggled out of Russia, where the work was suppressed for its denunciation of Soviet antisemitism, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s text was unofficially translated into Italian. Muti, who never forgot the occasion, revisited it 16 months ago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although unversed in Russian ironies, his interpretation has the authority of a leader who lived through the late-Soviet era and observed the…

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****/** No happier way to start a year than Francis Poulenc, few grimmer than Charles Koechlin. This album opens with the little-played Poulenc Sinfonietta, originally intended as a string quartet and allegedly thrown in a Paris gutter when it did not work out. First heard in London in 1948, it’s a Mozart-meets-Stravinsky score, and none the worse for that. Even at his most neo-classical, Igor never got this light. The captivating Poulenc piano concerto was premiered by the composer himself in 1950. The Boston audience snubbed it as second-rate Rachmaninov, but Poulenc has much more joie-de-vivre and wears what he…

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Whenever I hear music by the young Dmitri Shostakovich I am astonished all over again by his up-yours raw humour and ribaldry. This is a dazzling talent strutting his stuff in the first decade of a revolution when all seemed possible and available – jobs for all, free meals at work, free love. None foresaw that Stalin would soon crush the spark and the spirit out of the cultural side of the revolution. The two unexpected world premieres on this release are compelling. The Bedbug was a comedy written by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, for which Shostakovich wrote incidental music…

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I’m guessing not many readers are familiar with Beethoven’s Sonata in D, opus 6. Published in 1797, though possibly dating from the composer’s teens, it begins with the unmistakable opening phrase of the Fifth Symphony. Seriously? That work that did not achieve fruition for another decade. Like me, you may have trouble believing your ears at the arresting confidence of this two-movement piece. It’s unremarkable in most other ideas except for the ta-ta-ta-taaa and the Beethoven signature that pulses through every second. The British pianists Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith have teamed up here to take us into some wholly…

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