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, 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.