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, 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.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Nat and Julian take Stuttgart

Cannonball Adderley Quintet: Liederhalle Stuttgart, 1969

Julian Cannonball Adderley, alto sax
Nat Adderley, trumpet
Victor Gaskin, bass
Roy McCurdy, drums
Joe Zawinul, piano & keyboards

Listening to the reaction of the crowd in the Liederhalle Stuttgart on March 20, 1969 you can tell that something important is happening.  The musicians are obviously energized by this enthusiasm, and play with urgent inspiration, which of course gets passed back to the audience. From today's vantage point this concert at the end of the 1960s can seem like a kind of coda to a genre that emerged from 1940s dance bands to become a great International Style, the musical counterpart of the New York School of Painting, practiced and appreciated as much in the Liederhalle as on West 52nd Street in New York.

The rises and falls of history only become apparent after the fact, of course, and especially in peak moments like this hour of music one is completely in the moment, blind and deaf to the power of musical entropy that would transform jazz in the 1970s. Pianist Joe Zawinul had spent most of the 60s with Cannonball Adderley, but was only a year away from the creation of Weather Report with Wayne Shorter. Cannonball contributed to the transformation of jazz in the early 70s - he continued to play with both Miles Davis and Bill Evans in this period, but by 1975 he was gone, tragically early. His brother Nat carried on the Adderley tradition for the rest of the century, as a band leader and, increasingly, as a teacher for new generations. But this hour of music remains as a beacon, sending light into the past and the future, as inspiring today as it was for those listening fifty years ago in Stuttgart.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Inspiration recorded

Handel: Concerti grossi op. 6, no. 1-6

After a disappointing recent Handel album from another Berlin band, it's great to have this new disc, with the promise of two more real soon, from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, under Bernhard Forck. This is some of the greatest music of the 18th century: on the same level as Bach's Brandenburgs and Vivaldi's best concertos, and it's performed in as stylish and musical way possible. Forck highlights the myriad felicities that Handel has woven into these six concertos, but without interrupting the rushing mountain streams of the fast movements, or the stately court dances of the slow ones.

Handel wrote the first six Concerti Grossi published as op. 6 in just over two weeks, from September 29 to October 15, 1739 (the final six were completed before Hallowe'en). You can hear the rush of inspiration in these works in a way that few pieces of music can match. I think of Mozart's piano concertos from the spring of 1785, and Schubert's composition of Winterreise in February and October of 1827. Handel's orchestral music sounds robust when it's played like this, but I've heard more than a few versions of both op. 3 and op. 6 that were crippled by poor musical choices or stylistic axe-grinding, on both sides of the Historically Informed Practices divide. Bernhard Forck and his very fine Berlin musicians, supported by Pentatone's fine engineers, let Handel's inspiration flow unimpeded.

This disc will be released on July 19, 2019.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Catching a musical wave

American Rapture: Higdon Harp Concerto; Barber Symphony no. 1; Harlin Rapture

The literature for Harp and Orchestra is amazing, and amazingly under-valued. One work which I admire most highly is Alberto Ginastera's Harp Concerto, written in 1956 and revised in 1968. Our harpist in this new CD American Rapture, Yolanda Kondonassis, recorded a very fine version of this work, released in 2016 for the Ginastera Centennial. Another is Heitor Villa-Lobos's Harp Concerto, written in 1953 for Nicanor Zabaleta. This is not as good a work by any means, but it's completely typical of Villa's late period when the bulk of his composing time was taken by commissions. Jennifer Higdon's Harp Concerto was written for and dedicated to Yolanda Kondonassis; it was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras - the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, Lansing Symphony Orchestra and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra. It receives its first recording here. It's full of vitality, ingenuity and sentiment, and shows off the many sounds this remarkable instrument is capable of. When Kondonassis described what she wanted from the composer she said "... it should have a groove that allows the harpist to catch a musical wave with the orchestra once in a while." That's one of the great thing about the concerto form; I've been very much aware of trying to describe those moments while listening lately to Mozart Piano Concertos for a review. Higdon jams so much into this twenty minute work, but there's a coherent structure to the piece that becomes evident after a few listens. The final movement, Rap Knock, is a stand-out; the witty, percussion-based music looks to Leonard Bernstein as much as the more avant garde sounds Ginastera included in his Concerto. The Rochester Philharmonic, under the direction of Ward Stare, provide able support in a work that occasionally calls for virtuoso playing, especially from the percussion section.

So check out Harp Concertos; I know you'll thank me. I'll link to some recordings of other composers' works below, but begin with the Higdon, please!

After the Ginastera, I'd place the Harp Concerto by Reinhold Glière. There's a fine disc played by Anneleen Lenaerts that also includes the Concertos of Joseph Jongen and Joaquín Rodrigo. The fine Harp Concertino by Germaine Tailleferre is played by the great Nicanor Zabaleta, along with Boieldieu's Concerto. People don't value the music of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer highly enough, and his Harp Concerto deserves to be much better known. Perhaps Yolanda Kondonassis could champion it next!

Alberto Ginastera wondered about what tied together music from the American continents, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego; this remained for him, and of course remains for us, an open question. American Rapture is about a subset of that really big thing, which he termed estadounidense. This disc is generously filled with works that explore this particular geographical and cultural space, from Samuel Barber's folk-infused First Symphony, written in 1936, to the intensity of Patrick Harlin's Rapture, which like most of this fine young composer's work has a special link to the soundscapes of the natural world. With three such interesting works the question of their American-ness becomes less important. At the very least there are two things these three works have in common: the magical richness of musical imagination and very fine performances.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

What it's like to be human

Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 466, 467; Don Giovanni Overture

In 1946 photographer Arnold Newman was asked by Harper's Bazaar to provide a portrait of Igor Stravinsky:
I thought, how do I photograph this great composer? It hit me that the lid of a piano is like the shape of a musical flat symbol - strong, linear, and beautiful, just like Stravinsky's work.
The result is one of the greatest musician portraits ever made.

This new Chandos album is the fourth in their Mozart Piano Concerto series with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Manchester Camerata under the direction of Gabor Takacs-Nagy. And it features the fourth cover photo by the London-based photographer Benjamin Ealovega, some of which are variations on the Newman-Stravinsky model.  All four reflect perfectly the informal elegance and taste (such a Mozartian word!) of the music on the disc inside the album. In Newman's portrait Stravinsky might represent the severe formal properties of music which go back to Bach, and beyond him, back to ancient Greece. But Ealovega provides a much more humble, human scenario to represent Mozart and his music. Also, in the 21st century way, he deconstructs the piano itself, to see what makes it tick.

There's a famous quote by Douglas Adams that goes "Beethoven tells you what it's like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it's like to be human. Bach tells you what it's like to be the universe." In this schema, Newman's Stravinsky tells you what it's like to be the underlying shapes and contours of music, and thus of the universe. That's not Bach, but it's nothing to sneeze at! However, there are plenty of us who come down strongly on the side of Mozart, balancing the carnal and the spiritual in a charming tale of human relationships, made for the opera stage, but beautifully transferred into one of the greatest of all musical forms, Mozart's own piano concerto. And Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, with strong support from Takacs-Nagy and his Manchester musicians, puts together the pieces of this puzzle - all human relationship stories become puzzles soon enough - into a perfect picture of an 18th century - and 21st century - garden of delights.

Though there are many glories in Mozart's earlier piano concertos, it was in February and March of 1785 that he perfected this dynamic, theatrical musical form, with the D minor Concerto, K. 466 and the C major work, K. 467. As has been the case with their earlier Mozart releases. Bavouzet and Takacs-Nagy feel free to let the music fly, seemingly unconstrained by conventional views of Mozart. In the D minor Concerto Bavouzet chooses Beethoven's cadenzas, while he adapts Friedrich Gulda's jazzy ones in his performance of the C major work. Gulda lurks behind these, and other, Concertos in the Mozart series; there is the same spirit of quirky joy here. I couldn't possibly give much higher praise.

Gabor Takacs-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata squeeze in the Overture from Don Giovanni between the two Concertos. Though the work shares a key with K. 466, and it reminds us of all sorts of vital theatrical connections in the Piano Concertos, it's still a bit of a surprise to hear this dramatic tale of Judgement in this particular place in the program. Of course, it's played with wit and style, but I would have preferred it at the end of the program. Still, this is a minor peccadillo in a superb project; it's very highly recommended.

This album will be released on June 7, 2019.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Unstylish Big Band Handel

Handel: Concerti Grossi, op. 3

"The fetish of the 'original instrument' has had its day," says conductor Reinhard Goebel, "but not the profoundly trained professional who guides an orchestra into the deeper dimensions of the composition." I certainly don't buy the premise of the first part of his quote, and can only agree to the rest with the proviso that style is as important as musicianship when bridging the gap between the 18th century and the 21st. Unfortunately, Goebel's Handel is often less than stylish, his tempi sometimes sluggish and his point of view more Romantic than Baroque. I'm certainly on-board with Goebel's augmentation of the orchestra, which is well-documented; having recently read Jane Glover's Handel in London, it's clear that the composer was completely focussed on the most impressive display his music could create in the moment, regardless of his original conceptions. But I miss the verve and bite of the best original instruments performances: I recommend Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre, or Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music, but not, unfortunately, this new disc.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Four interesting concertos, with two stand-outs

20th Century Harpischord Concertos, by Walter Leigh, Ned Rorem, Viktor Kalabis & Michael Nyman

Ned Rorem wrote his Concertino da Camera in 1946, but the score was lost, and it had to wait until 1993 for its world premiére performance, at the University of Minnesota. Luckily this marvellous work has made its way to this CD: its first commercial recording. Much, much better late than never! It's a kind of an echo of an echo: very much reminiscent of Camille Saint-Saens' fabulous Septet for piano, trumpet and strings, written in 1880, it's also a direct descendant of the Baroque harpsichord concertos of Bach and his sons, and many other composers, via the neo-classical works of Frank Martin, De Falla, and others. Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour sparkles in the solo part, which is intricate and evocative. Rorem includes some folkloric touches in the finale, and even adds a bit of American flair to a work that has a largely Gallic sound. Walter Leigh's work, written in 1934, is also called a Concertino, as it's rather slight, but this is a classic English pastoral piece that's both charming and unexpectedly virtuosic. Trevor Pinnock recorded this work in 2007, but I prefer Vinikour's performance for its verve and swing.

Victor Kalabis's 1975 Concerto for Harpsichord is an almost laser-focussed serious work. There are a few good humoured passages, but no real humour, and nothing to break the intense mood that spreads throughout all three movements. Michael Nyman's 1995 Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord was also less congenial to my taste than I had expected. It flirts with pastiche at times, and though there are lovely bits, it doesn't seem to hold together as a coherent work of art; not, at least, in the same way the Rorem and Leigh works did. Still, those works - especially the Rorem - make this a special album, and one that you shouldn't miss out on.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Another brilliant musical document from post-war Berlin

Quartetto Italiano: The Complete RIAS Recordings

The Quartetto Italiano was the first of the new post-war groups that inaugurated a new golden age of String Quartets: the Quartetto Italiano was formed in 1945, the Juilliard String Quartet and LaSalle Quartet in 1946, and the Janáček and Amadeus quartets in 1947. Audite here brings us three CDs worth of fabulous recordings for RIAS ("Radio in the American Sector" of Berlin). The RIAS studios were excellent, and their engineers highly accomplished, so we have (as with the Amadeus Quartet album I reviewed late last year) an excellent idea of how these musicians sounded, in this case between 1951 to 1963. The group's repertoire is interesting, especially considering the period: Donizetti, Malipiero and Cherubini provide an Italian antipasto, if I may be permitted a metaphor (pun!) in questionable taste (taste!). Their 1959 Ravel interpretation is searching, and sometimes fierce; maybe even more so than their late recordings of core repertoire. This is a standout performance, though it's perhaps less than Gallic. The early String Quartet no. 8 by Schubert, from 1963, has the characteristic QI sound of their studio recordings of the Viennese masters: it's taut and tight and intense, eschewing sentimentality and emphasizing structure over story-telling. The first of the Haydn String Quartets op. 77 is the earliest recording here, from 1951. It's sunnier and more fun (to listen to, and I expect, to play) than the more disciplined Haydn the Quartetto Italiano developed later in their recording career. These recordings are at a higher level in both sonics and interpretation than your average historic releases, and the excellent documentation and the fact that a number of the works have never been released, make this a must-listen for chamber music fans.

This album will be released on May 3, 2019.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Woke Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Les Indes galantes

Gyorgy Vashegyi's Budapest-based Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra has become my favourite Original Instruments group. They were so good in Mondonville's Grands Motets and Isbé, also from Glossa; more recently they've moved on to the great genius of the French baroque, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and his Naïs.

"I like people", said Voltaire, speaking about Jean-Philippe Rameau, "who know when to drop the sublime in order to banter." In moving from tragedie to "the naïve graces of ballet",  Rameau had taken on the impressively advanced - anti-clerical and anti-imperialist - politics of his librettist Louis Fuzelier. As happens so often, satire can hide revolutionary ideas. This is actually very nearly a "progressive" agenda, even by today's standards (don't get me started on the 2020 Democratic primary), but for someone who made a (good) living flattering the monarchy, it's an interesting side-line.

As in the previous project, Vashegyi and his talented musicians work with the Centre de Musique Baroque in Versailles. Academic precision never gets in the way of the obvious fun of the project, though. Once again we're treated to great choral and solo singing, again led by soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery. In a review of another recording of Les Indes galantes, I talk about "the great, dumb fun" of this project, and this is something that would be easy enough to lose. But there's no worry of that here; we get the full deal, and it's fun to go along for the ride.

This album will be released on May 3, 2019.

Monday, April 22, 2019

A thought-provoking & satisfying first album

Can Çakmur: piano music by Beethoven/Liszt, Haydn, Schubert, Say, Sasaki, Bartok

After the artificial rigours of the international piano competition world, Can Çakmur (who won in Glasgow in 2017, and in Hamamatsu in 2018) now has a chance to build an interesting, exciting programme for his first recording. His opener is an inspired choice: Franz Liszt's arrangement of Beethoven's song Adelaïde, an arresting piece that alternates between sentiment and all-out flash. Of course we want virtuosity in this situation, and it's here in spades, but in the long-term we're on the look-out for musical intelligence, style and staying power. On the evidence of this album we should be listening to the Ankara-born pianist for a very long time.

Çakmur plays Schubert's E-flat major Sonata D. 568, from 1817 when he was only 20, with wit and delicacy. He doesn't add any anachronistic darkness to the slow movement - the bulk of the composer's agonies are years ahead at this point - but lets the simple sad post-adolescent clouds drift through in their quiet way. The more sophisticated and brilliant F minor Variations by Haydn seem at first deceptively slight, but they are the centrepiece of the album; this is a profound work that Çakmur gives a suitable gravitas and quiet dignity. Fazil Say's Black Earth adapts a folk song by Turkish minstrel Aşık Veysel, complete with the sound of the lute-like instrument the bağlama, approximated by pressing on the piano strings while playing notes on the keyboard. This is an arresting piece that combines piano technique and folklore in an appealing way. Çakmur stays in the world of imitative folk music with Bartok's percussive Out of Doors, and brings his first album to a moving conclusion with Fuyuhiko Sasaki's Sacrifice. This is a complex work with references to Christian theology, to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, to Bach's St. Matthew Passion, and to Andrei Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice, from 1986. What a thought-provoking and satisfying first album!

Friday, April 19, 2019

Boisterous cheer and haunted longing

Francis Poulenc: Chamber music with piano

"What's nice with Poulenc," Erik Satie once said, "is that he makes up his own folklore." Everything about the composer was original: he was largely self-taught, but he had enough confidence in his own talent that his music went its own way. Not worrying too much about musical fashions, he often ended up leading the way himself. He was exposed from his teenage years to the musical revolution of Stravinsky's early ballets, and to the intellectual excitement of the surrealists, but Poulenc's music retained its own earthy, forceful personality, and never lost its way in glibness or sentimentality.

Here's Boris Lipnitzki's famous picture of Les Six with Jean Cocteau, from, I'm assuming, some time in the 1930s: Milhaud, Cocteau, Honegger, Tailleferre, Poulenc & Durey. Cocteau's drawing of the missing Auric rounds out the six. Poulenc's music fits nicely in this avant garde group, but he's as much a leader as a any of his composing colleagues.

This splendid collection of chamber music with piano is organized chronologically, but there's no real story arc of development or decline here; just Poulenc's prodigious, regular eruption of brightness and melancholy, of boisterous cheer and haunted longing. Pianist Paul Rivinius provides a solid lead at the keyboard, keeping his talented wind partners on task, but providing enough swing to keep thing alive and pulsing. This is a marvellous programme of Gallic charm and ingenuity that rewards close listening.

This album will be released on May 17, 2019

Friday, April 12, 2019

The International Style in 18th Century Music

Jet Set!: works by Abel, Reichardt, Zelter, Mozart, Storace and Paisiello

From 14th century Gothic cathedrals to early 20th century skyscrapers, there have been International Styles in the arts, as the nobility and then multi-national corporations vied for the best artists, architects and composers from around the world, who influenced each other and created new styles through cross-fertilization. Simon Murphy's latest theme album tells the story of 18th century musicians as if they were from the mid-20th century Golden Age of Travel: "classical glitterati" going to the musical capitals of Europe to show off their wares.

This is stylish programme design and very clever marketing, but it would mean nothing without top-class musical values, and we have that here in spades. First of all, the music itself, full of rarities, and even a number of recording premieres, is of very high quality. Sure, the aria from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro does stand out a bit, but the symphonies, concertos and arias here are always interesting and occasionally quite brilliant. And Murphy manages the transitions from the 18th century to the 21st, with various stops in the 20th century along the way, with verve, panache, and finely modulated levels of style. A simply wonderful time!

Listening to giants

Elgar from America, volume 1: Enigma Variations, Cello Concerto, Falstaff

New York has a long tradition of providing a warm welcome to foreign composers, and Edward Elgar was no exception. He made a big splash in his visits early in the century, and his American reputation was at a high point in the 1940s, when these three recordings were made by top conductors with the top New York musicians.

Yes, Toscanini takes the Enigma Variations at quite a clip, and you occasionally want to hail the orchestra as it speeds by. The Nimrod Variation, at less than three minutes, is unsentimental but it never comes across as the least bit unfeeling, and the conductor brings it to a satisfyingly heroic - and heartbreaking - finish. The Nimrod norm seems to be over four minutes, though the composer himself broke the 3 minute barrier in one of his own recordings, (he introduces his own kind of pathos though swoopy strings). It's fun to listen to a dozen different Nimrods in a row: I'd recommend it for a cold, overcast day like the Toronto one I'm writing this review in. Overall, I'm impressed with Toscanini's dramatic, occasionally even operatic, take on this great work, and his players are outstanding. The playing is as polished as a studio recording, and the fact that it's recorded over the air from a live broadcast shows the very high level of preparation, and the skill of both musicians and conductor.

The stakes don't seem as high in the next recording included here: John Barbirolli, the New York Philharmonic and Gregor Piatigorsky provide a relaxed Cello Concerto that I wouldn't rate at the very highest level, though it's still very fine. It does have considerable value as documentation; this great cellist never got around to recording this great concerto in the studio. I wish the sound here were as good as the Toscanini recording.

The final work on the album is a commercial release premiere: Artur Rodzinksi conducts the New York Philharmonic in a very good Falstaff. Alas the sound is even dimmer than the the Cello Concerto, though of course we all make allowances for these historic recordings, and the feeling of actually being there in this time of musical giants makes up for so much. Speaking of being there, I didn't imagine myself sitting in evening dress at Carnegie Hall, but instead comfortably in an armchair in my housecoat and slippers, listening on an RCA Tombstone Console Radio.

This album will be released on May 17, 2019.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Civilized musical conversations for the time traveler

Heinrich Anton Hoffmann: Three String Quartets, op. 3

Heinrich Hoffmann was an almost exact contemporary of Beethoven's, and his opus 3 String Quartets were published only a few years before Beethoven's ground-breaking opus 18 set. But these beautifully balanced examples of civilized musical conversation are more like (in style and pretty darn close to quality) Haydn, and especially Mozart, than the more abrupt young composer from Bonn. Everything about this project from the original instruments ensemble Alte Musik Köln is well-researched, thoughtful and sophisticated. One can easily imagine oneself listening to the great virtuoso musicians of the day, playing in the drawing rooms of aristocrats, temporary respites from the social change and danger of the Napoleonic wars in Germany at the time. Time travel really does work in the musical realm, and we can experience the same enlightenment and peace that this music still provides in our own troubled times.

This disc will be released on May 17, 2019.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A recipe for good listening (not Fake)

Pietro Gnocchi: Sonate a tre

In his entry on "Spoof Articles" in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, David Fallows uses Don Pietro Gnocchi (1689-1775) as an example of someone who makes these kind of hoaxes superfluous, because his life and works are so bizarre.
There are plenty of bona fide musicians whose names and lives look like outrageous fiction. One need only mention Gnocchi, who became maestro di cappella at Brescia Cathedral at the age of 85, composed a Magnificat entitled ‘Il capo di buona speranza’ (alongside many other works with improbable titles) and wrote an unpublished 25-volume history of ancient Greek colonies in the East (the long MGG article even includes a suitably lugubrious portrait). 
When Brixia Musicalis performed this music at the 2005 Festival delle Nuove Settimane Barocche Di Brescia (Gnocchi's home-town) it was the first time it had been heard since Gnocchi's lifetime. This is, alas, not a new recording, but a re-issue of the recording released after the festival, though there's nothing on the front or back of the CD indicating this (I didn't get a chance to see the liner notes). But the amazing quality of the music certainly makes the re-issue worthwhile. Listen to this lovely little Largo which open the G major Sonata a tre:

This disc has been on more than a few times since I first heard it a few weeks ago. Along with only one other disc (of sacred music that I'll mention later) I've now heard nearly the entirety of the composer's discography*, and I must say I'm a big fan. Gnocchi was a close contemporary of Vivaldi, with whom he shares a dramatic flair as well as the infectious, lilting rhythms that make one think of Carnival time. But Brescia is close to the Romagna as well as Venice, and the more heart-on-one's-sleeve sentimentality of the followers of Arcangelo Corelli comes to mind in this emotional music.

I commend to you all this disc of sacred music by Gnocchi: Musica Sacra Per Le Chiese Di Brescia, by Coro Claudio Monteverdi di Crema and Ensemble Pian and Forte, released in 2010. It's not available on or Spotify, but you can listen at the Naxos Music Library. Sacred music is where the composer put by far the bulk of his energies, and the music is all of the highest calibre.

* I was pleased to see that there's a second recording of the Six Sonata a tre, by Martin Jopp and Main-Barockorchester Frankfurt, on Aeolus in 2016. I haven't heard it yet, but it's on my radar!

This album will be released on April 5, 2019.

O.K., I've managed to get right to the end without making anything of Don Pietro's name, but here is a great article from BBC Good Food: "Top 10 ways to serve gnocchi":

Squash & goat's cheese is an addictive combination, and this colourful dish is sure to become a family favourite. Just stick the squash in the oven, boil your gnocchi, combine and serve.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Into the abyss

Allan Pettersson: Violin Concerto no. 2, Symphony no. 17, fragment

Allan Pettersson wrote his Second Violin Concerto just after he completed his 13th Symphony, in 1976. He referred to it as a Symphony for Violin and Orchestra, but this is no Symphonie Concertante, where a solo instrument shares its virtuosity with orchestral players. Rather, it's a more modern, searching expression of a classic tale: the individual vs. the collective. It's easy to imagine why the semi-invalid Pettersson, shut up in his apartment suffering from his acute, chronic rheumatoid arthritis, would explore the lone voice struggling to be heard over the powerful sound of the orchestra/universe. This is a work that's all about this balance, and since the premiere performance with Ida Haendel in Stockholm on January 25, 1980, there has been much controversy concerning this key point. Was Pettersson unaware of how the violin would sound against the powerful writing of his orchestral forces? Did he design the work to be heard over the radio (as he heard it from his apartment) or on a recording rather than live in a concert hall? Things went back and forth between the critics, until the composer weighed in:
The solo violin is eliminated as regards audibility – something that the composer has consciously chosen – by letting the soloist often play in unison with the leading parts. The composer lets the soloist fill in passages totally inaudibly within the orchestral mass.
This, of course, is a challenge for today's recording producers and engineers: they're very good at allowing us to hear every detail in a score through technological means plus microphone choice and placement, as well as the choice of recording venue to find a proper acoustic to match the music. Luckily, in this case, we're dealing with BIS, whose default is rich and full rather than bright and exposed. And we have the Pettersson Dream Team in Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, who are completely at home in the music of the great composer, as they come to the end of their epic traversal of Allan Pettersson's complete works. Finally, the musicianship of violinist Ulf Wallin wins out, over, I might imagine, some of the more ego-driven soloists of his most ego-drenched instrument. In the end one hears the sad, even agonizing music as it was designed by Pettersson, and the touches of grace and redemption that occur, particularly toward the end, are all the sweeter for it.

The short fragment that might have become the 17th Symphony does not break new ground, nor show the way to any major turns on their way from the composer's music written before. It's the last music Pettersson wrote, so one goes in with the same feeling as with the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem or the unfinished final fugue in Bach's Art of the Fugue. Lindberg and his fine musicians give this often robust music a straight-forward, unsentimental reading, and they let the way it shuffles off at the end, into the silence, speak for itself. Let it echo in the silence for a while when you listen to it; this says as much about the abyss as whole symphonies.

This disc will be released on May 3, 2019.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A stimulating thought-piece

Joachim Kühn: Melodic Ornette Coleman

In a 1995 interview the great jazz composer and performer Ornette Coleman said he had always wanted musicians to play with him “on a multiple level. I don’t want them to follow me, I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me." One of his regular collaborators during that period was the pianist Joachim Kühn; the two toured regularly in the 1990s, and released a recording together, Colors: Live From Leipzig, in 1997.

Now, three years after the great jazzman's death in 2015, Kühn has released an album of songs by Coleman, a musical reunion in spirit and a fitting tribute to a close friend and colleague.

Kühn has harmonized Coleman's melodies in a way that might sometimes feel antithetical to basic "harmolodic" principles, but there's no sentimentality here, no hint of the lounge piano. The German pianist has a classical background - his hometown of Leipzig is Bach Country - and a wide range of influences from well before Bach to the Second Viennese School are evident in his reworking of Coleman's songs. But Joachim Kühn is an accomplished straight-ahead jazz composer and performer as well; he's as comfortable in both worlds as one can imagine. This project is an intriguing and stimulating thought-piece, but also satisfying music to listen to and to remember.

The album cover features Martin Noël's work Ich liebe rote Punkte, from 2006. Thanks to ACT and Joachim Kühn for introducing me to such an interesting and talented artist!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Hummable Atterberg

Kurt Atterberg: Concerto for Violin, cello & orchestra; Barocco; Sinfonia per archi

The shadow of Brahms' Double Concerto, written in 1887, looms over Kurt Atterberg's own 1960 concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. The musical textures are of course similar, and Brahms himself wouldn't have found the late romantic language, which more or less ignores the seventy years of music history in between, that difficult to understand. Both works share an autumnal feeling; Brahms' concerto was his last orchestral work, and Atterberg's came close to the end of his own career. This recording is, surprisingly, a world recording premiere. I don't know why Kurt Atterberg's music isn't much more popular; his folk-inspired tunes are hummable, and there's often a slight harmonic edge that guards against sentimentality. Conductor Thord Svedlund keeps things moving briskly here, and the musicians of the Orebro Chamber Orchestra play the lilting folk tunes with the right amount of swing. I also admire Atterberg's way with the neo-classical genre; his faux baroque music is appealing, though perhaps the tiniest bit bland. Still, this is a good selection of music by a composer who should be better known.

Tender and mellow music from Vienna

Baroque Consolation: Sacred Arias at the Imperial Viennese Court

I took a great deal of consolation myself from this fine collection of sacred arias and organ works from the Habsburg Court in Vienna. The composers include Caldara, Fux, Pachelbel and Muffat, along with some more obscure names, such as Conti, two different Zianis, and the Emperor Joseph I (obscure, to be sure, as a composer, though less so as an Emperor). Sarah Van Mol is an effective communicator of tender and triumphant arias from cantatas and oratorios, while Bart Rodyns provides textural variety with organ works by Pachelbel, Froberger and Muffat. Wim Becu conducts the brass group Oltremontano, adding his own baroque trombone to the mix. The mellow brass gives this music a unique sound that places it in its own time and place.

Monday, March 11, 2019

An arresting new cello concerto

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto

Esa-Pekka Salonen's impressive new Cello Concerto had its origin in his 2010 work for solo cello "knock, breathe, shine".
I decided to use some phrases from my 2010 solo cello work knock, breathe, shine in the second and third movements, as I always felt that the music of the solo piece was almost orchestral in its scope and character, and would function well within an orchestral environment.
As it happens, I've been listening to a brand-new recording of Salonen's solo cello music, by Wilhelmina Smith. It's fascinating to hear that piece opened up, like a stage play made into a fine film. Along the way Salonen adapted the second movement, "breathe", as the lovely Dona nobis pacem for unaccompanied children's choir. The transformation of this material in the Cello Concerto is a more subtle metamorphosis. "I imagined," the composer says in his illuminating liner essay, "the solo cello line as a trajectory of a moving object in space being followed and emulated by other lines/ instruments/moving objects." The Concerto is certainly no pot pourri of previously used material and virtuosic pyrotechnics, but something much more organic. Yo-Yo Ma is of course the star of the show here, but the orchestral score is also written for virtuoso players. Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic players know each other very well, of course, and there is a feeling of inevitability about this recording project. It was meant to be, and exactly the way it sounds here.

An incredibly diverse programme for solo cello

Salonen & Saariaho: Works for Solo Cello

"Paint the essential character of things." 
- Camille Pissarro
With his works for solo cello and solo violin J. S. Bach left all the composers after him a superb template for stripping down music to its essential character, but also the fearsome task of trying to approach the profound mysteries he expressed. In a beautifully curated assortment of works by two of today's greatest composers, Wilhelmina Smith illuminates the strategies Esa Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho use to bring make complex music from a solo line in the 21st century.

In his important 1960 essay "Modernist Painting", Clement Greenburg talks about how modern painters embraced the limitation of expressing a three-dimension world on a two-dimensional surface: "Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else." The flatness that evolved from Manet to Ellsworth Kelly is an analogue for what Salonen is doing in his series of works for solo instruments entitled Yta (Swedish for “surface”):
I wanted the form (which in these pieces is equivalent to the process) to be constantly audible, in other words on the surface, and no hidden structure. Everything is transparent, and the listener has no difficulties following the process because there is only one musical plane. 
The listener may have no difficulties, but the complexity of this music means that the cellist is tasked with an enormous virtuoso job, which Wilhelmina Smith handles here with, as they say, aplomb.

My favourite work on the disc is Salonen's "Knock, breathe, shine", which is one of the great works for the solo cello after Bach. The striking use of pizzicato effects in the first movement sets up a bewildering, mind-boggling series of sounds, and one is in awe of both the ingenuity of the composer and the skills of the cellist. But virtuosity isn't paramount here, since there are important musical and even spiritual dimensions that are much more profound than mere display. This is most evident in the still centre of the work, "breathe":

... and here's Salonen's Dona nobis pacem, the work for unaccompanied children's choir adapted from "breathe":

This lovely work isn't the end point for the solo cello piece's metamorphosis; Salonen uses phrases from "breathe" in the second and third movements of his recent Cello Concerto.

The Mystery Variations is a project of the cellist Anssi Karttunen in which the source material is not Bach, but the Chiacona for solo basso by the early Italian Baroque composer Giuseppe Colombi (1635–94). Karttunen commissioned 31 composers to write variations on this piece. Smith plays the simple work, and then the variations written by both Salonen and Kaija Saariaho. Saariaho's Dreaming Chaconne is an eerie doppelgänger of Colombi's simple theme; I thought immediately of the scene in Alex Garland's film of Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation, where the humanoid figure mimics the main character. Salonen's variation, Sarabande per un coyote, goes far afield both in story-telling terms and harmonically. These two pieces together with the original theme make an arresting work; I can't imagine many of the other 29 variations being at this level!

Smith ends her programme with a clever work by Kaija Saariaho, Spins and Spells, a piece written in 1996 for the scodatura (re-tuned) cello, which gives the work an antique air. It's an evocative, thought-provoking piece of music, and a fitting end to one of the most diverse albums I've listened to in years.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Projections into special places

Nadia Shpachenko: The Poetry of Places, world premieres by Andrew Norman, Harold Meltzer, Jack Van Zandt, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, James Matheson, Lewis Spratlan, Nina C. Young

In his 1873 essay "The School of Giorgione" Walter Pater famously said "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music," but of course his argument is much more nuanced than this sound-byte, as cool as it is. "Although," he says,
"each art has thus its own specific order of impressions, and an untranslatable charm, while a just apprehension of the ultimate differences of the arts is the beginning of aesthetic criticism; yet it is noticeable that, in its special mode of handling its given material, each art may be observed to pass into the condition of some other art, by what German critics term an Anders-streben — a partial alienation from its own limitations, through which the arts are able, not indeed to supply the place of each other, but reciprocally to lend each other new forces."
Those new forces are evident in each of these World Premiere works by eight composers, in this marvellous disc from pianist Nadia Shpachenko. Each of the works is about a special place, with music interacting with a wide range of human activities: fine and applied arts (architecture and design), the heritage arts and the natural world. "Part of my aim as an artist," says composer Amy Beth Kirsten, "is to project myself, through meditation and imagination, into another place so I might find the music that lives there." Between them, Kirsten and Shpachenko project us into the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, designed by Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro. I happen to share a fondness for and a deep admiration of some of the architects of these special places, especially Frank Gehry and Louis Kahn. But each of these works is memorable, and beautifully played by Shpachenko on a Steinway grand piano and, memorably, on a toy piano, a Schoenhut 37 ­key Traditional Deluxe Spinet. As well she has excellent support from Joanne Pearce Martin in four-hand pieces, and percussionists Nick Terry and Cory Hills. This is a marvellous project, well worth exploring.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Schoenberg and the moment of doing

Schoenberg: Klavierstucke, op. 11, 23 & 33; 17 Fragments

In the liner notes for a 1959 LP that included Arnold Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, op. 11, Glenn Gould says "Few composers possess the discipline to express themselves freely and joyously within the confines of twelve-tone writing." His further assertion, that "With respect to all the ingenuity that can be plotted in advance, the moment of doing still issues its supreme challenge of inspiration," is a profound truth about systems and art. He is speaking as much about performance, of course, as about composition, and the proof is in his Schoenberg recordings, which are inspired and inspiring documents of freedom and joy.

Yoko Hirota, who today teaches at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, recorded these Schoenberg pieces for Phoenix Records in 2006. Included are three of the five major works that normally show up in complete Schoenberg piano recordings: besides Op. 11, there are the five Klavierstücke, Op. 23 and the two Klavierstück, Op. 33. Hirota's versions don't have Gould's swinging freedom and his arresting tiger-about-to-spring feel, but their calmness and cool reserve has its own appeal.

Yoko Hirota's inclusion of Schoenberg's 17 Fragments, works that he never completed, open a window into the composer's development of his compositional style and his way of writing for the piano. In 25 minutes we see a progression from the earliest Brahmsian works to stripped down, concentrated bits of serial writing, some of which anticipate (or are themselves influenced by) Alban Berg and Anton Webern. These fascinating segments are as interesting in their own way as the more polished masterworks from earlier in the programme. Hirota uses them to paint a bright and colourful pianistic kaleidoscope.

This album will be released on March 8, 2019

Friday, February 15, 2019

True gold, glittering

Berlioz: Les Nuit d'Ete, Ravel: Sheherazde, Debussy orch. John Adams: Le Livre de Baudelaire

When early in his career as a composer Maurice Ravel began to set some poems by Tristan Klingsor, he had the poet "recite his verses repeatedly in order to absorb their rhythms and tone," according to Paul Schiavo's illuminating liner notes to this new release. The result were the three Shéhérazade songs, sung beautifully here by Ian Bostridge, with the Seattle Symphony providing their patented exotic, shimmering, multi-Grammy-winning sound to back him up. Each of the works on this album demonstrate the special bond that music and poetry can share, when geniuses of each genre are matched up at the right time. Schiavo points out that Hector Berlioz's setting of poems by Théophile Gautier as Les nuits d’été was the first important song cycle for voice and orchestra. Bostridge's passionate, suave interpretation along with the support of Ludovic Morlot and his Seattle players, 100% in the groove with this music, helped me overcome a lifelong prejudice against Berlioz. It's hard to imagine a better interpretation of this gorgeous music.

The John Adams orchestral transcriptions of the Debussy settings of poems by Charles Baudelaire are as beautiful as a great painting by John Singer Sargent - The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit in Boston, let's say. In both the music and the painting there are profound meanings that are, paradoxically perhaps, hidden by the surface beauty.

In the words of another artist:

"If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures, and there I am."

And John Singer Sargent himself:

"I don't dig beneath the surface for things that don't appear before my own eyes."

Which brings me to one of my favourite quotes, from that great aphorist Hugo von Hofmannsthal:

"Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface."

The more gold that is mined, the more beautiful the surface seems, from Baudelaire's exquisite verse to Debussy's elegant melodies, to John Adams' sumptuous orchestral harmonies and textures. This true gold glitters most perfectly in this performance: Bostridge's lovely voice with a great American symphony orchestra at the top of its game.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Grief and consolation and branding

Lichtwechsel: Mendelssohn String Quartet no. 6; Purcell Fantasias 6, 8, 10, 11

Part of the pleasure of listening to string quartet music is the feeling that you're eavesdropping on a  private conversation, observing group dynamics at work, and becoming part of a process that reaches far into the past but, conceivably, also well into the future. For their debut recording, the young musicians of the Alinde Quartett chose Mendelssohn's final quartet, a dark portrait of raw grief over the death of his sister Fanny's death. To change things up, they looked for "a light-hearted contrast", and came up with some lovely, clear and bright Fantasies that Purcell wrote originally for a consort of viols. Hence the title: "Lichtwechsel" = "Change of Light". This is by no means light as in cheerful or happy-go-lucky, but more the civilized Enlightenment that is best expressed in music from Purcell to Haydn through the reasoned conversations of chamber music. I think it might be a kind for search for answers - or at any rate some kind of humanistic consolation - after the emotional voyage the group took on delving into the Mendelssohn. The Alinde musicians, by the way, are careful in their musicology; they consulted with Professor of Baroque Violin Richard Gwilt about playing music for viols with a modern string quartet.

The process becomes clearer in this fine video from B-art films, as well as the excellent liner notes (and fine photos by Kuber Shah). We have here four sensitive, fine musicians, who are following - and developing - a narrative that will become their first CD. At the same time, they're beginning to build the musical & interpersonal skills that turns two violinists, a violist and cellist into a quartet - and a brand. I think there's a very good chance that they're building something really special.

I mentioned Kuber Shah's CD cover photograph; here, from the Alinde Quartett's website, is the original, very fine photograph from which it was cropped.

Shiny new Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos 1 & 2; Works for Piano Concertante

I was excited when I saw that Ronald Brautigam was making a new recording of Mendelssohn's piano concertante music for BIS. I loved the recording he made in 1995 with Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam under Lev Markiz, also for BIS, but I knew that performance styles have changed in the past 25 years, and that Brautigam has been working long enough with Michael Alexander Willens and Die Kolner Akademie to create a special partnership. Their Mozart piano concertos series for BIS is really outstanding.

As it turns out there isn't as big an interpretation gap between the two versions as I presumed would be the case, which goes to show how far ahead of his time Brautigam was at the end of the last century. These are bright and light and bouncy, but also as passionate and romantic (rather, Romantic) as Mendelssohn's mature music should be, but we could hear this in the earlier recording as well. Rather, there's a new polish to this music; it shines just that bit brighter. I've always wondered why these two concertos weren't more popular, and this new BIS CD has me even more puzzled. Very highly recommended!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A stimulating music synthesis

Gernot Wolfgang's Vienna and the West: Road Signs, Passage to Vienna, Route 33, Windows, Impressions, From Vienna With Love

From Bill Evans' use of the Viennese Trichord (in "What Is This Thing Called Love?", from his 1960 album Portrait in Jazz) to Don Byron & Aruan Ortiz's latest album, Random Dances & (A)Tonalities, there has been a significant, consistent influence from the Second Vienna School on jazz. The harmonic and melodic innovation of Schoenberg and the stripped-down aesthetic of Webern meet jazz from the 60s and film scores since then, in this excellent new album from Grammy-nominee Gernot Wolfgang. Wolfgang brings his usual high-flying Los Angeles-based team of studio musicians, expert in both classical and popular idioms. For these fine musicians he's provided a diverse groups of pieces. "Groove-oriented chamber music" is an interesting term, but it doesn't *quite* capture the wide range of music included here.

We begin with the witty Road Signs, about Los Angeles's idée fixe: traffic. This features the bassoon, which so often seems to be having way more fun than every other instrument. Bassoonist Judith Farmer's touch is light when it needs to be, but she doesn't hesitate to stick the best jokes. The piano trio Passage to Vienna is a more serious work, dealing with the Old World/New World dialectic that has given us so many great works of art, from Henry James to Heitor Villa-Lobos. This is Anton Webern played late at night, after Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond have finished their final set.

The program concludes with a clever and touching piano quartet, From Vienna With Love, which is based on a theme from a sketch Gustav Mahler made for his Piano Quartet of 1876. There's a real tango feel to the piece, with contrasting aggressive and sentimental themes, though the folkloric content is Eastern European rather than Latin. Once again jazz-inflected passages alternate with more erudite ones, but in this piece especially Wolfgang achieves a real synthesis, I think.  It's a great end to a stimulating, and fun, album of music.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The indomitability of the human spirit

Music for Violin & Piano by Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Amy Beach

Tasmin Little brings her considerable technique and star power to the music of three women she admires a great deal, both as musicians and as human beings. If there's a theme for this disc, it's the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of systematic adversity and personal tragedy. This new disc helps to underline the rapidly rising reputations of both Clara Schumann and Amy Beach, and I hope it helps along a similar move to bring to the fore the music of Ethel Smyth.

Ethel Smyth's Violin Sonata, op. 7, is as full of character and spunk as its composer. Every new idea is more interesting than the one before, and it's all put together with technical skill and imagination. This piece, like the rest of the disc but to perhaps a higher degree, benefits from Little and Lenehan's strong advocacy. All their work was worth it, I think. The three Romanzen, op. 22, of Clara Schumann, are the same kind of character pieces that she and her husband Robert pretty much invented for solo piano. These are indeed romantic, soulful and melodic.

The most substantial, and the strongest, piece on the disc is the op. 34 Violin Sonata by Amy Beach. In her book Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian, Adrienne Fried Boch tells the story of violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and pianist Raoul Pugno coming across a violin sonata by "H. A. Beach", recognizing its quality, and putting it into their repertoire, not realizing it was by an American, or a woman. This is a strong, passionate performance, adding lustre to one of the greatest of American chamber works. Beach's Romance, op. 23, was written for the great American violin virtuoso Maud Powell; it's very much of its time (the 1890s), but no less lovely for that. The Invocation, op. 55, is from the new Century, but it's also beautifully melodic, and a beautiful ending for this thoughtfully designed programme.

In Little's recent violin sonata discs her partner was the excellent Piers Lane. This time around the pianist is John Lenehan, who provides strong support, though much of this repertoire is very much violin-focussed. We'll see if these two can eventually build the same close relationship that came to a peak in last year's Little-Lane disc of Brahms Violin Sonatas, a triumph of musical synergy.

This morning brings the news that Tasmin Little will be retiring from the concert stage. We wish her all the success in the world in all the great things she's planning for the future!

This disc will be released on February 1, 2019.