Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

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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I once had an all-night argument with Valery Gergiev about 20th century Russian composers. This was before Gergiev had become a propaganda tool of the Putin regime and his mind was still open to contradiction. I took what was then the mainstream position that Stravinsky was an unassailable genius, a position which, 30 years later, I have abandoned. Gergiev argued vehemently for Prokofiev, first for the operas which he was then reviving at the Mariinsky but even more forcefully for the seven symphonies, of which only the first and fifth had caught on. The rest, from that day to this,…

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The German writer Thomas Mann cast such a huge shadow across 20th century culture that his six children struggled to emerge in their own light. The eldest, Klaus, a remarkable novelist, committed suicide at 42. His sister Erika, with whom he had symbiotic links, was a bisexual media activist. Another daughter, Monika, made a living for a while as a pianist. Elisabeth became an expert on maritime law and Golo was a generally embittered German historian. The youngest, Michael Mann, was in his teens when the family fled Hitler. He grew up in California and joined the violins of the…

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In the year 1942, while millions were being slaughtered on battlefields and in German extermination camps, three composers in different countries wrote sonatas for violin and piano. Nothing connects these works to contemporary events or to each other. They are acts of escapism by expert musicians who chose not to engage with the worst time in human history. Aaron Copland’s is an act of self-denial, using folksy tunes that he picked up on Hollywood film sets, snatches of an organic America that never was. Upon finishing the score he heard that a pilot friend, Harry Dunham, had been shot down…

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Recordings of Ralph Vaughan Williams fall into the middle of the Atlantic. English interpreters – Boult, Barbirolli, Hickox, Handley and most recently Andrew Manze – veer towards understatement, allowing the power of the music to emerge by stealth. Americans – Stokowski, Previn, Slatkin – are more energetic and explicit. These may be broad generalisations, but they reflect just how narrow the arteries are of Vaughan Williams reception. No star non-UK or US conductor has ever taken up his symphonies. The only European champion on record is the Dutchman Kees Bakels on Naxos. Where do these concerts by the London Symphony…

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When did you last hear Hindemith? Seriously, when did you last consciously select a piece of music by Paul Hindemith above all other composers living or dead, or go to a concert with one of his works? In his time (1895-1963), Hindemith was so prominent a modernist that the Nazis kicked him out of the country and so prolific a composer that, hearing of King George V’s death while in a BBC studio, before leaving the building he dashed off a musical lament to be performed that same day. It’s a bit of a mystery why Hindemith has vanished so…

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When you hear the term ‘multiple issues’ in 2021 it usually signifies that Covid is not the only cause of death. This album has multiple issues. On the positive side, it marks the return of the US violinist Hilary Hahn after a year’s sabbatical that was doubled in length by pandemic lockdown. Hahn, 41, is one of few concert violinists to enjoy broad media recognition and she is much needed on our empty concert stages. Her playing has lost none of her edgy assertiveness or her eye for a selling angle. The album, which contains works by a Finn, a…

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