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.

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

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

Saariaho x Koh: Tocar, Cloud Trio, Light & Matter, Aure, Graal Théâtre

Kaija Saariaho's violin concerto Graal Théâtre, written in 1994 for Gidon Kremer, is one of the great works of the late 20th century, and a fine way to finish a varied program of music otherwise from the 21st century. Violinist Jennifer Koh stars in this new Cedille disc, with superb support from the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble under the direction of Conner Gray Covington.

Graal Théâtre is based on a book of Arthurian legends by Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud. Saariaho relates how this book inspired her, both in its balance between the personal experience of creation by the artist and the theatricality of performance, and in the modern confrontation of rich source material: for Delay and Roubaud the stories of Guenivere and Galahad, and for Saariaho the great violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. It's the connections to musical tradition and to the theatrical experience that matter here; beyond the positioning implied in the title there is no other connection with Arthurian legend, no musical program. As Roubaud himself said about poetry, "It says what it says by saying it."

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822, Tate Gallery
John Constable's amazing series of oil sketches of clouds is an attempt to capture en plaine air hugely complex and ever-changing meteorological effects in two dimensions. It must have taken manic energy to put oil paint on a fairly large (19" x 23") board at this level of detail in just an hour (on the back of the painting Constable noted "11 a.m." and "noon" as his starting and stopping times). In her Cloud Trio (2009) for violin, viola and cello, Kaija Saariaho also encountered clouds herself, up close in the French alps, as set out in Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti's superb liner essay (reproduced at her website here):
"When you are high in the mountains, one often sees many different layers of clouds, having all different forms, speeds and textures. They are all different, and yet we all know that they all are clouds. These notions turned into musical ideas in this trio."
With an atmospheric scientist in the family, and living in Canada's most perfect climate, we take our meteorological arts very seriously. Recently a cold front came through, and it was an amazing experience to watch the clouds hurry by from our balcony, while listening to this music. There's a fabulous feeling of atmosphere in Cloud Trio, and the same dimensional shifts one experiences when one looks at Constable's studies. Time passes, and stops; volumes form and dissipate. Three fine musicians communicate form, speed and texture, with a hint of the non-linear world underlying all weather systems. It was the meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz, after all, who developed chaos theory. I can, however, state definitively that this is a stunning performance.

The rest of the program includes works of similar complexity and gravitas. Saariaho's interpretation of the natural world is continued in Light and Matter, from 2014, while she explores human connections in Tocar (2010). The moving Aure (2011) is a tribute to Henri Dutilleux on his 95th birthday, and shares with Dutilleux's Mémoire des ombres the same motto by Anne Frank: "Why us, why the star?"

Saariaho's music nearly always seems to combine great power with delicacy. Koh shines in both; her touch is assured and passionate when required, with a gorgeous full sound but also the most tender fragility. This release leaves one in awe of the artistry of a great composer, a star soloist (and many other fine musicians), and of the natural wonders of our world.

This disc will be released on November 9, 2018.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Singing about the dark times

Pater Peccavi: Music of Lamentation from Renaissance Portugal; music by Brito, Cardoso, Lobo, Magalhães, Morago
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times. 
- Bertold Brecht, Motto to the 'Svendborg Poems'
The sensuous, fiercely sad music of 16th and 17th century Portugal can be so intensely emotional that the centuries between slip away, and one responds as if to a death in the family or some local tragedy. As Rory McCleery documents in his fine liner essay to his superb new disc with The Marian Consort, 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. So underlying the bitterness of the lamentations is a strongly burning hope, a hope, indeed for eventual salvation, but also for the restoration of a Portuguese monarch, which indeed happened with the accession of John (João) IV in December 1640.

Duarte Lobo's Missa Veni Domine is almost certainly a political as well as a devotional and artistic statement. Its text asks God to return without delay in order to "ease the wrong done to your people, and call back to their land those who have been dispersed. Stir up your power, O Lord, and come that you might save us."

Humans will always look to art for hope, from Lisbon in 1640 to Brecht in exile in 1939, to the many great artists working in the shadow of the worldwide fascist redux of today. This release is a profound example of how political action can be mobilized and supported by art.

This album will be released on November 2, 2018.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Dramatic, vital symphonies from a Czech master

Leopold Kozeluch: Symphonies, vol. 2

According to the fine essay by Allan Badley included in the liner notes of this new Naxos release, Leopold Kozeluch (1747–1818) left 16 surviving symphonies and two symphonies concertantes, so we're probably half-way through this series of discs from the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Stilec. I very much enjoyed the first release in the series, back in early 2017, but the question is, will we bump up against the dreaded Law of Diminishing Returns?

On the evidence of this new album, I'm pleased to say that Kozeluch remains the same charming, inventive, solidly musical and tasteful (if I can use one of Mozart's favourite words) composer I judged him back then. The Bohemian composer comes up with a fabulous opening for his F major Symphony, cleverly chosen by Marek Stilec to go first in this program. This is dramatic and vital music that comes awfully close to the orchestral masterworks of Haydn and Mozart. Not every movement is at this level, and I thought at first that Kozeluch was running out of steam, and inspiration, in each symphony, but then I heard the marvellous Menuetto from the G major Symphony, which somehow perfectly represents in musical form an entire world that's conjured up by Ievgenii Tryfonov's photograph of the baroque Augustinian Wing of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, on the front cover of the CD. Bring on more Kozeluch Symphonies, Naxos, and don't forget the Symphonies Concertantes!

Here's a nice bit of the opening movement of the G major Symphony in a Naxos video on YouTube:

This disc will be released on December 7, 2018.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the path to the symphony

Christoph Graupner: Ouverture Suite in A minor, Concerto for two oboes, Concerto for two trumpets, Ouverture Suite in G minor

L'arpa festante and conductor & harpsichordist Rien Voskuilen present here an interesting program of music by Christoph Graupner, a near contemporary of Bach and Handel and a close colleague of Telemann. In works called Concertos and Ouverture Suites, modelled after the Corellian concerto and the Lullyan suite, we see Graupner bending and remolding the music into different forms in a kind of musical laboratory. The Ouvertures take on concertante textures, while the Concertos sometimes use suite-like dance movements. Galante touches alternate with more archaic, erudite, contrapuntal passages; the keynote is change and transition. In the end one can see an early movement towards a a real classical style, with true symphonic touches on the horizon. The musicians of this venerable German ensemble play with taste and authenticity, and prove to be excellent advocates for the music of a composer who is beginning to take his rightful place alongside the better-known Telemann. Highly recommended.

In memoriam; In space

Wolfgang Rihm: Lichtzwang (In memoriam Paul Celan), Dritte Musik, Gedicht des Malers

do not send out,
transgrounded by the void,
free of all
fine-fugued, according to
Writ’s pre-Script,
not overtakable,
I take you in,
instead of any
 - The final poem from Paul Celan's Lichtzwang ("Light-duress"), in Paul Joriss's translation, published in 1970
Wolfgang Rihm's Lichtzwang, written during the period 1975-76, is a memorial to the great poet Paul Celan, who drowned himself in the Seine in Paris on April 20, 1970. It's one of the great elegaic works for violin and orchestra, in the same class as Alban Berg's Violin Concerto of 1935, written "To the memory of an angel", Alma and Walter Gropius's daughter Manon, who died of polio at 18. It's encouraging to see a new, and extremely fine, recording of this work, by the young violinist Tanwa Yang, and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Christoph-Mathias Mueller, an indication perhaps that this work is entering the core repertory as the Berg has. I know the most recent recording, also from SWRmusic, on a 2008 Hanssler Classic disc with Janos Yegnesy and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg under Sylvain Cambreling. Both recordings are sterling.

This really is a most amazing piece, which begins with an angry clash of percussion, but spends most of its time in a yearning, unsettled space that sounds almost neo-Romantic at times. The violin plays mainly in a high register, while the orchestra attempts to pull it down, almost like the cold current of the Seine. One of the defining characteristics of the work is its use of silence; the action stops cold more than a few times, with complete silence before a reboot, almost like black-outs in the theatre. The final silence is shattering. Yang and Mueller have the measure of this music; I found it a profoundly moving performance.

Rihm's Dritte Musik, his third violin concerto, from 1993, also has its contemplative moments, but overall it has a wider range of emotions, and features the instruments of a very large orchestra as much as the solo instrument. Rihm's most recent violin concerto, from 2014, is his Gedicht des Malers (Poem of the Painter).  The painter is Max Beckmann, an important figure in Rihm's music; his earlier works include Versuchung (Hommage à Max Beckmann), from 2008-09, and Der Maler träumt, from the same period, set to Beckmann’s On my Painting. "Music", wrote Rihm, "is indeed maybe painting or architecture, in time, depending on one’s viewpoint. For me rather painting, but certainly in space, not restricted to one and the same surface." In Beckmann's 1921 painting Self Portrait as Clown, the painter holds a violin bow as a kind of analogue for the painter's brush, and it's this conceit that Rihm expounds on in this piece. It's all rather fanciful, but though this is a stereo rather than a surround-sound recording, I can easily imagine this performance taking place in a three-dimensional space, as Rihm says: "in space". What a wonderful album!

Max Beckmann, Self-portrait as a clown, 1921, Von-der-Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal

Monday, October 22, 2018

Complex music from a child-like world

Villa-Lobos: Guia Prático, Petizada, Brinquedo de Roda, Historias da Carochinha

In the early 1930s Heitor Villa-Lobos published his collection of 137 children's songs from around Brazil, entitled Guia Prático (Practical Guide). This was an educational project he undertook as Director of SEMA (the national Superintendency of Artistic and Musical Education).

This is only the fourth recording of the complete Guia Prático. The first, by Villa's friend Anna Stella Schic, released in 1976, has the merit of authenticity, if not the same qualities of pianism or recording technology of later releases. Clara Sverner had a fine complete Guia Prático in 2007, on the Biscoito label in Brazil, which might be hard to find on disc, but it's available for download and streaming. The gold standard for all of Villa-Lobos's piano music, though, is Sonia Rubinsky's complete set, released in the first decade of the 2000s and now available in an affordable Naxos box set. Her Guia Prático is outstanding in its sensitivity to the childlike nuances of the music, without any loss of virtuosity in these often very difficult works.

This really is a tightrope walk: playing through works of significant technical and musical complexity without losing the link to child-like innocence and wonder. Villa-Lobos had been down this path before, with his two sets (a third was lost) of A Prole do Bebê, modernist masterpieces exploring the world of children, but requiring virtuoso technique.  Marcelo Bratke has this technique, and seems very much at home in the musical worlds of Brazil's regions. As well played as this music is, though, I think it's complementary to Rubinsky's set, rather than in any sense supplanting it.

I'm usually a big fan of Naxos sound engineering, though there are occasional missteps along the way in the Rubinsky set. Quartz delivers very lifelike sound for Bratke here, and I have no complaints about the sound in this album, or in the previous three releases. Bratke's complete piano set began in 2010, with the second release in 2012 and the third in 2013. These two discs comprise the 4th and 5th volumes, which means there are probably three discs to come.  They will be welcome when they arrive.

This disc will be released on November 16, 2018.

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