Johann Johannsson and Yair Elasar Glotman: Last and First Men. (Deutsche Grammophon 4837410)
The late Johann Johannsson composed some truly remarkable music during his relatively brief career. Among his notable achievements were several movie soundtracks that are enjoyable to hear even divorced from their films (e.g., his soundtrack to the film Arrival, a stimulating sci-fi film based on an ingenious short story by author Ted Chiang titled “The Story of Your Life”). The copy I obtained from the library includes both the CD of the soundtrack and a Blu-ray disc of the movie, which I have not yet watched but plan to presently. The music is haunting, moody, sometimes spooky, with acoustic instruments, voices, and synthesized sounds blended together to great effect. If you are already a fan of Johannsson, you’ll want to give this new release a listen.
MacMillan: Symphony No. 5 “Le grand Inconnu”; The Sun Danced. Mary Bevan, soprano; Harry Christophers, The Sixteen and the Genesis Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia. (CORO COR16179)
Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959) has given us here two large-scale works for chorus and orchestra that are based on religious themes. The Sun Danced (2016) was commissioned by the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal to mark the centennial of a religious miracle, while his Symphony No. 5, le grand Inconnu” (2019) is said by the composer to evoke the mystery of the Holy Spirit. MacMillan explains in the liner notes that the French phrase “Le grand Inconnu” refers to the mystery of the Holy Spirit in a way he cannot find in the English spiritual tradition. Musically, both pieces are expressive and colorful, showing the composer’s skill and imagination in powerful measure. A particularly gripping effect is the quiet breathing of the choir that opens the Symphony, a musical effect that brings to mind the idea of “the whisperings of the Spirit.” The soprano Mary Bevan really shines in The Sun Danced, with orchestra and chorus providing many moments of power and light. Both pieces have an exuberance that sweeps the listener away; indeed, one need not be religious to appreciate the power of MacMillan’s musical vision and the glory of the musicians who bring that vision gloriously to life.
One of the highlights of my musical life was attending a concert performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 7 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Claudio Abbado. Given that JJP has already posted a fine in-depth review of this BIS release (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/08/mahler-symphony-no-7-sacd-review.html), I will simply second his opinion that this is a very fine recording indeed. It is an excellent performance featuring an especially adept interpretation of the final movement. In addition, the sound of the orchestra has been captured with superb engineering, making this release worthy of an enthusiastic recommendation to all Mahler fans.
Prokofiev: Suites from The Gambler and The Tale of the Stone Flower. Dima Slobodeniouk, Lahti Symphony Orchestra. (BIS 2301)
This SACD of orchestral music by Prokofiev contains just what you would expect from orchestral suites by the Russian master: music that is colorful, expressive, energetic, and entertaining. Many music lovers are no doubt familiar with the colorful orchestral suites from his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The first suite on this disc, Four Portraits and Denouement from “The Gambler” is derived from an opera rather than a ballet, but the other suite is based upon his ballet The Tale of the Stone Flower. Interestingly enough, I noted in my listening sessions that there was some music that seemed quite parallel to some music from Prokofiev’s ballet score for the star-crossed lovers, but it is certainly no scandal to hear a great composer stealing from his or her own catalog, especially when the end product is so rewardingly entertaining, as it is here. Sandwiched between these two suites is an earlier composition by Prokofiev, his brief but soberly expressive Autumnal Sketch. The engineering is first-rate, which is what we have come to expect from BIS, one of the few labels that still lists the equipment used in the production, a fun touch that brings to mind those heady audiophile days of the 70s and 80s.
I thought it seemed a bit surprising to see the reverse numerical order of the symphonies in the title of this release. Perhaps the producers figured that the 5th is the more popular Shostakovich symphony of the two so they needed to list it first? Not a big deal, just a bit odd, so perhaps that was the point: christen it a bit oddly to draw some extra attention in a crowded marketplace. Whatever. A bigger surprise awaited me when I got home, opened the cover, and realized that there were two shiny toruses in the package, one for Symphony No. 5, the other for -- you guessed it -- Symphony No. 1. I had assumed both works would have fit on one SACD, but that might have been stretching it. There are no fillers included on either disc, but given that the package sells for a relatively modest price, value is not really an issue. Both symphonies are well done, recorded in live performance but engineered superbly. Symphony No. 1 is played with just a bit less playfulness than I would like to hear, but is still a delight. Similarly delightful is Noseda’s version of No. 5, an interpretation that seems to strike a balance between hope and despair. For the price, this 2-SACD set would be a great way for someone new to Shostakovich to be introduced to his symphonies.
What looks to be at first glance just another collection of arrangements for cello of some traditional favorites turns out to be something more complex, more focused, and more satisfying than that. The centerpiece of this collection is not a traditional favorite; rather, it is a new composition by Turkish composer Fazil Say (b. 1970) titled Concerto for Cello and Orchestra “Never Give Up,” a quite listenable and rewarding piece of contemporary music that fits right in with the other selections in this release, which include impassioned performances of notable compositions such as Ravel’s Kaddish (if you ever get the opportunity, check out the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s “Tree of Life: A Concert for Peace and Unity,” a moving memorial concert for the victims of the tragic 2918 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which among other heartfelt performances included a version of Kaddish with a clarinet taking the lead), Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, and John Williams’s Theme from Schindler’s List. Voice of Hope is a truly remarkable release, much more than a random collection of arrangements for cello. Brava, Ms. Thomas!
Vasks: Viola Concerto; String Symphony “Voices.” Maxim Rysanov, viola and conductor, Sinfonietta Riga. (BIS 2443)
Music lovers who have not yet discovered the entrancing music of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) will find this new BIS release an excellent gateway into his musical universe. The CD opens with the more recent of the two works on the program, his Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra (2014-2015). Those fearful of contemporary music need not be afraid, this is music to delight rather than assault the ear. The opening movement in particular is breathtakingly beautiful, so listeners are likely to be hooked from the outset (shades of the old strategy of starting off a rock or pop album with a hit song sure to draw listeners in). Rest assured, though, the rest of the music on the disc is up to the same high standard of quality. The second composition is one of the first pieces by Vasks that got me interested in his music back in the early 1990s. His Symphony for Strings, “Voices” (1991) is more inward-focused than the Concerto, more allusive than effusive. Again, it is a good place to start with the music of Vasks, as it employs many of the musical devices that he will use in subsequent works. It truly draws the listener in, giving the mind something to turn over while enjoying the compelling sonorities. It is one of those pieces that upon hearing, you will immediately want to hear again. All in all, this is an excellent release, highly recommended.
It is certainly not an original thought to say that jazz is America’s classical music, but I’ll throw it out there quickly along with another thought that certainly did not originate with me, that jazz musicians in general tend to have a deeper understanding of and ability to implement music theory than do classical musicians. And if you read biographies of and interviews with prominent jazz musicians, you might well be surprised to find out how many are fans of classical music. In any event, Big Vicious is a delight: tuneful, imaginative, and bold in both conception and execution. “Big Vicious” is the name of both Cohen’s band and the album, which contains 11 compositions: nine originals credited to Cohen or the band plus two covers, one an arrangement of the song “Teardrop” by Massive Attack, the other an arrangement of a movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. (“Hey hey, my my, clas-sic-al will never die...”)
Bonus Recommendation: Self-Portrait with Russian Piano. Wolf Wondratscheck, author; Marshall Yarbrough, translator. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, First American Edition, 2020. ISBN 978-0-374-28049-1. It turns out that the library not only carries CDs, but they also carry books that they are more than happy to have their patrons check out to read. How cool is that?! Music lovers with a literary bent might enjoy this somewhat dreamlike novel by the German author, Wolf Wondratscheck. It tells the tale of a writer who encounters an aging Russian pianist, Suvorin, although as the novel moves along, it can become hard to separate the fictional author from the fictional pianist as their stories intertwine. Along the way, we are regaled with anecdotes and observations about actual musicians such as Clara Haskil (“Did she speak Russian? Did she speak at all? Did her hands get cold before every appearance, too cold for Mozart, who would then warm them for her?”), Sviatislov Richter (“Any interest in success, in seeking admiration for his capabilities as a pianist, was completely alien to Richter. Success was fining the trail of a discovery, the hope of finding it. Richter would probably most preferred it if his name didn’t appear next to the composer’s on the playbill at all.”). Glenn Gould (“Gould was right to quit early. The guy was just thirty-two! But he had had enough and he threw in the towel. Good kid, and he had a sense of humor, too. That he did, you have to hand it to him.”), and Heinrich Schiff (“The worst ones, says Schiff, are the conqueror types, who turn each game into a tournament, each concert into a struggle—the killjoys at the conductor’s stand who wave the queue around like a baton. How little feeling, how little sensitivity they have.”). This novel is not the easiest to read, but it does tend to suck the reader in, weaving quite a psychological spell throughout its relatively brief 204 pages.
Finally, allow me to be so bold as to recommend another jazz recording, this one also by trumpeter Avishai Cohen. His quintet recording Into the Silence (ECM 2482) is much different in sound and mood from Big Vicious. It is acoustic, moody, Cohen at times muting his trumpet and exploring some deeply introspective spaces both musically and emotionally. It is a simmeringly powerful release that is beautifully recorded and produced.