Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Music to Hear! Great Compositions Inspired by the Bard

Sonnet VIII

Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly,
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy;
Why lov'st thou that which thou receiv'st not gladly
Or else receiv'st with pleasure thine annoy? 
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds
By Unions married do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee who confounds
In singleness the part that thou should'st bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechless song being many seeming one,
Sings this to thee: thou single wilt prove none.

As the world marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death on 23 April, 1616, I thought it apropos to highlight a few interesting musical works inspired by the Bard. Of course, Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet  will be on everyone's list--and there are dozens of fine recordings of each from Sir Thomas Beecham and Andre Previn to Claudio Abbado and Charles Dutoit--but I've opted for a few slightly-more off-the-beaten-track choices, especially things I think more adventuresome listeners might enjoy discovering.

Gustav Holst: At the Boar's Head  Op. 42 (chamber opera)

With a libretto by the composer based on scenes from  Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2,  Holst's charming, if somewhat uneven, 1925 chamber opera is a delightful rarity that ought to be better known.

Warner Classics 50999 9 68929 2 (2009)

Gerald Finzi: Love's Labours Lost (incidental music)

As to be expected, Finzi's incidental score for Love's Labours Lost is hauntingly beautiful, lyrical, melancholy, and memorable.

Nimbus NI 5665 (2001)

Igor Stravinsky: Three Songs from William Shakespeare (1953)
for mezzo soprano, flute, clarinet, and viola

These marvelous, minimalist 'anti-settings' from the composer's early foray into serialism, continue to fascinate. The colorfully complex interplay of the vocal soloist and the accompanying trio is an understated wonder to hear.

Deutsche Gramophone 1660 502 (2012)

Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Britten's treatment of A Midsummer Night's Dream may be more about atmosphere than story, but saying so in no way denigrates its manifold beauties. This gossamer, light-spangled score is as delicate as a fairy's wing, but the music also captures Shakespeare's wondrous sense of lyric levity and bathos.

Virgin (Erato) 50999 6406212 (2010 re-issue)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music and Shakespeare Songs for Chorus

Vaughan Williams returned to Shakespeare for inspiration throughout his life, from the enigmatic, ghostly  finale of the Sixth Symphony--obliquely referencing Prospero's "we are such stuff as dreams are made of" from The Tempest-- to his setting of the same words in the Three Shakespeare Songs for Chorus from 1951, to the lithe and languorous strains of the Serenade to Music, based on one of the most famous passages from The Merchant of Venice.

Telarc 80676 (2007)

Verdi: Falstaff

Verdi's final operatic statement--and his only comic opera-- brilliantly captures the ebullient, colorful--and occasionally off-color--spirit of its title character.

Deutsche Gramophone 875 202 (2007 re-issue)

Sibelius: The Tempest (incidental music)

One of Sibelius' last great works, the two suites derived from his incidental music for a 1926 Danish production of The Tempest are, in many ways, like nothing else he ever composed. Highly imaginative, colorful, and engaging, this music invokes the elements as deftly as Prospero wielding his own weird and terrifying enchantments.

Hänssler Classics CD 98 353 (2000)

Berlioz: Béatrice et Bénédict

Another work of old age, Berlioz' magnificent opera based on Much Ado About Nothing, though certainly less-well-known than his Romeo et Juliet, is, nonetheless, an uncharacteristically sunny masterpiece, and a sheer delight from beginning to end.

Philips (Duo) 475 221 (2003)

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (ballet)

Prokofiev's 1935 ballet score ingeniously conveys the tragedy and tenderness, poignancy and drama of this immortal tale of star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet is rightfully considered an essential part of the standard repertory today.

RCA (Red Seal) 59424 (2004)

Alfred Reed: Othello

This symphonic poem for band is highly effective in its dramatic impact. Well worth a listen, along with Reed's other Shakespeare-inspired compositions.

Klavier Records 11151 (2005)

Purcell: The Tempest

Lovely music with a goodly dose of Restoration-era silliness, taking its share of liberties with Shakespeare's original, yet endearing in its own right all the same.

Erato 2292 45555-2 (1992)

Walton: Richard III (film score)

Of all Walton's wonderful scores composed for Laurence Olivier's Shakesperare films, Richard III from 1953 has always struck me as the most singularly effective, from the opening fanfare of the overture to the marvelously broad march theme, and soaring neo-romantic melodies, every note conveys purpose and power, even--and especially--when heard 'out of context' beyond the film. While I dearly love Walton's scores for Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), Richard III is the one that I would probably take with me to that proverbial desert isle.

Chandos CHAN 10435 (2007)

Patrick Doyle: Henry V (film score)

Patrick Doyle's score for Kenneth Banagh's glorious 1988 film production of Henry V is a masterpiece of small gestures and soaring melodies. Doyle's ecstatic setting of the Non Nobis Domine, heard following the climactic battle of Agincourt, elucidates and deepens one of the most moving and poignant moments in all cinema. Unforgettable!

EMI CDC 7 49919 2 (1989)

Shostakovich: Hamlet (film score)

Grigori Kosintzev's 1964 Russian-language production of Hamlet (in a translation by Boris Pasternak) was highly influential far beyond the realm of Soviet cinema, inspiring the likes of John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh. Shostakovich's dark, brooding, creepy score is certainly an element of the film's success.

Naxos 8.557446 (2004)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kenneth Leighton: A Basic Discography

The British composer Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) is probably best known for his youthful setting of Lully Lulla Thou Little Tiny Child from Opus 25, a perennial choral favorite around Christmas. But, so far from being the proverbial one-hit wonder, Leighton was, in truth, one of the finest composers of his generation--worthy to be considered alongside his older, more famous contemporaries, Britten and Tippett. Possessed of a fecund and far-ranging musical imagination, Leighton, like few others, was consistently able to strike that rare balance between seriousness and accessibility. His tonal language can be eclectic--ranging from the lushly colorful (as in his Symphony #3 Op. 90) to the searingly acerbic (Concerto for Organ, Strings Orchestra and Timpani Op. 58), to a warmly personal, uniquely accessible brand of serialism (Symphony #1 Op. 42)-- but always at the service of an essentially lyric sensibility, profound mysticism, the youthful wonder of discovery, and existential awe. Individual pieces by Leighton can be found on numerous anthologies and collections, but the following discography focuses mostly on albums dedicated solely to this composer and his extraordinary music.


Linn Records CKD 329 (SACD) (2010)
Leighton: Earth Sweet Earth (song cycle) Op. 94
Britten: Winter Words Op. 52
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Anna Tilbrook (piano)

Hyperion CDA68039 (2015)
Leighton: Crucifixus pro nobis Op. 38
Magnificat and Nunc dimitis 'Collegium Magdalenae'
Missa Brevis Op. 50; The Second Service Op. 62
God's Grandeur; Give Me the Wings of Faith; 
What Love is This of Thine?; Ite missa est (organ solo)
Stephen Layton/The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge

Naxos 8.555795 (2004)
Leighton: Sacred Choral Music
An Easter Sequence;
Crucifixus pro nobis Op. 38
Magnificat and Nunc dimitis 'Collegium Magdalenae'
The Second Service Op. 62;
Give Me the Wings of Faith; What Love is This of Thine?
Christopher Robinson/Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge

Resonus RES10178 (3-CD set) (2017)
Leighton: Complete Organ Works
Stephen Farr. Nicky Spence

Naxos 8.572601 (2011)
Leighton: Music for Organ
Missa da gloria
Et Resurrexit
Hymn Fantasies
Greg Morris (organ)

Chandos CHAN 9132 (1993)
Leighton: Fantasy on an American Hymn Tune Op. 70
Alleluia Pascha Nostrum Op. 85
Variations for Piano Op. 30
Sonata for Piano Op. 64
Janet Hilton (clarinet (Op. 70))
Raphael Wallfisch (cello (Op. 85))
Peter Wallfisch (piano)

Naxos 8.571358 (2015)
Leighton: Chamber Works for Cello
Elegy Op. 5;
Partita Op. 35;
Sonata for cello and piano Op. 52;
Alleluia pascha nostrum for cello and piano Op. 85
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Raphael Terroni (piano)

Delphian 34301 (3-disc set) (2006)
Leighton: Complete Solo Piano Works
Angela Brownridge

Meridian  Records 84460 (2002)
Leighton: String Quartet #1 Op. 32
String Quartet #2 Op. 33
Seven Variations for String Quartet Op. 43
Edinburgh String Quartet

Chandos CHAN 10461 (2008)
Leighton: Orchestral Works Vol. 1
Symphony for Strings Op. 3
Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani Op. 58
Concerto for String Orchestra Op. 39
John Scott (organ)
Richard Hickox/BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Chandos CHAN 10495 (2008)
Leighton: Orchestral Works Vol. 2
Symphony #2 'Sinfonia Mistica' Op. 69
Te Deum Laudamus
Sarah Fox (soprano, Te Deum)
Richard Hickox/BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales

Chandos CHAN 10608 (2010)
Leighton: Orchestral Works Vol. 3
Symphony #1 Op. 42
Concerto #3 'Concerto estivo'  (for piano and orchestra) Op. 57
Howard Shelly (piano)
Martyn Brabbins/BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Chandos CHAN 10307X (2005 re-issue from 1989)
Leighton: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra Op. 31
Symphony #3 'Laudes musicae' Op. 90
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Neil Mackie (tenor, Symphony #3)
Bryden Thomson/Scottish National Orchestra

Monday, April 11, 2016

J.S. Bach's St. John Passion: A new interpretation from René Jacobs

Harmonia-Mundi HMC 802236.37 (2-CD box set plus DVD) (2016)
J.S. Bach: St. John Passion BWV 245
Werner Güra (tenor (evangelist))
Sunhae Im (soprano)
Benno Schauchtner (alto)
Sebastian Kohlhepp (tenor)
Johannes Weisser (bass (Jesus))
RIAS Chamber Choir
Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin
René Jacobs

Gorgeously sung and played, recorded in stunning, naturalistic Super-Audio sound, René Jacobs' 2016 reading of Bach's St. John Passion captures the poignancy and pathos, drama and profound introspection of one of the composer's most personal and moving works. What makes this set not merely desirable, but indispensable is the inclusion of an appendix comprising highlights from the original 1725 version of the score--a fascinating glimpse into Bach's creative process--the final version we know today was only completed shortly before the composer's death in 1750. The later, more familiar version, strikes one as much more austere and inward looking yet also more emotionally direct, where the original is positively extrovert by comparison, more conventionally dramatic, and brimming with lyric opulence.

Jacobs' closest competition here is, no doubt, John Eliot Gardiner's 1986 reading with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists for DG Archive (most recently available in a 22-disc box set: Bach Sacred Masterpieces (477 8735 (2010)). Both versions feature excellent soloists and wonderful singing, but I would have to give the laurel to Jacobs due in no small part to the stunning sound of the RIAS Chamber Choir. Simply glorious! (Also from 2010, a 10-disc box set from Sony features Helmuth Rillings' 1984 Hänssler Classics recording of the St. John Passion, but I came away deeply disappointed and even somewhat disillusioned by a performance that seems ponderous and heavy-handed, notwithstanding the presence of such notable soloists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schrier, Arlene Auger and Julia Hamari (Sony (Masters Series) 88697687172 (2010)). After hearing the Jacobs version, I will probably never listen to the Rilling again.

Harmonia-Mundi's elegant packaging is, in itself, a delight to the senses. The substantial box includes a documentary DVD in addition to a glossy 107-page booklet. The booklet is nested atop a sort of 'trap door' under which the two SACDs are housed in discretely 'built-in' media trays. It's a clever and very elegant solution to a problem that has too often vexed manufacturers and collectors over the decades.

René Jacobs' new interpretation of the St. John Passion is recommended without reservation.