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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A welcome release of Milhaud's chamber music

This new disc of Milhaud's Violin and Viola Sonatas from Brilliant Classics is very much welcome. Until I went out to research the competition I didn't realize how relatively thin the Milhaud discography is. Mauro Tortorelli, who plays both violin and viola, and pianist Angela Meluso style themselves the Gran Duo Italiano, but what I like about their playing is that it's anything but Grand. Rather, the musicians are aware that irony is always just around the corner when it comes to Milhaud, and the wink and sardonic smile is there along with whatever mock pomposity he comes up with. The 2nd Violin Sonata of 1917, written during Milhaud's time in Brazil when he acted as secretary to the French Consul Paul Claudel, is an intriguing mixture of the modernism of Paris, the Jewish melodies of his childhood and the exciting rhythms of South America. This is a work that I'm sure interested Villa-Lobos greatly.

The viola sonatas come later, from the time of Milhaud's exile in America following the German invasion of France. There's a nostalgic feeling in this music that's suited to the sound of the viola; Milhaud evokes a France of the past through dance rhythms of the Baroque period, and more folk-tunes of his younger days. This whole project, including the fine choice of cover artwork (a landscape of Aix en Provence by Cezanne, is so very appealing.

Pleasant Mozart from Bologna

The new Ensemble Respighi two-disc set of Mozart Violin Concertos from Concerto Classics, with violinist Domenico Nordico, provides new look at these five popular concertos in bright, fresh live recordings. This isn't profound music, but I think it was an opportunity for the composer, then in his late teens, to make a leap forward. Mozart was working on his operas La finta giardiniera in 1774 and Il re pastore in 1775, but the inherently dramatic concerto form in these works helped him work through certain structures and scenarios that would serve him in good stead in the next decades. Just how far he was to go is evident in the bonus work in this album: the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola of 1779, which is miles above the solo concertos, and written just ahead of his ground-breaking opera Idomeneo.

These are pleasant but hardly world-class performances, as became clear when I recently listened to the 3rd and 5th Violin Concertos with Henryk Szeryng and the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson. I was so impressed with the great violinist's tone, as well as the electric charge of the orchestral playing. The gap becomes even wider when comparing the new recording with great versions of the Sinfonia Concertante (my favourite is the team of friends: Perlman, Zukerman and Mehta on DGG). These are good enough performances to give an appreciation to the first approximation of Mozart's joyful middle period and his incipient genius, but only that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A charming Baroque compilation from Sweden

The new Telemann Corelli Bach album by the new Swedish group Höör Barock is full of special touches, with a background of stylish, historically-informed performance. Corelli's Christmas Concerto op. 6 no. 8, for example, includes two solo recorder parts, played here by Emilie Roos and group leader Dan Laurin. Along with oboes and bassoon in the tutti, and the special appearance of a baroque harp in the final movement, this charmingly rustic pastoral scene is a nice change from the strings-only version we hear many times every Holiday Season. There's a similar familiar/unfamiliar situation with Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in F major, the composer's own arrangement of his Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. This is run through in brisk fashion, with splendid playing by Anna Paradiso at the keyboard. The harpsichord sound works well in this odd mixture of solo and continuo instrument; the BIS engineers have struck the right balance, I think, between blending in and sticking out. Of the rest of the music, the stand-out work is Telemann's splendid Ouverture-Suite ‘Hamburger Ebb und Fluth’, with its energetic and graceful dances. This new recording tends to be rather light and frothy, with its considerable charm more on the surface. I still prefer the classic, more dignified version by Musica Antiqua Köln under Reinhard Goebel. But I'm glad to have heard this excellent compilation from one of Sweden's greatest exports: BIS.  The record drops January 6, 2017.

Brooding, bubbly chamber music from Naples

The chamber music of the late romantic Italian composer Giuseppe Martucci is new to me, and it was a pleasant surprise. It has an appealing sound that's a mixture of brooding Wagner and bubbly Verdi. This is open and honest music, music that wears its heart on its sleeve. The early string quartet works on the second disc of this Brilliant Classics release (due December 9, 2016) are light salon pieces without too much serious content, and are played here by the Quartetto Noferini with perhaps not quite as light a touch as they require. I loved the Handel pieces that end the album, transcribed with love and wit by Martucci.

The Piano Quintet, and especially the two Piano Trios, though, are at the same time more passionate and more erudite. As with many romantic pieces, Brahms and Schumann especially, the cello carries much of the emotional argument, with the virtuosic piano part, reflecting Martucci's own significant performance skills, often providing commentary. Pianist Maria Semeraro's keyboard skills are up to the task, but the bass-heavy recording doesn't perhaps give us the best sound picture of the full ensemble, especially in the Quintet. The Scherzo movements of both Piano Trios are standouts, with echoes, I learned from cellist Andrea Noferini's liner essay, of south Italian bagpipe music. Recommended!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Delightful neo-classical music from Italy

In Italy in the first half of the 20th century it would have been a natural impulse to think back to calmer and more civilized times. For the orchestral composer Italy's glories were some centuries in the past, during the hey-day of Corelli, Vivaldi and Locatelli. Thus three of our composers, Alfredo Casella, Giorgio Federico Ghedini and Gian Francesco Malipiero, shared a common neo-classical or neo-Baroque style with occasional forays into more modern passages, staying away, though from full-blown modernism. The tone is serene and humane, with much use of Baroque dance forms and rhythms, and the orchestration is open and light. Casella's Divertimento for Fulvia is an orchestral adaptation of his own Eleven Children's Pieces for piano, written as a ballet in 1940 and dedicated to his daughter. In this way it's rather similar to Villa-Lobos's Momoprecoce of 1921, an orchestration of his Carnaval das Criancas for piano, but it most closely resembles Stravinsky's 1919 pastiche of Italian Baroque music, Pulcinella. This is not to mention the closer-to-home example of Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances. Whatever the influences, this is very appealing music. Ghedini's Concerto grosso from 1927 has a similar kind of wit and simple, down-to-earth delight in melody, tempered though by slight Teutonic influences, of Beethoven and Richard Strauss especially. Malipiero's slight Imaginary Orient is atmospheric, with occasional chromatic passages denoting the Mysteries of the East, but it remains as rooted in nostalgia as Casella and Ghedini's works.

With the much younger composer Franco Donatoni's Music for Chamber Orchestra we enter a different sound world. This is delightful and appealing twelve-tone music, written after a stint at the 1954 Summer School for New Music at Darmstadt. Delightful and appealing twelve-tone music? It's true! Donatoni can thus be placed with his contemporaries Nono, Maderna and Berio, but also with the older composers on this disc, who share a common facility and Italian verve. Of the four works on the disc, all but the Casella are recording premieres, and all four are well played by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Damian Iorio. This disc will be released on January 13, 2017.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Personal and theatrical trump liturgical

I've been living with the perfect Bach sound of Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan for many years, during their supreme BIS series of Bach recordings, most especially the cantatas. Then it was time to switch to Mozart, with last year's excellent Requiem, and now this special recording of the Great Mass in C Minor, due to be released on December 9, 2016. As to the switch, there are no concerns from me; this is Mozart singing and playing of perfect taste and impeccable style. Indeed, Masaaki Suzuki has recently shown how adaptable and nimble he can be, with this spring's release of an excellent Stravinsky disc with the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

I always listen to Mozart of any genre through the lens of opera, and I like what I hear in the drama, and indeed the theatricality, of many passages in this performance. At this stage in his career, Mozart had recently completed Idomeneo, and was working on Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In other words, he was working through a process where the more formal opera seria was becoming more grounded in reality at the same time as flights of fancy were allowed to blossom in opera buffa. This loss of formal frameworks pays out as well in the fragmentary nature of the Mass, which is missing segments of key liturgical importance. This recording uses Franz Beyer's 1989 completion, based on Mozart's sketches for some of the missing music. It all sounds very much like Mozart, and, more to the point, very personal Mozart, considering the rationale for its first performance. This was a celebration of his recent marriage to Constanza, and it was Constanza who sang the very important soprano role in the first performance. Among the excellent group of solo voices here the soprano Carolyn Sampson stands out, as she did in the Requiem, and as needs she must in the Mass. Maestro Suzuki makes a very convincing case for theatrical and personal impulses trumping conventions of purely liturgical importance.

BIS fills up the disc with an equally convincing performance of the early work Exsultate, Jubilate, which is full of surface brilliance and sparkle. The entire package is very highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A winning formula for Christmas

The new Novum Christmas CD Nowell Sing We! from Robert Quinney and his Choir of New College Oxford is in the classic English choral tradition, long-established but not conventional, with the highest standards of singing, lovely solo voices, full acoustics, and arrangements that provide both the comfort of the familiar, and the excitement of the novel (to North American ears at least). Quinney has chosen Advent and Christmas songs that range from the simple and folk-like (Charles Ives' A Christmas carol) to the more sophisticated (Richard Rodney Bennett's intense setting of In the Bleak Midwinter), with some requisite standards (Quinney's fine arrangement of  O come, O come Emmanuel, and Vaughan Williams' O Little Town of Bethlehem). A winning formula!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A classic presentation of the riches of Bach's sons

This reissue of the Bach Sons album originally released in 1989 is welcome; it's been a favourite of mine over the years. Concerto Köln had only been in existence a few years at that point, and both the repertoire and the style in which it was played was not as mainstream as it has since become. The album represented considerable work in the area of music historical scholarship. Scores came from obscure sources around the world, including, in the case of the D minor Sinfonia of J.C.F. Bach, in the Moravian Church archives in Bethlehem PA. What impresses one the most about this collection is the amazing range of styles included, from the light, galante Sinfonia of "the English Bach", Johann Christian, to the more erudite works of CPE and Wilhelm Friedemann, to the full-on Sturm und Drang power of my favourite Bach son, Johann Christoph Friedrich or JCF. This Andante Amoroso middle movement of his D minor Symphony has an almost Mozartian sound:

Monday, November 7, 2016

Inspired music making

This delightful 5-CD album from LSO Live includes the Symphonies and various other orchestral works by Sibelius, conducted by Colin Davis. That's five and a half hours of amazing music, with assured and often transcendent playing and singing by these marvellous musicians. These stories that Davis tells, the tone poems with their programmes and the symphonies with their dramatic arcs and awesome vistas, are made more cogent by the live recording and the great conductor's steady hand. I've been living with this music for a couple of weeks, and pretty much every musical decision seems bang on. I've listened to all 30 tracks straight through a couple of times, and started a few more times but had to stop for various reasons, that is, life. Of course, none of this was deep listening in front of a score, and these are really more impressions than deeply considered critical opinion. But the cumulation of all this listening makes me feel confident of my feelings. Every time the last movement of the First Symphony comes around I listen for the ultra-Romantic passages (beginning around 9:00), which sound like slightly-overripe Tchaikovsky, and the theatrical conclusion. This is inspired music making!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Wonder and mystery from The Sixteen

The Sixteen's Song of the Nativity is an outstanding Christmas disc of the more contemplative kind. There are celebratory pieces here, but the nativity is a low-key, hushed affair.
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Putting across this combination of wonder and mystery requires great control and finesse, which Harry Christophers and his wonderful singers The Sixteen provide at the highest level, for example in this beautiful version by Morten Lauridsen which leads off the album.

The control and purity of the voices is really outstanding. Christophers and his choir sustain the long lines of Peter Warlock's great Bethlehem Down in spite of an audaciously slow speed. I wasn't convinced at first, but the beautiful sound they make almost convinces me the choice of tempo wasn't a mistake. The program doesn't provide much variety of mood or styles, but rather it provides a respite from Holiday hustle and bustle, and perhaps a chance to meditate upon more serious matters than shopping or parties. There are occasional breaks into less sophisticated and subtle music, including a number of rustic "traditional" songs where the singers sometimes indulge in a bit of Celtic celebration, but nothing too raucous! The album comes to a triumphant close with James Macmillan's O Radiant Dawn from his Strathclyde Motets, which is about light shining on "the darkness of those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death."

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A pleasant find from the Wallerstein court

Three things occurred to me as I listened to the first movement of this surprising new disc of piano concertos by the non-household name composer Ignaz von Beecke. First, the piano concerto is such an appealing format, with its Enlightenment-era conversational style and its Romantic-era dramatic thrust, and the potential for erudite cleverness, theatrical episodes and deeply felt emotions. Second, there are still musical gems hidden in libraries that can amaze us in performance and on disc. And third, we are so lucky to have the music of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart during this period, who both elevate the standard, stereotypical forms of the day to the highest level of art.

These two concertos are definitely not at that level, but they are both very pleasant, original in a naive way, though perhaps a little vague and a little long. The D major concerto was written in 1780 (a year or two before Mozart's K. 413-415 set), while the F major one comes from 1785 (the year of the great d minor concerto K. 466). Apparently Beecke was a big fan of Haydn's, but I hear more Mozart here, and perhaps C.P.E. Bach, whose Keyboard Concertos I would place in third place from this period. This music is beautifully and stylishly presented, with beautiful piano technique by Nataša Veljkovic, and robust accompaniment by the Bayerisches Kammerorchester Bad Brückenau under Johannes Moesus. The focus is definitely more on the Romantic side, which might be less than strictly correct music-historically, but which serves this music well. Too precious an interpretation with an underpowered fortepiano would drain much of the charm from  these works. This music is supported by outstanding documentation, which is welcome because there's not a lot of information about this guy out there.

Every time a disc like this shows up I'm optimistic, but usually those hopes are dashed. Looking to find an obscure masterpiece uncovered is a bit like betting on a complete long-shot. This is a substantial payoff, but not to win or place, only to show.