Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Special mentions for 2016

I've just posted my Top Ten Discs of 2016, but I wanted to mention a few additional discs that didn't fit for one reason or another.

Into your life it will creep


I don't review too many jazz albums here, but Darcy James Argue's new disc with his Secret Society certainly impressed me. Real Enemies just received a well-deserved Grammy Nomination.


Give 'em the spirit


I'm beginning to pay more attention to historical re-issues. This release from Somm is an outstanding investigation of the music and technology of Edward Elgar, a recording pioneer.




Two discs of sublime music from Charles Munch and his great Boston players, sounding pretty good considering the age and provenance of some of theses recordings. Kudos to Urania for this release.




This 1981 Mozart concert from the Amerikahaus in Munich contains piano playing of the highest order from the legendary Friedrich Gulda. Here's a perfect coda to a pretty good year in recorded music.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top Ten discs for 2016

Here are my Top Ten discs for 2016, of the 175 or so I reviewed during the year.


And here is the list for 2015.


Illuminating Haydn


The third disc in Giovanni Antonini's Haydn 2032 project with Il Giardino Armonico on Alpha Classics has the intriguing theme "Solo e Pensoso", which casts a new light on a composer we often think of more attracted to the social whirl than brooding, deep in thought. The long journey to the Haydn Tricentennial is on the right track.


Strong performances of sometimes great music


The three young musicians of the Neave Trio make a strong case for two works by teenage composers (Korngold and Bernstein), as well as a third, mature, work by Foote. Though only two of these - the Korngold and Foote - are true masterpieces, all of this music keeps our interest, thanks to the fine playing and the fine sound and presentation by Chandos. Watch these three!


Geniality and wit; virtuosity and passion


Sir Andras Schiff plays and conducts masterworks of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart in this outstanding Blu-ray from C-major, filmed at the Great Hall of the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in January of 2015. His boundless charm is the keynote of the whole project.


A personal and progressive sound


A second set of the complete Grazyna Bacewicz String Quartets in four years is surely a sign that the Polish composer is finally coming into her own. The Silesian Quartet play with confidence and verve; this is another fabulous release from Chandos.




The title of my review of Cristina Spinei's fine new disc from Toccata Classics is pretty obscure. It's from Anthony Powell's discussion of the painting by Poussin whose title - A Dance to the Music of Time - Powell used for his cycle of novels. The patterns that emerge from Spinei's music are always moving, and always fascinating.




The Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra under György Vashegyi perform four Grands Motets by the great French composer Jean-Joseph de Mondonville, three of which seem to be recording premieres. This Glossa disc includes possibly the most ravishingly beautiful music I've heard all year.




Put Ingela Brimberg on an empty stage with a black fright wig and an axe, and she would provide a good percentage of the sheer horror we get from this performance. She's that good. But add the outrageously over-the-top staging of Carlus Padrissa and the urban theatre group La Fura Dels Baus and you have something really memorable. Conductor Rumon Gamba keeps all of this lunacy (including that of von Hofmannsthal and Strauss) within proper bounds. This Norrlandsoperan Blu-ray from Unitel Classica is a triumph.




This Grand Piano disc is the first in a projected complete recording of the Cartas Celestes, the avant garde masterpiece by Almeida Prado, pupil of Messiaen, Boulanger, Foss and Ligeti. One is dazzled by how the composer lines up all of his stars, as well as the playing of the young Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel.




The Chapelle Royale in Versailles is a splendid venue for the sublime music of Claudio Monteverdi. This is an awesome performance by The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, under the direction of a special musician, scholar and human being, Sir John Eliot Gardiner.




Harry Christophers and The Sixteen explore three themes in this special disc: tradition, faith under fire, and craftsmanship. Though there is incredible musical ingenuity and serious scholarship taking place here, in the end it's the beauty of the music that counts. In the words of Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface.”


So there's my list. A good year for classical music recordings, I think, though a disastrous year for the musicians themselves. We've lost so many already, and I hope that particular list is complete with two weeks to go in 2016. I've only recently been paying attention to Historical Re-Issues, so I'll be posting some of my favourites from that genre in my next post. Also, I've reviewed a number of jazz discs, and I'll highlight my favourites as well.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A fine violin sonata recital from Vancouver Island


This very fine violin and piano recital disc from Affetto features violinist Elmira Darvarova, who I know from her excellent Vernon Duke Violin Concerto disc from 2014, and pianist Shoko Inoue, who makes her home in my neck of the wooks: Oak Bay, British Columbia. Their Spring Sonata by Beethoven is very good: Inoue provides a solid basis for Darvarova to launch Beethoven's flights of fancy, but with enough rhythmic flexibility to keep things interesting. The violin tone is full but not placed too forward to ruin the special balance between instruments that Beethoven worked so hard to present. Their Franck Violin Sonata, one of the great works of the genre, is presented very much as a classical work, and I feel the loss of some of the passion Franck put into this music. I appreciate the desire to keep things from boiling over, but perhaps the heat isn't turned up quite high enough here. I have no qualms at all, though, with this version of Clara Schumann's 3 Romances, op. 22. This is Romantic music full of powerful emotions, tinged with sadness but bounded by Schumann's determination to live her very difficult life with dignity and good humour. Darvarova and Inoue's presentation of their well-chosen programme is warm and elegant and the Victoria-based studio recording is lifelike if a bit distant. This is from 2013, and the disc appeared since then at CDBaby, but it will be re-released on January 17, 2017. Watch for it!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Warm music from the Cold War


The latest edition in Audite's excellent series of The RIAS Amadeus Quartet Recordings is volume V, entitled Romanticism.  It's a six-CD set containing music by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Verdi, Bruckner, Dvorak and Grieg. About a third of the works have never appeared on CD by this distinguished group, so it's a welcome release indeed.

RIAS stands for Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor (Broadcasting in the American Sector), a radio (and later TV) station set up in 1946, which broadcast from West Berlin throughout the Cold War. I listened to RIAS on shortwave (on the 49 Meter Band) back in the late 1960s and early 70s, though probably not to The Amadeus Quartet. I remember receiving a QSL card like this one, which shows the former IG Farben branch office on Kufsteiner Straße, RIAS broadcasting centre from 1948, and now headquarters of Deutschlandradio Kultur.  Our recordings were made in this building.


The Quartet itself is from this period; the group was created in 1947 and played with its original founding members until 1987, when the Berlin Wall was still up. And child of that period that I am, "Amadeus" sounds like "String Quartet" to my brain. I wore out the Deutsche Grammophon LPs of the Beethoven Quartets, and later their Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. So this music seems natural and authentic to me; I love their close ensemble and polished sound. To me this sophisticated approach is intuitively the proper style for chamber music of the 19th century, though I've also come to appreciate other more individual, less genteel ways of playing.

These recordings come from the 1950s and 60s. They represent the useful compromise of the broadcast studio rather than the recording studio, with a controlled acoustic environment, a comfortable and increasingly familiar space for musicians and technicians, but with less focus on technical perfection and more of the excitement of a live performance. And speaking of familiarity, the guest artists who appear here, violist Cecil Aronowitz, pianist Conrad Hansen, and clarinettist Heinrich Geuser, are all well used to playing with the Amadeus Quartet. They all shine here as brightly as these four great string players: violinists Norbert Brainin and Siegfmund Nissel, violist Peter Schidlof and cellist Martin Lovett.


Plugged in to the spirit of the composers


The new concerto disc from cellist Clemens Hagen features the very fine 1B1 ensemble, made up of the best instrumentalists from University of Stavanger and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, led by violinist Jan Bjøranger. Haydn's 1st Cello Concerto is from Haydn's early 30s (the early 1760s), when he wrote the superb Symphonies 6, 7 and 8. Hagen and 1B1 are completely in tune with each other. These fine musicians communicate both the high spirits and the more thoughtful moments of a young composer discovering and presenting his own genius.


In the profound Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart Jan Bjøranger takes a solo role as well as continuing to lead the orchestra, and his playing is exceptional. Violist Lars Anders Tomter, who shone in the 2013 DaCapo recording of Vagn Holmboe's Viola Concerto, is up to his high standard. This is a performance that doesn't suffer by comparison with any of the classic recordings of the past. All in all, this Simax release is a real winner.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A welcome release of Milhaud's chamber music


This new disc of Milhaud's Violin and Viola Sonatas from Brilliant Classics is very much welcome. Until I went out to research the competition I didn't realize how relatively thin the Milhaud discography is. Mauro Tortorelli, who plays both violin and viola, and pianist Angela Meluso style themselves the Gran Duo Italiano, but what I like about their playing is that it's anything but Grand. Rather, the musicians are aware that irony is always just around the corner when it comes to Milhaud, and the wink and sardonic smile is there along with whatever mock pomposity he comes up with. The 2nd Violin Sonata of 1917, written during Milhaud's time in Brazil when he acted as secretary to the French Consul Paul Claudel, is an intriguing mixture of the modernism of Paris, the Jewish melodies of his childhood and the exciting rhythms of South America. This is a work that I'm sure interested Villa-Lobos greatly.


The viola sonatas come later, from the time of Milhaud's exile in America following the German invasion of France. There's a nostalgic feeling in this music that's suited to the sound of the viola; Milhaud evokes a France of the past through dance rhythms of the Baroque period, and more folk-tunes of his younger days. This whole project, including the fine choice of cover artwork (a landscape of Aix en Provence by Cezanne, is so very appealing.

Pleasant Mozart from Bologna


The new Ensemble Respighi two-disc set of Mozart Violin Concertos from Concerto Classics, with violinist Domenico Nordico, provides new look at these five popular concertos in bright, fresh live recordings. This isn't profound music, but I think it was an opportunity for the composer, then in his late teens, to make a leap forward. Mozart was working on his operas La finta giardiniera in 1774 and Il re pastore in 1775, but the inherently dramatic concerto form in these works helped him work through certain structures and scenarios that would serve him in good stead in the next decades. Just how far he was to go is evident in the bonus work in this album: the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola of 1779, which is miles above the solo concertos, and written just ahead of his ground-breaking opera Idomeneo.

These are pleasant but hardly world-class performances, as became clear when I recently listened to the 3rd and 5th Violin Concertos with Henryk Szeryng and the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson. I was so impressed with the great violinist's tone, as well as the electric charge of the orchestral playing. The gap becomes even wider when comparing the new recording with great versions of the Sinfonia Concertante (my favourite is the team of friends: Perlman, Zukerman and Mehta on DGG). These are good enough performances to give an appreciation to the first approximation of Mozart's joyful middle period and his incipient genius, but only that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A charming Baroque compilation from Sweden


The new Telemann Corelli Bach album by the new Swedish group Höör Barock is full of special touches, with a background of stylish, historically-informed performance. Corelli's Christmas Concerto op. 6 no. 8, for example, includes two solo recorder parts, played here by Emilie Roos and group leader Dan Laurin. Along with oboes and bassoon in the tutti, and the special appearance of a baroque harp in the final movement, this charmingly rustic pastoral scene is a nice change from the strings-only version we hear many times every Holiday Season. There's a similar familiar/unfamiliar situation with Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in F major, the composer's own arrangement of his Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. This is run through in brisk fashion, with splendid playing by Anna Paradiso at the keyboard. The harpsichord sound works well in this odd mixture of solo and continuo instrument; the BIS engineers have struck the right balance, I think, between blending in and sticking out. Of the rest of the music, the stand-out work is Telemann's splendid Ouverture-Suite ‘Hamburger Ebb und Fluth’, with its energetic and graceful dances. This new recording tends to be rather light and frothy, with its considerable charm more on the surface. I still prefer the classic, more dignified version by Musica Antiqua Köln under Reinhard Goebel. But I'm glad to have heard this excellent compilation from one of Sweden's greatest exports: BIS.  The record drops January 6, 2017.

Brooding, bubbly chamber music from Naples


The chamber music of the late romantic Italian composer Giuseppe Martucci is new to me, and it was a pleasant surprise. It has an appealing sound that's a mixture of brooding Wagner and bubbly Verdi. This is open and honest music, music that wears its heart on its sleeve. The early string quartet works on the second disc of this Brilliant Classics release (due December 9, 2016) are light salon pieces without too much serious content, and are played here by the Quartetto Noferini with perhaps not quite as light a touch as they require. I loved the Handel pieces that end the album, transcribed with love and wit by Martucci.

The Piano Quintet, and especially the two Piano Trios, though, are at the same time more passionate and more erudite. As with many romantic pieces, Brahms and Schumann especially, the cello carries much of the emotional argument, with the virtuosic piano part, reflecting Martucci's own significant performance skills, often providing commentary. Pianist Maria Semeraro's keyboard skills are up to the task, but the bass-heavy recording doesn't perhaps give us the best sound picture of the full ensemble, especially in the Quintet. The Scherzo movements of both Piano Trios are standouts, with echoes, I learned from cellist Andrea Noferini's liner essay, of south Italian bagpipe music. Recommended!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Delightful neo-classical music from Italy


In Italy in the first half of the 20th century it would have been a natural impulse to think back to calmer and more civilized times. For the orchestral composer Italy's glories were some centuries in the past, during the hey-day of Corelli, Vivaldi and Locatelli. Thus three of our composers, Alfredo Casella, Giorgio Federico Ghedini and Gian Francesco Malipiero, shared a common neo-classical or neo-Baroque style with occasional forays into more modern passages, staying away, though from full-blown modernism. The tone is serene and humane, with much use of Baroque dance forms and rhythms, and the orchestration is open and light. Casella's Divertimento for Fulvia is an orchestral adaptation of his own Eleven Children's Pieces for piano, written as a ballet in 1940 and dedicated to his daughter. In this way it's rather similar to Villa-Lobos's Momoprecoce of 1921, an orchestration of his Carnaval das Criancas for piano, but it most closely resembles Stravinsky's 1919 pastiche of Italian Baroque music, Pulcinella. This is not to mention the closer-to-home example of Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances. Whatever the influences, this is very appealing music. Ghedini's Concerto grosso from 1927 has a similar kind of wit and simple, down-to-earth delight in melody, tempered though by slight Teutonic influences, of Beethoven and Richard Strauss especially. Malipiero's slight Imaginary Orient is atmospheric, with occasional chromatic passages denoting the Mysteries of the East, but it remains as rooted in nostalgia as Casella and Ghedini's works.

With the much younger composer Franco Donatoni's Music for Chamber Orchestra we enter a different sound world. This is delightful and appealing twelve-tone music, written after a stint at the 1954 Summer School for New Music at Darmstadt. Delightful and appealing twelve-tone music? It's true! Donatoni can thus be placed with his contemporaries Nono, Maderna and Berio, but also with the older composers on this disc, who share a common facility and Italian verve. Of the four works on the disc, all but the Casella are recording premieres, and all four are well played by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Damian Iorio. This disc will be released on January 13, 2017.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Personal and theatrical trump liturgical


I've been living with the perfect Bach sound of Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan for many years, during their supreme BIS series of Bach recordings, most especially the cantatas. Then it was time to switch to Mozart, with last year's excellent Requiem, and now this special recording of the Great Mass in C Minor, due to be released on December 9, 2016. As to the switch, there are no concerns from me; this is Mozart singing and playing of perfect taste and impeccable style. Indeed, Masaaki Suzuki has recently shown how adaptable and nimble he can be, with this spring's release of an excellent Stravinsky disc with the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

I always listen to Mozart of any genre through the lens of opera, and I like what I hear in the drama, and indeed the theatricality, of many passages in this performance. At this stage in his career, Mozart had recently completed Idomeneo, and was working on Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In other words, he was working through a process where the more formal opera seria was becoming more grounded in reality at the same time as flights of fancy were allowed to blossom in opera buffa. This loss of formal frameworks pays out as well in the fragmentary nature of the Mass, which is missing segments of key liturgical importance. This recording uses Franz Beyer's 1989 completion, based on Mozart's sketches for some of the missing music. It all sounds very much like Mozart, and, more to the point, very personal Mozart, considering the rationale for its first performance. This was a celebration of his recent marriage to Constanza, and it was Constanza who sang the very important soprano role in the first performance. Among the excellent group of solo voices here the soprano Carolyn Sampson stands out, as she did in the Requiem, and as needs she must in the Mass. Maestro Suzuki makes a very convincing case for theatrical and personal impulses trumping conventions of purely liturgical importance.

BIS fills up the disc with an equally convincing performance of the early work Exsultate, Jubilate, which is full of surface brilliance and sparkle. The entire package is very highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A winning formula for Christmas


The new Novum Christmas CD Nowell Sing We! from Robert Quinney and his Choir of New College Oxford is in the classic English choral tradition, long-established but not conventional, with the highest standards of singing, lovely solo voices, full acoustics, and arrangements that provide both the comfort of the familiar, and the excitement of the novel (to North American ears at least). Quinney has chosen Advent and Christmas songs that range from the simple and folk-like (Charles Ives' A Christmas carol) to the more sophisticated (Richard Rodney Bennett's intense setting of In the Bleak Midwinter), with some requisite standards (Quinney's fine arrangement of  O come, O come Emmanuel, and Vaughan Williams' O Little Town of Bethlehem). A winning formula!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A classic presentation of the riches of Bach's sons


This reissue of the Bach Sons album originally released in 1989 is welcome; it's been a favourite of mine over the years. Concerto Köln had only been in existence a few years at that point, and both the repertoire and the style in which it was played was not as mainstream as it has since become. The album represented considerable work in the area of music historical scholarship. Scores came from obscure sources around the world, including, in the case of the D minor Sinfonia of J.C.F. Bach, in the Moravian Church archives in Bethlehem PA. What impresses one the most about this collection is the amazing range of styles included, from the light, galante Sinfonia of "the English Bach", Johann Christian, to the more erudite works of CPE and Wilhelm Friedemann, to the full-on Sturm und Drang power of my favourite Bach son, Johann Christoph Friedrich or JCF. This Andante Amoroso middle movement of his D minor Symphony has an almost Mozartian sound:

Monday, November 7, 2016

Inspired music making


http://amzn.to/2eNh88z

This delightful 5-CD album from LSO Live includes the Symphonies and various other orchestral works by Sibelius, conducted by Colin Davis. That's five and a half hours of amazing music, with assured and often transcendent playing and singing by these marvellous musicians. These stories that Davis tells, the tone poems with their programmes and the symphonies with their dramatic arcs and awesome vistas, are made more cogent by the live recording and the great conductor's steady hand. I've been living with this music for a couple of weeks, and pretty much every musical decision seems bang on. I've listened to all 30 tracks straight through a couple of times, and started a few more times but had to stop for various reasons, that is, life. Of course, none of this was deep listening in front of a score, and these are really more impressions than deeply considered critical opinion. But the cumulation of all this listening makes me feel confident of my feelings. Every time the last movement of the First Symphony comes around I listen for the ultra-Romantic passages (beginning around 9:00), which sound like slightly-overripe Tchaikovsky, and the theatrical conclusion. This is inspired music making!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Wonder and mystery from The Sixteen


The Sixteen's Song of the Nativity is an outstanding Christmas disc of the more contemplative kind. There are celebratory pieces here, but the nativity is a low-key, hushed affair.
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Putting across this combination of wonder and mystery requires great control and finesse, which Harry Christophers and his wonderful singers The Sixteen provide at the highest level, for example in this beautiful version by Morten Lauridsen which leads off the album.



The control and purity of the voices is really outstanding. Christophers and his choir sustain the long lines of Peter Warlock's great Bethlehem Down in spite of an audaciously slow speed. I wasn't convinced at first, but the beautiful sound they make almost convinces me the choice of tempo wasn't a mistake. The program doesn't provide much variety of mood or styles, but rather it provides a respite from Holiday hustle and bustle, and perhaps a chance to meditate upon more serious matters than shopping or parties. There are occasional breaks into less sophisticated and subtle music, including a number of rustic "traditional" songs where the singers sometimes indulge in a bit of Celtic celebration, but nothing too raucous! The album comes to a triumphant close with James Macmillan's O Radiant Dawn from his Strathclyde Motets, which is about light shining on "the darkness of those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death."

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A pleasant find from the Wallerstein court


Three things occurred to me as I listened to the first movement of this surprising new disc of piano concertos by the non-household name composer Ignaz von Beecke. First, the piano concerto is such an appealing format, with its Enlightenment-era conversational style and its Romantic-era dramatic thrust, and the potential for erudite cleverness, theatrical episodes and deeply felt emotions. Second, there are still musical gems hidden in libraries that can amaze us in performance and on disc. And third, we are so lucky to have the music of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart during this period, who both elevate the standard, stereotypical forms of the day to the highest level of art.

These two concertos are definitely not at that level, but they are both very pleasant, original in a naive way, though perhaps a little vague and a little long. The D major concerto was written in 1780 (a year or two before Mozart's K. 413-415 set), while the F major one comes from 1785 (the year of the great d minor concerto K. 466). Apparently Beecke was a big fan of Haydn's, but I hear more Mozart here, and perhaps C.P.E. Bach, whose Keyboard Concertos I would place in third place from this period. This music is beautifully and stylishly presented, with beautiful piano technique by Nataša Veljkovic, and robust accompaniment by the Bayerisches Kammerorchester Bad Brückenau under Johannes Moesus. The focus is definitely more on the Romantic side, which might be less than strictly correct music-historically, but which serves this music well. Too precious an interpretation with an underpowered fortepiano would drain much of the charm from  these works. This music is supported by outstanding documentation, which is welcome because there's not a lot of information about this guy out there.

Every time a disc like this shows up I'm optimistic, but usually those hopes are dashed. Looking to find an obscure masterpiece uncovered is a bit like betting on a complete long-shot. This is a substantial payoff, but not to win or place, only to show.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Fine Christmas music from Montreal


The Montreal-based Arion Orchestre Baroque, led by Alexander Weimann provides an authentic 18th century German Christmas celebration in this excellent new disc from ATMA Classique (due November 4, 2016). With a relatively small (26 player) orchestra and five vocal soloists doubling as the choir, you'd expect a small-scale, intimate performance, but there's also plenty of pomp and exultation to go with the quiet, personal story of a young girl and an angel. Here's the scene at the spectacular Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal at Arion's December 5, 2015 concert (from the album booklet; photograph by Jean Guimond). The album was recorded a few days later at  Église Saint-Augustin, Mirabel.


There are two other things special about this recording. The first is the inclusion of the four laudes, Christmas hymns interpolated into an earlier version of the Magnificat that are rarely included in performance or recordings. The second is the marvellous Christmas Day Cantata by Johann Kuhlau, which is really quite beautiful, and which deserves much more attention in people's Christmas playlists. This disc will certainly feature in mine!

Worth the wait


The Washington DC-based Opera Lafayette hits a home run* with this marvellous world première disc from Naxos  (released November 11, 2016) of this opéra bouffon by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry. Written in the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's opéra comique Le devin du village of 1852, L’épreuve villageoise (1784) is a step above that seminal work both musically and dramatically. This little (54 minute) two-act work is the 18th century equivalent of the best TV sitcoms: tightly constructed with clear emotional arcs and lots of laughs.

Opera Lafayette's production is superb. The original instrument orchestra plays stylishly, with just the right touches of rusticity and grace, under the direction of Ryan Brown. The smaller parts are very well sung, but the star of the show is the Belgian soprano Sophie Tucker. Listen to her rendition of "Denise's Air":



It's hard to believe that such a melodic, happy, short work that was very popular on both sides of the Atlantic in its day should have to wait more than 200 years to be heard. It was worth the wait.*

* Go Cubs!
** Go Cubs! It'll be worth the wait :)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Brass for the holidays


Brass music is an important part of the Christmas season, so it's nice to see this Naxos album (due November 11, 2016) from the London-based Septura brass septet (4 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, bass trombone). Indeed, this is one of the best Christmas albums I've heard in years, with amazing arrangements and outstanding musicianship. Sure there are lots of old favourites, but they end up sounding new. Matthew Knight's arrangement of Harold Darke's great In the Bleak Midwinter, for example, is really special, as is his version of my favourite carol, Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down. Less familiar pieces include the celebratory Canite Tuba of Palestrina, a couple of sombre pieces from Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigils, and a lovely arrangement by Simon Cox of Tchaikovsky's Crown of Roses. A very strong recommendation: wrap it up and put it under the tree.*

* but then open it right away and play it.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Strong performances of sometimes great music


Little Erich Wolfgang Korngold must have been excited when his first work was published by the distinguished firm Universal Editions of Vienna. Though his father was an important critic, the thirteen year old composer reached this Opus 1 milestone on his own merits, for this is an astonishingly accomplished work for one so young. Korngold's music came with raves from important people like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, but the quality of the music is really self-evident. The piece is a perfect picture of one facet of Viennese music in 1910: it's full of sentiment and emotion, of gaiety and seriousness all mixed together in a delicious pastry. It steers clear of the modernism that Korngold's conservative father railed against, but there's enough harmonic and rhythmic sophistication to keep things interesting. The adolescent boy was even then building solid musical arcs, never dawdling or over-indulging when he comes across a good, big tune. These were all good traits for his future career in Hollywood. The young musicians of the Neave Trio put across this music in just the right way, with enough warmth but not too much schmaltz.

Leonard Bernstein was also a teenager when he wrote his Trio in 1937, though he was a good six years older than Korngold. This piece is nowhere near as proficient as Korngold's, with its academic roots evident, and its European modernist influences unevenly integrated. But there is considerable interest in thinking about where Bernstein will take certain aspects of this music later in his career. The jazzy second movement has its moments, and the marvellously atmospheric but simple opening of the final movement, which doesn't really move on to anything in this work, nevertheless points ahead to the great music to come. The performers keep things light and keep things moving, and provide as strong a case for this Trio as its slight frame can bear.

Arthur Foote's 2nd Trio is a mature work, and the Neave Trio have quite rightly placed it last on the program, since it has real weight and serious purpose. I think I prefer the new version by just a hair to the very good Arden Trio disc on Naxos, which is a bit breathless at times.  The depth of feeling in the gorgeous slow movement is a tribute to the abilities of these fine musicians, as well as Foote's as a composer. Watch this outstanding music making:



I have a bit of a problem with the title of the disc: American Moments. The Korngold is as Viennese as Schlosserbuben; America was decades in the future, and the young Erich Wolfgang was blissfully unaware of the horrors that would take him there. The Bernstein is trans-Atlantic at best, with as much Stravinsky as jazz, though his authentic American voice would come soon under the tutelage of Aaron Copland. And Foote's music lives cheek-by-jowl with Faure, Franck and Brahms, though underneath he's a real Yankee Transcendentalist. But this is a small matter, considering the excellent presentation of two special works, and one less special but still of real interest. The Chandos disc drops November 18, 2016.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Old favourites at Christmas


If there's one classical CD I've listened to more than any other in the past decade, it's this one with Les Violons du Roy under their founder, Bernard Labadie. Or rather, it's the original of this new reissue by ATMA Classique, first released by Dorian Sono Luminus in 1993. The reissue is due out on November 4, 2016. In some ways it's easier to review a brand new disc I've never heard before than a cherished one that has its MP3 files worn down by constant listening. It's hard to be objective about something I know so well. Perhaps a new version, even by the same group, might be more stylish. After all, the art and science of Historically Information Performance moves ahead every year. But surely there's something to be said, especially at Christmas time, for dearly loved tradition. This is simply the best selection of Baroque pastoral music, which goes best with snow falling on Christmas Eve.

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A brightly-lit classic with a refined aesthetic

Okay, here we go. The Christmas albums for review are starting to (virtually) pile up, and you all probably want some guidance about what to buy for Aunt Emma this year. Lots of great music this year! So pour the eggnog and rum and we'll get started. Pop by every so often during the next month to see what's on offer.


Let's start big and brash, shall we? Sir Andrew Davis has prepared a new, updated concert edition of Handel's Messiah. This version, to be released November 4, 2016, is on the Out There side of a line that goes from Absolutely HIP through Mozart's trombones-and-clarinets version to Eugene Goossen's notorious adaptation recorded in 1959 by Sir Thomas Beecham. Now I live mostly in the HIP world; there's nothing I like more than a gut string being played by a baroque bow without the slightest bit of vibrato. But I also love honest, expressive music, with full-throated, subtle singing and passionate, disciplined playing by world class musicians. There's plenty of that here, with the superlative Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Symphony Orchestra and four excellent vocal soloists. Davis brings his significant conducting expertise to bear synchronizing these  large forces in the reverberant Roy Thompson Hall, while the engineers give the usual Chandos sheen to the sound, which naturally favours the voices.

The whole production was recorded at a couple of live concerts from December 2015, where it seems everyone was having fun. The marketing team at the TSO called it a "Technicolour" Messiah. If the original Messiah is a black and white classic masterpiece, the new edition is bright and sumptuous, but not a garish widescreen blockbuster from the 50s. It has a more refined aesthetic than that, more like a Powell and Pressburger classic. We notice the clever orchestral chiaroscuro and introduction of novelties like the marimba and sleigh bells because we know this music so well, but it's not only the new colours we notice, but the amazing musical ideas and structures underneath. Those are all Handel, lit up by Sir Andrew.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A special Ring Cycle continues


Following a well-received Das Rheingold release last year, we now have the second release in the live concert recordings of the Ring Cycle from Hong Kong, with Jaap van Zweden. The new Die Walkure, to be released November 11, 2016, features some really special singers and outstanding playing by the Hong Kong Philharmonic. This is a concert presentation of the opera, with only gestures and facial expressions available to the singers in the way of acting, so the focus is definitely on the music. Nevertheless the expressive abilities of Michelle DeYoung as Fricka, Heidi Melton as Sieglinde, Petra Lang as Brunnhilde, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund and Matthias Goerne as Wotan come through. With one's headphones on and eyes closed, this is much more than a string of concert arias, but a compelling dramatic experience. Much of the credit for that goes, of course, to van Zweden, whose grasp of the theatrical and musical arcs of this great work is confident and sure.

For me the most affecting relationship in all of Wagner is between Wotan and his disobedient daughter Brunnhilde. Matthias Goerne sang a stand-out Wotan in Das Rheingold, and he's even better here. He's matched with Petra Lang, whose first recorded Brunnhilde was in the Pentatone recording of Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, from 2012. Lang had carefully managed her voice during her career, making the transition from mezzo to soprano while turning down big roles that might damage her voice. When she was ready for the role, this recording revealed a star. I've just finished listening to Act III, and was so impressed with her performance. Here's a chunk of a great review of the Pentatone recording by Jim Pritchard, from 2013:
This CD is an important document as it reproduced Petra Lang’s memorable first complete Brünnhilde, a role she is currently singing on stage for the first time in Geneva. The soprano - as we should perhaps start calling her rather than mezzo - has previously sung Valkyries, Fricka and Sieglinde in this opera. Here she adds the Die Walküre Brünnhilde to her repertoire - with the others in the Ring to follow in coming years. Lang’s voice is distinctive and virtually unique in the current generation for the extraordinary vocal range that she can offer to the great soprano and mezzo-soprano roles in Wagner operas. Here she goes from the vibrancy of her top notes and the Act II ‘Hojotohos’ that might possibly have been equalled but rarely bettered on CD, to the contralto-like intonations of the 'annunciation of death' scene that hold no fears for her. She undertakes this great journey employing all the tricks of her consummate vocal technique almost with ease. In Berlin it was only the first time Lang had sung this role in its entirety and she was already a very good Brünnhilde. It could only get even better … and it has. In her recent Geneva performance in this opera she was an even more credible pouty teenager who matured into a woman totally in control of her fate at the end. 
As Pritchard says, "it could only get even better", and once again it has. Lang and Goerne are heart-breaking as a daughter and father locked in a struggle both must lose. Unfortunately, there are no scenes with Brunnhilde and Wotan together among the video clips Naxos has posted on YouTube, but here is the most sorrowful and beautiful "Der Augen leuchtendes Paar" ("Those bright shining eyes") in which the grieving father says farewell to his favourite daughter.



So now we wait for Siegfried, which I expect will come along at some point in 2017. I look forward to that, and of course to a Gotterdammerung which will end van Zweden's pre-New York Philharmonic period. In the meantime, I know what you all really want is to watch this:

Friday, October 21, 2016

Quartets from an important Canadian modernist


2016 is the centennial year for a number of composers, notably Alberto Ginastera and Milton Babbitt. I hadn't heard anything about celebrations for Jean Papineau-Couture, who was born in Montreal on November 12, 1916, until this new ATMA Classique disc came along. It's an important release from 
the Quatuor Molinari, who I know from their excellent Kurtag, Gubaidulina and Schnittke albums for ATMA.

Papineau-Couture studied with Quincy Porter at the New England Conservatory, and then with (you guessed it!) Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Boulanger connected him with Stravinsky, and the two got along well. There's a 1944-45 photo in the liner notes of Papineau-Couture and his wife with the Stravinskys and Boulanger at Feather Hill Ranch, Montecito, California. You can hear Stravinsky's influence and the sound of modernist Paris in P-C's 1st Quartet from 1953. By the time of his second quartet in 1967 he's still resisting the siren sound of 12-tone music, but he's definitely moving in that direction. Incidentally, the piece was written in celebration of Canada's Centennial and Boulanger's 80th birthday. The most advanced work in that regard is the string trio Slanò from 1973, which has a complex, experimental sound. Both the 3rd quartet from 1996 and the 4th quartet, unfinished at his death in 2000, have a spare sound, and hearken back to early music. This is a valuable release (coming November 4, 2016). For more information on this appealing composer, visit the Papineau-Couture page at the indispensable Canadian Music Centre website.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Music from an important 20th century composer


Those of you who aren't familiar with the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer should check out this Centrediscs two-CD compilation of his music for harp, played by another Canadian great, harpist Judy Loman. The album is due for release on November 11, 2016. It includes a pretty good cross-section of Schafer's works in various genres, performed by (you guessed it) some of Canada's greatest performers, including the Orford String Quartet and the TSO.

Though Schafer made his reputation as an experimental composer - he pioneered concepts such as graphic notation and the soundscape and other electroacoustic ideas - much of the music on this disc is rather pleasant to listen to. While the music is always progressive and sometimes sharp-edged, the harp seems to lend itself to more euphonious sounds, even matched with percussion and the often percussive use of other instruments. Patria 5: The Crown of Ariadne, written for harp and an interesting battery of percussion instruments, is part of a fascinating musical theatre project Schafer has been working on for more than 40 years (!). The always interesting ins and outs of this piece make me anxious to learn more.

Patria makes reference to one of Schafer's life-long obsessions: the story of the Cretan Labyrinth, Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur. One of the most interesting pieces on this album is Theseus for harp and string quartet, a substantial work that Loman commissioned in 1983. Here it is, played by Loman and the Orford String Quartet from the original 1997 Centrediscs album Chimera.



One of the best things about the Ginastera centennial in 2016 has been the chance to hear his great Harp Concerto, and I've done just that many times. So I was interested to listen to Schafer's Harp Concerto, written in 1987. This is, again, a relatively accessible piece, though without the obvious importance of Ginastera's concerto. I would still put it up against any of the other 20th century Harp Concertos, including Villa-Lobos's. Loman's playing is outstanding, and the Toronto Symphony provides strong support. Every listen through of this fascinating disc emphasizes to me that Schafer is Canada's greatest composer.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

An obscure composer brings unalloyed pleasure


This new disc from Ricercar (due to be released October 28, 2016) is a very welcome one: a new recording of Johann Bernhard Bach's four Ouvertures. These are suites of dances, many of them French, though the genre itself had became typically German. No, J.B. Bach isn't part of Johann Sebastian's prodigious progeny, but rather a distant cousin, and a fairly obscure one at that. He wasn't distant or obscure enough to escape the notice of the most musically important family in history, though. Three of these works were found in the possession of C.P.E. Bach, and copied in the hand of C.P.E., important family friends, and even Johann Sebastian himself. They obviously thought highly of the music.

As do I, and especially in this new recording from the Metz-based Achéron ensemble. There's a French grace and dignity, some pomp and ceremony, about this music that's clear in this video, the official trailer for the album.



But there's more to J.B.'s music than that. He also has a fun, earthy side, perhaps more German than French. Here's a Bourée where the flutes really let loose, and the players are obviously enjoying themselves. It's followed by an Air that shows the new sentimentalism of the emerging early 18th century middle class.


This music is stylishly played and nicely presented. It's not far off in quality from similar music by Telemann, and even (dare I say) his second cousin, once removed.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Illuminating, moving musical project


This new disc from Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the leader of the conductor-less Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, is part of the new classical music recording trend of publishing projects built around a music-historical or conceptual theme. In the old days a record company would likely put out Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet on an LP coupled with the Trout Quintet, or another popular "named" quartet by another composer. The idea of wrapping a recording around a defining idea bigger than just "recital" or "concert" wasn't often on the radar in the LP era. This was perhaps because of format limitations: each 20-25 minute side happened to fit a chamber music work, or half of a romantic symphony, and the format pointed to a certain kind of conventional content.



This is different. Kopatchinskaja takes the idea of "Death and the Maiden", which began as a poem by Matthias Claudius, set as a song by Schubert in 1817, and makes it the basis of a fascinating 70 minutes of music. By the time Schubert wrote his String Quartet, which uses the song's great melody as the theme of its Andante second movement, he was facing death during a major health crisis in 1824. The various musical sources brought in for this project, from medieval chant to the avant garde, all speak to this consciousness of what is coming. Then each source, from widely varying musical beginnings, is adapted for a common platform, the string orchestra. The Schubert arrangements are by Kopatchinskaja herself. Pieces by Dowland, Kurtag, Gesualdo, Normiger and an anonymous Byzantine chant provide historical and emotional context for Schubert's masterwork. This is an illuminating, moving project.

This Alpha Classics disc will be released on October 28, 2016.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Authentic, authoritative Van Gogh


Arthaus Musik has packaged a 2009 documentary from the Van Gogh Museum, directed by Eline Timmer, into this two-DVD set. It's impressively multi-lingual; commentary and subtitles are available in English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch and Italian. Though there's nothing especially stylish about this in film terms - it follows the standard slow pan across paintings, expert talking heads, voice-over letter reading format of many an art history documentary - the value of this film is the authenticity and authority of its source: the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was especially interested in the actual letters between Vincent and Theo that play such a large role in Van Gogh's life; the sketches positively jump off the pages. Has there ever been an artist who was so enthusiastic about art? It makes his low patches and final decline even sadder. The HD sound and picture makes learning about an artist a pretty good second place to making the trip to Amsterdam.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Beethoven concertos with a chamber music flavour

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This new 4-CD set from Capriccio consists of a big chunk of Beethoven's greatest music, most of it from his virile middle period. They've gathered a group of talented musicians who are also in their prime: violinist Isabelle Van Keulen, cellist Julian Steckel, and pianist and conductor Stefan Vladar. It was recorded at Vienna's Synchron Stage in December 2015 and February 2016 over a period of only nine days. This schedule provides the music with a feeling of occasion and excitement that usually comes from a live recording, rather than the more controlled vibe of a normal studio recording.


In this excellent Capriccio video Vladar talks about his tendency to focus on the extreme aspects of Beethoven, in recognition of the composer's revolutionary tendencies. But the hallmark of this project, is, I think, a tasteful, collegial, civilized feeling that comes from the relatively small orchestra and the fact that Vladar is playing and conducting at the same time. Vladar talks about the significance of this:
It’s a lot of fun to view the pieces as expanded chamber music rather than as a solo concerto with orchestra. …the orchestral musicians themselves are challenged to display their chamber musical qualities, since they have to organize a lot of things themselves.
The fine playing in the concertos is a sign of the rapport Vladar has built with the Wiener KammerOrchester since he became their music director in 2008. The entire project demonstrates the power of a relaxed and convivial environment - having fun playing music with friends - to elevate good music into something special.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A modern masterpiece brought to post-modern life


This new Opus Arte Blu-ray disc of last year's Glyndbourne production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia is a very welcome record of the highly praised opera directed by Fiona Shaw. Shaw's concept adds new layers to the cleverly designed original concept of Britten and his librettist Ronald Duncan. There's an intended pun there, since the Male and Female Choruses act as if they were post-war British archaeologists uncovering the tragic story of Lucretia and her rape by Tarquinius, prince of Rome. We dig into the story through layers of dirt, and the set and lighting and costume design all focus our attention on Britten's perennial theme, the corruption of innocence. 

I watched this with the equally sordid American election swirling in the background, which seemed pertinent in a way, but unfortunate in others. There's lots in the story as told by Shaw that's vile, but it also has dignity and gravitas, and the violence of the central act is never gratuitous. That's helped immensely by the amazing acting and singing of the cast, and especially Christine Rice as Lucretia and Duncan Rock as Tarquinius. Musically as well we have the best possible players - thirteen musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and their leader, Leo Hussain - who, as Fiona Shaw herself says, "have [the work] in their fingers, in their bodies." The HD sound and picture are outstanding; much more impressive than a video clip can put across. This is a modern masterpiece brought to post-modern life.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

A superb Blu-ray Wozzeck


My response to the new Blu-ray disc of Alban Berg's great opera Wozzeck: unadulterated superlatives, for everything about the music lead by Fabio Luisi; and for the stage direction of Andreas Homoki, the set design by Michael Levine and the video production by Accentus Music. This is as fine a production of this artistic peak of the 20th century as you can imagine. The singing and acting of the principles is top-notch, with a special performance by Christian Gerhaher as the title character. There are no holds barred in this imaginative and expressive production; it's deeply uncomfortable but ultimately moving.

Here is the trailer for the disc:



A treat for garden and art lovers


At the beginning of 2016 the Royal Academy of Arts presented a special exhibition of paintings from the 1860s to the 1920s, all about gardens. This splendid DVD provides excellent documentation for the project, as does the RA's website for the exhibition.  This 93 minute film was shown in theatres in early 2016; here is the trailer:



The star of the show is Claude Monet, whose garden at Giverny is a work of art in itself. The film travels there, and to other great gardens around the world. I was so taken with this concept, but I'm a big garden lover as well as a huge fan of these paintings. There may be too much about gardens for art lovers, and too much about the paintings for hard-core gardeners. Both sides, though, are treated with equal love and attention.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Two masterpieces for clarinet and strings


Bernard Herrmann was a very cultured man with wide-ranging interests that went well beyond music. His 1967 Clarinet Quintet Souvenirs de voyage has three movements, and each has an artistic inspiration. The first refers to A.E. Housman's On Wenlock Edge, from A Shropshire Lad:
On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
      His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
      And thick on Severn snow the leaves. 
The second takes its cue from J.M. Synge's play Riders to the Sea:
Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.
The last movement was suggested by J.M.W. Turner's lovely Venetian watercolours:

Venice by moonlight, 1840

This is very appealing music, with the built-in Mozart and Brahms call-backs that come with the Clarinet and Strings format. There are Herrmann references as well: he was writing his superb Fahrenheit 451 score for Francois Truffaut at this time, which in turn makes reference to one of the greatest film scores of all time: Vertigo (1958).


There are plenty of other versions of Souvenirs de voyages out there, including a great disc with the Tippett Quartet and Julian Bliss, but this new disc with the Fine Arts Quartet and Michel Lethiec is really excellent.

Switching gears, we have David del Tredici's Magyar Madness, a piece with a more advanced musical style, and a wider expressive range than the Herrmann work. In spite of the often spiky phrases, there are still bits of Mozart and Brahms floating out there. David Krakauer, the clarinettist who premiered the work with the Orion String Quartet in 2007, asked Del Tredici to write something in the Klezmer style. His response: "Oy vey! Klezmer I can't do, but Hungarian I'll try." So we have the frenetic 25 minute Magyar Madness finale, based on Schubert's work for piano 4 hands, Divertissement a la Hongroise. This is witty, exciting, passionate music that's a showpiece for the clarinet, but also the strings. There's a fine recent disc of this piece with Krakauer and the Orion Quartet, but again the new disc meets those standards. We're lucky the record companies are paying attention to this music!

This new Naxos disc will be released on November 11, 2016.