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.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Two important concertante works from an underrated composer

The latest Lyrita disc in their Itter Broadcast Collection pairs two sadly under-played masterpieces by Edmund Rubbra: his 1936 (revised 1943) Sinfonia Concertante, op. 38 for piano and orchstra, and the Violin Concerto, op. 103, written in 1959. There's more discourse than display, as Joseph Kerman would say, in the Sinfonia Concertante, though Rubbra writes a mighty interesting if not flashy piano part (he was himself the soloist in the premiere in 1943). This performance, which like all Itter Broadcast Collection recordings was recorded to tape from a BBC broadcast, is from 1967, again with Rubbra at the piano, and Hugo Rignold conducting the CBSO. The very fine Violin Concerto is a recording of the second performance, only three days after the premiere in February 1960. Endré Wolf is the soloist, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. Once again I am incredibly impressed by the musical and technical standards that allow recordings of this calibre to live so vividly after being plucked from the ether. As to the composer, Rubbra's standing in my eyes is higher after having lived with this music for a couple of weeks. Two solo piano encores are substantial, reflecting well on Rubbra as both pianist and composer, one a tribute to his teacher Cyril Scott, and the second a work by Scott himself, Consolation (1918).

This disc will be released on August 4, 2017

Saturday, July 29, 2017

An appealing 20th century symphonic cycle

George Enescu: The Three Symphonies [ link]

The three Symphonies of George Enescu make up an important but curiously under-appreciated 20th century cycle, and this 3 disc re-release of late 1990s performances from the BBC Philharmonic under Gennady Rozhdestvensky is very welcome. Echos of Richard Strauss and even Tchaikovsky don't take away from the assured writing for orchestra and Enescu's own distinctive voice.The bonuses - the sparking Romanian Rhapsodies and the third of his superb Suites - make this an indispensable purchase, thanks to superb orchestral playing, admirable control and musical shaping by Rozhdestvensky, and fine, atmospheric sound from the Chandos engineers.

Chamber music from an important new musical voice

Andrea Tarrodi: String Quartets

At the end of August 2017 an important work by the young (b. 1981) Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi will be played at the BBC Proms, by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Sakari Oramo. I'm looking forward to hearing that, but in the meantime I'm very much enjoying this album of chamber music by an important new musical voice from Scandinavia.

Folk music is very much in evidence here; both from Northern Europe and Hungary (Tarrodi's heritage is a mixture of Swedish and Hungarian). The folk tradition, of course, is an important part of string quartets going back to Haydn, and Tarrodi's works bring to mind in turn the often folk-inspired music of the Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar and the Hungarian Bela Bartok (each of whom wrote six string quartets). I also detected the influence of the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz, who happened to write seven quartets. This is complex but accessible music, often with a timeless feel and a sense of organic development building to ecstatic climaxes. It's beautifully presented by the Dahlkvist Quartet, a group of three Swedish siblings and a Polish first violinist. This album will be released on September 1, 2017.

Here's the Dahlkvist Quartet playing Madárda, the 2nd Quartet, an impressive work!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dialogues and Discursive Engagement

Elliott Carter: Late Works (Interventions, Dialogues, Dialogues II, Soundings,  Two Controversies and a Conversation, Instances, Epigrams) [ link]

In 1991 Joseph Kerman wrote an important essay entitled "Mozart's Piano Concertos and Their Audience", which is included in his book Write All These Down. Kerman talks about the important role of two musical activities, discourse and display; I'm finding these valuable concepts in thinking about music and how it plays out. The duel between the tutti's discourse and the solo instrument's display was the essence of the solo concerto from the beginning, but according to Kerman it was Mozart who first introduced the element of dialogue into the form, in his piano concertos. Kerman finds this nuance revolutionary. He elaborates:
Dialogue can take place on various levels. On the level of the immediate exchange of musical themes and other passages, we can speak of instantaneous response, rejoinder, repartee, and more generally of discursive engagement. In other contexts, however - for example in the Socratic context - it is possible to think of beginning a dialogue one day and coming back to finish it the next. Dialogue over an extended time period is, in musical terms, dialogue on the level of musical form. Involved here are concepts like delayed response, recapitulation, and what may be called discursive re-engagement.
It's striking how many of Elliott Carter's works included in this splendid new disc from Ondine have this kind of dialogical character. Carter's instrumental works are often highly dramatic, with instruments or groups of instruments acting as characters. Works like Dialogues and Conversation certainly fall into this category, and things get really dramatic when Two Controversies were appended to Conversation at a later date, a good example of Kerman's "discursive re-engagement". This disc is a treasure trove of music by a great, great master. It's amazing how many of these pieces were written after Carter turned 100 in December 2008. Lest you think that "drama" implies heaviness, the work that's lightest on its feet is Instances, the last music Carter wrote before he died in 2013. According to Ludovic Morlot, who performed the premiere in Seattle, "When he got into his 90s and his 100s, suddenly there was more a human dimension to it." This is Late Syle at its best!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

An instrument of grace

Nordic Voices sing Victoria: Motets [ link]

Unfortunately I wasn't able to listen to the SACD version of this disc, but the stereo one is stunning enough. It's amazing what a rich and full and immersive sound these three men and women create. Of course they need to share credit with the Chandos engineers, the venue (Ris kirke in Oslo, which provides a rich fullness but without an exaggerated acoustic), and the genius of Tomás Luis de Victoria, who makes the most of the six vocal lines in these Motets. But the blending of these voices is really extraordinary. This music sounds so gorgeous, but I don't believe that's the real goal in these performances. Rather, these find musicians seem to be searching for the emotional and spiritual depths of this super-charged music, and the surface beauty is only a side-effect. This disc will reward deep and careful listening, with pauses for reflection.
"Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help."
When May Sarton wrote this she was speaking about gardening which is, she said, "an instrument of grace." She might have been writing about these Motets.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Latin piano played with cool clarity

Villa-Lobos, Ciclo Brasileiro; Juan Jose Castro, Tangos para Piano; Jose Maria Vitier, Festiva

Back in 1993 I was involved in a CD recording project with Brazilian pianist Ricardo Peres. We recorded Dance of the White Indian* as a fund-raising project for Red Deer Public Library, where I was the Director. I remember sitting down with Ricardo one morning, and he played me this piece, which I had never heard before; I barely knew a thing about Villa-Lobos.

That was the beginning of my Villa-Lobos life on the web, 25 years of it, and counting.

In the last quarter century I've learned a great deal about this music; it's been a time of increasing interest in Villa-Lobos and a major rise in his reputation. His piano music as much as any other segment of his vast output has been the beneficiary of this. Now comes a really excellent new disc from Canadian pianist Andree-Ann Deschenes which contains The Dance of the White Indian and the rest of the Ciclo Brasileiro, one of Villa's greatest works for piano. Here's a live performance of the piece:

You'll note that this performance (which matches the recording on the CD fairly closely) is a much more controlled one than Ricardo's hell-bent for leather version. We'll always have performances on the whole continuum between Villa's warmer, more passionate, more Brazilian/folkloric side and his cooler, more cerebral, more Parisian/modernist one. The Ciclo Brasileiro is a kind of Brazilian travelogue (Villa enjoyed these), written in 1930s, when he was busy writing his Bachianas Brasileiras and the folklore-inspired Guia Pratico. I feel, perhaps counter-intuitively, that Deschenes' cool clarity puts across the regional Brazilian folkloric flavour better than some versions that swing (or even rock) a bit more. In any case, this is very fine piano playing.

The tango, of course, has its own built in hot/cool dynamic, which the Argentine composer Juan Jose Castro, a younger contemporary of Villa-Lobos, uses to excellent effect in his Tangos para Piano, written in 1941. With references to popular songs - La Cumparsita in the first tango Evocación, for example, and 9 de Julio in the last, Nostálgico - Castro brings the rhythms of the dance halls to Argentina's art music, which Villa-Lobos had been doing for some time in Brazil. I admire Deschenes' evocative playing here even more than in the Villa-Lobos, especially the bandoneón-sounding chords at the end of the last tango.

I love the idea of an encore on a CD; they should be as common on disc as in concert. Deschenes plays a fun piece by the Cuban composer Jose Maria Vitier, with able support from percussionist Calixto Oviedo. A fine end to an excellent disc.

* note that the links at this site are long dead!

This review was also posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Visualizations add emotional depth to a great Winterreise

Matthias Goerne's searching, haunted Winterreise has always been special, whether his supporting partner is Alfred Brendel, Christopher Eschenbach or, as here, Markus Hinterhauser. A new dimension is added in this splendid Blu-ray, the visualizations of artist and film-maker William Kentridge. Kentridge's monochromatic animations, stripped down, sophisticated versions of the great experimental films of the surrealists and Canada's National Film Board, are so evocative. They add context and emotional depth to the story Wilhelm Müller and Schubert tell in this song cycle. To be sure, the interpretation by Goerne and Hinterhauser stands alone in its greatness, but Kentridge's images add a dimension of no small artistic import as well.

Here is an excerpt from the disc:

Passionate, ultra-Romantic, gorgeous music

Blu-ray with a large-screen HD TV and surround-sound was made for concerts like this. Recorded live on August 2, 2016 for NPR's Great Performances, this is a delight from beginning to end. There's a real sense of presence at a significant event, and the LA Philharmonic respond with standout playing. The crowd is into this program completely; they're especially enamoured of guitarist Angel Romero, looking fabulous in his many-coloured shirt. Dudamel, as always, is a charismatic figure, but he's often the still, calm centre when things get exciting with the dancing of Tango Buenos Aires and the always inventive orchestration of three great composers from Argentina. Ginastera's Dances from Estancia have the odd hint of modernism, but remain accessible; their rhythms are often much more complex than the tangos and milongas of the rest of the program, but Dudamel and his superb musicians handle them with ease. Lalo Schifrin brings his entire musical life into his Concierto de la Amistad, which receives its world premiere here. Schifrin played piano in Piazzolla's band in Paris in 1955; he worked with Dizzy Gillespie later in the 50s; and he became a household name with his film and movie scores with a huge filmography in the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. It was great to hear the audience's response when Dudamel brought him out after the Concierto, and touching to see Schifrin, Dudamel and Romero hugging. Music by Astor Piazzolla begins and ends the program, with fabulous support from the dancers of Tango Buenos Aires and Seth Asamow on bandoneon. This passionate, ultra-Romantic, gorgeous music is just the thing to watch in the evening after a hard day reviewing Arnold Schoenberg.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Loss and mystery as a source of meaning

Stage Director Romeo Castellucci has turned the fact that Schoenberg's final work Moses und Aron is unfinished into a major source of imagery and narrative drive for the two acts that remain. Mystery becomes a source of meaning, much as it does for other visionary artists like Cocteau and David Lynch. Moses's last words, the final ones in the opera, are "Oh word, thou word, that I lack." "More than a limit", Castellucci says, "it seems to me that the unfinished state of this opera is a clever philosophical strategy meant to overthrow the linear perspective of the path, of the exit." We begin on a gauze-covered stage with Moses (Thomas Johannes Mayer) speaking with the Burning Bush, now a Kubrick-style tape recorder spewing magnetic tape in which he becomes entangled. Soon he begins the opera-long dialectic with his brother Aron (John Graham-Hall). Once the gauze is lifted things really become interesting.

Musically this is an exemplary performance. Mayer's Sprechgesang (speech-song) is contrasted with the lyrical and very musical tenor of Graham-Hall, while the chorus plays a central role in the music and the drama. Philippe Jordan keeps the action flowing, making sure that Schonberg's musical ebbs and flow, and not Castellucci's stage business, moves the entire theatrical experience forward. One must mention the shameless scene-stealer in the cast, however. It's the very large live bull, playing the Golden Calf, who brings immense dignity to his role. A star is born!

This short trailer gives you a good idea of the images Castellucci brings to the stage.

Sophisticated playing in a classic frame

A Chopin Diary: The Complete Nocturnes

Two things need to happen in a very good recording of Chopin's Nocturnes: the very well-known ones need to be played so they sound as fresh and un-hackneyed as possible, while the hidden gems (and there are many amongst the 20-some pieces) need to be polished up to shine enough to be noticed amongst this embarrassment of riches. Claire Huangci scores highly on both points; she's put together a marvellous 2 CD-set for Berlin Classics that's convincing on the first listen, with many special touches that you notice the second or third time around. In a perceptive review for Musicweb, Dominy Clements praises Huangci's rubato, which "almost seem(s) like two-part counterpoint in the independent character she gives between left and right (hand)." This is sophisticated playing, full of subtle effects and strongly etched character, but all within a fairly classic frame. Nothing is mannered or show-offy. Huangci adds two bonuses: the Nocturne Oubliée in C-Sharp Minor, and, along with cellist Tristan Cornu, the Étude in C-Sharp Minor for cello and piano.

Elegance, carefulness and modest means

Conradin Kreutzer: Septet, Trio

The two Kreutzer chamber works recorded here by the splendidly named early music group Himmelpfortgrund (named after the suburb where Schubert lived) are exemplars of the Biedermeier style in music. In a musical world that celebrated larger-than-life geniuses like Beethoven, around 1815 in Germany the temperature got turned down several notches. In a surprisingly modern branding exercise Biedermeier became attached to a whole range of artistic and social movements and activities, with a new focus on bourgeois principles; sentimentality, though with careful limits on acceptable expression; and modest means. Instrumental and chamber music fit nicely into this new schema, and this Septet and Trio by Conradin Kreutzer fit the bill in every regard. Carl Dahlhaus in his book Nineteenth Century Music warns against the tendency to call the best music of this period Romantic and the music of mediocre composers Biedermeier; of course many poor composers can write in a Romantic style. Kreutzer is certainly a cut above mediocre, and the virtues of these pieces are modest in their scope only, not in their quality. The whole project, like the best Historically Informed Performances, has been undertaken with an admirable academic rigour along with infectiously enthusiastic musicality and elegant finish. Highly recommended, and not just for the Generation Biedermeier.*

Generation Biedermeier was the label given by Shell Jugendstudie to designate the mainstream of the younger generation in 2010, in which security and private happiness is more important than political engagement. Possibly this designation is no more useful than the silly "Millennials".

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Gems of the recorded legacy

Carl Schuricht: Mozart Piano Concerto K. 595 & Brahms Symphony no. 2

Carl Schuricht was working nearly until the end of his long life, in spite of various infirmities. In the excellent liner notes to this Audite Historic Performances disc there's a story from Seiji Ozawa about seeing Schuricht conduct in Japan:
"When he appeared on stage, it took him nearly five minutes to reach his podium. During that time, the audience applauded, their hands becoming quite hot by the end."
Perhaps to compensate, he became known for his swift tempi. Certainly his Brahms Second Symphony here, recorded with the Vienna Symphony at a concert in Lucerne in 1962, is anything but stuffy; neither is it plush and sentimental. Briskness is not what one notices, but rather the freedom with which Schuricht manipulates this music; it's the kind of swinging, playfully passionate re-creation that's rare in classical music. I don't know when I've ever been more impressed with the first movement of this piece, which Brahms called "the sunny symphony of a heavily melancholy person." As to the Mozart, Schuricht actually slows things down, perhaps slower than might have been heard by other conductors of the time, and much, much slower than we're likely to hear today. There's no feeling of dawdling, though, but just an opening up of Mozart's gorgeous music to let us hear - and feel - every phrase, and the exquisite piano playing of Robert Casadesus. These two pieces are gems of the recorded legacy, expertly remastered by the Audite engineers, and beautifully presented.

A fascinating programme, beautifully performed

The Great Fugue: music for two pianos & one piano four hands, by Schumann, Schubert, Mozart & Beethoven

Pianists Izabella Simon and Denes Varjon have built a really interesting program from a very solid base, a convincing and accomplished performance of Beethoven's own four hand transcription of the Great Fugue, originally the finale to his op. 130 String Quartet. Each of the pieces that precede the Beethoven is original and well worth listening to in its own right, and not just as a build-up to the main event. I had never heard Robert Schumann's Six Canonic Etudes, Op. 56, in Debussy's version for two pianos, but these are really delightful character pieces with plenty of charm and, well, character. Schubert packs a lot into the Allegro in A minor he wrote late in life: a poignant, sentimental soft centre surrounded by a crunchy, mock-serious coating. More delightful music, and played with especially apt energy, subtlety and style by these two fine pianists. The Mozart Fugue, K. 401, is one of the works that the composers wrote in response to his serious encounter with the contrapuntal music of J.S. Bach, and as it proceeds in its sombre way it's clear that Mozart has struck a deeply personal vein that he would go on to explore in his last decade, in his Great Mass and Requiem, and the most serious passages in his mature operas. This is a highly recommended release, both for its original repertoire and for the fine, assured playing.