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, August 30, 2018

We must bear witness

Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II
For the dead and the living, we must bear witness. Not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are responsible for what we do with those memories.
 - Elie Wiesel
In the 1940s Soviet ethnomusicologists led by Moisei Beregovsky recorded amazing Yiddish songs from those terrible times, both in Russia and in Nazi-occupied Europe. This vital research was sealed, and for many years it was thought to be lost forever. But librarians at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine discovered the dusty boxes and catalogued them. Bless the librarians! Early in this century musicologist Anna Shternshis turned this invaluable archive into materials usable by today's musicians. This marvellous CD from Six Degree Records is the result.

What's so exciting about this music is how, in the face of such horrors, the lyrics are so often funny and surprisingly modern, while the music is so vital and alive. The arrangements are by Psoy Korolenko, who also provides vocals for many of the tracks, while Sophie Milman, Sergei Erdenko, Sasha Lurje and the young Isaac Rosenberg provide unforgettable interpretations of this sad but hopeful music. The band really swings: it includes violin, piano, guitar, accordion, clarinet and trumpet. This is an outstanding project musically, and an invaluable resource historically.

For more information visit the Six Degrees Records website.

Alert for Torontonians: The Lost Songs of World War II will be presented live with an 11-piece ensemble of elite soloists at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto on Aug, 28 to open the 2018 Ashkenaz Festival.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A glorious upsetting of the balance

Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 414 & 271

I've always loved Karl Barth's interpretation of Mozart's music. He rejected the view of Mozart's music as light and untroubled, always happy, which more or less prevailed until the middle of the twentieth century. "What he translated into music,” he wrote, "was real life in all its discord." This is about more than music criticism, of course; it's a perfect example of Barth's theology of "the shadow-side of Creation". Though Mozart has presented both the light and the darkness, he rejected, according to Barth, a simple even symmetry between the two. "What occurs in Mozart is rather a glorious upsetting of the balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing, in which joy overtakes sorrow without extinguishing it, in which the Yea rings louder than the ever-present Nay." An early and quite perfect expression of the light overwhelming the shadows is the A major Piano Concerto K. 414, written in 1782. I love the two A major concertos - Mozart wrote another, K. 488, in 1786 - more than all the rest. I hear in them Mozart's loudest ringing of the Yea.

In a live recording from the Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa's opera house, pianist Andrea Bacchetti and conductor Fabio Luisi present a most impressive, and fetching, version of K. 414. Luisi's operatic experience - I know him best for his recent recordings of Berg's Wozzeck and Meyerbeer's Margherita D'Anjou - allows him to focus more clearly on the drama underlying Mozart's "glorious upsetting of the balance", which is after all what works like The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte are all about. Andrea Bacchetti is marvellous for his part as the protagonist working with and against the musicians of the Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice, as if all were on-stage in an opera.

I was less pleased with the other concerto on the disc, K. 271 from 1777. It is, of course, a fine work, miles ahead of any keyboard concerto written after Bach and unchallenged until Mozart himself started his amazing run with K. 413-15 five years later. But Bacchetti and Luisi are both oddly tentative with their opening, and the movement never takes off. Everything is reset, though, for the lovely slow movement, and the finale zips along nicely, skirting the banalities that less accomplished musicians fall into in certain of Mozart's rondos. Even with one less accomplished movement this is outstanding Mozart, and a worthwhile purchase

This album will be released on October 5, 2018.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The magnificent enthusiasm of English Gothic music

The Liberation of the Gothic: Florid polyphony by Thomas Ashwell and John Browne

Bjorn Schmelzer brings his speculative musical-historical approach to English music of the late 15th and early 16th century, once again combined with the highest levels of both music and recording technology, and the result is stunning. The fine singers of the Belgian choir Graindelavoix completely won me over to this music, even though I had been immersed in the less ornate but still moving (and more or less contemporary) music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, as sung by Scott Metcalfe's Blue Heron.

One of Schmelzer's starting points is this short video by Paul Binski, Professor of the History of Medieval Art at Cambridge University, who discusses the amazing art and architecture, sadly defaced by iconoclasts during the Reformation, of Ely Cathedral's Lady Chapel.

Schmelzer finds in the splendour of the Lady Chapel and its impetus in Marian theology a parallel to the music of John Browne, who was born in 1480 but lived only until 1525; and Thomas Ashwell, who may have been nearly an exact contemporary, though it's possible he died as early as 1513. The "florid polyphony" of Browne and Ashwell has the same ebullient drive as the double-curved ogee arches of the Lady Chapel, and Schmelzer underlines this exuberance through his animated interpretation, which his expert choir handles with aplomb. This is what Pater meant when he said in The School of Giorgione (1873) that "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music."

Still, there's another level beyond the florid decorations, and John Ruskin touches on it in The Stones of Venice:
There are however, far nobler interests mingling, in the Gothic heart, with the rude love of decorative accumulation: a magnificent enthusiasm, which feels as if it never could do enough to reach the fulness of its ideal ; an unselfishness of sacrifice, which would rather cast fruitless labour before the altar than stand idle in the market; and, finally, a profound sympathy with the fulness and wealth of the material universe, rising out of that Naturalism whose operation we have already endeavoured to define. 
In the end it is the spiritual nature of both Ely Cathedral and the music of Browne and Ashwell, a deep connection to the cult of Mary. Ruskin's "magnificent enthusiasm" is evident in this marvellous disc.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Music for contemplation and/or devotion

The Lost Music of Canterbury: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks

It's great to see this 5-CD compilation of the complete music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, recorded by Scott Metcalfe's amazing Boston-based choir Blue Heron between 2010 and 2017. I cottoned on to this music with the 4th disc in the series in 2015, and that recording of music by previously unheard composers Robert Jones, Nicholas Ludford and Robert Hunt was a Top 10 disc for me that year. The final disc, from 2017, was just as great, and also made the cut for my Top 10. I've been listening carefully to the first three discs to see what I had missed, and I once again loved what I was hearing: near perfection in singing, and an absolute miracle of musicology, since we were so terribly close to missing out on this music altogether. So much credit goes to Nick Sandon, who interpolated the missing tenor part; that shows what a near thing this was! Metcalfe and Blue Heron erase the centuries between the 15th and 16th and the 21st, in highly atmospheric recordings made at the Gothic-style Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill MA. This is music for contemplation and/or devotion; whatever your spiritual leanings, it will surely lift your spirits!

This album will be released on October 5, 2018.