Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

Western orchestras take a binary view of the Russian 20th century. Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich are good for business, the rest are box-office death. Like most iron rules, these categorisations are pointless and misleading. Prokofiev can be bad for audiences, very bad, when you leave him alone in a room with a piano. His Five Sarcasms, dated 1912-14, come as close to atonality as Schoenberg in a fish-shop tantrum, while Visions Fugitives of 1915-17 are way off the scale of anything you’d allow a Ukrainian refugee play on your prize Bechstein. Prokofiev can be the most annoying composer you never…

Share:

When did John Adams become John Adams? Around 1995, according to his own narrative, when he broke with repetitive minimalism and found a more variegated expression. The turning point was an orchestral work called Slonimsky’s Earbox, written soon after the contentious opera The Death of Klinghoffer and paying homage to one of the quirkiest characters ever seen in a concert hall. Nicolas Slonimsky was a Russian-Jewish polymath who made himself useful to Serge Koussevitsky and Leonard Bernstein by re-barring complex scores that they could not beat unaided. The Rite of Spring, on their recordings, is taken from Slonimsky’s score. Among…

Share:

When John Cage came to Moscow in the summer of 1988 it was not so much a convergence of opposites as a validation of the prophecy of cultural deconstruction which the American iconoclast had long foretold. Cage made music by breaking it down, causing records to stick in a groove, telling performers to chance it, making silence instead of sound. The Soviet Union, in its final disintegration year, was the perfect place to preach his kooky doctrines. Cage met a young pianist, Alexei Lyubimov, who became an instant apostle. ‘We drank vodka and ate dandelions,’ Lyubimov recalls. He was transfixed…

Share:

I dithered for weeks over whether or not to review this release, for reasons that will soon become clear. In the course of my indecision I listened to it at least ten times, so much so that it became a signifier of the state of our world in the war-torn, climate-seared summer of 2022. It is now a candidate for record of the year. Matangi are a Dutch string quartet, enterprising in its choice of unheard and little-heard music. The album consists of works by Alfred Schnittke, Valentin Silvestrov and Dmitri Shostakovich, none of whom can be considered obscure or,…

Share:

Banned in Berlin and exiled in March 1933, Kurt Weill stayed for a while in Paris where he wrote a symphonic work to a commission from the Singer sewing machine heiress, Princesse de Polignac. The symphony was taken up by his fellow-exile Bruno Walter and performed three times in the Netherlands, but apparently nowhere else. It was not published until 1966 and remains an esoteric item, seldom performed or recorded. The present release by Jan van Steen and the Ulster Orchestra is by some distance the best I have heard, elegantly phrased and chock full of show tunes from the…

Share:

In the inexhaustible search for women in history, Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) has emerged from the mists of Novara as the most prolific composer of the 17th century. Overshadowed by the likes of Allegri, Albinoni and Corelli, Leonarda was a Ursuline nun who dedicated each of her works to the Virgin Mary – as well as to some rich man or other who paid to have them printed. She entered the convent at age 16 and remained there until she died at 83, leaving more than 200 performable scores, mostly vocal and choral. The last, for voice and violin, appeared when…

Share:

Covid has been cruel to rising composers. Two years out, with theatres shut and managements unwilling to commit to new work, is equivalent to having to start all over again. Many, lacking the fight, have fallen by the wayside. Nico Muhly, now 40, had his first opera, Two Boys, staged at English National Opera and the Met a decade ago. It was the first opera to engage with social media, taking place both on stage and on phone screens. Its successor Marnie, based on the Alfred Hitchcock film, was something of a narrative regression but the Met streamed it for…

Share:

Neither the title of the work nor the circumstances of its creation offer much by way of levity. Messiaen was 31, a soldier in uniform, when France collapsed in May 1940 and he became a prisoner of war. The Germans sent him to a camp in Poland. The diet was ersatz coffee for breakfast, a slice of black bread with soup for lunch and nothing in the evening. Messiaen, ordered to strip naked on arrival, clung to his satchel of pocket scores – works by Berg, Debussy, Stravinsky and Bach. All feed ideas into the quartet he writes for available…

Share:

While writing a book about Beethoven (to be published next year), I recoiled from many of the pupils, acolytes, secretaries, amanuenses, self-seeking musicians and all sorts of hangers-on who lived off their connection with the great man and published reminiscences of him, many of them invented. A singular exception was Ferdinand Ries, a young man from Beethoven’s home town who grew up in the Bonn court orchestra and shared some of the same teachers. Ries, so far as I can tell, never made up stories about Beethoven or made him out to be anything other than he was – a…

Share:

Oenologists tell me there is no obvious reason why some fine wines travel and others don’t. It’s the same with symphonic composers. Carl Nielsen will never catch on beyond the Baltic Sea, Bohuslav Martinu beyond Czechia and Ralph Vaughan Williams beyond Anglophiles. The 150th anniversary of his birth is being marked in his home country and practically nowhere else. Ask not the reason why: there is none. VW is, by any known measure, an outstandingly accomplished writer for symphony orchestra. Despite passing similarities to Sibelius and Ravel, his voice is unmistakably his own and his urgency can, if you succumb…

Share:
1 2 3 40