Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Slip, slidin' away


Orazio Vecchi Requiem: Rubens's funeral and the Antwerp Baroque

I've been immersed in the Glenn Gould world lately, reading Sandrine Revel's new graphic novel and watching 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. The reason I mention this here is that Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations was such a ground-breaking event, a revolution in performance practice. Looking back on some of the early responses to Gould's interpretation, his use of a piano in the repertoire, even the choice of music itself, some of it seems quite reactionary more than 60 years later. I dabble, at most, in music from the Renaissance and early Baroque, so I don't know too much about how this music should be sung. My first thought, though, was that the ornamentation, mordents (trills) and slides in abundance, threatens to swamp the music entirely. Trying to keep an open mind I was alternately swept away by the choir's gorgeous singing of unearthly beautiful music and irritated by the swoops and curlicues Bjorn Schmelzer has introduced into the music in apparent imitation of the sound of cornets and sackbuts of the Venetian composers of the time. Frank Sinatra famously imitated Tommy Dorsey's trombone style in developing his vocal technique. Similarly, Ella Fitzgerald once said "I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns." This cross-fertilization is a sign of a vibrant musical culture, and the reluctance to fall in line with an exact precision of ensemble and a punctiliously straight-forward presentation is very much the same. The music should swing, but maybe not quite so much.

Schmelzer places this music at Rubens' funeral in Antwerp in June of 1640, perhaps on some rather sketchy evidence. This is what got me interested in this album; I adore Rubens' paintings and admire him greatly as a artist and a person (I highly recommend Mark Lamster's book Master of Shadows, by the way, a fine portrait of a cosmopolitan man of letters and public affairs). Vecchi's Requiem was published in Antwerp in 1612, so at least we have the geography lined up. I guess it doesn't really matter too much in the end; we all have our own lineup of people to remember when we listen to Requiem masses, and the list gets longer for all of us every year.

Come back to this review in 60 years to see if I've missed the boat here. What I mainly am right now is puzzled.

Here is the Dies Irae from the Vecchi Missa pro defuncta.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A mixed bag: from oddness to greatness


This is the second 6-CD set from Profil of recordings made by Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, largely live recordings from the 1940s and 50s. It's very much a mixed bag, with some oddly shaped and accented Mozart, Berlioz and Bizet, thin sounding in the bargain. A bit better is the Richard Strauss Alpensymphonie, though one cannot put it in the top class. But the high end is high indeed.The standouts are, naturally, music by Russian composers.

The Stravinsky ballets on the third disc, Petrushka and The Firebird, are completely alive, fresh and airy but also cruel and barbaric. Remastering has delivered impressive sound considering the vintage and recording sources, though of course there isn't quite the presence of the best new recordings. The Prokofiev works, the 2nd Romeo & Juliet Suite and the 6th Symphony, sound even better, in performances of style and again some considerable violence. Romeo & Juliet has a paranoid edge; after all, orchestral musicians as well as composers must have worried about official disapproval of "degenerate modernism". The same is true of the 6th Symphony. "Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed," the composer said when he wrote this music in 1947. The pain and loss in this music comes from a sharing of those wounds, with many personal losses I'm sure. This is an affecting document as well as an artistic statement of considerable merit. I've only rarely heard as impressive a Pathetique Symphony as Mravinsky delivers here, taut with menace but finely and delicately balanced, and in the end heartbreakingly sad. This is Tchaikovsky laid bare, stripped of false sentimentality. Mravinsky and his wonderful musicians demonstrate that this is indeed one of the greatest of all 19th century works of art.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The wind symphony put through its paces


The music on this new disc from the North Texas Wind Symphony, conducted by Eugene Migliaro Corporon, is very diverse, which isn't a surprise considering the broad range of styles in which each of these composers works and the flexibility of the wind symphony format. The players of this superb ensemble, a large group of nearly 70 musicians, combine the expressive capabilities of woodwinds, the power of brass and a dizzying array of rhythms from the percussion. Military band, film music, and cool and hot big band sounds are all here, showing off virtuoso playing but also virtuoso composition.

We open with a stirring piece by that modern master of stirring music, John Williams. His work written to commemorate the 215th anniversary of the United States Marine Band, For the President's Own, is a patriotic classic. Master orchestrator Michael Daugherty cleaned up in the 2017 Grammys with three awards, and his 2015 composition Winter Dreams is a great example of his art. In fact, I was well into this piece before I realized there were no strings. Daugherty wrote this to commemorate two Iowa artists: painter Grant Wood and poet Jay Sigmund.

The most extensive work on the album is John Mackey's Wine-Dark Sea, a full-scale symphony with Homeric themes. This is stirring music with an exciting, vivid sound palette. Mackey also provides a short, fun, virtuosic bit of slapstick entitled The Ringmaster's March, which I expect will be challenging bands across the nation for many years. Bruce Broughton's World of Spirits is very evocative; he calls it "ballet without the dancers or a movie without the screen". The ability of music to program our minds' inner choreographer/film director has always been of great interest to composers and audiences, and Broughton brings to mind both the films of John Ford and Martha Graham's dancing, alongside the Great Plains landscapes and Comanche encampments.

I loved Gernot Wolfgang's Passing Through (2016), which was nominated for a Grammy this year (beaten out by a Daugherty disc). His Three Short Stories is the highlight of Inventions for me. Originally written for viola and bassoon, the transformation to a full big band is amazing. These little pieces have really good bones to wear these flashy new orchestrations so lightly! Here is Uncle Bebop in the original scoring; you'll have to wait until the new disc is released on May 12, 2017 to hear it in its new form.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The importance of being earnest


Groupings of independent artists are sometimes, or even usually, problematic, as artistic aims diverge or individuals leave or are added. The idea of grouping together Les Six, six French composers of the early 20th century, came from the critic Henri Collet, along with the name. The group was, at least initially, under the leadership of Jean Cocteau, and there were indeed always six and only ever six members: Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc and Louis Durey. As a group they were more or less modernist if not entirely avant garde, working in an International Style that was much more French than German, and generally not wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Milhaud, Auric (in Cocteau's portrait), Honegger, Tailleferre, Poulenc, Durey. Cocteau at the piano.
Photo: Boris Lipnitzki, 1931
From my limited exposure to Durey's music - these songs along with a few piano pieces and chamber works - I would say he's a born classicist, but with more interest in the avant garde and Cocteau's schemes than some other members of the group. He's a very serious fellow, though, without the obvious sense of humour of Poulenc or Auric. Durey was a communist, and he ended up more and more involved in left-wing politics to the detriment of his significant musical skills. Nearly all of his music that I've heard shares a common characteristic: earnestness. His setting of Grève de la Faim (Hunger Strike) by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet could hardly be otherwise, and nor could his two songs based on poems by Ho Chi Minh. Equally obvious, though, is their incredible beauty; I was completely bowled over. These songs are nearly all gems, with obvious beauties standing out right away, and others that reveal their fine qualities after a few listens. The musicians, led by pianist and Durey scholar Jocelyn Dueck, along with a team of very fine singers: baritones Jesse Blumberg and Sidney Outlaw, tenor William Burden and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, make the best possible case for this enigmatic composer, who is perhaps to be valued much higher than he is presently.

This recording, the result of a successful crowd-funding campaign, is due to be released on May 26, 2017.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

More fine Dvorak from Wit, from Navarre



I'm a big fan of the conductor Antoni Wit. His Naxos discography is extensive, and a string of awards has people paying more attention to his new releases. The discs I've enjoyed the most have been with the excellent Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, including a very fine 2015 Dvorak Requiem. Wit is also (since 2013-14) the Artistic Director of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra, and this I believe is his first recording with this orchestra.  The Mass in D and the Te Deum are both very appealing works from a choral composer of the first order. Though both are smaller in scope, they reach the same peaks of pathos, awe and consolation as Dvorak's Requiem. The lovely swinging opening Kyrie of the Mass is sung and played by Wit's Spanish musicians with the utmost delicacy, though Wit teases out the backbone as well. Dvorak's Brahms and Beethoven models are perhaps more forward than they might be with a Eastern European orchestra. The choral singing from the Orfeon Pamplones is superb, and all four soloists are strong, with soprano Ewa Biegas a stand-out.

This disc is due for release on May 12, 2017.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A re-issue well-timed for Canada150


This re-issue of the 1992 debut album by the Saint John String Quartet is very much welcome, and quite nostalgic for me. The promotional material from Leaf Music quotes Bob Kerr as saying this is "one of the most satisfying and pleasurable CDs to appear this year." I have very fond memories of Off the Record, the great program that Kerr hosted from Vancouver on CBC Stereo (as Radio 2 was called then). The repertoire is well chosen, with great Canadian works along with appealing shorter pieces from composers around the world. It includes a favourite of mine, Sir Ernest Macmillan's Two sketches for string-quartet based on French Canadian airs, which I know well from a DGG recording with the Amadeus String Quartet. Another standout is Srul Irving Glick's From Out of the Depths (Mourning Music for the Six Million); this is a work that should be taken up by many more string quartets. What an appealing mix of music!

The 1928 score of Sir Ernest Macmillan's Two sketches; this iconic work is the perfect one to play in celebration of Canada's Sesquicentennial this year.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Fine Mozart from a superb Swiss violinist


Aida Stucki, the Swiss violinist who lived from 1921 to 2011, was an unfamiliar name to me, but the tribute from Anne-Sophie Mutter on the album cover caught my eye: "My remarkable teacher has been a lifelong inspiration to me." This, of course, raises expectations, which I'm pleased to say were met and even exceeded. I love the Mozart violin sonatas, and there's a good selection of them (16 in all, from K. 296 to K. 547) on this six CD set. with sensitive accompaniment by Christopher Lieske. These are live recordings, from 1977. Stucki's tone is sweet and strong, and the violin-piano blend is very pleasant. I really enjoyed listening to this fabulous music, even four or five sonatas at a time.

It was the concertos that really impressed me, though. I admit that my high expectations didn't extend to the orchestral accompaniment, but there were no duds here, from the Zurich Radio Orchestra under a variety of conductors, the Ton-Studio Orchestra Stuttgart under Gustav Lund, the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra under Victor Desarzens and the Zurich Radio Orchestra under Pierre Colombo. All of these are also live radio recordings, and considering their vintage from the 1950s, they sound very good. Everything is subordinate, of course, to Stucki's generous sound, with superb intonation and a seemingly unending variety of tonal effects. One can marvel at Mozart's invention within a fairly narrow concerto construct that always remains fresh and new, but let's be honest, there are some Mozart violin concerto recordings that begin to sound routine after one or two movements. That never happens here, plus there are two bonuses. One is a more than standard version of the Sinfonia Concertante, one of the great Mozart middle-period works, with Hermann Friedrich playing up to Stucki's level. The other is the very odd and quite controversial 7th Violin Concerto, K. 271a. Stucki provides a strong case for the work, but I remain unconvinced about its authorship by Mozart. It's nevertheless a work that's worth a listen. Doremi has provided a real service by making these radio recordings available on disc and on MP3. I recommend them very highly.