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Friday, September 19, 2014

Carl Nielsen, Symphony No. 4 "The Inextinguishable", Symphony No. 1, New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert

Who would have predicted at the turn of the 19th century what was to come in the 20th? Looking back now, we see an incredibly varied 100 years, with innovations piled one upon the other. Yet it is no longer shocking as it once was found, the newness now mostly familiar, the music appreciated more and more for the brilliance encountered.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen came along in the beginning of the period and was a force for the new, one of the brooms that swept out the excesses of romanticism, yet did something with that legacy in the process that was totally unprecedented. He refashioned it in his own image, made it a force for modernism that had neither precursors or followers in the direct sense. Nielsen was a school of one.

His symphonies, all six, take their place in the pantheon of remarkable cycles. Happily, the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert have embarked on the journey to realize the cycle today in new recordings. The second volume, with the Symphony No. 4 "The Inextinguishable" and the Symphony No. 1 (DaCapo 6.220624) has just come out. It is seminal, I would say.

The New York Philharmonic had a great Nielsen interpreter in Leonard Bernstein last century. Now it has Alan Gilbert.

The first symphony is up there as one of the boldest first symphonies around. Comparisons with Brahms' and Mahler's firsts come to mind. All three entered the fray with a remarkably mature first, having all the seeds in place for their fully blown later works, yet retaining a self-contained completeness that sets them apart as marvels in their own right.

Nielsen's first is the most romantic, perhaps, of all the Danish master wrote. Yet thematically there is something very originally Nielsenian about it. It sings in the hands of Gilbert and the New Yorkers. The flow and differentiation of voices puts this one on a par with the very best on disk. You forget that the first is necessarily a prelude of even more "characteristic" Nielsen symphonies. And with a work of this dynamic beauty one should hear it on its own terms.

On the other hand the 4th, the "Inextinguishable", gives us the fully realized Nielsen, which you could say also of his 3rd, 5th and 6th. It is a late romanticism so totally original that it does not synch with the others, partially because it is drenched with Nielsen's very own modernism. It is all quite involved on a tonal-harmonic level. It creates lush carpets of mystery and a sometimes semaphoric, signalling melodic structure that comes out of the orchestra like an impassioned, urgent communication, yet relates to the overall arc of the symphonic game plan in the most organic sense. Like Nielsen's use of the snare drum in the 5th, the 4th has some passages for timpani that function melodically and dramatically. And of course that is only a part of the lucidly urgent singing quality of Nielsen's later symphonies.

There is a Northern feel in Nielsen's best music that has no real counterparts. Sibelius may come the closest, but he had a lyric quality that Nielsen has in a different but parallel way, but of course Nielsen pushed his music much farther away from a derivative romanticism into modern territory. Sibelius had his own romanticism, and it pretty much stayed put inside that in its own original way. Nielsen takes more risks in his later symphonies and they pay off every time, virtually speaking.

Alan Gilbert's Fourth is a triumph. There is strongly defined part writing that Gilbert realizes vividly, and a dramatic push on the edge of the ecstatic that this version captures beautifully.

It is a one-four coupling of great strength and ruggedly craggy beauty. There is no better Fourth out there to my mind, though many good ones. Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic give us Nielsen in all his glory. The First is given all its due; the Fourth shines like a beacon.

Very recommended.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Philip Blackburn, Music of Shadows

Avant garde composers of electronic and electro-acoustic music in the classic phase, at least the very best ones, managed to craft a set of sounds for each work that had a personal fingerprint, a special ambience all its own. It's true of Varese, Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Berio, and so forth. With the rise of the Moog and other synthesizers and their ready-made series of sound options some of that tabula rasa aspect diminished for a time. Today's manifestations see a return to the home-made sound design approach in the best cases. That is very true of Philip Blackburn's latest set of compositions in a three-work compendium named Music of Shadows (Innova 250).

The first two works were designed to form the "Sewer Pipe Organ", to be played back inside storm drains in St. Paul, MN. They both have an ambience that would sound well in such a cavernous/elongated enclosure.

The first, "Dry Spell" (2011-13) has a striking sound design of thickly timbrous sustains with field recordings of children playing along with sonic interruptions and enhancements of various sorts. A chorus and various home-made instruments form the body of source sounds that Blackburn adeptly reworks and transforms. It is a beautiful piece.

"Still Points" (2011) works with different velocities in ways I certainly appreciate, creating sound poetry of a high order out of a synthesis process he calls the "Virtual Rhythmicon". Whereas "Dry Spell" favors long legato sustains, "Still Points" focuses on more staccato bursts of several timbre families articulating rhythmic figures of different contrasting periodicities, varying rates of pulse. It is music that mesmerizes as it fascinates.

The final work, "The Long Day Closes" (2013), features VAPA/The Sun Palace chorus and instrumentalists with the late Bob Paredes on clarinet. The music was composed "after Handel's 'Ombra mai fu'" which comprised the first radio broadcast of music in 1906, to passing ships in Brant Rock, Massachusetts who would otherwise have received messages in Morse code.

The initial instrumental-vocal source recordings get a sometimes subtle, sometimes more thorough electro-acoustic transformation to give it all increased ambiance. It's as if that original broadcasts is still resonating out towards infinite space, beyond the sea and reaching for the stars. It is an exceedingly beautiful work, another creatively realized study in sustains, wrapping up what "Dry Spells" initiated with a satisfying closure.

So there we have it. Philip Blackburn gives us a ravishingly sonic modern adventure that is both highly inventive and thoroughgoingly striking in its sound design. These are works to get inside of, to experience transformatively, to change as the music itself changes. It is something not to be missed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Jacob TV, Complete Solo Piano Music, Jeroen van Veen

Today's new music classical scene most certainly has a fair amount of activity in the minimalist, post-modern, radical tonality or plain-old elemental tonality zone. Of course as we have seen on these pages there is a good deal else. Nevertheless there are composers working in the former territories that we have not as yet covered. One is up for review today. His name is Jacob TV (or Jacob Ter Veldhuis, to use his full given name) (b. 1951). He purveys what he calls "avant pop", which sounds catchy enough, but doesn't always quite fit what he does. Hey, it's new music! It isn't pop. Ah, but he no doubt jests with us? No matter.

At any rate a significant two-volume CD is out, Complete Solo Piano Music (Brilliant 94873) which features pianist Jeroen van Veen, joined by Sandra van Veen for the two-piano "Views from a Dutch Trame", and replaced by Ronald Brautigam for the "Piano Concerto No. 2 'Sky Falling'", which also brings in the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under Thierry Fischer. Otherwise, Jeroen Van Veen prevails, and that suits the music well because he seems to understand the composer quite intimately.

We get a sort of post-Satie repose contrasted by busy agitation on the two-installment "Pianobook 1 & 2", then there are more directly minimal works, including some "Boom Box" pieces, so-called, like "The Body of Your Dreams", which samples an over-the-top enthused exercise device ad while creating piano melodies that echo the pitch implications of the speech-sounds, something in the manner of the Reich of "Different Trains" and other works from that period. It may be popular out there to do this and Jacob TV puts the mix together in a clever manner, but frankly I can get tired quickly of this sort of thing. Mercifully there aren't that many here and they take up little space. So I suppose it is good to include them to be sure and give us a representative sample ("complete" at any rate) of what Jacob TV is about.

The "Piano Concerto No. 2 'Sky Falling'" has a very diatonic radical tonality bent. It is even just plain "tuneful" and treats us to a refreshing piece of music whose sometimes cheerfulness belies its inspiration--the 2008 recession and a reporter's comment on it, that the sky was "not falling". There are moments where the cheerfulness drops off for a moment or two, fittingly. It captivates.

Jacob Ter Veldhuis channeled through Jeroen van Vleet embodies pianistic sensitivity in a set that has many quite lovely moments. Pianist van Vleet seems exceptionally sympathetic to this music, giving us straightforward yet evocative performances throughout. It is very accessible fare, something even a stubborn anti-modernist may find enchanting. Yet there is nothing vapid or new age about the music. It is filled with twists and turns that show a very musical mind at work. Time flies when you listen. Yet there is a contemplative side to it all as well.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Anja Lechner, Francois Couturier, Moderato cantabile, Komitas, Gurdjieff, Mompou

There is music that speaks with beauty and flow, sometimes more so than with structure. The structure is there, but like a building where the support beams are hidden it is less something experienced than felt. That would characterize the new album by cellist Anja Lechner and pianist Francois Couturier, Moderato cantabile (ECM New Series B0021592-02). The two were a part of the rather striking album Il Pergolese (see January 16, 2014 posting) and here launch their duo. Lechner comes out of the classical world but has a big interest in improvisation; Couturier comes from the jazz end of the spectrum, but through his arrangements and compositions leans here and elsewhere increasingly toward the classical realms.

This album freely rearranges and improvises around music by Gurdjieff (Transcaucasian), Komitas Vardapet (Armenian) and Federico Mompou (Catalanian).

The re-arrangements of the music give us an open quality, beautifully cantabile throughout, yet also somewhat Eastern in its sound, tonality and concern with space, partly because of the original music itself, part given the duo's creative interpretive spin.

The playing is exquisite, so evocative of a beautiful repose that it is easy to find yourself drifting with the music, letting it wash over you. The result for me was that it took me a number of listens before I started experiencing the what of the melodic specifics and their lavishly soaring accompaniment. The meditative transparency of the duo sound strikes you right away, the specific language of the works reinterpreted comes a little later.

At any rate it is music that puts you in a very nice zone. The fluidity of the duo is pretty exceptional, but like the extraordinary beauty of a beautiful landscape it first ravishes; only later do you spot out the musical landmarks and guideposts to help you in your journey forward.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Hanns Eisler Edition, Ten CDs

Sometimes there are historical reasons behind the obscure posterity of a composer. Certainly that was true in the case of Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), a substantially prolific, extraordinarily gifted Austrian composer, a Jew who throughout his life maintained an unswerving allegiance to left-wing politics. He studied with Schoenberg and was a most promising force in the contemporary new music scene in the Middle Europe of the pre-Nazi era. He began his career in Vienna, moved to Berlin in 1925, and like Kurt Weill, incorporated cabaret and pop elements into his music. Like Weill also he collaborated with poet-lyricist-playwright Bertolt Brecht, in Eisler's case primarily via songs and incidental music to Brechtian theater works.

With the rise of the Nazis Eisler's music was banned along with many others and he left Germany abruptly, then made various stops in Europe before coming to the US to teach at the New School in 1938. He made the treck to Hollywood in 1942, wrote scores for movies which brought him some acclaim and several Academy Award nominations. His left-wing affiliations got him in trouble in 1947, when Nixon and the HUA put him before their tribunal. He was deported and eventually spent his last years in East Berlin, where he was accepted but even then subjected to the strictures of Social Realism which prevailed during the Stalin era.

So there are reasons why Eisler's music is not well known today. Indeed some of his music has strong agit-prop qualities not likely to endear him to mainstream concert goers. Yet we manage to celebrate Weill's early theatre music nonetheless, which has strong political content inherent in Brecht's librettos.

Recordings of his music have been available here and there in the post-modern era, but nothing of the scope and breadth of the newly released Hanns Eisler Edition (Brilliant Classics 9430) a comprehensive ten-CD retrospective covering the full breath of his output. The lyrics to the vocal music are not included, but you can download them from the Brilliant site.

What we have in this set is an impressive set of recordings, many made in East Germany, nearly all very good performances. It is not the complete Eisler but it covers a great deal of his music: symphonic, chamber, songs, piano music, symphonic vocal and choral. Here and there the music is strictly agit-prop, especially some of the choral works, but never so much as to dominate.

As for the rest, it shows us a composer of exceptional talent. There are wide-eyed modernist works from his early years and even later, cabaret music that will remind pleasantly of Weill yet not reproduce him, some beautiful chamber works....There is no way to give detailed descriptions with a set of this magnitude.

I came away from listening to this all with a revelation that Eisler was a major composer whose politics kept him out of the Western rediscoveries and revivals that the music of many other Euro-exiles eventually enjoyed in later years.

Perhaps his time has come. Certainly the Brilliant set makes a case for his talent and abilities, and that at a very reasonable price. Not everything is brilliant, not surprisingly, yet there is genuine facility to be heard and appreciated throughout.

Anyone who values the historical modernists will find a good deal in this set to like. He may have been forgotten, but we can now easily get exposure to the music here and make up our minds. Recommended.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Julian Wachner, Symphony No. 1, Works for Orchestra and Voices

Over the centuries there have been many composers who spent a good deal of time conducting others' works and learning a great deal thereby on the specifics of orchestration and musical conception of the greats first-hand. Julian Wachner is a contemporary who has done that. He has especially done so in the context of sacred music, holding down a number of musical directorships/conducting positions at such institutions as the famous Trinity Church on Wall Street.

He comes to us today in the guise of a composer, and an excellent one he is. Specifically we have a three-CD set of his music, performed under his conductorship, in the Symphony No. 1: Incantations and Lamentations, Works for Orchestra and Voices (Musica Omnia 0604 3-CDs).

The set contains so much that is worthwhile that trying to discuss each work might get a bit tedious. Suffice to say that the 13 works proffered in the set cover a good deal of time, from the 1989 "Psalm Cycle I" to the 2014 "Blue, Red and Green". In the process the set covers a developmental traversal of musical space as well. A good bit of it is sacred music, most is very contemporary in tone, though a few channel early church music styles to their own end. Wachner has an excellent knack of getting stirring sounds from voices, both soloists and choirs. He also has mastered orchestration so that the instrumental parts work together for a lucid transparency or a rousing mass of varied voices.

Wachner has a pronounced rhythmic sensibility and puts it to good use in movements that have shifting meters and a dynamic thrust to them. At some point you occasionally detect a Bernstein influence (the Mass sometimes comes to mind as a precursor), other times some of the voicings and counterpoints of later Reich also seem to be launching points, still other moments there is a jazziness to it all. But then there are the tender and mysterium aspects, too. None of it sounds derivative. It does seem an integral part of a developed grand tradition of sacred music, with Wachner taking his place in a potential pantheon. But time will be the judge of that.

In the meantime we have this set to appreciate. The works are substantial, the performances lucid and bold in outline (listen for example to the Trinity Choirs) and the sound well-staged, spectacular.

Anyone who wants to know what's good out there in American modern sacred music must hear this. If that is not your specialization you will still be well-served by this set. The music comes from a composer who needs to be attended to, for music that holds its own in a modern contemporary tonal mode.

Very recommended.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Moritz Moszkowski, Complete Music for Four Hands, Domenico Monaco, Michele Solimande

If you are well familiar with composer Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), German-Jewish composer of Polish descent, you have a leg up on things. I believe I have a piano concerto of his somewhere in my stacks of vinyl, otherwise he was an unknown quantity when I opted to review his Complete Music for Four Hands (Brilliant Classics 94835, 3-CDs). He was admired by Paderewski, more well known in his day perhaps than ours, but that latter of course says nothing against his music.

The box set of three CDs gives you everything he composed for piano four hands, and that's a good deal of music. Domenico Monaco and Michele Solimando render the music with great charm and spirit, which is exactly what the music needs. We have to remember back to a time when of course there were no radios, televisions, music audio players of whatever stripe. Most people had the parlor piano installed in their residences, certainly those musically inclined. Piano music that was simple enough to be played by the amateur could sell as sheet music to the profit of composer and publishing house, especially if the music caught on with the public. If your house had more than one accomplished pianist, music for piano four hands could give the family some fine entertainment.

These Moszkowski works seem designed and well-suited for such musical evenings. The parts are not too difficult for the amateur, yet they yield some very full pianistic music with a large sound and some very memorable themes. Some of the waltzes and mazurkas are regularly ordered so that dancing no doubt was also possible.

Before you say to yourself, "sounds like a banal sort of waste of time" consider that these pieces are very well-constructed, have some excellent thematic memorability, and have in addition some of Polish and even (latent?) Jewish folk qualities--and other attractions that make them hard not to appreciate.

Moszkowski was no hack, nor did he engage in the sentimentality that makes some parlor piano music from the era unbearable. Not everything is simplissimo, either. There are at times extension of Chopinesque poeticism, regularized without much rubato to make a four-handed presentation fairly straightforward.

I found the music delightful, more than I had expected in fact. They transcend time and place and speak to us. The romanticism is contained in classical structure and folk effusion, so the music does not sound dated.

Plus this box set is at a very decent price. An evergreen forgotten is still an evergreen. This music remains fresh and lively after all the years, and the performances are all what one would hope for.