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, 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

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

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, 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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Buttoned-up Shostakovich

I consider the Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich to be, along with the Bachianas Brasileiras of Villa-Lobos, the greatest 20th Century response to J.S. Bach. Honestly, if I had to choose between the two on my way to a Desert Island, I'm not sure which I'd pick. Considering my Villa-Lobos life, that's saying a lot. Ever since I heard the composer himself play six of the preludes and fugues on an old Seraphim LP this music has been a constant companion. I have Alexander Melnikov's 2014 Harmonia Mundi set on my phone right now, but over the years I've been enthusiastic about versions by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jenny Lin, David Jalbert, and especially Keith Jarrett. By the way, I'm underwhelmed by the classic recording of Tatiana Nikolaeva, though this seems to be a minority opinion.

I know Peter Donohoe mainly from his many recordings of British music, though I also think he's an exceptional Brahmsian. This new Shostakovich set, due to be released on April 7, 2017, is apparently the first in a series from Signum Classics. My initial response to the present disc is quite positive, though I worry about the slightest tendency toward blandness. One of the things I value about this music is the very personal response of Shostakovich to his Bachian models. It doesn't hurt, I believe, to underline the composers' characteristic flashes of wit, sarcasm, anger and despair or his forays into folkloric and Jewish music. I wouldn't expect Donohoe to bring quite the swing here that Jarrett does, but I do prefer a somewhat more dynamic approach. Still, I do admire much about this recording, and look forward to listening to this some more.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Sex and violence, mystery and libraries

With his Quebec City-based trio Tango Boréal Denis Plante has brought authentic tango, learned at the source in Buenos Aires, to the Great White North. His marvellous new opéra-tango is called La Bibliothèque Interdite (The Forbidden Library). It's based on the poetry, stories and life of Jorge Luis Borges, as well as the poetic tango lyrics of Enrique Santos Discépolo and Roberto Arlt.

The connection between Borges and libraries is one that runs through his whole adult life, from his early experience working in a suburban Buenos Aires public library branch to his ascension as the Director of Argentina's National Library. Borges is for me, and for many librarians like me, the modern version of St. Jerome, a patron saint of libraries and librarians. Themes of total libraries and human libraries and infinite libraries run through his writings, along with his stock company of tigers and minotaurs, mirrors and mazes, and tango. For Borges the tango was both an expression of national character and the mystery, sex and violence he loved in ancient epics and sagas, detective stories and films noirs. "The sexual nature of the tango has often been noted," Borges writes in his 1955 essay A History of the Tango, "but not so its violence."

Borges' manuscript for La Biblioteca Total, 1931 
Plante takes this heady mixture and distills it down to a one hour, one-act opera set in Buenos Aires in 1940 that's musically and dramatically vivid and atmospheric. Plante's story is of a poet working as a concierge in a mysterious library who is abducted by a character from one of his own seditious tangos. Besides Borges, this clever tale is in the tradition of both Latin American magic realists as well as French and Italian experimental writers such as Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. The music is, of course, well in hand, with Plante's bandonéon, the guitar and charango of David Jacques and Ian Simpson's bass. The other key to its success is the singer, actor and activist Sébastien Ricard, whose performance in the lead role here is quite stunning. This is so much more than a mere parody of Carlos Gardel, but an authentic re-creation of the classic genre in a modern, global context. The anti-Fascist message in the work is much more than mere history, but has a chilling relevance in the world of today, sadly including even something as close to home as the massacre in Quebec City's Sainte-Foy neighborhood on January 29, 2017.

This CD will be released on April 7, 2017. At the same time, from April 5 to 12, La Bibliothèque Interdite will be performed by the Théâtre de Quat’Sous in Montreal. Here's a preview of that production:

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Les Vendredis is a selection of 16 pieces for string quartet gathered and published by Mitrofan Petrovich Belaieff in 1899. The name comes from Belaieff's every second Friday musical salons where composers like Lyadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Glazunov presented new works. I was rather surprised to find out how often these pieces have been recorded, though I guess at 75 or so minutes the set is all set to fill a CD. I listened to selections from the Quatuor Ravel set on Skarbo (2002), the Vertavo String Quartet on Simax Classics (2004), the Alcan Quartet on ATMA Classique (2005), and the Silzer Quartet on SWR Classic Archive (2014). It became clear from this immersion in late 19th century Russian salon music that the focus is on salon: this isn't usually challenging or searching music. It is occasionally a bit erudite - there's a prelude and fugue by Glazunov and a canon by Sokolov. At the same time, though, it's more middle-European and less folkloric than I would have expected. Charm is the keynote, and the Szymanowski Quartet brings the charm. Every recording has a different order of the pieces, but this recording seems to be in publication order. In any case, there's plenty of variety in mood and tempo, and it all makes for a very pleasant hour and a quarter. Recommended. The disc is due to drop on April 14, 2017.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

HIP folk-inspired music from the Celtic lands

I've always loved Scottish and Irish music, most especially since a fabulous trip to Edinburgh and Islay last fall. So I was pleased to come across this new disc from a favourite group, Les Basses Reunies under Bruno Cocset, from a favourite record company, Alpha. The music is by a favourite Italian composer with strong connections to the British Isles and Ireland, Francisco Geminiani, along with a variety of Scottish and Irish composers. The one I know best is the blind harper Turlough O’Carolan, who has a real gift for melody. This is a fabulous collection all around; the players seem to have a strong feeling for the folk traditions of the Celtic lands as well as a state-of-the-art understanding of Historically Informed Practices in Baroque music. Though the dominant mood is sadness - is there a Scots or Irish equivalent to Brazil's saudade? - there's no lack of variety in textures and tempos, with a variety of both solo instruments (viola, tenor violin, various viols) and continuo (harpsichord, organ and harp) matched to particular songs. Pour yourself an Old Bushmills or a wee dram of Laphroaig, open up your Ossian, and listen.

Here's the trailer for the new disc, due to be release March 24, 2017.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An arrest of attention

"I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."
- Saul Bellow, Paris Review, 1966
The superb Haydn 2032 project of Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico continues with "Il Distratto", the 4th volume on the way to the complete Haydn symphonies in their historical context by the year 2032. The project has three sterling characteristics which place it at the very top of similar ongoing series by other groups: the highest musical standards (style, precision, musicality); a significant scholarly/intellectual component; and top quality presentation and marketing. I included the third volume, "Solo e Pensoso", in my Top 10 Discs of 2016. This new disc will surely end up in my 2017 list.

The disc takes its title from Haydn's 60th Symphony of 1774, which is actually a symphonic suite taken from the composer's incidental music for a revival of Le Distrait by Jean-François Regnard. This is perhaps the pinnacle of the musical joke genre, though closer to J.S. Bach than P.D.Q. Bach. It's clever and knowing, way over on the proper side of the Seinfeld-Hee Haw humour continuum. Haydn has some interesting things to say, I think, about an issue that began to be discussed for the first time in human history in the 18th century: the problem of distraction. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, the idea of distraction being a social evil relates to threats to moral authority, rather than to any new technologies or structural social changes. The Enlightenment, of course, was chock full of those threats, and there was plenty more to come in 1774. Furedi quotes the Scottish political economist William Playfair, who stated that "the inattention of the nobility to their duty was one cause of the revolution". Haydn actually quotes his own subtle challenge to moral authority, his Farewell Symphony of 1772 in this work. Much of the distraction is played for laughs, but it also provides Haydn with the opportunity to produce some arresting sounds, some that sound far, far ahead of their time. Haydn was the absolute master of building a life in which he had completely free range to exercise his artistic vision, without the compromises forced on poor Mozart or the angst that Beethoven suffered because of his own transitional social position.

Giovanni Antonini has found a perfect foil for Il Distratto in the mini-opera Il Maestro di Cappella, by Domenico Cimarosa. This is another self-aware piece that seems shockingly modern, with an orchestra that acts up, turning into one of the characters in the comedy. It reminded me of Raymond Queneau's 1968 novel The Flight of Icarus, whose main character acts up in much the same way as Cimarosa's orchestra.

In the other two Haydn symphonies included here, no. 12 and 70, there are hints of extra-musical connections. In his excellent liner notes Antonini posits that "In the ascending direction of tre soggetti of the fugal finale [of no. 70], we can glimpse a favourable omen for the erection of the new Esterhaza opera house at the laying of its founding stone - the occasion on which the symphony was first performed." So consider Haydn a proto-Oulipian, in his use of constrained musical composition to create novel forms and structures. It looks forward to the moderns, yes, but back as well to J.S. Bach's mathematical games that weave through so much of his music. The astounding thing about this music is that as clever as the games are, the final result is so artistically sound, and so often arrestingly beautiful.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A fun hour of pleasant music

Way back in 1998 Michael Schneider and La Stagione Frankfurt recorded Carl Friedrich Abel's op. 10 Symphonies of 1771 for CPO, and now they're back for more, with the 1769 Op. 7 set, due to be released on April 7, 2017. The op. 10 symphonies are the epitome of the galant style, with infectious rhythms and pleasing surprises; you get more of the same with op. 7. The real difference is that everyone's understanding of what Historically Informed Performance means for mid- to late-18th century music has evolved in the past couple of decades. There's a new freedom here, a freshness and energy that wasn't there to the same degree in the past. Sure, there's more than a bit of the generic about this music, but it's a sound I happen to like. Themes and passages have a way of repeating, perhaps more so in op. 7 than in the more personal and individualized symphonies of op. 10. But this is a fun hour of pleasant music.

Self-recommending Hindemith

Back in the old days I used to read the reviews in Gramophone magazine, to get some guidance about which LPs I should buy with my meagre budget. A reviewer would often recommend a disc, and sometimes highly recommend one. Very occasionally he (it was pretty much always a he then) would use the phrase "self-recommending", which I took to mean that you should go out right away and purchase that disc. An obvious transaction, a done deal. That's the case here. These three CDs of Paul Hindemith's seven string quartets have all been previously released, from recordings made in 2011 and 2015, but it's so convenient to have them collected in one set, and at a discount to boot. The music is outstanding; Hindemith's string quartet series is as varied and interesting as those by Villa-Lobos and Grażyna Bacewicz, and just as under-rated. The playing of the young Amar Quartet is really amazing; for me it was revelatory. They bring a warmth and humanity to this music that I didn't realize was there before. This is besides the technical merit of their playing and the precision with which they render Hindemith's more involved and academic passages. The recording is by Swiss Radio, and it matches both the precision of the musicians and their warmth.

The Amar Quartet is named after the original group in which Hindemith himself played the viola. Here is the first movement of Quartet no. 4, op. 22, by the young Amars:

And by their forebears:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

British drama and pastorale beauty

I was pleased to see this new Chandos series from conductor Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Their two British Overtures discs from 2014 and 2016 were excellent, beautifully presented and played. They were made up of many solid, well-written pieces by late Victorian and Edwardian composers; the usual suspects, mainly, but with the odd gem by people like Ethel Smyth and John Ansell. Volume I in the new series, due to be released March 17, 2017, has mainly rather longer works, with the exception of William Alwyn's lovely little 5-minute piece Blackdown: a Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills. As you'd expect from a title like this, along with rhapsodies and an idyll, from Gloucestershire and Berkshire and The Solent, the focus is more on good old English Pastorale, one component of the Overtures discs, and less on the other component, the English Light Music tradition. The disc is well-filled - 76 minutes - and it shows how much I enjoy that English Pastorale style that my interest didn't flag at all. I've taken to listening to this music quite often; it's often soothing, yes, but the best Pastorale pieces - besides the Alwyn, Frederic Austin's Spring and Ivor Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody - are somehow almost bracing, with some of the objectivity of the naturalist to go along with the more sentimental artist. Sense and Sensibility.

My favourite piece on the disc, though, is a more dramatic piece that takes us away from the rich farmland of the English countryside. It's Sir Granville Bantock's setting of Shelley's The Witch of Atlas, and it's full of incident and pictures. You can see the scope of setting this poem from a sample stanza, which Bantock takes full advantage of.
And first the spotted cameleopard came,
And then the wise and fearless elephant;
Then the sly serpent, in the golden flame
Of his own volumes intervolved; -- all gaunt
And sanguine beasts her gentle looks made tame.
They drank before her at her sacred fount;
And every beast of beating heart grew bold,
Such gentleness and power even to behold.
Though he's a generation younger than the Pre-Raphaelite painters, this piece reminded me of the extravagant detail they so often included in their paintings. John William Waterhouse's The Magic Circle (Tate Britain, 1886), is a good example, with a witch protagonist, if not Shelley's.

Rumon Gamba and Chandos are doing great work in opening up British music of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I look forward to Volume 2 in this series.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Personal, heart-felt music from an important composer

This new Sterling disc of music by Felix Mendelssohn's sister Fanny Hensel is very welcome. Of the eight composers included in Anna Beer's excellent book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Hensel came out on top: "Fanny Mendelssohn composed more music and, moreover (some would say) more music of a higher quality, than any other composer in this book." While Hensel wrote in a variety of genres, from cantatas to chamber music, it was as a pianist and a composer for the piano that so many of her particular gifts become apparent. Though character pieces like her brother's Lied ohne Worte, Hensel called her works "piano lieder". In them she uses surprising harmonies and modulations to explore a wide range of moods. These pieces for piano were particularly dear to her: she "called my piano pieces after the names of my favourite haunts, partly because they really came into my mind at these spots, partly because our pleasant excursions were in my mind while I was writing them." It's this personal, heart-felt character that I find so appealing about so much of Hensel's music.

The Serenata in G minor shows Hensel's lyrical gifts, but also that ability to set a mood, with the dry wit to subvert our expectations about what might follow. This is music of a composer increasingly independent of her brother's musical influence and confident of her own abilities.

Solveig Wikman's playing is assured and strong, with no lack of virtuosic technique when called for, and a nice touch in Hensel's more lyrical moments. The last impression one gets of Hensel from listening to this music is one of genteel dilettantism. I heartily recommend this release.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Nézet-Séguin's dramatic Dvorak from London

On his way to one of the great peaks of music, the Music Directorship of the Metropolitan Opera, which begins in the 2020-21 season, the Montreal-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin made a number of stops. Besides his three current main jobs, with the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin was Principal Guest Conductor of the Victoria Symphony beginning in 2003, here on Vancouver Island where I live. We're proud of that connection, and pleased to see his continued success. But probably more important in his continued upward rise was his tenure from 2007 to 2014 as Principal Guest Conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Nézet-Séguin's rapport with the LPO musicians is clear from this new two-disc set of live recordings on LPO's own label. It includes an outstanding performance from May 2009 of Dvorak's 7th Symphony. Nézet-Séguin lets loose the full range of orchestra, which is considerable, and makes the best possible case for considering this one of the greatest symphonies of the 19th century. The brass is especially impressive, along with a solid, silky string sound providing such a delightful variety of musical textures. You can hear in this music, perhaps, an echo of Nézet-Séguin's mentor, Carlo Maria Giulini. The 6th Symphony and the Othello Overture are both more recent recordings, made in September 2016 as part of Google Play's Classical Live project. Like Giulini, Nézet-Séguin's experience in the opera pit bears fruit in his orchestral recordings. Not every conductor can effectively release the drama that Dvorak builds in to his symphonic works, most especially in the 7th Symphony, but also in lesser but still impressive works like the 6th and the Overture. We're lucky to have such an accomplished conductor recording so often in both the operatic and orchestral realms. And kudos should go as well to the LPO for their openness to new marketing and technology partnerships to help promote such high quality music.

This disc will be released on March 3, 2017.

Not making history

The rationale of the Resound Beethoven project is about what a wine expert would call terroir; it's a historical reconstruction of the original venue for important premieres of orchestral works from the composer's lifetime. I've bought in to the concept to some extent, though I preferred the theatrical Egmont Music of volume 3 to the much more demanding 3rd Symphony in volume 4. For the 9th Symphony the original venue is no longer in place, so we hear instead a recording from the Redoutensaal at Hofburg Vienna, where the second performance took place on May 23, 1824. But this is in a sense moot, since because of his deafness Beethoven would have heard this music in a completely different venue: his head. All bets are off, I think. When we think of a Platonic Ideal of the 9th Symphony living in Beethoven's head, how this music sounded in a long-ago venue seems less important. Instead, we can imagine a direct line from Beethoven's head through his score and nearly two hundred years of performance traditions to the mind and imagination and musical skills of a conductor and a group of musicians. The music on this disc has some plusses, most especially in a rather good slow movement, which combines a child-like simplicity with subtle atmospheric effects. But the rest of the work sounds very square compared with the powerful rhythmic thrust - I want to say swing - of Toscanini. It seems very rustic when we put it next to Karajan's polish and cool elegance. And it's lacking entirely in the glimpses of the other world that Solti brings, especially when Jessye Norman sings. The sense of place looms large in certain famous performances of the 9th Symphony, none more momentous and historic than the Christmas Day 1989 Leonard Bernstein concert with an augmented Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, as the Berlin Wall came down. There Bernstein and his musicians made history, but only because the spirit of the time lifted them up and inspired them. But without a more compelling and engaging performance no venue will make a big difference.

This disc will be released on March 24, 2017.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My name is Nobody

The marvellous series Music From The Peterhouse Partbooks ends very much on a high note, with this fifth release from Scott Metcalfe and his choir Blue Heron. The Peterhouse Partbook brand has become a byword for excellence in English polyphony in a formerly ill-understood period, the first forty years or so of the 16th century. This is thanks almost entirely to this series on Blue Heron's own label, based on the scholarship of Nick Sandon, who rescued the music by restoring lost parts and creating a performing edition. It's the Anonymous Missa sine nomine that stands out here; talk about poor branding! After being ignored for centuries, this piece comes to life in this recording, grabs you and forces you to pay attention. It's obviously engaged the singers, who provide an outstanding example of power and precision in choral singing. Back in 2011 Alex Ross talked about how Blue Heron had "a way of propelling a phrase toward a goal—the music takes on narrative momentum, its moods dovetailing with the theme of the text." Missa sine nomine literally means Mass without a name, meaning it was freely composed rather than being based upon other music. The answer of Odysseus to Polyphemus the Cyclops' query was "My name is Nobody", but as always Homer had a great story to tell. And likewise this Mass without a name and without an author tells a compelling story of sin and redemption. In the entire 5-CD series Blue Heron brings these five hundred year old stories alive, here in the 21st century. It's a remarkable achievement.

The new disc drops on March 17, 2017.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Music that we breathe

This is a heart-warming release all around. It's great to see the Minnesota Orchestra back in business and as good as they were before their recent labour difficulties. Osmo Vanska has his players delivering what must be pretty darn close to the perfect Sibelius sound I imagine is in the head of every Finnish conductor, helped along by the special appearance of the superb YL Male Voice Choir from Helsinki. We also have soloists whose voices are well-suited for this work: mezzo Lilli Paasikivi and baritone Tommi Hakala. This is authenticity in action.

It's heart-warming as well to listen to this stirring music in the middle of a long cold winter; even in normally sunny and mild Victoria BC we've been hit hard by cold and snow, snow, and more snow. This calls for the heroes of the sagas to bring out their horns and do their mighty deeds, as seen in the painting on the front cover of the disc by Axel Gallén (his Kullervo Goes to War from 1901), and for the listeners to thrill to the exciting tale told by Sibelius. The composer provides memorable melodies, martial rhythms and plenty of drama, which Vanska calibrates carefully to avoid sentimentality or bombast. There's an electricity in the air throughout in this recording, made during three public concerts during February 2016. It comes to a head with a spectacular recording of everyone's favourite national hymn, Finlandia.

In between, though, is another work, by the Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas, which takes advantage of the forces assembled for the Sibelius. Migrations is based on poetry by the Minnesotan (of Finnish descent) Sheila Packa, which takes as its theme something that's relevant to the history of Finland and Minnesota, and to the sad stories of todays migrants.
in a cascade of notes
which is not endless
but aching and sweet
like iridescent feathers
of wings that rise and fall
in the circle of migration
in each flight
music that we breathe 
Poems by Sheila Packa, from the books ‘Cloud Birds’ and ‘Echo & Lightning’ published by Wildwood River Press.

This BIS release is something special; I expect it'll end up in my 2017 Top 10 list for sure.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Anguish, solace, beauty

Allan Pettersson's music comes from a place of pain and anguish - a hard childhood under a brute of a father and the lifelong burden of a chronic, debilitating disease - but it's also full of the solace and beauty which comes from the Northern landscape and from reserves within himself. With incredible discipline and strength of purpose Pettersson built an awesome symphonic legacy which rivals that of the great 20th century masters Nielsen, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. "No one in the 1950s noticed that I am always breaking up the structures," he said later in the decade, "that I was creating a whole new symphonic form." By the mid-1970s Pettersson was creating long, complex music in a style of his own that veered between the Sibelian model, atonality, serialism and neo-romanticism, with layers of meaning for those willing to make the effort.

This BIS release is part of The Allan Pettersson Project 2013-2018, a joint project with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and conductor Christian Lindberg that will create a complete cycle to go alongside those by Sergiu Comissiona and Alun Francis. This series is well on the way to establishing supremacy, due to Lindberg's command of Pettersson's underlying structures, his players' virtuosity and musicianship and the clear and lifelike sound provided by BIS.  This disc drops on March 3, 2017; it is very highly recommended.

Transcendental modernist masterworks from Australia

The third volume in Sir Andrew Davis's Charles Ives series for Chandos includes my favourite Charles Ives work, and my favourite American symphony, "The Camp Meeting", Ives' Third. A cherished RCA Red Seal LP from 1969 began this crush: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Then came Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas, Andrew Litton - my goodness, Ives is very well-served on disc!

Davis has everything in hand, Ives-wise, with his musicians Down Under. After a pretty solid beginning, each new disc has been better than the last. Davis runs through Symphony no. 3 at a brisk pace, a bit zippier than Ormandy and much quicker than the reverent Leonard Bernstein NY Philharmonic recording from 1983. But there's no lack of weight to the Melbourne Symphony's playing, though their string sound isn't quite up to the New Yorkers or the Fabulous Philadelphians, helped as it is by the typically full and warm Chandos sound.  Nearly all of my favourite music has some sort of nostalgic sadness or saudade, as they say in Brazil. Davis brings this out beautifully, especially in the 1st movement: "Old Folks Gatherin'". This helps to underline the humorous passages, never far away in Ives, that pop up later in the symphony.

In the amazing 4th Symphony Davis has an ace in the hole: pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who is blazing a luminous trail for Chandos in a wide variety of music: Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Stravinsky and more. This is nothing as orthodox as a piano concerto, but it calls for all of Bavouzet's virtuosity and musicianship. The French pianist has a particularly light touch, which is welcome, as the piano comments on the action, occasionally egging the orchestra on to furious action, or going off on jazzy tangents of its own. This amazing work takes hard-core New England Transcendentalism, runs it through Ives's one-of-a-kind imagination, and ends up as a completely home-grown Modernist masterpiece. That's one heck of an accomplishment that I can hardly believe even as I listen to it. Sir Andrew Davis deserves a lot of credit for taking Ives out of his flinty New England soil and have it sound so right and natural in Australia.

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

Monday, February 6, 2017

Awesome beauty, incredible strangeness

This new disc of Gesualdo madrigals from Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent highlights the awesome beauty and incredible strangeness of the music of the powerful and cruel Italian Prince. This is music of an oddly superficial beauty, but there are clearly intense emotions under the surface. All of this is presented with Herreweghe's customary calm, clear, polished, focussed musicality.

I've long been more than a bit squeamish about the tone of many writings about Gesualdo's life, and
I definitely take umbrage with the liner notes written for this disc by Jens van Durme. He writes of Gesualdo's murder of his wife in this fashion:
The extramarital freedoms that Maria allowed herself culminated in outright tragedy in the early morning of 17 October 1590, when she was lured into a trap by her husband, caught in flagrante delicto with her lover Fabrizio Carafa, and horribly murdered. The reputation of Carlo Gesualdo as a psychopath was born. Yet, according to local custom, he had not only the right but also the duty to settle this matter of honour as he did.
And that's the end of the matter, right? Nothing about Gesualdo's mutilation of the corpses after he had done the deed. A Prince who did his duty. I'll discount some of the unproven tales of his other outrages, which are outlined in Werner Herzog's 1994 film Death for Five Voices, and still call him a murderous psychopath.

Here is the beauty that comes from the psychopath. It's a mystery.

A new Bohemian symphonies series from Naxos

Leopold Koželuch is comfortably in the second rank of composers who look up - a fair way to be sure - to Mozart and Haydn. He rubs shoulders with Gluck, Michael Haydn, Rossetti and Kraus. He wrote a great deal of serious and accessible music, characterized by some melodic charm and honest craftsmanship. Occasionally lightning strikes and Koželuch produces something really memorable. I've been following Kemp English's complete piano music series for Grand Piano, and am more and more impressed as he gets to Koželuch's later sonatas. The composer's forays into Sturm und Drang are fascinating; Koželuch seemed to have his finger on the pulse of musical trends in Europe.

I know Koželuch's symphonies from two recordings: by Concerto Köln from 2001 and The London Mozart Players from 1999. Both came from series that presented music by Haydn and Mozart's contemporaries: Leopold Mozart, Josef Myslivecek, Anton Salieri, William Herschel, Carl Stamitz and the like. Both of these series are absolutely superb. From them I learned so much about 18th century music - and incidentally about Haydn and Mozart themselves.

This is volume one of a projected series of complete symphonies. It also carries the subtitle Czech Masters in Vienna, which I hope will point to more music by other Czech composers at work during Mozart and Haydn's lifetimes. The symphonies chosen here show the Bohemian composer veering between Haydn-like fun and Mozartian theatricality. The G minor Symphony is really outstanding; this is the closest Koželuch comes to Wolfgang Amadeus. The London Mozart Players version is hard to beat:

Indeed, the new version is pitched at a lower dramatic temperature from the beginning. Marek Stilec leaves something in reserve for later in the movement. Alas, Koželuch is no Mozart, but the soft passage just before the end of the movement is very affecting and effective, and the new recording shines at that point.

So now we have the beginnings of two very promising symphonic series from the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice and Marek Stilec, of Michael Haydn and Leopold Koželuch. I'm really looking forward to future releases in both.

Modernism & the Avant Garde in Brazilian piano music

Aleyson Scopel's complete series of Cartas Celestes by José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado is of great importance in terms of both Brazilian music and piano repertoire. Volume 2 continues the series with three meaty but by no means unmusical pieces that use a multitude of piano sonorities and compositional techniques. Almeida Prado began his multi-year opus after returning from studies in Paris (with, among others, Olivier Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger) and Darmstadt (with both György Ligeti and Lukas Foss). But as I discussed in it my review of Volume 1, one hears just as much the modernist works of Heitor Villa-Lobos in this fierce and complex music for piano. The ground-breaking Rudepoema which Villa-Lobos wrote in the early 1920s is like a presence just behind much of Cartas Celestes 4-6. Nor does Almeida Prado neglect, in this avant garde music, the folklore and dance rhythms that give life to Villa-Lobos and indeed all the music of Brazil.

Brazil has a glorious tradition of great pianists, from Guiomar Novaes to Nelson Freire, and from the evidence of these two discs we can now add the young Aleyson Scopel to the rolls. His technique is outstanding, but he also has the intellectual and emotional discipline to communicate Almeida Prado's massive structures as something more than clever mathematical constructs. Volume 2 will be released on February 10, 2017.

José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Music of solace and contemplation

Every release from Noel Edison's Elora Singers is to be treasured; they're Canada's most accomplished choir. Their new Patrick Hawes disc shows the 22 voice group in fine form, obviously lifted up by the very fine music of British composer Patrick Hawes. Nearly all of the music on this well-filled disc is brand new: the major works Revelation and Beatitudes, and five smaller but no less impressive pieces. All of these are world recording premieres. There's a bonus piece as well, one which I expect will end up on virtually every Hawes choral disc in the future: the sublime Quanta Qualia from 2004, which has become Hawes' calling card, like Barber's Adagio or Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5. Edison has chosen the arrangement Hawes made for Voces8 for their 2013 album Eventide, for choir and alto saxophone.  This is music with varied and distinguished precursors, from the Tudor composers to Vaughan Williams, Geoffrey Burgon and Ennio Morricone. This ecstatic, soaring music is a fitting climax to a satisfying program of serious music which provides solace and enhances contemplation. It's well-timed to provide relief from the lunacy and danger the past few months have brought to the world.

Besides the repertoire and the singing, there's another major plus here: the husband and wife production team of Norbert Kraft (who also engineers) and Bonnie Silver (who also edits) deliver a living, breathing choir without apparent artifice. And what a choir!

Here is Patrick Hawes travelling to the island of Patmos, the place where St. John wrote his Book of Revelation, the inspiration behind Hawes' own Revelation.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Early Beethoven with the right touch

I really enjoyed the third volume in TrioVanBeethoven's complete Piano Trios series from Gramola, which came out just last summer.  Here we have the fourth disc, in a format similar to the first and third releases: a Trio from Beethoven's ground-breaking Opus 1, another Trio from later in his career, and a filler to round things out. This program has a major plus: the C minor is my favourite, and probably the best, of the three op. 1 trios written in 1793. On the other hand, we've run out of mature works (one of each of the two op. 70 works and the Archduke, op. 97 highlighted the first three discs), so we have to make do with the piano trio version of op. 11, written in 1797. This is a pleasant piece written in an unusually accessible style, but it's hardly a great work. And finally, the Variations op. 44, in spite of the late opus number, are from earlier in Beethoven's career, probably written before his op. 1. "It is not the desire for fame", says Marcel Proust, "but the habit for work that allows us to produce a masterpiece." Fame came to Beethoven with op. 1, and that was something that he dearly sought. But it would be a few years before the true masterpieces came. Luckily for us, Beethoven was his era's version of "the world's hardest working band."

The thing I liked best about TrioVanBeethoven's previous releases is their light touch when it comes to the op. 1 trios. One cannot take the drama in these works entirely at face value; a musical grin here and there keeps things from getting too fraught. Here we have a composer whose reach exceeds his grasp. As Browning says, "that's what heaven's for," and heaven was to come soon enough for Beethoven. But the musical experience improves when there's some (but not too much) detachment from the players. Oddly, things are reversed in op. 11, in which Beethoven writes down a bit to his audience, or to his publisher's idea of what his audience wanted. This is rarely a good idea for any artist, and it's a rare occurrence for Beethoven, but there's no harm done. We have pleasant tunes and a certain amount of charm, and again the three young musicians of TrioVanBeethoven have judged their playing just right. Incidentally, as much as I love the clarinet, I've always preferred the piano and strings version of op. 11, perhaps because one is less likely to compare it with Mozart.

So the series comes to an end. TrioVanBeethoven and Gramola should be proud of their accomplishment: a beautifully played four and a half hours of music that shows a distinctive sound, and presents Beethoven in all stages of his career at his very best.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

An urgent new St. Matthew Passion from John Eliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner's ground-breaking Archiv recording of the St. Matthew Passion was made in 1988 at Snape Maltings, with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. Twenty-eight years later he took those same musicians on tour in Europe, and in their stop at Pisa on September 21-22, 2016 SDG recorded this live version.

At the time of the original recording everyone noted how brisk Gardiner's tempi were. The total time was just over 157 minutes. While SDG manages to fit the work on only two CDs rather than the original three, Gardiner has relaxed just a tiny bit, with a new total time of 161 minutes. This music still has the same drive, the same dancing quality. Gardiner's vision was always more dramatic than devotional, and the urgency of the first version remains in the new one. "You feel you are being taken by the scruff of the neck," Gardiner says of his experience of the work, "and required to confront big issues - the nature of kingship, of identity, or of what happens when truth faces falsehood." That quote is from Gardiner's 2013 book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, which is for me the New Testament of Bach scholarship. In the new version The Monteverdi Choir is just as tight and disciplined as in the original, with new levels of subtlety and often more dramatic shading this time around. The strong group of soloists, led by James Gilchrist as The Evangelist and Stephan Loges as Jesus, tell their stories in a thrilling way, and Bach provides many ways for his audience to reflect on their meaning. "Without any concession to theatrical gimmickry," says Gardiner in his book, "Bach provides his audience with a magnificent display of dramatic re-enaction." He says, further, that Bach approached his task "with the flair of the born dramatist." This flair the great composer shares with Sir John Eliot Gardiner today.

Sheila Rock's 1998 photograph of John Eliot Gardiner, in the National Portrait Gallery