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, September 17, 2021

Deity is in this Place! Numen Inest!

 I'm listening to more of The Juilliard String Quartet's 15 CD set The Early Columbia Recordings 1949-56.

This was one of the first albums from the Juilliard String Quartet recorded by Columbia; it was released in June of 1950. It contains two works by Darius Milhaud with a special authenticity: the Cantate de L'Enfant et de la Mère is narrated by Madeleine Milhaud, Darius's wife, and conducted by the composer. The Household Muse for solo piano was played by Milhaud himself.

I'm trying to put myself in the position of someone listening to this LP at his or her grammophone back in 1950. This was contemporary music in the sense that Milhaud was still alive; the Cantata was written in 1938, while the piano work was only five years old. And it might have sounded "modern" to some ears, though Milhaud's most challenging modernist phase was well in the past by then. I wonder if it would have seemed fresh and new in 1950, or merely old-fashioned and a bit sentimental. I love this music so much, but it's hardly leading edge. The performers sell this in just the right way: sentimental, but not mawkish, homespun but with the numinous power of the household gods of ancient Rome:
"A religion of usages and sentiment rather than of facts and belief, and attached to very definite things and places—the oak of immemorial age, the rock on the heath fashioned by weather as if by some dim human art, the shadowy grove of ilex, passing into which one exclaimed involuntarily, in consecrated phrase, Deity is in this Place! Numen Inest!—it was in natural harmony with the temper of a quiet people amid the spectacle of rural life, like that simpler faith between man and man, which Tibullus expressly connects with the period when, with an inexpensive worship, the old wooden gods had been still pressed for room in their homely little shrines."

- Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean

I guess I have something of the same feeling myself when it comes to this music. The Deity is in the LP itself, somehow. The record album is a "homely little shrine", even more a fetish object today than it was 70 years ago. That's why I'm not listening to this Juilliard String Quartet set streamed on Spotify, but on these CDs stamped with the sacred marks of the Long-Playing Record of 1950.

Speaking of sacred marks, the beautiful album cover design isn't credited, but I'm fairly confident that it's by Darrill Connelly. He did the covers for the three Bartok albums that were released immediately after this record. 



Thursday, September 16, 2021

Bartok String Quartets in a masterful recording

Dennis Stock's photograph of the Juilliard String Quartet;
undated, but it looks to be from the mid-50s

I'm listening to more of The Juilliard String Quartet's 15 CD set The Early Columbia Recordings 1949-56. What a marvellous project this is!

In two New York concerts, on February 28 and March 28, 1949, the Juilliard Quartet performed the six string quartets of Béla Bartók, to enthusiastic audiences. This was less than a year after Columbia Records unveiled the Long Playing record - the LP - at a press conference in the Waldorf Astoria on June 21, 1948. Soon thereafter, the ensemble was in the 30th Street Studio recording all six of these wonderful works, producing fine records but also setting the stage for the many comprehensive sets of the LP era. To market the three individual discs as a set, the three LPs shared a single, excellent but uncredited liner note essay, and three wonderful album cover designs by Darrill Connelly. And all three LPs (three double 78rpm albums as well) were released the same day: August 14, 1950.

Though Olin Downes gave a very positive review in the New York Times of those first two concerts, already by 1952 the Times reviewer R.P. wondered, in a review of a second Juilliard Bartok cycle concert series, whether "the playing could have been a trifle over-refined." 
The precision of ensemble was wonderfully exact. the balance of tone and the blending of timbres was exemplary, and there was fine integration in the approach of the four men. But for one listener the note of human passion sounded a little thin.

This criticism will, I'm sure, come up many times before we finish all 15 of these CDs. I would normally be a bit skeptical of this, but in the Bartok case I think it's at least partly apropos. In their second recording from 1998, the Takács Quartet, which I know the best in these works, doubles down on the "human passion", emphasizing Bartok's folkloric sources. The Juilliard, by contrast, focus more on Bartok's hard, streamlined modernism. Both are obviously contained within the score; this is a matter of emphasis only. These are still excellent versions, and remarkable for both interpretation and recorded sound, not just for 1950, but today.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Legendary recordings from a great String Quartet

The 1950s were a great time for classical music recordings; so many special recordings were made in Columbia's 30th Street Studio in New York. This marvellous set of 15 CDs from Sony Classical brings it all back: the wonderful abstract designs - many by Fred Houseman - and the great, detailed liner notes. It's all here, if shrunk down a lot, right down to the CD itself looking just like a 12" LP.

I was excited when I opened the box, and I decided right away that I would review each of the 15 discs separately, one every few days. So get ready for a wonderful trip back to the 50s, to hear some wonderful music, beautifully played.


The first CD I played from the set was their Mozart disc, recorded in April & May of 1953. 

At that point the group had been together for seven years, and these two quartets show the cohesion of four musicians who were well aware of each other's abilities and quirks. As well, the Juilliard Quartet were obviously at home in Columbia's 30th Street Studio by this time; there's a real intimacy in these beautifully-recorded pieces. One can imagine one is eavesdropping on the original String Quartet Supergroup that first played these works: Mozart himself playing viola, with Johann Christian Bach, Joseph Haydn and Johann Georg Hoffmeister. The pitfalls of too careful synchronization are avoided; each of the Juilliard musicians - Robert Mann and Robert Koff playing violin, Raphael Hillyer on viola and Arthur Winograd on cello - plays as an individual, with their own personality shining through. Winograd shines in the Quartet no. 21, K. 575, one of the works Mozart wrote to curry favour with the cello-playing King of Prussia, Frederic Wilhelm II.

I love the Fred Houseman design from the original LP cover. And the liner notes by Charles Burr are detailed and informative. It's odd, though, how Burr keeps pointing out how American the group is. He even quotes the critic Thomas Archer, writing in the Montreal Gazette, saying "from which vantage point he can be assumed to write with disinterest." I'm not sure whose shoulder this particular chip is on: Burr's or Columbia's. I can't imagine that the four musicians are out to prove anything; they're just making great music. "We can play Mozart just as well as any dumb European Quartet!" Doesn't sound likely to me. Nearly 70 years later, it all seems a bit silly. We've known for a long time that this was a world-class group. The music sounds fabulous; this is Mozart playing that I adore.

Here is the slow movement of the K. 575 Quartet by Mozart, as played by the Juilliard String Quartet:

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Villa-Lobos Violin Sonatas

The indispensable series The Music of Brazil, from Naxos Records, continues with a very valuable new disc: the three violin sonatas that Villa-Lobos wrote between 1912 and 1920.  The first is one of his earliest works, and it shows the composer (25 years old at the time) still working in a conservative French style; César Franck's Violin Sonata is his primary model, as it had been for so many young composers. Villa gave it the title Violin Sonata (Fantasia) No. 1 ‘Désespérance’, which looks backward and forward at the same time. The romantic subtitle was soon to be passé for Villa-Lobos, in favour of more modern, and modernist, branding; Villa-Lobos became obsessed with the new, even the avant garde, for much of his life. At the same time, though, the composer was settling into fantasia as a composing trope, again for much of his career. His orchestral works especially eschewed structural integrity in favour of a free development of ideas - the more ideas, the better. This is one of the first fantasias of many in Villa-Lobos's large catalogue of works. Luckily for us, Villa-Lobos has a great melodic gift, and a knack, even this early, in changing things up just before we tire of them. The first violin sonata is easy on the ears.

There's a significant development as a composer, though, by the time of the 2nd sonata, from 1914. Villa-Lobos was a professional cellist with an already-long resumé by his mid-20s, so the string writing is solid. He adds a much more impressive piano part in Violin Sonata no. 2, though. Villa composed at the piano, and though he was never himself a virtuoso pianist, he ended up as one of the great piano composers of the 20th century. This work is an important stage in that development.

It's the 3rd Violin Sonata, though, from 1920, that's really something special. Villa-Lobos had written his great piano series A prole do bebe, book 1, in 1918, following it up with the second book in 1921, the same year in which he wrote his great work Rudepoêma. So we have assured string writing with a much more interesting piano part. This work is an important marker on Villa-Lobos's voyage to full modernism, which was to be marked by his starring role in the Semana do Arte Moderna in 1922. 

The team of violinist Emmanuele Baldini and pianist Pablo Rossi play these works with style and finesse. They give the first sonata a proper dose of salon music sentimentality, as befits a work with the subtitle Désespérance’. Most importantly, they don't give it more weight than it can bear; there are small hints of Villa's heroic future here, but anything more would be anachronistic. The second sonata is played with some freedom, even a bit of swing, which helps to keep Villa-Lobos's Vincent d'Indy structure from sounding too four-square. And they let loose in the superb third sonata, giving us a hint of the modernistic furor the music of this period would cause at the Semana do Arte Moderna in São Paulo, Brazil's version of the Rite of Spring riot of 1913.

A special release, beautifully recorded.

This review is also at The Villa-Lobos Magazine. This disc will be released on July 9, 2021.


Friday, May 21, 2021

The dialogue between antique and modern

Alessandro Scarlatti, Magnificat; Herbert Howells: Requiem

The Requiem of Herbert Howells, written in 1936, has complex musical textures, shifting between simple psalm settings and much more musically adventurous sections that combine chromaticism, ambiguous harmonies and tone clusters. It is reminiscent of another English a cappella choral work, Vaughan Williams's G Minor Mass of 1923. Both works explicitly look back to 16th century polyphonic music, but they add a brightly coloured modern surface sheen that reminds me of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Mirko Guadagnini put together this programme to highlight the "dialogue between the antique and the modern", and the Howells work certainly fills that bill.

As does Alessandro Scarlatti's Magnificat a 5, written in the early 18th century but also looking back to the music of the 16th, specifically to Palestrina. Alessandro is of the generation before Bach and Handel - his son Domenico was born in the same year as both - so he's working within a tradition that's closer to the masters of Renaissance polyphony. Since he was as at home in the opera pit as a cathedral choir, his sacred music is more organically dramatic and theatrical, so even if he's taking Palestrina as his model here, this music sounds as much like Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli as the older Roman master.

The Intende Voci Ensemble comprises 14 voices, with a theorbo and organ for the basso continuo. This is magnificent singing, recorded directly and simply in the wonderful acoustic of the Canonica Lateranense di S. Giorgio M., Bernate Ticino, in Milan. With shorter works by Scarlatti father and son, this is a completely satisfying disc, with gorgeous singing and many, many felicities to appreciate.

I have a special interest in album cover photography, so I perked up when I saw this disc. The wonderful photo here is "La Corallina’s Sunrise" by Gianmario Masala. Here's the full picture, from his website:

This album will be released on June 4, 2021.


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Celebrating a reunion

Handel: Six Concerti Grossi, op. 3

Handel may not have planned this grouping of concertos himself, but the collection we know as Opus 3 is so appealing, so full of invention, so stylish, that it's hard to be too harsh about this result of the oddities of 18th century norms of Intellectual Property. Handel had a most wonderful model for these works - Arcangelo Corelli - and if he borrowed a few melodies, rhythms and harmonies along the way, that's fine, considering the fluidity of authorship at the time. A publisher may have rounded up Handel works willy-nilly into a publishable state, but in spite of this the results are surprising, full of depth and meaning. Umberto Eco's great essay on the movie Casablanca is, I think, relevant:

When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.

Handel's op. 3 collection is a test for any group: staying true to the letter & spirit of the score, while keeping the music sounding fresh and alive. Martin Gester and his Tasmanian group Van Diemen's Band have done exactly that, in this wonderful new album from BIS. There's plenty of fire burning here, but it's within the context of impressive musical discipline and lightly-worn Historically Informed Performance scholarship. BIS provides the kind of direct and transparent sound that allows Early Instruments to flourish. This is a highly recommended release!

Friday, May 14, 2021

Electrical Villa


Heitor Villa-Lobos Tristorosa

According to Gunter Herbig, "Playing classical guitar music on the electric guitar is a process of reinvention, re-telling and re-imagining." The Five Guitar Preludes of Villa-Lobos, core to the classical guitar repertoire, are a perfect test-bed for such reinvention. Villa-Lobos made his name rejiggering various types of music: from the Amazon rainforest and West Africa, the salons of Rio's high society and the street musicians of the working classes, the orchestras of the opera pit and the cinemas. Most famously, he brought Bach's music to Brazil, running it through the kaleidoscope of his endlessly inventive mind, and turning out his fetching Bachianas Brasileiras, as well as the 3rd Guitar Prelude, "Homenagem a Bach".

In many ways the transition of the Villa-Lobos Preludes from acoustic to electric guitar is analogous to the shift to the piano from clavier or harpsichord in Bach's keyboard works. In both cases you gain colour, forcefulness and sustain, while perhaps losing delicacy, balance, and certainly a boat-load of authenticity. It will be interesting to see if Herbig's experiment is broadly accepted in the CG (Classical Guitar) community, or if it results in the same type of controversy that Bob Dylan caused when he "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. 

It's the Preludes that are the most successful works on the disc, I think. These are strong works - as great as any of Villa's non-orchestral pieces - and are up to the inevitable jostling that comes when their story is re-told. I would count all five as virtually unqualified successes. I love all five of these works so much, whether they're played on an acoustic guitar or, as they are increasingly, in José Vieira Brandão's arrangements for piano. The movements of the folkloric Suite popular brasileira are slight, and seem less happy in their shiny new garb. Like the Suite, Tristorosa is an early work, but originally written for piano. Thus in some ways it has less far to go, sonically, than the early guitar works, on the way to the electric guitar. The least successful piece here is the Choros no. 1, which sounds brash and wobbly on the electric guitar. This perfect evocation of 19th century chorões is too wraith-like, too spiritual, for such an insistent instrument, or such an insistent approach. 

Villa-Lobos wrote his Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 for soprano and eight cellos, but at the same time prepared a version for soprano and guitar. One of my favourite versions of this oft-recorded work is that of soprano Salli Terri and guitarist Laurindo Almeida, from 1958. There's a much different sound world here, with Gunter Herbig and his vocalist Alda Rezende. There's an appealing late-night jazz club feel, and, unlike many (perhaps most) of BB#5 versions, it's like we're listening to something new. Another successful experiment, I think.

Guitar: Gretsch‚White Falcon G7593
tuned at A = 432Hz
Amp: Fender Hot Rod Deluxe
Over the 25 years or so I've been listening to and writing about Villa-Lobos, I've never seen an album with technical information that looks like this! Such fun!

Listen to Alda Rezende and Gunter Herbig perform Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5, from this fascinating new album:

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