Monthly Archives: March 2017

Grigory Sokolov (piano)


Schubert, Beethoven, Rameau

DG 479 5426

reviewed by Neville Cohn


SokolovDuring the years when I taught music criticism, I would, early on in the course, ask how many of the students had listened to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata, either ‘live’ or  recorded. Not a single student had done so. And during a lifetime of working as a critic, I recall only a very few occasions when I was able to listen to a ‘live’ account of this extraordinary work.


Its physical demands are so immense and its ideas so complex and taxing in both physical and emotional terms that only a very select few are game – and able – to traverse its dauntingly challenging terrain with confidence.


Decades ago,  at a recital in Cape Town, one of a series devoted to Beethoven’s complete 32 piano sonatas, the Hammerklavier was given a performance which was unforgettable – but for all the wrong reasons.


It was only moments into the performance by a pianist who will remain nameless that it became clear – and depressingly clearer as the work unfolded – that physical management of the notes was the sole aim of the performer. So involved in the notational management of the piece was this player that very little attention had been given to revealing the demon lurking behind the printed note. It remained almost totally hidden.


What we were given was a race to the end (which faltered increasingly) in purely physical terms. It was a depressing experience.


But to listen to Grigory Sokolov is to experience music making at the highest imaginable level. Remember: this is no studio recording allowing for bits and pieces of it to be recorded and recorded again until the soloist feels satisfied by that particular succession of notes. No. This is music that in the most frank and alert way brings the listener face to face with the composer.


There’s an immediacy about the playing that that makes one feel that if Beethoven himself had been present at this performance, he might well have wanted to embrace this remarkable Russian. At its most extravert, this is playing that sets the pulse racing; it is a reading of the most authoritative sort – and all the more welcome for its rarity. In this deeply probing, thoughtful reading,  listening to Sokolov becomes a journey of discovery, the playing revealing detail and insights only very infrequently encountered in other, lesser, accounts of the work,


There would be very few pianists anywhere on the planet able to match this recording which, in the most meaningful sense, is evidence of greatness. Sokolov makes the unplayable accessible. He reveals its myriad details without losing sight of its overall design as only few can, Sokolov taking the listener into the composer’s idiosyncratic world and makes it accessible, meaningful, unforgettable.


The sonata was recorded ‘live’ at a recital given by Sokolov in Salzburg.

Also on disc are Schubert’s Impromptus D899 and Three Piano Pieces D946 as well as encores by Rameau and Brahms.

‘heard this and thought of you”


James Crabb (classical accordion) /Genevieve Lacey (recorders)

ABC Classics 481 1874

 TPT:  71’43”

 reviewed by Neville Cohn


Read This and Thought of You Notions of a wheezing classical accordion in combination with the tweeting tones of a soprano recorder might seem to some a less-than-delightful sonic mixture. But I’d say it would need only a few moments to persuade even the grumpiest listeners that with these two top performers on the job, musical magic is on offer.


Indeed, the artistry brought to bear on these instruments is such that these odd musical bedfellows work wonders. The result of their endeavours is frankly a delight in a compilation brimming with charm and gentle sonic ideas, some of the offerings reaching back as far as the 16th century – and a few items which might be thought of as having been composed as recently as yesterday afternoon.


Recercada segunda by Diego Ortiz (he died around 1570) is jovial and charm-laden, a delightfully busy item. Recercada primea is its melancholy partner. Where is everybody? –  composed two years ago by Andrea Keller – is very much of the here and now, a sombre and rather depressing utterance.


Listen to Damian Barbeler’s Shadow Box (2013-2014). It’s beautifully written, utterly engrossing as if emanating from a piper in some remote, faraway place.


Lacey and Crabb are in fine fettle in an arrangement on J.S.Bach’s Organ Sonata No 3 in D minor proving yet again the extraordinary universality of so much of Bach’s music; it sounds just as effective and meaningful in this arrangement for recorder and accordion. Reflective in the slow movement and nimble and accurate in the finale, Lacey and Crabb do Bach proud.


Crabb’s arrangement of Sally Beamish’s Lament comes across as an essay in visceral melancholy, music infused with sadness.  A little of Palestrina’s Vestiva i colli goes a long way; it is overlong for its material and outstays its welcome.


Two traditional Scottish pieces are a toe-tapping finale. Momentum is most effectively maintained; it‘s an engaging, quirky offering.



Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

BBC Concert Orchestra

Christopher Warren Green/ Gavin Sutherland, conductors


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Love StoryFor many, especially those of a certain age, the often nostalgia-drenched items in this selection of music from the movies will trigger many memories, some carefree and positive but also of consternation, even alarm, written as some of them were during the terrible years of World War 2. The Warsaw Concerto, in particular (and the movie Dangerous Moonlight), drew enormous audiences during those anxious times – and Valentina Lisitsa is stylistically impeccable here and, indeed, in all the other tracks.


The writer recalls, as a child, listening to his parents and friends discussing the progress or otherwise of the war – and hoping that we’d not be overrun by the terrible German Nazis.


Richard Addinsell’s trashy Warsaw Concerto  unashamedly cribbed Rachmaninov’s romantic style of writing – and it had huge success. People couldn’t get enough of it and it remains especially meaningful to the now dwindling numbers of people who saw the movie Dangerous Moonlight. Pianist Louis Kentner’s 78rpm recording of the concerto sold by the bucket load.


Lisitsa sounds in her element in Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody in Love Story (1944). Bath, incidentally, wrote the score for the first ever British all-talking movie – Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929).


Unlike today when CDs are freely available at relatively modest prices, the 78rpm shellac records of the war years – and on into postwar years until LPs took over in the mid-1950s – had to be looked after very carefully in case dust got into the grooves

or dropped with usually irreversible damage due to its brittleness.


Lisitsa, a first rate pianist, is able to adapt chameleon-like to whatever style and/or mood are required. Whether gentle, romantic, introspective, confrontational or heroic, Lisista is entirely convincing..


I liked the Mansell concerto, a gentle, quiet little obeisance to George Gershwin. And the exquisitely lyrical Dream of Olwyn will also trigger memories for many older listeners. It’s beautifully played. But the Rhapsody from Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (starring Marlene Dietrich) hasn’t worn well.


The Operatic Pianist



Andrew Wright (piano)

Divine Art dda 25113

TPT: 64’48”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


The Operatic PianistDuring the 19th century, there was a remarkable flowering of operatic composition. It met a huge popular demand and every European city of significance built an opera house to cater for the genre’s enthusiasts. But for opera lovers living in small towns, say, or in villages, there was almost no opportunity to experience opera, apart from, perhaps, a visit from this or that small touring company. To counter this shortage – or complete absence – of opera beyond the big cities, pianists responded to this need by incorporating into their recitals arrangements of operatic excerpts, most frequently a favourite aria, say, or this or that overture or dance episode.


This was a successful development and some pianists were able to maintain careers based largely on these operatic offerings.  And until radio and recordings made opera more widely available, operatic extravaganzas at the keyboard kept many pianists very busy on the concert circuit.


Nowadays, operatic excerpts in piano recitals are rare – and Andrew Wright is one of the few musicians to maintain the tradition. This fascinating CD includes not only 19th- century operatic extracts but some composed by Wright himself.


They make intriguing listening.


Operatic extracts for piano solo or piano duet were also very popular in the drawing rooms of wealthy homes in European cities. This was especially so for young ladies for whom some accomplishment at the piano was considered desirable in the marriage stakes.


Numbers of significant composers made arrangements of grand opera for piano solo, the most famous being Liszt. His versions of extracts from Wagner’s operas are still  occasionally encountered in piano recital programs. Israeli conductor Asher Fisch recently brought out a memorable CD of piano arrangements of Wagnerian opera extracts.


During much of the 19th century and up until the 1920s, virtuosic arrangements of this type were an ineradicable feature of just about every pianist on the international concert circuit.


But in broad terms, the age of virtuoso arrangements for piano of operatic extracts is largely past – but there’s a good deal to be said in positive terms of Andrew Wright’s CD “The Operatic Pianist”.


In the grand tradition of pianists playing their own arrangements of excerpts from this or that opera, we can listen to Wright’s own keyboard versions of extracts from, inter alia, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable  in which he seems positively to revel in the many challenges posed by music that was never intended to be played on the piano. I think Meyerbeer would have been chuffed no end by Wright’s keyboard arrangement. It’s a winner.


Listen to the version of Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma, here in an arrangement by  Sigismund Thalberg (no mean pianist himself). It is most beautifully played, its inherent simplicity of line presented with most appealing tone quality. Wright is no less persuasive in an arrangement of one of Wagner’s most loved arias: The Evening Star from Tannhauser. And the aching beauty of Liszt’s version for piano of Isolde’s Liebestod is splendidly revealed.

The Cambridge Buskers Collection



Michael Copley (flutes); Dag Ingram (accordion)

DG 482 1785  (4 CDs)

TPT: 4 hours 55 minutes 16 seconds

reviewed by Neville Cohn


The Cambridge BuskersFar and away the most intriguing busker I’ve ever come across was in Cape Town when I was a child. He was an overweight man without arms, seated in a wheelchair with a wind-up gramophone and a tiny tin of needles on the ground just in front of him. His feet were bare.


Incredible as this must seem to those who have never experienced it, this remarkable figure used ten astonishingly versatile toes (of normal length) to extract a needle from the tin and insert it in the appropriate place in the gramophone arm. Then, with the 78rpm record whirling around on the turntable, he’d place the arm perfectly on the spinning shellac disc, an achievement invariably prompting applause and a mini-shower of coins from astonished onlookers.


More conventionally, Thomas Gould , a sensational young violinist, has busked in the London Underground. And Joshua Bell, another superb fiddler, also famously did a spot of busking in a Washington subway, an event that created headlines internationally.


Then there are the Cambridge Buskers, a duo who must surely go down as the most celebrated of all street musicians. Their LPs sold like hotcakes (still do, I understand) – and now they are on compact disc, a bumper 4CD pack.


How refreshing it is to listen to these fine musicians – and they are both very much at the top of their game whether on accordion, flute, recorder or crumhorn – sending up the classics in a most delightful, tongue-in-cheek way. This sort of thing is VERY difficult to bring off successfully – and it requires high artistry.


It is definitely not for beginners who would almost certainly discover how very easy it is to sound ham handed, earthbound, tasteless and crass in an initiative such as this.


But with the CB players wondrously on their musical toes, there’s not a hint of this. These two chaps know exactly what they are doing – and they do so beautifully in delightfully buoyant and engaging musicmaking. How easily this sort of musical sendup can sound tasteless and, worst of all, boring. No chance of that, I’m happy to say, with these two fellows.


Delightfully quirky – now sparking a chuckle, now a guffaw


It is only musicians who are thoroughly trained and experienced who can take on a challenge such as this – and make it work. As any famous movie comedian will say, it’s jolly hard to be funny The CB fellows, though, seem born to it with their zany expeditions through revered classics – anything from Flight (or might it have been Fight?) of the Valkyries to all of Beethoven ‘s nine symphonies crammed into 5 minutes by two chaps on a jolly romp through the classics. It’s an absolutely jolly wheeze, wouldn’t you say, by two musically madcap fellows?


It’s all jolly good fun as that light hearted wit Margaret Thatcher might have opined – and sure to give the apoplexy to those who believe that bringing humour to the classics borders on criminality.