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, October 31, 2016

Fine Christmas music from Montreal

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

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

Worth the wait

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Brass for the holidays

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

* but then open it right away and play it.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Strong performances of sometimes great music

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Old favourites at Christmas

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

This tweet is six years old!

A brightly-lit classic with a refined aesthetic

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

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

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

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A special Ring Cycle continues

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

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

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

Friday, October 21, 2016

Quartets from an important Canadian modernist

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Music from an important 20th century composer

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

An obscure composer brings unalloyed pleasure

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

Illuminating, moving musical project

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Authentic, authoritative Van Gogh

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

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Beethoven concertos with a chamber music flavour

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

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

Friday, October 14, 2016

A modern masterpiece brought to post-modern life

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A superb Blu-ray Wozzeck

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

Here is the trailer for the disc:

A treat for garden and art lovers

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Two masterpieces for clarinet and strings

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

Venice by moonlight, 1840

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Charming and genial symphonies

Of all the once celebrated nineteenth century composers who have fallen into obscurity, lost in the dark behind the blinding light of Beethoven's fame and genius, I find Louis Spohr the most appealing. His Third Symphony, from 1828, is so genial, so positive, so cheerful. It has the same naiveté and innocence as Schubert's early symphonies, and leaves a similar nostalgic sadness when it's done. Here is a new recording from Naxos, due October 14, 2016, with Alfred Walter and the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra. This is by no means well-known music, so I'll play you the first movement of the symphony from an earlier recording, with Howard Griffiths conducting the NDR Radiophilharmonie, on a 2007 CPO disc.

There's a portentous strain - more pronounced in Griffiths' version than in Alfred Walter's new recording - that in spite of the C minor key sounds nothing like Beethoven. It looks at the same time back to Mozart and early Schubert, and ahead to Weber and early Mendelssohn. The new recording doesn't have the same verve and drive of the excellent CPO disc, but this is a more than competent reading, expressive and lyrical.

I got a bit worried when I read the programme of Spohr's Sixth Symphony, which he entitled a "Historical Symphony in the Style and Taste of Four Different Periods." It sounded like it might be didactic or satiric (or worse, broadly comical). But the first three movements at least, harkening back to Bach & Handel, to Haydn & Mozart, and to Beethoven, are charming and witty and really spot on. The final movement grinds a contemporary axe, and as so often happens, the point (in this case the skewering of the operas of Auber and Adam) is lost in the mists of time. But even this "musical joke", though it isn't really funny (are they ever?), doesn't seem ill-tempered. The whole pastiche comes off pretty well, and I like Louis Spohr more now than I did before.

A tale of two composers

It's great to see the second volume in Chandos' Ginastera Orchestral Works series so soon after the first (which came out early in 2016), in celebration of the Centennial Year, which continues in fine form on record. This disc, again featuring Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, will be released November 18, 2016.

The disc includes two works in such completely different styles it's hard to believe they're by the same composer. The suite from Panambi, Ginastera's opus 1, is one of the most accomplished first publications by any composer, partly because Ginastera destroyed or declined to publish pretty much all of his early music. Written in the mid-1930s, it has the same combination of New World folklore, sounds and rhythms, and European modernist music (especially Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy), that is so familiar with Villa-Lobos's music from the 1920s and 30s. It's an orchestral showpiece with a small but significant contribution from the choir, and this completely plays into the strengths of the musicians of the BBC Philharmonic and the Manchester Chamber Choir.

The second work could hardly be more different. The Second Piano Concerto was written in 1972, during Ginastera's "neo-expressionist" phase, the last 12 years of his life after he moved from Argentina to Geneva. Based on a 12-tone row that emerges from the seven notes of the bass solo ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!’ (Oh friends, not those sounds!) in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, this music is every bit as expressive as Panambi, though with different textures, and evoking different responses from the audience. The Concerto is a virtuoso showpiece for the pianist and, once again, for the orchestra, and pianist Xiayin Wang and the orchestral players come through with flying colours.

2016: let's keep the Ginastera Centennial rolling!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Clean and Stylish, but Static Beethoven

Last May I raved about the 3rd volume in the Resound Beethoven series, where Martin Haselbock and the Orchester Wiener Akademie performed the Egmont music and the Consecration of the House Overture in the hall in which the music had been premiered. With the latest volume the stakes have risen, though. I consider the Eroica Symphony the greatest symphony ever written, and there are a string of performances that I worship: Klemperer, Walter, Szell, Karajan, Giuilini in the big-band group, and Bruggen and Harnoncourt on the HIP side. How do Haselbock and his Vienna group compare, forgetting for a moment their completely apposite venue (the Eroica Saal at the Palais Lobkowitz)?

Listen to this great live performance with the Orchestra of the 18th Century conducted by Frans Bruggen:

It's clear that Haselbock doesn't bring anything close to that excitement from the beginning. Furthermore, Tom Service praises both Bruggen and Otto Klemperer for "the cumulative momentum that builds from the first bar to the last" in the ground-breaking 1st Movement. I don't feel the momentum, which I think really does explain why these Klemperer and Bruggen move me so much. Thanks for that explanation, Tom! Haselbock turns in a clean, stylish performance, but it's curiously static. I'm still impressed with the concept of hearing Beethoven's music in the space in which it was first heard, and the contrast between the Symphony and the Septet on the 2nd disc does help to define the acoustic space. But music of this greatness really requires something special when it comes to interpretation.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Music from the time of Rubens

I've been on a Rubens kick lately, and seeing some of his great pictures last month in London and Edinburgh really emphasized for me what a genius he was. Two recent books, Rubens and His Legacy and Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens, showed that Rubens was much more than just a painter. His political career was wide-ranging, his accomplishments as an entrepreneur were outstanding, and he consorted as an equal with all the top intellectuals and artists of the age. I was really interested to read about his diplomatic and artistic connections at the court of the Gonzagas at Mantua, where he connected with Claudio Monteverdi.

Jean Tubery and Ensemble La Fenice present this fascinating new project L'Atelier de Rubens: Musica Belgicae, which assembles music from Antwerp and other Belgian centres during the period when Rubens built his studio and an international reputation as Europe's greatest painter. I knew, and was very impressed with, the Tubery's similar project in 2015, Velazquez and the Music of His Times; the current disc meets those very high standards of scholarship and presentation.

The composers aren't very well-known: Nicolo à Kempis, Cornelis de Leeuw, Jan/John Bull, Jan-Jacob van Eyck. The only names I knew were Jacobus Clemens non Papa and that prolific artist Anonymous. But there are many felicitous moments here: many of the pieces are reminiscent of better known Italian music of the period, and there are some really special works included. The Symphoniae for cornetto and strings have an appealing Monteverdi/Gabrieli sound, with a Northern lilt. Philipp van Wichel's La Ciacogna has a real pan-European sound; I love to hear a Chaconne in whichever guise it's presented! I also loved the carol Een kindeken is ons gheboren (To us a little child is born), and the three pieces based upon it by different composers. I plan on including these in my Christmas playlists!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Robust, theatrical, beautiful Mozart

Back in October 2014 I praised pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy for their delicate but spicy way with Haydn piano concertos. I obviously liked what I heard, because I compared Bavouzet's playing to Bill Evans, who is my piano god. These musicians were in a really special groove then, and two years later here we are with even greater music, and that special feeling is still going strong. Both of these works from 1784 are perfect jewels. You'd think that a private, intimate feeling would be the goal for music of such beauty, but Mozart is above all social, and there's a robust and often dramatic underlying strength that can't be missed. Mozart talks often about "good taste" in music, but there's a theatrical sweep that would be lost if the musicians play too prettily. No Dresden china here! Bavouzet's bravura playing and his cheeky, jazzy cadenzas are just what's required, and Takacs-Nagy is with him every step of the way. These are exactly what I want in Mozart piano concertos.

There are a couple of bonuses on the disc. Bavouzet plays, with aplomb of course, Mozart's original cadenzas from the first two movements of K. 453, which are familiar, clever and moving. I love Bavouzet's slightly twisted cadenzas, but the more traditional among you can imagine these in their place. And the piano is rolled away to allow the Manchester Camerata to take a solo turn, in the Divertimento K. 137 from 1772. This is lighter and frothier than the more mature concertos, but just as delicious. The new disc drops on October 28, 2016.

I just went to the Manchester Camerata website, and I see that Bavouzet will be playing more Mozart there next spring. Here's what's on the program for the Mozart Madness concert in March 2017:
Mozart   Divertimento in D Major K.136
Mozart   Piano Concerto No.14 in E Flat Major K.449
Mozart   Divertimento in F K.138
Mozart   Piano Concerto No.19 in F Major K.459
I hope at least some of these end up on a Chandos CD next year!

Sir Neville Marriner, RIP

I heard this morning that the great conductor Neville Marriner had died at 92, and immediately pictured myself in the middle of James Gibbs's St. Martin in the Fields, his lovely church in Trafalgar Square. We were just there last week, listening to an excellent chamber music concert.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
This is the scene of Marriner's greatest accomplishments: building a world-class chamber orchestra in the Academy of SMF, creating a recording juggernaut (more than 500 discs), and expanding its repertoire from baroque and classical to a very broad range of standard orchestral works. This new re-issue by Capriccio (out October 14, 2016) of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony, originally released in 1990, is a good example of the outstanding playing Marriner coaxed from his players. Even the 1812 Overture gets the same full, serious, in-depth performance as the composer's more serious music. This is a very fine recording indeed, and a great tribute to the conductor on this sad morning.

It's no coincidence, I think, that Sir Neville's greatest triumphs came in this church. His best qualities, and those of his orchestra, are 18th century, Enlightenment ones. His music is social, both rational and sentimental (in the best sense), and most importantly, very beautiful.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

An important British symphonist

There's a sad but instructive Wikipedia article entitled "Wiping" which talks about the regrettable practice, once common in the broadcasting industry in the 50s and 60s, of taping over audio and video content, resulting in permanent loss. This was unfortunately widespread in the BBC, and many important classical music broadcasts have been lost. However, thanks to the efforts of one man we can now hear many important BBC broadcasts from that period.

Humphrey Searle is one of the most important of 20th century British symphonists. His Second Symphony was included in the recent Lyrita British Symphonies set. All five symphonies were recorded in the mid-90s in a really excellent two-disc set from CPO, with Alun Francis conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony.

This new disc (out October 14, 2016) can't compare with that set in terms of sound, though the mono sound is surprisingly good considering the source: it's full and lively. The Third Symphony is put across by the BBC SO under John Pritchard with the requisite forcefulness and tension. This is the typical Searle style, an uncompromising serial work with no lack of expressive range. As to its "Venetian" title, I think the programme of the symphony runs out of steam before it adds any value to the listening experience. I prefer, as so often, to listen to music like this as if there were no programme.

The Fifth Symphony, written in 1964, is amazing. I find it, of all the music on the disc, the most interesting, and the one that most rewards re-listening. A large-scale tribute to Anton Webern, the work is a kind of palimpsest, with Webern's characteristically spare musical textures expanded and elaborated upon. There is deep sadness here, but also plenty of wit and whimsey. This is the broadcast premiere of the work, from 1966, and it's performed by the same forces who premiered the work in Manchester in 1964, the Hallé Orchestra under Lawrence Leonard (who I remember as the Edmonton Symphony's conductor in the late 1960s and early 70s.)

The final two orchestral works are perhaps both more clever than profound. In the Zodiac Variations of 1970 Searle takes advantage of musical puns in bringing the 12 astrological signs to 12-tone music. 1971's Labyrinth for orchestra similarly constructs a kind of musical maze. This is fun to listen to, though again I didn't take the trouble to follow any mythological programme other than the very basic maze construction.