CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews

18.7.19

On ClassicsToday: Marcin Świątkiewicz’s Recording of Bach Harpsichord Concertos (Channel Classics)

One-To-A-Part Bach Harpsichord Concertos: Great In Detail But Big-Picture Pale

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
BACH_Swiatkiewicz_Harpsichord_Concertos_CHANNEL_jens-f-laurson_classical-critic

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Ideology has done much to shape how we listen to baroque music. There was, for one, the one-voice-per-part coterie around Joshua Rifkin that insisted on undernourished performances of cantatas and now-no-longer “choral” works. Analogously, in instrumental works, the concertos have been recast (or restored) as chamber works, also one-voice-per-part. This at least is less controversial, because size-wise that’s exactly what Bach himself did to his earlier, beefier works written in Köthen when he transcribed and down-sampled them for the purpose of performances at Café Zimmerman in Leipzig. [continue reading]



17.7.19

Dip Your Ears, No. 245 (The Delectable Lightness of John Ireland)

available at Amazon
J.Ireland, Music arranged for String Orchestra
D.Curtis / Orchestra of the Swan
(Naxos)

John Ireland’s legacy as a teacher might be greater than as a composer; he taught a good swath of England’s 20th century music—most notably Benjamin Britten—at the Royal College of Music. But his music, too, is worthwhile. True “Surprised by Beauty” material… in fact, so beautiful is his music, that it not only got the invariable ‘tonality shrug’ in the 20th century but even now, where ideology in music is no longer an important deciding factor anymore as to whether we may or may not appreciate a particular composition, it runs a good chance of being tagged as “Light Music”.

Well, light it is, if you listen to his Downland [sic] Suite (in the arrangement of the brass band work that Ireland started and his student Geoffrey Bush finished), or pretty much any other of the string orchestra arrangements on this disc. But it isn’t fluff. Not even works like the dance-happy brief Bagatelle or the sensual Cavatina—early compositions in a salon-music-style that might remind you of Chabrier and Offenbach (or maybe Elgar in the Berceuse)—which makes for sweet interludes. Raphael Wallfisch takes all the notable cello parts—most prominently in the arranged Cello Sonata in G minor, of which a recording with Wallfisch (on Marco Polo) also exists in its original form—and lends them his regal tone without sounding overly serious in this highly entertaining music.

Is it the ideal introduction to Ireland—considering that all the works are ‘but transcriptions’? Probably as good as any, actually, given that the Downland Suite in this very arrangement is an obvious starting point for the Ireland-experience. (It is also included on this particular fine Chandos recording with Richard Hickox, which would make as good an introduction.) Whichever way you go, enjoy the breezy delight. 





16.7.19

On ClassicsToday: Concerto Budapest and András Keller in Bruckner (Tacet)

Budapest Bruckner: Unimpressive Sublime

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
BRUCKNER_Symphony_9_Concerto-Budapest_AndrasKeller_TACET_ClassicalCritic_ClassicsToday

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

If you dig deep enough into this Bruckner Ninth, if you are set up for SACD-Surround Sound and have no neighbors, and if you care about orchestral nuance more than goosebumps, this recording by Concerto Budapest might be for you. There is no doubt that András Keller (of Keller Quartet fame) has turned this full-fledged symphonic orchestra with its 100-year history around, having transformed a third-rate band into a classy ensemble that, on a good day, can outplay any orchestra in neighboring Vienna. [continue reading]



15.7.19

On ClassicsToday: Thomas Zehetmair conducts Bruckner (MDG)

Bruckner From Switzerland, Handicapped And Below Par

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
BRUCKNER_Symphony_3_Winterthur_Musikkollegium_Zehetmair_MDG_ClassicalCritic_ClassicsToday

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

I wouldn’t rule out that a small orchestra with something to say can’t do invigorating romantic music—even Bruckner. Thomas Dausgaard’s Bruckner Second comes to mind, where the incense-free très sportif atmosphere does its part to bring out Bruckner’s kinship with Schubert. So when Thomas Zehetmair (whose musicianship as a violinist and string quartet player is of the very highest order) recorded Bruckner’s Third symphony with his Musikkollegium Winterthur (which itself has some very nice recordings of Frank Martin and, for that matter, Schubert, to its name), my expectations weren’t particularly low, though not particularly high, either. [continue reading]



13.7.19

Briefly Noted: More of Rousset's Salieri (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
A. Salieri, Tarare, C. Dubois, K. Deshayes, J.-S. Bou, J. van Wanroij, Les Talens Lyriques, Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, C. Rousset

(released on July 12, 2019)
Aparte AP208 | 2h45
Among Christophe Rousset's major accomplishments as a conductor is his revival of the operas of Antonio Salieri. We took note of his recording of the composer's Les Danaïdes a few years ago. The latest in the project, Tarare, coincides with Alex Ross's on-point reconsideration of Salieri's place in music history. The superlative playing of Les Talens Lyriques, especially the whisper-fine traverso flutes, reveals this melodically rich score in its best light.

Tarare has some interesting overlaps with Mozart's career at the same time. Beaumarchais himself wrote the libretto for the French premiere in 1787, the version recorded here. Then Lorenzo da Ponte reworked it in Italian as Axur, re d'Ormus for the Viennese premiere the following year. (In the film Amadeus, Salieri is seen conducting the finale of the Viennese version, its success earning Mozart's scorn.)

Beaumarchais drew the story from a curious literary source, a collection of English exotic tales published as The Tales of the Genii, or The Delightful Lessons of Horam, the Son of Asmar. The author, James Ridley (the pseudonym of Sir Charles Morell), claimed to have translated the stories from a Persian source, but they are decidedly European visions of the East. Salieri, master of the dramatic gesture, has the orchestral intro to the Prologue interrupted by entrance of the soprano Judith van Wanroij as Nature, accompanied by the chorus of unchained winds. In the frame narrative of the French version, the shades nominate one of their number to become the despotic ruler Atar and another the soldier Tarare. The five acts that follow are the account of what became of them in their lives.

The king, jealous of the happiness and popularity of the soldier, orders Tarare's wife, Astasie, to be kidnapped and transferred to his harem. In a twist of reversal from stories like The Magic Flute, the slaves in Atar's household are Europeans -- and singers to boot. The chief eunuch, Calpigi, is even a castrato from Ferrara, who reveals his king's evil plan to have Tarare killed. Tarare manages to elude all of the plots to torture and kill him and is eventually named king after the suicide of Atar. Salieri uses jangling Janissary sounds throughout the opera, starting with the loud overture that introduces Act I. One unusual facet of the plot involves the disguise of Tarare as a black slave, who is then to be married to his own wife, who ends up sending another servant in her place. Such wife-swapping aspects crop up in Figaro and Cosi, among other works of the period.

12.7.19

Bayreuth on the Danube: The Budapest Wagner Days. Production Photos from Die Walküre

Hunding (Albert Pesendorfer) and his dogs


From the second day of the 2019 Budapest Wagner Days come these pictures of Die Walküre. (See production pictures of Das Rheingold here - and the ClassicsToday review here.) If the Rheingold stunned with a (largely) no-name cast that was absolutely bona-fide world class (most especially Alberich, Loge, Mime, and Fasolt along with the established Wotan of Johan Reuter's), this most popular opera of the Ring boasted a cast with world class names that, happily, lived up to their billing. Stuart Skelton, Johan Reuter, Camilla Nylund, and especially Catherine Foster gave of their best.

Here is part two (of two) of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring, Part 2: Walküre, Siegfried, & Götterdämmerung
Here is part one of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring: Prelude and Rheingold

Below are loads of production photos from Die Walküre to go with that review (or titillate you all on their own.)





11.7.19

À mon chevet: My Struggle, Book 6

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
For my own part, the transgressional was associated with an enormous sense of freedom on the one hand, and enormous shame on the other, played out in a rather unsophisticated fashion in a few too many beers followed by a couple of hours of undesirable yet delightfully unfettered behavior as a result. It was low and vile and wretched, even if it didn't necessarily feel like it, whereas the crimes that took place in the Third Reich were transgressional in a radically different and fundamentally incomprehensible yet not less compelling sense altogether. It was as if they exceeded the very limits of what was human. How was that possible? The allure of death, the allure of destruction, the allure of total annihilation, of what did it consist? The world burned, and they were joyful.

I read about it, I wondered about it, and never without feeling some small measure of that same allure myself as I sat there far from war and death, destruction and genocide, on a chair in Bergen, surrounded by all my books, usually with a cigarette in my hand and a cup of coffee next to me on the desk, the dwindling hum of the evening's traffic outside the window, sometimes with a warm cat asleep on my lap. I read about the final days of Hitler, the utterly demented atmosphere far beneath the ground where he lived with his attendants and those closest to him, the city above them, bombed to rubble by the Russians, a blazing inferno. At one point he ascended to inspire some boys of the Hitler Youth, I had seen the footage that was shot, he is ill, tries to stop his hand from shaking as he goes from one boy to the next, it must have been Parkinson's disease. but in his eyes there is a gleam, something unexpectedly warm.

Surely it couldn't be possible?

When Dad died, Yngve and I found a Nazi pin among his belongings, a pin with a German eagle to put in the lapel of a jacket. Where did he get it from? He was not the type to have bought something of that nature and therefore he must have been given it or come across it in some way. When Grandma died, a year and a half after Dad, and we went through the house to divide things up, we found a Norwegian edition of Mein Kampf in the chest in the living room. What was it doing there? It must have been there since the war. It was a fairly common book at the time, with thousands of copies sold, someone might have given it to them as a present, without it having any signficance for them, but nevertheless it was still strange that they hadn't got rid of it after the war, for they would hardly have been unaware that it was incriminating. After the initial sensation the discovery of something so illicit gave rise to, I thought little more of it. I knew the people they were, Grandad and Grandma, and I knew that they were from another age, in which other rules applied.

-- Karl Ove Knausgård, Min kamp Sjette bok, pp. 490-92
It was a long three years since I read Book 5 of Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle. In some ways I put off reading the last volume because I was a little sad that the book would come to an end. The first five volumes are in a disturbingly direct style, as Knausgård painfully examines his own life in a style that is half-memoir, half-novel. The sixth book begins in the same manner, but quickly veers into uncharted territory.

He is writing about the period when he was finishing the book. His publisher asked him to contact all the people who appear in the novel, to make sure they will not raise a fuss about the use of their names and private lives. Novelists make use of this kind of material all the time, of course, but usually they at least change the names to disguise identities. Most of his friends and family do not object, but one uncle, his father's brother, adamantly refuses and threatens to sue. The basis of his complaint is that Karl Ove's recollections are entirely false, an absurd invention that will bring harm to the family name.

Knausgård uses the fear this instills in his own heart as a way to lead the reader to question everything in the first five volumes. Is it possible that a book that gained Knausgård fame for its brutal honesty is in fact not to be trusted? Language itself becomes suspect, as does memory. The middle part of the book is an exhaustive analysis of the topic, beginning with a near-indigestible coprolith of literary analysis devoted to the author's favorite poem by Paul Celan. This leads to a long consideration of the book's namesake, Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, which Karl Ove and his brother found among his grandmother's belongings after her death (the section quoted here).

Knausgård combs through Hitler's book, obsessively comparing it with other primary texts about Hitler's life, all of this by way of pointing out that Hitler's account of his own life is not all that accurate. Literary critics have not been kind to this wordy section weighing down the middle of Book 6, but the author's brother, Yngve, had perhaps the best reaction to this idea. After reading an early draft of the novel to see how it depicted him, Yngve wrote Karl Ove an e-mail. "Your fucking struggle, said the subject line," he recalls.

10.7.19

Dip Your Ears, No. 244 (Tempting Brahms 4th from Saraste & WDR)

available at Amazon
J.Brahms, Sy.#4, Academic Festival Ovt, Tragic Ovt.
J-P.Saraste / WDR SO
(Profil Hänssler)

Jukka-Pekka Saraste (on Twitter) has just conducted his last concert as the chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra (with Mahler 5th, Zimmermann’s Photoptosis and the Felix Weingartner arrangement of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge) where he succeeded Semyon Bychkov and will be succeeded by Cristian Măcelaru (on Twitter). Nine productive years seem to have just flown by. It might be recency bias, but towards the end, it felt, recordings were coming out left and right – including a cycle of the complete Beethoven Symphonies which, despite the accumulating cynicisms of life in a Beethoven-saturated market, was rather splendid (ClassicsToday: Mightily Superfluous Excellence: Saraste and Beethoven Cycle No. 176).

Also among the recordings was a set of the Brahms Symphonies. I have before me the Fourth, which, on its own, sounded pretty darn good on casual hearing. Good enough to merit a little comparison, and so out came two versions from favorite cycles: Simon Rattle’s—reviewed here: Dip Your Ears, No. 100 (Rattle and Brahms)—and Günter Wand’s 1996/97 live NDR set on RCA (his last of three cycles with that orchestra). Günter Wand’s magnificently unhurried way and cool-as-a-cucumber flow is something to behold, still. Ditto Rattle’s tension and the quality of playing. (Although I don’t think that rather broad Fourth is the absolute strong-point of a generally terrific set). In many ways Saraste sits between these two approaches: Nearly the bite of Rattle, but not quite. Nearly the impossibly effortless movement of Wand, but not quite.

That might sound like a bit of Vanilla neither-nor, but that’s not the case. With excellent sound a shade on the bright side, fine playing from all the instrument groups (all caught in good presence without any awkward spotlighting) and niftily chosen, lively tempos (not that being faster than Rattle and nimble Wand suggests breaking any speed-records), the result is actually subtly outstanding. A truly joyous Academic Festival Overture and a meaty Tragic Overture round the disc out very gratifyingly. If all the senses didn’t scream: No-one needs a 2Xth set of the Brahms symphonies, one might almost be tempted to find out how the rest of Saraste’s Brahms sounds!