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, September 20, 2018

Salt-pepper-chromatic sidesteps

Brahms: Symphony no. 3, Segerstam: Symphony no. 294
getting ahaa extasy moments from shiverings in an octavepusspasm in either major or minor directions into complextonal myceliums taking salt-pepper-chromatic sidesteps allowed in between... in the wonders of experiencephenomenologic dualisms: Love-Hate, Life-Death, richness-poorness, lightness-darkness, humidity-dryness, warmth-coldness, quicknessslowness, acceleration- retardation, fractalic straightlines-aerodynamic parables etc.
This is a small bit of the liner notes essay written by Leif Segerstam for the third episode in the Brahms/Segerstam Symphonies series from Alba. I like to think of it as just a thousand or so words plucked at random from a multi-volume Finnegans Wake-style tome explaining Segerstam's odd, and oddly appealing, musical world. So much can be divined by carefully parsing Segerstam's interpretation of the four great orchestral works by Johannes Brahms, and there is more information imbedded in the symphonies from Segerstam's own late works. But there are plenty of blank areas left on the map to puzzle over.

The first album exploring the musical worlds of what Segerstam calls "the beardy brothers" matched Brahms' First Symphony with Segerstam's Symphony 288. The second had the Second Symphony and the 289th. This release has the sunny Third Symphony to go with Segerstam's 294. Not that the Finnish composer is using Brahms as a model. Rather, it's Sibelius's 7th Symphony that provides the scope and structure, while the musical language is rather more like Penderecki or Rautavaara. As to the Brahms, we once again have things slowed down to a surprising extent. It's like Segerstam has stopped everything, and he's picked up the Symphony and is turning it around in his hands, examining it closely. The orchestral playing is gorgeous, but all the tension and life is gone; it's like we're driving a car with most of the air let out of the tires.

I can't help thinking that Segerstam is up to something other than just recording a well-known and well-loved symphony. Is this a case of everyone else playing checkers while Segerstam is playing chess? Let me ponder that for a while...

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The shape-shifting composer

Lars-Erik Larsson: Symphony no. 3, Three Orchestral Pieces, Adagio, Musica permutatio

That Lars-Erik Larsson withdrew all three of his symphonies after they were first performed shows a certain lack of confidence in his own abilities as a symphonist. On the evidence of three successive CPO recordings with Andrew Manze conducting the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra this seems more a sign of imposter syndrome than any compositional weaknesses, though to be fair Larsson was working in the shadow of a daunting range of Nordic symphonies, from Stenhammar, Nielsen and Sibelius to contemporaries such as Holmboe and Pettersson, and in between, Atterberg. Larsson is best known for his rhapsodic, pastoral orchestral pieces and suites, but the Third Symphony, premiered in 1946, is especially full of the same appealing melodies and dynamic pacing one finds in his better known works, though not developed quite as freely. We have in this symphony, perhaps, just a bit of what some athletes call 'the yips', a tightening-up with a resultant loss of fluency.

In his Gramophone review of the first disc in this series, Guy Rickards calls Larsson "a musical magpie", and that continues here. Right from the beginning he makes reference to the insistent rhythms of the Scherzo to Schubert's 9th Symphony. Christoph Schlüren, in his detailed and informative liner essay, mentions both Beethoven's 5th Symphony and Borodin's 2nd in the same context. By the way, the impressive waltz-like second theme of the 1st movement was "borrowed" by George Duning for the jaunty main theme for his Bell, Book and Candle film score from 1958, though he adds bongos. I expect this is just a coincidence, since it's very unlikely this music had made it to Hollywood then. It's a fun game to track down these quotes, in both directions, and I don't believe his homages diminish Larsson's music especially. In the end the performance of Manze and his players won me over.

Rickards also mentions that Larsson "flitted between styles throughout his life," and we have two surprising pieces here - the 3 Orchestral Pieces, op. 49, and the Adagio, op. 48, that show his experiments with what Schlüren terms a "free twelve-tone style." These manage to compress the usual Larsson material into a much tighter construction and a darker than usual mood, but still with more than a bit of the Larsson charm. I found the Adagio especially appealing, though it's striking how optimistic Larsson sounds here, in what one might consider Allan Pettersson territory.

There's a further stylistic shift with the final work on the disc, the Musica permutatio, which was also the final work of Larsson's life. Freer harmonically, it's very much a learned work, with impressive contrapuntal passages. It was premiered in 1982, four years before Larsson's death.

This disc will be released on October 5, 2018.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A fascinating concert of 20th century masterworks

40 Years of Contemporary Music: Chamber works by Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, Webern, Terzian, Berio, Boulez, Schreker

Alicia Terzian begins a fascinating program of contemporary chamber music with one of the great works of Brazilian modernism, the Seventh Choros of Heitor Villa-Lobos, written in 1924. The 37-year-old composer spent most of that year in Paris, rubbing shoulders with Ravel, Cocteau, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and others, though he also brought with him his own strongly modernist works he'd written in Brazil. 1924 was a banner year for modernism on both sides of the Atlantic, by the way, with the publication of both Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil and André Breton's Manifeste du surréalisme (though as Desmond Morris notes in his recent Lives of the Surrealists, the tone-deaf Breton wasn't interested in adding musicians to his group). It's refreshing to see Villa-Lobos in this modernist company, rather than the parrots-and-jungle exoticism that usually surrounds him. This is a marvellous version of this work, as well. It's subtitled "Settimino" (which means "Septet"), and it's written for flute, oboe, cello, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, tam-tam and violin. I counted twice, and both times I got 8 instead of 7. I figure the tam-tam isn't counted, like when Ringo plays the tambourine. They're still the Fab Four.

Alberto Ginastera's Pampeana no. 2 for cello & piano comes from 1950, and thus is written in what he called his Subjective Nationalism style, a transition between with folkloric Objective Nationalism of his early years and the avant-garde Neo-Expressionism he worked in after 1958. This is an appealing piece, with Latin rhythms becoming insistently astringent and abstract. It's a fine bridge between the Latin American works and those of the Europeans later in the program.

The 8 Early Songs, a work without opus number by Anton Webern, is the earliest on this program. It's from 1901-04, and shows the strong influence of Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf. Soprano Marta Blanco and pianist Claudio Espector are effective advocates for these marvellous, slightly naive but always characterful songs. I hadn't heard this music before, and I'm so grateful that it was included on this disc.

Marta Blanco is also featured in the version for voice and five instruments of Luciano Berio's O King, written in response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. I recently reviewed a fine recording from Seattle of O King in its extended version for eight voices and orchestra, and it's fascinating to hear a kind of essential distillation of this landmark work, which is all kinds of bleak, but ultimately somewhat hopeful.

Dérive by Pierre Boulez is the same kind of puzzle music that Bach and Mozart delighted in. He shifts and shuffles around a six-note chord among six instruments, and by changing the intervals derives new chords (hence the name). After five derivations, the original chord returns, and then fades into silence. At the highest level of sophistication one can hear and follow along these changes; if not one can puzzle them out while following along with the score. The rest of us might be content with the general idea that there are basic transformations happening, while enjoying the ornate decorations

Alicia Terzian contributes two works to the program. Yagua Ya Yuca for percussion is five minutes of ingenious sounds, alternately wistful and intense. Les Yeux Fertiles for voice and five instruments, is a setting of fragments of poems by Paul Eluard, serious mood pieces all.

Franz Schreker's Der Wind was written in 1909 as a ballet, though it was never performed in his lifetime. It's an occasionally jolly but ultimately sadly nostalgic piece, untroubled by the more experimental modernism of his contemporary Arnold Schoenberg. This work is a fine ending to a fascinating concert of twentieth century masterworks.

The spot-lit miracle

Das Neugeborne Kindelein: Christmas Cantatas by Buxtehude, Telemann and J. S. Bach
Although we are deeply indebted to the light, because by means of it we can find our way, ply our tasks, read, distinguish one another; and yet for all that the vision of the light itself is more excellent and more beautiful than all these various uses of it. The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.
 - Francis Bacon *
Old Master paintings on the covers of classical music discs can be a bit of cliché, but occasionally an especially relevant one is chosen, and that's definitely the case with this new Accent disc of Christmas cantatas from Baroque Germany, performed by Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande. The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerrit van Honthorst, painted in 1622, and now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, is an amazing presentation of the nativity. It's a Caravaggesque interpretation of John 1:9, "The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world." Sigiswald Kuijken has made that connection as well, in his excellent liner notes, which emphasize the  intimate atmosphere, but which, he says, "by no means excludes theatrical effects!" Of the beautiful Buxtehude In dulci jubilo he says:
... the fourth verse shines (as if under a halo) in a completely new glow, in that the two violins suddenly express the joy of the angels (“gaudia”) with their “ringing bells” in a frenzy of rapid movements.
Even in the early 18th century Christmas was a time to mix traditional music with newer, forward-looking sounds. I love Georg Philipp Telemann's archaic-sounding cantata Ein Kindelein so löbelich, TWV 9:5, from around 1720, but sounding at least a century older, at least until an Amen that sprouts Baroque curlicues around the more severe contrapuntal sounds of the stile antico. This is virtuoso composition that plays with styles in a kind of Enlightenment Post-Modernism. J. S. Bach's gorgeous cantata Ich freue mich in dir, BWV 133, from 1724, is a perfect example of how the great composer turned music into sounds of pure joy. Kuijken and La Petite Bande provide a joyful interpretation of the theatrical intimacy in this music, as apt an illustration of the show-stopping, spot-lit miracle that was the Nativity as the great painting of Gerrit van Honthorst.

* The quote from Francis Bacon, which is more or less contemporaneous to van Honthorst's painting and a century of more before the music on this disc is from Temporis Masculus Partus, 'The Masculine Birth of Time', from 1605. It's well-known today, as you'll quickly see from a Google search, because the great photographer Dorothea Lange had the last sentence posted on her darkroom wall.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Oklahoma, 1936

This disc will be released on October 19, 2018.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Re-saddling the warhorse

Mozart Symphony 25; Beethoven Symphony 5; Brahms German Requiem

Musical warhorses have a big advantage over similar works in the visual arts. What can you do with the Mona Lisa, except draw a moustache on it? But an inspired performance has the potential to completely change the way one thinks about the works you know are great, but have heard too many times. Listening to Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in this recording from the Edinburgh Festival in 1958 is like seeing a scene from an ordinary Hollywood mystery, but re-shot by Alfred Hitchcock. The suspense is intense, and the transition to the Finale is breath-taking. And then things really take off! In the words of Richard Osborne, from the fine liner notes, "From the entry of the trombones in the finale to the work’s incandescent close, this is a performance that genuinely gathers itself to greatness."

Marcel Duchamp, Mona Lisa parody "LHOOQ", 1919

Something similar happens in this recording of the Brahms German Requiem with Klemperer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a recording from London in 1955. With two very fine soloists - soprano Elfride Trötschel and baritone Hans Wilbrink - and the superb BBC Chorus led by Leslie Woodgate, this version approaches or even surpasses Klemperer's landmark 1961 recording with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Though Klemperer's Beethoven and Brahms LPs were at the front of the LP bins when I was first buying classical music in the early 1970s, it wasn't until the CD era that I began to really pay attention to him. So my admiration for him as perhaps the greatest of all conductors feels unmixed with too much nostalgia for the glory days of my youth. It seems only natural and obvious, and this new release from the wonderful ICA Classics label is just one more piece of evidence.

This two-disc set will be released on October 5, 2018.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Fade to black...

J. S. Bach: Cantatas of contentment. Ich bin in wir vergnugt, BWV 204; Angelehmes Wiederau, BWV 30a

Series finales can leave one puzzled (Lost), nostalgic (Cheers), or intrigued (The Sopranos). One of the most bitter-sweet moments in my classical music life was when I realized that Masaaki Suzuki's fabulous Bach Sacred Cantata series with Bach Collegium Japan on BIS, recorded from 1995 to 2014, was finally complete. This is one of the greatest accomplishments of recorded music. But it didn't feel quite as sad as it could have been, since there were still the Secular Cantatas to come, and those have been quite eye-opening for me. But with this release even those Cantatas are finished.

What a great way to end, though, with two "Cantatas of contentment"! The first movement of Angenehmes Wiederau, BWV 30a, is the most joyous celebration you could imagine.

I commend to everyone reading this review John Eliot Gardner's book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, and particularly in this context, Chapter 8 "Cantatas or Coffee?"
To comprehend the social, liturgical and performance background for his public music-making in his Leipzig years, we need to explore these two parallel worlds of music, one sacred, one secular, and these two public meeting places, one over 500 years old, the other relatively new. 
Certainly one could listen to Gardner's own recordings of the Bach Cantatas while reading this - they're very fine, of course - but I found every point Gardner made be better understand the music Suzuki has been guiding me through since the mid-1990s. I'll be living with this music for the rest of my life, and - who knows? - even beyond.

Fade to black...

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Fine British concertos from a great team

Finzi: Cello Concerto, Eclogue, New Year Music, Grand Fantasia & Toccata

When Raphael Wallfisch called the Finzi Cello Concerto the greatest British cello concerto, it caught my interest, as I'm sure it did many others'. Beating out the Elgar Concerto would be like coming ahead of Leonardo, or Michael Jordan, or Greta Garbo. As I said in my review of his recording, Wallfisch makes a good argument, but I was "still inclined to consider his claim just a trifle hyperbolic." In the two years since then I haven't heard anything to change my mind, though I imagine I've listened to the Elgar Concerto at least three or four times as often as the Finzi (including Wallfisch himself beautifully playing the Elgar live right in my home town, with the Victoria Symphony). This is, of course, a silly discussion, but no less fun for being silly. The Finzi Concerto is a very fine work, and together with the Moeran, Bliss, Bax and Elgar concertos, the British Cello Team is clearly the best national side, and perhaps even a match for Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.

But seriously, it's always great to see an undervalued work gain some traction, and this fine new performance by Paul Watkins and the BBC Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis makes it clear what all this fuss is about. This is rather different from Wallfisch's version, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, under Vernon Handley. It's very dramatic, and in the outer movements more often brisk than pastoral. In the great slow movement Watkins and Davis keep things at a lower temperature to start, compared with the passionate Wallfisch/Handley version, which might just slip over into sentimentality at times. And as Wallfisch wears his heart a bit on his sleeve throughout, I don't know if he gets the full effect of the climax near the end, or of the terribly sad coda. This new recording seems just perfectly judged, and even more convincing in the end.

The fine Canadian pianist Louis Lortie has his turn to shine in two works. Eclogue, for piano and orchestra, is a perfect example of English pastoral music at its best; rhapsodic and stirring, with those great Gainsborough clouds and green fields rolling down into the mist, and short enough at under ten minutes to partake of the special English genius for the miniature.  Every note by Lortie is perfectly placed; this is as English as music can be. There's much more happening in the Grand Fantasia and Toccata, including some virtuoso passages, handled with aplomb by Lortie, but it never coheres into anything close to the quality of the two works we've discussed so far.

I've been listening to a lot of occasional music for orchestra lately, including two recent discs of music for the Leonard Bernstein Centennial that were filled with almost nothing but. I keep hoping to hear something great that began as something minor, planning on referring to the title of a work G. K. Chesterton wrote in 1909, "Tremendous Trifles". I thought Finzi's New Year Music might be just that, because it's undoubtably another great miniature, perhaps even at the same level as the Eclogue. But it turns out that's because Finzi planned it as something special, and carefully re-crafted it over the decades after his first version in 1926. So it's "tremendous", all right, just not a "trifle". Andrew Davis and his marvellous players provide the most sensitive and lovely sound for this piece; it's a luscious treat.

This disc will be released on October 5, 2018.

Supremely characterized musical happenings

In their follow-up to 2014's well-received Vivaldi Premieres CD, Lina Tur Bonet and Musica Alchemica bring us another well-chosen, scrupulously researched and divinely performed program of theatrical music by the great Venetian ginger, Antonio Vivaldi. Once again we have the distinguished Vivaldi scholar Olivier Fourés leading the charge on the musicological front. He provides new musical editions of many of these works, and has dug up earlier and more authentic versions of works already in circulation. The bulk of this music receives premiere recordings here. But as important as this is to the scholarly world, none of it would mean much for us listening at home without someone with the same musical skill and charisma as the prete rosso himself, in these set-pieces of theatrical as well as musical magic. Lina Tur Bonet really delivers: the gorgeous, full sound of her Amati violin from c.1740 grips us in the concertos, and she dials things down a bit for the more intimate sonatas, with still lovely but more subdued sound from an anonymous 17th century violin. In every case she has sensitive, responsive support from the musicians of Musica Alchemica. Forget the canard about all of Vivaldi's huge corpus of music sounding alike; just feel lucky that we have musicians like these to provide us with these supremely characterized musical happenings.

Note that the "Graz" Sonatas included here (numbers 1, 2 & 5) are from the same 2013 recording as the two included on the Vivaldi Premiere disc (numbers 3 & 4).  The concertos are from a 2018 recording, which incidentally sounds great. 

This disc will be released on September 21, 2018.

A memorable mash-up

Galanterie: Viola & Flute Concertos by Graupner, Telemann and FWH Benda
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.
 - Coco Chanel
A musical revolution occurred in about 1720, with the "style galant" replacing the more learned and complicated music in vogue before then. K&K Verlagsanstalt, which specializes in audiophile recordings made in historic churches and palaces, has put together a winning project here, with the venerable Quantz Collegium (established in 1936) performing highly appealing music from the Garden Hall of the Rastatt Favorite Palace in Baden-Württemberg. Recorded at two live concerts, we have here four concertos for viola or flute, or both, by Graupner, Telemann and FWH Benda, all written in the accessible, tuneful new style. Mention should be made of Josef-Stefan Kindler's superb photos in the CD notes, which I at first took for paintings in the Rococo style of Tiepolo. They capture both the spirit of the original music and venue and that of the Quantz Collegium and K&K's Historically Informed reconstructions.

"Every current of fashion or of worldview", says Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, "derives its force from what is forgotten." Three centuries on, the stripping down of J. S. Bach's erudite polyphonic puzzles can seem, according to one's sensibilities or mood, either a vital breath of fresh air or a savage dumbing down for the kind of mindless 18th century twits personified by Hugh Laurie's Prince George in Blackadder's Third Series. Luckily we can still take pleasure in the simple joys of melody and a direct and honest, if sometimes guileless, clarity. This music is well-crafted, but the strongest movements, those in Telemann's Viola Concerto especially, can seem very much self-aware. It won't be long before the streamlining process leads to a new round of mannerist complexities.

Though one won't find the final degree of authentic style from the Quantz Collegium, including the three soloists, flutist Jochen Baier and violists Agata Zieba and Killian Ziegler, there is much to admire in these performances. The admirably spare technology and truly galant way of playing combined with the elaborate costumes and the rococo porcelain excesses of the venue make for a memorable mash-up.

This disc is due to be released on October 5, 2018.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A mentorship bears fruit

Leonard Bernstein: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Suite; Slava!; CBS Music; A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet

Leonard Bernstein: Anniversaries; Fancy Free; Candide Overture; Wonderful Town Overture

These two discs are due to be released on October 5, 2018.

I was just catching my breath after the August 2018 Leonard Bernstein Centennial when two Naxos re-issues, both of them marvellous discs, showed up from Sao Paulo. These are from the Marin Alsop Leonard Bernstein Anniversary box set released by Naxos early in 2018. Alsop, who studied under Bernstein at Tanglewood, conducts her Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) in an exciting and (almost) timely mix of occasional pieces and more substantial works. Naxos provides their usual high production values: vivid sound and interesting and informative documentation.

Thirty years before last month's Centennial bash there was a big celebration at Tanglewood for Bernstein's 70th birthday. The Boston Symphony had commissioned some distinguished composers to write short tributes to Lenny. My favourite is this fun piece by Luciano Berio; it has a cute ending!

These two discs are full of such clever trifles, but there are more substantial works as well. The Candide Overture has become one the Bernstein's most popular works during the Centennial year, and Alsop and her Brazilian players deliver a superb version here. The Fancy Free Suite is full of Broadway moxie and sentimentality, and it translates well here with a very slight samba flair and saudade sadness.

Marin Alsop works with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. Photo: Walter H. Scott, 1988. Boston Symphony Archives.

All of this music, and the entire Alsop Bernstein project, is really a story of the close relationship between a special mentor and a remarkably astute pupil. It's so exciting to see it bear fruit in these beautifully presented recordings of the Maestro's music.

The secret of wonderment

Chopin: Ballades & Nocturnes
"This is about the greatest music there is for the piano. It’s just extraordinary, the colors, the writing, the surprising form of the pieces, the enigma, the diversity of expression."
Leif Ove Andsnes's praise for these seven short pieces, the 4 Ballades and a selection of 3 Nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin, is extraordinary, and from a lesser pianist it might be a warning sign that these often delicate works have been swamped by bloated seriousness on the one hand, or overblown expectations on the other. But extraordinary things come in small packages: the Mona Lisa is, after all, only 30 by 21 inches. The stories to be told in each of Chopin's pieces are truly epic, and if you think an epic has to be 4,000 pages (with many more to come, in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire), don't forget about The Great Gatsby at 180 pages. Chopin's genius is in his economy as well as the scope of his narrative and the nuances within. Economy is, indeed, where Andsnes shines. Not every gesture needs italics, much less an exclamation point; not every dramatic moment needs a bright spotlight. What is needed instead is the "surprise and delight" that André Gide, in his marvellous Notes on Chopin, asked of the Chopin interpreter:
Each modulation in Chopin, never trivial and foreseen, must respect, must preserve that freshness, that emotion which almost fears the surging up of the new, that secret of wonderment to which the adventurous soul exposes itself along paths not blazed in advance, where the landscape reveals itself only gradually.
One of the keys to Leif Ove Andsnes as an artist is his ability to communicate; this happens mainly, of course, with two hands on the keyboard, but you can see from this short video about the 1st Ballade how engaging and insightful he can be. "Suddenly a door opens!"

Here, by the way, is Gide on that same reveal: "... after a few indecisive measures in F where only the tonic and the fifth are given, Chopin unexpectedly sounds a deep B flat which suddenly alters the landscape like the stroke of an enchanter’s wand." Whether through a door or a wand, the secret of wonderment is revealed.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

We must bear witness

Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II
For the dead and the living, we must bear witness. Not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are responsible for what we do with those memories.
 - Elie Wiesel
In the 1940s Soviet ethnomusicologists led by Moisei Beregovsky recorded amazing Yiddish songs from those terrible times, both in Russia and in Nazi-occupied Europe. This vital research was sealed, and for many years it was thought to be lost forever. But librarians at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine discovered the dusty boxes and catalogued them. Bless the librarians! Early in this century musicologist Anna Shternshis turned this invaluable archive into materials usable by today's musicians. This marvellous CD from Six Degree Records is the result.

What's so exciting about this music is how, in the face of such horrors, the lyrics are so often funny and surprisingly modern, while the music is so vital and alive. The arrangements are by Psoy Korolenko, who also provides vocals for many of the tracks, while Sophie Milman, Sergei Erdenko, Sasha Lurje and the young Isaac Rosenberg provide unforgettable interpretations of this sad but hopeful music. The band really swings: it includes violin, piano, guitar, accordion, clarinet and trumpet. This is an outstanding project musically, and an invaluable resource historically.

For more information visit the Six Degrees Records website.

Alert for Torontonians: The Lost Songs of World War II will be presented live with an 11-piece ensemble of elite soloists at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto on Aug, 28 to open the 2018 Ashkenaz Festival.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A glorious upsetting of the balance

Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 414 & 271

I've always loved Karl Barth's interpretation of Mozart's music. He rejected the view of Mozart's music as light and untroubled, always happy, which more or less prevailed until the middle of the twentieth century. "What he translated into music,” he wrote, "was real life in all its discord." This is about more than music criticism, of course; it's a perfect example of Barth's theology of "the shadow-side of Creation". Though Mozart has presented both the light and the darkness, he rejected, according to Barth, a simple even symmetry between the two. "What occurs in Mozart is rather a glorious upsetting of the balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing, in which joy overtakes sorrow without extinguishing it, in which the Yea rings louder than the ever-present Nay." An early and quite perfect expression of the light overwhelming the shadows is the A major Piano Concerto K. 414, written in 1782. I love the two A major concertos - Mozart wrote another, K. 488, in 1786 - more than all the rest. I hear in them Mozart's loudest ringing of the Yea.

In a live recording from the Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa's opera house, pianist Andrea Bacchetti and conductor Fabio Luisi present a most impressive, and fetching, version of K. 414. Luisi's operatic experience - I know him best for his recent recordings of Berg's Wozzeck and Meyerbeer's Margherita D'Anjou - allows him to focus more clearly on the drama underlying Mozart's "glorious upsetting of the balance", which is after all what works like The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte are all about. Andrea Bacchetti is marvellous for his part as the protagonist working with and against the musicians of the Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice, as if all were on-stage in an opera.

I was less pleased with the other concerto on the disc, K. 271 from 1777. It is, of course, a fine work, miles ahead of any keyboard concerto written after Bach and unchallenged until Mozart himself started his amazing run with K. 413-15 five years later. But Bacchetti and Luisi are both oddly tentative with their opening, and the movement never takes off. Everything is reset, though, for the lovely slow movement, and the finale zips along nicely, skirting the banalities that less accomplished musicians fall into in certain of Mozart's rondos. Even with one less accomplished movement this is outstanding Mozart, and a worthwhile purchase

This album will be released on October 5, 2018.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The magnificent enthusiasm of English Gothic music

The Liberation of the Gothic: Florid polyphony by Thomas Ashwell and John Browne

Bjorn Schmelzer brings his speculative musical-historical approach to English music of the late 15th and early 16th century, once again combined with the highest levels of both music and recording technology, and the result is stunning. The fine singers of the Belgian choir Graindelavoix completely won me over to this music, even though I had been immersed in the less ornate but still moving (and more or less contemporary) music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, as sung by Scott Metcalfe's Blue Heron.

One of Schmelzer's starting points is this short video by Paul Binski, Professor of the History of Medieval Art at Cambridge University, who discusses the amazing art and architecture, sadly defaced by iconoclasts during the Reformation, of Ely Cathedral's Lady Chapel.

Schmelzer finds in the splendour of the Lady Chapel and its impetus in Marian theology a parallel to the music of John Browne, who was born in 1480 but lived only until 1525; and Thomas Ashwell, who may have been nearly an exact contemporary, though it's possible he died as early as 1513. The "florid polyphony" of Browne and Ashwell has the same ebullient drive as the double-curved ogee arches of the Lady Chapel, and Schmelzer underlines this exuberance through his animated interpretation, which his expert choir handles with aplomb. This is what Pater meant when he said in The School of Giorgione (1873) that "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music."

Still, there's another level beyond the florid decorations, and John Ruskin touches on it in The Stones of Venice:
There are however, far nobler interests mingling, in the Gothic heart, with the rude love of decorative accumulation: a magnificent enthusiasm, which feels as if it never could do enough to reach the fulness of its ideal ; an unselfishness of sacrifice, which would rather cast fruitless labour before the altar than stand idle in the market; and, finally, a profound sympathy with the fulness and wealth of the material universe, rising out of that Naturalism whose operation we have already endeavoured to define. 
In the end it is the spiritual nature of both Ely Cathedral and the music of Browne and Ashwell, a deep connection to the cult of Mary. Ruskin's "magnificent enthusiasm" is evident in this marvellous disc.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Music for contemplation and/or devotion

The Lost Music of Canterbury: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks

It's great to see this 5-CD compilation of the complete music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, recorded by Scott Metcalfe's amazing Boston-based choir Blue Heron between 2010 and 2017. I cottoned on to this music with the 4th disc in the series in 2015, and that recording of music by previously unheard composers Robert Jones, Nicholas Ludford and Robert Hunt was a Top 10 disc for me that year. The final disc, from 2017, was just as great, and also made the cut for my Top 10. I've been listening carefully to the first three discs to see what I had missed, and I once again loved what I was hearing: near perfection in singing, and an absolute miracle of musicology, since we were so terribly close to missing out on this music altogether. So much credit goes to Nick Sandon, who interpolated the missing tenor part; that shows what a near thing this was! Metcalfe and Blue Heron erase the centuries between the 15th and 16th and the 21st, in highly atmospheric recordings made at the Gothic-style Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill MA. This is music for contemplation and/or devotion; whatever your spiritual leanings, it will surely lift your spirits!

This album will be released on October 5, 2018.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Defying the darkness of the unknown

Schubert: Symphony no. 5; Brahms: Serenade no. 2

In his Book of Friends Hugo von Hofmannsthal says "Joy requires more devotion, more courage than sorrow. Joy enjoins one to submit, precisely so far as to defy the darkness of the unknown." It's this joy that we hear over and over again in John Eliot Gardner's great recordings of Bach. He talks in his great book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven about "the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music," and it's this zest that comes out in this new Schubert/Brahms disc recorded at a concert in The Concertgebouw on November 12, 2016.

It's perhaps easy enough to bring out the joyful side of Schubert's lovely 5th Symphony, which contains more beautiful melodies than some composers produce in a lifetime. Gardiner treats this very much as a classical work, which makes sense considering how much Schubert was in the thrall of Mozart at the time. That both Schubert and Mozart suffered in their lives more than the average composer makes this music even more miraculous; it truly does "defy the darkness of the unknown."

The two Brahms Serenades also come from a dark time, just following the death of Robert Schumann. As much as I love Brahms, I've never really taken to either of these works, but not because of any life circumstances. Rather, they both suffer a bit from being preparatory works for Brahms's symphonies to come. It's too calculated a move, I think, for such slight material. Gardiner gives it his best shot, as do his marvellous musicians, but the music doesn't really take off like the Schubert does, and furthermore it suffers from coming right after such a perfect piece. At the concert at The Concertgebouw the Brahms led off the evening, and the Schubert was the last work, following Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto with Kristian Bezuidenhout. Still, serviceable Brahms and perfect Schubert still make for an entertaining and joyful hour of music.

This disc will be released on August 31, 2018.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

He has borrowed his authority from death

Hugh Levick: Island & Exile; Constellation; Remnants of Symmetry

Hugh Levick's new CD Remnants of Symmetry arrived at a perfect time for me; I was in the middle of Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings' masterful biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Levick's fine suite for piano and string quartet Island & Exile, played beautifully here by Wilhem Latchoumia and the Diotima Quartet, became the soundtrack for the sad tale of the great writer's wanderings, early memories and his eventual death.

Benjamin travelled to Ibiza a number of times, beginning in 1924, since he felt the same attraction to the Mediterranean as Goethe and other Germans had before him. The first movement of Levick's piece, entitled Ibiza, is no sunny idyll, though, but full of foreboding, a presentiment of the fateful events to come. Indeed, the second movement is Ultima Multis, a reference Benjamin makes in his essay The Storyteller to the inscription he saw on a sundial in Ibiza ("the last day for many"). "Death is the sanction for everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death."  The following movement, A Berlin Childhood, makes reference to Benjamin's memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, which he calls a series of "individual expeditions into the depths of memory." This evocative piece takes us back to an earlier world just at the same time as Benjamin realized he would in all probability never be able to return. Levick ends with Exile, and as he tells the story of Benjamin's death at the Spanish border in 1940, fleeing from the Nazis, the music is full of the anger we all feel when we face the many, many stories of innocent people hounded from their homes, from those days until today.

The two other works on this disc are also very fine, full of incident and musically challenging.  Constellation is a song cycle, performed here by Nicholas Isherwood with the Diotima Quartet. Texts are by authors as varied as William Blake and the 2nd century Gnostic writer Saint Thomas, and by Levick himself, I believe, though not credited in the liner booklet. Each of these songs makes a real impression, and stay with one for a long time after listening.

Arthur Koestler once said "Newton's apple & Cezanne's apple are discoveries more closely related than they seem." Science and art have fed off each other increasingly since the twin revolutions of post-Newtonian physics and modernism in the arts. With Remnants of Symmetry, featuring percussionists Daniel Ciampolini and Florent Jodelet and, again, the Diotima Quartet, Levick has set himself the most difficult of tasks: to tell the story of the creation of the universe, inspired, as he says, "by my lay reading" of current astrophysics. This is a subject that's been taken up by other composers in the past: I think of Haydn's The Creation, and before that, Jean-Fery Rebel’s Les Elements, but we have here a sophisticated interpretation of entropy, dark matter and silence, all in the context of the full palette of postmodern chamber music sounds.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Profound music from a teenage prodigy

Martha Argerich: The Successful Beginning: Ravel, Bartok, Chopin, Liszt, Prokoviev, Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart

A new bunch of important historic recordings is being released by Profil's Edition Günter Hänssler on August 19, 2018, including a promising David Barenboim release, which I'll be reviewing soon. But I'm most excited about this 4-CD set of music by a talented teenager from Buenos Aires, Martha Argerich. Argerich shot to worldwide fame when she won the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1965, at age 24. But she was already a star-in-the-making when most of these recordings were made in 1960 and 1961, having won both the Geneva International Music Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition in 1957, at 16 years of age.

As a pupil of Friedrich Gulda - Argerich went to Vienna in 1955 to study with him - one would expect something special from her Mozart, but the performances of two great middle-period sonatas are quite astounding. The first movement of the A minor sonata K. 310 begins briskly, but Argerich soon draws back a curtain to show the composer working out dramatic themes that will soon blossom into The Abduction from the Seraglio and then his other great stage works. Argerich's control here is exemplary; she doesn't tip her hand too early, but she's ready to turn up the temperature when required. And the final section of the slow movement is played with a delicacy that rivals her teacher. The B-flat major sonata K. 333 has the same calm surfaces with hidden depths, but at a higher pitch. The slow movement of this work is a miracle: like a Watteau painting it seems at first to be something of exquisite prettiness, but it is soon exposed as something so much greater: the most perfect and awesome beauty.

Of the two concertos included, it's again the Mozart that impresses, and luckily Argerich here has the stronger support of the two, from the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester under Peter Maag, a favourite conductor of mine who showed up a lot on disc in those days. This is also from 1960, so Argerich is still a teenager, but she sparkles throughout, and makes this great concerto about so much more than glittering runs and soft-focus pastoral scenes from Elvira Madigan.

Argerich has the huge advantage of being teamed up with the great Ruggiero Ricci, the Centennial of whose birth we've celebrated this month. Ricci was in his prime when these Bartok, Sarasate and Beethoven works were recorded (which made him 41 or 42, if my calculations are correct). While the violinist has the spotlight on himself in the Sarasate, the other two works are more balanced, and Argerich definitely doesn't let down her partner. This is the beginning of a great career as a chamber music player, to go along with an equally great one as a soloist.

Naturally the last disc in the set is largely Chopin, and everything we've heard from her Chopin in later years is present in embryo at least. A 1955 Buenos Aires Etude has dreadful sound - the only really bad sonics on the disc - but even there you can hear Argerich's power and control and delicacy. What a great opportunity to be in at the beginning of this marvellous pianist's Odyssey!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Scotty, beam us up

Beethoven: Symphony no. 3; Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales

Giuseppe Sinopoli, the great Venetian conductor, has a reputation for cool and aloof interpretations, but I'm always as aware of his passionate undercurrents as I am of the cerebral arguments with which he builds his interpretations.  Back in 2015 I noted the dramatic tension in his Schubert Unfinished Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra, contrasting it with a slightly underpowered version from Philippe Jordan. Sinopoli's white-hot recording of Schumann's 2nd Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic (one of my all-time favourite discs) is another example. It was his experience in the opera pit, I believe, that provides the dynamic force of many of his orchestral recordings, and we hear it again in this release of a recording from Tel Aviv on October 28, 1993. There's plenty of drama in Beethoven's Eroica, but few recordings are as dramatically, indeed theatrically, shaped and shaded as this performance with the high-performing musicians of the Israel Philharmonic. Though Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales might seem at first glance to be more about music (in this case, Schubert's waltzes) than anything dramatic or theatrical, or indeed anything extra-musical at all. But after the composer orchestrated his original piano work, it was soon adapted as a ballet, Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs, with a plot taken from Dumas's La Dame aux Camélias. As one of the greatest interpreter's of Verdi's La Traviata, Giuseppe Sinopoli certainly knows his way around that story!

Sinopoli's day job may have been at the podium, but he had an astonishing range of interests and expertise, from medicine and criminology to anthropology and art collecting. There's a popular misconception that someone with a sophisticated intellectual life must be cold and analytical. It's like the common misinterpretation of the character of Spock in Star Trek's many iterations as exclusively cerebral. The half-Vulcan and half-human Spock is Gene Roddenbury's stand-in for all of the thoughtful people who pay attention to, and believe passionately in, the arts and culture and philosophy. To hold these not-at-all contradictory sides of our nature in balance is a worthy goal for us all, and the recordings of Giuseppe Sinopoli are powerful models.

This disc will be released in North America on September 7, 2018.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Soulful and jaunty light music of high calibre

Villa-Lobos: Harmonica Concerto, Works for Harmonica & Orchestra

It's great to see this re-release on its way from Naxos, a label which has done such stellar service for Villa-Lobos over the years. This fine recording from Robert Bonfiglio that was originally released on RCA Red Seal back in 1989 will be re-released in a nice new package on September 14, 2018. It comes with a really useful liner-note essay by Bonfiglio, and as usual with historic re-issues from Naxos, it sounds great.

The Harmonica Concerto is one of Villa-Lobos's many late commissioned works. He wrote it for John Sebastian, the celebrated harmonica virtuoso (and father of the now more-famous John Sebastian, leader of The Lovin' Spoonful) in 1955. It's a pleasant work, tuneful as most late Villa-Lobos is. It's first theme is awfully close to Wally Stott's theme music for BBC's radio programme Hancock's Half Hour, but not to worry, since Villa-Lobos will always have another tune up his sleeve. Bonfiglio provides some virtuoso fireworks, especially in the third movement cadenza, but for most of the piece he's called on to provide soulful sounds, and he does, with emotion, charm and style. He has superb accompaniment from Gerard Schwarz and his New York Chamber Symphony (originally the Y Chamber Symphony, once resident at the 92 Street Y, which ran under Schwarz's leadership from 1977 to 2002).

As fine a work as the Harmonica Concerto is, the final two-thirds of the disc is perhaps even more interesting. It's comprised of arrangements (some by Bonfiglio and some anonymous) of Villa-Lobos songs for harmonica and orchestra. Of course there's a harmonica-and-cellos arrangement of the Aria to Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 - how could there not be? You can never go wrong when arranging this evergreen piece as long as you have a suitably melodic instrument, and you don't meddle too much with the 8 cello parts. Schwarz's 8 cellists sound lovely here, as does Bonfiglio. The famous melody really does fit well with a harmonica. Bonfiglio includes pieces that Villa-Lobos cannibalized from his own catalogue when he put together music for his marvellous musical Magdalena in 1948. One of my favourite works here is the Samba classico that Villa-Lobos wrote in 1950 for voice and orchestra. By the way, this work was premiered by Villa-Lobos at the CBC in Montreal when the composer visited in 1958. This is soulful or jaunty light music of very high caliber. How nice to see this CD in the current catalogue once again!

This post is also at the Villa-Lobos Magazine blog.

Transcendence, transfiguration & redemption

The new Pentatone album of music from Vienna by Alisa Weilerstein, her first as Artistic Partner of the Trondheim Soloists, comes from a place of profoundly mixed feelings:
Schoenberg fled Vienna in 1934, four years before my grandparents escaped. So, as a young artist, nowhere in my imagination was the possibility of duality and contradiction made more manifest than in the history of that city. A culture that gave birth to some of the greatest achievements in the artform that I had chosen to pursue could, in the same breath, harbor sentiments and sanction behavior antithetical to music’s transcendent promise. 
This ambivalence is a common theme when writing about Vienna since the 1930s, by Jewish writers, or indeed anyone who has been paying attention to the often sordid political and social life of this great intellectual centre, once an Imperial capital.  In "Thomas Bernhard, Karl Kraus, and Other Vienna-Hating Viennese", a fascinating article in the Paris Review, Matt Levin counts down a list of many great thinkers and artists - Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, and more - and concludes, " some way, they all seemed to despise the city in at least equal measure to their affection."

For the last twelve years of his life Joseph Haydn lived in Gumpendorf, then a village on the outskirts of Vienna. After his many years away from the mainstream at Esterházy, he really wanted to be closer to the centre of the musical world, and that meant, in turn, Paris, London and Vienna. Alisa Weilerstein has a chance here to show off her considerable chops as a cellist in the two cello concertos that are undeniably by Haydn. But it's also Weilerstein as a conductor who shapes this music in the context of her thought-provoking program (a program that's beautifully laid out in a superb, long liner-notes essay by Mark Berry). We have here a picture of 18th century Vienna, one of civilized life before multiple revolutions brought down the power structures that had built the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But this is more than the usual nostalgic sentimental kitsch so common in Vienna, since Weilerstein brings out both Haydn's earthy humour and the folkloric musical roots of his music. Weilerstein and the players of the Trondheim Soloists have already developed a superb partnership in this repertoire, which also bodes well for future projects.

There's a huge gap between Haydn's Vienna and Arnold Schoenberg's Vienna, but in our post-modern world even the Second Vienna School can take on the same kind of nostalgic sheen that drapes pre-WWI society, of a different sort, certainly, but just as sentimental in its own way.  Vienna has been called "an essential cockpit of modernism", but that revolution, which once seemed so close to our time, begins to recede into distant memories as we move into our new century.  In his 1943 transcription of the 1899 original Schoenberg loses chamber music textures but gains in emotional intensity, assuming a very good performance, which we certainly get here. I always thought the famous Karajan recording from 1974 was way over the top, but this definitely isn't. Though it also packs an emotional punch, Weilerstein's version is responsible in the way that Karajan's version wasn't, clear-eyed about the beauty of the music but also the horrors into which Vienna would descend.

What a thoughtful and impressively musical disc this is!

This recording will be released on August 24, 2018.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Into my sad heart

Linda Leonardo: Eterno Fado

I was excited when I saw this ARC Music album of music by the superb Fado singer Linda Leonardo, entitled Eterno Fado, which is due to be released on July 27, 2018. Alas, it's a re-issue of her great 2007 release, which was called The Mystery of Fado, albeit one with fine production values. A beautifully designed liner booklet includes the lyrics of each song, with English translations, and as a bonus, some poems by Leonardo, again with translations. As well, the booklet includes complete information about the musicians supporting Leonardo, an important reason for the very high quality of this album. Though the soul of Fado is in the expressive, emotional voice part, it's set off and provided with further depth by the accompanying Guitara Portuguesa and Viola (classical guitar), and occasionally other strings and piano. The group supporting Leonardo for most of the songs in this session are Diogo Clemente, guitar, José Manuel Neto, Portuguese guitar, and Marino de Freitas, bass. The CD was recorded at the famous Pé de Vento Studio in Foros de Salvaterra, where so many great Fado albums were recreated.

Nearly every song here is a classic, full of saudade in the lyrics, but with an unmistakably upbeat rhythm keeping outright depression at bay. A standout is the 12th track, Chamar fado á solidão, with music by bassist Marino de Freitas and lyrics by Tiago Torres da Silva.
But I wouldn’t have wanted to sing,
Without having brought Fado
Into my sad heart.
Though I would have preferred a brand-new Linda Leonardo release, I can whole-heartedly recommend this marvellous CD, and every one of the 14 songs included in it.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Something in the water

Leonard Bernstein Broadway to Hollywood: Candide Overture, On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite, Fancy Free Ballet, West Side Story Symphonic Dances, Two Dance Episodes from On the Town

The idea that an orchestra has a home-town composer "in their blood", and are the best, most authentic interpreters of his or her music probably doesn't always, or even usually, hold up to close scrutiny. Aside from sheer familiarity, and with a nod to local traditions handed down from orchestral player to player over the years, today's high musical standards and player mobility has resulted in a much more globalised and homogenised classical music scene. Even in the past we heard great Villa-Lobos from Paris, great Shostakovich from New York, and great everything from Cleveland. But what about the scores of Leonard Bernstein originating on Broadway and in Hollywood, both of which have their own traditions? This 1993 concert from the Hannover Philharmonic under the direction of the Scottish conductor Iain Sutherland is a powerful example of getting pretty much everything right, every nuance and subtle rhythm, in a completely idiomatic, authentic performance that serves Leonard Bernstein's fabulous music so well.

This isn't as surprising as it seems when you pull some threads and see the connections. Bernstein himself has international roots, with European teachers at Harvard and Curtis, and a thorough grounding through his mentors in Parisian modernism. Broadway's musical traditions might seem 100% New York, but of course there's always been a special connection through London's West End theatres to the great heritage of English light music. Similarly, Hollywood's direct pipeline to central European music through such composers as Steiner, Korngold and Herrmann adds another loop. Bernstein is an heir to all of these traditions, as is Iain Sutherland, and the very fine players of the Hannover Philharmonic play the hell out of all this music. One of the highlights is the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront. I've always thought that after Elia Kazaan's direction, Budd Schulberg's story and Marlon Brando's performance, it was Bernstein's music that helped put this film over the top into greatness. The band has a lot of fun with the Fancy Free suite, showing great range, from small jazz combo through big band to complete orchestra, all of which swing.

Somm does its usual fine job with remastering, documentation and presentation, though they missed out on the credit for the cover photograph. It's by Al Ravenna of the New York World Telegram & Sun, from 1955, in the Library of Congress's collection.

This disc will be released on August 17, 2018.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The precision of ideas

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets

I've been keeping an ear on Audite's complete Beethoven String Quartets series with the Quartetto di Cremona as they've been released since the recordings began in 2012, though I missed a few along the way. Now with this release of the complete quartets on 8 CDs I can take a long close look at the well-received series from this fine group, who hail from the city of the great stringed instrument-makers.

These are elegant, controlled performances, though without the final burnished sheen of the Amadeus or Alban Berg Quartets. "Without minute neatness of execution," William Blake once said, "the sublime cannot exist! Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas." The "final minute neatness" is not here, or at least not all the time, though that neatness would in an case wear a bit thin through a full nine hours of music. The string quartets of Beethoven go on a meandering voyage through his own messy life, from his early days nearly to his death. This music, which began in the candle-lit salons of the Ancien Régime, emerges in the worlds of fashion and celebrity that made him a household name throughout Europe, and comes to an end in the squalor, regret and frustration of his final years. It's all too real to have the same Platonic existence of the music of Bach, though that doesn't make it any less grand, or sublime, in the Blakean sense. The Cremona musicians connect with this real-life Beethoven, his folk-song references, musical jokes and sentimental tags. And yet they're still able to bring a nearly full account of the soaring genius of the late quartets. Consider the Quartetto di Cremona a reliable guide to one of the greatest of all musical journeys.

A sketch for Beethoven's op. 131 String Quartet, from 1826

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Fully Romantic Bruch without sentimentaliy

Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Violin Concerto no. 1

Joshua Bell was only eleven years old when he learned his first major concerto, the Bruch Violin Concerto no. 1, and only 21 when his premiere recording with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner (Bruch no. 1 plus the Mendelssohn) was released in 1988 to great acclaim. Thirty years later Marriner is gone, but Bell, who took over as Music Director of ASMF in 2011, is back playing Bruch with his band. This time he's included the Scottish Fantasy, my favourite Bruch piece (and my Mom's). While the new recording of the Concerto follows Sir Neville's tempi in the outer movements, Bell is brisker with the middle Adagio, though there's no lack of sentiment in the new recording. More importantly, Bell eschews any sentimentality in both Concerto and Fantasy, keeping to the classical bones of these great works while tending to the Romantic flesh. This is a highly recommended release.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Greatness in musical partnership

Mravinsky Edition, volume 3: works by Tchaikovsky, Bach, Weber, Wagner, Scriabin, Kalinnikov, Bruckner, Shostakovich

I've come to historic recordings fairly late, but I've had such good luck with recent releases that I'm beginning to search them out. This 6 CD set, the 3rd volume in Profil's Mravinsky Edition, is a superb example of well-documented remastered recordings of special significance. It's easy enough to filter out sonic shortcomings when the performances are so vital. Mravinsky had a lifelong relationship with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, and it's fascinating to hear the development of their musical partnership from 1938 to 1961. The obvious highlights in this package are the Tchaikovsky Symphonies #4 and (especially) #5 and a blistering performance of the Shostakovich 8th Symphony. But I was completely bowled over by Mravinsky's take on Bruckner's 8th Symphony, which I've been listening to a lot lately. In my review of Mariss Jansson's recent recording, I talked about the balance in Bruckner 8 between what Vincent Van Gogh referred to as "Tranquility of Touch" and "Intensity of Thought". It's no surprise that Mravinsky comes down on the intense side. Shostakovich biographer David Fanning describes just this intensity:
The Leningrad Philharmonic play like a wild stallion, only just held in check by the willpower of its master. Every smallest movement is placed with fierce pride; at any moment it may break into such a frenzied gallop that you hardly know whether to feel exhilarated or terrified.
An outstanding production all around.

The Mravinsky Edition covers feature a monochrome detail of his portrait by Lev Russov. Here it is in colour:

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Intensity and tranquility in music of genius

Berio: Sinfonia; Boulez: Notations I-IV; Ravel: La Valse

The Seattle Symphony under the direction of Ludovic Morlot perform Berio's Sinfonia, Boulez's Notations I-IV and Ravel's La Valse on this new disc from Seattle Symphony Media.  Though built on a complex maze of literary and musical allusions elaborately folded many times over upon themselves, it's the expressive power and intensity that strikes one about Luciano Berio's Sinfonia. This is especially true of the 2nd movement, O King, which makes reference to the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Sinfonia, written for the 125th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1968, is a work for 8 voices and orchestra, and it was the great Swingle Singers who performed the work at its premiere on October 10, 1968, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. The raw emotion that is evident in the great Columbia Masterworks recording is perhaps somewhat muted in this new recording, made fifty years later, but I think the superb singing, whispering and murmuring of Roomful of Teeth, Morlot's conception of the work, and the expert playing of the Seattle Symphony musicians maybe result in an even more complex and convincing performance. Then there's the added bonus of the 5th movement, which Berio added to the work in 1969, after the New York recording was already in the can.

In a discussion between John Cage and the late art critic & scholar Irving Sandler, in his fabulous memoir A Sweeper-Up After Artists, Cage expressed a preference for Mark Tobey's White Writing paintings over the works of Jackson Pollock. "We would meet," Cage said, "and he always complained that I didn't like his work enough, and I didn't." Sandler said "But what about the intensity, the excitement?" and Cage replied:
Oh, none of these aspects interested me. They're precisely the things about abstract expressionism which didn't interest me. I wanted to change my way of seeing, not my way of feeling. I'm perfectly happy about my feelings. I want to bring them, if anything, to some kind of tranquility. I don't want to disturb my feelings, and above all, I don't want somebody else to disturb my feelings. I don't spend my life being pushed around by a bunch of artists.
What is fascinating about the programme Ludovic Morlot has chosen on this disc is the balance between intensity and tranquility, which coincidentally was the focus of my recent review of Mariss Jansson's Bruckner 8th Symphony from Munich. This is more than just a contrast between hot Berio and cool Boulez, though that's the obvious line to be drawn here between two vitally important works that in some way exemplify two major thrusts of 20th Century music. There are also ebbs and flows of expression in both of the Sinfonia and Notations. Berio added a fifth movement to make the "narrative substance" of Sinfonia more explicit. It's this story-telling device of adding a coda to bring better balance to the overall story which speaks to these expressive contrasts even within this work.

Ludovic Morlot's own coda, as he tells a story in this programme, is Maurice Ravel's La Valse, a sad and savage reworking of the Viennese waltz, an avatar for the old world forever lost on the other side of the chasm of World War I. After two great works of immense complexity and beauty this is a superb end to a programme that explores and explains the beauty and horror of the 20th Century.

Mark Tobey, White Writing, 1959

Jackson Pollock, White Light, 1954, MOMA, New York

This disc will be released on July 20, 2018.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

To be precise

"Charles is very keen on painting," said Sebastian.
I noticed the hint of deep boredom which I knew so well in my own father.
"Yes? Any particular Venetian painter?"
"Bellini," I answered rather wildly.
"Yes? Which?"
"I'm afraid I didn't know there were two of them."
"Three to be precise."
I thought of this great exchange between Charles Ryder and Lord Marchmain from Brideshead Revisited when I began to listen to these wonderful viola concertos from a member (but which?) of the wonderful 18th century Benda family of composers. Those of us who are just beginning to untangle the family tree full of Heinrichs and Franzes (aka Frantiseks) and Georgs aren't the only ones in difficulty. A Viola Concerto in F major attributed to Jiří Antonín (aka Georg) Benda has been recorded a number of times (including a Naxos CD from 1994 conducted by Christian Benda, a modern member of the famous family), but it shows up here attributed to Georg's nephew Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich, along with two additional concertos in E flat major. Violist Jean-Eric Soucy did the hard scholarly work, involving musical analysis as well as musicological research (watermarks and score hand-writing, and the like) to gather these three pieces under the FWH Benda brand. I haven't the expertise, or indeed the inclination, to challenge or bolster these attributions. Suffice it to say that these are beautifully played by Soucy, and that the rather thin repertoire for viola and orchestra badly needs such well-crafted works from whichever Benda gets the credit for all three concertos, but especially that famous one in F major.

It's so great to see Bernard Labadie back at the helm of an orchestra in a new recording. The founder and long-time conductor of Quebec's Les Violons du Roy had a terrible medical emergency which very nearly cost him his life, but he seems completely back to form here, with the very fine orchestra of SWR Baden-Baden und Freiburg performing stylishly and with aplomb under his baton. He'll be beginning his new gig as Principal Conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in the fall of 2018, and we wish him the very best in the many years ahead.

This disc will be released on July 6, 2018.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A fortunate collaboration in a great Country House

Georg Friedrich Handel: Acis and Galatea (1718 version)

Early in the 18th century a group of writers came together in one of London's newly-popular coffee-houses, and began a long satirical collaboration that would eventually result in interesting products in the literary, political and, as we shall see, the musical fields. The members of the Scriblerus Club, who included such big names as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay, pitched ideas and jokes to each other like a roomful of sitcom writers, with their creation Martinus Scriblerus an early version of Alan Brady or Tracy Jordan. As I learned from a fascinating episode of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time, the death of Queen Anne in 1814 and the fall from power of the Tory Ministers in 1815 scattered the Scriblerus Club members. But they would soon be back.

Meanwhile, Georg Frederic Handel's fortunes as a composer showed peaks and valleys after he settled permanently in Britain in 1712, though always trending more or less up. In 1710 he had been named Kappelmeister to the Elector of Hanover, who became King George I on the death of Queen Anne. A falling-out with the new Sovereign was bad, but things looked much better when he became the fashionable operatic composer in London. Even better, in 1717 his Water Music for George I's barge was a big hit, but fashions turn quickly, and he all at once found himself without a hit in London's operatic world. So he turned from the fickleness of both city and court to a lavish country house that included its own orchestra and singers: James Brydges' (later Duke of Chandos') Cannons, built at a cost of £200,000, worth tens of millions today. There Handel fell in with a group of Scriblerians, themselves looking for a more congenial home after their political/artistic exiles.

The librettists were John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes; the subject was one that Handel had used for an earlier Neapolitan opera, Acis and Galatea, from the story told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Everything now had an English slant; the project was more like an English masque than an Italian opera. The songs - to very cleverly crafted English words - were sung by English singers. And the Englishness continues to this recording, recorded, by mainly British musicians, I'm sure, at the Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb in November of 2017. And all for Chaconne, the Early Music marque of Chandos, the label named for the Duke who built Cannons and help bring about some of Handel's greatest music. Acis and Galatea was apparently Handel's most popular work during his lifetime. The clever libretto must surely have played a part here, though Handel's tunes are often sublime, his rhythms infectious, his sad arias heart-breaking and his happy ones uplifting. The opera has most effective advocates here: the two leads, soprano Lucy Crowe as Galatea, and tenor Allan Clayton as Acis, are outstanding, as is the choir. The musicians of the Early Opera Company, led by Christian Curnyn, have a special quality about their playing that one might almost call rustic. It looks back to the masques of Henry Purcell, and ahead to a future collaboration of John Gay with another German composer who settled in England, Johann Christoph Pepusch, The Beggar's Opera from 1728. I had a great deal of fun researching this review - it's what retired librarians do - but even more listening to this music!

This disc will be released on June 1, 2018. Here's the official trailer: