A New Look at Bach from Peter Williams

J.S. Bach: A Life in Music  Peter Williams Cambridge University Press: 978-0-521-30683-6 / 405pp / £16.99

The Journal of the London Bach Society has already described Peter Williams’ ‘innovative biography as ‘imaginative and fresh’, and Williams (himself an acclaimed scholar and performer) has illuminated new aspects of the composer’s life, utilising (among other things) a new examination of Bach’s obituary, integrating recently discovered information.

Continue reading

Samuel Barber in the 21st Century

Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute  Peter Dickinson University of Rochester Press Many  middle-aged music lovers with a taste for powerful tonal orchestral music remember all too well the orthodoxy that ruled unshakeably throughout the 1960s. Such music was felt to be deeply unfashionable, and only rebarbative twelve-tone pieces (or compositions heavily influenced by this hegemony) held sway. The BBC under Sir William Glock was, of course, a bastion of this unyielding thinking, and composers such as Malcolm Arnold were shamefully neglected. A somewhat similar prejudice held sway in the United States, and few composers suffered this implacable demand for new fashion more than Samuel Barber. But how things have changed – and how unimportant such prejudices now seem, given that composers such as Barber and Arnold are now recognised as the Masters that they always were, while much of the once-fashionable music has fallen away. Continue reading

Pletnev Shines In Little Russian

TCHAIKOVSKY:SYMPHONY NO. 2, Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev, PentaTone SACD This is the penultimate release in Mikhail Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle with the Russian National Orchestra for PentaTone. The earlier issues have shown that in the main Pletnev is a persuasive guide through these works. Occasionally his predominantly safe approach to the later symphonies has, for some listeners, been characterised as lacking in visceral excitement – his coolness sometimes suggesting a lack of engagement with the music. Happily that is not the case here, and Pletnev’s enthusiastic performance and superbly recorded account of this most loveable of Tchaikovsky symphonies can be recommended unreservedly. Continue reading

Sex and Serious Music

There is, unsurprisingly, eroticism aplenty in Eighty Days Yellow, by the pseudonymous Vina Jackson, which delivers all the requisite carnal elements in the wake of the unprecedented success of 50 Shades of Grey (a book which – surprise, surprise — is namechecked on the jacket here). But if you’re a classical music lover who needs some justification to indulge in the less respectable pleasures afforded by this book, then you might be tempted by the fact that Eighty Days Yellow is actually saturated in references to music. The violinist Summer (when not allowing full rein to her libidinous instincts) is spending afternoons busking on the underground, with a particular predilection for Mendelssohn and Dvorak. And what makes the book such outrageous fun is that the sexual episodes here are shot through with this element – for instance, Summer has to perform an improvisation on the themes of Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave while in a state of undress — and as her male companion is studying something other than her bowing technique.

Eighty Days Yellow by Vina Jackson is published by Orion

An Orgy of Orchestral Colour… From Tiomkin to Wagner

THE GREATEST FILM SCORES OF DIMITRI TIOMKIN  London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Kaufmann/LSO Live SACD From the golden age of film scoring in the 1930s onwards, a certain snobbery has been evident towards this often exuberant and richly coloured music. Aficionados sigh when they hear the well-worn jibe about Korngold’s glorious music (‘More corn than gold…’ yes, that one). And it has to be said that some of the greatest composers in the genre – such as the Russian-born Dimitri Tiomkin (whose music is celebrated in this hugely entertaining SACD from LSO Live) did themselves no favours by namechecking in tongue-in-cheek fashion the great composers who had inspired them – Tiomkin, while accepting an Academy award for one of his scores, jokingly acknowledged the help of Rachmaninov and co. But this new disc (in splendid surround sound) perfectly encapsulates all the virtues of classic. Pre-Rock era film scoring, from music of the most poetic delicacy to enjoyably over-the-top vulgarity, all of which are to be found in this generous selection of scores. The composer’s mighty orchestral score for The Fall of the Roman Empire features stunning passages for organ and orchestra, and the listener may have been wistfully hoping that the extract here featured that combination, given that the LSO live engineers have shown themselves more than capable of dealing with fortissimo passages. But the quieter selection here is one of the delights of the set, as is the energetic score for The Alamo (although one might argue that the final element of bravura Americana is not quite caught by the British musicians). And other delights include the memorable scores for two Hitchcock films, Dial M for Murder and Strangers on a Train. Your speakers may be tested by the massive dynamic range of such scores as Land of the Pharaohs, but this is music which demands to be heard at maximum volume. One can only hope that this LSO Live debut in the film score arena will be followed up with the work of other maestros, such as Franz Waxman — if anything, a finer composer even than Tiomkin. Continue reading