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, January 14, 2020

A thought-provoking, and entertaining, post-modern opera

Thomas Bernhard's The Loser is one of my favourite novels; it's the oddest combination of extremely challenging post-modernist structure and real readability. The fact that one of the three characters in Bernhard's story is (a highly fictionalized) Glenn Gould is a real feature for both the novel and the opera. There's also a streak of wry humour which runs through Bernhard's novel, and remarkably it survives in Lang's libretto, and in the outstanding performance of baritone Rod Gilfry. Everything from despair to hilarity is heard in Gilfry's voice (and seen on his face in the very good video clips from Red Poppy Music available on the web). Gilfry's very special vocal performance is ably supported by pianist Conrad Tao, who plays Lang's clever obbligato piano part, which comments on the action throughout; and by the Bang on a Can Ensemble (viola, cello, bass and percussion) led by Lesley Leighton. This is highly recommended for fans of David Lang, whose Pulitzer Prize winning Little Match Girl Passion is a highlight of 21st century opera, as well as for everyone who adores the quirky prose of Thomas Bernhard.

This album will be released on February 7, 2020.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Handel: dramatic and refined

Handel: Concerti grossi op. 6, no. 7-12

This is the second of three Handel albums from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under Bernhard Forck. I loved the first, which included the Concerti grossi op. 6, no. 1-6, and very much look forward to the op. 3 album, hopefully coming soon, which will complete the set. This is a group that has Handel figured out like Van Gogh figured out sunflowers; these marvellous concertos have never sounded better. They've hewn to a middle road between refinement (the Academy of Ancient Music under Andrew Manze) and full-out drama (Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini). The latter had always been my preferred version, but I find myself more inclined to choose this new release for my Desert Island Handel.

This fine portrait of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin by Uwe Arens shows the full richness and joy you can expect from these Handel discs from Pentatone.

This album will be released on January 17, 2020.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Two charming string quartets

Friedrich Gulda, Glenn Gould: String Quartets

What is rather shocking about this album made up of String Quartets written by Friedrich Gulda & Glenn Gould - the bad boy twin pianists of the 20th century - is how normal both works sound. That both works are actually very appealing to anyone who knows late Romantic music and isn't allergic to a tasteful bit of the Second Vienna School, is not at all surprising, considering the immense personal charm of both musicians. Gould wrote his Opus 1 String Quartet between 1953 and 1955, just before Fame hit him with his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Gulda wrote his String Quartet in F sharp minor in 1950-51, after his 1946 Gold Medal win at the Geneva Competition, and around the time of his Carnegie Hall debut in 1950. Both perhaps had to leave behind composition dreams for careers in piano performance (Gould more so than Gulda, who kept his hand in with composing rather more than his Canadian colleague), and on the evidence of these two works there was perhaps something lost because of that. As slight as both works are in the context of the careers of two of the most interesting pianists of the 20th century, I'm really appreciative of the efforts of Gramola and the Acies Quartett to bring this music to our attention. It makes a nice change from hearing yet again about the (non-musical) antics of a couple of tricksters.

This album will be released on January 10, 2010.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

A prayerful Passion

Bach: St. Matthew Passion

A new decade is a time for new beginnings, so this release is well-timed: it's a second recording of the St. Matthew Passion from Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan. The first version, from 2000, was generally well received. Robin Tuttle's Classical Net review pretty well sums up the critical consensus: "Suzuki takes us gently by the hand and shows us Bach not at his most imposing, but at his most humane."

The new album needs only 2 CDs instead of 3, but this isn't because of any speeding up; the new recording is actually a couple of minutes longer. This time around BIS jams everything into two 80-minute plus CDs. The main difference between the two recordings is in the vocal soloists. Gerd Türk followed Suzuki's meditative approach as the Evangelist in the first version, while the equally strong Benjamin Bruns is somewhat, but not a lot, less dramatic this time around. I was especially impressed with the great Nancy Argenta in the first recording; this time around I loved Carolyn Sampson. Suzuki has doubled down in the new recording, with more even more gentle arias and prayerful chorales; the keyword here is definitely "devotional". This might seem to be a small change, but the cumulative effect is awesome, almost breathtaking. Here is the end of the Chorus "Kommt Ihr Töchter":

The new year is fraught with danger and portents of doom; we need the consolation of Johann Sebastian Bach more than ever. The most reliable purveyors of this are, in my opinion, Masaaki Suzuki and the musicians of Bach Collegium Japan.

This album will be released February 7, 2020.

Quirky joy from a revolutionary pianist

Friedrich Gulda: Piano Concertos by Mozart, Beethoven & Strauss

In October 1950 the 20-year-old Friedrich Gulda made his Carnegie Hall debut, to significant acclaim. Six years later he was playing at another iconic New York venue, The Birdland, with a high-powered sextet put together especially for Gulda by producer John Hammond. I'm especially interested in how Gulda managed his two parallel music strands - classical and jazz - throughout his career. I'm listening, then, for any jazz influences in these piano concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Richard Strauss, recorded by Südwestrundfunk from 1959-63.

Gulda has sympathetic conductors with fine orchestras here. Joseph Keilberth conducts the Stuttgart RSO in Mozart's great K. 491 Concerto. Hans Muller-Kray leads the same orchestra in one of Gulda's signature pieces, the Beethoven 4th Concerto. Muller-Kray conducts the same orchestra in the Haydn and Richard Strauss works. Finally, Hans Rosbaud conducts the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden in Mozart's K. 449 and 488 Concertos, two of my favourites. SWR's remastering of their original tapes is exemplary; these are very lifelike recordings.

And the influence of jazz on Gulda's classical music? It's a cool coincidence that I recently reviewed another 1959 recording by Gulda: his Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Pierre Fournier. I note in my review that Gulda largely plays it more or less straight, even more so than Wilhelm Kempff, who also recorded Beethoven with Fournier. Gulda is rather more relaxed in some of the concertos here, but he's still paying these great composers the compliment of respecting their scores. Remember that this was a time when Mozart concertos were sometimes played with sickly sentimentality and dubious ritardandos. But it's Gulda's surprising cadenzas that stand out as great examples of dramatic improv. It's instructive that some of the most interesting Mozart piano concertos of today are played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who often plays Gulda's cadenzas. In a review of a recent release from Bavouzet's great Manchester series I say "Gulda lurks behind these, and other, concertos in the Mozart series; there is the same spirit of quirky joy here. I couldn't possibly give much higher praise." It's not jazz harmonies or rhythms, or anything more than a certain "swinging" feeling now and then, that informs Gulda's playing here, but a perpetual feeling that he is discovering something new in the music that surprises him as much as it does us. This happens in Gulda's classical music recordings as much, or even more, than in his jazz.

I'm a big fan of SWRmusic's historic re-issues, based on the really interesting musicians they've recorded, their meticulous re-mastering, and their excellent documentation. Classical music on the radio has a grand tradition, and German regional radio has been a real leader over the years. I look forward to more like this.

This album will be released on February 14, 2020.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Music from a mysterious centre

Mozart: Piano Concertos K.175, 238, 246, 271; Overtures

This is the fifth release in the "Mozart, made in Manchester" series from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Manchester Camerata under Gábor Takács-Nagy, and we have a double helping of Mozart-y goodness here: two well-filled discs with four early piano concertos and five (!) overtures. This is becoming my favourite Mozart piano concerto series with a modern piano (Bavouzet plays a 9-foot Yamaha concert grand). Bavouzet and Takács-Nagy have great chemistry, and their easy, slightly swinging give-and-take continues here. It's a huge plus in this particular repertoire, since the charm of the four concertos Mozart wrote between December 1773 and January 1777 would be irreparably harmed by brusqueness on the one hand, or over-delicacy on the other. In the words of Karl Barth, "Knowing all, Mozart creates music from a mysterious centre, and so knows the limits to the right and the left, above and below. He maintains moderation."

I've always enjoyed concert programs and recordings that connect Mozart's piano concertos with the stage, whether it be concert arias or, as we have here, overtures to Mozart's operas. Some of these pieces are slight, but none of them is small, each making its dramatic points in Mozart's natural home, the operatic stage. With these four concertos (and a fifth from the same period, the triple concerto K. 242 from 1776) Mozart created a new genre, which brought the broad comedy, pathos and complex emotional power of opera to the concert stage. The big advantage of having these five overtures included is the chance to have the focus shifted to the very fine instrumentalists of the Manchester Camerata, who of course play brilliantly in the concertos as well. These works extend the range from two operas written in 1772 (Il sogno di Scipione and Lucio Silla) all the way to 1779-80 (Zaïde, written just before Mozart's great run of the 1780s).

These recordings were made at The Stoller Hall, Hunts Bank, Manchester, in May of 2019. It's been called "... the most acoustically advanced concert hall in the country." The sound here is definitely up to Chandos's high standard, and its clarity and depth certainly suits - and enhances - this music.

Mozart in concert at The Stoller Hall. Photo: Anthony Robling

What a great way to begin 2020!

This album will be released on March 6, 2020.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

For these distracted times

The Long 17th Century: A Cornucopia of Early Keyboard Music

Occasionally an artist will construct a programme for a concert or a recording project that illuminates and instructs at a very high level, providing an aesthetic and scholarly experience that rivals the performance itself. Pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar has provided just this in his new two-disc album of music from the "Long 17th Century." "Perhaps a sensibility informed by the combined push-and-pull of present and past", he says, "is fundamental to finding common ground with the music of the 17th century now; that is, as a departure point for making the music familiar but also contemporary to us – and not a mere theme-park visit to a distant world."

Variety is one of the key concepts here: Pienaar has chosen for his Cornucopia 36 works by 36 different composers. But it's the common ground within this broad musical array that allows Pienaar to build a programme of similarly-sounding music written in the period from the last three decades of the 1500s, the entire 1600s, to the beginning of the 1700s. His version of the "Long 17th Century" is thus analogous to popular music in the 1950s extending into the pre-Beatles Sixties: the motto of Spielberg's American Graffiti was "Where were you in '62?"

A number of these composers are at least fairly well-known - Peter Philips, Matthew Locke, Georg Muffat, Giles Farnaby, William Byrd, Dietrich Buxtehude, John Bull. But there are also many names that are completely new to me: Pablo Bruna, John Coprario, Juan Bautista Cabanilles, Antonio Correa Braga, Gaspard Le Roux. Pienaar draws a parallel between the modernizing tendencies of the 17th century and his own adaptations of the music for the modern piano, referring to "the pragmatic and free-spirited tradition not only of the 17th century but also of our own time." This project is a model for scholarly presentation, but it has the freshness & verve of a couple of long sets in a jazz club.

Thomas Tompkin's "A Sad Pavan for these distracted times" is a sad little piece with a perfect title, which echoes back and forth through the centuries. It made me think of T. S. Eliot's Burnt Norton:
Neither plenitude nor vacancy.  Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before time and after.
This album can act as a soundtrack for 2020, as we all dodge the distractions of our over-busy lives and our over-watched screens. It might help, or so one hopes, to bring meaning and the consolations of true art to our lives, "whirled by the cold wind."

This album will be released on February 7, 2020.