Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

In a decade when no-one is writing new symphonies – depressed, no doubt, by Covid performance constraints – we are having to make do with new violin concertos commissioned by the likes of Patricia Kopatchinskaya and Pekka Kuusisto. The Finnish virtuoso turned for his premiere to Nico Muhly, a New York composer who used to assist Philip Glass, and has augmented this album with works by his minimalist master. Fearing this might sound samey and predictable, I found myself in for a pleasant surprise; more than one, in fact. Muhly’s concerto, titled Shrink, has repetitive tropes but they are mitigated…

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Covid has narrowed our outlook so severely that we are hardly aware of the world abroad. Brazil has suffered 19 million cases with more than half a million deaths, isolating the country as never before among the community of nations. Villa-Lobos, Its national composer, feted worldwide from the 1930s to the 1950s, has long since faded. His music always sounds fresh when I return to it after an absence, glistening with the swaying hips of a summer’s night on the Copacabana. The three Villa-Lobos violin sonatas, styled for an international audience are steamed with traces of Brahms, Debussy and Saint-Saens,…

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In the summer of 1943, and for reasons still unclear, Milan’s best young composer moved to the undeveloped south of Italy and stayed there for the rest of his life. Nino Rota, at 32, was content to be a teacher in Bari, later director of its Conservatorio. Had he not needed to earn a little extra money on the side in Rome’s dolce vita film industry, he might never have been heard of again. Rota’s symbiotic partnership with the director Federico Fellini, starting with The White Sheik in 1952, catapulted him to world fame and redefined the art of composing for film.…

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If  you are ever asked at Heathrow Airport to prove your residency by naming a work of English music, this album will do nicely. Leaving the arresting title track to last, this string trio recital contains a breathtaking account of the Prelude and fugue by Gerald Finzi (1901-56), a pre-War lament for his deceased teacher. A London Jew who composed like a country vicar, Finzi is hard to pin down but this is one of his truest moments and most perfect inspirations. Hugh Wood (b. 1932) can sound like an absentminded professor but his opus 61, titled Ithaka, has a…

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In the early 1980s, the phenomenal Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer recorded for Philips an account of the Beethoven concerto that was almost universally reviled. It contained two cadenzas written at the soloist’s request by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, a self-styled polystylist who built some of his works from fragments of many others. Each of the cadenzas contained snippets of every major violin concerto from Bach to Berg, and the western music establishment recoiled as it if had been struck by a falling sputnik. The record was harshly reviewed and withdrawn by the label never to be physically reissued (though…

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The Czech composer Vitezlava Kapralova died in the early weeks of the German occupation of France, at the age of 25. Two months before, she had married Jiri Mucha, son of the fin-de-siècle poster artist. She had everything to live for and yet embraced agonies of death with great dignity. The mystery and tragedy of her existence has been explored in a couple of novels but her psychology remains an enigma and her music is hard to categorise. At first impression it falls midway between Leos Janacek – who was her father’s teacher – and Bohuslav Martinu, who was her lover; yet…

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The trouble with most music by unfamiliar contemporary composers is that the listener has no idea where it’s coming from. The Austrian Gerald Resch gets over this hurdle by rooting his third string quartet, ‘attaca’, in Beethoven’s first Razumovsky quartet, opus 59/1. The context works remarkably well. Resch, 46, is a former music journalist embedded in Viennese music, both historic and  modern. He works with ensembles as different as the period-instrument Concentus Musicus and the Aureum saxophone quartet. In creating ‘attaca’ he had a period of immersion with the trendy, Frankfurt-based Aris Quartet, among the most accomplished on the circuit.…

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In the early years of the 20th century, when Arnold Schoenberg jumped off the moving harmonic train into a ditch of atonality, his friends were still finding wriggle-room in the sounds that could be wrung from a 100-piece orchestra. Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and only music teacher Alexander Zemlinsky presented a suite called The Mermaid at a Vienna concert in 1905, then promptly withdrew the score from further performances for reasons, mostly psychosexual, that I shall examine in an essay later this month. Suffice it here to say that The Mermaid is an absorbing, lascivious, self-lacerating yearning for an inconsumable erotic fixation.…

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Latvia’s answer to Estonia’s Arvo Pärt, Vasks writes long, slow, contemplative works with a strong feeling for lakes, forests and landscape. The title piece, for string orchestra, is one of those Samuel Barber-like adagios that has no beginning, middle or end while offering an image of the universe that is at once recognizable and unthreatening. Much of Vasks’s music is filled with mourning – for his country’s occupation by Germany and Russia, for friends who died – but his signal achievement is never to be morbid. There is always hope somewhere on a Baltic shore. A double-bass player who was…

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In a year when every US institution is trying to fly multicultural credentials, the unanswered question is whether classical music has anything positive to contribute. No major orchestra has gone beyond the token overture or intermezzo by a minority composer, and no work by an unsung artist has yet captured the spirit of these times. For all its hiring of diversity v-ps and woke PRs, the music establishment has not changed its ways, nor the audience its tastes. The present recital is something of a breakthrough. Will Liverman, a baritone much seen at the Met, has chosen songs by Black…

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