Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

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

Friday, January 29, 2016

Jaap van Zweden

This week the New York Philharmonic Orchestra announced their new Music Director: Jaap van Zweden, who currently is in charge of the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He'll take over in New York in 2018, which gives us some time to check him out before his regime begins. I thought I'd do just that, and report back here.

Van Zweden's latest recording project is a Ring Cycle from Naxos, with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and an impressive lineup of singers. I reviewed Das Rheingold earlier this month, and praised van Zweden's control and musicality, but found the live performance a bit wanting in passion.

The conductor gives off an intense, serious vibe, and his discography leans toward weightier works. I'm listening to his 2010 CD of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony and 4th Suite 'Mozartiana', which mixes it up a bit. He's quoted in the liner notes:
"These two works require different skills and approach from a conductor and an orchestra, The Symphony No. 4 shows us Tchaikovsky’s dark, Russian side, while Mozartiana demonstrates his softer, feminine side. It is the difference between a surgeon and a neurosurgeon. Mozartiana wants the neurosurgeon. Every little note matters. It is as open and transparent as any Mozart or Haydn work."

I love Tchaikovsky's tribute to Mozart, and it's the best part of this album. The neurosurgery going on here reminded me of the late Pierre Boulez's recording of another pastiche: Stravinsky's Pulcinella. Both conductors are meticulous but respectful, and leave at least a portion of the fun in each of these puzzle-box musical contraptions. I was less impressed with the Symphony, which again seemed a bit too careful.

Speaking of weighty, Van Zweden recorded Parsifal with his European orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, in 2010. Jerry Floyd said this about the recording at
Van Zweden’s straightforward, modernist approach lies somewhere between the mysticism of some mid- and late-twentieth-century Germanic conductors and the astringent style favored by Pierre Boulez and his adherents.
The word 'straightforward' is not necessarily what you want to hear, not after also hearing 'too careful' and 'lacking in passion'. But I wonder if van Zweden might pull out the stops when he has a higher-powered orchestra in front of him. Watch this clip of him conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Brahms:

This is not a routine run-through with a guest conductor and an orchestra who could play this music blind-folded. A former concert-master, van Zweden coaxes an amazing sound from the strings. Yet in spite of turning things up a notch, there's still that feeling of control, which you need when you're taking a Ferrari through hair-pin turns. Okay, in this case let's call it a Porsche 550.

I mentioned van Zweden's background as an instrumentalist, and he's still an active violinist, performing chamber music in concert and the recording studio. Here he is playing a lovely version of Villa-Lobos's Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5, along with guitarist Robby Faverey.

There are interesting times ahead in New York!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Abundant vision

In 2001 choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and her troupe Rosas had a big hit with her production of Rain, based on Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians from 1976. Ten years later the work made its way into the repertoire of the Ballet of the Paris Opera, and this amazing Blu-ray is the result. The music is a complex, large-scale work that lasts 75 minutes, and de Keersmaeker runs her 10 dancers - 7 women and 3 men - pretty much without a break. It’s like a movie filmed in a single take. The dancing is every bit as complex as the music, with the group breaking down into individual dancers, pairs, triplets, every combination.  Bojana Cvejić termed it “polyphonic excess.” I imagine watching the live ballet from the gorgeous Palais Garnier: the shifting geometries of dancers matching the repeating cycles of the music. There’s some added value in seeing it on the Blu-ray, with the cameras focussing on particular individuals and combinations as they interact. This is impressive film direction. The sum (or rather product) of these combinations takes us from seeing a group of 10 generic dancers to, by the end, 10 individual, recognizable human beings. The 18 (actually more) Musicians play a combination of strings, pianos and percussion instruments, with important parts for the clarinet, bass clarinet and female voices. It’s the quality and span of the human breath that provides structure - pulses and oscillations - to the music, and a more human quality to a machine-like structure. The human addition to these complexities from the dance side helps us better understand both Reich’s and de Keersmaeker’s abundant vision.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Wagner in the Middle

This is a recording where the whole is somehow not as great as the sum of its parts. The orchestral playing is impressive. Listen to the great mythic drone of the Prelude; it shows first class playing, but also careful control by conductor Jaap van Zweden, especially considering this is a live performance (or rather the best bits of two performances). The singing is also very good, and at times outstanding. Matthias Goerne is excellent as Wotan, providing glimpses of the complex character the ruler of the gods will become in the next three operas. I trust he’ll be singing throughout the Naxos Ring as future discs are released. I was impressed by tenor Kim Begley in his performance as Edrisi in the Royal Opera’s recent King Roger, and he sings a very good Loge here.  Some of the other singers are perhaps a bit generic, though I’d have preferred somewhat less bite from Peter Sidhom’s Alberich. That’s a quibble, though. Singing: check. As to sound, this recording shows off Naxos’s technical strengths. In this case it’s Phil Rowlands who’s in charge of both production and engineering. Any classical music producer worth his salt probably has John Culshaw’s Ring Resounding on his bookshelf, or even next to his bed, and any recording of Das Rheingold should have the producer taking extra care. So what’s missing? I think the clue is my use of the word ‘careful’ when talking about van Zweden’s conducting. It’s assured enough, but always in the middle any time there’s a musical decision to be made. Right down the middle, and Wagner’s greatness only comes out on the edge. I hope van Zweden takes more chances in Die Walkure, which is scheduled for recording later this year.

Here's the promotional video from Naxos:

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Character, charm and musical vision

Jens Cornelius, in his entertaining liner notes to this excellent new DaCapo disc of Danish Romantic Piano Trios, introduces Peter Erasmus Lange-Muller as “a sensitive soul from a fine old Copenhagen family.” That’s a tough place to start from in the rough and tumble world of classical music, where self-esteem is gold, and natural vigour can help make up for a lack of formal training or social graces (think of Beethoven or Villa-Lobos). Lange-Muller’s melodic gifts are on display in his Piano Trio of 1898, but he’s trying pretty hard to make his work something more than another salon piece. I quite like the results: amped-up romanticism in the outer movements, with a neurotic feel, verging on hysteria at times, in the finale. Lange-Muller mainly takes a break from fin-de-siecle angst in the lovely middle movement, letting the strings and piano share some beautiful, sad melodies. This piece has lots of character, and that’s due in part to the excellence of the newly formed group The Danish Piano Trio.

There’s character as well in the 1863 Piano Trio in F major by Niels Gade, but the composer is here more or less content to follow the models of his friends and mentors Mendelssohn and Schumann. This is well-composed, academically sound music that is redeemed by Gade’s natural charm and warmth. There’s even more charm in the piano trio movement the 22-year-old Gade wrote in 1939. The fact that he spins his slight material out for 12 minutes shows the prodigious talent of the young musician.

The final work on this very well-planned programme takes us to the brink of a completely new sound world. Rued Langgaard, probably second only to Carl Nielsen among Danish composers, wrote the Mountain Flowers movement for piano trio in 1908. It became a movement in Langgaard’s First Symphony, setting him on his way to greatness in composition but eventual obscurity that lasted until well after his death. With only hints of the long musical journey ahead, there’s a bracing backbone to his musical vision that belies the peaceful pre-war times in which it was written. The composer has the 20th century within him even then (at 15!); it was only a matter of time before his musical vision was fully expressed.

Scholarship, musicianship, engineering excellence

The new Giovanni Gabrieli recording from Stephen Cleobury is a really deluxe package. It includes both an SACD hybrid disc and a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc, along with a fascinating booklet full of detail about the compositions and recording. The music is from the Symphonie Sacrae collection made in 1615, two years after Gabrieli’s death. It includes a new Quem Vidistis reconstruction by Hugh Keyte, and many beauties of vocal and instrumental music. The striking thing about this music is how natural and vital and alive it seems; there is no hint of scholarly mustiness. The stage is set with an outstanding In ecclesiis (a 14), one of the greatest works of the Renaissance. And though the high solo part was originally sung by a falsettist, this performance by treble Gabriel May is by far my favourite. I like, as well, the trebles singing the soprano parts in the choir, which is outstanding. The combination of scholarship, musicianship and engineering puts this at the top of the Gabrieli heap.

Coryat's Crudities

In 1608 the great traveller (and equally great travel writer) Thomas Coryat visited Venice, and in his particularly enthusiastic way, reported back on the great music.
The feast of The second roome is the place where this festivitie was solemnized to the honour of Saint Roch, at one end whereof was an Altar garnished with many singular ornaments, but especially with a great multitude of silver Candlesticks, in number sixty, and Candles in them of Virgin waxe. This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I know not ; for mine owne part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven.
I've taken part of this encomium as this blog's motto for a reason. I'd rather write about music I like, so I'm more likely to write in the style of Coryat than a nitpicking or "standards have fallen" critic. I get a chance to more or less choose which discs I review, and sure, I'll get the odd dud. But life is too short to spend time listening to music you don't enjoy.

But back to Coryat. He enjoyed instrumental music:
Sometimes there sung sixeteene or twenty men together, having their master or moderator to keepe them in order ; and when they sung, the instrumental musitians played also. Sometimes sixeteene played together upon their instruments, ten Sagbuts, foure Cornets, and two Violdegambaes of an extraordinary greatness ; sometimes tenne, sixe Sagbuts and foure Beautiful Cornets ; sometimes two, a Cornet and a treble violl. Of those treble viols I heard three severall there, whereof each was so good, especially one that I observed above the rest, that I never heard the like before. Those that played upon the treble viols, sung and played together, and sometimes two singular fellowes played together upon Theorboes, to which they sung also, who yeelded admirable sweet musicke, but so still that they could scarce be heard but by those that were very neare them. These two Theorbists concluded that nights musicke, which continued three whole howers at the least. For they beganne about five of the clocke, and ended not before eight. Also it continued as long in the morning : at every time that every severall musicke played, the Organs, whereof there are seven faire paire in that room, standing al in a rowe together, plaied with them.
But it was the singers, and one singer in particular, who really knocked Coryat's socks off:
Of the singers there were three or foure so excellent that I thinke few or none in Christendome do excell them, especially one, who had such a peerelesse and (as I may in a maner say) such a supernaturall voice for such a privilege for the sweetnesse of his voice, as sweetnesse, that I think there was never a better singer in all the world, insomuch that he did not onely give the most pleasant contentment that could be imagined, to all the hearers, but also did as it were astonish and amaze them. I alwaies thought that he was an Eunuch, which if he had beene, it had taken away some part of my admiration, because they do most commonly sing passing wel ; but he was not, therefore it was much the more admirable. Againe it was the more worthy of admiration, because he was a middle-aged man, as about forty yeares old. For nature doth more commonly bestowe such a singularitie of voice upon boyes and striplings, then upon men of such yeares. Besides it was farre the more excellent, because it was nothing forced, strained, or affected, but came from him with the greatest facilitie that ever I heard. Truely I thinke that had a Nightingale beene in the same roome, and contended with him for the superioritie, something perhaps he might excell him, because God hath granted that little birde such a priviledge for the sweetnesse of his voice, as to none other : but I thinke he could not much. To conclude, I attribute so much to this rare fellow for his singing, that I thinke the country where he was borne, may be as proude for breeding so singular a person as Smyrna was of her Homer, Verona of her Catullus, or Mantua of Virgil.
I don't know that much about 17th century Venetian music, but I wonder if this great falsettist was singing the high part in Giovanni Gabrieli's In ecclesiis (a 14). In this recent recording from The Choir of King's College and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, which made my 2015 Top 10 Albums list, the part is sung by the treble Gabriel May.

This is one of Gabrieli's great inspirations, and I love it with a falsettist as well as a treble. But I happen to prefer this version to all others. We're so lucky that this music has survived, and that we can hear music much like that which Coryat marvelled at, with Beautiful Cornets and Sagbuts and Sweete and Peerlesse Singers, from the comfort of our own homes.

Keep that superexcellent music coming!

Friday, January 8, 2016

The universal humanity of Bach, expressed through dance

In 2010 the director Peter Sellars created a sensation, along with Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, with a Bach St. Matthew’s Passion that used gesture and movement to dramatize the guilt, sorrow and redemption that underly the Passion stories. That was my first exposure to seeing Bach music opened up in this way, and I’m pleased to see it again in John Neumeier and the Hamburg Ballet’s Christmas Oratorio. Bach’s music is strong and can successfully flourish in some amazing places.

The choreographer Kim Brandstrup said in a recent Gramophone feature that big symphonic works like Beethoven symphonies are difficult to choreograph: “the sound world can be so big that it dwarfs the human scale.” That doesn’t seem to be an impediment with Bach, as is clear in this splendid project. “We perform to Bach’s music, for a few hours unifying individuals of many different cultural and religious backgrounds.” Neumeier says. “For me the basic human values expressed through the choreography are always the most important thing.”  I have very little knowledge of dance, but the movements devised by Neumeier to interpret and explain the universal humanity of Bach’s music seemed both natural and powerful. Afraid at first that the joy and exultation of the opening “Jauchzet frohlocket” might turn into a kitschy “Solid Gold Dancers do Bach!” thing, I was pleased to see the universal/human element coming foreward at once. Luckily, the excellence of the dancers is matched by the musicians: the Choir of the Hamburgischen Staatsoper and the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg, under Alessandro de Marchi. Watching this over the holidays this year was a moving experience; I look forward to seeing it again many Christmases in the future.

Christmas Oratorio IV // Rehearsal // ballet by John Neumeier from Vincent Klueger on Vimeo.