Saturday, June 29, 2013

Newly heard: R Murray Schafer, etc

Pick of the last fortnight is the Molinari Quartet's second collection of string quartets by Canadian composer R Murray Schafer, whose 80th birthday is in a couple of weeks (ATMA). I remember several years back on eMusic people were urging me to listen to the first set (nos.1-7) but that was one of many things I never got round to. Now here's nos.8-12, written between 2000 and 2012. They're works with immediate appeal, and each quite different: 8 has some orientalisms in it; 9 makes use of a recording of a girl's voice singing an innocent tune, along with occasional interruptions from the sound of children playing; and the evocative 10, subtitled "Winter Birds", includes a brief recitation by the composer describing the snowy world of his farm in Ontario.

Rachel Barton Pine's "Violin Lullabies" (Cedille) could, in other hands, have been Classical Diabetes, but this is a genuinely lovely album. Her tone avoids the cloying sweetness we might associate with these sorts of pieces, and she makes use of various types of mute for half the works. And it's not just the usual suspects here - it opens with the Brahms but before we get to Gershwin's "Summertime" we hear music from Ysaye, Rebikov, Beach, Schwab, and Respighi. So it manages to be both a good "starter" album for parents and a bit of a byway exploration for us collector types.

Vox Luminis's new album (Ricercar) focuses on the music used for the funeral of Queen Mary, which was composed not just by Purcell but also by James Paisible, Thomas Tollett, and Thomas Morley; there are also other funeral works by Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Tomkins, and Purcell again (his Funeral Sentences were apparently not written for Queen Mary). This is music I know through the classic Winchester Cathedral recording, but obviously Vox Luminis's 16 voices bring a very different sound, which I must say I prefer.

Kimmo Hakola's guitar concerto takes medieval Spain, and specifically the Sephardic Jews, as its inspiration. If, like me, you already know his clarinet concerto and enjoy its klezmer influences, then this is probably recommendation enough to get the new recording from Timo Korhonen with the Oulu Symphony Orchestra under Santtu-Matias Rouvali (Ondine). For me, Hakola's work is the main event of the album, but there's also two substantial (at times, huge) pieces by Toshio Hosokawa, both of which are inspired in some way by the lotus; Blossoming II is for orchestra, while Voyage IX (Awakening) is a guitar concerto.

I'm gradually building up a picture of Erwin Schulhoff's music, and the second volume of piano works (mostly from the 1920s) on Grand Piano from Caroline Weichert reveals the influence of jazz and other popular music. It's by and large rather light stuff, though a great "whut the...?" moment comes with the Fünf Pittoresken of 1919; after a Foxtrot and a Ragtime, we're treated to a piece called In Futurum, which consists entirely of rests. An amiable disc, and it sounds well too. Grand Piano seems to have found a good niche for itself.

Andreas Staier's new album of harpsichord music is - well, that should be recommendation enough for a lot of people.  Anyway, it's called "Pour passer la Mélancolie" (Harmonia Mundi) and while it's not exactly a laff riot the music is far too interesting for us to dismiss it as generically gloomy. I find harpsichord recitals are heavily dependent on the sound of the instrument, and this one brings everything to life. The album grew on me each time I returned to it.

Finally, a special mention to the splendid cover disc on the most recent BBC Music Magazine, a 1973 Proms performance of Holst's Planets from Adrian Boult and the BBCSO. It was a Boult recording of the work that first introduced me to classical music so there's a wee bit of nostalgia attached, but it's a marvellous performance anyway. Plus it's accompanied by a more recent Proms performance, Paul Lewis in Beethoven's 1st piano concerto.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Every little helps...

So there's this online radio thing from Tesco called Blinkbox, which is, apparently, "the easiest way to listen to the music you already love, or discover new favourites - all for free". I'm not sure what I did to earn an email from them alerting me to the existence of Blinkbox but, hey, when you get an unsolicited email the first thing you should do is click on the link, right?
Well it looks like your standard online radio thing, so I decided to check out the Classical stations. A bunch of stuff there, though with prominence given to "Classical Crossover" and "Now Classical", which is to say excerpts from "Now that's what I call classical". Hmm, am I in their demographic? Ah, but there's one station called "Contemporary Classical" so I'll give that a go. 
I do like Janacek's Sinfonietta all right, but in what sense does music written by someone who died in 1928 count as "contemporary"? Also the absence of a credit for the performers is a black mark.
On screen there's a bunch of album covers and if I mouse over one I get the chance to create a station based on this album. So I try it with "The John Adams Earbox" and get... an excerpt from Berg's Wozzeck. Ah. Then something by Stockhausen. Then Britten's Simple Symphony. And now I'm listening to a bit of Mothertongue by Nico Muhly who at least has the virtue of being alive, even if this doesn't sound much like John Adams.
Shall we try another station? Oh, lets! How about "Classical Essentials"?
First up: "Spring" from The Four Seasons.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Newly heard: Ghetto Strings, etc.

Pianist Lara Downes's new album on the Steinway & Sons label is called "Exile's Cafe" and features music by 13 composers who were emigrés at some point in their lives. Along with Bartók, Chopin, Prokofiev, Martinu, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Weil, Korngold, and Milhaud we get less well known figures like William Grant Still, Paul Bowles, Michael Sahl, and Mohammed Fairouz. Actually I'm not sure if Still was ever an exile, but the music we hear is an extract from "Africa" so I guess that counts. So the album's a good mix of the familiar and unfamiliar (in my case, almost all of it was unfamiliar). As you might expect given the theme there's a general melancholic atmosphere, though in fact not all of the pieces were composed in exile (Korngold's Piano sonata no.2, for instance, of which we hear the first movement, was written when he was in his early teens). OK, so the concept might not be strictly rock-solid, but the project is definitely a success.

More Martinů in the form of the first volume of Toccata's series of Early orchestral works. The earliest piece is Village Feast from 1907 (he was 16), the latest from 22 years later (Prélude en forme de Scherzo) so I guess this is a fairly wide definition of "early" (all Mozart and Schubert works are "early" in that case!). These are all first recordings, from Ian Hobson and the Sinfonia Varsovia. I'm no Martinů expert but I'm comfortable with describing these works as "sounds like early Martinů", and there's plenty to enjoy. Indeed, if this were your first introduction to Martinů you'd probably be quite happy to then explore further.

From Le Miroir de Musique and Baptiste Romain comes "The Birth of the Violin" (Ricercar), a selection of music from the 15th and 16th centuries, ranging from Obrecht and Josquin to Willaert and Bassano. Essentially in most of the works the violin shows up as a substitute for a voice in a motet, madrigal or other vocal work, though there's also some dedicated instrumental music. There's an academic intent here, obviously, and the album may very well show up in my History of Classical Music through Recordings, but it's not merely academic, and the journey is a fascinating one.

And onwards to Monteverdi and The Sixteen's third and final disc of excerpts from Selva morale e spirituale. I suppose little needs to be said about this group's reliability in music of the period, and the previous volumes have had good enough reviews that when the dust settles this seems likely to be many people's top choice for the work. My innocent ears have no complaints, anyway, and I guess I'll have to go get the other two volumes now, won't I?

Finally, the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet give us four works on their new Innova release, "Thrum". The title piece is a laid-back set of three movements from David Evan Thomas - all four composers on the album were unfamiliar to me. Van Stiefel's Cinema Castenada is intended to evoke a scene of the performers gathered round a campfire, and it does have a meandering, improvisatory feel, with some vocalising for good measure. There are apparently lots of musical references in there that I haven't really picked up on. Gao Hong joins the quartet on pipa for his Guangxi Impressions, so you won't be surprised that it sounds rather Chinese. These are all enjoyable works, though the highlight for me is the opening Ghetto Strings, in which Daniel Bernard Roumain depicts (consecutively) "Harlem", "Liberty City", "Motor City", and "Haiti"; there's plenty of folk/popular music styles in here and all very evocative.