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, October 29, 2018

Singing about the dark times

Pater Peccavi: Music of Lamentation from Renaissance Portugal; music by Brito, Cardoso, Lobo, Magalhães, Morago
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times. 
- Bertold Brecht, Motto to the 'Svendborg Poems'
The sensuous, fiercely sad music of 16th and 17th century Portugal can be so intensely emotional that the centuries between slip away, and one responds as if to a death in the family or some local tragedy. As Rory McCleery documents in his fine liner essay to his superb new disc with The Marian Consort, at least some of these musical laments are more than personal declarations of grief or devotional works, but also political statements, and even underground expressions of activism against the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs in Portugal. So underlying the bitterness of the lamentations is a strongly burning hope, a hope, indeed for eventual salvation, but also for the restoration of a Portuguese monarch, which indeed happened with the accession of John (João) IV in December 1640.

Duarte Lobo's Missa Veni Domine is almost certainly a political as well as a devotional and artistic statement. Its text asks God to return without delay in order to "ease the wrong done to your people, and call back to their land those who have been dispersed. Stir up your power, O Lord, and come that you might save us."

Humans will always look to art for hope, from Lisbon in 1640 to Brecht in exile in 1939, to the many great artists working in the shadow of the worldwide fascist redux of today. This release is a profound example of how political action can be mobilized and supported by art.

This album will be released on November 2, 2018.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Dramatic, vital symphonies from a Czech master

Leopold Kozeluch: Symphonies, vol. 2

According to the fine essay by Allan Badley included in the liner notes of this new Naxos release, Leopold Kozeluch (1747–1818) left 16 surviving symphonies and two symphonies concertantes, so we're probably half-way through this series of discs from the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Stilec. I very much enjoyed the first release in the series, back in early 2017, but the question is, will we bump up against the dreaded Law of Diminishing Returns?

On the evidence of this new album, I'm pleased to say that Kozeluch remains the same charming, inventive, solidly musical and tasteful (if I can use one of Mozart's favourite words) composer I judged him back then. The Bohemian composer comes up with a fabulous opening for his F major Symphony, cleverly chosen by Marek Stilec to go first in this program. This is dramatic and vital music that comes awfully close to the orchestral masterworks of Haydn and Mozart. Not every movement is at this level, and I thought at first that Kozeluch was running out of steam, and inspiration, in each symphony, but then I heard the marvellous Menuetto from the G major Symphony, which somehow perfectly represents in musical form an entire world that's conjured up by Ievgenii Tryfonov's photograph of the baroque Augustinian Wing of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, on the front cover of the CD. Bring on more Kozeluch Symphonies, Naxos, and don't forget the Symphonies Concertantes!

Here's a nice bit of the opening movement of the G major Symphony in a Naxos video on YouTube:

This disc will be released on December 7, 2018.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the path to the symphony

Christoph Graupner: Ouverture Suite in A minor, Concerto for two oboes, Concerto for two trumpets, Ouverture Suite in G minor

L'arpa festante and conductor & harpsichordist Rien Voskuilen present here an interesting program of music by Christoph Graupner, a near contemporary of Bach and Handel and a close colleague of Telemann. In works called Concertos and Ouverture Suites, modelled after the Corellian concerto and the Lullyan suite, we see Graupner bending and remolding the music into different forms in a kind of musical laboratory. The Ouvertures take on concertante textures, while the Concertos sometimes use suite-like dance movements. Galante touches alternate with more archaic, erudite, contrapuntal passages; the keynote is change and transition. In the end one can see an early movement towards a a real classical style, with true symphonic touches on the horizon. The musicians of this venerable German ensemble play with taste and authenticity, and prove to be excellent advocates for the music of a composer who is beginning to take his rightful place alongside the better-known Telemann. Highly recommended.

In memoriam; In space

Wolfgang Rihm: Lichtzwang (In memoriam Paul Celan), Dritte Musik, Gedicht des Malers

do not send out,
transgrounded by the void,
free of all
fine-fugued, according to
Writ’s pre-Script,
not overtakable,
I take you in,
instead of any
 - The final poem from Paul Celan's Lichtzwang ("Light-duress"), in Paul Joriss's translation, published in 1970
Wolfgang Rihm's Lichtzwang, written during the period 1975-76, is a memorial to the great poet Paul Celan, who drowned himself in the Seine in Paris on April 20, 1970. It's one of the great elegaic works for violin and orchestra, in the same class as Alban Berg's Violin Concerto of 1935, written "To the memory of an angel", Alma and Walter Gropius's daughter Manon, who died of polio at 18. It's encouraging to see a new, and extremely fine, recording of this work, by the young violinist Tanwa Yang, and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Christoph-Mathias Mueller, an indication perhaps that this work is entering the core repertory as the Berg has. I know the most recent recording, also from SWRmusic, on a 2008 Hanssler Classic disc with Janos Yegnesy and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg under Sylvain Cambreling. Both recordings are sterling.

This really is a most amazing piece, which begins with an angry clash of percussion, but spends most of its time in a yearning, unsettled space that sounds almost neo-Romantic at times. The violin plays mainly in a high register, while the orchestra attempts to pull it down, almost like the cold current of the Seine. One of the defining characteristics of the work is its use of silence; the action stops cold more than a few times, with complete silence before a reboot, almost like black-outs in the theatre. The final silence is shattering. Yang and Mueller have the measure of this music; I found it a profoundly moving performance.

Rihm's Dritte Musik, his third violin concerto, from 1993, also has its contemplative moments, but overall it has a wider range of emotions, and features the instruments of a very large orchestra as much as the solo instrument. Rihm's most recent violin concerto, from 2014, is his Gedicht des Malers (Poem of the Painter).  The painter is Max Beckmann, an important figure in Rihm's music; his earlier works include Versuchung (Hommage à Max Beckmann), from 2008-09, and Der Maler träumt, from the same period, set to Beckmann’s On my Painting. "Music", wrote Rihm, "is indeed maybe painting or architecture, in time, depending on one’s viewpoint. For me rather painting, but certainly in space, not restricted to one and the same surface." In Beckmann's 1921 painting Self Portrait as Clown, the painter holds a violin bow as a kind of analogue for the painter's brush, and it's this conceit that Rihm expounds on in this piece. It's all rather fanciful, but though this is a stereo rather than a surround-sound recording, I can easily imagine this performance taking place in a three-dimensional space, as Rihm says: "in space". What a wonderful album!

Max Beckmann, Self-portrait as a clown, 1921, Von-der-Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal

Monday, October 22, 2018

Complex music from a child-like world

Villa-Lobos: Guia Prático, Petizada, Brinquedo de Roda, Historias da Carochinha

In the early 1930s Heitor Villa-Lobos published his collection of 137 children's songs from around Brazil, entitled Guia Prático (Practical Guide). This was an educational project he undertook as Director of SEMA (the national Superintendency of Artistic and Musical Education).

This is only the fourth recording of the complete Guia Prático. The first, by Villa's friend Anna Stella Schic, released in 1976, has the merit of authenticity, if not the same qualities of pianism or recording technology of later releases. Clara Sverner had a fine complete Guia Prático in 2007, on the Biscoito label in Brazil, which might be hard to find on disc, but it's available for download and streaming. The gold standard for all of Villa-Lobos's piano music, though, is Sonia Rubinsky's complete set, released in the first decade of the 2000s and now available in an affordable Naxos box set. Her Guia Prático is outstanding in its sensitivity to the childlike nuances of the music, without any loss of virtuosity in these often very difficult works.

This really is a tightrope walk: playing through works of significant technical and musical complexity without losing the link to child-like innocence and wonder. Villa-Lobos had been down this path before, with his two sets (a third was lost) of A Prole do Bebê, modernist masterpieces exploring the world of children, but requiring virtuoso technique.  Marcelo Bratke has this technique, and seems very much at home in the musical worlds of Brazil's regions. As well played as this music is, though, I think it's complementary to Rubinsky's set, rather than in any sense supplanting it.

I'm usually a big fan of Naxos sound engineering, though there are occasional missteps along the way in the Rubinsky set. Quartz delivers very lifelike sound for Bratke here, and I have no complaints about the sound in this album, or in the previous three releases. Bratke's complete piano set began in 2010, with the second release in 2012 and the third in 2013. These two discs comprise the 4th and 5th volumes, which means there are probably three discs to come.  They will be welcome when they arrive.

This disc will be released on November 16, 2018.

This review is also posted at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Profound Mozart quintets

Mozart: The String Quintets

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

This disc will be released on November 16, 2018.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Masterworks from a marvellous month

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Bearing witness to Lang's soul

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

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

This disc will be released on October 19, 2018.

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