There are few performers better-versed in the music of Claudio Monteverdi than Rinaldo Alessandrini and the ensemble he founded 30 years ago, Concerto Italiano. In 2007 they brought a five-part madrigals series to Edinburgh; this year their visit was all-too-brief a single concert done and dusted in less than an hour. I could have happily sat through several times that.
The great appeal of Concerto Italiano's playing (and singing, though in this instance their instrumentalists outshone their vocalists) is how natural and unmannered it sounds. Take Alessandrini's harpsichord playing: his touch is simple, clean, spacious, full of buoyancy. He revels in Monteverdi's outlandish harmonies with a terrific sense of pacing and flux, but he limits extravagant ornamentation, which is no bad thing.
Iceland Symphony Orchestra make their Proms debut tonight, in a concert called Classical Tectonics
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra makes its debut at the Proms on Friday night; a concert called Classical Tectonics in homage to the thrillingly adventurous, all-contemporary Tectonics festivals that their chief conductor Ilan Volkov puts on with them every year, and which he has also brought to Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
At the Proms, Volkov masterminded the magnificently chaotic, cactus-enhanced concert for John Cages centenary a couple of years ago, and last year, gave another brilliant showcase of new music from Fredric Rzewski to Morton Feldman. All of which makes this years Iceland programme look, on the face of it, much more conservative, with Schumanns Piano Concerto (the soloist is Jonathan Biss, who made his Proms debut last Friday with a scintillating performance of Bernard Rands Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, and is now making a habit of Friday nights at the Royal Albert Hall) and Beethovens Fifth Symphony. But Volkov brings a similar imagination to the core classical repertoire too, which ought to make the Fifth Symphony an unusually seismic experience.
Classical to ragtime, blues to pop, its time to tinkle the ivories, press the pedals and lift the lid on those string-hitting hammers
The piano aint got no wrong notes, said the free-flowing, flawless Thelonius Monk. Marvin Gaye, however, stared at the 88 keys and was looking for more: These cant be the only notes in the world. Theres got to be others some place, in some dimension, between the cracks on the piano keys. Perhaps thats where his own combinations of notes came in. The pianoforte, whether honky tonk upright or elegant 12ft Steinway, has always offered music on a grand scale, a place to express a full range of emotions. And among the greatest, Frédéric Chopin, in his darkest moments, declared that sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano. What virtuoso despair that must have been to witness.
Such deep emotions, however, can be reproduced or reinterpreted by others. Here they are reflected in Roman Polanksis Oscar-winning film, The Pianist, based on the autobiography of Polish Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Arnold Cooke was part of the same generation of British composers as Michael Tippett and Constant Lambert. Born in 1906, he studied with Hindemith in interwar Berlin, and his music retained his teacher's neoclassical sense of purposeful craftsmanship right up to his death in 2005. Cooke composed two operas, six symphonies and five string quartets, as well as a huge amount of what Hindemith would have called gebrauchmusik, or "utility music" sonatas, sonatinas and other small-scale chamber music for a wide range of instruments, often designed to be within the capabilities of competent amateurs. This selection of three sonatas, recorded under the auspices of the British Music Society, gives a good sense of that side of his output. It spans almost the full extent of his career the earliest, the Viola Sonata was completed in 1937; the latest, the second Cello Sonata, in 1980, while the Violin Sonata No 2 dates from 1951 and what's revealing is how little Cooke's style seems to change over four decades of composing. The violin work is rather bland and uninvolving, the viola and cello sonatas a bit more confrontational; all give the impression of being far more rewarding to play than to listen to.
Busoni disowned most of his early works after he published his artistic manifesto, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, in 1907. But one of the pieces he retained was the Violin Concerto from 1897. It's audibly haunted by the ghosts of Beethoven and Brahms's violin concertos, but at just 23 minutes long, it's far less daunting. It's tuneful and easygoing too, and as Tanja Becker-Bender's performance on the latest instalment of Hyperion's romantic violin concerto series underlines, it's hard to understand why it isn't performed more often. It's paired with an even earlier work by another composer whose later music took a very different direction: the Op 8 Violin Concerto by Richard Strauss, which he completed in 1882, aged just 18. It's flashy, long-winded and rather superficial, and even Becker-Bender's best efforts can't inject much of interest into it; there's little for Garry Walker and the BBC Scottish Symphony to get their teeth into either.
This is a fine but frustrating disc. Admirers of the superb Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst may already have this version of Brahms' Trio for clarinet, cello and piano Op 114, which was released nine years ago along with Fröst's performances of the two Brahms clarinet sonatas. Including it again alongside brand new recordings of the Clarinet Quintet and Fröst's own arrangements for clarinet and piano of six Brahms songs, however musically logical, means that some will feel obliged to duplicate a performance they already know well; so far the quintet doesn't appear to be available as a download either. Those who want high-quality recordings of the quintet and trio, though, won't go far wrong with these; perhaps some ensembles wring a bit more autumnal angst out of the quintet than Fröst and his distinguished quartet of colleagues led by Janine Jansen manage here do here, but the way the clarinet and strings listen to each other and tailor their phrasing accordingly is an object lesson in high-class ensemble playing, while the clarinet-and-piano arrangements of the songs, in which Fröst is partnered by Roland Pöntinen, complement the chamber works nicely.
First performed in Naples in 1752, La Clemenza di Tito is often regarded as the most successful of the 20-odd operas that Gluck composed before the watershed of Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762. It sets the same Metastasio libretto that would provide the basis for Mozart's last stage work 39 years later, though treated in a much more prolix way this recording, taken from concerts in Leverkusen last autumn, contains more than three and a half hours of music; Mozart's Clemenza runs to a little over two hours. And where Mozart was clearly fascinated by the relationship between Sesto and Vitellia in the opera, Gluck's treatment places Tito himself firmly at the centre of the action, though its musical highpoint remains Sesto's elaborate second-act aria, which Gluck later recycled in Iphigénie en Tauride. With Rainer Trost as Tito, Laura Aikin as Vitellia and Raffaella Milanesi as Sesto, this cast is vocally an assured one, and the performance under Werner Ehrhardt is certainly highly energised, perhaps occasionally just a bit too much so.
The achievement that is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra feels unusually precious at present, and Daniel Barenboim and his Middle Eastern ensemble were greeted with unmistakably special warmth to the Albert Hall. In their 15th year, it is the way the orchestra plays that is now so impressive, not merely the fact that it plays at all.
Barenboim's programme was a characteristic statement. The overture to the Marriage of Figaro tipped the hat to universal genius. Two new works, one from an Israeli, the other by a Syrian, underlined the barrier-busting nature of the project. Finally, four Spanish-influenced orchestral works by Ravel paid tribute to the orchestra's annual meeting place in Seville.
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