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Thursday, May 25, 2017

William Hellermann, Three Weeks in Cincinnati in December, Robert Dick

The minimal can turn out to be far from that; it can be an external cloak for the micro-maximal. That is very true of William Hellermann's soliloquy Three Weeks in Cincinnati in December (New World 80789-2). It has a never-ending, infinitely expansive way about it. A single work lasting some 50 minutes it proceeds with the premise that a small number of fundamental tones on Robert Dick's flute can be subjected to sound color variations via circular breathing, breath control, articulation, etc.

What unfolds is an opening into the fabric of aural space. Fundamental root tones, harmonic overtones and differing shades of tonal color inherent within the audio production of sounding--all get ample time for us to contemplate. The simple has within it the infinitely complex. That comes forward into our consciousness as Dick articulates Hellermann.

The liners describe the revolutionary act of the premiere performance, by Robert Dick at the American Center in Paris, 1979. The recent recording tells the rest. It is a music you feel, beyond its verbal description, which can only tell you what is, maybe, more so than what it feels like to hear it.

I would try and tell you more, of that inner world of feeling the hearing, But it is better that you simply hear it for yourself, repeatedly, without expectations. That will  be decisive for you.

I recommend you engage with this one. It might change you!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Lei Liang, Luminous

Some high modernist chamber excellence can be had on Chinese-American composer Lei Liang's Luminous (New World 80784-2). Five compositions for varied instrumentation fill the program. The liner notes no doubt say it all definitively so that I probably come to this with less insight.

The string quartet "Vergo Quartet" (2013) is an example of what Liang is about. There are Mongolian aspects but they are so well integrated into the whole that you may not notice. Instead this is very lively music that manages to be both tonal and modernistically three-dimensional.

"Trans" (2013) for solo percussionist (Steven Schick) has a spacious, sprawling quality. A dramatic series of waxing and waning burst of notes contrasts with suspended cymbal rolls. A sprightly, more densely rhythmic kind of dance follows.

The solo piano work "The moon is following us" (2015) has a Cagean Eastern quality and goes him one further.

"Inkscape" (2014) for Third Coast Percussion and pianist Michael Lewenthal is spacious like "Trans" but ever more structurally profound.

Then finally we have bass wonder Mark Dresser team up with the chamber ensemble Palimpsest for a lengthy modern narrative on "Luminous" (2014). Mark is called upon to show the wide range of sounds a master like himself can produce. The chamber ensemble parallels his beautiful playing with excellent contrapuntal dialectics.

I feel I have not done justice to the rewarding complexities of Lei Liang's music. The album has many riches that careful listening will uncover. I recommend you listen!



John Gibson, Traces

When the world seems the opposite of what you thought it was, there still is music and the love of the new. John Gibson comes to us with his album Traces (Innova 896), a fine collection of seven electroacoustic works, covering a fascinating spectrum of sounds that make a coherency--a very intelligent and moving program.

Some are pure electroacoustics, some add or are built around live instruments. In the latter category are "Out of Hand" which is built around Michael Tunnell's trumpet and Brett Schuster's trombone. Then there is "Red Plumes" with Craig Hultgrin on cello. Finally "Blue Traces" centers on the piano of Kati Gleiser.

The musicality and fresh musical thinking of Gibson predominates in any case, no matter what the work's premises and sound design.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Houston Symphony, Hans Graf

There is little doubt. Many would agree with me that Alban Berg's Wozzeck (Naxos 8.660390-91 2-CDs) is the greatest opera of the 20th century. In spite of its pioneering modernity--or more rightly because of its supremely appropriate adoption to a harrowing dramatic theme, it has been staged over the world continuously since its premiere in 1925. The uncanny, seamless fit between the expressionist music and tragic portrayal of a social misfit makes for riveting, bone-chilling fare.

There have been a number of performances on record since the advent of the LP. The Boulez with the Paris Opera and the Karl Bohm with the Orchester des Deutschen Opernhauses Berlin and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau  stand out in my mind as the definitive, pace setting winners. But now we have a new one on the budget Naxos label with soloists and the Houston Symphony under Hans Graf.

Roman Trekel in the role of Wozzeck, Anne Schwanewilms as Marie and Marc Molomot as Captain Hauptmann are convincing both dramatically and musically. The orchestra brings us a full, well-rounded interpretation, not perhaps as edgy as Boulez but fully in tune with the score and its remarkable fitness to the drama.

There are several moments in the opera that I have found remarkable in themselves. The whistling, the out-of-tune piano in the bar-room scene and the final scene with children playing and singing in chilling contrast to the brutal murder that marks the climax of the opera. Graaf  and company underscore the whistling very well. The bar piano seems a little under recorded, as does the children's choir and dialog at the end. No matter.

This version introduces anyone unfamiliar with the essential work nicely, and its middle-level expressivity marks a decided contrast to the Bohm and the Boulez, so much so that it is worth having as another take on the music. Either way Graaf's version is a winner.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Ockeghem, Masses, Beauty Farm

We can be thankful that Flemish Renaissance master contrapuntalist Johannes Ockeghem lived and thrived (1410?-1497) and that much of his ravishing music has come down to us intact. Just how ravishing we can readily hear on the two-work album Masses (FB Limited Edition 1701743), as sung by the exceptional period vocal group Beauty Farm.

Included is the "Missa L'Homme Arme" in four parts, possibly the first such setting based on the popular song as cantus firmus, and "Missa Quinti Toni" in three parts. The six vocalists bring out the unparalleled beauty of the parts, made so attractively otherworldly via their vibratoless delivery and heightened by the excellence of the countertenor Bart Uvyn and the other vocalists in the ensemble..

This is truly remarkable music, made all the more so by the quality of the performances. Ockeghem's contrapuntal writing has a sublimity of which only a master of the highest caliber is capable.

It is hard to imagine an intersection of composer and choral group more felicitous. The hard-edged articulation of each line (made especially alive by the small group) allows us to experience the living presence of the contrapuntal totality, the virtual absence (aside from the mandatory cadences) of a single banal intervallic movement, the singularity of every part and their near miraculous juxtaposition into an enchanting whole.

Anyone who is an early music enthusiast or for that matter anyone who needs further exposure to Renaissance masterworks will be well served by this album.

Truly.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bruce Crossman, Living Colours: Pacific Sounds & Spirit

New music lives! As Edgard Varese put it, "the present day composer refuses to die!" That remains as true as ever. We find plenty of life out there, perhaps nowhere more than on Bruce Crossman's bouquet of compositions, Living Colours: Pacific Sounds & Spirit (Navona 6095).

As the title suggests Crossman allows the music of the Pacific, specifically of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino traditions, to influence his more or less high modern attention to sound color and sound space. Harrison and Partch are possible forebears without becoming templates.

Four adventuresome chamber works comprise the program, each a significant waystep in understanding Crossman's musical ways. The longest work, "Gentleness-Suddenness" for mezzo-soprano, violin, percussion and piano, has the spacious stop and go perhaps of Korean Pansori music, only rethought and reactivated as an inspiration for the new music realm.

"Where Are the Sounds of Joy?" makes thoughtful use of an even smaller ensemble--trumpet, percussion and piano--for something spaciously Asian but with an effectively communicative vocabulary of Western new music. I cannot help recall Stockhausen's "Refrain," but only again as precursor. There is a modern improv music element as well. It makes a beautiful end to a significant program.

Backtracking though, the album begins with two small ensemble works of note, "Double Resonances" for percussion and piano, and "Not Broken Bruised-Reed" for violin, percussion and piano. Both are exemplary of the Crossman approach and give us much to appreciate.

You out there who look for the new in new music, seek no further. Crossman is a real force for the present-future. The album is outstanding!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Leopold Kozeluch, Symphonies 1, Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice, Marek Stilec

From the Czech Masters in Vienna series we have a first volume of symphonies by the nearly forgotten Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818), Symphonies 1 (Naxos 8.573627). He was during his lifetime one of the more prominent Bohemian composers working in Vienna, with a considerable instrumental output.The back liner blurb alerts us to listen for a lyrical strain that prefigures young Schubert. And sure enough, one can hear that element if one listens for it, along with a Haydn-Mozart-Viennese classical panache and structure.

For this inaugural volume we hear the Sinfonias PosK 3, 5, 6, and 7. They are jaunty and pleasurable, thanks in part to the spirited performances of the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Stilec.

Kozeluch from this evidence was an inspired craftsman. These are not some kind of game-changing examples from the era, but neither are they inconsequential fluff. Anyone with a penchant for the pre-romantic classical-period symphony will find this an enchanting listen.