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.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Fresh chansons from another world

Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 1

The chansons of Johannes Ockeghem, written in the second half of the 15th century, sound so fresh and new in this marvellous release from Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron that the intervening centuries feel like some sort of illusion. Belying the music's "nowness", the detailed liner notes by Ockeghem scholar Sean Gallagher demonstrates the problems common to most 500+ year old music, with complexities of attribution and dating. Indeed, we're lucky that some of this music has survived at all; seven of the songs exist in only one manuscript. And Scott Metcalfe shows how difficult and problematic it is to bridge the gap between the remaining manuscripts and viable performances today. He presents evidence about the pronunciation of 15th century French, about whether certain musical parts should be vocal or instrumental, and about who should sing the high parts, a woman, a girl, a boy, or an adult man singing falsetto. Metcalfe is open about the remaining questions - "We remain unsure about all the possibilities open to singers of such parts" - but the results sound to me so outstandingly beautiful that surely he's made the correct decisions in the majority of cases. I know that I'll continue to look to Blue Heron for the most impressive music of the period.

This recording is part of Blue Heron's project Ockeghem@600, a multi-year project to perform the complete works of this great composer. It will be complete in 2021, around the time of the 600th anniversary of Ockeghem's birth.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Clever, dynamic, charming symphonies

Leopold Kozeluch: Symphonies, vol. 3

I keep expecting the Leopold Kozeluch Symphonies series from Marek Stilec on Naxos to run out of steam, but with each new release I'm surprised by how clever, dynamic and absolutely charming the works of this Bohemian composer are. Born between Haydn and Mozart, Kozeluch's works share many of both composers' strengths: strong forward propulsion, clear structures and rich harmonies, but also surprising detours, touches of wit and whimsy, and a strong sense of musical story-telling. "Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading!" says Laurence Sterne, "Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page." I believe the same thing can be said for music, and Kozeluch's B-flat Major Symphony, "Irrésolu" is a perfect example. Like Haydn's Symphony no. 60, "Il distrato", this work includes extra-musical content, but as a characteristic symphony rather than a programmatic one.  Again like Haydn, Kozeluch has no need for extra-anything; his abstract orchestral music is so dynamic and vital on its own. But a connection to literature and the stage never hurts, and adds further charm to this already charming music. Kozeluch's music, while in the orbit of the two great Austrian composers, has its own character, which once again is so pleasingly brought forward by Stilec and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. The fourth and final release in this project, which comes in 2020, will, I hope, finally help raise Leopold Kozeluch's reputation to something approaching his true worth.

Once again we have a fine cover photo from a great palace of the Austrian Empire: the Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna (photo credit: Ixuskmitl). Inside these buildings artists like Leopold Kozeluch were subtly undermining the old order with modish art that hid modern, sometimes even revolutionary, ideas.

This album will be released on December 13, 2019

Friday, November 1, 2019

Reuse, Recycle, Reduce

Antonio Vivaldi: The Paris Concertos

The well known aphorism, that Vivaldi didn't write 500 (or 450, or 600) concertos, but one concerto 500 times, has been nicely debunked by Linda Shaver-Gleason, at her blog Not Another Music History Cliché. I'm pleased with this, because I'm a diehard Vivaldi fan. What impresses me about Vivaldi, especially as I learn more about his operas and sacred music, as well as his concertos and chamber music, is its incredible variety. Yes, there is a special Vivaldi sound, but I don't consider this self-plagiarizing, but more like an accent, or a way of expressing himself. It made me think of Jimmy Stewart's trademark hesitations. "You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it."

But here's a time when Vivaldi actually was recycling his music. Sad to say, the Red Priest from time to time involved himself in some rather shady business dealings, which is something he had in common with such great composers as Handel, Haydn and Beethoven. He promised brand new concertos to a German music lover, but delivered instead a mix of new and slightly used music. The very detailed essay written by Maestro Sardelli doesn't say whether Vivaldi's deception was ever found out. More likely, the buyer was too busy enjoying this hugely enjoyable music. And speaking of recycling, you'll need to look closely at copyright dates in the fine print to see that this Tactus release is actually a re-issue of a recording that Modo Antiquo made in 1999, previously issued on Tactus in 2000. That's not a real problem in this case, luckily, since these are marvellous performances, which still sound very fresh. I highly recommend that you pluck this album from the blue box and put it on your CD or MP3 player.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A spiritual performance without sentimentality

Beethoven: Symphony no. 9

Those of you who follow my reviews know that my favourite large recording project is BIS's series of Bach Cantatas with the Bach Collegium Japan, under Masaaki Suzuki. With this great enterprise all wrapped up, it's been fascinating to follow these fine musicians as they move on to other composers. A recent recording of the Missa Solemnis showed us that Suzuki was a very fine Beethoven interpreter. It's been exciting to listen closely to this new recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

In 2015 Maestro Suzuki conducted the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven's 9th Symphony. This is an impressive performance indeed, but on his home ground, with his own instrumental and choral forces, he has turned up the energy, without sacrificing any nuance. I see that the Bergen performance featured the same very fine soprano from the Japanese recording, Ann-Helen Moen. The rest of the vocal soloists, from both Bergen and Japan, are outstanding.  As well, I sense some subtle interpretation differences in the four years between these performance. Suzuki has a more reverent attitude in the slow movement, while Beethoven's more boisterous passages are almost completely unbridled. This is, as I would expect, a 9th Symphony full of spiritual feeling, but completely without sentimentality.

Symfoni nr. 9 (Beethoven) - Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester from Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A musical representation of invisible things

Cipriano De Rore: I madrigali a cinque voci

Once again the Boston-based choir Blue Heron brings obscure ancient music to life in the most immediately satisfying way. This time the composer is Cipriano De Rore, a Flemish immigrant to northern Italy who published his Madrigali A Cinque Voci in 1542. The music is beautifully sung by a choir in perfect concord with itself and with this fascinating music from nearly 500 years ago. There's more to this album than this music, though. In a profusely illustrated 60-page liner notes booklet, we're treated to a full description of Cipriano's life, and a complete explanation by the distinguished scholar Jessie Ann Owens of how a complex puzzle, with many missing pieces, was assembled to allow a fuller understanding of this music. As well, Blue Heron Director Scott Metcalfe lets us in on the many decisions he had to make in interpreting Cipriano for this recording. There are details that only a choral scholar might understand, but the stories of both the genesis of the music and its modern performance are of great interest for even an amateur music lover. Metcalfe discusses, for example, the question of the high part in the madrigali. Though there are no records of how Cipriano's music was sung at the time, Metcalfe sets forth the options: "The Cantus might be sung by a woman, a man singing in falsetto, a castrato, or a boy." He then provides a detailed description of the performance context in mid-16th century Venice, with reference to the major singers of the time. In the end, for this performance, he splits the difference: half of the songs are sung by a soprano, and half by a counter-tenor.

One of the special things about this book of madrigals is the importance of the words; the literary merit of the poems Cipriano chose (or had chosen for him) to set to music is very high. Again, this is reflected in the liner notes, which include the complete poems in Italian and English. As well, each poem is read in Italian by Alessandro Quarta. This would be of primary interest to someone who understands Italian, of course, but even for those of us who don't, the readings are so expressive that one still gets some value. Metcalfe credits Quarta as well as a linguistic coach, who helped the singers "give the verses their proper rhetorical shape and force." Here is Quarta reading Petrarch's "La vita fuge", "Life is fleeting":

In his essay on Performance Style, Metcalfe includes a quote from Leonardo da Vinci's Paragone:
"Music, within its harmonious time, produces the sweet melodies generated by its various voices, while the poet is deprived of their specific harmonic action, and although poetry reaches the seat of judgment through the sense of hearing, like music, it cannot describe musical harmony, because the poet is not able to say different things at the same time, as is achieved in painting by the harmonious proportionality created by the various parts at the same time, so that their sweetness can be perceived at the same time, as a whole and in its parts, as a whole with regard to the composition, in particular with regard to the component parts. For these reasons the poet remains, in the representation of corporeal things, far behind the painter and, in the representation of invisible things, he remains behind the musician."
Metcalfe concludes that "a density of literal and non-literal meaning is, perhaps, a unique property of polyphonic music," and that is certainly in evidence in this marvellous album.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Three remarkable trios from a superb ensemble

Louise Farrenc: Piano Trio op. 33; Amy Beach: Piano Trio op. 150; Rebecca Clarke: Piano Trio

In Her Voice, the Neave Trio provides the best possible advocacy for a trio of trios by three remarkable women. Farrenc's work comes from the academic milieu of the Paris Conservatoire, where she was a Professor of Piano, but it sounds especially fresh and lively as played by these fine young musicians. It also sounds more German than French, with Beethoven and both Robert and Clara Schumann as obvious models. Amy Beach's Piano Trio, from late in her career, is full of drama with lyrical interludes, many of which refer to songs from earlier in her career. My favourite work on this disc, though, is Rebecca Clarke's Piano Trio, written in 1921. Clarke faced more than her share of adversity and conflict in her life, but she was able to create in this remarkable work one of the finest chamber works of the period between the World Wars. This is such a fine album, with three completely different sound worlds on display, but all of them show that special connection between musicians of the finest chamber ensembles. This is another triumph for the Neave Trio.


São Paulo's Villa-Lobos recording revolution

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Guitar Concerto, Harmonica Concerto, Sexteto Místico, Quinteto Instrumental

In the past ten years we've been blessed with a new generation of Villa-Lobos recordings from São Paulo that have instantly become the new standards for interpretation, instrumental playing and engineering. These include the complete Bachianas Brasileiras, Choros and Symphonies series. Now we have a very welcome disc in Naxos's new series The Music of Brazil, which takes on the first of the composer's commissioned concertos from the last decade of his life, along with some important chamber works.

The Guitar Concerto, written for Andrès Segovia in 1951, is somewhat controversial. Jason Vieaux, speaking for the Defence, has expressed his love for the work. Meanwhile, John Williams said, "it just isn't a very good piece, technically or musically." This has always been a popular work, thanks to a plethora of great recordings, by Julian BreamGöran Söllscher, and my own favourite, by Norbert Kraft. There's even a very convincing recording by John Williams himself! But I'll admit that, at least in its final movement, the Guitar Concerto, like much of the commissioned music from Villa's final decade, suffers from some undistinguished patches of banal passage-work, though in this case they connect some of the composer's finest tunes. Lovely tunes were never a problem for this guy! I've only listened to this new recording of the Concerto by Manuel Barrueco and OSESP (the São Paulo Symphony) under Giancarlo Guerrero, five or six times, but I'm already suspecting this will go to the very top of the list. Barrueco's playing is outstanding, especially in the Cadenza, and even in the Finale the partnership between soloist and orchestra makes the most compelling case for bringing this work out of the John Williams cold.

Eero Tarasti refers to Villa-Lobos's "limpid late period". The Harmonica Concerto, written for John Sebastian in 1955, partakes fully of the relaxed, late-night noodlings that are seemingly built-in to the instrument. Beginning with a theme that's disconcertingly similar to the Hancock's Half-Hour theme-song by Wally Stott/Angela Morley, Villa-Lobos continues his formula here: lots of arresting, sometimes quite beautiful, themes held together with characteristic runs and doodles by the solo instrument. In this case, as so often throughout his career, Villa-Lobos cottons on to a wider variety of effects from his instruments than are standard, providing a kaleidoscopic effect of instrumental orchestral colours. The playing here by José Staneck is very fine, though this recording lacks some of the energy of the classic album by Robert Bonfiglio and the New York Chamber Symphony under Gerard Schwarz.

As fine as these two works are, I was most interested in the two chamber works, by the OSESP Ensemble, made up of some very fine musicians indeed. The Sesteto Místico (aka Sextuor Mystique) was nominally written in 1917, though it was revised later in Villa's career. This is a fine example of Villa's modernist style, well ahead of anything being written in Latin America, and close to the leading edge in Europe. Tarasti refers to its "contrapuntal colorism... a refined, aquarelle-like texture simply because of the choice of instruments." He notes that "a corresponding combination is not to be found in European chamber music of the period." This is a very fine recording, with delicate filigree effects and all the colours of the rainbow.

We return to the 1950s with the Quinteto Instrumental, written in 1957. This is a work of pure nostalgia, though it's French nostalgie rather than the usual Brazilian saudade, with Villa-Lobos looking back to his time in Paris in the 1920s. The sounds of the instruments evoke Ravel, as does the mildly ironic and sentimental tone of the music. If there is a falling-off in Villa-Lobos's inspiration in the commissioned works of the 1950s, it's hard to hear it in the great chamber works of the period, including the late String Quartets and this Quintet. And it's a great work to end this very, very fine disc from São Paulo. I look forward to more in this series!

This disc will be released on November 8, 2019. This review also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Music at an odd angle

Rued Langgaard: The String Quartets

DaCapo is releasing a box set of Rued Langgaard's complete string quartets, recorded from 2010 to 2013, and released as three single discs during that period. I reviewed volume 3, the final disc in the series, back in 2015, and I couldn't be more positive about the Nightingale String Quartet's performances and DaCapo's recordings and presentation. As to the music itself, I'm an even bigger fan of Langgaard now that I'm more familiar with his symphonies, and his splendid opera The Antichrist.

This splendid portrait of the Nightingale String Quartet, included in DaCapo's really excellent liner notes, is by Nikolaj Lund, who has made a specialty of photographing classical musicians in new and surprising contexts and poses. But I like to think that this pose has a musical relevance as well; Langgaard's music is oddly out of phase within 20th century classical music. It's at an odd angle, if you will, to the various trends and orthodoxies of music in the 1900s, and that's partly why I find him so appealing. Kudos to these excellent musicians and to DaCapo for such a marvellous survey of this very fine music.

This bargain-priced three-CD album will be released on November 15, 2019.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Keep CPE Weird

This has been an exceptionally interesting early NFL season when it comes to quarterbacks. With the rise of the gifted young Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes, we're hearing a lot about the rare quarterback who can work within a "system" drawn up by the coaching staff, but also have great results improvising when things break down. Which brings me to CPE Bach, the Aaron Rodgers of 18th century composers. A dutiful son to Johann Sebastian when his father was still alive, Carl Philip Emmanuel tended more often than not to go off in interesting directions when writing his own works. His knowledge of music from before and during his father's time was profound, so he could play well from inside the pocket, as it were. But as one of art's gifted eccentrics, like Gesualdo, Caravaggio, James Joyce and Werner Herzog, CPE Bach often went his own way, pulling the music of his time along with him.

More than half of these keyboard concertos are in minor keys, and all exhibit to a some degree Empfindsamkeit, which is more or less "Sensibility," used Jane Austen-style. In many ways this "sensitive" and "sentimental" style prefigures Romanticism, starting a line which goes through Haydn and Mozart's minor key symphonies, sonatas, concertos and opera arias, to Schumann and Chopin. Every year or two since 2010 Hännsler Classics has released the individual discs in pianist Michael Rische's cycle, but it's so nice to have this four CD set of the collected works. These are highly characterized performances, played on a modern instrument that highlights the composer's forward-looking style. My admiration for this particular Bach Son has never been higher!

This disc will be released on November 8, 2019

Friday, September 20, 2019

Very fine American music played by superb British musicians

Erich Korngold: Symphony in F Sharp, Theme & Variations, Straussiana

"Out of the stuff of film music," said Alex Ross in a recent New Yorker article about Erich Wolfgang Korngold, "he fashions what may be the last great symphony in the German Romantic tradition." This new disc from John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London provides the most compelling version I've heard of Korngold's Symphony in F Sharp. I learn from the very fine liner notes by Brendan G. Carroll that Korngold worked on the Symphony during a holiday in Canada, but doesn't give any more details. I'll consult Carroll's 1997 biography The Last Prodigy to see if his Canadian itinerary is available, and report back here. In the meantime, I can fill in some plausible Canadian landscapes for a post-war holiday from Hollywood. Perhaps scenes from my neck of the woods: Victoria and Vancouver Island, and a train journey through British Columbia to beautiful Jasper National Park.

As it is, Korngold's usual movie-scene milieu is very much in evidence in the entire disc. Besides the usual Warner's back-lot, there are the Californian hills, forests and islands that stand in for Spanish, English and the Mediterranean adventure. One shouldn't have to apologize for film-score sourcing of "serious" classical music in the 21st Century, where very fine symphonic music is heard in every Multiplex, but alas, I've already read a number of reviews of this disc that are excessively patronizing. This is a Good Symphony by any standards (and a Very Good one in my view), and it's a serious error of categories to think it illegitimate because it comes from "the movies."

Besides the Symphony, there are two additional works on the disc. Both are appealing and accessible, and though they were written for the American School Orchestras Association, there's no lack of musical interest on the listening end. This new Korngold disc is something we've come to expect from John Wilson on Chandos: very fine American music played by superb British musicians in a completely authentic way.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Handel's Transcendent Realism

George Frideric Handel: Brockes-Passion
"Never before had naturalism transfigured itself by such a conception and execution. Never before had a painter so charnally envisaged divinity nor so brutally dipped his brush into the wounds and running sores and bleeding nail holes of the Saviour. Grünewald had passed all measure. He was the most uncompromising of realists, but his morgue Redeemer, his sewer Deity, let the observer know that realism could be truly transcendent. A divine light played about that ulcerated head, a superhuman expression illuminated the fermenting skin of the epileptic features. This crucified corpse was a very God, and, without aureole, without nimbus, with none of the stock accoutrements except the blood-sprinkled crown of thorns, Jesus appeared in His celestial super-essence, between the stunned, grief-torn Virgin and a Saint John whose calcined eyes were beyond the shedding of tears." 
- J. K. Huysmans, on Matthias Grünewald's Crucifixion at Cassel, from the first chapter of his novel Là-Bas
Even today Matthias Grünewald's Large Crucifixion has the power to shock us. The work was painted in 1523-24 (it's now in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe), and having looked at it through the intense lens of J. K. Huysmans, one realizes that one cannot understand life without looking closely, without flinching, at pain and suffering. And it's especially those rare artists like Grünewald that help us to a deeper understanding through their transcendent art.

Two hundred years later, in 1712,  Barthold Heinrich Brockes published a passion libretto nearly as naturalistic and graphic as Grünewald's painting. Coming as it did in the midst of the Enlightenment, it was perhaps even more shocking. Many of the critics found it objectionable, or at the least in poor taste. "Viewer discretion is advised", or the 18th Century equivalent. But it was a big hit with three great artists who understood its emotional power, and were anxious to bring their best music to the task. Georg Philipp Telemann set the Passion in 1716, Georg Frideric Handel wrote his some time before 1719, and Johann Sebastian Bach used a number of Brockes' texts in his St. John Passion of 1727. Bach also performed the Telemann and Handel Passions in Leipzig.

This recording by the Academy of Ancient Music, under Richard Egarr, is intensely emotional and darkly coloured by pain and suffering. It provides an almost cinematic experience; I'm thinking of here of artists such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Francis Ford Coppola and Carl Theodor Dreyer. For that, we can thank Egarr, his choir, solo singers and instrumentalists, and the sound engineers of AAM's own label, but also Handel and Brockes.

This is also a major scholarly release, based on a new edition of the work. The third disc provides alternative readings, but you needn't worry about untangling versions. Handel's endless invention provides passionate arguments, profound sorrow and pity, and redemptive uplift that always somehow entertains, as only the greatest of opera composers - Mozart, Verdi, Wagner - can. And to do all this while working in the bailiwick of the greatest of Passion composers, J. S. Bach,  well, that's really some accomplishment!

This album will be released on October 4, 2019.

A great musical partnership

The Complete Beethoven Sonatas for Violin & Piano; Sonatas by Fauré, Franck & Debussy

Here are more classic Beethoven recordings to lead us into the Big Beethoven Year of 2020, the 250th Anniversary of his birthday, on December 17, 1770. The Beethoven sonatas are studio recordings from 1958 and 1961, and it would be hard to find a better-matched duo for this repertoire. When Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus swap the lead and support roles at the beginning of the Spring Sonata, op. 24, you're hearing a marvellous musical partnership unfold.

The keynote here is freshness. Though the temperature is rather low, as likely to be measured as fiery, the two musicians always sound spontaneous, and even, when the music allows, joyous.  I was always convinced by their decisions, and swept along by the music. And what lovely music this is! Perhaps the violin sonatas aren't as serious and profound as the string quartet cycle, but my goodness, there are so many felicities in melody and rhythm, and such inventive conversations between the instruments. When you have two such impressive musicians as Francescatti and Casadesus, so intelligent, so sensitive, so lively, you can be sure you're hearing this music as the composer intended.

The three Beethoven CDs sound exceptional, as one would expect, since Holger Siedler, who did the remastering, had fine source tapes to work with. The fourth disc is much more of a mixed bag, sound-wise, though the music and the performances are wonderful. These sonatas by Fauré, Franck and Debussy are live recordings from 1947 to 1956. The bonus disc is much more than just an encore; it makes a perfect album even more impressive!

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Beethoven for the Big Year

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas

Next year Beethoven fans around the world will be celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the composers birth, on December 16, 1770 (or the 17th; Charles Schulz makes reference here to the uncertainty about the actual date).

I'm planning a full year of merrymaking in 2020, but it never hurts to get a good head-start for this, and here we have a marvellous project to get the festivities rolling. Igor Levit's complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas are full-blown masterpieces of the art of performance and recording. In the three op. 2 sonatas Levit sets the perfect tone. The 25-year-old composer is attempting to make his first piano sonatas much grander than his models, mainly Haydn, and he worked hard to present his music in a completely assured way. And surprisingly he very nearly succeeds. There's a certain coltish awkwardness in these early sonatas, though, that Levit underlines in an appealing way. The Adagio of the 1st Sonata is charming, but also more than a bit sentimental, and Levit is engaging as he shows Beethoven, not for the last time, exposing very personal feelings, in this and all the storm and stress of these works. This

Sony released the late sonatas (op. 101 to op. 111) back in 2013, when Levit was only 25 himself. These are astonishingly performances, so far removed from any youthful callowness, or any lack of nuance or indeed the spiritual component of these great works of art. With their complete context in place - all 27 sonatas written before 1816 - these five sonatas seem even more impressive as part of the complete set.

It's hard to believe that the Beethoven Bicentennial was 50 years ago. In 1970 I began my serious introduction to classical music, with the DGG set of 85 LPs arriving in the mail, 5 discs every month, via Time-Life. The great Wilhelm Kempff played the piano sonatas; it was the perfect way to listen closely to this music for the first time.

I was, and am today, completely won over by Kempff's measured approach and a deeply humanistic feeling that seems very much to be a fellow-feeling with Beethoven himself. Igor Levit seems to be very much there in Kempff's court, along, perhaps, with Alfred Brendel in between. The many times I've listened to Levit's Beethoven in the past month is just a start; I'm sure I'll be listening just as carefully, and appreciating his artistry, throughout the Big Year, and beyond.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The grand gestures of Telemann

Georg Philipp Telemann: The Grand Concertos for Mixed Instruments

I don't think there's a composer who has moved up more in my estimation in the past decade than Georg Philipp Telemann. The great CPO series from Michael Schneider and La Stagione Frankfurt has been a major factor in this process. Like Bach, Telemann is a great synthesizer of pan-European styles; besides the French and the Italians, Swedes, Germans and Danes, amongst others, show up in his various orchestral, chamber music and concerted works. He's also a master of the grand gesture, very much like his close friend Handel. The "grand concertos" in this collection are superb examples of a master completely secure in his abilities, extending his brand through a complete re-shuffling of instrumentation.

Telemann was only able to present the concertos that sprang from his apparently unlimited imagination because he had access to superb instrumentalists. And that goes for the musicians of La Stagione Frankfurt, in spades. This music seems effortless - it sort of floats through the speakers - but on listening closely, you realize how difficult are the virtuoso lines and the questions of tempo, balance and intonation. Michael Schneider has perfectly judged the style of this music, allowing the music to shine. This is completely secular music, but these performances bring out an almost religious, or at least spiritual, feeling.

This album will be released on September 6, 2019

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Shimmering, shining Vivaldi

Vivaldi Con Amore: Concertos

This is the first Tafelmusik album under Music Director Elisa Citterio, who in 2017 replaced Jeanne Lamon, the only other Music Director the orchestra has had since its inception in 1981. It was recorded at Toronto's Humbercrest United Church on the Tafelmusik Media label. When run properly, the orchestral-led label can be a real plus, with recording, marketing and musical issues all under the control of the same organization. From the evidence of the past few releases, I would judge Tafelmusik Media a big success, much like another of my favourites, Seattle Symphony Media. We have here a bright, clean, open auditory experience to go along with a similar interpretation of Vivaldi's marvellous music. "Sparkling" has been a word that keeps coming up in reviews of Tafelmusik performances under Citterio, and it's a hallmark of the new disc as well. Though always solid, I've found Tafelmusik was getting just a tiny bit routine in its performances in this century, as it was passed by hot new groups like Il Giardino Armonico, and, in Canada, by Arion Baroque Montreal. But Vivaldi's marvellous music shimmers and shines here, and this bodes well for this great institution of Canadian culture.

Speaking of marketing, I love the design of this album. The cover photo, by Michael Barker, is in the great tradition of the Dutch flower still life, like this one by Ambrosius Bosschaert at the Getty Museum, painted in 1614. The two flower pictures together are a good illustration of, and analogue for, Historically Informed Practice.

This album will be released on September 20, 2019

Thursday, August 8, 2019

A strong, atmospheric, Villa-Lobos program

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Lenda do Caboclo, Próle do bébê No. 2 (excerpts), Choros No. 5, Bachianas brasileiras No. 4, Valsa da dor, Ciclo brasileiro (excerpts), Poema singelo

It's great to see a new Villa-Lobos disc; there's been a significant drop-off in recording activity in the years leading up to 2019, the 60th anniversary of the Maestro's death. Villa's piano repertoire is a major strength of his catalogue, reflecting both his modernist and nationalist tendencies. Though no virtuoso pianist himself, the composer was very close to some of the greatest pianists in Brazil and Europe: Rubinstein, Blumenthal, and Novaes, among many others. And we have a wide range of superb recordings available, from pianists like Nelson Freire, Marc-André Hamelin, Sonia Rubinsky and Marcelo Bratke. This is a well-chosen program from the Washington D.C. based Jason Solounias, though I would have preferred that he include the entire Ciclo brasileiro (the great Dance of the White Indian is missing). Many single-disc piano programs include Choros no. 5, Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4, and the Valsa da dor, but it's good to see some pieces from the 2nd Book of the marvellous Próle do bébê, which isn't as well known as the 1st.

I was quite impressed with the playing throughout; the tricky rhythms are solid, and there's a real sense of atmosphere that goes with Villa-Lobos's various landscapes: for example, the scrubland of Brazil's north-east in the Festa no sertão from the Ciclo brasileiro, and the Canto do sertão from BB#4. In the latter movement, very few pianists (or conductors in the orchestral version) play the insistent note of the Araponga percussively enough for my taste - they should listen to the call of the bird itself. Hit those B-flats harder! This performance of the lovely Valsa da dor is full of grace and style; Solounias plays the piece with sentiment but without sentimentality.

I enjoyed the liner notes, which include a fascinating conversation between Solounias and pianist Jose Ramos Santana, though there were a few points I disagreed with. I won't bore you with those here. Okay, maybe just one! Ramos Santana posits that "The older [Villa-Lobos] got, the music becomes more dense and complex." Though there's obviously no simple trajectory, I would think that in terms of complexity Villa's piano music peaked early, with Rudepoema and Próle do bébê (both of which were published in 1921). When the composer returned from Brazil and undertook his folkloric research and educational responsibilities, and a more nationalistic tone, his music becomes more popular and accessible (and easier to play!) This process played out in the 1930s, and you can hear it here in the Bachianas and the Valsa da dor.

This is a very promising beginning, and I look forward to future albums from Jason Solounias. Any repertoire would be great, but I would suggest Rudepoema, one of the greatest 20th century works for the piano. And, oh yes!, The Dance of the White Indian.

This album will be released on September 6, 2019

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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Another winner from the Emerald City

Langgaard: Prelude to Antichrist; Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

"When the centre of gravity of life is placed, not in life itself," says Nietzsche in The Antichrist, "but in 'the beyond'—in nothingness—then one has taken away its centre of gravity altogether." Both Richard Strauss, whose Alpine Symphony, written in 1915, was a musical gloss on Nietzsche's work, following the similar Also Sprach Zarathustra of 1898, and Rued Langgaard, whose opera Antichrist was written in 1920-21, built their works on the idea of a more elemental life force, though Langgaard's own connection to the Antichrist was as much a musical attraction to Richard Strauss and Carl Nielsen as it was a philosophical one to Nietzsche.

"Did we notice how much music can free the spirit? Give wings to thoughts?", Nietzsche wrote in The Case of Wagner, "That, the more a musician we are, the more a philosopher we become?" At one time Nietzsche's idol was Wagner, but in Nietzsche Contra Wagner, his last work before his final madness, he rejects Wagner's music because of what he saw as a move towards Christianity by the composer. He called it "A Music Without A Future". So it makes a certain amount of sense to take the idea of the Antichrist, and using a post-Wagnerian, neo-Romantic musical style that rejects the modernism that both Strauss and Langgaard initially espoused, express Nietzsche's ideas in musical form. You don't need to agree with, or even try to understand, Nietzsche's concepts to appreciate this music. Both works are completely, ravishingly, beautiful, and ravishingly played by the great Seattle Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard. Elemental life forces are as well portrayed by the great orchestral works of Richard Strauss as they are by anyone or anything. Meanwhile, Rued Langgaard's strikingly original music, forged between his twin influences of Strauss and Nielsen, creates music of enormous power and beauty.

Thomas Dausgaard performed the premiere of Antichrist in Copenhagen in 2002. Besides Strauss and Nielsen, this Prelude also reminds me of Hans Pfitzner's three preludes to Palestrina, written in the same year, 1915, as An Alpine Symphony. By the way, this performance of the Antichrist Prelude is a world premiere of the original version of the piece. At more than 12 minutes, it's more compelling as a stand-alone concert piece than the six-minute operatic prelude Dausgaard performed as part of his 2006 recording of the complete opera from Copenhagen.

This is music that plays to the strengths of the Seattle Symphony: rich and powerful brass, sumptuous strings, lithe and subtle woodwinds, everything ready for Dausgaard to put together into a rich orchestral tapestry. The recordings were made from live concerts in 2017 (Strauss) and April, 2019 (Langgaard), and the sound is of the highest quality, which we've come to expect from these Seattle Symphony Media recordings. Another absolute winner from the Emerald City.

This album will be released on September 13, 2019

Authentic Holst & Elgar from Bergen

Holst: The Planets; Elgar: Enigma Variations

The presentation of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations in 1899 single-handedly destroyed a stereotype about Un-Musical Britain. It was a new masterwork of orchestral music for the 20th Century, and it was followed in 1916 by another: Gustav Holst's The Planets. Both are now staples of the orchestral repertoire around the world, though perhaps not as totally beloved as in Britain, with its flag-waving Proms audiences. It's instructive, then, to see how many great recorded performances come from outside of the UK: Montreal, Chicago, Berlin, Vienna, to name a few. Andrew Litton, who has made memorable recordings of the Holst from Dallas, and the Elgar from London, provides a musically flawless and authentic performance of both from Norway, with the very fine Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. So often used as demonstrations of high-end audio, these two works both sound very good, partly because of the BIS engineers, but let's face it, both composers wrote this music to sound good! I should mention that I listened to the stereo version, but I'm sure the surround-sound one is awesome.

A masterpiece of emotional intimacy

Boccherini: Stabat Mater

The original 1781 version of Boccherini's Stabat Mater, in which a soprano voice is accompanied by a string quintet, is a masterpiece of emotional intimacy. In a new disc from Spain, the fine soprano Anaïs Oliveras and five talented string players have the measure of the dramatic story of grief Boccherini crafts from his very personal adaptation of the 13th/14th Century poem by Jacopone da Todi. Boccherini's own model is Pergolesi's great version of the Stabat Mater, from 1736; I wonder if he also knew Bach's transcription, set to the words of Psalm 51. Pergolesi's intense pathos shifts slightly in Bach's version, which often emphasizes the mystery of the Crucifixion. Boccherini includes both in his version; his version of the section which I find most affecting:

Vidit suum dulcem natum
Morientem desolatum
Dum emisit spiritum.
She sees her dear Son
dying in anguish,
as he gives up the ghost.
seems naïvely simple at first, but Boccherini twists the knife each time the soprano repeats the last line. The effect is devastating, and it's more effective since it isn't overplayed by the musicians.

This is as good a version as I've heard of this great piece (which I vastly prefer to the more complex version with two singers that Boccherini adapted in 1800), though there's a minor issue here that might cause some to look to other versions. Unlike most (but not all) other recordings, there is no additional music beyond the Stabat Mater, which lasts less than 40 minutes here. A Boccherini String Quartet or Quintet, even a Symphony, is included in some; sacred works by other composers are added in others. This is a question, though, of quantity only; quality is not in question.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Original premieres played with style and musicality

Gossec: Symphonies op. IV

François-Joseph Gossec's six Symphonies from his op. IV collection were published in 1758. While one might be reminded of Haydn at times, there was certainly no chance that the Belgian composer had heard Haydn's earliest forays into symphonic music. This is highly original, if not profound, music, full of charm and wit. I especially like the 5th Symphony in E major, subtitled "Pastorella." This looks back to the French pastourelle of the troubadours, with its shepherdesses and nostalgia for a simpler time. Simon Gaudenz and the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss capture all of this complexity within its relatively simple forms with admirable style and musicality. These are world premiere recordings, which are well worth a listen, or two.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Fête champêtre (Pastoral Gathering) - Art Institute of Chicago

Gossec wrote many works very much similar to this in the 1760s and 70s, often in groups of six symphonies like opus IV, until Haydn's huge popularity in Paris in the 80s made him look to other musical genres. Gossec wrote more than 50 symphonies in all, but there's only one I've heard that's a true masterpiece. It came after the composer reinvented himself as a revolutionary artist in 1789, and his exposure to the revolutionary art of Beethoven early in the next century. His Symphonie à 17 parties, from 1809, takes the formulae that makes the music on this album so appealing, and ramps the music up close to even the best of its Viennese models. As modest as his earlier symphonies are, one must admire them for their originality and for the way they point to Gossec's later genius, in his sacred and operatic music, as well as that final Symphonie.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A perfect American pops concert in Vienna

2019 Sommernachts Konzert: music by Bernstein, Johann Strauss II, Gershwin, Max Steiner, Sousa, Barber, Ziehrer, Dvorak, Copland

Gustavo Dudamel has chosen a great program for an American-themed Sommernachts Konzert with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Like every great pops concert, this has something for everyone. The Candide Overture of Leonard Bernstein is a great opener; it still sounds fresh after hearing it so many times during last year's Centennial. And it sounds absolutely fabulous as played by this great orchestra. That, by the way, goes for the entire 70 minutes of this CD. Other highlights for me include the 8-minute suite from Casablanca, prepared, I believe by the composer Max Steiner. The suite begins with the great Warner Brothers Fanfare, which is probably Steiner's greatest work. Steiner's own, relatively modest, atmospheric music for the film is soon forgotten every time the two great non-Steiner songs appear: La Marseillaise and Herman Hupfeld's As Time Goes By. Umberto Eco's summary of Casablanca applies very much to this musical pastiche:
It is a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly; its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a manneristic way. Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for the future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research in textual strategies.
If I were choosing an American-themed pops concert, I would have kept going with this movie theme; Dudamel has done such a great job over the years presenting the music of John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, and other great film composers. But there are fine pieces from the concert repertoire as well: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings sounds predictably sumptuous when played by the Vienna string players, and it provides a serious centre of gravitas in the middle of the program. An American work with a central European flavour is a natural for this venue: Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony. And if there's not enough star power with just The Dude, how about Yuja Wang playing a vivid, sparkling Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue?

Of course, you can't have a Sommernachts Konzert without some waltzes. Dudamel leads the orchestra (or do they lead him?) in two fetching works by Johann Strauss II and Carl Michael Ziehrer. A final encore of Aaron Copland's Hoe-Down from Rodeo ties things up with a red-white-and-blue ribbon. This was fun! Bravo to these fine musicians.

This disc will be released on August 16, 2019

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Pleasing, infectious Haydn

Joseph Haydn: Symphonies no. 90, 91 and 92 (Wallerstein Symphonies)

Joseph Haydn was an important figure in the evolution of the composer's status from court lackey to free-lance entrepreneur, and I've always really admired how well he managed that process. Along the way, though, he wasn't above a little sharp dealing. Haydn in fact came very close to perpetrating a fraud; maybe let's say that the composer finessed the commission from Prince Kraft Ernst for three new symphonies for his Court Orchestra at Wallerstein Castle in Bavaria. The Prince was under the impression he had exclusive rights to the new music, but Haydn sold them at the same time to the Concert de la loge olympique in Paris. From our vantage point it's easy to see why everyone was clamouring for this music, and that Haydn, after years of loyal service at the Esterhazy court, was ready to cash in on his new Europe-wide fame. This is pleasing music, even infectious, but at the same time it has a serious side and, for me at least, a surprisingly strong, and cumulative, emotional impact.

Back in 2016 I gave a positive review to another disc of music from Wallerstein, played by the same orchestra, the Bayerisches Kammerorchester Bad Brückenau, also conducted by Johannes Moesus. But Ignaz von Beecke, who wrote the piano concertos I quite enjoyed, is no Haydn. Indeed, in my review I stated that "Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ... both elevate the standard, stereotypical forms of the day to the highest level of art." In this new disc, then, the stakes are considerably higher. This is vibrant playing, alive to Haydn's often thrilling pulse, and Johannes Moesus's choice to opt out of Haydn's trumpets and timpani added after the original performances gives an open, chamber-like sound to these symphonies. But in the end this disc is not in the top echelon of performances for this special repertoire, a place where I'd put, for example, The Orchestra of the 18th Century under Frans Brüggen, and the Austro-Hungarian Orchestra under Adam Fischer. But there is much pleasure to be received from this album.

This album will be released on September 13, 2019.

Both timeless and completely in the moment

Francisco de Peñalosa: Lamentationes; works by Francisco Guerrero & Pedro de Escobar

Francisco de Peñalosa is the link between the great Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (his senior by 15 or 20 years) and the full flowering of Spanish Renaissance music, represented by Alonso Lobo, Tomás Luís de Victoria and Francisco Guerrero. This new disc from New York Polyphony presents two Lamentationes by Peñalosa, along with a number of his Mass segments. As well, we have a short Stabat Mater by his contemporary Pedro de Escobar, and two pieces by Francisco Guerrero, who was born the same year (1528) that Peñalosa died.

Peñalosa's music can sound strikingly modern while retaining its antique patina. In his fine liner notes, Ivan Moody quotes Ken Kreitner's praise of the 'kaleidoscope" effect of the Gloria of Peñalosa's Missa 'L'Homme Armé", whereby "... the tune is broken into little bits which are scattered everywhere and audible somewhere all the time in a rather dazzling display of wit and invention." The process, and its effect, is positively post-modern!

New York Polyphony recording in Princeton Abbey. Photo: Joanne Bouknight

The superb singing, impressive acoustic space (of the Princeton Abbey in the former site of the Saint Joseph's Seminary in Plainsboro NJ), and perfectly captured audio all come together to provide an experience that is both timeless and completely in the moment. Another impressive project from New York Polyphony!

This album will be released on September 6, 2019.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Remastered classics

Chopin: Ballades, Scherzo, Polonaise, Impromptu, Nocturne, Waltz, Mazurka

This new disc from IDIS includes the early studio recordings of Philippe Entremont playing Chopin, from a Concert Hall/Musical Masterpiece Society 10" LP from 1955, and the famous Columbia Masterworks Ballades LP from 1959.

Entremont was a true prodigy, growing up in a musical family, and his early brilliance is on display in this music, recorded when he had just turned 21, and later, when he was 25. Just last month Sony released a 34 CD set of Entremont's complete solo recordings, but I don't think there is more perfect pianism on display than in these four Ballades.

Philippe Entremont with his family (complete with dog). Manuel Litran, Paris, 1955
Exactly fifty years after he recorded the Ballades, in July of 2009, Philippe Entremont played them at a concert in New York. Here's the third Ballade, which naturally has a valedictory quality that the impetuous original lacked. I've quoted this passage from André Gide's Notes on Chopin before; I think it's very much relevant here:
Each modulation in Chopin, never trivial and foreseen, must respect, must preserve that freshness, that emotion which almost fears the surging up of the new, that secret of wonderment to which the adventurous soul exposes itself along paths not blazed in advance, where the landscape reveals itself only gradually.
This is Chopin playing that's fresh and alive, and the 2019 remastering by Danilo Prefumo preserves an important document of mid-20th century artistry.

This album will be released on August 23, 2019.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Two great quartets, plus a potent "trou"

String Quartets by Debussy, Tailleferre, Ravel

The Debussy and Ravel String Quartets have been paired for so long on records - one to a side on LPs, and then side-by-side on CDs - that they begin to resemble each other, like old couples or dogs and masters. Once the two works were matched as twins of the "Impressionist" family, but now the challenge is to differentiate them: each a classic, to be sure, but representing two very different composers. The Stenhammar Quartet clearly contrasts Debussy's whole tone scales with Ravel's Basque-inspired tonality; Debussy's ambiguous rhythms with Ravel's strongly accented folkloric ones; and Debussy's colourful ambiguity with Ravel's precision and clarity. These are two highly characterized works, well-paced, and played with style and wit.

In the serious world of French gastronomy, it's customary to serve a glass of Calvados between courses of an elaborate meal. "Le trou Normand", it's called; the idea is to create a "hole" in the stomach to make room for the delicacies to come. More than a mere palate cleanser, the String Quartet of Germaine Tailleferre is short but as potent as the fiery apple liquor, digging a hole in our musical repast to allow the proper perspective on our two major works. Tailleferre and her colleagues of Les Six inhabit a faster, more modern world than the pre-World War I quartets of their elders, but they are their true heirs. This is clever programming by the Swedish group, with a sparkling performance reinforcing Tailleferre's rising reputation.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A fluid fusion of melody and dance

Dance: Music for guitar and string quartet by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Aaron Jay Kernis and Luigi Boccherini

When I listened to this new CD from guitarist Jason Vieaux and the Escher Quartet, I was reminded of a phrase of John Eliot Gardiner, who said of the Baroque music of Bach and Rameau that it had "the fluidity of gesture and step and the fusion of melody and dance". Though the music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Luigi Boccherini and Aaron Jay Kernis is a bit later (disco was after the Baroque, right?), this is definitely what's happening on this album, from the first habanera to the last fandango.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Quintet for Guitar & Strings earns its place on this dance-card with the tarantella & habanera in the finale, but the entire work is delightful. It has that perfect balance of folkloric and erudite music of the best chamber works of Villa-Lobos, for example, or Bartok. Vieaux and the Eschers judge everything just right.

The title of Aaron Jay Kernis's 100 Greatest Dance Hits is a very funny reference to the K-Tel TV ads of the 1970s, but the music itself begins in a mainly serious mode. The elaborate percussive effects of the Introduction set the stage for a most interesting and unexpected 20 minutes of music. It might not remain serious, but it's always clever. The 3rd movement, "Middle Of The Road Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad" contains absolutely gorgeous melodies, but Kernis keeps turning the screw, and the piece veers hilariously, and then perhaps seriously, off the rails. The laughs come fast and furious in the final movement, "Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat," with its slapstick coda. I was reminded throughout this music of the Brazilian composer Gilberto Mendes, whose Ulysses in Copacabana Surfing with James Joyce and Dorothy Lamour for orchestra is somewhat in the same vein. Successful classical music humour is rare indeed, so it's nice to have Mendes and Kernis to give us some comic relief every now and then. Vieaux and the Escher Quartet must have had a ball performing this - I expect if the musicians don't, everyone will notice.

Take a moment before moving on to the Boccherini Guitar Quintet, so that it doesn't sound fussy and old-fashioned after the Kernis. Because it isn't fussy, and the musicians play it with perfect sensitivity to its Enlightenment ethos, making it sound fresh and alive, but always civilized. Still, Boccherini really lets his inner Tony Manero out in the Fandango Finale, which has been a crowd pleaser, I'm sure, since the 18th century. It's introduced by a lovely little mock-serious movement that for a moment crosses over into Mozartian pathos. This Boccherini Quintet is a triumph for Jason Vieaux and the Escher Quartet; it brought me as much pleasure as many a more substantial chamber work by Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Fun string quartets from Chopin's teacher

Jozef Elsner: String Quartets, op. 8

The Silesian composer Jozef Elsner is best known as Chopin's teacher, but he was also one of the most distinguished administrators in both the theatrical and musical worlds in Poland. Still, on the evidence of these three string quartets published in 1806 his skill as a composer would have eventually Elsner put on the map; one hopes that this excellent album will help to do that very thing. The Equilibrium String Quartet is made up of talented young musicians playing period instruments, and their cohesion as a group is evidence of diligent work and knowledge of historical practice as well as musical skills. While obviously designed for the salon rather than the more lofty artistic reach of his contemporaries Haydn (who had finished all of his quartets by then) and Beethoven (who at the time was about to begin his middle-period Razumovsky Quartets, op. 59), Elsner's quartets have a concertante focus. They're all well-wrought and are designed to showcase the virtuosity of each instrumentalist in turn. More importantly, they're fun to listen to, and for that, I think, we have to thank the Equilibrium String Quartet as much as Jozef Elsner.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Strong Villa-Lobos solo guitar, and a great modernist chamber work

Villa-Lobos: Preludes & Etudes for Solo Guitar; Sextuor Mystique

I've always thought of Urania as a re-mastering and re-packaging company, and over the years I've enjoyed a number of their historic reissues (most recently, a fine album of Paul Hindemith conducting his own music). But they also do a lot of original recording in Italy, and there are many such discs to explore on their website. One that naturally caught my eye was this all-Villa-Lobos disc from guitarist Andrea Monarda. His version of Villa's Preludes and Etudes for Solo Guitar goes into the very, very long queue of recordings of these works. Popular works that fit nicely on a single LP or CD have a tendency to multiply. I'd rate Monarda a bit above the middle of this crowded pack, he delivers a lively performance that's especially well recorded. I often find that a particular guitarist will be stronger in one group or the other ("the classical guitar world is divided into two types of musicians..."), and Monarda, I think, is much more successful in the Etudes. A couple of the Preludes are perhaps a bit under-characterized, when compared with outstanding versions by Norbert Kraft or Timo Korhonen. But Monarda impressed me with the drama of the 1st and 12th Etudes, and the saudade of the 5th and 11th.

However, it's the title work which sets apart this album: the remarkable Sextuor Mystique (aka Sexteto Mistico), nominally written in 1917, though the score was lost and Villa-Lobos re-wrote it from memory decades later. The musicologist Lisa Peppercorn believes it was actually written during the 1920s, Villa's modernist period that includes some of his greatest music; I would tend to agree. Monarda has put together an ensemble named for the work, though it's unlikely the Sextuor Mystique Ensemble will be able to find anything else written for just this combination of instruments: guitar, flute, oboe, harp, saxophone and celesta. The SME do a marvellous job in this case, highlighting its Paris/Rio split personality.

The two decades before and after the Millennium were a golden age of Villa-Lobos recordings. The great composer's reputation was rising after its inevitable decline following his death in 1959, and his Centennial in 1987 primed the pump for a strong comeback. Soon there were multiple new discs released every month. Lately, though, there have been fewer and fewer new releases, with the notable exception of the recently completed Complete Symphonies series from Naxos. It's encouraging, then, to see this new project from Italy. I hope it's the sign of more Villa-Lobos activity to come.

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

A brilliant musical partnership

Palimpsest: Music for marimba & clarinet by Bach, McKinley, Piazzolla, Ravel & Zorn

Darius Milhaud introduced the marimba into the classical orchestra with his extraordinary 1947 Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, and composers from Leoš Janáček to Steve Reich were quick to introduce the striking colours this marvellous instrument can add to chamber and orchestral works. This new disc from marimbist Mike Stoltzman and her husband, clarinettist Richard Stoltzman, provides a great overview of various styles ("from Bach to Zorn" is a great way to talk about a wide range of music!)

Mika Stoltzman's own adaptation of Bach's perfectly adaptable Chaconne, from his D minor Partita for Solo Violin, shows the musical and emotional range of the instrument, as well as her own brilliant playing. Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte is another work that's made its way into many, many arrangements, and Richard Stoltzman's version for marimba & clarinet sounds exotic and familiar at the same time, in other words, just right for this kind of music.

For me the highlight of the album was the John Zorn piece which provides the title of the project. Richard Stoltzman describes the work in the liner notes:
Mika begins by playing quite tonal music, and then the clarinet jumps in with something abstract and arrhythmic, with crazy leaping intervals, almost as if Ornette Coleman had stepped into the room, and it keeps in conflict with the steady metre of the “old manuscript” underneath Mika’s part. It’s really fun to play, and it has been a surprise hit with audiences.
So many of the pieces here (including the Bach arrangements) are jazz- and blues- inflected. The Piazzolla works seem so natural, partly because the great composer from Argentina worked in his own jazz/classical idiom, but also because of the groove that the Stoltzmans and bandoneonist Pedro Giraudo are in throughout.

Mika and Richard Stoltzman play John Zorn's Palimpsest

Friday, June 28, 2019

Compelling chamber music from important contemporary composers

Alchemy: Music by Jalbert, Stucky & Vine

The Jupiter String Quartet and pianist Bernadette Harvey bring us a standout disc of music for piano and strings commissioned by the Friends of Arizona Chamber Music, with important works by Pierre Jalbert, Steven Stucky and Carl Vine. Jalbert's large-scale Piano Quintet, written in 2017, includes both music-historical ("Mannheim Rocket") and liturgical ("Kyrie") references, and the formal architecture of the work is from the 19th century, but this is an urgently contemporary piece, full of today's turbulence and an intense foreboding about the future. This is a compelling piece.

In the liner notes Steven Stucky expresses his love for the Piano Quartet form, and especially for the works of Mozart and Brahms in this special chamber music niche. As so often happens with art that comes out of a special connection with works from the past - think of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras, for example, or Cy Twombly's veneration of Nicolas Poussin ("I would've liked to have been Poussin, if I'd had a choice, in another time.") - the contemporary artist's true self is discovered. That's, I think, what's happened here, in Stucky's Piano Quartet from 2005. In another large-scale work, this time in one movement, Stucky explores landscapes of doubt and fear and anguish, with occasional episodes of solace and grace.

Carl Vine has compared his music to the growth of crystals, and there's a strong impression of organic growth in his 2013 Fantasia for Piano Quintet, with themes emerging from fragments and taking odd turns and unexpected paths. The Jupiter Quartet and Bernadette Harvey bring just the right, very light, touch to this fragile music, allowing it to unfold in its own way.

The program ends with Pierre Jalbert's 2012 Secret Alchemy for Piano Quartet, but this is no bravura encore, but rather another substantial piece that explores matters of significant import. The focus here is on mystery, secrecy and mysticism, with the sound of medieval chants and the reverberations of a cathedral, all wrapped up in a kind of post-modern pastiche. Indeed, this might work (thought it certainly wasn't intended to be) as the soundtrack to an Umberto Eco novel, perhaps to his Postscript to The Name of the Rose.

What a fine program this is! I enjoyed every minute, and found many new delights waiting every time I listened again.

Here are the Jupiter String Quartet with Bernadette Harvey, performing the world premiere of Pierre Jalbert's Piano Quintet.

Only one chance to make a good impression

Pianistische Miniaturen, piano works by Bonis, Jaell, Kaprálová, Roesgen-Champion, Sukova-Dvorakova, Tailleferre, Terzian, Winogradowa, Zaranek

Of the nine composers on this well-filled disc of piano miniatures played by Viviane Goergen, I had only heard (and even heard of!) two: Alicia Terzian and Germaine Tailleferre. I was encouraged by Viviane Goergen's performance of Tailleferre's marvellous Sicilienne, an outstanding piece that transcends its salon-piece genre, redolent of the South of France and beyond to the cities and back country of Brazil (as communicated to the composer, I'm sure, by her colleague in Les Six: Darius Milhaud). Goergen plays up both the languid atmosphere and the more jazzy drama, and captures both to perfection. In music of this scale you only get one chance, as they say, to make a good impression.

Alicia Terzian is an accomplished composer, though I know her as a conductor as well. In 2018 she released a fabulous album of 20th and 21st Century music with the group Grupo Encuentros; my review was very positive. On this disc, Goergen plays her Danza Criolla, an outstanding op. 1 (I love to collect opus ones!), a fine work reminiscent of her compatriots Ginastera and Piazzolla, as well as another great piano miniaturist, Heitor Villa-Lobos.

What of all the rest, all these World Premiere recordings? Viviane Goergen has put together a very strong groups of miniatures here, all of them "character" pieces in the Schumann style. Within a variety of moods and rhythms many of the works have a strong character. Standouts include Marguerite Roesgen-Champion's two charming Bucoliques; Mel Bonis's impressive La Cathédral blessée; and the two Danses of Vera Winogradowa. I've been riding the wave of new interest in women composers, & this new disc certainly has added to the thrills.

This disc will be released on August 9, 2019

Authentic recordings, and good sound as well

Paul Hindemith: Symphonia Serena, Mathis Der Maler, Nobilissima Visione, Symphonische Metamorphes, Die Vier Temperamente, Horn Concerto

"ComposerX conducts ComposerX" is a formula that results in some very mixed results. Authenticity is enhanced, to be sure, but what are the odds that a composer might have the communication skills to approximate with a symphony orchestra what was imagined at the composing desk? Off the top of my head I would include on the list of the best composer conductors Britten, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky, and I have no hesitation, based on the evidence of this disc, in including in that list Paul Hindemith. Hindemith is lucky here to have two of the world's very finest orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra. In addition, in his London sessions, Hindemith's recording is guided by the great EMI producer Walter Legge.

There have been a number of different combinations of Hindemith conducting Hindemith released over the years, but this two disc set is one of the best, containing his best orchestral works, and including some of the best sounding recordings. It's great to have the Horn Concerto here, with the irreplaceable Dennis Brain. The remastering is excellent, and everything points to a very enthusiastic recommendation.

This disc will be released on July 5, 2019.