Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Sunday, 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:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Serious music of a serious man

Francesco Antonio Bonporti: Sonatas for 2 Violins and Basso Continuo, op. 2

The name of Francesco Antonio Bonporti was unknown to me until 2000, when Dynamic began releasing their Bonporti Edition, with the Accademia I Filarmonici. That series ended up with five releases, representing a good chunk of Bonporti's music. This is very fine music indeed, full of invention, and well-played by the Italian band. Speaking of invention, it was a case of mistaken identity that first brought Bonporti to the attention of the wider musical world. Four Inventions in J.S. Bach's hand-writing, assumed to be Bach's compositions, were discovered to be Bonporti originals. A strong affirmation of Bonporti's quality! Fifteen years later we have this excellent disc from Labirinti Armonici, and if anything it raises the bar in terms of performance, and gives even more credence to the idea that Bonporti should be considered a composer of more than average stature.

Bonporti is a son of Trento, known in English as Trent (of Council of Trent fame), a prosperous small city in Northern Italy. Its history as a part of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and re-unified Italy points to a role as a link between northern and southern cultures, but except for the mixup with Bach and his Inventioni Bonporti's real musical links were with Rome (especially Corelli), Venice (Vivaldi), Padua (Tartini) where he died in 1749, the year before Bach. This isn't music of a dynamic, cosmopolitan composer, though, but rather more of a quiet, studious provincial with impeccable skills but not a great deal of ambition. He was an amateur in the best sense of the term, with a refined sensibility and a distinctive voice. The excellent musicians of Labirinti Armonici present this serious music of a serious man in the best possible way, with able support from Brilliant Classics, who continue to surprise with release after release of Early Music of the very highest quality.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Music of piety, fun and good-will

Telemann: Cantatas Aller Augen warten; In Christo gilt weder Beschneidung; Ich bin der erste; Siehe, eine Jungfrau ist schwangert

I confess to not being a good enough Baroque scholar to be able to tell apart the French Cycle of Telemann's annual church cantatas from his Italian cycle. It's true that these four works, two of which were written for performance between during 1716/17, and the other two for 1719/20, all have a light and bouncy, almost popular feel to them, which has us looking south of the Alps. The ebb and flow of vocal soloists, choir and orchestra conceivably points to the concerted Italian instrumental works flowing from the great school of Arcangelo Corelli. These are immensely attractive works, with insistent rhythms, splendid melodies and heartfelt messages of hope and love. The music sounds like Bach at times, but Telemann's own voice is clear, especially in the magical Chorale that ends the cantata Ich bin der erste, with a simple chorale theme sung by the choir set against a descant played by the clarino trumpet. Here's the soprano part, from the autograph score facsimile at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.

As Vincent Vega says in Pulp Fiction, "It's the little differences."

CPO has perhaps helped to move the needle of Telemann's reputation a slight bit with their generally excellent cantata releases, usually from North German ensembles. This recording from Mannheim was made in 2016, and the disc has already been released in Germany, to generally positive reviews. I was certainly convinced by these performances; there's a feeling of piety, but also fun and good-will that's much stronger than any sense of erudite re-creation by musician scholars.  It will be released in North America on June 8, 2018.

Objectifying the subjective pleasure of reading

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet, read by Adam Sims

"Like when a reader reads out loud, to fully objectify the subjective pleasure of reading..."

In his great masterwork The Book of Disquiet the great Portuguese modernist Fernando Pesoa posits a perfect retirement:
"...on the outskirts of somewhere or other, enjoying a tranquillity in which I won’t write the works I don’t write now.... How sublime to waste a life that could have been useful, never to execute a work of art that was certain to be beautiful."
For a retired librarian living on the tranquil outskirts of Canada, this feels a bit close to the bone. When the marvellous Adam Sims came to this passage in this perfect new unabridged Naxos Audiobook, I realized that I wasn't even reading Pessoa myself (though the eBook is on my iPad all set to be read), but sublimely having someone else read it to me. All something that might have happened in an updated version of a work by Pessoa.

Pessoa is so much in vogue today, I guess, because of our almost random jumble of yearnings, for meaning, for an end of pain, for hope, for comfort, for life and/or oblivion. "To possess, in the shade, that nobility of spirit that makes no demands on life... To be no more, to have no more, to want no more." Adam Sims beautifully, carefully, soberly even, communicates almost unbearable grief when Pessoa's protagonist Bernardo Soares, his own stand-in "heteronym", confesses to the terrible effect of losing his mother when he was only one year old, and his father, a suicide, at three. And then, in a just-a-touch lighter tone, he turns to the dark comedy of Soares' elaborate circumlocutions, a combination of Melville's Bartleby, Kafka's Samsa and Borges' Doctor Tsun. The Book of Disquiet is often so very funny, full of irony but with no mordant bite. 

"Pessoa was as devoted to incompleteness as to self-estrangement," says Benjamin Kunkel, "and most of the prose he wrote was fragments".  But in the midst of his unfinished work are many lacunae of Pessoa's own design. Sims will build up a not inconsiderable head of steam in Soare's seemingly sincere arguments, and then pull the rug out from under us: "Missing text here." This, I think, must work even better in an audiobook than on the printed page. One is never on solid ground with Pessoa; and Sims has perfectly judged his pauses, his subtle rhetorical emphases, to keep us, the would-be comfortable listeners in headphones being read to by a mellifluous voice actor, always a bit on edge. The Book of Disquiet.

So with deceptive simplicity a transcription of almost innumerable quotidian details in the life of an Assistant Bookkeeper in the Rua dos Douradores in 1930s Lisbon somehow adds up to this sad and funny, triumphantly hopeful and deeply depressed novel. It's a book about not writing a book by writing a book, and reading a book by not reading it.

The release date is July 13, 2018.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Masterworks from the Ginastera Year and beyond

Alberto Ginastera: Piano Concerto no. 1; Concierto argentino; Variaciones concertantes

The Ginastera Centennial of 2016 has to be counted a success, judging by a decent uptick in both recordings and live performances around the world. The reputation of the master from Buenos Aires is as high as it ever was, and I think it's clear that only Villa-Lobos and Chavez are in his league among the greatest of Latin American composers. The first two volumes of this Chandos series of Orchestral Works were highlights from the Centennial year, but the masterworks keep coming in this new disc, due June 1, 2018. Actually, two of the pieces were recorded in late 2016, so we have the Ginastera Year to thank for this release as well!

Ginastera is one of those composers who was careful to suppress his juvenilia, so we're lucky that the Concerto argentino of 1935, written when he was only 18, is still around. There's a grand, reckless abandon to this music, and the young composer's abundant melodic gifts are clear, even if the piece tends to occasionally slack off, and then move off in another direction in lieu of developing what's happened before, like a young hound who loses and then catches again what may (or may not!) be the scent. He could easily have been under the spell of Villa-Lobos's contemporary folkloric works, if not his more modernist piano works of the 1920s, though if there's an influence really apparent here, it's George Gershwin. This is slight music, but fun, and worth a listen.

We're in a different world with the Variaciones concertantes of 1953, both in terms of quality and of the first layer of abstraction that comes with Ginastera's move from "Objective" to "Subjective Nationalism" as a compositional style. I'm always uncomfortable with the term "orchestral showpiece", since there are musical reasons other than showing off compositional, and by extension instrumental, virtuosity, in this kind of brilliant concerto for orchestra. Look closely at a Velasquez painting and you'll see stupendous feats of virtuoso painting, but it's the overall effect of the work, and not the shiny bits, that really count. Kudos to the players of the BBC Philharmonic for their polished presentation of all the ingenious bright passages, but also to conductor Juanjo Mena for keeping them on task in the presentation of a vital and interesting musical journey.

The 1961 Piano Concerto no. 1 is the real masterwork on this disc, and it receives a stand-out performance from Xiayin Wang and the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. It's the first of Ginastera's works from his third "Neo-Expressionist" phase, which began with his move from Argentina to Europe. While his new music shows a certain pulling away or abstraction from folkloric content, Ginastera uses the sophisticated compositional tools of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg to intensify his emotional responses to the same rhythms and landscapes of the pampas and the streetscapes of Buenos Aires that always drove his music. This is among the greatest of all American concerted works with piano, to go along with Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 3 and his Choros no. 11 and a certain work called Rhapsody in Blue.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ends of a continuum, plus one in the middle

Vaughan Williams: Mass in G Minor, Choral Works

Having just completed a review of a Vaughan Williams CD from Toronto, I'm back on familiar English turf with this new recording of his choral music from The Choir of St. John's Cambridge. However, here's fair warning that I'm going to stay on what might be a controversial topic: the question of Trans-Atlantic Vaughan Williams. The new disc is beautifully sung, and sounds outstanding. But I have a sentimental favourite for the G Minor Mass from the Olden Days of the long-playing record: the Roger Wagner Chorale on a 1961 Angel LP matched with a Bach cantata. Though never released on CD by EMI, there's a very good Pristine Classical re-issue of this most passionate recording from Los Angeles, with a small choir of some of the greatest American singers ever assembled. Though the complete list of singers isn't included in the notes, the Chorale at one point included the Hollywood superstars Marni  Nixon and Salli Terri. In a rave review of the Pristine Classical disc, SGS says "It comes down to rhythm. Vaughan Williams actually swings in this score, and British choirs don't. They tend toward bloodless piety. I think the work really benefits from Wagner's point of view outside the English cathedral tradition." I'm half way to agreeing with this, but I suspect my enthusiasm also comes from more than a bit of sheer nostalgia.

The new disc, meanwhile, is from the Choir of St. John's Cambridge, which I assume puts it firmly in the English cathedral tradition. This performance of the Mass is cooler, more serene; at times it even sounds careful. So sure, looked at in a certain way you might call it bloodless, but then from another one might call the Roger Wagner version vulgar, especially considering the Leopold Stokowski style re-orchestration and recording gimmicks to highlight the work in the Hollywood style.  Vaughan Williams had in mind Byrd and Tallis, of course, but there are more modern influences from the Continent as well, including especially Ravel. We have, then, two completely different readings of this impressive work, each pretty much at an end of the continuum. It's probably very Canadian of me to introduce a (Canadian) compromise that fits nicely in the middle, with choral singing at the same high level as the other two: the 2002 Naxos recording with the Elora Festival Singers under Noel Edison. It's a sign of the greatness of Vaughan Williams' choral writing that three interpretations so completely different can all provide such pleasure.

This disc will be released on May 18, 2018

Thursday, May 10, 2018

An important concert finally on CD

Duke Ellington in Coventry, 1966

The February 21, 1966 concert of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Coventry Cathedral was a big deal.  "It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done,” said Duke in an interview with TV Times, “...and the most important. It’s a personal statement. It’s a personal statement about belief." The concert has been very well documented with photographs from both the rehearsal and the concert itself. Here's a shot by Bill Wagg:

As well, the 55 minute television broadcast from ABC Midlands, first shown in April 1966, has apparently been re-shown recently on ITV in Britain, though I haven't yet found it on DVD or streaming video. Now, finally, we have this great-sounding CD from Storyville, due on June 8, 2018. Storyville knows its Duke; they have more than 100 Ellington titles in their catalogue. Their restoration engineers also have demonstrated that they can make the most out of pretty much any source material, and this disc ends up sounding pretty decent. The band is on top form; here is the lineup:

The orchestra added English vocalists for the concert, soloist George Webb and the Cliff Adam Singers, and they're very fine in their numbers. The band of course misses Billy Strayhorn, who died in May of the following year, but Duke's piano solos are first class and very moving. There's so much expression here; some of that comes of course from his deeply-held spiritual beliefs, but I expect he's already beginning to mourn the loss of his great collaborator.

Here's a lovely story about a 14-year old boy & his jazz-loving father listening in on Duke's rehearsal at the Cathedral.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Beginnings, reconciliation and serenity

Albert Roussel Piano Trio, op. 2; Claude Debussy: Piano Trio no. 1; Gabriel Faure: Piano Trio, op. 120

Back in October 2016 I reviewed the debut Chandos disc from the Neave Trio, American Moments, and loved pretty much everything about it, though I did quibble a bit about the title. These are such talented musicians, and they've put together another fascinating CD program, but at a significantly higher musical level. And this time around the title is just right.

As with the first disc, there's an early work to begin: Albert Roussel's Piano Trio was only his second published work, but it's definitely assured and well-crafted. It may not have the swagger of the child prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold's op. 1 Trio, but its opening slow introduction is really quite extraordinary, a slow climb up a mountain through a misty forest. The rest of the work doesn't quite match this atmospheric beginning, but it gets a committed reading from the Trio. Roussel took his time becoming a composer; he was 33 when his op. 2 was published, so you can imagine him as Robert Redford the Rookie in The Natural. Claude Debussy's first Piano Trio is an actual work of juvenilia, though, as he was only 18 when he wrote it. It's rather slight and a bit slick, but it's certainly fun to listen to, and this version has just the right blend of naiveté and prescient irony.

Just like with their first disc, there's a very fine mature work to finish. Gabriel Faure's op. 120 was written only a year before his death, and during a period when he was not in very good health. But it has the reconciliation and serenity that Edward Said calls the "accepted notion" of late style, citing Sophocles, Shakespeare and Verdi. This is powerful, moving music, played with great sentiment but also grace and finesse.

Here's the official trailer video from Chandos.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Dominion Strikes Back

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music; Oboe Concerto; Flos Campi; Piano Concerto

The world of Ralph Vaughan Williams seems still to be overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, British. The vast majority of recordings today hail from the British Isles, with very few from major American or Continental orchestras or conductors, much less those farther afield. The English Pastoral tradition, the music of the Tudors and the Anglican choral tradition, and the whole range of folk music of the British Isles, come together to build the engine that drives Vaughan Williams' reputation. Those of us who love Vaughan Williams, and I'm sure there are as many today around the world as there ever were, look to the English record companies to keep new albums coming in the Vaughan Williams pipeline.  Chandos in particular has a very deep and broad VW catalogue. It's great to see this superb new disc, to be released on June 1, 2018, coming from Toronto, played and sung by Canadian musicians, and one of the top Vaughan Williams discs in recent memory.

Toronto-born conductor Peter Oundjian, who will become the Toronto Symphony's Conductor Emeritus at the end of the current season, has put together a programme that shows off some of Vaughan Williams' many strengths. After 15 years with the orchestra, he has everything moving at the highest level, like clockwork, from strings to winds to brass and percussion. Two principals from the orchestra, oboist Sarah Jeffrey and violist Teng Li, provide star-soloist level work in the profoundly hopeful Oboe Concerto from 1944 and the sensuous, mystical Flos Campi from the mid-1920s. The latter work features one of the world's great choirs, the Elmer Iseler Singers, a Toronto fixture for nearly 40 years. The choir, along with a strong quartet of solo singers, also elevates the Serenade to Music, from 1938. This is a tour de force of orchestral, choral and solo vocal music, one of the composer's greatest works. The Toronto musicians come together here to provide the most impressive version I've heard on disc. The French-Canadian soloist Louis Lortie, whose own Chandos discography is also distinguished in both depth and breadth, has the virtuoso technique to handle the uncharacteristically hard-edged, blunt piano writing in the Piano Concerto, from 1932. This is a sparkling, brightly lit performance, accompanied by the same controlled fireworks from the orchestra. Both soloist and orchestra are meltingly romantic, of course, in the middle movement Romanza. More top-level Vaughan Williams!

This is a well-filled CD, but unfortunately there isn't room for two works that opened (Fantasia on Greensleeves) and closed (Wasps Overture) the two November 2017 concerts at Roy Thomson Hall recorded for this album. Perhaps Chandos or the TSO could provide one or both as audio or video bonuses on their websites. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Tranquility of Touch or Intensity of Thought

Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 8

In this majestic but deeply human performance, recorded live in November 2017 at Munich's Philharmonie im Gasteig, Mariss Jansons and his Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks make a strong case for putting this work close to the top of all 19th Century symphonies. "My Eighth is a mystery," said Bruckner, and when he presented it to conductor Hermann Levi in 1887 it seemed an impenetrable one. After significant changes from the composer, it received its premiere in 1890, but its vastness and complexity were still a challenge. The mystery of the Eighth has been illuminated from time to time, by conductors such as Barbirolli, Karajan, Klemperer and Tennstedt (a favourite of mine), but perhaps each misses out on at least as much as it exposes.

Anton Bruckner's naive and mild manner and his obsequiousness in the face of his idol Richard Wagner (memorably illustrated in this silhouette by Otto Böhler) gives one the wrong idea of what to expect from this work. His 8th Symphony has all of the power and mystery and sensuousness of Wagner's Ring, set in a meticulously designed architecture. Most importantly, it tests the limits of Wagner's musical world, well before the future experiments of Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

"Today, says Tom Service, "Bruckner's Eighth should still be controversial. This is a piece that is attempting something so extraordinary that if you're not prepared to encounter its expressive demons, or to be shocked and awed by the places Bruckner's imagination takes you, then you're missing out on the essential experience of the symphony." This amazing insight goes to the heart of my concern about Jansons' highly humanistic interpretation, with consolation the keynote rather than pain. There is sorrow enough in the dark passages, of course, and power in the beautiful brass fanfares, but always the light shines through. I hesitate to complain about so beatific a performance, since I think today's world needs this as much as it needs anything. But the Masterpiece has its own needs.

Here, from a performance later that month in Brussels, is a lovely excerpt from the Symphony that illustrates Jansons' authority as well as his great charm and humanity.

I've been reading Nick Hunt's marvellous book Where The Wild Winds Are: Walking the Winds from the Pennines to Provence. At the beginning of his quest to experience the Mistral winds in the South of France, he quotes a letter from Vincent Van Gogh: "Aren't we seeking intensity of thought rather than tranquillity of touch?" Van Gogh's answer is clear, but Bruckner, I think, needs some of both.

This disc will be released on June 8, 2018.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Schubert in the style of Kubrick

Franz Schubert: Piano Trios, D. 929 and D. 897

"A Trio by Schubert passed across the musical world like some angry comet in the sky," wrote Robert Schumann, and his brilliant hyperbole manages somehow to seriously under-sell this amazing work, the second Piano Trio, D. 929, written in Schubert's penultimate year. It's angry and powerful, yes, but it's so much more than that. The full musical and emotional range and ambiguity of this extraordinary work of genius becomes clear after listening a number of times to this superb new disc from the Danish group Trio Vitruvi. The group uses the Bärenreiter Urtext edition of the work, which contains additional material not included in the version published in 1828 (which was incidentally the only publication of any of his works outside of Austria during the composer's lifetime). And their passionate, controlled performance contains all of the musical innovation and emotional nuance that Schubert had developed in a lifetime as a composer, short as it was.

A digression: the second movement Andante con moto was used by Stanley Kubrick in his 1975 film Barry Lyndon. This is one of the greatest uses of classical music in all cinema.

"I think", says Kubrick in a revealing interview with Michel Ciment, "that silent films got a lot more things right than talkies".  This scene is a perfect example. One of the many extraordinary things about it is Kubrick's long, slow build-up to the kiss. Kubrick has his own "heavenly lengths", the phrase Mendelssohn coined when talking about Schubert. How many directors could have kept our interest in such a simple scene for a full four minutes? Best of all is Ryan O'Neill's determined little march in the courtyard to embrace Marisa Berenson, in time to Schubert and reminiscent of all the marching to war that's taken place in the film.
MC: Did you have Schubert's Trio in mind while preparing and shooting this particular scene?
SK: No, I decided on it while we were editing. Initially, I thought it was right to use only eighteenth-century music. But sometimes you can make ground-rules for yourself which prove unnecessary and counter-productive. I think I must have listened to every LP you can buy of eighteenth-century music. One of the problems which soon became apparent is that there are no tragic love-themes in eighteenth-century music. So eventually I decided to use Schubert's Trio in E Flat, Opus 100, written in 1828. It's a magnificent piece of music and it has just the right restrained balance between the tragic and the romantic without getting into the headier stuff of later Romanticism.
Schubert and Kubrick both do something quite wonderful with the main theme of the Andante, which is based on the Swedish folk song Se solen sjunker (The sun is down).  The composer brings back this music in his final movement, and the director does the same in his:

Though he was only 31 when he died, Schubert's own awareness of his likely demise in the late 1820s resulted, I think, in a kind of late style. His profound understanding of human relationships, musical innovation (both Beethoven's and his own), and issues relating to death and dying had much to do, I believe, with his lifelong connection to poetry and the development of the German lied, so much of which came from Schubert himself. As early as 1822 he wrote this about "My Dream":
For many and many a year I sang songs. Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.
Ian Bostridge uses this as an epigraph for his marvellous book Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. It's telling that such a broad range of scholarship and deep understanding by a great performer and academic should be required to do justice to a single work of Schubert's, his song cycle Winterreise, which was published the same year as the 2nd Piano Trio. It's impressive that the young musicians of Trio Vitruvi have made such a strong case for the latter work in its original form, uncut and undiluted. It's a positively Kubrickian performance.

This disc will be released on April 20, 2018.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Measured and precise Brahms

Johannes Brahms: String Quartets, Quintets, Sextets

Hanssler has re-packaged the Verdi Quartett's Brahms chamber music, released on four individual CDs in the first decade of the 2000s, into a set that represents excellent value. The performances are for the most part at a very high level, with admirable intonation and coherence. If I had a quibble, it would be that the more controlled, classical approach of the group occasionally results in a loss of emotional content. The lower temperature actually worked out well in the current case, though, since I don't think I could have listened to five hours of Brahms played by musicians wearing their hearts on their sleeves. And turning things up to 11 in this music presents the very real danger of moving into sentimentality and kitsch. That's not the case here; everything is measured and sometimes the tiniest bit careful.

The guests are as excellent as the group itself: in the String Quintets we have violist Hermann Voss, with cellist Peter Buck added for the Sextets. Finally, there's Francois Benda playing beautifully in the Clarinet Quintet. The recording is bright and clear, which only emphasizes the precision of the playing.

This album will be released on April 20, 2018.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A tour-de-force of musicianship & technology

Antonio & Alberto Lysy: South America. Music by Villa-Lobos, Casals, Piazzolla, Kodaly, Bach, Gardel, Filiberto, Mora

In 1958 cellist Bernard Greenhouse and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos organized a concert at New York's Town Hall of The Violoncello Society, a newly formed group led by Greenhouse and made up of many of the top cellists of the day. The concert, which was recorded and released on an LP, though unfortunately never re-released on CD*, included a number of Bach Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. These were adapted by Villa-Lobos in 1941 for "an orchestra of cellos". In his score he asks for a minimum of ten, and in the end Greenhouse rounded up 32 cellists for the recording.

In this new Yarlung Records disc Antonio and Alberto Lysy provide a well-chosen selection of South American music for cello and violin, and a few other instruments. In a tour-de-force of technology and musicianship, and in a tribute to his hero Bernard Greenhouse, cellist Antonio Lysy multi-track recorded between 16 and 28 cellos playing 4 to 7 parts in one of Villa's Bach fugues, and in Pablo Casals' multi-cello piece Les Rois Mages (The Three Kings). Producer Bob Attiyeh provides this explanation in his excellent liner notes:

The effect is quite stunning.

There's much more on this disc. Two popular Villa-Lobos pieces show up, featuring Antonio's cello with two guests: O canto do cisne negro (The Song of the Black Swan) with harpist Marcia Dickstein Vogler; and Assobio a Jato (The Jet Whistle) with Anastasia Petanova on flute. There are a number of works from Argentina featuring Coco Trivosonno on bandoneon. Finally, there's a major work for father and son, with Alberto Lysy on violin: Zoltán Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello. This is a well-planned, beautifully-played and expertly recorded disc.

* but listen to it on YouTube here.

This post is also featured at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Monday, April 2, 2018

An excellent selection from an authoritative set

Eric Coates: Coates Conducts Coates

Nowadays North Americans have many options for sampling popular-culture based Anglophilia, but before the Internet, your best bet was to live in Canada. Even with only a few TV channels back in the 1960s you'd have Coronation Street to watch after school, and on Sunday nights in 1967 on CBC-TV, The Forsyte Saga from the BBC. It was introduced by Halcyon Days, the first movement of Eric Coates' Three Elizabeths Suite, from 1944. Halcyon days, indeed! In 2013 Nimbus released a superb 7-disc set of Coates' music conducted by the composer himself, entitled The Definitive Eric Coates. This new 2-CD set is a well-filled selection from that authoritative set.

I'll start with my only real negative: for some reason, Halcyon Days is not included here. Bad form indeed. There is only the 2nd movement from the Three Elizabeths Suite, which is entitled Springtime In Angus - Elizabeth Of Glamis, The Queen Mother. It's lovely, and it even shares the same main theme with Halcyon Days, but I still miss it. Some of the other bright spots are the intermezzo Impression of a Princess, from 1956; the gorgeous Bird Songs At Eventide in an orchestral version; and of course the valse serenade By the Sleepy Lagoon, written in 1930, which has been the theme song of BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs programme for more than 75 years. I heard it back in the late sixties fluttering into my shortwave radio via BBC's World Service. By now this has to be one of the most beloved pieces to come from Britain (though on his own episode of DID, Alfred Brendel expressed his own hate for it), and in this excellent performance from 1948, I'm sure all the Desert Island Discs fans will mentally add in their own seagull sounds. This is a fabulous way to sample the music of this great master of English Light Music. The recordings originate from the 1920s to the late 1950s, and they're beautifully re-mastered by Alan Bunting.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Part of a splendid symphonic legacy

Edmund Rubbra: Symphonies 2 and 4

Edmund Rubbra was a fine symphonist, perhaps in a top group as small as himself, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and William Walton. These two historic performances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, from 1954 (no. 2 under Sir Adrian Boult) and 1942 (no. 4 under the composer), serve as performance baselines for two first class English symphonies.

Most reviews of Edmund Rubbra's 4th Symphony mention Robert Layton's famous praise of the opening of the 1st movement: "One of the most beautiful openings not just in Rubbra but in all English music." Listen:

I've really taken to Somm Recordings' sound. In spite of the vintage of some of the recordings there's always a really solid sound, due in part to the BBC sources and in part to the remastering, here by Ted Kendall. The 2nd Symphony recording sounds especially fresh, with Adrian Boult (the dedicatee) conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a live performance from the Maida Vale Studio. The 4th Symphony, recorded live in the Royal Albert Hall during the war, sounds understandably less rich, clean and clear, but the composer makes the most of its often quite subtle effects. As Robert Layton also said, "These pages are free from any kind of artifice, and their serenity and quietude remain with the listener for a long time."

This is more than just a historical document; one hopes it might bring more people to these works, and to Rubbra's other nine, which together comprise such a splendid symphonic legacy

Monday, March 26, 2018

Marvel before Marvel

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Naïs

The operas of the French baroque are much more accessible to the non-specialist than one might think. It's not only about the music, as gorgeous as it is. With gods, demigods and super-heroes, and an emphasis on special effects and stage machinery, we're more than half-way to today's DC and Marvel-based blockbuster movies. Jean-Philippe Rameau's Naïs is especially appealing, with a story based on Greek myth overlaid with very un-subtle political commentary, or rather, shameless flattery of the King. To further extend its appeal, there are nymphs and shepherds dancing Gavottes, Sarabandes, Contredanses and Tambourins in what I'm sure were spectacular ballets.

Gyorgy Vashegyi's Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, so good in Mondonville's Grands Motets and Isbé, also from Glossa, provide the sumptuous music that keeps the action flowing and the ballet dancers cavorting. The singing is absolute first class, beginning with superb choral singing, and moving throughout the cast. Chantal Santon-Jeffery is superb in the title role.

Though recorded in Budapest, this is a joint project with the Centre de Musique Baroque in Versailles. Everything is carefully researched to ensure the authenticity of French musical heritage, which in that country is taken extremely seriously. More importantly, this is obviously the result of musicians engaged in and enjoying their music-making.

This album will be released on April 20, 2018.

From intimate to cinematic, in the composer's authentic voice

C. P. E. Bach: Sacred Choral Music

Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach was not an actual time traveler, though you might think so when you hear music from this 5-CD set that provides music sounding as if it came from different times in the 18th century. Capriccio has put together recordings going back to the mid-1980s from Hermann Max's Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert, filled in with a 2002 recording of the Magnificat by Michael Schneider's Dresdner Kammerchor and La Stagione Frankfurt. Here are the works included:

When I began listening to this music I admit to wondering how much of a slog it might be. Instead it was a case of one felicitous movement after another; not every bit, to be sure, but CPE was hitting at a pretty high rate! Not all this music has the energy and forward movement of the famous Gloria from the Magnificat, but the composer is often nearly as much a master of the intimate aria and the erudite fugue as his father. The Magnificat itself was written in 1849, early enough for Johann Sebastian to hear it before he died the next year. There are striking similarities with the work J.S. Bach wrote 25 years earlier, but sections sounding more like Mozart and Haydn as well. This isn't surprising considering that CPE tinkered with this work until the 1786, just before his death.

The best work here, I think, is Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus), written in 1777/78. Though there are echoes of both JS Bach, Telemann and Handel, not to mention much that was reminiscent of Haydn, after three discs of his sacred music I was beginning to get a feel for CPE's authentic voice. There's an intimate feeling to so much of his sacred vocal music, but here he's added much more drama. Jeremy Grimshaw talks about CPE Bach's "almost cinematic shifts of mood", though perhaps this is in the more measured style of Paul Thomas Anderson rather than the more obvious Steven Spielberg.

Though no longer at the cutting edge of Historically Informed Performance, these recordings have the more relaxed sound of musicians at ease with their period instruments and singing practice. This is stylishly played and sung, well captured by the WDR engineers, and the entire package is very much recommended. I'll end with praise for the cover design, which features this marvellous photograph of nuns in Rome, by alfonstr (Fotalia).

This disc will be released on April 6, 2018.

The man should remain obscure

Cézanne: Portraits of a Life (Exhibition on Screen / DVD)

In a letter to Joachim Gasquet from 1896, the painter Cézanne expounded a manifesto of the hidden author that set the tone for modern recluses from Greta Garbo to J. D. Salinger:
All my life I have worked to earn my living, but I thought one could paint well without attracting attention to one’s private life. Certainly an artist wishes to improve himself intellectually as much as possible, but the man should remain obscure. The pleasure must be found in the study (of the work).
Director Phil Grabsky takes advantage of the traveling exhibit Cézanne: Portraits of a Life (Washington's National Gallery, Paris's Musée D'Orsay and London's National Portrait Gallery), with its pictures of professional colleagues, friends and family members, and especially self-portraits, to push back against this dictum, all to excellent effect. The film has superb commentary by three countries' worth of experts, fascinating insights from the painter's grandson Philippe, and Grabsky's usual effective mix of locations (especially Le Jas de Bouffan in Aix, where Cézanne painted for many years, now empty and very, very sad) and high definition video of the paintings, filmed in his always un-hackneyed way.

Grabsky captures Cézanne
Like all great directors Phil Grabsky is a story-teller. There's one final piece to the story in this film, which I think might be Grabsky's best so far: the absolutely outstanding voice acting of Brian Cox. This fine actor fully inhabits Cézanne through his readings of the letters, from the excitement and frustration of his early years to the achingly sad final letters to his son Paul, just before his death. One doesn't expect this high level of tragedy from an art documentary, but that's what we get from these fine artists. Highly recommended for viewing in your local cinema. I'll link to the DVD when it's released (due June 15, 2018).

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hank Jones: Playing in Depth

Hank Jones in Copenhagen: Live at Jazzhus Slukefter, 1983

In a fascinating passage in his memoir Act One, Moss Hart talks about the ineffable something that great actors have, which some call 'star quality',

"... but among the learned it is more often discussed in terms of 'level of emotion' or 'playing in depth.'"

It's the latter phrase that occurred to me when I considered the long and distinguished career of the pianist Hank Jones. In at the beginning of the bebop revolution, and making music until his death at 91 in 2010, Jones was extremely prolific in the recording studio. He made more than 60 albums as a solo pianist or group leader, and many, many more as a session musician.

William P. Gottlieb's 1947 photo of Milt Orent, Mary Lou Williams, Hank Jones & Dizzy Gillespie in Williams' New York apartment. Library of Congress.

Jones had played with drummer Shelly Manne back in 1962 (on the album 2-3-4, with Coleman Hawkins), and he worked with Manne again in the late 1970s (though most of his trio activity at the time was with the Great Jazz Trio, usually with Ron Carter and Tony Williams). In 1983 Jones and Manne went to Copenhagen to record a live album at the Tivoli Gardens, with Danish bassist Mads Vinding. This Storyville CD is the first ever release in any format for a fine set of just over an hour of classic songs by some of the great jazz composers, among them Bud Powell, Benny Golson and Charlie Parker, as well as great standards.

Mozart talks in one of his letters about a pianist who plays "with taste, feeling, and a brilliant style of playing," and Hank Jones exhibits all three of these. But towards the end of such a distinguished career, it's "playing in depth" that I think sums it up the best.

This disc will be released on April 6, 2018.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Preludes & fugues, from a musician who writes novels

Anthony Burgess: The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard: 24 Preludes and Fugues; Finale, Natale

Anthony Burgess was always just on the brink of breaking through as a musician, but his day job as a writer always pulled him back into a more prosaic life. He began life in a musical family; his father played the piano for the silent cinemas, while his mother was "the Beautiful Belle Burgess", a music-hall star singer/dancer of the day. As a musician he always had a foot in both the popular and the classical worlds. He played piano and wrote dance-band arrangements during his time in the British Army in World War II, and wrote quite a few classical pieces after the war, without any special success or recognition until later in his life when he was famous as a man of letters. Looked at from that period one might think of his music in the tradition of the great British "amateur", but he was actually more of a working musician, and considering his problems in getting his music heard, a very typical one at that.  As Burgess wrote in his 1986 book But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?, "If you want to be considered a poet, you will have to show mastery of the petrarchan sonnet form or the sestina. Your musical efforts must begin with well-formed fugues. There is no substitute for craft... Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered." This is grounded music, it's well-crafted and real, if not always especially inspired.

In 1985 Burgess purchased a Casio Synthesizer, an early home keyboard called the Casiotone 701. At the same time he was writing his prose on a new Apple computer, he took advantage of the instrument to write The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard: 24 Preludes and Fugues. Of course he didn't have the same capabilities available to him that Wendy Carlos had when she put together the synthesized score for Stanley Kubrick's movie of his own A Clockwork Orange fifteen years earlier, but this was still at the beginning of a revolution for electronic music in the home.

There are certainly some banal passages amongst these 48 short pieces, but there are also some charming ones as well. They're perhaps the most charming when they're the most Bachian:

Actually, the music isn't "electronic" in anything more than name; it actually sounds as if designed for no instrument at all, but rather for the mind to play, though at times the music becomes quite pianistic. After Bach its primary model is Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, written in 1950/51. Burgess's simplified version is stripped down, with not so many fugal devices, and with the odd music-hall turn or jazz flavour in place of the awe-inspiring emotional content of the Russian master. But there are similarities in tone and the same heart-felt nods to the genius of Bach. "I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels," Burgess once said,  "instead of a novelist who writes music on the side." Thanks to Naxos's Grand Piano label for their excellent package, including well-recorded, non-Casiotone sound and well-written, informative liner notes; and to the fine pianist Stephane Ginsburgh for providing the best possible way for us to think of Anthony Burgess in this way. Kudos should also go to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for their support; learn much more about the musician/author at

Monday, March 12, 2018

More great Bacewicz from The Silesians, with Friends

Grazyna Bacewicz: Piano Quintets, Quartet for 4 Violins, Quartet for 4 Cellos

The Silesian Quartet follow their Gramophone Award-winning Bacewicz String Quartets release from Chandos with this excellent new chamber music disc. It's another marvellous CD, and one more reason to marvel at the compositions of Grazyna Bacewicz, and especially at her mastery in writing for strings. Matched with the superb Wojciech Switala on piano, the Silesians provide energy, excitement and drama in the two Piano Quintets. The first is a taut thriller from 1952, while the second, from 1965, is more expansive, but often as mysterious and fraught with emotion. It has a real sense of foreboding and danger that takes one a bit by surprise in the usually fairly safe and civilized environs of the chamber music recital. Two other works call attention to themselves by their odd instrumentation, but quickly show their craft and imagination. The Quartet for 4 Violins was originally written as a teaching piece, but Grazyna's compositional sleight of hand and skillful blend of folk themes keeps one so engaged that one hardly notices the relatively simplicity, and hardly misses the usual bass parts. As Terry Pratchett, who died three years ago today, says, "It's still magic even if you know how it's done." What a clever and magical work this is!

With the Quartet for 4 Cellos, written in 1964, Bacewicz moves to a much more experimental, uncompromisingly modern sound. She also eschews the broadly singing, cantilena sound that is so characteristic of such cello ensemble works as Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5. This short work makes a big impact; it resonates in the mind after it's complete. This performance by the Polish Cello Quartet is the first I've heard, and it's completely convincing. Perhaps a group like The Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic can take this work into their repertoire, and draw straws for which musicians get to play it.

January 17, 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of Grazyna Bacewicz's death. I hope that this fact might bring a new interest in this criminally under-recognized composer, with more concerts and recordings to follow. The Silesian Quartet, their accomplished Friends and Chandos are certainly doing their part to help to build up her reputation to something more like what her talents deserve.

This disc will be released on April 6, 2018.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Engaging and colourful music from Latin America

Villa-Lobos: Concerto Grosso, Fantasia em Tres Movimentos (en Forma de Choros); Chavez: Chapultepec; Rodrigo: Per la flor del lliri blau, Adagio

This is such a great release, with music we've needed on disc for such a long time. Of course, I'm most interested in the two Villa-Lobos works, both of which from his late period. Late Villa-Lobos is a bit of a hodgepodge; it includes a few less than inspired commissioned works, but also some of his greatest music: the last few String Quartets, the Magnificat Alleluia and Bendita sabedoria, and the operas Yerma and A Menina das Nuvens. The two pieces for wind orchestra are both standouts. The Concerto Grosso for Wind Quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet & bassoon) and Wind Orchestra is from Villa-Lobos's last year, 1959. There are a few recordings available, including a Latin Grammy-winner from Naxos with Jose Serebrier conducting "The President's Own" United States Marine Band. The 1958 Fantasia em Tres Movimentos (en Forma de Choros), a nostalgic final look back at a lifetime of music in the Choros form, has only a single recording, a world premiere available from the University of Pennsylvania Music Department. Both of the newly recorded pieces are beautifully played by the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra under conductors Clark Rundell and Mark Heron, and well presented by the Chandos producer engineers. 2017 was the Villa-Lobos Symphonies Year, thanks to the completion of the Naxos series from OSESP under Isaac Karabtchevsky. Even though it's only March, I'm quite sure 2018 will be the Villa-Lobos Wind Orchestra Year, based on this release.

On Twitter I referred to these two works as Villa-Lobos's NAFTA music, after Marcelo Rodolfo of the Museu Villa-Lobos tweeted that the Concerto Grosso was written in Mexico, and the Fantasia in Canada:

As you can see from the scores, both works were written for The American Wind Symphony in Pittsburgh, and both were dedicated to Mindinha.

(Thanks for these, Marcelo!)

The other works on this disc are really interesting. The two pieces by Joaquin Rodrigo are about what I expected, colourful music with Iberian touches. With the title Chapultepec, I expected something more folkloric from Carlos Chavez's piece, but it's more about the municipal band in the town square playing military marches and Italian opera tunes than anything approaching the revolutionary modernism we connect with Chavez. The entire disc is full of colour and engaging tunes; it's completely delightful.

This disc will be released on April 23, 2018. This review also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A triumphant close to a magisterial piano series

Almeida Prado: Cartas Celestes 13, 16, 17, 18

The great Cartas Celestes series of the Brazilian composer Almeida Prado comes to a triumphant close with this fourth release by Aleyson Scopel. The series reminds me of the 15 Choros Villa-Lobos wrote between 1920 and 1929 (13 numbered works, an Introduction, and the Choros bis) in their combination of an avant garde musical language and folkloric influences, but most importantly in the intellectual and emotional scope of their vast canvases. Though nearly all of these works focus on the piano, the fact that three do not (#7 is for two pianos and symphonic band, #8 for violin and orchestra, and #11 for piano, marimba and vibraphone) makes one think of Villa's Choros series as well. It would be great if Naxos could record these three works to complete the series.

But not to worry, Aleyson Scopel has everything well in hand on the piano side. If anything there is more virtuosity on display here, especially in #16-18, which Almeida Prado wrote in his last year, 2010. The whole series comes to a fitting end with a reference to Macunaíma, the elemental, larger than life character from Mario de Andrade's great modernist novel of 1928. And there are musical echoes of the elemental Villa-Lobos himself, especially Rudepoema and the two books of Prole do Bebe, along with the Choros series. Villa-Lobos famously said "This is my conservatory," pointing to a map of Brazil. To that map Almeida Prado has appended the great Celestial Map of the sky above Brazil, and Aleyson Scopel is the astronomer and astrologer who makes interprets this beautiful and awesome music.

This disc will be released on April 13, 2018.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Deeply moving and profound

Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis, Nobilissima Visione, Konzertmuzik "Boston Sinfonie"

I've been listening to way more Paul Hindemith in the past couple of years. Some outstanding recent discs are driving this, but I went back to the composer himself conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1950s,  from the 3 CD set from Deutsche Grammophon, to take a closer look at his orchestral music. What I heard there impressed me greatly, and surprised me more than a little. This is almost all really stellar music, and the old recordings still have the power to move one as much as all but the greatest composers of the 20th century.

Now comes this new disc, just released, from Marek Janowski and the WDR Symphony Orchestra. This raises the bar even more, and not just with the improved sonics (to be sure, the old DGG recordings sounded better than one would expect). There's even more excitement and energy here, more warmth in Hindemith's reflective moments. This music isn't only "orchestral showpiece" level, as sparkly as it can be. This is at times deeply moving and profound. I highly recommend this excellent Pentatone release.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The best introduction into Pettersson's dark & serious world

Allan Pettersson: Symphonies 5, 7

Christian Lindberg continues on his way to a new complete Pettersson symphonies cycle for BIS, for The Allan Pettersson Project 2013-2019, a joint project with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra.  It was clear from the previous releases that this is now the set to get, though the symphonies by Sergiu Comissiona and Alun Francis both contain excellent work. The new disc underlines this, especially considering the outstanding 7th Symphony, probably the most popular in the series.

In a lifetime of pain and suffering Allan Pettersson had the great solace of music, and at times he must have seen a road ahead that was less fraught. The premiere of his 5th Symphony in 1963 was quite a success, and contributed to his award of a lifetime minimum income from the Swedish government. His music began to be denigrated, though, not for its modern idiom, but for not being modern enough. Pettersson always seemed out of sync with the world in which he lived, though from today's vantage point this music seems to evoke all of the ambiguities of the post-war world, the echoes of past horrors along with a tentative groping for transcendence.

The 7th Symphony, which had its first performance with Antal Dorati and the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra fifty years ago this fall, in October 1968, was an even greater success, and propelled the work into the orchestral repertoire until today, at least in Sweden and Germany. This is a great work that perhaps provides the best introduction into the rather daunting, dark and serious world of Allan Pettersson.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fun for four hands and a piano keyboard

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos arranged for piano duet

Back in 2003 Sony released a great Bach album, one of my all-time favourites, by Murray Perahia. It included an electrifying performance of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto:

That's great piano playing in the cadenza, but I love the piano/orchestra textures throughout the concerto. It points the way to this new arrangement of the Brandenburg Concertos for piano duet. I know I was ready for this! Eleonor Bindman's arrangement is outstanding, at once freer and closer to the spirit of the original music, and with more interesting textures than the one by Max Reger. Bindman and Jenny Lin (who was so great in this year's release of Philip Glass Etudes) really lean in to this freedom, swinging when Bach allows, and never staid or boring when things get more thoughtful or academic.

Here's a short taste of the music, and some interesting comments about the arrangement by Bindman. Though she may have started with purely pedagogical reasons for bringing this music to four hands and a piano keyboard, which I'm sure are very close to Max Reger's own, Bindman and Lin are obviously having too much fun here for it to be just that. And that makes it even more pleasurable for us to listen to.

THE BRANDENBURG DUETS: Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos arranged for piano duet by Eleonor Bindman from Grand Piano Records on Vimeo.

Eleonor Bindman has a fabulous section on her website exploring this project more fully. I highly recommend checking it out!

The Brandenburg Duets disc will be released on March 9, 2018.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

With Love from Stewart Goodyear

Stewart Goodyear: piano works by Gibbons, Sweelinck, Bach, Brahms, Berg

On January 11, 1955 Glenn Gould made his New York debut (what he called his "Debutown") at Town Hall, and on the following day he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. His 27 years in the recording studio before his untimely death in 1982 made him a legend around the world, but here in Canada he is especially admired and loved. One of those hero-worshippers is Stewart Goodyear, born and raised in Toronto, and an alumnus, like Gould, of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Goodyear has recently been playing in concert many of the works from Gould's audacious programme in New York, and in his American debut earlier that year in Washington DC.

Glenn Gould's debut concert at Town Hall, January 11, 1955. Library & Archives Canada
Now we have this new Sono Luminus disc with many of those pieces: music by Gibbons, Bach (Sinfonias from the 3-Part Inventions and the 5th Partita) and Berg (his Piano Sonata op.1). He's also included two Brahms Intermezzi and to close, the ultimate Gould tribute, the Aria from The Goldberg Variations. I love Gould's Brahms; those who think of him as a capricious and detached artist should listen to his 1961 recording of 10 Intermezzi, which he referred to as "the sexiest interpretation of Brahms’s Intermezzi you’ve ever heard". He also said it was "perhaps the best piano playing I have done." Goodyear's own Intermezzo in A major, op. 118 no. 2 is as rapturous and full-blooded as Gould's, full of a deep understanding of Brahms and a fitting tribute to Gould in the bargain.

It was surprising to notice how slow some of Glenn Gould's tempi were in his recordings of the early English masters. His 1971 recording of Orlando Gibbons' "Lord of Salisbury" Pavan and Galliard runs about the same length as Goodyear's in spite of the fact that the latter includes repeats that Gould doesn't. Goodyear's zippier version makes more musical sense, I think. Though I do love Gould's whole album A Consort of Musicke bye William Byrde and Orlando Gibbons, it's a bit out in left field even by the standards of its day, much less when looked at through any modern historically informed practice lens. 

Thank goodness we're finally beyond looking at Glenn Gould as the mere sum of his eccentricities. We have a much better idea of the whole person: his emotional responses to people as well as pianos, and the full measure of his mastery in so many dimensions of great artists like Bach and Brahms. It's this response to the complete artist that makes Goodyear's tribute so important; it's based on a study of the deep roots of Gould's art, and not the externalities. As well, it's obviously heartfelt. The best expression of this love is the last piece on the disc, the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. Goodyear's moving performance takes the middle ground between the bright, almost coltish first version Gould made at the beginning of his recording journey, and the solemn, heart-breaking one he made close to the end. What a marvellous way to celebrate our Glenn!

This disc will be released on March 23, 2018.