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.

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.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

A classical backbone & a lushly romantic outlook

Agustin Barrios: Guitar Music, vol. 5

Naxos chose the young Turkish guitar virtuoso Celil Refik Kaya to complete their 5-CD Barrios Guitar Music series, and the first prize winner of the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition in 2012 started strong with last year's release of Volume 4. The final disc is a triumph; this is really outstanding guitar playing. It's a tribute to both the composer and the soloist that the musical interest can be sustained at the end of a project that's this long; so often we have only left-over bits and pieces and a "let's get this done, finally" from everyone involved. Not here: Barrios has the twin virtues of a disciplined, classical backbone and a lushly romantic outlook; while Celil Refik Kaya brings a spontaneity to the more hackneyed salon pieces, and suitable gravitas for the more complex works. It must have been a huge advantage for the young guitarist to have the great production team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver in charge. One of the modern greats of the Spanish guitar, Norbert Kraft is also Engineer and Editor for the project. We hear so much about cut-throat competition at the high end of classical music; it's important to remember there is collegiality and mentorship at play every day as well.

Virtuosity and musicianship galore are on display in this superb release! Highly recommended.

By the way, I believe Norbert Kraft only recorded a single Barrios piece. It's the gorgeous Julia Florida, and it appears on his 1997 Naxos album Guitar Favourites.

This album will be released on March 8, 2019.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Into the sacred circle

Tan Dun: Fire Ritual, violin concertos

Tan Dun's Fire Ritual is a violin concerto which evokes the many victims of wars. Both as composer and conductor Tan Dun is acting as a shaman, making those spirits come to us in a life-like way, and providing at the end some sort of peace for both the spirits and for us as spectators. He wrote the work for violinist Eldbjorg Hemsing, and in this work she herself becomes a shaman, bringing the audience into the sacred circle of the orchestra.

Tan Dun's music has such a vitality; it seems to leap out at us, but in a very organic way. His intensity paired with a gift for prodigal, lush melodies make him a natural for the cinema, and I consider his music to be in the highest tier of music that crosses over between the movies and the concert hall. His 2018 Violin Concerto: Rhapsody and Fantasia shows this as well as Fire Ritual this dual character. Hemsing is a superb interpreter of this music, fearless in the face of its virtuoso requirements, and a full participant in Tan Dun's sacred mysteries.

This project makes:

  • a fine introduction to the music of Tan Dun;
  • an update for those who remember his music from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; or
  • an exciting way to get up to speed on the latest and greatest music for violin and orchestra

This album will be released on February 1, 2019.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Moving homages to Brahms

Brahms-Schoenberg: Piano Quartet in G minor; Hubert Parry: Elegy for Brahms

How do we see Arnold Schoenberg? Has he been forever obscured, overtaken, by his twelve-tone system? Is there a human being under that forbidding mask of theory? There certainly is one here in the "Blue Self-Portrait"; apparently his missing left ear is an homage to Vincent Van Gogh, who he admired immensely.
'Blue Self Portrait' by Arnold Schoenberg
Do we need a musical gateway to humanize the great composer, and bring him out from under the weight of his mighty theories? I'm not sure we still do, for I feel his music sounds different, much more accessible, in the 21st century than it did in the 20th; but if we do then his clever arrangement of Brahms's G minor Piano Quartet is just the ticket. Schoenberg takes apart the gorgeous and rich but somewhat murky chamber work, like an intricate pocket watch, polishing each tiny piece and rebuilding the whole thing as a beautiful grandfather clock. There's probably more Schoenberg here than there is Brahms, just as there's more Villa-Lobos than Bach in the Bachianas Brasileiras, but it's a surprisingly playful Schoenberg, and certainly a more human Schoenberg, than one would expect from listening to most of his music.

The resulting work is an orchestral showpiece, to be sure, but to play it only as such is to miss many felicities in the scoring. The conductor must be careful not to be too prodigal with Schoenberg's flourishes, holding something back for the climaxes and paying attention to the unfolding of Brahms's musical arguments. The players of the Gavle Symphony Orchestra are having fun here, and I think Jaime Martin does a more than passable job in reigning everything in. It becomes a moving homage from one composer to another, each of them on a different side of a historical and a musical abyss.

When Hubert Parry heard that Johannes Brahms had died in 1897 he stopped everything and began work on his Elegy for Brahms, a 12-minute symphonic movement. It's an appealing tribute, partly because of its quotations from Brahms' music, but mainly because it eschews the lugubrious. This is more like a eulogy with light-hearted anecdotes about the loved one that has the funeral crowd smiling and chuckling. There's an added layer of melancholy, though, that comes when you learn that the Elegy wasn't performed until it was played at Parry's own memorial service in 1918. Sir Adrian Boult made a lovely recording of this piece in December 1966. "Boult makes this Elegy shine in a golden aureole which celebrates Brahms rather than laments him," according to Rob Barnett. While the final sheen of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the gravitas of the great old conductor is missing from this performance, the Swedish players and their young Spanish conductor do a creditable job here. This is a highly recommended

This album will be released on February 8, 2019.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

High above, on a better star

Heimweh: Schubert Lieder

From Pentatone Classics comes this very special package, with an amazing cover photo by Julia Wesely, the profound musical concept and an arresting liner notes essay by Anna Lucia Richter, and the gorgeous music making of Richter, pianist Gerold Huber and clarinettist Matthias Schorn. Not to forget the greatest song-writer in history, Franz Schubert, a brilliant curator of poetry and the ultimate melder of words and music.

"We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange," says Carson McCullers. "As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known." The German words for these two feelings are Heimweh, a kind of homesickness, and Hinausweh, or wanderlust. Schubert, a master of the emotional landscape as much as the musical one, weaves strands of both throughout his songs, and Richter has gathered some of the best for this project. We begin with the heartbreaking simplicity of An den Mond, D. 259, a Goethe setting from 1815. In her liner notes Doris Blaich calls Heimweh, D. 456, from the following year, "one long musical sigh." The lyrics, by Theodor Hell, are a special expression of nostalgic feelings.
Often, in quiet, solitary hours,
I have experienced a feeling,
inexplicable, marvellous,
like a yearning for the far distance,
high above, on a better star,
like a soft presentiment.
Schubert turns the emotional level way up in the late Totengräbers Heimwehe, D. 842, a setting of Jakob Nikolaus from 1825. In this song "The stars vanish – My eyes close in death," an unflinching look into the abyss!

The programme ends with Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D. 965, a melding of two poems by Wilhelm Müller and Karl August Varnhagen, written in October 1828. This concert aria shifts the spotlight from the relatively intimate lieder to something which points to a more theatrical future, which alas was not to be. The song was published posthumously, after the composer died that November.
My sweetheart lives so far from me,
Therefore, I long so to be with her
Over there.
Music wouldn't be the same without this yearning, from the lonesome cowboy to the saudade of Fado and Tom Jobim, from singin' the blues to Judy Garland's yearning for home in The Wizard of Oz. This album is a distinguished addition to the genre.

This disc will be released on February 1, 2019.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Music from the shadows

Alberto Nepomuceno: Symphony in G minor, Prelude to O Garatuja, Serie Brasileira

The Villa-Lobos Shadow in Brazilian classical music is wide, and long, and very dark. It reaches forward from the intimidating bulk of the great composer's works, but it also reaches into the past, obscuring the music of fine, or at least respectable, composers who went before. But now, to shine some light on composers in this shadow, we have an exciting new Naxos series called The Music of Brazil, made possible by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs project Brasil em Concerto. We can look forward to more releases from the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the Goiás Philharmonic Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP), from a label that has already done so much for Brazilian classical music.

Alberto Nepomuceno is a good composer to begin with: born twenty-three years before Villa-Lobos, he left behind his beginnings in the North-Eastern cities of Fortaleza and Recife for more sophisticated musical surroundings, first in Rio de Janeiro, and then for an extended stay in the European capitals of Rome, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. A progressive in politics as well as art, Nepomuceno worked tirelessly, often behind the scenes, on behalf of new trends in music, but it was Villa-Lobos who gained much of the credit as the foremost home-grown musical modernist. In a coup of self-promotion and clever branding, Villa-Lobos stood virtually alone as the representative of music at the Semana de Arte Moderna in São Paulo in 1922. At that point, unfortunately, Nepomuceno had been dead for nearly two years, though surely more room could be made in the story of avant garde Brazilian music for someone who had translated Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony into Portuguese in 1916, teaching it at his National Institute of Music.

Which brings us to the music on the present disc. There is lots of well-crafted, pleasant music here, substantial enough to make careful listening worth your while, with occasionally something special.  While I was re-listening to Nepomuceno's G minor Symphony I had a flash-back to some music I had heard earlier in the day on my car radio (on KING-FM), Johan Halvorsen's Symphony no. 1 in D minor. Both had a pleasing, light, Tchaikovskian sound, and I wasn't at all surprised to see that both composers were born in the same year, 1864, though the Brazilian symphony was written in 1893, thirty years before its Norwegian counterpart. It's the beautiful slow movement of this symphony which represents perhaps the peak of Nepomuceno's orchestral music, under the influence, I would guess, of music by composers such as Puccini and Leoncavallo, but prefiguring works by Elgar and Richard Strauss.

Fabio Mechetti and the Minas Gerais Philharmonic provide really excellent playing, with especially strong string sections. Their version of the G minor Symphony is vastly better than the other version I've heard, by the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira under Edoardo de Guarnieri from 1958. This is a strong start for the Naxos series, and I look forward to upcoming releases!

This disc will be released on February 8, 2019.

A Brazilian composer you must know

The Ovalle Project: works for piano by Jayme Ovalle

The Brazilian composer Jayme Ovalle is a close contemporary of Heitor Villa-Lobos; he was born seven years after, and died four years before his much better-known compatriot. Like Villa-Lobos, Ovalle wrote a great deal of music for the piano throughout his career, and this splendid two-CD set by Andree-Ann Deschenes (whose Villa-Lobos I praised in 2017) shows Ovalle deserves a place amongst the great Brazilian composers for the piano, a group that also includes Camargo Guarnieri, Chiquinha Gonzaga and Ernesto Nazareth. But Ovalle is more like Chopin than the musical polymath Villa-Lobos; nearly everything he wrote was either a song or a piano piece.

But Ovalle's trajectory in music is similar to Villa-Lobos's in a number of other ways. Both melded erudite and popular styles, and combined Brazilian traditions of salon music with up-to-date European modernism, especially influenced by Debussy, Ravel and Satie. Like Villa-Lobos, Ovalle spent a good deal of his time outside of Brazil, in Europe and New York, and shared a cosmopolitan outlook that's often reflected in his music. Deschenes has chosen works that show the many facets of Ovalle's music, from Nazareth-style pieces in maxixe and choro styles, to characteristic, folk-like tunes reminiscent of Villa's Guia prático, and finally to more complex works like the splendid Third Lengenda. This collection has immediate appeal, with its lovely melodies and captivating rhythms, but it rewards close listening as well. Playing with intense virtuosity and cool control, Deschenes has done Ovalle and Brazilian music a great service with this project. Very highly recommended!

This review also appears at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Debussy with fire, wit and a touch of swing

Piano works by Debussy, Faure and Ravel
Under the alternating fires of two spotlights, a very young man, with troubled eyes and flaming hair, was seated before the black mass of a piano. And, alone, confronting a considerable public, delirious or collected, and who filled the vast ship of the room of the Opera of the Champs-Elysees.
This spectacle still besets my memory.
- Henry Malherbe
The very young man was Marius-Francois Gaillard, and he was in the midst of playing the complete piano works of Claude Debussy, spread over three concerts in March 1922. In 1928, 1929 and 1930, French Odéon recorded a significant subset of Gaillard's Debussy, enough to fill a generous CD, and spill over onto a second. This is outstanding playing; though the sound is of course thin and restricted, there is a full palette of tonal colour. Gaillard supplies fire, wit and just a touch of swing, rare in a Debussy performance from any period, but a revelation if you haven't heard this marvellous music played in such a way. This is a recording to listen to while reading Proust, and drinking vintage French champagne, preferably the 1985 Krug Brut, if you have any left in your cellar.

APR Recordings fills the second CD with more marvellous piano playing from the 1930s, by Carmen Guilbert. Recorded by Pathé well after the Gaillard, the sound isn't as life-like, but her playing of Debussy, Faure and Ravel still communicates musicality and authenticity through the hiss and cramped acoustic. Such a fine release!