Classical CD Reviews: Listening During COVID, Part 2 — A Lute, a Particularly Silken Steinway, and Mahler Himself Playing in a 1905 Piano Roll
By Ralph P. Locke
A trio of recordings help us rethink and rehear composers as varied as Barbara Strozzi (from the 17th century), Chopin, and Mahler.
I shared in this space my recent hunt for fresh listening experiences that might enrich the months that music lovers are spending in social isolation, deprived of the thrill of live concerts.
I should begin this second installment by at least mentioning the many wonderful video experiences that are being offered to us. These include ones organized by the Met (entire streamed opera performance and also special recitals by superstar singers such as Sonya Yoncheva), Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Baroque, and Boston Camerata. All of the those just mentioned are free or low-priced: around $20, and of course several people can watch at the same time, for the price of a single ticket.
But my focus below is on audio-only recordings: three new releases that demonstrate the wondrous ways in which evidence about performance style from the past can enrich a modern-day performance.
(The three recordings discussed below are available as physical CDs, as downloads, or through subscription streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, and Naxos Music Library. Naxos also provides full downloadable booklets for most recordings that it streams, even ones on other labels than Naxos. One can sample the beginning of each track of the three recordings reviewed here at such sites as Presto Classical, HBDirect, ArkivMusic, and, again, Naxos Music Library.)
Historically Informed Performance (sometimes semi-jokingly referred to as HIP) involves close study of the musical instruments and instructional treatises of the time and of the details of musical notation: what was specified and what was left to be worked out by a sensitive, intuitive player or singer. We usually think of Historically Informed Performance as applying primarily to music of the High Baroque era (c. 1680-1750, e.g., Lully, Bach, and Vivaldi). But scholars and performers have also learned how to bring fresh life and stylistic appropriateness to works from the Renaissance and Early and Mid Baroque, and from the Classic and Romantic eras.
Our Early(ish) Baroque example is a CD of lute songs by Barbara Strozzi (1619-77). Strozzi was perhaps the most significant woman composer after the medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen and before, say, Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann in the early 19th century. The lutenist here is Richard Kolb, who has also published a scholarly edition of the music. These pieces (Strozzi’s Op. 8, part 1) are basically secular cantatas—that is, extended songs, sometimes in several sections, often with intervening recitative-like passages.
Strozzi’s vocal lines, as recent commentators have pointed out, are often eloquent and sit well on the voice. The most astounding item on this disc is the first and longest track, “L’Astratto,” in which a man in love tries out a series of little arias in different styles, in hopes of finding something adequate to the anguish he is feeling. The device of shifting the music in the course of a “searching” or “listing” song is familiar from later centuries: for example, Leporello’s Catalogue Aria (in Mozart’s Don Giovanni) or Ko-Ko’s song “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” (in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado). But both of those characters are somewhat superficial connivers, commenting on other people’s diverse or changeable feelings. Strozzi manages to make us care about the fate and feelings of this love-crazed fellow himself.
The performances help enormously. Kolb shows a ravishing tone and captivating range of moods on his two instruments (an archlute and a theorbo). Soprano Elisa Edwards seems to be living the texts that she sings, as in her sighing and self-critical pouting in the tuneful number entitled “È pazzo mio core” (My Heart Is Crazy):
The fine booklet gives us all the words, in Italian and in excellent translations—at once faithful and idiomatic. The recorded acoustic seems perfect for this kind of intimate repertory.
Nineteenth-century piano music is “so much with us” (to adapt a famous line by the poet Wordsworth) that we easily assume that we know how it must be played, namely with faithful adherence to the notes in the score.
Well, Kenneth Hamilton, a brilliant Scottish pianist-scholar, has demonstrated in an award-winning book that pianists, during what is often, and without exaggeration, called the Golden Age of piano playing, felt free to depart drastically from the printed score. Pianists often did not play an entire set of pieces published under a given opus number (such as Chopin’s set of 24 Preludes, Op. 28). Rather, they would select individual pieces they particularly liked or thought would be effective, either singly or when grouped together so as to display some combination of similarity and contrast.
They also often elaborated on the printed text, adding embellishments in certain significant spots. And they improvised fresh or related material to lead from, say, the last notes of a (published) prelude to the beginning of a different piece—a sonata, a ballade, a dance such as a polonaise—in the same key.
In a CD entitled More Preludes to Chopin, Hamilton does all of this and more and pulls it off with naturalness and flair. The CD is a sequel to Hamilton’s much-praised Preludes to Chopin: Sonatas, Barcarolle, Polonaise (2018). He plans a third and final release that will including the remaining Chopin preludes, again with each one leading into a piece in the same or a related key or one that that he feels complements the prelude in question.
Sometimes Hamilton finds similar motivic elements in the two coupled pieces. Other times, the second piece is not in the same key as the first but in a closely related one. And, again and again, he reads the notation in ways that were widely accepted at the time but, over the decades, got forgotten: for example, by slowing somewhat when a passage is marked sostenuto (“sustained”) or espressivo (“expressively”) and by quickening the pace at the indication leggiero (“lightly”). He also makes extensive use of dis-coordinating the two hands, so that the melody can float free from the regularity of the left-hand accompaniment.
The effect is magical. Hamilton seems incapable of making an ugly sound, and his playing flows with a naturalness that reminds me of a good jazz or lounge player, but one with the “chops” to handle passagework of enormous difficulty and with superb taste: nothing he does seems willful or exaggerated. Hamilton’s playing here enchanted me and kept me listening for one pleasant surprise after another, each utterly convincing.
He might play the same passage differently on another occasion. Certainly some other player would. This is real music-making, not subservient reciting from a sacred text. Hamilton’s Chopin could change your whole attitude toward the role of the performer in classical music.
It helps that, as Hamilton observes in his delightful booklet essay, he and the piano technicians have taken pains to locate a modern Steinway that can produce “the silken ‘singing tone’ so prized by Chopin and his immediate successors, rather than the more cuttingly metallic sound often heard today.”
The disc has brightened more than one cloudy or rainy day for me. One track can be heard here: the first prelude in Op. 28 (C major). Hamilton plays it with much rhythmic freedom, and repeats the whole first section even though the score does not indicate a repeat.
Click below for a captivating lecture that Hamilton gave (at the keyboard) on Liszt and his pupils. Hamilton, at one point, shows how Liszt often reworked a piece in order to keep it fresh for himself from one performance to the next.
A very special collaboration with past practices comes in a disc of 19 songs by Gustav Mahler, from the exquisite soprano Christiane Karg. Her admirable pianist on 17 of the songs (including all five of the profound “Rückert-Lieder”) is the much-recorded Malcolm Martineau. I particularly enjoyed several songs from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Young Man’s Magic Horn), and I didn’t, on this occasion, miss Mahler’s colorful orchestrations that are more often heard on recordings.
Most remarkable of all are the disc’s final two tracks, in which Karg is accompanied by the composer himself, who “recorded” the piano accompaniments on a Welte-Mignon piano-roll machine in 1905. Mahler (perhaps from nervousness or limited technique, or because of slight glitches in the process of “recording” a performance onto a roll) sounds clumsy on passages with several quick notes in succession. Still, the expressive variety that Mahler brings, including numerous drastic shifts in tempo, and that Karg incorporates into the vocal line, helped me hear the familiar “Das himmlische Leben” (Mahler reused it as the finale of his Fourth Symphony) as if it had been composed just yesterday. Here is that track, as a video, with the ghost of Mahler pressing the keys and the pedals.
What wonders Thomas Edison and his recording machine have brought into our lives—even, or maybe especially, during times of stress and isolation! If a classical recording that is marvelous and a little unusual (that is: not Glenn Gould’s justly admired recordings of the Goldberg Variations) has helped you get through these strange and challenging times, please feel free to share it with the rest of us in the Comment section below.
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).