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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bartok, Kossuth, etc., Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta

Earlier works by modern masters can do a number of things besides enthrall if they are well done. They can show you the roots out of which came the mature composer, the general milieu of his/her formative years, and perhaps can give insight into his stylistic development, the origins of the personal originality of the composer.

All these things are discernable in a new disk of Bartok's early orchestral works, Kossuth, Two Portraits, Suite No. 1 (Naxos 8.573307) with JoAnn Falletta conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Plus the music and performances are worthwhile in themselves.

"Kossuth, Symphonic Poem, Sz.75A" was written when the composer was just 22. It is in honor of Lajos Kossuth, who unsuccessfully led Hungary in its bid for independence from Austria in 1848. At the time Bartok was under the spell of Richard Strauss, Wagner, Liszt and the general tenor of late romanticism, 1903 style. It is nonetheless a remarkable first venture into orchestral writing, descriptive, dramatic and in no way a clone of his influences.

In 1907 Bartok was enamored with violinist Stefi Geyer, wrote his First Violin Concerto and presented it to her. She broke off relationships with him, kept the manuscript of the work nonetheless until that day she died. It remained unpublished until after her passing. Heartbroken, Bartok nonetheless proceeded to reproduce the first movement of the concerto as part of his "Two Portraits, Op. 5" in the following year, with the first movement renamed as "Ideal" and a short second portrait included, a kind of Bronx cheer dubbed by the composer as "Grotesque". Falletta and the Buffalo Orchestra give us a considered, impassioned version that features Michael Ludwig nicely in the solo violin role.

"Suite No. 1, Op. 3" was composed in 1905 and has five movements. It is a colorful and lively work, filled with the musical aura of Bartok's homeland, and a touch of the later romantic bluster then au courant in the avant garde circles of those days. It has strength and breadth, however, that show Bartok a master tone-painter even in his early career.

Lovers of the mature Bartok will appreciate these formative works for the kernels of greatness that they contain. They are works of stature surprising for a young composer of his time. And they stand on their own as worthy listens. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, as followers of her and the orchestra's recent recordings will not be surprised, excel in their vivid and measured, passionate readings of the three works.

It is an excellent listen, an excellent addition to your Bartok collection.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Milhaud, L'Orestie d'Eschyle (The Oresteia of Aeschylus)

We still have catching up to do for the 20th century. Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) is a beautiful example. Between 1913 and 1923 he wrote the epic L'Orestie d'Eschyle, a massive three-part work for soloists, a large choir, orchestra and percussion ensemble, based on the Paul Claudel libretto of the Greek plays and their poetic re-presentation into modern French.

Kenneth Kiesler and the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Percussion Ensemble, University Choirs and UMS Choral Union with soloists give us a complete modern recording on a new release (Naxos 8.660349-51 3-CDs). It is a revelation.

It is a huge, sprawling work, filled with drama and impact, excellently performed by the amassed forces at hand. Indeed, it is an early-modern blockbuster. That it is not better known no doubt has something to do with its length and breadth. For all that it is a major find for anyone not familiar with it, an epic work of great power.

Milhaud's polytonality and sense of aural drama gives the music an ultra-high-modernist charge that only Wozzeck rivals from the period. Even then, this achieves a hugeness even Wozzeck does not (though of course that opera was not about density as much as psychological expressiveness).

There is no let up, even parts that might have been scored as recitative are chanted in a rhythmically primal ritual way.

There's too much music to comment on in detail. And I am still digesting it. It's enough to assert that L'Orestie d'Eschyle is a forgotten modern masterpiece, fully deserving of recognition. This Michigan/Kenneth Kiesler performance gives us the work in all its glory and excitement.

Highly recommended.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Philip Corner, Satie Slowly

Perhaps the time for Erik Satie has really come at last. Even decades ago his music was part of a coffee commercial, there were synthesizer arrangements, new age versions, he was loved especially for his lyric wonder, the first of the "Gymnopedies". But in the deepest caverns of the canon-creating machine he was an important precursor of the impressionists more than a force in his own right. All that changed, slowly. John Cage's "Cheap Imitation" and his championing of Satie in general certainly helped. The marathon performances of the potentially endless "Vexations" and the recognition of that and his "Furniture Music" as the first minimalist works perhaps did as much or more. And now in a world where post-modernism and radical tonality seem to connect often enough to Satie's original sense of untraditional tonal works, all that seems to have brought him even further to the front as a father of the music of today. His fabulously eccentric music turns out to be much more avant garde than we realized, even if it has taken 100 years for us to get there.

Philip Corner's two-CD set of Satie's piano music, Satie Slowly (Unseen Worlds UW 12) brings us further revelations. Maestro Corner has chosen some of the very familiar pieces but also some traditionally seen as a bit more "problematic". He takes them all at a crawl, very slowly, and it turns out we hear the music anew.

Somebody in a New York Times review years ago (I don't remember who) noted that music that is at first fairly unfamiliar to audiences tends to be taken at a faster tempo in the beginning. Later when we all get very familiar with the music the tempos tend to slow down, lingering on each passage, savoring the music more. He was speaking of Mahler. That would certainly apply here, to Satie. But moreover it gives the music the quality of a sea change.

The lyrical "Gymnopedies" or one of the "Gnossiennes" just sound that more lyrical in Corner's hands. But the "Ogives", the "Fanfares of the Rose+Cross", the "Chorales" sound that much more stark and open. They sound like a post-modern music made today, only they are not.

For that reason this Philip Corner version of Satie's piano works, though not complete, seems indispensable. One would perhaps also do well to have the complete Ciccolini (if you don't already) as a comparison and a benchmark of the more orthodox readings.

Satie Slowly is another kind of wake-up call to the appreciation of the composer as our forebear, a father of what is happening in the present. Aside from that to hear all this in snail tempo is a sheer delight, a poetic Bacchanal of Satie the tonal sensualist, the painter of contemplative yet mysterious chasms of possibility. Bravo!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Michael Jon Fink, From A Folio

A tantalizing slab of post-minimal, radical tonality enters our ears (or mine, anyway) today. Michael Jon Fink returns (see posting from October 16, 2013) with a 18-minute EP of music for cello and piano, From A Folio (Cold Blue 0039).

It is the opposite of formulaic. You can't be sure where the music is going but you know it will linger there a little while, then move on. Seven very brief pieces form a kind of suite, each one exploring an overlapping set of patterns that go slowly and sensitively to some beautiful tonal realms but not simplistically so. There are slow ostinatos or melodic slowly quasi-arpeggiated phrases in the piano that evolve, cello suspensions and long tones, sometimes multiparts (overdubs) that create lovely chordal spellings and then move to others equally lovely but not following a road of cliche. There are slowly twisting melodies that see themselves mirrored in the dual instrumentation but never in the exact same musical image.

Fink's From A Folio gives us music of transparency, of slow shimmering sunsets, of repose, of deceptive simplicity that comes across initially as tranquil mood music but on repeated hearings has sophisticated grit and compositional substance.

It is one of those Cold Blue albums that eventually haunts you, 18 minutes to contemplate the "being here" of carefully unwinding pastoral magic.

I have come to love this music for a number of reasons. There is a deliberateness along with an expressive depictiveness. Nothing is what it seems at first, and yet it does not change from listen to listen. You do.

Thank you Derek Stein, cello, and Maestro Fink, piano, for these beautiful performances. And Maestro Fink for the considered musical vision.

Very recommended.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Kalevi Aho, Theremin Concerto, Horn Concerto, Eyck, Salminen, Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Storgards

The Finnish contingent of modern composers is well-represented and epitomized by Kalevi Aho (b. 1949), whose recent disk of concertos (Theremin Concerto, Horn Concerto) (BIS 2036 SACD) provides us with some stirring, memorable contemporary music. It is in the realm of expanded tonality, with an epic post-romantic quality, where the lush and the stark intermingle with a sense of longing perhaps, but also a sense of belonging to a long tradition of musical continuity within the modernist era.

The Acht Jahreszeiten (Eight Seasons): Concerto for Theremin and Chamber Orchestra (2011) has an unforgettable quality. The Sami people of Lapland traditionally divided the year into eight seasons. The concerto follows those divisions--giving us a continuous musical analog of the evolving year, starting with "Harvest" and ending with "Midnight Sun".

In the process the theremin part soars with lyrical beauty and presence, incredibly well played by virtuoso Carolina Eyck. She is a marvel. Not only does she tackle the advanced-harmonic-based part with ease and a beautiful sense of pitch, dynamics and subtle use of vibrato, but also she sings effectively in concordance with the theremin or on her own. It most certainly is a tour de force, one of the finest performances on the theremin I have heard. But it also holds its own as very vibrantly alive music, tone painting of a high order. Finally a concerto for theremin fully worthy as music. If there are others as fine I have not heard them.

The Concerto for Horn and Orchestra (2011) has equal weight. It is in its own way as vivid a work, but more densely extroverted perhaps, on the whole. Aho takes advantage of the natural tendency of the upper partials on the horn to be out-of-tune and includes a deliberate use of that quality to create a very effective solo part that contains quarter-tones.

Annu Salminen appears here in spectacular fashion, with the tonal colors the horn produces out front strongly but gracefully. It is another work worthy of inclusion on the disk.

Kalevi Aho comes through with two inimitable concertos, then, that make an excellent case for his poetic compositional abilities. They are marvelous, well performed, exciting.

Strongly recommended. No matter what our next winters may bring, or even considering all the winters we may experience in our lifetime, Aho gives us music that fits all seasons and transcends the present with a lucid timelessness. The winters of our discontent find solace here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Toshio Hosokawa, Orchestral Works 2

Japanese composers of the modern classical persuasion have formed an important part of world output from the '50s on. Takemitsu, Mayazumi, Ishi are great examples. And then there is Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955), one of the preeminent living exponents.

His music has crossed these pages before, notably Landscapes (see posting from November 3, 2011). He returns today with Orchestral Works 2 (Naxos 8.573276), covering three recent works performed by the Royal National Orchestra or the Orchestre National de Lyon under Jun Markl.

They are quite attractive pieces. "Woven Dreams" (2009) has a Zen mysteriousness about it, as does "Blossoming II" (2011). Both are more soundscaped unfoldings than linear events, they evolve and transform more than they are sectioned. There is an acute sensitivity to sound color in a modern context and Hosokawa is especially effective in creating his own wordless narrative of soundings. "Blossoming II" has a more dynamic outlook, but both ebb and flow in original ways.

"Circulating Ocean" (2005) divides into 11 movements, played continuously. The composer conceived here of "sound as water", as he explains in the liners. It too begins mysteriously, quietly, almost impressionistically, with waves of sound gently breaking at first. The music gathers density, clouds form, breakers grow in sonic strength, the music's agitation increases, then there is a suspended feeling as the clouds amass. There is then a tremulous agitation as a storm breaks out. The waves again gather momentum, then recede into relative quiet once more. The work ends with mystery, as it began. It is a wonderful work in its otomatopoetic reading, its analog of natural forces at work. In a way it is akin to Honegger's "Pacific 231" and that work's musical embodiment of a train gathering steam and heading with increasing speed to its destination, only Hosokawa gives us the ocean in all its Japanese Zen mysteriousness. It seems fitting and fills one with a kind of wonder.

Both "Dreams" and "Ocean" are world premiere recordings. All three works give us a vivid picture of Hosokawa's modern orchestral poetry. They are extraordinarily interesting, the performances are convincing. All is worthwhile.

Highly recommended, especially for those seeking to grow with Japanese modernist music from our current millennium.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Boris Tchaikovsky, Piano Quintet, The War Suite

Tchaikovsky! Not Pyotr Ilyich, but rather Boris (1925-1996). He too was Russian, one of the principal composers after Shostakovich. Why we in the West don't know much of him I am sure is complicated, but his music has begun to be heard here, especially on the Naxos label. A new CD of his chamber music is now out, well played by the Vanbrugh Quartet and guests. Two works are represented, the Piano Quartet and The War Suite (Naxos 8.573207).

This is music of great gravitas, and in that way his affinity with Shostakovich is clear. Yet the music speaks eloquently for itself, as a bellwether of Boris Tchaikovsky's inventive originality. The liners to the CD tell us that the "Piano Quintet" (1962) is considered by many to be his finest chamber work. Listening one can hear why. It is filled with dramatic impact, modernist stridency and Russian brio. On this basis alone I find myself wanting to hear more of him.

And more we do hear, namely "The War Suite" (1963/2011) for string quartet and clarinet (the later played well by Maxim Anisimov). It is based on Tchaikovsky's film score for While the Front is in Defence, about the WWII battleground southeast of Leningrad during the winter of 1942. In the suite form this is the world premier recording. The material from the score was also worked out as Tchaikovsky's "String Quartet No. 3". As a suite we hear music depicting war and its terrors but also friendship, heroism and tragic love. It is a varied work, both tender, brutal and brusquely lyrical. The clarinet rings out in nicely staged contrast to, and in sonorous blend with the quartet. It is a work that seconds the Quintet as a good companion, with an enlarged pallet of moods, albeit with less of the structural rigor and perhaps a bit less of the brilliance of the former.

The two works most certainly give you a good idea of Boris Tchaikovsky in the chamber setting. Like the 20th century Russian masters before him he shows an innate sense of what roles each instrument will play and proceeds to make very idiomatic use of them for an irresistibly dramatic result.

All modern Russophiles will no doubt find this disk rather essential. It is music that holds its own for originality yet partakes of the Russian modernist ethos, both of which situate the works nicely as part of a continuum. The Vanbrugh Quartet, pianist Olga Solovieva, and clarinetist Maxim Anisimov give us impassioned performances filled with brio and lyrical clarity.

Very impressive music, very well played. This is a good one!