Discover new favorites as John Banther showcases 4 recent releases that deserve your attention this summer! Go to the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown.org to find out where you can listen to or purchase these albums.
John Banther: I'm John Banther. Welcome to Classical Breakdown. It is the last episode of season four before we take a summer break, and it's hard to believe we've already done four seasons. It feels like we just started yesterday. I want to thank everyone for listening, writing in, reviewing and sharing the podcast. You had a great impact and I want to thank you. And a big thanks as well to my steady co- host, Evan Keely, and also Bill Bukowski and Rich Kleinfeldt from WETA Classical who joined this season as well. Some of my favorite episodes for this season I think would be number 72 with horn virtuoso Sarah Willis, that whole Mozart- y Mambo album she made.
Also, episode number 80 on the life of Joseph Bologne. I learned so much about that composer myself in that episode. Also, number 86 with Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. I think we got a better picture of him not just as a musician or a conductor, but as a person as well. But this episode right now is also one of my favorites, sharing with you some new and exciting recordings for all of us to enjoy together this summer. We have four to get through, so let's just jump right into our first. This is Trio Agora's recent release from just a couple of weeks ago.
It's called Hotel Tango, and it's described on Presto Music, a website where you can buy physical and digital releases, it's described as, " From its roots to its manifold manifestations worldwide, the trio presents tango as a unique mixture of European, South American, and African idioms. With arrangements and dedicated compositions, the trio explores the genre from a personal perspective." It starts with a piece by Astor Piazzolla called Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas or the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. It's really the heart of the album, and it's totally reimagined and rearranged from the original for this trio of cello, piano, and clarinet.
And as you can already tell, the trio plays very tight. They have obviously spent an uncountable number of hours, rehearsing and playing together. At a certain point, like where they are now, it becomes just like being able to finish each other's sentences. Piazzolla's Four Seasons are describing the seasons as they are in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and unlike Vivaldi's, which starts with spring, this one starts with summer, which in Argentina is December through February. Also, Piazzolla treated these as separate pieces or tangos. He usually played them separately on their own, but sometimes would play them all together as a set like we'll hear in this album.
You also hear more sounds than you expect from clarinet, cello, and piano. They use their instruments in other ways like as a percussion instrument, and I think they use a couple of extra small hand instruments to create some more effects too like wind. I don't think they could do more with the music even if they tried. I love this introduction to autumn. It's busy. It's exciting. It kind of goes on longer than you expect, and it gets higher and higher. And then almost as if watching a cartoon, it's so beautifully descriptive, the leaves slowly fall into the tango. This work by Piazzolla, the heart of the album, it really transports you to another time and place.
There's also a little tango by Stravinsky, which apparently he composed for piano with the express interest of earning some quick money in the United States. After moving here, he apparently had some kind of copyright or royalty problems, and he could not get that royalty and copyright income from Europe sent to the United States. This work, along with some others, was composed, published rather quickly, I think, to fill that gap.
It's at this point each gets a turn as soloist, that work for piano by Stravinsky, this vocalese type work from Ravel piece in the form of a habanera, and this for solo clarinet by Antonio Lauro, played just so sublimely and with such expression, again, I think they could not do more with the music if they tried. The album gets its title, Hotel Tango, from the last composition called Foxtrot Romeo Juliet Hotel Tango by Joel Hoffman. (Singing)
I couldn't actually find anything from the composer as to what the phonetic title is referring to, but his daughter, Natania Hoffman, is the cellist in the trio. In an interview for the album, she said, " The piece was inspired by a work of the American composer Frederic Rzewski called Steptangle. In my father's piece, we all have to sing the words, 'Hotel Tango' in rhythm that stays with us, and ultimately it became the title of the entire album." It's a great way to end the album too, and it really blends together, repeated words in motifs, almost like when you say a word over and over again, sounding stranger each time, but here also blending with music. (Singing)
The next album is really interesting for our purposes on classical breakdown. This is the debut album of Spanish violinist Maria Dueñas, playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Vienna Symphony and Conductor Manfred Honeck. First things first, her playing is extraordinary. And to my ears, her sound is a little more unique too, more on that in a minute. But she won the Menuhin Competition, a very big competition for young violinists. She won that in 2021 at 18, and presumably I think she recorded this the following year and it just came out. Her playing, it really speaks for itself.
But what I mean about her sound being a little unique is that it kind of strikes me as being " old world," something about her vibrato, how it starts, how it stops, and also the tone. It's very, very personal. I think this will be a very recognizable sound as Maria Dueñas. In the future, as she makes even more recordings, it sounds like a type of playing from a couple of generations ago combined with really just the extraordinary rise in technique and just playing ability that we've seen in the last, I think, five decades as well for all instruments. The orchestra, the Vienna Symphony here, is really quite special in this recording.
I think they are really elevating her sound and bringing this concerto to life. They are not just treating this like another Beethoven recording. They are matching her level of dedication and just commitment to the music. Honeck, the conductor, he paints a clearer picture of the orchestra's involvement in this concerto than most other recordings I've heard. Looking at the third movement, for example, for me, the tempo is just right. I know that's kind of personal, but it really is at just the right tempo to bring out some of the more jovial aspects of the music. It should sound fun, in my opinion, and I think it should sound danceable.
This is subtle. There are these little trills in the upper strings, and here they really have room to speak and to land. And then the following balance with the piccolo, I mean, it just feels like a really fun Scottish dance. It is very subtle, as I said, but these are very small things that bring all of this to life, and it just shows, well, the level I think of dedication. Dueñas, when she enters again, she's bringing the same energy. Her phrasing is also interesting. She's weaving together these notes into words and into sentences, as one would expect, but she's really turning these into paragraphs, into pages, and into chapters as she's connecting phrases very clearly across larger segments of the music.
She's tying all this together. It's another great Beethoven Violin Concerto recording featuring an extraordinary young talent. Yes, this is a very good problem to have. The question is, well, what makes this one different from the countless others? To start, she's playing all her own cadenzas in this recording, her first on Deutsche Grammophon. She's now playing any of the standard or traditional cadenzas that other violinists have done. But after the concerto, she then plays music by Louis Spohr, Eugène Ysaÿe, Camille Saint- Saëns, Henryk Wieniawski, and Fritz Kreisler. Some of those names will be familiar, some unfamiliar, and they're really nice works.
They're very nice. They're played beautifully. They're very emblematic of those composers writing. But then, then she plays the cadenzas that those composers wrote for the first movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto. We get to hear these pieces and then hear her play the cadenzas those composers wrote, and it's something we don't get very often to hear back to back. One, it's the same player at the same time, more or less, recording these. These aren't separated by years or decades of experiences. It's all right back to back. You get to hear the differences in how the cadenza is approached.
For example, Camille Saint- Saëns gets into it nice and gentle. Compare that to the version done by violin virtuoso Ysaÿe. This is really special, not something we see all the time. This is a great album to become more familiar with the concerto and to learn how these different cadenzas sound in comparison and why maybe one might choose one over another. I have a feeling we're going to be hearing more of this concerto recording in an upcoming episode next season, and I'm really looking forward to whatever Maria Dueñas and DG, Deutsche Grammophon that is, come up with next. We'll get into the next album right after this.
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Now, we go to a solo album featuring French American harpist Anne- Sophie Bertrand, who also plays in the Frankfurt Symphony. This album is called Transatlantique and is described on Presto Music, " The program tells of the European American musical exchange at the beginning of the 20th century. Through concert tours and immigration across the Atlantic, some of the composers presented here experienced completely new musical impressions or remembered traditional themes of their homeland." For this, we have music by Germaine Tailleferre, Maurice Ravel, Carlos Salzedo, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Paul Hindemith, Bela Bartok, and more.
I recommend looking up these composers as you listen to this to find those Transatlantic connections. The first work is the harp sonata by Germaine Tailleferre, who was an important composer for the harp. Her sonata here, it's a staple in the harp repertoire, and it's a great way to open the album. Bertrand's playing really brings it to life, and it's just really crystal and full of expression. I don't want to spoil too much of the work, but maybe to help motivate you if you were on the fence, there is something really interesting In the final movement.
I heard harpist Emily Levin describe this moment in a recent Front Row Washington program, and she said, " Whoever wrote the theme for The Flintstones probably heard this." I think it's hard to disagree. I am no harp expert by any means. 90% of my interactions with harpists have been them rolling their harp on stage before a rehearsal, which is then my cue to stop warming up and go get a coffee while they tune their instrument in the much needed silence. But I do get a sense of two different styles or maybe aesthetics when it comes to the harb, and that is guitar or piano.
It's not always the greatest idea to use other instruments to make comparisons or describe other instruments, but I think this kind of helps in this situation. Because sometimes when I listen to a harpist, it sounds like more of a guitar mindset. The sum of the sounds and the notes are larger than their parts, if that makes sense. And then sometimes like in this album, it sounds like more of a piano mindset, a pianistic mindset, I think. Not necessarily that the left and the right hands are independent of each other or are written separately, but just the way it's approached, it sounds to me like Bertrand would also be a fantastic pianist.
Another work I want to point out is the Alborada del gracioso by Maurice Ravel, which she originally composed for piano, but I think we're really familiar with the orchestral version as well that Ravel made. It's interesting to hear it in this context, the harp alone, because sometimes it can feel like, well, you're really hearing the orchestral colors in your head while she's playing. That's kind of easy to do, I think, with Ravel's music. But her playing and that pianistic style or mindset, I think that in my opinion, it just sounds like to me it doesn't let you be absent- minded about that orchestral color for too long.
She really pulls you in and you just get absorbed into how she's playing this. There is something special I think here too for Classical Breakdown fans who listened to the recent episode on theme and variations. She includes a set of theme and variations by Carlos Salzedo, and I hope you can recognize some of the different variation types that we discussed in that episode. Because for me, it was a big help doing that episode as I was, I think, much more able to recognize these characteristics as I was listening to this. There is another sonata on this album as well, or rather classic one for the harp.
It's by Paul Hindemith, who was a 20th century German composer who later lived in the United States for a while, even becoming a citizen. He wrote sonatas for just about every instrument, and he could play them himself too. And if you know Hindemith, you'll probably recognize some of these characteristics in this piece. And if you don't, I think this is a nice introduction to his music as well. Following the sonata by Hindemith, there is a work by Elliot Carter, which will push your ears even further. There's also Romanian folk dances by Bela Bartok, before the album finishes with an impromptu by Gabriel Fauré, composed originally for the harp and provides a perfect and beautiful finish, I think, for the album.
And honestly, once it finishes, it makes you want to just start the whole thing over again and just listen to it all over. I hope you'll enjoy this one as much as I did. There are several moments in here that made me stop and go back because I hadn't heard a harp play like that or do something with a certain kind of technique before, creating a new sound. Now, we get to an album that features the full symphony orchestra. This is the Iceland Symphony Orchestra with conductor Eva Ollikainen, and it's all music by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. This one will probably be the most adventurous, for a lack of a better word, but I highly recommend you listen to this.
Thorvaldsdottir is pretty well- known. Her music is performed and commissioned all around the world by major orchestras. The New York Times described her work as having seemingly boundless textual imagination, and NPR has described her as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music. There are two works of hers on this album, and the challenge for me is that it's kind of hard to depict here because of the length of time needed. There are aspects and moments in her music that occur well into a movement 10 or 15 minutes, and it feels like we needed that 10 or 15 minutes just to get to that one point in the music, which may even last just a couple of seconds.
And it is always best to hear from a composer directly, if possible, when it comes to their music. The first work is titled Archora, and here is how she described it in program notes. The core inspiration behind Archora centers around the notion of a primorial energy and the idea of an omnipresent parallel realm, a world both familiar and strange, static and transforming nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The piece revolves around the extremes on the spectrum between the primordial and its resulting afterglow and the conflict between these elements that are nevertheless fundamentally one and the same.
The halo emerges from the primordial, but they have both lost perspective and the connection to one another, experiencing themselves individually as opposing forces rather than one and the same. Then, she includes something here that she does in many places when talking about her music. She writes, " As with my music generally, the inspiration is not something I am trying to describe to the music as such. It is a way to intuitively approach and work with the core energy, structure, atmosphere, and material of the piece." Now, that is quite a lot to wrap your mind around. I think another way to think of this is, well, maybe with Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
He wrote sonnets that directly inform the music, the atmosphere of the seasons. He includes poetry to highlight moments literally in the score and we hear it all play out in the music. That is the opposite from what I think Thorvaldsdottir is saying. She instead may rather study a season, how it manifests in different climates, cultural significances, how it's changed over millions of years, how it may be in the future, and then use that as the approach, as she says, to work with the core energy, structure, atmosphere, and material of a piece. While you will hear ideas and motifs return and evolve, the music as you listen to it seems to lack any hint of a theme, foundation, or familiar footing.
In fact, it reminds me of, well, if you go to a river and you just pull out a little bit of water in a glass cup or clear cup or whatever, it might look clear. Put it under a microscope, there is so much happening. There's so much life, and I think that's how it is with this music as well. Transitions, for instance, they can be quite sudden, inducing in me an immediate internal shift as I listen. But some transitions, they take several minutes. You'll also hear sounds that you just won't recognize. She's asking for a lot of extended techniques from the musicians. In fact, the first several pages of the score are instructions and breakdowns of these different techniques.
At the end actually is a good example. It sounds audibly airy. It sounds like a very kind of just open airy sound, and that's what we're hearing right now. I hadn't really heard this before. Now, wind is mimicked in music all the time, from Vivaldi's Four Seasons to Richard Strauss. There is even an instrument for it, but this is different. Looking at the score again, I see at the end she's asking for the strings to use, I guess, very heavy bow pressure while very slowly, as almost as slow as possible, drag the bow across the string, thereby, I guess, creating this airy sound. It's just very, very interesting.
The second work is Aion, which she describes as a symphony scale orchestral work in three parts titled Morphosis, Transcension and Entropia. Here's how she describes it in program notes. Aion is inspired by the abstract metaphor of being able to move freely in time, of being able to explore time as a space that you inhabit, rather than experiencing it as a one directional journey through a single dimension. Disorienting at first. You realize that time extends in all directions simultaneously. And that whenever you feel like it, you can access any moment even simultaneously. As you learn to control the journey, you find that the experience becomes different by taking different perspectives.
You can see each moment at once, focus on just some of them or go there to experience them. You are constantly zooming in and out, both in dimension and perspective. Some moments you want to visit more than others. Noticing as you revisit the same moment how your perception of it changes. This metaphor is connected to a number of broader background ideas in relation to the work, how we relate to our lives, to the ecosystem, and to our place in the broader scheme of things, and how at any given moment we are connected both to the past and to the future, not just of our own lives, but across and beyond generations.
She includes that all important clause at the end, the inspiration is not something I am trying to describe through the music or what the music is about. As such, it is a way to intuitively approach and work with the core energy, structure, atmosphere, and material of the piece. That is quite a deep, heady, existential description. I think it phenomenally matches up with the music, which this piece is over 45 minutes long. Again, there are moments here that take 10 minutes to even get to, and maybe that moment is unsettling. But really it's all part of the journey. I can't recommend enough that you sit down and listen to this work and the album in its entirety.
It's quite an experience, and I hope it encourages you to seek out more of her music afterwards. I will also say, don't listen to this while you're driving. There is so much happening in the music. There's so many layers. You're going to miss it while you're flying down the beltway with the air conditioning on. I recommend putting on headphones, any headphones, or earbuds to listen to this if you can. Okay, so there are four albums I'm recommending you listen to this summer and quite a variety too, from tangos you'll be humming, to the more existential questions found in Thorvaldsdottir's music and more.
If you listen to these, please feel free to send me an email with your thoughts and experiences, classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. You can go to the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org to find out where you can listen and purchase these albums. And after listening to them, of course, let me know what you think. I hope you'll enjoy your summer and catch up on any episodes you missed this past season. Don't forget to leave a review in your podcast app. Subscribe and I'll see you for season five in September. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.