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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

British drama and pastorale beauty

I was pleased to see this new Chandos series from conductor Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Their two British Overtures discs from 2014 and 2016 were excellent, beautifully presented and played. They were made up of many solid, well-written pieces by late Victorian and Edwardian composers; the usual suspects, mainly, but with the odd gem by people like Ethel Smyth and John Ansell. Volume I in the new series, due to be released March 17, 2017, has mainly rather longer works, with the exception of William Alwyn's lovely little 5-minute piece Blackdown: a Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills. As you'd expect from a title like this, along with rhapsodies and an idyll, from Gloucestershire and Berkshire and The Solent, the focus is more on good old English Pastorale, one component of the Overtures discs, and less on the other component, the English Light Music tradition. The disc is well-filled - 76 minutes - and it shows how much I enjoy that English Pastorale style that my interest didn't flag at all. I've taken to listening to this music quite often; it's often soothing, yes, but the best Pastorale pieces - besides the Alwyn, Frederic Austin's Spring and Ivor Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody - are somehow almost bracing, with some of the objectivity of the naturalist to go along with the more sentimental artist. Sense and Sensibility.

My favourite piece on the disc, though, is a more dramatic piece that takes us away from the rich farmland of the English countryside. It's Sir Granville Bantock's setting of Shelley's The Witch of Atlas, and it's full of incident and pictures. You can see the scope of setting this poem from a sample stanza, which Bantock takes full advantage of.
And first the spotted cameleopard came,
And then the wise and fearless elephant;
Then the sly serpent, in the golden flame
Of his own volumes intervolved; -- all gaunt
And sanguine beasts her gentle looks made tame.
They drank before her at her sacred fount;
And every beast of beating heart grew bold,
Such gentleness and power even to behold.
Though he's a generation younger than the Pre-Raphaelite painters, this piece reminded me of the extravagant detail they so often included in their paintings. John William Waterhouse's The Magic Circle (Tate Britain, 1886), is a good example, with a witch protagonist, if not Shelley's.

Rumon Gamba and Chandos are doing great work in opening up British music of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I look forward to Volume 2 in this series.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Personal, heart-felt music from an important composer

This new Sterling disc of music by Felix Mendelssohn's sister Fanny Hensel is very welcome. Of the eight composers included in Anna Beer's excellent book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Hensel came out on top: "Fanny Mendelssohn composed more music and, moreover (some would say) more music of a higher quality, than any other composer in this book." While Hensel wrote in a variety of genres, from cantatas to chamber music, it was as a pianist and a composer for the piano that so many of her particular gifts become apparent. Though character pieces like her brother's Lied ohne Worte, Hensel called her works "piano lieder". In them she uses surprising harmonies and modulations to explore a wide range of moods. These pieces for piano were particularly dear to her: she "called my piano pieces after the names of my favourite haunts, partly because they really came into my mind at these spots, partly because our pleasant excursions were in my mind while I was writing them." It's this personal, heart-felt character that I find so appealing about so much of Hensel's music.

The Serenata in G minor shows Hensel's lyrical gifts, but also that ability to set a mood, with the dry wit to subvert our expectations about what might follow. This is music of a composer increasingly independent of her brother's musical influence and confident of her own abilities.

Solveig Wikman's playing is assured and strong, with no lack of virtuosic technique when called for, and a nice touch in Hensel's more lyrical moments. The last impression one gets of Hensel from listening to this music is one of genteel dilettantism. I heartily recommend this release.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Nézet-Séguin's dramatic Dvorak from London

On his way to one of the great peaks of music, the Music Directorship of the Metropolitan Opera, which begins in the 2020-21 season, the Montreal-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin made a number of stops. Besides his three current main jobs, with the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin was Principal Guest Conductor of the Victoria Symphony beginning in 2003, here on Vancouver Island where I live. We're proud of that connection, and pleased to see his continued success. But probably more important in his continued upward rise was his tenure from 2007 to 2014 as Principal Guest Conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Nézet-Séguin's rapport with the LPO musicians is clear from this new two-disc set of live recordings on LPO's own label. It includes an outstanding performance from May 2009 of Dvorak's 7th Symphony. Nézet-Séguin lets loose the full range of orchestra, which is considerable, and makes the best possible case for considering this one of the greatest symphonies of the 19th century. The brass is especially impressive, along with a solid, silky string sound providing such a delightful variety of musical textures. You can hear in this music, perhaps, an echo of Nézet-Séguin's mentor, Carlo Maria Giulini. The 6th Symphony and the Othello Overture are both more recent recordings, made in September 2016 as part of Google Play's Classical Live project. Like Giulini, Nézet-Séguin's experience in the opera pit bears fruit in his orchestral recordings. Not every conductor can effectively release the drama that Dvorak builds in to his symphonic works, most especially in the 7th Symphony, but also in lesser but still impressive works like the 6th and the Overture. We're lucky to have such an accomplished conductor recording so often in both the operatic and orchestral realms. And kudos should go as well to the LPO for their openness to new marketing and technology partnerships to help promote such high quality music.

This disc will be released on March 3, 2017.

Not making history

The rationale of the Resound Beethoven project is about what a wine expert would call terroir; it's a historical reconstruction of the original venue for important premieres of orchestral works from the composer's lifetime. I've bought in to the concept to some extent, though I preferred the theatrical Egmont Music of volume 3 to the much more demanding 3rd Symphony in volume 4. For the 9th Symphony the original venue is no longer in place, so we hear instead a recording from the Redoutensaal at Hofburg Vienna, where the second performance took place on May 23, 1824. But this is in a sense moot, since because of his deafness Beethoven would have heard this music in a completely different venue: his head. All bets are off, I think. When we think of a Platonic Ideal of the 9th Symphony living in Beethoven's head, how this music sounded in a long-ago venue seems less important. Instead, we can imagine a direct line from Beethoven's head through his score and nearly two hundred years of performance traditions to the mind and imagination and musical skills of a conductor and a group of musicians. The music on this disc has some plusses, most especially in a rather good slow movement, which combines a child-like simplicity with subtle atmospheric effects. But the rest of the work sounds very square compared with the powerful rhythmic thrust - I want to say swing - of Toscanini. It seems very rustic when we put it next to Karajan's polish and cool elegance. And it's lacking entirely in the glimpses of the other world that Solti brings, especially when Jessye Norman sings. The sense of place looms large in certain famous performances of the 9th Symphony, none more momentous and historic than the Christmas Day 1989 Leonard Bernstein concert with an augmented Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, as the Berlin Wall came down. There Bernstein and his musicians made history, but only because the spirit of the time lifted them up and inspired them. But without a more compelling and engaging performance no venue will make a big difference.

This disc will be released on March 24, 2017.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My name is Nobody

The marvellous series Music From The Peterhouse Partbooks ends very much on a high note, with this fifth release from Scott Metcalfe and his choir Blue Heron. The Peterhouse Partbook brand has become a byword for excellence in English polyphony in a formerly ill-understood period, the first forty years or so of the 16th century. This is thanks almost entirely to this series on Blue Heron's own label, based on the scholarship of Nick Sandon, who rescued the music by restoring lost parts and creating a performing edition. It's the Anonymous Missa sine nomine that stands out here; talk about poor branding! After being ignored for centuries, this piece comes to life in this recording, grabs you and forces you to pay attention. It's obviously engaged the singers, who provide an outstanding example of power and precision in choral singing. Back in 2011 Alex Ross talked about how Blue Heron had "a way of propelling a phrase toward a goal—the music takes on narrative momentum, its moods dovetailing with the theme of the text." Missa sine nomine literally means Mass without a name, meaning it was freely composed rather than being based upon other music. The answer of Odysseus to Polyphemus the Cyclops' query was "My name is Nobody", but as always Homer had a great story to tell. And likewise this Mass without a name and without an author tells a compelling story of sin and redemption. In the entire 5-CD series Blue Heron brings these five hundred year old stories alive, here in the 21st century. It's a remarkable achievement.

The new disc drops on March 17, 2017.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Music that we breathe

This is a heart-warming release all around. It's great to see the Minnesota Orchestra back in business and as good as they were before their recent labour difficulties. Osmo Vanska has his players delivering what must be pretty darn close to the perfect Sibelius sound I imagine is in the head of every Finnish conductor, helped along by the special appearance of the superb YL Male Voice Choir from Helsinki. We also have soloists whose voices are well-suited for this work: mezzo Lilli Paasikivi and baritone Tommi Hakala. This is authenticity in action.

It's heart-warming as well to listen to this stirring music in the middle of a long cold winter; even in normally sunny and mild Victoria BC we've been hit hard by cold and snow, snow, and more snow. This calls for the heroes of the sagas to bring out their horns and do their mighty deeds, as seen in the painting on the front cover of the disc by Axel Gallén (his Kullervo Goes to War from 1901), and for the listeners to thrill to the exciting tale told by Sibelius. The composer provides memorable melodies, martial rhythms and plenty of drama, which Vanska calibrates carefully to avoid sentimentality or bombast. There's an electricity in the air throughout in this recording, made during three public concerts during February 2016. It comes to a head with a spectacular recording of everyone's favourite national hymn, Finlandia.

In between, though, is another work, by the Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas, which takes advantage of the forces assembled for the Sibelius. Migrations is based on poetry by the Minnesotan (of Finnish descent) Sheila Packa, which takes as its theme something that's relevant to the history of Finland and Minnesota, and to the sad stories of todays migrants.
in a cascade of notes
which is not endless
but aching and sweet
like iridescent feathers
of wings that rise and fall
in the circle of migration
in each flight
music that we breathe 
Poems by Sheila Packa, from the books ‘Cloud Birds’ and ‘Echo & Lightning’ published by Wildwood River Press.

This BIS release is something special; I expect it'll end up in my 2017 Top 10 list for sure.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Anguish, solace, beauty

Allan Pettersson's music comes from a place of pain and anguish - a hard childhood under a brute of a father and the lifelong burden of a chronic, debilitating disease - but it's also full of the solace and beauty which comes from the Northern landscape and from reserves within himself. With incredible discipline and strength of purpose Pettersson built an awesome symphonic legacy which rivals that of the great 20th century masters Nielsen, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. "No one in the 1950s noticed that I am always breaking up the structures," he said later in the decade, "that I was creating a whole new symphonic form." By the mid-1970s Pettersson was creating long, complex music in a style of his own that veered between the Sibelian model, atonality, serialism and neo-romanticism, with layers of meaning for those willing to make the effort.

This BIS release is part of The Allan Pettersson Project 2013-2018, a joint project with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and conductor Christian Lindberg that will create a complete cycle to go alongside those by Sergiu Comissiona and Alun Francis. This series is well on the way to establishing supremacy, due to Lindberg's command of Pettersson's underlying structures, his players' virtuosity and musicianship and the clear and lifelike sound provided by BIS.  This disc drops on March 3, 2017; it is very highly recommended.