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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Erkki-Sven Tuur, Brett Dean, Gesualdo

We are once again the the realm of early music-meets-modern-music with the album Gesualdo (ECM New Series 2452). Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566-1613) was one of the most remarkable, expressive and harmonically advanced composers of his age. Stravinsky brought him to the limelight among contemporary music appreciators via an early 1960s album of his music and Stravinsky's own "Monumentum Pro Gesualdo," a substantial work honoring his importance. And now we have a fine current-day tribute on this new ECM release. It is a kind of celebration of Gesualdo's music and his era through several short Gesualdo works arranged for string orchestra and music inspired by Gesualdo from the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur and Australian composer Brett Dean. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra are the performers under conductor Tonu Kaljuste. They sound great.

Erkki-Sven Tuur weighs in with two compositions, "L'ombra della croce" (2014) and "Psalmody" (1993/2011), the latter making use of the choir, both scored quite nicely for the string orchestra in the former case, full orchestra in the latter. They have a post-modern meets early music way about them, with perhaps a bit of the neoclassical influence of Stravinsky. Towards the end of "Psalmody" there is a very nicely contrapuntal post-minimal jauntiness that provides a feeling of movement and energy, with the distinct hint of Reich and Riley influences transposed to a new plane.

They have a very ambient feel to them in the spacious sense, partially thanks to Manfred Eicher's lush sound staging, but they have a periodicity and continuity about them that point both backwards to Gesualdo and forwards to the present day.

The two short pieces-arrangements of Gesualdo help us contextualize it all and via the string orchestra allow us to hear Gesualdo in a kind of new light, as a figure who oftimes resonates with a near-modern sense of expressive dissonance, but also as an advanced master of the contrapuntal part writing in his time.

Brett Dean gives us a rather monumental "Carlo" (1997) for choir and string orchestra. It is an impression of the world of Gesualdo as he lived in it both musically and otherwise. The work moves from an arrangement, then excerpted bits of Gesualdo's madrigal "Moro Lasso" in a vocal-orchestral collage that traverses the ages to end up in our modern era and the sound of its new music, Dean style. It is quite impressive to hear, a remarkable work on many levels.

So there we have it. The album gives us much to savor and yet another take on how the past can energize and help rebuild and extend our present-day modern musical world. It is a joy to hear! Very recommended.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Galina Ustvolskaya, Russian Piano Music Series, Vol. 11, Natalia Andreeva

A modern Russian composer not familiar to me is happily spotlighted on the two-CD set Russian Piano Music Series, Volume 11, Galina Ustvolskaya (Divine Art 25130). Ms. Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) wrote a set of 12 Preludes (1953) and Six Piano Sonatas (1947-1988) over the course of her life. Pianist Natalia Andreeva gives us finely honed, expressively thoroughgoing renditions of these, which comprise Galina's complete output for solo piano.

The liner notes reflect on her life, calling her "one of the most mysterious figures in the post Prokofiev-Shostakovich era of Russian music." She is not well known even in Russia. She was a pupil of Shostakovich and spent her life in relative isolation in St. Petersburg. She visited Europe only in the 1990s where her music was performed in several music festivals. Her publisher catalogs some 25 works in all.

There have been some several CDs of her music in later years, two books and such. She believed in working deliberately and carefully over her music, which explains the somewhat modest complete catalog. Her music has no bar lines, is written in 1/8 or 1/4 time, favors clusters on occasion, puts great emphasis on accents and dynamics, which can range from fffff to ppppp, uses unconventional playing techniques at times, like playing with the knuckles, and has a starkly dark style that is not tonal in any simple way, and oftimes is thoroughly atonal. Her later sonatas have been performed with a ferocity that caused some to dub her the "lady with the hammer." Galina was not always happy with some of these performances. Natalia Andreeva consciously set about learning the piano works in great detail and with an emphasis on musicality per se. She conveys to us the picture of a composer of acute demeanor, a school of one if you like.

And so we get a progression from the preludes and through to the sonatas with Andreeva convincingly tempering the starkness and dramatic dynamic contrasts to a poetically musicianly pianism that tends less toward a savage, harsh sort of interpretation of the music to something highly evocative in all its stark despair.

The music as a result sings fully though characteristically brusque and arctic at times. No one can make of a two-part fugal counterpoint such an icy prospect as can Ustvolskaya. She is very much an expressionist I would say, with the kind of black and white primalness of a classic expressionist woodcut.

It is beautiful music, totally without concessions, extraordinarily original, turgid, high modern without respite. That means you must put yourself squarely into her world to appreciate her the more deeply. And if you do that repeatedly there is magic. Ustvolskaya, based on this recording, is a discovery of great magnitude. I salute Ms. Andreeva and those at Divine Art for making this music so vibrantly available to us.

It leads me to an urgent need to hear her orchestral music and/or everything else she wrote. That's how it affects me. If you like discoveries in the high modernist realm, Galina Ustvolskaya and this set of the piano music is a highly important one, something that will surely give you another way of hearing musical modernity.

Bravo! Terrific!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Susan Chan, Echoes of China, Contemporary Piano Music

We live in an age where the entire world becomes ever closer to us, certainly from a musical standpoint. Chinese composers in the modern classical realm serve as an excellent example. There has been a blossoming of them in our era, and a good amount of the music can be found in commercial issue.

Pianist Susan Chan brings to us six works for solo piano by five living contemporary Chinese composers on Echoes of China (Naxos 8.570606). The works date from between 1964 and 2013.

The music is in a modern tonal mode with varying degrees of traditional Chinese melodic elements represented principally by pentatonic means. Each composer occupies his or her own stylistic niche but the anthology has a kind of unity via its nationalistic orientation. Zhou Long represents the more modernistic side with "Pianobells" (2012); Alexina Louie sounds a bit more on the impressionistic side in her "Music for Piano" (1982). Somewhere within these poles fall works by Doming Lam, Tan Dun and Chen Yi.

Susan Chan's performances are nicely expressive, pianistic and dramatic or contemplative, depending on the mood of the work.

It is a volume that speaks to us eloquently and gracefully. It serves as a good introduction to some of the finest present-day Chinese composers but also provides excellent fare for those already initiated into the modern classical music of some or all of the participants. A very good album, this is.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, Stille-stykkje, Olav Kielland, Erik Daehlin

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus is a magically poetic pianist who specializes in repertoire that combines modern classical and folk idioms. Stille-stykkje (LabLabel 2015) is an offering of quiet piano works by two composers who have concerned themselves with Norwegian folk forms, transformed in different ways.

Olav Kielland (1901-1983) became enthralled with Norwegian folk music in the 1940s, especially the harding fiddle and vocal traditions. He moved his family to the west of Telemark, Norway to better immerse himself in the music. The sound of the natural world around him and the folk forms he so loved came together early on in his stay. When he heard his young daughter playing simple melodies on the piano it gave him the idea for the 20 quiet pieces, "Villarkorn," which exude a kind of naturalism and a sensitivity to the folk forms he heard around him. Ms. Nyhus performs the strikingly singular music with a sympathetic dedication that makes it all work.

Kielland felt strongly that folk-influenced music should not lose sight of the modality, grooves and polyphony of the originals. And so the 20 pieces come before us at times in utter simplicity, but perhaps deceptively so, since the irregularity of living folk tradition is somehow inherent in the pieces, as well as the special traits involving modal tonality, multi-part writing and an underlying freedom of expression. So it is not just simplicity that the music is about. And the music becomes more complex as the sequence of 20 pieces progresses. Ms. Nyhus internalizes the Kielland ethos and gives it back to us with beautifully evocative performances. If Satie was Norwegian and became enthralled with local forms, his music might have sounded something like this. That is a gross simplification, but it will give you some idea of the music's impact.

In contrast we have the music of Erik Daehlin (b. 1976), which Ingfrid presents to us in four interrelated segments. The music takes archival folk singing examples and excerpts melodic fragments, transforming them acoustically to varying degrees, then builds a solo piano part around them. His is a more disjunct modern approach but very fitting as a contrast to the "Villarkorn" pieces. The snippets of recorded vocalizations come at us in a quietly, ghostly sort of eerieness, as if the past were communicating to us from a distance, very much still alive.

And that in a way is what this album is about, the resurrection and transformation of a vivid body of folk forms, with contemporary music made out of the essence of its aural images to fashion a music anew.

It is thoroughly beautiful, still, quiet, yet with a movement through to the present, like water rippling forward inexorably but gently in a quiet rural stream.

This is a program of great beauty. Ms. Nyhus gives us ideal performances. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bach-Chindamo, The New Goldberg Variations, Joe Chindamo & Zoe Black

The old and the new are ever-combining lately. Not that such a thing has not been happening throughout the history of humanity, but every era or period has something peculiar to it in the way it happens, at least musically. I don't have a full picture in my mind about the present yet, but early music and baroque music have offered possibilities for new music amalgams a good deal in the past half-century, it seems. And there have been successful hybrids to come out of that idea, surely.

A fascinating and effective example of this can be heard on The New Goldberg Variations (ALFi 15002). It is Johann Sebastian Bach's complete "Goldberg Variations" with a stylistically consistant, new counterline on the violin written by Joe Chindamo. Joe plays the piano part for the recording and Zoe Black takes the violin part.

The result is a new work, born of the old. The violin part adds a good deal to the music, a second or third voice in the counterpoint much of the time, and occasionally a reinforcement of the piano line, the latter of which remains just as Bach wrote it. Sometimes we get a kind of variation within a variation; other times an extension of Bach's contrapuntal thinking. Chindamo creates a sympathetic and very credible, even wondrous work out of it all.

Zoe Black and Joe Chindamo sound very buoyant, very spirited together here. Both are from Australia. Joe composes and both can play in a jazz mode apparently, but that is not what is happening on this album.

I was prepared to be disappointed, only because the "Goldberg Variations" have gained such an iconic footing in their original form that I wondered about the need of adding to them. I was wrong. The "New Goldberg Variations" are not meant to replace the old ones. They give you a fine new look at what can go with it all, a second work that can take its place proudly next to the original and be experienced as a nicely variant set of variations.

For all that I am fully satisfied and elated with this recording. It is a must for all Bachaholics as well as anybody looking for a new sonic experience. Bravo!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Andrew Staniland, Talking Down the Tiger, and Other Works for Solo Instruments and Electronics

Andrew Staniland is a young Canadian composer of promise. His Talking Down the Tiger (Naxos 8.573428) presents five works for solo instrumentalists and electronics, the latter reinforcing and subtly adding to the live part in real time through recorded playback or alteration of the live sound.

"Talking Down the Tiger" features quiet toms and mallets (played by Ryan Scott), extended and altered via looping.

"Dreaded Sea Voyage" is for classical guitar (Rob MacDonald) and electronics, based on the recording on board the NASA reconnaissance space vehicle Voyager containing a sampling of "human music" in case the craft encounters other life forms in its travels through the universe. The guitar parts are altered versions of some of the music; the electronic part subtly adds to it.

"Flute Vs. Tape" has a most vivacious flute part, played with a dynamic energy by Camille Watts. The tape part is composed of the second flute, acting contrapuntally.

"Still Turning" is for cello (Frances Marie Uitti) and towards the end, a tape part that recalls themes from the other two works with which "Still Turning" forms a trilogy. In this, one of two movements that make thematic use of lines from T.S. Elliot's poem "Four Quartets," "Still Turning" captures via virtuoso cello the feeling of standing still while at the same time being in motion, for example if we stand motionless on earth as it travels rapidly in its orbit.

The final work, "True North," for soprano saxophone (Wallace Halladay) and electronics, captures in sound the fact that magnetic north or even "true north" changes position slightly over time according to changes in the earth's axis and other factors. A circle of four microphones corresponding to the four compass points feed into four-fold, widely separate speaker playback which the performer controls through playing in proximity to each microphone at will.

The music is basically tonal modern, with a bit of a harmonic-melodic edge, an attention to sound color and electronic enhancement, all of which subtly plays out on each piece.

Staniland certainly has imaginative conceptual creativity that he realizes in each of the pieces. The music sounds eclectically contemporary and retains interest. The electronic part generally reinforces the live music without calling much attention to itself. This may not be the album of the year among new music releases, but it is not uninteresting!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ibert, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, etc., The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Adriano

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) is perhaps best known for his "Escales," but there is quite a bit more music from him, much of which does not get a great deal of performance these days. One might suppose that there were so many brilliant French composers competing for attention during his lifetime that Ibert has been unduly neglected as a result.

All that can be rectified in part by a new volume of some of his lesser-known orchestral-choral music, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Naxos 8.555568) as respectably performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Adriano.

The title work, based on the poem by Oscar Wilde, was considered rather daring, having been first written as symphonic poem between 1920 and 1922, and performed soon after. Its deft handling of a bleak prison world and themes of the terror and anguish of an inmate who had murdered his wife were controversial at the time. As a first orchestral work it has touches of the influence of Debussy and Ravel but a well-crafted and dynamic originality as well. It was converted into a ballet and first performed in this vein at the Opera Comique in 1937.

We find some worthwhile additional works on this anthology, namely Ibert's "Trois Pieces de Ballet" of 1921-22, a three-part concert suite from the ballet score, meant to depict various characters who frequented his mother's salons, the brief "Feerique" and "Chant de Folie," both from 1924, and the lengthier "Suite Elisabethaine" (1944), written with early music touches for incidental performance in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

You can readily hear progression and development in Ibert's impressionist/quasi-romantic stylistic approach in these chronologically presented works. They are all quite pleasing if perhaps not exactly world-class 20th century masterworks. They do add a good deal to understanding and appreciating Ibert, helping to flesh out a multi-dimensional portrait of the man and his music.

It has its charms and will afford you a good bit of enjoyment, especially if you are of the Francophile contingency. It may not be particularly essential listening, but not everything can be that, after all. It pleases.