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, June 17, 2018

Intensity and tranquility in music of genius

Berio: Sinfonia; Boulez: Notations I-IV; Ravel: La Valse

The Seattle Symphony under the direction of Ludovic Morlot perform Berio's Sinfonia, Boulez's Notations I-IV and Ravel's La Valse on this new disc from Seattle Symphony Media.  Though built on a complex maze of literary and musical allusions elaborately folded many times over upon themselves, it's the expressive power and intensity that strikes one about Luciano Berio's Sinfonia. This is especially true of the 2nd movement, O King, which makes reference to the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Sinfonia, written for the 125th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1968, is a work for 8 voices and orchestra, and it was the great Swingle Singers who performed the work at its premiere on October 10, 1968, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. The raw emotion that is evident in the great Columbia Masterworks recording is perhaps somewhat muted in this new recording, made fifty years later, but I think the superb singing, whispering and murmuring of Roomful of Teeth, Morlot's conception of the work, and the expert playing of the Seattle Symphony musicians maybe result in an even more complex and convincing performance. Then there's the added bonus of the 5th movement, which Berio added to the work in 1969, after the New York recording was already in the can.

In a discussion between John Cage and the late art critic & scholar Irving Sandler, in his fabulous memoir A Sweeper-Up After Artists, Cage expressed a preference for Mark Tobey's White Writing paintings over the works of Jackson Pollock. "We would meet," Cage said, "and he always complained that I didn't like his work enough, and I didn't." Sandler said "But what about the intensity, the excitement?" and Cage replied:
Oh, none of these aspects interested me. They're precisely the things about abstract expressionism which didn't interest me. I wanted to change my way of seeing, not my way of feeling. I'm perfectly happy about my feelings. I want to bring them, if anything, to some kind of tranquility. I don't want to disturb my feelings, and above all, I don't want somebody else to disturb my feelings. I don't spend my life being pushed around by a bunch of artists.
What is fascinating about the programme Ludovic Morlot has chosen on this disc is the balance between intensity and tranquility, which coincidentally was the focus of my recent review of Mariss Jansson's Bruckner 8th Symphony from Munich. This is more than just a contrast between hot Berio and cool Boulez, though that's the obvious line to be drawn here between two vitally important works that in some way exemplify two major thrusts of 20th Century music. There are also ebbs and flows of expression in both of the Sinfonia and Notations. Berio added a fifth movement to make the "narrative substance" of Sinfonia more explicit. It's this story-telling device of adding a coda to bring better balance to the overall story which speaks to these expressive contrasts even within this work.

Ludovic Morlot's own coda, as he tells a story in this programme, is Maurice Ravel's La Valse, a sad and savage reworking of the Viennese waltz, an avatar for the old world forever lost on the other side of the chasm of World War I. After two great works of immense complexity and beauty this is a superb end to a programme that explores and explains the beauty and horror of the 20th Century.

Mark Tobey, White Writing, 1959

Jackson Pollock, White Light, 1954, MOMA, New York

This disc will be released on July 20, 2018.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

To be precise

"Charles is very keen on painting," said Sebastian.
I noticed the hint of deep boredom which I knew so well in my own father.
"Yes? Any particular Venetian painter?"
"Bellini," I answered rather wildly.
"Yes? Which?"
"I'm afraid I didn't know there were two of them."
"Three to be precise."
I thought of this great exchange between Charles Ryder and Lord Marchmain from Brideshead Revisited when I began to listen to these wonderful viola concertos from a member (but which?) of the wonderful 18th century Benda family of composers. Those of us who are just beginning to untangle the family tree full of Heinrichs and Franzes (aka Frantiseks) and Georgs aren't the only ones in difficulty. A Viola Concerto in F major attributed to Jiří Antonín (aka Georg) Benda has been recorded a number of times (including a Naxos CD from 1994 conducted by Christian Benda, a modern member of the famous family), but it shows up here attributed to Georg's nephew Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich, along with two additional concertos in E flat major. Violist Jean-Eric Soucy did the hard scholarly work, involving musical analysis as well as musicological research (watermarks and score hand-writing, and the like) to gather these three pieces under the FWH Benda brand. I haven't the expertise, or indeed the inclination, to challenge or bolster these attributions. Suffice it to say that these are beautifully played by Soucy, and that the rather thin repertoire for viola and orchestra badly needs such well-crafted works from whichever Benda gets the credit for all three concertos, but especially that famous one in F major.

It's so great to see Bernard Labadie back at the helm of an orchestra in a new recording. The founder and long-time conductor of Quebec's Les Violons du Roy had a terrible medical emergency which very nearly cost him his life, but he seems completely back to form here, with the very fine orchestra of SWR Baden-Baden und Freiburg performing stylishly and with aplomb under his baton. He'll be beginning his new gig as Principal Conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in the fall of 2018, and we wish him the very best in the many years ahead.

This disc will be released on July 6, 2018.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A fortunate collaboration in a great Country House

Georg Friedrich Handel: Acis and Galatea (1718 version)

Early in the 18th century a group of writers came together in one of London's newly-popular coffee-houses, and began a long satirical collaboration that would eventually result in interesting products in the literary, political and, as we shall see, the musical fields. The members of the Scriblerus Club, who included such big names as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay, pitched ideas and jokes to each other like a roomful of sitcom writers, with their creation Martinus Scriblerus an early version of Alan Brady or Tracy Jordan. As I learned from a fascinating episode of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time, the death of Queen Anne in 1814 and the fall from power of the Tory Ministers in 1815 scattered the Scriblerus Club members. But they would soon be back.

Meanwhile, Georg Frederic Handel's fortunes as a composer showed peaks and valleys after he settled permanently in Britain in 1712, though always trending more or less up. In 1710 he had been named Kappelmeister to the Elector of Hanover, who became King George I on the death of Queen Anne. A falling-out with the new Sovereign was bad, but things looked much better when he became the fashionable operatic composer in London. Even better, in 1717 his Water Music for George I's barge was a big hit, but fashions turn quickly, and he all at once found himself without a hit in London's operatic world. So he turned from the fickleness of both city and court to a lavish country house that included its own orchestra and singers: James Brydges' (later Duke of Chandos') Cannons, built at a cost of £200,000, worth tens of millions today. There Handel fell in with a group of Scriblerians, themselves looking for a more congenial home after their political/artistic exiles.

The librettists were John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes; the subject was one that Handel had used for an earlier Neapolitan opera, Acis and Galatea, from the story told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Everything now had an English slant; the project was more like an English masque than an Italian opera. The songs - to very cleverly crafted English words - were sung by English singers. And the Englishness continues to this recording, recorded, by mainly British musicians, I'm sure, at the Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb in November of 2017. And all for Chaconne, the Early Music marque of Chandos, the label named for the Duke who built Cannons and help bring about some of Handel's greatest music. Acis and Galatea was apparently Handel's most popular work during his lifetime. The clever libretto must surely have played a part here, though Handel's tunes are often sublime, his rhythms infectious, his sad arias heart-breaking and his happy ones uplifting. The opera has most effective advocates here: the two leads, soprano Lucy Crowe as Galatea, and tenor Allan Clayton as Acis, are outstanding, as is the choir. The musicians of the Early Opera Company, led by Christian Curnyn, have a special quality about their playing that one might almost call rustic. It looks back to the masques of Henry Purcell, and ahead to a future collaboration of John Gay with another German composer who settled in England, Johann Christoph Pepusch, The Beggar's Opera from 1728. I had a great deal of fun researching this review - it's what retired librarians do - but even more listening to this music!

This disc will be released on June 1, 2018. Here's the official trailer:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Serious music of a serious man

Francesco Antonio Bonporti: Sonatas for 2 Violins and Basso Continuo, op. 2

The name of Francesco Antonio Bonporti was unknown to me until 2000, when Dynamic began releasing their Bonporti Edition, with the Accademia I Filarmonici. That series ended up with five releases, representing a good chunk of Bonporti's music. This is very fine music indeed, full of invention, and well-played by the Italian band. Speaking of invention, it was a case of mistaken identity that first brought Bonporti to the attention of the wider musical world. Four Inventions in J.S. Bach's hand-writing, assumed to be Bach's compositions, were discovered to be Bonporti originals. A strong affirmation of Bonporti's quality! Fifteen years later we have this excellent disc from Labirinti Armonici, and if anything it raises the bar in terms of performance, and gives even more credence to the idea that Bonporti should be considered a composer of more than average stature.

Bonporti is a son of Trento, known in English as Trent (of Council of Trent fame), a prosperous small city in Northern Italy. Its history as a part of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and re-unified Italy points to a role as a link between northern and southern cultures, but except for the mixup with Bach and his Inventioni Bonporti's real musical links were with Rome (especially Corelli), Venice (Vivaldi), Padua (Tartini) where he died in 1749, the year before Bach. This isn't music of a dynamic, cosmopolitan composer, though, but rather more of a quiet, studious provincial with impeccable skills but not a great deal of ambition. He was an amateur in the best sense of the term, with a refined sensibility and a distinctive voice. The excellent musicians of Labirinti Armonici present this serious music of a serious man in the best possible way, with able support from Brilliant Classics, who continue to surprise with release after release of Early Music of the very highest quality.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Music of piety, fun and good-will

Telemann: Cantatas Aller Augen warten; In Christo gilt weder Beschneidung; Ich bin der erste; Siehe, eine Jungfrau ist schwangert

I confess to not being a good enough Baroque scholar to be able to tell apart the French Cycle of Telemann's annual church cantatas from his Italian cycle. It's true that these four works, two of which were written for performance between during 1716/17, and the other two for 1719/20, all have a light and bouncy, almost popular feel to them, which has us looking south of the Alps. The ebb and flow of vocal soloists, choir and orchestra conceivably points to the concerted Italian instrumental works flowing from the great school of Arcangelo Corelli. These are immensely attractive works, with insistent rhythms, splendid melodies and heartfelt messages of hope and love. The music sounds like Bach at times, but Telemann's own voice is clear, especially in the magical Chorale that ends the cantata Ich bin der erste, with a simple chorale theme sung by the choir set against a descant played by the clarino trumpet. Here's the soprano part, from the autograph score facsimile at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.

As Vincent Vega says in Pulp Fiction, "It's the little differences."

CPO has perhaps helped to move the needle of Telemann's reputation a slight bit with their generally excellent cantata releases, usually from North German ensembles. This recording from Mannheim was made in 2016, and the disc has already been released in Germany, to generally positive reviews. I was certainly convinced by these performances; there's a feeling of piety, but also fun and good-will that's much stronger than any sense of erudite re-creation by musician scholars.  It will be released in North America on June 8, 2018.

Objectifying the subjective pleasure of reading

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet, read by Adam Sims

"Like when a reader reads out loud, to fully objectify the subjective pleasure of reading..."

In his great masterwork The Book of Disquiet the great Portuguese modernist Fernando Pesoa posits a perfect retirement:
"...on the outskirts of somewhere or other, enjoying a tranquillity in which I won’t write the works I don’t write now.... How sublime to waste a life that could have been useful, never to execute a work of art that was certain to be beautiful."
For a retired librarian living on the tranquil outskirts of Canada, this feels a bit close to the bone. When the marvellous Adam Sims came to this passage in this perfect new unabridged Naxos Audiobook, I realized that I wasn't even reading Pessoa myself (though the eBook is on my iPad all set to be read), but sublimely having someone else read it to me. All something that might have happened in an updated version of a work by Pessoa.

Pessoa is so much in vogue today, I guess, because of our almost random jumble of yearnings, for meaning, for an end of pain, for hope, for comfort, for life and/or oblivion. "To possess, in the shade, that nobility of spirit that makes no demands on life... To be no more, to have no more, to want no more." Adam Sims beautifully, carefully, soberly even, communicates almost unbearable grief when Pessoa's protagonist Bernardo Soares, his own stand-in "heteronym", confesses to the terrible effect of losing his mother when he was only one year old, and his father, a suicide, at three. And then, in a just-a-touch lighter tone, he turns to the dark comedy of Soares' elaborate circumlocutions, a combination of Melville's Bartleby, Kafka's Samsa and Borges' Doctor Tsun. The Book of Disquiet is often so very funny, full of irony but with no mordant bite. 

"Pessoa was as devoted to incompleteness as to self-estrangement," says Benjamin Kunkel, "and most of the prose he wrote was fragments".  But in the midst of his unfinished work are many lacunae of Pessoa's own design. Sims will build up a not inconsiderable head of steam in Soare's seemingly sincere arguments, and then pull the rug out from under us: "Missing text here." This, I think, must work even better in an audiobook than on the printed page. One is never on solid ground with Pessoa; and Sims has perfectly judged his pauses, his subtle rhetorical emphases, to keep us, the would-be comfortable listeners in headphones being read to by a mellifluous voice actor, always a bit on edge. The Book of Disquiet.

So with deceptive simplicity a transcription of almost innumerable quotidian details in the life of an Assistant Bookkeeper in the Rua dos Douradores in 1930s Lisbon somehow adds up to this sad and funny, triumphantly hopeful and deeply depressed novel. It's a book about not writing a book by writing a book, and reading a book by not reading it.

The release date is July 13, 2018.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Masterworks from the Ginastera Year and beyond

Alberto Ginastera: Piano Concerto no. 1; Concierto argentino; Variaciones concertantes

The Ginastera Centennial of 2016 has to be counted a success, judging by a decent uptick in both recordings and live performances around the world. The reputation of the master from Buenos Aires is as high as it ever was, and I think it's clear that only Villa-Lobos and Chavez are in his league among the greatest of Latin American composers. The first two volumes of this Chandos series of Orchestral Works were highlights from the Centennial year, but the masterworks keep coming in this new disc, due June 1, 2018. Actually, two of the pieces were recorded in late 2016, so we have the Ginastera Year to thank for this release as well!

Ginastera is one of those composers who was careful to suppress his juvenilia, so we're lucky that the Concerto argentino of 1935, written when he was only 18, is still around. There's a grand, reckless abandon to this music, and the young composer's abundant melodic gifts are clear, even if the piece tends to occasionally slack off, and then move off in another direction in lieu of developing what's happened before, like a young hound who loses and then catches again what may (or may not!) be the scent. He could easily have been under the spell of Villa-Lobos's contemporary folkloric works, if not his more modernist piano works of the 1920s, though if there's an influence really apparent here, it's George Gershwin. This is slight music, but fun, and worth a listen.

We're in a different world with the Variaciones concertantes of 1953, both in terms of quality and of the first layer of abstraction that comes with Ginastera's move from "Objective" to "Subjective Nationalism" as a compositional style. I'm always uncomfortable with the term "orchestral showpiece", since there are musical reasons other than showing off compositional, and by extension instrumental, virtuosity, in this kind of brilliant concerto for orchestra. Look closely at a Velasquez painting and you'll see stupendous feats of virtuoso painting, but it's the overall effect of the work, and not the shiny bits, that really count. Kudos to the players of the BBC Philharmonic for their polished presentation of all the ingenious bright passages, but also to conductor Juanjo Mena for keeping them on task in the presentation of a vital and interesting musical journey.

The 1961 Piano Concerto no. 1 is the real masterwork on this disc, and it receives a stand-out performance from Xiayin Wang and the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. It's the first of Ginastera's works from his third "Neo-Expressionist" phase, which began with his move from Argentina to Europe. While his new music shows a certain pulling away or abstraction from folkloric content, Ginastera uses the sophisticated compositional tools of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg to intensify his emotional responses to the same rhythms and landscapes of the pampas and the streetscapes of Buenos Aires that always drove his music. This is among the greatest of all American concerted works with piano, to go along with Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 3 and his Choros no. 11 and a certain work called Rhapsody in Blue.