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.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Nat and Julian take Stuttgart

Cannonball Adderley Quintet: Liederhalle Stuttgart, 1969

Julian Cannonball Adderley, alto sax
Nat Adderley, trumpet
Victor Gaskin, bass
Roy McCurdy, drums
Joe Zawinul, piano & keyboards

Listening to the reaction of the crowd in the Liederhalle Stuttgart on March 20, 1969 you can tell that something important is happening.  The musicians are obviously energized by this enthusiasm, and play with urgent inspiration, which of course gets passed back to the audience. From today's vantage point this concert at the end of the 1960s can seem like a kind of coda to a genre that emerged from 1940s dance bands to become a great International Style, the musical counterpart of the New York School of Painting, practiced and appreciated as much in the Liederhalle as on West 52nd Street in New York.

The rises and falls of history only become apparent after the fact, of course, and especially in peak moments like this hour of music one is completely in the moment, blind and deaf to the power of musical entropy that would transform jazz in the 1970s. Pianist Joe Zawinul had spent most of the 60s with Cannonball Adderley, but was only a year away from the creation of Weather Report with Wayne Shorter. Cannonball contributed to the transformation of jazz in the early 70s - he continued to play with both Miles Davis and Bill Evans in this period, but by 1975 he was gone, tragically early. His brother Nat carried on the Adderley tradition for the rest of the century, as a band leader and, increasingly, as a teacher for new generations. But this hour of music remains as a beacon, sending light into the past and the future, as inspiring today as it was for those listening fifty years ago in Stuttgart.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Inspiration recorded

Handel: Concerti grossi op. 6, no. 1-6

After a disappointing recent Handel album from another Berlin band, it's great to have this new disc, with the promise of two more real soon, from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, under Bernhard Forck. This is some of the greatest music of the 18th century: on the same level as Bach's Brandenburgs and Vivaldi's best concertos, and it's performed in as stylish and musical way possible. Forck highlights the myriad felicities that Handel has woven into these six concertos, but without interrupting the rushing mountain streams of the fast movements, or the stately court dances of the slow ones.

Handel wrote the first six Concerti Grossi published as op. 6 in just over two weeks, from September 29 to October 15, 1739 (the final six were completed before Hallowe'en). You can hear the rush of inspiration in these works in a way that few pieces of music can match. I think of Mozart's piano concertos from the spring of 1785, and Schubert's composition of Winterreise in February and October of 1827. Handel's orchestral music sounds robust when it's played like this, but I've heard more than a few versions of both op. 3 and op. 6 that were crippled by poor musical choices or stylistic axe-grinding, on both sides of the Historically Informed Practices divide. Bernhard Forck and his very fine Berlin musicians, supported by Pentatone's fine engineers, let Handel's inspiration flow unimpeded.

This disc will be released on July 19, 2019.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Catching a musical wave

American Rapture: Higdon Harp Concerto; Barber Symphony no. 1; Harlin Rapture

The literature for Harp and Orchestra is amazing, and amazingly under-valued. One work which I admire most highly is Alberto Ginastera's Harp Concerto, written in 1956 and revised in 1968. Our harpist in this new CD American Rapture, Yolanda Kondonassis, recorded a very fine version of this work, released in 2016 for the Ginastera Centennial. Another is Heitor Villa-Lobos's Harp Concerto, written in 1953 for Nicanor Zabaleta. This is not as good a work by any means, but it's completely typical of Villa's late period when the bulk of his composing time was taken by commissions. Jennifer Higdon's Harp Concerto was written for and dedicated to Yolanda Kondonassis; it was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras - the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, Lansing Symphony Orchestra and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra. It receives its first recording here. It's full of vitality, ingenuity and sentiment, and shows off the many sounds this remarkable instrument is capable of. When Kondonassis described what she wanted from the composer she said "... it should have a groove that allows the harpist to catch a musical wave with the orchestra once in a while." That's one of the great thing about the concerto form; I've been very much aware of trying to describe those moments while listening lately to Mozart Piano Concertos for a review. Higdon jams so much into this twenty minute work, but there's a coherent structure to the piece that becomes evident after a few listens. The final movement, Rap Knock, is a stand-out; the witty, percussion-based music looks to Leonard Bernstein as much as the more avant garde sounds Ginastera included in his Concerto. The Rochester Philharmonic, under the direction of Ward Stare, provide able support in a work that occasionally calls for virtuoso playing, especially from the percussion section.

So check out Harp Concertos; I know you'll thank me. I'll link to some recordings of other composers' works below, but begin with the Higdon, please!

After the Ginastera, I'd place the Harp Concerto by Reinhold Glière. There's a fine disc played by Anneleen Lenaerts that also includes the Concertos of Joseph Jongen and Joaquín Rodrigo. The fine Harp Concertino by Germaine Tailleferre is played by the great Nicanor Zabaleta, along with Boieldieu's Concerto. People don't value the music of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer highly enough, and his Harp Concerto deserves to be much better known. Perhaps Yolanda Kondonassis could champion it next!

Alberto Ginastera wondered about what tied together music from the American continents, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego; this remained for him, and of course remains for us, an open question. American Rapture is about a subset of that really big thing, which he termed estadounidense. This disc is generously filled with works that explore this particular geographical and cultural space, from Samuel Barber's folk-infused First Symphony, written in 1936, to the intensity of Patrick Harlin's Rapture, which like most of this fine young composer's work has a special link to the soundscapes of the natural world. With three such interesting works the question of their American-ness becomes less important. At the very least there are two things these three works have in common: the magical richness of musical imagination and very fine performances.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

What it's like to be human

Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 466, 467; Don Giovanni Overture

In 1946 photographer Arnold Newman was asked by Harper's Bazaar to provide a portrait of Igor Stravinsky:
I thought, how do I photograph this great composer? It hit me that the lid of a piano is like the shape of a musical flat symbol - strong, linear, and beautiful, just like Stravinsky's work.
The result is one of the greatest musician portraits ever made.

This new Chandos album is the fourth in their Mozart Piano Concerto series with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Manchester Camerata under the direction of Gabor Takacs-Nagy. And it features the fourth cover photo by the London-based photographer Benjamin Ealovega, some of which are variations on the Newman-Stravinsky model.  All four reflect perfectly the informal elegance and taste (such a Mozartian word!) of the music on the disc inside the album. In Newman's portrait Stravinsky might represent the severe formal properties of music which go back to Bach, and beyond him, back to ancient Greece. But Ealovega provides a much more humble, human scenario to represent Mozart and his music. Also, in the 21st century way, he deconstructs the piano itself, to see what makes it tick.

There's a famous quote by Douglas Adams that goes "Beethoven tells you what it's like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it's like to be human. Bach tells you what it's like to be the universe." In this schema, Newman's Stravinsky tells you what it's like to be the underlying shapes and contours of music, and thus of the universe. That's not Bach, but it's nothing to sneeze at! However, there are plenty of us who come down strongly on the side of Mozart, balancing the carnal and the spiritual in a charming tale of human relationships, made for the opera stage, but beautifully transferred into one of the greatest of all musical forms, Mozart's own piano concerto. And Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, with strong support from Takacs-Nagy and his Manchester musicians, puts together the pieces of this puzzle - all human relationship stories become puzzles soon enough - into a perfect picture of an 18th century - and 21st century - garden of delights.

Though there are many glories in Mozart's earlier piano concertos, it was in February and March of 1785 that he perfected this dynamic, theatrical musical form, with the D minor Concerto, K. 466 and the C major work, K. 467. As has been the case with their earlier Mozart releases. Bavouzet and Takacs-Nagy feel free to let the music fly, seemingly unconstrained by conventional views of Mozart. In the D minor Concerto Bavouzet chooses Beethoven's cadenzas, while he adapts Friedrich Gulda's jazzy ones in his performance of the C major work. 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.

Gabor Takacs-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata squeeze in the Overture from Don Giovanni between the two Concertos. Though the work shares a key with K. 466, and it reminds us of all sorts of vital theatrical connections in the Piano Concertos, it's still a bit of a surprise to hear this dramatic tale of Judgement in this particular place in the program. Of course, it's played with wit and style, but I would have preferred it at the end of the program. Still, this is a minor peccadillo in a superb project; it's very highly recommended.

This album will be released on June 7, 2019.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Unstylish Big Band Handel

Handel: Concerti Grossi, op. 3

"The fetish of the 'original instrument' has had its day," says conductor Reinhard Goebel, "but not the profoundly trained professional who guides an orchestra into the deeper dimensions of the composition." I certainly don't buy the premise of the first part of his quote, and can only agree to the rest with the proviso that style is as important as musicianship when bridging the gap between the 18th century and the 21st. Unfortunately, Goebel's Handel is often less than stylish, his tempi sometimes sluggish and his point of view more Romantic than Baroque. I'm certainly on-board with Goebel's augmentation of the orchestra, which is well-documented; having recently read Jane Glover's Handel in London, it's clear that the composer was completely focussed on the most impressive display his music could create in the moment, regardless of his original conceptions. But I miss the verve and bite of the best original instruments performances: I recommend Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre, or Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music, but not, unfortunately, this new disc.

This album will be released on June 14, 2019

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Four interesting concertos, with two stand-outs

20th Century Harpischord Concertos, by Walter Leigh, Ned Rorem, Viktor Kalabis & Michael Nyman

Ned Rorem wrote his Concertino da Camera in 1946, but the score was lost, and it had to wait until 1993 for its world premiére performance, at the University of Minnesota. Luckily this marvellous work has made its way to this CD: its first commercial recording. Much, much better late than never! It's a kind of an echo of an echo: very much reminiscent of Camille Saint-Saens' fabulous Septet for piano, trumpet and strings, written in 1880, it's also a direct descendant of the Baroque harpsichord concertos of Bach and his sons, and many other composers, via the neo-classical works of Frank Martin, De Falla, and others. Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour sparkles in the solo part, which is intricate and evocative. Rorem includes some folkloric touches in the finale, and even adds a bit of American flair to a work that has a largely Gallic sound. Walter Leigh's work, written in 1934, is also called a Concertino, as it's rather slight, but this is a classic English pastoral piece that's both charming and unexpectedly virtuosic. Trevor Pinnock recorded this work in 2007, but I prefer Vinikour's performance for its verve and swing.

Victor Kalabis's 1975 Concerto for Harpsichord is an almost laser-focussed serious work. There are a few good humoured passages, but no real humour, and nothing to break the intense mood that spreads throughout all three movements. Michael Nyman's 1995 Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord was also less congenial to my taste than I had expected. It flirts with pastiche at times, and though there are lovely bits, it doesn't seem to hold together as a coherent work of art; not, at least, in the same way the Rorem and Leigh works did. Still, those works - especially the Rorem - make this a special album, and one that you shouldn't miss out on.

This album will be released on June 14, 2019.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Another brilliant musical document from post-war Berlin

Quartetto Italiano: The Complete RIAS Recordings

The Quartetto Italiano was the first of the new post-war groups that inaugurated a new golden age of String Quartets: the Quartetto Italiano was formed in 1945, the Juilliard String Quartet and LaSalle Quartet in 1946, and the Janáček and Amadeus quartets in 1947. Audite here brings us three CDs worth of fabulous recordings for RIAS ("Radio in the American Sector" of Berlin). The RIAS studios were excellent, and their engineers highly accomplished, so we have (as with the Amadeus Quartet album I reviewed late last year) an excellent idea of how these musicians sounded, in this case between 1951 to 1963. The group's repertoire is interesting, especially considering the period: Donizetti, Malipiero and Cherubini provide an Italian antipasto, if I may be permitted a metaphor (pun!) in questionable taste (taste!). Their 1959 Ravel interpretation is searching, and sometimes fierce; maybe even more so than their late recordings of core repertoire. This is a standout performance, though it's perhaps less than Gallic. The early String Quartet no. 8 by Schubert, from 1963, has the characteristic QI sound of their studio recordings of the Viennese masters: it's taut and tight and intense, eschewing sentimentality and emphasizing structure over story-telling. The first of the Haydn String Quartets op. 77 is the earliest recording here, from 1951. It's sunnier and more fun (to listen to, and I expect, to play) than the more disciplined Haydn the Quartetto Italiano developed later in their recording career. These recordings are at a higher level in both sonics and interpretation than your average historic releases, and the excellent documentation and the fact that a number of the works have never been released, make this a must-listen for chamber music fans.

This album will be released on May 3, 2019.