Category Archives: Reviews

Anticipation: Igor Levit’s new CD

First off, I can’t believe that I haven’t posted anything here since May. Perhaps I need to add stuff here rather than use emails.

Anyway, I have a definite reason for adding this post, because of the increasing excitement behind the release next month of Igor Levit’s new CD. Well, actually, it’s 3 CDs, each to contain a major work from the Variations repertory. In an inspired move, this brilliant young pianist has decided to couple the Goldberg, Diabelli and ‘People United’ Variations.

Igor Levit

‘People United?’, you ask. Yes, Frederic Rzewski’s monster work The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is well worthy of appearing in the same company as Bach and Beethoven. I’ve written about it here before (can it really be over five years ago?), and make no apologies for doing so again. In fact, I’ve recently added a sixth recording to my collection, and will soon add Igor Levit’s new recording as my seventh.

Just as with Rzewski, I’ve also mentioned Igor Levit before, though not here. I was blown away by his first recording (of late Beethoven piano sonatas) and raved about it either by email or at one of our sessions. I remember that Peadar was disappointed when he followed my advice and bought that CD, but I remain a firm fan (hint: you may see why when next I take a presentation slot), and would dearly love to hear him in the flesh.

My fandom is reinforced by an interview which he gave to Qobuz, one of my favourite download sites, during the making of the new release. He comes across as a lovely guy, full of youthful enthusiasm, as I hope you’ll agree when you see the interview.

Rave review for Gerald Barry’s latest opera

It’s a long time since I’ve read such an enthusiastic review, and what’s even more surprising is that it should be of an opera by Gerald Barry. And it isn’t just any old opera: this was the world premiere of The Importance of being Earnest, no less, a concert performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Thomas Adès conducting. The full review is here, and it’s well worth a read.

A Concert to watch out for

Daniel Barenboim in action

By pure chance while we were in Berlin, I caught the tail-end of the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2010 Europa Concert, which came from the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. All I got to see was the final ten minutes or so of the concluding item in the concert, which was Brahms’s First Symphony. The performance was exceptional, an experience to treasure for anyone lucky enough to have been there, and these ten minutes were enough to convince me to watch out for the DVD and to buy it when it becomes available. I would urge everyone else to do the same, or at the very least to check TV schedules for the eventual broadcast on BBC.

In the mean time may I refer you to a glowing review by Tom Service in The Guardian. The review refers to one highly unusual aspect of the occasion, which was that the physical dimensions and layout of the venue required the orchestra to be positioned on the floor of the hall rather than on a platform. The effect must have been astonishing for the audience.

Ebène Quartet video

When the Quatuor Ebène was signed to Virgin Classics in early 2008. Alain Lanceron, the label’s President, said: “The Quatuor Ebène is the embodiment of the modern string quartet. The extraordinary way its members craft their sonority, their re-examination of quartet masterpieces, their readiness to engage with music beyond the traditional repertoire, their innovative and creative approach: all these factors have led us to invite them to add their lustre to Virgin Classics’ roster of artists. We welcome them with enthusiasm – the same kind of enthusiasm they bring to everything they do.”

Formed in France in 1999, the Quatuor Ebène took its name from ebony, the precious and exotic wood used in instrument-making. The award-winning ensemble has since achieved an enviable international reputation for refined, dynamic musicianship, minutely responsive teamwork, an adventurous spirit and even a taste for improvisation. The Quartet’s repertoire ranges from Haydn and Mozart, cornerstones of the Classical repertoire, through the 19th and 20th centuries to contemporary composers and jazz.

The Quatuor Ebène’s debut recording on Virgin Classics brings together the string quartets of the three emblematic French composers of the late 19th and early 20tb centuries: Fauré, Debussy and Ravel. The Debussy and Ravel quartets represent a traditional pairing in the catalogue, but they have rarely been coupled with the Fauré, his final work, composed in his late seventies. As it happens, Ravel dedicated his own quartet to Fauré, who was his teacher.

Gramophone Magazine Editor’s Choice December 2008
BBC Radio 3 ‘Building a Library’: 1st Choice, March 2009
BBC Music Magazine Awards 2009: Newcomer of the Year

The reviews, the general critical acclaim, the awards — all of that immediately attracted me to this recording of string quartets by Ravel, Debussy and Fauré. Watching this 16-minute video was the final icing on the cake which made me do what’s now a very rare thing and order a physical CD. It’s coming from Presto Classical, which is where the blurb and the video come from. I’m looking forward to its arrival.

‘Why so serious?’

The modern classical-music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format. Most people are aware that this clockwork routine—reassuringly dependable or drearily predictable, depending on whom you ask—is of recent origin, and that before 1900 concerts assumed a quite different form. It’s always a shock, though, to confront the difference in all its particulars. Two new books, Kenneth Hamilton’s “After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance” and William Weber’s “The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms”, explore how and why the classical ritual has changed.

This is from the beginning of an article in The New Yorker magazine by Alex Ross. This is much more than a mere review of a couple of books, since AR expands his comments into a well-considered essay which makes excellent, and amusing, reading. Here’s another quote to whet appetites and hopefully encourage a full reading:

Piano recitals were, by modern standards, completely nuts. Hamilton, in his deft, sympathetic account of the old-school virtuosos and their gaudy habits, devotes several amusing pages to the antics of the great Franz Liszt, who was the first pianist to break from the miscellany format and give concerts on his own, although the ensuing spectacle resembled “The Ed Sullivan Show” more than the hushed recital of today. In one favorite routine, Liszt brought onstage a large urn into which his listeners had dropped slips of paper, each one inscribed with a suggestion for a tune on which he might improvise. He then drew out the messages one by one, taking delight in those which wandered off topic. Hamilton writes, “On turning out the urn in a concert on March 15, 1838 in Milan, Liszt found a piece of paper with the question ‘Is it better to marry or remain single?’—to which he slickly replied, ‘Whatever course one chooses, one is sure to regret it.’ Written on another scrap he found the words ‘the railroad’—which he illustrated on the keyboard with a swath of glissandi.”

The audience sometimes participated without any prompting from the stage. Once, when Liszt was beginning a performance of the “Kreutzer” Sonata with the violinist Lambert Massart, listeners began calling out “Robert le Diable!”—meaning that they wished to hear instead Liszt’s fantasy on themes from the Meyerbeer opera. Liszt acceded to the demand and launched into his “Robert” fantasy. Imagine what would happen today if, just as Maurizio Pollini was playing the first of Chopin’s Études, concertgoers were to shout, “ ‘Claire de Lune’! ‘Claire de Lune’!”



My favourite German word is “Sternstunde”. It literally translates as “hour of the stars”, although it’s more idiomatically anglicised as something like “moment of glory”. In classical terms, it means a concert that reaches celestial heights of brilliance and revelation. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to hear one of these cosmically powerful performances, but you know one when you’ve heard it; transcending even the mundanity of a mere five stars to become something that indelibly prints itself on your memory and seems, when you’re in the hall, that your perception of the world has subtly changed.

Here in Lucerne in Switzerland, I’ve just been lucky enough to experience my latest Sternstunde: Claudio Abbado’s concert of Debussy’s Nocturnes, Ravel’s Shéhérazade, and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, conducting his hand-picked all-star ensemble, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

This is the start of a wildly enthusiastic review by Tom Service in The Guardian. Well worth a read. There’s a link included to a list of DVDs of Mahler performances by these forces.

A mountain of music

Oslo Opera interior

Guardian Art & Architecture
The sloping marble roof of the Oslo opera house may be perfect for snowboarding. But, for Jonathan Glancey, the warm heart of this stunning building is just as thrilling. The Guardian. Monday April 21, 2008.

Follow the link for a fascinating description of the building and its relationship with the city. I note, incidentally, that ‘it was completed five months ahead of time and on budget’. If only that could happen here!

Rave review for new Bruckner 7

CD of the week
Bruckner: 7th Symphony
Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (ATMA Classique) ****

This is the finest Bruckner I have heard from a young conductor since Franz Welser-Möst started shaving. The Canadian in charge is 31 years old and has just been appointed to succeed Valery Gergiev in Rotterdam. He shapes the gigantic Adagio at the heart of this work, a tribute to the dying Wagner, with austere and respectful restraint. The performance as a whole is marked by a fastidious refusal to emote and a structural certainty that seems uncanny in a maestro of such little experience. Within the massive score, he teases out decorative details from the woodwinds and lower strings, cleaning up the old warhorse as if it were about to run at Ascot. The opening of the finale is positively frisky and the playing of Montreal’s second orchestra is flawless, world-class. Nézet-Séguin is unquestionably the talent to watch. He makes his London debut at the South Bank on March 9; miss it if you dare.

This is from the pen of Norman Lebrecht, writing in La Scena Musicale. It comes at the end of an article bemoaning the recent ridiculous decision of the BBC Trust to prohibit further free downloads of classical music.

Top rating for another Kalliwoda recording

This time it’s String Quartets, recorded by the Tallich Quartet on Calliope, in the reviewer’s spotlight. Reviews such as this (replete with more than its fair share of words such as ‘delicious’, ‘fascinating’ and ‘really beautiful’) make you wonder, firstly, why this composer and his music were neglected for so long, and, secondly, what began this extraordinary resurgence of interest in his output. Our experience of the 5th Symphony at the session back in August was revelatory, and this extraordinary succession of wildly enthusiastic reviews is so intriguing that I for one will certainly hunt down these recordings and add them to my collection. Isn’t it amazing? Despite years and years of exposure to music, there’s still more out there to discover and savour.