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.

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. The discs were released on October 6, 2017, though for some reason they haven't shown up on Amazon.com as yet.

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 Xmas 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!

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.