Showing posts with label Claudio Abbado. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Claudio Abbado. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My tribute to Abbado

This is my tribute to Claudio Abbado as published yesterday in the Independent. First, some Mozart, from Lucerne (with thanks to Medici TV).



Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Symphony No.9 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is among those rare concert experiences that will stay with me forever.


At the end the strings faded into the ether as if merging with an ineffable, eternal life force; you could scarcely tell where sound stopped and silence began. The level of intensity that this extraordinary conductor summoned from his players could lift a musical masterpiece from the great to the utterly transcendent – a quality audible not primarily at the moments of greatest volume, but rather at the quietest.

No wonder he was widely considered the finest conductor of his day; he was certainly the best-loved of them all.

It was not the monumental in music that set him apart, but his humanising of it. He approached orchestral works as chamber music, giving his players space to contribute their own artistry, drawing them out with his ability to listen – and often with his sense of humour – rather than imposing a will of iron.

The results were supple textures, clear, warm and beautifully balanced, with an exceptional capacity for intimacy: Bruckner, Verdi and Brahms are just a few of the composers whose creations in his hands could flower into unsuspected territories. Mark Wilkinson, president of Deutsche Grammophon for which Abbado recorded over 46 years, describes him as “a man who put himself entirely at the service of the music he conducted and, in doing so, made listeners feel that they were hearing it properly for the very first time.”

Portrait of the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, taken in Milan, 1979  
Portrait of the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, taken in Milan, 1979
 
Abbado first began to draw public attention when he won the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1958; he made his debut at La Scala, Milan, two years later.
He went on to hold a succession of the world’s most prestigious posts, including music director of La Scala (1968 -86), the London Symphony Orchestra (1979-1987) and the Vienna State Opera (1986-91), as well as general music director of the city of Vienna from 1987.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s members elected him as its artistic director, a post he took up in 1990, yet he stunned his fans by leaving after 13 years [most expected him to stay forever]. He never held a directorship in the US, though, saying in interviews that he did not wish to battle union regulations on rehearsal time. His musical standards were exacting; he was willing to give everything to achieve them and expected nothing less from his players.

As champion of youth orchestras, new music and the widening of audiences, Abbado’s impact on concert life was simply immeasurable. In Milan he presented concerts for students and workers; in Vienna, he established the Wien Modern Festival, now a crucial event in the contemporary music calendar; and he founded the European Union Youth Orchestra, which later became the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, plus the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and the Orchestra Mozart (though the latter closed down last week, apparently unable to continue without him). In 2003 he spurred into existence the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, its players hand-picked and as dedicated to him as he was to them.

His last appearance was a performance with the LFO of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 at the Lucerne Festival in August 2013. The festival’s chief executive, Michael Haefliger, recalls: “There was a sense in the hall that it might possibly be his final concert, so far removed and deeply transfigured did Claudio Abbado seem to all of us on this unforgettable evening, in this moment of unfathomable silence.”

Claudio Abbado died in the early hours of Monday morning in Bologna, with his family at his bedside. In 2000 he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and underwent drastic surgery that left him thereafter extremely slender and apparently physically frail; sadly the disease caught up with him in the end. Those close to him report that in his last months, talking about music would always lift his spirits. His musical legacy will continue to raise ours, even though he is no longer with us.

Monday, January 20, 2014

CLAUDIO ABBADO 1933-2014



Tragic news from Italy this morning that Claudio Abbado has passed away. Here is the report in Il Post.

Farewell, dear maestro. You were, I think, the most beloved of them all.

Below, his official biography from DG. Here, a fantastic gallery of photographs across the decades, from Italy's Repubblica. [UPDATE, 4.40pm: my appreciation of him, for The Independent, is online now.]

For a man who has dedicated a lifetime to music, Claudio Abbado – who celebrates his 80th birthday in June 2013 – has few words to describe his work as a conductor. He prefers to speak through the music, something he has been doing with extraordinary results for over half a century. Little interested in celebrity, he once said: “The term ‘great conductor’ has no meaning for me. It is the composer who is great.” They are not empty words, for he has demonstrated their meaning through his innate ability to go directly to the heart of a wide range of music.
Claudio Abbado was born into a musical and artistic family in Milan in 1933, and studied piano, composition and conducting at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in his home city, before going to Vienna to follow a postgraduate course in conducting in the mid-1950s. He won the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Koussevitzky Prize in 1958.
He made his debut in 1960, at the Teatro alla Scala, and was appointed music director there at just 35, remaining in post from 1968 to 1986. Three years after his debut he won the Mitropoulos Prize, and worked for several months with the New York Philharmonic as assistant to Leonard Bernstein. He was then invited by Herbert von Karajan to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time at the Salzburg Festival in 1965. In the same year he directed the world premiere of Giacomo Manzoni’s Atomtod at La Scala.
He was known for ground-breaking initiatives in Milan, expanding the repertoire to embrace major new works. He introduced guest conductors, such as Carlos Kleiber, and discouraged notions of elitism by opening up the house to a wider audience, presenting a concert programme specifically for students and workers.
During his 18 years in Milan, he also became music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, where he served from 1979 to 1987. He was music director of the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, and in 1987 became Generalmusik­direktor of the City of Vienna.
At the end of 1989, amid the turmoil and optimism of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was elected by the players of the Berlin Philharmonic to succeed Karajan as the orchestra’s artistic director, and again his appointment led to the establishment of new initiatives, such as the Berliner Begegnungen, an opportunity for young players to perform with established artists. Abbado was forced to stand down from the podium for several months in 2000 when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but he returned to the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic for two final seasons, during which he conducted Parsifal and Lohengrin in Berlin, Edinburgh and Salzburg.
Throughout his career, Claudio Abbado has been a champion of contemporary music. He has promoted the works of Nono, Stockhausen, Rihm and many other composers. In 1988, while serving at the Vienna State Opera, he initiated the “Wien Modern” Festival, offering 20th-century music its own platform in Vienna.
Abbado devoted much time to nurturing young talent, and was founder and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, which developed into the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1981. He also founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1986, formed the highly acclaimed Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003 and the following year was named musical and artistic director of The Orchestra Mozart in Bologna.
In 1967 he began what was to become an extraordinary and long-lived relationship with Deutsche Grammophon. It is an indication of his musical maturity even relatively early in his career that his first recording for the label remains in the catalogue to this day: an iconic account of Ravel’s G major piano concerto and Prokofiev’s Third with the Berlin Philharmonic and soloist Martha Argerich.
Abbado’s recording history reflects the story of his musical career. La Scala productions that he recorded include Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth, with the theatre’s orchestra and chorus. His years with the London Symphony Orchestra saw many recordings, including Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Cenerentola and notably music by Mozart (piano concertos with Rudolf Serkin), Mendelssohn (symphonies), Ravel, Stravinsky and Debussy. When he moved to Vienna in 1986, it was the beginning of a tenure which saw many legendary productions, including Wozzeck and Pelléas et Mélisande, both preserved on record by DG. His recordings with the Berlin forces include a complete set of the Beethoven piano concertos with his long-standing colleague Maurizio Pollini and, in 2001, his second cycle of the Beethoven symphonies (his previous cycle, with the Vienna Philharmonic, had been issued in 1989). A complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, including the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, was released in 1995. With the Chamber Orchestra of Europe he conducted recordings of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims and Schubert’s complete symphonies (both winners of Gramophone’s “Record of the Year” award, in 1986 and 1988 respectively).
In time, Abbado amassed a huge discography on Deutsche Grammophon, including the entire symphonic works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Schubert, and more than 20 complete operas. For Abbado’s 80th birthday year there will be two new releases with the Orchestra Mozart (Mozart Concertos and Schumann Overtures and Second Symphony) and a 40-CD Symphonies Box. 
Among the many awards bestowed on Claudio Abbado are the Bundesverdienstkreuz – Germany’s highest award –, the Légion d’honneur and the Mahler Medal. In 2012 he was honoured with a Gramophone “Lifetime Achievement Award” and won the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Conductor. The citation for the RPS award summed up a conductor who has given so much to music: “Every one of the infrequent but annual appearances by this conductor produces a performance of indelible, life-changing moment. His extraordinary, revelatory concerts with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra … changed perceptions, and raised the bar once again on what it is possible for a group of musicians to achieve.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The trouble with sparkles

T'other day I was out shopping when the girl behind the counter, returning my credit card, handed me a gift of a Christmas cracker covered in sparkles. I think our neighbours must have got one too, because they put through our door a cracker joke that runs: "Which players can't you trust in an orchestra? The fiddlers."

The trouble with the sparkles is that they're fairy dust and they fall off. Next thing you know, they're on the kitchen floor, in the cat food, under the piano, on the train and, by now, probably all over the Royal Festival Hall.

And they've got into JDCMB. We all sometimes need to get our sparkle back, so here are five favourite bits of musical glitter and winter snow to light the long evenings, aided and abetted by some great dancing. And they're not all Russian. Don't forget that this Friday it's the Winter Solstice and time for the JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards!

Prokofiev: The Winter Fairy, from Cinderella - Frederick Ashton's choreography, with Zenaida Yanowsky



Schubert: Der Winterabend, sung by Werner Gura with pianist Christoph Berner. The gentler sparkle of moonlight on snowy stillness...




Tchaikovsky: The Silver Fairy variation from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty (look! No Nutcracker!). Danced by the Royal Ballet's Laura Morera.



Brahms: Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang. (Yes, there are sparkles in Brahms. Just listen to this...) Abbado conducts members of the Berlin Phil and the Swedish Radio Choir.



Rachmaninov: Suite No.2 for two pianos, second movement - Waltz. Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigory Ginzburg don't play it as fast as Argerich and Freire, but there's time to wallow in the glitter.







Friday, September 28, 2012

Gramophone needles

Quite a feast at the Dorchester yesterday for the Gramophone Awards.

First of all, it was Benjamin's big day [left]. Since the BBC has moved many of its TV operations, including the Breakfast news programme, to Salford - about 200 miles away from most of the action, eg. the government, a daft decision if ever there was one - he was up north at crack of dawn to appear there. Then whisked all the way back to London just in time to be catapulted onto live Radio 4, for which The World at One was able to cover the awards since the news of them was out early. Next, into the ballroom to accept two prizes, make a couple of speeches and play two party pieces [below], and receive the goodwill of the music industry, which was his by by bucketload.



The indefatigable James Jolly more than lived up to his name as he presented the prizes, aided and abetted by Eric Whitacre and "Sopranielle" de Niese, as someone managed to dub her. Danni treated us to a performance of Lehar's 'Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß', over which our host quipped "I bet they do"... Live music too from the mesmerising violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, playing the Bartok Romanian Dances in authentic Romanian Gypsy style; and Granados from Leif Ove Andsnes, who was in town to play at the RFH and came in to collect the chamber music prize, awarded to him and Christian and Tanya Tetzlaff for their glorious  recording of Schumann trios. [Above, he collects his award from Danni.]

There were touching moments aplenty. Think of the filmed interview with Murray Perahia, who scooped the new Piano Prize, proving yet again why genuine musicianship cannot be trumped by anything, ever; or the turbo-charged voice of Joseph Calleja, scooping Artist of the Year. Most moving of all, though, Vaclav Talich's granddaughter came in to accept the historical recording award on his behalf: his Smetana Ma Vlast, given in concert in 1939 two months after the Wehrmacht marched into Prague and featuring a moment in which the audience spontaneously broke into singing the national anthem. There's no other moment like it on disc, said Rob Cowan.

Priceless, too, was the announcement of Record of the Year, which went to the Baroque Vocal category for Schütz's Musikalische Exequien - from the Belgian choir Vox Luminis and its director Lionel Meunier. A towering figure (literally) with a blend of charm and modesty that captured everyone's hearts as he stood, overwhelmed, by the microphone [left], Lionel explained that the whole recording was organised in his kitchen and he could hardly believe he was going to go back to his choir the next day and say "We f***ing got Record of the Year!

Plenty of time for chat, gossip and networking in between, natch: a chance to clink glasses with some and say "Better times ahead?" and others to say "Bravi", and others still to reflect on the growing parallels between two of our greatest tenors now, Calleja and Kaufmann (who pre-recorded a thank-you speech for the Fidelio recording with Abbado and Nina Stemme that took the opera prize) and, respectively, force-of-nature Pavarotti and deep-thinking, dark-toned Domingo. 

Among my most interesting encounters was a discussion with a critic who'd come in from the pop culture world to see what it was all about. He was furious. Why? Because, he says, there's all this incredible music, yet it's somehow been sectioned off and the world at large never gets to hear it! The decision-makers in the British media don't include it as part of culture in general, and they should. It's been ghettoised. And not through any fault of its own - millions of people love it when they have the chance. Why keep it out of the mainstream with some cack-handed inverted snobbery that says the general public isn't capable of appreciating it?

One more Gramophone needle: here's the line-up of winners for the final group photo.


That's right, they're all blokes. 

Violinist Isabelle Faust won the concerto category, to be fair-ish; Tanya Tetzlaff features in the chamber music, and Nina Stemme in Fidelio, but the latter scarcely got a mention while everyone was drooling over Jonas's speech and adulating Claudio Abbado who won the Lifetime Achievement award. The two women who collected awards did so on others' behalf: Talich's granddaughter and Perahia's wife. 

Of course, there's a strong feeling that these awards are for musical achievement alone and gender balance shouldn't matter. In an ideal world, yes, fine. But this isn't one. Given the number of world-class female musicians on the circuit at present, how is it possible that only one-and-two-bits were among the winners of so many major awards? 

I still have the feeling that to be fully recognised as a woman musician, you must work five times as hard as the men and look perfect as well. There's an unfortunate double-bind in the music industry: those charged with selling the artists via image doll up the women as sex symbols, only for a fair number of critics to succumb at once, consciously or otherwise, to the prejudice that "they're being sold on their looks, so they can't be any good". This isn't the way it ought to be. 

I begrudge none of these marvellous male musicians their prizes: each and every one was fully deserved. Yet is it now time to introduce an alternative industry award, like the erstwhile-Orange Prize for Fiction, to boost the wider recognition of female classical musicians on the strength of their artistry, not their looks? Sad to say, but the answer is yes.





Thursday, September 27, 2012

And here are the GRAMOPHONE AWARD WINNERS

Off to the RealLifePoshPlace (as opposed to the JDCMB Cyberposhplace) for a day of celebration and suspense as the Gramophone Awards are announced...oh wait... No suspense, except for Record of the Year. A press release has just plopped into the in-box telling us all the others. Which you'd think kind of defeats the purpose of having the entire UK music business sit in the Dorchester all day...  


But there's some really wonderful news: Benjamin Grosvenor has won both Young Artist of the Year and Instrumental, in the latter category pipping to the post no lesser personages than Stephen Hough and Paul Lewis. That definitely requires something bubbly.
 
Right now I'm busy putting on a smart dress and a bit o' slap, so I'm going to post the press release. Stand by for the full inside report on the goings-on after the event and follow on Twitter at #GramoAwards. I may tweet now and then if I have any reception on the fruityphone.




GRAMOPHONE AWARDS 2012 - THE “OSCARS OF CLASSICAL MUSIC”


·         Benjamin Grosvenor becomes youngest artist to achieve double-Award win
·         Joseph Calleja voted ‘Artist of the Year’
·         Claudio Abbado honoured with ‘Lifetime Achievement’ Award
·         Murray Perahia wins new ‘Piano Award’
·         Naïve crowned ‘Label of the Year’
·         ‘Recording of the Year’ to be revealed later today

The Gramophone Awards the world’s most influential classical music prizes – are announced today at London’s Dorchester Hotel in a ceremony co-hosted by two of classical music’s hottest properties: composer and conductor – and professional model – Eric Whitacre, and Danielle de Niese, described by The New York Times as “opera’s coolest soprano”.

James Jolly, Editor-in-Chief of Gramophone said:

With more than 750 new recordings of phenomenal range and quality under consideration for the 2012 Gramophone Awards, coming up with the shortlists and winners has been challenging, but extremely enjoyable. This is an extremely exciting and vibrant time for classical music and the winners announced today represent the best of the best, where the best is a very rich feast indeed.”

The Gramophone Awards 2012, now in their 35th year, are presented in association with Steinway & Sons and EFG International.

The most coveted prize, ‘Recording of the Year’, will be revealed during today’s ceremony and announced this afternoon.

Crowning a magnificent year that saw him become both the youngest soloist to open the BBC Proms and the youngest pianist ever to be signed by Decca, Benjamin Grosvenor now becomes Gramophone’s youngest double-Award winner. He is named Young Artist of the Year and wins the Best Instrumental category for his debut disc of music by Ravel, Chopin and Liszt on Decca. The 20-year-old from Southend-on-Sea has been highly praised for his poetic expression and virtuosity, and this double accolade from Gramophone is another noteworthy badge of honour in his rise to international acclaim.

Joseph Calleja is named Gramophone’s Artist of the Year in the only Award decided by public vote. It rounds off an incredible year for the Maltese tenor, described by Gramophone as “a tenor of uncommon distinction, whose elegance and sense of style are second to none on the operatic stage today.” From performing at the Last Night of the Proms to reaching No. 1 in the Danish pop charts Calleja is now established as a regular at all the leading opera houses in the world, including the Royal Opera House and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Joseph reaches out to a wide public who respond as much to his open and charming personality as his voice. His latest album ‘Be My Love,’ a tribute to Mario Lanza, became an instant best-seller.

“His vision has left an imprint on every orchestra in Europe” says fellow conductor Daniel Harding, of this year’s Lifetime Achievement winner, Claudio Abbado. Abbado conducts the best orchestras, yet devotes much of his time to nurturing young talent, as founder and music director of the Youth Orchestra of the European Union and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, as well as artistic director of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and founder and principal conductor of both the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Italy’s Orchestra Mozart. He has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon since 1967, amassing a discography that includes the entire symphonic works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Ravel and more than 20 complete opera recordings.

A new prize for 2012, The Piano Award, goes to one of today’s most respected musicians, Murray Perahia. Gramophone has long celebrated Perahia’s exceptional sensibility, lyricism and naturalness, but in the year that Perahia celebrates 40 years of recording for Sony Classical and its forerunner CBS Masterworks, Gramophone pays special tribute to this exceptional pianist. In addition to the Award, Gramophone has produced a digital magazine that gathers together every Perahia review it has ever published.

Superbly produced, gorgeously packaged recordings of artistic vision and integrity from musicians of the highest calibre, symbolises naïve - Gramophone’s 2012 Label of the Year. Naïve’s artist roster is rich and impressive, from Jordi Savall, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Marc Minkowski with his Musiciens du Louvre, to Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Bertrand Chamayou and Francesco Piemontesi. The label looks set to leave a legacy with its ground-breaking Vivaldi Edition, one of the most ambitious recording projects ever undertaken. Now in its twelfth year, the unprecedented Vivaldi Edition captures on record the entire collection of autograph manuscripts by the composer preserved in Turin’s Biblioteca Nazionale, making up some 450 works and unearthing never-before-heard works along the way.

A special Historic Reissue Award honours an extraordinary 1939 live recording of Smetana’s Má vlast by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Talich. The extraordinary recording, issued by Supraphon, captures a spontaneous outburst of the Czech national anthem by the audience, symbolising the burning presence of Czech patriotism in a German-occupied Prague.
Winners were also announced across the 15 album categories (see below).
Gramophone has been producing a series of podcasts supporting the Awards at www.gramophone.co.uk and during the month of August, nearly 50,000 were downloaded. Gramophone has also formed retail partnerships with Amazon, i-Tunes and many of the UK’s specialist retailers. iTunes is offering a free sampler featuring Award-winning recordings at www.itunes.com/gramawards.

Gramophone’s Awards issue is published on Friday 28 September with full information about the Awards and winners.

Twitter: #GramoAwards



CATEGORY AWARDS

Baroque Instrumental
Bach: Orchestral Suites. Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Petra Mullejans; Gottfried von der Goltz [Harmonia Mundi]

The Baroque Instrumental category acknowledges the remarkable level of musicianship that has built on decades of scholarship to create one of the most dynamic areas of the current music scene. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is one of the most thrilling ensembles around today, and wins a Gramophone Award for the second year in a row.  Gramophone says: “It’s hard to imagine an eminent Baroque ensemble more temperamentally suited to the esprit of Bach’s four orchestral essays than the Freiburgers.”

Baroque Vocal
Schütz: Musicalische Exequien. Vox Luminis / Lionel Meunier
[Ricercar / RSK]

Along with its Instrumental sister category, Baroque Vocal is one of the most dynamic areas of music-making today and this winner is impeccably performed, recorded and presented. Lionel Meunier and Vox Luminis’s release of Schütz’s Musicalische Exequien “embodies everything a Recording of the Year should be,” according to Gramophone. Schütz’s Baroque masterpiece, which inspired Brahms for his German Requiem, is performed by a vocal ensemble “over-endowed with impressive individual turns.”

Chamber
Schumann: Complete Works for Piano Trio. Christian Tetzlaff (vn); Tanja Tetzlaff (vc);
Leif Ove Andsnes (pf)
[EMI]

Making music with friends is one of the most rewarding pursuits anyone – amateur or professional – can do, and this category allows music lovers to glimpse musicians – most decidedly professional and at the top of their game – getting together and performing in intimate surroundings. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes – no stranger to the Gramophone Awards – teams up with his regular musical partners Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff in Schumann's music for piano to create what Gramophone describes as “a remarkable achievement.”

Choral
Howells : Requiem. St Paul's Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Choir of Trinity College,
Cambridge / Stephen Layton
[Hyperion]

Stephen Layton – nominated twice in this category this year – is one of the few choirmasters to work both within the Oxbridge choir tradition (as music director at Trinity College, Cambridge) and outside it (as the director of Polyphony and a much-sought-after guest by many top-league choirs). With his Cambridge choir, he here celebrates one of English music's most appealing composers, Herbert Howells, in a recording described by Gramophone as “a perfect disc of its kind.”

Concerto
Beethoven, Berg: Violin Concertos. Isabelle Faust (vn); Orchestra Mozart/ Claudio Abbado [Harmonia Mundi]

Isabelle Faust, a former Gramophone Young Artist of the Year, returns to the Awards in some very distinguished company, Orchestra Mozart and Claudio Abbado. Here Beethoven is intriguingly coupled with Berg in concerto performances described by Gramophone as “models of artistic and human discipline, meticulously probing Berg’s and Beethoven’s intentions but conveying also a sense that such peaks of human achievement are something you assume from within, not take by force from without.”

Contemporary
Rautavaara: Percussion Concerto. Cello Concerto No. 2. Modificata Colin Currie (perc); Truls
Mørk (vc); Helsinki PO / John Storgårds
[Ondine / Select]

Rautavaara’s magnificent, highly contrasting percussion and cello concertos make for a sensational release. Performed with “coruscating virtuosity” by percussionist Colin Currie and with cellist Truls Mørk “caressing out the subtleties” in the cello concerto, Ondine vividly sets the seal on this superb Contemporary Award-winner. The soloists are supported by John Storgårds – going from strength to strength on the podium – and the excellent Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

DVD Documentary
‘Music Makes A City.’ A film by Owsley Brown III & Jerome Hiler
[Harmonia Mundi]

'Music makes a City', a film made by Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler, tells the scarcely believable, but inspiring, story of the Louisville Orchestra from Kentucky and its belief that new music was the answer to creating wealth and power for the city following the Great Depression and crippling floods there in 1937. The list of composers who were commissioned by the Orchestra reads like a roll-call of 20th-century greats and the film includes interviews with the senior generation of American musicians, from the centenarian Elliott Carter to the near-nonagenarian Ned Rorem. A compelling and beautiful documentary.

DVD Performance
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
[Accentus / Select]

Honouring great musical performance on film, the winning performance “takes a special, even unique, band of musicians and friends who (we can see) love what they do, making chamber music on the grandest scale.” Claudio Abbado revitalised the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, bringing back to life an ensemble that had first performed in 1938 under Toscanini's baton. Though a part-time group, the orchestra is comprised of some of the finest musicians in Europe, many of them soloists, gathered around a 'core' of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. They are now one of the world's finest orchestras and performances of Bruckner don't get much more compelling than this.

Early Music
Victoria: Sacred Works. Ensemble Plus Ultra / Michael Noone
[Archiv / DG]

The Early Music category has become a showcase of the glorious polyphonic choral music written before 1600, which has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Tomás Luis de Victoria was celebrated in 2011, the 400th anniversary of his birth, and this 10-disc set of around 90 works emerged as a truly stunning tribute to this Renaissance Spanish master. “It is just deeply human and emotional music that [Ensemble Plus Ultra and Michael Noone] perform not only with great tenderness but so simply that one is struck every time – as if for the first time – by its crystalline, uncomplicated beauty.”

Historic
Chopin: Etudes. Maurizio Pollini
[Testament]

The Historic category, reserved for recordings making their first appearance as a commercial release, has put the spotlight on extraordinary treasures and this previously unissued recording of Chopin’s Etudes by Maurizio Pollini is no exception. It was made shortly after the teenage Pollini won the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1960, but became the first in a long line of recordings not to be sanctioned by the notoriously highly strung pianist. As the pianist turned 70 his early thoughts on these works was warmly welcomed by Gramophone, which said: “It is surely astonishing that Pollini could reject his early superfine brilliance, his aristocratic musicianship, his patrician ideal in the Chopin Etudes.”

Instrumental
Chopin, Liszt, Ravel: Piano Works. Benjamin Grosvenor (pf)
[Decca]
Gramophone’s Young Artist of the Year also scoops the Award for Best Instrumental with his album of Chopin, Liszt and Ravel. Full of “coltish exuberance” and a “subtle brand of bravura,” according to reviewer Rob Cowan, Grosvenor’s virtuosity and dexterity are clear, but it is in Liszt’s En rêve that his artistry paints the most beautifully subtle canvas. Grosvenor’s debut disc on Decca topped the specialist classical charts for several weeks.

Opera
Beethoven: Fidelio. Stemme; Kaufmann; Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
[Decca]

Claudio Abbado's Fidelio, caught live with his superb Lucerne Festival Orchestra in the pit in 2010, also finds two of today's finest dramatic singers in the central roles: Nina Stemme, today's leading Isolde, and Jonas Kaufmann, today's most accomplished dramatic tenor. Gramophone says: “If Fidelio speaks as no other opera does of the miraculous resilience of the human spirit, Claudio Abbado’s late re-creation of it serves only to compound that miracle.”

Orchestral
Martinů: Symphonies Nos 1-6. BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiři Bělohlávek
[ONYX / Select]

In what is traditionally one of the most hotly contested categories and  sparring ground of today's major conductors and orchestras, Jiři Bělohlávek triumphs with this superb set of the Martinů symphonies recorded live at the Barbican in 2009/10 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Gramophone critic Mike Ashman firmly dismisses talk of “the grace and elegance of Bělohlávek’s conducting” in these colourfully scored wartime works – though that is clearly there – and highlights “the pain and stress” they often depict which is “superbly realised here”.

Recital
Arias for Guadagni. Iestyn Davies (countertenor); Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen
[Hyperion]

A superb collection of 18th-century arias written for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni from leading British countertenor Iestyn Davies. Reputedly a “wild and careless singer” when he first came to London, Guadagni’s untapped potential was soon identified and nurtured by Handel, who went on to write some of his finest arias for him. He was so famous that Horace Walpole named a racehorse after him and he was Gluck’s first Orfeo, but it has taken surprisingly long for someone to produce an intelligently chosen and stylishly performed recital exploring his career and Iestyn Davies has done just that.

Solo Vocal
Songs of War. Simon Keenlyside (bar); Malcolm Martineau (pf)
[Sony Classical]

Reactions to this disc’s concept and programme – as well as the sepia soldier on the cover – can be predicted: Simon Keenlyside is more often nominated for the Awards for opera productions, but here he debuts in the Solo Vocal category – a cleverly compiled collection of war songs (predominantly British with a few American additions). “A peak achievement for both, Malcolm Martineau plays superbly and Keenlyside brings a huge dramatic range to these powerful songs by Butterworth, Finzi, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Kurt Weill and others by pointing out that war celebrates life as well as confronting death.”

About Gramophone

The annual Gramophone Awards, the world’s most influential classical music prizes, given this year in association with Steinway & sons and EFG International, were launched in 1977 by Gramophone magazine (founded in 1923 by Sir Compton Mackenzie).  Available internationally, Gramophone publishes bespoke editions of the magazine for the United States of America, Russia and Brazil.  The Gramophone Player, available at gramophone.co.uk, will feature excerpts from all of this year’s prize-winning albums. The media player - the first from a classical music magazine - features full-length recordings, podcasts, an extensive editor’s choice section and a selection of new recordings each month.  Subscribers are free to stream as much music as they wish.

Gramophone has been producing a series of podcasts supporting the Awards at www.gramophone.co.uk and during the month of August nearly 50,000 were downloaded.

Gramophone has also formed retail partnerships with Amazon, iTunes and many of the UK’s specialist retailers. iTunes is offering a free sampler featuring Award-winning recordings at www.itunes.com/gramawards.

Gramophone’s Awards issue is published on Friday 28 September with full information about the Awards and Award winners.

Twitter: #GramoAwards


                            

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Double Brahmsfest: Haitink and Abbado go head to head

Another Friday, another Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 given at a great music festival by legendary performers. Honest to goodness, it's quite something to hear it in Lucerne with Abbado at the helm one week and at the Proms under Haitink just seven days later. Last night's Prom was a Brahmsfest par excellence - and the first of two, since tonight the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink and Emanuel Ax follow it up with the Piano Concerto No.2 and the Symphony No.4.

Yesterday opened with the Third Symphony (which steamed into first place as my favourite of the four while I was on tour with the LPO and Vladimir last December) - the most intimate of them, it's the one you can turn, while listening, into the middle-period piano sonata Brahms never wrote, or the finest of his chamber works. In Haitink's hands the solid centre radiated the orchestration's golden glow; the playing was faultless, the tempi spot-on-delicious, the beauty and reflectiveness balanced out with certain touch and vast affection. Brahms 3 doesn't get much better than that. It was so good that there's almost nothing to say.

As for the concerto, Manny Ax was everything that last week Radu Lupu unfortunately didn't manage to be. I don't know what happened to Lupu in Lucerne, but he wasn't on form - technically the concerto was all over the shop, and there were some alarming moments where he and the orchestra seemed to be on different planets - the passage in the final movement just before the fugue, where the piano duets with a French horn off the beat, was a case in point (one pitied the poor horn player). What remained was Lupu's characteristic sound, a palette like an Odilon Redon pastel, dusky, velvety and radiant all at once. Ax, by contrast, was rock solid, dynamic, shining, thoughtful, humane.

And Haitink v Abbado? Telling, dear friends. Very telling. Haitink is a conductor whose work I've revered for donkey's years. There's something pure about his approach, free of egomania and point-proving, setting out simply to convey the truth of the music as he feels it and thinks it through. In the past his Ring Cycle was what turned me on to Wagner, his Ravel Daphnis left me exhilarated and his Mahler Nine sent me home speechless. And this Brahms 3 was, as I said, pretty much perfect.

But last week Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra arrived riding a different variety of phoenix. Things went wrong - plenty wrong - if this was only Lupu's doing, I just couldn't say. Yet that opening orchestral exposition wasn't only strong, but revelatory. Abbado's detailed emphases lit the opening motif like a shaft of sidelight in a Caravaggio; the phrasing of the second theme's descending scale linked it at once in the mind to the melody of the slow movement. Risks were taken, all of them in the service of dear old Johannes, and when they paid off they did so spectacularly. Haitink and Ax took few risks: what resulted was the solidity of the ideal just about realised. Yet despite all its problems, it's the Abbado-Lupu performance that I suspect I'll still remember in 20 years' time, assuming my brain is still in reasonable working order by then.

One other little grumble involves the RAH acoustics. For me, Ax's performance fell foul of The Echo. Apparently this phenomenon is well known at the Proms. It's not something I normally encounter in the usual press seats around door H, but this time we were by door J, further round the circle, and each piano note seemed to sound twice in rapid succession. Others have tweeted that they too experienced this, one from the centre of the arena, another from the other side of the stalls, so it's clearly not specific to seat 52 in row 7. Some say it does not detract from their enjoyment of the music, but I found it immensely bothersome, especially in the fast passages where at times it felt like seeing double. Please could someone investigate whether anything can be done about it?

Meanwhile, read more about my trip to Lucerne in yesterday's Independent, here.

And here is a taster of the performance last night from BBC TV - accessible only to UK readers, I'm afraid (that's not my doing, folks).

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Don't make such a cadenza of it....

Those were the words my dad used to trot out when I had a piano or violin exam and I got nervous. It seemed kind of unfair. You're shipped in to strut your scales in front of a glum stranger on a chilly day with no warm-up, to say nothing of the sight-reading, which was always an odd and unmusical piece written specifically to catch you out... Ugh. It was all right for Dad. He didn't have to play. "Don't make such a cadenza of it," he'd say. Or alternatively, "Don't make such a matzo-pudding..." I can't explain the matzo-pudding, having never eaten one, but the cadenza implication is clear: it's the musical equivalent of throwing one huge wobbly.

I couldn't help a nostalgic smile when it turned out that some high-profile appearances by Claudio Abbado and Helene Grimaud are now not going to happen because, allegedly, they have had a fallout over a cadenza. One of the happier side-effects is that in the opening concerts of the Lucerne Festival next week, Grimaud is being replaced by RADU LUPU, who is not the kind of guy you expect to catch as stand-in, but rather someone whose appearances you make damn sure you book for a year in advance. And I'm going to be there. I'm fond of Helene, but if I could choose any living pianist to hear play Brahms 1 in concert, it really would be Lupu.

The cadenza in question, though, is not for Brahms, but for a Mozart concerto. Apparently the pair had "artistic differences". Now, we've been trying to work out how a conductor and soloist could manage to fall out over a cadenza. Isn't this the moment at which the conductor stands back and lets the soloist do her own thing, whatever it may be? And given the scale of the concerts she's now missing - huge dates with ticket prices to match, and, one imagines, contractual obligations and appropriate fees - it must be a pretty awkward spat. Someone suggested to my colleague at the Indy that the pair "needed a break from each other".

Or...are they just making too much of a cadenza?

Still, if anyone's going to make a matzo-pudding about artistic differences, it would probably have to be in Mozart. Let's have a look at their different approaches.

Here's Grimaud playing some Mozart at Suntory Hall, Tokyo.



And now here is Maestro Abbado - who, if you remember, JDCMB readers voted "Greatest Living Conductor" in a poll a few years back - with the Berlin Phil in the Overture to Le nozze di Figaro.



Any thoughts?