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.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Something in the water

Leonard Bernstein Broadway to Hollywood: Candide Overture, On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite, Fancy Free Ballet, West Side Story Symphonic Dances, Two Dance Episodes from On the Town

The idea that an orchestra has a home-town composer "in their blood", and are the best, most authentic interpreters of his or her music probably doesn't always, or even usually, hold up to close scrutiny. Aside from sheer familiarity, and with a nod to local traditions handed down from orchestral player to player over the years, today's high musical standards and player mobility has resulted in a much more globalised and homogenised classical music scene. Even in the past we heard great Villa-Lobos from Paris, great Shostakovich from New York, and great everything from Cleveland. But what about the scores of Leonard Bernstein originating on Broadway and in Hollywood, both of which have their own traditions? This 1993 concert from the Hannover Philharmonic under the direction of the Scottish conductor Iain Sutherland is a powerful example of getting pretty much everything right, every nuance and subtle rhythm, in a completely idiomatic, authentic performance that serves Leonard Bernstein's fabulous music so well.

This isn't as surprising as it seems when you pull some threads and see the connections. Bernstein himself has international roots, with European teachers at Harvard and Curtis, and a thorough grounding through his mentors in Parisian modernism. Broadway's musical traditions might seem 100% New York, but of course there's always been a special connection through London's West End theatres to the great heritage of English light music. Similarly, Hollywood's direct pipeline to central European music through such composers as Steiner, Korngold and Herrmann adds another loop. Bernstein is an heir to all of these traditions, as is Iain Sutherland, and the very fine players of the Hannover Philharmonic play the hell out of all this music. One of the highlights is the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront. I've always thought that after Elia Kazaan's direction, Budd Schulberg's story and Marlon Brando's performance, it was Bernstein's music that helped put this film over the top into greatness. The band has a lot of fun with the Fancy Free suite, showing great range, from small jazz combo through big band to complete orchestra, all of which swing.

Somm does its usual fine job with remastering, documentation and presentation, though they missed out on the credit for the cover photograph. It's by Al Ravenna of the New York World Telegram & Sun, from 1955, in the Library of Congress's collection.

This disc will be released on August 17, 2018.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The precision of ideas

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets

I've been keeping an ear on Audite's complete Beethoven String Quartets series with the Quartetto di Cremona as they've been released since the recordings began in 2012, though I missed a few along the way. Now with this release of the complete quartets on 8 CDs I can take a long close look at the well-received series from this fine group, who hail from the city of the great stringed instrument-makers.

These are elegant, controlled performances, though without the final burnished sheen of the Amadeus or Alban Berg Quartets. "Without minute neatness of execution," William Blake once said, "the sublime cannot exist! Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas." The "final minute neatness" is not here, or at least not all the time, though that neatness would in an case wear a bit thin through a full nine hours of music. The string quartets of Beethoven go on a meandering voyage through his own messy life, from his early days nearly to his death. This music, which began in the candle-lit salons of the Ancien Régime, emerges in the worlds of fashion and celebrity that made him a household name throughout Europe, and comes to an end in the squalor, regret and frustration of his final years. It's all too real to have the same Platonic existence of the music of Bach, though that doesn't make it any less grand, or sublime, in the Blakean sense. The Cremona musicians connect with this real-life Beethoven, his folk-song references, musical jokes and sentimental tags. And yet they're still able to bring a nearly full account of the soaring genius of the late quartets. Consider the Quartetto di Cremona a reliable guide to one of the greatest of all musical journeys.

A sketch for Beethoven's op. 131 String Quartet, from 1826

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Fully Romantic Bruch without sentimentaliy

Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Violin Concerto no. 1

Joshua Bell was only eleven years old when he learned his first major concerto, the Bruch Violin Concerto no. 1, and only 21 when his premiere recording with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner (Bruch no. 1 plus the Mendelssohn) was released in 1988 to great acclaim. Thirty years later Marriner is gone, but Bell, who took over as Music Director of ASMF in 2011, is back playing Bruch with his band. This time he's included the Scottish Fantasy, my favourite Bruch piece (and my Mom's). While the new recording of the Concerto follows Sir Neville's tempi in the outer movements, Bell is brisker with the middle Adagio, though there's no lack of sentiment in the new recording. More importantly, Bell eschews any sentimentality in both Concerto and Fantasy, keeping to the classical bones of these great works while tending to the Romantic flesh. This is a highly recommended release.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Greatness in musical partnership

Mravinsky Edition, volume 3: works by Tchaikovsky, Bach, Weber, Wagner, Scriabin, Kalinnikov, Bruckner, Shostakovich

I've come to historic recordings fairly late, but I've had such good luck with recent releases that I'm beginning to search them out. This 6 CD set, the 3rd volume in Profil's Mravinsky Edition, is a superb example of well-documented remastered recordings of special significance. It's easy enough to filter out sonic shortcomings when the performances are so vital. Mravinsky had a lifelong relationship with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, and it's fascinating to hear the development of their musical partnership from 1938 to 1961. The obvious highlights in this package are the Tchaikovsky Symphonies #4 and (especially) #5 and a blistering performance of the Shostakovich 8th Symphony. But I was completely bowled over by Mravinsky's take on Bruckner's 8th Symphony, which I've been listening to a lot lately. In my review of Mariss Jansson's recent recording, I talked about the balance in Bruckner 8 between what Vincent Van Gogh referred to as "Tranquility of Touch" and "Intensity of Thought". It's no surprise that Mravinsky comes down on the intense side. Shostakovich biographer David Fanning describes just this intensity:
The Leningrad Philharmonic play like a wild stallion, only just held in check by the willpower of its master. Every smallest movement is placed with fierce pride; at any moment it may break into such a frenzied gallop that you hardly know whether to feel exhilarated or terrified.
An outstanding production all around.

The Mravinsky Edition covers feature a monochrome detail of his portrait by Lev Russov. Here it is in colour:

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: