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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Baldassare Galuppi, Complete Piano Sonatas, Volume 4, Peter Seivewright, MINI-Review

Four volumes to date on the Complete Piano Sonatas of Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785). This Volume 4 (Divine Arts 25103) is a good place to start because it includes his "Second Piano Concerto," a wisp of the breeze through our ears that comes and goes as quickly as a sunset in winter where I am now.

Galuppi's sonatas are a model of simplicity, lyricality and buoyancy. Peter Seivewright plays it all with the charm and enthusiasm it demands. It is disarming music that makes a point not to be profound and that is refreshing.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Simon McCorry, Song Lines

There is music that defies easy classification. What peg hole to stuff it in? In the old bricks-and-mortar days that was an immediate problem as well as a thoroughgoing one. What section should the album be in? So Frank Zappa was nearly always in the Rock bins and at least at the start that was quite sensible. I can remember though when Verve started venturing forth into Rock the Schwann catalog assumed (amusingly to me at the time) that all of it had to be Jazz. That's what Verve did! So the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out and the first album by the Velvet Underground were listed under New Releases, Jazz! But then it might have been prophetic, since just after Jimi Hendrix died readers of Downbeat voted him into their Hall of Fame. Some people were upset about that. In the end though what did it mean?

And so today I duly report in on an album that has gotten my attention and indeed my approbation. It is called Song Lines (Naviar Records) and the music is by Simon McCorry. Is it "Classical?" It is drone, it is soundscape, it is Radical Tonality, it is post-Modern. It fits into the New Music fold perfectly well and perhaps we should leave it there and just listen?

The music is in five segments or movements. Each is magical in its own way. Some of the sounds seem sampled from conventional instruments, some Electroacoustic in a wider sense, in others I hear strings, cellos, quite obviously at some point a tabla. In all cases there is a snug fit between means and ends.

The main idea is that this music has a folksy magic to it that is quite beautiful. Every part fits together with every other part and the music seems at all times purposeful and directional. There is the Indian echoes of the drone to be felt much of the time, and a modal-elementality well thought-out. The music has the density of a small chamber orchestra most of the time. The weight and the movement of the music seems at all times right for itself though.

I suggest that this will appeal strongly to you if you are in any way drone-scaped in your soul. Highly recommended for those who self-select according to that critereon. Nicely done!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Isang Yun, Sunrise Falling, Dennis Russell Davies, Matt Haimovitz, Yumi Hwang-Williams, Maki Namekawa, Bruckner Orchestra Linz

Isang Yun (1917-1995)! His High Modernist music was increasingly ubiquitous in the sixties on the New Music scene and then somehow the music seemed to vanish in the States. What happened? He was Korean born and spent his formative and then artistically acclaimed years in Germany. His life fell under shadow when he was kidnapped by the South Korean Secret Service and jailed in South Korea, where he was forced to sign a confession that he was an agent of North Korea. From that point on his life was marginalized and in the end un-secure. Though he was released by South Korea in 1969 and after his death the government admitted that his persecution was based on baseless charges, his life was under something of a pall thereafter.

Some 24 years after his death there are signs that his music is again receiving the attention it deserves. The two-CD set at hand is a most auspicious and welcome event. Sunrise Falling (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 693) involves some key orchestral works, some important concerted works for cello (Matt Haimovitz) and violin (Yumi Hwang-Williams) interspersed with chamber works, primarily music that further explores cello and violin potentialities. The vast majority were written in his later career in the '70s and '80s and gives us a vivid window onto his fully mature Modern voice.

There is a logic to the sequencing that makes total sense. Disk One is oriented toward the cello and so we find the 1976 "Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra," a middle-grounding "Interludium A for solo piano" (1982), then to "Glisses for Solo Cello" (1970) and a rather breathtaking orchestral "Fanfare & Memorial" (1979).

Disk Two gives us a violin-centric perspective with "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1" (1981), a later work notable for its partial, rooted return to tonality while keeping to the original sound-color palette he utilized so well, "Kontraste. Two Pieces for Solo Violin" (1987) and "Gasa for Violin and Piano" (1963).

Conductor Dennis Russell Davies, Haimovitz, Hwang-Williams and the Bruckner Orchester Linz devote a great amount of care and sympathy towards this music so we can get a true idea of the exceptional qualities of the last decades of output from the master composer. There is a use of space and breadth in this music that one might think of as Asian or especially Korean, but that is in conjunction with a focused expressivity (not necessarily un-Korean) and High Modern torque that ever exists together in a kind of pure realm of total aural conviction that becomes clear when you give the music a close reading over multiple listens.

The determined creation of an alternate High Modernism becomes ever more understandable when one gives the music an extended chance to live inside the apperceptive musical self. Every note has a place in the totality yet there is also a feeling of real-time expression and a living musical humanity that comes through in striking ways.

It is an important program played beautifully. It will go far if you take it seriously in presenting to your deep listening self Isang Yun the fully flowered brilliance. It is an important moment of retrospection all Modernists should find heartening. Revival is in the air. Bravo!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner

I can pinpoint in my head the time when I first got a hold of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, via the first release as the VoxBox LPs by Rudolf Ewerhart Santini and the Kammerorchester (Munster), etc. It was the inaugural recorded version, though missing parts in order to fit it all onto three LPs. I took to it right away and for whatever reason used to revel in the recitative sections among other things because of the prominent harp part that other versions I have heard are lacking. No matter. I can pinpoint the time because I was living in Brookline then with Berklee roomates. We were on the top floor and parallel to us was an apartment occupied then by a Professor of Indo-Pak music who at the time taught at Boston University. Our balconies adjoined and as I was listening to the Monteverdi and lounging on the balcony one summer night the Professor struck up a conversation that was quite interesting. He first wanted to know why I listened to such things. My answer was involved in the idea that there were world legacies and one chose from them but that the Western Classical tradition was something I was interested in assimilating from a compositional perspective, etc. Turns out he liked of all Western musics Bluegrass best, and thinking about it even now I understand. The timbre of the vocals, the banjo as a sort of sarod, etc. I suddenly heard classical Bluegrass as might a Classical Indo-Pak musician. So that was the summer of 1973. And so my first important exposure to Early Music Opera.

Wikipedia reminds me that the only manuscript version we have today is a three-act manuscript dating from 19th century Vienna. The work was premiered in 1640 and really it was from the 1970s on that the music underwent significant revival in our world.

I later supplemented the Santini version with the early '70s first complete recording by Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. That to me was superior in the way it pursued updated original instrument performance practices, but there were things I liked about each  and I kept the both versions actively until some upheavals threw my vinyl connection to the winds in part. The path from version-to-version reminds me how I assimilated the music, first primarily in melodic-harmonic terms, later also the timbral uniqueness of the era, and finally as a whole in relation to other wholes of the period and beyond. As a very first Opera in the history of such things it was of course important to hear but then the brilliance of Monteverdi becomes primary early on because the music stands out and bears up wonderfully well.

And now I have the pleasure to be introduced to a brand new version of the complete opera as performed by distinguished soloists, the Monteverdi Choir, and English Baroque Soloists (instrumental), all under John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 730 3-CDs). It comes in a very attractive hard cover book-like package with full libretto and notes.

The performances in the Gardiner version are excellent. This may be the finest singing of any version I have yet to hear. The soloists have a wonderful grasp of the embellishments available and sometimes delve into the music with an emotive gusto one is used to hearing in later Italian Comedic style. And it works nicely. The instrumental parts are played with great vivacity, care and attention to period detail.

After 46 years living with this music my enthusiasm is undiminished. Monteverdi is inventive to a point rarely reached by any composer regardless of the period and there is an almost folk-like directness to much of the music here that Gardiner brings out especially well. In fact of the three versions I have lived with this one stands out as the most detailed and sonically engaging. Perhaps Monteverdi's first opera Orfeo is the more exciting work to many listeners, yet there is something to Ulysses that sets it apart as completely unique. Anyone serious about the musical heritage we inherit should probably have a recording of this opera, and this recording seems to be the new benchmark.

That is not to say that my neighbor was wrong about Bluegrass. You should listen to that too! But that is another matter among other matters. 

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Sixteen, Star of Heaven, The Eton Choirbook Legacy, Harry Christophers

The Sixteen under Harry Christophers is undoubtedly one of the very best Early Music Choral Groups operating today. But as we see here and elsewhere they do not shy away from the Modern Choral world when they feel an engagement. I've been following them quite happily in the last decade, and now there is a new recording. Presenting Star of Heaven, The Eton Choirbook Legacy (CORO 16166). The Eton Choirbook is the English collection of sacred music that preserved some monumental examples of a special stage of pre-Purcellian choral composition of great importance to our understanding and appreciation of local and pan-European Early Sacred Music for voices.

This album is most unusual in that it intersperses some choice Eton compositions among a special World Premier set of recordings of five Modern Contemporary Choral works that ultimately hammer out an ultra-Contemporary perspective on the Eton Legacy. Stephen Hough's "Hallowed" appears before us with a special polyphonic-ambient luster along with four works specially commissioned by the Genesis Foundation to exemplify and enact the current-day Pope's reforms in Catholic Church policy towards church music. They are "Neciens mater" by Joseph Phibbs, "Ave Maria, mater Dei" by Phillip Cooke, "O Virgo prudentissima" by Sir James MacMillan and "Stella caeli" by Marco Galvani.

For the works by Phibbs, Cooke and Galvani, the Modern work is situated alongside an Eton work utilizing the same sacred text, so "Nesciens mater" in the Plainsong version and by Walter Lambe, "Ave Maria, mater Dei" by William Cornysh, and "Stella caeli" by Walter Lambe. Finally the 15-minute "Salve Regina" by Robert Wylkynson from the Choirbook sets off nicely the Hough work that follows it.

The Sixteen are jewels in today's Early Music Performance crown, surely, and if anyone can bring out the subtle interplay of old in new and old in our new it is them. They do not disappoint. One has much to apprehend in the best ways with this program and its realization. The Modern works have implied or actual polyphonic thrust in equal measure to their contemporary outlook. Hearing them alongside Eton Choirbook counterparts is a brilliant idea and the Sixteen succeed wonderfully well.

This may be heady fare for some yet it is an important milestone to my mind in showing us some of the rootfulness of the new Modernity. It is also sheer beauty to hear! Highly recommended for both Early and Modern adepts and acolytes.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Friederich Kuhlau, Sonata in E Flat Major, Sonata in A Minor, Sonatina in C Major

The Classical-to-Early Romantic Era Piano Sonata is a wonderful thing. There are the joys of Papa Haydn, Mozart, early period Beethoven (early for that special point in transition), Schubert, CPE Bach, Kozeluch, Clementi, but one is never truly filled with comprehensive understamding without sampling some of the remarkable piano sonatas of Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832). Why are they and he not better known today? The vagaries of Classical-to-Romantic Era Reception History are not something I studied in school directly and I must admit I come to the music with open ears, some understanding of sonata form, Romantic style practicalities and theories and all the pantheon exposure and a reading of some of the key musicological texts without a huge knowledge of the epoch as an all-embracing whole. Kuhlau was German born but ultimately Danish, so location may play a fate? I'll give you a synopsis of the back cover blurb to the fine release up for discussion, but first what is it? It is Jens Luhr doing an excellent job with the Piano Sonata in E Flat Major, Sonata in A Minor and the Sonatina in C Major (Grand Piano GP797).

Anyway the blurb tells us that "his popular works for flute" helped earn him the sobriquet of "The Danish Beethoven."  All that is fascinating, but in any event and most importantly those not familiar with the Sonatas are in for a very happy surprise with this album. From the very beginning, the E Flat Major Sonata and its unexpected clock chime theme and the unrelentingly masterful treatment of the thematic material in Kuhlau's hands is a bit of a revelation.

All of this music rings true. There is a superior presence behind every movement. Jens Luhr plays it all with poetic grace.

Any lover of solo piano music will find this one hard to resist. It is a great argument for a Kuhlau revival. I certainly would love to hear yet more. In the meantime go confidently into this recording zone. It is all quite top-notch!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Wagner, Gotterdammerung, Soloists, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden

I would type here that Wagner's Ring is in many ways the Holy Grail of Late Romanticism in the Modern Era but then one might justifiably respond, "No, that is Parsifal!" And if that seems funny to me maybe I am a hopeless nerd? I do not care. Humor must be sought out on dreary days no matter the source.

Nevertheless of course the Ring is one of those masterpieces that is almost superhuman. It defies what one composer could do, was allowed in the last half of the 19th Century to do. Bach may get the awe response after we count up his Cantatas, but Wagner is a Modern-Era champ. So what in the end is the Ring. Four very long operas on a central, cumulative mythical theme plot, with the entire libretto and all the music written by one man, who manages to make it all a huge success....Sure, but it all could have ended-up being a boondoggle dog, right? But no, Wagner was as brilliant or perhaps even more brilliant than the hype on the day suggested,

I do not suppose anyone reading this does not know something, no doubt a great deal of something about Wagner and the Ring. And probably you reading this already have a version of the four-opera sequence to plunk on your system when you feel the urge? Well if you don't I must tell you that what I have heard of the full Ring just now complete--by soloists, choral forces and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden--is quite good. I reviewed their Siegfried  on these pages some time ago (see index) and now I am happy to report in on their cycle-concluding Gotterdammerung (Naxos 8.660428-31 4-CDs).

What is good about the two performances of the last two, concluding Ring-cycle works (and I will assume that same of the Hong Kong versions of the opening operas in the series though I have not yet had a chance to hear them)? All of this is an object lesson about the continuing, ever-dependable virtues of Naxos as far and away the premiere Classical Standard Repertoire Budget Label. Why does it matter? In a world where most of us are not endlessly wealthy Naxos when functioning properly (it is) can provide you with very competitive performances of works generally well represented on recordings. There may not be at all times the star-power list of famous performers for all the works, but of course the idea is that the music-first approach can oftimes allow you to get very reasonable prices on such things. For the Ring and its 16-or-so CDs that can be crucial.

So why is this a nice choice? For one thing as a digital recording of the present-day it is sonically glowing. Dynamics and balance are all excellent and the orchestra is very well-staged in terms of the audio set up in standard stereo. Like most of us I have heard many Ring recordings over the years and there are undoubtedly some that have made an everlasting impression on me the Hong Kong sounds as good or better audio-wise as any.

Secondly the Hong Kong Philharmonic under van Zweden has all the fullness and balance of the large orchestral Wagner sound as we demand today and he set out for us then. The strings, winds, brass etc. bring out the nuances as Wagner intended them. It is a delight to hear it all! Then the choral ensembles and soloists are big-sounding and dramatic as very much needed. Gun-Brit Barkmin and Daniel Brenna as Brunhilde and Siegfried may not quite rise to the heights of the historic very best in hallowed recordings but they stay the course with heroic stamina and that's very fine. The same can be said for all the vocalists appearing in the cast.

The leitmotivs fly by like moths into light throughout and overall there is the bracing exhilaration that we seek in the Wagner experience. I cannot say after a few listens I am anything but satisfied with it all. And when I must I can dig up some of the Kirsten Flagstad excerpts from long ago to remember how high she could fly! That in the end is separate from hearing the whole of the Wagner saga.

Take a listen to some excerpts online to get the feeling for this cycle. The van Zweden Segfried  and Gotterdammerung come though remarkably well for budget recordings! I imagine that same would go for the beginning operas. An excellent bet. Recommended!