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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Martin Bresnick, Prayers Remain Forever

A personal voice among today's composers is not the rule, no less so today than in ages past. There are those few who stand out with a twist, a way of doing what others do, but not like how others do it. Martin Bresnick qualifies, going on his latest release of chamber works, Prayers Remain Forever (Starkland 221). I reviewed his exceptional Caprichos Enfaticos, based on Goya's anti-war drawings, way back on November 14, 2011, and it too is in its own world.

I say he has a "personal voice" once again because all six compositions in the current program turn the contemporary into the Bresnickian with a minimum of means. The largest ensemble, a quartet of oboe, violin, viola and cello, remains intimate, is more like a lively conversation among friends than an imperial utterance destined for the rafters of a large hall. The recorded media seems absolutely right for this music, as it communicates directly to you the listener without pretense or assumption.

Each work occupies a post-modern world of its own. There is "Josephine the Singer" (2011) with its Kafka-referring neo-classical, neo-romantic solo violin that seems to be driving anything but applause, but rather to internalize a search for some kind of meaning in sound. The solo piano pieces differ greatly. "Strange Devotion" (2010) uses space and silence to offset a series of tender diatonics that gradually grow in complexity and modulatory wanderings; or "Ishi's Song" (2012), which features vocals and a definite Eastern pentatonicism folkishness that appeals as it gives you an unexpected turn. It is based on a song sung by the last Yahi-Yani Indian of California.

"A Message From the Emperor" (2010) features two vibes/marimba and a spoken part that concerns the mysterious whispered communication of a royal personage on his death bed to "the solitary one." The latter then sets out to communicate it (and we don't know to whom) to the accompaniment of interlocking contrapuntal shifting patterns on the mallets. The narrative continues and I won't give away the ending, but it is a story mythologically redolent of the East, a sort of musical Zen koan.

"Prayers Remain Forever" (2011) uses cello and piano to an expression not unlike "Strange Devotion," both tonal, modern and post-that working around intervallic and harmonic cyclicality that spirals more than repeats, developing as it evolves.

"Going Home" (2010) is the quartet I mentioned earlier. It begins with simple long notes and intervalic embellishment thematics in the oboe that have a largo-esque Eastern quality. The lyrical deliberateness rings well in your ears.

It is a program of unexpected synergies, a fragile beauty and sensibility that takes it out of our time and places it somewhere in an unknown exotic locale at a time unknown. It is for that a very pleasurable listen, both accomplished and very down-to-earth.

Recommended. A singular addition of one for your collection...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lyatoshynsky, Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra, Kuchar

The fate of modern Ukrainian composers during the Soviet period varied with shifting political-ideological agendas, as I understand it. There was a period of relative freedom of expression, followed by a social realist agenda under Stalin that took a dim view of anything not connected with ideological uplift, then the thaw for the decade when Krushchev was in power. As a result Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968), considered the father of Ukrainian modernist composers, had obstacles to surmount at times in the official acceptance of his music.

Naxos is happily reissuing a series of three CDs covering Lyatoshynsky's complete symphonies (1-5) that were originally issued on Marco Polo some time ago. The first, covering Symphony No. 1, I have not heard as yet, but the second and third volumes I will cover here in the next several days. Today, Volume Two, with Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 (Naxos 8.555579). Theodore Kuchar conducts the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra in some quite serviceable, even inspired readings of the two works, written in 1935-36 (rev. 1946) and 1951 (rev. 1954), respectively.

Lyatoshynsky in these two works comes through as more his own voice than derivative. He uses Ukrainian folk influences and a basic chromatic modernism along with a somewhat romantic expressivity in the works for a result that has a narrative symphonic quality, at times mysterious, other times opening up chromatic whirlwinds of unfolding variations and long-lined melodic forms.

I have listened to this disk quite a few times and must say I cannot seem to wrap myself around this music as yet. It is doubtless well put-together, quite emotive, orchestrationally dark with spots of luminosity, at times very "Ukrainian" sounding, which of course was his intent.

The performances are not lacking and there is much to intrigue. It is music of great dramatic clout when he fashions climaxes. But Lyatoshynsky in this period may require a long period of incubation in the listener before a clear grasp of his way becomes apparent. I found that to be the case with Shostakovich at certain periods, personally, so that says nothing about the composer. I need to listen more. In the meantime anyone with an interest in Eastern European modernist symphony would be well-served by hearing this music.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Trio Mediaeval, Aquilonus

Music has wings to take us to other eras, when done right. The Scandinavian threesome Trio Mediaeval do this hauntingly on their 6th ECM New Series album Aquilonus (B0022155-02). It is a wide-ranging collection of polyphonic vocal music from medieval to modern times, all of which share a plaintive sort of archaicism of mystery and remoteness, as the North Wind for which the album is named.

Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Berit Opheim give us their lovely blend of voices plus discrete accompaniment at times from the hardanger fiddle, portable organ and melody chimes. The repertoire includes Icelandic medieval chant, 12th century Italian sacred music, and some fitting 15th-century English carols for Christmastide. The modern works blend in thoroughly because they are self-consciously backward looking, so that when we hear the works by Anders Jormin, William Brooks and Andrew Smith they flow smoothly into the program. A folkishness and a purity-in-simplicity comes through to set a mood in keeping with the season.

This is music devoid of the middle-ages potboilers one hears so often in typical anthologies. The vocals are truly haunting in a folk-early way, and the ECM acoustics heighten the experience and the semantic space between us and these aetherial sounds.

I find the music enchanting.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Haydn, The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross, Jeno Jandó, Solo Piano Version

In the course of this blog I have had the opportunity to review not one, but now three versions of Joseph Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. There has been the version for string orchestra, for string quartet, and now the solo piano version performed by Jeno Jandó (Naxos 8.573313). Why I have jumped at the chance to review each time becomes increasingly clear to me. There is perhaps no more harrowing scene in the biblical literature of Christianity than this. Jesus hangs on the cross, in agony. He expresses himself seven times, ranging from the needful cry "I thirst" to the heartbreaking "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" There is perhaps nothing more disturbing and dark than that moment, duly revisited every year in the Christian calendar.

That Joseph Haydn was commissioned to write a work on these last words for performance on Good Friday was fortunate, in that in dealing with the expressive power of this scenario he was pushed to the edge of the classical style he so brilliantly espoused. There was no question, for him, about writing the sort of work he did so well. Instead there are nine slow movements in a row, mostly in the minor mode, allowing him to express in his very own classicist way the tragic last moments of Jesus on earth as human, his earthly death.

Haydn's Last Words and Mozart's musical depiction of Don Giovanni's descent to hell in the opera of that name press two of classicism's greatest composers to the limits of classicism. If you compare what they did musically to romantic and later periods, you see clearly that classicism put strictures on expression that romanticism and later modernism eased significantly. I am thinking of Faust's ride to hell in Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust and Penderecki's hell-like musical depiction of the entombment of Christ in his Utrenja. Both Berlioz and Penderecki were freed progressively from the restraints of classicism to much more emotively expressive and anxious music. The effects are that much more thoroughly overwhelming, perhaps, and yet going back to Haydn you appreciate the challenges he had remaining true to the feelings of the narrative he was depicting yet staying within the conventions of musical meaning that were a part of his times.

And so the Seven Last Words manage to say so much. They are as dark as any classical work, as expressive (though of course Haydn's sturm und drang symphonies pioneered a heightened expressivity in the period) as anything you might hear from the era. If you were to look to a more or less clear expression of meaning in the musical syntax of the era, here is where you would find it.

But in the end his innovations in form and the literal program he was depicting make sense in the great power of the music. It is here that you find Haydn at his most starkly sublime. And the solo piano version perhaps even more so has a starkness inherent in its unrelenting pianism, its voluntary limitation of sound color, its limitation of pitch range at times to the center of the keyboard, only to burst forward ever the more dramatically as the higher and lower note options come in calculatedly to express contrast in a dark landscape.

Jeno Jandó gives us a performance that does not attempt to wow us with bravura panache. Such a display would destroy the dark and somber aura that Haydn lays out for us so brilliantly. Jandó puts all the expressivity needed into the music and no more. This is the proper reading to my mind. It is in the restraint that the sorrow comes through all the more. That most certainly was Haydn's intent and it in part is what makes this work so haunting. And when the music calls for it the more agitated expressive passages stand out all the more clearly.

So bravo to Jeno Jandó for this moving version. Very recommended.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jacques Hétu, Complete Chamber Works for Strings

Jacques Hétu (1938-2010), a pupil of Dutilleux, Messiaen and Lukas Foss, spent a lifetime composing and teaching in Canada. We come upon his music today in a most rewarding anthology of his Complete Chamber Music for Strings (Naxos 8.573395), as played by the New Orford String Quartet and guests.

This is serious, abstract modernist music of excellence, composed over much of his career between 1960 and 2004. The String Quartets No. 1 (1973) and No. 2 (1991) begin the program. They move out of the rarified, masterful territory of Bartok, Carter and Ligeti to occupy their own aural space. They alone are worth the price of admission, for they are significant and something to behold-hear. The string writing calls for virtuosity and passion and the New Orford Quartet realize it all with precision, grace and feeling.

By 2004 Hétu had become a bit less atonal but no less impactful as we hear from the lovely "Sextet, Op. 71," a work both pleasingly stringent and lyrical. In between we get shorter works that show both the hand of a master in the making and that of the made on the "Adagio and Rondo" from 1960, the "Scherzo" of 1992 and the haunting "Serenade" for string quartet and flute of 1988. The latter has an almost Bergsian depth of passion. It reminds me ever so slightly in the opening section of Berg's wonderful "Violin Concerto" yet does so strictly on its own terms.

At no point does inspiration flag. This is music we who have a commitment to the modern and the new should know, a disk we should have. The performances are no less effective than the music Hétu constructs so impressively.

Modernists take note. Jacques Hétu deserves your attention. You can hear the evolution of his style over his career on this program, and you like me will no doubt appreciate the various phases and want to hear more.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mary Dullea, Gothic, New Piano Music From Ireland

If we in the US have not heard very much from Irish contemporary composers, it is not because there is not much happening. The Irish are a most music of peoples, of course, and it stands to reason that we have been deprived for non-musical reasons. All that is moot with the new album by Mary Dullea: Gothic: New Piano Music From Ireland (Metier 28549). Ms. Dullea shows that she is an excellent exponent of new music performance in this sparkling anthology of seven works by some of Ireland's finest.

The music tends to be dramatic, gestural, filled with light and shadow, sound and silence. The music has the sort of ambience, much of the time, that George Crumb brought to prominence in some of his landmark solo piano works. The works here do not copy Crumb but step ahead with the same sensitivity to in-and-outside the piano color fields, dampening of strings, strumming and plucking strings, the use of space.

All the works have a singular feel to them, modern in a colorist's conception more so than much of the the wide skips and beyond-tonality of classic high modernism, even though some are harmonically-tonally edgy. Mary Dullea is in command and brings us performances that give us the music in its full mystery and vibrant narrative, sometimes torrential but always lucidly new.

These may be composers whose names you do not know (though some you might) but each has something worthwhile to say. The program consists of Ed Bennett and "Gothic," David Fennessy and "the first thing, the last thing and everything in between," Jonathan Nangle and "grow quieter gradually," Frank Lyons and "Tease," John McLachlan and "Nine," Grainne Mulvey and "Etude" and finally Benjamin Dwyer and "Homenaje a Maurice Ohana."

The music puts you firmly in the present without any sort of dilution. This is serious piano music and it is played with a touch of the magic that Mary Dullea has no shortage of....She is transcendent, powerful and tender all at once.

Very highly recommended.

It turns out I have jumped the gun posting here. Copies will be available February 10th, 2015. Keep a note of the date; you will no doubt want to order it when it’s released.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Captain Tobias Hume, "Harke, harke!" Lyra Violls Humors & Delights, Guido Balestracci

The fate of the outsider artist over time depends as much on fate as well as talent. In music for every Moondog or Harry Partch, there may be other talented composers outside of the mainstream whose music remains undiscovered, in time as much a factor of chance rediscovery entering into the picture as not.

Such a figure up until now has been Captain Tobias Hume (1549-1645), an English sea captain who as a sort of hobby composed and played music for the lyra viol, a six-stringed member of the viola da gamba family, roughly cello-like in size but with a more resonant tone and a wider range. He was a music natural, not formally trained in the academic art of music in any conventional sense. Two collections of his music were published in London in 1605. By the time of his 1645 death in circumstances of poverty he was already all-but-forgotten.

Guido Balestracci, Les Basses Reunies and Bruno Cocset have turned to those publications and made a nice selection from them in their album dedicated to his hitherto unknown music "Harke! harke!" Lyra Violls Humors & Delights (Alpha 197).

Maestro Balestracci plays the solo lyra viol part, at times unaccompanied, other times with a viol consort of Bruno Cocset on the dessus viol or a second lyra viol, Richard Myron on the consort bass, and, as needed, Bertrand Cuiller on the clavecin.

The sound of the violls are inimitable, rich and complexly reverberant. Hume wrote the viol parts in tablature, which means that the fingering positions are shown clearly for every note, but the tuning of the instruments, apparently according to practices of the time, are left to the players. The present recordings give us likely tuning choices and they give the players stops and open notes sounding very different to the present-day violin family. There are some very folk-like elements in the music, as well as a general jauntiness, skilfully done but not as subject to the rules of counterpoint and compositional practices of the day. The tunefulness and craftsmanship of the 25 brief works heard on this album are not to be denied. The combination of exceptional timbre and compositional inspiration make for very pleasurable listening.

Pieces are sometimes articulated pizzicato and give forth with uncanny sounds. But the bowed works no less so.

Balestracci, Cocset and Les Basses Reunies give us beautiful, idiomatically exotic readings of the works that make the Captain come alive for us once again, at least musically. It is a triumph of early music reconstruction that anyone who already knows and loves viol consort music will appreciate, but so will those who know nothing about the style and timbres. It's the sort of disk to play for a friend who thinks he or she knows early baroque music and how it sounds!

Highly recommended.