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, October 22, 2017

Well-reasoned and elegant film

The artist documentary film, once the province of awkward talking heads, banal background music and blurry sideways camera swipes across canvases, has raised its game considerably in the age of HD video. Some of the very best of the high definition films of this sort are from the Exhibition On Film series seen in cinemas and released on DVD by Seventh Art. Though the new Michelangelo release doesn't document a major event like the Bosch film, which presented virtually all of his paintings on the 500th anniversary of Bosch's birth, there's a compelling story behind Michelangelo's life and art that makes for an engaging as well as educational experience. The artist's life is full of incident; he's referred to in the film as the first celebrity artist. His greatness as a sculptor, painter, draftsman, poet and architect means there is no lack of masterpieces to look at; one moves quickly from the monumental David statue to the Vatican frescoes to a lovely poem set to music to an exquisite drawing that shows the artist's intimate knowledge of human anatomy. The experts, English and Italian, are fluent but keep their insights short and sweet. The establishing shots of landscape and buildings provide context, especially those taken in the quarries of Carrara, where Michelangelo found much of his marble. This is a well-reasoned and elegant presentation of the difficult but ultimately triumphant life of one of the most accomplished artists in history.

Filming Michelangelo: Love and Death

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A promising new direction for Haydn 2032

Haydn: Symphonies 19, 80 and 81; Kraus: Symphony in C minor

Giovanni Antonini shifts gears with this fifth issue of his wonderful Haydn 2032 recordings, in the lead-up to the Haydn Tri-Centennial. This is a great series; volume 3 was my top release from last year. Instead of the marvellous Il Giardino Armonico, he now directs the Kammerorchester Basel, which will also get the call in volumes 6 and 7. What's the word on this new reliever from the bullpen?

It's very good news indeed. Though both play on original instruments, the Basel orchestra is considerably larger than Il Giardino, 6:6:5:3:2 in the strings versus 4:4:2:2:2. But though there's a fuller, richer, sound that's more appropriate for Haydn's Symphonies 80 and 81 from the mid-1780s, this is a very tight band that gives Antonini all the grace and lightness that Haydn still requires. I know these symphonies very well; my default version of Haydn's Symphonies is Adam Fischer's set with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, and the Basel musicians come close to this high standard. Stripped down to a smaller ensemble for the slight but charming (and fun) Symphony 19, we here have the same nimbleness of Il Giardino with all of expressiveness.

Haydn is great (great? - he's super-great!), but the star of the show here is Joseph Martin Kraus, an exact contemporary of Mozart, and a composer not too terribly far off in quality from the two great classical composers of the period. His Symphony in C minor is an outright work of genius. I slightly prefer this version over the very good Concerto Köln recording from 1992; the new recording is as theatrical, but its cooler temperature shows off its classical bones better.

A final note, once again, on Alpha's fabulous presentation for this series. The notes (in three languages) are excellent, and the featured photographs by a Magnum artist, in this case Stewart Franklin, are especially apposite. I await volume six with the Kraus Symphony set on repeat....

This disc is due to be released on November 3, 2017.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Neapolitan orchestral music, both erudite and galant

Francesco Durante: Concertos for Strings

The Neapolitan composer Francesco Durante, who was born within a year of Bach and Handel, is known mainly as a teacher (of, among others, Paisiello and Pergolesi) and a writer of sacred music. These concertos for strings often have an ecclesiastical sound, more in a contrapuntal style than a concertante one. This erudite feeling is further enhanced by Durante's use of minor keys and a tendency towards galant sentiment, and even sentimentality. There are passages which remind me of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, with a vague feeling of spiritual contemplation. The Ensemble Imaginaire under Cristina Corrieri provide an accomplished but rather low temperature reading of this music, less intense than the 2009 album (on 2 CDs with some additional works) by Concerto Koln under Werner Eberhardt. There has been some recent movement in Durante scholarship, and the essay by Corrieri in the liner notes says "the present CD set is effectively the first complete recording of Francesco Durante’s Concertos for strings", due to the presence of a newly discovered Concerto in B flat major. Durante is a serious and estimable composer, but don't expect much toe-tapping when you listen to this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Christmas with subtlety and grace

Lux: Music for Christmas 
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
I've talked before about the two tendencies that enhance a Christmas album, familiarity and novelty, and this new ATMA release has them in exactly the right mix. Paul Mealor's In the Bleak Midwinter, written in 2016, is a lovely setting for choir a cappella and baritone soloist. Besides its musical merits, hearing the new version rather than the accustomed ones of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke has the effect of sending one back to Christina Rossetti's sublime original poem. The outstanding Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, under the direction of Jean-Sebastien Vallee, sings this song with subtlety and grace, but also with the fervour of a community that understands "snow on snow, snow on snow". The 1994 setting of Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen has attained classic status, and shows up fairly often in Christmas programs; again, it's beautifully sung here. Another new classic, Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque , which gives the disc its title, sounds as good in this live performance as some top choirs. It's a tribute to Jean-Sebastien Vallee and his talented singers that the more erudite numbers co-exist so comfortably with the more traditional choir-and-organ pieces such as David Willcocks' arrangements of Once in Royal David's City and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Organist Jonathan Oldengarm plays a major role in a number of choral numbers, but also has quite a few solo numbers. He plays an impressive instrument of nearly 7,000 pipes, made in 1931 by Casavant Frères of St. Hyacinthe. His interpretation of Sigrid Karg-Elert's Choral-Improvisation on In dulci jubilo which ends the disc is quite outstanding. ATMA has put together a winner for Christmas.

This album will be released on November 17, 2017.

More than just a mood elevator

Il Violoncello del Cardinale: Cello sonatas by Boni, Amadei, Haym, Perroni, Costanzi, Bononcini, Lulier

In the 1950s & 60s there was a radio show from WNYC called "DeKoven Presents", which focussed on the music of the Baroque, or rather the pre-classical music that DeKoven called Barococo. I listened to DeKoven (it was always just DeKoven: "no sir or mister") in the late 60s and early 70s on CKUA, the great radio station at 580 kc. in Edmonton. The reason I'm reminiscing here is that while DeKoven was way ahead of the curve in appreciating early music, he did have an oddity, which Brendan Gill points out in his New Yorker profile from 1962: "He wants his programs to [be] anti-soporific so he plays only those parts of compositions that go very fast." I knew at the time this was a mis-step, and as early music has evolved over the decades I'm absolutely sure that the musical genius in this period comes from the entire range rather than just the peppy, and that it serves as much more than just a mood elevator.

I was reminded of this when I listened to this disc of Cello Sonatas from the marvellous Marco Ceccato and his Accademia Ottoboni. There is so much dignity and gravity and serious thought in much of this music. This Grave movement from Giuseppe Maria Perroni's Cello Sonata no. 1 is a good example.

So much of this music is like this, lots of it of the same high calibre. But lest you think there's only slow arrows in this bow, you can also find more spirited music. DeKoven himself would have enjoyed this tiny theatrical, folk-inspired Allegro assai by Nicola Haym. I wonder if he'd have rated it OTW (out of this world), OTG (out of this galaxy), or even the sublime OTC (out of this cosmos)?

A fine pianist's spirit comes through

I'm slowly turning into a bit of a historic recordings buff, in spite of myself.  Last year I really enjoyed listening to the APR release of the 8 late Beethoven sonatas Wilhelm Kempff recorded in Germany during the war years. Here now are 16 earlier sonatas recorded on 78rpm records in 1940, 41 and 43. There is the same meticulous discography, down to the matrix numbers, indispensible to historic recording buffs of a deeper understanding than me. Also we have a superb long essay by Bryce Morrison about Kempff, and an essay on the recordings from Michael Spring. Kempff recorded this music a lot; the Pathetique, for example, in 1924, 1928, 1929 and 1936 before the 1940 recording here; the Appassionata in 1924, 1928 and 1932 before the 1943 recording on this disc. The fact that these works often sound so completely different from the 1964/65 stereo LP set I know so well, and the 1950s mono set I've listened to since, is typical of Kempff's spontaneity and his ever-evolving interpretation of this music.

Once again there are caveats about the sound. These are in some cases actually worse than the pre-war recordings because of the war-time quality of materials used to press the discs. But the spirit of Kempff comes through, and this pianist's spirit is central to his art.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A welcome new Martinu Symphonies set

Bohuslav Martinu: Symphonies 1-6

Back in 2011 Rob Barnett ended a review of the complete Martinu symphonies from Jiri Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the following plea:
The comparative avalanche of Martinů recordings unleashed two years ago around the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death has injected fresh life into this part of the catalogue. Too often however these birth/death splurges simply go to underscore longer term neglect – a huge exposure followed by a vertiginous fall back even deeper into obscurity. We must hope that Martinů’s star has a sustainable higher profile. This set shows that his music has all the necessary stamina and allure. 
It took a while, but the appearance of this complete set of six symphonies on three CDs, recorded live in Vienna from 2011 to 2017, serves to reinforce the essential importance of Martinu as a 20th century orchestral composer. It's a very fine recording as well, though it doesn't supplant the splended Onyx set of Belohlávek. It has a fine, clear, lifelike sound, with most of the advantages of live recording, a sense of occasion and excitement and a more organic and natural arc to the performance, without too many of the disadvantages. The audience is mainly well-behaved and the applause is edited out. The young German conductor Cornelius Meister impresses most in the more meditative music - I love his brooding ways in the Largo of the 3rd Symphony, and even more in the almost mystical 4th Symphony Largo. But the more rambunctious music - the 1st Symphony Scherzo is a good example - has nowhere near the rocket-ship propulsion of Belohlávek, nor the exuberance of the London musicians. Meister's Scherzo sounds more French than Czech, and it's hard to tell if that's because it's deliberately played in a more ironic, International Style way, or if the more rigorous and authentic Belohlávek brings out the raucous Bohemians in his BBC musicians. Perhaps it's a bit of both. What's clear is that this is serious, substantial music that replays multiple hearings with maximum concentration. I got a lot of pleasure from this set, and plan on keeping it in my regular rotation.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Great 20th Century Canadian music making

Brahms: Piano Quartet no. 1, op. 25; Richard Strauss: Piano Quartet, op. 13

Steven Staryk's skill-set as a solo violinist is obvious: his virtuosity and musicianship are in the top class, and he brings a Heifetz-like tone from the amazing violins he plays. There's a list on his website of 28 great instruments by Amati, Del Gesu, Stradivarius and others that he's played in his 50-year career. As the "King of Concertmasters" at orchestras in Amsterdam, London, Chicago and Toronto, you can add leadership and collaboration skills. Chamber music is a different environment, though, and I was pleased to see this disc with two works Staryk recorded with Quartet Canada, which was in residence at the University of Western Ontario in London from 1968 to 1971. The other members of the group were pianist Ronald Turini, violist Gerald Stanick and cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi. The results are not really surprising: there is both passion and control in the Brahms and the Richard Strauss, and no group-think in evidence in either, but rather strongly characterized playing in the violin as well the other three parts. The group expertly walks the tight-rope between bland uniformity on the one side and over-sentimentality on the other, and the energy in these two works never fades.This is a high point in 20th century Canadian music-making.

The disc will be released on November 3, 2017.

Sounds of youth with echoes of maturity

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Symphonies 1 and 2

The Villa-Lobos Symphonies series from Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) under Isaac Karabtchevsky comes to a triumphant conclusion with this disc of the composer's first two symphonies. Though Villa-Lobos was a little bit of a late bloomer - his earliest works aren't especially accomplished by the standards set by Mendelssohn or Schubert - there's an interesting situation keeping this release from being anti-climactic. The 2nd Symphony, ostensibly written in the late teens of the 20th century, had to wait until 1944 for its premiere, and the composer seems to have used more than a bit of his best juju in polishing up this piece for its performance. It thus seems to be far in advance of the 1st symphony, and more importantly, the 3rd and even the 4th, as good as that work is. Though it's true that the 2nd Symphony is based on the principles of composition espoused by Vincent d'Indy and there are many French and Russian-sounding bits, one keeps hearing passages that sound like nothing as much as the Bachianas Brasilieras. And that's all to the good, I think.

By the way, there are a few other works from this period where something similar happened. Villa-Lobos wrote "1917" on the score of the marvellous orchestral work Uirapuru, but it wasn't premiered until 1935. Like the 2nd Symphony, it has a suspiciously nationalistic, Bachianas Brasileiras sound, which isn't surprising considering that the composer conducted the premiere in front of President Vargas. And the score of the Sexteto Mistico (one of my favourite chamber works), written in 1917, was lost. Villa-Lobos re-wrote it from memory, but obviously slipped in music in the modernist style he had mastered in Paris in the mid-1920s.

With his 1st Symphony Villa-Lobos was still learning to write music for orchestra, but it's still a more than creditable effort. It has a very fine performance here, partly because of the Sao Paulo musicians, who are very much in a groove with their conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky; and partly because of the carefully revised score which fixes many mistakes and excrescences, and in which Karabtchevsky himself played a major role. This performance makes an even better case for the symphony than the very good CPO recording from Stuttgart conducted by Carl St. Clair.

There are two last things to praise.  The Naxos design team has done a great job with this whole series. They've broken out of the bland Naxos cover tradition with striking black and white photographs. This last disc is one of the best; it features Beach at Nightfall, Rio de Janeiro, 1940, by Thomaz Farkas, the great Hungarian photographer who moved to Brazil as a child. Secondly, Fábio Zanon, who is currently Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, provides another absolutely first-class essay for the liner notes, with strong analysis and new insights. Put together, the Naxos Symphonies notes represent a major contribution to Villa-Lobos scholarship. This last disc in the set will be released on November 10, 2017

This review also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.