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, August 11, 2017

Great poems and a perfect reader


Matthew Arnold: Selected Poems

Choosing a reader for an audiobook isn't easy, for what we want is actually more than reading, but something just short of acting. The author might know the inner rhythms of the text better than anyone, but it's a rare author with the skill and vocal equipment to keep things lively and moving and still sounding natural. A great stage actor might tend to declaim too much; a great film actor might just be slumming; and in both cases the dreaded actor's ego might push itself forward to the detriment of the story. The rise of the voice actor category that's come with the extraordinary success of animated film and video-games has given us a number of specialists with the skill and discipline to read a variety of works. Jonathan Keeble has a very long resume in voice acting work, and the audiobooks of his I've listened to are impressive indeed. He brings all the right tools to this well-chosen selection of poetry by the great Victorian, Matthew Arnold.

One of my favourite Arnold poems is the extraordinary Desire, whose short lines, shifting rhythms and unexpected rhymes keep one off-balance. It's a very modern-sounding poem, with more than a hint of hip-hop, based on a highly personalized and emotional, though de-mythologized Christology.

O, let the false dream fly
Where our sick souls do lie,
Tossing continually.
O, where thy voice doth come,
Let all doubts be dumb;
Let all words be mild;
All strife be reconciled;
All pains beguiled.
Light brings no blindness;
Love no unkindness;
Knowledge no ruin;
Fear no undoing,
From the cradle to the grave,--
Save, O, save!

Keeble's reading is altogether admirable; he makes the emotional arc of the poem clear, without sentimentalizing it on the one hand, or trivializing it on the other. All without any beatboxing!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Opulence and spare beauty



Terry Teachout quotes Felix Mendelssohn in his marvellous book on Balanchine, All in the Dances: "The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite." As Teachout says, "So, too, with Balanchine, whose choreographic thoughts are extraordinary precisely because they cannot be translated into mere words." That precision and clarity of thought are especially welcome when it comes to ballets based on French music, and both are evident here in this excellent compilation of four classic dances presented at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in July 2016. This Blu-ray is a perfect example of High Definition: sound and picture in this opulent theatre presented with the highest fidelity, exquisite costumes, gorgeous dancers, and, most importantly, the great Balanchine tradition that goes back to the NYC Ballet premieres of these works in 1948 (Symphony in C), 1951 (La Valse), 1975 (Sonatine) and 1980 (Walpurgisnacht). The dancing here is thrilling on so many levels, and enhanced by the sensitive film direction of Vincent Bataillon (one of the film partners was PBS's Great Performances), and the production by Francois Duplat. I had the strong feeling more than once while watching these dances of losing myself in an art of beautiful lines, masses of colours and complex parabolas, all moving to the music. As Balanchine himself said, "The important thing in ballet is the movement itself. A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle . . . is the essential element."  I'm not a ballet expert by any means, but I'm now officially wild about Balanchine. Teachout's book is like a kind of User's Manual for these ballets. I look forward to learning - and experiencing - more in the future.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

More Rembrandt than Hals


Dvorak: Piano Quartets no. 1, op. 23, and no. 2, op. 87

The Busch Trio received very positive reviews for the first disc in their projected complete Dvorak chamber music with piano series, a piano trio disc released on Alpha Classics in 2016. Now comes a recording of less familiar but still quite marvellous Dvorak: his two piano quartets. Miguel da Silva, the violist from the Ysaÿe Quartet, fits in very well with his younger colleagues. The youthful first quartet could have perhaps used a somewhat lighter touch, but the mature second work, a true masterpiece, is a great fit for the dark, Brahmsian way these musicians have of playing Dvorak. Torn between the bucolic and the cosmopolitan, Dvorak puts his somewhat protean music out there, and musicians have the lovely opportunity of filling in much of their own emotional content. In this instance we have a pretty sophisticated, dramatic interpretation more in the style of a brooding Rembrandt than Frans Hals celebrating life's pleasures. Even with perhaps too much light and shade, I enjoyed this interpretation a great deal.

This disc will be released on September 22, 2017.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Bingeing Tchaikovsky


Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-6, Manfred Symphony, Francesca da Rimini, Serenade for Strings

I can't remember all the times I've been warned by a reviewer not to listen to an album all the way through in one sitting, but I'm going to go ahead and do the opposite. I've enjoyed this three-disc set of Tchaikovsky orchestral music immensely in the last couple of weeks, and I found that listening straight through from the First Symphony to the Serenade for Strings gave me a new appreciation of Tchaikovsky's art, which hasn't always resonated with me in the past. It's a tribute to the composer's invention and to Vladimir Jurowski and his fine musicians that the music always seems fresh and dynamic. There are certainly Tchaikovsky markers throughout: phrases and felicitous orchestrations that could come from no one else, but the composer and conductor always make sure they sound uniquely positioned. This is a well-filled compilation: the six Symphonies fit onto the first two discs, with a generous bonus disc that includes two substantial works, the Manfred Symphony and Francesca da Rimini, and a light piece for afters, the Serenade for Strings. Everything seems perfectly judged in this release from the LPO's own label, and I don't apologize for my bingeing. All the music sounds great, though the live recordings of some of the works go back to 2004. Symphonies 2 and 3 as well as Francesca da Rimini and the Serenade are new recordings from 2016.

An afterword: I've been struck in the past couple of days, with Tchaikovsky still ringing in my brain, by how influential his orchestral music has been. Villa-Lobos's acknowledged influences are Bach and Stravinsky, but I hear so many Tchaikovskian bits in his Symphonies and Bachianas Brasileiras. Listening to Benjamin Britten last night I noticed the same thing. I expect I'll be hearing these echoes for a while.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Gorgeous bits without dramatic purpose



Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein, which premiered in May of 2016, contains a very fine 90-minute narrative ballet buried within a 2 hour and ten minute story that somehow is both over the top and un-dramatic. It has marvellous scenes that feature three outstanding dancers: Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein, Laura Moerera as his love Elizabeth, and Steven McRae as The Creature. Unfortunately Scarlett has swallowed and regurgitated whole chapters worth of exposition from Mary Shelley's novel about minor characters that obscure the main action, and more importantly take away from Shelley's themes of nature, science and the purpose of knowledge. Two scenes stood out for me: the first was a lovely dance of awakening love in the First Act between Victor and Elizabeth, which reminded me of the great Dancing in the Dark scene in The Band Wagon with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire. The second is the terrifying dance between Elizabeth and The Creature at the end of Act 3, and the coda with The Creature's dance with his creator. This is uncomfortable to watch, but highly original and theatrical in the best way, and at a high level.

Lowell Liebermann's music has been called cinematic, and at its best recalls some very good film composers. But narrative ballet is closer to silent cinema than modern talkies, so the music keeps churning away whether there's a reason to be there or not. That puts some significant strain on the score, and weakens its impact. Similarly, John MacFarlane's sets and costumes are quite gorgeous, but can't keep one's interest above water during long scenes with minor characters dancing, as beautifully as they all dance. The three principal dancers have great careers ahead of them, but Liam Scarlett needs to stick with short-form abstract dance, or begin a dramatic apprenticeship with a competent theatrical director.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A stunningly beautiful presentation



HD video and surround sound are proving to be a big boost for documentaries about painters; the latest Exhibition on Screen Blu-ray features Phil Grabsky's fine film about Claude Monet, and it looks and sounds stunning on the home screen. Grabsky pulls you in (no pun intended) to Monet's world through well chosen excerpts from Monet's own writings (beautifully narrated by Henry Goodman), combined with artful and originally presented montages of the stunningly beautiful paintings. 

One of the plusses in this disc is the soundtrack, improvisations by composer Stephen Baysted combined with period piano works by Satie, Poulenc, Ravel, Fauré and others. These are played with style and wit by pianist Susan Legg. Here's an interesting article about Baysted's compositional process; the soundtrack album on CD/MP3 is here.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Precision, style and passion


Milhaud: String Trio, Sonatine a Trois; Martinu: String Trios no. 1 & 2

Darius Milhaud and Bohuslav Martinu have the same approach to chamber music as Heitor Villa-Lobos: folklore provides the raw material, while popular music influences and 1920s Parisian modernism add spice, but all three set their music within the classical and pre-classical models of Haydn and Bach. The fine musicians of the Berlin-based Jacques Thibaud String Trio have their antennae up for all of these nuances of musical style, and provide an integrated experience in which passion is as important as precision and style. I've been listening to a string of String Trios lately. There's something about leaving the second violin behind that opens up many composers - Schoenberg, Roussel, Gideon Klein and Villa-Lobos are some I'm thinking of besides Milhaud and Martinu - to open, honest emotion, leaving behind theatrics and sentimentality. This is a perfectly balanced project, a disc filled with amazing music by a special group of musicians.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Two important concertante works from an underrated composer



The latest Lyrita disc in their Itter Broadcast Collection pairs two sadly under-played masterpieces by Edmund Rubbra: his 1936 (revised 1943) Sinfonia Concertante, op. 38 for piano and orchstra, and the Violin Concerto, op. 103, written in 1959. There's more discourse than display, as Joseph Kerman would say, in the Sinfonia Concertante, though Rubbra writes a mighty interesting if not flashy piano part (he was himself the soloist in the premiere in 1943). This performance, which like all Itter Broadcast Collection recordings was recorded to tape from a BBC broadcast, is from 1967, again with Rubbra at the piano, and Hugo Rignold conducting the CBSO. The very fine Violin Concerto is a recording of the second performance, only three days after the premiere in February 1960. Endré Wolf is the soloist, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. Once again I am incredibly impressed by the musical and technical standards that allow recordings of this calibre to live so vividly after being plucked from the ether. As to the composer, Rubbra's standing in my eyes is higher after having lived with this music for a couple of weeks. Two solo piano encores are substantial, reflecting well on Rubbra as both pianist and composer, one a tribute to his teacher Cyril Scott, and the second a work by Scott himself, Consolation (1918).

This disc will be released on August 4, 2017

Saturday, July 29, 2017

An appealing 20th century symphonic cycle


George Enescu: The Three Symphonies [Amazon.ca link]

The three Symphonies of George Enescu make up an important but curiously under-appreciated 20th century cycle, and this 3 disc re-release of late 1990s performances from the BBC Philharmonic under Gennady Rozhdestvensky is very welcome. Echos of Richard Strauss and even Tchaikovsky don't take away from the assured writing for orchestra and Enescu's own distinctive voice.The bonuses - the sparking Romanian Rhapsodies and the third of his superb Suites - make this an indispensable purchase, thanks to superb orchestral playing, admirable control and musical shaping by Rozhdestvensky, and fine, atmospheric sound from the Chandos engineers.

Chamber music from an important new musical voice


Andrea Tarrodi: String Quartets

At the end of August 2017 an important work by the young (b. 1981) Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi will be played at the BBC Proms, by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Sakari Oramo. I'm looking forward to hearing that, but in the meantime I'm very much enjoying this album of chamber music by an important new musical voice from Scandinavia.

Folk music is very much in evidence here; both from Northern Europe and Hungary (Tarrodi's heritage is a mixture of Swedish and Hungarian). The folk tradition, of course, is an important part of string quartets going back to Haydn, and Tarrodi's works bring to mind in turn the often folk-inspired music of the Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar and the Hungarian Bela Bartok (each of whom wrote six string quartets). I also detected the influence of the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz, who happened to write seven quartets. This is complex but accessible music, often with a timeless feel and a sense of organic development building to ecstatic climaxes. It's beautifully presented by the Dahlkvist Quartet, a group of three Swedish siblings and a Polish first violinist. This album will be released on September 1, 2017.

Here's the Dahlkvist Quartet playing Madárda, the 2nd Quartet, an impressive work!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dialogues and Discursive Engagement


Elliott Carter: Late Works (Interventions, Dialogues, Dialogues II, Soundings,  Two Controversies and a Conversation, Instances, Epigrams) [Amazon.ca link]

In 1991 Joseph Kerman wrote an important essay entitled "Mozart's Piano Concertos and Their Audience", which is included in his book Write All These Down. Kerman talks about the important role of two musical activities, discourse and display; I'm finding these valuable concepts in thinking about music and how it plays out. The duel between the tutti's discourse and the solo instrument's display was the essence of the solo concerto from the beginning, but according to Kerman it was Mozart who first introduced the element of dialogue into the form, in his piano concertos. Kerman finds this nuance revolutionary. He elaborates:
Dialogue can take place on various levels. On the level of the immediate exchange of musical themes and other passages, we can speak of instantaneous response, rejoinder, repartee, and more generally of discursive engagement. In other contexts, however - for example in the Socratic context - it is possible to think of beginning a dialogue one day and coming back to finish it the next. Dialogue over an extended time period is, in musical terms, dialogue on the level of musical form. Involved here are concepts like delayed response, recapitulation, and what may be called discursive re-engagement.
It's striking how many of Elliott Carter's works included in this splendid new disc from Ondine have this kind of dialogical character. Carter's instrumental works are often highly dramatic, with instruments or groups of instruments acting as characters. Works like Dialogues and Conversation certainly fall into this category, and things get really dramatic when Two Controversies were appended to Conversation at a later date, a good example of Kerman's "discursive re-engagement". This disc is a treasure trove of music by a great, great master. It's amazing how many of these pieces were written after Carter turned 100 in December 2008. Lest you think that "drama" implies heaviness, the work that's lightest on its feet is Instances, the last music Carter wrote before he died in 2013. According to Ludovic Morlot, who performed the premiere in Seattle, "When he got into his 90s and his 100s, suddenly there was more a human dimension to it." This is Late Syle at its best!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

An instrument of grace


Nordic Voices sing Victoria: Motets [Amazon.ca link]

Unfortunately I wasn't able to listen to the SACD version of this disc, but the stereo one is stunning enough. It's amazing what a rich and full and immersive sound these three men and women create. Of course they need to share credit with the Chandos engineers, the venue (Ris kirke in Oslo, which provides a rich fullness but without an exaggerated acoustic), and the genius of Tomás Luis de Victoria, who makes the most of the six vocal lines in these Motets. But the blending of these voices is really extraordinary. This music sounds so gorgeous, but I don't believe that's the real goal in these performances. Rather, these find musicians seem to be searching for the emotional and spiritual depths of this super-charged music, and the surface beauty is only a side-effect. This disc will reward deep and careful listening, with pauses for reflection.
"Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help."
When May Sarton wrote this she was speaking about gardening which is, she said, "an instrument of grace." She might have been writing about these Motets.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Latin piano played with cool clarity


Villa-Lobos, Ciclo Brasileiro; Juan Jose Castro, Tangos para Piano; Jose Maria Vitier, Festiva

Back in 1993 I was involved in a CD recording project with Brazilian pianist Ricardo Peres. We recorded Dance of the White Indian* as a fund-raising project for Red Deer Public Library, where I was the Director. I remember sitting down with Ricardo one morning, and he played me this piece, which I had never heard before; I barely knew a thing about Villa-Lobos.



That was the beginning of my Villa-Lobos life on the web, 25 years of it, and counting.

In the last quarter century I've learned a great deal about this music; it's been a time of increasing interest in Villa-Lobos and a major rise in his reputation. His piano music as much as any other segment of his vast output has been the beneficiary of this. Now comes a really excellent new disc from Canadian pianist Andree-Ann Deschenes which contains The Dance of the White Indian and the rest of the Ciclo Brasileiro, one of Villa's greatest works for piano. Here's a live performance of the piece:



You'll note that this performance (which matches the recording on the CD fairly closely) is a much more controlled one than Ricardo's hell-bent for leather version. We'll always have performances on the whole continuum between Villa's warmer, more passionate, more Brazilian/folkloric side and his cooler, more cerebral, more Parisian/modernist one. The Ciclo Brasileiro is a kind of Brazilian travelogue (Villa enjoyed these), written in 1930s, when he was busy writing his Bachianas Brasileiras and the folklore-inspired Guia Pratico. I feel, perhaps counter-intuitively, that Deschenes' cool clarity puts across the regional Brazilian folkloric flavour better than some versions that swing (or even rock) a bit more. In any case, this is very fine piano playing.

The tango, of course, has its own built in hot/cool dynamic, which the Argentine composer Juan Jose Castro, a younger contemporary of Villa-Lobos, uses to excellent effect in his Tangos para Piano, written in 1941. With references to popular songs - La Cumparsita in the first tango Evocación, for example, and 9 de Julio in the last, Nostálgico - Castro brings the rhythms of the dance halls to Argentina's art music, which Villa-Lobos had been doing for some time in Brazil. I admire Deschenes' evocative playing here even more than in the Villa-Lobos, especially the bandoneón-sounding chords at the end of the last tango.

I love the idea of an encore on a CD; they should be as common on disc as in concert. Deschenes plays a fun piece by the Cuban composer Jose Maria Vitier, with able support from percussionist Calixto Oviedo. A fine end to an excellent disc.

* note that the links at this site are long dead!

This review was also posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Visualizations add emotional depth to a great Winterreise



Matthias Goerne's searching, haunted Winterreise has always been special, whether his supporting partner is Alfred Brendel, Christopher Eschenbach or, as here, Markus Hinterhauser. A new dimension is added in this splendid Blu-ray, the visualizations of artist and film-maker William Kentridge. Kentridge's monochromatic animations, stripped down, sophisticated versions of the great experimental films of the surrealists and Canada's National Film Board, are so evocative. They add context and emotional depth to the story Wilhelm Müller and Schubert tell in this song cycle. To be sure, the interpretation by Goerne and Hinterhauser stands alone in its greatness, but Kentridge's images add a dimension of no small artistic import as well.

Here is an excerpt from the disc:



Passionate, ultra-Romantic, gorgeous music



Blu-ray with a large-screen HD TV and surround-sound was made for concerts like this. Recorded live on August 2, 2016 for NPR's Great Performances, this is a delight from beginning to end. There's a real sense of presence at a significant event, and the LA Philharmonic respond with standout playing. The crowd is into this program completely; they're especially enamoured of guitarist Angel Romero, looking fabulous in his many-coloured shirt. Dudamel, as always, is a charismatic figure, but he's often the still, calm centre when things get exciting with the dancing of Tango Buenos Aires and the always inventive orchestration of three great composers from Argentina. Ginastera's Dances from Estancia have the odd hint of modernism, but remain accessible; their rhythms are often much more complex than the tangos and milongas of the rest of the program, but Dudamel and his superb musicians handle them with ease. Lalo Schifrin brings his entire musical life into his Concierto de la Amistad, which receives its world premiere here. Schifrin played piano in Piazzolla's band in Paris in 1955; he worked with Dizzy Gillespie later in the 50s; and he became a household name with his film and movie scores with a huge filmography in the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. It was great to hear the audience's response when Dudamel brought him out after the Concierto, and touching to see Schifrin, Dudamel and Romero hugging. Music by Astor Piazzolla begins and ends the program, with fabulous support from the dancers of Tango Buenos Aires and Seth Asamow on bandoneon. This passionate, ultra-Romantic, gorgeous music is just the thing to watch in the evening after a hard day reviewing Arnold Schoenberg.



Monday, July 3, 2017

Loss and mystery as a source of meaning



Stage Director Romeo Castellucci has turned the fact that Schoenberg's final work Moses und Aron is unfinished into a major source of imagery and narrative drive for the two acts that remain. Mystery becomes a source of meaning, much as it does for other visionary artists like Cocteau and David Lynch. Moses's last words, the final ones in the opera, are "Oh word, thou word, that I lack." "More than a limit", Castellucci says, "it seems to me that the unfinished state of this opera is a clever philosophical strategy meant to overthrow the linear perspective of the path, of the exit." We begin on a gauze-covered stage with Moses (Thomas Johannes Mayer) speaking with the Burning Bush, now a Kubrick-style tape recorder spewing magnetic tape in which he becomes entangled. Soon he begins the opera-long dialectic with his brother Aron (John Graham-Hall). Once the gauze is lifted things really become interesting.

Musically this is an exemplary performance. Mayer's Sprechgesang (speech-song) is contrasted with the lyrical and very musical tenor of Graham-Hall, while the chorus plays a central role in the music and the drama. Philippe Jordan keeps the action flowing, making sure that Schonberg's musical ebbs and flow, and not Castellucci's stage business, moves the entire theatrical experience forward. One must mention the shameless scene-stealer in the cast, however. It's the very large live bull, playing the Golden Calf, who brings immense dignity to his role. A star is born!

This short trailer gives you a good idea of the images Castellucci brings to the stage.

Sophisticated playing in a classic frame


A Chopin Diary: The Complete Nocturnes

Two things need to happen in a very good recording of Chopin's Nocturnes: the very well-known ones need to be played so they sound as fresh and un-hackneyed as possible, while the hidden gems (and there are many amongst the 20-some pieces) need to be polished up to shine enough to be noticed amongst this embarrassment of riches. Claire Huangci scores highly on both points; she's put together a marvellous 2 CD-set for Berlin Classics that's convincing on the first listen, with many special touches that you notice the second or third time around. In a perceptive review for Musicweb, Dominy Clements praises Huangci's rubato, which "almost seem(s) like two-part counterpoint in the independent character she gives between left and right (hand)." This is sophisticated playing, full of subtle effects and strongly etched character, but all within a fairly classic frame. Nothing is mannered or show-offy. Huangci adds two bonuses: the Nocturne Oubliée in C-Sharp Minor, and, along with cellist Tristan Cornu, the Étude in C-Sharp Minor for cello and piano.

Elegance, carefulness and modest means


Conradin Kreutzer: Septet, Trio

The two Kreutzer chamber works recorded here by the splendidly named early music group Himmelpfortgrund (named after the suburb where Schubert lived) are exemplars of the Biedermeier style in music. In a musical world that celebrated larger-than-life geniuses like Beethoven, around 1815 in Germany the temperature got turned down several notches. In a surprisingly modern branding exercise Biedermeier became attached to a whole range of artistic and social movements and activities, with a new focus on bourgeois principles; sentimentality, though with careful limits on acceptable expression; and modest means. Instrumental and chamber music fit nicely into this new schema, and this Septet and Trio by Conradin Kreutzer fit the bill in every regard. Carl Dahlhaus in his book Nineteenth Century Music warns against the tendency to call the best music of this period Romantic and the music of mediocre composers Biedermeier; of course many poor composers can write in a Romantic style. Kreutzer is certainly a cut above mediocre, and the virtues of these pieces are modest in their scope only, not in their quality. The whole project, like the best Historically Informed Performances, has been undertaken with an admirable academic rigour along with infectiously enthusiastic musicality and elegant finish. Highly recommended, and not just for the Generation Biedermeier.*

Generation Biedermeier was the label given by Shell Jugendstudie to designate the mainstream of the younger generation in 2010, in which security and private happiness is more important than political engagement. Possibly this designation is no more useful than the silly "Millennials".

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Gems of the recorded legacy


Carl Schuricht: Mozart Piano Concerto K. 595 & Brahms Symphony no. 2

Carl Schuricht was working nearly until the end of his long life, in spite of various infirmities. In the excellent liner notes to this Audite Historic Performances disc there's a story from Seiji Ozawa about seeing Schuricht conduct in Japan:
"When he appeared on stage, it took him nearly five minutes to reach his podium. During that time, the audience applauded, their hands becoming quite hot by the end."
Perhaps to compensate, he became known for his swift tempi. Certainly his Brahms Second Symphony here, recorded with the Vienna Symphony at a concert in Lucerne in 1962, is anything but stuffy; neither is it plush and sentimental. Briskness is not what one notices, but rather the freedom with which Schuricht manipulates this music; it's the kind of swinging, playfully passionate re-creation that's rare in classical music. I don't know when I've ever been more impressed with the first movement of this piece, which Brahms called "the sunny symphony of a heavily melancholy person." As to the Mozart, Schuricht actually slows things down, perhaps slower than might have been heard by other conductors of the time, and much, much slower than we're likely to hear today. There's no feeling of dawdling, though, but just an opening up of Mozart's gorgeous music to let us hear - and feel - every phrase, and the exquisite piano playing of Robert Casadesus. These two pieces are gems of the recorded legacy, expertly remastered by the Audite engineers, and beautifully presented.

A fascinating programme, beautifully performed


The Great Fugue: music for two pianos & one piano four hands, by Schumann, Schubert, Mozart & Beethoven

Pianists Izabella Simon and Denes Varjon have built a really interesting program from a very solid base, a convincing and accomplished performance of Beethoven's own four hand transcription of the Great Fugue, originally the finale to his op. 130 String Quartet. Each of the pieces that precede the Beethoven is original and well worth listening to in its own right, and not just as a build-up to the main event. I had never heard Robert Schumann's Six Canonic Etudes, Op. 56, in Debussy's version for two pianos, but these are really delightful character pieces with plenty of charm and, well, character. Schubert packs a lot into the Allegro in A minor he wrote late in life: a poignant, sentimental soft centre surrounded by a crunchy, mock-serious coating. More delightful music, and played with especially apt energy, subtlety and style by these two fine pianists. The Mozart Fugue, K. 401, is one of the works that the composers wrote in response to his serious encounter with the contrapuntal music of J.S. Bach, and as it proceeds in its sombre way it's clear that Mozart has struck a deeply personal vein that he would go on to explore in his last decade, in his Great Mass and Requiem, and the most serious passages in his mature operas. This is a highly recommended release, both for its original repertoire and for the fine, assured playing.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A marvellous performance let down by technology



This DVD is a reissue of a highly-praised film from German Television of a 1979 performance by Fischer-Dieskau and Alfred Brendel in the Siemensvilla in Berlin. It definitely shows its age, with low definition video and audio that's fine but shows neither brilliance nor bloom. This is a shame, because the great baritone's slight loss in vocal quality from his salad days in the 1960s is more than made up for in his dramatic presence. HD video would have showed that off beautifully, whereas now you have to squint a little to see his expressions. On the plus side, TV director Klaus Lindemann has staged this with admirable restraint and dignity, and he keeps camera movement to a minimum. The focus is on Schubert's powerful music and on Fischer-Dieskau's portrayal of Wilhelm Müller's sombre protagonist. Of course, Alfred Brendel's musical contribution is immediately and continuously apparent. There are subtitles (in English, German, French, Spanish & Italian) for the songs, but unfortunately not for the 56 minute Rehearsal documentary. This looks absolutely fascinating, but alas, I don't understand German!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bright, direct performances of marvellous music


Antonio Rosetti, Piano Concerto, Two Symphonies

Bright, direct performances of Antonio Rosetti's fine symphonies and concerto make this a very appealing issue. I've long been a fan of this Bohemian musician, a contemporary of Haydn who died distressingly early, just after Mozart in 1792. He's one of only a few composers who can approach those two masters, as you can hear from many fine passages in these symphonies and piano concerto. Rosetti was especially adept at writing interesting, and even sublime, music for winds. The two symphonies are in the main composed of gallant passages, but occasionally there are surprising turns of phrase worthy of Haydn. It's the Adagio movement of the late Piano Concerto, though, that is the most obvious indication of Rosetti's genius. This is deeply moving, dramatically sombre music that has occasional flashes of light breaking through to emphasize the tragedy. That Rosetti died soon after he wrote this music is certainly a tragedy of a high order.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hopeless, but not serious


Detlev Glanert, Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

The celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the death of the great painter Hieronymus Bosch in 2016 were a very big deal in the Netherlands. First was the amazing exhibition of nearly all of his works, in what has been called "one of the most important exhibitions of our century," at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch. I've just finished reviewing the film of that exhibit, which is enjoyed a great deal.  Secondly there was this striking 80-minute oratorio by Detlev Glanert, Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, presented in November 2016 at the Concertgebouw. This CD was recorded live at that event, and is beautifully presented on RCO Live, the Concertgebouw's own label.

My one gripe about the film of the Noordbrabants Museum exhibit was a curious overlooking of humour in Bosch's art. Certainly the stakes in Bosch's world were high; it's clear that judgement to Bosch was real and eternal damnation a very real possibility. But I believe he would have agreed with the great Yip Harburg, who once said "While life is hopeless, hopeless–it’s not serious." This, I think, is one of the keys to Bosch's eccentric take on the the question of judgement.

Detlev Glanert brings a light touch to his project, which presents the trial of Hieronymus Bosch after his death. "The key question," says Glanert, "is whether our Bosch will go to paradise or be destined for hell." Using this device to add drama, Glanert builds a complex mosaic of themes and images, basing his text on the Requiem Mass along with excerpts from the medieval anthology Carmina Burana. Glanert's musical style is eclectic, with echoes of Mahler and Weill, and Glanert's own version of the great music from the Low Countries from Bosch's own period. This is an illuminating project, but fun as well.

A beautiful presentation of Bosch's eccentric art



To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of its famous home-town artist, the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, Netherlands put on what has been called "one of the most important exhibitions of our century," from February to May 2016.  Though they have no works of Bosch themselves, they were able to bring to Den Bosch 17 of Bosch’s 24 extant paintings and 19 of his 20 drawings, and the resulting gathering has given art experts opportunities for new insights of connoisseurship as well as a chance to use the new technologies of the local Bosch Research and Conservation Project to look beneath the surface of Hieronymus's gorgeous paint. Talk about a critical mass!

With such a small oeuvre this 90 minute film, shown in theatres around the world last year, can give us a pretty good overview of this eccentric art. It's done in beautiful HD video, with more complex camera pans than we're used to from Ken Burns' documentaries. I was impressed with the context that the film-makers provide: clear explanatory text (with subtitles in English, French, Spanish, German & Dutch), location shots and music from Bosch's time. The latter especially adds value, since music of the time in the low countries was as sophisticated and inspired as the visual arts. The only fly in the ointment was the Prado's reneging on sending their Bosch works after the de-attribution of two of their "Bosch's" by the Den Bosch experts.  That was a shame in terms of the physical exhibit, though for the purposes of our film we still had a chance to see the Prado's famous Garden of Earthly Delights in a very high definition digital file. 

The talking heads in the film provide some interesting insights into Bosch's paintings, most especially film-maker Peter Greenaway, whose own art owes a lot to Bosch and his contemporaries. The only caveat about these pronouncements is that Bosch's sense of humour was almost completely ignored, which I find quite scandalous. When it was finally mentioned, an hour in, I had lost some good humour of my own. But on the whole this is a successful project, most beautifully presented.

Here is the trailer from Seventh Art:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Knowing interpretations of appealing music


C.P.E. Bach, Sonatas for Violin & Fortepiano

One of the common dynamics in a wide range of arts is the dialectic between the rational and the expressive, classic and romantic, Apollo and Dionysus. This is where C.P.E. Bach lives, looking at once back to his father's example of cosmic order and ahead to the confusing affective eruption that would later be termed Sturm und Drang (Storm and Drive, or Storm and Stress). To call these expressive Sonatas Romantic is to overstate the case, but their expressiveness is undeniable. They are also tuneful in an original way, full of erudite cleverness that gives both the listener and player much pleasure. I can't imagine a more effective presentation of this music: Amandine Beyer's violin is the emoting actor, while Edna Stern's fortepiano provides the lightest of commentary to go with her solid support. They play this music with style and grace, and aren't afraid to milk the sentimental moments when the composer lets his classic mask slip artfully to the side. At the same time their interpretation is knowing; Beyer and Stern know when to give the music its full expressive force, and when to pass on the composer's winks. This is an outstanding release that I've listened to a great deal in the past weeks, and which I plan to explore further.

These aren't new recordings, but from 2005, from a Zig Zag Territoires disc.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Dramatic, high spirited symphonies


Francois-Joseph Gossec, Symphonies

It's really excellent to have these symphonies back, on this new Capriccio Encore release. Recorded in 2003 by Concerto Köln under Werner Eberhardt, this music sounds fresh and stylish today. And what music it is: those who don't know Gossec's symphonic music are in for a treat. That's especially true of the Symphonie à 17 parties the Belgian composer wrote in 1809, which sounds very much like Haydn's later symphonies but with some splendid theatrical touches. I've always loved this work, since I first heard it on an early 1970s recording with Jacques Houtmann conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique du Liege. Though these stirring works have Revolutionary components with a capital R, they're a bit of a cul de sac musically, as Beethoven's own revolution single-handedly moved the centre of symphonic music from Paris to Vienna. That shouldn't diminish your enjoyment for this dramatic, high-spirited music, played with great flair.

The civilized smile


Boccherini: String Trios, op. 6

I wasn't planning on reviewing three Boccherini discs in the space of eight days, but here we are with another new disc following two lovely releases, of the Stabat Mater and the op. 34 String Trios. This recording from Brilliant Classics features the Lubotsky Trio in the less intense, more carefree op. 6 Trios for two violins and cello, written in 1769. It's still very appealing music, which one could listen to, and play, with a civilized smile in a well-appointed drawing room, among intelligent and attractive people. These pieces aren't as profound as the op. 34 trios, and nor are they as Spanish-sounding, but rather in the International Style as developed by Haydn. With beautiful playing like this, one hardly notices one is missing anything! The Enlightenment lives!

A courageous thing



Luigi Boccherini: String Trios op. 34
Life is a more complex struggle now. It is now valiant to be simple: a courageous thing to even want to be simple. It is a spiritual thing to comprehend what simplicity means. ~ Frank Lloyd Wright
Something curious often happens when a composer removes an instrument from a string quartet. Though the lightening of texture sometimes results in less serious music, serenade-like, often folk-inspired, it's just as likely that a new gravity comes with the more austere form. Villa-Lobos's late String Trio, the ground-breaking Trio by Webern, and the astonishing, concentrated Schoenberg String Trio all come to mind. The best example is Mozart's Divertimento K. 563 of 1788, about which Alfred Einstein said "Each instrument is primus inter pares, every note is significant, every note is a contribution to spiritual and sensuous fulfillment in sound." These six trios for two violins and cello by Luigi Boccherini from 1781 show this same tendency, and it's no coincidence, I think, that they're from the same period as his intimate and deeply religious Stabat Mater for soprano and string quintet, a new recording of which I just reviewed last week. From listening a great deal to these two CDs, I'm inclined to place Boccherini just behind Haydn and Mozart as a composer of chamber music. This is inspired, and inspiring, music. This is not a brand new recording; it was made back in 2010, and was previously released on the Colmna Musica label in 2012. But the remastering by Glossa reveals fresh and lively performances by the original instruments group La Ritirata, who bring out the Spanish flavour of Boccherini's music in an appealing way.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A delightful album of music from the French Baroque


Age of Indulgence: Les Delices

The Cleveland-based ensemble Les Delices was founded by oboist Debra Nagy in 2009. This collection of pieces from the French Baroque has been put together to highlight the high quality and variety of the music from that period, and the style and musicianship of these fine players. There are some fairly obscure composers here; Duphly, Philidor and Guignon won't be showing up on many classical music favourites lists. But all of this music makes pleasurable listening. This is mainly music from the late Baroque, with an appealingly mannered way of spinning earlier tropes through unexpected textures and harmonies, leaving some traces of Italian instrumental virtuosity but with an unmistakable French style and grace. Then there are a few pieces of true genius that pop up, like the sublime Entrée de Polymnie from Rameau's Les Boréades, and this Tambourins from his Dardanus. It all comes together to make a truly delightful album.

Style and grace; warmth and humanity


Gloria in Excelsis Deo, Celebrating the completion of the recording of Bach's sacred cantatas.

In 2013 Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan finished a massive 18-year project: the recording of all of J.S. Bach's sacred cantatas. All 55 SACDs are now available in a special box-set from BIS.



To mark the end of the project this film was made at the Shoin Chapel in Kobe, where all of the recordings had been made over a period of 18 years. It includes performances of three complete cantatas, BWV 30, 69 and 191, interspersed with interviews with the musicians and various interested parties. The very fine HD video and superb surround sound give you a vivid picture of how this awesome music went from Bach's mind to Maestro Suzuki's, and then to Super-Audio Compact Discs. More than just musical skills are on display here. You see the style and grace of the vocal soloists as they move from soloist roles back into the superbly integrated choral sound. The three virtuoso trumpeters, holding their instruments with one hand with their other hand on their waists, swaying to the music with the proud look of Samurai warriors. Perhaps most importantly you see the warmth and humanity of the great leader, Masaaki Suzuki, whose faith is as important as his scholarship and musicianship.

Here is an excerpt, the Dona Nobis Pacem from the B minor Mass, a coda which ends the disc.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Tuneful, easy music for guitar and orchestra


Radames Gnattali: Concertinos for Guitar and Orchestra

Radames Gnattali (1906-1988) is such an interesting composer. Nearly 20 years younger than Villa-Lobos, his career in music has much in common with his older compatriot. Both were interested in music at a very early age; both played guitar in popular music ensembles and in silent movie houses; and a melding of popular and classical music became a keynote of their music. However, it's not Villa-Lobos but George Gershwin who Gnattali most reminds me of. Gershwin was only seven years older than the Brazilian, though Gnattali lived a full fifty years longer than the unfortunate George. American jazz was the third x in Gnattali's y along with erudite and Brazilian popular music, while Villa-Lobos had no time for that particular brand of music. These light and tuneful Concertinos for guitar and orchestra include samba and choros rhythms and bits of popular songs, but as the fine liner notes by Emiliano Giannetti explain, this music
... reveals the impact of jazz in the way it includes pentatonic scales, a particular layering of sound, and marked alternation of orchestra and soloist in the form of short, serried passages in dialogue. 
The balance between solo instrument and orchestra is always problematic when it comes to the guitar. Villa-Lobos thinned out his usually full-bodied orchestra for his concerto, which ended up as the Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra.  Even then guitarists struggle to be heard; there's an oft-told story about Segovia's wife urging Villa-Lobos on the podium during rehearsals to quieten down the players. Gnattali also scores transparently and keeps things tuneful and easy. Concertino is the right designation for this kind of music.  Of course it's easier to deal with balance issues in the recording studio, and the sound engineers have found the perfect place for Marco Salcito's guitar with respect to the orchestra.

It's remarkable that these works aren't better known; this disc includes a premiere on CD (#1) and a world recording premiere (#2). Salcito acquits himself well, and with the strong support of conductor Marcello Bufalini and the Sinfonica Abruzzese provides us with a convincing Exhibit A in deciding whether Gnattali's four works deserve a place with the other masterworks for guitar and orchestra in the classic Spanish style, by Villa-Lobos, Ponce, Rodrigo and Castelnuevo-Tedesco. I'll need to ponder this question for a while!

This disc is due to be released on July 21, 2017. This review has also been posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Universal tragedy on a tiny dramatic stage


Luigi Boccherini: Stabat Mater

The 13th Century poem on which the Stabat Mater is based is really extraordinary. It's a sad and beautiful contemplation of Christ's crucifixion by Mary, probably written by Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306). Setting this solemn text to music provides emotional opportunities, though in a limited dramatic range due to its personal devotional character. This is a universal human tragedy with the most important themes, but in a tiny dramatic space. The great international fame of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater setting in the first half of the 1700s was due, I think, to this intensely personal character of both text and music. Boccherini's setting, from 1781, was written for soprano and a string quintet. The chamber quality and its highly emotional writing place it under Pergolesi's influence. Though the composer produced a new version with more complex scoring and additional material, the original one is my favourite, due to this intimacy and numinous character.

Here is the hopeful final verse of the Boccherini's, the Quando corpus.
Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animae donetur
paradisi gloria. Amen. 
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
safe in paradise with Thee. Amen.



The musicians on the present disc give an inspired performance of the work. Soprano Dorothee Mields has a warm and sweet sound that emerges in an open and unforced manner; she navigates the dramatic, virtuoso passages without undermining the intimate effect. The enhanced Salagon Quartett provide sensitive support. I actually preferred their playing in the Boccherini to their Mozart String Quartet K. 428, which I thought was a trifle under-characterized. The slight Salve Regina by the teen-aged Mendelssohn is a nice bonus; it's an accomplished piece, though without the emotional complexity of the other two works.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Remembrance restores possibility to the past


Viktor Ullmann: Piano Concerto, Piano Sonata no. 7, Variations

Viktor Ullmann finished his Piano Concerto in Prague in December 1939, nine months after the Nazis had entered Czechoslovakia. By 1942 he was a prisoner in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where he was still able to compose, and where in 1994 he wrote his 7th Piano Sonata. But on October 16, 1944, he was moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau and two days later he was murdered. The loss to music was grave; Ullmann was only 46 when he died, and he might have been counted among the great composers of the century given a normal life and lifespan. There is no special pleading needed, since Ullmann's remaining works are of the highest quality, but neither should we forget the horrors from which this music was born. "Remembrance restores possibility to the past," said the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, "making what happened incomplete and completing what never was. Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again."

The team of pianist Moritz Ernst, the Dortmunder Philharmoniker and conductor Gabriel Feltz provide a vivid, atmospheric reading of the piano concerto, and Ernst's performance of the 7th Piano Sonata is passionate and mournful. The disc is filled out with a piece from happier days: the Variations and Double Fugue on a Theme by Arnold Schönberg, an intricate gem of intellectual, formal beauty.

Here is the second movement Andante tranquillo from the Piano Concerto: partial solace from the looming menace.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

At the end of a tragic day


Ives: Three Places in New England; Orchestral Set no. 2; New England Holidays

Memorial Day weekend is a good time to listen to Three Places in New England, which includes an especially poignant tribute by Charles Ives to the sacrifice of American soldiers in battle. This is deeply moving music, written in such a bold and original way that even today it makes one sit up and take notice; I can't imagine the effect it had when it was first played. The first of the Three Places in New England is entitled The “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment); this is Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw & the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. This elegy is sombre, with precious little light falling on the doomed soldiers and their commander. All the martial tunes which Ives quotes, designed in the first place to uplift the spirits before battle, are intoned in a minor key, in the darkest of orchestrations, in the most grief-stricken rhythms. Ives was, I believe, as distraught about the dire history of African-Americans after the Civil War as he was about their defeat at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. There is also great beauty, though, and we should pay special attention to this quotation: "Music is the best consolation for a despaired man." It's by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo: Boston Globe
After this unalloyed gloom Ives turns to a much jollier subject, a July 4th celebration during Revolutionary War times. The mood is raucous, and Ives, as always quoting popular songs and anthems, really goes to town with his homegrown-modernist conflagration of rhythms and themes. The third Place is The Housatonic at Stockbridge, a gorgeous depiction of a riverside walk and a very personal moment with his wife Harmony. For those who didn't find sufficient solace in the beauty of the first movement, this might perhaps be of some help.

Harmony and Charles Ives in 1948. Photograph by Halley Erskine
The masterworks keep coming: both the New England Holidays and the 2nd Orchestral Set have the same mix of serious subtext, whimsical jollity and leading edge modernist composition. The most striking piece is the last movement in the Orchestral Set no. 2, entitled "From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose," whose theme is the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines on May 7, 1915. This is music of great complexity, with ambiguity to match. Tolling bells and repeated choruses of The Sweet Bye and Bye are engulfed by discord until finally the music fades out, into the eternal Charles Ives question mark.

Ives is very well represented in recordings; there are many recordings of this music, some of which are good indeed. But only the best can keep the eccentricities from going over the top, and the sad bits from veering into the maudlin. We have in this new Seattle Symphony Media release one of the best. Ludovic Morlot walks this tightrope without seeming over cautious; indeed, the live recordings preserve a real feeling of occasion, while the SSM engineers provide life-like sound with real presence. Very highly recommended.

This disc will be released on June 2, 2017.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

An appealing mix of Brazilian piano music


Grace Alves: Keys to Rio

Along with relatively popular pieces by Ernesto Nazareth and Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazilian pianist Grace Alves has done a real service in providing some rarities for piano from Marlos Nobre, Oriano de Almeida and especially Chiquinha Gonzaga, a great composer and social activist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the Gonzaga pieces Gaúcho, Suspiro and Atraente might seem slight, they have real dignity and are very much pioneering efforts in the development of Brazilian popular music.  Oriano de Almeida is from two generations after Villa-Lobos, but his music has the same Paris/Rio, modernism/folklore dynamic as Villa, though his style relies more on American jazz. This appealing music sounds more like Gershwin than his compatriot Villa-Lobos. His Valsa de Paris is really delightful. Marlos Nobre, Brazil's most distinguished living composer, provides two serious but accessible pieces that evoke the life and folklore of the North-East part of Brazil, as Villa-Lobos has often done. Alves plays with grace and power throughout, though without the final level of virtuosity and rhythmic control of Sonia Rubinsky or Nelson Freire. This is a fine first effort; I look forward to future recordings.

This review has also been posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Antheil's music, for a change


George Antheil, Symphony 4 & 5, Over the Plains

You don't have to go very far into most articles about George Antheil before you come across the phrase "bad boy of music". There you go, it's happened again! That's the first thing that comes to mind for many when the name comes up. Here are some of others that rise to the top nowadays, thanks to John Allison, that web comics chronicler of high culture (in Destroy History, a story about Hedy Lamarr in WWII Hollywood):

Antheil's reputation is, more than any composer I can think of, a victim of the non-musical components of his life. We seem to value his work with Lamarr in inventing frequency-hopping spread-spectrum communication more than his actual music. This would be fine if his music weren't so attractive and impressive. Chandos begins another orchestral music series with this new disc of Antheil Symphonies, and it's nice to finally zero in on the actual music for a change. Both symphonies are muscular, energetic mid-century symphonies with Russian finger-prints all over them, both via the movie-score milieu in which Antheil lived and direct from the latest works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But they also have tender moments and the kind of very fine details that are the sign of an original musician.

We used to make fun of how British actors sounded when they were playing Americans in the movies and on TV. Nowadays, of course, that's no longer the case; Ewan McGregor plays not one but two Minnesotans to perfection in Noah Hawley's Fargo. The hallmark of this Chandos release is authenticity, which of course is an important component of all music, not just Early Music. It's no special surprise that a British orchestra under a Finnish conductor can be so convincing in this music, since Antheil is writing in an International Style, where Berlin and Paris loom nearly as large as his later home, Hollywood. But getting the last nuance of the American side of the Trenton, New Jersey native Antheil is an impressive, McGregor-level, achievement. We can't tell for sure until the score makes its way to orchestras on this side of the Atlantic, but this world premiere recording of Antheil's Over the Plains has just the right Gary Cooper movie studio backlot feel that proves it's the real cowboy thing.

Chandos nails the authentic feel with the cover of their disc, taken from this vintage postcard of Hollywood Boulevard at Night, from Lake County Museum. Bring on the rest of Antheil's symphonies!


Monday, May 22, 2017

Masterpieces revealed


Villa-Lobos Symphonies 8, 9 & 11

Villa-Lobos wrote twelve symphonies, though only eleven of the scores survive, and he wrote them from early in his career (1916) to very late (1957, two years before his death). People have been warning us for a long time not to value Villa-Lobos's symphonies too highly. I know this; I've been one of them. Don't expect too much, was the message, his best works are for the guitar and piano, and in the Choros and the Bachianas Brasileiras series. Now that we're well into the Naxos Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) series, led by Isaac Karabtchevsky, I'm beginning to think this particular piece of conventional wisdom might be wrong. These three symphonies sound familiar, sure, because they sound like Villa-Lobos. But even though I've heard all three a number of times, in the very good CPO series from Carl St. Clair and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart made around the turn of the last century, the music on the new disc sounds fresh and new and really quite amazing.  This series is forcing all of us to sit up and take notice of a whole big chunk of Villa-Lobos's legendarily large output.

In his really excellent liner notes the guitarist and musicologist Fabio Zanon talks about how Villa's mature symphonies suffered because they were different from people's expectations and because of editorial problems with the scores. Though I hear the odd echo of the Choros from Villa's heyday in Paris in the 1920s, and plenty of call-outs to the Bachianas Brasileiras series of the 1930s and early 40s, the 8th, 9th and 11th Symphonies share something of a reboot feeling for the composer.  Here he finally turns his back, more or less, on modernism, while doing the same, more or less, with the folkloric music that made his worldwide reputation. There's a neo-classical (not neo-baroque) sound that goes along with early classical symphonic structures. Zanon sees and hears both Haydn and Mozart in this music, with Beethoven and Schubert lurking around the edges. Having stripped down his orchestral music to the essentials, we're now more aware than ever of how Villa-Lobos has constructed the music. To be sure this is still music written for large orchestras, but there's no Brazilian percussion component, no prepared pianos or violinophones, and no over-the-top Romantic gestures. The first movement of the 9th Symphony is instructive. Villa zips out three themes in quick succession, gives them a quick run-through in his contrapuntal-light machine, and then, when you expect a fair bit of noodling, he winds things up abruptly, with a typical Villa-Lobos flourish. All done in less than four and a half minutes. I must say that I like the concise Villa-Lobos; it makes a nice change from the often over-blown padding of more than a few of his works. This is vivid, direct, lively music without empty gesticulation. With the varnish of score errors and outdated preconceptions removed, these three symphonies emerge as masterpieces.

A copy of this review is at The Villa-Lobos Magazine. The disc drops on June 9, 2017.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The playfully profound music of Friedrich Gulda


Gulda Plays Mozart & Gulda

Improvisation is a process, according to Mike Nichols, that “absorbs you, creates you, and saves you.” In a superb in-depth New Yorker article about Nichols, John Lahr digs into his concept of improvisation. A lesson Nichols the director learned from his improv work with Elaine May was this: "To damn well pick something that would happen in the scene—an Event." Nichols goes on:
While you’re expressing what happens, you’re also saying underneath, ‘Do we share this? Are you like me in any way? Oh, look, you are. You laughed!
That improv helped Nichols in his directing day-job is clear; it's also clear that it's a vital part of every classical musician's toolkit. This is about more than cadenzas and adding ornamentation in repeats; it's built in to the very DNA of both interpretation and composition. Mozart was a great improviser, as was Bach. The appreciation for Friedrich Gulda's genius, which has only grown since his death in 2000, is based to a large part on the unexpected places he takes us in the core repertoire of the piano. I recently listened straight through to the six CDs of his Complete Mozart Tapes, and was struck by how fresh and alive every single sonata sounded. Each movement was, in Nichols' sense, an Event.

This CD from BR Klassik, due to be released on June 2, 2017, comes from two live concerts. The first, from 2009, includes two Rondos for piano and orchestra swapped out by Mozart, for various reasons, from two of his Piano Concertos. In a feat that I'm sure Mike Nichols would have applauded, Mozart has taken some fairly pedestrian, even banal, themes, and spun them into a high level of entertainment, if not actual profundity. Gulda, with able assistance from Leopold Hager and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, doesn't let down the side; he keeps the comedy moving, and he highlights the universal significance of the comic spirit. These two movements are a joy to listen to.

The second concert is actually a very special and famous one, and I'm quite surprised this portion of it has never been released before.  It's the first 40 minutes or so of The Meeting between Gulda and Chick Corea, from June 27, 1982. This is Gulda playing solo, mainly his own improvisations, with a fine, typically dynamic version of Mozart's K. 330 sonata providing a kind of centre of gravity to the proceedings. Gulda's pieces aren't jazz, precisely, though he's clearly at home in several jazz idioms. They're really more like post-modern pastiches, with lots of Mozart, bits of Bach and blues and full-blown Romantic passages, mixed with a very Viennese-sounding sense of satire and parody. They're an important part of Gulda's playfully profound music.

The duet portions of The Meeting are available both on CDDVD and YouTube. Here is Gulda's solo portion:



And here's Mike Nichols and Elaine May in a classic skit:

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Happy Centennial, Lou!


Lou Harrison: Violin concerto, Grand duo, Double music (with John Cage)

This disc (and this review) is well-timed. Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lou Harrison's birth. There seems to be at least some small interest out there in what should be a major event, though I would have hoped for a bit more hype for one of my favourite American composers. In any case this splendid new disc from Naxos is a suitable marker for Lou's Centennial.

I recently came across this picture of the Surrealists in Paris:

Man Ray, Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, Salvador Dali, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Rene Crevel 
There's so much genius here, Man Ray's versatility and Ernst's audacity, Dali's schtick and Breton's vision, all in one place and pretty much all from the same generation. You'd need to do a fair bit of Photoshopping to come up with a similar shot of America's great crop of modernist composers, partly because there's a wider range of ages, with Copland, Cowell, Bowles, Virgil Thompson and Gershwin born around the turn of the century; Barber, Cage, Schuman and Carter in the next decade, and the babies Lou Harrison & Leonard Bernstein (whose Centennial is next summer) ten years later. There's a much broader geographic range as well, from the West Coast (Harrison was born in Portland OR) to New York (where he worked for The New York Herald Tribune as a music critic) to Paris (where he did not go to study, unlike so many of his colleagues).

Harrison's own genius is pretty clear, nurtured by his mentor Henry Cowell, his teacher at UCLA Arnold Schoenberg, and later in New York, that great well-spring of American modernism Charles Ives. The Concerto for Violin and Percussion is a great introduction to Harrison's music, with its kitchen-sink "junk" percussion and surprisingly full-bodied emotion from the solo violin. Harrison acknowledged the influence of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, about which he said "It really walloped me." The soloist Tim Fain plays with the required virtuosity as well as the sensitivity and musicality to scale the heights and plumb the depths of this remarkable work, one of the great American concertos, matched in Harrison's works by his Piano Concerto. Angel Gil-Ordonez's PostClassical Ensemble provide robust support, with an equal virtuosity on the percussion side. Fain is joined by pianist Michael Boriskin in Harrison's Grand Duo, which treats the piano very much in a percussive role, though considering how important percussion is to Harrison it's more a question of opening up new options for the pianist rather than limiting them.

The short but not slight Double Music makes a special impression in its seven minutes. It's the result of an intriguing collaboration with John Cage. Each composer provided music for two of the four players, based on a kind of temporal template, and the resulting work came together seamlessly. Chance, so important in Cage's music, had played its role perfectly. This piece nicely sums up mid-century American music: fresh and alive with many influences from around the world and from many time periods, as fun to listen to as I'm sure it is to play.



Monday, May 1, 2017

Arresting visuals and compelling stories



Glenn Gould's story has as intriguing and appealing a visual element as an auditory one. From Gordon Parks' and Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic photographs to the arresting images in Francois Girard's 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, this is an important component in the carefully crafted performance art that was Glenn Gould's life. Now to add to this rich legacy we have a superb graphic novel (published in 2016 and just now out in an English translation) by Sandrine Revel, the comics artist and illustrator from Bordeaux.

In her website, Revel notes that Gould and his music meant a great deal to her since discovering him in college. "Glenn Gould m'accompagne depuis comme un ami, un double et par certains côtés je lui ressemble," she says, "Since then he has accompanied me as a friend, a double and in some ways I resemble him." This, I'm sure, is a common happening for those of us who didn't fit in during childhood, and who went through life "off tempo" as the new English version deftly translates the book's subtitle: "une vie à contretemps". Off-kilter Glenn is such an appealing character, and Revel gives us many touching scenes from his childhood, many very funny ones included. But it's the big, visionary pictures that impress me the most; Revel's vision is really impressive.

Besides her obvious skills as an illustrator, Revel brings some major story-telling chops to this project. Her vision is cinematic, and isn't bound to her book format; she tells multi-page stories and then tucks smaller, but often key, bits to break up the rhythm of the story she's telling. 

Revel includes some impressive bibliographic back-matter: a full list of Gould's music that she listened to during the project, and good short lists for suggested further reading and for further viewing. Girard's film isn't included in the latter list, by the way, though it makes sense considering Revel's focus on primary sources: the music and video of Glenn Gould himself. This is very highly recommended, both for Gould fans and those who are just learning his amazing story.