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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Cello Concertos, Johannes Moser, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Thomas Sondergard

One can go through most of one's life of course without hearing certain works, in today's case the Cello Concertos (Pentatone PTC 5186 689) by Witold Lutolawski and Henri Dutilleux. One might have been the better no doubt if one heard them first in a more youthful period of life but missing something is inevitable I suppose because in the end as much as we try to swim with the very moment we live in at the flowering of Modernity we must be somewhat de-synchronized, at least one step removed from sequential actuality at times, if not more. It turns out that Lutoslawski's "Cello Concerto" and Henri Dutilleux's "'Tout un monde lointain'' (Cello Concerto)' were both completed in 1970. Both are fully characteristic in general of each composer in that time, and happily it is some of their finest work of this or any point in their careers. If you may have missed them like I have, now is the time.

And what of us, if we were alive then? In my case I was in no position to be exposed to either unless by chance a well-distributed budget label came out with a recording. That was more or less the only chance I might have had of hearing the music then. That says a great deal of the importance of those budget lines to the musical upbringing of a young lad such as I. At any rate I do not recall either composer being accessible to me in any way in those days.

All the better to have something new and worthwhile to hear later in life. We are fortunate with the present-day release of the works that they are played with Promethean drama by cellist Johannes Moser and equally, spectacularly seconded by Thomas Sondergard conducting the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin.

The Lutoslawski is an expressive landmark of the period, vividly filled with alternating High Modern brimstone and reflective meditation in ways we find Lutowslawski especially superior in setting about. The cello part is in every way heroic and transcendent while the orchestra parts comment upon the solo passages and create new expressive situational possibilities in ever masterful and convincing ways.

The Dutilleux is no less monumental in its ambitions, and no less successful in its results. Nevertheless he looks inside his musical creative self for another kind of inventive moment, more memory intensive perhaps, in a Modern-Impressionist reverie. The music moves forward in ever vibrant, rhythmically linear terms. Perhaps the music is somewhat less momentously High Modernist, but then there is a color-lyric element that replaces the Lutoslawski dynamic and we feel on different grounds, no less vivid but stylistically other. That is good.

It would be hard to top the performances. Moser is fully prepared and also fully in tune with his part and the orchestra has passion and intelligence under Thomas Sondergard. The works are central highlights of the last part of last century. Indispensible I would say.

Monday, January 21, 2019

ONIX Ensemble, Hard Core, Dodecaphonic Gems by Boulez, Ishi and Carter, Alejandro Escuer, Jose Arean

The Dodecaphonic or 12-Tone vision of Modernity of course made its start with Schoenberg, reached critical mass with Webern, and then had its peak flowering with the Serial '50s-'70s. Pierre Boulez in France and later, Elliot Carter in the USA brought great depth and beauty to the form. And perhaps he is not as well known in Euro-American circles, but Maki Ishi created some stunning High Modern gems as well.

The wonderfully enthusiastic and precise ONIX Ensemble, comprised of talented young artists from Mexico, present three masterworks by the aforementioned composers, performed live with extraordinary grit and imagination. This on the recent album Hard Core (Cultura JBCC281).

It is music of breathtaking complexity. It is extraordinarily hard to play well. ONIX takes it all in stride and manages to sound uniquely individual in the process. I will not say that they make it sound easy. But they make it sound like it really is supposed to sound like they make it sound, and really that is far more important, isn't it?

"Le Marteau sans maitre" by Boulez is undoubtedly one of the chamber masterpieces of the 20th century and a Boulez breakout work. ONIX gives the ravishing pointillist-counterpoint an impetus of their own. This is High Modernism at peak impactfulness. It is also one of the very best of versions, without a doubt. The voice-flute-guitar-viola-percussion instrumentation and approach is a sublime Webernian phenom but with a treatment even more brilliantly Boulezian.

"Aphorismen" by Maki Ishi takes an acoustically lively gathering of violin, viola, cello, percussion and piano and gives it a very original twist, with contrapuntal flair that understandably feels a bit more Eastern.

Elliot Carter's concluding "Triple Duo" is a 1983 gem, a deeply concentrated later-period astral meditation for flute, clarinet, violin, cell, piano and percussion.

The music represents some peak heights of Utopia-Futurism and it is done with brilliance. You really should hear this one, and no doubt you should have this one too, if you want the best of New Music in your collection. Highest of recommendations.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

John McCabe, Mountains, MINI-Review

Up until now I mainly only focused upon John McCabe (1929-2014) as a talented and interesting composer, best known for his music for the feature cartoon The Snowman. Now with this release I hear him as a very able and keenly interpretive pianist. Mountains (Divine Art 28585) gives us a full program of his perfomances on piano of other Modern music, from other composers. It is in a way a composer's pianist we hear, for he approaches the music, every phrase, as if it were his own. These mountains are carved out in a rough, skewn, rough-hewn way with boldness and deep understanding. And the works are each gems.

There are seven works by seven composers, Peter Sculthorpe, Wendy Hiscocks, David Mastanka. Don Banks, Graeme Koshine, George Rochberg and Barney Childs. Each comes vividly alive in McCabe's hands and then moves on for the next. In the end you are left with a strong impression, a feeling that there has been a superior engagement with some very attractive Modern piano music.

Hear this by all means!

Baldassare Galuppi, Complete Piano Sonatas, Volume 4, Peter Seivewright, MINI-Review

Four volumes to date on the Complete Piano Sonatas of Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785). This Volume 4 (Divine Arts 25103) is a good place to start because it includes his "Second Piano Concerto," a wisp of the breeze through our ears that comes and goes as quickly as a sunset in winter where I am now.

Galuppi's sonatas are a model of simplicity, lyricality and buoyancy. Peter Seivewright plays it all with the charm and enthusiasm it demands. It is disarming music that makes a point not to be profound and that is refreshing.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Simon McCorry, Song Lines

There is music that defies easy classification. What peg hole to stuff it in? In the old bricks-and-mortar days that was an immediate problem as well as a thoroughgoing one. What section should the album be in? So Frank Zappa was nearly always in the Rock bins and at least at the start that was quite sensible. I can remember though when Verve started venturing forth into Rock the Schwann catalog assumed (amusingly to me at the time) that all of it had to be Jazz. That's what Verve did! So the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out and the first album by the Velvet Underground were listed under New Releases, Jazz! But then it might have been prophetic, since just after Jimi Hendrix died readers of Downbeat voted him into their Hall of Fame. Some people were upset about that. In the end though what did it mean?

And so today I duly report in on an album that has gotten my attention and indeed my approbation. It is called Song Lines (Naviar Records) and the music is by Simon McCorry. Is it "Classical?" It is drone, it is soundscape, it is Radical Tonality, it is post-Modern. It fits into the New Music fold perfectly well and perhaps we should leave it there and just listen?

The music is in five segments or movements. Each is magical in its own way. Some of the sounds seem sampled from conventional instruments, some Electroacoustic in a wider sense, in others I hear strings, cellos, quite obviously at some point a tabla. In all cases there is a snug fit between means and ends.

The main idea is that this music has a folksy magic to it that is quite beautiful. Every part fits together with every other part and the music seems at all times purposeful and directional. There is the Indian echoes of the drone to be felt much of the time, and a modal-elementality well thought-out. The music has the density of a small chamber orchestra most of the time. The weight and the movement of the music seems at all times right for itself though.

I suggest that this will appeal strongly to you if you are in any way drone-scaped in your soul. Highly recommended for those who self-select according to that critereon. Nicely done!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Isang Yun, Sunrise Falling, Dennis Russell Davies, Matt Haimovitz, Yumi Hwang-Williams, Maki Namekawa, Bruckner Orchestra Linz

Isang Yun (1917-1995)! His High Modernist music was increasingly ubiquitous in the sixties on the New Music scene and then somehow the music seemed to vanish in the States. What happened? He was Korean born and spent his formative and then artistically acclaimed years in Germany. His life fell under shadow when he was kidnapped by the South Korean Secret Service and jailed in South Korea, where he was forced to sign a confession that he was an agent of North Korea. From that point on his life was marginalized and in the end un-secure. Though he was released by South Korea in 1969 and after his death the government admitted that his persecution was based on baseless charges, his life was under something of a pall thereafter.

Some 24 years after his death there are signs that his music is again receiving the attention it deserves. The two-CD set at hand is a most auspicious and welcome event. Sunrise Falling (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 693) involves some key orchestral works, some important concerted works for cello (Matt Haimovitz) and violin (Yumi Hwang-Williams) interspersed with chamber works, primarily music that further explores cello and violin potentialities. The vast majority were written in his later career in the '70s and '80s and gives us a vivid window onto his fully mature Modern voice.

There is a logic to the sequencing that makes total sense. Disk One is oriented toward the cello and so we find the 1976 "Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra," a middle-grounding "Interludium A for solo piano" (1982), then to "Glisses for Solo Cello" (1970) and a rather breathtaking orchestral "Fanfare & Memorial" (1979).

Disk Two gives us a violin-centric perspective with "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1" (1981), a later work notable for its partial, rooted return to tonality while keeping to the original sound-color palette he utilized so well, "Kontraste. Two Pieces for Solo Violin" (1987) and "Gasa for Violin and Piano" (1963).

Conductor Dennis Russell Davies, Haimovitz, Hwang-Williams and the Bruckner Orchester Linz devote a great amount of care and sympathy towards this music so we can get a true idea of the exceptional qualities of the last decades of output from the master composer. There is a use of space and breadth in this music that one might think of as Asian or especially Korean, but that is in conjunction with a focused expressivity (not necessarily un-Korean) and High Modern torque that ever exists together in a kind of pure realm of total aural conviction that becomes clear when you give the music a close reading over multiple listens.

The determined creation of an alternate High Modernism becomes ever more understandable when one gives the music an extended chance to live inside the apperceptive musical self. Every note has a place in the totality yet there is also a feeling of real-time expression and a living musical humanity that comes through in striking ways.

It is an important program played beautifully. It will go far if you take it seriously in presenting to your deep listening self Isang Yun the fully flowered brilliance. It is an important moment of retrospection all Modernists should find heartening. Revival is in the air. Bravo!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner

I can pinpoint in my head the time when I first got a hold of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, via the first release as the VoxBox LPs by Rudolf Ewerhart Santini and the Kammerorchester (Munster), etc. It was the inaugural recorded version, though missing parts in order to fit it all onto three LPs. I took to it right away and for whatever reason used to revel in the recitative sections among other things because of the prominent harp part that other versions I have heard are lacking. No matter. I can pinpoint the time because I was living in Brookline then with Berklee roomates. We were on the top floor and parallel to us was an apartment occupied then by a Professor of Indo-Pak music who at the time taught at Boston University. Our balconies adjoined and as I was listening to the Monteverdi and lounging on the balcony one summer night the Professor struck up a conversation that was quite interesting. He first wanted to know why I listened to such things. My answer was involved in the idea that there were world legacies and one chose from them but that the Western Classical tradition was something I was interested in assimilating from a compositional perspective, etc. Turns out he liked of all Western musics Bluegrass best, and thinking about it even now I understand. The timbre of the vocals, the banjo as a sort of sarod, etc. I suddenly heard classical Bluegrass as might a Classical Indo-Pak musician. So that was the summer of 1973. And so my first important exposure to Early Music Opera.

Wikipedia reminds me that the only manuscript version we have today is a three-act manuscript dating from 19th century Vienna. The work was premiered in 1640 and really it was from the 1970s on that the music underwent significant revival in our world.

I later supplemented the Santini version with the early '70s first complete recording by Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. That to me was superior in the way it pursued updated original instrument performance practices, but there were things I liked about each  and I kept the both versions actively until some upheavals threw my vinyl connection to the winds in part. The path from version-to-version reminds me how I assimilated the music, first primarily in melodic-harmonic terms, later also the timbral uniqueness of the era, and finally as a whole in relation to other wholes of the period and beyond. As a very first Opera in the history of such things it was of course important to hear but then the brilliance of Monteverdi becomes primary early on because the music stands out and bears up wonderfully well.

And now I have the pleasure to be introduced to a brand new version of the complete opera as performed by distinguished soloists, the Monteverdi Choir, and English Baroque Soloists (instrumental), all under John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 730 3-CDs). It comes in a very attractive hard cover book-like package with full libretto and notes.

The performances in the Gardiner version are excellent. This may be the finest singing of any version I have yet to hear. The soloists have a wonderful grasp of the embellishments available and sometimes delve into the music with an emotive gusto one is used to hearing in later Italian Comedic style. And it works nicely. The instrumental parts are played with great vivacity, care and attention to period detail.

After 46 years living with this music my enthusiasm is undiminished. Monteverdi is inventive to a point rarely reached by any composer regardless of the period and there is an almost folk-like directness to much of the music here that Gardiner brings out especially well. In fact of the three versions I have lived with this one stands out as the most detailed and sonically engaging. Perhaps Monteverdi's first opera Orfeo is the more exciting work to many listeners, yet there is something to Ulysses that sets it apart as completely unique. Anyone serious about the musical heritage we inherit should probably have a recording of this opera, and this recording seems to be the new benchmark.

That is not to say that my neighbor was wrong about Bluegrass. You should listen to that too! But that is another matter among other matters. 

Highly recommended.