Volume 1 – LIVE – 31/12/99 & 01/01/00, Musikhalle, Hamburg
EMI CDC 5 56970 2 [76’52”]
Volume 2 – LIVE – 31/12/00, Musikhalle, Hamburg
EMI CDC 5 57129 2 [78’35”]
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra conducted by Ingo Metzmacher
At the start of the Millennium just over 12 months ago, there was a revolutionary idea put about in Hamburg by the conductor Ingo Metzmacher. This was to set up a New Year Concert (somewhat similar to the Vienna Strauss etc. concert on New Year's morning) for the citizens of Hamburg. The only difference was that instead of music by the Strauss family, Hamburg would have a musical party where the content of the concert would be strictly of works from the 20th Century.
EMI made a recording of the first Concert and this was a good seller as a result of the publicity the event was given. We are now a year on from that first event, and the concert was repeated, albeit using different works. This was also recorded and the disc entitled "Who is Afraid of 20th Century Music - Volume 2", has now reached us.
The result is a splendid disc, well performed and recorded with the minimum of audience noise and a riotous sense of enjoyment. Clapping after each item (and halfway through the Copland item), but no matter - Great fun.
The music consists of the well known, Gershwin's tuneful and highly rhythmic Cuban Overture (full of tropical atmosphere), Falla's Ritual Fire Dance, Ravel's beautiful Pavane played here with much sensitivity, and Copland's Hoe Down from Rodeo. This catches the audience by surprise by not finishing when a number of them suspected, and the highly excitable Mambo from West Side Story (with vocal contributions from members of the orchestra) completes the popular items.
In addition, we hear more out of the way items, but still reasonably well known to average music lovers. These include Honegger's Pacific 231, making its usual very powerful impact and Stravinsky's Fireworks obviously captivating the audience. We also hear the Gavotte from Prokofiev's Cinderella (this time not the Classical Symphony) making a welcome appearance.
The final group of works represented here will be very well known to a minority of listeners but largely unknown to the vast majority, which is possibly the reason for this type of concert in the first place. There is a natural reluctance to embrace the unknown and Metzmacher and his band certainly take on the task with the utmost relish.
We have John Adams going on a Short Ride in a Fast Machine which I find somewhat repetitive, but I suppose that is what minimalism is all about. In the middle of the piece, the orchestra's rhythm goes very slightly awry, but all ends well with an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Toru Takemitsu is an acquired taste for some, but this excerpt from November Steps (arguably his best known orchestral work) shimmers with its pseudo-gamelan effects in the middle sounding very effective.
More minimalism with Michael Daugherty's Desi, with pop influences clearly audible. There is a nice twist at the end which produces a very positive response.
After that the Military March of Erich Wolfgang Korngold sounds positively old fashioned. It is not particularly well known the composer being relatively obscure (until about ten years ago) if we ignore his Hollywood activities. The neglect of the march certainly has nothing to do with any musical considerations. Very enjoyable.
More Cuban inspired music this time from George Antheil. His Archipelago, based on the rhumba is not particularly well known, but on this hearing, well worth the effort, given the context in which it finds itself.
The Shostakovich piece from the Suite from Cheremushki is typical Shostakovich in his ironic, galop mood. Again a very good choice, as it would have been easier to select a similar piece from, say, The Age of Gold.
Alexander Mossolov's famous or rather infamous picture of an Iron Foundry makes its usual impact, although here the performance fails to remove memories of the piece as recorded by Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw - admittedly a studio performance.
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
In amongst the dispiriting reliance of major classical labels in re-churning back (and even quite recent) catalogue in ever-more witless and vacuous compilations (’Great Adagios’, ’The World’s Best Classical Music Ever’, even ’Mozart for Dummies’), these two EMI CDs valiantly try to dam the unseemly (and surely unwarranted) flood. I doubt either will top the dubiously titled ’Classical Chart’, which is a great shame. En passant, couldn’t we split this sales tool into two - serious releases have their own chart, while the others could be accommodated by ’Classical Retard Advertising Promotion’ statistics (that’s CRAP for short). Although the notes don’t explain the background to these CDs, Ingo Metzmacher’s idea was to greet the new Millennium (CD1) not with a traditional Vienna Philharmonic Johann Strauss concert, or a Berlin Philharmonic glittering gala (Abbado has dragged that institution into modern times by including Nono on one occasion); instead, with his regular orchestra, the Hamburg Philharmonic (from Hamburg Opera), he wanted to ask a simple question. As documented on this EMI recording, there were plenty of people in Hamburg who wanted to make it clear that they were not afraid, or at least not of Metzmacher’s selection; overnight, a tradition was born, and EMI recorded the next concert, on the last evening of ’year 2000’. There is a distinct sense of occasion here, with applause following every piece. Each concert is accommodated on one disc with no indication that any repertoire has been lost (you can imagine that on New Year’s eve the good Hamburgers – let alone the orchestra – would be itching to get to the nearest bier-kellar). The performances are all good, and very enjoyable. Doubts that the orchestra might be a little staid in the transatlantic scores are dissipated in the overtures opening each disc: Bernstein’s Candide on the first, Gershwin’s Cuban on the second, where there is a tangible feeling of relaxation. The discs follow the same pattern. Each has fifteen items; the majority of the composers are either American or Russian. Intriguingly, on the Millennium disc, four of the thirteen composers died in New York and three died in Moscow. The second disc is a little more varied – Takemitsu and Falla adding Japan and Spain – and new continents to the death tally! Before you think I’ve gone mad on mortality statistics, I have detailed this facet to illustrate the rather narrow choice of music on offer here. Don’t get me wrong, the repertoire is nicely contrasted to offer 75 minutes plus of great music, but there are some glaring omissions. Do we really need another Ravel La valse or Pavane? Are not the Broadway snippets and Russian ballet and opera excerpts so popular as to negate their inclusion in such a project? The only really challenging (but agreeable) works are from Henze, Kagel (Marches to Miss the Victory), Anton Plate, Bernd Alois Zimmermann (Silence and Return) and Takemitsu. The latter is joined, on CD2, by two contemporary Americans, John Adams and Michael Daugherty (Desi is after Desi Arnaz, a Cuban singer), but the play-list on ’volume two’ is much less combative even than the first. There is nothing from the red, white and blue corner – Britain. You could choose from Elgar via Britten to Birtwistle or, from the more rhythmically insistent composers (some may argue harmonically simpler) such as Nyman, Martland or – a particular favourite – Graham Fitkin. What about our Antipodean friends, Australian Carl Vine or, more unusually, New Zealander Gareth Farr? All these are in (roughly) the Adams and Daugherty mode, not frightened to be exciting, fast and modal (and, perhaps most importantly, joyous). There is a more serious point. Surely this would have been an ideal point to lead an audience into serialism and its post-war developments at Darmstadt, or the Russian avant-garde (Schnittke, Gubaidulina), Polish individualists (Lutoslawski, Penderecki) and the ’spiritual renewalists’ (Part, Kancheli, Tavener, Gorecki). It seems particularly sad that, especially in the concert heralding 2001, fifty years after his death that Schoenberg is not represented – by, say, the late, extraordinary Prelude to Genesis. Admittedly, Metzmacher has proved his credentials in this area, with the fill-ups to the original EMI releases of his Hartmann symphony cycle – Berg, Martinu, Messiaen, Nono and Webern. He may have felt little need to repeat works already ’in the can’, but there is so much more from which to choose. Ligeti (father and/or son), Boulez (any of the Notations would work really well), Feldman and Cage; Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise would be the ideal closing work – and how appropriate for Hogmanay. Doubts over repertoire aside, these are engaging releases on their own terms. Anton Plate (born 1950) wrote his piece especially for the Millennium concert; the composer says it could work equally well backward as forward (although the building climax about two minutes in would sound rather odd played the other way round, starting as a massive chord and descending in pitch). In a nostalgic sort of way it is quite compelling, although its veering between extremes of loud and soft plays havoc in finding the right volume setting. The notes are rather perfunctory, collecting in their brief sentences some odd statements; in reference to Stravinsky, “it is rather astonishing that one of the most dazzling and influential composers studied law before embarking on his musical career”. Schumann, amongst others, did the same. Less care and attention was lavished on the second CD’s booklet – no track timings – which is a shame. This looks like becoming an annual recording event. Hopefully the discs will be a success and Metzmacher will be encouraged to be a little more challenging in future. Perhaps I can offer a challenge in return: to produce a “Who Is Afraid Of 20th Century Music?” concert and CD which only plays works by living composers.