Friday 28 October 2011

Polish greats

Violinist Giovanni Guzzo

It might be that seeing a great view from the top of a mountain is ehanced by there being no one else there.  I think the opposite is true of concerts, as I found out at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday when the RPO gave a terrific performance of Polish classical music to an almost empty auditorium.  Shame.  Read my review at Classicalsource, including my report on two brillint young string players who, if there's any justice, will be stars soon.

Thursday 27 October 2011

The violinists' violinist

The Guardian has asked a number of eminent violinists to choose their number one fiddler.  Interestingly, there are two mentions apiece for Ida Haendel, Pinchas Zukerman and Gidon Kremer, but no Oistrakh, Heifetz, Milstein, Szigeti, etc, etc.  I would have chosen Oistrakh myself, and Julia Fischer from the crop of current violinists.  Who would you choose?  Let us know in the comments section.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Herwig Zack: 4 Strings Only

4 Strings Only: A Recital for Solo Violin


Herwig Zack (violin)


Several themes run through this album of solo violin music from German violinist Herwig Zack.  Four of the works suggest a broadening of the repertoire in the shadow of the fifth; Bach’s violin works, after all, being so dominant in the repertoire.  Three of them were composed for Yehudi Menuhin, a prolific commissioner of new music, while Menuhin’s Bach remains one of his most important legacies.  And, perhaps more trivially, this disc reminds us that besides Bach, plenty of other Bs wrote solo violin music.

Zack’s recital gives us the two Suites by Bloch, in reverse order and separated by a sample of Bach’s mighty example of violin writing.  Bloch’s Suites for solo violin, composed for Menuhin, date from quite late in the composer’s life (both written in 1958) and maybe their close proximity makes them sound like two sides of a musical coin.  The Suites’ language is lonely, anguished, and at times quite angular.  If anything, the First Suite in more introspective than the Second, though its initial upward stab makes for a striking and combative opening.  At its heart is a brief Andante, just two lines long in the score, which evokes the more simple tonality of Bach.  Zach underscores this link by paring back his tone and vibrato, a technique also deployed in the Bach Second Sonata.

The Second Suite occasionally slips into a Bartokian sound world, and perhaps its most striking moment is a series of declamatory chords in the moderato second movement.  These are both intriguing works, but I must admit that despite having listened to them a number of times, I’ve struggled to retain the sound of them in my memory.  Zack’s intonation is always precise, but he’s let down, particularly in these works, by the recording’s lack of dynamic contrast; fortissimo moments are often little varied from pianos that follow them, though I sense that this is not Zack’s fault.  The dynamic issues are less of a problem in Bach’s Second Sonata, BWV 1003, in which Zack’s borrows period simplicity with minimal vibrato and sustain.  He adapts his sound very well, though a less self consciously stylised performance might have made more of the lines of the Fuga or of the famous andante.  

The last two works on the disc turn out to be the most appealing.  Paul Ben-Haim’s Sonata of 1951 makes a great play of Jewish elements, such as a distinctive harmony and single note drones maintained beneath modal flourishes.  Zack is at his very best in Berio’s Sequenza VIII, which plays with the idea of closely pitched clusters of notes and, in a brilliant central section, a ghostly toccata of smudged semi quavers.  At one point, Zack excels himself by continuing the toccata while interjecting four-note chords into their flow without ever loosing the thread of the underlying semi quavers.  It’s a bravura moment from a very impressive violinist.

Monday 24 October 2011

British Composer Awards 2011

Here's the shortlist for the British Composer Awards, as selected by the British Academy of Songwriters, Compsoers and Authors (BASCA).  The winners will be announced on November 30th, and Radio 3 will be airing a special programme about the awards on 4th December.
Instrumental Solo or Duo
Oliver Knussen: Ophelia's Last Dance
Thomas Simaku: Soliloquy IV for Bass Clarinet
William Sweeney: Sonata for Cello & Piano
David Matthews: Horn Quintet
Anthony Payne: String Quartet No. 2
Martin Suckling: To See the Dark Between
Dai Fujikura: away we play
Martin Suckling: What Shall I Give?
Huw Watkins: Five Larkin Songs
Alexander Campkin: O magnum mysterium
Francis Pott: Mass in Eight Parts
Michael Zev Gordon: Allele
Wind Band or Brass Band
Tom Davoren: Looking In
Emily Howard: Obsidian
Lucy Pankhurst: In Pitch Black
Julian Anderson: Fantasias
Simon Bainbridge: Concerti Grossi
Huw Watkins: Violin Concerto
Stage Works
Orlando Gough: A Ring A Lamp A Thing
Tim Minchin: Matilda
Joby Talbot: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Julian Anderson: Bell Mass
Francis Grier: Missa Spiritus Sancti
Gabriel Jackson: The Glory of the Lord

Sonic Art
No Award

Contemporary Jazz Composition
Tommy Evans: The Green Seagull
Martin Kershaw: Closing In
Sid Peacock: Hallucinogenic Garden
Community or Educational Project
John Barber: Consider the Lilies
David Bedford: The Wreck of the Titanic
Anna Meredith: Night Shift
Making Music Award
Richard Bullen: I can't find brumm...
Kirsty Devaney: Hadal Zone
Tim Sutton: The Seven Joys
International Award
Gerald Barry: La Plus Forte
Brett Dean: Epitaphs
Bent Sørensen: La Mattina
Mira Calix / Orlando Gough / Emily Hall / Andy Mellon / Paul Sartin: Fables - A Film Opera
Graham Fitkin: PK
Julian Joseph: Shadowball

Thursday 20 October 2011

Liszt on the violin

This is a bit bonkers.  Noam Sivan has transcribed Liszt's mighty B minor Piano Sonata for solo violin and it's performed here by Giora Schmidt.  The Sonata is one of Liszt most formidable works, one which eschews the flashy virtuosity that Liszt's works can suffer from.  This arrangement doesn't really work, but it's a really admirable attempt at reducing a dense score onto an instrument that doesn't really do harmony.  It's also very well played here by Schmidt. 

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Takács Bartok round 1

Photo: Richard Houghton
 Over at Classicalsource, I review the first part of the Takács Quartet's Bartok cycle at Queen Elizabeth's Hall, London.  Read the review here, and UK readers can listen to the concert for a week on iplayer.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Rostropovich: The Genius of the Cello

When Mstislav Rostropovich died in 2007, one of the last great connections to a generation of remarkable composers was lost.  Rostropovich was celebrated internationally as the greatest cellist of his age, but he was also the man who coaxed the finest cello music of the Twentieth Century from its towering composers.  Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Dutilleux - these are just a few, though it was the first three with whom Rostropovich's name become inextricably linked.  John Bridcut's excellent documentary, broadcast last Friday on BBC4, touched on these special relationships and culminated in the first glimpse of newly discovered footage of the premiere, in Moscow, of Britten's Cello Symphony. 

Here was a man of enormous energy, who inspired love and a certain degree of fear in his students and colleagues.  Unlike many of his Soviet contemporaries, Rostropovich was sometimes outspoken in his criticisms of the authorities and their actions and it ultimately forced his exile from his homeland for almost two decades.  Bridcut's documentary ties Rostropovich's story together with this story of political conscience, beginning with the story of his famous 1968 Proms appearance, playing Dvorak on the day Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, and ending with his dramatic intervention in the fall of the Soviet Union, two decades later.  Hopefully, a DVD will follow this broadcast, with all of the footage from the Britten premiere.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Proms Gothic gets CD release

It seemed a sensible idea to release it on CD, but at the time of this year's Proms performance of Havergal Brian's gigantic Gothic Symphony, there was no word of it.  It has now been announced that the live performance will be released by Hyperion Records in time for Christmas.  Smart folks, those Hyperion people.  Read what I thought about the performance at the time and go to Hyperion's site for a few clips of the performance.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Rostropovich on BBC4 tomorrow

Viewers in the UK will get to see John Bridcut's documentary on the late cellist, Mistislav Rostropovich.  It's on BBC4 at 7.30PM on Friday and I for one hope it's on iplayer there after as I'll be out at the time.

Monday 3 October 2011

Interview: Belceas take on Beethoven

Boulez isn't the only B in town.  Across at Wigmore Hall, the Belcea Quartet are beginning a year long cycle of Beethoven's string quartets, starting tonight with Op18/3, Op74 and Op130 (without Grosse Fuge).  I spoke to the quartet's violist, Krzysztof Chorzelski, for about this new project.  You can read the full interview here.  Tickets for this evenings concert are sold out, but the concert is broadcast live on Radio 3 at 7.30pm and will be available for 7 days on BBC iplayer.