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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

James Brawn, A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 3, Piano Sonatas

Pianist James Brawn is embarking on A Beethoven Odyssey. Volume 3 (MSR 1467) currently plays on my computer as I write these lines. It contains Beethoven Sonatas No. 26 "Les Adieux", No. 17 "The Tempest", and No. 2. Maestro Brawn dedicates himself to the performances as Beethoven intended, with all the repeat signs honored. That's a good idea. With the CD world we can certainly make the space, and in the process we hear each sonata as an entity of substance. With such ambitions realized near the halfway point, the total set will likely fill nine volumes, so the liners say.

Volume 3 gives us an idea of James Brawn's acute sensitivity to the Beethoven. With the current volume we get something from the classical period (No. 2, 1795), edging into the mature period (No. 17, 1801-02) and then rather firmly into the blooming of the romantic (No. 26, 1809-10).

With all the repeats the No. 2 runs around 30 minutes. That provides us with a much deeper experience than otherwise. It gives the early work an imposing grandeur than it does not always possess in recorded form. Of course it is the interpretative talents of James Brawn that either make something out of the complete opportunity or elsewise. Certainly on this volume we hear a real artist at work.

The performances are filled with passion but also a classical sense of proportion. Of technique there is an abundance but it never comes to the forefront as display. Brawn harnesses his pianistic abilities to the objective of realizing the Beethoven compositional world in its fullest, most poetic, yet also in its direct, matter-of-fact sense. Others may take some passages faster, or, for that matter slower. Brawn gives us interpretations of elegance more than pure fire. And in the process gives us a Beethoven that calls attention to the most Beethovenesque note rendering, not as much a willful brilliance that calls attention to itself.

In the end I find James Brawn a deeply appropriate medium to realize Beethoven as he might himself have most appreciated. It is pure music, and of course has a brilliance that doesn't always need virtuoso, self-indulging enhancements.

If further volumes are true to form, and I see no reason to doubt that, this will be a cornerstone edition of the complete sonatas. One with a constancy of faithfulness to the composer of wonderful piano music. It can stand alongside more flamboyant versions as a kind of benchmark, weather vane, a cornerstone, a standard by which others might be measured.

Have a listen and see if you don't agree. James Brawn is Beethoven on this disk. He is the channeling of the Beethoven ethos, personified if you will. Bravo.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tre Voci, Kim Kashkashian, Sivan Magen, Marina Piccinini, Takemitsu, Debussy, Gubaidulina

Premier violist Kim Kashkashian has gathered around her two very worthy partners in Sivan Magen on harp and Marina Piccinini on flute for a fine outfit they call Tre Voci. It is also the title of their debut album (ECM New Series 2345 4810880) which is simply self-titled.

For it they have chosen three works that go together quite well. The lyrical, pastoral mode so fitting for this trio instrumentation is realized nicely by choice and execution. The centerpiece is the well-known, well-appreciated Debussy "Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp". It is surrounded by later, somewhat lesser-known works that have a slightly more modern bent but pay equal attention to the special sonance of the trio of instruments that make up Tre Voce: Toru Takemitsu's "And Then I knew 'twas Wind" and Sophia Gubaidulina's "Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten". The two later works have an affinity with the Debussy trio, the latter of which the composer wrote at the end of his life and managed to embody, as the lucid liner notes to the album point out, a kind of affinity with an Asian concept of time, of a simultaneous unfolding of sound within silence if you like.

It is surely one of Debussy's masterpieces, almost uncanny in its ethereal qualities. It points to the future in ways that both Takemitsu's and Gubaidulina's works further realize. The Takemitsu trio equals the lyric qualities, the Gubaidulina assigns specific roles to each instrument to produce lyrical but perhaps slightly more mysterious assemblages of sonic brilliance.

Tre Voci come through with ravishing renditions of all three works. I have never heard a more evocative Debussy. They give us a poignancy that the ECM audio production reinforces with singular appositeness. The other trios complete the mood with more of the gently spectacular introspection the pieces call for and are certainly given.

Tre Voci give us an almost indescribably beautiful triumvirate of performances on this recording. They set the bar high and program thoughtfully so that this seems like a definitive recording. It is gorgeous!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Handel, Jephtha, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers

Handel stands or falls in the performance. That's true of baroque masters in general as it is true of any period's greats. Handel's operas and oratorios are not only no exception, there have been (especially before the original instruments movement) a fair number of lackluster performances available. When he is played and interpreted well, there is magic. Luckily for us we have a near perfect gathering of singers, instrumentalists and interpretive acumen in the new new Sixteen/Harry Christophers recording of Handel's last oratorio Jephtha (CORO 16121 3-CDs). Since we discussed Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society version of Handel's Messiah Friday, today's post follows logically.

It is a remarkable work, even for Handel. There is great drama, excellent arias, good choruses and the memorable tunefulness that characterizes Handel at his best. Destiny marks the overall theme. The vocal soloists do an exceptional job: James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Sophie Bevan, Robin Blaze, Matthew Brook and Grace Davidson, all.

The choral passages (with a relatively small group per the accepted practices of the era) are presented with spirit, the small, period-instruments orchestra glows with all the warmth and sweetness a good period ensemble can give. The tempos do not drag. Time passes quickly as they draw us in. We respond with pleasure. The drama comes through without pretension, straightforwardly. And the libretto is in English, which makes the work all the more accessible for my English speaking readers.

The recording gives cogent proof, if we didn't already know, that as great as the Sixteen and Christophers are for Palestrina (see previous posts), they are just as accomplished in putting together a ravishing interpretation of a Handel Oratorio.

Highly recommended!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society, Handel, Messiah

Of all the baroque sacred choral works, oratorios with orchestral accompaniment anyway, and there are very many, Handel's Messiah triumphs as the shining jewel of the art, a near-perfect work. Only Bach's St. Matthew's Passion offers a true rival presence. My high school choir and orchestra ambitiously performed Messiah selections when I was just a freshman and hearing them rehearse it over the fall months, then the December performance, was an ear-changing experience. I little-by-little fell completely under its spell, through a complete recording and hearing the Masterwork Chorus perform it yearly in New York.

There have been performance practice changes over the years. For a time Mozart's reorchestration for larger orchestra held sway as did ever larger choruses, numbering well over 100 voices in many cases. There is also a Beecham orchestration for a full-blown ensemble of romantic proportions. There are still those who perform the altered versions and I see nothing to complain of there. It can be devastatingly moving. On the other hand there is a growing trend away from all that to the original version with original instruments and orchestration, with a chorus of 30 or so and soloists.

Enter Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, who are celebrating their bicentennial in 2015. They gave the first US performance of Handel's Messiah in 1818, consequently performing it annually from 1854 to the present day! Harry Christophers and the Society give us this season a brand new performance with the original version, complete with all the performing conventions and practices as Handel and his era assumed, in the smaller orchestration and a choir of thirty or so. Soloists include a countertenor in place of the usual mezzo-soprano, which gives us another perspective as well.

All this can be heard and appreciated on a 2-CD set just out (CORO 16125). The more compact forces lead to a more intimate impression. The chorus excels in the brisk pace Christophers gives many of the movements. The singers dive into the melismatic (multiple notes for a single syllable) passages with vigor and they project wonderfully. The soloists are up to the music in every way, though I have been spoiled by a recording that features the great Peter Lewis as tenor. But that recording is a romantic-sized rendition with a very different charm. The soloists here do a fine job anyway, though they may fall just a tad shy of the very greatest historically. One cannot expect everything in a single performance so it is not an issue.

The celebratory new Handel and Haydn Society version achieves the glory and power of the work with the lesser forces. I have not heard a more moving "Hallelujah" chorus. Their "Amen" is a thing to give you the chills. In fact the entire second part of the work glows with energy and conviction, not to say that the first part is lacking. It is a Messiah that builds to a wonderful climax.

If you don't have a period version, this one would make a fine addition to your library. If you don't know the Messiah this is a good place to start!

It is in every way a commanding performance! Happy 200th birthday to the Handel and Haydn Society.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Andreas Staier, Robert Schumann, Variationen & Fantasiestücke

I think I've said this before, but today's album drives the point home ever more strongly. That is, that hearing romantic era piano music on a modern concert grand gives you an entirely different impression of the sonic balance than if you hear it on a period era piano. The modern piano emphasizes all ranges and registers with a more-or-less equal presence. The period piano has less intensity and sustain power, and more of a fragility to the sound. Each range has markedly different sound qualities across the board. (Different, that is, than how each range sounds on a modern piano.) Certain forte passages played on a modern piano are brazenly full, evenly balanced. The same played on a period piano gives more articulation between figure and ground, if played as they were originally intended by a fine pianist.

Andreas Staier is the right pianist for a project of this sort, very much so. His third volume of Robert Schumann piano, covering the Variationen & Fantasiestücke (Harmonia Mundi 902171), will make a believer of you. The music is not so well-known that we have been overexposed and settled in to the modern pianoforte bombast of a typical bravura reading. Yet there is much beautiful music to hear. I have never heard this music played in a way that doesn't eventually weary me, to tell the truth, though I do love Schumann and his piano ouevre very much.

But no, these Staier versions let you discover the delights of savoring the inner voices, which are considerably well-wrought, without them dominating and clouding over the thematic thrust of the pieces as Schumann conceived them. Of course it isn't all in the piano, it is also in the brilliance of how Andreas articulates and phrases each passage.

If you have ever found romantic piano music overly dense, a little too ever-present, Staier may well open your ears to what the music was meant to sound like. As much as Rachmaninov is dear to my heart, the music from the romantic era need not always have that slapdash van Cliburnian overexpression typical of late romantic Rachmaninov and typical mid-20th century performance practice. Earlier romanticism is not all supposed to sound like Rachmaninov, of course. And the power of the music can be as much or more in the subtlety of interpretation as in the amount of projective power.

And so I come away from this disk a happy camper. Schumann never sounded so personal, so little a projection of future hearing on an earlier period. It is of course a testament to Staier and his poetic artistry. . . and the right piano.

Don't hesitate!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pat O'Keefe, *Contents May Differ

The development of woodwind virtuosi is nothing especially new. Of course in the realm of jazz there are have been many and continue to be. Modern classical has its share as well. Today's players tend to have mastered both conventional and less-conventional techniques of sound production, including complex-toned harmonics, alternate fingerings and falsetto range development.

Clarinetist-bass clarinetist Pat O'Keefe most certainly fits in with these trends as an excellent instrumentalist with a sure sense of purpose. He tackles six contemporary modern works for the two clarinets on *Contents May Differ (Innova 888).

Most all the works embody the new music extension and alteration of woodwind sound production. That they do so in different ways enables us to sample a broad spectrum of possibilities. Jeff Lambert's "Dissonant Grooves" and Ann Millikan's "Dendrite" explore the possibilities for solo Bb clarinet and bass clarinet, respectively.

Scott Miller gives us his "Contents May Differ", a dramatic exposition for bass clarinet and amplified, electronically transformed bass clarinet sounds. (Miller has several albums out of his own that I've reviewed on these pages. One features Pat O'Keefe. Type his name in the search box above for those.) It is expressive, dynamic and almost orchestral towards the end.

Brett Wartchow's "Unbound" takes Shelley's poem "Prometheus Unbound" and constructs a very lively solo clarinet piece around it. The music exemplifies a kind of analog to the poem's unbinding, and does so in interesting ways.

O'Keefe's own "Silent Snow" introduces Paul Cantrell on piano for a duet work that begins softly with quiet melodic figures that touch on harmonic overtones, the piano entering with equally quiet accompaniment that evokes the hush a newly covering blanket of winter snow can uncannily produce, especially in the evening when nature and humanity seem in suspension. The concluding portion of the piece becomes more emphatic and strident, appealingly so. As quiet as the snow falling may be, perhaps the music is saying, its accumulated effects can be more than a sort of fairyland. We who endured last winter in some areas know that all too well. Nonetheless it is a magical moment in real life that transforms well the overall compositional, airy lightness of the work, becoming in the end something a good deal more heavy in what it leaves behind for us.

The final work is in four parts, a bass clarinet-piano duet by Paul Cantrell entitled "The Broken Mirror of Memory". This is full-blown modernist expressionist poetics, a fitting end to the program and a bit of a tour de force. The chorale-like passage at the conclusion of the work gives us closure, a kind of "amen" to the entire program.

Pat O'Keefe provides us with a great deal to appreciate in *Contents May Differ. It shows his considerable artistry as it also gives us vibrant modern music. All who follow the contemporary new music scene should readily respond to this one. It is an exemplary program that shows virtuoso sensitivity and some excellent compositional work as well. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Triple Point, Phase/Transitions, Pauline Oliveros, Doug Van Nort, Jonas Braasch

The rise of live electronics with instrumentalists in the new music world is very much with us today. This can be confirmed by the many releases devoted to such performance practices. A very good example is today's 3-CD set, Triple Point and their Phase/Transitions (Pogus 21078-2), recorded in New York State between 2008-2012. The essential lineup is that of Pauline Oliveros, on V-Accordion, an electronically enhanced version of the instrument that produces what the liners call "physically-modelled acoustics", Doug Van Nort on the Granular-feedback Expanded Instrumentation System (GREIS) and electronics, and Jonas Braasch on soprano sax.

The music consists of a number of shorter segments of improvisation. Van Nort uses GREIS to take the original instrument signal feed and transform it, making a commentary on what is being played or transforming the musical input into entirely different terms (e.g., adding to the soundscape). For a number of segments the machine improvisation system known as FILTER performs in tandem with the trio. Some other segments feature Chris Chafe on celletto, performing remotely over the internet from Canada.

The three CDs cover a wide range of moods and sounds, all in the more-or-less "new music" zone, which is to say that timbre manipulation and contrasts play out in real time in an improvisatory context. Braasch's soprano is nearly always to be heard in its pure acoustic state along with its transformation by Van Nort. Ms. Oliveros' accordion sometimes can be heard clearly in its pristine form. Much of the time the sounds are electronically altered in varying degrees so that it sometimes sounds much more like keyed electronics. The electronics of Van Nort can be heard at times as a third instrumental element. At other times they mesh with Ms. Oliveros' sound transformations to create a kind of electronic-orchestral commingling.

What captivates in most of these trio improvisations in the sheer inventiveness of the sonic designs. Some segments flow with long-toned sounds played out against more eventful noted-ness from the soprano, accordion, electronics, or all in various combinations. Other segments are more-or-less pure give-and-take contrapuntal interactions.

Three CDs of such music is a great deal to absorb. It takes time and "deep listening" to completely assimilate. I can't say I am quite there yet. But I can say that this music has moments that stun in the best way. There are mellow segments and others somewhat abrasive. But they do not repeat themselves. Avant jazz, new music and electronic music converge on Triple Point. And the three artists in the process become one creative music-making being.

It no doubt is music of some importance for the avant scene today. It carries on the premises of the seminal live electronics-acoustics outfits from the first days of such possibilities and makes something wholly unique and fascinating out of it all.

Sonic adventurers will most definitely gravitate towards this set. Recommended for all those who dare go beyond the ordinary.