Greetings, friends. It’s time for another “best of” column. These aren’t just one-offs! They are too special to end up on anyone’s Miscellaneous list. Over the last few months I’ve enjoyed some recordings more than others but never managed to work them into an essay. It’s now or never. You deserve to know about this great music. (In fact, it’s likely that you already know about some of these, since I am so late getting the word out.) Just remember to trust your own taste as you sort out my recommendations and (occasional) warnings.
Mozart: Divertimenti. Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists (Linn CKD 479). In his excellent booklet notes, Harvard professor Robert Levin reminds us that for the most part, this music was not intended for active listening. Whether called serenades, divertimenti, cassations, Nachtmusik, Finalmusik, or Tafelmusik, these multi-movement works functioned as background—soundtracks, if you like—to fashionable dinner parties, public ceremonies and open-air gatherings. You could nibble a canapé, check out the fireworks, gossip, conduct serious political conversation and attend to the music from time to time. Levin reminds us there’s “a miraculous perfection about all of Mozart’s music,” including the five pieces (K375, 253, 270, 252/240a, and 240) played here with such cool good taste.
How did Mozart pull it off? Partly by avoiding the drama that crops up more appropriately in his operas, symphonies, and keyboard sonatas. There are no riveting hairpin turns in the narrative, no explosive contrasts. Yet the music is filled with delightful details, pleasantly simple tunes, subtle accompaniments. One is never bored. It’s “ambient” music of a high order, and—unlike, say, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports—it suggests an intimate, lively, and convivial gathering, a party we’d actually like to attend. Kudos to the six outstanding wind players from the SCO who make it happen, and to producer/engineer Philip Hobbs and his crew for capturing it. Here’s a taste:
VIOLS AND SUCH
In the New Yorker’s April 13 “Goings On About Town,” Alex Ross contributes a brief, graceful appreciation of the viola da gamba, an instrument much prized in the Renaissance but neglected since then. It’s a nice bit of writing: he works in references to “A Brief History of Failure” and a couple of excellent contemporary viol groups, although he focuses mainly on Jordi Savall, today’s undisputed master.
Savall’s newest solo recording, La Lira d’Espéria II: Galicia (Alia Vox AVSA9907; SACD and download) is special indeed but may not appeal to all tastes. It offers 74 minutes of monophonic (i.e., single-line) music played on solo rebec, tenor fiddle, or rebab. Many of these songs and dances are taken from a single 13th-century manuscript source, the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alfonso X “the Wise.” As in 1994’s vol. I, Savall is joined by longtime percussion associate Pedro Estevan. The recording has been made in a cavernous medieval space, a wet acoustic meant to evoke the time, place, and essential mystery of this music. Perhaps it will open a door for you. I'm not yet certain that rebecs and rebabs (and Alfonso’s music when played on them) convey the expressive depth and variety that Mr. Savall reliably offers when a true viol is in his hands. I'll have to live with it for a while. . . . Let’s sample some of track 8, “Pregaria En a gran coita”:
I can more confidently recommend John Ward: Fantasies & Verse Anthems from Phantasm, the British viol group directed by Laurence Dreyfus (Linn CKD 427; SACD and download). Here is music of unquestionable substance, variety, and feeling. Ward (c1589–1638) was attached to the household of one Sir Henry Fanshawe, himself closely associated with Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales. The Prince favored music of all kinds, including consorts of viols, music in the new Italian vocal style, and the grand polyphony of the English anthem. All these came together in the verse anthems—rife with operatically declamatory solo vocal lines—and viol fantasies Ward created for his patron. The album is almost evenly divided between anthems and instrumental fantasies, both of which allow the viols’ “quiet, quavering voices to rise from hermetic silence,” as Mr. Ross puts it. Listen:
Phantasm are assisted in the verse anthems by the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford. Recording was accomplished in the Chapel at Magdalen; Philip Hobbs engineered and co-produced. This was my favorite vocal record of the last six months, and the best-performed and recorded selection of verse anthems I’ve heard in many years.
MOSTLY ORCHESTRAL MUSIC
Composer Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) is definitely on a roll. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and the Grawemeyer Award in 2002, he has racked up a triumphant series of commissions from the likes of Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Christopher O’Riley, and numerous great orchestras worldwide. Kernis’s creative vision has expanded exponentially in the last few years; his control of the materials has become both more secure and more daring. Some of the results are available on a new release, Aaron Jay Kernis: Three Flavors (Naxos 8.559711). The title refers to a piano concerto whose three movements are as stylistically dissimilar as they can get. Kernis explains his choices in foodie terms:
When I dine out I like to try cuisines and restaurants new to me as often as possible, without repeating dishes and cooking styles for a while—never the same cuisine in the same week if I can help it!
So the first movement is “directly influenced by sounds from Indonesian gamelan,” with repetitive figures, exotic scales, and a prominent metal-percussion complement. The second, “Lullaby-Barcarolle,” begins as an exercise in simplicity à la Mozart or Ravel before introducing gestures that recall some of the energies of the first movement. The finale, “Blue Whirl,” leans heavily on jazz and blues as articulated in earlier American symphonic music. Pianist Andrew Russo shines here and also in Superstar Etude No. 3, a tribute to Gershwin the pianist with nods to Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Errol Garner. But let’s hear a little of Three Flavors’ finale:
Topnotch performances from everyone, and excellent engineering from James Abbott and his crew, working at the venerable Troy (NY) Savings Bank Music Hall and at Syracuse University’s Setnor Hall.
I also enjoyed a set of Oboe Concertos (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807573; SACD and download) from the Britten Sinfonia, featuring able soloist Nicholas Daniel and conductor James MacMillan. Some listeners may be put off by the chalk-and-cheese pairing of Vaughan Williams and MacMillan. But both works receive persuasive performances, and the contrast is refreshing. You’ll have no trouble recognizing the pastoral mood and folksong inflections of the Vaughan Williams work:
MacMillan’s concerto, written for Mr. Daniel, covers more ground. Its slow movement is based on In Angustiis, music written earlier in response to the 9/11 tragedy. The outer movements provide livelier but equally engaging music—one senses a drama, or series of dramas, unfolding. As Mr. Daniel writes in the booklet notes,
Almost any great new concerto stretches and expands the soloist’s technique and expression in new ways, and it’s true of MacMillan. There are joyous technical challenges in it, often involving fiendish passage-work played both backwards and forwards. Above all there is a sense of MacMillan writing exactly what he wants to write, not giving a damn about critical voices, even laughing at serial music.
Exactly. Here is a sample:
The album is filled out with Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes op. 90 and MacMillan’s One for chamber orchestra. Excellent production by HM USA’s nonpareil Robina G. Young and Brad Michel.
IX: Iannis Xenakis. Kuniko, percussion (Linn CKD 495; SACD and download). I don’t understand why Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) never became quite as famous (notorious?) as his peers in the late-20th-century avant-garde—characters like Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez, and Cage. On the surface he seemed just as nutty: fanatical, self-serious (unlike Cage, who could be maddeningly un-self-serious), and teeming with mathematical and quasi-scientific justifications for every note (unlike Cage, who carefully, maddeningly hid his careful calculations from the public). Trained as an engineer and architect, Xenakis nevertheless created music that pulsed with life. Like Stravinsky, he thought of music as architecture, but that hardly kept his works from functioning as glowing, complex organisms with forms always informed by their utter fluidity.
Having tackled music of Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt in previous releases for Linn, Kuniko (like Madonna and Björk, she’s only got the one name) now brings us her take on two major Xenakis works, Pléïades and Rebonds. Via multitracking she becomes her own percussion ensemble, creating cascades of sound from the drums and mallet instruments at her disposal. She also writes—and writes well—about this music; it’s actually useful to read what she has to say about these pieces. (The booklet notes include the composer’s own commentaries too.) In Claviers, third movement of Pléïades, one can hear the influence of Asian gamelan, of various algorithms applied to canonic textures, or of Impressionistic echo effects. It’s beautifully elastic—loopy, in every sense of the word—and it may make you smile. (For me it briefly brought to mind the wonderful Groucho-Harpo “mirror scene” in Duck Soup.) Listen:
Chopin: Preludes, op. 28. Ingrid Fliter, piano (Linn CKD 475; SACD and download). My Schenbeck Mk. II Pianist Radar, a wayward device far more Minimus than Magico, failed to detect Ms. Fliter—already known for Chopin via her EMI recordings—until she came out with a set of his piano concertos about a year ago (Linn CKD 455). It was marvelous. I always meant to mention it here but didn’t. Now she's done the Preludes, and it would be a crime not to praise them from the rooftops. (This is figurative speech, of course. I am fairly certain that my Homeowners Association takes a dim view of any locals actually taking to a rooftop to praise anything, with the possible exception of the Georgia Bulldogs winning an SEC championship.)
Like the concerto set, Fliter’s Opus 28 is exquisitely played and stunningly recorded. What is more, the Preludes contain an intoxicatingly higher dose of Mature Chopin. Instead of stiffly imitating earlier models as in the concertos, here Chopin broke new ground. Historically, a “prelude” preceded a more substantial piece and was largely improvised. For those who couldn’t improvise, music publishers were happy to oblige with collections of composed preludes, usually one in every key and mode. Composers like Hummel and Cramer, renowned pianists themselves, turned out best-selling volumes of such works.
But Chopin didn’t think of his Preludes in that way. As Jim Samson asserts in his excellent booklet notes,
The Op. 28 cycle consists of a succession of miniatures of great emotional power and unrivalled artistic quality. They retain an outward similarity to traditional collections . . . but they actually initiate a quite separate tradition of concert preludes that would be further developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. . . . They achieve something close to perfection of form within the framework of the miniature, the relationship of substance to scale expertly gauged.
Chopin himself performed these works either individually or in small groups. By considering the way the A-major and F-sharp-minor Preludes complement one another, you can catch something of the effect such groupings make:
The engineering, by Philip Hobbs, seems faultless. What remarkable piano sound!
More Great Piano Engineering. It can’t be easy to record solo piano. One must contend with so many potential difficulties, beginning with the instrument itself and ending only with the creative dilemma of how to “present” the performance, factoring in all particulars of the music, the artist’s sense of self and occasion, and the listeners’ expectations as well. Does one aim for concert-hall realism? If so, which hall? And in which “seat” does one place the listener? Or would a fantasy context work better, perhaps one in which the listener somehow becomes the performer herself, seated at a perfect Steinway D and hearing a veritable ocean of keyboard sound emanate from the space before her?
Better before you than around you, I think. I didn’t care much for the sense of being trapped somewhere inside the instrument that I got several years ago from (if I recall) a set of Emanuel Ax’s Haydn sonatas. Beautiful playing, mind you. But the “intimacy” approached claustrophobic proportions.
No such issues with two other highly recommendable piano releases. First, J. S. Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge. Zhu Xiao-Mei, piano (Accentus Music ACC 30308). I know I recommended Angela Hewitt’s Art of Fugue recording a month or two ago. At that point I hadn’t yet heard the phenomenal Zhu Xiao-Mei. And now I have. Whereas Ms. Hewitt offers an attractively lean, chaste interpretation in which clarity is the watchword, Ms. Zhu provides more characterful, Romantically colored readings. One is tempted to say that she discovers Bach’s kinship with Schubert and Schumann, but that’s too convenient, and it doesn’t do justice to the thought she’s put into her remarkable readings. In an interview included in the booklet notes, she convincingly links some essential Chinese philosophical texts with this, Bach’s ultimate contrapuntal statement. These performances are anything but Lisztian glosses on Baroque polyphony. Listen:
Second, Love and Longing, an exquisite collection of transcriptions and character pieces from Yoonie Han (Steinway & Sons 30030). I guess you would expect that if Steinway starts a record label, they’re going to make sure their instruments sound really good. It didn’t hurt that they brought in the Dans—Dan Merceruio and Daniel Shores of Sono Luminus—to do the recording. To be precise, Ms. Han went to Virginia to record at Sono Luminus. There she was cossetted with Metric Halo ULN-8 and AEA a840 mics and (one hopes) captured in a hi-res digital format. Right now, the highest res available for download appears to be CD-quality from Naxos’s new service and certain other sites. Frankly, Ms. Han’s playing will sweep you away even at 16/44.1, which is as it should be. Listen:
TOP OF THE POPS
Ophélie Gaillard: Alvorada. Gaillard, cello. Music by de Falla, Granados, Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos et al. (Aparté AP104; 2 CDs or download). If there were any record stores still out there, this would go in the Crossover bin. Alvorada dedicates itself to a single shameless task: dishing up steaming bowls of sunny Latin scenery for snowbound, housebound, soul-bound Northerners.
I loved it, even the castanets—and I have been allergic to castanets for a long time. This cured my April-is-the-cruelest-month blues when Xanax couldn’t. Ms. Gaillard surrounds herself with some great Iberian and Brazilian musicians. Guitar, bandoneon, percussion, and string contributions are first-rate, as are Gabriel Sivak’s arrangements. She doesn’t always match the relaxed attitude of her colleagues, but let's let that slide—passion is a good thing. As is the big, lush soundstage, created at Paris’s Little Tribeca studios. Here’s a taste:
Oh, what the heck. Here’s more:
And that’s all for this month. I’ll be back in May with a themed essay of some sort. Meanwhile, let me know what your favorite solo piano collection is—let’s see if we can get an argument started!
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