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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: January 2007

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

Last month I railed against the Gramophone’s downward slide. John Quinn, Rob Barnett and Paul Serotsky have since added their views on the bulletin board (link 1). My subscription doesn’t expire for a few months and the January issue has since arrived. It seems that the editor was proud that their awful image of Beethoven made it as a news story in the infamous British tabloid The Sun. If you want to go downmarket, I suppose this is the ultimate accolade! Changes are clearly afoot on Radio 3 too but I will reserve judgement on those until after they come into effect in February. Meanwhile, Len arranged for me to be sent some copies the International Record Review which seems a much more solid read and to which I shall now transfer my allegiance. Rather reminiscent of how the Gramophone used to be, the only disappointment is the rather slim breadth of coverage but it would be hard for any paper magazine to compete with MusicWeb on that.

Some cracking discs have come my way recently and most of them have been on the remarkably productive Naxos label. Pride of place goes to Shostakovich’s rather neglected ballet The Golden Age (link 2) – a stunning centenary offering. The Naxos label is notable for several very valuable series (American Classics perhaps takes the palm) and they have recently embarked on two more worthwhile projects. A disc of music for saxophone and orchestra from Greece (link 3) is the first "Greek Classic" and all Martinů’s piano music is also in the offing (link 4). Most of the time it is hard to fault Naxos on artistic or technical grounds these days but I think they miss a trick or two in telling us about what’s on the way. For example, George Koukl does a fine job on the first Martinů disc and I would assume he’s going to record the rest of the canon but this is not made clear in the documentation nor on the Naxos website. To comment on the scope of the Greek Classics series would also involve complete guesswork at the moment. But back to the music and Carl Stamitz’s orchestral quartets were certainly worth resurrecting from oblivion, particularly in the very capable hands of Donald Armstrong and his New Zealand chamber forces (link 5).

The other disc I have reviewed was on the MDG label and called Oboe Solo (link 6). This was particularly entrancing, the unfettered oboe sound being particularly attractive in a varied programme from Yeon-Hee Kwak. Her playing is really quite remarkable, bringing to mind Heinz Holliger in his prime.

I have also been listening to some discs of the winning performances from the 2005 International Chopin competition. Christopher Howell recently reviewed in detail a comprehensive 15 disc set from the competition (link 7) but I have only heard the winner, Rafał Blechacz, i.e. discs 6, 13 and 15 from that set. Pretty stunning they are too, in particular the Concerto No 1 from the final. Marvellous, natural playing from Blechacz is well-supported and the only black mark is for the audience who behaved as if they were at the opera and clapped well before the music had finished. The recorded sound is excellent and the separate three CD Blechacz compilation is certainly worth having. It is a pity though that it could have easily been fitted onto two discs. Indeed, virtually all the works played would fit onto a single disc, there being duplication of some of the shorter pieces (a good selection of mazurkas, etudes, nocturnes and waltzes). If you fancy ploughing through the larger set, perhaps you should be trying to win it in the MusicWeb Christmas Challenge (link 8), more of which below.

Ginastera is a composer I have been meaning to hear more of for some time. Naxos’s recent release of a disc of his two early ballet scores Panambí and Estancia was a good opportunity and what a fine disc this is (see link 9 for a 1999 review of the original Conifer disc). The work of Uruguayan-born conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor was new to me apart from once hearing her rehearse in St. David’s Cathedral in Wales entirely by accident. A few years ago we were visiting the town and wanted to see the Cathedral. Unbeknown to us the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was giving a concert that evening. Literally, as we entered, Ben-Dor’s arms were raised to signal the beginning of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Needless to say we sat and listened and during the course of running through the work we were joined by many others who applauded enthusiastically at the end of the movements. Back to Ginastera, I have now also heard his First and Second Piano Concertos on another recommendable Naxos disc (8.555283).

Talking of ex-Conifer recordings, these form the basis of the substantial Arnold collection recently released coincidentally around the time of his death (they were intended to celebrate his 85th birthday). There are three boxes and 13 discs in total (links 10-12), and I feel lucky to have received them all as a surprise Christmas present. I still am only about half way through listening to them and have mostly been hearing works which are unfamiliar such as the piano music played by Benjamin Frith, music for brass band and some of the concertos. Amongst the surprises there are the Viola and Recorder Concertos, the former with a deeply-felt slow movement and the latter irrepressible in spirit. Handley is the conductor for the symphonies, I have so far only heard the Fifth. Fine though this version is I don’t think I shall be parting with my disc of Arnold conducting this work – surely no one can match the feeling he imparts to the slow movement. As Rob Barnett’s reviews made clear, these boxes are essential items for lovers of Arnold music.

York Bowen is another composer having something of a renaissance. I recently stumbled across and enjoyed a disc of his second and third quartets and Phantasy quintet for bass clarinet and string quartet (link 13). Of lesser interest I found were the two quartets of John Ireland – these are student works and even the Maggini’s can’t manage to make them sound like Ireland (link 14).

I thought the Viennese New Year’s day concert for 2007 seemed a little low key under Zubin Mehta, perhaps that was intended. Not that this could be said about Paul Paray’s 1959 disc of overtures by Suppé and Auber (link 15). This has been around for a while but I have only just caught up with it. The sound has stunning immediacy for its 1959 vintage and the music is perfect for blowing any cobwebs away.

There is still time to enter the MusicWeb Challenge to find the most prolific composer of all time (link 8). Winning one of the attractive prizes on offer will clearly require some ingenuity as demonstrated by an answer received from Paul Serotsky. This might have been looked upon favourably by the judges but Paul is disqualified as a MusicWeb Reviewer, his answer exceeds the maximum word count and his composer exceeds even our tolerance of obscurity. Nevertheless it had us chuckling and is reproduced below, with permission:

Measure of "prolific":

It can't be TOTAL AMOUNT of music, because some composers live longer, i.e.
have longer composing careers.

Therefore it must be the average RATE of production.
Note: what proportion of his working life a composer devotes to composition
is the composer's choice, and therefore shouldn't enter into the equation.

Measure of "amount":

1. It can't be number of opuses, because some composers (e.g. Haydn)
sometimes included several works per opus.
2. It can't be number of works, because many short works can be written in
the same time as fewer much longer ones
3. It can't be total playing time, because this depends on speed of
4. It can't be number of bars, because not all bars are equal in length, or
indeed "height" (i.e. a piano score has two staves, a symphonic score has
Therefore it must be the number of individual NOTES, including rests and

Note: we could go further, and consider the number of pen-strokes per note
(e.g. a double-dotted demisemiquaver takes longer to write down than a
semibreve), or take into account the numbers and lengths of tempo and
dynamic markings etc. Each individual clef symbol, key signature and
bar-line should count as one note.
Thus, a composer's "prolificness quotient" (heck, let's call it "PQ"!) =
(Number of Notes)/(length of composing career).
The most prolific composer is the one with the highest PQ.


1. It is entirely possible that THE most prolific composer is the
little-known Cistercian monk Minimus Musicus (c. 1490-1517), who wrote but
one work consisting of a single, completely empty bar (apparently, he became
so excited at the prospect of composing that, in the three seconds it took
him to set that down he suffered a massive coronary. He had the presence of
mind to write the double bar-line as he died . His PQ is astronomical.
2. At present it is, of course, entirely specious to propose any sort of
definitive answer. First, somebody must do an awful lot of counting!
3. I would suggest that minimalist composers, and users of Sibelius 7
(especially if they are also minimalists), be disqualified. The same goes
for composers who "program" music loops and what-have-you.

A shorter response from North American Seen and Heard editor Marc Bridle also suggested the answer might be based on the number of notes.... "in which case Richard Strauss must reckon. Beecham once said that you could lose a couple of thousand notes from Ein Heldenleben and still hear the music."! Have fun and make sure you enter by 22 January.

Patrick C Waller



















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