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, 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.

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.