SCO: Leleux (Queen’s Hall: 29 Mar.’19)

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Francois Leleux – Oboist and Conductor

“Leleux….. has an engaging conducting style relating to, rather than directing, the orchestra.”

 

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

My mother spoke little of her life before her children were born, but it was clearly an interesting one.  The youngest of six children of a Northamptonshire shoe manufacturer and general bigwig, the first of her family to go to Oxford (and a woman to boot) and a wartime spent at Bletchley Park.  But what I remember most clearly, as we were both musical (at Oxford she sang in Ted Heath’s Bach Choir), was her telling me of her experience kissing an oboist whom she went out with for a while at University.  She told of his incredible muscular lips (by virtue of the necessary embouchure of blowing two reeds together) which made the embrace distinctly unusual.  As a result oboists – and the oboe (I love its clear, piercing tone, as did she) – have held a particular fascination for me, although I have never kissed one, reserving my affections quite by chance for the string section.

 

Consequently the SCO’s appointment of premier oboist Francois Leleux as an artist in residence for the 2018/19 season was a must-see.  I could not get to the first two gigs but enjoyed Thursday’s “Three Serenades” Concert enormously.

 

Generally, I have reservations about soloists who migrate into conductoring, even of the musical standard of Ashkenazy and Rostropovich, as it is a bit like film stars wanting to be directors: they rarely cut the mustard.  However, it has to be said that Leleux, either with baton or more restrained with instrument in mouth, has an engaging conducting style relating to, rather than directing, the orchestra.

 

Our first work was Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, played in a splendidly happy rendition that clearly showed a bond between conductor and orchestra.  Good tempi, very together for so early on in the evening, a surprisingly enjoyable piece from this manic depressive composer written before the dark times took over his life.

 

Next up was Dvorak’s Serenade in D minor, Op.44. A wind ensemble of ten, including contrabassoon, accompanied by cello and bowed double bass, all standing save the latter two; this time with Leleux taking the oboe lead as well as directing.  Leleux’s tone was clear, fresh without being over bright, at times soaring over the rest of the ensemble.  In the third movement Andante con moto he engaged in charming interplay with the clarinettist opposite.  It was good to get our fix of the great man.

 

After the interval we heard by far the most substantive work of the evening, Brahms’s Serenade No 1 in D major, Op.11 with the full 40 strong orchestra on stage, quite an upgrade from its original conception as a nonet.  Albeit written earlier on in his career alongside the Piano Concerto No.1 this is a mature work with a great deal more roundedness and depth than the rustic Bohemian fare we received earlier.  In six varied movements ranging from close harmonies in the brass to full on orchestral romance, pretty little wind passages accompanied by the put-put of the bassoon and a mad rush to the finish, one was reminded of the near chaotic finish to the Academic Festival Overture.

 

Perhaps my only regret of the Leleux season was that he played only one concerto throughout, the Haydn.  One would have wished for the Mozart with its glorious third movement Rondo.  Never mind, it is always best to be left wanting more.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

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SCO: Manze. Piemontesi (Queen’s Hall: 28 Feb.’19)

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“A very well-known piece in Sweden……..which is not saying a lot”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

The Queen’s Hall claque are a cheerful bunch, if in the main somewhat elderly, and you know they will address almost anything put in front of them in a good spirit.  Thursday’s concert gave them such a challenge: obscure Stravinsky, even more obscure Stenhammar, with the reward of some straight down the line tinkly Mozart as the filling in the sandwich.

Guest conductor on the night was the personable Andrew Manze, Beckenham born (your writer’s home for 20 years) and Cambridge educated, his pedigree is just right for this type of music, which he interprets with considerable enthusiasm.  Formerly Associate Director of the Academy of Ancient Music and Artistic Director of the English Concert he has been since 2014 Chief Conductor of the NDR Radiophilharmomie Hannover and has just had his contract renewed until 2021.  England’s loss is Germany’s gain.

The Stravinsky that opened the programme, Concerto in D, was atypical of the composer’s style and perhaps could have been more properly described as a Sinfonia for Strings.  Bartok, Britten, Tippett and others have used the description Concerto when there is no solo instrument and I consider it misleading.  By no means a great work, it provided an entertaining start to the evening, with an exciting, taut, sparse start ending with pizzicato double bass.  The second movement Arioso-Andantino actually achieved a most un-Stravinsky like legato along with an uninterrupted melodic line.

Next up was the fabulous Francesco Piemontesi with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 19 in F, K459.  This was the last of six piano concertos that Mozart wrote in 1784 and stands at the crossroads with the great works from No. 21 onwards.  Simple in construction and in particular in the opening movement, the final Allegro “is one of Mozart’s most miraculous movements – the balance between the extreme light-heartedness of the melodies and the formal complexity of the motifs and the counterpoint being simply astounding”. (I do not usually use Wikipedia as a source but cannot better their description on this occasion).  The orchestra opened with bright, clear intonation from the strings, soon supported by wind and brass with a strict tempo before the soloist entered.  This was a lively, free spirited performance with some lovely, beautifully expressed playing of great fluency; piano and orchestra alike.

For those of us who felt a little cheated from not hearing the more mature No. 27 in B flat K595, which the band had played at St Andrews the night before, we were mollified by an extended encore from both soloist and orchestra of a Mozart Rondo in A (partially orchestrated by Charles Mackerras) which sent us off into the interval with a joyful disposition.

Andrew Manze spoke to us as we reassembled for part two telling us, tongue in cheek, that the Stenhammar Serenade in F was “a very well-known piece in Sweden……..which is not saying a lot…. Enjoy it, because it might be the only time you hear it!  Mind you, how many of you had heard the Stravinsky?”  Not so, there is an excellent recording by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra that is also streamed by Tidal, and of the Stravinsky by the New Orchestral Symphony Orchestra of Boston, recorded in 1954.  How’s that for Reader Service?

But what of the music?  The opening reminded me of the sort of film music you hear for Ealing Comedies and ’50s British cinema, but later on the work developed into something more substantive.  It was a well-orchestrated 40-minute tableaux, well scored with plenty of scope for woodwind and brass, with just a touch of neighbour Sibelius.  Clearly a difficult piece to play, the orchestra are to be congratulated in portraying the work with such competence, fluency and enthusiasm.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 February)

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SCO: Rustioni, Mendelssohn (Queens Hall: 6 Dec. ’18)

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Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)

“A delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is currently offering a two part programme celebrating Mendelssohn and music in a similar vein.  On Thursday we got two pieces by the main man, along with a Rossini overture and a charming suite of Respighi bonbons, published almost a century later.

 

Whilst the Queens Hall is a welcoming venue with a genial atmosphere of really committed Musica Affecianadi Geriatrica the venue, as an old church, is pretty basic with stackable chairs forming the main stalls whose lack of racking means sightlines are poor, particularly as in this evening’s case where the size of the orchestra meant dispensing with the stage.  We saw the top half of the conductor, the heads of the soloists, and the wind and brass, the strings and woodwind, in glorious invisibility.  This made it frustrating and difficult to engage.

 

One wonders if the excellent young conductor, Daniele Rustioni, knew this, for his style of conducting was endearingly inclusive in terms of rapport with the players and at times almost swaying to the music with frequent flicks of his fine head of hair to engage with the audience.

 

But notwithstanding these built-in disadvantages and compensating factors, the music, and the playing, spoke for themselves in a delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.

 

Mendelssohn was the main event and is what I shall concentrate on but let me say first that Rossini’s Overture L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) delighted us with a ridiculous contrasting opening of pizzicato followed by orchestral chords in a positively Mozartian romp, with special mentions to the oboe of Robin Williams and piccolo of Alison Mitchell.

 

Our lively conductor almost ran back to the podium after minor re-seating between works and got straight into Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite 1, which did exactly what it said on the tin, a pleasant collection of instrumental ditties with oboe again to the fore and some strong cello playing from Principal Philip Higham.

 

And now the main attraction, Felix Mendesssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847), in the view of many the most precocious musical talent of all time, including Mozart and Schubert; the critical difference between him and Mozart was that his father did not exploit his youthful talents and instead let him grow.  Nonetheless he died aged 38 only a few years longer than Mozart’s 35 and Schubert’s 31, but the latter was disease driven (typhoid or syphilis, depending whom you believe), whilst the former two was almost certainly overwork.  His catalogue is enormously popular, and this evening we got to hear two lesser known works.

 

Mendelssohn’s Two Concert Pieces were in effect small scale concertos for two clarinets, in this case regular B-flat and bass.  The bass clarinet made a pleasant change to hear in these two light, entertaining pieces which while hard to take seriously were none the less enjoyable for that.  SCO Principal Maximiliano Martin and sub Principal William Stafford disported themselves with aplomb and the whole band, and audience, had a great time.

 

I did not know Mendelssohn’s 1st Symphony in C minor at all and was impressed by its structure and depth, late Mozartian in style, and astonishingly, composed when he was 15.  There was no hint of immaturity in this work whatsoever, which the orchestra played with verve and enthusiasm throughout.

 

So, all in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of accessible, tuneful music, very well played throughout with everyone, conductor, soloists, band and audience, having a great evening’s entertainment.

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 December)

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Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 7 Oct.‘18)

Photograph by Cecil Beaton

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

“This work, [Britten’s String Quartet No 3] unknown to me, was the event of the evening”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

 

The Edinburgh Quartet, one of the country’s longest standing musical ensembles, has been through many changes, but perhaps none so great as in the three years past that I have been writing about them. Personnel changes, obviously, but changes in performance strategy as well. A move away from formal, evening concert giving to less formal lunchtime and afternoon recitals, working with makars and artists, educating, and, splendidly, offering internships to aspiring musicians to actually take a desk for a period of concerts with them. All this makes it difficult to achieve an enduring opinion of their actual playing together as a combo, and I have not written about them for almost a year.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Queen’s Hall featured only one member of more than a year or so’s standing, 10 year veteran cellist Mark Bailey. Tijmen Huisingh has taken over the 1st Violin desk after a year of guests; with Tom Hankey and Catherine Marwood on 2nd violin and viola respectively.

A further unusual aspect of the quartet’s branding is choosing a theme for each season. This year it is ‘Exile’. These themes in my view have always been a little contrived and in his chat after the Beethoven Tijmen Huisingh did confess that they had to be “broadly interpreted”. Exile from deafness in the case of Beethoven, homesickness form England in the case of American based Britten, and yearning for Bohemia from Dvorak whilst in America. Hmmn.

The programme notes were sparse but learned. Deep analysis of the works in question, but with no mention of the players or their biographies. Pleasingly, no advertisements. A puzzling frontispiece titled “Death in Venice” and a reference to phrases quoted in the final movement of the quartet to Britten’s opera. Helpfully, there is an attractive and up to date website to provide further information. 

The Quartet, continuing their very pleasing custom of not fine tuning on stage but getting right down to it, kicked off with an early Beethoven Quartet, Op.18 No 3, a competently despatched if not especially inspiring rendition of an unspectacular early work.

There followed Britten’s String Quartet No 3, a more mature, introspective work, to which the players brought everything they could, from the desolate duets at the beginning between first violin and cello, some breathtaking first violin playing in the highest positions with barely a couple of inches of metal to derive a sound from, lively ensemble playing in the Burlesque finishing with bold pizzicato leading to a sublime conclusion in the final La Serenissima. This work, unknown to me, was the event of the evening.

Tijmen Huisingh had explained earlier that they were unable to play the published Dvorak String Quartet in E flat major, no 10 op.51, through lack of practice owing to illness. Instead we heard Dvorak’s String Quartet no 14 op.105, played in previous recitals. A melancholy opening in the first movement Adagio non troppo – the work was started in America and completed in Bohemia –  it grew livelier and more entertaining as it progressed. In the second movement Molto Vivace – Trio we were obviously back in Bohemia, there was some rich tonal playing in the lento e molto cantabile and in particular masterful cello playing in the final Allegro non tanto as the Quartet showed their evident bonding notwithstanding a relatively recent coming together.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 October)

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Dunedin Consort, Vivaldi’s ‘La Favorita’ (Queen’s Hall: 6 April ’18)

Dunedin Consort: Vivaldi’s La Favorita

“The very essence of live music making”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

 

Was this going to be, if not too much of a good thing, well, just too esoteric? It was a risk, and, while the stalls were a little over half full and just a few concertgoers in the balcony, such attendance levels are not unusual at the Queen’s Hall for chamber music. With Vivaldi, take away The Four Seasons and the Gloria and what have you got? A series of mostly string concertos that all sound very similar.

 

That is the perception. Friday’s concert by Edinburgh’s own Dunedin Consort proved it wrong. A cleverly chosen selection of seven string concertos from a cache of 27 manuscript volumes of composition discovered in Northern Italy in the 1920s provided a glorious treat of baroque music that whilst not having the gravitas or structure of his German contemporary Bach was a rewarding example of the Italian Baroque, and in many ways gentler on the ear. If Bach is the master of counterpoint, then surely Vivaldi is the master of ritornello? The tutti passages are more rounded.

 

The programme was titled La Favorita and this writer’s wicked sense of humour wondered if it was sponsored by a smart Edinburgh pizza group with its blinding, wood-fired, Cinquecentos. Not so, the title would have referred to one of the star female pupils under Vivaldi’s tutelage at the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice for whom a number of these works were written, possibly the mysterious “Anna” about whom we know very little. The boys learned a trade and had to leave the orphanage when they reached the age of fifteen. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented among them stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir.

 

La Favorita was reincarnated in a sense in the concert by Music Director and Soloist Cecilia Bernardini, leader of the Consort, who backed by two violins, cello, bass and harpsichord led us though an assortment of musical treats that entertained from start to finish.

 

The band kicked off with “Il Corneto da Posta” (RV 363), a joyful, simple work with a highly effective interplay between soloist and cello (honourable mention to Andrew Skidmore throughout the evening) in the first movement. Each work followed the classic three movement construct that was Vivaldi’s late Baroque hallmark. The Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV156) did everything it said on the tin and was an excellent, satisfying example of the continuo genre. There followed two Violin Concertos (RVs 387 and 224) where the players brought real verve and commitment to the music that otherwise might have seemed repetitive. We were being treated to some seriously good playing by the ensemble as a whole.

 

Following the interval came three more works, the first, very much in the Venetian tradition, being played up above us in the balcony, with the exception, for logistical reasons, of the harpsichordist. Stephen Farr wittily told us that the music he was reading from his iPad was an early 18th century Venetian model. Well, I guess we were only a few days past April Fool’s day. The Violin Concerto “Il Riposo” (RV270a) was tranquil, calming, and beautiful. A further Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV 128) and Violin Concerto (RV283) and a charming pizzicato encore brought the evening to a close.

 

In trying to summarise what made this evening so special, when to many a collection of unknown minor works from a late Baroque Italian composer famous only for a couple of numbers might seem at best, obscure, I have concluded that there were two drivers. Intelligent programme selection, and – here I am again extolling the joys of live music – truly excellent, committed playing on the night. The very essence of live music making. Bravo!

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 April)

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SCO: Ticciati. Atkins. Cargill. (Queen’s Hall: 11 January ’18)

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Jean-Fery Rebel (1666-1747)

” A consummate synergy of soloist and orchestra.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:  Nae Bad

Thursday’s 2018 Season opener by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, “Chaos and Creation”, was one of the most creative, surprising and varied concert programmes that I have ever come across – with the exception of the Haydn. But more of that later.

 

Do you know Jean-Féry Rebel? No, he is not a rock star or DJ, but was a composer (1666-1747) at the French Court at the time of Louis XV and a favourite of Madame de Pompadour. He came of a dynasty of court musicians, lived a long and successful life and wrote Les Elemens at the age of 72. It is a most extraordinary piece, with a sort of full on slam-dunk opening that reminded me of Honegger, 250 years later. Special effects were very much the thing in European Baroque and we were treated to a bird warbler at the rear of the auditorium, a whoop whistle reminiscent of Oliver Postgate’s The Clangers, and a wonderful theorbo – basically an oversized lute – whose fretboard must have been at least four feet long. At times I thought I was listening to the soundtrack of The Magic Roundabout. Violin bodies were used as percussion, the conductor did a dance with the principal violist, and everyone had a good time. I never knew Baroque could be so much fun.

 

A darker form of intensity followed with principal violist Jane Atkins taking the solo spot in Martinu’s Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1951). She acquitted herself well, aided by her confident and lively persona. Although less celebrated now than his compatriot, Antonin Dvorak, Martinu was a successful composer and America took to him. The work is steeped in the Bohemian folksong style with a deep romanticism breaking away from his earlier neo-classical style. Atkins brought everything out of the work, producing rich melodic tones and light dance-like flashes that engaged us throughout. A consummate synergy of soloist and orchestra.

 

There was no let up in the treats Robin Ticciati and his band had in store for us after the interval. The Czech genre continued with Dvorak’s Biblical Songs. (1876). Scottish Mezzo Soprano Karen Cargill gave an assured and rewarding performance of the ten songs, commendably handling the Czech language without difficulty. Cargill has memorably sung Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder at the 2017 Proms with Sir Simon Rattle, and we were lucky to have her. I firmly believe this accomplished Mezzo, winner of the 2002 Kathleen Ferrier Award, to be on the verge of being one of the greatest Mezzos, and listening to her was a privilege.

 

The evening concluded with Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 (1791), wrongly called the Miracle Symphony for reasons we need not concern ourselves with here. Played with zest and not a hint of tiredness after a demanding programme, the orchestra acquitted itself well under Ticciati’s baton in this microcosm of Haydn’s symphonic genre, the first of his London Symphonies. But why it was included in the programme is open to question. It was  out of kilter with the other more esoteric works of the evening. Nonetheless it made an enjoyable finale.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 11 January)

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Edinburgh Quartet: Queen’s Hall (12 Nov.’17)

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Janacek’s “Intimate Letters’  to Kamila Stosslova

“The Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have not reviewed the Edinburgh Quartet since March when they played a combination of Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich as part of their “Revolution” series. They have been busy since, including a fascinating mixed media “Dance” performance reviewed in June by my colleague Steve Griffin. The Quartet are not a conventional, formal concert giving band, and have a clear market and music focus: different themes for every season, and outreach to the local community, including incorporating artists, makars, dancers, and, tonight, student musicians. Sunday’s 3pm matinee was one of only a few conventional concert hall offerings this season. Otherwise there are rush hour concerts, lunchtime concerts, free concerts and concerts all over Scotland including as far afield as Lerwick. It is almost as if ‘Edinburgh’ is a misnomer. Their publicity rightly states that “the Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”.  They are a quartet for the nation.

With this creative and outward looking disrespect for inertia we also have had change in the line up almost to the point of it being a band of session musicians, Mark Bailey on cello apart. This does not trouble the band, and nor should it us. The vacant seats give an opportunity for up and coming musicians to try out their playing in a quartet as opposed to an orchestra or solo role, and it brings something new for each concert, where all the different line-ups I have reviewed deliver a surprising homogeneity.

Yet the move from homogeneity to synergy requires players in total empathy with one another and second guessing them, often for years, which is why great quartets are always better than star studded put-together ensembles.  Only the first violin seat remains to be filled, probably, I understand in the New Year. On balance, this is to be welcomed.

The programme took us from Haydn, through Tchaikovsky and Janacek to a new work by Scottish composer Tom Harrold.

Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op 20 No5 is part of his ‘Sun’ series, but this stupid name, based on a cover illustration, belies an austere work that is satisfying rather than uplifting. It was competently and confidently played.

The Janacek String Quartet No 2 “Intimate Letters’ was written 150 years later (1772, 1927 respectively) and in style probably quite demanding for the largely elderly Sunday afternoon audience. Written in the last year of Janacek’s life it reflects upon the woman for whom he fell head over heels, Kamila Stosslova, nearly 40 years his junior and to whom he wrote over 1000 letters, 300 in his last eighteen months*.   Certainly all manner of feeling was in this work, amounting to a conviction piece that, while not easy listening by any stretch, was as rewarding as it was demanding. That the relationship was reciprocated only platonically no doubt contributed to his and the music’s angst. The Quartet despatched its considerable demands with ease. So much so that when the work stopped in order for second violin Tom Hankey to return to the anteroom to pick up the rest of his music nobody minded, such is the quartet’s informal rapport with their audience.

Following the interval the quartet was joined with a “shadow” quartet of students from St Mary’s Music School: Briona Mannion and Marie-Sophie Baumgartner on violin, Rachel Spence and Finn Mannion on viola and cello respectively. They were playing the world premiere of Tom Harrold’s short piece “Elegy”. Harrold described the work as simple but the timings were very difficult (and which the shadow quartet managed very well) and there was a considerable amount of pizzicato to handle. Intensely quiet at the opening the piece developed into a pleasing, romantic work in the modern vein.

The evening ended with Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 2 in F, Op 22, a great, classical work relatively unknown outside of the musical world, for being within the chamber music genre, I suspect. Contrast it with the hugely popular Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23. Both have the honour of being dismissed by Rubenstein: the Quartet “not really chamber music”, and the “Concerto “unplayable” It took considerable reserves of energy and musicality to deliver a work of this substance at the end of a long but engrossing Sunday afternoon. The elusive first violin seat was on this night guested by Nicolas Dupont from Belgium. He had most of the heavy lifting to do, ably supported by his colleagues. Whoever takes the first violin seat permanently has a lot to live up to.

 

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 * For those who want to know more about this extraordinary 11 year ‘non romance’ I recommend “Notes for a Hausfrau: Intimate Letters: Leos Janacek to Kamila Stosslova”, edited and translated by John Tyrell and published by Faber in 1994 at £25.  It may be out of print, so go to the excellent review in the Independent by Michael White that gives the gist of this extraordinary muse:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-notes-fof-a-hausfrau-intimaye-letters-leos-janacek-to-kamila-stooslove-ed-trs-hohn-1410383.html

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 November)

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