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.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Earthy fun from Maestro Suzuki

If I had to choose one major recording project this century I think I'd go for the Bach Cantatas series on BIS with Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki (I'd cheat and add Bach's other major choral masterworks). Suzuki never lets us down; he chooses the right singers, his choir and instrumentalists are scrupulously prepared, his tempi are nearly always bang on, and most importantly through all of this he has something interesting to say related to Bach and Baroque music, and religion and history and performance practice. Throughout this project Suzuki, along with his gifted musicians and the just-as-gifted BIS producers and engineers, communicates a gentle peace, but keeps a strong joy bubbling just below the surface.

All of this is obviously apparent in the Passions and the Mass, but it's even more appreciated in the lesser works, and those that come from the quotidian working musician rather than the great genius communing directly with God. The Peasant Cantata has always been fairly popular; I counted about 25 different versions on There are some great tunes here, and a chance for the vocal soloists to characterize and even ham it up a bit. But its popularity also comes partly because it fits well on a CD with the Coffee Cantata, and partly because the record company gets to put on the record cover a cool Breughel-style picture of Flemish peasants having a grand time. Suzuki, though, comes through with something that sounds close to what Bach might have written for the opera stage. There is, of course, no real dramatic spark here, nothing like what is evident in even the earliest operas of Mozart. But there's a proto-singspiel feeling, with a fairly coherent libretto by Picander about young lovers, quotations of popular folk songs and the introduction of popular dance rhythms. Suzuki brings a vital, earthy feel to my favourite number, the final duet Wir gehn nun, wo der Dudelsack, by adding very cool drone sounds. I haven't heard any other version using this (I just listened to a dozen on the Naxos Music Library), and there's no indication in the liner notes as to how it was accomplished. The scoring indicated reads only "Corno, Flauto traverso, Violino I, II, Viola, Soprano, Basso, Continuo, Cembalo", but I suspect maybe it involved trumpet mouthpieces or, who knows?, kazoos. I'm not sure if anyone has ever staged the Peasant Cantata, but it sure sounds like it might be surprisingly effective, perhaps as part of an opera gala. But only if it's played and sung as perfectly as this.

Rather than the Coffee Cantata, we have for fillers two Italian cantatas of doubtful authorship. What isn't doubtful is the quality of the music, which is very high. There's no slacking off by the Suzuki and his forces, of course; this sounds like medium- if not top-drawer Bach to my untutored ears, though of course it's odd to hear Bach sung in Italian. So it's a surprisingly fun hour and a bit from BIS and Maestro Suzuki, though I guess it's no surprise it's so good. This CD is due to be released on September 9, 2016.

Stravinsky with a distinctive British sound

This is the second new Stravinsky choral disc I've come across this summer; it's due for release on August 26, 2016. When the music is as beautifully played and sung as it is here, by the Choir of St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Duncan Ferguson, and in Philippe Herreweghe's disc with the Collegium Vocale Gent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, you can only sit in wonder at the genius of the great composer, and listen gratefully to such artful construction and spiritual depth.

The works on this Delphian disc are in most cases earlier and less austere. The writing is easier on the ear, though always Stravinskyan. Since the high voices are sung by trebles there is an English (whoops, better say British) sound to the music which I often found quite appealing. Incidentally, St. Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh was the first cathedral in Britain to use girls as well as boys in its choir. They sound fabulous:

There's only one short piece that the two new discs have in common: the first of the Gesualdo motets that Stravinsky edited, Da Pacem Domine. Again, there's a distinctive sound from the Scottish choir, though I think the Belgian singers come out just ahead in this instance. Nevertheless, this is a fine recording, and one I'm sure I will listen to often in the future.

Exquisite, uncompromising late music by Stravinsky

I recently read Edward Said's insightful book On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, and now I keep coming across examples of late works unexpectedly. This new disc from Phi brings together a group of choral works from Stravinsky's final years. It includes two major works, Threni and the Requiem Canticles, that are relatively under-performed and under-recorded, for such important pieces and such a popular composer. Said brings up examples of "...artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction", and there is an aspect of this in some of the works on this superb new album from Philippe Herreweghe, with the Collegium Vocale Gent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. It's true, for example, of the great Threni, the first of Stravinsky's works to use dodecaphony throughout. The "intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction" here is by no means an indication of any problems the composer had with a new system of composition, since the 12-tone regime is completely integrated into the Stravinsky sound. Rather, the whole project, from text (taken from the Book of Lamentations) to the textures of voices and instruments and its odd structure, with canons and pitch-less chanting, is an expression of Stravinsky's own contradictory personality and religious/spiritual life.

Not that there is a complete lack of consonance or surface beauty. Even within the uncompromising scheme in Threni there are fine moments of consolation, and there are even more in the Requiem Canticles. Stravinsky scrupulously avoids sentimentality, and Herreweghe does the same, but there is a fine feeling one might call human welling up in this music. Here is the exquisite (and exquisitely sung) Exaudi from the Requiem Canticles:

The disc ends with a short motet by Gesualdo, Da Pacem Domine, which is 3 minutes and 20 seconds of pure beauty. It retains the style of the Mantuan master but sounds completely modern. Perhaps this says more about Gesualdo's time travelling magic than Stravinsky's editing, which consisted of the addition of a missing bass line only. In any case, it's a fitting close to an outstanding album, one of the best choral discs of the year.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fresh Beethoven

The challenge in presenting music from Beethoven's early period isn't necessarily to bring to bear all of one's musical capabilities as one would when playing a mature or even a transitional work. Beethoven was in his early twenties when he wrote the three piano trios that he published as his Opus 1, and he put everything he had into this music, which was sometimes a bit more than the music could bear. Put everything you have into playing them, and things might come crashing down. There has to be some slight distance, a musical smile when things get too fraught, a bit of ironic detachment: more Seinfeld than Breaking Bad. My ideal for this music is the wondrously joyful, and obviously fun music making of Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Prez and Pinchas Zuckerman (those were happy days!):

You can guess that the vital TrioVanBeethoven are probably going to do fine when you see the wide smiles on their faces on the cover of this album, volume 3 in their Piano Trio series for Gramola, due to be released on August 12, 2016. And they do a really marvellous job with this trio (as they did with number 1 in volume 1; I'm assuming number 3 will be part of volume 4, to come). I especially liked the Rossinian gallop of the splendid Presto Finale. Likewise, they play the slight Allegretto WoO 39 with real grace and the tiniest bit of mock heroism, which I believe Beethoven wrote into the piece himself; he was 42 at the time.

We move into a different world entirely with the E-flat major Trio, the second the two trios of op. 70, written in 1809, when Beethoven was approaching the end of his thirties. There are dark clouds overhead that the musicians should take note of, but not to the detriment of the nostalgic beauty in the lovely third movement, or the determined almost-optimistic mood of the Finale. If the final degree of gravitas is missing in this, a favourite, under-rated work, these fine musicians make up for it with their fresh approach to all of this music. 5 stars!

Here they are, playing the op. 1 no. 2 trio at King's Place in 2015:

Into your life it will creep

"You are here", the first track on Darcy James Argue's new album Real Enemies (due to be released by Real Amsterdam Records on September 30, 2016) really took me back. It begins with the sounds of shortwave: the Voice of America (if I'm not mistaken), the time station WWV, from Ft. Collins, Colorado, and one of those great Numbers Stations used to communicate with spies in the field. I began listening back in the glory days of the Cold War, in the late 1960s and early 70s, to Radio Peking and Radio Moscow, and the CIA-funded Radio Swan. But, believe it or not, the Numbers Stations are still going.

The Real Enemies project is about America's Paranoia Industrial Complex: the endless conspiracies that fuel political campaigns and bedevil our daily lives on Twitter and Facebook.  You could just about pick a story from Google News at random today, and hit on a real or imagined conspiracy: 'rigged' election debates, Russian campaign hacks, anti-vaxxers running for President. All from one day. Argue, a Canadian who has lived in Brooklyn since 2003, has the outsider's clear-eyed approach, which gives him the freedom to hang his music on any conspiracy hook that comes to mind. I don't know, we may not have conspiracies here in Canada. Don't you think that's odd?

Anyway, that's the concept, and it's a beautiful context for some very cool music. Film is an obvious place to start; Argue mentions two specific scores from 1970s conspiracy thrillers: Michael Small's score for The Parallax View (1974), and David Shire's for All the President's Men (1976). I heard Bernard Herrmann's iconic score from Taxi Driver (1976 as well), but then I also heard the same music in Jean-Fery Rebel's Le Chaos, written in 1737. There are other influences: I also thought of big band master Kenny Wheeler (another Canadian), Schoenberg's Wind Quintet and Robert Fripp from the King Crimson years. The actual quotations or influences don't really matter. Argue has a huge palate that he can work with, and he has the taste and the musical wit to find the perfectly apposite style to match, or dramatize, or satirize any crazy theory that's out there. Most important is perhaps his light touch, expressed often with a Latin beat, which serves him well when he gets close to the awful 9-11 theories or the disastrous Middle Eastern fiascos of American presidents.

Not long ago I reviewed the CD Suite Cantiga by the Brazilian guitarist Alvaro Henrique, which included a very similar project from 2010 by the electroacoustic composer Jorge Antunes, entitled Brasilia 50. The track "1963" begins with the same speech by JKF used by Argue in "The Hidden Hand", "The very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society..." This is some very cool synchronicity, since America and Brazil have tons of conspiracies and paranoia between them. They can swap and share! [Alvaro's track is used with permission]

Here is the pre-release track "Best Friends Forever", from the Darcy James Argue Secret Society Bandcamp page. There's lots more information on the project, including upcoming live performances, at this page.

Duelling Prokofievs

There are two complete Prokofiev Symphony series on the go right now: Marin Alsop's on Naxos with the Sao Paulo Symphony (OSESP), and Andrew Litton's on BIS with the Bergen Philharmonic, and a third just finished at the end of 2015, by Kirill Karabits with the Bournemouth Symphony on Onyx. This is music that rewards comparative listening: I can listen for hours to different versions of different symphonies, stopping to compare passages, or just letting the music wash over me. There is a great range in musical styles among the symphonies and miscellaneous orchestral works included on these discs, and even within some of the works themselves. I couldn't listen to this much Shostakovich at once without musical or emotional fatigue. Prokofiev often lightens the moment with an innocent, non-sarcastic motif by the flute, or softens a martial movement with a consoling passage from the strings. He never cloys, and sentimentality seems foreign to him. How many composers can you honestly say this about?

All three of these series have received rave reviews; it's the fine details and one's personal preferences that will help someone decide which one to purchase. Luckily, with nearly ubiquitous streaming services you can pop in and out of all three, or even do some comparisons of your own. Here is Karabits in the grand opening movement of the greatest symphony, no. 6:

And a slightly more expansive reading by Litton:

Alsop's version will be released on August 12, 2016; I'll add the Spotify link here when it's available. Once again, Alsop and the Naxos producer and engineers are taking a best-strings-forward approach, with less of a focus on brass and woodwinds. This results in a softer, more restrained, less acerbic interpretation, which is made clear by listening to the first minute of all three versions (and especially Karabits' witheringly in-your-face beginning, which I found effective in its own way).  There is plenty of power on display from Sao Paulo, though, and Alsop makes sure to highlight Prokofiev's bleakest and harshest passages for maximum poignancy.

When you have orchestras of the calibre of the Bergen, Bournemouth and Sao Paulo ones, and such gifted conductors as Litton, Karabits and Alsop, there are no losers in a competition like this. Only winners: everyone who loves Prokofiev.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Grand and richly scored music from the English Baroque

Unless you're immersed in the English choral tradition (I'm not), you might not be too familiar with John Blow's music (again, nope), but this is fabulous music, a real find. The 17 members of St. James' Baroque provide impeccable Historically Informed early Baroque orchestral support for the 34 very fine singers of the New College Oxford Choir, in this new disc from Novum (to be released August 12, 2016). These anthems are very close in style and quality to the much better known music of his colleague Henry Purcell, and indeed Robert Quinney points out in his liner essay that the two composers worked very much in a collaborative fashion: "... we might readily imagine two musicians, whose relationship encompassed the copying, completion and even revision of each other’s music, exchanging professional appointments with an informality that subsequent generations have found difficult to comprehend." The anthem God spake sometime in visions, written for the coronation of James II and Mary of Modena in 1685 is an especially grand piece, richly scored and full of felicitous passages of choral and instrumental colour. It seems propitious that this music comes from Handel's birth year; this splendid style suited English ecclesiastical and court music then and in the coming years of Handel's ascendancy.

There's more information, including a sample track and expanded CD notes, at the Choir of New College Oxford website.

Insights into Beethoven from a great musician

This fine documentary film on DVD by Phil Grabsky presents Leif Ove Andsnes's epic Beethoven obsession, spread over four years and 150 performances in many cities. As he says: "a multi-season project that will make the composer’s music the centerpiece of my life as a performer and recording artist." It began like this:
I was on tour in Sao Paulo a few years ago, and when I checked into the hotel I realised that in the lifts they were playing a CD of Beethoven’s first and second piano concertos in a loop, the whole week. I thought that after two days this would make me absolutely mad. But the opposite happened, and I realized that listening to 37 seconds of these pieces each time I entered the life was quite wonderful, because I could just hear *that* bit. I thought ‘Oh, how beautiful, how original and how strange that is, how fresh and how different from any other music.’ And I thought, ‘Now is the time for me to tackle that, now is the time for me to do Beethoven.’
Watching Andsnes playing the piano and conducting the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra in this sublime music is a great experience, though it does leave one wishing for the entire performances on video. I hope they'll be issued on DVD and Blu-ray soon. There are many times when Andsnes presents an idea in a very simple and straight-forward way, but the results are incredibly insightful and beautiful. One example is when he explains the significance of the cadenza near the end of Concerto no. 3, and moves to the ethereal transition from solo piano to piano and orchestra. I was transfixed! Here, and in his entire Beethoven Journey, Andsnes' hard work and commitment join with his amazing natural talent as a musician, with outstanding results.

The audio version of the five concertos plus the Choral Fantasy is available on three individual CD, or packaged together as a box set. I have one issue with the DVD, and I'm afraid it's a bit more than a quibble. Everything Andsnes says is so astute and penetrating, and you don't want to miss a thing. But he's very soft-spoken, and his voice is mixed at such a low level that when the piano and orchestra from the recording sequences come in the neighbours are apt to pound on the walls or ceiling. This film was made for theatrical release, and in a theatre with the right acoustics it might have been fine, but even trying different equalization settings on my system I was still straining to hear Andsnes while the orchestra was at the very high end of the comfortable listening range. Luckily there's the option to add subtitles (in English or Norwegian), so I didn't end up missing too much. This is an inconvenience, but not enough to cost this superb film a star; it still gets all five!

The best Henry V for the home theatre

The last three plays in Shakespeare's Tetralogy, Henry IV, parts I & II, and Henry V, are a bit like a Three Card Monte game. Who are we watching for? Pay close attention to Sir John Falstaff. How could we not, when he was played so superbly by Antony Sher in the first two plays? I was bowled over by this performance, and by Sher's amazing book The Year of the Fat Knight which chronicles his role. But pay too much attention to Falstaff and you'll miss the amazing character arc of Prince Hal becoming King Henry, who is marvellously portrayed by the another superb actor and comedian, Alex Hassell. Watch King Henry, as he builds his character and leadership skills, coming to a climax in the great St. Crispin Day speech. What a character; what a fine performance! But wait - where is Sir John?

Alas, he's gone, leaving a Sir John-shaped hole and some very good memories. Shakespeare has let the Falstaff card fall from the table. But in this presentation of Henry V director Gregory Doran and his awesome cast work hard to fill that hole and move the action across to France and world events. Bardolph is back, played again by Joshua Richards, as is Pistol (Antony Byrne), along with Mistress Quickly (Sarah Parks, who replaces Paola Dionisotti), and they all get some room, away from Falstaff's shadow, to build comic rhythms and gain long and loud laughs from an appreciative Stratford-upon-Avon audience. Again, the talented actors in Doran's troupe often take multiple roles, and the stagecraft is of the highest order all around. The stage is set, to coin a phrase, for the patriotism and heroics on, or rather, just a bit to the side of, the battlefield. All this, plus Opus Arte's fine HD sound and picture and excellent video direction, makes this the best available Henry V for your home theatre.

In the middle of it

In an illuminating essay that's part of the liner notes for this new Genuin double CD, the members of the Asasello Quartett come up with an analogy for their involvement with Schoenberg's four great quartets:
Immersion is actually a pretty good word for it. The work on the Schoenberg string quartets was not unlike scuba diving: stay calm and breathe steadily as you move along the reefs, marveling at the colorful world-in-miniature. The little coral trees with tiny fish flitting through their branches; then turn your head to gaze into endless blue as a majestic Napoleon fish glides by. Microcosm/macrocosm, it is all happening at once and there is too much of everything because that is how life is, and you feel you could burst with joy and passion but you manage to keep your cool, maintain the balance, stay on top of things as you store the impressions for always. You resurface knowing you would been down there as a guest; you have “felt the force”, seen the indescribable beauty, and are thankful for having been a part of it for a short while. Nature being what it is, no matter how often you repeat the dive, it is always slightly new and different. The wonder, however, remains unabated. Luckily, so does the awe: in deep waters any inattention or recklessness is hazardous.
I thought immediately of a favourite passage in John Eliot Gardner's great book about Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven:
Imagine ... what it feels like to stand chest-deep in the ocean, waiting to snorkel. What you see are the sparse physical features visible to the naked eye: the shore, the horizon, the surface of the sea, maybe a boat or two, and perhaps the bleached outline of fish or coral just below, but not much else. Then you don your mask and lower yourself into the water. Immediately you enter a separate, magical world of myriad tints and vibrant colours, the subtle movement of passing shoals, the waving of sea anemones and coral – a vivid but wholly different reality. To me this is akin to the experience and shock of performing Bach’s music – the way it exposes to you its brilliant colour spectrum, its sharpness of contour, its harmonic depth, and the essential fluidity of its movement and underlying rhythm. Above water there is dull quotidian noise; below the surface is the magical world of Bach’s musical sounds. But even once the performance is over and the music has melted back into the silence from which it began, we are still left with the transporting impact of the experience, which lingers in the memory. 
That these two descriptions should be so similar is a sign that the shared experience of music-making can have deep connections. That Gardner's magical Bach experience should be so similar to that of the young musicians of the Asasello Quartett belies the common perception of Schoenberg as a systematic destroyer and bringer of what Max Weber called "the distinctive injury of modernity: disenchantment (Entzauberung)". Of course there is magic in this music, and not only in the richly romantic 1st quartet, which reportedly intrigued but puzzled Mahler. More importantly, these performances are full of this magic. This is emphasized by their presentation of the quartets in reverse chronological order, rather than a more conventional move from the richly neo-romantic to the revolutionary systematic, to the cerebral and ascetic style of Schoenberg's maturity. As Gardner says, “ order to present it with full belief and conviction, I try to convey what it feels like to be in the middle of it.” With this important project the Asasello Quartet and soprano Eva Resch have pulled that off.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Honesty, empathy and gaman

Miya Masaoka's 3-movement work Triangle of Resistance is a harrowing, moving presentation of her mother's life during her family's and community's internment during World War II, under Executive Order 9066 against Japanese-Americans.  This re-telling shows great honesty and empathy, expressed through the string sounds of the mid-20th century avant-garde mixed with Japanese instruments. Masaoka herself plays the koto, while the percussion played by Satoshi Takeishi includes Buddhist prayer singing bowls, gongs, taiko, changgu, and other drums. There is confusion and sorrow and pain and anger in the wrenching beginning of The Long Road, a frightening journey of a Junior High School girl from the comforts and familiarity of home to the internment camp. The second movement, The Clattering of Life, expresses the quotidian boredom, loss of privacy and jarring sounds of a harsh imprisonment. There is some redemption in the third movement, Survival, found through the Japanese concept of gaman. Masaoka explains:
This describes the part of the personality or community that can endure and withstand hardship, yet continue to persevere in spite of all odds. This gaman, is in part, a kind of resistance.

Triangle of Resistance: String Quartet Excerpt from Miya Masaoka on Vimeo.

The Four Moons of Pluto is a 16-minute tour de force for a single instrument, the double bass, played by an outstanding musician, James Ilgenfritz. Though written in a completely different style, this music is to me somewhat reminiscent of Bach's Cello Suites. Both explore the range of sounds available for the chosen instruments, and both have an underlying mathematical basis, a cerebral component of emotionally powerful music. Masaoka, who has created music installations in connection with plants and insects, plugs in to the celestial "music of the spheres" in this work. With so much interest in the recent NASA missions to Pluto and the other far planets, this music might help win new audiences for Masaoka's music. It certainly deserves to.

This disc is due for release on August 26, 2016. Go to the Innova website for more information, including an excerpt from the title work, and a PDF of the liner notes.

Powerful, pure and polished polyphony

New York Polyphony, whose 2014 Christmas album was a stand-out release, now present this superb recording of great music from the Eternal City's 16th Century artistic peak. Singing one voice per part (the core group in the 4-part works, augmented with other fine singers in 6-part repertoire) New York Polyphony provides absolute purity in these amazing works. There's been some criticism that there's too much precision - Brian Wilson at MusicWeb International says, in an otherwise admiring review, "everything here sounds just a little too perfectly polished" - but I don't see it that way. The intelligibility of the words of the mass in spite of polyphonic overlapping became an important issue following the Council of Trent, and under the influence of Cardinal Charles Borromeo, according to Ivan Moody's excellent essay included in the liner notes. This repertoire, and especially the Palestrina, is about the spiritual life, but the politics of the Counter-Reformation (even if one discounts the debunked legend of Palestrina as 'saviour of polyphony') looks to the presentation of Catholic music as perfect and eternal. Purity, polish, polyphony: these all go with another P word: power.

Finally, I must say some words about the great record company BIS. From their home in Sweden they have real global reach: their projects with OSESP in Sao Paulo and Bach Collegium Japan in Tokyo represent the highest possible musical and engineering standards. This project with New York musicians recording in Omaha, Nebraska continues that legacy of excellence.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A strong program for strings and guitar

I've sometimes thought of certain composers as soldiers of fortune, but always in a metaphorical way. Antoine de Lhoyer (1768 - 1852) was literally both. He was an "elite member of Gardes du Corps du Roi, a Knight of the Order of St John and a Knight of the Order of St Louis", as Wikipedia tells us, though I have no idea how impressive that actually is. I wouldn't place him in an elite category as a composer, but he seems to have been quite a virtuoso on the guitar. Based on the evidence of the work included on this very good disc, the first recording by the Basel-based Chamber Orchestra I TEMPI, Lhoyer had a way with melody, and he writes a light and transparent orchestral accompaniment to allow his sometimes virtuosic solo part to shine through. For some reason, though, Lhoyer only wrote two movements in his Guitar Concerto. It seems to be standard practice to insert the Adagio movement from his A major Duo concertante, with one of the guitars discarded. Here it fits well, though I prefer Lhoyer's original version (all three of his Duos are worth listening to). The main competition for this version of the Concerto is a 2004 Naive disc, with guitarist Philippe Spinosi and the Ensemble Matheus conducted by his brother Jean-Christophe. I prefer the new disc for its stronger string sound and clearer, more focussed recording, and for guitarist Stephan Schmidt's excellent playing.

The competition for the remaining pieces on the disc - the Dvorak E minor and Elgar Serenades - is much, much stronger.  In an old Parlophone disc Charles Mackerras and the English Chamber Orchestra present the Dvorak as a perfect Watteau painting, ripe with youthful verve and nostalgic sorrow, and always perfectly beautiful. Gevorg Gharabekyan gets a more than competent performance from his young musicians, but the final layer is missing. Gharabekyan rushes through all three movements of the Elgar; this is excellent playing, but I'd rather hear Barbirolli's more serious, more romantic (though sedately romantic, to be sure) version with the Sinfonia of London, which is just this side of self-indulgent. Again, this is on an even older Parlophone disc, which I once had on LP. Parlophone wasn't just for the Beatles, you know!

The Continent of Ysaÿe

The Six Sonatas for Solo Violin op. 27 are by far the most popular work by Eugène Ysaÿe (I counted over fifty versions on CD at Amazon), I'm afraid to the exclusion of the rest of his music. Indeed, this new CD from Belgium contains the first orchestral music of his that I've heard in a very long time. A French reviewer has said "Ysaÿe is a continent, of which we know a peninsula: the sonatas for solo violin." This music is so appealing and it's written in such an accessible and romantic style that I'm very surprised that at least a few of these poèmes for violin and orchestra aren't part of the standard repertoire. It's high time, it seems, to explore the continent of Ysaÿe.

This is the second disc of Ysaÿe's orchestral music recorded by Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege. The first, from 2014, featured works for orchestra with cello, violin and string quartet, and was well received by critics, with special notice taken of the commitment, warmth and passion of the orchestral musicians. In the new disc we have two young violinists featured: Svetlin Roussev, playing a Stradivarius violin in three of the works, and Amaury Coeytaux in the remaining four. There's certainly something about concertante works written by composer-performers for their special instrument, which was clearly apparent listening to Grazyna Bacewicz's violin concertos recently. The violin parts in these Ysaÿe poèmes are like a personal voice of the composer, and his violin sings beautiful but sad, or at least bitter-sweet, songs.

The International Style of the Spanish Corelli

When I spent two years in the Twin Cities back in the olden days (Go Vikings!), I never felt more Canadian. Francisco José de Castro was born in Seville in 1670, but he spent his artistic life in Italy. He called himself "Spagnuolo", and one can very much hear a Spanish flavour in this music.

Still, this Opus 1 collection shows that De Castro had adapted completely to what had become the International Style of instrumental music at the end of the 17th century. Corelli is the obvious influence, but there are other strands to hear besides the Spanish and Italian. French dances make an appearance as well. This is wonderful music: rich with operatic flair (a number of these movements may have been used, with doubled string parts, as overtures), dance rhythms, emotional interludes, and special musical effects to wow the cognoscenti.

And it's a wonderful performance, by La Real Cámara, under the leadership of Emilio Moreno. Moreno apparently recorded this music for Radio Nacional de España back in the 1980s, so he knows this music well. This is playing of the highest standard, which expresses an obvious commitment and love, and Moreno's album is the best possible advocate for this composer.

Recorded in the Auditorio y Palacio de Congresos Príncipe Felipe, in Orviedo, Asturias, by Spanish musicians, I was a bit surprised when I compared the great 9th sonata with the only other Castro recording I could find, by Chatham Baroque:

This actually has a stronger Spanish flavour than the new version, though maybe that's because of the context, a (highly recommended) album called Españoleta.

I'm so impressed with De Castro's music, and wish there were more to listen to, but it looks like this might be the Complete Works at this point. The Concerti Accademici, op. 4, as appealing as they are, are probably mis-attributed. His Opus 2 collection is, according to the liner notes by Marco Bizzarini, "currently missing", so I'm hoping they might turn up some day.  I certainly hope when they do the scores go first to Emilio Moreno and La Real Cámara.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Rich, colourful music from a diverse musical ecology

Gernot Wolfgang's new recording Passing Through is as thoughtful and entertaining as any 21st century music I've heard this year. Wolfgang's experience as a film composer and arranger has given him a facility with open, emotional music, a variety of instrumental colours, and melodies - whether film-shorthand leitmotifs or longer folk- and pop-inspired tunes - that linger in the memory.

My first exposure to Wolfgang's music was his piece Low Agenda, on the 2011 Matthias Kronsteiner disc Modified: Music for Bassoon. I got that disc for its excellent version of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 6, but Wolfgang's jazzy piece for bassoon and string bass left a strong impression.

The new disc begins with a similar bassoon work, this time with piano:

I'm sure Wolfgang is well aware of the great film music of Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North. You can hear influences of each, as well as some more classically oriented composers.  The three-movement Passing Through, for oboe and bassoon, for example, has the same kind of popular/classical mix and quirky effect as Villa-Lobos's wind chamber pieces: Choros no. 2 for flute & clarinet, Trio for oboe, clarinet & bassoon, and the aforementioned BB#6 for flute and bassoon. But Wolfgang definitely has his own sound, and he's hit upon the mix of musical techniques that together produce the Gernot Wolfgang style.

My favourite piece on the album is String Theory for string quartet, an appealingly diverse suite, with folkloric roots, landscape painting and allusions to Bartok and country music. As Wolfgang explains in his excellent liner notes, once the music was finished he thought of the almost jokey title, String Theory, and then went about learning more about its meaning in physics. When musical and particle physics theory entangled, "that's when I started to feel good about naming my piece String Theory."

Composition isn't the only positive expression of film music in this album. So many of the musicians on this disc are as familiar with film and television recording studios as more traditional concert and recording venues. Gifted musicians from LA's vital music scene come together to provide the highest possible performance standards on this disc; Wolfgang seems to know them all!

In his 1940 essay "Film Music" Aaron Copland expressed concerns about taking film music out of the studio and onto the concert stage:
... it is only natural that the composer often hopes to be able to extract a viable concert suite from film score.  There is a current tendency to believe that movie scores are not proper material for concert music.  The argument is that, separated from its visual justification, the music falls flat.
It turns out, of course, that Copland needn't have worried. Modern movie audiences are much more aware of film scores than they were in Copland's day, and high quality orchestral and chamber music is heard by a much larger and more diverse audience in the Cineplex than in a concert hall or classical album or streaming service. Meanwhile, today's classical music is invigorated and made more relevant by the scene-painting, emotional nudging and character-shading work done in the Hollywood studios. This gives us a much richer musical eco-system, enriched by so many streams, to engage so many more people. This new album is a grand example of this richness.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Outstanding music for violin & orchestra from Poland

I'm a CD-half full kind of guy when it comes to unfamiliar repertoire on disc, but I wasn't expecting such a positive listening experience when I had my first listen to this fine release from Naxos. There are four very solid works for violin and orchestra here, each one full of energy and grace, and all played beautifully by violinist Piotr Plawner, with strong support from the Kammersymphonie Berlin under Jurgen Bruns.  I've recently become quite a fan of one of the composers here, Grażyna Bacewicz. I highly recommend the recent two-disc set of her Complete String Quartets with the Silesian Quartet, which I reviewed last month. Bacewicz was a concert violinist as well as a composer, and her First Violin Concerto, written in 1937, is the first of 7 she wrote to show off her skills in both domains. There is absolutely no empty virtuosity here, though; this is brilliant music, largely in a neo-classical style, but there are also some hints of a more serious and passionate music that she would explore later in the series. I look forward to hearing the other six, and from a quick look at reviews, it seems like Joanna Kurkowicz's series on Chandos might be the place to start.

Alexandre Tansman's Five Pieces, a kind of updated Baroque suite, were written for Joseph Szigetti in 1930. It all sounds quite French to my ears, though there's more of Ravel and Les Six here than Rameau or Couperin. Michal Spisak's Andante and Allegro from 1954 is another work that seems to come from half-way between Paris and Warsaw; it was written for his teacher Nadia Boulanger. He referred to it as "a little story for violin and orchestra." The Andante has the declamatory feel of a recitative, sounding at times a bit pompous. This music is infused with a quite subtle irony, quite unlike the often heavier-handed version of Shostakovich, which often veers into sarcasm. Spisak's Allegro is full of incident, after that fine set-up, with a hustle and bustle beginning that suddenly opens up into a graceful Watteau-like landscape, returning for an energetic, and quite amusing, ending.

The disc comes to a serious, even spiritual, close with Anderzej Panuknik's 1971 Violin Concerto, written for Yehudi Menuhin. Alternating between sober and energetically manic moods, this marvellous work is suffused with melancholy, even when the folk rhythms of Polish dances are evoked in the Vivace finale.

Four works of completely different character, but together a triumph for everyone involved!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Medium and message in Beethoven's piano sonatas

"We are homesick most for the places we have never known."
     - Carson McCullers
I don't normally listen to this kind of historical release, but this new double album (to be released August 26, 2016) from Britain's APR Recordings has plenty of musical interest, and there are a number of nostalgia hooks for this baby boomer. This is in spite of the fact that I didn't come across Wilhelm Kempff until his third wave of Beethoven sonata cycle recordings: the stereo releases from the mid-1960s, which followed the mono ones of the mid-1950s, and the partial cycle on 78rpm recordings from the 20s and 30s, a generous selection of which are included in this release. I've talked before about the importance of Kempff's cycle in my early discovery of Beethoven, but like the LP-toting hipster of today, this is also about a medium that pre-dates even my advanced years: the 78 rpm record. I am old enough to remember the thrill of holding a heavy disc in my hand, even if it was by then from far in the past, and hearing the pops and clicks and steady hiss along with a sound that was more compressed and limited than we're used to then or today, but often somehow fuller and richer at the same time.

We perhaps take for granted the sterling work of the early recording restoration specialists; it's quite remarkable how much piano sound there is in the best of these tracks, and even in the worst of them, the 1928 acoustic recording of op. 101. The Kempff style comes through loud and clear: more lyrical than histrionic; more thoughtful than dramatic; more Greek, as they say in the Sicilian portion of The Godfather, than Italian. The recording technology of the mid 1930s was good enough that you can listen to the sonata op. 110 (recorded in July of 1936) and at some point completely forget the provenance of the recording. Let's not forget to praise the re-mastering again! There are even some musical advantages to these early recordings: a fresh and spontaneous feeling that comes with a bit of the pioneer spirit. Three of these sonatas (op. 81a, 90 and 101) are the very first to be put on record by any artist. To be sure there are drawbacks beyond the sound: the lack of repeats (which allows the longer sonatas to fit on fewer records) emphasizes what some have argued is a lack of gravitas in Kempff's playing, especially in the slow movements. And the short playing time of each record side (the Hammerklavier was on five 78s, or 10 sides) meant some sonata movements were divided into chunks during the recording process, which militates against the presentation of a coherent architecture for Beethoven's awesomely large musical structures. But technology isn't everything - the critical consensus is that Kempff's mono cycle not only is a greater interpretation, but even sounds better than the stereo made the following decade. These performances are a valuable portrait of the early days of recording and of a Beethoven genius, and they're a blast to listen to.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Not HIP, but plenty musical

It's Canada Day, and I'm enjoying the fabulous singing of the great Canadian tenor Léopold Simoneau, in this CD re-issue of Carlo Maria Giulini's landmark 1952 Paris production of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride. Simoneau is one of the glories of this project, along with more great singing by soprano Patricia Neway and the Ensemble Vocal de Paris, solid playing by Giulini's Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire Paris, and, most importantly, the gorgeous melodies and dramatic set-pieces of Christoph Willibald Gluck. Giulini's calm control over the music squashes nearly all of the qualms one might have about inauthenticity. Certainly there are passages that sound very odd to those of us who spend the bulk of our 18th century opera time living in the world of Historically Informed Performances, but I'm swept away by musicianship and compositional genius.

Let's compare this 1985 recording, with a fairly large orchestra, playing modern instruments, but guided by HIP principles, with the Orchestre De L'Opera De Lyon and the Monteverdi Choir, under John Eliot Gardiner:

with the Giulini version:

O.K., when you do this A:B, the Giulini begins soupy and swoopy, while Gardiner is crisp and clear, though some of that clarity is lost in a cavernous acoustic. But Giulini brings excitement when Gluck gets stormy, and the singing is perhaps a draw. I prefer Gardiner's version in the long run, but don't regret the time I've spent with this version, recorded in my own birth year.

A postscript about Simoneau: born in Saint-Flavien, Quebec in 1916 (I missed his Centennial last May 3rd!), he and his wife, soprano Pierrette Alarie, moved to Victoria, BC, where I live now, in 1982. Here the two great singers founded Canada Opera Piccola, a training and production organization that had a significant impact on opera on the Island and throughout Canada. Both died here in Victoria - Simoneau in 2006 and Alarie in 2011 - but their musical legacy lives on.