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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Juri Seo, Mostly Piano

Juri Seo is a composer-pianist who resides in my state of the States, New Jersey. Some of her music stands out on the recent release Mostly Piano (Innova 968). As the title suggests, this is...mostly works for piano. But not just any works.

For Ms. Seo has her own way, tonal--and the examples "#Three" (for piano and percussion), "Three Mini-Etudes in C" and parts of "Piano Sonata No.1 - 'La Hammerklavier'" show a rhythmic vitality bursting at the seams with dynamic tension and personal form. The sonata has a lyrical-classical aspect that glances backward as it forges ahead into something unique to the composer.

The "Etudes for Cimbalom" cover much ground in six movements. Folk dance elements and contrasts, energetic dynamics and contemplative counterthrusts intermingle for some exhilarating fireworks.

The final piece, a solo piano and percussion piece entitled "vi" (2010) marked her inaugural return to tonality, in this case triads and seventh chords contrasting bitonal ambiguity with tonal clarity. There is as with the other works a somewhat startling freshness about the music.

So that is what I experience from this album, telegraphed in necessarily sketchy ways to fit the here and gone format of the everyday blog pages. There would be a great deal more to say were I to concentrate for the rest of the day on why this music is special. For the spinning world we are in I must simply iterate that Juri Seo is a modern original, and that her music on the current volume veers into breathtaking territory at times, and for all that never seems content to work inside the usual trends that occupy much of the contemporary music world.

Bravo!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Eclipse, Chamber Music By Mischa Zupko

Mischa Zupko writes with a modernist flourish music that sometimes has a lyrical underpinning, while always to my ears blossoms forth with a personal fluidity in his insightful musical-dialectical discourse. The Zupko anthology Eclipse (Cedille 90000 168) features chamber music for piano (Zupko), violin (Sang Mee Lee), and cello (Wendy Warner).

Each work has literal thematic content. "Rising" (for violin and piano) is all about meditations on the ascension of Jesus. "Fallen" (for cello and piano) is based on a Garcia-Lorca poem about the suicide of a young man of promise who has fallen into despair."From Twilight" (for solo violin) comes out of the experience of observing the evening sky as the curtain of night gradually descends. "Eclipse" (for violin and cello) encapsules the feeling of serenity as an evolving eclipse condition is made into music via the overlapping and mingling of motives for the violin and cello. "Nebula" (for solo cello) pits the cello against silence as we are exposed to parts of a wide overarching arc of musical content.

From there we go to "Shades of Grey" for violin and piano, in four movements, realizing in musical terms the marriage preparations of Winston Choi and Minghuan Xu, otherwise known as Duo Diorama, for whom the work was written.

"Love Obsession" (for cello, piano and six prerecorded cello tracks) is the dramatic finale. It deals with the relentless pursuit of a love object by a determined subject. Highly rhythmic figures portray the manic chase of passionate absorption, ending in some sort of quietly realized fulfillment.

There is no simple description of how this music plays itself out. Every work is a world unto itself. Zupko is musically multilingual in the way he adapts a spectrum of tonal possibilities and spins his own original form and content for each.

The trio of musicians each brings an enormous absorption and focus to the music, making it sing, bringing its reflective and reflexive brilliance to bear on our experiencing ears.

Zupka has a musical mind both open and exceptionally inventive, certainly as exemplified by the works on this album. He is like a fine wine. He is best savored, allowed to breathe. You need to open yourself up, to permit his many faceted music to resonate against your listening sensibilities in a state of centered concentration,  Like a complex wine at a peak of maturation, the long finish you experience is just as you might have hoped, in the end satisfying and total in its effect.

I have no hesitations in recommending this music to you.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rachmaninov, Rare Piano Transcriptions, Julia Severus, Piano

Yesterday, I spoke a little about how the romantic piano practice of rubato cascading became more harmonically daring in the hands of Scriabin and ended up further extended by a composer like Roslavets, but that by last mid-century modernist pianism had all but jettisoned the stylistic parameters which found its most eloquent practitioner in Liszt.

What such a scenario ignores is the figure of Rachmaninov. (Early Prokofiev aside, who was already very much more the modernist.) Like at least on the surface we think of Bach and his attention to fugal form even if in his later years it was no longer au courant. So Rachmaninov espoused the rolling romantic rubato when many of his compatriots had moved on. I would not want to suggest that Rachmaninov reached the sublime heights of Bach in his anachronistic endeavors. That is no doubt unfair. How many composers would you put alongside Bach in any way? Very few.

Rachmaninov (1873-1943) stayed stylistically where he began, for the most part. Of course he excelled in lyric effusions and left us with some beautiful piano music that transcends time in the best ways.

For those like me who cannot get enough Rachmaninov piano works, there are today a batch of them that you no doubt have never heard, at least not like this. I speak of the recent CD of Piano Transcriptions (Naxos 8.573468). On it is Rachmaninov's transcription of the  "Suite in D minor," which was discovered only in 2002, along with a transcription of the Intermezzo from Aleko, plus 21 of his songs, transcribed for solo piano by Rachmaninov and six other composers, including the pianist on this collective program, Julia Severus.

She is most definitely in her element with this music. A more sensitively romantic but never overly gushing exponent of this rare music would be hard to find.

Many of these pieces, indeed most are in first recordings. The songs in their original form contained involved piano parts, so that the transcriptions carry over the extraordinary pianism and integrate it fully into the solo realm.

Perhaps not everything to be heard on the program is an absolute masterpiece, but then some come close. For those for whom the Rachmaninovian path is one you long to linger on, this small fork into more vistas will doubtless delight you.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Roslavets, Complete Works for Solo Piano, Olga Andryushchenko

Nicolay Andreyevich Roslavets (1881-1944) is currently at best a footnote in the history of Russian 20th century modernism. Yet Stravinsky at one point called him "the most interesting Russian composer of the 20th century." Now there is a chance to explore his work in depth on the recent 2-CD set Complete Works for Solo Piano (Grand Piano 743-44).

Olga Andryushchenko does the duties as the pianist throughout. Her fluid readings seem expressively right for the music. Roslavets was a victim of Soviet disapproval and so never got a lot of exposure or recognition. This complete piano set includes a good deal of undiscovered and reconstructed works that see the light of day here for the first time. Many are first recordings. It is much more involved than one has a right to expect from a long-unknown. There is a kind of pristine coming-into-being to be heard with great profit if you give the music a chance.

The music is programmed to follow roughly a chronological order. The first period of his music, say 1914 through 1916, finds the composer in a rather Scriabinesque mode. From around 1917 through 1923, the influence remains in terms of a poetic rubato, yet further modernizes in terms of an idiosyncratic tonal ambiguity and the use of what Roslavets called "synthetic chords."

To get the maximum out of Roslavets, you need to cast away expectations and let the music itself work its way into your listening mind. It is something a Scriabin enthusiast (such as myself) will see as a further step into a modernism that mostly dead-ended but in the hands of Roslavets convinces and holds its own even though the vibrant currents of modernism by mid-century had largely jettisoned the cascading rubatos that Roslavets embodies in his very own way.

Why the Soviet Union party censors should see this music as objectionable need not detain us much. Clearly they found any kind of formalism, or any kind of autonomous musical striving counter-revolutionary. All must be an arm of propaganda. Sometimes composers were able to satisfy the dictates of social realism or circumvent them and still make great music and keep on. Roslavets could not find a way and more's the pity.

At least with this two-CD set we are treated to some exceptional music that deserves our respect and admiration. I find the music much to my liking. It has a brilliance of its own and that mysterious cosmic quality that Scriabin pioneered. But it stands or falls as Roslavets. It stands.

Recommended for Russophile modernists and anyone interested in the trajectory of modern solo piano, surely.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Stewart Goodyear, Ravel, Piano Music

Some composers and compositions have formed such a seminal part of my life experience that they have become important residents of my "permanent" musical mind. The piano music of Ravel (Orchid Classics 100061) qualifies in very absolute ways. When particular works enter into my imaginary shrine of eternal verities, they usually do so in terms of my memory of specific performances that I either first heard at a younger age or versions that I have since come across that somehow have redefined my vision of what the music is about.

For Ravel's solo opus I fell upon Samson Francois's 3-LP set on Seraphim many years ago and it has ended up as a benchmark standard for comparison. The versions are not in any way flashy but carve out each musical statement with a care and a fidelity that seem close to what the composer himself heard. I have not had time to audition any of the other complete opus recordings, though I've experienced enough Gieseking Ravel that I imagine his set would be ravishing. A real ear-opener was the old Everest Archive of Piano release of Ravel playing his own music on the touch sensitive player piano that was state-of-the-art in his day. The piano roll transcription of "La vallee des cloches" from Miroirs was one of those revelations you can get when you hear the composer's own version of something for the first time. It is the opposite of a virtuoso approach, slow, brooding, atmospheric, lingering over every note so that the "Valley of Bells" as just that came through like never before for me.

With all of the above as a prologue. . .  I was interested to receive pianist Stewart Goodyear's Ravel, a single CD compendium of some of Ravel's most beautiful pieces. Goodyear has fabulous technique which he puts to brilliant use on movements that can be taken much faster than the norm, so that a shimmer of pulsatingly ecstatic passagework transforms the music to something excitingly other at times.

Yet when appropriate Goodyear can dig into the pastoral and/or reflective sort of lyricism that "Le vallee des cloches" or "Pavane pour un infante defunte" demands.

We are treated to the sort of dual polar readings he excels in--with the music of "Jeux d'eau," "Sonatine," "Miroirs," "Gaspard de la nuit," and the "Pavane."

In the end Goodyear brings an exceptional beauty and sparkling dazzle to these works that is nothing short of extraordinary. I still cling to the Francois and Ravel LPs as a sort of bedrock given for these works, yet I find Goodyear opens other vistas for me, other ways to hear much of this music. Anyone who already loves these pieces as I do will find in the Goodyear spirit a new take on it all. It is tour de force pianism, sometimes incredibly exciting.

Recommended with no reservations whatsoever!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bernard Rands, Vincent, Arthur Fagen, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus

I suppose it had to happen eventually. That is, an opera based on the life of Van Gogh. It took until 2011, when composer Bernard Rands completed the two-act Vincent (Naxos 8.669037-38), now available as a two-CD recording by soloists and the Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus under Arthur Fagen. It is a sometimes lyrical, sometimes agitated or otherwise dramatic recounting of Van Gogh's life in essence, from his disastrous experience as a salesman in an art gallery, his struggles to find his style, his closeness to brother Theo, the Arles triumphs and anguish, the fight with Gauguin and Vincent's breakdown and death.

All is handled with taste and appealing musical values, a healthy dash of modernism a la post-Wozzeck and a sure theatrical flair. I will confess that the idea of an opera rehashing the tragic life of the brilliant painter did not on first blush appeal to me. His life story has entered the pop-folk vernacular of the misunderstood artistic genius and in some ways given us a romantic myth that may provide a cautionary tale of how one can never be sure of talent when a great one could possibly be living among us, but otherwise perhaps justifies a kind of collective shrug of the shoulders when it comes to modernism and its supposed inscrutability.

Nonetheless I have immersed myself in the work and come out with a positive feeling about it. It is constructed with the sort of event arc conducive to gaining an absorbed audience attention. And in the end J. D. McClatchy's libretto meshes with the well-wrought score to maintain and grow the dynamic tension necessary to experience the life story and its very sad yet triumphant end points. There are brilliant moments that musically match the anguish of the main character.

Arthur Fagen, the effective soloists and the amassed Indiana University singers and musicians all give us a convincing and intense reading of the score.

This is a good one for you who want to keep abreast of developments in modern opera today.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Vitezslav Novak, In the Tatra Mountains, Buffalo Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra can be counted on to do justice to late-romantic, proto-impressionist scores. And so they do us a real service handling the ins and outs of composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) and his In the Tatra Mountains (Naxos 8.573683).

As can be heard in this three-work program, Novak was a Bohemian Nationalist who constructed vast panoramas that perhaps owed something to Dvorak but took the music into the 20th century in his own way.

The three works open Novak's musical world with a maturity and a sense of motion and tone color painting that mark him as talented and eloquent.  You can hear echoes of Bohemian folk music but indirectly for the most part, as if reflected by distance and wide spaces in woodlands or mountains.

Each of the three have character and very worthy orchestrations. They seem descriptive but well beyond a literal program. And so as we immerse ourselves in the title work "In the Tatra Mountains" (1902), and the following pieces, "Lady Godiva - Overture" (1907) and "Eternal Longing" (1905). We linger in expressively evocative worlds, now pastoral, now in a terrain of inner feelings and passions, always with a sense of proportion and contrast.

Novak may be pretty well forgotten to most of us, but Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic give us very musical reasons to revel in his rediscovery. The three works give us much substance and pleasure. And so there is a good deal to appreciate on this disk.

Recommended.