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.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The shape-shifting composer


Lars-Erik Larsson: Symphony no. 3, Three Orchestral Pieces, Adagio, Musica permutatio

That Lars-Erik Larsson withdrew all three of his symphonies after they were first performed shows a certain lack of confidence in his own abilities as a symphonist. On the evidence of three successive CPO recordings with Andrew Manze conducting the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra this seems more a sign of imposter syndrome than any compositional weaknesses, though to be fair Larsson was working in the shadow of a daunting range of Nordic symphonies, from Stenhammar, Nielsen and Sibelius to contemporaries such as Holmboe and Pettersson, and in between, Atterberg. Larsson is best known for his rhapsodic, pastoral orchestral pieces and suites, but the Third Symphony, premiered in 1946, is especially full of the same appealing melodies and dynamic pacing one finds in his better known works, though not developed quite as freely. We have in this symphony, perhaps, just a bit of what some athletes call 'the yips', a tightening-up with a resultant loss of fluency.

In his Gramophone review of the first disc in this series, Guy Rickards calls Larsson "a musical magpie", and that continues here. Right from the beginning he makes reference to the insistent rhythms of the Scherzo to Schubert's 9th Symphony. Christoph Schlüren, in his detailed and informative liner essay, mentions both Beethoven's 5th Symphony and Borodin's 2nd in the same context. By the way, the impressive waltz-like second theme of the 1st movement was "borrowed" by George Duning for the jaunty main theme for his Bell, Book and Candle film score from 1958, though he adds bongos. I expect this is just a coincidence, since it's very unlikely this music had made it to Hollywood then. It's a fun game to track down these quotes, in both directions, and I don't believe his homages diminish Larsson's music especially. In the end the performance of Manze and his players won me over.

Rickards also mentions that Larsson "flitted between styles throughout his life," and we have two surprising pieces here - the 3 Orchestral Pieces, op. 49, and the Adagio, op. 48, that show his experiments with what Schlüren terms a "free twelve-tone style." These manage to compress the usual Larsson material into a much tighter construction and a darker than usual mood, but still with more than a bit of the Larsson charm. I found the Adagio especially appealing, though it's striking how optimistic Larsson sounds here, in what one might consider Allan Pettersson territory.

There's a further stylistic shift with the final work on the disc, the Musica permutatio, which was also the final work of Larsson's life. Freer harmonically, it's very much a learned work, with impressive contrapuntal passages. It was premiered in 1982, four years before Larsson's death.

This disc will be released on October 5, 2018.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A fascinating concert of 20th century masterworks


40 Years of Contemporary Music: Chamber works by Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, Webern, Terzian, Berio, Boulez, Schreker

Alicia Terzian begins a fascinating program of contemporary chamber music with one of the great works of Brazilian modernism, the Seventh Choros of Heitor Villa-Lobos, written in 1924. The 37-year-old composer spent most of that year in Paris, rubbing shoulders with Ravel, Cocteau, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and others, though he also brought with him his own strongly modernist works he'd written in Brazil. 1924 was a banner year for modernism on both sides of the Atlantic, by the way, with the publication of both Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil and André Breton's Manifeste du surréalisme (though as Desmond Morris notes in his recent Lives of the Surrealists, the tone-deaf Breton wasn't interested in adding musicians to his group). It's refreshing to see Villa-Lobos in this modernist company, rather than the parrots-and-jungle exoticism that usually surrounds him. This is a marvellous version of this work, as well. It's subtitled "Settimino" (which means "Septet"), and it's written for flute, oboe, cello, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, tam-tam and violin. I counted twice, and both times I got 8 instead of 7. I figure the tam-tam isn't counted, like when Ringo plays the tambourine. They're still the Fab Four.



Alberto Ginastera's Pampeana no. 2 for cello & piano comes from 1950, and thus is written in what he called his Subjective Nationalism style, a transition between with folkloric Objective Nationalism of his early years and the avant-garde Neo-Expressionism he worked in after 1958. This is an appealing piece, with Latin rhythms becoming insistently astringent and abstract. It's a fine bridge between the Latin American works and those of the Europeans later in the program.

The 8 Early Songs, a work without opus number by Anton Webern, is the earliest on this program. It's from 1901-04, and shows the strong influence of Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf. Soprano Marta Blanco and pianist Claudio Espector are effective advocates for these marvellous, slightly naive but always characterful songs. I hadn't heard this music before, and I'm so grateful that it was included on this disc.

Marta Blanco is also featured in the version for voice and five instruments of Luciano Berio's O King, written in response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. I recently reviewed a fine recording from Seattle of O King in its extended version for eight voices and orchestra, and it's fascinating to hear a kind of essential distillation of this landmark work, which is all kinds of bleak, but ultimately somewhat hopeful.

Dérive by Pierre Boulez is the same kind of puzzle music that Bach and Mozart delighted in. He shifts and shuffles around a six-note chord among six instruments, and by changing the intervals derives new chords (hence the name). After five derivations, the original chord returns, and then fades into silence. At the highest level of sophistication one can hear and follow along these changes; if not one can puzzle them out while following along with the score. The rest of us might be content with the general idea that there are basic transformations happening, while enjoying the ornate decorations

Alicia Terzian contributes two works to the program. Yagua Ya Yuca for percussion is five minutes of ingenious sounds, alternately wistful and intense. Les Yeux Fertiles for voice and five instruments, is a setting of fragments of poems by Paul Eluard, serious mood pieces all.

Franz Schreker's Der Wind was written in 1909 as a ballet, though it was never performed in his lifetime. It's an occasionally jolly but ultimately sadly nostalgic piece, untroubled by the more experimental modernism of his contemporary Arnold Schoenberg. This work is a fine ending to a fascinating concert of twentieth century masterworks.



The spot-lit miracle


Das Neugeborne Kindelein: Christmas Cantatas by Buxtehude, Telemann and J. S. Bach
Although we are deeply indebted to the light, because by means of it we can find our way, ply our tasks, read, distinguish one another; and yet for all that the vision of the light itself is more excellent and more beautiful than all these various uses of it. The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.
 - Francis Bacon *
Old Master paintings on the covers of classical music discs can be a bit of cliché, but occasionally an especially relevant one is chosen, and that's definitely the case with this new Accent disc of Christmas cantatas from Baroque Germany, performed by Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande. The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerrit van Honthorst, painted in 1622, and now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, is an amazing presentation of the nativity. It's a Caravaggesque interpretation of John 1:9, "The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world." Sigiswald Kuijken has made that connection as well, in his excellent liner notes, which emphasize the  intimate atmosphere, but which, he says, "by no means excludes theatrical effects!" Of the beautiful Buxtehude In dulci jubilo he says:
... the fourth verse shines (as if under a halo) in a completely new glow, in that the two violins suddenly express the joy of the angels (“gaudia”) with their “ringing bells” in a frenzy of rapid movements.
Even in the early 18th century Christmas was a time to mix traditional music with newer, forward-looking sounds. I love Georg Philipp Telemann's archaic-sounding cantata Ein Kindelein so löbelich, TWV 9:5, from around 1720, but sounding at least a century older, at least until an Amen that sprouts Baroque curlicues around the more severe contrapuntal sounds of the stile antico. This is virtuoso composition that plays with styles in a kind of Enlightenment Post-Modernism. J. S. Bach's gorgeous cantata Ich freue mich in dir, BWV 133, from 1724, is a perfect example of how the great composer turned music into sounds of pure joy. Kuijken and La Petite Bande provide a joyful interpretation of the theatrical intimacy in this music, as apt an illustration of the show-stopping, spot-lit miracle that was the Nativity as the great painting of Gerrit van Honthorst.


* The quote from Francis Bacon, which is more or less contemporaneous to van Honthorst's painting and a century of more before the music on this disc is from Temporis Masculus Partus, 'The Masculine Birth of Time', from 1605. It's well-known today, as you'll quickly see from a Google search, because the great photographer Dorothea Lange had the last sentence posted on her darkroom wall.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Oklahoma, 1936

This disc will be released on October 19, 2018.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Re-saddling the warhorse


Mozart Symphony 25; Beethoven Symphony 5; Brahms German Requiem

Musical warhorses have a big advantage over similar works in the visual arts. What can you do with the Mona Lisa, except draw a moustache on it? But an inspired performance has the potential to completely change the way one thinks about the works you know are great, but have heard too many times. Listening to Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in this recording from the Edinburgh Festival in 1958 is like seeing a scene from an ordinary Hollywood mystery, but re-shot by Alfred Hitchcock. The suspense is intense, and the transition to the Finale is breath-taking. And then things really take off! In the words of Richard Osborne, from the fine liner notes, "From the entry of the trombones in the finale to the work’s incandescent close, this is a performance that genuinely gathers itself to greatness."

Marcel Duchamp, Mona Lisa parody "LHOOQ", 1919

Something similar happens in this recording of the Brahms German Requiem with Klemperer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a recording from London in 1955. With two very fine soloists - soprano Elfride Trötschel and baritone Hans Wilbrink - and the superb BBC Chorus led by Leslie Woodgate, this version approaches or even surpasses Klemperer's landmark 1961 recording with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Though Klemperer's Beethoven and Brahms LPs were at the front of the LP bins when I was first buying classical music in the early 1970s, it wasn't until the CD era that I began to really pay attention to him. So my admiration for him as perhaps the greatest of all conductors feels unmixed with too much nostalgia for the glory days of my youth. It seems only natural and obvious, and this new release from the wonderful ICA Classics label is just one more piece of evidence.

This two-disc set will be released on October 5, 2018.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Fade to black...


J. S. Bach: Cantatas of contentment. Ich bin in wir vergnugt, BWV 204; Angelehmes Wiederau, BWV 30a

Series finales can leave one puzzled (Lost), nostalgic (Cheers), or intrigued (The Sopranos). One of the most bitter-sweet moments in my classical music life was when I realized that Masaaki Suzuki's fabulous Bach Sacred Cantata series with Bach Collegium Japan on BIS, recorded from 1995 to 2014, was finally complete. This is one of the greatest accomplishments of recorded music. But it didn't feel quite as sad as it could have been, since there were still the Secular Cantatas to come, and those have been quite eye-opening for me. But with this release even those Cantatas are finished.

What a great way to end, though, with two "Cantatas of contentment"! The first movement of Angenehmes Wiederau, BWV 30a, is the most joyous celebration you could imagine.


I commend to everyone reading this review John Eliot Gardner's book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, and particularly in this context, Chapter 8 "Cantatas or Coffee?"
To comprehend the social, liturgical and performance background for his public music-making in his Leipzig years, we need to explore these two parallel worlds of music, one sacred, one secular, and these two public meeting places, one over 500 years old, the other relatively new. 
Certainly one could listen to Gardner's own recordings of the Bach Cantatas while reading this - they're very fine, of course - but I found every point Gardner made be better understand the music Suzuki has been guiding me through since the mid-1990s. I'll be living with this music for the rest of my life, and - who knows? - even beyond.

Fade to black...

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Fine British concertos from a great team


Finzi: Cello Concerto, Eclogue, New Year Music, Grand Fantasia & Toccata

When Raphael Wallfisch called the Finzi Cello Concerto the greatest British cello concerto, it caught my interest, as I'm sure it did many others'. Beating out the Elgar Concerto would be like coming ahead of Leonardo, or Michael Jordan, or Greta Garbo. As I said in my review of his recording, Wallfisch makes a good argument, but I was "still inclined to consider his claim just a trifle hyperbolic." In the two years since then I haven't heard anything to change my mind, though I imagine I've listened to the Elgar Concerto at least three or four times as often as the Finzi (including Wallfisch himself beautifully playing the Elgar live right in my home town, with the Victoria Symphony). This is, of course, a silly discussion, but no less fun for being silly. The Finzi Concerto is a very fine work, and together with the Moeran, Bliss, Bax and Elgar concertos, the British Cello Team is clearly the best national side, and perhaps even a match for Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.

But seriously, it's always great to see an undervalued work gain some traction, and this fine new performance by Paul Watkins and the BBC Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis makes it clear what all this fuss is about. This is rather different from Wallfisch's version, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, under Vernon Handley. It's very dramatic, and in the outer movements more often brisk than pastoral. In the great slow movement Watkins and Davis keep things at a lower temperature to start, compared with the passionate Wallfisch/Handley version, which might just slip over into sentimentality at times. And as Wallfisch wears his heart a bit on his sleeve throughout, I don't know if he gets the full effect of the climax near the end, or of the terribly sad coda. This new recording seems just perfectly judged, and even more convincing in the end.

The fine Canadian pianist Louis Lortie has his turn to shine in two works. Eclogue, for piano and orchestra, is a perfect example of English pastoral music at its best; rhapsodic and stirring, with those great Gainsborough clouds and green fields rolling down into the mist, and short enough at under ten minutes to partake of the special English genius for the miniature.  Every note by Lortie is perfectly placed; this is as English as music can be. There's much more happening in the Grand Fantasia and Toccata, including some virtuoso passages, handled with aplomb by Lortie, but it never coheres into anything close to the quality of the two works we've discussed so far.

I've been listening to a lot of occasional music for orchestra lately, including two recent discs of music for the Leonard Bernstein Centennial that were filled with almost nothing but. I keep hoping to hear something great that began as something minor, planning on referring to the title of a work G. K. Chesterton wrote in 1909, "Tremendous Trifles". I thought Finzi's New Year Music might be just that, because it's undoubtably another great miniature, perhaps even at the same level as the Eclogue. But it turns out that's because Finzi planned it as something special, and carefully re-crafted it over the decades after his first version in 1926. So it's "tremendous", all right, just not a "trifle". Andrew Davis and his marvellous players provide the most sensitive and lovely sound for this piece; it's a luscious treat.


This disc will be released on September 21, 2018.

Supremely characterized musical happenings



In their follow-up to 2014's well-received Vivaldi Premieres CD, Lina Tur Bonet and Musica Alchemica bring us another well-chosen, scrupulously researched and divinely performed program of theatrical music by the great Venetian ginger, Antonio Vivaldi. Once again we have the distinguished Vivaldi scholar Olivier Fourés leading the charge on the musicological front. He provides new musical editions of many of these works, and has dug up earlier and more authentic versions of works already in circulation. The bulk of this music receives premiere recordings here. But as important as this is to the scholarly world, none of it would mean much for us listening at home without someone with the same musical skill and charisma as the prete rosso himself, in these set-pieces of theatrical as well as musical magic. Lina Tur Bonet really delivers: the gorgeous, full sound of her Amati violin from c.1740 grips us in the concertos, and she dials things down a bit for the more intimate sonatas, with still lovely but more subdued sound from an anonymous 17th century violin. In every case she has sensitive, responsive support from the musicians of Musica Alchemica. Forget the canard about all of Vivaldi's huge corpus of music sounding alike; just feel lucky that we have musicians like these to provide us with these supremely characterized musical happenings.

Note that the "Graz" Sonatas included here (numbers 1, 2 & 5) are from the same 2013 recording as the two included on the Vivaldi Premiere disc (numbers 3 & 4).  The concertos are from a 2018 recording, which incidentally sounds great. 

This disc will be released on September 21, 2018.