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, November 29, 2018

Complex piano music played with sensitivity and grace

Cécile Chaminade: Piano Music

Nearly all of the considerable strengths of Cécile Chaminade are on display in this new disc by pianist Mark Viner, a well chosen program that ranges from the lightest salon pieces to fiercely virtuosic display pieces to works of complexity and profound depth. For those who don't know Chaminade's music, the Poème provençal, Op.127, from 1908, is a real stunner. Certainly it's atmospheric, and effective landscape painting, but as absolute music its four movements together aren't out of place in the company of great piano works from Chopin to Debussy. Viner plays it with sensitivity and grace, sustaining the long, beautiful melodies, but not milking them with sentimentality.

Poème provençal, 1908. Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Indeed, Viner's strong playing makes the old canards against Chaminade - bathos, mawkishness, melodrama - seem ludicrous. The sheer, simple beauty of a small piece like Méditation, the last of the 6 Romances sans paroles, Op.76, is reason enough to buy this album.

But this is about more than just the obviously beautiful. It's a multi-faceted, three-dimensional portrait of a major composer for the piano, and a significant achievement for Mark Viner and Piano Classics.

Friday, November 23, 2018

À la recherche du temps perdu

Brahms: Piano pieces op. 76, 79, 116, 117, 118, 119
The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity.  He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain.  He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.
- Virginia Woolf
Woolf's reference to Proust is relevant to Brahms's late piano music not only in its synthesis of sensibility and tenacity, but also as an extended contemplation of the composer's past music and life. As Proust himself wrote, "Our passions shape our books, repose writes them in the intervals." Brahms's passions - music, friendship and love of a lifetime - are written in this music in such a vital way.

The eight Klavierstücke Op.76, from the 1870s, look backward to Schumann, and farther back, to Schubert. In pianist Charles Owen's words, "I feel that the spirit of Schumann dominates these Op.76 pieces more strongly than in anything else that I know by Brahms." Owen plays this music with the vigour of the young Brahms exploring new worlds with his friend Schumann, saving his more muted tones for the wistful music to come.

With the two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 from 1879, we move to a sadness that's still too intense for the nostalgia of his last works. But this is sadness drained of all anger, and played by Owen with a concentrated severity. In Owen's words, "If people say that late Brahms is ‘autumnal’, the G minor Rhapsody is much more of a winter piece reminding me of a bleak Caspar David Friedrich painting of a ruined abbey and graveyard surrounded by skeletal trees with their leaves all fallen."

Caspar David Friedrich, Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, 1810
With the Op. 116 Fantasien from 1892 we enter the true Proustian world of Brahms's final period. So many of the last 20 pieces he wrote for piano are heartbreakingly sad, and it's only natural that one think here of Clara Schumann, his muse and constant friend and lost love. "I think Op.118 is about reminiscence", says Owen. "Possibly it’s the recollection of a whole life. There’s passion, there’s love, and autobiography." Owen saves his best playing for these pieces, and especially the last 4 Intermezzi, Op. 119. Proust spoke of "that translucent alabaster of our memories," and I've convinced myself that I can hear a translucence in Owen's performance: colours overlaid with colours, tones with overtones, memories with remembered dreams. Such a moving album!

James Jolly recently talked with Charles Owen about Brahms's late piano music on the Gramophone Podcast.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A special new jazz album for Christmas

Kristin Korb: That Time of Year

Every year I'm on the lookout for a special new jazz Christmas album, and I've found one that will surely be part of my holiday playlist in years to come: That Time of Year, from the Danish vocalist/bassist Kristin Korb. Korb modulates her voice with the expert bassist's feel for what her fine trio - Magnus Hjorth on piano and Snorre Kirk on drums, along with featured soloist Mathias Heise on harmonica - is up to all the time. Rather than a soloist with accompaniment we have Korb's vocals as part of a very musical whole.

The album's final song is my favourite. Though Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep) isn't really a Christmas song, the fact that Irving Berlin wrote it for Bing Crosby to sing in 1954's White Christmas gives it all the authenticity you could want. The arrangement calls out for guest appearances from Linus and Snoopy and Bill Melendez's animation (though Hjorth's superb, spare piano here is probably more like Bill Evans than Vince Guaraldi). The gorgeous song and fine arrangement, along with Korb's Blossom Dearie-style voice, makes this an instant classic, and worthy of Christmas airtime everywhere, from Spotify in front of your tree to the Walmart PA on Black Friday.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Appealing music from Brazil's modernist tradition

Images of Brazil: music for violin & piano by Guerra-Peixe, Guarnieri, Villa-Lobos, Aguiar, Freire and Villani-Cortes

We have here one of only a few major Heitor Villa-Lobos works that are still without a modern, easy to buy recording: O Martírio dos Insetos, written in 1917/1925 for violin and orchestra. It's true that this Naxos disc, due to be released on December 7, 2018, includes not the full violin and orchestra version, but an arrangement for violin and piano by Ricardo Averbach. But it's so well played by violinist Francesca Anderegg and pianist Erika Ribeiro, and it's such a marvellous piece, that I'd feel like a Grinch for complaining. The work is in Villa-Lobos's full-on modernist style, with the added bonus of Villa's gift for musically communicating his detailed knowledge of the natural world.

Though the rest of this program comes after Villa-Lobos's time, most is in Villa's particularly home-grown modernist style, a blend of advanced compositional and instrumental technique; the folklore of African and Brazilian Indian traditions; and the folk music (and salon music) of Europe, especially from the Iberian peninsula. A good example is the 4th Sonata for Violin & Piano by a leading composer of the generation following Villa-Lobos, Camargo Guarnieri. It's an energetic and passionate work which slides quite naturally into the vacant slot left with Villa's death in 1959. Much of the rest of the program is lighter, more melodic and romantic, and less erudite, but it's all very appealing, and beautifully played by Anderegg and Ribeiro. Highly recommended.

This disc will be released on December 7, 2018.

This review is also posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Authenticity for Christmas

A Vaughan Williams Christmas: original carols and traditional carols arranged by Vaughan Williams

The publication in 1928 of The Oxford Book of Carols was a landmark in the development of the sacred Christmas music we know and love today. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw were the musical editors for the project, and gathered many Christmas songs from across Britain, some of which had gone underground during the Puritan crackdown on Christmas. Vaughan Williams made the arrangements, some simple and some more complex, but all finely judged to sound beautiful as well as authentic when sung by choirs in cathedrals and small churches across the country. He also composed four new carols for the collection, including the touching Blake’s Cradle Song (Sweet dreams form a shade O’er my lovely infant’s head), based on a poem from William Blake's Songs of Innocence.

This is a marvellous disc, with singing of distinction from the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, an excellent choir from a really special place, directed by William Vann. Hugh Rowlands provides tasteful organ accompaniment. Bring a touch of authenticity to your Christmas this year!

As I mentioned, the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a special place; it was designed by Christopher Wren, and sits on a beautiful site next to the Thames. But this recording was made in North London: at St. Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead. The marvellous painting featured on the cover of the disc is from Walter Starmer's ceiling at St. Jude’s Church, painted between 1909 and 1935.

St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb. Photo: John Salmon

Music of complexity & gravitas from the 20th and 21st century

Saariaho x Koh: Tocar, Cloud Trio, Light & Matter, Aure, Graal Théâtre

Kaija Saariaho's violin concerto Graal Théâtre, written in 1994 for Gidon Kremer, is one of the great works of the late 20th century, and a fine way to finish a varied program of music otherwise from the 21st century. Violinist Jennifer Koh stars in this new Cedille disc, with superb support from the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble under the direction of Conner Gray Covington.

Graal Théâtre is based on a book of Arthurian legends by Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud. Saariaho relates how this book inspired her, both in its balance between the personal experience of creation by the artist and the theatricality of performance, and in the modern confrontation of rich source material: for Delay and Roubaud the stories of Guenivere and Galahad, and for Saariaho the great violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. It's the connections to musical tradition and to the theatrical experience that matter here; beyond the positioning implied in the title there is no other connection with Arthurian legend, no musical program. As Roubaud himself said about poetry, "It says what it says by saying it."

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822, Tate Gallery
John Constable's amazing series of oil sketches of clouds is an attempt to capture en plaine air hugely complex and ever-changing meteorological effects in two dimensions. It must have taken manic energy to put oil paint on a fairly large (19" x 23") board at this level of detail in just an hour (on the back of the painting Constable noted "11 a.m." and "noon" as his starting and stopping times). In her Cloud Trio (2009) for violin, viola and cello, Kaija Saariaho also encountered clouds herself, up close in the French alps, as set out in Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti's superb liner essay (reproduced at her website here):
"When you are high in the mountains, one often sees many different layers of clouds, having all different forms, speeds and textures. They are all different, and yet we all know that they all are clouds. These notions turned into musical ideas in this trio."
With an atmospheric scientist in the family, and living in Canada's most perfect climate, we take our meteorological arts very seriously. Recently a cold front came through, and it was an amazing experience to watch the clouds hurry by from our balcony, while listening to this music. There's a fabulous feeling of atmosphere in Cloud Trio, and the same dimensional shifts one experiences when one looks at Constable's studies. Time passes, and stops; volumes form and dissipate. Three fine musicians communicate form, speed and texture, with a hint of the non-linear world underlying all weather systems. It was the meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz, after all, who developed chaos theory. I can, however, state definitively that this is a stunning performance.

The rest of the program includes works of similar complexity and gravitas. Saariaho's interpretation of the natural world is continued in Light and Matter, from 2014, while she explores human connections in Tocar (2010). The moving Aure (2011) is a tribute to Henri Dutilleux on his 95th birthday, and shares with Dutilleux's Mémoire des ombres the same motto by Anne Frank: "Why us, why the star?"

Saariaho's music nearly always seems to combine great power with delicacy. Koh shines in both; her touch is assured and passionate when required, with a gorgeous full sound but also the most tender fragility. This release leaves one in awe of the artistry of a great composer, a star soloist (and many other fine musicians), and of the natural wonders of our world.

This disc will be released on November 9, 2018.