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, May 29, 2018

A fortunate collaboration in a great Country House

Georg Friedrich Handel: Acis and Galatea (1718 version)

Early in the 18th century a group of writers came together in one of London's newly-popular coffee-houses, and began a long satirical collaboration that would eventually result in interesting products in the literary, political and, as we shall see, the musical fields. The members of the Scriblerus Club, who included such big names as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay, pitched ideas and jokes to each other like a roomful of sitcom writers, with their creation Martinus Scriblerus an early version of Alan Brady or Tracy Jordan. As I learned from a fascinating episode of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time, the death of Queen Anne in 1814 and the fall from power of the Tory Ministers in 1815 scattered the Scriblerus Club members. But they would soon be back.

Meanwhile, Georg Frederic Handel's fortunes as a composer showed peaks and valleys after he settled permanently in Britain in 1712, though always trending more or less up. In 1710 he had been named Kappelmeister to the Elector of Hanover, who became King George I on the death of Queen Anne. A falling-out with the new Sovereign was bad, but things looked much better when he became the fashionable operatic composer in London. Even better, in 1717 his Water Music for George I's barge was a big hit, but fashions turn quickly, and he all at once found himself without a hit in London's operatic world. So he turned from the fickleness of both city and court to a lavish country house that included its own orchestra and singers: James Brydges' (later Duke of Chandos') Cannons, built at a cost of £200,000, worth tens of millions today. There Handel fell in with a group of Scriblerians, themselves looking for a more congenial home after their political/artistic exiles.

The librettists were John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes; the subject was one that Handel had used for an earlier Neapolitan opera, Acis and Galatea, from the story told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Everything now had an English slant; the project was more like an English masque than an Italian opera. The songs - to very cleverly crafted English words - were sung by English singers. And the Englishness continues to this recording, recorded, by mainly British musicians, I'm sure, at the Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb in November of 2017. And all for Chaconne, the Early Music marque of Chandos, the label named for the Duke who built Cannons and help bring about some of Handel's greatest music. Acis and Galatea was apparently Handel's most popular work during his lifetime. The clever libretto must surely have played a part here, though Handel's tunes are often sublime, his rhythms infectious, his sad arias heart-breaking and his happy ones uplifting. The opera has most effective advocates here: the two leads, soprano Lucy Crowe as Galatea, and tenor Allan Clayton as Acis, are outstanding, as is the choir. The musicians of the Early Opera Company, led by Christian Curnyn, have a special quality about their playing that one might almost call rustic. It looks back to the masques of Henry Purcell, and ahead to a future collaboration of John Gay with another German composer who settled in England, Johann Christoph Pepusch, The Beggar's Opera from 1728. I had a great deal of fun researching this review - it's what retired librarians do - but even more listening to this music!

This disc will be released on June 1, 2018. Here's the official trailer:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Serious music of a serious man

Francesco Antonio Bonporti: Sonatas for 2 Violins and Basso Continuo, op. 2

The name of Francesco Antonio Bonporti was unknown to me until 2000, when Dynamic began releasing their Bonporti Edition, with the Accademia I Filarmonici. That series ended up with five releases, representing a good chunk of Bonporti's music. This is very fine music indeed, full of invention, and well-played by the Italian band. Speaking of invention, it was a case of mistaken identity that first brought Bonporti to the attention of the wider musical world. Four Inventions in J.S. Bach's hand-writing, assumed to be Bach's compositions, were discovered to be Bonporti originals. A strong affirmation of Bonporti's quality! Fifteen years later we have this excellent disc from Labirinti Armonici, and if anything it raises the bar in terms of performance, and gives even more credence to the idea that Bonporti should be considered a composer of more than average stature.

Bonporti is a son of Trento, known in English as Trent (of Council of Trent fame), a prosperous small city in Northern Italy. Its history as a part of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and re-unified Italy points to a role as a link between northern and southern cultures, but except for the mixup with Bach and his Inventioni Bonporti's real musical links were with Rome (especially Corelli), Venice (Vivaldi), Padua (Tartini) where he died in 1749, the year before Bach. This isn't music of a dynamic, cosmopolitan composer, though, but rather more of a quiet, studious provincial with impeccable skills but not a great deal of ambition. He was an amateur in the best sense of the term, with a refined sensibility and a distinctive voice. The excellent musicians of Labirinti Armonici present this serious music of a serious man in the best possible way, with able support from Brilliant Classics, who continue to surprise with release after release of Early Music of the very highest quality.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Music of piety, fun and good-will

Telemann: Cantatas Aller Augen warten; In Christo gilt weder Beschneidung; Ich bin der erste; Siehe, eine Jungfrau ist schwangert

I confess to not being a good enough Baroque scholar to be able to tell apart the French Cycle of Telemann's annual church cantatas from his Italian cycle. It's true that these four works, two of which were written for performance between during 1716/17, and the other two for 1719/20, all have a light and bouncy, almost popular feel to them, which has us looking south of the Alps. The ebb and flow of vocal soloists, choir and orchestra conceivably points to the concerted Italian instrumental works flowing from the great school of Arcangelo Corelli. These are immensely attractive works, with insistent rhythms, splendid melodies and heartfelt messages of hope and love. The music sounds like Bach at times, but Telemann's own voice is clear, especially in the magical Chorale that ends the cantata Ich bin der erste, with a simple chorale theme sung by the choir set against a descant played by the clarino trumpet. Here's the soprano part, from the autograph score facsimile at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.

As Vincent Vega says in Pulp Fiction, "It's the little differences."

CPO has perhaps helped to move the needle of Telemann's reputation a slight bit with their generally excellent cantata releases, usually from North German ensembles. This recording from Mannheim was made in 2016, and the disc has already been released in Germany, to generally positive reviews. I was certainly convinced by these performances; there's a feeling of piety, but also fun and good-will that's much stronger than any sense of erudite re-creation by musician scholars.  It will be released in North America on June 8, 2018.

Objectifying the subjective pleasure of reading

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet, read by Adam Sims

"Like when a reader reads out loud, to fully objectify the subjective pleasure of reading..."

In his great masterwork The Book of Disquiet the great Portuguese modernist Fernando Pesoa posits a perfect retirement:
"...on the outskirts of somewhere or other, enjoying a tranquillity in which I won’t write the works I don’t write now.... How sublime to waste a life that could have been useful, never to execute a work of art that was certain to be beautiful."
For a retired librarian living on the tranquil outskirts of Canada, this feels a bit close to the bone. When the marvellous Adam Sims came to this passage in this perfect new unabridged Naxos Audiobook, I realized that I wasn't even reading Pessoa myself (though the eBook is on my iPad all set to be read), but sublimely having someone else read it to me. All something that might have happened in an updated version of a work by Pessoa.

Pessoa is so much in vogue today, I guess, because of our almost random jumble of yearnings, for meaning, for an end of pain, for hope, for comfort, for life and/or oblivion. "To possess, in the shade, that nobility of spirit that makes no demands on life... To be no more, to have no more, to want no more." Adam Sims beautifully, carefully, soberly even, communicates almost unbearable grief when Pessoa's protagonist Bernardo Soares, his own stand-in "heteronym", confesses to the terrible effect of losing his mother when he was only one year old, and his father, a suicide, at three. And then, in a just-a-touch lighter tone, he turns to the dark comedy of Soares' elaborate circumlocutions, a combination of Melville's Bartleby, Kafka's Samsa and Borges' Doctor Tsun. The Book of Disquiet is often so very funny, full of irony but with no mordant bite.

"Pessoa was as devoted to incompleteness as to self-estrangement," says Benjamin Kunkel, "and most of the prose he wrote was fragments".  But in the midst of his unfinished work are many lacunae of Pessoa's own design. Sims will build up a not inconsiderable head of steam in Soare's seemingly sincere arguments, and then pull the rug out from under us: "Missing text here." This, I think, must work even better in an audiobook than on the printed page. One is never on solid ground with Pessoa; and Sims has perfectly judged his pauses, his subtle rhetorical emphases, to keep us, the would-be comfortable listeners in headphones being read to by a mellifluous voice actor, always a bit on edge. The Book of Disquiet.

So with deceptive simplicity a transcription of almost innumerable quotidian details in the life of an Assistant Bookkeeper in the Rua dos Douradores in 1930s Lisbon somehow adds up to this sad and funny, triumphantly hopeful and deeply depressed novel. It's a book about not writing a book by writing a book, and reading a book by not reading it.

The release date is July 13, 2018.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Masterworks from the Ginastera Year and beyond

Alberto Ginastera: Piano Concerto no. 1; Concierto argentino; Variaciones concertantes

The Ginastera Centennial of 2016 has to be counted a success, judging by a decent uptick in both recordings and live performances around the world. The reputation of the master from Buenos Aires is as high as it ever was, and I think it's clear that only Villa-Lobos and Chavez are in his league among the greatest of Latin American composers. The first two volumes of this Chandos series of Orchestral Works were highlights from the Centennial year, but the masterworks keep coming in this new disc, due June 1, 2018. Actually, two of the pieces were recorded in late 2016, so we have the Ginastera Year to thank for this release as well!

Ginastera is one of those composers who was careful to suppress his juvenilia, so we're lucky that the Concerto argentino of 1935, written when he was only 18, is still around. There's a grand, reckless abandon to this music, and the young composer's abundant melodic gifts are clear, even if the piece tends to occasionally slack off, and then move off in another direction in lieu of developing what's happened before, like a young hound who loses and then catches again what may (or may not!) be the scent. He could easily have been under the spell of Villa-Lobos's contemporary folkloric works, if not his more modernist piano works of the 1920s, though if there's an influence really apparent here, it's George Gershwin. This is slight music, but fun, and worth a listen.

We're in a different world with the Variaciones concertantes of 1953, both in terms of quality and of the first layer of abstraction that comes with Ginastera's move from "Objective" to "Subjective Nationalism" as a compositional style. I'm always uncomfortable with the term "orchestral showpiece", since there are musical reasons other than showing off compositional, and by extension instrumental, virtuosity, in this kind of brilliant concerto for orchestra. Look closely at a Velasquez painting and you'll see stupendous feats of virtuoso painting, but it's the overall effect of the work, and not the shiny bits, that really count. Kudos to the players of the BBC Philharmonic for their polished presentation of all the ingenious bright passages, but also to conductor Juanjo Mena for keeping them on task in the presentation of a vital and interesting musical journey.

The 1961 Piano Concerto no. 1 is the real masterwork on this disc, and it receives a stand-out performance from Xiayin Wang and the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. It's the first of Ginastera's works from his third "Neo-Expressionist" phase, which began with his move from Argentina to Europe. While his new music shows a certain pulling away or abstraction from folkloric content, Ginastera uses the sophisticated compositional tools of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg to intensify his emotional responses to the same rhythms and landscapes of the pampas and the streetscapes of Buenos Aires that always drove his music. This is among the greatest of all American concerted works with piano, to go along with Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 3 and his Choros no. 11 and a certain work called Rhapsody in Blue.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ends of a continuum, plus one in the middle

Vaughan Williams: Mass in G Minor, Choral Works

Having just completed a review of a Vaughan Williams CD from Toronto, I'm back on familiar English turf with this new recording of his choral music from The Choir of St. John's Cambridge. However, here's fair warning that I'm going to stay on what might be a controversial topic: the question of Trans-Atlantic Vaughan Williams. The new disc is beautifully sung, and sounds outstanding. But I have a sentimental favourite for the G Minor Mass from the Olden Days of the long-playing record: the Roger Wagner Chorale on a 1961 Angel LP matched with a Bach cantata. Though never released on CD by EMI, there's a very good Pristine Classical re-issue of this most passionate recording from Los Angeles, with a small choir of some of the greatest American singers ever assembled. Though the complete list of singers isn't included in the notes, the Chorale at one point included the Hollywood superstars Marni  Nixon and Salli Terri. In a rave review of the Pristine Classical disc, SGS says "It comes down to rhythm. Vaughan Williams actually swings in this score, and British choirs don't. They tend toward bloodless piety. I think the work really benefits from Wagner's point of view outside the English cathedral tradition." I'm half way to agreeing with this, but I suspect my enthusiasm also comes from more than a bit of sheer nostalgia.

The new disc, meanwhile, is from the Choir of St. John's Cambridge, which I assume puts it firmly in the English cathedral tradition. This performance of the Mass is cooler, more serene; at times it even sounds careful. So sure, looked at in a certain way you might call it bloodless, but then from another one might call the Roger Wagner version vulgar, especially considering the Leopold Stokowski style re-orchestration and recording gimmicks to highlight the work in the Hollywood style.  Vaughan Williams had in mind Byrd and Tallis, of course, but there are more modern influences from the Continent as well, including especially Ravel. We have, then, two completely different readings of this impressive work, each pretty much at an end of the continuum. It's probably very Canadian of me to introduce a (Canadian) compromise that fits nicely in the middle, with choral singing at the same high level as the other two: the 2002 Naxos recording with the Elora Festival Singers under Noel Edison. It's a sign of the greatness of Vaughan Williams' choral writing that three interpretations so completely different can all provide such pleasure.

This disc will be released on May 18, 2018

Thursday, May 10, 2018

An important concert finally on CD

Duke Ellington in Coventry, 1966

The February 21, 1966 concert of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Coventry Cathedral was a big deal.  "It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done,” said Duke in an interview with TV Times, “...and the most important. It’s a personal statement. It’s a personal statement about belief." The concert has been very well documented with photographs from both the rehearsal and the concert itself. Here's a shot by Bill Wagg:

As well, the 55 minute television broadcast from ABC Midlands, first shown in April 1966, has apparently been re-shown recently on ITV in Britain, though I haven't yet found it on DVD or streaming video. Now, finally, we have this great-sounding CD from Storyville, due on June 8, 2018. Storyville knows its Duke; they have more than 100 Ellington titles in their catalogue. Their restoration engineers also have demonstrated that they can make the most out of pretty much any source material, and this disc ends up sounding pretty decent. The band is on top form; here is the lineup:

The orchestra added English vocalists for the concert, soloist George Webb and the Cliff Adam Singers, and they're very fine in their numbers. The band of course misses Billy Strayhorn, who died in May of the following year, but Duke's piano solos are first class and very moving. There's so much expression here; some of that comes of course from his deeply-held spiritual beliefs, but I expect he's already beginning to mourn the loss of his great collaborator.

Here's a lovely story about a 14-year old boy & his jazz-loving father listening in on Duke's rehearsal at the Cathedral.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Beginnings, reconciliation and serenity

Albert Roussel Piano Trio, op. 2; Claude Debussy: Piano Trio no. 1; Gabriel Faure: Piano Trio, op. 120

Back in October 2016 I reviewed the debut Chandos disc from the Neave Trio, American Moments, and loved pretty much everything about it, though I did quibble a bit about the title. These are such talented musicians, and they've put together another fascinating CD program, but at a significantly higher musical level. And this time around the title is just right.

As with the first disc, there's an early work to begin: Albert Roussel's Piano Trio was only his second published work, but it's definitely assured and well-crafted. It may not have the swagger of the child prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold's op. 1 Trio, but its opening slow introduction is really quite extraordinary, a slow climb up a mountain through a misty forest. The rest of the work doesn't quite match this atmospheric beginning, but it gets a committed reading from the Trio. Roussel took his time becoming a composer; he was 33 when his op. 2 was published, so you can imagine him as Robert Redford the Rookie in The Natural. Claude Debussy's first Piano Trio is an actual work of juvenilia, though, as he was only 18 when he wrote it. It's rather slight and a bit slick, but it's certainly fun to listen to, and this version has just the right blend of naiveté and prescient irony.

Just like with their first disc, there's a very fine mature work to finish. Gabriel Faure's op. 120 was written only a year before his death, and during a period when he was not in very good health. But it has the reconciliation and serenity that Edward Said calls the "accepted notion" of late style, citing Sophocles, Shakespeare and Verdi. This is powerful, moving music, played with great sentiment but also grace and finesse.

Here's the official trailer video from Chandos.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Dominion Strikes Back

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music; Oboe Concerto; Flos Campi; Piano Concerto

The world of Ralph Vaughan Williams seems still to be overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, British. The vast majority of recordings today hail from the British Isles, with very few from major American or Continental orchestras or conductors, much less those farther afield. The English Pastoral tradition, the music of the Tudors and the Anglican choral tradition, and the whole range of folk music of the British Isles, come together to build the engine that drives Vaughan Williams' reputation. Those of us who love Vaughan Williams, and I'm sure there are as many today around the world as there ever were, look to the English record companies to keep new albums coming in the Vaughan Williams pipeline.  Chandos in particular has a very deep and broad VW catalogue. It's great to see this superb new disc, to be released on June 1, 2018, coming from Toronto, played and sung by Canadian musicians, and one of the top Vaughan Williams discs in recent memory.

Toronto-born conductor Peter Oundjian, who will become the Toronto Symphony's Conductor Emeritus at the end of the current season, has put together a programme that shows off some of Vaughan Williams' many strengths. After 15 years with the orchestra, he has everything moving at the highest level, like clockwork, from strings to winds to brass and percussion. Two principals from the orchestra, oboist Sarah Jeffrey and violist Teng Li, provide star-soloist level work in the profoundly hopeful Oboe Concerto from 1944 and the sensuous, mystical Flos Campi from the mid-1920s. The latter work features one of the world's great choirs, the Elmer Iseler Singers, a Toronto fixture for nearly 40 years. The choir, along with a strong quartet of solo singers, also elevates the Serenade to Music, from 1938. This is a tour de force of orchestral, choral and solo vocal music, one of the composer's greatest works. The Toronto musicians come together here to provide the most impressive version I've heard on disc. The French-Canadian soloist Louis Lortie, whose own Chandos discography is also distinguished in both depth and breadth, has the virtuoso technique to handle the uncharacteristically hard-edged, blunt piano writing in the Piano Concerto, from 1932. This is a sparkling, brightly lit performance, accompanied by the same controlled fireworks from the orchestra. Both soloist and orchestra are meltingly romantic, of course, in the middle movement Romanza. More top-level Vaughan Williams!

This is a well-filled CD, but unfortunately there isn't room for two works that opened (Fantasia on Greensleeves) and closed (Wasps Overture) the two November 2017 concerts at Roy Thomson Hall recorded for this album. Perhaps Chandos or the TSO could provide one or both as audio or video bonuses on their websites. Fingers crossed!