Presto News - 16th February 2015
Schnittke from Vladimir Jurowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Something slightly more unusual this week, as Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in a new recording of Symphony No. 3 by the twentieth-century Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke. The piece was commissioned for the ceremonial opening of the new Gewandhaus in Leipzig, and was premiered there in November 1981. Presumably as a response to the esteemed history of the venue (the Gewandhausorchester can claim Felix Mendelssohn amongst its previous music directors), Schnittke took the opportunity to present a kind of tribute to German music past and present, as viewed through a Soviet lens.
As such, the piece apparently contains musical references to the names of twenty-two German composers, from Schütz and Bach to Henze and Stockhausen, using letters from their names as musical notes. As an extension of this, the beginning of the piece seems to evoke the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold: it’s a murky and lugubrious start, where the whole feeling is of a primordial slime out of which notes gradually emerge. One by one the strings take up the same melodic figure in canon, starting with the bottom double bass and working up through the entire section to end with the leader of the orchestra. It’s an extraordinary effect, and something that Schnittke has employed in other pieces of his, for example, the first Concerto Grosso, where in one movement all twelve violins play the same Toccata theme a quaver after one another!
This attempt to present something of a potted history of German music allows Schnittke to employ the compositional technique for which he is perhaps best known, namely polystylism. As its name suggests, this involves throwing together multiple styles into the same piece, with the theory being that if the material of the different sections is strong enough, it doesn't matter if they match, they will go together.
While no doubt musicologists might complain that this means the piece ends up lacking any kind of unifying form, I must admit that in performance it makes for a highly entertaining listen, and that’s certainly the case here. Jurowski and his players are keen to bring out every weird, wonderful and wacky shift: huge great thundering outbursts from the brass section sit alongside a section for solo piano that is a pastiche of a Mozart sonata. Similarly, the end of the first movement, with its mighty brass chords that evoke both Messiaen’s Turangalîla and something out of a Jerry Goldsmith film score, moves straight into the second movement which, had I heard it “blind”, would have had me convinced it was from a long-lost Shostakovich symphony!
The orchestra for this is absolutely huge (the booklet note claims one hundred and eleven musicians for this recording): as well as the usual orchestral suspects (including quadruple woodwind and a string section of sixty-six players), the piece also calls for two harps, piano, harpsichord, celeste, organ, electric guitar, and bass guitar! While often just adding a bit of spice to the bass line in places, the sound of the guitar is put to striking use at the start of the third movement, where the particular intervals used conjure up a kind of twisted, ghoulish version of the opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra.
It’s the willingness to embrace this eclectic mix that for me is the success of this recording; although frequently baffled and staggered at the constant shifts from one idea to the next, I was completely sold on the piece by the commitment and virtuoso performance of the musicians. Great fun indeed, and well worth a listen!
Schnittke: Symphony No. 3
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Vladimir Jurowski
Presto Interview – A Road Trip with the Aurora Orchestra
Mostly focused on programming bold and unusual concerts, the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon have made a small number of recordings in recent years, featuring contemporary composers such as Nico Muhly and Paul Mealor. Only now, however, have they been coaxed into committing one of their concert programmes - almost reminiscent of a concept album, with the unifying theme of taking a journey into and across America - to disc, for Warner Classics.
David talks to Nicholas Collon, who in addition to conducting is also the orchestra's Artistic Director, about this innovative new approach to recording a classical album.
You can read the full interview here.
Presto CD – Westminster
Chris introduces some more Presto CDs, this time from the vintage Westminster label which produced a wealth of brilliant recordings during the 1950s and '60s - featuring early performances from Daniel Barenboim and Julian Bream, among others, as well as conductors including Adrian Boult and Pierre Monteux.
2015 Grammy Awards
The Grammy Awards may not be solely, or even primarily, focused on classical music, but there are several classical categories that are always fiercely contested. We've put together a page featuring all this year's nominees and winners, including Sir Simon Rattle's glorious Schumann symphony cycle and Hilary Hahn's intriguing series of twenty-seven specially-commissioned encore-style miniatures.
You can browse through the full list of winners here.
Obituary – John McCabe (1939-2015)
We were sorry to hear, late on Friday, of the death of English composer John McCabe, an eclectic writer whose music shows not only the influence of his own considerable gifts at the piano but also traces of non-classical styles - rock, jazz and others.
Although he could and did turn his hand to almost any genre, it is his large-scale orchestral works that form the bulk of his legacy - numerous concertos and concertante works including four for the piano alone, and seven symphonies - complemented by seven string quartets and a large volume of solo piano works.
James Longstaffe - firstname.lastname@example.org
16th February 2015
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bare Mountain, Songs and Dances of Death
Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass), Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra perform Pictures at an Exhibition and Mussorgsky's original version of Night on a Bare Mountain, alongside the Songs and Dances of Death, each song of which deals with experiences of death not uncommon in 19th century Russia: child death, death in youth, drunken misadventure and war.
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 7
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has enjoyed one of the greatest Bruckner symphonic traditions in the world. With this release of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, Mariss Jansons adds a new chapter to the RCO’s impressive performance and recording history of Bruckner’s works.
Spirit of the American Range
The Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar
A celebration of one of the musical giants of the 20th century, Aaron Copland, joined with the works of his colleague, Walter Piston, and the self-proclaimed bad boy of music, George Antheil. Featuring Copland’s Symphony No.3, Antheil’s Jazz Symphony and Piston’s Suite from The Incredible Flutist, this release pays homage to the distinctive characterisation of American themes in a passionate, modern style.
Albrecht Mayer: Lost and Found
Albrecht Mayer (oboe), Kammerakademie Potsdam
Albrecht Mayer’s new album of rare oboe concertos from the 18th century which he discovered in archives in Thuringia and Saxony, breathing new life into these long-lost jewels of German high classicism. The four concertos are direct predecessors to Mozart, who may even have had a hand in the composition of the work of Kozeluch.
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4
Jonathan Biss (piano)
This is the fourth volume in Jonathan Biss's nine-year, nine-disc recording project of the entire Beethoven sonata cycle. Included here are Op. 2, no. 1 (the first Beethoven piano sonata); Op. 10, no. 2; Op. 49, no. 1, and Op. 57, the Appassionata.
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists
Inspired by the legacy of great Mozartian conductors of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra such as Charles Mackerras, the wind soloists make a fine contribution to the SCO’s distinguished discography. This recording includes four of the five Tafelmusik sextets for pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons, together with the Serenade in E flat major.
Christopher Hogwood: The Bach Recordings
The Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood
A 20-CD collection of Bach recordings by the late Christopher Hogwood, including not only music by Johann Sebastian (the complete Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, and several concertos and keyboard works), but also music by his children Johann Christian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann.
The Orchestra: Claudio Abbado and the musicians of Orchestra Mozart
Orchestra Mozart was founded in Bologna ten years ago by Claudio Abbado. This documentary film by Helmut Failoni and Francesco Merini follows the orchestra's European tour in 2012-2013, and offers an unique look at Abbado's work. The film narrates the public and private life of a group of musicians, and includes a long and unreleased interview with Abbado, and concerts and rehearsals shot in Bologna, Lucerne, Vienna, Madrid and Palermo.
Blu-ray version also available here.
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