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.

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.

This disc will be released on April 6, 2018.

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.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Aldo and Yannick double down

Mozart Piano Concerto K. 466; Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 2

These two recordings were made during Yannick Nezet-Seguin's tenure as the LPO's Principal Guest Conductor, before Aldo Ciccolini's death in 2015. The Rachmaninov is from 2009, while the Mozart dates from 2011. These are fascinating performances, with one master at the end of a glittering career and the other at the beginning of his. The Rachmaninov is bright and brash and lush, but also tender and lyrical. I don't think a Romantic concerto could be more beautifully played by an orchestra than what we hear from the LPO musicians. They have the measure of this music, and the producers and engineers have come through with marvellous sound from the live recording in Royal Festival Hall. Romantic Rachmaninov is almost a redundant phrase, but Romantic Mozart approaches the oxymoronic in these Historically Informed Performance days. From its portentiously measured beginning to Ciccolini's incautious rubato to Nezet-Seguin's great swells from the strings, this is Mozart according to the Old Rites of the early days of recording. To be sure, the D minor concerto of 1785 points the way to Don Giovanni and the Requiem, and also to Beethoven, whose favourite Mozart concerto it was. My measured response? This Mozart is old fashioned and anachronistic, but within its own sound world, gorgeously played. It's inappropriately beautiful.

This disc will be released on March 2, 2018.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

An appealing mix of Finnish & Baltic music

Dedicated To: works by Aho, Narbutaite, Rautavaara, Salmenhaara, Vasks

From Erkki Slamenhaara's Elegia II for two String Quartets, dedicated to Juha Kangas in 1963, to Peteris Vasks’ Musica serena, written for Kangas's Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra in 2015, this appealing mix of music shows the skills of the ensemble in its present form as well as the creativity of these Finnish, Latvian and Lithuanian composers. The Lithuanian Onutė Narbutaitė is new to me; her outstanding piece Was There a Butterfly? was written in 2013. This work, full of shifting textures and colours, is expressive, abstract and mysterious. All of the music on the disc rewards close listening, but don't worry about just letting it wash over you. I'm the last person to tell you you're listening to music wrong!

This disc will be released on March 16, 2018.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Marvellous Perle, beautifully played

George Perle: Dance Fantasy, 6 Bagatelles, Cello Concerto, Sinfonietta no. 1, A Short Symphony

The musical wars of the 20th century are beginning to seem to me nearly as insignificant as those of the 19th. Today I listen to a work by Berg or Stravinsky and worry as little about theoretical constructs as I do with Wagner or Berlioz. The music itself hasn't changed, of course, but with the newness rubbed off and the passions of the music wars on the ebb I hear good music or not, congenial to my taste or not. George Perle was interested as much in music theory and history as he was in composition, but I can happily forget that he was one of the key figures in presenting 12-tone music in America, and just listen to this marvellous music, beautifully played by the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot.

It's surprising how small the George Perle discography is; we need many more discs like this. Bridge has done some great work lately in presenting an important American composer, with their 2006 two-disc set George Perle: A Retrospective a landmark. This new disc is volume 4 in Bridge's series; it's especially nice to have so many orchestral works, since most of the recent Perle recordings are of chamber music (as good as that music is). Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony are the best possible advocates for this music, playing with passion, verve and control. Cellist Jay Campbell is superb in the Cello Concerto; it's not a really long piece, but it's by no means slight. Perle has concentrated a powerful mix of music into this piece, which deserves a place in the repertoire.

This disc will be released on February 16, 2018.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Delicacy and intricacy in a vast expanse

Almeida Prado: Cartas Celestes 9, 10, 12 and 14

As Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel continues his traversal of Almeida Prado's huge work for piano, Cartas Celestes, we can begin to see the delicacy of its parts and the intricacy of the relationships within a vast expanse. Stars look to us like points of white light, but this is a multi-coloured canvas; we should think of these star charts as being more like NASA's amazing Hubble Space Telescope photographs than the (admittedly gorgeous) cover art by Tony Price featured on this disc.

Globular Cluster Messier 79 (M79, NGC 1904)

In the first two volumes of this series I often heard the sound of Heitor Villa-Lobos's piano music, most especially the two books of Prole do Bebe, Rudepoema and As Tres Marias. Almeida Prado, of course, has a much more avant garde palette, which is natural considering his teachers included György Ligeti and Lukas Foss. The four works included here date from around the turn of the century; all but the 14th are World Premiere Recordings, and they're indeed welcome.

The Cartas Celestes no. 9 is constructed as a kind of Four Seasons. The episode entitled The summer sky as seen from Brazil includes a shout-out to Villa-Lobos's Three Maries from 1939. Each of the sections has its own atmosphere, though they all share the composer's characteristic clusters and the harmonic language he termed "transtonality". At times this music seems like it must be fiendishly difficult to play, but Scopel handles it all with aplomb, and indeed pushes back in the virtuoso passages to exploit their colour and emotional content rather than just flaunting the razzle-dazzle glitter. Almeida Prado has some fun in the 10th work, The Constellations of the Mystical Animals, and Scopel ensures that we do too, with a light touch in the presentation of this heavenly menagerie enacting scenes from the life of Christ. If these animals are mystical they're closer to St. Francis than anything more abstruse. The 11th work is more arcane, making reference to two paintings by the symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich, including this 1932 work Saint Sophia the Almighty Wisdom, in the Roerich Museum in New York. Almeida Prado doesn't let the extra-musical happenings interfere too much with his musical agenda. When I saw the Roerich connection I listened for Scriabin, but couldn't hear any. Perhaps I don't know the Russian master well enough!

The 14th work is, in my opinion, one of the strongest of the whole series so far. It uses a variety of structures from the piano literature, from a Bachian toccata to a disemboweled waltz, a kind of Darmstadt Ravel. It's witty and strange, but also a bit scary. Scopel is really moving along here, at a disc every year; I'm hoping we see the fourth volume before 2018 is done!

Volume 3 in this series will be released on February 3, 2018. Here are my reviews of Volume 2 and Volume 1.  Both of the previous discs made by Top 10 lists for 2017 and 2016.

Style, wit and grace in man and art

Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts

The latest film in the Exhibition on Screen series, coming soon to a cinema near you, and eventually out on DVD, is another Phil Grabsky masterpiece, this time featuring one of the greatest living artists, David Hockney. I've been following Grabsky's blog for the past few months; in a recent post he talked about his upcoming film (the new Cezanne one, which I'm excited about), and his key question was "What is the story of our film?" That was I'm sure also a challenge for this Hockney project, because of the astounding range and sheer volume of the painter's last decade.

I've been immersing myself in Hockney since my first viewing of this film. There's an excellent book by Tim Barringer and Edith Devaney that came out of the most recent Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, from 2016.

And from the 2012 RAA landscape exhibition, the equally fine David Hockney: A Bigger Picture.

As well, I watched Bruno Wollheim's film of the same name, released in 2010, which I highly recommend. It's available to stream on various platforms, as well as DVD. Hockney had never before allowed video cameras to film him as he painted, but he's completely at ease in front of Wollheim (who had to manage his camera himself), and there's something completely charming about their interactions.

In the latest film we see that same charm and ease in front of Phil Grabsky's cameras, now at a more sophisticated and probing level. The window he opens on Hockney and his dedicated team shows all the hard work that goes into each canvas and print-out. I've spoken before about the perfection of HD video when it comes to opening up the visual arts, and Grabsky is one of the best at presenting art without falling into camera tricks or being stagey or overly reverential. He captures Hockney's flamboyance but also his subtlety, and in the interviews with both the artist and the various experts he shows how the man's style, wit and grace have their mirror in his art. I can't imagine a better way to spend an hour and a half than going to the cinema to see this film. 

Now on to Cezanne!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Beethoven from the heart

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

At the top of the autograph score of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis the composer wrote the motto "From the heart, may it return to the heart!" Conductor Masaaki Suzuki has made this the keynote of an impressive new recording of this late work, emphasizing the very personal, almost ecstatic spirituality Beethoven added to what might not have seemed at first a congenial musical project. Suzuki is a deeply religious man, whose faith infuses all the music he makes, and he begins by taking seriously Beethoven's setting in a liturgical context. Beethoven's Christianity may not have always been orthodox, but it was always sincere. Indeed, I don't think he had an insincere bone in his body! So there's indeed a Bachian (and Handelian) air about this music, and Suzuki also highlights the other older sources Beethoven brings in (which the composer referred to as "the monk's Church chorales". But Suzuki remains true to the score, and with some by now unsurprisingly perfect choral singing from his amazing choir, he brings true authenticity, but also a new freshness and immediacy to this sublime music. The soloists are also all first-class. I was especially impressed with tenor James Gilchrist, who made a strong impression as The Evangelist in John Eliot Gardner's recent St. Matthew Passion, and mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu, so good in Stravinsky's Pulcinella under Boulez.

This album will be released on March 2, 2018. Here is the first part of the Gloria from a live Bach Collegium Japan performance in 2017.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Neapolitan music of light and shade

Neapolitan Concertos by Fiorenza, Pergolesi, A. Scarlatti, Porpora & Mancini

The composers represented on this disc are roughly Bach and Handel's contemporaries (Nicola Porpora and Francesco Mancini), or come from the generation before (Alessandro Scarlatti) or after (Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and Nicola Fiorenza). They all share a common heritage and a peculiarly brilliant and lyrical style intensified by a sophisticated system of conservatories with high musical standards for both vocal and instrumental music. Josetxu Obregon has created a varied and at times inspired program for the fine players of La Ritirata. The featured soloists are all excellent: Tamar Lalo (recorder), Hiro Kurosaki (violin), Ignacio Prego and Daniel Oyarzabal (harpischords), with his own cello solo rounding up this distinguished group of musicians. The standout works are, unsurprisingly, by Pergolesi (a spritely work featuring two harpsichords), and Alessandro Scarlatti (a recorder concerto on the Telemann level if not quite in the Bach/Handel range). Naples is a city of light and shade; melancholy is never far away, even in the midst of its gaiety. Thanks to Glossa for such a compelling album.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Listening to Schubert with the proper spirit of reverence and appreciation

Franz Schubert: Symphonies no. 2 & 5

What a bright and long-burning genius was Franz Schubert, partially obscured though he was by the Great Genius Beethoven. Schubert had an intensity that belied his lack of personal charisma when placed against the larger-than-life 19th century masters. His songs and his piano sonatas are obviously at the very pinnacle of greatness, but when it comes to Schubert's orchestral music it's the earlier, slighter symphonies I love to listen to (not counting the Unfinished Symphony, of course, which is both great and loveable). This is something I expect is fairly common; there's something about Schubert and his music that inspires this kind of love. I was enjoying listening to this clear, bright, thoughtful recording from Antwerp while reading Deborah Solomon's fabulous biography of the artist Joseph Cornell, Utopia Parkway, and saw that Cornell shared this Schubert love:
Cornell's latest fascination was with Franz Schubert, one of many composers who glowed with a special incandescence in his imagination.... Cornell's records meant so much to him that sometimes he couldn't even bring himself to open them. After acquiring a set of recordings of Schubert's Trio in E Flat, Cornell noted in his diary: 'I await the proper moment to unfold its loveliness and enjoy it in the proper spirit of reverence and appreciation it deserves.'
I highly recommend this disc from Maestro Herreweghe, and further recommend that when you buy it you go ahead and open it, or load the MP3s on your computer or phone or whatever, and listen. You'll love it.

A picture of greatness

Otto Klemperer: live recordings from the BBC

Here's another release from the great Itter Broadcast Collection, recordings to tape and acetate disc made by Lyrita's Richard Itter from BBC FM transmissions beginning in the mid-1950s. These recording premieres on four CDs show Otto Klemperer, my favourite 20th century conductor, at the peak of his powers. His Mozart should win over all but the most doctrinaire HIPsters. The middle-period A major Symphony K.201 is relaxed and winning, while the late, great G minor Symphony K. 441 is wound up considerably tighter. "Mozart's in the closet," the last movement begins, "Let him out, let him out, let him out!" Klemperer has us worried about the composer's release, and his fine musicians keep up the pressure throughout. Violinist Bronislav Gimpel provides a lovely tone in Mozart's final Violin Concerto, K. 219, weaving through the most perfectly constructed accompaniment. This is the happiest I've felt after listening to a Mozart disc in a long time. Beethoven (no. 2), Schumann (no. 4) and Brahms (no. 2) symphonies are so impressive, but it's the Bruckner 7th that's the real standout here. This is a performance for the ages, from the quiet by-ways to the blazing glory of the slowly building climaxes. This is a picture of greatness, and I couldn't possibly recommend it more highly.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Precision in the landscape of extinction

Olivier Messiaen: Fantaisie, Theme & Variations, Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Denmark's Ensemble Nordlys provides a lucid and convincing performance of one of the great chamber works of all time, Messiaen's Quartet for the end of time. I've read reviews compaining about the recording balance, but this sounds very good to my (non-audiophile) ears, and I can hear enough of the inner voices to admire the control and precision of the playing of all four musicians.  As William Blake says, "Without minute neatness of execution, the sublime cannot exist!" Listen to the brightness and clarity in the first movement, the Crystal Liturgy:

There couldn't have been much precision at the Quartet's first performance, in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany on January 15, 1941, especially as it was played on scrounged instruments, outside in the rain! But consider the second part of Blake's quote: "Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas." That's the real miracle of this work, that Messiaen could create this art in the fear, cold and privation of his captivity.  Samuel Backett brings us back to that very French virtue: "In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness."

Two substantial, and very interesting, works for violin and piano fill out the disc, which was recorded back in 2013.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A theatrical, even cinematic Mozart Requiem

Mozart: Missa da Requiem

Arthur Schoonderwoerd has put together a Missa da Requiem based on the torso of the Requiem that remained when Mozart died in December of 1791, but fleshed out with additions by other composers, in the context of a full and well-researched contemporary liturgy. The Historically Informed Performance group Cristofori is completely at home in this repertoire, but the Gesualdo Consort is better known for Renaissance and early Baroque repertoire such as Gabrieli and Sweelinck. Schoonderwoerd uses contemporary Requiem Mass models and the fine points of what the plainchant-based recitative portions of the liturgy might have sounded like in late-18th century Vienna to create the kind of hypothetical performance that's very much in vogue among the HIP crowd lately.

I was suspicious at first of this scenario, since I believe the key to Mozart's Requiem is more likely to come by paying close attention to dramatic works like The Magic Flute and especially Don Giovanni, rather than a Requiem from the late 1770s by Michael Haydn. But when I heard this disc the very first time all my doubts were gone. This music has the dramatic blocking and theatrical shading that comes from the opera house rather than the cathedral, especially when compared with the standard version of the Requiem with its often jarring timpani and trumpet riffs added by Süßmayr. The chorus is especially nimble and alert to the nuances in the score. And there's a fascinating Libera me written around 1800 by Ritter Ignaz von Seyfried for a performance of the Mozart Requiem. It was performed after Beethoven's death as well, dedicated to the memory of both composers; this is its recording premiere.

More interesting is Arthur Schoonderwoerd's own Amen Double Fugue. I loved this chromatic Bachianas, whose jauntiness is reminiscent of Ward Swingle as much as Mozart. It's a vivid, almost cinematic interlude. It makes one think perhaps that this music might serve as the soundtrack of a future HIP remake of Miloš Forman's 1984 film Amadeus. I'd watch that!

The colour wheel turned up to 11

Respighi: Vetrate Di Chiesa, Il Tramonto, Trittico Botticelliano

As with earlier discs in this Respighi series from BIS,  John Neschling has the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege firing on all cylinders, which is such a plus for a composer who provides so many opportunities for the orchestra to show off. So it's quite a surprise to see that two of these three pieces didn't begin as rich and gaudy orchestral showpieces. Vetrate Di Chiesa (Church Windows) started out as Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane, three charming pieces written in 1919-21 for solo piano. In 1925 Respighi opened up and colourized these melodies, and added a fourth work as a bonus.  Listen to that opulent final piece, San Gregorio Magno:

This is wide-screen, Technicolor music, and it's not afraid of nudging up against effects some might find vulgar. It's great fun, so you might not notice at first how Neschling has his fine musicians playing with such determination and precision.

Il Tramanto (The Sunset) is a cantata based on a Shelley poem that Respighi wrote in 1914, for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. It's played here with a full complement of strings, and sung by the splendid soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. Even without winds, brass, percussion and organ, everything I've said about colour in Church Windows is relevant here.  This is partly due to superb playing and singing, and partly because of the the 35-year-old composer's skillful blend of the styles of his compatriot Puccini and a couple of composers from the other side of the Alps: Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. I'd never heard this music before, and my view of Respighi has gone up considerably now that I know it well.

The Trittico Botticelliano is my favourite Respighi work, and it receives a lavish recording here. Neschling translates Respighi's fine sense of both melody and orchestral colour, analogues of Botticelli's legendary line and colour, into a perfectly balanced performance. It's great to see this Brazilian conductor, who completely nailed the Villa-Lobos Choros series in his 2008 recordings with OSESP, also from BIS, doing the same on the other side of the Atlantic.

This is the second disc I've reviewed in 2018, and I'm pleased to be able to praise the cover design once again. I hope we can keep that streak going! It's based on a detail from the 1914 International Art Glass Catalogue by the National Ornamental Glass Manufacturers Association of the United States and Canada. You can download the entire catalogue in PDF format here at the Internet Archive; it's gorgeous!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Et in Arcadia ego

Francois Couperin: Les Muses Naissantes

This marvellous new disc by artistic director Jérôme Lejeune and harpsichordist Brice Sailly with La Chambre Claire evokes a very specific time and place: Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. But it is really about a timeless Arcadian fantasy of shepherds and shepherdesses, so perfectly expressed in the painting on the cover of the CD: Nicolas Poussin's La campagne romaine in the Oskar Reinhart collection at Winterthur. Solo pieces performed by Sailly are interspersed with similar works adapted for chamber ensemble, and orchestral pieces from such collections as Les Nations and Concerts royaux. This is beautifully and tastefully played, with attention to the state of the art of Historically Informed Practice, alternately sprightly and stately. The soprano Emmanuelle de Negri is a star here, providing just the right balance of innocence and knowing experience. The phrase Et in Arcadia ego which I use as my title for this review has two meanings. One is a kind of Memento Mori, which reminds us that Death stalks us even in the most bucolic surroundings. This isn't happening here; it's a much happier, more optimistic take with only the slight sadness of nostalgia to temper things. What a great way to start the New Year!

This disc will be released on February 23, 2018.