Wednesday 30 November 2011

Georges Lentz's incredible Ingwe

Georges Lentz
Ingwe from Mysterium (“Caeli enarrant... VII) 
Zane Banks (electric guitar)

An hour long work for solo electric guitar might not sound like the best idea in the world, but in the hands of composer Georges Lentz it's an hour of startling power.  Lentz was born in Luxenbourg but lives in Australia, and has spent two decades composing music for a monumental series of works:  Caeli enarrant... (The Heavens are Telling (Psalm XIX)).  Ingwe means 'night' in the indigenous Australian langauge of Aranda, and it's a very dark night of the soul exposed in this episode from the larger sub-cycle Mysterium, the seventh segment of Caeli enarrant.

Ingwe conjures visions of sand blasted expanses in its depiction of the vast barrenness of the Australian outback, which itself serves as a metaphor for the spiritual vacuum contemplated by Lentz as he ponders the uncaring void of the universe.  Of course, there's no text here expounding Lentz's point of view, but it's amply communicated by the wailing intensity of Zane Bank's electric guitar which is rich in imagery and suggestion.  At moments, we are enveloped by unyielding storms of sound (or maybe wind and sand), while another moment seems to depict the passing of a giant freight train which melts into the distance.  Slices of silence punctuate the wall of noise, while the work's conclusion is the most violent episode of all; a series of cataclysmic bassy strokes that grow and grow in volume, bringing to my mind an image of bombs being dropped on an already dead city.

If all this sounds rather one-note, there are many moments of quiet reflection to counter the charge and, in the seventh of the eight continuous sections, an unexpected moment of clarity in the form of a soulful and tender melody picked out on the guitar.  This episode begins with chords emerging intermittently only as the guitar's volume is turned up, producing gripping gulfs between the rise and fade of the sound.  Throughout the work, the variety of timbre and technique that Lentz and Banks draw from the guitar is fascinating and makes this a genuinely involving hour that passes much faster than it feels it might at the outset.

Ingwe is Naxos's second disc of Lentz's music and features excellent notes from Richard Toop who gives a valuable guide through to the work.  The earlier disc (8.557019) includes further segments of Mysterium, and we can only hope that Naxos bring us more slices of Lentz's ongoing cycle.

Naxos 8.572483

Tuesday 29 November 2011

A personal apology to Charles Dutoit

Mr Dutoit,

I’m sure you don’t keep up with the critics; why would you?  Those symphonies aren’t going to learn themselves, after all.  So here’s hoping you didn’t see what I wrote about your performance of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony with the RPO a few weeks ago.  I think I said something like “Was anything ever at stake here? Were there depths beyond Dutoit's shimmering surface? ... on this occasion, not all of the hollowness was Tchaikovsky's own.”  That was a bit much, wasn’t it.  I’ll admit it: I was disappointed with the performance, especially after I’d so much enjoyed your Rite of Spring in London a few months before; but, all considered, I’ll admit I was guilty of a little overstatement.  The performance left me rather nonplussed, but it didn’t make me angry.  It took Valery Gergiev to do that; to make a performance of this same work not so much a distortion as an act of vandalism.  So I’m sorry for being a bit mean and I’ll look forward to your next concert.  Honestly, I will; now that I know just how much worse that Tchaikovsky really could have been.


Monday 28 November 2011

The Big List of Classical Music Blogs

This one does what it says on the tin.  I've never seen such a comprehensive list of classical blogs as this, and it is nice to see my name next to Alex Ross's.  But then, that's the alphabet for you.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Grill Mutter on Facebook

Photo: Tina Tahir/DG

Want to ask Anne-Sophie Mutter a question?  She'll be taking part in a Q&A session organised by the London Symphony Orchestra, to be streamed live on Facebook tomorrow afternoon.  Come up with a good'un and fire it their way here.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Liszt New Discoveries Vol 3

New Discoveries Vol 3

Leslie Howard (piano)

Hyperion CDA67810

All mammoth recording projects must resemble a mountain at their outset. Looking back on Leslie Howard's gigantic survey of Liszt's piano music, the great peaks were scaled and unknown plateaus and valleys revealed; and now, more than a decade on from the ostensible end of the project (for no international search for the continuing paper trail of a composer so intent on churning out manuscript can ever really be over) Howard presents another set mopping up loose Lisztian ends under the banner of 'New Discoveries'.

This is Howard's third volume of subsequently uncovered odds and ends, though the finds grow more academic and the newness of the material a little more dubious as time goes on. The bulk of the track listing is taken up with tiny fragments of music, some familiar and some not, classed as album leaves or, as Howard has it, 'keepsakes'. Very few could be considered independent musical works and many are little isolated passages which could be drafts. One of those that seems almost complete is track 27, an album leaf named Purgatorio (Andante in b minor), an intriguing series of descending figures with a melancholic tone. Howard doesn't specify in his sleeve notes which piece they may be connected to, and if this one is from a larger work it's not one I know.

One work appears in a number of guises. Howard suggests that Liszt must have had a special fondness for Lyubila Ya by Michael Wielhorsky (1788-1856) because of the couple of arrangements that Liszt made of the melody. We have three stages of the process here, though they're spread across the two discs, making comparisons a little difficult. What they do suggest is that Liszt was at his strongest when reigning in his instinct to hurl ornamentation into his familiar variation format. It's a point underscored by a simplified version of the Valse-Impromtu, which is all the more affecting for its pared back delicacy and transparency.

Of the more substantial pieces, the Romancero Espagnol includes a typical Lisztian mix of virtuosic variations and some moments of ear catchingly inventive tonality. Two pieces from the oratorio Christus come from Liszt's own transcription of the work for the published vocal score, and Howard clearly believes that they have pianistic value in their own right. One other curiosity is the Variations Tiszántuli szép léany, a work published under Liszt's name and mentioned in contemporary catalogues of his music but some way below the quality of even Liszt's most pedestrian works. Howard isn't convinced it's bona fide, but includes it for completnesses sake.

Completeness is the essence of this volume. To Lisztians, it's self recommending and anyone who has closely followed this Hyperion series will want this set. But this is specialist territory only and casual Liszt listeners are unlikely to have their picture of the composer broadened by it. Needless to say, Howard's playing is sensitive and enjoyable throughout.

This review originally appeared with a full tracklisting at Musicweb International.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Divine Art's Prokofiev

Russian Piano Music Vol.7: Prokofiev
Piano Sonatas 2 & 7
Visions fugatives (selections)
10 pieces from Romeo and Juliet (selections)

Sergei Dukachev

Divine Art DDA25096

It seems appropriate that Prokofiev wrote some of his finest and most varied music for his own instrument, the piano.  Prokofiev left a handful of recordings of his own playing for posterity, setting a high standard for those wanting to follow in his footsteps and tackle this remarkable oeuvre.  That bar was maintained by two of Prokofiev’s pianist colleagues, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Ricther, so that anyone attempting this repertoire is stepping into a mighty tradition.  This volume continues Divine Art’s survey of an even grander tradition: the hi-ways and by-ways of Russian piano music.

Divine Art’s Prokofiev compilation begins with the Second Piano Sonata of 1912, the most substantial among the first five.  It’s a case of serving the best first in Dukachev’s case, as this performance is the most secure on the disc with only the final Vivace suffering from a few blemishes.  The Andante is successful, with Dukachev building the tension effectively throughout. 

Only a few notes into his selection from the Visions Fugitives, however, and alarm bells ring.  Dukachev misses a chord in the left hand of No.1, leading to a bar or so of mismatched left and right hands.  It sounds so deliberate that I questioned my own edition of the score, but checking the original Russian print confirms that it must be a mistake on Dukachev’s part.  It turns out that these are live recordings, taken from a number of different concerts; not that you’d know from the back of the box.  So, a memory slip could be forgiven - it’s certainly happened to the very best in the past – but who is going to want to listen to this mistake again and again?

Armed with the knowledge that these are live recordings (only confirmed inside the booklet), the lack of audience noise throughout (save for the end of the 7th Sonata, which includes applause) is a relief, and the disc’s live status goes some way to explain Dukachev’s untidy finger work in the faster passages of the Op.22 selections.  All pianists make mistakes in concert, but these performances aren’t persuasive enough in their own terms to warrant anyone returning to them and hearing those mistakes again.

Four of Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet suffer from the same issues, though they confirm that Dukachev is at least good at dreamy atmosphere, such as that conjured for the beginning of Romeo and Juliet before parting.  The Seventh Sonata, one of Prokofiev’s fiercest works in any genre, is given a reasonable performance which impresses mostly in the shell-shocked second movement Andante coloroso, but the Precipitato finale is disappointingly underpowered. 

Across the entire disc, there is the added problem of poor sound, which varies quite noticeably between pieces but which is always consistently bad.  It would have been poor by the standards of four decades ago; the fact that all of these recordings were taped during or after 2000 makes the situation particularly unforgivable.  I’m inclined to give Dukachev the benefit of the doubt in some cases of muddy playing, as the acoustic and production can only have made the problems worse than they might have seemed at the time of the performances.  But the sound problems are enough on their own for me to direct anyone interested in sampling Prokofiev’s wonderful piano music elsewhere, such as to Bernd Glemser’s three budget priced discs of Prokofiev’s complete piano sonatas (including the Romeo and Juliet pieces) on Naxos (8553021; 8554270; 8555030), at the very least.

This review originally appeared at Musicweb International.