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, March 14, 2019

A stimulating thought-piece

Joachim Kühn: Melodic Ornette Coleman

In a 1995 interview the great jazz composer and performer Ornette Coleman said he had always wanted musicians to play with him “on a multiple level. I don’t want them to follow me, I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me." One of his regular collaborators during that period was the pianist Joachim Kühn; the two toured regularly in the 1990s, and released a recording together, Colors: Live From Leipzig, in 1997.

Now, three years after the great jazzman's death in 2015, Kühn has released an album of songs by Coleman, a musical reunion in spirit and a fitting tribute to a close friend and colleague.

Kühn has harmonized Coleman's melodies in a way that might sometimes feel antithetical to basic "harmolodic" principles, but there's no sentimentality here, no hint of the lounge piano. The German pianist has a classical background - his hometown of Leipzig is Bach Country - and a wide range of influences from well before Bach to the Second Viennese School are evident in his reworking of Coleman's songs. But Joachim Kühn is an accomplished straight-ahead jazz composer and performer as well; he's as comfortable in both worlds as one can imagine. This project is an intriguing and stimulating thought-piece, but also satisfying music to listen to and to remember.

The album cover features Martin Noël's work Ich liebe rote Punkte, from 2006. Thanks to ACT and Joachim Kühn for introducing me to such an interesting and talented artist!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Hummable Atterberg

Kurt Atterberg: Concerto for Violin, cello & orchestra; Barocco; Sinfonia per archi

The shadow of Brahms' Double Concerto, written in 1887, looms over Kurt Atterberg's own 1960 concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. The musical textures are of course similar, and Brahms himself wouldn't have found the late romantic language, which more or less ignores the seventy years of music history in between, that difficult to understand. Both works share an autumnal feeling; Brahms' concerto was his last orchestral work, and Atterberg's came close to the end of his own career. This recording is, surprisingly, a world recording premiere. I don't know why Kurt Atterberg's music isn't much more popular; his folk-inspired tunes are hummable, and there's often a slight harmonic edge that guards against sentimentality. Conductor Thord Svedlund keeps things moving briskly here, and the musicians of the Orebro Chamber Orchestra play the lilting folk tunes with the right amount of swing. I also admire Atterberg's way with the neo-classical genre; his faux baroque music is appealing, though perhaps the tiniest bit bland. Still, this is a good selection of music by a composer who should be better known.

Tender and mellow music from Vienna

Baroque Consolation: Sacred Arias at the Imperial Viennese Court

I took a great deal of consolation myself from this fine collection of sacred arias and organ works from the Habsburg Court in Vienna. The composers include Caldara, Fux, Pachelbel and Muffat, along with some more obscure names, such as Conti, two different Zianis, and the Emperor Joseph I (obscure, to be sure, as a composer, though less so as an Emperor). Sarah Van Mol is an effective communicator of tender and triumphant arias from cantatas and oratorios, while Bart Rodyns provides textural variety with organ works by Pachelbel, Froberger and Muffat. Wim Becu conducts the brass group Oltremontano, adding his own baroque trombone to the mix. The mellow brass gives this music a unique sound that places it in its own time and place.

Monday, March 11, 2019

An arresting new cello concerto

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto

Esa-Pekka Salonen's impressive new Cello Concerto had its origin in his 2010 work for solo cello "knock, breathe, shine".
I decided to use some phrases from my 2010 solo cello work knock, breathe, shine in the second and third movements, as I always felt that the music of the solo piece was almost orchestral in its scope and character, and would function well within an orchestral environment.
As it happens, I've been listening to a brand-new recording of Salonen's solo cello music, by Wilhelmina Smith. It's fascinating to hear that piece opened up, like a stage play made into a fine film. Along the way Salonen adapted the second movement, "breathe", as the lovely Dona nobis pacem for unaccompanied children's choir. The transformation of this material in the Cello Concerto is a more subtle metamorphosis. "I imagined," the composer says in his illuminating liner essay, "the solo cello line as a trajectory of a moving object in space being followed and emulated by other lines/ instruments/moving objects." The Concerto is certainly no pot pourri of previously used material and virtuosic pyrotechnics, but something much more organic. Yo-Yo Ma is of course the star of the show here, but the orchestral score is also written for virtuoso players. Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic players know each other very well, of course, and there is a feeling of inevitability about this recording project. It was meant to be, and exactly the way it sounds here.

An incredibly diverse programme for solo cello

Salonen & Saariaho: Works for Solo Cello

"Paint the essential character of things." 
- Camille Pissarro
With his works for solo cello and solo violin J. S. Bach left all the composers after him a superb template for stripping down music to its essential character, but also the fearsome task of trying to approach the profound mysteries he expressed. In a beautifully curated assortment of works by two of today's greatest composers, Wilhelmina Smith illuminates the strategies Esa Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho use to bring make complex music from a solo line in the 21st century.

In his important 1960 essay "Modernist Painting", Clement Greenburg talks about how modern painters embraced the limitation of expressing a three-dimension world on a two-dimensional surface: "Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else." The flatness that evolved from Manet to Ellsworth Kelly is an analogue for what Salonen is doing in his series of works for solo instruments entitled Yta (Swedish for “surface”):
I wanted the form (which in these pieces is equivalent to the process) to be constantly audible, in other words on the surface, and no hidden structure. Everything is transparent, and the listener has no difficulties following the process because there is only one musical plane. 
The listener may have no difficulties, but the complexity of this music means that the cellist is tasked with an enormous virtuoso job, which Wilhelmina Smith handles here with, as they say, aplomb.

My favourite work on the disc is Salonen's "Knock, breathe, shine", which is one of the great works for the solo cello after Bach. The striking use of pizzicato effects in the first movement sets up a bewildering, mind-boggling series of sounds, and one is in awe of both the ingenuity of the composer and the skills of the cellist. But virtuosity isn't paramount here, since there are important musical and even spiritual dimensions that are much more profound than mere display. This is most evident in the still centre of the work, "breathe":

... and here's Salonen's Dona nobis pacem, the work for unaccompanied children's choir adapted from "breathe":

This lovely work isn't the end point for the solo cello piece's metamorphosis; Salonen uses phrases from "breathe" in the second and third movements of his recent Cello Concerto.

The Mystery Variations is a project of the cellist Anssi Karttunen in which the source material is not Bach, but the Chiacona for solo basso by the early Italian Baroque composer Giuseppe Colombi (1635–94). Karttunen commissioned 31 composers to write variations on this piece. Smith plays the simple work, and then the variations written by both Salonen and Kaija Saariaho. Saariaho's Dreaming Chaconne is an eerie doppelgänger of Colombi's simple theme; I thought immediately of the scene in Alex Garland's film of Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation, where the humanoid figure mimics the main character. Salonen's variation, Sarabande per un coyote, goes far afield both in story-telling terms and harmonically. These two pieces together with the original theme make an arresting work; I can't imagine many of the other 29 variations being at this level!

Smith ends her programme with a clever work by Kaija Saariaho, Spins and Spells, a piece written in 1996 for the scodatura (re-tuned) cello, which gives the work an antique air. It's an evocative, thought-provoking piece of music, and a fitting end to one of the most diverse albums I've listened to in years.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Projections into special places

Nadia Shpachenko: The Poetry of Places, world premieres by Andrew Norman, Harold Meltzer, Jack Van Zandt, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, James Matheson, Lewis Spratlan, Nina C. Young

In his 1873 essay "The School of Giorgione" Walter Pater famously said "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music," but of course his argument is much more nuanced than this sound-byte, as cool as it is. "Although," he says,
"each art has thus its own specific order of impressions, and an untranslatable charm, while a just apprehension of the ultimate differences of the arts is the beginning of aesthetic criticism; yet it is noticeable that, in its special mode of handling its given material, each art may be observed to pass into the condition of some other art, by what German critics term an Anders-streben — a partial alienation from its own limitations, through which the arts are able, not indeed to supply the place of each other, but reciprocally to lend each other new forces."
Those new forces are evident in each of these World Premiere works by eight composers, in this marvellous disc from pianist Nadia Shpachenko. Each of the works is about a special place, with music interacting with a wide range of human activities: fine and applied arts (architecture and design), the heritage arts and the natural world. "Part of my aim as an artist," says composer Amy Beth Kirsten, "is to project myself, through meditation and imagination, into another place so I might find the music that lives there." Between them, Kirsten and Shpachenko project us into the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, designed by Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro. I happen to share a fondness for and a deep admiration of some of the architects of these special places, especially Frank Gehry and Louis Kahn. But each of these works is memorable, and beautifully played by Shpachenko on a Steinway grand piano and, memorably, on a toy piano, a Schoenhut 37 ­key Traditional Deluxe Spinet. As well she has excellent support from Joanne Pearce Martin in four-hand pieces, and percussionists Nick Terry and Cory Hills. This is a marvellous project, well worth exploring.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Schoenberg and the moment of doing

Schoenberg: Klavierstucke, op. 11, 23 & 33; 17 Fragments

In the liner notes for a 1959 LP that included Arnold Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, op. 11, Glenn Gould says "Few composers possess the discipline to express themselves freely and joyously within the confines of twelve-tone writing." His further assertion, that "With respect to all the ingenuity that can be plotted in advance, the moment of doing still issues its supreme challenge of inspiration," is a profound truth about systems and art. He is speaking as much about performance, of course, as about composition, and the proof is in his Schoenberg recordings, which are inspired and inspiring documents of freedom and joy.

Yoko Hirota, who today teaches at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, recorded these Schoenberg pieces for Phoenix Records in 2006. Included are three of the five major works that normally show up in complete Schoenberg piano recordings: besides Op. 11, there are the five Klavierstücke, Op. 23 and the two Klavierstück, Op. 33. Hirota's versions don't have Gould's swinging freedom and his arresting tiger-about-to-spring feel, but their calmness and cool reserve has its own appeal.

Yoko Hirota's inclusion of Schoenberg's 17 Fragments, works that he never completed, open a window into the composer's development of his compositional style and his way of writing for the piano. In 25 minutes we see a progression from the earliest Brahmsian works to stripped down, concentrated bits of serial writing, some of which anticipate (or are themselves influenced by) Alban Berg and Anton Webern. These fascinating segments are as interesting in their own way as the more polished masterworks from earlier in the programme. Hirota uses them to paint a bright and colourful pianistic kaleidoscope.

This album will be released on March 8, 2019

Friday, February 15, 2019

True gold, glittering

Berlioz: Les Nuit d'Ete, Ravel: Sheherazde, Debussy orch. John Adams: Le Livre de Baudelaire

When early in his career as a composer Maurice Ravel began to set some poems by Tristan Klingsor, he had the poet "recite his verses repeatedly in order to absorb their rhythms and tone," according to Paul Schiavo's illuminating liner notes to this new release. The result were the three Shéhérazade songs, sung beautifully here by Ian Bostridge, with the Seattle Symphony providing their patented exotic, shimmering, multi-Grammy-winning sound to back him up. Each of the works on this album demonstrate the special bond that music and poetry can share, when geniuses of each genre are matched up at the right time. Schiavo points out that Hector Berlioz's setting of poems by Théophile Gautier as Les nuits d’été was the first important song cycle for voice and orchestra. Bostridge's passionate, suave interpretation along with the support of Ludovic Morlot and his Seattle players, 100% in the groove with this music, helped me overcome a lifelong prejudice against Berlioz. It's hard to imagine a better interpretation of this gorgeous music.

The John Adams orchestral transcriptions of the Debussy settings of poems by Charles Baudelaire are as beautiful as a great painting by John Singer Sargent - The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit in Boston, let's say. In both the music and the painting there are profound meanings that are, paradoxically perhaps, hidden by the surface beauty.

In the words of another artist:

"If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures, and there I am."

And John Singer Sargent himself:

"I don't dig beneath the surface for things that don't appear before my own eyes."

Which brings me to one of my favourite quotes, from that great aphorist Hugo von Hofmannsthal:

"Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface."

The more gold that is mined, the more beautiful the surface seems, from Baudelaire's exquisite verse to Debussy's elegant melodies, to John Adams' sumptuous orchestral harmonies and textures. This true gold glitters most perfectly in this performance: Bostridge's lovely voice with a great American symphony orchestra at the top of its game.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Grief and consolation and branding

Lichtwechsel: Mendelssohn String Quartet no. 6; Purcell Fantasias 6, 8, 10, 11

Part of the pleasure of listening to string quartet music is the feeling that you're eavesdropping on a  private conversation, observing group dynamics at work, and becoming part of a process that reaches far into the past but, conceivably, also well into the future. For their debut recording, the young musicians of the Alinde Quartett chose Mendelssohn's final quartet, a dark portrait of raw grief over the death of his sister Fanny's death. 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: "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 through the reasoned conversations of chamber music. I think it might be a kind for search for answers - or at any rate some kind of humanistic consolation - after the emotional voyage the group took on delving into the Mendelssohn. The Alinde musicians, by the way, are careful in their musicology; they consulted with Professor of Baroque Violin Richard Gwilt about playing music for viols with a modern string quartet.

The process becomes clearer in this fine video from B-art films, as well as the excellent liner notes (and fine photos by Kuber Shah). We have here four sensitive, fine musicians, who are following - and developing - a narrative that will become their first CD. At the same time, they're beginning to build the musical & interpersonal skills that turns two violinists, a violist and cellist into a quartet - and a brand. I think there's a very good chance that they're building something really special.

I mentioned Kuber Shah's CD cover photograph; here, from the Alinde Quartett's website, is the original, very fine photograph from which it was cropped.

Shiny new Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos 1 & 2; Works for Piano Concertante

I was excited when I saw that Ronald Brautigam was making a new recording of Mendelssohn's piano concertante music for BIS. I loved the recording he made in 1995 with Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam under Lev Markiz, also for BIS, but I knew that performance styles have changed in the past 25 years, and that Brautigam has been working long enough with Michael Alexander Willens and Die Kolner Akademie to create a special partnership. Their Mozart piano concertos series for BIS is really outstanding.

As it turns out there isn't as big an interpretation gap between the two versions as I presumed would be the case, which goes to show how far ahead of his time Brautigam was at the end of the last century. These are bright and light and bouncy, but also as passionate and romantic (rather, Romantic) as Mendelssohn's mature music should be, but we could hear this in the earlier recording as well. Rather, there's a new polish to this music; it shines just that bit brighter. I've always wondered why these two concertos weren't more popular, and this new BIS CD has me even more puzzled. Very highly recommended!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A stimulating music synthesis

Gernot Wolfgang's Vienna and the West: Road Signs, Passage to Vienna, Route 33, Windows, Impressions, From Vienna With Love

From Bill Evans' use of the Viennese Trichord (in "What Is This Thing Called Love?", from his 1960 album Portrait in Jazz) to Don Byron & Aruan Ortiz's latest album, Random Dances & (A)Tonalities, there has been a significant, consistent influence from the Second Vienna School on jazz. The harmonic and melodic innovation of Schoenberg and the stripped-down aesthetic of Webern meet jazz from the 60s and film scores since then, in this excellent new album from Grammy-nominee Gernot Wolfgang. Wolfgang brings his usual high-flying Los Angeles-based team of studio musicians, expert in both classical and popular idioms. For these fine musicians he's provided a diverse groups of pieces. "Groove-oriented chamber music" is an interesting term, but it doesn't *quite* capture the wide range of music included here.

We begin with the witty Road Signs, about Los Angeles's idée fixe: traffic. This features the bassoon, which so often seems to be having way more fun than every other instrument. Bassoonist Judith Farmer's touch is light when it needs to be, but she doesn't hesitate to stick the best jokes. The piano trio Passage to Vienna is a more serious work, dealing with the Old World/New World dialectic that has given us so many great works of art, from Henry James to Heitor Villa-Lobos. This is Anton Webern played late at night, after Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond have finished their final set.

The program concludes with a clever and touching piano quartet, From Vienna With Love, which is based on a theme from a sketch Gustav Mahler made for his Piano Quartet of 1876. There's a real tango feel to the piece, with contrasting aggressive and sentimental themes, though the folkloric content is Eastern European rather than Latin. Once again jazz-inflected passages alternate with more erudite ones, but in this piece especially Wolfgang achieves a real synthesis, I think.  It's a great end to a stimulating, and fun, album of music.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The indomitability of the human spirit

Music for Violin & Piano by Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Amy Beach

Tasmin Little brings her considerable technique and star power to the music of three women she admires a great deal, both as musicians and as human beings. If there's a theme for this disc, it's the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of systematic adversity and personal tragedy. This new disc helps to underline the rapidly rising reputations of both Clara Schumann and Amy Beach, and I hope it helps along a similar move to bring to the fore the music of Ethel Smyth.

Ethel Smyth's Violin Sonata, op. 7, is as full of character and spunk as its composer. Every new idea is more interesting than the one before, and it's all put together with technical skill and imagination. This piece, like the rest of the disc but to perhaps a higher degree, benefits from Little and Lenehan's strong advocacy. All their work was worth it, I think. The three Romanzen, op. 22, of Clara Schumann, are the same kind of character pieces that she and her husband Robert pretty much invented for solo piano. These are indeed romantic, soulful and melodic.

The most substantial, and the strongest, piece on the disc is the op. 34 Violin Sonata by Amy Beach. In her book Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian, Adrienne Fried Boch tells the story of violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and pianist Raoul Pugno coming across a violin sonata by "H. A. Beach", recognizing its quality, and putting it into their repertoire, not realizing it was by an American, or a woman. This is a strong, passionate performance, adding lustre to one of the greatest of American chamber works. Beach's Romance, op. 23, was written for the great American violin virtuoso Maud Powell; it's very much of its time (the 1890s), but no less lovely for that. The Invocation, op. 55, is from the new Century, but it's also beautifully melodic, and a beautiful ending for this thoughtfully designed programme.

In Little's recent violin sonata discs her partner was the excellent Piers Lane. This time around the pianist is John Lenehan, who provides strong support, though much of this repertoire is very much violin-focussed. We'll see if these two can eventually build the same close relationship that came to a peak in last year's Little-Lane disc of Brahms Violin Sonatas, a triumph of musical synergy.

This morning brings the news that Tasmin Little will be retiring from the concert stage. We wish her all the success in the world in all the great things she's planning for the future!

This disc will be released on February 1, 2019.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

A classical backbone & a lushly romantic outlook

Agustin Barrios: Guitar Music, vol. 5

Naxos chose the young Turkish guitar virtuoso Celil Refik Kaya to complete their 5-CD Barrios Guitar Music series, and the first prize winner of the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition in 2012 started strong with last year's release of Volume 4. The final disc is a triumph; this is really outstanding guitar playing. It's a tribute to both the composer and the soloist that the musical interest can be sustained at the end of a project that's this long; so often we have only left-over bits and pieces and a "let's get this done, finally" from everyone involved. Not here: Barrios has the twin virtues of a disciplined, classical backbone and a lushly romantic outlook; while Celil Refik Kaya brings a spontaneity to the more hackneyed salon pieces, and suitable gravitas for the more complex works. It must have been a huge advantage for the young guitarist to have the great production team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver in charge. One of the modern greats of the Spanish guitar, Norbert Kraft is also Engineer and Editor for the project. We hear so much about cut-throat competition at the high end of classical music; it's important to remember there is collegiality and mentorship at play every day as well.

Virtuosity and musicianship galore are on display in this superb release! Highly recommended.

By the way, I believe Norbert Kraft only recorded a single Barrios piece. It's the gorgeous Julia Florida, and it appears on his 1997 Naxos album Guitar Favourites.

This album will be released on March 8, 2019.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Into the sacred circle

Tan Dun: Fire Ritual, violin concertos

Tan Dun's Fire Ritual is a violin concerto which evokes the many victims of wars. Both as composer and conductor Tan Dun is acting as a shaman, making those spirits come to us in a life-like way, and providing at the end some sort of peace for both the spirits and for us as spectators. He wrote the work for violinist Eldbjorg Hemsing, and in this work she herself becomes a shaman, bringing the audience into the sacred circle of the orchestra.

Tan Dun's music has such a vitality; it seems to leap out at us, but in a very organic way. His intensity paired with a gift for prodigal, lush melodies make him a natural for the cinema, and I consider his music to be in the highest tier of music that crosses over between the movies and the concert hall. His 2018 Violin Concerto: Rhapsody and Fantasia shows this as well as Fire Ritual this dual character. Hemsing is a superb interpreter of this music, fearless in the face of its virtuoso requirements, and a full participant in Tan Dun's sacred mysteries.

This project makes:

  • a fine introduction to the music of Tan Dun;
  • an update for those who remember his music from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; or
  • an exciting way to get up to speed on the latest and greatest music for violin and orchestra

This album will be released on February 1, 2019.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Moving homages to Brahms

Brahms-Schoenberg: Piano Quartet in G minor; Hubert Parry: Elegy for Brahms

How do we see Arnold Schoenberg? Has he been forever obscured, overtaken, by his twelve-tone system? Is there a human being under that forbidding mask of theory? There certainly is one here in the "Blue Self-Portrait"; apparently his missing left ear is an homage to Vincent Van Gogh, who he admired immensely.
'Blue Self Portrait' by Arnold Schoenberg
Do we need a musical gateway to humanize the great composer, and bring him out from under the weight of his mighty theories? I'm not sure we still do, for I feel his music sounds different, much more accessible, in the 21st century than it did in the 20th; but if we do then his clever arrangement of Brahms's G minor Piano Quartet is just the ticket. Schoenberg takes apart the gorgeous and rich but somewhat murky chamber work, like an intricate pocket watch, polishing each tiny piece and rebuilding the whole thing as a beautiful grandfather clock. There's probably more Schoenberg here than there is Brahms, just as there's more Villa-Lobos than Bach in the Bachianas Brasileiras, but it's a surprisingly playful Schoenberg, and certainly a more human Schoenberg, than one would expect from listening to most of his music.

The resulting work is an orchestral showpiece, to be sure, but to play it only as such is to miss many felicities in the scoring. The conductor must be careful not to be too prodigal with Schoenberg's flourishes, holding something back for the climaxes and paying attention to the unfolding of Brahms's musical arguments. The players of the Gavle Symphony Orchestra are having fun here, and I think Jaime Martin does a more than passable job in reigning everything in. It becomes a moving homage from one composer to another, each of them on a different side of a historical and a musical abyss.

When Hubert Parry heard that Johannes Brahms had died in 1897 he stopped everything and began work on his Elegy for Brahms, a 12-minute symphonic movement. It's an appealing tribute, partly because of its quotations from Brahms' music, but mainly because it eschews the lugubrious. This is more like a eulogy with light-hearted anecdotes about the loved one that has the funeral crowd smiling and chuckling. There's an added layer of melancholy, though, that comes when you learn that the Elegy wasn't performed until it was played at Parry's own memorial service in 1918. Sir Adrian Boult made a lovely recording of this piece in December 1966. "Boult makes this Elegy shine in a golden aureole which celebrates Brahms rather than laments him," according to Rob Barnett. While the final sheen of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the gravitas of the great old conductor is missing from this performance, the Swedish players and their young Spanish conductor do a creditable job here. This is a highly recommended

This album will be released on February 8, 2019.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

High above, on a better star

Heimweh: Schubert Lieder

From Pentatone Classics comes this very special package, with an amazing cover photo by Julia Wesely, the profound musical concept and an arresting liner notes essay by Anna Lucia Richter, and the gorgeous music making of Richter, pianist Gerold Huber and clarinettist Matthias Schorn. Not to forget the greatest song-writer in history, Franz Schubert, a brilliant curator of poetry and the ultimate melder of words and music.

"We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange," says Carson McCullers. "As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known." The German words for these two feelings are Heimweh, a kind of homesickness, and Hinausweh, or wanderlust. Schubert, a master of the emotional landscape as much as the musical one, weaves strands of both throughout his songs, and Richter has gathered some of the best for this project. We begin with the heartbreaking simplicity of An den Mond, D. 259, a Goethe setting from 1815. In her liner notes Doris Blaich calls Heimweh, D. 456, from the following year, "one long musical sigh." The lyrics, by Theodor Hell, are a special expression of nostalgic feelings.
Often, in quiet, solitary hours,
I have experienced a feeling,
inexplicable, marvellous,
like a yearning for the far distance,
high above, on a better star,
like a soft presentiment.
Schubert turns the emotional level way up in the late Totengräbers Heimwehe, D. 842, a setting of Jakob Nikolaus from 1825. In this song "The stars vanish – My eyes close in death," an unflinching look into the abyss!

The programme ends with Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D. 965, a melding of two poems by Wilhelm Müller and Karl August Varnhagen, written in October 1828. This concert aria shifts the spotlight from the relatively intimate lieder to something which points to a more theatrical future, which alas was not to be. The song was published posthumously, after the composer died that November.
My sweetheart lives so far from me,
Therefore, I long so to be with her
Over there.
Music wouldn't be the same without this yearning, from the lonesome cowboy to the saudade of Fado and Tom Jobim, from singin' the blues to Judy Garland's yearning for home in The Wizard of Oz. This album is a distinguished addition to the genre.

This disc will be released on February 1, 2019.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Music from the shadows

Alberto Nepomuceno: Symphony in G minor, Prelude to O Garatuja, Serie Brasileira

The Villa-Lobos Shadow in Brazilian classical music is wide, and long, and very dark. It reaches forward from the intimidating bulk of the great composer's works, but it also reaches into the past, obscuring the music of fine, or at least respectable, composers who went before. But now, to shine some light on composers in this shadow, we have an exciting new Naxos series called The Music of Brazil, made possible by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs project Brasil em Concerto. We can look forward to more releases from the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the Goiás Philharmonic Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP), from a label that has already done so much for Brazilian classical music.

Alberto Nepomuceno is a good composer to begin with: born twenty-three years before Villa-Lobos, he left behind his beginnings in the North-Eastern cities of Fortaleza and Recife for more sophisticated musical surroundings, first in Rio de Janeiro, and then for an extended stay in the European capitals of Rome, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. A progressive in politics as well as art, Nepomuceno worked tirelessly, often behind the scenes, on behalf of new trends in music, but it was Villa-Lobos who gained much of the credit as the foremost home-grown musical modernist. In a coup of self-promotion and clever branding, Villa-Lobos stood virtually alone as the representative of music at the Semana de Arte Moderna in São Paulo in 1922. At that point, unfortunately, Nepomuceno had been dead for nearly two years, though surely more room could be made in the story of avant garde Brazilian music for someone who had translated Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony into Portuguese in 1916, teaching it at his National Institute of Music.

Which brings us to the music on the present disc. There is lots of well-crafted, pleasant music here, substantial enough to make careful listening worth your while, with occasionally something special.  While I was re-listening to Nepomuceno's G minor Symphony I had a flash-back to some music I had heard earlier in the day on my car radio (on KING-FM), Johan Halvorsen's Symphony no. 1 in D minor. Both had a pleasing, light, Tchaikovskian sound, and I wasn't at all surprised to see that both composers were born in the same year, 1864, though the Brazilian symphony was written in 1893, thirty years before its Norwegian counterpart. It's the beautiful slow movement of this symphony which represents perhaps the peak of Nepomuceno's orchestral music, under the influence, I would guess, of music by composers such as Puccini and Leoncavallo, but prefiguring works by Elgar and Richard Strauss.

Fabio Mechetti and the Minas Gerais Philharmonic provide really excellent playing, with especially strong string sections. Their version of the G minor Symphony is vastly better than the other version I've heard, by the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira under Edoardo de Guarnieri from 1958. This is a strong start for the Naxos series, and I look forward to upcoming releases!

This disc will be released on February 8, 2019.

A Brazilian composer you must know

The Ovalle Project: works for piano by Jayme Ovalle

The Brazilian composer Jayme Ovalle is a close contemporary of Heitor Villa-Lobos; he was born seven years after, and died four years before his much better-known compatriot. Like Villa-Lobos, Ovalle wrote a great deal of music for the piano throughout his career, and this splendid two-CD set by Andree-Ann Deschenes (whose Villa-Lobos I praised in 2017) shows Ovalle deserves a place amongst the great Brazilian composers for the piano, a group that also includes Camargo Guarnieri, Chiquinha Gonzaga and Ernesto Nazareth. But Ovalle is more like Chopin than the musical polymath Villa-Lobos; nearly everything he wrote was either a song or a piano piece.

But Ovalle's trajectory in music is similar to Villa-Lobos's in a number of other ways. Both melded erudite and popular styles, and combined Brazilian traditions of salon music with up-to-date European modernism, especially influenced by Debussy, Ravel and Satie. Like Villa-Lobos, Ovalle spent a good deal of his time outside of Brazil, in Europe and New York, and shared a cosmopolitan outlook that's often reflected in his music. Deschenes has chosen works that show the many facets of Ovalle's music, from Nazareth-style pieces in maxixe and choro styles, to characteristic, folk-like tunes reminiscent of Villa's Guia prático, and finally to more complex works like the splendid Third Lengenda. This collection has immediate appeal, with its lovely melodies and captivating rhythms, but it rewards close listening as well. Playing with intense virtuosity and cool control, Deschenes has done Ovalle and Brazilian music a great service with this project. Very highly recommended!

This review also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Debussy with fire, wit and a touch of swing

Piano works by Debussy, Faure and Ravel
Under the alternating fires of two spotlights, a very young man, with troubled eyes and flaming hair, was seated before the black mass of a piano. And, alone, confronting a considerable public, delirious or collected, and who filled the vast ship of the room of the Opera of the Champs-Elysees.
This spectacle still besets my memory.
- Henry Malherbe
The very young man was Marius-Francois Gaillard, and he was in the midst of playing the complete piano works of Claude Debussy, spread over three concerts in March 1922. In 1928, 1929 and 1930, French Odéon recorded a significant subset of Gaillard's Debussy, enough to fill a generous CD, and spill over onto a second. This is outstanding playing; though the sound is of course thin and restricted, there is a full palette of tonal colour. Gaillard supplies fire, wit and just a touch of swing, rare in a Debussy performance from any period, but a revelation if you haven't heard this marvellous music played in such a way. This is a recording to listen to while reading Proust, and drinking vintage French champagne, preferably the 1985 Krug Brut, if you have any left in your cellar.

APR Recordings fills the second CD with more marvellous piano playing from the 1930s, by Carmen Guilbert. Recorded by Pathé well after the Gaillard, the sound isn't as life-like, but her playing of Debussy, Faure and Ravel still communicates musicality and authenticity through the hiss and cramped acoustic. Such a fine release!