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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: April 2005

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

Last month I spent a day at the "Classicalive" exhibition at Olympia in London. There was a very interesting range of stalls covering all the things one might expect (instruments, audio equipment, disc, scores, books etc.) and others that were less obvious (e.g. music therapy). I spent part of the day helping out at the English Music Festival stall. The Festival is seeking to establish a regular annual week of live performances in and around Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire starting in October 2006 (see link 1). MusicWeb reviewer Em Marshall is the driving force behind this enterprise and some very interesting programmes have been put together. There seems little doubt that, nowadays, English music is getting a very raw deal in performing terms and there is no jingoism here. It is fine to love music from all around the world but who is going to support local heritage if people in this part of the world don’t? On the stall Em had assembled a very long list of worthwhile English composers and the names of others kept cropping up as the day progressed. The main focus at the moment seems to be on early 20th century music. If you are at all interested in this repertoire I urge you to contact Em through the EMF website (link 1) and offer whatever help you can.

One of the pleasures of the day was meeting Ian Boughton, grandson of Rutland and secretary of the Rutland Boughton Music Trust (see link 2). It reminded me how fine the 3rd symphony is and re-listening to this was an urgent priority when I returned. I bought this on a Hyperion disc conducted by Vernon Handley when it was new in the late 1980s. Now it is available on the budget Helios label (CDH55019) coupled to the Oboe Concerto No 1 - English music at its best for a few pounds. Ian told me that there are exciting developments on the way for those who admire this composer. John Wallace has made a recording his Trumpet Concerto (dubbing it the Trumpet Concerto that Elgar never wrote) which will be released soon. Furthermore the first symphony is to be performed for the first time in 100 years in Hertfordshire in November. Boughton wrote three symphonies in all and I meant to ask Ian about the second but the day flew past all too quickly.

I should also mention the live performances at the exhibition. An interesting range of short recitals had been put together and I was fortunate to catch the current and a former BBC Young Musician of the Year – i.e. Nicola Benedetti and Emma Johnson. It has to be said that the conditions for these performances must have been amongst the worst they have ever played in (the "concert hall" was made of tarpaulin and all manner of background noise was audible) but they coped fantastically. The highlight of Miss Benedetti’s programme was the Havanaise by Saint-Saëns. It is hard to believe that this young lady is only 17, a big future seems assured. Amongst all the winners of the BBC Young Musician competition I have seen, Emma Johnson’s winning performance (of Crusell’s Clarinet Concerto No 2) sticks most clearly in the mind. Now just over 20 years later it was good to hear her live. Finger-work and footwork were fabulous (and I am not joking about the latter!). She performed music by Finzi and Poulenc and a medley in the style of Benny Goodman, and was superbly accompanied by John Lenehan. The Flight of the Bumble Bee served as a memorable brief encore.

Back at the ranch, the big event for me this month has been Simon Rattle’s new recording of Mahler’s 8th symphony (see link 3). Critical opinion has generally been favourable – both MusicWeb and the Gramophone had it as a Recording of the Month – "arguably the best since Solti" said the latter. I would go further because I clearly prefer it to the Solti. There is no doubt that some of the solo singing is not quite at the same level but in terms of choral singing, interpretation and recording it seems to me superior. Although about three minutes faster the Rattle doesn’t feel rushed but unfolds naturally. By the side of this there seems to be something artificial about Solti’s performance and recording. Rattle’s may be a patch up of more than one performance but, for me, this is live recording at its best and the sound is fabulous. In his review Tony Duggan noted that he couldn’t tell that it is a live performance. I couldn’t either but that’s fine by me.

A composer whose music I have enjoyed discovering lately is the Scottish-born Victorian composer and pianist of Italian origin Eugen d’Albert. In particular I have been listening to his two piano concertos and solo piano music from two Hyperion discs (CDA66747 and CDA66945), both with Piers Lane at the keyboard. The first is part of the label’s excellent series of Romantic Piano Concertos. The first concerto is on a very large scale and was written when d’Albert was 20 years old. The second is much tauter and well worth hearing. On the second disc there is a substantial sonata dating from the same year as the second concerto (1893) and the varied and attractive 8 Klavierstücke Op.5. Piers Lane is an excellent advocate for the composer (as he his for other rarely heard music on this label).

Over Easter the BBC scheduled TV broadcasts of the first two parts of Wagner’s Ring i.e. Das Rheingold and Die Walküre from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. I heard a radio broadcast of the former in January and therefore merely recorded that for future listening, keeping the afternoon and evening of Easter Monday free for Part 2. Disappointment – Bryn Terfel’s voice was on the blink again and, whilst the show had to go on in the Opera House, TV viewers got Act I only (in which Wotan doesn’t appear). Acts II and III are now scheduled for May. The first act was well played and sung but visually unremarkable except when Nothung seemed to fall out of the "tree" for Siegmund.

For much more controversial Wagner, it is a short stroll from Covent Garden to the Coliseum where the English National Opera is further ahead in the Ring stakes and now staging Twilight of the Gods (see link 4 for Marc Bridle’s detailed review). This made news headlines in the UK because of Brünnhilde’s suicide bombing at the end but at least that was in keeping with the rest of this production of the Ring. Apparently there were some boos on the first night but none the following Saturday evening when I was there. I suspect that the level of performance had also moved up a gear, certainly the orchestral playing maintained a pretty high standard throughout. Paul Daniel has grown in stature as the cycle has progressed and it is pity that his departure soon will presumably mean that he will not conduct a complete cycle (i.e. one that can be seen over a few days). As Marc indicated, Gidon Saks as Hagen and Kathleen Broderick as Brünnhilde were both excellent, and I was also impressed with chorus in Act II. Having seen the whole cycle over a period of more than a year there was certainly a feeling of finality at the end. This may not have been the greatest of Ring’s but the opportunity to see it live doesn’t come around too often and, overall, it was well worthwhile.

I have spent quite a lot of time listening to Bruckner recently, in particular Daniel Barenboim’s Berlin symphony cycle which was recently released in a bargain box. This generally exceeded expectations and proved to be time well spent (see link 5 for a detailed review). The late secular (and rather Wagnerian) choral work Helgoland, included as a fill-up in the set, was a new discovery for me. Aside from the symphonies, almost all Bruckner’s output is choral, the most important exception being the String Quintet which was written in 1879 between the Fifth and Sixth symphonies. Although rather symphonic in scale and approach, it is work of much beauty, particularly in the third movement adagio. Recordings of it are not plentiful but MDG have recently issued a new version by the Leipzig String Quartet (MDG 307 1297-2). Although good, this is not as fine as the classic Vienna Philharmonic Quintet version of 1974 - that has greater intensity in the adagio. The coupling of the Leipzig version is, however, most welcome – Bruckner’s early (and only) String Quartet of 1862. I hadn’t heard it since the days of LP and it is a finer work than I had remembered.

In last month’s log I commented on some recordings of the month that others had reviewed. This time I got one myself – the two piano version of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony (see link 6). I also felt extremely privileged and humble to be reviewing a superb disc of Rachmaninov’s early solo piano music played by Vladimir Ashkenazy (link 7). Ian Bostridge’s second take on Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Mullerin was another recording of the month in March (see link 8) and I received a second review copy. It was fascinating comparing this with his earlier version - both are first-rate (link 9).

Finally, I should mention MusicWeb’s April Fools (links 10-14). It is clear that Len and others take this very seriously and this year they came up with an interesting range. These varied from the hilarious but totally implausible (the Old Trafford Mahler 8 and Shirley Bassey singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs in 1955) through Bill Kenny’s Glastonbury Parsifal (which might have seemed possible after their staging of ENO’s The Valkyrie last year) to the tricky indeed Toscanini at Bayreuth in 1930. Added spice was provided by two real reviews that looked like they could have been spoofs – Elgar’s First Symphony on a full price disc from an little known German orchestra (link 15) and a Richard Strauss setting of Alfred Tennyson (link 16). April 1 is a Saturday next year but I can’t imagine that will be an insuperable obstacle, the plotting has doubtless already begun!

Patrick C Waller



















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