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Friday, December 8, 2017

John Turner, Christmas Card Carols, Intimate Voices, Christopher Stokes

If you are a music devotee like I am, the Christmas (Holiday) Season has its ups and downs. If you think about it, there are maybe 30 carols and songs that get recycled every year in all sorts of ways. And now in the States from before Black Friday on there are increasing numbers of TV commercials that make use of the music in annoying or less annoying ways. Regardless, the sheer repetition of any number of them might start to give you brain hemorrhages or other states that have nothing to do with visions of sugar plums. Admittedly there are many songs I can hear year after year in the right versions, but over time I also have welcomed new fare, such as holiday oriented jazz, folk songs, music from other national traditions, repertoire from the Middle Ages and the entire catalog of Christmas classical possibilities.

So in that way I welcomed in the mail recently something totally new, namely John Turner's Christmas Card Carols (Divine Art 25161). Most happily it features the strikingly sonorous vocal ensemble Intimate Voices under Christopher Stokes. They sound positively angelic here.

The premise for John Turner was to compose some 23 new carols, essentially based on familiar texts, some going back centuries. So for example we get an altogether different musical treatment of "Away in a Manger," new yet somehow fittingly related in overall melodic thrust.

The music has a bit of contemporary harmonic spice to liven up our holiday listening punch. Yet what hits me is that the music remains strikingly in the carol tradition, sophisticated choral songs that supplement the usual diet of chestnuts (on the open fire or cracked) with well written and tuneful works that do not relate to the many popular songs that have entered the pantheon in the last 100 years. Instead these are timeless, a kind of alternate to the 400 years of Christmas season gems, as if in some parallel December season on another unknown continent a group of Euro-American-based settlers there grew another body of traditional songs.

It is welcome addition, a rich broadening of available carols, written today but with pronounced early-music-and-beyond glow suffusing the whole. The caveat to all this is that you the listener cannot casually throw this on the player and expect instant recognition. This is New Music and so you are expected to spend some time and get to know it all. It takes a little, quite pleasant work to put this music into your holiday listening block. Once you give the album a few preliminary auditions, the music will I hope seem to fit in nicely as a refreshing alternative to 50 versions of "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night."

Anyone of Classical choral bent will find this album refreshing and substantial. And until this music becomes part of the commercial onslaught of would-be advert jingles it is yours and yours alone to hear when you choose. It will be a while before Wal-Mart starts piping this music into their stores, if ever.

Warmly recommended as a beautifully performed set of brand new yet ageless carols! Give it your ears if it sounds like something you would get wrapped up in like a surprise gift under the tree. Your listening mind will be a new present to yourself!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Gyorgy Kurtag, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir, Grammy Nomination Repost

I almost never do something like I am doing here. That is, I never repost an earlier posting without some exceptional reason. It so happens that this recording has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium this year. I strongly endorse this set as an exceptional contender. I hope it wins for all the reasons set down below.

I was tangentially a part of a Facebook thread yesterday. Implied was a question: Who listens to New Music these days? One answer is that they are generally the same audience who listens to classical music in general. Often enough that is true in the concert setting, given that a contemporary work may be a part of a program along with older classics. In the matter of those who purchase New Music recordings, it still can apply. However, there also is a group of listeners who respond more exclusively to the new and avant but do not necessarily collect and get into the earlier classical music. They are a smaller group. They may listen to advanced jazz, rock, and/or world more than Bach. This blog caters to both and manages to get a respectable readership out of the two camps. I of course appreciate the patronage.

When it is a matter of today's offering, either group might be well served by the contents. It is an important release from a composer who has gotten attention over the years as a major figure in the New Music, Gyorgy Kurtag.  Today we have a worthwhile compilation of three-CDs: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07).

It is an all-encompassing collection of compositions by the Hungarian high modernist, nicely recorded and very well performed by soloists, guests, the Asko/Schonberg Ensemble and the Netherlands Radio Choir under the guidance of conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.

The recording of  the numerous works on this set was a labor of love. De Leeuw has performed each of these a number of times in the last twenty years. The master recordings for the set took shape from March 2013 through July 2016. Gyorgy and Marta Kurtag were intimately involved both before and after each session. Their detailed evaluation of each result sometimes led to De Leeuw's re-recording of some of the music, both sections and an entire re-performance as deemed necessary.

The results met the full approval of the Kurtags and so the music stands as a benchmark for performances to come. Only a thorough personal immersion in the recordings make that plain. Kurtag is not a composer easily categorized. The reasons for that are not hard to find. His music covers a wide swath of possibilities, both in a high modernist and near-tonal realm that ever bestirs in new configurations, dramatic ebbs and flows, sheer power or reflective unwindings.

The wealth of works cover a long span between 1959 and 2011. Most fall somewhere in the middle years. Not all include the choir. The ones that do show a natural feel for musico-vocal-instrumental declamation. The purely instrumental works are filled with color and a shifting focus on ongoing event structures.

Some eleven works make up the totality of the program. I come away from the set with a strong attraction to the music and a feeling that we are in the presence of a living master of true importance. A work-by-work breakdown of what is present might have a tedious quality for the lightening engage-and-move-on readership here on the net. There is just too much and because of the original quality of Kurtag's music it would take many paragraphs to do justice to what we get. Instead, I will say that this set underscores the unvarying quality of Kurtag's music, as it sets you on a riveting journey through the thickets, the broad panoramas, the high mountain peaks and peaceful valleys of what makes Kurtag so absorbing and worthwhile.

Spend time with this set and I suspect you will, like I have, get a distinct tingle of satisfaction. Highly recommended.

Three Free Radicals, Travelogue, Scott L. Miller, Mart Soo

One of the signs that a CD is beyond categorization is when I have listened to it numerous times and I still can imagine posting a review of it on any of my three music blogs. Three Free Radicals and their album Travelogue (Improtest Records CD011) most definitely qualifies. It is a series of pieces put together by Scott L. Miller on the Kyrna Electronic Music System and Mart Soo on electric guitar and electronics.

A very distinguishing factor in this eight-work program is the acute sense of sound design that Scott and Mart bring to every excursion. I have followed Scott L. Miller in this wise happily and in tandem with Mart Soo there is a pronounced sonic sense that makes every track stunning and notable. Improvisation is an element in the creation of the music, quite apparently. And with the guitar and electronics mix you sense elements that quite arguably attach the music to Ambient Post-Psychedelic Avant, Improv and New Music-Electronic Music realms. So there are elements that have some connection to Fripp and Eno ambiances, or the free ensembles of Stockhausen, Musica Electronica Viva and in the end a significant originality and an acute fuzzy logic of means.

One feels often throughout an extraordinary binary mix of processed guitar sounds and either vividly contrasting or intermingling electronics.

The result is more spatio-tapestry oriented than formal, and that fits with the idea that the music does not fit comfortably into a rigid genre classification.

The more I listen, the more this music speaks to me. It hangs together as well as any New Music-Electronics excursion I have had the pleasure to hear this year. To my mind Scott L. Miller is a true force on the avant-ambient scene and Mart Soo makes equal sonic sense on this very attractively spacey offering. The sounds are ever golden and ever evocative.

Highly recommended no matter where you stand on present-day modern matters. Give this music a chance and you will be transported, beamed into realms you can drift within beautifully.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

David Del Tredici, Child Alice

American composer David Del Tredici (b 1937) went from a Modernist to a founding Neo-Romanticist of the present-day beginning in 1980, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for the first part of Child Alice, which he completed with a second part and so put it in its final form in 1981. Soprano Courtenay Budd, conductor Gil Rose and the accomplished Boston Modern Orchestra Project give us a dramatic and rousing reading of the entire opus on their recent recording (BMOP Sound 1056).

I will admit that in my first few auditions of this fine recording I resisted the all-pervasive centrality of the sequential motif that Del Tredici returns to frequently. It seemed at first a little undistinguished. With further listens I began to appreciate more and more his variational, developmental treatment of the subject and the sheer creative power of his expressive thrust. At first too, the great strength of Courtenay Budd's performance seemed a little overwhelming. Perhaps both factors intruded into a mood I was in? I suspect this because the work and performance in time became more and more intriguing to me, and so too my mood had accommodated  itself increasingly toward the spell of the work, which turned out to be considerable. This was no mere Wonderland, but instead a complex reaction to the complexities of the Alice story origins.

To backtrack, Child Alice centers around Lewis Carroll's rowing expeditions with the young Alice Pleasance Liddell and her sisters Lorina Charlotte and Edith on summer afternoons. In the course of those excursions Lewis invented a series of tales to enthrall the young women. They later took final form in the Alice in Wonderland stories that have remained classics for us ever since they came out.

Child Alice on one level evokes the pastoral charm of summer on the water as inspiration, but then also in the inner states of the girls and their narrator. It sets up a sort of dichotomy of receptive youth versus youth-within-bittersweet-age and forms a kind of shifting mood that is neither one thing nor another.

All this forms the backdrop for the experience of the music itself, which has as its basis the text of a preface poem to one of the stories--about those rowing expeditions as the precondition of the marvelous fanciful story narratives as filtered through the glowing haze of remembrance. Each part builds around a contrasting setting of the text and includes some fascinating interludes for orchestra alone.

What stands out in the end for me is Del Tredeci's sure hand in utilizing the orchestra's many sonic resources as a sort of framing of the vocal narrative. The complexities of the mood come through especially by the way the composer makes of the orchestra an inner psychological commentary vehicle.

So also the Neo-Romanticism we experience in the work is not entirely a return to an earlier way of composing. It is filtered and fractured by the experience of modernity both in musical language terms as well as the complications of living within a modern world with all that entails. So the "through the looking glass" element is not just of Carroll recalling happier summer days past, it is also perhaps Del Tredici's experienced and bitter-sweet view of a tonality that cannot but exist in a post-purity of how we cannot quite recapture a pre-post-wars, pre-Freudian innocence about life and the music within it, about the stories we tell children.

My impressions may be slightly fanciful themselves. Child Alice in its expressive potencies invites such feelings. The strength of the work stems from its all-but-simple simplicity, its inability to return to an earlier state in all its pristineness, its existence in a sort of musical recapture from memory as one recalls childhood through the lens of maturity.

So at the last Child Alice derives its power from the loss of its subject. It exists on the happy surfaces of the water as well as the ambiguous depths of lost experience within recall. And in that way the music succeeds beautifully by its charmingly faded, outmoded yet wayward return. The music has power and depth that hit me only in time. Performances are near ideal. Any serious listener should find much to contemplate and appreciate if she-he gives this music a chance to work its way within the listening self, you.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Michael Kurek, The Sea Knows

Anyone who loves the harp no doubt knows and loves its use in modern Impressionist classics, where it can create an ambiance that we continue to embrace. Living composer Michael Kubek has absorbed that sound and made of it something contemporary-tonal on his CD The Sea Knows (Navona 6111).

A collection of five Kurek works, the album includes harp on three of the five. It is not the primary focus of the music per se, though indeed an ambient beauty and liquidity associated with the harp is an ongoing feature of the program throughout.

Ever lyrical without precisely straying into the blatently Neo-Romantic, Kurek gives to us five evocative works, each varying the mood in part by contrasting instrumentation and in part by thematic rhapsodic variational thrust.

There is a descriptive plasticity to the three chamber works centered around the harp, played nicely by Rita Costanzi or Soledad Yaya. "Moon Canticle" for harp alone implies a night sky in its affective presence. "Serenade for Violincello and Harp" and "Sonata for Viola and Harp" flesh out the ambiance with longer formed pensive lyricism.

"Savannah Shadows" for violin, viola and cello concentrated on string sonance for extended moodiness. The title work "The Sea Knows" caps off the program with an ambitious and somewhat more spicey rhapsodism for a full string orchestra (Vanderbilt Strings under Robin Fountain) and solo cello (Ovidu Marinescu, who also is on the Serenade). It is here we can especially hear Kurek's professed affinity with Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Vaughan WIlliams and the like without detecting any imitation per se.

In all this is an descriptively ambient program that is modern in its overall thrust, yet affectively tonal in its vocabulary and eloquence. It will please a larger audience, perhaps, than one might ordinarily be attracted to New Music, yet it is involved and musical enough to keep the more demanding listener satisfied. Bravo.


Friday, December 1, 2017

George Lewis, Assemblage, Ensemble Dal Niente

Some of the greatest jazz luminaries turned at times to so-called classical, long-form ideas. James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington come immediately to mind. In the improvised world of avant jazz since 1960 distinctions can become blurred, as I have addressed through many examples on my Gapplegate Music Blog, on my Gapplegate Guitar and Bass Blog, and at times on these pages. "The Skies of America" by Ornette Coleman of course stands out as a milestone of such confluences. There are some very important trends on the purely improvisational front as well. I speak of those things in greater depth in other posts.

Regardless of the many ways to look at and hear music of a modern sort, one thing stands clear in my mind. That is, that composer-trombonist George Lewis has been making some extraordinary New Music over the years. He is a marvel, an innovative and lucid composer of great importance.

Last February 27th I reviewed his fine album "The Will to Adorn." I return today to take a look at another set of his compositions, Assemblage (New World 80792-2), featuring the talented chamber Ensemble Dal Niente.

The avant jazz of the present era is many things. One of the aspects is its vocabulary of phrasing, of sound color, of playing and silence. Undoubtedly a key to it is the extension of the Afro-American musical vocabulary inherent in traditional forms. Yet it is true also that there is chalk-talk venn diagrammatic commonalities between its vocabulary and that of classical avant high modernism. If you asked George Lewis himself I have no doubt he would (and does) have much to say in this regard about his music in whatever form it takes. His modern classical compositional stance does create common ground between Afro-jazz expression and long-form new music of high modern provenance.

Most importantly he carves out his own personal expressions on this shifting turf with great brilliance, I would say. This is nowhere more true than on the four Lewis compositions featured on this program.

In all of it the elemental musical gestures of bowing, drumming (percussing), blowing, plucking, in togetherness or alone, with spaces of tacit presence, and the infinity of confluences are very much the building blocks used to constructing the music itself. How could it not be so? Yet it is George Lewis' expressive joining together of the elements that sets him apart yet makes him an integral part too of the music of right now.

So the album's program of chamber works for the ensembles of six, seven, nine or two instrumentalists presents itself to us in ways that bring us a new and personal take on what can be. If there are key centers they are not so crucial as is the full unfolding of a universe of organized sound color and the testificatory push of each work.

Each of the pieces makes its way forward as a distinct entity. Thanks to the inventive fullness of the Lewis expression we have a special world of sound for "Mnemosis" (2012) for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussion; "Hexis" (2013) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion; "The Mangle of Practice" (2014) for violin and piano; and "Assemblage" (2013) for flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion. Each has an organic being that stands alongside the others as a unique realization of the Lewis imagination.

The performances are outstanding, or at least impress me as fully living and excitingly fluid. I suspect Maestro Lewis was satisfied with the realizations, which at this point is what matters.

For us, the listener, there is much to hear and absorb. Each new immersion in the program reveals a fuller universe of sound, a greater understanding and appreciation of what is there.

Assemblage reaffirms the true stature and importance of George Lewis the modern-day composer. Those who expect New Music to BE new will gravitate happily to this release. It is very much a music of TODAY and excellent fare that all should listen to carefully and ultimately, if you are like me, joyfully!


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Dominick Argento, The Andree Expedition

The song cycle has become somewhat rarified on the New Music front. There do not seem to be so many of them compared to earlier epics. This is no place to speculate on the reasons right now.

There are notable exceptions. The song cycles of US composer Dominick Argento (b. 1927) are one. We hear two on The Andree Expedition (Naxos 8.559828), the title cycle plus "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf." Music takes over when speech can go no further, believes Argento, and both of these cycles demonstrate that idea well. They extend the meaning of the texts in ways that speech alone cannot, shading them in pastels and hard-edged outlines, underscoring in music what the words suggest, creating the atmosphere, giving a deeper setting for the story as it unfolds.

The music in this Naxos edition is performed quite capably by baritone Brian Mulligan and pianist Timothy Long. The pianist is very sensitively attuned to the ever-present commentary and sometimes the dimensional contrast his accompanying role calls for. Mulligan has a highly dramatic approach, which fares especially well in the softer, more reflective sections. When he is at forte and especially above that his is a rather hard sonance. It takes some getting used to. The music warrants it in its extraordinary depictions.

In the end though we come for Argento's music.

And we get it in all its impactful drama. "The Andree Expedition" (1982) is based on diaries and letters surrounding the tragic balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897. "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf" (1974) culls eight entries as the vocal text, filled with self-confessional candor. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975.

The title work consists of 13 songs that relate one to another. The human struggle against daunting odds forms the core of the music and text. A sample from one of the participant's accounts: "It is indeed a wonderful journey through the night. I am cold but will not wake the two sleepers. They need rest. If any of them should succumb it might be because I had tired them out." It is a bleak account of a bleak disaster. The music reflects regret and dilemma in a modern expressionist way. It has a presence that shows Argento's flair for the possibilities of vocal declamation, drawing out the implications and setting them squarely into the music. The singer personifies each of the three balloonists and so gives us a sort of trifold narrative of the unfolding disaster.

The Virginia Woolf diary cycle has a slightly different slant, as Ms. Wolfe's inner and outer life come into conflict and create various mood pieces and a creative struggle to harness it all somehow. It complements the expedition song cycle well.

In all we get nearly 80 minutes of Argento song drama at its most distinctive. It is at times VERY expressive, and so not exactly light fare to put on as background. Perhaps that is inevitable by nature of the subject matter alone. The music demands your attention, then rewards it. For a modest Naxos investment one gets a provocative introduction to Argento's modern take on the song cycle. That is something very illuminating and moving. All modern song students will get real substance here.

Listen.




Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Yuuko Shiokawa, Andras Schiff, Bach, Busoni, Beethoven

Fine  chamber works played with the ultimate artistry? It is like an excellent vintage of wine. If you know what you seek, you get it at the first taste, so with violinist Yuuko Shiokawa and pianist Andras Schiff in their new recording of Bach, Busoni, Beethoven (ECM New Series 2510). At the first listen you know right away that you are in the presence of exceptional music making.

And there is no letup, regardless of how many times you listen. The first reason for that is an unusual and worthy mix of works: Bach's Sonata No. 3 in E major for Violin and Keyboard, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) and his Sonata No. 2 in e minor for violin and piano, and Beethoven's Sonata No. 10 in G major for Violin and Piano. The big surprise perhaps is the excellence of the Busoni, reminding us that he was no slouch, not at all. It is a fine work that fits in well with the sublimity of the Bach and the heroic inventiveness of the Beethoven.

And the performances are exceptional without exception. Shiokawa plays it all with a sweetness and light and Schiff responds with equally inspired pianism. The Bach gives notice that there indeed can be a reflective and subtle reading of the beautiful lines of Bach at his finest. There is plenty of mindful feeling in all the performances, but also a kind of transcendence, so that you grasp the feeling yet also join in on the musical journey to ever more subtle concordances.

It is a remarkable disc. The music sings away without fail. The compositions are brilliant, each in their own way; the performances as musically profound as you could ask for. This makes a fabulous holiday gift for yourself or someone you care about! Phenomenal.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Trevor Babb, Warmth, including Steve Reich, Electric Counterpoint, etc.

The idea of new music works for multiple overdubbed electric guitars has surely been in the air a long time. Some of Fripp and Eno's works for guitar and delay in the '70s gave us striking guitar-orchestral density and beauty. The real-time breakthrough of such music for formally articulated multi-guitars can be traced back to Steve Reich's "Electronic Counterpoint," written for 12 prerecorded electric guitars and 2 bass guitars plus live guitar in 1987 and first recorded by Pat Metheny. From there followed other works. Guitarist Trevor Babb performs his own version of the Reich and other guitar ensemble pieces on the recent CD Warmth (Innova 972).

The Reich as done is different enough from the Metheny version that it stands alongside, as good or better. That is saying a great deal. Either version reminds us how vintage Reich is superlative, so much ahead of some of the more uninspired minimalism that existed and exists alongside his music as to be altogether other. Some of the imitators are like schmutz in search of a mince meat pie to give them life. Reich is the pie itself, fashioned and cooked to a golden brown, perfect for what it is meant to be.The music stands out now as it did then. Babb gives it that extra new twist and we are back into it like the years have not passed.

And the virtue of having a really vibrant version of the Reich alongside other multiple guitar pieces illuminates those works and gives the Reich another context.

So we are treated to five other new music compositions for multiple electrics, each one different from the other as they are to the Reich. So that driving counterpoint of the Reich contrasts with sustained guitar new music chorales and ruminative or exploratory guitar richness.

We get good things to experience with Paul Kereke's "Trail," David Lang's "Warmth" for two guitars, James Tenney's "Septet," Trevor Babb's own "Grimace" and Carl Testa's "Slope 2."

It is in the end a program any electric guitarist of a progressive sort should eat up, and their friends, too, of course. (No, not eat up their friends, I hope. The music!) Yet it is also New Music worthy of the name--something people who ordinarily do not associate with electric guitar sounds, or not modern classical applications of it, will find stimulating and worthwhile. Hear it, do.


Friday, November 24, 2017

Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Don Juan, Paavo Jarvi, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo

Richard Strauss (1864-1945) when I was young had reached the very top as far as "modern" ("late romantic") star composers of the day.  Bruckner was pretty obscure in comparison; Mahler was rising quickly and eventually surpassed Strauss in popularity, in terms of performances and recordings, but when "Also Sprach Zarathustra" was a main theme for the movie "2001, A Space Odyssey" Strauss was at his peak for household folks. If he is somewhat more in eclipse now, he still at his best is a consummate master, a phenomenal orchestrator and brilliantly imaginative inventor of complex programmatic form. If there is a handful of the best of the late romantic giganticists, he is surely up there at the very top.

The operas, the late songs, and the best of the tone poems are as worthwhile today as anything. My high school music teacher made me aware of "Ein Heldenleben" so long ago and I am grateful. "Don Juan" is up there with the very best as well. Now I've spent time listening to some of the classic versions of both by the likes of Furtwangler, Klemperer, Toscanini, and you might say I've been spoiled by the very best. The truth, though, is that the benchmark performances of the past do have a common sort of bombast that is exciting to hear, but the 2017 ears can be ready for other takes on what can be done.

Enter Paavo Jarvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in their recent recorded performances of "Ein Heldenleben" and "Don Juan" (RCA 88985391762). There is sterling sound, the full spectrum of orchestral breadth and girth, a passion and chutzpah these works demand, but also just a shade less of the overt bombast and a greater attention to detailed balance than the classic old versions.

And so perhaps this is how we now might best hear the two works, slightly less intoxicated with the sensuously over-the-top, a bit more Apollonian a stance, in other words. And I must say I am quite satisfied with that on this fine coupling.

If by chance you do not know these masterworks, the Jarvi may be the right place to start. If you are like me and have revelled in some of the classic recorded versions, this is refreshing, a less heart-on-the-sleeves approach that gives the ears something that may be a more contemporary take on it all. "Ein Heldenleben" is indispensable for any student of 20th century orchestral trends, but then "Don Juan" adds to it. So I recommend this one heartily.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Komitas, Seven Songs, Lusine Grigoryan

The Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) has the distinction of being one of the most lyrical and folk-rooted "modern" exponents of the unforgettable character of the age-old Armenian ways of music making. Like the late Armenian-American Hovhannes at times, he translates the songful traditional idiom into classical terms while eschewing sentimentalizing or romanticizing strains.

We hear the unsullied purity of pianistic means that Komitas embodies so well on Lusine Grigoryan's recorded solo debut Seven Songs (ECM New Series 2514), which follows on the heels of Grigoryan and the Gurdjieff Ensemble's folk instrument Komitas renditions (ECM New Series 2451) that I happily covered when it came out.

The Komitas we hear on the present collection has a directness yet a well conceived pianism that makes full use of the inventively long melodic paths that wind their way through the music in minor diatonic freshness that in a very Armenian way contrasts with the Mid-Eastern and Eastern European raised seventh, harmonic vertically gestural minor modes we are used to hearing.

Five compositional groupings grace the program on the CD. It shows a Komitas firmly expository of Armenian essence, mostly simple but never facile, demanding a poetic interpretation Ms. Grigoryan provides with consistency and real eloquence. Thus we are treated to ideal renditions of the title collection "Seven Songs" plus "Maho Shoror," "Seven Dances," "Pieces for Children" and "Toghik."

The inspiration and melodic unfolding never flag. Lusine handles it all with a sparkling luminescence.

For all folk-classical minor mode aficionados, all lovers of things Armenian, all who love Komitas this is essential fare. Truly lovely!


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

J. S. Bach, Suiten fur Violoncello, Thomas Demenga

There has been a flurry of activity, a spate of recordings of Bach's justly celebrated Suiten fur Violoncello. It was considered a masterpiece for centuries, yet unlike say the "Brandenburg Concertos" was not as widely appreciated by the general public as it seems to be now. But then there weren't so many versions available in the recorded medium as there are today.

Part of this has to do with a contemporary musical stance that appreciates a bare, unadulterated solo intimacy that contrasts with the past emphasis on making an unholy din in a world of giganticism, though of course that possibility is not so much in eclipse as it is now more emphatically one way of expression among many. Silvestrov's contemporary solo cello music is a great example of the micro-ensemble currency that thrives today. See yesterday's review of that music on this blog. Of course solo piano music has been ever in demand among classical listeners since its advent, but the solo string instrument seems ever more an object of heightened interest and acceptance.

The very latest recording of Bach's Suites, beautifully performed by cellist Thomas Demenga (ECM New Series 2 CD: 2530/31), realizes the full scope of the multiple movement music in ways that help raise the bar for flowing, singingly lyrical yet briskly robust versions. The full artistry of the cello solo has never been quite so apparent as here. This performance is not merely a kind of lab for aspiring cellists as it is a totally realized, deeply living and breathing art form for anybody and everybody who wishes to be uplifted by the master composers of our heritage. I have reviewed on these pages one or two other recordings of the Suites that reach similar heights, but all in all this current set has a consistency that is hard to match.

Demenga previously recorded the Suites for the ECM New Series between 1986 and 2002, interspersed with contemporary works for cello. This second look at the music is served as it were full strength and gives Demenga the chance to delve ever deeper into the full possibilities of expression the Suites offer to a master interpreter.

He very much rises to the occasion with a sort of inner insight into the music that is most rare. Yes, he is technically flawless at all times, yet this is no mere platform for cello artistry. It uncovers the kind of flowing inevitability of each movement with a conviction and an inner comprehension that sets these performances apart from the merely engaged performances we might hear today.

The phrasings come alive with just the right amount of rubato to heighten the gestural impact, but never to lose sight of the connectivity of Bach's musical language. Those movements that demand concentrated forward momentum both sing and drive ahead with exciting energy and poise. Those that are more contemplative linger with thoughtful emphases.

Demenga's  deeply rich, beautifully full woody tone comes across from the first bars of the music to the very end. Manfred Eicher captures it wonderfully well, so that the whole affirms a melding of cello timbral depth and musical affirmation.

If you can only have one version of Bach's perennial music, this could well be it. It would be my choice right now. Those who feel good about gathering a number of contrasting versions in the personal stacks might well choose this one too, as a synthetic marvel.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Valentin Silvestrov, Hieroglyphen der Nacht, Anja Lechner, Agnes Vesterman

Modern new music works for one or two cellists. . . if you imagine in your head what that might sound like, you may be surprised when you hear Valentin Silvestrov's Hieroglyphics der Nacht (ECM New Series 2389). It is a series of six works, four for cello and in one case simultaneously sounded tamtams featuring Anja Lechner, and two for cello duo with the addition of Agnes Vesterman. The release happily coincides with Silvestrov's recent 80th birthday. He sounds much younger than that, ever youthful!

Silvestrov is a composer most acutely aware of the sonic possibilities that are limited only by his fertile imagination, so that this music is expansive and deeply resonant, ambient yet focused on the notes themselves as well as harmonics and other careful interweavings of extended and more standard techniques. He may see himself as a kind of "coda" to music history. Yet we who listen feel the march of time, a moving forward in the music that may bring with it some of the luggage of the past, yet the trip is not at all backwards. It is moving ahead.

Silvestrov began his composing career as an avowed high modernist in Soviet Russia (despite general governmental hostility to such things), then came to realize that "the most important lesson of the avant-garde was to be free of all preconceived ideas--including those of the avant-garde." And so in time his music evolved into what he calls his "metaphorical style," or "meta-music." Sometimes that involves a conversation of the present with the past.

Yet in these works for single and duo cello there are concentric gestural focal points that continually move forward with a poetic deliberation. Lechner and then Lechner and Vesterman bring determined clarity and perfect execution to the atmospherics that are understandably greatly heightened by Manfred Eicher's sympathetically complementary sound staging. Lechner notes that the solo pieces especially play with the idea of two alternate musical personas that engage one against the other like shadow and light.  Throughout this program the one out of the two feeling can show its forward momentum to the deep listener in time. It did for me. So I think for you, also.

The duo works are written as if for one extended cello, or cello "four hands," where the interlocking parts sound together closely as one expanded voice in space. "2.VI.1810. . . zurn Geburtstag R. A. Schumann" evokes a would-be lockstep, harmonically anchored allusion to the music of Schumann's making but as if heard across the vast distance of time, a ghostly vision, a rubato that transmits as if a short wave radio signal emanating from far away, a there-not-there mist of sound more than a real-time presence. This is musical poetics of a high order.

One could go on at greater length about the impact of each work. The liner notes to the album wax on about such things perhaps far better than my distanced connection to this remarkable music can do. I have perhaps the disadvantage of dis-local participation with such music, yet my distance I do believe helps me evaluate how such music sounds to the well-tempered listener not conjoined in the everyday discourse of the emanation points. So when I feel the magic inherent in this music and its considerably focused and inspired performance, it is I hope what you may well also feel as part of the relational yet distanced ears of the world.

So for all you potential listeners out there, whether you love the cello and its many sound worlds as I do, or you are neutral and primarily seeking out music that is worthwhile, Silvestrov and his extraordinarily accomplished cello playing concretizers give you a world of true magic on this one. After a short time you start forgetting how much has gone into making this recording so compelling and instead enter another universe of human sound and the associative thoughts those sounds give rise to. It is as of you have become immersed in the middle of a super musical particle collider where YOU become happily penetrated with sublime aurality. Really.

Stunning music in any case. Adopt these works into your musical family, by all means. Strongly recommended.








Friday, November 17, 2017

Longleash, Passage, Modern Trio Music by Trapani, Iannotta, Watanabe, Magdaleno, Filidei

The trio Longleash is a formidable one. They step forward dramatically with Passage (New Focus Recordings 180), a program of very modernistic piano trio works by five composers, all younger than I am. All were born between 1973 and 1984, so they are relatively young. The music has a pronounced high modern panache, and a special attention to "register, tone production, texture" as the liners put it, in other words sound color and extended techniques when appropriate. The music is thoroughly episodic with irregular and punctuated entrances and exits in the idiom of the avant guard chamber outlook. It is music of extended tonality and expanded gravitation trajectory, not, in other words, tonal in any conventional sense, but not necessarily purely atonal, either, for the most part.

The trio instrumentalists are put through their paces and handle the complexities with assurance and exceptional musicianship, so that the core of the music comes through with a speech-like naturalness, with phrasings that work together for a cohesive horizontal and vertical logic that is clear and directionally artful.

Longleash is named after the CIA Cold War program known as Operation Long Leash, which was dedicated to disseminating US avant garde works throughout Europe. Of course the name illustrates the ambiguity of the functional presence of the avant movement in modern society. The trio is comprised of Pala Garcia on violin, John Popham on cello and Renate Rohlfing on piano. They according to the liners are "inspired by music with an unusual sonic beauty, an inventive streak, and a truthful cultural voice."

That is surely true of the works on this album and Longleash rises to the occasion with superbly musical interpretations. None of the composers are exactly household names, but each provides music that together forms a cohesive whole as to general approach while each showing true inventive individuality.

So there is real substance and serious aural remapping of the trio terrain with the program at hand. It begins with Christopher Trapani's "Passing Through, Staying Put," and from there we hear Clara Iannotta's "Il colore dell'ombra," Yukiko Watanabe's "ver_flies_sen," Juan de Dios Magdaleno's "Strange Attractors," and finally Francesco Filidei's "Corde Vuote." We may seemingly be a great distance from Haydn's Piano Trios and indeed we are. Yet the idea of such a configuration as a viable constant remains.

The color capabilities of each instrument as well as the ensemble as a whole is primary to this lively and very musically progressive collection of trio works. Longleash brings us exemplary performances one could hardly imagine being bettered and in the process allows us to hear just how exciting and ear-opening modern chamber music can be.

Passage is indeed an avenue, a path, an opening into the latest New Music for Piano Trio and though perhaps not destined for mass consumption, even if it should be, is a real triumph for both Longleash and the composers involved. I recommend it highly.

. .

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Danish String Quartet, Last Leaf

Today, a leisurely walk down a different sort of folksy rooted path that gives us much to experience. There are brambles and thickets going past our forward movement but the path is well marked and goes its distance in a straightforward way. I allude to the CD at hand this morning, the Danish String Quartet and their album Last Leaf (ECM New Series 2550).

This is a extraordinarily well knit and adventuresome ensemble. For this new album they devote their attention to Nordic folk forms, specially created arrangements of elaborate folk fiddling and songful artfulnesses, some going back countless eons, whether Christmas tunes or dance fare. There is a unity of mood and purpose in the entire program overall, one that shows the Quartet to have notable virtuoso abilities and a beautiful tone blend born of the sensitive adjustment of instrumentalist to instrumentalist. Added to the string mix is a bit of doubling, on harmonium, contrabass, piano, glockenspiel to add color as appropriate. That and the extended existence of the Quartet as a unit gives us a tightly hewed consonance that is singularly beautiful.

So "The Last Leaf" refers to the very oldest secular song-melody that still exists in the Nordic folk stratum of possibilities. "Dromte mig en drom (I had a Dream)" turned up on the very last leaf of the Codex Runicus parchment dating back to circa 1300. That and a 1732 Danish Christmas hymn "Now Found is the Fairest of Roses" are foundational musical parts of this collection-re-creation.

And as you listen to the many disparate folk numbers a unified aesthetic unity comes out of it all. It is an album that reveals itself increasingly on further listens, like Russian eggs nested in eggs. In this way the Danish String Quartet creates a program that respectfully explores folk terrain as it transforms it into quartet music, in a re-creative act that takes it all further beyond itself without losing the fresh charm of its reiterative venerability, something new emerging from a misty, not really hoary past.

In the best of some aspects of the ECM stance, it brings folk forms to new life as something contemporary and ambiently luscious, verdant, like an unspoiled rural landscape that survives and changes over a long period of time while retaining its original striking quality. Enthusiastic kudos to the Danish String Quartet and Manfred Eicher for bringing to us this beautiful music.
 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Eternal Monteverdi, Vespro Della Beata Vergine 1650, La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata, Roland Wilson

If you know the music of  Claudio Monteverdi, you know. If you do not, now is the time with the new recording of  "Vespro Della Beata Vergine 1650," otherwise appropriately dubbed Eternal Monteverdi (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88985375132), as performed by La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata, all under the direction of Roland Wilson.

This Vespers contrasts with the more famous 1610 work by Monteverdi, which I have covered on these pages (type Monteverdi in the search box above for that). The work in consideration today has its own merits. Five of the 14 movements were written by others, namely Rigatti, Neri and Guadi.

Nonetheless the music has genuine charm. And it is not inferior so much as it is not quite as illustrious as the 1610 Vespers. The Sixteen's recording of that is slightly more essential than this rendition of the 1650. Yet Roland Wilson's performances of the 1610 with La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata has all the period authenticity one might ask for.

Any Monteverdi enthusiast will find this recording very much to their liking I think. Anyone coming to this period and/or composer for the first time will get something fully representative and foundational for future explorations. Go ahead!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Ernest Toch, Solo Piano Pieces, Anna Magdalena Kokits

If you were only to say one thing about Austrian composer Ernest Toch (1887-1964), it might be "undersung." He is not quite completely "unsung," as there have been some very few recordings available in the States, including a long out-of-print LP of a song cycle on MGM in the fifties, but he has been tragically underappreciated nonetheless.

A very happy exception is the recent release of Anna Magdalena Kokits' recording of some of his Solo Piano Pieces (Capriccio 5293). These are a choice selection of works from the interwar years (1923-1931), when he changed his essentially romantic approach to a very contemporary one, mostly post-tonal or marginally tonal, filled with an energetic brilliance and sounding not quite like any other. His father was Jewish and the Fascism of the war years undoubtedly played a part in what has ended up as relative obscurity for him. I do not know the full details. Wikipedia tells of his exile to the United States, his involvement in Hollywood film scoring, teaching, a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony and a return to the romantic style. None of this should detain us for now. The music on the current album speaks eloquently without need for further biographical details.

From the opening bars of the first work, "Burlesques" (1923), we know we are in the presence of a special sensibility. Chromatic and bitter-sweet, it is a distinctive and very pianistic world we enter, neither quite Hindemithian nor beholden to the Second Viennese School. The atonality in this period of Toch is a relative one, since one might ultimately tie down what one hears to a key center. And some of the music is unabashedly tonal. There is a great deal more to it though than some close or distant holding to a key or a tonal gravitation.

And that comes out in the phrasing and flow of the works, brought out so well in Ms. Kokits' performances. They are extraordinarily artful, inspired and original.

The seven compositional forays represented on the album range from the relatively simple "Ten Etudes for Beginners" (1931) to the ambitious "Piano Sonata" (1928). The numerous collations of miniatures in the set show us an incisive side, an inventive wealth. Some might be viewed illuminatingly as a sort of Austrian Satie in playful creative mood, others decidedly have some more Austrian elements, in a kind of modern position on the piano tradition going back to the classical masters yet only as if ghosted and transformed. The longer form works expand the conversational musical syntax appropriately.

With the first listen and subsequent ones, the impression of an original musical mind at work remains constant. This particular grouping of Ernest Toch stands out as defining a 20th century figure much more than an "also ran." The album beguiles and intrigues without fail. Please consider this one seriously. Any student of the flowering of last century in its modern efflorescence will hear another fine voice in the din of competing possibilities. Do listen. 




Thursday, November 9, 2017

Alla Elana Cohen, Red Lilies of Bells, Golden Lilies of Bells, White Lilies of Bells

Composer Alla Elana Cohen and her chamber music are in the spotlight on today's featured album. Red Lilies of Bells, Golden Lilies of Bells, White Lilies of Bells (Ravello 7953). Ms. Cohen was born in Russia and came to reside in the United States in 1989, where she has stayed ever since. She teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Seven works grace the program, each a world unto itself. There is an expansive modernism at play along with a certain mystical poetic quality at times. I also detect a Jewish-Russian Orthodox melodic element on occasion, sometimes not pronounced and quite subtle, other times more overt in keeping with the associative extra-musical theme.

You can hear the more modernistic side on "'Inscriptions On A Bamboo Screen,' Series 4 for Soprano and Viola." There is an expressionist edge to be heard on this one and sometimes in the others.

The contrast between the above and the more intimate, searching quality of "'Hoffmanniana' Series 3 for Solo Cello in 4 Movements" is instructive.

With the more fuller instrumentation of something like "'Inner Temple' Volume 1 Series 11 'Shabbat Nigunim' in 4 Movements'" we find tone-color beauty and a kind of inner spiritual yearning. Perhaps not surprisingly Ms. Cohen brings in a Jewish minor melodic element that has a kind of brilliant presence in the modernistic matrix. I love it.

In all this makes for a strongly individual contemporary program. Ms. Cohen is not afraid to let her expressive needs take her far beyond a formalism or the sort of methodological rigor that we became used to in classic serialism. Those "scientistic" days may mostly be forever gone. Ms. Cohen occupies a healthy present. She uses modern means to embody ideas and feelings. And she does it in her own way.

The music is richly meaningful and memorable. Anyone with a taste for new music will find it worth an extended visit and I hope a good number of return trips. Recommended.




Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sor, Songs for Voice and Guitar, Nerea Berraondo, Eva Beneke

There is music waiting in the wings for you always, ready when you are. It is in printed form or manuscript (or if advanced jazz or other improvisational forms, existing  powerfully in potentia). Somebody right now may be performing it somewhere. Then there are recordings, setting down a frozen musical moment in time after careful rehearsal. The performances are captured for you, waiting to be heard, released and only needing to be placed on your player.

This morning I once again put on a good one, while I gathered my thoughts about what I heard. What is it? It is Fernando Sor (1778-1839) and his Songs for Voice and Guitar (Naxos 8.573686) as very nicely brought to our ears by mezzo-soprano Nerea Berraondo and classical guitarist Eva Beneke.

Sor in his day was a major virtuoso among guitarists. His songs have an earthy beauty that make them essential, yet they are not often performed now. So lucky for us the recording playing for me again this morning can be enjoyed whenever we like.

Music like this, or even all music like anything, needs performance magic to bring it alive. Something as delicately balanced as voice and guitar music demands special performance care. We get it in Nerea Berraondo's very musical voice, with a bit of heft when needed but never Wagnerian in its intensity, tender and rousing in turn, seemingly recorded without overly close miking so that she does not overpower Eva Beneke's wonderfully nuanced guitar work.

As to the music itself, there is much in the way of very melodically vibrant and ornate songwork here. "Italian Arias" include a few from Mozart's Don Giovanni. They have genuine but imaginatively altered authenticity as beautifully worked re-scorings. The "Spanish Songs," quite a good number of them, are strong and most characteristic--and irresistible. The "French Songs" add another dimensional strength and a couple of "Spanish Patriotic Songs" end the program with a captivating verve.

This is one of those delightful surprises where I had no set idea what to expect and then found with exposure that I had grabbed onto some of the finest music and performances that I didn't know I wanted until I heard it all! Like meeting someone who ends up being a good friend in a seemingly unlikely place, I treasure it all the more for the vistas it has opened up without my being quite prepared for it.

Anyone who loves Spanish classical and/or the guitar heritage will welcome this disc. It feels just right as a listening choice any time or season. Highly recommended.



Monday, November 6, 2017

Mark Nowakowski, Blood, Forgotten, String Quartets, Emily Ondracek-Peterson, Voxare String Quartet

To use a compound descent-location identity marker for a composer is usually to say that the music has more about it than perhaps a single wide neighborhood belongingness would indicate. So in the case of Mark Nowakowski (b. 1978) he is designated Polish-American on the CD at hand today. It happens to be apt because the chamber music program on Blood, Forgotten (Naxos 8.559821) has a thematic element directed toward the Polish homeland and its three centuries of upheaval and instability. The suffering of the people in the hands of political adversaries centers the musical dramatics.

A strong dirge-like grief is present in various ways throughout. Modern traces of Penderecki and Gorecki are forebears in the programmatic and often emotional intensity of these. The music is for small string groupings. The title work (2005) is for electronics and Emily Ondracek-Peterson on violin. The Voxare String Quartet are the principals on the other works: "String Quartet No. 1 'Songs of Forgiveness'" (2010), "String Quartet No. 2 'Grandfather Songs'" (2011) and "A Usnijze mi, usnij (Lullaby: Sleep for me, sleep)" (2012).

The "Blood, Forgotten" work is a heartbreaking, haunting combination of sorrowfully expressive violin and eerie electronics. The violin has doubled and tripled lines in the electronic track and there are other gestural electronic punctuations.

Nowakowski's First Quartet has some of the more energetic music of the four. There is much to hear in the agitated section, and then the dirgely slow blocks of stark, open chords make for a distinct lamenting mood that we hear often enough in most of this music.The blocks can resolve into the related slow speech of a four-way counterpoint, too. And it all works together.

Think of Barber's famous "Adagio" and Gorecki's most popular symphony (No. 3), then add some of the dramatic depictive expressivity of earlier Penderecki, mix it all up and then include Nowakowski's very original way and that may help give you an idea of how the music sounds. Deep down all of this relates obliquely to Beethoven's "Funeral March" from Eroica. And also the regret of Beethoven late quartets at times. And so there are strands of belonging to a continuum of sad expressions. Yet this is Nowakowski. Make no mistake.

It all fits together as pieces of a larger style-puzzle that is moving and irrepressible. This music demands you enter into it on its own terms. If you do there is singularity and undeniable modern musicality. It is the opposite of Webern. There is no short hot potato pointillism, but instead a long, sprawling,  endless block of anguish transcended by the beauty of how the music lays out.

The continually blowing wind of new music to hear requires that we point our aeolian wind harp in the direction of the oncoming blasts. We then must listen and see how it resonates with our receptive "strings." Any new music requires this, and ideally we must let it blow into our harp-like heads a number of times before we grasp what it IS. That is the case with these rather deep Nowakowski musing laments. It is good. The performances are excellent. The music special. Listen.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Daniel Jones, Symphonies 2 & 11, BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Bryden Thomson

Welsh Composer Daniel Jones (1912-1993) is best remembered for his 13 symphonies, which he defined as "dramatic structures with emotive intention."  He is represented on today's disc by an early and a late example of his work in the medium, Symphonies Nos. 2 & 11 (Lyrita SRCD 364). It is a respectable performance by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under Bryden Thomson. Judging from the catalog entries in the back of the CD booklet Thomson aims to cover the complete cycle. Since this one is marked ADD I suspect they all were recorded a while ago?

The sound quality is not quite audiophile level. What matters is that we get a faithful representation of what these symphonies are about.

Jones began composing early in life and in youth established a friendship with Dylan Thomas. The two collaborated on a number of poems. Jones ended up getting his BA and MA in English. His MA thesis was on Elizabethan poetry, and his ancillary exposure to the music of that period influenced his melodic conception, so says the liner notes. He studied composition and conducting (with Harry Farjeon and Sir Henry Wood) at the Royal Academy of Music. His recognition as a composer first came in 1950 with his "Symphonic Prologue." Thereafter he gained attention and amassed a sizable number of works in all genres as well as conducting.

Symphony No. 2 was completed in 1950 and is a longish, ambitious work clocking in at nearly 44 minutes. It has a modern edge to it but hearkens back in some ways to Neo-Romantic expression, more extroverted than some and edgier than Elgar. And there surely are brilliant moments and an attractively wayward individuality. 

Symphony No. 11 is shorter, more compact and shows an increasing originality and orchestrational flair.

He was no rabid modernist but neither would either symphony be mistaken for an earlier period work. He was of his time. And sure of his direction from the 1950 work as well as the later symphony from 1983.

Any musical Anglophile will be well served by this volume. It shows us a Daniel Jones who travelled a path of his own, emotive and drenched in Romantic symphonic tradition, yet speaking to his era. Well worth hearing.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford, Complete Works for Piano Solo, Vol. 2, Christopher Howell


On July 3, 2016 I favorably reviewed Volume One of the Complete Works for Piano of Charles Villiers Stanford. Today I cover Volume 2 (Sheva Collection 125), once again performed nicely by pianist Christopher Howell and filling up two CDs.

Stanford (1852-1924) is not as well remembered today as compared with his stature in England during his lifetime. He is perhaps best celebrated nowadays for his choral works. The music for piano shows a rather different aspect of his music. Like Chabrier in France, Stanford produced a body of piano music not really neo-Romantic, not exactly neo-Classical, not much dependent upon great flashy technical skill, but rather a kind of pure musicality that is by no means harmonically advanced but straightforward, no mere trifles by any standard. It is what you might call a combination of Salon and Pedagogic music, but none of it has a pretentious or highly sentimental outlook.

What you do hear is very English, some miniature stately pomp, lightheartedly tuneful ditties, and pastoral, rustic folksy-tinged works which no doubt Vaughan-Williams and Holst gained from as a prefiguration of what they more fully developed.

Like with the first volume there is an unexpectedly disarming quality to the whole. It does not pretend to a ponderous importance and by so doing brings nonetheless delightful piano music that neither seems quite dated nor does it fully transcend its era.

And in that way we intersect with some worthwhile music. Volume Two forms a perfectly enjoyable counterpart to the inaugural volume. I will return with my take on the final volume three in a little while. Meanwhile these are a bit of a surprise treat!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

George Tsontakis, Anasa, True Colors, Unforgettable, Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller

In the world of living US composers, George Tsontakis (b. 1951) is an integral part, apparently, though for whatever reason I have not up until now heard any of his music. That is remedied by the recent release of three concertos performed ably by the Albany Symphony and soloists under David Alan Miller (Naxos 8.559821).

The works featured are Anasa (2011) for clarinet and orchestra, True Colors (2012) for trumpet and orchestra, and Unforgettable (2009 rev. 2013) for two violins and orchestra.

"Anasa" with David Krakauer as the clarinet soloist begins the program on a lively note with a thoroughly klezmerized score that Krakauer dominates over with stylistic acumen and authenticity. There is much charm and dance-like immediacy. The subtle interweaving of orchestral density and overarching klezmer clarinet expressivity wins me over easily.

"True Colors" opens on a suspended mysterioso mood with much variation in hues from the orchestra and a more directly modern sound. Trumpetist Eric Berlin enters with surety, dexterity and a full tone. The music gathers momentum and trumpet gains a semi-jazzish stance while the orchestra explores variational or ostinato imitative motive cells and harmonically full thematics with bell-like reflective moodiness.

"Unforgettable" continues and deepens the mood with a searching and probing kind of meditative modern mode that makes excellent and unexpected use of the two violin soloists (Luosha Fang and Eunice Kim), who alternate between tightly woven interactions of virtuosity and a bottom-up continuation of the melodic thrust of the orchestra. The sort of "remember me" reflectiveness has a vague resemblance in mood to Berg's "Violin Concerto" yet never trespasses directly on that concerto's set domain. It is the most moving of the three works, drawing a fitting conclusion to the program.

Tsontakis brings to us a well structured middle-ground modern series of tone poems that bear up  under the familiarity of repeated return aural visits. Performances are uniformly good. The three concerted works show depth, subtlety and a visceral immediacy. Tsontakis has his own voice yet fits in well with the US school of melodically lyrical-depictive composers of the past 100 years. A fine listen!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Dutka, Prepared Piano, Whale's Teeth

John Cage is rightly given the credit for inventing the prepared piano, the practice of placing tone-altering objects between or on top of the strings of a grand piano. His music in this realm revolutionized the sonic possibilities, creating a kind of percussion orchestra that both recalled and transcended non-Western structures and gave avant garde new music a new direction that in part stays with us today. His Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-4) gave us his most elaborate and satisfying work in this realm, and it still enjoys world-wide renown.

Others have taken up writing and working with prepared piano configurations. Enter Warsaw born and based composer, pianist and painter Dutka and his six part series of impromptus for prepared piano collectively entitled Whale's Teeth (DUX 1379).

The piano is prepared from natural objects, mostly in the lower half of the instrument. Like Cage's pioneering work, most of the music has a pronounced rhythmic drive, taken often in the form or ostinatos and variations on them in the lower register with the right hand providing counter-rhythmic figures and melodic runs that have at times an avant jazz flavor, other times a ritual primality.

All comes at us loosely, with an improvisational spontaneity yet a coherent roadmap guiding the direction of each. It is music that  extends the implication of Cage's legacy without being overly derivative.

It is a program both provocative and enjoyable--not necessarily some huge breakthrough but filled with rhythmic presence and a sound color palate alternatingly and simultaneously both bright and dark. A lively and stimulating listen!





Friday, October 27, 2017

Georgy Sviridov, Russia Adrift, Snow is Falling, Music for Chamber Orchestra, Choirs, St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra

Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998)? The back cover blurb to the release at hand tells me he is one of Russia's most celebrated modern figures for his vocal works. So no doubt he is someone whose music we should hear. For some reason I have not. To make up for the lack, there is the recent recording featuring Russia Adrift, Snow is Falling and Music for Chamber Orchestra (Naxos 8.573685). Featured are mezzo-soprano Mila Shkirtil, pianist Nikolay Mazhara, the Rimsky-Korsakov Music College Female Choir, the Boys of the St Petersburg Radio and Television Children's Choir, and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, all under conductor Yuri Serov.

Sviridov had Shostakovich as his compositional mentor. Yet happily the three works on the present compilation show a musical mind with its own sense of melodic tonal-modern momentum. There is a lyric gift there to hear, without doubt. And an essentially Russian dramatic quality to this music can be readily heard throughout.

"Snow is Falling" (1965) begins the program on a charmingly disarming note. Sing-songy folkish playfulness (such as sometimes you can hear in Orff) wins the day with a tenderly expressive part for women's chorus and a dreamy orchestral carpet like a blanket of new fallen snow.

"Music for Chamber Orchestra" (1964) has a decisive interlocking dialog between piano and orchestra. There is a motility that suggests a lineage going back to Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky without the derivative musical syntax that might entail.

"Russia Adrift" (1977/2016) enjoys its recorded debut in the mezzo-soprano and orchestra version masterfully realized by Leonid Rezetdinov. It is epic and wondrously deep, with a long and ruminating opening and a heartfelt songfulness mezzo-soprano Mila Shkirtil gives to us with a perfectly artful and moving sonance. She is a wonder. Kathleen Ferrier comes to mind, yet only in association, not that the two sound alike. The orchestral part is equally apt and resonant.

And so that is what is in the offing with this release. I must say I am very pleasantly surprised and in the end very comfortable wearing this music on my ears. It is like Fridays can be. A return to the power of the space and time of something that reaches out and transforms while giving great pleasure.

This is music that with wear becomes like a favorite pair of flannel pajamas. Ever better. Hear it!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Ellen Nisbeth, Bengt Forsberg, Let Beauty Awake, Vaughan Williams, Clarke, Britten

Let Beauty Awake (BIS 2183 SACD). As the title suggests, violist Ellen Nisbeth and pianist Bengt Forsberg treat us to some five modern 20th century English works of pronounced beauty. That is most inherent in the scores by Vaughan Williams, Rebecca Clarke, and Britten. It is most apparent in the exquisite performances by the talented Nisbeth and her nearly perfect foil Forsberg.

This is not neo-romantic beauty so much as it is English, sometimes slightly rustic and slightly plaintive post-impressionist sturdiness.

Ralph Vaughan Williams starts things off with "Five Songs from 'Songs or Travel" (transcribed for viola and piano) and his "Romance for Viola and Piano."

Rebecca Clarke, a composer seemingly undergoing a pronounced resurgence, makes a splash with "Sonata for Viola and Piano," something a bit more formal and ambitious but equally evocative.

Benjamin Britten has the last say with his "Third Suite for Cello" transcribed for viola and wonderfully well done by Ms. Nisbeth. The final "Lachrymae for Viola and Piano" tops all off with completely striking affective fare.

Nisbeth has ravishing tonal breadth that runs from achingly sweet to dramatically dark. She is ever in control, phrasing like an angel or singing with rough passion. The five works on the recital disc seem especially made for the gamut of her lyric spectrum of expression. And there is a very Englishness to the works which reminds us why last century was such a fertile one for the region, filled with remarkable composing talents. 

With the final notes we feel as if we have been transported to a rare musical place where lyric strength and fragility is given near ideal, long shrift. Nesbeth and Forsberg seem born to this music. And the selection of works hang together with a complete fittingness.

Remarkable music, remarkably played.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Igor Stravinsky, The Rake's Progress, Fritz Reiner

To be honest, Stravinsky's final opera The Rake's Progress has been a work where I tend to run hot and cold. Ever since I found an original LP set pressing of the mono version with Stravinsky himself conducting (which was around 1982 in Chicago), I've found parts of it to be extraordinarily moving, other parts to be wearing a bit thin after countless listens. Admittedly it is one of the opera masterpieces of the first half of the 20th century, but perhaps a flawed one. There are sections needed to move along the plot and then there are sublime moments, many of them, that epitomize and conclude the master's neo-classical phase. In the end the sublime majority of the music wins the day.

I've encountered the opportunity to review another version, a recording like the old mono LPs from 1953, again with the Metropolitan Opera cast, this time with conductor Fritz Reiner (Datum DAT90003 2-CD). It is a live recording but a well handled performance with no egregious gaffs. It would appear from the date it was recorded that (thanks to Wikipedia) this must have been the World Premiere perfomance of the fully staged opera?

The opera has a sell your soul to the devil theme like "A Soldier's Tale." But as Hogarth's celebrated engravings on the Rake and his downfall are the basis of the plot, it is general worldly success and good luck with women that are the Devil's end of the bargain. In the end though Nick the Shadow wreaks havoc.

This version has much going for it. The live versus the "studio" version and Stravinsky's direct conducting of the latter version means that orchestral parts perhaps have slightly more "bite" and polish on the old Columbia disks. But the overall trajectory of the whole is well served in either version. The cast is virtually the same. Eugene Conley as Tom Rakewell and Mack Harrell as Nick the Shadow especially distinguish themselves on both recordings.

I see on the web that the original Columbia LPs have been available on Naxos as a CD set, and perhaps still are. If so that version may have the slight edge. Nevertheless the Reiner version is very good. The live version may have the edge for the vocals in terms of performativity. The Naxos excels on the orchestral end. For Stravinsky die-hards both versions and some later ones as well may appeal to you. I am glad to have the two.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Patrizio Esposito, Resonating Body, Ensemble Interface

What sounds right in a modern zone can come through invariably if you have a composer and ensemble that knows what they are about.  Ensemble Interface and composer Patrizio Esposito create such a rightness on the album at hand, Resonating Body (Stradivarius 37066). We experience a minutely detailed experience of what one might call "boom-klang polyphony" on this worthy compendium of four Esposito chamber ensemble works.

Instruments in single or clustered outbursts make a tightly woven whole out of intricate instrumental entrances and exits, and the timbral contrasts that affords. Nothing is lacking in the four works represented. And the instrumentation varies slightly or radically to keep our ears refreshed. "D'amor la vecchia canzone" (2010) makes use of flute or clarinet plus violin, cello, piano and electronics for a sequencing that is bracing and conflates in good ways the sensibilities of new music and avant jazz without alluding to quotation.

"Resonating Body" (2016) is scored for flute and bass clarinet, both doubling on slide whistle, along with violin, cello, piano and percussion. "While" (2016) features flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, cello, piano and percussion. Finally "nachinander" (2016) is for a single "Jack of all trades" percussionist.

The ensemble under the direction of the composer grabs on to the essence of each work and delivers powerfully. Esposito shows great poise and balance in these modern gems. They all have something to do with Joyce's Ulysses. I will leave you to the liners and your ears to uncover that. The liners also posit a relationship to this music and the pathfinding Nuova Consonanza, which I agree is there and has to do with an avant jazz-new music nexus one relishes from start to finish. Suffice to say that this is one of those essential modernist forays  in our current situation.

It satisfies and stimulates. Excellent! All new music devotees will want this one in their collection.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Thomas Ades, Asyla, Tevot, Polaris, London Symphony Orchestra

For present-day modernist contemporary orchestral music, one does not find a more talented and sure handed exponent than the English composer Thomas Ades. Put simply he is an inventive and orchestrational master of our times. Three major works and a short rejoiner comprise a most welcome contribution to the Ades discography by the London Symphony Orchestra. The four compositions cover a broad period between 1997 and 2010.

Asyla, Tevot, Polaris (LSO 0798) and the brief "Brahms" canvas an enchanting and stirring terrain that tightly knits original content with brilliant orchestral apportioning. One feels with all of this music that Ades is in his element, that there feels like there is a one-to-one relationship between musical ideas and how they are shaped by the orchestral mass.

"Polaris (Voyage for Orchestra)" (2010) explores, in Ades' own words,  "the use of star constellations for naval navigation and the emotional navigation of the absent sailors and what they leave behind." It is a deeply spacial and ghostly panorama that pits brass choirs off stage with myriads of rapidly moving but quietly articulating points of musical light. All twelve tones are utilized with three poles of magnetic pitch centers holding sway one by one. It is as if the vivid night sky reminds us of the sailors who have left us on a journey no longer dependent on currents and oceanic spans.They now are within those constellations, journeying forward outside of our standard accessible material world? Maybe.

Brahms (2001) is a brief homage to what Ades refers to as the logic of Brahms' music, as aside from the warmth and beauty of it. Samuel Dale Johnson on baritone presents an expressive text atop an orchestral atmospheric.

Backtracking to the opening "Asyla" (1997), it centers around places of safety, of confinement, of last resort, away from a mad world. They are epitomized by the concert hall and the presence of orchestra, a place where "we feel at home, or where we once felt at home." There is something remaining of the madness of life present in the score, a holding in place and aestheticization of the danger outside, a cultural domestication. The music is pointed, colorful, and resituated within itself in ways that evoke the refuge and the thing from which we flee, if I can take the liberty of my own reading of it all.

"Tevot" (2005-6) is effectively Ades' second symphony, based on the Hebrew "tevot" which means both the bars in a musical score and words. In the Bible it refers to Noah's Ark and the reed basket fashioned by Moses' mother to take him down the Nile, in both cases places of refuge, structures made of "firm materials." Ades conceived of these complexes of meanings in a totality, where the bars of music act as vessels for the music and its journey through fluid danger. The music creates organic periodic repeating and variational snippets bordered by bar lines. It is ingeniously structured and fashioned, containers and their contained. Brilliant in its immediacy and parcelling out. It is that.

So we have the sum of what we most willingly hear on this new collection of Ades' works. Each is striking, seemingly inevitable yet paradoxically surprising in its individual outcome. Ades is like that. You get what you have every reason to expect, but in that getting you are moved into the realm of the unexpected.

The CD comes in two versions on two discs, the standard two-channel CD audio version and the multiple voiced BluRay.

Either way this is extraordinary music, landmark-scapes of richly varied orchestral sense. Get it by all means!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Chevere, Cuban-American New Music Collaborations

Ansonica Records continues to create situations of Cuban-American confluence, collaborative projects that bring together US composers and Cuban composers and instrumentalists. Chevere (Ansonica 0005) documents a January 2017 session where a sense of adventure holds sway and leads to consistently interesting results.

The tone is set decidedly with Arthur Gottschalk's "Imagenes de Cuba," a chamber work based upon the familiar "Peanut Vendor" theme. From there we have the always absorbing John A. Carollo and his "In Your Hour of Need," a wonderful piece that combines Cuban rhythmic roots with a freewheeling new music attitude. The results are uncanny yet decidedly right.

We go from there to another five works, all interesting and at times surprisingly unexpected, such as Meira Warshauer's two Jewish-tinged amalgamates, "Akhat Sha'alti" and "Oseh Shalom." Further on we have notable contributions by J.A. Kawarsky, Miguel Matamoros & Moises Simons, and Mona Lyn Reese.

It all makes creative use of the frisson that can result when cultural intersections connect with creative symmetry and contrast.

A very rich and rewarding experience can surely be had with the program. Viva!

Leo Ornstein, Complete Violin Sonatas, Hebraic Fantasy, Three Flute Pieces, Francesco & Stefano Parrino, Maud Renier

The figure of composer Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) remains obscurely but constantly visible on the Euro-American scene if one looks carefully for his music. A Russian Jew born in present-day Ukraine, he came to the United States (New York) in 1906, where by around 1920 he was the enfant terrible of modernism, as a composer and pianist. Then he abruptly abandoned his concert career and went on to teach. His music faded from the limelight and he lived out his long life in relative obscurity.

His music nevertheless still speaks to us. Some of it is tonal and late romantic, some of it daring and boldly dissonant. In the recent Complete Violin Sonatas (Brilliant Classics 95079) we get both Ornstein styles, the modern iconoclast and the romantic lyricist. The soaring violin component is a constant, the piano element determining largely which of the two creative poles are dominant in any moment, and sometimes, as in the "Hebraic Fantasy," there is an uncanny commingling of both elements and Jewish tonality with a decidedly expressive flourish. 

We hear his two published Sonatas, the Hebraic Fantasy and an Op. Posth. Third. It gives us a long listen to how he looked at the violin-piano totality. And then as a bonus we also get "Three Pieces for Flute and Piano," which takes flight in a middle ground halfway between the avant and the romantic.

And in all of it the modernist and the expressionist are at the forefront, neither the one nor the other having absolute reign. And there is the Jewish-folk element present, too.  The performances are uniformly excellent. It is a valuable addition to the Ornstein discography. It may not be a demonstration disc for his radical modernist side, but then again it gives us a balanced look at his overall thrust and appeals uniformly as good music. Recommended.



Thursday, October 19, 2017

Alexey Wladimerowich Stanchinsky, Piano Works, Ekaterina Derzhavina

It is a truth albeit an obvious one: you never know until you know. We know that by living our lives. And listening. Someone a while ago might have advised me to listen to the Piano Works (Profil Edition Gunter Hanssler 170003). Hearing is believing, in the end. And the results reveal a composer of original, somewhat eccentric and unexpected stature. Alexey Wladimerowich Stanchinsky (1888-1914) died at just age 26 at the start of a religious pilgrimage that took him just a short distance from his home. He had to wade neck-deep across a river and the exposure cut short his existence.

He was a student of Taneyev and studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory. A severe bout with mental illness undermined his health. The pilgrimage put the final punctuation on his life.  But he left behind a bold and daring series of piano works, some remarkable examples of which can be heard as played with zeal and precision by Ekaterina Derzhavina on this fine volume.

The first bars of his first opus "Zwolf Skizzen" let us know we are in for something unusual. Sorabji or Alkan come to mind, not so much as an imitation as a parallel. Then there is Mussorgsky, surely. The rest of the pieces in this startling opening salvo bear out the first impression. This is a remarkable late romantic kind of modernism that must have startled its hearers even more than it does our modern listening selves. More than 100 years later, however, we nevertheless sense we are in the presence of a unique musical voice.

The "Praeludium," "Erste Sonate," and "Lieder ohne Worte" confirm our first encounter.  Often enough there is a thoroughly "conventional" Lisztian overwrap of rhapsodic effusiveness to be heard. But even then the actual sequences can startle for the unexpected progressions or melodic directions the music takes. And that veneer can strip away and you get another look at a musical mind that strikes boldly out on then untrodden paths.  As the liner notes state about the sonata, there is a "distinct predilection for the juxtaposition of diatonic modes [instead of the customary development of chromatic harmonies]." Yes, and how they sequence is not expected either. Chords in fourths, even, but not like Scriabin. There are all kinds of things in this music that set it apart. Yet it reflects the veneer of the grand romantic piano tradition, too, when that seems appropriate. Unexpectedly, always.

The sessions come from 2004 and 2005, so my guess is this has been released before? It makes no difference. This is a revelation. Stanchinsky, had he lived, could have taken us into another universe of possibilities. Yet there is plenty to hear already in his short life's output. Ives went his very own way in the US. In Russia Stanchinsky was going somewhere bold, too. He was cut short. Thankfully we have this volume to savor. Stanchinsky may have been a well kept secret. We can now let this music out in the open. Let it breathe. Thank you, Ms. Derzhavina for giving us these beautiful performances. Thank you, Stanchinsky for your short life and its music!