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.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

For these distracted times

The Long 17th Century: A Cornucopia of Early Keyboard Music

Occasionally an artist will construct a programme for a concert or a recording project that illuminates and instructs at a very high level, providing an aesthetic and scholarly experience that rivals the performance itself. Pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar has provided just this in his new two-disc album of music from the "Long 17th Century." "Perhaps a sensibility informed by the combined push-and-pull of present and past", he says, "is fundamental to finding common ground with the music of the 17th century now; that is, as a departure point for making the music familiar but also contemporary to us – and not a mere theme-park visit to a distant world."

Variety is one of the key concepts here: Pienaar has chosen for his Cornucopia 36 works by 36 different composers. But it's the common ground within this broad musical array that allows Pienaar to build a programme of similarly-sounding music written in the period from the last three decades of the 1500s, the entire 1600s, to the beginning of the 1700s. His version of the "Long 17th Century" is thus analogous to popular music in the 1950s extending into the pre-Beatles Sixties: the motto of Spielberg's American Graffiti was "Where were you in '62?"

A number of these composers are at least fairly well-known - Peter Philips, Matthew Locke, Georg Muffat, Giles Farnaby, William Byrd, Dietrich Buxtehude, John Bull. But there are also many names that are completely new to me: Pablo Bruna, John Coprario, Juan Bautista Cabanilles, Antonio Correa Braga, Gaspard Le Roux. Pienaar draws a parallel between the modernizing tendencies of the 17th century and his own adaptations of the music for the modern piano, referring to "the pragmatic and free-spirited tradition not only of the 17th century but also of our own time." This project is a model for scholarly presentation, but it has the freshness & verve of a couple of long sets in a jazz club.

Thomas Tompkin's "A Sad Pavan for these distracted times" is a sad little piece with a perfect title, which echoes back and forth through the centuries. It made me think of T. S. Eliot's Burnt Norton:
Neither plenitude nor vacancy.  Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before time and after.
This album can act as a soundtrack for 2020, as we all dodge the distractions of our over-busy lives and our over-watched screens. It might help, or so one hopes, to bring meaning and the consolations of true art to our lives, "whirled by the cold wind."

This album will be released on February 7, 2020.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Some special music from Estonia

Artur Lemba: Piano Concerto no. 1; Artur Kapp: Symphony no. 4; Mihkel Lüdig:Orchestral Works

I've loved the First Piano Concerto of Artur Lemba ever since I first heard it, on a fine Finlandia disc of Estonian concertos recorded late in the last century. It was so nice to see it on this new disc, again with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, but this time conducted by the esteemed conductor Neeme Järvi. Lemba was trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and his music is solidly in the Russian Romantic tradition. His Concerto is from the same period as Rachmaninoff's 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, and it shares the lyrical feeling of those works, though one can hear as well the influence of Tchaikovsky's concerted music, not to mention Anton Rubinstein's once celebrated 4th Piano Concerto. Pianist Mihkel Poll provides all the virtuosity that Lemba puts into his music - he was as celebrated as a pianist as he was a composer - but the emphasis here is quite rightly on the music's lyrical content. Lemba really brings his own special sound to this music, as he does to the only other major piece of his I know, his Symphony in C Sharp Minor, also recorded by Järvi, and available on a special album from Chandos. Alas, that's largely it for this fine composer on disc.

Though none of the other music on this album quite matches Lemba's piece, it's all quite marvellous. Three short orchestral works by Mihkel Lüdig are lovely, though they perhaps don't stick in the memory for very long. I was quite impressed with Artur Kapp's Viimne piht (The Last Confession), in an arrangement for violin and orchestra that features the violinist Triin Ruubel. Kapp's Symphony no. 4 comes from 1948; its dedication to the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League made me think it might have a Shostakovich sound, but this is music from an earlier time. One of its subtitles is "Classical Symphony", but even Prokofiev's 1st Symphony, from 1916, has a more advanced sound. Kapp's Symphony harks all the way back, I think, to Tchaikovsky's Mozart-inspired orchestral works. The great symphonies of Edward Tubin, memorably recorded by Järvi, show a much richer and vital strain of Estonian music than this light fare, as pleasant as it might be.

As always, Neeme Järvi presents the music of his country in its best light. Authenticity is the keynote of this entire project. Chandos provides its usual full and warm sound, and excellent documentation of this unfamiliar music in a full multilingual liner booklet. Fine production values all around, from one of my favourite labels.

I love the album cover; the design is based on a photograph by Stanislav Rabunski taken in Tallin, Estonia. I managed to track down the original; what a special place!

This disc will be released on February 7, 2020

Fresh Beethoven takes from a fine conductor

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7

All right, 2020 is indeed the Beethoven Year, marking the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. But I wasn't planning on turning Music For Several Instruments into an all-Beethoven blog. We'll see how things go in January, but in the meantime I'm really enjoying listening to the Big Guy as we see out the year and the decade: the Late String Quartets from The Brodsky Quartet, the superb complete Piano Sonatas by Igor Levit, and now this fine new disc of Symphonies from the NDR Radiophilharmonie under Andrew Manze.

Back in 2010 Manze talked with Michael Cookson about his transition from conducting while playing the violin in Baroque repertoire, where he made his early reputation:
But there comes a point with the repertoire when you cannot do that anymore. For me the point came with Beethoven and so to go any further meant I had to put the violin down and conduct. I was always interested in a wide repertoire, not everything, but a wide repertoire.
A decade later, Manze is settled in with the superb NDR Radiophilharmonie, and he's indeed exploring a wider repertoire: most notably the Mendelssohn symphonies in a marvellous series for Pentatone. In this new recording of two of Beethoven's greatest symphonies you can almost hear the pre-figured Mendelssohn echoing in the background. Manze is driving the two-way street between the Classic and Romantic here, proving once again Jorge Luis Borges' axiom: "Every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." This doesn't mean that Manze adds Romantic excrescences to Beethoven, any more than he transfers anything more than a feeling of lightness and an extemporaneous freshness from the early music with which he was once almost exclusively connected. The Fifth Symphony has plenty of drama, but light and dark have equal weight in the great slow movement. One has the feeling that Manze is leading his fine instrumentalists through Beethoven's score without any special agenda of his own; hence his fresh takes sound organic rather than contrived.

Peter Ackroyd, in his marvellous book Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, sees this point of view as something typically British:
What manner of imagination is this? It is one that eschews purity of function for elaboration of form, that strays continually into anecdote and detail, that distrusts massiveness of conception or intent, that avoids 'depth' of feeling or profundity of argument in favour of artifice and rhetorical display.
Manze's Beethoven, I would argue, is firmly in this British tradition of pattern and elaborate decoration, and thus outside the 'profound' tradition of Beethoven conductors, German especially (Furtwangler, Klemperer, Karajan). But as Hugo von Hofmannsthal once said, "Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface." The fact that Manze is leading a German orchestra down this different path - not radically different, but different nevertheless - shows the close bond he has built with his NDR players since he took over the band just over five years ago. One looks forward to more Beethoven from the same source, as well as more varied repertoire in the future. Which repertoire? Surprise us, Maestro!

This disc will be released on January 10, 2020.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Transparent, pure and crystalline

Beethoven: Late String Quartets
Slowly, slowly, the melody unfolded itself. The archaic Lydian harmonies hung on the air. It was an unimpassioned music, transparent, pure and crystalline, like a tropical sea, an Alpine lake. Water on water, calm sliding over calm; the according of level horizons and waveless expanses, a counterpoint of serenities. And everything clear and bright; no mists, no vague twilights. It was the calm of still and rapturous contemplation, not of drowsiness or sleep. It was the serenity of a convalescent who wakes from fever and finds himself born again into a realm of beauty. But the fever was 'the fever called living' and the rebirth was not into this world; the beauty was unearthly, convalescent serenity was the peace of God. The interweaving of Lydian melodies was heaven.
 - Aldous Huxley, on the third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet op. 132, in his novel Point Counter Point
2020, the Beethoven Year commemorating the 250th anniversary of his birth, begins at the very apex of the composer's music, his late string quartets, played by the very fine Brodsky Quartet. This is a group that has often put together innovative programs on disc and in live performance, but here we have just the works themselves, albeit with a most substantial bonus, the 11th String Quartet, op. 95, from Beethoven's middle period. In a 1989 Gramophone review of Beethoven Quartet cycles, Robert Layton once talked about the late quartets as "the Alpine heights of the repertory which few traverse unscathed." He felt that technical finesse and superficial beauty that had pushed recordings of earlier Beethoven works forward might prove as impediments in the interpretation of these great works crafted within the composer's total deafness. Layton quotes Basil Lam, who said "in the last quartets Beethoven is as indifferent to communication as he is to self-expression." In space, no one can hear you scream.

These performances tread a middle ground between the more mystical interpretations of the Lindsay or Végh Quartets and the solid (but by no means stolid) German tradition of the Amadeus Quartet, whose early 1960s LPs were my first exposure (along with Huxley's novel) to this music. Though Beethoven had long left behind the musical tropes and attitudes of the 18th century Enlightenment, there is a residual classical feeling in much of this music, which the Brodsky performance often underlines. As Huxley says, "no mists, no vague twilights." There are no radical differences between the music on these three discs and a hypothetical average of the spectacular run of great recordings of late Beethoven quartets, from the early Busch and Hollywood sets to the Quartetto Italiano, the Cleveland and Melos Quartets. Paradoxically, this approach points most decidedly to the absolutely radical nature of Beethoven's music itself. In the rarefied air of Beethoven's music of the mid-1820s, everything has changed.

This album will be released on January 3, 2020.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Top Ten Discs for 2019

Welcome to my fifth Top Ten Discs post for Music for Several Instruments.
Here are the lists from last year, 2017, 2016, and the one from 2015.

Grief and consolation and branding

The Alinde Quartett perform Mendelssohn's final quartet, a dark portrait of raw grief over the death of his sister Fanny. To change things up, they looked for "a light-hearted contrast", and came up with some lovely, clear and bright Fantasies that Purcell wrote originally for a consort of viols. Hence the title of the album: "Lichtwechsel" = "Change of Light". This is by no means light as in cheerful or happy-go-lucky, but more the civilized Enlightenment that is best expressed in music from Purcell to Haydn.

Into the abyss

The Allan Pettersson Dream Team, Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, with violinist Ulf Wallin in a completely convincing performance of the controversial 2nd Violin Concerto. The unfinished 17th Symphony, the last music Pettersson wrote before his death, is as moving here as the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem or the unfinished final music of Bach's Art of the Fugue.

Woke Rameau

"I like people," said Voltaire, speaking about Jean-Philippe Rameau, "who know when to drop the sublime in order to banter." Gyorgy Vashegyi's Budapest-based Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra continue their superb string of recordings for Glossa with this superb release, with its tone perfectly calibrated. Great choral and solo singing, led by soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery, contributes to a boisterous experience.

The International Style in 18th Century Music

Simon Murphy's latest theme album with the New Dutch Academy tells the story of 18th century musicians as if they were from the mid-20th century Golden Age of Travel: "classical glitterati" going to the musical capitals of Europe to show off their wares. This is such clever presentation, but it's about more than glitz and glamour; these are very fine performances of music by Abel, Reichardt, Zelter, Mozart, Storace and Paisiello.

Another winner from the Emerald City

Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony and the Prelude to Rued Langgaard's Antichrist are both full of completely, ravishingly, beautiful music, and both are ravishingly played by the Seattle Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard. This is music that plays to the strengths of the Seattle Symphony: rich and powerful brass, sumptuous strings, lithe and subtle woodwinds, everything ready for Dausgaard to put together into a rich orchestral tapestry.

Handel's Transcendent Realism

Handel's oratorio is one of a number written in the 18th century based on Barthold Heinrich Brockes's controversial, even lurid, libretto. This performance by the Academy of Ancient Music, under Richard Egarr, is intensely emotional and darkly coloured by pain and suffering. Watch for this release to show up in lots of Best Of 2019 lists and awards. It's my top album this year.

Beethoven for the Big Year

Igor Levit's complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas are full-blown masterpieces of the art of performance and recording. This is a stunning set from Sony, setting us up in the best way possible for the big celebrations - for Beethoven's 250th Birthday - next year.

A spiritual performance without sentimentality

Following an outstanding recording of the Missa Solemnis, Masaaki Suzuki gives us a transcendent Beethoven Ninth Symphony, with spirited playing and singing from the Bach Collegium Japan and a quartet of very fine singers.

São Paulo's Villa-Lobos recording revolution

A very welcome disc in Naxos's new series The Music of Brazil takes on the first of Villa-Lobos's commissioned concertos from the last decade of his life, along with some important chamber works. Manuel Barrueco is superb in the Guitar Concerto, and José Staneck is very fine in the Harmonica Concerto. I was especially impressed, though, with two chamber works: the Sexteto Mistico from Villa's modernist period, and the late Quinteto Instrumental, a lovely exercise in nostalgie for the Paris of Villa's earlier years.

Fresh chansons from another world

The chansons of Johannes Ockeghem, written in the second half of the 15th century, sound so fresh and new in this marvellous release from Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron that the intervening centuries feel like some sort of illusion. This recording is part of Blue Heron's project Ockeghem@600, a multi-year project to perform the complete works of this great composer. It will be complete in 2021, around the time of the 600th anniversary of Ockeghem's birth.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

More outstanding orchestral music from Iceland

Concurrence: Music by Icelandic composers

Five years ago we moved from the Prairies to Canada's Banana Belt: Southern Vancouver Island. That means horrific cold weather and tornados are a thing of the past, but we don't live a worry-free life by any means. No one here can (or at least should) ignore the very good chance of a devastating earthquake happening at any time. Indeed, Victoria is right in the sweet spot for the coming Big One. So Páll Ragnar Pálsson’s Quake scared the bejesus out of me. It's performed here, by Daniel Bjarnason and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, with such urgent presence that even someone on more solid ground is apt to feel at least uncomfortable. All four of these fairly long pieces present the primeval forces that made, and continue to re-make, this amazing island in the North Atlantic. Besides its outstanding physical beauty, Iceland is well known for an astounding range of world-class artists of all sorts, in the performing, literary and visual arts. The painter Gudrun Kristjansdottir is a good example; her 1999 painting "Red Hillside" is featured on the cover of this new 2-disc release, the second in Sono Luminus's ISO Project of Icelandic orchestral music.

The only composer I know of the four on this album is Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. Her Metacosmos was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2018, and was also featured in last summer's Proms. This new recording is another step on the way to its becoming a 21st Century orchestral classic. María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's Oceans is a natural extension of Thorvaldsdóttir's schema into the vast seas. Finally, Haukur Tómasson's Piano Concerto No. 2 fits well with the other three works. The piano part has more of an obligato role than a virtuosic one, and the music textures have so much interest, which it shares with the rest of the entire hour-plus in this fascinating release.

Beethoven from The Original Odd Couple

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano

Pierre Fournier is, for me, the Beethoven cellist. I first heard this music - two early sonatas, two late, and one in between, with three delightful sets of variations - on Deutsche Grammophon LPs with Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff, from the mid-1960s. But I didn't know this earlier Fournier set, also from DGG, recorded in 1959 with one of my favourite pianists, Friedrich Gulda. The elegant Fournier, who in his mid-50s was at his peak, forms a true musical bond with an unlikely partner, the brash 29-year-old piano iconoclast from Vienna. In these recordings Gulda actually plays it rather straight, by his standards. Indeed, a Gramophone reviewer says in a 1993 review, "... it is Kempff who sounds as if he might have one foot in the jazz camp." But though Gulda doesn't act out in this high-profile gig, it certainly doesn't mean there are any deficiencies in his Beethoven playing. Just the opposite: he and Fournier make a great team, with Fournier's lovely tone and Gulda's perfectly judged contribution, not too bold, not too reticent, and definitely not too eccentric.

It's only been a few years since I've developed a real taste for historic re-issues. I really appreciate the work that Urania has done in bringing great music like this back into general circulation. They may not provide the highest level of documentation, in the style of Somm Recordings, but their re-mastering is solid, and, most importantly for me, their repertoire and artist choices are often first-rate. This release is especially recommended.

A note on the Urania cover: the Milan-based artist Gianmario Masala re-mixes his landscape photographs to add a patina of history and mystery. This is well-chosen to match the drama of Beethoven and the performance by Fournier & Gulda.

Christmas with Henry & Elizabeth

A Tudor Christmas: music by Gibbons, Byrd, Weelkes, Holborne, Ravenscroft, Tallis, Tye, Dowland, Taverner

My own Christmas traditions tend to have three main sources: mid-20th century nostalgia from my own childhood (think Charlie Brown and Vince Guaraldi); Victoriana (everything Dickens); and earlier English traditions, many of which went back to pagan time, but which peaked during the reigns of Henry VIII (reputed composer of Greensleeves) and Elizabeth I. This album from the Trinity Boys Choir and the viol consort L'Armonia brings such a fabulous mix of sixteenth century music from the Tudor and early Stuart times. The superb eight boys' voices are enhanced by the contributions of Katharine Fuge & David Swinson, and the viol consort provides a nice variety of musical textures. These performances are based on current Historically Informed Practices, but the scholarship is worn lightly, and musical values come to the fore. Fans of Wolf Hall and The Tudors will enjoy this music, but also fans of Christmas!

This album will be released on December 13, 2019

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Fresh chansons from another world

Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 1

The chansons of Johannes Ockeghem, written in the second half of the 15th century, sound so fresh and new in this marvellous release from Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron that the intervening centuries feel like some sort of illusion. Belying the music's "nowness", the detailed liner notes by Ockeghem scholar Sean Gallagher demonstrates the problems common to most 500+ year old music, with complexities of attribution and dating. Indeed, we're lucky that some of this music has survived at all; seven of the songs exist in only one manuscript. And Scott Metcalfe shows how difficult and problematic it is to bridge the gap between the remaining manuscripts and viable performances today. He presents evidence about the pronunciation of 15th century French, about whether certain musical parts should be vocal or instrumental, and about who should sing the high parts, a woman, a girl, a boy, or an adult man singing falsetto. Metcalfe is open about the remaining questions - "We remain unsure about all the possibilities open to singers of such parts" - but the results sound to me so outstandingly beautiful that surely he's made the correct decisions in the majority of cases. I know that I'll continue to look to Blue Heron for the most impressive music of the period.

This recording is part of Blue Heron's project Ockeghem@600, a multi-year project to perform the complete works of this great composer. It will be complete in 2021, around the time of the 600th anniversary of Ockeghem's birth.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Clever, dynamic, charming symphonies

Leopold Kozeluch: Symphonies, vol. 3

I keep expecting the Leopold Kozeluch Symphonies series from Marek Stilec on Naxos to run out of steam, but with each new release I'm surprised by how clever, dynamic and absolutely charming the works of this Bohemian composer are. Born between Haydn and Mozart, Kozeluch's works share many of both composers' strengths: strong forward propulsion, clear structures and rich harmonies, but also surprising detours, touches of wit and whimsy, and a strong sense of musical story-telling. "Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading!" says Laurence Sterne, "Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page." I believe the same thing can be said for music, and Kozeluch's B-flat Major Symphony, "Irrésolu" is a perfect example. Like Haydn's Symphony no. 60, "Il distrato", this work includes extra-musical content, but as a characteristic symphony rather than a programmatic one.  Again like Haydn, Kozeluch has no need for extra-anything; his abstract orchestral music is so dynamic and vital on its own. But a connection to literature and the stage never hurts, and adds further charm to this already charming music. Kozeluch's music, while in the orbit of the two great Austrian composers, has its own character, which once again is so pleasingly brought forward by Stilec and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. The fourth and final release in this project, which comes in 2020, will, I hope, finally help raise Leopold Kozeluch's reputation to something approaching his true worth.

Once again we have a fine cover photo from a great palace of the Austrian Empire: the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna (photo credit: Ixuskmitl). Inside these buildings artists like Leopold Kozeluch were subtly undermining the old order with modish art that hid modern, sometimes even revolutionary, ideas.

This album will be released on December 13, 2019

Friday, November 1, 2019

Reuse, Recycle, Reduce

Antonio Vivaldi: The Paris Concertos

The well known aphorism, that Vivaldi didn't write 500 (or 450, or 600) concertos, but one concerto 500 times, has been nicely debunked by Linda Shaver-Gleason, at her blog Not Another Music History Cliché. I'm pleased with this, because I'm a diehard Vivaldi fan. What impresses me about Vivaldi, especially as I learn more about his operas and sacred music, as well as his concertos and chamber music, is its incredible variety. Yes, there is a special Vivaldi sound, but I don't consider this self-plagiarizing, but more like an accent, or a way of expressing himself. It made me think of Jimmy Stewart's trademark hesitations. "You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it."

But here's a time when Vivaldi actually was recycling his music. Sad to say, the Red Priest from time to time involved himself in some rather shady business dealings, which is something he had in common with such great composers as Handel, Haydn and Beethoven. He promised brand new concertos to a German music lover, but delivered instead a mix of new and slightly used music. The very detailed essay written by Maestro Sardelli doesn't say whether Vivaldi's deception was ever found out. More likely, the buyer was too busy enjoying this hugely enjoyable music. And speaking of recycling, you'll need to look closely at copyright dates in the fine print to see that this Tactus release is actually a re-issue of a recording that Modo Antiquo made in 1999, previously issued on Tactus in 2000. That's not a real problem in this case, luckily, since these are marvellous performances, which still sound very fresh. I highly recommend that you pluck this album from the blue box and put it on your CD or MP3 player.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A spiritual performance without sentimentality

Beethoven: Symphony no. 9

Those of you who follow my reviews know that my favourite large recording project is BIS's series of Bach Cantatas with the Bach Collegium Japan, under Masaaki Suzuki. With this great enterprise all wrapped up, it's been fascinating to follow these fine musicians as they move on to other composers. A recent recording of the Missa Solemnis showed us that Suzuki was a very fine Beethoven interpreter. It's been exciting to listen closely to this new recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

In 2015 Maestro Suzuki conducted the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven's 9th Symphony. This is an impressive performance indeed, but on his home ground, with his own instrumental and choral forces, he has turned up the energy, without sacrificing any nuance. I see that the Bergen performance featured the same very fine soprano from the Japanese recording, Ann-Helen Moen. The rest of the vocal soloists, from both Bergen and Japan, are outstanding.  As well, I sense some subtle interpretation differences in the four years between these performance. Suzuki has a more reverent attitude in the slow movement, while Beethoven's more boisterous passages are almost completely unbridled. This is, as I would expect, a 9th Symphony full of spiritual feeling, but completely without sentimentality.

Symfoni nr. 9 (Beethoven) - Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester from Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A musical representation of invisible things

Cipriano De Rore: I madrigali a cinque voci

Once again the Boston-based choir Blue Heron brings obscure ancient music to life in the most immediately satisfying way. This time the composer is Cipriano De Rore, a Flemish immigrant to northern Italy who published his Madrigali A Cinque Voci in 1542. The music is beautifully sung by a choir in perfect concord with itself and with this fascinating music from nearly 500 years ago. There's more to this album than this music, though. In a profusely illustrated 60-page liner notes booklet, we're treated to a full description of Cipriano's life, and a complete explanation by the distinguished scholar Jessie Ann Owens of how a complex puzzle, with many missing pieces, was assembled to allow a fuller understanding of this music. As well, Blue Heron Director Scott Metcalfe lets us in on the many decisions he had to make in interpreting Cipriano for this recording. There are details that only a choral scholar might understand, but the stories of both the genesis of the music and its modern performance are of great interest for even an amateur music lover. Metcalfe discusses, for example, the question of the high part in the madrigali. Though there are no records of how Cipriano's music was sung at the time, Metcalfe sets forth the options: "The Cantus might be sung by a woman, a man singing in falsetto, a castrato, or a boy." He then provides a detailed description of the performance context in mid-16th century Venice, with reference to the major singers of the time. In the end, for this performance, he splits the difference: half of the songs are sung by a soprano, and half by a counter-tenor.

One of the special things about this book of madrigals is the importance of the words; the literary merit of the poems Cipriano chose (or had chosen for him) to set to music is very high. Again, this is reflected in the liner notes, which include the complete poems in Italian and English. As well, each poem is read in Italian by Alessandro Quarta. This would be of primary interest to someone who understands Italian, of course, but even for those of us who don't, the readings are so expressive that one still gets some value. Metcalfe credits Quarta as well as a linguistic coach, who helped the singers "give the verses their proper rhetorical shape and force." Here is Quarta reading Petrarch's "La vita fuge", "Life is fleeting":

In his essay on Performance Style, Metcalfe includes a quote from Leonardo da Vinci's Paragone:
"Music, within its harmonious time, produces the sweet melodies generated by its various voices, while the poet is deprived of their specific harmonic action, and although poetry reaches the seat of judgment through the sense of hearing, like music, it cannot describe musical harmony, because the poet is not able to say different things at the same time, as is achieved in painting by the harmonious proportionality created by the various parts at the same time, so that their sweetness can be perceived at the same time, as a whole and in its parts, as a whole with regard to the composition, in particular with regard to the component parts. For these reasons the poet remains, in the representation of corporeal things, far behind the painter and, in the representation of invisible things, he remains behind the musician."
Metcalfe concludes that "a density of literal and non-literal meaning is, perhaps, a unique property of polyphonic music," and that is certainly in evidence in this marvellous album.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Three remarkable trios from a superb ensemble

Louise Farrenc: Piano Trio op. 33; Amy Beach: Piano Trio op. 150; Rebecca Clarke: Piano Trio

In Her Voice, the Neave Trio provides the best possible advocacy for a trio of trios by three remarkable women. Farrenc's work comes from the academic milieu of the Paris Conservatoire, where she was a Professor of Piano, but it sounds especially fresh and lively as played by these fine young musicians. It also sounds more German than French, with Beethoven and both Robert and Clara Schumann as obvious models. Amy Beach's Piano Trio, from late in her career, is full of drama with lyrical interludes, many of which refer to songs from earlier in her career. My favourite work on this disc, though, is Rebecca Clarke's Piano Trio, written in 1921. Clarke faced more than her share of adversity and conflict in her life, but she was able to create in this remarkable work one of the finest chamber works of the period between the World Wars. This is such a fine album, with three completely different sound worlds on display, but all of them show that special connection between musicians of the finest chamber ensembles. This is another triumph for the Neave Trio.


São Paulo's Villa-Lobos recording revolution

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Guitar Concerto, Harmonica Concerto, Sexteto Místico, Quinteto Instrumental

In the past ten years we've been blessed with a new generation of Villa-Lobos recordings from São Paulo that have instantly become the new standards for interpretation, instrumental playing and engineering. These include the complete Bachianas Brasileiras, Choros and Symphonies series. Now we have a very welcome disc in Naxos's new series The Music of Brazil, which takes on the first of the composer's commissioned concertos from the last decade of his life, along with some important chamber works.

The Guitar Concerto, written for Andrès Segovia in 1951, is somewhat controversial. Jason Vieaux, speaking for the Defence, has expressed his love for the work. Meanwhile, John Williams said, "it just isn't a very good piece, technically or musically." This has always been a popular work, thanks to a plethora of great recordings, by Julian BreamGöran Söllscher, and my own favourite, by Norbert Kraft. There's even a very convincing recording by John Williams himself! But I'll admit that, at least in its final movement, the Guitar Concerto, like much of the commissioned music from Villa's final decade, suffers from some undistinguished patches of banal passage-work, though in this case they connect some of the composer's finest tunes. Lovely tunes were never a problem for this guy! I've only listened to this new recording of the Concerto by Manuel Barrueco and OSESP (the São Paulo Symphony) under Giancarlo Guerrero, five or six times, but I'm already suspecting this will go to the very top of the list. Barrueco's playing is outstanding, especially in the Cadenza, and even in the Finale the partnership between soloist and orchestra makes the most compelling case for bringing this work out of the John Williams cold.

Eero Tarasti refers to Villa-Lobos's "limpid late period". The Harmonica Concerto, written for John Sebastian in 1955, partakes fully of the relaxed, late-night noodlings that are seemingly built-in to the instrument. Beginning with a theme that's disconcertingly similar to the Hancock's Half-Hour theme-song by Wally Stott/Angela Morley, Villa-Lobos continues his formula here: lots of arresting, sometimes quite beautiful, themes held together with characteristic runs and doodles by the solo instrument. In this case, as so often throughout his career, Villa-Lobos cottons on to a wider variety of effects from his instruments than are standard, providing a kaleidoscopic effect of instrumental orchestral colours. The playing here by José Staneck is very fine, though this recording lacks some of the energy of the classic album by Robert Bonfiglio and the New York Chamber Symphony under Gerard Schwarz.

As fine as these two works are, I was most interested in the two chamber works, by the OSESP Ensemble, made up of some very fine musicians indeed. The Sesteto Místico (aka Sextuor Mystique) was nominally written in 1917, though it was revised later in Villa's career. This is a fine example of Villa's modernist style, well ahead of anything being written in Latin America, and close to the leading edge in Europe. Tarasti refers to its "contrapuntal colorism... a refined, aquarelle-like texture simply because of the choice of instruments." He notes that "a corresponding combination is not to be found in European chamber music of the period." This is a very fine recording, with delicate filigree effects and all the colours of the rainbow.

We return to the 1950s with the Quinteto Instrumental, written in 1957. This is a work of pure nostalgia, though it's French nostalgie rather than the usual Brazilian saudade, with Villa-Lobos looking back to his time in Paris in the 1920s. The sounds of the instruments evoke Ravel, as does the mildly ironic and sentimental tone of the music. If there is a falling-off in Villa-Lobos's inspiration in the commissioned works of the 1950s, it's hard to hear it in the great chamber works of the period, including the late String Quartets and this Quintet. And it's a great work to end this very, very fine disc from São Paulo. I look forward to more in this series!

This disc will be released on November 8, 2019. This review also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Music at an odd angle

Rued Langgaard: The String Quartets

DaCapo is releasing a box set of Rued Langgaard's complete string quartets, recorded from 2010 to 2013, and released as three single discs during that period. I reviewed volume 3, the final disc in the series, back in 2015, and I couldn't be more positive about the Nightingale String Quartet's performances and DaCapo's recordings and presentation. As to the music itself, I'm an even bigger fan of Langgaard now that I'm more familiar with his symphonies, and his splendid opera The Antichrist.

This splendid portrait of the Nightingale String Quartet, included in DaCapo's really excellent liner notes, is by Nikolaj Lund, who has made a specialty of photographing classical musicians in new and surprising contexts and poses. But I like to think that this pose has a musical relevance as well; Langgaard's music is oddly out of phase within 20th century classical music. It's at an odd angle, if you will, to the various trends and orthodoxies of music in the 1900s, and that's partly why I find him so appealing. Kudos to these excellent musicians and to DaCapo for such a marvellous survey of this very fine music.

This bargain-priced three-CD album will be released on November 15, 2019.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Keep CPE Weird

This has been an exceptionally interesting early NFL season when it comes to quarterbacks. With the rise of the gifted young Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes, we're hearing a lot about the rare quarterback who can work within a "system" drawn up by the coaching staff, but also have great results improvising when things break down. Which brings me to CPE Bach, the Aaron Rodgers of 18th century composers. A dutiful son to Johann Sebastian when his father was still alive, Carl Philip Emmanuel tended more often than not to go off in interesting directions when writing his own works. His knowledge of music from before and during his father's time was profound, so he could play well from inside the pocket, as it were. But as one of art's gifted eccentrics, like Gesualdo, Caravaggio, James Joyce and Werner Herzog, CPE Bach often went his own way, pulling the music of his time along with him.

More than half of these keyboard concertos are in minor keys, and all exhibit to a some degree Empfindsamkeit, which is more or less "Sensibility," used Jane Austen-style. In many ways this "sensitive" and "sentimental" style prefigures Romanticism, starting a line which goes through Haydn and Mozart's minor key symphonies, sonatas, concertos and opera arias, to Schumann and Chopin. Every year or two since 2010 Hännsler Classics has released the individual discs in pianist Michael Rische's cycle, but it's so nice to have this four CD set of the collected works. These are highly characterized performances, played on a modern instrument that highlights the composer's forward-looking style. My admiration for this particular Bach Son has never been higher!

This disc will be released on November 8, 2019

Friday, September 20, 2019

Very fine American music played by superb British musicians

Erich Korngold: Symphony in F Sharp, Theme & Variations, Straussiana

"Out of the stuff of film music," said Alex Ross in a recent New Yorker article about Erich Wolfgang Korngold, "he fashions what may be the last great symphony in the German Romantic tradition." This new disc from John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London provides the most compelling version I've heard of Korngold's Symphony in F Sharp. I learn from the very fine liner notes by Brendan G. Carroll that Korngold worked on the Symphony during a holiday in Canada, but doesn't give any more details. I'll consult Carroll's 1997 biography The Last Prodigy to see if his Canadian itinerary is available, and report back here. In the meantime, I can fill in some plausible Canadian landscapes for a post-war holiday from Hollywood. Perhaps scenes from my neck of the woods: Victoria and Vancouver Island, and a train journey through British Columbia to beautiful Jasper National Park.

As it is, Korngold's usual movie-scene milieu is very much in evidence in the entire disc. Besides the usual Warner's back-lot, there are the Californian hills, forests and islands that stand in for Spanish, English and the Mediterranean adventure. One shouldn't have to apologize for film-score sourcing of "serious" classical music in the 21st Century, where very fine symphonic music is heard in every Multiplex, but alas, I've already read a number of reviews of this disc that are excessively patronizing. This is a Good Symphony by any standards (and a Very Good one in my view), and it's a serious error of categories to think it illegitimate because it comes from "the movies."

Besides the Symphony, there are two additional works on the disc. Both are appealing and accessible, and though they were written for the American School Orchestras Association, there's no lack of musical interest on the listening end. This new Korngold disc is something we've come to expect from John Wilson on Chandos: very fine American music played by superb British musicians in a completely authentic way.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Handel's Transcendent Realism

George Frideric Handel: Brockes-Passion
"Never before had naturalism transfigured itself by such a conception and execution. Never before had a painter so charnally envisaged divinity nor so brutally dipped his brush into the wounds and running sores and bleeding nail holes of the Saviour. Grünewald had passed all measure. He was the most uncompromising of realists, but his morgue Redeemer, his sewer Deity, let the observer know that realism could be truly transcendent. A divine light played about that ulcerated head, a superhuman expression illuminated the fermenting skin of the epileptic features. This crucified corpse was a very God, and, without aureole, without nimbus, with none of the stock accoutrements except the blood-sprinkled crown of thorns, Jesus appeared in His celestial super-essence, between the stunned, grief-torn Virgin and a Saint John whose calcined eyes were beyond the shedding of tears." 
- J. K. Huysmans, on Matthias Grünewald's Crucifixion at Cassel, from the first chapter of his novel Là-Bas
Even today Matthias Grünewald's Large Crucifixion has the power to shock us. The work was painted in 1523-24 (it's now in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe), and having looked at it through the intense lens of J. K. Huysmans, one realizes that one cannot understand life without looking closely, without flinching, at pain and suffering. And it's especially those rare artists like Grünewald that help us to a deeper understanding through their transcendent art.

Two hundred years later, in 1712,  Barthold Heinrich Brockes published a passion libretto nearly as naturalistic and graphic as Grünewald's painting. Coming as it did in the midst of the Enlightenment, it was perhaps even more shocking. Many of the critics found it objectionable, or at the least in poor taste. "Viewer discretion is advised", or the 18th Century equivalent. But it was a big hit with three great artists who understood its emotional power, and were anxious to bring their best music to the task. Georg Philipp Telemann set the Passion in 1716, Georg Frideric Handel wrote his some time before 1719, and Johann Sebastian Bach used a number of Brockes' texts in his St. John Passion of 1727. Bach also performed the Telemann and Handel Passions in Leipzig.

This recording by the Academy of Ancient Music, under Richard Egarr, is intensely emotional and darkly coloured by pain and suffering. It provides an almost cinematic experience; I'm thinking of here of artists such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Francis Ford Coppola and Carl Theodor Dreyer. For that, we can thank Egarr, his choir, solo singers and instrumentalists, and the sound engineers of AAM's own label, but also Handel and Brockes.

This is also a major scholarly release, based on a new edition of the work. The third disc provides alternative readings, but you needn't worry about untangling versions. Handel's endless invention provides passionate arguments, profound sorrow and pity, and redemptive uplift that always somehow entertains, as only the greatest of opera composers - Mozart, Verdi, Wagner - can. And to do all this while working in the bailiwick of the greatest of Passion composers, J. S. Bach,  well, that's really some accomplishment!

This album will be released on October 4, 2019.

A great musical partnership

The Complete Beethoven Sonatas for Violin & Piano; Sonatas by Fauré, Franck & Debussy

Here are more classic Beethoven recordings to lead us into the Big Beethoven Year of 2020, the 250th Anniversary of his birthday, on December 17, 1770. The Beethoven sonatas are studio recordings from 1958 and 1961, and it would be hard to find a better-matched duo for this repertoire. When Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus swap the lead and support roles at the beginning of the Spring Sonata, op. 24, you're hearing a marvellous musical partnership unfold.

The keynote here is freshness. Though the temperature is rather low, as likely to be measured as fiery, the two musicians always sound spontaneous, and even, when the music allows, joyous.  I was always convinced by their decisions, and swept along by the music. And what lovely music this is! Perhaps the violin sonatas aren't as serious and profound as the string quartet cycle, but my goodness, there are so many felicities in melody and rhythm, and such inventive conversations between the instruments. When you have two such impressive musicians as Francescatti and Casadesus, so intelligent, so sensitive, so lively, you can be sure you're hearing this music as the composer intended.

The three Beethoven CDs sound exceptional, as one would expect, since Holger Siedler, who did the remastering, had fine source tapes to work with. The fourth disc is much more of a mixed bag, sound-wise, though the music and the performances are wonderful. These sonatas by Fauré, Franck and Debussy are live recordings from 1947 to 1956. The bonus disc is much more than just an encore; it makes a perfect album even more impressive!

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Beethoven for the Big Year

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas

Next year Beethoven fans around the world will be celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the composers birth, on December 16, 1770 (or the 17th; Charles Schulz makes reference here to the uncertainty about the actual date).

I'm planning a full year of merrymaking in 2020, but it never hurts to get a good head-start for this, and here we have a marvellous project to get the festivities rolling. Igor Levit's complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas are full-blown masterpieces of the art of performance and recording. In the three op. 2 sonatas Levit sets the perfect tone. The 25-year-old composer is attempting to make his first piano sonatas much grander than his models, mainly Haydn, and he worked hard to present his music in a completely assured way. And surprisingly he very nearly succeeds. There's a certain coltish awkwardness in these early sonatas, though, that Levit underlines in an appealing way. The Adagio of the 1st Sonata is charming, but also more than a bit sentimental, and Levit is engaging as he shows Beethoven, not for the last time, exposing very personal feelings, in this and all the storm and stress of these works. This

Sony released the late sonatas (op. 101 to op. 111) back in 2013, when Levit was only 25 himself. These are astonishingly performances, so far removed from any youthful callowness, or any lack of nuance or indeed the spiritual component of these great works of art. With their complete context in place - all 27 sonatas written before 1816 - these five sonatas seem even more impressive as part of the complete set.

It's hard to believe that the Beethoven Bicentennial was 50 years ago. In 1970 I began my serious introduction to classical music, with the DGG set of 85 LPs arriving in the mail, 5 discs every month, via Time-Life. The great Wilhelm Kempff played the piano sonatas; it was the perfect way to listen closely to this music for the first time.

I was, and am today, completely won over by Kempff's measured approach and a deeply humanistic feeling that seems very much to be a fellow-feeling with Beethoven himself. Igor Levit seems to be very much there in Kempff's court, along, perhaps, with Alfred Brendel in between. The many times I've listened to Levit's Beethoven in the past month is just a start; I'm sure I'll be listening just as carefully, and appreciating his artistry, throughout the Big Year, and beyond.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The grand gestures of Telemann

Georg Philipp Telemann: The Grand Concertos for Mixed Instruments

I don't think there's a composer who has moved up more in my estimation in the past decade than Georg Philipp Telemann. The great CPO series from Michael Schneider and La Stagione Frankfurt has been a major factor in this process. Like Bach, Telemann is a great synthesizer of pan-European styles; besides the French and the Italians, Swedes, Germans and Danes, amongst others, show up in his various orchestral, chamber music and concerted works. He's also a master of the grand gesture, very much like his close friend Handel. The "grand concertos" in this collection are superb examples of a master completely secure in his abilities, extending his brand through a complete re-shuffling of instrumentation.

Telemann was only able to present the concertos that sprang from his apparently unlimited imagination because he had access to superb instrumentalists. And that goes for the musicians of La Stagione Frankfurt, in spades. This music seems effortless - it sort of floats through the speakers - but on listening closely, you realize how difficult are the virtuoso lines and the questions of tempo, balance and intonation. Michael Schneider has perfectly judged the style of this music, allowing the music to shine. This is completely secular music, but these performances bring out an almost religious, or at least spiritual, feeling.

This album will be released on September 6, 2019

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Shimmering, shining Vivaldi

Vivaldi Con Amore: Concertos

This is the first Tafelmusik album under Music Director Elisa Citterio, who in 2017 replaced Jeanne Lamon, the only other Music Director the orchestra has had since its inception in 1981. It was recorded at Toronto's Humbercrest United Church on the Tafelmusik Media label. When run properly, the orchestral-led label can be a real plus, with recording, marketing and musical issues all under the control of the same organization. From the evidence of the past few releases, I would judge Tafelmusik Media a big success, much like another of my favourites, Seattle Symphony Media. We have here a bright, clean, open auditory experience to go along with a similar interpretation of Vivaldi's marvellous music. "Sparkling" has been a word that keeps coming up in reviews of Tafelmusik performances under Citterio, and it's a hallmark of the new disc as well. Though always solid, I've found Tafelmusik was getting just a tiny bit routine in its performances in this century, as it was passed by hot new groups like Il Giardino Armonico, and, in Canada, by Arion Baroque Montreal. But Vivaldi's marvellous music shimmers and shines here, and this bodes well for this great institution of Canadian culture.

Speaking of marketing, I love the design of this album. The cover photo, by Michael Barker, is in the great tradition of the Dutch flower still life, like this one by Ambrosius Bosschaert at the Getty Museum, painted in 1614. The two flower pictures together are a good illustration of, and analogue for, Historically Informed Practice.

This album will be released on September 20, 2019

Thursday, August 8, 2019

A strong, atmospheric, Villa-Lobos program

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Lenda do Caboclo, Próle do bébê No. 2 (excerpts), Choros No. 5, Bachianas brasileiras No. 4, Valsa da dor, Ciclo brasileiro (excerpts), Poema singelo

It's great to see a new Villa-Lobos disc; there's been a significant drop-off in recording activity in the years leading up to 2019, the 60th anniversary of the Maestro's death. Villa's piano repertoire is a major strength of his catalogue, reflecting both his modernist and nationalist tendencies. Though no virtuoso pianist himself, the composer was very close to some of the greatest pianists in Brazil and Europe: Rubinstein, Blumenthal, and Novaes, among many others. And we have a wide range of superb recordings available, from pianists like Nelson Freire, Marc-André Hamelin, Sonia Rubinsky and Marcelo Bratke. This is a well-chosen program from the Washington D.C. based Jason Solounias, though I would have preferred that he include the entire Ciclo brasileiro (the great Dance of the White Indian is missing). Many single-disc piano programs include Choros no. 5, Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4, and the Valsa da dor, but it's good to see some pieces from the 2nd Book of the marvellous Próle do bébê, which isn't as well known as the 1st.

I was quite impressed with the playing throughout; the tricky rhythms are solid, and there's a real sense of atmosphere that goes with Villa-Lobos's various landscapes: for example, the scrubland of Brazil's north-east in the Festa no sertão from the Ciclo brasileiro, and the Canto do sertão from BB#4. In the latter movement, very few pianists (or conductors in the orchestral version) play the insistent note of the Araponga percussively enough for my taste - they should listen to the call of the bird itself. Hit those B-flats harder! This performance of the lovely Valsa da dor is full of grace and style; Solounias plays the piece with sentiment but without sentimentality.

I enjoyed the liner notes, which include a fascinating conversation between Solounias and pianist Jose Ramos Santana, though there were a few points I disagreed with. I won't bore you with those here. Okay, maybe just one! Ramos Santana posits that "The older [Villa-Lobos] got, the music becomes more dense and complex." Though there's obviously no simple trajectory, I would think that in terms of complexity Villa's piano music peaked early, with Rudepoema and Próle do bébê (both of which were published in 1921). When the composer returned from Brazil and undertook his folkloric research and educational responsibilities, and a more nationalistic tone, his music becomes more popular and accessible (and easier to play!) This process played out in the 1930s, and you can hear it here in the Bachianas and the Valsa da dor.

This is a very promising beginning, and I look forward to future albums from Jason Solounias. Any repertoire would be great, but I would suggest Rudepoema, one of the greatest 20th century works for the piano. And, oh yes!, The Dance of the White Indian.

This album will be released on September 6, 2019

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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Another winner from the Emerald City

Langgaard: Prelude to Antichrist; Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

"When the centre of gravity of life is placed, not in life itself," says Nietzsche in The Antichrist, "but in 'the beyond'—in nothingness—then one has taken away its centre of gravity altogether." Both Richard Strauss, whose Alpine Symphony, written in 1915, was a musical gloss on Nietzsche's work, following the similar Also Sprach Zarathustra of 1898, and Rued Langgaard, whose opera Antichrist was written in 1920-21, built their works on the idea of a more elemental life force, though Langgaard's own connection to the Antichrist was as much a musical attraction to Richard Strauss and Carl Nielsen as it was a philosophical one to Nietzsche.

"Did we notice how much music can free the spirit? Give wings to thoughts?", Nietzsche wrote in The Case of Wagner, "That, the more a musician we are, the more a philosopher we become?" At one time Nietzsche's idol was Wagner, but in Nietzsche Contra Wagner, his last work before his final madness, he rejects Wagner's music because of what he saw as a move towards Christianity by the composer. He called it "A Music Without A Future". So it makes a certain amount of sense to take the idea of the Antichrist, and using a post-Wagnerian, neo-Romantic musical style that rejects the modernism that both Strauss and Langgaard initially espoused, express Nietzsche's ideas in musical form. You don't need to agree with, or even try to understand, Nietzsche's concepts to appreciate this music. Both works are completely, ravishingly, beautiful, and ravishingly played by the great Seattle Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard. Elemental life forces are as well portrayed by the great orchestral works of Richard Strauss as they are by anyone or anything. Meanwhile, Rued Langgaard's strikingly original music, forged between his twin influences of Strauss and Nielsen, creates music of enormous power and beauty.

Thomas Dausgaard performed the premiere of Antichrist in Copenhagen in 2002. Besides Strauss and Nielsen, this Prelude also reminds me of Hans Pfitzner's three preludes to Palestrina, written in the same year, 1915, as An Alpine Symphony. By the way, this performance of the Antichrist Prelude is a world premiere of the original version of the piece. At more than 12 minutes, it's more compelling as a stand-alone concert piece than the six-minute operatic prelude Dausgaard performed as part of his 2006 recording of the complete opera from Copenhagen.

This is music that plays to the strengths of the Seattle Symphony: rich and powerful brass, sumptuous strings, lithe and subtle woodwinds, everything ready for Dausgaard to put together into a rich orchestral tapestry. The recordings were made from live concerts in 2017 (Strauss) and April, 2019 (Langgaard), and the sound is of the highest quality, which we've come to expect from these Seattle Symphony Media recordings. Another absolute winner from the Emerald City.

This album will be released on September 13, 2019

Authentic Holst & Elgar from Bergen

Holst: The Planets; Elgar: Enigma Variations

The presentation of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations in 1899 single-handedly destroyed a stereotype about Un-Musical Britain. It was a new masterwork of orchestral music for the 20th Century, and it was followed in 1916 by another: Gustav Holst's The Planets. Both are now staples of the orchestral repertoire around the world, though perhaps not as totally beloved as in Britain, with its flag-waving Proms audiences. It's instructive, then, to see how many great recorded performances come from outside of the UK: Montreal, Chicago, Berlin, Vienna, to name a few. Andrew Litton, who has made memorable recordings of the Holst from Dallas, and the Elgar from London, provides a musically flawless and authentic performance of both from Norway, with the very fine Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. So often used as demonstrations of high-end audio, these two works both sound very good, partly because of the BIS engineers, but let's face it, both composers wrote this music to sound good! I should mention that I listened to the stereo version, but I'm sure the surround-sound one is awesome.

A masterpiece of emotional intimacy

Boccherini: Stabat Mater

The original 1781 version of Boccherini's Stabat Mater, in which a soprano voice is accompanied by a string quintet, is a masterpiece of emotional intimacy. In a new disc from Spain, the fine soprano Anaïs Oliveras and five talented string players have the measure of the dramatic story of grief Boccherini crafts from his very personal adaptation of the 13th/14th Century poem by Jacopone da Todi. Boccherini's own model is Pergolesi's great version of the Stabat Mater, from 1736; I wonder if he also knew Bach's transcription, set to the words of Psalm 51. Pergolesi's intense pathos shifts slightly in Bach's version, which often emphasizes the mystery of the Crucifixion. Boccherini includes both in his version; his version of the section which I find most affecting:

Vidit suum dulcem natum
Morientem desolatum
Dum emisit spiritum.
She sees her dear Son
dying in anguish,
as he gives up the ghost.
seems naïvely simple at first, but Boccherini twists the knife each time the soprano repeats the last line. The effect is devastating, and it's more effective since it isn't overplayed by the musicians.

This is as good a version as I've heard of this great piece (which I vastly prefer to the more complex version with two singers that Boccherini adapted in 1800), though there's a minor issue here that might cause some to look to other versions. Unlike most (but not all) other recordings, there is no additional music beyond the Stabat Mater, which lasts less than 40 minutes here. A Boccherini String Quartet or Quintet, even a Symphony, is included in some; sacred works by other composers are added in others. This is a question, though, of quantity only; quality is not in question.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Original premieres played with style and musicality

Gossec: Symphonies op. IV

François-Joseph Gossec's six Symphonies from his op. IV collection were published in 1758. While one might be reminded of Haydn at times, there was certainly no chance that the Belgian composer had heard Haydn's earliest forays into symphonic music. This is highly original, if not profound, music, full of charm and wit. I especially like the 5th Symphony in E major, subtitled "Pastorella." This looks back to the French pastourelle of the troubadours, with its shepherdesses and nostalgia for a simpler time. Simon Gaudenz and the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss capture all of this complexity within its relatively simple forms with admirable style and musicality. These are world premiere recordings, which are well worth a listen, or two.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering) - Art Institute of Chicago

Gossec wrote many works very much similar to this in the 1760s and 70s, often in groups of six symphonies like opus IV, until Haydn's huge popularity in Paris in the 80s made him look to other musical genres. Gossec wrote more than 50 symphonies in all, but there's only one I've heard that's a true masterpiece. It came after the composer reinvented himself as a revolutionary artist in 1789, and his exposure to the revolutionary art of Beethoven early in the next century. His Symphonie à 17 parties, from 1809, takes the formulae that makes the music on this album so appealing, and ramps the music up close to even the best of its Viennese models. As modest as his earlier symphonies are, one must admire them for their originality and for the way they point to Gossec's later genius, in his sacred and operatic music, as well as that final Symphonie.