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, January 31, 2018

Delicacy and intricacy in a vast expanse

Almeida Prado: Cartas Celestes 9, 10, 12 and 14

As Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel continues his traversal of Almeida Prado's huge work for piano, Cartas Celestes, we can begin to see the delicacy of its parts and the intricacy of the relationships within a vast expanse. Stars look to us like points of white light, but this is a multi-coloured canvas; we should think of these star charts as being more like NASA's amazing Hubble Space Telescope photographs than the (admittedly gorgeous) cover art by Tony Price featured on this disc.

Globular Cluster Messier 79 (M79, NGC 1904)

In the first two volumes of this series I often heard the sound of Heitor Villa-Lobos's piano music, most especially the two books of Prole do Bebe, Rudepoema and As Tres Marias. Almeida Prado, of course, has a much more avant garde palette, which is natural considering his teachers included György Ligeti and Lukas Foss. The four works included here date from around the turn of the century; all but the 14th are World Premiere Recordings, and they're indeed welcome.

The Cartas Celestes no. 9 is constructed as a kind of Four Seasons. The episode entitled The summer sky as seen from Brazil includes a shout-out to Villa-Lobos's Three Maries from 1939. Each of the sections has its own atmosphere, though they all share the composer's characteristic clusters and the harmonic language he termed "transtonality". At times this music seems like it must be fiendishly difficult to play, but Scopel handles it all with aplomb, and indeed pushes back in the virtuoso passages to exploit their colour and emotional content rather than just flaunting the razzle-dazzle glitter. Almeida Prado has some fun in the 10th work, The Constellations of the Mystical Animals, and Scopel ensures that we do too, with a light touch in the presentation of this heavenly menagerie enacting scenes from the life of Christ. If these animals are mystical they're closer to St. Francis than anything more abstruse. The 11th work is more arcane, making reference to two paintings by the symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich, including this 1932 work Saint Sophia the Almighty Wisdom, in the Roerich Museum in New York. Almeida Prado doesn't let the extra-musical happenings interfere too much with his musical agenda. When I saw the Roerich connection I listened for Scriabin, but couldn't hear any. Perhaps I don't know the Russian master well enough!

The 14th work is, in my opinion, one of the strongest of the whole series so far. It uses a variety of structures from the piano literature, from a Bachian toccata to a disemboweled waltz, a kind of Darmstadt Ravel. It's witty and strange, but also a bit scary. Scopel is really moving along here, at a disc every year; I'm hoping we see the fourth volume before 2018 is done!

Volume 3 in this series will be released on February 3, 2018. Here are my reviews of Volume 2 and Volume 1.  Both of the previous discs made by Top 10 lists for 2017 and 2016.

Style, wit and grace in man and art

Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts

The latest film in the Exhibition on Screen series, coming soon to a cinema near you, and now out on DVD, is another Phil Grabsky masterpiece, this time featuring one of the greatest living artists, David Hockney. I've been following Grabsky's blog for the past few months; in a recent post he talked about his upcoming film (the new Cezanne one, which I'm excited about), and his key question was "What is the story of our film?" That was I'm sure also a challenge for this Hockney project, because of the astounding range and sheer volume of the painter's last decade.

I've been immersing myself in Hockney since my first viewing of this film. There's an excellent book by Tim Barringer and Edith Devaney that came out of the most recent Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, from 2016.

And from the 2012 RAA landscape exhibition, the equally fine David Hockney: A Bigger Picture.

As well, I watched Bruno Wollheim's film of the same name, released in 2010, which I highly recommend. It's available to stream on various platforms, as well as DVD. Hockney had never before allowed video cameras to film him as he painted, but he's completely at ease in front of Wollheim (who had to manage his camera himself), and there's something completely charming about their interactions.

In the latest film we see that same charm and ease in front of Phil Grabsky's cameras, now at a more sophisticated and probing level. The window he opens on Hockney and his dedicated team shows all the hard work that goes into each canvas and print-out. I've spoken before about the perfection of HD video when it comes to opening up the visual arts, and Grabsky is one of the best at presenting art without falling into camera tricks or being stagey or overly reverential. He captures Hockney's flamboyance but also his subtlety, and in the interviews with both the artist and the various experts he shows how the man's style, wit and grace have their mirror in his art. I can't imagine a better way to spend an hour and a half than going to the cinema to see this film. 

Now on to Cezanne!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Beethoven from the heart

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

At the top of the autograph score of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis the composer wrote the motto "From the heart, may it return to the heart!" Conductor Masaaki Suzuki has made this the keynote of an impressive new recording of this late work, emphasizing the very personal, almost ecstatic spirituality Beethoven added to what might not have seemed at first a congenial musical project. Suzuki is a deeply religious man, whose faith infuses all the music he makes, and he begins by taking seriously Beethoven's setting in a liturgical context. Beethoven's Christianity may not have always been orthodox, but it was always sincere. Indeed, I don't think he had an insincere bone in his body! So there's indeed a Bachian (and Handelian) air about this music, and Suzuki also highlights the other older sources Beethoven brings in (which the composer referred to as "the monk's Church chorales". But Suzuki remains true to the score, and with some by now unsurprisingly perfect choral singing from his amazing choir, he brings true authenticity, but also a new freshness and immediacy to this sublime music. The soloists are also all first-class. I was especially impressed with tenor James Gilchrist, who made a strong impression as The Evangelist in John Eliot Gardner's recent St. Matthew Passion, and mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu, so good in Stravinsky's Pulcinella under Boulez.

This album will be released on March 2, 2018. Here is the first part of the Gloria from a live Bach Collegium Japan performance in 2017.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Neapolitan music of light and shade

Neapolitan Concertos by Fiorenza, Pergolesi, A. Scarlatti, Porpora & Mancini

The composers represented on this disc are roughly Bach and Handel's contemporaries (Nicola Porpora and Francesco Mancini), or come from the generation before (Alessandro Scarlatti) or after (Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and Nicola Fiorenza). They all share a common heritage and a peculiarly brilliant and lyrical style intensified by a sophisticated system of conservatories with high musical standards for both vocal and instrumental music. Josetxu Obregon has created a varied and at times inspired program for the fine players of La Ritirata. The featured soloists are all excellent: Tamar Lalo (recorder), Hiro Kurosaki (violin), Ignacio Prego and Daniel Oyarzabal (harpischords), with his own cello solo rounding up this distinguished group of musicians. The standout works are, unsurprisingly, by Pergolesi (a spritely work featuring two harpsichords), and Alessandro Scarlatti (a recorder concerto on the Telemann level if not quite in the Bach/Handel range). Naples is a city of light and shade; melancholy is never far away, even in the midst of its gaiety. Thanks to Glossa for such a compelling album.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Listening to Schubert with the proper spirit of reverence and appreciation

Franz Schubert: Symphonies no. 2 & 5

What a bright and long-burning genius was Franz Schubert, partially obscured though he was by the Great Genius Beethoven. Schubert had an intensity that belied his lack of personal charisma when placed against the larger-than-life 19th century masters. His songs and his piano sonatas are obviously at the very pinnacle of greatness, but when it comes to Schubert's orchestral music it's the earlier, slighter symphonies I love to listen to (not counting the Unfinished Symphony, of course, which is both great and loveable). This is something I expect is fairly common; there's something about Schubert and his music that inspires this kind of love. I was enjoying listening to this clear, bright, thoughtful recording from Antwerp while reading Deborah Solomon's fabulous biography of the artist Joseph Cornell, Utopia Parkway, and saw that Cornell shared this Schubert love:
Cornell's latest fascination was with Franz Schubert, one of many composers who glowed with a special incandescence in his imagination.... Cornell's records meant so much to him that sometimes he couldn't even bring himself to open them. After acquiring a set of recordings of Schubert's Trio in E Flat, Cornell noted in his diary: 'I await the proper moment to unfold its loveliness and enjoy it in the proper spirit of reverence and appreciation it deserves.'
I highly recommend this disc from Maestro Herreweghe, and further recommend that when you buy it you go ahead and open it, or load the MP3s on your computer or phone or whatever, and listen. You'll love it.

A picture of greatness

Otto Klemperer: live recordings from the BBC

Here's another release from the great Itter Broadcast Collection, recordings to tape and acetate disc made by Lyrita's Richard Itter from BBC FM transmissions beginning in the mid-1950s. These recording premieres on four CDs show Otto Klemperer, my favourite 20th century conductor, at the peak of his powers. His Mozart should win over all but the most doctrinaire HIPsters. The middle-period A major Symphony K.201 is relaxed and winning, while the late, great G minor Symphony K. 441 is wound up considerably tighter. "Mozart's in the closet," the last movement begins, "Let him out, let him out, let him out!" Klemperer has us worried about the composer's release, and his fine musicians keep up the pressure throughout. Violinist Bronislav Gimpel provides a lovely tone in Mozart's final Violin Concerto, K. 219, weaving through the most perfectly constructed accompaniment. This is the happiest I've felt after listening to a Mozart disc in a long time. Beethoven (no. 2), Schumann (no. 4) and Brahms (no. 2) symphonies are so impressive, but it's the Bruckner 7th that's the real standout here. This is a performance for the ages, from the quiet by-ways to the blazing glory of the slowly building climaxes. This is a picture of greatness, and I couldn't possibly recommend it more highly.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Precision in the landscape of extinction

Olivier Messiaen: Fantaisie, Theme & Variations, Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Denmark's Ensemble Nordlys provides a lucid and convincing performance of one of the great chamber works of all time, Messiaen's Quartet for the end of time. I've read reviews compaining about the recording balance, but this sounds very good to my (non-audiophile) ears, and I can hear enough of the inner voices to admire the control and precision of the playing of all four musicians.  As William Blake says, "Without minute neatness of execution, the sublime cannot exist!" Listen to the brightness and clarity in the first movement, the Crystal Liturgy:

There couldn't have been much precision at the Quartet's first performance, in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany on January 15, 1941, especially as it was played on scrounged instruments, outside in the rain! But consider the second part of Blake's quote: "Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas." That's the real miracle of this work, that Messiaen could create this art in the fear, cold and privation of his captivity.  Samuel Backett brings us back to that very French virtue: "In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness."

Two substantial, and very interesting, works for violin and piano fill out the disc, which was recorded back in 2013.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A theatrical, even cinematic Mozart Requiem

Mozart: Missa da Requiem

Arthur Schoonderwoerd has put together a Missa da Requiem based on the torso of the Requiem that remained when Mozart died in December of 1791, but fleshed out with additions by other composers, in the context of a full and well-researched contemporary liturgy. The Historically Informed Performance group Cristofori is completely at home in this repertoire, but the Gesualdo Consort is better known for Renaissance and early Baroque repertoire such as Gabrieli and Sweelinck. Schoonderwoerd uses contemporary Requiem Mass models and the fine points of what the plainchant-based recitative portions of the liturgy might have sounded like in late-18th century Vienna to create the kind of hypothetical performance that's very much in vogue among the HIP crowd lately.

I was suspicious at first of this scenario, since I believe the key to Mozart's Requiem is more likely to come by paying close attention to dramatic works like The Magic Flute and especially Don Giovanni, rather than a Requiem from the late 1770s by Michael Haydn. But when I heard this disc the very first time all my doubts were gone. This music has the dramatic blocking and theatrical shading that comes from the opera house rather than the cathedral, especially when compared with the standard version of the Requiem with its often jarring timpani and trumpet riffs added by Süßmayr. The chorus is especially nimble and alert to the nuances in the score. And there's a fascinating Libera me written around 1800 by Ritter Ignaz von Seyfried for a performance of the Mozart Requiem. It was performed after Beethoven's death as well, dedicated to the memory of both composers; this is its recording premiere.

More interesting is Arthur Schoonderwoerd's own Amen Double Fugue. I loved this chromatic Bachianas, whose jauntiness is reminiscent of Ward Swingle as much as Mozart. It's a vivid, almost cinematic interlude. It makes one think perhaps that this music might serve as the soundtrack of a future HIP remake of Miloš Forman's 1984 film Amadeus. I'd watch that!

The colour wheel turned up to 11

Respighi: Vetrate Di Chiesa, Il Tramonto, Trittico Botticelliano

As with earlier discs in this Respighi series from BIS,  John Neschling has the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege firing on all cylinders, which is such a plus for a composer who provides so many opportunities for the orchestra to show off. So it's quite a surprise to see that two of these three pieces didn't begin as rich and gaudy orchestral showpieces. Vetrate Di Chiesa (Church Windows) started out as Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane, three charming pieces written in 1919-21 for solo piano. In 1925 Respighi opened up and colourized these melodies, and added a fourth work as a bonus.  Listen to that opulent final piece, San Gregorio Magno:

This is wide-screen, Technicolor music, and it's not afraid of nudging up against effects some might find vulgar. It's great fun, so you might not notice at first how Neschling has his fine musicians playing with such determination and precision.

Il Tramanto (The Sunset) is a cantata based on a Shelley poem that Respighi wrote in 1914, for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. It's played here with a full complement of strings, and sung by the splendid soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. Even without winds, brass, percussion and organ, everything I've said about colour in Church Windows is relevant here.  This is partly due to superb playing and singing, and partly because of the the 35-year-old composer's skillful blend of the styles of his compatriot Puccini and a couple of composers from the other side of the Alps: Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. I'd never heard this music before, and my view of Respighi has gone up considerably now that I know it well.

The Trittico Botticelliano is my favourite Respighi work, and it receives a lavish recording here. Neschling translates Respighi's fine sense of both melody and orchestral colour, analogues of Botticelli's legendary line and colour, into a perfectly balanced performance. It's great to see this Brazilian conductor, who completely nailed the Villa-Lobos Choros series in his 2008 recordings with OSESP, also from BIS, doing the same on the other side of the Atlantic.

This is the second disc I've reviewed in 2018, and I'm pleased to be able to praise the cover design once again. I hope we can keep that streak going! It's based on a detail from the 1914 International Art Glass Catalogue by the National Ornamental Glass Manufacturers Association of the United States and Canada. You can download the entire catalogue in PDF format here at the Internet Archive; it's gorgeous!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Et in Arcadia ego

Francois Couperin: Les Muses Naissantes

This marvellous new disc by artistic director Jérôme Lejeune and harpsichordist Brice Sailly with La Chambre Claire evokes a very specific time and place: Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. But it is really about a timeless Arcadian fantasy of shepherds and shepherdesses, so perfectly expressed in the painting on the cover of the CD: Nicolas Poussin's La campagne romaine in the Oskar Reinhart collection at Winterthur. Solo pieces performed by Sailly are interspersed with similar works adapted for chamber ensemble, and orchestral pieces from such collections as Les Nations and Concerts royaux. This is beautifully and tastefully played, with attention to the state of the art of Historically Informed Practice, alternately sprightly and stately. The soprano Emmanuelle de Negri is a star here, providing just the right balance of innocence and knowing experience. The phrase Et in Arcadia ego which I use as my title for this review has two meanings. One is a kind of Memento Mori, which reminds us that Death stalks us even in the most bucolic surroundings. This isn't happening here; it's a much happier, more optimistic take with only the slight sadness of nostalgia to temper things. What a great way to start the New Year!

This disc will be released on February 23, 2018.