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Jaap Nico HAMBURGER (b.?)
Chamber Symphony No.1 ‘Remember to Forget’1 [16:59]
Chamber Symphony No.2 ‘Children's War Diaries’2 [15:27]
Ensemble Caprice/Matthias Maute1
Orchestre Métropolitain/Vincent de Kort2
rec. Église St-Augustin, Mirabel, Québec, 17-18 November 20191 and live Maison symphonique de Montréal 2 November 20192. DDD.
Reviewed as 24/192 (wav) press preview
LEAF MUSIC LM235 [32:30]

The word ‘polymath’ is pretty frequently bandied about these days, but it really does seem to apply to Jaap Hamburger – clinical professor of medicine, heart surgeon and composer in residence Mécénat Musica, is a distinguished combination. The Canadian label Leaf recently released a recording of his Piano Concerto (LM238). Like LM235, that seems to be available as a download only from some dealers – mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless from Presto – though Amazon UK offer both mp3 and CD and it’s available on CD for North American purchasers from ArkivMusic. As I write up this review, the new chamber symphonies recording is download only from Presto, but on CD from Amazon UK and ArkivMusic.

I enjoyed hearing the Piano Concerto, a powerful work which I’ve seen compared to Shostakovich, though not as memorable. I have to say that I don’t expect to return to it as often as to Shostakovich, and it does make for a very short album – on which subject, see also below.

The two Chamber Concertos again don’t add up to a very substantial album. The music here, too, is generally powerful, both works having connections to the holocaust. The first, a commission from the Turning Point Ensemble, follows the life of the composer Ligeti, the first part referring to his survival when members of his family were killed in Auschwitz, the second to his escape from Communist Hungary to Vienna and then Hamburg, the metaphor of the train journey inherent in both parts.

I have to declare that I’m no great lover of Ligeti’s music, though I have occasionally been surprised to hear something on the radio only to discover that it was by him. Some of Hamburger’s tribute to Ligeti – and, indeed, some of his Piano Concerto – comes dangerously close, for me, to being noise for its own sake. It never quite crosses the line, however; indeed, at times I was reminded more of Bartók and Janáček than of Ligeti.

The title ‘chamber symphony’ throws up another composer’s name, of course, that of Schoenberg before he became too obtuse – for me – to hear with any degree of enjoyment. As with the Schoenberg Chamber Symphonies, I found myself constantly on the edge of discomfort turning to distress. The train motif is rather different from its treatment in Steve Reich’s Different Trains, with Hamburger’s music more powerful than Reich, but ultimately not quite as moving or enduring.

The second work refers in five sections to the diaries of teenagers murdered in the war. Its grim subject was inspired partly by the composer’s mother, who, as a teenager, survived the concentration camp, and wrote about the experience in her autobiography. Visiting the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, when his mother was honoured there, was the inspiration for another powerful work. It’s not comfortable music – but it isn’t meant to be. A primeval scream marks the end of the work.

I listened to both albums in 24/192 format, and it’s very good. The booklet which comes with the Piano Concerto is a very minimalist affair – at least, that’s true of the version which came with my press preview and which you can find at Naxos Music Library. The booklet for the Chamber Concertos is a little more informative, but I had to dig around beyond the booklet to find out about Hamburger’s ‘other’ life as a heart surgeon. Even so, I haven’t been able to find the year of his birth.

Both Leaf albums of Hamburger’s music offer short value: the Piano Concerto lasts just 22 minutes, the Chamber Symphonies 32 minutes. That hasn’t resulted in reduction in price, at least for UK purchasers, with the CD of the Piano Concerto costing £17.96 when I checked, and the downloads ranging from £7.49 (mp3) to £14.00 (24-bit). The CD of the chamber symphonies is more reasonably priced at £10, but it's still rather steep when the two albums together add up to less than an hour of music. Music to stream, perhaps from Naxos Music Library, then.

Brian Wilson

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