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


Dip Your Ears, No. 238 (Franz Schmidt Rarities and Delights)

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Franz Schmidt, Variations on a Hussar’s Song, Piano Concerto, Chaconne
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Alexander Rumpf, Jasminka Stančul (piano)

Franz Schmidt is one of those “Surprised by Beauty” romantics of the 20th century whose (re-)discovery is still ongoing. Latest exhibit: This CD, unearthing a world-premiere in the form of the Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra. Anyone familiar with Schmidt’s opera Notre Dame might think he pilfered the opera for this 20-minute, one-movement work. Au contraire, the Fantasy came first. What a humdinger! We may no longer know the once truly popular, famous tunes, but we can readily appreciate how they were popular in a Vienna where the cab drivers hummed operetta arias. Coupled with the nearly-as romantic Hussar’s Variations and the Chaconne (Schmidt’s orchestration of his own organ work), this is a perfect, quite well performed addition to the Schmidt-catalog and any romantic music lover’s library. The last hint of orchestral sheen is missing, but unless Manfred Honeck records this repertoire with the Vienna or Pittsburgh bands, you’re bound not to get any better any time soon. (You might remember Welser-Möst's fine recording of the Variations, coupled with the Fourth Symphony, but it obvioulsy lacks the Concerto and also the Chaconne and it's since been allowed to go out of print.)


Briefly Noted: Gerhardt's Bach

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J. S. Bach, Solo Cello Suites, A. Gerhardt

(released on March 29, 2019)
Hyperion CDA68261 | 129'06"
Alban Gerhardt's older recording of a Bach solo cello suite -- No. 5, released on the Oehms label -- seemed not quite ripe, as if the German cellist was forcing Bach's hand a bit. So it was surprising to be much more impressed by his live performance of the same suite at the Phillips Collection earlier this year. Gerhardt's complete set of the suites, released a few weeks later, is further witness to his far more satisfying approach to these seminal works.

Gerhardt plays on a 1710 Matteo Goffriller cello, an instrument with an especially pleasing dark, chicory tone on the low strings. That characteristic is important in many of the suites (especially the ones in C major and C minor), where notes on those low strings form a harmonic foundation something like the sound of the viola da gamba. It is difficult to make all six of the suites sound equally convincing on a single instrument because it is likely that Bach, in typically encyclopedic fashion, had more than one type in mind.

Most explicitly in that regard, the sixth suite was intended for an instrument with five strings, most likely something like the violoncello piccolo, a small version of the cello that had an extra high melodic string. Gerhardt's intonation at the top of the A string, where so much of this suite lies, is sure and the tone clean and sweet, even in lively detached articulations. He writes in his booklet note of controlling vibrato in these pieces, and that effort makes the phrasing refined and transparent. Most pleasing is the rhythmic approach, retaining the metered feel of dances without a slavish opposition to any rubato, as in the jaunty gavottes of the sixth suite, the homespun drones sort of like a sea chanty.


Dip Your Ears, No. 237 (A Stickler for Clapping Along - Steve Reich)

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Steve Reich,
Sextet, Music for Pieces of Wood, Clapping Music
London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble (hands)
(LSO Live)

Typical contemporary music recital: Only two or three people in the crowd, but before the chaps with wooden blocks even begin to bang them together (twelve rhythmically shifting minutes long), they applaud the performers for another three or four minutes. Oh, wait, it’s just Steve Reich’s Clapping Music preceding Music for Pieces of Wood. Mhwak-mhwak: My apologies. Minimalism is such a ripe target for gentle mocking that any attempt to do so will automatically trigger a trope-alert. It’s especially unwarranted with Steve Reich, who, miraculously, manages to be—to my ears at least—the purest of the famous minimalists but also the one least prone to becoming his own cliché. The LSO Percussion Ensemble does a splendid job with this music—which may not be very obvious in isolation but becomes notable when this recording turns out catchier and more incisive than master-percussionist’s Colin Currie recent Reich album (“Live at Foundation Louis Vuitton”) which has Music for Pieces of Wood and Clapping Music in common with this one. Especially Clapping Music is telling: Although both accounts are live, one sounds like a perfectionist recording of a composer’s point (LSO) – the other like a get-together of hippies indulging in a musico-intellectual fancy. Also available on Vinyl.


On ClassicsToday: David Fray's Multiple-Keyboard Bach Concertos

White Nougat: David Fray In Bach’s Multiple-Keyboard Concertos

by Jens F. Laurson
When Evgeni Koroliov & Co’s recording with the six multiple-keyboard concertos of Bach, performed on modern instruments, came out earlier this year, it became the immediate reference version. Not because it is the only complete such set, convenient though that is, but because of the... Continue Reading


Briefly Noted: Coronation Music (CD of the Month)

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An English Coronation, 1902-1953, Gabrieli Consort, Roar, and Players, Chetham's Symphonic Brass Ensemble, S. R. Beale, R. Pierce, M. Martin, E. Slorach, P. McCreesh

(released on May 3, 2019)
Signum Classics SIGCD569 | 159'21"
From this American's perspective, the only thing to be regretted about the final demise of monarchy would be the ceremonial and music associated with it. Paul McCreesh has put together this 2-CD collection of the best music composed for the coronation of English rulers, following up on a similar compilation of music for the coronation of the Doge in Venice, recorded in two slightly different versions. With forces ranging from intimate to vast, he has recorded music from Gregorian chant to Tallis and Byrd to William Walton and David Matthews in the resonant acoustic of Ely Cathedral and two smaller churches. All of the music is drawn from the coronations of Edward VII (1902), George V (1911), George VI (1937), and Elizabeth II (1953).

The pieces range from expected favorites like Parry's I Was Glad, Handel's explosive Zadok the Priest, and Walton's Coronation Te Deum to less expected discoveries. McCreesh expands his main ensemble with the Gabrieli Roar, a partnership with a number of youth choirs, which adds voice to his projects and gives young singers training. The pieces with mass numbers of singers gain in vigor and excitement what they lose just slightly in refinement. The instrumental works include regal marches and heraldic brass fanfares. Much here to make Anglophiles and royal nostalgists rejoice.


Dip Your Ears, No. 236 (The Diaphanous Elegance of English Baroque)

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H.Purcell, M.Locke,
Orchestral Works
Vox Orhcestra, Lornezo Ghirlanda

On this most recent disc of the youngish Vox Orchesta under Lorenzo Ghirlanda, two of the finest pre-Haendelian English baroque composers are combined in some of their ‘greatest orchestral hits’: Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and Matthew Locke (1621-1677). What they have in common is a very fine, very ingratiating, never dry, never blatant or gaudy style of early baroque. As the booklet rightly points out, the English – long before Bach – combined European baroque styles to their own end: Operatic-Italian baroque with Courtly French dance, shearing the music of any excess in the process. The result, rather than faceless international baroque, is actually an appreciable, ‘very British’ style of its own. The orchestral collections from Purcell’s King Arthur, Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen und Locke’s The Tempest (replete with a few orchestrated arias) give the impression of a bracing collection of free-wheeling de-facto dance suites. The instrumentalists and especially the rocking continuo group of the HIP Vox Orchestra, founded by band leader Lorenzo Ghirlanda in 2015, makes you chair-dance all along. All properly measured, of course – the composers are English, after all – but most decidedly delightful!


On ClassicsToday: Wilhelm Kempff's Schubert, neither Titanic nor Teutonic

Kempff’s Schubert in Blu-ray Pure Audio: A Reference Revisited

by Jens F. Laurson
Schubert—almost as much as Beethoven—had been a staple of pianist Wilhelm Kempff’s repertoire from the beginning to the end of his career, including his final public recital where he played (apart from Beethoven, of course) Schubert’s Sonata D. 845. And if his set of Schubert... Continue Reading [Insider content]


On ClassicsToday: Vienna Philharmonic' Mahler's 8th at the Konzerthaus

Vienna Aroused: Mahler’s Eighth Still Does the Trick

May 12, 2019 by Jens F. Laurson
Vienna, May 11, 2019; Vienna Konzerthaus—Even in times of inflationary Mahler performances, a Mahler Eighth is something special. It was notable from the moment you set foot into the Vienna Konzerthaus on this past Saturday afternoon. The mood was different. A little tense, a little hushed in anti...  Continue Reading

See also:

106 Years Mahler Eighth: The Best Recordings (Forbes)
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.8 (Part 1)
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.8 (Part 2)
Alles Vergängliche: Ozawa's Mahler Eighth


Briefly Noted: Stanford Commemorates World War I

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C.V. Stanford, Mass 'Via victrix' / At the Abbey Gate, K. Howarth, J. Dandy, R. Bowen, G. Brynmor John, BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, A. Partington

(released on May 3, 2019)
Lyrita SRCD382 | 79'58"
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is probably familiar mostly to choir singers, for his Latin motets and Anglican anthems and Evening Prayer services. The long-time director of the London Bach Choir, he knew how to wrote for a chorus. It turns out that the Irish composer also wrote seven symphonies, ten operas, and a pile of other music. This charming disc contains the first recordings of two of his late works for choir, soloists, and orchestra: the Mass 'Via victrix', setting of the Latin Ordinary composed in 1919 to commemorate the Allied victory in World War I, and the cantata At the Abbey Gate from 1920.

The Mass uses the full range of sounds from the four soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Stanford emphasizes resonant parts of the Latin text, returning to the words "et in terra pax" at the end of the Gloria and dwelling triumphantly on the final words of the Agnus Dei movement, "dona nobis pacem." Adrian Partington's forces, the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, respond with sensitivity and strength, impressive for a live performance in the recording of the Mass. The cantata is also connected to the commemoration of the Great War, set to a poem published in the wake of the entombment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

À mon chevet: Becoming

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

book cover
Over the course of the summer, the firm organized a series of events and outings for its associates, sending around sign-up sheets for anyone who wanted to go. One was a weeknight performance of Les Misérables at a theater not far from the office. I put us on the list for two tickets [...].

We sat side by side in the theater, both of us worn out after a long day of work. The curtain went up and the singing began, giving us a gray, gloomy version of Paris. I don't know if it was my mood or whether it was just Les Misérables itself, but I spent the next hour feeling helplessly pounded by French misery. Grunts and chains. Poverty and rape. Injustice and oppression. Millions of people around the world had fallen in love with this musical, but I squirmed in my seat, trying to rise above the inexplicable torment I felt every time the melody repeated.

When the lights went up for intermission, I stole at glance at Barack. He was slumped down, with his right elbow on the armrest and index finger resting on his forehead, his expression unreadable.

"What'd you think?" I said.

He gave me a sideways look. "Horrible, right?" I laughed, relieved that he felt the same way. Barack sat up in his seat. "What if we got out of here?" he said. "We could just leave."

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't bolt. I wasn't that sort of person. I cared too much what the other lawyers thought of me -- what they'd think if they spotted our empty seats. I cared too much, in general, about finishing what I'd started, about seeing every last little thing through to the absolute heart-stopping end, even if it was an overwrought Broadway musical on an otherwise beautiful Wednesday night. This, unfortunately, was the box checker in me. I endured misery for the sake of appearances. But now, it seemed, I'd joined up with someone who did not.

Avoiding everyone we knew from work -- the other advisers and their summer associates bubbling effusively in the lobby -- we slipped out of the theater and into a balmy evening. The last light was draining from a purple sky. I exhaled, my relief so palpable that it caused Barack to laugh.

"Where are we going now?" I asked.

"How 'bout we grab a drink?"

-- Michelle Obama, Becoming, pp. 103-105
Many friends have recommended this memoir to me, and it is a delightful read. Music was an important part of the future First Lady's background, from piano lessons with her mother's aunt, the daunting Robbie, to the love of jazz she inherited from her maternal grandfather, whom they called Southside. Mrs. Obama remembers fondly how her grandfather gave her her first record and designated a shelf where she could keep her favorite records to play when she went to his house. "If I was hungry," she writes, "he'd make me a milk shake or fry us a whole chicken while we listened to Aretha or Miles or Billie. To me, Southside was as big as heaven. And heaven, as I envisioned it, had to be a place full of jazz."

Of all the musical episodes in the book, though, my favorite is the one quoted above, where Michelle, at the start of a budding romance with an oddly named junior colleague at her law firm, walks out of a performance of the musical Les Misérables. Now that is good taste.


Dip Your Ears, No. 235 (A Very Classical Mix: Concilium Musicum Wien)

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J.M.Haydn, W.A.Mozart, J.Haydn, Sy.#39, Cto. for Basset Clarinet K622, Sy.#101 (“The Clock”)
Ernst Schlader (basset clarinet), Concilium musicum Wien, Paul Angerer

Haydn’s younger brother of Michael was no less an influence on Mozart than Joseph; their symphonies could be and were (K444!) mistaken for each other’s. Eventually Wolfgang Amadeus surpassed Michael. The latter’s Symphony in C can’t match the memorableness of Mozart’s contemporary Symphony in C (“Jupiter”), but you can certainly hear what Mozart got inspired by, and why. Mozart’s basset clarinet concerto in Christoph Angerer’s superb (live) performance reconfirms that using the intended instrument pushes the concerto beyond perfect beauty towards touching profundity. Pride of place of this classical recital belongs to a rollicking, flawlessness performance of Haydn’s Symphony No.101, tick-tock0ing away as spirited as it ought to be.


Briefly Noted: Mr. Handel's Dinner

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Handel (et al.), Concertos, Sonatas, Chaconnes, M. Steger, La Cetra Barockorchester Basel

(released on May 17, 2019)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902607 | 76'31"
The last time recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger was in the area, he played with Les Violons du Roy in a blockbuster concert at Shriver Hall. The concept of his new album is to recreate the free-wheeling virtuosity of the pieces Handel led from the organ during his oratorios. The latter, rather than the often somber performances they receive these days, were usually given in a secular, even theatrical setting, with Handel dazzling the crowd at intermission with his own concertos or those of others adapted for his use.

Accordingly, many of these pieces are arranged and adapted by Steger as star vehicles for himself. The disc opens boldly with Handel's Concerto in F Major, which the composer adapted from his own recorder concerto for himself to play at the organ. Steger has mingled the two versions, often bringing out the recorder part from its embedded place in the organ version, even adding a striking improvisation in between movements, as Handel often did on these occasions. Steger entertains with dizzying finger precision and surprising embellishments, especially in Geminiani's Concerto Grosso in E Major, made after Corelli's Sonata, Op. 5, No. 11, and here arranged for alto recorder.

Steger plays on six different flutes, from a breathy tenor recorder in a Ground in D Minor by Gottfried Finger up to the fife-like "sixth flute," or high soprano recorder, in William Babell's Concerto for Sixth Flute and Four Violins. The "voice flute" has an especially pleasing turn in Handel's Trio Sonata in C Minor, especially in dialogue with the harp in the Andante movement. Other pieces feature the pleasing ensemble sound of La Cetra, the Baroque orchestra from Basel, particularly the suite of pieces from Handel's Almira, where the theorbo fills out the continuo part of the Sarabande movement with rich melodic fancy.


On ClassicsToday: Neave Trio Does Astor Piazzolla Proud

Neave Trio Does Astor Piazzolla Proud

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

The ungainly stiff shrink-wrap. The cheap jewel case. The cluttered Word-Press-level design job on the booklet. The unprofessional and unflattering picture: All these hallmarks of a vanity production (or at least an amateurish one) bode ill for this release. In happy contrast, the music-making of the Neave Piano Trio performing arrangements of works by Astor Piazzolla is top-notch. Of prejudice-shattering quality, indeed... Continue reading [Insider Content]


Dip Your Ears, No. 234 (Gergiev's Early Bruckner Maturing)

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A.Bruckner, Symphony No.1
Valery Gergiev, Munich Philharmonic
MPhil 0008

Gergiev on ionarts
Munich Phil on ionarts
A.Bruckner on ionarts
When Valery Gergiev came to Munich as the new music director of the Philharmonic, he mentioned that he intended to conduct a lot of Bruckner. He might even have been explicit about it; if not it was the subtext: namely that he was going to use this opportunity to learn from the Munich Philharmonic and its nearly century-old Bruckner expertise. Good for Gergiev, a conductor with a steep learning curve, ready to adopt just about any idiom to within reasonable proficiency in just a few years. Not so good for Munich audiences, which were going to have to go through the growing pains of this process, and which now had three conductors without a real feel for (or interest in) Bruckner: Mariss Jansons, who for all the usual hype, is decidedly ill at ease with Bruckner. Kirill Petrenko, who hasn’t turned his attention to Bruckner yet – although if he does before he will be replaced by Vladimir Jurowski (also not a Brucknerian) one might reasonably expect magic. And Gergiev. Consider that, after decades of the likes of Jochum, Kubelik, Sawallisch, Celibidache and Thielemann in town.

The good news is that – like his Wagner and Mahler, which started leaving much to be desired and ended getting ever better – Gergiev’s Bruckner is also getting ever better. By the time he started his tenure with the Philharmonic with a Bruckner 7th, it was already well executed Bruckner, neither celebratory but certainly not butchered. Judging from subsequent performances and recordings, his initial tendency for garish colors, superficial structure, and loudness (not just in Bruckner) seems more under control and the ‘Brucknerish’ clerical ammunition isn’t all spent after by the end of the first movement. And now Gergiev is performing and recording a whole cycle of the Bruckner symphonies with the Munich Philharmonic at ‘Bruckner’s’ church in St. Florian which, shockingly, will be the orchestra’s first such complete cycle.

This 2017 recording of the First Symphony’s Linz version is part of that St. Florian cycle and much of the improvement shows: intermediate climaxes don’t tread on the larger structure anymore and the sections of the orchestra enter with greater precision… which isn’t that easy in the tubby atmosphere of the St. Florian Abbey Church. Acoustically the place is, frankly, a terrible place to listen to Bruckner (lest you sit up front), even if the total experience – soaking in the atmosphere and the local beer – is always special. And if the microphones are placed just right, one can catch the performances very decently. The result is slightly diffuse and brawny, with Bruckner’s First sounding more like Weber than Schubert, but there’s something to be said for giving this symphony heft and not making it sound undernourished. The tempi here make slight allowances to the acoustic in the outer movements but Gergiev doesn’t make that an excuse to slow down the Adagio any further – and ends up with a nicely flowing account thereof.

This may not be decidedly great Bruckner (Skrowaczewski, Jochum and Sawallisch are closer to that, in the First), but it’s good Bruckner by a great Bruckner orchestra and a good deal better than the uninvolving and brash Fourth from the same forces released a few years earlier.