Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Top Ten Discs for 2018

Welcome to my fourth Top Ten Discs post for Music for Several Instruments. Here is last year's, the list from the year before, and the one from 2015.

Delicacy and intricacy in a vast expanse

The third release in Aleyson Scopel's complete recording of Almeida Prado's masterwork Cartas Celestes. I've chosen this disc for my Top Ten for its variety, but the last disc in the series is also from 2018, and is also very fine.

The best introduction into Pettersson's dark & serious world

Christian Lindberg continues on his way to a new complete Pettersson symphonies cycle for BIS, for The Allan Pettersson Project 2013-2019, a joint project with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra.

More great Bacewicz from The Silesians, with Friends

The Silesian Quartets complete Bacewicz String Quartets release was on my list of Top Ten Discs of 2016, and this disc continues the high quality (as, indeed, does the composer).

Schubert in the style of Kubrick

The Trio Vitruvi's passionate, controlled performance of Schubert's late Piano Trio was a highlight of chamber music recordings in 2018. In my review I go off on a cinematic tangent.

The secret of wonderment

Leif Ove Andsnes brings "surprise and delight" to these great works by Chopin, just what the doctor - and André Gide - ordered.

Bjorn Schmelzer brings his speculative musical-historical approach to English music of the late 15th and early 16th century, once again combined with the highest levels of both music and recording technology. The result is stunning.

Fade to black...

This is the very last release in Masaaki Suzuki's magisterial Bach cantatas series with the Bach Collegium Japan. Man, it's hard not to give out one of my Top Ten places just for that. But this isn't an Al Pacino/Scent of a Woman situation here; this gorgeous disc is a good as anything in the entire series.

Music of complexity & gravitas from the 20th and 21st century

Music about the natural world, human connections and the theatrical and creative experience, by one of the greatest living composers, Kaija Saariajo. Violinist Jennifer Koh shines, and has superb support from the musicians of the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble.

Singing about the dark times

Rory McCleery demonstrates that at least some of these musical laments are more than personal declarations of grief or devotional works, but also political statements, and even underground expressions of activism against the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs in Portugal. A superb disc from The Marian Consort.

À la recherche du temps perdu

Charles Owen's two-disc set of Brahms late piano music is a nuanced and deeply moving portrayal of a great composer looking back over a lifetime of creativity, love and friendship, while always pushing ahead with music of increasing complexity, profundity and grace.

A Christmas gift, for next year

Telemann: Christmas Oratorios

This disc came just in time for Christmas; for me, that is. Unfortunately for you, though, it has a release date of January 4, 2019. So you'll need to remember this review for next Christmas, and definitely buy or stream this marvellous music next year. In the three oratorios on the disc Telemann has added operatic flourishes to his cantata style, and turned up the footlights to express himself dramatically. This is really impressive music even today; I can hardly imagine its effect in the Hamburg Cathedral on successive Sundays during the Advent season. The cantata Und das Wort ward Fleisch is also richly ornamented, and includes a lovely interlude: the ancient song In dulci jubilo.

This music is newly discovered, and recorded for the first time, which I find astounding. Is it possible that there's even more spectacular music like this still waiting for first performances and recordings? Alexander Willens has done a spectacular job in presenting Telemann's music, and works by many other Baroque composers, with his amazing Kolner Akademie and superb soloists. Once again CPO provides excellent recordings and complete documentation for music of the very highest quality. This is a Christmas gift that's so good it will still be outstanding next year!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Complex piano music played with sensitivity and grace

Cécile Chaminade: Piano Music

Nearly all of the considerable strengths of Cécile Chaminade are on display in this new disc by pianist Mark Viner, a well chosen program that ranges from the lightest salon pieces to fiercely virtuosic display pieces to works of complexity and profound depth. For those who don't know Chaminade's music, the Poème provençal, Op.127, from 1908, is a real stunner. Certainly it's atmospheric, and effective landscape painting, but as absolute music its four movements together aren't out of place in the company of great piano works from Chopin to Debussy. Viner plays it with sensitivity and grace, sustaining the long, beautiful melodies, but not milking them with sentimentality.

Poème provençal, 1908. Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Indeed, Viner's strong playing makes the old canards against Chaminade - bathos, mawkishness, melodrama - seem ludicrous. The sheer, simple beauty of a small piece like Méditation, the last of the 6 Romances sans paroles, Op.76, is reason enough to buy this album.

But this is about more than just the obviously beautiful. It's a multi-faceted, three-dimensional portrait of a major composer for the piano, and a significant achievement for Mark Viner and Piano Classics.

Friday, November 23, 2018

À la recherche du temps perdu

Brahms: Piano pieces op. 76, 79, 116, 117, 118, 119
The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity.  He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain.  He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.
- Virginia Woolf
Woolf's reference to Proust is relevant to Brahms's late piano music not only in its synthesis of sensibility and tenacity, but also as an extended contemplation of the composer's past music and life. As Proust himself wrote, "Our passions shape our books, repose writes them in the intervals." Brahms's passions - music, friendship and love of a lifetime - are written in this music in such a vital way.

The eight Klavierstücke Op.76, from the 1870s, look backward to Schumann, and farther back, to Schubert. In pianist Charles Owen's words, "I feel that the spirit of Schumann dominates these Op.76 pieces more strongly than in anything else that I know by Brahms." Owen plays this music with the vigour of the young Brahms exploring new worlds with his friend Schumann, saving his more muted tones for the wistful music to come.

With the two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 from 1879, we move to a sadness that's still too intense for the nostalgia of his last works. But this is sadness drained of all anger, and played by Owen with a concentrated severity. In Owen's words, "If people say that late Brahms is ‘autumnal’, the G minor Rhapsody is much more of a winter piece reminding me of a bleak Caspar David Friedrich painting of a ruined abbey and graveyard surrounded by skeletal trees with their leaves all fallen."

Caspar David Friedrich, Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, 1810
With the Op. 116 Fantasien from 1892 we enter the true Proustian world of Brahms's final period. So many of the last 20 pieces he wrote for piano are heartbreakingly sad, and it's only natural that one think here of Clara Schumann, his muse and constant friend and lost love. "I think Op.118 is about reminiscence", says Owen. "Possibly it’s the recollection of a whole life. There’s passion, there’s love, and autobiography." Owen saves his best playing for these pieces, and especially the last 4 Intermezzi, Op. 119. Proust spoke of "that translucent alabaster of our memories," and I've convinced myself that I can hear a translucence in Owen's performance: colours overlaid with colours, tones with overtones, memories with remembered dreams. Such a moving album!

James Jolly recently talked with Charles Owen about Brahms's late piano music on the Gramophone Podcast.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A special new jazz album for Christmas

Kristin Korb: That Time of Year

Every year I'm on the lookout for a special new jazz Christmas album, and I've found one that will surely be part of my holiday playlist in years to come: That Time of Year, from the Danish vocalist/bassist Kristin Korb. Korb modulates her voice with the expert bassist's feel for what her fine trio - Magnus Hjorth on piano and Snorre Kirk on drums, along with featured soloist Mathias Heise on harmonica - is up to all the time. Rather than a soloist with accompaniment we have Korb's vocals as part of a very musical whole.

The album's final song is my favourite. Though Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep) isn't really a Christmas song, the fact that Irving Berlin wrote it for Bing Crosby to sing in 1954's White Christmas gives it all the authenticity you could want. The arrangement calls out for guest appearances from Linus and Snoopy and Bill Melendez's animation (though Hjorth's superb, spare piano here is probably more like Bill Evans than Vince Guaraldi). The gorgeous song and fine arrangement, along with Korb's Blossom Dearie-style voice, makes this an instant classic, and worthy of Christmas airtime everywhere, from Spotify in front of your tree to the Walmart PA on Black Friday.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Appealing music from Brazil's modernist tradition

Images of Brazil: music for violin & piano by Guerra-Peixe, Guarnieri, Villa-Lobos, Aguiar, Freire and Villani-Cortes

We have here one of only a few major Heitor Villa-Lobos works that are still without a modern, easy to buy recording: O Martírio dos Insetos, written in 1917/1925 for violin and orchestra. It's true that this Naxos disc, due to be released on December 7, 2018, includes not the full violin and orchestra version, but an arrangement for violin and piano by Ricardo Averbach. But it's so well played by violinist Francesca Anderegg and pianist Erika Ribeiro, and it's such a marvellous piece, that I'd feel like a Grinch for complaining. The work is in Villa-Lobos's full-on modernist style, with the added bonus of Villa's gift for musically communicating his detailed knowledge of the natural world.

Though the rest of this program comes after Villa-Lobos's time, most is in Villa's particularly home-grown modernist style, a blend of advanced compositional and instrumental technique; the folklore of African and Brazilian Indian traditions; and the folk music (and salon music) of Europe, especially from the Iberian peninsula. A good example is the 4th Sonata for Violin & Piano by a leading composer of the generation following Villa-Lobos, Camargo Guarnieri. It's an energetic and passionate work which slides quite naturally into the vacant slot left with Villa's death in 1959. Much of the rest of the program is lighter, more melodic and romantic, and less erudite, but it's all very appealing, and beautifully played by Anderegg and Ribeiro. Highly recommended.

This disc will be released on December 7, 2018.

This review is also posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Authenticity for Christmas

A Vaughan Williams Christmas: original carols and traditional carols arranged by Vaughan Williams

The publication in 1928 of The Oxford Book of Carols was a landmark in the development of the sacred Christmas music we know and love today. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw were the musical editors for the project, and gathered many Christmas songs from across Britain, some of which had gone underground during the Puritan crackdown on Christmas. Vaughan Williams made the arrangements, some simple and some more complex, but all finely judged to sound beautiful as well as authentic when sung by choirs in cathedrals and small churches across the country. He also composed four new carols for the collection, including the touching Blake’s Cradle Song (Sweet dreams form a shade O’er my lovely infant’s head), based on a poem from William Blake's Songs of Innocence.

This is a marvellous disc, with singing of distinction from the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, an excellent choir from a really special place, directed by William Vann. Hugh Rowlands provides tasteful organ accompaniment. Bring a touch of authenticity to your Christmas this year!

As I mentioned, the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a special place; it was designed by Christopher Wren, and sits on a beautiful site next to the Thames. But this recording was made in North London: at St. Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead. The marvellous painting featured on the cover of the disc is from Walter Starmer's ceiling at St. Jude’s Church, painted between 1909 and 1935.

St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb. Photo: John Salmon