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.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Fresh chansons from another world

Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 1

The chansons of Johannes Ockeghem, written in the second half of the 15th century, sound so fresh and new in this marvellous release from Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron that the intervening centuries feel like some sort of illusion. Belying the music's "nowness", the detailed liner notes by Ockeghem scholar Sean Gallagher demonstrates the problems common to most 500+ year old music, with complexities of attribution and dating. Indeed, we're lucky that some of this music has survived at all; seven of the songs exist in only one manuscript. And Scott Metcalfe shows how difficult and problematic it is to bridge the gap between the remaining manuscripts and viable performances today. He presents evidence about the pronunciation of 15th century French, about whether certain musical parts should be vocal or instrumental, and about who should sing the high parts, a woman, a girl, a boy, or an adult man singing falsetto. Metcalfe is open about the remaining questions - "We remain unsure about all the possibilities open to singers of such parts" - but the results sound to me so outstandingly beautiful that surely he's made the correct decisions in the majority of cases. I know that I'll continue to look to Blue Heron for the most impressive music of the period.

This recording is part of Blue Heron's project Ockeghem@600, a multi-year project to perform the complete works of this great composer. It will be complete in 2021, around the time of the 600th anniversary of Ockeghem's birth.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Clever, dynamic, charming symphonies

Leopold Kozeluch: Symphonies, vol. 3

I keep expecting the Leopold Kozeluch Symphonies series from Marek Stilec on Naxos to run out of steam, but with each new release I'm surprised by how clever, dynamic and absolutely charming the works of this Bohemian composer are. Born between Haydn and Mozart, Kozeluch's works share many of both composers' strengths: strong forward propulsion, clear structures and rich harmonies, but also surprising detours, touches of wit and whimsy, and a strong sense of musical story-telling. "Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading!" says Laurence Sterne, "Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page." I believe the same thing can be said for music, and Kozeluch's B-flat Major Symphony, "Irrésolu" is a perfect example. Like Haydn's Symphony no. 60, "Il distrato", this work includes extra-musical content, but as a characteristic symphony rather than a programmatic one.  Again like Haydn, Kozeluch has no need for extra-anything; his abstract orchestral music is so dynamic and vital on its own. But a connection to literature and the stage never hurts, and adds further charm to this already charming music. Kozeluch's music, while in the orbit of the two great Austrian composers, has its own character, which once again is so pleasingly brought forward by Stilec and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. The fourth and final release in this project, which comes in 2020, will, I hope, finally help raise Leopold Kozeluch's reputation to something approaching his true worth.

Once again we have a fine cover photo from a great palace of the Austrian Empire: the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna (photo credit: Ixuskmitl). Inside these buildings artists like Leopold Kozeluch were subtly undermining the old order with modish art that hid modern, sometimes even revolutionary, ideas.

This album will be released on December 13, 2019

Friday, November 1, 2019

Reuse, Recycle, Reduce

Antonio Vivaldi: The Paris Concertos

The well known aphorism, that Vivaldi didn't write 500 (or 450, or 600) concertos, but one concerto 500 times, has been nicely debunked by Linda Shaver-Gleason, at her blog Not Another Music History Cliché. I'm pleased with this, because I'm a diehard Vivaldi fan. What impresses me about Vivaldi, especially as I learn more about his operas and sacred music, as well as his concertos and chamber music, is its incredible variety. Yes, there is a special Vivaldi sound, but I don't consider this self-plagiarizing, but more like an accent, or a way of expressing himself. It made me think of Jimmy Stewart's trademark hesitations. "You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it."

But here's a time when Vivaldi actually was recycling his music. Sad to say, the Red Priest from time to time involved himself in some rather shady business dealings, which is something he had in common with such great composers as Handel, Haydn and Beethoven. He promised brand new concertos to a German music lover, but delivered instead a mix of new and slightly used music. The very detailed essay written by Maestro Sardelli doesn't say whether Vivaldi's deception was ever found out. More likely, the buyer was too busy enjoying this hugely enjoyable music. And speaking of recycling, you'll need to look closely at copyright dates in the fine print to see that this Tactus release is actually a re-issue of a recording that Modo Antiquo made in 1999, previously issued on Tactus in 2000. That's not a real problem in this case, luckily, since these are marvellous performances, which still sound very fresh. I highly recommend that you pluck this album from the blue box and put it on your CD or MP3 player.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A spiritual performance without sentimentality

Beethoven: Symphony no. 9

Those of you who follow my reviews know that my favourite large recording project is BIS's series of Bach Cantatas with the Bach Collegium Japan, under Masaaki Suzuki. With this great enterprise all wrapped up, it's been fascinating to follow these fine musicians as they move on to other composers. A recent recording of the Missa Solemnis showed us that Suzuki was a very fine Beethoven interpreter. It's been exciting to listen closely to this new recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

In 2015 Maestro Suzuki conducted the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven's 9th Symphony. This is an impressive performance indeed, but on his home ground, with his own instrumental and choral forces, he has turned up the energy, without sacrificing any nuance. I see that the Bergen performance featured the same very fine soprano from the Japanese recording, Ann-Helen Moen. The rest of the vocal soloists, from both Bergen and Japan, are outstanding.  As well, I sense some subtle interpretation differences in the four years between these performance. Suzuki has a more reverent attitude in the slow movement, while Beethoven's more boisterous passages are almost completely unbridled. This is, as I would expect, a 9th Symphony full of spiritual feeling, but completely without sentimentality.

Symfoni nr. 9 (Beethoven) - Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester from Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A musical representation of invisible things

Cipriano De Rore: I madrigali a cinque voci

Once again the Boston-based choir Blue Heron brings obscure ancient music to life in the most immediately satisfying way. This time the composer is Cipriano De Rore, a Flemish immigrant to northern Italy who published his Madrigali A Cinque Voci in 1542. The music is beautifully sung by a choir in perfect concord with itself and with this fascinating music from nearly 500 years ago. There's more to this album than this music, though. In a profusely illustrated 60-page liner notes booklet, we're treated to a full description of Cipriano's life, and a complete explanation by the distinguished scholar Jessie Ann Owens of how a complex puzzle, with many missing pieces, was assembled to allow a fuller understanding of this music. As well, Blue Heron Director Scott Metcalfe lets us in on the many decisions he had to make in interpreting Cipriano for this recording. There are details that only a choral scholar might understand, but the stories of both the genesis of the music and its modern performance are of great interest for even an amateur music lover. Metcalfe discusses, for example, the question of the high part in the madrigali. Though there are no records of how Cipriano's music was sung at the time, Metcalfe sets forth the options: "The Cantus might be sung by a woman, a man singing in falsetto, a castrato, or a boy." He then provides a detailed description of the performance context in mid-16th century Venice, with reference to the major singers of the time. In the end, for this performance, he splits the difference: half of the songs are sung by a soprano, and half by a counter-tenor.

One of the special things about this book of madrigals is the importance of the words; the literary merit of the poems Cipriano chose (or had chosen for him) to set to music is very high. Again, this is reflected in the liner notes, which include the complete poems in Italian and English. As well, each poem is read in Italian by Alessandro Quarta. This would be of primary interest to someone who understands Italian, of course, but even for those of us who don't, the readings are so expressive that one still gets some value. Metcalfe credits Quarta as well as a linguistic coach, who helped the singers "give the verses their proper rhetorical shape and force." Here is Quarta reading Petrarch's "La vita fuge", "Life is fleeting":

In his essay on Performance Style, Metcalfe includes a quote from Leonardo da Vinci's Paragone:
"Music, within its harmonious time, produces the sweet melodies generated by its various voices, while the poet is deprived of their specific harmonic action, and although poetry reaches the seat of judgment through the sense of hearing, like music, it cannot describe musical harmony, because the poet is not able to say different things at the same time, as is achieved in painting by the harmonious proportionality created by the various parts at the same time, so that their sweetness can be perceived at the same time, as a whole and in its parts, as a whole with regard to the composition, in particular with regard to the component parts. For these reasons the poet remains, in the representation of corporeal things, far behind the painter and, in the representation of invisible things, he remains behind the musician."
Metcalfe concludes that "a density of literal and non-literal meaning is, perhaps, a unique property of polyphonic music," and that is certainly in evidence in this marvellous album.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Three remarkable trios from a superb ensemble

Louise Farrenc: Piano Trio op. 33; Amy Beach: Piano Trio op. 150; Rebecca Clarke: Piano Trio

In Her Voice, the Neave Trio provides the best possible advocacy for a trio of trios by three remarkable women. Farrenc's work comes from the academic milieu of the Paris Conservatoire, where she was a Professor of Piano, but it sounds especially fresh and lively as played by these fine young musicians. It also sounds more German than French, with Beethoven and both Robert and Clara Schumann as obvious models. Amy Beach's Piano Trio, from late in her career, is full of drama with lyrical interludes, many of which refer to songs from earlier in her career. My favourite work on this disc, though, is Rebecca Clarke's Piano Trio, written in 1921. Clarke faced more than her share of adversity and conflict in her life, but she was able to create in this remarkable work one of the finest chamber works of the period between the World Wars. This is such a fine album, with three completely different sound worlds on display, but all of them show that special connection between musicians of the finest chamber ensembles. This is another triumph for the Neave Trio.


São Paulo's Villa-Lobos recording revolution

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Guitar Concerto, Harmonica Concerto, Sexteto Místico, Quinteto Instrumental

In the past ten years we've been blessed with a new generation of Villa-Lobos recordings from São Paulo that have instantly become the new standards for interpretation, instrumental playing and engineering. These include the complete Bachianas Brasileiras, Choros and Symphonies series. Now we have a very welcome disc in Naxos's new series The Music of Brazil, which takes on the first of the composer's commissioned concertos from the last decade of his life, along with some important chamber works.

The Guitar Concerto, written for Andrès Segovia in 1951, is somewhat controversial. Jason Vieaux, speaking for the Defence, has expressed his love for the work. Meanwhile, John Williams said, "it just isn't a very good piece, technically or musically." This has always been a popular work, thanks to a plethora of great recordings, by Julian BreamGöran Söllscher, and my own favourite, by Norbert Kraft. There's even a very convincing recording by John Williams himself! But I'll admit that, at least in its final movement, the Guitar Concerto, like much of the commissioned music from Villa's final decade, suffers from some undistinguished patches of banal passage-work, though in this case they connect some of the composer's finest tunes. Lovely tunes were never a problem for this guy! I've only listened to this new recording of the Concerto by Manuel Barrueco and OSESP (the São Paulo Symphony) under Giancarlo Guerrero, five or six times, but I'm already suspecting this will go to the very top of the list. Barrueco's playing is outstanding, especially in the Cadenza, and even in the Finale the partnership between soloist and orchestra makes the most compelling case for bringing this work out of the John Williams cold.

Eero Tarasti refers to Villa-Lobos's "limpid late period". The Harmonica Concerto, written for John Sebastian in 1955, partakes fully of the relaxed, late-night noodlings that are seemingly built-in to the instrument. Beginning with a theme that's disconcertingly similar to the Hancock's Half-Hour theme-song by Wally Stott/Angela Morley, Villa-Lobos continues his formula here: lots of arresting, sometimes quite beautiful, themes held together with characteristic runs and doodles by the solo instrument. In this case, as so often throughout his career, Villa-Lobos cottons on to a wider variety of effects from his instruments than are standard, providing a kaleidoscopic effect of instrumental orchestral colours. The playing here by José Staneck is very fine, though this recording lacks some of the energy of the classic album by Robert Bonfiglio and the New York Chamber Symphony under Gerard Schwarz.

As fine as these two works are, I was most interested in the two chamber works, by the OSESP Ensemble, made up of some very fine musicians indeed. The Sesteto Místico (aka Sextuor Mystique) was nominally written in 1917, though it was revised later in Villa's career. This is a fine example of Villa's modernist style, well ahead of anything being written in Latin America, and close to the leading edge in Europe. Tarasti refers to its "contrapuntal colorism... a refined, aquarelle-like texture simply because of the choice of instruments." He notes that "a corresponding combination is not to be found in European chamber music of the period." This is a very fine recording, with delicate filigree effects and all the colours of the rainbow.

We return to the 1950s with the Quinteto Instrumental, written in 1957. This is a work of pure nostalgia, though it's French nostalgie rather than the usual Brazilian saudade, with Villa-Lobos looking back to his time in Paris in the 1920s. The sounds of the instruments evoke Ravel, as does the mildly ironic and sentimental tone of the music. If there is a falling-off in Villa-Lobos's inspiration in the commissioned works of the 1950s, it's hard to hear it in the great chamber works of the period, including the late String Quartets and this Quintet. And it's a great work to end this very, very fine disc from São Paulo. I look forward to more in this series!

This disc will be released on November 8, 2019. This review also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.