Merry May Music

I was recently in “old Europe” for a conference on Islam and to promote my new book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind (alas, not a work about music). However, what’s the point of being in old Europe without music? The very stones cry out for it. Therefore, I snuck in an opera in Vienna, Prokofiev’s delightful The Love for Three Oranges, at the Volksoper and a wonderful chamber music concert at Wigmore Hall in London.
In London, I succumbed to the usual temptation to visit the HMV shops on Oxford Street. In the first one, I was traumatized by the discovery that the classical music section had been cut in half. I left despondent and empty-handed. Expecting the worst, I trudged to the next HMV shop, and to my vast relief, it was intact. I celebrated with several imprudent purchases.

There was the EMI Mozart — the collector’s edition — box of 50 CDs, with first-rate artists like Daniel Barenboim playing the Mozart piano concertos, for the equivalent of $1 per CD. What would you have done? Not too far from that was a Deutsche Grammophon box with 38 CDs, offering Herbert von Karajan’s Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schuman, and Tchaikovsky cycles. The equivalent price jumped to only $2 per CD. I confess I folded, but I made sure to get my customs rebate slip to make these an even more outrageous bargain. I know this purchase creates some duplication in my collection, but I will give the extra copies to the poor or musically challenged.
No trip to London is complete without meeting Martin Anderson, the chief and founder of Toccata Classics, in his subterranean haunt, The Cork and Bottle. Martin scored a coup recently by engaging the talents of Antonin Dvorak’s great-grandson, the great violinist/violist Josef Suk, and of pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy to play Suk’s transcriptions (for violin, viola, and piano) of 30 Dvorak songs. Needless to say, this is a charmer and a labor of love all around (TOCC 0100).
Toccata Classics has also released a highly unusual item: Velesslavitsa — Concerto for Piano, Two Violins, and Cello — composed by Alexander Prior, a 16-year-old British-Russian musician. What is more, the piece was written for and is played by a ten-year-old Chinese pianist and two American violinists, ages twelve and thirteen. What I like about Prior’s composition is that he does not try to be avant-garde or concern himself with any particular musical technique. His music is steeped in the Russian Romantic tradition and shows his incredibly precocious mastery of it. This is real wunderkind music. The performances are equally startling. In short, there is no element of condescension involved in enjoying this music; we are way beyond party tricks here. I will avidly follow this extraordinary young man’s future. Bravo to Toccata for this premiere release of a live recording (TOCC 0109).
Another amazing Toccata discovery is the chamber music of Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916). Gernsheim is labeled, and therefore dismissed, as a Brahms clone. I was mildly impressed by his four symphonies (Arte Nova label), but had never heard his Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 (TOCC 0099). They rise to a far different level of genius and accomplishment than his symphonic works would lead one to expect. This is not an infrequent phenomenon — that a composer excel in one particular genre and not another (for instance, Sergei Taneyev). I am overwhelmed by these two works. They are incredibly alive, passionate, rhythmically dramatic, and melodically blessed. Brahms clone? Here Gernsheim is in competition with the master for the top rung. The Art Vio Quartet and Pianist Edouard Oganessian play as if their lives depended on it. This is a major find.
When I first listened to the David Matthews Fourth String Quartet late at night after my return from England, I was stunned. How is it, I wondered, that music of this quality, written in 1982, is being heard by recording only now? This is an indictment of the musical establishment, as it is a complete vindication of what Toccata Classics does — and how well it does it. What we hear in Quartets Nos. 4, 6, and 10, along with the Adagio for String Quartet, is some of the most concentrated, penetrating writing for this medium in the past 30 years or more. It is musical thinking of the highest order and quartet writing in the great tradition of Beethoven, Bartok, Britten ,and Tippett, all of whom Matthews mentions as influences. Though he does not list Janacek, I am tempted to add his name because of the elliptical punch and attractive wildness of these works and Matthews’s ability to express so much in so few bars.
These works are full of exquisite moments. Some of the music is searing, much of it dances and sings, and some of it is achingly beautiful and tender. It is all brimming with life. I found the adagio sostenuto in Quartet No. 4 and the Lontano movement in the Tenth Quartet to be heart-stoppingly beautiful. The great good news is that this is Volume One in what will be a complete cycle of Matthews’s eleven quartets — though a twelfth quartet is on the way. The Kreutzer Quartet plays this music with staggering conviction and skill (TOCC 0058). This release exemplifies the mission of Toccata Classics and why such a label is absolutely necessary.
But that is not all. I have also been enjoying other Toccata treats, like the enlivening piano music of Serbian composer Marko Tajčević (1900-84), played so beautifully by Radmila Stojanovic-Kiriluk (TOCC 0041). If you care for Slavic music with a touch of French impressionism, you will enjoy this. I also have to report that Martin Anderson’s sister enterprise, Toccata Press, has just released two wonderful books. Martinu and the Symphony by Michael Crump is, unbelievably, the first complete study of these magical symphonic works and thus a must for Martinu lovers. The other is Comrades in Art: The Correspondence of Ronald Stevenson and Percy Grainger 1957-61, edited by Teresa R. Balough. It comes with a CD of Ronald Stevenson’s charming talk on Grainger from 1987. I will report back on these two treasures when I have had time to peruse them more thoroughly.
In the meantime, I urge you to join the Toccata Discovery Club. Membership is a mere 20 British pounds (cheaper by the day) and brings with it major discounts on all CDs, downloads, and books from this wonderful source. You also get two free CDs of your choice, and it is all postage-free.
It was the mutual love of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music (1919-1996) that first brought Anderson and me together about ten years ago. I recently reported on his Toccata release of Weinberg songs, and I have been avidly following the superb complete String Quartet series on CPO. Now I have further good news from the Chandos label, which has been issuing new recordings of his symphonies, and from Naxos, which offers a CD of his cello sonatas.
Chandos has issued a new recording of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 7, played by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, under Thord Svedlund (CHSA 5078). As far as I can tell, the First Symphony is a recording premiere, while the Seventh Symphony has had only one prior release with its dedicatee, Rudolph Barshai, at the helm of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. However passionate and superbly played, Barshai’s effort was compromised by Soviet recording engineers in somewhat harsh and cavernous 1967 sound. The Chandos Super Audio CD has some of the best orchestral sound I have heard. The richness and detail are superb. Audio-wise, it does not get better than this.
But it is the performance that really matters, and the Chandos forces excel. It is not their first excursion into Weinberg territory. Two years ago, Gothenburg and Svedlund gave us one the very best Weinberg discs featuring four different concertos (two for flute, and one each for cello and clarinet) on Chandos 5064. This is the first time I have heard the First Symphony, and I find it as confident and assured as the first symphonies by Prokofiev and Shostakovich. While Weinberg may have sprung forth fully formed, this work is also very much under the influence of these two composers — Prokofiev especially in the first movement. It was this composition that Weinberg sent to Shostakovich in Moscow. He was so impressed by it that he arranged a pass for Weinberg to come to Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. Shostakovich and Weinberg became fast friends and beneficially influenced each other. Weinberg said, “I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.”However, he so totally adapted Shostakovich’s language and style that he was thought to be his clone. That impression, however, is superficial.
By the Seventh Symphony certainly, no doubt remains that he was his own man, and his style is immediately recognizable to anyone who has become acquainted with it. The Seventh is a fascinating, highly imaginative work for harpsichord and strings that displays Weinberg’s trademark mastery of contrapuntal writing, his subtlety in deploying forces, his gripping intensity, and keening lyricism. Svedlund takes three minutes more than Barshai with this music. What he gives up in urgency, he gains in marvelous transparency and range of expression. I was more alarmed by the music under Barshai; I am moved by it under Svedlund. The playing by the Gothenburg members is dazzling. This may now be the single best CD in the Weinberg symphony series.
To sample how wonderful Weinberg’s chamber music is, go to the new Naxos disc featuring cellist Dmitry Yablonsky and pianist Hsin-Ni Liu (Naxos 8.570333) in the Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2, and Solo Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 3. Two of these four works were written for Mstislav Rostropovich, who compared Weinberg’s four Sonatas for Solo Cello with the Cello Suites of Bach. The melancholy First Cello Sonata is redolent of Shostakovich and of comparable quality. It is riveting and deeply moving. Weinberg sings his soul out in the solo cello pieces, which deserve Rostropovich’s accolade. The third movement Allegro of the First Solo Cello Sonata is so viscerally engaging that my fifteen-year-old son was remarking how good it was. Anyone who cares about Russian/Polish music in the 20th century — or simply about great chamber music — should grab this bargain CD.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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