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Friday, February 12, 2016

Allan Pettersson, Symphony No. 13, Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg

Allan Pettersson (1911-80) was undoubtedly one of Sweden's truly great modern symphonists, yet his music continues to generate controversy. Not considered a cutting-edge modernist during his lifetime, compared with, say, someone like Blomdahl, firmly staying with the symphony format when it seemed old-fashioned, yet writing music that did not appeal to traditionalists, he on principal refused to "follow the rules" on either side of the divide and so did not garner as large a following as he might. Today nobody cares that he did not write serial music and yet his music tends to be single-mindedly uncompromising so that those looking for recognizable pedestrian themes or a pleasant go of it tend to shy away. But it is to their loss.

Indeed, his Symphony No. 13 (1976) (BIS 2190), as recorded by Christian Lindberg and the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, proves to be monumental but difficult, 66 continuous minutes of supercharged, turbulent chromatic symphonic storms with nary a life-preserver in sight. In that way it is seminal mature Pettersson, with no concessions to audience expectations, an endless stretch of endless melody and thickly textured orchestration, expressive like nobody else before or after.

Lindberg and the Norrkoping Orchestra seem the ideal interpreters of his music. I covered their recording of his 9th here on April 10th, 2014 and was mightily impressed. The 13th confirms their prowess at bringing out the full scope of the composer.

Inevitably his long and painful bout with arthritis and his resulting invalid state for much of his later years has served to explain and sometimes to dismiss the music he produced. But it does not, though it does cast a heroic light on his persistent productivity. This is not a musical transposition of his illness. It is what he did in spite of it.

With music of such unrelenting strength and turbulence, many people feel the need for a programmatic explanation. To me this is music that struggles through a darkness of collective spirit and works its way beyond it as an affirmation of the will to transcend it all.

But even so this is a wonderfully extreme work. If you do not surrender yourself to it you will doubtless feel adrift. It is one continuous development, a long variation on itself, a deliberately ambiguous thematic macrocosm of unfolding form-in-motion. It is not music to take lightly. There is a determined, rather stern sound to it. If you allow it to have its way with your listening self it takes you to a place wholly original. The stern quality should not put you off. Bach, after all, could sound stern.

In fact it is a monumental symphonic gesture of the end of last century. Pettersson struggled mightily to create a masterpiece, to create with overwhelming sincerity a body of work that owes its life force to no one but Maestro Pettersson. That he created his own unique musical worlds against all odds we can only be thankful for.

You will need to hear this symphony a good number of times before it truly comes alive, given its unending torrent of unfolding. Once you give it your time it rewards with modern music at its most profound.

If you are up for the challenge, Lindberg and Norrkoping present a beautiful reading that rewards a concentrated immersion. It is seminal Pettersson! Highly recommended for those fearless modernists out there!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Orchestral Music, Volume Two, Dmitry Vasilyev, Siberian Symphony Orchestra

The reputation of composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96) has soared in the past decade or so. CD releases have multiplied rapidly, unearthing gems virtually all of us had no idea about. It continues. Orchestral Music, Volume Two (Toccata Classics 0313), with Dmitry Vasilyev conducting the Siberian Symphony Orchestra, gives us yet more revelatory music in first recordings, "Six Ballet Scenes, Choreographic Symphony, Op. 113" and his very last "Symphony No. 22, Op. 154," which was left in full piano score on his death and has been orchestrated convincingly by Kirill Umansky.

The "Ballet Scenes" Symphony has the lively scope of contrasts one can readily imagine as a ballet, which it was initially, though never performed. The White Chrysanthemum Weinberg completed in 1958, but for whatever reason it was never to be. He later returned to the music, adding interludes of improvisatory fantasia, conceiving it anew as a purely concert work. There is no evidence that it was performed during his lifetime. This recording apparently constitutes a first performance. It is worthy Weinberg without doubt, filled with vitality and grit.

The Symphony No. 22 was musically complete in piano reduction at the time of Weinberg's death in 1996, but the orchestration had to be taken on by Umansky for presentation in the 2003 "Moscow Festival." The work has a rather somber cast fitting for the composer's farewell gesture. It is deeply profound in its reflectively sober summing up with undiminished inventive thematics. Exemplary last-period Weinberg it certainly is, with the orchestration sounding true to the musical thematics and Weinberg's orchestral palette in later years.

The Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasilyev brings a luminous sonarity and a careful idiomatic treatment of the scores so that the performances give us all we might hope for in first recordings. The music is revelatory, once again, of the brilliance of this once underappreciated composer. His affinity with the sort of commanding, dramatically edgy approach of Shostakovich can be heard on the two works, yet there is an unwavering originality, too. Weinberg was and is an important figure on the modern, later 20th century Russian scene, and this music confirms that with genuine symphonic artistry and excellence.

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Wolfgang Rihm, Two Other Movements, Abkehr, Schattenstuck, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR

Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) has gained a deserved reputation as one of Europe's finest living composers, with an extraordinarily productive output and music that has an expressionist modernist slant, that captures the essence of pre-serialist orchestral tradition yet moves the music forward into avant territory in no uncertain terms.

SWR Music has embarked on an ambitious series of recordings of Rihm's music, the latest of which I have been listening to. I refer to the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR's recording of Two Other Movements, Abkehr, Schattenstuck (SWR Music 19001CD). It constitutes Volume 7 of their Rihm Orchesterwerke series.

The three works are captivating examples of Rihm at his best, music without flaw, exciting music, performed with acuman and zeal under the conductorship of Roger Norrington (for "Two Other Movements") or Christian Arming (for the others).

"Two Other Movements" (2004) enjoys its world premiere recording. In spite of its casual sounding title it is a substantial work lasting some 35 minutes. It is a veritable symphony in its girth, filled with expressive orchestral gesture and dramatic contrasts.

"Schattenstuck" (1982-84) is an earlier masterpiece that has a brashly bold demeanor and a moody countenance. The orchestration is brilliant.

"Abkehr" (1985), another world premier recording, is brief but contentful, serving as a worthy transition between the two landmark end-pieces.

In all we get some beautifully characteristic Rihm, fully modern, fully original and performed with genuine sympathy and zest.

If you are unfamiliar with Rihm this is a fine starting point. If you are an enthusiast you will appreciate this volume quite a bit. But really any follower of the modern scene should hear this music. Essential listening!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thierry Miroglio, World of Percussion

Six works comprise Thierry Miroglio's World of Percussion (Naxos 8.573520). Miroglio faces the world alone, for these works demand he tackle the parts in a solo context. That is not an unusual request in new music folds, at least not since the '60s.

The music requires a mastery of different combinations of pitched and unpitched arrays of percussion and is not at all easy to play, but the effect is not so much overtly virtuostic as it is musical.

Miroglio is no stranger to the format, with a repertoire of some 400 solo works he can perform. He concertizes frequently while also teaching at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory, where he is a full professor, and traverses the world to give master classes as he can when not otherwise preoccupied with other duties.

The disk-lengthed recital at hand covers works composed within a broad swath of time between 1966 and 2010, though most hail from the current millennium. The music draws upon a diverse world of instruments: congas, hand percussion, various other instruments and electronics in Bruno Mantovani's "Le Grand Jeu" (1999), metallic percussion and electronics in Marco Stroppa's "Auras" (1995, rev. 2005), solo bass timpano in Peter Eotvos' "Thunder" (1995), solo vibraphone for Rene Leibowitz's "Three Caprices" (1966), timbales (timpani) in Philippe Hersant's "Trois petites etudes" (2010), and an array of instruments and computer for Jean-Claude Risset's "Nature Contra Nature" (1996-2005). The latter work brings the recital to a conclusion with some outstanding timbral densities born of multi-instrumental mastery and computerized sound-worlds.

The music is modernist and occasionally somewhat ambiant with the emphasis on the myriad colors of the instruments called for. Thierry Miroglio gives it all brilliant life with an outgoing and vital musical approach.

Anyone with a penchant for percussion music and the possibilities in a modern solo context will find this music fascinating and stimulating. Miroglio is a world-class master of the art of percussing. The recital is very worthwhile!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ives Symphony No. 4, Symphony No. 3, etc., Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot

I guess you could say I was fortunate to be in the generation to be alive and impressionable when the music of American iconoclast Charles Ives first gained wide public exposure and acclaim. It was around 1971-72 when I first encountered his music on LP, including the "Concord Sonata," his symphonies and a myriad of other works, all then coming forth in sometimes spectacular performances.

It had a profound effect on me. Ives' reputation as the "father of modern American music" came about in those years especially, though recordings first started appearing in the '50s.

Now that many years have gone by, we see that his works have not been assimilated into the standard repertoire as readily as, for example, Mahler. Nor have there been huge numbers of recordings of his works in later years. The standard concert-goers' ears have mostly remained conservative on what it wants to hear. Ives' bitter remonstrances against "easy-chair ears" still have some truth to them.

But happily there are recordings still forthcoming now and then. Today we consider an important new one. The Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot has given us new versions of some of Ives' most outstanding orchestral works: Symphony No. 4, the Unanswered Question, Central Park in the Dark, Symphony No. 3 (Seattle Symphony Media 1009).

If you add "Three Places in New England" and "Holidays Symphony" to these works, you essentially have the handful of absolutely brilliant Ives for orchestra, so the combination is most gratifying.

I cut my teeth on the Stokowski/American Symphony Orchestra recording of the Fourth that came out on Columbia in the mid-sixties. The work is arguably Ives at his most daring. Ives sought to address why we are here in this final symphony. The work veers between utter cacaphony and mysteriously hushed passages, collages of hymn tunes, marches and you name it. The Stokowski version still remains the benchmark standard for its wide sweep and its unabashed anarchy. Yet the Seattle Symphony version holds its own as a more crispy articulate reading that nonetheless dives into the chaotic passages with verve. It is a good version to have regardless of whether you are familiar with the Stokowski or not.

"The Unanswered Question" I got to know and love via Leonard Bernstein's recording. It is an exceedingly beautiful mix of strings, which represent the silence of non-answers, the trumpet part, which asks the question repeatedly in a motive of which the last note is unresolved, a half-step higher in Ives' revised version. This is the version Bernstein used. The Seattle version opts for the first version of the motif, a half-step down and hence harmonically "correct." Ironically, it sounds jarringly wrong to me after so many years of hearing the other version. Nonetheless, Morlot captures nicely the winds attempting, more and more unsuccessfully, to answer the question in more and more dissonant ways. This is a fine version, but I do prefer the later trumpet motif, and Bernstein brings out the mysterious quality more fully.

"Central Park in the Dark" was originally meant to be performed with "Question" as "Two Contemplations" (1909) but Ives decided to break them apart. Either way it is good to hear them together, though again I do prefer Bernstein's version of this. Nonetheless, Seattle under Morot does a fine job with it.

Lastly there is Ives' "Symphony No. 3." The version here has everything going for it. It is in many ways the beginning of "Americana" in the classical realm as a very successful, irresistibly home-spun work which uses hymns and other old-American themes and flavors to create a sort of patchwork quilt of thematic elements that ultimately stand out as beautifully original, pure Ives, only much less avant than the other pieces.

The Seattle version of the 3rd rivals the best out there on disk. It makes of the 4th something very fine, perhaps a slight bit less ascerbic than the Stokowski but worthy to stand alongside it as another constrasting interpretation. The "Question" and "Central Park" fare to me much more convincingly in Bernstein's hands, but there is room for more than one version of course and these offer you an alternate view.

If you have no Ives orchestral to speak of this is a good place to start, though you may want to hunt down the Bernstein and Stokowski versions later. The 3rd is especially ravishing. For those who know Ives well this is a nice addition and a contrasting view of one of the very first modernists and still one of the greatest. Well worth a listen!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Antonio Soler, Sol de mi fortuna, Sonatas from the Morgan Library, Diego Ares

The Morgan Library in New York purchased in 2011 a cache of Antonio Soler (1729?-1783) manuscripts, which turned out to be a treasure trove of Harpsichord Sonatas of the Spanish master in their original versions, 29 unpublished. Young harpsichordist Diego Ares gives us world premier recordings of a good selection of them on his recent Sol de mi fortuna, Sonatas from the Morgan Library (Harmonia Mundi 902232).We get some 21 gems plus several "Preludio," "Interludio" and a Cannon.

Soler's Sonatas occupy an important and happy place for all adventurist listeners. There is a pronounced Spanish tinge to them, with plenty of thematic wealth and rhythmic vitality. There is a fascinating pre-rococo toggling between symmetry and asymmetry that has great charm and power to it. If you know and love Scarlatti's sonatas then you are bound to respond also to these. Whether Soler studied with him or not is unknown, but in any case the sonatas have a convergent quality with Scarlatti's yet have their own integrity and zest that rival the better-known exponent.

Diego Ares has the talent to bring the works to us in a most lively and brio way. He loves the sonatas, it is clear, and drives his readings with the care and enthusiasm the music deserves and demands.

The combination of works and execution gives us a real treat. Here is a great place to start if you do not know his sonatas, or a welcome addition of more for those that do.

Grab this one!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

John Burge, Chamber Music, Ensemble Made in Canada

I sometimes recall an experiment I learned about in psychology class in college. A group of dogs are shown one image and then given something to eat. They are shown another image and get a mild shock. The experimenters gradually alter each image so it more and more resembles the other. The more they are similar, the more the dogs are discomfited, not knowing what is going to happen.

Life can be like that. Not exactly, but for example a music that is not quite modern, plain and simple, and not quite neoclassical or neoromantic is a little harder to write about than music firmly in one camp or another.

I feel somewhat that way about Chamber Music of John Burge (Centrediscs 21715). The gifted chamber Ensemble Made in Canada perform three Burge works for us to experience on this album. They make the music sing. Angela Park is the pianist, Elissa Lee is on violin, Sharon Wei is on the viola, and Rachel Mercer is the cellist.

Not that the music makes me uncomfortable, far from it. It is music of great dramatic range and depth, located somewhere in the interstices between the modern aspect of postmodernism and the neoclassic/neoromantic strain today. What matters is that the music is well-crafted, inspired and lively.

John Burge was born in Ontario, 1961 and spent his early years in Calgary, where he began piano studies. After attending the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia, where he obtained degrees in theory and composition, he has gone on to teach, is a full professor at Queen's University in Ontario, and has spent much of his time amassing a sizable and impressive body of original works, for which he has received acclaim, recognition and numerous awards.

The three works included on the current program offer a window onto the mature composer, the meticulous and inspired craftsman-artist that is John Burge today. The program begins with two works for smaller chamber aggregates--"Pas de Deux" (2010) for violin and piano and "String Theory" (2011) for viola and piano. The works themselves are substantial but also serve to set the stage for the "Piano Quartet" (2012), which to me is the most impressive of the three.

The Quartet gives us a shifting focus of moods and expressivity in the three movements involved. The second movement centers around lyrically passionate mystery; the outer movements have a rousing rhythmic energy and part writing that plays the piano off of the strings as aggregates and individually, all in ways that immerse you continuously in a grand wealth of thematic invention.

Throughout there is the spice of chromatic modernism, classical developmental presence plus a neo- and post-romantic passion that come together convincingly and individually.

Ensemble Made in Canada do much to communicate the excitement and depth of the music. They are a first-rate ensemble who play with great conviction and elan.

The combination of Burge's dynamic individuality and the Ensemble Made in Canada's brio and brilliance make for a real winner. Bravo!