Monday, 2 May 2016
Lebrecht Weekly - Mahler: 3rd symphony (DSO Live)
What can New York expect of its next music director? Jaap van Zweeden’s recordings can be counted on your fingers and most are – like this release with the Dallas Symphony – live concerts. Mahler’s third symphony is a large and unwieldy piece with a mezzo soloist and women’s and children’s choruses, a test of organisation for any conductor before he or she can begin to think about interpretation.
On first hearing, this performance is efficient and attractive with sustainable speeds and some fetching solos from the concertmaster, Alexander Kerr. The vocal soloist Kelley O’Connor lacks heft and any dimensiom of the ominous in her Nietzschean admonition but that may be a balancing fault in the hall rather than a conductor or singer shortcoming. The choirs do their bims and bams with every possible display of enthusiasm, and then some.
It takes a second hearing to determine what’s missing. In a word: character. Van Zweden takes a pace so safe that he struggles to introduce any kind of individuality to the shaping and phrasing of the 90-minute work. Everything is present and correct and there’s nothing out of the ordinary. Nor is there any sense of Mahlerian irony and ambiguity, the possibility of worlds beyond the literal score. By the time you reach the finale – the first of Mahler’s great adagios – it feels like you’ve taken a long hike and got absolutely nowhere that you want to spend the night. In the great roll of Maher 3 albums – Kubelik, Horenstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, Chailly – this does not pass my audition test. New York, I fear, could be in for a dull half-decade.
Monday, 25 April 2016
Lebrecht Weekly - Deutsche Grammophon: The Mono Era, 1948-57 (51-CD Box Set)
Slower even than one-horse EMI, Deutsche Grammophon was the last label of consequence to adopt stereo recording in the late 1950s. Its circumspection is, in retrospect, comprehensible. In austerity-minded Germany, a second living-room speaker would have been deemed an anti-social luxury and DG’s mono quality was, by any criterion, world-class. Under the leadership of camp-survivor Elsa Schiller, DG had buried its Nazi past beneath a blaze of new talent and high performance. The DG represented in this massive box of rarities is a label under post-War reconstruction, fascinating in its rigour and frugality.
This is DG in the age before Herbert von Karajan. The pale yellow covers are often plain and the interpretations unflashy. Several of the artists are unfamiliar, buried by the oncoming celebrity avalanche, and the repertoire is relatively safe, with an emphasis on Mendelssohn, retrieved from Nazi oblivion, but no hint yet of Mahler. The audio quality is exemplary and the house style feels secure. Elsa Schiller knew her market.
Two conductors presided in pre-Karajan Berlin, Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Philharmonic and the Hungarian Ferenc Fricsay at the American-funded radio orchestra. For gossamer string playing, Fricsay’s orchestra often outshines the Berlin Philharmonic. A pair of cello concertos, Haydn and Schumann, with the Italian soloist Enrico Mainardi, conducted by Fritz Lehmann, will serve to prove my point. Lehmann has faded from musical memory and Mainardi would nowadays be considered underpowered, placing serene beauty above muscularity. Music lovers were spoilt for choice of cello styles before stereo imposed a louder homogeneity.
Some of these mono retrievals, unheard for yonks, are quite indispensable. Karel Ancerl conducting the Shostakovich 10th with the Czech Philharmonic just 20 months after its Moscow premiere. The Leningrad Philharmonic playing Rachmaninov with Kurt Sanderling. Maria Stader and Rita Streich singing opera arias. The first Amadeus Quartet recording. A tender-voiced Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Brahms valedictions. All were Schiller discoveries, her hallmark artists.
The newbies recorded alongside such terrible old Nazis as Elly Ney, Wilhelm Kempff and Paul Van Kempen, for such was the foundation of the post-war German federal state, but the diversity of pianistic styles – from Sviatoslav Richter to Monique Haas – expunged the past more effectively than any past strictures.
A fraction of these recordings – Haas’s Ravel, Haskil’s Mozart Furtwängler’s Schubert G major – survived into the stereo era, but most are dazzling rediscoveries. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more vivacious account of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream than Fricsay’s and you’d need ears of cold steel to resist Fritz Lehmann’s account of the Brahms German Requiem. Impossible to imagine that technology pushed such elysian performances into a closet. Here they are, revived on 50 CDs, another medium that is now heading for obsolescence.
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Tuesday, 19 April 2016
Polyphonic Extravagance Wows Audiences at the Gesù
|Audience members circulate among the singers. Photo R. K. Basdeo|
Musica Orbium, under the direction of Patrick Wedd, treated audiences to some stunning vocal performances at two performances of their concert "Extravagance Polyphonique" at the Église du Gesù last Sunday, April 17. The program, based around the illustrious motets Spem in alium by Tallis and Ecce beatam lucem by Striggio, also contained lesser-known gems, including works that predate the aforementioned motets such as Johannes Ockeghem's Deo gratia à 36 and Josquin des Prez's Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi for 24 voices, as well as contemporary works including Patrick Wedd's Nines₂, composed for Musica Orbium's tenth anniversary, and Gregg Smith's Sound Canticle on Bay Psalm 23.
Audiences enjoyed a significant degree of immersion, as they were not only physically surrounded by the choristers for certain pieces, but also invited to sing "in the round" themselves as Wedd turned to direct the audience in two- and four-part performances of Frère Jacques to illustrate the effect prior to conducting Knut Nystedt's Immortal Bach, a piece for 12 voices based on the first eight measures of Bach's Komm, süsser Tod and exploring the timbral possibilities contained therein. Audiences were also invited to stroll amongst the choristers at the end of each act, during reprises of Ecce beatam lucem and Spem in alium, in order to better appreciate the complexity of the harmonic textures created.
While it is arguably the most famous piece on the program, the origins of Tallis' Spem in alium are shrouded in mystery and speculation. The most widely-accepted version of events is that Tallis was inspired by Striggio, most probably by Ecce beatam lucem (though possibly, it has been argued, by the 40–60-voice mass Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno). Evidence for this is given in a colourful anecdote from a 1611 letter written by law student Thomas Wateridge:
In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of ______ bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad[e] one of 40 p[ar]ts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other th[a]t the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke & gave yt him.
Alessandro Striggio, who was a diplomat as well as a musician, visited London in 1567; it has been suggested that he carried with him the music for one or both of his aforementioned works and that this visit sparked the inspiration for Tallis' Spem in alium, which was composed around 1570. Ecce beatam lucem, however, originally called for instrumentation to accompany the four choirs; a 1568 performance included eight flutes, eight violas, eight trombones, harpsichord and bass lute.
Wateridge's anecdote (and its connection to Striggio) nevertheless has its critics. The letter does not refer to Striggio by name, and if Wateridge does mean Ecce beatam lucem, the "30" must be a misprint. The letter was also written almost 40 years after the events discussed would have occurred. There is evidence to suggest that Spem in alium was in fact composed under the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Elizabeth's predecessor. The original Latin text of the motet is drawn from Catholic liturgy -- specifically from the Old Testament Book of Judith, a biblical figure to whom Mary was often compared by court iconographers. Other historians have even suggested a later composition date for Spem in alium, suggesting that it was first performed in 1573 for Queen Elizabeth I's fortieth birthday.
A further connection in the program is the inclusion of the des Prez and Ockeghem pieces. While Josquin des Prez (c. 1450/1455 – 1521) was the first master of the high Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music featured throughout "Extravagance polyphonique", he greatly admired and may have even studied under Ockeghem (c.1410/1425 - 1497).
The high point of the concert, however, may have been Gregg Smith's Sound Canticle on Bay Psalm 23. Based on the 1698 Bay Psalter, this piece made the most effective use of the singers' positioning around the audience to create a "spatial psalm". Each phrase of the original psalm is performed by four soloists at the front of the hall, and is echoed and transformed by the choir singer by singer, creating a sweeping sound that serves as a phenomenal demonstration of the capabilities of vocal music.
Monday, 18 April 2016
Lebrecht Weekly - Argerich and Barenboim: Live from Buenos Aires (DG)
The question is, what took them so long? Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, born a year apart in Buenos Aires to Jewish mothers of Russian extraction, have left it until their mid-seventies to discover common ground. Both prodigious pianists, they sailed for Europe where their paths diverged.
Argerich won the Busoni and Chopin competitions and worked intensively with Italian conductors, notably Abbado, Muti, Sinopoli and Chailly. Barenboim determined from an early age to be an orchestral conductor. He had no need for other pianists. When he put on a concerto he could play it himself (or call in his mentor, Arthur Rubinstein). Argerich was renowned for her terrifying speeds and unflinching accuracy. Barenboim, as a pianist, was prone to human error while pursuing the bigger picture. They might have inhabited separate planets.
Until last summer, when they returned to Buenos Aires to play four-hand piano, playing as if they had played together all their lives. The intuition on this recording defies belief. The pair start out with six little-known Schumann canons, designed for middle-class drawing rooms. All very after-you, but that’s just the warm-up.
Debussy’s En blanc et noir is no piece for amateurs or chicken-livers. A tempo risk taken or declined can run the work totally out of sync. These two pianists achieve total trust from the opening note and take more risks than you’d think possible.
The climax is an account of Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and percussion that, from a deceptively sedate starting point runs positively riot into all manner of cross-rhythms, atonalities, jazz, jumping beans and – did I hear that right? – tango. This is two-piano playing taken to altogether another level. You’re unlikely to hear better four-hand as long as you live.
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Sunday, 17 April 2016
U.S. Premiere in Austin (Tx): “Compassion” Shows the Way Towards Peace and Understanding
|Singer/songwriter "Lior" (left) and Australian composer Nigel Westlake (right)|
Westlake and Lior Collaboration Across Cultures
No Mimicking Here of Hollywood Biblical Epic Scores
A Piece Sure to Move Audiences the World Over
Thursday, 14 April 2016
James Levine to Retire as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera
|Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine leading the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in a concert on Sunday, May 19, 2013. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera|
Monday, 11 April 2016
Lebrecht Weekly - NDR Symphony Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbanski (Alpha)
Most composer reputations subside in the generation after their death. It’s as if posterity calls time out while deciding its final judgement.
Witold Lutoslawski is a notable exception to this hiatus rule. Since his death in 1994, performances of his music have become more frequent and his status has risen steadily among both modernists and conservatives. A Pole living under Stalinism, Lutoslawski was adept at facing both ways without sacrificing his creative principles. He wrote works of dangerous aleatory freedom and others of completely conventional form. All bore his unmistakable elegance.
The Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in 1954, was acclaimed by the Communist regime for its proletarian accessibility and by traditional musicians for its roots in Bartok’s famous work. Its only real debt, in fact, was owed to Lutoslawski’s imagination, as instruments of the orchestra play roles in a society in which individuals sometimes connect. The more I hear the Concerto, the more original it sounds – and this recording is among the most vivid I have heard. The blaring brass in the Passacaglia will scare the squirrels off your springtime lawn.
The album pairings are well-chosen. Bookending Lutoslawski’s creative life, the Little Suite of 1949 is a tonally centred yet psychologically disturbing knit of folk tunes, while the fourth symphony is a climactic summary, written post-Communism for the luxurious sound of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered by the composer himself in February 1993. Less easy on the ear than the much-played third symphony, it looks back at a century when composers found ways to dissimulate in order to avoid state control. Concise at 20 minutes and surprisingly playful, it reveals the sanity and humour that went into a life’s achievement. The Hamburg-based NDR symphony orchestra play with high bloom and precision for Krysztof Urbanski, a fast-rising Polish conductor of a new generation.
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Monday, 4 April 2016
Lebrecht Weekly - Ludmila Berlinskaya: Pasternak And Scriabin (Melodiya)
You knew that the author of Doctor Zhivago was a composer, right?
You didn’t. Well sit back; this might take a while. One of the most iconic portraits of the mystical Russian musician Alexander Scriabin was painted by the distinguished arstist, Leonid Pasternak. The sitter so impressed the artist's 14 year-old son that Boris Pasternak promptly decided to become a composer and went to study for a while at the Moscow Conservatoire. Six years later he gave up writing music, but Scriabin’s influence proved formative and enduring, especially on his poetry.
Boris Pasternak later married the wife of the important piano teacher, Heinrich Neuhaus and became close friends with his pupil, Sviatoslav Richter. When Pasternak died, Richter sat by the body all night long, playing Scriabin - what else? - on an upright piano. Russian culture can sometimes be impenetrably incestuous.
The present album is played by Ludmila Berlinskaya, daughter of the Borodin Quartet cellist who grew up among the Moscow musical elite. She once recorded four-hand album with Svatoslav Richter. So it goes.
The two fascinating preludes that she plays by Boris Pasternak are over in no time at all, luminous and imaginative but utterly overwhelmed by the unique and inimitable surrounding colours of Scriabin at his peak. Berlinskaya is a tremendous Scriabin interpreter. She has lived in France for the past two decades and has fallen slightly by the Russian wayside but playing of this calibre demands to be heard. By way of encores, she offers four preludes by Scriabin’s son, Julian, a boy wonder who drowned in unexplained circumstances in 1919, aged 11. If you have even the slightest interest in Russian civilisation, you will need to experience this music without delay.
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Friday, 25 March 2016
Cette semaine à Montréal (28 mars à 3 avril) / This Week in Montreal (March 28–April 3)
Musiciens de la Relève à Pro Musica
Emerging Musicians with Pro Musica
Le sommet du classicisme viennois chez Camerata
Camerata Relives the First Viennese School
Quills, Usine C (16 mars au 9 avril)
Les Diablogues, Théâtre du Rideau Vert (29 mars au 23 avril 2016)
Montréal dans l’œil de Vittorio
Bruno Munari : pionnier de la modernité (1928-1945)