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Friday, April 18, 2014

Mason Bates, Stereo is King

Stereo is King (Innova 882). That is the title of Mason Bates' CD release of various interrelated compositions. It at once suggests a retro stance, harking back to the late '50s when stereo was a huge big deal. Yet the image on the cover shows an odd assemblage that looks both retro and futuristic. The work depicted there is called Chained to the Future, a sculpted/constructed object by Jason Brammer. The image and title suggest how back then the future was seen as almost inevitable. Yet that future as it comes to us now is perhaps anything but what we expected. And we don't look to the coming years in quite the google-eyed way some did in earlier times.

And so maybe the music of Mason Bates has the "not what we expected" futurism built-in? Surely the music is of our day, and it may not be what we thought it would be in 1958.

And surely modernism is not the monolithic minimal super-clean squeaky world we may have collectively envisioned. It is many things, but not one-dimensional. Mason Bates' music is like that, or a part of that.

He encompasses a post-minimalism, working within a tonal vein that suggests the contrapuntal thrust of minimalism at its best, but not much of the repetition beyond some ostinato figures. There are implications of rock-funk sometimes without anything more than a suggestion of the obvious drums and bass (except as electronically created on "Terrycloth Troposphere") and instead an involved give-and-take counterpoint among the instruments. There are other works that linger awhile with a more lyrical unfolding. Mason makes a music of our time that has his particular original voice stamped onto it.

The music forces summoned from work-to-work fluctuate somewhat. Generally it is mid-sized chamber ensembles comprised of Bates' own electronica assemblages, the vocal group Chanticleer, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Claremont Trio and Tania Stavreva on piano.

Unlike some of the "radical tonality" folks we have been talking about here, this music has more motility, less soundscaping and more what one could almost call a "neo-baroque" stance.

It comes our way and, like anything else, it is gone, unless we choose to play it again immediately afterwards. But what is between "start" and "finish" is some well put-together, thoughtful and vibrant music that creates a syntax that flows in "variations-on-variation" ways. It is no mere hearkening back. It has more of a modernist pan-thematic unfolding stance than the old through-composed melodic and harmonic periodicity of the pre-modern of 100 years ago.

Mason Bates has a fertile musical mind that comes through here in ways that reward the listener with something complex enough, substantial enough to keep interest level high and yet quite accessible even for those who may eschew a brasher modernism. Well done! Bravo!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mozart, Piano Concertos Nos. 21 & 27, Lars Vogt, Paavo Jarvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

Of all the composers in the pantheon, Mozart may have been the one with the most native genius. He was reputed to hear whole compositions in his head before he put them to paper. His music, especially the many Piano Concertos, can sound effortless. But then arguably the classical period had the most in the way of preconceived forms, movement sequences that were more or less standardized, sonata form structures that laid out what was to be done with thematic materials and the like. We know that these forms were subject to continual variation and innovations from studies done in the past century. But when we listen to a Mozart Piano Concerto there is such a concentrated lucidity. such a wealth of invention that flows so easily to its goal that we could imagine that putting one of these together was a fairly simple matter for Mozart.

After all, the showcasing of his virtuoso piano style was one of his bread-and-butter activities. That explains why he wrote so many. Yet the facility he doubtless had doesn't really mean that he did not have to work at it. It wasn't all inspiration and ease. It couldn't have been.

Whatever the case, Mozart's Piano Concertos are some of the very finest examples of his era. He did much to make the form a kind of institution in the years to come. And the best literally overflow with melodic excellence.

Today we have a very nice recording of two of the later concertos, Nos. 21 & 27 (Avi-Music 8553257), performed by pianist Lars Vogt with Paavo Jarvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

They are delightfully done, filled with spirit, sonically excellent and performed with a near-perfect balance of feeling and forward motion.

If these sound easy to have written, they most certainly weren't. It is part of Mozart's genius to make the music he wrote sound inevitable. Perhaps you don't get that in Don Giovanni or his Requiem, because they have some colossal expression to them that the concertos do not. But a close listen to concertos 21 & 27, especially in the expert sympathetic hands of the performers here, reveals near perfection of form and content.

It would take a Beethoven to make the concerto seem "difficult" again. These Mozart works achieved the maximum in inventiveness within the forms of the day. No one did it better. And these performances bring us as close as you get to the mind of the master composer. So do not hesitate.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Eduardo Raon, On the Drive for Impulsive Actions

There seem to be an increasing number of artists out there today whose music is located somewhere in the interstices between freely improvised music and new music classical. The vocabulary of the sounds and tones are somewhere in between. There is a sequential structure that often enough is more than freely creative, yet within that envelope is music that sometimes sounds composed, sometimes free improv.

I have covered such music on this site from time-to-time. Here is another.

Eduardo Raon creates a twelve-part sound poem he calls On the Drive for Impulsive Actions (ShhPuma CleanFeed 007). The music is created on harp for the most part, played conventionally and unconventionally. At times it sounds like it is also multi-tracked, and it is at times subject to electronic manipulation. There is also something he calls the Daxophone, percussion, the occasional sound of voices in laughter--children and adults--and the appearance of the whir of Screaming Cicadas.

All is sequenced in a way that gives it structure. Some sounds seem randomly or freely generated, others sound a bit more worked out. But the impressions overall are of a spontaneous, creative generation that has been sound-sculpted by Raon.

The sound of the harp predominates as a rule, yet all sounds flow smoothly together to create a work of art that is much more than a collection of disparate sounds.

It is fascinating to hear. It has an aural attractiveness which the harp does much to create. And Raon has an inventive knack on the instrument.

Well worth hearing!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Michael Vincent Waller, Five Easy Pieces

First of all, a note of appreciation for all those young composers embarking on a career, trying to make their way in a world where composing for a living is no easy matter. One such composer today is Michael Vincent Waller. He dwells in and around New York City and has put together an EP of a compositional suite for solo piano, Five Easy Pieces (Bandcamp). It is music that suggests a stance that is rather post-Glassian. There is a certain amount of repetition but mostly that repetition varies and develops. There is symmetry, its opposite, and an emphasis on scalular melody.

The music makes use of scales and primal harmonies that at once suggest traditional Asian music and also some of the impressionists' stock-in-trade, such as whole-tone scales.

You can imagine this music being played by a koto, or sometimes a gamelan orchestra. It revels in somewhat simple means, expressed simply. But it is by no means formulaic.

Like the earlier volumes of Bartok's Mikrokosmos, it would seem to have real pedagogic utility for the pianist getting underway in his or her studies--the intermediate beginner. It would give students another entryway into some of the tonal music of today, giving them experience with asymmetrical and symmetrical phrasings in alternation. And the music is evocative enough to give them pleasure.

As for the listener this is music that is not uninteresting. But it does seems to me to show a musical style under construction, an edifice just beginning to show its own special images but by no means complete.

Japanese pianist Gumi Shibata and Chinese pianist Jenny Q. Chai share the performance duties on this 24-minute EP. They sound fine. Like the earlier volumes of Mikrokosmos, these pieces seem like waystations on a journey to a more involved and complicated style, something to challenge a young pianist and be rewarding to hear.

I await further developments and wish Michael Vincent Waller much success and good fortune.

Monday, April 14, 2014

David Korevaar, Bach, The Six Partitas for Keyboard, Piano Version

Of all the works Bach wrote initially for solo harpsichord, his Six Partitas sound especially well on the piano. David Korevaar (MSR 1461, 2CDs) gives us a new version of the cycle that to me affirms this. Any of Bach's keyboard works sound well on the piano in sensitive hands, granted, but the Partitas have non-contrapuntal as well as contrapuntal elements that manage to sound idiomatic on piano.

Years ago when I was in school in Chicago I had the luck to live very close to a very good used record store. Hyde Park had a large contingent of university students and faculty which in part explained some of the assortment of interesting items for sale there. I found a very old Remington LP release of Partita No. 6, I believe, by pianist Jorg Demus. I loved the tone he coaxed out of the piano already from hearing his Schubert sonatas, and this recording did not disappoint. He was neither quite romantic in his renditions nor did he have the dash and velocity of a Glenn Gould, but there was something just right about it all. Unfortunately Remington was a US budget label of the early '50s and what they pressed their disks on wasn't vinyl, nor slate; it seemed to be a brittle, cookie-like oil-based substance that meant the records wore out quickly. My copy of the Demus had been well-played and parts of the record didn't skip as much as slide forward a minute or two into the performance in ways that exasperated. When I left Chicago it got left behind but I still remember the recording fondly, slides and all.

The new David Korevaar renditions of all six Partitas doesn't quite have the Demus tone. But it does have everything else going for it. He gives us a carefully meticulous reading with lots of spirit. Very idiomatically pianistically, the performances use a fair amount of ornamentation so that they also sound suitably baroque.

The set is rather marvelous and the music, of course, is some of Bach's very best. The multi-movemented, French inspired dance suites sound better than ever in Korevaar's hands.

Highly recommended.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Carson Cooman, Rising at Dawn, Chamber Music with Brass

Of all living American composers, Carson Cooman is among the most prolific, or at least so I understand. We looked at his organ music a couple of weeks ago. Now it is time for another recent release, Rising at Dawn, Chamber Music with Brass (Metier 28538).

The organ music disk showed Cooman in a very idiomatic organ mode. The present collection of works broadens our vision of his musical personality considerably. There are eight chamber works contained on the disk, written between 2005 and 2011. Most are fairly brief, except the several movement pieces. Three are for solo piano. The rest are for trumpet, flugelhorn or tuba in prominent relief.

If you were to pigeonhole Cooman's style here, to give you an idea of the music, you would say he is closer to Hindemith than Boulez. He is not a serialist, but he sometimes stretches the harmonic base in a modern way. Other times he is consonant, so to speak, but not in a romantic or especially neo-classic sense, more of today.

All the works presented have genuine substance. A brief song cycle, "Chasing the Moon Down" makes effective use of mezzo-soprano, trumpet and piano. Other works follow for solo trumpet, flugelhorn and harp, trumpet and piano and a very effectively vibrant "Sonata for Tuba and Piano" (2007) in three movements.

The performances are excellent, the works memorable and well put-together, and the sequence of works quite pleasing.

This is a winner. It serves as an admirable introduction to the composer in a chamber mode. And for the brass-a-holics out there it is something you must not miss.

Kudos!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Allan Pettersson, Symphony No. 9, Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg

Swedish composer Allan Pettersson (1911-80) stands out as one of the more enigmatic figures in 20th century symphonic music. In his later period he rejected the "pure" modernism of serialism then in fashion, instead creating works in a highly personal idiom, long sprawling works that contained atonal, pantonal and tonal modes in juxtaposition. They tend to be on the dark side.

That should serve as an introduction to what is at hand today, a recording of Pettersson's Symphony No. 9 (BIS 2038 SACD), as performed by the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg conducting.

The release contains a bonus DVD of the 81-minute biographical documentary "Vox Humana", filmed between 1973-78 and originally aired on Swedish television. It is mostly in Swedish with English subtitles.

That documentary brings us a vision of Pettersson's early childhood as brutal and poverty-stricken, his musical tutelage as precariously subject to the exigencies of European historical developments, such as the Nazi occupation of Paris where he was studying viola at the time.

The advent of his long and serious affliction with rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease in his final decades had great impact on his music. He was an invalid and shut-in while continuing to compose. The struggle to overcome became key to his music and both its heroic and dark qualities, as the DVD implies. His afflictions get a portrayal that has moments that are nothing short of harrowing. Christian Lindberg, a long-time champion of the composer and sponsor of the DVD comments in the end that Pettersson shares something of the personal outlook of famed filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. And that rings true. You might think of Pettersson as the symphonic analog of Bergman and it would not be wholly nonsense to say it.

And yet the music stands on its own without such analogies. Between 1953 and 1980 when he composed most of his output he wrote a total of 16 symphonies. It is as a symphonist that he is known since only a few works were not such. By the time he wrote his 9th he was fully immersed in the stylistic particularities of his mature period.

It is a long work (70 minutes) in one single movement. The symphony seems to represent a never-ending struggle. Passages of dissonant turbulence, chromatic clashes and ultra-advanced yet continually forward moving passages rub against tonal moments that offer the promise of brief refuge only to be enveloped again in the symphonic sea of motifs that ever surges forward. Peace and resolution are only obtained in the final "amen" of the symphony.

It is a symphony at once both intensely dramatic, epic in its masterful treatment of a large orchestra, and in the end an affirmation that struggles are a real part of life, but that they do end in one way or another.

No one wrote symphonies in quite this way before him. The originality is there along with a tenuous connection with the largess of a Bruckner or a Mahler. He uses the orchestra masterfully in ways not entirely removed from these giants. But it is music that bears the undeniable stamp of Petterssonian originality and the modern age in which he lived. As the DVD makes plain, Pettersson champions the voice of "man", the endless struggle to overcome the darknesses of our times.

The performance has authority. It is most likely the definitive version for many years to come. Christian Lindberg understands Pettersson, that is clear. And the orchestra gives a heroic performance. The DVD offers extraordinary insight into the composer.

If you want to know something of Allan Pettersson's music, here is the ideal starting point. Or if you know him this will be essential listening. Either way it is a seminal work in a definitive performance. What more can I say? Enough.