Friday, September 3, 2010

In review--Emerge triumphant

Paul Lewis, Jiřì Bêlohlàvek and BBC Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven Complete Piano Concertos
Harmonia Mundi

For many listeners, hearing Beethoven’s music could feel triumphant, victorious, and invigorating. For other listeners, the German composer’s work might feel fraught with anger, frustration, and darker emotions that they would rather not address. But for all of us, Beethoven can lead us into our darkest places where we can heal our wounds and emerge triumphant. That’s the journey that most of Beethoven’s music represents, bordering on shamanic, raising the dead parts of ourselves, and liberating ourselves from our oppressors, both inner and outer. Beethoven’s 5 piano concertos prove no exception to this concept.

Our musical shaman in this case is pianist (I’m assuming he’s English) Paul Lewis who in the realm of Beethoven, takes charge of this domain and plays the concertos with a sense of authority and mastership. You can feel the triumphant moments as well as the sensitive and fragile ones soaring off the keys of the Steinway that Lewis plays. I don’t envy the virtuosos that tackle Beethoven’s music since the cadenzas represent real workouts, physically, emotionally, and mentally or the musician (soloist) must capture each Beethoven moment and shape it into fire, steel and alternately gossamer wings. Similar to the works of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev (late Romantic composers) or Liszt, Beethoven didn't compose for the faint of heart. And perhaps, because he suffered from a hearing loss, his strong heart compensated for the loss of a musician’s greatest sense, his ability to hear.

According to the liner notes for Beethoven Complete Piano Concertos, when Beethoven performed the first 2 piano concertos he composed only the orchestra parts and improvised on the piano. The scores performed today represent a composite of the improvisations. By the third concerto the composer developed a mastership over the form and the piano parts were composed along with the orchestra ones—this was around the time when Beethoven could publish his music. And the third concerto turns out to be my favorite of the 5. It feels like the peak of Beethoven’s achievement with the concerto form. The orchestra and solo piano create a perfect balance and the concerto’s three movements are achingly beautiful.

All the concertos feature bold call and responses between the piano and orchestra, plenty of piano runs, sometimes on both hands, and playful childlike moods alternate with stark serious ones. When I listened to the concertos, I chose my favorite movements, such as the largo on the first concerto and the cadenzas in the first movement of the first concerto. I found the second concerto sweeter and more melodic than the first and at times the piano rolled gently along in a soothing manner.

I felt least impressed with the fifth concerto, perhaps because listening to 5 Beethoven concertos in a short period of time can lead to burn out. There were times throughout my listening to the three discs where Beethoven’s sensitivity blew me away, moments when his more fragile passages caused tears to mist my eyes. There were times when I felt sad that I live in another time and place than the composer because I would have enjoyed knowing a fellow human with such a range of emotions, including humor. Yes, I think it was the last movement in the third or fourth concerto that caused me to chuckle, and I don’t even know what the joke was, but it was funny nonetheless.

This is the first complete recording I’ve heard of Beethoven’s piano concertos, but I leave it feeling satisfied and impressed. The BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Jiřì Bêlohlàvek creates a fantastic partnership with Lewis. I highly recommend this recording for those of you with strong hearts and those of you now ready to face your inner demons and emerge victorious. It might not be the most joyful ride you’ll ever take, but among the most important. Beethoven knew something about spirit and spiritual evolution, that you can be sure.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

In review--Night Music

Arcanto Quartett
Quatuors à cordes
Debussy, Dutilleux, Ravel
Harmonia Mundi

I have mixed feelings about Aracanto Quartett’s Quatuors à cordes. I’m a fan of the French Impressionist composers, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy so I enjoy hearing their string quartets. While the composers employed some dissonance in their quartets, they also provided harmonic release.

I cannot say the same for French composer Henri Dutilleux’s suite, Ainsi la nuit in which the composers brings no release to his listeners. It’s as if listeners are trapped in a desert of dissonance and punished by the shrillness of strings. Similar to a cat which can meow sweetly or caterwaul, string instruments can also provide its share of tension while playing dissonant passages. Granted the composer set out to express darker emotions and even the words “unsettling anxiety and sombre violence” appear in the liner notes to convey part of what the French composer aimed at expressing—the experience of nightmares through music.

Personally, I don’t listen to music to give myself a headache or to convey my nightmares. I’m not trying to prove any philosophical or intellectual point when I listen to music. I actually listen to music for pleasure and to relax my overworked brain. So in that regard, Dutilleux’s darkly expressive night music does not appeal to me.

I know that dissonant or “atonal” music experienced its hey-day during the early and mid-20s century and is still listened to today with interest. Some dissonance is required in music otherwise the music lacks dynamics, but I would imagine that going overboard actually harms the human nervous system, not to mention lowers immune responses. I’m not a medical expert so you don’t have to take my word for it, but certainly check in with your body’s rhythms after listening to dissonant music. I know that our body’s natural rhythms align to external sounds so you can only imagine what some types of music is doing with the cells in your body, as well as, brainwaves. And if I found myself catching a cold, I wouldn’t turn to dissonant music to boost my immune system or help me rest.

Fortunately, Debussy’s and Ravel’s music has been thought to have a healing effect on the body. The music might be seen as possessing a soft focus, but these composers provide plenty of dynamics in their string quartets that appear on this recording. The Arcanto Quartett (Antje Weithaas, violin, Daniel Sepec, violin, Tabea Zimmermann, viola and Jean-Guihen Queyras, violioncello), bring out both the beauty and passion of Ravel and Debussy’s masterful quartets. Fortunately, the quartet starts out with Debussy’s quartet, which I realize isn’t relaxing, but still a satisfying piece of music. The musicians successfully capture the nuances and sensitivities in Debussy’s and Ravel’s quartets.

However, by placing Dutilleux’s suite in the middle of the program, Ravel’s quartet, which ends the recording, will either feel like a respite or it will feel edgier than usual following Dutilleux’s more strident music. Or perhaps to some listeners it will feel like dawn breaking in the sky after experiencing nightmares. But overall, I think each of us has enough tension in our lives just living on this planet to add more tension through music. While I enjoy the Debussy and Ravel quartets (as mentioned earlier), I wish this quartet had performed a more mindful program. While it’s true that some types of classical music possess a healing effect, I imagine that like any genre of music, classical music also has its share of harmful music (this coming from a healing music perspective and not necessarily that of a music journalist-critic). In the end, the music on this recording might balance out, especially ending with Ravel’s quartet.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In review--Schumann's Year (200th Anniversary of Schumann's birth)

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Staier and Sepec
Robert Schumann Sonatas for Piano and Violin
Harmonia Mundi

From around the time of German composer Robert Schumann’s death in 1856 (and in his last years), to the 1960s, Schumann’s later works were considered inferior to his other works. After listening to Andreas Staier’s (forte piano) and Daniel Sepec’s (1780 violin) recording of Schumann’s later sonatas, I wonder about the brilliance of Schumann’s work prior to the 1850s. The music that flows off of Robert Schumann Sonatas for Piano and Violin sounds brilliant with marvelous sonorities coming from both instruments. Passages explode off of the disc—impassioned, blazing, while alternating with lyrical poetry. Schumann’s homage to JS Bach feels both endearing and clearheaded. So any nonsense about Schumann’s plight with depression and madness curbing his virtuosity rightfully should be discounted and ignored.

On this recording, Staier dusts off an Erard forte piano (1837, Paris, restored by Edwin Beunk and Johan Wennink), and Sepec plays a vintage violin with deep and rich tones. In fact, I think both the talent of these musicians and the timbre of their respective instruments breathe new life into Schumann’s sonatas while alternately taking listeners on a journey to the 1850s. I wouldn’t call this musical channeling, but certainly the spirit of Schumann embodies the recording and how. This leaves me wondering if the two musicians felt an intimacy with the Romantic era composer or if they felt themselves slipping into the emotions embodied by the composer. How could it not?

The duo opens with Bach’s gorgeous Chaconne for violin and clavichord. Schumann interpreted Bach’s work for a new audience (Romantic era), which is hard to imagine that by the mid-1800s, JS Bach was already falling out of favor, but not with Schumann who devoted every day to the baroque composer in some way. Schumann’s first Sonata for piano and violin (op. 105) follows that stunning Bach interpretation. Though a comment by Schumann dismissing this piano and violin sonata appears in the liner notes, it seems almost imaginable that he didn’t feel some amorous feelings for this gorgeous sonata, with its light lyrical passages played on the violin and shadowed by the piano. Certainly it’s romantic.

Schumann preferred the second Sonata (op. 121) which blazes and explodes out of the instruments. This powerhouse sonata would not have been lost on the likes of Beethoven who could also turn angry bursts into poetry. This second sonata feels much darker than the first, and probably perfect to listen to on a stormy day like today. However, I much prefer the first sonata even if this causes Schumann to stir in his grave. Finally, Gesänge der Frühe for piano and violin is a collection of miniatures based on the theme of morning light. The longest suite out of the five runs just over 3 minutes. And it possesses a lightness of being that feels like a respite before heading off to the second sonata that ends the recording with a bang or a flight into madness.

In review--Harvesting fruit--Anonymous 4 cherry pick

Anonymous 4
The Cherry Tree
Harmonia Mundi

Having sold 2 million copies of their 20 albums, there’s nothing anonymous about this vocal ensemble comprised of Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek. Anonymous 4’s popularity can be attributed to continuous glowing reviews of its live performances, albums, programs, and ethereal voices that blend seamlessly. Similar to Bulgarian women’s choirs, Anonymous 4 transports its listeners to other realms but with its repertoire of European and American early music—sung a cappella.

The Cherry Tree features Christian ballads, hymns, carols, and songs from England, Ireland and America. This doesn’t surprise me since Anonymous 4 introduced early Americana music on its album American Angel which was released several years ago. After that album, the ensemble mysteriously broke up, only to reunite with the release of a greatest hits album, Four Centuries of Chant in 2009. What impresses me the most about these vocalists is that they sing in several languages with perfect intonation and even with the Appalachian fare the vocalists provide the necessary vocal inflections and nuances. When you hear Marsha Genensky sing the Appalachian version of The Cherry Tree, you would swear that she was raised in Appalachia America.

The album's title gives the impression of a collection of songs dealing with the seasons spring and summer, but in fact the collection of songs reflect on the Christmas story starting with Archangel Gabriel’s visitation with the Virgin Mary to the end of Christ’s life, but mostly the songs revolve around Mary and the nativity scene. The folk hymns, carols, songs, and ballads mostly hail from the 14th and 15th centuries (England and Ireland) with a few American pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries. The liner notes provide text and context of the program.

The overall album could be called a gem, but a few pieces stand out, including the Appalachian The Cherry Tree with its monophonic structure and lilting vocals. The 15th century English carol Nowel sing we both all and some features all 4 vocalists singing in perfectly calibrated harmony. The English carol The Virgin Unspotted also features gorgeous 4-part harmony. The 15th century polyphonic carol Hail Mary Full of Grace literally stopped me in my tracks with its ethereal vocals and the American fugue Bethlehem closes the album on a satisfying note. Still, you might feel tempted to press the replay button and listen to the entire program.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

In review---Wake up sleepy heads!

Oran Etkin
Wake up Clarinet!
Motema Music

Clarinetist Oran Etkin has taken his music to kids. Music not only helps children develop mentally, physically and emotionally, music education teaches children how to appreciate different types of music while preserving various music traditions for future generations. Not to mention that musicians reap rewards from teaching children music appreciation and musical language because they are in essence fostering their future concert goers and record buyers.  His children's album Wake up Clarinet! isn't a run-of-the-mill feel good children's CD, but has some educational components, such as learning about the timbre and range of a clarinet.

“You know, everyone talks about music as a language-universal language,“ says Ektin (liner notes), “About five years ago, I started wondering what we are doing to make sure that children grow up to be fully fluent and comfortable inside this powerful language that can enable them to express their innermost feelings, emphasize with the experiences of another, and explore distant cultures and ancient eras.”

So Ektin brought out the child size xylophones, recorders and percussion instruments and started teaching children how to explore, listen to and play music. According to the liner notes, these children went home excited and told their parents about Dizzy Gillespie and classical music. And anything that keeps children enthusiastic about learning is a good thing.

Wake up Clarinet features a short array of songs that have been jazzed up. Etkin and vocalist Charenee Wade chat in between songs to the child audience. They explore scales on High Low as they pretend to walk through the snow. Etkin demonstrates his clarinets range on several songs and we even learn about the connection between King Louis XIV and Louisiana on the song Eh La Bas. The swinging "Mary Had a Little Lamb" will even get adults dancing.

This recording is perfect for young children (they might get bored over 7 years of age) and for preschool and kindergarten teachers. The CD also provides video footage of a TImbalooloo (Etkin’s music education program), concert.,,