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Péter EÖTVÖS (b. 1944)
Seven for violin and orchestra (Memorial for the Columbia Astronauts) (2006) [21:38]
Levitation for two clarinets, string orchestra, and accordion (2007) [20:53]
CAP-KO for acoustic piano, keyboard, and orchestra (2007) [19:58]
Akiko Suwanai (violin)
Richard Hosford (clarinet), John Bradbury (clarinet)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra (Levitation)/Péter Eötvös
rec. live, Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Palace of the Arts, Budapest, Hungary, 30 March 2008 (Seven); Barbican Hall, London, UK, 14 May 2011 (Levitation); Gothenburg Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden, 2 and 3 February 2006 (CAP-KO)

Back in 2013 I reviewed Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s account of the Eötvös violin concerto Seven, the disc that became of my Recordings of the Year. The recording under review here actually predates Kopatchinskaja’s by four years, and the violinist, Akiko Suwanai, is the soloist who premiered the work. The album itself was released only in 2014 and has received at least one previous review elsewhere. I feel fortunate it has now come my way, as it complements another all-Eötvös concerto disc I reviewed in 2016 containing the composer’s second violin concerto, DoReMi, as well as his Cello Concerto Grosso and percussion concerto, Speaking Drums (Alpha). I continue to be impressed by Eötvös’ inventive music that both entertains and stimulates the listener. He follows in the line of the great Hungarian composers, Béla Bartók and György Ligeti, by both inheriting their folk influences and having his own voice.

As I wrote in my earlier review, Eötvös composed Seven in memory of the seven astronauts who perished in the tragic Columbia space shuttle accident of February 2003. The work has four “cadenza” movements, followed by a second part that is almost the length of all four. László Tihanyi remarks in his notes to the CD that the number seven appears in many forms throughout the work: “the orchestra comprises 49 musicians divided into seven groups, with the soloist complemented by a further six violins, whom Eötvös places on a balcony, and who symbolize the floating, spatial after-images of the astronauts. The number seven also plays a leading role in the work’s rhythmic and metrical structure, with bars of seven beats and the frequent appearance of quick septuplets.” This may sound pretentious, but the concerto is certainly not. It is a very serious piece that captures the spirit of its subject, demonstrating none of the humour or folksiness of some of his other concertos. Although I have much respect for it, I prefer the lighter second violin concerto, DoReMi.

There is little to choose between the two recordings of Seven. Both Kopatchinskaja and Suwanai easily mount all the challenges the work presents, and with the composer as conductor both accounts can be considered authoritative. The few differences seem to be in the recordings themselves. Kopatchinskaja is recorded slightly closer than Suwanai and at times appears to be the more forceful interpreter, but this is only a relative thing. In other instances the Suwanai/Eötvös account is more dramatic due to the greater presence of the orchestra with less spotlighting on the soloist. However, these differences are negligible. Anyone should be greatly satisfied with either performance, and preference will depend on one’s choice of the coupled works. Kopatchinskaja’s two-disc set includes exceptional accounts of Bartók and Ligeti violin concertos, whereas this CD contains two other fascinating concertos of Eötvös.

I had not heard Levitation, a concerto for two clarinets and strings with accordion obbligato, before, although it appears on a CD with other clarinet concertos that William Hedley reviewed here in 2012. The work is in four movements with the addition of a Cadenza, between the third and last of these. Because Tihanyi’s description of the concerto’s movements is inadequate for the present disc, I am borrowing from Hadley’s review where he refers to the notes to the disc he reviewed, thus: “The first movement has street furniture – phone boxes and road signs – flying about in a hurricane, whereas the second evokes a recurring dream the composer has of his own body floating, horizontally, over a landscape. The third movement describes gondolas on – or presumably above – Venetian waterways, and the last has Petrushka, buoyant, high above the world that has dealt so cruelly with him.” All the same, Tihanyi in his note does refer to Petrushka for the last movement which by and large is the only one of the four that is evocative of such colourful depictions. More relevant, though, is the annotator’s mention of the two clarinets in the concerto: “Because the two soloists play on clarinets in A and B-flat, respectively, the natural abrasion created by the multiphonics using the same fingering, and resulting floating of sound increases the sense of ‘weightlessness’ significantly.” That said, one cannot really trust the translator of Tihanyi’s notes, when the obbligato instrument is called a harmonica, rather than accordion, since the Hungarian word for “accordion” is harmonika.

Nonetheless, I found much to enjoy in Levitation. There is substantial variety in the first two movements where the clarinets employ all the tricks in the book, including multiphonics. Some of it reminds me of Ligeti with long notes held in close, but dissonant harmony. The third movement actually contains a “tune” that sticks in the mind. It begins with violin and accordion before the clarinets enter and then becomes rather spooky before it builds to climactic scream. The clarinets also have a Messiaen-like “birdsong” passage and an animated, jazzy dance theme. The movement ends with weird string slides and doodling clarinets. The Cadenza for the clarinets begins without a break and with its rhythmic patterns reminds me of similar figurations in Ligeti’s Horn Concerto. The last movement also begins without pause and contains clear references to Stravinsky’s ballet. Of the three works on this programme, I found Levitation the most fun and quite memorable. As I haven’t heard the other recording, I can’t make comparisons. However, I cannot imagine the work being better played than in this authoritative account.

CAP-KO, whose title refers to its form and instrumentation, i.e., Concerto for Acoustic Piano, Keyboard, and Orchestra, is for me the hardest of the three to understand, let alone enjoy. I am not aware of any previous recording. The piece is dedicated to Béla Bartók and was jointly commissioned by the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Gothenburg Symphony, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Tihanyi asserts that the basic idea for this work was a texture that Bartók used in his compositions with piano, where the two hands of the pianist move in parallel in fast tempo at varying intervals, and that the starting point for CAP-KO was the former’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. By employing a traditional piano and a MIDI piano, the pianist is able to accomplish what two soloists could by having a technician help with the MIDI piano while the pianist plays the traditional one. It all sounds rather gimmicky, but the texture of the work, if little else, does recall Bartók.

The concerto is in five movements with the fourth movement having the subtitle, “Bartók Crosses the Ocean,” apparently alluding to the composer’s move to the USA. The “ocean drum” captures the sound of the sea, while two cymbals evoke the sounds of the subsiding war. Overall, the concerto requires great virtuosity from the performers and receives such here, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard who premiered the work in 2006. CAP-KO impresses by virtue of its loud percussion and keyboard pyrotechnics, but I found the combination of traditional piano and MIDI more distracting than enticing.
The last movement is a bit lighter-textured than elsewhere and very rhythmic, again reminding me of Ligeti, whereas the fourth movement contains pounding keyboards rising to a climax of chords that sound like some trudging behemoth before settling down with a quiet and rather eerie passage containing soft trumpet sounds recalling Charles Ives. Like the other works on the programme, CAP-KO is given a definitive interpretation that technically would be hard to equal, let alone beat.

For an all-Eötvös programme my first choice remains the Alpha disc cited above, although this one also has its attractions and can be recommended not least for the concerto Levitation.
Leslie Wright

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