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.

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