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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Panufnik, Lutowslawski, String Quartets, Tippett Quartet

Of twentieth-century Polish composers there are many, many fine ones. The later modernists were at one time dominated by Penderecki, for various mostly good reasons, but here in the States we heard less of Lutoslawski (1913-1994) and very little of Panufnik.

Happily we celebrate the 100th birthday for Panufnik (1914-1991) this year, so all who are curious are getting the chance to know the composer more intimately (type his name in the search box above and you will see some of the new releases that I have posted on thus far). At the same time Lutoslawski's music has surged in terms of recorded performances in the last few decades. So we are learning much more these days about the later 20th-century modern movement there.

With a new Naxos (8.573164) release we get to hear all three string quartets by Panufnik coupled with Lutoslawski's only work in the medium, all played nicely by the Tippett Quartet.

What the disk does in a nutshell is affirm Lutoslawski's stature in the modern pantheon, but it also gives us a chance to see the chamber side of Panufnik in great depth, with three excellent quartets that have been rather neglected in the discographies. And he fares very well with these works on close listening.

The Panufnik quartets each have a character of their own. No. 1 (1976) is a rather somber affair; No. 2 "Messages" (1980) has a bit more flow, as it is based on how Panufnik in his youth was fascinated by the sound he heard when he put his ear to a telegraph pole, as he listened to the humming caused by the wind setting the wires in motion. No. 3, "Wycinanki" (1990), generates musical impressions of traditional Polish folk paper-cut art.

All three have some of the structural strengths of the mature Panufnik. A serialist he isn't, but he often organizes works around a sort of generative grammar of particular intervals or motives, a structural tendency that gives the music an inherent logic. The listener may not be aware of the limitations Panufnik sets for himself in such a work, yet there is long-form continuity and contrast. These three works (affirmed by reading the liner notes) do not have rigorous motival schemes in the literal sense, yet there is coherent musical discourse throughout that builds on motival-intervalic logic. There is great strength and subtlety in the three quartets. All told they show a master musical mind at work, Panufnik at his mature best.

The Lutoslawski string quartet extends the idea of a modern abstract, coherent discourse in its own way. The two-movement quartet from 1964 was his only work in this configuration. It has a more cosmically expressive dynamic that makes for a fitting end-point to the program. One wishes he wrote more quartets and it is equally true for me of Panufnik.

We have these four works to experience and relish in any event. The Tippett Quartet gives us fine readings, detailed yet woven into whole cloth, the patterns and changes brought out in sharp outline.

With the Naxos price, this CD gives you much to explore and appreciate without eating into your retirement savings, or your nest egg in general, assuming you have one! It is a most valuable addition to any self-respecting modernist's collection, with works you may well want to return to continually, each time gaining something new from the experience. Get this one!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mohammed Fairouz, Poems and Prayers, UCLA Philharmonia, Chorale and Chorus, Neal Stulberg

Composer Mohammed Fairouz undoubtedly is a leading light among the younger composers working today. We've already come across two disks dealing in whole or part with his music (type his name in the search box above for those posts), now we encounter one of his most ambitious, a recording of his Poems and Prayers, otherwise known as his "Symphony No. 3", plus the related "Tahrir" for clarinet and orchestra (Sono Luminus 92177, CD and Blu-ray set).

"Tahrir" (2011) refers to the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011. The word means "freedom" and Fairouz commemorates the event with music that is in part informed by and structured on Mozart Piano Concerto K. 482 (the first to include a clarinet) and also his Clarinet Concerto K. 622, but does so with the clarinet and orchestra taking on the modes and flavor of traditional mid-eastern music. David Krakauer does an excellent job realizing the clarinet part. The music cleverly and delightfully sets the stage for the larger work to come, "Poems and Prayers".

The symphony (2010) has a great gravity to it, as it both mourns the deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prays for peace in that region. Appropriate texts in both Hebrew and Arabic alternate, including a Kaddish. The texts reflect and correspond to the music of both nationalities on top of a sort of neo-classic, neo-romantic expressiveness and attention to form. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone David Kravitz have important roles in conjunction with the massed choirs of UCLA along with the Philharmonia, all conducted in a moving performance by Neal Stulberg.

In light of recent events in the region, the message of the music becomes even more urgent and contemporary.

The music itself is quite effectively eclectic with modern tonality alternating with mid-eastern modes in ways that move the emotions and express the concern, horror and dismay one may well be feeling as a listener prior to coming to this music.

As with most other Sono Luminus releases the set comes in a standard two-channel performance on CD and a 5:1 version on Blu-ray. I have not been able to audition the latter, but I can imagine that it makes for an even more poignant experience.

Mohammed Fairouz lives up to his promise as a contemporary composer of talent, creativity and even brilliance on this disk. This is not music of a happy sort, but the world has been in the throes of tragic events and Fairouz captures that feeling with a prayer for redemption that all of us can appreciate and fervently hope for.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Christopher Roberts, Trios for Deep Voices

Not every album changes the world. That's fitting because world-changing events are not something we can handle on a daily basis without overload. Today's album has no intentions of a foundational reworking. But that is not to say it is in any way ordinary or everyday.

It's a series of works for three contrabasses by Christopher Roberts. Trios for Deep Voices (Cold Blue 0030) comes in part out of the insights and impressions gained from an extended visit by the composer to the Star Mountains in Papua New Guinea. His participation in and appreciation of the primal local music and the sounds of nature there gave him pause and were inspirations for these five contrabass trios.

Roberts extends the range of the three instruments by utilizing harmonics extensively. In this way there are the expected deep bass notes but also an upper range to work with. The music has some repetition but like the traditional music of New Guinea the horizontal prosody of A-to-B discourse is predominate.

There are intervallic primes along with a compositional inventiveness that makes this music belong more to the realm of radical tonality than minimalism. The sound of the bowed contrabasses (played by the composer, Mark Morton and James Bergman) has the effect of creating an ethereal dream world that nonetheless has a robustness born of the physicality of the instruments played together.

The music comes together and rewards the attentive listener with a sound all its own. There is much to appreciate. I eventually found myself falling more and more deeply under its spell. I think perhaps there will be plenty of others who will feel the same way after deep listening.

As much as someone like me loves the sound of the contrabass, in time I heard the trios as music that goes beyond instrumentation to a contemplative space, as the composer no doubt intended.

Very much recommended.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Peter Kerlin Octet, Salamander

In keeping with the theme Friday, today another musical presentation that combines new music classical with cross-genres, in this case jazz-rock.

Peter Kerlin composes the music and plays bass on the Peter Kerlin Octet and the highly creative five-work set entitled Salamander (Innova 879). There are plenty of predecessors for this sort of hybrid. Multi-reed composer Eric Dolphy had in his last stages of his career a remarkable compositional new music stance combined with avant jazz on recordings such as Out to Lunch back in the mid-'60s. And there have been others. Peter Kerlin channels what has been done and comes through with his very own way. The Octet goes for a wide-ranging through-composed suite of works that are in some ways minimalist and post-modern but with the energy, openness and charge of jazz-rock.

The players in this ensemble all seem to have a jazz background, so that the playing of the music has a looseness and freedom and includes I can presume more than just what has been written/pre-arranged. Though the total personnel comes to a bit more than an octet--three bassists, two vibraphonists, three violists, an organist and two drummers--the idea of the initial instrumentation must have been eight-part and others added or subtracted as needed in the recording-realization process. No matter.

Drummer Mike Pride and violist Jessica Pavone are the more well-known players here, both with a good deal of new jazz cred, but the group sound has that as part of the major thrust throughout.

Kerlin brings in inventive, attractive motives, generally subjects them to mesmeric repetition, with vivid ensemble colors. The filling out with atmospheric tones and improvisatory flourishes makes this much more than minimalism in some predictable sense. It is almost like a series of musical solar systems, with some things in orbit around a center and other non-circular entrances (like meteor showers or cosmic rays subject to different trajectories?) coming through the various zones for a series of mini-universes of sounds.

The music bears very well repeated hearings. Anyone with a sense of possibilities and an openness to the new will find this music as pleasurable as it is innovative. I hope we can hear more of this sort of music from Peter Kerlin in the near future.

Very much recommended.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Maya Beiser, Uncovered, Arrangements by Evan Ziporyn

The beauty of the idea behind the old adage "you can't step in the same stream twice" is not only that it is true. It also means that you can go back to the same places later on and you find renewal possible, even actual.

That's the feeling I get listening to cellist Maya Beiser and her album Uncovered (Innova 900). On it she chose ten rock and blues classics as her repertoire. Evan Ziporyn, one of my favorite Bang On A Can composers, arranged them for cello and an electric/acoustic ensemble. It is one of the best fusions of rock and the new classics I've heard, because it does full justice to Maya's cello expressions, the implications and thrust of the songs, and the idea that there can be a radical synergy between the two stylistic complexes that is fully in keeping with the position we are in today.

The choice of songs, to begin with, is excellent. Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog", Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' at Midnight", Hendrix's "Little Wing", King Crimson's "Epitaph", Nirvana's "Lithium" and so on. These are songs that jump out in the originals and if anything are enhanced by the new treatment.

Electric and acoustic bass, reeds, drums and percussion conjoin with multiple versions of Maya's cello. Maya handles the principal melodies as if in a concerted context and she joins with the other instruments creating the stunning backgrounds. Ziporyn and Beiser create nothing short of brilliant music out if it all.

Debate is currently raging in the social media right now on how to attract new audiences to new music and classical. This is one very good answer. It is that because it is unforced, an organic totality built out of love and respect for the two stylistic universes, love for the songs, and genuine talent.

With any luck it may set tradition on its ear, literally, with total conviction and sincerity. There will still be tradition, of course, but then there will be this album, too. That's the best of all possible worlds in my mind.

Highly recommended!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Excelsior, Fifth House Ensemble

A new Chicago-based chamber group, the Fifth House Ensemble, presents their debut recording Excelsior (Cedille 2014). They come across as a very capable outfit with fine readings of four contemporary works, each work with its own more-or-less post-modern qualities, some rather firmly in the realm of radical tonality.

The title work, a short chamber opera by Caleb Burnhans (b. 1980) that was composed in 2012, features an ultra-tonal panorama with some ritualistic repetition and lyrical diatonic matter-of-factness that centers at the end around a folkishly modal part for soprano. When I first heard it I thought Gorecki's "Third Symphony", but after hearing it several more times I came to find its own special lyricism to be accessible, yes, but perhaps a bit more magical in its impact than was apparent on first hearing.

Alex Shapiro (b. 1962) and "Perpetual Spark" (2011) has a more dynamic energy to it with a motored minimalist piano part that is both echoed by and contrasted with longer melodic figures in the chamber ensemble as a whole. It does have a spark, lyrically so.

Jesse Limbacher (b. 1991) gives us an equally brief "Air" (2012) that brings us a slightly more modernistic palette of tone with some jazzier phrasing and a sound more an extension of Stravinsky's neo-classical and later writing. It has its own life however which the winds of the Fifth House Ensemble realize very nicely.

Finally there is Mason Bates (b. 1972) and his five-part "Red River" (2007). This again emphasizes in lyrical ways the diatonic end of the tonal spectrum in parts, but not exclusively so. There are some mobile phrasings that suggest jazz influences, a prominent clarinet part, and perhaps the most involved and pleasing music of the entire album, in terms of complexity at any rate. It is movingly performed here.

The Fifth House Ensemble gives us a most fascinating, widely open window on the newer music being written today by the younger generation of composers. There is plenty of substance yet it also is a program that has accessibility. For this reason the album may find its way to those not especially looking for high modernism, who either have been attracted to minimalist tonality or are just stepping into the modern compositional world and need something reassuring. At the same time the musical levels are high, so that someone well-versed in the times will find plenty to like.

Nicely done!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Harrison Birtwistle, Gawain, an Opera

Harrison Birtwistle has a way with his music that goes beyond English rootedness in that he could be said to belong as much or more to the international school of modern classical, at least in the sound of his more advanced works. You can hear that on his opera Gawain (NMC 2-CD) which has recently been reissued as performed admirably by the Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra under Elgar Howarth with excellent soloists. They premiered the work in 1991.

It is based on the King Arthur legend, and since the PDF I received with the work is causing the merry devil with my computer, no doubt due to my computer as much as anything, that more or less is all I will say here.

The music itself is high expressionist, high modernist and quite compelling. Certainly it is one of Birtwistle's major offerings. The Royal Opera performance is exceptional.

Beyond that my computer is acting up badly so I must cut this review short. I am very sorry.