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Briefly Noted: Josquin and Phrygian Pain

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Josquin Desprez, Missa Malheur me bat, Gli Angeli Genève, Stephan MacLeod

(released on September 22, 2023)
Aparté AP338 | 67'
One cannot have too many recordings of Josquin's cyclic Masses, at least not yet. The complete set by the Tallis Scholars remains hard to beat, but then along comes Gli Angeli Genève with this new release of a program centered on the elusive Renaissance composer's Missa Malheur me bat. The group, founded in 2005, is mostly known for Baroque repertoire, especially Bach. This turn to the High Renaissance was a bit of a surprise, at least to me. The group's director, bass Stephan MacLeod, anchors a group of nine singers. They sing mostly two on each of the four parts in most pieces, with baritone Frederik Sjollema swinging back and forth between tenor and bass.

The sound, recorded at the Eglise Saint-Germain in Geneva, is less aggressive than the Tallis Scholars, who recorded this Mass only about a decade ago: slightly smaller in number of voices, but also more intimate, more rarefied and refined. MacLeod uses one-on-a-part textures in interesting ways, as in building up to the climax with all nine singers in the long Miserere mei deus. This Mass is one of several based on the three-part chanson "Malheur me bat" (formerly attributed to Ockeghem, but now thought to be the work of a composer named Malcort), transcribed along with the Mass in the old Smijers edition of Josquin's music. (The chanson has not survived in any manuscript source with its complete text.)

In a booklet interview, MacLeod said that the appeal of this particular Mass setting was its mode, the Phyrgian (mode 3). Since the chronology of Josquin's music is almost impossible to establish with any certainty, the modality serves instead as programmatic theme, as all the motets placed between the movements of the Mass are in the same mode. With its distinctive half-step above the final, the Phrygian often served as a musical marker for lamentation, which it does in these motets and in the chanson on which the Mass is based, describing both sacred and secular grief: Douleur me bat, Nymphes des bois (for death of Ockeghem), Miserere mei deus, and Mille regretz (of which the attribution to Josquin is now challenged by scholars).

The only non-Phrygian piece is the final motet, Praeter rerum seriem, which follows the last movement of the Mass. (MacLeod's assertion that the text of this motet expresses doubt about the perpetual virginity of Mary is a misreading: no matter what it may mean for MacLeod's beliefs, the text is about wonder and mystery, not doubt.) Praeter rerum seriem is a hymn set in six parts: Josquin has the superius and the tenor answer one another on the original Gregorian melody. To point this out, the choir introduces the motet by singing a verse of the hymn melody by itself in this way, antiphonally back and forth, phrase by phrase, with the triple meter of the polyphony sped up.

The Mass is a compositional wonder, in four voices, but with some two-voice sections in the Sanctus, where the "Hosanna" is over 50 measures long, with interesting shifts of triple and duple and extremely dense textures. The amazing second statement of the Agnus dei, for alto and tenor, is an extended canon at the 2nd, of remarkable complexity. Josquin then outdoes himself in the third Agnus, expanding to six parts: both altus and bassus are split into two, doubled in close canon at the unison. MacLeod and his ensemble sing the piece at the pitch where it was notated (E), just as the Tallis Scholars did, and with women's voices on the superius part.

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Ionarts-at-Large: First-time @ Munich's Isarphilharmonie with the Munich Philharmonic

For Munich having been 'my beat' for so long, it felt shocking that I had not yet been at the new, provisional “Isarphilharmonie” concert hall (bound to be a permanent fixture) that was built on a dime (30-some million Euros, a wild bargain), opened two years ago, and that is being accepted, even loved, by audiences and musicians, and necessary, of course, because the Gasteig – the Munich Phil’s home and BRSO’s secondary venue (for the big-ticket composers) had been closed for renovation and revamping (bound never to take place).

This Wednesday, September 20th, the opportunity presented itself to see and hear the place, with the Munich Philharmonic giving the German premiere of a new piano concerto by Thierry Escaich [pronounced, more or less: “ɛz-kɛsh”] and Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony. Escaich’s Etudes symphoniques for piano and orchestra (co-commissioned by the MPhil and the Czech Phil) operates in the post-Messiaenesque, marginally-spectralist, color-as-composition realm that offers more beauty than structure (the fourth movement, notably titled “Toccata”, apart), and with the pill of contemporaneousness generously hidden at the center of an exotically flavored musical marshmallow. Dreamy, suggestive, rhythmic, colorful: All the boxes are checked. Impressionist here, pointillist there. Replete with classical cadenzas. The subscription audience that decidedly did not come for this piece – they were probably just happy to escape the Octoberfest going on outside – really could not complain.

Seon-Jin Cho (2015 Chopin Competition winner; reviews of Chopin and Mozart here and here), Dima Slobodeniouk, and the Munich Philharmonic navigated deftly though the deliciously inoffensive score. The music may not probe its own existential question of “why”, much less attempt to answer it: it just is. And it is enjoyable. There shouldn’t be a greater compliment… even if the work eventually forgets to be over and might be better if only it were a little tighter.

The same applies, let’s be honest, to the Rachmaninov. Had the scheduled conductor, Semyon Bychkov led the charge, it would probably have been loud. With the calmly leading Slobodeniouk conducting this high-caloric piece, it was sensitive but not saccharine in the first movement, and that movement’s finale not milked but laid out almost matter-of-factly. The Scherzo, which could have been written by Prokofiev on one of his ‘classical’ days, zipped by nicely, and for much of the Adagio, where Rachmaninov enters Tchaikovsky-mode (not for the last time), Slobodeniouk (you just know his nickname has got to be “Slobo” among his sauna-buddies back home) managed to transform sugar into energy and, yes, loudness. But you can’t underplay Rachmaninov all the time, lest it sound silly. The sweetly carnivalesque-pompous finale showed the orchestra in good form in every section and with every exposed instrument: clarinet, flute, first violin, etc. Even Slobodeniouk couldn’t make the work feel short – but his to-the-point conducting was surreptitiously impressive. No small feat, in a work that, especially uncut, meanders enough to make the Amazon green with envy.

The hall, meanwhile, disappeared in the best sense, offering a neutral, neither dry nor wet acoustic experience, with the sound mixing well in the first and second third of the stalls. No Yasuhisa Toyota hyper-transparency. The looks of the black wood panelling are simple but pleasing and the integration with the old industrial building that serves as the auditorium in front of it is very well done. Only filing out is tedious, with exits existing only to one side. But for now, I am more interesting in getting into the place than getting out again.

Pictures courtesy Munich Philharmonic, © Tobias Haase


Briefly Noted: More Schubert on Fortepiano

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Schubert, Impromptus, Op. 90 and Op. 142, Ronald Brautigam

(released on September 1, 2023)
BIS-2614 | 61'47"
Ronald Brautigam is one of this century's leading proponents of the fortepiano, noted in these pages for his traversals of the music of Beethoven and Mozart, among others. His new release is a set of Schubert's eight impromptus -- not including the three piano pieces of D. 946 once known, incorrectly, as impromptus -- recorded on a fortepiano built by Paul McNulty in 2007, modeled on a Conrad Graf instrument from around 1819.

Schubert never actually owned a piano, and his only opportunity to play the keyboard came in the homes of friends. The composer almost surely never heard the particular instrument imitated by McNulty: Graf's opus 318, located in a Czech castle. Ardent admirers of Graf's pianos in the early 19th century included Beethoven, Chopin, Robert and Clara Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Brahms, among others. What you hear on this recording is a likely approximation of the sound in Schubert's ears as he composed and played these arch-Romantic pieces.

Even though a Graf had a smaller sound than the later modern piano, because of its thin soundboard and smaller hammers, its fortes are still resonant, as in the middle section of Op. 90, no. 2, or Brautigam's devilish trills in Op. 142, no. 4. The pianoforte's advantage over earlier keyboard instruments was its range of soft sound: this Graf had four pedals, a sustaining pedal and una corda pedal like the modern piano, but with a moderator and even a double moderator as well. This device pushes a thin layer (or double-layer) of cloth between the strings and the hammers, and it was the pianoforte's "secret weapon," in the words of András Schiff, who once sneered at early keyboard revivalists before making his own Schubert recording on a reconstructed fortepiano. Hearing those soft effects helps one understand what Schubert had in mind when he wrote pianississimo.

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Briefly Noted: Pichon's 1610 Vespers (CD of the Month)

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Monteverdi, Vespro della beata vergine, Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon

(released on September 1, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902710.11 | xx'xx
Claudio Monteverdi is a favorite composer, and there is no piece of his greater in my estimation than the Vespro della beata vergine. The Vespers of 1610, as the piece is sometimes known, has been reviewed in these pages many times, both in recordings and live. In other words, it would take a lot for me to be surprised by a new recording of this piece, but that is precisely what conductor Raphaël Pichon and his ensemble, Pygmalion, have done in their newly released recording. The opening movement, in which Monteverdi interweaves his brilliant brass fanfare from Orfeo with the opening versicle of the Vespers service, is adorned with added brass riffs. Then, just when I thought that Pichon was going to omit the final statement of "Alleluia" from this compact section, his forces delivered it, after a long pause, with expansive delicacy.

Pichon's St. Matthew Passion was a CD of the Month last year, and this release is no less fulfilling a listen. An older version of the Vespro, led by Frieder Bernius, remains my favorite because it is presented liturgically, rounded out with exquisitely performed chant. Pichon's approach could not be more different: where Bernius favors reserve and propriety, Pygmalion goes for spectacle, with a big chorus on many numbers, clarion brass, and splashy surprises of sound.

Not surprisingly, Pichon says in his booklet interview that he feels that "the Vespro is the first cinematic work in the history of music. Monteverdi’s dramatic genius means that each psalm (and especially the first three) is presented as a genuine scene of dramatic action. He sets the scene, and makes us feel, visualise, even touch it!" This situates the work in that most dramatic of stylistic periods, the Baroque, the same era that created the genre of opera. The experience Pichon wants is "immersive," and it is: as he puts it, "to attend a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers is to experience ecstasy," in a way similar to a viewing of a room-filling work by Bernini.

Many elements will strike a listener familiar with the work as quite different. Pichon opts to eschew the "chiavette" system, by which the often high tessitura of some music of this period was transposed down by a fourth, as heard on many recordings. By not only adhering to the original keys, but also resorting to the high pitch standard of Italian tunings of the time (A set somewhere between 440 and 465 Hz), the singers add further virtuosic, one might say "operatic," intensity to many key climaxes.

Like most conductors, Pichon shuffles the order of numbers slightly in the work's final section. The most significant change is the interpolation of another piece by Monteverdi, Sancta Maria, succurre miseris (SV 328) from Promptuarium musicum, published in 1627, to serve as the "antiphon" to the Magnificat. (In his "liturgical" recording, Bernius added a chant antiphon with an almost identical text in this position.) The motet is followed by the litany-like Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, with which it shares intriguing melodic elements, as if the composer were alluding to one in the other. The concluding number is also a nod to cinematic style, as the Orfeo fanfare that opened the work returns, retrofitted to the closing formulas of Vespers.

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Briefly Noted: Hamelin Surveys Fauré

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Fauré, Nocturnes and Barcarolles / Dolly Suite, Marc-André Hamelin, Cathy Fuller

(released on September 1, 2023)
Hyperion CDA68331/2 | 163'40"
Marc-André Hamelin has made a name for himself by playing extremely difficult music with ease and musicality. The latest in the Canadian-born pianist's excellent series of deeply probing recitals of unusual music, all on the Hyperion label, is devoted to Gabriel Fauré, specifically to all thirteen of the French composer's Nocturnes and all thirteen of his Barcarolles. Hamelin played a few of these pieces during his most recent appearance in the area, last year on the Candlelight Concert Society's series. (He had just put this recording in the can the previous July and September, in London.)

Fauré apparently disdained programmatic titles, and the genre of nocturne and barcarolle were instead suggested by publishers: the composer's son Philippe famously joked that if left to his own devices, Fauré would have called every piano piece "Piano Piece No. so-and-so." Yet while the nocturnes are not all placid and nocturnal, the Barcarolles are set in the expected compound meter, like the Venetian gondolier songs for which the genre is named. Hamelin approaches these often melancholic, curious works with tasteful reserve, never overstating but leaving no question of technical mastery over them. The stylistic development of harmonic vocabulary and melodic fancy is fascinating to hear, from the first pieces composed in the late 1870s up to the last from 1921, shortly before Fauré's death.

Solidifying the qualifications of this double-CD set as the best to own is the addition of a lovely rendition of Fauré's Dolly Suite, with Hamelin's wife, Cathy Fuller, on the primo part. Fuller is a trained pianist who now works as a broadcaster, and she makes a lovely impression on the upper part, which Fauré intentionally made simpler, for the dedicatee, Regina-Hélène (nicknamed Dolly), the young daughter of his lover, Emma Bardac. (Emma eventually became Debussy's wife.) A perceptive booklet essay by Jessica Duchen, erstwhile blogger and author of an authoritative biography of Fauré (Phaidon Press, 2000), rounds out this most alluring new release.

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Anatol Ugorski, the Great Bewilderer: An Obituary

To say that Anatol Ugorski – born on September 28th, 1942 in Rubtsovsk – was not a favored artist in the Soviet Union is putting it mildly. Something about his character had always seemed to rankle the regime and those in its service. His piano teacher, once Anatol had received his formal training, pretty much left him to his own devices as regarded interpretative personality. (She did insist on Bach.) The talent of this quasi-autodidactic pianist showed early, however, and it couldn’t be quenched entirely: At the Fourth George Enescu International Piano Competition in Bucharest (in a very much Soviet-supervised Romania), he was awarded a Third Prize the year that Radu Lupu won the First. This might have given him a boost, but an early talent for squirreling-out – and performing – the standards of the Western avant-garde gave rise to early suspicions about his political reliability. (Which, in the Soviet Union, was tantamount to being considered morally defective.) He went on to prove the apparatchiks right as best he could by clapping so ostentatiously, demonstratively loud and hard, both hands flat against each other, after a 1967 performance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Pierre Boulez, that he was consequently ivory-blocked by the powers-that-be and from then on played to school children in the vast provinces of the Soviet hinterlands or at private soirées.

In this artistic vacuum, Anatol Ugorski was, to paraphrase Haydn, ‘forced to become original’. And “original” may be an understatement. To quote Jed Distler: “If Deutsche Gramophone thought they had the eccentricity market locked up with Ivo Pogorelich, they hadn’t reckoned with… Ugorski.” Two heaping spoons full of crazy (or inspired or insightful or revealing – which is exactly the question that surrounds his artistry) are most notable in the recording that ended up launching his spell with DG, his Diabelli Variations. These recordings made his name after fleeing post-communist Russia to Berlin – but the transition had been anything but smooth.

Broke and homeless, he resided in a refugee camp with his wife and pianist-daughter Dina in eastern Berlin for a while, before eventually upgrading to regular poverty and a tiny flat, living on the outskirts of town for nearly a year and – once again – on the outskirts of his profession. Dressed in ill-fitting hand-me-downs, Anatol Ugorski certainly made an impression wherever he went. There was something quintessential Soviet, even alien, about him. When he came into a small amount of money, he decided to invest it in a digital piano.

With a dear friend, he set out to go to a store in Berlin that sold such equipment. He wore a black rubber coat, way too large for him, but effectively warming his body and spirits. Looking like something a scarecrow would have glanced at askance, he entered the store, where the German sales staff descended on him at once and tried to shoo him back out of the store. Oblivious and undeterred, Ugorski, made a beeline to the most expensive e-piano model in the store, sat down to the silent gasps of a horrified staff, switched it on, and proceeded to play. Pictures at an Exhibition. The whole way through! It must have been his first performance in the West, technically, and afterwards, the audience, stunned into submission and having successively grown over the course of his playing, burst into loud applause. The episode sounds like an amplified scene that the filmmakers of “Shine”, about David Helfgott, would use a few years later. With the significant difference that, unlike Helfgott, who is a cultural phenomenon but decidedly not a proper pianist, Ugorski could really play!

“Could”, not “can”, because Anatol Ugorski, who passed away earlier today in Berlin> Lemgo, had spent the last four years – since his daughter Dina died of cancer – no longer playing. Instead, he spent his free time listening to music and living – together with his new, young pianist wife.

As a pianist, Ugorski zeroed in on the essence of a work as he, un-influenced by any performing tradition, perceived it – and then he exhumed exactly that essence out of the notes. When he recorded Beethoven’s last piano sonata, he slowed it down to a contemplative crawl – taking as much time for the variation movement alone as the aforementioned Pogorelich took for the whole sonata on his DG recording ten years earlier. The resulting gravitas befits the pathos that Thomas Mann ascribed to this work in his Dr. Faustus. To Ugorski’s great credit, the second movement – while it opens itself to reveal maximum fragrance – does not fall apart like a wilted rose dropping all its petals. His passive-aggressive pianissimos, a specialty of his were a tactical delight as they enforced close listening. Amid his musical finger-pointing with acutely slow tempi and punched-out notes, there was never a sense of any particular school of pianism audible. Just Ugorski for better or, arguably, worse. To what extent this approach succeeded in unveiling hitherto hidden musical details always depended very much on the listener’s subjective response. Those who responded to it never forgot a performance of his.

His name will live on, not the least in his perfectly uncontroversially great recordings of Scriabin and Messiaen. In the latter’s Catalogue d’oiseaux feathers are ruffled here, beaks beckon and claws clutch: The aviary is filled with trilling, thrilling sounds. Colors abound, as they do in and the piano concerto where he performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, whom Ugorsky had once applauded so much 30 years earlier, that it almost cost him his career.