Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Give 'em the spirit


Edward Elgar is one of the first composers who really paid attention to recording technology, and he left an impressive recording legacy. This new four-disc set from Somm digs deep into his private library of test pressings, and comes up with some real gems, plus more than a few amazing surprises.

Having a recording engineer's name on the cover of a CD doesn't happen too often, but it should perhaps happen more often. Lani Spahr is the hero here, along with Elgar, of course, a fine conductor as well as composer. Of course we shouldn't forget the excellent musicians of the top London orchestras (or the 'recording' orchestras that I would imagine included a big subset of the same players), and two superb soloists: cellist Beatrice Harrison, and the 16-year old violinist Yehudi Menuhin. But it's Spahr who finds the best sides from Elgar's personal library, a significant research accomplishment requiring superb musicality and excellent memory. As well, Spahr utilizes state-of-the-art audio processing to make music from the 1920s and 30s sound fresh and alive, sounding better than they have any right to sound. This is a new generation of archival re-issues, and it deserves a hearing, even from those of us who haven't specialized in this area in the past.

Let's set the stage. Here is a fabulous video of Sir Edward Elgar conducting The London Symphony Orchestra in the first of his Pomp and Circumstances marches. This is from 1931, around the time of the inauguration of the HMV Studios. We know this room best, of course, as Studio 1 at Abbey Road.



Here is the young Yehudi Menuhin recording the Violin Concerto. The date is July 14, 1932.


And here's the same room, 32 years later in 1964. The youngest of the Beatles, George, is 6 years older than Yehudi, at 22! What an amazing history this place has.


The entire Violin Concerto isn't here; rather we hear never-before released 78-sides of portions of the first 3 movements. What we do hear is more of the astounding mastery of Menuhin, and a surprisingly full-sounding LSO, led with assurance by Elgar. Having alternate takes available not only provides context for the final version we know so well, but also gives you some insight into the technical constraints the musicians were working under. The First Symphony is complete. We've heard portions of this recording made at Kingsway Hall in November 1930 before, but Spahr replaces takes in each movement, re-editing the symphony after the fact.  I'll pass on a close comparison of the two versions - that would take a real Elgar recordings geek - but I will say this: Elgar's own version of this symphony is outstanding, and today's conductors should pay more attention to his tempi and his lack of sentimentality. So many sound flabby after this.

So the re-mastered mono recordings on discs 3 and 4 are impressive; they sound rich and full, relatively speaking, and they provide a vital, living link to a great master and days gone by. But we're all really here for the stereo, right? It's accidental stereo, but a real stereo nevertheless. You'll remember the scene from the Pomp and Circumstances video at the beginning of this review, where the recording technician readies the wax matrix cutting table and phones down to the studio (at 0:50). It turns out that occasionally very careful HMV producers rigged up a second disc recorder connected to a separate microphone. This is classic belt-and-suspenders behaviour, but considering the many things that could go wrong with the recording process between the studio and the manufacturing facility, I'm sure it came in handy more than a few times. Having to cut longer works into chunks of less than 5 minutes was enough of a problem; re-assembling a large orchestra to do re-takes of a ruined segment because of a technical glitch wouldn't fly.

It was the recording engineer Mark Obert-Thorn who first thought of using the audio processing software Capstan from Celemony to synchronize the same music recorded on two different machines and microphones, in effect creating left and right stereo channels. This resulted in the Pristine Classical disc Accidental Stereo, with music from early electrical recordings of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, Saint-Saens and Elgar. With Obert-Thorn's successful model, Spahr was able to dig up quite a few matched pairs from the Elgar archive that might have come from separate microphones. The software does the bulk of the work, but Spahr had to do a lot of manual tweeking as well, and there was no guarantee that the result would be stereo. Beginning with two matrices of the same music which seem to be from two different machines, after all the synchronization there might be no stereo separation. That indicates that the two matrices shared the same microphone.

The stereo separation can be quite stunning. Spahr, in classic stereo demonstration mode, includes a section of the Cockaigne Overture with a transition from mono to stereo, and it's an amazing opening-up, like Dorothy going from black-and-white to Technicolor Oz. The stereo effect is similarly full and real in the Cello Concerto, though the cello itself is set somewhat to the left, since the microphone placement wasn't designed with stereo sound in mind. Beatrice Harrison is the amazing cellist. I've listened quite a few times to these various takes, in mono and in stereo, but I often forgot about the circumstances, and just let the music carry me away. Terry King, who provides illuminating liner notes about the Cello Concerto recording, quotes something Elgar said to Harrison that really resonates with me; I think it says something very profound about Elgar as a musician and a person that he said this to Harrison just before a take:

“Give it ‘em, Beatrice, give it ‘em. Don’t mind about the notes or anything. Give ‘em the spirit.”


Monday, August 29, 2016

Pretty good music, and sweet


"If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it." - the motto of Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, in Garrison Keillor's News from Lake Wobegon

There used to be lots of white space in our musical maps of the past, especially in those covering the period before Haydn and Mozart. We paid attention to Bach, Handel, Rameau, Lully, and a handful of Italians: Corelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi. Now niche recording companies are filling in the blanks and providing context for the better known names. These might be students or teachers of the greats; and that may be the case here. According to Alessandro Lattanzi's fine liner essay, Gentili was "allegedly one of Vivaldi's teachers." But unless we're just playing connect-the-dots, the music itself has to have some intrinsic merit.

This new disc from Brilliant Classics introduced me to a name that was completely new to me: Giorgio (called "Giorgietto", so I think of him as Little Georgie) Gentili, who lived from about 1669 to 1730. I was able to track down one other piece by Gentili on disc, a concerto on the 2000 Warner disc Zeit Für Venedig by Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca. Now we have this two-disc set (not terribly full; there's only 83 minutes of music altogether) with Soavi Affetti playing all 12 of Gentili's op. 1 Trio Sonatas. Have they uncovered a great new master?

Hope springs eternal, but in a word, no. The liner notes, where one expects lots of special pleading, become the witness for the prosecution:
Some undeniable deficiencies of his Op.1—above all, the lack of artistic individuality—have drawn unfairly harsh scholarly criticism, and the rejection of the collection in its entirety seems ungenerous. As a melodist, Gentili is admittedly less gifted than a Caldara or an Albinoni, and the melodic flow is inhibited by ubiquitous chains of suspensions. Lyrical flashes, pleasant as they may be, are rare,  and so are expressive harmonies, which were a strong point of the older Venetian masters.
I do feel that there's lots of variety here, and that's a tribute to both the performers and the composer. Soavi Affetti use both organ and harpsichord in the continuo, which is helpful, and they keep things moving along briskly, with special attention to Gentili's rhythmic invention. Gentili does his part by providing Corelli standard-issue music but also hearkening back to older music: the 17th century sonata concertata. This antique sound can be very appealing. As well, he often inserts flourishes of solo music for the solo violin, which provides a bit of a concertante feeling. I enjoy his slow movements, which provide a pleasing, sweet sound that lingers for a while. This music won't change your life, but it should provide some pleasure.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The perfect Ginastera centennial tribute

Alberto Ginastera's centennial year is coming along very well, I think.  I counted 36 concerts at InstantEncore in 2016, and nine CD releases so far on Amazon.com. The standard reputation model for a composer seems to be a slight drop in interest after death, and then a significant rise after the centennial. That's certainly what happened with Villa-Lobos, whose 1987 centennial was the cue for a huge increase in concerts, recordings, academic literature and overall popularity. Let's hope we see something like that with Ginastera, who has been very much under-rated for a long time now.

"I am no longer searching for a national style but a personal style," said Ginastera looking back on a career that is the perfect musical expression of Jorge Luis Borges' 1951 essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition". "Our patrimony is the universe;" says Borges, "we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine." Though Ginastera famously divided his music into three periods, Objective Nationalism, Subjective Nationalism and Neo-Expressionism, the general move from simple folkloric works to a more international, avant garde style did not remove folklore from the equation. Indeed, the relatively late Guitar Sonata from 1976 is replete with Cuecha and Nambicuara melodies and what Ginastera himself (channeling his inner music reviewer, perhaps) called "the strong, bold rhythms of the music of the pampas.*" The Guitar Sonata is not at all a doctrinaire post-War twelve-tone work, but rather a work of syncretism. There's even a quote from Wagner's Meistersinger in the witty Scherzo. Writing a Sonata in 1976 was an act of independence; to include such a fun Scherzo even more so. One of the things I love about Jason Vieaux's performance, which is the best I've heard, is how he pulls out all the stops in this movement without any sense of losing control. Comedy is famously hard, and it's hardest of all to pull off in music. There's a lot of layers here: Vieaux carefully negotiates the complex technical logistics while putting across Ginastera's take-off of Wagner's not-as-subtle put-down of Sixtus Beckmesser. Vieaux makes the whole Sonata sound completely organic, and this fine performance only emphasizes the importance of this piece in the Classical Guitar literature.

It's a stylistic step back to the early (1937) Danzas Argentinas, op. 2, played beautifully by pianist Orli Shaham. I've commented before that Ginastera and Villa-Lobos moved in opposite directions. Villa perhaps was Benjamin Button in this scenario.
But in the late 1930s, the two were in sync with each other. Villa's Ciclo Brasileiro, written in 1936-37, shares the same pianistic textures, explores similar rhythms, also flirts with bi-tonality, and shares similar "Indianist" characteristics. While Ginastera has introduced modernist tropes into his music by 1947's Pampeana no. 1, op. 16, played here by Orli Shaham and her bother, the great violinist Gil, this music is not at all difficult on the ears. That's partly because of Ginastera's tendency to call back to 19th century virtuosi, especially Paganini, in much the same way Villa-Lobos quotes Puccini or Rimsky-Korsakov in the middle of otherwise very progressive music. It's also, as the excellent liner essay by Oberlin Conservatory Professor James O'Leary demonstrates, because Ginastera learned from his teacher Aaron Copland to temper modernism with the simple, open, honest music of "the common man". One of the most useful parts of O'Leary's commentary is the light it shines on the political aspects of these issues which seem at first purely musical. Ginastera's experience, like Copland's and Villa-Lobos's, had a political component every bit as fraught with difficulty, if not as dangerous in the end, as the experience of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Less so than the workmanlike Villa-Lobos Harp Concerto of 1953, Ginastera's 1956 Harp Concerto, op. 25, is an obvious star turn for the composer and for generations of grateful harpists. "He wrote our piece", says Yolanda Kondonassis in her introduction to the album.  It has a Bachian combination of erudite structure and joyful invention. Kondonassis, who has performed the work nearly 200 times, has mastered this music, and it shows in this completely secure but playful performance. She has superb support from the excellent Oberlin Orchestra under Raphael Jimenez.

This is really one of the most exciting recording projects I've come across this year. Everyone involved has connected to this marvellous music in a way that doesn't always get communicated to audiences quite like this. Kudos to the Oberlin Conservatory for providing both the academic foundation and sophisticated technical and marketing support for such an auspicious celebration.


* I recommend Charles King's excellent 1992 thesis "Alberto Ginastera's Sonata for Guitar Op. 47: an analysis", a very readable and useful study.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Excellent complex, meaty Copland


The second disc in the Chandos series of Copland Orchestral Works is much more interesting, in my opinion, than the first, which included suites and other excerpts from Copland's perennially popular ballets. Again we have John Wilson conducting the BBC Philharmonic, in recordings made in Manchester and Salford at the beginning of 2016. Besides the virtuoso work of the orchestral musicians, the stars of the recording are organist Jonathan Scott and his instrument, the Marcussen & Søn Organ at The Bridgewater Hall. Copland's early Organ Symphony is an accomplished work considering his relative youth and I'm sure it makes a real impression at a live concert. It makes an impression here as well, with the usual warm Chandos sound (though I didn't get a chance to hear the surround-sound version of the disc). This is a work that has been well-served on disc; besides the famous Bernstein recording from 1967 with E. Power Biggs, there are fine recordings from Dallas, San Francisco and St. Louis, as well as another BBC recording from London, with Leonard Slatkin.

The real meat of the disc, though, comes from the other three works from the 1930s, each of which finds Copland reaching farther into more complex rhythms and away from the more simple-sounding Americana that became the most popular strand of his work throughout his career. Copland ran into difficulties with orchestras and conductors (including such giants as Stokowski and Koussevitsky) over the perceived difficulty of this music, and re-scoring and multiple rehearsals didn't really solve the issue. I'm not sure if the BBC Philharmonic players experienced any real problems in preparation, but they not only sound completely assured here, the music itself seems not especially complex to my ears. This, I think was a problem in the mid-20th century with many composers' works. Just this morning I read this in the liner notes to the new recording of Wozzeck with Fabio Luisi:
Claus Spahn: "The conductor of the world premiere, Erich Kleiber, needed 15 ensemble rehearsals and 34 orchestral rehearsals. Is Wozzeck still an extremely difficult work today?"
Luisi: "On a purely technical level, the score is no longer the problem as it was in Kleiber's day, because we now have much more experience with the music of the twentieth century."
My guess is that Wilson might say exactly the same thing about conducting these fine orchestral works by this American pioneer of both folkloric and modernist music. Kudos to Chandos and the players; I look forward to the next release in the series, which I trust will include Symphony no. 3, one of the greatest of American symphonies.

Charming and vigorous string quartets


The Authentic Quartet from Hungary continue their excellent recording-premiere series of Pleyel String Quartets with another very appealing release on Hungaroton. These two- and three-movement works from the early 1790s are full of a vigorous, if rather naïve, charm and are free from any pretentious striving for the kind of meaning Haydn (Pleyel's master) or Mozart (Pleyel's contemporary) brought to the medium. They're just fun to listen to, and, key to this disc's success, obviously fun to play. I was especially taken with the Rondo eccossois; as I prepare for my first trip to Scotland next month this is just what I want to listen to!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Gems from Steven Staryk's Baroque archive


Centaur's Steven Staryk Retrospective series reaches its 8th volume (to be released September 9, 2016), and new gems from Staryk's own archives keep coming. Staryk's discography was never as broad or well-distributed as it should have been for a violinist of his calibre, but with this series and the previous Steven Staryk Anthology we're getting a clear picture of a giant in 20th century violin performance.

I spend most of my time in the Historically Informed Performance camp when it comes to Baroque music, but I have a soft spot for Steven Staryk and his perfect accompanist Kenneth Gilbert. Here, playing violin sonatas by Corelli, Tartini and Locatelli, the two are perfectly matched. Staryk's tone and intonation are superb, and Gilbert's continuo is so solid, but with plenty of variety and even the occasional surprise. In the finale to the Tartini sonata there is so much wit and such a strong swinging feeling that one thinks of jazz or the best improvisatory comedy: peak Martin and Lewis, perhaps. That oversells this, obviously, but the cool ease and waiting for the unexpected zinger are both here in Tartini's lovely music.

In the concertante Vivaldi selections Staryk soars. This is what Vivaldi violin playing sounded like at its best in the second half of the 20th century, and it's rarely been better since. The sound is serviceable at best, but, and as was the case with volume 7 in this series, the orchestral support is better than expected. I've never heard of the Montreal Baroque Players, but this pickup band of Montreal's best instrumentalists must have been thrilled to play with a soloist at this level, and they're bringing their best game.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Community and nature as art form


In December 1967 CBC Radio broadcast Glenn Gould's radio documentary Idea of North, the first of three "contrapuntal pieces for radio" that made up what he referred to as his Solitude Trilogy. These works should be considered not only musical compositions in themselves, argues Friedemann Sallis in an important article, but also as important part of Gould's performance legacy.



In this tradition comes Aleksandra Vrebalov's The Sea Ranch Songs with the Kronos Quartet, to be released on September 30, 2016. "The production of place in music" is Sallis's subtitle, and that's what Vrebalov has created, in collaboration with videographer Andrew Lyndon. I haven't yet had a chance to see Lyndon's video, so I've experienced only the audio portion of this project, which certainly underlines the connection with Gould. Vrebalov brings the same passion to this portrait of a community, the same overlapping voices and natural and man-made sounds, that come together with all of the sounds of a string quartet (and what a string quartet!) to etch the place in our minds as something rare and special.  And Sea Ranch, on the Pacific Coast in Sonoma County, is clearly a special place.

John Lambert Pearson - originally posted to Flickr as Sea Ranch Panoramic Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

One of my favourite tracks is Fort Ross Chorale, which combines the sound of the church bell from Fort Ross, a 19th century Russian settlement, with a beautiful and sad liturgical chorus. But all of these vignettes become works of music and works of art. Vrebalov weaves this story and many others into her music: Sea Ranch residents reminiscing; Lorin Smith, medicine man of the Pomo Kashia Indians, singing the Welcoming Song; archaeologist Mike Lane reciting numbers that represent the land and the community; architect Donlyn Lyndon, who helped design Condominium One, the design of which brought fame to the community fifty years ago; many natural sounds, from coyotes to the many inhabitants of the tidal pools. I look forward to Lyndon's video, but I feel that I've already visited Sea Ranch and know many of its secrets.

The Kronos Quartet continue their genre-busting work in yet another amazing project. They've brought the classic attributes of one of the most important artistic forms of the Enlightenment, the civilized and passionate conversation of two violins, a viola and a cello, into so many parts of a modern world that can use as much enlightenment as it can get. We're lucky to have them.