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Focus - Hamburger Concerto CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.25 | 945 ratings

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Special Collaborator
RIO/Avant/Zeuhl Team
4 stars This almost completely instrumental album (with the sole exception of a couple of tracks containing some singing by the inimitable Thijs Van Leer) is widely held to be Dutch band Focus's finest hour, as well as one of the masterpieces of the Symphonic subgenre. The musicianship on show is indeed dazzling, with Focus boasting one of the most accomplished guitarists in rock (although far too often forgotten by all but true connoisseurs), the brilliant Jan Akkerman . Moreover (and that's good news in a genre too often characterised as unnecessarily dour and self-important), Focus are also possessed of a remarkable sense of humour, as demonstrated by the album title itself - an ironic take on Bach's "Brandenburger Concerto", one of the monuments of classical music. Van Leer's celebrated yodeling adds entertainment value to a record which is otherwise a textbook example of how to write real symphonic prog.

The album's six tracks run the gamut from the short, lute-based medieval fantasy that is "Delitae Musicae", to the lively, rollicking "Harem Scarem", powered by a strong rythm section playing a memorable riff, to the wistful, atmospheric "La Cathédrale de Strasbourg", a showcase for Thijs Van Leer's skills as a pianist (he also sings some vocals in French, adding to the melancholy feel of the piece). The intricate "Birth", starting out slowly with a lovely harpsichord intro, then picking up speed and allowing Van Leer to shine as a flutist as well as a keyboardist, introduces the album's centrepiece and title-track, the 20-minute-plus suite "Hamburger Concerto" with its funnily-named six movements.

In this monumental track, Focus prove (if it ever was needed) that they are in no way inferior to the better-known British prog giants of the era. The interplay between the band's two stars, Akkerman and Van Leer, is nothing short of spectacular. The influences of European classical and medieval music, jazz and folk blend seamlessly to create a composition which stands proud with the best epics of the same period - though, if one wanted to nitpick, it could be said it suffers from the absence of a coherent vocal line, unlike, for instance, ELP's "Tarkus" (there is some singing, apparently in Dutch, but it sounds a bit like an afterthought). Akkerman's guitar shows the influence of flamenco, one of the fundamental styles for guitarists; while Van Leer goes to town with some superb organ and synth playing, reminding listeners that there is life beyond Emerson and Wakeman. "Early Birth" closes the album, reprising the theme of "Birth" in a softer, more restrained way.

An undisputed landmark of Symphonic Prog, "Hamburger Concerto" is that rare album which blends amazing musicianship, inventiveness, melody and humour in a coherent whole. It may take more than one listen to fully appreciate it, but the experience will ultimately be more than rewarding. A well-deserved 4.5 stars.

Raff | 4/5 |


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