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Monday, December 15, 2008

A Wimpy Faure

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Requiem, Op. 48 (1893) [36:01]
Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11 (1863-1864) [5:18]

Sandrine Piau, soprano
Stéphane Degout, baritone

Members of the National Orchestra of France
Laurence Equilbey, conductor

Recorded in the Basilica de Saint-Cothilde, Paris, France, January 2008.

NAÏVE V5137 [41:21]

Laurence Equilbey has made great progress in the last few years at improving the quality of choral singing in France. She has even started her own institute to train young singers for future careers in professional choirs. For this she is to be greatly admired, as even just ten years ago, the standards for choirs there were disappointingly low.

It is a bit disheartening then that we get a rather run of the mill performance of two war horses in this all too brief recording by Accentus and friends. Fauré’s simple and reverent Requiem mass gets performed and recorded rather often and seldom particularly well. Ms. Equilbey gets a fine tone from her chorus, but the recording seems to mask the choir’s sound a bit and we never get to hear a completely resonant production, despite the fine building in which the recording was made. There is certainly nothing wrong with the blend or intonation, but overall, the performance was rather uninspired and seemed to be approached as more of an obligation than a pleasure. Tempos are right on though, and it is a relief to hear this work stripped of the dirge-ishness that some conductors apply to what are some of the most beautifully written vocal lines in choral music.

Fine soloists, particularly baritone Stéphane Degout, whose warm rich and clear tone sails over the orchestra in the Libera me, and is achingly beautiful in the Hostias, give this performance some added bonus points. Sandrine Piau has a fine clear soprano, but her reading of the Pie Jesu is a little too thin and reedy.

The disc is sort of filled out with a nice reading of the popular Cantique de Jean Racine, the only French piece in the repertoires of many English speaking choirs!

What is left to be understood is why Naïve would issue a forty-one minute disc when there are so many other appropriate works that could have been added. Another performance of Duruflé’s Requiem or motets wouldn’t hurt anyone now would it? Because of its short duration and the above mentioned qualms, this disc is sadly relegated to the also-rans. Stick with Robert Shaw’s stunning performances of this and the Duruflé masses on Telarc if you want the best bang for your buck.

Kevin Sutton

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Some Brilliant Flute Playing

Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)

Twelve Fantasias for Flute

Fantasia 1 in A [3:16]

Fantasia 2 in a minor [5:01]

Fantasia 3 in b minor [3:43]

Fantasia 4 in B-flat [3:19]

Fantasia 5 in C [3:53]

Fantasia 6 in D [5:59]

Fantasia 7 in D [5:02]

Fantasia 8 in e minor [3:53]

Fantasia 9 in E [5:39]

Fantasia 10 in f-sharp minor [4:49]

Fantasia 11 in G [3:27]

Fantasia 12 in g minor [5:21]

Jed Wentz, (baroque flute)

No recording dates or locations are given on the disc.


A number of composers have written works for the solo flute sans accompaniment, but very few of these pieces reach the high levels of quality and creativity that were achieved by Telemann in his twelve solo fantasias. Like most baroque instrumental pieces, these works are based on dance forms with the occasional freewheeling prelude thrown in for good measure. That Telemann was able to create music that sounds polyphonic for an instrument incapable of playing more than one note at a time is perfectly amazing.

The boldness of this music can also be a bit of a surprise. But if one comes to understand that in the seventeenth century the flute was seen as a manly instrument, capable of expressing a wide range of emotions, the vividness of these pieces makes perfect sense.

Jed Wentz certainly blows the dust off the scores as he romps through these twelve little masterpieces with enough panache and showmanship to put Liberace to shame. Almost daring in his rhythmic liberties, Wentz’ audacity turns into sheer delight very quickly. The energy with which he plays conjures up aural images of full orchestras and consorts. Slower movements almost ache with passion. Compared to Barthold Kuijken’s graceful gentility and Jean-Pierre Rampal’s phoned in performances, Wentz seems to have found the heart of these works, and dared to make them his very own.

In his charming program note, Wentz almost apologizes for his interpretations, but then turns around and says in so many words that he plays the music the way he feels it, convention be damned. Would that more early music types could shed their fear of disobeying a treatise and dare to make music from the soul.

At Brilliant Classics’ super budget price this disc is a steal. It is indeed one of the most ear-catching and imaginative performances that I have come across this year and will merit much repeated listening.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Fine Hour of Choral Music

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191 [14:31]
Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de MONDONVILLE (1711-1772)
Grand motet, “Dominus regnavit” [24:34]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Gloria, RV 589 [28:19]

Ann Monoyios (soprano)
Matthew White (countertenor)
Colin Ainsworth (tenor)

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra

Jeanne Lamon, music director
Ivars Taurins, chorus master and conductor

Recorded at the George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto, October 15-16, 2006.

CBC SMCD 5244 [67:40]

In a rather brilliant stroke of programming prowess, Ivars Taurins, who serves as chorus master for Toronto’s Tafelmusik baroque ensemble, takes the helm here for an absolutely delightful selection of works for chorus and orchestra. There is little as gratifying as a well crafted concert, and this disc provides us with a fine sampling of the familiar, the sort of familiar and the unusual, all performed with a great deal of panache.

Bach’s cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191 serves as the “sort of” familiar work. Listeners will immediately recognize the tunes as those from the Gloria of the Mass in b minor. This cantata, however, predates the mass, and was most likely used for a solemn service commemorating the Peace of Dresden that ended the second Silesian War. It was first heard on Christmas Day 1745, and the importance of the occasion is reflected in Bach’s choice of a Latin text, a rare occurrence in the Lutheran Church.

Graceful phrasing from the choir and soloists and a spot on choice of tempi makes this performance rewarding indeed. Ivars Taurins leads a spirited and engaging reading that is never breathless.

Rare indeed is an American performance of one of the many Grand motets that were staples of sacred music in France during the Baroque. What a treat it is to hear this setting of Psalm 93, a substantial work that was intended for concert and not liturgical use. The work of the three soloists is particularly satisfying, highlighted by some ravishingly beautiful trio ensemble singing. Conductors in the U. S. should take note of this splendid music and get it before American audiences more often.

Although he was an ordained priest, Antonio Vivaldi’s sacred music was very late in coming to light. Some sixty works survive and they were not discovered until the 1920’s when a significant collection of works for the church was discovered and cataloged in Turin. This Gloria was most likely written for the girls in the Ospedale della pieta, an orphanage cum conservatory where Vivaldi worked and taught for many years, thus explaining its sparse orchestration. It is undoubtedly one of the composer’s most popular and oft-performed choral works, and it receives a refreshingly light spirited performance here. Experienced choral listeners will enjoy the finely shaped phrases and the absence of 1950’s vintage lugubriousness of tempi that plague many older recordings of this music.

Well thought out repertoire choices, elegant performances and taut ensemble are the hallmarks of this delightful hour and then some, a collection sure to please amateur and professional listeners alike.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

i thank you god for most this amazing day

Such is the opening line of one of the most profound poems of the twentieth century, written by e.e. cummings. I encourage you to read the whole poem sometime because it is one of the most ecstatic celebrations of the joy of living ever penned.

That's how I feel today as I listen to the trickling of the fountain on my porch, reminding me that life is an ever-flowing stream; a never ending river taking us from one adventure to the next. I celebrate the gift of friendship that I receive in such daily abundance. I give thanks for my home, my church, my family, my cats! Today I look out the window and feel particularly blessed to see a beautiful world, a world that in spite of economic turmoil and war and strife, continues to be good to me and those I love.

And yet, in the background, CNN continues to report the sad news from India. All is not well with the world for many people. And so I pray for the people in this world who are hungry, for those who live in fear and for those whose existence is ever in the balance.

As we sit down to our nice meals in our comfortable and safe homes with people we love, I hope that all of us will take a moment to remember those who don't have what we have, and to redouble our efforts in this coming holiday season to not only make our own spirits bright, but to reach into our abundance and share some of what we've been given with someone in need.

Peace and blessings be with you on this Thanksgiving day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stellar new performances of old favorites for strings.

Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
From Holberg’s Time, Op. 40 [19:14]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Eine kleine Nachtmusik , K 525 [20:07]
Pyotr Illych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48 [28:58]

Moscow Soloists
Yuri Bashmet

Recorded in the Pavel Slobodkin Center, Moscow, 11-14 October 2006.

ONYX 4037 [68:29]

The year 1884 saw the bicentennial celebrations of the Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg. Although Holberg spent most of his professional life in Copenhagen, and adopted Danish as his primary language, the fiercely nationalistic Norwegians wanted to reclaim him for their own. Consequently, the city of Bergen commissioned a cantata from Grieg to be performed outdoors on the anniversary of the playwright’s birth. The cantata never got finished, but Grieg orchestrated a suite of dances for keyboard that he had previously composed as a tribute to Holberg and presented them to the city fathers instead. Modeled on the dance forms of seventeenth century France, Grieg attempted to recall the music of Holberg’s own time. While he succeeded to a degree, the graceful melodies, magnificent part writing and unique harmonies make the work pure Grieg. The result is music as clear and elegant as a northern winter.

The Moscow Virtuosi give us a most clean and transparent performance. Having heard many recordings of this music in which the tempi are lugubrious, and the playing heavy handed, it is a delight to hear this ensemble play with just the right color and texture. The playing is sonorous enough to let us enjoy the rich harmonies, but the Karajan-ish weightiness is gone. What is left is a revelation in its crystalline clarity.

Although little is known of the circumstances surrounding its composition, Mozart’s G major serenade, written at around the same time as Don Giovanni, remains one of his most enduringly popular works. It was most likely tossed off for a social function. Scored only, at the most for pairs of strings with optional double bass, it is usually played by a full string compliment, often too slowly and heavily. Again, Yuri Bashmet chooses a perfect set of tempi. The fast outer movements sparkle yet never feel breathless, and the inner movements are perfectly elegant without ever indulging in sentimentality.

Tchaikovsky considered Mozart to be his musical god, and he paid tribute to him on more than one occasion. This rich serenade with its cyclical opening theme is one such tribute. Once again Bashmet and his players avoid the heaviness that often bogs this music down to give us a performance that is almost radiant. Bashmet keeps homophonic sections rich yet never syrupy. Contrapuntal writing is played with absolute clarity. Again, perfect tempo choices and flawless ensemble make this performance one of the more memorable that I have heard in sometime.

It is always refreshing when an ensemble says something original with old war horses. In short, this recording is an hour of delights, and will replace a number of older performances of these works at the head of the line.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What Does it Tell You?

How interesting it was that when Senator McCain made his concession speech that people in his crowd booed at the mention of President Elect Obama's name.

How interesting it was that when President Elect Obama praised senator McCain's service to our country, which is indeed significant, that the democratic audience in Chicago cheered and applauded.

Oh Republicans. How sad it is that you can find nothing but hate and derision in your response to defeat. Mr. McCain was more than gracious in his concession speech. He was a true American patriot. He was what we want to be as Americans...modest in victory, gracious in defeat.

How sad that the Republican crowd in Phoenix chose to be everything that Americans aren't.

How gratifying it was to see that Mr. Obama's supporters could bring out the best in what we as Americans really are. We are modest in victory. We can show appreciation for all that Senator McCain has given and sacrificed for our country.

Is it any wonder that the Republicans are looked upon with such derision. They are the anti-American dream. They are sadly the antithesis of what it means to be an American. They shout cat calls at their defeat. How sad that they can't be real Americans, and pledge to work together with the new president as Mr. McCain did.

Senator McCain is a hero once again.

His slogan was "Country First". How sad that his followers never read the posters.

Monday, November 03, 2008

What to do Tomorrow

This is my quadrennial message to all of my friends of voting age. If you haven't already done so, go out tomorrow and vote. It is more than just your civic duty, whatever that means. It is your moral responsibility. To say that your vote doesn't count is a pathetic cop out. It does. The last two presidential elections have been won on very slim margins. There have been a couple of important senate and gubernatorial races that were decided on just a few votes.

It is pretty easy to bitch about what is wrong with our country and our government from the comfort of your armchair. But if you don't get out of it long enough to cast your ballot, your right to complain gets thrown out the window.

So, regardless of your political persuasion, cast your ballot tomorrow. And if you have to wait in line for a long time...well, good! That's as it should be. See you tomorrow at the polls!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Chamber Music from Reger

Max REGER (1873-1916)

Piano Quartet in a minor, Op. 133 (1914) [38:50]

String Trio in d minor, Op. 141b (1904) [20:55]

Aperto Piano Quartet

Gernot Süßmuth, (violin)

Stefan Fehlandt, (viola)

Hans-Jakbo Eschenburg, (cello)

Frank-Immo Zichner, (piano)

Felix Schwartz, (viola)

Recorded at the Sendesaal des Hessischen Rundfunks, Frankfurt am Main, Germany 16-18 September 2002 and at Siemensvilla, Berlin-Lankwitz, Germany, 27-28 February, 2007.

NAXOS 8.570786 [59:52]

Max Reger was a prolific loner whose career seemed to vacillate readily between having success as a professor, being misunderstood as a member of the avant garde, and being again derided for his old-fashioned devotion to tonality and traditional structural forms. What is left to us is a large body of work, some of which is over-ripe and difficult to digest. Yet for all of his excursions into then uncharted chromatic harmonies, fiendishly difficult keyboard music written for himself to play and structural architecture often stretched to the breaking point, we still have a composer of often profound depth and surprising originality.

A virtuoso pianist with an active performing career, Reger had a great love for chamber music, much of which was composed for strings and piano with himself as the soloist of choice. His two piano quartets are influenced by the work of Johannes Brahms, a composer whom Reger played and admired. This second quartet is full of storms, and yet its overall demeanor is carefully shaded in melancholy so as to give it a rather sweet and autumnal feeling. The opening allegro is full of passionate outbursts with some very thick textures and heavy handed piano writing. The second movement vivace is much more playful and a welcome relief from the thunderstorm of the first movement. There follows a graceful and tender largo and a spirited allegro ending.

It would be very easy to let this music derail emotionally, as it is just close enough to the edge of excess to get syrupy in the wrong hands. The Aperos however give us a balanced and nuanced performance with romantic gush given just the right amount of restraint to keep us listening. Any more passion would be over the top, any less would result in too academic a reading. The thick texture of the piano writing is kept in check by Frank-Immo Zichner, and his string playing colleagues have ample power to keep up with what is at times some overly dense keyboard writing.

Lovely as the quartet may be, the real gem of this disc is the elegant String Trio in d minor, Op. 141b, which was reconstituted from an earlier serenade for flute. From a warm and glowing opening movement, we move to an elegant theme and variations, quite touching in its simple beauty. The work is rounded off by a sprightly little vivace. One really could not ask for a finer performance. The sound is warm and balanced and themes sing like arias in a Bellini opera.

The stretching of tonality and the frequent chromatic shifts in harmony might be a turn off to some listeners, but for anyone who enjoys late romantic music, this disc is a winner. It left me anxious to check out its companion disc (Naxos 8.570785) to see what Reger’s earlier outings in the same two instrumental line-ups might sound like.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In Defense of Church Musicians

Most of my posts of late have been record reviews, but I think it's time that I sound off about something that's been on my mind for some time. I will try to be diplomatic, but I will also be honest.

This post concerns the plight of those who make their living or a part of their living in churches. Let me begin by saying that I hold a Master's degree in sacred music and have been a professional church musician for thirty of my forty-four years, so I speak with some experience.

Many college students depend on their church gigs for extra income while they are in school. While they do these jobs they are expected to give up their entire Sunday for some 8.50 an hour on the average. Most paid section leaders get 25-30 dollars a call for a two and a half hour rehearsal on Wednesdays and two , often three services with obligatory 45 minute warm ups for EACH service. This comes out to something like 7 or so bucks an hour. Hardly a worthy wage for people with one of the most rarefied skill sets on the planet.

Add in that they are expected to learn difficult and complicated solos, evangelist roles and the like for special concerts an holy days for an "extra call," another $25. Yeah right.

Then there are the egos of the often less than competent and abusive choir masters, the self righteous clergy, and the blatant and pervasive homophobia in many churches. (Face it girls, most of you tenor section is gay, get over it.)

This doesn't come close to addressing the crappy music that we are forced to sing week after week except in the highest of smells and bells Anglican parishes. Ugh.

A year or so ago, I went on my last (and I mean it) cathedral tour of the UK with a prominent church in Dallas. Seven years of faithful service did not exempt me from the gossip of incompetent co-workers (colleagues is by no means a fitting term) or the condescension of the bitchy queen choir administrator whose qualifications can't hold a candle to mine. After that trip I decided that I was done. And now I rarely if ever don a a cassock and surplice.

In a way this is a shame, because I do have a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of music that was bestowed upon me by the creator. But, I have no intention of serving his undereducated and incompetent minions with his gift. Sitting in the congregation and having the people around me be uplifted by what I have to offer in the hymns is all this ego needs.

To my friends who still feel called to serve in choirs, I support you and pray for your success. But until further notice, I am taking a stand for those who have to work like slaves to edify the senators and business execs who make up the congregations rich enough to pay their convenience store wages to gain bragging rights at the country club every Sunday at the buffet. You don't deserve our talents and your spirituality is a pile of dog shit.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Surprises from Bartok.

Bela BARTOK (1881-1945)

Andante for violin and piano (1902) [3:44]
Sonata for violin and piano (1903) [29:15]
Hungarian Folksongs for violin and piano (1934/54) [9:41]
Sonata for solo violin (1944) [28:33]

Elise Båtnes, (violin)
Håvard Gimse, (piano)

Recorded 3-5 September 2005 and 20-21 November in Sofienberg Church, Oslo.

SIMAX PSC 1174 [71:24]

It is interesting that Bela Bartók, a pianist, should devote so large a part of his output, and indeed some of his deepest thoughts to music for the violin. This may be due in part to his relationships with some of Hungary’s finest violinists, namely, Jenö Hubey, Stefi Geyer, Jelly d’Arányi, Joseph Szigeti and with the great Yehudi Menuhin. Thankfully these friendships spawned not only the works on this recording, but also the six string quartets and the two violin concerti.

Opening with Bartók’s earliest known violin work, Elise Båtnes and Håvard Gimse give us a tender performance of the Andante for violin and piano, which is possessed of so sweet a melody that we are led to wonder if this isn’t a piece of salon music by a lesser composer. No indeed, this is the work of a young master composed oddly on the back of twelve postcards and given to a friend and fellow student Adila d’Aranyi as a little musical greeting card. Would that Hallmark™ could produce such gems.

The sonata of 1903 is another student composition, and although very well crafted, it shows the influence of Brahms and Dvorak on the young composer. The melodies are bold and sweeping and the accompaniment is lush and romantic and full of the late nineteenth century harmonic progressions. Of particular interest and merit is the gypsy themed second movement, played here with a dark and compelling passion.

Bartók, along with his colleague Zoltan Kodaly, were pioneers in the field of ethnomusicology, and the both of them travelled throughout the Hungarian countryside capturing authentic performances of folksongs on the newly invented phonograph. This research led both composers to integrate these songs into their more formal compositions, thus preserving the old in the clothes of the new. The nine little gems here are brief and sometimes even abrupt, but are altogether captivating with their spicy harmonies and stirring dance-like rhythms. Ms. Båtnes and Mr. Gimse tear into them with abandon and produce a splendid contrast to the more rhapsodic and serious sonatas.

The unaccompanied sonata was written for Yehudi Menuhin and is the last work that Bartók was able to complete in every detail. Clearly modeled after Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, Bartók uses ancient formal structures in a kind of homage to the great baroque composer. This is the most harmonically adventuresome of the works presented here, and Ms. Båtnes gives us a sensitive and virtuosic performance. Her rich tone applied in the warmer passages, contrasted with a pointed clear sound in the more biting harmonies.

This collection was full of surprises and is a disc that I shall certainly return to again and again. For one who is accustomed to the sharper, more dissonant music of the string quartets, these generous and hearty works came as a pleasant discovery. This recording fulfills what I believe to be any recording’s biggest mission; to leave the listener satisfied and wanting to explore more of a composer’s music. In this regard, this is a most satisfying performance. Program notes are thorough, interesting and thankfully devoid of academic blather. Sound quality is up to Simax’ customary high standards.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Old Dog, Some New Tricks

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K467 [21:22]
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K482 [33:36]

Jonathan Biss, piano
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Recorded in concert from 15-16 March, 2008 at Lefrak Concert Hall, Queens College, Flushing, New York

EMI 50999 2 17270 2 3 [61:07]

It would be nonsense to say that Mozart showed a weakness in any genre in which he chose to write, but it is in the piano concertos that we experience some of his most profound thinking, his most lyrical melodies and some of his most gregarious humor. The works presented here are two of the biggies, and EMI have trotted out another in their seemingly unending string of young artists to team up with New York’s exemplary Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to give us a very satisfying performance indeed.

Jonathan Biss is a wonderfully able technician, and he sails through the intricacies of these two mature works with ease. The opening movement of K467 is stately and well paced, and Mr. Biss’ tone is one of shimmering beauty and crystal clarity. The often over-ripe “Elvira Madigan” theme is played with operatic elegance, and with the utmost taste. I did find, however, that the rondo was, although quite cleanly played, a bit breathless. Mr. Biss didn’t miss a note, but the lightening pace he chose had me sitting on chair’s edge hoping that everyone would meet at the end. For the record, they did.

The meaty K482 receives a very well balanced and stately performance. Of particular merit is the simply stunning playing from the winds in the second movement. This at times soaring and at others achingly heart wrenching theme and variations is given a masterful performance. The finale contains some of Mozart’s most joyful music. One can just imagine him sitting at the piano and ripping through this jolly little tune with Tom Hulce’s wicked little smile plastered across his face.

It is a nice thing to hear these oft-recorded works approached with such fresh and youthful vitality. Recorded sound is alive and present, and Mr. Biss’ program essay is thoughtful and delightfully lacking in academic blather. Instead, we get a nice insight into Mozart’s mindset and the structure of the music. This is most definitely a winner. Playing like this encourages me to explore Mr. Biss’ recent Beethoven recordings.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Brilliant American Chamber Music

Paul MORAVEC (b. 1957)

Chamber Symphony (2003) [19:14]
Autumn Song (2000) [4:59]
Cool Fire (2001) [21:02]

Marya Martin, (flute)
Jeewon Park, (piano)
Stephen Williamson, (clarinet)
Erik Ralske, (horn)
Ayano Kataoka, (marimba/vibraphone)
Ayano Ninomiya, (violin)
Jessica Lee, (violin)
Cynthia Phelps, (viola)
Edward Arron, (cello)

Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, December 2007.

NAXOS 8.559393 [45:30]

Paul Moravec is one of those rare composers these days who writes music that is not only original, but is also listenable, yea, even enjoyable. Ever conscious of the power of a good melody, Mr. Moravec combines a winsome way with a tune with a very careful and thought-out use of dissonance to create music that is not only instantly memorable, but worthy of repeated listening. It’s a fresh change of pace from what spills out of most copies of Finale and Sibelius these days.

Moravec’s style is clearly American and yet it is somewhat difficult to pin down his influences. His melodies are not theatrical like Leonard Bernstein’s, nor are they colloquial like Aaron Copland’s, yet they are fresh. Further, Mr. Moravec, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for music, has managed to avoid the kind of episodic and disconnected formal style that ensures only a single performance of much new music. Rather, he says what he needs to say in just the right amount of time and stops. It is this compactness of expression and his careful attention to the sound and blend of instrumental timbres that makes his music so very appealing.

The three works on this program were composed for the Brigehampton Chamber Music Festival, long a stalwart summer event in New England. The Chamber Symphony is scored for seven instruments. It opens with a virtuosic fast movement that features an energetic underpinning from the piano and percussion with lyrical swaths draped on by the winds and strings. The tender slow movement reminds me a bit of Poulenc with its spicy harmonic language the floats gently between tasty jazz chords and blissful major triads. The third movement, labeled “Quick” is just that, a sprightly romp through a musical playground with everyone running as fast as they can. The work closes with a substantial finale that begins slowly and peacefully and ends in another fun game of chase.

The tender Autumn Song for flute and piano is reminiscent of Prokofiev to these ears with some sweeping gestures in the piano and a flute part that often soars above the thick piano texture to make itself known. Marya Martin and Jeewon Park give a warm and sensitive performance, just thoughtful enough to be reflective, but not so over-ripe as to be maudlin.

Finally, Cool Fire rounds out the program. This three movement work scored for flute, piano and string quartet is more adventureous perhaps than the other two pieces, but nonetheless reflects Moravec’s penchant for lyricism and his ability to write energetic and intricate counterpoint in fast sections.

All the performances here are of the first order, and it is evident that these players have spent some time with the music and have internalized it. There is a palpable sense of purpose to the playing; serious when called for and utterly fun when appropriate. Kudos to Naxos for making a goodly chunk of Mr. Moravec’s music available to us in recent months, but at only forty-five minutes, it would have been nice to have had one more piece on this otherwise fairly flawless recording.

I was also a bit disappointed in the program notes which spent far more time flattering the good nature of the composer than they did in explaining the music to us. Those quibbles aside, this is wonderful music and well worth exploring by conservative and adventuresome listeners alike.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Superb New Recording from Seattle

William LAWES (1602-1645)

The Harp Consorts (complete)

Consort 8 in G, Paven and divisions [8:08]
Consort 7 in G, Air [2:10]
Consort 3 in G, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande
Consort 11 in d, Fantasie [4:07]
Consort 4 in d, Air, Air, Courante, Sarabande [6:30]
Consort 9 in D, Paven and divisions [9:22]
Consort 5 in D, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:39]
Consort 6 in D, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [8:28]
Consort 10 in g, Paven and divisions [8:40]
Consort 2 in g, Air, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:58]
Consort 1 in g, Allemande, Courante, Courante, Sarabande [6:08]
Duo for Guitare et Harpe [6:08] (with Alman by René Meangeau) [3:49]

Maxine Eilander, (harp)
Les Voix Humaines
Stephen Stubbs, (theorbo and guitar)
David Greenberg, (baroque violin)
Susie Napper and Margaret Little, (violas da gamba)

Recorded at the Église Saint-Augustin de Mirabel, Quebec, Canada in December 2002 and April 2006.

ATMA ACD2 2372 [76:26]

The so-called “Harp Consorts” of William Lawes, court musician to England’s King Charles I, stand as unique examples of an elegant genre begun in the British court, and tragically ended by the English Civil War, a debacle that claimed the lives of both King and composer. The works stem from a tradition of music for a mixed and specified group of instruments, often called the “broken consort” that first appeared in 1599 with the Consort Lessons of Thomas Morley. Lawes adaptation of Morley’s precedent places the harp in two roles: one as a harmonic instrument placed in the center of the texture as in the Fantasies and Pavens; or as a melodic instrument in dialogue with the violin and the theorbo, the harp’s right hand providing an independent and contrapuntal voice. The debate as to whether an Irish single or French triple harp was the intended instrument for this elegant music has been lengthy and heated, and I will leave it to you, dear reader to explore this question further in Stephen Stubbs’ thorough and informative program note.

With the arrival in England in 1629 of Queen Henriette Marie, all things French became the rage. This was particularly true in the fields of music and dance, and we see that these suites are on the whole collections of French dance music. Surely these works accompanied actual dancing at the court. Nonetheless, the music is of such an elegant nature that it must also have been enjoyed in intimate chamber settings for its own sake. These instruments combine to make such a sweet and gentle tone, that listeners, regardless of their experience with early music, cannot help but come away satisfied.

Lucky are we indeed then that we have such a fine practitioner of the harp as Maxine Eilander, and more fortunate still are we to have her team with her renowned husband Stephen Stubbs and their musical friends to seek out, recreate and re-establish this repertoire in its first complete recording. The balance and nuance of this outstanding ensemble is as refined as the workings of s Swiss time piece. Ever mindful of his or her role in the weave of this musical fabric, each player seems to understand as by second nature when to play out, when to lead rhythmically or when to take a back seat, waiting for his or her turn to come again to the fore.

The music itself is packed with variety, shifting easily from slow, graceful and sometimes mournful Pavanes and Fantasies to the more spritely dances of the suites. Interestingly, the ensemble has chosen to group the works by key center instead of by their (one supposes) chronological order. One might wonder how the contrast of keys would affect a complete listening of well over seventy minutes.

One of the biggest appeals of this performance lies in the music’s ability to function in both background and foreground. You can put it on and go about your business, or you can listen intently and find a wealth of fascinating melody and interplay between the instruments. Regardless of how you choose to listen, this fully packed disc is a garland of delights. After you this charmer, you’ll certainly want to explore further examples of consort music from this period by the likes of Coprario, Purcell, Dowland, Jenkins and Hume. There are abundant recordings of this music for you to enjoy. But start here. This music making is as close to perfection as you’ll ever get.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Hit and Miss Choral Outing

Karl JENKINS (b. 1944)
Sing we merrily unto God [4:26]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Greater love hath no man [5:20]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Cantique de Jean Racine [4:45]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Beati quorum via [3:21]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Pièce Héroique [8:15]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen [5:37]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
I Was Glad [5:19]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Solus ad victimam [4:13]
Jehan ALAIN (1911-1940)
Variations sur un theme de Clément Janequin [5:20]
Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-1876)
Blessed be the God and Father [6:54]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land [4:13]
John RUTTER (b.1945)
Te Deum [8:00]

The Choir of Eltham College
OSJ Brass
Tim Johnson and Tim Garrard, directors
Henry Fairs, organ
Julian Issa, Matthew Morgan, Anna Simmons, Robbie Jacobs, Lewis Owen and Tim Garrard, soloists.

Recorded at Bromley Parish Church, 17-19 September 2006.

HEARLD HAVPCD 323 [67:07]

The Eltham College Choirs have put together yet another greatest hits sampler from the Anglican Cathedral repertoire and have achieved a mixed success. On the whole, the choir sings with a warm blended tone and with even balance between the sections. But, being a non professional university ensemble, in some repertoire the group’s weaknesses jump out at you.

Karl Jenkins, famous for his “Diamond Music” and “Adiemus” recordings has composed a festive opening motet, written to celebrate the opening of the college’s new music school in 2005. It is obviously an occasional work, and serves the purpose well. We continue with a long set of evergreens that is at times quite lovely and at others rather trying to hear.

Ireland’s Greater Love receives a well paced and finessed performance here with nice solo work by Julian Issa and Matthew Morgan. We hit some trouble in the Fauré Cantique, where the men’s tone is way too strident for the lovely unison passages at the beginning. When we get to the louder four part writing, the tenors stick out with their overheated and white tone color. Stanford’s famous motet Beati quorum via gets a lovely and elegant performance, but for the life of me, I don’t know why choirs of all young singers try to tackle the Brahms Requiem. Wie lieblich is under winded and there is an obvious lack of physical maturity in the sound that serves to only make the listener wonder why this piece was chosen. Parry’s omnipresent I Was Glad is also in need of a more mature sound, especially from the men.

Henry Fairs is an imaginative organist and contributes two fine solos to break up the pine forest. Of particular merit are the Alain Janequin Variations that receive a colorfully registered and rhythmically driving performance.

Kenneth Leighton’s music can be rather stark at times, and the harmonic darkness of Solus ad victimam is brought forth beautifully in this rendition. It is a motet that leaves the listener feeling like he’s just been struck with a hammer and the choir brings out the anguish and pain in the text to a remarkable degree. S. S. Wesley’s Brahms influenced motet Blessed be the God and Father has some touchingly tender moments, but it does tend to run on a bit. In this work I found the choir’s singing to be a bit over bright and too far forward in the mouth. A little more depth and richness, particularly from the men would have been welcome.

The tenderest performance of the whole recital comes in the beautiful hymn setting Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land. The trebles capture a lovely innocence that is touching indeed. The program is rounded out with a successful performance of John Rutter’s well crafted Te Deum.

To sum it up, this is a mixed bag of hits and misses that seems more suited to the souvenir market than international release. Given that there are literally hundreds of superb professional recordings of these standards, I often wonder why university choirs, who have the luxury of vast amounts of regular rehearsal time, do not record more challenging and obscure works. Face it, a disc like this cannot stand against ones by the Cambridge Singers or the Sixteen Choir. Wouldn’t the listeners be better served by an exciting first recording of some fantastic work that might rarely be performed outside of academia? I at least think so.

Some Interesting Swedish Songs

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942)

Time of Waiting a selection of songs to texts by Erik Axel Karfeldt. Helge Brilioth, tenor; Erland Hagegård, baritone; Sven Alin and Jan Eyron, pianists. Sterling CDA 1661-2. 77:27

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Erik Axel Karfeldt were acquainted for a number of years and from time to time were Stockholm neighbors. But it was during the first decade of the twentieth century, when both composers were bachelors and had the luxury of time to meet in the cafes and restaurants that their friendship and collaboration was the most intense. In all Peterson-Berger set thirty five of Karfeldt’s poems, most for solo voice and piano, and others male chorus. This disc presents all twenty-five of the settings for solo voice, splendidly performed here by tenor Helge Brilioth and baritone Erland Hagegård, and quite ably accompanied by pianists Sven Alin and Eyron.

The texts are sweeping and romantic and the music is made to order, at times stormy, at others lush and somewhat melancholy, and again at others dancing and almost frivolous. Karfeldt’s poetry ranges in topic from hymns to the moon, to death, to love won and lost, and Peterson-Berger finds the seemingly perfect musical mood and nuance to express the somewhat flowery language of the poet.

Both Brilioth and Hagegård sing with a refined warmth and subtlety. I never once noticed any over-singing or excessive vibrato. Both singers have a fine even timber and a great palette of vocal color in all parts of their ranges and at all dynamic levels. They are accompanied to perfection by Mssrs. Alin and Eyron.

These are songs that are worthy of any recital program, and it seems to me that the only reason that we hear them so seldom outside of Scandinavia is that many American and western European singers might have difficulty with the Swedish language, beautiful and mellifluous as it is.

Sterling have given us a very present and warm recording, never overwrought and in very clear focus and detail. Program notes are abundant and informative and texts in both Swedish and English are provided. For any lover of song this is a highly recommendable recital. You’ll want to follow the texts for the first couple of listening though in order to get a handle on the poetry and its meaning.

Kevin Sutton

Two Fine Symphonies Worth Your Exploration

Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1911) [34:38]

Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 (Song of the Night) (1916) [26:10]

Ryszard Minkiewicz, (tenor)

Ewa Marczyk (solo violin)

Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra

Antoni Wit

Recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 16-19 April 2007

NAXOS 8.570721 [60:48]

Karol Szymanowsky was born in modern day Ukraine. A childhood leg injury prevented him from attending school as a child and he received his education, both musical and otherwise, at home. He and his four siblings would go on to be prominent musicians, poets and artists. As a young man he studied in Warsaw and in Berlin. It was in Warsaw that his Polish identity (his father was Polish and his mother was of Swedish extraction) would come to the fore. He would go on to become a prominent member of Young Poland in Music, a group dedicated to the creation and promotion of modern Polish music.

The Second Symphony is cast in three sections. The first movement is lengthy and rhapsodic. Opening with a yearning violin solo ably played by Ewa Marczyk, this is music that is packed with contrasts; at times lush and romantic, at others packed with stinging dissonance. Harmonically it is reminiscent of Mahler, but with a more compact and to the point formal structure. The second movement is a clever theme and variations and the final movement is a complex fugue. The Warsaw Philharmonic acquits itself well in this music with some outstanding playing from the horn section. Antoni Wit leads a well paced performance, coaxing a warm and rich tone from his string section.

The Third Symphony again relies on a sophisticated violin solo, but Szymanowski also adds a full chorus and a tenor soloist to set a thirteenth century song in praise of the night. The large orchestral forces and the wall of sound coming from the chorus remind us a bit of Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder. Szymanowski ventures further afield harmonically in this work than in the earlier symphony, with more reliance on biting dissonances. The weak link here is tenor Ryszard Minkiewicz, whose voice possesses all the necessary heft in the loud passages, but lacks in subtlety when he is required to sing softly. There are moments when we are left wondering if he will be able to sustain the high soft notes without cracking. The Warsaw Philharmonic Chorus is a fine ensemble, with a warm blended tone that does not short out in the loudest passages.

Of the two symphonies, I found the earlier work to be the most satisfying. As often seems to happen when voices are added to compositions called “symphonies,” the structural integrity of the music tends to weaken and we are left with a somewhat rambling soundscape. This seems to happen in the latter work. Nonetheless, this is a recommendable recording, especially for the virtuosity of the Warsaw Philharmonic as displayed in the Symphony No. 2.