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, April 29, 2017

Mixtape from Johann Sebastian

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

Released June 2, 2017.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Slip, slidin' away

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A mixed bag: from oddness to greatness

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The wind symphony put through its paces

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The importance of being earnest

Louis Durey: Durey Rediscovered

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

More fine Dvorak from Wit, from Navarre

Dvorak Mass in D; Te Deum

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

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

A re-issue well-timed for Canada150

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

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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Fine Mozart from a superb Swiss violinist

Aida Stucki, Mozart, The Violin Concertos

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Powerful choral and orchestral music by Arvo Pärt


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

The disc will be released on May 19, 2017.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mozart en famille

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

Karl Barth, Basel, 1958. Photo: Imagno

A marathon of great music and great performance

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

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

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bach and Villa-Lobos for Saxophone

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

The real Duke underneath

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

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

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

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