Browsing: Lebrecht Weekly

I had serious qualms about listening to, let alone reviewing, a symphony that purports to describe our present situation. We all know by now the effects this pandemic has wrought on our lives, and we also remember the lives it has taken. Music has limitations in conveying such losses in abstract form. Mostly, one feels, it shouldn’t try. But if you are a composer called Tchaikovsky it will take more than a public health crisis to stop you relating to an historic event, be it Napoleon or cholera. Alexander Tchaikovsky, 75 years old this month, is a nephew of the…

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Among composers of the post-War avant-garde, Ligeti is now the most performed. You can go from one end of the year to the other without hearing a note of Boulez or Stockhausen, but Ligeti – who died sooner than the other two, in 2006 – is somehow freshest in mind. His opera Le grand macabre is practically made-for-TV with its post-modern anarchic comedy and his violin concerto is a back-to Bartok contemporary classic. These piano studies, written in the 1980s and 1990s when Ligeti had fallen out with the didactic avant-gardists, are fiendishly difficult to play and irresistibly easy on…

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Half a century after Bartok and Kodaly toured the Hungarian plains with an early Edison phonograph in search of authentic Magyar music, students of the Franz Liszt Academy carried on collecting in their footsteps, not always willingly. Under Communism in the 1950s and 1960s, it was safest for a composer to champion ‘the people’s music’ – the more so if the composer was Jewish and easily stigmatized, as were all of those included in this fascinating album by the Offenburg String Trio. Of the five names selected only Sandor Veress (1907-1992) is internationally known, and that’s because he spent the…

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The first soloist I ever heard play Elgar was the French cellist Paul Tortelier at the Royal Festival Hall – elegant, expressive and chastely romantic, half an hour of unblemished beauty. I was a kid and that must have been 60 years ago. Since then I’ve heard maybe one other French cellist attempt an Elgar concerto, but never, until now, a violinist. Renaud Capucon is a revelation in many ways. He shifts the accent from phlegmatic to something more Gallic and the dynamics to a whispering tendresse. There is so much individuality in this account that I kept wondering why…

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The late Michael Kennedy, an honest critic if ever there was, told me that on reaching the age of sixty his ears gave up on contemporary music. We then had a stand-up row about the recent works of Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies and parted, as always, good friends. Now, having long passed Michael’s age threshold for new music, I find myself still curious about living composers. I first heard Anna Clyne’s violin concerto at the Chicago Symphony and loved it on the spot. That is unusual for a modern premiere, but Clyne is adept at masking complexity with hummable sonorities…

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If Gianandrea Noseda were not already music director in Washington DC and at Zurich Opera, he would probably be top of the London Symphony Orchestra’s wishlist to succeed the stop-gap Sir Simon Rattle in two years’ time. Listen to the whiplash crack of the rhythms he elicits at the start of the Shostakovich ninth symphony and you might be reminded of the young Riccardo Muti at the Philharmonia in the 1970s. Listen further to the ironic discordances of the Largo movement and you’ll hear a unique fusion – a lyrical Italian with a sophisticated sympathy for covert Russian ambiguities. Noseda…

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Sir Simon Rattle, who became a German citizen this week, prefers to work with an English chorusmaster. In Berlin he had his former Birmingham partner, Simon Halsey.  At his new job with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, he will find Howard Arman in charge of the salaried singers. Arman, a graduate of Trinity College London, has spent the past 40 years in German-speaking companies, working in Halle, Leipzig, Salzburg and Lucerne. The Munich he took over in 2017 choir is top-notch. Even a devoted Elgarian may be forgiven for never having heard these part-songs. The early ones, dated 1894, have words by…

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Musical lullabies can quickly outlast their welcome. Everybody’s had the Brahms Wiegenlied sung to them at some point in infancy and many have experienced the sleepy time duet in Hansel and Gretel, the one they sing just before the witch becomes their nightmare. But one hearing is usually all I can bear of these bonbons. The beauty of this compilation by the French pianist Bertrand Chamayou is that it leads the ear down unexpected paths – some overgrown like Janacek’s crystalline opener, others unexpected, neglected or altogether unknown. Two etudes by Sergei Liapunov are drops of perfect chamomile. A dollop…

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At the midpoint of the Second World War, our parents looked to two composers for symphonies of hope and vision. Such was the excitement attending the 7th symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich that Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski almost went to war themselves for the right to conduct the American premiere (Toscanini won). There was less fuss abroad over Vaughan Williams’s 5th, but in London it was hailed as oracular – a statement by a great artist on the spirit of his nation and its depth of confidence. The world premiere, conducted by the composer on June 24, 1943, was roared to the…

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Winston Churchill’s famous witticism that Britain and America are divided by a common language is equally true of their musical output. In late-romantic repertoire, the accent on either side is so strong that a listener could never mistake Elgar for Barber, let alone Britten for Bernstein. Much of the appeal of this Covid-era recital by violinist Callum Smart and pianist Richard Uttley lies in the effort they invest to find common ground. Elgar’s violin sonata, written in the last summer of the First World War, is in deep denial of all that was going on around him. If he got…

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