Showing posts with label Piazzolla. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Piazzolla. Show all posts

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not Messiah

It's not Handel's Messiah. It's a playlist from a very naughty music-lover.

I've been listening to the thing again - it's hard to avoid it at this time of year - and OK, yes, it does have that certain je ne sais quoi. It's a great piece. He wrote a good old tune or several. But just every so often, wouldn't you like to hear something else instead, or even as well? Leave aside obvious substitutes like Bach’s Christmas Cantata, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and much nice music by John Rutter; as for The Nutcracker or The Four Seasons – Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi are great, but enough’s enough. My list features some seasonal music that rarely gets a look in, having been shouldered aside by wall-to-wall Hallelujah Choruses.

Elizabethan Christmas music
If ideal Christmas music is decorative, celebratory and sumptuous on one hand, and intimate, domestic and fun on the other, then the Elizabethan era had it all. Families with space and cash tended to be musically literate in those days, and they might have gathered on winter evenings to sing madrigals or play music for viol consort. Red Byrd and the Rose Consort of Viols recorded their selection of Elizabethan Christmas Music in 1989, complete with a quirky attempt at ‘authentic’ pronunciation. Composers include William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins and more.
Recommended recording: Elizabethan Christmas Anthems, Red Byrd, Rose Consort of Viols, AMON RA CD-SAR46

Praetorius: Renaissance Christmas Music
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) was a Lutheran from North Germany. His works are characterised by rich and sympathetic choral writing, similar at times to his greatest contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi – but Praetorius’s music remains rooted in Lutheran chorales, so the effect is gentler, simpler and more streamlined than that of the musical lion of Venice. His most often-performed work is probably the gorgeous carol ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’, but I’ve picked a recording of some Christmas-friendly choral pieces that doesn’t include it.
Recommended recording: Viva Voce, BIS, BISCD1035

Bach transcriptions for piano
The term ‘Baroque’ was originally coined to evoke something extravagant, irregular, complex and extraordinary. If you enjoy musical pearls at their most baroque in every sense, then try transcriptions for solo piano of movements from Bach’s cantatas, violin works and concertos, made by some of the finest virtuoso composer-pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are hundreds, and Hyperion has been releasing a substantial series of CDs of them. The latest disc features transcriptions by Saint-Saëns and Isidor Philipp: life-enhancing, high-spirited triumphs of virtuosity that would spice up any Christmas.
Recommended recording: Bach transcriptions, Vol 10: Saint-Saëns and Isidor Philipp, Nadejda Vlaeva (piano), Hyperion CDA76873.

Liszt: Weinachtsbaum (Christmas Tree Suite)
Franz Liszt’s bicentenary is nearly over, but not quite. It’s a good excuse to seek out his Christmas Tree Suite, a set of 12 short piano pieces based on carols and lullabies, including ‘In dulci jubilo’ and ‘Adeste Fideles’. Written in 1866, they are tender, charming and lyrical, far indeed from the barnstorming heft of the Hungarian Rhapsodies and the romantic tumult of his B minor Sonata. Instead, this is Liszt as besotted grandfather: he dedicated the suite to his five-year-old granddaughter, Daniela. Coincidentally, her mother – Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, who later eloped with Wagner – had been born on Christmas Eve in 1837.
Recommended recording: Alfred Brendel (piano), Regis RRC1378

Saint-Saëns: Christmas Oratorio
This is a real buried treasure. Possessing extraordinary gifts himself, maybe the 23-year-old Saint-Saëns, writing in 1858, also expected much from his performers: the solo parts are extremely demanding to sing, which might be why the ten-movement work doesn’t pop up often enough. Involving chorus, five soloists, organ and a small orchestra with prominent role for the harp, it strikes a lovely balance between Bach-inspired churchliness and the boulevardier charm that came so easily to Saint-Saëns. Christmas with the French bourgeoisie at its tasty best.
Recommended recording: Noël, French Romantic Music for Christmas – Bachchor Mainz, L’Arpa Festante München/Ralf Otto, Deutsche HM 88697366582

Honegger: Une cantate de Noël
The Swiss-born Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was among Gabriel Fauré’s last pupils at the Paris Conservatoire. This short Christmas cantata was his final composition and has proved one of his most popular – not that that is saying much, since his works remain shamefully neglected. Written in 1953, it captured something of the spirit of the times. The opening section, on the words ‘De profundis clamavi’, seems a postwar evocation of an existential ‘dark night of the soul’. But from there the music opens out, as if candlelit by the succession of carol fragments that flicker through the musical fabric, weaving a spell of increasing enchantment. Combining texts in French and German, it’s perhaps a message of hope for lasting peace.
Recommended recording: James Rutherford (baritone), Robert Court (organ), Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum, Dean Close School Chamber Choir, BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales/Thierry Fischer, Hyperion CDA67688

Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus
Messiaen’s most famous piano work – 20 ‘regards’, or meditations, on the image of Baby Jesus – includes a movement entitled ‘Noël’, but there is far more to this pianistic tour-de-force than that; more, too, than the vivid colours, crunchy textures and dizzying intricacies of the French composer’s unmistakeable style. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, wrote these astonishing pieces for Yvonne Loriod, whom he later married: she was a virtuoso pianist whose abilities inspired him to new heights of invention. His passion for her, for God and for music unite in a kind of mystical celebration that has rarely been matched. Super-demanding yet also super-rewarding, Messiaen’s music can cast Christmas in a whole new light.
Recommended recording: Steven Osborne (piano), Hyperion CDA67351/2

Piazzolla: Cuarto Estaciones Portenas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)
Who needs Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons when you can have Astor Piazzolla’s? The Argentinian composer, who would have been 90 this year, studied in Paris with the eminent professor Nadia Boulanger. He aspired to haut-classical grandeur, but Boulanger spotted that his heart lay in the music of his homeland and advised him to go home to Buenos Aires and explore it. His personal sound-cocktail mingles sophisticated classical expertise with the sultry flavour of the tango.  His Four Seasons were inspired by Vivaldi’s; the ‘Winter’ Tango is a wonderful example of vintage Piazzolla.
Recommended recording: Tianwa Yang (violin), Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Giancarlo Guerrero, Naxos 8572271

Elgar: A Christmas Greeting
A gentle parlour song accompanied by a piano and two violins, this is the most intimate of all these Christmas suggestions: a setting by Elgar of a poem by his wife, Alice. It seems to conjure a cosy and very British type of Christmas in its domestic, hearthside greeting from one partner to the other and back again. And it is heartrendingly Elgarian, with those wonderful arched melodic contours and sense of yearning characteristic of his finest music.
Recommended recording: Worcester Cathedral Choir, Donald Hunt (conductor), Jeremy Ballard (violin), Robin Thurlby (violin), Keith Swallow (piano), Hyperion CDA66271/2

MacMillan: Veni, veni, Emmanuel
James MacMillan’s percussion concerto, taking its title from the medieval plainchant for Advent on which it’s based, was written for Dame Evelyn Glennie in 1991-1992. It is possibly the celebrated Scottish composer’s biggest hit, clocking up hundreds of performances. Structured in one arch-shaped movement, it lasts some 25 minutes, fills with mesmerising rhythmic trickery and marvellously imagined noises, with percussion instruments both pitched and unpitched, from vibraphone to cowbells. Impress your Christmas guests with your contemporary music savviness by playing it full blast.
Recommended recording: Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Scottish Chamber Orchestra /James MacMillan, RCA 828766428520

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Crying for Argentina

The other day a strange girl stopped me at my local station and said "I love your shoes." I was on the way to the South Bank in the most live-in-able of my tango-style heels from Buenos Aires. The young woman turned out to be a dance teacher.

Any of you who remember our pathetic attempts at learning the tango a couple of years ago will probably have surmised that after the big trip to South America in January 06, we admitted defeat (de feet were not OK). Wow, do I miss it. The CD Canciones Argentinas had me hankering after the place, the atmosphere, the music, that peculiar brand of bone-twisting nostalgia.

Buenos Aires is not the most beautiful city I've ever visited, the food was not the finest in the world, I can't speak the language and I can't dance the dance. The people were extremely charming (especially a certain leather jacket salesman, who was Cuban), yet there was a slight undercurrent of unspecified threat, and as for the driving, you take your life in your hands when you step into a taxi. But what can I do? It's got under my skin. I miss it. I want to go back.

Problem - my editor tells me that South America is 'the kiss of death' in fiction. I don't know why. Perhaps Isabelle Allende has a monopoly, or perhaps it's just that people can't jump on Easyjet and check out the locations for themselves in a cheap weekend. I doubt that my next book is going to be tango-centric, much as I would love it to be. So there's only one thing for it...

...hunting down Astor Piazzolla on Youtube from the safety of my London study, where coincidentally I've spent the morning chewing over concepts concerning solitude, loneliness and the peculiar sonic qualities of the violin that make it so perfect as a vehicle for such emotions. So here is Piazzolla, with fiddler friend, in 'Soledad'.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

JDCMB CDs of the Year 2006

A few personal recommendations of favourite discs released this year - just in time for that last-minute Xmas shopping. Enjoy!

1. ELGAR Violin Concerto (original version). Philippe Graffin (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vernon Handley. Avie Records AV2091. Glorious golden-age-style playing from Philippe, deep empathy from Tod on the podium, and fascinating alternative textual version evoking Elgar's original ideas before Kreisler got his hands on the piece and changed them.

2. STRAUSS Lieder. Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano). Harmonia Mundi HMC901879. When I popped this into the CD player and heard that voice I thought I'd gone to heaven. A real young Heldentenor! A singer who embodies the essence of German romanticism! It's not only that beautiful tone and its large spectrum - very dark, yet with an extremely powerful top range - it's also his intelligence, his fine enuciation, the sense of all-giving passion. If only he'd do some Korngold...

3. Canciones Argentinas. Bernarda and Marcos Fink (mezzo & baritone), Carmen Piazzini (piano). Harmonia Mundi HMC901892. An Aladdin's Cave of shadowy, aching, irresistible art songs from these musicians' native Argentina, including some Piazzolla gems and far more besides. Bernarda's honeyed tones, Marcos's gritty edge, the ever-compelling rhythms of tango and the heart-rending, bittersweet nostalgia made me listen to it three times through on the spot. Harmonia Mundi seems to have had a very good year.

4. RACHMANINOV Etudes Tableaux, Rustem Hayroudinoff (piano). Chandos 10391. Just out, and picked by BBC Music Magazine as its instrumental choice of the month. Colourful, powerful and idiomatic performances of these fabulous yet oddly underrated pieces, with illuminating insights into the inspirations behind them. (The concert went well the other day, incidentally.)

5. MIKLOS ROZSA Cello Concerto & Sinfonia Concertante. Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Philippe Graffin (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth. ASV GLD4018. Philippe in partnership with the inimitable Raphael Wallfisch: astonishing music by the idiosyncratic and immensely compelling emigre Hungarian Miklos Rozsa that simply must be heard. Glittering, imaginative, earthy, astringent, Rozsa's music found a happy home in Hollywood, but, as in Korngold's case, there was one hell of a lot more to him than that. This team will be performing the Sinfonia Concertante at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 1 May next year, together with Korngold's Sinfonietta.

6. ROXANNA PANUFNIK Beastly Tales. Patricia Rozario (soprano), Yvonne Howard (mezzo), Roderick Williams (baritone), City of London Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards. EMI 3566922. Roxanna's settings of three of Vikram Seth's rethinkings of Aesop's Fables are as delicious as the poems, evoking many astonishing animal noises amongst other kinds of sly and imaginative humour. For children aged 0 to 100.

7. JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ Sentimento Latino. JDF (tenor), accompanied by somebody who doesn't get a credit on the front. Decca 4757576. The arrangements are a bit cheesy, but That Voice goes soaring over the top and lifts one clear off the ground into the South American sunshine...

8. RENEE FLEMING: Homage - the Age of the Diva. RF (soprano), Mariinsky Theatre orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Decca 4758070. This much-loved soprano in a programme of remarkably little-known arias from such luminaries as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss, Verdi, Janacek and, best of all, two Korngold ones that are hardly ever performed: the staggeringly beautiful 'Ich ging zu ihm' from Das Wunder der Heliane and the touching 'Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn' from Die Kathrin.

9. TCHAIKOVSKY Suite No.3. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Pentatone PTC5186061. I have a very, very soft spot for this under-heard Tchaikovsky Suite, a symphony in all but name. Its delicate and fearsomely challenging orchestration is beautifully conveyed by the RNO and Vladimir. Tchaikovsky's immense lyricism and virtuoso imagination is underpinned by a disturbing, sinister edge that is never overstated here but adds well-modulated depth to the whole picture.

10. SCHUMANN The complete string quartets. Fine Arts Quartet, Naxos, 8570151. Just out! The Fine Arts Quartet was my big chamber-music revelation this year: it's that golden-age edge that I adore, the intense sweetness of first violin Ralph Evans' tone, the beauty of the close-knit sounds and the completeness of their involvement in the music - as superb as ever in Schumann's personal, subtle and sensitive quartets which, again, are never played as often as they should be.

(The above links are via Amazon, in its infinite wisdom, has recently seen fit to make it impossible to search by artist, let alone composer and artist together, and has ditched proper catalogue numbers in favour of some unhelpful system of its own. It's become very hard to find specific classical recordings on that site. What are they playing at?!?).

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


I can't sleep. I've had quite a large dose of whisky and still can't sleep, mainly because my brain is overloaded. Also, it's snowing here - most uncharacteristic for London in these days of global warming - and I'm wondering how I'll get to the library tomorrow to look for the books I need for my next Indy feature. For those of you beyond these sunny shores, all we need here is an inch of snow and the entire infrastructure of the country grinds to a halt. "The wrong kind of snow" has gone down in history as ye late lamented British Rail's excuse for everything packing up at the slightest excuse...

A few scattered snow showers earlier this evening didn't stop me getting to the Wigmore Hall to hear Gidon Kremer, who was playing there for the first time in 21 years. Not only a fantastic chance to catch him in an acoustic that flatters his sound - I've only experienced him before in the RFH and the Verbier tent - but also a marvellous, apparently eclectic but well-planned programme that would actually have worked nearly as well in Ronnie Scott's. Lots of exciting contemporary & near-contemporary stuff based around the influence, in one way or another, of Bach. With Kremer was the Russian percussionist Andrei Pushkarev, who blended wonderfully with Kremer's intelligence and driven conviction, but nearly stole the show with his own fabulous, jazzy transcriptions for vibraphone of some of Bach's 2-part inventions. I was on the edge of my seat all the way through. And I think Piazzolla is TOP.

Kremer seems to perform as he does not because he's a violinist, but because he's a thirsty, questing, creative musician in every sense. So many violinists seem to be hung up on purely violinistic questions: wonderful sound, great technique, etc, which on this instrument are so complex that they risk becoming an end in themselves. Kremer goes way beyond that. Some of us loved his Bach Chaconne - completely unbaroquey, completely Kremer, completely convincing (apart from some odd upbow retakes that puzzled me a bit). Others didn't. Why is it that some concert-goers hear a so-called baroque fiddler play this thing with a curved bow and no vibrato and instantly think that anything different from that has nothing to do with Bach?!? (I was, as you can see, eavesdropping on the row behind...) That's the amazing thing about Bach, as Pushkarev proved on his vibraphone: this music can take any number of arrangements, updating, adaptation etc etc and still emerge as strong and vital and marvellous as it was the day it was written.

No wonder I can't sleep.

Images are haunting me too of snowflakes on Oxford Street - the only thing that can turn that place into something magical - and poems on the underground and half-glimpsed parallel universes and eleventh dimensions that, I understand, may exist, but then again may not.