Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Newly-Disovered Mozart Sonata Premiered 246 Years After Composition

It's always big news when a previously unknown work by a major composer is unearthed -- especially if that composer is Mozart. In this case, it was a short Allegro for piano, composed around 1766-1767 by a very young Mozart.

According to the Mozarteum Salzburg Foundation, the work was discovered in a 1780 notebook kept by a village music teacher. The book contained a variety of keyboard compositions, including some by Mozart's father, Leopold (the more prominent composer of the two at the time).

Once scholars verified the authenticity of the work, the Foundation began planning the world premiere. On March 23, 2012, Florian Birsak performed the Allegro in Mozart's Salzburg home, on a fortepiano owned by Mozart -- now that's authenticity!

Realistically, the work's a minor composition. The Allegro isn't a lost masterwork -- it's not likely to join or supplant any of the core repertoire of Mozart piano works. It doesn't foreshadow or provide insight into any of the composer's major compositions. It's simply a very pleasant and tuneful little piano piece. With the name Mozart attached to it.

And perhaps that's enough.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Gergiev Phenomonon

Valery Gergiev, born in Moscow in 1953, the year of Stalin's death, is one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. He is currently the Director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg (home to the Kirov Opera and Ballet), Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. He is equally at home in the operatic and orchestral repertoire.

He has taken his Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater on tour around the world, including to New York, the Salzburg Festival, and venues in between. He is sovereign in the Russian repertoire. Those who heard him conduct Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Met will not soon forget his mastery of that sprawling score. His Kirov Opera has been an incubator for excellent Russian singers who have gone on to have international careers, such as Anna Netrebko, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Olga Borodina, and many others.

For several years he brought the Kirov Opera on tour to Washington's Kennedy Center, where he presented the staples of the Russian repertoire and several operas by Verdi, with whose works he is associated, among others. In particular I recall a memorable Boris Godunov on a snowy night in Washington, but particularly compelling was a concert performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by his countryman Dmitri Shostakovich that blazed with intensity. On the flip side of the coin, his reading of Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims was a dull, leaden affair, with none of the life and sparkle associated with Rossini.

The Kirov has released a number of his recordings on its house label, Mariinsky Records, including a highly acclaimed recent release of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, featuring Natalie Dessay, and a just released recording of Massenets' Don Quichotte, with Ferruccio Furlanetto. Gergiev had not previously been associated with either work, but both readings bear his unique stamp.

Gergiev maintains such a punishing international schedule that sometimes his performances betray incomplete preparation. I recall an indifferent run-through of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony in Salzburg that was followed by a compelling performance of Moussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death with Yevgeny Nikitin. Gergiev was thoroughly involved, and it showed. Gergiev's style is to linger over passages he especially admires, but he has a way of generating tremendous momentum to close acts and symphonic movements. Some listeners find his conducting ponderous and erratic, but I think his performances can be among the most dramatic of any conductor's, particularly when he is conducting his own orchestra, which he rules absolutely.

Gergiev and James Levine are unique among today's star globetrotting conductors in that they have chosen to remain with and build a single company and its orchestra. As a result the Met Orchestra and the Kirov Orchestra are among the best orchestras in the world in their chosen repertoire. Both Levine and Gergiev love and admire the music of Richard Wagner, and Gergiev's recent recording of Parsifal with Gary Lehman, Violetta Urmana, and Rene Pape will provide fuel for both Gergiev's detractors and admirers. I find that the performance has an inner passion that is compelling in its intensity, plus the recording quality is first-rate. Alas, Lehman does not bear comparison with Placido Domingo, the best Parsifal I have heard on the stage.

Watch for Gergiev's performances on WTJU's Sunday Opera Matinee. You can see the schedule of upcoming presentations at our website,

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rautavaara: New Concertos from a Finnish Master

Rautavaara: Towards the Horizon; Modificata; Incantations 
Truls Mork, cello
Colin Currie, percussion
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgards, conductor

This new release sheds some light onto Einojuhani Rautavaara's growth as a composer. The outer two works are  recent concertos, composed in 2008/2009. But the middle work, Modificata, was written in 1957, when Rautavaara  was just 29 years old  and very much enamored with serial composition.

The current version, though, is his 2003 revision of the work, which smoothed out some of the jagged edges. Still, it's a very stark and aggressive-sounding work, especially when compared to the concertos that flank it.

Rautavaara's second cello concerto, "Towards the Horizon" is a single-movement work full of expression. The cello seems to float along over top of an orchestral ocean of ethereal harmonies.  As the title suggests, there's a sense of motion towards a destination that's always out of reach. And while the cello part isn't that challenging technically, to meaningfully convey all the emotion written into the score requires top-notch musicianship. And Truls Mork fills that role admirably.

"Incantations" is a percussion concerto composed for Colin Currie. Currie met with Rautavaara during the composing of the work, and created his own cadenza. Having Currie perform on this recording makes the concerto come alive. All the hallmarks of Rautavaara's current style are there; the stacked chords, the warm orchestration and the large musical gestures to which the solo percussionist provides additional rhythmic impetus. Most of the the time, Currie's playing melodic percussion instruments, but even when he's not, Rautavaara's written the work so it sounds like he is.

This is fine addition to Ondine's catalog of Rautavaara recordings.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lawrence Ball: There's no Madness in this Method Music

Lawrence Ball: Method Music
Imaginary Sitters/Imaginary Galaxies
Navona Records

I’m generally suspicious of mathematically-generated music. A lot of what I’ve heard sounds academic, mechanical, and lifeless. Not so with Lawrence Ball’s compositions Imaginary Sitters, and Imaginary Galaxies.

The liner note attempt to explain in part the algorithms (harmonic math) behind the music, but it really doesn’t matter. What counts is that Method Music works.

Ball worked with Pete Townsend (of the Who), who produced this two-disc set. Disc one is a set of short, five-minute Imaginary Portraits, created by feeding data about the subject into a computer, which then used the Method Music algorithms to convert them into sound.

The first track, Meher Baba Piece is a morphing variation on the opening to the Who's hit Baba O’Riley. Almost as soon as the listener recognizes it,though,  the theme starts to stretch and change.

The remaining portraits (ten out of a much larger set), are similar in structure. All are electronic works, and have a basically tonal structure. Superficially, they sound like the minimalist compositions of Steve Reich, with repeated motives gradually moving out of phase with each other. But there’s more to it than that.

Although I couldn’t say exactly what Method Music was, I could decidedly hear it at work. These pieces have an underlying logic to them that’s different than minimalism. And that logic is apparent throughout the pieces. This is highly organized music that’s moving towards a goal – although it’s getting there through an unfamiliar path. People who enjoy contemporary classical music as well as progressive and experimental rock should find common aesthetic ground in Imaginary Sitters.

Imaginary Galaxies, which makes up the second disc of the set, might appeal more to the classical rather than the rock listener. Although the compositional organization is the same, these are much larger and complex works. Each of the three pieces runs about twenty minutes. The pacing is slower, and the changes are more subtle. Timbre becomes more important, and if Imaginary Sitters were painted with primary colors, Imaginary Galaxies would be a wider spectrum of pastel and blended colors.

Ball writes, “I hope the listener feels as if held in a sonic cradle, watching an intricate musical mobile.” It’s an apt description, and I certainly did.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Happy 327th Birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach (21 March 2012) (1685-1750)

Bach's final unfinished fugue.
Over the next three Sunday mornings on my show Classical Sunrise (6 to 9 AM EDT), I will be featuring J.S. Bach’s monumental works: Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 (The Art of Fugue); the Mass in B minor, BWV 232; and the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244; three of the greatest classical works of all time.

Bach was the undisputed master of fugal writing, and the Art of Fugue is the culmination of his skill and artistry. The work consists of 14 fugues and four canons. The inventiveness and genius of the piece is breathtaking. It was his last major composition; Bach died before he could complete it. The abrupt ending in the middle of the last fugue, and the profound silence thereafter, speaks to my soul in a way that no other single piece of music can match.

Bach’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, is in some ways the vocal equivalent of the Art of Fugue: the Mass was his last choral composition, representing the crowning achievement in this genre. He completed it in 1749, the year before he died, although parts of it were composed decades earlier.

Bach’s setting of the Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, was composed for Good Friday 1727 in Leipzig. Every year at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, a Passion traditionally was performed on Good Friday. It was the high point in the church calendar, particularly coming as it did after Lent during which no music was performed in the church. Bach, as a cantor at St. Thomas church, had earlier composed the St. John Passion, BWV 245, but it lacked the unity that Bach achieved in the St. Matthew Passion. Only these two Passions survive of the five passions that were mentioned in his obituary. The St. Matthew Passion, known as the “Great Passion,” in Bach’s family, according to Christoph Wolff, surpassed all that Bach had previously composed in sacred music.

Bach’s compositions were all intended for the glory of God. Perhaps nowhere is Bach’s intention more evident than in these three grand-scale pieces.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Janacek: Choral Works - Going back to the roots

Janacek: Choral Works; Six Moravian Choruses (after Dvorak)
Cappella Amsterdam 
Daniel Reuss, director 
Radio Blazers Ensemble 
Harmonia Mundi

It's no secret that Czech composer Leos Janacek used the folk traditions of Bohemia and Moravia for the basis of his own musical language. In his most advanced works (like his string quartets), those folk traditions are heard but faintly in the background. As this new collection shows, the folk music of Janacek's native land was front and center in his choral compositions.

The Cappella Amsterdam and their director Daniel Reuss may not be Czech, but they perform these works with conviction and convincing authenticity. The most musically complex are the stand-alone pieces. Some, like The Wild duck and the Wolf's Trail our straight-forward settings of folks songs. Others, such as the Ave Maria, Our Father, and the heart-breaking Elegy on the Death of My Daughter Olga use folk material as part of a deeply personal expression of piety and yearning.

Also included are two large collections. Nursery Rhymes are just that -- twelve children's songs. While not sounding entirely care-free in Janacek's settings, they still retain a simple innocence that makes this set particularly appealing.

The album leads off with Six Moravian Choruses. Janacek transcribed these works from Dvorak's Moravian Duets, and results are wonderful. These choruses combine the best elements of Czech folk song, Dvorak's and Janacek's compositional styles.

If you enjoy the music of Dvorak, Smetana, or Janacek, then this album will be a treat. If you just enjoy good choral singing, then give this a listen -- the Capella Amsterdam will not disappoint.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: Music for private devotion

Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart 
Tudor and Jacobean music for private devotion
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi

There have been many albums of English renaissance music, but none quite like this. Tune thy Musicke brings to light some truly neglected repertoire -- sacred music for the manor home.

From the time of Henry VIII through James I, amateur musicianship flourished to a high degree of proficiency. Stile Antico shows just how high with this new release. Most recordings of renaissance sacred music are works that were written -- and meant to be performed -- in churches and chapels by professional choirs. Neither is the case with the music on this album.

Although the compositions may be unfamiliar, the composers are not. Thomas Tomkins, John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, John Dowland, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons are among those represented. As with their secular music for the home, these composers didn't sacrifice quality simply because they were writing for amateurs.

The works presented fall stylistically between the two camps of secular domestic music and sacred church music. Some compositions, such as Thomas Campion's Never weather-beaten sail are jewels of four-part harmony and sound very much like hymns. Although if they were treated more lightly, they almost might sound like secular frottala.

Others, such as John Amner's seven-minute O ye little flock owe more to the madrigal tradition. Amner's ambitious work has several sections that change tempo and mood to suit the lyrics. Counterpoint, supported by instrumental doubling, further illuminates the text. And yet, as the contrapuntal lines spin outward, they seem to evoke the chapel more than the dining room.

Stile Antico performs with clarity and precision. Fretwork lends support on some selections, their viols adding a warm richness to the ensemble. Even if you have a lot of rennaisance music, I highly recommend this recording. It fills in a missing gap in the English renaissance repertoire, with music that has a character all its own.