The greatest Debussy recordings …. my choices …. what are yours?

Just for starters  …

Pelléas et Mélisande (Désormière, Warners)

Jeux (de Sabata, Testament)

Prélude a l’après … (Stokowski and his SO, Warners Icon)

Images for orchestra (LSO, Monteux, Philips/Decca)

Images for piano (Michelangeli)

Violin Sonata (Heifetz, Smith, RCA/Sony, or Thibaud/Cortot, Warners)

Trio Sonata [flute, viola and harp]  (Boston Symphony Chamber Players, DG)

Fêtes galantes (Teyte, Cortot, Warners)

La Mer (Toscanini, 1953, Guild – there are plenty of AT La Mers to choose from – also Karajan and the BPO, 1970s recording, Warners)

Préludes Books 1 and 2 (Egerov, Warners, and Michelangeli, DG – Pollini’s new Book 2 is also exceptional …. also Gieseking and Cortot and selections with Rubinstein)


… how about yours?




Classic makeovers and poetry in translation: the case in favour … with Rob Cowan on Classic FM


Another site (Friends of Radio 3) has commented that when it comes to programming music I have a noticeable penchant for arrangements. And it’s true, Carmen as reinvented by Vladimir Horowitz, Franz Waxman or Sarasate; Liszt taking on Don Juan (and countless other operas); Schubert arranged by Berio, Mottl or Koechlin (Wanderer Fantasy); Art Tatum’s Massenet or Dvorák, or Stan Kenton deconstructing Wagner (of which a New York Times critic apparently wrote ‘now I know what Wagner lacks …. bongos!), all have a strong appeal. Last night between 7 and 9 on Cowan’s Classics at I played Bach orchestrated by Percy Grainger, Mussorgsky arranged by Shostakovich not to mention Beethoven’s Second Symphony re-thought as a piano solo by Liszt and a great new recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet played on two pianos (and sounding uncannily like Bernstein). All this can be accessed via CFM’s Listen Again facility. Just so that you know, to access the programme on the CFM website click ‘Listen’ in the top right hand corner which opens a new window; after the advert, you’re then clicking onto ‘Listen Again’ which brings up an alphabetised list; and you can see Cowan’s Classics with Rob Cowan And, yes, I’ve more arrangements planned for Saturday nights on CFM, that’s for sure.

On a similar subject I think of poetry in translation, especially the wonderful ancient Chinese T’ang Dynasty (618-907) poems as reinvented by Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound (in Cathay), or as magnificently set to music – in German – by Mahler. What they provide us with is in effect another set of poems, something entirely new, rather than translations in any literal sense. Stephen Mitchell’s Rilke offers numerous other excellent examples of how those ‘without the [relevant] language’ can experience the hub of a poem’s meaning as transmitted and transformed by another sensitive poet. Both issues I think are well worth discussing.

The great conductor Victor de Sabata – a privileged Jew among the Nazis?

The charismatic Italian conductor Victor de Sabata is the subject of a handsome Deutsche Grammophon CD celebration (479 8197, 4 cds). A curvaceous post-war London Philharmonic Eroica is shaped and moulded with the utmost artistry whereas a version of  Sibelius’s tone poem En Saga from the same period piles on the excitement virtually by the bar. Mozart’s Requiem from Rome in wartime enjoys a stellar vocal line up of Tassinari, Stignani, Tagliavini and Tajo and moves seamlessly from ascetic piety to emotional warmth with apparent ease while the Berlin Philharmonic sessions include a highly dramatic Brahms 4 (the end of the finale kept on a very tight leash, a-la-Toscanini), Dances of Gálanta with more Hungarian-style inflections than many a home-grown rival, a lean and lustrous Feste romaine (what a piece!) and highly charged accounts of the Trsitan ‘Prelude und Liebestod’ and Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. Great conducting this, and make no mistake. Good transfers to CD, the Brahms sounding quite different to the version in DG’s recent ‘111 The Conductors’ set where the imaging is much more ambient. This drier version is I think preferable. Also included, a fascinating printed conversation between our Gramophone’s Editor-in-Chief James Jolly and de Sabata’s son and daughter. I shan’t spoil it for you here but you’re in for a couple of anecdotal surprises. One thing continues to perplex me though. How come the Jewish de Sabata (his Jewish mother Rosita Tedeschi was a talented amateur musician) was allowed to perform in fascist Italy and in Germany  with the Berlin Philharmonic at a time when the Reich Orchestra’s Jewish musicians were long gone? Can anyone enlighten me?

Flying high at Classic FM

Much as I have loved my years at Radio 3 – great colleagues, great music and the chance to engage with numerous enthusiastic listeners – I’m relishing the opportunity to spread the gospel of masterpieces, both familiar and unfamiliar, on Saturday nights at Classic FM, ie Cowan’s Classics at 7pm (first edition 6/1/2018). I’ve already planned the basis of my first programme and there are a couple of items I’ve certainly never heard played on the station before. This is going to be fun – especially the re-launch of the ‘Sure Shot’ idea that  Keith Shadwick and I launched back in 1992 (from CFM’s first Friday) and that Paul Gambaccini took up for his chart show the next day. The first Sure Shot is a Catalonian early-music ear-worm, noble and charismatic, and I can’t wait to scan listeners’ reactions. Please correspond

Classic’s birthday: an ear for the moderns – what really happened

In an otherwise excellent article on the birth of Classic FM for The Spectator, my fellow Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny – previously a colleague on Classic – states that when talking repertoire Classic’s powerhouse founder Michael Bukht insisted on  ‘nothing you’d want to switch off’. Mozart was king, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak — yes, please. Bartok, Stravinsky and Britten were to be treated with suspicion. And absolutely nothing contemporary, thanks very much.’

Well that wasn’t quite the case, at least not in practice; in fact, in those days all the major Classic FM hits were contemporary, and never more so than with the very first, Henryk Gorécki’s Third Symphony which swept the nation more potently than any large-scale contemporary piece before or since. And this is how it happened. From the first week of Cfm’s existence I co-hosted a show called Classic Verdict with a mate, the much missed Keith Shadwick (who tragically died back in 2008). Every week we’d choose a ‘Sure Shot’ which Paul Gambaccini picked up the following day (on his Saturday Show). First up was Gorécki 3, and that was the very first piece that marked the station out as bringing the world of great music into the nation’s consciousness. Much as I’m devoted to Radio 3, they had never managed it, and neither had any other radio station. But the combination of new-born Classic and Gorécki made people realise how a contemporary symphony could be beautiful, original, relevant and in a sense life-changing. The proof of Gorécki’s integrity, if such were needed, is in the nature of his Fourth – a different beast entirely. Not for him a profitable bandwagon.

There’s another twist to this tale. A month before Classic launched Johnny Black had asked me to step into his place on Frank Bough’s LBC show, bring along a trio of classics to review. That same Gorécki recording (Dawn Upshaw, London Sinfonietta/David Zinman, Nonesuch) had just landed on my mat and I took it along. As I left the building, a receptionist rushed up to me and asked, ‘what was that CD just played? … our phone lines are jammed with people wanting to know’! So it was evidently the right piece at the right time.

Beyond Gorécki came Gavin Bryars’ Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Philips/Decca) and Officium with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM), both of them sure shots that ‘shot’ right to the top of the charts. Among other impactful choices were De Stilj by Andriessen, though Bukht balked at its aggression. And yet he had a broader musical mind than many people think – he allowed me a series of ‘Contemporary and Classics’ and an historical series ‘Our Musical Yesterdays’. So, Relaxing wasn’t always the main agenda! Comments please.