Gilad Hekselman: J.S. Bach, Invention No. 4

Hmm, I seem to be in a bit of a Bach groove, with my last couple of Music-Video Friday posts (here, and here).

From far out in left field, or at least, from NYC, here’s Israeli jazz-guitar virtuoso Gilad Hekselman, playing what appears to be a free transcription of J.S. Bach’s Two-Part Invention No. 4, BWV 775, in the violinistic key of D-minor. I say free transcription, because I think that, having to play both parts with only open strings or the frets reachable from one position at a time, he did not have available two extra fingers to play the long trill you might remember from the legendary Glenn Gould piano recording. I particularly like his non-frenetic tempo, and restrained dynamics. Gilad Hekselman‘s website is here.

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Christmas Music (Part 3): Arturo Delmoni & Friends “A String Quartet Christmas”

 

034062500017A String Quartet Christmas
Arturo Delmoni & Friends
Steinway & Sons Recordings 3-CD set 50001

(All volumes produced by John Marks and mastered by Bob Ludwig. Volume One recorded 1995 by David Hancock at the Church of the Holy Trinity, NYC; Volumes Two and Three recorded by Jerry Bruck at the Recital Hall of the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music in 1997 and Riverside Church NYC in 1998, respectively.)

I produced the three volumes that make up this set for my own micro-boutique/audiophile label John Marks Records, commonly known as JMR. The idea was to present traditional and sacred Christmas music in straightforward, un-gimmicky arrangements, recorded in orthodox stereo (so to speak) in an acoustically-appropriate space. In the case of Volume One, that was New York City’s Holy Trinity Church, a photo of which can be found after the jump, along with sound samples. Continue Reading →

Christmas Music (Part 2): “Christmas Night,” The Cambridge Singers

christmas-night-cd-cover

Christmas Night – Carols Of The Nativity
The Cambridge Singers and the City of London Sinfonia,
conducted by John Rutter.
Collegium CD 106 or download

(Recorded January 1987 by the BBC Transcription Unit in the Great Hall of University College School, London. Jillian White, producer; Campbell Hughes, engineer.)

A few years back, my friends at Steinway & Sons asked me to write about a favorite Christmas album for their music and culture magazine Listen.

Here’s what I wrote then, and I still feel the same way:

I received this recording as a Christmas present from violinist Arturo Delmoni. It quickly became an all-time family favorite, not only for its world-class singing and vocal ensemble (a young Mark Padmore is in the tenor section) but most of all for its consistently tranquil and gently enveloping sound-world—just like a lullaby, except more varied and musically interesting. (Arturo Delmoni, of course, knows something about Christmas music, in that he led the string quartet in the three Rejoice! A String-Quartet Christmas projects.)

More comments, and sound samples, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Christmas Music (Part 1): Nat King Cole, “Christmas Favorites”

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Velvet-voiced pop and jazz tenor Mel Tormé (1925-1999) and songwriter Bob Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” in less than an hour, one sweltering day during the summer of 1945. Tormé wrote the music, and collaborated on the lyrics. (That Tormé’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia did not stop Tormé from writing what is generally regarded as the most popular and beloved English-language Christmas song of the pop-music era.) Tormé had been a child-prodigy singer and drummer; he was also a composer and arranger.

Though revered as an interpreter of Great American Songbook songs, Tormé’s musical worldview included deep respect for classical composers Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger (talk about strange musical bedfellows). Rock and roll, he liked not so much. Tormé’s essential musical conservatism endeared him to Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner. (And if anyone out there needs a Media Studies, American Studies, or Musicology research topic, I nominate Hugh Hefner’s role in keeping jazz on life support in the US during the ascendancy of rock music.)

Nat King Cole sound samples (some not so obvious) and more pensiveness, after the jump. Continue Reading →

David Leisner: J.S. Bach, Chaconne from solo-violin Partita No. 2 in d

My most recent Music-Video Friday feature was Hélène Grimaud’s live performance of Busoni’s Chaconne for Piano in D minor (after J.S. Bach). I expect no argument when I say that that piece was as much about Busoni as it was about Bach; and further, that Ms. Grimaud’s scintillating performance was more at home in the musical world of the Europe of 1890, than of 1720.

I last covered a David Leisner recording here (a program with cellist Zuill Bailey). David Leisner is a magnificent guitarist, as well as a composer of great feeling and integrity.

#Humblebrag: I played a large role in the production of the première recording (for a label other than JMR) of Leisner’s Sonata for Violin and Guitar, including suggesting a transcription of a Handel sonata for violin and keyboard as the opening piece, and writing the liner notes. I was tickled for us all when Stereophile magazine (this predated my employment there) designated that recording as a Recording of the Month. Continue Reading →

Trondheim Soloists: Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, etc.

2l125-400ph

Trondheim Solistene: Reflections
(Music of Britten, Vaughan Williams, and Stravinsky)
SACD/CD +Blu-ray 2-disc set, 2L 125
CDQ; high-resolution stereo including MQA and DSD; and surround-sound downloads available from www.2L.no
Streaming available from various services linked to here.

Recorded June and August 2015, Selbu Church, Norway. Recording producer and balance engineer Morten Lindberg; recording technician Beatrice Johannessen.

Certain pieces of music just catch the ear. Some of those pieces even enter into the collective repository of culture—they become part of the sonic landscape (or the musical memories) of nearly everybody’s life.

A prime candidate for the title of “The Most Well-Known Piece of ‘Classical’ Music That Was Not Composed by Vivaldi, Beethoven, or Gershwin” is Samuel Barber’s Adagio, in its string-orchestra version. Barber’s Adagio for Strings combines striving with yearning (and grief with resignation) in a completely arresting and inescapably memorable way.

Most music lovers don’t realize that the version they know so well is a transcription—that the “Adagio” of movie and pop-culture renown started out life as the slow movement of Barber’s Op. 11 string quartet.

The point of this blog entry then, is to tell as many people as possible that if you love Barber’s Adagio, you will love Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Tallis Fantasia has the same sweeping grandeur and emotional intensity as Barber’s Adagio, but I think it is even more rewarding to engage with over repeated hearings.

More background, a making-of video, and sound bytes, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Rega Research Ltd. Planar 3 Turntable Package

2016-10-19-p3-bb-cropped-400-phPhoto by John Marks; Berlin the Bear not included.

This is the second installment in a series about choosing Pareto-Optimal equipment to make digital archival copies of vinyl LP (long-playing) phonograph records. The first part is here. But even if you are not planning on making digital transfers, you might be interested in my advice on turntables and phono stages.

The turntable system (by which I mean the turntable itself; the tone arm; and the phono cartridge) is both the beginning of the playback process and, by the nature of things, the most critical bottleneck.

After the jump, more on that; and, well-deserved words of praise for Rega’s Planar 3. Continue Reading →

Hélène Grimaud: Busoni, Chaconne for Piano in D minor (after J.S. Bach)

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a series of six works for solo violin. Three are sonatas. “Sonata” is a technical term that in its largest sense simply means a piece of music meant to be played rather than sung. The other three solo-violin works are partitas, which means that they are made up of parts or movements, usually dance forms.

Bach’s second solo-violin partita’s final movement, a set of variations on a bass line called a Chaconne, is as long as the other four put together. Early on, Bach’s solo-violin Chaconne took on a life of its own, both for being played (at times) without the other four movements, and in various transcriptions and arrangements.

Arrangements or transcriptions exist for orchestra, piano, organ, guitar, cello, and saxophone quartet. Ferruccio Busoni‘s version really amounts to a major re-working of the piece in an overheated fin-de-siècle keyboard-virtuoso aesthetic. The good news is that the architectural structure of the solo-violin piece is substantial enough and resilient enough that the result is musically valid—at least for most of us.

Here’s high-energy Hélène Grimaud in an electrifying live version. To cite just one example, the arpeggio variation that starts at about 6:04 is a marvel of precision and clarity. Arkivmusic.com lists recordings by 36 pianists. So if Ms. Grimaud is a bit too out there for you, there are lots of choices. If I had to choose one and only one, it would be one of Shura Cherkassky’s: either the historical EMI one (circa 1956), or the autumnal Nimbus one (1987).

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Alexander Kerr, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Barber Violin Concerto

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Over the course of time I have owned recordings of Brahms’ violin concerto by at least 14 different violinists. For a few of those violinists, I obtained recordings of more than one performance. And for one performance, David Oistrakh’s 1969 away game with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, I collected multiple formats (LP, CD, and SACD), including at least half a dozen different LP pressings ultimately (and however multifariously) derived from the same original master tape. (OK, call me a bit barmy.)

The violinists whose Brahms concerto performances I purchased and kept (rather than passed along or donated) ranged from Kreisler and Menuhin and Heifetz and Kremer to… Uto Ughi. To say the least, Cavalier Uto’s career in the US has not been, um, huge. From the violinists whose names were not household, my favorite recording was by Hermann Krebbers. Krebbers, who was perhaps as little-known in the US as Ughi, recorded the Brahms concerto with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1973.

Please click on the jump link to learn the relevance of all that to Alexander Kerr’s truly wonderful Barber concerto performance with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, as well as an embedded audio-only YouTube of Kerr’s Decca recording of a charming Shostakovich film-score number. Continue Reading →

Emerson Quartet: J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue

emerson-art-of-fugue-cover-400phCourtesy of Deutsche Grammophon; cover photo by Marco Borggreve.

The Emerson String Quartet: J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080
CD Deutsche Grammophon 474 495-2
(Streaming via Tidal; no hi-res download appears available.)

Recorded January and February 2003 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City. Da-Hong Seetoo, producer and engineer.

One of the bits of musical non-trivia that I have carted around me for ages is the fact that American composer Roy Harris (whose third symphony is for me the best example of mid-twentieth-century, typically exuberant American musical creativity) also, with collaborator M.D. Herter Norton transcribed for string quartet Bach’s The Art of the Fugue.

M.D. Herter Norton, by the way, was Margaret (also sometimes Mary; and, informally Polly) Dows Herter, who with her husband W.W. Norton founded the publishing firm that bears his name. (W.W. Norton is still a major publisher—if not the major publisher—of music-history texts and anthologies for college use in the English-speaking world.) Margaret Norton was a violinist, an independent scholar of music, and translator from the German of about a dozen volumes of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. She was very important  in the early years of the American Musicological Society, as well as co-authoring, editing, or translating articles for the The Musical Quarterly.

After the jump, there is a scan of the cover of that score, from 1936. And generous sound samples. I think most music lovers will find this CD (or the stream from Tidal) extremely rewarding.

Continue Reading →