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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Warren Lee, Touches and Traces, Piano Music By Leonard Bernstein and Tan Dun

Of course Leonard Bernstein and Tan Dun are not primarily known for their solo piano music. But they have written some very worthwhile works in that vein, some of the most interesting of which we can enjoy as very well-played by Warren Lee on the album Touches and Traces (Naxos 8.70252).

Bernstein's "Four Anniversaries" (1948) and "Five Anniversaries" (1949-51) are part of a larger series of incidental character pieces Bernstein wrote over the years to commemorate and portray select people in his life, their connection and importance to him. So we begin with a miniature for Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre, who was to become Bernstein's wife in 1955, and from there he celebrates a varied group that includes composer David Diamond and composer-pianist Lukas Foss. The music is bright and creative, exemplary of  Bernstein's quasi-neo-classic modernism of the period, very pianistic and expressive.

More formal and ambitious is his later work "Touches" (1981), which begins with a chorale that receives eight nicely conceived variations before a summing up in a final coda.

Tan Dun's "Eight Memories in Watercolor" (1978, rev. 2002) gives us a set of characteristic miniatures that function in evocative terms not unlike Bernstein's "Anniversaries," only they are stylistically more modern-impressionistic and incorporate traditional Chinese musical evocations at times, and of course reflect Tan Dun's special sensibilities. Each miniature depicts an imaged painted scene, such as "Missing Moon" and "Ancient Burial." They are like the Bernstein "Anniversaries," evocative without being overtly programmatic.

Tan Dun's "Traces" (1989 rev. 1992) is akin to Bernstein's "Touches" as a more formally serious work, in this case meant to exploit dramatic percussive figurations and long-formed sound color invocations. It is a series of impressions from a bus trip Tan Dun took through the mountainous region of Southern China.

"Dew-Fall-Drops" (2000) sets out a very ambient landscape of quiet piano sounds played with the fingertips and the pianist's nails brushing against the strings. It is the most coloristic of all the pieces, a product of Tan Dun's mature fascination with timbres and soundscapes that has been very much a part of later modernism in general but of course takes on its own significant sound characterization in Tan Dun's very original world. A hallmark of Dun's later approach is here reduced to a set of gestural essentials inextricably intertwined with the modern piano and what it can do.

The music in sum gives us Bernstein and Dun in a series of somewhat spontaneous sketches, then in more carefully long-formed attention to possibilities of piano expression. They understandably contrast in their stylistic approaches yet both show a pronounced affinity with the piano as a special vehicle for their fertile, inventive musical ideas.

Warren Lee brings to us a beautifully poetic approach to each composer's take on their 20th century world. All the subtleties and dynamic nuances of the works come to us readily in Lee's hands, so that there is in all cases a synergy of musical idea and poetical execution that allows us to experience each work in near ideal terms.

Musical gems, finely performed. It is a beguiling program, two versions of piano modernism on display in all their contrastive originality.

Very recommended.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Robert Fuchs, Symphonies 1 & 2, WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln

What we know of only in later life could fill many books. Some of it is the product of the times, or the life cycle, and other things are a matter of serendipity.  My knowledge of the music of Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), the Austrian composer and educator, begins with the CD at hand, and that release is symptomatic of the times and also a certain amount of serendipity. In his lifetime he was rather well known, but nowadays that is not very much so. The indefatigable activities of musicologists and performers of the present day have to do with the revival of more obscure figures, and that I happened upon this volume, Fuch's Symphonies 1 & 2 (WDR CPO 777 830-2) is also somewhat serendipitous. I choose to review it because I did NOT know the music. The WDR chose to perform and record these works because they wished to create new appreciation of the composer today. And that's all a good thing.

Robert Fuchs taught music theory for many years at the Vienna Conservatory. His pupils included Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Jean Sibelius and Franz Schmidt, an extraordinarily impressive list. His compositions were respected and hailed.

After a couple of student symphonies his official "Symphony No. 1" was premiered by Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1884. Reactions were somewhat mixed, but it was honored by the Beethoven Prize committee that included Brahms and Richter with the award and 500 gulden. Some three years later Fuchs finished his Second Symphony and it was a resounding success.

Looking back now we hear an "early late romantic" in budding form, with something of the endless melodic sprawl of Schubert and perhaps Bruckner, though I see no evidence of a personal knowledge of the latter in the liners, and yes something of Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn (the latter for the scherzo-ish aspects).

Both symphonies are dynamic and very well thought-out. The orchestrations are well conceived and something rather Brahmsian.

If you listen without specific expectations you do hear something of the larger structures of the Viennese Mahler, though of course you might also say that of Schubert's "Great Symphony." Nonetheless there is a certain pull forward in this music.

Do not expect much in the way of the modernism to come. Ignore all of that and you have a symphonist with something to say and the full means to say it. The WDR Sinfornieorchester Koln under Karl-Heinz Steffens bring us nicely vivid readings, with plenty of nuance and detailed articulations to give us the Fuchs compositional outlook of his early period in full light.

It has much to recommend it and fills out our knowledge of the Viennese scene in those heady days.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Boris Blacher, Klassik aus Berlin, Box Set

Time and circumstance can do unfortunate things to a composer's reputation. Take Boris Blacher. His music was banned from performance in Germany during the Nazi period and he was anathema, principally because of family Jewishness but also for his supposed "degeneracy," since Hitler condemned anything modern as anti-Reichian and depraved.

In early post WWII Germany Blacher music was celebrated and readily heard. Recordings of his music were issued in Europe and reissued in the States. (I found some of them in my used record hunting days.) He was considered a key voice in the music. Then bit by bit, the Darmstadt School as epitomized by Stockhausen came to the forefront, while Blacher's reputation gradually diminished, until today, when he is virtually forgotten.

Happily, a step toward his deserved revival has been taken in the new box set Blacher (Phil. harmonie 06029), a two-CD or multiple 10" LP set devoted to Blacher's chamber music along with some representative fellow Berliners who fared poorly in the Nazi period yet deserve our approval today, namely Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau and Kurt Weill. The works span a long period between 1920 and 1975, covering the Weimer, Nazi and post-war years. The performances are stellar, including Boris's wife Gerty Herzog on piano, his son Kolja Blacher on violin and a gathering of others.

This is chamber music of real worth, played with understanding and devotion. The booklet that comes with the set gives us valuable biographical-historical information, sets the scene and makes the case for the revival set in motion here.

Blacher's orchestral music is no less worthy from what I have heard of it, so attention to that part of his oeuvre is now due as well.

Anyone with an interest in and love of classical modernism will find this set very deserving of consideration. It revives for us a stylistic and craftsman-brilliance from those who for the most part have gone out of fashion, but are due for a happy reconsideration. A chamber modernist essential! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Robert Schumann, Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 1 "Spring", Phantasie for Violin and Orchestra, Thomas Zehetmair, Orchestre de chambre de Paris

If I have not previously had the occasion to hear Robert Schumann's "Violin Concerto," I am perhaps not alone. It was written in 1853 along with the "Phantasie for Violin and Orchestra" for the celebrated virtuoso Joseph Joachim, yet in the end Schumann decided to withhold the Concerto from publication, having doubts about its playability.  It was not published in fact until 1937. Violinist Thomas Zehetmair gives us a beautiful reading of his revised version based on the original manuscript (the 1937 version contains numerous errors) plus the Phantasie and the "Symphony No. 1 'Spring'" under his conductorship on a new ECM recording with the Orchestra de chambre de Paris (ECM New Series 2396).

Zehetmair provides us with an emotionally exuberant version of the Concerto, with a very convincing performance-argument for the importance of the work. He is an ideal Schumann exponent which we hear readily in the Concerto and the Phantasie and then again for a stirring reading of the Spring Symphony.

The Orchestre chambre de Paris sounds inspired and motivated to bring us a Schumann that sounds less Beethovenesque than one sometimes hears. There is plenty of passion but a nice balance with the more modest-sized orchestra, so that winds get a fuller presence than one sometimes hears, the strings very much present but not ultra-dominant.

The big surprise certainly is the very convincing performance of the Concerto, yet its largess of expression fits right in with the treatment of the Spring Symphony and the Phantasie.

Surely all who appreciate Schumann will find the performance of the Concerto moving and revelatory, the other works detailed, impassioned and true-to-form. Thomas Zehetmair is a world-class artist whose loving attention to the music gives us a near ideal picture of the works as envisioned by the composer. Bravo!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Friedrich Goldmann, Four Trios One Quartet

Composer Friedrich Goldmann would have celebrated his 75th birthday last month. The Darmstadt-Stockhausen student (1959) amassed a large body of works hailed in East Germany and eventually throughout Europe and was, among many other things, a conductor of Stockhausen's Gruppen on the original celebrated DGG recording.

His music has undergone a major revival since 2009, with the entire remainder of his previously unperformed chamber and orchestral works enjoying public premieres among other things. The current release, a single CD in a lavish box presentation complete with a 48-page booklet, Four Trios One Quartet (Macro SWR2 M46) gives us his complete trios of 1986-2004 and his "Oboe Quartet" from 2000. Two of the recordings were supervised by Goldmann himself before his death; all involve musicians with intimate experience of the composer's music, including Ingo Goritzki (oboe), Bjorn Lehmann (piano) and members of Ensemble Mosaik and the KNM Ensemble.

In the end one is treated to some beautiful performances of some exceptional Goldmann works, with a high-modern rigor and purity of means, yet an open creative stance that does not show either rigidity or formulaic calcification--but rather a composer at the imaginative peak of his inventive powers.

I somehow have missed Goldmann's music--no doubt because during his tenure in East Germany not so many composers were readily heard from there in the States, either on recordings or otherwise. It turns out it was my loss as this music has very much to recommend it and in such dedicated performances as these one hears the singular voice of the composer in ideal terms.

And so I in turn do not hesitate to recommend this volume to you, my confirmed modernist readers! This is music on a high plane that even a newcomer to classic modernism might appreciate, given a little effort. So, take the plunge.

A triumph of dedication on the part of the performers, and of high creative achievement on the part of Maestro Goldmann. Bravo!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Errollyn Wallen, Photography, Orchestral Works

Living composer, UK based Errollyn Wallen has, as John Butt puts it in the liners to the album at hand, a special knack "to digest conflicting styles and ideas, close and distant, and embodying for us something of the complexity of our world." This we hear readily and purposefully in her recent Photography, Orchestral Works (NMC D221), a collection of four pieces written between 1996 and 2015. Each of these is a presentational singularity, an expressive modernity that is in the end tonal but in the expanded sense. There is drama and an approach to form in each and a quality of communicativity that gives her music the potential to be readily understood and appreciated by a broad spectrum of listeners.

She happens to be a woman of African descent, which surely is a matter of importance to her, though if one heard the music without knowing I do not think that the music would jump out at you and shout identity, though perhaps a close listen with all that in mind would reveal something of her roots culturally. To me the music speaks as music, modern classical music of an original sort, and that's as far as my ears need to go for now, as it is music not readily or primarily a music of identity unless it is of a world identity.

Indeed the works here occupy a place on the horizon of contemporary modern classical, each in its own way making a case for a particular, singular voice in a general zeitgeist of our present time. The title work "Photography" is a good place to begin, perhaps. It is a four-movement work meant to give you the feeling you have when you look at a collection of photographs more so than a single image. There are commonalities. The first movement has a dance-like quality, the second is a homage to J. S. Bach, the following movements connect to the first two as a kind of furtherance of the feeling of the music via convergences and divergences. Orchestra X under Nicholas Kok give us a good reading of it all, as they do of the "Cello Concerto" that opens the program.

Matthew Sharp is the solo cellist for the latter, happily. It all has something of the expressivity-emotive flourish of romanticism perhaps, only decidedly contemporary in the end, an abstraction that takes advantage of Sharp's way with virtuoso, rhythmic and lyrical possibilities and then in turn maps out how that relates to a rich string-orchestra backdrop. Certainly the work affirms Wallen's strong affinity with the string idiom but also her ability to construct vivid music out of such familiarity.

"In Earth" is an uncanny combination of string quartet, effects laden bass guitar and some moving vocals by the composer. It is based on early music derived harmonic movement but made very Wallen-like through an insistence and a heightening one has to hear to appreciate.

"Hunger" is played here by Ensemble X and the Continuum Ensemble under Philip Headlam. It is the first in a series of works Errollyn wrote between 1996 and 2000, each the product of a "Snapshot" in her mind of an imaginary landscape. The music has dramatic fullness that is better heard then described. It is in its very own way quite beautiful and intriguing. If there is a bit of the motor insistency of Stravinsky now and again, it is more for the benefit of a Wallenarian statement than a borrowing per se. It is an element of her vocabulary that she uses to advance her own meaningful ends.

After a fifth hearing, I am increasingly intrigued with the music, I want to hear it yet again, and then again. That is in part because Ms.Wallen's music is filled with things that resonate and give you a certain feeling of recognition that you have been to places like this before, only as you hear it all again it reveals a totality which is something much more than the first listens might suggest.

She is a modernist with her own internal compass of what seems and sounds right to her. And so we gain increasingly from exposure to it here.

Errollyn Wallen explores her own experience of the world and self in ways that make her an original. Hear this music. I strongly recommend it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Joan Tower, String Quartets Nos. 3-5, Dumbarton Quintet

Ludwig van Beethoven in his masterful late string quartets established the configuration as the one for a composer's most inner, profound, deepest musical statements. Others followed and not all of them put so much into their quartets, for indeed, such profundity is not the common lot of even the greatest practitioners, but there have been some, last century being a watermark with Bartok's, Shostakovich's and Carter's quartets attaining their own deep meanings. In the course of this blog I have suggested a few others and now we have the example of Joan Tower, in a new recording that features her String Quartets Nos. 3-5 and the Dumbarton Quintet (Naxos 8.559795), played dedicatedly and variously by the Daedalus Quartet and the Miami String Quartet, with pianist Blair McMillen joining in on the Quintet.

These are very serious works, filled with struggle and strife, but also transcendence and perhaps the elation of pure attainment. "Angels (String Quartet No. 4)" is especially moving, with its chromatic drama, its intense articulation of rapid figurations alternating with music of resolve. The tension and resolution are not a matter of tonality as much as contrasts of concentration versus open planes of relative repose.

But we can hear a sounding of inner depths  in "White Water (String Quartet No. 5)" and "Incandescent (String Quartet No. 3)" as well. All three are from the current century, No. 5 from 2012, No. 3 from 2003 and No. 4 from 2008, and they have the melodic and harmonic density of classic modernism, yet also a kind of looking back over time that in their way make them post-today, timeless in their direct grappling with the turbulence of history, if you will, and the need to come to grips with the meanings that remain to be uncovered, to be stated obliquely in musical terms.

The "Dumbarton Quintet" (2003) is no less serious and masterful, with the addition of the piano giving Ms. Tower a second, contrasting sound dialogue partner who both intermingles with the strings but then at times breaks free to engage in meta-commentary, complimentary additions and answers to the string's fervent questions, so to speak.

All of this is music of great strength, depth and seriousness. The performers give their considerable all and the results are extraordinarily moving. The quartets and quintet occupy a special place in the chamber music of our new century thus far. They are triumphant in attaining that inner place reserved for our greatest composers in those moments when they attain a supreme focus of expression.

Joan Tower is a voice of our time who manages here to give us works doubtless deserving of lasting appreciation over the times ahead. For now, though, we can savor these works as a living part of our present-day triumphs, a monumental yet inner-directed connection with our best, most transcendent selves.

Grab this release by all means!