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.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A marvellous performance let down by technology

This DVD is a reissue of a highly-praised film from German Television of a 1979 performance by Fischer-Dieskau and Alfred Brendel in the Siemensvilla in Berlin. It definitely shows its age, with low definition video and audio that's fine but shows neither brilliance nor bloom. This is a shame, because the great baritone's slight loss in vocal quality from his salad days in the 1960s is more than made up for in his dramatic presence. HD video would have showed that off beautifully, whereas now you have to squint a little to see his expressions. On the plus side, TV director Klaus Lindemann has staged this with admirable restraint and dignity, and he keeps camera movement to a minimum. The focus is on Schubert's powerful music and on Fischer-Dieskau's portrayal of Wilhelm Müller's sombre protagonist. Of course, Alfred Brendel's musical contribution is immediately and continuously apparent. There are subtitles (in English, German, French, Spanish & Italian) for the songs, but unfortunately not for the 56 minute Rehearsal documentary. This looks absolutely fascinating, but alas, I don't understand German!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bright, direct performances of marvellous music

Antonio Rosetti, Piano Concerto, Two Symphonies

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hopeless, but not serious

Detlev Glanert, Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

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

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

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

A beautiful presentation of Bosch's eccentric art

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

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

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

Here is the trailer from Seventh Art:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Knowing interpretations of appealing music

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Dramatic, high spirited symphonies

Francois-Joseph Gossec, Symphonies

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

The civilized smile

Boccherini: String Trios, op. 6

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

A courageous thing

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

A delightful album of music from the French Baroque

Age of Indulgence: Les Delices

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

Style and grace; warmth and humanity

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

Tuneful, easy music for guitar and orchestra

Radames Gnattali: Concertinos for Guitar and Orchestra

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Universal tragedy on a tiny dramatic stage

Luigi Boccherini: Stabat Mater

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

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

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