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Briefly Noted: Schiff's HIP Schubert

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Schubert, Sonatas / Impromptus, A. Schiff (fortepiano)

(released on April 26, 2019)
ECM New Series 2535/36 | 124'10"
A few years ago, András Schiff performed three concerts in Washington over the space of a couple years. The programs brought together the three final sonatas of four composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Although he was performing here on a Steinway concert grand, he was capitalizing on his exploration of a rather different instrument, a fortepiano built by the Viennese maker Franz Brodmann in around 1820. It belonged to the Austrian imperial family and was taken by Karl I, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with him into exile in the early 20th century. In Basel it was magnificently restored by Martin Scholz, and in 2010 Schiff acquired it and donated it to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn.

It is there that Schiff has made a few recordings on the instrument, starting with Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and continuing with two Schubert sets. The latest one, released this past spring, is a 2-CD set, rounding out the trilogy of final sonatas he played live on a modern instrument. The Brodmann instrument, in Schiff's words, is "ideally suited to Schubert's keyboard works. There is something quintessentially Viennese in its timbre, its tender mellowness, its melancholic cantabilità." Schiff plays it most expressively, using its four pedals to create varied sounds: the due corde pedal and moderator fill out the ghostly piano side of the music, and the buzzing bassoon pedal increases the loudness of some bass sections. One by one, the titans of the old classical school are seeing the value of the historical instruments movement, and it is informative indeed to find out what a master like Schiff has discovered about music he has played almost all his life when he gets to know the sort of instrument that Schubert likely knew.


Dip Your Ears, No. 241 (Twenty Fingers for Beethoven’s 7th)

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L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.7
(trans. Scharwenka), Great Fugue op.134
Piano Duo Trenkner & Speidel

The Trenkner-Speidel Duo makes the transcribed-for-two-piano repertoire worthwhile listening. Starting with their delightful Brandenburg Concertos (Max Reger’s adaptation) via Mahler Symphonies (Bruno Walter’s transcription), they have now turned to Beethoven: Scharwenka’s take on the Seventh and the Great Fugue in its op.134 version. Several piano duos had a go at Beethoven’s own transcription of Die Grosse Fuge, partly fuelled by the manuscript’s discovery in early 2006 in Philadelphia [link goes to Alex Ross' piece on that]. Of those that I have heard, Trenkner & Speidel make me least seek out the original string quartet version. Often it’s even easier to follow the intricacies of the fugue on the Duo’s 1901 Steinway. Mediocre translations of the booklet are the only fly in the ointment.


Briefly Noted: Björkestral Adaptation

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Björk's Vespertine: A Pop Album as an Opera, J. Yoon, A. Hashimoto, S. Oesch, Nationaltheater Mannheim, Hotel Pro Forma, M. Toogood

(released on April 12, 2019)
Oehms Classics OC978 | 77'51"
When Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. won the Pulitzer Prize for Music last year, there were some breathless comparisons of that hip-hop album to an opera or even Bach's St. Matthew Passion. I tried to put the album in line with the song cycle or song collection tradition of Schubert, Schumann, and Mahler, but that did not sit well with some listeners either. For what it's worth, the Pulitzer committee itself described DAMN. as "a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life," which sounds an awful lot like a song cycle to me.

Is there just no way to analyze contemporary popular music in relation to older forms of music? How can one reconcile a mostly recorded music that is generally not written down with notated music that is intended to be performed live by other people? This odd new work, premiered last year in Mannheim, offers one possible bridge across that divide.

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Björk, Vespertine
Björk originally released her album Vespertine in 2001, just a few years before Alex Ross profiled the eclectic Icelandic singer for The New Yorker. Back then Alex wrote that the album "was a homecoming of a different kind —- a swerve toward a more intimate, chamber-music style of performance, without any of the heavy beats that had made her earlier music amenable to clubgoers." In other words, it makes sense that this album could be made into a classical work, in this case, an opera.

Björk's surreal lyrics do not suggest a continuous narrative, but the Danish artist group Hotel Pro Forma wove a story involving a scientist, her Doppelgänger, a Cloud Boy, and an Illuminated Man. The Children's Chorus and Women's Chorus of the Nationaltheater Mannheim serve as the Stones and Landscape, respectively, filling out the lines layered onto each other by Björk through multi-tracking. The album's twelve songs are presented in the same order, augmented with ten atmospheric interludes by the collective's three composers, Roman Vinuesa, Peter Häublein, and Jan Dvořák. The adapters describe many hours transcribing the album so that it could be read by the performers, and the electronics of the original album are all reworked for the orchestra of entirely acoustic instruments, with some unusual additions, conducted by Matthew Toogood.

The result, a curiosity more dreamlike and less rhythmically driven than its pop original, is not really recommended as much as offered for consideration. Twin sopranos Ji Yoon and Aki Hashimoto, sometimes shadowed by treble Simon Oesch, do their best to approximate the breathy, quasi-yodeling style of Björk, vocal quirks noted in the transcription of the album. One of the songs, "Frosti," is adapted as an instruments-only piece, and baritone Raymond Ayers gets a turn at imitating Björk in the more dissonant, almost Brittenesque "An Echo, a Stain." Mostly the operatic version loses the freshness and originality of Björk, while the greater variety of instrumental and vocal sounds add many additional colors, underscoring the sameness of the pop songs.


Dip Your Ears, No. 240 (Thibaut Garcia in Bach: The Little Guitar Recital That Should Have)

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Bach Inspirations
Thibaut Garcia (+ Elsa Dreisig)
Warner Classics

Who said these #DipYourEars segments are recommendations? This one, for example, isn’t. Although it could have and should have been one! Thibaut Garcia’s album “Bach Inspirations” is, on paper, something I ought to love love love. He’s encircling the greatest composer there ever was, playing his guitar in works that pay tribute the father of twenty and grand master of the organ. These composers include Augustín Barrios Mangoré, Charles Gounod, Alexandre Tansman (!), Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Dušan Bogdanović. And he throws a few Bach transcriptions into the mix. This should go down like Glenfarclas 15 but somehow it strikes me more like Berry Cherry Kool-Aid.

It’s not Garcia’s playing, which is fine and professional, with a light romantic touch and an excess of technique and sheer ability to beget envy. It’s, surprisingly, the selection of the pieces. On their own, they’re fine and interesting (for the most part), but the way they are presented here, in flawless but breezy and none-too-committed interpretations, they come across as saccharine. Even then, there's really not much to complain here. Except that just when I’m about to cede casually liking the CD—certainly as background-Muzak of the finest kind—the soprano of Elsa Dreisig comes in for ultra-sweet readings of Gounod’s Ave maria and the Villa-Lobos Aria from the fifth of the Bachianas Brasileiras. That’s so much of a feel-good vibe all at once that I actually come off the other side and feel noxious again.

For a Bach recital with great individuality, stunning sound, I’d much rather go to the recent release on Eudora Records, “Ciaccona” with Bin Hu. Meanwhile Garcia’s “Bach Inspirations”, while communicating good intentions, sounds sadly uninspired. I will say this, though: If you have not heard Alexandre Tansman’s “Inventions / Hommage à Bach”, do yourself a favor and seek them out on the streaming service of your choice. (Apart from Garcia, these might be available from Ermanno Brignolo or Cristiano Poli Cappelli [“Tansman: Complete Music for Solo Guitar”].)


Sweet Jury Duty: Wrapping Up the Leopold Mozart Violin Competition

Augsburg, June 8, 2019, Leopold Mozart Violin Competition—After a week with five long days of trials, amounting to some 35 net hours of intense Mozart-, Paganini-, Bach-, and Mendelssohn-listening, the 10th Leopold Mozart Violin Competition is in the books. It will conclude tonight with the Prize Winners’ Concerts.

In yesterday’s finals, three candidates out of initially 24 in the first round and then a dozen in the second, got to play two concertos with the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra – the Bavarian RSO’s little sister symphony. One concerto had to be Mozart, the other a romantic concerto out of a list of the usual warhorses. As luck would have it... [continue reading on ClassicsToday]

And our official Critics' Prize Statement here. The winner took about a friendly quarter hour of pleasant consideration and discussion and a couple espressos to decide upon. Everyone had a vague idea of a favorite going in and very soon Simon Wiener emerged as the obvious consensus choice:

"It has been a pleasure to hear 24 talented young violinists perform at the Leopold Mozart Violin Competition. As the critics among the members of jury, we are privileged to bestow a Critics’ Prize to one participant.

Hearing the musicians we were faced with a fascinating variety of ways in which a performance can be persuasive and enlightening. Not all of these qualities are necessarily those that ensure success in a traditional competition situation. This is where the Leopold Mozart Competition comes in: its uniquely varied repertoire and the diverse composition of its jury open up opportunities by which musicians less conventionally suited to competitions can thrive. Honorary mention, as an exemplar of that approach, should be made of the semi-finalist Issei Kurihara, whose internality, quiet confidence, subtle touches, and distinct individuality did much to suggest great and intriguing depth.

Our choice for the Critics’ Prize also combines many qualities and great hopes that pricked our ears in special ways. His consummate passion for conversing through music, his musical and expressive intelligence, his unique approach to the composers and his choice of repertoire made him an easy choice to rally around. We look forward to hearing much more of him in the future as we confer the Critics’ Prize to Simon Wiener.

And given that we made a special mention of Issei Kurihara, I might also point out that the performance of Hsin-Yu Shih (Taiwan, 1999), who did not make the second round by the smallest of margins, was suggestive of a very considerable musical personality. I hope to hear more of it; I thought she had well stood out of the crowd in her own way.


Briefly Noted: Blomstedt's Mahler 9

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 9, Bamberger Symphoniker, H. Blomstedt

(released on June 21, 2019)
Accentus Music ACC-30477 | 83'28"
Herbert Blomstedt, who will turn 92 next month, remains not only active but supremely accomplished on the podium. He now serves as Honorary Conductor for a number of ensembles, including the Bamberg Symphony, with whom he led this glowing live performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony in June 2018. (The sound engineering leaves something to be desired, with some awkward joining between sections.) The last symphony Mahler published before his untimely death, it is often seen as the composer's reluctant eyeing of death. In a dark coincidence, for example, it will be the last work Michael Tilson Thomas (at 74, a young whippersnapper) conducts next weekend, before he takes a leave of absence to undergo heart surgery.

The Ländler seems rather genteel in Blomstedt's hands, a little pokey in tempo, perhaps a different way of understanding the "ungainly" and "course" markings that Mahler indicated. The third movement is appropriately brash, but again more polished than rough around the edges. The fourth movement misses the glimpse of the infinite it can afford, as Blomstedt could have drawn out its effusive lines even longer, but the chamber music moments of grouped solos put the Bamberg musicians in beautiful spotlights. Most effective is Blomstedt's first movement, an expansive, elegant rendering of the layers of appoggiaturas leaning on one another in row after row. The reluctant impartial quotations of the "Lebewohl" motif from Beethoven's piano sonata "Les Adieux" pile up beautifully.

Marin Alsop takes another crack at this elegiac work tonight at Strathmore and Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff, even as the identity of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as a full-year major orchestra continues to unravel.


The Road to the Finals: The Leopold Mozart Competition

Leopold Mozart Competition, Round 2 (Semi Finals)

Accompanists Hyun-Jung-Berger and Jose_Gallard are being poked in the ribs by jury-member Ulf Hölscher. Maybe

The first cut from 24 participants at the Leopold Mozart Competition down to twelve semi-finalists was severe but a reasonably harmonious and self-evident matter. The second cut that determined the three finalists out of those twelve participants was a more speckled affair. Differences were had. Opinions diverged. A multiplicity of tastes showed. Democracy ruled. Small arms fire ensued. That was—minus the small arms fire or indeed any kind of violence, which the gentle-spirited and collegial jury did not resort to on this occasion—the situation after the results were announced that Kaoru Oe (Japan, Toho College of Music; Keio University), Joshua Brown (USA, New England Conservatory) and Karisa Chiu (also USA, Curtis) were going to the finals. Simon Wiener (Switzerland, ZHdK in Zurich) was also announced to have received the special “Chamber Music Prize”. It comes with a cool € 1.500 attached to it which might at least somewhat temper the disappointment of not going on to the finals.

Incidentally, it’s not so much that the chosen finalists are particularly controversial choices. You don’t advance to the finals without having convinced most jury members of your qualities, even if they had other favorites. If anything, controversy reigned selectively as to who didn’t make it – or as to some who almost made it, while opinions were wildly divided on either a Yay or Nay side. Getting even that far isn’t easy, even for the jury. It’s not easy because the amount of listening – concentrated listening, ideally – is considerable: For starters, there were 24 first movements of the Mendelssohn D minor Piano Trio in two days to listen to; once in rehearsal, once in performance. (Then again, if the jury felt any semblance of self-pity, they only had to look onto the stage where Josè Gallardo and Hyun-Jung Berger played the work 24+ times; for each candidate, differently each time, and with all-out engagement each time.) For the works other than the mandatory Mendelssohn, neatly, it was up to the performers to choose solo or duo works to present themselves with. Any number of works, so long as they stayed under 50 minutes. (Not everyone did.) That is good for performers because presumably they know their strengths and can choose accordingly. And it’s good for jury members, who don’t have to listen to yet another monotonous onslaught of some same piece done over and over again.

Artistic and Executive Directors Linus Roth and Simon Pickel thank the accompanists (Ayumi Janke and Verena Louis in addition to the above-named) for their hard labor

But the duty to find and vote for three finalists also means, in essence, breaking nine young hearts. Not everyone takes it badly, not everyone takes it well. Most are sad and disappointed, to varying degrees. Some might feel a tinge of gratitude to have made it at least into the second round. Others still might even be offended or sulky. That, fortunately, a rarer (and worrisome) response. And as a jury member, if not all of your choices made it to the final (or none, as it were), you might feel that someone has been overlooked. Perhaps for not quite hitting all the buttons that one probably ought to, in a violin competition. Or perhaps they were well enough liked on average, but just not placed atop of enough of the jury member’s lists to make the leap. Often, this is where special prizes can come in to take the edge of the finality of the decision. The special prize for chamber music – on anecdotal evidence a very easy decision for the jury members to have made – is perhaps such a case.

The prize for the best interpretation of the contemporary composition might also have been such a prize – but the initial recipient flat-out refused to accept it, after he found out it came attached with the inconvenience of having to remain in town for three or four more days and having to play the work again (in the presence of the composer!) at the prize-winner’s concert. If the unfortunate lad had had one of those white angels sitting on his shoulders (or perhaps the red & black counterpart), I imagine it having whispered into his ear: “Careful, your character is showing!” On the upside, I think that every competition should, as a rule, have at least one minor scandal. The Chopin Competition had Argerich up in arms re Pogorelich. (Or, more recently, Yundi jetting off mid-competition to attend a wedding.) So let this be the salacious Leopold Mozart Competition scandal of 2019 that everyone will be talking 40 years from now. Or maybe not. Further special prizes – including the Critics’ Prize – will be given out and announced on the day of the finals.

Dip Your Ears, No. 239 / Ionarts CD of the Month (Pathétique Heroin)

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Symphony No.6 - Pathétique

So over-the-top, so permanently electric, so much current running through it… so doubling down on anything Tchaikovsky may have even just insinuated… so extreme in going to the full logical extent (and perhaps further—who knows, who cares) on color, effect, emotion, that Tchaikovsky’s lumbering-romantic grand Pathétique arises anew and horrifically awesome.

In this world of extremes, though, sweetness doesn’t translate into the saccharine: it translates into heroin. “Currentzis’ expressive intensity borders on the extreme” says David Hurwitz on ClassicsToday and thereby engages in an exercise of understatement. Sighing, heaving, crying; fits of anger, pouting, bristling, foaming, snarling (so hard that you fear the brass instruments may fall apart at the seams): There isn’t a gerund you can throw at this performance that it won’t swallow hole and make its own.

In the Adagio, MusicAeterna—Currentzis’ orchestra of willing Nibelung slaves—go from a scowling crocodile with halitosis to the beauty of a Bach chorale in under 2 seconds. And instead of being interminably long, this Pathétique is over before you know it. The sound is resonant and rich—tubby even—and yet overtly detailed: A telltale sign of microphone-pointing in the best tradition of Soviet symphonic recordings. Not the latest in high-fidelity but helping Currentzis to make his musical points.

This release makes it three borderline-great Pathétiques just in the last few years – and each very different from each other. There’s this OTT approach, then the broad, richly rewarding caramel-cream and custard approach of Bychkov’s with the Czech Philharmonic (Decca) that bathes you in sound (much like his Manfred Symphony; see “Forbes Best Recordings of 2017”), and the excellence-without-exaggeration of Manfred Honeck’s with his Pittsburgh band (Reference Recordings).

Is it superficial? Sure it is. But isn’t Tchaikovsky also? (Maybe not to you, in which case you have my apologies.) Be that as it may, superficiality and glamour and glitz can be Damian Hurst-esque… appallingly empty, The-Emperor-Has-No-Taste-in-Arts-style. Or it can be wildly fun and a manifesto for living in the moment. Currentzis’s Tchaikovsky is the latter. Out for effect instead of nuance; Jackson Pollock over careful coloring and shading of a well-behaved musical topography? Yes and yes again and who cares. This is weird, Wagnerian, wonderful. One of the necessary Tchaikovsky Sixths to have heard, if you are at all into classical music!