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19 Jun  

From my teens until my twenties I was an avid collector of CDs. A few of my friends in school were the same. Hardly a week would go by without one of us bringing in a new acquisition, usually from the mainstream classical repertoire. We would pore over every detail of the work and be witheringly critical of performances that failed to use ‘authentic’ performance practices. As my interest in contemporary music grew I later added many twentieth and twenty-first century works to my collection. I have some 300 CDs, neatly laid out on shelves in my living room. I hardly ever touch them.

CDs were consumers’ first experience of purely digital music production. Only those marked with the holy trinity of DDD (digitally recorded, digitally mixed, digitally transferred) were good enough for me. I loved the shine of them, the quality of the sound and, of course, the music itself. Then, along came iTunes, Spotify and the rest of it. Downloads did away with my disks. My CDs gathered dust; it always seemed easier to look up a piece on Spotify, even if it was not quite the recording I would have bought. I never bothered ripping my CDs to iTunes because, as an iPhone user with a paltry 32GB, I could not have transferred all of my music onto it. This last few weeks, however, I have been breathing new life into my CD collection with Apple’s iTunes Match.

iTunes Match has been around since the end of 2011. For £21.99 a year you can upload your entire music collection into the cloud. What is rather clever is that, when you rip a CD to iTunes on your computer, iTunes can work out what it is and, rather than uploading the entire CD, it identifies the album in the iTunes catalogue and makes it available across all of your devices. This also means that if you ripped a CD to a low bit rate file, perhaps to save hard drive space, iTunes can identify the album and make it available to you in the full 256 kbps from the cloud.

The service has come in for criticism and, I must admit, the process of ripping CDs, cleaning up the information and finding cover art is tedious (the program TuneUp, makes things rather easier, however). The process of matching is also not as smooth as it should be; I think more than half of my tracks have actually been manually uploaded. But once the music is in the cloud it is great. I can now listen to the hundreds of disks I lovingly collected wherever I am and without it using up valuable disk space. I am now reengaging with my CD library in a big way. Also, in case you think I am being typically Mac-centric, you can get similar services with Amazon Cloud Player and Google Play. If you’re not sure which is for you, arstechnica.com have written a useful comparison of the three.



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19 Jun  

And so to this month’s CD releases or digital downloads, whatever’s your poison.

Decca doesn’t appear to have made new recordings this month, but, based around its extensive catalogue of works by Britten, conducted by Britten, it has released the first ever complete survey of the composer’s oeuvre to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. The collection comes in at 65 CDs and also features films of the composer at work. It is available for £149.99 on Amazon which, given the outstanding pedigree of many of the recordings, is a bargain.

Hyperion has released a generous collection of choral works by James MacMillan. Central to the disk is his Tenebrae Responsories, a dramatic a capella work whose wide influences include the music of Renaissance masters such as Gesualdo and the chromatic language of Wagner. It is contrasted with more jubilant works, including Tu es Petrus, Summae Trinitati and Ecce sacerdos magnues, for which the choir is joined by London Brass. Also on Hyperion is a complete survey of Stravinsky’s music for piano and orchestra. Whilst this only amounts to six pieces, it makes an interesting programme, taking in as it does such varied pieces as the Neoclassical Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-4) and his much later rotationally serial Movements (1959).

Naxos, finally, have issued three new recital programmes. The first is an isoteric-sounding album of twentieth century Italian clarinet solos performed by Sergio Bosi. It contains works by Berio, Bettinelli, Bucchi, Dionisi and Gabucci. The second is of twenty-first century Spanish guitar works. The first of a projected series, it includes music by Brotons, Puerto, Morales-Caso, Cruz de Castro and Balada. Finally, there is a disk of Polish violin music, which includes Gorecki’s Little Fantasia and Lutosławski’s Recitativo et Arioso.



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12 Jun  

As it celebrates it sixtieth anniversary Christian Morris talks to Artistic Director John Woolrich about the past, present and future of the Dartington International Summer School.
 

John Woolrich - photo by Kate Mount


Tell us a little about the history of the Summer School and especially how it came to be founded.

It started in the late 40s. It was part of the desire to get Britain moving again after the Second World War combined with other cultural factors such as the invention of the Arts Council. What happened was that Artur Schnabel, an Austrian pianist, was at the Edinburgh Festival - it may have been the first - and he said "Great. Britain's got a major international music festival, now what it needs is an international summer school where the audience can be helped to understand about music and you can have masterclasses and all of that kind of thing." He also said he knew the man who could run it, William Glock, who had been a pupil of Schnabel. Glock had been the Observer Music Critic and would go on to be the Controller of the Third Programme, Controller of the Proms and so forth. Glock started it at Bryanston public school, where he ran it for three or four years before moving to Dartington Hall.

At Dartington there was this extraordinary couple, an American called Dorothy Elmhirst, who was fantastically wealthy and her husband Leonard, who was English. They were interested in experimentation in agriculture and education in the arts so it was the perfect home for a summer school. The idea was to get some of the greatest names from Europe and America to Britain because Britain, because of the War, had been isolated. It was to try to open up connections. So very quickly Glock got people like Hindemith, Enescu and Menuhin to teach in this place in remote Devon. Glock ran the Summer School into the late seventies, for 25 or 26 years. He got incredible people to come: in three or four years in the sixties, for example, Barenboim, Brendel and Ashkenazy came to Dartington and Fischer-Dieskau gave his first concert in Britain there. The composition teachers were extraordinary too: he got everyone except Messiaen and Boulez. And Stravinsky came in 1957. So at a time when you wouldn't have got within 15 feet of Stravinsky in New York or Los Angeles you could have a cup of tea with him in Devon. He was there for two weeks. Berio, Maderna and Nono taught for three consecutive years in the early sixties. And so on. The unique thing that Glock invented was the mixture of amateurs and extraordinary students such as, for example, Tom Adès.

>> Click here to read the rest of the interview



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28 May  

The 66th Aldeburgh Festival runs from 7th–23rd June. It celebrates the composer’s 100th birthday year with performances of Peter Grimes in the location that inspired it and The Church Parables in their original venue; an insight into Aldeburgh’s Friday Afternoons singing project highlighting Britten’s work with children and amateurs; and an inspired by Britten series showcasing the influence of the composer through 20 commissions across different musical genres and art-forms. Composers whose works are to receive premières include: Judith Weir, Thea Musgrave, Julian Anderson, Harrison Birtwistle, Charlotte Bray, Magnus Lindberg, Wolfgang Rihm and the much missed Jonathan Harvey and Elliott Carter.

The St. Magnus International Festival (20th – 28th June) sees a celebration of pioneers and explorers as well as themes of fairytales, folk tales, myths and legends. It will also celebrate the life of John Rae, the Orcadian doctor turned explorer who joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada and then went on to survey the Northwest Passage. The Hebrides Ensemble is in residence throughout, working with the Composers’ Course towards a concert of new works on 26th June (concert 34). Other premières include: the collaborative Long Strides, a dramatic work recreating episodes from John Rae’s life; Maxwell Davies’ Oboe Quartet; as yet untitled works by Dan Stern, Alasdair Nicolson, Elisabeth Cowe and Fiona Rutherford; and Christopher Gough’s Durham Scenes.

In Europe the Bayerische Staatsoperoper Festival begins on June 21st. There are many established works on offer. Lovers of new music, however, can look forward to performances of Jorg Widmann’s Babylon on 21st July as well as several performances of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin.

The mini-festival Zeit für Neue Musik has concerts in Bayreuth on 21st, 26th, 29th and 30th June. It will include new works by Helmut Bieler, Wolfram Graf, Michael Strong and others written as part of the city’s ‘200 Years of Richard Wagner’ programme. 



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19 May  

I’ve just come back from a trip to southern Spain, visiting such wonderful places as the Mezquita at Córdoba, the Alhambra at Granada, Seville Cathedral, Ronda and even hopped over briefly to Tangier in Morocco. The surprise was Málaga, a beautiful city that is not obviously so when viewed from the outskirts. It was there I met briefly with a composer colleague based in the city.

I have long hankered after the idea of moving to Spain. Anyone who talks to locals for any length of time will eventually hear the words ‘La Crisis', a phrase used to describe current economic circumstances. If here in the UK we sometimes bemoan the opportunities on offer, then visiting another country can remind us just how lucky we are. Contemporary music in Spain seems to be suffering badly in the straightened economic times, with very little funding available for the promotion of the art and with a great deal of indifference shown by audiences. I was advised to stay where I am.

The conundrum of place – where to live whilst plying one’s art – weighs heavily with me. A composer needs the support system typically offered by a big city; the presence of other musicians and the opportunities that this affords. I find no pleasure in big cities. Some composers, of course, manage to strike a balance or even, like Maxwell Davies, heroically turn apparently barren musical ground into an oasis to which others come in pilgrimage. We are not all, perhaps, so well equipped to do this. Is it better therefore to live in a place that makes us unhappy but gives us opportunities, or to be happy in one’s surroundings but feel musically isolated? I suppose there is a certain heroism in being a lonely Nancarrowesque figure, writing for oneself. Music, however, is essentially collaborative and the danger in isolating oneself is that one stops feeling that creating is even worthwhile.

Whilst I’ve been away there have been a few new CD releases that I am only just catching up on.  There are two new discs on Signum Records. The first, Sometimes I Sing by composer Alec Roth, is a haunting disc of music for tenor (Marc Padmore) and guitar (Morgan Szymanski) to texts by Thomas Wyatt, Vikram Seth, John Donne and Edward Thomas. The music has a jewel-like simplicity that owes much to folk idioms. Padmore’s singing is mesmerizingly beautiful. The second is another new recording of Le Sacre du Printemps, this time programmed with Ravel’s La Valse and Mother Goose. It is performed by St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Termirkanov. Both discs are available on Spotify.

Musical Opinion has called Portuguese composer Luís Tinico works ‘as engrossing as they are entertaining’. Naxos has released a disk of his orchestral and vocal-orchestral pieces: Round Time, From the Depth of Distance, Search Songs and Canções do Sonhador Solitário. They are performed by Orquestra Gulbenkian under David Alan Miller. Bob Chilcott, that most loved and performed of contemporary choral composers, also has a new album on Naxos performed by the Wellensian Consort under Christopher Finch. It includes This Isle is Full of Noises, The Lily and the Rose, A Little Jazz Mass, I Share Creation and Aesop’s Fables.

NMC’s debut disc series continues this month with a new album that showcases Joseph Phibb’s writing for voice and chamber groups. It’s centrepiece, The Canticle and the Rose, sets a series of poems by Edith Sitwell for soprano and string quartet. From Shore to Shore is for countertenor and guitar and sets a series of old and new poems on the subject of the sea. There are also two instrumental works: Flex, for piano, flute, viola and cello and the short string quartet AGEA. 



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28 Apr  

 

As well as many interesting individual concerts of contemporary music, May sees the earnest beginnings of festival season.

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival runs from 9th–18th May in various venues in the county. Highlights include: the visit of Graham Fitkin to celebrate his 50th birthday with a world première of a new work; the music of award winning American Sebastian Currier, who will also be in attendance; and world premières of works by Aaron Kernis, Galina Grigorieva, Festival Director John Metcalf and the first public performance of a new percussion concerto by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s Composer in Residence, Mark Bowden.

At the Barbican the ever-energetic Nico Muhly is curating ‘A weekend of new sonic pleasures’ on 10th–12th May. The intriguing title, ‘A Scream and an Outrage’, is fully explained in a two-part podcast available on the mini-festival website. A complete list of composers and performers is available here.

The Prague Spring International Music Festival runs from 12th May–2nd June. The full programme can be viewed here. Concerts that contain new music include: on 14th May the Czech première of Kryštof Mařatka’s Vábení. Ritual of the Prehistoric Fossils of Man for mixed choir and symphony orchestra; on 19th Ensemble Intercontemporain playing Harvey, Boulez, Mantovani and Srnka; and, on 27th May, the chance to hear Ľubica Čekovská’s Violin Concerto.

The Bath International Music Festival takes place from 22nd May–2nd June. On 25th the BBC Singers perform, amongst other pieces, Paul Crabtree’s Tenebrae Responsories on Songs  by Bob Dylan and Benard Hughes’ The Death of Balder; there is composers’ masterclass on 29th with Alasdair Nicolson and the Hebrides Ensemble; and Britten’s Women, a music theatre piece on 30th May given by students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama that explores the role of women in works by the composer.

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival (10th– 26th May) features the world première on 11th of Ideas of Light for choir, solo voices, saxophone and string trio – a collaborative work by Barbara Thompson, Orlando Gough, Jonathan Baker and Karen Wimhurst. There is also the chance to hear Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers, Sinfonia da Requiem and Four Sea Interludes on 13th May and, on 23rd, John Adams’ Shaker Loops and Chamber Symphony and Nico Muhly’s Seeing is Believing and Double Standards (UK première).

The English Music Festival, from 24th– 27th May is held in and around Dorchester-on-Thames. It largely features music from the earlier part of the twentieth century and before. The final concert, however, is dedicated to new commissions. The programme is available here.

Just down the road from me, in beautiful St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, the Cathedral Festival takes place from 24th May–2nd June. The varied programme includes works by Philip Moore, James Macmillan and Paul Mealor. The last of these composers will be present for the first performance of his new work The Farthest Shore on 28th



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18 Apr  

Timed to mark the hundredth anniversary of this most iconic of twentieth century masterpieces, Simon Rattle and his Berlin forces have just released a new recording of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Primtemps on EMI. For those looking for a review, perhaps it would be easier for me to direct readers to the Guardian’s Andrew Clements, with whose sentiments I largely agree. This is a Sacre of superb precision, opulently recorded. It certainly has energy but does it have danger? To my mind, Berstein in his 1958 New York Philharmonic recording achieves a snarling savagery that electrifies in a way that this performance does not. Also worthy of consideration is Boulez’s 1969 recording with The Cleveland Orchestra or, as much a historical document as for its performance, the 1960 recording of the work with Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.  This last recording, what is more, is available in a bargain-basement 22-disc boxed set of works by Stravinsky, conducted by Stravinsky.

Signum records have released a collection of songs by Richard Rodney Bennett – Letters to Lindbergh, The Aviary, Dream-Songs, A Song at Evening and Four American Carols – performed by the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls’ Choir. Many of the songs are great fun, showing Bennett at his most urbane, others, such as the atmospheric Dream Songs, reveal a profounder inspiration. They are all sung with gusto, if a little colourlessly, by the NYCoS. The programme is broken up by Over the Hills and Far Away, Bennett’s imaginative arrangement of a series of famous folk and nursery tunes for piano duet. 

Like a friend of mine who once effusively greeted Michael Berkeley by saying how much he loved Lennox Berkeley’s music, I’m sure Anthony Payne wouldn’t thank me for saying that the work of his with which I am most familiar is his marvellous completion of Elgar’s Third Symphony. Those in the same position as me can put this right with a new release this month on NMC of Anthony Payne’s Phoenix Mass. I’ve only been able to dip into the extracts on the website, but it is clearly an intensely serious, dramatic and poised work. Also on the disc is Paen for piano, The World’s Winter, a setting of Tennyson for Jane Manning and the Nash Ensemble and his more recent (2006) Horn Trio. Apart from the Horn Trio all the works have been transferred from LP in the absence of original masters. The resulting sound quality is more than acceptable. 

Also released on NMC is a recital by guitarist Antonis Hatzinikolaou. The disc takes its name from one of the great guitar works of the twentieth century, Nicholas Maw’s Music of Memory, a set of variations on a theme from Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor. The programme is bookended by Maw’s Little Suite Guitar with a varied programme of works in between: Joseph Atkins’ Indian Summer, Peter Racine Fricker’s Paseo, Matthew Taylor’s Fantasy for Guitar, Bayan Northcott Fantasia for Guitar, Charlotte Bray’s Passing Shadows and John McCabe’s Canto for Guitar.

Dutton Vocalion have released a disk that celebrates Stephen McNeff’s recent period as the Bournmouth Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in House with recordings of his Sinfonia (2007), Heiligenstadt (2005), Weathers (2007) and Secret Destinations (2005). Naxos, meanwhile, continue their survey of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies with a new recording of his Strathclyde Concerto No. 2 and Sonata for Cello and Piano with Vittorio Ceccanti, Bruno Canino, the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI under the baton of the composer.

 



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30 Mar  

Christian Morris talks to Anda Anastasescu, pianist, founder of the London Schubert Players, champion of Romanian contemporary music and creator of the European Union-funded Invitation to Composers project.
 

Anda Anastasescu


Tell us a little about your background in Romania.

My mother was musical and played the piano. She would have liked to have become a professional but in her day women were expected to get married and have children. So we had a piano, a beautiful piano, at home. It's not that she inspired me to play, even though we would sometimes hear her playing the piano for a short while - rather, it was the occasional holiday that we took in the summer to a place where we met a piano teacher. After the war Romania's education and cultural life was based on the Soviet model. In the late Fifties we met this teacher who had started to teach at the then only music school in Bucharest. She persuaded my mother to take me there with my sister for an audition. This is how it all started. The jury found us to have a very good ear, very good rhythm and very good this and that. So we started at music school.

How old were you at the time?

I was eight, which was late, but in Romania we have no tradition of Suzuki, with children starting an instrument at three or four. But I caught up quite easily.

One associates the Communist model with very strict discipline and hot-housing. Was it like that?

All I can say is that the moment you stepped into a music school, it was taken for granted that you would be a very serious, committed pupil. Our teachers inspired us from childhood to love music and, in a sense, to make it our religion. So every piece of music we learnt meant that we had to explore our inner self very deeply and feel that we were giving ourselves totally to the piece we were performing. This kind of work demanded, even from a young child, quite a lot of concentration and dedication. You couldn't get away from it. I couldn't say that inside the school we were regimented or pressurised. Of course we had exams, concerts and auditions all the time, so you had to prepare. There was no other way. Teachers were also very generous with their time, so we had a very large number of long, private lessons for which they were never paid. We loved having these lessons; in fact, we didn't want them to end because we were exploring the mystery of what the composer was thinking, how we could understand and feel like him, and ultimately how we could achieve the best performance. It was absolutely fascinating.

 

>> Click here to read the rest of the interview



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20 Mar  

The Firework-Maker's Daughter

Image from The Firework-Maker's Daughter

It’s hard not to feel a bit bucked at this time of year. Today, as I look out of my window, I see bright sunlight, budding trees and flowering bulbs. I also hear, slightly annoyingly – since it is in my roof-space – nesting birds. The odometer of life may ominously continue ticking, but the presence of so much that is ‘new’ makes one feel less aged. ‘April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.’

Of course ‘newness’ is concept that is rather important to ‘New’ Music, for obvious enough reasons. And this month brings forth its fair share of premières. Some of these, however, are youthful in a different way, since they contain music by the next generation of composers. This is the case, for example, with three concerts by student composers. One of these features Maury von Loon, David Everson, Jason Mitchell and Jennifer Harris at the Sherwell Theatre, Plymouth University. The other two will take place at Ircam in Paris and mark the end of a year of study for young composers in the Cursus for Composition and Computer Music programme.

There are also a noticeable number of courses designed to help and support young composers. Some of the best of these are run by BCMG (many of which are on-going): ‘Feel the Buzz’, a composing project for 14-18 year olds;  Family Music Maze, for 8-11 year olds; the Zigzag Ensemble, a composing and improvising group for 12-16 year olds; and BBC Inspire Composer Lab, a day-long workshop for 12-18 year olds. The LSO also has two schemes: their Futureworks for Young Composers, which invites composers aged 14-18 for a day of composition workshops and glimpses behind the scenes; and their continuing Panufnik Composers’ Project.

Two contemporary music events might also be appealing choices for audiences who are young at heart. The first is a performance, again by BCMG, of Into the Little Hill, George Benjamin’s reimagining of the Pied Piper story. It will be performed as part of a day exploring his music at Wigmore Hall. Also a good bet would be The Firework-Maker’s Daughter by CT’s own David Bruce. The opera, based upon a fairytale by Philip Pullman, is aimed at audiences of all ages. It will receive performances from 3rd–13th April at Lindbury Studio Theatre.



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13 Mar  

I’m a pretty ordinary music lover and a very conflicted composer. As a music lover I am just as likely to listen to Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz or Mahler as I am to contemporary music. As a composer I’m conflicted because I recognise the power of the tonal canon but also love so much ‘difficult’ twentieth and twenty-first century music, am so constantly captivated by its strange sounds and ability to surprise. Here’s the thing, however: even if we limit our listening only to post-war classical music there is enough choice even to keep people as conflicted as me happy. Why then is the classical listening public so fixated on the past?

Take this month’s CD releases, for example, the range of style on offer is extraordinary, all of it of the highest quality. For those who like contemporary sounds, but don’t like its tendency towards formal abstraction, for example, try a new disc on Naxos featuring Samuel Adler’s Cantos and other works. Better known, perhaps, by musicians as the writer of a didactic tome on orchestration and a fearsome one on sight-singing, he is a composer of great organizational clarity. Some might argue that his music lacks a lightness of touch, but you could just as easily say that about several highly regarded Romantic composers. His Cantos, a series of works for solo instruments (on this disk are all those for strings), are very fine, less adventurous than Berio’s Sequenzas, certainly, but no less polished.  

If you adore, as do I, the sounds of a composer pushing the technical envelope, of something that requires you to listen with different ears and an open mind, Penderecki is often a good bet. There is an excellent new disc of his three string quartets on Naxos paired with Lutosławski’s single quartet. The sound world of the first two totally avoids, as with many of his pieces at the time, conventional musical ideas in favour of instrumental sonorities. The effect, especially, in the first quartet is as exhilarating as listening to the visceral sounds of African drumming. The third quartet, on the other hand, is written in Penderecki’s more recent neo-Romantic style.

A composer whose style offers much for those who hanker after the world of tonality is Deirdre Gribbin, who has professed an interest in knitting together austere chromaticism with music that strongly uses elements of tonality. A good introduction to her engaging sound world is to be found in her new disk Island People, just released on NMC. Her music is influenced by Celtic myth, storytelling and folk tradition and displays an unwavering sureness of touch in relation to vocal writing. 

Joby Talbot is composer perhaps best known for his film and television work, especially A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the hit BBC comedies The League of Gentleman and Psychoville. He has also, however, worked with some of Europe’s leading choreographers, including with Christopher Wheeldon on a production for The Royal Ballet of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. A highlights disk of this score has just been released on Signum Classics. The music is quirkily tonal, unabashedly melodic, imaginatively orchestrated and virtuously (because it is well written) accessible. Some might argue that this delightful music isn’t properly ‘contemporary classical’, to which I would blow a very large raspberry. If you like any of the standard classical ballet repertoire – Tchaikovsky et al – you will love this.

There are other disks worth exploring this month: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s complete recording of Lutosławski’s Symphonies (only the recording of the first, however, is recent), a disk of Helmut Walcha organ music, more Penderecki in the shape of his Piano Concerto and Flute Concerto and Tim Brady’s Symphony No. 3 Atacama. I have dipped into and enjoyed them all. I am exhausted, however, by the need to summarize music in words, so invite you to go and have a listen, especially if you have Spotify.

And if my thumbnail portraits and final perfunctory summary seem only to scratch the surface, that reinforces my opening point. So often when I come to write these CD roundups I am bewildered, excited and overwhelmed by the volume, range and quality of new music that is available today. What composers are doing now, it seems to me, is creating a world of listening possibilities that, in our own time, is as varied as all of the music in the classical canon. If it makes ‘now’ an exciting time, imagine what it makes ‘next’.  



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25 Feb  

I’ve just augmented CT’s concert listings with my own summary of concerts that I have found hither and thither. As usual, however, I’ve not listed individual concerts from festivals, which can be found by visiting their websites. There are several of interest this month.

From 8th-24th March Ars Musica International Contemporary Music Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Using the theme ‘Play Time’ audiences are encouraged to make a game of the festival with a programme that, it says, runs like a hopscotch. Whilst probably just a bit of harmless marketing, the programme itself is impressive, with 37 world premières in all. The pdf of it is available here in French only.

Nonclassical’s new (and possibly one-off) Pioneers of Electronic Music festival runs from 6-17th March in various London venues. Aiming to uncover the ‘mavericks, machines, heroes and heroines that helped shape modern music’, it includes a look at audiovisual instruments inspired by the life and work of Daphne Oram; a synth lab in which participants build their own instrument; a concert with electronic innovator Peter Zinovieff and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva; the presentation of films that pioneered electronic music; and a concert of electronic music that starts with Raymond Scott’s Manhattan Research, scored and arranged for an ensemble of rare vintage synthesizers.

The Lucerne Festival at Easter, which runs from 16th-24th March, is more mainstream, but there is the chance to hear, on 20th March, John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which seems to be on something of a European tour (there are also March concerts at the Salle Pleyel and the Barbican), and, on 23rd, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

On 9th March there is, finally, another Total Immersion to enjoy. The theme is ‘New from the North’, meaning Nordic and Baltic states. Composers represented include: Hans Abrahamsen, Jouni Kaipainen, Kaija Saariaho, Poul Ruders, Per Nørgård, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Magnus Lindberg.



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13 Feb  

Even given that I am no expert on the music of Kenneth Hesketh, my reaction on listening to Wunderkammer(konzert), the first album dedicated to his music was: ‘long overdue’. It seems curious that music of such obvious quality is not more widely recorded.

The disc, just released on NMC, contains three orchestral works –  A Rhyme for the Season, Graven Image and At God Speeded Summer’s End – and two for large ensemble – Ein Lichtspiel for 17 players and Wunderkammer(konzert) for 13 players. The performing forces, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Ensemble 10/10 (which is formed from the orchestra) reflect Hesketh’s Liverpudlian roots. 

As a boy Hesketh sang at the cavernous Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. He has since remarked that the qualities of that building – especially its huge acoustic – led to his music being similarly bathed in a ‘generous sustained resonance’. This quality is everywhere apparent here. Musical figures drift and dart in and out of focus in dense and intoxicating textures, forming a disparate and yet somehow unified musical line. This is evident especially in the rich orchestral textures of At God Speeded Summer’s End or A Rhyme for the Season. This fondness for orchestral colour also owes something to Hesketh’s love of turn of the century Franco-Russian composers, a trait he shares with Oliver Knussen, whose Flourish for Fireworks may perhaps have have been a model for the arresting concert-opener A Rhyme for the Season. 

As with Knussen, colourful and exuberant textures are, happily, channelled with clear-headed precision. Sometimes there are obvious structural markers, as in the return of the low percussion at the end of Ein Lichtspiel. Often, however, Hesketh impishly seems to prefer to keep the musical argument out of easy reach, and in doing so succeeds in making the ride all the more intriguing. Even where this is the case, though, there is always a sense of purpose, of pitch hierarchies being established and of material being worked through and developed.

There are many extra-musical associations to take in – the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Bauhaus period cinema, Cartesian philosophy, automata, medieval memento mori. One can choose to ignore them, of course, but they provide useful points of entry to the music and into a fascinating creative mind.

The recording and performance are excellent, the sleeve notes – which include a biographical note by Paul Griffiths – generous and informative. As with all NMC disks, the full recording is available on Spotify. There are also excerpts available on the NMC website. Highly recommended.  

Other Releases

EMI has just released a new recording of Britten’s oft-maligned The Rape of Lucrecia. Its sparse sound world – more reminiscent of later works such as Curlew River – means it is unlikely ever to win the popularity of the opera it followed, Peter Grimes. The Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble and a marvellous group of singers under the sympathetic direction of Oliver Knussen make, however, a persuasive case for reappraisal.

Naxos’s survey of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies continues with new recordings of his Piccolo Concerto, Trumpet Concerto, Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights and Klee Pictures. As with other discs in the series, these are conducted by the composer. Also on Naxos is a new programme of music by Alexander Goehr played by the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen. It contains: When Adam Fell, Pastorals and Marching to Carcassonne.

Two recordings, finally, to watch out for. Previewed on NMC is a disc of music for voice and string quartet by Belfast-born composer Deirdre Gribbon. It will include her substantial works Island People and Crossing the Sea. The official release date is 11th March, though you can already listen to extracts on the NMC website. Deutsche Grammophon, on the other hand, are currently trailing a new disc entitled Pocket Symphonies  by Sven Helbig. Slated for release on 22nd February, you can sample one track on Soundcloud, here



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30 Jan  

There are several events worth highlighting in February’s (newly updated) concert listings.

Total Immersion has been an enormously successful project over recent years, giving audiences a place to get to know music by some of contemporary music’s key figures. There is still time to get tickets for the latest in this series, featuring the music of Japan on 2nd February. The day focuses on the music of Toru Takemitsu, his contemporaries Akira Miyoshi and Toshio Hosokawa as well as that by next generation composers such as Dai Fujikura.

If you’re feeling the wintery lack of festivals, you should get yourself to Plymouth University, which is holding a four-day event beginning on 21st February. As well as creating a platform for music emerging from research, the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival will explore the theme of memory through both acoustic and electronic performances. There will be a number of premières, including new works by Mathew Slater, Alexis Kirke, Neil Rose & Shaun Lewin, Nick Ryan and Ignacio Brasa.

Not a concert, but interesting nevertheless, is a panel discussion to be held at Jerwood Hall, LSO St. Luke’s, London. Entitled Getting it Right, Julian Anderson will bring together leading figures in contemporary music including Mark-Anthony Turnage, Hans Abrahamsen, Steven Maddock, George Benjamin, Head of Composition at the Guildhall School Dr Julian Philips, Colin Matthews, Richard Causton and others, to explore the relationship between the Orchestra and the Composer.

As with Britten, 2013 marks the 100th birthday of Polish master Witold Lutoslawski (the exact birth date fell on January 25th). For those wishing to follow his birthday celebrations there is a new app for iOS entitled100/100 Lutoslawski. There’s not a lot to it, but it does contain a very handy day-by-day list of concert events during the year. So far this covers until the end of June, though more events will be added soon. 



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21 Jan  

A retelling of Benjamin Britten’s last years in yesterday’s Telegraph brought a tragic note to his centenary celebrations. The article was an extract from Paul Kildea’s new biography: Benjamin Britten: A Life in the 20th Century, not yet published.

I always understood that Britten’s heart condition, which eventually led to his heart valve being replaced in 1973, was congenital. That the operation didn’t cure the problem just seemed appalling bad luck, the stroke he suffered under the surgeon’s knife one of fate’s twists of the knife. Kildea, however, claims to have new information: that when the surgeon Donald Ross opened Britten’s chest he discovered ‘his aorta was riddled with tertiary syphilis’. Unfortunately, Britten had been chosen for a tissue valve which, given the state of his heart, could not be made to fit well. This might have been different if a mechanical valve had been used. As a result his heart functioned no better after the operation, which led to his continuing decline and death.

As to the origin of the disease, Kildea I think is right to point out that it is most likely that it came from Pears, who, unlike Britten, was known for his philandering.  Pears was one of the men who could contract the disease whilst remaining symptom-free. A sad irony points out Kildea, is that ‘it left Britten, the more puritanical of the pair, with a sexually transmitted disease that slowly ate away at his heart, his [Pears’] bad behaviour increasing as his [Britten’s] health deteriorated’. Perhaps saddest of all was that in the 1940s, Britten could have been completely cured by a course of the new drug penicillin. By the time of the operation, even given the choice of a different heart valve, it was essentially too late to consider a complete recovery. 



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21 Jan  

The Britten centenary is marked this month by a couple of new discs of his cello music. Around Britten on Signum Classics features cellist Matthew Barley and includes Britten’s Third Suite for Cello, folksong works that Barley has re-arranged for his instrument as well as music by John Tavener and Gavin Bryars. The release also marks the beginning of a tour by Barley that will take Britten’s music to galleries, cafes, cathedrals, the library of Red House in Aldeburgh and even to a wood in Devon.  Also specifically to mark the beginning of the Britten Centenary celebrations is a two-disc release on Hyperion with cellist Alban Gerhardt. This contains his Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Sonata for Cello and Piano in C, Cello Suites 1-3 and Tema Sacher.

Continuing the cello theme, Wolfgang Boettcher has recorded a programme entitled Twentieth Century Works for Solo Cello on Nimbus. It includes works by Hindemith, Krenek, Dallapiccola, Ligeti, Lutoslawski and others. Similarly, on Decca cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s debut with the Staatskapelle Berlin includes a recording of Elliott Carter’s Cello Concerto. In a significant new release on DG, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France have recorded three important works by near-centenarian Henri Dutilleux: Correspondances, for soprano and orchestra; Tout un monde lontain, for cello and orchestra; and The Shadows of Time, 5 episodes pour orchestre.

There are four new recording of interest on Naxos. In their Latin American Classics series is a two-disc set of music by Mozart Carmargo Guarnieri, who, after Villa-Lobos, was the most important Brazilian composer of his generation. It contains Pontelos, Books 1-5, Suite Mirim and his Piano Sonata. The second volume of the survey of Rodrigo’s guitar music is also released this month. Played by Jeremy Jouve, it contains a selection from his works for solo guitar. Also in a continuing series is the release of Maxwell Davies’s Piano Concerto and Worldes Bliss with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the composer. Finally there is a recording of James Whitbourn’s moving Annelies, a choral setting based upon The Diary of Anne Frank, performed by Westminster Williamson Voices, Arianna Zuckerman (soprano) and The Lincoln Trio under conductor James Jordan.



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10 Jan  

My home office setup. The computer is that elegant little box to the right of my main monitor.

Many composers I talk to, even if they use a Windows PC, express an interest in swapping to Apple Mac. That was certainly my experience when I asked several composers to write here about using computers when composing. Apple computers, say the fanboys, are more intuitive, not prone to viruses, work better if you are already part of the Apple ecosystem, and, of course, they look rather pretty. The detractors argue that they are expensive, have less software, are, in actual fact, no more easy to use than Windows, and leave you less able to interact with the rest of the, mostly Microsoft, world.

I bought a Mac Mini before Christmas as a replacement for my ageing Windows 7 PC. There was no doubt that I was attracted to the prettiness of Apple computers, especially the edge-thin new iMac. In fact, I’d waited for months for the release of the new all-in-one desktop. Unfortunately, when it appeared it was £100 more than I had expected, and this finally persuaded me against it. It was, indeed, too expensive.

For those abandoning Windows PCs, however, there is another excellent option. For £499 you can get a bottom of the range Mac Mini. This means you have to supply your own keyboard, mouse, monitor and even DVD drive, but you still end up with the full Mac experience. I went for the slightly more expensive Mini: the quad core, 2.3GHz version with 1TB hard drive for £679. I wanted a bit more grunt for running Sibelius Sound Library. Buying a Mini also had one other advantage. With the exception of the expensive 27-inch iMac, all other flavours of Mac apart from the Minis come with memory that cannot be changed. This means you can upgrade the memory only when purchasing. Unfortunately, buying memory from Apple is like buying a cup of tea from Claridges: expensive but not discernibly better. I also had no idea how much I’d need. I could have ended up spending a fortune upgrading the memory, with no discernable benefit, or not putting in enough and permanently crippling my system. A Mac Mini comes with 4GB of memory that can be expanded by the user to 16GB. This allows you to upgrade when you see the need.

My next worry was how compatible it would be with all of my old Windows peripherals. Would I face another expense as I replaced my old USB external hard drives, keyboard, mouse, scanner, USB mini piano and even an old external CD/DVD drive? In fact, they all worked perfectly. The keyboard (for writing, not playing) was a bit odd, since some of the keys were in different places, but there are various tweaks you can make with free software, and it is now much like my old Windows keyboard. There is one glorious exception to this, however: the Windows key no longer does anything, This, for me, is a huge boon whilst using Sibelius; it used to drive me mad when I accidently hit the Windows key instead of Alt or Ctrl and the Start Menu popped up.

It would be unfair of me to compare the performance of my new machine to my Windows PC. That was very old indeed, so it will come as no surprise to say that the new Mac is smooth and fast. For those used to Windows 7 I would say that transferring to OSX10 is quite painless. They share an awful lot in common. Windows Explorer and Mac Finder are quite similar (though I still prefer Explorer I must admit), so too are the Taskbar and Dock. There are the same concepts of desktop, trash and so on. You won’t be able to use Internet Explorer, though there are so many excellent browsers now that that hardly matters. The real benefits of Mac come when you have already bought into the Apple ecosystem. I already owned an iPhone. This seamlessly integrates with the Mac. If I type a note, it appears on my Mac. If I take a photo, it appears on my Mac. An open tab on my phone appears on the desktop. And so on and vice versa. Cloud technology isn’t, of course, exclusive to Apple but Microsoft is a long way behind with integrating their phone and tablets in Windows 8, an operating system that has anyway had mixed reviews.

I use two programs more than any other on my computer: Sibelius and Word. If you are a light user of Word, you could opt for Apple’s Pages, which is much cheaper than Microsoft’s software and offers some compatibility with it. I prefer to use what everyone else has, and so bought the Mac version of Word from the outset.

The good news with Sibelius is that, from day one, the shipped software has supported both operating systems. I bought Sibelius 7 for my Windows PC, so I could install it on the Mac without further expense. On the old computer I couldn’t run the Sibelius Sound Library at all, so had to stick with general MIDI. Interestingly, even on a computer that, by any measure, is powerful, my new Mac will only run smallish scores with the Sibelius Sound Library. This leads me to think that I will, indeed, need to buy more memory. The sounds also load quite slowly on a spinning hard drive, so, if you can afford it, I would go for a Mac either with an SSD drive (like those used in phones: they are very fast but hold less data) or a Fusion Drive (which combines SSD with older technology to make a drive that is both fast and capacious). I could have specified a Fusion Drive on my Mac Mini for an extra £200. Again, it was too expensive…

The only other music programme I missed from my PC was Sound Forge, which allowed me to edit sound files in preparation for burning CDs or putting them on my website. Audacity, however, is a wave editor that, it turns out, is rather better than the version of Sound Forge I was using. It is also free. Mac also, finally, ships with a rather good MIDI sequencer in the form of Garage Band. It’s not aimed at professionals, but for those who occasionally dabble it’s a decent solution, and integrates with versions on iPad and iPhone.

In conclusion, whether you move to Mac or not (or, indeed, are on Mac and are considering moving to Windows) will increasingly depend on other factors, especially how much you value integration with the other technology, such as phones and tablets. I think other oft-quoted factors are less important. Viruses are an increasing problem on Macs and, actually, with proper precautions never gave me a serious problem in more than ten years of Windows PC use. Neither would I say that OSX is particularly ‘easy’ or ‘intuitive’ compared to Windows 7. They are very similar. Apple computers are definitely pretty but, in all honesty, I tend to forget about the ergonomic lines of a monitor when I am hard at work. And my office is always such a mess that a sleek iMac would probably ruin the look.

The fact of the matter is, both Windows and Apple desktop systems are incredibly capable and have all of the music software you will ever need. In my opinion, however, Apple, because of its tradition of building both software and hardware, has a much better integrated ecosystem. My iPhone and Mac speak effortlessly to each other. If you are an Android user, the Apple vs. Windows matter is more open. Google do offer a third alternative in the form of their Chromebook. This runs entirely on the Internet, however, and so offers few useful programs for musicians. Until Microsoft can shift more phones and tablets and convince the world that Windows 8 works, I remain convinced that moving to Apple Mac was the right decision for me.

 



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31 Dec  

 

Happy New Year to you all! If you’re feeling over-indulged on ample sufficiencies of turkey, Christmas pud and mince pies, here’s a repast of a different sort: my preview of what is in store for contemporary music over the next twelve months. Bon appétit!

January

18th Qigan Chen London premiére of Reflet d’un temps disparu and world premiere of Raymond Yiu’s The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured. Barbican, BBCSO conducted by Long Yu. 

27th Concert of Copland, Carter, Ives and John Adams. LSO/St Lawrence String Quartet conducted by John Adams. Barbican, London.

February

2nd Total Immersion: Sounds from Japan. Concerts, talks and films exploring the rich Japanese contemporary and traditional music scenes. Barbican, BBCSO and friends.

9th Huw Watkins Day. Featuring chamber works by the composer. Elias String Quartet. Wigmore Hall, London.

15th David Sawer Flesh and Blood (world première). BBCSO conducted by Ilan Volkov. Barbican, London.

15th Richard Baker The Tyranny of Fun (world première). BCMG conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth. CBSO Centre, Birmingham.

22nd Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival. Roland Levinsky Arts Building, Plymouth.

26th-27th Repeating Patterns: the start of US minimalism. A concert in the London Sinfonietta's Landmarks series focusing on an introduction to the world of minimalism. London Sinfonietta. Purcell Room at QEH, London. 

March

4th Composition: Wales. A day of workshops followed by premières of composers working in Wales. BBCNOW. BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay.

9th Stuart MacRae Earth (world première). BBCSSO conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Candleriggs, Glasgow.

9th Total Immersion: New from the North. A celebration of the best new music from Finland and Denmark. BBCSO and friends. Barbican, London. 

14th Unsuk Chin New Work, Joseph Pereira Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (European première). LA Phil New Music Group conducted by Joseph Pereira. Barbican, London.

16th John Adams European Première The Gospel According to the Other Mary. LA Phil. Barbican, London.

16th-24th Lucerne Festival at Easter. Lucerne, Switzerland.

April

6th George Benjamin Day. Chamber works by the composer. Various performers. Wigmore Hall, London.

9th LSO Futures Week: Tansy Davies. The music of Tansy Davies features in this Eclectica concert, the first event of LSO Futures Week. LSO. St. Luke’s, London

13th Future’s Week continues in two events that include world premières by Jason Yarde and Colin Matthews. LSO conducted by François-Xavier Roth. Barbican, London.

23rd-30th Mopomoso on Tour. Mopomoso On Tour - 21 years of the best in UK free improvisation

May 

9th-18th Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Includes world premières by Aaron Kernis, Galina Grigorieva, John Metcalf and Mark Bowden. Various venues in Glamorgan, South Wales and Arts Hall, Lampeter.

12th-2/6 Prague Spring International Music Festival.

17th Jonathan Lloyd New Work for Winds (World Première). BBCSO conducted by James Gaffigan. Barbican, London.

22nd In Portrait: Luke Bedford. A concert that includes two premières from the composer. London Sinfonietta. Purcell Room at QEH, London.

Also in May (date not yet available):

Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival, Canterbury. 

June

7th-23rd Aldeburgh Festival. Featuring world premières from six leading international composers: Harrison Birtwistle, Magnus Lindberg, Wolfgang Rihm, Richard Rodney-Bennett, Poul Ruders and Judith Weir. Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh. 

20th-27th St Magnus International Festival. Orkney Islands, Scotland. 2013 programme available in March.

27th- 31st/7 Munich Opera Festival. Includes music by contemporary composers. Nationaltheater and other venues in Munich.

30th-13th/7 Soundscape. Festival of new music with composer in residence Dan Visconti. Maccagno, Italian Alps.

Also in June (date not yet available):

Elektrostatic Contempoary Classical Festival. Arnolfini and Colston Hall 2, Bristol.

July

4th-21st Manchester International Festival. A biennial event. Various venues, Manchester. 

5th-21st Buxton Festival. Programme not yet finalised but some details available on their website.

6th-25th/8 Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. This year focusing on the music of the Baltic States. Various venues, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.

12th-7th/9 BBC Proms. Website currently showing 2012 programme, but there will be guaranteed premières aplenty. Royal Albert Hall, London.

15th-27th High Score Festival. Contemporary music festival and classes. Pavia, Italy.

Also in July (dates not yet available):

‘Aix en Provence Festival. Some details already available on the website, including The House Taken Over, a new opera by Casco Mendonça. Full programme available January 24th. 

Tête à Tête Opera Festival. Rightly described as ‘our most imaginative opera laboratory’, the festival focuses entirely on new music. 

August

 4th-10th Sound and Music Summer School. The Sound and Music Summer School is the only UK residential course of its kind for young composers (aged 14-18). Purcell School of Music.

9th-1st/9 Edinburgh International Festival. The world famous festival’s full programme will be announced in March.

21st-27th Presteigne Festival. Artistic innovation, musical discovery and, of course, new works in the Welsh Marches. Presteigne, Powys. 

September

5th Olso Contemporary Music Festival. Beyond the opening date, few details available on the festival website. Oslo, Norway.

5th-5th/10 Beethovenfest. Programme available in March. Bonn, Germany. 

Also in September (date not yet available):

Warsaw International Festival of Contemporary Music. Still showing 2012 programme. Warsaw, Poland.

October

10th-13th Arcomis International Brass Event. Concerts that contain new music as well as masterclasses, workshops and seminars. Will include sessions led by composers, top brass players and ensembles. Various locations in Cardiff.

Also in October (dates not yet available):

Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea de Tres Cantos. Contemporary music festival in Madrid, Spain.

Sound. North East Scotland’s Festival of New Music. Various venues.

Wien Modern. Festival that focuses on contemporary music. Still showing 2012 programme. Vienna, Austria.

November

16th-24th Lucerne Festival at the Piano. A long way ahead, but many details now available on the festival website. Lucerne, Switzerland.

 

 



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21 Dec  

If you buy one CD set this month or, for that matter, over the next twelve, you should consider A European Odyssey, A remarkable musical adventure with the London Schubert Players. Released on Nimbus, the three-disk set is the fruit of the Invitation to Composers project that, since 2009, has challenged composers to write new works in response to established European chamber pieces. 

Invitation to Composers was developed by pianist, founder and Artistic Director of the London Schubert Players, Anda Anastasescu. It has had two incarnations. The first ran from 2009-2010, the sources of inspiration being works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns and Messiaen. The second, from 2010-11, used George Enescu’s Chamber Symphony for 12 Solo Instruments as well as works for unusual combinations of viola solo, piano solo and strings and soprano, piano and strings.  The chosen compositions were work-shopped and performed in a series of events in the UK, France and Romania.

The scope of this marvellous project was too large to make a complete survey of all the works performed, but this collection gives a generous selection. On disc one there are three of the inspiration works: Mendelssohn’s epic Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings, Saint-Saëns’ Septet op. 65, remarkable for its inclusion of solo trumpet, as well as the aforementioned Enescu, a work of searing introspection. The subsequent two disks contain 14 of the works written in response to the models, not just to those on disc one but also Messiean's Quatour pour la Fin du Temps, Schubert's Trout Quintet and two based upon the viola solo, piano solo model. The composers represented are from all over continental Europe and beyond and of all ages. The styles too are satisfyingly diverse; it is clear that scores were chosen simply on compositional merit and without stylistic preconceptions. On the one hand, for example, there is Ana-Maria Avram’s imaginative rendering of Ten Romanian Songs from Bela Bartók’s collection. Full of attractive tunes, often presented with witty panache, it is easily accessible without dumbing-down. On the other there is the eerie nocturnal world of Eberhard Eyser’s The Nightingale was Singing all Night Long or Adina Dumitrescu’s bracingly uncompromising J’ai trouve les Histoires. Some of the recordings are live, some made in the studio. All are excellent, though inevitably the live recordings are a bit more prone to extraneous noise.

For those who might lament the passing of such a brilliant project, the good news is that Anastasescu is planning a sequel to Invitation to Composers, to take place throughout 2014-2015, subject to securing funding. This will, of course, be of interest to users of this site. I will, therefore, return to this as more information becomes available.

The rest of the month’s releases

Despite the concentration on yuletide frolicking, there are a few other noteworthy releases this month. Chandos has issued new recordings of Karol Szymanowski’s Symphonies No. 2 and 10 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Garder. It forms part of their ongoing Polish series that includes, for example, an excellent survey of the music of Witold Lutos³awski. Naxos, as ever, has produced three important additions to its contemporary music catalogue: a programme of chamber and orchestral music by Chinese-born American Lei Lian; a selection of choral music by John McCabe performed by the BBC Singers conducted by David Hill; and, finally, Alla Pavlova’s Symphonies No. 7 and 8 performed by the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra under Gintaras Rinkevicius.



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13 Dec  

 

 

 

Mortuos plango, I mourn the dead. Though annus horribilis is, perhaps, an exaggeration, the grim reaper has done his work unusually well in 2012. This has especially been the case in the last three months. 

In October we lost Hans Werner Henze, who left behind some two-dozen operas and a bewilderingly diverse range of other music, drawn together only, perhaps, by his commitment to left-wing socialist politics. Elliott Carter followed him in November. In his case we had much to be grateful for, since, not only was he granted longevity, but a creative energy that lasted into and beyond his hundredth year. Dave Brubeck died at the beginning of December. Whilst not a classical composer, the reassessment of Jazz as a high art form has led to him receiving renewed recognition as a creative artist. On 11th December we lost both Ravi Shanker and Galina Vishnevskaya. Most famous as a player of the sitar, Shanker was a composer too (not just in the improvisatory sense), having written music for films as well as a concerto for his instrument. He will also be remembered as a key influence upon George Harrison and Paul McCartney. Russian soprano Vishnevskaya was, with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich, a great friend of Benjamin Britten. Most famously, he wrote the soprano part of the War Requiem for her, though the Soviet authorities would not let her attend the première (she later recorded the work with Britten).

The day before Brubeck, on 4th December, we lost Jonathan Harvey. Compared to the others, his death felt different: at 73 he was much younger, so it was easier to imagine what might have been had he been granted a little longer. 

My own introduction to the remarkable sound world of Harvey was through his Ricercare una melodia for trumpet. I was a student at university casting around for a piece to play for my second year recital. The work serves as an excellent example of his ability to write music that miraculously ticks all the boxes. It consists of a solo trumpet playing into a microphone connected to two four-track tape delays. As the soloist plays he canons with his musical line as it is played back in four parts. There is a twist, however, when the speed of one of the delays is altered so that the musical material is displaced by an octave, then by two and so forth. At the end the counterpointing parts disappear into the depths. The effect is mesmerizing. 

Hearing and playing the piece was a watershed moment for me. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with avant-garde music. It seemed to make no sense to my ears, often feeling grey and diffuse. Ricercare was a stepping-stone to a more profound understanding of music. Like his much more famous Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (I call the living, I mourn the dead), whose title so aptly describes the last few months, Harvey had the uncanny knack of writing cutting-edge music that spoke directly to the heart. He will be greatly missed.

There have already been useful obituaries of the composer that are viewable online at the Telegraph, Guardian or Independent websites. There is also an excellent interview biography by Daniel Jaffé on this site. It was not my intention to add to them here. I have, however, been able to glean a small amount of information about his early life that does not seem to be readily available elsewhere. I got this from my father, who was at school with the composer. The Guardian, for example, has Harvey composing from the 1960s. Jaffé says from the age of six without giving further specifics. What is certain is that Harvey was active as a composer whilst a schoolboy at Repton. In 1957 Eric Maschwitz was commissioned to write a drama, entitled A Masque of Schollers, to celebrate the school’s quatercentenary. My father remembers this. As well as music from old Reptonians, it included contributions from Harvey, who was still a pupil. The two movements, Poor Tom and Old John of Etwall, were played, it seems, by the Harvey Trio, which presumably he formed whilst there. He also wrote and played a piece for cello in 1956. 

 



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30 Nov  

Last year I speculated as to why contemporary music and Christmas don’t mix; as we enter the festive month performances of new music decline as caroling and yuletide cheer take over. This year is no different, though there are a few concerts in CT’s concert diary worth noting.

At the beginning of December there is a mini Britten festival at Wigmore Hall as part of the Britten at 100 celebration. It includes a concert of song cycles on December 1st; the complete string quartets on December 3rd; and Les Illuminations, Lachrymae and Serenade on December 4th. In New York City the 28-year-old Composers Concordance Festival starts today, running for five concerts until 7th December. There are a large number of living composers represented: more details are on the festival’s website.   On 14th December at the Barbican Hall there is screening of Godfrey Reggio’s time-lapse cinematic vision of American Cities, Koyaanisqatsi, set to a new arrangement of Philip Glass’s film score. The website is reporting this as sold-out, though the old adage of turning-up on the night might pay dividends for the determined. Surprisingly deep into the festivities, on 20th December, Nonclassical, finally, is presenting a night of new music commissioned from six composers as part of the ‘Freedom From Torture Presents’ event, as well as Gyorgy Kurtag’s masterpiece Kafka Fragments. 



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