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, 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: