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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Henry Purcell, Theatre Music 2, Aradia Ensemble, Kevin Mallon

I don't suppose very many readers need to know that Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was England's most accomplished and well rounded baroque-era composer, both prolific and profound. He was called upon often enough in his career to write music for the theater. The Aradia Ensemble has culled some extraordinary but rather obscure music written by him for such settings. Just now comes their second volume of it all, Theatre Music 2 (Naxos 8.573280), and a fine thing it is.

Overtures, song, dances and some musically set dialog variously grace various works. We get a full selection from "The Married Beau," "Sir Anthony Love," and "The Old Bachelor," plus single songs from "The Spanish Friar" and "Aureng-Zebe." It is music of great charm, lyricism or jauntiness in turn, performed beautifully by the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon, with soloists soprano Johane Ansell and baritone Jason Nedecky in fine form.

It is first-rate Purcell all the way and hoorah for Naxos and Aradia for bringing this music to us. I have not as yet heard volume one but I imagine it is equally compelling.

Anyone who loves the baroque performed well and authentically, anyone who appreciates Purcell or would like to know his music better can do no wrong with this volume. It is a treasure.

I am in the process of moving and so will not be able to post for about a week. See you then!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, Heirs and Rebels

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst were English contemporaries, good friends and great admirers of each other's music. The album Heirs and Rebels (Albion ALBCD 027) intertwines the two composers via old recordings that show them with traditional roots and their own sometimes subtle early modern tendencies, and a pronounced affinity in how they incorporated traditional folk strains into their work.

The label has nicely remastered recordings from the 78 RPM era, 16 short works in all, nine by Vaughan Williams, seven by Holst, running the gamut from songs, works for wind band or orchestra, choral works and Christmas carols, all showing folk and traditional roots and their own contemporary reworkings.

What strikes one, besides the audio of the time, is how there are sounds that we rarely encounter today, the timbre of the wind band, the rapid vibrato of some of the solo vocals and a certain rootsiness that all seem far away in time for us now. So in that sense this was the music as it sounded then and one presumes the composers found to be right. That in itself is interesting.

But beyond that these are charming examples of the miniatures both could craft so well, performed with spirit and zeal.

This Albion recording was produced under the auspices of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.

It is a very diverting program sure to appeal to lovers of Vaughan Williams, Holst and early modern musical Anglophiles. Recommended!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Sorabji, 100 Transcendental Studies, Nos 72-83, Fredrik Ullen

The latest volume of Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988) and his monumental 100 Transcendental Studies (Nos 72-83) (BIS 2223) is upon us. Eventually pianist Fredrik Ullen will be recording all 100 of the cycle. This latest installment gets us most of the way there. I've covered an earlier volume on these pages (look up the review in the index box if you would like to read that). My exposure continues here, I am happy to say.

There is no easy way to characterize the cycle, except to say that it is phenomenally difficult music to play, that it has the DIY exploratory expression of Sorabji's piano music in evidence with all kinds of twists and turns, and that it is one of the 20th century's most daring and exhaustive cycles, a masterpiece of technical-expressionist modernism with some incredible rhythmic and melodic-harmonic complexities and a great variety of approaches that relate sometimes to one another, sometimes to other piano repertoire, and to a complete gamut of personalized style possibilities.

We get in this volume for example a theme with 100 variations (75), a perpetuum mobile (77), an impressionistic tone poem (78), a study in fourths (83) and a maelstrom of accentuated gestures set against a whirlwind of notes (82). All 100 were written between 1940 and 1944, but this is music that seems to go beyond time, embracing a kind of eccentric modernism that gives us a Sorabji for our present-day sensibilities, beyond his own time surely, yet also paradoxically filled with the gigantism-expression of the late romantic era and the ultra-progressivity that flourished then in spite of the social traumas that were ripping the world apart.

Fredrick Ullen is a pianist endowed with the considerable technical acuity these works demand, but also the poetic imagination that is always key to Sorabji's music. He is the ultimate Sorabji interpreter, surely, or one of the primary ones at any rate.

The superb performances match the daring and iconoclastic music one-for-one. These are thrilling works, played with fire and commitment. Should you get all 100? If you can swing it, based on the installments I have heard. Meanwhile this is a great volume to start with. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Almeida Prado, Complete Cartas Celestes 1, Aleyson Scopel

Music is a container of meaningful sound. Modern solo piano music is a series of such containers, often filled with complex gestures, sonorities, timbres, tone syntax that in the best of circumstances speak to you in a language you understand but have not been privy to previously in quite this way.

That is very true of Almeida Prado (1943-2010) and his "Cartas Celestes" series of piano pieces. Aleyson Scopel has embarked on a recording of the complete cycle, with the Complete Cartas Celestes 1 (Grand Piano GP709) currently out as the inaugural volume. For this first offering we get Nos. 1, 2, 3 and the World Premiere recording of No. 15.

It is a virtual musical mapping of the heavens and so understandably has a hugely open and expansive modernist feel to it all. Prado studied initially in Brazil with Guarnieri but then with Boulanger and Messiaen in Paris. The music has the rhythmic complexities of Messiaen, jaggedly asymmetrical, but also perhaps even more abstracted than typical of Messiaen, and less tied perhaps to melodic continuity at times. But then you might get a canonic contrapuntal passage that appears and gives us a brief glance backwards before venturing forth again into the remote stratospheres of relational sounds. All of the music exemplifies Prado's "transtonal" approach, which is neither quite tonal, atonal or bitonal but all at once, I suppose you could say.

It is music of high modernist adventure, played impeccably and expressively by Aleyson Scopel. Volume one comes through with but four of what appears to be a monumental piano opus, ambitious and dramatic, singular and vividly gestural.

I am much taken with the music and its performance. Any of you high modernist devotees out there will undoubtedly respond to this music, and may find yourself wanting to hear it all. Prado comes across as a major figure in the music, surely. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

John Rutter, Psalmfest

The late jazz composer-saxophonist icon Ornette Colemen once remarked something to the effect that "there is no such thing as bad music, only bad musicians."  Now in terms of jazz that may have great truth. In terms of classical, there most certainly can be bad music that no great performance can save. On the other hand there is much excellent music out there that can be negated with lackluster or uninspired performances. John Rutter (b. 1943) and his choral-orchestra work Psalmfest (Naxos 8.573394) strikes me that latter way. It is enjoying its World Premiere recording (revised version) here by the Choirs of St Albans Cathedral and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Lucas. It is music that is undeniably written to be performed well and enthusiastically. (You might say that of many compositions, maybe even all, but Psalmfest hits me as especially of that nature.)

Thankfully the amassed choirs, soloists, and orchestra give us an exceedingly beautiful reading of the work. The music has a distinctly English feel to it--Vaughan Williams is somewhere lurking in the wings, perhaps. There is a kind of accessibility to its melodiousness that would perhaps fall a bit flat in lesser hands. The "Psalmfest" (1993) and the related shorter works "This is the Day" (2011), "Lord, Thou hast been our refuge" (2008), and "Psalm 150" (2002), all included here, are a joyful, ecstatic group of works that shine brightly thanks to the beautiful singing of the St Alban Choirs and the nicely articulated orchestral performances, and of course the poetic joy of the Psalms of David.

This is not precisely modernist music, but it is music with a traditional 20th century lineage yet a contemporary rhapsodical feel. There is a kind of sureness, a mastery of the forces at hand that marks John Rutter as special. The music is very moving and I respond to these performances readily and most pleasurably. Anyone taken by the choral medium I believe will feel the same way. So I do heartily recommend this disk.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

4 Contemporary Sound Poets, Tomomi Adachi, Owen F. Smith, Duane Ingalls, Jaap Blonk, Surround Sound Disk

Today, something out of the ordinary: a 5:1 surround disk with a lengthy program featuring 4 Contemporary Sound Poets (Pogus 21083-2). We hear the electroacoustic compositions of Tomomi Adachi, Jaap Blonk, Owen F. Smith and Duane Ingalls. All make excellent use of the surround medium (both AC3 and DTS are options, which will enable you to hear the full sound on virtually any DVD or Blu-Ray player). The human voice in its extended sound making possibilities is at the center of most works. Avant vocal execution and electroacoustic transformations are the order of the day.

All the works presented are cutting-edge contemporary avant, ranging from collaged density to soundscaped ambient. Experiencing them in 5:1 audio staging is sometimes quite exciting and alway revelatory.

Keep in mind that the visual component on the disk is functional--you get some photos with the menu choices, but the works are presented with a nearly blank screen (with a thin stripe of color arranged across the top). That is all fine--this is an audio disk and you are there to listen.

Like all avant new music you may find yourself liking some works more than others, but that is a personal thing. Each work is its own adventure and has the ring of authenticity and newness about it.

I found the experience riveting. I believe all you who embrace the high modern-postmodern camp will find it all fascinating. And the surround sound is fantastic throughout.

Highly recommended for the adventurists out there!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Avram Il'yich Khachaturian, Symphony No.2, "The Bell," Yablonsky, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra

The catastrophic upheavals that marked Germany's invasion of Russia during World War II led to some of the most memorable symphonies of that era. There is Prokofiev's turbulent Symphony No. 5, Shostakovitch's markedly dramatic Symphony No. 7, and not as well known, Khachaturian's Symphony No. 2 "The Bell". The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky gives us a stirring reading of that symphony in a recent recording (Naxos 8.570436) and I have been listening to with pleasure.

Khachaturian (1903-1978) describes the symphony as a "requiem of wrath, a requiem of protest against war and violence" (liners). The nickname of the symphony derives from its tubular bell part that enters the matrix several times during the work. It is, given the subject matter, very expressive and unsettled music, with much dramatic impact, certainly worthy of taking its place with the Shostakovitch and Prokofiev symphonies of the period, though with perhaps not quite the thematic brilliance of the others. Nonetheless it is a completely satisfying work, an extroverted dirge that cries out in protest with the full resources of the modern orchestra.

A bonus on this disk are several excerpts from Khachaturian's "Lermontov Suite" (1959), which he initially wrote as incidental music for Boris Lavrenyov's play about the playwright-poet in 1954.  It is perhaps not quite at the level of the symphony, but nonetheless gives us some good moments and does not detract from the overall effect and high level of performance on the program as a whole.

Russian modern aficionados will doubtless want to savor this fine recording of a somewhat neglected symphony. It is very worthwhile. Kudos to Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic.