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CD of the Week – Jon Lord

Jon Lord: Concerto for Group and Orchestra
Ear Music

So many fading pop stars have sought to revive faltering careers in the classical sector that the term ‘crossover’ has become synonymous with sell-out. Jon Lord was never that.

The Deep Purple founder was classically trained and passionate about keyboard instruments. He blended a Hammond organ into the band’s trademark sound and, unusually for his time, focussed more on live concerts than on recording.

The first performance of his classic-rock fusion concerto was conducted by Malcolm Arnold, one of England’s most successful symphonists, and the influence of Arnold’s effortless tune-making is audible intermittently through the three movements of this remarkable work.

Lord played the concerto more than 30 times with different orchestras and conductors before deciding to make a studio recording with Paul Mann, who had directed the work on tour. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic was engaged for the sessions along with some hardcore rock band members. In the last weeks of his life (he died of pancreatic cancer in July), the composer was able to supervise and approve the final takes.

So what kind of work is the concerto? It’s a classically structured work with flashes of very loud rock playing and two stretches of ballad singing that, while agreeable, disrupt the cogent flow of instrumental conversation. The Hammond organ adds a unique nasal undertow and the propulsion of rhythm and ideas never flags. This is probably a work best heard where it was first played – in the Royal Albert Hall, London – but the recording is a precious relic of a time when music knew no barriers and the future held an infinity of hope.

3 Mahler CDs

1st symphony
Naxos

The pulse in this performance by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony is inconsistent from one movement to the next. Irony is crucially missing from the third movement. The live sound (Tim Handley) is rich and transparent and the orchestra is on great form, but the interpretation is unconvincing.

1st symphony
Oehms

Cologne’s Gurzenich orchestra learned to play Mahler with the composer himself. Its sound has an unassuming authenticity and the narrative is confidently driven by Markus Stenz, a little too fast at times and without a trace of the underlying ironic contradictions. The brass playing, though, is supersonic.

2nd symphony
DG

Myung-Whun Chung’s tempi are exemplary and the Seoul Philharmonic playing is ferocious, yet note-perfect. Doubts nag in the low strings of the andante and the Röschen soloist, Myung Joo Lee, wallows in her own vibrato. But the interpretative line remains tight throughout and four Korean choruses deliver a mighty resurrection.

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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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