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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Give 'em the spirit

Edward Elgar is one of the first composers who really paid attention to recording technology, and he left an impressive recording legacy. This new four-disc set from Somm digs deep into his private library of test pressings, and comes up with some real gems, plus more than a few amazing surprises.

Having a recording engineer's name on the cover of a CD doesn't happen too often, but it should perhaps happen more often. Lani Spahr is the hero here, along with Elgar, of course, a fine conductor as well as composer. Of course we shouldn't forget the excellent musicians of the top London orchestras (or the 'recording' orchestras that I would imagine included a big subset of the same players), and two superb soloists: cellist Beatrice Harrison, and the 16-year old violinist Yehudi Menuhin. But it's Spahr who finds the best sides from Elgar's personal library, a significant research accomplishment requiring superb musicality and excellent memory. As well, Spahr utilizes state-of-the-art audio processing to make music from the 1920s and 30s sound fresh and alive, sounding better than they have any right to sound. This is a new generation of archival re-issues, and it deserves a hearing, even from those of us who haven't specialized in this area in the past.

Let's set the stage. Here is a fabulous video of Sir Edward Elgar conducting The London Symphony Orchestra in the first of his Pomp and Circumstances marches. This is from 1931, around the time of the inauguration of the HMV Studios. We know this room best, of course, as Studio 1 at Abbey Road.

Here is the young Yehudi Menuhin recording the Violin Concerto. The date is July 14, 1932.

And here's the same room, 32 years later in 1964. The youngest of the Beatles, George, is 6 years older than Yehudi, at 22! What an amazing history this place has.

The entire Violin Concerto isn't here; rather we hear never-before released 78-sides of portions of the first 3 movements. What we do hear is more of the astounding mastery of Menuhin, and a surprisingly full-sounding LSO, led with assurance by Elgar. Having alternate takes available not only provides context for the final version we know so well, but also gives you some insight into the technical constraints the musicians were working under. The First Symphony is complete. We've heard portions of this recording made at Kingsway Hall in November 1930 before, but Spahr replaces takes in each movement, re-editing the symphony after the fact.  I'll pass on a close comparison of the two versions - that would take a real Elgar recordings geek - but I will say this: Elgar's own version of this symphony is outstanding, and today's conductors should pay more attention to his tempi and his lack of sentimentality. So many sound flabby after this.

So the re-mastered mono recordings on discs 3 and 4 are impressive; they sound rich and full, relatively speaking, and they provide a vital, living link to a great master and days gone by. But we're all really here for the stereo, right? It's accidental stereo, but a real stereo nevertheless. You'll remember the scene from the Pomp and Circumstances video at the beginning of this review, where the recording technician readies the wax matrix cutting table and phones down to the studio (at 0:50). It turns out that occasionally very careful HMV producers rigged up a second disc recorder connected to a separate microphone. This is classic belt-and-suspenders behaviour, but considering the many things that could go wrong with the recording process between the studio and the manufacturing facility, I'm sure it came in handy more than a few times. Having to cut longer works into chunks of less than 5 minutes was enough of a problem; re-assembling a large orchestra to do re-takes of a ruined segment because of a technical glitch wouldn't fly.

It was the recording engineer Mark Obert-Thorn who first thought of using the audio processing software Capstan from Celemony to synchronize the same music recorded on two different machines and microphones, in effect creating left and right stereo channels. This resulted in the Pristine Classical disc Accidental Stereo, with music from early electrical recordings of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, Saint-Saens and Elgar. With Obert-Thorn's successful model, Spahr was able to dig up quite a few matched pairs from the Elgar archive that might have come from separate microphones. The software does the bulk of the work, but Spahr had to do a lot of manual tweeking as well, and there was no guarantee that the result would be stereo. Beginning with two matrices of the same music which seem to be from two different machines, after all the synchronization there might be no stereo separation. That indicates that the two matrices shared the same microphone.

The stereo separation can be quite stunning. Spahr, in classic stereo demonstration mode, includes a section of the Cockaigne Overture with a transition from mono to stereo, and it's an amazing opening-up, like Dorothy going from black-and-white to Technicolor Oz. The stereo effect is similarly full and real in the Cello Concerto, though the cello itself is set somewhat to the left, since the microphone placement wasn't designed with stereo sound in mind. Beatrice Harrison is the amazing cellist. I've listened quite a few times to these various takes, in mono and in stereo, but I often forgot about the circumstances, and just let the music carry me away. Terry King, who provides illuminating liner notes about the Cello Concerto recording, quotes something Elgar said to Harrison that really resonates with me; I think it says something very profound about Elgar as a musician and a person that he said this to Harrison just before a take:

“Give it ‘em, Beatrice, give it ‘em. Don’t mind about the notes or anything. Give ‘em the spirit.”

Monday, August 29, 2016

Pretty good music, and sweet

"If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it." - the motto of Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, in Garrison Keillor's News from Lake Wobegon

There used to be lots of white space in our musical maps of the past, especially in those covering the period before Haydn and Mozart. We paid attention to Bach, Handel, Rameau, Lully, and a handful of Italians: Corelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi. Now niche recording companies are filling in the blanks and providing context for the better known names. These might be students or teachers of the greats; and that may be the case here. According to Alessandro Lattanzi's fine liner essay, Gentili was "allegedly one of Vivaldi's teachers." But unless we're just playing connect-the-dots, the music itself has to have some intrinsic merit.

This new disc from Brilliant Classics introduced me to a name that was completely new to me: Giorgio (called "Giorgietto", so I think of him as Little Georgie) Gentili, who lived from about 1669 to 1730. I was able to track down one other piece by Gentili on disc, a concerto on the 2000 Warner disc Zeit Für Venedig by Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca. Now we have this two-disc set (not terribly full; there's only 83 minutes of music altogether) with Soavi Affetti playing all 12 of Gentili's op. 1 Trio Sonatas. Have they uncovered a great new master?

Hope springs eternal, but in a word, no. The liner notes, where one expects lots of special pleading, become the witness for the prosecution:
Some undeniable deficiencies of his Op.1—above all, the lack of artistic individuality—have drawn unfairly harsh scholarly criticism, and the rejection of the collection in its entirety seems ungenerous. As a melodist, Gentili is admittedly less gifted than a Caldara or an Albinoni, and the melodic flow is inhibited by ubiquitous chains of suspensions. Lyrical flashes, pleasant as they may be, are rare,  and so are expressive harmonies, which were a strong point of the older Venetian masters.
I do feel that there's lots of variety here, and that's a tribute to both the performers and the composer. Soavi Affetti use both organ and harpsichord in the continuo, which is helpful, and they keep things moving along briskly, with special attention to Gentili's rhythmic invention. Gentili does his part by providing Corelli standard-issue music but also hearkening back to older music: the 17th century sonata concertata. This antique sound can be very appealing. As well, he often inserts flourishes of solo music for the solo violin, which provides a bit of a concertante feeling. I enjoy his slow movements, which provide a pleasing, sweet sound that lingers for a while. This music won't change your life, but it should provide some pleasure.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The perfect Ginastera centennial tribute

Alberto Ginastera's centennial year is coming along very well, I think.  I counted 36 concerts at InstantEncore in 2016, and nine CD releases so far on The standard reputation model for a composer seems to be a slight drop in interest after death, and then a significant rise after the centennial. That's certainly what happened with Villa-Lobos, whose 1987 centennial was the cue for a huge increase in concerts, recordings, academic literature and overall popularity. Let's hope we see something like that with Ginastera, who has been very much under-rated for a long time now.

"I am no longer searching for a national style but a personal style," said Ginastera looking back on a career that is the perfect musical expression of Jorge Luis Borges' 1951 essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition". "Our patrimony is the universe;" says Borges, "we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine." Though Ginastera famously divided his music into three periods, Objective Nationalism, Subjective Nationalism and Neo-Expressionism, the general move from simple folkloric works to a more international, avant garde style did not remove folklore from the equation. Indeed, the relatively late Guitar Sonata from 1976 is replete with Cuecha and Nambicuara melodies and what Ginastera himself (channeling his inner music reviewer, perhaps) called "the strong, bold rhythms of the music of the pampas.*" The Guitar Sonata is not at all a doctrinaire post-War twelve-tone work, but rather a work of syncretism. There's even a quote from Wagner's Meistersinger in the witty Scherzo. Writing a Sonata in 1976 was an act of independence; to include such a fun Scherzo even more so. One of the things I love about Jason Vieaux's performance, which is the best I've heard, is how he pulls out all the stops in this movement without any sense of losing control. Comedy is famously hard, and it's hardest of all to pull off in music. There's a lot of layers here: Vieaux carefully negotiates the complex technical logistics while putting across Ginastera's take-off of Wagner's not-as-subtle put-down of Sixtus Beckmesser. Vieaux makes the whole Sonata sound completely organic, and this fine performance only emphasizes the importance of this piece in the Classical Guitar literature.

It's a stylistic step back to the early (1937) Danzas Argentinas, op. 2, played beautifully by pianist Orli Shaham. I've commented before that Ginastera and Villa-Lobos moved in opposite directions. Villa perhaps was Benjamin Button in this scenario.
But in the late 1930s, the two were in sync with each other. Villa's Ciclo Brasileiro, written in 1936-37, shares the same pianistic textures, explores similar rhythms, also flirts with bi-tonality, and shares similar "Indianist" characteristics. While Ginastera has introduced modernist tropes into his music by 1947's Pampeana no. 1, op. 16, played here by Orli Shaham and her bother, the great violinist Gil, this music is not at all difficult on the ears. That's partly because of Ginastera's tendency to call back to 19th century virtuosi, especially Paganini, in much the same way Villa-Lobos quotes Puccini or Rimsky-Korsakov in the middle of otherwise very progressive music. It's also, as the excellent liner essay by Oberlin Conservatory Professor James O'Leary demonstrates, because Ginastera learned from his teacher Aaron Copland to temper modernism with the simple, open, honest music of "the common man". One of the most useful parts of O'Leary's commentary is the light it shines on the political aspects of these issues which seem at first purely musical. Ginastera's experience, like Copland's and Villa-Lobos's, had a political component every bit as fraught with difficulty, if not as dangerous in the end, as the experience of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Less so than the workmanlike Villa-Lobos Harp Concerto of 1953, Ginastera's 1956 Harp Concerto, op. 25, is an obvious star turn for the composer and for generations of grateful harpists. "He wrote our piece", says Yolanda Kondonassis in her introduction to the album.  It has a Bachian combination of erudite structure and joyful invention. Kondonassis, who has performed the work nearly 200 times, has mastered this music, and it shows in this completely secure but playful performance. She has superb support from the excellent Oberlin Orchestra under Raphael Jimenez.

This is really one of the most exciting recording projects I've come across this year. Everyone involved has connected to this marvellous music in a way that doesn't always get communicated to audiences quite like this. Kudos to the Oberlin Conservatory for providing both the academic foundation and sophisticated technical and marketing support for such an auspicious celebration.

* I recommend Charles King's excellent 1992 thesis "Alberto Ginastera's Sonata for Guitar Op. 47: an analysis", a very readable and useful study.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Excellent complex, meaty Copland

The second disc in the Chandos series of Copland Orchestral Works is much more interesting, in my opinion, than the first, which included suites and other excerpts from Copland's perennially popular ballets. Again we have John Wilson conducting the BBC Philharmonic, in recordings made in Manchester and Salford at the beginning of 2016. Besides the virtuoso work of the orchestral musicians, the stars of the recording are organist Jonathan Scott and his instrument, the Marcussen & Søn Organ at The Bridgewater Hall. Copland's early Organ Symphony is an accomplished work considering his relative youth and I'm sure it makes a real impression at a live concert. It makes an impression here as well, with the usual warm Chandos sound (though I didn't get a chance to hear the surround-sound version of the disc). This is a work that has been well-served on disc; besides the famous Bernstein recording from 1967 with E. Power Biggs, there are fine recordings from Dallas, San Francisco and St. Louis, as well as another BBC recording from London, with Leonard Slatkin.

The real meat of the disc, though, comes from the other three works from the 1930s, each of which finds Copland reaching farther into more complex rhythms and away from the more simple-sounding Americana that became the most popular strand of his work throughout his career. Copland ran into difficulties with orchestras and conductors (including such giants as Stokowski and Koussevitsky) over the perceived difficulty of this music, and re-scoring and multiple rehearsals didn't really solve the issue. I'm not sure if the BBC Philharmonic players experienced any real problems in preparation, but they not only sound completely assured here, the music itself seems not especially complex to my ears. This, I think was a problem in the mid-20th century with many composers' works. Just this morning I read this in the liner notes to the new recording of Wozzeck with Fabio Luisi:
Claus Spahn: "The conductor of the world premiere, Erich Kleiber, needed 15 ensemble rehearsals and 34 orchestral rehearsals. Is Wozzeck still an extremely difficult work today?"
Luisi: "On a purely technical level, the score is no longer the problem as it was in Kleiber's day, because we now have much more experience with the music of the twentieth century."
My guess is that Wilson might say exactly the same thing about conducting these fine orchestral works by this American pioneer of both folkloric and modernist music. Kudos to Chandos and the players; I look forward to the next release in the series, which I trust will include Symphony no. 3, one of the greatest of American symphonies.

Charming and vigorous string quartets

The Authentic Quartet from Hungary continue their excellent recording-premiere series of Pleyel String Quartets with another very appealing release on Hungaroton. These two- and three-movement works from the early 1790s are full of a vigorous, if rather naïve, charm and are free from any pretentious striving for the kind of meaning Haydn (Pleyel's master) or Mozart (Pleyel's contemporary) brought to the medium. They're just fun to listen to, and, key to this disc's success, obviously fun to play. I was especially taken with the Rondo eccossois; as I prepare for my first trip to Scotland next month this is just what I want to listen to!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Gems from Steven Staryk's Baroque archive

Centaur's Steven Staryk Retrospective series reaches its 8th volume (to be released September 9, 2016), and new gems from Staryk's own archives keep coming. Staryk's discography was never as broad or well-distributed as it should have been for a violinist of his calibre, but with this series and the previous Steven Staryk Anthology we're getting a clear picture of a giant in 20th century violin performance.

I spend most of my time in the Historically Informed Performance camp when it comes to Baroque music, but I have a soft spot for Steven Staryk and his perfect accompanist Kenneth Gilbert. Here, playing violin sonatas by Corelli, Tartini and Locatelli, the two are perfectly matched. Staryk's tone and intonation are superb, and Gilbert's continuo is so solid, but with plenty of variety and even the occasional surprise. In the finale to the Tartini sonata there is so much wit and such a strong swinging feeling that one thinks of jazz or the best improvisatory comedy: peak Martin and Lewis, perhaps. That oversells this, obviously, but the cool ease and waiting for the unexpected zinger are both here in Tartini's lovely music.

In the concertante Vivaldi selections Staryk soars. This is what Vivaldi violin playing sounded like at its best in the second half of the 20th century, and it's rarely been better since. The sound is serviceable at best, but, and as was the case with volume 7 in this series, the orchestral support is better than expected. I've never heard of the Montreal Baroque Players, but this pickup band of Montreal's best instrumentalists must have been thrilled to play with a soloist at this level, and they're bringing their best game.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Community and nature as art form

In December 1967 CBC Radio broadcast Glenn Gould's radio documentary Idea of North, the first of three "contrapuntal pieces for radio" that made up what he referred to as his Solitude Trilogy. These works should be considered not only musical compositions in themselves, argues Friedemann Sallis in an important article, but also as important part of Gould's performance legacy.

In this tradition comes Aleksandra Vrebalov's The Sea Ranch Songs with the Kronos Quartet, to be released on September 30, 2016. "The production of place in music" is Sallis's subtitle, and that's what Vrebalov has created, in collaboration with videographer Andrew Lyndon. I haven't yet had a chance to see Lyndon's video, so I've experienced only the audio portion of this project, which certainly underlines the connection with Gould. Vrebalov brings the same passion to this portrait of a community, the same overlapping voices and natural and man-made sounds, that come together with all of the sounds of a string quartet (and what a string quartet!) to etch the place in our minds as something rare and special.  And Sea Ranch, on the Pacific Coast in Sonoma County, is clearly a special place.

John Lambert Pearson - originally posted to Flickr as Sea Ranch Panoramic Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

One of my favourite tracks is Fort Ross Chorale, which combines the sound of the church bell from Fort Ross, a 19th century Russian settlement, with a beautiful and sad liturgical chorus. But all of these vignettes become works of music and works of art. Vrebalov weaves this story and many others into her music: Sea Ranch residents reminiscing; Lorin Smith, medicine man of the Pomo Kashia Indians, singing the Welcoming Song; archaeologist Mike Lane reciting numbers that represent the land and the community; architect Donlyn Lyndon, who helped design Condominium One, the design of which brought fame to the community fifty years ago; many natural sounds, from coyotes to the many inhabitants of the tidal pools. I look forward to Lyndon's video, but I feel that I've already visited Sea Ranch and know many of its secrets.

The Kronos Quartet continue their genre-busting work in yet another amazing project. They've brought the classic attributes of one of the most important artistic forms of the Enlightenment, the civilized and passionate conversation of two violins, a viola and a cello, into so many parts of a modern world that can use as much enlightenment as it can get. We're lucky to have them.

Style, authenticity and tradition

In his especially perceptive liner notes to this new Busch Trio Dvorak disc from Alpha, Jan Smaczny talks about the composer being pulled by two opposite forces: the folkloric music of Bohemia and the Austro-German style of Brahms and his circle. This dynamic of nationalism versus trans-national style can be seen in many other composers: Villa-Lobos, for example, navigated between the modernism of Paris and the particularly Brazilian melding of folkoric traditions. Similarly, Aaron Copland's music saw Americana struggling with that same Parisian style, and Vaughan Williams was in the middle of a tug-of-war between Ravel and English Folk Song. But whether acknowledging Brahms' musical mentorship and personal friendship, or harking back to his roots, Dvorak was always authentic, and his music speaks in his own voice. The young musicians of the Busch Trio have caught that voice in the manner of a great actor creating a historic figure, with technical assurance and style.

They also are playing in the tradition of a great musician, their namesake Adolf Busch. This is about more than just the fact that violinist Mathieu van Bellen plays Adolf Busch’s own 1783 Guadagnini violin; rather the group has the same lean and brilliant way of attacking the great music of 19th century Europe.

From the liner notes:

Friday, August 19, 2016

Fine performances of late Atterberg

The Chandos Atterberg Orchestral Works series with Neeme Jarvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony has been one of the most important new recording projects in the past few years. This fifth volume includes two late symphonies, written during and after the 2nd World War. By that time both of the great Scandinavian symphonists were finished: Nielsen was dead and Sibelius silent. Atterberg, once seen as a progressive composer who had to fight against conservative resistance, was now something of a musical reactionary.

The Sinfonia romantica, number 7, has Atterberg's patented sound, reminiscent of Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner, though the jolly third movement sounds more to me like Eric Coates and the golden age of British Light Music. The music sounds the same, but it seems much less authentic to me, and more like ersatz Romanticism than the ecstatic 3rd Symphony of 1916. I think Atterberg was more concerned with making a point about how music had moved away from tonality than he was to express any inner urge to compose. It's often lovely, nevertheless. Atterberg's 9th Symphony, the Sinfonia visionaria, was written in the mid-1950s, as a depiction of evil and the apocalypse. Once again musical politics are at the front of Atterberg's mind, and a 12-tone motive becomes his version of diabolus in musica. This is a serious work, with hauntingly beautiful passages, but it all seems just a little bit generic.

Though I'm less than impressed with the music itself than I have been with any of the previous discs in this series, there isn't a single quibble I have with the performances. Anna Larsson and Olle Persson add character and humanity in their parts of the 9th Symphony, and the Gothenburg Symphony Chorus and Orchestra sing and play beautifully. Jarvi makes a better case for the 9th than does Ari Rasilainen on CPO, though the two versions of the 7th are for me a dead heat.

Top Drawer Recording of Middle School Mozart

The final album in the great BIS series of Mozart Piano Concertos with Ronald Brautigam and Die Kolner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens contains Mozart's least important works, but it says so much about the players that there's so much to enjoy in this release, due on October 14, 2016. These four concertos from Mozart's pre-teen years are pastiches of sonata movements written under the guidance of Dad, but they show a real flair. Let's not forget that the keyboard concerto was in its infancy. There's a natural dramatist working with this mainly banal material, punching up contrasts and adding zest and heart to galant stereotypes. I'm sure Papa helped join the dots, but there's little evidence of a natural dramatist in what I've heard of Leopold Mozart's published works.

I've always liked another very fine disc with the fortepiano, on Decca with Robert Levin and the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood. But I know this music best as played by Murray Perahia on a piano, and conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. I used to have an audio-cassette of this, and played it in my car in the days before we could get CBC Radio2 in Red Deer. Listening to it now, though, was a major disappointment; compared with the light and grace of both Levin and Brautigam, I found Perahia bloated. The Andante from the 2nd Concerto K.39, based on a lovely movement from a violin sonata by Schobert, has always been my favourite piece from this set. Here's Perahia's version:

Both Levin and Brautigam play this music as a somewhat brittle precursor to the slow movement of K. 467, written 14 years later. But Perahia adds a bit too much weight, I feel, perhaps more than the slight music can bear. By the way, in the later concertos I'd cheerfully listen to Perahia; his concerto series is awesome, but with this one exception.

Levin or Brautigam? I'll choose Brautigam here, by a bit. He makes the most of this charming music. So much of the credit goes, of course, to Willens and Die Kolner Akademie. Their thoughtful, musicianly partnership has made the BIS series a joy from start to this marvellous finish.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

More British Symphonies from the Lyrita catalogue

I came across a quote from Blaise Pascal today: "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." I've found myself writing some longish posts here lately, and while I know that tightening things up always makes things better, I have trouble cutting really boffo stuff. I did take out some apposite thoughts about Gilligan's Island in a recent review. That's me: always trying harder to give you better prose. Having said that, my recent review of Lyrita's British Symphonies compilation only covered about half of the composers in that four-disc set. I promised to return with some impressions of the rest, and here I am.

I see that most of the symphonies I didn't mention in my last review come from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This, of course, is one of the great strengths of Lyrita; they have access to some of the finest orchestras in the UK. Just in this set we have the LPO, the LSO, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the BBC Wales SO. There are three symphonies I'd like to single out this time around. One of the most impressive works, and a fitting end for the whole set, is John Joubert's First Symphony from 1955, which the composer himself said "... represents my coming-of-age as a composer." This passionate and well-constructed work has plenty of both light and shade, and it deserves to be heard more often.

Joubert, by the way, is the only composer from this set who is still living. Here is the original 2007 Lyrita release of Joubert's Symphony no. 1, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley:

Humphrey Searle was a pupil of Anton Webern, and he began using the 12 tone method of composition in the 1940s. So you'd expect an insistent dissonance in an international, continental style from his Second Symphony, written from 1956-58. However, it has an open, honest, thoroughly British sound that veers on Romanticism at times. We're still, however, miles away from the classic English pastoral tradition that butts itself into the foreground whenever British symphonic music comes up. This is another crack performance by the LPO, this time led by Josef Krips. William Wordsworth's 3rd Symphony is similarly substantial, without sentimentality, and full of energy and significant wit. The honours this time go to Nicolas Braithwaite, who conducts the LPO.

Thanks again to Lyrita for repackaging their amazing catalogue of British and Commonwealth music. Every release gives us a chance to discover or re-discover composers as accomplished as Searle, Wordsworth and Joubert.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Theatrical Beethoven

The first forty or so seconds of the first movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (30 seconds for Toscanini) is a mythic awakening from the dream of the Enlightenment into a raw, powerful new Romantic life. Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic purrs ominously, and then picks you up by the throat and shakes you. Otto Klemperer seems to fit a whole novel - Balzac or Melville - of silence to awesome foreboding that he somehow elicits from the solid British musicians of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein hints at a rising menace, and never really lets it surface with his New Yorkers, but it's there nevertheless. After all, as Rick says to Major Strasser in Casablanca, "There are certain sections of New York that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

The challenge for the devotee of Historically Informed Performance is to do this, or something like this, while sounding something like an orchestra of the 18th century. This is, of course, the sound that Beethoven, deaf for years before, heard in his head while writing the 9th Symphony. By the end of the last century we'd learned that there's no end of expressive potential in that 18th century symphony orchestra, once matters of orchestral balance and string tone and proper recording techniques were mastered. This involved some trial and not inconsiderable error, but it looks like we've come out of the HIP tunnel in better expressive shape than most of us could have hoped for, the odd curmudgeonly critic to the contrary, of course.

Let's face it, though: the 9th Symphony is tough HIP terrain. It's hard to compete with masses of string players with phasers set on "vibrato", brass (with valves!), woodwinds and drums melded together into a single Borg-like organism, and multiple microphones placed close enough to every player so that perfect sound reproduction can get lasered directly into your brain. In a Gramophone review of Roy Goodman's Beethoven Symphony set with the Hanover Band on Nimbus, Stephen Johnson says "In the end, all Beethoven performances—authentic or thoroughly modern—compete in the same arena." He doesn't mention whether that's with or without steroids, though.

With this disc, to be released September 30, 2016, Toronto's Tafelmusik now finishes the first North American period-instrument Beethoven Symphony cycle. In what seems to be a standard and successful model for North American orchestras, this is a live recording (made during four performances in February), released as own-label (Tafelmusik Media), and funded in part through a successful crowd-funding campaign. So how does it match up artistically?

Rather than going all-in HIP, there's some finessing going on here in some of the decisions by Bruno Weill and the production/engineering team.  The string sound is softened and the winds and brass integrated and balanced by the warm acoustic of Koerner Hall and microphone placement. Weill brings more rubato and less speed than you'd expect in a more doctrinaire HIP performance. The expressive possibilities of all of this are heightened by the real advantages Tafelmusik brings to bear: the high musical standards of the instrumentalists, the vocal soloists, and especially the fine chorus.

When I listened to the mid-20th century masters conduct the beginning of their 9th Symphonies I heard echoes from Beethoven's future: Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler. Bruno Weill and his forces bring a thrilling drama to their first 45 seconds, but here I thought of the most theatrical moments of Mozart and especially Handel. The 9th Symphony is Beethoven's most theatrical work; much more so than Fidelio. Through the entire recording I found myself reacting to this dynamic, and most especially in the final movement, a kind of optimistic mirror of the final act of Don Giovanni. Tafelmusik's goal in their Beethoven project was to present the music "as though the music had been composed yesterday." This fresh version succeeds in this to a higher degree than any HIP presentation I've heard.

While we wait for the Tafelmusik release, here is Klemperer making everyone's hair stand on end:

Monday, August 15, 2016

A recital with style and personality

It's great to see a new Chandos series of piano music of Gabriel Fauré, played by Louis Lortie. This first disc in the series, to be released September 30, 2016, is organized as a recital, and a well-planned one it is. It includes a couple of the Nocturnes, three Barcarolles, the 9 Preludes op. 109, the Pelleas and Melisande suite, and two arrangements of beloved songs. Not many other composers could compare with Fauré for the surprising or subtle differences in mood and the different colours, harmonies and rhythms on display in an hour of short piano pieces. 

In preparing the orchestral suite from Pelleas and Melisande Fauré was actually helped by his student Charles Koechlin, but it was the composer himself who prepared this transcription back to piano. These are wonderfully atmospheric works, and it reminds us how much music lovers should thank Maurice Maeterlinck for his play that called forth such amazing music from Sibelius, Debussy, Schoenberg and Fauré. This music fits well with Lortie's strengths: a strong feeling for the underlying structure of the piece, and the ability to communicate sentiment while eschewing cheap effects. The late Preludes are, in the words of Michael Oliver, "among the subtlest and most elusive piano pieces in existence." Lortie's interpretation is much solider and substantial than the lighter, even ethereal version of Paul Crossley on EMI. Too much wispier and I think this music would disappear altogether, but there's definitely more poetry from Crossley. Not that Lortie misses all the good stuff; there's a backbone in these little songs of loss that needs bringing out as well. 

As it happens my reference recording of the Fauré Nocturnes and Barcarolles is by another Canadian, the 2014 2-disc set on ATMA Classique by Stephane Lemelin. Comparing the overlapping five works is an interesting exercise not in deciding which is best, for these are two very fine pianists working at the highest level, but rather in demonstrating how differences in temperament and style can affect how this music makes it from the score to the MP3.

The Fourth Nocturne is such a beautiful work, which takes us to some interesting places before it returns to the serene place where it began. Though Lortie is a bit brisker than the more laid-back Lemelin at the beginning, the journey is just as appealing. The Fifth Barcarolle begins with a slow burn that catches on fire, and burns pretty hot at times, flaring up now and again. I like Lortie's control here; I feel like Lemelin is running a bit hot throughout. The slighter Sixth Barcarolle, though, seems softer and more Romantic as played by Lemelin, whereas it seems little more than a filler in Lortie's recital. The Seventh Barcarolle is a spiky miniature, which Lortie plays as a short and sad story, while Lemelin is more detached. Lortie's is more like Chopin, and Lemelin's more like Satie. The most substantial piece on Lortie's disc is the 6th Nocturne, but this time he's the one who's more reflective and thoughtful, while Lemelin milks the drama a bit.

Lortie plays Percy Grainger's piano version of the song Après un rêve, and his own arrangement of the Pavane that Fauré wrote originally for piano and chorus, and then adapted as an orchestral piece. Fauré himself played what I assume is his own piano version in 1913 in Paris, that was transcribed as a piano roll. The most interesting thing here is how quickly he zips through this:

I think the composer was making a point about how sloppily sentimental the orchestral versions were being played. You'll notice that next time you hear it played in an elevator. Lortie is actually rather wistful here, and much less jaunty. Lortie's middle ground suits the Pavane very well, I think.

Over all this is definitely not a middle-ground kind of recital, however, since Lortie has a definite style and personality. It's rewarding to listen to this music closely, and I very much look forward to doing to the same with volume 2.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Grandly, sentimentally perfect music

My first impression of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's Figaro, released last month, was very positive, and listening more closely to favourite arias and ensembles, I found myself enjoying it even more. I loved the verve of the overture, the use of a fortepiano in the recitatives, the fine singing of the all-star cast, and the geniality of the whole affair. I've been watching a fair bit of opera on Blu-ray, which doesn't quite offer the same immersive experience of the real thing in the opera house, but which engages the senses in a very particular way. Sitting back and listening to this new recording with my eyes closed, I felt a real sense of flow, of the dramatic back and forth of a work I know pretty well after all these years.

I'm also feeling positive about this version because I'm still disappointed in the Harnoncourt set of Mozart-Da Ponte Blu-rays I reviewed earlier this week, and this production delivers where that one didn't. I felt Harnoncourt's Figaro was dullish, with the one real bright spot being the sparkling performance of Liliana Nikiteanu as Cherubino, but that was partly because of the dim lighting and lifeless direction by Jurgen Flimm. Nézet-Séguin only has to deliver on the audio side here, of course, though from the video you can sense the energy, deep feelings and fun from everyone involved.

This really is a first-class cast. Speaking of energy, Rolando Villazón really pops! in the small role of Basilio, as he does in the video talking with Nézet-Séguin. It looks like he maybe really pops! when he eats his cereal at breakfast. Thomas Hampson is magisterial as the Count, with Luca Pisaroni is a great match as Figaro. Both seem completely at home in these roles, and in tune with each other, and with their conductor.

I was pleased to hear their praise, in a later webisode, for the production team, since sometimes singers (other musicians as well, I suppose) take all of the credit for a fine performance, and look elsewhere when things don't go well.

The women are no slouches either. Sonya Yoncheva is so incredibly touching as the Countess. Christiane Karg is strong as Susanna. Anne Sofie von Otter, another star, like Villazón, cast in a small part, is naturally very fine as Marcellina. Angela Brower as Cherubino doesn't perhaps have the same oblivious panache as Nikiteanu, but she's still nevertheless very fine and very fresh.

Much credit for the success of this production has to go to the musicians of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Though they're a relatively small group in support of this group of powerful voices, they deliver power when required, and their wide range of expression is matched with corresponding control. Everything comes together in the great ensembles, great singing and great playing. Listen to Mozart's grandly, sentimentally perfect ode to the transcendence that sometimes comes in this imperfect life:

It's primarily Nézet-Séguin's vision we hear in this music, though, and it's clear to me that Deutsche Grammophon's confidence in the young Canadian's potential is clearly bearing fruit. I'm positive that the Metropolitan Opera's similar bet on his future will do the same.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Shared vision

The new Ondine disc of Prokofiev Piano Concertos puts two musicians who obviously share a common vision in front of a disciplined and virtuoso orchestra. Together they provide one of the best presentations of this vital music from a master composer.

Here is a video from Finnish television of the 3rd Concerto, recorded at a concert in 2014. Your first impression of pianist Olli Mustonen might be that he's gone over the top with his flourishes and gestures, but it's clear that he has the measure of this fiendishly difficult music. I'm fine with all of this, by the way. Notice that he's completely focussed on the music in front of him: the physical movement is not aimed at the audience, but rather is part of a physical connection with Prokofiev. As Charles Rosen says in his book Piano Notes, "There has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard." Meanwhile conductor Hannu Lintu, as restrained as Mustonen is flamboyant, nevertheless shows complete control in his mediation between the manic piano and the complexities of the orchestra's alternation between tender support and angry asides. This is an engaging performance of one of the great works of the 20th century. Notably, the version recorded the following May in the Helsinki Music Centre has no less of the fire, if a bit more polish, than the live version from the video.

The strengths of this performance of the 3rd Concerto are clear as well in the 1st and the 4th (written for the left-hand). Both Mustonen and Lintu demonstrate that the 1st is all about youthful promise fulfilled, while the 4th speaks to finding fullness through, rather than just in spite of, limitation. This outstanding release, due September 9, 2016, is most highly recommended.

Illuminating Haydn

The Haydn 2032 project picks up steam in this third release from Alpha Classics, "Solo e Pensoso". It takes its title from sonnet XXXV from Petrarch’s Il Canzioniere that was set by Haydn in 1798:
Alone and deep in thought, through the loneliest fields
I tread with slow and sluggish steps,
and keep my eyes watchful, intent on flight
wherever a human footprint appears in the sand.
"Alone and deep in thought" is not how we think of the lively and above all social music making of the Baroque period, so this is an important milestone on the way to the solitary-genius composer whose epitome was Mozart, and in a heroic and Romantic form, Beethoven. But we're not used to thinking of Haydn in these terms at all. Putting Haydn's dramatic but still pensive setting at the centre of this new project, and presenting it in such as stylish way, with the musicians of his superb band Il Giardino Armonico and soprano Francesca Aspromonte, Giovanni Antonini once again makes us look at Haydn in a new way.

This time around the program is all-Haydn, though a Mozart aria from 1789, Vado, ma dove?
KV 583, featured in the 2015 concert programs for this project but didn't make it onto the disc. The three symphonies, #4 completed in 1760, #42 of 1771, and #64 from 1773, are given context by Haydn's Petrarch setting and another work from the stage, the overture to L’Isola Disabitata from 1779. Thus we have music from Haydn's early, middle and late periods, but Antonini has something much more sophisticated in mind than a mere chronological approach. Rather, he is following threads from the vast tapestry of Haydn's symphonic output to illustrate his theme.

Symphony #42, which begins the program, has an arresting combination of operatic incident and a more abstracted and wistful counterpoint. In tone if not always in musical style this seems quite close to Mozart. This is even more true of the great Symphony #64, with the mysterious "missing cadences" of its eccentric Largo and possibly contemporary nickname Tempora mutantur (the beginning of a Latin tag that goes "Times change, and we change with them: how so? Mankind gets worse with time.") One theory is that this music was part of a lost project of Haydn's to provide incidental music for Shakespeare's Hamlet. We're a long way from the Papa Haydn stereotype here! Symphony #4, which ends the program, is a surprisingly cultivated and refined work for its time, with its ghostly middle Andante not giving up a sense of muted melancholy in the more dramatic, but still, in the end, contemplative and thoughtful finale.

The marketing of Haydn 2032 is world-class. Go to the Solo e Ponsoso portion of the project website for the full deal, including amazing photos by Bruno Barbey and superb analysis by musicologist Christian Moritz-Bauer. There's even a Haydn 2032 shop planned for the future. But none of this matters if the music isn't special, and to my mind it certainly is. In fact, these are ground-breaking performances,  In #64 there's an immediacy and presence that clearly outshines Christopher Hogwood's version with the Academy of Ancient Music. Even the version of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra under Adam Fischer, my reference standard for Haydn, seems less nimble and expressive. I'm so pleased with what I've heard so far from Haydn 2032, and look forward to the long journey to Haydn's Tricentennial.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Earnest, and sometimes original, symphonic music from Britain

This four-disc set from Lyrita, due to be released on September 9, 2016, is a useful compilation of British symphonic music that matches the format of two previous collections: British Piano Concertos and British String Concertos, both of which received excellent reviews. The Lyrita catalogue is so strong in this repertoire that this re-packaging of a mixture of outstanding works and lesser-known gems is more than likely to be a success.

Not all of the works included here are out-and-out masterpieces. As God is my witness, the first thing I thought of when I was listening to William Stearndale Bennett's Symphony in G minor and saw it had been completed in 1867, was the Reform Act of that year. It's a solid, even stolid, symphony on the Mendelssohn model, which is a bit off considering Felix had been dead for 20 years. Like the Reform Act, which doubled suffrage from a million property-owning men but had no immediate effect on the politics of the day, Bennett's music tinkered around the edges of the established, in this case German, model, and British music had to wait until Elgar's First Symphony in 1908 to begin to make its own noise in the world. There's nothing wrong with this music, certainly, and I don't begrudge the 23 minutes of my life I spent listening to it. Sure, I could have squeezed an episode of BoJack Horseman in that time, but I'm trying to ration my BJ bingeing. Great show.

One work that definitely is a masterpiece is Edmund Rubbra's 4th Symphony, written during the 2nd World War. It's clear from the amazing mysterious and momentous opening that this is a serious and important work, and Rubbra fulfills all of our expectations by the end of the symphony. It's on the same level, I believe, as Elgar and the best of Vaughan Williams.  This version is played by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar, and was recorded in 1990. It's a toss-up between this and the Chandos recording with Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which is my personal favourite by a whisker only.  I should pause at this point and acknowledge the superb work done by Michael Herman at Music-Web International in his discography of British and Commonwealth Symphonies from the 19th Century to the Present. It helped my research for this review immensely.

Another major work on the album is Alan Rawsthorne's Symphonic Studies, in which the young composer confronts the daunting challenge of Elgar's Enigma Variations, 30 years later. It begins with this impressive theme:

This is the best available version of this music, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Pritchard.

Dipping into this collection at random to try to get a feel for it, I'm afraid I sometimes found things more the same than I would have hoped. Not every voice here is completely original, though of course that's not the only thing one looks for in symphonic music. Certainly there's some very earnest music, and perhaps not enough wit or grace. Lennox Berkeley's 3rd Symphony, in a single movement, is a welcome exception:

Grace Williams' Symphony no. 2 is quite a pugnacious work, often martial in nature. As was the case in other works here, it was oddly reassuring to sometimes hear the familiar strains of the honourable English light music tradition which I've come to appreciate more lately. I'm planning on exploring more of this Welsh composer's music, from the discouragingly small amount that's made it on to disc.

What else? I think I'll leave these MP3s up in my iTunes and re-listen to some of the others over the next few weeks, and report back here. This is a lot of unfamiliar music to get into all at once. And BoJack beckons!

Geniality and wit; virtuosity and passion

Sir Andras Schiff plays and conducts masterworks of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart in this outstanding Blu-ray from C-major, filmed at the Great Hall of the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in January of 2015. His boundless charm is the keynote of the whole project, which is evident in this short clip:

It's almost, but not quite, too cute sometimes. I love the way he leans back after finishing a run to the top of the keyboard in the Beethoven Concerto, and gives a cue over his shoulder to the concert-master. I love the way he mimics playing a wind instrument to get the perfect sound from his flutes and oboes. But underneath the geniality and wit is an astounding virtuosity, a complete grasp of the underlying meaning of this music, and an ability to communicate with the hand-picked instrumentalists of the Cappella Andrea Barca, virtuosi themselves, as perfectly as he communicates with the audience. There's still a big chunk of the year to go, but I know now that this video will end up close to the top of my Top 10 recordings of 2016.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dull Mozart (is that even possible?)

Arthaus Musik has collected the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt's three Da Ponte operas of Mozart on three Blu-ray discs. The operas, recorded around the turn of the century (1996, 2000 & 2001) at the Zurich Opera House, are all directed by Jurgen Flimm, and the casts include some big names. But as impressive as some of the singing is, I was not at all taken with Harnoncourt's overall conception of the music or the drama. His tempi tend to drag, and then he'll make up for it with a whirlwind rush through an especially tender or psychologically significant aria. There's little verve or spark here, which is damning considering the music. Neither did I take to Flimm's staging; everything seems under-lit, and the sets, the schoolroom in Cosi, for example, dingy. 

But let's not forget the soloists. Cecilia Bartoli and Liliana Nikiteanu are outstanding in Cosi, both as singers and as actors. They make you believe in the characters; you feel that the stakes are real, and high. In Don Giovanni Bartoli shines as Donna Elvira, as does Nikiteanu as Zerlina. Nikiteanu completes the hat-trick as an absolutely amazing Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro. This is one of Da Ponte's most original characters, and it naturally drew from Mozart sublime solo and ensemble music. As to other characters, I was impressed enough with Rodney Gilfry's Don Giovanni, as both an actor and a singer, but when you think of Marius Kwiecien's towering Don, there's no comparison. A major disappointment!

A vital Dutilleux Centennial project

Henri Dutilleux's centennial year in 2016 is coming along nicely. There are four BBC Proms concerts this summer that include works by the great French master, plus some major recording projects this year and in last year's run-up, most notably the Erato 7-disc Dutilleux Centenary Edition. But the undertaking I'm most excited about is this 3-disc collection of the Orchestral Works with the Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot, on the Symphony's own label, Seattle Symphony Media. Back in 2014 I gave the first disc in Morlot's series a very positive review. While I somehow missed the second disc in 2015, it too got nothing but raves from the critics, especially for the violin concerto L'arbre des songes with Augustin Hadelich, and it won a Grammy Award that year. The third disc is due, along with this compilation, on August 12, 2016.

Hadelich is back for the final disc in the set, playing the Nocturne for violin & orchestra "Sur le même accord". This is amazingly accessible music, with almost cinematic effects: shifting atmospheres, dramatic outbursts and always a wide range of virtuosic effects that Hadelich manages with aplomb on his 1723 Kiesewetter Stradivarius violin. The highlight, though, is a live performance of the great Timbres, espace, mouvement. Morlot ensures that scrupulous attention to detail doesn't interfere with the long arcs of this music; the virtuosity of the orchestral players, and their musicianship, is obvious.

From my balcony I can see sometimes just the tip of Mt. Rainier peaking out, but only on the clearest of days (not lately because of haze from wildfires on the Olympic Peninsula). It's somehow a comfort to know that not too far that way there's an orchestra that can play this great music of core French repertoire as well as any in the world. I need to hop on the ferry soon, and often, to hear it play live!

The beautiful spirit in Mozart and Mendelssohn

The first concerto disc by Danae Dörken is definitely a winner; a strong personality emerges in both of these great works, which is impressive for such a young musician. Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia give strong support, and the Ars Produktion surround sound is outstanding.

The C major concerto K.467 has always been one of my favourites; there's so much vitality and drive here - this is Mozart at the peak of his powers. Dörken and Vogt keep things going at a rolling boil, and their keynote is appropriately dramatic and operatic (the concerto was written in the year before The Marriage of Figaro). Here's an example of their dramatic shading: in the middle of the first movement (just after 6:30), there's a hesitation that reads almost as a full stop. It's a light that shines on a moment of high drama, and the exquisite filigree that follows.

Meanwhile, Daniel Barenboim (just after 7:00, in a much more relaxed version) passes the moment by almost nonchalantly:

There's the same nimble precision in the 2nd Mendelssohn Concerto. Dörken and Vogt are serious when they need to be, but the music is never fraught. Matching it with the Mozart definitely brings out the clean lines and serene mood in Mendelssohn's beautiful piece. In a really interesting discussion between Dörken and Daniel Knaack in the liner notes comes this quote of Schumann on Mendelssohn:
Music is the outflow of a benign spirit, whether it flows in the presence of hundreds or in solitude; but let it always be that beautiful spirit which expresses itself. That is why Mendelssohn's compositions are so irresistible when he plays them himself.... I often think that Mozart must have played like that.
The beautiful spirit is heard loud and clear in this fine recording. I look forward to more projects with these talented musicians!

A major figure in 20th century French music

There's a full-blown Joseph-Guy Ropartz mini-boom going on in the recording industry, and I couldn't be more pleased. Timpani is leading the way with important chamber music and orchestral discs in the past few years, and this disc of violin and cello sonatas, due to be released on September 9, 2016, continues this stellar work. Violinist Nicolas Dautricourt and pianist Francois Kerdoncuff began the survey of the violin sonatas with number 2 on the previous Timpani disc in 2014, but on this disc numbers 1 and 3 are played by Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabedian, with Kerdoncuff doing the honours once again. And there's also been a lineup change at cello (I feel like I'm a baseball play-by-play announcer) with Raphael Pidoux playing the 2nd sonata in the first disc, and the excellent Henri Demarquette playing the first sonata in the second disc. Iron Man Kerdoncuff stays at piano throughout. The playing on both discs is first-class, with fine, open, strong string tone from all, and spot-on piano work from Kerdoncuff, both sensitive and robust when required.

The first violin sonata, written in 1910, is in the full-blown Romantic style of Cesar Franck. The music of this period is suffused with the folk music of Ropartz's Brittany homeland. The first cello sonata, from 1904, shares the same style, and I found both to be immensely likeable pieces of music, honestly emotional and making a cogent argument through Franck's cyclic form. The third violin sonata has a completely different sound world, more reserved and emotionally distant, with clarity and serenity replacing romantic tumult. Ropartz's move to Alsace-Lorraine to take over directorship of the Nancy Conservatory had placed him in the midst of the turmoil of the Great War, and this trauma had a huge effect on his life and his music. It's clear that Ropartz is a major figure in 20th century French music, and it's encouraging that new recordings continue to appear.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Less is more

During a career filled with as many failures as triumphs, and a life with an equal measure of pain and delight, Robert Schumann often seemed to be swimming against the flow. While the great virtuoso composers like Liszt and Paganini were creating a new concerto paradigm of the hero (soloist) fighting against the world (orchestra), Schumann in 1850 wrote his cello concerto as a "Concert piece for cello with orchestral accompaniment." This more organic, integrated music never caught on during his lifetime, and it wasn't until well into the 20th century that it became part of the standard cello concerto repertoire. Schumann himself suggested a chamber version of the piece, though he never had a chance to make it happen.

The idea of illuminating the inner structures and meaning and the outer textures of an orchestral work by subtraction has a long and honourable tradition. Liszt's own transcriptions of Beethoven's Symphonies for solo piano were like virtuoso x-rays. Meanwhile, Hummel's chamber reductions of Mozart's Piano Concertos were designed to bring the music from the concert hall to the middle class music rooms of Germany.  In those days such reductions were often a strategy to build markets and sell sheet music.

In his own reduction Schumann would have been mainly interested, I think, in exploring interesting musical issues relating to orchestral vs. chamber music textures and colours. In their outstanding version on this new Sono Luminus disc (to be released August 26, 2016), Zuill Bailey, the Ying Quartet and Julliard composer Philip Lasser, do just that. This outstanding collaboration seems to have been similar to a big band jazz arrangement: Lasser provided the basic charts, and the performers worked out a final performing version following significant give-and-take, and, I'm sure, some improvisation. This is an completely successful project: I've listened to this piece often in the past week or so, and it convinces me completely. It doesn't make one forget the orchestral version, but I rate it very close as a separate work.

Meanwhile, the Beethoven arrangement (an anonymous one from not too long after Beethoven's death) opens up the Kreutzer Sonata to emphasize its implicit concertante nature. This is a very interesting experiment, but it's not at the level of the Schumann. Still, there's no denying the fun in listening, which comes partially, I think, from the obvious fun these musicians are having as they play with each other.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A personal reading of Vivaldi's cello sonatas

A second set of 14 albums will be re-released this September in Alpha's Essential Baroque Masterpieces series, including Marco Ceccato's Vivaldi Cello Sonatas originally released in 2014 on Zig Zag Territoires. These are packages in handsome uniform designs with informative liner notes.

This album includes a selection of Vivaldi's great op. 14 set of sonatas for cello & continuo, played here by Accademia Ottoboni (featuring Anna Fontana, harpsichord, Francesco Romano, theorbo & guitar, Rebeca Ferri, cello, and Matteo Coticoni, double bass). This was very well reviewed at the time of its original release, but let's give it a close listen now.

According to Ceccato's new liner essay, he went back to the original manuscripts in some cases:
I preferred to base the music on the manuscripts which most accurately reflect Vivaldi’s conception. The edition published in Paris by Le Clerc is, in fact, not always faithful to the original. Apart from revising some of the bowings, in the second movement of the Sonata in F Major Le Clerc even omitted half a beat to ‘adjust’ Vivaldi’s asymmetry, making it more symmetrical and, in his opinion, easier to listen to. 
Here is that movement from op. 14 no. 2 (RV 41), played by Lucia Swarts from a 2007 Challenge Classics release:

And here is Ceccato's much spikier version (from the original release):

I often prefer the raw to the cooked when it comes to music, and definitely in this case.  On the other hand, Ceccato isn't afraid to add some flourishes which sound less authentic. Listen to the swoops just after 2:00 in the lovely Sarabande of the 9th sonata. Over-indulgent? Maybe a bit, but I love it!

Overall, I'm impressed with Ceccato's very personal view of this music, and also with the varied and imaginative continuo provided by his colleagues. This disc is a standout in a crowded field of very good performances of great music.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The two sides of Maxwell Davies' piano music

Like Alberto Ginastera, the late Peter Maxwell Davies wrote uncompromisingly complex densely avant-garde music as well as much more accessible, simple folkloric music, and like Ginastera, these disparate styles come from different periods in his life. The works written after 1980 make use of the folk-songs of the Orkney Islands, where he lived from 1971 until his death earlier this year. And like many a folkloric composer - Villa-Lobos, Bartok, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak among them - Maxwell Davies wrote his own original music in such a way that it is often mistaken as a quotation of a folk tune. This English composer (he was born in Salford, Lancashire) made such a deep connection to the land and people of the northern islands, and you can hear it in this simple, often childlike music.

The avant garde music Maxwell Davies wrote between the mid-1950s and 1981, on the other hand, reminds one of Schoenberg, Ligeti or Xenakis. This is music in an international style, but there is a core in even the most formalist works that remains intensely personal. His recomposition of Dunstable's Sub tuum protectionem shows both his cleverness and his sense of humour. The Piano Sonata of 1981 is the pinnacle of the composer's avant garde style, and one of the great Sonatas of the century. This work certainly makes an impact, condensing a huge amount of material into seven relatively short movements. With a sound world completely typical of the late 20th century, I was nevertheless reminded more than anyone of late Beethoven, in its serious search for religious meaning in abstraction.

The recording for this 2-CD Prima Facie album is actually fairly old; it was made back in August of 2010 at the University of Salford, in Maxwell Davies' home town in Lancashire. The recording is decent, and the performance outstanding. Up until now I've only known Richard Casey for his Anthony Burgess recordings, which are very good, but don't require the technique of this much more complex composer. This promises to be the standard for the piano music, probably for a long time to come.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Whimsical, ironic and self-referential Handel

The orchestral playing and solo singing in the musical side of this production from the Internationale Handel-Festspiele Gottingen, from May of 2009, is under the capable direction of Nicholas McGegan. It's great to see him wedged sideways with his Festspiel Orchestra into the tiny pit of the Deutsches Theater; you have complete confidence that he'll keep things moving in a Historically Informed and dramatically appropriate way. Even though this is 7 years old now, the C Major Blu-ray is from a very fine HD source, and the surround sound is outstanding.

But it's naturally the theatrical concept of Doris Dorrie that causes the most discussion, since it adds an additional layer of abstraction to the already formalized conventions of Baroque opera. This layer, the transposition of the ancient Greek source materials from 18th century Europe to the Samurai culture - also 18th century - of Japan, didn't convince me at first. But then a set-piece of outstanding beauty justified the entire project for me, Ercole the Hero dressed as a Sumo wrestler included. This was Alceste's recitative 'Non lagrimate, o miei seguaci' and her aria 'Faro cosi piu bella', in which the heroine tells her entourage that she plans to kill herself to save her husband Admeto. Beginning as shadows behind a screen - another layer of abstraction - Alceste and her maids form a tableau vivante, and though they emerge in three dimensions, the formalized beauty remains and they seem no more flesh and blood than before. Indeed, with their pastel robes and faces painted white, they're more like faded early Renaissance frescoes than actual people. When Alceste returns behind the screen and the deed is done, again in a scene that could be a painting, it's sad, but sadder still because all the time Alceste (Marie Arnet) is singing an aria of exquisite beauty.

There are other highlights in the staging, and each is lamp-shaded to ensure we're very much aware of the conventions being flouted and new conventions being inserted. This is the very acme of self-aware stage-craft. The talented members of the Mamu Dance Theatre are variously ghosts, sheep, demons and deer, each time in set-pieces that I'm sure are no more artificial than the original ballets from Handel's time. This is highly imaginative stage-craft, nearly as imaginative as Handel's music. What it isn't is subtle, and of course Handel is a master of subtle effects, musical and dramatic.

Singing honours go to Marie Arnet, of course, but also to Tim Mead as Admeto and to Kirsten Blaise as Antigona. All are fine actors as well as excellent singers, and remind us of the humanity underneath the 18th century European and Japanese conventions and the 21st century International operatic emphasis on whimsy, irony and self-reference. The more opera tries to subvert itself, the more like traditional opera it seems, and that's largely to the good, when musicianship and stagecraft and technology together can create something as beautiful as this.

Music from Ginastera's Neo-Expressionist period

The Funkhaus Nalepastraße, or alten Funkhaus, is a former plywood factory that in 1951 was turned into the centre for broadcasting for East Germany. It's a natural place to record music from Alberto Ginastera's third "Neo-Expressionist" phase which began in 1958, influenced as it was by post-war European avant-garde music, with its use of atonality and serial techniques.

The new album from Capriccio, with Arturo Tamayo conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, includes four works from the 1960s and 70s, and includes more advanced music of Ginastera's than you're likely to hear anywhere else, even in his Centennial year. It's true that 2016 brought some welcome new discs, but orchestral music on disc and in concert in 2016 focusses, as one would expect, on the his Nationalist works written before 1958. This is for the most part uncompromising music, but beautifully crafted and played with precision and passion by this fine orchestra. 

It's interesting to compare the arc of Ginastera's career with that of Villa-Lobos. Villa's modernist phase came relatively early, following his exposure to the music of Stravinsky and Debussy. His most avant-garde works, especially the Choros series of the 1920s, were followed in the 30s and 40s by a more popular Nationalist phase, which resulted in the Bachianas Brasileiras. Ginastera, on the contrary, moved nearly entirely from folkloric inspiration towards abstraction and systematic explorations in the post-war international style.

That's the theory, in any case. Occasionally the rhythms of Argentina come through in this late music, as in, for example, the finale of the very fine Concerto for Strings, written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1965.  Going a bit against the grain, again, is the Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals for String Orchestra and String Quintet, Op. 46, which was written, oddly enough, for the 1976 American Bicentennial. This is a moving celebration of Casals and his Catalan homeland (which was shared with Ginastera's forebears), and there are folkloric connections galore here, along with quotations from Bach (how Villa-Lobosian!), though with plenty of more modern interpolations as well. The other works aren't always austere and doctrinaire, either. Iubilum, written as a Louisville commission in 1979, is brooding but not always that adventurous in terms of tonality or structure. I expect, though, that it's hard to write a 12-tone Fanfare. The new recording easily outclasses the original Louisville one, conducted by Akira Endo.

The most evolved music on the disc is in the Estudios sinfonicos from 1967, which seems to be a recording premiere. I've only seen one reference to any other recording: a limited edition tape made for the Recording Guarantee Project, American International Music Fund, of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. This was a broadcast of the Boston Symphony under Julius Redel, from Symphony Hall on Apr. 12-13, 1968, the American premiere. Here is a portion of the score (from the Boosey & Hawkes site), which indicates the relative complexity of this music.  It will take me a few more listens before I know exactly what I think of this piece, but I suspect it may be a masterpiece. In any case, this is a valuable issue, and it will be a reference recording for this music, I expect, for a long time to come.

While we're talking about Ginastera's orchestral music, we have less than a month to listen to yesterday's Prom 24 from the Royal Albert Hall. Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Ollantay, from 1947. This is fabulous music, and a bit easier on the ears!