Saturday, February 26, 2011

Arrival platform humlet

A brief "Yay!" that my copy of Chandos's 19-disc Grainger Edition finally arrived in the post. Initially out of stock at Amazon, then it took a silly amount of time to get here. So I missed the 50th anniversary of the composer's death, last Sunday.
The disadvantage is that now I must put all this music into my catalogue. It may take some time...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From last week's listening

"Divergences" - piano music of Jongen, Reger, Scriabin
Joseph Moog

File under "Who knew?" Well, obviously I know Scriabin, but I didn't know that the 2nd movement of his Piano sonata no.4 from 1903 was at times alarmingly close to being a jazz number. This disc very nearly slipped under the radar but got some very high praise from some quarters as I was putting the final touches to the NGAs; it almost made it as a runner-up. Joseph Moog by all accounts seems to be a pianist to watch. The link between the three composers here is that they were all born around the same time (1872/73) - but in musical terms they diverged. The Belgian Joseph Jongen comes across as a rhapsodic romantic with hints of Debussy in the 3 pieces here. "Soleil à midi" from his op.33 has an especially memorable theme to it. The German Max Reger is well-known (notorious, you might say) for his love of counterpoint and of course his "smallest room in the house" response to a critic. Träume am Kamin is a quite charming set of miniatures, not what I was expecting as I haven't warmed to Reger in the past. This album was an education, and a good one at that.

Hammerschmidt: Sacred works
Weser-Renaissance/Manfred Cordes

And what I learned here - or rather, what I learned before I decided to get this - was that Andreas Hammerschmidt was, as Grove puts it, "the most representative composer of mid-17th-century German church music, of which he was a prolific and extremely popular exponent". To me, he was just a name in a list of composers whose anniversary falls this year. Or next year: he was born in either 1611 or 1612. So, if he's Germany's Most Representative, I should listen to him, shouldn't I? Even if, according to Wikipedia, Manfred Bukofzer (never heard of him, either) said Hammerschmidt "watered down the achievements of Schütz for the multitude". Ah, musicologists are a snobby bunch. I like these pieces, 7 from Hammerschmidt's 1649 collection Motettae unius et duarum vocum and 9 from the 1662 set Kirchen und Tafelmuzik. All the latter pieces are in German, as is one of the earlier pieces, the rest being Latin. There's good variety here in the mixing of works and the range of voices employed. So, get this, unless you don't like the idea of watery Schütz.

"Flights of Fantasy: Early Italian chamber music"
Monica Huggett; Irish Baroque Orchestra Chamber Soloists

One of those Baroque albums that you know after 15 seconds you're going to enjoy. Full of life and good humour, as I think we are entitled to expect from Monica Huggett. Farina's Capriccio Stravagante is something I haven't heard before, which I now realise from browsing the web makes me a pathetic loser because apparently it's very well known and anyone who knows anything about Baroque music - anything at all - has heard it. Anyway, it's a quarter-of-an-hour piece with various violin effects including animal noises. About 12 minutes in on this recording it goes completely mental, I guess in imitation of yowling cats although the effect strikes me as if the musicians are trying to cope with the score melting before them, notes sliding down staves and onto the floor. Fortunately they recover their poise. And I have heard Biagio Marini's gorgeous Passacaglia before, so there.

Friday, February 11, 2011

So, what changed?

American Record Guide's Donald Vroon is very enthusiastic about Naxos's release of Sibelius's Symphonies nos.1 and 3, performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Pietari Inkinen:
"...a wonderful conductor... He is Finnish; he understands that Northern icy temperament. But he is young, and he feels the music - it's not old hat to him yet, not just another Sibelius symphony. It's still fresh, and he still enters into it with his whole heart and gives it everything he's got - which is a lot. ... If the strings aren't quite lush enough to bring me to tears, they are still very beautiful - and the same goes for the wind solos... All [Inkinen's] conducting is faultless and admirable on this release."
I read that and thought, wait a minute, I remember something I posted last year... And yes, this is the same New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Pietari Inkinen that recorded a previous Sibelius disc of which the same Donald Vroon said:
"This is a very boring orchestra, with no tonal allure. The conducting is dull as well."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Empty chamber?

I'm intrigued by something I read in this month's Editorial in International Record Review:
Of the seven Outstanding nominations this month four are chamber discs. I find this particularly interesting because there now seem to be fewer discs released in this genre than previously and sometimes it's a struggle assembling a 'respectable' section in this category.
That's something I hadn't noticed. Is it true? A quick look at my trusty spreadsheet suggests that of IRR's reviews of new releases, about 35% are Orchestral, about 18% Chamber, about 17% Instrumental, about 19% Vocal, and about 10% Opera. Doesn't sound like chamber music's any worse off than other types of music.
As a comparison, American Record Guide reviews break down as about 36% Orchestral, about 19% chamber, about 20% Instrumental, about about 18% Vocal, and about 7% Opera. Oh, let's do Fanfare as well: about 41% Orchestral, about 23% Chamber, about 18% Instrumental, about 13% Vocal, and about 5% Opera.
So, perhaps there are fewer chamber discs released than there used to be - I don't know - but it looks like it should be no harder to assemble a 'respectable' selection of chamber music discs than one of instrumental or vocal ones.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

From the week's listening

First I should note that as of this month my music buying habits have changed radically. You'll have noticed that I'm able to provide excerpts from all the Award winners and runners-up for the 8tracks mixes. This is because last year I was basing my buying around the Awards contenders. Given that 70 albums made the final cut, and there were many more actual contenders, such a practice is possible only if you're very wealthy or if you still have an incredibly cheap eMusic subscription. So for the past year I've largely been getting albums that are "supposed to be good" rather than ones I myself might like. It sounds quite an obligation when put like that and towards the end I probably could have done without the self-imposed pressure to immediately fill the gaps, but in fact there's not a single album I'm not glad to have. Some more so than others, of course, and the thing is, the full set is almost literally a selection voted by committee, rather than one person's idiosyncratic choices. So, Awards out of the way, I said enough of that, time for a change. As of February, I'm back to a rigid, self-imposed program of freedom. And the first fruits of this new policy are...

"The Black Dragon"

And I should point out straight away that I'm still paying close attention to reviews, but on the individual rather than collective level. I doubt very much if this particular release will end up in any putative 2011 Awards, or even be reviewed in more than one of my sources. It's the sort of release that really only Fanfare and ARG cover - self-published, unusual repertoire - and indeed it was in the latest issue of Fanfare that I found an interview with members of this California-based medieval ensemble (web site here). The album has an intriguing premise - music from the time of Vlad ("Dracula") the Impaler. It kicks off with part of the epic anti-Vlad propaganda poem "Von ainem wutrich der hies Trakle waida von der Walachei", and ends with another bit (the whole poem has over a thousand verses, apparently, most of them detailing his various impalings and other real or imagined barbarities), and there's some folk tunes from Hungary, Romania and the like thrown in, but overall it's a wide-ranging recital, covering a lot of ground from Turkey to France. That variety - reflected also in the selection of vocal versus instrumental pieces - stands it in good stead, as it avoids the sameyness that can sometimes affect even the best of these sorts of themed albums. I'm clueless about how medieval music should be performed, but Cançonièr seem to know what they're doing, and it's all thoroughly enjoyable. Dare I say, an album of medieval music for people who are afraid of albums of medieval music.

Liszt: Two Legends; Consolations; etc.
Lilya Zilberstein

Of course I've previously mentioned this one's ye-scurvy-dogs cover, but what of the music? Honestly, and this is just me speaking, you understand, if I had a choice between just this one Liszt album and every single album ever recorded of Chopin and Schumann, there wouldn't be much hesitation. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. Yes, yes, I know there's a Chopin influence to be heard here anyway, but the simple fact is that Liszt (at least, in works such as the ones here) pushes my "piano" buttons in the same way Mahler pushes my "orchestra" buttons. Warm fuzzy feelings abound on this album. A bloody good start to my Liszt Year.

Whitacre: "Light & Gold"
The Eric Whitacre Singers; Laudibus/Eric Whitacre; and others

Not quite my first exposure to Whitacre's music but very nearly. He's so dishy! I might hate him if his music weren't so lovely. Not everything here is as good as everything else, but the best is very good indeed. There's more variety here than I feared - it's not all serene and beautiful crowd-pleasers like Lux Aurumque and Sleep. I could have done without a rather twee moment in Five Hebrew Love Songs that sounds like it's straight from the worst Franco Zeffirelli film imaginable, but overall the album makes a very favourable impression. Do you know the story of the piece Sleep? Whitacre was commissioned to set Robert Frost's "Stopping by woods on a snowy evening", which he duly did, to much acclaim. Then the Frost estate told him he wasn't allowed to use the poem until it entered the public domain in 2038. Not too keen on waiting that long, Whitacre got his sometime collaborator Charles Anthony Silvestri to write a new poem with the same structure and some of the same words. End result: a much-loved choral classic, and the Frost estate come across as a bunch of dicks.

Harrison: Gamelan music
Gamelan Si Betty, with various soloists and the Berkeley Chamber Singers
[Music Masters]

Ever since I heard his gorgeous Air for the Poet, Lou Harrison's been one of those composers I keep meaning to hear more of but never get around to. Finally, I get this one, originally on Music Masters but now also part of a 4-disc reissue on Nimbus. The first piece, Philemon and Baukis for gamelan and solo violin, has that flowing lyricism that so attracted me to Air for the Poet. Not all the album is as comfortably beautiful as that, though: in Gending Alexander, the gamelan is perhaps at its most "exotic", reminding the listener that there are some sounds that Western ears must take time to get used to. The longest piece on the album is the multi-movement Homage to Pacifica, which uses a singer, chorus, and speaker to address how America has treated its environment and its original inhabitants. It includes, weirdly, a movement called "In Honor of the Divine Mr. Handel", which makes use of a harpist and sounds like a Handelian music-box. In "Litany", the choir and speaker chant the names of various Native American groups, the (marvellously stentorian) speaker concluding with the words "all the fine people on this original, natural land: Screwed".

Thursday, February 3, 2011

NvM 7: Songs of a Wayfarer

I see that four months have passed since the last "installment" of this series, and it was four months before that that I actually listened to the music under discussion here.
We're talking about Mahler's song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen - Songs of a Wayfarer. Or Songs of a Wayfaring Lad as some translations have it. Or indeed, Songs of a Driving Associate according to Babel Fish. This was his first proper song cycle. He wrote it with piano accompaniment around 1885 and orchestrated it nearly a decade later, but in fact he always had it in mind as an orchestral work. There are 4 songs, and I suppose you could call it a rather compact Winterreise.
The first song - they all have Mahler's words, by the way - is "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" ("When my love becomes a bride"), and it immediately sets a dark tone. It has a folksy feel to it, as does much of the cycle. Here the singer's contemplating his loved one's wedding day - not to him, obviously - and although he seems to find consolation in nature things don't work out that way: "spring is dead and gone./Singing's done for ever now".
By the second song, though, he's cheered up a bit: "Ging heut' Morgen
übers Feld" he sings, describing the lovely things he saw on his morning jaunt in the countryside - which lasts almost all the way through the song before he realises that his life is still, at bottom, miserable.
"Ich hab' ein gl
ühend Messer" is full of rage and despair, with plenty of "O weh!"s as he sings of the pain and torture he's being put through. It culminates in the singer wishing he were dead.
And does he get his wish? Perhaps. The final song, "Die zwei blauen Augen", sees him appear to pull himself together somewhat, as he leaves town in the dead of night. By and by he finds a linden tree, so beloved of Romantic poets, under which he lies down and... well, it really depends on who you listen to. Perhaps he has embraced death, or maybe it's just that, alone in the great world, he has finally found peace. Either one is possible, and it's fascinating hearing how subtle differences in performance can push it one way or the other.

I decided to start my listening with recordings of the piano version - this was the original version but the orchestral version from the early 1890s is seen as the "definitive" one.
Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber (RCA). Hey, this recently won a Nereffid's Guide Award! I was very pleased with that, as it's an excellent album, and Gerhaher's voice is a wonderful thing. I suppose this is a slightly low-key performance, certainly compared to others. In "Ging heut", for instance, he's cheerful rather than exuberant, and then towards the dark end of the song he hangs on to optimism for as long as he can, and there's a sense of sad acceptance in his realisation that happiness won't be coming his way. The third song's opening feels oddly like one of Schubert's "riding" songs - lovely clear piano from Gerold Huber - rather than a personal apocalypse. If this all seems like the performance isn't quite up to scratch, I should be clear that it very much is up to scratch, as it's full of character. The final song promises something valedictory as it opens, and as the wayfarer approaches the linden tree there's a touch of optimism, and the song ends in peace - and yet there's something unsettling about the final piano notes.
Janet Baker, Geoffrey Parsons (Hyperion). There's a tragic quality to Janet Baker's voice right from the start; though the second verse of the first song can have some cheer to it, here she sings plaintively, and there's a weary sadness through the whole thing. This sort of tone doesn't suit the second song, though, I think, and it feels rather undercharacterized. I like the third song, though, and the fourth does have character - but unlike Gerhaher, Baker seems to have given up. This one ends like a lullaby, but again that piano coda throws a spanner in the works - it gives the story an unfinished feel. I'll have more to say about Janet Baker later on.
Christoph Prégardien, Michael Gees (Hänssler). Having had a baritone and mezzo, we now turn to a tenor, which is not usual but isn't something that bothers me. It's possible that Prégardien and Gees's performance would bother some people; right from the start there seems to be a little messing with tempos and rhythms. Perhaps more worrisome might be Prégardien's style in the opening number - I wouldn't quite call it "detached" but he doesn't seem to be living the words. And the second song also appears mannered, as if he's reciting poetry about nature rather than actually being out in it - a touch of the drawing room to the whole thing. Yet I found the clarity of his voice rather made up for this apparent lack of engagement. Ah, but then... the final lines of this song seem to mark a major change, and the emotional level rises immensely - most certainly when they launch into "Ich hab'ein glühend Messer". Perhaps Prégardien did fail to be engaged in the first couple of songs, but it seems to me that the lack of engagement is deliberate. Here's a man who, as the cycle begins, simply doesn't realise what he's in for. Not quite Eugene Onegin, perhaps, but he comes across in the first song as someone who's quite prepared to get over this romantic setback. Song two, it's "See? For example, I can now go and appreciate Nature" - but suddenly everything hits him in the gut, and he's not OK. Song three is his explosion of pain, and song four - well, song four is where he finds a way out. He gathers his dignity but he's no longer the same person. He takes his leave, almost like a soldier (and indeed Gees's accompaniment is rather reminiscent of other of Mahler's songs that have a military component). The singer has embraced his fate, and at the linden tree he finds great peace. But there's a slightly more intense pulse to this than we've heard in the other performance, like he's being dragged willingly forward to his end. Here, the final piano notes sound like a memory. I really like this recording.
Angelika Kirchschlager, Helmut Deutsch (Quinton). Of the four voice-and-piano recordings here, this is by a long way the most beautiful to listen to, as Kirchschlager has a lovely clear voice that really rings out. On eMusic, from which I downloaded this, someone has reviewed the album saying "these songs were created by Mahler and Angelika's singing morphs them into the perfect Lieder", and actually I think that praise highlights something that's unfortunately not quite right about the performance, to my ears at least. In a way, these four songs aren't lieder - the cycle is rather more than the sum of its parts, but my impression of Kirchschlager's performance is that these are, indeed four individual lieder. It doesn't feel like a journey, basically. Everything is pretty much in its right place, but to my mind a lot of it needs a little tweak - darker, usually but not always - if the whole thing is to hang together. I suppose the problem is that it sounds so lovely, but there are moments when less loveliness is required. For all that, though, I do like it. I mean, it is so lovely! But for something more, I must stick with Gerhaher and Prégardien. And... but let's wait for another day before we get to the orchestral versions.

8tracks mix: Awards 2010, part II

Here's the second selection of winners and runners-up in the Nereffid's Guide Awards, this time from the Solo instrumental and Chamber categories.

(side note: I have 21 followers on 8tracks now - yay!)

Review of the year (Mean-spirited category)

German musician Ludger Rémy and (two members of) his orchestra Les Amis de Philippe were one of the runners-up in this year's Nereffid's Guide Awards, for their recording of trios by the Graun brothers. Part of the reason for that was a recommendation from Bertil van Boer in Fanfare. Indeed, that magazine's reviewers have been well disposed toward Rémy over the years, with praise going to discs of cantatas by Telemann and CPE Bach, arias by Theile, and concertos by Manfredini. Even Jerry I-hate-period-instruments Dubins was bowled over by a collection of music by Fasch. So when Rémy and his group's latest CPO recording - more CPE Bach cantatas - shows up for review in Fanfare you might have expected more of the same.
Fuck, no.
Here's what self-proclaimed "CPE Bach fan" Lynn René Bayley had to say about it:
Perhaps my reaction to these works would be more positive if the performances were actually good. Unfortunately, they are performed in a clipped, crispy-crunch style where neither the strings nor the chorus phrase in a legato manner. Some of the soloists do sing with a sense of legato, but more so the basses than the sopranos or tenors. Indeed, both the female soloists and the chorus sound as if they were “vocal effects” produced on a MIDI.

Okay, hyperbolic last sentence perhaps, but otherwise not unreasonable criticism. Fair enough, she didn't like the performances.
But then:
It’s rather disappointing to consider that conductor Ludwig Rémy, who appears to be a middle-aged man, could have made it this far in life without the least shred of feeling for music. I would suggest that he find another, nonmusical, line of work. I’m sure he’d make a fine electrical engineer or chartered public accountant.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Well, I think it's just arrogant

You would think, wouldn't you, that if you were a publication called BBC Music Magazine you would be quite content with the web address, no? I mean, it makes sense. It describes the purpose of the web site rather well. Perhaps you could quibble that it should be, but other than that it does the job.
But that's not good enough, is it? Because "the world's best-selling classical music magazine" isn't content with just being the world's best-selling classical music magazine - which means what, anyway, just that maybe more people buy it than commit murder. Oh no, so-called B so-called B so-called C so-called Music so-called Magazine has loftier ambitions than that and now the web site is World domination beckons! Because now the magazine is up there with its unhyphenated brethern: gibberish extravaganza and, which is apparently home to The Escape Committee: Gamekeeper to the web rhino.
So now when we think of classical music on the intertubes we must think of BBC Music Magazine. This will end in tears, I know it. After all, anyone who believes everything that Universal Music Group tells them will be aware that "Deutsche Grammophon is classical music". Could this be the opening skirmish in a war for the very soul of classical music? I'm absolutely convinced it must be. I think we can safely assume that at some point in the future our corporate overlords will rule that someone somewhere does indeed have the rights to the use of the term "classical music", just as the U.S. Olympic Committee has exclusive ownership of the adjective "Olympic".
In the meantime, let me conclude this ill-conceived diatribe by remarking that on the old you could log in without going to a separate page, and on the new you can't. Swine.