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

13.8.22

Briefly Noted: Jacobs and Schubert (CD of the Month)

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Schubert, "Great" and "Unfinished" Symphonies, B'Rock Orchestra, René Jacobs

(released on August 12, 2022)
PentaTone PTC5186894 | 87'27"

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Symphonies 1 and 6
(2018)

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Symphonies 2 and 3
(2020)

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Symphonies 4 and 5
(2021)
Leave it to René Jacobs to come up with a daring new way to approach Schubert. In 2018 the venerated early music conductor began a complete traversal of the symphonies of Franz Schubert, whom he described as the favorite composer of his youth. In partnership with the B'Rock Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble based in Ghent, he has reached the end with this disc of the composer's last two symphonies. Only No. 7 (the numbering of the Schubert symphonies remains in flux) remains to be recorded, but as Schubert left only sketches of it, it is even more unfinished than the Unfinished (aside from sketches or fragments of other symphonic works).

The group's use of historical instruments reveals interesting qualities in both symphonies. The horn solo that opens the "Great" Symphony has a more rustic quality, and in the first thematic section that follows, the contrasts between the brash brass and percussion and the more frail woodwinds are more stark than with modern instruments. The steady amassing of sound makes the first movement's climaxes particularly exciting. Similar juxtapositions enliven the second movement, which Jacobs gives a jaunty, propelled tempo, and the prolonged scherzo of the third movement. Jacobs thinks Schubert's quotation of the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the finale is "probably unconscious," an odd call to say the least.

For the "Unfinished" Symphony, Jacobs bases his interpretation on a theory about the work first put forward by Arnold Schering in an essay published in 1938. If the symphony is indeed not unfinished at all, Schering attempted to understand its two movements in relation to an allegorical narrative, called Mein Traum (My dream), that Schubert drafted in pencil in 1822. Within a few months of writing this unusual document, perhaps based partly on an actual dream and also on some tragic events in his early years, he was working on the "Unfinished" Symphony. As Jacobs puts it in an extensive booklet essay, including a section-by-section analysis of both works, in Mein Traum "Schubert tries to put into words what he seems far more able to say without words in his music."

Jacobs introduces each of the two completed movements of the "Unfinished" with the corresponding portion of Mein Traum, read in German by Tobias Moretti (the booklet includes an English translation). The first section of the narrative provides an arc something like the sonata-allegro form of the symphony's first movement. Schubert argues with his father and is expelled from the family home (exposition); Schubert hears of his mother's death and returns, his father allowing him to see his mother's corpse and attend her burial (development); another quarrel with the father leads to a second banishment (recapitulation). These events occurred around 1812, the year Schubert's mother died, apparently of typhus after a long life of child-bearing (Franz was the 12th of her 14 children). The "feast" and "garden" in Mein Traum, offered by the father and refused by Schubert, could be metaphors for Schubert's father's ultimately failed attempt to force his son to follow in his footsteps as a school master.

In the conclusion of Mein Traum, Schubert sees the tomb of a "pious virgin" and a circle of youths and old men around her. Jacobs suggests this could be Saint Cecilia, the martyr who became the patron saint of music, and the circle around her the devoted composers of her art. By a miracle he finds himself within the circle, experiencing the lovely sounds in it and feeling overwhelmed with bliss. He even finds himself reconciled with his father, perhaps by having succeeded as a composer. Schubert wrote this mysterious document on July 3, 1822, which happens to be 200 years ago this year. Believing, like Schering, that the symphony was intentionally left unfinished by Schubert, Jacobs does not record the fragments of the third movement. There is no way to verify if there is a connection between Mein Traum and the "Unfinished" Symphony, but this recording certainly opens a new window onto that enigmatic work.

6.8.22

Briefly Noted: Kafka-Fragments

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György Kurtág, Kafka-Fragmente, Anna Prohaska, Isabelle Faust

(released on August 19, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902359 | 58'06"
György Kurtág composed the Kafka-Fragmente from 1985 to 1987, a song cycle on bits of text gleaned from Franz Kafka's diaries, letters, and unpublished stories. Like much of Kurtág's music, each of the forty movements is a dense, carefully thought out nugget of music. The piece grabs the ear from the first moment: in this new recording, as violinist Isabelle Faust plods along on an oscillating major second, soprano Anna Prohaska first joins her ("the good march in step") and then spirals around her in disjointed staccato dissonance ("unaware of them, the others dance around them the dances of time").

Some movements have the chaotic feel of Sprechstimme, à la Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, while others are lushly melodic, such as the hypnotic "Berceuse I." The two performers are paired beautifully, both up to the virtuosic demands, extended techniques executed with perfect intonation. One of the longest movements, "Träumend hing die Blume" (The flower hung dreamily), is offered as an homage to Robert Schumann. Prohaska and Faust draw out its gorgeous lines beautifully, answered by the disconcerting shrieks of the movement that follows it, "Nichts dergleichen" (Nothing of the kind), which is embedded below.

Faust and Prohaska made this recording in May 2020 in a Berlin studio, which must have been surreal given the circumstances. Der wahre Weg, the longest piece in the set at almost seven minutes, is a drawn-out drone of sorts, addressed as an homage/message to Pierre Boulez. Its text, by chance, captures some of the sense of the lockdown year: "The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended not high up, but rather just above the ground. Its purpose seems to be more to make one stumble than to be walked on." The same goes for a text that appears twice in the cycle, as Fragments 11 and 25: "Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life." After living through the coronavirus lockdown, the sentiments of this complicated piece now strike me in new ways compared to previous years.

30.7.22

Briefly Noted: Carlos Simon Requiem

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Carlos Simon, Requiem for the Enslaved, Marco Pavé, MK Zulu, Hub New Music, Carlos Simon

(released on June 17, 2022)
Decca 00028948529421 | 44'53"
In 1838, the Jesuit priests in charge of what was then Georgetown College paid off that institution's debts. The money came from the sale of 272 enslaved persons, including children as young as two months old, who were sent on ships to plantations in Louisiana. In 2016, Georgetown University undertook a reckoning with this terrible event in its past. In an attempt to right a historical wrong, the university offered a free college education to all verified descendants of these enslaved people. Georgetown University was not the only Jesuit or Catholic institution in the area, founded before slavery was made illegal, to revisit this sordid part of their past, including Gonzaga College High School and Georgetown Visitation Convent.

As part of its plans aiming at restitution, Georgetown University commissioned this Requiem for the Enslaved from rising American composer Carlos Simon. It is one of many such new works being commissioned and premiered in the last few years, in the wake of widespread anti-racism protests across the country, including Damien Geter's An African American Requiem and Simon's own An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave. In this work, alternately reflective and militantly angry, Simon interweaves the structure and texts of the Catholic Requiem Mass with new texts by Memphis-based rapper Marco Pavé.

From the first movement, Simon and Pavé focus on the enslaved people sold "down the river" (that familiar saying has chilling origins), as their names are intoned over and over. Also at the beginning, a soft flute introduces the tune of "In paradisum," the Gregorian chant traditionally sung at the end of the Requiem Mass, to accompany the body of the deceased to the place of burial. MK Zulu's trumpet riffs on this ancient tune with bends and blue-note inflections, and through other movements the chant becomes a sort of motto for the whole piece. Later other melodies are introduced, including the hymn "Oh when the saints go marching in," which shares the same opening motif as the chant (do-mi-fa-sol), something that had never occurred to me before.

Simon mans the piano himself, with Hub New Music, a flute-clarinet-violin-cello quartet from Boston. Yet more tunes are woven into the tapestry, including the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in the movement "Light everlasting interlude." Pop riffs pierce the aura of solemnity at times, including the pulsing piano chords in "Interlude (Isaac ran away)," reminiscent of the Foreigner song "Cold as Ice," at least to my ears. The disc, on the short side in terms of timing, is rounded out with alternate versions of three movements, for piano and for chamber ensemble alone.

23.7.22

Briefly Noted: Mouton Mass and Motets (CD of the Month)

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Jean Mouton, Missa Faulte d'argent / Motets, Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice

(released on July 1, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68385 | 72'53"

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Jean Mouton, Missa Tu es Petrus / Motets, Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
(2012)
Jean Mouton (c. 1459-1522) is not unknown among early music ensembles, with a number of fine recordings out there by the Tallis Scholars, among others. He was prolific enough, however, that all but one of the pieces on this second disc of the composer's choral music from the Brabant Ensemble are receiving their first recordings. Mouton's style is intricately contrapuntal, drawing comparison to the music of Josquin Desprez, with whom he was roughly contemporary.

For example, the two six-voice motets included in this recording are both notated in a single source in the Vatican Library (MS Capp. Sist. 38), one after another, for the use of the papal choir. The first of them, Confitemini domino, combines four voices in points of imitation on the outer text, proper to Easter. These unfold over a clever puzzle canon that enters later, set to a text from the Te Deum ("Per singulos dies benedicimus te"). The canon is notated in a single voice with the inscription "Preibis parare viam meam" as the only clue to how to realize it. Like St. John the Baptist, who was to prepare the way for Christ, the comes voice (follower) is supposed to enter first, followed by the dux (leader), an unexpected inversion of the normal canon process.

The Brabant Ensemble, a mixed choir of just ten voices, recorded these beautiful tracks in April 2021 in the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex. (Three of the Ashby sisters, familiar from their work with Stile Antico, populate the upper two sections.) Their conductor, Stephen Rice, has made some unusual choices in the editing of the sources, as in the conclusion of the motet discussed above, where some musica ficta additions create clashing cross relations and lead to a final chord modified to major with a raised third. The music editions, by Mick Swithinbank with some revisions by Rice and Mouton scholar Thomas MacCracken (editor of the composer's complete works), are available online in some cases.

This Mass paraphrases material from Josquin's secular chanson Faulte d'argent, with its text complaining of poverty and the complications it creates for one's love life. As Rice notes in his expert booklet essay, we should not be shocked by this juxtaposition of sacred and secular: Jean Richafort even used material from this chanson for his six-part setting of the Requiem Mass. The texture is limited to four voices, but sections in two or three voices add variety throughout. As expected of Mouton, the contrapuntal complexity is dense, particularly in the extended Agnus dei.

16.7.22

Briefly Noted: Haydn Trios with Piano

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Haydn, Trios with Piano, Marc Hantaï, Alessandro Moccia, Alix Verzier, Jérôme Hantaï

(released on June 17, 2022)
Mirare MIR636D | 67'50"
The three Hantaï brothers were familiar to Washington listeners, although they have not appeared here in over a decade. Two of them, flutist Marc Hantaï and fortepianist Jérôme Hantaï, recorded this disc of Haydn keyboard trios in February 2020, just before the world shut down, at the Théâtre élisabéthain d’Hardelot. The four pieces selected came late in the composer's career, written between 1784 and 1790, near the time Haydn retired from the service of the Esterházy family.

Marc Hantaï takes the treble part for two of these trios. His charming, breathy sound on the transverse flute blends beautifully with the mellow fortepiano played by Jérôme Hantaï, the brother who plays viola da gamba as well as keyboard instruments. The third brother, Pierre Hantaï, is a harpsichordist, who could theoretically have made these pieces an entirely family affair. Instead Alix Verzier, a long-time member of Les Arts Florissants, takes the cello part.

Violinist Alessandro Moccia, the concertmaster of Philippe Herreweghe's Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, takes the treble part in the other two trios. The effect is not as sparkling, perhaps due to the less unusual timbre of the instrument or the musical content. In all four pieces, the keyboard is always the lead voice, which accords with the composer's occasional description of them as "piano sonatas." Jérôme Hantaï draws out a svelte, precise sound from the unspecified fortepiano.

9.7.22

Briefly Noted: Respighi Songs

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Crepuscolo (Ottorino Respighi, Songs), Timothy Fallon, Ammiel Bushakevitz

(released on June 3, 2022)
BIS 2632 | 74'04"
American tenor Timothy Fallon won the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition in 2013, paired with pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz. The duo released an album of Liszt songs together in 2017, which they have followed up with this diverting recital of rarely heard songs by Ottorino Respighi, both on the BIS label. This music, while certainly not unknown, is unfamiliar enough that listening to it was a delight. The performances are excellent as well, captured a year ago in a Munich studio.

Fallon's tenor has all the necessary qualities for this repertory - a floating lyrical quality (heard in "Nel giardino"), some heft on the top notes (as in the storm-tossed "In alto mare"), and a musical way with the text and expression of these often surprising songs. The album title, "Crepuscolo," comes from the last song of the opening set, Deità silvane (Woodland deities - sonnets by Antonio Rubino), where Bushakevitz's lively touch at the keyboard provides the caprine gambols of the titular "Fauni" in the first song and the sweetly clanging cymbals and flute in "Music in the Garden." Hints of Debussy and symbolism.

The selections range wide, beginning with three songs by the teenage Respighi, full of echoes of Verdi and Puccini. Respighi reveled in historical retrospection, featured by Gianandrea Noseda in his programming of the composer with the National Symphony Orchestra during his tenure. This program includes the five Canti all'antica, P. 71, with medieval poetry (by Giovanni Boccaccio, Andrea Falconieri, and Enzo of Sardinia) infused with aching suspensions, and for folk music flavor, the four Arie scozzesi, P. 143, Scots-English verse filtered through Italian romanticism. Fallon opts for a more English-leaning pronunciation of Robert Burns's My Heart's in the Highlands, which works with Respighi's charming melody.

2.7.22

Briefly Noted: Jean Rondeau's Goldberg Variations

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Jean Rondeau

(released on February 11, 2022)
Erato 190296508035 | 107'12"
By the time he was 30, French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau has made two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. "I will no doubt spend my life working on them," he admits in the minimal booklet for his second traversal, released earlier this year on the Erato label. In Rondeau's first version, recorded in a video for the Netherlands Bach Society in 2017, he played from a modern score, turning his own pages. That interpretation is the more straightforward of the two, with an emphasis on rhythmic regularity and the necessary technical acumen to make that happen. He played then on a modern harpsichord, a 2004 double-manual instrument built by Jonte Knif and Arno Pelto.

Rondeau used a 2006 double-manual instrument by the same makers in the new recording, based on German models, captured in the Paris church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours in April 2021. It has a fuller and more varied sound, brought to life with exacting precision by Rondeau's fingers. The second version is about ten minutes longer than the first, the result of a much less metronomic approach, for better or worse. Some of the tempi are much slower, and the introduction of rather mannered rubato, enough almost to induce seasickness, drags out many of the movements. For example, Variation XV is glacially paced, with an extended rallentando at the end to emphasize the upward scale trailing off into nothing, while Variation XXV is about two minutes longer because of the labored contemplation of every motif. Many of the movements start slowly and gradually reach a tempo, like a music-box cranking to life, a gesture that tires through repetition.

The best part of this interpretation is the sometimes extravagant ornamentation added to the repeats, all of which are taken in a rigorous observance of the score's indications. These embellishments are often quite striking, including right off the bat in the opening statement of the Aria. Rondeau apparently took into account an original printed edition, one marked and corrected by the composer himself. "Through delving into this precious musicological source," he writes, "I was able to make what I felt to be the most authentic choices." As he did in his first recording, Rondeau marks the end of Variation XV with a long silence, a way to draw attention to the bipartite division of the work, the second half of which opens with the Ouverture of Variation XVI.

The other subtle facet of this version is in the handling of the variations for two keyboards. Rondeau uses changes of registration and articulation to delineate the two hands, especially when they cross one another in range, often bringing out first one hand and then the other on the repeat. Variation XIV is a good example, where Rondeau even "removes" the written-out ornamentation at one point, playing one part of the repeated B section as a simple arpeggio, almost like a question mark. Rondeau cites the influence of the writings of reclusive French novelist Christian Bobin on his interpretation, although he does not specify how Bobin's Catholic mysticism relates to the way he plays. With this interpretation placed alongside his first recording, Rondeau has made a sort of diptych, a dual examination of Bach's score.

25.6.22

Briefly Noted: Supercharged Hahn Nostalgia

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Reynaldo Hahn, Le rossignol éperdu / Premières valses (selections), Pavel Kolesnikov

(released on June 3, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68383 | 71'24"
My ears are generally happy to discover more of the often overlooked music of French composer Reynaldo Hahn. That was true again in the case of this new disc from the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. The winner of the Honens International Piano Competition in 2012 has made selections from two of the composer's collections of miniatures, Le rossignol éperdu (53 poèmes pour piano) and Premières valses, with a half-dozen of the latter sandwiched between two groups from the former.

These salon pieces are visions fugitives par excellence, sepia-hued photographs of nostalgic etchings or watercolors from previous ages. The waltzes are the most sentimental evocations of Chopin and other Romantic composers, with other nods in the character pieces to the Renaissance ("Le jardin de Pétrarque" and " La fête de Terpsichore"), the Ancien Régime ("Les noces du duc de Joyeuse"), the Rococo ("Éros caché dans les bois"), and so on.

In a somewhat meandering booklet essay, Kolesnikov said that in order "to give this illusion of a powdery, old-fashioned sound," he made some unusual decisions for the sound of this recording. Working with piano technician Peter Salisbury, he plays on a Yamaha CFX concert grand "tuned in such a way as to maximize the extreme sensitivity of the keys, with closely positioned microphones." Loud passages clatter with a distracting amount of detail, but in soft passages -- the vast majority of the selections here -- one has the sense of being within a dampened cushion of sound. This heightens the feeling of daydreaming, making this disc a sleepy summer favorite for meditative listening.