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 5, 2020

Another Bang on a Can Marathon coming soon!

Bang on a Can's next ALL LIVE Bang on a Can Online Marathon takes place on Sunday, June 14, 2020 from 3pm-9pm ET.

The Marathon will be streamed online at, featuring 25 live performances from musicians' homes in the USA, Canada, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Scotland, Italy & Ireland plus ten world premieres of newly commissioned works.

The Marathon begins with a performance by Rhiannon Giddens at 3pm and concludes with a performance by Terry Riley. Additional highlights include performances by Roscoe Mitchell, Nico Muhly, Conrad Tao, Pamela Z and many more. The 6-hour live Marathon will be hosted by Bang on a Can Co-Founders and Artistic Directors Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, who will interview composers and performers in between pieces throughout the performance.

Bang on a Can presented its first online Marathon on May 3, 2020. According to The New York Times, it “approximated what our critic cherishes about going to live performances,” and highlighted the event's “genial vibe and leisurely pace." Until concerts can resume in a normal way, Bang on a Can will continue to present online Marathons periodically.

The Marathon will be free to stream and all Marathon performers and commissioned composers are being compensated by Bang on a Can.

The marathon kicks off with composer, singer, songwriter, historian, archivist, and activist Rhiannon Giddens. She has dedicated her life to exploring American roots – where our music and our culture come from, the debts we all owe to our forebears and to each other.

A core feature of the program will be ten world premieres of newly commissioned works:

Leila Adu New Work (world premiere) performed by Mark Stewart
Aaron Garcia New Work (world premiere) performed by Ken Thomson
Susanna Hancock New Work (world premiere) performed by Nick Photinos
Carla Kihlstedt New Work (world premiere) performed by Carla Kihlstedt
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė New Work (world premiere) performed by Robert Black
Shara Nova New Work (world premiere) performed by Shara Nova
Helena Tulve New Work (world premiere) performed by Arlen Hlusko
Ailie Robertson New Work (world premiere) performed by Gregg August
Tomeka Reid New Work (world premiere) performed by Vicky Chow
Kendall Williams New Work (world premiere) performed by David Cossin

The marathon will conclude with Terry Riley, live! The man and the myth, minimalist godfather Terry Riley joins us in an early celebration of his 85th birthday.

Here is the complete schedule for the Marathon:

3pm (EDT)
HELENA TULVE Without love atoms would stop spinning (world premiere) performed by ARLEN HLUSKO
AARON GARCIA disconnect. (world premiere) performed by KEN THOMSON
SHARA NOVA New Work (world premiere)

TED HEARNE Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job
ŽIBUOKLĖ MARTINAITYTĖ Abyssal Zone (world premiere) performed by ROBERT BLACK

PAULA MATTHUSEN of an implacable subtraction performed by DANA JESSEN
TOMEKA REID Lamenting G.F., A.A., B.T., T.M. (world premiere) performed by VICKY CHOW

AILIE ROBERTSON New Work (world premiere) performed by GREGG AUGUST
TIM BRADY At Sergio’s Request (world premiere)

JUDD GREENSTEIN In Teaching Others We Teach Ourselves performed by NADIA SIROTA
ALEX WEISER Music from ‘and all the days were purple’ performed by ELIZA BAGG
KENDALL WILLIAMS New Work (world premiere) performed by DAVID COSSIN

CARLA KIHLSTEDT New Work (world premiere)
FREDERIC RZEWSKI Which Side Are You On? performed by CONRAD TAO
LEILA ADU Black-Crowned Night-Heron (world premiere) performed by MARK STEWART

Hope, and a call to action

Violins of Hope: Music for violin & piano by Dauber, Bloch, John Williams, Chajes, Farber, Laks, Perlman, Ben-Haim, Ravel

The Violins of Hope project was founded by Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom Weinstein, Israeli luthiers who collect the actual instruments that have survived from their time in the camps of the Holocaust, refurbish them to concert quality, and bring them to communities all over the world. James A. Grymes documented this in his 2014 book Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust - Instruments of Hope & Liberation in Mankind's Darkest Hour.

Niv Ashkenazi is the only violinist to have one of these instruments on a long-term loan. "In most Violins of Hope events, musicians have a limited time with each instrument. I have been given a unique opportunity to develop a relationship with this special instrument and its voice." Ashkenazi goes on to introduce the reason for his new album Violins of Hope:
One of the missions of Violins of Hope is to help silenced voices be heard again. This album is intended to create a permanent chronicle of that voice so it is never again silenced.
Ashkenazi has chosen a beautiful programme of pieces by composers from the early 20th century to today, many of whom were affected by the Holocaust. He begins with the Serenade by Robert Dauber, a lovely short, sentimental piece of light music that becomes almost unbearably sad when you learn that Dauber survived stints in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, only to die in Dachau just before the end of the war.

Other highlights from this album include the Trois pièces de concert, by Szymon Laks, the concert-master of the  concertmaster of the Birkenau Men’s Camp Orchestra in Auschwitz, and the moving Nigun by Ernest Bloch. I never tire of John Williams's Theme from Schindler’s List, written for Itzhak Perlman to play in Steven Spielberg's film. All of these are beautifully played by Ashkenazi. He gets a full, sweet tone from his instrument, built in the first third of the 20th century in Germany or Eastern Europe, and plays with passion, but also grace and style. Also, when called for, wit and humour. The fine pianist Matthew Graybil provides superb support.

The most substantial piece, and one that repays multiple listening, is the Triumph movement from Sharon Farber's Bestemming. Farber herself made this arrangement for piano four hands and narrator, and plays the second piano part herself. Tony Campisi is the narrator in this performance, providing a perfectly nuanced, subtle commentary to the heartbreaking story told by a master composer.

We need hope more than ever today, as a new wave of fascism begins to break over the world. May this inspiring project provide us with a new will towards action. According to Alain De Botton, "In order to be effective, political art can't simply say that something is wrong; it needs to make this error feel vivid enough to generate the emotion necessary to stir us into reform." This amazing album is a perfect example.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Grace and glamour

Ottorino Respighi: La bella dormente nel bosco

Respighi wrote this delightful Sleeping Beauty opera for the puppeteer Vittorio Podrecca in 1922, and though the composer later adapted it as a full-blown opera, it still has all the charm of a puppet production for children. Charm is the driving force in this production from Sardinia, beautifully presented on Blu-ray by Unitel and Naxos. When Coleridge talked about the "willing suspension of disbelief", he said that a fantastic story requires "human interest and a semblance of truth". This is amply supplied by Charles Perrault's classic story, left intact in the libretto of Claudio Guastalla, and enhanced by Respighi's music. The visual spectacle and stage effects are impressive, but it's the gorgeous music that makes this special, both as fantasy and real human interest. Though it's full of musical in-jokes - references to Wagner and Stravinsky and popular music - there's no need to worry too much about detective work, since Respighi piles up beautiful melodies one on top of the other. The grace and glamour of the whole package makes this an opera everyone - even children - can enjoy.

Monday, April 20, 2020

A fascinating release, with outstanding Villa-Lobos

Aline Van Barentzen: Piano music by Villa-Lobos, Chopin, Liszt, Falla, Brahms

In March of 1927, the American pianist Aline Van Barentzen performed, in the Salle Gaveau in Paris, a new work dedicated to her by Heitor Villa-Lobos: the Second Book of A Prole do Bébé.  Along with Rudepoema, dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein and also played in Paris that year, these nine short pieces represent some of the most important modernist works of the entire piano repertoire. It's marvellous to hear this music, recorded in 1956 for Pathé, in a fine re-mastering. Barentzen recorded the eight pieces of the First Book as well; these are much better known, but less adventurous in terms of harmony and rhythm. Though the subject of this music relates to childhood, this is way too virtuosic to be undertaken by any child who isn't a full blown prodigy. As can be expected, Van Barentzen has complete control over these pieces; she must have consulted with Villa when he first presented them to her in 1925, and again thirty years later, when both pianist and composer spent a lot of time in the Pathé recording studios.

Program: Museu Villa-Lobos
Two years later, in 1958, Van Barentzen recorded Villa-Lobos's Choros no. 5, subtitled Alma Brasileira, the Soul of Brazil. The following year the composer was gone. This is a very fine version of a very special work, with the tricky rhythms properly lined up, but always sounding surprising. There's more rubato here than you'll hear in most performances today, but the composer is almost looking over her shoulder (he was in Parisian recording studios throughout the late 1950s). Outstanding Villa-Lobos!

I'm most interested in the Villa-Lobos, of course, but there is much more very fine playing on this two-disc set from APR. As I mentioned, the 1950s Pathé recordings sound great; we have here pieces by Liszt (Un Suspiro is quite lovely) and Chopin (the D-flat major Nocturne is a stand-out). The earlier recordings are understandably less easy on the ears: I wasn't especially convinced by Van Barentzen's Brahms, recorded by HMV in the 1940s. The most interesting recording from a historical perspective goes all the way back to June of 1928. In his informative and entertaining liner notes, Jonathan Summers tells a great story about how this recording came about:
Barentzen’s first recording happened in unusual circumstances. She met Piero Coppola, conductor and director of French HMV, at a reception at the French piano firm of Gaveau in June 1928. He asked if she knew Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España, as Ricardo Viñes who was due to make the premier recording of the work in three days time was ill. Barentzen told Coppola she knew it, although in fact she did not. She learnt it in the three days and was later told by de Falla that he was very pleased with the recording. 
While sonically limited, the freshness of the piano playing and the sitcom circumstances make this a must-listen. What a fascinating release!

This post also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Piano concertos from an important Brazilian

Almeida Prado: Piano Concerto no. 1; Aurora; Concerto Fribourgeois

The latest release in the marvellous Naxos series The Music of Brazil features the great composer José Antônio de Almeida Prado (1943-2010). One of the most important recording projects of Brazilian music in the past decade was Aleyson Scopel's survey of Almeida Prado's complete Cartas celestes for the Grand Piano label. Though these works were mainly for piano solo, there were three in the official series of 18 that added other instruments (#7 is for two pianos and symphonic band, #8 for violin and orchestra, and #11 for piano, marimba and vibraphone). As well, after he completed the first work in the series, in 1975, he wrote Aurora, for piano and orchestra, which he called an "unofficial Cartas celestes, because it’s not numbered in the same series, but does share the same universe, the same heart, the same élan." What a marvellous work this is, especially as well played as it is by Sonia Rubinsky, the pianist known to most of us as a Villa-Lobos specialist.

There are two other important works for piano and orchestra here: the Piano Concerto no. 1 is the only numbered piano concerto by Almeida Prado. It's a one-movement work from the early 1980s that takes a four-note motif and mashes it about in the Beethoven manner. Rubinsky's virtuosity is required, and in evidence, here, as are the Minas Gerais Philharmonic's players' considerable skills. Fabio Mechetti's task is to ensure both a steady pulse and a sense of coherence across a complex of shifting rhythms, timbres and other sound events.

My favourite piece, though, is the Concerto Fribourgeois, written in 1985 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth. It's a post-modern take on neo-classicism, with appearances of musical guests both unlikely (Stockhausen, Messiaen and, once again, Beethoven) and likely (Bach himself, of course, including the famous B-A-C-H motif, but also Villa-Lobos in his Bachianas mode). This is as much fun listening to as it was, I am sure, to play. Bravo to these fine musicians, and to Naxos for this well-researched and beautifully recorded program.

Here's a short documentary on Almeida Prado from 2019, featuring Sonia Rubinsky and Fabio Mechetti.

This review is also posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

This album will be released on May 8, 2020.

Music to lift our spirits

Few composers are more reliable at lifting one's spirits than Georg Philipp Telemann, so this is a well-timed release for a difficult time. Montreal's Arion Orchestre Baroque presents a program that's full of the felicities for which Telemann was celebrated, at least in his own time, and again in the past three or four decades. His reputation was in a major slump in the centuries in between, but thank goodness we've gotten past that dark period. Vincent Lauzer plays the flûte à bec (recorder) in a solo concerto in C major, and with Mathieu Lussier's bassoon, in a double concerto in F major, both of them in the slow-fast-slow-fast format of the sonata da chiesa. The double concerto is especially impressive. It opens with a lovely, graceful Largo that brings to mind scenes of shepherds and shepherdesses by Watteau or Fragonard. A frisky Vivace keeps a lively pace, with the two instruments taking turns to embellish themes and breathlessly add new ones. The dramatic Grave builds up some real tension, which is released in the joyful rush of the Allegro finale.

The two concertos, by the way, were recorded in November of 2019, with Mathieu Lussier, Arion's newly appointed Artistic Director, leading the orchestra. The other half of the program, the Overture in G major, dates back to 2015, with Alexander Weimann at the podium. Remarkably, Telemann wrote 200 Overtures, or Suites, of which some 125 survive. Telemann helped to develop a new multi-cultural style that synthesizes the many dances of all the countries of Europe into a pleasing blend. This largely French-flavoured piece once again is in the pastoral style, this time with oboes and bassoon, placing us in a mythic landscape that seems the perfect place to retire to from today's social isolation.

This album will be released on April 17, 2020

Monday, April 13, 2020

Warm, joyful jazz from Copenhagen

Benny Carter Quartet: Summer Serenade

Benny Carter, alto saxophone
Kenny Drew, piano
Jesper Lundgaard, bass
Ed Thigpen, drums

This is a re-issue of a 1982 Storyville LP of a Copenhagen concert from August 17, 1980. This is very fine, swinging jazz, from a city that always seemed to bring out the best in visiting American musicians. It's partly due to the warm reception they received, but also because of the very fine Scandinavian sidemen who often played with visiting jazz stars. Here we have the great bassist Jesper Lundgaard, as well as drummer Ed Thigpen, famous for his long tenure with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Yes, Thigpen was born in Chicago, but he made a permanent move to Copenhagen in 1976 to take advantage of the fine music scene there. Both Lundgaard and Thigpen show up on another Storyville release I reviewed this month: a Teddy Wilson Trio disc also recorded in 1980. And there's another expatriate in the group: pianist Kenny Drew, originally a New Yorker, moved to Paris in 1961, and then to Copenhagen a few years later. What a jazz town!

These are fine sidemen, and they play exceptionally well together, but it's all in support of Carter's legendary alto sound. With more than fifty years of recording behind him at the time, this is tried-and-true music, but never tired or merely routine. Remarkably, Benny Carter went on recording into the 1990s, and it's not surprising when you hear such warmth, vitality and joy in this music.

I should mention a fun interlude right in the middle of this 45 minute concert: it's All That Jazz (not the Kander & Ebb song from Chicago, but the great song by Benny Carter, with lyrics by Al Stillman). It's perfectly sung by Richard Boone. Have a listen: