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Monday, March 2, 2015

Ten Holt, Incantatie IV, for Three Pianos, Jeroen and Sandra van Veen, Tamara Rumiantsev

Minimalist repetition (or what Gertrude Stein called "insistence") was hardly a new thing in essence when works started appearing under that rubric. African and Balinese music, for example, had made it a part of the music for many centuries, blues and rock had it as an important part of the music, and of course one might look elsewhere as well. But for a combination of insistence and a more or less classical framework, Satie may have been the principal progenitor but it was something new nonetheless.

By now there have been a good number of works to experience, some better, some less better, but by all means Simeon ten Holt (1923-2012) can be considered one of the major exponents. I say that after I have listened in depth to the 4-CD performance of Canto Ostinato XXL by Jeroen Van Veen and company (see my November 17, 2014 review) and now Incantatie IV (Brilliant 24918, 2CDs) for three pianos, performed by Jeroen and Sandra van Veen and Tamara Rumiantsev.

Like the Canto Ostinato XXL it contains choice on the part of performers as to what to include and what to leave out, along with choices in timbre and pitch, style and tempo, instrumentation and length of repetitions. Van Veen and company choose a moderately fast tempo and put the music in a minor mode. The score has complexities in its 15 layers. The three pianists negotiate them deftly, coming up with material from the score that would sound well even if not repeated, in a way that in the end is very pianistic. And perhaps that is one of the keys to what makes Simeon ten Holt so intriguing, that the compositional materials are composed of thematic elements that hold interest both in their repetition and in their transformation. Not all minimalist exponents are melodists of this caliber. Riley and Reich, surely, but some others less so.

And even then Simeon ten Holt's transformation options are sequentially dramatic but interrelated in fine ways, perhaps more classical ways than with some composers. That and the van Veen ensemble's very skilful and music interpretations make this music come alive beautifully. In the end Canto Ostinato XXL may have a slight edge in my mind over Incantatie IV, but one should ideally revel in both.

Ten Holt is up there with the very finest minimalists; Van Veen's ensemble is the one to give the music its just due. The music both sings and swings admirably. Fabulous!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Zina Schiff, Cameron Grant, Zeisl & Copland Violin Sonatas

For the last posting on the month, I have at hand an anthology of modern violin-piano music, Zeisl & Copland Violin Sonatas (MSR 1493), played well by violinist Zina Schiff and pianist Cameron Grant.

All of this music has in various degrees Jewish "folk elements." That and the rhapsodic dedication of the performers gives this disk a unified feel. On it we hear Eric Zeisl (1905-1959) in his "Violin Sonata 'Brandeis'" (1949-50) plus the brief "Menuchim's Song" (1939); from Aaron Copland (1900-1990) we hear his "Violin Sonata" of 1942-43; Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) gets represented with his "Abodah" (1928); finally, Robert Dauber (1922-1945) closes out the program with his "Serenata" (1942).

Copland and Bloch do not need an introduction, since they are of course well-known. Less will be familiar with Eric Zeisl, who had established a burgeoning career as a composer in Vienna before the Nazi onslaught forced his immigration, eventually to Hollywood, in 1941. He composed the soundtrack scores for more than 20 films between 1942 and 1958. He is less remembered for his concert work, but all that may indeed change with the advent of his music sounding so well here.

Robert Daucher composed the "Serenata" while yet only 20. He was a Holocaust victim, killed at Dachau in 1945, aged 23.

The music is uniformly worthwhile, with Zeisl and Daucher holding their own against their better-known contemporaries. All of the music here is neither rabidly modernist nor exactly neo-classical or neo-romantic. It is music that revels in the "Jewish tinge," soaring minor mode melodies, jaunty dance-inflected music and modern compositional elements, all played with genuine idiomatic musicality by Schiff and Grant.

It is refreshing, delightful music that rings true and gives great pleasure. I do recommend this one heartily.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

J.S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, Kimiko Ishizaka, Piano

Over the years of listening I have embraced Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier ever increasingly as a masterpiece that rewards with an untiring unlocking of its subtleties as you hear it again and again, in all the versions one might come across that approach the music with sincerity and purpose.

Yet in all the years, all the versions, I have never heard "Book 1" done better than on the new recording by pianist Kimiko Ishizaka (Navona 5993, 2-CDs). She has been celebrated for the "Open Goldberg Variations" which she has made available on CD and for "pay what you choose" download on the net. I have not heard that but after listening to her "Well-Tempered Clavier" I surely will. The main thing here is she has gathered an underswell of public enthusiasm for that rendition that carried over to a funding campaign that made the present recording possible. And I am very glad of it.

So what is it that makes Ms. Ishizaka's version so special? She like Glenn Gould does not shy away from the piano's qualities in her reading. Gould made of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" a series of virtuoso pieces that were and still are enthralling to hear, and the piano's sonarity has much to do with the effectiveness of his version. Kimiko Ishizaka takes a different approach, one which is equally pianistic.

Yes, she can take things at a rapid clip when that seems warranted. But her singularity of vision is to avoid the sustain pedal completely, more or less staying away also from excessive rubato, only using it when some of the preludes seem to call for it. Otherwise her mission is, in every way possible, to bring out the clarity of each part, to achieve total parity, total equality between parts. This is achieved beautifully by articulation, varying strokes at times to bring a part into increased presence, and a poetic naturalness of phrasing that brings your attention to the whole unfolding.

She worked on this in part by practicing each Prelude and Fugue in total darkness, to allow her a total focus on the sound being produced.

The results are fabulous. There is a great grace to what she gives us, a marvelous clarity, a sense of totality that is a very real joy to hear. She takes Bach at his word, that each part is important in the ultimate contrapuntal result. You hear Bach with new ears. Her use of dynamics is key, too. She can subtly build dynamically or for that matter play some sections in a more or less pianissimo way. All of it works together to bring you Bach in all his glory.

The minor-keyed segments are exceptionally well done, but then so are the major-keyed preludes and fugues. Here we have a poetic reading that respects and brings attention to every note and how it fits into the total scheme of things.

There have been other beautiful versions of "Book 1." This is up there with the very best. At the moment it is most certainly my favorite. Bravo, Kimiko Ishizaka! Onwards to "Book 2"!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

David Lipten, Best Served Cold

Today we have a release that came out in 2012 but is no less vital for it. Composer David Lipten is a "classical" modernist very much into structured music of a harmonic depth, music that is not Darmstadt-oriented so much as informed by the pointillism of that school but firmly sequential in a Western modern way.

The album at hand is an anthology of various Lipten works entitled Best Served Cold (Ablaze 00006). It sports very good performances from the likes of the Ciompi Quartet, pianist Mark Tollefsen, the Volti choral group under Robert Geary, a small chamber group under Harvey Sollberger, and the trio of Jana Starling, clarinet, Omri Shimron, piano, and Beth Ilana Schneider, violin. Each ensemble-performer does well in bringing us the full impact of Lipten's approach.

All in all there is a modern expressive lyricism and a gestural dramatic quality to the music. "Time's Dream" (2003), a choral work in six parts, is especially so. The solo piano work "Show of Hands" (2003-2005) (in three parts) is dynamic and impactful. "Whorl" (2002) for clarinet, piano and violin has depth and an emphatic presence. "Gyre" (1995-97) for six instruments has a dynamic stridency that makes effective interlocking use of reeds, flute, strings, piano and percussion. It sounds very much like the sort of music one expects to hear from the later 20th century, but has an impact born of inspiration and real craftsmanship. "Ictus" (2000-2001) for string quartet works with certain intervals as a germinating cellular theme and goes on for some excellent four-way development.

David Lipten, it is clear, is a composer with a strong sense of direction, a fluid syntax and an inventive linear-abstract melodic gift. This anthology will appeal to the confirmed modernist. It is excellently done and very uplifting. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O'Riley, Beethoven, Period. Music for Cello and Piano on Period Instruments

Beethoven wrote his music for pianoforte and cello in an age when the piano sounded very different than it does today. That has not stopped us from appreciating his cello-piano sonatas and variations as played on modern instruments. In the right hands they never fail to enchant. Yet an original instrument experience of the music, it turns out, is rather different, though no less enchanting.

Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O'Riley, cello and piano, respectively, have given us a most pleasant surprise in their complete recording of the complete Beethoven oeuvre for cello and piano on such period instruments, in a 2-CD set entitled Beethoven, Period. (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 475).

They utilize vintage instruments, tune to A=430 in keeping with various tunings of the era, and use the untempered tunings, all of which gives the music a decidedly different cast. The music has a resonant sweetness with the tuning, sounds startlingly different in key modulations and, because of the lower general volume levels of the piano in those days, gives the cello part a prominence and an overall transparency of parts you don't get in modern instrument versions.

The result is a very balanced interplay between the instruments and a very different feel in both forte and pianissimo passages. Listen to the resplendent Cello Sonata in A Major, op. 69, for example, and you will hear the music differently than what we have become accustomed to.

Haimovitz & O'Riley seem very at home in with the old resonances. Indeed their performances are detailed and filled with brio in the very best ways. They succeed capitally. Yet it all comes across in a wonderfully refreshing way.

This will be delightfully fascinating for all who know the music. It gives us a different sort of lyric appreciation of the music, a new life born of a return to the period sound.

Wholly recommended.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Andrew Rudin, Three String Sonatas

Composer Andrew Rudin came to my attention, and no doubt to quite a few others, with his full-scale electronic work Trageodia, which came out on Nonesuch in the heyday of that label's modernist period, in the late '60s-early '70s. Some later works appeared in a couple of Innova anthologies recently (see the July 29, 2011 and December 15, 2011 review articles on this blog) but other than that I have not had the pleasure of hearing more of his music.

That changes with a new CD devoted to his Three String Sonatas (Centaur 3266) just out. We are treated to his "Sonata for Violincello and Piano," his "Sonata for Viola and Piano" and his "Sonata for Violin and Piano." The performances are expressive, declamatory and atmospheric, with Samuel Migill, cello and Beth Levin, piano; Brett Deubner, viola and Marcantonio Barone, piano; Miranda Cuckson, violin and Steven Beck, piano, respectively taking on the three sonatas with dash and sensitivity.

Rudin's three works have a modern harmonic wideness and a rhapsodic expressionism that shades into a reflective, contemplative mode in the slow sections, but also can be rhythmically vital in contrasting passages. The Violin Sonata is the more extroverted of the three but also participates at times in a rhapsodic lyricism.

A brittle lyricism generally prevails. The three works fit well together. They establish Rudin as a chamber composer who goes down his own path, with a modernist originality that has something of the Bergian, Bartokian tradition yet remains very much Rudin.

These are impressive performances of three heretofore unknown gems.

I recommend that all new music stalwarts hear them.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Claudio Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers

The Sixteen under Harry Christophers has created an impeccable track record for early music performance, with a small choir and original instruments, spirit and authenticity as a kind of gold standard from which they do not waver. So when they perform Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 (Coro 16126 2-CDs), a masterpiece in early sacred repertoire, you expect something worthwhile. And indeed that is what you get.

The "Vespers" was a kind of unified portfolio of compositions for the Vespers service, designed to gain Monteverdi the job of Choirmaster at the Basilica of St. Mark, Venice. The music impressed to the point where he in fact did get the nod for the position, but of course they stand out as an outstanding body of work that when performed in their entirety (something that may not have happened frequently in his day, if at all, since the music called for various choral and instrumental resources not always on hand.) give us all the inventive glory of Monteverdi at his best.

The Sixteen most definitely excel on this recording. The choir, soloists and instrumentalists succeed in giving us a definitive performance, one of the very best out there.

Everything sounds quite striking and energized, and the great variety of settings keeps the ears gloriously busy for the duration. Christophers tunes singers and instruments to 17th-century meantone temperament throughout, which was an untempered standard of the era--but with modern musics would sound decidedly off if the music modulated upward. With Monteverdi the music was meant to sound well with the pure intervallic structure. This as Christophers notes in the liners gives us "a much enhanced resonance in both choir and orchestra, with all major chords performed with pure thirds." This in part accounts for the "sweetness" we hear palpably on the recording.

As a fascinating bonus on disk two, the Sixteen give us two versions of the concluding "Magnificat," the "Low" version indicated in the part books which involve a transposition down a fourth, and a "high" version where the movement stays with a non-transposed tonality. I find both convincing. Nevertheless it is the sort of detail Christophers attends to, an example of attention to period performance practice (along with the untempered tuning) that gives us a real window onto how the music was meant to be sounded then.

In the end we have a marvelous experience of Monteverdi and his brilliance on this recording. I came out of close repeated listenings with an even greater appreciation of his art, the virtuosity and inventive genius so well displayed here, thanks to this beautiful, enthusiastic yet measured rendition.

Highly recommended.