Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

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

Monday, June 27, 2016

Authentic Anthony

On the back of this new CD by Richard Casey, The Piano Music of Anthony Burgess, there's a great picture of the author/composer sitting down at a pub piano with a cigarette in his mouth. You know there's a pint of bitter at hand. This, I think, is where he was happiest: not with a novel manuscript, but messing around with his music. The best pieces on this excellent disc have an improvising-at-the-keyboard feel; those are the freshest bits, a bit off-kilter, with an odd shift or abrupt ending.

One of Burgess's guises is a slightly academic one that perhaps hides some self-consciousness and worry about his own musical bona fides. This involves a fair amount of simple fugal writing, the odd call-out to Bach or Gibbons or Ravel, some jokes for the cognoscenti (the Six Short Pieces are subtitled "The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard"), and modernist pieces in the style of Debussy, Stravinsky and Britten. But I think Burgess's heart was with a more popular style. This might be folkloric, like his clever fugue on Ye Banks and Braes. Or it could come from the grand old tradition of English Light Music. Friends is an outstanding example, sounding like something from a West End show in 1933, while Tango is more international but maybe from Act 2 of the same show. These last two pieces are, I think, as good as Burgess got as a composer. That's not to damn his musical abilities with faint praise, since it's not easy, I'm sure, to write quality music of this sort. But I believe authenticity is vitally important, and this is the music where Burgess is most himself. The whole program is beautiful played by Richard Casey, who tosses off the lighter pieces nonchalantly, and gives the more serious pieces more care, but no more than they can bear. I came away from this disc feeling much more warmly towards Burgess the composer than I did from the first disc of his Orchestral Music, back in April. Thanks to Prima Facie for this disc, and to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for their support.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Rich and ripe music for violin and piano

Until this disc showed up I knew Georgy Catoire only through Marc-Andre Hamelin's 1999 Hyperion disc of piano music (re-issued on Helios in 2014), a surprisingly strong late Romantic mix sounding here and there like Scriabin, Chopin, Faure and late Brahms, from a composer I had never suspected the existence of. Now comes this disc from violinist Laurence Kayaleh and pianist Stephane Lemelin (who both teach at Montreal Universities), which is full of highly charged and very appealing music. I was quite surprised to find out that this is the third recording on CD, and that doesn't count a Russian recording made by David Oistrakh and Alexander Goldenweiser (to whom Catoire dedicated the 2nd Violin Sonata) which you can listen to at YouTube. The new Naxos disc outshines the competition on CD - a slightly under-powered Avie disc from 2008 with Herwig and Bernd Zack that dawdles a bit, and a fine CPO disc from 2010 with Laurent Albrecht Breuninger and Anna Zassimova that just misses in violin tone, piano colour and sound quality. Kayaleh produces a rich sound with her 1742 Guarneri violin, and when required in Catoire's heart-on-his-sleeve 1st Violin Sonata, she provides a ripe tone just this side of being over-ripe. This isn't subtle music, and Lemelin and Kayaleh seem to be having fun providing the full measure of soulful music without hitting the angst red-line. In the musically stronger 2nd Sonata, a one-movement work that shows the influence of Scriabin, Ravel and Debussy, Kayaleh and Lemelin tell Catoire's complex story of passion, sorrow and redemption with subtlety and control as well as full-bodied emotion and virtuosity. This is a moving performance of a special work that matches the best music for violin and piano of many a composer much better known than Catoire. The final 4-minute Elegy is short but not slight, showing more evidence of French models, but most importantly, the slightly quirky and a bit off-centre sound that Gyorgy L'vovich Catoire had made his own.

Playback with Kayaleh, producer Zack Miley, & Lemelin

Friday, June 24, 2016

A major masterpiece from an important composer

Rebecca Clarke isn't quite a household name, but her 1919 Sonata for Viola and Piano has certainly hit a chord with the record-buying public, not to mention violists and their accompanists. A few months ago I counted 18 CDs featuring this fine work, and now we have another, with this new performance of the composer's own version for cello and piano. This vital, robust work is certainly worth the attention it gets, and it sounds great in this different guise. Cellist Raphael Wallfisch and pianist John York provide a fresh and lively take on the music, and through a close partnership and re-balancing of component parts, they've proven the viability of the music for these forces.

But this isn't the most important work on this new CD from Lyrita. Rather, it's the Rhapsody for cello and piano which Clarke wrote in 1923. This is as assured a work as the Viola Sonata, but in a more modernist style; York in this fine liner notes mentions Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin. I'm not really sure what to make of Clarke's choice of title, since this four-movement piece in sonata form isn't especially free in form or over-extravagant in style. It's only somewhat a Rhapsody in the English country-side folklore sense. The composer works more in that genre in some of the shorter pieces on this disc, especially the piece based on the Scottish song I'll bid my heart be still, though even there one hears as much Paris as the Highlands. Whatever it's called, though, the Rhapsody rises above even the Viola Sonata, and deserves much more attention than it's been able to get without a proper published score. Hopefully the upcoming performing edition by John York, with the support of the Rebecca Clarke Foundation, will bring the Rhapsody to more concerts, discs and streaming services in the future.

I love the idea of including newly composed pieces to a musical program of works by dead composers, especially if there's an interaction between the two. John York's Dialogue with Rebecca Clarke, originally written in 2007 for viola and piano, is an exploration of favourite themes and characteristic stylistic devices of Clarke, matched with York's own responses from a post-Clarke perspective. This is a sincere and musically interesting tribute which, like the especially committed playing of Wallfisch and York, must surely win Rebecca Clarke new admirers.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A personal and progressive sound

Every once in a while you come across a composer whose music sounds completely assured, with an obvious confidence in her abilities, and as you hear more you can make out a personal sound, without stereotyping or self-plagiarizing. Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) had these admirable qualities, but there is more: the ability to surprise the listener. As she herself said, "A progressive composer would not agree to repeat even himself." Her string quartet cycle, from the first in 1939 to the seventh in 1965, represents a wide stylistic range. There is a major shift from the folkloric first quartet, written during Bacewicz's student days in the early 1930s (she studied under Nadia Boulanger), to the fully modernist second quartet a decade later. There's an appealing formality and grace to the quartets 3-5, which date from her neo-classical period, though there's often an bite to her themes or a edge to her musical arguments. The sixth quartet of 1960 brings a completely new and avant-garde sound world; this is one of her strongest works. The final quartet, from 1965, remains stylistically modernist, but with a classic structure. Each new quartet brings new ideas and new styles, but the energy and drive remain, as do the slightest hints (after the first quartet) of middle European folkloric music. A gifted violinist, Bacewicz is one of those composers who demonstrates in her quartets a complete knowledge of string technique; besides the seven quartets, she wrote violin concertos, sonatas for violin solo and with piano, and even a quartet for four violins.

Just as Bacewicz developed her own voice while making use of modernist techniques, she helped to bring international musical styles to Poland through her teaching and involvement in juries; composers like Lutoslawski recognized her leadership. She reminds me in many ways of Villa-Lobos, who also leaves an important string quartet cycle representing his entire compositional career, beginning with an early folkloric work and moving to modernism and beyond. Bacewicz was more disciplined, and her more collegial style has given Poland's musical life advantages that Brazil's might have profited from.

I was surprised to see this new two-CD set from the Silesian Quartet come out so soon after the very good Naxos set with the Lutoslawski Quartet from 2012. Both are fine recordings with excellent sound, though I'd give the new one a slight edge.  Though this doubling up is perhaps a sign that Bacewicz is attaining a higher reputation, there are many unrecorded works that recording companies need to get on ASAP. We're waiting.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shadowy fancies

What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher is a perfect story for a one-act opera. The 'particulars of the scene', the 'details of the picture' chosen by a good librettist can stand out from the 'shadowy fancies' of a fine composer. Claude Debussy was his own librettist for Usher, based on Baudelaire's translations of Poe, with mainly positive results. This is a spare but theatrically satisfying scenario. As for the music, Poe's gloomy atmospheres are perfectly communicated by Debussy's shimmering strings, his mysterious woodwinds and muted brass, and the dramatic shaping and shading of the vocal parts. This music is reminiscent of Pelleas et Melisande, and perhaps more so of The Martyrdom of St. Sebastien. Though it was never completed (and sadly never saw a planned Metropolitan Opera premiere), the opera as completed by Robert Orledge contains a significant amount of original music by Debussy. The burlesque counter-piece to Usher, The Devil in the Belfry, however, has much more Orledge, who provides a clever pastiche of Debussy's earlier music and plausibly Debussy-sounding filler to go with the composer's original libretto and an outline of some musical ideas for the project. This is a clever and sprightly entertainment that provides a strong contrast to its gloomier mate. Orledge's fine work has brought us one final masterpiece back from the grave, and a ghost of another as an encore. Both works receive strong performances, recorded live at two performances in December 2013, from Christoph-Mathias Mueller, conducting the Gottinger Symphonie Orchester and an excellent cast of singers headed by the excellent William Dazeley as Roderick Usher, with a vivid cameo from Lin Lin Fan as Lady Madeleine.

Debussy's surgery and radiation treatments for his final illness made the composition of the Poe operas a painful ordeal, and obviously affected the music he was able to finish for both projects:
I have let myself stray and have almost only been working on Roderick Usher and the devil in the belfry. [...] I fall asleep with them and find on waking the gloomy melancholy of the one or the derisive laughter of the other. 
In the end it was as if Debussy had become a character in a Poe story.
I was on the verge – or almost – of completing La Chute de la Maison Usher. The disease has extinguished my hope [...] I find myself having difficulty coping with this turn of fate and I suffer like a damned soul.
This only makes this final music more authentic.

Here is a short promotional film promoting the original performances in Gottingen:

Recollected in Tranquillity

In the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth wrote a famous passage that defines Romantic art:
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
I've been thinking about this a lot in the past few weeks, while listening to this recording by the Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch over and over - way more than I normally do when reviewing a disc. That's partly because I love this music so much, but perhaps I was waiting for my own tranquillity in the face of such passionate music to gradually disappear, resulting in the sublimity everyone has come to expect from Dean's reviews.

As it happens I was recently watching episode 11 of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, "The Worship of Nature", on YouTube. There was Clark quoting Wordsworth in front of Tintern Abbey, and, at about 21:00, the second movement of Brahms' Double Concerto played over scenes of the beautiful English countryside.

Watching this on TV back in 1970 or 71, I was struck by the beauty of the music, and its perfect match with the landscape and Wordsworth's poetry. It's stayed with me ever since. I hadn't noted then Clark's odd anachronism of pairing the 1798 poem with a piece written in 1887, but it still seems to fit perfectly. It's also odd that a piece characterized at the time as "unapproachable and joyless, ... obstinate and mechanical, ... cold and rigid..." should have become a by-word for the perfection of romantic feeling expressed in Wordsworth's poetry.

Perfection of romantic feeling is indeed a phrase I would use for this performance by cellist Raphael Wallfisch, violinist Hagai Shaham and the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie under conductor Daniel Raiskin. Eschewing the larger-than-life heroics of the famous (I almost said infamous, but didn't) Ma/Perlman/Barenboim version, this is integrated and controlled but not careful, with obvious love for Brahms and his music from everyone involved.

As to the piano trios, I very much agree with Jessica Duchen, who in an ArtsDesk review of a January 2016 Wigmore Hall concert praised the Trio SEW's classic musicianship: "These performers evoke musical values that today are beginning to seem 'old school', yet are as sterling solid as ever." I know I should let that sentence stand by itself, but this whole paragraph by Jessica, with its emotional response in whatever tranquility might exist while writing to deadline, is very apt for my own review:
After the interval Rachmaninov's very early, one-movement Trio élégiaque No 1 offered a powerful dose of exquisite melancholy before the trio let rip with the magnificence of Brahms's C major Trio Op 87. It’s a piece that suits this group down to the last semiquaver, matching maturity, assurance, technique and good nature throughout its journey. Notable qualities that leapt out of this performance included the choice of contrasting palettes in the scherzo, the long lines of violin and cello offsetting the whirling interjections of the piano, and a breathtaking episode in the finale in which Erez’s piano tone turned utterly luminous, as if by magic.
Looking backwards from the Double Concerto of 1887 to the three Trios (op. 101 of 1886, op. 87 of 1880-82, and op. 8 of 1854) we see layers of nostalgia and regret peeled back until we have the relatively raw longing of the first Trio, written soon after Brahms met Clara Schumann. Shaham, Erez and Wallfisch don't oversell this; they recognize and communicate a guarded response by Brahms to these powerful emotions. Even here, though, we have another layer, since the version we all know of this marvellous piece is Brahms' revision of 1886. In this veiled Romanticism the layers add up!

So we end at the beginning. Here is a marvellous video of a live performance of the op. 8 Trio, from Rotterdam in 2014.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Great instrument; great music-making

Peter Sheppard Skaerved's series The Great Violins on Athene began with the May 2016 release of a well-received double-CD Telemann disc, played on a beautiful 1570 Andrea Amati violin. According to the marketing material at the time, the series is projected to have at least 10 releases, which is great news for lovers of the violin. Back then the second volume was set to be another two-disc set, of the Bach music for solo violin, but I guess the opportunity to play a beloved instrument of his compatriot Ole Bull pushed that back to v3.

The violin in this case was made by Niccolò Amati (Andrea's grandson) in 1647. It was once owned by Ole Bull, who loved it so much he named it 'my Pearl'. All the pieces included in this CD, subtitled "an Ole Bull salon concert" are works Bull regularly included in his recitals to show off his Pearl and his own considerable talent. Here we have an opportunity in the 21st century to re-live those days (it's called a 'replica' concert in the liner notes), while experiencing Skaerved's own considerable musicianship and virtuosity. This is a more varied programme than the Telemann discs, and this is one of the things I like the best about it. Though not the kind of music I often listen to, there's so much simple, heartfelt melody here.

Here's a perfect example: Bull's lovely Aurora:

Accompanying Skaerved here is pianist Roderick Chadwick, who provides strong support in the Mozart and a handful of other pieces (on an unfortunately anonymous piano - I couldn't find any information about it). I'm really pleased that we're getting these innovative CD programmes from top artists lately. Projects such as this one and ReSound Beethoven give an additional layer of historical interest to the music, and when the music-making is as fine as this, that's a big bonus. Now on to Bach!