Donald Zec dies aged 102

It is with considerable sadness – though with a simultaneous sense of celebration – that I announce the passing of my uncle Donald, born March 12th 1919 and who died in the early hours of this morning, 1:45 to be exact, having asked for ice cream some 2:45 hours earlier. Only Donald! But what a guy, a brilliant journalist who interviewed screen legends for the Daily Mirror for some 40 years, musician (violin then piano), Award-winning painter, spontaneous wit, raconteur, and a loving family elder who spared no effort in guiding and supporting his nephews and nieces. When in his company Donald – who could easily have waxed lyrical about his star-studded past – never spoke about himself, only about you and yours, how you were faring, how the family was doing, your career and so forth. No-one could have wished for a more loving or supportive uncle. But rather than continue further along these lines I’d like to treat you to a previously unpublished gem dealing with Donald’s early life. My thanks to his son Paul for agreeing that I put this rather lovely essay online. So here it is now, especially appropriate for the Jewish High Hoy Days. “Shanah tovah um’tukah

                              THE MIRROR ON THE WALL: Prologue

         It is nearly a century ago and so recollections of my birthplace are elusive, fading visions.  Number four George Street, London N.W.1, no longer exists.  It was obliterated in the l950s to make way for the underpass which now links the Euston and Marylebone roads. Re-named Gower Street, nothing remains to re-visit and remember.  Not that remembering comes without pain.   Still, it would have meant something to have stood outside the house again. For in its poor, crumbling but strangely secure essentials, it perfectly reflected the ethnic mix of its era. 

At number four George Street lived my parents Simon and Leah. Above us lived the the Poppledorfs, volatile French immigrants who screamed, laughed and otherwise added to the neighbourly noises-off in the tenement experience. Now and again a policeman would tie his cycle up against the railings outside, and with the bicycle clips still round his ankles, would plod up the stone steps and extract fulsome apologies from the noisy Parisiennes. He could do nothing, however, about the widow, Mrs. Coatier, who lived in the basement. At one end of George Street was a public house called the ‘Orange Tree’. Here the lady in the basement would get drunk on draught ale every Saturday night, then stagger home with more of it in a large jug and launch into screeching song, until her voice, and the beer, ran out. Widowed by the Great 1914-18 War, her grief still raw, she kept her late husband’s Lee Enfield rifle, bayonet and scabbard still fixed, outside her door. It stood like a sentry, guarding its half-demented occupant who had warned us that we touched it at our peril.  

George Street was close enough to Bloomsbury to absorb a little of its raffish Bohemian culture. But it was closer still to the costermongers of Drummond street market to know its place. The estate agents, Rutley, Vine and Gurney near the pub, was straight out of Charles Dickens. I sometimes delivered the weekly rent, thirteen shillings and sixpence, receipted by a frock-coated clerk on a high stool.  I remember him as vividly as I recall the Temperance Hospital in the nearby main road. Its ambulances ferried the infant victims of the familiar epidemics of the hard-up classes – scarlet fever, diphtheria and street accidents.   

I was too young to have witnessed the dreadful incident that plunged my family into grief. My sister Mary, at maybe nine years old, had skipped out into the street and was run over by a taxi. A half-severed foot was subsequently amputated. My parents cursed their ill-fortune in colourful Yiddish and then resorted to the ultimate consolation, this was God’s Will … Gott’ll  unz helfn,’God will help us’ became their standby comfort in times of intolerable stress. But if indeed God was helping, I witnessed scant evidence of it over the years. An innocent five-year-old, I just assumed – hoped – that since we were fed, watered, and basically educated God was at least somehow within reach. I quickly learned the basic disciplines of immigrant life – you suffered, you celebrated, you wept, you prayed and whatever the tragedy you beseeched the heavens – and then moved on. Endurance and survival. They were in the DNA.

         In my old age, the mind is densely populated with memories.  Scenes, sounds, images float in and out like characters in a play: tragicomedies involving a volatile mix of plotlines and scenarios. There were some pleasant simchas – like weddings, bar mitzvahs and golden anniversaries where amateur fiddlers played klezmer music, the elders singing weepy songs from the shtetel. These simchas were the welcome highlights in the more dominant patterns of life on George street. 

The images are vivid. There was no electricity. The rooms were dimly lit by gaslight, a combination of gentle hissing and flickering light. Our home occupied two floors in the building with sufficient bedrooms to accommodate the constant increases in the family which finally added up to eleven children, two sons, and nine daughters. The impact on my father, the need to work ever harder, was inevitable. Even as a five-year-old, I intuitively sensed the enormous burden life was for him. It was a burden he was determined his two sons would not have to endure. One day he called me into his cutting room. “Sit down.  Now watch’. Slowly he threaded a few stitches along a seam. ’You see how straight they are? Put on the thimble, you do it!’  My hands trembled. The result was a disaster. He poked me in the chest. ‘Very hard isn’t it? You don’t like it? Don’t be a tailor. Learn better. Study!’ The ragged-trousered psychology of immigrants in the 1920s.

         Number 4 George Street had its own distinctive soundtrack. At night I could hear the distinctive sounds from the tailoring workshop above; the hiss of steam as the presser, a near relative, would plunge the red-hot iron into a bucket of water, then the thump as it was placed on the ironing table, and finally the sound of a solid wooden block stamped on the cloth to release the steam. If there were enough orders to keep the piece-workers busy, I could hear Norah humming while treadling the Singer sewing machine – a minor masterpiece of wrought iron and engineering now highly prized at auctions.  As I sit in front of my large computer monitor, the photo printer to my right, smart phone to my left, a large flat screen TV behind me I think back to a moment of real magic entering our lives. The Crystal set, forerunner to the battery driven radio, was the miracle of the 1920s. My brother Philip created one using an old cigar box, a tiny strand of wire, a lump of something or other as the crystal, and some earphones bought from a market stall and then after laboriously roaming the wire over the sugar like a mine-detector heard music!        My father was the first to take the ear-phones- the eldest son recognized his duty. Simon was doubtful as usual. No time for this nonsense. There was work to do in the workroom. I remember his amazement then joy. The sound he heard was of Enrico Caruso the great Italian tenor, singing ‘Celeste Aida’. But the song of choice for the most devout Jews was Chazan Yossele Rosenblatt singing that most sacred prayer on the eve of the Day of Atonement, ‘Kol Nidre’ My father who rarely shed tears always had one glistening on his twirled moustache whenever he heard it. There were few cars in those days. Heavy goods were mostly on horse-drawn vehicles. Beer was transported on artistically decorated drays … beer lorries without sides-drawn by massive shire horses capable of pulling a heavy-laden barge along a canal. It was to a 5-year-old, a spectacular sight; the drayman wearing a long leather apron would sit high off the ground, spit on his hands, take up the reins and give the horses a touch of the whip. Their weighty horse shoes would spark lightning off the cobblestones before the drays lowly moved forward. Hard to describe the routines and rhythms of life in George Street without experiencing mixed emotions and unsettling images.

There were some episodes which I still laugh over and resonate in my anecdotage. One Friday morning my mother was preparing or the Sabbath evening. She had polished the Kiddish cup (an award to Simon by the Freemasons, Merchant Tailors); she was mixing the batter for the fried fish, when there was a loud knock on the door (there were no push-button bells, just a heavy cast iron knocker which would alert the dead). At the door was my sister Mary and her schoolfriend Winnie Twitchen (you don’t forget names like that). Winnie is cradling a wriggling piglet in her arms. A PIG in her doorway Erev Shabat

‘Look what Winnie won at the fair, mummy’.  Mummy looked and froze. Shuddered, more likely. Her smelling salts not immediately available she decided not to faint. Assimilation had taught her – dignity was called for. ‘That’s a very nice pig, no question about it … why don’t you take it home to show your mother?’. Racing through her mind was the sacred Hebrew injunction, Remember the Sabbath Day, keep it holy.’ She closed the door and as I heard it, sank to her knees with an impassioned cry ‘Oy…mein ..Gott !’

Darkest of all are the images of family bereavements. Deep feelings, even those of an impressionable five-year-old, were not spared when death struck home. The scene I can never erase is of the ritual ‘rending of the garments’ by which mourners are traditionally permitted to demonstrate their anguish. I remember standing in a line of family members as a funeral official with a razor blade went from one to another, cutting into a lapel, a cuff, a waistcoat or a bodice   A chilling ritual, enacted, as I recall, in total silence apart from the clatter of horse-drawn traffic outside. Many of the sadder monochromes I can air-brush from my mind without much effort.  But one particular image resists all attempts to drive it out of my thoughts.  Something about it remains stubbornly in focus; still there after ninety years.

                  The image is of a hanging mirror. It hung on the living room wall, a must-have art deco item in the hire-purchase homes of the 1920s. And I hated it; Not so much for the mirror itself, but for what lay behind it.

  Suspended by two chains, it leaned away from the wall. This left a convenient two-inch slot into which crucially important letters could be stored. Threatening letters. Final notices. Official documents warning of dire consequences failing an instant response. The manilla envelopes, the red-lettered final notices, the threats compounded by the intimidating rubber stamp, sprouted out from the top of the mirror like a Japanese fan. It would have made an interesting still-life for an artist, the multi-coloured documents flowering from the bevelled curves of the art deco mirror. I had no such fine thought at the time. To me, that bloody mirror symbolised misery and fear for my over-burdened parents. I felt enormous pity for them, and a kind of subliminal hatred for whatever it was that caused it. 

         This is not to say that there were not some letters which promised joy. These were mostly invitations to family celebrations which were few, but treasured. But their shiny gilt-embossed italics were upstaged by the ominous typography from assertive creditors. These produced a variety of reactions, fear and anger mostly. One early morning there was a loud hammering on the front door.  The heavy thud of the cast-iron door knocker did not suggest a friendly caller. My father, unshaven, his collar stud unfixed, hurried to the door. I heard muttering, arguing, then the door slammed. Silence. Simon came back into the room, his face ashen, eyes wild with fury. He cursed those he called ‘meine sonem’ my enemies. He thrust a parchment-thick document behind the mirror.

He turned to my mother. ‘What do they want from me?’ She put a hand on his arm. ‘Sha, Schimel, Gott’ll unz helfn.’  For once, that traditional mantra brought no consolation to my enraged father.  ‘What do they want?’ he repeated, ‘Not enough I work from morning till midnight? They want we should starve?’ Suddenly he grabbed the bread knife on the kitchen table. He held it to his throat. ‘They want I should kill myself?’  I was petrified. But also overwhelmingly saddened by this pathetic figure who was clearly beaten to his knees. My mother appeared to faint. Her eyes were closed, her head fell forward.  This vision of my mother shocked my father into sanity. He bent over her with a pitiable torrent of remorse. Now he was rubbing her hands. Then he was fanning her with a newspaper  Guilt, contrition, devotion, all tumbled out in a stream of intimate words in Yiddish. I gathered what he was saying. ‘I’ll work tonight. I’ll get more orders. Don’t worry Lyupke, everything will be alright.’ Then to me, sharply, ‘go to school.’ I went over to my mother to say goodbye. Her round cheeks were redder than usual. I sensed she had been crying.  She straightened my tie.  I didn’t want to leave her. I felt I had to say something. In those days children dared not ask intimate questions of their parents. But I had to know. ‘Are you alright?’ Not unkindly, my mother said, ‘And why shouldn’t I be. Gay shoyne; ‘go already!’ I grabbed my satchel and walked, half ran, to the sanctuary of Exmouth Street school, my mind in turmoil. That episode impacted on me as indelibly and as permanently as the camp number on the arms of concentration camp victims.  But I learned about despair… It was always there. One lived with it.

         The house at Number Four has gone. George street too. I am the last survivor of an improvidently created family of eleven children. What began in a shtetel in Odessa, scrambled into a fearful journey on a cargo ship to Tilbury Dock, and then ended with the chaotic decanting of innocents into uncharted territory A traumatic and defining journey. Not least of these experiences was the imperative of holding on to one’s religion and traditional Jewish culture within an uneasy Christian environment. Somehow, my father contrived a way through the frieze of buff envelopes, final notices, and threats of repossessions, to create a family life.  Some happiness ensued. Respectability and the crucially important human dignity, maintained.  The intimidating literature which glowered down from the wall ultimately did no permanent harm. Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity. But let me admit to a particular foolishness. In all the houses and apartments that I’ve had in my life, there was not a single hanging mirror.        

chapter one

Nobody on this ethnically chaotic planet should consider himself or herself, a member of a chosen race. The term is both arrogant and ignorant, and ultimately dangerously divisive. I was too young to comprehend this. But I had an intuitive feeling that if indeed I was one of the chosen, it might, in fact, do me no favours. It is this unease which only assimilation can somehow mitigate. Gloss over. Don’t act chosen. Don’t be different. 


For my beloved Georgie on this, our Golden Wedding Anniversary

Alerted by its silvery beam, I crept outside at dead of night … and there it was.

“Do you know how long it took to build?” whispered a mysterious voice

I shook my head

“Fifty years,” was the certain reply,

“… from the first dazzling spec – a sign of burgeoning devotion –

“The fun, tenderness and feistiness,

“Then daughters, a granddaughter –

“The joy of it all!”

‘And those tiny shadows?’ I asked hesitantly.

The voice paused for a moment  

“… shards of loss or misfortune

“sad, perhaps …. but never sad enough to mask the Star’s native brilliance.”

I could see that heavenly bodies nearby had taken on aspects of its radiance.

But this maverick miracle somehow seemed familiar, as if I was living beneath its teaming brightness for eternity

‘And is there sharing involved?’, I wondered

“Of course: the girl you met one warm spring morning and took to your heart right from the off …

“you see, the star is as much her gift to you as yours to her…

“a spontaneous exchange hinged on a single concept: love”

Riccardo Muti at 80: a revelatory retrospective

Dive into Warner Classics’ 91-cd Riccardo Muti: The Complete Warner Symphonic Recordings, involving various orchestras (principally the Philharmonia and Philadelphia) and you’re unlikely to quit the experience without reeling from the odd stimulating punch. The Philharmonia Tchaikovsky symphony cycle for example, Manfred with its roaring big drums and mushrooming tam-tam, the Fourth’s first movement with its tearfully descending woodwind lines. Muti has clearly pondered every note, as he has for Abram Stasevich’s oratorio after Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible film score (with Philharmonia forces) where electricity crackles right from the opening, and the storming of Kazan rivals anything in Alexander Nevsky for visceral excitement. And has anyone yet rivalled Muti (and the Philadelphia) in the Romeo & Juliet Suites, ‘Montagues and Capulets’ as fearsomely macho as Westside Story’s Jets and Sharks? Berlioz’s ‘dramatic Symphony’ on the same subject (also Philadelphia) opens to fugal fisticuffs among the strings before foreshadowing both Wagner and Tchaikovsky.  

A Schubert symphony cycle with the VPO runs the gamut of moods and textures, from a bright, balletic Fifth (breezy first movement) to a massive ‘Great’ C major, made even more marmoreal by the inclusion of essential repeats, where Muti slams on the brakes as he approaches the first movement’s majestic denouement (echoes of Furtwängler) and pumps at the hammering chords that close the work (echoes of Toscanini). Verdi and Rossini overtures sizzle with life, the Rossini programme especially. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring emerges from Philadelphia as an unsparing tirade whereas Petrushka projects brutality and humanity in equal measure. The five Scriabin symphonies are breath taking in the way Muti sweeps a path through their densely emotional terrains (try the second movement of No. 1, such clarity and power of attack). As to Respighi, no stereo version of the ‘Roman Trilogy’ that I know of begins to compare with Muti’s from Philadelphia. Indeed, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer it even to vintage Toscanini. You listen to the ‘Pines of the Appian Way’ and wonder if it can possibly get any louder. It does, believe me.

Muti’s Beethoven (all the symphonies, Philadelphia) is unsullied by distortion, but neither does it bow to the fashionable ‘period’ lobby. It’s big, direct, handsomely despatched and beautifully played. There are concertos with Sviatoslav Richter, Andrei Gavrilov, Alexis Weissenberg, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Gidon Kremer, Kyung-Wha Chung, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maurice André and more and then the big choral works, Verdi’s Requiem vocally spearheaded by Pavarotti, Mozart’s Requiem and numerous sizeable Cherubini pieces of which Muti is an undisputed master. This progenitor of Beethoven fits Muti like a glove, imposing music that on the one hand waves farewell to mighty Haydn while on the other welcomes Beethoven’s upcoming revolution. Vienna ‘New Year’s Day’ concerts prove how Muti can relax with style, prompting the VPO to lilt disarmingly.

There is much more besides of course, all of it subscribing to what appears to be Muti’s invariable musical credo, that honesty is the best policy and that if a work is going to make its full impact, the performance has to be well drilled, considered and poetically potent (witness a rather lovely Mozart Jupiter with the Berlin Philharmonic, again launched with all essential repeats in place). It’s also useful that in general the sound is so good and that essential information is to hand, which in this case arrives in the form of a bonus cd featuring Jon Tolanksy’s first-rate documentary chronicling Muti’s years with the Philharmonia, incorporating copious interviews, one or two of them extremely moving.

This is the third of Warners’ big orchestral boxes, the first devoted to the recordings of Sir John Barbirolli (another unmissable collection), the second gathering together André Previn’s Warner Classics trawl (maybe not quite so distinctive) and now this Muti set which viewed as a whole packs the biggest wallop of all. I’m still loving most of what I hear and can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Riccardo Muti: The Complete Warner Symphonic Recordings

Warner Classics (91 cds) 0190295008345


War and peace with Richard Strauss

Listening to pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s dazzling new recording of Burleske by the youthful Richard Strauss under Antonio Pappano got me thinking, for the first time ever, in terms of a Teutonic Petrushka – with similarly dizzy badinage, where piano, drums and orchestra busily nudge each other for prominence, Chamayou more fleet-fingered than virtually any of his rivals – a poet too where needs be – while Pappano and Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia leap to the challenge of responding to him with boundless enthusiasm (Warner Classics 0190295028459, £13.50 – out soon!).  It’s enormous fun, occasionally treading the as-yet distant incoming tide of jazz (a similar playfulness and sense of ‘cool’) and often prophetic of the mature Strauss.

Ein Heldenleben came some thirteen years later by which time Strauss the joker had become Strauss the philosopher, this 47-minute epic taking in a finger-twisting fiddle solo (the hero’s loving but sometimes obstreperous wife, here characterfully played by concertmaster Roberto González-Monjas), a tub-thumping battle scene, works of peace and ‘The Hero’s Withdrawal from the World’. Bearing in mind the horrors that we have all witnessed over the last year or so we might take a caustic look at the work’s second section – ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ (mean, carping woodwinds on the attack) – as a soundtrack for political mudslinging at those who have tried to row us back to safer shores.  Here as elsewhere Pappano focuses mood and colour with an acute ear, but never more so than when peace and withdrawal arrive, and the Santa Cecilia strings often play with breath-taking softness.

You may or may not know that the work closes with a reference to Strauss’s Nietzschean masterpiece Also sprach Zarathustra which in this context suggests that the idea of ‘self-overcoming’ (one of Nietzsche’s key philosophical concepts) reflects recent challenges faced and, indeed, overcome.

Some out-of-the-way classical goodies for your Easter cd shopping list

Antonio Oyarzabal’s piano recital La Muse Oubliée is distinguished by featuring 34 memorable miniatures, and if I say that they’re all written by women that’s less important than the musical standard, which is consistently high. Please don’t get me wrong. All I want to do is take one additional small step for mankind along the path to creative equality. That Clara Schumann-Wieck’s First Romance was written around the same time as Brahms’s Ballades and matches them for harmonic ingenuity seems to me a given. Jacquet de la Guerre was a contemporary of Jean Philippe Rameau and it’s pretty amazing to think that a woman could achieve such a high level of artistic attainment given the restrictions on social advancement for women in those days … but achieve it she did. Lili Boulanger died very young but her output although modest is distinguished (the Cortège programmed here was once recorded by Heifetz) while the hugely talented Vitezslava Kaprálová was admired by both the conductor Rafael Kubelík and the pianist Rudolf Firkusny. There are many more besides, each with one or two novel gestures up their sleeves, each the work of a true original, artistically valid, superbly played and recorded on (Ibs Classical IBS52021, c£13.25)

Years ago, I chanced upon a recording of Ravel’s ‘Oiseaux Tristes’ by Lise de la Salle and was entranced – the control of line, tone and tempo, the phrasing and delicate touch, all were remarkable. Latest to appear from this gifted pianist is ‘When do we Dance?’, where William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag seems to carry more sadness than it can bear. I don’t think I’ve heard a crisper, more eye-twinkling account of Stravinsky’s Tango, nor versions of Gershwin and Art Tatum that draw nearer to the upbeat virtuosity of the originals. De la Salle’s musical round trip is both imaginative and finely tooled. We should be hearing much more from her (naïve V 5468, c£14.00).

When it comes to Londa Armonica’s Vivaldi, this talented band give it some … and more, much more – try the powerfully percussive first track from their fifth volume of bassoon concertos on naïve …. what a thrilling, unholy racket, before bassoonist Sergio Azzolini enters with his nut-brown tone and brings the minions to some sort of order. It’s a big, period instrument band – sounds more like a full orchestra (especially in the finale) – that projects a vast spectrum of sound. There are seven concertos in all, each with a gorgeous slow movement at its core. Anyone who in the past has accused Vivaldi of sameness please think again and without fail search out naïve OP 30573 (c£14.00)

Now here’s a brilliant idea – a Bach harpsichord recital that passes on the option of a specific series (Partitas, The ‘48’, etc) and settles instead on giving us three key-related selections, respectively in A minor, D minor and C minor, the upshot of which – uncannily – is that when listening you imagine that the whole 79-minute sequence is how Bach originally intended it, that it couldn’t justifiably be any other way. Such is the genius of Rinaldo Alessandrini who mixes inventions, sinfonias and preludes (some of them otherwise little known) with pieces from The Well-tempered Clavier (both books), which means that in the case of A minor you’ll hear the fiercely slanting drama of the Prelude from Book One and the fearsome stamp of the Fugue from Book Two (each with their companion pieces of course). Among the other works programmed the D minor Sonata transcribed from the A minor solo violin sonata and to close, the elevated ricercar in three voices from The Musical Offering. As to Alessandrini’s playing, it’s always flexible, never caged by bar lines. In a word, superb, on naïve OP 30581 (c£14.00).

If you’re charmed by Mozart’s Magic Flute you might like to try Lulu for contrast, a version of the same story set by the Danish pianist and composer Friedrich Kuhlau, who in reality was an exact contemporary of Weber (both composers died young) whose decidedly Weber-like Romantic singspiel in three acts has just appeared in a memorable performance from May 1956 led by one Denmark’s much-prized maestros from the past Launy Grøndahl. Quite aside from Grøndahl’s vivacious conducting, there’s the singing, most memorably Uno Ebrelius in the title role …. and if you know and love the princely voice of the great Aksel Schiøtz, there’s a definite similarity …. and Kirsten Hermansen, a ‘Queen of the Night’ sound-alike, brilliant and birdlike and at her best in duet with Lulu “Around Your Eden Drifts Peace” on track 19 of the first disc. There are bonuses too, various solos and duets Danish or otherwise, that serve as makeweights on the second cd. The transfers from mono analogue originals are first-rate. So if you’re up for a life-affirming operatic discovery of real worth, it’s on Danacord (2 cds) DACOCD 886 (c£14.00).

Lastly, the sophisticated but always accessible music of Richard Blackford visits those darker areas of shared knowledge that others tend to avoid but does it in such a way that it sidesteps intimidating confrontation. Take the horrific fact of Nazi death camp inmates playing great quartet music while those nearby are being mercilessly slaughtered. The centrepiece of Blackford’s Kalon for string quartet and string orchestra (conducted by Jiri Rozen) is a harrowing but inspired piece called ‘Beklemmt’ which visits the best-loved movement from Beethoven’s ‘late’ Quartets, the ‘cavatina’ from Op. 130, the central section, music that seems choked with grief and which the Albion Quartet (led by Tamsin Waley-Cohen) play so poignantly. This memorable, well-recorded all-Blackford CD opens to a powerful 23-minute work Niobe for violin and orchestra, music about strong women in fatal combat, ostensibly from ancient Greece but with a knowing nod towards the violence that so many women suffer in our own time. Blackford runs the gamut of emotions and the superb Waley-Cohen follows suit (this recording is also out on its own on the Signum label) while the Czech Philharmonic under Ben Gernon offer support that is both sensitive and dramatic. A third item features cellist Raphael Wallfisch, a love song Blewbury Air, with pianist Adrian Farmer, also memorable. Nimbus NI6420 (c£14.00)

Rob’s spring collection


Manfred Honeck lights the blue touch paper for a scorching Pittsburgh Symphony account of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, combining explosive climaxes with moments of deep repose. The finale is the highpoint, the angry celli and basses delivering their sermon to the minions – though note the achingly beautiful quiet flutes, oboes and clarinets at around the 2:00 mark – before ushering in the Ode to Joy theme from the far distance. Thereafter, the excellent soloists (Christina Landshamer, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Werner Güra, Shenyang) and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh support Honeck’s superbly drilled players for what is surely his finest recording so far. The quick-marching tenor solo is particularly striking. If the Ninth doesn’t shock as well as uplift, something’s not right – and you can rest assured that here the performance works on every level. Honeck’s comprehensive and well written booklet note (with exact disc-timing cue points) serves as a guide to both the symphony itself and the conductor’s often individual reading of it (Reference Recordings FR-741SACD, £13.50*).

*all prices are approximate

Those in the know will appreciate that the American-Israeli violinist Gil Shaham’s playing style is as natural as breathing, his tone warm but never over-ripe, his grasp of various technical challenges often awesome. His San Francisco account of Alban Berg’s heart breaking Concerto ‘to the Memory of an Angel’ (the angel in question being 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler [once Gustav Mahler‘s wife] and Walter Gropius) is poignant beyond belief, especially in the Concerto’s second half where, beyond highly dramatic material that could as well have originated from a fifties American film soundtrack, Berg ushers in the conciliatory chorale melody “Es ist genug” (It is enough), music used in a sacred context by Bach. Therein lies the nexus of the whole piece, Berg’s aching dissonance framing Bach’s ethereal harmonization (on clarinets), one of the most moving gestures in the whole of twentieth century art music. Not only does Shaham achieve the desired level of emotional restraint but Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony offer him sensitive, well focused support. The same all-Berg cd, which is magnificently recorded, also includes Seven brief Early Songs (beautifully sung by Susanna Phillips) which visit worlds already inhabited by Mahler and Strauss, and the devastatingly powerful Three Orchestral Pieces Op. 6 where the final March takes the Mahlerian axis even further by employing thunderous hammer blows. You’ll search far and wide for a recording that’s more imposing than the one MTT offers us here (SFS Media SFS 0080 [hybrid multi-channel], £19.00).

‘Imposing’ is something of an understatement when it comes to conveying the essence of Benjamin Grosvenor’s Decca recording of the Liszt Sonata, where this most charismatic of young British pianists combines awesome control with what sounds like a fierce temperament. Timing, tone, attack (the fugal third section, where Grosvenor rushes forth without tripping), finger velocity (swirling figurations), mastery of rhythm and rubato, songful phrasing (the andante second section), imaginative pedalling (the work’s mysterious close), not to mention a sure grasp of the Sonata’s overall structure, all add up to a moving and exciting encounter with this greatest of all Romantic piano sonatas. After listening to it I thought to myself, ‘surely this can’t be as good as Horowitz, Cortot, Barere, Curzon, Richter, Gilels, Katsaris [and so on]’, so I checked out all those versions for comparison. Not as good? Absolutely on their level … certainly that’s the way I felt for a good few days after hearing it. The all-Liszt couplings include the three Petrarch Sonnets, passionately despatched, the rarely heard second (thoughtful) version of the Berceuse, the spectacular Reminiscences de Norma and Schubert’s Ave Maria. Grosvenor is the perfect example of a brilliant young player whose principal virtue, namely musicality, is quite unteachable. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Marvellous sound (Decca 485 1450, £12.75).

Rachmaninov is widely considered to have been the twentieth century’s greatest pianist but his skills as a purely orchestral composer have in the last forty years or so benefited from the keen advocacy of such conductors as Vladimir Ashkenazy, André Previn, Mariss Jansons and most recently, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor of the American Orchestra most closely associated with Rachmaninov’s music – with whom he made various recordings – the Philadelphia. That was back in the pre-war era when ‘the fabulous Philadelphians’ (as they’re known) sported lavish string slides and a luscious pooled tone. Since those days, the tone, though still distinctive, has slimmed somewhat and the slides make only an occasional showing. Nézet-Séguin’s coupling of the First Symphony and the late masterpiece that quotes it, the Symphonic Dances (DG 483 9839, £12.75), is impressive, the Dances – which have one foot in the New World while the other remains firmly rooted in Old Russia – making an especially strong impression. These are taut, immediate and warmly expressed performances, but I’m also drawn to an extremely well played and stunningly well recorded set of Rachmaninov’s complete orchestral works by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Lan Shui (BIS -2512 SACD, four discs, £35.00) where the First sounds darker and more authentically ‘Russian’ than under Nézet-Séguin and the problematic finale more convincing. Anyone searching for a relatively inexpensive way to investigate these remarkable works need look no further.

Turning to the ‘lighter side’ of orchestral music Neeme Järvi conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in French Music for the Stage (Chandos CHAN20151, £11.50), seventy-nine minutes’ worth of cheery repertoire starting with a dazzling account of Thomas’s tuneful overture to ‘Raymond’ (or The Queen’s Secret’. Much of the music programmed is less than familiar though I doubt it’ll remain so once you’ve auditioned the disc. I’m thinking of Massenet’s Espada, and the ‘Scène de Bal and Vieille and Chanson’ from Le Roi s’amuse by Delibes. Also included, music by Auber and Boildieu. Great sound, too.  And if you’re attracted to the idea of some fun French music on a smaller scale, ‘Belle Epoque’ (French Music for Wind) featuring the Orsino Ensemble and pianist Pavel Kolesnikov (Chandos CHSA 5282, £11.50) should fit the bill ideally. Elegant playing of predominantly lyrical works by Roussel, Saint-Saëns, Debussy Chaminade, Koechlin, Caplet (his 27 minuet Quintet, the most substantial work on the programme), all of it extremely well recorded.

As to Baroque instrumental repertoire, how do you fancy venturing beyond the worlds of Rameau, Handel and Telemann to something completely new? Why not try Hannover-born Francesco Venturini’s Concerti di camera (Audité 97.775, £13.50) works that are French-Italian in style and infused with varied textures, seductive melodies and bouncy rhythms (often buoyed by prominent percussion). In 1698 Venturini became violinist in the court chapel of Electorate of Hanover where he had married in the previous year. La festa musicale has come up with an enticing programme, the highlight of which is probably the Concerto No.9 in G minor with its texturally rich Aria third movement, music dominated by its telling use of bassoons. And for gale-force winds and recollections of Rameau try ‘Furies’ from the Concerto No. 11, where a wind machine and drums suggest thunder and lightning. The brief gigue that closes the ‘Overture No.5’ with what sound like castanets is a real earworm. These are substantial pieces, musically memorable and superbly played.

More tempestuous fare arrives courtesy of Antonin Dvorák whose relatively youthful String Quartet No.4 (which the composer subsequently rejected) opens to what sounds like a quarter-of-hour confessional, intense, impassioned music with lyrical episodes for contrast. But the heart of the piece is the ‘Andante religioso’ second movement, music that Dvorák went on to reuse, most popularly as an orchestral ‘Nocturne’ and that the Fine Arts Quartet plays most beautifully (Naxos 8.574205, £7.50). Dvorák’s early chamber music is a real treasure trove even if occasionally prone to overstatement. The coupling though, written some eight years later, is a masterpiece. The String Sextet was premiered in 1879 by an augmented Joachim Quartet. Here the additional players are violist Anna Kreetta Gribajcevic and cellist Jans Peter Maintz. As to where to dip your toe in first, I’d say very the opening, which is surely as glorious as the openings to either of the Brahms Sextets or Serenades. The icing on the cake is the rarely heard Polonaise for cello for and piano played by the Quartet’s cellist Niklas Schmidt with Stepan Simonian at the piano.