Cellist Inbal Segev played a mesmerizingly intuitive, emotionally electrifying selection of Bach cello suites from her forthcoming album at Lincoln Center last night. During an extensive and enlightening Q&A with an intimate penthouse crowd, she came across as both deeply reflective and also something of a restless soul – a runner during her conservatory years, she’s clearly still defining her own path. When she picked up her bow, she played with a penetrating yet luminous tone reflective of the centuries since her cello was manufactured in Italy in 1673. It was the antithesis of a cookie-cutter performance: Segev varied her dynamics and attack with sometimes minute, sometimes striking variation depending on emotional content, revealing the music as songs without words.
Excerpts from Nick Davis‘ forthcoming documentary film about Segev, screened before the concert, revealed that she’d been scheduled to complete the album prior to this year (the music is still in the editing stage). But during the initial recording, she collapsed. In trying to embrace a more traditional baroque approach to the music, one that goes against the grain of her own intuition as an artist, she ended up abandoning the project. She told the crowd that her only choice was to regroup and reapproach the album – the Bach suites being sort of a rite of passage that most A-list cellists record sooner or later – with her own integrity front and center. That last night’s concert sounded perfectly suitable for release on cd validates that she picked the right moment to listen to her inner voice.
During the Q&A, three of the cellist’s remarks were especially telling. First, she admitted to being more comfortable in the concert hall than in the studio: “Onstage, it’s everything we’re trained to do: you don’t have time to think,” Segev explained. Which begs the question of why more artists, in the classical world and elsewhere, don’t release more live recordings. Another interesting remark spoke volumes. In response to an audience member inquiring about the degree to which Segev employs the traditional metronomic rhythm for playing Bach, the cellist replied that she didn’t. “A metronome can kill a piece easily,” she cautioned. Which deeply informs how Segev approaches Bach: while she didn’t rubato the music or imbue it with tropes from Romanticism or otherwise, her interpretations were irrefutably individualistic.
She equated the stark sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C Minor to Webern, explaining how elusive its tonal center is and then illustrating it with a spare, exploratory quality enhanced by tuning her A string down to a G for extra overtones, as was popular in Bach’s era. By contrast, much of the Suite No. 2 in D Minor was considerably more straightforward. She ended the show by finding the inner danse macabre in the gigue from the Suite No. 5. If the new album is anything like this concert, it’s amazing.
Wednesday night the Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola rescued an otherwise gloomy and dismal evening with warmth and epic grandeur at their sonically superb home base, via an animated performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 97 and then Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. Music Director K. Scott Warren had a jaunty confidence on the podium, conducting the Haydn through its many dynamic shifts between instrumental voices, with lively, conversational counterpoint. From its precise cantabile opening, to a surprising and welcome gravitas in the second movement, the swaying dance of the third and a long series of clever, practically conspiratorial exchanges as it wound out, Warren and the ensemble spotlighted all the most entertaining moments. It’s not a heavy piece of music – it made for a well-received contrast with the storm gusting outside.
Like his Requiem, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor is unfinished. It may or may not have been performed in his lifetime. It has far more to do with operatic flair than gothic gravitas: watching the choir pulsing through its waves and cadenzas, it was easy to imagine a group from Mozart’s day reveling in how much fun church had become with this composer writing the score! Was this a vehicle for the talented choirgirl who would become his wife? Quite possibly. And she had to be talented because the lead soprano role is brutally challenging, but Martha Guth embraced the hair-raising demands of its roller-coaster dips and swells and meticulous ornamentation and left the audience stunned.
Soprano Marguerite Krull also brought a sparkling clarity to her parts, often paired off with New York Polyphony‘s Stephen Caldicott Wilson and his far more stern, measured tenor (and impressive low range as well). Wilson’s choirmate Christopher Dylan Herbert was required to do less, but added an extra layer of heft in the final sections. Because Mozart never finished the mass, Warren had to choose from many versions fleshed out by others, over the centuries; settling on a 20th century version by Mozart’s fellow Austrian Helmut Eder was respectful of the original in limiting its scope to the parts of the score finished by the composer himself. Joy, and passion, and lustrous timbres from the top to the bottom of what the human voice is capable of delivering, abounded throughout the group’s dynamic and rousing interpretation. The next concert here is a fascinating program of original arrangements by organist David Enlow on Nov 2 at 3 PM; the Choir and Orchestra return on Nov 30 at 3 with a celebration of Advent.
Pioneering Renaissance choir Stile Antico return to New York this coming Saturday, April 21 for an 8 PM concert put on by the Miller Theatre folks at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 W 46th St. As of this writing, tix are still available via the Miller Theatre box office (Broadway and 116th St., and online). In case you might wonder how a choir singing five-hundred-year-old motets could possibly be pioneering, you haven’t heard Stile Antico. The self-directed twelve-voice group (they perform without a conductor, in the style of a string quartet) has made a career out of resurrecting obscure and underrated choral works from the 17th century and before then; their concerts are exhilarating. With their blend of male and female voices, they have a gyroscopic sonic balance, an absolutely necessity considering the dizzying and occasionally herculean demands of the music they sing. On their latest album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (out now on Harmonia Mundi), they’re joined on several tracks by noted early music viol ensemble Fretwork.
Thematically, it’s a bit of a change from the towering (and sometimes harrowing) compositions they’ve mined during the early part of their career (although their Advent and Christmas-themed album Puer Natus Est foreshadowed this turn in a somewhat sunnier direction). The works here tend to be shorter and often less ornate – which can mean quieter, and on a couple of occasions, a showcase for individual group voices as the harmonies literally make their rounds. In the case where the choir isn’t going full steam, the sonics are sometimes fleshed out by gentle yet stately string arrangements, along with a small handful of instrumental preludes. The beauty of the performance transcends any specific religious association (although it’s nice to be able to understand the words without having to dig out that old Latin dictionary). A lineup of well-rembered composers is represented – Thomas Tallis, John Dowland and William Byrd, among others – but as usual, the gems here are the rarest ones. The modernity and outright, awestruck dissonances in John Amner’s A Stranger Here are literally centuries ahead of their time; Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen works a potently quiet, apprehensive counterpoint that threatens to break out into fullscale angst but never does. And Giovanni Croce’s From Profound Centre of My Heart would make a great pop anthem. Throughout the album, the low/high contrasts are characteristically vivid when they’re not so seamless that it seems like one single polyphonic voice is creating these otherworldly sonics, aided by the rich natural reverb of the church where they were recorded. Historically, much of this repertoire has been neglected in favor of better-known works from the church music canon; this is a richly enjoyable and valuable endeavor from two rightfully acclaimed ensembles.
Classical music fans in New York looking something more interesting than the same old standards have numerous options. Among the best of these is the New York Scandia Symphony, who dedicate themselves to reviving interest in lesser-known Nordic composers as well as premiering new works by emerging composers from the upper reaches of that hemisphere. Last night at Victor Borge Hall in Murray Hill, the highlight of the night, performed by a twelve-piece chamber version of the orchestra, was the American permiere of contemporary Danish composer Anders Koppel’s Symphonie Concertante. A triptych, it’s a characteristically enigmatic and absolutely fascinating work, something to get lost in if not for the endless tempo and stylistic shifts. Conductor Dorrit Matson, a Dane herself, led the ensemble seamlessly through a wary, pulsing first movement that evoked Astor Piazzolla’s later work before engaging Steven Hartman’s clarinet and Andrew Schwartz’s bassoon in a long round of animatedly crescendoing rhythmic hijinks over the swells of the strings and eventually a labyrinth of polyrhythms. And yet, the jousting stopped abruptly during the early part of the second, Largo movement and turned to apprehension, reaching near-horror proportions via the chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque string motif around which the final Allegro appassionato movement was centered. A celebrity in his native land ever since his days in popular rock band Savage Rose, Koppel deserves to be much better known here.
Another highlight of the program was Symphony violist Frank Foerster’s Suite of Scandinavian Folk Tunes for string ensemble. Foerster is a very eclectic player and has a great wit – another suite of his, Summer in Fort Tryon Park, is a quintessentially New York tableau, packed with irresistible on-location references. This piece is more serious, a rugged hardanger fiddle-style sea motif linking a series of portraits of several of the Nordic nations: by this account, the Norwegians and Swedes are a serious bunch given to vivid dramatics, while the Finns and Icelandics are party animals. Opening the concert, Matson and the group took Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Haydn-esque Violin Concerto and tackled its rather rugged, stern underpinnings with a muscular sway beneath violinist Mayuki Fukuhara’s spun-silk swirls; a bit later, Hartman was featured in a velvety version of the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, Op. 11 of Bernhardt Henrik Crusell, a Swedish contemporary of Mozart. They closed with enjoyably jaunty yet precise takes on the Prelude and Rigaudon from Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Concerts like this only add intrigue to the question: what have else we not yet heard from this particular part of the world that deserves to be known equally well over here – and when is this orchestra going to play it?
This time of year the concerts in churches all over town pick up steam: it’s a holdover from the days when Advent was a way of keeping the peasants out of trouble until the final Saturnalia-style blowout at the end of the year. Sometimes the result is festive overkill. Last night at St. Thomas Church, Joseph Ripka of Calvary Church in historic Stonington, Connecticut played a concert that was just the opposite, a welcome antidote to all that pomp. Airing out the church’s smaller, more Northern European-toned gallery organ, his program featured works by baroque and pre-baroque composers especially suited to that instrument.
He began with a carefully paced, somewhat wary take of Sweelinck’s Chromatic Fantasy, which actually owes its brooding quality to an artful sequence of minor chords rather than to much of any sort of chromatics. Sweelinck’s contemporary, German composer Johann Steffens’ Veni Redemptor Gentium maintained the soberly Teutonic ambience, which brightened considerably with Abraham van der Kerckhoven’s memorable, strikingly more modern-toned Fantasie in D Minor. Buxtehude’s Mit fried und freud ich fahr dahm (BuxWV 76) is a typical period piece, a simple theme and variations that kept the stately expanse of counterpoint going: it only remotely echoes the composer’s intense, chromatically-fueled, paradigm-shifting passacaglias and fugues. Ripka finally pulled out all the stops for a rousing, majestic take of Bach’s Fugue on Meine Seele erhebt den Herren. What a delightful and counterintuitive way to close out the year at this long-running, perennially high-quality series of recitals, which resumes this coming January 15.
Acclaimed German early music group joins forces with Canadian cellist for a romp through an impressively diverse selection of Vivaldi works for cello and string ensemble: the operative question here is, why cover the same ground that so many other artists have over the centuries? Maybe because it’s so much fun. This vividly enjoyable assemblage of cello concertos by Vivaldi and his contemporary Antonio Caldera, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras with the Akademie fur alte Musik Berlin, conducted by Georg Kallweit, is recently out on Harmonia Mundi. Some of these pieces are parts of other suites: there’s a selection from L’Estro Armonico, and even a vignette from the Four Seasons. The production is lush and rich, considerably more so than typically is the case with recordings of music from Vivaldi’s era. Queyras plays with the clear, direct, somewhat more trebly cantabile tone common to 300-year-old instruments over arrangements still striking in their buoyancy. That this music resonates as much as it does to modern ears – bracing, unexpected chord changes and dynamic shifts within familiar period architecture – testifies to how far ahead of its time it was. The album is best enjoyed as a whole: it really sets a mood (uploading the whole thing as a playlist will help facilitate this). But there are many individual treats here that leap out at the listener.
The theme from the second movement of the Sinfonia in C has been used (and ripped off) for film music for decades, while the blustery Concerto in G Minor gives Queyras a chance to dig for gravitas through the rapidfire staccato passages. After opening with Raphael Alpermann’s wary, dark harpsichord and strings, the second movement of the Concerto in F lets Queyras revel in its chocolatey beauty. The Concerto for Cello and Bassoon in E Minor has the stark counterpoint between the cello and Christian Beuse’s bassoon making a mighty contrast with practically frantic strings. And the Concerto No. 11 in D Minor (from L’Estro Armonico) plays up its subtle yet striking echo effects. The Caldera pieces include the richly brooding Sinfonia No.12 in A minor, a Christ on the Cross tableau; a dressed-up country waltz, and the wary, sometimes rapt, fugal Sinfonia No.6 in G minor. Though most of the 30 individual tracks here clock in at less than three minutes, the effect is seamless. It’s a triumph for everyone concerned, including the listener.
Classical guitarist Jon Mendle’s new album L’Infidele is one of the most singularly enjoyable and interesting releases to come over the transom here this year. Playing solo on 11-string archguitar – a relatively recent invention devised to enable guitarists to play Renaissance lute repertoire – Mendle resurrects two obscure eighteenth-century compositions and gives a third a welcome reinterpretation. He plays with stately precision and fluidity – while the occasional torrents of notes can be hypnotic, the incisive melodies here are strong and memorable, transcending the centuries between composition and performance here. In particular, the first two pieces have a striking plaintiveness, and Mendle embraces it vividly.
The first composition is German baroque lutenist Adam Falckenhagen’s Sonata IV, Op. 1, dating from 1740. The opening largo section is wary and deliberate, enhanced by Mendle’s careful pacing – he doesn’t rubato it, which might not seem like the compliment that it is, but that’s a plus, considering how many players have decided to warp the era’s steady tempos to make them “postmodern” or something like that. Here, the additional low bass notes of the archguitar give the arrangement a piano-like tone. Mendle attacks the second, fugal movement with both smoothness and bite and spins off the rolling ripples of the finale with a deliberateness that stops a step ahead of carefree – this is a dark work.
Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Prussian Sonata V begins on a similar tone, steady yet with a pensive undercurrent. The second, andante movement is essentially a diptych: a wary waltz, and a second one even slower, and yet Mendle finds room for additional dynamics. The fluid, final Allegro Assai movement lets Bach the son go to his dad’s playbook for a blend of catchiness and mathematical logic. The final work here is L’Infidele, a six-part sonata by another German lutenist, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, impressive even to current-day ears for its eclecticism. It’s easy to imagine the opening movement as a processional for organ. The second expands the theme as a waltz; the third, Sarabande movement begins slow and hypnotic, then loosens up and loses a little of its gravitas, but not much. Mendle gets to cut loose more on the final three movements: a minor-key waltz that could pass as a Bach miniature; a Musette whose courtly gentility has a hint of the woods, and the best part, the final Paysanne where Mendle gets to take it out as more of a full-fledged dance. The album is out as both hard copy and download from In a Circle Records. Mendle’s next performance is June 4 at 8 PM as a soloist with the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony performing Villa-Lobos’ Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St. in San Francisco
Jayme Stone’s new Room of Wonders is his dance album. Taking a page out of Bach’s French Dance Suite (which he plays here as an energetic, practically punk duo with bowed bass), the virtuoso banjo player and an inspired cast of characters romp through some imaginative new arrangements of traditional dances from around the world. Stone wanted to get jazz-quality players and put them together, but not as soloists, to see what kind of sparks would fly. The main group here consists of Casey Driessen of Abigail Washburn’s quartet on violin, Grant Gordy from Dave Grisman’s band on acoustic guitar and Greg Garrison on bass.
They open with the surprisingly pensive Krasavaska Ruchenitsr, a tricky Bulgarian tune in 7/8 time. Ever wonder what a banjo sounds like playing a horn line? You can find out here. Driessen follows Stone and counterintuitively takes it down rather than hitting a crescendo. Next they tackle a couple of Irish dances, the first darkly bristling, the next one more cheery. Vinicius, a shout-out to Vincius Cantuaria, mines the same kind of suspenseful restraint, with a tasty, buoyant trumpet solo from Kevin Turcotte, drummer Nick Fraser holding down a samba beat when the song isn’t going off into the clouds for an extended, atmospheric break.
Moresca Nuziale, an original wedding theme, keeps the wary, apprehensive vibe going – it’s the last thing most people would want at a wedding, which might make sense since the couple whose wedding the song debuted at broke up six months later. They follow that with Andrea Berget, a stately, wistful Norwegian tune that’s ostensibly a polka, then the Bach, then Stone’s captivating, Tunisian-inspired title track, lit up with some understatedly dramatic cymbal work from Fraser and a jazzy guitar solo. The rest of the album includes a spirited take on Bill Monroe’s Ways of the World, another Bulgarian tune with Driessen contributing cello-like tones on low octave fiddle, and the upbeat Troll King Dom Polska, featuring Vasen’s Olov Johansson on the autoharp-like nyckelharpa. Eclectic? Yeah, you could call it that. Stone will be at le Poisson Rouge on 3/16 at 7 PM opening for the reliably awesome, frequently haunting Las Rubias del Norte.
Here’s one of the important obscure albums of 2010 that we didn’t want to let slip away here before the year was out. In a word, it’s cantabile: these songs sing. To those who follow this space, or who spend time in the shadowy deminonde of New York classical organ music, Gail Archer is no stranger: a valued presence not only as an amazingly eclectic performer but also as an educator. Her bimonthly Tuesday Prism Concerts at Central Synagogue make a useful opportunity for up-and-coming global organ talent to connect with a New York audience in a premier venue, and vice versa. As a recording artist, Archer first lent her talents to the pre-baroque – her debut album championed Sweelinck, a composer who tends to be written off, or taken for granted, much of the time. And then she surprised everyone by switching to Messiaen for her cd A Mystic in the Making, an immersion and a performance so intense that she had to distance herself from it. She followed that with the deliciously titled An American Idyll, a genuinely extraordinary collection of works by American composers – Vincent Persichetti, David Noon, Leo Sowerby, Joan Tower and others – who worked the Northeast corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston, just as Archer has for the last several years. A series of concerts celebrating the works of Mendelssohn – the transcendent genius of the 1840s – inspired this latest album, a collection of Bach variations on chorales from the Lutheran hymnal. In organ circles, these pieces are known as “The Great Eighteen.”
What makes one performance of these pieces better than another? They’re pretty self-explanatory: conventional wisdom dictates that if you stay in tempo, follow what dynamics Bach offers (only a hint, as it turns out) and get the notes right, you’ve succeeded. Not quite so: the whole point of these pieces is to distance them from any kind of mechanical processional, get-’em-out-of-the-church-so-we-can-move-on kind of feel. Take the fourteenth of these (BWV 664), for example: reduced to its essentials, the early part is a country dance. In church. Tame by 21st century standards, maybe, but radical when it was written. Likewise, the eerie pacing of the eighth chorale here (BWV 658), the anxious wait for redemption and its massive payoff in both the tenth (BWV 650) and fifteenth (BWV 665) track here, or Archer’s defiantly wary, determined pacing on the thirteenth chorale (BWV 663), saving it for all time from anyone who might wish to relegate it to NPR Bach rather than the majesty it’s elevated to here. Meyer Media released this one last February; it’ll be a treat, and no doubt a surprise, to see what she comes up with next.
Like the mythical character, indie classical trio Janus looks in two directions, forward and backward. Backward, with a genuinely lovely, often baroque-tinged sense of melody; forward, with a compellingly hypnotic edge occasionally embellished by light electronic touches. This is an album of circular music, motifs that repeat again and again as they slowly and subtly shift shape, textures sometimes floating mysteriously through the mix, occasionally leaping in for a sudden change of atmosphere. Many of the melodies are loops, some obviously played live, others possibly running over and over again through an electronic effect. Either way, it’s not easy to follow flutist Amanda Baker, violist/banjoist Beth Meyers and harpist Nuiko Wadden as they negotiate the twists and turns of several relatively brief compositions by an all-New York cast of emerging composers. A series of minimalist miniatures by Jason Treuting of So Percussion – some pensive, some Asian-tinged – begin, end and punctuate the album, concluding on a tersely gamelanesque note.
Keymaster, by Caleb Burhans (of Janus’ stunningly intense labelmates Newspeak) is a wistful cinematic theme that shifts to stark midway through, then lets Baker add balmy contrast against the viola’s brooding staccato. Drawings for Mayoko by Angelica Negron adds disembodied vocalese, quietly crunching percussion and a drone that separates a warmly shapeshifting, circular lullaby methodically making its way around the instruments. Cameron Britt’s Gossamer Albatross weaves a clever call-and-response element into its absolutely hypnotic theme, a series of brief movements that begin fluttery and grow to include a jazz flavor courtesy of some sultry low flute work by Baker. There’s also the similarly trancelike Beward Of, by Anna Clyne, with its gently warped series of backward masked accents and scurrying flurry of a crescendo, and Ryan Brown’s Under the Rug, which builds matter-of-factly from sparse harp and banjo to a series of crystalline crescendos with the viola. Gently psychedelic, warmly atmospheric and captivating, it’s a great ipod album. It’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.