Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"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, February 29, 2016

Popular and modernist songs from Brazil


I somehow missed this superb CD of Brazilian songs by Cristiane Roncaglio when it was released a couple of years ago. It includes outstanding interpretations of some of Tom Jobim's best songs, and a fine version of Ary Barrosso's sui generis Aquarela do Brasil. On the Villa-Lobos side, it's nice to hear three songs from Villa's late work Floresta do Amazonas. Veleiro, Cair de Tarde and especially Cancao do Amor are so popular in Brazil, but aren't heard here as often as they should be. But it's three songs from around 1920 that really stand out for me. Solidão (Solitude) and Novelozinho de linha, from the song collection Historietas, and Epigramma, from the collection Epigrammas Ironicas E Sentimentais, are completely in the modernist style of Satie, Debussy and Ravel, though they were all written before Villa's first trip to Paris later that decade. Villa-Lobos felt strongly enough about Solidão to include it in the program for 1922's famous Semana de Arte Moderna in Sao Paulo, the showcase for avant garde Brazilian art that focussed, on the music side, almost exclusively on Villa-Lobos. The shocked response from the audience, so similar to the near riots modernist composers were encountering in Europe, must have demonstrated to Villa-Lobos that he was on the right track!

Songs by Waldemar Henrique, Baden Powell, Miranda, Santoro and Belchior round out a fabulous collection with plenty of variety in style, rhythm and texture (with excellent guitar and piano accompaniment by Andre Bayer and Cristian Peix). Cristiane Roncaglio's very strong voice fits both the popular and more erudite music perfectly; there's no "slumming" here, or awkwardness, as there sometime is when the operatic voice leaves the formal stage in favour of the smoke-filled nightclub. To be fair, it's easier to do this in Brazilian music, where the lines between the two styles are so blurred. In this album Cristiane Roncaglio and her colleagues hit the mark perfectly everytime.


The lyrical bassoon


The lyrical side of the bassoon fits the French sound of this music, providing a nostalgic sadness that the elegant accompaniments of Francaix, Tomasi and Jolivet only make sadder. Even the jauntier sounds of the quick movements stay away from the bassoon-as-clown stereotype; this is light music but not unserious. And though the great Villa-Lobos Ciranda das sete notas is from 1933, when the Brazilian master was exploring national folklore in his Bachianas Brasileiras and Guia pratico, it fits in nicely amongst its French cousins. Though it makes reference to Brazilian dance forms, there's as much nostalgie as saudade in this lovely music. The soloist Matthias Racz has a light touch and a lovely tone, and he receives stellar suport from the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester under Johannes Klumpp. This CD is not just for bassoon afficionados, though I'm sure they'll lap it up. It's also highly recommended for all fans of French music and Villa-Lobosians.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Year of the Fat Knight


Last November I reviewed the Blu-ray disc of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, starring Antony Sher as Falstaff. I was so impressed with Sher's performance, and then marvelled at his versatility after I'd read his 1994 book Year of the King, about his experience playing Richard III. Sher writes as well as he acts, and then turns around and does amazing drawings and paintings. An all-rounder!

Now he's written Year of the Fat Knight, another diary about a theatrical experience, this time playing Falstaff with the RSC, and once again it's full of insight, wit, pathos, and all sorts of fascinating stories about theatrical folk. And, again, there are samples of his sketching and painting abilities.

I loved this book. It rings true, partly because Sher isn't afraid to tell stories against himself. In my review of the Blu-ray, I talked about an especially poignant moment in Part 2:
The camera always seems placed just where it needs to be, whether adding sweep to a battle scene, or focussing without moving on the back of Falstaff’s head as he is rejected and humiliated by his once-friend, the new King. When the King passes and Antony Sher slowly turns to the camera, tears streaming down his face, we witness a great theatrical moment. 
While preparing for the role, Sher read Kenneth Tynan's review of Ralph Richardson's famous 1945 performance at the Old Vic.
Tynan's description of the big moment at the end, when Hal rejects Falstaff, was enticing - Richardson kept his back to the audience during Hal's speech, then slowly turned - and it may be worth stealing.
This shows Sher's honesty and his love of tradition. He's a true artist.


Sher's self-portrait as Falstaff

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Everything old is new again, and again


Bach was a towering genius, right up there with Leonardo and Shakespeare, but he was also a working musician who needed to come up with music every week. In the latest release from Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan we get a glimpse of the composer’s every-day world, though it's rare for the quotidian to impose itself on this spectacularly beautiful music. Reworking previous music is an obvious strategy, and Bach is busy plundering his cantatas in these Lutheran Masses. What’s amazing here is the care he took in doing this, with new instrumentation and subtle changes in melody and harmony. He obviously had enormous respect for his audience to take this much trouble; I hope the parishioners in his church appreciated this! There’s also evidence of the deeply religious composer’s interest in theology. These masses represent a cogent personal Christology which mattered at least as much to Bach as the music itself. An interesting bonus in this disc is the inclusion of a short mass by Marco Gioseppe Peranda, a Roman composer from the generation before Bach who was active in Dresden until 1675. It’s here because music historians have found parts of the mass in Bach’s own hand, showing that he presented Peranda’s music along with his own masses.

Suzuki has a special connection with Bach that has only grown over the 20 years since he convinced BIS president Robert van Bahr to let him record the cantatas with his Bach Collegium Japan. And under Suzuki’s leadership his musicians have the precision, clarity and grace to make Bach’s music sound both timeless and spontaneous. This disc is recommended just as highly as Volume 1, from last year.

Here's Bach's autograph of the A major Mass, BWV 234: