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.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Special mentions for 2016

I've just posted my Top Ten Discs of 2016, but I wanted to mention a few additional discs that didn't fit for one reason or another.

Into your life it will creep


I don't review too many jazz albums here, but Darcy James Argue's new disc with his Secret Society certainly impressed me. Real Enemies just received a well-deserved Grammy Nomination.


Give 'em the spirit


I'm beginning to pay more attention to historical re-issues. This release from Somm is an outstanding investigation of the music and technology of Edward Elgar, a recording pioneer.




Two discs of sublime music from Charles Munch and his great Boston players, sounding pretty good considering the age and provenance of some of theses recordings. Kudos to Urania for this release.




This 1981 Mozart concert from the Amerikahaus in Munich contains piano playing of the highest order from the legendary Friedrich Gulda. Here's a perfect coda to a pretty good year in recorded music.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top Ten discs for 2016

Here are my Top Ten discs for 2016, of the 175 or so I reviewed during the year.


And here is the list for 2015.


Illuminating Haydn


The third disc in Giovanni Antonini's Haydn 2032 project with Il Giardino Armonico on Alpha Classics has the intriguing theme "Solo e Pensoso", which casts a new light on a composer we often think of more attracted to the social whirl than brooding, deep in thought. The long journey to the Haydn Tricentennial is on the right track.


Strong performances of sometimes great music


The three young musicians of the Neave Trio make a strong case for two works by teenage composers (Korngold and Bernstein), as well as a third, mature, work by Foote. Though only two of these - the Korngold and Foote - are true masterpieces, all of this music keeps our interest, thanks to the fine playing and the fine sound and presentation by Chandos. Watch these three!


Geniality and wit; virtuosity and passion


Sir Andras Schiff plays and conducts masterworks of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart in this outstanding Blu-ray from C-major, filmed at the Great Hall of the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in January of 2015. His boundless charm is the keynote of the whole project.


A personal and progressive sound


A second set of the complete Grazyna Bacewicz String Quartets in four years is surely a sign that the Polish composer is finally coming into her own. The Silesian Quartet play with confidence and verve; this is another fabulous release from Chandos.




The title of my review of Cristina Spinei's fine new disc from Toccata Classics is pretty obscure. It's from Anthony Powell's discussion of the painting by Poussin whose title - A Dance to the Music of Time - Powell used for his cycle of novels. The patterns that emerge from Spinei's music are always moving, and always fascinating.




The Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra under György Vashegyi perform four Grands Motets by the great French composer Jean-Joseph de Mondonville, three of which seem to be recording premieres. This Glossa disc includes possibly the most ravishingly beautiful music I've heard all year.




Put Ingela Brimberg on an empty stage with a black fright wig and an axe, and she would provide a good percentage of the sheer horror we get from this performance. She's that good. But add the outrageously over-the-top staging of Carlus Padrissa and the urban theatre group La Fura Dels Baus and you have something really memorable. Conductor Rumon Gamba keeps all of this lunacy (including that of von Hofmannsthal and Strauss) within proper bounds. This Norrlandsoperan Blu-ray from Unitel Classica is a triumph.




This Grand Piano disc is the first in a projected complete recording of the Cartas Celestes, the avant garde masterpiece by Almeida Prado, pupil of Messiaen, Boulanger, Foss and Ligeti. One is dazzled by how the composer lines up all of his stars, as well as the playing of the young Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel.




The Chapelle Royale in Versailles is a splendid venue for the sublime music of Claudio Monteverdi. This is an awesome performance by The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, under the direction of a special musician, scholar and human being, Sir John Eliot Gardiner.




Harry Christophers and The Sixteen explore three themes in this special disc: tradition, faith under fire, and craftsmanship. Though there is incredible musical ingenuity and serious scholarship taking place here, in the end it's the beauty of the music that counts. In the words of Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface.”


So there's my list. A good year for classical music recordings, I think, though a disastrous year for the musicians themselves. We've lost so many already, and I hope that particular list is complete with two weeks to go in 2016. I've only recently been paying attention to Historical Re-Issues, so I'll be posting some of my favourites from that genre in my next post. Also, I've reviewed a number of jazz discs, and I'll highlight my favourites as well.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A fine violin sonata recital from Vancouver Island


This very fine violin and piano recital disc from Affetto features violinist Elmira Darvarova, who I know from her excellent Vernon Duke Violin Concerto disc from 2014, and pianist Shoko Inoue, who makes her home in my neck of the wooks: Oak Bay, British Columbia. Their Spring Sonata by Beethoven is very good: Inoue provides a solid basis for Darvarova to launch Beethoven's flights of fancy, but with enough rhythmic flexibility to keep things interesting. The violin tone is full but not placed too forward to ruin the special balance between instruments that Beethoven worked so hard to present. Their Franck Violin Sonata, one of the great works of the genre, is presented very much as a classical work, and I feel the loss of some of the passion Franck put into this music. I appreciate the desire to keep things from boiling over, but perhaps the heat isn't turned up quite high enough here. I have no qualms at all, though, with this version of Clara Schumann's 3 Romances, op. 22. This is Romantic music full of powerful emotions, tinged with sadness but bounded by Schumann's determination to live her very difficult life with dignity and good humour. Darvarova and Inoue's presentation of their well-chosen programme is warm and elegant and the Victoria-based studio recording is lifelike if a bit distant. This is from 2013, and the disc appeared since then at CDBaby, but it will be re-released on January 17, 2017. Watch for it!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Warm music from the Cold War


The latest edition in Audite's excellent series of The RIAS Amadeus Quartet Recordings is volume V, entitled Romanticism.  It's a six-CD set containing music by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Verdi, Bruckner, Dvorak and Grieg. About a third of the works have never appeared on CD by this distinguished group, so it's a welcome release indeed.

RIAS stands for Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor (Broadcasting in the American Sector), a radio (and later TV) station set up in 1946, which broadcast from West Berlin throughout the Cold War. I listened to RIAS on shortwave (on the 49 Meter Band) back in the late 1960s and early 70s, though probably not to The Amadeus Quartet. I remember receiving a QSL card like this one, which shows the former IG Farben branch office on Kufsteiner Straße, RIAS broadcasting centre from 1948, and now headquarters of Deutschlandradio Kultur.  Our recordings were made in this building.


The Quartet itself is from this period; the group was created in 1947 and played with its original founding members until 1987, when the Berlin Wall was still up. And child of that period that I am, "Amadeus" sounds like "String Quartet" to my brain. I wore out the Deutsche Grammophon LPs of the Beethoven Quartets, and later their Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. So this music seems natural and authentic to me; I love their close ensemble and polished sound. To me this sophisticated approach is intuitively the proper style for chamber music of the 19th century, though I've also come to appreciate other more individual, less genteel ways of playing.

These recordings come from the 1950s and 60s. They represent the useful compromise of the broadcast studio rather than the recording studio, with a controlled acoustic environment, a comfortable and increasingly familiar space for musicians and technicians, but with less focus on technical perfection and more of the excitement of a live performance. And speaking of familiarity, the guest artists who appear here, violist Cecil Aronowitz, pianist Conrad Hansen, and clarinettist Heinrich Geuser, are all well used to playing with the Amadeus Quartet. They all shine here as brightly as these four great string players: violinists Norbert Brainin and Siegfmund Nissel, violist Peter Schidlof and cellist Martin Lovett.


Plugged in to the spirit of the composers


The new concerto disc from cellist Clemens Hagen features the very fine 1B1 ensemble, made up of the best instrumentalists from University of Stavanger and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, led by violinist Jan Bjøranger. Haydn's 1st Cello Concerto is from Haydn's early 30s (the early 1760s), when he wrote the superb Symphonies 6, 7 and 8. Hagen and 1B1 are completely in tune with each other. These fine musicians communicate both the high spirits and the more thoughtful moments of a young composer discovering and presenting his own genius.


In the profound Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart Jan Bjøranger takes a solo role as well as continuing to lead the orchestra, and his playing is exceptional. Violist Lars Anders Tomter, who shone in the 2013 DaCapo recording of Vagn Holmboe's Viola Concerto, is up to his high standard. This is a performance that doesn't suffer by comparison with any of the classic recordings of the past. All in all, this Simax release is a real winner.