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.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Lively music from the Court of Emperor Joseph I

Part of the fun of Anna Beer's book Songs and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music comes after you're done: discovering the music of Beer's eight women composers (from Francesca Caccini to Elizabeth Maconchy), and then filling in the gaps with the music of composers like Grazyna Bacewicz and Chiquinha Gonzaga and Sofia Gubaidulina.

Here's a really interesting composer from early 18th century Vienna, someone who's one step away from being completely anonymous: Camilla de Rossi. We have no birth or death dates for de Rossi, but know that she was originally from Rome, and that she worked in Vienna in the early 18th century. There are five extant works for voices and orchestra, lively works with interesting vocal and instrumental parts (including the early use of the chalumeau, the predecessor of the clarinet). The music has an excellent and most amiable model: Arcangelo Corelli, and one can see why these works found favour at the Court of the Austrian Emperor.

This CD, due for release on June 24, 2016, is a nicely packaged re-issue of the Pan Classics disc originally released in 2002. Daniela Dolci conducts the excellent singers and instrumentalists of her Basel-based Musica Fiorita; the recording was made in April 2001 in the Reformierte Kirche Meiringen. I was interested to see that Johannes Strobl also plays harpsichord and organ in the ensemble; he is now the very successful director of the Cappella Murensis and Les Cornets Noirs.

I found the original Pan recording up on YouTube. I think you'll agree this is very listenable music.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Hyper-dramatic spectacle, from a special place

Georg Muffat's only surviving sacred work is the Missa in Labore Requies for a huge complement of musicians: two choirs of voices and three of instruments, with basso continuo. This must have made a mighty noise and impressed everyone who heard it in Salzburg Cathedral. Unaccountably, this music has only been recently noticed; this is the third and by far the best of the versions that have been recorded. Johannes Strobl conducts the Cappella Murensis (24 singers), the Trompetenconsort Innsbruck (5 trumpets and timpani), and the 20 musicians of Les Cornets Noirs.

This is a really spectacular work; it has the hyper-dramatic spectacle of High Baroque French opera (Muffat may have studied with Lully), with the special oddness that Muffat and Biber bring to their music (an oddness I adore).  I heard the music in stereo only, though it really should be heard in Surround Sound, or even better, watched on Blu-ray or DVD, since the recording was made in a very special space: the beautiful Klosterkirche of the Benedictine Abbey Muri-Gries. However, a note in the booklet indicates that HD-Downloads are available from audite.deThe CD will be released on July 1, 2016.

Unfortunately there's no proper video up on the web showing these musicians at work in Muri. There is this story on Swiss Television that's agonizingly slow to load. Persevere, though, and you'll get a good feel for how Stobl arranges his singers and instrumentalists in this beautiful space. I'm assuming Audite will very soon post the Muffat video on YouTube with English subtitles, as they did with a previous recording of Gabrieli and Schütz in the same space, with the same musicians.

This is a well-filled disc at over 70 minutes. There are marvellous instrumental works by Bertali, Biber and Schmelzer to go with the Muffat Mass, which gives us a better idea of Muffat's musical environment as well as providing superb music from a special place.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie

This is an amazing performance of an amazing work. So cool that you can listen to New York Philharmonic concerts on Soundcloud.

Fugitive pieces

It took me longer that normal to get through Anna Beer's new book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. This isn't because of any defect in Beer's writing. Just the opposite: each chapter sends me off discovering a new composer, which gets me immersed in new worlds of music, history, sociology and gender politics. Beer begins with a couple of 17th century Italian composers, each of whom managed to build significant musical careers through talent and shrewd politics. Here's a superb canzonetta by Francesca Caccini called "S'io men vò" ("If I leave"), an assertion of female power. It's beautifully sung by Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer.

This music is clearly as advanced as anything else being produced in Florence in the first half of the 17th century. Caccini's gifts as a singer and a father who was a fine composer in his own right were two advantages, but there were minefields of class and gender and local politics that Francesca had to navigate before she was able to attain some measure of success. Caccini's body of works isn't as large as it should be, nor was she able to completely fulfil her potential, but what we have is really remarkable, and it's showing up in a significant recording legacy today.

A few decades later Barbara Strozzi walked her own fine line to win some (fleeting) fame and modest fortune in Monteverdi's Venice. All of Strozzi's obstacles and her hard-won triumphs are entertainingly detailed by Beer. This is fine story-telling based on significant primary and secondary scholarship. Here is the extraordinary aria Lagrime Mie, from Strozzi's 1659 cantata Diporti di Euterpe. It's telling that this pupil of Francesco Cavalli can match this aria against the best works of her teacher.

Of the other composers in Beer's book, my personal favourite is Clara Wieck Schumann, whose reputation is growing as her compositions become more widely known. Nearly shouldered out of the music books altogether by Robert Schumann on the one hand, and Johannes Brahms on the other, Clara's music dovetails so easily into her husband's, but there's a distinctive voice here. This lovely Larghetto (played with great sensitivity by Cristina Ortiz) is from the four Pieces Fugitives she wrote in 1840. Fugitive pieces is a fitting title for music by all eight of the composers in this book. Whether they were mansplained or ignored or openly despised, these strong-willed renegades kept their heads down and produced excellent, sometimes great music that deserves more attention. Sounds and Sweet Airs is a major step in bringing these outlaws into the light.

It was a bit of a disappointment that there is little mention of composers after Elizabeth Maconchy, who died in 1994, and stopped writing music in 1985. I understand that even the eight chosen composers
Caccini (born in 1587)
Jacquet de la Guerre
Maconchy (died in 1994)
represent a huge historical range to master with Beer's high scholarly standards. But I hope that the popularity of Beer's book makes people aware of women composers other than the Anna Beer Eight (Grazyna Bacewicz for one), and especially composers alive and working today: like Lydia KakabadseKate MooreSadie Harrison and Cristina Spinei. Listening to Ladies is a great place to go for more information.

The Birth of the Cool, Mozart Division

So who's the coolest performer ever? Sinatra, in about 1953 with Nelson Riddle? How about Miles Davis in 1959, or better yet Bill Evans in the early 1960s?

I vote for Friedrich Gulda in 1981, the time this concert film was made, at the Amerikahaus in Munich. Experience the coolness in this superb Blu-ray disc from Arthaus, Mozart for the People. He was perhaps already something of a cult performer, but he's hardly playing to the crowd. Rather, he seems bemused by the whole concert experience. He's wearing a dark blue shirt/sweater just like the ones I bought at Costco, except I wouldn't tuck in mine like he does, especially if I wore my trousers pulled up as high as he does. I can't imagine anything more nerd-awkward than Gulda's aimless wandering about the stage between sonatas. He seems unaware that there's an audience; you can almost hear the gears in his head turning as he plans his strategy of attack for the great F major sonata, K. 332. Everything - everything - is focused on the playing, on Mozart. He has a direct pipeline to Mozart the way another eccentric pianist I love, Glenn Gould, has to Bach.

This film has been criticized for the odd camera angles chosen by video director Janos Darvas, but his camera moves and switches have the cumulative effect of immersion in the concert experience. In the great Fantasia in C minor K. 475 there's an extraordinary sequence that begins about an hour and six minutes into the film. Darvas watches Gulda's face carefully as Mozart gets really dramatic. There's no hint of tension there, no drama in the face. It's all in his fingers, in the music. Then Darvas moves to watch over Gulda's left shoulder. The pianist leans over to the right, into the light, then left back into the shadows. Then (about 1:07) Darvas begins a slow zoom into a close-up, as Gulda builds to a climax in the music.  As he moves in to a profile view of Gulda's face, the pianist again moves into the light, and you see his expression: complete concentration, but now there's wonder there. And at 1:08:00, it's a halo of light, and complete enlightenment. All this, I'm sure, without any theatricality, or even knowledge on the part of Gulda about what was happening on the screen. Some credit should go to the director and his camera operators, for sure.

Gulda, like so many pianists, was always a perfectionist, and he was loathe to sign off on his recording going to the record presses. I love his look of absolute glee after he finishes K. 332. He knows he nailed it, and tells the audience so.

Gulda's encore piece is outstanding. It's his own paraphrase of Sarastro's aria "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" from The Magic Flute. This is a deeply moving performance of a beautiful piece, and considering that Mozart's operas are a primary door into Gulda's sonata interpretations, a fitting end to this marvellous concert.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Giving pattern to the spectacle

I was so impressed when I listened to this music the first time, so I went looking for more music by Cristina Spinei. She hasn't been composing too long, so there's not a whole lot out there. Then I came across this clever bit, one of the Variations on a Theme by Beethoven (the opening theme of the Largo movement of the piano trio op. 1 no. 2) called Constellations, played by the Trio Celeste in their recently released CD. It's subtitled "If Beethoven danced Merengue":

Now this is a witty response to Beethoven's music, and it fits well with the light gala potpourri flavour of the rest of the variations. Though it's a short piece and the penultimate of the 10 variations, it has as much panache and drive as any of the Constellations variations, which is impressive considering the stature of some of the other composers included in this fun project.

It's instructive that Spinei has Beethoven get up and dance. I learned this as well about Spinei, in a recent profile piece from Nashville Scene:
Spinei has always loved dance. As a child growing up in Stamford, Conn., Spinei dreamed of one day becoming a ballerina. "Unfortunately, I didn't have the body for ballet, so I focused on music instead."
Later Spinei says "Movement has always been central to my thinking about music, which is why I hate going to concerts where people just sit stiffly in their chairs." There isn't much stiff sitting in Spinei's music, for Beethoven or anyone else. In spite of her obvious connection with minimalism, one doesn't slowly drift into a motionless trance here.

In his book Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner talks about the tenor aria "Ach, mein Sinn", from Bach's St. John Passion:
One bonus of using a French-style dance as the basis of this aria was the licence it gave Bach to vary the internal shaping of the dotted rhythms – here smoothly ‘swung’ in conjunct motion for lyrical passages (as in Blues singing), there sharply over-dotted for outbursts of fiery arpeggios (wo willt du endlich hin), the vocal phrases constantly varied in consequence, now reinforcing the characteristic second beat of the chaconne, now contradicting it by means of hemiolas bestriding the bar-line. Here, then, he has assembled all the ingredients to make an impassioned statement.
Similar impassioned statements are evident in such works as Synched, written in 2012 and included in José Serebrier's Adagio, released the same year. 

Spinei's music is about the dance inside her recorded loops as they line up differently each time, and as the musicians interact with those loops. Like a choreographer, she creates a plan that in execution needn't necessarily involve improvisation, but which requires an improvisational feel to keep it from from sounding too machine-like. Check out the Blind Ear real-time composer collective that Spinei co-founded with Jakub Ciupinski for more about the theory, practice and software behind the music Spinei is writing along with her colleagues in the collective. 

Part of the cleverness of Synched is that, of course, the music isn't synched, but always just out of sync. Like each of the pieces on Music for Dance, Synched has a characteristic feeling, it makes a statement. Though there's some Steve Reich or Terry Reilly to be heard here, there's also a strong lyrical streak in this music, and an open, folk-like feeling that makes one think of Copland, Villa-Lobos or Piazzolla. Mixed with a good dollop of pop music, which of course the last three composers all included in their own music, Spinei's music comes out sounding like Spinei. And that's the sign of a composer to watch out for in the future.

Spinei's new disc won't be released on Amazon until July 1, 2016, but you can listen at the Toccata website here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Beautiful, striking and thought-provoking

One of the highlights of my Christmas last year was the moving Bach Christmas Oratorio choreographed by John Neumeier and danced by Hamburg Ballett. That Blu-ray disc will be lined up with all our other favourites in 2016: Father Christmas, A Wish for Wings that Work, Desk Set and A Muppet Christmas Carol. This Blu-ray disc of the St. Matthew Passion by the same dancers, instrumentalists and singers has all the advantages of the previous disc, with an additional major plus. This music is even greater than the cantatas that make up the Christmas Oratorio. It's more dramatic - in John Elliot Gardiner's words, "Bach's was essentially dramatic music: music intended to appeal to - even occasionally assault - the senses of his listeners." Thus the Passion lends itself more naturally to interpretation through dance. This will give you an idea of the variety of effects Neumeier comes up with to match (again quoting Gardiner) Bach's "stark new juxtapositions of texture and sonority."

As beautiful and striking and thought-provoking as this is - and it's all of those things at a consistently high level for 3-1/2 hours - I wonder if this is somehow less than what Peter Sellars and Simon Rattle achieved in their ground-breaking 2010 production in Berlin. This small bit of that performance perhaps gives you an idea of a more personal, more human, more intimate Bach.

As good as the orchestra and choirs conducted by Gunter Jena in the Hamburg Ballett recording are - for the record they're the St.-Michaelis-Orchester und -Chor, Knabenchor Hannover and Knabenchor St. Michaelis - they're not in the same league as Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Rundfunkchor Berlin, and a lineup of star soloists headlined by Mark Padmore as the Evangelist. But a greater difference is that we are necessarily a passive audience for a ballet - these fit good-looking young people are a different species from the people sitting in the seats at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, not to mention those of us on the couch at home. But when Peter Sellars puts the camera - i.e. the audience - amongst the singers and instrumentalists, he involves us more fully in the action. When the choir are active participants in the ebb and flow of that performance, we are closer as well, since choir members are our proxies. Indeed, the congregation would have sung along with the Chorales they knew, like at a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Again, Gardiner provides insight:
Bach took his cue from Luther, who, knowing from direct experience what it was like to be persecuted, insisted that Christ's Passion 'should not be acted out in words or appearances, but in one's own life'. That is exactly what Bach does - by addressing us directly and very personally, by finding new ways to draw us in and towards acting it out in our own lives: we become participants in the re-enactment of a story which, however familiar, is told in ways calculated to bring us up short, to jolt us out of our complacency, while throwing us a lifeline of remorse, faith and, ultimately, a path to salvation. *
Now I know that Sellars and Rattle touch me more directly in their production than Neumeier and Jena do in theirs, but this is very much a personal view. I'm still very enthusiastic about this version after my first run-through, and I expect I'll find it resonating with me even more when I watch again.

* John Elliott Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, p. 429.

A multi-cultural dance

Adapting a string quartet for string orchestra is analogous to "opening up" a play to make a film. When it's done well both the adapters and the actors can take a lot of credit. Think of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The success of the film is due in equal measure to a great screenplay by Ernest Lehman, great direction by Mike Nichols, and amazing acting by an ensemble of movie stars. We have a similar situation in this fine new disc from Linn Records: one of the great String Quartets, by Debussy, is adapted by Jonathan Morton, and then Morton leads the fine string players of the Scottish Ensemble in a superb performance. Two things are key here: firstly Morton loses none of Debussy's instrumental colour by homogenizing the string lines, and secondly the players are beautifully in sync with each other while still giving that "opened up" feeling. This is a successful adaptation that rewards repeated listening with new insights into the beauty of Debussy's composition and the sound of violins, violas, cellos and basses playing together.

Speaking of film, one of my favourite works for string orchestra is Toru Takemitsu's 1987 work Nostalghia (In Memory of Andrei Tarkovsky). Though Takemitsu wrote a great deal of film score music (including two additional works on this disc), this piece is not from the great film, though it wouldn't be out of place there. Tarkovsky rather used music from works such as Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Verdi's Requiem. It's an amazing film, and Takemitsu's work is a heart-felt hommage.

As to the rest of this album, everything is at this very high level of passionate music making. The alternating Debussy and Takemitsu pieces are a kind of multi-cultural dance where each composer illuminates the other. A triumph from Scotland!

Monday, May 23, 2016

A fascinating production of a passionate masterpiece

The Nielsen Year in 2015 gave us a chance to see the great Danish composer in the round. The focus was naturally on the symphonies and concertos, which surely place Nielsen among the top 20th century composers. But new productions of his comic masterpiece Maskarade and his tragic Saul and David give us a chance to see experience Nielsen's greatness as an operatic composer as well.

Saul and David is in the sadly small subset of operas one can call dramatically coherent. Credit for this goes to the source material and the librettist Einar Christiansen, but equally to Carl Nielsen, whose music plays a major role in moving the story along, building its climaxes and giving us room to breath and reflect when the action flags. Robert Layton says Saul and David is "...borne along effortlessly on the essentially symphonic current of Nielsen's musical thought." Most importantly, Nielsen's music opens a window into the tortured soul of the protagonist, King Saul. The hero of this new DVD from Dacapo is conductor Michael Schonwandt, whose finger is always on the dramatic pulse of the work. He ensures that his players and singers (including the very important chorus) keep the musical pulse in sync with the drama.

I would most definitely call the production, by the English team of David Pountney (stage direction) and Robert Innes Hopkins (set and costume design), fascinating, but it's not perfect. To call it half-baked is an exaggeration. Though it maybe could have used a bit more time at 350 degrees/gas mark 3, there are lots of tasty bits here. In an update that pushes forward to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict there are plenty of opportunities for striking scenes and situations, especially since there is constant ambiguity about who's who in terms of Israelites and Philistines. If Nielsen's music reflects Saul's inner turmoil, the flickering TV sets in the bombed-out concrete high-rise apartments surrounding the stage that house the chorus show the effect the King's actions have on the outside world. His inner troubles and power struggle with Samuel/God have a terrible impact in the Real World, and the Media is there reporting it all. The mixed chorus makes more sense singing about martial affairs when women and men are dressed in battle-gear, with berets and AK-47s. Pountney's depiction of the prophet Samuel as a religious fundamentalist is a master-stroke, though I won't spoil the full extent and dramatic reveal, of this crucial change.

On the other hand, I found some design and direction decisions puzzling. The light show at the beginning of Act 4 seems superfluous to the great depiction of battle provided by Nielsen in his Prelude. The costumes and props were hit and miss. The bull sacrificed in Act 1 lacked something (glamour? maybe not glamour, but something), though the call-back of the hook in Act 4 is devastating. However, I loved everything about the Witch of Endor scene, including the bicycle. The ballet set-pieces (choreographed by Rebekka Lund) were lovely diversions, and helped David Pountney sell his concept, though maybe not in a completely organic way.

In terms of sound, this version of the opera is a definite advance over the Jascha Horenstein 1972 recording from 1972. It's a closer contest between the new recording and the Chandos one from 1990, conducted by Neeme Jarvi, which has great sound. Of course, the DTS 5.1 audio on the DVD is an advance, so I'm going to give the new disc top honours in this regard. As to the relative musical merits of the three recordings, it's instructive to note all three come from Danish orchestras. This is a demonstration of the odd disregard for the opera outside of Denmark. Surely this work would be a big hit in New York or London or Toronto, especially with the juicy acting/singing role of Saul. The available recordings have all been lucky with that part: Horenstein had Boris Christoff in his prime, Jarvi's Saul is the marvellous Aage Haugland, and here baritone Johan Reuter is really outstanding. The rest of the cast is very good as well, uniformly good as actors, and the chorus is excellent. Pountney makes good use of the chorus as actors, which is something that seems to happen routinely in today's best productions. Gone are the days, I guess, of standing in line up-stage, singing hard and looking awkward in a toga. In spite of Christoff in the Horenstein version, though, and fine singing and playing in the Jarvi version, I'm most impressed with Schonwandt's vision and follow-through in this excellent recording.

The trailer for the DVD gives you a good idea of the range of this piece, and the various aspects of this production. Dacapo was one of the big stars of the Nielsen Year; bravo for this!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Another flawed film, with fine bits

I'm a big fan of the classical music documentaries Ken Russell made for the BBC's Monitor program in the 1960s. I agree with John Bridcut that the 1968 Delius film Song of Summer was the best of these, but there are so many: about Prokofiev, Bartok, Debussy, and, another favourite, Elgar.  Here is the Delius film; Max Adrian's portrayal of the invalid composer is a comic masterpiece.

When the success of his feature films brought him larger budgets (Women in Love, for which he was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, was only 2 years after the Delius film), he unleashed his imagination and began filling his films with an endless series of Russell tropes: Nazis, naked women, fire, crucifixion. It wasn't long before he was officially Over the Top. Here's a typical scene, from 1974's Mahler.

There's a point to this clip, of course, but it goes on rather long. At least Russell's sense of humour is still in operation here; it goes on and off during his career. It can take a long time for Hollywood to run out of patience with a wayward director, but by 1983, when he was once again making classical music films for television, this time for ITV's The South Bank Show, the bulk of the money had run out. So Ken Russell's View of The Planets is a low-rent affair. A (very fine) recording of The Planets from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy is matched with "found", or stock footage, cleverly edited.

Finally available on DVD and Blu-ray, the Holst film shows how far Russell had come since The Music Lovers, Mahler and Lisztomania in the 1970s. The means are very slender now, but Russell's imagination is often lit up. All the same obsessions are there, this time in a low-tech environment not too different from a YouTube amateur of today. There are still flashes of humour: the great Barbie Doll ending of Venus, and the surfing beginning of Mercury are both fine gags. But there is also great artistry in his Saturn sequence, a brilliant environmental satire of planned obsolescence. This is another flawed film with fine bits, by a director who specialized in just that.

There are fine bits in the official trailer from ArtHaus for the DVD/Blu-ray as well:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Keeping things simple

It's been only a few months since the first disc in this Paul Bowles piano series was released, but it's so great to have the rest of the (disappointingly small) complete music for piano from this fine composer and this fine piano duo. The Invencia Piano Duo, the excellent pianists Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn, play a number of works together on this excellent disc, due to be released on June 10, 2016, but they're also each given the chance to shine individually.

Volume 1 was anchored by the Sonata for Two Pianos, the most significant piano work that Bowles wrote, while most of the rest of the disc was made up of smaller character pieces and song arrangements.  There's more of that here; only a few pieces are longer than 4 minutes. But that comes from a spare composing style rather than any lack of substance. "I always tried to keep everything simple," says Bowles.
I didn’t want complications. And that applies not only to music, but to my writing as well. I don’t like unnecessary verbiage, or unnecessary sounds. The whole idea is to pare everything off until you only have the important things, and throw the rest out.
The two sonatinas are a good example of this. In the Piano Sonatina (1932-33), a craggy work with a hint of Prokofiev, each of the three movements has both gravity and bite, with a strongly rhythmic opening Allegro, an Andante with sentiment but not sentimentality, and a fun finale that mixes Schumann with Stravinsky. The work makes a strong impression in its 7-1/2 minutes. It's like Bowles wrote a Sonata, and threw out the unnecessary sounds. That's even more the case in the tiny Sonatina Fragmentaria (1933); it's a stripped-down Good Parts Version of a modernist sonata, with little left of even a sonata's structure.

Here are Kasparov and Lutsyshyn in 2011, playing Night Waltz, a work Bowles wrote in 1949:

Night Waltz is the also the title of an important film documentary about Bowles' music from 1999, directed by Owsley Brown. The film-makers interview Bowles (who died later that year), and that's where I got the quote above, about keeping things simple. They also talk with the composer Phillip Ramey, who has this to say about Bowles' music:
The writing doesn’t have much charm, it doesn’t deal in charm the way the music does. The writing can be horrific, the writing can be very grim. Paul’s music is a little more monochromatic; charm is his foremost preoccupation, and he achieves that through melody, not harmony so much, but especially rhythm.
Charm is a pretty small subset of what a composer can communicate in music, but as Bowles says in the movie, "you do the best you can." He talks about how hard music composition is, and how much easier he found it to write words. Aaron Copland was upset when Bowles left music for literature; he felt he was lazy. He does seem to have a certain facility for writing tunes with a folk-like quality. "I invented folk themes that sounded like originals," he once said. But of course we don't know what these simple-sounding tunes cost Bowles.

Actually, I think Ramey's "charm" characterization is an under-estimation of Bowles' music. We can all miss underlying strength and complexity in the face of serious charm, whether in Mozart's music or Cary Grant's acting. Tamanar, which receives its recording premiere here, has the visionary, even hallucinatory, feel of some of Bowles' writing. The four Blue Mountain Ballads are among Bowles' best songs (he's an amazing song-writer), and I really enjoyed Kasparov's arrangements for piano four hands. Kasparov also uncovered three little gems from the Julliard School library: pieces arranged by the great duo-pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. These are fun and, as they say, charming.

This project deserves so much praise. I really appreciate the artistry of Kasparov and Lutsyshyn, and all of the care and effort they've taken to bring this important music to the public.

Oh, I nearly forgot. YouTube has a five-minute trailer for the Night Waltz documentary film. I haven't been able to track down the full film on disc or online. Definitely watch this, though!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Surprise and delight

This is the second volume in the Beethoven Violin Sonatas series from fortepianist Ian Watson and violinist Susanna Ogata, and the high musical and production standards that won plaudits from the critics in the first continue here. I am, as they say, enamoured of the sound of this fortepiano, another replica by Paul McNulty, who built the Pleyel replica I loved in a recent Ronald Brautigam recording.

The instruments are, of course, only a part of the HIP equation. With their heads in an early 19th century space, Watson and Ogata are alert to the newness of this music's rhythms, melodies and sound-world. Beethoven's constant surprises are the thing that endear me to him most of all. I'm surprised by a beautiful melody, or just a phrase, or just a beautiful way of pausing in a phrase. And because I'm so used to this much-loved music coming at me from a totally different direction, every new sound in these two sonatas is a surprise and a delight.

Downward to darkness, on extended wings

Chopin's health began to seriously deteriorate around 1842, and his final works have a valedictory quality. By the time he wrote the Barcarolle (one of his final works) in 1845-6 he surely knew that his death was near. Some of the brilliance of his earlier music is gone, though his special genius for writing piano music is still evident, even enhanced. His music is more refined, more concentrated, and his ornamentation more organic. Chopin's last works differ from each other, but each of them is somehow surprising.

The Barcarolle is an amazing work. Choppy waves on the Venetian canals gently rock Chopin's gondola, but this isn't a dreamy piece. His physical strength might have been ebbing, but there is still great power in this piece, and great virtuosity is required of the performer. Charles Rosen speaks of the piece's "long-range uninterrupted flow".
Above all the large-scale rhythm is worked out with an ease absolutely unique for Chopin’s time, and the final pages of the Barcarolle create a sense of triumph at once passionate and serene that has never been surpassed.
I listened to a whole bunch of great pianists playing this work: Perahia, Barenboim, Rubinstein, Argerich, Ashkenazy, Pollini, Rosen, Cortot, Lipatti. At one point I started to get sea-sick. While there are major differences between performances I'm not really sure what to make of them. Pollini's performance is taut, and Rubinstein's rather more leisurely.  At this level the real difference between these pianists is one of sensibility. One thing I learned for sure is that Jane Coop belongs in this company. Control, virtuosity, colour: everything is here in this smartly emotional performance.

So it goes in the whole disc, a re-release of Coop's 1999 recording. It's great that Skylark is re-releasing most of Coop's discs in 2016; though it was probably possible to buy any of these, now we can be sure.

When I listen to this music, I think of Sunday Morning, a poem by Wallace Stevens
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The problem with concerts

In 1923 Paul Valéry wrote an article entitled "Le problème des musées", in which he decried the move of artistic objects from places of worship to museums:
Je perçois tout à coup une vague clarté. Une réponse s’essaye en moi, se détache peu à peu de mes impressions, et demande à se prononcer. Peinture et Sculpture, me dit le démon de l’Explication, ce sont des enfants abandonnés. Leur mère est morte, leur mère Architecture.
I thought of these "abandoned children" when I listened to the latest Resound Beethoven disc, which attempts to re-settle Beethoven's works, ill-housed in alien modern concert halls, back to their mother's bosom: the very halls and theatres where they were first heard in old Vienna. Context is provided when we listen to a concert that's recorded in the very space in which it was first heard.

This latest twist on Historically Informed Performance is really only another approximation, since of course we'll never precisely bridge that two-century gap between the performance of the Consecration of the House Overture at the opening of the Josefstadt Theatre on 3 October 1822 and today. It's very rare that we come across a treasure in its very "find-spot", the term archaeologists use to refer to the place where an object is dug up. But the Josefstadt Theatre is still there, and still available as a concert and recording venue. To return to the world of museums, Philippe de Montebello re-states this problem:
On the matter of moving an altarpiece back into a church, this is no more than just a spacial re-integration, for the temporal element has been lost forever. We are not 15th- or 16th century Italians and cannot ever imagine what it was like to live in northern Italy in that period. *
But that, I believe, is overstating the case. Of course we can imagine what it was like to be those Italians, or those 19th century Viennese. That's why we call it imagination. If we're serious about wanting to hear music the way Beethoven's audiences heard it, every little bit helps. We're all museum-goers in the world, and we're dead in the water if we can't imagine the world of 1822, or the world of last Wednesday. When we listen to Stayin' Alive by the Bee Gees, can we ever imagine what it was like to dance to this music in Studio 54 in 1977?  Crank up your stereo, light up your disco ball, give it a twirl, and dance! There you go.

Back to this disc. It would be only an interesting, esoteric, minor experiment if it were not for the superb playing by the Orchester Wiener Akademie under Matin Haselbock. John Malkovich provides an amazing theatrical experience in the Egmont narration and melodramas. Here we're on more solid ground, for aren't we used to imagining the original character an actor plays even if it's centuries from its creation? I'm excited to think that I'm listening to something close to what the audience heard in the Josefstadt Theatre back then, even if Beethoven heard nothing. The impressive music production by Stephan Reh and sound engineering by Martin Rust provides a musical experience so different from what we usually hear when we listen to Beethoven. Sure it's a kind of museum experience, but we're in the hands of superb curators here.

* In Rendezvous With Art, with Martin Gayford, 2014, p. 50.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Northern Harvest

I was sitting on my balcony today, drinking an Old Fashioned made from the superb Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, a blended Canadian whisky that was named by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible the World Whisky of the Year in November 2015. It was a windy afternoon, and I enjoyed watching the huge Garry oaks and plane trees and horse chestnuts swaying in beautiful Victoria below, with the whitecaps on the Juan de Fuca Strait beyond. I love this drink, an absolute classic of the genre (one of six basic drinks listed in David A. Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks), and I noticed that the more I drank, the more I loved it. Tasty at the first sip, then better and better, and extra super-duper amazing as the ice melted and there was only the maraschino cherry left. *

This is the way I felt when I listened to the new Kamram Ince disc, Passion and Dreams. There are complicated cross-cultural calculations to be made when one listens to the music of this American composer of Turkish heritage. Sure, a focus on "exoticism" or "orientalism" betrays what Lawrence Kramer, in Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge, calls "cultural supremacy by which Europe subsumes and organizes the non-European world." On the other hand, Ince is mining various Western traditions to bulk up his music: mainly modernist: Stravinsky (everyone mines Stravinsky), Debussy, Webern, Berg, but also Bach (everyone mines Bach). And at the level where one just "enjoys" music, the encounter with new Turkish music might be seen as innocent as a teen from Africa or Oceania hearing Western pop music for the first time. Wow! This is cool!

So yes, this music is cool, and impressive. But like my Old Fashioned, it gets cooler and more impressive the more you listen. Dreamlines, which opens the disc, is an incantation and a blessing and a staking of territory, and a thanksgiving, and it sounds agitated and sad and holy, and "Turkish". By the time you get to Fortuna Sepio Nos, the piano, cello and oddly distorted clarinet are making an intoxicating multi-cultural row that's exciting and scary, but, like Lady Luck finally saving the sailor from the storm, in the end comforting. And when I listen to the Partita in E Major, I'm in love. Ince's response to Bach, in a commission for violinist Cihat Askin in 2007, is a perfect dream, the kind you wake up from and desperately try to re-capture by falling asleep again. When you dig far enough down, perhaps all music, by all musicians in history, is just Bach re-mixed.

So, yeah, I'll go ahead and say I liked this disc.

Released June 24, 2016. Here's the liner booklet from the Innova site. They also have a track from the new disc you can listen to: the exciting Zamboturfidir VII, which sounds like today's Minimalism, but heard while driving a Corvette convertible on a two-lane highway in 1969.

* OK, the four maraschino cherries.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A modern psychological drama with a HIP sound

This new Blu-ray disc reissue of the production of Handel's opera-oratorio Hercules filmed in the Palais Garnier in 2004 is very much welcome. The HD picture and DTS 5.1 sound are both outstanding, and there is an amazing feeling of presence when you sit down in front of your screen. Most important, of course, is the music and the acting and the production: I loved everything about all of it, nearly unreservedly.

The music Handel wrote for Hercules is amazing. Its beauty is obvious, and in the late Luc Bondy's production, with the modernizing translation/adaptation of playwright Martin Crimp, its psychological depth is apparent as well. Naturally, that only happens with great acting by the principals and chorus (who play a very important role), and fine singing as well. William Christie provides impeccable Historically-Informed Performance credentials for the music, and most importantly keeps the nearly unbroken intense mood on stage from swamping the musical sense Handel brings to this project.

But as good as everyone is in the pit and on the stage, this is Joyce DiDonato's show. A great, great performance!

Scottish music, with a wee dram

Fingal's Cave, Island of Staffa, Scotland, around 1900
I've lined up a few review discs from or about Scotland that I'll be posting in the next few weeks, so I thought I'd read up on the place. I'm really enjoying a 1984 book called John Prebble's Scotland. Prebble, a fine historian born in Saskatchewan, made a film for the BBC in 1980 called Mendelssohn in Scotland (unfortunately unavailable on disc or online), which follows the composer's 1829 Scottish trip.
Felix Mendelssohn's first sight of Mull was from the shell of Dunollie Castle above the town of Oban, and in a flush of responsive emotion he declaimed some appropriate stanzas from The Lord of the Isles. The first notes of his overture, however, were not inspired by the green surge of waves against Staffa's rocks but by the piston-throb of the little steamer Highlander as he lay below, sick in heart and stomach. He spent much of that miserable voyage about the coast of Mull wrapped in a blanket and revolted by the smell of onions frying in the ship's galley. He did not go ashore on Staffa, unlike his healthful friend Klingemann who leapt onto its wet stones and shouted his elation against the basalt columns of Fingal's Cave.
I came across a really cool website, Stephen Carpenter's Mendelssohn in Scotland, which contains complete information on Felix's trip with his friend, with pictures, maps and excerpts from letters and diaries. I'm looking forward to exploring this in more detail. Here is the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, under Jaime Laredo, playing the Hebrides Overture, "Fingal's Cave". According to the MinS website, Mendelssohn may have found his inspiration not at Fingal's Cave, but earlier on the boat trip from Oban to Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull.

And to go with Scottish music, a wee dram of whisky from Islay:

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A remarkable, life-affirming collaboration

Sadie Harrison is a composer of considerable stature, with a significant oeuvre that shows variety, depth and originality. She has been engaged in two additional professions which enhance her music. She's a professional gardener, which gives her insights into the natural world and organic processes, and also an archaeologist, which opens windows into other cultures and to the past.  The Rosegarden of Light project is a fascinating partnership with Cuatro Puntos (with whom Harrison is working closely, as composer in residence), a chamber music collective dedicated to global cooperation and peace, and student ensembles of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (including the girls' Ensemble Zohra and the Junior Ensemble of Traditional Afghan Instruments).

The combination of Harrison's special writing for strings, full of deceptively simple, open tunes and intricate rhythms and harmonies, and the joyful traditional Afghan music with its delightful sound palette gives this music an uplifting feeling. You can play clips from each track [the entire album] at the Toccata Classics website, and get a hint of this highly successful cross-cultural project. It makes one at least a tiny bit optimistic that music can indeed change lives, even for young people looking for life and joy against such high odds.

While waiting for the release of this disc on June 10, 2016, why not check out Harrison's earlier music.  From her work ...Under the Circle of the Moon..., on the 2015 album Solos and Duos for Strings and Piano, this is The Vision of Anne Catherine Emmerich (an early 19th century Catholic mystic):

And here is the title work for chamber orchestra from her 2012 album An Unexpected Light:

Monday, May 9, 2016

Singing the Songs Without Words

The first volume in Ronald Brautigam's series of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words for BIS was highly praised for the singing quality of Brautigam's playing, and I'm happy to say there's more beautiful singing, more beautiful playing, on the second disc, to be released June 24, 2016. While we wait for the new album to come to Spotify, here's a track from the first disc which gives one an idea of the sound of the replica of the 1830 Pleyel fortepiano, and the singing quality Brautigam coaxes from it.

In John Eliot Gardiner's Music in the Castle of Heaven, the great conductor talks about the early experiments in playing Baroque music in a style that scholars felt was a good approximation of what Monteverdi or Bach might have known.
Then suddenly we hit a brick wall. The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using – the same as everyone else had been using for the past hundred and fifty years. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful – and yet to scale things down and hold back was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, calls for. 
If this is true for the music of the Baroque, how much more important is it for a Romantic composer like Mendelssohn.  It's true that control is an important part of the pianist's art, but scaling down and holding back the power and range of a Steinway grand piano surely goes against the grain. E.T.A. Hoffmann was there at the invention of Romanticism in music, which he describes in his 1813 essay "Beethoven's Instrumental Music":
Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!
When the pianist plays a "mightily impassioned chord" by Mendelssohn, and there is much passion in this music, he's holding back on a Steinway, but letting go on a Pleyel. The common perception that Historically Informed Performance is careful and cerebral and timid is all wrong; the best HIP artists are physically engaged in, viscerally linked to, impassioned about the music. That's certainly the case with Brautigam and his Mendelssohn. This music was not written to play in front of hundreds or thousands; rather it is intimate music, written in and for the restrained, classical Biedermeier rooms of the comfortable German middle class. But it is not limited in emotional range; it is truly Romantic. When things get stormy, we hear the storm the way Mendelssohn heard it in his head, and played it for his sister Fanny. In quieter moments, like the first song from Book 6, there's a natural sound, an authenticity, that escapes any pianist on a modern piano. This piece couldn't be more beautifully played than in Daniel Barenboim's classic 1974 set. It's polished to a bright shine, but it's missing a whole level of regret and loss that comes out in Brautigam's performance. The whole emotional range is here, but sounding as it might have in Mendelssohn's parlour. The lover of Mendelssohn, or of fine piano playing, should not miss out on Brautigam's Songs, now complete on two discs.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A promising start to a new series

Michael Haydn, like Mozart, wrote (more or less) 41 symphonies. Most of us didn't know what kind of music was in that series until the ground-breaking 6-CD set of complete symphonies on CPO, with Bohdan Warchal and the Slovak Chamber Orchestra. Now we begin a new series, across the border in the Czech Republic. Here is Patrick Gallois conducting a very loose Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice at the recording session. I love the bassist; he's obviously having fun!

Compare that with Warchal and the Slovaks' more buttoned-down, straighter approach. As solid as the CPO series is, it sounds more stolid by comparison.

Another reason I prefer the new recording is the harpsichord, which is brought forward in all of the symphonies on this disc. It's a charming grace note to the younger Haydn's charming but somewhat limited music. Talented as he was, Michael Haydn stayed behind in Salzburg though he had opportunities in the larger world, and his provincialism contrasts with his elder brother's cosmopolitan outlook.

In some ways Michael Haydn's music is closer to Mozart than to his brother. The highlight of the disc is the first movement of the D major Symphony, P21, from 1785, which begins with a meltingly beautiful Adagio, that's enhanced by a gorgeous harpsichord filigree here. The rest of the movement rushes forward in a jolly way, with an opera buffa feeling that's more Wolfgang than brother Joseph.

This disc is out June 10, 2016. I look forward to the continuation of this series!

Bach Unwound

In my review of the new Kate Moore/Ashley Bathgate CD Stories for Ocean Shells, I mentioned Bathgate's Bach Unwound project, with the composer collective Sleeping Giant. Here is audio from a live concert of Bach Unwound. There's more information on this great project at Second Inversion.

Music of tribute

We've all been told many times that classical music's focus on dead composers is an oddity of the modern period, and in previous times art music was contemporary music. Indeed, I'll tell you that very same thing myself, one more time. Not that we shouldn't listen to four-centuries-dead Monteverdi. He's awesome, and we should listen to him even more. Only we should listen to Kate Moore and Lydia Kakabadse as well. Anyway.

I'm not sure if this is sociologically significant, but something interesting happened after the death of Claudio Monteverdi in November 1643. In 1650 Monteverdi's pupil Francesco Cavalli published a posthumous collection of music, a tribute to his teacher. It was called Messa a quattro voci et salmi, and it included sacred music not included in Selva morale e spirituale of 1641, the last sacred collection published by Monteverdi in his lifetime. Monteverdi was well-loved in his lifetime, and there was plenty of interest in his music after the great master's death. Cavalli slipped in a piece of his own, a 10-minute Magnificat that matches his teacher's work.

Surprisingly, not all of this music has been recorded, which I find astounding. Every little bit of Monteverdi seems special to me, and there's nothing below a very high level on this disc, the first volume in Harry Christophers' new series with The Sixteen. This is choral singing of a high standard, with able support from "the continuo team", as Christophers calls the instrumentalists in his entertaining note on the 5-day recording session at St. Augustine Church in Kilburn,  London. The Sixteen recorded "in the round":
Everyone was in eye contact so that each subtle nuance and invention could be passed aurally and visually from one to another with great ease. 
There's a relaxed feeling in this music that comes from the recording setup, the obvious work taken by these musicians to become comfortable with the intricacies of Monteverdi's music, and the trust between musicians that is required to make great choral, or any kind of music.

Here's a behind the scenes look at the recording, from The Sixteen's YouTube channel:

Friday, May 6, 2016

Longing eased

The songs of Brahms are much less known than his orchestral, piano or chamber music, and I think also much less known than the lieder of comparable quality from Schumann, or even Beethoven and Mozart, not to mention Schubert. This is a shame, but of course it's easily remedied. There are many beautiful recordings of Brahms lieder out there, which I plan on investigating when I've had my fill of this one, which is to say after a good long time.

This new disc from Skylark has many advantages. The songs chosen include some of Brahms' best. Individual songs are chosen from collections, and this allows some quality skimming as well as the building of a varied programme in terms of key, stories and mood. Additional variety comes from the solo works provided by pianist Jane Coop. This seems to be a trend in art song recordings, and I hope it continues. The piano is after all an equal partner with the vocalist in Brahms' songs, and the op. 117 Intermezzo are some of the greatest pieces in the piano literature. Finally, there's more tonal variety in the two op. 91 songs, with the addition of a beautiful viola line. The first of these, "Longing Eased", helps to give this CD its title. It is so beautiful, and a great example of the great team Coop and Soprano Donna Brown make, with able support here from violist Yariv Aloni.

I'm unilingual, which is my shame many times over, as a Canadian who should be up on both of our Official Languages, and as a classical music fan, who should know at least German, French, and (in my particular case) Brazilian Portuguese. But it's easy enough when listening to these songs to take one's cue from the title and the musical sense of each song. That's because of the sheer beauty of Donna Brown's voice, and the sensitive accompaniment of Coop and Aloni. This 2014 recital, recorded in Vancouver's Pyatt Hall, is one I'll be listening to often.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mysterious, sad, ecstatic music

My only exposure to the music of Kate Moore before I heard this amazing album was a single track on the 2012 Bang on a Can All-Stars disc Big Beautiful Dark and Scary. The track was called Ridgeway, and it was clever, twangy. It was picaresque: you felt like you were traveling places, one of which might have been Moore's native land, Australia. It got under your skin after a while, and then the reflective moments made you sad. It hurt a bit. Listen:

Now (or soon, rather: the disc will be released May 20, 2016) comes Stories for Ocean Shells, on BOAC's Canteloupe Records. This is a collaborative project with cellist Ashley Bathgate, who I knew from the excellent Bach Unwound by the composer collective Second Inversion. Moore and Bathgate* are obviously on the same page musically; watch and listen to Bathgate navigate Moore's complex cross-rhythms in Velvet, one of the stand-out tracks on the new album:

This is wonderfully tricky music. It's often euphonious, to my ears, though I wonder if Moore and Bathgate would think that's a compliment, since they seem more inclined to celebrate the occasional harsh edges. Velvet is apparently a reference to cloth in Renaissance paintings, so perhaps that's why I felt a softer vibe. When I heard that I called up this favourite painting by Jan Van Eyck, and admired it while I admired the music. For what it's worth, as they say. They also say, It can't hurt.

The album opens with the Walt Whitman-inspired "Whoever you are, come forth."
Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.
Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it. 
This is passionate music, full of questions and yearning. It's melancholy, without wallowing in it; Moore introduces pizzicato textures occasionally to shine a bit of light, if not to expose everything!

It's exciting to hear a composer discover her gift, obviously in her element and in a true collaboration with an instrumentalist equally in her element. This mysterious, sad and ecstatic music, not without a sense of humour, bodes well for future projects for both, separately, or I fervently hope, together.

*Sorry for the interruption, but I'm a Canadian, so when I hear "Moore and Bathgate" I naturally think of the hockey players, Dickie of the Habs, and Andy of the Rangers. Sorry!

Elektra demands revenge!

Jean Berain pour le char du Soleil, à la dernière scène de Phaéton (livret de Quinault; musique de Lully)
From its beginning at the end of the 16th century, the spectacle has been an important part of the multi-media genre of opera. In the above drawing, Jean Berain sketches a machine representing Phaéton's chariot in the Lully opera presented at Versailles in 1683. Audiences always wanted something bigger than the last opera, going back all the way to Peri's Dafne in 1598. Lully had the latest theatrical technology available to him, and he wowed his audience and his King with special musical and theatrical effects; in other words, a spectacle.

Between then and today we've seen spectacle's role in opera rise and fall as fashions for naturalism or surrealism or minimalism or magic realism come and go. The complete takeover of the movies by CGI, 3D and other technology-enhanced goodies has raised the bar in terms of what audiences expect. Nowadays we feel it's our right to be amazed, and more amazed than we were last time. It's also led to a bit of a backlash where practical effects (live, non-digital special effects) become more important, re-balancing the mix with those effects  added in post-production (as in the amazing Mad Max: Fury Road). And of course live special effects are pretty much the only thing available in a live medium like opera.

There's a counter-balance to the bigger-is-better spectacle, even for an opera as blood-soaked as Elektra, the Freudian nightmare remix of ancient Greek myth put together by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss. This less-is-more idea has the enormous bottom-line advantage. Even with this amount of blood in the TV teaser, the Norrlands Operan 2014 production of Elektra might have led to a relatively subdued affair, in the style of Hitchcock's Psycho. But no, with the frightening vision of Director Carlus Padrissa and the help of the Spanish theatrical collective La Fura Dels Baus they went big.
Blood is gushing forth in the barrack square.
Elektra is biding her time.
Enormous steel giants are rising.
Elektra curses her mother.
A forest is set on fire at Umestan.
Elektra demands revenge! 

Just how big you'd only know if you were there in Umeå in August of 2014, in front of the largest opera stage in the world. But you'll also get a pretty good idea from this really special DVD/Blu-ray from Unitel Classics.

Spectacle by itself is pretty empty, but that is definitely not the case here. The singing and acting of the principal singers is absolutely outstanding, beginning with the electrifying performance of Ingela Brimberg in the title role. Put Brimberg on an empty stage with a black fright wig and an axe, and she would provide a good percentage of the sheer horror we get from this performance. She's that good. A great deal of credit must also go to Rumon Gamba who keeps what might have been a spectacularly chaotic project from spinning out of control. That it didn't is due to his steadfast reliance on the music of Strauss and the drama of von Hofmannsthal. That's the real bottom line.

Once more, with feeling

The first volume of this series by the great team of Tasmin Little and Piers Lane, which I reviewed here, was one of the top violin discs released in 2013. This new disc, to be released May 27, 2016, contains two incomplete violin sonatas, one partially written by Frank Bridge in 1904 and completed in 1996 by Paul Hindmarsh, and an early single-movement sonata begun but abandoned by Arthur Bliss in 1916, and prepared for publication in 2010 Rupert Marshall-Luck. The first sonata of John Ireland is a little in the shadow of his great second sonata, but it's the most substantial work on the disc, which is filled up with some sweet pastoral trifles from Ralph Vaughan Williams and (in a recording premiere) William Lloyd Webber.

The Bridge sonata is full of Romantic feeling, but it's rather slight. It's played with panache by Little and Lane, but not any more profoundly than it deserves. The two give the Bliss a more serious performance; the music is almost opulent at times, and the full emotional weight of its genesis during wartime and the death of his brother comes through. The musical centre of the disc, though, is the Ireland. Thanks to this performance I'm re-thinking my earlier view about this composer; this music is such an interesting blend of the English pastoral tradition with bits of Brahms, Wagner and the French Impressionists melded in.

On to round three?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Rule, Britannia!

So, I'm on a British music kick lately. I just finished reviewing the excellent 2-CD re-issue of British Cello Concertos, with Raphael Wallfisch, and I've lined up a couple of other discs from the excellent Chandos label. So I'm sitting here with a glass of stout (Seaport Vanilla Stout from the excellent local Lighthouse Brewing Company) and imagining myself at our local pub, which happens to be in Hammersmith, 6,500 kilometres away.

The Dove from the river jetty. Public Domain. Photo: Fin Fahey

The Dove is a historic pub on the Thames, close to Hammersmith Bridge. You can sit on the deck and look out on the river just as James Thompson did when he wrote the words to the 1740 song Rule, Britannia!, or so says Wikipedia. All he needed next was Thomas Arne to write the tune, and one of the great British songs was born. That song shows up in more than one of the Overtures on this disc, the second volume in a series of some of the best British light music you could hope to hear (volume 2 will be released later this month). Alexander Campbell Mackenzie's Britannia Overture is based on the tune, but even better is the delightful Plymouth Hoe, by John Ansell. There are other nautically themed works here: Walton's Portsmouth Point and the great Ethel Smyth piece The Boatswain's Mate. I've always loved Eric Coates, ever since a portion of his Three Elizabeths Suite was used as the theme song for the BBC adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, and his overture The Merrymakers is reliable light entertainment. And I'm also a big fan of Roger Quilter, who wrote some great songs, as well as the superb Christmas entertainment Where the Rainbow Ends. His Children's Overture seems so familiar to me. This kind of music was often used as a television or radio theme song, so I expect it's from some long-forgotten puppet show from the days when the only TV station we got was CBC.

I've read more than one review of the first volume in this Overtures from the British Isles series that ended with a wish for a second volume. So here we are; this is everything we could hope for, with more great playing from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the baton of someone who knows British light music backwards, and provides it with the best possible advocacy. Bravo to Rumon Gamba for his mastery of this perfectly British music, and bravo to Chandos for providing us with more.

To end on a sad note, James Thompson, who should be celebrated by music lovers not only for his Rule, Britannia lyrics, but also his poem The Seasons which was set by Haydn, met his end not far from The Dove. As Samuel Johnson tells the tale, in his Lives of the English Poets, " taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put end to his life." The next time I'm at The Dove, I'll make a toast to Thompson: 
The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown'd,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

Fine music in an honourable British tradition

When I first listened to Raphael Wallfisch playing the Gerald Finzi Cello Concerto, in this two-CD re-issue by Chandos (to be released in North American on May 27, 2016), I thought to myself that it was amazing, probably the greatest British Cello Concerto after the Elgar. Then I came across a link to this great short film on Wallfisch's website:

Wallfisch makes a good case, though I'm still inclined to consider his claim just a trifle hyperbolic. These are all fabulous recordings, from the mid-1980s to early-1990s but still sounding very good. I recently listened to Wallfisch's Bax Concerto when I reviewed the new Lionel Handy disc on Lyrita in March, and thought it very fine. The other works on this disc are less familiar, but they all owe a debt to Elgar's Cello Concerto of 1919. All except the bonus piece on the disc: the Stanford 3rd Rhapsody in the series of six he wrote before WWI. The Rhapsodies are all marvellous works, quoting Irish folk songs in a Brahms accent.

The Bliss Concerto is, for a work written in 1970, easy on the ears. The composer said about it, "There are no problems for the listener – only for the soloist." Though it's a bit lighter in tone than some of the other works here, it's tightly, symphonically, constructed. Rostropovich was right when he convinced Bliss to change its name from Concertino to Concerto. The Moeran Cello Concerto, from 1945, is perhaps closest to the Elgar model, with lovely long melodies and a keynote of nostalgia and sadness.

Wallfisch has the measure of all of this music, and this album is a perfect way to collect it, in spite of other strong performances on disc by such cellists as Lionel Handy, Yo Yo Ma, Guy Johnstone and Peers Coetmore (who was Moeran's wife). Wallfisch has strong support from Liverpool, London, Bournemouth and Belfast orchestras, and the low price makes this album a must-buy.

Here is the Stanford 3rd Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, from the 1990 Chandos album with Raphael Wallfisch and Vernon Handley conducting the Ulster Orchestra:

Monday, May 2, 2016

Great, but no bizarre

This new album from the Irish Baroque Orchestra is a lovely package of Baroque concertos, all but one of which are from north of the Alps. The music of the time is so full of melodic invention, instrumental colour and sophisticated musical effects, with so many opportunities to appeal to both sense and sensibility. Still, with thousands of albums of concertos quite like this out there, I'm sure it's hard to find a marketing hook for another one, even one with such appealing music.

The keynote of the album, I realized after my first listen, is instrumental colour. There are concertos here for these solo and group of solo instruments:

  • Flute and Oboe
  • 2 Violins and Bassoon
  • Oboe
  • 2 Cellos
  • 2 Oboes da caccia, 2 Violas, 2 Bassoons
  • Bassoon
  • Flute d'amore, Oboe d'amore and Viola d'amore

That's quite an interesting mix, and one that ensures you won't get bored with this programme. I was especially anxious to hear what the last piece, Graupner's Concerto for Flute d'amore, Oboe d'amore and Viola d'amore, would sound like. I'd call it lovely, if only so I could make a multi-lingual pun, as weak as it is. The three instruments all have a rich, earthy sound, which Graupner emphasizes by providing sensual, though hardly orgiastic, music.

But "Concerti Bizarri"? Though there are interesting instrumental combinations here, I'd stop well short of calling this music bizarre, especially after listening to some of the truly odd music by Heinrich Biber on the last album I reviewed, Ars Antiqua Austria's Accordato. This is music well on the Enlightenment Civilization side of the spectrum. The only thing bizarre about this album is the fabulous gargoyle on the album cover.

None of this really matters, though, does it? This is amazing music, by some of my favourite composers. I loved the Fasch, and the Vivaldi, and the Telemann; what fine composers they are! I'm a big fan of Monica Huggett's approach to this repertoire, and the Irish Baroque Orchestra can deliver a slight edge without losing any freshness and melodic appeal. The IBO soloists and players are all superb, providing the best possible advocacy for this unfamiliar music. Just sit back, admire that handsome lug of a gargoyle, and listen to the music.