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.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lovely Christmas jazz, spare and sad



'Tasteful jazz arrangements', it says on the back cover, but these are much more sophisticated arrangements than you're likely to find at the lounge at the local Sheraton or Marriott Hotel. In a letter to his father Mozart praises a pianist's "taste, feeling, and a brilliant style of playing", and this is the territory we're in here with pianist Simon Mulligan, who gets a fine piano to play on, in a great venue, with first-class engineering and presentation for this lovely disc from Steinway & Sons. The Christmas jazz antecedents here are Oscar Peterson, whose Christmas album is first-class, but quite a bit livelier than this one; Bill Evans, whose Santa Claus is Coming to Town is a treat, full of wit and good humour; and of course Vince Guaraldi, who brought jazz Christmas music to the masses with the debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas on CBS on December 9, 1965. Mulligan has major classical bona fides (Chopin, Beethoven, Shostakovich) and a thorough grounding in the American Songbook to go with what seems to be an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano styles. Listen for bits of Art Tatum, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, but in these arrangements each song has its mood and its story to tell, so none of them feels like a pastiche.

One of my favourite tracks is the first one on the disc, a Hark The Herald Angels Sing that keeps taking completely unexpected turns into surprising places: here to Chopin, there to Scott Joplin, over to Gershwin. There's also a very spare version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that's a real stand-out, but I especially loved the final song, a Silent Night with a real valedictory feel to it. It has the peace and beauty of falling snow at night, but also all of the melancholy we've come to expect from Christmas songs in a minor key, bringing some solace, but also, as Orhan Pamuk remarks in another context, "adding depth to our sorrow".



Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bright and bouncy


Handel: Messiah, 1754 version

Hervé Niquet has opted to record the 1754 version of Messiah, which has five soloists rather than four. I know this version well because of the now classic 1991 recording by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, which featured the divine Emma Kirkby. We had that on cassette, so it was the soundtrack (along with Yogi Yorgesson's I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas - the kids were little!) for many a holiday trip in Alberta's cold Decembers.

However, that's not the key to this new version by Le Concert Spirituel under the direction of Hervé Niquet. Rather, it's his statement that "I’ve opted here for an operatic interpretation, taking its cue from the drama inherent in this account of the life of Christ." Niquet plays up the drama throughout, and he has the players and singers to follow through on all of his concepts. I think nearly every idea is at least plausible. It's a brisk run-through; listen to the swinging Sinfonia:


But this is about more than just tempo. Niquet's version is positively bouncy; if it were in the Hundred Acre Wood it would be Tigger. As far as I'm concerned that's great; I've heard too many Eeyore Messiahs.

E.H. Shepard. Tiggers can't climb trees

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Worth the wait for three premiere recordings


Paul Patterson: Violin Concerto no. 2; Kenneth Leighton: Violin Concerto; Gordon Jacob: Violin Concerto

Clare Howick brings her excellent technique and the big sound of the 'Maurin' Stradivarius 1718, on loan from the Royal Academy of Music, to 20th and 21st century music from Britain in this very welcome new disc from Naxos. Paul Patterson wrote his superb 2nd Violin Concerto for Howick in 2013, and this is its first recording. What's more surprising is that the other two works on the disc are receiving their premiere recordings as well. Gordon Jacob's Concerto for Violin & Strings, a work that I find extremely interesting and admire more each time I hear it, was written in 1953. I guess when one thinks back to the post-war New Music world it was out of step with its time, but nearly 65 years later it's fresh and alive. Howick's playing is completely convincing, in the frame conductor Grant Llewellyn sets up with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's expert playing, not allowing the rhapsodic passages to become sentimental and keeping things moving along smartly. Similarly, the Kenneth Leighton Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra, written in the previous year, is well worth the wait. Its four short movements each pack a punch, with distinct and distinctive moods, and the whole thing adds up to a minor masterpiece. Again, the playing of soloist and orchestra is special: taught and bright and memorable. Very highly recommended!

This disc will be released on December 1, 2017.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Organic, powerful Glass



Here we are again. Two releases of Philip Glass's great cycle of Etudes for Piano in November 2017: this Steinway & Sons album by Jenny Lin follows Jeroen Van Veen's for Brilliant Classics, which was released earlier this month. These two discs emphasize the stature of this composer and the importance of this music. Though the earliest Etudes began as studies to help Glass improve his technique as a pianist, the set as a whole now represents a landmark in 21st century music.

Lin's version is significantly faster than Van Veen's, cooler and lighter and more mercurial. This cuts against Glass's own focus on the emotional content of his music, but I find Lin's reading totally convincing. In Van Veen's more romantic approach, the emotion sweeps us up, while Lin's grows slowly in subtle shifts. As Glass says about his music from the late 60s and early 70s, "It was not meant to be mindless, but to be organic and powerful, and mindful, too."
The trick of that music was that it allowed the attention to form around a series of successive events that became almost unnoticeable - around the function of listening to something that seemed as if it were not changing, but was actually changing all the time. (Words Without Music)
Jenny Lin has been involved in the one-evening events where a number of pianists including Glass himself play all 20 Etudes. She'll join Glass, Aaron Diehl, Jason Moran and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes in this program at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in March of 2018.

This album will be released on November 17, 2017.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The soul in the surface


Canaletto & The Art of Venice

The latest Exhibition on Screen is one of the finest in the entire series, David Bickerstaff film based on the exhibition of paintings and drawings by Canaletto and some of his contemporaries in 18th century Venice, at The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace. The film is in theatres in the UK right now, but it opens real soon here in North America (on November 9, 2017 in Canada).

"The soul is often in the surface," says Italo Calvino, "and the importance of 'depth' is overestimated." This is an axiom with some relevance to the art of the great scene-painter Canaletto, whose art came from the showy, superficial world of the popular theatre, but who developed a very personal style of panache and real rigour which pointed towards the art of the 20th century.  It's also relevant to the format of High Definition video which comes to our local cinema, and soon to our flat-screen televisions, along with the finest details, the very brush-strokes, and even in one case the artist's finger-print. I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have made of the flattening and widening of the TV screen, with the new intensity of sound and colour and its immersive effect. I'm very much aware, as I watch the latest art documentaries, of the total rush of the new media in both the cognitive and the emotional realms. I feel much more connected to Canaletto and his world through this hour and a half film, with its tantalizing glimpses of the very private painter, and the fascinating figure of Joseph Smith, a great connoisseur and entrepreneur who sold his collection of Canalettos and other Venetian paintings to George III. We're given a backstage view of the Buckingham Palace exhibition, which is still going on, if you're reading this from London, before it heads off to Edinburgh, and thence to Dublin. We have access to expertise at the highest level; one of the main interpreters is Lucy Whitaker, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection Trust. She's a co-author of the recently published book Canaletto & The Art of Venice. I highly recommend this film, and will alert you when the DVD is released next year.


Friday, November 3, 2017

The emotional sweep of Philip Glass




Philip Glass wrote his 20 Piano Etudes as individual works over the period 1991 to 2012, but he gave the concept of playing them together as a larger work credibility with his involvement in the performance of all 20 during one evening at the 2014 Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. In his review of that event Steven W Thrasher said that with these works "America’s greatest living composer stakes his claim for immortality." This new Brilliant Classics 2 CD-set of the Etudes by the Dutch pianist Jeroen Van Veen is the first of two releases of this repertoire at the end of 2017; watch for Jenny Lin's version to come along real soon. We're extraordinarily lucky to have such fine pianists playing this music!

I've been reading the Philip Glass memoir Words Without Music, a truly marvellous book, when I came across this passage about his early musical interests:
Berg, the Austrian composer who had been a student of Schoenberg’s, was my favorite. I became very familiar with his music, which had a more romantic feel and much more of an emotional sweep. It was beautiful music, and not as strict as Schoenberg (Webern was even more strict).
I think this is a key issue when it comes to listening to the Etudes.  Van Veen often highlights the emotional sweep of the music, playing with a freedom that belies the absolutely wrong-headed but still popular stereotype of Glass's music as being machine-like and repetitive. He takes some of these works at extraordinarily slow tempos, sometimes to a worrying extent. Again, though, I look to the Glass memoir, and his discussion of SLOW:
With both [conductor Wilhelm] Furtwängler and [director Bob] Wilson, the metronome clicks plunge down well below the comfort level of the human heartbeat. And what these truly great and profound artists reveal to us is a world of immense, immeasurable beauty.
Here's an extreme example of this; Van Veen takes nearly 15 minutes to play the 7th Etude, in A minor. Meanwhile, Maki Namekawa (in her fine 2014 Orange Mountain Music release) zips through it in 6 and a half minutes, while Jenny Lin takes 8-1/2. I can see the theoretical value in the long slow build-up with a strong release later in the piece, and Glass's sad coda as played by Van Veen packs a strong emotional punch here. But I fear he may have stretched things out a bit too much in this case.


I rather prefer Van Veen's version of the next work, no. 8. This is also taken at a stately tempo, but in this case it's to the benefit of the work, with the really rather pretty release after each statement of the stern opening. What an amazing piece, so foreboding and unyielding and then so soft and romantic.

The many permutations of Glass's music results in a really wide range of interpretations, and I think that's part of his genius. Each new concert, each new recording, provides another chance to gain a new appreciation for his genius.

Glass recently had a fascinating conversation with Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library, which you can listen to here. I highly recommend Paul's Live at the NYPL and #PhoneCallFromPaul podcasts.