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, July 14, 2017

Dialogues and Discursive Engagement

Elliott Carter: Late Works (Interventions, Dialogues, Dialogues II, Soundings,  Two Controversies and a Conversation, Instances, Epigrams)

In 1991 Joseph Kerman wrote an important essay entitled "Mozart's Piano Concertos and Their Audience", which is included in his book Write All These Down. Kerman talks about the important role of two musical activities, discourse and display; I'm finding these valuable concepts in thinking about music and how it plays out. The duel between the tutti's discourse and the solo instrument's display was the essence of the solo concerto from the beginning, but according to Kerman it was Mozart who first introduced the element of dialogue into the form, in his piano concertos. Kerman finds this nuance revolutionary. He elaborates:
Dialogue can take place on various levels. On the level of the immediate exchange of musical themes and other passages, we can speak of instantaneous response, rejoinder, repartee, and more generally of discursive engagement. In other contexts, however - for example in the Socratic context - it is possible to think of beginning a dialogue one day and coming back to finish it the next. Dialogue over an extended time period is, in musical terms, dialogue on the level of musical form. Involved here are concepts like delayed response, recapitulation, and what may be called discursive re-engagement.
It's striking how many of Elliott Carter's works included in this splendid new disc from Ondine have this kind of dialogical character. Carter's instrumental works are often highly dramatic, with instruments or groups of instruments acting as characters. Works like Dialogues and Conversation certainly fall into this category, and things get really dramatic when Two Controversies were appended to Conversation at a later date, a good example of Kerman's "discursive re-engagement". This disc is a treasure trove of music by a great, great master. It's amazing how many of these pieces were written after Carter turned 100 in December 2008. Lest you think that "drama" implies heaviness, the work that's lightest on its feet is Instances, the last music Carter wrote before he died in 2013. According to Ludovic Morlot, who performed the premiere in Seattle, "When he got into his 90s and his 100s, suddenly there was more a human dimension to it." This is Late Syle at its best!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

An instrument of grace

Nordic Voices sing Victoria: Motets

Unfortunately I wasn't able to listen to the SACD version of this disc, but the stereo one is stunning enough. It's amazing what a rich and full and immersive sound these three men and women create. Of course they need to share credit with the Chandos engineers, the venue (Ris kirke in Oslo, which provides a rich fullness but without an exaggerated acoustic), and the genius of Tomás Luis de Victoria, who makes the most of the six vocal lines in these Motets. But the blending of these voices is really extraordinary. This music sounds so gorgeous, but I don't believe that's the real goal in these performances. Rather, these find musicians seem to be searching for the emotional and spiritual depths of this super-charged music, and the surface beauty is only a side-effect. This disc will reward deep and careful listening, with pauses for reflection.
"Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help."
When May Sarton wrote this she was speaking about gardening which is, she said, "an instrument of grace." She might have been writing about these Motets.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Latin piano played with cool clarity

Villa-Lobos, Ciclo Brasileiro; Juan Jose Castro, Tangos para Piano; Jose Maria Vitier, Festiva

Back in 1993 I was involved in a CD recording project with Brazilian pianist Ricardo Peres. We recorded Dance of the White Indian* as a fund-raising project for Red Deer Public Library, where I was the Director. I remember sitting down with Ricardo one morning, and he played me this piece, which I had never heard before; I barely knew a thing about Villa-Lobos.

That was the beginning of my Villa-Lobos life on the web, 25 years of it, and counting.

In the last quarter century I've learned a great deal about this music; it's been a time of increasing interest in Villa-Lobos and a major rise in his reputation. His piano music as much as any other segment of his vast output has been the beneficiary of this. Now comes a really excellent new disc from Canadian pianist Andree-Ann Deschenes which contains The Dance of the White Indian and the rest of the Ciclo Brasileiro, one of Villa's greatest works for piano. Here's a live performance of the piece:

You'll note that this performance (which matches the recording on the CD fairly closely) is a much more controlled one than Ricardo's hell-bent for leather version. We'll always have performances on the whole continuum between Villa's warmer, more passionate, more Brazilian/folkloric side and his cooler, more cerebral, more Parisian/modernist one. The Ciclo Brasileiro is a kind of Brazilian travelogue (Villa enjoyed these), written in 1930s, when he was busy writing his Bachianas Brasileiras and the folklore-inspired Guia Pratico. I feel, perhaps counter-intuitively, that Deschenes' cool clarity puts across the regional Brazilian folkloric flavour better than some versions that swing (or even rock) a bit more. In any case, this is very fine piano playing.

The tango, of course, has its own built in hot/cool dynamic, which the Argentine composer Juan Jose Castro, a younger contemporary of Villa-Lobos, uses to excellent effect in his Tangos para Piano, written in 1941. With references to popular songs - La Cumparsita in the first tango Evocación, for example, and 9 de Julio in the last, Nostálgico - Castro brings the rhythms of the dance halls to Argentina's art music, which Villa-Lobos had been doing for some time in Brazil. I admire Deschenes' evocative playing here even more than in the Villa-Lobos, especially the bandoneón-sounding chords at the end of the last tango.

I love the idea of an encore on a CD; they should be as common on disc as in concert. Deschenes plays a fun piece by the Cuban composer Jose Maria Vitier, with able support from percussionist Calixto Oviedo. A fine end to an excellent disc.

* note that the links at this site are long dead!

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Visualizations add emotional depth to a great Winterreise

Matthias Goerne's searching, haunted Winterreise has always been special, whether his supporting partner is Alfred Brendel, Christopher Eschenbach or, as here, Markus Hinterhauser. A new dimension is added in this splendid Blu-ray, the visualizations of artist and film-maker William Kentridge. Kentridge's monochromatic animations, stripped down, sophisticated versions of the great experimental films of the surrealists and Canada's National Film Board, are so evocative. They add context and emotional depth to the story Wilhelm Müller and Schubert tell in this song cycle. To be sure, the interpretation by Goerne and Hinterhauser stands alone in its greatness, but Kentridge's images add a dimension of no small artistic import as well.

Here is an excerpt from the disc:

Passionate, ultra-Romantic, gorgeous music

Blu-ray with a large-screen HD TV and surround-sound was made for concerts like this. Recorded live on August 2, 2016 for NPR's Great Performances, this is a delight from beginning to end. There's a real sense of presence at a significant event, and the LA Philharmonic respond with standout playing. The crowd is into this program completely; they're especially enamoured of guitarist Angel Romero, looking fabulous in his many-coloured shirt. Dudamel, as always, is a charismatic figure, but he's often the still, calm centre when things get exciting with the dancing of Tango Buenos Aires and the always inventive orchestration of three great composers from Argentina. Ginastera's Dances from Estancia have the odd hint of modernism, but remain accessible; their rhythms are often much more complex than the tangos and milongas of the rest of the program, but Dudamel and his superb musicians handle them with ease. Lalo Schifrin brings his entire musical life into his Concierto de la Amistad, which receives its world premiere here. Schifrin played piano in Piazzolla's band in Paris in 1955; he worked with Dizzy Gillespie later in the 50s; and he became a household name with his film and movie scores with a huge filmography in the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. It was great to hear the audience's response when Dudamel brought him out after the Concierto, and touching to see Schifrin, Dudamel and Romero hugging. Music by Astor Piazzolla begins and ends the program, with fabulous support from the dancers of Tango Buenos Aires and Seth Asamow on bandoneon. This passionate, ultra-Romantic, gorgeous music is just the thing to watch in the evening after a hard day reviewing Arnold Schoenberg.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Loss and mystery as a source of meaning

Stage Director Romeo Castellucci has turned the fact that Schoenberg's final work Moses und Aron is unfinished into a major source of imagery and narrative drive for the two acts that remain. Mystery becomes a source of meaning, much as it does for other visionary artists like Cocteau and David Lynch. Moses's last words, the final ones in the opera, are "Oh word, thou word, that I lack." "More than a limit", Castellucci says, "it seems to me that the unfinished state of this opera is a clever philosophical strategy meant to overthrow the linear perspective of the path, of the exit." We begin on a gauze-covered stage with Moses (Thomas Johannes Mayer) speaking with the Burning Bush, now a Kubrick-style tape recorder spewing magnetic tape in which he becomes entangled. Soon he begins the opera-long dialectic with his brother Aron (John Graham-Hall). Once the gauze is lifted things really become interesting.

Musically this is an exemplary performance. Mayer's Sprechgesang (speech-song) is contrasted with the lyrical and very musical tenor of Graham-Hall, while the chorus plays a central role in the music and the drama. Philippe Jordan keeps the action flowing, making sure that Schonberg's musical ebbs and flow, and not Castellucci's stage business, moves the entire theatrical experience forward. One must mention the shameless scene-stealer in the cast, however. It's the very large live bull, playing the Golden Calf, who brings immense dignity to his role. A star is born!

This short trailer gives you a good idea of the images Castellucci brings to the stage.

Sophisticated playing in a classic frame

A Chopin Diary: The Complete Nocturnes

Two things need to happen in a very good recording of Chopin's Nocturnes: the very well-known ones need to be played so they sound as fresh and un-hackneyed as possible, while the hidden gems (and there are many amongst the 20-some pieces) need to be polished up to shine enough to be noticed amongst this embarrassment of riches. Claire Huangci scores highly on both points; she's put together a marvellous 2 CD-set for Berlin Classics that's convincing on the first listen, with many special touches that you notice the second or third time around. In a perceptive review for Musicweb, Dominy Clements praises Huangci's rubato, which "almost seem(s) like two-part counterpoint in the independent character she gives between left and right (hand)." This is sophisticated playing, full of subtle effects and strongly etched character, but all within a fairly classic frame. Nothing is mannered or show-offy. Huangci adds two bonuses: the Nocturne Oubliée in C-Sharp Minor, and, along with cellist Tristan Cornu, the Étude in C-Sharp Minor for cello and piano.