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CD of the Week – Alexandre Tharaud plays Mauricio Kagel

Mauricio Kagel/Alexandre Tharaud
Aeon

outhererew510Contemporary Classical is the biggest turnoff in the music rack. Most people seem to think it is either going to hurt their brains with complex theorems or numb their ears with repetitive simplicity. Often, they are right. Sometimes, they are missing out.

Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) was an Argentine-German double-exile who could not resist poking sticks at the sacred cows of classical music. In Ludwig van, a 20-minute piece for small ensemble, he takes fragments of Beethoven’s most famous works and juxtaposes them with intrusive noises, bad singing, running water, false solemnity and all the tricks that post-modern art uses to smash the glass cases of museum culture. As a piece of satire, Ludwig van is an important statement, all the more timely on the eve of the Verdi-Wagner year. As a piece of music, it is good fun. As a work of art, you just want to own it.

Composers like Kagel, who live outside safe categories, live in the hope that a major star will play their esoteric stuff. Kagel got lucky. He ran into the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, a Chopin specialist who is not afraid of novelty or things go bump on the floor. Among other delights on this thrillingly wacky album is a work for metronome and piano and another, perversely, for three hands. I would have given the album five stars for the pleasure it has given me, but for a sudden anxiety that men in white coats might come to drag me away for liking such forbidden stuff.

3 underplayed symphonies

bis_cd1690Allan Pettersson’s 6th
BIS

A Swedish outcast, living on the poverty line, Pettersson is the most original Nordic symphonist after Sibelius and Nielsen. Here, as is his wont, he starts in darkness and feels his way, an unbroken hour later, to light. Few modern symphonists create or sustain so gripping an atmosphere, and Christian Lindberg’s performance with the Norrköping Symphony is by far the best on record. I have listened to it, end to end, five times.

Witold Lutoslawski’s 2nd
Chandos

Trapped between Communist expectation and his own modernist inclinations, Lutoslawski walked a high wire in the nervous Sixties. His two-movement 2nd symphony is so jittery at times that he called the first section ‘hésitant’. It isn’t: Edward Garder conducts a commanding performance with the BBC Philharmonic. Luto’s cello cocerto, written for Rostropovich is, if anything, bleaker. Paul Watkins is the austere soloist.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 19th
Naxos

By 1985, the prolific Russian had reached his 142nd work and was repeating himself. There are some glorious passages in the 19th, many reminiscent of his friend Shotaskovich, and blazingly performed by the St Petersburg State Symphony, conductor Vladimir Lande. But the intensity does not equal that of Weinberg’s Mahlerian 14th.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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