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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Sixteen, Star of Heaven, The Eton Choirbook Legacy, Harry Christophers

The Sixteen under Harry Christophers is undoubtedly one of the very best Early Music Choral Groups operating today. But as we see here and elsewhere they do not shy away from the Modern Choral world when they feel an engagement. I've been following them quite happily in the last decade, and now there is a new recording. Presenting Star of Heaven, The Eton Choirbook Legacy (CORO 16166). The Eton Choirbook is the English collection of sacred music that preserved some monumental examples of a special stage of pre-Purcellian choral composition of great importance to our understanding and appreciation of local and pan-European Early Sacred Music for voices.

This album is most unusual in that it intersperses some choice Eton compositions among a special World Premier set of recordings of five Modern Contemporary Choral works that ultimately hammer out an ultra-Contemporary perspective on the Eton Legacy. Stephen Hough's "Hallowed" appears before us with a special polyphonic-ambient luster along with four works specially commissioned by the Genesis Foundation to exemplify and enact the current-day Pope's reforms in Catholic Church policy towards church music. They are "Neciens mater" by Joseph Phibbs, "Ave Maria, mater Dei" by Phillip Cooke, "O Virgo prudentissima" by Sir James MacMillan and "Stella caeli" by Marco Galvani.

For the works by Phibbs, Cooke and Galvani, the Modern work is situated alongside an Eton work utilizing the same sacred text, so "Nesciens mater" in the Plainsong version and by Walter Lambe, "Ave Maria, mater Dei" by William Cornysh, and "Stella caeli" by Walter Lambe. Finally the 15-minute "Salve Regina" by Robert Wylkynson from the Choirbook sets off nicely the Hough work that follows it.

The Sixteen are jewels in today's Early Music Performance crown, surely, and if anyone can bring out the subtle interplay of old in new and old in our new it is them. They do not disappoint. One has much to apprehend in the best ways with this program and its realization. The Modern works have implied or actual polyphonic thrust in equal measure to their contemporary outlook. Hearing them alongside Eton Choirbook counterparts is a brilliant idea and the Sixteen succeed wonderfully well.

This may be heady fare for some yet it is an important milestone to my mind in showing us some of the rootfulness of the new Modernity. It is also sheer beauty to hear! Highly recommended for both Early and Modern adepts and acolytes.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Friederich Kuhlau, Sonata in E Flat Major, Sonata in A Minor, Sonatina in C Major

The Classical-to-Early Romantic Era Piano Sonata is a wonderful thing. There are the joys of Papa Haydn, Mozart, early period Beethoven (early for that special point in transition), Schubert, CPE Bach, Kozeluch, Clementi, but one is never truly filled with comprehensive understamding without sampling some of the remarkable piano sonatas of Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832). Why are they and he not better known today? The vagaries of Classical-to-Romantic Era Reception History are not something I studied in school directly and I must admit I come to the music with open ears, some understanding of sonata form, Romantic style practicalities and theories and all the pantheon exposure and a reading of some of the key musicological texts without a huge knowledge of the epoch as an all-embracing whole. Kuhlau was German born but ultimately Danish, so location may play a fate? I'll give you a synopsis of the back cover blurb to the fine release up for discussion, but first what is it? It is Jens Luhr doing an excellent job with the Piano Sonata in E Flat Major, Sonata in A Minor and the Sonatina in C Major (Grand Piano GP797).

Anyway the blurb tells us that "his popular works for flute" helped earn him the sobriquet of "The Danish Beethoven."  All that is fascinating, but in any event and most importantly those not familiar with the Sonatas are in for a very happy surprise with this album. From the very beginning, the E Flat Major Sonata and its unexpected clock chime theme and the unrelentingly masterful treatment of the thematic material in Kuhlau's hands is a bit of a revelation.

All of this music rings true. There is a superior presence behind every movement. Jens Luhr plays it all with poetic grace.

Any lover of solo piano music will find this one hard to resist. It is a great argument for a Kuhlau revival. I certainly would love to hear yet more. In the meantime go confidently into this recording zone. It is all quite top-notch!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Wagner, Gotterdammerung, Soloists, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden

I would type here that Wagner's Ring is in many ways the Holy Grail of Late Romanticism in the Modern Era but then one might justifiably respond, "No, that is Parsifal!" And if that seems funny to me maybe I am a hopeless nerd? I do not care. Humor must be sought out on dreary days no matter the source.

Nevertheless of course the Ring is one of those masterpieces that is almost superhuman. It defies what one composer could do, was allowed in the last half of the 19th Century to do. Bach may get the awe response after we count up his Cantatas, but Wagner is a Modern-Era champ. So what in the end is the Ring. Four very long operas on a central, cumulative mythical theme plot, with the entire libretto and all the music written by one man, who manages to make it all a huge success....Sure, but it all could have ended-up being a boondoggle dog, right? But no, Wagner was as brilliant or perhaps even more brilliant than the hype on the day suggested,

I do not suppose anyone reading this does not know something, no doubt a great deal of something about Wagner and the Ring. And probably you reading this already have a version of the four-opera sequence to plunk on your system when you feel the urge? Well if you don't I must tell you that what I have heard of the full Ring just now complete--by soloists, choral forces and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden--is quite good. I reviewed their Siegfried  on these pages some time ago (see index) and now I am happy to report in on their cycle-concluding Gotterdammerung (Naxos 8.660428-31 4-CDs).

What is good about the two performances of the last two, concluding Ring-cycle works (and I will assume that same of the Hong Kong versions of the opening operas in the series though I have not yet had a chance to hear them)? All of this is an object lesson about the continuing, ever-dependable virtues of Naxos as far and away the premiere Classical Standard Repertoire Budget Label. Why does it matter? In a world where most of us are not endlessly wealthy Naxos when functioning properly (it is) can provide you with very competitive performances of works generally well represented on recordings. There may not be at all times the star-power list of famous performers for all the works, but of course the idea is that the music-first approach can oftimes allow you to get very reasonable prices on such things. For the Ring and its 16-or-so CDs that can be crucial.

So why is this a nice choice? For one thing as a digital recording of the present-day it is sonically glowing. Dynamics and balance are all excellent and the orchestra is very well-staged in terms of the audio set up in standard stereo. Like most of us I have heard many Ring recordings over the years and there are undoubtedly some that have made an everlasting impression on me the Hong Kong sounds as good or better audio-wise as any.

Secondly the Hong Kong Philharmonic under van Zweden has all the fullness and balance of the large orchestral Wagner sound as we demand today and he set out for us then. The strings, winds, brass etc. bring out the nuances as Wagner intended them. It is a delight to hear it all! Then the choral ensembles and soloists are big-sounding and dramatic as very much needed. Gun-Brit Barkmin and Daniel Brenna as Brunhilde and Siegfried may not quite rise to the heights of the historic very best in hallowed recordings but they stay the course with heroic stamina and that's very fine. The same can be said for all the vocalists appearing in the cast.

The leitmotivs fly by like moths into light throughout and overall there is the bracing exhilaration that we seek in the Wagner experience. I cannot say after a few listens I am anything but satisfied with it all. And when I must I can dig up some of the Kirsten Flagstad excerpts from long ago to remember how high she could fly! That in the end is separate from hearing the whole of the Wagner saga.

Take a listen to some excerpts online to get the feeling for this cycle. The van Zweden Segfried  and Gotterdammerung come though remarkably well for budget recordings! I imagine that same would go for the beginning operas. An excellent bet. Recommended!

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Witold Lutoslawski, Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4, Jeux venitiens, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu

For some reason the music of Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) continues to surprise me with every new recording. Why? It is in part because he is a Modernist that fits into his own sound and personality and so is not easily categorized. He is an orginal. He is always inventive, has a brilliant orchestral sense and is not-at-all predictable.

Today I mention a disk devoted to three important orchestral works, his Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 (1947, 1992) and the ten-minute Jeux Venitiens (1961) (Ondine ODE 1320-5). The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu are the providers of this music and though I have another recording of the first I like quite well (reviewed here, type composer name in index box above right), this disk is extraordinarily dedicated to opening up the very personal worlds of these works in ways that could well be definitive.

The First Symphony is the more rabidly Modern, the more wild I suppose you could say. The Fourth is very expressive and somber, the more at times like the eerie "hop-hop...dein mutter ist tot" ending of Wozzeck as a kind of springboard. And that is not necessarily something the composer was thinking of but to me it shares that mysterious, tragic awe. Yet then it soars off of that launchpad to create megaliths of exploratorial ominosity. It is incredible music and in the end there is nothing quite like it.

Jeux Venitiens is mid-career (1961), stylistically in movement from the first to the forth. It serves very nicely to bridge the gap between the two aural worlds.

I must say that this is music any serious Modernist should prize. It is another look at what the Modern symphony can be and is! Highly recommended!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Piano, String Trio, Sonata for Violin and Cello

Perhaps at this point the remarkable thing about Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was not so much that he existed (1895-1968) and managed not to go under, despite Mussolini and CT's forced migration to the USA in those terrible days. That was remarkable enough. The thing for us sitting in the world as it is today, with Naxos producing a seemingly endless wealth of Castelnuevo-Tedesco works we might otherwise not have a chance to hear, is perhaps just how GOOD it all is, what I've heard anyway.

That most certainly includes the music on this latest, which is the Violin Concerto No. 3, String Trio, and Sonata for Violin and Cello (Naxos 8.574003). They constitute World Premiere Recordings all as I understand it. The performances are very much on par, unpretentious but ravishing, with violinist Davide Alogna playing his way idiomatically and beautifully throughout the program, joined as needed by Fiorenzo Pascalucci on piano, Roberto Trainini on cello, and Federico Stassi on viola.

The infectious grace of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco melodic gifts are all the way to the forefront thoughout. His Italian-tinged Impressionism-Post-Romanticism is remarkable here, even in the 30 minute Sonata for Violin and Cello, which is a chamber co-mingling rather unusual but here very idiomatic and beautiful. There is not even a single note of insignificance to be heard in the all of it, not when taken altogether.

Any lovers of the violin and the various chamber blends possible with it will be taken by this. But then it is just plain old good music, regardless of whatever else one might say of it! Molto bravo!

Monday, January 7, 2019

Dietrich Buxtehude, Early Organ Works, Codex E.B. 1688, Harald Vogel

Some bodies of work may not be at the edge of consciousness for the music appreciation cognoscenti these days. In fact how much could we say that was the case right now in the present moment? Perhaps the Mahler symphonic cycle more now than was the case when I was growing up? And Wozzeck I've noticed on social media seems to bring out a seemingly dedicated group of initiates compared with Die Fraue ohne Shatten but that has been the case I supposes since I knew that both operas existed, at least over here.

All well and good. I might not have even thought to think it several weeks ago, but since I received the new Harald Vogel recording of Buxtehude's Codex E. B. 1688, which comprises all but four of the works on the album Early Organ Works (MDG Gold 314 2092-2), ever since then I have increasingly thought of that Codex as a body of work that does deserve a protracted appreciation and meditation upon. And so I offer a few thoughts to this end today.

In it you hear the very contrapuntal-fugal sublimities Bach himself no doubt was so specifically captivated by in his lifetime. And so too one of the contrapuntal subjects we find Handel had adapted himself for the "And With His Stripes" section of his Messiah.

So too the Codex contains more than solo organ. There is the "Sonata ex d - Viola da Gamba/organ" that so absorbingly holds our attention for the second five minutes of the album. Beholding the whole of this program you feel the brilliance of Buxtehude's extraordinary counterweaving. The organ is a greately appropriate one, the sound pristine. And Harald Vogel sounds like he was literally born into playing this music. Clear and authoritative versions are these, milestones, a joy to hear! Highly recommended.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Axel Borup-Jorgensen, Floating Islands, Guitar Music, Frederik Monk Larson

Danish composer Axel-Borup-Jorgensen (1924-2012)  is one of those 20th century musical figures it takes some time to appreciate. I have covered a number of albums of his music on these pages and perhaps only now with this new album of music for guitar named Floating Islands (OUR Recordings 8 220672) do I feel like I have learned thoroughly his musical language. Nearly an hour of Borop-Jorgensen solo guitar works are the order of the day, played articulately and elegantly by Frederik Munk Larsen.

Four pieces from the"Floating Island" series are included, as well as five more works in single or multiple parts. It is generally High Modernist in its structural harmonic edginess with a syntax all his own. "Islands" is an apt description, as often the works phrase in single or short multiple units, each in itself a floating body to to speak. So they may be harmonics, staccato chords, softly-voiced simultaneities, singular notes or short phrases, you name it. Each section hangs together and poeticises a guitar sound in depth.

It is refreshingly pristine music that holds its own and continues to fascinate each time you hear it. I strongly recommend this for all who appreciate New Music for guitar. Bravo!