Queue 'Gramophone Top 10s'
Editor Martin Cullingford introduces his 12 favourite recordings from the February issue
JS Bach English Suites Nos 1, 3 & 5
Piotr Anderszewski pf
'There’s a beautifully controlled thoughtfulness, lines explored with illuminating delicacy and a complete confidence in the interpretation. A Bach piano disc to set among the best of recent years.' Read review
JS Bach Orchestral Suites
Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr hpd
'Another fine addition to the AAM’s young in-house label, and what better way than this to showcase the ensemble’s delightfully engaging spirit of collegiality?' Read review
Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony
Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder
'Continuing to excel in works that feel made for them, Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé offer a richly textured traversal through some of RVW’s most elegiac music.' Read review
Mozart Serenade No 11. Divertimentos
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists
'These performances wonderfully capture the charm of these Mozart chamber works, each instrument oozing a delightfully unforced sense of personality.' Read review
Penderecki Chamber Works, Vol 1
Marek Szlezer pf et al
'Mostly recent works, these chamber pieces offer an intense and captivating distilled insight into Penderecki’s compositional voice.' Read review
Zlata Chochieva pf
'The young Russian pianist follows her 2013 Rachmaninov disc with a wonderful set of Chopin’s Etudes, maintaining a beautifully entrancing tone throughout the pieces’ challenges and changes.' Read review
Mozart Keyboard Music, Vol 7
Kristian Bezuidenhout fp
'Hearing Mozart’s sonatas played so brilliantly by Bezuidenhout on a fortepiano leaves rich scope for unexpected discoveries; a superb addition to the series.' Read review
‘The Salzburg Recital’
Grigory Sokolov pf
'An aversion to the studio makes recordings of Sokolov rare indeed – an extra reason to welcome this live recital from 2008, proof if any were needed of why the pianist is this month’s Icon.' Read review
‘Au Sainct nau’
Ensemble Clément Janequin / Dominique Visse
'In defence of highlighting this Christmas disc now, it’s only just Epiphany as I write; anyway, this entertaining feast of music-making will bring much delight whatever the season.' Read review
Veracini Adriano in Siria
Soloists; Europa Galante / Fabio Biondi
'Veracini was best known as a violinist and composer for that instrument. The dramatic contrasts and theatrical arias make this opera well worth hearing too.' Read review
John Shirley-Quirk ‘English Song’
'Beautifully eloquent story-telling from the fondly remembered British bass-baritone.'
Great composers and established masterpieces have not always been recognised as such by music critics. Jeremy Nicholas chooses his favourite critical clangers
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
“The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed…Friedrich Vischer once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.”
Eduard Hanslick, Neue Freie Presse, Vienna, December 5, 1881
Brahms German Requiem
A work “patiently borne only by a corpse,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, who declined an invitation to hear the work again: “There are some sacrifices which should not be demanded twice from any man; and one of them is listening to Brahms’s Requiem.”
Beethoven Symphony No 9
“The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in its grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.”
Louis Spohr, his autobiography, 1860
“He has certainly written a few good songs, but what then? Has not every composer that ever composed written a few good songs? And out of the thousand and one with which he deluged the musical world, it would, indeed, be hard if some half-dozen were not tolerable. And when that is said, all is said that can justly be said of Schubert.”
James William Davidson, music critic of The Times from 1846
Bach Passion Music
“It was found dry and heavy, and very coldly received. Bach is a great and time-honoured name; but his vocal music is very little known in England and what is known hardly seems to justify the veneration of his classical admirers.”
Illustrated London News, April 1854
“Technically he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes…The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last and musicians never regarded it with much favour.”
Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (fifth edition)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
“The music…baffles verbal description. To say that much of it is hideous as sound is a mild description. There is certainly an impelling rhythm traceable. Practically it has no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word.”
Musical Times, London, August 1, 1913
Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
“How trite and feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint!…Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!”
Lawrence Gilman, New York Tribune, February 13, 1924
Chopin Ballade No 3
“Nothing but the nicest possible execution can reconcile the ear to the crudeness of some of the modulations. These, we presume, are too essentially part and parcel of the man, ever to be changed; but it is their recurrence, as much as the torture to which he exposes the poor eight fingers which will hinder him from ever taking a place among the composers who are at once great and popular.”
HF Chorley, The Athenaeum, London, December 2, 1842
“Saint-Saëns has, I suppose, written as much music as any composer ever did; he has certainly written more rubbish than any one I can think of. It is the worst, most rubbishy kind of rubbish.”
JF Runciman, Saturday Review, London February 19, 1898
The viola as a solo instrument really came into its own in the 20th century. Duncan Druce offers a specialist's guide to the ten best recordings
The viola possesses a history as long and distinguished as that of its fellow violin family members. An essential part of the string consort music of the 16th and 17th centuries, it then took its place in the orchestra and in many of the most popular forms of chamber music. But whereas violinists and cellists can choose from many fine concertos and sonatas, viola players have far fewer solo options. Why should this be so? The lack is sometimes traced to a low standard of viola playing (hence the ubiquitous ‘viola jokes’), but the truth is surely rather different: until comparatively recent times, viola parts were played by violinists, who swapped instruments as occasion demanded, preferring the more brilliant violin for solo performance. Despite this, there is a small pre-1900 repertoire of outstanding viola works, including three items on the list I’ve included here.
The 20th century saw the rise of specialist viola players, demanding original solo music. One of the most important pioneers was Lionel Tertis, commemorated in this selection. Another was Paul Hindemith, who himself made several substantial contributions to the viola literature; I’ve not included any of them, however – despite the idiomatic writing and fine craftsmanship, I find them strangely unappealing. Others will disagree.
These 10 works are all specifically designed for the viola – solo, and with piano or orchestra. This means that the two Brahms sonatas, originally written for the clarinet, are left out, as well as some familiar music in which the viola is prominent, such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 6 and Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, K364. Likewise, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy must surely be classed as an essentially orchestral work, albeit with an important solo part.
Nowadays there is a plethora of viola virtuosi, especially among the younger generation. I’ve tried to include as many as possible of these fine artists, and to give a flavour of what has now become a rich and varied repertoire.
Bartók Viola Concerto
Kim Kashkashian va Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra / Peter Eötvös
(ECM New Series)
Composed in the final weeks of his life, Bartók’s Viola Concerto was left in draft form. But though there is some uncertainty about the exact text, the piece is complete in its essentials and fully the equal of the great concertos he wrote for piano and violin. This performance has a special magic, with the Adagio religioso especially plangent and moving. Kashkashian has a remarkable range of expression, from pure string tone to Gypsy vehemence, and the orchestra matches her – the smiling pastoral episodes sounding as strongly characterised as the dark, fierce ones. Gramophone review
Ligeti Solo Viola Sonata
Tabea Zimmermann va
Like Berio’s Sequenza VI, Ligeti’s Solo Sonata stretches the viola’s capabilities and expressive range, but embraces a more varied character. The even-numbered movements inhabit the fantastical world of his piano études. There have been several good recordings, none finer than that by Zimmermann, whose playing inspired the work. If this proves difficult to find, a good alternative is a disc featuring her student Antoine Tamestit (Ambroisie AM111, 8/07). Gramophone review
Shostakovich Viola Sonata
Antoine Tamestit va Markus Hadulla pf
Shostakovich described his last work as ‘bright, light and clear’. Certainly the textures are clear (spare, even), but the darkness and pain typical of his late period are in evidence, too. The slow finale, with its echoes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, is powerfully affecting. Tamestit and Hadulla expose the character of each movement with impressive precision; their restraint in the long sections of quiet music puts into sharp relief the occasional passionate outbursts.
Berio Sequenza VI
Christophe Desjardins va
The viola Sequenza, which takes the instrument into uncharted territory, exploits extreme techniques – there’s a parallel with Paganini’s writing for the violin – to create an impression of drama and astonishment. And, as with Paganini, we feel there may be something diabolical afoot. Desjardins gives a fantastic performance, playing the ubiquitous multiple-stop tremolandi with compelling intensity, and managing the gradual decline from desperate activity to emptiness with supreme skill. Gramophone review
Maxim Rysanov va BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner
Subtitled ‘Reflections on a Song of John Dowland’, Lachrymae was originally written in 1950 for viola and piano. Britten recast the piano part for string orchestra in 1976 and this is the version heard here – one that is wonderfully effective, especially near the end when the Dowland song steals in. This finely balanced performance sustains the sombre mood beautifully, with Rysanov a sensitive and, when called for, powerful soloist.
Walton Viola Concerto
Lawrence Power va BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov
Perhaps the first work to show Walton’s full range as a composer, the Viola Concerto is also a landmark in the history of viola music – a large-scale symphonic concerto fully displaying the solo instrument’s capabilities. Lawrence Power is a commanding soloist, eagerly embracing the work’s virtuosity and equally at home with the melancholy musings of the opening and the Scherzo’s jazzy rhythms. Gramophone review
Bax Viola Sonata
Lionel Tertis va Arnold Bax pf
Most of Lionel Tertis’s recordings are of short pieces or transcriptions for viola, so this 1929 recording is especially valuable. Bax’s Viola Sonata, dedicated to Tertis, is a substantial and remarkable work and, with the composer himself (a fine pianist) as accompanist, this performance has complete authenticity. Tertis’s portamenti and rhythmic style may belong to a vanished age, but his command of the instrument and his remarkable expressive range cannot be missed.
Joachim Variations, Op 10
(Music & Arts)
It’s difficult to understand why this magnificent work is not better known. Based on a haunting original theme, the music later acquires added poignancy with the introduction of Hungarian idioms. The variations are impressively structured, taking the listener on a journey of profound contrasts. It’s a shame that this performance by the Zaslav Duo (Bernard and Naomi Zaslav) omits so many repeats; otherwise, it’s a fine interpretation, full of romantic warmth and, in places, grandeur.
Schumann Märchenbilder, Op 113
Lise Berthaud va Adam Laloum pf
This set of short pieces – ‘Fairy-tale Pictures’ – evokes varied fantastical events and scenes. The viola is used with great imagination to suggest in turn a melancholy meditation, a scenario of heroic endeavour, an agitated confrontation and a lullaby with slightly sinister undertones – this last memorably exploiting the unique sound of the viola’s lowest string. This splendid recording brings out all the little details that make Schumann’s music so original and evocative. Gramophone review
Telemann Viola Concerto in G
Peter Langgartner va Cis Collegium Mozarteum Salzburg / Jürgen Geise
It’s no surprise that the versatile Telemann wrote a viola concerto when the instrument had virtually no solo repertoire. It’s a modest piece, but beautifully proportioned, and the viola’s distinctive voice is brought clearly to the fore. I’ve not found in the current catalogue a period performance I can wholeheartedly recommend; this recording is full of life, and if the slower movements are too forceful, Langgartner makes a very stylish soloist.
Our guide to the ten best ways to expand your Chopin collection
There are many truly great recordings of Rachmaninov's passionate music, but these 10 recordings would grace any classical collection
Gustav Mahler said, 'My symphonies represent the contents of my entire life.'
For those seeking to build a classical collection, these 10 symphonies are an ideal place to start
A brief history of the symphony
The symphony first appeared on programmes – inevitably in aristocratic settings – during the early years of the 18th century, often a natural development from the Italian overture (which usually comprised three movements). By the 1770s, the four-movement form we usually think of was established and one of its earliest (and still one of the greatest) exponents was Joseph Haydn who wrote 104 symphonies. Mozart’s 41 took the symphony on a step and, as the 18th century dawned, Beethoven infused the form with a new expressivity and power. His Third Symphony, known as the Eroica, burst into the world in 1805 and extended the length of the symphony dramatically (its first movement alone is longer than many complete symphonies written a couple of decades earlier). Beethoven’s nine symphonies remain the pinnacle of the form, performed daily and still providing spiritual nourishment to audiences of every nationality and creed.
The 19th century found most of the great composers writing symphonies – Schubert (eight), Brahms (four), Schumann (four), Mendelssohn (five), Tchaikovsky (six, seven if you include the Manfred), Dvořák (nine) for example.
The four movements – usually fast, slow, faster, faster – often included a dance form as one of the central movements (usually third), and often a theme and variation form might be included (Beethoven’s Third) or a variant such as a passacaglia (Brahms’s Fourth). As a vehicle for expression, the symphony had assumed a major role and reached its apogee in the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century. Bruckner’s nine extended the length yet again, and Mahler, as he famously told Sibelius, believed the symphony ‘should embrace the world’: he used his 10 (or 11 if you include the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde) to explore psychological states and philosophical questions that still mesh powerfully with audiences 100 years after his death.
The 20th century found the ‘centre of gravity’ of symphonic writing shift north from its Austro-German heartland to Scandinavia and Russia/Soviet Union. The Finn Sibelius wrote seven, the Dane Nielsen six, and the Soviets Shostakovich (14) and Prokofiev (seven) contributed greatly to the genre. The French and Italians largely ignored the form, though it was taken up enthusiastically in America (Copland, Hanson, Bernstein, Harris, Piston and others). In the UK – and largely from practitioners of late-Romantic, tonal writing – the symphony flourished in the 20th century: Elgar wrote two, Bax seven, Walton two, Vaughan Williams nine (continuing to write symphonies when the musical public had imagined he’d delivered his last word in the genre) and Malcolm Arnold (nine).
Today’s major symphonists – and the form has rather fallen from favour (partly no doubt to constraints of time and budgets!) – include Philip Glass (nine), Leif Segerstam (261! as of 2012), Maxwell Davies (nine), Per Nørgård (eight) and David Matthews (seven).
An introduction to 10 of the greatest violin concertos with highly recommended recordings
Along with the piano, the violin is the instrument best served with concertos, and what a variety there is! Here’s a violin concerto Top 10 that embraces all the great works at the centre of every violinist’s repertoire ranging from the poise of the Mozart via the red-blooded Romantic works like the Tchaikovsky to the modern language of the Prokofiev and Bartók…