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.

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.