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Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, De Falla, Music Makes a City (DVD) | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, De Falla, Music Makes a City (DVD)

Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, De Falla, Music Makes a City (DVD)

Spanish piano music, a popular symphony, and a resourceful American ensemble on DVD

Children queue to catch Louisville's finestLouisville Courier-Journal


Serebrier's Dvorak 9Dvořák: Symphony No 9, Czech Suite, Two Slavonic Dances Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier (Warner Classics)

It’s easy to become a little obsessed with obscure, underrated music. You bang on and on about works which you’re convinced are masterpieces which no one ever seems to play. Which means that it’s also easy to dismiss pieces of classical music which are genuinely popular. You think you know them so well as to never need to hear them again. Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony are perhaps the easiest of all to undervalue; they’re deservedly loved because they’re both pretty much both perfect. Stephen Hough’s Grieg concerto recording will be reviewed in a few weeks’ time, so here’s a pretty good recording of the Dvořák symphony hailing from, er, Bournemouth.

José Serebrier, born in Uruguay in 1938, was a youthful assistant to Leopold Stokowski back in the 1960s. His repertoire has focused on music of the last century, but he’s equally good in the mainstream. This Dvořák Nine is flexible and soulful with a lot of idiomatic rubato. Serebrier is simply following his instincts and trusting the score. And it’s a cliché to say so, but there are passages here which you feel as if you’re hearing for the first time, my favourites being the dancing woodwinds seven minutes into the Largo and the crisply articulated start of the Scherzo. Serebrier also nails perfectly the work’s close – a wistful, warm farewell, a blazing tutti melting into a soft wind chord. Sparkling readings of two Slavonic Dances top and tail the disc, but the highlight is Dvořák’s Czech Suite. It’s a delight; the Furiant of the last movement witty and pointed. The playing is excellent and the recording quality outstanding.

Perianes plays de FallaDe Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain; Works for solo piano, Javier Perianes (piano), BBCSO/Josep Pons (Harmonia Mundi)

Not all the best Spanish music was composed by Debussy and Ravel. Here’s a bewitching disc of piano music by the Andalusian-born Manuel de Falla. Best known is Nights in the Garden of Spain; after a few seconds of those opening ponticello scratchings it’s impossible to avoid screaming out “Spain!” as if you’re answering a starter question on University Challenge. Javier Perianes’s performance was recorded with the BBCSO live at the Barbican in January; what immediately impresses is the sharpness, the steeliness of Josep Pons’s accompaniment. He, too, loves this piece but never wallows in it. The last few minutes of En los jardines de la sierra de Cordoba are overwhelming in their sultry headiness, with Perianes’s keyboard beautifully integrated into the orchestral sound.

Three of the earliest solo piano works sound noticeably un-Spanish; the influences of Chopin and Satie coming to mind; even Serenata Andaluza from 1900 makes only passing reference to Spanish folk music. Perianes opens the disc with the Cuatri piezas Españolas, each of which is a far more successful fusion of Spanish themes with French Impressionism. Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) is an eloquent tribute to a composer revered by Falla; even more impressive is a stark 1936 work dedicated to the memory of Paul Dukas. Perianes spent time consulting Falla’s autograph scores before making these recordings; it’s hard to imagine them being bettered.

Music Makes a CityDVD: Music Makes a City

The Kentucky city of Louisville was devastated by a flood in 1937. As part of the city’s regeneration it was decided to form a semi-professional civic orchestra, helmed by the delightfully unflashy Robert Whitney. Over several years the Louisville Orchestra developed into a 70-piece ensemble, performing mainstream classics to a satisfied audience. The city’s mayor, Charles Farnsley, was an arts enthusiast who believed in the Confucian notion that high culture attracted wealth and power. So, from 1948, the money that would have previously paid for visiting soloists’ fees was spent on commissioning contemporary composers to write new works for Louisville. New music from the likes of Hindemith, Milhaud and Copland duly arrived, and composers’ fees were increased if they came to conduct their works in person. Louisville became an unlikely centre for contemporary music, the orchestra’s profile further raised by recording the new pieces. Audiences took some time to adjust to the unfamiliar diet, and the project was expensive – supported generously by the Rockefeller Foundation. Farnsley was vindicated – by the late 1950s, the city’s cultural profile had enhanced its reputation, leading to major companies relocating to Louisville

Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler’s film is a delight – an unfussy, informative documentary with a fascinating narrative. There are no dramatic reconstructions, no trendy graphics; the only vaguely contemporary note is having Louisville’s Will Oldham (better known as Bonnie Prince Billy) narrating. Talking heads include Gunther Schuller and a delightfully lucid Elliott Carter, interviewed in his 100th year, recalling the premiere of his thorny Variations for Orchestra. Surviving orchestral players look back on the Whitney era with pride, notably when they recall a visit to Carnegie Hall in 1950. It’s a timely fable about the importance of investing in the arts, soundtracked by vintage Louisville recordings. And do watch the bonus footage of Elliott Carter on the bonus DVD; I can only hope that I’ll be as articulate should I ever reach 100.

Watch the trailer to Music Makes a City

Music Makes a City is a timely fable about the importance of investing in the arts, soundtracked by vintage Louisville recordings

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