Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

Most musicians go through life trying to avoid trouble, especially of the political kind. Gabriela Montero is an exception. Venezuelan by birth and an exile from childhood, she made her name as a flamboyant soloist in 20th century piano concertos. As encores she invented her own riffs on themes requested by the audience. Over time, these became full-length compositions. Unable to ignore the Government-impelled disintegration of her home country, she infused many of her musical thoughts with a political message of range and hope. The main item in this release is a piano concerto by Montero fusing Latin American tropes…

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At the end of the Second World War, Hollywood’s most influential composer turned his attention to recovering his lost prestige in the concert hall. Erich Wolfgang Korngold had taken the precaution of retaining copyright in his movie scores so that he could reuse their themes in symphonic works. He set to work on a violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz and an uncommissioned symphony in F, anticipating no shortage of interest from orchestras in search of popular music. His hopes were soon dashed. The concerto was derided by New York critics when it reached Carnegie Hall and the symphony, after a…

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The anniversary year of Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) is marked by the re-emergence of a piano concerto that he wrote at the height of his fame. Pfitzner, acclaimed for his 1917 opera Palestrina, delivered the concerto in 1923, with Walter Gieseking as soloist. If Palestrina echoes Wagner’s Meistersinger, the concerto nods repeatedly in the direction of Brahms’s B-flat – and the nodding is done mostly by the listener. Pfitzner’s fallen reputation is sometimes ascribed to his gruesome flirtation with the Nazis but this concerto suggests something more organically at fault. Each of four movements is introduced by a promising idea, which…

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In the painstaking task of reading page proofs for my next book, I needed something on in the background that would keep my rhythm going without distracting me with an excess of invention. Hindemith, who else? The German composer, damned by the Nazis as a dangerous modernist, was never other than a cerebral conservative with an ear for correct form. Exiled to Istanbul, then to Yale, he reduced students to tears with rigorous lessons in theory and any number of ruthless technical exercises designed to make them better human beings. The 1943 Ludus Tonalis set for solo piano, premiered by…

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Sally Silver – also known as ‘Silver Sally’ – died last November of cancer at 50 years old, casting a pall over the British opera scene, where she was a vibrant and ever-willing participant. Never a showy diva, Sally landed roles in any opera from Handel to Thomas Adès, pursuing a particular love for French chanson. This posthumous album – curated by Sally, accompanied by her friend Richard Bonynge and produced by her husband Jeremy Silver – is a delight from start to finish. It’s not just the sparkle she brings to Massenet’s somewhat timeworn drawing-room songs – though that…

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The Department of It Never Rains But It Pours has delivered us a set of premiere recordings of three Haydn symphonies, reduced for piano solo. Last week, we reviewed Mozart, shrunk to four instruments. What’s next – Wagner on the mandolin? There are two saving graces at play here. The transcription by Carl David Stegmann (1751-1826) is craftily inventive, leading the ear up paths never fully imagined by the original symphonist. And the interpretation by the Serbian-US pianist Ivan Ilic has a splash of fun – mischief, even – that tells us not to take classical music always at its…

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In an age when the majors pump out stars and brands, boutique labels are free to indulge in the cranky, the batty and the frankly off-the-wall. Which self-respecting woke person, for instance, would pay to hear Mozart’s major orchestral works shrunk to fit a Brooklyn or Lewisham bedsit? Mozart reduced to pocket size by his principal rivals Hummel, Cramer and Clementi – do we really need that? Actually, yes, yes, yes! It is totally thrilling to hear the C-major piano concerto K467 played by piano, flute, violin and cello… like a digital scan of Mozart’s mind working at full speed…

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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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