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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

Henryk Gorecki

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

I am saddened by the news of the passing of composer Henyrk Gorecki. I first encountered his music when I was working for the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes. It was about the time the recording of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was rapidly climbing the Billboard charts and was finding favor with people who wouldn’t necessarily buy an album of music by a living classical composer. Gorecki was
published by Boosey and every one of his new choral compositions caused a tremendous stir. It was a remarkable time.

Gorecki, like Lech Walesa (a man who actually earned and deserved his Nobel Peace Prize) and Pope John Paul II remind me of the resurgent and vibrant Poland that exists today.

Requiesce in pace

Bach on a Steinway is WETA’s CD Pick of the Week

Posted in Classical music with tags , , on November 1, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

A good pick

I am so proud to be associated with this excellent recording that has been selected by Washington’s WETA as their CD Pick of the Week. Read about it

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

Bach on a Steinway

Posted in Classical music with tags , , , on September 1, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I had the pleasure of writing the liner notes for Jeffrey Biegel’s new album Bach on a Steinway on the Steinway and Sons label. The album is available from Arkivmusic.com

Jeffrey talks about the project in this video

Hockey season is coming

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on August 25, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

The 2010-11 NHL season is approaching and what better way to introduce your young ones to the sport than these three new books that I wrote during the summer.

This was a fun project. I got to rummage through photo archives and relived my hockey past with lots of terrific photos from the golden age of the game. Some of my favorite players:

The New York Rangers winger Rod Gilbert

Gordie Howe

Guy Lafleur

You can buy the books at the Child’s World

Some very cool cats

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 15, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Marguays are a breed of wild cat. Here’s an amazing story about marguays mimicking the sound of their prey. Imagine Quint from Jaws (played by Robert Shaw) saying, “Marguay imitates the monkey, the monkey comes down the tree” and then Quint sings “Farewell and aideu to you fair Brazilian monkeys…”

Here’s the story

Does this mean if your little kitty wants to lure you into the kitchen to give her some food she’ll imitate the sound of a beer being opened?