Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

***/***** 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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Sibelius, like Mahler, stuck to what he knew. He wrote no opera and hardly any chamber music, just symphonies and songs. His concentration of means and expression is as intense in a two-minute song as it is in a forty-minute symphony. Unlike Mahler, Sibelius is sparing with his orchestration, sometimes leaving it to solo clarinet and lower strings. He uses Swedish texts, only rarely reverting to his national language, Finnish, which he spoke imperfectly. The Sibelius songs are seldom heard below the Baltic, which is a pity since they tell us more about him than yet another season-opening Finlandia. In…

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This is Alban Berg as you’ve never heard him before. The English conductor Sir Andrew Davis has spent lockdown time orchestrating two works that Berg never intended for orchestra. The piano sonata of 1907-08 was Berg’s first published work, written under the admonitory thumb of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg who was in the throes of embracing atonality. The Passacaglia of 1913 is another Berg stepping stone towards maturity. In Davis’s orchestration, the sonata score sounds like a missing suite from his second opera, Lulu, while the Passacaglia is steeped in its predecessor, Wozzeck. If I’d heard it in a blind…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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,…

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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…

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