It is all too easy to take Gustav Mahler's symphonies and orchestral songs for granted in the 21st century's first decade. More than ever before, concert performances and recordings of these works abound, and at a level of proficiency that reveals the remarkable extent to which musicians worldwide have assimilated the composer's idiom. Given the music's primacy in today's central orchestral repertoire, we forget how the great Mahler advocates of the past had to champion his music in the face of adversity. "Who can bear those monstrous symphonies, those over-blown, out-of-date horrors," asked one leading music critic when the New York Philharmonic launched a Mahler Festival to celebrate the composer's 1960 centenary.
Les Noces is a screaming, shrieking, flat-out masterpiece. Leonard Bernstein himself has referred to it as Stravinsky's greatest work, and listening to this incendiary performance, it's awfully hard to disagree. Scored for voices, four pianos, and percussion, the work provided the inspiration for the entire career of Orff (of Carmina Burana fame), but it's so much better as sheer music than anything Orff wrote. And what a cast! The pianists for this performance include Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Cyprien Katsaris, and Homero Francesch, four certified virtuoso performers, while the singers of the English Bach Festival Chorus really cover themselves with glory in both works. A stunner.
An all-too-rare new recording from Polyphony and Stephen Layton presents highlights from the choral repertoire by four twentieth-century American giants: Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Randall Thompson. Framed by Thompson’s understated favourites Alleluia and Fare Well, the programme includes Bernstein’s Missa brevis, Copland’s early set of four motets, and—of course—Barber’s inimitable Agnus Dei.