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.