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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Iannis Xenakis, Kuniko

The music of Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) is like no other. The fact that he used computer algorithms to aid in composition has sometimes led people to misunderstand his centrality in the creative process. He did not simply push a button and out popped the music. The conception and ultimate results were his. Otherwise they would not so consistently embody his signature stylistic universe.

The formidable percussionist Kuniko gives us two major examples of Xenakis's works for percussion on the album entitled IX Kuniko (Linn CDK 492), which is a hybrid CD capable of multi-channel playing as a SACD or standard two-channel playback on a standard CD player. I was unable to audit the multi-channel version because I do not have SACD capability, but the sound in any event is glowing.

The four movement Pleiades (1978) begins the program. It is scored for six percussionists and so Kuniko resorts to multi-tracking to realize the work. Each movement occupies its own sound universe. The specially designed SIXXEN is featured prominently in the second movement. It is a bell-chime like multi-piece percussion instrument that gives out with a special evocative resonance. The other movements have a broad array of instruments both pitched and unpitched. Kuniko's performance is unparalleled, as is the work.

"Rebonds" (1988), a somewhat shorter two-movement work concludes the program. It is designed and played for a solo percussionist using a set ensemble of percussion instruments, mostly "drums" and a set of wood blocks. It is extraordinarily difficult to play and Kuniko most certainly triumphs here. The complexities and sheer aural delight will quicken the pulse of any percussion music adept, but it makes for a wonderful music listening experience in any case.

Some of Xenakis's music demands much of the listener, especially in the days when extreme modernism was not always welcomed by the typical classical listener. Times have gone by and his most difficult works no longer sound nearly as challenging now to our ears. We have all grown in our ability to hear and understand complexities and the new language of modern music. But in any event the percussion works here and their marvelous performances by Kuniko can be readily appreciated, I would think, by anyone who is open to the new. They are not difficult listening, quite the contrary.

Some amazing percussion music can be heard on this one. Bravo Ms. Kuniko. Bravo Xenakis!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Vytautas Bacevicius, Orchestral Works I

Today, another 20th century modernist composer who has suffered neglect, one Vytautas Bacevicius (1905-1970), brother of the far better-known Grazyna Bacewicz. His legacy and its relative obscurity have something to do with the fate of circumstances. He was on tour concertizing as a virtuoso pianist in South America when WWII cut him off from his Polish homeland. He migrated to the United States and lived out his years there with some success but perhaps more as a pianist than a composer. If he is all-but-forgotten today, a number of recordings seek to redress that, most notably his Orchestral Works I (Naxos 8.573282), played by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee.

Three works get our attention, two of which enjoy first recordings. They all stem from his period of exile, ranging from 1946/49 through 1962. Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4, the latter in first recording, feature pianist Gabrielius Alekna as soloist. The 1958 "Spring Suite" appears in the middle of the program, and is the other first recording.

All the music has an Eastern European modern chromatic expansiveness. The album shows us a composer that perhaps has Scriabin as an influential forebear but otherwise seems to move within his own orbit, neither archaic nor Serialist-Darmstadtian. It is music well thought-through and takes a few hearings to assimilate. The Fourth Concerto is something of a major find, with a difficult and dexterous piano part, a very advanced orchestral presence, a very modern feel to it, on the edge of tonality and beyond.

The performances are good, especially those by soloist Alekna. There could possibly be even better performances someday but for now this gives us a vivid, balanced and dramatic picture of a compositional personality that deserves recognition. Anyone with an interest in Eastern European modernists should hear this one. And so should anyone following 20th century developments. I will certainly want to hear this disk a good many times more. It is complex and satisfying music that sounds fresh and very much alive. I look forward to future volumes.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tristan Murail, Le Partage des eaux, Contes cruels, Sillages

I somehow missed the music of Tristan Murail, even though he taught composition at Columbia, studied with Messiaen, and has had a distinguished career this far. Never too late as the adage goes, since the new CD of his works is exceptional. Le Partage des eaux, Contes cruels, Sillages (aeon 1222) gives us three of his recent works for orchestra. They are notable in their sonic sculptured vibrancy of sound. These are all first recordings.

"Le Partage des eaux" (1995-1996) leads off the program with a large version of the BBC Orchestra, electronics, and compositional results coming out of the spectral analysis of a breaking wave and its backwash that is translated into uncanny sound color, both gestural and very poetic. The music sounds like no other, but extraordinarily musical and modern in the highest sense. The BBC Orchestra gives us a phenomenal sonic palette.

"Contes cruels" (2007) and "Sillages" (1985) are both performed well by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. The former is for orchestra and two electric guitars tuned a quarter tone apart in a not quite concerted role but whose parts are integral to the work. Wiek Hijmans and Seth Josel take on the guitar co-solos and give them an avant metal sort of ambiance that fits very well with the dynamic and sonically spectacular orchestral parts.

"Sillages" has yet another atmospheric take on sound color. It continues in the vein of the previous two works without in any way repeating what they have established. It is a musical impression of the Zen rock gardens of Kyoto, with their undulated earthen raking surrounding the rocks. Whether you are aware of this or not does not effect your appreciation of the startling qualities of the music, but in the end it makes a certain sense.

This is orchestral music of such a singular sonic vision that it goes miles forward in what we have come to expect. It is other-worldly. Murail is a brilliant composer-orchestrator and these works positively stand out as extraordinary tone poems for today. It is music that advances the modernist agenda in ways that will enthrall anyone with open ears. Such sounds you have never heard! This music has a structural logic that comes off as anything but random. Conductor Pierre-Andre Valade clearly understands this music and brings out the swells of exotic sounds with care and brio. I cannot recommend this one heartily enough. For modernist fans it is a godsend, but even those with some reticence should be able to revel in this most innovative world. Molto bravo!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Havergal Brian, Symphonies Nos. 6, 28, 29 and 31, New Russia State Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Walker

There are composers of recent times who have lurked in the shade of neglect for too long, whose music was not as a rule widely heard until now, who lived much of their lives in some obscurity, whose output was not in keeping with the prevailing trends. One of those certainly is Havergal Brian (1876-1972). His 32 symphonies until recently were virtually unknown, with the exception of the monumental giganticism of the first few, which were performed by esteemed conductors like Boult and available as a few very obscure LPs.

Incredibly enough, after completing his 6th Symphony at age 72, Brian went on to write 26 more from that period until his death, along with operas and other orchestral pieces. Naxos has been filling us in (thankfully) with a cycle of the works. Today we get the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker playing Brian's Symphonies Nos. 6, 28, 29 and 31 (Naxos 8.573408). Nos. 28 and 29 are first recordings.

So these are a sampling of those late works. Brian began as a long-formed English late romantic in an era when it wasn't unheard of to work in the style, though at the time he was aside from Elgar one of the very few English composers who intently took on the mantle of the last of the romantics. Elgar of course was no Mahler and he did not push romanticism to the edge as much as he reflected a Victorian restraint along with a vital fluency and passion that played against itself. Brian was more overtly expressive, less bridled.

His music, as much as I am familiar with the middle period, was never contemporary in the same way as Vaughan Williams or Walton. It remained in many ways anachronistic yet not derivative.

So here we are with some of the many "last" symphonies. They are of modest length compared to the early works, ranging from a 13-minute 31st (in one movement) to the multi-movement 29th, which clocks in at 23 minutes. With the temporal brevity is a compactness of expression that Brian's music had evolved to. There are long thematic developments at times (the third movement of the 29th, for example) which have an almost Schubertian thrust, yet on the whole he is much less the epicist of his early late romantic days.

Granted there remains the high expressivity often enough of his earlier work, but there are neo-classical elements peppered through the works and his originality is much more at hand. It is not "modern" music as a whole, yet it sounds chromatically contemporary and fresh.

If you seek analogies of the period, he perhaps shares with Sibelius the natural propensity to work in older tonal territory, yet like Sibelius he does it in his very own way. You might say that his music has a sterner cast than Sibelius, and the chromaticism sometimes comes much more to the forefront, as a kind of English Max Reger, though these are only loose approximations. Brian remains at this later period a symphonist of real stature, original in ways we may not expect of music written in 1948, 1967 and 1968. We tend to think of classical music teleologically, noting in admiration that so-and-so was the prophetic precursor of the so-and-so school. Brian was not that. If we forget about teleology though, he speaks to us truly, no matter what came before, after or during.

The four symphonies programmed on the current release give you a listening experience both fascinating and rewarding. The New Russia State Symphony Orchestra under Walker furnishes us versions that sparkle with sonic vitality. There is enthusiasm to be heard and a full commitment to the stylistic particularities. Could there be better performances? Perhaps. But we are well served by these recordings and get the full impact of Havergal Brian and his tremendous burst of energy in the last decades of his life. And that's what counts.

It's remarkable music in all these ways. I am very glad to experience it and am left with a much greater appreciation for Brian's music than I had previous to this. Recommended!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Keith Jarrett, Barber Piano Concerto, Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3

Keith Jarrett celebrates his 70th birthday with two releases. One a solo piano disk, Creation, which I covered on the last post. Today there is the second, a live recording from 1984-85 of two seminal modern concerto works that give us a look at Keith at a peak in his classical performance style, before a skiing accident injured his hands and he was no longer able to play at the highest edge of virtuosity.

Lucky for us these live versions were recorded before that calamity and we get his versions in all their considerable splendor and smouldering, blazing fire. They are available now as an ECM New Series release (B0022987-02) Samuel Barber Piano Concerto, Bela Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3.

As live, unedited recordings they do not have the extreme polish of a carefully done and redone studio date, but they make up for in excitement what they may lack in absolute perfection.

Two orchestras and conductors handle the accompaniment; for the Barber it is the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Saarbrucken under Dennis Russell Davies, for the Bartok it is the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazuyoshi Akiyama. They give us warm and committed versions of the works, not absolutely perfect given the live situation, but no discernable clinkers either. They enter into the spirit of the music as called upon, and they do it admirably and satisfyingly.

The center of attraction remains rightly with Jarrett and his artistry. Both works are superb modern 20th-century examples of the concerted art and Keith does wonders with the piano parts. The Barber is less played than one might like, but is a masterpiece, with devilishly difficult pianistic demands and a very modern sound, Barber at his best. The Bartok is familiar to most and gets more than its due.

Jarrett is breathtaking much of the time in his flowing, nuanced yet pyrotechnic performances of the works. He immerses himself in both works and yet manages to convey his incredible personal pianistic magnetism, which bursts forth with triumphant energy and lyricism in both cases. Repeated hearings bring home the brilliance of his way with the works.

The program ends with a solo improvisation from the Japanese concert. It is rather brief but glowing and a very fitting end to this welcome addition to the Jarrett discography. You may well have versions of both concertos. The Jarrett versions are so distinctive that they should be heard nonetheless.

A triumphant trip on the musical time machine we get. I can't imagine a better birthday tribute to the master pianist, when coupled with the latest solo improvisations on the release Creation. These two along with a previously unreleased classic trio date from the earlier years (see my Gapplegate Music Review article from several months ago for that) gives us a three-pronged semi-retrospective/introspective on virtually all that Jarrett means to us. I am very happy to have them to hear in the years to come and I imagine you will, too.

But by all means get this one regardless of whether or not you follow the more jazz-oriented side of his artistry. It is golden.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Keith Jarrett, Creation

Pianist Keith Jarrett recently turned 70. To celebrate the milestone he has released simultaneously two albums, one a recording of two concertos I will discuss soon, the other an album of solo piano improvisations called Creation (ECM 2450 B0023013-02). I deal today with the latter.

Jarrett, along with Cecil Taylor, has been monumentally influential for his solo improvisations throughout his career. His excursions in this realm have had a wide acceptance with the music-loving public; they have been critically acclaimed; they have given us a dimension of improvising which incorporates both his jazz background and classical elements. The earlier examples had much in the way of spectacular technique. The later period is less concerned with that realm, the playing stripped down to communicate directly with more somber or reflective expressions of a concentrated sort. That is especially true of this one.

Creation, consisting of nine segments drawn from six 2014 concerts, were personally selected by Maestro Jarrett and form a cohesive whole. These are nocturnals, meditative, introspective, balladic, harmonically centered and melodically improvisatory. They seem a natural outcrop of Jarrett's increasing attention to balladic standards but also to a sort of original equivalent to aspects of Chopin or later Liszt, both beautiful and somewhat stark.

If I post this album here on the classical page, it is because these improvisations should be of interest to the classical listener as much as those who come to his music out of his jazz background.

Those who know a good deal of his work in the solo realm over time will know that the later period often enough marks a more reflective Jarrett, less exuberant, less the spectacular virtuoso, less ecstatic, more somber, yet still extraordinarily lyrical.

And yes, this aspect of Jarrett the artist has nearly always been a part of his style, but never before in such concentric terms.

There are extraordinary moments on this one, to be sure. I won't say that there are intimations of mortality in some direct sense, but of course as you get older you lose friends, colleagues (Paul Motion and Charlie Haden in the last few years, for example) and if I detect a eulogistic tone in this music, it may be because I know how loss can color one's life after a certain stage, and the realization that your own life may not last another 100 years. But I do hear a kind of looking back, a feeling of coming through much and a reflection on it.

It is a beautiful album. It is not what earlier Jarrett solo improvs dwelt on at such length, but that is what sets it apart and distinguishes it from them.

There is still inspiration, much of it in these segments. If you approach it with no expectations (as much as that is possible) you will no doubt fall under the spell of the moods and be transported as I have been to a magical realm. This is introspective later Jarrett at its best. He remains brilliant in new, perhaps more subtle ways. Bravo!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sebastian Fagerlund, Darkness in Light, Hannu Lintu

In musical terms, how does a post-modern/modern composer capture the world we live in today? The answer would have to be "variously," since there is no one way. One answer comes from the relatively young (b. 1975) Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund, as heard in a recent release of orchestral works, Darkness in Light (Bis 2093). Hannu Lintu conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Two works are presented, both written this decade, the "Violin Concerto 'Darkness in Light'" (2012) featuring violinist Pekka Kuusisto, to whom the work is dedicated, and the purely orchestral "Ignite" (2010).

Both are atmospherically lucid, modern sounding with expanded tonality and orchestrational brilliance, but post-modern I suppose with their original forays into more tonal moments. The immersion in tonality shares with the harmonic-modernistic passages a complex, turbulent dynamism that can acquiesce into more open, reflective passages in dramatic arcs.

Kudos to violinist Kuusisto, who handles the solo part with a sort of heroic distinction, and to conductor Lintu, who brings us the special qualities of Fagerlund's music with sympathy and real presence.

Fagerlund opens us to a world complex and perhaps less unified or monolithic than it is dramatically ever-unfolding. In a way Fagerlund sums up the modern sound-coloristic orchestral legacy while moving forward simultaneously into his own personal sphere of sonics.

The music is well-written, well-performed and complexly vibrant. Fagerlund bears close listening, reveals himself in real and repeated listening time rather than awes you with visceral fireworks. That he will please the careful auditor is doubtless the case (at least with me), but he presents music on his own terms, not pandering for easy recognition and applause but single-mindedly seeing a path into the future we may follow at will with considerable reward.

A figure to be heard, Fagerlund most certainly is, and a composer doing excellent work which I can only hope will continue to grow and excel in the coming years.

Very recommended.