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 29, 2017

The right amount of curtain in the frame


Brahms: Complete works for solo piano

Brahms lived at the keyboard; from his early virtuoso days until just before he died his music for solo piano was always front and centre, and six CDs of this music will provide a three dimensional picture of what makes Brahms tick. I caught only a couple of Barry Douglas's six individual releases from Chandos over the past five years, so my immersion in this music during the last week has given me a pretty fresh idea of Douglas's point of view as he guides us through more than seven hours of music. I really like his idea of mixing things up and presenting six separate stand-alone mixed recitals made up of different periods, contrasting formats and pieces in keys that make musical sense. Each disc is a delight, though I must admit I powered through more than a few discs at a time when I got some serious Brahms momentum going.

I've been reading Annie Leibovitz at Work, where the great photographer says "I love [Richard] Avedon's stripped-down portraits, but I'm very uncomfortable coming in close like that. Avedon trusted the face to take the picture. He didn't claim that his portraits were 'true', but they looked like reality." Barry Douglas abjures any close-in focus on the emotional core of any piece; he tends to have a more nuanced, a 'truer', in Leibovitz's sense, point of view. Leibovitz continues: "I usually pull back from the subjects of a portrait and include things around them in the picture. That's one of the reasons I love Diane Arbus. I used to study her pictures and try to figure out how she got just the right amount of curtain in a frame. Just a little piece of it, but just the right amount for the room she was working in." Listen to how Douglas includes just the right amount of curtain in this lovely version of Brahms' Intermezzo, op. 118 no. 2:



This isn't a cool approach, exactly (though maybe it's cool in Marshall McLuhan's sense), but it does eschew some of the effects I've heard from other pianists. To me it seems measured and classical, but in the end I'm just as moved by this performance as I am by those of Arthur Rubinstein or Glenn Gould. Composers more than writers or, especially, visual artists, tend to expose their emotional lives in their art, and so we often seem to know a composer more fully, even without letters or diaries or the testimony of contemporaries. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, "In music the passions enjoy themselves." The case of Johannes Brahms is instructive; we can hear in his early music a vigorous young man, well aware of his gifts but still holding back some of his strongest feelings and impulses. His own works are then charged with some romantic tumult as he encounters the music of Chopin and Liszt and Robert and Clara Schumann, while at the same time his more serene nature deepens as he studies Mozart, Bach and Handel. Finally, in the works of his final years, we hear call-backs to a lifetime of music, tinged with the dark colours of regret for lost love and missed opportunities, and nostalgia for former happy times. Ultimately his classical nature reasserts itself in more austere constructions which are never quite placid. All of these ebbs and flows are chronicled in this masterful survey by a pianist at the height of his powers.

Every once in a while I come across a musical project that I realize will become something important in my life; recent ones include Haydn 2032 from Giovanni Antonini, and the Peterhouse Partbooks by Blue Heron. Barry Douglas's Brahms will, I'm sure, be another.

The box set of the Complete Music for Solo Piano will be released on January 5, 2018, though each individual disc is for sale right now.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lovely Christmas jazz, spare and sad



'Tasteful jazz arrangements', it says on the back cover, but these are much more sophisticated arrangements than you're likely to find at the lounge at the local Sheraton or Marriott Hotel. In a letter to his father Mozart praises a pianist's "taste, feeling, and a brilliant style of playing", and this is the territory we're in here with pianist Simon Mulligan, who gets a fine piano to play on, in a great venue, with first-class engineering and presentation for this lovely disc from Steinway & Sons. The Christmas jazz antecedents here are Oscar Peterson, whose Christmas album is first-class, but quite a bit livelier than this one; Bill Evans, whose Santa Claus is Coming to Town is a treat, full of wit and good humour; and of course Vince Guaraldi, who brought jazz Christmas music to the masses with the debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas on CBS on December 9, 1965. Mulligan has major classical bona fides (Chopin, Beethoven, Shostakovich) and a thorough grounding in the American Songbook to go with what seems to be an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano styles. Listen for bits of Art Tatum, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, but in these arrangements each song has its mood and its story to tell, so none of them feels like a pastiche.

One of my favourite tracks is the first one on the disc, a Hark The Herald Angels Sing that keeps taking completely unexpected turns into surprising places: here to Chopin, there to Scott Joplin, over to Gershwin. There's also a very spare version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that's a real stand-out, but I especially loved the final song, a Silent Night with a real valedictory feel to it. It has the peace and beauty of falling snow at night, but also all of the melancholy we've come to expect from Christmas songs in a minor key, bringing some solace, but also, as Orhan Pamuk remarks in another context, "adding depth to our sorrow".



Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bright and bouncy


Handel: Messiah, 1754 version

Hervé Niquet has opted to record the 1754 version of Messiah, which has five soloists rather than four. I know this version well because of the now classic 1991 recording by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, which featured the divine Emma Kirkby. We had that on cassette, so it was the soundtrack (along with Yogi Yorgesson's I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas - the kids were little!) for many a holiday trip in Alberta's cold Decembers.

However, that's not the key to this new version by Le Concert Spirituel under the direction of Hervé Niquet. Rather, it's his statement that "I’ve opted here for an operatic interpretation, taking its cue from the drama inherent in this account of the life of Christ." Niquet plays up the drama throughout, and he has the players and singers to follow through on all of his concepts. I think nearly every idea is at least plausible. It's a brisk run-through; listen to the swinging Sinfonia:


But this is about more than just tempo. Niquet's version is positively bouncy; if it were in the Hundred Acre Wood it would be Tigger. As far as I'm concerned that's great; I've heard too many Eeyore Messiahs.

E.H. Shepard. Tiggers can't climb trees

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Worth the wait for three premiere recordings


Paul Patterson: Violin Concerto no. 2; Kenneth Leighton: Violin Concerto; Gordon Jacob: Violin Concerto

Clare Howick brings her excellent technique and the big sound of the 'Maurin' Stradivarius 1718, on loan from the Royal Academy of Music, to 20th and 21st century music from Britain in this very welcome new disc from Naxos. Paul Patterson wrote his superb 2nd Violin Concerto for Howick in 2013, and this is its first recording. What's more surprising is that the other two works on the disc are receiving their premiere recordings as well. Gordon Jacob's Concerto for Violin & Strings, a work that I find extremely interesting and admire more each time I hear it, was written in 1953. I guess when one thinks back to the post-war New Music world it was out of step with its time, but nearly 65 years later it's fresh and alive. Howick's playing is completely convincing, in the frame conductor Grant Llewellyn sets up with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's expert playing, not allowing the rhapsodic passages to become sentimental and keeping things moving along smartly. Similarly, the Kenneth Leighton Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra, written in the previous year, is well worth the wait. Its four short movements each pack a punch, with distinct and distinctive moods, and the whole thing adds up to a minor masterpiece. Again, the playing of soloist and orchestra is special: taught and bright and memorable. Very highly recommended!

This disc will be released on December 1, 2017.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Organic, powerful Glass



Here we are again. Two releases of Philip Glass's great cycle of Etudes for Piano in November 2017: this Steinway & Sons album by Jenny Lin follows Jeroen Van Veen's for Brilliant Classics, which was released earlier this month. These two discs emphasize the stature of this composer and the importance of this music. Though the earliest Etudes began as studies to help Glass improve his technique as a pianist, the set as a whole now represents a landmark in 21st century music.

Lin's version is significantly faster than Van Veen's, cooler and lighter and more mercurial. This cuts against Glass's own focus on the emotional content of his music, but I find Lin's reading totally convincing. In Van Veen's more romantic approach, the emotion sweeps us up, while Lin's grows slowly in subtle shifts. As Glass says about his music from the late 60s and early 70s, "It was not meant to be mindless, but to be organic and powerful, and mindful, too."
The trick of that music was that it allowed the attention to form around a series of successive events that became almost unnoticeable - around the function of listening to something that seemed as if it were not changing, but was actually changing all the time. (Words Without Music)
Jenny Lin has been involved in the one-evening events where a number of pianists including Glass himself play all 20 Etudes. She'll join Glass, Aaron Diehl, Jason Moran and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes in this program at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in March of 2018.

This album will be released on November 17, 2017.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The soul in the surface


Canaletto & The Art of Venice

The latest Exhibition on Screen is one of the finest in the entire series, David Bickerstaff film based on the exhibition of paintings and drawings by Canaletto and some of his contemporaries in 18th century Venice, at The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace. The film is in theatres in the UK right now, but it opens real soon here in North America (on November 9, 2017 in Canada).

"The soul is often in the surface," says Italo Calvino, "and the importance of 'depth' is overestimated." This is an axiom with some relevance to the art of the great scene-painter Canaletto, whose art came from the showy, superficial world of the popular theatre, but who developed a very personal style of panache and real rigour which pointed towards the art of the 20th century.  It's also relevant to the format of High Definition video which comes to our local cinema, and soon to our flat-screen televisions, along with the finest details, the very brush-strokes, and even in one case the artist's finger-print. I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have made of the flattening and widening of the TV screen, with the new intensity of sound and colour and its immersive effect. I'm very much aware, as I watch the latest art documentaries, of the total rush of the new media in both the cognitive and the emotional realms. I feel much more connected to Canaletto and his world through this hour and a half film, with its tantalizing glimpses of the very private painter, and the fascinating figure of Joseph Smith, a great connoisseur and entrepreneur who sold his collection of Canalettos and other Venetian paintings to George III. We're given a backstage view of the Buckingham Palace exhibition, which is still going on, if you're reading this from London, before it heads off to Edinburgh, and thence to Dublin. We have access to expertise at the highest level; one of the main interpreters is Lucy Whitaker, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection Trust. She's a co-author of the recently published book Canaletto & The Art of Venice. I highly recommend this film, and will alert you when the DVD is released next year.


Friday, November 3, 2017

The emotional sweep of Philip Glass




Philip Glass wrote his 20 Piano Etudes as individual works over the period 1991 to 2012, but he gave the concept of playing them together as a larger work credibility with his involvement in the performance of all 20 during one evening at the 2014 Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. In his review of that event Steven W Thrasher said that with these works "America’s greatest living composer stakes his claim for immortality." This new Brilliant Classics 2 CD-set of the Etudes by the Dutch pianist Jeroen Van Veen is the first of two releases of this repertoire at the end of 2017; watch for Jenny Lin's version to come along real soon. We're extraordinarily lucky to have such fine pianists playing this music!

I've been reading the Philip Glass memoir Words Without Music, a truly marvellous book, when I came across this passage about his early musical interests:
Berg, the Austrian composer who had been a student of Schoenberg’s, was my favorite. I became very familiar with his music, which had a more romantic feel and much more of an emotional sweep. It was beautiful music, and not as strict as Schoenberg (Webern was even more strict).
I think this is a key issue when it comes to listening to the Etudes.  Van Veen often highlights the emotional sweep of the music, playing with a freedom that belies the absolutely wrong-headed but still popular stereotype of Glass's music as being machine-like and repetitive. He takes some of these works at extraordinarily slow tempos, sometimes to a worrying extent. Again, though, I look to the Glass memoir, and his discussion of SLOW:
With both [conductor Wilhelm] Furtwängler and [director Bob] Wilson, the metronome clicks plunge down well below the comfort level of the human heartbeat. And what these truly great and profound artists reveal to us is a world of immense, immeasurable beauty.
Here's an extreme example of this; Van Veen takes nearly 15 minutes to play the 7th Etude, in A minor. Meanwhile, Maki Namekawa (in her fine 2014 Orange Mountain Music release) zips through it in 6 and a half minutes, while Jenny Lin takes 8-1/2. I can see the theoretical value in the long slow build-up with a strong release later in the piece, and Glass's sad coda as played by Van Veen packs a strong emotional punch here. But I fear he may have stretched things out a bit too much in this case.


I rather prefer Van Veen's version of the next work, no. 8. This is also taken at a stately tempo, but in this case it's to the benefit of the work, with the really rather pretty release after each statement of the stern opening. What an amazing piece, so foreboding and unyielding and then so soft and romantic.

The many permutations of Glass's music results in a really wide range of interpretations, and I think that's part of his genius. Each new concert, each new recording, provides another chance to gain a new appreciation for his genius.

Glass recently had a fascinating conversation with Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library, which you can listen to here. I highly recommend Paul's Live at the NYPL and #PhoneCallFromPaul podcasts.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Well-reasoned and elegant film



The artist documentary film, once the province of awkward talking heads, banal background music and blurry sideways camera swipes across canvases, has raised its game considerably in the age of HD video. Some of the very best of the high definition films of this sort are from the Exhibition On Film series seen in cinemas and released on DVD by Seventh Art. Though the new Michelangelo release doesn't document a major event like the Bosch film, which presented virtually all of his paintings on the 500th anniversary of Bosch's birth, there's a compelling story behind Michelangelo's life and art that makes for an engaging as well as educational experience. The artist's life is full of incident; he's referred to in the film as the first celebrity artist. His greatness as a sculptor, painter, draftsman, poet and architect means there is no lack of masterpieces to look at; one moves quickly from the monumental David statue to the Vatican frescoes to a lovely poem set to music to an exquisite drawing that shows the artist's intimate knowledge of human anatomy. The experts, English and Italian, are fluent but keep their insights short and sweet. The establishing shots of landscape and buildings provide context, especially those taken in the quarries of Carrara, where Michelangelo found much of his marble. This is a well-reasoned and elegant presentation of the difficult but ultimately triumphant life of one of the most accomplished artists in history.

Filming Michelangelo: Love and Death



Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A promising new direction for Haydn 2032


Haydn: Symphonies 19, 80 and 81; Kraus: Symphony in C minor

Giovanni Antonini shifts gears with this fifth issue of his wonderful Haydn 2032 recordings, in the lead-up to the Haydn Tri-Centennial. This is a great series; volume 3 was my top release from last year. Instead of the marvellous Il Giardino Armonico, he now directs the Kammerorchester Basel, which will also get the call in volumes 6 and 7. What's the word on this new reliever from the bullpen?

It's very good news indeed. Though both play on original instruments, the Basel orchestra is considerably larger than Il Giardino, 6:6:5:3:2 in the strings versus 4:4:2:2:2. But though there's a fuller, richer, sound that's more appropriate for Haydn's Symphonies 80 and 81 from the mid-1780s, this is a very tight band that gives Antonini all the grace and lightness that Haydn still requires. I know these symphonies very well; my default version of Haydn's Symphonies is Adam Fischer's set with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, and the Basel musicians come close to this high standard. Stripped down to a smaller ensemble for the slight but charming (and fun) Symphony 19, we here have the same nimbleness of Il Giardino with all of expressiveness.

Haydn is great (great? - he's super-great!), but the star of the show here is Joseph Martin Kraus, an exact contemporary of Mozart, and a composer not too terribly far off in quality from the two great classical composers of the period. His Symphony in C minor is an outright work of genius. I slightly prefer this version over the very good Concerto Köln recording from 1992; the new recording is as theatrical, but its cooler temperature shows off its classical bones better.

A final note, once again, on Alpha's fabulous presentation for this series. The notes (in three languages) are excellent, and the featured photographs by a Magnum artist, in this case Stewart Franklin, are especially apposite. I await volume six with the Kraus Symphony set on repeat....

This disc is due to be released on November 3, 2017.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Neapolitan orchestral music, both erudite and galant


Francesco Durante: Concertos for Strings

The Neapolitan composer Francesco Durante, who was born within a year of Bach and Handel, is known mainly as a teacher (of, among others, Paisiello and Pergolesi) and a writer of sacred music. These concertos for strings often have an ecclesiastical sound, more in a contrapuntal style than a concertante one. This erudite feeling is further enhanced by Durante's use of minor keys and a tendency towards galant sentiment, and even sentimentality. There are passages which remind me of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, with a vague feeling of spiritual contemplation. The Ensemble Imaginaire under Cristina Corrieri provide an accomplished but rather low temperature reading of this music, less intense than the 2009 album (on 2 CDs with some additional works) by Concerto Koln under Werner Eberhardt. There has been some recent movement in Durante scholarship, and the essay by Corrieri in the liner notes says "the present CD set is effectively the first complete recording of Francesco Durante’s Concertos for strings", due to the presence of a newly discovered Concerto in B flat major. Durante is a serious and estimable composer, but don't expect much toe-tapping when you listen to this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Christmas with subtlety and grace



Lux: Music for Christmas 
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
I've talked before about the two tendencies that enhance a Christmas album, familiarity and novelty, and this new ATMA release has them in exactly the right mix. Paul Mealor's In the Bleak Midwinter, written in 2016, is a lovely setting for choir a cappella and baritone soloist. Besides its musical merits, hearing the new version rather than the accustomed ones of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke has the effect of sending one back to Christina Rossetti's sublime original poem. The outstanding Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, under the direction of Jean-Sebastien Vallee, sings this song with subtlety and grace, but also with the fervour of a community that understands "snow on snow, snow on snow". The 1994 setting of Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen has attained classic status, and shows up fairly often in Christmas programs; again, it's beautifully sung here. Another new classic, Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque , which gives the disc its title, sounds as good in this live performance as some top choirs. It's a tribute to Jean-Sebastien Vallee and his talented singers that the more erudite numbers co-exist so comfortably with the more traditional choir-and-organ pieces such as David Willcocks' arrangements of Once in Royal David's City and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Organist Jonathan Oldengarm plays a major role in a number of choral numbers, but also has quite a few solo numbers. He plays an impressive instrument of nearly 7,000 pipes, made in 1931 by Casavant Frères of St. Hyacinthe. His interpretation of Sigrid Karg-Elert's Choral-Improvisation on In dulci jubilo which ends the disc is quite outstanding. ATMA has put together a winner for Christmas.



This album will be released on November 17, 2017.

More than just a mood elevator


Il Violoncello del Cardinale: Cello sonatas by Boni, Amadei, Haym, Perroni, Costanzi, Bononcini, Lulier

In the 1950s & 60s there was a radio show from WNYC called "DeKoven Presents", which focussed on the music of the Baroque, or rather the pre-classical music that DeKoven called Barococo. I listened to DeKoven (it was always just DeKoven: "no sir or mister") in the late 60s and early 70s on CKUA, the great radio station at 580 kc. in Edmonton. The reason I'm reminiscing here is that while DeKoven was way ahead of the curve in appreciating early music, he did have an oddity, which Brendan Gill points out in his New Yorker profile from 1962: "He wants his programs to [be] anti-soporific so he plays only those parts of compositions that go very fast." I knew at the time this was a mis-step, and as early music has evolved over the decades I'm absolutely sure that the musical genius in this period comes from the entire range rather than just the peppy, and that it serves as much more than just a mood elevator.

I was reminded of this when I listened to this disc of Cello Sonatas from the marvellous Marco Ceccato and his Accademia Ottoboni. There is so much dignity and gravity and serious thought in much of this music. This Grave movement from Giuseppe Maria Perroni's Cello Sonata no. 1 is a good example.



So much of this music is like this, lots of it of the same high calibre. But lest you think there's only slow arrows in this bow, you can also find more spirited music. DeKoven himself would have enjoyed this tiny theatrical, folk-inspired Allegro assai by Nicola Haym. I wonder if he'd have rated it OTW (out of this world), OTG (out of this galaxy), or even the sublime OTC (out of this cosmos)?

A fine pianist's spirit comes through


I'm slowly turning into a bit of a historic recordings buff, in spite of myself.  Last year I really enjoyed listening to the APR release of the 8 late Beethoven sonatas Wilhelm Kempff recorded in Germany during the war years. Here now are 16 earlier sonatas recorded on 78rpm records in 1940, 41 and 43. There is the same meticulous discography, down to the matrix numbers, indispensible to historic recording buffs of a deeper understanding than me. Also we have a superb long essay by Bryce Morrison about Kempff, and an essay on the recordings from Michael Spring. Kempff recorded this music a lot; the Pathetique, for example, in 1924, 1928, 1929 and 1936 before the 1940 recording here; the Appassionata in 1924, 1928 and 1932 before the 1943 recording on this disc. The fact that these works often sound so completely different from the 1964/65 stereo LP set I know so well, and the 1950s mono set I've listened to since, is typical of Kempff's spontaneity and his ever-evolving interpretation of this music.

Once again there are caveats about the sound. These are in some cases actually worse than the pre-war recordings because of the war-time quality of materials used to press the discs. But the spirit of Kempff comes through, and this pianist's spirit is central to his art.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A welcome new Martinu Symphonies set


Bohuslav Martinu: Symphonies 1-6

Back in 2011 Rob Barnett ended a review of the complete Martinu symphonies from Jiri Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the following plea:
The comparative avalanche of Martinů recordings unleashed two years ago around the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death has injected fresh life into this part of the catalogue. Too often however these birth/death splurges simply go to underscore longer term neglect – a huge exposure followed by a vertiginous fall back even deeper into obscurity. We must hope that Martinů’s star has a sustainable higher profile. This set shows that his music has all the necessary stamina and allure. 
It took a while, but the appearance of this complete set of six symphonies on three CDs, recorded live in Vienna from 2011 to 2017, serves to reinforce the essential importance of Martinu as a 20th century orchestral composer. It's a very fine recording as well, though it doesn't supplant the splended Onyx set of Belohlávek. It has a fine, clear, lifelike sound, with most of the advantages of live recording, a sense of occasion and excitement and a more organic and natural arc to the performance, without too many of the disadvantages. The audience is mainly well-behaved and the applause is edited out. The young German conductor Cornelius Meister impresses most in the more meditative music - I love his brooding ways in the Largo of the 3rd Symphony, and even more in the almost mystical 4th Symphony Largo. But the more rambunctious music - the 1st Symphony Scherzo is a good example - has nowhere near the rocket-ship propulsion of Belohlávek, nor the exuberance of the London musicians. Meister's Scherzo sounds more French than Czech, and it's hard to tell if that's because it's deliberately played in a more ironic, International Style way, or if the more rigorous and authentic Belohlávek brings out the raucous Bohemians in his BBC musicians. Perhaps it's a bit of both. What's clear is that this is serious, substantial music that replays multiple hearings with maximum concentration. I got a lot of pleasure from this set, and plan on keeping it in my regular rotation.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Great 20th Century Canadian music making


Brahms: Piano Quartet no. 1, op. 25; Richard Strauss: Piano Quartet, op. 13

Steven Staryk's skill-set as a solo violinist is obvious: his virtuosity and musicianship are in the top class, and he brings a Heifetz-like tone from the amazing violins he plays. There's a list on his website of 28 great instruments by Amati, Del Gesu, Stradivarius and others that he's played in his 50-year career. As the "King of Concertmasters" at orchestras in Amsterdam, London, Chicago and Toronto, you can add leadership and collaboration skills. Chamber music is a different environment, though, and I was pleased to see this disc with two works Staryk recorded with Quartet Canada, which was in residence at the University of Western Ontario in London from 1968 to 1971. The other members of the group were pianist Ronald Turini, violist Gerald Stanick and cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi. The results are not really surprising: there is both passion and control in the Brahms and the Richard Strauss, and no group-think in evidence in either, but rather strongly characterized playing in the violin as well the other three parts. The group expertly walks the tight-rope between bland uniformity on the one side and over-sentimentality on the other, and the energy in these two works never fades.This is a high point in 20th century Canadian music-making.

The disc will be released on November 3, 2017.

Sounds of youth with echoes of maturity


Heitor Villa-Lobos: Symphonies 1 and 2

The Villa-Lobos Symphonies series from Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) under Isaac Karabtchevsky comes to a triumphant conclusion with this disc of the composer's first two symphonies. Though Villa-Lobos was a little bit of a late bloomer - his earliest works aren't especially accomplished by the standards set by Mendelssohn or Schubert - there's an interesting situation keeping this release from being anti-climactic. The 2nd Symphony, ostensibly written in the late teens of the 20th century, had to wait until 1944 for its premiere, and the composer seems to have used more than a bit of his best juju in polishing up this piece for its performance. It thus seems to be far in advance of the 1st symphony, and more importantly, the 3rd and even the 4th, as good as that work is. Though it's true that the 2nd Symphony is based on the principles of composition espoused by Vincent d'Indy and there are many French and Russian-sounding bits, one keeps hearing passages that sound like nothing as much as the Bachianas Brasilieras. And that's all to the good, I think.

By the way, there are a few other works from this period where something similar happened. Villa-Lobos wrote "1917" on the score of the marvellous orchestral work Uirapuru, but it wasn't premiered until 1935. Like the 2nd Symphony, it has a suspiciously nationalistic, Bachianas Brasileiras sound, which isn't surprising considering that the composer conducted the premiere in front of President Vargas. And the score of the Sexteto Mistico (one of my favourite chamber works), written in 1917, was lost. Villa-Lobos re-wrote it from memory, but obviously slipped in music in the modernist style he had mastered in Paris in the mid-1920s.

With his 1st Symphony Villa-Lobos was still learning to write music for orchestra, but it's still a more than creditable effort. It has a very fine performance here, partly because of the Sao Paulo musicians, who are very much in a groove with their conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky; and partly because of the carefully revised score which fixes many mistakes and excrescences, and in which Karabtchevsky himself played a major role. This performance makes an even better case for the symphony than the very good CPO recording from Stuttgart conducted by Carl St. Clair.

There are two last things to praise.  The Naxos design team has done a great job with this whole series. They've broken out of the bland Naxos cover tradition with striking black and white photographs. This last disc is one of the best; it features Beach at Nightfall, Rio de Janeiro, 1940, by Thomaz Farkas, the great Hungarian photographer who moved to Brazil as a child. Secondly, Fábio Zanon, who is currently Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, provides another absolutely first-class essay for the liner notes, with strong analysis and new insights. Put together, the Naxos Symphonies notes represent a major contribution to Villa-Lobos scholarship. This last disc in the set will be released on November 10, 2017

This review also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A powerful message of defiance


Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, op. 123

Toscanini recorded the Missa Solemnis four times: there's a commercial recording that RCA made in 1953, a BBC recording from 1939, and an earlier broadcast from 1935. But the consensus pick for the best is this one, made in New York for radio broadcast on December 28, 1940. There's some outstanding singing here, especially from tenor Jussi Björling and bass Alexander Kipnis. The female voices and the choir haven't been universally praised, but in spite of some flaws I found the drama of this work absolutely gripping. So much of the credit for this goes, of course, to the Maestro at the podium. He's given reasonably good sound considering the vintage and the circumstances, though there are certainly balance issues and some sections when the sound is more than slightly muddy. But even then one feels Toscanini's humanistic ethos, delivered with a visceral excitement, what Russell Platt referred to as "the moral ferocity of Toscanini’s aesthetic". This is a defiant message to the monsters of Fascism he had left behind in Europe, and the message can be heard (and, sadly, still has to be heard) just as strongly today.

Though he isn't mentioned in connection with this IDIS re-issue, which uses a clean and (mostly) clear digital re-mastering made in Milan in 2001, we are indebted to RCA recording engineer Robert Hupka for the preservation of this and so many other Toscanini recordings from the war years. Hupka is also known for the photographs he took of the Maestro during this period. The mesmerizing look which brought such powerful results from his musicians more than 75 years ago connects with us like a laser today, in this, the 150th year since Toscanini's birth. This disc will be released on November 3, 2017.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A superb Christmas sampler



Choral Music for Christmas: works by J.S. Bach, Zelenka, Mendelssohn, Reger, Saint-Saens, Handel & others

Summer is winding down; autumn officially arrives tomorrow, so what is coming up Real Soon Now? That's right, the Holiday Season! At Christmas, we're always looking out for new music we've never heard, but not forgetting all the same works we love to hear every year. The Sampler Disc is a great chance to do this, and we have an especially good one here from Carus. You may not know Heinichen's Te Deum laudamus, but I plan on putting it in my regular Xmas playlist rotation; the same for Zelenka's Laudate pueri Dominum. These are very fine performances, with stylish playing, and good recent recordings (2004 and 2012). Then you get a really nice Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, from Kammerchor Stuttgart & Barokorchester Stuttgart. This to-ing and fro-ing between evergreens and surprisingly lovely unfamiliar works goes on through the whole disc, with a focus on very high quality choral singing and fine orchestral support, all at a reasonable price. I'll let you choose your own favourites, but I have to single out another amazing song. It's Philip Lawson's arrangement of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, sung by the Calmus Ensemble; it was included in their 2009 disc Calmus Christmas Carols. Pour yourself an eggnog and listen:



I recommend this disc very highly. Merry Christmas!

Here are the details of the works included:



This disc will be released on October 6, 2017.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Dynamic music in exile


Benjamin Britten & Paul Hindemith: Violin Concertos

It's looking like Paul Hindemith's reputation might have turned a corner; there have been some really first-class releases of his music in the last few years.  I've recently reviewed the Amar Quartet's excellent Complete String Quartets on Naxos and another fine album of chamber music with clarinet from Brilliant Classics. Slightly older, but quite spectacular, was an outstanding all-Hindemith disc from Midori and Christoph Eschenbach. Now we have a fine new recording of the Hindemith Violin Concerto from Arabella Steinbacher and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. It's coupled with an equally beautifully-played Britten Concerto.

These two works were both written in 1939, when each of these composers was in exile from his native land; Britten in America and Hindemith in Switzerland, and later America as well. "Only the misfortune of exile," says Stefan Zweig, "can provide the in-depth understanding and the overview into the realities of the world." There's some nostalgic sadness in each work, as there was in Zweig's own work about exile, The World of Yesterday, written in Brazil in the early 1940s. But, typically of both composers, this music is very much forward-looking, dynamic and really rather optimistic. Steinbacher plays with verve and great virtuosity, while Jurowski and his musicians provide the requisite big sound for these two 19th century-style concertos, the dramatic and lively Britten, and the lyrical, stirring Hindemith. Very highly recommended.


This album will be released on October 20, 2017.

We must bear witness


String Quartets by Viktor Ullmann, Shostakovich and Simon Laks

Here's a album that none of us expected would have such immediate relevance this summer: the Dover Quartet's presentation of three composers who were victims of, and who fought against, Fascism. Viktor Ullmann composed his 3rd String Quartet in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in 1943; he was murdered soon after he was moved to Auschwitz the following year. Dmitri Shostakovich composed his 2nd Quartet in Moscow in 1944, following horrific scenes during the Siege of Leningrad and the long fight between the Soviets and the Nazis. Simon Laks wrote his 3rd Quartet in Auschwitz in 1945; that year he was transported to Dachau, which was liberated before he could be killed.

These three works are truly Voices of Defiance; there is anger and sadness in this music, but no despair. "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness," says Elie Wiesel. "Not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are responsible for what we do with those memories." The marvellous Dover Quartet, whose debut CD demonstrated great technique and musicality, bear witness here, to keep alive the memory of three tortured souls whose own sacrifices preserved precious remnants of civilization in the midst of the most horrific barbarism. In 1941 Woody Guthrie famously wrote on his guitar "This Machine Kills Fascists." After this album the Dover Quartet might consider doing the same with their instruments.

This disc is due to be released on October 13, 2017.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Simple pleasures and hidden depths


Hindemith: Complete Chamber Music for Clarinet

The musical politics of the twentieth century are beginning to seem less and less important, when one stops and actually listens to the music. Hindemith was criticized for being too modern (Joseph Goebbels called him an "atonal noisemaker") but soon not modern enough; by mid-century he was dismissed as a reactionary neo-romantic. Listening to the varied works on this marvellous new disc from Brilliant Classics one always hears the true voice, and the true heart, of a composer who deserves much more attention than he gets on record and on concert stages. Even the works designated as Gebrauchsmusik (Music for Use) sound deeply personal, and are musically interesting. Like in Villa-Lobos's music from the same period, these works tap in to a folkloric vein and are designed to be played and enjoyed by amateurs. Clarinettist Davide Bandieri, whose fine technique allows him to easily handle the more substantial works, doesn't play down in any sense in the simpler works, but helps to bring out their simple pleasures and hidden depths. All of the musicians play with style and warmth; there's a great feeling of musical camaraderie in this entire project. Very highly recommended!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Music of awakening sensibilities


Dresden: Chamber music by Califano, Fasch, Heinichen, Lotti, Quantz, Telemann, Vivaldi

Zefiro's very fine oboe and bassoon players come to the fore again in this album of chamber music from the Dresden court of Friedrich August I around 1720. Music in the Italian style at this stage in musical history meant virtuosity, yes, but more importantly expressiveness and sparkle. These are highly entertaining sonatas, trio sonatas and quartets, which occasionally attain something close to the profound, especially in works by Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Friedrich Fasch.  This music from these two fine composers stands out from any hint of background court music as routine elevator music. Don't think of the lounge pianist playing under sightly drunken conversations and waiters dropping trays, but rather Bill Evans' Trio playing Live At the Village Vanguard, with a mainly rapt, largely musically engaged audience. There's a sense of awakening sensibilities that moves toward the pre-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement later in the century. The stylish playing is a sign of Alfredo Bernardino's group's completely secure Historically Informed Performance tradition. Having singled out the playing of the winds, I should not forget to praise the excellent continuo players, who provide solid support with the occasional sparkling, and historically informed, insertion of their own.

This album is due to be released on October 20, 2017.




Sunday, September 3, 2017

Keep cool at Christmas


David Ian, Vintage Christmas Trio

In Joel Dinnerstein's The Origins of Cool in Postwar America we learned about the jazz roots of cool; if anyone could be said to have 'invented' cool, it would be Lester Young. When I heard Vince Guaraldi's music for A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 9, 1965 I heard Christmas music with a cool new sound. Of course I didn't know then about Bill Evans' amazing 1963 recording of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, or the other Christmas jazz standards from the late 40s and the 50s, but this was prime time on CBS (or rather, in Canada, the CBC), so I got that something had changed in the mainstream. Ever since then I've been looking out for this kind of hip sophistication to go along with more homespun and square (but still cherished), Christmas traditions.

In 2015 the Toronto-born David Ian released his first Vintage Christmas album, a very pleasant collection of Christmas standards inspired, he says, by Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi. He's back this year with Vintage Christmas Trio, which features bassist Jon Estes and drummer Josh Hunt. These are appropriately relaxed and spare arrangements, steering clear of lounge excrescences and adding tasteful bits of Bach and the blues. There are some really successful songs here; one of my favourites is the under-appreciated Johnny Marks tune I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, which features a fine bass solo by Estes with Bill Evans-style voicing from Ian. Another fine song is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, with standout percussion from Hunt. I heard this morning the sad, sad news about the passing of Walter Becker. His Steely Dan partner Donald Fagen said in a statement "We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties)..." This isn't about any neo-Bop purism, especially of the muddled kind peddled in La La Land. It's really more about the nostalgic legacy of the Baby Boomer (Becker was only two years older than me), and that's what we're getting in this mid-century-designed album, for the Feast Day of Baby Boomer Nostalgia, December 25th.

The new album will be released on November 3, 2017. Until then, here's a nice version of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's Christmas Waltz from the first Vintage Christmas.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

I wrote such beautiful music


Rautavaara: Fantasia; Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no. 1; Ravel: Tzigane

Anne Akiko Meyers brings her awesome technique and even more awesome instrument to bear in this beautifully romantic program. The disc includes a very fine performance of the first violin concerto of Karol Szymanowski, which is quite well represented on disc, but I was more interested in the opening work by Einojuhani Rautavaara that gives this CD its title. Fantasia, commissioned by Akiko Meyers, was one of the composer's final works completed before his death, a year ago in July. I love her stories about visiting the Rautavaara in his home to play through the work:

"After I played Fantasia, he looked at me and repeatedly said, 'I wrote such beautiful music!'"

This is, of course, the World Premiere recording of this piece, which I expect will soon become popular on the concert stage. With a significant encore in Ravel's own orchestral version of his Tzigane, this outstanding disc - and especially Rautavaara's Fantasia - will regularly show up in playlists on my computer and phone.

Here is the trailer from Avie Records:


To be released on October 6, 2017.

A pleasure you suffer


Villa-Lobos: Suite populaire bresilienne; Scriabin:  Prelude pour la main gauche; Ponce: Sonata #3; Takemitsu: Equinox; Sor: Fantaisie Elégiaque

In Paris est une solitude peuplée Judicael Perroy has put together a fascinating group of pieces for the classical guitar, played with style and precision. It's a program of moods, with a focus on the beautifully melancholic, that nostalgic enjoyment one takes in the sad sounds of a lost past. The Portuguese, and especially the Brazilians, have the term saudade, which Manuel de Melo has called "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy." Villa-Lobos's Suite populaire Bresilienne is layered with these feelings. Already when the composer put pen to paper he was remembering an earlier time of street musicians from his father's generation and his childhood. When he added the final movement, the Chorinho, in 1923, there was a new modernist, Parisian layer to the music and an additional layer of sadness and regret. Perroy plays Villa's 1948 revision of this music; the composer was always polishing his early music. I've been listening to this beautiful music for many years, and especially since I began the Villa-Lobos Website nearly 25 years ago, so listening to this fresh sounding version evokes all of the dozens of versions - Kraft, Zanon, Barrueco, Turibio Santos, Leisner, Assad - that I've come to love. The rest of the album continues on a pensive note, with a fine miniature based on a Scriabin work for piano left hand. Works by Ponce, Takemitsu and Sor round out this well-planned, nicely presented and beautifully played album. It's due to be released on September 1st, 2017.

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Filling in details of Lenny's life and works


Leonard Bernstein: the complete solo piano works

I'm writing this review on Leonard Bernstein's 99th birthday. It's time to begin the Lenny Centennial celebrations, and what a good way to begin: listening (though not all at once) to the music he wrote for solo piano, for two and four hands. There aren't too many substantial works here, with most of the 56 tracks on two discs running two minutes or less. Bernstein wrote mainly miniatures, character pieces which quite often made reference to friends and professional colleagues. Even his Piano Sonata, an early piece written in 1938, is hardly a big work; the two movements add up to only 11 minutes. Pianist Leann Osterkamp helps to provide a more organic view of Bernstein's piano oeuvre by organizing the pieces more or less chronologically, but grouping pieces which share a connection with larger works together. She also includes a number of unpublished pieces and works that have never been recorded. Most importantly, Osterkamp plays this music with the perfect balance of respect for the composer and an awareness of the nature of circumstances of the work's composition. She has a lightness of touch that works well with Bernstein's often ironic point of view, recognizing mock seriousness or sentimentality but playing other works in a more straightforward way when required. Though the piano music represents nothing as profound or important as Bernstein's orchestral music or his works for the stage or the musical theatre, this delightful music fills in much detail of his character and his life. Michael Barrett provides an extra two hands in Bernstein's Bridal Suite, which is full of lovely melodies, ingenious touches and out and out jokes.

Bernstein at the piano during rehearsals for On the Town, 1953, via NYPL digital collection
One thing that these works illustrate is how social a person Leonard Bernstein was. He obviously gained energy from his huge network of close friends and colleagues in musical, theatrical and other artistic circles. Nothing could be further from the old stereotype of the composer wrestling with his Muse in his lonely attic. In the picture above he works with Roz Russell, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, George Abbott, Lehman Engel on the songs for Wonderful Town. It's a great picture, and it goes so well with the pictures he draws of both Comden and Green in two separate pieces included in this album. Bring on more music - and performance - of this calibre in the next 12 months!

To be released on September 15, 2017.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Stylish, spirited, sparkling Mozart


Mozart Piano Concertos, v. 2: K. 449 & K. 459, plus Divertimenti K. 136 & K. 138

The second volume in the new Chandos Mozart Piano Concertos series from Manchester, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, is pretty much what we've come to expect from this combination of superb musicians: stylish, spirited, sparkling Mozart with a real feeling of freshness. Mozart spoke a fair amount in his letters of playing music with taste, but I'm afraid some musicians take that to mean a safe, middle-of-the-road approach that drains the life out of this mercurial music. The last thing one would say about Bavouzet and Takacs-Nagy's Mozart is that it is careful;  they take full advantage of the range of musical opportunities Mozart offers the performer, plus some the composer wouldn't have dreamt of, all on the positive side, I hasten to add. These two concertos come at a time when Mozart made a true leap from the delightfully prodigious master of the International Style of the time to a period where his emerging genius began to build rapidly towards the greatness of The Marriage of Figaro and the instrumental works which surround it. This was his Rubber Soul and Revolver period, to speak in the language of The Beatles. It's a time of surprises.

I can never listen to the Divertimentos Mozart wrote in Salzburg in 1772 without a smile on my face. This isn't profound music, but it's well-made and designed to do just that: make people feel good. The middle work, K. 137, was included in the first volume of the Chandos series; K. 136 and 138 are added here as fairly substantial bonuses. Takacs-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata absolutely nail this music; it's just like With the Beatles!

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 seven-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 numbered Symphonies fit onto the first five discs, with a generous bonuses including 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!