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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Frederico Moreno Torroba, Guitar Concertos 2

Last February 13, 2016 I reviewed on these pages the first volume of Torroba (1891-1982) Guitar Concertos featuring guitarists Pepe Romero and Vincente Coves, with the Malaga Philharmonic under Manuel Coves. We now contemplate the second volume (Naxos 8.573503), with all the same save the appearance of the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra.

For the second outing Pepe Romero handles the solo duties on "Homenaje a la seguidilla" (1962) and the "Tonada concertante" (1975-80). Vicente Coves takes over for the "Concierto de Castilla" (1960).

Romero's pupil Vincente Coves plays as beautifully as his mentor. The Extremadura Orchestra sounds every bit as idiomatic and vibrant as one would hope for in this music.

The music is captivating, with Castilian-Spanish folk elements vying with a kind of neo-impressionist shimmer and lyricism. The solo guitar parts have bravura and introspection at the forefront alternatingly.

The three works that comprise Volume 2 of Torroba's Guitar Concerto outing continue the wonderful fare and make for a beautiful listen. I heartily recommend it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mark John McEncroe, Symphonic Suites 1 & 2, A Medieval Saga

Living Australian composer Mark John McEncroe came to composing relatively late, spending his 20s and 30s as music label manager for EMI Australia and then EMI Sweden. He returned to Australia and began in earnest piano studies, clarinet studies and eventually theory and composition, the latter with Margaret Brandman from 2003 to 2012. He began composing a number of symphonic poems with orchestration help from Mark Salibus, with whom he continues to study.

Earlier this year Parma Records released a recording of Mark John McEncroe's "Natalie's Suite" for orchestra along with several solo piano works. The present release continues the relationship with a two-CD recording of the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armore performing McEncroe's Symphonic Suites 1 & 2: A Medieval Saga (Navona 6116). The orchestration is handled deftly by McEncroe's mentor Mark Salibus.

There is a series of thematically intertwined continuities that serves to unify both suites into a cohesive whole. The two suites musically depict a story of Middle Age political upheaval and its aftermath.

What strikes me most on hearing and rehearing the lengthy two-part work is the way the sprawling unfolding of the score in a consistently minor mode serves to put this music into a kind of timeless world zone. It has a sort of mysterious east-meets-west aura about it. Indeed, its minor ornamental continuity reminds me a little of some of Hovhaness's more Armenian tinged works, only with less focus on a specific region or time and perhaps more of an alternate contemporary-in-archaic mode that straddles a wider set of allusions.

One is left with a singular impression of a kind of organicized stylistic unity and flow that places the music outside of time yet also anchors itself fully in a post-modern kind of present. It transcends a typical pomo vision by unfolding more according to modal-flowing, flowering lines that allude to early music melodic expression without actually quoting or directly assimilating it.

I am left with an impression of something complete unto itself yet rather thoroughly outside contemporary modern music currents. It virtually stands apart from any modern mainstream realms yet in the end reflects our times as through a lens into the past.

Something entirely different, this is. Any adventurous soul may well readily take to this music as I have. Happily recommended.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Johann Mattheson, 12 Suites for Harpsichord, Gilbert Rowland

Of masterful baroque composers there are seemingly more than a few who for whatever turn of fate we have nigh well forgotten. Today we have an instructive example in Johann Mattheson (1681-1764). We get a solid look at his music for solo keys in his 1714 opus 12 Suites for Harpsichord (Athene 23301 3-CD set) as spiritedly and authentically realized by Gilbert Rowland.

The liner notes for this release tell us that he lived in Handel's time and indeed was a friend of his. He composed, played organ, wrote, danced, fenced and was multilingual. His friendship with Handel suffered a setback when they fought a duel over Handel's involvement in a performance of Mattheson's opera "Cleopatra." Happily no one was hurt and their friendship resumed.

His operatic career as singer ended when he became the secretary for the English Ambassador in 1705. By 1715 he was Music Director at Hamburg Cathedral. Increasing deafness forced him to give up that position in 1728. He composed numerous choral works during that time, but tragically much of his music has been lost to us during the bombings of WWII. The liners reassure us that the opera "Cleopatra" survives along with a good deal of instrumental works, one of which of course is the "12 Suites" that forms the whole of the current release.

The suites combine homophonic and contrapuntal elements, and are made up of dance music and pure movements that serve to introduce and connect the whole of each suite. In that they were like Handel and Bach's forays into this mode, but also you can hear at times a French element, a similarity to Rameau in the briskly kinetic but lyrical effusions.

The "12 Suites" establish for us Mattheson's idiomatic immersion in the baroque of his time but also a definite originality.

The music comes alive thanks to Gilbert Rowland's apposite and enthusiastic performances. The set will appeal to anyone who revels in baroque harpsichord. Mattheson may be tragically obscure these days but he is undeservedly so. The "Suites" give you many reasons to listen and enjoy. Take the plunge on this one, should you be so inclined. I do not think you will be disappointed. I for one am glad to hear and in the future re-hear these unknown gems!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Karol Szymanowski, Piano Music, Barbara Karaskiewicz

Arthur Rubenstein did more to introduce Western audiences to the piano music of Poland's brilliant composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) than anyone alive in the 20th century. If today his music is not as frequently performed as it might be, the masterful quality and expressivity of the oeuvre as a whole demands a serious immersion in the best of it if we are to understand the 20th century musical strengths and poetics of Eastern European classical-modernism.

Barbara Karaskiewicz combines virtuosity and interpretive acuity to be a near ideal exponent of a series of breathtaking Szymanowski works in her volume of his Piano Music (Divine Art 25151) that has recently become available.

What makes this album especially attractive is its intelligent mix of early and later works. The "Nine Preludes, Op. 1" and the "Four Etudes, Op. 4" are followed by the later "Masques, Op. 34" and the "Two Mazurkas, Op. 62."

The earlier music has something of the late romantic virtuoso brilliance that so overtook the musical sensibilities of 19th century piano music via Chopin and Liszt. Even then though the Szymanowski "Preludes" and "Etudes" included here have a distinctively original individuality and a zeitgeist reflecting the winds of change blowing transformatively over Europe and the music of the era.

By the time the composer completed his "Masques, Op. 34" and his "Two Mazurkas, Op. 62" there is a distinct movement toward a 20th century modernism conjoined with his ever-prevailing rhapsodistic and poetic demeanor.

The early and later phases of Szymanowski's piano music as we hear them on this album are not a matter of  a contrast between tentative student works and mature mastery. There is a stylistic shift to be followed, surely, but the whole of this music shows a full command over pianistic resources and an highly inventive originality that sings out from first to last.

Ms. Karaskiewicz puts a sense of clarity and passion into each movement, a genuinely sympathetic lyrical and dramatic touch that is so needed for a vital interpretation of this most expressive composer.

The end result is a very happy meeting of pianist and composer. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a better single CD that brings to us all that makes Szymanowski's piano music important and movingly alive. Here is a great place to start if you want to know why the composer is a central figure in the Polish early modern period. The selection and performances are equally rewarding to one who already knows something of the music. Barbara Karaskiewicz puts it all before us in glowing terms. Do not hesitate to grab a copy of this album!


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Music from SEAMUS, Vol. 1, The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States

Electro-acoustic music, in its "electronic music" and "musique concrete" incarnations, was one of New Music's most potent and advanced gestures from the '50s through the '70s. There were even best selling albums such as Walter (Wendy) Carlos' Switched on Bach. And then, almost as quickly, Electronic Music went out of fashion for a time, Nevertheless the Millennium and beyond has brought a resurgence. Music from SEAMUS (EAM-9301) documents the electronic pre-Renaissance, in a first volume of works released under the auspices of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. It covers the period between 1980 and 1991, a somewhat dark time for the reception of such music but as we hear on this volume, a time when excellent work was still being produced.

The six compositions on the anthology give us a window on some state-of-the-art developments. Four works feature conventional instruments (and voice in one example) and processed and/or synthesized electric sounds. Two are works for electro-acoustic forces alone.

The stylistic parameters fall rather squarely into a high modernist and beyond sound color and open-form expansive orientation. On the works for instruments and electroacoustics there is a consistent attempt to extend the scope of acoustical instruments with synergies between the two realms. The all-electroacoustic works develop aural landscapes of varying densities.

For your information, the following is a round up of the composers, works and configurations: James Mobberley opens the program with his "Spontaneous Combustion" (1991) for alto saxophone and computer generated accompaniment; it is followed by James Phelps and his "Chordlines" (1991) for computer-generated tape; next up is Anna Rubin and her "Remembering" (1989, rev. 1993) for soprano, piano and tape; then follows Stephen David Beck and "Improvisation on Strange Attractors v1.0b" (1990) for bassoon and Virtual Instrument Paradigm; Bernardo Feldman and his "Still Life" (1986) for tape follows; the concluding work is Kwok-ping John Chen's "Ring Shades" (1990) for solo percussion with two-channel tape.

What we experience on this volume are a series of works that deserve fully a hearing today. They should not bask in the obscurity that has been the fate of much electro-acoustic work towards the end of the twentieth century. Anyone interested in the history of later New Music will find this enlightening. Anyone with open ears will find the hearing of it all pleasureable. Give it a listen, by all means.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Gyorgy Kurtag, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

I was tangentially a part of a Facebook thread yesterday. Implied was a question: Who listens to New Music these days? One answer is that they are generally the same audience who listens to classical music in general. Often enough that is true in the concert setting, given that a contemporary work may be a part of a program along with older classics. In the matter of those who purchase New Music recordings, it still can apply. However, there also is a group of listeners who respond more exclusively to the new and avant but do not necessarily collect and get into the earlier classical music. They are a smaller group. They may listened to advanced jazz, rock, and/or world more than Bach. This blog caters to both and manages to get a respectable readership out of the two camps. I of course appreciate the patronage.

When it is a matter of today's offering, either group might be well served by the contents. It is an important release from a composer who has gotten attention over the years as a major figure in the New Music, Gyorgy Kurtag.  Today we have a worthwhile compilation of three-CDs: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07).

It is an all-encompassing collection of compositions by the Hungarian high modernist, nicely recorded and very well performed by soloists, guests, the Asko/Schonberg Ensemble and the Netherlands Radio Choir under the guidance of conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.

The recording of  the numerous works on this set was a labor of love. De Leeuw has performed each of these a number of times in the last twenty years. The master recordings for the set took shape from March 2013 through July 2016. Gyorgy and Marta Kurtag were intimately involved both before and after each session. Their detailed evaluation of each result sometimes led to De Leeuw's re-recording of some of the music, both sections and an entire re-performance as deemed necessary.

The results met the full approval of the Kurtags and so the music stands as a benchmark for performances to come. Only a thorough personal immersion in the recordings make that plain. Kurtag is not a composer easily categorized. The reasons for that are not hard to find. His music covers a wide swath of possibilities in a high modernist and near tonality realm that ever bestirs in new configurations, dramatic ebbs and flows, sheer power or reflective unwindings.

The wealth of works cover a long span between 1959 and 2011. Most fall somewhere in the middle years. Not all include the choir. The ones that do show a natural feel for musico-vocal-instrumental declamation. The purely instrumental works are filled with color and a shifting focus on ongoing event structures.

Some eleven works make up the totality of the program. I come away from the set with a strong attraction to the music and a feeling that we are in the presence of a living master of true importance. A work-by-work breakdown of what is present might have a tedious quality for the lightening engage-and-move-on readership here on the net. There is just too much and because of the original quality of Kurtag's music it would take many paragraphs to do justice to what we get. Instead, I will say that this set underscores the unvarying quality of Kurtag's music, as it sets you on a riveting journey through the thickets, the broad panoramas, the high mountain peaks and peaceful valleys of what makes Kurtag so absorbing and worthwhile.

Spend time with this set and I suspect you will, like I have, get a distinct tingle of satisfaction. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Brian Current, Faster Still, Chamber Works

Brian Current, a living Canadian composer, manages on his CD Faster Still (Centrediscs 24217) to toggle between high modernism (in his advanced whirlwinds of colorful execution and sometimes advanced, edgy tonality) and postmodernism (in his use of tonality and sometimes in the notefull presentation). As a composer of his time, he is not afraid to mesh modern and postmodern elements in a single work, so that virtually anything can and does happen in service to the aesthetic whole. All this on the multistranded chamber works written between 1996 and 2016.

Current comes at us like a force of nature, of irregular eddying torrents of wind or water, with clusters and deft collisions of notes and sound colors. All happens via a series of five provocative chamber works and a bonus concluding work for chamber orchestra.

There is a freshening to be heard throughout. None of this is precisely predictable; most of the works are unexpected in their post-Boulezian motility, like particles hitting one another at high speeds in a collider or wafts of coloristic atmosphere formation.

The opening "Inventory" (2006) sets the pace with an excitement generated out of soprano Patricia O'Callighan's pleasing virtuosity and the flowing sureness of the chamber orchestra Slipstream. This is marvelous music, built through a genuinely insightful layering of idiomatic part writing and the effect the totality has in generating movement.

From there it continues fruitfully and vitally. The remaining four works are all distinctive and brilliant. If I only cover what I generally like on these pages, please rest assured I like CDs such as this with a heartiness that is in no way feigned.

So if I might be so bold as to suggest, Faster Still will engage and delight virtually anyone who favors the new and the inventive possibilities still available to our collective musical senses. Brian Current is the real thing and this music makes for essential listening.

Grab this one!