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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
String Quartet No.1 in F minor, Op.35 (1934/46) [19:11]
String Quartet No.3, Op.112 (1964) [19:22]
String Quartet No.4, Op.150 (1977) [16:19]
Maggini Quartet
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 1-3 December 2009
NAXOS 8.572555 [54:51]

Experience Classicsonline


Of all the major British composers, Edmund Rubbra is the one with whom I have struggled to come to terms. I have listened to all his symphonies over the years and cannot relate to them in the same way that I do to his Northamptonshire contemporaries William Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold. Furthermore, I have to confess that I have barely touched the surface of his chamber and instrumental music: in fact I had never heard any of his String Quartets until the present disc dropped onto my doorstep. Yet, as I often say to people – you cannot hear, appreciate and enjoy everything. Even the most prolific of listeners to the gramophone and its technical successors will have lacunae in their auditory adventures. One of mine happens to be Rubbra. However, the opportunity to hear these three string quartets was not to be missed: it was an adventure into the unknown.

The key thing to bear in mind when approaching this music is that these three quartets are quite different in ethos. Summed up very briefly, the First is tonal in its conception; the Third is more ‘spicy’ and the Fourth is densely-packed and reveals its secrets slowly.

The First String Quartet was composed in 1934 – the year of the death of Holst, Elgar and Delius. It was a time of great development for Rubbra when he was exploring new and more developed forms. The following year he would write his First Symphony. The liner-notes tell us that the composer was dissatisfied with the quartet and was close to abandoning it. However Vaughan Williams encouraged him to make an extensive revision and to rewrite the ‘finale’. This was completed in 1946. The work is dedicated to the elder composer with the inscription-‘To R.V.W. whose persistent interest in the original material of this work has led me to the present revisions and additions’.

The quartet commences with an energetic ‘allegro moderato’ which begins reflectively but opens out into more adventurous counterpoint. There is an assurance and competence about these out-workings that suggests confidence and originality.

The core of the work is the ‘lento’ which is regarded as an elegy. It is heartfelt music that manages to eschew any form of ‘folkery’ or obvious debt to Elgar: there is a depth and beauty here that is entirely original. Adrian Yardley is right in suggesting that this is ‘one of the most beautiful movements in any English string quartet written before the Second World War’. It does not stretch the imagination to see this as a response to the death of the triumvirate of composers mentioned. However, Rubbra was a pupil of Holst and his death must have been the most significant to him. It is a fitting elegy.

I do not know if there is a recording of the ‘original’ last movement of this Quartet; however the present ‘finale’ is an impressive and light-hearted rondo which is based on a theme from the ‘lento’.

The Editor has wisely insisted that whilst ‘the First Quartet is dedicated to Vaughan Williams don't for one moment imagine that it will sound like that composer.’ However he has noted that there are ‘a few fleeting moments where it coasts close to that green and pleasant land ...’ This is a sentiment that I agree with entirely. Certainly this quartet would seem to be the easiest to approach, if new to these works (as I am).

Edmund Rubbra’s Third String Quartet, Op.112, completed in 1963/64, is another step on the composer’s musical journey. The sleeve-notes suggest that ‘many’ have commented on the vocal nature of this quartet. The work would appear to be underscored by a quotation from the great Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas. He wrote, ‘Song is the leap of mind in the eternal breaking-out into sound’. I am not too sure exactly what the learned doctor meant by this aphorism, but Rubbra has glossed this by suggesting that ‘Song, lyrical song, is indeed the motivating force of this work’. Certainly this atmosphere is carried by the work’s largely contrapuntal nature. It is clear that Tudor polyphony was one of the key influences on the composer’s style. Stephen Johnson has described the quartet as a search for a home key and much of the drama arises from this quest.

The opening is probably also the highlight or the emotional heart of the work. Slow and commanding, this deeply moving music pushes toward release in a jaunty ‘allegretto’. The slow movement, which follows without a break is ‘fugal’ in design. Once again this is powerfully moving writing that is both rich and sonorous. However, the final ‘allegro leggiero’ dispels this profundity. Here is music that fairly bounces along: perhaps there are references to the earlier ‘allegretto’ music from the middle movement?

This quartet was given its premiere by the Allegri String Quartet at the 1964 Cheltenham Festival. I understand that it was performed back-to-back with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus for solo percussion!

The Fourth Quartet, Op.150 was composed as late as 1977 at a time when (in my opinion) much ‘modern’ chamber music was virtually un-listenable: certainly many works had abandoned any sense of tonality or lyricism in favour of innovation and shock-value. It was one of the composer’s last major works.

The Quartet is laid out in two movements; however, the first is subdivided into two major sections – an ‘andante’ and a contrasting ‘allegretto scherzando’. The second movement is an ‘elegiac’ adagio.

It is an austere work that does not exude much light and optimism – at least not until the final pages. Perhaps this is due to the ‘fundamental’ melodic interval being the ‘seventh’? However, the terseness of the musical language is matched by the tight formal structure that ensures the listener’s interest is never lost. There is no sense that this music is of an improvisatory nature. Every note counts. It is a moving tribute that surely stands the test of time. There is a depth here that was patently absent in much music written by Rubbra’s more adventurous contemporaries. Although this quartet was dedicated to the composer Robert Simpson it was actually inspired by the death of the young American musicologist Bennett Tarshish (1940-1972), who had recently died from acute diabetes.

There is no doubt that all three quartets are played with sympathy and enthusiasm by the Maggini. The disc makes for an impressive addition to the catalogue of British chamber music. I have already admitted that I have not heard these works prior to reviewing this CD; therefore I am not competent to compare and contrast other versions by the Dante and the Sterling Quartets on Dutton Epoch and Conifer (available from Archiv CD) respectively. Yet based on what I have heard on this present disc, I imagine that all Rubbra enthusiasts will demand this excellent Naxos release to complement the other two cycles.

John France

Over a period of three years from December 2003, I have spent a lot of time in the company of Harry Partch – not literally, of course, as he died in 1974, but working my way though an article and some eight reviews that can all be found on MusicWeb. Then, at the MusicWeb annual lunch (January 2007), the name of John Cage caught my ear. For reasons that my subconscious was not prepared to divulge, my curiosity was tickled. Partch and Cage have on occasion been paired off, as a sort of American "Debussy and Ravel" – was there any real connection between them?

This may come as a bit of an anticlimax but, other than them both being American originals with "far-out" ideas, I can’t really think of one. In fact, they are more on the lines of diametric opposites: with my tongue ever-so-slightly in my cheek, I could say that Partch was a seminal genius who got branded as a crackpot, and Cage was a crackpot who got branded as a seminal genius.

John Cage (1912-92) was nothing if not controversial. With his rise to prominence, an obliging World split into two opposing camps. His supporters saw him as a prime mover in the fields of experimental and electronic music, with abiding interests in "chance music", new ways of using traditional instruments, and practical application of his Zen Buddhist beliefs.

His detractors, the more radical of whom would have preferred the "nothing" option, complained that he just made a lot of silly noise, did unspeakable things to the private parts of otherwise perfectly respectable musical instruments, and came up with a load of airy-fairy claptrap to justify his bizarre buffoonery.

Partch, who was renowned for his considered and candid conclusions, didn’t have too high an opinion of Cage: "When he was younger, I found him rather charming, albeit shallow. Then later, when he was famed for the opening of doors to musical insight, I found myself obliged to use the word ‘charlatan’ . . . Pretty sounds do not necessarily make significant music, and serious words frequently cloak hokum . . . I’m all for common sounds as valid materials [but] one has to have control, so that his common sounds will mean something. . . I feel that anyone who brackets me with Cage is bracketing actual music with metaphysical theories, and what I think is a serious effort with exhibitionism." [Letter to Ben Johnston, 1952, reproduced in Innova Enclosure 3]

Who is right – the "pro" camp or the "anti"? You tell me. The only opinions I can voice with any certainty are that Cage was not really a crackpot – even if he did give that impression to his detractors – and in all probability he caused the expenditure of as much hot air as all the other Twentieth Century composers put together.

For instance, during the late 1960s, when I was a university student, Cage was a hot topic for many an informal debate over a pint or six of a Saturday night in the pub. It’s true, I swear! Granted, we also debated rather coarser matters, interspersed with lots of "rugby songs", but there was no two ways about it – in those heady days, Cage was about as "right on" and as "far out, man" as you could get.

It was even possible – but only just – for intense arguments over Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds to distract our juvenile minds from contemplating the aesthetics of passing bits of mini-skirt! Yet, no matter how much the said work of art – if that’s how you choose to define it – resonated with the mood of the Sixties, it’s as well to remember that it was written quite a while earlier, in 1952, while the hippy generation was just learning to manage without nappies!

4’33", as much as anything, fuelled the long-running furore over the definition of "music", a lot of the argument being similar to a much earlier debate amongst mathematicians, over whether "0", being "nothing", could be counted as a number. For those odd few who don’t already know, 4’33" is the work where the pianist lifts the keyboard lid, sits perfectly still for a while, then shuts the lid – the cue, I presume, for a storm of applause.

Apparently, the idea for the piece resulted from a visit to an anechoic chamber. Cage, never particularly conventional in his approach to music, explained that he wanted to hear what silence "sounded" like. Really? And here am I, expecting that he was at the very least hoping to establish conclusively, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Mind you, that’s always struck me a daft question – shouldn’t you first ask, "Is it possible for one hand to clap?"

Anyway, Cage was surprised to find that he didn’t hear "nothing". Instead he heard the real sound of his blood pumping and the virtual sounds generated by his own auditory system. Thus, having realised the impossibility of complete silence, at least in the ears of the perceiver, he fashioned 4’33" supposedly to demonstrate that fact to the rest of us. Presumably, he wasn’t aware that Smetana, to the ultimate cost of his sanity, had already answered that one.

What surprises me is that he found this surprising. What doesn’t surprise me, not one bit, is that in 2002 Cage’s publishers sued composer Mike Batt – he of "Wombles of Wimbledon Common" fame – for plagiarism! Batt, you see, had included in his album Classical Graffiti a silent track. It wasn’t, as you might expect, Batt’s "One Minute Silence" that got their danders up, but the fact that he’d credited the track to "Cage/Batt". Unbelievable? Well, it was reported by the BBC, so it must be true, mustn’t it?

Another surprise, to me anyway, is that 4’33" exists in at least two versions. The one most commonly played – and I use that term reservedly – is the "Tacet" version. This had three movements, which are usually played attacca, so as to save time messing about with the keyboard lid, and each is marked simply tacet but is of course otherwise blank.

However, Cage insisted that he originally composed a much more complex piece in "small units of silent rhythmic durations which, when summed, equal the duration of the title". He also thought that he might have made a mistake in the summation. I harbour doubts about this, because originally the work had no specified duration – the first performance happened to take 4’33", and that stuck. I also doubt whether it matters – would all this "complexity" have had any significant effect on the work as perceived by its audience?

There is also a somewhat apocryphal theory that the title refers to the "absolute zero" of temperature, -273° C, on the grounds that 4’33’’ = 273 seconds. This is, at best, a specious connection, particularly as it conveniently sweeps under the carpet both the minus sign, a small matter of 0.15 C°, and the fact that the duration of 4’33" was completely accidental.

Nevertheless, it persists in attracting certain people – presumably those who, for reasons best known to themselves, not only insist on ignoring the fact but also perceive a relationship between 1 second of time and -1 degree of the Celsius temperature scale. I have a feeling that these same folk would look at you daft – and completely miss your point – if you asked them how many furlongs equal one apple pi plus 3.1418 nutty fruitcakes.

Nonsensical as this "theory" is, ironically it does suggest a connection between 4’33" and another piano work of Cage’s, ASLSP (1985). The title stands for "As SLow aS Possible" – I’ll leave you to ponder on why ASLSP was preferred over the straightforward acronym ASAP, and why it camouflages an otherwise obvious grammatical error. I gather that a typical performance takes about 20 minutes and, because it’s very slow, the piano notes have plenty of time to die away completely.

If you stretch your fancy a bit, you could imagine a decaying note being akin to the decline of thermal activity as absolute zero is approached. So, when the note reaches its "absolute zero", what do you hear? Simple – an "excerpt" from 4’33"! Neat, eh? Personally, I find myself torn between smug satisfaction at the plausibility of what I’ve just said, and embarrassment at how easy it was to pull philosophical wool over my own eyes, never mind yours.

To get back to the tale: in 1987, Cage adapted ASLSP for the organ, to bestow upon the World his Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible). Whilst this improved the continuity of what must have seemed a fairly disjointed piece, it substantially undermined the entire "absolute zero" argument (boo!). Life is full of surprises, for I have so far found no mention of any subsequent storms in academic teacups over whether an indefinitely-sustained, constant sound is really a sound at all, or merely a recalibration of "zero".

As inevitably as day follows night, these works – or rather their tempo marking – provoked profound musicological cerebration. At rock bottom, it boiled down to this: no matter how long the performer takes, he cannot help but fail to observe the most important marking in the entire score – that of the basic tempo. With time stretching from Now to Plus Infinity, 20 minutes has got to be way too fast. I wonder, why do people always have to rush everything these days? Well, it turns out that they don’t, not always. Read on.

Unbelievably, five years after Cage’s death, it got really "heavy, man". In 1997 a conference of musicologists and philosophers was convened, almost exclusively to indulge in an orgy of in-depth discussion of the implications of this tempo marking, particularly in view of the fact that an organ theoretically imposes no time limits.

Broadly speaking, the conference concluded that ASLSP could actually be quite a lot slower than that 20 minutes. Having cracked this singularly knotty philosophical nut, the wielders of the weighty sledgehammer moved on – to address, with commensurate delicacy, a burden of proof lying beaten and bruised amongst the shattered shards.

I’ll bet that Cage – by all accounts a genial, charming and fun-loving chap who regarded his life’s work as "purposeful play" – would have been laughing his socks off in his grave when the conference solemnly decided to establish a "practical" project. To prove how much more slowly the piece could be played, they planned a performance of Organ²/ASLSP that would last for, not an hour, not a day, not even a week, but 639 years. No, that is not a typographical error. Roll it around your brain: six hundred and thirty-nine years. [Health and Safety warning: if you feel your brain starting to melt, stop thinking immediately, flush the inside of your head with plenty of cold water, and seek immediate medical advice]

At this juncture, I start to wish that Cage had scored the work for a phial containing a radioactive isotope, which could then have been buried in a time-capsule to mark the commencement of the performance. This would have had the added advantage that nobody would have had to listen to any of it. Sadly, he didn’t, because if he had it would have saved an awful lot of bother.

The choice of playing time is easily explained, as it is intended to reflect the age of the instrument on which it is performed. Hence, subtract the year in which the first church organ seems to have been built, 1361, from the year that the "performance" was scheduled to start, 2000. From this simple bit of arithmetic the planners extrapolated a mystical arch, stretching from the time that the organ was invented, and symmetrically straddling what – you may recall – we used to call "the Millennium".

Obviously, planning a performance of such gargantuan span required a fair bit of time and effort. For starters, someone had to calculate a timetable, detailing the dates on which the notes are started and stopped. This isn’t as simple as it sounds because, for example, leap years and double-leap years have to be taken into account. Then, they needed somewhere to play it. The location chosen was St. Burchardi’s Church in Halberstadt, Germany. This was a nice, even sentimental touch, because St. Burchardi’s is where the very first proper church organ was installed.

Here we get another connection, albeit tenuous, to Harry Partch. One of the reasons that this organ was "proper" was that its keyboard was the first with twelve keys to the octave. Partch famously called the inauguration of this organ "the fatal day of Halberstadt" because – as far as he was concerned – it marked the start of Man’s slide down the slippery slope into the Desolation of Twelve-tone Equal Temperament.

The sentimental touch was also an expensive touch because, over the last 190 years, the said church had been variously used as "a barn, a hovel, a distillery and a sty". Disused and dilapidated, it first needed extensive restoration – and a new organ! However, because it would be fully booked for the first 639 years of its life, this new organ was designed and built specifically for this performance. Actually, that’s not quite correct: rather, it is being built. Taking advantage of the very broad basic tempo, the planners have gained a certain "efficiency" by phasing the building work to proceed in parallel with the performance.

The performance itself is a bit of a cheat, because at any given time the notes currently sounding are held down mechanically by the "autonomous" organ. So, unless a key is scheduled for depression or release, there’s nobody actually playing the music. Alright, maybe I’m being a bit unrealistic but I’m no more picky here, about the definition of "performance", than many members of the Cage camp are about the definition of "music" or "composition".

I’ll leave you to wonder about "routine" matters such as arrangements for the "heredity" of performing personnel, or securing the "performance" against mechanical or electrical failures, acts of God, war or insurrection, or any of the other myriad contingencies under which your house insurer refuses to shell out. Instead, let’s look briefly at the progress of the music.

Kick-off was on 5 September 2001, Cage’s 90th. birthday. This was a year late, but in the long run I don’t suppose it’ll make much difference, except to astrologers and sundry other mystics. In the 17 months required to "play" the first bar’s opening rest, the organ of course emitted no sound. In other words, we started with 163,938 consecutive complete performances of 4’33", give or take the odd one or two.

The first sound, which emerged on 5 February 2003, continued unchanged – apart from the addition of the octave doubling of one note on 5 July 2004 – for fully two years and five months. And so it dragged on. Currently (April 2007), the chord A3-C4-F sharp4 is sounding, and will continue so to do until it completes its six-and-a-half year run on 5 July 2012. Thereafter, though, things start to get really exciting, so watch this space.

Lest the anti-Cage camp be inspired to seize their quill pens and write letters of complaint to the Times, or even the Radio Times, we must get one thing absolutely clear. John Cage had no part whatsoever in this project. For one thing, the planning and management of the project, which must meticulously detail every last jot and tittle, would have run contrary to his aleatoric principles. For another, I doubt that this lovable and fun-loving man would have found much fun in the wall-to-wall deadly seriousness of it all. The discussions of his tempo marking, and the project spawned by them, all arose only after his death – so please don’t go blaming Cage for any of it.

Even so, it almost goes without saying that Cage would have hugely enjoyed all the controversy. More than anything in the history of music this – what Cage would have called a "happening" if it had been played for laughs – has polarised opinion, if not quite to the extent of "pistols at dawn", then not far short of that. It is either an awe-inspiring enterprise or a preposterous waste of time and effort. There is no middle ground, so if you’re still sitting on the fence, get off it at once.

I’ve weighed many of the arguments pro and con. However, the reason that I’ve come down on the "anti" side of the fence has nothing to do with any of these. In my opinion, and to the best of my current knowledge, the entire exercise is based on a seriously flawed premise.

I suspect that the deliberations of that learned conference were blinkered by the mechanics of going "as slowly as possible". Yet, Cage wrote a piece of music. It is pretty well axiomatic that the entire raison d’être of music is to be performed. Regardless of whether the performers are people or machines, the sole purpose of performance is to create an object of human perception. Indeed, Cage’s Zen beliefs might well have prompted him to ask, "Does music really exist if there’s no-one there to hear it?" Certainly, unless you’re a follower of Descartes, sound exists independently of any observer, but for music to exist there must be an observer – a listener – who implicitly understands that it is music.

In the science of mechanics, the motion of an object can be arbitrarily slow. However, because music is an object of human perception, it can be said to be "moving" only if its observers can perceive its motion. Even the mandarins of the BBC in the 1950s understood this – it was the principle underlying Music and Movement, a sort of primer of ballet and mime which in those days was broadcast to schools, thereby inflicting eternal, squirming embarrassment on hapless real "small boys" such as myself.

Although there can be an accidental "logic" in mechanical sounds, logic is one of the defining characteristics of music. You could even say that perception of this logic is the key to the door on all the wonderful things music does to our minds and hearts. In particular, the speed of music is not "the number of notes per unit time", but the rate of progression of the logic – a distinction that Ligeti, for one, explored to stunning effect.

We’ve one more step to take. If we progressively slow down a piece of music, the events that define the music’s logic get further apart. Is there a point beyond which we can no longer sense the logical flow? This depends on memory. As long as we can remember "the story so far" – or at the very least the previous logical step – then we stand a chance of making sense of the current one. This limiting interval between logical events is, I suspect, shorter than we might imagine – taking an educated guess, I’d say it lies somewhere in the region of the listener’s attention span. Go much beyond that with nothing new coming in, and the average mind, bored out of its skull, will conclude that nothing is happening and turn its attention elsewhere.

For similar reasons, there is a corresponding limitation on performers: if they go too slowly, they will lose track of the measure of the music. Hence, Cage’s title-cum-tempo-marking ought to read something like "As Slow(ly) as is Humanly Possible". We may argue over exactly how slow this might be, but I doubt that anyone could come up with a convincing argument that the tempo chosen for the ASLSP Project is anywhere near the right ball-park. I suspect that even Treebeard would fail to find it "hasty".

If I were to be blunt, I’d say that a piece of music that takes going on for ten standard lifetimes to perform is about as useful to us as a chocolate fireguard. The whole thing could have been achieved with much less hassle and a sight more cheaply, but with every bit as much "meaning", if 4’33" had been stretched to fill 639 years. All it needed was a large "egg-timer" stopwatch – powered, of course, by thoroughly "green" solar panels – and situated in (say) Tibet. As far as I’m concerned, this is all just a wee bit over the top, just to get an entry in the 2641 edition of The Guinness Book of Records.

Still, for better or for worse, the project’s up and running, at least until such time as the last person who is interested in keeping it going gets bored with it. To quench your thirst for excitement, you can go to the web-site and eavesdrop on the "current sound". If you doubt the validity of my arguments, I can almost guarantee that 20 seconds of this will change your mind. However, if you gamely persist for a further 10 seconds or so, you may get a bit of a surprise. I did.

Diligently pursuing my duty as a reviewer, I girded my loins, gritted my teeth, and soldiered on through the pain barrier. After a while I noticed some "noises off". My mind gratefully clutched at these straws, which would have seemed meagre had I not been so desperate. Could I make sense of them? Might I catch a snatch of conversation (such as, "Where’s the bloody ‘off’ switch?")? A little while later – though it seemed like an eternity – I heard a "catch" in the sound, rather like the glitches you get in streamed audio, quickly followed by what seemed to be the same "noises off".

My attention now riveted, my pain put on hold, I listened on. Guess what? That’s right; after about the same interval, it happened all over again. This wasn’t "the current sound", but a sample of the current sound played in a loop. I felt a bit cheated, not of the experience of a lifetime but mostly of five minutes in which I could have been doing something much more interesting, like watching paint drying, or grass growing, or a DVD of a teenager waking up on a Monday morning. Heck, even the sound quality isn’t up to much. Take a tip from me: if you want to experience a fair reflection of the "current sound", in decent-quality audio, induce some mains hum in your amplifier and listen to that.

There will, of course, be a major celebration to mark the conclusion of the project. However, as planning is still in the very early stages, as yet no details are available. Nevertheless, it is generally expected that the occasion will be marked by the release of a complete recording in a special, de-luxe commemorative edition.

For practical reasons, it is unlikely that this will take the form of a 4,201,107-CD boxed set. Even shoe-horning it into a low-grade MP3 "song" would require a file size of somewhere in the region of 200 terabytes. Obviously, this would make even the fanciest of today’s MP3 players gip, but there is every reason to be confident that technological advances during the project’s course will result in much more efficient and compact storage systems.

In the meantime, for those cats whose curiosity is already getting the better of them there is this CD, warmly recorded in 24-bit, high-definition sound. This compresses the entire work into a time-frame of around 72 minutes, which is some 4,667,895 times faster than the projected performance. Yet, even at this comparatively breakneck speed, it still manages to prove my point.

After a few minutes of my undivided attention, and in spite of my best efforts at due diligence, I found those images of wet paint, short grass and somnolescent teenager starting to beckon seductively. My mind slowly drifted into dreamy contemplation of the word "somnolescent", becoming lulled by its lazy liquidity . . . I awoke with a start, and re-joined the performance. It seemed very quiet. Shortly thereafter, I noticed the CD player, displaying an admonishing "stopped." But don’t let me put you off – if your attention span is more robust than mine, you may well find it a deeply affecting experience.

Performances of the original piano version gallop by in typically just over a quarter of the time. Regardless of any help from things like sophisticated – and silent – electronic metronomes, that says much for the intense concentration and immaculate control exhibited by the organists, Bossert and Ericsson. I wish I had their stamina.


 


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