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.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Listening to Schubert with the proper spirit of reverence and appreciation

Franz Schubert: Symphonies no. 2 & 5

What a bright and long-burning genius was Franz Schubert, partially obscured though he was by the Great Genius Beethoven. Schubert had an intensity that belied his lack of personal charisma when placed against the larger-than-life 19th century masters. His songs and his piano sonatas are obviously at the very pinnacle of greatness, but when it comes to Schubert's orchestral music it's the earlier, slighter symphonies I love to listen to (not counting the Unfinished Symphony, of course, which is both great and loveable). This is something I expect is fairly common; there's something about Schubert and his music that inspires this kind of love. I was enjoying listening to this clear, bright, thoughtful recording from Antwerp while reading Deborah Solomon's fabulous biography of the artist Joseph Cornell, Utopia Parkway, and saw that Cornell shared this Schubert love:
Cornell's latest fascination was with Franz Schubert, one of many composers who glowed with a special incandescence in his imagination.... Cornell's records meant so much to him that sometimes he couldn't even bring himself to open them. After acquiring a set of recordings of Schubert's Trio in E Flat, Cornell noted in his diary: 'I await the proper moment to unfold its loveliness and enjoy it in the proper spirit of reverence and appreciation it deserves.'
I highly recommend this disc from Maestro Herreweghe, and further recommend that when you buy it you go ahead and open it, or load the MP3s on your computer or phone or whatever, and listen. You'll love it.

A picture of greatness

Otto Klemperer: live recordings from the BBC

Here's another release from the great Itter Broadcast Collection, recordings to tape and acetate disc made by Lyrita's Richard Itter from BBC FM transmissions beginning in the mid-1950s. These recording premieres on four CDs show Otto Klemperer, my favourite 20th century conductor, at the peak of his powers. His Mozart should win over all but the most doctrinaire HIPsters. The middle-period A major Symphony K.201 is relaxed and winning, while the late, great G minor Symphony K. 441 is wound up considerably tighter. "Mozart's in the closet," the last movement begins, "Let him out, let him out, let him out!" Klemperer has us worried about the composer's release, and his fine musicians keep up the pressure throughout. Violinist Bronislav Gimpel provides a lovely tone in Mozart's final Violin Concerto, K. 219, weaving through the most perfectly constructed accompaniment. This is the happiest I've felt after listening to a Mozart disc in a long time. Beethoven (no. 2), Schumann (no. 4) and Brahms (no. 2) symphonies are so impressive, but it's the Bruckner 7th that's the real standout here. This is a performance for the ages, from the quiet by-ways to the blazing glory of the slowly building climaxes. This is a picture of greatness, and I couldn't possibly recommend it more highly.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Precision in the landscape of extinction

Olivier Messiaen: Fantaisie, Theme & Variations, Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Denmark's Ensemble Nordlys provides a lucid and convincing performance of one of the great chamber works of all time, Messiaen's Quartet for the end of time. I've read reviews compaining about the recording balance, but this sounds very good to my (non-audiophile) ears, and I can hear enough of the inner voices to admire the control and precision of the playing of all four musicians.  As William Blake says, "Without minute neatness of execution, the sublime cannot exist!" Listen to the brightness and clarity in the first movement, the Crystal Liturgy:

There couldn't have been much precision at the Quartet's first performance, in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany on January 15, 1941, especially as it was played on scrounged instruments, outside in the rain! But consider the second part of Blake's quote: "Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas." That's the real miracle of this work, that Messiaen could create this art in the fear, cold and privation of his captivity.  Samuel Backett brings us back to that very French virtue: "In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness."

Two substantial, and very interesting, works for violin and piano fill out the disc, which was recorded back in 2013.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A theatrical, even cinematic Mozart Requiem

Mozart: Missa da Requiem

Arthur Schoonderwoerd has put together a Missa da Requiem based on the torso of the Requiem that remained when Mozart died in December of 1791, but fleshed out with additions by other composers, in the context of a full and well-researched contemporary liturgy. The Historically Informed Performance group Cristofori is completely at home in this repertoire, but the Gesualdo Consort is better known for Renaissance and early Baroque repertoire such as Gabrieli and Sweelinck. Schoonderwoerd uses contemporary Requiem Mass models and the fine points of what the plainchant-based recitative portions of the liturgy might have sounded like in late-18th century Vienna to create the kind of hypothetical performance that's very much in vogue among the HIP crowd lately.

I was suspicious at first of this scenario, since I believe the key to Mozart's Requiem is more likely to come by paying close attention to dramatic works like The Magic Flute and especially Don Giovanni, rather than a Requiem from the late 1770s by Michael Haydn. But when I heard this disc the very first time all my doubts were gone. This music has the dramatic blocking and theatrical shading that comes from the opera house rather than the cathedral, especially when compared with the standard version of the Requiem with its often jarring timpani and trumpet riffs added by Süßmayr. The chorus is especially nimble and alert to the nuances in the score. And there's a fascinating Libera me written around 1800 by Ritter Ignaz von Seyfried for a performance of the Mozart Requiem. It was performed after Beethoven's death as well, dedicated to the memory of both composers; this is its recording premiere.

More interesting is Arthur Schoonderwoerd's own Amen Double Fugue. I loved this chromatic Bachianas, whose jauntiness is reminiscent of Ward Swingle as much as Mozart. It's a vivid, almost cinematic interlude. It makes one think perhaps that this music might serve as the soundtrack of a future HIP remake of Miloš Forman's 1984 film Amadeus. I'd watch that!

This disc is due to be released on January 19, 2018.

The colour wheel turned up to 11

Respighi: Vetrate Di Chiesa, Il Tramonto, Trittico Botticelliano

As with earlier discs in this Respighi series from BIS,  John Neschling has the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege firing on all cylinders, which is such a plus for a composer who provides so many opportunities for the orchestra to show off. So it's quite a surprise to see that two of these three pieces didn't begin as rich and gaudy orchestral showpieces. Vetrate Di Chiesa (Church Windows) started out as Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane, three charming pieces written in 1919-21 for solo piano. In 1925 Respighi opened up and colourized these melodies, and added a fourth work as a bonus.  Listen to that opulent final piece, San Gregorio Magno:

This is wide-screen, Technicolor music, and it's not afraid of nudging up against effects some might find vulgar. It's great fun, so you might not notice at first how Neschling has his fine musicians playing with such determination and precision.

Il Tramanto (The Sunset) is a cantata based on a Shelley poem that Respighi wrote in 1914, for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. It's played here with a full complement of strings, and sung by the splendid soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. Even without winds, brass, percussion and organ, everything I've said about colour in Church Windows is relevant here.  This is partly due to superb playing and singing, and partly because of the the 35-year-old composer's skillful blend of the styles of his compatriot Puccini and a couple of composers from the other side of the Alps: Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. I'd never heard this music before, and my view of Respighi has gone up considerably now that I know it well.

The Trittico Botticelliano is my favourite Respighi work, and it receives a lavish recording here. Neschling translates Respighi's fine sense of both melody and orchestral colour, analogues of Botticelli's legendary line and colour, into a perfectly balanced performance. It's great to see this Brazilian conductor, who completely nailed the Villa-Lobos Choros series in his 2008 recordings with OSESP, also from BIS, doing the same on the other side of the Atlantic.

This is the second disc I've reviewed in 2018, and I'm pleased to be able to praise the cover design once again. I hope we can keep that streak going! It's based on a detail from the 1914 International Art Glass Catalogue by the National Ornamental Glass Manufacturers Association of the United States and Canada. You can download the entire catalogue in PDF format here at the Internet Archive; it's gorgeous!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Et in Arcadia ego

Francois Couperin: Les Muses Naissantes

This marvellous new disc by artistic director Jérôme Lejeune and harpsichordist Brice Sailly with La Chambre Claire evokes a very specific time and place: Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. But it is really about a timeless Arcadian fantasy of shepherds and shepherdesses, so perfectly expressed in the painting on the cover of the CD: Nicolas Poussin's La campagne romaine in the Oskar Reinhart collection at Winterthur. Solo pieces performed by Sailly are interspersed with similar works adapted for chamber ensemble, and orchestral pieces from such collections as Les Nations and Concerts royaux. This is beautifully and tastefully played, with attention to the state of the art of Historically Informed Practice, alternately sprightly and stately. The soprano Emmanuelle de Negri is a star here, providing just the right balance of innocence and knowing experience. The phrase Et in Arcadia ego which I use as my title for this review has two meanings. One is a kind of Memento Mori, which reminds us that Death stalks us even in the most bucolic surroundings. This isn't happening here; it's a much happier, more optimistic take with only the slight sadness of nostalgia to temper things. What a great way to start the New Year!

This disc will be released on February 23, 2018.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Top Ten Discs for 2017

This is my third Top Ten Discs post for Music for Several Instruments. Here is last year's, and the one from 2015.

These are in the order in which I reviewed them. It was a good year for music, and a tough job to narrow down more than 120 reviews to a list of 10.

Telemann's Surprises

2017 was a big year for the great Prussian composer, the 250th anniversary of his death. This outstanding release from Il Giardino Armonico features Giovanni Antonini as conductor, but also as a soloist on recorder and chalumeau, an early version of the clarinet.

Modernism & the Avant Garde in Brazilian piano music

The second volume in Aleyson Scopel's complete series of Cartas Celestes by José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado shows off this young pianist's dazzling skills, and it points as well to the importance of this major work of a great 20th/21st century composer.

The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and conductor Christian Lindberg are working on a complete cycle which is set to surpass by quite a margin those by Sergiu Comissiona and Alun Francis. The 14th Symphony is complex music, sometimes dense but also vividly beautiful.

Scott Metcalfe's Blue Heron provides the outstanding choral disc of the year, with this final disc in the Peterhouse Partbooks series. The disc is full of music of genius from composers whose names aren't well-known, or even known at all. Volume 4 of the series made my 2015 list.

Though the recordings in this 3-disc set from the Amar Quartet are at least a couple of years old, when Naxos put them together it really emphasized how important Hindemith's String Quartet cycle is in its entirety. That's enough to push this into my Top 10.

Even though I'm pretty much all-in with Villa-Lobos, I was not expecting a Villa-Lobos Symphonies disc to break into my Top 10. The newly cleaned-up and edited scores, impressive playing by OSESP, and masterful, nuanced direction by Isaac Karabtchevsky, whose reputation has been very much burnished by this superb series, all come together to make this disc, and this series, something special. And this should be a major push for Villa-Lobos's own reputation as well, I think.

The late flowering of Elliott Carter was amazing; so many of these works show the touch of genius, and many come from after Carter's 100th birthday. What a valuable compilation!

The folk-inspired music of Andrea Tarrodi is both complex and accessible. Tarrodi is an important new voice, and she receives the best possible support from the superb Dahlkvist Quartet.

Giovanni Antonini's second disc in this Top Ten is very much expected: volume 3 of the Haydn 2032 series showed up in my 2016 list, but that was with Il Giardino Armonico. He'll be recording the later Haydn symphonies with the superb Kammerorchester Basel. It's not just about Haydn, though; the Joseph Martin Kraus symphony on this disc is absolutely amazing.

Two recordings of the Philip Glass Etudes in the same month, November 2017! Jenny Lin has the measure of this music, from the greatest living composer.