Archive for Chandos

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.

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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 altars 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–and even he is rarely heard these days–record labels have taken up the slack. Hyperion, Delphian, 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

Playlist

Posted in Playlists with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

An Advent Procession based on the Great “O” Antiphons
The Choir of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle
(Loft Recordings)

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Ivan Fischer
(Channel Classics)

Alphons Diepenbrock: Orchestral Works and Songs
Residentie Orchestra The Hague
Hans Vonk
(Chandos)

Phil Kline: Unsilent Night
(Cantaloupe Music)

Henry Purcell: Odes for St. Cecilia’s Day
Taverner Consort
Andrew Parrott
(Virgin Veritas)

Remembering the great Elisabeth Söderström

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.