Gramophone Playlists – May 2015

Gramophone Sun 19th April 2015

Every month Gramophone's playlists explore particular themes and take you on a musical journey

Piano’s Golden Age

A former Gramophone Young Artist, Benjamin Grosvenor offers a whirlwind tour of the piano-world’s greats

We’re in a privileged position to have behind us such a long legacy of recordings of the piano repertoire. The first half of the 20th century is often referred to as a pianistic Golden Age, and we have on record evidence of the breadth and immensity of the talents of the time. It was an era of highly individual pianism, and each of the great artists had their own distinctive ‘voice’ at the keyboard. I’ve tried to put together a selection that demonstrates the range of musical personalities that existed during and emerged from this era.

Included is Hofmann’s Chopin Ballade No 4 – highly emotive, explosively so at times. Also from Chopin, there is Friedman in a mazurka, a genre that seemed written in his veins – played with idiomatic rhythm and a natural elegance, Rachmaninov’s acount of the March from the Second Sonata (which contains a fascinating example of artistic liberty on the part of the interpreter in the repeat of the first section) and Moiseiwitsch’s Scherzo No 1, played with wonderfully sculpted phrasing and great nobility. We hear the same artist in a larger work, a magnificent recording of the Schumann Fantasie, and Horowitz is represented in the Czerny Ricordanza Variations, a recording that is one of the finest representations of his pianistic finesse. Cortot is heard in an eloquent recording of one of his Bach transcriptions, and from the same composer there is a Prelude and Fugue by Samuel Feinberg – Bach playing that uses the full colouristic potential of the instrument. To conclude, there is Beethoven from Wilhelm Kempff, and inspired, whimsical playing from Cherkassky in Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto – a bewitching pianistic display.

A musical menagerie

Gramophone critic Jed Distler becomes zoo-keeper as he gathers together a collection of animals in music

The relationship between composers and animals is a book-worthy topic. Borodin, for example, adored cats, while Brahms loathed them. Wagner doted on his dogs, while Elie-Miriam Delaborde had 121 parrots and cockatoos. Composers also project their affinity with animals through musical means. Peter and the Wolf, of course, remains the iconic musical menagerie, with Carnival of the Animals not far behind in popularity. However, two operas, The Cunning Little Vixen and Where the Wild Things Are, offer more complex creature interactions. A diversely populated barnyard helps comfort the newborn Jesus in John Rutter’s Christmas classic Donkey Carol. The sliding string ‘meows’ in Leroy Anderson’s Waltzing Cat are simple and sweet, while Paul Schoenfield’s ‘Dog’s Heaven’ (the fourth movement of his Parables for piano and orchestra) runs amok through seemingly every musical style in history, classical and popular alike. Telemann’s Frog Concerto for violin and orchestra more or less conveys amphibious glottal scoops. Bartók’s Bear Dance often gets assigned to advanced beginners, while Scriabin’s so-called Mosquito Etude requires an advanced pair of hands, to say the least. Lastly, Haydn’s Symphony No 83 (The Hen) is the sanest and wittiest way to sidestep the bottomless pit of pieces written in tribute to our fine feathered friends.

Rustling into spring

Hugo Shirley suggests some seasonal listening as spring is sprung

Spring is nature’s great inspiring force, its budding flowers and tottering infant creatures themselves potent metaphors for creativity and amorous stirrings. As such, music is awash with evocations of the season – literal portrayals of its sounds, poetic depictions of the feelings it inspires and mixtures of both. This list looks beyond the well-known rustles and rites, symphonies and sonatas to start with Frank Bridge’s lovingly evocative 1927 Rhapsody Enter Spring. Few passages of music capture the sheer rustic joy of spring better than Simon’s aria from Haydn’s The Seasons, or its sensuous possibilities better than Siegmund’s great lyrical outburst from Act 1 of Die Walküre – Wolf’s ‘Frühling übers Jahr’, meanwhile, manages to capture a little bit of both.

Next come Ernest Bloch’s Hiver-Printemps, Mendelssohn’s ‘Spring Song’ (aka ‘Camberwell Green’, composed when South London was somewhat greener) and Tomasi’s bracing, Rite-esque ‘Danse des Oiseaux’. ‘Spring’ from Les Vêpres sicillienes’s ballet bursts with vernal exuberance, while Strauss and Massenet offer reflections on spring as a reminder of what’s already been lost: ‘Frühling’ from the Four Last Songs, and Werther’s realisation, channeling Ossian, of his hopelessness in love.

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