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LEBRECHT LISTENS | John Adams Rattles And Rolls Like New Music

Composer John Adams (Photo: Vern Evans)
Composer John Adams (Photo: Vern Evans)

John Adams (Alpha)

★★★★☆

🎧  Amazon | Apple Music

When did John Adams become John Adams? Around 1995, according to his own narrative, when he broke with repetitive minimalism and found a more variegated expression. The turning point was an orchestral work called Slonimsky’s Earbox, written soon after the contentious opera The Death of Klinghoffer, and paying homage to one of the quirkiest characters ever seen in a concert hall.

Nicolas Slonimsky was a Russian-Jewish polymath who made himself useful to Serge Koussevitsky and Leonard Bernstein by re-barring complex scores that they could not beat unaided. The Rite of Spring, on their recordings, is taken from Slonimsky’s score. Among other talents, he could play a Chopin nocturne by rolling a citrus fruit up and down the black keys. Old Nick — he died in 1995 at the age of 101 — was a one-off, an endless source of fun. His friends (I was one) find it touching that Adams chose to name a piece in his memory.

How original is the work? Transitioning out of minimalism, Adams relies rather heavily on Stravinsky. Both the Rite and Le Chant du Rossignol pump iron in this score, but no matter. It rattles and rolls like new music, and Paavo Järvi and the Zurich Tonhalle play it with infectious enthusiasm.

The other main piece on this fairly short album is also a tribute: My Father Knew Charles Ives. Adams has described it as, “a Proustian madeleine with a Yankee flavour”. Psychoanalytic is the word he was looking for. This hypnotic piece is a WASP American’s search for connections with the nation’s cultural founders. If Adams met Ives, both would feel instant affinity. And, those off-key New England marching bands he quotes are forgivably authentic, even in a Swiss rollout. I like this piece more than almost anything else Adams has written for orchestra.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | John Cage: Marvellous And More Than A Little Bit Mad

John Cage in November 1988 (Photo: Dutch National Archives/CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)
John Cage in November 1988 (Photo: Dutch National Archives/CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

John Cage: Four Walls (Fuga Libera)

★★★☆☆

🎧  Spotify | Apple Music

When John Cage came to Moscow in the summer of 1988, it was not so much a convergence of opposites as a validation of the prophecy of cultural deconstruction which the American iconoclast had long foretold. Cage made music by breaking it down, causing records to stick in a groove, telling performers to chance it, making silence instead of sound. The Soviet Union, in its final disintegration year, was the perfect place to preach his kooky doctrines.

Cage met a young pianist, Alexei Lyubimov, who became an instant apostle. “We drank vodka and ate dandelions,” Lyubimov recalls. He was transfixed by Four Walls, a work for piano and occasional voice, created for a Merce Cunningham ballet.

The music, trance-like, evolves by imperceptible degrees into transcendence. The voice, when it is distantly heard at the start of the second act, barely intrudes on the static sense of vague wellbeing that the guru-like Cage has fostered.

Taken from a late-night festival performance, the admirable Lyubimov plays Four Walls with immersive devotion. After a while, the listener loses all sense of time and is grateful for the loss. The titular walls are denoted by their absence. This is music without limitations of space, an altogether free zone, marvellous and more than a little bit mad.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Matangi’s ‘Outcast’ Is Much More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

The Matangi Quartet (Image courtesy of the artists)
The Matangi Quartet (Image courtesy of the artists)

Matangi: Outcast (PIAS)

★★★★☆

🎧  Spotify | Amazon | Apple Music

I dithered for weeks over whether or not to review this release, for reasons that will soon become clear. In the course of my indecision I listened to it at least ten times, so much so that it became a signifier of the state of our world in the war-torn, climate-seared summer of 2022. It is now a candidate for record of the year.

Matangi are a Dutch string quartet, enterprising in their choice of unheard and little-heard music. The album consists of works by Alfred Schnittke, Valentin Silvestrov and Dmitri Shostakovich, none of whom can be considered obscure or, as the title proclaims, rejected. All, despite their private degrees of dissension, survived and generally thrived in the Soviet Union.

The three works performed are Schnittke’s 3rd quartet of 1983, Shostakovich’s 8th of 1969 and Silverstrov’s first of 1974. The first two received more penetrating recordings by, for instance, Kronos and the Borodin Quartet. What makes this recording stand out, however, is their positioning before and after the introspective, deceptively ingratiating quartet by the leading Ukrainian composer Silvestrov, a man whose moral integrity shines through the murk of the disintegrating empire he inhabited.

Silvestrov, now a refugee in Germany, writes music of rage and consolation, the emotions interacting therapeutically in undemonstrative textures. Matangi make a masterpiece out of this beautifully understated quartet. More: by placing it between Schnittke and Shostakovich, they create a sound world that belongs both to the time of its creation and, insistently, to the present moment.

Their Schnittke may lack the acrid edge of the composer’s biting irony, and their Shostakovich is a tad too smooth for my understanding of the work. But these are minor quibbles. This album is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is modern history in motion.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | A New Recording Reveals Kurt Weill’s Seldom Heard Orchestral Brilliance

Kurt Weill (Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0119 / CC-BY-SA 3.0); Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya at home in 1942 (Public domain image)
Kurt Weill (Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0119 / CC-BY-SA 3.0); Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya at home in 1942 (Public domain image)

Kurt Weill: Violin Concerto; Symphony No.2 (Somm)

★★★★★

🎧  Spotify | Presto |

Banned in Berlin and exiled in March 1933, Kurt Weill stayed for a while in Paris where he wrote a symphonic work to a commission from the Singer sewing machine heiress, Princesse de Polignac. The symphony was taken up by his fellow-exile Bruno Walter and performed three times in the Netherlands, but apparently nowhere else. It was not published until 1966 and remains an esoteric item, seldom performed or recorded.

The present release by Jan van Steen and the Ulster Orchestra is by some distance the best I have heard, elegantly phrased and chock full of show tunes from the Brecht-Weill playbook. What’s not to like? The structure is totally secure and thematic development keeps the ear fully engaged for almost thirty minutes.

The Ulster Orchestra, on this form, are serious contenders for Euro 2022 — brilliant in brass passages and finely tuned in the strings. This symphony, Weill’s last pitch at a concert audience, really needs to get out more. Weill migrated to America and, unlike Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who kept hoping for rehabilitation in Carnegie Hall, he went straight to Broadway and never looked back.

Weill’s violin concerto, written in his early 20s as a student of Ferruccio Busoni, is imbued with his teacher’s ultra-seriousness, and with a wind ensemble that echoes Stravinsky’s style at the time. If you heard it alongside Alban Berg’s concerto, written in 1935, you would wonder which is the more advanced. There’s some really kooky stuff going on between the triangle and the xylophone. Tamás Kocsis is the excellent violin soloist.

At a time when orchestras are more confused than ever about what to play, these two works need to be thrust forcefully to the top of the pile. Weill was a brilliant, calculating composer whose music never outlasts its welcome or overheats — the best possible reason to hear it in August.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Isabella Leonarda: A Fresh Voice From The 17th Century

Isabella Leonarda

Isabella Leonarda: A Portrait of Isabella Leonarda (Brilliant Classics)

★★★★☆

🎧  Amazon |

In the inexhaustible search for women in history, Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) has emerged from the mists of Novara as the most prolific composer of the 17th century. Overshadowed by the likes of Allegri, Albinoni and Corelli, Leonarda was an Ursuline nun who dedicated each of her works to the Virgin Mary — as well as to some rich man or other who paid to have them printed. She entered the convent at age 16, and remained there until she died at 83, leaving more than 200 performable scores, mostly vocal and choral. The last, for voice and violin, appeared when she was 80.

Do not be deceived, however, by outward appearances. Leonarda was no cloistered sister or shrinking violet. As a member of a teaching order, she got out and about all over northern Italy and had family connections with some of the wealthiest houses. This may help explain her freedom to compose at a time when the church kept cracking down on innovation, and on women. Even so, there are three barren decades in the middle of her life that remain unplumbed. In her convent career she rose to become Consigliera and was clearly a force of nature.

These recordings by Candace Smith’s Capella Artemisia are not claimed to be world premieres, but they are certainly the first works of Isabella Leonarda that I have ever come across, and I am very glad to have done so.

In amidst all the glorias and salves and glorias and dixits one hears the unmistakable sound of a creative musician having a frisky amount of fun. Her soprano solos in O flammae could just as well have been love arias in a Monteverdi opera, and her violin solos are well up to Corelli’s, and he was the tops of his time.

All of Leonarda’s vocal quartets are written for mixed male and female voices, which make one wonder what went on after dark at the convent in San Orsolo of Navarra. Be that as it may, Isabella Leonard demands attention from every serious music lover. She is fresh, sometimes original and challenging. Remarkable that a budget label like Brilliant should be the first to see her light.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Nico Muhly’s ‘Stranger’ Creates A Fusion Entirely His Own

Nico Muhly (Photo: Heidi Solander)
Nico Muhly (Photo: Heidi Solander)

Nico Muhly: Stranger (AVIE)

★★★☆☆

🎧  SpotifyApple Music

COVID has been cruel to rising composers. Two years out, with theatres shut and managements unwilling to commit to new work, is equivalent to having to start all over again. Many, lacking the fight, have fallen by the wayside.

Nico Muhly, now 40, had his first opera, Two Boys, staged at English National Opera and the Met a decade ago. It was the first opera to engage with social media, taking place both on stage and on phone screens. Its successor Marnie, based on the Alfred Hitchcock film, was a something of a narrative regression, but the Met streamed it for free through COVID to keep the work alive, and Muhly has continued to produce. His métier embraces post-Britten Anglican hymnody and post-Philip Glass movie-like minimalism. Fusion it may be, but it is entirely his own.

From Stranger, third movement, with tenor Nicholas Phan:

This new album of three works for tenor and small ensemble is where Muhly feels most at home — telling stories in clearly articulated English with a strong rhythmic propulsion and a distinct social agenda. The title track harnesses formative cultures of American immigration. Lorne Ys My Likinge reimagines a 19th century Chester Mystery Play. Impossible Things is a cycle of Cavafy poems.

All three works inhabit a stylistic limbo, waiting for the next big thing to happen. Muhly offers quiet empathy more than overwhelming emotion, which may be just right for this interim moment. The Chinese-American tenor Nicholas Phan claims to find more self-identity in this music than in any other. Brooklyn Rider are the backing group. I’m left eager to know what Nico Muhly will do next.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | A Magnificent, Committed Performance Draws Out The Spirit Of Messiaen’s Score

Images of Olivier Messiaen courtesy of the National Archives of the Netherlands (public domain)
Images of Olivier Messiaen courtesy of the National Archives of the Netherlands (public domain)

Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (OUR)

★★★★☆

🎧  Spotify | Amazon | Apple Music

Neither the title of the work nor the circumstances of its creation offer much by way of levity. Messiaen was 31, a soldier in uniform, when France collapsed in May 1940 and he became a prisoner of war. The Germans sent him to a camp in Poland. The diet was ersatz coffee for breakfast, a slice of black bread with soup for lunch and nothing in the evening.

Messiaen, ordered to strip naked on arrival, clung to his satchel of pocket scores — works by Berg, Debussy, Stravinsky and Bach. All feed ideas into the quartet he writes for available instruments in the camp: piano, clarinet, violin and cello. ‘The clarinet is a blackbird,’ says Messiaen, ever the ornithologist. He also sees angels descend from Heaven.

The quartet, eight movements and three-quarters of an hour long, receives its first performance in a freezing barracks on January 15, 1941, with Messiaen at the piano. “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,” he wrote.

The first two movements are appropriately sombre, but the third, dominated by the mocking blackbird, releases the bonds of morbidity. The middle movements are increasingly frisky, rich in quotations from across the classical spectrum. Fantasies of freedom permit liberties of fun. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, reverts to solemnity, but not before he has released great beauty. Every smile in this work is worth a million.

Four Copenhagen musicians — Christina Astrand, Johnny Tessier, Henrik Dam Thomsen and Per Salo — made this recording in the middle of the first COVID summer. Their experience of lockdown and their relief in making music together reflect Messiaen’s own confinement. This is a magnificent performance, committed from first to last, a more convincing and optimistic account of the quartet than you will hear on record from many more famous soloists.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | The Nash Ensemble Prove Ferdinand Ries Is More Than A Forgettable Curiosity

Ferdinand Ries by the artist Carl Mayer, before 1830 (Public domain)
Ferdinand Ries by the artist Carl Mayer, before 1830 (Public domain)

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Trio & Sextets (Hyperion)

★★★★★

🎧  Presto 

While writing a book about Beethoven (to be published next year), I recoiled from many of the pupils, acolytes, secretaries, amanuenses, self-seeking musicians and all sorts of hangers-on who lived off their connection with the great man and published reminiscences of him, many of them invented. A singular exception was Ferdinand Ries, a young man from Beethoven’s home town who grew up in the Bonn court orchestra and shared some of the same teachers. Ries, so far as I can tell, never made up stories about Beethoven or made him out to be anything other than he was — a towering genius with a terrible temper.

Beethoven once ordered Ries to write a cadenza for a piano concerto, then tore it up a few moments before his pupil was due to play it in concert. Being Beethoven’s assistant was a thankless task. Ries stuck it out until 1805 when the French army reached Vienna. He went back to Bonn and wound up eventually in London, where he helped found the Philharmonic Society. He was a tireless composer of ephemeral works. If these sextets are anything to go by, he was a composer of limited originality with an occasional capacity to delight.

The grand sextet of 1817 starts out as a paraphrase on a Beethoven piano concerto before breaking into a positively delirious set of piano variations on the Irish ballad, The last rose of summer. There are affinities here with Beethoven’s settings of British folk songs, but Ries’s invention is freer than Beethoven’s, and less formulaic, an altogether unalloyed pleasure.

The second sextet, in G minor, is more sombre and a degree weightier, though Ries does not deliver much profundity; the best he manages is a clarinet doodle in homage to Mozart’s late concerto. The trio is frankly imitative of Beethoven, who came to resent Ries’s near-plagiarism. Ries retired to Frankfurt in 1824 but carried on composing until 1838, leaving seven symphonies, nine concertos and three operas. Not a major composer, perhaps, but certainly more than a forgettable curiosity.

These performances clearly brought much pleasure to members of the Nash Ensemble, among them violinist Stephanie Gonley, violist Lawrence Power, clarinettist Richard Hosford and cellist Adrian Brendel. The two pianists — Benjamin Frith and Simon Crawford-Phillips — lead the line with an enthusiasm verging on recklessness. It makes you wonder if this is the kind of joy that music awoke in the informal 1820s gatherings of London’s Philharmonic Society.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Have Ralph Vaughan Williams, Will Travel

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 7 & 9 (Hallé) with Sir Mark Elder
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 7 & 9 (Hallé) with Sir Mark Elder. (Photo: Bill Lam, The Hallé)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 7 & 9 (Hallé)

★★★★☆/★★★★★

🎧  Spotify |  Apple Music

Oenologists tell me there is no obvious reason why some fine wines travel, and others don’t. It’s the same with symphonic composers. Carl Nielsen will never catch on beyond the Baltic Sea, Bohuslav Martinu beyond Czechia and Ralph Vaughan Williams beyond Anglophiles. The 150th anniversary of his birth is being marked in his home country and practically nowhere else. Ask not the reason why: there is none.

VW is, by any known measure, an outstandingly accomplished writer for symphony orchestra. Despite passing similarities to Sibelius and Ravel, his voice is unmistakably his own and his urgency can, if you succumb to his idiom, prove irresistible. The third and fifth symphonies are powerful commentaries on war and peace by a man who saw the carnage and kept his principles intact. He was a pacifist who fought evil, an atheist who composed church liturgy and a humanitarian who put compassion above all other concerns. It is fair to say that, in Britain, he attracts more affection than any native composer except Elgar.

His weakness, critics point out, is that he can bang on a bit when he gets going. These two late symphonies betray something of that tendency. The seventh was contrived from a soundtrack he wrote for the 1948 film, Scott of the Antarctic. It contains wonderfully atmospheric stretches of Arctic tundra and glorious choral waves but I have never been gripped by its inependent narrative and Sir Mark Elder’s performance with the Hallé Orchestra, sumptuously well played, does not dispel all my doubts.

The ninth is another matter. In the catalogue of composer’s last words, this 1957 epic ranks very high for invention and immersion. Flicking in hints of English folk song and prayer, VW asks us to reflect on life’s pleasures and their ephemerality. The Hallé brass and winds have not sounded this confident since the glory days of John Barbirolli and the tranquility of the closing andante is a perfect end to a summer’s day. Once heard, you’ll want it often beside your player.

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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Erwin Schulhoff’s Violin Sonatas Showcased On Two New Releases

Erwin Schulhoff

Violin Unlimited: Schulhoff, Hindemith, Philipp Jarnach & Eduard Erdmann: Solo Violin Sonatas (Orfeo)

★★★★☆

🎧  Spotify | Amazon | Apple Music

Eighty years after his cruel death in a Nazi camp, the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff is having something of a revival this month, with an opera staged in Prague and two sonatas coming out on record.

Coming of age in the Roaring Twenties, Schulhoff soaked up every fleeting trend — jazz, serialism, ragtime, nightclubs — without losing touch with his core purpose. An embrace of Communism cost him supporters in Prague and, when the Germans marched in, landed him in a camp, where he died of tuberculosis, aged 48.

A sonata for solo violin, written in 1927 and numbered opus 13, is a dose of seriousness against the frivolity of the times, in a form that recalls Johann Sebastian Bach and, ever so faintly, Bela Bartok. It’s a terrific piece of trans-epochal dialogue, with a degree of difficulty that requires exceptional virtuosity and concentration.

The way it is played by the Latvian Baiba Skride puts it way up among my Twenties favourites, somewhere between Wozzeck, Showboat and Jonny Spielt Auf. No compromises here from composer or performer. It’s a class act in glorious sound. Skride fills out the rest of her album with contemporary solo sonatas by Hindemith, Jarnach and Erdmann.

Schulhoff — Violin Sonata No. 2: I. Allegro impetuoso

Violin Odyssey: Dora Pejačević: Slavonic Sonata; Erwin Schulhoff: Second Sonata for Violin and Piano (FHR)

★★★☆☆

🎧  Spotify | Amazon | Apple Music

The Israeli soloist Itamar Zorman plays a violin-piano sonata by Schulhoff from the same year, 1927. It’s breezier and jazzier than the solo sonata, and Zorman sounds a little too keen to give us a good time. He is not helped in his endeavour by a Lithuanian pianist, who does not seem to be altogether on the same page.

But, the sonata is well worth hearing, with a slow movement that reaches deep into the emotions and dark into concurrent social undercurrents. Zorman’s imaginative fillers include a 1917 sonata by the Croatian Dora Pejacevic, Heifetz cuts from a suite by Joseph Achron and a moody snooze by William Grant Still. Go for it.

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