Wednesday, June 12, 2013


The last disc I bought was back in November last year - Richard Strauss's, Also Sprach Zarathustra, recorded by the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic with Von Karajan (DG 447 441-2).  It's an extraordinary mix of Apollo mission fanfare and grand Wagnerian romanticism.  You have to be in the right mood, but if you are, with the volume turned up and the wind howling outside, it's fantastic.

Strauss was inspired by Nietzsche's novel of the same name.  Nietzsche wrote about the superman - the highest human specimen and the ultimate goal of humanity.  Whilst Nietzche's ideal was unrealistic (and, as the Nazis were to prove, politically dangerous),  Strauss, like the astronauts at Cape Canaveral, certainly comes close.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Life or death

The recent arts programme 'Imagine' featuring the Chinese pianist Lang Lang included a moving interview with his father who, when Lang was just 9, became so angry at what he perceived his son's lack of commitment that he suggested he commit suicide.  Lang chose life, but imagine what must have gone through his young mind.  He worked hard and burnished what is now a formidable technique, but after that early experience music could never be life or death for him.  Some artists perform as though their lives depend on it.  Lang can be forgiven for perhaps always holding back.  At the age of 30 he has silenced his earlier critics who complained he was too much the show man.  That act is gradually giving way to a more thoughtful and sensitive pianist.  If Lang can ever find it in him to really let go, he could be one of the greats.  For now we must settle for an exceptionally gifted virtuoso who connects with many but still irritates others.  

So far, I have chosen fabulous performances and recordings of single pieces but this choice is the first collection by an artist: Lang Lang Live in Vienna (Sony 88697719012).  As I listen to Lang play Beethoven's Piano Sonata number 3 I marvel at his music making but also dream of what this amazing talent might one day achieve.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Immensely rewarding

It's tempting to think of much of Bartok's work as derivative country music, but that I guess is what happens if you devote much of your musical life researching Hungarian folk songs.  As a (very bad) clarinetist I got to know him through his folk songs as lots of budding woodwind players do, not realising how much more there was to discover.

It's true there are some gypsy elements to his 'second'* violin concerto and Kyung Wha Chung performing with the London Philharmonic at the Kingsway Hall in 1976 with Bartok's former student Georg Solti (DECCA 473 271-2) is certainly capable of transporting us to a gypsy camp fire, but this is no peasant entertainment.

It takes a bit of getting used to and it seems a bit weird at first, but if like me you would happily sit and listen to the great Korean playing a C major scale, the time invested is a) no hardship and b) immensely rewarding.

* his 'first' was never finished or recognised as such by him after he abandoned it when his muse spurned him

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Musical pedagogics

It would have been the obvious place to start, but better late than never.  Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is a charming collection of variations on a theme by Purcell which at the same time provides a guided tour of the various sections of the orchestra.  It's value is, as the title suggests, more pedagogical than musical, but the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Simon Rattle (EMI 5 55394 2) brings a sensitivity to the piece that lifts it above the mundane and makes it a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Larking about

Staying with Nigel Kennedy, my next choice is Walton's Violin Concerto (EMI 7243 5 62813 2 5) but whilst it starts with a wonderfully English sounding opening movement, beautifully played by Kennedy, I just can't get my head round the Italian concoction that follows.  Thankfully the disc also includes The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams.  Kennedy has a reputation for occasionally being less than serious, but his playing here is thoughtful, exquisitely phrased and the perfect foil for Rattle and the CBSO.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Firework display

Nigel Kennedy is not everyone's cup of tea but his interpretation of Mendelssohn's violin concerto must answer most critics. He plays the second movement with great sensitivity and never risks being over sentimental. The final movement is an electric firework display of virtuosity, although at times the tempo is perhaps a bit too electric to shape the piece. Overall, though, a superb performance of a magnificent concerto.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reach for the sky

The sense of achievement is palpable as the summit is reached in Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Mood music at its finest, beautifully interpreted by Staatskapelle Weimer under the baton of Antoni Wit (Naxos 8.557811). Scored for a large orchestra it is one of the Simon Boliver Orchestra's standard repertoire pieces.