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Monday, August 31, 2015

Sibelius, Belshazzar's Feast, Leif Segerstam, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra

Ah, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). His music is magic. Where would his music have gone had he not received at a fairly young age a lifetime pension from the Finnish government to compose, with seemingly few strings attached? Would he have kept to his sort of post-impressionist, post-romantic style, as he did over his lifetime? Who knows. I do not.

It is difficult to imagine Sibelius being something other than who he was. I will admit that it took me some time to appreciate how singular and wonderful that is, especially in my younger years when I was expecting all modern composers to be...overtly modern.

I listened, appreciated, but it wasn't until I took a flight from Chicago to New York years ago and they had his 5th Symphony playing repeatedly over the classical music channel on the earphones. A revelation when combined with a striking view of the sky and clouds...

So now I can say that Sibelius is essential, to me at least. His symphonies, his Violin Concerto, his orchestral work, the "Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends from the Kalevala)," the major tone poems, all wonderful.

And then there are other less-known miscellaneous works of his. You can hear some of them very respectably performed on the new release Belshazzar's Feast (Naxos 8.573300) by Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic.

It is a mix of fascinating music created mostly in his younger years. The "Overture in E major" and the "Scene de Ballet," both from 1891, are apparently what were his first efforts, the first two movements for an inaugural symphony that he never completed. They are in some ways more Sibeliusian than his actual "First Symphony," at times, the actual first having more of a Tchaikovskian feel now and again.

The central work on the collection is the title piece, "Belshazzar's Feast" (1906). It is a multi-movement suite of incidental music composed for the play of the same name, written by Sibelius's friend Hjalmar Procope. It has much charm and a goodly amount of the hallmarks of Sibelius at his best.

To complete the program are four other brief pieces written between 1894 and 1938, one-off orchestral works that are perhaps not masterpieces but gratifying to hear for anyone who admires the composer and his ways.

And in that this collection will be cherished by Sibelianites. It is probably not the album to start with if you don't know Sibelius well. For that you should probably begin with the Violin Concerto and/or the Symphonies (three and on). Nonetheless this is a charming set that at the Naxos price is hard to beat.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Grazyna Bacewicz, Complete String Quartets 1, Lutoslawski Quartet

I have discovered to my delight that Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) was more than a merely very interesting Polish modern composer. Her string quartets are brilliant. Happily Naxos sent me their first volume, Complete String Quartets 1 (Naxos 8.572806) as played with care and great understanding by the Lutoslawski Quartet. And a few listens later I come on the blog to express my satisfaction and even amazement with the results. The inaugural CD includes her Quartets 1, 3, 6 and 7, covering the long period from 1939 to 1965.

Each one is a gem, holding a sort of middle ground between Bartok and Ligeti, and doing it so well, so much with her own special integrity. I am almost at a loss for words. "A progressive composer would not agree to repeat even himself," she remarked in 1964, and that is very much true of the quartets. She takes on neo-classicism in the delightful First Quartet and then proceeds to give us a very personal form of expressionism, serialism and beyond in the later works.

All have a special structural integrity, a sense of form that lights up the part writing, gives us motivic originality and a discursive flow that pours out in streams of exceptional illumination.

She does not repeat herself. She follows that maxim so that each quartet occupies its own realm in the most modern and poetic ways. I should qualify that to say that my reactions are based of course on the four quartets included in Volume One, but I can scarce imagine that Volume 2 will be anything but an affirmation when it comes out.

The sound is pristine and well defined. The performances are world-class. And the music is unparalleled. What else need I say? I am stimulated to hear much more of Bacewicz's music as a result of this disk, and of course I await Volume 2 with keen anticipation. I recommend the first volume to connoisseurs of the string quartet and anyone interesting in 20th century chamber music. Do not hesitate!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Michael Byron, In the Village of Hope

Michael Byron composes in a radical tonality realm, producing music that has a sort of natural, processual feel to it. Several of his albums were favorably reviewed on this blog in 2014. Type his name in the search box for those. Today we have another, In the Village of Hope (Cold Blue 0043), an EP containing the title track, a single-movement work for solo harp lasting some twenty-odd minutes.

Tasha Smith Godinez performs the work with distinction. There are dual contrapuntal parts that continue throughout, in diatonic and sometimes pentatonic modes. The rhythmic, nature-inspired complexity of the two parts working together may call for two separate harp tracks, I am not entirely sure, but it makes no difference to the music, which is organic and endlessly fascinating. I just heard in from label head Jim Fox. The harp part is played with two hands in real time. That is difficult and some feat!

The two-part complexities are drawn towards cascading, infinitely variable rhythmic co-incidences that work together like the patter of rain on two different roofs. There is no overt synchronization; the diatonic-pentatonic patterns of notes play against each other in an infinitely variable way, modulating to a new key center now and again, but consistently irregular in ways the listener follows with a continual search for geometric ratios but finding them too complex to assimilate into a simple gestalt. And that in great part is where lies the charm and fascination for the listener, if not also for the sheer sensuality of the asymmetric pitch co-incidences.

The brevity of the work leaves you with just enough to convey an acoustic impression and a mood of tranquility and hopefulness. The sound of the harp has those sorts of connotations, at least for me, and the music does much to reinforce and underscore a peaceful yet dynamic experience.

In the end Michael Byron gives us a very satisfying work, a living, breathing cornucopia, a significant brush with music-as-nature, beyond the usual human restructuring. It is a delightful listen that I gain something from each time I hear it. If you are open to a new adventure in sound, this will doubtless provide you with much pleasure as well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Skyros Quartet, Introspective Odyssey, Quartets by Britten, Turina, Sibelius

Three fine quartet works from the early 20th century by composers known more for their work in other configurations? That would aptly describe the Skyros Quartet's Introspective Odyssey (Navona 6005). The ensemble gives us luminous, first-rate performances of Benjamin Britten's "Three Divertimenti" (1936), Josquin Turina's "La Oracion del Torero" (1925), and Jean Sibelius's "String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 56, 'Voces Intimae'" (1909).

All three works have not necessarily been in the spotlight much in recent times. The Turina is brief, flamenco inspired with impressionistic touches, very delightfully direct. The Britten work is from his student days, but shows us a composer already well on his way to developing a personal, very original voice and gives us a good early view of what was fast-becoming his tempered modern outlook. The Sibelius, as so properly and subtly done by the Skyros Quartet on this recording, shows us especially well the intimate, reflective side of Sibelius, already moving from romanticism to Sibelius's own inimitable blend of impressionistic and post-impressionistic sound worlds, to the special Northern-European style he constructed out of a combination of personal lyrical inspiration and the folk echoes of his native Finland.

To hear all three of these works so well done is a rare treat. The Skyros Quartet make more of the music than some others have done. They take to each piece with a ravishing, articulate, sonically appealing approach that has passion more than sentiment, fully coherent phrasing and a sort of introspective reading that is true to the album's title. They give you plenty of reasons to appreciate the works anew.

For all these reasons I applaud the Skyros Quartet heartily. These are performances for our times. The music speaks readily and eloquently. Recommended!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Xu Shuya, Nirvana, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra

There has been of late a luxurious flowering of contemporary Chinese classical composers who are reaching Western modernist ears. One of the best is Xu Shuya (b. 1961), based on his recent collection of orchestral works in the volume Nirvana (Naxos 8.570617).

Born in north-east China, he graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1983, quickly becoming a faculty member. He then went to Paris, got his masters in composition with distinction from the Ecole Normal de Musique de Paris in 1989, went on the receive the 1992 Premier Prix in composition from the Conservatoire National Superiore de Musique et de Danse de Paris, where he studied with Ivo Malec and participated in Master Classes with Stockhausen, among others. He then attended IRCAM as a doctoral student. Such were his auspicious beginnings.

He has amassed a sizable number of compositions, five of which we hear in the collection at hand, as performed ably and spiritedly by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gottfried Rabl, with Shu-ying Li and Qilian Chen as the soprano soloists. The works presented here cover the years between 1992 and 2014. They show Xu Shuya as a very inspired writer of orchestral music in a late high modernist style. If you listen carefully you will hear at times the influence of Chinese traditional music in his use of space (and in "Yun" a melodic affinity) but generally this is music that embraces the internationalist realm of advanced sound color collages, an architectonic sense of note clusters that often dwell somewhere beyond conventional tonality, and a sort of interplanetary sprawl of avant sound events that retain a distinct identity while still belonging to the advanced school of the avant orchestral approach.

In addition to the title work "Nirvana" (2000) we get to hear "Insolation" (1997-2014), "Crystal Sunset" (1992), "Echoes of the Old Country" (1993) and "Yun" (2007), the latter of which features nicely the two sopranos.

There is a great deal to absorb and appreciate in these works. Xu Shuya has a finely vivid orchestrational and evenamental feel that comes out dramatically. Anyone interested in high modernism and contemporary Chinese composers will gravitate toward this volume. It is well done on all fronts. Careful repeated listens bring you satisfying rewards!

Monday, August 24, 2015

James Brawn, A Beethoven Odyssey Volume 4, Sonatas 15, 24, 9, 25, 27

A collector of recorded classical music, modern or otherwise, is a particular sort of person, someone out of the ordinary. I suspect the avid collector of such things would not find "streaming" very satisfying. That is in part because a physical collection, whether CDs, LPs or what-have-you, has an aura about it. It expresses the collector's musical personality. Visiting avid collectors over the years, I have always been impressed by the display of what the person has. It is impressive first off by the sheer mass and the way it is organized, like books, ordinarily in a series of horizontal stacks. Someone who has a great deal of, say Beethoven, will most likely group them together in some fashion, so that of course the collector can easily retrieve a particular item at will for listening. But also because the interested visitor can gauge the extent of the holdings of particular sorts. "Wow, look at all the Beethoven!" one might exclaim on seeing it all grouped together.

Now this transactional accumulation as an extension in space is not peculiar to music collectors. When I was studying anthropology in Chicago I did a research presentation about a tribe in Highland New Guinea and their pigs-for-yams exchange festivals. There was an open ceremonial ground where each exchanger was allotted a vertical row. Every time a "big man" initiated an exchange he was awarded a stake. The winner of the sequence, the biggest man was the one with the longest line of stakes. The stakes were a projection of the status of the winner, the one with the longest projection into space of self if you like.

Why collectors will probably never be satisfied with streaming has to do with that physical presence of albums. They have the very concrete accumulation of endless stacks as the visual correspondent of their commitment to have much music in their lives. It gives them status as collectors and it shows anyone who looks what kind of music lover they are. Like anything that takes up physical space, though, there is a point where the collector must make choices. How much Beethoven do you need? At what point do you stop?

With that long introduction I introduce Volume 4 of pianist James Brawn's A Beethoven Odyssey (MSR 1468), comprising eventually a complete recorded set of Beethoven's monumental series of Piano Sonatas. Anyone who knows the last 100 years of classical music recordings knows that there are fair number of such complete recordings, some with great pedigree, others less so. I have musically dwelt in the realms of a number of them. Almost all of them have something about them that sets them apart. Some are hard charging with romantic supercollider thrust, even at times to the point of sloppiness, some seem especially good for the later, most celebrated sonatas but do not give the lesser-known works as much care and attention.

So what sets James Brawn's set apart, so far? He performs every sonata observing all repeats, for one thing. This in effect makes every sonata stand out as a significant effort on Beethoven's part. It equalizes in part the relation of the bonifide "masterworks" with the lesser-known, allows the listener to contemplate each in its own right. The volume 4 contains sonatas nos 15, 24, 9, 25 and 27. And like the other volumes in the set each is given a very well-balanced reading, warm and dynamic as called for but also with a classical feeling of balance between the affective and the intricately brilliant structure of each work.

In this way, then, Sonata No. 9 is not a preliminary to the later, more innovative sonatas. All are performed with care, with an execution technically proper and musically sound, expressive of where Beethoven dwelt musically at each point in time.

James Brawn, so far in the cycle, gives us the sonatas in readings that seem right for the times we live in. They are not unmindful of the contrasts and dynamics as Beethoven must have imagined them in performance, but they are not the super-romantic potboilers of yesterday, wearing heart on sleeve for an audience that demands grandstanding.

So if all goes according to plan the final complete set gives us a Beethoven for our contemporary-modern sensibilities, fully mindful of the lyrical and structural, the impassioned and the balanced, without overdoing any one element.

So in answer to the collector's worry about when to stop accumulating complete Beethoven piano sonata recordings, my answer would be that the Brawn set is so nicely unassuming, so true to bringing out Beethoven in all his glory, that you probably should have it, even if you already have a number. For the novice, too, this is a nice one to learn the ins and outs of the complete Beethoven for piano. I do recommend it. Brawn gets inside Beethoven as we would wish to hear him today. Bravo!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Kaikhosru Sorabji, 100 Transcendental Studies, Nos. 63-71, Fredrik Ullen

Of all the 20th century composers for the piano, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) is no doubt the most Promethean. The liners to the CD at hand today make mention of some 90 hours of solo piano music he wrote in the 65-year period beginning in 1917. His "Symphonic Variations" alone requires nine hours for performance. The "100 Transcendental Studies" in comparison requires seven hours to perform in its complete version. His music is sprawling and quite demanding, like the Charles Ives of the "Concord Sonata" only more prolonged and intense, or a mad-scientist expansion and extension of Liszt at his most difficult. The music has a rubato, extraordinarily expressive approach, very chromatic and at times at the edge of tonality.

Playing Sorabji properly requires a special virtuosity and an interpretive commitment few pianists are willing or able to make. Fredrik Ullen most certainly is singular on both fronts, as one hears readily and astonishingly in his ongoing recording of all 100 Transcendental Studies, the latest volume covering Nos. 63-71 (BIS 1851).

All 100 studies were composed between 1940 and 1944. The later pieces especially are sometimes far longer than a typical etude, with eight or nine parts sounding simultaneously at times, with dense and intense passagework going forward at great lengths, exhaustingly.

Ullen responds with a superhuman effort. The music in this volume gives you Sorabji at his most wonderfully eccentric--a post-Scriabin on steroids, with heroic cascades, avant torrents from a never-ending inventive fountainhead.

They are some of the more incredible piano works written, all told, even though we are hearing only nine of the 100. Fredrick Ullen brings out the expressive clout and high passions of the music with a brilliance it is hard to imagine realized by anyone else to this extent.

It is music of an overwhelming power. Even if you know something of Sorabji the composer, this volume will surprise and I think delight you. Newcomers will find this a bracing listen, too. It is some incredible music! Highly recommended!