Monday, October 12, 2015

Hit or missa

Time for another trip to Did you even listen to the same CD?

Today we visit Bernard Haitink's recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, recently released on BR Klassik.

Take it away, James A. Altena of Fanfare:
Rather surprisingly, Bernard Haitink added Beethoven’s Missa solemnis to his repertoire for the first time only a year or so ago. Unfortunately, whether that indicates a lack of elemental sympathy with the work, or whether the conductor simply has not had time to absorb the score with sufficient depth, this is a deeply disappointing reading that never rises above anodyne mediocrity.
Meanwhile on Musicweb, here's John Quinn:
This is an inspired and inspiring performance. We may have had to wait a long time for a Haitink recording of this great work but, my goodness, the wait has been worthwhile. His interpretation is distinguished from first note to last and, in summary, I come back to the word “wise”.
Haitink here is the leaden Dutchman rather than the flying one; although the total time for the performance puts it a bit on the brisker side of the spectrum, it feels plodding, as the conductor dutifully moves from measure to measure with no greater vision or objective. There is no forming of larger arcs or units, no inflection or shaping of phrases, simply a largely lukewarm sameness of temperature. Any notion of building momentum, of creating and releasing dramatic tension, is absent. 
At the time of this performance he was 85 and while there’s absolutely no sign of age diminishing his energy what is abundantly evident is that we are hearing a performance into which the accumulated wisdom and experience of six decades of conducting has been invested. I found this a profoundly satisfying reading in which everything seemed just right.
The orchestra and chorus do what is asked of them to professional standards, but one has the sense that their hearts are not in it.
the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks proves yet again that it is currently one of the finest of all European ensembles ... right from the start one is impressed by the warmth and depth of the orchestral sound and by the excellence of the choir.
Even if there were stronger leadership from the podium, this performance would be sunk by the substandard work of its solo vocal quartet.
Haitink also benefits from the presence of a splendid quartet of soloists
This one, alas, is a non-starter.
There are several fine recordings of Missa solemnis but this one has now to be counted as one of the leading recommendations.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Julia Wolfe wins Pulitzer Prize

OK, maybe your lives are really exciting and you have lunch with the Dalai Lama every other week, but some of us have empty meaningless existences and we're pathetic enough to experience a tiny thrill when the Number Of People I've Actually Seen In Real Life And Even Said A Few Words To Who Have Won Pulitzer Prizes goes from zero to one.
So, congratulations to Julia Wolfe, who's won the Pulitzer Prize for Music with "Anthracite Fields".
Recording to follow later in the year, hurrah!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Let's speculate wildly about Anna Magdalena Bach

Would you buy a used cello suite from this man?
There was this thing on the telly the other night... sorry, I mean, I watched a programme on BBC4 on Friday, in which musicologist Martin Jarvis put forward his theory that Anna Magdalena Bach was the true composer of the music we call "Bach's cello suites". He's been (controversially) saying this for some years now, but it was the first I'd heard of it. Written by Mrs Bach kicked off a little passive-aggressively with an epigraph from John Locke on the value of not being too quick to dismiss apparently crackpot ideas (I'm paraphrasing), but in fairness I did try to keep an open mind during the show. It's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this sort of claim, challenging as it does some sacred cows about music, and so yes, one should judge by the evidence rather than just assuming straight-off that he's wrong. Presenter Sally Beamish seemed to be coming at Jarvis's theory more from a "woman-composer" perspective, which is to say she didn't seem especially committed to the idea but was more like "well, why couldn't a woman compose this music?" A fair question, but at times I felt the attitude of the show (not necessarily Beamish herself) strayed a little close to "if you dismiss this theory, you're a hidebound conservative and sexist".
So, what of the evidence? There wasn't much there, really. A handwriting expert indicated that Bach met (and collaborated with) his future second wife when she was just 12, but aside from that there was little handwriting evidence other than hunches that Bach compositions long known to be in Anna Magdalena's hand looked a bit more composed-y rather than copied-y.
The bombshell evidence was supposed to be the title page of Anna Magdalena's copy of the cello suites. Bach pupil Georg Schwanberg had written in the corner "Ecrite par Madame Bachen, Son Epouse". Well, aside from the fact that the program avoided any musicological evidence that someone other than JS had written the music, this seemed to settle it. Until - in fairness to the program - a sceptical Ruth Tatlow showed up to point out that Jarvis had kinda missed the place on the same page where Schwanberg had written, in bigger writing because this was the actual title, "composée par Sr. J. S. Bach". Ahem. Jarvis insisted that "composée" just really meant "assembled" or somesuch, and "ecrite" really meant composed. Yeah.
Besides, he'd already pretty much blown his credibility with some unnecessary scandal in the form of the suggestion that - seeing as Bach already had known Anna Magdalena since she was 12 - when she came to Köthen as a singer and needed somewhere to stay, well, why wouldn't she stay with JS and Maria Barbara, which speculation escalated very quickly into JS having an affair with Anna Magdalena that was partially responsible for Maria Barbara's suicide. Historical note: there's no evidence whatsoever that she committed suicide.
What were the good things about Written by Mrs Bach? It was a useful reminder of just how male the world of classical music was. And yes, if a composer was married to a talented musician, she might very well come up with good ideas that add to his work, and I accept that assuming that Anna Magdalena made no contribution to her husband's work as a composer (other than copyist) is being too subservient to the idea of the "great men" view of history. So though there might not be convincing evidence that she came up with the aria for the Goldberg variations or the C major prelude from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (two other claims by Jarvis), I don't think anyone would be shocked or threatened if she had. The rather more substantial cello suites are a whole other matter though, and proper evidence is needed for such a bold claim; and there isn't any proper evidence. So if people dismiss Jarvis's theory, it's not because they're old-school misogynists whose God-like hero composer's reputation is threatened by a mere slip of a girl; it's because the theory's rubbish.
When Written by Mrs Bach was first presented to the world late last year it got plenty of breathless media coverage (though obviously not enough to attract my attention!). Some sceptical analysis that corresponds with my own thoughts can be found from Alex Ross and Steven Isserlis; there's a lengthy article in Musicology Now too, where the money quote comes from Christoph Wolff: "I am sick and tired of this stupid thesis". And most recently comes Ruth Tatlow's extensive rebuttal (PDF) in the journal Understanding Bach.

No doubt in centuries to come someone will claim that this blog post was written by Mrs Nereffid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Henri Dutilleux: unforgiven?

Dutilleux on his first day at Mime School

According to a Gramophone blog post by James Jolly, the mayor of Paris's 4th arondissement is refusing to allow a commemorative plaque on the home of Henri Dutilleux. Is it because he didn't like Tout un monde lointain? No. Apparently all Dutilleux's achievements have been trumped by what he did as a 26-year-old, which was write a hack-work score for some Vichy propaganda film.
It's worth noting (if you enjoy irony) that Dutilleux regarded his 1946-8 piano sonata as his opus 1, renouncing most of his earlier works.
Anyway, pianist/composer Étienne Kippelen has organised a petition to encourage the mayor to change his (seemingly quite narrow) mind.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"What?... Wow" indeed

David Lang's Festival of Music at Dublin's NCH was a joy from start to finish. Go read my review on Music Is Good. And here's an exclusive photo!

Bang on a Can Brunch: Michael Gordon, David Lang, John Schaeffer, Julia Wolfe

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nereffid's Best Albums of 2014

This isn't the Nereffid's Guide Awards, but it's my personal equivalent. Instead of collating thousands of reviews from many sources to produce some kind of critical consensus about the best releases of the year, I've instead just chosen my favourites. Apparently I heard 152 new classical albums in 2014, and enough of them were sufficiently good to allow me to separate them into categories along the lines of the old awards (I've dropped Opera because there were no entries and combined Opera Recital with Solo Vocal; and the Orchestral category now includes the Symphony category).
So here are the 11 awards:

Hildegard von Bingen: "Vox Cosmica"
Arianna Savall & Per Udland Johansen
[Carpe Diem]

"Amorosi Pensieri". Cinquecento [Hyperion]
"Piffarissimo". Capella de la Torre [Challenge]
"Motets - the Cambrai manuscript A410". Graindelavoix [Glossa]
Oswald von Wolkenstein: "The Cosmopolitan". Ensemble Leones [Christophorus]

 Rameau: "The Sound of Light"
MusicAeterna/Teodor Currentzis

"Doulce Mémoire". Margaret Little; Sylvain Bergeron [ATMA]
"Perla Barocca". Rachel Podger [Channel]
"Jacobean Lute Music". Jakob Lindberg [BIS]
"The Proud Bassoon". Peter Whelan; Ensemble Marsyas [Linn]

 "Inspired by Song"
Stefan Temmingh; Dorothee Mields

"Madrigals of Madness". Calmus Ensemble [Carus]
CPE Bach: Magnificat. RIAS Kammerchor; AAM Berlin; Hans-Christoph Rademann [Harmonia Mundi]
"A French Baroque Diva". Carolyn Sampson [Hyperion]
"A Purcell Collection". Voces8; Les Inventions [Signum]

"Dance of Shadows"
Roman Mints

Bach: Inventions and Sinfonias. Simone Dinnerstein [Sony]
"Invocation". Herbert Schuch [Naive]
"In Dance and Song". Tom Poster [Champs Hill]
"East of Melancholy". Tara Kamangar [Delos]

"New World Quartets"
Brodsky Quartet

"Wood Works". Danish String Quartet [Dacapo]
"Music from the Suitcase". Yevgeny Kutik; Timothy Bozarth [Marquis]
Sculthorpe: String quartets with Didjeridu. Stephen Kent; Del Sol Quartet [Sono Luminus]
Mozart, Schubert, Stravinsky: Piano duos. Martha Argerich; Daniel Barenboim [DG]

Britten & Weinberg: Violin concertos
Linus Roth; DSO Berlin/Mihkel Kütson

"Escape to Paradise". Daniel Hope [DG]
Schulhoff: Concertos. Frank-Immo Zichner; Jacques Zoon; DSO Berlin/Roland Kluttig [Capriccio]
Handel: Piano concertos nos.13-16. Matthias Kirschnereit [CPO]
Prokofiev: Piano concertos. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet [Chandos]


Beethoven: The Creatures of Prometheus
Armonia Atenea/George Petrou

Mozart: Symphonies nos.39-41. Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen [Glossa]
Schubert: Symphonies nos.3-5. Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard [BIS]
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade. Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic/Sascha Goetzel [Onyx]
Hartmann: Symphonies nos.1-8. Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/various [Challenge]

"Behind the Lines"
Anna Prohaska; Eric Schneider

"Love's Minstrels". Philippe Sly [Analekta]
Mozart: Concert arias. Rolando Villazón [DG]
Schubert: Nachtviolen. Christian Gerhaher [Sony]
"Power Players: Russian arias for bass". Ildar Abdrazakov [Delos]

Jan Novák: "Testamentum"
Martinů Voices/Lukas Vasilek

Orff: Carmina Burana. Anima Eterna/Jos van Immerseel [Zig-Zag Territoires]
"America". SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Marcus Creed [Hänssler]
Mozart: Requiem. Dunedin Consort/John Butt [Linn]
"Sacred Love". Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava [Ondine]

Allemeier: Deep Water
Various performers

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean. Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot [Cantaloupe]
Glass: String quartets (transcribed). Dublin Guitar Quartet [Orange Mountain]
Nyman: "Chasing Pianos". Valentina Lisitsa [Decca]
"American Vernacular". Nicholas Phillips [New Focus]
Perich: Surface Image. Vicky Chow [New Amsterdam]

Wolfe: Steel Hammer
Trio Medieval; Bang-on-a-Can All-Stars

Crumb: Voices from the Heartland. Ann Crumb; Patrick Mason [Bridge]
Dove: Song Cycles. Patricia Bardon; Claire Booth; Nicky Spence [Naxos]
Pärt: Choral music. Polyphony/Stephen Layton [Hyperion]
Kyr: The Cloud of Unknowing [Harmonia Mundi]

I decided not to put in any commentary on the individual categories because I'm worn out from putting together pithy statements for the two "best of" lists I did for Music Is Good (new music is here; "old" music to follow), and maybe it's OK to let the music speak for itself. I can say that some categories were easier to decide than others; I didn't get much Baroque Instrumental music or Choral music, and though I'm pleased with the five Living Vocal nominees it was only an end-of-year rush that provided me with that many true contenders. I was tracking my progress in the last few months to make sure there was good representation of every category; without that awareness, I'm sure the selection would have been rather less balanced. 
The most exciting category was Living Instrumental, which had to have an extra nominee. The John Allemeier, John Luther Adams, Julia Wolfe, and Philip Glass were four of my top 5 of the year, marking a triumph for new music, but the winner of Album of the Year is Anna Prohaska's magnificent reflection on war.
The 56 nominees came from 39 labels, and no label won two awards... well, really DHM and Sony go together, as do Decca and DG.
Also... ah, that's it. Nothing more needs to be said. Well done, classical albums of 2014: you were very good.