Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

Mikis Theodorakis, who turned 90 last month, earned worldwide fame for the music to the 1964 film Zorba the Greek and remained a poster-boy to the international Left for his unwavering commitment to Communism. Aside from his film music, his song-cycle The Ballad of Mauthausen ranks among the most beautiful music ever written about the Nazi Holocaust. Less familiar are the composer’s classical roots. In 1954, Theodorakis went to Paris to study at the Conservatoire with Olivier Messaien and Eugene Bigot. He stayed for five years, writing a lot of music in a range of Francophone styles. The discoveries on…

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In the latter years of the Soviet Union, a composer could be cast out by the system and still sustained by it. Alfred Schnittke, when his symphonies were removed from performance, was given commissions to write music for the film industry by the Composers Union chief Tikhon Krennikov, the very apparatchik who had ordered the ban on his symphonies. Nikolai Kapustin, who wrote disapproved jazz scores, was for much of his career the resident pianist of the main symphony orchestra of Moscow Radio, an ensemble which occasionally agreed to perform his non-socialist works, only to refuse at the last moment. This two-faced…

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When Christopher Rouse died ten months ago, aged 70, it seemed to spell the end of a line of American composers who placed the symphony at the heart of their art. And not just Americans. Apart from Kalevi Aho and Leif Segerstam in Finland, David Matthews and Philip Sawyers in the UK and one or two Russians and Germans,  composers seem to have given up on the symphony in the 21st symphony. The assumption is that audiences have lost interest. Is that really the case? In these Covid times, we have no way of judging except on record. Rouse, an…

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The only connection between these two composers is their victimisation and the last syllable of their names. Both were silenced for political reasons; neither has found due recognition. Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962), raised in cosmopolitan Odessa, was invalided out of the first world war and settled for a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatoire. His solo career as a pianist was curtailed by Stalinism and he lived out a life of near-total obscurity, known only for being the first pianist in the USSR to give a public recital of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The three works on this album are dated 1912 to…

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It is a grim fact of musical life that, when a composer dies, his music goes into limbo for at least ten years. In that time, music directors and programmers shove the complete oeuvre into a drawer and wait, they say, for the reputation to settle. For a few lucky composers, a decade passes and there is a revival. For the others, just silence. The French composer Henri Dutilleux died in May 2013 at the age of 97. All his life Dutilleux struggled to make himself heard against the all-controlling modernism of Pierre Boulez on one hand and the ornithological…

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I am about to break another rule. When I confined myself to reviewing just one album of the week around 15 years ago, I declared there would be no three-star reviews. Three is a cop-out. If it’s a great or good record it deserves four or five. Anything else I will only write about if, weak as it is, there is something instructive about its failure. So this week we have a three-star: why? Because it’s Zemlinsky and he’s caught between two stools. Like others of his generation, Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was torn between late-romanticism and atonality, so he…

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Let me take you into the process by which new releases get selected for review – at least by me who for years has reviewed just one album a week. The process is not scientific, but I’ll describe it as best I can. Monday morning I face two towering piles of CDs. First, I reject the known knowns – famous artists recording familiar repertoire, and probably not for the first time. They won’t have much to say that changes the state of my world. Then it’s the turn of the unknown unknowns, where both the composer and artist are extremely…

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Determined as I was to review only modern works until this plague desists, I hit a brick wall this week with a pair of mid-20th century piano concertos on a respected label that were so sluggishly conducted it was all I could do to stop screaming profanities at the heavens. Could this be a sign that someone up there wants me to give up reviewing the modern stuff? If so, I got the message, thanks. Just no more bad conductors, please. Happily (and believe me I’m happy now), close at hand was a work I haven’t heard live since I…

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You’d probably meet Morton Feldman if you hung out long enough in the Village in the early 70s. He was one of those guys with an idea in his head that was going to save the world if only you gave him enough time to explain it – like an hour, a day, the rest of your life. You might think that never in human history did time pass slower than it did in the Village in the 1970s until you hear the stuff Feldman was writing in which the passage of time ceases to have any meaning at all.…

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After the atonal terrors of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, his breakthrough work, Penderecki dismayed both the western avant-garde and the atheist Polish state by writing an overtly devotional church oratorio. Premiered for the 700th anniversary of Münster cathedral in West Germany in March 1966, it was greeted with shifting unease and polite reviews. By presenting it as ‘a homage to J S Bach’ the composer only increased the confusion. Penderecki was Catholic, Bach Lutheran. Nowhere in this hour-long recitation of modernist discords and vocal shrieks can the orderly and respectful spirit of Bach be definitely ascertained. Heard again,…

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