Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The discreet charm of the Brandenbourgeoisie

Two brand new albums of Brandenburg Concertos will be released this spring, into a very crowded marketplace. More than fifteen hundred hits on! But I love this music so much, I'm not complaining.

The first, to be released on April 29, 2016, is from the Neumeyer Consort under cellist Felix Koch. This performance uses original instruments, with a medium-sized Baroque orchestra of 28 players. Tempos are brisk but not eccentrically so. There are occasional muddles where the natural horns seem to get in the way of the strings, but I wonder after close listening on my headphones if this was a recording balance problem. Otherwise this is a fairly slick and emotionally distanced run-through. I didn't get the fun, swinging feel the same ensemble, then under Michael Hofstetter, brought to highlights from Handel's Messiah, back in 2013 (on Oehms).

The second, due on May 13, 2016, is from the Budapest-based Capella Savaria, also playing period-instruments, conducted by Zstot Kallo, from Hungaraton. This version has similar tempos, which I guess are middle-of-the road for today, though they're zippy compared to the olden-days. The instruments have a bit more bite, and if you've been reading my reviews you know that's how I like my Baroque music. I give this recording two thumbs up.

The winner!

In some ways it's easier to review two Brandenburgs than one. It's just like my high school teachers said: compare and contrast. So I'll go for the Hungarian Brandenburgs, a bit rustic, in the classic HIP style, over the German ones, more galante and sophisticated, maybe, but with less salsa. Can I use that term when talking about Bach? Of course I can!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Spring glory

Two years ago we made the move from cold and snowy Alberta to the Garden City of Victoria, BC, and are now surrounded by the lovely sights, sounds and smells of a spring that seems to last from early February to May. It makes me appreciate Alessandro Scarlatti's ode to spring, La Gloria di Primavera, even more when I can open my windows wide to hear the birds and smell the flowering currant blossoms.

Red Flowering Currant, Ribes sanguineum, is a native of the Pacific North West.
This was taken in early March (!) just outside our place in Victoria.

Scarlatti wrote this serenata in 1716, and it was presented to great acclaim in Matese in Piedmont, during the celebrations surrounding the birth of the Archduke Leopold. The music is as bright and sweet and hopeful as the season; it brims with vocal athletics, sparkling accompaniments by the orchestra, and the most soulful and enticing melodies. This recording, which seems to be a premiere, is expertly performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Philharmonia Choir, under Nicholas McGegan, along with an impressive array of soloists. This is engaged, even passionate music-making. The two-CD set will be released on April 8, 2016, and can be pre-ordered at Amazon.

This music is really quite special, and it makes me think that Alessandro Scarlatti might be the next 18th century composer to break out into a wider audience. For now, it may be only the sophisticated few who will appreciate this serenata and the broad range of other dramatic, sacred, orchestral and instrumental music by the great Neapolitan composer, but surely music of this quality cannot remain a secret too much longer.

One of the keys for the dissemination of Scarlatti will be the Creative Commons-licensed scores edited by Thomas Griffin. Check out his amazing Alessandro Scarlatti website, created in 2010 for the composer's 350th birthday.

One of my favourite pieces is the aria Fuor dell'urna le bell'onde, sung by Autunno. It has a lovely Mozartian accompaniment in the strings. Here it is, thanks to Spotify. This is gorgeous music!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A splendid sound in a special space

In 1964, John Eliot Gardiner, then still an undergraduate at King's College, managed to put together the musical forces to perform the great Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, which was then very much a musical rarity. Things went well, or, as Gardiner tells it in typical under-stated fashion:
I am certain that our performance was more rough than ready, but it seemed to have caused a bit of a stir - and not just within Cambridge.
This debut was indeed auspicious, since it led to the formal creation of the Monteverdi Choir, and to the beginning of Gardiner's great career as a conductor. Fifty years later, in 2014 when this film was made in the Royal Chapel at Versailles, Sir John (or is it Sir John Eliot?) is one of the greats, and he's celebrating a milestone anniversary with a new production of this great music.

And it is indeed great music. In his superb essay Gardiner compares the Vespers to Bach's B Minor Mass; for Monteverdi and Bach these works, "encapsulate the full range of their invention and compositional skills." I'm certainly on board with this. Gardiner speaks of "the burgeoning popularity of the work" through the 70s and 80s, "and of new listeners clearly relishing the music." That was me in the early 70s, listening to this amazing music on CBC Stereo (as Radio2 called itself then), and wondering where on earth it might have come from.

There is outstanding singing here from the Monteverdi Choir and a wide range of superb soloists from within their ranks. Also, to charming and very musical effect, from the young choristers of Les Pages du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, and a very fine young soprano soloist. The playing of the English Baroque Soloists is also outstanding. Together they make a splendid sound, abetted by the acoustic of this beautiful space, and enhanced by Gardiner's placement of soloists and the children's choir above, behind, and to the sides of the audience sitting in the nave of the chapel.

The Chapelle Royale in Versailles: add music and serve.
This is all presented in state-of-the-art video and sound. The video direction is outstanding, though I'm a bit confused by all the credits for the many partners involved - Wahoo Production, Chateau de Versailles Spectacles, France 2, and Alpha Classics - so I'm not sure who really was in charge of bringing Gardiner and his musicians to my TV. And not just my TV; besides standard stereo and 5.1 surround sound, the discs enclosed (Blu-ray and DVD) also include the new Binaural or 3D Sound standard, which comes from the Virtual Reality world. This fills my not-especially-high-quality headphones with a full sound that hints at the very large acoustic space without being distractingly space-specific. If there is a distraction here, I think it's my fault. Whenever there's especially good sound on a Blu-ray or DVD concert I tend to close my eyes and miss out on the visual side of things. It'll take a while before I adjust to today's audio technologies, after years of crappy computer speakers and low-bitrate MP3s. God forbid, though, that I ever become an actual boring gold-cable and tube amplifier audiophile!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Appealing and engaging piano music

The music of Paul Bowles has never received anything close to the amount of attention his writings have, and I fear that even on the literary side his star is fading a bit since the brief flurry of interest around the release of Bernardo Bertolucci's film of The Sheltering Sky in 1990. (I couldn't believe it was that long ago; the film seems very fresh in my memory.)

To test that theory I went to Google Trends, and things are indeed trending down for Bowles:

There's some good news, though, in Related Searches, with "Paul Bowles - Composer" on top.

(By the way the search for "Bowles Simpson" sends one to stories about fiscal responsibility and debt reduction. I was afraid I had missed a guest appearance by Paul Bowles on The Simpsons before his death in 1999.)

This new CD, due to be released in April 2016, and its companion volume 2 due later this year, should put a small boost in the reputation of Bowles' music, which certainly deserves much more attention. The excellent Invencia Piano Duo, who I know from the excellent Grand Piano series of duo piano music by Florent Schmitt, are Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn. The two divide the pieces between them, and play together in arrangements of songs for four hands, and in Bowles' most important piano work, the Sonata for Two Pianos. The highlight in the Sonata is the middle Molto tranquillo movement which maintains a careful balance between shifting atmospherics, hinting at various American popular styles as Bowles quite often does, and a more serious, deeper, darker sense of dread and foreboding.

Other than this the disc is taken up by shorter and less substantial works, many of which are character-pieces in the style of Schumann or Granados or Ravel; folk-like impressions like Villa-Lobos's Guia pratico or Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances; or actual arrangements by Bowles of American and Latin American folk songs. Some are short portraits of his fellow composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, George Antheil, Israel Citkowitz and Leonard Bernstein. Included in the program are two tributes to Bowles: by Bernstein and Thomson. These are all charming. Bowles also paints musical pictures of his friends Bruce Morrissette from America and Paris, Constance Askew from New York, and Kay Cowen from Paris and Morocco. It was Cowen who introduced Bowles to the poet Tristan Tzara. The sum of all this is greater than its parts. It adds up to an appealing picture of an engaging and subtle mind drawing sharply-etched musical pictures. I'm looking forward to the next volume!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Jean-Fery Rebel or Bernard Herrmann?

Back in November 2015 I wrote a review of an excellent CD by Tempesta di Mare of music by Lully, Marais and Rebel, which I liked very much. I commented on the fact that Le Chaos by Rebel sounded a lot like the beginning of Bernard Herrmann’s score to Taxi Driver.  Now that I have access to Spotify, I'll post the two pieces here, and ask you what you think.

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

And here's the Hermann:

What do you think?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Mission check

Matthew Guard's excellent chamber choir Skylark has a three-fold mission:
  • Create innovative and meaningful programs of stunning vocal beauty
  • Educate and inspire the next generation of choral artists
  • Support the careers of the most talented vocal artists in America
This special new disc from Sono Luminus shows us the group is well on their way to fulfilling the first of these. The singing is indeed stunningly beautiful, and while I haven't had a chance to hear the 9.1 high definition surround sound Blu ray disc, the stereo recording presents the singers in an acoustical environment that matches the ethereal music.

The disc's program is of real interest and provokes some thought. Whether there's more behind the concept of the transition from life to death depends on your religious beliefs, but there's no denying the beauty of the music Guard has chosen. Daniel Elder's Elegy is a moving choral meditation on the bugle call Taps. I suspect this work by the promising young American composer will be a signature piece for Skylark for a long time to come. Another standout is Robert Vuichard's Heliocentric Meditation, based on John Donne's Meditation XVII. Vuichard, who made a big impression with The Camera Obscura of Jan van Eyck, has another winner in the Donne piece. Two composers to watch!

Other music of special interest comes from Iceland, with pieces by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Jón Leifs, and from John Taverner, whose classic Butterfly Dreams cycle fits perfectly with the theme. Skylark will be touring with this program, and I'm sure will be inspiring new choral singers, conductors, arrangers and composers. In the meantime, be prepared to be inspired yourself.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Peter Maxwell Davies, RIP

I rushed this review a bit to honour the great composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who died today, March 14, 2016, at the age of 81. This is a fitting tribute for the Great Man of The North of England, with its cover by a fellow Lancashire lad, and another Great Man of The North, the painter LS Lowry. The short Fanfare for LS Lowry that Maxwell Davies wrote for The Lowry Arts & Entertainment Centre in Salford is a great tribute from one artist to another, and an example of so many of Maxwell Davies' best qualities: ingenuity, wit, sentiment without sentimentality, and an absolutely perfect way of writing for brass instruments.

There are more substantial works and light pieces for a wide range of instrumental combinations on this disc, that show off Max's compositional skill, but also the special talents of the The Wallace Collection. I was impressed with the cleverness of Maxwell Davies' arrangement for brass quintet of Four Voluntaries by Thomas Tallis, and by the delicacy and musicianship with which they were played. I'll be playing lots of Sir Peter's music in the future; this was a good place to start.

Peter Maxwell Davies (8 September 1934 – 14 March 2016)

And LS Lowry (1 November 1887 – 23 February 1976)

Elegant Duke

"The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, and Delius is very ill, but we are happy to have with us today The Duke."
This must have seemed an extravagant claim when it was made by Percy Grainger in 1932, when Duke Ellington and his orchestra played for a class Grainger was teaching at New York University. Grainger was an early jazz afficionado. "There never was a popular music so classical," he once said. Grainger thought that Ellington's music "had a harmonic language similar to Delius." If the statement about Bach and Delius sounds odd today it would be more for its mention of Delius, whose star has faded a bit in the past years, but it's perhaps less outrageous today to rate Ellington so highly than it was then.

From Milan-based pianist Luigi Palombi comes this excellent new disc of piano works written by Ellington, presented as if it were a disc of Ravel or Faure. It begins with Ellington's first composition, the jaunty Soda Fountain Rag he wrote in the summer of 1914 (when he was working as an actual soda jerk). This is a straight-ahead presentation, though there's no lack of style, even elegance, in Palombi's playing. It's less brittle than Ellington's own solo piano playing, often considerably slower, and with less rubato. You know what Ellington (might have) said to Grainger: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got some rubato." If you compare Palombi's version of the great ragtime Swampy River written in 1928, Ellington's version could have come from the poolroom, while Palombi sounds like he's wearing a tuxedo while playing at a Duke Ellington Tribute. Not to say this isn't a lovely performance; it has energy and verve, but without the full measure of authenticity. The piano sound is excellent; miles ahead of any of the surviving recordings of Ellington's own piano playing.

Here's The Duke, by the way, in a nice performance of his beautiful song Melancholia:

This is from a great two-CD album called Duke Ellington at the Piano that I came across on Spotify. Unfortunately the Palombi CD isn't up on Spotify yet. His version of Melancholia has a dreamy surface, but none of the depths plumbed by the Duke.

The best part of the Palombi disc is the Second Suite from Ellington's great Sacred Concerts. The three songs - The Lord's Prayer, Meditation, and New World - represent a high point in Ellington's late period when he came closest to writing music as strongly devotional and inspirational as Bach.

This disc will be released on March 25, 2016 on Amazon.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Two fine English Cello Concertos

I've sometimes wondered why the 1986 Chandos recording of the Bax Cello Concerto with Raphael Wallfisch was the only one available on disc, and why indeed it took more than 50 years for a recording to appear (it wasn't released until 1995). There's finally another recording, a new Lyrita disc, licensed from Dutton, for whom it was recorded in August 2014.  There was absolutely nothing wrong with the former disc, from Chandos, which features a vital performance from the soloist and expert support from LPO under Bryden Thomson. Lest you wonder about the work itself, there's nothing at all wrong with it either. It doesn't quite fit the Elgar mold, being more energetic and less elegaic, but there's lots there for a cellist to get his teeth into, and its thematic material is strong, though more rhapsodic than symphonic to be sure. And cellist Lionel Handy, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and their conductor Martin Yates prove to be as effective advocates for the work as the London musicians. The new performance for the most part moves briskly ahead while the Chandos disc tends to slow just down a touch to show off the most beautiful bits. I like both recordings equally, and like the music more now that I've heard two facets exposed so beautifully.

It's a cliché to quote Jesus's words from Mark 6:4 when artists find success abroad but not so much at home. It's part of a very specific and slightly odd exchange which in the New International Version reads like this: "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home." That's a very personal betrayal, and it's no wonder when foreign triumphs are tempered by the memories of hurtful memories from home. Villa-Lobos is one example of a composer who always felt he was appreciated more properly in France and in America than in Brazil. In the sad case of the English composer Stanley Bate his greatest successes were also in America, and once he returned home to England the lack of attention given his music may have contributed to his death (possibly a suicide) in 1959. Bate died, incidentally only a month before Villa-Lobos, though he was much younger. The two had met during Bate's first trip to Brazil, in 1945. Bate's Cello Concerto was first performed in Rochester, NY, in 1954.

From the evidence of this work, the only music by Bate that I've heard, the obscurity into which he's fallen is completely unjustified (something which actually doesn't happen all that often, in my opinion, though record companies will have you believe it's common enough). This is music of some charm but even more character. It's a worthy companion to the Bax on this splendid disc.

Postscript: It is definitely a good disc, and fairly well filled, running just under an hour. I guess there wasn't room on the disc for a premiere recording of Bax's Variations for Orchestra which were recorded for Dutton, according to this notice from the Sir Arnold Bax Website, at the same time as these two concertos. Or perhaps there will be another disc with the Variations and some further music by Bax (or Bate!) from another session.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Colours, Light, Darkness

Back in 1939 Heitor Villa-Lobos, encouraged by Edgard Varese, mapped the pattern of the constellation Orion onto musical staves, and, in the chance-enhances-music process of millimetrization, wrote a work for piano about the three stars - As Três Marias - that make up "Orion's belt": Alnitak, Mintaka and Alnilam. These three pieces, which Paul Bowles praised as "brief, birdlike, butterfly-like things", are a modernist throwback for Villa-Lobos, who was entering his "national" stage, based more on folklore and Brasilidade than experiments that focussed on newness.

Fast forward to 1974. The 31-year-old Brazilian composer José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado had just returned to Brazil after finishing his studies with Olivier Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and with György Ligeti and Lukas Foss in Darmstadt. He was of a generation in Brazil twice removed from Villa-Lobos. So though the musical world had changed since Villa's death in 1959, there wasn't quite the same reaction to (or rebellion against) the larger-than-life figure who then and now looms so large over Brazil and its music, as there was with older composers in Brazil. When Almeida Prado was offered a commission for the dedication of a new Municipal Planetarium, I'm sure he thought first of As Três Marias. In his preface to the first part of Cartas Celestes, the composer describes his plan:
Galaxies, Constellation of Stars, Nebulae, Shower of Meteors; for all this I created a sound pattern. I coordinated the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet, for each star of the constellation another chord… I intentional chose the piano as medium for this composition; it has a large spectrum of overtones, is capable of quick figurations, its percussive possibilities and its enormous resonances met my intention. Eternity reproduced by music: a ground presumption! But doesn’t music also offer us a magical and eternal universe? Therefore imagination may dare what reason hesitates to do…
A portion of the score of part 1 of Cartas Celestes.

For such a large scale work there may be another Villa-Lobos piano piece in the back of Almeida Prado's mind: the massive Rudepoema, written in the early 1920s. But Marlos Nobre, who was four years older, feels that he had a role in the development of Cartas Celestes as well:
If there is a work that redirected the future of Brazilian music, definitely this work is my Concerto Breve. An interesting and historic fact is that while I was still composing the work, I received in my home the young composer José Antonio de Almeida Prado, to whom I played the final movement of my Concerto Breve, with a gush of clusters at the piano.... After hearing all those abundant and violent clusters absolutely predominant in my Concerto Breve, Almeida Prado and all other composers started to write differently from this day on, opening new ways for the music that was being created in Brazil. *
This would have been in 1969, before Almeida Prado went to Europe.

Almeida Prado added to the first part of Cartas Celestes in the early 1980s. This new Grand Piano disc by the young Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel includes parts 1, 2, 3, and 15 of Cartas Celestes; I trust (and very much hope) that the rest will be released in the near future. Part 15, by the way, was dedicated by the composer to Scopel, and it receives its recording premiere here. Only portions of this music have been recorded before and it's hard to track down the Brazilian recordings. In 2010 Aleyson Scopel released a live recording of Part 1, in a disc that's up on Spotify. I'll embed it here to give you an idea of this music, as we wait for the Grand Piano disc to go up in April 2016.

Scopel has the measure of this music in the live recording, but it's especially in the recording studio that he presents the full scale of this music. It's quite an achievement, a tour de force of virtuosity, control, musicianship, and pure stamina. Most importantly, the pianist manages to hint at Almeida Prado's mystical world, what Scopel describes as "colours, light, darkness and an almost mythological understanding and approach to the universe." I hope this disc will bring more attention to both the piano playing of Aleyson Scopel, who seems to have a bright career ahead of him, and to the music of Almeida Prado, who died much too young, but who was one of the most important and original Brazilian composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

* Bernardo Scarambone and Marlos Nobre, "Interview with Marlos Nobre (Entrevista de Marlos Nobre)", Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011), pp. 135-150.

It's Very Chess-Like

For half a second after I saw this album, I was tempted to do the review straight, without any reference to the cover. Who was I kidding? Pointing out how bad the - what is it exactly, a pun? - how bad the pun in the title is, plus the awkward body language and the odd expression on the pianist's face? It cries out for inclusion in the awesome Greatest Classical CD Covers EVER? series that began back in 2007, in the Silver Age of the Internet, at the Too Many Tristans blog. Better yet, it gives me the chance to give a shout-out to that great sitcom with a terrible name, Cougar Town!

Anyway, it's a terrible/great cover, but/and it's a pretty good album. With not only stylish, articulate, historically-informed piano playing, but a sense of the fun that the original composers from 17th and 18th century France had to have to survive in that odd musical hothouse of absolutism and ingenuity. It also places Bach in his proper International Style context, a sophisticate who kept up with Italian and French musicians on Twitter and Instagram, rather than a dour Lutheran hack who looked only to his congregation, his betters and God. Schlosberg's Bach I would place in the Andras Schiff camp rather than the Glenn Gould one; it's measured and well-shaped, rather than brittle or faux-pompous. But he gives free reign to Gouldian eccentricity in his two pieces for prepared piano: Schlosberg's very clever arrangement of Marin Marais's Le Badinage, which has the sound and the shape of a Japanese song on the koto; and a surprisingly harpsichord-sounding version of a Francois Couperin Tambourin, played by Schlosberg as if he were sitting down at an actual harpsichord. How exactly did he get a piano to sound like that? Perhaps he put clothespins on the strings like we used to do on the spokes of our bicycles when we were kids.

So there's my review. Now lets play some Penny Can!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Evans Feeling

The great pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli once said "Bill Evans would be an ideal interpreter of the music of Gabriel Fauré." Evans had a solid classical education in his early years, and it would have been exciting to hear what the mature artist would have done with Debussy, Chopin, Bach. Glenn Gould called Evans "the Scriabin of jazz." There's something exciting about a great jazz artist bringing skills from outside the classical box without going as far as "jazzing things up", as when Keith Jarrett plays (so beautifully) Shostakovich or Bach.

Apparently Evans admired Michelangeli in return, and perhaps even more than hearing Evans play classical music, I'd love to hear the Italian master riff on some Evans tunes. It's coming up to 35 years since Bill Evans died, and he's attained his own master status. It's only natural for today's musicians, jazz or classical, to re-interpret the classics; they're expressing their love and perhaps hoping to catch some of the magic. It's one thing when there are new textures and sounds - the Kronos Quartet's 1985 album Music of Bill Evans added those, while benefitting from the solid jazz anchors of bassist Eddie Gomez or guitarist Jim Hall. But when it's a solo piano or a piano-bass-drums trio, you have to ask yourself, to be crass, what value is being added, especially on disc rather than in live performance. Why am I listening to this rather than to the many albums of Bill Evans himself, or his Trio?

In Monika Lang's case, it begins with her own classical training. It also involves bringing what she called "the Evans feeling" to her own compositions, four of which are included on this album. Then she works with drummer Wolfgang Reisinger and bassist Uli Langthaler in the style of the classical analogue of the jazz ensemble, the chamber group. As to the Bill Evans pieces, they've been chosen to represent different periods in his career, in a kind of musical biography. They're played more or less straight, and rather carefully, maybe too reverentially, while the group seems to have more fun in the Lang compositions. It's a bit of a disappointment to realize that there's more of "the Evans feeling" in the Lang numbers than the Evans ones. This disc is a creditable effort, but not up to the standard Eliane Elias set in 2008 with her lovely disc Something for You: Eliane Elias sings and plays Bill Evans.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The ecstatic symphonist

As a Villa-Lobos fanatic I've always paid fairly close attention to the music of Kurt Atterberg. Both composers were born in the same year, 1887, and both composers only found true appreciation outside of their homeland, Villa in Paris and Atterberg in Berlin. And yet each was connected, in an almost mystical way, to his own country, and the landscapes of the Amazon and Sweden's Western Islands are reflected in the music in a very basic, and not merely a programmatic, way.

Though both were masters of the large orchestra, Atterberg was by far the better symphonist.  In spite of its genesis as three separate orchestral sketches his 3rd Symphony, written in 1916, has a truly symphonic structure. Meanwhile, the 3rd Symphony of Villa-Lobos, from 1919, is a interesting assemblage of themes loosely assembled around a theme ('War', and specifically the recent Great War), orchestrated with great skill but lacking the greatness of his tone-poems of 1917, Amazonas and Uirapuru.

In the promotional material BIS sends out for this disc they make reference to the "warm and tuneful" music of Kurt Atterberg. This may be a reasonable characterization, since there is a genial flow to much of his music. But listening to the 3rd movement of Symphony no. 3, I was reminded of this passage from Emerson's Nature:
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.
It's this ecstatic connection with the universe that Atterberg, I believe, is communicating in this great passage. Stig Jacobssen, in his beautiful liner notes to this disc, describes Atterberg's reaction to the landscape surrounding a cottage he rented with his family.
The glowing colours of the evening sky in summer soften towards midnight. The air is absolutely still. In the North East, the sky begins to glow again, the breeze rises, the sun climbs majestically over the mountains, at first in cold colours, then warmer and warmer. It is at this moment in the introductory Adagio of the third Picture that the listener has one of the very rare opportunities to hear the alto flute. The dawn becomes a swelling hymn, but the Picture, and the Third Symphony, ends pianissimo.
When the 3rd Symphony finally found its admirers in Berlin, Atterberg was hailed as the greatest writer of orchestral music in Europe other than Richard Strauss. But though I hear parallels with Strauss's music, it's rather Hans Pfitzner's music that comes to mind. The Preludes to Palestrina share the ecstatic feeling that Atterberg attains in the 3rd Symphony. There is a common sound-world, it seems, between Pfitzner and Atterberg, and it's evident as well in the 3 Nocturnes from Atterberg's opera Fanal. These three scene-setting pieces obviously have dramatic as well as musical functions, and there's a strong sense of pageantry and story-telling here.

Atterberg ended up outliving Villa-Lobos by 15 years. When he came to write his 7th Symphony he realized its fourth movement was surplus to the work's requirements, so he worked it up as a separate orchestral piece, Vittorioso, in 1962. As it happens, it shares themes with the music from the opera Fanal, so it can double as a fourth Nocturne.

I wondered at first if we needed another set of Atterberg symphonies on CD, with the excellent CPO set from Germany conducted by Ari Rasilainen still fairly new. But this fourth disc in the BIS series demonstrates different sides to Atterberg's music. The new symphonies aren't always better than those in the CPO set, but there is always something new in Jarvi's interpretations and the excellent (and authentic!) playing by his Swedish orchestra, the bonus works (some premieres on disc) and fine sound makes the new discs the top choice by a hair.

And here we go with another Villa-Lobos parallel, and this one is quite bizarre. I can re-write the above paragraph like this:

I wondered at first if we needed another set of Villa-Lobos symphonies on CD, with the excellent CPO set from Germany conducted by Carl St. Clair still fairly new. But each disc in the Naxos series demonstrates different sides to Villa's music. The new symphonies aren't always better than those in the CPO set, but there is always something new in Karabtchevsky's interpretations and the excellent (and authentic!) playing by his Brazilian orchestra, the bonus works (some premieres on disc) and fine sound makes the new discs the top choice by a hair.


A bassoon in Stockholm

The story behind this new BIS album began in the mid-1980s, when Donna Agrell acquired a beautiful bassoon made in Dresden in 1820. It turned out that the instrument had been used in Sweden in the early part of the 19th century, and Agrell and a group of musician friends came up with this program of music which might have been played in Sweden by this very instrument. In the first and most important work on the disc the bassoon doesn't feature that prominently, though it's still an important part of the texture. The Septet for winds and strings by Franz Berwald is a great work by a great, though under-appreciated, composer. It's played in the most sympathetic and lucid way possible by a group of chamber musicians in tune with the music and with each other.

The final work is also by Berwald, and it's another winner. Written for piano, clarinet, horn and bassoon, there is the same feeling of cohesion that's not without freedom of expression. Fortepianist Ronald Brautigam, who we know so well from his many solo and concertante recordings for BIS, is outstanding, as are all of his colleagues.

In the two Berwald works the bassoon occasionally emerges from its support role, but it's in the middle work, the Quintet for bassoon and strings by Edouard Du Puy, that it has its own time in the sun. This piece has a great, dramatic beginning, but it's clear after a while that this music isn't close to the level of the Berwald works. It's pleasant enough, and I feel like it's being presented to its best advantage by the musicians who are zeroed in on just the right 1820s vibe, but it's definitely thrown into the shade by the nearly Schubert-level music of Berwald.  This shouldn't keep you from acquiring this disc or streaming the music, with its two first-rate works by an early Romantic master, beautifully played.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Dynamism and variety

The new ATMA disc of Vivaldi concertos, to be released on Amazon on March 11, 2016, reminds us what an amazing composer Vivaldi was. I've been exploring the composer's operas and sacred music lately, and it was nice to get back to this well-chosen disc of orchestral music, with all of its dynamism and variety. There's often something dumb about a clever aphorism, and there's no dumber aphorism than Stravinsky's line (or was it Dallapiccola's?), that Vivaldi didn't write 500 concertos, but one concerto 500 times. "Very interesting," you say, like Arte Johnson in Laugh-In, "but stupid."

Some of the concertos chosen by associate conductor Mathieu Lussier are very familiar, and listening to the two concertos from the great series L'Estro Armonico, op. 3 you can see why these have been "greatest hit" material since Vivaldi's time. Indeed, I've known and loved these pieces since I first heard them on an Archiv LP in the late 60s. Mixing in more obscure pieces like the Sinfonia from the opera La Verità in Cimento brings in the opera-house excitement and anticipation of a great overture. And there are plenty of opportunities for excellent solos: oboes, bassoon, trumpets, horns and violins all have their chance to shine.

This is Mathieu Lussier's second disc in charge during the convalescence of founding conductor Bernard Labadie following his extended cancer treatment. I know Lussier best as a bassoonist and composer, and he brings soloist and compositional skills to bear in these controlled but exciting, inventive readings with the excellent Quebec musicians. I look forward to more discs from this group under Lussier and Labadie, and trust that the repertoire will be as well-chosen. And, of course, we're all pulling for a complete recovery for Maestro Labadie. 

This is fun: video from the recording session:

Here's my old LP, which was released in 1967. Archiv LPs were expensive! I treasured this disc.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Back in September 1999 six musicians from the Kuijken family and a harpist friend took a break from their Baroque and Classical musical diet and recorded most of the important works that Debussy wrote for chamber ensembles: the string quartet of 1893, Syrinx for solo flute from 1913, and the three late sonatas (for cello & piano, violin & piano, and flute, viola & harp). It's just now been released (or re-released) on the Arcana label with a cover that features the amazing Whistler painting Nocturne in Black and Gold - the Falling Rocket, in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Tom Service wrote a short article in the Guardian back in 2012 which resonates with me today. He warns against the idea of reducing Debussy's music to a pretty "impressionism". Looking back on this music a century later we maybe miss out on how new it was, how revolutionary. From today it perhaps seems easier to see the radical nature of Wagner before Debussy, Stravinsky at the same time, and Schoenberg after him. For Debussy, and this is where there is a real connection with the art-for-art's-sake advocate Whistler, his music was radically about one thing: the music itself. As Service says:
The basic point is that Debussy uses music as thing-in-itself. It's not a metaphor for something else, but an experience in its own right. And with Debussy, those are experiences that music hadn't created before, and are, therefore, experiences that the human imagination hadn't had before.
So how do the Kuijkens present this important subset of Debussy's music? Very well, I'd say, though it doesn't always sound like the Debussy we're used to. The string quartet, which of course has a list of rival recordings a mile long, may not sound as polished or as tightly controlled as some versions, but it has a relaxed charm that escapes even highly-rated performances by other groups. Not that they're using gut strings and cutting back on vibrato, by any means, but the Kuijkens come to this music as something new, and that counts for something. The late sonatas were all written during Debussy's significant health problems which began with his first diagnosis with rectal cancer in 1908. Though there is no decline in quality, this music is stripped down, serious without being morbid. It looks, perhaps, to places Debussy hadn't explored in his life before. This seriousness is well communicated by the musicians. I was especially impressed with the contributions of Piet Kuijken in the two pieces featuring the piano, and his cellist uncle (I believe) Wieland.

Chamber music is a quiet art form, well suited to the family circle. But within its circumscribed limits it can still pack a wallop and and set off rockets. Here is Whistler's entire painting; I think it was well chosen to go with this music.

Special intersections of art and belief

I've been listening to more than a few CDs for review, but this new one from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen has knocked me for a loop. The title track, "The Deer's Cry", is written by Arvo Pärt. The text is an amazing poem (which Pärt sets in English), written by St. Patrick (372-466):
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in me, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me,
Christ with me.
Though I'm not a believer, I was raised in the Christian tradition and often feel myself stirred by special intersections of art and belief: the great Medieval cathedrals of Europe, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the Eisenheim Altarpiece of Grünewald. This intimate piece sounds so personal, almost like a confession. But behind it is the long, vital stream of faith and tradition going back to St. Patrick and the early church. And surrounding it is the darkness of Pärt's world in communist Estonia, and of all faith under the threat of intolerance. This is such beautiful, moving music, and it affected me deeply.

These themes of tradition and faith under fire are two of three that tie together the music of Pärt, who was born in 1935, with the two Tudor composers who share the disc, Thomas Tallis (1503-1585) and William Byrd (1539-1623). Like Pärt, Tallis and Byrd (both 'unreformed Roman Catholics') were at times unable to openly practice their religion. Also like Pärt the two earlier composers built on the music of their English and continental precursors. Indeed, there is literal building going on in the amazing Miserere nostri, where the pupil Byrd writes a four-part piece upon which his master Tallis, in a technical tour de force, adds three more voices. And it's all astonishingly beautiful:

That's the third theme Harry Christophers brings to this music: craftsmanship. Canons, crab-canons, inversions, and all sorts of ingenious musical tricks are in play.  Here's how the low-voice singers treat the portion of the Miserere nostri that Byrd wrote:
The first sings the line exactly as written. The second doubles all the durations of the notes (x2), and turns all the intervals upside down. The third singer quadruples the durations (x4) and resorts the intervals. The fourth octuples the durations (x8) and re-inverts the intervals. Thus four different versions of the same melody sound simultaneously, in various states of augmentation and inversion - a conceit that is utterly impossible to follow in sound.
For someone who can just barely get through Row, row, row your boat, this is heady stuff. I'm not sure if the singers were expected to do this all in real time, or if they went away and practiced their part for a very long time. As John Milsom says in his informative liner essay, these complex puzzles aren't necessarily designed to be heard in performance, but appreciated by the singers.

One of the coolest of these begins the album. In Diliges Dominum William Byrd has written a musical palindrome. It's an eight-part motet that sounds the same sung backwards as it does forwards. As Milsom suggests in his essay, I tested this out. I loaded the MP3 into Audacity, clicked on Effects, and Reverse, and it indeed sounded the same backwards. Well, not quite the same. There's an odd, other-wordly feel to this track when it's played backwards. Besides the fact that the words are backwards as well, the reverb in the church where it was recorded comes before a phrase rather than after, and there's immediate silence after instead. It comes out a bit like this:

In any case, I recommend this disc very highly. The Sixteen have made this repertoire the basis of this year's Choral Pilgrimage. They'll be taking this repertoire to 33 sites in Britain, including the great college chapels and cathedrals, beginning in April 2016. The disc is available for pre-order now at; its release date is April 1st.

The healing and inspirational power of music

BBC Radio 3 has a great program called Through the Night which begins every day after midnight (12:30 on weekdays, 1 am on weekends), running, well, through the night. They play great music from recorded concerts, mainly from Europe, and for some reason the playlist nearly always includes music I enjoy listening to. The theme for the program is one that I've always loved; it's the hauntingly beautiful Madrigal Nocturne from Darius Milhaud's Cheminee du Roi suite. This CD isn't up yet on Spotify, so I'll post this version by the Athena Ensemble so you can listen while you read the rest of this review:

Isn't that lovely? And so sad. I always think of insomniacs and shut-ins being comforted by the music. It sets the stage so beautifully for the healing and inspirational power of music to follow, even here on Canada's west coast, where Through the Night begins at 4:30 in the afternoon.

The Warsaw-based Gruppo di Tempera is made up of a wind quintet (flute, clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon) plus piano. They've put together a great program of French music that often partakes of the Madrigal Nocturne's nostalgically sad but hopeful sound, but then, in the French way, quickly changes in turn to satire, mock pomp and ceremony, and sheer nervous energy. This Dux CD, due to be released on Amazon on March 11, 2016, is recommended for its cleverly designed program, the ebullience of the playing and the clarity of the sound.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Canadian genius

Everyone raves about the Toronto-born violinist who gained fame as the 'King of Concertmasters', but whose solo career never reached the highest level his talent deserved. Steven Staryk is retired now, still teaching but mainly managing the release of a lifetime of music on disc, first with the 30-CD Staryk Anthology, and now with Steven Staryk: A Retrospective. The reviews for both have been phenomenal, and this seventh release in the latter series is a fine one with which to begin an examination of the Staryk Revival.

The Schumann Violin Concerto had an odd early history involving the composer's mental illness, the love triangle between Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, clairvoyance, Nazis, and all sorts of other shenanigans. Check out the Wikipedia article, or better yet read about Jessica Duchen's novel Ghost Variations, to be published this summer. Steven Staryk's live 1983 performance with an excellent Toronto Festival Orchestra under Pierre Hetu is outstanding in every way except its sound, which is somewhat muffled, but serviceable. Staryk's performance is intense, electric. Perhaps if more people had heard it the current rehabilitation of the Schumann Violin Concerto might have happened sooner. I remember Pierre Hetu well, by the way, as the Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony beginning in 1973. I have a recollection of Staryk playing with the ESO at the Jubilee Auditorium during that period - I want to say the Mendelssohn, but can't be sure.

Next is another superb live performance, this time with the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Mario Bernardi in a concert from 1981. The Walton Concerto is romantic and melodic, but the solo part (the composer wrote it for Heifetz) is fiendishly difficult. This concerto has somewhat better sound than the Schumann; all to the good.

The final work on this disc is very, very cool; a 1973 live recording of the Mendelssohn Concerto from my new home town, Victoria BC.  The mono sound from the outdoor (!) concert with the University of Victoria Symphony under George Corwin is again serviceable. Kudos to the student players from UVic, by the way. They must have been thrilled to play with such an accomplished soloist, and they acquitted themselves very well. Staryk zips through the work at a furious pace with hardly a note out of place. It's really quite remarkable.

A final note about Staryk. While reading more about him on the web I learned about the Symphony Six, a little known Canadian story from the black-list period. Read about it on Wikipedia. While these shameful events put a temporary crimp on Staryk's career, he was soon working again as concert-master with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony. Finally he was back as concert-master at the TSO, where all was apparently forgiven. Did Staryk's brush with McCarthy play a role in the unfortunate cap on his solo career? Was it his success running orchestral strings as concert-master? Or did Fame just randomly slip on by when no one was looking? In any case we have this disc (and many others in these two series) to show us the true value of a Canadian artistic genius at the highest level.