Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kaija Saariaho - Chamber Works for Strings, Vol. 1

Saariaho: Chamber Works for Strings, Vol. 1

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is a master of soundscapes. Her orchestral works weave tapestries of sound that are both earthy and other-wordly. And as this new collection shows, her nuanced approach to music is equally effective with the limited forces of chamber groups.

Although the string quartet META4 are the featured artists, they only perform together on one track -- Nymphéa. The rest of the selections are for a single string instrument with varying types of accompaniment: Tocar, and Calices for violin and piano; Vent nocturne for viola and electronics; Spins and Spells for cello solo, and Nocturne for violin solo.

Nymphéa is composed for string quartet plus electronics. And Saariaho applies said electronics with a very light touch. She uses them to enhance the sound of the acoustic instruments, almost like super-saturating the colors of a photograph. The electronics heighten the emotional intensity of the string quartet in this pensive work.

My personal favorite is Spins and Spells for solo cello. There's an off-kilter quality to the music that keeps it moving forward in fits and starts. The work feels perpetually off-balance and tumbling forward right up to the end.

If you're already a fan of Saariaho's music, this disc is a must. If not, this can provide a good and somewhat intimate introduction to this visionary composer's style.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Strange Case of the Schubert Symphonies

If there's one thing most people know about Franz Schubert, it's that his most popular symphony is unfinished. If there's a second thing folks remember about Franz Schubert, it's that he only wrote nine symphonies. But if you look carefully at the list, you'll notice two oddities.

Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, D 125
Symphony No. 3 in D major, D 200
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, "Tragic" D 417
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D 485
Symphony No. 6 in C major "Little C Major" D 589
Symphony No. 8 in B minor "Unfinished" D 759
Symphony No. 9 in C major "Great C Major" D 944

What's odd?
1) There's a symphony missing.
2) It's not the unfinished symphony.

Unfinished, but included
The official "Unfinished" symphony (No. 8) incompletion wasn't because of Schubert's death. He wrote the first and second movement in 1822 (six years before his death), and just never got around to writing the last two movements. (most symphonies from this era had four movements). The first two movements were of such quality, though, that they were performed and have become part of the standard repertoire.

Unfinished and missing
The missing symphony is No. 7 is even more of a fragment than the 8th. composed in 1821, this E major symphony exists in sketch form, with a melody line and bass and counterpoint underneath. Unlike the 8th, all four movements of the 7th were written, and the first part of the first movement is fully orchestrated (the next step in the composition process).

The other other unfinished symphony
And there's another symphony missing from the list. In the final weeks of his life, Schubert composed a 10th symphony in a piano reduction score. That is, the music is written to be played on the piano, with notes indicating instruments for later orchestration. Like the 7th, it appears to be complete in sketch form.

With a significant amount of these compositions complete, it isn't surprising that musicians have been tempted to fill in the blanks.

Symphony No. 7's three co-composers
Schubert's 7th symphony was first completed in 1881 by John Francis Barnett, an English composer and teacher. Famed conductor Felix Weingartner did his own version in 1934, and featured it in performance. The final version (to date) is by composer and scholar Brian Newbould, who extensively studied Schubert in order to make his completion as authentic as possible.

Symphony No. 10's two-and-a-half co-composers
The score for Symphony No. 10 was only identified as such in the 1970's, and Brian Newbould offered a scholarly completion of it. Conductor Pierre Bartholomeé revised Newbould's version with controversial results. And finally, composer Luciano Berio used the source material  as the basis for his work "Rendering."

Questions remain
So how many symphonies did Schubert really write? In terms of completed works, seven. In terms of what's commonly performed, eight. And in terms of what might have been, ten.

But are these completions valid? It's difficult to say Schubert may have revised the surviving material after working with it for a while. While we can say a combination of instruments for a certain passage is likely, based on Schubert's other works, it's possible he may have chosen differently.

Personally, I think the sketches are complete enough that most of the resulting music is Schubert's. And I'm glad for the opportunity to hear these works, even in an adulterated form. They deepen my understanding and appreciation of this short-lived musical genius.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wendy Warner: Haydn & Myslivecek - An appealing program

Haydn; Myslivecek: Cello Concertos
Wendy Warner, cello
Camerata Chicago; Drostan Hall, conductor

An appealing program played by a masterful virtuoso. That's my impression of this new release from Cedille. As with many recordings, this Chicago-based label uses local talent -- but what talent it is!

Drostan Hall and the Camerata Chicago perform with precision and sensitivity admirably suited to Haydn. And Wendy Warner, though from Chicago, is an internationally-recognized cellist who brings a fresh interpretation to some well-known works.

The two cello concertos of Franz Joseph Haydn have long been repertoire staples, and just about every major cellist has recorded them. Warner's performances are expressive without being overly dramatic. The clear, singing tone of her Guarneri cello is beautiful -- and beautifully recorded. And Warner's interpretation, accompanied by a small ensemble, makes these works sound warmly intimate.

Sandwiched between the Haydn concertos on the album is Josef Myslivecek's only concerto for cello. A contemporary of Haydn (and friend of Mozart), Myslivecek's wrote in a similar style that nicely complements the Haydn concerti. And the Myslivecek concerto does not suffer for the comparison. Myslivecek wrote in a leaner, more straight-forward manner, bringing the aesthetics of the classical style to the forefront of his music.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Domingo: Verdi - immaculately sung

Placido Domingo
Orquestra de la Comunitat Valencian
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor
Sony Classical

Normally a new recital disc of Verdi arias by Placido Domingo would not be particularly noteworthy, except this disc features the great tenor in arias written for the baritone voice. After a distinguished career as a tenor, Domingo now is singing Verdi's baritone roles. Already Covent Garden, Berlin, Mantua, and the Met have heard him as Simon Boccanegra, Germont, and in other roles, but this new disc features a broad spectrum of arias composed by Verdi for his baritone characters.

Distinguished Verdi baritones are a rare commodity these days, so this disc is especially welcome. Verdi's baritone roles typically lie mostly in the upper part of a lyric baritone's register, well within the range of Domingo's voice.

Domingo the baritone does not evoke memories of Macneil, Warren, or Milnes. Instead, he makes these arias his own, almost as though Verdi composed them for a lower-voiced tenor. The dark, but still lyric quality of the Domingo voice is still very much in evidence, as is the noble phrasing and immaculate technique.

As always, he does not simply sing the arias, but he inhabits the role that he is portraying. Boccanegra's curse terrifies, and Germont's sorrow is made real for us. Domingo's voice does not quite reach the depths of the baritone register, so a phrase or two is not perfectly finished where it concludes in the lower register, as in "Eri tu" from Un ballo in maschera, but otherwise his voice comfortably fits the selections he has chosen for this recital.

Particular favorites are "Pietà, rispetto, amore" from Macbeth, which opens the disc, and Rigoletto's anguished "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata." Domingo's treatment of Germont's aria "Di Provenza il mar" from La traviata rivals Robert Merrill's interpretation in its lyricism, if not in pure baritonal heft. Verdi usually encouraged a lyrical interpretation from his singers (the role of Lady Macbeth being an exception), and he would have approved of Domingo's always lyrical approach. It is only in the arias from La forza del destino, where we have grown accustomed to a more muscular approach, that Domingo's treatment of Carlo's music is not entirely convincing. albeit beautifully sung.

Throughout the disc Pablo Heras-Casado's conducting of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana is supportive and flexible. (Heras-Casado recently made his Met debut conducting Rigoletto).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Daniel Wohl: Corps Exquis

Corps Exquis
Daniel Wohl
New Amsterdam

For me, Daniel Wohl's music lands somewhere between classical and ambient. And those are two musical worlds that seldom connect.

The building blocks of the soundscapes Wohl creates in Corps Exquis are common to ambient and trance, but the way he uses them is more classical in structure. This isn't just stringing together cool-sounding samples in a studio to create a mood. Rather, this is (to my ears) carefully constructed music that has some substance and depth to it.

Plus ou moins, the longest work on the album, is a good example of this. The piano ostinato that gradually morphs sounds minimalist in inspiration, but the darting clarinet/glockenspiel figure doesn't. Scraping strings and electronic sound samples give the work an ambient feel, but careful listening reveals the subtle interplay between the voices. Lines influence each other in sort of a contrarian counterpoint, tying together what at first blush appears random.

Daniel Wohl has a unique compositional voice. Repeated listening helped me appreciate the artistry of that voice. Corps Exquis may sometimes evoke strange, dreamlike images, but there's purpose behind those fever dreams.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Peter Maxwell Davies: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 3 & 4

Maxwell Davies: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 3 and 4
Robert Cook, French horn
Peter Franks, trumpet
Lewis Morrison, clarinet
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Peter Maxwell Davies, conductor

The Strathclyde Concertos are a unique group of compositions. Commissioned by Strathclyde, Peter Maxwell Davies composed one concerto a year for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The ten concertos, spanning a decade, make an impressive -- and somewhat unified -- body of work.

This release features the third concerto for horn and trumpet, and the fourth concerto for clarinet in arguably the most authoritative performances recorded -- the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for whom the works were written, conducted by the composer himself.

One of the characteristics of the Strathclyde concertos is the elimination of competing voices from the orchestra, throwing the solo instruments in sharp relief to the ensemble. So the third concerto has no brass instruments, save for the solo French horn and trumpet. The fourth concerto has only one clarinet -- the soloist.

Each concerto fully explores the possibilities of the solo instruments, and those possibilities influence the direction of the work. The brass concerto is more aggressive than the clarinet concerto, with wider melodic leaps and an higher energy level overall. The clarinet concerto, while more lyrical and soft-spoken, is not without some spiky sections as well.

This is a re-release from the Collins Classic series (they recorded Concertos 3-10). I'm hoping Naxos will eventually reissue the rest, and perhaps the first two from Unicorn-Kanchana too, please?