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.