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.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A recipe for good listening (not Fake)

Pietro Gnocchi: Sonate a tre

In his entry on "Spoof Articles" in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, David Fallows uses Don Pietro Gnocchi (1689-1775) as an example of someone who makes these kind of hoaxes superfluous, because his life and works are so bizarre.
There are plenty of bona fide musicians whose names and lives look like outrageous fiction. One need only mention Gnocchi, who became maestro di cappella at Brescia Cathedral at the age of 85, composed a Magnificat entitled ‘Il capo di buona speranza’ (alongside many other works with improbable titles) and wrote an unpublished 25-volume history of ancient Greek colonies in the East (the long MGG article even includes a suitably lugubrious portrait). 
When Brixia Musicalis performed this music at the 2005 Festival delle Nuove Settimane Barocche Di Brescia (Gnocchi's home-town) it was the first time it had been heard since Gnocchi's lifetime. This is, alas, not a new recording, but a re-issue of the recording released after the festival, though there's nothing on the front or back of the CD indicating this (I didn't get a chance to see the liner notes). But the amazing quality of the music certainly makes the re-issue worthwhile. Listen to this lovely little Largo which open the G major Sonata a tre:

This disc has been on more than a few times since I first heard it a few weeks ago. Along with only one other disc (of sacred music that I'll mention later) I've now heard nearly the entirety of the composer's discography*, and I must say I'm a big fan. Gnocchi was a close contemporary of Vivaldi, with whom he shares a dramatic flair as well as the infectious, lilting rhythms that make one think of Carnival time. But Brescia is close to the Romagna as well as Venice, and the more heart-on-one's-sleeve sentimentality of the followers of Arcangelo Corelli comes to mind in this emotional music.

I commend to you all this disc of sacred music by Gnocchi: Musica Sacra Per Le Chiese Di Brescia, by Coro Claudio Monteverdi di Crema and Ensemble Pian and Forte, released in 2010. It's not available on or Spotify, but you can listen at the Naxos Music Library. Sacred music is where the composer put by far the bulk of his energies, and the music is all of the highest calibre.

* I was pleased to see that there's a second recording of the Six Sonata a tre, by Martin Jopp and Main-Barockorchester Frankfurt, on Aeolus in 2016. I haven't heard it yet, but it's on my radar!

This album will be released on April 5, 2019.

O.K., I've managed to get right to the end without making anything of Don Pietro's name, but here is a great article from BBC Good Food: "Top 10 ways to serve gnocchi":

Squash & goat's cheese is an addictive combination, and this colourful dish is sure to become a family favourite. Just stick the squash in the oven, boil your gnocchi, combine and serve.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Into the abyss

Allan Pettersson: Violin Concerto no. 2, Symphony no. 17, fragment

Allan Pettersson wrote his Second Violin Concerto just after he completed his 13th Symphony, in 1976. He referred to it as a Symphony for Violin and Orchestra, but this is no Symphonie Concertante, where a solo instrument shares its virtuosity with orchestral players. Rather, it's a more modern, searching expression of a classic tale: the individual vs. the collective. It's easy to imagine why the semi-invalid Pettersson, shut up in his apartment suffering from his acute, chronic rheumatoid arthritis, would explore the lone voice struggling to be heard over the powerful sound of the orchestra/universe. This is a work that's all about this balance, and since the premiere performance with Ida Haendel in Stockholm on January 25, 1980, there has been much controversy concerning this key point. Was Pettersson unaware of how the violin would sound against the powerful writing of his orchestral forces? Did he design the work to be heard over the radio (as he heard it from his apartment) or on a recording rather than live in a concert hall? Things went back and forth between the critics, until the composer weighed in:
The solo violin is eliminated as regards audibility – something that the composer has consciously chosen – by letting the soloist often play in unison with the leading parts. The composer lets the soloist fill in passages totally inaudibly within the orchestral mass.
This, of course, is a challenge for today's recording producers and engineers: they're very good at allowing us to hear every detail in a score through technological means plus microphone choice and placement, as well as the choice of recording venue to find a proper acoustic to match the music. Luckily, in this case, we're dealing with BIS, whose default is rich and full rather than bright and exposed. And we have the Pettersson Dream Team in Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, who are completely at home in the music of the great composer, as they come to the end of their epic traversal of Allan Pettersson's complete works. Finally, the musicianship of violinist Ulf Wallin wins out, over, I might imagine, some of the more ego-driven soloists of his most ego-drenched instrument. In the end one hears the sad, even agonizing music as it was designed by Pettersson, and the touches of grace and redemption that occur, particularly toward the end, are all the sweeter for it.

The short fragment that might have become the 17th Symphony does not break new ground, nor show the way to any major turns on their way from the composer's music written before. It's the last music Pettersson wrote, so one goes in with the same feeling as with the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem or the unfinished final fugue in Bach's Art of the Fugue. Lindberg and his fine musicians give this often robust music a straight-forward, unsentimental reading, and they let the way it shuffles off at the end, into the silence, speak for itself. Let it echo in the silence for a while when you listen to it; this says as much about the abyss as whole symphonies.

This disc will be released on May 3, 2019.

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.