Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

Around the turn of the century, an Argentine-Israeli composer living in Massachusetts was suddenly all the rage. Osvaldo Golijov was a maker of fusions, welding symphonic, jazz and folk music  into orchestral scores, often with a choral component. Such was his success, that he was showered with commissions by Big Five US orchestras and film deals from Hollywood. It all got a bit much for Golijov, who missed one deadline after another before eventually pronouncing himself blocked. Nothing has been heard from him for a decade and eclecticism has gone totally out of fashion. So I was quite thrilled to…

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“Darlings of the Muses.” Brahms: Symphony No. 1. Schumann: Symphony No. 1. Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto Op. 7. Gabriela Montero: Five Improvisations. Gabriela Montero, piano. National Arts Centre Orchestra/Alexander Shelley. Analekta AN 2 8877-8. Total Time: 122:17. Clara, Johannes and Robert (Schumann, Brahms and Schumann) have long been a source of voyeuristic fascination. In 1947 there was a sentimental movie, Song of Love, supposedly based on the triangle. Now there is Darlings of the Muses, a serious-minded album from the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Alexander Shelley combining orchestral music by all three with a set of improvised piano miniatures intended to…

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I wish more piano albums were like this, formed by an original idea and a lot of unfamiliar sounds to tweak the ear. All five composers performed were involved in some way with the Bauhaus that Walter Gropius founded at Weimar in 1919 to rethink the look of the built environment. Gropius was wedded to visual austerity even while he was married to Alma Mahler and the composers who gathered around him were not entirely a bundle of laughs. (One who does not feature here is Erwin Ratz, Gropius’s secretary, who went on to become a hugely controversial editor of…

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Please don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Zykan. He’s the last name in all good music dictionaries and many think he’s a hoax. Maybe that’s what they want you to think A Viennese cellist (1935-2006), Zykan existed on the fringes of the music establishment, making his living by writing TV jingles and not getting a call from the Vienna Philharmonic until he was almost 70. His cello concerto, written in 1982 for the magnificent Heinrich Schiff and recorded live, was described by the composer as ’40 minutes of seriousness’. Actually, it gives two fingers to Vienna’s stuffed shirts with…

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The modernist Greek composer Skalkottas left Berlin in 1933 and returned to Athens, where he lived in poverty and poor health. When the Germans occupied his country, he was placed in an internment camp. Lthough he found love and finally married in 1946, he died three years later of what is said to have been an untreated ruptured hernia. He was by a long chalk the foremost Greek composer of the first half of the 20th century, but the Greeks are not good at preserving musical heritage and his legacy has mouldered. The present release pulls together three new recordings…

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Like Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, and with equal reluctance, Paul Dessau left McCarthyist America in the late 1940s to settle in the austere and oppressive German Democratic Republic. All three men were tainted by having enjoyed life in the capitalist West. Dessau, the least famous, was attacked by party inquisitors and forced to write propaganda hymns in the requisite Socialist Realism style. In the US he had been reduced to working on a chicken farm before Brecht brought him to Hollywood, helping him get filmscore work while playing off his insecurity against Eisler’s in a sadistic game that continued…

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First there was J S Bach. Then came Dmitri Shostakovich. The form is open for others to play with. I was unaware of Skempton’s contribution until this CD landed. A northern Englishman in his early 70s, Skempton is a minimalist in the absolute literal sense that he uses the fewest number of notes to make his point. Not a minim more or less. In prelude-and-fugue form this yields a string of aphorisms connected by a tonal centre and a gentle, rocking, bucolic mood. Some of the pieces last no longer than 40 seconds. The effect can be hypnotic if you…

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It has taken a global pandemic and lockdown for me to discover that the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin wrote a sheaf of mazurkas, which are Polish, and made them sound every bit as ethereal as Chopin at his most consumptive. I had always taken the view that Scriabin was best taken in small doses, preferably played by Vladimir Horowitz who believed in his manic genius. Having listened now to 80 minutes of Peter Jablonski I am not only prepared to revise my opinion: I am left hungering for more. Jablonski, a Swede who used to be on Decca, has a…

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In a dark moment of isolation, I found myself thinking of Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) a student of the atonalist Schoenberg and the microtonalist Haba who never really found his voice until darkness descended and he faced segregation and extinction. Before 1939 he’d enjoyed fragments of international attention, with a piano sonata premiered in London at the Wigmore Hall and a few more glimmers of invitation. In 1939, after the Germans occupied Prague, he set about writing a piano concerto for Juliette Aranyi, a fellow-Haba student, knowing it might never get performed. Both composer and soloist were deported in 1942 to…

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What can you do with 3 sopranos and 2 altos. Be inventive, that’s what. The all-women quintet Papagena have come up with a range of unaccompanied songs, settings and original commissions that often takes the breath away. Don Macdonald’s Moonset, for instance, does just what the title says: it sinks, gently, bringing hope of a new day, a breath of fresh air. Libby Larsen’s Jack’s Valentine declares ‘I love you’ with just the right degree of equivocation. Sweet Child O’Mine is a Guns N Roses hit reset for a capella voice – magic. Apart from Larsen, David Lang, Tchaikovsky and Gustav Holst, I don’t recognise any…

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