Visitors to this planet might think we were obsessed with them. They appear everywhere in repeated patterns across cityscapes, on buildings, on everything from to sticky buns to boxes of plasters.
So how did it begin, this variable shape? Did an early human draw a line in the dirt, then another one add a new line that intersected it? Did they then fight? Was this the beginning of a map, or a war? Were two rough pieces of wood lashed together with twine to create a weapon, or a shelter?
When it received its UK premiere at the Barbican in London a year ago, John Adams's "passion oratorio" came across as one of the most striking of his recent works. Like the earlier nativity oratorio El Niño, to which it's a companion piece, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is intended for both the concert hall and the opera house the Barbican performance was staged by Peter Sellars, who also compiled the libretto, which presents the passion story from the point of view of Mary Magdalene and her sister and brother, in the process drawing parallels with political and social movements today. The recording is taken from performances in Los Angeles last year, with the same forces, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, that brought the work to Europe; without any visual distractions, the strengths of the score emerge powerfully. With a trio of countertenors delivering the narrative like evangelists, and a scattering of solo arias and choruses, the parallels with Bach's passions are clear, but as in El Niño, Adams has created his own synthesis. Both works are unlike anything else in the choral repertoire.
After losing his right arm in the first world war, the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (elder brother of the philosopher) continued his career with one hand, commissioning a wide range of composers to write pieces and make arrangements for him. Easily the best known of those works is Ravel's D major Concerto, but Prokofiev, Hindemith, Britten and Richard Strauss also composed works for left hand alone, even though Wittgenstein's musical tastes were distinctly conservative and he didn't perform all of the pieces he commissioned. Franz Schmidt clearly did meet with his approval: in the late 20s and early 30s, Schmidt produced no less than six pieces for Wittgenstein chamber music as well as well as works with orchestra. Three are included on these discs: the Concerto in E flat, the Concertante Variations on a Theme by Beethoven and the G major Quintet for piano left-hand and strings; the set also includes Schmidt's orchestral transcription of his own organ Chaconne. All are substantial works the concerto lasts 45 minutes, the quintet nearly 40 couched in the rather dark, dogged late romanticism of better-known pieces such as the Fourth Symphony and The Book of the Seven Seals. The performances are serviceable rather than exceptional; it's really only a set for Schmidt enthusiasts.
With a Nielsen cycle apparently in the pipeline, John Storgårds's first recording projects as the BBC Philharmonic's chief guest conductor are obviously intended to lay down his credentials as an interpreter of the Nordic repertoire. Starting with the Sibelius symphonies, though, brings him up against formidable competition, and this new cycle is no match for several already available on disc or download, often at bargain prices. Isolated passages in Storgårds's accounts are very impressive he manages the evolution of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony as convincingly as anyone and the BBC Philharmonic's playing is always very fine, but often there's little sense of the unswerving logic these works should project. Everything seems to be hurried along just a bit too much instead of being allowed to unfold at its own pace, so moments that should seem inevitable, such as the arrival of the big tune in the finale of the Third, or of the majestic "swan" theme in the last movement of the Fifth, never bring the sense of closure they should.
Federico Colli narrowly won the 2012 Leeds Piano Competition. The flamboyance that gave him the edge in that final comes across vividly in his first recital disc, in a programme that seems to have been planned more for the impression it will make than for any musical coherence and sense. There's certainly real dash about Colli's playing; his technique is impressive and he's obviously good at the big gestures, so that the clinching moments in Pictures at an Exhibition the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, the Marketplace at Limoges and especially the final Great Gate of Kiev come off well. But there are also little stresses and hesitations in passages that should be presented much more straightforwardly which make the performance seem self-conscious and contrived. That's even more obvious in Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, where the first climax is pushed almost to the point of parody, and Colli's account never really settles down or hangs together. In Scriabin's Tenth Sonata the effect is piecemeal, too, without the sense of obsessive accumulation the music needs.
For a time in the 1960s and 70s, the mezzo-soprano Anna Reynolds, who has died aged 82, was constantly in demand in opera house and concert hall. Her repertoire ranged wide, from Bach to modern works, but her greatest achievement was probably singing Wagner parts at the Bayreuth festival (1970-75), where she undertook Fricka and Waltraute in The Ring and Magdalene in Die Meistersinger. She also took part in Herbert von Karajan's cycle at Salzburg and the Metropolitan, New York.
Born Ann Reynolds in Canterbury, she went to Benenden school in Kent and then to the Royal Academy of Music in London, initially as a pianist. After her talent as a singer was recognised, she studied in Rome, and made her stage debut at Parma in 1960 as Suzuki in Puccini's Madama Butterfly.
Although Handel's Messiah has become synonymous with charity, it's the music that really matters
How Handel's Messiah helped London's orphans and vice versa
Handels masterpiece, Messiah, is one of the incontrovertible masterpieces of the Western canon, a work whose place in the musical life of the nation looks, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been assured since its first performance in 1742. After all, its the most single performed piece of classical music, year-on-year, sung, played, and heard by more people in the world than any other; and is there any other artwork that has earned more money for charity than Messiah over the last 300 years? I cant think of one.
And yet, as the film that Amanda Vickery and I present on BBC2 on Saturday sets out to show, Messiahs success was the opposite of a dead-cert. In fact, Messiah was a shot in the dark for the composer, for his performers, and his listeners. Messiah is an aberration in the context of Handels previous oratorios, because its drama is an abstract spiritual progress rather than a blood-and-thunder Old Testament story. Handel didnt know whether the piece was a flop or a hit until he first heard it, at the Music Hall in Fishamble Street in Dublin on 13 April 1742. Handel seemed to be vindicated: that first audience was bowled over, stunned by the musics emotional directness and numinous power.
Over the past four decades, the Arditti Quartet have collaborated with almost all the great composers of our time, many of whom, from Elliott Carter to Karlheinz Stockhausen, Giacinto Scelsi to Harrison Birtwistle, have written pieces specifically for the group. But none of the Ardittis' associations have been as long-lasting and productive as that with Brian Ferneyhough. Since they gave the first performance of his Second String Quartet in 1980, Ferneyhough has composed another four full-scale quartets (one of them, the Fourth, involving a soprano setting of a deconstructed Ezra Pound poem) and three smaller works, all for them. Alongside Carter's five quartets, these works are arguably the most important contributions to the quartet repertoire since Bartók, and a complete recording of them is the best possible way for the Arditti to mark their 40th anniversary this year.
There are times, in fact, when the Ardittis' whole style of playing contemporary music seems to have been conditioned by their approach to Ferneyhough's bewilderingly intricate writing, and the negotiations it demands between what the composer specifies with his minutely precise scores and what is humanly possible. The performances on these three discs are wonderfully authoritative. They also include Ferneyhough's first exploration of the quartet medium in the huge Sonatas for String Quartet of 1967, as well as Dum Transisset I-IV, one part of a much larger set of chamber pieces based on music for viol consort by the Tudor composer Christopher Tye, and Exordium, written for Carter's 100th birthday in 2008.
As a writer, the American musicologist Joseph Kerman, who has died aged 89, brought the highest standards of scholarly rigour and precision to his chosen musical specialisms. He was also a teacher at American and British universities for more than 40 years. But the fact that he was probably the only music academic regularly included in dictionaries of quotations for his description of Puccini's Tosca as a "shabby little shocker" points to Kerman's other role, as a remarkable critic and proselytiser.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Kerman was convinced that thinking and writing about music was too important to be left to academics. For him, writing about music was a humane discipline along the lines of literary criticism, and he deplored the tendency he noted towards arcane jargon and "scientism" in musicology. Producing convoluted explanations of musical mechanisms with the aid of sophisticated analytical tools he felt was a waste of time: what counted was finding a deeper understanding of the values and meanings in the music itself.
John Shirley-Quirk recorded some superb English music on the wonderfully cheap Saga label in the 1960s (as did Janet Baker). He was accompanied by Martin Isepp at the piano. The recording of George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad was particularly memorable. I played that piece of vinyl to death. Please, will some enterprising company re-release it?
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