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CD of the Week: Sounds of the 30s

Sounds of the 30s: Stefano Bollani/Riccardo Chailly
Decca

So riveting was the Rhapsody in Blue played by this pair in Leipzig last year that my fingers couldn’t rip the cellophane fast enough off this new release and I had to resort to teeth. Bollani, an Italian jazz drummer and pianist, has a rare feel for the inter-War idiom and an even rarer capacity to adapt his improvisational flair to the stringencies of a great orchestra and conductor. What would they come up with next?

The first 45 minutes are unalloyed bliss. The Ravel G major concerto feels less French and more febrile than I have heard it before, dancing (in George Steiner’s famous phrase) on the edge of a volcano. Stravinsky’s Tango, in both piano and orchestra forms, cannot shed its European corsets but a pair of Weill songs on raw piano amplify the smoky anxieties of the era. Bollano plays Weill as Milva sang him – with an Italian F.U. to literal niceties and an unforgettable penetration.

That, however, was the end of my rapture. The last half-hour comprises a 1931 ballet suite, Mille u una notte (1001 Nights) by Victor de Sabata, one of the most influential conductors of La Scala, Milan. A musician of intellectual force and personal austerity, he was (like many maestros) a persistent, frustrated composer. In this score de Sabata meanders all over the place. His themes are unoriginal, hovering on the verge of pastiche. The suite may be an ironic commentary on the era; much of the time it sounds more like a man harnessing the power of a great orchestra to no worthwhile purpose. I wish they had left this one in the drawer.

Two war-torn recitals

Rudi Stephan: Complete Songs
MDG

Shot by a wounded comrade on the Russian front in 1915, aged 28, Rudi Stephan wrote around 50 songs, of which 20 survived a warehouse fire in the Second World War. Some ranked him with Pfitzner and Strauss as the future of the German Lied. Tonally conservative and rather morose, he had an ear for quirky sonorities and was unexpectedly fond of the reed organ, the kunstharmonium. The mezzo Sophie Harmsen and bass Alexander Vassiliev give it their best shot, with Miri Yampolsky on piano, but what grabs the ear is Ryoko Morooka’s harmonium.

Martin Shaw: The Airmen
Delphian

A contemporary of Vaughan Williams, Shaw lived through two world wars. His songs reflect classic RVW themes of wasted lives and landscapes. Sophie Bevan, Andrew Kennedy and Roderick Williams sing heart and soul in this boldly curated, subtly affecting retrieval by the pianist Iain Burnside.

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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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