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The Abacus.fm bouquet of audio channels provides a wide range of entertaining music, including Classical music , Jazz and Popular music. Our Classical music channels feature the compositions of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach as well as many other fine Classical music composers.
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  • The BBC Music Magazine Awards 2019

    classical-music.com | Thu, 14 Feb 2019 16:12:04 +0000

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    Welcome to the 2019 BBC Music Magazine Awards. This is your chance to vote for the best classical recordings from the past year.

    Our expert jury has selected 21 of the finest recordings from a longlist of nearly 200 discs that our critics had awarded five stars in the last 12 months.

    Now it's your turn to vote for the best in each category.

     

    Click on the categories below to see the nominated discs and cast your vote.

     

    Orchestral

    Chamber

    Choral

    Concerto

    Opera

    Vocal

    Instrumental

    How to vote:

    Once you have entered the Awards site, you can move between the categories using the toolbar on the left.

    Click on the disc you would like to vote for. You will then be asked to log in or create an account. A confirmation email will then be sent to you, on which you will need to click the link.

    You can vote for one disc per category, and you cannot change or revoke your votes.

    Your votes will be saved automatically, so once you have voted all you need to do is log out.

    Voting for the BBC Music Magazine Awards opens on Thursday 17 January and will close on Tuesday 19 February at 11.59pm.

     

     

    To view previous winners of the BBC Music Magazine Awards, click here

     

    Terms and Conditions

    Voting for the BBC Music Awards 2019 is open until 11.59pm on Tuesday 19 February.

    One vote per person, per category. Bulk voting will not be permitted.

    The winners of the BBC Music Awards 2019 will be announced on 10 April.

     

  • Join us at the 2019 BBC Music Magazine Awards

    classical-music.com | Thu, 14 Feb 2019 16:11:29 +0000

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    The BBC Music Magazine Awards are the biggest annual celebration of the best recordings from the world of classical music, and you can join us on the evening for only £20 a ticket.

    The evening takes place at London’s Kings Place on Wednesday 10 April 2019 and begins with a champagne reception, where you’ll have the chance to meet the magazine’s editorial team, music industry professionals, artists and celebrities.

    You’ll then move into Kings Place’s main hall for the awards ceremony, which will feature performances by award-winning artists from across the world. The Awards will be hosted by editor Oliver Condy, with a star-studded line-up of guest presenters. Previous guests have included Simon Callow, Gok Wan, Ed Balls and Anneka Rice.

     

    To buy tickets, click here.

    To vote in the 2019 BBC Music Magazine Awards, click here.

     

  • Six of the best sheet music covers inspired by love

    classical-music.com | Thu, 14 Feb 2019 11:02:46 +0000

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    Shakespeare famously wrote: 'If music be the food of love, play on'. Music and love have long been companions, and the history of romantic songs and ballads stretches all the way from antiquity to the chart-toppers of the present day. 

    Before the advent of the gramophone, radio or Spotify, the piano was the primary means of domestic music making in Britain. In the nineteenth century, publishers produced a huge range of sheet music to cater for this domestic market – from dances, ballads and arrangements of operatic arias to music hall anthems, songs from popular plays and poems set to music.

    Much like today, love songs were always popular. A new exhibition of sheet music covers from the Royal College of Music Museum offers a tantalising glimpse into the musical world of Victorian and Edwardian romance.

    Sheet music covers were designed to catch the attention of buyers. Elaborate designs and stylish typography turned music into a fashionable commodity that could be proudly displayed in the drawing room. These covers became such a trend that, by the middle of the century, musical purists despaired that their vulgarity threatened to compromise the dignity of the music itself. Perhaps their fears were not unfounded – in some cases, the artists who designed these covers were paid four times as much as the composers!

     

     

    Scrolling through the Royal College of Music Museum’s exhibition of romantic designs reveals how changes in printing technology made it possible to produce increasingly detailed and colourful designs as the decades unfolded. It is also possible to track changing ideals of beauty, too – from the meek, mid-Victorian maidens with downcast eyes to the exposed ankles and direct smiles of Edwardian beauties.

    It is unlikely that the songs represented by these designs will be familiar to many today. They were popular romantic ballads that have been lost to time. We might get a few glimpses behind the titles pages, though, as the following examples demonstrate.

     

     

     

    Visit the Royal College of Music Museum's exhibition 'For the Love of Music' on Google Arts & Culture here

  • The 20 Greatest Operas of all time

    classical-music.com | Wed, 13 Feb 2019 13:39:53 +0000

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    20) Wagner’s Die Walküre (1870)

    The second instalment of the colossal Ring tetralogy is packed full of musical wonders

    With the Ring, Wagner redefined the scope and scale of music drama. Composed over 26 years, the cycle embodies his ideal of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (total art work) in which poetry, drama, music and staging unite with a common purpose. Wagner’s achievement is overwhelming, his ambition unsurpassed.

    Yet only one of the four Ring operas has made it into our top 20. So, why Die Walküre? For a start, it contains perhaps Wagner’s best-known music: the exhilarating ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, which opens Act III. And there are many other highlights – the visceral opening storm; Siegmund’s hymn to the spring; Wotan’s Farewell; the Magic Fire Music. Die Walküre also stands alone as a coherent, compelling opera, an emotional rollercoaster of love, incest, grief, sacrifice and betrayal.

     

     

     

    19) Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724)

    A vast, rich score that displays the composer’s sharply honed instinct for dramatic pace

    At almost three-and-a-half hours, Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of Handel’s longest and most elaborate creations (longer than Wagner’s Parsifal), and yet this seemingly unwieldy opera is actually delicately balanced, beautifully proportioned and always engaging. Da capo arias are exquisitely paced, with Handel’s understanding of the expressive power of the human voice unrivalled in Baroque music.

    The intricate plot, placing the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra at its centre, never loses its focus, thanks partly to Nicola Francesco Haym’s brilliant libretto, but also to Handel’s dazzlingly original recitative work whose striking modulations constantly surprise and delight. In terms of orchestration, Handel is at the very height of his considerable powers.

     

     

     

    18) Verdi’s Falstaff (1893)

    Verdi at his most inventive, proving himself a genius of comedic characterisation

    Everything about Verdi’s late comic opera about a plump, arrogant, cowardly knight leaps from the stage: its ingenious libretto by the composer’s long-term collaborator, Arrigo Boito, combining elements of three Shakespeare plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor and both parts of Henry IV; the detail of the orchestrations over which Verdi laboured, changing and revising right up to the day of the premiere; and its sheer wit, often displayed through Verdi’s sudden and rapid changes of musical pace and direction.

    But it’s the craftsmanship of the music that most impresses – Verdi rarely uses instruments simply to double his singers, instead employing them for an extraordinarily wide colour palette. The demands on singers and players are considerable, but the result is a glorious work of unbridled joy.

     

     

     

    17) Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607)

    An extraordinary creation that sets its glittering music at the service of the text

    Orfeo was not the first opera to have been written, but it was the first great opera. Here, in this vivid retelling of the classical myth of Orpheus, is the first example of a drama throughout which music consistently heightens the text and fully expresses its emotions.

    Monteverdi draws on his rich compositional palette to superb effect: instruments group around bright strings to depict pastoral Thrace, while sombre brass, particularly trombones, colour the Underworld. In his vocal writing, Monteverdi gave his singers a new freedom. And if music is the servant of the text, it’s also its subject. For at its heart, this is an opera about music’s power to uplift our souls and heal our sorrows.

     

     

     

    16) Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)

    Wagner’s consummately beautiful comic opera explores the heart of the human soul

    Wagner’s description of his only comic opera as ‘something lighter’ belies the brilliance of the composer’s insights into the complications of life, love and tradition within the context of a singing competition in a medieval German town.

    At just over four hours, Wagner’s score was his longest yet, but unlike Tristan und Isolde’s musical and dramatic stases (see No. 10), the dynamic Meistersinger score constantly shifts with melodies in plentiful supply, the charming plot at once comic, romantic and philosophical.

    The glorious music, arresting from the start, mirrors the opera’s conceit of tradition’s renewal through innovation and acceptance of outside influence – Wagner’s use of Baroque counterpoint and Lutheran chorales are perfumed by judicious use of daring chromatic harmony.

     

     

     

    15) Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867)

    Verdi’s grandest opera combines spectacle with moments of exquisite intimacy

    Never let the facts get in the way of a good opera. In Verdi’s Don Carlos, based on a Schiller poem, the eponymous hero is an admirable, steadfast prince who champions the oppressed people of Flanders; in reality, the son of Philip II of Spain was an odious, unbalanced character with infamously sadistic tendencies.

    Nonetheless, this is Verdi’s grand opera par excellence, whether enjoyed in its original five-act French version or as Don Carlo, the later four-act Italian incarnation. Set against the sinister backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, it is unmatched for spectacle and drama – not least in the auto da fe of Act III – while Verdi lets his musical imagination run riot with moments such as the monks’ haunting prayer early in Act II.

     

     

     

    14) Janáček’s Jenůfa (1904)

    A harrowing slice of realism told with impressive musical and dramatic imagination

    A rapidly repeated rhythm on the xylophone, representing a water wheel, sets Janáček’s masterpiece into motion, and so begins a devastatingly poignant tale of love, jealousy and misguided morality in rural Moravia. The stream that feeds the mill can be felt throughout a fast-flowing, chromatic score that sweeps the action along at pace – at just two hours, Jenůfa is a masterpiece of concision.

    And then there is the brilliantly drawn cast of complex characters. The stoic, self-effacing Jenůfa is as easy to admire as her dissolute lover, Steva, is to revile. But how do we judge her desperate would-be partner Laca and, above all, Jenůfa’s stepmother, the Kostelnicka? Both carry out appalling acts, but out of loyalty and love…

     

     

     

    13) Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879)

    A Russian masterpiece that probes its tale’s characters with musical insight and nuance

    Eschewing a conventional through-narrative, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is a series of ‘lyrical scenes’ from Pushkin’s iconic novel. At the heart of the story is the definitive arrogant aristocrat, Onegin, who rejects the un-bound adoration of country-girl Tatanya. His thoughtless behaviour leads to the death of Lensky, his greatest friend, though not before Lensky delivers the dark and despondent ‘Faint echo of my heart’.

    An opera of opposites, Tchaikovsky pits Tatyana’s rustic and open-hearted musical language against Onegin’s starkly cynical one. Later, when the tables are turned, Onegin’s change of heart is made plain in his sudden harmonic shift to the romantic figure he should always have been, while Tatyana is now stuck in a removed minor key. His realisation has come too late, and the damage he caused cannot be undone.

     

     

     

    12) Verdi’s La traviata (1853)

    Verdi reserves his greatest melodies and richest harmonies for this tale of love and duty

    Now the most-performed opera in the world, it’s hard to believe that during Verdi’s lifetime La traviata was seen as a bit of a disappointment after the epic historic operas of Il trovatore and Rigoletto. The secret of its longevity popularity is surely Verdi’s intricate, three-dimensional characters, whom he brings to life with soaring melodies and heart-rending swells of harmony.

    Most compelling of all is the ‘fallen woman’ of the title, Violetta, who is forced to choose between love and honour. Ultimately, she proves her goodness by sacrificing her own happiness for that of a woman she does not know. Succumbing to consumption, she bids life, her lover Alfredo and a usually weepy audience farewell with the achingly beautiful aria ‘Addio del passato’, ‘Farewell past happy dreams’.

     

     

     

    11) Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)

    Debussy’s five-act masterpiece steers clear of Wagner’s dominant world

    Like many fin de siècle French composers, Debussy was at one point a fervent Wagnerian. But in his only complete opera he sought to realise his own rather different ideal of opera. Here, as in Monteverdi’s operas of 300 years before, music would serve the text. Pelléas et Melisande was the remarkable result: a subdued, mysterious exploration of a fated love triangle, the antithesis of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

    Debussy conjures a half-lit, atmospheric dream-world, in which the dynamics rarely go above mezzo-forte and silence is as powerful as music. Maurice Maeterlinck’s eponymous symbolist play of 1892 is set almost verbatim; and, like Musorgsky in his own opera Boris GodunovDebussy eschews melody and mimics speech patterns in the vocal lines. It’s one of the opera world’s strangest, most spellbinding and profound achievements.

     

     

     

    10) Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865)

    A revolutionary chord heralds the start of modern opera and a new way of thinking

    Around 1857 Wagner, reaching a creative block with the Ring, decided meanwhile to compose a popular, easily performable opera on the Tristan legend. Being Wagner, what he came up with was a vastly profound psychodrama whose very opening chord challenged traditional harmony, inspiring and liberating a subsequent generation of composers. So much so, that Tristan has been called ‘the first modern opera’, a unique watershed beyond which music changed for good.

    Very little actually happens onstage, in the manner of Wagner’s beloved Greek tragedies. But the score is vibrantly alive both with the lovers’ passion and a more transcendent yearning, for surcease, rest, escape from a cruel existence. Its score intertwines motives in darkly sensuous chromatic harmonies which find resolution only in death.

    It undoubtedly reflects Wagner’s personal unhappiness, and his affair (probably more idealised than real) with Mathilde Wesendonck, but also his interests in Buddhism and Schopenhauer’s philosophy. It’s never been his most popular work, but its power is enormous, even overwhelming – which for some devotees is the point – and its greatness undeniable.

     

     

     

    9) Verdi’s Otello (1887)

    The Italian composer as you’ve never heard him teams up with one of the opera world’s sharpest librettists

    There are storms in opera and there are storms. But there is no musical storm quite so shattering as the tidal wave of sound that Verdi unleashes at the start of Otello. Is this the end of the world, with those trumpets summoning the dead from their graves?

    Otello was written by a composer who was already into his seventies and who thought that he had retired. But, given the opportunity, he was also a composer who embraced the idea of renewing his musical style as confidently as a man half his age. And nowhere more so than in the Act I love duet for Otello and Desdemona.

    Verdi had a master librettist working with him who was also more than half in love with William Shakespeare. Arrigo Boito shaves off Act I of Shakespeare’s tragedy and concentrates the action in Cyprus, so that in a good production of Otello you never look at your watch. You’re on the edge of your seat as evil, in the shape of Iago, confronts flawed goodness, the Moor of Venice, and innocence is murdered. The death of Desdemona would make stones – and us – weep.

     

     

     

    8) Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787)

    An opera of perfect proportions, both thematically and musically balanced

    It was ETA Hoffmann, whose own stories were to inspire many great musical masterworks, who called Don Giovanni ‘the opera of all operas’. Mozart’s art has often been compared with Shakespeare’s, above all perhaps for the composer’s complete and lifelike blend of the comic and tragic: their co-existence is actually the essence of all Mozart’s operatic masterpieces, and Don Giovanni – aptly labelled a dramma giocosa – is the work in which they are most intimately woven together. 

    People’s long fascination with the Don Juan legend, first made into a play by a Spanish poet-monk in the early 17th century, meant that by Mozart’s time there were countless Don Juan shows around. But Mozart – whose music would have been impossible without alchemy of Da Ponte’s words – gave life, as it were, to the supernatural, in the form of the Commendatore’s statue.

    In Leporello’s Catalogue Aria he created a piece unlike anything else in all opera. The work that Rossini claimed he would most liked to have composed himself is driven from start to finish with timeless power and brilliance.

     

     

     

    7) Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643)

    Monteverdi gets to the hearts of his characters with music of spellbinding beauty and verve

    Much as Verdi’s Falstaff is a compendium of a lifetime’s musical interests, L’incoronazione di Poppea is a work in which a lifetime’s soundworlds contrast and collide. Musicologists have debated its authenticity: the overture has been attributed to Francesco Cavalli, and the final duet, ‘Pur ti miro’, has been claimed as the work of Benedetto Ferrari or Francesco Sacrati before being returned, as it were, to Claudio Monteverdi. 

    Premiered in 1643, Monteverdi’s last opera is Venetian to the core: a morally ambiguous, multi-layered drama of court intrigues, contract killings and broken promises among the high- and low-born subjects of a psychotic emperor. When modern listeners shudder at the triumph of Cupid as Poppea is crowned, they should remember that in the wake of this apparent happy ending comes yet more violence.

    From Poppea and Nero’s first smouldering, post-coital duet, ‘Signor, deh non partire’, to the astringent chromatics of ‘Non morir Seneca’, the hypnotic beauty of Arnalta’s ground bass lullaby, ‘Oblivion soave’, and the shattered desolation of Ottavia’s ‘Addio Roma’, the writing is unfailingly psychologically acute. 

     

     

     

    6) Puccini’s Tosca (1900)

    A rollercoaster opera of high emotions that features some of Puccini’s finest orchestrations

    First performed in Rome in 1900, Tosca was Giacomo Puccini’s fifth opera, composed at the beginning of his forties. He drew the subject from the play La Tosca by the admired French dramatist Victorien Sardou, who had written it as a vehicle for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt that quickly turned into a major theatrical success; the copious detail of the libretto’s real historical setting, meanwhile, pushed it in the direction of the prevailing verismo aesthetic.

    Musically, in Tosca Puccini broke new ground in representing the violent actions – torture, attempted rape, murder and execution – that pervade the drama, as well as in the darker emotions that these acts both engender and feed on. In portraying these dark situations and characters – notably the unforgettable evil police chief Scarpia – in his score, Puccini opened up novel areas of harmonic and orchestral expression.

    To its first audiences Tosca represented a new kind of opera – one that was fast moving, realistic and violent, as well as deliberately shocking. Long before the term was coined, Puccini here created an operatic genre: the political thriller.

     

     

     

    5) Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945)

    In this evocative, bleak work, Britten ratchets up the tension within a small coastal village

    Britten’s first full-scale opera premiered less than a month after Nazi Germany’s defeat. By the decade’s end it was a worldwide hit, and today remains one of the few English operas in the international repertory. Peter Grimes himself – an impractical dreamer with anger issues, whose bruised young apprentices have the unfortunate tendency of dying – is hardly the most sympathetic role.

    Yet Britten’s sympathetic skill in writing for voices, honed over 15 years of songwriting, brings a gallery of very English characters vividly to life. What haunts the listener above all, though, is his evocation of the ever-present sea, evident from the very opening inquest: staccato woodwind, brisk and business-like, dominate the scene at first; yet when Grimes steps into the dock, soft, long-breathed string cadences suggest not only his introspective nature but also the rise and fall of waves on the beach outside.

    Then, with the first Sea Interlude, we are outdoors and we hear the bright, keening sound of high strings, with the swell of low brass suggesting the power of the sea itself. This, and the chorus, forged from individuals at the village dance into an alarming, blood-lusting beast, are the ever-present ‘elemental forces’ which seal Grimes’s fate.

     

     

     

    4) Berg’s Wozzeck (1925)

    Serialism at its most expressive – a brutal tale told with mocking wit and extreme tenderness

    Alban Berg’s expressionist first opera is as viscerally wrenching today as the audience found the premiere in Berlin in 1925 – and it remains as socio-politically radical; one of most powerfully incisive, influential works in the entire repertoire, relating the tragedy of an ordinary soldier who is driven to madness and brutal murder by the grotesque cruelty of his supposed superiors.

    It was the erosion of humanity that Berg witnessed during and after World War I that drove him to adapt Georg Büchner’s seminal, unfinished 1837 play, Woyzeck, first staged in 1913. The resulting Wozzeck would prove to be one of the most searing portraits anywhere of a mind, a relationship and a society in harrowing collapse.

    Wozzeck’s hallucinations of apocalypse become more than just metaphors, propelled by a lush, atonal score that is at once exquisitely orchestrated and rigorously structured in a kind of homage to classical forms; all the better to give heartrending voice, through Wozzeck and his equally doomed Marie, to a nightmare reality in which the poor and vulnerable are tormented and abandoned.

     

     

     

    3) Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911)

    Strauss’s opera may be stylistically old-school, but its music and vocal scoring are sublime

    Why do so many people regard Der Rosenkavalier as a guilty pleasure? Is it because the highlights, like the title character Octavian’s Presentation of the Rose to young Sophie and the famous Trio, are too beautiful to be true? Strauss intended them that way, with the characters stepping out of time, but his first wholly original collaboration with the Viennese poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal is also shrewd and pointed.

    Its often acidic wit contrasts with meditations on transience using as mouthpiece the central character of the Marschallin, the 32-year-old woman with whom the public identifies, and lending this ‘comedy for music’ a depth to match its most obvious model, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

    The plot, featuring a ridiculous older suitor and the teenage girl to be married off to him, a stylish young buck with an older woman as lover who comes along to save the girl, is drawn from Molière and other French sources. But Hofmannsthal in 1911 was creating a mythical Vienna that stretched from the nominal setting of the opera, the 1740s, up to the brink of the First World War; and Strauss, incorporating waltzes as well as some of the dissonances familiar from the opera’s contrasting predecessor, Elektra, composed his most encyclopedic masterpiece of a score.  

     

     

     

    2) Puccini’s La bohème (1896)

    Close, but no cigar, though Puccini’s romantic opera is still a masterclass in story-telling

    La bohème is about as perfect as an opera can be. It’s concise, it’s packed with delicious melody and it’s about being young and in love. And even better, young love undone by death. Like Romeo and Juliet, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, the best die young, thus robbing age of its wrinkled victory. We weep for ourselves in the closing bars of the opera when Rodolfo suddenly realises that Mimì has gone. And woe betide the theatre that brings up the houselights too soon.

    If the drama is taut then the score is as expansive as anything Puccini composed. The duet for the young lovers that closes Act I is a masterclass in creating character through music and in manipulating an audience’s feelings. Musetta’s waltz at the Café Momus is as teasing as the woman herself. But almost better is the sequence of numbers in Act III at the Barrière d’Enfer, the farewell duet for Mimì and Rodolfo, then Musetta and Marcello quarrelling that effortlessly slips into the quartet, ‘Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina’.

    How does Puccini do it? With short musical themes that define each of his characters and their worlds and which – master orchestrator that he was – are conjured back into the score in a way that makes them sound the same but always different.

     

     

     

    1) Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (1786)

    Brilliantly conceived characters and ensemble writing grab Mozart’s comedy the top slot

    Coming in at No. 1 is one of the supreme masterpieces of operatic comedy, whose rich sense of humanity shines out of Mozart’s miraculous score.

    The Marriage of Figaro’s intricate plot follows four of the principal characters from The Barber of Seville a few years down the line. Both operas are based on plays by the French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais which quickly became classics despite their incendiary political content: these problems were particularly acute in Le Mariage de Figaro, which was widely banned due to its criticism of the nobility.

    Having relocated to Vienna from his native Salzburg in 1782 to further his career, Mozart was determined to show the Emperor Joseph II, his court and the entire Imperial capital what he could do with a comic Italian libretto, teaming up with the poet attached to the city’s opera house, Lorenzo da Ponte.

    According to Da Ponte, it was the composer’s idea to make an opera of Figaro, the most controversial play of its time. After the Emperor had given it the go-ahead, the work was premiered in Vienna on 1 May 1786 and has been entertaining audiences since. 

    As usual, Mozart introduces his opera with an overture, and while it uses none of the opera’s subsequent material, it perfectly defines the general mood of the piece with its Presto tempo marking and busy, bustling orchestral writing suggesting the constant whispering and intrigue during the course of what Beaumarchais’s full title – La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro – calls a
    ‘crazy day’.

    All of the main characters are given memorable arias, including Bartolo’s furious ‘La vendetta’, in which he swears vengeance on Figaro in Gilbert & Sullivan-like comic patter; Cherubino’s ‘Non so più’, in which the rapid fluttering of his vocal line indicates his constant emotional and sexual excitement; the Countess’s sorrow-laden ‘Porgi amor’, whose shapely melodic line traces the depths of her feeling of abandonment; and the Count’s ‘Vedrò mentre io sospiro’, in which his aristocratic fury at Figaro’s challenge to his entitlement is banged out in firm rhythms and grand triplet roulades.

    Figaro is unusually rich in ensembles, where the test for the composer is to maintain individual vocal character and specific individual emotions while the other characters are singing something entirely different – a trick Mozart pulls off with flying colours, notably in the sextet in the trial scene in Act III that was Mozart’s own favourite piece in his score. 

    But it is in the two big finales that end the second and fourth acts that Mozart brings his skills in ensemble writing to an apogee rarely equalled – even by him. Here his music reflects each tiny twist and turn of the plot, reaching extraordinary heights of complexity as the audience experiences every fleeting emotion that the individual characters are feeling; few operatic comedies can match Figaro’s combination of wit with emotional truth. 

     

     

    Words by: John Allison, Oliver Condy, Christopher Cook, Elinor Cooper, Rebecca Franks, George Hall, Daniel Jaffé, David Nice, Anna Picard, Jeremy Pound and Steph Power. 

  • The best recordings of Tippett's A Child of our Time

    classical-music.com | Tue, 12 Feb 2019 16:28:55 +0000

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    With the 1944 premiere of his oratorio A Child of Our Time, the 39-year-old Tippett finally came to public attention. Hitherto an obscure choral conductor of left-wing sympathies, Tippett wrote Child in 1938 on reading of the Nazi pogroms in Germany triggered by the fatal shooting in Paris of a German diplomat by a 17-year-old Jewish refugee.

    Tippett penned the libretto, influenced by TS Eliot and Jungian psychology. Like Eliot’s poetry, Tippett’s music is full of allusions, including to the three-part structure of Handel’s Messiah; he also followed Bach’s use of a soloist as an Evangelist-style narrator, and of the chorus as commentator, though using North American spirituals instead of Lutheran chorales.

    After discouraging feedback from conductor Walter Goehr, Tippett consigned the work to a drawer until Britten, on seeing it, urged Tippett to get the work performed.

     

     

    The best recording

    Indra Thomas, Mihoko Fujimura, Steve Davislim, Matthew Rose; LSO and Chorus/Colin Davis (2007)
    LSO Live LSO 0670

    A leading Tippett champion, Sir Colin Davis recorded Child three times. His final attempt, though, is the most compelling and exciting of all (not just Davis’s). There are some solecisms: Davis’s jaunty treatment of ‘Steal Away’, which follows the mother’s lament, hardly suggests the necessary consoling quality found by other conductors. He can be quite cavalier, too, over Tippett’s instructions for articulation. The pay-off, though, is a powerful and moving performance.

    Key to Davis’s achievement is in the crucial central section, dramatising the brutal events that first moved Tippett to write his oratorio. ‘The Terror’, for once, lives up to that description: the London Symphony Chorus not only takes the alarmingly angular writing in its stride, but also delivers the words with venom. Equally, its steely delivery of the ‘Spiritual of Anger’ (‘Go down, Moses’) fulfils its title.

    Respectively balancing and resolving this are the oratorio’s first and third sections, the orchestra’s playing exuding nobility and expressiveness, yet also providing muscular precision in the syncopations accompanying ‘The soul of man’. The soloists are characterful – even if Fujimura’s words verge on the incomprehensible – and blend beautifully in the final ensemble leading to the serene ‘Deep River’.

     

     

    Other great recordings

    Jessye Norman, Janet Baker, Richard Cassilly, John Shirley-Quirk; BBC Singers; BBC Choral Society; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis (1975)
    Decca 478 8351

    Davis’s earliest recording of Child is a classic, and ticks many boxes. If one discounts André Previn’s superb but unavailable RPO recording, Davis’s 1975 version has the most stellar soloist line-up: Jessye Norman is formidable as the mother, while Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk are compelling and sentient narrators.

    American Wagnerian tenor Richard Cassilly, however, sounds out of place in Tippett’s mix of neo-classical oratorio and vernacular style. Given the tenor’s central role, this is a more crucial shortcoming than Fujimura’s diction in the LSO Live recording. And the BBC Singers and Choral Society, while technically faultless, do not match the fire of the London Symphony Chorus.

     

     

    Elsie Morison, Pamela Bowden, Richard Lewis, Richard Standen; RLPO and Choir/John Pritchard (1957)
    Decca

    This account of Child, the earliest recorded, still sounds good. John Pritchard and his musicians’ fluent, natural-sounding projection of the oratorio’s drama comes into focus with Elsie Morison’s affecting performance of ‘How can I cherish my man’; as it segues into the consoling ‘Steal away’,

    Morison’s lamenting melismas are a continuation from her aria rather than mere decoration of the spiritual. Mezzo Pamela Bowden and tenor Richard Lewis are almost as fine, and the choir is remarkably good. Two caveats: first, the bass soloist Richard Standen’s plummy tones have all the personality of a hired footman’s; second, the download’s rumble and pops betray its transfer from LP rather than original tape.

     

     

    Faye Robinson, Sarah Walker, Jon Garrison, John Cheek; CBSO and Chorus/Michael Tippett (1991)
    Naxos 8.557570

    Recorded by the composer less than three months from his 87th birthday, this is not surprisingly both a loving performance – both in terms of detail and atmosphere – and generally a rather slow one.

    Tippett has a fine line-up of soloists, with characterful singing from mezzo Sarah Walker and bass John Cheek, while both orchestra and chorus are well prepared. The chorus sometimes sounds tentative, possibly due to uncertain cues from the elderly Tippett. In theory, one might have expected this recording to be near the top of the pile. Unfortunately the leisurely tempos rather sap any dramatic urgency.

     

     

    And one to avoid…

    In Richard Hickox’s 1992 account, all his soloists are veterans of Trevor Nunn’s landmark Glyndebourne Porgy and Bess; but actor-singer Damon Evans, so effective as Sportin’ Life in the Gershwin, fails to appear sympathetic as the persecuted Jew, let alone cope with the part’s lyricism. Add to that Hickox’s rather lumbering way with Tippett’s linear and lean scoring, and the result is hectoring rather than moving.

  • The BBC Music Magazine Playlist

    classical-music.com | Mon, 11 Feb 2019 11:29:08 +0000

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    Every Monday, the BBC Music Magazine team choose their favourite new recordings of the past week. The tracks are compiled into The Playlist, which can be accessed via the BBC Music Magazine's Apple Music page

     

    This week's playlist:

     

    The listings for previous playlists are featured below.

     

    Vol. 10 

    Vivaldi Il Giustino, Act II: Scene 1. Sento in seno ch’in pioggia di lagrime (Anastasio) (Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone, Silke Gäng)

    Gulda Concerto for Cello, Wind Orchestra and Band: I. Overture (Edgar Moreau, Raphaël Merlin, Les Forces Majeures)

    Roxanna Panufnik Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis: I. Magnificat (Richard Johnson, Exultate Singers/David Ogden)

    Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4: IV. Finale (London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda)

    Weber Piano Sonata No. 2: III. Menuetto capriccioso. Presto assai (Paul Lewis)

    Francis Lai Love Story – Theme (Arr. Campbell) (Jess Gillam, BBC Concert Orchestra/Ben Dawson)

    Berlioz Harold in Italy: II. Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (Tabea Zimmermann, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth)

    Arthur Lourié A Phoenix Park Nocturne (Vladimir Feltsman)

    Ramin Djawadi The Rains of Castamere (Arr. Lawson) (VOCES8)

    Philip Glass Etude No. 2 (Jeremy Denk)

    Tallis Suscipe quaeso Domine (prima pars) (The Gentlemen of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace/Carl Jackson)

    Debussy Livre I: II. Pour les tierces (Roger Muraro)

     

     

    Vol. 9

    Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (Live at Philharmonie, Berlin) (Yuja Wang)

    Stravinsky The Firebird: Tableau II, XIX: Disparition du palais et des sortilèges de Kastchei, animation des chevaliers petrifies. Allegresse génerale (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko

    Amy Beach Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 34: II. Scherzo. Molto vivace (Tasmin Little, John Lenehan)

    Hauscha Dew and Spiderwebs (Hauschka)

    Frank Horvat The Thailand HRDs: No. 5, Boonsom Nimnoi (Mivos Quartet)

    Trad. Deep River (Arr. Coleridge-Taylor, Kanneh-Mason) (Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Braimah Kanneh-Mason)

    Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte, Op. 19: No. 6 in G minor (Andante sostenuto) ‘Venetian Gondola Song’ (Jan Lisiecki)

    Wim Henderickx Nostalgia (Boho Strings)

    Mozart Così fan tutte, Act 1: Aria ‘Come scoglio’ (Héloise Mas, Alexander Sprague, Nazan Fikret, Francesco Vultaggio, European Opera Centre, Biagio Pizzuti, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Laurent Pillot)

    Philip Glass Melodies for Saxophone (arr. for trumpet): No. 3 (Craig Morris)

    Giovanni Paisiello Partimento in F minor (Nicoleta Paraschievescu)

    Ramin Djawadi The Rains of Castamere (VOCES8)

    Triumphal Parade (Scottish National Jazz Orchestra/Tommy Smith)

     

    Vol. 8

    Josquin Des Prez Miserere mei, Deus, IJ. 50: I. Miserere mei, Deus (Cappella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss)

    Scriabin Sonata N. 10, Op. 70 (James Kreiling)

    Kaija Saariaho Cloud Trio: I. Calmo, meditato (Jennifer Koh, Hsin Yun Huang, Wilhelmina Smith)

    Dowland Flow, my tears (Stile Antico)

    JS Bach Keyboard Partita in D, BWV 828: VII. Gigue (Federico Colli)

    Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2, III. Allegro ben marcato (Joseph Swensen, Scottish Chamber Orchestra)

    Bellini Norma: Casta Diva… Fine al rito (Orchestra E Coro Del Teatro Massimo Di Palermo, Jader Bignamini, Marina Rebeka)

    Lyatoshinsky Symphony No. 3 ‘To the 25th Anniversary of the October Revolution’: III. Allegro feroce (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits)

    Handel Armida abbandonata, HWV 105: ‘Ah crudele! E pur ten’ vai’ (Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert d’Astrée, Sabine Devieilhe

    David Lang Mystery Sonatas: No. 1, Joy (Augustin Hadelich)

    Antheil Archipelago ‘Rhumba’ (BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgards)

     

    Vol. 7

    Thea Musgrave Loch Ness (Daniel Trodden, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/William Boughton)

    Cheryl Frances-Hoad Love Bytes (Verity Wingate, Philip Smith, Beth Higham-Edwards, Anna Menzies, George Jackson)

    Lutosławski Symphony No. 1: III. Allegretto misterioso (Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu)

    Purcell King Arthur, Z628, Act 1: ‘I Call, I Call’ (Stefanie True, Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier)

    Finzi Violin Concerto: I. Allegro (Ning Feng, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlos Miguel Prieto)

    Brahms Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 No. 2 in G minor – Molto passionato, ma non troppo allegro (Charles Owen)

    Copland Letters from Home (Version for Chamber Orchestra) (BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/John Wilson

    Szymanowski Nocturne and Tarantella in E minor, Op. 28: I. Nocturne (Jennifer Pike, Petr Limonov)

    Beethoven Fidelio, Op. 72: O welche Lust (James Gaffigan, Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester)

    Liszt Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini: No. 1 in G minor (Elisa Tomellini)

    Corelli Violin Sonata in C Op. 5 No. 3 (transcribed for viola da gamba): III. Adagio (Lucile Boulanger)

    Mozart String Quintet No. 5: IV. Allegro (Klenke Quartett, Harald Schoneweg)

     

    Vol. 6

    Saint-Saëns Ascanio, Acte I, Tableau 1: Scène 1 ‘Très bien!’ (Jean-François Lapointe, Joé Bertili, Chœrs de la Haute École de Musique de Genève/Guillaume Tourniaire

    Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 III. Allegro con fuoco (Xiayin Wang, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian

    Purcell Come Ye Sons of Art (Birthday Ode for Queen Mary): ‘Strike the Viol, Touch the Lute’ (Tim Mead, Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien/François Lazarevitch)

    Aleksander Sedlar Savcho 3 (Nemanja Radulovic, Double Sense, Stéphanie Fontanarosa/Aleksander Sedlar)

    Barbara Strozzi Arie, Op. 8 No. 2: ‘Che si può fare’ (Emoke Baräth, Il Pomo d’Oro/Francesco Corti)

    Josef Suk 6 Piano Pieces, Op. 7: No. 1, Liebeslied (arr. for violin and orchestra) (Eldbjørg Hemsing, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra/Alan Buribayev)

    Scheidemann Pavana Lachrymae in D minor (Yoann Moulin)

    Beethoven String Quartet in E minor ‘Razumovsky’: III. Allegretto (Elias String Quartet)

    Mozart Violin Sonata in D Major, K306: III. Allegretto (Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov)

    Moteverdi Vespro della Beata Vergine: VIII. Paslmus 126. Nisi Dominus a dieci voci (Bruno Boterf, Ludus Modalis)

     

    Vol. 5

    Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Act 1 (1877 Version): No. 8, Danse des coupes. Tempo di polacca (State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’/Vladimir Jurowski

    John Harbison Requim, Pt. 1: II. Sequence I. Dies irae (Nashville Chorus, Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero)

    Richard Strauss 5 Lieder, Op. 41: No. 1, Wiegenlied (Arabella Steinbacher, WDR Symphony Orchestra/Lawrence Foster)

    Parry English Lyrics, Set 12: No. 7, The Sound of Hidden Music (Sarah Fox, Andrew West)

    Andrzej Panufnik I Kwartet smyczkowy: III. Postlude (Apollon Musagete Quartett)

    Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2: II. Scherzo (Live) (Eric Lu)

    Szymanowski Nocturne & Tarantella in E minor, Op. 28: II. Tarantella (Jennifer Pike, Peter Limonov)

    Einaudi Life (Live) (Angèle Dubeau, La Pietà)

    Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli 6 Sonatas for Violin and Continuo, Op. 3: Sonata No. 2 ‘La Cesta’ (Elicia Silverstein, Mauro Valli)

    Dvořák Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor: II. Poco adagio (Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Lars Vogt)

    Florence Price Symphony No. 4: III. Juba Dance (Fort Smith Symphony/John Jeter)

    Mozart Piano Concerto No. 16: III. Allegro di molto (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Manchester Camerata, Gábor Takács-Nagy

    Haydn Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 30 No. 5: I. Allegro con brio (Roman Rabinovich)

    Johann Strauss I Radetzky-Marsch, Op. 228 (Christian Theilemann, Vienna Philharmonic

     

    Vol. 4

    Arvo Pärt Passacaglia (Victoria Mullova, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi)

    Michael Higgins The Angel Gabriel (Sonoro/Neil Ferris)

    Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor: I. Prologue. Lent. Sostenuto e molto risoluto (Jean-Guiden Queyras, Javier Perianes)

    Massanet Hérodiade, Act 1: ‘Celiu dont la parole efface… Il est doux, il est bon’ (Salomé) (Elsa Dreisig, Orchestre national Montpellier Occitanie/Michael Schonwandt

    Poulenc Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G minor: I. Andante (Live) (James O’Donnell, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin)

    Schumann Fantasiestücke Op. 72: I. Zart und mit Ausdruck (Sol Gabetta, Bertrand Chamayou)

    Gurney Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty (Teberae/Nigel Short)

    Peter Gregson Bach: The Cello Suites: Recomposed by Peter Gregson – Suite No. 1 in G, BWV 1007: I. Prelude (Peter Gregson, Richard Harwood, Reinoud Ford, Tim Lowe, Ben Chappell, Katherine Jenkinson)

    JS Bach Concerto in D minor, BWV 974: III. Presto (Víkingur Ólafsson)

    Purcell King Arthur, Act 1: ‘Come If You Dare’ (Robert Buckland, Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier)

    Messiaen La Nativité du Seigneur: V. Les enfants de Dieu (Richard Gowers)

    George Onslow String Quartet No. 29 in E-flat, Op. 73 Elan Quintet)

    Cécile Chaminade Arabesque No. 1, Op. 61 (Mark Viner)

    Enescu Strigoii, Pt. 3: Bătrânu-și pleacă geana și iar rămâne orb (Alin Anca, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Gabriel Bebeșelea)

    Max Richter Mary Queen of Scots: The Shores of Scotland

    Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Act II (1877 version): No. 13a, Danses des cygnes I. Tempo di valse

     

     

    Vol. 3

    Emilie Mayer Symphony No. 4: IV. Presto (Neubrandenburg Philharmonie/Stefan Malzew)

    Weber Clarinet Quintet in B-flat Major: IV. Rondo - Allegro giocoso (Julian Bliss & Carducci String Quartet)

    John Hess Vous, qui passez sans me voir (Julien Behr, Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon/Pierre Bleuse)

    John Francis Wade Adeste fideles (arr. M Suzuki for Choir and Organ) (Bach Collegium Japan Chorus/Masato Suzuki & Masaaki Suzuki)

    Schumann Fantasiestücke: I. Zart und mit Ausdruck (Sol Gabetta, Bertrand Chamayou)

    Domenico Sarro Messa a 5 voci: 'Laudamus te' (Maxim Emelyanychev, Jakub Józef Orliński, Il Pomo d'Oro)

    Holst Invocation Op. 19 No. 2 (Guy Johnston, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis)

    Dowland Come, Heavy Sleep (Grace Davidson, David Miller)

    Schumann Humoreske Op. 20: II. Hastig (William Youn)

    RO Morris Love Came Down at Christmas (arr. Stephen Cleobury) (Stephen Cleobury, Henry Websdale, Choir of King's College, Cambridge)

    Tchaikovsky The Seasons Op. 37a: XII. December. Christmas (Barry Douglas)

    Berlioz Roméo et Juliette: Pt. 3, Finale - Oath of Reconciliation (San Francisco Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas)

    Elgar Chanson de nuit (Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder)

    James Burton Tomorrow Shalle Be My Dancing Day (Jack Hawkins, Michael Bell, James Adams, Joseph Wicks, Choir of St John's College, Cambridge)

     

    Vol. 2

    Julian Anderson Heaven is Shy of Earth: III. Gloria (With Bird) (Susan Bickley, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Oliver Knussen)

    Richard Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1: III. Rondo. Allegro (Live) (William Caballero, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck)

    Derek Bermel Murmurations: I. Gathering at Gretna Green (ROCO)

    Frank Martin Ballade for Flute & Piano (Bridget Bolliger, Andrew West)

    Debussy Violin Sonata in G minor: III. Finale. Très animé (Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov)

    Anonymous Now May We Singen (ORA Singers/Suzi Didby)

    Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5 (Live at Philharmonie, Berlin/2018) (Yuja Wang)

    James Newton Howard Violin Concerto: II. Andante semplice (James Ehnes, Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Cristian Măcelaru)

    Sally Beamish In the Stillness (Sonoro/Neil Ferris)

    Parry Suite moderne (arr. J Dibble for Orchestra): III. Romanza. Lento (BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba)

    Jonathan Dove A Brief History of Creation: X. Whales Return to the Sea (Hallé Children's Choir, Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder)

    Purcell King Arthur, Act 1: 'Come if You Dare' (Robert Buckland, Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier)

    Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 4 (Live at Kimmel Center, Philadelphia) (Daniil Trifonov, The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin)

    Fagerlund Höstsonaten, Act 1: charlotte Andergast! Vilken konstnär! (Krista Kujala, Mari Sares, Jere Martikainen, Jarmo Ojala, Finnish National Opera Chorus, Finnish National Opera Orchestra/John Storgards

     

    Vol. 1

    Julian Anderson Heaven is Shy of Earth: III. Gloria (With Bird) (Susan Bickley, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen)

    Zemlinsky Albumblatt (Erinnerung aus Wien) (William Youn)

    Schreker The Birthday of the Infanta: Suite I. Reigen (Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta)

    Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1 K.207: III. Presto (Nikolaj Znaider, London Symphony Orchestra)

    Tchaikovsky The Seasons, Op. 37a, TH 135: XII. December. Christmas (Barry Douglas)

    Holst In the Bleak Midwinter (Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason)

    Glazunov The Seasons ‘L’été: No. 9, Scène de l’été (Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitayenko

    JS Bach Prelude & Fugue BVW 855a: Prelude No. 10 in B minor (Vikingur Ólafsson)

    Magnus Lindberg Tempus fugit Pt. 1 (Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu)

    Gurney Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty (Tenebrae/Nigel Short)

    Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Act 1: No. 6 Clara and the Nutcracker (Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel)

    Ravel Ma mère l’Oye Suite, M. 60: V. Le jardin féerique (Prague Philharmonia/Emmanuel Villaume)

    Eric Whitacre Deep Field: Earth Choir (Eric Whitacre Singers, Virtual Choir 5, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Eric Whitacre)

  • The best recordings of Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ

    classical-music.com | Wed, 06 Feb 2019 10:00:41 +0000

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    L’enfance du Christ (The childhood of Christ) was premiered under his baton at Paris’s Salle Herz on 10 December 1854. It was  a major success, with many people unable to buy tickets and the audience giving the composer-conductor a warm-hearted ovation.

    Among those present were fellow composers Verdi, Gounod and Ambroise Thomas and the poet Alfred de Vigny. Berlioz later wrote of ‘encores, recalls, interruptions in the middle of numbers due to the emotion of the audience, tears – nothing was lacking […] Not in Germany, Russia nor England have I ever witnessed greater fervour’. By the time two further performances had been given the work had earned Berlioz several thousand francs. 

     

     

    The best recording

    Soloists; Tenebrae, London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
    LSO0606 2SACD

    It is in terms of this vivid quality that Colin Davis’s third recording of the piece scores particularly highly. A devoted interpreter of the composer’s music, of which he was certainly the greatest champion in his day, Davis undertook his final Berlioz cycle as the London Symphony Orchestra’s music director – a post he held from 1995-2006.

    By then he had already made two recordings of the piece – the first in 1960, with the Goldsborough Orchestra and soloists including Elsie Morrison, Peter Pears and John Cameron (Decca); and the second in 1976 with the LSO and principals including Janet Baker, Eric Tappy and Jules Bastin (Philips). Both of these have much to recommend them, but the result of a lifetime’s experience of the score and the impetus of a live recording in the Barbican Hall give this final version from 2006 particular electricity.

    Davis brings lightness and lucidity to Berlioz’s score – ‘it’s very delicate chamber music as a whole’, he once said – but his performance also reflects the work’s operatic or even (as Davis also suggested) cinematic quality, aided by Yann Beuron’s crisp, native French-speaking Narrator, while the small scene between Beuron’s Centurion and Peter Rose’s Polydorus is unusually striking.

    Matthew Rose supplies a dark-souled Herod – an individual at the very end of his tether, sombre in expression. Karen Cargill defines Mary with impeccable steadiness and tonal warmth, while William Dazeley responds with a Joseph of equivalent quality and Peter Rose evokes the hospitable Ishmaelite Father in the final scene with a broad generosity of tone.  

    The luxurious choir is Tenebrae, whose thorough musicianship and ample yet varied tone form an ideal combination; Davis also discovers an authentic rustic quality to complement the choral richness of the famous ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’.

    Throughout the performance conductor and orchestra enter enthusiastically into the characteristically Berlioz’s distinctive, subtle and complex soundworld, with its rich palette of carefully selected colours and a fineness of detail that rewards focussed listening.

    While there’s never any sense of hurry in his interpretation, Davis nonetheless always manages to keep the score on the move, even in the delightful playfulness of the trio for two flutes and harp in the final scene: this is a point when – in the wrong hands – the score can seem to sag. Colin Davis’s are very much the right hands.

     

     

    Other great recordings

    Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestra des Champs-Élysées/Philippe Herreweghe
    Harmonia Mundi HMG 501632/33

    Recorded with the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées in 1997, Herreweghe’s approach also offers a reminder that Berlioz was a great opera composer, instilling his diverse scenes with a purposeful sense of development and constantly observant of the score’s smaller points, in which the choral contributions are perfectly scaled.

    Paul Agnew savours the Narrator’s text while Laurent Naouri provides a psychologically probing Herod. Véronique Gens’s Mary is tender and gentle, and Olivier Lallouette’s Joseph exhibits a real sense of desperation when rejected by the citizens of Sais. 

     

     

    Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Alastair Miles (bass), Gerald Finley (baritone), John Aler (tenor), Gwynne Howell (bass), Peter Evans (tenor), Robert Poulton (baritone), St Paul’s Cathedral Choristers, Corydon Singers & Orchestra/Matthew Best
    Hyperion CDD22067

    Though some may find the acoustic over-resonant, Matthew Best’s 1994 performance with the Corydon Singers and Orchestra maintains a sense of drama without tipping over into the overly theatrical.

    Alastair Miles is a grand-scale Herod and Jean Rigby’s Mary conveys maternal warmth and suggests real anxiety when she and Gerald Finley’s perfectly matched Joseph find themselves unwelcome refugees in Egypt, where Gwynne Howell’s vocal largesse as the Ishmaelite Father embodies his generosity of spirit. 

     

     

    Christiane Oelze (soprano), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Mark Padmore (tenor), Ralf Lukas (bass), Bernhard Hartmann (bass), Frank Bossert (tenor), Southwest German Radio Vocal Ensemble, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington
    Hänssler HAEN93091

    In this 2002 recording, Norrington and his Stuttgart forces capture the atmosphere of every scene, and shape the score with insight and tenderness. Mark Padmore is the plangent-toned, interpretatively concentrated Narrator, with Christiane Oelze a limpid, fleshy-voiced Mary, Christopher Maltman a fluent and lyrical Joseph, and Ralf Lukas an almost melancholy Herod – viewed, as it were, from the inside out. The result is a consistently characterful performance.

     

     

    And one to avoid…

    Jane Henschel (contralto), Yann Beuron (tenor), Phillipe Rouillon (bass), Gabor Breta (Baritone), Eric Martin-Bonnett (bass), EuropaChorAkademie, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Sylvain Cambreling
    Glor Classics GC08131

    Sylvain Cambreling’s 2009 recording again employs Yann Beuron as his Narrator, though the remaining soloists are not in the same league: Jane Henschel’s heavyweight Mary is relentless, while the Joseph is woolly, the Father sometimes unsteady, and the Herod inclined to blowsiness.

    Nor is the Belgian conductor as pictorially vivid as his colleagues in painting the atmosphere of individual scenes, while overall rhythmic control and precision of ensemble are both less consistent. 

  • The 20 Greatest Pianists of all time

    classical-music.com | Tue, 05 Feb 2019 13:00:06 +0000

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    20. Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), Chilean

    Arrau’s talent at eight was so advanced, the Chilean government paid for him to go to Berlin for the best teacher, and for the next few years Martin Krause, a Liszt pupil, was a father to him, introducing him to a vast range of culture, and helping him develop his transcendental technique.

    When Krause died in 1918 Arrau was bereft, and went into psychoanalysis. Gradually he built up an immense international reputation, especially after World War II. Though he could play dazzling virtuoso pieces with the best of his rivals, his real concern was ever more searching, probing of the greatest works, above all Beethoven and – at the end of his life, since he regarded Schubert as ‘the supreme challenge’ – Schubert in his last masterpieces for piano.

    Arrau was the Faustian among pianists, always dissatisfied and disturbed, while cultivating a warmth and a unique depth of tone. At times his playing was overlaid with self-consciousness to an almost suffocating extent, but in the deepest music he has very few peers.

    At the end of his life he made a series of recordings which deserve a life-time’s listening. He found far more in Liszt than most, so his recording of the Transcendental Studies is a superb way to get deep into both composer and pianist.

    In his own words:
    ‘Great piano playing requires you to have incredible emotional tension without getting physically tense. That seems simple, but it isn’t.’

    Essential recording:
    Liszt: Studies in the Transcendental Execution  
    Pentatone PTC 5186171

     

     

     

    19. Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), Polish

    An astonishing child prodigy from Poland, Hofmann ‘retired’ at 12 for further study with Moritz Moszkowski and Anton Rubinstein, then resumed his career at 18. Eventually he settled in the US, becoming director of the Curtis Institute of Music. Revered as one of the supreme pianists of his day, Hofmann’s effortless technique permitted a kaleidoscope of tonal colourings and expressive guises ranging from aching tenderness to heaven-storming pandemonium.

    The quality of his melodic tone was full and round, and commanding or beguiling by turns; its prominence in the overall texture lent his sonority nobility. His playing also possessed spontaneity, which led him to highlight ‘inner voices’ and add surprises of dynamics and timing that later listeners can find disconcerting.

    His few studio recordings sometimes reveal a clinical craftsman, while in live performance his playing was more temperamental, even occasionally violent. Hofmann’s large repertory emphasised Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and the virtuoso character pieces of his time.

    In his own words:
    'World-oblivious and alone with his instrument, [the pianist] can commune with his innermost and best self.’

    Essential recording:
    Golden Jubilee Concert (1937) – Rubinstein: Concerto No. 4
    VAIA/IPA 1020

     

     

     

    18. Walter Gieseking (1895-1956), German

    Gieseking was a gentle giant among pianists, but his supposed politics tarnished his reputation. Although cleared of being a Nazi collaborator, he wasn’t able to play in the US until 1955. He is best remembered as an interpreter of the French School, Debussy in particular liking his gossamer touch, though his Mozart (the complete solo piano works) and incomplete Beethoven sonata recordings are also prized for their clarity and classical dignity.

    The opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata is almost trance-like, as if Gieseking were reluctant to touch the keys lest the spell be broken. Elegance, nuance and understatement depict his style. ‘Sophisticated’ is often considered a rude word these days but, in its literal sense, it perhaps best describes him – his appearance and his playing.

    Whereas Wilhelm Backhaus, Edwin Fischer (No. 13) and Schnabel (No. 6) were baritones of the piano, Gieseking was definitely a tenor; compare, for example, his svelte Mozartian Beethoven Emperor Concerto with Fischer’s aggressive, muscular version, both superb but utterly different.

    Gieseking had a wide repertoire which included Rachmaninov’s Second and Third concertos and, surprisingly, Tchaikovsky’s First. He also championed new music which, sadly, never got to disc. Gieseking was also a great team player – his near definitive recording of Mozart’s Piano Quintet K542 with the Philharmonia’s fabulous foursome is testament to this.

    In his own words:
    ‘One has only to be able to read notes correctly, but that is beyond most performers.’

    Essential recording:
    Mozart: Quintet in E flat for piano and wind, K452
    Testament SBT 1091

     

     

     

    17. Glenn Gould (1932-82), Canadian

    Bernstein called him ‘the greatest thing to happen to music in years’, yet improbably the defining moment in that ‘happening’ occurred in an abandoned New York Presbyterian Church in June 1955.

    Related to Grieg on his mother’s side, the 23-year-old Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a rebel with a cause, kicking against the prevailing Bachian norm with a mixture of forensic analysis, exhilarating playfulness and dazzling clarity. And Bach would dominate his eclectic music-making even after the one night stand of the concert platform had given way to a lifelong relationship with the studio.

    Chopin, Liszt and Schumann were famously ‘off’ Gould’s radar – as was Mozart, despite a provocative recorded set of the piano sonatas. Schoenberg, Beethoven, Brahms and Gibbons (‘my favourite’) all received the Gouldian imprint, but Bach remained at the centre of his universe, with a second Goldbergs recording preceding his untimely death in 1982. The 1955 ‘first thoughts’ remain special however: ‘The record debut of Glenn Gould, a keyboard genius’ as the American Record Guide headed its review.

    In his own words:
    ‘My idea of happiness is 250 days a year in a studio.’

    Essential recording:
    JS Bach: Goldberg Variations
    Sony Classical 827969038727

     

     

     

    16. Murray Perahia (b. 1947), American

    Hearsay has it that when Murray Perahia enlisted for the Leeds Piano Competition, fellow American competitors, suspecting the game was up, made for the exit. A pupil of Mieczysaw Horszowski, Perahia won with a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 whose poise and classicism set a marker for the qualities which have proved his hallmark.

    Of the Fischer/Cortot generation (see Nos 13 & 5), he insists ‘there’s no technique, it’s just speaking’, and a similar unforced directness informed his first major recording project: a translucent, landmark set of the complete Mozart concertos. Other than a Bartókian aside, the canon from Bach to Brahms has absorbed his subsequent attention on disc, the former a fruitful ‘therapy’ that got him through a period of enforced silence due to hand problems.

    Aristocratic without being aloof and devoid of ego, Perahia’s playing transfixes and illuminates. Anointed by the ailing Britten to accompany Peter Pears, Perahia’s Aldeburgh recording with Radu Lupu (No. 13) of the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos is an essay in sublime communion, and a benediction.

    In his own words:
    ‘I’m interested in the thing that lasts forever: the thought behind the music.’

    Essential recording:
    Mozart: Sonata K448; Schubert: Fantasia D940, both with Radu Lupu
    Sony 827969301524

     

     

     

    15. Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991), German

    The core of his repertory was great music of the German tradition – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms – but Wilhelm Kempff played as though he were improvising rather than presiding over a solemn ritual. Gifted with a sensitive touch and a predisposition for intimacy of expression, Kempff’s delicacy caused him to achieve charming, satisfying character in moments where others concentrated on momentum and precision.

    Although capable of flights of extroverted virtuosity, he was sometimes cautious with (or made heavy weather of) difficult passages, and endemic to his spontaneous approach is the reality of uneven, variable playing between and even within individual performances. Yet at his best he had an enviable way of making music sound natural and unpretentious while simultaneously tapping into the profound wisdom of artless simplicity.

    In addition to German music, his repertory included Chopin, Liszt, and even some Fauré, and some of his most beloved recordings feature him in his own transcriptions of Bach works.

    In his own words:
    In my artistic existence, I have experienced many crises. That was necessary. Crisis leads to growth, and growth is the best thing we can wish for…’

    Essential recording:
    Queen Elizabeth Hall Concert (1969) – Bach, Beethoven & Schubert
    BBC Legends BBCL 4045-2

     

     

     

    14. Edwin Fischer (1886-1960), Swiss

    Edwin Fischer remains one of the most highly regarded musicians of the 20th century. Equally gifted as pianist, conductor and pedagogue, he was largely responsible for reviving interest in the keyboard music of Bach and Mozart at a time when such repertory featured relatively infrequently in concert programmes.

    Fischer was also an early pioneer of scholarly performance practice, emphasising the necessity for interpreters to respect the integrity of the musical text. Yet his performances of the great Austro-German Classical and Romantic repertory were anything but sterile academic affairs.

    Like Schnabel his playing was never technically flawless but it was blessed with a miraculously rounded tone which retained its warmth both at explosive climactic points in the music and at those moments that call for a beautifully veiled pianissimo.

    His pupil Alfred Brendel commented that on the concert platform Fischer’s ‘every fibre seemed to vibrate with elemental musical power’. Noting a parallel with conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, Fischer’s great friend and contemporary, Brendel added that with the pianist ‘one was in more immediate contact with the music: there was no curtain before his soul when he communicated with the audience.’

    In his own words:
    ‘Thick-set players with thick fleshy hands are predestined for the interpretation of works by composers of similar frame, while tall, long-fingered sinewy players are likewise the best interpreters of the works of similarly constituted composers.’

    Essential recording:
    JS Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier 
    EMI 391 9582

     

     

     

    13. Radu Lupu (b. 1945), Romanian

    The elusive Romanian pianist rose to fame in the early 1970s after winning some vital competitions, among them the Van Cliburn (1966) and the Leeds (1969) – yet his performance style is far indeed from what we think of as a ‘typical competition winner’.

    Lupu is an unpretentious performer, lacking the glitzy veneer of some of his younger colleagues: with the stage presence of a bearded bear, and usually sitting on a chair rather than a piano stool, he presents interpretations that probe deep beneath the surface, eschewing outright virtuoso repertoire in favour of the great Viennese classics. He is one of today’s most profound interpreters of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, masterfully evoking the latter’s other-worldly aesthetic.

    His tone is rounded, velvety, the emphasis on songful phrasing and musical empathy; he never ‘plays to the gallery’ but gives audiences the impression that they are sharing in an intimate exchange of ideas. Having studied with, among others, Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatoire, Lupu maintains in his playing a link to the ‘golden age’ pianists.

    In his own words:
    I would have liked to make a career out of playing nothing but slow movements.

    Essential recording:
    Radu Lupu plays Brahms
    Decca 475 7070

     

     

     

    12. Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948), Polish

    Born in Poland in 1882, Friedman was among the finest ‘golden age’ interpreters of Chopin, and of many other composers too – his innate feel for Chopin’s Polish rhythms and quasi-operatic melodies was second to none.

    He was a pupil of the great Polish pianist and teacher Theodor Leschetizky – who once said that Friedman had surpassed him technically – and over the course of a distinguished four-decade career he became a revered teacher himself, as well as a composer, arranger and editor.

    Like Alfred Cortot (see No. 5), Friedman had the astonishing ability to transform the sound of the piano into something resembling the human voice. With an expressive and colouristic range that matched his imaginative abilities, an ever-meaningful control of rubato and an emotional directness that goes straight to the heart of both the music and the listener, every account that Friedman has left on disc is a treasure in its own right.

    A nerve problem in his left hand forced his retirement in 1943; he died in 1948 in Australia, where he happened to be touring at the outbreak of World War II.

    In his own words:
    Advice to a pupil: ‘It doesn’t need to be that fast. There is always time.’

    Essential recording:
    Ignaz Friedman plays Hummel, Chopin and Beethoven
    APR 5508

     

     

     

    11. Krystian Zimerman (b. 1956), Polish

    Few artists appear so relaxed and at one with the keyboard as Krystian Zimerman. In even the most note-splattered pages of Chopin, Brahms and Liszt, he retains absolute technical composure and clarity. Although his hands are not unusually large, he is blessed with long fingers and a relatively  generous span, which helps facilitate his seemingly effortless fluency.

    Purity in all things is Zimerman’s watchword. His playing fuses the aristocratic elegance of the ‘golden age’ with contemporary fastidiousness. In his hands fusty interpretative accretions built up over generations are peeled away to reveal pristine musical surfaces. Structures torn asunder by subjective whimsy regain their organic composure. Even the Liszt Sonata, a work notoriously prone to technical and interpretative fracturing, thrillingly unfolds with a bracing sense of inevitability.

    Classic filmed recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos (with Bernstein) and
    a peerless solo recital of Chopin and Schubert, reveal a piano technique in perfect symbiosis – the fingers miraculously even, the shape of the hands poised at all times, and a sleight-of-hand ability to make the transcendental appear facile.

    In his own words:
    ‘Music is not sound. Music is using sound to organise emotions in time.’

    Essential recording:
    Chopin: Ballades Nos 1–4 etc; Schubert: Impromptus Nos 1-4
    DG 073 4449 (DVD)

     

     

     

    10. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-95), Italian

    The playing of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli featured an unforgettable sonority that was an amalgamation of impeccably controlled, awe-inspiring pianistic mastery, a textural sheen that was practically iridescent, and a warmly resilient tone that could seem to defy the acoustical laws of decay built into the sound of the piano.

    (An indication of his approach and preoccupations can be gauged from his refusal to make a studio recording of Ravel’s suite Gaspard de la nuit on the grounds that the piano had not yet been invented that could do this work justice.)

    There was a paradoxical quality to his extraordinary artistry as well. His musical sensibility was often punctilious but just as often concerned with presenting the technical surface of the music in the very best light, which led to solutions that drew criticism for being musically mannered.

    Often he embodied a strength of commitment that could result in sovereign grandeur and overwhelming energy, yet elsewhere his playing seemed excessively tangible, marmoreal, and spiky rather than evocative.

    Michelangeli’s repertory was restricted, honed carefully over many years – certain Mozart concertos and Beethoven sonatas, and works by Schumann (Concerto, Carnaval, Faschingsschwank aus Wien), Brahms (Variations on a theme of Paganini, Ballades Op. 10), Ravel, Debussy (eventually both books of Preludes and Images), Grieg (Concerto), and notably Chopin (Sonata No. 2, F minor Fantasy, G minor Ballade, selected mazurkas and waltzes) turned up repeatedly on his concert programmes.

    In his own words:
    To play means labour. It means to feel a great ache in the arms and in the shoulders.’

    Essential recording:
    Grieg: Piano Concerto (with New Philharmonia/Frühbeck de Burgos)
    BBC Legends BBCL 4043-2

     

     

     

    9. Martha Argerich (b. 1941), Argentinian

    Volatile, explosive, quixotic, astounding and mesmerising – these are some of the adjectives commonly used by critics to describe the music-making of Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. Undoubtedly one of the most charismatic interpreters of our time, Argerich achieved international recognition at an early age after moving to Europe and winning first prize at the Busoni and Geneva piano competitions in the late 1950s.

    A pupil of the provocatively subversive Austrian Friedrich Gulda, whom she still regards as the greatest pianistic influence on her life, she subsequently overwhelmed both jury and audience with her spectacular playing at the 1965 Chopin competition in Warsaw. After undertaking a punishing schedule of recitals during this period, Argerich rejected the notion of pursuing a career as a solo pianist.

    According to her former partner, the American pianist Stephen Kovacevich, she simply loathed the idea of being alone on stage and from that time onwards she has focused her attention on playing concertos and chamber music. Her repertory is astonishingly versatile, extending from Bach to Shostakovich and demonstrating  a particular commitment to Schumann.

    Long-standing partnerships with violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Mischa Maisky have broadened her musical outlook, Maisky describing performing with her as ‘still the most beautiful experience in the world’.

    Notoriously reclusive and reluctant to pander to the conventional publicity hype often attached to contemporary classical musicians, she has been astonishingly generous in nurturing young talent through her annual series of concerts at the Lugano Festival.

    In her own words:
    I love very much to play the piano, but I don’t like to be a pianist. I don’t like the profession.’

    Essential recording:
    Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 (with Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly); Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Bavarian Radio SO/Kirill Kondrashin)  
    Philips 446 6732

     

     

     

    8. Emil Gilels (1916-1985), Russian

    Contemporary with Sviatoslav Richter (see No. 4), whom he preceded in the West, and whose superiority to himself he insisted on, Gilels was a very different kind of pianist, though they shared much of the same repertoire. They also shared the same great teacher, Heinrich Neuhaus, and there are recognisable similarities of style. Gilels was not a temperamental performer, though his performances have energy and life.

    His Beethoven would be definitive if that term meant anything in relation to such music. But so would his Scarlatti, his Tchaikovsky and certainly his recordings of 20th-century Russian music. More reliable than Richter in turning up for concerts, he gave a huge number, both in the East and West, and his rigorous schedule killed him.

    His recordings above all show his wonderful fullness of tone, his command of long paragraphs, and often an astonishing delicacy. His Brahms concertos with Eugen Jochum are a recording for the ages, his Grieg Lyric Pieces a revelation.

    In his own words:
    The imagination comes in when the spirit comes together with the fantasy. Of course, the technique must be there, but the imagination must go with it.’

    Essential recording:
    Grieg: Lyric Pieces
    DG 449 7212

     

     

     

    7. Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), Austrian

    In his heyday, Austrian-born Artur Schnabel was revered as the leading exponent of the Beethoven piano sonatas; he was the first to record them all and his interpretations set the benchmark. Sixty years after his death he is still revered by fellow pianists and connoisseurs of the piano.

    A virtuoso in the mould of Horowitz (No. 3) he certainly was not – if you are looking for pianistic fireworks and breathtaking accuracy, Schnabel is not your man. His teacher, Theodor Leschetizky, remarked to the 12-year-old Artur: ‘You will never be a pianist, for you are a musician.’

    His playing may be described as honest and unvarnished and, occasionally, careless, as some recordings have more than their fair share of smudged, wrong or missed notes – like those of his great contemporary, Edwin Fischer, who joked that he collected them. Composer Arnold Schoenberg once commented, ‘… his concerts were communions. And when the audience dispersed, it was with a feeling of having been cleansed.’ Listening to any Schubert played by Schnabel, it’s easy to understand what Schoenberg meant.

    His repertoire was limited to those composers with whom he felt most empathy, namely Bach, MozartBeethoven, Schubert and Brahms and, like Otto Klemperer’s finest performances of the Beethoven symphonies, there is in Schnabel’s interpretations not only granite strength but also a simplicity which puts music first and ego last. Taking the stone analogy further, Schnabel’s playing reminds one of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà where the marks of the chisel are very much evidence of work in progress.

    In his own words:
    ‘Music is one of the performing arts with which, in exercise, one can be alone, entirely alone.’

    Essential recording:
    Schubert: Impromptus D899 & 935
    EMI 586 8332

     

     

     

    6. Dinu Lipatti (1917-50), Romanian

    Lipatti’s soundworld, articulated by an infinitesimal range of dynamics, colours and textures, would alone have guaranteed him a place among the piano immortals. The exquisite, fine-graded subtleties of his Bach B flat Partita, for example, are so numerous that one can only sit slack-jawed at the speed and detail of his superhuman reflexes.

    Yet what really sets his playing apart is that every inflection appears to arise naturally from the inner soul of the music. It is this tantalising fusion of supreme technical sophistication and disarming naturalness which lies at the heart of his captivating artistry. For Lipatti, music was something to be lived through and breathed like creative oxygen.

    One felt the same intuitive sense of contact with every composer he chose to play, whether it was the world-weariness that lies behind Mozart’s most frivolous gestures, or the emotional complexity of Chopin's waltzes.

    In 1947, at the very height of his career, Lipatti was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and died three years later at 33. ‘Lipatti had the qualities of a saint,’ wrote his record producer Walter Legge. ‘His goodness and generosity evoked faith, hope and charity in all those around him.’

    In his own words:
    ‘Music has to live under our fingers, under our eyes, in our heart and mind with all we can offer them.’

    Essential recording:
    JS Bach: Partita No. 1
    EMI 567 0032

     

     

     

    5. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), Swiss/French

    If you want your piano-playing to be merely note-perfect, then practise all day. But to make music a matter of life and death, to feel from the inside the drama, passion and eloquence with which notes and poetry unite into an art form, try spending your formative years as repetiteur at Bayreuth, and conduct the Paris premiere of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Not that that job, which he held from 1898 to 1901, nor that opera, given in 1902, wholly explain the genius of Alfred Cortot. Nobody has played like him since; probably no one did before, either.

    But Cortot’s reputation has been sullied by two unfortunate issues. First, his tally of wrong notes is uncomfortably high for those reared in our phonographically disinfected age. Secondly, during World War II he held a position as High Commissioner of the Fine Arts in the Vichy government.

    He may not have been the ‘best’ pianist by today’s examined standards, but he was still one of the most profound, sensitive and genuine musicians of his time and beyond. His musical concepts were on a transcendent scale that few have matched. Besides, Cortot was more than just a great pianist: he was a lynchpin of his cultural world.

    Born in Switzerland in 1877, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Louis Diémer and Emile Descombes, who had known Chopin. Fauré, director of the Conservatoire, appointed him a professor there in 1907; Cortot subsequently taught such artists as Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Vlado Perlemuter and Samson François.

    From 1905 he formed a renowned trio with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals. And besides writing a number of books and essays on matters musical and pianistic, he made editions of piano music by Chopin and Schumann that are still revered.

    Aside from the wrong notes, his technique was prodigious, especially in the vital quality of fine, beautiful tone production. When you listen to him, whether in Chopin or Schubert, Beethoven or Fauré, you hear not just a piece of music, but a private opera of the soul.

    In his own words:
    ‘The interpreter’s art – at least for the man who does not intend to restrict it to the barren successes of instrumental virtuosity – has as its essential aim the transmission of the feelings or impressions which a musical idea reflects.’

    Essential recording:
    Schumann: Piano Concerto (with LPO/Landon Ronald)
    Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 (with LPO/John Barbirolli)
    Naxos 8.110612

     

     

     

    4. Sviatoslav Richter (1915-97), Russian

    Regarded by many as the greatest pianist of the second half of the 20th century, Richter’s ancestry was German, but he only performed in the West for the first time in 1960. He already had a prodigious reputation, thanks to LPs, and the expectations of him were phenomenal. A highly sensitive artist, he loathed the limelight (literally – in his later years he performed on a darkened stage), and much preferred playing in a barn in France – his favourite venue, once the geese were evacuated – to any large concert hall.

    His favourite composer was Wagner, who wrote no significant piano music. Richter’s repertoire was perhaps the most enormous of any pianist, though he hated ‘completism’ and never performed, for instance, Beethoven’s Second, Fourth or Fifth Piano Concertos, or some of Chopin's Preludes, while giving astounding performances of the rest.

    He was a friend of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, both of whom wrote works for him, and Britten, with whom he played duets. He tells us that for one period of his concert career he was inseparable from a pink plastic lobster which he would leave in the wings where he could see it when he went onstage.

    It is hard to characterise his playing, since he immersed himself so deeply in the music that it sometimes seems we’re hearing the composer directly. That’s the case with Bach, Handel, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and the Russian composers; he is more idiosyncratic in Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms

    After the early 1970s he refused to record in the studio, but many of his concerts were recorded, and there are more CDs of him than of any other pianist; he loathed most of his own performances, and at the end of the great documentary (on DVD) Richter: The Enigma, made in 1995, he says ‘I don’t like myself. That’s it.’

    In his own words:
    ‘I don’t like pianos – I like music more.’

    Essential recording:
    Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanislav Wislocki)
    DG 477 8584

     

     

     

    3. Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89), Russian

    When Horowitz emerged from Kiev to begin his international career in the 1920s he struck many as a direct link to the 19th-century Russian school exemplified by Anton Rubinstein, known for his free approach to rhythm, dynamics, and phrasing.

    For the next three decades, until his 12-year retirement from live concerts (1953-65), Horowitz practically defined pianistic virtuosity, but not in the wild-haired, swooning manner of a Paderewski; this lion of the keyboard was lithe, modern in dress, and quiet in his demeanour.

    His thundering octaves in Tchaikovsky’s First and Rachmaninov’s Third concertos, or the Liszt B minor Sonata won him huge fortunes and the attention of the musical world, but gradually Horowitz tired of ‘the octaves race’, and began searching for repertoire that would provide him and his audiences with more intellectual stimulation.

    For his much-anticipated return to the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1965, he opened with Bach (albeit arranged by Busoni) and Schumann’s C major Fantasy, saving Chopin for the second half. Scarlatti, HaydnMozart and Clementi were now constants on his programmes, as well as Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Not surprisingly, Horowitz’s rhapsodic approach to Mozart and Haydn was closer in spirit to the historically informed performances of today than to the rigid scorebound approaches of his contemporaries.

    The most recognisable aspect of Horowitz’s tone was its range of colour and its physicality. Even his softest playing had body, while his loudest was always crystal clear. In every phrase, a wealth of dynamic and rhythmic shadings was framed in a constantly changing yet logical pulse, a pure bel canto approach reminiscent of the great Italian baritone Mattia Battistini, whom Horowitz idolised.

    Never content to rest on his laurels, Horowitz, like his father-in-law Toscanini, always searched for more truthful interpretations – try listening to his many recordings of Chopin's B minor Scherzo, each one differently paced, and with inner voices differently balanced. Horowitz was dubbed ‘the Last Romantic’, but in many ways he was the supreme classicist, with head and heart in equipoise.

    In his own words:
    Perfection itself is imperfection.’

    Essential recording:
    The Indispensable: Chopin, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Scriabin and Scarlatti
    RCA 74321634712

     

     

     

    2. Arthur Rubenstein (1887-1982), Polish

    If there was an award for the pianist who came closest to the artistic ideal in the widest repertoire, it would almost certainly go to Rubinstein. Whether playing Fauré or Brahms, Albéniz or Beethoven, Ravel or Schubert, the results were sublime. Yet he is most celebrated for his Chopin, whose aristocratic poise and elegance found a perfect match in Rubinstein’s own interpretative genius.

    His golden tone, exquisite sense of timing and sensitivity to phrase and structure were tailor-made for the nocturnes, waltzes and mazurkas. Yet remarkably he sustained that same level of musical intuitiveness and profound eloquence throughout the more heated virtuosity of the concertos, scherzos, ballades, preludes, sonatas and polonaises.

    There was seemingly nothing that Rubinstein could not play at the highest levels of distinction, from concertos and solo recitals to forming two ‘million dollar’ piano trios, first with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann and then with Henryk Szeryng and Pierre Fournier, with whom he made outstanding recordings of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.

    Most of us now associate Rubinstein with the accumulated wisdom and autumnal glow of his stereo era recordings (from the late 1950s), yet when he first emerged on the scene at the turn of the 20th century, it was as a prodigy of electrifying virtuosity and élan.

    Incredibly, as witness sublime video recordings of concertos by Grieg, Saint-Saëns, ChopinBeethoven and Brahms, he was still playing like an angel in his eighties. Rubinstein was one of the most widely recorded of pianists, although his love affair with the gramophone got off to a shaky start when he refused to record for the early acoustic process as he felt it made the piano ‘sound like a banjo’.

    If modern trends have moved towards finding absolute solutions to technical and interpretative challenges, Rubinstein was a spontaneous musician to his fingertips. ‘On stage I will take a chance. There has to be an element of daring in great music-making,’ he once insisted, and this extended to his relaxed approach to practising (in the early 1930s he even took some time out in order to refine his technique).

    Having a photographic memory proved a special boon, particularly when he came to give his first performance of Franck’s tricky Symphonic Variations, which he learned on the train journey to the venue, working out the fingerings on his knee-caps!

    In his own words:
    ‘We must transmit what these great compositions express. It is our gift to be able to transmit to an innocent and ignorant public.’

    Essential recording:
    Chopin: 21 Nocturnes
    RCA 09026 630492

     

     

     

    1. Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943), Russian

    What would we know of Rachmaninov’s playing if his recordings did not exist? Much could be deduced from the music he wrote. There is the vast range of virtuoso technical resource, with implied power and stamina to match. The melancholic lyrical gift would be self-evident. So would the incisive rhythmic instinct – and, to judge from the later works at least, the tight-reined clarity with which Rachmaninov the pianist would unerringly shape one musical paragraph after another.

    The recordings confirm all this. And they also tell us both more and less. Without them it would be impossible to know quite how phenomenal Rachmaninov's rhythmic gift was – at once ultra-precise and springily propulsive, not unlike Prokofiev’s, but unleashing a momentum that’s less motor-driven, more like a tidal surge. This was surely the quality that enabled everything else to be so special – the way that a phrase spontaneously tugs against, or yields to the underlying pulse, so that every musical option seems possible.

    The tonal quality, too, is spellbinding. The opening bars of the G flat major Prelude (which you will hear on the set below) are among the simplest Rachmaninov wrote, yet you know at once you’re in the presence of something extraordinary.

    How many other pianists could phrase the right-hand’s repeated chord-pattern with that kind of suppleness, or bring such fullness and focus to the left-hand melody? In an interview in 1936, Rachmaninov said: ‘Interpretation demands something of the creative instinct. If you are a composer, you have an affinity with other composers… knowing something of their problems and their ideals. You can give their works colour… So you make music live. Without colour it is dead.’

    What the recordings can’t tell us is how the younger Rachmaninov played. Before he left revolutionary Russia in 1918, he seems mainly to have performed his own piano music, alongside much composing and conducting. Afterwards, life in Europe and America meant a full-time piano career, and with it the need to build a repertory. Bach, Beethoven (notably the Appassionata), BorodinChopin, Debussy, Grieg, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann (Carnaval was another favourite) and Tchaikovsky all came to feature in Rachmaninov programmes besides his own works. He would practise for up to 15 hours a day and toured extensively.

    All of this seems to have been his way of dealing with the personal tragedy of his uprooting from Russia. So, evidently, was the famous public reserve, reflected in his contained, expressionless manner at the keyboard. Stravinsky, who once referred to his compatriot and fellow-exile as ‘a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl’, also remarked less waspishly: ‘His silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations which are the only conversation of all performing and most other musicians. And, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. That is a great deal.’

    But had it always been like that? We shouldn’t forget the unmistakable roguish streak that emerges in the Mendelssohn and Musorgsky transcriptions. And did Rachmaninov play rather more expansively in his earlier days, as a work like the Second Piano Concerto suggests? Meanwhile the recorded legacy presents its own evidence. After hearing one of Liszt's more devastating performances (of Beethoven's ‘Emperor’ Concerto), Wagner remarked that pianism of this order ‘annihilates everything else’. Rachmaninov's playing has the capacity to leave you with the same impression.

    In his own words:
    ‘I have never been quite able to make up my mind as to which was my true calling – that of a composer, pianist, or conductor. These doubts assail me to this day.’

    Essential recording:
    Sergey Rachmaninov: His Complete Recordings
    RCA 82876678922

     

  • Five essential works by Bruckner

    classical-music.com | Sun, 03 Feb 2019 10:00:20 +0000

    Rating: 
    0

    Symphony No. 4, ‘The Romantic’

    Bruckner’s main contribution to music was his huge symphonic output. No. 4 is a good place to start, a paen to the romanticism of nature.

    Recommended recording:
    Berlin Philharmonic/Günter Wand
    RCA 74321687162

     

     

    Symphony No. 7

    Bruckner’s most successful symphony. The first movement unfolds with extreme intensity, while the pained slow movement steals the show.

    Recommended recording:
    Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
    DG 439 0372

     

     

    Symphony No. 8

    Written in 1887 and amended in 1890, this huge work is Bruckner’s most religious symphony. The slow movement is a spell-binding glimpse of eternity.

    Recommended recording:
    Berlin Philharmonic/Günter Wand
    RCA 74321828662

     

     

    Symphony No. 9

    Although incomplete, this great work is more approachable than the Eighth – from the menacing opening of the Scherzo to the sublime final-movement Adagio.

    Recommended recording:
    Vienna Philharmonic/Carlo Maria Giulini
    DG 427 3452

     

     

    Motets

    Bruckner was a fine church musician and virtuoso organist, and these a cappella motets are among the finest written in the last couple of centuries.

    Recommended recording:
    Corydon Singers/Matthew Best
    Hyperion CDA 66062

  • The best recordings of Schubert's Winterreise

    classical-music.com | Fri, 01 Feb 2019 15:52:01 +0000

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