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:, 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.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Quartets from an important Canadian modernist

2016 is the centennial year for a number of composers, notably Alberto Ginastera and Milton Babbitt. I hadn't heard anything about celebrations for Jean Papineau-Couture, who was born in Montreal on November 12, 1916, until this new ATMA Classique disc came along. It's an important release from 
the Quatuor Molinari, who I know from their excellent Kurtag, Gubaidulina and Schnittke albums for ATMA.

Papineau-Couture studied with Quincy Porter at the New England Conservatory, and then with (you guessed it!) Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Boulanger connected him with Stravinsky, and the two got along well. There's a 1944-45 photo in the liner notes of Papineau-Couture and his wife with the Stravinskys and Boulanger at Feather Hill Ranch, Montecito, California. You can hear Stravinsky's influence and the sound of modernist Paris in P-C's 1st Quartet from 1953. By the time of his second quartet in 1967 he's still resisting the siren sound of 12-tone music, but he's definitely moving in that direction. Incidentally, the piece was written in celebration of Canada's Centennial and Boulanger's 80th birthday. The most advanced work in that regard is the string trio Slanò from 1973, which has a complex, experimental sound. Both the 3rd quartet from 1996 and the 4th quartet, unfinished at his death in 2000, have a spare sound, and hearken back to early music. This is a valuable release (coming November 4, 2016). For more information on this appealing composer, visit the Papineau-Couture page at the indispensable Canadian Music Centre website.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Music from an important 20th century composer

Those of you who aren't familiar with the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer should check out this Centrediscs two-CD compilation of his music for harp, played by another Canadian great, harpist Judy Loman. The album is due for release on November 11, 2016. It includes a pretty good cross-section of Schafer's works in various genres, performed by (you guessed it) some of Canada's greatest performers, including the Orford String Quartet and the TSO.

Though Schafer made his reputation as an experimental composer - he pioneered concepts such as graphic notation and the soundscape and other electroacoustic ideas - much of the music on this disc is rather pleasant to listen to. While the music is always progressive and sometimes sharp-edged, the harp seems to lend itself to more euphonious sounds, even matched with percussion and the often percussive use of other instruments. Patria 5: The Crown of Ariadne, written for harp and an interesting battery of percussion instruments, is part of a fascinating musical theatre project Schafer has been working on for more than 40 years (!). The always interesting ins and outs of this piece make me anxious to learn more.

Patria makes reference to one of Schafer's life-long obsessions: the story of the Cretan Labyrinth, Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur. One of the most interesting pieces on this album is Theseus for harp and string quartet, a substantial work that Loman commissioned in 1983. Here it is, played by Loman and the Orford String Quartet from the original 1997 Centrediscs album Chimera.

One of the best things about the Ginastera centennial in 2016 has been the chance to hear his great Harp Concerto, and I've done just that many times. So I was interested to listen to Schafer's Harp Concerto, written in 1987. This is, again, a relatively accessible piece, though without the obvious importance of Ginastera's concerto. I would still put it up against any of the other 20th century Harp Concertos, including Villa-Lobos's. Loman's playing is outstanding, and the Toronto Symphony provides strong support. Every listen through of this fascinating disc emphasizes to me that Schafer is Canada's greatest composer.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

An obscure composer brings unalloyed pleasure

This new disc from Ricercar (due to be released October 28, 2016) is a very welcome one: a new recording of Johann Bernhard Bach's four Ouvertures. These are suites of dances, many of them French, though the genre itself had became typically German. No, J.B. Bach isn't part of Johann Sebastian's prodigious progeny, but rather a distant cousin, and a fairly obscure one at that. He wasn't distant or obscure enough to escape the notice of the most musically important family in history, though. Three of these works were found in the possession of C.P.E. Bach, and copied in the hand of C.P.E., important family friends, and even Johann Sebastian himself. They obviously thought highly of the music.

As do I, and especially in this new recording from the Metz-based Achéron ensemble. There's a French grace and dignity, some pomp and ceremony, about this music that's clear in this video, the official trailer for the album.

But there's more to J.B.'s music than that. He also has a fun, earthy side, perhaps more German than French. Here's a Bourée where the flutes really let loose, and the players are obviously enjoying themselves. It's followed by an Air that shows the new sentimentalism of the emerging early 18th century middle class.

This music is stylishly played and nicely presented. It's not far off in quality from similar music by Telemann, and even (dare I say) his second cousin, once removed.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Illuminating, moving musical project

This new disc from Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the leader of the conductor-less Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, is part of the new classical music recording trend of publishing projects built around a music-historical or conceptual theme. In the old days a record company would likely put out Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet on an LP coupled with the Trout Quintet, or another popular "named" quartet by another composer. The idea of wrapping a recording around a defining idea bigger than just "recital" or "concert" wasn't often on the radar in the LP era. This was perhaps because of format limitations: each 20-25 minute side happened to fit a chamber music work, or half of a romantic symphony, and the format pointed to a certain kind of conventional content.

This is different. Kopatchinskaja takes the idea of "Death and the Maiden", which began as a poem by Matthias Claudius, set as a song by Schubert in 1817, and makes it the basis of a fascinating 70 minutes of music. By the time Schubert wrote his great String Quartet, which uses the song's great melody as the theme of its great Andante second movement, he was facing death during a major health crisis in 1824. The various musical sources brought in for this project, from medieval chant to the avant garde, all speak to this consciousness of what is coming. Then each source, from widely varying musical beginnings, is adapted for a common platform, the string orchestra. The Schubert arrangements are by Kopatchinskaja herself. Pieces by Dowland, Kurtag, Gesualdo, Normiger and an anonymous Byzantine chant provide historical and emotional context for Schubert's masterwork. This is an illuminating, moving project.

This Alpha Classics disc will be released on October 28, 2016.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Authentic, authoritative Van Gogh

Arthaus Musik has packaged a 2009 documentary from the Van Gogh Museum, directed by Eline Timmer, into this two-DVD set. It's impressively multi-lingual; commentary and subtitles are available in English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch and Italian. Though there's nothing especially stylish about this in film terms - it follows the standard slow pan across paintings, expert talking heads, voice-over letter reading format of many an art history documentary - the value of this film is the authenticity and authority of its source: the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was especially interested in the actual letters between Vincent and Theo that play such a large role in Van Gogh's life; the sketches positively jump off the pages. Has there ever been an artist who was so enthusiastic about art? It makes his low patches and final decline even sadder. The HD sound and picture makes learning about an artist a pretty good second place to making the trip to Amsterdam.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Beethoven concertos with a chamber music flavour

This new 4-CD set from Capriccio consists of a big chunk of Beethoven's greatest music, most of it from his virile middle period. They've gathered a group of talented musicians who are also in their prime: violinist Isabelle Van Keulen, cellist Julian Steckel, and pianist and conductor Stefan Vladar. It was recorded at Vienna's Synchron Stage in December 2015 and February 2016 over a period of only nine days. This schedule provides the music with a feeling of occasion and excitement that usually comes from a live recording, rather than the more controlled vibe of a normal studio recording.

In this excellent Capriccio video Vladar talks about his tendency to focus on the extreme aspects of Beethoven, in recognition of the composer's revolutionary tendencies. But the hallmark of this project, is, I think, a tasteful, collegial, civilized feeling that comes from the relatively small orchestra and the fact that Vladar is playing and conducting at the same time. Vladar talks about the significance of this:
It’s a lot of fun to view the pieces as expanded chamber music rather than as a solo concerto with orchestra. …the orchestral musicians themselves are challenged to display their chamber musical qualities, since they have to organize a lot of things themselves.
The fine playing in the concertos is a sign of the rapport Vladar has built with the Wiener KammerOrchester since he became their music director in 2008. The entire project demonstrates the power of a relaxed and convivial environment - having fun playing music with friends - to elevate good music into something special.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A modern masterpiece brought to post-modern life

This new Opus Arte Blu-ray disc of last year's Glyndbourne production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia is a very welcome record of the highly praised opera directed by Fiona Shaw. Shaw's concept adds new layers to the cleverly designed original concept of Britten and his librettist Ronald Duncan. There's an intended pun there, since the Male and Female Choruses act as if they were post-war British archaeologists uncovering the tragic story of Lucretia and her rape by Tarquinius, prince of Rome. We dig into the story through layers of dirt, and the set and lighting and costume design all focus our attention on Britten's perennial theme, the corruption of innocence. 

I watched this with the equally sordid American election swirling in the background, which seemed pertinent in a way, but unfortunate in others. There's lots in the story as told by Shaw that's vile, but it also has dignity and gravitas, and the violence of the central act is never gratuitous. That's helped immensely by the amazing acting and singing of the cast, and especially Christine Rice as Lucretia and Duncan Rock as Tarquinius. Musically as well we have the best possible players - thirteen musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and their leader, Leo Hussain - who, as Fiona Shaw herself says, "have [the work] in their fingers, in their bodies." The HD sound and picture are outstanding; much more impressive than a video clip can put across. This is a modern masterpiece brought to post-modern life.