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.

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 bit.do/instrumental.

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.

Classic chamber works

From June 4, 2015:


Since its premiere at the Cambridge Elgar Festival in 1994 Thomas Ades’ Arcadiana has become a standard of the string quartet literature. I’ve heard and enjoyed the Endellion Quartet (who performed the premiere) on Warner Classics, and the Signum Quartet on Capriccio, and there are other performances you can listen to on YouTube. It’s such an appealing and interesting piece, and so well played by the Calder Quartet on this new Signum Records disc. Ades quotes Mozart, Schubert and Elgar in some of the characteristic pieces that make up the suite, and I swear I heard a bit of Ravel’s Introduction & Allegro in the first Venetian gondola movement. But all of this music has the distinctive sound of Ades, which I find so appealing.

This disc also includes two more recent works: the Piano Quintet from 2001, and the world premiere recording of The Four Quarters from 2011. The latter work is an extension of the sound world of Arcadiana, though it has its own programme, and is more complex rhythmically. It’s just as appealing as the earlier work, though, and should have its own popularity on the concert stage and in recordings in the coming years.

The Piano Quintet is often angular and forceful, and when things quieten down, there’s an instability to the music that’s a bit unsettling. The composer himself plays the piano part, so one feels the authenticity of the performance. Indeed, we are in good hands throughout this excellent program.

Music of simplicity and subtlety

From March 20, 2015:


In the preface to his Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman says “Nothing is better than simplicity . . . . nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness.” This might be a motto for Carl Nielsen’s Songs for Choir, which, though they are not folk songs or based on folk melodies, are meant by the composer to speak to ordinary Danes as if they were. Twenty of these songs are gathered on this new Dacapo CD, sung by Ars Nova Copenhagen and directed by Michael Bojesen. Most of the songs were originally written for a single voice with piano accompaniment; Bojesen has arranged 17 for four-part a cappella choir. The remaining three were originally written by Nielsen in four parts SATB. Ars Nova Copenhagen’s 12 voices a fine match for this music, providing colour and vivacity to Nielsen’s subtleties. Dacapo provides its usual deluxe presentation.

Two worthwhile violin concertos

From March 20, 2015:


The young Castelnuovo-Tedesco begins his Concerto Italiano for Violin and Orchestra with not one but two splendid themes, but the musical material in the first movement outstays its welcome before the end of its 15-1/2 minutes. This reminded me of Clover Adams’ witty but not at all unkind reference to Henry James, who, she said, chewed more than he had bitten off. Tightening up that first movement would bring better balance to the concerto, which continues with a slight but lovely, schmaltzy Arioso, and ends with an “impetuous” swirl. This is youthful music, fresh and frothy, and it is well presented, in a world premiere recording, by violinist Tianwa Yang, the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden ind Freiburg, and conductor Pieter-Jelle de Boer.

The second Violin Concerto, written seven years later, is more technically assured, but drier and more erudite. It has a serious program, with its subtitle ‘The Prophets’ and its use of traditional Jewish melodies. It is more reticent than the first concerto, and more thoughtful, even pensive.

Tully Potter says in his excellent liner notes “a slight aura of the cinema hangs about” the second concerto, and coincidentally I was reminded of Erich Korngold’s soundtrack-inspired Violin Concerto, written decades after these two works. Neither of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco violin concertos is at level of Korngold’s, but both deserve to be played much more often than they have in the past. They’ve been given the best possible advocacy by Tianwa Yang and everyone involved in this excellent release.

A comic masterpiece, with tragic relief

From March 19, 2015:


Watching the superb new BluRay version of this Royal Shakespeare Company production of the two parts of Henry IV, I thought of a quote by the late Terry Pratchett: “You can’t build a plot out of jokes. You need tragic relief.” Shakespeare balances the tragic and the comic, the historical and the situational, perfectly and deftly in the first part, if a tiny bit less so in the second. Comedy is the key ingredient, but strategic doses of tragic relief move the history along and make us care for the characters. Shakespeare creates a great figure in Sir John Falstaff, and presents him in the round, literally and figuratively. Antony Sher’s portrayal is outstanding: comic, and often hilarious (rather than Elizabethan clown/jester “funny”), but also sometimes cruel, and a figure in the end of deep sadness and regret.

The true measure of this production’s success, though, is in the integration of both parts of Henry IV’s story through the most amazing cast, who all work together to present Director Gregory Doran’s (and Shakespeare’s) vision. Many cast members take multiple roles, and actors portraying noblemen might show up in the next scene as carriers or soldiers. Trevor White, outstanding as Hotspur in Part I, plays the small but key role of Lord Mowbray in II. Antony Byrne impresses as the Earl of Worcester in I, and actually get three roles in II: Rumour, a Porter, and an outrageous Pistol. Nia Gwynne is touching and sad as Lady Mortimer in the first part, and plays a hilarious and sad Doll Tearsheet in the second. This is an ensemble play in the best sense.

The plays as history present the passing of the crown from Henry IV, usurper and uneasy king, to his son, the wastrel Prince Hal who becomes Henry V. Jasper Britton is an impressive King: distracted by guilt, deathly ill, and never easy in his role. His son begins as callow as can be, and only starts his journey to true Kingship by the end of the second part. Alex Hassell retains a bit of the upper-class twit through most of both plays, with glimpses of greatness on the battlefield in Part I, and with his dying father in Part II. Henry V will have his apotheosis in his own play, and I’d love to see Hassell continue this role in that play. Meanwhile, there are plenty of sparks between Hassell and White as Hal and Hotspur have their thoroughly dramatic final confrontation at the Battle of Shrewsbury at the end of Part I. The stage fighting here is absolutely amazing, turning up the tension to a fever pitch, accelerating the action to its inevitable end.

The presentation on BluRay from Live from Stratford upon Avon is really special. The camera always seems placed just where it needs to be, whether adding sweep to a battle scene, or focussing without moving on the back of Falstaff’s head as he is rejected and humiliated by his once-friend, the new King. When the King passes and Antony Sher slowly turns to the camera, tears streaming down his face, we witness a great theatrical moment. These two discs are full of those moments. Through the magic of HD video and sound we feel that we're right there in Stratford watching.

Great music in the calm centre

From March 19, 2015:


Today we expect Historically Informed Performance (HIP) from our Baroque music, and more or less get it in most new recordings. But within HIP’s broad range from the dryly academic to the eccentric, edgy experiments on the fringes there are plenty of opportunities to entertain and inform. The new CD from the reliable Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, also known as Tempesta di Mare, is on the careful side, but I admire the restraint, good taste and musicianship on display in their program of orchestral music from the French Baroque theatre.

Jean-Fery Rebel’s Les Elements begins with chaos, with music that must have seemed very radical at the time. The music has a startling beginning, with all of the notes of the d minor scale being played at once. This has been called “the first tone cluster in the history of Western art music.” But the point of playing this music today is not to rival an Imax presentation of The Perfect Storm. Rebel says he “used the most widely accepted conventions” in his portrayal of the natural progression from chaos to “the moment when, subject to invariable laws, the elements took their prescribed place in the natural order.” It’s not that the world of the late 1730s knew any less about chaos than we do today; there was if anything less order in world affairs then than now. But on the stage at the French court of Louis XV was a real balance of “the natural order”, even if chaos swirled all around. And this sense of things returning to where they belong is everywhere in Tempesta di Mare’s program, in the music of Lully and Marais as well as Rebel. Distracted as we are by the all the shiny things at the edge, it’s nice to take a break and spend some time in the calm centre.

By the way, has anyone noticed how much the beginning of Rebel’s Le Chaos sounds like the beginning of Bernard Herrmann’s score to Taxi Driver? I find the the similarity striking; perhaps this was an homage from Herrmann.

So here is the Rebel (sorry, the Tempesta di Mare version isn't on Spotify):




And here's the Hermann:




What do you think?

A welcome addition to the Hovhaness discography

From March 17, 2015:


I admit to an almost insatiable liking for Alan Hovhaness’s bells and chimes and deep brass and long-winded, big tunes played by the strings. This is great considering that he wrote more than 60 symphonies, and there are still plenty to be recorded. This is a world premiere recording of the ‘Vision of Andromeda’ symphony, no. 48, though it was written in 1982. It’s encouraging to see Gerard Schwarz as conductor, since this distinguished musician has done as much to promote Hovhaness as anyone. This is pleasing music, though, rather than profound. This is not to damn the symphony with faint praise, because I enjoyed listening to it a great deal, and more the second time than the first. To call music pleasing, especially from a period in the 20th century not especially conducive to consonance in erudite music, should never be seen as an insult.

More important, though, is the Soprano Saxophone Concerto, which presents a lyrical, tuneful solo instrument whose special timbre makes a piquant contrast to the accompanying strings. The three movements are a kind of thesis about music texture, and Hovhaness uses this relatively modest palette to good advantage in presenting a cogent, well-constructed concerto. And not a bell or chime in sight!

The Prelude and Quadruple Fugue is an unexpected novelty, outside of what one might call the Hovhaness mainstream. In this orchestral adaptation and reworking of an early string quartet, the writing is spare and the keynote is its strong forward thrust. Everything - its impressive contrapuntal writing and always interesting thematic matter - is subordinated to that movement. It rushes to its end in a very non-Eastern, non-mystic, non-Hovhaness, but very musical, way. The composer’s widow, Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness, calls it “Alan’s masterpiece”. It should be much better known; perhaps this excellent recording from North Carolina will help it take its place amongst orchestral showpieces.

Rich and satisfying music for voice and orchestra

From February 11, 2015:


The three works on this disc have rich and intricately designed orchestral scores. Though all of the pieces have been adapted from earlier versions, each phrase and the instruments chosen to play it seems perfect and inevitable. That is the genius of the extraordinary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Quatre Instants and the suite taken from the opera Emilie both have important voice parts, of course, but Saariaho’s emphasis as always is on the transformation of sounds. She represents a series of the shifting moods and psychological drama of the 18th century scientist Emilie du Chatelet in the suite from Emilie, and a similar presentation takes place in the four songs that make up Quatre Instants. Terra Memoria takes transformation of memories as its theme, and the musical material (already transformed to a string orchestra from the original string quartet version) twists and turns into a surprisingly lucid kind of chaos. Marko Letonja brings out strong performances from the Strasbourg orchestral musicians. I took special note of the unnamed harpsichordist who plays an important part in the Emilie suite, embodying Enlightenment values as Emilie grapples with the universe. Soprano Karen Vourc’h is equally strong, though she has perhaps just slightly less character as Emilie than Karita Mattila, for whom the part was written.

Fresh Christmas music from ancient sources

From February 5, 2015:


The Christmas music of today brings together so many strands of tradition, from French noels to Victorian anthems to Yogi Yorgensson, but it’s always nice to bring in new strands to tie along with our boughs of holly. This intriguing mix of music from the great singer Caitriona O’Leary and producer Joe Henry includes songs from the 17th century poems of Luke Waddinge, along with music written in County Wexford by Fr. William Devereux in spite of persecution following Oliver Cromwell’s conquest. O’Leary is herself a real archivist, and her research in matching Waddinge’s poems to likely ancient melodies results in new Christmas carols that are likely to be sung well into the future. The music is handed off to a chamber ensemble including bouzouki, bodhran (a frame drum), bones, flute and various strings, and an all-star vocal ensemble including Rosanne Cash, Rhiannon Giddens and Sir Tom Jones. The historical background in the religious wars of the 17th century provide a grim counterpoint to the songs about the cradle and the shepherds, though the theme of redemption comes through loud and clear. These fresh songs will replace some well-worn standards in my own Christmas listening in coming holiday seasons.

Music of real interest, beautifully played

February 5, 2015:


The 1st Piano Quintet of 1895 was Erno Dohnanyi’s first published piece of music. As liner-note writer Richard Whitehouse says, it’s among the more impressive op. 1s in spite of the composer’s early years. While it doesn’t stray far from its late-Romantic German models, it has a pleasingly relaxed feel to it, staying away from artificial significance and complexity. The musicians brought together for this disc, the Austrian pianist Gottlieb Wallisch and the Enso Quartet (one of my favourite string quartets since their Emmy-nominated Ginastera recording), keep things moving along briskly, making sure the teenaged composer’s climaxes aren’t too emo. I certainly enjoyed this piece more than I expected.

Though written in that portentous year of 1914, little note is made of modernist currents in the second Piano Quintet, and the context remains Vienna in the 1890s. Even so, the writing is more assured and the musical moods are quite gripping. It seems so much easier to appreciate conservative music from the early and middle parts of the 20th century from our vantage point in the 21st. From here it sounds like either good music or not, either original or not, whatever our favoured system might be. The second Piano Quintet especially is worth a listen now, though it broke no new ground in its day. Recorded in Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio way back in May 2007, the estimable Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver provide their usual first class sound. With performances as good as this, you want to hear the musicians clear and bright, and that’s what we get from this Naxos release.

An outstanding Dvorak Requiem

From February 4, 2015:


Dvorak’s Requiem is a big work full of amazing tunes, awesome effects of instrumentation, choral and solo voice writing, and emotional peaks. Written for an English audience more familiar with oratorios than opera, it doesn’t have the same dramatic logic of that other great 19th century Requiem, Verdi’s. What’s needed in a great recording of Dvorak’s work is a well-matched set of soloists with musicianship at least matching their strong voices, a very good orchestra and an outstanding choir. But above all one needs a conductor with a vision of the work as a whole, and the ability to keep the fire lit under everyone in its not infrequent valleys as well as its peaks. Antoni Wit has the experience, the background, and the intimate knowledge of his forces to do just that. This is a recording to match his best, such as his Grammy winning Penderecki disc, or (since Wit is about much more than Polish music) his amazing Mahler 8th Symphony. Back in 2011 Wit mentioned in an interview that Naxos wanted him to record all of Dvorak’s choral music. I hope that happens, and that he can continue the excellent work begun with the Requiem, with his Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir.

Superb Stravinsky, with a light touch

From February 3, 2015:


After loving the dazzling recordings that Chandos released of Prokofiev and Haydn Piano Concertos with British orchestras, I wondered what the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet would be up to next. I was so pleased to see the announcement by the same record company of this excellent program of Stravinsky works for piano and orchestra. This was clearly music to which Bavouzet was well suited, and in which he could provide his usual blend of élan, wit and solid musicianship. His light touch might temper the tendency which still exists to take the often stern Stravinsky too seriously. This time Bavouzet would be reunited with the conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, with whom he recorded a Gramophone Award winning disc of concerted works by Ravel, Debussy and Massenet in 2011. And the two were off in May 2014 to Sao Paulo to record there with Tortelier’s former orchestra.

Up until now I’ve known the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (Osesp, as it’s known in Brazil) exclusively playing music of Brazilian composers, and especially Villa-Lobos. In this repertoire they’ve recorded quite a bit, for BIS and Naxos especially, and they pretty much rule. I’ve heard about their trips to Europe, and the strong notices they’ve received for concerts and recordings in a wide range of repertoire with Yan Pascal Tortelier and their new musical director Marin Alsop. Osesp, which is now the best South American orchestra, seems to be making its way into the top tier of orchestras internationally.

The orchestral players, often equal partners in Stravinsky’s scores, excel in this music as much as the soloist. This is especially true of the wind players, and is most especially evident in the strongest work on the disc, the early 1920s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. In all four works Tortelier keeps everything in balance and in forward motion. He ensures that the broad range of varied textures, from the pianist’s immersion within the densest, loudest orchestral sounds of Petrouchka to the spare, brittle sounds of the serial Movements, always make musical sense. The Chandos engineers are, I’m sure sometimes breathlessly, swept along while providing really excellent, lifelike Super Audio CD sound.

Character, charm and deep emotion

From February 3, 2015:


The Nightingale String Quartet bring their survey of the Rued Langgaard’s string quartets to a triumphant conclusion in this third volume from Dacapo. Langgaard’s career didn’t go smoothly, as he was completely out of synch with the musical trends of the 20th century. He was born too late, certainly, though I wonder if things would have gone well for him as a musician 50 years earlier. He sounds like a prickly sort of fellow, and completely uncompromising when it came to his musical vision. His brush with modernism is barely evident in the 1st quartet of 1914. The craggy bits are, I think, more connected to his crusty personality than any avant-garde tendencies. This first attempt at a full-scale chamber music work has an angry sadness, an expression perhaps of the emotions that accompanied his unsuccessful first love affair. In a fit of self-criticism Langgaard dismantled the work, discarding the last two movements and reusing the best bits of the rest in his fourth and fifth quartets, written in the mid-1920s. Later, though, he had second thoughts and put the work back together (from memory in the case of the 3rd and 4th movements). Perhaps this is why the music sounds so self-assured.

In the fifth quartet of 1926 Langgaard really turns back the clock to a Classical-Romantic idiom. The danger here is a kind of flabby nostalgia. I’m reminded of a CBC reviewer calling an Amadeus String Quartet recording of Sir Ernest MacMillan “kitsch Mendelssohn.” In this case, though, Langgaard polished up the work during the rest of the 20s, right through until 1938, when he felt it good enough to release into a very uncongenial environment. The music comes through the neo-Romantic tunnel full of character, charm and deep emotion.

Dacapo Records is on a roll lately; I’ve loved more than a few of their recent releases, especially the Danish String Quartet’s Wood Works, the New York Philharmonic’s Nielsen series, and now the Langgaard String Quartets. This is a label to watch!

The music of all the small places

From February 3, 2015:


I first came across the Danish String Quartet last fall in a Tiny Desk Concert at the NPR Music website. They were playing some of the tunes from this excellent new Dacapo CD Wood Works. The music had a pleasing, sweet sound, and I found the four musicians unaffected and charming, completely in tune with the ancient folk music of the islands and forests of Scandinavia. This string quartet repertoire is a nice change for those of us used to Beethoven, Brahms and Zemlinsky. It will appeal as well, I think, to fans of various flavours of roots revival. This deceptively simple music can pack an emotional punch. There is often a deep sadness built in; even the celebratory Sonderho Bridal Trilogy sounds wistful and longing, and some of the fast songs with fiddles have a manic edge. Folk music, says the excellent liner notes, is the music of all the small places. This CD is an earnest, joyous and honest expression of the genius of those small places and their people.

Here, from the Festival Wissembourg, September 6th 2014, is the group playing music from the CD: