by Karl Nehring
Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (Reimagined by Chad Kelly). Rachel Podger, violin; Brecon Baroque (Huw Daniel, violin; Jane Rogers, Viola; Alexander Rolton; cello; Jan Spencer, violone; Katy Bircher, flute; Daniel Lanthier, oboe; Leo Duarte, oboe; Inga Klaucke, bassoon; Chad Kelly, harpsichord). Channel Classics CCS5A44923
Goldberg Variations, we are considering yet another recording by a pianist. Recently, for example, the exciting young Icelandic piano virtuoso has released a recording on DG (although we have been promised a CD for review, we have not yet received it; perhaps we will have to resort to streaming it.) Then follow the usual comparisons to the touchstone recordings by Gould, Perahia, et al. – plus perhaps some discussion of the relative merits of piano v. harpsichord performances of the work. Here, however, we have something completely different: a “reimagining” of the piece for a small Baroque ensemble. In the booklet included with the CD, harpsichordist and arranger Chad Kelly writes of Bach’s famous composition: “Through its immortalization on screen, in books, and through certain seminal recordings, listeners and performers alike can easily become detached from its deeply personal identity. Despite what many respected and respectful commentators have propagated, it is not a sacrosanct work of pure, absolute, and abstract art. Nor should it become merely a revered museum piece. It is with this mandate that this new arrangement and recording has been undertaken. The arrangement attempts to be idiomatic to the historical instruments used in its performance and to the individual styles and genres referenced in the work, whilst remaining true to the essence of the piece. At times it has required a liberal reading of the original text, prioritizing an authenticity to the to the instruments performing the music over the notes on the page.”
Immediately with the opening aria it is evident that the phrasing of the familiar melody just sounds different from that which we are accustomed to hear from keyboard performances, be they piano or harpsichord. As the variations unfold, the overall impression is that of a kind of blending of the Goldbergs with something akin to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Although that might sound as if I am making some sort of snide putdown, please believe me when I say that no, I am not intending to demean this arrangement. Truth be told, I find the music on this release to be quite delightful, even though it takes quite a few “liberal readings” of the original text. Hey, what the heck?! Whip me, beat me, call me a liberal – this interpretation is both lively and lovely. If you’d like to hear the Goldberg Variations in a whole new (old, actually – Baroque ensemble) light, this new release is well worth a listen.
Purcell: Fantazias in three and four parts. John Holloway Ensemble (John Holloway, violin; Monika Baer, viola; Renate Steinmann, viola; Martin Zeller, violincello. ECM New Series 2249
The English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is a composer that many reading this blog have most likely heard about as a figure in music history; however, I would venture a guess that the majority of music lovers have heard very little – if any – of the man’s music. On this new release from ECM, the British violinist and prominent figure in the early music movement has invited three colleagues to join him in presenting these 12 Fantazias. Holloway has great respect for Purcell, and in fact is willing to put this music in the same lofty category as that of Bach: “Only just out of his teens, Purcell already shows his extraordinary ability, shared by few composers of any other era, to walk the fine line between joy and sorrow, to beautifully express the melancholy which was such a characteristic mood of his times; and all this within the strictest self-imposed disciplines of complex counterpoint. Nowadays we regard J.S. Bach as the greatest of all contrapuntists. He would have been immensely proud to have composed this music, and had he encountered it, would certainly have acknowledged it as equal to his finest achievements in this art.” Listening to the four (or occasionally three) players weave their way through their parts, it is easy to conclude, as does Holloway, that this is some truly engrossing counterpoint that casts a spell in the same way that Bach’s music can do. For those who enjoy Baroque counterpoint, especially those who might be curious about the music of Purcell, this gloriously performed and engineered ECM release is certainly well worth seeking out.
Sigur Rós: Átta. Glóð; Blóðberg; Skel; Klettur; Mór; Andrá; Gold; Ylur; Fall; 8. Sigur Rós (Jón Dór Birgisson [“Jónsi”], guitar, vocals; Georg Holm, bass; Kjartan Sveinsson, keyboards, synthesizers); Strings performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra conducted by Robert Ames; Brass on Klettur and 8 performed by Brassgat í bala; Percussion on Glóð, Klettur, Gold, and 8 performed by Ólafur Björn Ólafsson. Additional violin on Klettur performed by Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttír. BMG 538920412
I was just about ready to write that although I have occasionally reviewed releases by jazz artists previously in Classical Candor, on the grounds that jazz can be reasonably thought of as a form of chamber music, I have not yet reviewed a release by a rock group – but then I suddenly remembered a couple of posts that I made that although technically may not have been reviews of releases by rock groups, were pretty darn close. The first was back in 2021 when I wrote about classical and jazz artists who covered the rock group Radiohead (see those reviews here), while the second was a brief discussion of a 2001 release by the rock group Low, which I included in an addendum (which you can read here) to my favorite releases of 2022. Now here I am in 2023 with a review of Átta (“Eight”), the new album (it’s their eighth full album, their first in 10 years) by the Icelandic rock group Sigur Rós. Lest you think I have gone completely off the rails in reviewing an album by a rock group in Classical Candor, allow me to make a couple of quick points. First, Sigur Rós is not really a typical rock band; their lyrics are often in an imaginary language, their musical lines are often extended and flowing, and they have experience playing with symphony orchestras, as in this concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Second, Átta, as you can see from the description above, is an album that features prominent contributions by Aclassical musicians.
The band’s vocalist Jónsi says of the album that they just wanted “to have minimal drums and for the music to be really sparse, floaty and beautiful.” The band self-produced album at Sundlaugin Studio, on the rural outskirts of Reykjavik, with the strings laid down at London’s iconic Abbey Road. Sveinsson agrees: “We wanted to allow ourselves to be a bit dramatic and go far with these arrangements. The world needs that right now. After COVID and everything, people just need something nice. It’s hard to describe, but for me everything is always open to interpretation. People can think and feel how they want.” Bassist Holm reflects, “I remember when I was a kid, I’d have this feeling of things being really big and really small at the same time. I like the idea that’s what this record is. There’s a 32-piece orchestra and loads of reverb, but at the same time some of the songs are just like a small dot. This record sounds like a Sigur Rós album, but it’s more introvert than before. It’s very expansive with this sound of strings, but it looks within more than outside.”
In many ways, the music has a classical feel to it. Jónsi’s voice has an ethereal, otherworldly quality, enhanced here by the engineering – the “loads of reverb” give his vocals extra presence that blend well with the sound of the orchestra. Without meaningful words to draw listeners’ attention, what remains is the sound, the vocals becoming another instrument in the mix. Despite the number of musicians involved, the music comes across with a directness that makes for immediate emotional connection. Much closer to classical than rock, Átta is an album that the more adventurous among our readers might well want to give a listen.