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.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Etudes for Guitar by Turibio Santos on LP

In 2023 I got serious about collecting vinyl; so far I've managed to acquire about twenty Villa-Lobos LPs, mainly from thrift stores. I'll feature some of my favourites in the next few posts of The Villa-Lobos Magazine, and I'll copy these posts to my more general record blog: Music for Several Instruments.

Villa-Lobos wrote his 12 Etudes for Guitar in Paris in 1928/29, but, according to the latest edition of Villa-Lobos: Sua Obra, they weren't heard in a public concert until March of 1947, when Andrés Segovia played numbers 1, 7 & 8 at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.  The first performance of the entire set of twelve Etudes took place on November 21, 1963, at the Auditório do Palácio da Cultura in Rio de Janeiro. They were played by the Brazilian guitarist Turibio Santos, who was only twenty years old at the time.

That same year, Turibio Santos's recording of the 12 Etudes was released in Brazil on the Caravelle label. and in 1969 Erato re-issued this wonderful World Premiere recording.

Erato provided full notes, including a summary by Segovia, inside the gatefold cover. Alas, these are only in French.

I'm experiencing all of the advantages of vinyl with my Villa-Lobos records: warm sound, a chance to pay close attention in a way that isn't always possible with streaming, and the ergonomic advantage of having to get up every twenty minutes to change sides :)

I should mention that the Erato recording was re-released - sometime in the late 1960s, I believe, by Musical Heritage Society. I always enjoy these MHS albums, with their stark black & white covers.

The great advantage of this recording over the many very fine modern recordings of the Etudes - I love those by Norbert Kraft, Timo Korhonen, David Leisner and Andrea Bissoli, among others - is authenticity. Turibio Santos was the Director of the Museu Villa-Lobos for 24 years, from 1986 (he took over after the death of the first director, Villa's widow Mindinha, in 1985) until 2010. Though he was only 16 when Villa-Lobos died in 1959, he has been a major player in classical guitar - and more generally, in classical music - in Brazil since the early 1960s.

Turibio Santos followed this landmark issue with recordings of the rest of Villa-Lobos's rather small but absolutely outstanding guitar repertoire: the Preludes, Concerto, the Suite Popular Brasileira, the First Choros and the Sexteto Místico. I'll be looking out for those recordings in 2024!

Thanks to my brother Lane, who tracked this album down in a Vancouver record shop, and gave it to me at Christmas!

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Music from Santoro's Sixties

Claudio Santoro: Symphony no. 8, Cello Concerto

As one of the top Brazilian composers of the middle and late 20th century, Claudio Santoro stayed on top of the latest musical trends, but always kept an eye on the tradition created in part by Heitor Villa-Lobos, his Bachian, Brazilian forebear. More than 30 years younger than Villa-Lobos, Santoro spent time in Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger, so Villa's modernism was absorbed at the source. Though Santoro ventured into atonality, under the influence of another teacher, Hans Joachim Koellreutter (who also taught Antônio Carlos Jobim), there are as many similarities between the two composers as there are differences. The split between the "Nationalists" and the "Serialists" that came about when Koellreutter started Musica Viva is in this case rather permeable.

This is especially apparent in the Cello Concerto, which Santoro wrote in 1961 (two years after Villa's death). The cello was Villa-Lobos's instrument, along with the guitar and piano, and he wrote a number of great cello concertos and other works featuring the instrument, which I'm sure Claudio Santoro knew well. Cellist Marina Martins gives a spirited performance of the work in this new recording from Naxos's estimable Music of Brazil series, with able support from the Goiás Philharmonic Orchestra. Though it was written in Berlin during a historic geopolitical crisis and amidst revolutionary musical changes, the Cello Concerto shows at least some remaining touches of Brasilidade, if not the full-scale national (and at that point conservative) sound of late Villa-Lobos.

Santoro's Symphony no. 8 comes from the following year, 1962, when Santoro was back in Brazil, teaching at the University of Brasilia. Symphonies loom larger in his oeuvre than in Villa's, and this work makes its mark through its intensity and depth of feeling. A vocalise in the second movement Andante - beautifully sung here by mezzo-soprano Denise de Freitas - hearkens back to Villa-Lobos's most famous work. It's supported by dark murmurings and ejaculations from the orchestra, and bookended by the similarly expressionistic first movement and a dramatic, rhythmically propulsive finale.

By 1966 Santoro was back in Berlin, where he wrote the Três Abstrações (Three Abstractions) for string orchestra. These are wonderful short character pieces - two or three minutes each - that make use of a serial technique to create alternating moods of mystery, dread, and, in the final piece, perhaps some hope for transcendance. By 1969 Santoro, who was not in the good books of the military dictatorship in Brazil, was at work in Paris, where he wrote his Interações Assintóticas (Asymptotic Interactions - a term taken from the current mathematical research of a physicist colleague of Santoro's). This is a very cool ten-minute work that makes use of quarter tones, beautifully coloured by Santoro's clever use of every instrument in a large orchestra. Olivier Messiaen once said that Heitor Villa-Lobos was the greatest orchestrator of the 20th century, and Claudio Santoro is carrying on this tradition. This is such an entertaining piece, and one that showcases a virtuoso orchestra in the Goias Philharmonic, under Neil Thomson.

By way of an encore, the disc ends with One Minute Play, a work from 1966. It's a tiny, clever, perpetual motion machine for strings, and it must be a great deal of fun to play. What a wonderful ending for a challenging but always interesting disc.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Tropical Baroque from Madeira


António Pereira da Costa: Concerti Grossi

There is only a single surviving published work of the Portuguese composer António Pereira da Costa: a set of 12 concerti grossi published in London in 1741. Pereira da Costa was the Chapel Master of the Cathedral in Funchal, Madeira.

I don't imagine there are many composers who are known for only a single work, but the six concertos from Pereira da Costa's Opus 1 recorded here by Ensemble Bonne Corde under the direction of Diana Vinagre show a master of taste, wit and style.  These concertos follow the model of Arcangelo Corelli, as so many works from the period do, but there is a true originality in his musical voice. The middle of the 18th century is probably the most likely place to come across truly fine composers who are completely unknown, at least partly because there is a real International Style in place that includes not only the musical centres of Europe - Paris, London, Venice - but also the far-flung edges of the musical world. 

Madeira is closer to Lisbon - the centre of the Portuguese variant of the International Style - than the thriving musical culture of Brazil, though one can think of the New World culture of the Portuguese empire beginning on the island nearly 1,000 km. from Lisbon. Indeed, the fine liner notes by Fernando Miguel Jalôto refer to Pereira da Costa's music as "tropical Baroque". I'm not sure exactly what this means, but perhaps there's a tendency for the music to show a bit more flair and individuality, away from the homogenizing effects of big-city tastemakers. Though there were no indigenous people living there when it was discovered by Portuguese sailors in 1419, it was on Madeira that enslaved people were first used in the sugar industry, and perhaps the rhythms of West Africa might have influenced the composer in a small way. But there aren't the same cross-cultural influences here that one finds in the music of the Iberian New World.

These six concertos were recorded in October 2021 in Lisbon. There's no indication in the documentation that the remaining six were recorded at the same time, but I'm certainly hoping that was the case. A second volume of this wonderful Opus 1 would certainly be welcome!


I was this close to entitling this review of "One Hit Wonder" Pereira da Costa's single work "That Thing You Do". And this video would be required:

Thursday, June 1, 2023

More wonderful piano music by women composers

The Future is Female, vol. 3: piano music by Montgeroult, Chaminade, Bacewicz, Yi, Ali-Zadeh, Oliveros, Kendall, Shirazi, Harris Baiocchi

Sarah Cahill has produced another winner, the third CD in her series The Future is Female. This disc is full of substantial works by mainly fairly obscure women composers who all deserve to be better known. Of the nine composers represented here, I only knew three: Cécile Chaminade, Grazyna Bacewicz and Pauline Oliveros. 

But from the beginning I was taken by a sonata by Hélène de Montgeroult, who was born about a decade after Mozart, and died about a decade after Beethoven. The Sonata in F sharp minor, op. 5 no. 3 was published in 1811, two years after Haydn's death, and it reminds me very much of the minor key sonatas that master wrote in the 1770s and 80s. But Montgeroult updates that Sturm und Drang feel, moving to the verge of Romanticism; her Études published in 1820 perhaps influenced Chopin. Sarah Cahill plays this sonata with more of a classical feel, while Nicholas Horvath, in his 2021 disc of Montgeroult's Complete Piano Sonatas, pushes harder on the incipient Romanticism, sounding more like Beethoven, if not Chopin. I prefer Cahill's approach; in this sonata she's a more effective advocate for this fascinating composer.

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's Music for Piano uses a John Cage-style prepared piano technique to create a sound reminiscent of the tar, an Azerbaijani stringed instrument. I don't believe there's any connection to Todd Field's 2022 film Tár, though that is also a celebration (of sorts) of women in classical music. 

There are so many other exciting pieces included here; some are short, but all are worth a listen, and multiple listens as well.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

The complex being of 'Woman'

Maria Mater Meretrix: music for voice and violin by Holst, Crumb, Dufay, Martin, Kurtag, Hildegarde von Bingen & more

"This is the theme of this album, Maria Mater Meretrix – a study of the three classical female phenomenologies into which, since time immemorial, the (un-female!) eye and ear have divided up the complex being of ‘Woman’: as Saint, Mother, and Whore."

Thematic albums like this new disc from soprano Anna Prohaska and violinist/conductor Patricia Kopatchinskaja, with the Camerata Bern, have recently become more popular in the classical music sphere. Back in 2016, Patricia Kopatchinskaja released a marvellous album around the theme of "Death and the Maiden"; in my review I called it an "illuminating, moving project." We have another such winner here.

The quote at the top of this review is from a fascinating essay by Christine Lemke-Matwey. She highlights the Virgin Mary - and Mary Magdalene - references in the huge range of music included here: from early works by Hildegard von Bingen, Walther von der Vogelweide and Tomas Luis de la Victoria to 20th century music by Frank Martin, Gyorgy Kurtag and Gustav Holst. Clever arrangements, by Michi Wiancko and Wolfgang Katschner, are included with original chamber and orchestral works. The resulting common sound-world allows one to truly appreciate the common themes in this incredibly diverse music. This album rewards close and careful - and repeat - listens. I feel like I learned more each time I sat down with this music.

I'm reading Adam Gopnik's new book The Real Work: On the Mystery of Meaning, and I feel this passage applies here:

"We find meaning in one thing by enlarging the area of reference, making it not more precise but less, by a horizontal leap relating it to something larger. Meanings expand as our contexts expand. Art only becomes articulate within a history..."

The wonderful cover photo of Prohaska and Kopatchinskaja is by Marco Borggreve. There are two equally fine shots of each of them inside the cover.

Remarkable music from Iceland

Atmospheriques: music by Thorvaldsdottir, Mazzoli, Bjarnason, Sigfusdottir, Gisladottir

I listened to these two discs one after another: the first is a normal CD, which I listened to to familiarize myself with this music. This is all definitely in my wheelhouse: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s CATAMORPHOSIS, from 2020; Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), from 2014; Daníel Bjarnason’s From Space I Saw Earth, from 2019; Maria Sigfúsdóttir’s Clockworking for Orchestra, from 2020; and Bára Gísladóttir’s ÓS, written for the Iceland Centenary in 2018. It's beautifully played by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, directed by Daniel Bjarnason.

Only a few months ago I reviewed Missy Mazzoli's latest album, Dark With Excessive Bright, which also includes her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), with Tim Weiss conducting the Arctic Philharmonic. It seems like high-latitude orchestras are best situated to play this piece about the Music of the Spheres, situated as they are far from the noise of the world's cities, and closer to the light show of the Aurora Borealis. I prefer the performance of the Iceland players by the narrowest of margins in this important work, helped as it is by the sound engineering of Sono Luminus.

And it's the audio that brings us to the second disc: a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc with the identical repertoire, totalling just under an hour, in remarkable Surround Sound. As I've mentioned a few times in my reviews, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about the audiophile component of recording, but listening to this Blu-ray knocked me for a loop. This will surely become a demonstration disc for high-end Surround Sound systems.

Iceland is a small country, but its music, both classical and popular, has the huge scope and universal appeal of the Sagas. This is a distinguished addition to a long and distinguished artistic tradition.

The cover painting is "Water and Mist I", by Kristin Morthens, from 2022.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Sunny and dark music for string trio

The string trio is one of my favourite formats; it doesn't have the baggage of the string quartet: that daunting mass of masterworks from Haydn to the present day. The String Trio has, on the one hand, the light serenade side, and on the other the intensity of great string trios by Schoenberg, Villa-Lobos and Schnittke. In the middle is the perfection of Mozart's great string trio from 1788, the Divertimento, K. 563.

The first two works chosen by the exceptional group Leipziger Streichtrio - violinist Adrian Iliescu, violist Atilla Aldemir and cellist Rodin Moldovan - try for that Goldilocks medium attained by Mozart. This is joyful music, but not completely ignoring dark undercurrents. Ernö Dohnányi's Serenade for String Trio, Op 10, is a relatively early work, written in 1902. It takes as its formal model not Mozart's Divertimento, but rather Beethoven's Serenade for String Trio, op. 8, from 1796-97. Jean Françaix's String Trio, from 1933, is a neo-classical gem, which exemplifies the modus operandi of Les Six: slightly sad nostalgia, slightly ironic romps, slightly erudite fugal passages, always having fun with serious matters. 

Jean Sibelius's String Trio, which dates from 1894 is a more serious beast. This is an almost altogether stern work, and though it's only 8 minutes long, it has a symphonic feel to it. When have you ever seen Sibelius smiling in a portrait? *

There are two additional pieces in this interesting program, which one might consider encores. George Enescu's Aubade, from 1899, is a bit of fun, a rustic folkloric piece full of swoops and pizzicati. Andras von Toszeghi's arrangement of J. S. Bach's great Chaconne from the 2nd Partita for Solo Violin is substantial, and interesting. Mozart himself transcribed six Bach Preludes & Fugues for string trio in 1788, K. 404a. I love listening to the Chaconne in any guise - I especially enjoy Brahms' version for piano, and Leopold Stokowski's for full orchestra. But this isn't quite a complete success as an arrangement - the violin gets to keep most of the good bits, and the viola and cello have the leftovers that make the soloist sweat while double-stopping in the original. It's neither fish nor fowl, but tasty anyway! Altogether this makes an exceptional hour of music.

* Here's your answer: Werner Bischof very nearly got a full smile out of Jean Sibelius in this 1948 portrait.