Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In review--Bach Be Dazzled

Elizabeth Watts
The English Concert w/Harry Bicket
J.S. Bach Cantatas and Arias
Harmonia Mundi

I find no shortage of riveting sopranos in the classical realm. And among them, Soprano Elizabeth Watts who debuts on Harmonia Mundi with a collection of J.S. Bach’s cantatas and arias brings extraordinary sensitivity to this religious text while also dazzling us with her vocal finesse. She closes the recording with a showstopper, Cantata 51 which runs from track 13 to 17 and if the introduction to that cantata doesn’t blow the minds of its listeners, nothing will. Bach is known for the challenging aspects of his compositions—only first rate performers need apply. However, Bach’s repertoire isn’t just daunting for musicians, but also for the average music listener.

Joining with The English Concert, Watts delivers the mostly somber works ranging from the opening Aria from Cantata 31, to Cantata 199 (other arias included) and ending with Cantata 51, as mentioned earlier. Mark Bennett’s trumpet on Cantata 51 also dazzles with clear, bell-like tones performing musical acrobatics which pair off well with Watt’s vocal acrobatics. The opening aria of this cantata is bound to leave listeners gasping for air or at least leaving them with the feeling of witnessing something extraordinary. I’m reminded of Mozart’s work written for sopranos and I’m amazed at what the human voice can accomplish. I’m also humbled by the discipline and training that prepares a vocalist for this music.

While the religious text presented on this CD is too somber for my taste (I’m not religious), the virtuoso musicianship, the musicians’ and art director’s (Harry Bicket) sensitivity and rich interpretations of the music rises to the occasion. I find the music sad, but relaxing alternating with a few thrilling moments in which Watts reaches to the depths of her talent and delivers a spectacular performance. For Bach collectors, this CD is a must, while others reading this blog (not as familiar with J.S. Bach), might find the recording requires a steep learning curve. Having said that, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In review--A Hero's Journey into the Unknown

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and Piano Concerto No. 4
SFS Media/Harmonia Mundi

If I had the chance to interview the late Joseph Campbell, I would have asked him about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. After all, fate knocking at the door followed by a quest into darkness with the eventual emergence into triumph is what Campbell would have labeled, “a hero’s journey.” For Beethoven fate came knocking at the door alright. During the four years it took to write this short and powerful symphony, his hearing deteriorated, he suffered from a finger infection that could have destroyed his career (antibiotics weren’t discovered yet, infections could turn into gangrene…), the woman he loved married another man, and Napoleon occupied Vienna.

And yet, the first movement that swayed under the weight of its anger and frustration, also supplies listeners with a few angelic interludes. But the strings burst in anger, the horns rant, and the thundering timpani rages. The fate that knocked at Beethoven’s door wasn’t welcomed, but the composer also didn’t shrink from the challenges fate placed on his doorstep. Instead, he took insufferable experiences (a musician losing his hearing for instance), and composed one of the most, if not the most powerful pieces of music ever. It’s not a coincidence that we’ve all heard this symphony. We recognize the famous 4 note phrase and it unnerves us, which it should. We too stand on the brink of change and fate knocks on the door of humanity. But what will we choose to do with our collective anger and frustration? Will we take Beethoven’s lead or collapse under the weight?

I’ve heard several versions of this symphony and I honestly can’t tell the difference between them. However, I enjoy San Francisco’s live concert where the symphony is paired with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Emanuel Ax on piano. Beethoven composed the symphony and the concerto during the same period and judging from all the work composed during these years mentioned in the liner notes, Beethoven didn’t waste any time. Perhaps with the deterioration of his hearing, he felt the clock ticking and the public wanting. And the symphony and the piano concerto present striking contrasts.  However, the 3rd movement of the piano concerto share the bold strokes of the first movement of the 5th Symphony.

While the symphony possesses anger alternating with regal and militaristic phrases, the piano concerto possesses sweetness and falls on the pastoral side, at least the first two movements. In the liner notes, we learn that Beethoven found solace in the natural world during this otherwise painful time of his life, and those reflections of the nature come through in this concerto. I can see myself walking through a meadow and near a bubbling brook while listening to this piece.

Not only that, beauty intermingles with complexity allowing a sensitive pianist to show off virtuosity (both athleticism and emotional coloring). Emanuel Ax certainly meets the challenge and delivers a stunning performance. And I don’t know, but maybe after hearing two recordings of Piano Concerto No. 4 in the past few months, I might claim it as a favorite. What’s not to like? The concerto (which last 34 minutes), contains drama, excitement, grace, beauty, and dexterity. Beethoven knew how to entertain in the 19th century and that entertainment value still flourishes. and

In review--Native Nuevo Flamenco

Gabriel Ayala & Will Clipman
Passion, Fire & Grace
Canyon Records

I spent the weekend fighting off a lung infection. Fortunately, Yaqui classical/flamenco guitarist Gabriel Ayala and master percussionist Will Clipman’s recording Passion, Fire & Grace arrived in my mailbox. I listened to the recording several times over the weekend, even hitting the replay button. And at times I had wished for a long-play or a double CD because I found the music here enticing, healing, and comforting. There’s nothing worse than dealing with a sickness when you’re alone, and music can often bring comfort as this recording did.

The recording supplies its listeners with plenty of flamenco guitar including renditions of work by nuevo flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucìa (Entre Los Aguas) and a younger flamenco guitarist Vicente Amigo. Most of the work here was composed by Ayala from the catchy opener Sonoran Nights to the nuevo flamenco piece Allegro that closes the CD. Native America meets Europe on Whispers from Eagle Hill/Zuni Sunrise, a song that features an archival recording of Ed Lee Natay’s Zuni Sunrise Song and the duo goes Brazilian on Black Orpheus (composed by Luiz Bonfà for the Brazilian movie Black Orpheus). I don’t think I’ve ever seen the movie, but the song sounded familiar to my ears, and definitely another catchy song.

If any Native American or classical guitar album deserves a Grammy, this one does. With exceptional playing by the versatile percussionist Clipman and masterful performances by Ayala, I hope that this album reaches the ears of thousands of listeners (and that’s conservative). I only wish that the album lasted longer. And after hearing Ayala’s recording Portraits (also on Canyon Records) 3 years ago I became a fan of this musician’s work. I definitely see his work as having crossover appeal (classical, flamenco, world, new age, and Native American). Highly recommended.

Also look for the heart-thumping, foot stomping How Sweet the Sound by Southern Scratch on Canyon Records. Southern Scratch plays Waila! music also known as “chicken scratch” which sounds more like Tex-Mex than traditional Native American music, but in fact is Native American traditional music with plenty of rousing accordion.

Northern Cree Randy Wood released a new collection of round dance songs on his latest Round Dances and Songs of the Native Road. Most of the songs (if not all) are sung in English.