Modern music that doesn’t suck (one in a series): Timothy Andres’ “Shy and Mighty”

Andres - High and Mighty

My new music recommendation for the day is Timothy Andres’s 2010 album on Nonesuch Shy and Mighty for two pianos.  The music is deceptively simple sounding, but when you listen more carefully it has quite a lot going on, and periodic “explosions” that force you to pay attention.

The composer is one of the pianists on the album, along with David Kaplan.  They are a formidable duo, with unearthly precision.  

I am especially fond of the track “Out of Shape.”

Gyndebourne’s “Turn of the Screw”

Turn of the Screw - Glyndbourne CD

Over the last couple of years the Glyndebourne Festival in England has been producing a series of CD recordings of outstanding past opera performances from the festival, made from live performances. The latest of these recordings is from a very fine production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in 2007, with soprano Camilla Tilling as The Governess and tenor William Burden in the dual role of The Prologue and the ghost Peter Quint. Edward Gardner conducts members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Henry James’s ghost story, in which nothing is certain and everything might be imagined, is turned by Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper in 1954 into a creepy opera in which Britten portrays the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as very real and on the make for the two children, Miles and Flora, left in the Governess’s charge by an uncle who is too busy to care for them himself.

The performance is excellent. Camilla Tilling’s portrayal become increasingly unhinged as the story progresses. William Burden’s bright, light tenor is a worthy successor to that of Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner and the originator of the role. The two children are played by Joanna Songi (Flora) and Christopher Sladdin (Miles). Since this recording is taken from a live performance, there is a considerable amount of stage noise, especially during the scenes when the children are playing together. The elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, whose belief that the Governess has seen the ghost of Peter Quint, the former valet, sets the story in motion, is by mezzo Anne-Marie Owens. Soprano Emma Bell plays the small but essential role of the former (and now dead) Governess Miss Jessel, who was forced to leave the house because of an unnamed scandal with Peter Quint. Conductor Edward Gardner leads a taut performance. A few of the vocal/orchestral balances are not quite right, but this is undoubtedly because of the conditions of live performances. The orchestral playing is precise and virtuosic. The opera is a set of variations on a theme that appears at the beginning of the first scene. Each variation sets the tone of the next scene; thus, the orchestra is a prime character in the drama.

Glyndebourne’s CD production is lavish. The two CD set is bound into a 60 page book featuring color photos of the production, synopsis and complete libretto, and an essay about the opera by Britten scholar Michael Kennedy. The CDs are already available in the U.K., and will be released in the U.S. later in June 2011.

I highly recommend this new recording. It stacks up well with the composer’s own recording (in mono) with the original cast, as well as such later recordings as that by Britten expert Steuart Bedford with the excellent Felicity Lott as the Governess.

Tomás Luis de Victoria: The Tallis Scholars’s celebration of 400 years

The Victoria Collection

As its contribution to the 400th anniversary of the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s birth (1548-1611), The Tallis Scholars are making available a compilation at a bargain price of three of the Scholars’ discs of music by Victoria. This collection includes Victoria’s three most important works, the Requiem, the Lamentations and the Tenebrae Responsories. The recordings are on the Scholars’ own Gimell label. Through the Gimell site you can get it either as a specially-priced 3-CD set or as a download in either mp3 or (for $1 more) uncompressed FLAC files.

As usual with the Tallis Scholars, the performances are intense, with perfect blend and impeccable musicianship, and the sound of the recordings (I’ve been listening to the FLAC versions converted to AIFF format.) is clear and full. Listening to these great works, by these great performers, is almost a religious experience in itself. I highly recommend this music and especially these performances.

Severe medieval music

In the January 10, 2011, issue of The New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross writes about current vocal groups performing medieval and Renaissance polyphony. Among the groups he discusses are the Tallis Scholars, Alamire, Blue Heron and Stile Antico. But one passage of his review article especially caught my interest:

The most daring approach still belongs, after several decades, to Marcel Pèrés’s Ensemble Organum, whose tremulous, darkly florid delivery of medieval and Renaissance music is based more on Byzantine chant than on the familiar Benedictine manner. … Pèrés and his singers presented Guillaume de Machaut’s “Messe de Notre Dame.” Severe, relentless, devoid of ambient comfort, it was an eerie approximation of an unrecoverable past.

Now THAT seemed like my kind of music. So I found Ensemble Organum’s recording of the Machaut Mass on iTunes, and it is extraordinary. Note especially the French pronunciation of the Latin text

Here’s an excerpt, the Gloria in excelsis:

It reminds me of Roman Catholic Church vs. American shapenote singing. Not the kind of vocal production we normally associate with religious music, but arresting.

Rachmaninov’s “Vespers” by the Estonians

Tonight I’ve been listening to the amazing recording of Rachmaninov’s “All Night Vigil” (commonly known as his “Vespers”) by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Hillier.  It has that “Russian sound,” with the very deep basses and a peculiar (but not unpleasant) chorus sound often found in slavic groups.  Rachmaninov’s choral work is completely unaccompanied and requires a double chorus divided into many parts.  It is not a piece for a small choir or one that is not secure in its pitch.  The virtuoso Estonian choir has performed music by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, among many other composers.  They are one of the world’s great choruses; nothing seems too hard for them.

The Rachmaninov “Vespers” has, of course, been recorded by many fine conductors and choruses, including Robert Shaw and his Festival Singers (Telarc), and a very unusual sounding but arresting recording by the men and boy choir from King’s College, Cambridge, with Stephen Cleobury.  (I once read an interview with Cleobury that he chose the Vespers because that particular year he had a good crop of low basses in the King’s choir.) There are many more, but these are three of my favorites.  If you don’t know this music, I recommend it.

My vacation playlist, August 2010

Here’s what I’m taking on the plane to Iowa (among many other things—on my iPod)

Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, conducted by Claudio Cavina. One of the great early operas, in a new re-imagining.

Schubert’s great song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, highly anticipated and brand new today (in the U.S.) on Harmonia Mundi, performed by the brainy tenor Mark Padmore, and the equally brainy pianist Paul Lewis.

Isabelle Faust’s acclaimed new recording of some of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.

An old favorite, the original Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” partially set off by reviews of the current New York revival with Elaine Strich and Bernadette Peters.

Gotta have a little Anglican church music in the mix.

The Essential Etta James. What more can I say?

Scissor Sisters’ “Night work.” I have eclectic tastes.

Kylie’s new album.

Happy listening.

R.I.P. Charles Mackerras

Sir Charles Mackerras
Sir Charles Mackerras

I’m not sure how I missed this, but the New York Times published an obituary for the great conductor (Australian/British, but born in the U.S.) Sir Charles Mackerras, who died in London on July 14, 2010, at the age of 84.  He was going strong right up to his death, with fine recordings of Mozart symphonies for the company Linn Records.

Charles Mackerras conducted everything, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Mozart to Britten, but it is probably his brilliant championing of the works of Leoš Janáček that will be his greatest legacy.  He promoted them when they were still exotic.  He made recordings of them in the 1970s and are still acknowledged as authoritative.  In recent years he has re-recorded several of them in English translation from performances at English National Opera. I am especially fond of the English version of The Makropulos Case with Cheryl Barker in the title role.  He had also conducted an English-language version of Richard Strauss’s shocker Salome.

There are few conductors that have matched the breadth of his repertoire and the depth and tastefulness of his interpretations.  His musicianship will be missed.

In honor of Holy Week

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For those who think I’m not thinking about anything but church fires and organ music, not so, and here is a recommendation for Holy Week. It is a wonderful performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by the Scottish group the Dunedin Consort. There aren’t any star singers here, and it is performed in the somewhat controversial style of one singer per vocal part in the choruses. It has a freshness that is appealing.

The recording also can be downloaded as high-quality MP3s at the Linn Records site. (Linn Records is a small U.K. firm that produces very high quality recordings.)