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.

Bruckner turned Goth

Although known primarily for his uplifting symphonic narratives, in his day the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner was also celebrated as a brilliant organ improvisor. These two aspects of his art are neatly brought together by the conductor-scholar-organist Gerd Schaller whose recordings of the complete symphonies for the Hänssler Profil label feature familiar scores in rarely heard – and therefore textually revealing – editions. Now Schaller has ventured onto a brand new path, transcribing the often terrifying Ninth Symphony for organ and playing it himself on the handsome Eisenbarth organ of the former Cistercian Abbey Church of Ebrach (2cds, PH21010, available via Select Music & Video Distribution). The upshot of this enterprising exercise is surprising in that rather play to the ‘cathedral in sound’ cliché that is so often applied to the symphonies, Schaller brings to the music a rawness, depth and austere intimacy that takes us to a moonlit, wooded terrain where mystery reigns alongside feelings of awe.

Try the deathly clanging of high-flown bells evoked at around at 14:46 into the first movement or, in the scherzo (which shimmers and roars rather than stamps), a dense cacophony approximating angry chatter. The third movement climbs from a simple affirmation of faith near the start (the ‘gates of Heaven’ episode at 1:56) to the sombre melody that restfully takes over soon afterwards. The movement’s clinching climax explodes on a blooded bed of dissonance (that builds from 18:50 – and thunders mercilessly from 19:59), here sounding as if ringing from the bowels of hell – there’s no escaping the pitch-black Gothic images that between them Bruckner and Schaller bring to mind.

But that’s just the start of it. Beyond the third movement (don’t forget this symphony was left incomplete, the finale a jagged mass of disparate fragments) Schaller summons chorales, crushing chords and flames that lick this way and that. His coda achieves closure, after a fashion, but the real power is not in how the tale ends but in the questions that follow on from it. We’ve already had performing versions of the Ninth from (among others) Rattle and Harnoncourt but maybe Schaller’s employment of a totally new sound medium allows us to approach it as a separate experience, one that’s divorced from what we already know.  It won’t replace the Ninths you own, but it will likely haunt them forever.

How English is Elgar’s Violin Concerto?

Back in the 1990s Nigel Kennedy, Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony made a rousing case for Elgar’s Violin Concerto, Kennedy as ever affectionately abrasive with a wannabe cockney slant to his playing – right from his aggressive initial entry – while Rattle’s contribution was bold and assertive. Then last year saw Rattle, a Good European with the British cause at heart, return to the work, this time with the LSO (forthcoming on Erato 0190295112820), putting his music where his mouth is and lending our greatest violin concerto a degree of gravitas that none before him – save perhaps Elgar with the young Yehudi Menuhin as soloist – have quite managed to do. Replacing Kennedy is a suave and deeply persuasive Frenchman, Renaud Capuçon, and his first entry conjures a very different world, one where mellow fruitfulness predominates. And while in the second and third movements Rattle’s tempi are significantly swifter than they were before, he now takes us to fresh climes, venturing behind the Concerto’s gnarled surface to significant countersubjects, inner voices and bold rhythmic figures that thanks to a superb technical cooperative (Alain Lanceron and Stephen Johns) and possibly aided by enforced social distancing (the accommodating venues are in Hampstead and Old Street) come across with impressive presence. As a sampling of how beautifully things knit together, follow the rolling hills and dales from around 5:22 into the first movement, reaching that wonderful second principal theme at 6:37 beyond which Elgar stops singing and starts to speak. Is there any Violin Concerto lovelier than this? Not in my book. I’m tempted to label the deeply romantic second movement ‘English’-sounding but, no, ‘Pastoral’-sounding is better, just as when, for the finale’s long cadenza (10:52), set against a shimmering carpet of gently strummed strings, Elgar repeatedly calls his soloist back from flights of fancy with that second theme from the first movement.

But, tell me, could you honestly describe this music as English first and foremost? Well, the work’s dedicatee Fritz Kreisler protested Elgar’s greatness beyond any national identity and Elgar never thought of himself as a specifically ‘English’ composer. So, the answer to that question has to be ‘no’. As musical exports go the Concerto’s climate recalls parallel worlds where Dvorák, Brahms, Bruch, Fauré, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Bruckner and others had already set up shop. Our wares might not be identical but they’re similar. The violin concertos of Bruch and Brahms are somewhere in situ (as is Schumann’s long hidden masterpiece, though it wasn’t actually premiered until three years after Elgar’s death), and so is Max Reger’s, written around the same time as Elgar’s. So you could call Elgar’s far-reaching imagination and emotional ambiguity typically European. And it’s those aspects of the work that Capuçon and Rattle take to their hearts. The Violin Sonata, a late work, is half the Concerto’s length, perhaps more ethereal (Fauré’s late sonatas spring to mind) but as played by Capuçon and the superb pianist Stephen Hough draws you in to a more abstract world. A disc to order without hesitation.

Venerable record critic Robert Layton dies at 90. Some thoughts on reviewing.

The exact date of Bob’s death, 9th November. When I first knew him I was the ‘Young Turk’ among Gramophone’s venerated roster of old reviewers, though he was always hugely supportive, and enthusiastically encouraged new or refreshing viewpoints. We’d spar and laugh regularly, sometimes over a jar of this or that, or a meal. I have missed his writing of late and often wondered what he would have made of new Sibelius symphony cycles (a speciality) conducted by the likes of Segerstam, Paavo Järvi, Storgards etc. How, according to Bob, would they have stacked up against say Sir Colin Davis in Boston, Anthony Collins in London, various symphonies that Karajan recorded and so forth? And what’s more important, how would you rate his opinions alongside those of his various successors, especially in Gramophone? Have reviewing standards dipped, stayed level or risen? Does the fact that unlike Bob’s forebears the modern critic has sometimes to consider hundreds of rival versions of a particular symphony invalidate his/her opinions simply because it’s impossible to listen to everything? And how does the presence of so many unedited websites/blogs etc – some of them impressively authoritative – alter the state of play when it comes to assessing officially published critical viewpoints? How valid is record reviewing anyway? Do you simply learn to trust those who you regularly agree with? And was the scholar/broadcaster/musician Has Keller right when he called record criticism a ‘phoney profession’? Thoughts please!

Losing my youngest brother Andrew

There are few losses worse than a parent losing a child or, when an adult, losing a child of one’s own or a younger sibling. Sad to relate that alongside my brothers Jonny and Jezz (and our children) I have to mourn the passing of Andrew, the youngest of four (just 59) from what was an as-yet undisclosed illness. He died on 26th October at his home at Mill Hill, London, having failed to phone his friend Jason on his birthday, very uncharacteristic, which was why Jason took the trip to check on him … and found him as if asleep. He was devastated as are we and others who were close to him.

To say that Andrew was a one-off is an understatement. He made his various dislikes forcefully known so I shan’t attempt to camouflage him here – he could be irascible, wildly funny, passionate, cantankerous, loving, aggressive, gentle, caring, dismissive, all these things and more, often in the space of a single day. But most people took an instant shine to him. As a kid, though naughty, he was adorable. When Georgie and I were first married he would stay with us, full of fun though irritated by our two kittens who would regularly tickle his feet when he was in bed. Animals were his thing. There was a stretch of rough land near our Finchley family home where he collected, fed and nurtured all manner of creatures, mice, rats, snakes, voles – everything you can think of (and that he could lay his hands on), sometimes bringing them home. And there were the family dogs, ostensibly my father’s property though it was Andrew who took care of them and walked them. Andrew and Dad could be very similar. In fact had the Old Man been famous Andrew could have lived off his frighteningly realistic spoofs. Dog-wise, though, his last and most beloved companion was Wilbur, a handsome and devoted lurcher/greyhound ‘cross’ that was at his side for many years and that Andrew had to have euthanized at the onset of lockdown because, being old, he was in so much pain. Having Wilbur put to sleep wasn’t a problem – he couldn’t bear to see him suffer – but what was unbearable was not being with him when the lethal injection was administered. Because of COVID restrictions no one was allowed inside the vet’s surgery. Of course with Andrew, anger was invariably caused by issues way beneath the surface.

He was devoted to music, Hendrix and especially Zappa. He’d taken up bass guitar practicing daily after a previous bout of illness that he’d recovered from – and was just a stone’s throw away from sounding fully professional. He loved playing but could also respond to contemporary concert music (as did Zappa). I once put on Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite (Chicago Symphony/Doráti recording) and he was so keen on what he heard that I immediately had to burn him off a copy. He was interested in any number of my oddball pursuits, bound back issues of London Illustrated News, for example, which fascinated him.

Andrew was larger than life and …. loud? You bet! But he was so real. I think of Blake’s words ‘no bird soars too high that soars with its own wings’. And that’s how I’ll always think of him, his wings won through his playing, circling high above us while occasionally swooping down to lovingly perch on our shoulder or peck an admonishing rebuttal. As for religion, he loathed it – not his racial heritage (he was certainly no self-hating Jew) – but the rituals and external trappings. He was once over at ours for his favourite chicken lunch when I showed him Robert Alter’s recent translation of the Old Testament. ‘Go on, read some of it to me, demonstrate just how wonderful it is,’ he said mockingly. So I told him the story of Abraham and Isaac which believe it or not even as a North London Jewish lad he didn’t know. He was horrified by the story, oblivious to its ‘test of faith’: all he could imagine was the knife at Isaac’s throat. In that respect his reaction chimed with various modern anti-religious thinkers, Christopher Hitchens, and the like.

So in remembering my nature-loving, widely travelled kid brother Andrew, what can I say? Certainly not ‘Rest in Peace’. Rest was beyond his apprehension – he couldn’t rest, ever – and I’m not sure that peace was even in his vocabulary. It certainly wasn’t in ours when he was with us. I’ll pass on The Bible and recall instead another big, larger-than-life, creative force, the American poet Walt Whitman, a hospital wound-dresser during the American Civil War who embraced the world with a huge bear hug, ‘One of the Roughs, a Kosmos’ – very Andrew. This is from his most famous poem, Leaves of Grass – and I think it’s how Andrew would want to be remembered. It’s certainly how I’ll remember him.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.


The power of diversity in music and writing – and a great new book on poetry

With ‘diversity’ a current buzz word, I’ve been pondering what it means to me, personally. Take the idea that black culture matters (which is what ‘diversity’ has come to signify in popular modern parlance). A no-brainer as far as I’m concerned, but whereas others are identifying black musicians or writers to back up their cause I’d rather ponder the great, ride high on their gifts – I’m thinking Langston Hughes, Parker, Mingus, Walcott, Baldwin, Morrison, Armstrong, Holliday, Ellington, Basie, Fitzgerald, Angelou, the MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet) and so on – accepting the riches they’ve given me and forgetting the issues of colour or racial origins. When I first encountered Fitzgerald, Ellington and Bechet (as a kid I’d play their records constantly) I had no idea they were black, but I did know that they were better than virtually anyone else in the genre at the time – and still are. Quality is what matters and it’s still the Number One priority, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I listen to the enriching music of Max Reger – who’s about as dead and white as it’s possible to be, stylistically at least – watching a video where the conductor is Wayne Marshall. Would either you or I guess that Marshall is black without foreknowledge? Not by listening, that’s for sure. Take the MJQ’s late pianist John Lewis playing straight Bach, or Keith Jarrett in Bach or Shostakovich. The stew is boiling and no one sensitive to culture can resist its powerful aroma. Celebrate individual ingredients by all means, but never forget that context is everything. A good deal has gone pear-shaped since the Sixties, but one Sixties legacy has remained potent: cultural cross-pollination (and by that I don’t mean multi-culturalism, which is a very different subject).

What prompted this heartfelt outburst is a recent book on poetry, the best ‘history’ I’ve ever read as it so happens, John Carey’s ‘A Little History of Poetry’ (Yale, £14.99). Most studies on the subject ply their narrative with a certain level of pedantry, dotting ‘I’s and crossing ‘T’s where eagerly pushing forwards would be a far better option, and which is precisely what Carey does here. He starts with the Epic of Gilgamesh, enters the realms of war, adventure and love with Homer and Sappho, then proceeds among the Latin classics (including Virgil), Anglo-Saxon poetry and, beyond that, the likes of Dante, Petrarch and Villon, the Elizabethans, John Donne, then the age of individualism, including the gnomic Herrick whose work I hardly knew. Happily, and with thanks to Oxfam in nearby Watford, I was able to acquire a handsome Herrick ‘complete works’ and am currently lapping it up. Religious individualists are covered, as are the Romantics and the likes of Yeats, Pound and Eliot, their vices as much illuminated as their virtues. Major Americans such as Whitman, Stevens and Dickinson are prominent, and so are the Germans Goethe, Rilke and Heine, though oddly Hölderlin is absent.  Meaningful – and memorable – quotations are plentiful and, yes, [Langston] Hughes, Walcott and Angelou are all there. The beauty of Carey’s book is that it gives you reasons to take poetry on as an urgent project (20th century Brits such Larkin, [Ted] Hughes and the likes fire straight from the hip), making it a necessary subject. Of writers on music only Alex Ross, whose newly issued ‘Wagnerism’ is a modern masterpiece, can compare. So if you’ve a friend or relative who reckons he/she doesn’t like poetry, this is your chance to prove them wrong.  

The joy of choosing ‘classical’ boxed sets as Christmas gifts – a personal selection ahead of time (with brief comments)

third updated version (*/**/***)

There’s nothing like great music to lift the spirits during times of crisis – though hopefully the coming Christmas season will offer some respite for everyone. And as cd boxes make wonderful gifts, even when pricey (prices here range from £13.75 to £288.00), I thought that pre-Christmas I’d get in early ‘while stocks last’ (as they say). I’ve divided these personally chosen selections into specific categories, to help you identify which ones might be suitable for which friends or relations. Most should be available online (virtually all my choices were released during the course of this year, or thereabouts) and I’ve either reviewed – or will review – quite a few of them in fuller detail for Gramophone magazine.

You can always drop me a line on this blog at robccowan.com if there’s anything else I can at least attempt to help you with. Perhaps post your query as a response to this feature.

All prices are rounded up to an average.

***Richard Bonynge’s ballet bonanza

Fancy indulging in an extremely tuneful tin of Quality Street? Richard Bonynge’s ‘complete ballet recordings’ put together by Australian reissues guru Cyrus Meher-Homji for Decca fit the bill perfectly, 45 cds chockfull of adorable music, including two versions each of Giselle and Coppéla, Sylvia and the three Tchaikovsky ballets, in the case of Swan Lake more complete than most, over three hours’ worth in fact. The beauty of Bonynge’s Swan Lake is its operatic sense of scale (Bonynge the opera conductor would surely have connected with this aspect of the music), the net result being one of the most gripping performances I’ve heard, its cumulative effect quite overwhelming. The playing of the National Philharmonic (a UK orchestra created exclusively for recording purposes, founded by RCA Records producer and conductor Charles Gerhardt and orchestra leader and contractor Sidney Sax) is splendid and Decca’s sound throughout the set (whether analogue or digital) is characteristically sumptuous. Novelties abound, with works by Minkus, Auber, Drigo, Messager and others, including a whole host of rarely heard overtures. Other orchestras featured include the Suisse Romande, the LSO, the English Concert Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House whereas among added instrumental/vocal bonuses are unusual cello concertos beautifully played by Jascha Silberstein. As to the annotations, Paul Westcott writes on the recordings and Mark Pullinger offers concise chapter and verse on the composers and synopses. Would I have anticipated the high pleasure yield experienced? Not on your life! Rarely has being wrong proved such a joy.

Richard Bonynge: complete ballet recordings

Decca (45) 485 0781


***Eduard van Beinum: a rostrum master celebrated

Talk of the Concertgebouw and the two most frequently cited past maestros tend to be Willem Mengelberg (distant) and Bernard Haitink (recent). In between came Eduard van Beinum (1900-1959) whose sizeable discography, both ‘live’ and studio, embraces a wide range of repertoire, from Bach to Bruckner, from Mozart to Mahler and beyond (ie Stravinsky, Kodály, Bartók) all of it performed with flare and understanding. Scribendum’s 40-cd celebration includes sonically compromised but interpretatively electrifying ‘live’ relays of Bruckner 8 and Mahler 6 as well as wartime broadcasts of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture that rival pre-war recordings under Mengelberg for drama and passion. Van Beinum’s way with French music was, like that of his successor Haitink, celebrated, and two versions of Debussy’s La Mer sine brightly among a plethora of rivals, the earlier (and swifter) of the two a rough-sounding dramatic wartime effort, the more relaxed later version in stereo.  Add  works by J. S. and J.C. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Elgar, Britten, Respighi, Borodin, Sibelius, Schoenberg , Hendrick Andriessen, Thomas, Nicolai, Richard Strauss (an electrifying live Don Juan), Arnold (Beckus the Dandipratt superbly played), Franck, Ravel (including an outstanding stereo La valse), Willem Pijper and so on and you have what is to my knowledge the most generous collection of van Beinum’s recordings so far issued, and on that count alone, is much to be prized.

The Art of Eduard van Beinum

Scribendum (40cds) SC823


Ravel complete

*Classic Ravel tracks from the earliest days of recording to 2019

Among Ravel’s most magical creations is his concise and occasionally jazzy ‘lyric fantasy’ L’enfant et les sortilèges, a cautionary but ultimately touching tale about a  naughty child who is reprimanded by objects in his room that he has been destroying. The end of the work is a real tear-jerker, so be warned. Warner’s admirable collection includes a vivid 2016 French recording of L’enfant under Mikko Franck, which is followed by performances of other, briefer works under Ravel’s own direction. The riches on offer here are substantial, not least the Daphnis et Chloe under André Cluytens, Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Mother Goose ballet, other orchestral works under the likes of Jean Martinon, Carlo Maria Giulini and Riccardo Muti, piano works with Bertrand Chamayou, Alexandre Tharaud, Samson François and Anne Queffélec and countless rarities. The deal is crowned by superb notes by Ravel expert Roger Nichols.

Ravel: the complete works

Warner Classics (21 cds)  0902952832




A winning collection that offers good performances of key Bach orchestral works (Brandenburg Concertos, orchestral Suites, and Violin Concertos), Corelli’s ground-breaking 12 Concerti grossi Op. 6, Handel’s Water/Royal Fireworks Music and first four organ concertos, Vivaldi (including ‘The Four Seasons’), Telemann (selections from ‘Tafelmusik’ or ‘Table Music’) and so forth. While hardly benchmark renditions, this is a reliable and sensibly priced starting point for anyone who fancies the ‘sound’ of baroque music but isn’t, as yet, too fussed about the finer details.


Brilliant Classics (25 cds)


Masters of the German Baroque

Now this really is high quality. Ricercar has over the years issued numerous recordings featuring top-of-the-range early music performers in sound that presents a most beautiful tonal blend. The repertoire featured in this generous anniversary box includes little-known members of the Bach family whose hypnotic works often sound unexpectedly modern (while JSB himself isn’t forgotten), as well as attractive dance music by Michael Praetorius, and compositions by Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehüde, and numerous other composers who are very little known outside of specialist Baroque circles. I have personally derived untold hours of pleasure from this collection and would recommend it unreservedly.

Masters of the German Baroque

Ricercar set RC110 (31 cds)


Iona Brown revisits Handel’s Concerti Grossi at the Academy

Decca recently re-released, in the context of their big Academy of St Martin in the Fields anniversary box (485 0093, 60 cds), Iona Brown’s spirited 1979 Philips recordings of Handel’s complete Concerti Grossi Opp. 3 and 6, claiming Op.6 was a first cd reissue though in fact it wasn’t. Now Hänssler Classic offer a bargain box of her later digital recordings with the same band, stylistically very different, less rhythmically pungent and with added woodwind lines. Also, this later set is less ornamental: note the curlicues in the First Concerto’s second movement that have vanished during the intervening years. I’d say that of the two this newer set is more prone to dance; it’s also lighter on its feet, more keenly inflected and rather more in keeping with current performing practices for Baroque music. The sound is excellent.

Handel Concerti grossi Opp. 3 & 6

Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Iona Brown

Hänssler Classic HC17035 (4cds)



Andor Foldes: A musician’s virtuoso

Andor Foldes’s style of piano playing is both spontaneous and perfectionist. You might call him a musician’s virtuoso. No-one surely has tapped out the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata with a firmer sense of rhythm or made Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia sound less ostentatiously virtuosic. Foldes’s major achievement on disc is his survey of Bartók’s solo piano works for Deutsche Grammophon, here supplemented by an earlier version of the Sonata and his only recording of the Second Concerto, which is propulsive, powerful and where needs be elegant. His Mozart concerto recordings are often sublime while other Beethoven – virtually half of the sonatas are included – exhibit formidable levels of understanding. Among other highlights are works by Copland and Kodály, including Foldes’s own imaginative piano transcription of excerpts from Kodály’s Háry János Suite

Andor Foldes: the Complete Deutsche Grammphon recordings

Eloquence (19 cds) ELQ4841256


Alexandre Tharaud: from Scarlatti to the Beach Boys

Try Chabrier’s ‘Idylle’, rather like a Frenchified equivalent of a late Brahms miniature, equivocal music, gaily tripping along in its own very private world. The beauty of Tharaud’s approach is that he has the music greeted by countless rainbow hues, the approach both mobile and eventful, quite unlike anyone else’s. There’s charismatic Scarlatti and a most imaginative reworking – Tharaud’s own – of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth. For most of the time you could easily imagine that Mahler’s original is in fact an orchestration of what Tharaud plays here.  He also offers us his colour-coded transcription of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, extracts from concertos and numerous modern works from Hans Abrahamsen and a piano piece ‘around the Beach Boys’ to his own Corpus Volubilis. I loved every minute and my advice would be to hide the booklet under the table and listen ‘blind’, just for the fun of it. In that context identification hardly matters, only the music and the wonderful way Tharaud plays it.

Alexandre Tharaud: le poète du piano

Warner Classics (3 cds) 9029518087


Russia’s Lipatti

The pianist Rose Tamarkin was once married to Emil Gilels, and died in Moscow at the age of 30 almost exactly seventy years ago. According to Wikipedia’s fairly informative article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Tamarkina ‘Tamarkina started appearing in public at the age of 13, astounding listeners and critics with the maturity of her interpretation, temperament and her virtuosity’. The evidence on disc is unbelievable, most especially the Liszt items (the Rigoletto Paraphrase, Petrarch Sonnet No. 104 and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10), the Sonnet raging with the full force of that ‘temperament and virtuosity’ As to the opening of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, yes, the piano initially drowns out the orchestra but once into its stride the performance proves among the most compelling ever committed to disc. Also included, a warmly phrased and at times heroic account of Franck’s Violin Sonata where Tamarkina partners the expressive Marina Kosolupova and there are performances of the Brahms and Taneyev Piano Quintets with the Bolshoi Theatre Quartet, the Brahms featuring remarkably clean finger work (as well as the first movement’s sizeable exposition repeat). The final disc opens to a Schubert and Schubert-Liszt sequence, two Impromptus from D899 (the E flat pure filigree), and Liszt’s versions of ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ and ‘Erstarrung’, both recorded live, sometimes minutely flawed, but anguished and full of foreboding.

The Art of Rosa Tamarkina

Scribendum Argento SC819 (3 cds)

*Chic Frenchman with a mind of his own

Fifty years ago this month the great French pianist Samson François died at the age of 46, having recorded Debussy for EMI (Warners) on that very morning (22nd October to be exact). François – who the great Alfred Cortot claimed was unteachable – regularly pushed the interpretative boat out, touting novel ideas that would never have occurred to lesser musical minds. This latest ‘complete edition’ includes a first-ever release of a live Nohant recital given just months before the pianist’s death, minutely flawed its true but with an account of Schumann’s mercurial Papillons that is so personal, so exquisitely nuanced that notated fact becomes musical fantasy. Other live recitals are also included, as are near complete traversals of the piano works of Chopin and Debussy and various concertos, one of the most striking being Prokofiev’s acerbic Fifth (the stereo version under Witold Rowicki) where François merely flicks at the second movement, making others (including Sviatoslav Richter) sound bullish. You’re unlikely to agree with everything you hear, but I’d be very surprised if you leave this wonderful set without having experienced some level of inspiration or stimulation. Also included, an interesting DVD ‘Samson François: The Enchanter of the Piano’.

Samson François: Complete Recordings

Warner Classics (54 cds + 1 DVD) 0190295261863


** Duet partner with a style of his own

Mention the pianist Pierre Barbizet and his regular duo partner the ill-fated violinist Christian Ferras inevitably springs to mind: the Barbizet/Ferras partnership made some fabulous records, not least the complete Beethoven violin sonatas (two of them twice recorded) as well as sonatas by Enescu, Debussy, Fauré, Brahms, Franck, Chausson’s Concert and so forth, not forgetting flute sonatas with Jean-Pierre Rampal. As to solo repertoire Barbizet taped a benchmark set of Chabrier’s piano works (including pieces for two pianos and piano, four hands, Barbizet duetting with Jean Hubeau), a trio of crisp and assertive solo Beethoven sonatas, various chamber works (including Berg’s Chamber Concerto with Ferras, under Georges Prêtre) and Serge Nigg’s jazz-romantic hybrid Piano Concerto No. 1 (with André Cluytens conducting). All plus more are included in a desirable boxed set that should yield many hours of musical pleasure.

Pierre Barbizet: the Complete Erato ad HMV Recordings

Erato (14 cds) 0190295187620


***Barenboim plays Beethoven’s sonatas complete third time around

For this latest Barenboim traversal of the sonatas DG facilities a comparison of the Young Turk with the Wise Elder by including, in addition to the main set (recorded this summer), 1958 recordings of selected sonatas where the teenage Barenboim proved his musical mettle – and persuasiveness – with performances that are remarkably assured. One of the sonatas included twice is the life-changing Hammerklavier, late music composed in the isolation of deafness with a slow movement that defies description, Barenboim in youth insightful and attentive whereas his later performance is a broad, serene and emotionally engaging narrative, pure tone poetry from beginning to end. Throughout the cycle Barenboim eases us from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, less a pianist pure-and-simple than a thoroughgoing musician, landing chords with varieties of attack much as he might with an orchestra, and always with a keen sense of structure. These are deeply pondered performances, less perfect than profound and with the bonus of Beethoven’s greatest piano work – his Diabelli Variations – adding further sustenance to an already rich array of ingredients. Not an ‘only’ set to own perhaps, but certainly one to place beside Artur Schnabel, Richard Goode, Alfred Brendel and Wilhelm Kempff.

Beethoven complete piano sonatas, Diabelli Variations

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

DG (13cds) 483 9320



Beethoven complete violin and cello sonatas, plus the two greatest piano trios

For starters, beam up the central section of the third movement from the Piano Trio Op. 70 No. 2 (1:54), where the wittily affected string playing-style apes early music, while Melnikov’s response to it is uncompromisingly firm. Real conversation, this. Furthermore, the tipsily descending piano line at 0:41 is one of the weirdest passages in all of Beethoven. The Archduke Trio and sonatas (Violin and Cello) are memorably played, balletic in the faster music, charged with a symbiotic sense of dialogue elsewhere. While not pretending that Busch, Heifetz, Piatigorsky, the Beaux Arts, the Stern Trio et al are kicked out of court, Melnikov and friends have plenty to teach us and I for one was consistently attentive. Just one minor caveat, a production fault on the last cd might mean a temporary delay in availability.

Beethoven – Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexander Melnikov

Harmonia mundi HMX (6 cds) 2908873.78

Price not yet available –  probably around £35.00

Beethoven captured live around the globe

Quatuor Ébène’s epoch-making ‘Beethoven around the World’ project shared Beethoven’s quartet cycle between seven international venues though you’d never guess from the consistency of the sound. Nor would you guess that they were recorded live and in rehearsal: there’s virtually no evidence of an audience and no applause. As to the performances, we’re talking nose-to-nose confrontation, lacerating attack too, but in Op.132’s sublime slow movement a matchless level of involvement, at least in terms of digital recordings. If Beethoven’s ‘sixteen’ is on your bucket list, use Quatuor Ébène’s compelling reportage to learn the ropes.

Beethoven around the world (the complete string quartets): Quatuor Ébène

Erato (7 cds) 0190295339814


The Smetana Quartet recorded live in Prague 1976-1985 – first Western release

There are times when the Smetana Quartet levels with Quatuor Ébène from brilliance but in general their Prague stereo recordings for Nippon Columbia are less extreme than those of their younger rivals (Op.132’s sublime slow movement clocks in at 16:28 whereas Quatuor Ébène opt for a heavenly 21:00). But tempo isn’t everything and when it comes to refined expression, stylistic appropriateness and the sensitive balancing of parts, ‘rightness’ is a word that frequently springs to mind. The sound too is superb.

Beethoven Quartets complete – the Smetana Quartet

Supraphon (7 cds) SU 4283-2

Beethoven Smetana


Russian Chamber Music

The Borodin Quartet (personnel at this stage of their game: Kopelman-Abramenkov-Shebalin-Berlinsky) are handsomely authoritative in a Shostakovich Quartet selection which reaches across Nos. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 12 & 15 alongside the Piano Quintet and Second Piano Trio with the formidable Elisabeth Leonskaja, all compellingly performed. Then there’s the complete run of Tchaikovsky quartets and the sunnily affirmative string sextet Souvenir de Florence and Alfred Schnittke’s arrangement of Mahler’s piano quartet, as well as other pieces by Schnittke and works by Stravinsky and Weinberg.

Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Schnittke, etc Borodin Quartet, Leonskaja, etc

Warner Classics (8 cds) 0190295204631



Celebrating Ida

Eloquence’s posthumous celebration of the violin’s Grand Dame includes a first-release VW Lark Ascending under Sir Roger Norrington imbued with great feeling and a passionate 1982 Sibelius Concerto with Zubin Mehta conducting. The bulk of the set however is devoted to a portrait of the artist as a young girl, recordings of mostly short pieces with some concertos added that report Haendel’s youthful combination of tonal sweetness and breath-taking agility. As an expressive virtuoso Ida Haendel was up there with the best of them, and it’s great to have her rarer 78s sounding so smooth.

Ida Haendel: the Decca Legacy

Decca Eloquence (6 cds) 484 1688

c£35.00 – in preparation

* Henryk Szeryng – the ultimate ambassador of great culture

At the outbreak of World War II the great Polish-Mexican violinist Henryk Szeryng (“Szeryng” by the way a Polish transliteration of his Yiddish surname, which nowadays would be spelled “Shering” in the modern Yiddish-to-English transliteration), who was fluent in seven languages, served as liaison officer and interpreter to the premier of the Polish government in exile, Wladyslaw Sikorski. Szeryng died in March 1988, his headstone bearing the concluding bars of the ‘Chaconne’ from Bach’s Partita No.2 for Solo Violin. All this gives some indication of Szerying’s breadth of culture and this SWR collection while not exactly the last word in ‘hi-fi’ presents consistently insightful accounts of concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Lalo, Mozart, Schumann, Sibelius and Szymanowski. If I tell you that the conductors involved include such notables as Paul Sacher, Ernest Bour and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, you’ll know – or at least guess – that interpretative standards are consistently high. The two Bach concertos are seamlessly played, the Beethoven and Brahms Concertos imbued with a rare sense of musical vision and as for Schumann, Berg and Szymanowski (the Second Concerto), to this day Szeryng has few if any serious rivals. A magnificent set.

Henryk Szeryng: Concertos (the SWR recordings 1956-1984)

SWR Classic (5 cds) 19092CD


Isaac Stern at 100: Sony’s analogue legacy

I’d call him the Marlon Brando of violinists – except he was a contender. Stern was a tough player, his tone sinewy and forthright, his playing heartfelt in every bar. Stern’s analogue legacy is full of glorious things, not least recordings made at the Casals Festival in Prades, especially Brahms’s Second Sextet Op.111, recorded, as I recall, at dead of night and achieving all the impulse of the Third Symphony’s heroic opening. Duo-sonatas with Alexander Zakin and concerto recordings with Eugene Ormandy are also memorable as is Franz Waxman’s Tristan und Isolde Fantasy, a brief but emotional roller coaster. If you’re a fiddle fancier, this one’s worth saving your pennies for.

Isaac Stern: The Complete Columbia Analogue Recordings

Sony Classical (75 cds) 19439724272


Sony Classical marks Itzhak Perlman’s 75th birthday

Few violinists of the last seventy years have proved more productive in the recording studio than Itzhak Perlman. This particular collection includes Perlman’s early Boston Symphony recordings of concertos by Prokofiev (No. 2), Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, all three with Erich Leinsdorf conducting, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole under André Previn, two discs’ worth of lush film music with John Williams on the rostrum, chamber music and various encore pieces. The playing style is consistently sweet, or brilliant, or both, a workable template for aspiring virtuosos. 

Itzhak Perlman te Complete Columbia and RCA Album collection 

Sony 19439752272

18 cds



A Belgian seductress sings opera, French melodies and lieder

Among the most erotic of song cycles is Debussy’s Trois chansons de Bilitis, especially the central ‘La chevelure’, a poem about sensual love, which very few singers have managed convey with anything like the requite measure of intensity. One who does is Suzanne Danco whose spellbinding art is celebrated on an 8-cd set that also includes  Fauré’s magical cycle La Bonne Chanson and key cycles by Ravel and Berlioz, various arie antiche and lieder by Brahms, Schubert, Mozart, Strauss, Wolf and Schumann – not least Dichterliebe and the Eichendorff set of Liederkreis – as well as various opera excerpts. Danco’s singing combines tonal sweetness, charm, depth of feeling and impressive interpretative intelligence. Andrew Dalton provides excellent annotations.

Suzanne Danco: The Decca Recitals

Decca Eloquence (8 cds) (484 0868)


Soviet Rimsky-Korsakov: great voices and conductors from the Bolshoi in the complete operas plus fragments

Quite a few repertory revelations here and some unforgettable voices (including Andrei Ivanov, Mark Reizen and Ivan Kozlovsky). Mlada is in stereo (under Yevgeny Svetlanov) and includes the sort of ceremonial orchestral writing – more than you’d expect to hear in an opera – that R-K also lavished on Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Among the bonuses is a Tsar Sultan Suite under the maverick baton of Nikolai Golovanov, one of his most memorable recordings – the Suite’s close is especially thrilling. He also conducts two complete operas in the set, May Night and Christmas Eve.  Other notable vintage Bolshoi recordings include Mozart and Salieri, Ivan the Terrible, Kaschei the Immortal, The Golden Cockerel, and many others. Variable sound, it’s true, but if you’re after performance authenticity in Russian opera, look no further.


The Complete Operas and Fragments

Hänssler Profil (25 cds) PH 19010


** The Golden Age of British Tenors

Prior to the emergence of Peter Pears, with his distinctive vibrato and perfect diction, British tenors would confide, declaim and sing their hearts out – their individual performing styles (such as they were) regal, princely, heroic and abundantly lyrical. I’m talking such wonderful artists as Heddle Nash, Webster Booth, John McCormack, Walter Widdop, the markedly Italianate Joseph Hislop, Frank Titterton, most of them barely names nowadays, but also singers less familiar even than they were, the likes of Dan Beddoe, Tudor Davies and Hirwen Jones, each conveying heart as well as art, and no two sounding the same. Ward Marston’s superb transfers reach across the years as if time isn’t an issue and the booklet (more a book really) provides a mine of valuable information. An absolute must for the vocal aficionado.

A Survey of British Tenors Before Peter Pears

Marston (3 cds) 53020-2 (www.marstonrecords.com)

c £41.00 ($54)

Rudolf Kempe’s finest Ring

Take Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde (or Astrid Varnay in Walküre), Hermann Uhde as Wotan and Hans  Hopf as Siegfried with a generally excellent supporting cast and you have the basis of a Ring where thanks to Rudolf Kempe’s sensitively crafted conducting, his knowing way of when to push forwards or draw back, and the lyrical slant of his overall approach, the music’s impact overwhelms you rather than slaps you full in the face (as it does with Solti in Vienna, for all the spectacular impact of Decca’s stereo engineering). There’s an earlier (1957) Kempe Ring from Covent Garden, equally well cast but a good deal less well played and recorded. This 1960 Bayreuth Festival option pips it to the post with relative ease. Wagner expert Michael Tanner offers brief but highly relevant notes.

Wagner: The Ring

Bayreuth Festival (1960), Rudolf Kempe

Pan Classics PC 10418 (12 cds)


Fabulous singing rescued from the mists of time

She was lined up for HMV’s 1930s Hugo Wolf Society but because she was Jewish – and the market was German – she was dropped. Not that Lotte Schoene (1891-1977) was embittered. She soldiered on regardless giving performances notable for their charm, beauty of tone, abundance of feeling and technical brilliance. Marston’s beautifully annotated set features copious opera extracts and lieder, including a 1948 performance of Schumann’s ‘Mondnacht’ that will likely take your breath away. Also well worth noting are Marston collections devoted to the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin (5130-2 [13 cds], $175.00), the incomparable Irish tenor John McCormack (51601-2 [16 CDs], $185.00) and Lotte Lehmann – Vol 1 [acoustic recordings], 54006-2 [4 CDs] $72, and Vol 2, 56004-2 [6 CDs], $72.00, Lehmann, as many will already know, a soprano in a million. Yes, these sets are relatively expensive, but given the level of artistry on offer, and the enormous (ie, successful) work that has gone into making some very old records listenable, they’re worth every penny/cent/euro

The complete Lotte Schoene

Marston (5 cds) 55002-2


c£70.00 ($72.00)


***Beethoven symphonies Live at the Concertgebouw

Imagine a quality Strad lying in wait for the magical touch of a master violinist and you’ll have some idea of the effect that RCO Live’s collection of all nine Beethoven symphonies under nine very different conductors (each of whom, bar one [Carlos Kleiber], has recorded the entire cycle in a separate context) has on the listener. To hear the magnificent Royal Concertgebouw respond to the different talents of David Zinman (in No. 1, lean and energetic), Leonard Bernstein (No. 2, majestic and warm-hearted), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (‘Eroica’, filled with light and shade), Herbert Blomstedt (No. 4, emotive but poised), Mariss Jansons (No. 5, driven though never to excess), Sir Roger Norrington (‘Pastoral’, full of fun and affection [and, in ‘the storm’, drama]), Carlos Kleiber (No. 7, with a deliriously dancing ‘scherzo’ but see below*), Philippe Herreweghe (No. 8, punchy and transparent) and Antál Doráti (‘Choral’, reflective of the work’s epic dimension) is to understand the Orchestra’s ability to adapt to whoever is in charge. Past Concertgebouw cycles under Mengelberg, Jochum and Haitink may offer more consistent viewpoints, musically speaking (all are well worth seeking out), but this latest collection, which alternates traditional performances with (swifter) readings that take heed of modern musical scholarship, confirms how a vital rostrum presence can transform the way an orchestra plays.

*And there’s an interesting twist to this happy tale. The uplifting (and uptight) Kleiber Seventh is only available for the disc edition of the set. For the download equivalent, a more loose-limbed Rafael Kubelík steps in as a replacement, less intense than Kleiber (except for the first movement which is especially impactful) but so shapely, playful and spontaneous. I rather prefer it. All the recordings are excellent, and so are the annotations.

Beethoven Live

RCO/Warner Classics (5) RCO 19005


Doráti conducts Haydn and Mozart on Mercury ‘Living Presence’

Back in the analogue era Decca recorded the complete run of Haydn numbered symphonies (plus extras) with Antál Doráti conducting Philharmonia Hungarica, an orchestra that was first established by Hungarian musicians who had uprooted after Hungary had been invaded by Soviet troops. Less well known perhaps are selected Haydn recordings that Dorati made earlier for the American ‘hi-fi’ Mercury label, some with the same Orchestra, others with the LSO or the Bath Festival Orchestra. These precision tooled readings (of Symphonies 45, 59, 81, 94, 100, 101, 103), spirited though frequently lyrical, are supplemented by various Mozart selections including two versions of the great G minor Symphony, the first fast and furious, recorded in mono with the Minneapolis Symphony, the second, a stereo production with the LSO, far more thoughtful and transparent.

Mozart, Haydn Doráti

Decca Eloquence (4) 484 0385


Schubert to start the day with

Miraculous is the only word for it – this, the earliest of three sets of Schubert’s completed symphonies led by one of the most charismatic and individual conductors of the last 60 years, Nikolaus Harnoncourt cuing Schubert’s eight masterpieces, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe as of July 1988 (then just 7 years old), acutely responsive to their visionary maestro, the strings featherlight, the winds supple and expressive, with taut rhythms never excessively driven, and as for transparency – neither of the conductor’s subsequent cycles (with the Royal Concertgebouw [Warner Classics] and Berlin Philharmonic [DG] Orchestras) quite compares. And there’s that uncanny sense that each musical phrase is relating to what comes next (or what went before), forming a meaningful continuum, an approach that speaks volumes about Schubert’s musical designs. That and Harnoncourt’s sense of period style which in this case is never excessively conspicuous: you sense the rightness of his approach in its very lack of exaggeration. Yes, the relatively abrasive Concertgebouw set is more generous with repeats (ie, for the first movements of the first two symphonies and the finale of the Great C major) and the famously burnished Berlin Phil has its own unique tonal appeal, though there the big C major’s scherzo sports applied ländler-like inflections that won’t be to everyone’s taste. Here though the cliche of hearing the music as if for the first time is fully justified, especially the youthful early symphonies, where the lad remains a lad rather than being frogmarched towards premature adulthood. As to the later works, Harnoncourt captures their scale and vivid sense of mystery. He views the ‘Unfinished’ as perfectly cogent tone poetry that ends on its own terms. You could imagine Harnoncourt saying ‘unfinished? Nonsense. All that needed to be said had already been said.’ So, if pressed to choose a Harnoncourt Schubert symphony cycle this is definitely the one to go for, and it’s extremely well recorded. I sat through it at a single hearing, then immediately started from the beginning again. I suggest you set out with those same enthusiastic intentions. You will be richly rewarded. It’s on and it’ll set you back just £28 or so.

ICA Classics ICAC 5160, (4 cds)


Honesty is the best policy: Michael Gielen conducts Beethoven

Gielen’s Beethoven takes a common-sense interpretative route where although scholarship is respected you can tell there’s an individual driving force in charge. We’re given a complete digital cycle of the symphonies plus alternative versions (the Eroica fares especially well, including a DVD), the C major Mass, overtures and a performance of the ‘Grosse fuge’ where the tone palette is varied to mimic the effect of new music. It’s astonishing. No Missa Solemnis, true – but in case you’re interested there’s a superb Gielen-led recording of that on the Orfeo label (C999201).

Michael Gielen Edition Vol. 9: Beethoven

SWR (9 cds + 1 DVD) SWR19090CD


Modern music pioneer puts Beethoven symphonies in the can

Years ago, there were two conductors who frequently took Beethoven’s metronome markings to heart, Rene Leibowitz and before him that fearless promoter of new music Hermann Scherchen. DG’s bargain reissue of Scherchen’s Beethoven recordings for the Westminster label includes all nine symphonies with the Royal Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Orchestras, some performances super-urgent (the RPO Fifth for example, or the stereo re-makes of 3 and 6), others taking a rather more conventional course tempo-wise. Scherchen gives terrific performances of various overtures and also included are the ‘Grosse fuge’ and Wellington’s Victory (in very vivid stereo). Not for the feint hearted, but certainly a shot of adrenalin.

Beethoven symphonies, etc  Hermann Scherchen

DG (8 cds) 4838163


Mahler as he might have heard himself

Hans Rosbaud gives you Mahler both ways. He’ll play up the storminess of the Fifth Symphony’s second movement while the Fourth, although profoundly affecting, is never touched by exaggeration. The Ninth’s first movement might be the fastest – and most intense – on record whereas the grim reaper element of No.6 is realised with nobility rather than exaggerated rhetoric. Das Lied von der Erde features tenor Ernst Haefliger in especially fresh voice and there’s the Seventh, Mahler’s stream-of-consciousness’ symphony, the one that’s all invention rather than all emotion, and absolutely Rosbaud’s bag. The 50s mono sound is perfectly adequate.

Mahler Symphonies Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9, Das Lied von der Erde

Hans Rosbaud in Cologne and Baden-Baden

SWR Classic (8 cds) (M) SWR19099CD


Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin Bruckner: third time lucky

Daniel Barenboim has recorded Bruckner’s symphonies three times, first in Chicago (DG), then with the Berlin Phil (Teldec) and now, ‘live’, with Staatskapelle Berlin, taped in Vienna (Nos. 1-3, 2012) ad Berlin (Nos. 4-9, 2010), again for. DG. My attention was first drawn to the Fifth, a magnificent performance, in the context of DG’s Staatskapelle Berlin collection and immediately went online to order this Bruckner set (which I have to admit I didn’t even realise existed). I wasn’t disappointed, especially by Symphonies Nos. 4-9 where although the earlier versions are extremely fine, these live revisits have a naturalness about them, a sense of grandeur, an all-embracing breadth of vision that really do elevate them above most digital rivals, Barenboim’s own included. Furthermore, the playing is quite magnificent. The recordings, which are technically first-rate, are available either on cd (the way I have them) or as downloads.

Bruckner Symphonies Nos. 1-9

DG 479 6985 (9 cds)


Charismatic Dutch rostrum master emerges from the shadows

Try van Kempen’s take on Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, re-orchestrated to spectacular effect while the speed-up at the end finds the Concertgebouw Orchestra racing hell-for-leather yet holding the pace with ease. Then there are Tchaikovsky’s 5th and 6th Symphonies, not dissimilar to electrifying readings by the Orchestra’s reigning maestro for 50-odd years Willem Mengelberg, the 5th especially. Marvellous Beethoven and Reger, too. Like Mengelberg after the War, Van Kempen was accused of collaborating with the Nazis which makes the sessions with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic of Alexandre Tansman’s moving commemoration of the Shoah and tribute to the founding of the State of Israel, his ‘Isiah the Prophet’ (1950), doubly surprising – and very good to have.

Paul van Kempen Concertgebouw, Berlin sessions etc

Decca (10 cds) Eloquence 484 0237


*A benchmark set of Franz Schmidt’s four symphonies

The first recording of a major orchestral work by the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Schmidt to really hit the headlines was Zubin Mehta’s superb Vienna Philharmonic version (for Decca) of the composer’s grieving tribute to his daughter, his orchestral masterpiece in fact, his Fourth Symphony. Complete recordings of all four symphonies under, for example, Schmidt’s pupil Ľudovít Rajter, and Neeme Järvi, are now joined by a consistently compelling cycle by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Neeme’s son Paavo, who drives the Fourth with maximum ardour but also realises the Third’s Schubertian axis (the slow movement is especially magical) and the very different characters of the First and Second Symphonies. The First in particular opens like a hymn to the sun, the best version I’ve ever heard. Schmidt was an accomplished instrumentalist, praised to the skies as a pianist by the legendary Leopold Godowsky while Mahler regularly chose him for orchestral cello solos when he (Schmidt) was with the Vienna Philharmonic. The music is of genuinely high quality, imbued with a sense of nature – you could say looking towards the mountains from the metropolis whereas Mahler looks towards the metropolis from the mountains. The set also includes the popular Intermezzo from Schmidt’s opera ‘Notre Dame’.

Franz Schmidt: Complete Symphonies

DG (3 cds) 483 8336


Glorious John: the complete Warner Classics legacy

It’s all here – everything that Sir John Barbirolli recorded for the Warner Classics group, with various orchestras, though mostly with the Hallé. And in case you don’t realise what ‘everything’ implies, we’re talking old records of orchestral opera potpourris, accompaniments for great singers (Schorr, Melchior, Turner, Widdop and so on), collaborations with such masters of the bow as Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman, pianists of the calibre of Rubinstein and Alfred Cortot, English music (including the celebrated ‘late’ stereo recordings of Elgar and Vaughan Williams), French music, Mahler (not least songs with Dame Janet Baker), Schoenberg and lighter fare such as Suppé Overtures, all of it performed with considerable flair. There’s also affecting spoken material – including Vaughan Williams presenting JB with the Royal Philharmonic Society medal – and so much more that to list it all would be to monopolise this entire column. It’s my reissue of the year.

Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings

Warner Classics (109 cds) 0190295386085


The soul of Elgar’s Cello Concerto

For most people of a certain age the mere mention of Elgar’s Cello Concerto means Jacqueline du Pré, one of two versions of the work included in Warners’ Barbirolli box. But for me the version that Pablo Casals recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult in 1945 delivers levels of pathos, defiance and inwardness that no other version on disc can quite rival. Where du Pré offers a candid confessional, Casals allows us a peep at his very soul, with Boult keeping a firm hand on the tiller. It’s the most wonderful performance most recently presented in the context of a 5-cd Casals set on the Biddulph label which also includes four versions of  Kol Nidre – all very unalike – more concertos, and a whole host of sweet morceaux, some in dusty acoustic (ie horn-recorded) sound but all beautifully played. Biddulph have also brought out two of the ultimate antidotes to all those tiresome viola jokes, excellent collections devoted to the legendary viola players Lionel Tertis (LAB3057, 3 cds) and William Primrose (LAB2058, 3 cds), the latter being especially lovely to listen to.

Pablo Casals: Victor recordings; Complete Acoustic recordings; HMV Concerto recordings

Biddulph LAB 5059 (5 cds)


Epic Russian symphony cycle played with conviction

And from Yevgeny Svetlanov an invaluable ‘limited edition’ package of all 27 Myaskovsky symphonies plus a handful of shorter works. There’s so much to savour from this ‘father of the Soviet Symphony’ as he was sometimes known. The Fourth, for example, which opens to a mournful solo flute line before a more tempestuous mood sets in. And tell me is there much other Russian orchestral music of the period (we’re talking 1918) that’s as deeply affecting as the beginning of the Largo second movement?  The cycle starts in 1908 (the First Symphony, revised in 1921) and reaches its conclusion in 1949, a year before the composer’s death. It’s the sort of repertoire that can hold you captive for hours such is the quality of the music and Svetlanov’s compelling brand of interpretation.  

Myaskovsky Symphonies 1-27, Svetlanov

Alto (14cds) ALC 3141



Polish music in the 20th century

A journey to another galaxy, albeit one clearly reflected on terra firma. The period covered is 1918 to 2018. It’s the inspired work of Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM), established in 1945, principally for publishing scores and books on music but of late cds have also joined their agenda. In this context musical pioneers such as Karol Szymanowski, Ludomir Rogowski, Eugeniusz Morawski and Szymon Laks (scores by the last two are especially gripping) reach through the ages to the likes of Lutosławski (who also conducts), Wojciech Kilar, Penderecki, Górecki, Tadeusz Baird and Grażyna Bacewicz with works ranging from full-scale symphonies to Passion settings by Pawel Mykietyn (St Mark), Krzysztof Knittel (St Matthew) and Penderecki (St Luke). Poland was always at the forefront of the post-war avant-garde and this incredible set offers inspired evidence. Yes, the set is pricey and it’s also bulky. In addition to the 36 cds, there’s a book of recordings and biographies, ten separate volumes on each of the decades dealt with and Danuta Gwizdalanka’s valuable 280-page ‘One Hundred Years of Polish Music History’. Performance standards are extremely high throughout and the same goes for sound quality – many of the featured recordings are fairly recent. Poland’s musical legacy is famous for its kaleidoscopic range of colours, and for those eager to enter the inner sanctum of their own musical imaginations this is without doubt a gift in a million, well worth spending those lockdown savings on – either for you or for someone special. 

100 For 100 – 100 Musical Decades of Freedom (36cds)

Anaklasis Anabox




Film music fiddler takes to the rostrum

Father of the highly gifted conductor Leonard Slatkin, Felix sung a sweet fiddle on film soundtracks and was leader of the legendary Hollywood String Quartet. And he could certainly train an orchestra, inspiring results that compared with the best that America had on offer at the time – and believe me that was mightily good. This fine-sounding box contains a plethora of showpieces (including an account of Gaité Parisienne that has never been bettered) and, more unexpectedly, some extremely sensitive Delius.

The Art of Felix Slatkin

Scribendum (13 discs) SC822


Crossing over in style

‘Sock-it-to-me’ vintage Hollywood-style hi-fi sonics, some of it recorded in London and a range of repertoire that embraces Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Elgar, Addinsell, Wildman, Bath, an extended tone poem based on The Volga Boatmen and a Cole Porter programme where the song So in Love takes on the epic grandeur of a Rachmaninov symphony. Fabulous playing throughout but no annotation

The Art of Carmen Dragon

Scribendum (17 discs) SC820


Tristan on the tiles

Some years ago, I chanced up a French EMI double CD album that featured the two-piano and solo recordings of pianists Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet. It included Doucet’s deliciously camp – some would say outrageous – Isoldina, a sort of stride/foxtrot hybrid where the ecstatic climax of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ is thrown off like a flirtatious giggle. Over time I’ve scored many laughs with this track and recently, just by accident, I discovered that in 2013 EMI Classics released the complete Wiéner/Doucet legacy from the 1920s and 1930s on four cds where supporting artists include Maurice Chevalier, Jean, Mireille and Germaine Sablon, and Yvonne Vallée. Other classical masters ‘tweaked’ include Grieg, Liszt, Chopin, Dvorák, Johann Strauss and more Wagner. Gershwin is very well represented, as are Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter. There are even super-cool versions of Love for Sale and Saint Louis Blues played by Wiéner on the harpsichord – and a very musical ‘straight’ complete account of Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos K.448, plus Bach.

Les Années Folles

EMI France 50999 725703 2 6