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, 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.