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:, 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, June 22, 2017

Bright, direct performances of marvellous music

Antonio Rosetti, Piano Concerto, Two Symphonies

Bright, direct performances of Antonio Rosetti's fine symphonies and concerto make this a very appealing issue. I've long been a fan of this Bohemian musician, a contemporary of Haydn who died distressingly early, just after Mozart in 1792. He's one of only a few composers who can approach those two masters, as you can hear from many fine passages in these symphonies and piano concerto. Rosetti was especially adept at writing interesting, and even sublime, music for winds. The two symphonies are in the main composed of gallant passages, but occasionally there are surprising turns of phrase worthy of Haydn. It's the Adagio movement of the late Piano Concerto, though, that is the most obvious indication of Rosetti's genius. This is deeply moving, dramatically sombre music that has occasional flashes of light breaking through to emphasize the tragedy. That Rosetti died soon after he wrote this music is certainly a tragedy of a high order.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hopeless, but not serious

Detlev Glanert, Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

The celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the death of the great painter Hieronymus Bosch in 2016 were a very big deal in the Netherlands. First was the amazing exhibition of nearly all of his works, in what has been called "one of the most important exhibitions of our century," at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch. I've just finished reviewing the film of that exhibit, which is enjoyed a great deal.  Secondly there was this striking 80-minute oratorio by Detlev Glanert, Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, presented in November 2016 at the Concertgebouw. This CD was recorded live at that event, and is beautifully presented on RCO Live, the Concertgebouw's own label.

My one gripe about the film of the Noordbrabants Museum exhibit was a curious overlooking of humour in Bosch's art. Certainly the stakes in Bosch's world were high; it's clear that judgement to Bosch was real and eternal damnation a very real possibility. But I believe he would have agreed with the great Yip Harburg, who once said "While life is hopeless, hopeless–it’s not serious." This, I think, is one of the keys to Bosch's eccentric take on the the question of judgement.

Detlev Glanert brings a light touch to his project, which presents the trial of Hieronymus Bosch after his death. "The key question," says Glanert, "is whether our Bosch will go to paradise or be destined for hell." Using this device to add drama, Glanert builds a complex mosaic of themes and images, basing his text on the Requiem Mass along with excerpts from the medieval anthology Carmina Burana. Glanert's musical style is eclectic, with echoes of Mahler and Weill, and Glanert's own version of the great music from the Low Countries from Bosch's own period. This is an illuminating project, but fun as well.

A beautiful presentation of Bosch's eccentric art

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of its famous home-town artist, the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, Netherlands put on what has been called "one of the most important exhibitions of our century," from February to May 2016.  Though they have no works of Bosch themselves, they were able to bring to Den Bosch 17 of Bosch’s 24 extant paintings and 19 of his 20 drawings, and the resulting gathering has given art experts opportunities for new insights of connoisseurship as well as a chance to use the new technologies of the local Bosch Research and Conservation Project to look beneath the surface of Hieronymus's gorgeous paint. Talk about a critical mass!

With such a small oeuvre this 90 minute film, shown in theatres around the world last year, can give us a pretty good overview of this eccentric art. It's done in beautiful HD video, with more complex camera pans than we're used to from Ken Burns' documentaries. I was impressed with the context that the film-makers provide: clear explanatory text (with subtitles in English, French, Spanish, German & Dutch), location shots and music from Bosch's time. The latter especially adds value, since music of the time in the low countries was as sophisticated and inspired as the visual arts. The only fly in the ointment was the Prado's reneging on sending their Bosch works after the de-attribution of two of their "Bosch's" by the Den Bosch experts.  That was a shame in terms of the physical exhibit, though for the purposes of our film we still had a chance to see the Prado's famous Garden of Earthly Delights in a very high definition digital file. 

The talking heads in the film provide some interesting insights into Bosch's paintings, most especially film-maker Peter Greenaway, whose own art owes a lot to Bosch and his contemporaries. The only caveat about these pronouncements is that Bosch's sense of humour was almost completely ignored, which I find quite scandalous. When it was finally mentioned, an hour in, I had lost some good humour of my own. But on the whole this is a successful project, most beautifully presented.

Here is the trailer from Seventh Art:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Knowing interpretations of appealing music

C.P.E. Bach, Sonatas for Violin & Fortepiano

One of the common dynamics in a wide range of arts is the dialectic between the rational and the expressive, classic and romantic, Apollo and Dionysus. This is where C.P.E. Bach lives, looking at once back to his father's example of cosmic order and ahead to the confusing affective eruption that would later be termed Sturm und Drang (Storm and Drive, or Storm and Stress). To call these expressive Sonatas Romantic is to overstate the case, but their expressiveness is undeniable. They are also tuneful in an original way, full of erudite cleverness that gives both the listener and player much pleasure. I can't imagine a more effective presentation of this music: Amandine Beyer's violin is the emoting actor, while Edna Stern's fortepiano provides the lightest of commentary to go with her solid support. They play this music with style and grace, and aren't afraid to milk the sentimental moments when the composer lets his classic mask slip artfully to the side. At the same time their interpretation is knowing; Beyer and Stern know when to give the music its full expressive force, and when to pass on the composer's winks. This is an outstanding release that I've listened to a great deal in the past weeks, and which I plan to explore further.

These aren't new recordings, but from 2005, from a Zig Zag Territoires disc.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Dramatic, high spirited symphonies

Francois-Joseph Gossec, Symphonies

It's really excellent to have these symphonies back, on this new Capriccio Encore release. Recorded in 2003 by Concerto Köln under Werner Eberhardt, this music sounds fresh and stylish today. And what music it is: those who don't know Gossec's symphonic music are in for a treat. That's especially true of the Symphonie à 17 parties the Belgian composer wrote in 1809, which sounds very much like Haydn's later symphonies but with some splendid theatrical touches. I've always loved this work, since I first heard it on an early 1970s recording with Jacques Houtmann conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique du Liege. Though these stirring works have Revolutionary components with a capital R, they're a bit of a cul de sac musically, as Beethoven's own revolution single-handedly moved the centre of symphonic music from Paris to Vienna. That shouldn't diminish your enjoyment for this dramatic, high-spirited music, played with great flair.

The civilized smile

Boccherini: String Trios, op. 6

I wasn't planning on reviewing three Boccherini discs in the space of eight days, but here we are with another new disc following two lovely releases, of the Stabat Mater and the op. 34 String Trios. This recording from Brilliant Classics features the Lubotsky Trio in the less intense, more carefree op. 6 Trios for two violins and cello, written in 1769. It's still very appealing music, which one could listen to, and play, with a civilized smile in a well-appointed drawing room, among intelligent and attractive people. These pieces aren't as profound as the op. 34 trios, and nor are they as Spanish-sounding, but rather in the International Style as developed by Haydn. With beautiful playing like this, one hardly notices one is missing anything! The Enlightenment lives!

A courageous thing

Luigi Boccherini: String Trios op. 34
Life is a more complex struggle now. It is now valiant to be simple: a courageous thing to even want to be simple. It is a spiritual thing to comprehend what simplicity means. ~ Frank Lloyd Wright
Something curious often happens when a composer removes an instrument from a string quartet. Though the lightening of texture sometimes results in less serious music, serenade-like, often folk-inspired, it's just as likely that a new gravity comes with the more austere form. Villa-Lobos's late String Trio, the ground-breaking Trio by Webern, and the astonishing, concentrated Schoenberg String Trio all come to mind. The best example is Mozart's Divertimento K. 563 of 1788, about which Alfred Einstein said "Each instrument is primus inter pares, every note is significant, every note is a contribution to spiritual and sensuous fulfillment in sound." These six trios for two violins and cello by Luigi Boccherini from 1781 show this same tendency, and it's no coincidence, I think, that they're from the same period as his intimate and deeply religious Stabat Mater for soprano and string quintet, a new recording of which I just reviewed last week. From listening a great deal to these two CDs, I'm inclined to place Boccherini just behind Haydn and Mozart as a composer of chamber music. This is inspired, and inspiring, music. This is not a brand new recording; it was made back in 2010, and was previously released on the Colmna Musica label in 2012. But the remastering by Glossa reveals fresh and lively performances by the original instruments group La Ritirata, who bring out the Spanish flavour of Boccherini's music in an appealing way.