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.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A powerful message of defiance

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, op. 123

Toscanini recorded the Missa Solemnis four times: there's a commercial recording that RCA made in 1953, a BBC recording from 1939, and an earlier broadcast from 1935. But the consensus pick for the best is this one, made in New York for radio broadcast on December 28, 1940. There's some outstanding singing here, especially from tenor Jussi Björling and bass Alexander Kipnis. The female voices and the choir haven't been universally praised, but in spite of some flaws I found the drama of this work absolutely gripping. So much of the credit for this goes, of course, to the Maestro at the podium. He's given reasonably good sound considering the vintage and the circumstances, though there are certainly balance issues and some sections when the sound is more than slightly muddy. But even then one feels Toscanini's humanistic ethos, delivered with a visceral excitement, what Russell Platt referred to as "the moral ferocity of Toscanini’s aesthetic". This is a defiant message to the monsters of Fascism he had left behind in Europe, and the message can be heard (and, sadly, still has to be heard) just as strongly today.

Though he isn't mentioned in connection with this IDIS re-issue, which uses a clean and (mostly) clear digital re-mastering made in Milan in 2001, we are indebted to RCA recording engineer Robert Hupka for the preservation of this and so many other Toscanini recordings from the war years. Hupka is also known for the photographs he took of the Maestro during this period. The mesmerizing look which brought such powerful results from his musicians more than 75 years ago connects with us like a laser today, in this, the 150th year since Toscanini's birth. This disc will be released on November 3, 2017.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A superb Christmas sampler

Choral Music for Christmas: works by J.S. Bach, Zelenka, Mendelssohn, Reger, Saint-Saens, Handel & others

Summer is winding down; autumn officially arrives tomorrow, so what is coming up Real Soon Now? That's right, the Holiday Season! At Christmas, we're always looking out for new music we've never heard, but not forgetting all the same works we love to hear every year. The Sampler Disc is a great chance to do this, and we have an especially good one here from Carus. You may not know Heinichen's Te Deum laudamus, but I plan on putting it in my regular Xmas playlist rotation; the same for Zelenka's Laudate pueri Dominum. These are very fine performances, with stylish playing, and good recent recordings (2004 and 2012). Then you get a really nice Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, from Kammerchor Stuttgart & Barokorchester Stuttgart. This to-ing and fro-ing between evergreens and surprisingly lovely unfamiliar works goes on through the whole disc, with a focus on very high quality choral singing and fine orchestral support, all at a reasonable price. I'll let you choose your own favourites, but I have to single out another amazing song. It's Philip Lawson's arrangement of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, sung by the Calmus Ensemble; it was included in their 2009 disc Calmus Christmas Carols. Pour yourself an eggnog and listen:

I recommend this disc very highly. Merry Christmas!

Here are the details of the works included:

This disc will be released on October 6, 2017.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Dynamic music in exile

Benjamin Britten & Paul Hindemith: Violin Concertos

It's looking like Paul Hindemith's reputation might have turned a corner; there have been some really first-class releases of his music in the last few years.  I've recently reviewed the Amar Quartet's excellent Complete String Quartets on Naxos and another fine album of chamber music with clarinet from Brilliant Classics. Slightly older, but quite spectacular, was an outstanding all-Hindemith disc from Midori and Christoph Eschenbach. Now we have a fine new recording of the Hindemith Violin Concerto from Arabella Steinbacher and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. It's coupled with an equally beautifully-played Britten Concerto.

These two works were both written in 1939, when each of these composers was in exile from his native land; Britten in America and Hindemith in Switzerland, and later America as well. "Only the misfortune of exile," says Stefan Zweig, "can provide the in-depth understanding and the overview into the realities of the world." There's some nostalgic sadness in each work, as there was in Zweig's own work about exile, The World of Yesterday, written in Brazil in the early 1940s. But, typically of both composers, this music is very much forward-looking, dynamic and really rather optimistic. Steinbacher plays with verve and great virtuosity, while Jurowski and his musicians provide the requisite big sound for these two 19th century-style concertos, the dramatic and lively Britten, and the lyrical, stirring Hindemith. Very highly recommended.

This album will be released on October 20, 2017.

We must bear witness

String Quartets by Viktor Ullmann, Shostakovich and Simon Laks

Here's a album that none of us expected would have such immediate relevance this summer: the Dover Quartet's presentation of three composers who were victims of, and who fought against, Fascism. Viktor Ullmann composed his 3rd String Quartet in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in 1943; he was murdered soon after he was moved to Auschwitz the following year. Dmitri Shostakovich composed his 2nd Quartet in Moscow in 1944, following horrific scenes during the Siege of Leningrad and the long fight between the Soviets and the Nazis. Simon Laks wrote his 3rd Quartet in Auschwitz in 1945; that year he was transported to Dachau, which was liberated before he could be killed.

These three works are truly Voices of Defiance; there is anger and sadness in this music, but no despair. "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness," says Elie Wiesel. "Not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are responsible for what we do with those memories." The marvellous Dover Quartet, whose debut CD demonstrated great technique and musicality, bear witness here, to keep alive the memory of three tortured souls whose own sacrifices preserved precious remnants of civilization in the midst of the most horrific barbarism. In 1941 Woody Guthrie famously wrote on his guitar "This Machine Kills Fascists." After this album the Dover Quartet might consider doing the same with their instruments.

This disc is due to be released on October 13, 2017.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Simple pleasures and hidden depths

Hindemith: Complete Chamber Music for Clarinet

The musical politics of the twentieth century are beginning to seem less and less important, when one stops and actually listens to the music. Hindemith was criticized for being too modern (Joseph Goebbels called him an "atonal noisemaker") but soon not modern enough; by mid-century he was dismissed as a reactionary neo-romantic. Listening to the varied works on this marvellous new disc from Brilliant Classics one always hears the true voice, and the true heart, of a composer who deserves much more attention than he gets on record and on concert stages. Even the works designated as Gebrauchsmusik (Music for Use) sound deeply personal, and are musically interesting. Like in Villa-Lobos's music from the same period, these works tap in to a folkloric vein and are designed to be played and enjoyed by amateurs. Clarinettist Davide Bandieri, whose fine technique allows him to easily handle the more substantial works, doesn't play down in any sense in the simpler works, but helps to bring out their simple pleasures and hidden depths. All of the musicians play with style and warmth; there's a great feeling of musical camaraderie in this entire project. Very highly recommended!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Music of awakening sensibilities

Dresden: Chamber music by Califano, Fasch, Heinichen, Lotti, Quantz, Telemann, Vivaldi

Zefiro's very fine oboe and bassoon players come to the fore again in this album of chamber music from the Dresden court of Friedrich August I around 1720. Music in the Italian style at this stage in musical history meant virtuosity, yes, but more importantly expressiveness and sparkle. These are highly entertaining sonatas, trio sonatas and quartets, which occasionally attain something close to the profound, especially in works by Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Friedrich Fasch.  This music from these two fine composers stands out from any hint of background court music as routine elevator music. Don't think of the lounge pianist playing under sightly drunken conversations and waiters dropping trays, but rather Bill Evans' Trio playing Live At the Village Vanguard, with a mainly rapt, largely musically engaged audience. There's a sense of awakening sensibilities that moves toward the pre-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement later in the century. The stylish playing is a sign of Alfredo Bernardino's group's completely secure Historically Informed Performance tradition. Having singled out the playing of the winds, I should not forget to praise the excellent continuo players, who provide solid support with the occasional sparkling, and historically informed, insertion of their own.

This album is due to be released on October 20, 2017.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Keep cool at Christmas

David Ian, Vintage Christmas Trio

In Joel Dinnerstein's The Origins of Cool in Postwar America we learned about the jazz roots of cool; if anyone could be said to have 'invented' cool, it would be Lester Young. When I heard Vince Guaraldi's music for A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 9, 1965 I heard Christmas music with a cool new sound. Of course I didn't know then about Bill Evans' amazing 1963 recording of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, or the other Christmas jazz standards from the late 40s and the 50s, but this was prime time on CBS (or rather, in Canada, the CBC), so I got that something had changed in the mainstream. Ever since then I've been looking out for this kind of hip sophistication to go along with more homespun and square (but still cherished), Christmas traditions.

In 2015 the Toronto-born David Ian released his first Vintage Christmas album, a very pleasant collection of Christmas standards inspired, he says, by Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi. He's back this year with Vintage Christmas Trio, which features bassist Jon Estes and drummer Josh Hunt. These are appropriately relaxed and spare arrangements, steering clear of lounge excrescences and adding tasteful bits of Bach and the blues. There are some really successful songs here; one of my favourites is the under-appreciated Johnny Marks tune I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, which features a fine bass solo by Estes with Bill Evans-style voicing from Ian. Another fine song is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, with standout percussion from Hunt. I heard this morning the sad, sad news about the passing of Walter Becker. His Steely Dan partner Donald Fagen said in a statement "We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties)..." This isn't about any neo-Bop purism, especially of the muddled kind peddled in La La Land. It's really more about the nostalgic legacy of the Baby Boomer (Becker was only two years older than me), and that's what we're getting in this mid-century-designed album, for the Feast Day of Baby Boomer Nostalgia, December 25th.

The new album will be released on November 3, 2017. Until then, here's a nice version of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's Christmas Waltz from the first Vintage Christmas.