Monday, September 23, 2019

Polish Lute Music of the Renaissance offer rare treats

Lute-playing was all the rage in the 1600s. The Italian, French, and English schools are well-represented with recordings. But other European courts were active musical centers. This release features lute music from Poland. It's an interesting blend of both cosmopolitan styles and native folk traditions.

Joachim Held performs with precision and delicacy. His interpretations are subtle but distinct. I heard clear differences between the works based on Italian models and those drawing from Polish dances. The album includes music by three prominent Polish lutenists, as well as a collection of anonymous works from Polish manuscripts.

The earliest known composer on the album is Jakub Polak. Active in the late 1500s, Polak served in the court of Henry III, both in Poland and France. Polak was renowned for his improvisations.  A hint of that can be heard in his written music, which has a fluidity to it.

The Italian composer and lutenist Diomedes Cato spent his professional life in Poland and Lithuania. His music follows the Italianate style. He also incorporated Polish dance music into his compositions.

Polish lutenist Albert Dlugoraj was a contemporary of Cato. Unlike Cato, his life was unsettled. He escaped his employer, the nobleman Samuel Zborowski. He was eventually returned. Dlugoraj then sent incriminating letters to the king, leading to Zborowski's execution. Dlugoraj fled to Germany to escape family retribution. Amid all this turmoil, he composed a large body of lute music, most of it quite fine. Several of his works set Polish melodies and dances.

Held's instrument is well-recorded, which for me added to the enjoyment of the music. The mic is close enough to capture the vibrations of the notes, while minimizing extraneous sounds, such as finger scrapings.

If you're familiar with Western European lute music, many of these pieces will sound familiar (but not overly so). The ones based on Polish folk music have a slightly exotic sound to them. I'd recommend this release to anyone interested in early music.

Polish Lute Music of the Renaissance
Joachim Held, lute
Hannsler Classics

Friday, September 20, 2019

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalSchool Week 3

Traditionally, September is the back-to-school month. The Classics a Day team decided to mark the occasion. Classical School is the theme for September 2019. To participate, just post a piece of classical music that's somehow related to education with the appropriate hashtags.

What would count? Any classical work about school, or using themes from schools; examination pieces; composer tributes to their teachers (or students); etudes or other instructional works, just to name a few.

Below are my selections for the third week of #ClassicalSchool

9/16/19 Benjamin Britten - Young People's Guide to the Orchestra

This popular work was commissioned by for a 1945 educational film "Instruments of the Orchestra." The film features the London Symphony Orchestra directed by Malcolm Sargent.

9/17/19 George Frideric Handel - Lecons for piano

These lessons come from a four-volume publication, Kompositionen für Klavier. The first two volumes have suites, the fourth fughettas. Volume three has Leçons, Fugues, and misc. pieces.

9/18/19 Ignaz Moscheles - Studien Op. 70

Moscheles was a piano virtuoso, composer, and pedagogue. His pupils include Felix Mendelssohn, Evard Grieg, and Arthur Sullivan.

9/19/19 Gustav Holst - St. Paul's Suite

Holst wrote the suite for the St.Paul's Girls' School in London. He taught there from 1905-1934, and the work was originally intended for the school's student orchestra.

9/20/19 Benjamin Britten - Variations on a theme by Frank Bridge, Op. 10

Britten had started and abandoned this tribute to his teacher many times. A commission by the Salzburg Festival did the trick. Britten finished the work, and its success launched his career.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Star Wind - outstanding chamber music by Vyacheslav Artyomov

This reissue from Divine Arts brings together several short chamber works by Vyacheslav Artyomov. Each work has its own unique combination of instruments, and (in a way) its own aesthetic.

The opening track, Star Wind, is a 1981 sextet featuring violin, cello, flute, French horn, piano, and glockenspiel. To me, it sounds like a very early work. Artyomov's mature style involves sculpting forms out of shifting sound clouds. To me, this work sounded as if it were written in a dodecaphonic style, with all the rigor that implies.

Nestling Antasali for flute and piano features the composer at the keyboard. His presence makes the performance an authoritative one. This set of theme and variations begins in strict 12-tone style. As it progresses, though, the form seems to loosen and expand. For me, it seemed as if Artyomov was transitioning into his mature style with this work. 

Moonlight Dreams for soprano, alto flute, cello, and piano sets English translations of 17th Century Chinese poems. There is a dreamlike quality in the sustained, slow-moving harmonies. Although atonal, the music seemed looser and less mathematical than that of Star Wind.

The Romantic Capriccio, for French horn, piano and string quartet dates from 1976 was written in tribute to Jean Sibelius. It's one of the most tonal works I've heard by Artyomov and contains passages of real beauty (especially for the horn).

Morning Songs is an interesting work for violin, flute, guitar, with a soprano singing behind a curtain. It casts the singer as a ghost or echo -- shading, but not affecting the instrumental trio.

The earliest work on the album is Scenes (Grand Pas). Written in 1971, for a ballet sequence, it's a jaunty little number full of rhythm and attitude. It reminded me a little of Alfred Schnittke -- in spirit, that is.

Some of these pieces hint at what Artyomov would become, and some show roads not taken. Thus, I wouldn't recommend "Star Wind" as an introduction to the composer. Best to start with one of his orchestral releases. But if you -- like me -- love Artyomov's music, this release is a must-have.

Vyacheslav Artyomov: Star Wind
Star Wind for violin, cello, flute, French horn, piano, and glockenspiel; Variations: Nestling Antsali for flute and piano; Moonlight Dreams for soprano, alto flute, cello, and piano; Romantic Capriccio for French horn, piano, and string quartet; Mattinate (Morning Songs) for soprano, violin, flute, and guitar;  Scenes (Grand Pas) for violin, clarinet, bass, piano, and percussion
Various artists
Divine Art

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Leshnoff: Symphony gives voice to the VIOLINS of HOPE

Jonathan Leshnoff is a  talented composer. And his fourth symphony is a well-constructed work. It has engaging themes, nicely shaped melodies, and a fresh take on tonality. But for me, it didn't have the desired effect.

The liner notes explain the concept of the work in great detail. The project Violins for Hope refurbishes instruments that survived the Holocaust -- even when their owners did not. These instruments that were once heard in concentration camps now ring out in concert hall. That's a concept that can stir powerful emotions.

Leshnoff's symphony was composed for the Nashville Symphony playing the Violins of Hope. Logically, Leshnoff draws on Jewish culture for his work. The liner notes carefully delineate all the Hebrew references and inspirations in the symphony.

On paper, it's a beautiful and inspiring concept. But I didn't hear any of it. The Violins of Hope, despite their history, are just violins - and they sound like any other violin. Leshnoff's symphony, despite all the Hebrew-inspired elements, doesn't sound especially Jewish.

I liked the symphony, and the Nashville Symphony performs it well. But I would have had the same reaction even if I hadn't read the liner notes.

The recording also includes two additional works by Leshnoff - the Guitar Concerto and his short orchestral work Starburst. Neither has an elaborate backstory, and neither needs one.

Jason Vieux plays the concerto with fire and spirit. I especially enjoyed his rapid passage-work and the ringing quality of his held notes.

In the end, it's not the extra-musical elements that matter, only the sound. And based solely on the sound, I can recommend this recording.

Jonathan Leshnoff: Symphony No. 4 "Heichalos"
featuring the VIOLINS of HOPE
Guitar Concerto; Starburst
Jason Vieaux, guitar
Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Rosemary Tuck delivers grand performance of Czerny concerto

This is the second Czerny recording by Rosemary Tuck, Richard Bonynge, and the ESO. That release featured the Grand Concerto in A minor. This one has Czerny's Second Grand Concerto, and it's equally grand.

Czerny studied with Beethoven and premiered two of his piano concertos as soloist. Czerny's Second Grand Concerto was started weeks after he premiered Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto. Both are in E-flat major, and both are over 40 minutes long.

Although this is a big work, it isn't too big. Czerny's in full command of his material. His themes are big, his pianistic gestures are big, and the development of his materials is expansive. Yet it's always easy to hear the connections between sections. And the overall structure of each movement is readily discernable.

Czerny was a prodigious pianist, and he didn't hold back in this score. There are cascading figures, keyboard-spanning arpeggios, and lightning-fast passages that require a high level of skill just to manage. Rosemary Tuck handles the task ably. Her touch is light and sure, the notes flying by in a shimmering stream of music.

She also brings out the underlying character of the music. We hear the grandness of the opening movement; the gentle reflection of the second, and the good-humored friskiness of the finale.

Also included is the 1829 Concertino in C major. As the name suggests, it's a lighter work, and Tuck plays it with a breezy light-heartedness. The Rondino on a favorite theme from Auber's "The Mason," has plenty of technical challenges. But at its heart, it's a song. And that's how Tuck performs it, bringing out the lyrical nature of even the most embellished variations.

The English Chamber Orchestra directed by Richard Bonynge is in fine form. They have a very big ensemble sound for the Grand Concerto and quite an intimate one for the Rondonino. Well-written music well-performed.

Carl Czerny: Second Grand Concerto in E-flat major
Concertino in C major, Op. 210/213; Rondino sur un Théme favori de l'Opéra "Le maçon"
Rosemary Tuck, piano
English Chamber Orchestra; Richard Bonynge, conductor
Naxos 8.573998