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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Antonio Soler, Harpsichord Sonatas, Barbara Harbach, Box Set

Antonio Soler (1729-1783) may not be as well-known these days as someone like CPE Bach, but his music has a vitality that sounds right to us today. He was born in Catalan and had a successful career in Spain, ultimately as chapel master for the Royal Court in El Escorial. He was an ordained priest.

We look to his masterful Harpsichord Sonatas (MSR 1300 14-CDs), some 120 in all, for his early classical inventiveness. Barbara Harbach gives us an exhaustive, but certainly not exhausting rendition of the 120 in the recent limited edition box set.

They are a remarkable body of music, rhythmically lively, filled with clarity of form and singing melodic charm. They sound most certainly related to Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas, so much so that there has been speculation that Soler studied with him when he was tenured in Spain, but we do not know for sure.

They both have that infectiously lively approach that fills the ears and heart with great good cheer. Both sets of sonatas are at times very Spanish in their dance-like vivacity. And both grab you with their gallant quality and straightforward musical perfection.

Barbara Harbach sounds entirely ravishing in her performances throughout. She seems just right on Willard Martin's 1989 copy of an 18th century two-manual French harpsichord. And the recording has a pristine clarity of sound that goes far in making the music come alive.

If you love Scarlatti's sonatas you will find the Soler entrancing as well. Do you really need all 14 volumes? They come at a very good price, so why not treat yourself? It's music played with great verve and there is no time or mood where the music does not fit in, in my experience. It is something to cheer you in the new year ahead!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bela Bartok, Piano Music, Terry Eder

The influence and importance of Bela Bartok (1881-1945) is still being felt and experienced in the contemporary music world. As if to remind us of music sometimes a bit overlooked, pianist Terry Eder gives us a volume of select Piano Music (MSR 1410).

The album makes an intelligent presentation of works that exemplify Bartok's extensive involvement with and modern transformations of the folk music of Eastern Europe--here Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

The music opens with the landmark early expression of his folk-inflected modernism, the op. 6 "14 Bagatelles" of 1908.

It continues with the folk-modern nexus so critical to an understanding of the master--with "Two Romanian Dances" (1910), "15 Hungarian Peasant Songs" (1914-1918), "Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs" (1920), and "6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm" from his "Mikrokosmos, Volume VI."

This is music of great verve, ingenuity, originality and a rooted contemporarity that continues to communicate to us.

Pianist Terry Eder gives us a sparkling interpretation of these pieces, with an open rubato that expresses the free invention of the Bartokian musical mind more than sentiment, and an irrepressible rhythmic verve on the folk dance liveliness of the peasant-rooted material.

In the end we have a Terry Eder who revels in this music, getting inside it and affirming how it speaks very much to us in the new century. It is a beautiful panorama of the playful pianism of one of the shining stars of the twentieth century and forefathers of the present day. Terry Eder shines too in her interpretations. This is a treat for the ears! Hear it and open up to the fun and adventure of Bela at his most earthy. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Frances White, She Lost Her Voice That's How We Knew

When life events become traumatic, awe-ful, ineffable, we are often at a loss for words or cannot speak them. That is the idea behind the opera for a single soprano and electronics by Frances White, She Lost Her Voice, That's How We Knew (Ravello 7915). The libretto is by Valeria Vasilevski, who also created and directed the staging. Kristin Norderval performs the solo soprano role with dedication, drama and tonal differentiation. Elizabeth Brown performs the shakuhachi part. The electronic score is based on and built out of the timbral qualities of Ms. Norderval's voice.

I've covered and very much appreciated an earlier work of Frances White--In the Library of Dreams (see index search box for that review).

There is a zen abstract suchness to the libretto and the music. Use of space, color and pinpointed affect-event structures have a mystical, almost traditional Asian cast. There is a poetic quality to it all, which the libretto concretizes in words about being unable to speak.

The music is rich and creatively archaic-modern in its play on tones, their stasis and their transformation in envelopes and blocks of shifting color-texture. The mystical, eerie drone and soundscaping of vocals and electronics and the poignancy of the libretto leave one transfixed, contemplative, and filled with a kind of wonder at the transient nature of life and its experience.

It is the music of a going beyond, a 21st century analogue of Berio's iconic Visage, only fully today, post-experimental, primal in creately effective ways but also filled perhaps with our present-day zeitgeist, where events can leave us speechless, forever changed yet fully conscious of the impact.

There is magic in this work. It is singularly transformative in dramatic ways. It has its say and is gone, and what is left is the you to reflect on its meaning.

A new modern statement of importance. That is what it seems to be to me. It definitely will appeal to and intrigue those open to exploratory soundscapes and contemporary electronics-opera-sonic theater. There is a naturalness to it that stands alongside of our experience of "nature" yet remains apart from it. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Carson Cooman, Liminal

Carson Cooman is a composer of great output and special sensibilities. There is so much of his music I have not yet heard, yet what I have heard and reviewed on these pages is significantly worthwhile. One of the very best of the recent recordings is Liminal (Diversions 24161).

It is a 36-minute mini-album with three works represented. There is the brief but primal "Shoreline Rune" (2014) for string orchestra and harp, the Symphony No. 4 (Liminal), and a brief work for organ, "Prism" (2003). The Slovak National Orchestra under Kirk Trevor does the honors for the orchestral works; Erik Simmons appears on organ for "Prism." The performances are very good, as is the sound.

These three pieces work together to create a mood of mystery. "Shoreline Rune" begins the album with a slow and reflectively archaic feeling to it. As the composer states in the liners, it is as if one were standing on the shoreline experiencing an entire tide cycle but within a space of five minutes.

The centerpiece of the album is Cooman's "Symphony No. 4," which deals with climate change and the idea of liminality, being neither in a beginning state nor in a state of transformation, but in a state of ambiguity, something that our present experience of the climate may be said to occupy. The music reflects the diverse climatic regions on earth and their slow transformation. The piece hopes we may find the courage and fortitude to get through and if possible ameliorate the unfolding processes.

Musically the work has an expanded tonality and a dramatic dynamic that is eloquent and moving. The mood is both foreboding and hopeful, expressive in a masterful use of orchestral forces and modern in outlook. It is a work of great strength, deserving a hearing as a pinpoint symphonic work of our time.

The conclusion, "Prism," forms a postlude to the symphony with mystically contemplative and ultimately heroically optimistic open voicings. It is perhaps a sound image of the universe set right, in a steady state, transcendent.

The music is most definitely an experience not to miss. Cooman establishes his voice, or one of his voices, in no uncertain terms and gives us a sonic journey both subtle and of great evocative power.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Broer, Coble, Yip, Turbulent Sky, Contemporary Works for Orchestra

If you crave something from the ever-evolving, new modern-high modern repertoire of the present, you might consider the recent anthology Turbulent Sky: Contemporary Works for Orchestra (Navona 6012).

On it we are treated to three worthwhile compositions by composers not yet household names: "Symphony for String Orchestra" by Fred Broer, "Zephyr" by William Coble, and "The Luminous Mystery" by Stephen Yip. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronsky give us the premiere recorded performances here, and they do the music justice.

The Broer work is the longest of the three with a tripartite movement sequence that fills out the work with over 30 minutes of expressionist modernism of an often intricate and tempestuous sort. It most exemplifies the turbulence of the album's title. The strings express the inventively lucid tone painting of a Broer with a clear idea of what he envisions from the strings and beautifully realizes.

William Coble's somewhat brief "Zephyr" has a sort of post-Stravinsky orchestrational brilliance with great movement and a vocalise part well realized by soprano Hailey Fuqua. The music is rather wondrously mobile, multi-layered and colorful, meant to suggest clouds rolling together to create a sudden storm.

Stephen Yip's "The Luminous Mystery" amasses full orchestral forces and the solo violin of Vit Muzik to express Catholic mysticism. The violin part is vibrantly present to put the work into a concerted mode. It is a finely crafted, brilliantly contemporary outing that punctuates the anthology most fittingly.

Turbulent Sky demonstrates three contrasting approaches to the orchestra, All three revel in the advanced idiom of high modernism and show us three important voices in the new music today. I found it all most exhilarating. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Blue Heron, Christmas in Medieval England

One more for the last-minute folks out there. It is the early music vocal ensemble Blue Heron and their Christmas Music in Medieval England (Blue Heron 1006), a collection of carols, music for Mass, plainchant and motets one might likely have heard in one way or another at this time of year in England circa 1440, when the last of this music was composed. We get modern early music performance practice in the ten member choral group divided into the cantus, the contratenor, tenor and bassus parts. The album sequence was as heard live in concert on various nights in December, 2013, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The group sounds excellent under the directorship of Scott Metcalfe. Some of the music is accompanied by medieval harp, as would have been appropriate. The texts are in Latin and English in the style of pronunciation in use at that time. So the "Hayl Mary, ful of Grace" pronounces Grace as "Grahse."

It is music that is very beautiful and performed with spirit by the ensemble. If you tend to early Christmas music or even grew up with some of it, you will doubtless recognize "Veni, veni Emanuel," "Ther is no rose of swych vertu" and "Nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva" among others. Yet there is much that may not be familiar.

It is all fitting and rather haunting. You listen and you feel time passing. Some may have had ancestors who heard or even performed this music, but no matter if not, because this is not music of exclusion. In the same way as most in the United States greet one another with the phrase "Happy Holidays" this time of year, so this is music about the joy of the season, no matter what you subscribe to in sectarian terms. Freedom of religion is the freedom to honor the creation in the manner of your choosing, without punishment or recrimination. And so you are free to listen to this music on whatever level you choose, with the idea that the music reflects an important period in the history of Western music, as so in the world at large with musical traditions centered around religion in so many various ways.

Perhaps more to the point at hand, this is a beautiful selection of music that does not even begin to exhaust what has survived of the period, yet it provides an excellent sampling of the various genres in play during the times.

Blue Heron is a fine group and they sound quite inspired on this album. Highly recommended! Happy holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tenebrae, A Very English Christmas

For those with a last-minute need for something nice for the Christmas season, this is just in: the choral ensemble Tenebrae and their latest, A Very English Christmas (Bene Arte 902). It is a collection of compositions and re-arrangements of Christmas Carols by 20th century English composers.

First off, Tenebrae sound glorious. They as amassed choir (sometimes with organ accompaniment) and as soloists are nothing short of angelic, and they go a long way in establishing a beautiful sonance that make the new material come alive in the best holiday tradition.

The music provides the listener with some exceptional alternatives to the usual fare, with a few rearrangements-reharmonizations like "I Saw Three Ships," but mostly altogether original carols, many in settings with traditional texts.

So we get five beauties by Peter Warlock (someone I've been appreciating more and more lately), plus gems by Simon Preston (you probably know him as organist), Arnold Bax, John Gardner, Philip Radcliff, Paul Edwards (no relation, that I know of), Philip Ledger, and others. Many of these names may not be well-known to you, or known as conductors or organists, but all come through with movingly nice modern carols, some with a bit of the spice of modern harmonies, but all in the choral carol tradition.

If you are like me, if you seek far and wide to expand your knowledge of carols through extensive spatial and temporal realms, wherever you can go for good and great examples, this will be a boon. Even if not the music will captivate and beguile you.

This one is a knockout on all counts. Grab a copy!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Ann Southam, Glass Houses Revisited, Christina Petrowska Quilico

The late Ann Southam produced some of the most original and distinctive minimalist music to be heard. On May 22, 2014 here I covered Glass Houses Volume 2, a significant collection of some of her solo piano works performed beautifully by Christina Petrowska Quilico.

Thanks to Centrediscs, we can explore the first volume of this collection (Centrediscs 16511) today. It is every bit as worthwhile as the second volume, maybe even more so.

Southam's solo piano works are like tongue twisters, or learning to rub your stomach and jump up and down at the same time, only a great deal more rewarding in result. That has to do with the rhythmically distinctive contrasts between the left-hand ostinatos and the melodic figurations of the right hand. They mesh in tempo but have often enough the feel of contrasting meters.

Add to that the primal diatonic irresistibility of the right-handed melodic figures, which are rhythmically vibrant and far from banal, but instead memorable in the best ways. When meshed with the swirling ostinato figures the music has the trance magic of the very best minimalist works, yet utterly original, utterly Southam-esque.

This is by no means easy music to play properly, in spite of the diatonics. Christina Petrowska Quilico gives them a combination of legato lyricism and a rhythmic swing that make of the music all it should be.

Volume one covers nine of the "Glass Houses" movements, each one a miniature of happy complexities and lyrical drive. Here is a wonderful place to start if you don't know Ann Southam's music. If you already do it is more for you, most dedicatedly performed and exciting as well as reassuring. RIP, Ann Southam. May your music delight our ears in the centuries ahead!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ensemble Galilei, From Whence We Came

All avid listeners to "serious" music find there are times when deep, perhaps intense music needs to be balanced by something less heavy, as a refresher and to recreate a mood of glad expectation. I have a perfect antidote today, the Ensemble Galilei and their album From Whence We Came (Sono Luminus 92194).

They have been around since 1990. I reviewed their Surrounded By Angels here a while back. See the index search box. On this album as on previous ones, they give us a virtuoso chamber version of the Celtic sound. They do this by a lively program of traditional music of Ireland, Scotland and Europe, early music rearranged for the ensemble and originals. They do this with a hybrid eclectic instrumentation. Isaac Alderson plays uilleann pipes, Irish flute and whistles; Ryan McKasson plays fiddle; Kathryn Montoya plays recorders and whistles; Jackie Moran is on percussion and banjo; Sue Richards plays the Celtic harp; and Carolyn Surrick is on viola da gamba.

Whether it be an arrangement of Marin Marais's "Minuet and Caprice" or the "Largo" from a Georg Phillipp Teleman viola de gamba sonata, Irish or mainland folk music from historic collections, or an old Swedish hymn, or an original by Catherine Surrick, the ensemble gives us an ever-evocative, timeless archaic musicality that brings us in direct connection with earlier ways of sounding and hearing.

These are first-rate musicians with a sense of borderless possibilities and a beautiful sound. They give you a respite from the modern intensities of our world with music of breadth and content. This is indeed an exceptional experience!

As with many Sono Luminus releases, it comes in a two disc set--one a CD with standard stereo mixdowns and then a Blu-Ray disk with 9.1 and 5.1 surround sound.

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dutilleux, Tout un Monde Lontain, Emmanuel Bertrand, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and James Gaffigan

We mark Henri Dutilleux's 100th birthday this coming January 16th. Tout un Monde Lontain (Harmonia Mundi 902209) is a disk celebrating the composer with the remarkable cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand playing the principal role on three works that fit well together. The first to consider is the "Sonata for Cello and Piano," Claude Debussy's final work which roughly coincides with Dutilleux's birth. The Dutilleux works on the program also feature the cello prominently, namely his "Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher pour violoncelle solo" from 1982 and the cello concerto "Tout un monde lontain" completed in 1970 on commission from the celebrated Msitislav Rostropovich.

Pianist Pascal Amoyel joins Ms. Bertrand for the Debussy; the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester under James Gaffigan does the honors for the concerto. Emmanuelle's technical and expressive abundance makes of the music all we might hope for. She is a formidable cellist, a gift of our times, and the music on the program brings out her remarkable brilliance fully.

The putative affiliation of Debussy and Dutilleux is made palpable with the inclusion of Claude's sonata, played with all the depth one might expect from the potent pairing of Bertrand and Amoyel. I've posted on them both, together and separately, on here before--so there are some other wonderful releases covered. Look them up.

The solo cello work is filled with plenty of substance and grit.

But it is the "Tout un monde lontain" that forms the center attraction here. Dutilleux was inspired by Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil" and the mood of mystical passion pervades the work.

This album is a significant treat for all who appreciate Dutilleux but surely also for anyone who responds to marvelous cello artistry in a modern tonal world. It is an exceptionally rewarding performance and very beautiful music at that.

Totally recommended.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christos Hatzis, Going Home Star, Truth and Reconciliation

Today a most unusual ballet score, Going Home Star, Truth and Reconciliation (Centrediscs 22015, 2-CDs), composed by Christos Hatzis for the Canada's Royal Winnepeg Ballet 75th Anniversary production choreographed by Mark Godden, script by Joseph Boyden. It centers around the development of the Indian reservation schools in the area.

Using traditional Indian music by the Northern Cree Singers, Tanya Tagaq singing traditional Inuit game songs, sound effects, electronic alterations, and the Winnepeg Symphony Orchestra under Tadeusz Biernacki, along with the recitation of Native American texts describing some native lifeway details set against the dysfunctional and often cruel treatment by the Missionary schoolmasters, we experience a disheartening story that ultimately ends in "recognition, truth and reconciliation."

The music is a dramatic pastiche of Indian song, Inuit game vocals, hymn tunes, a snippet from the "Rites of Spring" and an otherwise vibrantly moving and eclectic orchestral melange in a sort of postmodern vein.

The story revolves around Native American protagonists Annie, hairdresser and party animal and Gordon, a homeless man and trickster figure. They find each other and in turn we experience a flashback to their harrowing and bewildering childhood first in a traditional setting and then in the hands of the missionary schools. It tells the story of the desperate struggle to realize identity while negotiating their way through the White Man's institutions.

The score is understandingly subordinated to the story line of the ballet but as heard here in the recorded context has dynamic thrust and a combination of modern contemporary (tonal) elements, archaicisms and Native American authenticity, all joined together in various sequential ways.

It most certainly attracts and retains your attention with its shifting and often enough flexibly rhythmic dynamics. It holds its own in the continual juxtapositions that no doubt are ramified by the actions of the dancers in the ballet settings.

The music has a quirky kind of dramatic presence that is both inventive and at times pictorially literal in its audio backdrop to the dance events. There is much to experience in this music that stays in the mind.

In the end it may not be the essential ballet music of this yet-young century. But it is very engaging and original in its widely eclectic approach. Give it your ears.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Max Reger, Complete Organ Works, Various, 16-CDs

We have in composer Max Reger (1873-1916) the missing link between the late romanticism of Mahler and Strauss and the pioneering modernism of the Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern and Berg). There are a few others like Zemlinsky but no other who created such a gigantic output. Reger managed to combine the rigor of contrapuntal JS Bach with radically chromatic approaches that put him firmly in a new era in ways not quite like anybody else.

The Bach connection is nowhere more strongly felt than in his Complete Organ Works (Naxos 8.501601 16-CDs). The new complete opus recordings have been a labor of love beginning in the '90s through to today with volume after volume coming out bit by bit on various organs and with various players, all world-class.

The sixteen separate CDs cover everything Reger wrote for solo organ. He establishes himself as no doubt the greatest German organ composer since Bach, a clear alternative to the French School of organists which continued to flourish in his day, at times no less symphonic than they in his long form excursions, but then more at times an expansion of the multi-voiced fugal complex creator within the Bachian heritage.

Not everything in this set is a masterpiece, of course. Reger sometimes composed according to functional need, and there are some works designed for the parochial organist of medium accomplishment, arrangements of the many chorales that formed an important part of Lutheran Protestant church music. But then there are also some masterful transformations of chorales as theme and variations, as fugal subjects and the like.

There are some stunning toccata and fugues, preludes and fugues, trio sonatas and a great deal else. It is an abundance of riches with some somewhat more mundane works interspersed through the set. They are made up for by the sustained flashes of brilliance that are here in abundance.

This may be more organ music than some people are ready for, but those that wish to know the significant features of Max Reger's total output will find this very illuminating and genuinely moving. It is here that we encounter Max Reger's genius, here and in the best solo violin and cello works, the orchestral creations, the chamber works most intent on combining chromaticism and counterpoint to varying degrees.

Performances and sonics are uniformly first-rate. This box set gives great illumination to all who appreciate Reger, but also to all who appreciate the concert organ and for those who seek a proto-modernism which is also a glowing tribute and updating of the Bach heritage. If this feels like a part of your musical calling, treat yourself to this abundant fecundity by all means!

Friday, December 11, 2015

R. Nathaniel Dett, My Cup Runneth Over, The Complete Piano Works, Clipper Erickson

Afro-American composers in the US in the early modern period? From the jazz realm we of course have many, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington come to mind readily and happily. There is of course Scott Joplin . . . and William Grant Still from the classical realm. Now we have the chance to hear the music of another, Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), his complete solo piano music, on the new two-CD set My Cup Runneth Over (Navona 6013). Clipper Erickson takes on the music as the pianist and brings it all to life for us.

The music in first blush has the tang of impressionism in its harmonic and melodic intricacies, but ultimately there is a depth of originality that comes out as you listen further.

He was a pianist, teacher, choir leader, poet and writer. His book The Emancipation of Negro Music was well received and won him a literary prize at Harvard in 1920. He was the first Afro-American to graduate from Oberlin, concentrating on piano and composition, in 1908, and got his Masters at Eastman in 1931. His career was distinguished, yet somehow his music has fallen by the wayside until now.

His first composition efforts reflected the salon style then current but also incorporated ragtime and dance music elements. But he experienced a kind of awakening when "suddenly it seemed I heard again the frail voice of my long departed grandmother calling across the years; and in a rush of emotion that stirred my spirit to its very center, the meaning of the songs which had given her soul such peace was revealed to me."

From that point on his music often incorporated traditional Afro-American folk elements, from spirituals, which he made great efforts to preserve and promote, and other roots.

There are contrasts to be heard with the deeply involved treatment of such elements in the "Eight Bible Vignettes" of 1941-43 and the more straightforward Joplinesque rag treatment of "After the Cakewalk" from 1900.

We in the end get a composer whose voice, though perhaps stilled for years, seems right for renewed attention and revival. R. Nathaniel Dett in his mature period is a fully individual, fully original composer of his time. The two CDs of My Cup Runneth Over give us a composer of stature. Thanks to Clipper Erickson for providing us with fine performances and resurrecting Dett's music for us to appreciate anew. Perhaps now we can hear Dett's choral compositions?

Very recommended!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Haydn, The Creation, Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society, Soloists

Joseph Haydn had been dead only six years when the Handel and Haydn Society formed (1815) in Boston. They first performed part one of Haydn's monumental oratorio The Creation on Christmas of that year. As part of their Bicentennial season this year Harry Christophers and the Society performed the work live. It is this live version that we happily have on a new two-CD set (CORO 6135).

It is the English version we hear, based on Genesis and Milton's Paradise Lost. Both English and German versions were published under Haydn's supervision in 1800. As Harry Christophers comments in the liner notes, Haydn "excels himself allowing soloists, chorus and period orchestra to revel in vivid word painting both vocal and instrumental." Christophers and the amassed choral and orchestral forces of the Handel and Haydn Society give us an exaltedly expressive performance that is in the period tradition and near ideal in its elated depth of expression.

This is arguably Haydn's finest work for voices and orchestra, inspired by the Handel of the "Messiah" for its grand sweep and melodic genius. Haydn remains himself yet engages the then not-so-old tradition with a Haydn-esque brilliance.

Soloists Sarah Tynan, Jeremy Ovenden and Matthew Brook, the choral and orchestral forces give us superlative performances. The joy of creation comes through with the precision and period perfection we come to expect from Christophers.

This is a disk set that provides us with the balance and musical thrust of the work as Haydn envisioned it. Like the Christopher/Handel Haydn recording of the Messiah last year (see the search box above to find my review) it is in the period tradition, not overblown with too large an orchestra or chorus (which was the practice last century) and more brio than sentimental, just right for our time and Haydn's. It is one of those triumphs that makes it essential listening. Happy 200th to the Handel and Haydn Society!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Monteverdi in Mantua: The Genius of the Vespers, Beal, Christophers & the Sixteen

On February 20, 2015 I reviewed here a striking performance of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 by the Sixteen under Harry Christophers. Monteverdi was the Italian early Baroque master who revolutionized the music by new expressive means and masterful brilliance. As one of the music texts I am always reading reminds me, his innovative use of monody and harmonized unified melody lines allowed him to go beyond strict polyphony for a new sonance, though he was also a master of the latter. The Vespers was one of his masterpieces, along with the operas and the madrigals. It exemplifies the very expressive combination of all the styles for a sacred work that no doubt startled the Duke and his retinue with its originality and stunning depth.

The Sixteen's version of the Vespers is a triumph of beauty and authentic period singularity.

Now we have a DVD documentary originally presented on BBC, Monteverdi in Mantua: the Genius of the Vespers (CORO--available as a single DVD or in a deluxe set with the Sixteen's 2-CD recording of the work). It is a moving, hour long exploration into the circumstances of Monteverdi in this period, working under a tyrannical Duke of Mantua.

Simon Russell Beale presents the narrative, the Sixteen and Harry Christopher present musical excerpts from the Vespers and along with Beale give us excellent insight into the music, the challenge of a proper performance and the intention of the composer to create a commanding sacred work in the hopes of finding better employment.

The insights of Christophers and the vocalists/instrumentalists of the Sixteen along with Beale's illuminating narrative and the Mantuan setting lead to an extraordinarily enlightening program. There is an additional bonus segment not a part of the BBC program that documents the recording of the two-CD Vespers release. It is very enlightening as well.

If you already have the Vespers CDs, the DVD is available separately. If you don't, the CDs are nicely packaged with the DVD in a deluxe version.

I found the documentary very moving in its biographical narrative and a treasure on period performance practice in the hands of Christophers and the Sixteen. Anyone serious about early music and Monteverdi will no doubt find all of this indispensable fare!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Thomas Juneau, Visions Eternal

Every collection of compositions has a trajectory, a way of proceeding. It certainly is true of the disk up for today, Visions Eternal (Ravello 7913), a set of four choral compositions by the American composer-conductor Thomas Juneau.

These are sacred works in a tonal-modern realm, looking backward to early music practices as it all gets rejuvinated in a contemporary framework. It features the Summit Chorale, the Juneau Vocal Alliance, and ranges from a capella to harp or organ accompaniment, with in the end-piece compositions adding the Scarlet Knight Brass and Percussion Ensemble. Juneau conducts.

The music is exalting or alternately contemplative. "Gaudette" is based on the text from a 16th-century Christmas Carol and has an infectious odd-meter quality; "Te Deum," "Five Latin Motets" and "Magnum Mysterium" are based on Latin liturgical or otherwise sacred texts of earlier times.

All of the music is has ethereal elements, atmospherically choral in its sure treatment of voices, and movingly composed. The performances are quite respectable and generally well done.

Juneau is a fine craftsman with an inspired way with massed vocalists. It is a compendium that feels right for this holiday season and the wintertime in general.

Anyone who enjoys angelic choirs and vocal ensembles that channel the sacred music traditions in modern ways will find this much to their liking. Recommended.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Stathis Skandalidis Plays Gilbert Isbin

The lute goes back to the Middle Ages, as most everyone knows, with a body of compositions that spans through to the Baroque era. After that the number of compositions diminishes considerably and the guitar takes over as the primary vehicle.

The scarcity of contemporary compositions for lute is belied by the recent album Stathis Skandalidis Plays Gilbert Isbin (Tern 007). Happily, Isbin arranges 3 Old Flemish Songs and then furnishes Skandalidis with 20 brief new compositions.

Isbin straddles ancient and modern worlds in these lively pieces. They retain something of the intricacies and multi-part articulations of early music, but there is an inventive contemporary stance that clearly identifies the pieces as of the modern era.

Skandalidis hails from Greece and enjoys a busy schedule of concertizing on lute and guitar throughout Europe. Isbin himself is a Belgian lutenist and guitarist with more than 200 compositions for lute or guitar and ensemble to his credit. Of his numerous recordings this is the latest.

The combination of Skandalides' exceptional abilities and Isbin's old-in-new modernist creativity makes for a joy of a listen. Together they extend the lute's possibilities while giving us very idiomatic music that takes full advantage of the body of technical approaches from the tradition yet speaks to our contemporary sensibilities.

This is music that grows with every listen--sophisticated yet extraordinarily accessible and attractive in every way.

Highly recommended!

Friday, December 4, 2015

December Celebration, New Carols by Seven American Composers

Classical music listeners who want more than the standard holiday music fare don't always find a great deal to chose from. Of course there is Handel, Bach, early music, Pavarotti and other famed singers in holiday programs, various cantatas and Gregorian Chant, Liszt, Saint-Saens, but of contemporary modern compositions (and arrangements), there isn't much. Britten. Menotti. Cannot think of a whole lot else. This year there is something truly new in that realm, however, that is worth your time: December Celebration, New Carols by Seven American Composers (Pentatone 5186 537).

It features soprano Lisa Delan and baritone Lester Lynch along with the Volti Chorus, Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra and Steven Bailey, organ and piano, all under the direction of Dawn Harms.

We get some very familiar carols scattered among modern-contemporary ones. So there is a nice arrangement of "Silent Night" (Gordon Getty) and some other chestnuts like "Good King Merrily on High" (aka Ding Dong...) but mostly new music from Mark Adams, Jake Heggie, Joan Morris & William Bolcom, David Garner, Luna Pearl Woolf, Gordon Getty and John Corigliano.

Delan's vibrato takes a little getting used to but after a bit that melds into the overall performances, which are very respectable and spirited.

This (of course) is not avant contemporary but tonal and carol-centric with a little nutmeg for your egg nog. It is a Christmas album that needs close listening at first, because after all the music is mostly very new. But after a couple of listenings it opens up and you find much to appreciate.

Doubtless this will not garner the performers a Grammy. but it is very well done and in the end gives you blessed relief from the continually recycling standards. There is much to like. A balm for jaded ears, this is. Recommended for good ears grown weary on the usual.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Peter Garland, After the Wars, Sarah Cahill

Piano music in a radical tonality mode is what comes through nicely on Peter Garland's 20-minute, specially priced EP After the Wars (Cold Blue 0044). The program consists of four brief interrelated, visceral, poetic tone sounding works for solo piano, played characteristically and with elan by Sarah Cahill.

The titles of the works give some idea of where the music is coming from: "Spring View: The nation is ruined, but the mountains and rivers remain (after Tu Fu)," "Summer grass/all that remains/of young warriors' dreams (after Basho)," "Occasional Poem on an Autumn's Day: When I am at peace, I let everything go (After Ch'eng Hao)," and "A snowy morning/and smoke from the kitchen roof--it is good (after Buson)."

A local world, then, after the wars have ended, all is still. That is the feeling one gets from the music. It takes sheer pleasure in the combination of tones, yet the expression goes beyond a pure sounding to evoke moments of peace through all the four seasons, peace and loss, then transcendence.

This is piano music that comes out of Satie, tonal Cage and Feldman, through to its own territory, in a radical tonality vein typical of the Cold Blue label yet very much in its own right.

It is a beautiful evocation that relies not on the typical linear connectedness of standard melody but rather has simultaneity that arises from piano soundings that link with a sort of an abstract disconnect of fragile tonal events which nonetheless have poetic flow when experienced together.

There is beauty, a spacious unraveling in no hurry to get to an end point, yet each movement stays a little while and then is gone.

This is another very entrancing program from Cold Blue. Peter Garland weaves a web of expressive, muted magic and we readily fall under its spell.

Very recommended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Vierne, 12 Preludes, Solitude, Nocturne, Muza Rubackyte

Luis Vierne (1870-1937) is best known of course as a key figure in the French symphonic organ school that followed in the wake of Franck. But what of his other music? It turns out that around two-thirds of his output is not for organ, but rather come to us as song cycles, orchestral, chamber and piano works. Some of those solo piano pieces are aptly performed on a recent release 12 Preludes, Solitude, Nocturne (Brilliant 95154) by Muza Rubackyte.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that these pieces have a post-Lisztian, pre-Scriabinesque sort of feeling to them. They are sometimes rather demanding technically, fully flourishing late-romantic, pre-modern showcases.

Ms. Rubackyte is well-disposed toward the works and temperamentally right for the rolling arpeggios and melodically expressive nature of them.

These were all composed around the time of WWI.

They are all generally through-composed, fantasia-like works that have structure, a feeling of spontaneity and a fair amount of chromaticism. Once you realize that these are mature-period Vierne works (assuming you know his organ music) it does make some stylistic sense. If he had written these for organ there would be of course less late romantic flourishes typical of the piano in the day and then the structure and harmonic forms taken on would seem typical of Vierne the organ master.

The fact that they are most idiomatically pianistic is fitting, but in other words this is not a radically different Vierne, but rather a consistent one that adapts to pianistic means to express what he has in mind.

The four movements of "Solitude" and the concluding "Nocturne, Op.35, No.3" are the most poetic of the pieces here, at times less virtuoso-oriented, at times the most moodily chromatic, sometimes almost impressionistic. And so I find myself especially attracted to them.

But all-in-all the entire program has music that is far from uninteresting; it is very well played and worthy of your ears. Those who appreciate Vierne's organ music will find these pieces especially interesting. It may not be an essential disc for those not already familiar with Vierne, but it sheds more light on his place in the early modern music world while also providing the listener with some very good piano music.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Westminster Concert Bell Choir, An English Christmas

I love bell sounds, whether it be in the form of carillon, multiple cathedral bells, or handbell-ringer groups. So when I heard the Westminster Concert Bell Orchestra's latest album An English Christmas (Westminster Choir College 1510) I was entranced. The outfit is the largest of its kind, in terms of range of bells anyway, and under the direction of Kathleen Ebling Shaw they sound phenomenal. The group is a part of the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, USA.

The bell choir for this album selected a nice grouping of old English carols, some quite familiar such as "Ding, Dong, Merrily on High" or "Good King Wencesles," but also some unfamiliar to most US listeners, such as the "Sussex" and "Wexford" Carols. There is occasional organ, choir and solo vocal parts, etc., but the bells are out front continually as one would expect.

The modern arrangements are quite well done and the orchestra sounds great. This is a beautiful record for those with good musical instincts. It is a perfect album for its sonic glow, just the right sort of music for those with jaded ears who need something different and moving for the holiday season. The old carols still have some life in them yet when played like this! Very recommended, especially for those who associate bells with the season. Ring out the old!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Jan Jirasek, Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols, JITRO Czech Children's Chorus, Jiri Skopal

Today's post looks at an unusual volume, at least for those of us who live outside the region this music hails from. I speak of Jan Jirasek's arrangements of Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols (Navona 6010). The performances center around the JITRO Czech Children's Chorus with instrumental accompaniment, directed by Jiri Skopal. They are a spirited and sonorous outfit, well suited to the fare at hand.

These are a fine selection of what I gather are traditional carols from the region, arranged for chorus and chamber orchestra in a folk-early music style. I must say that I do not recognize any of these, which is exactly fine with me, as I am the sort who tires of the standard fare and am happiest when I can appreciate and discover other traditions outside what I am likely to hear involuntarily on television, radio or in the malls here in the US. So I do tend to explore more from the early periods in the US and Europe, or things that are new.

If you are of Czech-Moravian descent you may know at least some of these, and so you will respond for different reasons at least initially. For the rest of us this is a veritable "Festivus" of unfamiliar music, at once folk-like, early-music drenched, filled with the patina of age and archaicisms in the best senses.

The performances have enthusiasm and finesse in equal proportions. Jirasek's arrangements have much to recommended them--and combined with the choir's exacting zeal make for an irresistible program.

If you look for something different for your holiday season, this one most certainly qualifies and does so with a genuine flair. I recommend this strongly for those who seek to rejuvenate the around-home repertoire this year. But then of course it can be portable too!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Baptiste Trotignon, Concerto pour Piano, "Different Spaces," Nicholas Angelich, Orchestre National Bourdeaux Aquitaine, Paul Daniel

Music can be modern, that is, can show a contemporary, present-day quality without necessarily making use of all or any of the typical traits of modernism. This we know. Composer-pianist Baptiste Trotignon is modern in that way. The recent recording of his Concerto pour Piano, "Different Spaces" (Naive V 5382) gives us his music under near ideal circumstances, with Nicholas Angelich taking on the solo piano role wonderfully well and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine under Paul Daniel giving us a striking reading of the orchestral score.

Baptiste, in addition to flourishing here as a composer of distinction in the strictly classical field, is an active and fertile practitioner in jazz-Afro-American genres. His dual background comes through in the music at hand most prominently in the rhythmic aspects.

But in other, sometimes subtle ways as well. The Concerto is complemented by "Trois Pieces pour deux pianos," featuring Angelich and the composer on pianos, and "Trois Preludes pour piano seul" for Angelich alone.

All of the music comes together to present a picture of the composer in the present day. The Concerto has a finely orchestrated presence, a sort of grand sweep, not predictably "the sort of concerto a jazz pianist-composer would write," whatever that means, but a work wholly dedicated to the classical idiom, tonal-modern with the tang and phrasing of the contemporary and a lively dynamic give-and-take between pianist and orchestra.

His very pianistic outlook comes through beautifully on the concerto and the two works for piano(s) alone. There is lyricism and a linear naturalness of expression, a somewhat abstract sense of note choice in melody that nonetheless speaks to us, a rhythmic vitality and a sure sense of extended form in the balanced phrasings.

The music has substance, strength in its near-pictoral mood painting in the French tradition, yet extended in original ways. I found the whole program of great interest. Baptiste Trotignon is a phenomenon, a musical personality of consequence, not out to overwhelm you with a great deal of technical fireworks, but to make music that speaks to you directly and dramatically.

Strongly recommended.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Poulenc, Francaix, Martinu, Durey, 20th Century Harpsichord Music, Christopher D. Lewis

The idea of the old-in-the-new is not new to the later 20th-early 21st centuries. It has been with us I suppose as early as composers who used Plainchant for cantus firmi in their polyphonic masses. The full-fledged Bach revival in the romantic era and a renewed attention to counterpoint that followed would be another example.

And yes, in the height of modernism-as-new there can be found such things. 20th Century Harpsichord Music (Naxos 8.573364) by Christopher D. Lewis gives us a nicely chosen anthology of modern-era composers who in one way or another responded to Wanda Landowska's resurrection of the harpsichord beginning with her collaboration with Pleyel in creating a modern version of the instrument between 1905 and 1912, and then thanks to her concertizing and recordings made everyone aware again of the sound world the instrument could produce.

Modern works followed. Lewis picks five mostly early modern composers and six works, all of which have something of an earlier-meets-later quality to them. All the works are in a tonal mode, and all owe something in their makeup to the baroque in the way the music is structured, be it contrapuntally or in terms of quasi-dance forms, etc.

So we get some works-composers that are known to many, some less so, but all worthwhile and well performed. Francis Poulenc's lovely "Suite Francaise" leads off the program. It is followed by "Deux Pieces" (1977) by Jean Francaix, three works by Martinu and one suite by Louis Durey (1888-1979).

All of the music has a neo-classical quality. The hearing of the variety of works is enlightening and very enjoyable. Christopher D. Lewis does a fine job. I recommend this set for the music and performances, to anyone with a sense of exploration and appreciation for the treasures of 20th century music but also with an itch for the old-in-new possibilities that the pre-post-modern era can provide. An excellent program is to be had here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Julia Wolfe, Anthracite Fields

Minimalism today. Are there as many versions as there are composers? Possibly. It is still one of the principal modern idioms in classical music, of course, but it is for many a different thing than it was during its classically hypnotic phase of the '70s and early '80s. Take Julia Wolfe. Take her Pulitzer Prize winning composition Anthracite Fields (Cantaloupe 21111), enjoying its world premiere recording by the Bang On A Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under Julian Wachner.

Julia grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania not far from a once thriving anthracite coal mining district, which had its peak at the turn of last century. Anthracite Fields is a kind of homage to the miners and their difficult and dangerous toils. In five thematic movements the chamber ensemble Bang On A Can All-Stars joins with the Trinity Wall Street Choir for a textual thematic unity. The movements are "Foundations," "Breaker Boys," "Speech," "Flowers," and "Appliances." The chamber group consists of cello, bass, keyboards, drums, guitar and clarinets, two of the instrumentalists adding their vocals. They straddle classical and rock modes, mostly more or less straightforward minimalism for the bulk of the music.

Like her "Steel Hammer" (reviewed on these pages; see search box) Wolfe utilizes text phrases that form the centerpiece of meaning for each movement. So for example the names of miners who were on the accident index during peak years are sung out in mostly unison in a measured chant-like periodicity. For its repetitive core the names are limited to those who had the first name "John." The unison has then a counter-melody that enters in about halfway through. "Breaker Boys" deals with the young workers who removed debris from the output of the coal-bearing shutes, a physically painful task. "Mickey Pick Slate" and other children's game rhymes form the core texts. "Speech" makes use of a speech made by the United Mine Worker's President John L. Lewis about the hard lives of sacrifice made by the workers so that Americans could live comfortably. The remaining two movements proceed in similar fashion. In the repetition of phases from the various textual sources a minimalist matrix is built up for each movement.

On a meaning level, all of this is very moving. There is a deliberate banality to the music itself, in its use of unisons, thirds and simple diatonic phrases. Most of them have little in the way of musical interest and the effect is to focus the listener on the texts and create a simple consonance that has life mostly through rhythmic treatment. The repetition does not mesmerize. It repeats.

I appreciate this work for its commitment and often find parts invigorating. At other times I will admit to you that there is a deliberate tedium that is, well, tedious. I cannot blame Julia Wolfe for the intervalic elementalness of the music. That is her choice. It must appeal to a wide number of people because of the simplicity, but after a time and with repeated hearings I find myself wishing for a little less sing-song. Of course if sing-song is her aim, she succeeds! One could argue that the banal repetition corresponds to the repetitive labor, and that's fine. For that it can be easily appreciated and grasped on first hearing by the least musical among us; but repeated hearings do not yield a great deal of heightening, not for me. It stays where it was and does not budge.

I realize that this is my problem and that the work evokes the tragedy of this way of life quite well, but at least half of the music content I do not engage with readily. And the repetition seems not entirely chant-like, which would be fine, but at times too darned banal to interest me. That banal simplicity may appeal, I grant it, just not as much to me.

Since it won the Pulitzer Prize this year, there are obviously those who feel that it is worthy. I congratulate Ms. Wolfe for a very dramatic statement. And I generally like her music. This one is very good to hear, but much of it seems in the end uninteresting to me. Musically it does not move me, mostly. You may feel differently. Sorry.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sibelius, Swanwhite -- Complete Incidental Music, etc., Leif Segerstam, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra

The uniqueness, almost stubborn uniqueness of composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is something we can perhaps marvel at today. He was determined to go his own way during his most productive years, for a large potion of the 20th century. He produced seven symphonies, a violin concerto, and tone poems, which have gained a sort of immortality from his own time through to the present. He was the voice of Finland, not quite neo-romantic and not modern with the stylistic traits we generally identify under that name, totally himself yet in a very Finnish sense, without trying to put too fine a point on it.

But not all of his music is well known. Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra have been devoting time and care to recording some of the lesser-known orchestral works, principally incidental music, in a series of releases for Naxos. I covered one a short while ago (use search box above to find that) and now another: Swanwhite -- Complete Incidental Music and others (Naxos 8.573341).

The album devotes much of its time to "Swanwhite" (1908) and "Odlan (The Lizard)" (1909), each running nearly a half-hour. Then there are the brief music and narrative sequences "A Lonely Ski Trail" (1948) and "The Countess' Portrait" (1905).

We get some very attractive tone painting from the early stages of his career for the most part. The influence of Grieg can sometimes be discerned, otherwise this is proto-Sibelius that speaks on its own terms. He most certainly shows his brilliant orchestrational genius in embryo here. And the music sings out dramatically and attractively.

The performances are quite good, sensitive to the sweep of Sibelius's grand natural gestures. The music may not be quite at the high point of mature Sibelius, so perhaps this is not the place for the listener to start with the composer if one does not already know him. But for those convinced Sibeliphiles it is all very nice to hear, something you will want to have.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Giya Kancheli, Chiaroscuro, Kremer, Kopatchinskaja, Kremerata Baltica

Georgian composer Giya Kancheli is 80. In part to celebrate that and the intrinsic value of the music itself, Kremerata Baltica with Gidon Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja have recorded two very appealing works released under the title Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442).

They are tonal, rhapsodic, introspective works that have their own life in a post-modern landscape. The title work "Chiaroscuro" with Gidon Kremer as violin soloist, and "Twilight" for Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, have a sprawling, somewhat mysteriously reflective aural landscaping with some genetic resemblance at first blush to the Barber "Adagio" and Berg's "Violin Concerto." That is only in mood, for the music is most definitely of our time, but also Georgian, hauntingly lambent, in the sense of softly bright, radiant, reflectively melancholy to my ears and at times unleashing a momentary turbulence.

Kramer, Kopatchinskaja and the Kremerata Baltica sound wonderfully well with this music. They fully capture the mood with the help of the meticulously soundstaged ECM audio.

There is a glowing yet tender quality to the music that reflects the sensibilities of our times somehow, yet does so in strikingly original terms. The minor sonance unravels with a kind of logical inevitably, a sweetly taking stock. And in the end you are moved, ravished and taken away by the music's dramatic resolve.

I cannot but recommend it heartily. It enthralls and envelopes the listener in adagio dreams. It will doubtless appeal to many as it does to me. Bravo!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gyorgy Kurtag, Kafka Fragments, Caroline Melzer, Nurit Stark

Franz Kafka created an alternate world in his writings that was like no other, parallel to the reality he lived within and in many ways a displacement of the disconnects and disregards we all can be subject to in a modern nation-state world. It was virtually hyper-real and so vividly colored by his imaginative scenarios that we see in modern life something we have perhaps been trying not to notice, but can be of course very much there.

Composer Gyorgy Kurtag has taken a series of textual extracts from Kafka's diaries, letters and unpublished stories and made a long song cycle of them for soprano and violin, Kafka Fragments (1985-87) (BIS 2175).

It is a stark landscape musically and textually that Kurtag sets for voice and violin alone. The music parallels the texts with moments of agitated expression, a ruminative bleakness and many shades in between. The violin part is filled with double stops and a modernity that gives the music at times echoes in familial relationship to Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" in its folk-fiddling avantness. But here the "fiddler" and the vocalist are very much alone, fitting to Kafka's uncanny point of view and his unrelenting probing of existence, demanding answers that are not forthcoming.

The 40 separate fragments are generally quite short, a minute or two for each with a few running longer, six or seven minutes. Each is a word-song picture that sets its mood and then is gone.

Soprano Caroline Melzer and violinist Nurit Stark immerse themselves in the score with an explosive expressiveness and a contrasting reflectivity that seem just right for this music. It is all very much in a modern post-serialist mode, brittle near-lyricism countered by a hard expressivity not untypical of Kurtag in this period.

The music stands on its own as something very much unto itself. There is nothing quite like this out there. That in itself is saying a great deal. It is an unforgettable work, a fitting analog of the Kafka sensibility set in tone.

It demands your undivided attention and rewards with stunning, uncompromising exploratory probings. There is a seriousness of purpose here that is unrelenting and all the more memorable for it.

Modern aficionados, take note! Recommended strongly for the committed new music adept.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hummel, Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 36, 35 and 41 Arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano

There are times when you need to take a break from the hurly-burly, to freshen the senses with something completely different yet familiar. That would seem to me a good time to put on the Hummel Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 36 "Linz", 35 "Haffner", and 41 "Jupiter" Arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano (Naxos 8.572842). These of course are some of Mozart's most celebrated later works in a chamber setting, with his illustrious pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel doing the arranging.

The music appears in an exposed setting, displaying all its charms but pared down to the essentials. Hummel does the reframing with subtlety, using the piano as a fulcrum point as he well would have if the quartets were composed of his music, and nicely scoring the flute, violin and cello parts to make the music sing wonderfully well. There are some nice Hummel touches here and there that remind us he was moving in early romantic circles.

The parts contain plenty of brio--and a virtuoso side that brings elements into closer focus. The present recording features Uwe Grodd on flute, Friedemann Eichhorn on violin, Martin Hummel on cello and Richard Kruger on piano. They are zestily declamatory when called for, sweetly tender at other times, and in short give the parts an exuberant motility and inspired enthusiasm perfectly suited to the music.

Of course most anyone hearing these arrangements are intimately familiar with the Mozart symphonic originals and so can envision their micro-adaptation to the chamber ensemble with a sort of immediacy. The themes, the passagework, the perfection of the music is still there only there is an at times a Promethean triumph of quartet over the struggles of making this music truly breathe under new circumstances.

The result is pure delight, I suppose you could say. It is a full CD of real fulfillment. There is an earlier volume out with the same premise but of course different symphonies. Start with this one, though. Then if you need more there is that.

Exceptional fun!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Heinz Holliger, Machaut-Transkriptionen, Guillaume de Machaut

The modern music arena, like the modern visual arts scene, may frustrate you if you have one rigidly defined set of features that you apply like a grid over everything new you experience. Half the time or more, the music may evade your definition and yet be worthwhile and even important. You get more out of the explorations when you approach new music on its own terms, one work at a time. Only then may the various patterns emerge alongside one another, though of course everything is changing, mutating, going forward month-to-month.

Much commentary on the scene tends to freeze that ever-evolving whole in order to describe the situation on the ground at x point in time, but of course the natural way is that it continues to move forward. That is hard to put into words so long as there continues to be an opening up of the future that is the opposite of a one-style dominance. And we are most definitely in a very creative, generative period in the times in which we live.

The new recording by Heinz Holliger is nicely symptomatic of a branch of the process of contemporization right now. Machaut-Transkriptionen (ECM New Series 2224) makes use of the famed Hilliard Ensemble vocalists and three violas to resituate a cycle of works by 14th century early music master Giullaume de Machaut.

Beginning with literal transcriptions of the Machaut works, Holliger gradually transforms them with ever-increasing interjections of modern elements, dissonance, extended playing techniques (harmonics, for example), and various displacements.

This is a further example of the old-in-the-new, the search for convergences of early and modern musics that Stravinsky did with Gesualdo, Lukas Foss and his "Baroque Variations" exemplified in the '60s for a later period of early music, then Penderecki reaffirmed in very different ways in his vocal works beginning with his early-mid period. More recently of course Arvo Part came on the scene with a distinct style that contained some definitive transformations. He has rightfully been made much of in the late-20th century through to today. But the process by no means ends at Part. It continues on and Holliger is among the prime movers as we hear on this album.

Holliger's refiguration of Machaut takes the four vocalists and three violists increasingly across time from early to late, at the same time interjecting his own musical vision yet situating it within a world first sourced out of Machaut's subtle part-writing and periodistic spatiality.

The music is impeccably performed, captured beautifully and has a dramatically transformative trajectory that gives us a sonic momentum as contentful as it is moving. It is first-rate early-to-modern music and a great example of why Holliger occupies a special niche as a present-day innovator.

Hear this and be a part of the contemporary developments going on out there. Very recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Eleanor Cory, Things Are, String Quartet No. 3, etc.

Eleanor Cory (b 1943) is another one of those composers you may know something of or may have missed altogether. Her music has been performed widely but her recordings have not circulated quite as much. She has a way about her, as can be heard in her recent six-work anthology Things Are, String Quartet No. 3 [etc.] (Naxos 8.559784). All are world premiere recordings in a chamber context.

Her music is a varying mix of tonal, atonal and modal, a constellation of contemporary stances that vary with the requirement of a piece. The results are well put-together, individual, sometimes lyrically expressive and largely modern in the classic sense.

The anthology is a good sampling of works written between 1973 and 2012.

The "Violin Sonata No. 1" is the latest work and shows her expressively rhapsodic-modern side with memorably active passage work that projects forward in ways quite appealing.

The "String Quartet No. 3" (2009) is filled with motivic road signs that guide the listener through the musical terrain with articulate grace. "Sweetly melancholic" is how the work is described in the liners and well so. "Things Are" (2011) is for flute and piano, dedicated to Milton Babbitt. It has the rangy openness that Babbitt would have appreciated.

The "Celebration" (2008) for solo piano has contemporary virtuoso agitation/repose and a bit of a very modern jazz flavor to it. Stephen Gosling does the honors as soloist and shows the interpretative range so needed for this one to come across.

The performances are all first-rate. Eleanor Cory shows herself a composer of expressive smarts, dash and lyrical modernism, indeed a first-rank post-high modernist that has mastered a divergent harmonic-melodic way that covers much ground with a naturally assimilative yet individual approach that sounds effortless though of course a good deal of work has gone into these pieces.

Some chamber gems are here for you to appreciate. They hold together well with repeated listens and give us a stance that has a unified authenticity and a stylistic flourish that makes Cory a living modernist of high caliber. This is well worth your time!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Andre Gagnon, Baroque

My Monday dawns as I listen to the newly recorded Baroque (Atma Classique ACD2 2715), a compendium of modern-day works written in the baroque style by Andre Gagnon. It suits my need for something positive and bracing in a world I at the moment find somewhat loathsome. I am reminded of an old friend who stopped listening to the avant garde many years ago with the comment that he "already felt terrible and the music just reinforced it." Of course you do not go to the Museum of Modern Art and expect to find happy, chipper things, so why then must music always be that? If music is solely something to enhance your mood, then he may be right. But if you seek that sort of thing you may end up listening to musak or new age, ultimately, or what used to be called "easy listening."

It does not wash to me; ideally music is not made for you to wallow in like a pig in the mud. For that same reason the MOMA is not as yet filled with 1,000 happy faces on canvas. And yet I am glad to hear this music right now on this Monday because it is well made, inspired, even if out of season for what you expect a composer to be doing in these present day circumstances. One swallow does not make a summer, though, so we can have this music without fear that it will somehow negate everything else we call "modern" today.

The fact is that Andre Gagnon's new baroque music is very engaging. The music was written in 1969 and 1972 and originally recorded for release by Columbia records in two albums where, as the liners tell us, they did well.

The new recording uses all period instruments (that is of the baroque period) and gets a nicely brio reading by Daniel Constantineau conducting the Orchestra symphonique de la Vallee-du-Haut-Saint-Laurent, with Jean-Willy Kunz on harpsichord. (The original recordings had the keyboard part played on the piano, so this too is a more authentic period touch.)

The music consists of four sets of suites corresponding to the four seasons, "Mes quatre saisons." Then there are the "Les Turluteries Suite"(s) No. 1 and No. 2. It is remarkably baroque in form, in its contrapuntal part writing, its bright emotional range and its treatment of themes. The music has plenty of invention to it. It may not have quite the depth of a JS Bach, but that was as much true of most baroque composers in the day as well, of course.

The originality of the music, and what perhaps makes you think of the modern day if you listen carefully enough for it, is in the thematic material. It is generally lyrical, and not always characteristically baroque. That makes this music much more than a clone of another era. It is a product of today in the end. But even if you do not pay as strict attention to the thematic play it is music of real substance.

Should a composer do such a thing in our world today? Why not? I might be alarmed if all contemporary composers went baroque in this way, but that is not the case. And if the music satisfies without pandering to mood, listeners are all the better for it.

The performances are convincing, lively, and very musical. And the music itself rings true. So I do recommend this one strongly.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble, Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies

This time of year puts me in mind of brass choir and organ. That of course has to do with the upcoming holiday season and the coming of winter. If you crave the enormous and sometimes enormously subtle massing of such forces, there is a new CD out that puts you in front of an excellent group, The Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble, with founder and artistic director Rodney Holmes. They tackle a wide variety of music on their Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies (MSR 1598). The Gargoyles are in fine fettle, joined now and again by a timpanist.

Understandably most of this is music of the grand gesture. Much of it is music I am not familiar with, by contemporary composers who have a flare for the grouping at hand. So we have Carlyle Sharpe and his "Flourishes" (2005-2010), and also his "Prelude, Elegy and Scherzo" (2012); William White and his five-part suite "The Dwarf Planets" (2012); David Marlatt's "Earthscape" (2011); and Peter Meechan's "Velvet Blue" (2012) a bluesy pulsating adventure ultimately in a sort of jazz-rock mode that adds drum set and gives us an unexpected treat.

For somewhat earlier sounds we get a 2013 arrangement of Jaromir Weinberger's "Polka and Fugue" from "Schwanda, the Bagpiper" (1926) and a nice arrangement of the "Adagio and Maestoso" from Saint-Saens' "Organ Symphony" ("Symphony No. 3") that first saw the light of day in 1886.

The modern works are tonal and very idiomatic for the instrumentation. Everything fits together well. The fabulous musicality of the Gargoyle Ensemble is matched by a bright, exciting recorded sound that does justice to the dynamics and grandeur of the performances.

It is some repertoire you will not always know and so it is a real addition for those who need to clear out the cobwebs in one's listening space with something very new! This is an excellent disk and great fun as well. Grab it and get prepared for some fireworks of sound.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Karl Weigl, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, Violin Concerto, Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock

Karl Weigl (1881-1949) was one of the leading lights of Vienna before WWII and his Jewish status put him in danger. He fled to the United States like a good number of other composers fortunate enough to get out, where he taught and composed until his death in 1949. Unlike some others his reputation was shrounded in relative obscurity. It is only in recent times that his music has begun to be performed again.

But in the Vienna of his younger days he flourished. He studied with Alexander Zemlinsky and Robert Fuchs, became a vocal coach during Mahler's directorship of the Vienna Opera, and his works were performed and acclaimed in the years that followed.

Other than a CRI LP recording of his songs that came out in I believe the early 1980s, I have heard nothing of his music until now.

That all changes with a fine recording of his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and his Violin Concerto (Capriccio 5232), performed by the Norddeutsche Philharmonie Rostock under Manfred Hermann Lehner. Florian Krumpock and David Fruhwirth happily take on the solo piano and violin roles, respectively.

The music is in every way deserving of our ears. It is post-Brahmsian, tonal with few modernist traces. But it is music of high craftsmanship and beauty. The works were written in 1924 and 1928, respectively, when Weigl was at the height of his career. And they seem exemplary and significant to me.

The "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand" was one of those commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein after an injury in WWI left him without his right arm. Thus Weigl joined the illustrious company of Prokofiev, Ravel, Britten, Hindemith, Korngold, Schmidt and Richard Strauss to receive a commission. Wittgenstein never performed the Prokofiev or the Hindemith works, which were too modern and incomprehensible to him, but for some reason he did not perform the Weigl concerto either. Incredibly it went unperformed until 2002, when Florian Krumpock gave its world premiere. So it is fitting that he is the soloist for this recording.

It is a work of glowing lyricism and depth, notably missing the sturm und drang of his late romantic counterparts but in no way lightweight in substance. Weigl might well have triumphed if the work had been performed at the time. Nonetheless we are well served by the modern-day recording with soloist and orchestra giving the work a very spirited and sonorous reading.

The Violin Concerto fared somewhat better in the day, getting one performance in 1930, whether well-received or not I do not know. It received several performances after Weigl's death but did not get any significant attention again until 2009. David Fruhwirth gives it a marvelous reading on the present recording, as does the orchestra. Like the Piano Concerto it is on the neo-classic side of romanticism, in that there is a contained expressive content that plays out as part of the work's tripartite form. So we get more Brahmsian symmetry than Straussian maelstroms of expression. Yet for all that Weigl does not sound at all derivative.

What matters is the quality of the music, which is a revelation to those of us that know little of Weigl. He may not have been the leader of a new music movement in his lifetime, but the two concertos have very much a life of their own and sound fresh and appealing to present-day ears, mine anyway.

There is nothing lacking in the performances and the sound quality is of the highest order. Here is a modern composer of definite weight, not certainly a part of the progressive modernist movements going on around him, but that matters little at this point.

This is Weigl in very persuasive terms. The music brings much to us. He did not deserve such neglect. Listen and I think you will agree.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Matt Haimovitz, Orbit, Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014)

After celebrating Matt Haimovitz's recent recording of Bach's unaccompanied Cello Suites (see October 13th posting) I was reminded that I had planned to cover his earlier unaccompanied cello anthology, Orbit, Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014) (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 542). So I fished it out from the pending stack and gave it a number of close listens.

What Haimovitz did for Bach (and also Beethoven, see earlier posting), so he does for a wide spectrum of the modern repertoire, not of course so much make them period specific, since this IS the period we are in, but to make the music an extension of himself.

We get three full CDs of a wide assortment of modern works by the likes of Philip Glass, Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Luigi Dallapiccola, Steven Mackey, Tod Machover, Ned Rorem, Lewis Spratlan, and a host of others, some lesser-known, but all somehow expressing the modern classical idiom in all its variant guises. We even get a Haimovitz arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's famed solo guitar version of the "Star Spangled Banner" and a solo cello version of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter."

This is a treasure trove of solo cello as it has flowered in the modern present, which started in part from a respect for Bach's "Suites" by artists like Max Reger and Paul Hindemith in the first half of last century and continued on into high modernism and the contemporary music of recent years. The cutoff beginning point of 1945 means that we do not hear the earliest examples of the solo renaissance, but that I hope can be the subject of another anthology down the road.

No matter. There is more than enough to appreciate in this set. These are works that are sometimes fiendishly difficult, always advancing the cello into our world. Matt Haimovitz has fabulous technique and a very intelligent and impassioned interpretive bent. This is an opportunity to express what the zeitgeist is all about today in cello terms. Whether it be the abstract heights of Ligeti and Carter or the post-modern lyricism of Philip Glass, Matt gives us tour de force mastery and a flow that belies the sometimes rapidly shifting manners of articulation.

The sheer variety of the modern repertoire when taken in its widest sense as it is here and the beautiful outpourings of Matt Haimovitz's cello in mastering and making cogent the many stylistic variants give us a remarkable extended program. This is manna for cello lovers, infinite stimulation for any serious modern chamber enthusiast, and just plain wonderful for anyone with a sense of vastness and exploration that the modern musical world affords. Very recommended!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dino Saluzzi, Imagenes: Music for Piano, Horacio Lavandera

Celebrated Argentinian bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi (1935-) has written occasional music over the years that exists alongside his primary bandoneon ensemble music. For example between 1960 and 2002 he was written a goodly assortment of music for solo piano. We get a fine selection of this on his Imagenes: Music for Piano (ECM New Series B0023792-02), as played with care by Horacio Lavandera. These works have never been recorded before. The disk comes out in celebration of the composer's 80th birthday.

The works are sometimes reflective, rather impressionistic essays with touches of neo-romanticism and at times a Satie-like lyrical simplicity. There are also elements of Argentine traditions that come to the forefront on occasion. But in the end, as Saluzzi says, "music is one." And so the total effect is of a music not easy classified. Modern, yes, classical, certainly, but occupying a space of its own, reflective and with a feeling of solitude often enough, but then there are pieces of bright activity, too. And in the end there is an originality.

Pianist Horacio Lavandera brings to the music a poetic flare, an interpretive acumen and beauty of touch that is totally right for the music. The ECM production gives us a glowing piano presence that creates an immersive staging, setting this music off nicely.

The album has much to recommend it. Saluzzi gives us an original voice that neither follows well trodden ground nor does it live in the contemporary moment. There is something of a timelessness to this music, beyond a present and a past, a pure and lyrical Saluzzi that expresses his musical self elegantly and pristinely.

I recommend you hear this music.

Monday, November 9, 2015

McCormick Percussion Group, Plot: Music for Unspecified Instruments

Works for percussion ensemble have evolved over the years, so that at times the idiomatic sorts of music like "Ionization" by Varese or early John Cage works have been supplemented by music that claims its sound parameters in less percussion-precise terms. On the edge of this is music that could be played by percussion instruments or any combination of instruments whatsoever and further, music that does not have any one set of possible outcomes, but depends upon a particular realization in the performance setting.

The worthy institution of the McCormick Percussion Group under Robert McCormick has devoted a two-CD set to these sorts of works. Plot: Music for Unspecified Instruments (Ravello 7916 2-CDs) gives us a fascinating look at seven such examples, the most famous being Earl Brown's "December 1952" but there are a diverse set of possibilities included on the program, which covers a wide time period between 1935 and 2010-11.

The pitch versus the unpitched percussion instruments give us of course two different possible worlds of sound. And in the end in such pieces the unpitched do increasingly get perceived in their never-absent pitched possibilities, though it is a matter more for perception than special intent given the parameters of the works.

The universe of possibilities gets various realizations: "Bones" (2000) by Stuart Saunders Smith consists of "melodies and piano music," with the order, tempo and dynamics subject to improvisation.

"Nine and a Half for Henry (And Wilbur and Orville)" (1970) by Robert Erickson deals with tapes capturing the sounds of engines and machinery with the musicians instructed to relate freely to those sounds.

"Percussion" (1935) by Johanna Magdalena Beyer has specific written parts and is part of a body of diverse works by this most neglected composer.

"Percussion Responses" (1964) by James Tenney consists of graphic notation for a number of percussionists in interaction with Tenney's electromagnetic tape of computer generated sounds, "Ergodos II."

"Plot" (1967) by Herbert Brun is a graphics score for solo percussionist with specific choices on the part of the performer in terms of instrument, method of sound production, timbre and "sound connectivity."

"Pacific Sirens" (1969), yet another work by Robert Erickson, uses electronically transformed sounds of the surf with specific instrumental reponses for a continuous "siren song."

"December 1952" (1952) is Earl Brown's historic, graphically notated score meant for improvisational use by any number and combination of players, here in a realization for vibraphone and piano.

Finally, "Winter" (2010-11) by Stuart Saunders Smith, consists of a large array of "musical ideas and through-composed solos" that an unspecified number of instruments make use of by "recomposing" the sequence and content in any given performance.

That is the run-down of what this anthology contains. Most of these works would sound very different in content when performed by other players at other times. The McCormick Percussion Group thus puts their own personal stamp on this anthology to perhaps a much greater degree than they might with works that presuppose a set instrumentation and notation sequence.

That they succeed in providing us with a long program of definitive interest and atmospheric presence is a testament to the group and Robert McCormick's sympathetic and very creative artistry. Perhaps ironically the music has a kind of wholeness that mostly exists outside the personalities of the individual performers, an ensemble cohesiveness that is more than the sum of the artists involved. This in a way is the opposite of jazz improvisation, which typically demands a stylistically individual response with the emphasis on sound-personality fingerprinting.

The anthology fascinates and beguiles consistently as it also challenges the listener to come to grips with the form and structure inherent in the freedom these works provide. It is as liberating in its own way for the listener as it is for the performers. Bravo!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Richard Wagner, Wesendonck-Lieder, Edward Elgar, Sea Pictures, etc. Sarah Rose Taylor, Nigel Potts

When you listen to music over a lifetime, some of it becomes like "old friends," ever-generating of significant time spent, ever renewing. I suppose I would say that of Richard Wagner's "Wesendonck-Lieder," which I still have an old London LP of that I bought now long ago, as sung by the inimitable Kirsten Flagstad.

Old friends like that can change a bit over time, not only in how you hear the music, but in new performances. Today mezzo-soprano Sarah Rose Taylor with Nigel Potts at the organ, give us a notable version, along with Sir Edward Elgar's "Sea Pictures" and etc. (MSR 1532).

Wagner and Elgar go well together, no surprise there. Both works were intended for something other than organ, the "Wesendonck" for solo piano but later orchestrated in full by Felix Mottl, the "Sea Pictures" for orchestra. Added to the program is Wagner's "Prelude" from "Tristan und Isolde," fitting since parts of the "Wesendonck" were reworked for that opera (notably the Love Scene). Also added is "The Angel's Farewell" from Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius." It all goes together quite nicely here.

Grace Cloutier joins Potts on harp for parts of the "Prelude" and "Sea Pictures." Both she and Potts are in excellent form, but ultimately this is a spotlight for Sarah Rose Taylor. She has a very beautful mezzo-soprano voice, filled with lyrical tenderness and power as needed. I am very impressed with her vocal artistry.

Ms. Taylor's ravishing voice, the organ (and harp) arrangements and the Potts/Cloutier realizations of these exceptional works make this program a very special one. This is music of a fleeting eternity of moments in lives and the mood is captured with a touching resonance on this disk.

It is unforgettable and Sarah Rose Taylor is a marvel!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Christopher Rouse, Seeing, Kabir Padavali, Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller

Perhaps an excellent test for a recording of works of modern complexity is if on a few listens it remains vividly etched in the mind in spite of a period of highly distracting everyday situations. That's the case for me with American composer Christopher Rouse and his world premiere recordings of Seeing and Kabir Padavali (Naxos 8.559799). Both works were written in 1998 and feature the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller.

"Seeing" is a piano concerto with Orion Weiss effectively attacking the solo part. "Kabir Padavali" is a setting of texts by Indian poet Kabir and features Talise Trevigne in the soprano solo role.

"Seeing" was commissioned for Emanuel Axe and the New York Philharmonic. In discussions with the composer before the work was composed, Emanuel revealed that he never planned to perform Robert Schumann's celebrated "Piano Concerto" out of a feeling of modesty. The composer as a sort of humorous aside dealt with a few motifs from the concerto as he began writing the work. The composer was searching his mind for an appropriate title for the work when he by chance came across an old rock recording in his collection, namely Moby Grape 69. As he listened again after a number of years he was struck by the final track, "Seeing," written by the group's guitarist Skip Spence. A chance encounter with a book on rock history shortly after revealed to Rouse that Spence had become incurably psychotic and was institutionalized.

Given Schumann's mental illness a pattern became clear to Rouse, and the result is that "Seeing" is thematically centered around sanity and the lack, on the world as seen through the eyes of mental illness. There are occasional quotations from Schumann's concerto but on the whole this is a work that emphasizes extremes in consonance and dissonance. It is a brash, exciting work with some fiendishly difficult and extroverted piano expressions and an orchestral give-and-take that magnifies and comments on the piano's role in a hugely expressive, rather unforgettable manner. The effect is ultra-modern and extraordinarily dynamic. Weiss and the Albany Symphony under Miller give the work life in beautiful ways. It is a modernist blockbuster!

The second work, "Kabir Padavali" is highly contrastive, modern in a more reflective way, dealing with the poet Kabir's imagery and musings on the world, on music, on life from an Indian religious point of view. Ms. Trevigne gives her part a lovely reading. The music complements "Seeing" as a very different mood piece, more searching than gestural, but equally vivid in its very evocative unveiling through time.

It is an album of considerable interest. The world premiere performances do the music justice impressively and it shows us two sides of the masterful Christopher Rouse that brings his considerable orchestral acuity to the forefront while creating piano and soprano solo roles that stand out for their marvelous construction and affective interactions with the orchestra.

Christopher Rouse is an essential composer in the high modernist camp. This volume gives you two excellent examples of his music, played with zeal and precision. Highly recommended!