Harmonia Mundi

2016 Classical Releases—The Last Word

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In the course of a year, I listen to more jazz on record and hear more classical music in the concert hall. That’s a matter of circumstances; I would prefer that were reversed, but there are few opportunities for me to write about live jazz, and jazz venues are generally unwelcoming to the those without prestige credentials.. The New York Classical Review, or the other hand, gives me the opportunity to cover classical music performances, and before I started writing there, classical music venues were always been open to me as an independent critic.

This is the context for my relationship with recordings. While I’d prefer to get more of my jazz live, recordings are necessary to hear new musicians, and hear what players who aren’t getting gigs are doing.

For classical music, recordings can be puzzling. For new music, recordings are a logical and necessary means to document expansion of the tradition—likewise recordings of obscure but worthwhile music (there is still a lot of stuff like that from the Renaissance and Baroque eras). But for the standard repertoire, it’s often unclear why recordings are made. Do we need more recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, more Chopin Preludes, more Vivaldi Concertos? No, we do it. But we get them anyway.

This is the staple of the last vestiges of the big record labels, like Deutsche Gramophone sign a new a star performer and put them through the cycle of recording all the appropriate standard works. It makes sense for unique talents like Daniil Trifonov, who has many new ideas about older pieces. It makes less sense for even spectacular talents like Yuja Wang, who gives music unbelievable life in concert, but is it not rethinking anything. For solid but unsurprising musicians like Yannick Nézet-Séquin, it makes no sense.

This is because classical music, despite common perceptions, is a living art. Like plays from the past, the art needs to be performed and experienced in the moment. The sense of occasion, community, and time in the concert hall is entirely different than in the living room, and music is also made an entirely different way in the recording studio. Nézet-Séquin, at his best, leads performances that are exemplary renditions of what’s on the page. At his best, this makes for another fine recording. but the classical music discography general is clogged with fine recordings, and reissues are the best recordings from the past are plentiful and cheap.

So again, why make these, and why listen to them? Because Trifonov appears to be a musician of historical greatness, and it is exciting to witness him discovering his own thoughts about the tradition. Same is true for Murray Perahia’s CD of Bach’s French Suites-not only is his playing superb but his thinking is fresh (this recording was made for Sony as part of Perahia’s exploration of Bach, but the label dropped him without release it, and DG picked it up).

But even with exciting musicians like Trifonov and Igor Levitt, most of what comes from the big labels is exactly what you expect: more Brahms, more collections of arias, more cross-overs. Classical music is where the independent labels are more interesting, and more important, than in any other genre. Here are my continuing favorites with their best releases from 2016 and early 2017.

Harmonia Mundi is the home for some of the finest musicians in classical music and well-chosen repertory. This is where you’ll find recordings of Monteverdi’s and Mozart’s operas and Bach’s Passions, led by René Jacobs, that are among the finest and most important ever made and that should be part of your music library. The label is also where you’ll hear the fresh intelligence of musicians like fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, violinist Isabelle Faust, pianist Alexander Melnikov, baritone Matthias Goerne, harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the Jerusalem String Quartet, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. They put out a substantial number of period performance practice recordings, and also the beautiful contemporary choral music of Craig Hella Johnson. Here are some of the finest recent releases:

Bridge, founded by guitarist David Starobin, maintains a catalogue of under-represented common practice period composers, and specialized in comprehensive series from modern and contemporary composers. The most important of these is their recordings of music by Stefan Wolpe. Wolpe’s music comes out of early 20th century European modernism, but is really unclassifiable. He could write atonally, he could use popular music, theatrical elements, pretty much anything. His work is imaginative, expressive, made with refined, strong structures, and full of surprises. He was one of the finest composers of the 20th century, and had an important influence as a teacher once he emigrated to America. Other recommended series and 2016 releases:

ECM, while not originally a classical label, has now pioneered a new music style that is predominantly tonal, and mixes pre-baroque, minimalism, and improvisation, either as a collection or as a synthesis. And through contemporary composers like Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and Arvo Pärt, they’ve used their New Series to explore both modern and common practice period repertory. While the results have been inconsistent—there’s some recordings of 19th and early 20th century music that are surprisingly poor, while Andras Schiff’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas cycle is full of fascinating thinking and draws one back again and again, and Gidon Kremer’s two collections of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg have made an extraordinarily strong case for the composer—the label has completely filled the classical music niche that Nonesuch used to fill, and continues to expand in both the standard repertory and such extra-classical composed music as by Anouar Brahem and Tigran Mansurayn.

Winter & Winter is an addendum, but worth noting. Their classical releases are few but extremely well-chosen. They’ve produced interesting, but non-essential, recordings of modern and avant-garde music played by accordionist Teodoro Anzelotti, but of late have become the home for two major artists, Barbara Hannigan and Hans Abrahamsen. Their two Abrahamsen releases, Schnee and let me tell you, and Hannigan’s recording of Satie’s Socrate are must-haves.

Young Men (and more) at the Keys

A lot of young dudes playing the piano to varying results … and don’t forget the ladies:

I have not seen Conrad Tao in the flesh, but reliable reports tell me that
he is an actual person, and not the artifice of the classical music marketing
departments. He’s a valuable figure for several reasons, none of them musical.
He’s a reminder that the hunger for celebrity is nothing new, especially for supposed prodigies. And the classical music business can all all over itself chasing youth just as shamelessly as pop music does with Lorde and Sky Ferreira.

Youth is Tao’s calling card (he’s nineteen this year). Youth is why he has a
record on EMI, his own music festival and commissioned compositions (that,
because of the limited amount of time and money available from classical
ensembles, crowd out other works). With the evidence of his debut recording,
Voyages, the time and money can either be seen as wasted or an investment in the future that he is lucky to earn and that many more musicians deserve but won’t be getting.

Voyages displays Tao the pianist and the composer, he’s far more advanced as
the former, but still has a long way to go. He, and EMI, haven’t gotten past the
prodigy problem: there’s a hell of a lot more to playing music than getting the notes to fit correctly into the tempo and rhythm. Tao opens the disc with Meredith Monk’s “Railroad (Travel Song),” tackles five preludes from Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 and Op. 32 sets, and plays Gaspard de la nuit. His own pieces are vestiges and iridescence for piano and iPad synthesizer.

He’s not a good composer. The first piece shows that he practices his Ligeti
Etudes and maybe a bit of Phillip Glass; there are semi-interesting derivations
of both composers, nothing skillful, and no meaningful structure. The second
work is a mediocre melody, dull electronic sounds, nothing but drift. A composer
first and foremost has to organize their music and ideas, and Tao simply doesn’t
do that. And his ideas sound like a young man fiddling with the superficial
features of the work of other’s.

His playing is more skillful but forgettable. The Monk is capable, but
heavy-handed. Rachmaninoff wrote music that challenges physical dexterity and
does a lot of sensational hand-waving as a substitute for meaning, so it’s
perfect for Tao. Ravel’s composition is a modern masterpiece, technically and
aesthetically demanding. Tao’s playing is dutiful and plodding, there’s no
rhythmic expression, no touch, no ideas about the mysteries inside the music.

But he’s on to bigger and better things. It makes me wonder if anyone points out
the gap between the packaging and the musical success. He has the talent to
become a first rate musician, but if one money-based success just leads to more,
he’s going to end up as a well-compensated curiosity, a hipper David Helfgott.

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Young and much more musical is pianist JP Schlegelmilch, a member of a fascinating group called Old Time Musketry and also an interesting blogger. He’s got a solo disc out this year called Throughout, a surprising, focussed and rewarding collection of interpretations of tunes by guitarist Bill Frisell.

Surprising because it’s hard to hear Frisell as a composer, his now pervasive
and monumental influence on a generation of guitarists camaflouges the fact that
most of what you hear Frisell playing is his own musical thinking. As a composer
he’s a creator of Americana, ranging from the ersatz Nashville to the to the deep-rooted This Land. Schlegelmilch rightly hears a broad range of compositional techniques, from severe rhytmic angularity to an old-time melodic expressivity. His arrangements for the piano are accomplished, he makes the inherent verticality of guitar composing into an idiomatic combination of chords and horizontal flow, and his pedalling seals the results into an affecting book of piano music.

He gets substantial depth out of the music, taking apart and rebuilding “Resistor” into a more ragtime-feeling reel, and revealing the unsentimental loveliness of “This Land.” He reaches deep into the back catalogue for “Hangdog,” from the great, early Lookout for Hope album: it’s a good measure of his seriousness and his taste.

What brings everything together into a coherent whole is his excellent playing. Along with chops, he has a winning way with the dynamics and harmonic rhythm of a melody, and Frisell crafts fine melodies. His touch and thinking move
everything into a sound that is part ragtime, part Debussy. This is an excellent CD, it reaches the head and the heart is one and is one of the most touching releases this year.

Greg Kallor’s A Single Noon is a set of integrated pieces that Kallor, the composer and pianist, describes in the liner notes as “a tableau of life in New York City, told through a combination of composed music and improvisation.” It’s also been pitched in comparison to Brad Mehldau’s jazz composition record, Elegiac Cycles. That’s true in the most general sense, but it doesn’t indicate anything substantial. And this is a substantial record.

Kallor’s music is totally unlike Mehldau’s ersatz Schumann, and it falls in that sweet spot between jazz and classical music that is the place for the meaningful pleasure of sophisticated song-making, a la Gershwin. These pieces are clearly songs without words. There is just as much Ligeti (Kallor, like Tao, has clearly played the Etudes) as jazz, and his playing is true to itself, expanding his own ideas with the same stylistic flavor with which he wrote them. You can read his own description of what each piece is supposed to be about, but the music succeeds completely on its own terms and I’d much rather listen to “Straphanger’s Lurch” as an intelligent exploration of how one can take an idea that a great composer like Ligeti had and expand and improvise on it. Confident playing from the pianist adds to the pleasure of this record, which is fine through-and-through.

Bobby Avey has a solo disc out: Be not so long to speak. Avey is one of the more exciting and physically powerful young pianists on the jazz scene, and those two qualities have been his own worst enemies in the past; his playing and leadership have emphasized propulsion and a pounding left-hand bass over all over musical features, and those inevitably wear on the ear.

This new recording is something altogether different from what I’ve heard from him in the past, and here’s hoping it’s a sign of things to come, because this is one of the best recordings of the year. It’s a set of seven originals, with “P.Y.T” in the middle and Hoagy Charmichaels’ “Stardust” at the end.

It’s been clear what Avey can do with his hands and his heart, and now we know what he can do with his head; he takes apart his own style of playing in detail. There is an overall feeling of creative antagonism, the pianist listening to himself play and questioning the reason behind every rhythm and phrase. His hands often seem to be at odds, wrestling over which has the superior set of ideas. It’s invigorating and fascinating.

Each track is music as process, he is constantly shaping his material and honing it through improvisation and interrogation. His power is still there, but it’s in the form of a stiletto rather than an axe. On the long, thrilling “Late novembe” he lays down physically intense polyrhythms, takes them as far as they can go, then finds himself in the middle of a set of gorgeous chords. The way out is through some compelling, driving, emotional playing.

He dismantles the Michael Jackson song in a loving and irreverent way that recalls how Jason Moran shapes “Planet Rock” on Modernistic, and “Stardust” is stunning. Coming at the end of the musical and emotional wrangling, it balances on the fulcrum of wisdom and curiosity.

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This is not just about the men, though. Myra Melford, one of the more important jazz and improvising musicians and composers of the last generation, has a new solo disc out called life carries me this way. It’s a good companion to Avey’s as it shares his values of inquisitiveness and exploration but achieves them through almost entirely different means. Melford plays the piano, not to take things apart, but put them together.

Her main tool is a sophisticated sense of harmonic rhythm, putting together large scale structures that can be simple or complex from small parts. It’s a concept that she shares with Cecil Taylor. Their general aesthetic is quite close, despite the seemingly vast difference in the sound of their musics. They are both bluesy and lyrical. Melford is consonant rather than dissonant, and she stays longer with a steady tempo. She also quotes from Taylor’s playing, a specific phrase that extends upward and downward simultaneously. But she slows it down and reveals the beguiling beauty. A good, strong recording from an important, deep-thinking musician.

Returning to classical music, the Harmonia Mundi label has taken the exceptional step — one I hope continues — of releasing recital discs from the winners of the 2013 Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The music on the discs was assembled from selections during competition recitals from gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko and second (silver) and third (crystal) place finishers Beatrice Rana and Sean Chen.

These are each fine records, and there’s an intriguing intensity to the playing, an exciting and slightly brittle quality of make-or-break in the performances, which of course was the case. The music is also a concentrated and satisfying survey of great piano pieces from the early to late romantic era: Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Ravel, Stravinksy and Bartók.

The differences between these enticing young musicians are not much more than slivers (and the recordings can only give a partial picture of the overall competition). Kholodenko is vibrantly powerful, Rana lyrical, Chen has a contemplative edge that I personally find appealing. Rana’s Gaspard de le Nuit is excellent and so far superior to Tao’s in both technique and thinking that it damns the business side of classical music. Chen audaciously tackles the “Hammerklavier” sonata and it turns out to be a suit he doesn’t quite fill, but it should look excellent on him in a few short years. Kholodenko is stunning and slightly exhausting in the Transcendental Études. Altogether strong and recommended discs, notable for the promise of the musicianship and the learned judgment in repertoire. Rana herself is barely older than Tao, so let’s call her a real prodigy, and one to follow.

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