Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

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

Monday, 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.