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Tag: classical music

Revisiting an Iconic Moment in the Creepy Classical Canon

Over the course of several years of annual, October-long Halloween celebrations here, you would think that at some point, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition would have made an appearance. No dice. The Chelsea Symphony‘s performance of that staple of the horror-classical canon got a big thumbs-up here...but that was in January of 2016.

Fast forward to 2021: the Chelsea Symphony’s beloved executive director has moved on and the group are as imperiled as any other performing arts organization outside the free world. But there is a very straightforward, energetic 2018 live recording at Spotify by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (both featured here earlier this month) which has plenty of creepy moments.

For those unfamiliar with the suite, the composer wrote it as a requiem for his painter friend Victor Hartmann, inspired by a posthumous retrospective of his work. It’s a wildly successful attempt to bring those paintings to life within the context of a leisurely, pensive gallery tour. In reality, Moussorgsky’s memory of several of the pictures on display was either fuzzy, or he deliberately gave them a much creepier interpretation. The original suite is for solo piano; Maurice Ravel orchestrated it in 1922. That’s what the orchestra are working with here.

The creepiness doesn’t start immediately, Noseda leading the listener into the gallery via a firmly reverential stroll. Ravel’s genius is in highlighting every available bit of phantasmagoria. Case in point: the twinkling second segment, The Gnome, which Noseda picks up boisterously at the end.

Fueled by the low brass and deliciously fluttery, ghostly strings, this broodingly waltzing take of The Old Castle is a keeper for anybody’s Halloween party playlist. Those cattle in the pasture? Definitely up to no good, beneath an increasingly stormy sky.

The Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks is on the goofy, cartoonish side of Halloween music. But Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the two Jews out for a Shabbat stroll, are definitely keeping an eye out for trouble. Interestingly, Noseda’s interpretation of the catacomb scene is much louder and emphatic – and less haunting – than other conductors usually portray it. Maybe that choice was to set up the distant ominousness of the land of the dead – and then a rise to the bellicose menace of Baba Yaga’s Hut afterward.

The rest of the suite is relatively more lighthearted: proto-ragtime Tuileries, an anxious Limoges market scene and a dynamically rich, stately portrait of the (completely fictitious) Great Gate of Kiev.

This album opens with a similarly dynamic, persistently restless concert recording of Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Although it has plenty of sturm und drang, characterizing it as Halloween music would be a stretch. The fateful angst and moody balletesque variations of the first movement, moments of gorgeous bittersweetness and torment of the second, unexpectedly carnivalesque touches in the third and boisterous swirl in the conclusion all testify to how sensitively Noseda and the orchestra approach it.

Magos Herrera Brings Her Elegant, Genre-Defying, Poignant Songcraft to a Popular Outdoor Queens Spot

Singer Magos Herrera‘s music spans the worlds of jazz, film themes, contemporary classical and many styles from her native Mexico. This blog has witnessed her in a rapturous, intimate duo performance with her longtime collaborator, guitarist Javier Limon, as well as a much more lush and politically-fueled set with string quartet Brooklyn Rider. When live music was criminalized throughout much of the world in 2020, she turned to the web for supporting musicians. The result is Con Alma, the most eclectic album of an amazingly eclectic career, an “operatic tableau on isolation” streaming at Bandcamp. Herrera is back in action in New York, with a 7 PM gig outdoors on Halloween night at Terraza 7, where she’s leading a quintet. The Elmhurst venue is best known for jazz, so that’s probably going to be what Herrera brings to the stage, but knowing her, anything is possible.

The album is a mix of energetic acoustic guitar-driven numbers, imaginative pieces for orchestra and vocals and choral works. As you would expect from an album created during the lockdown, there’s an ever-present apprehension, but also hope. As fascinating as this music is, you will want to skip track seven – a found-sound collage on which Herrera does not appear – which contains PTSD-inducing samples of social engineering run hideously amok, a 2020 artifact best buried forever.

The first track is La Creación de las Aves, Vinicius Gomes’ circling, nimbly fingerpicked  acoustic guitar loop anchored by Jeffrey Zeigler’s sweeping cello and Gonzalo Grau’s lithely understated cajon.

Tree of 40 Fruit begins as an uneasily close-harmonied soundscape, layers of wordless vocals by Constellation Chor‘s Marisa Michelson blended with a little crowd-sourced spoken word on themes of isolation and alienation. She quickly builds it to an anguished series of peaks: the effect of all the multitracks wipes away any sense of loneliness or abandonment.

Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joins with guitarist Romero Lubambo for moody but energetic dynamics in Rojo Sol, a bristling, flamenco-tinged ballad. Alma Muerta, a choral collaboration with Ensemble Sjaella rises from a desolate, Gregorian chant-influenced atmosphere to a web of stricken, shocked operatic riffs.

With her broodingly impassioned vocalese, Herrera and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería reinvent the album’s title cut – a Dizzy Gillespie hit – as a shapeshifting mini-suite, moving from cumulo-nimbus orchestration to a delicately bouncy, balletesque rhythm.

Ensemble Sjaella return for Fratres, by Paola Prestini, Herrera and the choir moving uneasily between early Renaissance-flavored ornamentation, grey-sky ambience and tremoloing atmospherics.

The lush treble counterpoint of Prestini’s Thrush Song, sung by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, offers a glimpse of hope. Herrera and her Mexican orchestral colleagues wind up the album with a strikingly stark, gracefully rhythmic take of Cucurrucucú, a longing-infused ballad made famous by Mexican singer Ana María González in 1954.

Virgil Boutellis-Taft Puts Out One of the Most Darkly Beguiling Classical Albums of Recent Years

It’s been a lot of fun mining the dark side of the classical canon this month…and the fun isn’t over yet! One of the most diversely entertaining, dark-themed classical records of recent years is violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft‘s new album Incantation with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming at Spotify. His approach is disarmingly direct and typically understated: overall, this is about mystery far more than the macabre.

He and the ensemble open with an aptly lush, starkly dynamic, moody take of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch was not Jewish, but he liked to plunder Jewish melodies – in this case, the prayer for the dead – rather than reaching for a faux-Romany sound as so many of his contemporaries did when they needed an extra jolt of minor-key intensity.

Tomaso Antonio Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor is one of the great classical mystery stories. We don’t know when it was written, but it was obviously radical for the baroque era. We know next to nothing about the composer and those who first resurrected it. Some investigators have suggested that the piece was deliberately misattributed in order to deflect possible criticism of its strikingly forward-looking chromatics. Boutellis-Taft holds onto the piece’s wicked ornamentation with a vise-grip legato as the orchestra looms and pulses menacingly behind him.

Saint-Saëns’ iconic Danse Macabre has been featured on this page innumerable times. This version of the witchy tarantella is distinguished by Boutellis-Taft’s gleeful vibrato, the forceful presence of the flutes, and an unusually persistent, skittish tension – which makes obvious sense in context. And the reaper doesn’t tiptoe out here – he leaves with a sinister flourish. He’ll be back!

Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade Mélancolique is exactly that, muted but purposeful. As with the Bruch work here, it’s a showcase for Boutellis-Taft’s resonant low midrange expressiveness, but also vigorously colorful attack in the upper registers. He makes a memorable return to Jewish themes with Ernest Bloch’s Nigun, from the Baal Shem suite, lit up by quicksilver ornamentation over an ominously Asian-tinged pentatonic theme. It’s a welcome addition to the classical heavy metal canon – and that’s meant as a compliment.

Ernest Chausson’s Poème pour Violon et Orchestre, op. 25, the longest piece on the program here, launches from an uneasily dreamy woodwind-driven tableau that eventually falls away on the wings of Boutellis-Taft’s wary solo. This is the most lavishly orchestrated yet most subtle performance here, darkly celestial rather than stygian.

Boutellis-Taft closes the album with Yumeji’s Theme, by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, a brief, melancholy, marionettishly waltzing recent work from the soundtrack to the film In the Mood for Love.

A Colorful, Counterintuitive World Premiere Organ Recording of a Famous Symphony

Every year throughout October, this blog runs a monthlong Halloween celebration of dark music. Much as it’s always fun to think outside the box and include styles that wouldn’t normally be associated with a day of the dead, it’s just as much fun to revisit familiar idioms, and one of those is classical organ music. But today’s album is an especially colorful piece, organist Thilo Muster‘s world premiere recording of Eberhard Klotz’s transcription of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, streaming at Spotify.

Beginning around two centuries ago and for many decades afterward, it was common for European organists to play music written for symphony orchestra, for audiences in small or rural communities who couldn’t make it to the big city to see the genuine item. But this one is special: it’s arguably better than the original, and wouldn’t be out of place in the Charles Widor catalog. Klotz’s transcription is noteworthy for its translucence: themes never get subsumed in bluster. Muster plays with dynamism amid steady pacing, his registrations taking full advantage of the wide, French-toned palette of the organ at the Eglise St-Martin in Dudelange, Luxembourg. Anton Bruckner, who for years made his living as a church organist and earned a reputation as a brilliant improviser, would no doubt approve.

It’s an unfinished symphony: the composer died three movements in. The first rises to a rather cheery, airily anthemic sway, then at the change to minor, Muster pulls out the stops and the effect is breathtaking. A cuckoo phrase over a gentle march gets spun in stately style through a series of increasingly serious variations, stern peaks, calmer valleys and tidal atmospherics. Muster really takes his time after a full stop as the long upward trajectory continues: this is scenic ride, and he wants everybody to be looking out the window.

Muster masterfully alternates a cheery strut with a big, puffy pulse as the second movement gets underway, up to the mighty, torrential Russian dance coda. He pulls back but keeps a matter-of-fact drive going in movement three – the closest thing we have to a conclusion. It’s more of an energetic stroll than a march; likewise, the volleys of eighth notes at the peak are a swirl rather than a torrent, setting up the descent into calm, wistful reflection.

Trio Karénine Play Transformative Music For a Transformative Time

We are in the midst of a shift of ages, watching the final ugly convulsions of centuries-old systems of repression and murder as they self-destruct. To paraphrase Dr. David Martin, the global totalitarians are the brontosaurus that ate itself out of existence since its pea brain couldn’t adapt. At such a transformative time in history, there’s plenty of music to inspire us as we find our way out of the wreckage and regroup. One particularly timely recording is Trio Karénine‘s imaginative version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, from their latest album La Nuit Transfigurée, streaming at Soundcloud.

This group’s take of the piano trio transcription by Eduard Steuermann is an eye-opener. Pianist Paloma Kouider sets an understatedly crushing funereal mood to introduce the first movement, violinist Fanny Robilliard leading the troubled upward drive, cellist Louis Rodde a disquietingly lingering presence. The trio’s gusty but minutely attuned attack lures the inner, surrealist beast out of its comfortable lair in the second movement.

They give movement three a more strikingly emphatic ache, only to watch it sepulchrally flit away. The thread loosens with Kouider’s Romantic glitter and the strings’ matter-of-fact counterpoint in the fourth movement, setting the stage for a wistful if guardedly forward-looking conclusion that fits in alongside the composer’s contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

The album’s first piece is Liszt’s Tristia, a transcription from his suite Années de Pèlerinage. The sparseness and wounded restraint are stunning, particularly Kouider’s muted, chromatically chilling pedalpoint behind Rodde’s plaintive solo and then the strings’ understatedly conjoined angst. Likewise, the sudden descent from a stately (some might say cliched) pavane into increasingly explosive torment on the wings of the violin and Kouider’s eerily twinkling riffs. In context, the homey sentimentality of the finale comes as a real surprise.

The group also follow a matter-of-fact, dynamically sensitive but also playfully jaunty trajectory through Schumann’s Studies in Canonic Form, op.56

Keeping the Great British Tradition of Choral Music Alive

For today’s installment of this month’s daily celebration of dark music, what could be more appropriate than a spare, elegaic Ukrainian choral work titled Kontaktion of the Dead? Or a haunting suite for choir and organ dedicated to the millions murdered by Axis evil in World War II? That piece is Maurice Durufle’s Requiem: both appear on today’s album, Remembrance, by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, recorded six years ago and still streaning at Spotify.

This may be the work of a student ensemble, but they are no ordinary group of college kids. Under the leadership of Graham Ross, this rotating cast of young choral talent have released a series of awardwinning records. They sing repertoire from the Middle Ages to the present day. Some group members go on to careers as professional singers, others take fond memories of their days as Cambridge choristers elsewhere.

Organist Matthew Jorysz provides delicately circling ambience as the men pulse amid the women’s lustre to introduce the requiem. This version is much more ghostly than the full symphonic arrangement (the New York Choral Society sang a rich, saturnine version at Carnegie Hall in February of 2017). The organ and women of the choir fuel the big crescendo in the second movement. The imploring intensity but also the lingering ghostliness of the third are stunning, with bass chorister Neal Davies taking a solo turn as the organ grows more ominous.

Hazy ambience turns blustery and bracing; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston hits anguished peaks and then fades down to Guy Johnston’s cello. The terseness of this arrangement is srriking, the composer often putting the women’s voices front and center in gently lilting, consoling melodies. Macabre echoes of the war linger in the organ melodies of the concluding movements: restraint, but also seething anger.

The album opens with the fleeting, stately Call to Remembrance, attributed to 16th century British composer Richard Farrant, followed by the somber, hypnotic waves of Thomas Tomkins’ early 17th century setting of the hymn When David Heard. A possibly earlier version, by Thomas Weelkes has much more of an upbeat sway.

Remaining in the 17th century, the group cut loose with symphonic intensity and dynamics in Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen. Ross’ world premiere arrangement of Abide with Me offers momentary calm and optimism. The other 20th century works here include John Tavener’s Song for Athene, a muted, brooding farewell for a friend and two William Harris pieces, the first with more lively, tricky changes.

An Iconic Horror Film For the Ears

What better to kick off this year’s annual October-long Halloween celebration of dark music than one of the alltime great horror movies for the ears? Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1936, when he first earned the wrath of Josef Stalin for daring to create interesting and relevant music that didn’t glorify the genocidal Soviet regime.

Sound familiar?

Censorship and totalitarianism existed long before the lockdown, the needle of death, Facebook and Google. The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra was pressured not to premiere the symphony, which wouldn’t see the light of day until 1961. The composer reputedly called it his favorite.

As political satire, it’s one of the most withering pieces of music ever written. It’s a mashup of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Schoenberg, but more venomously political than anything any of those composers ever wrote. There’s a spellbinding live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, streaming at Spotify, that you should hear if you can handle savagely troubled music right now.

This particular album is taken from two concerts at the Barbican in November 2018. Noseda’s dynamics are vast and dramatic to the extreme, as they should be. Whether explosive, or shuddering with horror, or ruthlessly parodying Stalin’s campy pageantry, the orchestra are a force of nature.

The first movement comes in with a shriek, a pulsing post-Sacre du Printemps dance of death and all kinds of foreshadowing of how Shostakovich would expand on this kind of phantasmagoria, far more politically. All the strongman themes in Shostakovich’s symphonies, from the third on, are phony: he never lets a tyrant, whether Stalin or Krushchev, off the hook.

Coy cartoons suddenly appear livesize and lethal. This is a cautionary tale, the composer telling us not to take our eye off the ball, or else. A rite of the dead of winter, intertwined with terrified individual voices, rises to a vicious crescendo. The first of many references to Anitra’s Dance, the Grieg theme, appears. Concertmaster Roman Sinovic and bassoonist Rachel Gough become plaintive and persistent witnesses to history.

Movement two is nothing less than an indictment, a sometimes ghostly, pervasively anxious waltz wafting in and out, the ruthlessness of the regime baring its fangs to a terrorized citizenry. The concluding third movement begins too casual to be true, as the orchestra calmly allude to another macabre Russian classic, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The chase scene early on doesn’t have quite the horror of the KGB pursuit theme in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, but it’s close.

The ensemble offer a twisted parody of a Germanic minuet as a spitball at the entitled Russian collaborator classes, Noseda getting maximum cynical gossipy fervor out of the strings. Stormtroopers gather and wreak havoc, the orchestra building a devastatingly phantasmagorical parody of Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Clashes of ideologies, musical and otherwise, grow more combatively surreal. The seemingly ineluctable, gruesome march out doesn’t get to fade down without a series of accusatory ghosts.

As with all of Shostakovich, there are innumerable other details that could take up ten more pages to chronicle: buckle up for this carnival of dead souls. The London Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing series of live albums comprise some incredible performances and this might be the very best of recent years.

Live Music Calendar for New York City and Brooklyn for October 2021

As expected, outdoor concerts and those which are officially open to all New Yorkers have tapered off this month, but there are still performances popping up all over the place. If you go out a lot, you might want to bookmark this page and check back regularly.

A lot of venues aren’t enforcing the Mayor’s evil and sadistic apartheid policy: if you’re thinking of trying to catch an indoor show, use your intuition. Williamsburg venues are completely fascist these days, but other parts of town are quietly working back toward normalcy.

If you’re leaving your hood, don’t get stuck waiting for a train that never comes, make sure you check the MTA delays and out-of-service page for cancellations and malfunctions, considering how unreliable the subway has become.

If you don’t recognize a venue where a particular act is playing, check with the artist, or check the list of over 200 New York City music venues at New York Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture. The list hasn’t been updated since this past summer, but it has directions and links.

This is not a list of every show in town – it’s a carefully handpicked selection. If this calendar seems short on praise for bands and artists, it’s because every act here is recommended if you like their particular kind of music.

Showtimes listed here are set times, not the time doors open – if a listing says something like “9ish,” that means it’ll probably start later than advertised.

If you see a typo or an extra comma or something like that, remember that while you were out seeing that great free concert that you discovered here, somebody was up late after a long day of work editing and adding listings to this calendar ;)

10/1, 6 PM the Italian Expressiveness and Expressionists Quartet “performs a program that spans four centuries, from Isabella Leonarda, a 17th century Ursuline Nun, to the 20th century expressionist and avant-garde composer, Niccolò Castiglioni” at Pier 3 Greenway Terrace toward the south end of Brooklyn Bridge Park

10/2, 7 PM Ray Santiago’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Band in the community garden at 640 E 12th St (B/C)

10/3, starting noon ish the annual Atlantic Antic street fair extending from northern Atlantic Ave all the way to the Atlantic Ave. subway station, there are always lots of street performers and usually a Middle Eastern band up the hill a couple of doors from Sahadi’s

10/3, 5 PM mighty Brazilian drumline street band BatalaNYC leads a parade starting in the community garden at Ave C and E 9th St

10/3, 6 PM the Chupacabras play psychedelic cumbia surf jazz at the community garden at 84 Ave B at E 6th St

10/3, 5 PM, repeating 10/6 at 6:30 colorful, charismatic pianist/salonniere Yelena Grinberg joins forces with violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron of the Momenta Quartet for a program of works by CPE Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven at Grinberg’s popular monthly upper westside salon, email for deets here., a 3  minute walk from 1/2/3 train at 96th St.

10/3, 3 PM violinist Clara Kim leads a quartet playing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s exhilarating 5 Fantasiestücke, Op.5 plus works by Angel Lam: and Schubert’s String Quartet no. 14, ‘Death and the Maiden at Concerts on the Slope, St. John’s Episcopal Church, 139 St. John’s Place downhill from 7th Ave, sugg don

10/2, 8 PM intense saxophonist Jeff Lederer’s Leap Day Trio w/ Mimi Jones and Matt Wilson at Bar Bayeux

10/4, 4 PM nimble tsimblist Pete Rushefsky‘s Boardwalk Serenade play rippling klezmer tunes up on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk near the Volna Restaurant (corner of Brighton 4th St.).

10/5, half past noon pianist Ayako Shirasaki at Bryant Park

10/6, 8 PM jazz drummer Savannah Harris’ Group at Bar Bayeux

10/8, 7 PM the irrepressible, colorful, alternately atmospheric and picturesque Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra  outdoors at Culture Lab in Long Island City

10/9, 2 PM mesmerizing soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome plays solo at the Urban Meadow (President St & Van Brunt St, in Red Hook)

10/9, 2:30 PM drummer Aaron Edgcomb with guitarist Will Greene, bassist Simon Hanes, possibly playing John Zorn material on Vanderbilt Ave btw Bergen and Dean, 2 to Bergen St and walk uphill

10/9, 4 PM violinist Sarah Bernstein‘s mesmerizing, microtonal Veer Quartet with Sana Nagano, Leonor Falcon and Nick Jozwiak on bass at Oliver Coffee on Oliver south of East Broadway, take any train to Canal and go down Mott

10/13, 8 PM bassist David Ambrosio‘s allstar Civil Disobedience project w/ Duane Eubanks, Donnie McCaslin, Bruce Barth and Victor Lewis at Bar Bayeux

10/14, 3 PM Venezuelan jazz pianist Gabriel Chakarji at Haswell Green Park, 60th/York Ave

10/16, 5 PM  energetic delta blues/Romany swing guitarist Felix Slim at Culture Lab outdoors in LIC, down the block from his old haunt LIC Bar

10/17, 2 PM epic, Americana-inspired multi-reedman Mike McGinnis leads his group to accompany a couple of dance performances at at Parkside Plaza, corner of Parkside and Ocean Aves in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Q to Parkside Ave

10/21, 5:30 PM jazz bassist John Benitez leads his latin jazz group at Wright Park, Haven Ave/170th St., Washington Heights

10/22, 6:30 PM  the cinematic, eruditely comedic Broken Reed Saxophone Quartet with special guest singer Tammy Scheffer outdoors at Open Source Gallery, 306 17th St south of 6th Ave, South Park Slope, R to Prospect Ave

10/23, 11 AM the Hudson Horns play brassy funk and soul sounds on Bridge Park Dr and Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park

10/23, 2 PM jazz bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck solo & duo w/drummer Andrew Drury at the Urban Meadow (President St & Van Brunt St, in Red Hook)

10/23, 2 PM Sonido Costeño play oldschool salsa on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza

10/25, 2 PM high-voltage psychedelic cumbia/Afrobeat jamband MAKU Soundsystem   at Wingate Park in Crown Heights, 2/5 to Sterling St.

10/26, 5 PM irrepressible composer/performer and improviser Ljova solo on fadolin outdoors at Anita’s Way, 137 W 42nd St

10/29, 3 PM chanteuse/uke player Dahlia Dumont’s Blue Dahlia playing edgy, smartly lyrically-fueled, jazz-infused tunes in English and French with classic chanson and Caribbean influences  at Ruppert Park. Second Ave. bet. E. 90 St. and E. 91 St.

10/31, 4 PM a creepy classical program TBA plus candy for the kids outside the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music

10/31, two sets starting around 6 PM trumpeter Pam Fleming’s colorful, cinematic reggae jazz Dead Zombie Band at the block party on Waverly Ave in Ft. Greene between Willoughby and DeKalb, closest train is the G to Clinton-Washington

10/31, 7 PM haunting Mexican singer Magos Herrera – who does classic film score music as well as nuevo cancion and classical music – leading a quintet at Terrazza 7, free

A Carefully Crafted Recording of the Schubert Octet to Give Us Solace in Troubled Times

Until the lockdown, Franz Schubert’s Octet had been a staple of the classical concert repertoire for more than a century. But it wasn’t popular at the time it was written. Reviews of the 1827 premiere were not positive, and it wasn’t revived in concert until more than thirty years later. Let that endurance inspire us in our own struggles to return all the way back to normal. In the meantime, there’s a meticulous, insightful recording featuring the Modigliani String Quartet streaming at Spotify to inspire us.

As the album liner notes conclude, is the Octet an awakening of “A poetic language, in which exuberance and despair meet?” Until the end, there’s far less outright revelry than courtly conviviality, and a recurrent if distant sense of any attainable happiness slipping away. When he wrote this, Schubert was already battling the illness that would eventually kill him.

He nicks the principal opening theme from his song Der Wanderer, Sabine Meyer’s wistful clarinet signaling the suite’s first shift and then serving as a foil, more or less, to the increasingly warmer, elegantly pulsing atmosphere. Listen closely and you’ll hear a moody tarantella bubble to the surface, and then approximations of a harpsichord from the quartet: violinists Amaury Coetaux and Loic Rio, violist Laurent Marfaing and cellist François Kieffer. Very clever.

This ensemble – which also includes Bruno Schneider on horn, Dag Jensen on bassoon and Knut Erik Sundquist on bass – really bring the lights down for the nocturnal second movement. The third is also on the muted side even as the rhythms pick up. Horn and bassoon move closer to the sonic center amid the lustre of the fourth movement until Meyer returns, unwaveringly in character.

Movement six’s minuet has an especially delicate quality, the strings often stark against the wind instruments rather than simply building luxuriant atmosphere. The rattle of Kieffer’s foreshadowing beneath the wafting, distantly cautionary melody as the conclusion gathers steam is a refreshingly dynamic touch. After teasing the listener with a Beethovenesque series of false endings, the ensemble wrap it up in a cheery ball at the end.

And the quartetalso have a new album of Bartok, Mozart and Haydn works.

A Neglected Russian Romantic Orchestral Treasure From Pianist Irena Portenko

While the heroes of last year’s lockdown were working long hours at hospitals where staff had been cut by fifty percent in order to engineer the illusion of a crisis, there was a much humbler kind of triage going on at this blog: sorting out the equally imperiled digital part of a constantly growing archive. A brief listen revealed that one album which had slipped through the cracks and didn’t deserve that fate was pianist Irena Portenko‘s 2016 performance of Prokofiev and Tschaikovsky concertos with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko. The recording quality of the album, Versus – streaming at Spotify – is very old-world: for a digital production, the sound is very contiguous, in the spirit of a vinyl record. This is the kind of album that you can listen to over and over again and discover something new every time.

The balmy, Debussyesque introduction to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 offers no clue where this beast is going to go, Portenko’s emphatic upward cascades against increasing lushness punctuated by an anxious, searching flute. But Prokofiev remains one of the kings of phantasmagoria, and Portenko and the ensemble quickly sink their fangs into a marionettish strut and then a distantly macabre haze before bringing back the Asian diatonics.

That’s just the first half of the first movement. The way she hangs back and lets the increasing unease speak for itself pays off mightily when she slams into the big, grim crescendo afterward, the orchestra circling like a hungry condor. The gusty, stricken second movement is over in a flash; the third, a processional written as a requiem for a friend of the composer who killed himself, is far more sinister in places. The flute and staccato strings in tandem with the piano are creepy to the extreme. Again, the restraint of both soloist and orchestra enhance the mysterious intensity of the concluding movement, Portenko’s sabretoothed ripples and icepick chords finally gaining traction as the orchestra linger and pulse behind her.

They shift gears for Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the most ravishingly beautiful (curmudgeons might say treacly) pieces of classical music ever written. It’s been ripped off by thousands of pop songwriters over the decades. Portenko doesn’t let it go there, with a clenched-teeth attack that raises the drama factor several times over, matched by Sirenko’s lavish touch in front of the orchestra. Yet there’s great subtlety from the ensemble: a bass breaks the surface, then flourishes from the reeds, matched by Portenko’s coy bit of a fugue in the first movement. Her gritty, intricate proto boogie-woogie in the movement’s third part screams out for the repeat button.

The second movement is balletesque yet replete with longing, Portenko rising to the challenge of the composer’s machinegunning rivulets. Starry, starry night! The third movement is where the Ukrainian bandura melody that Tschaikovsky polishes up and rips off throughout this piece really gets a workout: folk-rock, 19th century style. There are passages here that seem breathtakingly fast, compared to other orchestras’ interpretations: they seem to want everybody to hang on and enjoy the ride, up to the warmly familiar coda.