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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: May 2006

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

Downloading seems about to have an increased impact on classical music. Most prominently, Warner Classics have recently launched their own download store (link 1) and others seem to be following suit. I have visited this site, tempted by the offer of a free download of some excerpts from Daniel Barenboim’s complete Bayreuth recording of Wagner’s Ring from the early 1990s. By visiting an exclusive area (link 2) it will still be possible to do this until 10 May 2006. Four extracts are provided, one from each opera. These are perhaps the most obvious "bleeding chunks" of all – the crossing of the rainbow bridge, the ride of the Valkyries, Brünnhilde’s awakening and Siegfried’s funeral march. This is just over half an hour of music and it was very easy to download it and burn a CD, this took me a total of about 10 minutes. I don’t have these specific CDs for comparison but, in general terms, I thought the sound was near CD quality.

Looking around Warner’s download site, there seems to be quite a few things that could be done to make it more useful. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a way of browsing the content although searches suggest that they have already put quite a lot of material on it. Pricing policies seem generally reasonable i.e. quite a bit cheaper than buying the CD and there is an opportunity to purchase single tracks very cheaply. It is not entirely clear to me what one would normally be getting for the money (I haven’t parted with any yet!), for example in terms of documentation. Nor is there any information about the size of downloads or how long the process is likely to take. The files come in Windows Media Audio format and it is probably essential to have a broadband connection to use this facility.

I mention size and time because the music featured on their home page at the time of writing is Barenboim’s complete Ring. It is possible to download the whole thing, the individual operas or just parts of the opera. The cost of the lot is £26 (the 14 CDs would cost £70 from elsewhere on Warner’s site). I am guessing, but at ten minutes per hour of music it would take about two and half hours to grab it all (perhaps overnight?). If you encountered a problem, it would be possible to re-download at no charge. I would expect it to be arranged to neatly fit on CDs but this is not made clear. I am also not sure whether it would be possible to edit the material if there were difficulties in this respect. Nevertheless, I was slightly tempted by this offer but, having two CD versions and no DVDs of the Ring, have decided to wait for the DVD release of this cycle to be completed. My overall impression of downloading at the moment is that I am more likely to use it for sampling or filling in gaps rather than as a future principal source of acquiring music.

Barenboim got a big (and deserved) plug recently on BBC Radio 3 and on Easter Monday, if I can be excused persevering on this subject, they played the whole of his recording of the Ring starting at 0800 hours and finishing at midnight. I might have been unpopular had I listened to it all but did catch the whole of Act III of Götterdämmerung and found it pretty impressive. Anne Evans as Brünnhilde was not as big-voiced as many but was nevertheless superb and Barenboim urgent, particularly at the very end. From what I have heard and read about this cycle, including the production, it does seem to be one of the most interesting modern versions.

Finally, in respect of downloads and Warner Classics, another type of download is available in the exclusive area (link 2) i.e. a supplementary track to the new disc of orchestral music by Foulds from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo (2564 62999-2). Their previous offering of this composer (link 3) was outstanding and a MusicWeb disc of the year in 2004. My copy of the disc has just arrived and I hadn’t even had the chance to play it before I used it to enable me to download the supplementary track – an excerpt from his Indian Suite. This is labelled "III Navali Ladali" and is a sensuous Hindu folk song. The download lasts for just under 3 minutes and I am not sure whether this is the whole of the third movement of the suite or whether the complete suite has yet been recorded. This part was certainly recorded live (the main disc less obviously so) and by way of documentation it is possible to download a page of handwritten notes by the composer. There are also files with material relating to the main works on the CD – the Dynamic Triptych (a piano concerto in all but name with Peter Donohoe as soloist) and Music-Pictures Group 3, notable for prominent use of microtones. On first listening, this CD is a very worthy follow-up and will be a must-purchase for anyone who enjoyed the Oramo’s first disc of Foulds. No doubt there will be a review on MusicWeb soon and if we are really lucky then more Foulds including the whole of the Indian Suite may yet be to come, although I have a feeling the download might have been a single movement encore.

My only experience of live music making this month was a concert given on April Fool’s day by the Southampton Concert Orchestra (SCO), a local amateur group. Such orchestras often contain many professional musicians and amateurs of a high standard, and their concerts are usually excellent. I am probably a bit biased here because my wife and son were sitting in the cello section (the latter for the first time) but the SCO gave very creditable performances of some challenging music. The orchestra has something of a tradition in Russian music which started under its previous conductor, Judith Bailey and persists under the baton of Paul Ingram. He appears to be something of a specialist in Shostakovich. Following a recent performance of the 5th symphony, the 10th symphony was played in the second half and was the highlight of the evening. Generally thought to be the composer’s greatest work, it is quite a challenge for any orchestra and Ingram inspired his players to give their very best in a coherent and exciting interpretation. The first half included Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia and Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches. If you live in the south of England, I suggest it would be worth keeping an eye on the SCO website (link 4) and coming to one of their future concerts.

Coming on now to some CDs, two discs I have reviewed recently made a big impression, particularly the symphonies of Claudio Santoro on BIS (link 5), a recording of the month. I also enjoyed the two piano version of Brahms’ 3rd and 4th symphonies played by Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn on Naxos (link 6). Another impressive series on the same label are the quartets commissioned from Peter Maxwell Davies. The fifth and sixth in the series were very warmly reviewed by Colin Clarke (link 7) and I too found them inspiring works wonderfully played by the Maggini Quartet.

I have been also listening to the music of Anton Webern, in fact all of it since he was hardly prolific. There seem to be two "complete" sets of his music available, one takes three discs (on Sony), the other six (on DG) and both have Pierre Boulez in charge of the orchestral music. The reason for the difference is that about half his music was unpublished, mostly the early (and sometimes tonal) stuff. I went for the DG set (457 637-2), partly because I wanted to hear early works like Im Sommerwind (which is wonderful) and partly because it was on offer at about half-price. This is an endlessly fascinating set and it has been the songs and the chamber music (for example the Piano Quintet) that have made the biggest impression on me.

Knowing and liking the 2nd symphony (subtitled Romantic) of Howard Hanson, I have also been looking out for more his music. The offer of his Mercury recordings of the first three symphonies, piano concerto and various other works for only £10 seemed provident and this is another excellent set (475 686-7). Recorded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the sound is very immediate, and there is a bonus disc of Hanson lecturing on his music which may appeal to or even amuse some. Personally I’d rather have had the rest of the symphonies (there are seven in total) but I am not sure that he recorded them all.

There is an anecdote that Heifetz once said that he played contemporary music for two reasons – first to discourage the composer from writing any more and secondly to remind himself how much he liked Beethoven. During the interval of the concert mentioned above I was chatting to one of the players – Pat Dingle an ex-clarinet player with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra who took up the viola when he retired (!). When I told him this anecdote he said "we used to call it contemptible music". Now I have gone slightly off-track here because my purpose was not to rubbish contemporary music. What I wanted to say that another way of reminding yourself how much you like Beethoven might be to listen to some music by Ferdinand Ries. That is intended as a compliment to a composer who (having been taught by Beethoven) seems to have more direct influences of the master in his music than anyone else. Six months ago I had not heard a note of his music. The first thing I did hear was a live performance of his Op.169 clarinet sonata and this has now appeared on a splendid disc which Glyn Pursglove recommended highly (link 8). The couplings are another clarinet sonata and the clarinet trio. Having since positively reviewed a disc of his string quartets (link 9), and enjoyed two of his piano concertos (link 10), there is now a disc of his piano sonatas sitting in my reviewing pile. No Beethoven lover should ignore Ries’s music (link 11), and perhaps the concertos would be the best place to start.

Patrick C Waller


1. http://warner.freshdigital.co.uk

2. http://www.warnerclassics.com/exclusivearea.php

3. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Dec04/Foulds_Mantras.htm

4. http://www.concertorchestra.com/index.htm

5. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Apr06/Santoro_biscd1370.htm

6. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Apr06/Brahms_4hand_15_8557685.htm

7. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Apr06/Maxwell_Davies5&6_8557398.htm

8. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Apr06/Ries_Clarinet_CPO7770362.htm

9. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Feb06/Ries_Quartets_7770142.htm

10. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Jan06/Ries_concertos_8557638.htm

11. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Nov03/Ries_Wright.htm



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