Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Jonah Sirota, Strong Sad, Contemporary Chamber Music


I am tired of starting off posts with, "oh, and now for something different!" Monty Python did that better than I can, yet there is truth in the saw. They rung down a stage and rung up another. And on today's Modern music scene, differences really do make a difference. And my inclination naturally is to say that about today's music, because it truly is a kind of breath of fresh air.

I allude to the album Strong Sad by Jonah Sirota (National Sawdust Tracks 2018). A friend sent me a copy and after a few spins I began to seriously get in with the sound. It is a kind of Postmodern tonal chamber music in nearly a Radical Tonality mode. Moody, lyrical, touch driven and flying level to the earth more than flying. And all that seems good the way it is done here.

Jonah Sirota is on viola throughout. He also wrote or co-wrote two of the eight compositions on here. Kurt Knecht is on organ and co-wrote one of the works, Molly Morkoski is on piano, and Nadia Sirota appears as additional violist on the interplay much of the time. Additional composition credits go to Valgeir Sigurasson, Rodney Lister, A. J. McCaffrey, Paola Prestini and Nico Muhly.

Now the musicianship is quite high in level. The sound of the various works-groupings I might say seems "natural." By that I mean it is rather unassuming, I will not say casual because it is most deliberate, but then maybe a good word for it is relaxed. There is nothing in the way of stiffness to be detected in either the works or their performance.

And in the compositions there is a kind of a journey in pomo possibilities, various shades, none of which are unoriginal, nothing patently expected as typical of things too typical. And that is where the intriguing qualitieare, the wayward looks at what have differing amounts of ambiance, cyclicities, lyrical sadness or contemplativeness, melodic spin, viola rich poeticism.

After I had listened a few times I started feeling the pull of this music in earnest. It does not call undue attention to itself. It does not flaunt itself or make presumptuous demands on our attention, though some music does all this and if it is wonderful I hardly mind. Yet this entire program does not try to wow us or create fireworks or even to shock us with some boldness. That's OK. If you buffet in the winds of Modernism enough you might find you need something of a break from the pulling about such listener participation sometimes insists upon. That is when you might put this CD on and bask in the tonal washes, the aural watercolors, pastels and memento mori's in tone.

This one certainly is a sleeper.. And for that reason maybe seems like a sort of rare thing. I cannot say there is an album out there quite like this. I do not hesitate to recommend it to you.

Paul Hindemith, Das Marienleben, Juliane Banse, Martin Helmchen

Paul Hindemith's popularity has never exactly waned since his demise years ago, but there was a time when his music was looked upon by some (unfairly I think) as not advanced enough in the Avant Modern sphere. This is somewhat akin to dismissing Bach because he did not stray into Rococo terrain.  At this point what followed Hindemith I would say is in the end no more current than he is, so the whole idea of progress too might as well be discounted. It is irrelevant to our musical outlook in terms of our view of the recent past. So we are free to embrace Hindemith, Reger or even Boris Blacher, or for that matter Zimmermann, or even Stockhausen without resorting to an avant thermometer.

Teleology is a bit passe these days and good for that. The now contested assertion by Victorian anthropologists that the evolution of human culinary art was at last reached with the advent of boiling comes to mind, humorously so. Yet for all that we still make hard-boiled eggs with no regrets, as we also might scramble them too without feeling the least bit old-fashioned, even if nuking everything seemed de rigueur a couple of decades ago.

So it is fitting that there be a new version of Hindemith's Das Marienleben (Alpha 398), the classic Expressionist song cycle based on the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. The version performed is the revised one completed by the composer in 1948.

And understandably this music-as-recording stands and falls on the merits of the performance. Few would contest the importance of the work itself, at least among Hindemith admirers.  Julian Banse is an extraordinarily powerful soprano presence that brings a brilliant bite to the proceedings. So also pianist Martin Helmchen gives the music strongly expressive and committed musical foundations.

It is very much as excellent a performance of Das Marienleben as I have heard. The music is as masterful as any Hindemith wrote, but it takes a sure voice and piano togetherness and a consistently potent expressive power to make such on the surface difficult music become clear and movingly comprehensible. They very much triumph in the doing so. This version should stand as the present-day benchmark for the work for a long time to come.

And so I do strongly recommend this offering. Banse and Helmchen bring incomparable depth to the music.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Paul and Pauline Viardot, Six Pieces, etc., Reto Kuppel, Wolfgang Manz

I am never one to shy away from the unknown, and of 20th century France I would never avoid learning something new, so I said "Why not?" when I had the chance to hear and review the present recording of the music of Paul Viardot (1857-1941) and his mother Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). The program at hand is a collection of short pieces for violin and piano (Naxos 8.573749). The performances are flawless and expressive, idiomatic in a kind of sophisticated and melodically rich salon style then current in French cosmopolitan circles from a bit before the turn of the century through to the 1920s. So that is to say that there are very French musical elements present in this music, a folksy charm, a tuneful lighthearted depth. For this there is something about this music that is not alien to Chabrier, Satie or Debussy, each in his own way and that means sometimes of course a way divergent somewhat but the Viardots share this with the others while possibly embodying more fully the salon tradition per se.

And who are these Viardots? The back cover of the CD informs us that both were a part of the Garcia family, most notably tenor operatic star Manuel Garcia, who was Paula's father. They were as a result of the father's fame very much a part of the Parisian society. Paul was a violin prodigy, which only increased their fame. Of course now I asked "who?" when I saw the names, but life  in time handles fame and obscurity with equal indifference and the point is now the music.

All of the music heard on the program is in World Premier recordings. We get Pauline's "Six Morceaux" for twenty minutes of the eighty-some-odd total. It is very pleasing music, more than mere trifles. The Paul Viardot works take up the bulk of the CD and they are miniaturist salon classics with a good deal of violin expressiveness.

None of this music will set the world on fire, sure. Yet it all fills out a place in our understanding of French modernity by furnishing a good, a very good example of the "mainstream" salon-violin music in the modern era. The more one listens the better one likes it all. Like perhaps Fritz Kreisler's violin miniatures it is worthy and characteristic without being some giant leap forward.

Now if you are a devotee of 20th century French music you will want this. If you want something pleasing without being terribly profound you will want this! And it is nice to hear. I am glad of it. Recommended for all the reasons above. It brings back an age we no longer know much of and for that reason it helps us picture the whole scene!

Eugene Zador, The Plains of Hungary, Budapest Symphony, Mariusz Smolij

In my experience in the States there seemed to be few chances  to know the music of Eugene Zador (1894-1977) as I was growing up. I cannot recall thumbing past a Zador section or even much in the way of releases in the old record store classical bins, and that was to me a sure indication of someone's status on the music scene then, for better or worse. His later works addressed Hungarian themes and had a folk-like homespun quality at times without adopting directly any nationalist melodic material. Yet there is real inventive facility, an excellent sonaric command of the orchestra, poise and personality in the musical unfolding.

Or it least that is what I have been hearing in the latest Naxos volume of his music, the first I have had the pleasure to hear. I mean The Plains of Hungary (Naxos 8.573800). It is a program of some seven orchestral works, six in their recorded world premier. Doing the honors is the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MAV as directed by Mariusz Smolij. I can find no fault in the performances. In fact they are enthusiastic and balanced.

The back cover of the CD notes that Zador "fused Classicism with Romanticism." Yes I hear that but there seems also a kind of Hungarian Impressionism at play here as well. A tendency to tone paint, to have a dappled descriptive dimension, this is an aspect of the music that provides more than a sort of Classical-Romantic fuse.

So there is a good mix of the earlier and the later, the Nationalist and the generally descriptive. If you did not know some of Zador's titles you might not always make the Hungarian connection yet you certainly can find some local expression once you look for it. A perfect example is the 1969 "Rhapsody for Cimbalom and Orchestra." It is neither dealing with gypsy cliches nor is it in an abstract zone. And for that it is Zador in a characteristic mode.  It is a strength and I suppose there is good reason why this piece of all of them has been previously recorded commercially. But that is not to imply something negative about the rest of the music on this CD.

We get six more works, each in their recorded firsts, the 1965 "Dance Overture," the 1970 "Fantasia Hungarica" for orchestra and a subtle solo contrabass, the title work "Elegie, 'The Plains of Hungary,'" from  1960, then  finally the rather chipper 22 minute "Variations on a Merry Theme" (1964), and the finale, the 1961 "Rhapsody for Orchestra."  All of the works are in emphatic earnest, all have serious ambitions though they cover moods that range from regretful to jovial. Kodaly is not a huge contrast to Zador yet they are distinct and not easily confusable one with the other if you listen intently. This is not especially a set of works with some depth psychology of a Late Romanticist like Bruckner, say, nor are we hearing a Beethoven-like or Brahms-ish heroism, Mendelssohnian Puck, or not really except perhaps obliquely on "Variations on a Merry Theme," no brashly modern Bartok but more Bartok than not-tok. No Stravinsky Neo-Classical at least as he approached it, no Darmstadtian avantness.

And in the discovery of what Zador is not, by elimination you discover what he is. That is himself. And in order to fully arrive to a Zador landscape you must listen more than once. It is not music that especially jumps out on first hearing and mows you down. It may never exactly mow you at all. Instead it has a kind of expressive alone-ness that invites you to join with it for a time. You do so eventually or I did. And if I do not get an elation, a Maher-esque, heaven-bent elation, nor do I want to weep and laugh uproariously as I might with Berlioz, that is OK. Actually it is a good thing, very good. You do not get deja vu much, if at all. Yet the originality does not hit you over the head either. It is music very well crafted, personally idiomatic, with the kind of classical emotional control of a Haydn, but nothing like Haydn? Surely.

If you want to know the Hungarian Modern period better, Zador certainly should not be missed. This is a good place to start.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Buxtehude, Abendmusiken, Ensemble Masques, Olivier Fortin, Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier

On the occasion of living a life there is always music that fits in and when it does it adds much to the day. There may not be many times I would be called upon to account for these high points, except for on here. So I can say that Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is a name that I readily associate with such happy times. He started at first like so many in the pantheon as another name that came with strong recommendations, most notably from J.S. Bach himself, who revered his mentor and was not reluctant to praise his music. That in time became increasingly compelling as my astonishment over Bach increased, so I in time began to become acquainted with Buxtehude and the musical brilliance there. By now I always welcome another chance to get acquainted with his output. And so there is a new one, Abendmusiken (Alpha Classics 287). It features Ensemble Masques directed by Olivier Fortin, and Vox Luminus directed by Lionel Meunier in very lovely period performances of eight appealing, masterful works.

The album begins with"Gott ilf Mir..." which reminds us or alerts us to the power of Buxtehude in a minor key! There is gravitas, drama, a huge brooding wonder that few could match out there in those days! And the program proceeds from strength-to-strength.

The works range from Trio Sonatas to full-blown Cantatas, all in the High Baroque manner of the Maestro, contrapuntal and otherwise, carefully crafted and minutely set out with the sort of exacting care that he ever embodied. There is a wealth of music performed brilliantly, a cross-spectrum of Biixtehude that serves readily as an excellent introduction to his music, or for that matter expands your library of the master's works if you have already come some ways along in appreciating him. You cannot go wrong with this one for its breadth and period excellence. So I do not hesitate to recommend it to you.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Toshiro Mayuzumi, Samsara, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Yoshikazu Fukumura

The music of Toshiro Mayuzumi (1929-1997) stands in a place of singular originality to my mind. I've been listening to his orchestral music for years and I must say I love it. There is a new one, very happily at least for me, and it features the title work Samsara  (Naxos 8.573916). The Hong Kong Philharmonic under Yoshikazu Fukumura approach the music with the dash, engagement and vibrance it so much requires, and the works themselves are pretty much typical and idiomatic, with the exception somewhat of the second work, but see below.

So what do we get? The program includes three works, the "Phonologie Symphonique" of 1957, the "Bacchanale" of 1953 and the by-now rather iconic "Samsara" of 1962.

For an old Mayuzumi saw like me the early 1953 "Bacchanale" is very illuminating because it shows a Mayuzumi not entirely set into form but fascinating for that.

If you think of the Varese of "Ameriques" then you can then think of how Mayuzumi and he share something, though each in different ways. Then think of some of Luc Ferrari's works and you have the makings of a school which must no doubt include the Stravinsky of "Rite" and some other works of his, "Agon" for example. It is as much as sort of "Primitivism" as Picasso and his fascination with African masks. And I do not mean that negatively.

There are of course the Minimalists out there and I love some of it to tears! The prototypical Reich-Riley uses repetition kind of cosmically and-or African-Indian-Indonesian trancically? The repetitive cells are relatively short, smear-like and one if everything is right can enter a hypnotic zone and tap ones foot at the same time. Now when done well this sort of thing is extraordinary. When done less well it is less extraordinary and can even become a little bit or. a lot banal! And I do not mean either Reich or Riley.

Mayuzumi on the other had comes from a different place that Stravinsky and Varese more or less set the stage for, and Luc Ferrari also practiced, So that is the art of long-form repetition-variation. One could argue and rightly so that even Sonata Form as a whole assumes repetition and variation, well sure. Mayuzumi's long-form repetition builds more or less complicated cellular motives which he then enacts at emotionally taught moments, repeating and varying them. It is the choice-content of the motives and the way they interact with non-repetitive elements. That is the crux of the matter!

So this volume has a great selection of works well performed. If you do not know Mayuzumi here is how to know him a little. And of course if you do, we have another one that bears up under scrutiny and adds nicely to what you already might know and own. Mayuzumi is an essential Modernist and a most original one to boot. Get this.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Michael Hersch, End Stages Violin Concerto, Patricia Kopatchinskaya

To my mind Michael Hersch has become one of the leading luminaries in High Modernism today. He convinces us that there is plenty of stylistic room at the top for the extension of the tradition into living times--and that he is charting a major foray into the zone with every new work. I am not alone in thinking that. If we needed further indication it has arrived decisively and happily in the major new disk that is upon us, a premier recording of end stages violin concerto (New Focus Recordings FCR 208).  The 2015 "Violin Concerto" spotlights Patricia Kopatchinskaja as the solo violinist with the International Contemporary Ensemble in the capable hands of Tito Munoz. "End Stages" (2018) gets the attention of the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble. Both are essential; the final result shows an enlightened pairing.

What the two works do is widen our appreciation of the orchestral/concerted Hersch. Both works relate to one another with a seriality that is pleasing. Do both works have an expressive extremity that reaches out to a potentially menacing hugeness to call attention to the human presence in the universe?  I hear that, even if perhaps the feeling is more Rorschachian than objective, it we really can relate feeling reactions absolutely to musical tones. And is there a total objectivity available to us in these matters? Not as far as I know. Not on this level.

The Concerto is meant to commemorate the life and passing of a friend. It was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and violinist Kopachinskaja. Some somber lines from two Thomas Hardy poems serve as epigrams. A sculpture by Christopher Cairns, Stanchion, adds a kind of correlate to the music from the second movement onwards. Heroically bleak is perhaps the two words that most occur to me as I hear the work repeatedly. There is at the thickest points of the work a special strings against unstrings dichotomy to the music, with the solo part and the string section forming natural alliances and having the more to say while winds join in most appropriately at any rate but not much on their own so much as in tandem. Patricia takes the part with a muscular poeticism that drives forward the shape of the music and sets the pace that the orchestral groupings emulate and further admirably.

"End Stages" (2016) truly seems to continue the musical discourse set in motion by the concerto. It is a sparser, quieter meta-monstration on death and Hersch seems to lighten  the burden of grief just a little to allow the sunlight to shine through the louvers of the wooden screen just enough for us to reclaim the boundaries and borders that mark us off from the "not we."  If that seems whimsical to you, listen carefully to the music and you may feel it too, but it does not matter as much as the feelings that this music truly "means." The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra take over the musical chairs for this seven part briefer work.There is nothing lightweight or incidental about this music, but then Hersch happily seems incapable of meaninglessness.

If the music on this program is more bracing than joyful keep in mind that we do not remember, say,  the story of Oedipus because it is chipper and warm-hearted! Music like literature need not be grinning at all times from ear-to-ear to involve us in serious openings onto a supra-human terrain. That Hersch can do this with increasing strikingness is a reason to rejoice anyway. We need as a species to do more than talk of walls and witch hunts! Lest we forget what makes us special, get this new volume and listen with care. Yes, there IS the new in New Music. This is one place to find it and hold on to it.

Like the generally unsung Alan Pettersson (1911-1980) there is a certain amount of biographical pain and anguish in Hersch's music. And so perhaps is there a personally quixotically macabre strain in Alfred Hitchcock. All artists put something of themselves in their work, no? We come to recognize it and so we come to understand something of the meaning of it all as we do.

Very strongly recommended for all Modernists who want to know that the journey continues.