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.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Appealing music from Brazil's modernist tradition

Images of Brazil: music for violin & piano by Guerra-Peixe, Guarnieri, Villa-Lobos, Aguiar, Freire and Villani-Cortes

We have here one of only a few major Heitor Villa-Lobos works that are still without a modern, easy to buy recording: O Martírio dos Insetos, written in 1917/1925 for violin and orchestra. It's true that this Naxos disc, due to be released on December 7, 2018, includes not the full violin and orchestra version, but an arrangement for violin and piano by Ricardo Averbach. But it's so well played by violinist Francesca Anderegg and pianist Erika Ribeiro, and it's such a marvellous piece, that I'd feel like a Grinch for complaining. The work is in Villa-Lobos's full-on modernist style, with the added bonus of Villa's gift for musically communicating his detailed knowledge of the natural world.

Though the rest of this program comes after Villa-Lobos's time, most is in Villa's particularly home-grown modernist style, a blend of advanced compositional and instrumental technique; the folklore of African and Brazilian Indian traditions; and the folk music (and salon music) of Europe, especially from the Iberian peninsula. A good example is the 4th Sonata for Violin & Piano by a leading composer of the generation following Villa-Lobos, Camargo Guarnieri. It's an energetic and passionate work which slides quite naturally into the vacant slot left with Villa's death in 1959. Much of the rest of the program is lighter, more melodic and romantic, and less erudite, but it's all very appealing, and beautifully played by Anderegg and Ribeiro. Highly recommended.

This disc will be released on December 7, 2018.

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Authenticity for Christmas

A Vaughan Williams Christmas: original carols and traditional carols arranged by Vaughan Williams

The publication in 1928 of The Oxford Book of Carols was a landmark in the development of the sacred Christmas music we know and love today. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw were the musical editors for the project, and gathered many Christmas songs from across Britain, some of which had gone underground during the Puritan crackdown on Christmas. Vaughan Williams made the arrangements, some simple and some more complex, but all finely judged to sound beautiful as well as authentic when sung by choirs in cathedrals and small churches across the country. He also composed four new carols for the collection, including the touching Blake’s Cradle Song (Sweet dreams form a shade O’er my lovely infant’s head), based on a poem from William Blake's Songs of Innocence.

This is a marvellous disc, with singing of distinction from the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, an excellent choir from a really special place, directed by William Vann. Hugh Rowlands provides tasteful organ accompaniment. Bring a touch of authenticity to your Christmas this year!

As I mentioned, the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a special place; it was designed by Christopher Wren, and sits on a beautiful site next to the Thames. But this recording was made in North London: at St. Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead. The marvellous painting featured on the cover of the disc is from Walter Starmer's ceiling at St. Jude’s Church, painted between 1909 and 1935.

St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb. Photo: John Salmon

Music of complexity & gravitas from the 20th and 21st century

Saariaho x Koh: Tocar, Cloud Trio, Light & Matter, Aure, Graal Théâtre

Kaija Saariaho's violin concerto Graal Théâtre, written in 1994 for Gidon Kremer, is one of the great works of the late 20th century, and a fine way to finish a varied program of music otherwise from the 21st century. Violinist Jennifer Koh stars in this new Cedille disc, with superb support from the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble under the direction of Conner Gray Covington.

Graal Théâtre is based on a book of Arthurian legends by Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud. Saariaho relates how this book inspired her, both in its balance between the personal experience of creation by the artist and the theatricality of performance, and in the modern confrontation of rich source material: for Delay and Roubaud the stories of Guenivere and Galahad, and for Saariaho the great violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. It's the connections to musical tradition and to the theatrical experience that matter here; beyond the positioning implied in the title there is no other connection with Arthurian legend, no musical program. As Roubaud himself said about poetry, "It says what it says by saying it."

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822, Tate Gallery
John Constable's amazing series of oil sketches of clouds is an attempt to capture en plaine air hugely complex and ever-changing meteorological effects in two dimensions. It must have taken manic energy to put oil paint on a fairly large (19" x 23") board at this level of detail in just an hour (on the back of the painting Constable noted "11 a.m." and "noon" as his starting and stopping times). In her Cloud Trio (2009) for violin, viola and cello, Kaija Saariaho also encountered clouds herself, up close in the French alps, as set out in Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti's superb liner essay (reproduced at her website here):
"When you are high in the mountains, one often sees many different layers of clouds, having all different forms, speeds and textures. They are all different, and yet we all know that they all are clouds. These notions turned into musical ideas in this trio."
With an atmospheric scientist in the family, and living in Canada's most perfect climate, we take our meteorological arts very seriously. Recently a cold front came through, and it was an amazing experience to watch the clouds hurry by from our balcony, while listening to this music. There's a fabulous feeling of atmosphere in Cloud Trio, and the same dimensional shifts one experiences when one looks at Constable's studies. Time passes, and stops; volumes form and dissipate. Three fine musicians communicate form, speed and texture, with a hint of the non-linear world underlying all weather systems. It was the meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz, after all, who developed chaos theory. I can, however, state definitively that this is a stunning performance.

The rest of the program includes works of similar complexity and gravitas. Saariaho's interpretation of the natural world is continued in Light and Matter, from 2014, while she explores human connections in Tocar (2010). The moving Aure (2011) is a tribute to Henri Dutilleux on his 95th birthday, and shares with Dutilleux's Mémoire des ombres the same motto by Anne Frank: "Why us, why the star?"

Saariaho's music nearly always seems to combine great power with delicacy. Koh shines in both; her touch is assured and passionate when required, with a gorgeous full sound but also the most tender fragility. This release leaves one in awe of the artistry of a great composer, a star soloist (and many other fine musicians), and of the natural wonders of our world.

This disc will be released on November 9, 2018.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Singing about the dark times

Pater Peccavi: Music of Lamentation from Renaissance Portugal; music by Brito, Cardoso, Lobo, Magalhães, Morago
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times. 
- Bertold Brecht, Motto to the 'Svendborg Poems'
The sensuous, fiercely sad music of 16th and 17th century Portugal can be so intensely emotional that the centuries between slip away, and one responds as if to a death in the family or some local tragedy. As Rory McCleery documents in his fine liner essay to his superb new disc with The Marian Consort, at least some of these musical laments are more than personal declarations of grief or devotional works, but also political statements, and even underground expressions of activism against the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs in Portugal. So underlying the bitterness of the lamentations is a strongly burning hope, a hope, indeed for eventual salvation, but also for the restoration of a Portuguese monarch, which indeed happened with the accession of John (João) IV in December 1640.

Duarte Lobo's Missa Veni Domine is almost certainly a political as well as a devotional and artistic statement. Its text asks God to return without delay in order to "ease the wrong done to your people, and call back to their land those who have been dispersed. Stir up your power, O Lord, and come that you might save us."

Humans will always look to art for hope, from Lisbon in 1640 to Brecht in exile in 1939, to the many great artists working in the shadow of the worldwide fascist redux of today. This release is a profound example of how political action can be mobilized and supported by art.

This album will be released on November 2, 2018.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Dramatic, vital symphonies from a Czech master

Leopold Kozeluch: Symphonies, vol. 2

According to the fine essay by Allan Badley included in the liner notes of this new Naxos release, Leopold Kozeluch (1747–1818) left 16 surviving symphonies and two symphonies concertantes, so we're probably half-way through this series of discs from the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Stilec. I very much enjoyed the first release in the series, back in early 2017, but the question is, will we bump up against the dreaded Law of Diminishing Returns?

On the evidence of this new album, I'm pleased to say that Kozeluch remains the same charming, inventive, solidly musical and tasteful (if I can use one of Mozart's favourite words) composer I judged him back then. The Bohemian composer comes up with a fabulous opening for his F major Symphony, cleverly chosen by Marek Stilec to go first in this program. This is dramatic and vital music that comes awfully close to the orchestral masterworks of Haydn and Mozart. Not every movement is at this level, and I thought at first that Kozeluch was running out of steam, and inspiration, in each symphony, but then I heard the marvellous Menuetto from the G major Symphony, which somehow perfectly represents in musical form an entire world that's conjured up by Ievgenii Tryfonov's photograph of the baroque Augustinian Wing of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, on the front cover of the CD. Bring on more Kozeluch Symphonies, Naxos, and don't forget the Symphonies Concertantes!

Here's a nice bit of the opening movement of the G major Symphony in a Naxos video on YouTube:

This disc will be released on December 7, 2018.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the path to the symphony

Christoph Graupner: Ouverture Suite in A minor, Concerto for two oboes, Concerto for two trumpets, Ouverture Suite in G minor

L'arpa festante and conductor & harpsichordist Rien Voskuilen present here an interesting program of music by Christoph Graupner, a near contemporary of Bach and Handel and a close colleague of Telemann. In works called Concertos and Ouverture Suites, modelled after the Corellian concerto and the Lullyan suite, we see Graupner bending and remolding the music into different forms in a kind of musical laboratory. The Ouvertures take on concertante textures, while the Concertos sometimes use suite-like dance movements. Galante touches alternate with more archaic, erudite, contrapuntal passages; the keynote is change and transition. In the end one can see an early movement towards a a real classical style, with true symphonic touches on the horizon. The musicians of this venerable German ensemble play with taste and authenticity, and prove to be excellent advocates for the music of a composer who is beginning to take his rightful place alongside the better-known Telemann. Highly recommended.

In memoriam; In space

Wolfgang Rihm: Lichtzwang (In memoriam Paul Celan), Dritte Musik, Gedicht des Malers

do not send out,
transgrounded by the void,
free of all
fine-fugued, according to
Writ’s pre-Script,
not overtakable,
I take you in,
instead of any
 - The final poem from Paul Celan's Lichtzwang ("Light-duress"), in Paul Joriss's translation, published in 1970
Wolfgang Rihm's Lichtzwang, written during the period 1975-76, is a memorial to the great poet Paul Celan, who drowned himself in the Seine in Paris on April 20, 1970. It's one of the great elegaic works for violin and orchestra, in the same class as Alban Berg's Violin Concerto of 1935, written "To the memory of an angel", Alma and Walter Gropius's daughter Manon, who died of polio at 18. It's encouraging to see a new, and extremely fine, recording of this work, by the young violinist Tanwa Yang, and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Christoph-Mathias Mueller, an indication perhaps that this work is entering the core repertory as the Berg has. I know the most recent recording, also from SWRmusic, on a 2008 Hanssler Classic disc with Janos Yegnesy and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg under Sylvain Cambreling. Both recordings are sterling.

This really is a most amazing piece, which begins with an angry clash of percussion, but spends most of its time in a yearning, unsettled space that sounds almost neo-Romantic at times. The violin plays mainly in a high register, while the orchestra attempts to pull it down, almost like the cold current of the Seine. One of the defining characteristics of the work is its use of silence; the action stops cold more than a few times, with complete silence before a reboot, almost like black-outs in the theatre. The final silence is shattering. Yang and Mueller have the measure of this music; I found it a profoundly moving performance.

Rihm's Dritte Musik, his third violin concerto, from 1993, also has its contemplative moments, but overall it has a wider range of emotions, and features the instruments of a very large orchestra as much as the solo instrument. Rihm's most recent violin concerto, from 2014, is his Gedicht des Malers (Poem of the Painter).  The painter is Max Beckmann, an important figure in Rihm's music; his earlier works include Versuchung (Hommage à Max Beckmann), from 2008-09, and Der Maler träumt, from the same period, set to Beckmann’s On my Painting. "Music", wrote Rihm, "is indeed maybe painting or architecture, in time, depending on one’s viewpoint. For me rather painting, but certainly in space, not restricted to one and the same surface." In Beckmann's 1921 painting Self Portrait as Clown, the painter holds a violin bow as a kind of analogue for the painter's brush, and it's this conceit that Rihm expounds on in this piece. It's all rather fanciful, but though this is a stereo rather than a surround-sound recording, I can easily imagine this performance taking place in a three-dimensional space, as Rihm says: "in space". What a wonderful album!

Max Beckmann, Self-portrait as a clown, 1921, Von-der-Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal

Monday, October 22, 2018

Complex music from a child-like world

Villa-Lobos: Guia Prático, Petizada, Brinquedo de Roda, Historias da Carochinha

In the early 1930s Heitor Villa-Lobos published his collection of 137 children's songs from around Brazil, entitled Guia Prático (Practical Guide). This was an educational project he undertook as Director of SEMA (the national Superintendency of Artistic and Musical Education).

This is only the fourth recording of the complete Guia Prático. The first, by Villa's friend Anna Stella Schic, released in 1976, has the merit of authenticity, if not the same qualities of pianism or recording technology of later releases. Clara Sverner had a fine complete Guia Prático in 2007, on the Biscoito label in Brazil, which might be hard to find on disc, but it's available for download and streaming. The gold standard for all of Villa-Lobos's piano music, though, is Sonia Rubinsky's complete set, released in the first decade of the 2000s and now available in an affordable Naxos box set. Her Guia Prático is outstanding in its sensitivity to the childlike nuances of the music, without any loss of virtuosity in these often very difficult works.

This really is a tightrope walk: playing through works of significant technical and musical complexity without losing the link to child-like innocence and wonder. Villa-Lobos had been down this path before, with his two sets (a third was lost) of A Prole do Bebê, modernist masterpieces exploring the world of children, but requiring virtuoso technique.  Marcelo Bratke has this technique, and seems very much at home in the musical worlds of Brazil's regions. As well played as this music is, though, I think it's complementary to Rubinsky's set, rather than in any sense supplanting it.

I'm usually a big fan of Naxos sound engineering, though there are occasional missteps along the way in the Rubinsky set. Quartz delivers very lifelike sound for Bratke here, and I have no complaints about the sound in this album, or in the previous three releases. Bratke's complete piano set began in 2010, with the second release in 2012 and the third in 2013. These two discs comprise the 4th and 5th volumes, which means there are probably three discs to come.  They will be welcome when they arrive.

This disc will be released on November 16, 2018.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Profound Mozart quintets

Mozart: The String Quintets

The Klenke Quartett's new 3-disc set of Mozart's complete string quintets (with guest violist Harald Schoneweg) constitutes a welcome return for the group to the music of Mozart. I've long been a fan of the Klenke Mozart String Quartet recordings on Profil, released in the first decade of the 2000s. This new release shows some familiar strengths: a fine ensemble sound, careful but not over-precise, with enough character to set these performances apart even from such well-known groups as the Amadeus Quartet with Cecil Aronowitz or the Guarneri Quartet with Michael Tree, both of which I find just a bit superficial. My gold standard for these great works has always been the 1973 Philips set with Arthur Grumiaux and four other very fine instrumentalists (or, as they say in the Season One Gilligan's Island theme song: "and the rest"). Of course, this new recording comes from a completely different tradition of playing, more historically informed and without the fine Corinthian leather upholstery of earlier days, but it has the same high standard of musicianship and not-too-careful tightrope-walks between dancing joy and intense despair. The Accentus engineers provide a surprisingly big, resonant space which matches well with the big sound of these fine string players. This is a more than just an enjoyable release; it's a profound experience.

This disc will be released on November 16, 2018.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Masterworks from a marvellous month

Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 450 & K. 451; Quintet for Piano & Winds, K. 452

While I was listening to this new release from Chandos's great Mozart Piano Concertos series from Manchester, I happened to read an essay about Imposter Syndrome. The first recommended strategy for dealing with this issue, common in the arts, academia, and other competitive arenas, is "compare like to like," which is a blanket warning to stay away from comparing yourself to Mozart. As Tom Lehrer said in 1965: "It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years." This new Chandos disc from the marvellous pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, with superb support from the Manchester Camerata under Gabor Takacs-Nagy, is the best possible example of why Mozart is almost sui generis as a high achiever. In one month, March of 1784, Mozart wrote three masterpieces, breaking new ground in the piano concerto genre he helped to perfect, with dramatic, exciting new sonorities, especially relating to the interplay of piano and wind instruments. All three together on one disc really underlines this nearly incredible accomplishment.

Mozart is often hailed as a great child prodigy, but as a composer it's the huge musical strides he made in his mid- to late-20s that I find most miraculous. The beginnings of Mozart's wind instrument revolution is perhaps his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, from 1782. One almost feels the instruments moving on stage as they comment on the action and the characters' emotions, and with the twin works K. 450 and K. 451 Mozart brings this drama, this theatricality, even, to his favourite new genre for self-promotion, the piano concerto. As appealing as both works are, Mozart was nowhere near ready to rest on his laurels; the true flowering of the genre was to come two years later in 1786, with the great works written around the landmark opera The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492. The Manchester team shines in both piano concertos here; the martial D major work with its glitter and mock pomp and the B-flat major concerto more intimate, an engrossing, quietly domestic comedy of manners. Bavouzet's touch is perfect, and perfectly matched to his colleagues. It's been so exciting to hear his partnership with Takacs-Nagy develop in the past few years.

Rubens: Miraculous Fishing, c.1610, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne,
from the recent exhibition Rubens: Painter of Sketches, at the Museo Nacional del Prado 

At one point in that marvellous March, Mozart took time out to take a step back from the piano concerto to write his Quintet for piano, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, K. 452. It's like an oil sketch by a great master, to go with the large-scale oil paintings of K. 450 and 451. The talented leaders of the wind sections of the Manchester Camerata set to work with Bavouzet on an even more intimate stage, but it's still a stage. The Larghetto especially sets a very operatic confession scene that anticipates Figaro and Don Giovanni. It's great music making, and, like this entire album, a humbling experience for the listener.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Bearing witness to Lang's soul

David Lang: Mystery Sonatas
I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on, and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.
- Mark Rothko
David Lang has taken away the liturgical context from his model, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's Mystery Sonatas, written in 1676, but a deeply emotional and even spiritual level remains embedded in this music. The music is divided into sections denoting joy, sorrow and glory, and various gradations between, and like Biber's music, and even more so, Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the single line of the violin bears the entire weight of his thesis. George Grella praised the work in his post at New York Classical Review: "...this music is humane and vibrantly expressive. We are essentially bearing witness to Lang’s soul."

The violinist Augustin Hadelich premiered this work at Zankel Hall in New York in April 2014, to considerable acclaim, and in May of 2016 the present recording was made. Hadelich has a warm, commanding tone, enhanced by the 1723 “ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivari he plays, which perfectly matches the open and intensely sincere music. I'm a bit surprised by the delay in this release, considering how accessible and appealing this music is, and how effective is Hadelich's advocacy. But years and decades into the future, I'm sure we'll be listening to this recording, and also performances and recordings of the Lang Mystery Sonatas by other violinists.  It's an instant classic, even if it took a while to get to the top of the queue.

This disc will be released on October 19, 2018.

The album cover includes a cropped portion of the 1905 photograph Nude boy in rocky landscape, silhouette, by F. Holland Day (1864-1933). I had assumed a black & white original had been tinted blue for the cover, but here's the original from the Library of Congress website:

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fresh and lively Schubert

Now that Historically Informed Practices are closer to the mainstream of classical music one is less likely to come across a surprisingly different performance, even of early 19th century works, but here we are with a completely re-thought album of Schubert's symphonies. René Jacobs and the B'Rock Orchestra present the freshest and most lively Schubert I've heard in a long time; the cobwebs are gone, the light is let in, and one can hear the most interesting musical connections to different genres of operatic, orchestral and popular music, and especially to the carnival traditions of Vienna. Jacobs provides a long essay that breaks down each movement in the two symphonies, the First from 1813, and the Sixth from 1817-18. Reading it is like watching an expert restorer of Old Master paintings. He shows more than musicological expertise, though; he makes a convincing case for presenting the finale of the Sixth Symphony as Schubert's musical depiction of a procession from the Carnival.

Rudoph Ackermann. Characters in the Grand Fancy Ball Given by the British Ambassador Sir Henry Wellesley
at Vienna, at the Conclusion of the Carnival 1826
In an extraordinary passage, Jacobs illustrates the music by referring to a great painting, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, by the Belgian James Ensor (René Jacobs and the B'Rock Orchestra hail from Ghent):
James Ensor’s monumental 1888 painting ‘The Entry of Christ into Brussels’ comes very close to the “meaning” of this final movement as I see it: Christ, although placed at the centre of the huge picture, is a small, lonely, sad figure, almost drowning in a sea of ugly masks and guises. It’s carnival time, and the little Christ is Ensor himself... I wonder if behind the many exuberant notes of this movement, a small, lonely and sad Franz Schubert is hiding.

All the musical and cultural insights into this music are impressive indeed. That along with the outstanding performance of the players of the B'Rock Orchestra makes this a special release indeed.

This album will be released on November 2, 2018.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Sad stories about death and dying

Shostakovich: String Quartet no. 8; Schubert: String Quartet no. 14

A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.
 - Mark Rothko
Masterpieces meet at Sothebys: Rothko's Untitled (Yellow & Blue), 1954 and Van Gogh's L'Allee des Alyscamps, 1888
📷 Mary Turner, 2015

Matching two or more works from different eras is a tried-and-true programming trick for concerts or recordings, which works often enough that I would never want to see it fall out of favour. A stellar example is the Aris Quartett's new disc, with sparks flying back and forth between Shostakovich and Schubert, both of whom show an intensity of feeling belied by the often calm surfaces of their string quartets. The one work calls to the other, like a Rothko and a Van Gogh hung together, yellows reflecting off each other, and blues pulling each together. The concept works best, of course, with two masterpieces masterfully played. The Aris players, quite correctly, I think, play the Shostakovich first. It's a harrowing mash-up of all sorts of horrors: historical (it's dedicated to the "victims of fascism and the war"), political (coming after the composer's humiliating forced membership in the Communist party), and personal (he had recently experienced the first symptoms of what was eventually diagnosed as ALS). In spite of all of this the 8th Quartet is one of Shostakovich's best known and popular works, both in its original form and in Rudolf Barshai's transcription for string orchestra as the Chamber Symphony op. 110a. The 14th Quartet of Schubert, named for his song "Death and the Maiden" was also written in response to a health crisis, and Schubert's own knowledge of his impending death, and it too contains music of surpassing beauty.

The intense feelings of both of these works create both tensions and release, within each piece and between the two. Set in this frame, these fine musicians tell us incredibly sad stories about death and dying in the 19th and the 20th centuries. I felt privileged to hear these stories again and again as I listened to this album, every time hearing new facets of sadness, anger and the comforts of beauty and love. This is a significant achievement for Genuin and the Aris Quartett.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Except in his own town

Rued Langgaard: Symphonies no. 2 & 6; Jacob Gade: Tango Jalousie

Here's a common problem among artists and Messiahs:
Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.' - Mark 6:4
Rued Langgaard had not inconsiderable success in Germany and Austria, but his music never caught on at home in Denmark. So it's good to have this very fine disc from Europe's musical heartland, with Sakari Oramo conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, though I hasten to point out that the recording is published by DaCapo, "the Danish national label". So in that sense, Rued, you can go home again.

These are beautifully crafted symphonies, full of appealing melodies and interesting side-trips away from the main themes. "Digression is the sunshine of narrative," says Lawrence Stern, and further, Adam Phillips calls it "secular revelation." While you can hear some strains of the Great Dane Carl Nielsen in this music, and somewhat more Sibelius, it's Richard Strauss who comes most to mind, especially in the very fine 2nd Symphony, written in 1912-14. All three of those composers were born in the 1860s, while Langgaard is 30 years younger. It's no surprise that this relatively conservative but very appealing music, more or less untouched by modernism, was such a hit in central Europe before the Great War.

A lot of things were different after that conflict, of course, but Rued Langgaard's music kept to a certain path, and his somewhat prickly and difficult temperament kept him on the outs with the musical establishment at home. He set himself up in opposition to Carl Nielsen, but unlike in the great Jack Benny-Fred Allen feud to come, there seemed to be no benefit to either composer. This is really a marketing issue, though, since you can hear Langgaard's 6th Symphony from 1920 as a kind of response to Nielsen's 4th Symphony, written in 1916. The serious nature of this symphony speaks more to Langgaard's musical evolution, though, rather than any polemical agenda, as much as he aggressively promoted one or another for most of his life.

Both of these symphonies have moments of transfiguration, in the Richard Strauss tradition, but they're relatively short on light, and nearly devoid of real joy. This is serious music from a dour man, and I can't help comparing Rued Langgaard with a near contemporary prophet who also had problems at home, Heitor Villa-Lobos. In spite of many personal and artistic trials, Villa-Lobos was a true optimist whose music nearly always expresses the same joyful spirit of music itself, which he felt was embodied in, and expressed most perfectly through, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Perhaps in response to this dour hour, Sakari Oramo adds a delightful coda: the Tango Jalousie of another Danish composer, Jacob Gade. With their own light music always right at their finger-tips, the Viennese musicians provide us with an up-beat finale to a thoughtful but severe concert.

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

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.