Archive for the Classical music Category

The 100th Anniversary of the Premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

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

Young RVW

September 6th was the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Rob Young of The Guardian wrote a terrific article about the event.

Old RVW and a friend

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Yvonne Loriod

Posted in Classical music with tags , on May 19, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

The widow of Olivier Messiaen, Yvonne Loriod, passed away on Monday. She was a brilliant pianist and her recordings of her husband’s music and other 20th century repertoire are treasures. She also was Messiaen’s partner in recording birdcalls:

I love this photo of Loriod holding the microphone

I’ll have more on her in the next few days, but you can read some interesting essays at the Olivier Messiaen

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

Look! Up in the sky…

Posted in Classical music, Reviews with tags , , , , on October 28, 2009 by Craig Zeichner
metropolis

Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony defends truth, justice and listenable contemporary music

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Daugherty
Metropolis Symphony
The Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
(Naxos of America)

I continue to be blown away by Iowa-born composer Michael Daugherty. His music tells a uniquely American story and that appeals to me very much. Most recently it was a recording of his Fire and Blood, a muscular violin concerto inspired by Diego Rivera that grabbed my attention. This time it’s the antic and frantic Metropolis Symphony, an orchestral extravaganza inspired by the 1938 debut of Superman in comic books. I love the very notion of a giant orchestral work inspired by American pop culture and can almost see the sneers of Euro-snobs and the pasty-faced, self-appointed  American guardians of modern music.

 

Metropolis Symphony is in five movements, each one inspired by a Superman character or theme. Lex, the opening movement, is a deliriously diabolic romp for solo violin and percussion-laced orchestra that captures the manic evil of arch-baddie Lex Luthor. Here’s the smack-mouth drive that made Fire and Blood so thrilling. The solo part is played with guts by the Nashville Symphony’s Mary Kathryn Van Osdale. More subdued but equally evocative is Krypton, an eerie tone poem that opens with sirens, gongs and disturbing string glissandi. There’s more terrifying solo fiddling, snippets of what sounds like “Silent Night” and an apocalyptic finale that gives the Rite of Spring a run for its money. MXYZPTLK, the nasty imp from the fifth dimension, is a mercurial scherzo-like third movement that showcases the orchestra’s flute section. The fourth movement entitled Oh Lois! evokes the comic’s heroine alongside Clark Kent. Here’s another wildfire rave-up with a tempo marked “faster than a speeding bullet” that plays out as a delicious example of orchestral slapstick. The closing Red Cape Tango is a moving elegy that evolves into a tango-inspired dance of death with Daugherty quoting the Dies irae.

 

Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina for piano and orchestra, which rounds out the recording, is the composer’s take on the world of trains with each movement focusing on a train or railway. The first movement Fast Forward conjures up images of the avant-garde and displays the rhythmic firestorm that is found in many of Daugherty’s works. The second movement Train of Tears refers to the funeral train that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body through seven states. Here’s Daugherty in an elegiac mood that will remind some of Copland but there is nothing derivative here, Daugherty’s superb orchestration and emotional depth rise to the top throughout. The finale, Night Stream,  is Daugherty’s tribute to the coal-burning locomotives of the Norfolk and Western lines and here’s more of the hard-driving, blues-inflected virtuosity that make his music so thrilling.

 

The knuckle-busting piano part is played with breath-taking skill by Terence Wilson and the Nashville Symphony, conducted by its new music director Giancarlo Guerrero, proves once again that it is one of America’s finest orchestras. Superbly engineered and nicely packaged this is another gem from one of our finest composers.

A few new recordings

Posted in Classical music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

Some interesting August and September releases

Contemporary music with muscle

Contemporary music with muscle

Michael Daugherty
Fire & Blood
(Naxos)

Recently, I was reading an article in the Finnish Music Quarterly about composer Kalevi Aho. In the article Aho mentions a criticism that was made of his music by an Austrian journalist who accused Aho’s music of being “not dehumanized enough.” My complaint about much contemporary music is the opposite, it’s too dehumanized. I shun the over-intellectualization of music, loathe works that sound like they were composed with an abacus and notated in battery acid. Thankfully the three works on this fantastic recording of music by Michael Daugherty are filled with passion, wit and drama to spare.

 Fire and Blood is a full-blooded, knock your socks off violin concerto that makes pressing technical demands of the soloist but never descends to the level of an empty-headed violin showpiece. The work draws its inspiration from the Detroit Industry murals by the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the color and energy that Rivera brought to his art is reflected in the music. Violinist Ida Kavafian plays this music with muscle aplenty and the Detroit Symphony under conductor Neeme Järvi is nothing short of spectacular.

 The other works on the recording, Motor City Triptych and Raise the Roof, are also superb. Motor City Triptych is a brilliantly jaunty evocative piece which pays tribute to the Motown sound, Michigan Avenue in Detroit and Rosa Parks. This seems like something of an odd mix but Daugherty’s vivid orchestration and rhythmic skill make each movement a memorable tone poem. Brass lovers take note, there’s plenty of interesting work for trumpet and trombone throughout. Raise the Roof is a concerto for timpani and orchestra and was inspired by such grand architectural wonders as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Empire State Building. The work offers the timpanist an opportunity to play some melody and even stretch out with a showpiece cadenza. Once again Daugherty pushes hard and the effect is thrilling. This is an essential recording for anybody who cares about the current state of American music – it’s very encouraging indeed.

Revolutionary or revolting?

Revolutionary or revolting?

Sergei Prokofiev
Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution
(Chandos)

It’s been nearly thirty years since I first encountered this very weird work by Prokofiev. I remember buying a recording on the Melodiya label that featured a worker-hero and his girl in full party (Communist, that is) regalia on the cover (he was also toting what looked like a 9mm Parabellum pistol). I was struck by the energy and color of the work but I also remember that I didn’t like it nearly as much as the other Prokofiev works I was enjoying with youthful enthusiasm: The Gambler (an opera I saw when the Bolshoi company came to New York in the 70s), Alexander Nevsky, Scythian Suite and the Piano concertos. Thirty years later and my opinion has not  changed, this is not top-notch Prokofiev, but there is enough to hold your interest and this 1992 recording (Chandos is re-releasing lots of their Prokofiev recordings) is quite good.

 
This Soviet patriotic cantata was written in 1936 and is based on texts by Marx, Lenin and Stalin. The work wasn’t premiered until 1966 and by then the texts by the disgraced Stalin were removed. As you would have suspected, none of these gentlemen were Soviet versions of Lorenzo Da Ponte so such lyrical phrases as “No class now stands on both sides of the barricades” must have presented problems to Prokofiev. All kidding aside, Prokofiev rose to the wretched occasion and wrote a wacky and frequently exciting piece that features chorus, orchestra, military band, accordion band and a speaker shouting speeches by Lenin through a megaphone. In a delicious bit of cameo  casting, the great Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky gets to shout the Lenin bits.

 
If you can get over the fact that the people who demanded the work were monsters and the philosophy that inspired it was miserable, there is plenty to like. As a matter of fact, if you are a fan of film music you will be in heaven. The kaleidoscopic Revolution movement features chorus colliding with orchestra and bellowing Lenin speeches, it’s like the Battle on the Ice from Nevsky on amphetamines. The Oath, another big choral number, brings in the accordion band and the purely orchestral Symphony movement offers the energetic, at times frenzied Prokofiev in full flight. Neeme Järvi leads a superb performance and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus are brilliant. It’s all weird fun and very much worth a listen.

A German Romantic you need to know

A German Romantic you need to know

 
Joseph Rheinberger
(Ars Musici)
The first sentence of the liner notes sums up the story of Joseph Rheinberger pretty well, “[Rheinberger] shares the fate of many German composers of the second half of the 19th century, that of the “forgotten masters.” True that. I’ve always been a fan of Rheinberger’s music. My first exposure to his music was a recording the organist E. Power Biggs made of the composer’s organ concertos. Over the years I’ve become more familiar with his many solo pieces for organ and a work that my church choir regularly sings, the Cantus Missae, Op. 109.

 This recording by the Regensburger Domspatzen (a choir of men and boys) is especially welcome for its mix of sacred and secular repertoire. The centerpiece of the recording is the a cappella Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis, Op. 117.  The Mass impresses with its simplicity and gentle lyricism. The opening Kyrie is a hushed plea that is moving and marvelously understated. The Gloria is a straightforward song of praise that eschews bombast. The Credo displays Rheinberger’s fine contrapuntal gifts and showcases the pure vocal tonal quality of the excellent chorus. The hymn-like Benedictus sets up the gorgeous Agnus Dei that closes the work.

 The same soaring melodies and skilled choral writing that make the Mass so special are found in the motets and hymns that open the recording. Rheinberger knew his old music too, and the these pieces have their share of contrapuntal flights of fancy, as well as some interesting chromatic turns that would have been heard in the Baroque. Special note most be made of the Salve Regina, Adoramus te and Ave vivens which have a marvelous melodic sweep that is unforgettable.

 The recording closes with the Waldblumen, Op. 124, a set of nature pieces look back to the earlier Romantic period and are filled with folk-like melodies and occasional flashes of drama.

French Organ Music for the Strong of Heart, Demessieux and Escaich

Posted in Classical music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2009 by Craig Zeichner
Wondrous machine, the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Sulpice

Wondrous machine, the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Sulpice

French organ music is my favorite drug. Give me a recording of music by Vierne, Dupré, Touremire or  Messiaen played on a big Cavaillé-Coll organ and I don’t need dessert.  Probably don’t need dinner either. Messiaen’s organ music seduced me years ago and there’s still nothing in all the world that stirs me as much.  Christmas music? Give me La nativité du seigneur above all else. Need a thrill? Play the Sortie from the Messe de la pentecôte loud, real loud. More than Buxtehude and even more than Bach, Messiaen’s organ music hits me right between the eyes.

The world's greatest scarf and Olivier Messiaen

The world's greatest scarf and Olivier Messiaen

 

What’s there to listen to after Messiaen? The two French composers who have impressed me most are Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968) and Thierry Escaich (b. 1965).

 

Jeanne Demessieux

Demessieux

Demessieux

A private student of the great Marcel Dupré, Demessieux was an award-winning organist and composer. She was a virtuoso of astounding talent and a prolific recording artist (although you wouldn’t know that by the paltry number of her recordings that are still in print) who was far too young when she died. Her music has an intensity that is matched by its sheer difficulty. This has to be terrifying music to play.  A recording by the organist Maurizio Ciampi on the Stradivarius label has become a great favorite of mine. Ciampi is up to the technical challenges – his  pedal work kills – and makes me want to hear him play more of Demessieux’s music, or anything else for that matter. Speaking of pedal work, apparently Demessieux dazzled North American audiences by her quicksilver pedal-playing in high heels.

 

 

Ciampi's championing Demessieux

Ciampi champions Demessieux

 

Here’s Demessieux’s Octaves from her Six  Etudes performed by Maxime Patel. The playing isn’t as technically secure as Ciampi’s but its fun to see the pedal work.

 

Thierry Escaich

Escaich, he gives you so many reasons to like the music of your century!

He gives you so many reasons to like the music of your century!

 

“Thierry Escaich: one of the composers of today who gives you so many reasons to like the music of your century!”  That’s the greeting from Escaich’s homepage and it’s true, he makes me like music of my century! Escaich’s music is as intense as Messiaen  and Demessieux’s  and, like Messiaen, has  that whiff of the delicious perfume of the ecstatic that I find so compelling. Escaich is also a virtuoso organist; he is the successor to Maurice Duruflé as organist at the church of St. Etienne du Mont in Paris.

I’ve been reveling in Escaich’s recording of his own works on the Calliope label. He plays the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Etienne du Mont in a program that features some solo works that give Demessieux’s murderous Octaves a run for its money. I also recommend the terrific recording on the Accord label (with Olivier Latry at the organ console) of his Organ Concerto. If you get really hooked, try his oratorio  Le Dernier Èvangile on the Hortus label.

 

escaich_cd01

 

 The master should have the last word though,  here’s Naji Hakim playing Messiaen’s  Dieu parmi nous from La nativité du seigneur.

 

CMZ