Wednesday 28 November 2012

The rest is newspaper coverage

It’s been a while coming, but London’s Southbank Centre have finally unveiled the first half of their yearlong The Rest Is Noise festival, based on the themes of Alex Ross’s hugely successful survey of twentieth century classical music. Reaction to the scheduling has pointed out the relatively unadventurous programming of the concert series (though we’ve still to see how this chronological series will tackle the later stretches of the century’s repertoire), which largely sticks to a tried and tested selection of modern classics. The Rambler weighs up the series’ good and bad points, while Intermezzo asks if the £500 festival pass is really the bargain it appears to be.

I looked with interest to the national newspaper coverage of the announcement – after all, that’s where we go for considered arts coverage, isn’t it? – and noted that The Guardian’s piece on the subject consisted of not one word of comment or appraisal of the series’ content. The explanation? “The Guardian is a media partner of The Rest Is Noise festival.”

Tuesday 27 November 2012

December's IRR reviews

December’s International Record Review is out now and again features reviews I’ve written. Here’s what I was sent this month:

American Serenade - Rachel Kolly d’Alba
Gershwin/Bernstein/Waxman (Warner Classics 2564 65765-7)

“If the career to date of Swiss violinist Rachel Kolly d’Alba proves anything, it’s that it is possible (thankfully) to enter the field playing something other than standard rep and warhorse concerti. American Serenade is her third album for Warner Classics... [It] explores the cross-contamination of “high” and “low” art inherent in American culture.”

Russian String Quartets – Leipziger Streichquartett
Afanasiev/Borodin/Rachmaninov/Rimsky-Korsakov (MDG307 1758-2)

“The familiar nestles among the obscure in the Leipziger Strechquartett’s album of Russian quartets. Borodin’s evergreen example is mirrored at the programme’s start by a work from a man (Afanasiev) geographically far removed from the heart of Russia’s nineteenth century musical renaissance, providing a glimpse of the artistic inspirations of the time.”

Wolfgang Rihm – Complete works for violin and piano
Tianwa Yang & Nicholas Rimmer (Naxos 8.572730)

Yang and Rimmer prove to be outstanding guides to Rihm’s fiercely focused music. They are alert to every tiny change in dynamic and texture, to every finely weighed gesture that Rihm sets out. Their strengths are immediately apparent in Phantom und Eskapade, a piece completed in 1994 for Anne-Sophie Mutter and bearing one of Rihm’s typically opaque titles. Rimmer’s wonderfully precise touch illuminates the questioning opening and continues to alternate delicacy with barbed urgency throughout this enigmatic piece.”  

Thursday 22 November 2012

Sinfini Music: More of the same?

The launch of new Universal’s shiny new classical music magazine Sinfini Music has prompted a number of posts across the classical blogosphere and provoked predictable responses from certain quarters. Norman Lebrecht, a contributor to SM, heralds its arrival with an enthusiasm that suggests a moment of epoch defining import, comparable with the discovery of America and the invention of cheese. Popular blogger Opera Chic has also been recruited and, if her post on the subject is anything to go by, we can look forward to a quotient of modern ironic jurno shtick and associated megalolz.

Elsewhere, Overgrown Path plots the new site’s coordinates at a lat and long of dumb and dumber, and indeed, first impressions aren’t great. There are well worn (out?) features such as celebrity interviews (Joanna Lumley’s classical faves is one worth missing), guides to recordings of familiar classics (all the choices on their Beethoven 5 feature are Universal titles, but hey ho), and even a naff cartoon. In fairness, there are some worthwhile items that you won’t find in the pages of Gramophone, such as Paul Morley’s stinging views of the Classical Brits and Gramophone Awards.

There’s the question of how much editorial independence is really possible when the main backer has such a vested interest in the market, but I wonder if the real story is that Universal is fed up of waiting for the traditional print media to master the online forum and has decided to step in. Efforts from various review magazines have tended to amount to little more than digital adverts for their own physical editions, and Universal must realise that there's a world of potential coverage that's currently being left to them dang bloggers. But is this really a new new way of funding music journalism or a worrying intervention in a field that should be valueing independence above all else? Time will tell, but for now it looks like (content-wise, at least) it might just be more of the same.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Exstatica at the BBC

Pietro Aretino, author of mucky Renaissance verse
I’d never been to a classical concert that sported an “18+” rating. Have now.  

"The publicity promised “sexually explicit material”. The red-tinted specs handed out at the door suggested we might be set for the lurid excesses of a ’70s exploitation flick. In the event, the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Exstatica proved to be a fairly sober exploration of ecstasy in music. Aside from some mucky verse and an excitable soprano, it was all pretty tame – educational even, with Radio 3’s Christopher Cook keeping his live commentary strictly informative."

Read my full review at Classical Source.

Friday 9 November 2012

Recent reviews for IRR

In recent months I've been contributing to International Record Review, the monthly magazine that does what it says on the cover. Here’s a flavour of what I've been sent this month:

Léon Boëllmann: Chamber Music – Trio Parnassus (MDG 303 1755-2)

“The two substantial chamber works here – the Piano Quintet of around 1890 and the Piano Trio of 1895 – reveal Boëllmann’s talent for superbly woven structures that flow effortlessly between ideas. His ear for clarity and delicacy also impresses – never is the balance between instruments upset by bombast or overscoring...

“Like the music of so many of history’s short-lived composer, it all left me wondering what might have become of Léon Boëllmann had he managed a few more decades.”

Kurtág/Ligeti – Kim Kashkashian – Music for Viola  (ECM New Series 2240)

“Economy is key [to Kurtág]: nothing more than necessary is said. Often a wandering line suffices, always coloured with great delicacy by Kashkashian; harmony, when evoked, is spare and purposeful. Kashkashian excels at fine modulations of unconventional tone.”

Saturday 3 November 2012

November's new releases

A selection of November’s new classical releases that caught Devil’s Trill’s eye:

String music

Contemporary music

Everything else 

Thursday 1 November 2012

Beyond the blizzard of meaning

"The music’s skeletal textures now begin to fill rapidly, tension rises, and the dreaded thing finally happens: the secret police arrive, audibly climbing the stairs (figures 46-7) and bursting in through the door on a triumphant crescendo. In a brilliant alienative stroke, Shostakovich switches the two-note motto around in the upper orchestra like torch-beams while the NKVD move grimly through the darkened apartment in the guise of the vigil theme, growled out on tubas ad bass clarinet – an uncanny parallel to Orwell’s similar use of the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ in the arrest scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four."

Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich (London: Fourth Estate, 1990), p112-113.  

I was reminded of this description of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony during yesterday’s performance of the Third Symphony of another twentieth century great, Sibelius, given by Osmo Vänskä and the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. MacDonald’s Shostakovich seems to compose only to narrate, and the descriptions of the music fall back continuously on a blizzard extra-musical visualisations. Dig too deep for ‘meaning’, though, and we can lose sight of what music does, fundamentally, which is move vertically and horizontally in a language all of its own.

Vänskä’s Sibelius offers an alternative route to musical fulfilment. He looks beyond the Romantic notion of sounds being analogous to feelings and images. His music-making is all about the notes – the way they fall on top of and beside one another. Suddenly, rhythm and harmony can be appreciated in their own right, rather than as codes and signs. To ask what the music ‘means’ becomes as futile as searching for the meaning of rivers and mountains.