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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: August 2005

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

I have often wondered why about 99% of my music collection features music written by men. Another hobby of mine is chess and about 99% of great players are men. I have yet to find a good explanation for either of these phenomena. In chess there is one female who bucks the trend (Judith Polgar) but, I wonder, has there been (or will there be) a truly great female composer? At the risk of being shot down in flames, Amy Beach is perhaps the best suggestion I could offer. I do have one most interesting multi-composer disc consisting entirely of 20th century British female composers who wrote for the ’cello. Played by Catherine Wilmers, it contains two short pieces by Margaret Hubicki. Recently, I was pleased to review a splendid new Chandos disc devoted entirely to her music (link 1).

I also reviewed the only available recording of the two-piano arrangement of Bruckner’s 3rd symphony (link 2) and continue to be surprised at how good works like this can be in arrangements for small forces. Colin Clarke was enthusiastic about the recently issued chamber version of Mahler’s 4th symphony on the Avie Label (link 3). I can only echo this – splendid playing from the Manchester Camerata and Douglas Boyd seems to be well inside Mahler’s world. Given its generally light textures, the fourth symphony is probably particularly suited to such treatment. I wonder if there are similar versions of his other symphonies – surely not the second or eighth? The only reservation I had related not to the unusual instrumentation but was whether Kate Royal’s voice really is ideal for the part; nevertheless she sings superbly.

Talking of Mahler, I have a confession to make: I bought the DVD of Ken Russell’s 1974 film which stars Robert Powell as the composer. I saw this in the cinema sometime in the 1970s when I was getting to know the music and was very curious to see it again despite a review in The Gramophone that was fairly off-putting. Bernard Haitink’s Amsterdam recordings were used on the soundtrack – I had the set on LP and they were an excellent introduction. Unfortunately the sound quality here is pretty dreadful – a question of lack of refurbishment because the original sound of this set was fine. Play it through the television rather than the stereo would be my advice. This DVD arrived mid-week and I decided to save it for the weekend. Since it included a trailer, this was used to assuage immediate curiosity and I was soon laughing out loud. The film itself is not for the purist but is entertaining and seems less outrageous now than thirty years ago. The use of music is variably successful but the conclusion of the first movement of the sixth is a striking success at the very end. Powell makes a plausible Mahler and so is Georgina Hale as Alma. So as to avoid politics and religion, I won’t mention Cosima Wagner.

Have you ever wanted something for years and then finally got it? In this case I am referring to Howard Shelley’s complete Rachmaninov’s piano music on Hyperion. An 8 CD set originally issued in a very large box, quite expensive and involving some duplication, this has recently become irresistible. It was the combination of Ian Lace’s very detailed review (link 4) and the new packaging/pricing that did for my money, and I have not been disappointed. Shelley’s Preludes took the palm on BBC Radio 3’s Building a library recently and the whole set is at a similar level. Buy this and not only is aural pleasure guaranteed but you’ll be doing your bit to help keep Hyperion going.

I had to wait about four months to hear Frederick Cliffe’s Symphony No 1 (link 5) on the Sterling label after ordering the disc back in March. There are several notable things here – written in 1889 it was his opus 1 but is a remarkably assured and interesting work, and it was recorded in Sweden. Cliffe eventually gave up composing but, at least in Christopher Fifield’s hands, this was as good as any other British symphony of the time and well worth resurrecting.

As ever, there are interesting new CDs recently out on the Naxos label. Three orchestral discs I have enjoyed were Guridi’s Sinfonía pirenaica (link 6), William Schuman’s Symphonies Nos 4 and 9 (link 7) and Bloch’s epic rhapsody America (link 8). All these works were new to me and seem worth getting to know. It is good to hear that the Schuman is part of a proposed complete series.

Also regarding series, the Chandos Berkeley collection is an excellent project that I have been gradually getting to grips with. Juxtaposing works by Lennox and Michael on the individual discs, it is directed by Richard Hickox. Some time ago I heard Michael Berkeley on the radio say that it is basically "Dad’s symphonies and my concertos". Volumes 3 (link 9) and 4 (link 10) are both full of interest and I was particularly taken with Michael’s Cello Concerto.

Finally, I always seem to feel the need to mention Wagner and the fleeting reference to Cosima above doesn’t suffice. Aside from a feeling of anticipation induced by the new EMI Tristan und Isolde (link 11), which hopefully I will come back to next time, the 24-hour Ring (link 12) reviewed by Bill Kenny also caught my eye. In John Culshaw’s book Ring Resounding he mentions a US radio station playing the Decca Ring straight through in about 15 hours – I wondered if anyone listened to every note? The very notion of performing the whole thing live in a day goes way beyond that. I expect Wagner would have approved and hope Bill has recovered.

Patrick C Waller





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