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Mostly Music
sexta-feira, novembro 30
 

Pan with Us

(Meg, aqui vai uma especial para você...)

Robert Frost (1874–1963)

PAN came out of the woods one day,
His skin and his hair and his eyes were gray, -
The gray of the moss of walls were they,
And stood in the sun and looked his fill
At wooded valley and wooded hill.

He stood in the zephyr, pipes in hand,
On a height of naked pasture land;
In all the country he did command
He saw no smoke and he saw no roof.
That was well! and he stamped a hoof.

His heart knew peace, for none came here
To this lean feeding save once a year
Someone to salt the half-wild steer,
Or homespun children with clicking pails
Who see no little they tell no tales

He tossed his pipes, too hard to teach
A new-world song, far out of reach,
For a sylvan sign that the blue jay’s screech
And the whimper of hawks beside the sun
Were music enough for him, for one

Times were changed from what they were:
Such pipes kept less of power to stir
The fruited bough of the juniper
And the fragile bluets clustered there
Than the merest aimless breath of air

They were pipes of pagan mirth,
And the world had found new terms of worth.
He laid him down on the sun-burned earth
And ravelled a flower and looked away
Play? Play? -What should he play?
 

Fooling the industry

What is every performer’s secret desire? To be able to play all the music he loves, by composers he is passionate about, with no questions asked. Who would not like to have his taste be the only parameter of a program? To fill the space of a CD with pieces that need no justification, no excuse?

Unfortunately that is not always possible. In fact, it is almost never possible. Producers have to have their say, the market needs to be taken in consideration, and countless extra-musical factors end up shaping what we hear and what we play. Nowadays, if you want to make a recording, it should consist of pieces by one author only (easier to classify in the store shelves…), the more obscure the better (premiere recordings are always welcome!) and if you want to be politically correct to the end, the best thing is to choose the complete oeuvre of any one kind—say “John Doe’s complete works for piccolo and horn”.

So what can an intelligent performer do, if he wants to play his favorite repertoire? He creates a link between the pieces, fathoms a smart title… and voilà! This is exactly what Andrew Appel did here. His liner text for Bach and the French Clavecinists is so shrewd that it actually convinces the listener that these pieces really do belong together. The exercise would have been futile, however, if the playing were not equally convincing.

The very odd cover art will probably scare away a significant slice of this disk’s prospective audience: those, like me, who imagine that the visual impact of a CD should, somehow, reflect its contents. That is certainly a pity. As it happens, this disk is a pleasure all around. Appel plays with assured grace, and he has a flexible touch which can be noble and light in one moment, full of energy in the next. He is aware of all the harmonic complexities of the music, but we are never under the impression of being subjected to the illustration of an analysis textbook. There is enough liberty to make the music sound improvised, coupled with enough control to make it sound truly exciting, when needed. An intriguing repertoire, masterfully performed.

BACH English Suite II; LE ROUX Pièces in F; MARCHAND Pièces in d. Andrew Appel (hpd) ASV QS 6247 (63:43)
(Fanfare, Sept/Oct.2001, p.129)


 
Anonymous (16th century)

Puis que vivre en servitute
Je devoie triste & dolent,
Bien heureux je me repute
D’estre en lieu si excellent:
Mon mal est bien violent
Mais amour l’ordonne ainsi
Veuillés en avour merci.

Votre beauté sans pareille
Ne doit prendre à desplaisir,
S’a l’aimer je m’apareille
Car on ne peur mieux chosir.
Si j’ay par trop de desir,
J’ay beaucoup de foy aussi,
Veuillés en avoir mercy.

Autre bien ne veux pretendre
Pour mes peines & clameurs,
Si-non que veuillez entendre
Que c’est pour vous que je meurs,
En mes yeux n’a plus de pleurs
Et mon couer est ja transsi,
Veuillés en avoir mercy.

Vous seule estes ma fortune
Qui va mon bien mesurant,
Si vous m’estesopportune
Peu me chaut du demeurant:
Sans vous je vis en mourant
Et m’est le jour obscurci,
Veuillés en avoir mercy.

Si l’on portoit la pensée
Au front, comme on fait les yeux,
M’amour seroit dispensée
De son office ennuieux:
Par vous mesme congnoistriés mieux,
Mon travail & mon souci,
Veuillés en avoir mercy.

Au coeur des bestes sauvages
Rigueur loge promptement,
Mais sur les humains ouvrages
Amour a commandement:
Et toutefois en troument
Me tient le votre endurci,
Veuillés en avoir mercy.

Ce vous est peu de conqueste
D’aller ma fin poursuivant,
Bien vous seroit plus honneste
Sauver le vostre servant:
Un qui porroit en vivant
Votre nom rendre esclarci,
Veuillés en avoir mercy.


quarta-feira, novembro 28
 
This review by Kenneth Langbell appeared in the English Language Bangkok Post. At some stage, it was made available by Martin Bernheimer of the Los Angeles Times, and has been doing the rounds for at least twenty years.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A Humid Recital Stirs Bangkok

The recital, last evening in the chamber music room of the Erawan Hotel by U.S. Pianist Myron Kropp, the first appearance of Mr. Kropp in Bangkok, can only be described by this reviewer and those who witnessed Mr. Kropp's performance as one of the most interesting experiences in a very long time.

A hush fell over the room as Mr. Kropp appeared from the right of the stage, attired in black formal evening-wear with a small white poppy in his lapel. With sparse, sandy hair, a sallow complexion and a deceptively frail looking frame, the man who has repopularized Johann Sebastian Bach approached the Baldwin Concert Grand, bowed to the audience and placed himself upon the stool.

It might be appropriate to insert at this juncture that many pianists, including Mr. Kropp, prefer a bench, maintaining that on a screw-type stool, they sometimes find themselves turning sideways during a particularly expressive strain. There was a slight delay, in fact, as Mr Kropp left the stage briefly, apparently in search of a bench, but returned when informed that there was none.

As I have mentioned on several other occasions, the Baldwin Concert Grand, while basically a fine instrument, needs constant attention, particularly in a climate such as Bangkok. This is even more true when the instrument is as old as the one provided in the chamber music room of the Erawan Hotel. In this humidity, the felts which separate the white keys from the black tend to swell, causing an occasional key to stick, which apparently was the case last evening with the D in the second octave.

During the "raging storm" section of the D-Minor Toccata and Fugue, Mr. Kropp must be complimented for putting up with the awkward D. However, by the time the "storm" was past and he had gotten into the Prelude and Fugue in D Major, in which the second octave D plays a major role, Mr. Kropp's patience was wearing thin.

Some who attended the performance later questioned whether the awkward key justified some of the language which was heard coming from the stage during softer passages of the fugue. However, one member of the audience, who had sent his children out of the room by the midway point of the fugue, had a valid point when he commented over the music and extemporaneous remarks of Mr. Kropp that the workman who had greased the stool might have done better to use some of the grease on the second octave D. Indeed, Mr. Kropp's stool had more than enough grease and during one passage in which the music and lyrics were both particularly violent, Mr. Kropp was turned completely around. Whereas before his remarks had been aimed largely at the piano and were therefore somewhat muted, to his surprise and that of those in the chamber music room he found himself addressing himself directly to the audience.

But such things do happen, and the person who began to laugh deserves to be severely reprimanded for this undignified behavior. Unfortunately, laughter is contagious, and by the time it had subsided and the audience had regained its composure Mr. Kropp appeared somewhat shaken. Nevertheless, he swiveled himself back into position facing the piano and, leaving the D Major Fugue unfinished, commenced on the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor.

Why the concert grand piano's G key in the third octave chose that particular time to begin sticking I hesitate to guess. However, it is certainly safe to say that Mr. Kropp himself did nothing to help matters when he began using his feet to kick the lower portion of the piano instead of operating the pedals as is generally done.

Possibly it was this jarring or the un-Bach-like hammering to which the sticking keyboard was being subjected. Something caused the right front leg of the piano to buckle slightly inward, leaving the entire instrument listing at approximately a 35-degree angle from that which is normal. A gasp went up from the audience, for if the piano had actually fallen several of Mr. Kropp's toes if not both his feet, would surely have been broken.

It was with a sigh of relief therefore, that the audience saw Mr. Kropp slowly rise from his stool and leave the stage. A few men in the back of the room began clapping and when Mr. Kropp reappeared a moment later it seemed he was responding to the ovation. Apparently, however, he had left to get a red- handled fire ax which was hung back stage in case of fire, for that was what was in his hand.

My first reaction at seeing Mr. Kropp begin to chop at the left leg of the grand piano was that he was attempting to make it tilt at the same angle as the right leg and thereby correct the list. However, when the weakened legs finally collapsed altogether with a great crash and Mr. Kropp continued to chop, it became obvious to all that he had no intention of going on with the concert.

The ushers, who had heard the snapping of piano wires and splintering of sounding board from the dining room, came rushing in and, with the help of the hotel manager, two Indian watchmen and a passing police corporal, finally succeeded in disarming Mr. Kropp and dragging him off the stage.

 

Bland, bland...

When a CD is magnificent, it is easy to write about it. When it is pitifully bad, it is even easier. But, sometimes the music critic finds him(her)self in a most uncomfortable position. What if the recording is perfect: fabulous repertoire, good intonation, excellent technique, fine sound take (it is very nice to be able to actually hear the physical breathing of the performer), very informative program notes--but it just does not make you smile, or cry, or anything?

This is precisely the case here. The young cellist T. Thedéen has an impressive resumé, and this recording is a very serious undertaking. For any cellist to record Bach’s suites for solo cello is a sign that the pinnacle of his career has been attained--and there is no doubt that Thedéen has reached his technical maturity and is perfectly able to play these works. He plays them with ease and assurance, fast passages sounding unencumbered--as they should--and the sound is nice and fluid, not to mention the fine dynamic range and equally fine intonation. But unfortunately these qualities are not enough. The performance is competent, correct--but not inspired. The first track (the Prélude of Suite No. 1) already seems to go by too fast: not enough breathing between phrases, no longing accents, no extra time taken at the cadences. This same observation is valid for all the suites, in both CDs.

No matter what the current musical fashion is, this is still music that is dramatic, pensive, moving. It can be a fascinating mirror for the personality of the performer, and it certainly has been played sometimes in an overly sentimental way. This matter-of-fact approach, however, seems to take away too much, and doesn’t replace what is lost with anything very solid. With all the perfection, one is left with the impression of hearing a sequence of very well written cello exercises, instead of one of the most exciting set of suites ever composed. I would have preferred to see Thedéen get closer to the fire, even at the risk of getting burnt. Specially considering how many recordings of these works already exist. In the very personal, very intense interpretation category, Casals (ANGEL CDH 61028-2 and CDH 61029-2) is still a sure bet, notwithstanding all the grunts and moans-- or perhaps because of them. Period instrument? A. Bylsma excels in a controversial recording (SONY 48047). For young blood, passion and flawless technique, Antonio Meneses (NIPPON, released in Japan only) is high up in the list.

BACH Suites for solo Cello: No. 1 in G, BWV 1007; No. 2 in d, BWV1008; No. 3, in C, BWV 1009; No. 4, in Eb, BWV 1010; No. 5, in c, BWV 1011; No. 6, in D, BWV 1012. Torleif Thedéen (vc). BIS CDs 803/804 (2 CDs: 141:39)
(Fanfare Sep./Oct. 2001, p. 136)

 
How many clarinetists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Only one, but he'll go through a whole box of bulbs before he finds just the right one.
 

XLI (or How many poets to change a bulb?)


Emily Dickinson (1830–86).

Split the lark and you ’ll find the music,
Bulb after bulb, in silver rolled,
Scantily dealt to the summer morning,
Saved for your ear when lutes be old.

Loose the flood, you shall find it patent,
Gush after gush, reserved for you;
Scarlet experiment! sceptic Thomas,
Now, do you doubt that your bird was true?





3:59 PM
 

To Thomas Moore


Lord George Gordon Byron

My boat is on the shore,
And my bark is on the sea;
But, before I go, Tom Moore,
Here's a double health to thee!

Here's a sigh to those who love me,
And a smile to those who hate;
And, whatever sky's above me,
Here's a heart for every fate.

Though the ocean roar around me,
Yet it still shall bear me on;
Though a desert should surround me,
It hath springs that may be won.

Were't the last drop in the well,
As I gasp'd upon the brink,
Ere my fainting spirit fell,
'Tis to thee that I would drink.

With that water, as this wine,
The libation I would pour
Should be -peace with thine and mine,
And a health to thee, Tom Moore!
 

PLEYEL SYMPHONIES

I have had a favorable opinion of Ignace Pleyel's gifts as a composer since making the acquaintance of his flute quartets Ben 387-389 (originally published 1798), and find it surprising that his charming and well-made music is not more widely performed.

Rita Benton's catalog of his work is a real monument, given the fecundity of the composer and the plethora of editions of his work during his life. The man produced at least 41 symphonies, of which few are recorded as yet (Richard Burke reviewed a recent set from Barnett on Chandos in 21:1). The three presented here are early works, dating from 1778 (Ben 121) and 1786 (Ben 128 and138).

Pleyel shows a particular aptitude for the beautiful cantabile melody, so much so that it is surprising that he was not drawn to the stage. The slow movement of 128 is lovely, with some adventurous harmonic shifts. The symphony closes with a fizzing Italian rondo. Though 138 is in the minor (or at least its outer movements), it would not be entirely accurate to describe them as Sturmund Drang--these are light clouds flitting by, not existential thunderheads. Ben 121 begins with aminor introduction, but the 3/4 movement that follows is pompous and dramatic, with rushing scales and punctuation from the trumpets. This is probably the strongest of the three works.

These are not Great Works in the majuscule, but if you have a hankering for new compositions from the Classic, they are certainly worth hearing. The performances of the Capella Istropolitana are fleet and assured.

PLEYEL Symphonies: in C, Ben 128; in f, Ben 138; in c, Ben 121 · Uwe Grodd, cond; Capella Istropolitana · NAXOS 8.554696 (74:33)

 

BRAZILIANS ABROAD

There seems to have been an explosion of Brazilians on the east coast in the last couple of years.

It used to be rare to hear Portuguese spoken (my state, New Jersey, has an amazing variety and large number of residents who have come here from other countries, so that you can see Sikhs in turbans at your gas stations, Indians selling your newspapers, hear Russian and Polish spoken almost everywhere), but things have been changing.

Last weekend I visited my parents, who live outside of Boston, and as they don't drink coffee (hard to believe, isn't it), I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts in the next town (the neighborhood where we lived when I was five and six years old), and discovered that the man ahead of me in line was a Brazilian speaking in Portuguese to the two Brazilian men running the shop. The customer was from Rio, the two coffee-shoppers from Curitiba and Porto Alegre.


 
THE TIMID TEAR

Tom Moore (1779-1852)

Have you not seen the timid tear,
Steal trembling from mine eye?
Have you not mark’d the flush of fear,
Or caught the murmur’d sigh?

And can you think my love is chill,
Nor fix’d on you alone;
And can you rend, by doubting still,
A heart so much your own?


To you my soul’s affections move
Devoutly, warmly true;
My task has been a task of love,
One long long thought of you:
If all your tender faith is o’er,
If still my truth you’ll try,
Alas! I know but one proof more,
I’ll bless your name and die.

 

SURFEITED WITH BACH

Sébastien Marq, who, with companions François Fernandez, Philippe Pierlot, and Pierre Hentel, makes up Le Concert Français, is a masterful recorderist whose work I have fulsomely praised in these pages.

Like other recorderists too numerous to name, he seems drawn, like a moth to the flame, to arrange Bach for his instrument, for which Bach unfeelingly wrote no chamber music (and little religious music, moving to the transverse flute in the 1720s). Yes, it is marvelous music, and arguably more effective for this combination than in the organ versions that survive. Yet the curmudgeon in me wonders how many such recordings we need. Wouldn't it be more rewarding to explore the lesser-known byways of the Baroque for music to transcribe? The violin sonatas of Senaillé perhaps?

A fine disc, fine performances, but this jaded ear has heard too many such arrangements.

BACH Trio Sonatas for Recorder, Violin, and Continuo: in F, BWV 529; in G, BWV 530; in C, BWV 529. Sinfonia in e for Recorder, Viola d'amore, and Continuo, BWV 76/528. Pedal-Exercitium, BWV 598. Suite in d, BWV 1008 · Le Concert Français · ASTRÉE E 8676 (65:48)
 

SUPERB BACH

Benjamin Schmid (b. 1968) has won first prizes in competitions around the world, and on the evidence of this disc is an accomplished and persuasive violinist who has combined the lessons of his teachers on the technique of the modern instrument with a willingness to look at the insights of those committed to historical instruments and historically informed performance.

From the first notes of these works the ear is struck by Schmid's mastery in producing a tone that is chaste yet full, expressive but not overblown, perfectly controlled, perfectly in tune, with beauty of sound that employs vibrato as an ornament--very much in line with the aesthetics of period-instrument specialists (and masterfully recorded by engineer Jens Jamin in the Kleine Kollgiumskapelle Kalksburg, Vienna). His musical instincts are sound as well, the play of loud and soft, light and dark, carrying the listener along. Even Bach's most abstract figuration is always beautifully shaped. Schmid knows how to sing to marvelous effect (e.g., the floating cantabile of the Loure from the E-Major Partita), and to dance (though he might be even freer in places). The recording by Sigiswald Kuijken has long been my touchstone for these pieces, and this set is one to treasure along with it, perhaps even surpassing it. This is an achievement--most strongly recommended.

BACH Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006 · Benjamin Schmid (vn) · ARTE NOVA 74321 72113 2 (2 CDs: 133:20)
 

GERMAN BACH?

My august colleague Haig Mardirosian reviewed Volumes 2, 3, and 4 of this series here in 2000, and was far from positive (''performances, audio, and programming alike arouse some suspicions''), suggesting that Weinberger would do well to cultivate a singing style.

I would tend to concur with Haig, my own impressions being that Weinberger, though technically accomplished, hears these works as sounding geometry, a puzzle to be solved, perhaps, rather than as objects providing sensual pleasure in the way that a beautiful oil painting, a fine wine, or even a lovely summer day might. Music, even Bach, ought to beguile, persuade, entice. Weinberger's manner is brusque, matter-of-fact. A fine example is the Passacaglia in C Minor, registered for full organ, played quickly, and with little contrast, the organ sounding unattractive and whiny in tone. Perhaps Weinberger's performances are to German taste, but they needn't be to ours.

BACH Organ Works, Vol. 6 · Gerhard Weinberger (org) · cpo 999 700-2 (77:26)Preludes and Fugues: in C, BWV 545; in D, BWV 532; in e, BWV 548. Chorale Preludes: BWV 720, 721, 727, 741, 735. Partite diverse sopra Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig, BWV 768

BACH Organ Works, Vol. 7 · Gerhard Weinberger (org) · cpo 999 701-2 (69:00) Chorale Preludes: BWV 736, 718, 726, 733, 738, 732, 1085, 730, 731. Trio Sonatas: No. 2 in c, BWV 526; No. 5 in C, BWV 529. Passacaglia in c, BWV 582

 

HISTORICAL BACH

Eunice Norton was featured here in Fanfare not so long ago, so I will only recap
briefly the essentials here. Brought up in Minnesota (the St. Olaf archives retain information about her recitals there in the 20s), she went to London to study in her teens. Her marriage to an Englishman, Bernard Lewis, brought a brief and brilliant international career to a halt, and she made her home with her husband in Pittsburgh.

Both of the recordings included here were engineered by her husband, and recorded in the music room of her home, the first in 1942, when she was in her early thirties, and the second in 1985, when she was in her mid-seventies. Both are live recordings--that is, no retakes or edits have been made--and she uses the same Steinway for both.

I listened to the earlier recording first, and, once the ear cuts through the haze of surface noise, what one hears is playing of great technical virtuosity and assurance, perhaps never more comfortable than when the notes are flying by--indeed, she often begins at a remarkably quick tempo and then speeds up (e.g., variation 5, variation 9, variation 18, or any number of others). By and large she is not concerned with lingering over the individual phrase. The trills are too brilliantly played, each alternation of notes hammered out, clear anddistinct. This is assertively modern playing, with no hint of attention to the matters that would soon be (and indeed already were) concerning those trying to recuperate Baroque style.

I was less taken by the 1985 disc, perhaps because with a recent recording I am less inclined to view it as a historical document, with flaws but bearing witness to an important past, but as an offering in competition with the best of the present day. The lack of beauty of tone that can be excused looking at 1942 is harder to ignore here.The tone of the piano itself is not the most characterful, the sound is not flattering, and indeed the piano is not perfectly in tune. The performance is more nuanced, but no different in essentials from that of 40 years before, and lacking a certain sparkle. And not to retake obvious problems now seems neglectful.

The earlier recording is of interest for those concerned to see ''how things were then.'' The later cannot be recommended on those grounds. Of limited appeal.

BACH Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (two versions) · Eunice Norton (pn) ·NORYARD 0005-2, part mono (2 CDs: 130:00)
terça-feira, novembro 27
 

ODE SOPRA LA CICALA

Anon (18th century)

Cicala felicissima
Cantar vogl’io di te;
Beato altri non v’è
Ch’abbia i tuoi vanti.
Tu bevi pria la brina
E sola in cima agl’alberi
Come regina poi
Spieghi I tuoi canti.
Tuoi del terreno, ov’abiti,
I dolci frutti son
Tuo quanto ogni stagion
Produce amica;
Dei rozzi agricoltori
Tu pur sei la delizia
Che non divari mai
La lor fatica.
Qual vate ancora ti venera
Chi da te apprende e sa
Che teco tornerà
L’estate ardente.
Cara alle muse e cara
Sei pure al biondo Apolline
Che a te la rara diè
Voce stridente.
Maestra sei de’ cantici,
Figlia del verde suol
Cui non apporta duol
L’età senile;
Te non affligon mali
In te sangue non circula.
E agl’immortali sei
Numi simile.



 

THE TIMID TEAR

Tom Moore (1779-1852)

Have you not seen the timid tear,
Steal trembling from mine eye?
Have you not mark’d the flush of fear,
Or caught the murmur’d sigh?

And can you think my love is chill,
Nor fix’d on you alone;
And can you rend, by doubting still,
A heart so much your own?

To you my soul’s affections move
Devoutly, warmly true;
My task has been a task of love,
One long long thought of you:
If all your tender faith is o’er,
If still my truth you’ll try,
Alas! I know but one proof more,
I’ll bless your name and die.


 

Disappointing

Barbara Strozzi is one of a handful of significant composing women from the Baroque period, and probably the most creative and original. This disc presents the first complete recording of her final collection of vocal works, the opus 8, published in 1664, when the composer and singer was 45. As such, it should be worthy of note. However, to these ears, its virtues in presenting interesting and challenging repertoire which is new to the collector is offset by the fact that I find Galli’s vocalism difficult to abide.

Emanuela Galli has a discography of respectable length, with two recordings with Ensemble Galilei for Stradivarius (Marini and more Strozzi), and a disc of Gesualdo as part of La Venexiana (also for Glossa). Clearly, there are listeners who find much to enjoy in her singing. But for my taste, what may be virtues for others are vices. Thus, purity of intonation and lack of vibrato in the tone translate into a production that sounds tight, constrained, lacking in warmth, rather strident, unexpressive, hectoring – in a word, offputting, and sufficiently so that I find it difficult to listen to the disc for extended stretches.

I certainly would not deny that there are all sorts of vocal production that can be entrancing, intriguing, indrawing, and I am not one to hold up a single ideal of tone, while denegrating all others. But as a solo voice Galli does not captivate, and so her intelligent performances, and those of her talented collaborators go for naught. Too bad.

Three stars.

STROZZI Opera ottava: Arie & Cantate. La Risonanza (Emanuela Galli, soprano; Fabio Bonizzoni, harpsichord, direction; David Plantier, Elisa Citterio, violins; Caterina Dell’Agnello, violoncello; Franco Pavan, theorbo, guitar). GLOSSA GCD 921503 (72:05).


 

Safe Bach

He says, she says...

This is what Tom wrote:

Though Bach was certainly the composer that got me excited about music as an adolescent, by midlife I would certainly agree (at least for part of the time) with those eighteenth critics (Scheibe, for instance) who found his style unnecessarily and unnaturally complex, clogged, and verbose. This will be regarded as crime of unpardonable lèse-majesté in some quarters, but the fact remains that the dividing line between divine, sublime length and wearying repetition can be exceedingly fine. What is more, the apotheosis of Bach (can be there be any more monumentalized figure in music?) means that performers rarely take the sort of disrepectful liberties they would in interpreting lesser figures (a noteworthy exception is the recent two disc set of Bach reissues on Seraphim by Igor Kipnis, with ample freedom in ornamentation), and this can have a deadening effect.

My colleague Laura Rónai recently gave this set a rave review in a rival publication, and indeed it has much to recommend it. Technically the playing is lovely and flawless, clean and controlled from Pinnock, and an endearing tone from Podger, with the lines well-shaped (e.g. the Adagio of the continuo sonata, BWV 1021). However in other places these ears felt surfeited by perfection, for example in the interminable Largo which opens the F minor sonata, BWV 1018, where Bach spins out a more than seven-minute span with no variation of movement or material (my eyes glazed over). And the allegro which follows is more of Bach’s perpetuum mobile, the sort of abstract construction familiar from the canons in the Musical Offering (this one is a canon at the fourth below). A comparative listen to the less well-known Luis Otávio Santos (violin) and Pieter-Jan Belder in a 1999 disc from Brilliant Classics drew me in more to the music, with a sense that the violinist shaped the line in the Largo in a more expressive and vocal way, with perhaps a little more vibrato, judiciously applied. And this at a super-budget price, as well.

As I mentioned above, there are those who adore Pinnock and Podger, but these readings didn’t reach out and grab me.

This is what Laura wrote:

This recording has it all: some of the most marvelous music ever written for the violin; beautiful, lively sound take; refreshingly intimate program notes; but more important than any of that, two truly first-class performers. The double CD is a real treasure. Rachel Podger is that rare find, a violinist with the sweetest sound, a flawless intonation, technique so good that it just disappears in the background, a musical instinct that is always awake, and a sense of style which permeates every musical gesture. She can convey exuberant joy or thoughtful sadness, and it all sounds round, and luscious and exciting. The first movement of BWV 1023, for example, with its startling beginning, full of cumulative tension leading to a lyrical reflection, is a feat of simultaneous intellectual understanding and concentrated emotion.

Trevor Pinnock proves here that he deserves the high reputation he enjoys. His accompaniment is always sensible and sensitive, providing a solid ground for Podger’s imaginative castle-building. Jonathan Manson has the almost impossible task of adding to this duo. He not only survives, but actually contributes to the final result, with some very refined and unobtrusive gamba playing. This is chamber music at is best. The dynamic contrasts are surprisingly varied and these performances are the greatest advocates not only for period instruments but also for a whole trend in performance, which calls for poignant leanings on harmonically important notes, freedom within a chosen tempo, carefully suspenseful cadences, more frequent rhythmic inflections and ornamentation that sounds improvised. All of this is done with good taste and wisdom, and the result is that the music sounds moving where it should, energetic where it demands it, without the slightest hint of mustiness or restraint. If you are only going to buy one recording this year, this might be the place to spend your money.
(Fanfare, Sept./Oct. 2001 – p.136)

BACH Sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord; Sonatas for violin and continuo. Trevor Pinnock, harpsichord; Rachel Podger, violin (with Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba). CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS 14798 (71:30; 67:53)

 

Léclair revisited

It was a dark night, full of scary silences. When the dawn broke over Paris, the rays of light shone on the dead body of Jean-Marie Léclair, stabbed in the back by some unknown hand. The murder was never solved, the assassin went unpunished, and the world lost a magnificent composer.

Had Monsieur Léclair lived in the 20th century, his spectacular death alone would probably ensure him immediate notoriety. But the crime happened almost 250 years ago. And Léclair remains that rare figure, in these days when we seem to be digging the past for any scrap of decent music ever composed: a baroque composer of great genius, under-rated and under-performed. His music is poised, mysterious, and delicate, with tinges of sadness and longing. It manages to achieve a tasteful mix of styles, displaying the flair of the Italians for fluent melodic lines and dramatic gestures, as well as the French penchant for elegance and sophistication. It also has characteristics of the “style galant”, particularly a certain angularity in the phrasing, which adds even more flavor to the brew. In short, we are dealing here with a composer of the highest quality, comparable to the Telemann of the “Paris Quartets”.

Thus any new Léclair recording added to my collection is received warmly, and with immense anticipation. The present CD has the extra advantage of including the Deuxième Récréation de Musique d’une Execution Facile, which under the deceptive title hides an intriguing and touching work. Ensemble Contrepoint (Isabelle Lamfalussy, traverso; Hélène Schmitt, violin; Michel J. Rada Igisch, gamba; Jacques Willemyns, harpsichord) is a competent group, and they do a fine job performing this repertoire. However they seem to deliberately aim at making it less “odd”, and so they play in an insouciant manner, shying away from any peculiarity. This is achieved through different means, Ms Schmitt by infusing the music with an all-pervasive enthusiasm, Ms Lamfalussy by smoothing out all the angles and avoiding aggressiveness at all costs. The accompanying instruments find their place somewhere in the middle of these two ideals.

One gets the impression of people speaking the same dialect, but with slightly clashing accents.The result is still a lively, transparent performance, where the radiance of the music is very much apparent. But to my ears this rendering lacks the haunting quality that is so special about Léclair. It ignores the wonderful and deep melancholy, the twisted imagination that interrupts phrases in their climax, like the stilted flight of a bird shot in mid-air.

To anyone who is not familiar with Léclair’s output, this CD represents a chance to get to know a marvelous composer. But if you are looking for a truly sophisticated version of the complete flute sonatas, I would recommend Kuijken’s 2-CD set for ACCENT. I am still waiting for a recording that will do justice to the trios. The most vivid memory I have of them is of a live performance by Concert Royal, where all the subtleties of these works were masterfully captured.

LÉCLAIR Sonatas for violin, traverso and basso continuo: IIè Récréation de Musique; Flute Sonata II in e; Sonata (trio) VIII, in D; Flute Sonata VII in G; Contrepoint. PAVANE ADW 7428 (59:50)

(Fanfare, Sept/Oct 2001)


 
One perfect Rose

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

A single flow'r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet -
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
"My fragile leaves, "it said, "his heart enclose."
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.



segunda-feira, novembro 26
 

Perfection happens

When I received the package of CDs that I was supposed to review for the present issue of Fanfare, I saved this one for last. I said to myself: this must be a good one, and since I am usually such a cranky critic, it will be nice to end with something I can actually recommend, for a change.

What made me think that, in the first place? Well, the cover art is beautiful (yes, CD covers do make a difference!), the repertoire could not be any better, and the label is H.M., which usually has the most marvelous music to offer. So the very first impact was wholly positive. To instigate my curiosity even further, I had never heard of the duo. I imagined that if HM had invested in these little-known young interpreters, there was a possibility that they would be at least interesting, if not downright good.

So, did the recording live up to its promise? Absolutely. I hate to brag, but I was right on the mark. This is an impressive disc. Everything about it is just perfect. Juan Manuel Quintana and Céline Frisch have that elusive combination of qualities that are the hallmark (and the privilege) of true artists. They play with grace and assurance, intelligence and feeling. Mr Quintana has a virile quality – something not commonly associated with the gamba. His sound is warm and intense, with none of that forced tone so common among gambists. There is blood running through his veins, and he is not afraid to show it. At the same time, he does not shy away from being tender, when tenderness is needed. The phrasing is subtle, musical gestures are always natural and consistent, the tempi sound exactly right.

Ms Frisch is equally fine - an accomplished harpsichordist, she manages to coax such a variety of timbres from her instrument that we forget entirely that harpsichords are known to have serious dynamic and color limitations. Her sense of phrasing is as unerring as her partner’s, and she brings out all the intricate line-weaves of these works with the utmost clarity and elegance. The playing is full of strength, but not of aggressiveness, and precision never leads to monotony. Inflections seem to stem from the musical text itself, and are never superimposed to it as a mere mannerism.

If you love Bach and also love the gamba, buy this record. If you hate Bach and hate the gamba as well, buy this record. It may change your mind. This is music making at its best, no “ifs”, and no “buts”: it will engage your mind and your heart.

BACH Sonatas for gamba and obbligato harpsichord: in G, BWV 1027; in D, BWV 1028; in g, BWV 1029; in G, BWV 1019 (transc. from the sonata for vn and hpd). J. M. Quintana (vdg); C. Frisch (hpd) HARMONIA MUNDI 901712 (57:27)

(Fanfare, Sept/Oct 2001)

 

Imperfection also happens

Bach’s solo cello suites are, without a doubt, true masterpieces. Sublime yet never too heavy, profound but never boring, they achieve a perfect balance between implied harmony, singing melody and rhythmic variety. One would imagine that they would be, to music, what shrimp is to the culinary arts: the foolproof goods, impossible to spoil. Having been transcribed to every possible instrument, they have been used as soundtrack for bad soap operas and good movies, and even after three centuries they continue to be a challenge to the best cellists in the world.


So it is not entirely surprising to find them in a recorder version. After all, having lost its place to the traverso from the middle of the eighteenth century on, the recorder suffers from a blatant lack of repertoire, and recorder players are always trying to expand the depth and reach of the pieces available to them. In this case, with dubious results.

In this 1999 recording, the jacket cover has a quote from Fanfare, which praises these performances as “committed and convincing”. I agree in part. More precisely, I agree with the “committed” bit. As to convincing…

Ms Verbruggen is a very accomplished player. Her fabulous technique, fast fingers, perfect articulation, suave breathing and good musical instinct have given us many a pleasurable moment. The present CD is a tour de force, with passages where it is almost hard to believe that only one instrument is playing. In the liner text (by John Butt) a very coherent reasoning almost manages to make us believe that this shrimp dish will taste even better than the original recipe. Almost.

The Bach suites, however spare in their chordal writing, are still dependent on the vertical structure, and even though the beauty of several melodic lines makes them tempting for a recorder player, the harmonic aspects sometimes override all others. This happens specially in the preludes, and in several of the slower movements as well. Ms Verbruggen opted to utilize appoggiaturas to evoke the resonant double-stops of the cello. In fact this substitution is all-pervasive and extremely annoying at times, and notwithstanding the technical prowess, the effect touches on the ridiculous (the second gavotte in BWV 1012 is a good example of this: the constant appoggiaturas end up reminding the listener of some hysterical bagpipes lost in the highlands).

The absolute impossibility of the recorder to sound ponderous is a major drawback, and affects all the slow movements. But even in the faster movements or the ones where melodic lines are dominant, and which might seem appropriate for a wind instrument, the high, clear timbre of the recorder is indeed a very poor substitute for the deep, dark timbre of the cello. Not to mention the differences in expressive and dynamic range between the two instruments. Borrowing another analogy from the animal kingdom, it feels like a mouse trying to imitate an elephant.

This version is curious, and of interest to recorder players in general. To anyone else, the original works are more attractive by far, and make for an easier listening.


BACH Suites for recorder (trans. from the originals for solo vc); No. 4, in Eb, BWV 1010; No. 5, in c, BWV 1011; No. 6, in D, BWV 1012. Marion Verbruggen (rcr). Harmonia Mundi HMU CD 907260 (75:35)

(Fanfare, Jul/Aug 2001 – p.87)

domingo, novembro 25
 

The Constant Lover

Sir John Suckling (1609-1642)

Out upon it, I have loved
Three whole days together!
And am like to love three more,
If it prove fair weather.

Time shall moult away his wings
Ere he shall discover
In the whole wide world again
Such a constant lover.

But the spite on 't is, no praise
Is due at all to me:
Love with me had made no stays,
Had it any been but she.

Had it any been but she,
And that very face,
There had been at least ere this
A dozen dozen in her place.



 

The Amadeus Quartet revisited


When I was a teenager I had the strange habit of spending my whole allowance in records. The Amadeus quartet (Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel, violin; Peter Schidlof, viola; Martin Lovett, cello) was then one of the ensembles most frequently found in my shopping bag, and I have the fondest memory of deep emotions raised by their performances. Since then, a lot of water went under the bridge, and for a long time I haven’t heard their recordings.

So my heart skipped a beat when I received this CD to review. Hélàs, this time the emotion was a bit dimmed. Still perfectly noticeable are the impeccable chamber playing, the coherent musical conception, the seemingly effortless technique. And it is refreshing to hear a real live performance, with all the coughing and chair shuffling, in these days of perfect, aseptic recordings. These pieces were recorded between 1960 and 1971, and they provide a very good sampling of the Amadeus Quartet, joined by some of their more habitual partners.

There is true grit here, overflowing emotion and very fine musicianship. What is lacking is perhaps a rounder tone quality, but mainly a more relaxed, fun approach to music. Yes, these are very serious pieces, one does not expect any comical relief. But there is a general terseness which appears in all the levels, from the rather tight violin sound, with a very intense vibrato, to the almost oppressive sensation that there is very little “space” between each of the instruments of the quartet - a way of achieving cohesion, no doubt. This was often hailed as one of the Amadeus Quartet trademarks, a homogeneity of tone that made the group sound as one finely tuned instrument. And in Franck and Strauss the constant tension and even some of the timbric harshness don’t seem out of place.

But the clarinet quintet by Mozart, one of the most inspired chamber pieces ever composed, suffers. Maybe because of the incredible emotional scope of this work, which goes from the most soulful melancholy to the most light-hearted whimsy. One yearns for bigger, rounder gestures, for a more bouncing interpretation, for a Mozart that feels less like Brahms and more like… well, Mozart! The music sounds trapped inside a slightly stifling, humid, grandiose place, and one aspires to the open air, to an atmosphere where all details can be clearly perceived and enjoyed.

The thirty years or more that separate us from these performances have witnessed many changes in performance practices as well as in the taste of audiences. And, sadly enough, castles visited in the past always seem more enchanted in our memory. Still, if you never heard the Amadeus Quartet, this is a golden opportunity to get to know what is perhaps the most famous string quartet ever.

MOZART Clarinet Quintet in A, K 581. FRANCK Piano Quintet in f. R. STRAUSS Prelude for String Sextet (from Cappricio), op.85. Amadeus Qrt; Gervase de Peyer (cl) , Clifford Curzon (pn), Cecil Aronowitz (vla), William Pleeth (vc) BBCL 4061-2(76:31)

(Fanfare, Sept/Oct 2001)



 

Bach by Kuschnerova


I would like to start this review with a confession: I am addicted to period instruments. At first it was only a once-in-a-while thing. I was happy to get a whiff of the drug when a friend came by, and I did not actively search for it. But little by little my body started to require higher and higher doses… And now I am hopelessly addicted, to such an extent that I will choose a baroque flute or a baroque violin over their modern counterparts almost any time. In the case of keyboard instruments, the situation is so extreme that baroque music played on piano tends to leave my nerves on edge. Wow, it felt good to get that off my chest!

So now you will understand that this is not a meager compliment: in the many times I heard this disk, not once did I miss a harpsichord. This is a beautiful, moving CD. The reasons are manifold. It presents some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most marvelous works, impeccably performed, and with a particularly flattering recorded sound.

When one thinks of Bach, the most common portrait that springs to mind is that of a serious man, with powdered wig and no trace of a smile in his tight-set mouth. Irrespective of the actual stage in Bach’s life when these pieces were actually composed, this recording creates a powerful image of Bach as a young man, full of joie-de-vivre, sense of humor and such overwhelming sadness as only the young can feel.

Yes, it is all there in the music. But it is Kuschnerova’s touch that brings it to life. She has an almost contradictory combination of qualities: a sort of no-nonsense approach, coupled with an unerring sense of poetry. The interpretation is crisp, with no large dramatic gestures. The small gestures, however, are infused with life and insight: the way a character change is brought about, or a cadence is resolved, with an almost imperceptible slackening of the tempo; the inexorable ostinatto introduction that enlivens a whole movement … There are so many graceful, subtle details that listing even a third of them would take up too much space. Suffice it to say that this is limpid playing, straightforward but at the same time sophisticated, rich with information and ideas.

The fact that this is a live recording seems almost unbelievable, so devoid of mistakes and extraneous noises it is. In fact, there is no sign of hesitation, no choking, no fuzzy passages. Everything sounds easy, fluent, organic. There is true happiness here, and true sadness. The contrasts are presented with flair but no exaggeration, and these well-known works still manage to sound moving, never mushy. It is one of those CDs that don’t get worn out with use, quite the contrary. Each new listening draws our attention to some new delicate musical feature that, by itself, would be worth the price of the CD. Putting it quite simply – this is a wonderful disk, highly recommended.

BACH Italian concert in F, BWV 971; French Suite No. 2 in c, BWV 813; Toccata in e, BWV 914; Partita No. 6 in e, BWV 830; Präludium & Fugue in c, BWV 847. Elena Kuschnerova (pn) ORFEO C 547 011 A (70:15)

(Fanfare, Dec/Nov 2001)

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