Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

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

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

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughtful Henze and rich Britten

In this new disc from Alba, the Finnish guitarist Otto Tolonen plays two great 20th century works for guitar that were commissioned and first recorded by the great Julian Bream. It's a natural and appealing combination, and one that's set to showcase the new guitar possibilities that came mid-century, and the capabilities of this fine young guitarist. Unfortunately, the CD of Bream's recording of the Henze is unavailable, though you can listen to the first sonata on Spotify (it's on Bream's Dedication disc from 1984).

Even better, watch this YouTube section of a fine documentary on Henze & Bream that seems an awful lot like a Christopher Nupen film, though I can't find any information about any such documentary in Nupen's catalogue. These are two very appealing fellows!

The first movement of the first sonata, Gloucester, is marked Majestically, and there's plenty of majesty in Bream's version. But Tolonen is from the beginning rather subdued. It's fine playing, though, and Tolonen has plenty of room to turn up the volume later in the piece. It's a thoughtful performance overall, though there are some fireworks, and his approach pays dividends in this serious work.

Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal after John Dowland is another great large-scale work for guitar with early English roots. This isn't always pretty music; it's often martial, and there's plenty of incident between more contemplative moments. Tolonen has the measure of this music, its story-telling and its mood pictures. Alba provides a clear, clean picture of the full, rich sound Tolonen coaxes from his cedar and Brazilian rosewood guitar. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Fruits of a valuable partnership


Villa-Lobos was no piano virtuoso himself, but he composed a great deal of very high quality music for piano solo, and a few special pieces for piano and orchestra. As a composer he worked closely with fine pianists, most of whom, and I'm not sure of the reason, were women. First of all his first wife Lucília Guimarães, and then great artists such as Guiomar Novaes, Antonietta Rudge, Magda Taglioferro, Anna Stella Schic, and Ellen Ballon. An important member of that group was the Polish-born Felicja Blumental, who moved to Brazil in 1938 and subsequently became a Brazilian citizen, and a close friend and colleague of Villa-Lobos and his second wife Mindinha. Brana Records has done fine work in keeping Blumental's recorded legacy before the public, and this disc entitled Villa-Lobos Live! includes historically and artistically important music.

Villa-Lobos wrote his 5th Piano Concerto for Blumental in 1955. There's a great picture in the liner notes of the pianist pointing to a large London Philharmonic Orchestra poster for the World Premier of the work on May 8th, where the composer himself conducted. The recording on this disc is from later that same month at the Musikverein in Vienna, where Blumental and Villa-Lobos again presented their new work, this time with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The following month (June 8) the two recorded the Concerto in Paris for French EMI with the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise. This is included in the indispensible set Villa-Lobos par lui-meme, and it's by quite a measure a better performance of the Concerto than the one from Vienna.  Either the Viennese players aren't up to the standard of the French musicians, or, more likely, Villa-Lobos had more time to rehearse in Paris.  Blumental is superb in both the Vienna and Paris recordings.

The Fifth is probably the best of the five numbered Piano Concertos, but it's still not top-drawer Villa-Lobos. He did write two superb piano concertos earlier in his career, in all but name: the huge Choros no. 11 of 1928, and the great Bachianas Brasileiras no. 3 from 1934. This performance of BB#3 is with the Filarmonica Triestina under Luigi Toffolo. There's no information on the disc concerning the date of the performance, though it sounds rather like it might be from the late 1950s. The orchestral contribution is fine, but Blumental herself is outstanding. Listening to this a few times this week certainly reinforced for me that BB#3 is one of the most under-rated and under-performed of Villa's works. The CD is filled out with a few solo pieces from a concert in London on November 15, 1949, including two by Villa-Lobos. The Dance of the White Indian from the Ciclo Brasileiro is the most important piece, and it's exceptionally well played here. Blumental is tuned in to Villa-Lobos's frequency; every phrase seems exactly right.

Here is Villa-Lobos congratulating Blumental after one of her performances, perhaps in London or Vienna. This is from the Instituto Piano Brasileiro website, originally from the collection of Annette Celine (Blumental's daughter).

Friday, January 6, 2017

Illuminating paintings with music

This is a sampler disc of recent pieces from the ATMA Classique catalogue, with a twist, which is due on February 10, 2017. In a partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal sixteen tracks were chosen to illuminate paintings chosen to represent the international collection in this excellent art gallery. Here is The Annunciation by Bernat Martorell:

and the commentary from the liner booklet:

The John Dunstable piece chosen to go with the Martorell is Quam pulchra es, from the 2008 CD Canticum Canticorum by Les Voix Baroques:

This project shows the wide variety of music in the ATMA catalogue: from Renaissance masters through Chopin to Piazzolla, and the great depth of top quality paintings in the Fine Art Museum's collection. The ATMA artists are impressive; they include Les Boreades, Quatour Franz Joseph, l'Orchestre Métropolitain under Yannick Nézet-Séguin and many others. I was surprised at first that there were no Canadian paintings chosen, but I suppose the Museum wanted to focus on their international collection, which is impressive. This is an excellent project that will reward focussed listening and viewing.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Telemann and the Anniversary Cult

The 2017 Telemann Year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of the composer in 1767. I've always felt a bit odd about these death anniversaries; you have to leave out the word "celebration", but there it is. It's odd that these anniversaries have become so central to promoting both live and recorded classical music. It also happens in popular music, of course, as we're currently living through the Beatles years +50.  Norman Lebrecht recently listed the major composer anniversaries of 2017, by the way; the list is here at his Slipped Disc website.

John Berger, who sadly died early this year, talks about this aspect of cultural marketing in an essay on Rodin in his book About Looking:
The anniversary cult is a means of painlessly and superficially informing a ‘cultural elite’ which for consumer-market reasons needs constantly to be enlarged. It is a way of consuming - as distinct from understanding - history.
I adore John Berger, but I'll continue paying attention to anniversaries like Telemann 250, as half-baked an anniversary it is. I realize full well that knowing when Telemann died is no substitute for a complete understanding of his music, but surely it can be a gateway to listening to perhaps unfamiliar music. Music history, even more so than art history, has a Great Man problem, and the special attention that will be paid during 2017 to the composers in the shadows - Isaac, Campion, Gade, Amy Beach, Lou Harrison - might spark some interest which could lead to future understanding.

However it occurs, I've found Telemann repays whatever attention I can manage to give considering the Elephant in the Room, J.S. Bach. The Festive Cantatas included in this new release from CPO aren't too far in quality from Bach's own cantatas. One thing is clear: the German cantata template shared by Bach and Telemann allows an impressive range of musical, theological and social concepts to be communicated. The more I listen to his music, the more I've been impressed with Telemann's expressive capabilities. There are lovely moments on this disc. I dearly love a chorale, and O Tod, wo ist dein Stachel nun is a superb bit of music, both comfortably familiar and comforting spiritually. The trumpets and drums which come with a Festive Cantata give Telemann a chance to bring the pomp of the court into the Lutheran service. But there are also outstanding movements like the Choir of Angels that begins the Cantata Er neigte den Himmel, which places Telemann in the very early expressive tradition of the German Frühromantik.

The playing and singing, choral and solo, of Hermann Max's musicians are of a consistently high level. I'm familiar with CDs by the Rhenische Kantorie and Das Kleine Konzert in German repertoire - Graun, J.C. Bach, Hasse, as well as Bach and Handel - on Brilliant Classics and CPO. I've always been impressed with their stylish and elegant presentation, but also the obvious feeling they bring to the music.

There's a second composer on the disc: C.P.E. Bach, whose own Tricentennial was back in 2014. His cantata included here shows that he was intimately familiar with the music of Telemann, as well as his father's, at the same time that he integrated new trends in orchestral music during the last third of the 18th century. As it happens, C.P.E. replaced Telemann in Hamburg when the older composer died in 1767. Which brings us back to the anniversary. Happy (?) 250th!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Duke Ellington's patriotic pitch

In 1945 the American Treasury Department arranged with Duke Ellington to broadcast a series of one-hour musical radio programs promoting American Savings Bonds. This long-running series from Storyville Records is up to vol. 21 of a total of 24 releases. It's a format that served everyone well. I'm sure the War Bonds people were pleased with the response, the Duke had a regular gig for 18 months in 1945 and '46 to present his musicians from venues around the U.S., and even James C. Petrillo, the President of the American Federation of Musicians, gets regular mentions, following the labour issues of the early 1940s.

Storyville has bundled two radio programs into each 2-CD album, with added material from the archives. This one has sets from The Million Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles, July 6, 1946 and the Orpheum Theatre in San Diego, July 27, 1946: plus music from the El Patio Ballroom in Denver, July 14, 1942 and the Trianon Ballroom, South Gate, California, May 2, 1942. The introductory track from volume 20 in the series will give you an idea of the material included:

The musicians in the orchestra are, of course, legendary. Featured on this album are saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, with Ray Nance on trumpet, and vocalists Kay Davis and Al Hibbler. The broadcast sound is very good, and with all of the announcements (but otherwise no commercials) this makes for a fascinating two hours of listening. I don't know that I'd want to listen to 24 of these, but I am looking forward to volume 22.

Here's Duke Ellington in his dressing room at the Paramount Theater, New York, ca. Sept. 1946, in one of William P. Gottlieb's great photos (all of which are available at the Library of Congress' website.) Ellington's style and sophistication are evident throughout his War Bond appeals; he's such an effective pitchman for this important cause.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Telemann's surprises

We'll be hearing a lot of Telemann in 2017, the 250th anniversary of the great composer's death. I doubt, though, that many discs will be as well-planned and stylishly performed as this splendid release from Alpha Classics, with Giovanni Antonini leading Il Giardino Armonico, and playing recorder and chalumeau.

Antonini raises the curtain with a clever little Prelude for solo recorder by Jacques-Martin Hotteterre. Telemann's Suite in A Minor is quite well known, but this is a performance to take special note of. Antonini is in a groove throughout both as a soloist and conductor, providing a high level of virtuosity, but never missing out on Telemann's many expressive possibilities. Some of the other works are a bit more obscure, but there are many gems to be uncovered here. Most astonishing is the Grave movement from a Quartet for 2 chalumeaux (early clarinets), violin and continuo. This is a kind of salon piece with the slightest hints of Eastern European folk music and even tango, a very sexy number! 

Here is the entire Quartet; the Grave movement begins at 6:10. Also, listen for the mock heroics in the finale; Telemann is having fun here! And the musicians are as well.

The whole disc is full of moments like this. I am astonished by the endless surprises Telemann gives us. He has lived in Bach's shadow for a very long time; perhaps 2017 will be his year in the sun.

Here is the fifth movement from Telemann's Suite in A Minor, entitled Réjouissance (Rejoicing). We can indeed rejoice in such invention by Telemann, and such virtuosity by Antonini and his fellow musicians.

Blumental's Tchaikovsky on LP

I find myself very much in a self-conscious state listening to this 1957 recording on a brand-new 180-gram LP from Brana Records. There are a number of different feelings to unravel, all of them positive. There's nostalgia, of course: I loved opening the album and pulling out the disc in its paper sleeve, noting that my LP-handling skills came back instantly. No finger-prints on my records! As I dropped the needle everything snapped into place. I was unprepared for the warmth and immediacy of the sound. After all, this recording is coming up to sixty years old this year. Though I shouldn't have been, I was as surprised by the delicacy of Blumental's playing as I was reassured by her well-remembered control and power. Though I'm not familiar with the Vienna Musikgesellschaft Orchestra, who have only a few recording credits, they play exceptionally well under the direction of Michael Gielen. This is not an ordinary under-rehearsed group of pick-up musicians. There's a pleasing give-and-take to the conversation between piano and orchestra that keeps things interesting. It's nothing like the famous Bernstein-Gould contretemps over a Brahms concerto but neither is it a comfortable group-think where everyone's on the same boring page. I can recommend this particular release very highly, but I endorse the entire move back towards music on vinyl even more so.

A pastorale of astonishing beauty

What a great way to start off the New Year! One of the musical highlights of 2016 (and a Top Ten pick of mine) was the Purcell Choir/Orfeo Orchestra recording of Mondonville Grands Motets from György Vashegyi on Glossa. This new 3-CD album of the opera Isbé, premiered in 1742, brings the same musical forces to a work that makes just as positive an impression. Isbé is a pastorale with a libretto by Henri François de La Rivière, and while I never pay much attention to the ins and outs of the plots of these sorts of entertainments, there are plenty of opportunities here for Mondonville to do what he does best: write music, and especially choral music, of astonishing sweetness.

It's not only the Purcell Choir that excels here, though. The Orfeo Orchestra play with style and verve under the direction of Vashegyi, who seems to have a special feeling for French Baroque music that belies the Hungarian origin for the Mondonville projects. One of Mondonville's many accomplishments was his integration of the latest trends in Italian orchestral music into French opera. The innovations of composers like Vivaldi become part of the richness and wonder of Mondonville's presentation. And Vashegyi's vocal soloists impress as well; especially Katherine Watson, who provides a full and rich sound for the title role, but also communicates a full measure of charm.