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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Hilliard Ensemble, Transeamus: English Carols and Motets

"There is no rose of such virtue..." so the old Christmas carol goes. But roses, in our contemporary world anyway, are destined, like us all, to cease to be some day. And sad to say, the same thing is true of musical congregations. Transeamus: English Carols and Motets (ECM New Series 2408481 1106) will be the last album of the Hilliard Ensemble on ECM. They are retiring. They have graced our ears with early vocal music for decades and done some wonderful work in the contemporary vein, too. They have been a superb exponent of vocal color and nuance, one of the guiding lights of early music performance practices today. So we have one last album, of 15th century two- and three-part polyphony for Christmastide and on other related sacred subjects. For us they have been a blossoming, a rose if you will, and the season of the full flowering is passing, at least as an ensemble.

We take solace in this beautiful album. Certain music has the power to bring back a past long-gone. To me that certainly is true of early music for Christmas (and for that matter, a great Jewish Cantor performing music of an earlier age). It connects us with a past that humanity lived through. We feel a commonality with them, for we live, too.

The program is a good one, with music both familiar and less so, "There is No Rose" along with "Clangat Tuba" both by an anonymous composer. There are others by unknown hands, plus those by John Plummer, Walter Lambe, William Cornysh and Sheryngham.

Throughout it all there is the Hilliard Ensemble, a small vocal group who realizes polyphonic vocal music with a sweetness and light that make them inimitable. They sound great as usual on Transeamus, which aptly translates as "we travel on". And so we do, all of us, headed from here to where we will.

A singular album this is, in the simple small ensemble format but with a richness of timbre and recorded sound that stays in your ears long after the music has ended. May it never end.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

John Luther Adams, Become Ocean

Something that won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014 you tend to handle with kid gloves. But then you must listen anyway and forget all about that. Such is the case with John Luther Adams' major orchestral work Beyond Ocean (Cantaloupe Music 21101 CD and DVD). The Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot have the performance for us here, and they give us a very atmospheric reading that seems just right.

It is a sprawling work, a long, sustained representation of the primordial ocean. The ebb and flow of the music is like a series of waves in ultra slow motion. Very long, tonally chordal note combinations cluster and flow in the music. There is a central, slowly ascending motive in the strings that reappears from time to time. It is music that is ever-changing from within, yet somehow ever the same. There are arpeggiated figures on the piano, mallets, harp and other instruments that merge with the long tones and do not as a result stand out as minimalist in design. This is more akin to the sort of Radical Tonality that we have heard in many examples on Cold Blue records (do a search for those) only this is for a seemingly large orchestra and goes on for quite some time.

It is mystical, haunting, filled with epic sea-as-cosmos audio that will put you in a very different place.

The CD has great sound; the DVD gives you the 5:1 surround option and gently fades a series of beautiful sky-ocean images that repeat throughout the performance.

Description in words only takes you so far with this music. It really must be heard. It along with Markus Reuter's orchestral work (see review from last June) gives you a new spiritual opening if you will, an orchestral soundscaping that takes you away from rhythm and brings you instead to an endless canvas of solid and transparent color fields, a long unbending road through sheer and ravishing sound blocks.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

James Brawn, A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 3, Piano Sonatas

Pianist James Brawn is embarking on A Beethoven Odyssey. Volume 3 (MSR 1467) currently plays on my computer as I write these lines. It contains Beethoven Sonatas No. 26 "Les Adieux", No. 17 "The Tempest", and No. 2. Maestro Brawn dedicates himself to the performances as Beethoven intended, with all the repeat signs honored. That's a good idea. With the CD world we can certainly make the space, and in the process we hear each sonata as an entity of substance. With such ambitions realized near the halfway point, the total set will likely fill nine volumes, so the liners say.

Volume 3 gives us an idea of James Brawn's acute sensitivity to the Beethoven. With the current volume we get something from the classical period (No. 2, 1795), edging into the mature period (No. 17, 1801-02) and then rather firmly into the blooming of the romantic (No. 26, 1809-10).

With all the repeats the No. 2 runs around 30 minutes. That provides us with a much deeper experience than otherwise. It gives the early work an imposing grandeur than it does not always possess in recorded form. Of course it is the interpretative talents of James Brawn that either make something out of the complete opportunity or elsewise. Certainly on this volume we hear a real artist at work.

The performances are filled with passion but also a classical sense of proportion. Of technique there is an abundance but it never comes to the forefront as display. Brawn harnesses his pianistic abilities to the objective of realizing the Beethoven compositional world in its fullest, most poetic, yet also in its direct, matter-of-fact sense. Others may take some passages faster, or, for that matter slower. Brawn gives us interpretations of elegance more than pure fire. And in the process gives us a Beethoven that calls attention to the most Beethovenesque note rendering, not as much a willful brilliance that calls attention to itself.

In the end I find James Brawn a deeply appropriate medium to realize Beethoven as he might himself have most appreciated. It is pure music, and of course has a brilliance that doesn't always need virtuoso, self-indulging enhancements.

If further volumes are true to form, and I see no reason to doubt that, this will be a cornerstone edition of the complete sonatas. One with a constancy of faithfulness to the composer of wonderful piano music. It can stand alongside more flamboyant versions as a kind of benchmark, weather vane, a cornerstone, a standard by which others might be measured.

Have a listen and see if you don't agree. James Brawn is Beethoven on this disk. He is the channeling of the Beethoven ethos, personified if you will. Bravo.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tre Voci, Kim Kashkashian, Sivan Magen, Marina Piccinini, Takemitsu, Debussy, Gubaidulina

Premier violist Kim Kashkashian has gathered around her two very worthy partners in Sivan Magen on harp and Marina Piccinini on flute for a fine outfit they call Tre Voci. It is also the title of their debut album (ECM New Series 2345 4810880) which is simply self-titled.

For it they have chosen three works that go together quite well. The lyrical, pastoral mode so fitting for this trio instrumentation is realized nicely by choice and execution. The centerpiece is the well-known, well-appreciated Debussy "Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp". It is surrounded by later, somewhat lesser-known works that have a slightly more modern bent but pay equal attention to the special sonance of the trio of instruments that make up Tre Voce: Toru Takemitsu's "And Then I knew 'twas Wind" and Sophia Gubaidulina's "Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten". The two later works have an affinity with the Debussy trio, the latter of which the composer wrote at the end of his life and managed to embody, as the lucid liner notes to the album point out, a kind of affinity with an Asian concept of time, of a simultaneous unfolding of sound within silence if you like.

It is surely one of Debussy's masterpieces, almost uncanny in its ethereal qualities. It points to the future in ways that both Takemitsu's and Gubaidulina's works further realize. The Takemitsu trio equals the lyric qualities, the Gubaidulina assigns specific roles to each instrument to produce lyrical but perhaps slightly more mysterious assemblages of sonic brilliance.

Tre Voci come through with ravishing renditions of all three works. I have never heard a more evocative Debussy. They give us a poignancy that the ECM audio production reinforces with singular appositeness. The other trios complete the mood with more of the gently spectacular introspection the pieces call for and are certainly given.

Tre Voci give us an almost indescribably beautiful triumvirate of performances on this recording. They set the bar high and program thoughtfully so that this seems like a definitive recording. It is gorgeous!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Handel, Jephtha, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers

Handel stands or falls in the performance. That's true of baroque masters in general as it is true of any period's greats. Handel's operas and oratorios are not only no exception, there have been (especially before the original instruments movement) a fair number of lackluster performances available. When he is played and interpreted well, there is magic. Luckily for us we have a near perfect gathering of singers, instrumentalists and interpretive acumen in the new new Sixteen/Harry Christophers recording of Handel's last oratorio Jephtha (CORO 16121 3-CDs). Since we discussed Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society version of Handel's Messiah Friday, today's post follows logically.

It is a remarkable work, even for Handel. There is great drama, excellent arias, good choruses and the memorable tunefulness that characterizes Handel at his best. Destiny marks the overall theme. The vocal soloists do an exceptional job: James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Sophie Bevan, Robin Blaze, Matthew Brook and Grace Davidson, all.

The choral passages (with a relatively small group per the accepted practices of the era) are presented with spirit, the small, period-instruments orchestra glows with all the warmth and sweetness a good period ensemble can give. The tempos do not drag. Time passes quickly as they draw us in. We respond with pleasure. The drama comes through without pretension, straightforwardly. And the libretto is in English, which makes the work all the more accessible for my English speaking readers.

The recording gives cogent proof, if we didn't already know, that as great as the Sixteen and Christophers are for Palestrina (see previous posts), they are just as accomplished in putting together a ravishing interpretation of a Handel Oratorio.

Highly recommended!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society, Handel, Messiah

Of all the baroque sacred choral works, oratorios with orchestral accompaniment anyway, and there are very many, Handel's Messiah triumphs as the shining jewel of the art, a near-perfect work. Only Bach's St. Matthew's Passion offers a true rival presence. My high school choir and orchestra ambitiously performed Messiah selections when I was just a freshman and hearing them rehearse it over the fall months, then the December performance, was an ear-changing experience. I little-by-little fell completely under its spell, through a complete recording and hearing the Masterwork Chorus perform it yearly in New York.

There have been performance practice changes over the years. For a time Mozart's reorchestration for larger orchestra held sway as did ever larger choruses, numbering well over 100 voices in many cases. There is also a Beecham orchestration for a full-blown ensemble of romantic proportions. There are still those who perform the altered versions and I see nothing to complain of there. It can be devastatingly moving. On the other hand there is a growing trend away from all that to the original version with original instruments and orchestration, with a chorus of 30 or so and soloists.

Enter Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, who are celebrating their bicentennial in 2015. They gave the first US performance of Handel's Messiah in 1818, consequently performing it annually from 1854 to the present day! Harry Christophers and the Society give us this season a brand new performance with the original version, complete with all the performing conventions and practices as Handel and his era assumed, in the smaller orchestration and a choir of thirty or so. Soloists include a countertenor in place of the usual mezzo-soprano, which gives us another perspective as well.

All this can be heard and appreciated on a 2-CD set just out (CORO 16125). The more compact forces lead to a more intimate impression. The chorus excels in the brisk pace Christophers gives many of the movements. The singers dive into the melismatic (multiple notes for a single syllable) passages with vigor and they project wonderfully. The soloists are up to the music in every way, though I have been spoiled by a recording that features the great Peter Lewis as tenor. But that recording is a romantic-sized rendition with a very different charm. The soloists here do a fine job anyway, though they may fall just a tad shy of the very greatest historically. One cannot expect everything in a single performance so it is not an issue.

The celebratory new Handel and Haydn Society version achieves the glory and power of the work with the lesser forces. I have not heard a more moving "Hallelujah" chorus. Their "Amen" is a thing to give you the chills. In fact the entire second part of the work glows with energy and conviction, not to say that the first part is lacking. It is a Messiah that builds to a wonderful climax.

If you don't have a period version, this one would make a fine addition to your library. If you don't know the Messiah this is a good place to start!

It is in every way a commanding performance! Happy 200th birthday to the Handel and Haydn Society.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Andreas Staier, Robert Schumann, Variationen & Fantasiestücke

I think I've said this before, but today's album drives the point home ever more strongly. That is, that hearing romantic era piano music on a modern concert grand gives you an entirely different impression of the sonic balance than if you hear it on a period era piano. The modern piano emphasizes all ranges and registers with a more-or-less equal presence. The period piano has less intensity and sustain power, and more of a fragility to the sound. Each range has markedly different sound qualities across the board. (Different, that is, than how each range sounds on a modern piano.) Certain forte passages played on a modern piano are brazenly full, evenly balanced. The same played on a period piano gives more articulation between figure and ground, if played as they were originally intended by a fine pianist.

Andreas Staier is the right pianist for a project of this sort, very much so. His third volume of Robert Schumann piano, covering the Variationen & Fantasiestücke (Harmonia Mundi 902171), will make a believer of you. The music is not so well-known that we have been overexposed and settled in to the modern pianoforte bombast of a typical bravura reading. Yet there is much beautiful music to hear. I have never heard this music played in a way that doesn't eventually weary me, to tell the truth, though I do love Schumann and his piano ouevre very much.

But no, these Staier versions let you discover the delights of savoring the inner voices, which are considerably well-wrought, without them dominating and clouding over the thematic thrust of the pieces as Schumann conceived them. Of course it isn't all in the piano, it is also in the brilliance of how Andreas articulates and phrases each passage.

If you have ever found romantic piano music overly dense, a little too ever-present, Staier may well open your ears to what the music was meant to sound like. As much as Rachmaninov is dear to my heart, the music from the romantic era need not always have that slapdash van Cliburnian overexpression typical of late romantic Rachmaninov and typical mid-20th century performance practice. Earlier romanticism is not all supposed to sound like Rachmaninov, of course. And the power of the music can be as much or more in the subtlety of interpretation as in the amount of projective power.

And so I come away from this disk a happy camper. Schumann never sounded so personal, so little a projection of future hearing on an earlier period. It is of course a testament to Staier and his poetic artistry. . . and the right piano.

Don't hesitate!