, January 2009
MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Naxos Quartets Nos. 5 and 6 (Maggini Quartet) 8.557398
MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Naxos Quartets Nos. 7 and 8 (Maggini Quartet) 8.557399
The Fifth Quartet’s title refers to the sweep of the beam of the North Ronaldsay light, which moves from the beginning to the end of the two-movement work, and also to the different flashing ‘calls’ of lighthouses (so that mariners can identify any particular one). No. 6 is more ambitious in its six movements, the second and fifth of which draw on Advent and Christmas chant, and the first of a pair of Scherzos is a pizzicato. The Adagio turns into recitative towards the close. So there is plenty for Maxwell Davies aficionados to explore, even if the content is at times thorny.
The Seventh Quartet, intended to celebrate the work of the 17th-century architect Francesco Borromini, is a sequence of seven slow movements connected with seven of Borromini’s most impressive buildings. Haydn’s Seven Last Words come to mind, but Maxwell Davies’s music is far more intricate and complicated. The Eighth Quartet is in one movement and draws on Dowland’s Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard; it is described by the composer as an ‘Intermezzo’ in the cycle. Obviously the Maggini players have fully grasped this fragmentary writing and there is no doubting their identification and concentration. The Naxos recording is well up to the usual high standard on both discs.
, March 2007
Grievous admission, perhaps, but this is my first encounter with the prestigious series of string quartets Naxos commissioned from the Master of the Queen's Music. At least that means that I come to these two works with no preconceived ideas, except of course that the disc has already been widely reviewed, notably by two colleagues here on MusicWeb International.
Whether we like it or not many music lovers remain reluctant to venture very far into contemporary music – taking "contemporary" to mean anything after Mahler – and Naxos is to be congratulated on this brave initiative. I believe many listeners will find these works difficult at first, but a record such as this one will surely encourage them to persevere, perhaps even to be more adventurous and look farther afield.
Quartet No. 6 plays for almost twice as long as No. 5. The first of the six movements – so writes the composer in the accompanying notes – "…is an allegro whose tonality becomes ever clearer" and whilst it is true that the closing stages of the movement are more easily assimilated than the highly dissonant, spiky, Bartókian opening, it remains fairly challenging all the same. The movement ends inconclusively, leading to the short, pizzicato scherzo which follows. The following movement is also a scherzo, with fragments of melody tossed about between the instruments, one in particular, a rhythmic, dance-like figure. The trio section is like a slow dance, over held notes. "The return of the scherzo material is varied" writes the composer, but it would be instructive to see the score – and not only for this reason – as I no longer hear the dance-like figure amongst the ghostly, sul ponticello effects which bring the movement to its close. The fourth movement is the longest, beginning with a lengthy, richly scored lyrical passage. A middle section is bitingly dissonant and a striking passage towards the end involves four cadenzas, one for each instrument. This is the most searching movement of the six, and the one which best demonstrates the link with late Beethoven to which the composer alludes in his notes, as the music addresses weighty matters after the manner of a great Beethoven adagio. The fifth movement, based on a Christmas plainsong – and composed on Christmas Day: do composers ever take time off? – comes as gentle relief after such searching intensity. The composer refers to it as "a simple carol". The astringency of the opening returns for the finale, building up a good head of steam before the end which makes dramatic use, as does the whole quartet, of tremolando writing.
Quartet No. 5 is a less demanding listen but I wonder if it not more difficult to discern the composer's aims than in the later one? Sadly, his notes will be of little help to the average listener. Of the main section of the first movement he writes "I have tried to lead the ear through quite complex and constant transformations in such a way that it remains always clear how the expansions and contractions of linear contour relate, and where in our journey we are in relation to the tonic, and to its dominant and subdominant, or their displaced substitutes." Quite so, but to what extent a listener unable to read the score can follow such arguments – and there is more where they came from – remains to be seen. The actual musical argument is coherent and logical though, and the variety of sound and texture the composer draws from the four instruments is always striking. A listener ready simply to submit to the music will therefore not need to worry about technical aspects, rewarding though it might well be to study them later. In only two movements, the opening sonorities of the quartet, with much glissando writing, are beguiling. The second movement is half as long again as the first, and predominantly slow and meditative. Only to a very limited extent can I perceive, for the moment, just how it comes to use "the same material entirely" as the first movement "and with the same form." Again it is preferable at this stage simply to allow the music to lead the ear along. The end of the work, a long diminuendo disappearing into nothing with glissando and pizzicato, is particularly affecting, evoking as it does the "sweeping beam of the North Ronaldsay lighthouse dissolving into the first light of dawn".
The performances by the Maggini Quartet are beyond praise and the recording is immediate and lifelike. The disc is presented to the usual high Naxos standard, and whilst it is logical and prestigious that the composer should provide the insert note I do wish his essay had been more accessible to the general reader. After three hearings of each quartet I am still only beginning to get to know and understand them, but the music is compelling and invites rehearing. My initial impressions were of music that I would learn to respect rather than love, but each time I discover moments of beauty that I hadn't heard before. Those readers still hesitant about "contemporary" music and ready for a challenge are warmly encouraged to try this disc.
The Kansas City Star
, April 2006
The stage of Yardley Hall is a jumble of people, musical instruments and high-end electronics.
Ninety musicians, 16 Danish Pro Audio microphones - some looking like miniature space shuttles - and miles of audio and video cable make the place look like a movie set.
Backstage the greenroom is now a sound booth crammed with assistants, more cable and tens of thousands of dollars worth of recording equipment.
Kansas City Symphony’s first major commercial recording in 12 years is about to begin.
The project is the most significant in the Symphony’s 24-year history. For many of the younger players, it’s the first such experience ever.
As the strains of musicians warming up blare on the little black speakers, the engineers strain their ears to balance the brass, winds, strings and soloists.
On a laptop in the sound booth, a screen that looks like a graphic equalizer shows 16 vertical bars, each dancing to the sound of one of the $2,500 microphones.
Directing all this electronic and musical circus is one man: Adam Abeshouse, Grammy Award-winning record producer and a buddy of the Symphony’s conductor, Michael Stern.
“The most important person in the room is Adam Abeshouse,” Stern says from the podium as the orchestra prepares to perform — over and over and over — Gordon Chin’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.
Dressed in jeans, slacks and casual shirts, world famous soloists Cho-Liang Lin and Felix Fan look relaxed but attentive. The orchestra members are primed and excited.
Onstage the players can hear Abeshouse’s voice over a speaker. In the booth, everyone can hear and see via a video screen everything happening onstage. After two hours of setup, all systems are go.
The job will consume seven hours of the Symphony’s time, and it will ultimately result in a CD on Naxos of the concerto and the “Formosa Seasons,” to be released later this year.
“One of the great parts of recording is that it gives us the opportunity to hear what we’re actually doing, as opposed to what we think we are doing,” Stern tells the orchestra at the outset.
Watch your step
During the 12-minute sound check, the wiry, 44-year-old Abeshouse is like a hyperactive waiter, hustling back and forth between the stage and the sound booth, adjusting mics and giving out precise orders to his assistant.
When it is played for the microphones, the music must be cleaner than ever, with perhaps less spontaneity.
That’s OK, because Chin’s complex, richly colored music demands glitter and razor-sharp articulation.
“Articulate the 16th notes,” Stern tells them as they warm up. “That will really give it a lot of sparkle and a lot of punch.”
From his chair in the sound booth, Abeshouse takes his headphones off to comment on the challenges of recording in a hall as dry as Yardley.
Even though the mics are all onstage, he said, the acoustics of a hall do make a difference in a recording.
“A general rule, especially in this hall, is that you have to fight for color.”
Then, as the “tape” begins to roll, and the first measures of the movement are recorded, the orchestral sound bursts into bloom on the black speakers.
From my perch in the sound booth, I realize I’ve never heard the Kansas City Symphony sound this good. There is no concert hall in Kansas City that can deliver the sound a top engineer can muster from 16 mics placed skillfully in what Abeshouse calls the “sweet spots” of the orchestra.
But the session gets off to a rocky start. The brass roars. The violin soars. The strings churn. Chin’s complex, spattered textures explode in the air.
“Am I hearing trucks outside?” Abeshouse asks during a pause, about a low roar from outside.
Then, pointing toward laughter coming from the hallway: “They’re too loud out there.”
Later he thinks he hears an airplane. “I think it’s a toilet flushing,” someone offers.
Onstage orchestral textures are rough. Stern stops the players, restarts. Passages are repeated several times. Slow beginnings are not uncommon at these sessions.
“They make the same mistakes over and over,” Abeshouse says. “I’m going to need every bit of this time.”
Without warning, Abeshouse’s computer screen goes blank.
“Oops,” he says casually. Later he would comment that he was terrified he’d lost some of the session.
“Hold on, Michael,” he says over the sound system. Someone had stepped on a cable, Abeshouse speculates.
After rebooting he discovers that nothing is lost.
Then things start to go more smoothly. The Symphony nails tough passages. Stern, a veteran of several recordings, guides the players through.
“He’s so good,” Abeshouse mutters of the conductor under his breath.
Then “Yay!” he blurts, as soloists and orchestra negotiate Take 25, a particularly hairy bit.
“I can live with that.”
After 22 more takes, the first movement is done.
“It’s 10:42. Come back at 11:02,” Stern says. His exactitude is not fussiness; it’s mandated by the players’ union contracts, which say that for every hour of recording they get 20 minutes of break. Later, orchestra personnel manager Dave Clark announces: “We have to break at 12:20:45.”
Timing is to the second.
During the break, Lin, Fan, Stern and a dozen orchestra musicians cram the booth for playbacks.
“It’s exciting to hear what we really sound like,” says assistant principal second violinist Kristin Velicer.
Principal violist Meng Wang describes the process as intense: “Every minute we have to be 100 percent focused, otherwise it all falls apart.”
Others take a more relaxed attitude: “In a concert, you get one chance, and here you know you can do it again,” double bassist Robb Aistrup says.
The engineers are pleased.
The soloists, both veterans of many high-end recordings, are blasé.
“Sounds like a cello, sounds like a violin, sounds like an orchestra,” Fan summarizes. (“Thank you, Felix,” Stern says wryly.)
Up from music school
During a break, Abeshouse speaks about his beginnings.
“I was always interested in recording.” He got his start by making audition tapes for fellow students at the Manhattan School of Music. Gradually his musician’s ear and technical savvy brought him to the top of the field for which there is no clear “schooling.”
You never really know how a recording will turn out, he says. In his recording of George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children” a million things kept going wrong, but “somehow it just turned out.”
The CD was nominated for a 1999 Grammy Award in the best classical engineered album category. The album didn’t win that year, but Abeshouse did for best classical producer.
Today we should stop thinking about classical recording as a purely commercial venture, he says.
“We need to take the live performance model of philanthropic support” and apply it to recordings.
Abeshouse’s artistic goal is not to re-create the experience of a live experience.
His goal is something that’s not achievable in the concert hall.
“I’m trying to create an ideal from what I see in the score, a synthesis of the soloists’, the conductor’s and the composer’s idea of what that balance should be.”
Grand Rapids Press
, April 2006
The music of the Grand Rapids Symphony will travel far and wide beginning in 2007. Naxos, a leading international distributor of classical music, has contracted to produce and distribute a recording of American composer Adolphus Hailstork's Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, which were recorded by the orchestra in 2002 and 2003 in DeVos Performance Hall.
This will be the Grand Rapids Symphony's first nationally released CD in nine years and its first under music director David Lockington.
Calling the Grand Raids Symphony "one of the top regional orchestras in the United States," Naxos president Klaus Heymann said, "Adolphus Hailstork is an eminent musical figure, and his music is a welcome addition to Naxos American Classics series."
, April 2006
Calixto Bieito has made his name as an opera director with productions of unrelenting violence and sex, perhaps exemplified by last year's Abduction from the Seraglio in Berlin with its full nudity and graphic mutilations.
In almost any other area of American life this reputation would make him a candidate for fame and success, but opera in the US has other ideas, and so none of Bieito's productions has made it to our shores.
Now one has - on DVD, a career breakthrough version of Don Giovanni premiered at English National Opera.This performance comes from December 2002 at the Liceu in Barcelona.
Bieito updates the story to recent times, in some sort of rough, middle-class, vaguely criminal neighborhood. After an urgent, even explosive overture under the baton of Bertrand de Billy, Leporello crawls out of a late model black Mercedes sedan, in the backseat of which the Don is energetically pounding Donna Anna. Clad in a tacky track-suit, Leporello (the excellent Kwanchul Youn) sings of his resentment of his "master," who in Bieito's vision is not of a hereditary nobility, but rather a good-looking, well-built thug whose sexual power gives him all the power that a title would have in da Ponte's day. Unsurprisingly, Bieito goes for the "Donna Anna wanted it" angle, but in the context of the director's misanthropic vision, this makes sense for once. Regina Schorg, unattractively dressed in a too-tight leopard-skin skirt and low-cut top, doesn't have a voice of such beauty as to remind us of the supposed nobility of her character, and so the portrayal works well. As for Wojtek Drabowicz's Don Giovanni, he has the look, and a capable voice, but that aura of true sexual charisma eludes him. He is mean enough, however, as he takes a screwdriver to slash open the Commendatore,who, in an open shirt and ostentatious gold necklaces, looks like a character from The Sopranos. Anatoly Kocherga needs some more heft down low for this role, especially in the final scene.
Veronique Gens delivers the most brilliant performance, as a truly broken Donna Elvira, clad in unappealing denim and carrying tacky plastic shopping bags. Gens manages to make her character deranged and yet still sympathetic, and her exemplary singing plays a big role in that achievement. The Zerilina and Masetto (Marisa Martins and Felipe Bou) are less-distinguished vocally, but strong actors. Probably in no other production has "Batti, batti" not only made more sense, but been absolutely essential.
Finally, Bieito and costume designer Merce Paloma confront Don Ottavio's wimpishness with a master stroke - from the end of act one on, he wears a Superman T-shirt with sculptured muscles, emphasizing his wimpishness. Since this is the Prague version, Marcel Reijans has no "Dalla sua pace," but as he is at best a pleasant tenor, the loss doesn't sting.
Alfons Flores's set design consists of a basic black box, with key props (a long bar, pool table, sofa and TV). Bieito knows how to create vivid stage pictures with well-coordinated movement and imaginative details (those tiny dancing dolls!). Some directors barely have one thing happening at a time; Bieito has several, yet he mostly has the action timed so well that the distraction element is low.
So Bieito's theatrical skills should not be disregarded. For many, however, the sex and violence - although milder here than reports of his latest productions suggests — will be too much to allow for appreciation of the director's talent. When the Don attempts to rape Zerlina, she winds up with a bloody nose that drenches her nightgown. The Don, disguised as Leporello, smashes Masetto's head into the bar, and soon Zerilna's boyfriend is covered in blood as well. And in a final twist, the Don breaks free of the Commendatore's grip at the end, takes up a knife and resumes slashing the poor old man. Finally the "victorious" revenger's tie the Don to a chair and use the knife on him, each getting his or her turn (though Donna Elvira has to be manipulated into giving the killing stroke).
As for sex, after that opening hump-a-thon, Bieito mostly lays on the oral action. Despite the shock value here, it also seems as if Bieito sees oral sex as an act of self-abasement, and thus a crucial part of his dark, cynical view of human relations.
Mozart's score works surprisingly well in this setting with so little "giocoso." Of course the darker textures come to predominate, but even the lighter moments, such as the aforementioned "Batti, batti," have a contextual rightness. Conductor de Billy's urgent reading certainly deserves much credit here, but Bieito has obviously given the music as much thought as he has to when he can next insert some oral favors into the action. For instance, the Don sings his second act serenade alone, on the phone, trying for a "hook-up," and at the end he starts to sob — a lonely man who doesn't have the courage to change.
Not all viewers will find that moment effective, but the second act defeats many a director, as the story goes into neutral until the big climax. Several years on from its premiere, Bieito's Don Giovanni may not be as shocking as it was at it premiere, but probably many an unwary viewer of this DVD will end up turning it off in a fury and using the discs for coasters, while others will find Mozart and da Ponte's opera more alive and exciting than ever. No matter how many sins Bieito may commit, he avoids the worst of all — he is not dull.
, April 2006
Peter Maxwell Davies reaches the half-way point in his projected series of 12 string quartets commissioned by Naxos Records. There are two sides to Davies: the complex modernist ex-"angry young man" of British music, and the current Master of the Queen's Music who composes works that have been known to please even Boston Pops audiences. His first six quartets neatly fall half in one camp, half in the other. (1, 2, & 6 are the harder-to-listen-to; 3, 4, & 5 are the more populist.) When Davies writes a lighter, more generally attractive piece, he nearly always attaches a reference in the title to the Scottish Islands where he makes his home--and sure enough, the Fifth Quartet is subtitled "Lighthouses of Orkney and Shetland". Although there are radical musical processes in this quartet, the music is tonal and the listener can relate the sounds to the sweeping beams and the fog-horn calls of the lighthouses.
The Sixth Quartet is in the uncompromising style of the first two, though it's a better work than either of those because it's less self-conscious . . . The Maggini Quartet plays with deep commitment and complete technical command. The recording is attractive and clear.