Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

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

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bright, direct performances of marvellous music

Antonio Rosetti, Piano Concerto, Two Symphonies

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hopeless, but not serious

Detlev Glanert, Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

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

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

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

A beautiful presentation of Bosch's eccentric art

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

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

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

Here is the trailer from Seventh Art:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Knowing interpretations of appealing music

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Dramatic, high spirited symphonies

Francois-Joseph Gossec, Symphonies

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

The civilized smile

Boccherini: String Trios, op. 6

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

A courageous thing

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

A delightful album of music from the French Baroque

Age of Indulgence: Les Delices

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

Style and grace; warmth and humanity

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

Tuneful, easy music for guitar and orchestra

Radames Gnattali: Concertinos for Guitar and Orchestra

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Universal tragedy on a tiny dramatic stage

Luigi Boccherini: Stabat Mater

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Remembrance restores possibility to the past

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

At the end of a tragic day

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

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

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

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

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

This disc will be released on June 2, 2017.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

An appealing mix of Brazilian piano music

Grace Alves: Keys to Rio

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Antheil's music, for a change

George Antheil, Symphony 4 & 5, Over the Plains

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Masterpieces revealed

Villa-Lobos Symphonies 8, 9 & 11

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

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

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The playfully profound music of Friedrich Gulda

Gulda Plays Mozart & Gulda

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Happy Centennial, Lou!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

Arresting visuals and compelling stories

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Mixtape from Johann Sebastian

Celebratory Cantatas: J.S. Bach Secular Cantatas, volume 8
A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention, and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and... oh, there are loads of rules. 
- Nick Hornby, High Fidelity, 1995
In October 1734 Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, made a surprise visit to Leipzig and Bach put down everything he was doing to cobble together a celebratory cantata in the Elector's honour. This was Preise dein Glucke, BWV 215, one of two fabulous works on the new Bach Collegium Japan disc, volume 8 in their Secular Cantatas series from BIS. With only a few days in which to work, Bach re-used some of the music he had lying around, notably the fabulous first movement of his 1732 cantata Es lebe der König, der Vater im Lande, BWV Anh 11, set for two four-part choirs, as a base for the opening chorus. This is joyous music, full of pomp and pagentry, with trumpets blazing and drums pounding. For 18th century composers dealing with their patrons the currency was always flattery.  If Augustus III was paying attention at all, he must have been mightily impressed by this compliment. This is courtly music at the very highest level. The second cantata, written for the birthday of Augustus, is every bit as bright and appealing. Masaaki Suzuki and his amazing Bach Collegium Japan bring the same dedication, musicianship and scholarship to this recording that they have to every Bach cantata they've performed over the years, with an extra helping of high spirits. This is very highly recommended!

Released June 2, 2017.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Slip, slidin' away

Orazio Vecchi Requiem: Rubens's funeral and the Antwerp Baroque

I've been immersed in the Glenn Gould world lately, reading Sandrine Revel's new graphic novel and watching 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. The reason I mention this here is that Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations was such a ground-breaking event, a revolution in performance practice. Looking back on some of the early responses to Gould's interpretation, his use of a piano in the repertoire, even the choice of music itself, some of it seems quite reactionary more than 60 years later. I dabble, at most, in music from the Renaissance and early Baroque, so I don't know too much about how this music should be sung. My first thought, though, was that the ornamentation, mordents (trills) and slides in abundance, threatens to swamp the music entirely. Trying to keep an open mind I was alternately swept away by the choir's gorgeous singing of unearthly beautiful music and irritated by the swoops and curlicues Bjorn Schmelzer has introduced into the music in apparent imitation of the sound of cornets and sackbuts of the Venetian composers of the time. Frank Sinatra famously imitated Tommy Dorsey's trombone style in developing his vocal technique. Similarly, Ella Fitzgerald once said "I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns." This cross-fertilization is a sign of a vibrant musical culture, and the reluctance to fall in line with an exact precision of ensemble and a punctiliously straight-forward presentation is very much the same. The music should swing, but maybe not quite so much.

Schmelzer places this music at Rubens' funeral in Antwerp in June of 1640, perhaps on some rather sketchy evidence. This is what got me interested in this album; I adore Rubens' paintings and admire him greatly as a artist and a person (I highly recommend Mark Lamster's book Master of Shadows, by the way, a fine portrait of a cosmopolitan man of letters and public affairs). Vecchi's Requiem was published in Antwerp in 1612, so at least we have the geography lined up. I guess it doesn't really matter too much in the end; we all have our own lineup of people to remember when we listen to Requiem masses, and the list gets longer for all of us every year.

Come back to this review in 60 years to see if I've missed the boat here. What I mainly am right now is puzzled.

Here is the Dies Irae from the Vecchi Missa pro defuncta.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A mixed bag: from oddness to greatness

This is the second 6-CD set from Profil of recordings made by Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, largely live recordings from the 1940s and 50s. It's very much a mixed bag, with some oddly shaped and accented Mozart, Berlioz and Bizet, thin sounding in the bargain. A bit better is the Richard Strauss Alpensymphonie, though one cannot put it in the top class. But the high end is high indeed.The standouts are, naturally, music by Russian composers.

The Stravinsky ballets on the third disc, Petrushka and The Firebird, are completely alive, fresh and airy but also cruel and barbaric. Remastering has delivered impressive sound considering the vintage and recording sources, though of course there isn't quite the presence of the best new recordings. The Prokofiev works, the 2nd Romeo & Juliet Suite and the 6th Symphony, sound even better, in performances of style and again some considerable violence. Romeo & Juliet has a paranoid edge; after all, orchestral musicians as well as composers must have worried about official disapproval of "degenerate modernism". The same is true of the 6th Symphony. "Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed," the composer said when he wrote this music in 1947. The pain and loss in this music comes from a sharing of those wounds, with many personal losses I'm sure. This is an affecting document as well as an artistic statement of considerable merit. I've only rarely heard as impressive a Pathetique Symphony as Mravinsky delivers here, taut with menace but finely and delicately balanced, and in the end heartbreakingly sad. This is Tchaikovsky laid bare, stripped of false sentimentality. Mravinsky and his wonderful musicians demonstrate that this is indeed one of the greatest of all 19th century works of art.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The wind symphony put through its paces

The music on this new disc from the North Texas Wind Symphony, conducted by Eugene Migliaro Corporon, is very diverse, which isn't a surprise considering the broad range of styles in which each of these composers works and the flexibility of the wind symphony format. The players of this superb ensemble, a large group of nearly 70 musicians, combine the expressive capabilities of woodwinds, the power of brass and a dizzying array of rhythms from the percussion. Military band, film music, and cool and hot big band sounds are all here, showing off virtuoso playing but also virtuoso composition.

We open with a stirring piece by that modern master of stirring music, John Williams. His work written to commemorate the 215th anniversary of the United States Marine Band, For the President's Own, is a patriotic classic. Master orchestrator Michael Daugherty cleaned up in the 2017 Grammys with three awards, and his 2015 composition Winter Dreams is a great example of his art. In fact, I was well into this piece before I realized there were no strings. Daugherty wrote this to commemorate two Iowa artists: painter Grant Wood and poet Jay Sigmund.

The most extensive work on the album is John Mackey's Wine-Dark Sea, a full-scale symphony with Homeric themes. This is stirring music with an exciting, vivid sound palette. Mackey also provides a short, fun, virtuosic bit of slapstick entitled The Ringmaster's March, which I expect will be challenging bands across the nation for many years. Bruce Broughton's World of Spirits is very evocative; he calls it "ballet without the dancers or a movie without the screen". The ability of music to program our minds' inner choreographer/film director has always been of great interest to composers and audiences, and Broughton brings to mind both the films of John Ford and Martha Graham's dancing, alongside the Great Plains landscapes and Comanche encampments.

I loved Gernot Wolfgang's Passing Through (2016), which was nominated for a Grammy this year (beaten out by a Daugherty disc). His Three Short Stories is the highlight of Inventions for me. Originally written for viola and bassoon, the transformation to a full big band is amazing. These little pieces have really good bones to wear these flashy new orchestrations so lightly! Here is Uncle Bebop in the original scoring; you'll have to wait until the new disc is released on May 12, 2017 to hear it in its new form.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The importance of being earnest

Louis Durey: Durey Rediscovered

Groupings of independent artists are sometimes, or even usually, problematic, as artistic aims diverge or individuals leave or are added. The idea of grouping together Les Six, six French composers of the early 20th century, came from the critic Henri Collet, along with the name. The group was, at least initially, under the leadership of Jean Cocteau, and there were indeed always six and only ever six members: Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc and Louis Durey. As a group they were more or less modernist if not entirely avant garde, working in an International Style that was much more French than German, and generally not wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Milhaud, Auric (in Cocteau's portrait), Honegger, Tailleferre, Poulenc, Durey. Cocteau at the piano.
Photo: Boris Lipnitzki, 1931
From my limited exposure to Durey's music - these songs along with a few piano pieces and chamber works - I would say he's a born classicist, but with more interest in the avant garde and Cocteau's schemes than some other members of the group. He's a very serious fellow, though, without the obvious sense of humour of Poulenc or Auric. Durey was a communist, and he ended up more and more involved in left-wing politics to the detriment of his significant musical skills. Nearly all of his music that I've heard shares a common characteristic: earnestness. His setting of Grève de la Faim (Hunger Strike) by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet could hardly be otherwise, and nor could his two songs based on poems by Ho Chi Minh. Equally obvious, though, is their incredible beauty; I was completely bowled over. These songs are nearly all gems, with obvious beauties standing out right away, and others that reveal their fine qualities after a few listens. The musicians, led by pianist and Durey scholar Jocelyn Dueck, along with a team of very fine singers: baritones Jesse Blumberg and Sidney Outlaw, tenor William Burden and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, make the best possible case for this enigmatic composer, who is perhaps to be valued much higher than he is presently.

This recording, the result of a successful crowd-funding campaign, is due to be released on May 26, 2017.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

More fine Dvorak from Wit, from Navarre

Dvorak Mass in D; Te Deum

I'm a big fan of the conductor Antoni Wit. His Naxos discography is extensive, and a string of awards has people paying more attention to his new releases. The discs I've enjoyed the most have been with the excellent Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, including a very fine 2015 Dvorak Requiem. Wit is also (since 2013-14) the Artistic Director of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra, and this I believe is his first recording with this orchestra.  The Mass in D and the Te Deum are both very appealing works from a choral composer of the first order. Though both are smaller in scope, they reach the same peaks of pathos, awe and consolation as Dvorak's Requiem. The lovely swinging opening Kyrie of the Mass is sung and played by Wit's Spanish musicians with the utmost delicacy, though Wit teases out the backbone as well. Dvorak's Brahms and Beethoven models are perhaps more forward than they might be with a Eastern European orchestra. The choral singing from the Orfeon Pamplones is superb, and all four soloists are strong, with soprano Ewa Biegas a stand-out.

This disc is due for release on May 12, 2017.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A re-issue well-timed for Canada150

This re-issue of the 1992 debut album by the Saint John String Quartet is very much welcome, and quite nostalgic for me. The promotional material from Leaf Music quotes Bob Kerr as saying this is "one of the most satisfying and pleasurable CDs to appear this year." I have very fond memories of Off the Record, the great program that Kerr hosted from Vancouver on CBC Stereo (as Radio 2 was called then). The repertoire is well chosen, with great Canadian works along with appealing shorter pieces from composers around the world. It includes a favourite of mine, Sir Ernest Macmillan's Two sketches for string-quartet based on French Canadian airs, which I know well from a DGG recording with the Amadeus String Quartet. Another standout is Srul Irving Glick's From Out of the Depths (Mourning Music for the Six Million); this is a work that should be taken up by many more string quartets. What an appealing mix of music!

The 1928 score of Sir Ernest Macmillan's Two sketches; this iconic work is the perfect one to play in celebration of Canada's Sesquicentennial this year.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Fine Mozart from a superb Swiss violinist

Aida Stucki, Mozart, The Violin Concertos

Aida Stucki, the Swiss violinist who lived from 1921 to 2011, was an unfamiliar name to me, but the tribute from Anne-Sophie Mutter on the album cover caught my eye: "My remarkable teacher has been a lifelong inspiration to me." This, of course, raises expectations, which I'm pleased to say were met and even exceeded. I love the Mozart violin sonatas, and there's a good selection of them (16 in all, from K. 296 to K. 547) on this six CD set. with sensitive accompaniment by Christopher Lieske. These are live recordings, from 1977. Stucki's tone is sweet and strong, and the violin-piano blend is very pleasant. I really enjoyed listening to this fabulous music, even four or five sonatas at a time.

It was the concertos that really impressed me, though. I admit that my high expectations didn't extend to the orchestral accompaniment, but there were no duds here, from the Zurich Radio Orchestra under a variety of conductors, the Ton-Studio Orchestra Stuttgart under Gustav Lund, the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra under Victor Desarzens and the Zurich Radio Orchestra under Pierre Colombo. All of these are also live radio recordings, and considering their vintage from the 1950s, they sound very good. Everything is subordinate, of course, to Stucki's generous sound, with superb intonation and a seemingly unending variety of tonal effects. One can marvel at Mozart's invention within a fairly narrow concerto construct that always remains fresh and new, but let's be honest, there are some Mozart violin concerto recordings that begin to sound routine after one or two movements. That never happens here, plus there are two bonuses. One is a more than standard version of the Sinfonia Concertante, one of the great Mozart middle-period works, with Hermann Friedrich playing up to Stucki's level. The other is the very odd and quite controversial 7th Violin Concerto, K. 271a. Stucki provides a strong case for the work, but I remain unconvinced about its authorship by Mozart. It's nevertheless a work that's worth a listen. Doremi has provided a real service by making these radio recordings available on disc and on MP3. I recommend them very highly.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Powerful choral and orchestral music by Arvo Pärt


Arvo Pärt's music always has about it a sense of bearing witness, and as such its power is best felt in the immediacy of a live performance, or the next best thing, a live recording. When the recording is as powerfully and beautifully played and sung and recorded as is this Arvo Pärt Live disc, we really cannot ask for more. The works chosen represent a cross-section of some of the greatest works by the Estonian composer, from his early Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for string orchestra & bell, to the choral a cappella work Seven Magnificat Antiphons, to the complex work for chorus and orchestra Cecilia, vergine romana. The album begins with another early work, the Collage on BACH for strings, oboe, harpsichord and piano, which though it's in a completely different style than the rest of the works, stands as a sign-post to Pärt's future development. And it ends with the mysterious Litany – Prayers of St John Chrysostom for Each Hour of the Day and Night, which is beautifully sun by the Hilliard Ensemble. The 70 minutes of music takes one through passages of alternating terror, awe, sorrow and joy, which are liable to result in a profound aesthetic and/or religious experience.

The disc will be released on May 19, 2017.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mozart en famille

"It may be,” wrote theologian Karl Barth, "that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure." I love Mozart, and I love Barth, but a good part of the pleasure I get from this passage comes from his phrase "en famille". It implies warmth and security and closeness, and those are the very feelings that came over me when I listened to this new LSO Live disc that features the LSO Wind Ensemble in one of Mozart's greatest chamber works. The expert LSO wind players shine in performances of large-scale Mozart: the piano concertos, the Requiem, the late symphonies, operas. There is individual virtuosity and excellence in all aspects of musicianship, but, and just as important, also an ability to provide a characteristic but not overly homogenized wind sound for the orchestra. When they play en famille, just themselves, they bring this to bear, but amongst themselves they can really be themselves. This means there's a relaxed feeling without any loss of drama, and the kind of swing that you hear in Duke Ellington's band or Count Basie's band. This is now, after many listens, my favourite version of a favourite work by my favourite composer.

Karl Barth, Basel, 1958. Photo: Imagno

A marathon of great music and great performance

The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was in his prime, about to turn 40, when he arrived in New York with the London Symphony Orchestra for eight concerts at Carnegie Hall between February 23 and March 12, 1967. The excitement surrounding this project is easy to hear; there's a real sense of occasion in this music, and though the applause for each piece is cut quite short, what's left is (rightly) very enthusiastic. For this six-CD set Doremi has chosen 22 concertos from the 30 performed. It seems a bit churlish to complain, with all the amazing riches included, about what isn't here. But what a shame to have the greatest of 20th century cello concertos, the Elgar, to lead off the set, without the greatest 19th century concerto, the Dvorak, to go with it. I also regret not having the Schumann concerto, and the two Haydn concertos. But let's accentuate the positive, beginning with the Elgar Cello Concerto. Comparing it with the classic performance by Jacqueline du Pre (with the same LSO), it seems much cooler at first than du Pre's more emotional attack, but Rostropovich soon turns on the afterburners, and provides just as satisfying an experience when the piece is over. Other highlights include Prokofiev's Concertino, a work that is much more substantial and interesting than the diminutive title would suggest, and the Britten Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, which was written for Rostropovich in 1964. I also much enjoyed the Hindemith Concerto, and the two American world premieres, by Foss and Piston. Ottorino Respighi's Adagio con variazioni is a really remarkable piece of music, which Rostropovich sinks his teeth into. It's marvellous to have it available in such a strong performance.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment in this music is not completely unalloyed. The baroque music, concertos by Vivaldi and Tartini, does not match the level of the rest of the program. I was perfectly willing to put aside my love for the historically informed style in vogue today, even indulging in a bit of guilty pleasure. But I got no pleasure from these lumpish, unformed performances. There was precious little charm here, and no real feeling that Rostropovich was engaged in this music. These are the exceptions, though, rather than the rule, and I can enthusiastically recommend this marathon of great music and great performance.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bach and Villa-Lobos for Saxophone

Here's an impressive new release from a young artist with a bright future in the classical music world, saxophonist Asya Fateyeva. My primary interest here is the music by Villa-Lobos, but the Bach arrangements, by Fateyeva herself, are musical and show off the capabilities both of her instrument and herself. She receives solid support from the Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn under Ruben Gazarian. The saxophone's natural singing tone is used to good effect, but the subtle colour effects that Fateyeva provides as an arranger and a performer keep things fresh, while Gazarian's brisk tempi make sure things don't get bogged down in sentimentality. The celebrated Aria from the Fifth Bachianas Brasileiras is arranged with due respect to the composer's original version where the voice has support from 8 cellos (or, rather, a solo cello and seven others), and not with a more generic "strings" accompaniment that is often used. This performance of the Fantasia for Saxophone should help provide some traction for a work that I've always felt should be much better known than it currently is. It's been turning up fairly regularly on programs around the world since it was the center-piece of Branford Marsalis's Marsalis Brasilianos tour back in 2012, and young saxophonists like Asya Fateyeva are right to play it often. A highly recommended disc!

The real Duke underneath

From the beginning Duke Ellington had style and a strong sense of himself; as a child, according to Terry Teachout's excellent biography A Life of Duke Ellington, he "carried himself like a prince of the realm." Once he became Duke, with his own band, everything was subsumed by elegance and refinement; nearly every description of his ensemble includes the words "style" and "sophistication". This is apparent in the famous picture William P. Gottlieb took of Duke in his dressing room at The Paramount in New York in September 1946.

Library of Congress
The outward trappings are obvious - Gordon Parks even took a photo of his many ties - but there's just as much elegance and sophistication in the music itself, composed and arranged, ofttimes, by Ellington himself or by his loyal lieutenant Billy Strayhorn. Polish, style, grace and elegance speak to outward beauty, and we're naturally curious, as we are about Mozart or Flaubert or Fragonard, about what's underneath the surface. That's the promise of this new Storyville album An Intimate Piano Session. On August 25, 1972, two years before his death, Duke recorded a very simple and heartfelt album of songs, many of which held a deep meaning for him. Most of the tracks are just Ellington himself at the piano, and that's such an exposed, open, vulnerable place to be.

Here's his first take of Billy Strayhorn's lovely Lotus Blossom:

Ellington has said that Billy Strayhorn loved to listen to him play Lotus Blossom; it's the last track on ...And His Mother Called Him Bill, Ellington's 1967 memorial for Strayhorn, who died that year. The emotional impact of that track is astonishing. This album is full of such personal items; My Mother, My Father and Love is one, which looks back on a largely happy childhood and deep, deep feelings of family and connection and love. There are more extroverted songs from the 1972 concert as well, with contributions from band singers Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. Storyville has filled out the album with four songs by Ellington's band from a 1969 concert in Holland. This project has given us a glimpse, underneath the surface elegance, of a great artist and a great (though, of course, flawed) person.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A fascinating reboot from Versailles

Every year, beginning in early December, I enjoy listening to as many versions of Handel's Messiah as I can: from rambling, romantic traditional versions to HIP re-enactments. I especially love hearing the version Mozart prepared in 1789, which adds trombones and clarinets, but more importantly brings a new sensibility to bear on this great music, which was first performed in 1741. Something very similar is at play here: in 1770 three composers, Antoine Dauvergne, François Rebel and Bernard de Bury, were commissioned to update the classic Lully opera Persée, originally written in 1682 for the inauguration of the new opera house at Versailles. It's presented by Le concert Spirituel under Herve Niquet in a beautiful package from Alpha Classics, who are fast becoming my favourite label.

The late 18th century didn't have the same regard for historical accuracy that has become the norm in the 21st, and the French musical establishment had been monkeying around with the great scores of the 17th century long before this project. This is a much more thorough reboot of Lully than the Mozart Messiah, and it's the source of much pleasure for the open-minded. Of the three new composers I know Dauvergne the best; I had an LP of his short comic opera Les Trouquers many years ago that I loved. The other two I was unaware of (once I realized that the Rebel I know is the father Jean-Féry and not the son François). All three do their thing with freedom, adding flutes and bassoons, clarinets and horns, and writing a fair amount of new music. Here's the original overture by Lully, played by the present band, Le Concert Spirituel under Herve Niquet:

and the new Overture by Dauvergne:

A new sound for a new Opera House! We have the torso of Lully's opera left, along with a general feeling of stateliness, grandeur and shameless flattery towards royalty. In all, this is a fun package with a scrupulously researched back story for those who want to delve into the music historical aspects. It's so beautifully played and sung that I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Premiere recordings of appealing string quartets

These "early" string quartets by William Alwyn receive their first recordings in a fine disc from the Tippett Quartet. But these are hardly juvenilia, written as they were during the composer's late twenties and early thirties. Nor do they reveal any compositional defects or a feeling that we're listening while the composer is learning. Some composers (Villa-Lobos is an obvious example) aren't sufficiently self-critical, but by suppressing these works Alwyn seems to lean too far in the opposite direction. Luckily the Tippett Quartet and Somm Recordings (with support from the William Alwyn Foundation) have recorded these appealing works, and hopefully the previous nine quartets will eventually follow.

The single movement No. 12 is the most experimental in sound, and the most intense in feeling. I can't imagine why Alwyn witheld this powerful work. It packs a lot in 13 minutes, and leaves a strong impression of passion, loss and mystery. It seems a natural piece to be picked up by other ensembles, though they would be hard pressed to improve on the playing of the Tippett Quartet. Both No. 11 and No. 13 have very positive passages as well, but my favourite is the 10th Quartet, a lovely suite of sea voyage pictures with echoes of Ravel and a strong sense of atmosphere.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two great works played with energy & drive

This Chandos CD is Andrew Davis's second recording of the coupling of Job and the 9th Symphony, which he recorded with the BBC Symphony in the early 1990s as part of his complete symphonies set for Teldec. In the new disc, Andrew Davis appears with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, pinch hitting for the late Richard Hickox to allow Chandos to finish off a complete Vaughan Williams series. These are both great works. The ballet Job has, according to Michael Kennedy, "the stature and cohesion of a symphony', its 1930 date of composition placing it between the three early symphonies and the three middle ones. The Ninth Symphony was completed just a few months before Vaughan Williams' death; I've always been baffled by the questions about its merits. Perhaps the critics were expecting something else when it was premiered in 1958, but this has always sounded to me just like what it is: a work of great power and complexity.

In February 2014 Jonathan Swain surveyed the available Vaughan Williams 9th Symphony recordings for BBC Radio3's CD Review; you can listen to that program here. Of course this was before the present disc was available, and Vernon Handley's version is Swain's top choice. He likes the first Andrew Davis recording, but wishes he could talk instead about Davis's performance with the BBC SO at the 2008 Proms, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of VW's death. Swain feels Davis's conception of the work has changed, and grown: "it was all gain," he says. I'm thinking he would like the new version very much; he thinks that "energy, drive and brilliance of tone" are vital in this music, and I agree. The Chandos recording, helped by amazing sound (I would have loved to hear the surround sound version), has that in abundance. Davis brings tons of energy to this performance, and the Bergen players come through with flying colours. Speaking of players, the saxophones & flugelhorn shine here. This goes for Job as well, whose incidents are as vivid and sharply described as an Annie Leibowitz photograph. The effect of the organ in the Sixth Scene "A Vision of Satan" (which is dubbed in from a recording of the Rieger organ in the Domkirken, Bergen) is astounding.

Here's Sir Andrew Davis re-conducting his own work, listening on headphones in the studio. You know you want to do the same thing: go for it!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A new classic of the operatic stage

By coincidence, I'm writing this review a day before the 90th birthday of the British composer John Joubert. As it turns out, it's the easiest thing possible to give this a 5-star review, but this gift to Joubert is sincere. Happy birthday!

Joubert isn't afraid to take on classics of English literature; his other major operas are based on works by Joseph Conrad and George Eliot. He and his librettist Kenneth Birkin have cut the classic novel to its dramatic bone to come up with this two act adaptation of Jane Eyre. And Joubert has provided vital music to move the plot along; it's theatrical in the best sense. It takes its cue, perhaps, from the splendid 1943 film of the novel made by Robert Stevenson, with a script by Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, and with fine performances by Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane. But the real value in Joubert's Jane Eyre comes from the gorgeous music, often reminiscent of Richard Strauss or Pfitzner. "Great music is in a sense serene;" says Rebecca West, "it is certain of the values it asserts." With all the heightened emotions and passion on display while the melodrama works outs its plot points, there is always a still, calm centre in Bronte's remarkable heroine. Rochester himself comments on it:
How still she is!
So still and silent . . .
so slight, so solitary, so calm . . .
All of this works beautifully on a theatrical level, but it fits as well into Joubert's musical scheme, which is as symphonic as it is operatic. Opera at this high level of sophistication communicates the full emotional range of the novel. It's a remarkable accomplishment.

Kenneth Woods has the music well in hand here, with fine, committed work from the players of the English Symphony Orchestra. The singers are very strong, with outstanding performances, both dramatic and musical, from April Fredick as Jane and David Stout as Rochester. The recording is from a live concert performance, which is all to the good. There's a sense of occasion, with a major work rescued from many decades of obscurity, and perhaps the beginning of a long life on operatic stages around the world.