Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

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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****/** The 2019 centenary of the composer’s birth has exhumed several dozen unknown works on record, enabling us to form a broader understanding of his preoccupations. The essential works in this present batch date from the Second World War. The piano quintet of 1944, fervently played by Olga Scheps and the Kuss Quartet, calls to mind Shostakovich’s stupendous quintet, dated 1940.  Of the two, the Russian composer sounds more Jewish than the Polish Jew, such was his alarm at genocidal antisemitism. Weinberg’s quintet, premiered by Emil Gilels and a Bolshoi quartet, is less emphatic, though also highly strung and with…

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American Grooves Michael Formanek Very Practical Trio Even Better – Intakt CD335 While the musicians on this recording are identified with the experimental jazz scene, they have produced an album accessible enough for a more mainstream-minded audience. Alto saxophonist Tim Berne and the leader of this date, double bassist Michael Formanek, are established outcats, while guitarist Mary Halvorson is a new force to reckon with on the New York scene. From the first notes of this 57-minute side, this unit hits its stride and maintains the momentum through eight pieces by the bassist and one cover, Scott La Faro’s Jade…

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Such a relief at this time of year to receive a choral record that is not about Christmas. The Purcell Singers have selected ‘English and American Choral Masterieces of the 20th Century’ and its hard to fault their choices, or to thrill at the unfamiliar. Ahead of the shopworn Samuel Barber Agnus Dei, transcribed from his second string quartet where it sits better, the choir warms up on the first part-song Edward Elgar ever got published, the utterly transcendent My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land. Skipping swifly over Shenandoah, we reach the seriously undersung Morten Lauridsen and Kenneth Leighton,…

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Every composer suppressed by Stalin deserves to be remembered. Just how much musical attention they warrant is another matter. Veprik (1889-1958) was a teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire who wrote in Jewish and Kyrgyz ‘national’ idioms. His Dances and Songs from the Ghetto was performed by Toscanini at Carnegie Hall in 1933, and a Symphonic Song was taken up the following year by Hermann Scherchen and Dmitri Mitropoulos. This was the peak of Veprik’s career. Sacked by the Conservatoire in 1943, he was sentenced to eight years in the Gulag in 1950. Released in 1954, he spent his final years…

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Mia Brentano’s River of Memories: A Mystery Trip Benyamin Nuss, piano, Andy Miles, clarinets & bass clarinets and friends Mons Records, 2019, MR874621 After Hidden Sea, released in 2018, Mia Brentano comes back with a new album, named River of Memories: A Mystery Trip. Over the course of 15 pieces, the composer alternates between a vast array of styles. From various forms of jazz, using piano and clarinet, to almost pop-sounding music, using electric guitar; from aquatic sounds – underwater and rain, more specifically – to what we would be tempted to call “modern music.” With its warm and sensual…

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