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Monday, November 29, 2021

The best classical CDs and DVDs of 2021 so far, from Brahms to Wagner

Fieldwave vol 2 ★★★★☆

“There is music in the air, music is all around us,” said Edward Elgar. “The world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.” The musicians who work in the area known as sound-art or environmental music have taken Elgar’s dictum to heart in the most literal way. They listen intently to the music “in the air,” i.e. the sounds you hear in the street, or in a park at dawn, or by a running stream, and record the bits that sound most interesting or haunting. Later in the studio they contrive a modest artistic frame for the recordings. They might overlay one bird-song upon another, or electronically mould the sounds in some way, or even discreetly slide in some recordings of a more conventionally musical nature

Thirteen of these sound-artists – some Japanese, some British – appear on the latest release from nonclassical, the enterprising promoter that takes the more experimental forms of new music into clubs and abandoned factories and also acts as a record label. The focus is on Japan, and the album is infused with that reverence for the natural world, seen as something humble and everyday, that is such a key aspect of the Japanese aesthetic. We hear a lot of running water, water falling on metal or wood, wind through trees, distant bird-song, but these things are not set apart from the human world. That nearly always makes an appearance, but it never feels like an intrusion. The snatches of conversation, childrens’ games, electronic beepings and sounds of passing trains blend beautifully with the plashing of water and other sounds that might be part of the landscape, or something made in the studio. The brief touches of musical notes – a few gentle washes of piano here, an electronic hum there – are always very discreet, and only the addition of a percussive groove to one track sounded a touch facile.

All the tracks are delightful, but my favourite is the one Matt Eric Hart conjured from sounds recorded around Mount Haguro, a holy mountain which is full of shrines to half-forgotten deities. You hear water, the sound of footsteps, wind in the trees and suddenly the most extraordinary haunting cry. It’s probably one of the ascetic devotees of the Shugendo religion who live on the mountain blowing a horogai, a conch-shell trumpet blown to aid meditation. But to my English ears it sounded thrillingly like Tennyson’s “horns of Elfland faintly blowing”. It’s a burst of something rich and strange, which comes as a shock amidst so much quietly ordinary beauty.

Fieldwave vol 2 is available from nonclassical.co.uk and major streaming platforms

The Mahler Players: Matthew King – Richard Wagner in Venice: A Symphony, & Wagner – Siegfried Idyll ★★★★☆

When Richard Wagner died in Venice in February 1883 his life-work was so perfectly complete there seemed nothing left for him to do. In fact in his last few months he was as restlessly creative as ever, and among his numerous sketches were ideas for a symphony. This is surprising because earlier in life Wagner had insisted that music really needed the addition of words and drama if it was to rise to its full potential. Now it seems he was ready to work on the most severe and “purely musical” genre of all.

However, working out what exactly Wagner had in mind isn’t easy. In one letter he says he wants “symphonic dialogues” with melodies and counter-melodies “speaking to one another”. That implies dramatic contrast but in another letter he says that one should avoid drama entirely and just “spin a melody until it can be spun no more”.

Alongside these ambiguous thoughts are some actual musical sketches consisting of a few melodies, some fragmentary, some more extensive, some with accompanying harmonies, some without. There is absolutely no music in a fully worked-out form, and no indication which of these bits and pieces belong together in the same piece. So making a “conjectural completion” of the symphony that Wagner might have composed, as Anthony Payne famously did 20 years ago with the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony, is simply out of the question.

The sketches might have stayed mute for ever, but now the English composer Matthew King has brought them to life in a 20-movement single movement symphony which he describes as a piece of “speculative musical archeology”. By this he means a newly composed piece of his own which is rooted in Wagner’s own musical idiom, and uses many of the surviving fragments as the basic musical material.

For sheer chutzpah King’s symphony is impressive, but the result is also truly uncanny in the way it transports us into an authentically Wagnerian world. The basic sound and mood is close to Wagner’s much-loved serenade “Siegfried Idyll”, which also appears on this CD, but is more ambitious in scope. You can discern the outline of a slow movement and fast Scherzo movement within the 20-minute span, and we hear echoes of Wagner’s other operas, including Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal. At one point even the piece Franz Liszt composed on hearing the news of Wagner’s death floats into the music like a ghost.

What is most remarkable is the way King evokes the endless “spun melody” Wagner dreamed of, but also conjures a real sense of symphonic drama. We hear tantalising scraps of melody at the beginning which only later take full shape, and in the middle there’s even an astonishing moment which anticipates the hyper-romantic world of the young Arnold Schoenberg. The only thing it lacks is that streak of vulgarity which allowed Wagner to go “too far” and intoxicate his listeners. But the music has a wonderful twilight melancholy, and is beautifully performed by the Scottish Highlands-based Mahler Players. Anyone who loves Wagner’s music – and even those who don’t – should find it fascinating.

Available only from mahlerplayers.co.uk

Dudok Quartet & Lilli Maijala: Brahms – The String Quartets, String Quintet No 2 ★★★★☆

“I’m always true to you darling, in my fashion.” That saucy line from the well-known Cole Porter song could the motto of every classical performer who ever lived. The thing they all adore and claim to be true to is what the composer wanted, as shown by the notes on the page.  And yet they all sound so very different. Who can say which of them are being genuinely true to the composer, and which are being true to the composer only “in their fashion”?

When the “period performance movement” came along it seemed as if there could actually be an answer to that question. It was the performers who had done their research, immersed themselves in historical evidence of the performance style of the time, and—most importantly—kitted themselves out with the right antique instrument. It’s an attitude that percolated into the classical mainstream. Even now, half a century after the movement was born, making a claim to be “authentic” is still a way for performers to draw attention to themselves.

The latest group to go down this route is the superb Dudok string quartet from Amsterdam. For their new doible-CD set of all three string quartets plus the late string quintet by Johannes Brahms they’ve replaced the modern wire strings on their instruments with the old-fashioned kind made from cat-gut. And they’ve tried to back to an old style of playing that would have been current in the late 19th-century, more flexible in tempo and with a delicious way of sliding between important notes in the melody.

The results are wonderful, though frankly it’s not because of the cat-gut strings. It’s true the sound is less massive, and more transparent, and the big statuesque chordal moments don’t have such a sharp edge as normal. But that’s more to do with the intelligence of the playing than the technology. The little melodic slides are done with such telling reticence, in a way that’s never sentimental. The numerous tempo fluctuations are often momentary, as in the little linking passages in the 1st movement of the A minor quartet, beautifully played by the quartet’s leader Judith van Driel. Sometimes they’re more thorough-going, especially in the second string quintet, a relaxed radiant work which Brahms intended to be his last. In the first movement there’s an entire section in a slightly slower tempo, which suits the more reflective melody at that point. And yet somehow the feeling that the movement is one basic tempo throughout isn’t compromised. In all these recordings are a marvel, revealing the intricate detail of these pieces with lovely clarity.

Brahms – The String Quartets, String Quintet No 2 is released by Rubicon

Soloists and Orchestra & Chorus of Bavarian Radio: Messiaen – La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ; Poemes pour Mi & Chronochromie ★★★★★

If classical music is something you like to have on while doing the ironing, you should pass this particular release by. It’s not just that the music is full of huge apocalyptic sounds of brass, massed choirs and deafening gongs, which will absolutely seize your attention no matter how low you turn the volume. It’s the emotional climate, which is as strange and riveting as anything in music. The 3-CD set is dominated by Olivier Messiaen’s 14-movement meditation on the moment when Christ’s divine nature was revealed on a mountain-top to his disciples, an event described in three of the Gospels. The composer, who died in 1992 at the age of 83, was a life-long Catholic of a very mystical kind, and devoted his whole life to creating visions of the hereafter. Even if you came across this piece by accident and understood nothing of the Latin text, you would know that something dazzling and terrifying was being evoked.

Messiaen’s Transfiguration needs a superbly drilled choir able to sing his angular modernist recreations of church plainchant with perfect precision, an orchestra of heroic fortitude which can sustain his vast deafening chorales, and a conductor who can hold the musical tension across huge tracts of time. This new recording has all three. The conductor Kent Nagano studied with Messiaen as a young man, and there’s no-one on the planet who understands this music better than he – unless it’s the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who also studied with the Master, and who plays the dazzling piano part with a kind of furious monumentality.

But it’s not all deafening chorales and glittering shards of “heavenly” light. There are moments of tender ecstasy which the players catch beautifully, and on the third CD there’s the early set of songs for soprano and orchestra, Poèmes pour Mi (1937), which strikes a very different note. The soloist Jenny Daviet is tremendous, capturing the strange blend of eroticism and Catholic mysticism in the words which were written by Messiaen himself in a style very influenced by French surrealist poetry of that time. Finally comes “Chronochromie” (meaning roughly The Colour of Time) a dazzling multi-movement amalgamation of two of Messiaen’s great passions: bird-song, and the exploration of vastly complex patterns of rhythms. The penultimate movement, a pile-up of 18 different bird-songs all singing in different rhythms simultaneously prompted boos and cat-calls at its 1960 premiere. Here it sounds as pellucid and mysterious as the dawn chorus.

 La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ; Poemes pour Mi & Chronochromie is released by BR-Klassik

Sol & Pat ★★★★★

“Sol & Pat” are cellist Sol Gabetta and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. It’s a brilliant pairing, as they are the young(ish) female superstars of their respective instruments, and already have a reputation for performances of blazing individuality. Argentinian-born Gabetta is the more commanding of the two. I’ve heard her play the Dvorak concerto with an immense tone that easily dominated the orchestra behind her. Moldovan-born Kopatchinskaja, who once earned her living playing folk-fiddle on the streets of Vienna, is more elfin and wayward, given to slipping in a passage of Balkan-flavoured improvisation where you least expect it.

One hopes the combination will be like apples and cheese, i.e. even more flavoursome in combination than when sampled separately. It’s a hope slyly encouraged by the CD cover. Gabetta’s look is smiling but determined, while Kaputchinskaja looks heavenward in a way some might find charmingly kooky. But they’re both in sober black to show this is a serious enterprise, and in fact the meeting of musical minds seems total, with a wonderful combination of discipline and freedom.

Even so, an 80-minute CD combining Baroque and contemporary music with two 20th-century classics at its core might seem a tough proposition. The cello-and-violin duo is an austere medium lacking the mellifluous fullness of a full string quartet – which is exactly why Ravel chose to write a sonata for the combination. It forced him to go back to music’s essentials in melodic line and counterpoint, after years of revelling in the diaphanously rich sonorities of the orchestra. There’s nothing austere in this performance, which is expressively rich but also full of varied colours. In fact, the variety of tone and colour across the disc is its most surprising and enjoyable aspect, from the glistening, almost electronic sounds of Marcin Markowicz’s Interlude to the stamping folksiness of Dhipli Zyia by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis.

The performances of the Baroque pieces charm in a different way, as they bring a new colour to a familiar idiom. The Tambourine by Jean-Marie Leclair has a startling Balkan wildness, and the closing G major Prelude by Bach is as light as thistledown. At the opposite pole is the massive grandeur of the Duo by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, which this recording confirms is easily the masterpiece of the medium. Altogether this new CD is a delight, and suggests that “Sol & Pat” is destined to become one of classical music’s most sellable brands.

Sol & Pat is released by Alpha

Igor Levit: On DSCH ★★★★☆

When it comes to burning sincerity and vaulting ambition, there probably isn’t a pianist on the planet to touch Russian-born, German-domiciled pianist Igor Levit. During the lockdown, when other musicians did a few online concerts to keep their hand in and possibly earn a few quid, Levit broadcast fifty. The one on April 29th he dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau concentration camp (Levit is notably outspoken about antisemitism), a gesture mentioned the following Autumn in the citation to the Order of Merit awarded to him by the President of the German Federal Republic.

As for his musical tastes, only the loftiest and grandest masterpieces will do, preferably penned by tormented geniuses with a troubled relationship to the world: Beethoven, Busoni, Frederick Rzewski. Now comes an album which scales yet another huge cloudy peak of the pianist’s repertoire, penned by another troubled figure: the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Dimitri Shostakovich. That fills two CDs comfortably, and for most pianists would be a big enough task. But Levit always likes to go further, and here adds on a third CD a huge 80-minute homage to Shostakovich, the Passacaglia on DSCH composed in 1962 by reclusive English composer Ronald Stevenson. The title refers to the first four letters of Shostakovich’s name in its German form, which translated into musical notes yields a gnomic little four-note tag that Shostakovich himself often used in his own music.

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