Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

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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A cultured Russian friend was telling me the other day she cannot bear to listen to Lieder – ‘all that shrieking and, worse, in German’. It’s not easy to find an antidote to such national prejudices, but one landed on my doorstep the very next day. The baritone Matthias Goerne, with a voice like brushed velvet and diction clearer than iced vodka, is the perfect riposte to high-pitched complainants, the more so when he’s singing Lieder that are usually in the soprano’s locker. His programme here consists of Wagner’s Wedendonck Lieder, an assortment from Hans Pfitzner and five songs of Richard…

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The Polish composer died a year ago next week and still awaits a funeral. The constraints of Covid and the demands of family and friends for a state occasion have led to delays and deferrals, a sad coda to a life of service to God and man. Although acclaimed as a modernist, Penderecki never supped easily with the atheistic avant-garde and always lit up when opportunity arose to compose a work that celebrated his Roman Catholic faith. The Credo, co-commissioned in 1996 by Stuttgart’s Bach academy and the Oregon Bach Festival, is infused with a sense of liberation, a release…

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In the evolution of Russian music, Stanchinsky is the great might-have-been. A student of Sergey Taneyev and Alexander Grechaninov, he was introduced to Tolstoy as the next Russian genius, only for his mental health to collapse in the midst of a double family crisis. After father died in 1910 when Stanchinsky was 21, his mother refused to let him marry his pregnant lover, daughter of the estate manager. Suffering depression and hallucinations, Stanchnsky was taken around all the best nerve doctors in Russia and developed a habit of burning any new works he set on paper. In March 1914 he…

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The Viennese pianist Friedrich Gulda was a commanding interpreter of Mozart and Beethoven in the 1950s and 1960s. Had he stuck to the classics and modified his more eccentric behaviours, he might have filled the space in the record catalogues that was soon occupied by Alfred Brendel. Gulda, however, was a man of many parts. After giving his Carnegie Hall debut, he went off to play the Newport Jazz Festival. He wore a Turkish kepi on stage, sometimes otherwise naked. His interest in jazz was non-pecuniary and all-consuming. He organized an international competition for modern jazz composers and set up…

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