Search This Blog

Friday, October 30, 2015

D J Spooky, Rebirth of a Nation, Kronos Quartet

D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" is considered one of the masterpieces of early American cinema. Yet seen today it is to us repulsively racist and distorted in its depiction of the rise of the USA as a nation state. D J Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller) has composed a sort of anti-soundtrack and exorcising of the film in his long-form work Rebirth of a Nation (Cantaloupe 21110), featuring the Kronos Quartet.

This is pomo classical minimalist, prog rock, hippish hop, beats and sophistication modern music with Kronos in person, sampled, dubbed and added to a smorgasbord of sampled instruments, synths and sounds such as you might imagine might come from the extensively fertile creative mind of D J Spooky. There is a CD of the music as originally conceived, plus a DVD of Griffith's silent movie with Spooky's music edited and synched to fit the film.

There are rock-like repetitions of figures, minimalist trance repetitions along with that, and a thematic flow which has a sequential logic to it. It is music for classical listeners with something of a taste or hunger for prog with a seriously composed element, or on the other hand, classical music that prog listeners might find accessible and attractive. For those in the middle it is simply music that will seem at once familiar yet cohesively original.

I have not watched the movie synched with Spooky's music as yet, but I can well imagine it transforms the experience nicely.

Say what you will if you are a purist from the various possible camps, it is significant music, D J Spooky at his most ambitious, convincing in its flow and girth. For that it is a real contribution to the crossover hybrid sounds so much a part of the modern today. Listen!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Morton Feldman, John Cage, Erik Satie, Rothko Chapel, Kim Kashkashian, etc.

It is only lately that I realize fully via hindsight that the compositional ways of Morton Feldman, of John Cage much of the time and that of Erik Satie form a triumvirate of now-ancestral musics. What is increasingly clear is that they are the principal pioneers of postmodern ambiance and soundscaping. They have always been in retrospect not thoroughly of the time they were in, even though seen in their day as "card carrying" avant garde practitioners. They spent a good deal of creative effort towards musical sounds that were primarily coloristic and extra-spatially situated more so than melodically-harmonically based as was the case with many of their composer contemporaries. Not of course that there is no melody or harmony in such works. In fact melodically there is often enough some vivid elements there, but the emphasis changes toward atmospherics and overall trajectory. This also is where you can trace the beginnings of music in the "radical tonality" zone.

The new anthology of works by Cage, Satie and Feldman on ECM reminds us of their interrelated innovations with some of the classic ambient works of the three.

Rothko Chapel (ECM New Series 2378) gives us superior readings of selected works, featuring the Houston Chamber Choir under Robert Simpson, plus Kim Kashkashian on viola, Sarah Rothenberg on piano and celeste, Steven Schick, percussion, mezzo-soprano Sonja Bruzauskas and soprano Lauren Snouffer.

The defining thread is Feldman's masterful title work, which expresses in musical terms the effect of a series of abstract, color-soaked paintings by Mark Rothko that are housed in the special building designed for them. Feldman is after the sound impressions that Rothko's works evoke in a ravishing ethereal work for Kashkashian's viola, percussion, celeste, soprano, mezzo-soprano and choir. There is a wide and tall musical canvas on which Feldman creates haunting groupings of color as Rothko did visually with paint. This version is rather definitive. So for that alone the anthology is essential.

To surround the Feldman masterpiece of 30 minutes, the artists chose a good assortment of iconic pieces by Satie and Cage, music that sympathetically vibrates in special ways different than, but parallel to "Rothko Chapel."

And so we get Satie's solo piano "Gnossienne" Nos. 1, 2 and No. 3, and "Ogive" Nos. 1 and 2, played with special lyrical care by Ms. Rothenberg, along with Cage's related 1948 "In A Landscape."

Choral works most fitting to the mood and tenor of the anthology round out the program: Cage's later works "Four2," "Five" and "ear for EAR (Antiphonies)" the latter of which includes L. Wayne Ashley in the solo tenor role. These are not often heard, especially the numbered works as realized for choral ensemble. In fact I don't believe I have ever heard them performed in this way before. They hold their own, certainly, as primary later Cage.

Every work makes a statement and the sum of statements make for a convincing case for the interrelated ethos of Cage, Satie, and Feldman. Both the spacious audio production that one expects from ECM and the extraordinary interpretive talents of the artists pull the music together to create an aesthetic unity that is reflective, contemplative and yes, pioneeringly ambient, radically tonal.

It is in all ways a disk that excels in thoroughgoing programming brilliance, performative superiority and compositional exceptionality. This doubtless can make an excellent starting point for those who don't know much of this music and/or the composers involved. For those who have been well initiated into the respective realms, it gives you masterful readings and a special regrouping that will give much pleasure and cause you to ponder the historic uniqueness of the music.

A fabulous listen!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Peter Maxwell Davies, Symphony No. 10, Andrzej Panufnik, Symphony No. 10, London Symphony Orchestra

A welcome disk is on the docket today: The London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Antonio Pappano performs Peter Maxwell Davis' Symphony No. 10 and Andrzej Panufnik's Symphony No. 10 (LSO 0767).

Maxwell Davies' 10th, subtitled "Alla ricerca di Borromini," was written between 2013-2014 and enjoys its world premiere recording here. Panufnik's 10th lasts some 15 minutes and was written in 1988, just three years before he passed. Both are late mature works and they show the respective composers at their best.

The 10th by Maxwell Davies is a considerable, ambitious work that includes the London Symphony Chorus under Simon Halsey and baritone Markus Butter as soloist. It centers around architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) and his life and work. Davies was diagnosed with cancer early in 2013 and subsequently the themes of creativity and mortality that characterize the symphony took on doubly increased personal significance as he doggedly continued work on it with unrelenting determination.

The symphony is in four movements, some with chorus and soloists, some purely orchestral, all concerned with Borromini's projects and the flow of his life. The music has a deeply somber, melancholy cast, movingly dramatic in a widely expanded-tonal modern way. The work culminates in the final movement, where Borromini's last will and testament written just hours after a suicide attempt colors the music and serves as its principal text. It has a moving finality to it that leaves one with a feeling of completion but then of absence as well. This is Maxwell Davies contemplating the biggest issues of existence in ways completely personal yet thoroughly transcendent. The closing moments are haunting.

This is music of grand design, muted, reflective, ritually transformative in its singular expressivity. It requires your concentrated attention but rewards with outstanding Maxwell Davies sublimity.

The Panufnik 10th was commissioned for Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It too has a somber way about it, a succinctly dramatic presence. The orchestration at times is considerably brighter that Maxwell Davies' 10th, with an opening for amassed brass that has a severe, bracing quality. The music continues with heightened dissonances and beautifully muted contrasts with an almost chorale continuity that gets punctuated by meaningful percussion tatoos, like a funeral march perhaps. It makes beautiful use of the full resources of the orchestra with exceptional blends and urgent outbursts. It concludes in a quiet hush that is near breathtaking. For all its brevity it is nonetheless stunning Panufnik, one of his triumphs.

The performances are first-rate, the music significant and masterful, the mood sometimes stoic, resigned, somber but in the end cathartic. Very recommended!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Eighth Blackbird, Filament

You know everyone and her grandmother has reviewed a record already if you search for the cover image and the results are huge. That just happened to me with Eighth Blackbird's striking new anthology Filament (Cedille 90000 157). It is not surprising. Eighth Blackbird is one of the premiere new music ensembles out there and the album is filled with some modern postmodern and/or minimalist gems.

There are four composers and a total of five works, all in the chamber and chamber orchestral idiom. Every one of them is executed with hairpin excellence. Perhaps the most vibrant and difficult is a Philip Glass classic that I have never heard. "Two Pages" is a unison line from 1968, to be played by any number of instruments, with the proviso that they play the rapid waterfall of notes in exact unison. Eighth Blackbird get just the proper torque on this jaw buster. The results are vintage Glass, mesmerizing and riveting, classic mind-bending music that typified his work and those of the other stalwarts at the time.

That is the centerpiece, if you like, for a series of compositions that take the classical minimalist ethos and permute, distill and rethink it. "Filament," as the liner notes explains, is a strong connecting element that unites composers and performers via a strong charge. The program has that sort of connectivity to my ears.

Son Lux's two short pieces makes that filament concrete with remixes of elements contained in the works on the album and adds a part for vocalist Shara Worden. It is virtuoso re-assemblage that evokes something beyond the given in nicely turned, fascinating ways.

Bruce Dessen's "Murder Ballades" takes its cue from the old story folksong tradition that recounts the taking of a life by another, either as a newsy report of a real incident or something mythically fictional. The seven-movement work has a folksy quality and contains yet underplays repetition for a more song-like linearity. It is the reworking of how such songs might be presented in ingenious fashion, as complex multi-part contrapuntalities, alternately bracingly stomp tempoed, jaunty, or slow and musing.

Nico Muhly 's "Doublespeak" was written in honor of Philip Glass's 75th birthday, reworking the classical minimalism of the '70s, a time when, as Muhly notes, "classical music perfected obsessive repetition." Fast and slow parts intermingle with the sort of classical minimilist joie de vivre that the '70s represented, but with a kind of collage-oriented overall conflation and event-specific sectionalism that marks it as very much of our times.

In the end the music is wonderfully played, highly significant and beautifully listenable. This is Eighth Blackbird at its best, surely. We get masterful music that all with an interest in the pomo modern scene need to hear. Very recommended.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Arthur Gottschalk, Requiem for the Living, Vladimir Lande, St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir

Is there a single stylistic way for contemporary modern classical music in the present? The answer, as we see continually, is no. Arthur Gottschalk and his full-scale offering Requiem for the Living (Navona 6009) fits in with the anything goes world we are in today.

In is based on the Latin Mass for the Dead in content, but then branches out with textual commentary by Ellington, George Elliot, Mohammad, Judaic sacred text and other sources. The idea is that this is for those who are still here, in terms with dealing with their life in the face of death. How should we live?

The always partial, myriad-formed answer comes to us in this full choral-orchestral work as performed with spirit by the St. Petersburgh State Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir, with soloists, all under the direction of Vladimir Lande.

Romantic, contrapuntal, post-romantic and otherwise modern elements join together with some elements of jazz a la George Gershwin and his era and more besides. You might even detect a moment that reminds you of Carl Orff, too. The essentially eclectic approach manages to convey to us an Arthur Gottschalk of committed passion, a sense of urgency, a communicator who creates a broad swath of convincing choral-orchestral largess and dramatic flourish.

It is a work that rings with a contemporary presence yet has a timeless quality from an American composer who deserves our attention. I came to appreciate the work over time. I believe it will have much appeal for those who take the time to get into its many-faceted totalities.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Olivier Messiaen, Poemes pour Mi, Bruun Hyldig Duo

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was one of the 20th century's brightest lights, needless to say. Like Picasso or Stravinsky or Coltrane his work can be grouped into several periods. There is the opening burgeoning of his originality, which is roughly from the '30s until the beginning of the '50s, then there is the songbird period that lasts through sometime in the '70s and finally the works of his late maturity that cover the final decades.

This is only a rough gauge, the primary dates of the songbird period may need slight adjustment since I am working from memory, but it serves to place the music at hand today. It is a gathering of vocal music from his first flowering, Poemes pour Mi (Naxos 8.573247) as performed by the Bruun Hyldig Duo (Hetna Regitze Bruun, soprano, and Kristoffer Hyldig, piano).

It gives us Messiaen's masterful "Poems pour Mi" (1936) in the soprano-piano version (there was an orchestrated version also), plus the "Vocalise-Etude" (1935) and the "Chants de Terre et de Ciel" (1938).

All three works get nicely impassioned, bloomingly singing readings. Hetna Regitze Bruun has a beautiful voice that seems just right for this music; Kristoffer Hyldig gives us intelligently flowing realizations of the piano part.

This is music that bears the highly original stamp of the melodic-harmonic ways of Messiaen in the first phase of his career. They are expressive but not romantic, modally and rhythmically alive, filled with lightness and air in a post-impressionist way, with text-setting and melismatic passages of a highly effective sort, and lushly carpeted piano complexities that all serve to make this music highly original, like no other.

"Poems pour Mi" is the most well known but the "Chant de Terre et de Ciel" occupies an important place also, forming the center of the three song cycles that helped define Messiaen in those days. "Harawi" from 1945 completes the cycle of cycles, and is not a part of this collection due to space considerations. The Duo have recorded it as a separate Naxos release, but I have not heard their version.

We get an abundance of exceptional music here nonetheless, some of Messiaen's most powerful early music in performances that ring true. If you do not have these works, here is a very good way to get them! Much recommended.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Alexander Mosolov, Iron Foundry, Piano Concerto No. 1, Schleiermacher, Kalitzke, Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin

The story of Russian composer Alexander Mosolov (1900-1973) is inextricable from the story of "Socialist Realism" and its ultimately iron-fisted Stalinist single- mindedness. Mosolov was a very original voice in early post-Czarist Russia, but he ran afoul of repressive apparatchiks. Out-and-out modernism in art and music circles was at first encouraged in the Soviet Union. This was after all the future and so both Constructivist visual arts and unstintingly modern music were thought of by many as a necessary part of it all. Mosolov was an important voice on an international-local scene for a time, but then he found himself on the outs with the cultural taste-makers in the Soviet Union and so his music became anathema. And so both Russia and the modernist international world heard less and less of him.

"Iron Foundry," a short descriptive piece among the notable works he wrote in the important period between 1925 and 1929, ensured that he gained some renown over the world. But then there were other worthy pieces, too. The Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Johannes Kalitzke, with piano soloist Steffen Schleiermacher, has recorded a much-needed anthology of some key pieces, Iron Foundry, Piano Concerto No. 1, etc, (Capriccio 5241), and I have been happy to immerse myself in the recording for a week or so.

It expressively resurrects six Mosolov works from the critical period discussed, with "Iron Foundry" (1926-27) opening the program, followed by the "Piano Concerto" (1927), "Tractor's Arrival at the Kolkhoz," "Legend for cello and piano" (1924) the "Piano Sonata No. 1" (1924), and "Four Newspaper Announcements."

It shows us a vibrant modernist voice, not so much Russian nationalist as international. "Iron Foundry" still sounds as exciting as it must have when first performed; the "Piano Concerto" is a forgotten masterwork with great depth of field, and the remaining works help affirm Mosolov's place in the avant garde of the period.

Was he another Stravinsky? Prokofiev? Shostakovich? No, but mostly that is because he has his own voice. He may not have shown the lyrical melodic gifts of some of his compatriots, true. But he had a dynamic and sophisticated way all his own. It fits in with the new music scene of the time but it shows less influence than it does originality.

Aside from the controversies engendered in the various Nation-States about the futurist music that was blossoming in those days, Mosolov appears before us now as a composer fully deserving our consideration. The performances are quite good and the music transcends its era to speak to us today, as it simultaneously and necessarily embodies the era in which it was born.

Kudos to the artists for making this music breathe again in full force for us. It is a must-hear for all who seek to understand the musical world we now occupy, the roots of new music, the largely forgotten output of a genuinely talented composer. Bravo!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tigran Hamasyan, Luys i Luso, Yerevan State Chamber Choir

Armenian pianist/composer Tigran Hamasyan joins together with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir under Harutyan Topikyan for the very beautiful Luys i Luso (ECM 2447), a program of re-presented Armenian sacred music from the 5th to the 20th centuries. They are nicely arranged and resituated for the choir and Tigran performing a concerted piano and prepared-piano obbligato commentary on the choral music.

These represent a spectrum of Armenian sacred classics from ancient chant to songs by Grigor Pahlavuni and Komitas Vardapet.

The Armenian minor modality predominates much of the time, but then there are unexpected twists and turns in the joining together of music with music and in the classic source materials. One might not quite expect all of this if one is not intimately versed in the historic repertoire. Plus the arrangements are very creative and add modern elements to it all.

Tigran Hamasyan has a critical role to play as piano commentator, embellishment master and independent voice. Those who know Hovaness's "Lousadzak" Piano Concerto may feel quite at home with the piano part, as much as or more due to the highly Armenian quality of that Hovhaness work and Tigran's similar sympathies as of influence. But there are affinities nonetheless, and all the better for that. You would never mistake this music for Hovaness's though, because the nature of the choral music and the piano commentary put this in a world of its own.

It is exceedingly mellifluous and fascinatingly multi-dimensional in its beauty. Piano and choir are at times in perfect synch, other times they occupy two parallel musical dimensions where one sets off the other for a world of present-in-past and past-in-present.

Anyone who loves the very unique realm of Armenian music will take to this. Those that do not know it well will nonetheless find this music rather unforgettable, I would think, as I do. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Leo Brouwer, Music for Two Guitars, Brasil Guitar Duo

Cuban composer Leo Brouwer may be the greatest living exponent of classical music for guitar. I usually shy away from such superlatives, but throughout his long life he has crafted some gems that lay just right on the fingers, music that sounds like it is absolutely specific to the classical guitar tradition, but also exceptionally fine music in itself.

We get a sweet assortment of pieces of this kind on the Naxos Music for Two Guitars (Naxos 8.573336) played with true artistry by the Brasil Guitar Duo (Joao Luiz & Douglas Lora). There are five works in all, written between 1957 and 2009.

We can follow Brouwer's compositional development in many ways by listening chronologically to the works. The earliest ones, "Triptico" (1958) and "Micro piezas" (1957), have a contrapuntal regularity and a modern melodic-tonal approach delightful to hear. Then as we listen through to "Musica Incidental Campesina" (1978), "Per suonar a due" (1973), and the later "Sonata de Los Viajeros" (2009), we find increasing freedom of expression, a greater variety of sound colors, less rhythmic regularity at times and juxtapositions of tonal and advanced modern extra-tonal qualities according to the creative needs of the moment.

Either way this is exquisite music for guitars and the Brasil Guitar Duo have taken great care to realize the music in beautifully idiomatic performances.

Whether you are a Brouwer enthusiast or know little to nothing of him, the album at hand will give you a great deal of fine music to dwell within, time after time. It is golden. And for the Naxos price? Worth every penny, but also not that many pennies, either!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Numinous, Joseph C. Phillips Jr., Changing Same

The grouping together of modern classical and rock elements today owes a great deal in terms of forefathership (or mothership) to Frank Zappa. He did it from the '60s onward and did it well. He set the tone and opened up the possibilities for the group of composer-artists who have followed. Joseph C. Phillips Jr. and the ensemble known as Numinous give us something well done in the conflationary zone on their recent six-work album Changing Same (New Amsterdam 068).

It is a 20-member chamber ensemble that includes winds, strings, guitars, electric bass, four vocalists (plus one guest in a solo role for one piece) and etc. The ensemble sometimes has a Reich-and-beyond sonic shimmer to it, though there is not always a primacy of repetitive elements in the short motif sense of typical minimalism, more like at times to the function of the riff in rock and jazz. Other times it enters into the music but seems secondary to the variations and linear melodic thrust of the work at hand. Phillips' handling of the motifs and their orchestration gives him a leg up to my ears.

The most compelling piece to me is the opening "19," which is the most overtly rock-classical in conflation. It is the most original and convincing of all the music here. But the other music shows us other and interesting sides of Joseph C. Phillips Jr. And all sides show something of a lyrical sort of pomo homespun quality.

There is a song or two and throughout a creative freshness that marks this music as occupying a world on its own, something like what the Bang-on-a-Can composers have done to bring out originality within a shared stylistic set of elements.

In the end Changing Same gives you a very worthwhile and pleasing program on tonal minimal/post-minimal pomo modernism with an infusion of rock electricity at points (especially via electric guitars) and a original contributory thrust that makes this something to open another similar-yet-different door onto the current territory.

I found it music to energize the flagging soul. It keeps your interest throughout by the inventiveness of the writing and zeal of execution. So for the pomo enthusiasts I recommend this highly. "19" gives us something different yet again. I hope he does more like that as well! Listen to this one.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Edgar Barroso, Immersion Absorption Connection

Just how does one evaluate contemporary modern classical music? When I was young and first got exposed to new music, I had one simple criterion. Was it "weird"? That quickly was set aside when I realized that "weird" to me was changing. Once the "Rite of Spring" became familiar, it lost its weirdness and somebody like Roy Harris was not in the least weird, yet of course he was important. So eventually I gathered a bundle of factors to consider when exposed to a work of new music previously unheard. Is there innovative and effective use of sound color? A kind of structural cohesiveness? Is it harmonically interesting (not always applicable)? Melodically memorable (not always necessary)? Is there a flow to this music? A narrative in its musical syntax? Or is it purposefully disjointed? Those are only a few things I now consider, and the times change so that there are different sounds and forms coming into play today. But all-in-all I still tend to listen with some basic set of factors such as this in mind.

And so my exposure to the considerable amount of music on the 3-CD retrospective of the music of Edgar Barroso, Immersion Absorption Connection (Ravello 7917), has been a time when an evaluation necessarily came to bear. Some 19 works are presented on the disk set, mostly chamber ensemble music. Barroso was a Harvard new music product and was the Director of the Harvard Group for New Music from 2010-2012. In 2015 he became a member of Mexico's National System of Art Creators. The liners describe his compositional ways as centered around "transdisciplinary collaboration, allusive sound streams, technology, energy conflict and the embodiment of sound through objects and gestures." Now that is a bit of a mouthful but it does identify Barroso as a high modernist in his use of descriptive terminology that has a quasi-scientific cast to it. The liners go on to describe the corpus of work presented on this set as "exploring his interest in contemporary science and technologies, social customs, spirituality and more."

Of course such compressed language leaves one with a somewhat open-ended set of possibilities as to what one might hear. It is in the listening that we get a practical sense as to what the music does with those ideas. It is high modernist, post-serialist, advanced sound colored, harmonically expanded music. It is perhaps no accident that he worked with Ferneyhough at Harvard, for Barroso's music has that uncompromisingly advanced quality that someone like Ferneyhough has consistently espoused.

Beyond that there is too much music to easily summarize it all, save that it takes concentrated listening over a period of time to grow into it. Once that is done you begin to see the rigor and vision that combine in his music. This is no light fare. It is a most ambitious, serious sort of form-achieving modernism in the grand tradition. It is very worthwhile to hear.

For all that it gives you an excellent, wide-ranging introduction to his music, played with exacting care and filled with an embarrassment if musical riches. I am glad to have the set and find it a rather essential addition to my library section devoted to the new generation of modernists. More than that will require your ears and attention. Very recommended for those who appreciate advanced abstractions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Beethoven, Variations on Folk Songs, Patrick Gallois, Maria Prinz

Classical composers before the advent of nationalism in the 19th century utilized folk songs and popular songs in various ways, but usually not strictly in terms of a regional approach. Renaissance composers sometimes used a folk or popular theme as a cantus firmus or in other ways in a mass or other contrapuntal work. "L'Homme Arme" was utilized in this way by Josquin des Pres and a fair number of others. The melodic underpinnings may not have been easily recognized by most listeners at the time, as they are not generally to us in an non-analytical listen either.

And then there was the arrangements of folk melodies for variations later on. There was generally a pan-regional approach in what was chosen, whether it was a mix of Scottish and Austrian, for example, or any number of possibilities.

Beethoven was called upon to do this. And we have the fruits of the practice in his hands on the new release Variations on Folk Songs (Naxos 8.573337). The program consists of the op. 105 and op. 107 variations, scored for piano with an optional flute (and later violin) part. Since the flute part is somewhat elemental, flautist Patrick Gallois prepared performance scores of the music that added ornamental and other improvised passages that would have been typical of contemporary practice. Patrick appears here in the flute role along with Maria Prinz at the piano.

These were commissioned by folk enthusiast and amateur musician George Thomson, who intended the published versions to serve as a popular diversion for use in the homes of less-than-virtuoso musical families. The programs were meant to please and give melodious fare for home gatherings, and he specifically instructed Beethoven to proceed accordingly. Beethoven was in a peak later period and only partially accommodated Thomson: at times the piano parts are a bit more virtuoso oriented than a strictly beginner-intermediate pianist could handle with ease. All the better for us.

Patrick Gallois and Maria Prinz provide us with bravura performances of the two collections, both melifluous and nicely detailed given the performance version of Patrick's. There are sixteen folk melodies in all, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Austrian, and Russian in origin.

Beethoven as one would expect is enormously inventive in his variations. In those days composers of any greatness gained a reputation for creating such inventions impromptu, sometimes via a theme suggested by someone on the spot. It at times formed a diverting part of their concertizing if they were keyboardists, as of course Beethoven was. Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, for example, were renowned in their day for such things.

The combination of jaunty folk melodies and variational inventive near-brilliance carries the day as played so well in this elaborated performance version by Gallois and Prinz. These are not performed as often as some of Beethoven's other variations but they do stand up to our scrutiny as very listenable and well-conceived miniatures. Not perhaps Beethoven in the monumental sense, but a very nice 72 minutes to get a break from heavier fare. Very recommended.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Necks, Vertigo

The Australian keyboards-bass-drums trio known as the Necks have been going at it for decades, crafting a unique and varying amalgam of composed-improvised music that at times veers firmly into the territory of minimalism, other times into a sort of new music-jazz that has ambiance and petal-point drone underpinnings and sonically avant elements. They are not necessarily doing "classical music" per se but then they defy categories. I've covered one of their albums on this blog (type "Necks" into the search box above to access that review) and today I am taking a look at their newest, their 18th album to date, Vertigo (Northern Spy LP or CD).

Tony Buck (drums), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Chris Abrahams (piano and keys) create for us one long, 43-minute journey into atmospheric realms. It has a few sections where the piano repeats a motif or chordal sequence with a sort of rubato openness. Towards the end there is a recurring drone and chord cycle with added sounds that has a hypnotic aspect. The rest either implies or states a drone and either creates tonal and/or extra-tonal ambiance atop it.

The music has a feeling of spontaneity within a controlled flow. There is a unity to it all but never a feeling of static sameness.

It is music with a striking way about it. The sound-color blend proceeds in ways the Necks do so well. It shows continued growth in the group's overall concept, going decidedly away from a typical minimalist approach into something ever more soundscaped.

Is it their best album? I wouldn't say that necessarily but it is quite cosmically sound, one of their better efforts, and you could do worse if you've never heard them before. Necks devotees will doubtless not be disappointed. I certainly was not myself.


The album has a street date of the end of this month (October, 2015). You can pre-order it at Bandcamp. Copy and paste the following url into your browser address box to do that:

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

J. S. Bach, The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena, Matt Haimovitz

It goes without saying that Johann Sebastian Bach's "Cello Suites" are gemstones of the baroque chamber repertoire and a set of shining lights among works for cello solo from any period. There have been a good number of fine complete recordings since the advent of the LP and then the CD.

For all that the last note has surely not sounded; the book has not closed on a "proper" performance of the music. Matt Haimovitz gives us an insightful and exciting reading of the complete opus on his latest release, The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena (Pentatone Oxingale Series 5186 555 2-CDs). Haimovitz recorded an acclaimed version some 15 years ago. That he returns again to the Suites today has something to do with a number of factors.

The most general one is that as an artist matures his or her approach to a special work can deepen and grow. That is undeniably true for Haimovitz. The search for a period authenticity is also a concern. Matt uses for the new recording a period cello, a baroque-style bow, which is notably flat rather than concave and so provides different results and affords different bowing possibilities. Further, Haimovitz plays a piccolo cello (with an additional high fifth string) on the sixth suite, after realizing that Bach's music there calls for varying intervals, many of which seem logically based on the open-stringed possibilities of that instrument.

Finally and perhaps most importantly Haimovitz turns to the manuscript of the Suites as presumably faithfully copied from Bach's original manuscript (now lost) by his second wife Anna Magdalena. Through following her phrasing-slurring notations to the letter and via other clues in the manuscript Haimovitz gives us some dramatically distinct phrasing, bowing and fingering somewhat at odds with a typical modern performance. He tunes his cellos down a bit from the modern A=440 and favors when possible open-string articulations as Anna Magdalena's copy and Bach's inventions imply.

For all that we get Haimovitz's total artistry, a deep resonance to the cello not heard quite like this in standard versions, and an expressivity that is very palpable and rugged at times, without a romantic sort of rubato so much as a baroque one, which is to say that the sort of bravura of the post-Beethoven cello is replaced by a different sort of emotiveness, born of the resonance of the open strings and a restrained vibrato, with the up-down bowing dynamics of the flat bow and the phrasing of Anna's version suggesting a performance of great clarity and zest. There is a rough-hewn, exuberant beauty to it all. And not a stitch of sentimentality.

And so we get a version of the Cello Suites that stands out as rousing, expressive and singularly devoted to the special timbrality of the period instrument and bow, the open sound of gut strings, the adventure and part separations that Anna Magdelena's clues, cues and queues suggest to Matt.

It is not only a convincing performance. It is a thrilling one. Anybody who loves this music will gain new insights into it with this new set. There is fabulous artistry from Haimovitz and a singing realization that Bach himself would no doubt appreciate. It is a landmark recording. Get a copy of this and soar along!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Elliott Sharp, The Boreal

Elliott Sharp has a triple-threat ability that has made him a ubiquitous presence on the New York scene for many decades. He is an avant new music composer of distinction; he is equally heralded in avant jazz circles for his compositions and innovative guitar expressions (he also plays reeds well) and ensemble projects; and he is a figure in avant and blues rock via various projects and his Terraplane band. The post today concerns his new music compositions, with a fine new release entitled The Boreal (Starkland 222).

The album presents four exceptionally fascinating experimental avant works for widely diverse instrumentation. The title work (2008) is for string quartet, "Oligosono" (2004) is for solo piano, "Proof of Erdos" (2006) is scored for chamber orchestra, and "On Corlear's Hook" (2007) is for full orchestral forces.

Elliot Sharp's compositions stand alone as stylistically innovative and singular. They do not fall neatly into the various categories of new music today, except that they are more often in an avant garde mode than they are tonal, minimalist or neo-/post-anything.

"The Boreal" gives us four brisk movements performed spiritedly by the JACK Quartet. The key to the special sound of this work lies in the three bow types utilized by the players: rewound bows, bows with spring sounding surfaces or with metal ball chains. When drawn across the bridge the bows create uniquely vibrant sonarities matched with Sharp's imaginative scoring for a series of micro-rhythmic sound worlds that are as uncanny as they are as palpably Sharpian in their immediacy. The music has to do with the northern climes, sub-arctic and sub-antarctic, the Boreal Period of the Holocene Era, and the Boreal Sea, a part of the earth when the supercontinent Pangaea dominated the earth's geography so many years ago

"Oligosono" (2004) has a motor-rhythmic insistence that is one of the characteristics of Elliott's music at times. Jenny Lin plays the piano part and its extended techniques with a dramatic and indefatigably energetic zest, if you will.

"Proof of Erdos" (2006) played here by the chamber Orchestra Carbon under David Bloom, was inspired by the eccentric, brilliant mathematician Pal Erdos. It realizes a universe of what sounds like freely articulated, interrelated motifs and timbre colors, via mathematical procedures that, in Sharp's words, have to do with "permutations and transformations of pitch, rhythm and timbre, structural proportions."

The final work "On Corlear's Hook" (2007) commemorates for full orchestra (the Janacek Philharmonic under Peter Rundel) a time when Sharp and his partner rented an apartment at the far Lower East Side in Manhattan, a location that as Sharp points out in the liners is filled with very diverse sights and sounds. He builds a musical analogy of the time spent there, not meant to be representative per se but rather as a musical transposition of the experience.

The two larger ensemble pieces have correspondingly more elements and a wider range of sound colors expressed.

All the works here give us some key aspects of Elliott Sharp's special musical sensibilities, his acute sense of innovative sound design, evocative universes that point to themselves while at times evoking thematic sound-images Sharp then transforms and permutes to full structural realizations and varying levels of density and spectral diversity.

The music is absorbing, fascinating and uncompromisingly advanced. Every piece bears a personal stamp of originality that does not quite refer back to the high modernist past nor does it engage directly with the present-day trends in new music. It is Elliot Sharp music, in other words, from 2004-2008. And a very worthwhile thing that is.

Strongly recommended.

The album is available this coming October 30th. You can pre-order on Paste this address into your browser to do that:"

Taktus, Glass Houses for Marimba, Music of Ann Southam

The beauty of the marimba for contemporary modern minimalism was established definitively by Riley and Reich. Its combination of clarity of percussiveness and of short duration resonance makes it an ideal instrument for tonal rhythmic repetition and variation.

The marimba duo Taktus, Greg Harrison and Jonny Smith, shows us how this can be the case for the music of the late minimalist Ann Southam, in their two marimba arrangements of six pieces from Glass Houses (Centrediscs 21415), originally intended for solo piano. Southam's music has been covered on these pages (type her name in the search box) including some of the original piano versions of "Glass Houses." The works are notable in many ways, but there is a characteristic independence of parts and rhythmic complexities between the left and right hand piano roles that make it necessary that the music be arranged to two marimbas instead of one. And that also makes for an excellent way to hear her highly developed part writing.

Smith and Harrison have done exactly that. The music moves forward singingly and brightly in their hands, giving us another way of hearing Southam's music that is both quite true to her objectives as well as an impressive tour de force for the two players.

Music hath charms. In this case it hath very many. The music has Southam's special way about it, which in this incarnation if you were to look for lineage forebears, comes somewhere in between Orff's Gassenhauer and Reich marimba music, the former for its refreshingly straightforward melodic element and the latter for the complex interlocking counterpoint. That would be a rough approximation only, since the music has its own way and the beauty of a marimba taking on the part of each piano line adds a great deal to the proceedings, especially as played with such vitality by Taktus.

The album is very much a delight to hear. Southam is complex and inventive enough that repeated hearing continues to unfold the music for you; it is tunefully affective enough that every time you hear it is pure pleasure. I can't think of any music better suited for two excellent marimba players! Get this one with no fear. It is exceptional--a tribute to the continuing relevance of Ann Southam and to the fine virtuosity of Taktus.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Mike Olson, Six Projects

Mike Olson has gone full circle from intuitive to formalist and back to intuitive again. The latter approach holds sway in a collection of Six Projects (Innova 917), the latest offering from the Minneapolis-based composer. A creator in the new music realm since the mid-'70s, his music gains new life through a compositional method he calls fragment-based. What that means is that each project begins with several to many thousands of inter-related recorded fragments and a conceptual idea of what he wants to fashion from them. He then gathers the fragments together in creatively specific ways to sequence each project and make of them an evocative, coherent whole.

The results are six soundscapes that have an other-worldly quality at times, rooted in influences as diverse as Zappa, early Kraftwerk, Ligeti and Eno. That makes perfect sense to me after hearing this volume a good number of times. The end result is Mike Olson and nobody else, but the terrain will seem like home for anyone who follows such things, that is to say the avant-classic fringes of rock and atmospheric high modernism.

And of course what matters in the end is not his working procedures of structuring fragments into an appealing and logically sequenced whole, but the sort of seaworthy quality of the crafts he has built out of it all, so to speak. The music sails along in each case without effort, though of course much has gone into its construction.

Every project has a kind of aura of its own, from the aetherial sustained choral heaven of "Noopiming" to the virtual sound color and rhythmic vitality of "Implied Movement."

This is electronic, electroacoustic profundity that wears extremely well and has abundant musical substance. It puts the listener in zone after zone with a flourish. It makes for an excellent listen.

Mike Olson has arrived. If it is full-circle, it is nonetheless coming to a place that has spiraled upwards with musical structures that are as livable as they are beautiful.

Kudos to Mike Olson for this!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Erkki-Sven Tuur, Brett Dean, Gesualdo

We are once again the the realm of early music-meets-modern-music with the album Gesualdo (ECM New Series 2452). Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566-1613) was one of the most remarkable, expressive and harmonically advanced composers of his age. Stravinsky brought him to the limelight among contemporary music appreciators via an early 1960s album of his music and Stravinsky's own "Monumentum Pro Gesualdo," a substantial work honoring his importance. And now we have a fine current-day tribute on this new ECM release. It is a kind of celebration of Gesualdo's music and his era through several short Gesualdo works arranged for string orchestra and music inspired by Gesualdo from the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur and Australian composer Brett Dean. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra are the performers under conductor Tonu Kaljuste. They sound great.

Erkki-Sven Tuur weighs in with two compositions, "L'ombra della croce" (2014) and "Psalmody" (1993/2011), the latter making use of the choir, both scored quite nicely for the string orchestra in the former case, full orchestra in the latter. They have a post-modern meets early music way about them, with perhaps a bit of the neoclassical influence of Stravinsky. Towards the end of "Psalmody" there is a very nicely contrapuntal post-minimal jauntiness that provides a feeling of movement and energy, with the distinct hint of Reich and Riley influences transposed to a new plane.

They have a very ambient feel to them in the spacious sense, partially thanks to Manfred Eicher's lush sound staging, but they have a periodicity and continuity about them that point both backwards to Gesualdo and forwards to the present day.

The two short pieces-arrangements of Gesualdo help us contextualize it all and via the string orchestra allow us to hear Gesualdo in a kind of new light, as a figure who oftimes resonates with a near-modern sense of expressive dissonance, but also as an advanced master of the contrapuntal part writing in his time.

Brett Dean gives us a rather monumental "Carlo" (1997) for choir and string orchestra. It is an impression of the world of Gesualdo as he lived in it both musically and otherwise. The work moves from an arrangement, then excerpted bits of Gesualdo's madrigal "Moro Lasso" in a vocal-orchestral collage that traverses the ages to end up in our modern era and the sound of its new music, Dean style. It is quite impressive to hear, a remarkable work on many levels.

So there we have it. The album gives us much to savor and yet another take on how the past can energize and help rebuild and extend our present-day modern musical world. It is a joy to hear! Very recommended.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Galina Ustvolskaya, Russian Piano Music Series, Vol. 11, Natalia Andreeva

A modern Russian composer not familiar to me is happily spotlighted on the two-CD set Russian Piano Music Series, Volume 11, Galina Ustvolskaya (Divine Art 25130). Ms. Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) wrote a set of 12 Preludes (1953) and Six Piano Sonatas (1947-1988) over the course of her life. Pianist Natalia Andreeva gives us finely honed, expressively thoroughgoing renditions of these, which comprise Galina's complete output for solo piano.

The liner notes reflect on her life, calling her "one of the most mysterious figures in the post Prokofiev-Shostakovich era of Russian music." She is not well known even in Russia. She was a pupil of Shostakovich and spent her life in relative isolation in St. Petersburg. She visited Europe only in the 1990s where her music was performed in several music festivals. Her publisher catalogs some 25 works in all.

There have been some several CDs of her music in later years, two books and such. She believed in working deliberately and carefully over her music, which explains the somewhat modest complete catalog. Her music has no bar lines, is written in 1/8 or 1/4 time, favors clusters on occasion, puts great emphasis on accents and dynamics, which can range from fffff to ppppp, uses unconventional playing techniques at times, like playing with the knuckles, and has a starkly dark style that is not tonal in any simple way, and oftimes is thoroughly atonal. Her later sonatas have been performed with a ferocity that caused some to dub her the "lady with the hammer." Galina was not always happy with some of these performances. Natalia Andreeva consciously set about learning the piano works in great detail and with an emphasis on musicality per se. She conveys to us the picture of a composer of acute demeanor, a school of one if you like.

And so we get a progression from the preludes and through to the sonatas with Andreeva convincingly tempering the starkness and dramatic dynamic contrasts to a poetically musicianly pianism that tends less toward a savage, harsh sort of interpretation of the music to something highly evocative in all its stark despair.

The music as a result sings fully though characteristically brusque and arctic at times. No one can make of a two-part fugal counterpoint such an icy prospect as can Ustvolskaya. She is very much an expressionist I would say, with the kind of black and white primalness of a classic expressionist woodcut.

It is beautiful music, totally without concessions, extraordinarily original, turgid, high modern without respite. That means you must put yourself squarely into her world to appreciate her the more deeply. And if you do that repeatedly there is magic. Ustvolskaya, based on this recording, is a discovery of great magnitude. I salute Ms. Andreeva and those at Divine Art for making this music so vibrantly available to us.

It leads me to an urgent need to hear her orchestral music and/or everything else she wrote. That's how it affects me. If you like discoveries in the high modernist realm, Galina Ustvolskaya and this set of the piano music is a highly important one, something that will surely give you another way of hearing musical modernity.

Bravo! Terrific!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Susan Chan, Echoes of China, Contemporary Piano Music

We live in an age where the entire world becomes ever closer to us, certainly from a musical standpoint. Chinese composers in the modern classical realm serve as an excellent example. There has been a blossoming of them in our era, and a good amount of the music can be found in commercial issue.

Pianist Susan Chan brings to us six works for solo piano by five living contemporary Chinese composers on Echoes of China (Naxos 8.570606). The works date from between 1964 and 2013.

The music is in a modern tonal mode with varying degrees of traditional Chinese melodic elements represented principally by pentatonic means. Each composer occupies his or her own stylistic niche but the anthology has a kind of unity via its nationalistic orientation. Zhou Long represents the more modernistic side with "Pianobells" (2012); Alexina Louie sounds a bit more on the impressionistic side in her "Music for Piano" (1982). Somewhere within these poles fall works by Doming Lam, Tan Dun and Chen Yi.

Susan Chan's performances are nicely expressive, pianistic and dramatic or contemplative, depending on the mood of the work.

It is a volume that speaks to us eloquently and gracefully. It serves as a good introduction to some of the finest present-day Chinese composers but also provides excellent fare for those already initiated into the modern classical music of some or all of the participants. A very good album, this is.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, Stille-stykkje, Olav Kielland, Erik Daehlin

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus is a magically poetic pianist who specializes in repertoire that combines modern classical and folk idioms. Stille-stykkje (LabLabel 2015) is an offering of quiet piano works by two composers who have concerned themselves with Norwegian folk forms, transformed in different ways.

Olav Kielland (1901-1983) became enthralled with Norwegian folk music in the 1940s, especially the harding fiddle and vocal traditions. He moved his family to the west of Telemark, Norway to better immerse himself in the music. The sound of the natural world around him and the folk forms he so loved came together early on in his stay. When he heard his young daughter playing simple melodies on the piano it gave him the idea for the 20 quiet pieces, "Villarkorn," which exude a kind of naturalism and a sensitivity to the folk forms he heard around him. Ms. Nyhus performs the strikingly singular music with a sympathetic dedication that makes it all work.

Kielland felt strongly that folk-influenced music should not lose sight of the modality, grooves and polyphony of the originals. And so the 20 pieces come before us at times in utter simplicity, but perhaps deceptively so, since the irregularity of living folk tradition is somehow inherent in the pieces, as well as the special traits involving modal tonality, multi-part writing and an underlying freedom of expression. So it is not just simplicity that the music is about. And the music becomes more complex as the sequence of 20 pieces progresses. Ms. Nyhus internalizes the Kielland ethos and gives it back to us with beautifully evocative performances. If Satie was Norwegian and became enthralled with local forms, his music might have sounded something like this. That is a gross simplification, but it will give you some idea of the music's impact.

In contrast we have the music of Erik Daehlin (b. 1976), which Ingfrid presents to us in four interrelated segments. The music takes archival folk singing examples and excerpts melodic fragments, transforming them acoustically to varying degrees, then builds a solo piano part around them. His is a more disjunct modern approach but very fitting as a contrast to the "Villarkorn" pieces. The snippets of recorded vocalizations come at us in a quietly, ghostly sort of eerieness, as if the past were communicating to us from a distance, very much still alive.

And that in a way is what this album is about, the resurrection and transformation of a vivid body of folk forms, with contemporary music made out of the essence of its aural images to fashion a music anew.

It is thoroughly beautiful, still, quiet, yet with a movement through to the present, like water rippling forward inexorably but gently in a quiet rural stream.

This is a program of great beauty. Ms. Nyhus gives us ideal performances. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bach-Chindamo, The New Goldberg Variations, Joe Chindamo & Zoe Black

The old and the new are ever-combining lately. Not that such a thing has not been happening throughout the history of humanity, but every era or period has something peculiar to it in the way it happens, at least musically. I don't have a full picture in my mind about the present yet, but early music and baroque music have offered possibilities for new music amalgams a good deal in the past half-century, it seems. And there have been successful hybrids to come out of that idea, surely.

A fascinating and effective example of this can be heard on The New Goldberg Variations (ALFi 15002). It is Johann Sebastian Bach's complete "Goldberg Variations" with a stylistically consistant, new counterline on the violin written by Joe Chindamo. Joe plays the piano part for the recording and Zoe Black takes the violin part.

The result is a new work, born of the old. The violin part adds a good deal to the music, a second or third voice in the counterpoint much of the time, and occasionally a reinforcement of the piano line, the latter of which remains just as Bach wrote it. Sometimes we get a kind of variation within a variation; other times an extension of Bach's contrapuntal thinking. Chindamo creates a sympathetic and very credible, even wondrous work out of it all.

Zoe Black and Joe Chindamo sound very buoyant, very spirited together here. Both are from Australia. Joe composes and both can play in a jazz mode apparently, but that is not what is happening on this album.

I was prepared to be disappointed, only because the "Goldberg Variations" have gained such an iconic footing in their original form that I wondered about the need of adding to them. I was wrong. The "New Goldberg Variations" are not meant to replace the old ones. They give you a fine new look at what can go with it all, a second work that can take its place proudly next to the original and be experienced as a nicely variant set of variations.

For all that I am fully satisfied and elated with this recording. It is a must for all Bachaholics as well as anybody looking for a new sonic experience. Bravo!