Old Masters in New Music

‘A brilliant group that flashed like a meteor across the cultural scene and was gone by 1956.’ So claims expert annotator Tully Potter for one of the more unexpected volumes in Sony’s ‘Original Jacket’ series (19075925432, ten discs), its subject, the New Music String Quartet, who made their first recordings in May 1949, two pieces by Alan Shulman for Artie Shaw’s LP ‘Modern Music for Clarinet’. The relevant jazz-inflected tracks are featured in the current collection on a cd that also includes a Clarinet Quintet by Douglas Moore, and Wallingford Riegger’s Second Quartet. Most of the featured ‘modern’ repertoire is highly palatable (works by Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Colin McPhee, Jerome Rosen and Ilhan Usmanbas), the one tough nut being John Cage’s profoundly static String Quartet in Four Parts where, virtually for the duration, the players abandon their decidedly Juilliard Quartet-style vibrancy and adopt instead a white tone that suits the music’s primitivistic ‘minimalist’ slant.

A number of albums originally appeared on vinyl in Columbia’s ‘Modern American Music Series’, the last represented here being Vol. 20. This has the further implication that not everything included involves the New Music String Quartet. I’m thinking in particular of McPhee’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Octet and Thomson’s Capital Capitals for four men and piano. Maybe Sony could consider a ‘Modern American Music Series’ box as well as a box of their valuable and often superbly performed pre-Boulez Second Viennese School performances (mostly with Robert Craft and some superb soloists, such as violinist Israel Baker). Returning to the set under review, we have highly impressive separate Classical and Romantic programmes, with compelling Mendelssohn (Quartets Nos. 2 and 5), an especially sympathetic coupling of two Schumann quartets (Op. 41 Nos. 2 and 3), energetic and sweetly expressive Boccherini quartets, chipper Mozart (Quartets Nos. 2-5) and possibly most impressive of all, an impassioned all-Hugo Wolf cd consisting of the Italian Serenade and the D minor String Quartet. As to personnel, all were first-rate players in their own right, violinists Broadus Erle and Matthew Raimondi, viola player Walter Trampler with only the role of cellist shifting, almost imperceptibly, from Claus Adam (who would soon join the Juilliards), David Soyer (destined to become cellist for the Guarneri Quartet) and for the sole 1956 programme Aldo Parisot (who died last December aged 100). Great playing, this, in a range of repertoire that really put the Quartet through its paces. They also made impressive recordings for the Bartók Records label which could usefully be revived.

Those who manage to sample the set, either the box itself or online, please comment



John Ruskin and Climate Change

At a time when we’re acutely aware of climate change and its destructive implications I can’t resist quoting from an excellent new little book on the great artist, art historian and writer John Ruskin by Suzanne Fagence Cooper

‘In Ruskin’s eyes, the natural world was God’s creation. Again and again he writes of God breathing life into plants and animals, mountains and rivers. For him, our relationship with and understanding of these things comes from God: he encourages his readers to hope for ‘all the knowledge of the waters and the earth that God meant for you’. Put another way, it is the job and the joy of mankind to look after the earth, its waters and its creatures. But by refusing to honour and care for nature, by plundering and polluting, by wasting and littering, modern men and women indeed behave as if there is no life after their death, no need to worry about anything bigger than their own immediate desires. Ruskin did not need God to tell him that the consequences of squandering the earth’s resources would be disastrous. He could see the fragile webs that connected meadow flowers with pollinating insects and sources of clear water and clean air. If we trample and muddy them we will alter the ecosystems that he drew so tenderly.’


To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters by Suzanne Fagence Cooper, p 64-65

Quercus 2019, 230 pp, £12.99


also very strongly recommended ‘Ruskinland : How John Ruskin Shapes our World’ by Andrew Hill

Pallas Athene 2019, 305 pp, £19.99


Celebrating Donald Zec on his 100th birthday


I’d like to share a family celebration with you, the 100th birthday, last Tuesday, of my uncle Donald (Zec), one of eleven siblings born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, all the other siblings now passed (including my own mother). Donald’s celebrity, principally as the Daily Mirror’s film critic, brought him to the grateful attention of millions. His interviews included amusing and often perceptive dialogues with Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, James Dean, the Beatles and many others. But rather than add to accolades already voiced at his birthday party and elsewhere and/or appreciations from the party table by Howard Jacobson, Don Black, Michael Grade and, as expected, Her Majesty (the latter two via letter) – I would like to pay tribute to Donald’s support of me, personally.
It began in the early sixties when he got wind of the fact that I’d fallen in love with classical music. One Sunday lunchtime he and his lovely (late) wife Frances turned up at our front door, whisked me off to their home where they fed me my favourite meal (still is – egg & chips!), enthused about music and played me records. Delivering me back home afterwards they gifted me a generous pile of 78s (still a currency of the recording medium in those days), including the whole of Smetana’s Má vlast, already a firm favourite, and so I was guaranteed hours of pleasurable listening.
But that wasn’t the most significant of Donald’s prompts. Years later, when I started to make modest headway along the career path I’m currently following, Frances phoned and invited my wife and I for a meal with a view to marking a certain level of progress on my part. Both meal and meeting were a triumph. Donald and Frances were affectionate, encouraging, amusing, enquiring, compassionate, in fact everything you’d want of older relations, the sorts you’d be proud to credit as being your ‘uncle and aunt’. And so our relationship blossomed into true friendship, past Frances’s tragic passing into Donald’s late phase of creativity (ie, in his eighties and nineties) – which meant learning to sight read and play on the piano pieces that Frances had played to him (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin), more prose writing (as well as verse), painting (with oils and, later, Ipad), sculpting and engaging in rigorous conversation concerning politics and current affairs. Our emails and phone calls are frequent, our personal encounters perhaps less so, but still immensely nourishing. Donald’s humour is still a given, with too many vivid examples to relate here – except maybe one occasion when I phoned him at lunchtime to check things out, asked him whether he was eating and he shot back, quite spontaneously, ‘who’s this … the Yom Kippur police?!’ His love of music was always uppermost in our conversations, mostly concerning great violinists. When younger he’d played the violin himself and took loan of my cello for a while 25 or so years ago.

So, how to sum him up? A renaissance man who loves family, culture, intellectual and creative challenges, tradition, and relating to people (as Don Black said he’s still making new friends), and who is endlessly curious about all aspects of life. Are these specifically ‘Jewish’ qualities? Not at all. But there is surely something about this mélange of virtues that you can identify with numerous distinguished Jews – think of Jacob Bronowski, George Steiner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jonathan, Lord Sacks, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Bronislaw Huberman and others. And Donald definitely has a keen sense of his own Jewish identity, something worth remembering especially now when anti-Semitism is once again lurking in the shadows of our society. So in closing I would say that not only am I grateful to be Donald’s nephew, but because of him, I’m also very happy to be Jewish.

First loves forever?

Do your first purchases of great music on disc still stack up? With me, some do, some don’t. Here are a few examples.

Brahms Symphony 4            Bruno Walter/NYPO              No     Toscanini and the BBC Symphony stepped ahead of Walter

Heifetz @ co in Mozart’s G minor Quintet                         Yes

Karajan and the Philharmonia in Sibelius 2                     No (no edge to the performance)   Monteux, Ansermet and Toscanini (1940), all vastly superior (IMHO)

The Oistrakhs/Kondrashin in Mozart’s E flat Sinfonia concertante    Yes

Verdi’s Falstaff – Toscanini, NBC                                          Yes

Furtwängler Tristan                                                               No – in general I prefer the leaner, fierier Carlos Kleiber

Mahler 9 Bernstein NYPO                                                     No – Walter pre-Anschluss gets me every time

Bach solo violin Sonatas – Heifetz                                       Yes … but Hilary Hahn is coming close

Can I have some of your hits and misses?








Sir Colin Davis’s ‘Berlioz Odyssey’

‘First rate’ would be an understatement when it comes to describing Sir Colin Davis’s various performances of major works by Hector Berlioz, and no matter what period in Davis’s career you’re taking about. But the ultimate accolade surely has to go to the concert performances he gave with the LSO from early in the new Century, with first-rate recordings produced by the late James Mallinson now collected in ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ on LSO Live LSO0827 (6 SACDs + 10 CDs). Pride of pace must go to the operas The Trojans(with Ben Heppner and Michelle de Young), Béatrice et Bénédict, and Benvenuto Cellini, while L’Enfance du Christ, the Requiem and Te Deum benefit from the leadership of a conductor who appreciated the difference between intimacy, scale and bombast. In the case of The Trojans the older Davis faces significant competition from his younger self with Jon Vickers, Josephine Veasey and the Royal Opera House forces (Philips), not to mention, on CD, Jon Nelson’s Award-winning version with Joyce DiDonato (Erato, now in their big Berlioz ‘complete works’ box), another stunner, Charles Dutoit (an absolutely complete recording) and historic performances under Sir Thomas Beecham (Malibran) and Rafael Kubelik (Testament). But Davis at The Barbican packs a fair wallop, while his trademark ability in Berlioz, so crucial, to balance Classicism with Romanticism is everywhere in evidence. La Damnation de Faust is also excellent and as to Roméo et Juliette I fondly recall hearing the original broadcast – or at least a Davis broadcast of the work from around this period – and trying to guess who was at the helm … Munch, maybe, or Monteux or indeed, Davis himself? I’d heard him conduct the work live at the South Bank many years earlier, also with the LSO, but with nothing like the levels of intensity achieved in this Barbican performance. As to the rest, Harold in Italy with violist Tabea Zimmermann is more dynamic and keenly shaped than Davis’s Philharmonia version with Menuhin and the one mild disappointment, the Symphonie fantastique which although thoughtfully moulded and often excitingly played is just a little wanting in spontaneity. I note that most performances originate from recordings made over more than one day, which begs the question how ‘live’ is live? Still, anyone wanting a trusted guide to Berlioz could hardly do better than Sir Colin Davis and for that reason alone this ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ is like manna from Heaven.

Perhaps readers would care to offer critical comments on Davis’s Berlioz in relation to other interpretations on CD, either new, rather less than new or vintage? I’d be delighted to hear from you.

John Ruskin: the great Victorian- 200 this year and still a force to reckon with

The great Victorian John Ruskin, who died on this date in 1900 and whose birth bicentenary we celebrate on February 8th, was once a household name, which is what he should be today. Few thinkers or writers from the Victorian era more clearly anticipated such issues as climate change, social injustice and ways to overcome it, sham renovation (specifically with reference to his beloved Venice) or the artificial polarity between left- and right-thinking politics.  Although not a liberal in the strictest sense, Ruskin had a synoptic overview of politics that we could benefit from revisiting. His most famous aphoristic thought – and his work is crammed with meaningful aphorisms – is ‘There is no wealth but life’ and his alarmed response to the ‘storm cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ (as both witness to a natural phenomenon and prophet of damaging industrialisation) is deeply significant.

Ruskin was born into comfortable circumstances and as a boy was inculcated by his mother into reading the Bible daily, a process that would greatly influence his writing style, though it wouldn’t nail his thinking to any conventional religious template. Early travel among family and friends awakened his senses to the beauty of art and nature abroad. His discovery of Turner was pivotal: a devotion to Turner’s work helped consolidate the great painter’s reputation and he was destined to accept the role, initially unwillingly, of executor to Turner’s will.

Ruskin was himself a superb draughtsman, whose pencil sketches of important buildings and scenes from nature vied with the best for sensitivity and a feeling for perspective. He was a great literary stylist whose magisterial pen lightened somewhat with the passing years. He was also a significant influence on the pre-Raphaelites.  A fine teacher and lecturer, Ruskin initiated ‘The Guild of St George’ (which survives to this day), where the idea that urban folk can enjoy, and work, the countryside was revived under his supervision.

Most controversially, there were Ruskin’s women who, from an amatory point of view, were all very young. His marriage to Effie Gray was never consummated, an issue widely misunderstood until recently when motives other than a ‘distaste’ for her actual body (the long-held theory) were discovered as far more significant.  Gray eventually went on to marry the painter John Everett Millais with whom she had eight children. Ruskin’s love for the wealthy Irish girl Rose La Touche (he fell for her when she was ten) survived her premature death at the age of 27. No evidence has survived that he ever attempted physical engagement with younger girls whose attentions he craved and whose company he enjoyed so deeply. Nowadays he would probably have been deemed a pedophile, which I’m convinced he wasn’t. Ruskin was in many ways an eternal child himself, reaching the age of 80 at his eventual home in Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water (now a Ruskin museum).

What I’ve written hardly touches the surface of a life that although fraught with problems, even occasional bouts of madness, was richly fulfilled and crammed with fascinating literary production.

An early volume of poetry is heavily derivative but Ruskin’s mature work – and there’s a great deal of it – impressed the likes of Tolstoy, Ghandi (whose life’s direction was changes by Ruskin’s Unto This Last) and Proust, who translated key material into French. This influence can be seen to extend beyond Wilde, Chesterton, Pound and Eliot to this very day.

As to further reading, I always recommend going straight to the source, in this case with Unto This Last (variously published at reasonable prices), a brief but powerful book on economy where Ruskin proves himself an eloquent precursor of social economy. The Brantwood Diary (Yale) offers many insights and there’s a useful ‘Selected Writings’, published by OUP. The complete works edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn and stretching to 39 volumes is magnificent in both form and content and includes one of the most impressive indexes ever published; it’s pricey but would provide a lifetime’s worth of reading.

As to biographies, Tim Hilton’s comprehensive work – the one I’d most recommend – is divided into ‘The Early Years’ and ‘The Later Years’ and available either as two separate volumes or as a single-volume 947-page paperback from Yale. A Cambridge Companion and various writings by Robert Hewison (especially on Ruskin and Venice) are valuable; Robert Brownell’s fascinating ‘Marriage of Inconvenience’ researches the Ruskin-Gray debacle and its various implications and if you can find it, Derrick Leon’s ‘Ruskin: the Great Victorian’ (Archon Books) is couched in a literary style that virtually levels with Ruskin’s own. It’s a joyous read. Beyond that there’s Cynthia Gamble on Ruskin as translated by Proust and so much more that to reach further into the critical bibliography would be to court confusion, at least initially. The important thing to remember is that John Ruskin ventured into the future without breaking the tablets of the past. That for me makes him a major thinker, one to be reckoned with.

What’s in a name? – recordings by a great but unknown pianist rescued from the vaults

In the January 2019 issue of Gramophone the distinguished critic Jed Distler wrote a usefully comprehensive resume of the finest younger pianists, citing, at one point, Benjamin Grosvenor whose dazzling, old-school artistry brings to mind the finest of his feted forebears. Jed’s mischievous suggestion that were we to lay a sheet of shellac surface noise across the best of the Grosvenor’s recordings we may as well be listening to, say, the legendary Josef Hofmann, poses the question: suppose we were to apply that principle in reverse and somehow magic away vintage sound so that the likes of Hofmann, Rachmaninov, Cortot, Schnabel, Rosenthal, Friedman, Lhevinne and others sound, in sonic terms, as immediate as Yuja Wang or Daniil Trifonov? Would we then be talking about a sort of interpretative continuum where the generations meld onto an elevated bloodline that will only admit the best, and forget the issue of this or that historic ‘period’? I’d say, definitely not. My contention is that the blooded divide that sliced the world pre- and post-War somehow soiled the concept of Romantic idealism, which is why Rachmaninov’s Chopin Second Sonata or Schumann Carnaval and Friedman’s accounts of various Chopin Mazurkas awake in us levels of fantasy that no post-War pianists, however insightful, quite manage to achieve.

So, are we then slaves to ‘big name’ syndrome? Can we only experience awe if the name appended to it is ‘legendary’? Well, here’s a test for you. You know the great Sidney Foster (1917-1977) don’t you. Sorry? You’re telling me that you don’t know him? This cultured prize-winning virtuoso, one time resident of Bloomington, Indiana, who gave the Boston premiere of Bartók’s Third Concerto under Aaron Copland and wrote his own cadenza for the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Concerto, pupil of David Saperton (Godowsky’s son-in-law and teacher of Shura Cherkassky and the like) is a pianist whose range of imagination and ability to cue audible thunder will make you think again about everything he plays. A 7-cd set of live performances on the Marston label (57001-2) includes a remarkable recording from 1941 where this 23-year old winner of the Edgar M. Leventritt Prize (the judges included Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin) played the Beethoven Concerto. The rest is from the 1950s through to the 1970s, Brahms’s Third Sonata raging wild, the Scherzo bursting upon us in a state of great agitation, and the four Ballades, the First massive in conception, the Third, restless, impulsive, and the polar opposite of the marmoreal Michelangeli.

This is the thing about Foster –  he’s a player who you feel has rushed to the keyboard on impulse in the privacy of his own studio just for the  love of performing a favourite work. The concertos programmed also include Tchaikovsky’s First (with a notably poetic slow movement), a characterful Bartók Third with Copland (recorded around the time of the Boston premiere), and a cleanly articulated Schumann Concerto from Japan. Schumann’s Carnaval treads the Rachmaninov route with drive and eloquence but for me the set’s high points are two Chopin masterpieces, the Fourth Ballade and the F minor Fantasy, both works played with a combination of storm-tossed passion and structural awareness. Foster was less the refined practitioner than an intuitive musician who seemed au fait with the muse’s fiery breath. Intelligent too, of course, but reaching beyond the notes was his special skill

You listen and you wonder, why was this man’s commercial recording career restricted to a couple of LPs? Why is his name virtually unknown while the names of his pianistic inferiors fill our households?  Sadly, it’s not an unknown situation but at least in this case Ward Marston has had the courage and enterprise to make amends. Please don’t just take my word for it. I won’t guarantee you’ll like everything in the set but, to return to Jed’s conjecture, were I to present you with say the Chopin Ballade in modern sound I’ve a feeling you’d say, ‘this guy is one hell of a player! Where has he been? Let’s hear more of him’.