Saturday, November 7, 2009

In review--Exalted baroque

Polyphony/Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton 
George Frideric Handel
Hyperion Records

I am not a religious person, but when I listen to Handel’s Messiah, I feel a certain holiness enter the room—the space becomes sacred.  Oddly, a Handel expert told me last year that the baroque composer was not particularly religious.  True he had composed other oratorios with Biblical themes before composing the music for Messiah, but he did recycle material from his secular operas to appear as arias in Messiah.  However, this exalted music with its fiery arias and stunning orchestral interludes, must have given old Handel some pause for religious thought.  The libretto alone tells a powerful story of prophecy, suffering and transcendence, as well as, faith in Divine Providence.
Handel reworked the oratorio several times, adding arias for soloist and most notably for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, in 1750.  The original performance of Messiah took place in 1741.  Polyphony and Britten Sinfonia perform the 1752 version.  They employ a small orchestra and choir.  The soloists for this performance include soprano Julia Doyle, countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Allen Clayton and bass Andrew Foster-Williams, four vocalists that work well off of each other.  The performance was recorded in St. John’s, Smith Square in London on December 22 and 23, 2008.
The recording feels in the moment with dynamic singing and beautiful orchestral passages punctuated by regal brass, organ and harpsichord.  Lasting for the length of a feature-length film, Messiah begins with Old Testament text in Part One with the prophecy of the coming Messiah.  The countertenor aria sung by Davies, track 6, But who may abide sends chills up my spine.  And in fact, the countertenor gets a workout in Part One since he sings a total of 5 arias.
The crowning glory of Part Two is the Hallelujah chorus which brings in rich counterpoint vocals, razor sharp horns and rolling timpani.  The chorus, in my opinion, ranks as one of the most beautiful passages in the history of classical music.   Part Three opens with another gorgeous passage, the soprano aria, I know that my redeemer liveth sung beautifully by Doyle.  Later in the same section, Davies and Clayton sing the hauntingly gorgeous aria O death where is thy sting?  And Doyles’ interpretation of If God be for us, who can be against us? is spellbinding. 
More counterpoint with the full choir and soloists perform the dramatic Amen chorus.  I find this interpretation of Handel’s Messiah richly rewarding.  I prefer recordings with smaller orchestras and with baroque instruments.  Four hundred years after the birth of Handel, the oratorio Messiah lives on in the hearts of classical musicians, Christians and aficionados of baroque music.  Whether or not Handel experienced Divine Intervention when composing the oratorio remains a mystery, but certainly when I listen to Messiah, something stirs profoundly in my soul.  In fact, I give high recommendations for Handel's oratorio and challenge even agnostics to give a listen and not feel moved by spirit.  And certainly Polyphony’s performance deserves a few listens this season.  It reminds us to overcome our collective despair despite the darkness we all face.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In review--Piano Beethoven's Forte

Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov
Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin
Harmonia Mundi

If someone wanted to become intimate with the Romantic musician-composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), spending time with the composer’s scores would certainly open a door. Many classically-trained musicians and scholars delved into the German composer’s scores, though barely decipherable given the composer’s messy handwriting and equally messy palette of raw emotions Beethoven brought to his sonatas and other work. And the musicians would also discover when researching the composer that he started out as a violinist and even mastered the instrument, though piano turned out to be his forte (pun intended).

Hungarian pianist and Beethoven interpreter Andràs Schiff recorded the entire cycle of the German composer’s piano sonatas for ECM Records, with the last recording of the series released in 2009. Now, German violinist Isabelle Faust and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov recorded all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, released on a 4-CD set which includes a DVD documentary of the recording process, fascinating in itself.

While each musician brings her own awareness, musical skills and scholarly knowledge to their instrument when performing Beethoven’s music, Faust and Melnikov bring a sense of excitement, pathos and wonder to their interpretations of these sonatas that appear on Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin. The musicians combine pragmatic thought with intuition and keen musical sensitivities. They pay homage to Beethoven while also taking on a formidable task of making sense of a large body of work, written over a span of 15 years.

In the documentary the musicians are shown contemplating Beethoven’s scores, musical direction and the composer’s personal life. Similar to other scholars and musicians that have tackled these multidimensional scores, the musicians discussed Beethoven’s sense of humor, his playfulness, passion and even his sentimental feelings. Beethoven as a person shared complexity with his music. And any listener fearful of emotions would do better to find a more detached composer, and outside of the Romantic era.

So where does a reviewer begin with a collection of ten sonatas? Beethoven composed the first eight sonatas for his friend virtuoso violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Sweet lyrical passages explode into sharp musical outbursts that eventually dissolve into humorous, even sarcastic musical statements. The first sonata opens with a bold declaration, a short motif and then the violin waxes lyrical and the piano responds in a more pragmatic tone. The two instruments participate equally in a musical conversation and they engage in a tit for tat.

The composer provided the musicians with plenty of upward runs creating elation and perhaps transcendence in listeners. And we have only just begun because this rich palette of emotions explodes during the first movement of the first sonata. It’s best to listen to the sonatas one at a time or one disc per day. Otherwise, a listener might find themselves too exhausted from the experience—feels like intense therapy at times.

Each sonata has its distinct personality, though they all share in common sweet moments, revelry, humor and passionate outbursts, as this seems to be par for the course with Beethoven, and his sonatas appear as smaller canvases that contain similar motifs to his symphonies.

While it would be impossible to review every sonata on this 4-CD set, all of them have been listened to with pleasure. And the liner notes were read thoroughly, even if some of the musical terms fell on deaf ears. Suffice to say that sonatas #9 and #10 away from the first eight sonatas. Sonata #9 was composed for Rodolphe Kruetzer, who never performed it in public because he found it “unintelligible” (liner notes). Kruetzer preferred to play in legato notes and the sonata was written in staccato notes. Sonata #10 was composed for French violinist Jacques Pierre Joseph Rode and it premiered in Prince Lobkowitz’s palace on December 29, 1812. Sonata #10 appears on disc #2 along with Sonata #4 and Sonata #5, also known as, Spring Sonata. While Sonata #9 appears alone on the backside of the DVD (disc #4).

After listening to all ten sonatas and watching the DVD, it’s impossible to distinguish one sonata movement for another. I hope to become more acquainted with this collection over time. However, I have found a few health benefits listening to the sonatas. I believe that the exploration of emotions that appear in the sonatas, absorbing and releasing those emotions can only act as a catharsis.

I listened to the sonatas before falling asleep and I woke up the next morning exploding with creativity. When I listen to Beethoven’s work, when performed by sensitive musicians, I unblock my creative flow and I feel tension release from my body. I don’t know what the composer’s intentions were when he composed music, but I feel that he immersed his music in honest emotions and that through his music he worked his way to the other side, which at many times resembles transcendence.

Harmonia Mundi

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In review--A new face of Fado

Joana Amendoeira
À Flor Da Pele
World Village

A new fadista to my ears, Joana Amendoeira sings original fados in a classic style that hails back to the era before Amàlia Rodrigues. Her fifth CD, À Flor da Pele offers less gusto than her contemporary Mariza’s work, but as much sensuality and beauty as heard on Mariza’s and Cristina Branco’s recordings. Joana’s vocals caress every note and she embodies the poetry she sings with broad strokes. Her band includes Pedro Amendoeira on Portuguese guitar, Pedro Pinhal on classical guitar and Paulo Paz on double bass and the music the quartet performs possesses a sepia tone veneer and a whiff of nostalgia.

Although I don’t understand Portuguese, I feel the longing Joana sings about in the song, Apelo. The following song, Amor O Teu Nome conjures the happiness of lovers with its lilting Portuguese guitar and Joana’s spritely vocal interpretation. And each song, opalescent and strung together like pearls, reveals the different stages of love. The description for Como Se Fosse Uma Flor, “These are the stories Fado sings on this voyage of love, its mystery rises in a dream as well kept as a tight-closed flower.”

Fados are not easy to describe because the success of these Portuguese songs depends on how well the fadista interprets and conveys complex emotions to her listeners. Similar to flamenco and American blues, musical technique combines with an ability to convey the deepest of human emotions. Today’s fado singers find their inspiration in Portuguese poetry of both contemporary and classic poets.

The most beautiful voices treat the poetry of others as their own, colored by their experiences. In this way, the fadistas resemble actresses embodying the roles they play. If a singer desires to succeed, she must embody the subject of the fado. Joana Amendoeira could be described as a consummate actress with her convincing vocals and sensual delivery.

Fans of Mariza and Cristina Branco will want to add Joana Amendoeira’s À Flor da Pele to their collection. She might be new to my ears today, but after listening to this recording a few times, I am certain the fadista will quickly end up on my list of favorites.

World Village

Monday, November 2, 2009

In review--High-Octane Colombian

Totò La Momposina
La Bodega

Colombian vocalist Totò La Momposina came to my attention in 2004, when her delicious cumbia, Yo Me Llamo Cumbia appeared on the Putumayo compilation Women of Latin America, alongside Chilean Mariana Montalvo, Brazilian Monica Salmaso, Colombian Marta Gòmez and others. She headlined in the Putumayo Presents Women in Latin America tour along with Brazilian Belo Velloso and Mariana Montalvo (mentioned earlier), and if she did not rouse audience members physically, she most certainly roused them emotionally.

So years later, I am pleased to receive her recording, La Bodega. Released on an independent label, Totò offers us songs that you cannot sit still while listening to them. In fact, I flew out of my chair and found myself dancing throughout my small apartment. I knew that in order to write this review, I would need to do so in silence because those Afro-Colombian cross-rhythms, thumping beats, punchy brass and Totò’s alto vocals, left me second-guessing if I had Colombian ancestry.

And the vocalist steeped in Colombian music traditions, (especially that which finds its roots with African slaves), struts her stuff on this recording. Her signature cumbia, Yo Me Llamo Cumbia shows up here along with a Cuban son, Dueña de los Jardines and the tribal Afro-Colombian Tembandumba, which recalls Afro-Cuban rumba and Afro-Brazilian samba with its heavy beats and chant-like vocals. The opener, Manita Uribe gets the blood pumping full steam ahead and after that track, Totò performs one festive number after another. By the end, listeners might be thinking of hopping a plane to Colombia or nearby Venezuela to sample the various rhythms, instruments (percussions, lutes, flutes) and dances.  While you hear a lot of negative news about these South American countries, what you don't hear about is the fabulous music and the warm-hearted musicians that perform this music.  Certainly they are worth getting to know.

We might be experiencing static gray weather here in the Pacific Northwest, but listening to Totò’s Bodega invites me to throw a one-person party in my kitchen. This album finds me in a festive mood and no doubt anyone who listens to it, will remember why they were given hips and feet. Baila!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

In review--Play it again Sam

Tuning in the key of 440

Thad Carhart
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank
Discovering at Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier
Random House, 2001

As a child, I gravitated towards any piano that I encountered, at people’s houses, at the church and in stores. I never learned how to play piano and my family did not own one, but the instrument, in all of its wooden glory, with white and black keys beckoning for my fingers to caress them, called to me.  And I adored it.

Now, as an adult, I listen to many solo piano recordings, from Bach and Beethoven to Ravel. Some of the pianists in my collect include, Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, Pèter Nagy, Andràs Schiff, Murray Perahia and many others. These virtuosos have no awareness that I exist in some tucked away small city, enchanted by the music they recorded. And the author Thad Carhart who wrote The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, has no awareness of me luxuriating in his every word as he waxed on about every aspect of the piano imaginable.

The book, on loan to me, reminds me of my childhood attraction to the piano. But unlike the author, I never took piano lessons, though I did sneak up to pianos at play them, not for any sort of attention or applause, but simply because the instrument possessed me. And in the pages of Carhart’s book, he invites us into Luc Desforges' atelier where a history lesson on the piano, a lesson in tuning a piano, and brand names of pianos over the ages surface, waiting to be gleaned by music aficionadas like myself.

However, Carhart’s memoire speaks too of relationships between people, such as his slow brewing friendship with the atelier owner Luc and all the various piano enthusiasts that show up at the small piano shop. The relationship to the piano feels like an obvious one, but as seen through the eyes of the author. He speaks of Luc’s tenderness towards various “dream pianos” and each part of the piano, from the pedals, wires, hammers, keys and cabinet are lovingly described.

Carhart invites readers into a world populated with Steinways, Pleyels, Bosendorfers, Bechsteins, Erard, Gaveau and other top-of-the-line pianos. We are even invited into the factory of Italian piano maker Paolo Fazioli whose handmade pianos sell for over a million dollars. And with all of this talk about pianos, masters, and composers, I can’t help but want to ask famous pianist what piano they prefer playing and why that particular piano?

I highly recommend The Piano Shop on the Left Bank to piano lovers and musicians in general. This carefully crafted book waxes poetry and its sentiments about the relationship between a musician and a musical instrument speaks volumes.

Piano image found on Wikipedia under "piano"