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2.12.16

Paul Johnson “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 2 (Chamber Music, Concertos & Serenades)


Over on Forbes.com I have published a review of Paul Johnson’s “Mozart: A Life”. It is not a very good book. At all. In the least. But even the worst book about Mozart deserves a soundtrack and unfortunately “Mozart: A Life” does not give any suggestions for recordings that can bring the music to life for the reader (if it were up to me, this type of book would always include an online playlist with a few key works to whet the appetite). In some way I am trying to fill this gap with this list of suggested listening and suggested recordings. Because the discography is long, I split it in three.

“Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 1 | “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 3



A playlist on Spotify – assembled as best possible the shoddy metadata and limited album availability of Spotify allows – can be found here: Sound Advice: Paul Johnson Mozart Discography


The recommendations are sorted by genre, not by chronology of mention in the book. Some of the recommendations, to insert a teaser, you may find again in an upcoming post of the “Best 20 Mozart Recordings” on Forbes.com.


Dances, Divertimentos & Serenades



Writes Johnson: “The nocturne-serenade (K.239 ) has a double bass solo, the only one I can think of in Mozart’s œuvre, plus a pretty substantial

Paul Johnson “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 1 (Keyboard Sonatas, Chamber Music)


Over on Forbes.com I have published a review of Paul Johnson’s “Mozart: A Life”. A Travesty, unfortunately, with more mistakes per page than Florence Foster Jenkins’ Queen of the Night aria. But even the worst book about Mozart deserves a soundtrack and unfortunately “Mozart: A Life” does not give any suggestions for recordings that can bring the music to life for the reader (if it were up to me, this type of book would always include an online playlist with a few key works to whet the appetite). In some way I am trying to fill this gap with this list of suggested listening and suggested recordings. Because the discography is long, I split it in three.

“Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 2 | “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 3



A playlist on Spotify – assembled as best possible the shoddy metadata and limited album availability of Spotify allows – can be found here: Sound Advice: Paul Johnson Mozart Discography

The recommendations are sorted by genre, not by chronology of mention in the book. Some of the recommendations, to insert a teaser, you may find again in an upcoming post of the “Best 20 Mozart Recordings” on Forbes.com.


Piano Sonatas


Paul Johnson: “Mozart’s sonatas have suffered because his piano concertos are obviously more accomplished. Among the best earlier sonatas are K.284 (1775), yaddayaddayadda…, K.331 rambleramble. Among the best are the one in

23.11.16

CD Review: Couperin's Lessons


Tom Huizenga and Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Joyce DiDonato looks at war, peace and the Baroque
Washington Post, November 18

available at Amazon
F. Couperin, Leçons de Ténèbres, L. Crowe, E. Watts, La Nuova Musica, D. Bates

(released on September 9, 2016)
HMU 807659 | 70'32"
Lucy Crowe’s first solo disc in 2011, a selection of Handel arias recorded with Harry Bicket and the English Concert, was such a stunning debut that it’s surprising that the British soprano had not recorded another solo album until now, and it’s an equally sensuous recording. This time, the focus is on François Couperin’s “Trois Leçons de Ténèbres,” the first three of the nine musical readings from the Book of Lamentations for the end of Holy Week.

Couperin composed these glorious pieces for the nuns of the Abbaye Royale de Longchamp, a convent founded with the dowry of the sister of King Louis IX, Isabelle de France, who lived there until her death. This famous monastic house in the Bois de Boulogne, just outside Paris, was destroyed, like so many, during the French Revolution. A racetrack now occupies the site.

Crowe is outstanding in this expressive music, especially as the soloist in the first lesson. Her top range is limpid, free of all strain and perfectly suited to the needs of the music. Breath support is effortless. Take, for instance, the melismatic extension of the final note of the first little section, which encapsulates the appeal of her voice in a mere 40 seconds.

In the opening “Aleph,” the first of the exotic vocalizes that accompany the text’s initial letters in Hebrew, preserved in the Latin translation, long melodic arcs swell delicately toward dissonance and then realign with the harmony in ornamented resolutions. The accompaniment is a pale watercolor wash underneath Crowe, provided by Jonathan Rees on viola da gamba, Alex McCartney on theorbo and David Bates on delicately registered organ.

Elizabeth Watts, the soloist in the second lesson, has a more full-bodied voice that carries some excessive weight toward the top and sometimes overpowers the accompanying forces. Although less pleasing on its own, her voice pushes and pulls in beautiful ways against Crowe’s lighter sound in the third Couperin lesson.

Two of Sébastien de Brossard’s trio sonatas are a pretty lagniappe, with two violins playing the same intertwining roles as the two sopranos in the “Leçons.” They complement La Nuova Musica’s performance of Brossard’s chromatically infused setting of the “Stabat Mater,” although in this piece the solos, by members of the chorus, vary in quality.
PREVIOUSLY:
Charles T. Downey, Briefly Noted: Lucy Crowe's Handel (Ionarts, August 29, 2012)

12.11.16

CD Review: Jerusalem Quartet's Bartók


Patrick Rucker and Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Bartók by heart, for the heart
Washington Post, November 11

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets 2/4/6, Jerusalem Quartet

(released on November 4, 2016)
HMC902235 | 78'51"
Béla Bartók’s six string quartets are a cross-section of his musical development. Over 30 years, 1909 to 1939, the Hungarian composer can be heard working his way through the musical trends of the first half of the 20th century. A late Romantic in the mold of Liszt and Wagner, Bartók became a modernist through his study both of pre-tonal folk music from Hungary and other countries, and of post-tonal incorporation of dissonance.

The gold standard for the Bartók quartets up to this point, live and in two versions on disc, has been the Takács Quartet, which gave an exemplary performance of the entire cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2014. The Jerusalem Quartet excels in 20th-century repertoire, including its fine partial traversal of the Shostakovich quartets. To judge from the first disc of its new recorded Bartók set, with the even-numbered quartets, the group’s account will not displace the Takács but promises to be in its league.

The second quartet receives the most convincing rendition, especially the dizzying fluidity in the dancing rhythms of Arabian folk dance in the second movement. One of the first movement’s principal motifs, outlining a minor third in stepwise motion, receives just the right caressing attention from all four players.

The success of the fourth quartet rests on the gently creeping night music of the slow movement, the centerpiece of five movements written in palindromic form (a Bartók signature). The Jerusalem Quartet does not captivate with an eclectic variety of sound like the Takács, and the conclusion of the fifth movement feels too polite to be bloodthirsty. On the other hand, the quartet creates a fun interplay of Stravinsky-esque metric shifts and off-beat accents in the first movement. The inner movements are the most delightful — a restless, questing Prestissimo in the second movement, with mutes on, and an astounding variety of plucked sounds in the fourth movement.

No. 6 is a piece steeped in sadness, composed just before Bartók was compelled to flee Europe for an unhappy few final years in New York. Laments (marked Mesto) open each movement and become the central subject of the finale. The solos that permeate the work are all polished, perhaps too polished. One misses the quirky individualism of the Takács Quartet’s approach.

11.11.16

Runnicles leads French music with the NSO

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

On Thursday evening, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, visiting British conductor Donald Runnicles led the National Symphony Orchestra and the University of Maryland Concert Choir in performances of the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Duruflé. It was a delectable French-flavored evening before a very sparse audience.

The first half of the concert was dedicated to Debussy. It may be helpful to recall its genesis. Erik Satie wrote, “I explained to Debussy that a Frenchman had to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure, which wasn’t the answer to our national aspirations. I also pointed out that I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but that we should have a music of our own — if possible, without any sauerkraut.” Ingeniously, Satie suggested that the way out for French music was French painting. Why not look to “the means that Claude Monet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others had made known? Why could we not transpose these means into music?” It is a measure of French musical genius that it was able to do so, as so brilliantly exemplified in the works of Debussy.

The concert began with four of Debussy’s piano Préludes, arranged for orchestra by English composer Colin Matthews. Matthews is no stranger to this kind of thing as he, along with his brother David, assisted Deryck Cooke in Cooke’s revised performing version of Gustav Mahler’s 10th Symphony. While I am an avid fan of David Matthews’ music, I cannot say the same for what little of Colin Matthews’ music I have heard. Regardless, his Debussy orchestrations reveal a very fine ear for color and are so well done that they sound completely natural to the music. But does it still sound like Debussy? Whether you think so or not makes the music nonetheless enjoyable, particularly in the NSO’s subtle, mellow, finely articulated performances.

In Debussy’s Three Nocturnes, his inspiration may not have been so much French painting, as it was the American paintings of James McNeill Whistler. In any case, Runnicles' finely shaded, diaphanous traversal of them also earned the same adjectives applied to the performances of the Préludes. Debussy’s Nuages (Clouds) floated by in an appropriately delicious, dreamy way, capturing “the slow motion of the clouds,” just as Fêtes was suitably bracing and festive. Orchestra and chorus were quite excellent in elucidating a broad range of dynamic range in Sirènes, from the lapping of the waves, to the first gentle and then strengthening wordless song of the Sirens.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem from 1947 originated in a suite of organ pieces based on plainsong from the Mass for the Dead. When he received a commission from Durand Publishers, he expanded them into the Requiem. The Requiem is listed as Op. 9, which would normally indicate an early work. In his lifetime, however, the meticulous Duruflé was to publish only a dozen works, mostly for organ. The Requiem is the chef d’oeuvre of his maturity. Add to plainchant the sensuous harmonies of Debussy and Ravel, which Duruflé had learned so well, and you have a mesmerizing combination, simultaneously modern and archaic. As Duruflé wrote, “In general, I have attempted to penetrate to the essence of Gregorian style and have tried to reconcile, as far as possible, the very flexible Gregorian rhythms as established by the Benedictines of Solesmes with the exigencies of modern notation.”

The Requiem opens very dreamily. Gentle orchestral undulations underlie the smoothly flowing plainchant of the Introit. Runnicles took this rather too briskly. The cushion of sound was invitingly there, but not the leisure to lie upon it. If we are dying, what’s the rush? I know Duruflé makes death relatively attractive but this displayed too much alacrity. There was certainly nothing imploring about the Kyrie, but Runnicles effectively conveyed its sense of celebration as in mercy received. In the Offertorium, one glimpses the inferno from which the soul has been saved. Dissonances depict the “punishments of hell,” but even the request for deliverance from them is almost triumphant. The vigor with which Runnicles approached this scene guaranteed an effective rescue from the “lion’s mouth.” Baritone Christian Bowers was fine at the Hostias et preces tibi, but not notably expressive.

The Sanctus slowly builds with cushioned strings to a triple-forte climax at “Hosanna in excelsis,” then subsides peacefully back into the rippling moto perpetuo with which it began. This was very well done. The Pie Jesu is a very poignant, gentle supplication, the point of repose at the heart of the work. It was delivered with both strength and nuance by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, with a fine supporting contribution from cellist David Hardy. The Agnus Dei restores a sense of motion and confidence that the “requiem sempiternam” has been granted. Lux Aeterna evokes what the eternal rest might be like, and In Paradisum represents the trip there, what Duruflé called “the ultimate answer of Faith to all the questions, by the flight of the soul to Paradise.”

In the first part of the Requiem’s performance, I was given to wonder if Runnicles simply considered it another exquisitely beautiful piece of music, much like the Debussy, because of what I detected as the missing ardency of faith, the core of what Duruflé was trying to express. That impression, along with my reservations concerning the pace that he was taking early on, completely vanished from the Lux Aeterna onwards.

Anyone with a taste for secular or religious Impressionism, should enjoy this French feast.

This program repeats tonight and tomorrow.

8.11.16

Forbes Classical CD of the Week



&



…Johann Friedrich Fasch was in line for a major renaissance in the early 20th century, when enthusiasts worldwide worked toward a better appreciation of his genius. Unfortunately, history steamrolled over the First International Union of Faschists*. (My apologies. In a Sunday cartoon, you’d call that the ‘throw-away joke’.) What’s true, though, …

-> Classical CD of the Week: Fasch, A Classical Misunderstanding

6.11.16

Dip Your Ears, No. 215 (A Grand Steinway Romance)


available at Amazon

A Grand Romance,
Jeffrey Biegel
(Steinway)

From the most aggressively self-promoting, social-media-mongering pianist since the invention of the internet comes this cornucopia of musical miniatures and technical dazzlers from the likes of Moszkowski, Henselt, and Rubinstein. (It is a disc purporting to “[celebrate] the intimacy of the relationship between pianist and public, wiht a sampling of finely honed pieces of the Romantic era.”) If you’ve ever as much as published an Amazon review, nothing shy of a restraining order will spare you the sycophantic flattery of Jeffrey Biegel.

Annoying, needy, and desperate as it is, it would only be poetic justice of the finest kind if he was the absolute pits as a pianist. He disappoints even on that count, because he’s actually quite gifted and so it is with decidedly begrudging emotion that I’ve taken great pleasure in this medley of piano-bonbons. I can’t believe I’m reading myself write this, but compared with the usually wonderful Jenny Lin’s similar-ish (“get happy”) bag of assorted goodies, “A Grand Romance” is the musically far more pleasing and sophisticated venture, without interpretative blemishes and full of surprises.