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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Roberto Sierra, Kandinsky, Continuum, Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs

There are albums that to me are exactly as one might hope, though maybe exactly not what you already know of course. And so with the offering today. Roberto Sierra has ever been to me a composer that being very much himself epitomizes something very good about the music of today. So we get that on the recent CD Kandinsky (Naxos 8.559849). The contemporary chamber gathering Continuum is in charge of the performances, with Directors Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sach sharing the piano duties, ever amazingly and fittingly I might add. Everyone involved has concentrated and applied their considerable interpretive skills to make these performances a remarkable thing, to set off Sierra's music in as nearly ideal a manner as we might ever hear.

And as to the works themselves, all come from the first decade of this century. Two of three are in World Premier Recordings and all are vital and moving High Modernist beauties that in many ways are less a total abstraction so much as abstracted-yet-concrete embodiments of Sierra's fertile imagination.

Sierra, many will know, hails from Puerto Rico. There are Carribean strains in his work and you will hear them on this program. It is an important aspect much of the time but I will at times leave it to you to pick up on them. He integrates those elements fully and nicely, as well as anybody ever has and that is saying a great deal.

The title work, "Kandinsky" for violin, viola, cello and piano (2003) pays homage to the breakthrough abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky and his work. The music as one might expect has a High Modernist abstracted quality. It is music of a demanding sort for the players, who must shift into various expressionist modes continually yet always in a sort of multi-linear, unified presentive way.

The Latin strain is excitingly present in the "Sonata for Clarinet and Piano" (2005--06) via a gloriously dance like Salsa opening movement that is followed by a sort of explosive expansion of the rhythmic cells and melodic-harmonic implications of the beginning. This is spectacular music for sure.

Then we hear Seltzer and Sachs explode forward on their own in their performance of the piano four-hands "Thirty-Three Ways to Look at the Same Object" (2005-08). It is a glorious tilt at the windmills of our minds and the windmills lose!

There you have it. I cannot recommend this more strongly to those who cherish a Modernist flourish that is on the edge of tomorrow yet lets us know where some of the roots lie! Finely crafted brilliance played remarkably well. So get it. It is Naxos inexpensive and worth every single penny by far.  Sierra is a treasure.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Witold Lutowslawski Opera Omni 07, Children's Songs, NFM Boy's Choir, Andrzej Kosendiak

When I first heard about the Witold Lutoslawski Opera Omnia (Complete Works) Project, I wondered whether it was necessary to hear absolutely everything. Now that I have had a chance happily to hear Opera Omnia 07, Children's Songs (ACD 242-2 NFM 46) I suspect I would want to hear all of it. For I am heartened by this excellent volume of songs sung beautifully by the NFM Boys' Choir and accompanied elegantly by the Lutoslawski Quartet, the LutosAir Quartet and instrumentalists from the NFM Filharmonli Wroclawskiej.

The pristine freshness of the Boys' Choir and the crisply modern accompaniment of the instrumentalists make for a kind of timeless naivety, an unassuming, unpretentious directness that grabs the listener, if the listener is me anyway, right from the start.

I cannot help recall nicely Carl Orff's music for children as I listen. Not because Lutoslawski  takes something from Orff so much as both capture a sort of insouciance, a boyish-girlish unconcern that masks a kind of naive passion for being alive if I might try to pin down how it feels to listen, the bright sound of the music as you hone in on it despite whether you closely examine lyrics or otherwise.

As I review and listen to Lutoslawski's Children's Songs this morning I relate it all to the story-novel I am writing right now. And it connects. Not for some plug about it but because it relates to my state of mind recently. And that helps me explain the charm of this music. Insouciance, a deliberate unconcern, a freedom given by the sheer facticity of not knowing, well it is worth contemplating. So what's wrong with the idea that children do not have to be aware of everything? They will have plenty of time for the dreary world later on. And in that even if such a state of being may no longer be so easy to realize in a kid's head now that she-he can literally stumble on everything and by an early age, even then, it can be a deliberate bracketing for a time as an adult in order to feel the visceral immediacy of NOW. I think that's not so bad a thing so long as we know we must as adults grasp what is happening in our world. And so we should not shrink away from truth! But there are times too when we can bask in the sun and just let the thingness of the world take over our beings for a time.

So I bracket that thought myself with a little highlighting to admit it is a more general expression than what I might ordinarily communicate in a review. Yet it explains pretty directly what is most lovely about this music. Central to this music is the idea that childhood is childish, and that is a good thing. The songs assume and encourage children to be the special beings they are. And it assumes that civilization encourages and protects children always! And the music. It is not unabashedly Modernist. And perhaps it is best that it is not.  For it has a innocence to it that comes with a diatonic singfulness. And so all the good of it is wonderfully fresh.  That these were written in 1947-1954 should I suppose give us some insight as to how it all sounds the way it does. In listening and appreciating the music though all that does not matter, at least at first. No more than knowing the history of, say, Dostoyevsky's thoughts and style would explain The Brothers Karamazov. It is in the end secondary to reading and experiencing the novel as it unfolds before you. So too these songs. They are sheer delight. Just listen. For now that is enough!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Bill Whelan, Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite, James Galway, Helena Wood, Zoe Conway, RTE National Symphony Orchestra, David Brophy

When I realized I had a chance to review today's CD I did so willingly without especially anticipating everything that it would contain. After all I knew something of the Riverdance music via extensive clips of the performance version on Public Television, but I did not think very much about it other than I was glad to listen.

So I popped the CD on my player first time last week. As it played I recognized parts and others not, but it all was nicely imbued with echoes of traditional Irish dance music and I came to understand something of Bill Whelan's flair and brilliance for concocting such things. And in the end I came to appreciate fully the grouping of three works that comprises the album--which might be called "Orchestral Music" but instead is named after the most familiar work, Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite (RTE Lyric CD 155).

The performances have much to recommend them. Soloists Sir James Galway on flute, Helena Wood on violin and Zoe Conway on fiddle realize their parts with artistry and a true feeling for the Celtic lining they are called upon to give to our musical air. The RTE National Symphony under David Brophy bring to the music all the enthusiasm and grace one could hope for, and the sonics are pretty near spectacular.

So to the music directly. The three works, that is. We are treated to "Linen and Lace" for starters, a danceful reel-ful Irish folk adaptation with the limber beauty of Maestro Galway on flute. There is pastoral repose in parts of all three works and it is a thing to drift within.

"Inishlacken" continues the lovely windings through hill and dale, this time with the evocative and beauteous pairing of fiddle and violin, the folkish and the classical edges of the music. And too the rhythmic energy of Whelan's music becomes ever more palpable.

Of course because of the step-dancing showcase that Riverdance so wonderfully is in its stage version, the rhythmic agility we hear so nicely rendered in "Inishlaken" comes even more dramatically to the forefront in "Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite." The spinning of exciting, shifting meter Irish Gaelic melody so wonderfully present helps the vibrant music stand quite well on its own as a thing-in-itself.

And as I come out of the listening experience with some repeated close listens I now can say that the entire program has a very effective climactic build-up that culminates in the Riverdance music. Could Emerson, Lake and Palmer have done a version of this Orchestra Suite? Sure and no doubt it would have been stirring. Yet the Orchestral Suite version would be ultimately the one that brings out the earnest pulsating lyricism of the music best, and is indeed the one to go for nearly 40 minutes to a kind of rapture. Copland's "Rodeo" comes to mind as a parallel, and both are in that sense worthy of one another for how they make of folk dance and orchestral-modern-classical a new thing, a new trunk grown out of the roots.

And now I must put some sort of sum to the thoughts I have typed out here. This music is not cutting-edge Modern so much as it is a folkish miracle of lyricism, if you will pardon the turn of phrase. When I think of the meteoric rise of Riverdance in decades prior I think of the joy that it gave to my workmate, now alas gone, a step dancer herself in her youth, and how that infectious joy readily contaged me. I listen to the whole sum of that music in the suite and know that there is nothing accidental about its success. Whelan is as sure-handed a Modern nationalist as anybody has been. And yes, there is joy and beauty to this music. It deserves the renown it has gotten for a critical ear does not find it at all musically facile. It is concentric, contentful, and stirring fare for anyone with a folk urge, a Celtic tinge, a Gaelic feeling that needs to be satisfied symphonically. If you are someone towards music as Anthony Bourdain (RIP) was to food, this will open you up! Bravo!

Friday, June 15, 2018

J. S. Bach, Partitas, Menno van Delft

There is much I could say about Johann Sebastian Bach's Partitas in general and this new recording for harpsichord as recorded by Menno van Delft (resonus 10212, 2-CD set). I will say I hope enough to give you the idea of what you would get with this one.

It is music as worthy of our attention as anything that exists. It is superlative music in every way, and occupies a kind of special place even among Bach keyboard works for the wealth of invention and melodic thrust, and a somewhat less contrapuntal approach at times. It is series of works that sound equally well on piano as harpsichord. Over the years I have been taken by a couple of piano performances of the Partitas, namely a very obscure mono Remington recording by Jorge Demus and a much more well-known Columbia 2-LP offering by Glenn Gould. Each give us a great deal to appreciate in how a pianist might approach the music, but then there have been harpsichord versions of course and I have revelled in many of them as well.

The new Menno van Delft harpsichord performances rank up there among my absolute favorites. There are a number of reasons. The CDs were recorded among the Cobbe Collection of early keyboards in Hatchlands Park, England, and there is a spacious, resonous headroom in the stereo audio-imaging that allows the harpsichord sound to breathe quite nicely. Second, the instrument is a 1784 Christian-Gotthelf Hoffman model, of which only two survive. It sounds truly grand, quil-like in the best sense with a lower registered that stands out remarkably for its tone color.

Add to this the considerable prowess and intimate understanding Menno van Delft gives to this music. His performances are spirited, inspired and very bravura. The Partitas have some much varied charm and brilliance and Van Delft rises to the occasion with a well-ornamented reading as exciting as it is period-worthy.There is a bit of rubato as appropriate but not a great deal.

In short this is a rather triumphal recording of music ever triumphal. It is a cornerstone of Bach's astonishing inventiveness that all should hear in depth. And although there are other recordings to rival this one, I can think of no better way to hear the music than on this Van Delft offering.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Peter Child, Shanti, Boston Modern Orchestral Project, Gil Rose

The remarkably essential Boston Modern Orchestra Project continues with a latest volume in their recordings of American orchestral music that deserves wider exposure. Today an album of the post-millennial orchestral music of Peter Child, entitled Shanti (BMOP Sound 1057). The BMOP orchestra under Gil Rose gives us excellent performances of three of Child's works, "Jubal" (2001), "Adirondack Voices" (2006), and the title work, "Shanti" (2011).

It is somewhat difficult to pigeonhole Child's music. Then again pigeonholing is never a great idea anyway. Suffice to say that Child's music is tonal yet not eclectic so much as carrying on the Modern Extended Tonal Orchestral tradition. There are moments in "Shanti" where you hear a pronounced debt to the Messiaen of the "Turangalila" years, and those passages are rather uncanny in that way. Yet this is a but a moment in the whole confluence of sound events. The overall impression is of an original, imaginative inventiveness.

"Jubal" starts off the program, a paean to music. It condenses an entire four-movement symphonic overview into a very eventful 15 minutes of music. There is energy and expressive elements, a very sure authorial voice and orchestrational brilliance. It never fatigues nor does it conform to everyday expectations as to what might come next.

"Adirondack Voices"  brings folk elements into a kind of lyrical-atmospherical, somewhat Americana tinged mix of alternately delicate and robust invocatory descriptive strengths.

"Shanti" changes the mood to mystery, detailed orchestral questions without set answers, probings of spirit and substance, ineffability. The concluding portions of the work are beautifully hushed and knowingly unknown.

I am taken with this music and its refusal to "come clean" and render the obvious. It is a complex and ever challenging journey into the inner within an outer. He has the freshness of plein air painting yet the hermeticism of  Dutch Renaissance and Vermeerian allegory, all in a highly developed orchestral modernism that is a joy to hear. This may be something of a sleeper but all the more reason to hear it!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Erik Satie, Complete Piano Works 3, New Salabert Edition

There are a number of reasons why the lover of the Satie solo piano opus finds the experience of repeated listenings a virtually unparalleled joy. The most obvious one has to do with the sensuous untrammeled lyrical beauty of something like the Gymnopedies. Even the casual TV watcher might be exposed to that in, say, a coffee commercial that features the most well-known one. And so perhaps many people know of this, though they may not all attach the melodics to the Satie name.

And then there is the whimsical side, the structurally wayward side, and other sides that this review article need not address, particularly as I have not thought it through to a point where I might cover every wrinkle.

Yet there is one side not yet mentioned that is especially important to the review today, namely his processional  pensativities. They are quirkily modern, far from facilely intuitional in terms of a listener's ready grasp. One nice aspect of the Satie Complete Piano Works 3, New Salabert Edition (Grand Piano 763) is that a solid block of "processional" Satie is taken together as a whole by pianist Nicolas Horvath.The block begins with "Preludes du Nazareen" and ends with "Prelude de 'La Porte Heroique du Ceil'" It occupies some 64 of the generous 84 minute playing time. Then flows a somewhat more rapid tempo series of musings beginning with the "Gnossienne No. 6" and ending with "Danse de Travers II." It is a satisfying sequence, a sort of unified summing up of two very Satian approaches to harmonic-melodic sequencing, the unexpected twists and turns in a music far from following the expectations of periodic symmetry that might have been assumed in the piano music of his time, or much of it at least. Interestingly the potentially marathon "Vexations" is placed within this block of music, clocking in at a mere seven minutes, and so it appears to us not as the day-long bizarre mesmerisation it can have when following faithfully Satie's suggestion to play it again and again. For that one can turn to other performances. Here it takes its place with other slow moving, winding processionals.

The entire projected complete Horvath reading of Satie solo piano music began when he approached Satie musicologist Robert Orledge and asked him whether he might serve as Horvath's artistic adviser on a proposed complete reading. As it happened Orledge was at nearly the same time asked to edit the complete opus for a proposed Salabert Edition of the music. A number of errors had  crept into the published versions of the works, some in part due to a slightly lax proofreading job on the part of the composer. Orledge was to correct these misprints by referring to the original manuscript versions. He also perforce was charged to cull through early versions of some works, alternate readings, fragmented,  partial works, student works and such things as piano accompaniments to songs both his and of others. From all that Orledge was to cull a kind of definitive performing edition of as complete an opus as seemed desirable given these variabilities.

In the course of this third volume we are treated to one World Premier recording of the previously unheard 30 second fragment "Airs a Faire Fuir No 2 (version plus chromatiques)." A sizeable number of revised-corrected pieces also occur here for the first time.  Namely of the "Prelude du Nazareen," "uspud," "Dances Gothiques,""Prelude de 'La Porte Heroique du Ciel,'" "Sans Titre, ?Gnossienne," "Pieces Froides, Airs A Faire Fuir" and the Froides "Danses de Travers," and finally the "Danses de Travers II."

I have not done A-B comparisons on the revised works, but certainly nothing seems amiss. Neither though did I find myself in a drop-drawers state of astonishment. We do not always need that to be pleased in any event.

As for the Horvath readings, there is a great deal of limpidity and lyrical, non-virtuoso poeticism called for in much of the music. Horvath perhaps is not entirely perfect at times, yet his performances have a touching freshness and lack of pretense that seem to me nicely hewing to the spirit of these works. In that way perhaps you hear the Satie a little bit more than you hear the pianist, which is in no way a bad thing. Horvath is pretty selfless throughout.

The Satie pieces on this volume alternately haunt and beguile, and sometimes both. If you do not know the solo Satie, and if so where have you been? Seriously though if you have not delved deeply into the brilliant complete opus, this volume will give you a big leg up if you remind yourself to pay attention and not let yourself wander away into the thickets. The New Edition samplers might want to start with this volume as well. And for the Horvath performances, he is authoritative in choice of tempos and amount of rubato, though others have done perhaps more at times by taking liberties. Still, this is a welcome addition to the librares of all Satie acolytes and champions.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Mussorgsky-Gorchakov, Pictures at an Exhibition, Prokofiev, Cinderella, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya

I was carrying on last week about the descriptive Modernist works that caught my ear in the first important leg of my listening life. To that list I most certainly could add the two works contained on a new live performance release as played by Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Namely Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (here in the somewhat rarely performed 1955 orchestration by Sergei Gorchakov) and Prokofiev's Cinderella (FWSO ((Live))), the latter for this recording-performance in a selection of 13 movements from the original ballet score.

To call Mussorgsky a Modernist is of course not strictly factual. After all he wrote "Pictures" in 1874 and was not at all a typical practitioner of such things as modernity. By other measures he was enormously influential as a lineal forebear to later Russian modernist masters like Stravinsky and Prokofiev. So the juxtaposition of Mussorgsky's "Pictures" and Prokofiev's "Cinderella" seems very appropriate and stylistically nearly synonymous.

So then to the Mussorgsky. The Ravel orchestration of "Pictures" that has come down to us is brilliant and seemingly has defined for good and all our idea of what the orchestral version should sound like. It of course bears the stamp of Ravel's impressionist palette, which gives certain movements great color. The Sergei Gorchakov has the disadvantage as coming along at a time (1955) when most no longer thought of other orchestrational possibilities. Nonetheless this alternate orchestration gives us a fresh look at what can be done. There is generally something rather more Russian to be heard here, less colorful but more dramatic. Perhaps it is more rough-hewn, heavier, closer to the Mussorgsky solo piano version. "The Great Gate of Kiev" and the "Introduction-Promenade" thematics seem more elemental and rousing. Some of the character study movements seem harder edged, thicker, more pressing in their immediacy. The performance has much to recommend it. Harth-Bedoya and the Ft. Worth musicians put their heart and soul into it. There is the kind of extra oomph one can get in a live performance and it is a very good thing.

Turning to the Prokofiev and its post WWII 1945 mood alternating elation, fatefulness and really some remaining clouds of gloom, the music is as memorable as anything Prokofiev wrote. The clock-midnight theme is as evocative and Modernist as anything Prokofiev ever did. There is beauty in the bluster of some of it, a sad hopelessness in some of the romantic themes, or that is how I feel the music in this time of my life. Harth-Bedoya has wisely avoided the several suites Prokofiev put together from the original score, and instead chosen thirteen numbers from the full score.

In my own personal view it is hard to top the complete ballet as done by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, USSR Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra, but then that runs several hours. For a 40-minute encapsulation this version is hard to beat. There is plenty of scampering energy to the gallops; there is passion and a feeling of potential doom to the midnight music, and there is passion to be heard in the romantic movements.

I cannot imagine readers here who do not know either of these works. If there are any this is a good place to hear the works, with the proviso that "Pictures" is not in the version the world is used to hearing. Yet that should not stop you. Those who know both works intimately would benefit from this program because the Ft. Worth outfit seem filled with joy, enthusiasm and energy in their performances and the sum is different enough that you will no doubt gain something nice in the hearing. This one is a nice surprise! I recommend it.