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Monday, September 26, 2016

Paul Futer, Susan Nowicki, Running at the Top of the World

Briskly Neo-Classical Modern music from right now is the order of the day on Paul Futer and Susan Nowicki's Running at the Top of the World (MSR Classics 1610). Futer's agile and glowingly heroic trumpet blends beautifully with Nowicki's gracefully athletic piano in three winning new music works.

The music has the sort of stately logic and muscular dramatics that goes back to Hindemith and forward to today.

All three composers have a vividly idiomatic grasp of the trumpet and its dramatic potential. Charles Reskin's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (2007) begins the program with a neo-classical flourish. Anthony Plog's "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano" (2010) alternates rapid passagework and memorably gestural kinetics with introspective breathing space.  Martin Rokeach's "Running at the Top of the World" (2014) finishes off the CD with complexities and ultra-contemporary motor sonorities both stirring and rhythmically vital.

The performances are gorgeous, with Futer and Nowicki keenly attuned to the music at hand and to each other.

Anyone who responds to state-of-the-art contemporary brass music will find this highly enjoyable and rewarding.

A stunner!

Friday, September 23, 2016

ETHEL + Robert Mirabal, The River

A beautifully cosmic folk new music comes pouring out of my speakers as I listen to ETHEL + Robert Mirabal's The River (Innova 946). It is the product of a seven-year collaboration between Pueblo artist Mirabal and the celebrated quartet. The music is recorded on location not far from the Pueblo River at Robert's home in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. All sing and play miscellaneous instruments along with of course the strings and Robert's words, voice, flutes and didgeridoo. Robert's family join in on some vocals.

Postmodernism and Native American tradition come together for a collection of songs variously composed over time or in-the-moment by all concerned in one way or another, a meditation on the marvelous spiritual qualities of water in motion, the river, of nature and its legacy.

It is music of great strength and beauty, a meeting of a marvelous string quartet that carries with it a history and a Native American man who has song in him from an equally long (perhaps longer) and remarkable history.

It is music that moves me beyond simple words. And now that I've relocated to a spot much closer to nature, it feels like these are a set of anthems I might live my life against.

Simply beautiful. Startlingly so!

Sima Wolf, En Prevision and Other Works

Composer Sima Wolf comes front and center for a close look at some of her pieces for chamber ensembles. En Prevision and Other Works (SPOXXX) gives us seven such, as performed beautifully by the Fontenoy Chamber Players and the Borealis Wind Quintet.

Her music has a lyrical post-impressionist flavor. She studied composition with Terry Riley and John Corigliano and branches off onto her own path in the works heard here. The pieces are well-scored for the instrumentation at hand. They fall into the tonal realm without sounding romantic or neo-classical, more pastoral and folk-like I suppose one could say.

"En Prevision" starts off the program. The title translates into "in anticipation, in readiness" and focuses on a mellifluous combination of harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet. Continuing with a charm and ambiance is her "Woodwind Quintet No. 1: The Chambers of Hemera," written for the Greek Goddess of Daytime as the representative of beauty and the appreciation of all the life that surrounds us.

Two short works follow: "Island" and "Birds of a Feather" for string quartet concentrate respectively on string sonorities and variations on a popular song. I must admit as to the latter that I am stumped but the music itself speaks eloquently regardless.

The sonic environment shifts with "Awakening" for solo flute and then "Nocturnal Landscapes" for solo piano. Each creates a mood of exploration and a delightful tonal panorama.

The finale "Brazilian Suite" for flute, harp and percussion is based on Brazilian forms--the chora, a sort of bossa nova and Afro-Brazilian roots. The music is rather irresistible and so we end an engaging and enchanting program with some heightening rhythmic flourishes.

I find the entire album extremely well put together and with a positive beauty and appreciation of nuance that give us hopeful and embracing images in sound.

It is the sort of music that should appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners for its lyric gentleness. Bravo Sima Wolf!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, 1966

Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (NC) was from 1966 onwards one of the pioneering outfits in new music. Like their brethren the MEV and AMM, they were the first collectives to improvise new music and to incorporate live electronics and/or extended techniques into their music.

The very good news is that their first, self-titled album from 1966 is in print again (Schema 944). It was originally released on Italian RCA Victor, then repackaged as Il Gruppo, the Private Sea of Dreams for RCA in the US and Canada in 1967. For some reason, happily, my local public library had a copy and I brought it home and was mightily impressed, though puzzled by its very newness. This was and is cutting avant improvisation and in 1967 it struck me as uncanny. Hearing it again now with all that came after it sounds almost "normal" to me, which is only to say that the musics that followed, even the avant improv music of today owe a great deal to these primary outfits.

The original lineup was made up of some impressive musical creators, many of whom went on to have long and successful careers in the new music as composers and/or improvisors--Ennio Morricone is no doubt the best known of the lot for his many innovative movie soundtracks, but Frederic Rzewski, Franco Evangelisti, Roland Kayn, have all been important figures outside of Il Gruppo as well. The other key initial members heard here are Mario Bertoncini, John Heineman, Jerry Rosen, and Ivan Vandor.

Other than Roland Kayn on Hammond Organ, the instruments are purely acoustic and via extended techniques nonetheless create exotic avant universes of sound. Eight improvisations grace the first album; each creates a sonic world unto itself, whether it be a matter of four players playing inside and outside a prepared piano, an eight-member chamber ensemble, a "Cantata" of four vocal extensions, and what-have-you.

This album was and remains a game changer. Along with those first MEV and AMM sides it brought new music improvisation to the fore and set the pace for much that followed. All avant gardists will find this one indispensable, but it is a provocative listen all will benefit from, I would hope.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Robert Casadesus and Henri Dutilleux, Selected Piano Works, Cicilia Yudha

Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) and Henri Dutilleux (1916-2003)--French contemporaries with varying degrees of association with the piano, give us some very substantial and lively post WWII works on this very attractive CD by pianist Cicilia Yudha (Navona 6053). Casadesus' "Sonata No. 3, Op. 44" matches up well with Dutilleux's "Sonate Pour Piano" with their neo-classical animated elegance and concentrated impact. Casadesus's "Toccata" similarly compares fittingly with Dutilleux's "Blackbird" and "Au Ore des Ondes: 6 Petites Pieces Pour Piano" for immediate charm and playful lyricism that in time reveals depth.

Cicilia Yudha gives the works a sparkling lightness with serious underpinnings--poetic graciousness and exploratory movement.

It's the sort of album that serves admirably as a break between heavier listening. Its French luminescence has a progressive modern edge and a natural quality that sounds unforced and straightforwardly direct without seeming in any way incidental.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Barney Childs, Heaven to Clear When Day Did Close

Barney Childs (1926-2000) may not be a name at the tip of your tongue when you think of modern American composers. Yet the collection of chamber works entitled Heaven to Clear When Day Did Close (New World 80779-2) gives us a finely etched portrait of some essential Childs music, sharply defined, clean-lined, with a refreshing clarity.

The works cover a wide span of his output, from 1951 to 1981. We hear works for solo piano, clarinet, two clarinets, solo flute, contrabass and clarinet, bass drum and a work for an "unspecified combination of five wind, string, percussion and/or voice" (here flute/piccolo, bass clarinet/bassoon, contrabass, percussion and piano).

A pupil of Carlos Chavez, Aaron Copland and Elliot Carter, his music draws upon modern classical traditions, and open form works owing something to John Cage. Improvisation and aleatory forms figure into much of his music but overall there is a readily communicating high modern classical clarity to these chamber works.

The performers are exemplary, the music striking and the results quite memorable. This release offers a nicely paced retrospective of his chamber works. I recommend it highly.

Friday, September 16, 2016

John Blow, Symphonic Anthems, Choir of New College Oxford, St James' Baroque, Robert Quinney

In England's baroque era John Blow (d. 1708) was one of the most admired and renowned composers. Purcell was his pupil. 300 years later we remember and perform Purcell's music; John Blow does not get all that much attention.

Listening to the fine performances of the Choir of New College Oxford and St James' Baroque under Robert Quinney doing six Blow Symphonic Anthems (Novum 1389) one feels like the neglect has been unjustified. The Anthems may not contain much of the irresistible melodic elements one expects of Purcell; nonetheless we hear a composer of grand invention and distinctive personality.

Perhaps the first thing one notices is the special sonority of the music.The strings, according to the custom of the times, are tuned lower than their modern counterparts, giving a rich and somewhat less piercing sound. The tenor (violas) and bass violins are exact reproductions of large bodied examples of Blow's era. Catgut strings and the shorter bows of the period are used. The overall effect is more resonant than a modern string ensemble, mellower. The blend with a period organ is more complete than would be the case with standard modern string instruments. The Choir of New College Oxford calls for, as was customary for the times, trebles and altos (a boy's choir) as well and tenors and basses.

The overall effect is uncanny and fascinating.

Imitative counterpoint abounds as does a stately unfolding and genuine artful craftsmanship, and an intimate feeling born of the smaller choir and chamber orchestral forces.

This one is a joy to hear, and for me a great introduction to the music of John Blow.

Unreservedly recommended.