Sunday 29 July 2012

Sibelius’ Eighth Symphony

During the BBC Promenade concert  on Tuesday 17th July 2012 there was an interval talk about the possible existence of sketches for Sibelius’ abandoned Eighth Symphony.

After his seventh symphony (1924) and Tapiola (1925) little appeared from Sibelius. There was his incidental music to The Tempest (1926), his Five Equisses for piano Op.114 (1929) and his Three Pieces for violin and piano Op.116 (1929) but nothing large scale. Then there appeared to be silence from the great composer. Yet Sibelius’ brother-in-law, Armas Jarnefelt recalled that the composer had, at his apartment in Helsinki two bulky scores in a cupboard. One was the score of a large choral work believed to be based on a biblical text and the other a large orchestral work. Both of these works were believed to have been burnt either in1945 when Aino saw her husband feeding large piles of paper into the living-room fireplace at their home or later in the early 1950’s.

In 1931 Sibelius wrote that he was ‘living in my music…am so caught up in my work…the symphony is making great progress…and I must get it finished while I still have the mental strength…

Whether the large orchestral score kept at his apartment was the long awaited Eighth Symphony we cannot be sure but he wrote to Koussevitzsky later in the summer of 1931 ‘…if you wish to perform my new symphony, next spring, this will, I hope, be possible…’ In January 1932 Sibelius asked for a postponement until October that year but still it was not ready.

Work on the new symphony certainly appears to have continued as in September 1933 he was able to send to his usual copyist the first 23 pages of the orchestral score. Both his wife, Aino and his daughter, Margareta, visited the copyist during this period to deliver manuscripts indicating that the symphony was at an advanced stage. During the 1930’s the HMV Sibelius Society even went as far as listing the Eighth Symphony in their prospectus as a forthcoming issue. Sadly nothing came of the new work.

After his death in 1957 the Sibelius family gave a large number of scores to the library of Helsinki University. Over the last few years the Sibelius scholar Timo Virtanen has looked at over 800 pages of the manuscripts held at the library.

He searched for manuscripts that could be dated to Sibelius’ so called period of silence. From these he has produced three short sketches that could well have been part of the intended Eighth Symphony. These sketches were played during the Prom talk and can still be heard on YouTube played by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.

Listening to the first fragment with its beautiful dissonances that promised to open up new vistas brought a lump to my throat, but for members of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra playing these fragments it brought tears.

As expected, it didn’t take long for those who have doubts about the sketches being part of the projected symphony to express their views. It is true that the sketches have been accessible to everyone for many years and many scholars have seen them. Nevertheless these tiny fragments lasting in total no more than three minutes are a tantalising and poignant taste of what might have been.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Phenomenal Liszt from Sinae Lee

In my Blog of 3rd March 2012 about Tchaikovsky’s reputation I wrote about my copy of a 1925 edition of a book on Liszt by Frederick Corder, a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music, who said of Liszt ‘…the themes are often very beautiful, but they stick out like the almonds in a Dundee cake, they fail to cohere…’

I speculated as to why Corder bothered to write a book about Liszt at all given his low opinion of Liszt as a composer.  Of course the answer was simply that many people in the earlier part of the 20th century regarded Liszt merely as a great pianist who happened to write inferior music.

In 1961 a Sunday Times reviewer referred to Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia as ‘tawdry’ but it was a Times correspondent who came to the defence of Liszt saying of Sviatoslav Richter’s Royal Albert Hall performance of the A major concerto ‘…(it was) a grand act of restitution for Liszt, a glorious snub to the Philistines who can still be heard decrying his genius.’

Now, of course, Liszt is viewed very differently by many people and his music is very much part of the repertoire. That is not to say that there aren’t areas of neglect. A decade or so ago, when I tried to obtain a recording of his Missa Solemnis, the only recording available was on Hungaroton  I notice now that there is another recording on Arte Nova  but still the work is far from popular, which is a shame for such a beautiful work.

I have always thought that Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) haven’t had the popularity on disc that they deserve with many pianists preferring to play selections as part of a recital.

Of the complete recordings Lazar Berman on Deutsche Grammophon has been a long admired recording as has Louis Lortie’s fine recording for Chandos. My own personal favourite that I return to frequently is Jeno Jando’s Naxos recording . Jando is, perhaps, not as universally appreciated as he should be no doubt due to his extremely prolific output for Naxos, but his Années de pèlerinage are possibly the finest recordings he has made for that label.

A new release from RCS (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)  issued by Nimbus Alliance  has Sinae Lee performing Liszt’s complete Années de Pèlerinage.

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South Korean born Sinae Lee has won a number of prestigious prizes and now has a busy career as soloist and chamber musician as well as being a lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

She came to greater prominence with her highly praised recording of the complete piano works of Karol Szymanowski on the Divine Art label that was a Gramophone Magazine Recommended Recording, BBC Music Magazine Benchmark Recording, MusicWeb Recording of the Month and Pianist Magazine Recommended Recording.

Turning to this new issue, such is the immediacy and spontaneity of these performances they have the feel of a live performance. Perhaps they were recorded using long takes with little or no editing. However they were done, they are performances of power and authority showing clearly that Sinae Lee has these works in her repertoire (she performed them in their entirety in 2011 both in the UK and Korea).

She has a crystalline purity to her playing as well as great fluency yet in such pieces as Sonetto 104 del Petraca from the Second Year (CD2) she displays phenomenal technique in playing that conjures up pure Lisztian spirit.

At the commencement of the First Year (Switzerland) (CD1) Sinae Lee gives a broad tempo with wide dynamics in Chapelle de Guillaume Tell (William Tell’s Chapel). Au bord d’une Source(Beside a Spring) highlights Lee’s fluency, whilst in Orage (Storm) she gives an edge of the seat performance almost at the expense of phrasing.

In Valle D’Obermann (Obermann’s Valley) her playing is of such intensity that there is what sounds like a misplaced note but that in no way detracts from the enjoyment of these riveting performances.

In Les Cloches de Geneve (The Bells of Geneva) Sinae Lee plays with a beautiful purity of tone that gives just the right degree of clarity before rising to a superb climax before the quiet ending.

It is the second CD in this set that shows Sinae Lee at her phenomenal best though that is not to say that the other CDs are any less of an accomplishment. There is a wonderful intimacy as well as bravura to her playing of Sposalizio (Marriage) whilst Il Pensieroso (The Thinker) is beautifully conceived. Sonetto 47 del Petrarca (Petrarca sonnet 47) shows the pianist’s ability to pick out all the Listzian changeabilities of mood and pace.

There is phenomenal playing in Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (Petrarca sonnet 104) leading to Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (Petrarca sonnet 123) where she conjures up a real Listzian feel, full of poetry and drama. In the Apres une lecture du Dante Fantasia Quasi Sonata, the so called Dante Sonata, there is stupendous playing of a true Lisztian.

The Third Year (CD3) has an Aux Cypres de la Villa D’Este of wonderful breadth and sweep whilst the concluding Sursum Corda makes a magnificent conclusion to this cycle.

When so many pianists show a clinical perfection but little character it is wonderful to hear a pianist that is not afraid to take risks especially when the results are as fine as this. Although there is occasionally a wiry sound in the upper register as a note dies away, the recording is nevertheless clear and detailed.

I doubt that there will ever be a single first choice in this repertoire with all its different moods but certainly Sinae Lee’s magnificent recording should be heard by all Lisztians. It will be the performance that I return to most frequently.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Celebrating British Music – Part 6

The final part of my survey of British music leads into the contemporary era by way of such figures as Bernard Stevens (1916–1983) who studied at the Royal College of Music with R.O. Morris and Gordon Jacob but whose career as a composer was affected by his communist leanings and Geoffrey Bush (1920–1998) who, after being a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, studied with John Ireland, completing his education at Balliol College, Oxford. 

Probably two of the best CDs of Bernard Stevens’ music to consider are both from Meridian both with the BBC Philharmonic under Edward Downes and featuring his two symphonies, cello concerto and violin concerto.

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Geoffrey Bush’s two symphonies coupled with three other orchestral works are on an attractive Lyrita CD  with various orchestras conducted by Vernon Handley, Nicholas Braithwaite and Barry Wordsworth.

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Richard Anthony Sayer Arnell (1917-2009) was influenced by his time in America where he was stranded in 1939. Born in Hampstead, London, he studied at the Royal College of Music but, attending the New York World Fair, when war broke out he was unable to get a ship back to the UK. He stayed in the US until 1947 and his music was championed by Thomas Beecham, Leopold Stokowski and Bernard Herrmann.

Beecham continued to champion Arnell after his return to England but, after Beecham’s death, performances were less frequent. He taught at Trinity College of Music in London until 1987 and produced seven symphonies (the last completed by Martin Yates), orchestral and chamber works, operas and ballets. He also wrote many film scores. Dutton Vocalion  have recorded many of his works including all of his symphonies.

Perhaps the best introduction to his music is through Dutton’s recording of the first and sixth symphonies conducted by Martin Yates conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

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One of the most troubled composers of the 20th century was Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006). A prolific film composer, he nevertheless produced a large output of concert music including nine symphonies.

Born in Northampton, he was the son of a shoe manufacturer. After study at the Royal College of Music where he studied composition with Gordon Jacob and the trumpet with Ernest Hall, in 1941, he joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra as second trumpet, becoming principal trumpet in 1943. In 1948 he left the orchestra to become a full time composer.

His life was blighted by mental problems leading to alcoholism and periodic stays in mental hospitals. Despite this, in addition to his nine symphonies, he wrote a large amount of orchestral music, many concertos, two completed one act operas, chamber music, instrumental music and music for brass band. 

Such is his output that it is difficult to make a single recommendation but certainly the box set from Naxos of Graham Penny’s fine symphony cycle (also available separately) and his equally fine recording of the complete orchestral dances should be considered.



It is easy to overlook Robert Simpson (1921–1997) by remembering him as the man who helped to bring the composer Havergal Brian to late prominence, but Simpson was a fine symphonist in his own write. Born in Leamington, Warwickshire, his father, Robert Warren Simpson, was a descendent of Sir James Young Simpson, the Scottish pioneer of anaesthetics. After Westminster School, he studied medicine in London for two years and during the war served with an A.R.P. mobile surgical unit during the London Blitz. During this time he took lessons from Herbert Howells eventually taking his Bachelor of Music degree and degree of Doctor of Music at Durham University.

1951 he joined the music staff of the BBC, becoming one of its music producers and remaining with them for nearly three decades until resigning over the BBC’s cuts to their orchestras. In 1986 he moved to Ireland where he lived until his death in 1997.

His eleven symphonies and fifteen string quartets make up the backbone of his musical output but he also wrote concertos for violin, flute, piano and cello as well as a small number of works for piano, including a piano sonata, and works for brass band.

Hyperion Records have recorded all of the symphonies and quartets as well as much of his other music. The symphonies, which are a colossal achievement, are available in a box set or individually with Vernon Handley conducting all but number eleven which is conducted by Matthew Taylor.

Although from the same generation as Arnold and Simpson, Arthur Butterworth (b.1923) is still actively composing and conducting. Born in Manchester, he attended the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music), where he studied composition, trumpet and conducting. He was a trumpeter with the Scottish National Orchestra from 1949–55 and the Hallé from 1955–62. In 1963 he began teaching at the Huddersfield School of Music, an activity which he combined with composing and conducting.

To date he has written seven symphonies, the last of which was premiered by the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra on 28th April 2012. Amongst his other works are concertos for viola and trumpet, orchestral works, ‘Haworth Moor’ for chorus and piano and chamber works. Butterworth’s music is much  influenced by Sibelius. Dutton Vocalion has recorded a number of his works including his symphonies number 4 and 5 and his viola concerto with the composer conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

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The Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott (1929–2008) was born in Bargoed, Glamorganshire and educated at Gowerton Grammar school and University College, Cardiff,  later studying privately with Arthur Benjamin. After his Clarinet Concerto of 1954 was performed at the Cheltenham Festival by Gervase de Peyer with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, a string of commissions by leading orchestras and soloists followed. He went on to be Professor of Music at University College, Cardiff.

There are more than 190 opus numbered works which include ten symphonies, choral works, numerous concertos, chamber works and piano music. His beautiful Sixth Symphony has been recorded by Chandos Records with Bryden Thomson and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

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Peter Maxwell Davies (b.1934) born in Salford, Lancashire was something of a child prodigy. He took piano lessons and composed from an early age. After education at Leigh Boys Grammar School, Davies studied at the University of Manchester and at the Royal Manchester College of Music (amalgamated into the Royal Northern College of Music in 1973), where his fellow students included Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. Together they formed New Music Manchester, a group committed to contemporary music. After graduating in 1956, he studied in Rome before working as Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School from 1959 to 1962.

In 1962, he secured a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University where he studied with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim. He then moved to Australia, where he was Composer in Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide from 1965–66. After returning to Britain, he moved, in 1971, to the Orkney Islands, initially to Hoy, and later to Sanday. Orkney hosts the St Magnus Festival founded by Sir Peter in 1977.

Sir Peter was made a CBE in 1981 and knighted in 1987. He was appointed Master of the Queen's Music in March 2004. Sir Peter, or Max as his friends call him, is a prolific composer whose compositions include opera, choral music, nine symphonies, concertos, chamber music including ten Naxos Quartets and piano music. Sir Peter has written a number of works for Royal Occasions which brings us back to his Ninth Symphony that will be premiered in Liverpool on 9th June 2012.

Although early on Max’s music was influenced by the European avant-garde his music from the late 1960s moved towards experimental music such as Revelation and Fall and  the music theatre pieces Eight Songs for a Mad King and Vesalii Icones. His opera Taverner shows an interest in Renaissance music. Since his move to Orkney, Max’s music has taken on the influences of the landscape and the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown.

Naxos Records have started re-issuing the Collins Classics recordings of the first six symphonies made with the composer conducting. So far the first three have been issued and each has an interesting fill up work.


These wonderful symphonies are well worth getting to know even if at first you find the musical language difficult to understand. They will reward amply with repeated listening.

Another of the original Manchester School is Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934). Born in Accrington, Lancashire he entered the Royal Manchester College of Music on a clarinet scholarship, meeting there fellow composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr. He went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and afterwards worked as a schoolteacher until, in 1965, a Harkness Fellowship gave him the opportunity to continue his studies in the United States and he decided to dedicate himself to composition.

From 1975 to 1983 Birtwistle was musical director of the newly established Royal National Theatre in London and, from 1994 to 2001, he was Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King's College London.

His compositions are often complex and written in a modernistic manner but all have a clear, distinctive voice. His works include six operas and a number of chamber operas, orchestral works, a concerto for violin and orchestra, works for chamber ensemble, piano works, choral and vocal works.

NMC Recordings, the company that has done so much for contemporary British music, have recorded three of Birtwistle’s orchestral works from the period 1994-2004. These works, Night's Black Bird, The Shadow of Night and The Cry of Anubis, move away from the composer's forceful and monolithic grandeur, of which he has become associated, and have a more reflective, otherworldly and subtle sound, exploring the world of melancholy.
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William Mathias (1934-1992) was born in Whitland, Carmarthenshire. A child prodigy, he started playing the piano at the age of three and composing at the age of five. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Lennox Berkeley and went on to become a fellow in 1965. He was professor of at the University of Wales from 1970 until 1988.

His compositions include opera, three symphonies, several other concertos including three pianos concertos, numerous choral works, chamber works and works for piano and organ.

Somm Recordings have recently released a recording of Mathias’ attractive Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, the second of which  has certain overtones of Tippett in its writing, coupled with Vaughan Williams’ early Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra.

Hugh Wood (b. 1932) was born in Lancashire and received early encouragement from the composer Alan Bush. He studied history at New College, Oxford, but spent much of his time writing music particularly for the theatre. In 1954, he moved to London to study composition privately with, amongst others, William Lloyd Webber, father of Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber. He went on to teach at Morley College and lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music.

NMC Recordings has issued two fine discs of Wood’s work. The first has his vibrant Symphony coupled with his Symphonic Cantata ‘Scenes from Comus’ with the BBC Symhony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and the second has his Violin and Cello Concertos played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by David Atherton with Manoug Parikian (violin) and Moray Welsh (cello) as soloists.

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Jonathan Harvey (b.1939) was born in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, studied at St John's College, Cambridge and took private lessons with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller. Early musical influences included Schoenberg, Berg, Messiaen and Britten and later Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt. In the 1980s, at the invitation of Pierre Boulez to work there, Harvey produced much music at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique).

Harvey went on to become Visiting Professor of Music at Oxford University and Imperial College London, as well as Honorary Professor at Sussex University.

Again NMC Recordings have a disc that gives a good cross section of Harvey’s music from the atmospheric orchestral works ‘Tranquil Abiding’ and ‘Timepieces: I, II and III’ to the more astringent ‘Body Mandala’ and the, at times, more demanding vocal work ‘White as Jasmine’. Ilan Volkov and Stefan Solyom conduct the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

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David Matthews (b.1943) was born in London but did not show any particularly early desire to compose. He read classics at Nottingham University and later studied composition with Anthony Milner.  Matthews was also helped by the advice and encouragement of Nicholas Maw. For three years he worked as an assistant to Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh.

He has largely avoided teaching, but has done much editorial work and orchestration of film music. He has also written articles and reviews for various music journals and books on Tippett and Britten.

To date Matthews’ output includes seven symphonies, a number of concertos including two for violin and one for piano, numerous orchestral works, chamber works including twelve string quartets, three piano trios, two string trios and piano music.

Dutton Vocalion have recorded five out of the symphonies on two CDs with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Jac van Steen.

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Toccata Classics have issued two volumes of string quartets played by the Kreutzer Quartet.


These recordings should be in the collection of any lover of British music.

Colin Matthews (b.1946) was also born in London. His older brother is the composer David Matthews. He also read classics at Nottingham University and studied composition with Arnold Whittall, and Nicholas Maw. He later taught at the University of Sussex and worked at Aldeburgh with Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst.

He is founder and Executive Producer of NMC Recordings, and has also produced recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, Virgin Classics, Conifer, Collins, Bridge, BMG, Continuum, Metronome and Elektra Nonesuch.

His works to date include orchestral works, two cello concertos and a horn concerto, works for chorus and orchestra, vocal works, chamber music including two oboe quartets and three string quartets, instrumental and piano works. Colin Matthews’ ‘Pluto: The Renewer’ was written in 2000 to be performed as an adjunct to Holst’s the Planets.

NMC Recordings have issued Matthews’ atmospheric Sonata No. 5 for orchestra ‘Landscapes’ together with his Cello Concerto and other orchestral works with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Carewe and Michael Tilson Thomas respectively and Alexander Baillie (cello).

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Michael Berkeley (b.1948) is the son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley who, after being a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, was educated at The Oratory School in Oxfordshire before studying composition, singing and piano at the Royal Academy of Music, later studying with Richard Rodney Bennett.

In 1979 he was appointed Associate Composer to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, then became Artistic Director of the Cheltenham Music Festival from 1995 to 2004 and Composer-in-Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2000 until 2009. He is also Visiting Professor in Composition at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Michael Berkley is also known as a television and radio broadcaster and presents BBC Radio 3's ‘Private Passions.’

His works include opera, choral works, orchestral works, concertos, instrumental works and piano works. I have already mentioned two recommendable CDs issued by Chandos Records coupled with works by Sir Lennox Berkeley in Part 5 of this survey of British music but, in addition to the Chandos Berkeley series it is worth seeking out an EMI recording of Michael Berkeley’s fine choral work ‘Or Shall We Die?’ coupled with Paul Patterson’s Missa Brevis with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Richard Hickox.

Judith Weir (b.1954)  was born in Cambridge and studied with John Tavener while still at school before studying with Robin Holloway at King's College, Cambridge. Her music has been influenced by medieval history, as well as the traditional stories and music of her native Scotland.

She was Composer in Association for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 1998 and Artistic Director of the Spitalfields Festival from 1995 to 2000.

Her music includes operas, orchestral works, vocal and chamber works and a very striking and attractive piano concerto available from NMC Recordings.
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James MacMillan (b.1959) was born in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire and studied composition at the University of Edinburgh with Rita McAllister and Durham University with John Casken. After being a music lecturer at the University of Manchester from 1986-1988, he returned to Scotland and became Associate Composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Macmillan is a prolific composer and his compositions include opera, theatre music, choral works, orchestral works including symphonies and concertos, chamber music and piano music.

Macmillan first came to prominence in 1990 when his orchestral work ‘The Confession of Isobel Gowdie’ was premiered at the Proms. This work has been recorded more than once but is available on an LSO Live CD coupled with another fine work The World's Ransoming all with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.

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Do also consider an inexpensive recording of MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Immanuel coupled with Tryst all performed by the Ulster Orchestra under Takuo Yuasa with the fabulous Colin Currie (percussion) on Naxos.

When I began this survey I certainly didn’t realise that it would run to six parts, but it is a tribute to the wealth of British composers that there are. Yet for all this I have still left out fine composers that many people will admire.

From the 1960’s onwards there was a polarisation in British classical music with the more conservative composers left feeling ostracised by the musical establishment. It is encouraging now that both conservative and modernist composers can exist side by side. Indeed this has led to a fusion of styles by many composers.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Superb playing by the Mandelring Quartet in Mendelssohn’s String Quartets

In my blog of 28th April 2012 I wrote that Mendelssohn’s chamber music is some of the most attractive music he ever wrote. On that occasion I was particularly featuring a fine recording by The Swiss Piano Trio on Audite Records

Audite seem to have the knack of finding some of the best chamber music players around and this is no less the case with the superb Mandelring Quartet who have started a series of recordings of Mendelssohn’s complete chamber music for strings for Audite. Volume 1 of this series has quartets in E flat major Op 12 and in A minor Op. 13 coupled with the early unnumbered E flat major quartet.

The Mandelring Quartet from Germany  have already recorded for Audite, receiving high praise for their complete cycle of the Shostakovich quartets (Audite 21.411). The Mandelring Quartet’s publicity information says of the quartet that ‘its expressivity and remarkable homogeneity of sound and phrasing have become its distinguishing characteristics.’ Having listened to this disc I have to say that this is no exaggeration.

It is obvious from the start of the Op.12 quartet that the Mandelrings are alive to every nuance of this most lyrical of first movements. There is the most wonderful precision in their playing of the delightful second movement Canzonetta and, in the following Andante, this quartet show expressive playing of the highest order with the most beautiful textures. Indeed, it is in the hushed moments that the Mandelrings show the most refined sensitivity.

Their razor sharp ensemble comes to the fore again with the infectious forward thrust of the final movement and when the theme from the first movement reappears towards the end there is irresistible playing from this fine quartet.

If Mendelssohn was beginning to break away from the influence of Beethoven in the Op.12 quartet, Op.13, written earlier but only published later, shows a much heavier influence of Beethoven. The Mandelrings play with all the passion and lyricism needed, their weight and tone bringing out the emotion of the music.

The second movement has the rather unusual marking ‘adagio non lento’ which, taken literally, means ‘at ease not slow’. The Mandelrings flexible dynamics and tempo hit the mark perfectly with great depth and commitment to their playing.

The Mandelrings have the lightness of touch that is pure Mendelssohn in the sparkling Intermezzo whilst in the final presto they have a fine tautness of playing in the dramatic opening, with the return of the opening adagio superbly judged leading to the quiet coda.

The E flat major Quartet that completes this disc is an earlier work, written in 1823, when Mendelssohn was only 14 years of age, but not published until 1879. This places the quartet two years before the famous String Octet.

There is sparkling playing in the first movement showing how the Mandelrings can bring out the lighter side of Mendelssohn whilst in the following adagio they bring out more beauty than I thought possible from Mendelssohn’s rather four square writing.

There is a lively, rather Mozartian, minuet to which the Mandelrings bring great charm before the final fugue where this quartet show again their tremendous precision clearly weaving all the lines of the music of this contrapuntal last movement.

This is not a work to be compared with the later quartets but in a fine performance such as this it gives much enjoyment.

The recording is first rate with real presence and detail. Despite my particular liking of the Talich Quartet on Calliope in these works, this new issue must go straight to the top. Highly recommended.

Sunday 15 July 2012

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – Is it an awful piece of music?

This month’s Gramophone magazine (August 2012) surprised me with a feature on Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with a picture of the composer surrounded by canons and explosions on the front cover. Inside is a four page article about the Overture.

Why was I surprised? I suppose that I thought that there was nothing much that could be said about a work that probably everybody knows but few want to admit that they like.

Tchaikovsky was not keen to write the piece as he didn’t like working to commissions. It was commissioned in 1880 by Nickolai Rubinstein, Director of the Moscow Conservatoire, for the forthcoming Exhibition of Industry and the Arts.

Rubinstein suggested that the piece should take on one of three forms. It should either be an overture to be played when the exhibition was opened, or one to celebrate Tsar Alexander II’s silver jubilee or it should be a cantata to mark the opening of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour built over quite a number of years to commemorate Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812.

With these options you would not have thought that Tchaikovsky would have too much difficulty in coming up with something but he complained bitterly saying to his publisher, Jurgenson ‘…it seems that you think writing ceremonial pieces for an exhibition is some sort of ultimate bliss of which I shall hasten to avail myself…’

Further he demanded 100 roubles in advance before he would write a note. But still he complained saying that he did not want to ‘…set about composing music which is destined for the glorification of what…delights me not at all…’ He went on saying that he was not inspired by ‘a high ranking person who has always been fairly antipathetic to me’ nor by a cathedral that he did not like.

From this we might reasonably gather that Tchaikovsky didn’t want to write the music so it took Rimsky Korsakov to finally persuade him, though how he managed to do I cannot imagine.

It was left to Tchaikovsky to decide what form of music to compose so he took ideas from two of the suggested forms, that of an overture and a work to mark the consecration of the new cathedral built to commemorate the events of the year 1812.

It is now 200 years since the events Tchaikovsky’s Overture commemorates

Tchaikovsky began work on the overture in October 1880 and, despite the feelings that he had about the composition, he worked very fast and completed it by the middle of November.

Tchaikovsky used a number of French and Russian themes to depict the two sides in the conflict including ‘God Save the Tsar’ and the ‘Marseillaise’. A folk tune used in Rimsky Korsakov’s Overture on Russian Themes, from the Novgorod region was also used, not to mention, of course, the bells and cannons.

In a letter to his patroness, Madame Nadezhda von Meck, he continued to complain saying that ‘it will be very loud and noisy…’ and that it would ‘have no artistic merit…’ and that it had been written ‘without warmth and without love’.

Other omens were not good as the exhibition which was due to take place in 1881, was postponed until 1882, then Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, the event ironically leading to the construction of another church, the Church of the Spilled Blood, in St Petersburg, on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881.

Finally even Nickolai Rubinstein himself died before the first performance which took place in August 1882 conducted by Ippolit Altani in the hall specially built for the exhibition.

The drum part is said to have been performed by a company of the artillery and this sounds quite probable.

So is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture good or bad? I tried listening to it again in a performance on EMI Eminence (not currently available from EMI but obtainable via Amazon ) by Sian Edwards and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, a fine performance that also gives you an equally fine Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, March Slave and Francesca da Rimini.

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To start with I found myself enjoying all the Russian melodies beautifully woven into the work but then, part way through,  the Marseillaise comes in and from then on, to my mind, the work goes downhill rapidly ending in what can only be described charitably as a noisy and  trite ending. Yet for all this, the opportunity to give my audio system a good work out was quite thrilling.

Playing this work might be described as a guilty pleasure if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t tend to have any qualms about listening to works that others often deride even if they aren’t the greatest works in the world. The occasional outing in my CD player can still be good fun.

I wonder how many other people also have such ‘guilty pleasures’ in their classical listening choices?

Thursday 12 July 2012

Alexis Weissenberg – A Great Pianist

I will admit straight away that I have always been a great admirer of the pianist Alexis Weissenberg who sadly died on January 8 2012 aged 82.

Bulgarian born, he was one of the legendary performers of the twentieth century. He was taught to play the piano by his mother and, as several members of her family were Vienna Conservatory-trained musicians, he grew up in an intensely musical environment. Weissenberg went on to study with the Bulgarian composer, Pancho Vladigerov, at whose house Weissenberg heard Dinu Lipatti perform.

Weissenberg gave his first recital at the age of ten which included a composition of his own. Unfortunately, soon after this recital, whilst trying to flee to Turkey to escape the fascists, he and his mother were caught and sent to a concentration camp. They were saved because of an accordion he had been given as a gift by an aunt. A German guard let Weissenberg play and after three months put the Weissenbergs on a train to Istanbul. Of this time terrible time Weissenberg recalled ‘…only three elements remained - constant silence, singing, and crying.’

In 1945 they moved to Palestine, where Weissenberg studied with Leo Kestenberg at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. That year he also made his first appearance as a soloist with an orchestra, later performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Weissenberg left Palestine for the USA in 1946 and enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music, studying with Olga Samaroff, Artur Schnabel and Wanda Landowska. He also met Vladimir Horowitz, who encouraged him to enter the Leventritt Award competition.  Weissenberg entered and won the award in 1947 thus launching his career.

Weissenberg’s USA debut came in 1947, playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under George Szell. After touring extensively in the USA and Europe, in 1956, Weissenberg moved to Paris, eventually becoming a French citizen.

Around the time of his move to Paris he stopped performing for nearly a decade in order to work on his keyboard technique and to teach. In 1966 he resumed his career by giving a recital in Paris. That same year he also gave a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Berlin under Herbert von Karajan, who called him “one of the best pianists of our time”. Subsequently he toured and gave master classes all over the world.

As a timely memorial to Weissenberg’s recorded legacy, EMI have issued a ten CD box set of his recordings made by them between 1966 and 1983. All are stereo recordings and are never less than acceptable with most being good to excellent.

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Of the recordings in this set I went straight away to the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. I have known this recording since it was first issued in 1973 and could never work out why it was, to my knowledge, never issued on CD. EMI re-issued a performance Weissenberg made with Ricardo Muti, several times but, for all the merits of that recording, this is the one to have.

There is fire and granite in this performance and such is the power and authority of Weisennberg’s playing that all the tempi, slower than usual at times, seem just right. There is the occasional vocal contribution form the pianist but it does not distract. This for me is the recording of this work to have despite the great recordings form the likes of Nelson Freire and Emil Gilels.

Weissenberg has been called wilful and at times he can make sudden mood changes in his playing but again such is his authority that this merely makes for a more riveting experience. Nowhere is this more evident that in the recordings here of Mozart’s Piano Concertos 9 and 21 where the playing is at times elegant, strongly emotional, and scintillating.

His Chopin piano concerto recordings are idiosyncratic and certainly not a first choice but they grip the attention not only because of their sometimes exaggerated tempi, but because of the superb playing.

In his recordings with Karajan there is a big boned and broadly conceived performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, perhaps a little short on poetry but with some formidable playing particularly in the last movement where Weissenberg shows all his power, authority and personality. There is a beautifully paced Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto where the music is allowed to unfold naturally, Weissenberg never pushing the music forward unduly.

Where else are you likely to get Bernstein conducting Rachmaninov as in this performance of the Third Piano Concerto conducted without undue sentiment. Weisennberg gives a broad authoritative performance and is formidable in the climaxes. What I like particularly is the terrific pacing so that there is clarity to the musical line.

Prokofiev’s Third Concerto with Seiji Ozawa is a fabulous performance, spiky, rhythmic and supercharged. Ozawa also accompanies Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which seems rather restrained and Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ where there is more freedom and panache. Ravel’s G minor concerto gets all the spontaneity you could wish and, at times, it seems as though Weissenberg is improvising.

Mussorsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ suits Weissenberg’s temperament perfectly allowing for sudden changes in expression and personality and making for a great performance.

Weissenberg is unexpectedly passionate in his Bach with a formidable Bach/Busoni Chaconne and, in the two Schumann discs, displays playing that is remarkable for its spontaneity and range of mood. Just listen to his Fantasia in C Op.17 with such perfectly judged layering of the musical lines for each hand adding to the emotional pull of the music.

The tenth disc in this set contains encores yet there is still much to be admired in his Chopin Etudes, Liszt’s Valse-Impromptu and Scriabin Nocturne O9. No.2. and Etude Op.8 No.11. The final work on the last disc is a short piece called ‘Improvisation’ by his old teacher Pancho Vladigerov, a lovely tribute which takes us full circle back to his young days.

If you admire great pianism then don’t miss this special set which can be obtained from Amazon for as little as £21.90. An unmissable bargain.