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, December 31, 2015

More about King Roger

Here’s the last lesson I learned in 2015. Don’t complete a Top 10 list with two weeks to go before the end of the year. Over the last few days I’ve been watching the Blu ray disc of Szymanowski’s King Roger, recorded at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in May, and this clearly belongs somewhere close to the top of my list. Maybe just after the amazing Marion Cotillard Honegger Jeanne d’Arc, or maybe even before it, in top place. Anyway, let’s not monkey with the list at this point, but add King Roger as a great Encore to an outstanding (musically, anyway) 2015.

While I’m talking about King Roger again, here is Director Kasper Holten talking about the opera:

And here is the trailer:

In my review I talked just a bit about soprano Georgia Jarman, and it occurs to me that I didn’t say enough. Calling her ’sexy” is obviously true, but faint praise in itself; she’s an amazing singer and a fabulous actor.  Here’s the song I discussed:

“Do you hear her singing?” asks the King. “What a wonderful song!” I agree!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Impressive staging and presentation of a master-work

Karol Szymanowski’s opera Król Roger (King Roger) was written in the period 1918-1924, and received its premiere performance in Warsaw in 1926. The work is a skillful blend of psychological, political and religious themes, but it’s a personal testament as well. In this complex master-work of the operatic stage the composer presents lifelong philosophical musings, and his own sexual longings, in an idealized Mediterranean setting common to northern European artists since Goethe and Schumann.

The opera is full of multicultural references and effects, with an unusually broad range of influences apparent in its libretto (by the composer and his cousin Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz) and the music itself. Some that occur to me, or have been suggested in my reading, are Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and Thomas Mann on the literary side; Stravinsky’s early ballets and Wagner’s Tristan and Parsifal on the musical side; and Euripedes’ Bacchantes (Szymanowski’s explicit model) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Tempest and King Lear on the dramatic side. The over-arching philosophical structure comes, of course, from Nietschze’s dichotomy between the reasonable Apollonian and the instinctive Dionysian natures of humans and Gods. Finally, the religious ecosystem of the opera is a syncretistic mixture of Eastern Mystery rites, ancient and Byzantine Greek and ancient and Catholic Roman faiths, with Muslim influences from the Sicilian locale. As Pater put it in Marius the Epicurean, “A blending of all the religions of the ancient world had been accomplished.”

All of this might come crashing down in an eclectic heap were it not for Szymanowski’s extraordinarily cogent libretto and his arresting sound world and musical development. Even then, there are lots of ways a production of King Roger could founder, from problems with the cast, chorus, orchestra, production conception or stage design. Luckily, all of those components are top drawer in this excellent recent Royal Opera House Covent Garden production headed by Director Kasper Holten.

The principals are especially good. Kim Begley is very effective as Roger’s advisor, part Tom Hagen consigliere, part Sigmund Freud therapist. Georgia Jarman is always sexy as the Queen, though often slightly demented, and she’s great in Roxana’s big second act aria - the most sensuous 20th century music for soprano until Villa-Lobos’s 5th Bachianas Brasileiras. Salmir Pirgu is a delightful Shepherd, coming on full-charismatic guru, then pulling back as a detached, cynical con-man. In the final scene he channels the Commendatore from Don Giovanni, calling the protagonist to a different kind of end:
I'm calling you to an endless journey,
to a joyous dance!
To me! To me!
I'm calling you!
As the dramaturg John Lloyd Davies points out in his excellent liner note essay, the work is very much about the titular character, and this production of King Roger is blessed with the gifted singer and actor Mariusz Kwiecień, who presented a similarly tortured main character in the Royal Opera’s superb recent production of Don Giovanni (another collaboration with Holten.) Every bit of the King’s doubts and enthusiasms, his longings and hesitations, is projected on Kwiecień’s face or through his voice. The entire production is exceptional, from Holten’s concept to the stage and lighting design and choreography. The singing (and acting) of the chorus is strong, as is the playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Antonio Pappano. The Opus Arte presentation makes full use of the audio and visual capabilities of Blu ray and includes fascinating special features, most interestingly an audio commentary by Holten and Pappano. This is a demonstration disc in so many ways, and most importantly a demonstration of the enduring dramatic and intellectual power of opera.

Perpetual motion

"Such a doctrine, at more leisurable moments, would of course have its precepts to deliver on the embellishment, generally, of what is near at hand, on the adornment of life, till, in a not impracticable rule of conduct, one's existence, from day to day, came to be like a well-executed piece of music; that 'perpetual motion' in things (so Marius figured the matter to himself, under the old Greek imageries) according itself to a kind of cadence or harmony."

- Walter Pater, "Marius the Epicurean", 1910

Saturday, December 12, 2015

It's just that it tends to make me giggle

I'm in the middle of a #MessiahMarathon: listening to as many different versions of Handel's masterpiece as I can comfortably manage during the month of December. I'm holding up fairly well; it's amazing how listenable this music is!

Number 7 was a real eye-opener: the 1959 recording that Sir Thomas Beecham made with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. After listening to mainly nimble, light, vibrato-less HIP versions, the slow, frankly Romantic, overblown phrasing of Beecham and the odd excrescences of arranger Eugene Goossens really jump out at one. Goossens isn't afraid to add harps and cymbal crashes. "As rescored by Goossens," said Beecham after it was all done, "Handel's music glowed, boomed and tinkled unprecedentedly." But the whole thing is oddly compelling, and in the end just as musical as Mozart's version (which I love). It's just that it tends to make me giggle.

I happen to be reading producer John Culshaw's Putting the Record Straight, which goes into some detail about this project. Decca and RCA were at the time involved in a distribution partnership, and one of their executives decided that Joan Sutherland, who was at the time turning into a big star, should be added to the cast. Culshaw takes up the story:
"The first crisis occurred within a day or two of the start of Messiah, for Beecham decided he could not abide Sutherland. For her part, she was only too ready to leave; she was inclined to agree with Beecham that Messiah (or, rather, Messiah in the Beecham manner) was unsuitable for her."
So Sutherland was replaced with Jennifer Vyvyan. The soloists, by the way, all have strong voices with strongly-etched dramatic shading, and Beecham gives them plenty of room to emote. Even back in 1959 there were calls to make Messiah more authentic, so Beecham was going a bit against the grain with pretty much everything he did. The great conductor insisted, though, that Handel would have liked it his way:
"He would have used every damn thing he could get his hands on. Hundreds of people. Thousands of people. But not that Australian woman!"
In the end Beecham had the last laugh. The recording (on three LPs - Beecham was in no hurry) was a big money-maker for RCA at the time, and again when it was released on CD in 1992. Even today there are people who just love this, though I'm afraid we're entering Culture War territory here. From reading some of the comments at Amazon, there are those who think that Historically-Informed Performance is just another part of the War on Christmas. The damn leftist atheist musicologists are after my rum-and-eggnog, my Merry Christmas! Starbucks cup, and all the vibrato in my big orchestras.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Top 10 Discs for 2015

Here is my Top 10 list of classical discs for 2015. [with a last-minute addition! 11 for the price of 10]

1. Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc

Marc Soustrot and the Barcelona Symphony & Catalonia National Orchestra present Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel's fascinating oratorio about Jeanne d'Arc, with an impressive cast of solo singers. But the standout in this Blu ray disc is a non-singing actor who plays Jeanne, Marion Cotillard. This is an amazing performance that had me in tears.

2. 1615 Gabrieli in Venice

Beautiful music and amazing surround sound. Though falsettists might be more authentic, I prefer the sound the trebles, both in the chorus and in solos. Stephen Cleobury has hit a home run with this recording.

3. Cavalli: L’amore innamorato

And I see I never got around to reviewing this fine CD with Christina Pluhar and L'Arpeggiata. Coming Real Soon Now.

4. Blue Heron: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks v.4

The final disc in this great series. Looking forward to the upcoming Ockeghem series from this excellent group.

5. NYPO: Nielsen Concertos

The highlight of the Nielsen Year: the final disc in Alan Gilbert's great series of orchestral music celebrating Nielsen's 150th Anniversary.  The Flute and Clarinet concertos are so vital, and this recording confirms to me that Nielsen's Violin Concerto belongs on a very short list of great 20th century works.

6. Sletternes Sonner

I heard a fair amount of Nielsen this year, and this was the icing on the cake. Peter Jensen's arrangements show a light touch, and a deep regard for the composer. Have a listen:

7. Richard Strauss: At the End of the Rainbow

I loved Erik Schulz's 2011 film Eric Kleiber: Traces to Nowhere, and this new film shows again that Schulz is a major talent in film documentaries.

8. Kazu Suwa: Guitar Recital

The London-based guitarist hits all the right notes from album concept, (literally) through to the studio. I'd love to hear his complete Villa-Lobos Etudes and Preludes.

9. The Tsar’s Bride

I watched a fair number of opera DVDs and Blu rays this year, and this was the farthest-out and most interesting. In Dmitri Tcherniakov's update of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, corporate functionaries replace secret policemen and Ivan the Terrible is reconstructed as a virtual character in front of a green screen. The concept was at least as interesting as the original opera.

10. Dvorak & Lalo: Cello Concertos

Johannes Moser's playing is outstanding, but it was the Super Audio sound that really grabbed me in this Pentatone disc.

BIS. King Roger

Here's an encore addition of the list: the new Blu-ray of the Royal Opera's production of Szymanowski's great opera.

Other discs I enjoyed this year:

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Fresh new music from Denmark

Here’s a CD with a bit of a branding issue. I nearly missed it, but was saved by the Nielsen 150th Anniversary year. A disc described thusly showed up one morning on the Naxos Music Library:

NIELSEN, C.: Oboe Music (Sletternes Sønner) (Artved, Moller, Fønnesbech)

Since no composer has given me greater pleasure in 2015 than Carl Nielsen, I thought I’d check it out. And it turns out to be a real winner: arrangements by Peter Jensen of Nielsen songs for oboe, string quartet and jazz piano & bass. And there’s a major bonus: the string quartet is the Danish String Quartet, whose Wood Works album topped my list in 2014. Here's the CD promo video from Naxos:

Back in the Chopin Year of 2010 (five years ago already!) my favourite album was also an arrangement for jazz ensemble, of Chopin songs by Kuba Stankiewicz and sung by Inga Lewandowska, entitled Chopin Songbook.

The new Danish album has some similarities, though Jensen’s arrangements have a much broader stylistic range, from breezy Bill Evans-style improvisations to more angular, modernist experiments. A key point: the genius of Chopin and Nielsen is evident in both CDs. This is ground-breaking music with a fresh new sound. I’ve come to expect that from the Danish String Quartet, but it’s also nice to be introduced to such accomplished musicians as Artved (oboe), Moller (piano) and Fønnesbech (bass).

Note: the Chopin Songbook might be hard to track down, though there's a link to a vendor at above. You can get an idea of the album from this track on YouTube:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dramatic scene painting

The legend of Edgar Allen Poe loomed large in Paris, and much of Europe, in the late 19th century. It’s amusing to see how seriously intellectuals of a certain type took a writer who wasn’t as well regarded on this side of the Atlantic (and though perhaps we’ve come to under-value him today, I still cringe when I read his poetry). Florent Schmitt takes as his text for Le Palais hanté a Stephane Mallarmé translation of Poe’s 1839 poem, and provides a lush, romantic score full of menace and dread. It’s reminiscent of Tristan but also anticipates Debussy’s Le Martyre de saint Sébastien of 1911. It’s a really effective orchestral work that at 13-1/2 minutes never outstays its welcome. And it’s very well played, with vigour and nuance, by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta.

The music Schmitt wrote in 1920 for a ballet performed between the acts of Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra has a more distinguished literary inspiration, and Schmitt’s music has gained power and complexity in the sixteen years after he wrote his Poe music. This is dramatic scene-painting of the highest order. It still has a strongly impressionistic sound, but now Stravinsky’s influence can be heard, though with a very much softened modernist sound. When I read in Edward Yadzinski’s suggestion in his liner notes that Schmitt “emulates the orchestral manner of Richard Strauss” I thought of course, there was something not French there, and not just the orientalizing overlay. Schmitt was on top of the latest music from around the world. In 1920 Schmitt wouldn’t have yet met, or likely have heard the music of Villa-Lobos, though within a few years the two began a lifelong friendship. So the many times I thought of Villa when listening to this beautifully evocative music can be put down either to my own obsession with the Brazilian composer, or more likely to the common influence of Stravinsky. From all accounts, Schmitt was a brilliant musical critic and journalist, perhaps to his detriment as a composer. But in this music, well chosen by JoAnn Falletta and Naxos, you can see that he borrows from the best.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Highly recommended Vivaldi

Once you get to volume 4 of any comprehensive recording project you hope that the quality of the music can remain fairly high, and that the musicians aren’t just there to check off a number of pieces on their way to completion. No worries on the composition side: Vivaldi was exceptionally prolific, it’s true, but his music, to my ears at least, is always interesting and often inspired. The inspiration shows up even at this stage in the project, though many of the pieces were written for particular situations, and I would imagine often on short notice. Like Bach, Vivaldi was a practical musician whose genius shone through Monday to Sunday. Though this music slips into operatic tropes often, underlying the music is a strong sense of devotion. Vivaldi was an ordained priest and a highly religious person. As for the musicians, Kevin Mallon and his Aradia Ensemble are prolific themselves, having recorded 50 albums for Naxos. But I find this CD as fresh and energetic and musically accomplished as the best ones in their discography. Speaking of which, I highly recommend Mallon’s Samuel Arnold and Marc-Antoine Charpentier discs from Naxos. But back to this Vivaldi disc: the Aradia Ensemble is first rate as always, and the Aradia Chorus is excellent in the Laudate Dominum and In Exitu Israel. The two soloists, Claire De Sevigne and Maria Soulis, demonstrate virtuoso technique and a strong sense of drama, but also show taste and musicianship. This disc and the previous three are highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Great piano music from Villa-Lobos

I posted this review of the 7th volume of Sonia Rubinsky's great cycle of the complete piano music of Villa-Lobos to The Villa-Lobos Magazine back in 2010. Here it is again, with a few updates.
The seventh volume in the series is my favourite, since it includes so many pieces I haven't heard before.  In 1932 Villa-Lobos made a piano version of his early orchestral score Amazonas, which was first published in 1917.  Like in the great Rudepoema of the early 1920s (which Villa-Lobos orchestrated in the same year, 1932, as the Amazonas reduction), there's a lot happening for only 10 fingers and 88 keys to manage at once.  It's interesting that Prof. Tarasti should say, about the Rudepoema orchestration: "... one can only be amazed at how 'orchestral' the piano work already is."  And, though you can't always un-scramble an egg, I find the piano version of the great Stravinsky-infused orchestral version of Amazonas quite pianistic.  I wonder how it was that Villa-Lobos was reducing and orchestrating these two big scores at the same time.  Was it a case of the always practical composer coincidentally needing different versions of these scores, or did he just decide one day to set himself these interestingly symmetrical tasks?

The transcriptions for piano of the Guitar Preludes by José Vieira Brandão provide another fascinating listening experience, and one which I found even more musically satisfying.  These five pieces are among the greatest in the guitar literature, and are the first Villa-Lobos works I heard (and, naturally, fell in love with).  They fit very well in their new piano guise, which is a tribute both to Brandão's re-thinking of the music for the piano, and Rubinsky's phrasing on the keyboard.  I thought the third Prelude, inspired by Bach, worked especially well on the piano.  James Melo, in his excellent liner notes, calls the Brandão transcriptions "true transcendental etudes for the piano."  They deserve to be taken up by more pianists, either as a group, or one at a time as a encores.  It's a good way to get this response: "I know this piece. What is it? It's by Villa-Lobos, but wait a minute! Something doesn't sound right!" [update: listening to these piano transcriptions again, I'm less positive about them. Not that they're unmusical or poorly played - perish the thought! - just that they're nowhere close to the guitar versions. This is heavenly music on six strings, and it's too far a fall in the piano version. I still agree that they should be taken up by pianists, since they're interesting in that form.]

In the 1940s Villa-Lobos transcribed the third movement of Bachianas Brasileiras #2 (not #3 - a typo in the liner notes) for piano.  Dedicated to Georgette Baptista, this version was never published (the score is in the Museu Villa-Lobos), and was first played by Cláudia Tolipan in London in 1990. It sounds a pretty slight piece on the piano.  It makes you want to hear a really good orchestra led by a really good conductor (let's say the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, conducted by Eduardo Mata).

The rest of the disc is filled with really interesting little bits, including some world premiere recordings.  I play Feliz aniversario from the Canções de Cordialidade every year on Villa-Lobos's birthday (March 5th), and Feliz Natal is always in my Christmas playlist as well.

The sound from this 2007 recording continues excellent, especially in the turbulent Amazonas.  I've read reviewers who prefer the bright sound of the later Paris recordings (6-8) to the softer sound provided by Kraft & Silver in their earlier Toronto ones (2-5).  But the whole series seems to me to place one in a realistic space, and Rubinsky does the rest!

Though you can buy the individual CDs in the set, the best way to buy this music is to get the boxed set. It's a great bargain.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Moche joye and blysse

The music on this new Blue Heron disc is what one might have heard as Christmas approached in an English church in the 1440s. Things have changed a bit since then: they hadn’t heard of Kickstarter yet for one, though something of the same sort helped finance building the cathedrals, if I got Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth mini-series right (I wasn’t really paying attention). But this beautiful music must have impressed the English peasant at least as much as it did me. The music fills one with awe and wonder. One of the cool things, though, is that some of the carols are sung to actual English words.  Here is a stanza from Angelus ad virginem, whose lyrics were a 13th century English translation of the original Latin:
Gabriel, fram Heven-King
Sent to the maid sweet,
Broute his blissful tiding
And fair he gan hit greet:
- Heil be the, flu of grace aright!
For Godes Son, this Heven-Light,
For manned love will man bicome and take
Fles of thee, Maide bright,
Manken free for to make
Of sen and delves might.
The odd phrasing and bits of Latin left in Middle English adds extra charm to these songs. There is so much scholarship behind these performances. Even the harp Scott Heron plays in a number of pieces is based on instruments in museums, and paintings like this one by Hans Memling.

But this scholarship is worn very lightly, and is never allowed to intrude on the musicianship or the obvious pleasure the group takes in this music. This live album is perhaps a bit of a break for the group following their major Peterhouse Partbook project, and before their upcoming Ockeghem@600 project. It’s a perfect hour of celebration and wonder for all of us during the Christmas season.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

High opera, high concept

I never complain about modern dress versions of classic plays or operas, since they’re at least a chance to hold up an old masterpiece in a new light. Occasionally a more substantial remix adds some important insights. Very rarely the new concept takes on a life of its own and provides a satisfying theatrical experience in its own right. It happened for me with Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film of Richard III, set in an alternative fascist England. And it’s happened again with this production, in which Director Dmitri Tcherniakov has virtually re-written the story that underlies Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tsar’s Bride. The court of Ivan the Terrible is now a modern television studio, and the Czar has been replaced by a virtual character seen on big screens, put together with motion capture and green screen. You no longer need to know what a boyar is to appreciate the story, and the board room and television studio have replaced the court. But this isn’t just about changing externals to make things more ‘relevant’ to today’s audience. The new dynamics of multi-nationals and media moguls are so close to the old ones of nations and monarchs. It’s an arresting story in either case, with basic love/hate/jealousy geometry turned up to an operatic white-heat. The affairs of state and corporations, of media empires and real empires, matter less than the passions of individuals. Those passions are expressed in beautiful arias of longing, innocent love, betrayal and regret. In either reality, the music of Rimsky-Korsakov provides an enduring soundtrack that’s always of interest whatever happens in the foreground. Nothing in the concept is especially subtle, but there are beautiful moments in the acting of the principals, sensitive movements of the camera to expose hidden emotions, and gorgeous singing and playing all around. Daniel Barenboim ensures the highest musical standards, and the beauties of the opera come to the fore.

The DVD trailer shows off the concept well:

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Producers

When I began reading George Martin’s 1979 memoir All You Need Is Ears, I immediately thought of an earlier book which covers some of the same ground, generally speaking, John Culshaw’s 1967 Ring Resounding: The Recording of Der Ring Des Nibelungen. The common ground is one of profession, since both Martin and Culshaw were record producers during the post-war period, but the two shared as well a certain type of Englishman: well-read and cultured but not highly educated or of anything but the solid and stolid middle-class, modest but not unassuming, since each was well aware of his special talents.

The two really did have parallel lives. Culshaw was born two years before Martin, and while they both attended Grammar Schools, Culshaw in Southport and Martin in Bromley, World War II interrupted what might have been stints at University. As teenagers both ended up in the Fleet Air Arm, in 1942 (Culshaw) and 1943 (Martin), though neither saw combat service. After the war both began long stints with record companies, but by different routes. The musically self-educated Culshaw became a classical musical journalist and went to work with Decca in 1946 as a writer. Martin had a more academic musical education at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and he took a job with EMI in 1950.

The creative partnership between Martin and the Beatles is, of course, the key story in Martin’s book, and he has lots of interesting stories to tell about the work he did with the group from 1963 to 1971. The problem is that we’ve heard pretty much all of those stories so many times. Even so, I never complain about Beatles stories. I’m one of those people nagging Mark Lewisohn on Twitter to for God’s sake hurry up with the 2nd book of his Beatles biography. But the period before, when Martin worked with people like Peter Ustinov, the Goons, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, and Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, is fresher and the stories are just as interesting. The post-Beatles period is interesting to me mainly for Martin’s break-away from EMI along with the most talented of his colleagues. It’s a great story, akin to Don Draper’s new agency start-ups in Mad Men, and just as entertainingly told.

Culshaw’s book isn’t quite the same as Martin’s, since it’s the story of a particular recording project rather than a memoir. For that you need to read his posthumously published 1981 autobiography Putting the Record Straight (as do I: I’m waiting for it to arrive on Interlibrary Loan; I’ll report on it here after it arrives). But the story of the ground-breaking stereo recording of Wagner’s Ring in Vienna from 1958 to 1966 is fascinating. Culshaw is a much more accomplished writer than the team of Martin and his co-writer, the journalist Jeremy Hornsby.  Culshaw’s cast is every bit as interesting as Martin’s: Georg Solti, Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Gottlob Frick, Wolfgang Windgassen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Régine Crespin are all amazing artists, but their human foibles and frailties result in many entertaining stories. There’s a really interesting connection between Martin’s experiments with new recording technologies and the creation of new sounds with the Beatles, and the work of Culshaw in the previous decade. Martin’s experiments were mainly ad hoc, and came out of the Beatles' musical curiosity, while Culshaw’s were based on his idea of recordings as “a theatre of the mind.” Martin may have revolutionized popular music recording with his work on Revolver, Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper, but as Edward Greenfield said in his Gramophone obituary in 1980, Culshaw “… transformed the whole concept of recording.”

Understanding the world of music will always be a challenge for non-musicians. Learning about the technologies of sound production and reproduction is an important piece of the puzzle, while descriptions of the interactions between musicians and musical technicians give important musical issues a human face. Both Culshaw and Martin have given me a much better appreciation for and understanding of the great music I listen to every day.

Masterpieces of British choral music

I first came across Marcus Creed’s SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart when they released an outstanding 2011 CD of choral works by Heitor Villa-Lobos. It’s part of an impressive series of recordings of music from around the world in uniform editions with simple but attractive standard design, published by Haenssler Classics from 2008 until last year’s America album. The latest recording is a joint production of Naxos Deutschland Musik and SWR Media Services, so I presume the Haenssler connection is gone, but this CD is definitely another winner. The programme is well chosen to represent relatively recent British choral composers, from Benjamin Britten, who died in 1976, to two still-living composers and another two only recently passed.

The Alleluia for 13-part a cappella choir by James Macmillan was written for the Oregon Bach Festival to commemorate the 80th birthday of conductor Helmuth Rilling, and it’s fittingly full of Bach references. This is complex music with gorgeous textures, and it shows off the versatility of the Vokalensemble and the beauty of their voices, as well as the excellence of the engineering. This was recorded in the reverberant acoustic of the Christuskirche Ganscheide in Stuttgart, as was the Schuon Hymnen of John Tavener, another piece of great beauty and a mystical vibe written to sacred texts. The rest of the album comes from the more restricted acoustic of the SWR studio. Both Jonathan Harvey’s boisterous How could the soul not take flight and Peter Maxwell Davies’ irreverent Corpus Christi with Cat and Mouse are full of complex sounds that would be lost in a cathedral acoustic. The eight short hymns and carols that make up Britten’s Sacred and Profane, op. 91, are distinguished by their beauty or ingenuity: of vocal line, rhythm or harmony. Creed’s singers have the measure of this music. This is a highly accomplished and beautifully presented programme that compares well with any UK choral recording I’ve heard in this century.

The nature of suffering; the power to heal

“What is the purpose of music?” asks British composer Jonathan Harvey. “It is, in my view, to reveal the nature of suffering and to heal.” This might have been an epigraph for James Rhodes’ book Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music.  This is a profound, and profoundly profane, even subversive, book about the hell a bright, sensitive young boy goes through after years of sexual abuse, and the transformative power of music and family to bring at least partial healing.

Here’s how Rhodes introduces himself in the first chapter:
“I’m a vain, self-obsessed, shallow, narcissistic, manipulative, degenerate, wheedling, whiny, needy, self-indulgent, vicious, cold, self-destructive douchebag.”
You can tell from that sentence that he’s a hell of a writer, and a very funny one as well. His book has the ironically smile-shaped arc of most every abuse and self-abuse memoir: an idyllic beginning, followed by the descent into horrors, and further, self-inflicted, horrors, with a final redemptive upswing. While its tone is often light and sardonic, Rhodes’ story is the opposite of facile; his pain is always close to the surface, as is his love for his son and his profound belief in the power of music. The keynote is honesty; he doesn’t indulge in the sensational, make excuses for his own bad behaviour, or lapse into self-pity. I was constantly impressed by his courage.

Though Rhodes is nearly as accomplished at the word processor as he is at the piano, the ability of the best of writers to communicate musical ideas and experiences is limited, especially when writing for non-musicians. His clever way around this is to create what he calls a soundtrack for the book: twenty pieces of music that are important to Rhodes on his journey, one for each chapter. He begins with Glenn Gould’s 1955 version of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, and ends with the same piece, which Gould re-recorded in 1981. Rhodes sees Gould, who suffered from his own often self-inflicted paralyzing torments, as a fellow soul who survived and thrived for a time by the power of music. Many of the other composers and musicians represented in his soundtrack - Chopin, Schubert and especially Bach - are presented as victims of adversity and abuse. This filter with which he views great music can seem perverse at times, but it often provides us with surprising insights.

The music is made available as a Spotify playlist, freely available on the web.

“I’ve no idea if I’m going to survive the next few years”, Rhodes says in the Afterword to his book. “I’ve been in places before where I felt solid, reliable, good, strong and it’s all gone to shit. Sadly I am only ever two bad weeks away from a locked ward.” Now that I’ve read his book, and listened to most of his recordings, I feel sympathy, not pity, for him as a person, and great respect for him as an artist. I follow Rhodes on Twitter - you should too - and I look forward to more music and more prose. I wish him nothing but the best.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Brisk Franz

Portrait of Franz Schubert, oil on wood by Gábor Melegh, 1827; in the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest
There’s so much pity and sentimentality built-in to the stereotype of Franz Schubert as the short, sad, socially-awkward fellow who died too soon. It blinds us to the passion and vigour and intellectual depth which fills his best music. And these two symphonies undoubtably represent a great achievement, the finest symphonies between Beethoven’s and those of Brahms and Bruckner.

There’s lots to like about Philippe Jordan’s version of this music with his fine Viennese players. The string sound of the Wiener Symphoniker is as silky and sensuous as their colleagues in the Philharmonic. The brass and woodwinds are more than solid, and the rhythmic pulse in both works is strong and alive. But this nimble, agile performance has a bit too much day-at-the-office routine about it. I want more mystery in my Unfinished, and The Great is only Great when it expresses more tension and power. I was coincidentally listening to Giuseppe Sinopoli’s Unfinished (with the Philharmonia Orchestra on a DGG disc from 1994) when the new Jordan review disc arrived in the mail. It has a layer of dramatic tension missing in the new recording. Schubert never got the experience and feedback he needed to develop his operas into masterpieces, but in this symphony he comes up with slow burns and climaxes that would kill on stage. Sinopoli’s mastery in the opera pit gives him a better line on those dramatic impulses than is evident in this highly competent but ultimately unsatisfying recording from Vienna.

A note on numbers: The Unfinished was written in 1822, while The Great was started in 1825 and finished in 1827, the year before Schubert died. So the old-fashioned European numbering as #7 and #8 doesn't make too much sense. We know them over here as #8 and #9, which at least has them in the right order. But I know: it's complicated.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Notes from an honest and courageous journey

In his 2015 memoir Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music, pianist James Rhodes introduces each chapter with a piece of music that’s special to him, beginning and ending with the Aria to the Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould (the 1955 version to start, and the 1981 recording at the end). In between Rhodes has chosen other great piano pieces, but also concertos and choral, orchestral and chamber music that has special meaning for Rhodes at different times of his life. All of the music is available as a free Spotify playlist: you can listen at

This new CD from Instrumental/Signum Records is made up of another, similarly personal, playlist: music that Rhodes chose from the five albums he’s recorded since Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos came out in 2009. While there are other composers (Rachmaninoff and Beethoven included), it’s Chopin and Bach that make up the bulk of this compilation. And it’s the Busoni arrangement of the Bach Chaconne from the 2nd Violin Partita that’s the emotional centre of this disc. When he first heard the work as a child he felt that it “acted like a force field” against distress, and it became a talisman of healing throughout his life. In his book Rhodes quotes Brahms: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.” Rhodes expresses some of Bach’s thoughts and feelings in this performance, while adding a whole world of his own. There is so much pain underlying Rhodes’ Chaconne, but real transcendence as well. This project reflects a personal and artistic journey that Rhodes is undertaking with a special extra degree of difficulty: having it all happen in the glare of mass and social media. His artistry is matched by unswerving honesty and amazing courage. I look forward to many more albums and books from James Rhodes. And, of course, many many more tweets.

The power of context

When the parishioners of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig went to the Vespers Service on Christmas Day 1723, commentaries on the Christmas stories were enhanced with a complete multi-media display, which I imagine was especially helpful for the many attending that day who could not read. The stories were reinforced visually by the paintings and sculptures throughout the church, while the new Cantor JS Bach provided music for choir and organ to go with traditional and modern music from Germany and Italy. The audience themselves were involved in the event, since they had a chance to sing the familiar Vom Himmel Hoch and Puer natus in Bethlehem as congregational chorales. They even had a chance to imagine themselves dancing, as Bach sets an invitation to the Reihen, a round-dance:
Call and cry to heaven,
come, Christians, to the round-dance,
you should rejoice over that which God has done today!
Story-telling is also important today, for educational and recreational reasons alike. Increasingly Historically-Informed Performance of 18th century music tells the story of a particular event that uses a particular historical context to bring alive old music and make it more relevant to modern audiences. John Butt and his Dunedin Consort recently did this with their reconstruction of the first performance of Mozart’s Requiem on January 2, 1793, one of the best CDs of 2014. Now they’ve put together a program of what might reasonably have been experienced in that beautiful East German church nearly three hundred years ago.

Attention is paid to the slightest details. John Butt himself plays the organ, which plays an important role in the service. The instrumental and choral forces are based on the latest research in the performance practice of the time, and following this research an especially low pitch (A=392) is used. As Butt states in his complete notes, this provides “an opportunity to explore the rich sonorities that the heavier string gauges and the slightly larger woodwind instruments afford.” Most importantly, though, the singing and playing shows both individual excellence and great musicality in the whole.

Nikolaikirche Leipzig, photo by Berthold Werner, from Wikipedia
Adding to the authentic feeling of the project is the site of the recording: Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. Though much of the current church has been rebuilt since the original building opened on Christmas Day 1620, it’s nearly as ancient as the Nikolaikirche, which like its Scottish counterpart was significantly renovated in the 18th century. In any case the spacious acoustic of a large church is well-suited to this music, and the expert instrumentalists and especially the singers take full advantage of its long reverberation. The whole project is fascinating: I was engaged by the concept and moved by the beautiful and inspiring music.

Greyfriars Kirk, photo by Carlos Delgado, from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Shear vulgarity

My favourite thing about ‘Eurotrash’ opera productions - radically political and elaborately trendy remixes of 18th and 19th century works that began life with breastplates, horned helmets, well-fed singers and real-life trees on-stage - is the YouTube comments that accompany the trailers. One complained about the ‘shear vulgarity’ of a new production (which I extravagantly praised) of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. This new Tannhauser will surely bring its own tsunami of outrage, but then outrage is nothing new when it comes to a work Wagner wrote with controversy in mind.

The culture wars have always been with us, and Wagner trolled the comfortable bourgeoisie with the best of them. The bait was always taken, though the biggest splash at the 1861 Paris premiere came from the Jockey Club, who objected to the ballet occurring at the beginning of the opera, rather than after the interval when their members usually arrived. Baudelaire saw Wagner’s not-too-well-hidden meaning right away, saying “…barbarity always has to have its place in the drama of love, and sensual enjoyment has to lead, by a satanic logic, to the delights of crime.” If the composer could see what’s happening at his sacred Festspielhaus in the 21st century of course he’d himself be shocked, but surely he would have been pleased by the strong response. This is, after all, an opera about sex.

I always like to go with the flow with these kind of spectacles. I tend to be open to experimental dramaturgy, and I like what’s happening here in that regard. Sebastien Baumgarten’s production, which centres around Joep van Lieshout’s imposing industrial installation, is focussed on Tannhauser as experiment. To go with this, though, musical standards must be high, and the singing especially needs to be strong. This production passes that bar easily, with outstanding singing and acting from Michelle Breedt as Venus, Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth, and especially Torsten Kerl as Tannhauser. Conductor Axel Kober provides more than capable support with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus, and the entire experience is communicated with excellent sound, video, lighting and camera work.

So bottom line: I’m shocked just a bit, titillated just a bit, impressed a lot.

Salacious note: People buying this DVD without reading the comments (Caveat emptor!) might not realize what they're getting. Look at that cover above! Here's the good stuff: enjoy!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Piazzolla and Villa-Lobos for cellos

The four substantial pieces by Piazzolla on this new Naive disc from Anne Gastinel are all so beautiful. I was especially taken with Café 1930 from Histoire du Tango. But my primary interest is in the Villa-Lobos, so let’s move up from the smoky tango halls of Buenos Aires to beautiful Rio de Janeiro!

The last time I heard the cellos of the French National Orchestra on disc was in the legendary late 50s recordings for Pathé-Marconi that the composer himself led, collected on CD as Villa-Lobos par Lui-Meme. This time around Anne Gastinel contributes her own considerable skill as soloist and also plays as a member of the group. I’ll bet Villa really wanted to get in there with his own cello during the recording of his first Bachianas Brasileiras in Paris.

The differences between the two performances of BB#1 are illuminating. The sound is so much better in the new recording, of course. The backward sound from the original Paris recordings is legendary, but man it sounds thin when listening side-by-side with the new Naive disc. As the star of the recording, it’s natural that Gastinel would take a solo turn with the lovely melody in the slow movement Modinha (score #2, marked Adagio), but it’s only marked as a solo the second time around (score #11).

Villa-Lobos has it shared by the two first cellos at first. Also, in Villa’s recording, the transition at #4 in the score is amazing, with a kind of hushed and mysterious sound from the cello orchestra that the new recording misses. Gastinel's version is brisk, taking a full minute less than the first one though all the repeats are taken. The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic are even faster, though, taking three minutes less than the composer. They also play the Adagio theme as a solo both times. In spite of the sound, I prefer the original, though to be fair I’ve been listening to it steadily for more than 20 years! This movement has a real operatic feel, which I think Villa-Lobos, veteran of the pit orchestra as a cellist himself, captures best.

The other Villa-Lobos work on the disc is the 5th Bachianas, Villa’s most recorded work by far. The superb Sandrine Piau provides a supple, dramatic Aria and playful Dança. But again, my favourite version is under the composer’s baton in Paris, with the amazing Victoria de los Angeles. The final vocal exclamation of the great second movement of BB#5 is a fabulous way to end a recording. Villa-Lobos mic drop!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A new CD from Sao Paulo

The Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, also known as OSESP, is Brazil's top orchestra, and one that's very highly regarded in the rest of the world. The orchestra records a fair amount on major labels, mainly with Naxos and BIS, but it also makes available a selection of CDs free on its website (the CDs marked Selo Digital OSESP are those you can download.) This is a great place to get a feel for the classical music of Brazil that's not written by Villa-Lobos (and believe me, there's lots of great music from down there!)

The latest CD from the OSESP Chamber Orchestra is really interesting: it's called Tres Concertos Brasileiros, and it includes three works from Brasilian composers: Nailor Azevedo Proveta, Toninho Ferragutti and Vagner Cunha. These composers all have connections with jazz and popular music, but they share a facility in writing for a classical orchestra. Ferragutti, who is an accomplished instrumentalist to go along with his composing and arranging, plays with panache his own instrument in his Fantasia for Accordion and Chamber Orchestra. In his note on the piece in the CD booklet, Ferragutti says the piece was written on the road, as his band toured the North-East of Brazil, Europe and the Southern Brazilian Pampas, all areas where the accordion has an important place in musical culture. Each of those traditions can be traced in this lively and vital work.  

Vagner Cunha's Viola Concerto is in a more classical mode, though jazz and popular elements are there as well. Proveta's Concertino in Choro Form for trumpet, strings and piano, is a standout: it's really gorgeous. This is a larger work which mixes choro and jazz with neo-classical forms, and especially with the orchestral sound of the French impressionists. All of the works on this disc are definitely worth a listen, and the price is right. Sound is excellent, the playing of the soloists strong, and the orchestral forces (under Terje Tonneson, Claudio Cruz and Celso Antunes) acquit themselves very well. This is very highly recommended.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Send in the clowns

From October 15, 2015:

We tend to make allowances for everything but the singing and the orchestral playing in opera. A slightly wooden tenor or over-the-top histrionic soprano is good enough if the singing is superlative, though we’d complain about similar acting in a play or film. This is relevant especially with comedy. So often some smirks and a bit of stage business put together at the last minute will have to do, even in the great comedy-dramas of Mozart. That’s why this production of Cosi fan Tutte is such a surprise, and a delight. The six principles are all gifted farceurs: Malin Hartelius and Luca Pisaroni as the sisters, Luca Pisaroni and Martin Mitterrutzner as their suitors, Marie-Claude Chappuis as the amoral maid, and the great Gerald Finley as the puppet master Don Alfonso. This isn’t just good comedy for an opera, it’s great comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in a West End production of a Wilde or Ayckbourn play. Better than that, the timing of the singers and the laugh-choreography of Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf is as good as a classic sitcom. We’re talking Seinfeld or Frasier here! As well, there’s more than just farce on display, as the betrayal and heartbreak hidden beneath the cynical high spirits are beautifully conveyed by the four lovers.

Cosi fan Tutte is a great comedy-drama, the Mozart-da Ponte opera where drama wells up unexpectedly from a comic situation. The work is immensely enhanced by Mozart’s contribution, with the stage drollery punctuated by clever asides from the orchestra, and the underlying serious nature of love conveyed by his gorgeous vocal lines and complex accompaniments. Conductor Christophe Eschenbach keeps the musical side of the production at the highest level. While I opened with extravagant praise for the acting skills of the soloists, that’s not to say their singing is anything other than superb. One could with great pleasure listen to the very fine Dolby 5.0 audio by itself. But it’s nice to not have to close one’s eyes, as one sometimes does in the opera house or in front of the flat screen at home, to focus on the singing and playing while trying to blot out what’s happening on stage.

Here is the production's trailer:

A marvellous Maskarade

From October 8, 2015:
One of the highlights of the Nielsen Year (it’s going by so fast!) is this excellent new DaCapo recording of Maskarade, the comic opera Nielsen completed in 1906. It’s no wonder this marvellous work is called the Danish national opera: it has some great tunes, with many tender moments as well as stirring ensembles. There’s a fairly logical libretto with interesting and often funny situations. Perhaps most importantly, though, Nielsen’s orchestra plays the same role as Mozart’s in his finest comedies, with innumerable serious or comic touches coming from the pit rather than the stage. The soloists are uniformly excellent, and the chorus is vigorous and engaging. Michael Schonwandt conducts the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in music that all the musicians have in their blood, and you can tell. The musicianship, the excellent Super Audio sound, and a high quality CD package all combine to present a masterwork to its best effect, in the 150th anniversary of its composer’s birth.

A new edition of the B minor Mass

From October 6, 2015:

Bach’s much revised Mass in B minor has always been problematic, since the composer was still tinkering with the work when he died and the manuscript sources are not completely clear. Bach’s son Carl Philip Emmanuel made significant changes after Bach’s death to create the work as we know it from many performances and recordings, some of which were based on different compositional and performance practices that aren’t considered ‘authentic’ today. The new edition published by Carus in 2014 represents the current state of the art as to what JS Bach might have wanted his great work to contain, including the parts Bach prepared for a performance of the Kyrie and Gloria in Dresden in 1733. This is the first recording to incorporate this new scholarship.

The final result, except for some movements in the Gloria, is subtly different from what we’re used to, rather than a major revision. The second CD contains recordings of these movements in their conventional form so we can compare and contrast. Once the initial surprise over the changes passes, one can see that both versions are very musical, and that the differences are of taste rather than one version being better than another.

The performance by Hans-Christoph Rademann, the Freiburger Barockorchester, the Gachinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the solo singers is very capable indeed. Rademann takes some movements at quite a fast pace, and there’s a lightness and grace to both the playing and singing throughout. I very much like the way the voices and the instruments blend; there are many times when I was amazed by moments where the musical texture seemed special. Of course, this is a hard work to listen to in any kind of detached way; Bach always surprises and impresses, and then he turns around and just knocks you to the ground. This is a very fine version of one of the greatest works of art the world has known.

The deluxe version of the recording includes a fascinating DVD with all sorts of scholarly information and insights as well as a live performance of the Kyrie I. Also, the discs are enclosed in a handsome book-format case with an extended version of the printed notes. In this time of streaming audio, it’s still nice to get an optical-disc version of a recording that looks good on a bookshelf.

Here's a short trailer, in German, for the project:

An inspired pastiche

From October 3, 2015:

In one of my favourite scenes in the 1942 film Holiday Inn Bing Crosby conducts a small orchestra to accompany Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds, each in elaborate 18th century attire, as they start a dance from some imagined version of Versailles. Bing sabotages the show by having his musicians break into jazzy riffs just when the dancers are getting in to the period feel. The two styles juxtaposed are much more interesting than either on its own. The results, besides being very funny, are surprisingly musical.

Until fairly recently we were well in to a period of graceless, static, un-musical stagings of works by the great 17th and 18th century masters, as academics brought complex historically-informed performance practices to bear on the opera and ballet stage. Now, as people let their hair down a bit, we can all loosen up, let the musicians swing, and have some fun. This is obviously happening with everyone involved in this production of one of the great works of the French Baroque, Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. This remix, whose primary author is Director and Choreographer Laura Scozzi, is anything but subtle. This becomes clear in the Prologue, where nudity plays the same role it did in the 1968 musical Hair: to represent the natural world, honesty and freedom. This is great, dumb, fun. After this good-natured romp, the very attractive principals (who are luckily all excellent singers, and, mainly, fine actors) present four separate tableaux set in various parts of the world. This pastiche of 18th and 21st century world views takes on darker hues as Scozzi teases out surprisingly poignant themes related to the various plights of refugees, the natural world, women and aboriginal peoples, without doing any real damage to Rameau’s, and his librettist’s, original ideas.

Both the anarchic fun and the serious undercurrents are mirrored, and enhanced, by the superb orchestral and choral forces of Les Talens Lyriques marshalled by Christophe Rousset. The music itself brings as much joy and powerful emotions as the funny stage business and ripped-from-the-headlines drama. Bravo Maestros Rousset and Scozzi, and especially Maestro Rameau!

Here is the NSFW "teaser" for the DVD release. Beware of what the YouTube commenter (I know!) calls "shear vulgarity".

The Defence Rests

From October 3, 2015:

Though these three Haydn symphonies never had cute publisher’s nicknames to make them stand out in the crowd, they are anything but slight works, but rather are three superb examples of Haydn’s middle period. The invention of the melodies, the striking details of orchestration, the shifting moods and unexpected modulations: everything points to a composer just coming to the peak of his powers.

I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have written the above sentences before I heard this new Nicholas McGegan CD with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I’ve heard these works often in the past, in very good versions, and didn’t sit up and take notice the way I did now. There’s a sparkle and verve to the playing, but also a seriousness, a sense that this music really *matters*, that McGegan manages to communicate to his players, and to us. Haydn’s reputation has been hurt by the perception that he’s a light-weight compared with Bach, Mozart or Handel, but in my books Haydn is an equal partner in what Kenneth Clark called ‘the harmonious flow and complex symmetries” of the best 18th century music. This CD is an outstanding piece of evidence in support of this view.

Life-affirming Music

From October 3, 2015:

This is the fourth and penultimate disc in Scott Metcalfe’s critically acclaimed series Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, with his Boston-based choir Blue Heron. The New Yorker critic Alex Ross has called their singing ‘precise and fluid, immaculate and alive.’ Those qualities are enhanced by the space in which this splendid music was recorded, the Gothic-style Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill MA, and the excellent sound production and engineering that’s a key quality of this series. There’s no fall-off in musical quality as the series nears its end. Robert Jones’ Missa Spes rostra is a major work from a composer who very existence is known to us only through the Peterhouse Partbooks. Jones’ Magnificat was one of the highlights of the first disc in this series, and this Mass shares its profundity and its beauty. The music of Nicholas Ludford is so appealing; Metcalfe, in his fine liner notes, calls it ‘genial and ebullient.’ Ludford’s Ave jujus conceptio is a joyful celebration of the life and Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The movements that make up this hour’s worth of music are ardent or contemplative, but always life affirming.

Here is the Credo from "Missa Spes nostra" by Robert Jones (fl. c. 1520-35):

A Golden Disc

From October 3, 2015:

This is the first disc from a fine new choir, Cappella SF, led by Ragnar Bohlin, Director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The program chosen is, I think, the best kind for a Christmas CD: a mixture of old favourites and unfamiliar pieces or arrangements. As well, there’s a variety of musical textures, a mix of soloists and featured parts, and the important contribution of harp and organ on some of the tracks. Most importantly, the singing is of a very high standard. The title track, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, calls for “absolute vocal clarity and pinpoint accuracy of intonation,” as Lindsay Koob writes in her excellent liner notes. Bohlin and his singers deliver just that. Though I’ve always preferred the pure sound of an alto in the Britten carols, soprano soloist Alexandra Sessler is very impressive in Balulalow. Of the less familiar carols on the disc, I especially enjoyed Fredrik Sixten’s simple but profound The Song of the Star, and the very beautiful Jul, Jul, Stralande Jul, by Gustaf Nordqvist. The disc ends with Barlow Bradford’s great arrangement of my favourite, and what I think is the best, of all the secular Christmas songs, Hugh Martin’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

A fine new guitar CD from London

From October 1, 2015:

The true art of putting together a CD program is something that even some very good performers don’t always pull off. This is especially important for classical guitarists, whose selections too often lack variety of mood or rhythm. Putting a group of musical items together to build an series of emotional or technical arcs, where one piece speaks to or builds on another earlier in the program: these are things that will always enhance a well-played CG disc. The fine London-based guitarist Kazu Suwa knows that Villa’s guitar pieces are character pieces: the Preludes, the movements of the Suite Populaire Bresilienne, and even the Etudes. He’s picked three Villa-Lobos pieces with great character, and more importantly he plays each of them in a character-ful way. And he puts them in the penultimate spot, as they deserve, with just a sad, beautiful little piece by Mompou as a coda.

There are many felicities before that wistful ending. The Gran Vals of Tarrega with its famous embedded Nokia ring-tone (some day soon we’ll have to explain that bit of trivia to younger people who don’t remember flip-phones or Nokia) is a highlight. I loved the two small Milongas of Abel Fleury, and was impressed with the graceful swing Suwa brings to them. The great Choro da Saudade by Barrios Mangore is a more substantial piece, and Suwa plays it with seriousness and majesty, while he draws out the nostalgic sorrow underlying the music. Another standout is the 6th Fantasia of Fernando Sor, subtitled ‘Les Adieux’, and again Suwa has its measure.

The sound of the disc is excellent, and the production values are very high. There’s an excellent, insightful 11-page essay about the music written by Robert Matthew-Walker. This disc is highly recommended.

[cross-posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine]

A special live German Requiem

From October 1, 2015:

The RCO Live label once again delivers an outstanding Super Audio CD, this time with Mariss Jansons conducting the best of two live performances of the Brahms German Requiem in September 2012. The multi-channel audio is outstanding, recreating the life-like sound and atmosphere of an eventful evening in the great Amsterdam hall. There’s a special feeling in these performances, dedicated to the great conductor Kurt Sanderling, who had died the previous September, and whose centennial was only a few days past. Every requiem performance gains from personal remembrances of those who are gone, especially Brahms’, which is especially concerned with consolation. There is a special focus that comes with all the participants remembering a well-loved conductor who many would have worked with. Mariss Jansons provides the necessary forward movement and pulse, which keeps the music from straying into the maudlin. The chorus and soloists are exemplary, as, of course, are the players of this great orchestra.

Super Super Audio

From October 1, 2015:

I came late to multi-channel Super Audio recordings, but even with my modest audio setup, I’ve really come to appreciate the extra dimensions it brings as I listen to new CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs of classical music. The expansive, dramatic Dvorak Cello Concerto is the perfect piece to show off Super Audio, and this new Pentatone disc immerses one in a concert hall setting with a strong orchestra and a superb cellist. Johannes Moser’s playing is vivid, tender and tragic, but with strong support from conductor Jakub Hrusa, he keeps this often emotional music from veering into melodrama. The Lalo Concerto isn’t at the same high level as the Dvorak, which is very much a tough act to follow. Since the work has such a different sound world, though, it is here a real joy to listen to. The German-Canadian Moser seems to have a special feeling for French music, as he made clear with his very first recording, of Saint-Saens’ music for cello and orchestra. This is very highly recommended.

Here is a very cool video promoting the project:

A fine disc in an important series

From September 30, 2015:

This is the third of a series of six discs of less familiar Sibelius orchestral music that Naxos will be releasing in 2015, featuring the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. The first two - Kuolema & King Christian II followed by Belshazzar’s Feast - were highly praised, though some of Sibelius’s minor works included on each disc came in for some serious criticism. I’ve heard it said that Sibelius was among the most inconsistent of the great composers, and some of the less important works in this series demonstrate this. The problem isn’t that these smaller bits of music aren’t substantial, but that they’re not as well designed and polished as the best light music, by composers like Johann Strauss Jr or Eric Coates. Of course, it’s the greatness of his finest works that brings the weakness of these trifles into such sharp relief, and this disc contains a very fine work indeed.

The incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas et Melisande was written in 1904, between the time of the 2nd and 3rd symphonies, and while it serves its purpose in support of the stage play very well, it has the emotional power and dramatic scope of the symphonies. This is the complete incidental music, rather than the more often performed suite, which includes 10 pieces rather than 9. This is a really excellent performance, by Finland’s oldest orchestra, led by one of the greatest interpreters of Sibelius. I wish I could attend their Sibelius Symphony marathon in Turku in December 2015, but I’ll have to make do with this series of CDs.

A glorious mess!

From September 15, 2015:

There’s more real acting and theatrical magic in this ‘semi-staged’ version of Vivaldi’s great work than in many a traditional opera with realistic trees and togas. Conductor Federico Maria Sardelli conducts, with considerable star power, a fairly large group of fine instrumentalists (most playing period instruments) and a cadre of excellent singers who excel in the alternately dramatic and pathetic virtuoso arias of Vivaldi. As a bonus, the singers occasionally get together to sing - very creditably - as a chorus.

Certainly there’s also fashionable deconstruction and semiotics involved, but it’s all part of the fun. The costuming is clever, with breastplates worn under suits (perhaps the new trend in Florence this year?), and various armour bits signifying gender. The beauty of the music comes together with the bombast, pity and high stakes politics of three ages: the ancient world, 18th century Italy, and 21st century Europe. A glorious mess that I couldn’t recommend more highly.

Here is the trailer for the project. The YouTube comments are hilarious; world-class nitpicking combined with patient responses from the production side. What fun!

Excellent Blu ray of a classic show

From September 15, 2015:

This new Blu-ray from San Francisco Opera provides excellent sound and picture, flawless singing, and interesting staging of the ground-breaking work first produced in 1927. The production takes an honest view of early 20th century racial attitudes, neither excising nor glossing over situations that do not fit in with modern sensibilities. This demonstrates how progressive the project was considering the date; it must have caused quite a stir in its time.

A brilliant gala for a brilliant composer

From July 24, 2015:

When Gustavo Dudamel takes the microphone towards the end of this LA Philharmonic concert at the Disney Concert Hall, his tribute to John Williams as one of the top 20th century composers seemed to ring true with the audience, as I’m sure it will to many watching this Blu Ray at home. The audience is surprisingly enthusiastic, considering the many tuxedoes and designer gowns at this gala concert. Let’s just say this is more a Golden Globes crowd than an Academy Awards one.

There’s so much to be enthusiastic about. Soundings, a piece Williams wrote to focus attention on the special qualities and capabilities of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, is a serious and always interesting showpiece for orchestra. The orchestra and Dudamel are definitely up to the task. But it’s two of Williams’ strongest film scores that provide what I feel are the best works in the concert. Three Pieces from Schindler’s List is a short but intense suite for violin and orchestra. Itzhak Perlman plays the beautiful, inventive violin part in a tasteful fashion, never maudlin but with just the tiniest bit of “schmalzig”. This is the way, perhaps, that Fritz Kreisler would have played "Theme", one of the saddest and most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Incidentally, I much prefer this order of the movements, rather than the version sometimes played where “Theme” comes first. I loved the bit of stage business before this piece. Dudamel carries Perlman’s violin as he follows the violinist slowly making his way to the podium on his crutches. When he hands Perlman the violin, he gets a wink, a funny face, and his baton in return.

Escapades from Catch Me If You Can, one of Spielburg’s most under-rated films, is a hugely entertaining piece that the otherwise excellent liner notes by Jon Burlingame mis-identifies as “a miniature alto saxophone concerto.” In fact, this is a jazzy miniature concerto for three instruments which deserve equal billing. Billing, I’ve heard, is important in Hollywood! The piece is played here by three expert, charming instrumentalists. They are saxophonist Dan Higgins, vibraphonist Glenn Paulson, and bassist Michael Valerio. This is a piece that deserves to be programmed much more often, though good luck finding three musicians at this level, especially by plucking them out of the orchestra!

Spoiler alert: hijinks! Spoilers don’t usually loom large in classical music reviews, but lots of fun happens during the encores. This, and the substantial bonus interviews with Williams, Dudamel and Perlman, are enough on their own to buy this disc. The Blu Ray, with its excellent sound and beautiful HD picture, is very highly recommended.

Here is a substantial excerpt from the DVD: the Throne Room music and Finale from Star Wars:

The highlight of the Nielsen Year

From July 15, 2015:

The highlight of the Nielsen Year has been this series of orchestral works on Da Capo, with Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic. This is the fourth, and unfortunately the last, disc in the series, but the project ends as strongly as it began. The acerbic clarinet concerto is brilliantly played by Anthony McGill, while Robert Langevin provides virtuosity and passion in the flute concerto.

The most important work, though, is the violin concerto, which I consider the greatest in the 20th century. The competition on record is very strong, with Myung-Whun Chung, Michael Schonwandt and Maxim Vengerov providing persuasive versions. My favourite version on disc has always been Cho-Liang Lin’s. A live performance of his, back in the mid-1980s, was a revelation, and gave me my first understanding of Nielsen’s place among the greatest composers of the century. This recording with Nikolaj Znaider, though, surpasses them all. There is more tenderness, fire and sheer beauty in this half-hour of music than I thought possible. Thanks to Da Capo, to the New York Philharmonic, and to Maestro Gilbert for these beautiful CDs.

Here Gilbert talks about Nielsen & Znaider:

Drama in the New World

From July 15, 2015:

The Seattle Symphony’s house label is one of the best; they’re pretty much batting 1.000 with their releases since Seattle Symphony Media was launched in the spring of 2014. This welcome new disc provides more of the same: sparkling orchestral playing under the inspired direction of Music Director Ludovic Morlot, with high production values and an appealing package. I love the juxtaposition of the great modernist work Ameriques and a towering work of the previous generation, Dvorak’s powerful 9th Symphony. Both are presented as dramas of exploration and discovery of a new world, and each work illuminates the other. Bravo!

More excellent music-making from Warsaw

From June 24, 2015:

Thirty-five years separate the first work on this new Naxos disc, the Magnificat from the mid-1970s, and the 2009 Kadisz. During that time Penderecki made a major stylistic shift, from an avant-garde international style to a more emotional and personal tonal one. But both works share some typical Pendereckian traits: an intense expressionism and a focus on instrumental and vocal colour.

Antoni Wit has put together an impressive string of CDs for Naxos in the past few years, conducting the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir. Here is another. His soloists have character-filled voices, full of emotion but always musical. In the Magnificat Penderecki makes effective use of a choir of boys’ voices, and the Warsaw Boys’ Choir are excellent in this recording. Incidentally, it’s been interesting to hear how much children’s choirs can add to a work with a choral element. Just in the past month I’ve reviewed discs by Villa-Lobos and Honegger that also make good use of the special colour and extra-musical connotations of children’s voices.

We have Naxos to thank for their support for Wit the conductor, as he continues the great tradition of musical excellence in Poland. Keep ‘em coming!

A hugely impressive oratorio, and an acting tour de force

From June 24, 2015:

In the late 1930s Arthur Honegger collaborated with the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel on a sprawling oratorio about Jeanne d’Arc, part nation-building, part satirical expose of political hypocrisy, part religious mysticism. The role of Jeanne is a speaking rather than a singing role, but everything that takes place is focussed upon the character, and it provides a juicy opportunity and daunting challenge for a French actress.

Marion Cotillard delivers in spades. She provides everything one could wish for in the role. She conveys such a complex combination of innocence, pain, defiance, pride, terror, hope and love of God and country. Even when she’s not speaking her face subtly mirrors the events that swirl around her. I would have loved to have seen more of that face; a Cotillard-cam off to the side of the stage, perhaps. And she’s a virtuoso of crying; such an effective use of tears hasn’t been seen since Margaret O’Brien asked director Vincente Minelli during the filming of Meet Me In St. Louis if he wanted her tears to go all the way down her cheek, or just half-way.

There are other great performances on display in this really excellent Blu ray: all of the solo singers and actors create characters of depth and individuality, but Xavier Gallais stands out as Frere Dominique. The choral singing by both children and adults was likewise full of character, moving or hilarious as the story unfolds. Marc Soustrot and the Barcelona Symphony & Catalonia National Orchestra provide an excellent performance of Honegger’s witty, eloquent and complex score. Of special note is the large part Honegger wrote for the Ondes Martenot, which provides a quirky other-world sound throughout the piece. Everything comes together in this production, and as stunning as Cotillard is in the central role, her supporting cast is just as good.

New insights into a vital artist

From June 24, 2015:

In my favourite parts of this new Richard Strauss documentary director Eric Schulz lets his camera linger on the faces of the artists and scholars who have been interpreting the great composer’s life and music, as they watch, along with us, Strauss at the podium. This goes way beyond the ‘talking heads’ that are a cliche of cultural documentaries. We hear amazing insights from people like pianist Stefan Mickisch, musicologist Walter Werbeck, and soprano Brigitte Fassbaender. But more importantly Schulz catches their expressions as they make new connections, thinking about Strauss as a conductor, a composer and a human being.

Schulz did the same thing in his award winning 2011 documentary Carlos Kleiber: Traces to Nowhere, which is really a splendid film. In the Strauss film he introduces some very appealing young artists: actors Henning Hartmann and Sina Reiss, who read letters by Strauss and his strong-willed wife Pauline; and soprano Emma Moore and pianist Diana Al Hassani, who participate in an amazing lesson with the great singer Brigitte Fassbaender. In speeches and letters Strauss talks about German music and art and culture, and the hope that it might someday be reborn as artists come together in a vital way. Eric Schulz demonstrates in his excellent films just such a coming together of the best and most profound ideas and experiences, in a new Germany and a new Europe.

Thanks to Schulz and his diverse cast I feel that I know much more about Strauss than I did before. Schulz is building as fine a series of classical music documentaries as the amazing early 1960s films of Ken Russell. I hope they serve as a model for future work in this genre.