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.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Atmosphere and adventure under the sea

Seascapes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The Gothenburg Combo are guitarists David Hansson and Thomas Hansy. Their new disc Seascapes is a dramatic presentation of events from one of the greatest adventure stories, Jules Verne's 1870 classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: A Tour of the Underwater World. Most seascapes in music, from Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture to Debussy's La Mer, are atmospheric, and there's a certain amount of that here. Indeed, this minimalist-style music lends itself to such scene-painting, with the trance-like effect of repeated notes supporting harmonic changes making one think of the regular rhythms of the sea, from the gentle lapping of small waves to the nearly regular repetitions of larger breakers. The ebb and flow of the tides and changes in weather provide a dynamic that keeps the ocean's quotidian rhythms from becomes monotonous, but it's the drama of Verne's story that really drives Seascapes. Along the way are some folk-inspired episodes, with the Spanish guitar music of Sor and Villa-Lobos showing up a number of times. And there are many effective scenic paintings,
of birds of paradise, of the picturesque ruins of the lost under-sea continent and brightly coloured coral. This is a fascinating project that shows impressive musical and theatrical talent. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The right amount of curtain in the frame

Brahms: Complete works for solo piano

Brahms lived at the keyboard; from his early virtuoso days until just before he died his music for solo piano was always front and centre, and six CDs of this music will provide a three dimensional picture of what makes Brahms tick. I caught only a couple of Barry Douglas's six individual releases from Chandos over the past five years, so my immersion in this music during the last week has given me a pretty fresh idea of Douglas's point of view as he guides us through more than seven hours of music. I really like his idea of mixing things up and presenting six separate stand-alone mixed recitals made up of different periods, contrasting formats and pieces in keys that make musical sense. Each disc is a delight, though I must admit I powered through more than a few discs at a time when I got some serious Brahms momentum going.

I've been reading Annie Leibovitz at Work, where the great photographer says "I love [Richard] Avedon's stripped-down portraits, but I'm very uncomfortable coming in close like that. Avedon trusted the face to take the picture. He didn't claim that his portraits were 'true', but they looked like reality." Barry Douglas abjures any close-in focus on the emotional core of any piece; he tends to have a more nuanced, a 'truer', in Leibovitz's sense, point of view. Leibovitz continues: "I usually pull back from the subjects of a portrait and include things around them in the picture. That's one of the reasons I love Diane Arbus. I used to study her pictures and try to figure out how she got just the right amount of curtain in a frame. Just a little piece of it, but just the right amount for the room she was working in." Listen to how Douglas includes just the right amount of curtain in this lovely version of Brahms' Intermezzo, op. 118 no. 2:

This isn't a cool approach, exactly (though maybe it's cool in Marshall McLuhan's sense), but it does eschew some of the effects I've heard from other pianists. To me it seems measured and classical, but in the end I'm just as moved by this performance as I am by those of Arthur Rubinstein or Glenn Gould. Composers more than writers or, especially, visual artists, tend to expose their emotional lives in their art, and so we often seem to know a composer more fully, even without letters or diaries or the testimony of contemporaries. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, "In music the passions enjoy themselves." The case of Johannes Brahms is instructive; we can hear in his early music a vigorous young man, well aware of his gifts but still holding back some of his strongest feelings and impulses. His own works are then charged with some romantic tumult as he encounters the music of Chopin and Liszt and Robert and Clara Schumann, while at the same time his more serene nature deepens as he studies Mozart, Bach and Handel. Finally, in the works of his final years, we hear call-backs to a lifetime of music, tinged with the dark colours of regret for lost love and missed opportunities, and nostalgia for former happy times. Ultimately his classical nature reasserts itself in more austere constructions which are never quite placid. All of these ebbs and flows are chronicled in this masterful survey by a pianist at the height of his powers.

Every once in a while I come across a musical project that I realize will become something important in my life; recent ones include Haydn 2032 from Giovanni Antonini, and the Peterhouse Partbooks by Blue Heron. Barry Douglas's Brahms will, I'm sure, be another.

The box set of the Complete Music for Solo Piano will be released on January 5, 2018, though each individual disc is for sale right now.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lovely Christmas jazz, spare and sad

'Tasteful jazz arrangements', it says on the back cover, but these are much more sophisticated arrangements than you're likely to find at the lounge at the local Sheraton or Marriott Hotel. In a letter to his father Mozart praises a pianist's "taste, feeling, and a brilliant style of playing", and this is the territory we're in here with pianist Simon Mulligan, who gets a fine piano to play on, in a great venue, with first-class engineering and presentation for this lovely disc from Steinway & Sons. The Christmas jazz antecedents here are Oscar Peterson, whose Christmas album is first-class, but quite a bit livelier than this one; Bill Evans, whose Santa Claus is Coming to Town is a treat, full of wit and good humour; and of course Vince Guaraldi, who brought jazz Christmas music to the masses with the debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas on CBS on December 9, 1965. Mulligan has major classical bona fides (Chopin, Beethoven, Shostakovich) and a thorough grounding in the American Songbook to go with what seems to be an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano styles. Listen for bits of Art Tatum, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, but in these arrangements each song has its mood and its story to tell, so none of them feels like a pastiche.

One of my favourite tracks is the first one on the disc, a Hark The Herald Angels Sing that keeps taking completely unexpected turns into surprising places: here to Chopin, there to Scott Joplin, over to Gershwin. There's also a very spare version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that's a real stand-out, but I especially loved the final song, a Silent Night with a real valedictory feel to it. It has the peace and beauty of falling snow at night, but also all of the melancholy we've come to expect from Christmas songs in a minor key, bringing some solace, but also, as Orhan Pamuk remarks in another context, "adding depth to our sorrow".

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bright and bouncy

Handel: Messiah, 1754 version

Hervé Niquet has opted to record the 1754 version of Messiah, which has five soloists rather than four. I know this version well because of the now classic 1991 recording by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, which featured the divine Emma Kirkby. We had that on cassette, so it was the soundtrack (along with Yogi Yorgesson's I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas - the kids were little!) for many a holiday trip in Alberta's cold Decembers.

However, that's not the key to this new version by Le Concert Spirituel under the direction of Hervé Niquet. Rather, it's his statement that "I’ve opted here for an operatic interpretation, taking its cue from the drama inherent in this account of the life of Christ." Niquet plays up the drama throughout, and he has the players and singers to follow through on all of his concepts. I think nearly every idea is at least plausible. It's a brisk run-through; listen to the swinging Sinfonia:

But this is about more than just tempo. Niquet's version is positively bouncy; if it were in the Hundred Acre Wood it would be Tigger. As far as I'm concerned that's great; I've heard too many Eeyore Messiahs.

E.H. Shepard. Tiggers can't climb trees

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Worth the wait for three premiere recordings

Paul Patterson: Violin Concerto no. 2; Kenneth Leighton: Violin Concerto; Gordon Jacob: Violin Concerto

Clare Howick brings her excellent technique and the big sound of the 'Maurin' Stradivarius 1718, on loan from the Royal Academy of Music, to 20th and 21st century music from Britain in this very welcome new disc from Naxos. Paul Patterson wrote his superb 2nd Violin Concerto for Howick in 2013, and this is its first recording. What's more surprising is that the other two works on the disc are receiving their premiere recordings as well. Gordon Jacob's Concerto for Violin & Strings, a work that I find extremely interesting and admire more each time I hear it, was written in 1953. I guess when one thinks back to the post-war New Music world it was out of step with its time, but nearly 65 years later it's fresh and alive. Howick's playing is completely convincing, in the frame conductor Grant Llewellyn sets up with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's expert playing, not allowing the rhapsodic passages to become sentimental and keeping things moving along smartly. Similarly, the Kenneth Leighton Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra, written in the previous year, is well worth the wait. Its four short movements each pack a punch, with distinct and distinctive moods, and the whole thing adds up to a minor masterpiece. Again, the playing of soloist and orchestra is special: taught and bright and memorable. Very highly recommended!

This disc will be released on December 1, 2017.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Organic, powerful Glass

Here we are again. Two releases of Philip Glass's great cycle of Etudes for Piano in November 2017: this Steinway & Sons album by Jenny Lin follows Jeroen Van Veen's for Brilliant Classics, which was released earlier this month. These two discs emphasize the stature of this composer and the importance of this music. Though the earliest Etudes began as studies to help Glass improve his technique as a pianist, the set as a whole now represents a landmark in 21st century music.

Lin's version is significantly faster than Van Veen's, cooler and lighter and more mercurial. This cuts against Glass's own focus on the emotional content of his music, but I find Lin's reading totally convincing. In Van Veen's more romantic approach, the emotion sweeps us up, while Lin's grows slowly in subtle shifts. As Glass says about his music from the late 60s and early 70s, "It was not meant to be mindless, but to be organic and powerful, and mindful, too."
The trick of that music was that it allowed the attention to form around a series of successive events that became almost unnoticeable - around the function of listening to something that seemed as if it were not changing, but was actually changing all the time. (Words Without Music)
Jenny Lin has been involved in the one-evening events where a number of pianists including Glass himself play all 20 Etudes. She'll join Glass, Aaron Diehl, Jason Moran and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes in this program at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in March of 2018.

This album will be released on November 17, 2017.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The soul in the surface

Canaletto & The Art of Venice

The latest Exhibition on Screen is one of the finest in the entire series, David Bickerstaff film based on the exhibition of paintings and drawings by Canaletto and some of his contemporaries in 18th century Venice, at The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace. The film is in theatres in the UK right now, but it opens real soon here in North America (on November 9, 2017 in Canada).

"The soul is often in the surface," says Italo Calvino, "and the importance of 'depth' is overestimated." This is an axiom with some relevance to the art of the great scene-painter Canaletto, whose art came from the showy, superficial world of the popular theatre, but who developed a very personal style of panache and real rigour which pointed towards the art of the 20th century.  It's also relevant to the format of High Definition video which comes to our local cinema, and soon to our flat-screen televisions, along with the finest details, the very brush-strokes, and even in one case the artist's finger-print. I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have made of the flattening and widening of the TV screen, with the new intensity of sound and colour and its immersive effect. I'm very much aware, as I watch the latest art documentaries, of the total rush of the new media in both the cognitive and the emotional realms. I feel much more connected to Canaletto and his world through this hour and a half film, with its tantalizing glimpses of the very private painter, and the fascinating figure of Joseph Smith, a great connoisseur and entrepreneur who sold his collection of Canalettos and other Venetian paintings to George III. We're given a backstage view of the Buckingham Palace exhibition, which is still going on, if you're reading this from London, before it heads off to Edinburgh, and thence to Dublin. We have access to expertise at the highest level; one of the main interpreters is Lucy Whitaker, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection Trust. She's a co-author of the recently published book Canaletto & The Art of Venice. I highly recommend this film, and will alert you when the DVD is released next year.