Search This Blog

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Piano Sonatas opp. 8, 49bis & 56 (Nos. 2, 4 and No Number) , Elisaveta Blumina


As much as there seems to be a renaissance or perhaps even a naissance surrounding the works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) it is comforting to me. I happen to share in the budding and gathering enthusiasm about his music. I will not rehearse here the difficulties he encountered with his existence as a Jewish-Polish transplant to the USSR during WWII and his subsequent compositional and personal struggle with forces that did not favor him in spite of his extraordinary talents. That is a backdrop to explain why most people were not aware of his music at all until recently. But in the end of course the music is what lives for us now.

So there are further reasons to appreciate his body of works with a recent, excellently performed recording of three of his later Piano Sonatas opp. 8, 49bis & 56 (CPO 555 104-2). In other words, these lovely recordings are of his Sonata No. 2, Number 4 and 49bis, the latter of which is not as of now numbered. Elisabetha Blumina gives us these new readings on the heels of her recording of his Sonata No. 1 and his "Children's Notebooks." I have not heard that recording but based upon the one at hand I imagine it is very worth hearing. I've reviewed Weinberg's complete piano opus and one or two recordings of some of these sonatas (type "Weinberg" in the search box above). They remain essential in each their own way

But I am especially impressed as I listen a good many times with Elisabetha Blumina's performances. She is exacting as one would expect but also there is a virtuoso mastery to be heard that makes these rather wonderful pieces come very much alive. My first superficial hearings of Weinberg as a whole made me think, "Oh, he was very influenced by Shostakovich." He was a good friend of his fellow composer and Shostakovich spoke very highly of his talents during his lifetime. And with the piano works you most certainly do here something of an affinity with Prokofiev as well. With all three at their best you hear an uncanny brilliance in how they derive a sometimes very lyrical demeanor but tempered also with a hard and perhaps even brittle despair, not to sound too pat but it is something I do love about all three of them. What at first sounded a bit derivative I now feel is equally special, original and it could well be that Shostakovich influenced Weinberg but equally Weinberg in turn influenced Shostakovich? I say this after listening very intensely to Weinberg's music.

The sonatas here are uniformly worthwhile. If you love Modernist solo piano and seek something new and very worthy, get this! If you do not know Weinberg, get this. If you do not have any of his piano music, get this. Or even if you do, for the performances, get this!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Kalevi Aho, Timpani Concerto, Piano Concerto 1, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra


In the course of doing this Modern Music blog site since 2011 I have been fortunate to come upon the music of Kalevi Aho (b. 1949), the Finnish composer whose music we again encounter happily today (type his name in the index search box above for earlier reviews of his music). The CD at hand covers two notable concerted works, the recent "Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra" (2015) and the 1988-89 "Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra" (BIS-2306). Both are performed with precision and enthusiasm by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Erkki Lasonpalo (Timpani Concerto) or Eva Ollikainen (Piano Concerto). The solo parts are most capably handled by Ari-Pekka Maenpaa (Timpani) and Sonia Fraki (Piano).

What a repeated series of listens have revealed to me are two concertos (he has written 28 in all thus far) of real weight and striking expression. Whether or not anyone would agree with me I hear Aho as a kind of original Modern successor to the later works of Carl Nielsen. Both have a certain "characteristic" manner of proceeding chromatically in ways that bring out a thorough orchestrational command and a clearly forwarded thematic presence. Aho understandably is the more Modern in his harmonic edginess and lesser tendency to resolve the whole in some absolute sense.

There are few works in the repertoire for solo timpani either accompanied or unaccompanied. Elliot Carter's  "Eight Pieces for Four Timpani" is an exception. I rack my brain without coming up with another., which doesn't mean there are no others, just that my minds blanks at the prospect. Aho's concerto gives us a very stimulating and rather demanding solo part with intricate melodic contours and idiomatic articulation. The timpani carries the concerto without being a continually dominant voice. The orchestra has a great deal to say and says it well. There are times when the snare drum intertwines with the timpani part and it all sounds right. If you expect later on to whistle the timpani melody while you go through your daily rounds, think again. This is quite complex Modern music after all. If any new timpani piece might be expected to enter the repertoire this could well be it. Aho carries the day handily and in a most lively way.

"The Piano Concerto No. 1" stands out as a boldly brash piece with a lithe mercurial piano part and memorable piano-orchestral exchanges of great excitement and contentful thematics. If the handling of themes seems slightly more hard-edged than is the case in the Timpani Concerto, one must assume that the inspiration of having every bit of the piano before the composer as the prime solo mover would have given him less fetters and allowed his imagination to soar more freely. It ends the two-part program in a most rousing way and if the motillic ghost of Prokofiev sometimes looms in the background it is stylistically natural and not in the least bit derivative.

So there we are with this one. The SACD/CD compatible recording sounds bright and well staged and the music is of the highest caliber. This will appeal to all Aho aficionados and would be fair and attractive game for any follower of the Modern with a capital /m/.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Vyacheslav Artyomov, The Way to Olympus

The album up for discussion today as far as I know is the third such album devoted to the music of Vyacheslav Artyomov on Divine Art Records. I've covered the other two on these pages so type "Artyomov" in the search box above to see those. Taken as a whole we find a composer of decided importance. He is Modern in Russian ways that perhaps come out of a lineage which includes Scriabin in his most mystical phase, but then no it is really an experience far more than of some lineage when you take it all in itself and for itself.

This new release is called The Way to Olympus (Divine Art 25171). The centerpiece of the program is the 33 minute "Symphony: The Way to Olympus." It is a beautifully paced, sprawling and highly evocative sound poem for orchestra, here recorded some time ago but sounding gloriously well. The USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra perform the work nicely under the baton of Timur Mynbayev. The name of the orchestra indicates an earlier recording date, of course. The work is very dramatic, moving, original.

Artyomov's story has been a sad one of a life of unrecognition, state hostility to his art, a difficult and lonely time and a heroic determination that perhaps can be sensed in the deepest recesses of his orchestral expressions. I hear a penetrating inwardness and a contrastingly outward skyrocketing elation to the music.

"Gurian Hymn" has a lovely unfurling with three solo violins nicely weaving delicate filigrees of sadness and mystery over a rather strikingly evocative orchestral palette.

The piano "Preludes to Sonnets" follow and they have a searching post-Scriabinesque poetic clout that sets us up well for the rarified brightness of the following "Concert of the 13" for piano and chamber ensemble. The piano part is bracing! It is another significant segment to a very significant program.

I find the performances and recording quality highly appropriate and appealing.

Artyomov deserves our undivided attention. I would go so far to say without hesitation that Artyomov on the basis of this volume and the others comes before us as a tragically underappreciated Modern master, a Russian Ives in terms of creating  beautifully advanced music in spite of social neglect and isolation. His time has come. By all means listen to this album. Then if you are as impressed as I am get the others too!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Paul Moravec, The Blizzard Voices, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

In ideal circumstances what the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose is doing will redefine the US Modernist world by highlighting deserving works and composers from this century and last. I say ideally because I no longer know with the world in a certain chaos whether cultural institutions may always have the impact they would in earlier times. That includes the impact of music writers like me and then of course the general concert scene and the world of audio releases of works. I have been covering many of the BMOP CD releases and today I speak of another. It has been out for a little while and I have been meaning to cover it for a while. So today I do.

The release at hand is a recording of  The Blizzard Voices (BMOP Sound 1054), a rather monumental choral-orchestral oratorio from 2008 based on the poetry of Ted Kooser. The work was written by living composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957) The poems were adapted into a libretto by Mark Campbell. The theme is that of the Western Plains of the US and a blizzard that a group of would-be settlers experienced and in the end did or did not finally endure. The blizzard took place in historical terms in Nebraska in January, 1888.

The work is scored for in addition to orchestra six vocal soloists and an SATB chorus, the latter in the form of the New England Conservatory Concert Choir and Chamber Singers directed by Erica J. Washburn.

The soloists and body of performer do full justice to this rather involved work. As to the music itself? It has a monumental, heroic passion, and a roughly-hewn-of-granite strikingly bold quality. There is a subtle sort of Americana at play that alludes to the humble musical life of the Plains, of hymn tunes and songs sung in everyday settings that do not point to Grand Art so much as music on the ground floor of existence, the sort of music most people experience in a pre-industrial setting, not product, not "pop" in that there are no surveys taken, just music that exists among people because music is like that. The strain of folkishness is not obvious like perhaps some of Copland might be. It emerges subtly from time-to-time but the panorama of bleak and in the end lethal winter predominates with a harsh sobriety and heroic despair born of the place and time of the story. It is an aesthetically derived hardness that does not point back to the composer any more than Mark Twain "was" Huckleberry Finn.

In other words this is genuinely gifted aural story-telling. I sometimes remember Vaughan Williams in his best narrative mood mode, or yes, Copland in that vein, and some of the other later Operatic-Oratorio master that it would be pointless and even misleading to name because it would imply there is some imitation happening here which there is decidedly not.

It is masterful composing from someone I surely want to hear more of. The music seems destined for larger audiences. It is accessible and more comprehensible for its tethering to dramatic content than some purely abstract Modern tone poem. It is Modern in its thickly edgy harmonic fullness and post-Romantic unsentimental expressive feeling-fullness. The vocal parts stand out for the natural rightness. The orchestral parts work fully well as a fleshing out of the drama and an aesthetic canvas apart from the plot and its content.

If I wind-up my description of the music to that for the present, it is not that there is nothing more to be said. I leave that to others. Many listens after the first one of The Blizzard Voices and I come away convinced that this is a work of importance, wonderfully rendered. Varese remarked long ago that "the present-day composer refuses to die!" It remains true. We owe something to that present-day by supporting our creators. So buy this.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Elizabeth A. Baker, Quadrivium

Quadrivium (Aerocade Music AM008 2-CDs) is a nicely sprawling, major dramatically vibrant work of the Modern Music world, brought to us by composer-performer Elizabeth A. Baker. She wrote all the music with the help of Nathan Anthony Corder (Sashay) and she has also written the poetry and lyrics that occur in the course of the work. In the process of the work's sounding Elizabeth performs on piano, electronics, voice, guitar, percussion and toy piano. So those are the particulars.

As to the work itself, after five listens I must say I am mightily impressed with it all. Elizabeth makes a point, rightfully so, of providing us with an elegantly worded plea for inclusion in our musical worlds--of all categories of humanity, women, LGBTQs, minorities, in short everyone inclusive. And Quadrivium assumes this viewpoint and at the same time portrays a world in the clutches (if I might interpret her aims) of a sometimes mechanized behemoth that neither accepts differences nor does it always have need for the creative artists who occupy our world and give it value where it otherwise might not or can not have it. If there is a kind of insistence on the creative underground that we advance as a whole both aesthetically and ethically, Ms. Baker surely is one of the champions of such things.

And all that would be admirable even if it were left there. But on top of it all Ms. Baker has a deeply conceptual imagination that allows her to fashion a rather monumental, musically and content-fully profound opus. Here is where we stand today, Elizabeth is saying. And that where includes recitations as well as solo piano and electronic, ensemble and small ensemble sections each of which is a sort of microcosm of where New Music is today. So tonality is there, but not for a look backwards, rather as a mainstay of human music making. There is abstraction, there is a repetition that layers subtly ever, a droning that we have in our heads now as much as a result of mechanical and electronic sounds of the environment along with a sort of cosmic centering.

This is beautiful music, exacted and not redacted if you will, not afraid to say what needs saying, to play what needs playing, to give us a very pleasureful and sometimes conflicted music representation of the earthtime now, for us, for us who listen.

In my case I do not just listen. The music has grabbed me so it says something much more than an organized series of tomes and tones. The work begins with the beautiful and discerning piano solo music that rotates in a very rangy way before sounding some tender diatonics. From there we segue quietly to ambient electronics with inside-the-piano whispers that are almost like a light-bulb afterburn in your mind's eye. The keyed piano returns with a cycle-not-cycle that expands and variationalizes what came before, yet there is new development and new thematic content too.

I will not describe the passage of section to section because there is too much and it might be slightly pedantic to rattle off a laundry list of what happens. That sequence in the end will be yours to apprehend anyway. It proceeds to a kind of continual opening up of expression, with electronics and recitation becoming ever more re-grounded and yet musically it feels as an unfolding, a very long and full unfolding rather than a kind of a-b-c-d-e-f-g thingness.

The music gives us a highly original take and the text-poetry dwells in the very-much-present.

I must say I do very much love this very living work. It is as contemporary as anything you will hear, and it is not afraid to combine deftly timbral and sound-color beauty in striking ways. The music is visceral. The words are frank yet poetic.

I take it that this is Elizabeth A. Baker's first album of compositions. It is auspicious for that. A brilliant and evocative piece that presages great things to come I would warrant. It is already here. She is here!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Antti Samuli Hernesniemi, Bridge (Silta), Compositions 3, Music for Clavinova and Piano


No one who knows the New Music world we live in today would tell you that you might expect just one possibility when you are exposed to a new composer these days. There are I suppose limits to what one might hear but I can say honestly that I do not detect what the boundaries might be. So every new exposure gives one a new possibility. I bring this up because the music of living Finnish composer Antti Samuli Hernesniemi as I am hearing it on his recent CD Bridge/Silta (MSR Classics 1615) opens up interesting ground on the piano/clavinova (MIDI driven piano) front. This is the third volume of his compositions released on MSR and the first I have heard.

It is an example of how open the New Music world really is. Hernesniemi writes/performs piano music that may be entirely independently generated but as I listen I am reminded of the whirring movement and fanfarish attack of the late very brilliant piano artist Cecil Taylor. Now he came out of "Jazz" of course, which is only to say that he was initially rooted in Jazz style and that his ensemble work included a rhythm section and other soloists. He studied in his formative years at New England Conservatory where he had Classical training--and so did Miles or Sam Rivers have this training among many others. That is not to say that we can in anyway explain Cecil Taylor by his exposure to both Jazz and Classical music and ideas. He is the sort of brilliance who would have emerged as an important artist no matter what his formal training might bhave been. And by the same token the piano music of Hernesniemi could have been derived out of that Jazz and Modern Classical exposure too. Or maybe he heard this regardless. In the end it does not matter except to remark that if you love the explosive motility of Cecil Taylor's playing then this music will attract you for its splattering sprawling energy.

And there are some more inwardly tuneful works here that are a thing apart from that, yet in the main, there is an open formed "total tremolo" approach here that most characterizes the music.

All that is simple in basis yet the working out is original and exciting to hear. So if you want new that stimulates you invariably, there is Bridge. If you are an open soul I believe this will be much to your liking.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Gabriel Faure, Integrale des Melodies pour Voix et Piano

Music enthusiasts who favor certain artists and/or composers tend to respond well to a "complete" anything by those people. If you know you like the music of that person, it stands to reason that you would wish to hear everything that person might have created or performed in a particular category or genre. So I felt this way when I found I had the chance to hear and review the new Integrale des Melodies pour Voix et Piano by Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) (Atma Classique ACD2 2741 4-CDs). The first thing that hit me on opening up the set was the extremely attractive graphics and very practical setup with all four CDs and the booklet bound in gatefold style--in other words as a single, integral "hard covered" CD  book.

The artists and their readings are of course central to the success of such a project. A core aspect of that is the continual presence of Olivier Godin playing a gloriously sweet 1859 Erard instrument.
The vocalists, separately and on rare occasions in various combinations, are graced with beautiful voices that are not too operatic and seemingly perfectly suited to the song form as Faure practiced it. They are Helene Guilmette, Julie Boulianne, Antonio Figueroa, Marc Boucher. Each is a true artist and a wonderful Faure interpreter.

A confession before I get deeper into my experience of this music. When I started seriously listening to Classical and Modern Classical music I tended in part to get ever deeply into composers I was exposed to partly out of chance and partly from reading up on the history and development of the music. So for various reasons in the realm of French music I gravitated toward Franck, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Milhaud, Honegger, Poulenc and Messiaen, etc. I at first missed Faure partly because it was easy without coaching not to understand completely  the continuity and change of the progressive unfolding of important French composers in the Late Romantic period, and partly because I came slightly later to vocal music--especially in the case of Faure, the songs and choral music that made him so important. So in time I came to listen to these things and came to love it, along with the solo piano music as well.

So in terms of my listening to the Faure song output, I listened closely to a select group of the songs sung by singers I respected very much, but in my hearing of the wealth of them I was missing a good many of them. So in the Godin and company complete song set I have happily the chance to hear the all of them. After repeated listens I am very glad to find that there is a consistent brilliance of compositional presence, a lyrical yet very focused intensity to them all Faure was a voice that sat between the heavily impassioned Late Romantic Berlioz and the dazzlingly dappled transparency of Debussy and Ravel. Faure in hi songs have a good deal of feeling yet always a kind of light touch, more translucent and so very much more French than some of the other great song masters of his times.

The 108 songs-melodies are a formidable gathering by any standard. The jacket notes inform us that this set is the first to respect Faure's specifications completely as to voice type for each song and the original key indications. The Erard is tuned to 435 Hz, which was decreed by the French Ministry as the standard in 1859. So in so many ways these are the works faithfully rendered as Faure intended them to be be heard. We begin with Op. 1, No. 1 and go from there to those last songs on the Op. 100s. Is there increased clarity, increased introspection as we go from early to late? I hear it something like that, though I have neither sat down and done some statistical aural correlations.Even then some of my perceptions are perforce subjective. I embrace that the music as all music sounds a certain way to me and for me as you must also have your own take. Intersubjectivity may confirm my impressions or it may not. No matter. I am neither qualified to write a PhD dissertation on such a thing nor at this point would I want to!

The point in all this is simple. The music is essential, all of it if you have the time to devote to it and want to expand your appreciation and understanding of the French Art Song in a period central to the development of Modernism. The performances are moving and poetic. The music impeccable, expressive, even ravishing in its beauty and expressive determination.

So if you have the inclination to get this, I believe you will be happy to delve into the wealth of fine music! Get this, then!