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.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The grand gestures of Telemann

Georg Philipp Telemann: The Grand Concertos for Mixed Instruments

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

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

This album will be released on September 6, 2019

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Shimmering, shining Vivaldi

Vivaldi Con Amore: Concertos

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

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

This album will be released on September 20, 2019

Thursday, August 8, 2019

A strong, atmospheric, Villa-Lobos program

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

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

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

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

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

This album will be released on September 6, 2019

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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Another winner from the Emerald City

Langgaard: Prelude to Antichrist; Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

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

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

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

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

This album will be released on September 13, 2019

Authentic Holst & Elgar from Bergen

Holst: The Planets; Elgar: Enigma Variations

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

A masterpiece of emotional intimacy

Boccherini: Stabat Mater

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

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

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

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Original premieres played with style and musicality

Gossec: Symphonies op. IV

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

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

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