Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Late Romanticism in Lieder: Mahler Contemporaries

Recording venue: St. Jacob the Greater, Jihlava
A disc entitled Mahler Contemporaries is as a siren call to me. I am always fascinated by music that doesn't fit easily into categories of the romantic or the modern, experimenting and exploring possibilities. I wondered, I confess, how a CD devoted to such music would acquire its coherence. Mahler Contemporaries, recorded live at a Mahler festival in 2014, doesn't impose much external structure on its offerings, instead allowing the wide range of musical styles to speak for themselves. I found the resulting listening experience stimulating and enjoyable, although I would have appreciated  more thorough liner notes, which were limited to potted biographies of the composers. I also suspect that the recording technology may have flattened the acoustics of the church where the works were performed. Including Strauss and Schoenberg, and ranging far beyond them, the disc offers rarities that should be welcomed by all those who (like me) are always complaining that there isn't enough weird central European romanticism being programmed by the concert and recital venues of the world.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Medieval/modern Sunday special: Responsio

The Coronation of the Virgin, Rheims Cathedral
As a medievalist and liturgy nerd with an active interest in new music, I feel that I am standing somewhere quite near the metaphorical bullseye of the target audience for a contemporary Mass setting inspired by Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame. Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni's Responsio embroiders upon, responds to, and joyfully interacts with Machaut's hauntingly lovely setting. The resulting music is sometimes meditative, sometimes exuberant, and always interesting.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Special: Divine Redeemer

Church of the Gesù, Milwaukee
Any album covering Bach to the twentieth century can seem riskily ambitious. But Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs offer an engaging recital of sacred music for voice and organ, demonstrating the diversity of this repertoire. The vast spaces of Milwaukee's Church of the Gesù create resonances that were occasionally odd, to my ear, but this may be in part because because I expect to hear these pieces performed in different spaces from each other. Also, the church appears to be much bigger not only than that of the average parish, but than that of the average parish with a pipe organ. Seeing the album cover blazoned with the names of composers from four centuries and multiple traditions, I wondered about the cohesion of the disc. In the event, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of unfamiliar works alongside pieces frequently performed, if more seldom with this high level of musicianship.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Jedermann: Sibelius meditates on mortality

Gentle Readers, I suggest that we banish the phrase "hidden masterpiece." Agreed? Good. Leaving that meaningless cliché aside, I can go on to happily discuss why Sibelius' 1916 music for Hofmannsthal's Jedermann (1911) is really worth a listen. Atmospheric and harmonically rich, it's a treat in its own right, doing interesting things with musical form. Rarely performed or recorded, it has a new and engaging recording from the Finnish forces of the Turku Philharmonic under Leif Segerstram, and the Cathedralis Aboensis Choir. Sibelius composed the work to adhere exactly to stage directions, a prescription that the CD leaflet speculatively blames for its rare performance. I can't hear that, myself. The piece is not symmetrically composed, but it's richly allusive, lively and meditative by turns. Sibelius may have been annoyed that the devil never came in on cue, but there's plenty to enjoy in the piece without its accompanying morality play. The work is rounded out, on the disc, by thematically similar works of the composer from around the same period.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Love, Loss, and the Sea: Soile Isokoski sings French art song

Soile Isokoski's album of lush French art songs resists easy classification. It doesn't have a title; its design doesn't seem to strive for a particular atmosphere. It is in many ways a slowly unfolding disc, subtle and richly layered. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of John Storgårds, provides a delicately nuanced reading of some of the nineteenth century's more ecstatic outpourings. While far from averse to a bit of musical decadence, I appreciated the unusually intellectual approach of Storgårds and Isokoski. Although I anticipated that Les Nuits d'Été would form the centerpiece of the disc, I found the very philosophical ecstasies of Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer to be its unexpected standout.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Liedsommer in autumn: Michaela Schuster's Morgen!

Michaela Schuster, photographed by Nikola Stege
I could just tell you that this CD is endorsed by Brigitte Fassbaender and have done, Gentle Readers. But I can't pass up an excuse to enthuse about lieder, and I also wholeheartedly recommend Michaela Schuster's creative, intimate, and sensual recital disc, Morgen! The ambitious selection of lieder--generous samplings of Brahms, R. Schumann, Reger, and Strauss--along with Schuster's reputation as a Wagnerian, led me to expect sweeping magnificence. What Schuster presents, partnered by Markus Schlemmer on the piano, is something much more intimate, and invariably interesting. The disc was recorded during the Eppaner Liedsommer of 2012, and the production process does not appear to have been aggressively interventionist. (Either coughing has been edited out, or the audience was silent with a quasi-miraculous silence.) Voice and piano are sweetly resonant, with spontaneity in interpretation taking precedence over polish. I wish I knew enough about the technology of recording to explain this better; I only know that suddenly hearing Brahms as though performed in a living room was so unexpectedly soothing that I practically melted into the sofa.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

(Un)Orthodox Transcendence: Rachmaninov's Chrysostom Liturgy

Nave of the Auenkirche, Berlin-Wilmersdorf
As a self-described liturgy nerd, I jumped at the chance to review a new recording of Rachmaninov's setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The Rundfunkchor Berlin has a truly glorious sound, but the first thing that strikes the ear on this disc are the acoustics. These are also glorious. Berlin's Auenkirche gives great resonance to single voices and the ensemble, and the excitingly space-filling sound comes through well and cleanly on the recording. The layers of sound are gorgeous, serving Rachmaninov's harmonization and sometimes unconventional vocal writing well.


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