It’s rare that a recording for strings alone wows listeners as a sonic blockbuster, but I celebrate this one from its first plucked, throbbing, filigree-laced chords. John Wilson has effectively reconstituted the Sinfonia of London, known to many in fond memory for Sir John Barbirolli’s unsurpassed 1962 LP of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Wilson has set himself up for recording purposes in St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn with stunning results. I don’t think I have ever heard an acoustic more flattering to strings. He also exercises tact in not trying to reproduce the magic of Barbirolli’s program, bringing us instead string works by four of the major “B’s” of twentieth century English music. Only Bax is missing.
TMC orchestra performances tend to be somewhat haphazard assortments of repertory, mostly of high quality, but diverse rather than coherent as programs. Monday night’s concert was different: there were resonances among the works that indicated a triangle of influences and artistic interests with the apex being in the music of British composer Thomas Adès, who conducted half of the program.
Gunther Schuller was the toughest mentor I ever had. He expected professionalism from day one—no introductory foolishness. Gunther challenged us, particularly at New England Conservatory, to do things we thought we were incapable of. What other conservatory would put on performances of Wozzeck and Gurrelieder within a few months of each other?
According to the song, “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” and the same ought to apply to orchestras and conductors. When they do, the results are like love, but when they don’t, it’s a relief when the partnership dissolves. Two concerts at Tanglewood with two very different orchestras and conductors illustrated this dramatically. The orchestras in question were the venerable Boston Symphony working its way through another intense summer of three programs per weekend, and the extremely youthful (ages 16-18) National Youth Orchestra which first assembled this month, at the start of a nation-wide tour. The conductors were the Austrian Manfred Honeck, currently director in Pittsburg, and the American David Robertson, Music Director in both St. Louis and Sydney.
The musical event I was most looking forward to all summer was the premiere of Mark Morris’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (1964), the first and probably the most beautiful and moving of what he called his three “parables for church performance”—essentially conductorless one-act chamber operas on spiritual themes. William Plomer’s libretto takes Juro Motomasa’s 15th-century Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”), Christianizes it, and transfers the location to England’s East Anglian Fenland (the other two church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, are more directly biblical). The new production would be paired with Morris’s Dido and Aeneas (1989), his unforgettable dance version of Henry Purcell’s operatic masterpiece choreographed the year of its tricentennial. And Britten loved Purcell.
The Review has quite a backlog of recordings piled up, and we hope to make our way through as many as we can. I especially wanted to make note of this full concert recording by the Oregon Symphony, not only because our own Steven Kruger wrote the perceptive and witty program notes, but because of its exceptional musical quality and its truly extraordinary recording. A multichannel recording from Pentatone Classics, which released the Berlin concert performance of Der fliegende Holländer under Marek Janowski reviewed a few months ago, it amazed me with its timbral and spatial naturalness. It most definitely belongs in the reference collection of any audiophile, whether they are inclined to multichannel playback or not. I listened to it in stereo on headphones, using an SACD-compatible player.
He comes out like Oberon, with hair of gold and a light step. It’s a very careful walk he has, nothing fancy, and he sits on the bench with a kind of directness and naturalness of purpose. The first notes are the “Menuet Antique.” I am sitting far away at this point, and I hear the jagged off-beats of the left hand hopping out. It takes no time to be lost in this world, a world of fantastic play and even more fantastic loneliness. Is it Jean-Yves Thibaudet, or is it Ravel? Always, when watching this pianist, I see a solitary soul. Nothing in his biography suggests this kind of singleness, far from it. So maybe it really is Ravel, dreaming in his little house, full of clocks. When Jean-Yves got to the “Pavane,” the sense of hearing an intimacy was complete. He played it at a good clip; but its tale is far from simple, like a Matisse. Ravel’s music is not child-like. It is the music of a child.