Showing posts from January, 2023
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews CDs by the Takács Quartet and Mark Bebbington playing Vaughan Williams Dutilleux, Hough, Ravel: Takács Quartet (Hyperion) ★★★★★ Is there no end to Stephen Hough’s talents? Brilliant pianist, stylish essayist, novelist, exhibited abstract artist and composer. His String Quartet No.1 was premiered in 2021 and is a fine piece, integrated in a perfect programme with two masterpieces of French quartet writing; Ravel’s in F major and Dutilleux’s ‘Ainsi la Nuit’ (‘Thus the Night’). Hough’s quartet is titled ‘Les six recontres’ (‘The six encounters’) with a punning reference to the early twentieth century group of French composers ‘Les Six’. The spirit of the group’s humorous, ironic and occasionally madcap member Francis Poulenc haunts the quartet’s six movements. There’s a bustling, bristling walk down the boulevard, a dreamy melancholy stroll in the park, colourful excursions to the hotel and theatre, a serene meditation in church – Hough shares Poulenc’s quirky
  The CBSO play two ‘Fifths’ – Prokofiev’s epic symphony and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★ The premiere of Prokofiev’s fifth symphony in 1945 was the apogee of his career in Soviet Russia. The tide of what the Russians call ‘The Great Patriotic War’ had turned, with the Red Army starting the march that would end in Berlin with the Nazis routed. Prokofiev was conducting, waiting momentarily for a pause in the distant artillery fire before the downbeat came and one of the twentieth century’s greatest symphonies began. What an occasion, what a work. It’s not an easy one to conduct. Prokofiev called the first movement ‘Andante’ and the third ‘Adagio’, but gave them metronome marks specifying speeds respectively slower and faster than the designations would suggest. Eduardo Strausser, like many conductors, settled for a compromise, a trade-off. It saw the first movement’s grandeur and mystery, of the music gradually emerging like sunlight cutting through the morni
  The CBSO celebrates the waltz with Richard Strauss and Ravel CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ According to Wagner, Beethoven’s seventh symphony was “the apotheosis of the dance”. Not sure about that. Richard Strauss’s opera ‘Der Rosenkavalier’, however, is without doubt the apotheosis of the waltz. Strauss wields his formidable skills with a huge orchestra and at prodigious length in this love letter to Vienna’s beloved dance. His twenty-minute Suite is a brilliant highlight reel, from its whooping orgasmic opening – great horns – to the tender sighs when the Marschallin recognizes her fading attractions. At one point the music paused, then CBSO leader Eduard Tzkindelean trilled and launched the orchestra into a hurtling, delirious dance. In an incendiary performance of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ last season conductor Fabien Gabel moulded ‘Un Bal’ with a sure grasp of rubato, the rhythmic give and which is the essence of the waltz. He was just as adept here, drawing some scintillat
  Julian Bliss Septet play Gershwin at Birmingham Town Hall Julian Bliss Septet at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★ There are two sides to clarinet virtuoso Julian Bliss. Look for his CDs on Amazon and the search engine even treats him as two different people. There’s the classical wind player of the Mozart and Nielsen concertos and Brahms chamber music with the Carducci Quartet. Then comes his alter-ego who shrugs off the tuxedo, loosens up and plays jazz with his septet on ‘A Tribute to Benny Goodman’ and their new album devoted to Gershwin ‘I Got Rhythm’, which was the focus of this gig. Bliss’s connection with Gershwin goes back a long way though. A YouTube video, viewed 320,000 times, shows the five-year-old wunderkind dressed like a diminutive Acker Bilk – fancy waistcoat, sparkly bow tie and bowler hat worn at a rakish angle – playing ‘Summertime’ on a television variety show. Already a model pro he tells the audience the title and then cues the bandleader – “Thank you Trevor”. Thirty
  The CBSO gives the UK premiere of Thomas Larcher's  Symphony No.3 ‘A Line Above the Sky’ CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ Thomas Larcher’s music is always arresting. It can arrest you with a moment of wonderment like a rainbow suddenly arching across the sky or a tiny flower blossoming amidst a desolate urban landscape. It can also arrest you like a corrupt cop in a Raymond Chandler novel – violent, loud and ready to pummel the unsuspecting listener into submission. Not with a cosh but a 100-piece symphony orchestra wielding a regiment of percussion. In his Symphony No.3 ‘A Line Above the Sky’, receiving its UK premiere from the CBSO, the programme notes excitedly promised us, “timpani, cymbals and bells... empty barrels, baking paper, flexatones, thunder-sheets.” The tendency to gigantism suggests the Austrian composer is merely a purveyor of sound and fury. This symphony is much more than that. By turns lyrical, elegiac, blazing radiantly – a work of genuine musical substance. Larch
  The term “historic” has been applied to recordings rather loosely. I’ve seen it used for stereo analogue recordings of the 1950s which, with old-school conductors able to balance the orchestra without relying on console engineers and simple microphone layouts, knock for six the gerrymandered 32-track recordings of the ‘80s. But historic is what the three Somm discs reviewed here undoubtedly are: mono, made between 1940-1959, mostly from live concerts, originally low frequency radio broadcasts. One derives from an engineer and music enthusiast recording the radio on his ingenious home-made set up in the wartime 1940s. Hi-fi this is not. Somm’s remastering expert Lani Spahr has no doubt done a sterling job but he’s not a miracle worker so, caveat emptor. Somm’s Elgar discs have stiff competition from EMI’s own Abbey Road studio recordings with the composer conducting, gold standard for this repertoire, and Naxos’s series remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn. Somm has found a new seam to mine
  For the past four years I have been extolling the virtues of recordings made for Chandos by conductor John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm as shown by the national music awards and accolades they have garnered. Wilson’s breadth of musical expertise and enthusiasm, his hand-picked band with the cream of London’s orchestras and star freelances, Chandos’s splendiferous production and high-definition SACD sound as the cherry on top of this already delicious confection. Wilson made his name with sell-out concerts and best-selling CDs as conductor and arranger of music from Hollywood films and Broadway musicals with his eponymous John Wilson Orchestra. He goes back to his musical roots in ‘Hollywood Sound Stage’ (Chandos CD / SACD) ★★★★★ with eight tracks from the golden age of cinema. St Augustine’s Church Kilburn may not be as big as MGM’s Culver City studio but its spacious, lustrous acoustic sounds perfect. The five minutes of Raksin’s theme to classic
                                ANDREW DOWNES – an obituary Andrew Downes, a vibrant presence in the musical life of the Midlands and beyond, passed away this morning at the age of 72. He had long withstood a series of crippling physical disabilities, but his creative juices as a composer of eminently approachable, deeply sincere music, never stopped flowing. Born into an eminent musical family including the violist Herbert Downes (who played in the orchestra at the late Queen’s Coronation) and Frank Downes, French horn with the CBSO, Andrew studied music at Oxford, subsequently developing a dual career as counter-tenor and composer. The latter calling won, and he was appointed Head of Composition and Creative Studies at Birmingham Conservatoire, a chair created especially for him. His music was always functional and well-constructed, and found followings not just in this country but also in the Czech Republic and the USA. Our sympathies go to his widow Cynthia (who together wi