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.
In case you hadn’t heard already, Ahmad Jamal has a new album out on Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village imprint, titled Blue Moon. On one level, it raises the question of whether or not to expand on that: what else is there to be said about this guy that hasn’t been said already (“I get all my inspiration from him” – Miles Davis)? Perennially vital, lyrical, third-stream pianist with a prestigious place on Improvisation Avenue between Errol Garner and Cecil Taylor? If you’ve followed jazz anytime over the last half-century, all that’s old news. And there’s a good chance that most of the people who would conceivably want this album already have it. What makes this album different is that it’s essentially a latin jam session, a neat spin on a bunch of old tunes from the movies along with three Jamal originals.
A couple of the tracks here are one-chord jams in the sense that Indian ragas are one-chord jams: Jamal doesn’t need chord changes to animate them, awash in rippling neoromantic cascades, rhythmically devious staccato clusters, bright block chords, hitting the chorus head-on when least expected. The ten-minute title track sets the tone, Jamal’s darkly majestic interludes eventually trading on and off with Reginald Veal’s hypnotic bass riffage until they finally acknowledge that it’s the old doo-wop standard they’ve been messing with. Likewise, their version of Invitation coalesces slow and starlit into drummer Herlin Riley’s slinky clave groove, Jamal alternating big sustained ripples with staccato incisions and then taking it out as quietly and gracefully as he came in. And Gypsy unwinds slowly over a booming bass pedal note, Jamal leading the bass, drums and Manolo Badrena’s marvelously subtle, incisive percussion as he does throughout many of the tracks here, matter-of-factly introducing a bit of a fugue and then setting off some brief fireworks with the drums.
Jamal’s own I Remember Italy begins with a glittering, Asian tinge and comfortably settles into a lyrical, singing mode, pushing the boundaries of the melody further and further out until the steady rhythm section pulls everything together again: it’s a genuinely lovely ballad and the most trad thing on the album. A bolero, Autumn Rain sets Jamal’s apprehensively majestic splashes of color over a funk groove, then leaps away, spiraling over the wash of the cymbals. Their version of Laura pushes the beat with a tense rubato, bass again pacing through the raindrops scattered by Jamal’s leaps, bounds and a wonderfully syncopated, pointillistic upper-register interlude that circles around a simple fifth interval.
The aptly titled, bracingly modal Morning Mist has more Asian inflections, with a biting samba-tinged melody emerging from the torrents, submerging and resurfacing, hard-hitting rhythmic insistence switching on and off with Jamal’s polyrhythmic, rolling attack. The album winds up with the funky This Is the Life, Jamal coloring the attractive, remarkably accessible tune with pools of glittering, majestic sound, and then Woody n’You, a shuffling ballad disguised as tropicalia, perfectly capsulizing the appeal of this album, and Jamal in general: straightforward melody with an irrepressibly bright improvisational flair. 81 years young and no less inspiring than he was sixty years ago.
Here’s a rare album where the evocative, retro abstract expressionist cover image matches the music. Pianist Alexander Melnikov has teamed up with violinist Isabelle Faust and trumpeter Jeroen Berwaerts, plus the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Teodor Currentzis for a stunningly intuitive, sonically rich live concert hall-style recording of Shostakovich music just out on Harmonia Mundi. It’s yet another reason why Shostakovich’s catalog is always worth revisiting, for listeners as much as for ensembles.
The lush sonics, in particular, remind how much the shadow of Rachmaninoff looms over much of this. The solo playing, particularly Melnikov’s careful, precise, minutely jeweled dynamics and Faust’s equally considered, judicious atmospherics and pizzicato make a perfect match for Shostakovich the Late Romantic.
Which makes this album all the more fascinating: for anyone who’s immersed themselves in the composer’s string quartets or the symphonies from No. 4 onwards, it’s a real eye-opener. It gets off to a false start with the Piano Sonata, Op. 102, No. 2, a piece from the late fifties with a rather coldly celebratory first movement. But given more substantial material, the performers go warily but passionately into the ominous foreshadowing of the second movement and the brightly scampering music-box variations in the third. If the second is a requiem for friends murdered by the KGB, the third could be a thinly veiled depiction of the gestapo itself.
In a just world, this particular version of the 1968 Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134, No. 1 would popularize the piece beyond its status as noir cult classic: its distantly menacing, steadily crescendoing intensity, suspenseful orchestral accents behind Melnikov’s furtive piano and then its exhausted but dramatically cinematic, largo dirge linger long after it’s over. Composers these days are still trying to catch up with how this one balances atonalism and crushingly catchy melodic hooks. The backstory is that it was written for the composer’s pal, celebrated violinist David Oistrakh,who debuted it with Sviatslav Richter on piano. In fact, modern listeners may prefer this version over the original’s Richter detachment, with Oistrakh sounding a little overwrought.
The Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, from 1933, plays up tension between a wholly Romantic theme and chilling countervoices, Berwaerts offering absolutely no hint that he’ll suddenly be cast in the role of bearer of bad news. Through its windswept, eerie second movement, suspensefully Rachmaninovian moderato third movement and the cruelly faux-operatic, unconvincingly triumphant final overture, it’s a harbinger of dread, in both a historical and musical sense – and one of the most casually stunning classical recordings of recent months.
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.
A couple of noteworthy recent releases under the big broad banner of Ellingtonia: a welcome digital reissue of the 1963 Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins album (distributed by Harmonia Mundi) as well as Dan Block’s new From His World to Mine: Dan Block Plays the Music of Duke Ellington. The first isn’t the summit meeting between legends that the title implies. A more apt description would be Hawk Plays Ellington: the Duke is strictly a member of the supporting cast here, generously giving the tenor player – whose style he clearly dug – a lot of space, and Hawkins seizes the moment. 47 years later, the album retains the wee-hours vibe of the original because that’s what it was, a couple of busy guys squeezing in a one-off session which ultimately would be the only one they would do together. Although by this point Ellington had become a bluesy classical composer and Hawkins still had bop tendencies, they found common ground with a bunch of jump blues tunes, many of them in the Black and Tan Fantasy mold: eerie minor themes that eventually smooth out into genial swing. It’s nicely remastered – drummer Sam Woodyard’s deft rimshots and cymbal hits enjoy improved clarity compared to the original, as does Aaron Bell’s bass. The most offhanded moments here are the best. Limbo Jazz, clearly not meant as a take, has Woodyard audibly singing along, but Hawk’s casual tradeoffs with baritone man Harry Carney perfectly complete the picture. Likewise, Mood Indigo makes a long launching pad for a single Hawkins solo that just keeps going, and going, and going, Ellington waving him to take another verse, and then a chorus, knowing that the guy was on his game. And Ellington’s song specifically for Hawkins, Self-Portrait of Bean, leans in stately and serious, verging on noir. What’s stunning after all these years is that everything here is basically a pop song, albeit a very sophisticated, often dark-tinged one.
Reedman Dan Block realizes that covering the classics requires some reinvention: otherwise, why bother? With painstaking purism but also considerable joy, he alternates between radical reinterpretation and a bluesy geniality very similar to the Hawkins album, in a set of mostly brilliant obscurities. It’s just as much a triumph of smart archivism as it is of inventive playing and arranging. The late 30s showstopper Are You Stickin’? becomes a latin number, Block’s sailing clarinet interspersed with Mark Sherman’s marvelously terse vibraphone lines, while a late 40s vocal tune, The Beautiful Indians grows from atmospherics to a pulsing tango. Playing tenor sax, Block brings out every bit of subtle, wide-eyed satire in Suburbanites, a 1947 Al Sears showcase, then switches to bass clarinet for a gypsy-tinged, bluesy take of an early one of Ellington’s “portraits,” Portrait of Bert Williams (a popular black vaudevillian of the era). Mt. Harrissa, which is the slightly altered version of Take the A Train from the vastly underrated Far East Suite, is done as a noir bossa with vibes – harrissa may be the hot sauce of choice at falafel stands around the world, but this one’s minty, with balmy Block tenor and guitar from James Chirillo. Block’s love for all things Ellingtonian is contagious, bringing out an inspired performance from the entire cast, the rest of whom include Catherine Russell’s rhythm section of Lee Hudson on bass and Brian Grice on drums plus Mike Kanan on piano and Pat O’Leary on cello. It’s out now on Miles High Records.
He was the perfect composer for another time and place, and in the post 9/11 era his work has taken on a tragic new significance. One of Dmitri Shostakovich’s greatest achievements was to give voice to a people who’d been terrorized. Apprehension and dread are everywhere in his music beginning with the wrenching anguish of his Fifth Symphony well past the venomous, vengeful Tenth and into his string quartets of the early 1960s. The most recent recording of Shostakovich by Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra features richly dynamic versions of two radically different works, Shostakovich’s Second and Eleventh Symphonies. Any preconception of Gergiev as a heavyhanded conductor goes out the window here: this version of the Eleventh is a masterpiece of peaks and valleys, terrifying crescendos and stunned, deathly, practically horizontal atmospherics (it’s also recorded much more quietly than previous releases by this orchestra).
The Eleventh Symphony has been described as cinematic, which is accurate as far as style is concerned. And while it was inspired by the brutal reprisals that followed the 1905 uprising in Russia, it is not any kind of linear depiction of those tragic events. And while it could be interpreted as foreshadowing the triumph of the Communists over the Tsar, it is just the opposite, a portrait of the Tsars’ victims as a metaphor for the millions murdered by Stalin. The second movement is officially supposed to portray the January, 1905 massacre in the St. Petersburg city square, but this massacre appears throughout the piece again and again: after the evocative tone poem that opens the first movement; more dramatically in the second, over and over, and in the third, adagio movement, as if to illustrate the cossacks blowing up a funeral procession (which US drone aircraft have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, in case anyone is wondering). The dynamics all the way through are brilliantly nuanced despite the fireworks all around: for example, a trumpet reveille toward the end of the second movement sounds perfectly distant from the bereavement of the dirge that follows, detached and oblivious to the horror left in its wake.
Likewise, the martial fourth movement offers the feel of a parade nobody wants to march in: to Shostakovich’s infinite credit, he doesn’t end it with the triumphant cymbal crash that punctuates the end of its first segment, instead letting it go on, sad, still and wary until a final reminder of the massacre. Shostakovich just won’t let it go: in 1957, with Stalin dead and Krushchev’s “thaw” underway, he didn’t have to anymore.
The Second Symphony, which opens the album, is a curio. Shostakovich was 21, ambitious and eager to accept commissions from Stalin’s henchmen over at the music office when he wrote it, just two years after his auspicious First Symphony. This wasn’t even designated as such until later and hasn’t aged well despite the young composer’s enthusiastic and considerably original embrace of post-Stravinsky atonalism. The ensemble play (and sing) its martial bombast with a straight face. It was viewed as propaganda at the time it appeared and seems even more so now. Without knowing the author of these two symphonies, one would hardly guess Shostakovich to have written the first one. But the second leaves no doubt. Harmonia Mundi’s distributing this one stateside.
We finally found a Christmas album we like. Optimistic, anthemic and upbeat, Stile Antico’s new album Puer Natus Est is Renaissance choral music at its happiest and most un-gothic. It’s not particularly Christmasy and it doesn’t evoke images of blazing chestnuts, but it also doesn’t evoke images of catacombs full of dead monks (fans of Joy Division will have to look elsewhere). Subtitled “Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas,” it’s a festive holiday album for everyone, and at this point in history, far removed from its original context, it’s essentially nondenominational unless you speak Latin. It’s a mass that never would or could have happened, spanning the centuries, interpolating segments of Thomas Tallis’ unfinished Christmas mass, Puer Natus Est with selections from William Byrd’s Gradualia, a comprehensive and imaginative series of plainchant arrangements for the various church holidays. The fourteen-piece ensemble – the world’s most popular Renaissance vocal choir – blend voices more soaringly and considerably less hauntingly than on their death-fixated previous cd, the John Sheppard collection Media Vita.
Tallis’ Videte Miraculum makes a good natured “look what we have here,” in Latin, a characteristically rich arrangement lushly performed with a brief, stark solo for tenor. The oldest piece here, John Taverner’s sixteenth century Audivi Vocem de Caelo (I Heard a Voice in the Sky), with its bright high harmonies, may have been written exclusively for the choirboys. A hint of the season reveals itself in Tallis’ Gloria; contrasting austere and warmer folk melodies appear in later Byrd selections: the roots of Fairport Convention! The dramatic major/minor shifts of Tallis’ Sanctus et Benedictus pair off against the mysterious grandeur of Byrd’s Ave Maria; a rousing, anthemic holiday theme finally appears at the end of Tallis’ Agnus Dei. The second-oldest piece here, Robert White’s Magnificat, is the most exuberant, the contrast between the crystalline highs of the sopranos and the charcoal and chocolate of the lower registers at its most striking here. The album concludes with a work by one of the group’s favorite composers, John Sheppard. Translated as the Holy Word, its harmonic complexity and slowly unwinding resolutions probably make more sense in this century than when they were written practically half a millennium ago. The album is out just in time for the holidays on Harmonia Mundi.
CD Review: Denis Matsuev/Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky Orchestra – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3./Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
The elephant in the room is that with such a glut of Rachmaninov available on both mp3 and vinyl, did it make any sense to make this recording at all? Answer: a resounding, fortissississimo YES. Everyone who’s a fan of this stuff has his or her favorite versions. Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony did a wonderfully rousing recording of the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Abbey Simon on piano; for sheer velvet sonics, nothing beats the version of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini that Philippe Entremont did with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra roughly a half-century ago. Both of those achieved broad circulation and are commonly available wherever used vinyl is sold (you wouldn’t really settle for icky mp3s, would you?). So why bother with the new recording by pianist Denis Matsuev with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra? Because it’s just as good as those two if not better. And for what it’s worth, it’s also one-stop shopping, two classics for the price of one without the extraneous filler that sometimes gets squeezed into classical albums.
Maybe Russian pride has something to do with this, but whatever the reason, this recording has every bit as much precision as Slatkin’s and gives Ormandy a run for his money as far as lushness is concerned (James Mallinson’s production is noteworthy not only for very closely replicating the warmth of a vinyl record, but also for capturing the ambience of the concert hall – put your headphones on and you are there). And Matsuev’s interpretation is spot-on, coupling a strong yet fluid legato to the kind of percussive power that you need in order to drive all those ferocious crescendos home, replete with longing, angst and rage and not a hint of the cold, clinical precision that plagued so many Soviet recordings of this material. As far as that’s concerned, there’s plenty of dynamics but there’s nothing particularly subtle in either of these pieces, Rachmaninov veering between his usual white-knuckle intensity and perhaps the sonic equivalent of a too-strong handshake: not for everyone, maybe, but you can’t say it doesn’t grab you. Pianist and orchestra wrest a vivid downward trajectory into the sweepingly beautiful second movement of the concerto from the battlefield that opens it, and interestingly, they accentuate many of the pauses that demarcate the twenty-eight cinematic variations of the Paganini theme. It works both to smooth the transitions between them and maybe even to underscore what Rachmaninov might have had in mind, a series of foreboding miniatures linked with a robust, epically optimistic theme.
Sizzling gypsy jazz with lots of innovative flourishes from the French guitarist and his inspired band. Steeve Laffont is in fact of Roma ancestry; his first instrument was keys. Self-taught as a guitarist, he has a refreshingly original style. It’s not known what if any his affinity for Americana is, but there’s a soaring, blue-sky western swing feel to much of this, a welcome change from the legions of well-meaning but slavish Django imitators. There are places on the album that frequently evoke the paradigm-shifting work of Stephane Wrembel, but Laffont is a lot sunnier. On this new album, his second as a solo artist, he’s backed by a brisk, non-nonsense band of Rudy Rabuffetti on rhythm guitar, Serge Oustiakine on bass and violinist Costel Nitescu guesting on all but three tracks.
The title cut is a characteristically bristling swing number. Mano, one of the three Django covers here gets a spiky whistle-stop treatment. A lickety-split version of Old Man River is rendered almost unrecognizable with Laffont’s playful hammer-ons and dizzying, circular chromatics. Meggie Style, a Rabuffetti composition, is a 12/4 ballad that gives the violin and bass to get expansive and build atmosphere.
One of the most imaginative tracks here is Astor Piazzolla’s signature song, Libertango – Laffont traces its roots straight back to Spain, giving it a staggered flamenco treatment. Their fast shuffle version of Oh Samba Leo manages to echo both Steve Cropper and George Benson; they slow things down with the Laffont original Djazz, a vividly nostalgic ballad with a Georgia on My Mind feel guitar against a lush string section, then an aptly wistful violin solo. The album wraps up with the band blasting through Ain’t Misbehavin’ and then the old George Shearing ballad I Remember April, each one a springboard for Laffont’s sizzling triplet runs offset by a wry bluesiness. Keep your eye on this guy – he’s only going to get better.
If there was ever an iconic classical piece that deserved a fresh interpretation, this is it. The operative question, of course, is how to do it in a way that hasn’t been done before. Answer: the oldest trick in a musician’s book. Transpose it! In this case, Richard Egarr – who took over the Academy of Ancient Music from Christopher Hogwood in 2006 – justified the move as a return to the deeper tuning of the French-made instruments that would likely have been utilized had the suite been performed during Bach’s lifetime. Along with lowering the pitch a full note, he decided on a new arrangement with period or period-style instruments, one instrument per voice in the original score. Egarr likens the overall sound to giving the score a big, relaxing glass of wine, a wonderfully apt comparison. The darkest passages, notably the adagio in Concerto #3 and the andante in #4 gain considerable gravitas from this treatment, the ensemble clearly inspired to deliver a joyously energetic performance.
In contrast to other Brandenburgs, this is far more lively: the tonal quality is more sparse, vastly brighter than usual. A side-by-side comparison with a favorite recording will confirm this. By contrast, a long out-of-print 1957 version conducted by Charles Munch with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is beautiful but distant, like an old flame, lush and richly memorable but ultimately less interesting than the exciting newer version. The production here is also strikingly well thought out, particularly in the case of Egarr’s harpshichord. It doesn’t sound like the instrument was close-miked, making it part of the ensemble rather than allowing it to compete with the strings during more expansive passages. Instead, its spiky textures remain in the background, even during solo parts, drawing the listener in with fresh ears. It’s a remarkable opportunity to hear the Concertos in a way closer to how Bach intended, removing or at least distancing them from their three contemporary associations of bedtime, the month of December and pledge drive.
The two-cd set on the esteemed Harmonia Mundi label is sturdily packaged along with a booklet including liner notes in English, French and German with a facsimile of Bach’s title page from the manuscript presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg on its cover. This is a treat for fans, a fine way to get reacquainted with the piece or to discover the Concertos for the first time. For those who don’t know them, the answer is that that you probably do, especially if you listen to NPR. This is court music: lively, bright, warm and reassuring, and in the case of this recording both richly soothing and robustly played. We don’t really know what happened with Bach’s manuscript, other than that he dedicated it to a relatively minor figure in the German nobility, whose library it was discovered in after both had died. Did Bach sell it or give it away, hoping for a commission? We know that the composer cannibalized parts of it for several other works. Did the Margrave not like the piece? That’s a question that can never be answered. There’s no accounting for taste, anyway.