Classical Concept Albums

Classical Concept Albums

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

They’re baack.

Concept albums, that is, those packages that attempt—with varying degrees of success—to offer works that complement, complete, and inform one another.

For pop and rock, the advent of the Concept Album marked a new maturity in genres commonly associated with pimples and prom night. (My sources in the KGB tell me one such album will get special attention this month with a deluxe reissue.) In the classical world, Concept Albums have also found a new lease on life. Recordings of the standard repertoire now multiply like mayflies—even obscure works get a fourth or fifth reading—so artists have embraced the Concept as a way of enhancing their brand. Here are some examples.

Early Music: My favorite Baroque album this spring is Heroines of Love and Loss, a recital from soprano Ruby Hughes, cellist Mime Yamahiro Brinkmann, and lutenist Jonas Nordberg (BIS-2248; SACD and download). Hughes wanted to highlight her favorite women composers of the period. Yet what makes the album memorable is that she and her colleagues universalize this music, associating its passionate and/or meditative laments with texts that call to mind classical cultural figures like Dido, Desdemona, and Venus. The mix is further leavened with gorgeous instrumental interludes from the likes of Kapsberger (a Toccata Arpeggiata for theorbo) and Vivaldi (the G-Minor Cello Sonata RV 42). This preserves the album’s intimacy while helping it avoid continuous melancholy, an affliction known in the industry as “Semper Dowland semper dolens.” Here’s a taste:

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I also enjoyed Give Me Your Hand: Geminiani & the Celtic Earth (Alpha Classics 276; CD and download) from Bruno Cocset and Les Basses Réunies. Talk about a concept: Cocset has assembled a charming, musically engaging set list that illuminates the mutual influence of certain 18th-century Italian musicians (Lorenzo Bocchi, Francesco Geminiani) and Celtic musicians and poets they encountered in their travels (Turlough O’Carolan and “David Rizzio,” née James Oswald). You’ll have to read Cocset’s fascinating liner notes to grasp the full extent of their cross-pollination. But what music! Here are two tastes:

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Playing viola and tenor violin, Cocset provides a firm anchor for the ensemble’s mellow sound; their playing offers a variety of rich timbres and some of the most endearing tunes you’ll encounter this side of Dublin or Edinburgh.

Finally, give a listen to Musica Baltica 1: Baroque Cantatas from Gdańsk (MDG 902 1989-6; SACD). Andrzej Szadejko and his Goldberg Baroque Ensemble perform church cantatas by four musicians active in Danzig/Gdańsk between 1687 and 1774. Danzig was a thriving center of trade and commerce; the music of its major churches reflected the city’s cultural importance. Much of that music has been lost, but a sizable group of manuscripts survived in the Library of the Polish Academy of the Sciences. Szadejko edited the works recorded here and turns in nice performances as well. On the whole, this music is less complex than what you might hear from Bach, Handel, or Vivaldi, but no less elegant. Its simplicity is refreshing.

The album was recorded in Gdańsk’s historic Trinity Church, the acoustics of which are on full display. You may not care for that; I found myself fiddling with gain and toggling between stereo and multichannel formats to render the building’s contribution less intrusive. Still, these are solid performances of interesting “new” repertoire and well worth exploring. Many selections from the album are available as live performances on YouTube:


Speaking of violas: Several good viola recitals have appeared recently, with Bel Canto: La voix de l’alto (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902277; CD and download) the pick of the lot. Antoine Tamestit has already distinguished himself as a member of Trio Zimmermann; this is his first album for HM as a solo artist. With pianist Cédric Tiberghien, another rising star, he focuses on a pivotal time and place for the viola: Paris in the 19th century. Beginning with Berlioz, French musicians widened and deepened the instrument’s role as a soloist. In his excellent program essay, Frédéric Lainé notes the viola is rightly considered a “dramatic contralto among instrumental voices.” Although Bel Canto includes music by Bellini and Donizetti, its beating heart consists of three works by Henri Vieuxtemps, Belgian violinist, composer, and teacher (Ysaÿe was his most famous pupil) whose Sonata op. 36 remains a touchstone of the viola literature. Listen:

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Beautifully recorded too.

And furthermore: Three more albums illustrate the joys and pitfalls of The Concept. Cellist Ophélie Gaillard’s Exiles (Aparté AP142; CD, vinyl, downloads) offers works by Bloch, Korngold, and Prokofiev, plus folk-song arrangements. Her collaborators include the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo and the Sirba Octet. It’s done very well, although I suspect there are more dramatic renditions of Schelomo out there, not to mention more idiomatic versions of the folk material. As with her Latin album, Gaillard’s good taste and scrupulous musicianship occasionally get in the way.

What you may find more telling about her (or her management’s) approach is the program booklet: from Mexico City (!), Gaillard contributes a three-page personal essay; Pierre Birnbaum describes American Jews’ struggles with assimilation and anti-Semitism; Alan Poirer discusses the music itself; finally we get Jean-Baptiste Urbain’s essay on Korngold and the film Deception. The booklet is crammed with session photos and artfully posed pictures of Ms. Gaillard in period costume with a worn leather trunk and autumn leaves scattered on the (subway?) steps behind her. A vintage movie poster and photos of early-20th-century immigrant life in Manhattan complete the portfolio.

Maybe these visuals and commentaries do help people connect the dots. Taken altogether, they strike me as generalized overkill, especially the posed artist pictures. Two albums from Alpha Classics fare better at this game: Il Distratto, No. 4 in Alpha’s Haydn 2032 series, focuses on Haydn’s role as theatrical impresario and on his use of theatrical devices in the symphonies. Three are included, plus Cimarosa’s humorous cantata Il maestro di cappella. The program book offers several succinct essays and a selection of photos from Richard Kalvar of Magnum. You know what I like about those photos? They address “distraction” but are sly about it, as Haydn was. Nothing gives off the scent of a media consultant. Kalvar just assumes you’re awake. (It doesn’t hurt that the performances, by Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico, are absolutely first-rate, not just done very well, but in a class by themselves.)

Almost as successful is New York (Alpha 274) from Ensemble Intercontemporain. These two CDs aim to illuminate New York City’s role in 20th-century experimental music. CD 1 gives us Intégrales (1925) from Edgard Varèse, Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1996), and music by David Fulmer (b. 1981) and Sean Shepherd (b. 1979). CD 2 offers Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (2010), John Cage’s Music for Wind Instruments (1938), and Morton Feldman’s Instruments I (1974). All the performances seem exemplary, and the recording approaches reference quality. The realization of Reich’s piece, which blends electronic and acoustic elements, is especially stunning. But does this assortment of works work? Does it gain altitude as a concept?

Not quite. Granted, the thing about New York City as artistic locus is its diversity. And there’s a good historical arc here, beginning with Varèse and culminating in Reich, Feldman, and a couple of talented young’uns (people I’d never heard of, but maybe that’s the point). The one serious misfire is the Cage piece, written before he’d ever set foot in the Big Apple and well before he adopted the aleatory methods that won him notoriety. It’s essentially a student work that doesn’t belong in this company. (I have other quibbles about Carter, whose work in general strikes me as Faceless Mid-Century High Modernism, but that’s a matter of taste.) Click here to hear some (mislabeled) clips.

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