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, August 27, 2017

I wrote such beautiful music

Rautavaara: Fantasia; Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no. 1; Ravel: Tzigane

Anne Akiko Meyers brings her awesome technique and even more awesome instrument to bear in this beautifully romantic program. The disc includes a very fine performance of the first violin concerto of Karol Szymanowski, which is quite well represented on disc, but I was more interested in the opening work by Einojuhani Rautavaara that gives this CD its title. Fantasia, commissioned by Akiko Meyers, was one of the composer's final works completed before his death, a year ago in July. I love her stories about visiting the Rautavaara in his home to play through the work:

"After I played Fantasia, he looked at me and repeatedly said, 'I wrote such beautiful music!'"

This is, of course, the World Premiere recording of this piece, which I expect will soon become popular on the concert stage. With a significant encore in Ravel's own orchestral version of his Tzigane, this outstanding disc - and especially Rautavaara's Fantasia - will regularly show up in playlists on my computer and phone.

Here is the trailer from Avie Records:

To be released on October 6, 2017.

A pleasure you suffer

Villa-Lobos: Suite populaire bresilienne; Scriabin:  Prelude pour la main gauche; Ponce: Sonata #3; Takemitsu: Equinox; Sor: Fantaisie Elégiaque

In Paris est une solitude peuplée Judicael Perroy has put together a fascinating group of pieces for the classical guitar, played with style and precision. It's a program of moods, with a focus on the beautifully melancholic, that nostalgic enjoyment one takes in the sad sounds of a lost past. The Portuguese, and especially the Brazilians, have the term saudade, which Manuel de Melo has called "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy." Villa-Lobos's Suite populaire Bresilienne is layered with these feelings. Already when the composer put pen to paper he was remembering an earlier time of street musicians from his father's generation and his childhood. When he added the final movement, the Chorinho, in 1923, there was a new modernist, Parisian layer to the music and an additional layer of sadness and regret. Perroy plays Villa's 1948 revision of this music; the composer was always polishing his early music. I've been listening to this beautiful music for many years, and especially since I began the Villa-Lobos Website nearly 25 years ago, so listening to this fresh sounding version evokes all of the dozens of versions - Kraft, Zanon, Barrueco, Turibio Santos, Leisner, Assad - that I've come to love. The rest of the album continues on a pensive note, with a fine miniature based on a Scriabin work for piano left hand. Works by Ponce, Takemitsu and Sor round out this well-planned, nicely presented and beautifully played album. It's due to be released on September 1st, 2017.

This review has also been posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Filling in details of Lenny's life and works

Leonard Bernstein: the complete solo piano works

I'm writing this review on Leonard Bernstein's 99th birthday. It's time to begin the Lenny Centennial celebrations, and what a good way to begin: listening (though not all at once) to the music he wrote for solo piano, for two and four hands. There aren't too many substantial works here, with most of the 56 tracks on two discs running two minutes or less. Bernstein wrote mainly miniatures, character pieces which quite often made reference to friends and professional colleagues. Even his Piano Sonata, an early piece written in 1938, is hardly a big work; the two movements add up to only 11 minutes. Pianist Leann Osterkamp helps to provide a more organic view of Bernstein's piano oeuvre by organizing the pieces more or less chronologically, but grouping pieces which share a connection with larger works together. She also includes a number of unpublished pieces and works that have never been recorded. Most importantly, Osterkamp plays this music with the perfect balance of respect for the composer and an awareness of the nature of circumstances of the work's composition. She has a lightness of touch that works well with Bernstein's often ironic point of view, recognizing mock seriousness or sentimentality but playing other works in a more straightforward way when required. Though the piano music represents nothing as profound or important as Bernstein's orchestral music or his works for the stage or the musical theatre, this delightful music fills in much detail of his character and his life. Michael Barrett provides an extra two hands in Bernstein's Bridal Suite, which is full of lovely melodies, ingenious touches and out and out jokes.

Bernstein at the piano during rehearsals for On the Town, 1953, via NYPL digital collection
One thing that these works illustrate is how social a person Leonard Bernstein was. He obviously gained energy from his huge network of close friends and colleagues in musical, theatrical and other artistic circles. Nothing could be further from the old stereotype of the composer wrestling with his Muse in his lonely attic. In the picture above he works with Roz Russell, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, George Abbott, Lehman Engel on the songs for Wonderful Town. It's a great picture, and it goes so well with the pictures he draws of both Comden and Green in two separate pieces included in this album. Bring on more music - and performance - of this calibre in the next 12 months!

To be released on September 15, 2017.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Stylish, spirited, sparkling Mozart

Mozart Piano Concertos, v. 2: K. 449 & K. 459, plus Divertimenti K. 136 & K. 138

The second volume in the new Chandos Mozart Piano Concertos series from Manchester, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, is pretty much what we've come to expect from this combination of superb musicians: stylish, spirited, sparkling Mozart with a real feeling of freshness. Mozart spoke a fair amount in his letters of playing music with taste, but I'm afraid some musicians take that to mean a safe, middle-of-the-road approach that drains the life out of this mercurial music. The last thing one would say about Bavouzet and Takacs-Nagy's Mozart is that it is careful;  they take full advantage of the range of musical opportunities Mozart offers the performer, plus some the composer wouldn't have dreamt of, all on the positive side, I hasten to add. These two concertos come at a time when Mozart made a true leap from the delightfully prodigious master of the International Style of the time to a period where his emerging genius began to build rapidly towards the greatness of The Marriage of Figaro and the instrumental works which surround it. This was his Rubber Soul and Revolver period, to speak in the language of The Beatles. It's a time of surprises.

I can never listen to the Divertimentos Mozart wrote in Salzburg in 1772 without a smile on my face. This isn't profound music, but it's well-made and designed to do just that: make people feel good. The middle work, K. 137, was included in the first volume of the Chandos series; K. 136 and 138 are added here as fairly substantial bonuses. Takacs-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata absolutely nail this music; it's just like With the Beatles!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Great poems and a perfect reader

Matthew Arnold: Selected Poems

Choosing a reader for an audiobook isn't easy, for what we want is actually more than reading, but something just short of acting. The author might know the inner rhythms of the text better than anyone, but it's a rare author with the skill and vocal equipment to keep things lively and moving and still sounding natural. A great stage actor might tend to declaim too much; a great film actor might just be slumming; and in both cases the dreaded actor's ego might push itself forward to the detriment of the story. The rise of the voice actor category that's come with the extraordinary success of animated film and video-games has given us a number of specialists with the skill and discipline to read a variety of works. Jonathan Keeble has a very long resume in voice acting work, and the audiobooks of his I've listened to are impressive indeed. He brings all the right tools to this well-chosen selection of poetry by the great Victorian, Matthew Arnold.

One of my favourite Arnold poems is the extraordinary Desire, whose short lines, shifting rhythms and unexpected rhymes keep one off-balance. It's a very modern-sounding poem, with more than a hint of hip-hop, based on a highly personalized and emotional, though de-mythologized Christology.

O, let the false dream fly
Where our sick souls do lie,
Tossing continually.
O, where thy voice doth come,
Let all doubts be dumb;
Let all words be mild;
All strife be reconciled;
All pains beguiled.
Light brings no blindness;
Love no unkindness;
Knowledge no ruin;
Fear no undoing,
From the cradle to the grave,--
Save, O, save!

Keeble's reading is altogether admirable; he makes the emotional arc of the poem clear, without sentimentalizing it on the one hand, or trivializing it on the other. All without any beatboxing!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Opulence and spare beauty

Terry Teachout quotes Felix Mendelssohn in his marvellous book on Balanchine, All in the Dances: "The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite." As Teachout says, "So, too, with Balanchine, whose choreographic thoughts are extraordinary precisely because they cannot be translated into mere words." That precision and clarity of thought are especially welcome when it comes to ballets based on French music, and both are evident here in this excellent compilation of four classic dances presented at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in July 2016. This Blu-ray is a perfect example of High Definition: sound and picture in this opulent theatre presented with the highest fidelity, exquisite costumes, gorgeous dancers, and, most importantly, the great Balanchine tradition that goes back to the NYC Ballet premieres of these works in 1948 (Symphony in C), 1951 (La Valse), 1975 (Sonatine) and 1980 (Walpurgisnacht). The dancing here is thrilling on so many levels, and enhanced by the sensitive film direction of Vincent Bataillon (one of the film partners was PBS's Great Performances), and the production by Francois Duplat. I had the strong feeling more than once while watching these dances of losing myself in an art of beautiful lines, masses of colours and complex parabolas, all moving to the music. As Balanchine himself said, "The important thing in ballet is the movement itself. A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle . . . is the essential element."  I'm not a ballet expert by any means, but I'm now officially wild about Balanchine. Teachout's book is like a kind of User's Manual for these ballets. I look forward to learning - and experiencing - more in the future.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

More Rembrandt than Hals

Dvorak: Piano Quartets no. 1, op. 23, and no. 2, op. 87

The Busch Trio received very positive reviews for the first disc in their projected complete Dvorak chamber music with piano series, a piano trio disc released on Alpha Classics in 2016. Now comes a recording of less familiar but still quite marvellous Dvorak: his two piano quartets. Miguel da Silva, the violist from the Ysaÿe Quartet, fits in very well with his younger colleagues. The youthful first quartet could have perhaps used a somewhat lighter touch, but the mature second work, a true masterpiece, is a great fit for the dark, Brahmsian way these musicians have of playing Dvorak. Torn between the bucolic and the cosmopolitan, Dvorak puts his somewhat protean music out there, and musicians have the lovely opportunity of filling in much of their own emotional content. In this instance we have a pretty sophisticated, dramatic interpretation more in the style of a brooding Rembrandt than Frans Hals celebrating life's pleasures. Even with perhaps too much light and shade, I enjoyed this interpretation a great deal.

This disc will be released on September 22, 2017.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Bingeing Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-6, Manfred Symphony, Francesca da Rimini, Serenade for Strings

I can't remember all the times I've been warned by a reviewer not to listen to an album all the way through in one sitting, but I'm going to go ahead and do the opposite. I've enjoyed this seven-disc set of Tchaikovsky orchestral music immensely in the last couple of weeks, and I found that listening straight through from the First Symphony to the Serenade for Strings gave me a new appreciation of Tchaikovsky's art, which hasn't always resonated with me in the past. It's a tribute to the composer's invention and to Vladimir Jurowski and his fine musicians that the music always seems fresh and dynamic. There are certainly Tchaikovsky markers throughout: phrases and felicitous orchestrations that could come from no one else, but the composer and conductor always make sure they sound uniquely positioned. This is a well-filled compilation: the six numbered Symphonies fit onto the first five discs, with a generous bonuses including two substantial works, the Manfred Symphony and Francesca da Rimini, and a light piece for afters, the Serenade for Strings. Everything seems perfectly judged in this release from the LPO's own label, and I don't apologize for my bingeing. All the music sounds great, though the live recordings of some of the works go back to 2004. Symphonies 2 and 3 as well as Francesca da Rimini and the Serenade are new recordings from 2016.

An afterword: I've been struck in the past couple of days, with Tchaikovsky still ringing in my brain, by how influential his orchestral music has been. Villa-Lobos's acknowledged influences are Bach and Stravinsky, but I hear so many Tchaikovskian bits in his Symphonies and Bachianas Brasileiras. Listening to Benjamin Britten last night I noticed the same thing. I expect I'll be hearing these echoes for a while.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Gorgeous bits without dramatic purpose

Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein, which premiered in May of 2016, contains a very fine 90-minute narrative ballet buried within a 2 hour and ten minute story that somehow is both over the top and un-dramatic. It has marvellous scenes that feature three outstanding dancers: Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein, Laura Moerera as his love Elizabeth, and Steven McRae as The Creature. Unfortunately Scarlett has swallowed and regurgitated whole chapters worth of exposition from Mary Shelley's novel about minor characters that obscure the main action, and more importantly take away from Shelley's themes of nature, science and the purpose of knowledge. Two scenes stood out for me: the first was a lovely dance of awakening love in the First Act between Victor and Elizabeth, which reminded me of the great Dancing in the Dark scene in The Band Wagon with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire. The second is the terrifying dance between Elizabeth and The Creature at the end of Act 3, and the coda with The Creature's dance with his creator. This is uncomfortable to watch, but highly original and theatrical in the best way, and at a high level.

Lowell Liebermann's music has been called cinematic, and at its best recalls some very good film composers. But narrative ballet is closer to silent cinema than modern talkies, so the music keeps churning away whether there's a reason to be there or not. That puts some significant strain on the score, and weakens its impact. Similarly, John MacFarlane's sets and costumes are quite gorgeous, but can't keep one's interest above water during long scenes with minor characters dancing, as beautifully as they all dance. The three principal dancers have great careers ahead of them, but Liam Scarlett needs to stick with short-form abstract dance, or begin a dramatic apprenticeship with a competent theatrical director.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A stunningly beautiful presentation

HD video and surround sound are proving to be a big boost for documentaries about painters; the latest Exhibition on Screen Blu-ray features Phil Grabsky's fine film about Claude Monet, and it looks and sounds stunning on the home screen. Grabsky pulls you in (no pun intended) to Monet's world through well chosen excerpts from Monet's own writings (beautifully narrated by Henry Goodman), combined with artful and originally presented montages of the stunningly beautiful paintings. 

One of the plusses in this disc is the soundtrack, improvisations by composer Stephen Baysted combined with period piano works by Satie, Poulenc, Ravel, Fauré and others. These are played with style and wit by pianist Susan Legg. Here's an interesting article about Baysted's compositional process; the soundtrack album on CD/MP3 is here.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Precision, style and passion

Milhaud: String Trio, Sonatine a Trois; Martinu: String Trios no. 1 & 2

Darius Milhaud and Bohuslav Martinu have the same approach to chamber music as Heitor Villa-Lobos: folklore provides the raw material, while popular music influences and 1920s Parisian modernism add spice, but all three set their music within the classical and pre-classical models of Haydn and Bach. The fine musicians of the Berlin-based Jacques Thibaud String Trio have their antennae up for all of these nuances of musical style, and provide an integrated experience in which passion is as important as precision and style. I've been listening to a string of String Trios lately. There's something about leaving the second violin behind that opens up many composers - Schoenberg, Roussel, Gideon Klein and Villa-Lobos are some I'm thinking of besides Milhaud and Martinu - to open, honest emotion, leaving behind theatrics and sentimentality. This is a perfectly balanced project, a disc filled with amazing music by a special group of musicians.