Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

No-one knew what to expect of 2022. In January, masked or locked down, we gazed into crystal balls of mortality. The chamber music of Harrison Birtwistle caught my ear with surprise and delight, only for the composer to leave us soon after. Fred Rzewski, another recent fatality, received the best performance ever of The People United Will Never Be Defeated. The Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov escaped his homeland and enriched us with a new symphony. Life hung by a thread. Rival sets of Sibelius symphonies from rising Finns, Klaus Mäkelä and Santu-Matias Rouvali, sharpened our critical perceptions, with Rouvali holding…

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In May 1996, the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov was informed that his wife, the musicologist Larissa Bondarenko, had died suddenly and unexpectedly in a hospital in Kyiv. The shock silenced him for several months. After a long while he began writing a Requiem in her memory, jumbling the traditional Catholic order of movements familiar from so many classical works and occasionally breaking off in mid-phrase, as if too distracted to continue. Living under Soviet control, Silvestrov developed multiple techniques to confuse the authorities and cut through to a sympathetic audience. He created an unmistakable individuality out of a heterodoxy of neo-classicism,…

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Beethoven/Liszt: *** Mozart/Alkan: **** Franz Liszt did more to spread music appreciation than the entire education apparatus of his time. Hearing a piece he admired, Liszt would make a piano transcription. He got most applause for new Italian arias by Bellini and Donizetti but Liszt always had missionary zeal so he introduced complete symphonies by Beethoven to small towns where no professional orchestra ever played. His score of Beethoven’s Eroica is at once inspiring and bemusing, a faithful representation of Beethoven’s themes without the subtleties of texture. Not many pianists bring it off without the listener feeling short-changed. Paul Wee,…

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The American composer, living in Italy until his death last year, was prompted by the 1973 overthrown of Chilean president Salvador Allende to compose 36 variations on the fallen regime’s populist campaign song, El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido. Despite lasting almost an hour and containing episodes of atonal fury, the piece was quickly and frequently recorded, first in 1976 by its dedicatee Ursula Oppens and latterly by the German pianist Igor Levit. In all, there are a dozen recordings. None has captured my attention so compellingly as this new release, by the 2013 Van Cliburn winner, the Ukrainian pianist…

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Stabat Mater: **** Piano works: ***** While Karol Szymanowski is unlikely ever to be voted into the Classic FM Hall of Fame, his stock has risen steadily in the present century, so much so that he can almost be counted now as mainstream. This was never the case in his lifetime, when he suffered the dual disability for a composer of being Polish and gay. On the first count he was compared unfavourably to Chopin, on the second disparagingly to Tchaikovsky. Always his own man, Szymanowski (1882-1937) sounds like no other maker of musical language – as even a cursory…

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Before the great Mahler inundation of the 1980s, every aspirational conductor was expected to know the seven Sibelius symphonies backwards and to perform them on demand. Leonard Bernstein claimed to have taught them to the Vienna Philharmonic; in fact, his compatriot Lorin Maazel got in there first, recording them a decade earlier. Karajan embedded Sibelius in Berlin. Philadelphia and Boston performed him as standard. London’s Royal Festival Hall was known to some of us as Finlandia-on-Thames. The train that linked Finland to Russia was named ‘the Sibelius’. And then the wave receded. A line of Finnish conductors led by Esa-Pekka…

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The symphonies of Robert Schumann are vastly influential and infrequently performed. There are problems with some of the instrumental, writing, but main impediment is the lack of a big tune that folks could hum on their way home. Schumann does large themes, not big tunes. Here and there (in the opening movement of the first symphony, for instance) they are large enough to be portentous, only to sound pretentious on repetition. Of the four symphonies, only the third has genuine audience appeal. Still, Schumann cannot be ignored. He was a decisive influence on Johannes Brahms, who wrote four symphonies and…

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***/***** The English composer’s fifth symphony, like Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh, was a musical turning point in the Second World War. Both exuded confidence in the ultimate victory of good over evil, offering a strategic boost to Allied confidence in the critical years of 1942-3. The Shostakovich symphony had universal impact; Vaughan Williams was of primarily English importance. Five years passed before he brought forth another symphony and the change in tone is extreme. Writing in the privations of post-War austerity when there was not enough to eat or heat, the national composer pushed the brass core of his orchestra to…

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Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata was longer and more complex than any concerto of its time. It inspired a novella by Leo Tolstoy and a string quartet by Leos Janacek, both of them pillars of western culture and windows into human psychology. So the idea of replacing the pianist in the violin-piano sonata with a chamber orchestra and playing the 40-minute like a full-blown concerto is not irreverent, irrelevant, nor technically impossible. On paper, it ought to work. Colin Jacobsen’s attempt with The Knights, a New York soloists’ orchestra, strikes me as honourable in its intention and by no means unmusical. It…

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I had planned to review something quite different this week, but the death of The Queen had me reaching for Schubert, who knew as much as any composer about end-of-life emotion. The quintet in C major – a Haydn foursome with extra cello – is Schubert’s last piece of chamber music, written in the year of his death, 1828, and submitted to a publisher a few weeks beforehand. The publisher sent a rejection slip, asking for more piano music. Quarter of a century passed before this astonishing creation finally appeared in performable form. Despite its terminal status in the Schubert…

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