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, October 16, 2018

Profound Mozart quintets

Mozart: The String Quintets

The Klenke Quartett's new 3-disc set of Mozart's complete string quintets (with guest violist Harald Schoneweg) constitutes a welcome return for the group to the music of Mozart. I've long been a fan of the Klenke Mozart String Quartet recordings on Profil, released in the first decade of the 2000s. This new release shows some familiar strengths: a fine ensemble sound, careful but not over-precise, with enough character to set these performances apart even from such well-known groups as the Amadeus Quartet with Cecil Aronowitz or the Guarneri Quartet with Michael Tree, both of which I find just a bit superficial. My gold standard for these great works has always been the 1973 Philips set with Arthur Grumiaux and four other very fine instrumentalists (or, as they say in the Season One Gilligan's Island theme song: "and the rest"). Of course, this new recording comes from a completely different tradition of playing, more historically informed and without the fine Corinthian leather upholstery of earlier days, but it has the same high standard of musicianship and not-too-careful tightrope-walks between dancing joy and intense despair. The Accentus engineers provide a surprisingly big, resonant space which matches well with the big sound of these fine string players. This is a more than just an enjoyable release; it's a profound experience.

This disc will be released on November 16, 2018.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Masterworks from a marvellous month

Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 450 & K. 451; Quintet for Piano & Winds, K. 452

While I was listening to this new release from Chandos's great Mozart Piano Concertos series from Manchester, I happened to read an essay about Imposter Syndrome. The first recommended strategy for dealing with this issue, common in the arts, academia, and other competitive arenas, is "compare like to like," which is a blanket warning to stay away from comparing yourself to Mozart. As Tom Lehrer said in 1965: "It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years." This new Chandos disc from the marvellous pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, with superb support from the Manchester Camerata under Gabor Takacs-Nagy, is the best possible example of why Mozart is almost sui generis as a high achiever. In one month, March of 1784, Mozart wrote three masterpieces, breaking new ground in the piano concerto genre he helped to perfect, with dramatic, exciting new sonorities, especially relating to the interplay of piano and wind instruments. All three together on one disc really underlines this nearly incredible accomplishment.

Mozart is often hailed as a great child prodigy, but as a composer it's the huge musical strides he made in his mid- to late-20s that I find most miraculous. The beginnings of Mozart's wind instrument revolution is perhaps his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, from 1782. One almost feels the instruments moving on stage as they comment on the action and the characters' emotions, and with the twin works K. 450 and K. 451 Mozart brings this drama, this theatricality, even, to his favourite new genre for self-promotion, the piano concerto. As appealing as both works are, Mozart was nowhere near ready to rest on his laurels; the true flowering of the genre was to come two years later in 1786, with the great works written around the landmark opera The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492. The Manchester team shines in both piano concertos here; the martial D major work with its glitter and mock pomp and the B-flat major concerto more intimate, an engrossing, quietly domestic comedy of manners. Bavouzet's touch is perfect, and perfectly matched to his colleagues. It's been so exciting to hear his partnership with Takacs-Nagy develop in the past few years.

Rubens: Miraculous Fishing, c.1610, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne,
from the recent exhibition Rubens: Painter of Sketches, at the Museo Nacional del Prado 

At one point in that marvellous March, Mozart took time out to take a step back from the piano concerto to write his Quintet for piano, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, K. 452. It's like an oil sketch by a great master, to go with the large-scale oil paintings of K. 450 and 451. The talented leaders of the wind sections of the Manchester Camerata set to work with Bavouzet on an even more intimate stage, but it's still a stage. The Larghetto especially sets a very operatic confession scene that anticipates Figaro and Don Giovanni. It's great music making, and, like this entire album, a humbling experience for the listener.

This album will be released on November 16, 2018.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Bearing witness to Lang's soul

David Lang: Mystery Sonatas
I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on, and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.
- Mark Rothko
David Lang has taken away the liturgical context from his model, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's Mystery Sonatas, written in 1676, but a deeply emotional and even spiritual level remains embedded in this music. The music is divided into sections denoting joy, sorrow and glory, and various gradations between, and like Biber's music, and even more so, Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the single line of the violin bears the entire weight of his thesis. George Grella praised the work in his post at New York Classical Review: "...this music is humane and vibrantly expressive. We are essentially bearing witness to Lang’s soul."

The violinist Augustin Hadelich premiered this work at Zankel Hall in New York in April 2014, to considerable acclaim, and in May of 2016 the present recording was made. Hadelich has a warm, commanding tone, enhanced by the 1723 “ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivari he plays, which perfectly matches the open and intensely sincere music. I'm a bit surprised by the delay in this release, considering how accessible and appealing this music is, and how effective is Hadelich's advocacy. But years and decades into the future, I'm sure we'll be listening to this recording, and also performances and recordings of the Lang Mystery Sonatas by other violinists.  It's an instant classic, even if it took a while to get to the top of the queue.

This disc will be released on October 19, 2018.

The album cover includes a cropped portion of the 1905 photograph Nude boy in rocky landscape, silhouette, by F. Holland Day (1864-1933). I had assumed a black & white original had been tinted blue for the cover, but here's the original from the Library of Congress website:

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fresh and lively Schubert

Now that Historically Informed Practices are closer to the mainstream of classical music one is less likely to come across a surprisingly different performance, even of early 19th century works, but here we are with a completely re-thought album of Schubert's symphonies. René Jacobs and the B'Rock Orchestra present the freshest and most lively Schubert I've heard in a long time; the cobwebs are gone, the light is let in, and one can hear the most interesting musical connections to different genres of operatic, orchestral and popular music, and especially to the carnival traditions of Vienna. Jacobs provides a long essay that breaks down each movement in the two symphonies, the First from 1813, and the Sixth from 1817-18. Reading it is like watching an expert restorer of Old Master paintings. He shows more than musicological expertise, though; he makes a convincing case for presenting the finale of the Sixth Symphony as Schubert's musical depiction of a procession from the Carnival.

Rudoph Ackermann. Characters in the Grand Fancy Ball Given by the British Ambassador Sir Henry Wellesley
at Vienna, at the Conclusion of the Carnival 1826
In an extraordinary passage, Jacobs illustrates the music by referring to a great painting, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, by the Belgian James Ensor (René Jacobs and the B'Rock Orchestra hail from Ghent):
James Ensor’s monumental 1888 painting ‘The Entry of Christ into Brussels’ comes very close to the “meaning” of this final movement as I see it: Christ, although placed at the centre of the huge picture, is a small, lonely, sad figure, almost drowning in a sea of ugly masks and guises. It’s carnival time, and the little Christ is Ensor himself... I wonder if behind the many exuberant notes of this movement, a small, lonely and sad Franz Schubert is hiding.

All the musical and cultural insights into this music are impressive indeed. That along with the outstanding performance of the players of the B'Rock Orchestra makes this a special release indeed.

This album will be released on November 2, 2018.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Sad stories about death and dying

Shostakovich: String Quartet no. 8; Schubert: String Quartet no. 14

A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.
 - Mark Rothko
Masterpieces meet at Sothebys: Rothko's Untitled (Yellow & Blue), 1954 and Van Gogh's L'Allee des Alyscamps, 1888
📷 Mary Turner, 2015

Matching two or more works from different eras is a tried-and-true programming trick for concerts or recordings, which works often enough that I would never want to see it fall out of favour. A stellar example is the Aris Quartett's new disc, with sparks flying back and forth between Shostakovich and Schubert, both of whom show an intensity of feeling belied by the often calm surfaces of their string quartets. The one work calls to the other, like a Rothko and a Van Gogh hung together, yellows reflecting off each other, and blues pulling each together. The concept works best, of course, with two masterpieces masterfully played. The Aris players, quite correctly, I think, play the Shostakovich first. It's a harrowing mash-up of all sorts of horrors: historical (it's dedicated to the "victims of fascism and the war"), political (coming after the composer's humiliating forced membership in the Communist party), and personal (he had recently experienced the first symptoms of what was eventually diagnosed as ALS). In spite of all of this the 8th Quartet is one of Shostakovich's best known and popular works, both in its original form and in Rudolf Barshai's transcription for string orchestra as the Chamber Symphony op. 110a. The 14th Quartet of Schubert, named for his song "Death and the Maiden" was also written in response to a health crisis, and Schubert's own knowledge of his impending death, and it too contains music of surpassing beauty.

The intense feelings of both of these works create both tensions and release, within each piece and between the two. Set in this frame, these fine musicians tell us incredibly sad stories about death and dying in the 19th and the 20th centuries. I felt privileged to hear these stories again and again as I listened to this album, every time hearing new facets of sadness, anger and the comforts of beauty and love. This is a significant achievement for Genuin and the Aris Quartett.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Except in his own town

Rued Langgaard: Symphonies no. 2 & 6; Jacob Gade: Tango Jalousie

Here's a common problem among artists and Messiahs:
Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.' - Mark 6:4
Rued Langgaard had not inconsiderable success in Germany and Austria, but his music never caught on at home in Denmark. So it's good to have this very fine disc from Europe's musical heartland, with Sakari Oramo conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, though I hasten to point out that the recording is published by DaCapo, "the Danish national label". So in that sense, Rued, you can go home again.

These are beautifully crafted symphonies, full of appealing melodies and interesting side-trips away from the main themes. "Digression is the sunshine of narrative," says Lawrence Stern, and further, Adam Phillips calls it "secular revelation." While you can hear some strains of the Great Dane Carl Nielsen in this music, and somewhat more Sibelius, it's Richard Strauss who comes most to mind, especially in the very fine 2nd Symphony, written in 1912-14. All three of those composers were born in the 1860s, while Langgaard is 30 years younger. It's no surprise that this relatively conservative but very appealing music, more or less untouched by modernism, was such a hit in central Europe before the Great War.

A lot of things were different after that conflict, of course, but Rued Langgaard's music kept to a certain path, and his somewhat prickly and difficult temperament kept him on the outs with the musical establishment at home. He set himself up in opposition to Carl Nielsen, but unlike in the great Jack Benny-Fred Allen feud to come, there seemed to be no benefit to either composer. This is really a marketing issue, though, since you can hear Langgaard's 6th Symphony from 1920 as a kind of response to Nielsen's 4th Symphony, written in 1916. The serious nature of this symphony speaks more to Langgaard's musical evolution, though, rather than any polemical agenda, as much as he aggressively promoted one or another for most of his life.

Both of these symphonies have moments of transfiguration, in the Richard Strauss tradition, but they're relatively short on light, and nearly devoid of real joy. This is serious music from a dour man, and I can't help comparing Rued Langgaard with a near contemporary prophet who also had problems at home, Heitor Villa-Lobos. In spite of many personal and artistic trials, Villa-Lobos was a true optimist whose music nearly always expresses the same joyful spirit of music itself, which he felt was embodied in, and expressed most perfectly through, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Perhaps in response to this dour hour, Sakari Oramo adds a delightful coda: the Tango Jalousie of another Danish composer, Jacob Gade. With their own light music always right at their finger-tips, the Viennese musicians provide us with an up-beat finale to a thoughtful but severe concert.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Salt-pepper-chromatic sidesteps

Brahms: Symphony no. 3, Segerstam: Symphony no. 294
getting ahaa extasy moments from shiverings in an octavepusspasm in either major or minor directions into complextonal myceliums taking salt-pepper-chromatic sidesteps allowed in between... in the wonders of experiencephenomenologic dualisms: Love-Hate, Life-Death, richness-poorness, lightness-darkness, humidity-dryness, warmth-coldness, quicknessslowness, acceleration- retardation, fractalic straightlines-aerodynamic parables etc.
This is a small bit of the liner notes essay written by Leif Segerstam for the third episode in the Brahms/Segerstam Symphonies series from Alba. I like to think of it as just a thousand or so words plucked at random from a multi-volume Finnegans Wake-style tome explaining Segerstam's odd, and oddly appealing, musical world. So much can be divined by carefully parsing Segerstam's interpretation of the four great orchestral works by Johannes Brahms, and there is more information imbedded in the symphonies from Segerstam's own late works. But there are plenty of blank areas left on the map to puzzle over.

The first album exploring the musical worlds of what Segerstam calls "the beardy brothers" matched Brahms' First Symphony with Segerstam's Symphony 288. The second had the Second Symphony and the 289th. This release has the sunny Third Symphony to go with Segerstam's 294. Not that the Finnish composer is using Brahms as a model. Rather, it's Sibelius's 7th Symphony that provides the scope and structure, while the musical language is rather more like Penderecki or Rautavaara. As to the Brahms, we once again have things slowed down to a surprising extent. It's like Segerstam has stopped everything, and he's picked up the Symphony and is turning it around in his hands, examining it closely. The orchestral playing is gorgeous, but all the tension and life is gone; it's like we're driving a car with most of the air let out of the tires.

I can't help thinking that Segerstam is up to something other than just recording a well-known and well-loved symphony. Is this a case of everyone else playing checkers while Segerstam is playing chess? Let me ponder that for a while...