Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

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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The place to go these days to hear French piano music is Iceland. The best-selling, innovative Bach interpreter Víkingur Ólafsson has taken a pair of French composers two centuries apart and effectively melded their music into one by the simple method of interleaving short pieces across a whole album. The outcome is astonishing in respect of both Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918), revealing unsuspected aspects in both masters, as well as an underlying French expression in their music. Turn, for instance, from two little amusements in Debussy’s Children’s Corner to three Pièces de clavecin by Rameau and you…

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Busoni cast such a giant shadow in his time that it practically eclipsed his music. With a head that resembled Beethoven’s and the best-stocked mind of any peripatetic pianist – he was the only soloist whose visits delighted Gustav Mahler – Busoni’s own compositions were largely overlooked, whether on grounds of difficulty, or because he could invariably play them better himself. Busoni could do anything. A German-Italian hybrid of part-Jewish ancestry, culturally Anglophile and married to a Russian-Swede, he was the ultimate cosmopolitan, ever curious about literature and art and with a book collection to rival most national libraries. In…

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Has anyone lately seen Edvard Grieg? The song of Norway has gone a bit quiet since the record industry stopped pumping out Grieg’s piano concerto as an automatic companion to Schumann’s and the hall of the mountain kings got converted into social housing. These twin peaks and the Peer Gynt incidental music aside, there’s not much Grieg left to perform and what there is has fallen out of fashion. It’s been all Norvège nul points the last few years. The three sonatas for violin and piano, written at different points in his longish life (1843-1907), are the first Grieg to…

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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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