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.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fun for four hands and a piano keyboard

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos arranged for piano duet

Back in 2003 Sony released a great Bach album, one of my all-time favourites, by Murray Perahia. It included an electrifying performance of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto:

That's great piano playing in the cadenza, but I love the piano/orchestra textures throughout the concerto. It points the way to this new arrangement of the Brandenburg Concertos for piano duet. I know I was ready for this! Eleonor Bindman's arrangement is outstanding, at once freer and closer to the spirit of the original music, and with more interesting textures than the one by Max Reger. Bindman and Jenny Lin (who was so great in this year's release of Philip Glass Etudes) really lean in to this freedom, swinging when Bach allows, and never staid or boring when things get more thoughtful or academic.

Here's a short taste of the music, and some interesting comments about the arrangement by Bindman. Though she may have started with purely pedagogical reasons for bringing this music to four hands and a piano keyboard, which I'm sure are very close to Max Reger's own, Bindman and Lin are obviously having too much fun here for it to be just that. And that makes it even more pleasurable for us to listen to.

THE BRANDENBURG DUETS: Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos arranged for piano duet by Eleonor Bindman from Grand Piano Records on Vimeo.

Eleonor Bindman has a fabulous section on her website exploring this project more fully. I highly recommend checking it out!

The Brandenburg Duets disc will be released on March 9, 2018.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

With Love from Stewart Goodyear

Stewart Goodyear: piano works by Gibbons, Sweelinck, Bach, Brahms, Berg

On January 11, 1955 Glenn Gould made his New York debut (what he called his "Debutown") at Town Hall, and on the following day he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. His 27 years in the recording studio before his untimely death in 1982 made him a legend around the world, but here in Canada he is especially admired and loved. One of those hero-worshippers is Stewart Goodyear, born and raised in Toronto, and an alumnus, like Gould, of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Goodyear has recently been playing in concert many of the works from Gould's audacious programme in New York, and in his American debut earlier that year in Washington DC.

Glenn Gould's debut concert at Town Hall, January 11, 1955. Library & Archives Canada
Now we have this new Sono Luminus disc with many of those pieces: music by Gibbons, Bach (Sinfonias from the 3-Part Inventions and the 5th Partita) and Berg (his Piano Sonata op.1). He's also included two Brahms Intermezzi and to close, the ultimate Gould tribute, the Aria from The Goldberg Variations. I love Gould's Brahms; those who think of him as a capricious and detached artist should listen to his 1961 recording of 10 Intermezzi, which he referred to as "the sexiest interpretation of Brahms’s Intermezzi you’ve ever heard". He also said it was "perhaps the best piano playing I have done." Goodyear's own Intermezzo in A major, op. 118 no. 2 is as rapturous and full-blooded as Gould's, full of a deep understanding of Brahms and a fitting tribute to Gould in the bargain.

It was surprising to notice how slow some of Glenn Gould's tempi were in his recordings of the early English masters. His 1971 recording of Orlando Gibbons' "Lord of Salisbury" Pavan and Galliard runs about the same length as Goodyear's in spite of the fact that the latter includes repeats that Gould doesn't. Goodyear's zippier version makes more musical sense, I think. Though I do love Gould's whole album A Consort of Musicke bye William Byrde and Orlando Gibbons, it's a bit out in left field even by the standards of its day, much less when looked at through any modern historically informed practice lens. 

Thank goodness we're finally beyond looking at Glenn Gould as the mere sum of his eccentricities. We have a much better idea of the whole person: his emotional responses to people as well as pianos, and the full measure of his mastery in so many dimensions of great artists like Bach and Brahms. It's this response to the complete artist that makes Goodyear's tribute so important; it's based on a study of the deep roots of Gould's art, and not the externalities. As well, it's obviously heartfelt. The best expression of this love is the last piece on the disc, the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. Goodyear's moving performance takes the middle ground between the bright, almost coltish first version Gould made at the beginning of his recording journey, and the solemn, heart-breaking one he made close to the end. What a marvellous way to celebrate our Glenn!

This disc will be released on March 23, 2018.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Aldo and Yannick double down

Mozart Piano Concerto K. 466; Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 2

These two recordings were made during Yannick Nezet-Seguin's tenure as the LPO's Principal Guest Conductor, before Aldo Ciccolini's death in 2015. The Rachmaninov is from 2009, while the Mozart dates from 2011. These are fascinating performances, with one master at the end of a glittering career and the other at the beginning of his. The Rachmaninov is bright and brash and lush, but also tender and lyrical. I don't think a Romantic concerto could be more beautifully played by an orchestra than what we hear from the LPO musicians. They have the measure of this music, and the producers and engineers have come through with marvellous sound from the live recording in Royal Festival Hall. Romantic Rachmaninov is almost a redundant phrase, but Romantic Mozart approaches the oxymoronic in these Historically Informed Performance days. From its portentiously measured beginning to Ciccolini's incautious rubato to Nezet-Seguin's great swells from the strings, this is Mozart according to the Old Rites of the early days of recording. To be sure, the D minor concerto of 1785 points the way to Don Giovanni and the Requiem, and also to Beethoven, whose favourite Mozart concerto it was. My measured response? This Mozart is old fashioned and anachronistic, but within its own sound world, gorgeously played. It's inappropriately beautiful.

This disc will be released on March 2, 2018.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

An appealing mix of Finnish & Baltic music

Dedicated To: works by Aho, Narbutaite, Rautavaara, Salmenhaara, Vasks

From Erkki Slamenhaara's Elegia II for two String Quartets, dedicated to Juha Kangas in 1963, to Peteris Vasks’ Musica serena, written for Kangas's Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra in 2015, this appealing mix of music shows the skills of the ensemble in its present form as well as the creativity of these Finnish, Latvian and Lithuanian composers. The Lithuanian Onutė Narbutaitė is new to me; her outstanding piece Was There a Butterfly? was written in 2013. This work, full of shifting textures and colours, is expressive, abstract and mysterious. All of the music on the disc rewards close listening, but don't worry about just letting it wash over you. I'm the last person to tell you you're listening to music wrong!

This disc will be released on March 16, 2018.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Marvellous Perle, beautifully played

George Perle: Dance Fantasy, 6 Bagatelles, Cello Concerto, Sinfonietta no. 1, A Short Symphony

The musical wars of the 20th century are beginning to seem to me nearly as insignificant as those of the 19th. Today I listen to a work by Berg or Stravinsky and worry as little about theoretical constructs as I do with Wagner or Berlioz. The music itself hasn't changed, of course, but with the newness rubbed off and the passions of the music wars on the ebb I hear good music or not, congenial to my taste or not. George Perle was interested as much in music theory and history as he was in composition, but I can happily forget that he was one of the key figures in presenting 12-tone music in America, and just listen to this marvellous music, beautifully played by the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot.

It's surprising how small the George Perle discography is; we need many more discs like this. Bridge has done some great work lately in presenting an important American composer, with their 2006 two-disc set George Perle: A Retrospective a landmark. This new disc is volume 4 in Bridge's series; it's especially nice to have so many orchestral works, since most of the recent Perle recordings are of chamber music (as good as that music is). Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony are the best possible advocates for this music, playing with passion, verve and control. Cellist Jay Campbell is superb in the Cello Concerto; it's not a really long piece, but it's by no means slight. Perle has concentrated a powerful mix of music into this piece, which deserves a place in the repertoire.

This disc will be released on February 16, 2018.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Delicacy and intricacy in a vast expanse

Almeida Prado: Cartas Celestes 9, 10, 12 and 14

As Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel continues his traversal of Almeida Prado's huge work for piano, Cartas Celestes, we can begin to see the delicacy of its parts and the intricacy of the relationships within a vast expanse. Stars look to us like points of white light, but this is a multi-coloured canvas; we should think of these star charts as being more like NASA's amazing Hubble Space Telescope photographs than the (admittedly gorgeous) cover art by Tony Price featured on this disc.

Globular Cluster Messier 79 (M79, NGC 1904)

In the first two volumes of this series I often heard the sound of Heitor Villa-Lobos's piano music, most especially the two books of Prole do Bebe, Rudepoema and As Tres Marias. Almeida Prado, of course, has a much more avant garde palette, which is natural considering his teachers included György Ligeti and Lukas Foss. The four works included here date from around the turn of the century; all but the 14th are World Premiere Recordings, and they're indeed welcome.

The Cartas Celestes no. 9 is constructed as a kind of Four Seasons. The episode entitled The summer sky as seen from Brazil includes a shout-out to Villa-Lobos's Three Maries from 1939. Each of the sections has its own atmosphere, though they all share the composer's characteristic clusters and the harmonic language he termed "transtonality". At times this music seems like it must be fiendishly difficult to play, but Scopel handles it all with aplomb, and indeed pushes back in the virtuoso passages to exploit their colour and emotional content rather than just flaunting the razzle-dazzle glitter. Almeida Prado has some fun in the 10th work, The Constellations of the Mystical Animals, and Scopel ensures that we do too, with a light touch in the presentation of this heavenly menagerie enacting scenes from the life of Christ. If these animals are mystical they're closer to St. Francis than anything more abstruse. The 11th work is more arcane, making reference to two paintings by the symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich, including this 1932 work Saint Sophia the Almighty Wisdom, in the Roerich Museum in New York. Almeida Prado doesn't let the extra-musical happenings interfere too much with his musical agenda. When I saw the Roerich connection I listened for Scriabin, but couldn't hear any. Perhaps I don't know the Russian master well enough!

The 14th work is, in my opinion, one of the strongest of the whole series so far. It uses a variety of structures from the piano literature, from a Bachian toccata to a disemboweled waltz, a kind of Darmstadt Ravel. It's witty and strange, but also a bit scary. Scopel is really moving along here, at a disc every year; I'm hoping we see the fourth volume before 2018 is done!

Volume 3 in this series will be released on February 3, 2018. Here are my reviews of Volume 2 and Volume 1.  Both of the previous discs made by Top 10 lists for 2017 and 2016.

Style, wit and grace in man and art

Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts

The latest film in the Exhibition on Screen series, coming soon to a cinema near you, and eventually out on DVD, is another Phil Grabsky masterpiece, this time featuring one of the greatest living artists, David Hockney. I've been following Grabsky's blog for the past few months; in a recent post he talked about his upcoming film (the new Cezanne one, which I'm excited about), and his key question was "What is the story of our film?" That was I'm sure also a challenge for this Hockney project, because of the astounding range and sheer volume of the painter's last decade.

I've been immersing myself in Hockney since my first viewing of this film. There's an excellent book by Tim Barringer and Edith Devaney that came out of the most recent Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, from 2016.

And from the 2012 RAA landscape exhibition, the equally fine David Hockney: A Bigger Picture.

As well, I watched Bruno Wollheim's film of the same name, released in 2010, which I highly recommend. It's available to stream on various platforms, as well as DVD. Hockney had never before allowed video cameras to film him as he painted, but he's completely at ease in front of Wollheim (who had to manage his camera himself), and there's something completely charming about their interactions.

In the latest film we see that same charm and ease in front of Phil Grabsky's cameras, now at a more sophisticated and probing level. The window he opens on Hockney and his dedicated team shows all the hard work that goes into each canvas and print-out. I've spoken before about the perfection of HD video when it comes to opening up the visual arts, and Grabsky is one of the best at presenting art without falling into camera tricks or being stagey or overly reverential. He captures Hockney's flamboyance but also his subtlety, and in the interviews with both the artist and the various experts he shows how the man's style, wit and grace have their mirror in his art. I can't imagine a better way to spend an hour and a half than going to the cinema to see this film. 

Now on to Cezanne!