Archive for the Reviews Category

The Return of the Trumpet King

Posted in Classical music, Reviews with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2011 by Craig Zeichner

Maurice André, the once and future king of the trumpet

You’d be hard-pressed to name another trumpet player with as extensive a discography as Maurice André. For a long stretch of time (the late 60s to late 80s) he may have spent more time in the recording studio than any classical music artist with the possible exception of Herbert von Karajan (an André did record with Herb too!). As Jonathan Freeman-Attwood points out in his excellent liner notes to this six-CD André retrospective focusing on concertos from the Baroque and Classical eras, “during this half-century [1953 – 2003] he had no competition as a trumpet soloist.”

This is the first in a multi-box overview of André’s recordings for the French Erato label and it’s one of the most welcome reissue projects in years. Prior to the period instrument movement’s hegemony over pre-19th century music performance, it was André who did a lot of the heavy-lifting in resurrecting Baroque music for solo trumpet. His recordings with modern instrument bands like the Jean-François Paillard Chamber Orchestra, Saar Radio Chamber Orchestra and Württemberg Chamber Orchestra provided the first exposure many had to the trumpet concertos of Telemann, Vivaldi, Albinoni, Tartini, Torelli and others. Classical era repertoire? André played the famous concertos of Haydn and Hummel better than any trumpet player then or now, and also introduced listeners to concertos of Leopold Mozart and Johann Wilhelm Hertel.

Check out this video of Mo playing the cadenza to the Haydn concerto

And boy does he cook in the Hummel

There’s so much to like in this massive set that’s it difficult to cite all the high points. There’s a slew of concertos by the popular Baroque composers, including solo and multiple trumpet works by Vivaldi and Telemann, as well as lesser-known composers. A raucous Concerto Grosso for four choirs of trumpets, flute, oboe and bassoon by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel is a rare and thrilling affair, as is the more familiar, but equally rousing, Telemann Concerto in D major for three trumpets, two oboes, strings and continuo.

André was known for playing arrangements of works originally composed for other instruments and in this box we have his take on Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 (originally for flute and strings) and Concerto in D (a violin and oboe work). Best of all is Hummel’s Introduction, Theme and Variations, op. 102, a work originally for oboe but appearing here in a deliriously over-the-top arrangement (and performance) for trumpet and orchestra.

Here’s the Marcello concerto in D, originally scored for oboe and strings. It’s not in this boxed set, but who cares?

The André trademark technique is evident in all its glory. Rapid fire runs drive the Vivaldi A flat major concerto, stratospheric high notes dot the Hummel and honeyed legato phrasing in the Adagio of the Bach Concerto in D makes you forget that Jean-François Paillard’s pacing of the movement would be better suited to Bruckner.

The only negatives really pop up in some of the orchestral playing. The Jean-François Paillard Chamber Orchestra favored a rather oversized string section (by today’s Baroque performance standards) and the textures can get pretty thick – remember their recording of the Pachelbel Canon and how it sounded like a lost section of Parsifal? Some of the wind playing is pretty pungent too and thankfully our conception of continuo playing has evolved since the thump and rattle sounds made by some of the groups on these recordings. But it’s really all about André and he never fails to deliver the goods. I can’t wait for subsequent volumes.

Some of my favorite Maurice André recordings were made with another of my musical idols, Karl Richter.

Richter and André

They recorded a great concertos record together, was the go-to soloist in Richter’s recording of Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto and also popped up on recordings of the Christmas Oratorio and a number of cantatas.

It’s not with Richter, but here’s the great man in the 2nd Brandenburg

2010’s Best

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

As we wind down 2010, here are some recordings that I think are true standouts. Yes, there’s a lot of contemporary music here, but it’s my list and I could put whatever I want on it. What were some of your 2010 favorites?

Bach on a Steinway
Jeffrey Biegel, piano
(Steinway & Sons)
Biegel adds his own tasteful and very well-conceived ornamentation to these familiar works. His touch is lithe and phrases sing beautifully throughout.

Choral Music by Jonathan Dove
Wells Cathedral Choir; Wells Cathedral Chapel Choir; Jonathan Vaughan, organ
Matthew Owens, conductor
(Hyperion)
Jonathan Dove’s choral music continues to impress and this is a superb sampling of his work. There are a few Christmas pieces and a Missa brevis setting that deserves its place in the repertoire of good church choirs. The Wells Cathedral Choir is building quite an excellent discography on the always superb Hyperion label and this is another winner.

Henri Dutilleux: D’ombre Et De Silence
Robert Levin, piano
(ECM)
This one took me by surprise. I always thought of Levin as the fortepianist who recorded Mozart and Beethoven concertos with the Academy of Ancient Music. Of course, he’s more than that. Dutilleux’s piano music is wonderfully eclectic with its occasional whispers of Debussy, birdsong (not quite à la Messiaen) though) and pungent quality that is marvelous. Levin plays the hell out of all of it and ECM nails the piano sound perfectly.

St. John’s Magnificat – Choral Works by Herbert Howells
Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge
Andrew Nethsingha, director
(Chandos)
Howells and St. John’s, how can you go wrong? A Sequence for St. Michael is a dramatic motet with striking choral writing and an extended solo for tenor is a scene-stealer, but there’s plenty more here to love.

Jeremy Denk Plays Ives
Jeremy Denk, piano; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute
(Think Denk Media)
It’s really nice to have both sonatas on one disc. Denk is brilliant and pulls together all the elements of this music that is at times brash, tender, dissonant and sweet. It’s all so American and I love it.

Magnus Lindberg: Graffiti; Seht Die Sonne
Helsinki Chamber Choir; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo, conductor
(Ondine)
Ancient Roman graffiti set to music? If anybody can pull it off, Lindberg can. Lindberg weaves some lean but extremely colorful orchestral writing around a rather eclectic vocal style that has some echoes of Britten and, more obviously, Orff. It is brilliant at every turn, as are the performances.

James MacMillan: Visitatio Sepulchri; Sun-Dogs
Netherlands Radio Choir; Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic
James MacMillan, conductor
(BIS)
Another deeply moving MacMillan work rooted in his deep Christian faith. Sensitive choral and orchestral writing with flashes of drama make this a very compelling recording. How come his music doesn’t get more performances in the U.S.?

Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4; Kanon Pokajanen: Fragments
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Esa-Pekka Salonen; Tönu Kaljuste, conductor
(ECM)
Pärt’s gorgeous meditation is slow-moving, lyrical and powerfully affecting. Truly music to soothe the soul.

Schoenberg/Glass
The Glass Chamber Players
(Orange Mountain Music)
Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Glass’s Sextet for Strings sit beside each other very nicely on this recording by the newly formed Glass Chamber Players. The performance has immediacy and fire and makes me want to hear much more from the ensemble.

Valentin Silvestrov: Sacred Works
Kiev Chamber Choir
Mykola Hobdych, conductor
(ECM)
I love works that are at core traditional but take little turns that surprise. These a cappella works are rooted in Eastern liturgy but Silvestrov’s gift for introducing fascinating harmonic twists make them anything but conventional. Blend the reverberant acoustic of Kiev’s Cathedral of the Dormition into the mix and you have something otherworldly and piercingly beautiful. Serve this one up with the Pärt disc mentioned above and you will enter some ECM-induced beatified state. I like it there.

Brits Under the Radar

Posted in Classical music, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Howells is so good he's on a t-shirt

When I first started to get into English music I fed on a steady diet of Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bax (yes, I know he’s Anglo-Irish). After attending the New York premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice I was turned onto Britten. Eventually I came around to Walton, but that was pretty much it for a while.

Eventually I found myself working for an English music publisher so I discovered Lennox Berkeley, Kenneth Leighton, William Mathias and others. Attending weekly high church Anglican services each Sunday introduced me to a world of choral composers I never knew. Many of them are 20th century composers, so while I still worship at the alters of Vaughan Williams and Britten, I spend much time with Edmund Rubbra, Herbert Howells and living composers like Jonathan Dove, Jonathan Harvey and Gabriel Jackson.

While it’s all but impossible to hear an American orchestra program an English work that’s not by Elgar, record labels have taken up the slack. Hyperion and Signum are strongly committed to English choral music and Chandos and Naxos are doing their share for chamber music and orchestral works.

Howells: St John’s Magnificat

For some unfortunate reason Herbert Howells is a composer who is little-known outside the world of choir and organ aficionados. Think about it, when was the last time you heard a Howells work in concert? How sad. Howells was a remarkable composer who had superior melodic chops, an original harmonic palette and a knack for piercing the heart with passionate, deeply felt music. He is one of the giants of the Anglican choral tradition and I revere him. This new recording by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge is a sure thing for choral fans and is the first release in a new series of recordings by the choir for Chandos.

Howells has been treated pretty well on recent recordings. There’s a very good recording of his sublime Requiem and other works sung by the St. John’s Choir that was released by Naxos in 1999— fortunately not much of the repertoire is duplicated on the Chandos disc and this new disc actually has two world premieres: A Grace for 10 Downing Street and chant for Psalm 147. If you want more Howells I also recommend recordings by The Choir of Wells Cathedral on Hyperion and The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin on Signum.

This is a terrific program with many highlights. A Sequence for St. Michael is a dramatic motet with striking choral writing and an extended solo for tenor. By the Waters of Babylon is a little-known masterpiece, something akin to a choral tone poem. Here’s the English pastoral tradition in full glory with a highly expressive solo part for baritone and rhapsodic violin, cello and organ accompaniment. The premieres are quite strong too.

There are also some chestnuts. While it’s one of my all-time favorite English carols, perhaps not every Howells collection needs A Spotless Rose? Aficionados will also be familiar with Like As A Hart and the Te Deum he wrote for King’s College. The two sets of evening canticles are pretty well-known and are beautifully performed. The Gloucester Service was composed in honor of Howells’ “own” Cathedral at Gloucester, while the Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense was originally intended for Salisbury Cathedral (the story of how it ended up at St. John’s is the result of a mix-up in a newspaper article about Howells – read the excellent liner notes for details). These are superb settings and are magnificently sung.

As you would expect the choir sings magnificently. This music is in their blood and Andrew Nethsingha (their new Director of Music) leads gorgeous performances filled with clarity and power. This is an indispensable recording for any lover of choral music and a wonderful introduction to Howells for those who haven’t yet made the great man’s acquaintance.

Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Arthur Bliss

I’ve never been able to warm up to the music of Arthur Bliss. I can’t say that there’s anything in his music that puts me off, but there is also nothing in it that moves me as much as the other composers I’ve mentioned But I relish the English music series on Naxos and figured this volume with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones would present a good case for the composer. It does indeed.

Bliss Meditations on a Theme by John Blow

It’s a tidy bit of history that Bliss would be appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953, the same year he would encounter John Blow’s setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” Bliss (who had a commission for an orchestral work sitting on his desk) was inspired by one of the tunes in Blow’s setting and composed a set of meditations on the tune.

There are five Meditations, preceded by an Introduction and followed by an Interlude and Finale, each movement illustrates one of the psalm’s verses. The Introduction (“The Lord is my Shepherd – I will fear no evil”) balances brooding dark with softer-hued English pastoral.
The third Meditation “Lambs” is scherzo-like, while the fifth “Green Pastures,” is a gorgeous reverie for harp, winds and strings. The violence of the seventh Meditation “Through the valley of the shadow of death” is peppered with edgy percussion. The Finale “In the house of the Lord” is thrilling with Blow’s tune singing out gloriously.

The Metamorphic Variations were written in 1972 in tribute to the artist George Dannatt. Masterfully orchestrated and filled with shifting moods and tones, this is quite an orchestral showpiece. Yet for all the composer’s creativity and superb craftsmanship, the work does have a certain rambling quality and emotional detachment that makes it less than a revelation for me.

The Bournemouth Symphony plays brilliantly. The delicate wind and string writing in the Meditations comes off beautifully, the brass playing is stellar throughout and the percussionists really bang away in the Variations. The excellent liner notes by Giles Easterbrook are fascinating and the sound quality top-notch.

The late Geoffrey Burgon

While writing this I learned that Geoffrey Burgon passed away last month. I first encountered his music on Remembrance, a brilliant St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir recording on Hyperion. Burgon’s piece was a setting of the Nunc dimittis, a work that appeared in his soundtrack to the BBC film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This Chandos recording is the first recording of his orchestral music that I’ve encountered.

Geoffrey Burgon: Viola Concerto – Merciless Beauty – Cello Concerto

Burgon was a jazz trumpet player so it’s not surprising that he would associate the sound of the viola’s lower range with American dance music of the 40s. The Viola Concerto has an alto saxophone and drum kit in its orchestral texture, but it’s the composer’s crafty mix of the pungent percussion and warm-voiced viola that makes this a winning work. I was especially impressed by the Shostakovich-like tango in the middle movement. Philip Dukes is outstanding in the solo part and is blessed with the warm, amber tone that inspired Burgon.

The drum kit also appears in Burgon’s Cello Concerto, a work from 2007. There are darker things afoot in this piece. Burgon doubles the low winds and asks the percussion to play in their lowest registers in this score. This is brooding music that pays homage to film noir, (Burgon said “I began to view the soloist as a protagonist in such a film.”). The Concerto is a marvelous work and a major addition to the cello and orchestra repertoire, I hope that more cellists take it up. Cellist Josephine Knight has just the right bite for the Concerto’s more muscular passages while also playing gently and quietly in the moodier moments.

The song cycle Merciless Beauty was written in 1996-97 for countertenor James Bowman. Four of the seven songs in the cycle are set to texts by the contemporary writer Kit White while the others are from traditional British sources: Chaucer, Blake and the ever-popular Anonymous. This is a marvelous cycle filled with some lush melodies and showcases Burgon’s gift for achieving big emotional power with subtle gestures. These days there are few mezzo-sopranos who can stand up to Sarah Connolly (Burgon asked her to record the songs) and she is brilliant throughout. Connolly is sweet-voiced in Letter to Anna, pregnant and powerfully intense in The Sick Rose. Rumon Gamba leads the City of London Sinfonia in performances that are perfectly colored, masterfully shaped and beautifully recorded.

Geoffrey Burgon’s Nunc dimittis

Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs

Posted in Reviews with tags , on May 21, 2010 by Craig Zeichner


A terrific review of Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs on the

Want to learn about classical music?

Posted in Classical music, Reviews with tags , on May 17, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

The 5th edition of the Rough Guide to Classical Music has just been published. Check out my review on the New York Journal Of Books

Suomi

Posted in Classical music, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

The young Sibelius

There’s no way around it, music always sounds better when native singers are singing the music of their homeland. A Russian choir glows in the Rachmaninov Vespers, Italians make Monteverdi madrigals erotic and French choirs…well, never mind nobody is allowed to sing in French except the French so I won’t go on.

“Kullervo, Kalervon poika, sinisukka äïjön lapsi, hivus keltainen korea…”
An American choir can’t sing that idiomatically. No way. Thankfully when Osmo Vänskä led the Minnesota Orchestra in a performance of Sibelius’ Kullervo at Carnegie Hall in early March he had the YL Male Voice Choir on hand.

YL Male Voice Choir

YL sang this music as if it was wired into their DNA. Not surprising, founded in 1883, they are the oldest Finnish-language choir. I won’t go into the details of the performance which proved once again that this work by the 27 year old composer is a masterpiece and deserves to stand beside his more famous music. As we’ve learned from his BIS recordings with the Lahti Symphony, Vänskä is the man when it comes to Sibelius. From what I heard at the concert I’m also sure that YL are the men for Sibelius. They sang with a full-bodied muscular sound that was perfectly blended and shaped. For once the exotic, mythic quality of the choral passages really kicked in. Their outstanding (and soon to be retiring) conductor Matti Hyökki is to be praised.

As an encore the orchestra and choir gave us Finlandia – it’s so rare that we get to hear this chestnut with full choir and it was a marvelous performance.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Finland, The Kalevala (their national epic), the Finnish Olympic ice hockey team (the concert took place right after the Olympics) and this superb choir. Some of my inspiration has been fueled by a book I’m reading: Sibelius, A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland by the former editor of the Sibelius Critical Edition, Glenda Dawn Goss.

Essential reading

The upshot of all this is The Kalevala is terrific reading, the hockey team was crushed by the U.S. team because the Finnish goaltender melted down, and the Goss book is one of the most fascinating composer biographies (it’s so much more than just a composer bio), I’ve ever read. Do the work on your own: read the Kalevala and the Goss book. I can’t say anything for the hockey team except they played their tails off to come from behind to beat the Slovakians and win the Bronze medal.

The great Teemu Selanne and his mates sporting their Bronze medals

Back to the choir… I met some of the singers at the concert after-party and learned a bit more about the choir. They have a pretty extensive discography and it’s not just comprised of Sibelius. I didn’t make the connection until after the fact but I have some of their recordings and have been enjoying them for the past year or two—this is the curse of having a CD collection that is too large to manage.

Their recording of Kullervo with the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by Leif Segerstam (no slouch in Sibelius either) on the Ondine label is excellent. Perhaps not as perfectly conceived and executed as the Vänskä Minnesota Carnegie performance, but plenty full-blooded, colorful and superbly conducted by Segerstam.

The Kullervo you need to have

Another outstanding recording is their Ondine CD of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s complete music for male choir. This is fascinating music, at times quite challenging and at times piercingly beautiful. Their performances are remarkable for their precision, power and beauty.

Ravishing choral music from the most famous living Finnish composer

They are joined by the Talla Vocal Ensemble on Talescapes (their newest), a recording of contemporary works on the Ondine label. Talescapes features music by five Finnish composers: Perttu Haapanen, Tapio Tuomela, Erik Bergman, Mikko Heiniö and Riikka Talvitie. In addition to the Finnish composers there is also music by the English composer Tarik O’Regan.

I must admit that O’Regan was the only composer with whom I was familiar but I’m certainly interested in hearing more from the Finnish composers. This is such daring music, so out on the edge that it will make you re-consider any notions you might have about choral music. It’s an essential recording if you care about the choral art.

Cutting-edge choral music

You can sample some of the Talescapes music at Ondine.

The mature Sibelius

It’s not the YL Male Voice Choir singing, but this is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written by Sibelius.

Be sure to visit the YL Male Voice Choir at their

Papa Haydn at the Hayden

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , on January 26, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Lisetta (Rachel Calloway) and Buonafede (Marco Nisticò) travel to the Moon

How often do you get to see a Haydn opera? Okay. How often do you get to see a Haydn opera staged at New York’s Hayden Planetarium? You can still answer yes to both questions if you get yourself to the Planetarium before Gotham Chamber Opera’s production of Papa Haydn’s Il mondo della luna closes on January 28th.

This delightfully oddball but marvelously inventive production showcases the talents of director Diane Paulus, video and production designer Philip Bussmann and costume designer Anka Lupes. Of course it’s about the music and the talented Gotham Chamber Opera deliver top-notch performances.

Set to a libretto by the great Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, Haydn’s 1777 opera is a loony (pardon the extended astronomy metaphor) farce in the buffo tradition, but the score is also dotted with moments of plaintive beauty and some show-stopping vocal pyrotechnics. Plot-wise it’s filled with standard buffo characters: there’s the wealthy over-protective father smothering his two daughters, a wily astrologer/con-man who loves one of the girls, a saucy maid and an earthy servant who loves her. The plot orbits (did it again) around the astrologer’s trickery as he convinces the gullible father that they can travel to the moon and enjoy life in a magical world. Once there, the daughters and the maid arrive and are ordered by moon emperor to wed moon men (in reality their lovers). It’s fluffy and fun and, like I said, filled with some top-notch Haydn.

The astrologer Ecclitico has a marvelous comic aria and a gorgeous romanza that is the model of elegance. Buonafede, the over-protective father, has some brilliant buffo passages and a lovely aria (with some clever word-painting) when he arrives on the moon. The ladies have the best bits. Ragion nell’alma diede is a show-stopping aria in the tradition of Come scoglio from Mozart’s Cosi or the Queen of the Night’s music from Zauberflote, while Quanta gente che sospira is a model of opera seria pathos.

Paulus and Bussman did a brilliant job of turning the Planetarium into a performance space ideally suited to the opera. The 180-degree dome was splashed with spectacular images from the museum’s space shows that were integrated seamlessly and underscored the fantastic elements of the plot. I think 18th century audiences would have been enraptured by the subject matter and this production delivered that same sense of wonder and fancy. Tossed into the mix were some hysterically campy sci-fi costumes which featured the most creative use of $5 portable library lights I’ve ever seen (you have to see the production to get what I’m talking about) and a crazy dance scene with glowing hula hoops! Sure, the opera does have its gentle moments, like Buonafede’s touching aria about the wonders he “sees” on the moon, but it’s the farce that’s being sold here and it’s infectious fun.

Here’s some of the fun.

Musically it was a fine performance. Naples-born baritone Marco Nisticò was a superb Buonafede and he is a singer I would like to hear in some of the repertoire’s meatier baritone roles. Sopranos Albina Shagimuratova and Hanan Alattar were both vocally secure in their showpiece arias and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway delightful as the sexy maid. I was also taken by the clear, bright tenor voice of Nicholas Coppolo as Ecclitico, the burly baritone of Timothy Kuhn as Ernesto and the tenor Matthew Tuell’s fine comic turn as the servant Cecco. The small orchestra led by Gotham Chamber Opera’s director Neal Goren was fine, despite some occasionally scratchy string tone, and featured some especially nice wind playing in Buonafede’s aria about the wonders of the moon.

This is my first encounter with Gotham Chamber Opera and they have made a fan out of me.

There are only two performances left, so you’ll want to get tickets as soon as possible. For details visit the Gotham Chamber Opera’s