Playlists – January 2016

Gramophone Mon 4th January 2016

Richard Rodney Bennett

James Jolly celebrates one of the most eclectic of British composers

Few musicians, with perhaps the exception of Leonard Bernstein, embraced so many different musical voices and styles, with such success, as Richard Rodney Bennett (who would have been 80 this year – he died in 2012). As a composer, his music ran the gamut from the heart-easingly late-Romantic (his rather Vaughan Williams-esque Reflections on a 16th Century Tune, say) via the harmonically more challenging Piano Concerto No 1, written for Stephen Kovacevich (and recorded by him) to the full-on atonality of his Five Studies for piano. His film music was very classy and invariably made a powerful impression – try Murder on the Orient Express or Four Weddings and a Funeral. When writing for an instrument other than his own (he was a very fine pianist), he totally absorbed the style as in his lovely Impromptus for guitar.
His choral music, too, is glorious – the Shakespearian Sea Change is astounding for its imagination and sheer virtuosity. And one should never overlook his utterly idiomatic performances – as both pianist and singer – of music of such greats as Gershwin, Cole Porter, Cy Coleman or Richard Rodgers.

Gotta toccata

Jed Distler presents keyboard music to give the fingers a workout

Toccatas embrace speed, suppleness, lightness and finger dexterity. They also can incorporate looser, freer, more declamatory passages, or even be multi-movement works. Sweelinck’s A minor typifies a rhapsodic Baroque toccata. Bach’s famous D minor Toccata is terser, more dramatic and attention-getting; no wonder it remains a popular warhorse. By contrast, Ravel’s dapper, airtight and elegantly constructed final movement from Le Tombeau de Couperin must be executed like an expert engraver. But pianists can let go more as Prokofiev Toccata’s combustible momentum unfolds, as Horowitz’s mighty digits prove. The earnestly knuckle-busting Schumann Toccata becomes utterly irreverent and playful when Georges Cziffra’s in charge, as opposed to the majestically mobile earful Pierre Cochereau serves up in the finale to Widor’s Fifth Organ Symphony.

Contemporary composers also approach toccatas in myriad ways. Petrassi’s large-scale work abounds with blazing two-handed counterpoint and long-lined flourishes, as do Harold Meltzer’s delightful mini-toccatas for harpsichord. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Toccata-Troncata is another story: terse, stark and significant as much for what it says as for what it doesn’t say. Alvin Curran’s Hope Street Tunnel Blues III is a minimalist tour de force that requires one to rapidly alternate chords between hands at top speed, non-stop, transforming any pianist into a toccata machine.

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