Search This Blog

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dutilleux, Symphony No. 2 "Le Double," Orchestre National de Lille, Darrell Ang

If I could come up with only one word for Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) and his music, it might be lasting. Here in the present we experience the orchestral works as entirely modern, on the edge of such a world, speaking to us as a voice that is original, unexpectedly familiar yet strongly independant, by a consummate master of the orchestra with as much fertility of idea as brilliance of execution.

A good place to start, or to continue, depending who you are, is the recent Orchestra National de Lille/Darrell Ang recording of  Symphony No. 2 "Le Double" (Naxos 8.573596).

The Second, written 1955-59, is a prescient blend of thick yet relatively translucent impasto--multi-rhythmic voicings and jazz-like punctuations.

On the disk are two additional works. The "Timbres, espace, mouvement" from 1976-78 as revised in 1991 is a remarkably  mysterious evocation of Van Gogh's Starry Night, a bracing panorama of sound showing us the Dutilleux command and poetic disposition of parts. It does for sound what van Gogh did for paint, only perhaps feeling in its unfolding more like today than van Gogh's yesterday, timeless yet fixed in Dutilleux's own later-day idiom. The composer describes it as "a longing for an infinity of nature." It sounds like that.

The final work in the program consists of the ever unfolding series of ten episodic moments in time, the "Mystere de l'instant" of 1989. A "play of mirrors and contrasting colors" runs past our hearing beings in ways somehow both personal and modernistically universal.

The coupling of the three works with the readily rewarding interpretations of Darrell Ang and the Orchestre National de Lille decidedly makes this a most attractive offering. There may be other versions of the Second that might have a slight edge on this one, but the three-work package and the Naxos price bring this to us as a valuable and energizing choice. If you have the Second, there are the other two works as well and more the better for it. If you don't know any of these works and want to explore Dutilleux's brilliance with an optimum seating in the hall of your music system, here you go!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Josquin du pres, Josquin Masses, Di dadi, Une mousse de Biscaye, the Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips

The irreplaceable sublimity of Josquin du pres (c. 1440-1521) in the polyphonic Mass setting is something one must live with to truly appreciate. It cannot be easily or adequately described by words. In the end it is the sensuous experience of the sequence of parts and their movement together that fills the heart and mind of the hearer and leaves an unforgettable mark on her/him, provided one listens sympathetically. There is a sense of inevitability when one hears the best of them. Josquin had an extraordinary ability to make his polyphony seem like an ideal of possibilities.

So in the hands of The Tallis Scholars, a talented and angelic vocal ensemble who exemplify the best practices in early music performance today, we hear two Josquin Masses: Di dadi, Une mousse de Biscaye (Gimell CDGIM 048).

"Di dadi" is remarkable in that Josquin's creative intent was inspired by the throwing of dice. Beyond that point of extreme interest these two masses are at the highest levels of craft and art.

The performances are very moving. The music sublime. Nothing more need be said.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Crossing, International Contemporary Ensemble, Donald Nally, Seven Responses

Donald Nally, the choral ensemble the Crossing and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) present seven contemporary modern works responding to Buxtehude's seven cantatas from the oratorio Membra Jesu nostri patientis santissima. Seven Responses (Innova 912 2-CDs) is the result. It comprises a collection of seven beautifully wrought works that combine the-old-and-the-new, the impressions of the baroque labyrinth of Buxtehudian polyphony combined with an adventurist new music world.

The composers are Caroline Shaw, Hans Thomalla, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, David T. Little, Santa Ratniece and Lewis Spratlan. Each expolores a sonic universe that combines the vocal nuances of the Crossing and the instrumental evocations of ICE in fascinating ways.

There is no question as you listen as to where the stylistic contemporaneousness resides: it is decidedly not a serialist or atonal realm of the last century, though there are at times bold modernisms to be heard. It is a tonal, sound-color oriented development that embraces the ancient and the modern in a newfound synthesis that appeals while it dishes out a wealth of musical nutrients.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Egidio Romualdo Duni, Les Deux Chasseurs et la Laitiere, Accademia dell'Arcadia, Roberto Balconi

Today's recording serves to remind us once again that the annals of baroque and classical composers are filled with now unfamiliar names that history has partially erased from our collective memories, yet who may prove substantially worthwhile when we hear one or more of their works. Take today's example, that of Egidio Romualdo Duni (1708-1775). Les Deux Chasseurs et la Laitiere (Brilliant 95422) is something very attractive, a one-act comedy from 1763 that managed to garner a lasting and enthusiastic audience response in the opera world at the time, but now is almost completely unknown.

The late baroque, nearly classical jauntiness of the work lives again thanks to the very game performances here by some distinguished soloists and the Accademia dell'Arcadia under Roberto Balconi.

The arias are bright and hard-lined in their immediacy. The orchestral interludes sparkle happily.

I am beguiled by the music and performances. Duni knows exactly what he is going here, and he is near-perfect in his execution. By definition, this is lighter than air. That makes for a delightful diversion. You understand how audiences found this music enchanting. With a little effort we can recapture that experience here in 2017, just by listening. There is a ravishing airiness that is as likable as a meringue made well. And no possibility of emotional indigestion!


Friday, April 21, 2017

Paul Reale, CME Presents Piano Celebration Volume 2, Music for 2 Pianos and Piano 4-Hands



The realm of solo piano music has been especially fruitful in the modern era. The movement from Debussy, Ravel and Satie to the present is marked by many brilliant signposts. An unexpected find is in the music of Paul Reale (b. 1943), as heard in the recording I was fortunate to receive, CME Presents Piano Celebration Volume 2: Paul Reale Music for 2 Pianos and Piano 4-Hands (MSR Classics 1612). This is more-or-less neo-classic modernism, with perhaps the presence of Stravinsky and Hindemith as precursors, but reshaped and reinvented with a pronounced musical imagination.

What we have entails a continuation of Volume 1, the solo piano music of Reale that came out some time ago (and I have not heard). There are eight works in all on Volume 2, world premiere recordings of some choice and articulate pianism for four hands-one piano, two pianos and one short number for two pianos eight hands.

A blow-by-blow description of the music would differentiate what for me comes across as a unified stylistic whole. It is something best experienced not a la carte but as a full, exemplary, consecutively construed feast of neo-classic cuisine, so to speak.

I cannot find any fault in the performances and in the end Paul Reale brings us a convincing group of compositions that provide substantial fare and impress in their ultimate musicality. Hear this one if you treasure the modern pianoforte and want something new.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Versus, Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, Irena Portenko, Volodymyr Sirenko, Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra

My old composition professor reacted to my expression of admiration for Prokofiev with the thought that he was compromisingly derivative of Stravinsky. We agreed to disagree. To this day I hear of course the influence, but the differences are like Beethoven to Schubert. Sure, there is a debt but there is growth and distance that marks each as a creative light as much tabula rasa as akin in a line of succession. And the music "in the air" of early 20th century Russia, or more precisely the zeitgeist of the turbulent unfolding of history of the times helps explain the expressionist affinities between the two composers as much or more than some putative sort of one-way transmission of inspiration. If you do not agree maybe you have not spent enough time with the Prokofiev opus. No matter.

Today's CD reminds us of that and of another debt Prokofiev held in the early Russian modernist flowering. It is a recording of the remarkable pianist Irena Portenko and the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra under Volodymyr Sirenko in Versus, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (BGR 417). This underscores another debt and another tabula rasa response--here, between the clangorous paradigm of the Russian romantic piano concerto as created by Tchaikovsky versus a wholly modernist clangorous brilliance from Prokofiev. Each work is a masterpiece of its kind. 50 years separate the two. They could not be more different in their use of a melodic-harmonic idiom that defines their trajectory, and yet there is something very Russian about both in their pronounced lyrical effusion.

But for a moment we should think about the Stravinsky-Prokofiev nexus and differentiation. The year 1913 marks the debut of Stravinsky's game changing "Rite of Spring." It also is the very same year that Prokofiev completed the "Piano Concerto No. 2." A 1920 fire in Prokofiev's apartment destroyed the orchestra parts, but happily his mother had retained a copy of the piano score. Prokofiev set about reconstructing the piece in 1923, and that version is the one we still hear. It makes no difference in the end but the final version most definitely has the affinity of the dissonance and some of the savagery of "The Rite of Spring." Only of course it is a masterfully moving example of Prokofiev at his original best. Do we care in the end how the version we hear is in a parallel realm to the "Rites?" Sure, but we cannot find anything here that shows any kind of copying or mimicry. The work is pure Prokofiev, one of his early triumphs, a work that stands on its own as tragic, passionate, bittersweet, prototypically brilliant in the relation of the piano part to the orchestral response.

And I am happy to say that this version is graced by the absolute fire and tenderness of Irena Portenko's performance, something that makes the music breathe and live for us as well as it ever has. That too is the case with conductor Sirenko's ability to get all the expressive saudade out of the Ukrainian National Orchestra that we could wish for. It is a remarkable performance, probably the best I have heard!

The Tchaikovsky is extraordinarily well done, too. It is instructive to hear both concertos back-to-back in this program. I will leave it to you as to the insights one may glean from the comparison.

Suffice to say that Portenko is an interpretive giant, the orchestra tuned to each work with articulate, heightened enthusiasm, and in the end you (if you are like me) are very, very glad of it.

No self-respecting modernist should omit a close interaction with the Prokofiev. Of course the Tchaikovsky is essential fare for the Russophile. And the performances are marvelous!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hanns Eisler, Hangmen Also Die, the 400 Million, The Grapes of Wrath, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Kalitzke

If we here in the States do not know the music of Hanns Eisler (1896-1962) well, it has mostly to do with his political leanings to the left and the trouble that got him into during the McCarthy era. He had embarked on a promising film score career here in the US when he ran afoul of the apparatus that sought to expose leftist artists in the media. He was deported and his music here was blacklisted more or less completely. That was a loss to us.

It is tragic, for his music bears the stamp of a modern original. Thankfully, recordings of his works are far more plentiful than they once were. A fine example is this recent release, of a number of soundtracks from his American period: Hangmen Also Die, The 400 Million and The Grapes of Wrath (Capriccio 5289).  These soundtracks cover the years 1938-43 and complement the box set of earlier works I have reviewed on these pages (see index search box above). Also included on this CD are the "Kleine Symphonie" of 1932 and the very brief "Horfleissubung" from 1931.

The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Johannes Kalitzer do the honors for these works and their dedication gives us what sound to be very fitting performances, spirited and detailed.

The pronounced modernist edge to the music recorded here reminds us that, after all, Eisler was a pupil of Schoenberg and even when composing film scores there can be heard an unwavering contemporary slant. He presents a wealth of thematic elements that attract and are situated within masterful developmental and orchestrational poetics.

The pronounced trainwreck of my life right now means that I have had a little trouble devoting the absolute attention that this music demands and deserves. Nevertheless I can vouch for its excellence. I need to come back to it all again in the near future. Still,  I do not hesitate to recommend this album to you as a very worthy presentation of substantial music from a sadly neglected period of his career. Do hear this!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Spohr, Symphony No. 4, Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Walter

The complete Spohr (1784-1859) symphonies as recorded by the Budapest Symphony with Alfred Walter conducting turns out to be a fine thing, a revelation, the symphonic life's work of a composer that has seen neglect and in the very least is worth reviving. He reflects a world where Beethoven's star shines brightly and he does it his own way.

The volume at hand covers Symphony No. 4 (Naxos 8.555398) . Spohr completed the symphony in 1832, a time of political upheaval at the court in Kassel, Germany. A new prince had assumed rule, and the money available for music was in jeopardy. Spohr set out to write a work based on Carl Pfeiffer's poem The Consecration of Sound. He ultimately decided to make it a programmatic symphony that followed closely the text. So one passage represented, for example, a gentle breeze and bird song before a storm erupts.

One need not pay strict attention to the program to appreciate the music. It is ambitious Spohr and it sounds out with a satisfying trajectory, reaffirming that Spohr was one of the great symphonists of his era. Audiences in Germany and England reacted enthusiastically. Critics distrusted the programmatic idea and had their reservations. Hearing it now we find a good deal to like, or I do at least. After all, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony stuck to a programmatic approach, too. And neither work suffers as a result!

Accompanying the symphony are two short Overtures, to Faust and Jessonda, respectively. They are welcome additions.

Now I must admit I did not have any idea what the complete Spohr symphonies would be like before I played the first volume I reviewed. A beautiful surprise was in store. Is he as good as, say, Mendelssohn? It is probably a meaningless question for he does not sound like Mendelssohn. He rings out with a personal take on the music in the air, then. What more can one expect? It is well enough. No. 4 is a gem. I am glad to have it. I suggest you spend some time with this CD.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Wagner, Symphony in C major, in E Major (Fragment), MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jun Markl

Wagner (1813-83) changed everything. His major operas brought a new way of thinking about motives and Tristan helped usher in the modern period via the pushing of harmonic language to the borders of tonality. His orchestration was bold, daring and insightful. But his concentration on opera left the purely symphonic realm to others. Composers like Bruckner came along and in part applied Wagner's innovations to the non-vocal worlds. Of course Bruckner and Mahler (and Richard Strauss) did a great deal more than that, but they were nevertheless indebted to Wagner for where they went. And so, for that matter, was Schoenberg, but that brings up more than we can handle for this post.

Interestingly enough, Wagner in his early years did write a bit of symphonic music. The two works that have come down to us, The Symphony in C major and the Symphony in E major (fragment) are available in a new Naxos release by the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jun Markl (Naxos 8.573413).

The back of the jewel case tells us that these two symphonies "stand as a tribute to Wagner's passion for his great idol Beethoven," And indeed, one hears such elements clearly throughout. They were student works, written when Wagner was in his teens and early twenties. They are remarkable for that.

But even at that early date there is something rather Wagnerian happening with these works--which may only be to say that Wagner sprung from the Beethoven ethos. But no, one gets glimpses of something further along, even if in infancy. The E Major is a fragment. Felix Mottl completed the orchestration much later. Wagner was nowhere near where he would ultimately be. Yet neither of these works seem immature fluff; they are if nothing else supremely serious undertakings. The C major is the more involved of the two, as one might imagine even before hearing.

There is thematic originality to be heard within the Beethovenian mode. Some parts seem pretty closely derivative but then there can be developmental sections that go their own way. In the end this music is of extraordinary interest to those who know the mature Wagner intimately.

Yes, you can hear the kernels of the later composer here. But you also hear a thematic naivete that was the Wagner of those years, a not unattractively expressive and talented youth saying what he could.

The music brings a goodly amount of delight. These are no masterpieces but they weather surprisingly well. Anyone who wants to trace Wagner's development will find this CD enlightening, but also a good listen in itself.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Ted Hearne, Sound from the Bench, The Crossing

The Supreme Court "Citizens United" decision was, to say the very least, decidedly nothing to do with the upholding of the Constitution as the Founders thought of it. It was a perversion of logic, a fiction that has lead us to anti-democratic infusions of great wealth to undermine the election process. I am not the only one to think this. It is one of the more dangerous farces to confront us in our lifetime. Only one of more than a few, but an especially insidious one.

Composer Ted Hearne clearly is one of "us," not a man with or speaking for the influence of the grand cartel of the rich. His Sound from the Bench (Cantaloupe Music 21126) is all about Citizens United, a nightmare in a sort of poetic haze that may sublimate the horror of the judgment, but no, does not seek to diminish it. This is a choral work of a postmodern, sometimes minimalist sort. It features (as did yesterday's) the landmark choral group the Crossing with Donald McNally at the helm, plus some avant rock textures from two electric guitars and drums.

Where to begin? The corporation is a person, a ventriloquist dummy in the end. Not at all human but masquerading as one, manipulated by a wealth-manufacturing entity and acting in its interests. Hearne uses various texts to set off the decision and lament the demise of our own personhood, the degradation of the human being unit that is the core idea behind representative government.

The music has a great deal going for it. There are sophisticated multi-part passages, the deliberately banal cutting in to dramatize things, and a great deal in between. It is a work where I must admit on the strictly musical level I greatly appreciate much of it, and some elements less so. But the good outweighs the less good with a balance decidedly tipped onto the positive side. And the subject matter could not be more important to us.

So I thank Maestro Hearne for this and recommend for sure that you hear it!


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century

Like any style of music, there are Post-modern composers who write beautiful, breathtaking works and others who either are inconsistent or just do not have the talent, sad to say. Of the whole bunch Gavin Bryars to me is decidedly in the first category. His music, basically anything I've heard of his, has that special something that comes through whatever the premise. A new CD,  The Fifth Century (ECM New Series 2495) brings us two choral works that are stunning in their sonic brilliance and reaffirm my appreciation of Bryars as an important voice of today.

The album features the extraordinary vibrato-less purity of the choral ensemble The Crossing, conducted by David Nally. It is hard to imagine a better performance of these works and the ECM sound brings out the music with a heightened brightness.

The opening title work combines the Crossing with the equally appropriate sounds of the saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet. Bryars brings the two groups into close intersection in harmonically uncliched, always stimulating and ravishing ways. He has perfect control over the ambient and linear dimensions as he hears them. Indeed no matter how many times I listen to this work it sounds ever fresh.

The same is true but in a somewhat more intimate way on "Two Love Songs" for female choir a capella.

I come away from this music reluctantly. I want to come back to it as soon as possible. Does the awakening of nature on these fine days have something to do with it? It seems like the open hopeful choral sounds here help "improve" nature or provide it a most evocative soundtrack. I am sure whatever the season this music will give us pause, help us revel in the sensuous mysteries of existence.

Does this sound like a strong recommendation? I hope so. Because it is. Wonderful.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Oracle Hysterical, New Vintage Baroque, Passionate Pilgrim

I was awakened yesterday from my private world of dreams and expectations when I helped my nephew negotiate the ins and outs of a used car purchase from a dealer. As I was waiting for his credit to go through, I struck up a conversation with young ladies in the office. The talk chanced on music. "He makes CDs! Yes, he gave us one of them!" my nephew chimed in. Well just the format elicited reactions of astonishment and disbelief. I was an impossible anachronism. When one of them asked me if my music sounded like [name I didn't recognize], I tried in desperation to backtrack to common ground. I mentioned George Harrison. No. "Who is that?" I gave up. There is a specific audience for the music I cover on these pages, and the music I myself make, and they were not it. Or so it seemed.

If it weren't for yesterday I would say that today's CD might appeal to a general audience as well as the classically oriented. Now I am more inclined to say "A specific wider audience," but perhaps not those who have grown up on the pop music that fills their earbuds.

Nonetheless Oracle Hysterical, New Vintage Baroque and their joint collaborative album Passionate Pilgrim (VISIONINTO ART VIA -12) gives us a very appealing program of contemporary songs that one can profitably think of in terms of the principal ensemble's name New Vintage Baroque.  As the liner notes assert, this is a music "dedicated to the creation of a 21st century repertoire for early instruments."

Absolutely, that is what we have. What does that mean? This is an adventure in song form, of the modern day yet bardically story-telling. It is a contemporary tonal music that gives us some striking songs that have both a currency and a rustic feel. It does not have much in the way of Baroque counterpoint or that period's pronounced periodicity. But then it is readily distinguishable from the ordinarily modern nonetheless.

The New Vintage ensemble was formed in 2011 by Baroque oboist Lindsay McIntosh. This latest set is comprised of contemporary songs composed by members of Oracle Hysterical.  To clarify the album is very much a joint effort by New Vintage Baroque and Oracle Hysterical (the latter a quartet of bassoon, double bass-viola da gamba, and the voices of Elliot Cole and Majel Connery; the former an eight-person chamber ensemble of baroque instruments). The four members of Oracle Hysterical give us a set of songs that bear close listening.

One revels in the lyric sensibilities and pronounced baroque sonics of the music. It sounds spring-like, the sound of poetic springs celebrated by the bards of an age long gone. It is not so much a nostalgia for an age we never knew, though that is part of the charm. It is mostly perhaps born of an urgently aesthetic need to reach back to earlier music to craft a music anew. You don't have to hear this in the spring, but it has the sound of a renewal we might feel the need of as I write this.

It is music that will come alive with repeated hearings. The songs and arrangements are distinctly unique. I am glad to have this album and I recommend it warmly to anyone seeking something new that is born like Phoenix from the ashes of its past!


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Villa-Lobos, Complete Guitar Manuscripts, Andrea Bissoli, 3 Volume Set

 Throughout composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' career (1887-1959), the guitar was a central voice in his music, and he among many other things is considered a father figure in the development of modern, folk-laced music for the instrument.

Guitarist Andrea Bissoli is the central component in a three-volume set now available as an integral boxed edition. The Guitar Manuscripts: Masterpieces and Lost Works (Naxos 8.573117) is as the title suggests, a collection of his most illustrious works involving the guitar and also a worthwhile collection of works until recently lost to us or unheard, plus transcriptions of music not originally published in guitar versions, or guitar works transcribed for ensemble.

I have previously reviewed all three volumes separately on these pages. Type "Villa-Lobos" in the search box above to access those three volumes.

Suffice to say that this is a very rewarding anthology of works for those new to Villa-Lobos as well as the seasoned listener. Andrea Bissoli and his collaborators give us a stirring view of the considered yet spirited music of the master. These is enough here that is new or re-arranged to supply anyone interested and following the composer's output with a fresh take.

Highly recommended!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Olivier Messiaen, Livre du Saint Sacrement, Colin Andrews

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), without question, was the most important and innovative composer for the organ in our times. He left us a body of work of incomparable modern power, mystery and depth. The gargantuan 1984 work Livre du Saint Sacrement (Loft Recordings LRCD-1152-53 2-CDs) is doubtless one of his most advanced, complex and spiritually probing works--and as I understand it, his last for the instrument. Colin Andrews plummets its depth and carefully renders its many moods and interworkings.

The full score is divided into 28 movements, carefully sequenced to give us the musical equivalents of the Catholic ritual of communion and theological-mystical-devotional-biblical dimensions of the experience.

The compositional elements, as the liners aptly inform us, were a synthesis of Messiaen's mature techniques and procedures: Greek and Hindu rhythmic forms, Messiaen's transliteration of sacred words into musical utterances, a very personal serialism, limited transposition as defining the harmonies, plainsong and birdsong (the latter of birds Jesus might have heard locally during his lifetime).

This is a huge undertaking that gives us a largely abstract, ultra-modern and extraordinarily meditative sequence that requires concentrated focus in the listening process. Here is a man whose religious convictions led to an extraordinarily singular universe of sounds, a musical language like no other, a lifetime's understanding of the full spectrum of the cathedral organ and its capabilities.

In the hands of Colin Andrews the work speaks with a cosmic flourish and deeply interior dialog that is movingly spectacular, experientially radical yet tied to a deep spiritual understanding. It is literally words or feelings put into music but not easily converted back into words. By 1984 Messiaen had become a transcendent being of musical sound.

This is Messiaen's message to us all, and some of the most difficult and involved, ecstatically rewarding organ works I have ever heard. Give this music your absorption and it will return the effort with a glimpse of the composer's intimations of eternity.

Highly recommended, but not to be taken lightly!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Granados, Goyescas, Yoonie Han

I have a bit of a soft spot for Granados (1867-1916)--and the recent Naxos series recording many of his orchestral works (that I covered here a while ago) has given me much to appreciate. But whether or not one is a Granados convert one will likely take readily to his most famous work, the Goyescas for solo piano, a six-part suite that has been recently newly recorded by pianist Yoonie Han (Steinway & Sons 30067).

The music is all about Francisco Goya, the famous Spanish painter, and his work. Each movement depicts a scene from an imagined love story of a Spanish Majo (bohemian, mostly lower-class Spaniards of Goyas' time) and his would-be Maja.

The music was introduced in its original piano setting in 1911. He later crafted an opera out of its motives, which debuted at the Met in 1916. Granados and his wife attended. Their ship on the return voyage was torpedoed (it was WWI), and Granados died as he attempted to rescue his drowning wife. (Thank you to the liners for that. I did not know.)

The piano version of the work has enjoyed the love of music listeners since its premiere. It is an extremely lyrical and magnetic work that shows Granados' folk-Spanish, quasi-impressionist, melodic-harmonic gift as well or better than anything else he wrote.

The South Korean native Yoonie Han gives us a glowing reading of the music on the recording at hand. She embodies the flowing melodic presence, the grace and stunning phrasings of each movement with all the poetic nuance the work demands.

I've heard some ravishing versions of the Goyescas, but I must say that Ms. Han rivals the very best.

The recording quality is superb. The music sings on. Yoonie Han triumphs. This version makes me very happy. Need I say more? There is no better introduction to Granados than this.



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Franzoni, Vespro per la Festa di Santa Barbara

It means virtually nothing that I do not believe I have heard the music of Amante Franzoni (flourished 1605-1630). The Renaissance  (but also the Baroque) period produced many scores of composers who are not regularly performed these days, though many are extraordinarily capable. Judging by the recent release of Franzoni's Vespro per la Festa di Santa Barbara  (Brilliant 95344), he was one of those we should hear more often, certainly.

The blend of chants, sacred choral and instrumental parts to the Vespro is very appealing, especially in this performance by Francesco Moi conducting the amassed forces of Accademia Degli Invaghiti (a nine member choral group with accompanying theorbo and two organs), the Concerto Palatino with their two cornettos and six trombones, and the Cappella Santa Barbara handling the Gregorian Chant passages. It is beautifully a part of the period, inspired, resounding gloriously in the Mantua Cathedral setting.

The chant interludes refresh and set off the moving choral-instrumental movements. As you first listen you hear a brief Resposorium that many will recognize as I did. It is borrowed from Monteverdi's "Vespers for the Virgin Mary."

The music that follows is in keeping with the period and place. Franzoni flourished in the Italian city of Mantua, working for the Gonzaga duchy as early as 1607 and serving as maestro di cappella for the Basilica of Santa Barbara from 1612 through 1630. The Feast of Santa Barbara was the most important religious celebration in Mantua during Franzoni's tenure. She was the city's patron saint and so the vespers in her name allowed Manzoni to create an elaborate musical commemoration in her honor.

The CD captures the music in considerably spirited and in haunting ways. Any early music appreciator will no doubt welcome this music into their world, a fabulous recording at a good price, too!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Thierry Pecou, Orquoy, Chango, Marcha de la Humanidad, Orchestra National de France

The complex of components that channel into a contemporary new music composer can be enormous, and ultimately the outcome can be original but on the other hand is all-the-more frequently not.

So in the end we listen and open ourselves up to whatever we encounter. In the case of Thierry Pecou, and the album of orchestral works Orquoy, Chango, Marcha de la Humanidad (Wergo 7318-2) I immediately was intrigued by what I heard. But what was it?

As I listened for the first time, I turned to the CD booklet for guidance. Like anybody who listens seriously to previously unknown composers-music, I find that the liner notes often can situate the music so you can go on with some understanding. Wergo has long been a label crucial in the new music scene, so I tend to trust what they might say. The notes told me, hey, Latin America is a key. Think of Villa-Lobos, Revueltas, Chavez, how they synthesized European modernism with local folk traditions and influences. Then think of a new generation of composers and how they extended modernity into further abstract territory. That in part explains Pecou. My initial recognition of color and strong rhythmical elements might have reminded me indirectly of Varese, Messiaen, Boulez, yes, but there was the (OK I'll use the word though it ain't gonna sound down-to-earth) autochthonous (indigenous) aspect to consider in Pecou's music. And ultimately what he does with all of this is very original. The liner notes helped point me in the right direction. My ears did the rest.

The opening "Orquoy" for large orchestra is very much a good place to start. The music jumps forward with an almost whimsical but unerringly new kind of sonance and presentation.

Each of the three works has something very rewarding going on--at a height of high modernism but still anchored to the earth like a folk rooted tree whose height into the sky is equalled by the long and mostly unseen labyrinthian root appendages.

Jonathan Stockhammer conducts the Orchestra National de France on this program and to my ears he devotes all the care and insight that one might hope for in such unusually original fare.

The album gives me an excellent view onto Thierry Pecou's musical universe. Anyone who appreciates the high modernist paths and/or South American modernism-nationalism will I hope find this music very much to his or her liking. I did.

Very recommended.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

J.S. Bach, Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Movses Pogossian

When it comes to Johann Sebastian Bach's works for solo violin and solo cello, it seems to me that their popularity and influence are at a peak. Or is it just that my appetite for hearing them has become more insatiable as I seem to continually hear them anew? But it is not just me. I have come across and mentioned on these pages a number of interesting compositions in the contemporary new music scene that make use of solo Bach in creating new confluences. And the number of new releases of recorded performances of the solo works seems higher than ever before...and more diverse in terms of the baroque to modern spectrum of possibilities.

I won't try to explain why this may be so. I cannot easily say, except to note the possibility that we are in a new baroque era ourselves, aesthetically speaking. A discussion on that would tip the balance of this review away from the music itself, so I must cut it short. Regardless, the solo works speak to us today as some of the most direct expressions of Bach's genius, surely. And string players have for a long time had the tackling of these works as a key part of their training, no? What counts in the end is their beauty, their facing of the musical cosmos with just four strings and a wealth of inventive brilliance.

Armenian violinist Movses Pogossian brings us a new version of Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin on 3-CDs (New Focus Recordings FCR 178) and I for one am glad he did. I've been immersed in the recording for a couple of weeks, sounding a constant as the parade of life passes by, anchoring me in the unassuming but vastly rich music that counters all that life might hold in store, or amplifies it, depending on how life is at the time. For me it is more a countering these days.

At any rate Pogossian does not bring us an ultra-baroque reading, with catgut strings, baroque bows and a litany of ornamentational end points. He choses the conventional modern violin and a straightforward but feelingful production of the six works. Nonetheless it sounds very true to Bach, so I guess one could say it is a middle-of-the-road version. Pogossian gets inside the music and gives us strong performances of the very sturdy sections, then slows down to savor the movingly preludian portions.

In the end Pogossian sings from his depths and thereby channels Bach in ways that bring us joy. I most certainly recommend this version if you don't have one yet. It is a benchmark for how we hear the music today. It also extends and compliments other versions, you who like me cannot seem to get enough.

Pogossian is a true artist. His Bach rings with its own creative truth. That is a great thing.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Johann Simon Mayr, Amore non soffre opposizioni, Franz Hauk

The classical period of opera, partially because of the expense of a production, partially because of conservative, certain masterworks-only repertoire tendencies, has not been given as extensive a coverage of what was produced as one might wish. There are multiple versions of, say, Mozart's The Magic Flute or Rossini's The Barber of Seville available, but if you wanted to find a full opera by Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845), you would probably be out of luck. Until now. It is true that we do not miss what we do not know--but with Mayr we are missing something good, someone we should know.

Naxos with their most welcome, adventurist releases of neglected composers and/or works, has been coming out with some Mayr overtures and operas (I've covered a few here recently), and so we now have a 2-CD set of Amore non soffre opposizioni (Naxos 8.660361-62), conducted by Franz Hauk, the man instrumental in the current Mayr revival.

The reasons this opera and Mayr himself enjoyed popularity in the Italy of the classic age are the same reasons this opera appeals to us today if we give it a chance. There are no recitatives, there is a vibrant tunefulness, a sprightly demeanor, and sophisticated harmonies and instrumentation. We are treated to a very good performance--here by engaging, idiomatic soloists and the East-West European Festival Orchestra.

As you listen for a while, you notice a kind of synthesis between the Italian influence of Rossini and the German one of Mozart, which in Mayr's hands seems unforced and natural.

That this is in every way a carefully conceived and enthusiastic performance goes a long way towards bringing Mayr alive for us.

Anyone who loves classical-era opera will find this release delightful.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Rhona Clarke, A Different Game, The Fidelio Trio

In Rhona Clarke's very first album dedicated solely to her own music, she proves to be one of Ireland's most interesting and convincing living modern composers. A Different Game (Metier 28561) features the considerable dynamic expressive capabilities of The Fidelio Trio performing six chamber compositions that stand out for the articulate flow of modern musical ideas and the structural strengths of the overarching form each work takes.

The sophisticated advanced modern tonal pallette of her  Trios Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (the latter bearing the descriptive title "A Different Game") have a haunting, sometimes somewhat melancholy caste. They have thematic clout in a slightly neo-classical mode. The Fidelio Trio gives us spirited, detailed readings of the works that feel just right. They also tackle expressively the three additional chamber works that make use of smaller instrumental groupings: "Gleann Da Loch" (for piano solo), the ambient wonders of "Con Coro" for violin, cello and tape, and the reflective cello solo "In Umbra."

"Piano Trio No. 4 'A Different Game'" moves the trio concept along with a spiky, more playfully modern demeanor than Nos. 2 and 3, but in the end each of these works reveal aspects of Clarke's magnetic compositional personality, her brittle and atmospheric modern lyrical immediacy.

Clarke comes through as an original stylist and a brilliant musical conversationalist on this disk. There is always something there to pique your musical imagination, never a moment when inspiration flags. I find the entire program heartily stimulating and nearly endlessly rewarding.

It makes me want to hear more of her work! And it gives me great pleasure in the listening. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Kapralova, Complete Piano Music, Giorgio Koukl

Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940) led a brief life but marked it by writing music of an individual, modern nature that alas only gives us a tantalizing but fully formed glimpse of what she might have been. The Complete Piano Music (Grand Piano 708) shows us both a robust and paradoxically a delicate sensibility, a maturity of approach conjoined with a youthful impetuosity, all of which seems in retrospect to compensate for the all-too-short musical and physical life she lead. The back of the jewel box to this CD states that she is "now considered the most important female Czech composer of the 20th century." I find no reason to disagree.

Giorgio Koukl gives us an impassioned and well burnished performance of these gems. There is a quasi-romantic veneer to the earliest especially, a touching impressionistic lyricism that breaks through with a near breathtaking loveliness (hear the "April Preludes") and a budding modernist-folkish originality that has a strong Czech component but as a whole creates a world we would not otherwise know.

There is a good deal to absorb in the 65 minute playing time of this CD. of eleven works, four never before heard in recorded form, ranging from 1931-32 when she was but 16-17 years old, to some of her very last works of 1938-40. The music gradually becomes somewhat daringly modernistic in keeping with the flourishing of the Czechoslovak Republic prior to WWII, of a piece with that world but singularly showing her own brand of things.

There is some connection to Janacek to be heard, though never in some obvious way. Indeed, her father Vaclav Kapral was a pupil of the master composer. But in the end this in its finest moments (and there are many) is irredeemably Kapralovian. a young talent following her own muse. It is one of the 20th century's tragedies that she was to make it only to age 25, apparently a victim of Typhoid. The world lost what might well have been a major voice in the music. As it is there are strong intimations of more than mere mortality, some really beautiful works for us to savor and retain in our ears.

It is all here, all of the piano music. I am captivated with it and I would bet you would be, too. Some 77 years after her death we can still feel the musical pulse quickening in her aural self. Eerie, tragic, but triumphant for what little chance she had to give us her musical vision and what she left for us to contemplate. Appreciate that we are here to experience her music now. Not every life is long!

Very recommended.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mick Rossi, 160

The modern-day studio set up has made it possible for one person via overdubbing to become his-her own ensemble, playing all the parts and providing the impetus for a new music personally and directly. The digital platform has made such creations virtually infinite, which has then created a need to know how far to take it, when to stop.

Mick Rossi knows. He was inspired to lay down an entire album of such self-expressions, which we have happily on the CD 160 (Innova 954). This is music that combines adventurous new music/quasi-post-electronic outpourings with a rhythmic drive that is at times infectiously rock-related.

For precedent Frank Zappa comes to mind in his later days. He too created a self-mobilized sound via his elaborate sampling-synthesis set up. The result was brilliant Zappa. Mick Rossi might be said to follow in Zappa's footsteps, but the result is quite originally his own, with its own sort of brilliance.

Mick for this set of 15 short, interrelated vignettes mans a piano, prepared piano, Farfisa, harmonium, drums, percussion, glockenspiel, guzheng, mbira, sampler, and dog toy. The album is a reworking of music Rossi did for the film Albi's Oboe.

There may still be purists who look down on this sort of virtual reality. I am not one of them. The point is the musical result and the process, while of course is critical, it is not in the end defining.

160 is filled with absorbing sequences of multi-part developments, made pleasingly retro-like through certain motifs, the Farfisa parts, microscopic detunings between instruments and a kind of analog ambience.

But for all that this is a step into a rock-new-music zone that is both convincing and forward moving. It is complexly contemporary and foot-tappingly immediate.

Since I too delve into self-realized musical terrains often enough I regard Mick as an important and very worthy colleague. His 160 gives us a most excellent listen, a pioneering adventure into electroacoustic futurism. Repeated hearings create a joy of recognition, which all important new music should be capable of. It is music to dwell inside, to make over onto one's musico-memory template.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven, Susanne Kessel, Piano, Volume 1

Beethoven will never leave us, come what may. He and Bach have captured especially the world's heart and soul, have stirred our imaginations, made us look onto our earth or into what we can see of the firmament and think, "we can be more than we seem."

And so it is right that pianist Susanne Kessel has launched an ambitious international composition project of which we see the first fruits here, namely 250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven, and its first installment as Vol. 1 (WDR: The Cologne Broadcasts ppfb1 2-CDs). Here we have the first 25. Bonn pianist Kessel aims to have all 250 commissioned and in hand by 2020, which marks Beethoven's 250th birthday!

In the first installment all 25 are short, bagatelle-like, making use of Beethoven motifs or not as freely decided by the composers, but in some way channeling what Beethoven has meant to each. The music is captivating, ranging from a high modernism to a neo-post-wherever-we-are eclecticism.

The sheer diversity of approach is given concentrated poetic expression by Susanne Kessel, who makes of each piece a thing of dramatic beauty, or whimsical musicality, or heightened presence, or all-at-once.

The continual common denominator is the Kessel pianism, her readiness to put herself into whatever any given composer has creatively crafted. You may recognize some of the first 25 composers' names or you may not. The point is their point-in-time contemporaneity and how they choose to put into musical terms their debt to Beethoven and his revolutionizing of the role of the piano in the music that came to him and to those many generations of composers who came after.

In the end the first 25 of the composers give us a whirlwind of possibilities and remind us just how central Susanne Kessel is to the music of our time, marking and making vividly present our real-time devotion to the very new and the once new.

This is a central volume and a most promising beginning for such a worthy undertaking. Even if this were to be the only volume produced, which we know will not happen because more is on the way, it would (and does) stand on its own as a triumph of concept and content, masterful performances of fascinating and moving music. But of course there will be more. It all starts here. Listen, by all means.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Jerome Combier, Gone, Ensemble Cairn

Some ultra-contemporary composers write music so timbrally striking that the once sharp divide between electronic and instrumental music is radically blurred. Ensemble Cairn negotiates the realms of color and shadow and creates a unerringly vivid picture of such a music, the music of Jerome Combier. Gone (Aeon AECD 1651) brings to the listener a program of five Combier compositions that challenge our everyday assumptions of what instruments are "supposed" to sound like, and, for that matter how they are supposed to interact with electronic sounds.

The chamber plus electronic pieces form the beginning and end points of the album, but the middle works are no less exploratory in their compelling acoustical mass. Ensemble Cairn forms a mid-sized chamber ensemble, or a mini-chamber orchestra. There is a flautist, a clarinetist, pianist, guitarist, harpist, and a string quartet altogether.

The various Combier works call for various instrumental combinations, making entirely coherent demands on the players in a body of extended techniques, all of which results in a series of stunning sound-color sculptures.

"Dawnlight" (2015) opens the program with a long sound tapestry for flute, piano, violin, cello and electronics. This is music that travels beyond tonality or its lack to enter complex relationships between clearly pitched, sonically complex multiple pitch emanations and relatively unpitched percussive outbursts. One might say the same for all the works in this program.

In fact the huge potential vocabulary of electronic sounds matches the sonic variabilities of the instrumental utterances in brilliantly contrasting groupings and unexpected regroupings.

The middle part of the program brings three purely instrumental works to our ears. "Noir gris" (2007) for string trio, "Dog eat dog" (2014) for cello and guitar, and "Terra d'ombra" (2012-2015) for piano, harp and cello each has a unique and startling sonance. There are rich universes of dramatically narrative timbral relationships that unfold with unexpected and endlessly fascinating regular-irregularity.

Finally the 20-minute title work "Gone" (2010) for clarinet, piano, string trio and electronics unleashes the most sustained new timbral world of all. There are few living composers that could match this work for its startlingly inimitable palette of sounds and sequences.

In short Jerome Combier in Gone brings us signature high-modernist music with a brilliance that is virtually unparalleled in new music today. Ensemble Cairn brings their considerable contemporary technical prowess to bear on some of the most challenging instrumental works extant. They make of each of them a poetic totality, a remarkable achievement. Most importantly they bring us a beautiful realization of Jerome Combier's considerably prescient musical vision.

Unforgettable music. Essential listening!

Friday, March 24, 2017

ACME, Thrive on Routine

ACME stands for the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Based on the CD at hand, I must say I am impressed. I speak of ACME's Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus 92211). On it we hear a nicely chosen selection of modern/postmodern works occupying an ambient, radical tonality turf.

The group as a whole consists of two violins, a viola, cello, piano, celeste, and two vibraphones. Clarice Jensen is the Artistic Director.

In all five works are represented, each one a journey into tone color and depth of field.

Calen Burhams, the violist in the ensemble, gives us his Jahrzeit for string quartet. It is beautifully resonant with an atmospheric born of harmonics, pizzicato and sparely applied but lush harmonies. The ostinato pattern repeated and played on top of reminds of Glass perhaps, but most appealingly rises into its own depth of expression. I get a strong pastoral feeling that fills me with a nostalgia for springs and summers past--but that is perhaps entirely personal.

Next up is a solo cello work by Caroline Shaw, "in manus tuas," played by Clarice Jensen. The colorful ambiance of the work fits in and follows naturally with Burhans' opening. Pizzicato and arpeggiated bowing establishes a post-Bachian presence that wears nicely.

Caroline returns with a solo piano work (played by Timo Andres), "Gustave Le Gray." It has a touching, yearning motif that continues to repeat and open out with developmental graduals in a moody fashion. It is based on Chopin's "Mazurka, Op. 17" and motives from that work blend in various ways with Caroline's own inventions.

Timo Andres then gives us his string quartet work in four movements, "Thrive On Routine." It musically describes Charles Ives' morning routine of early rising, digging in his potato patch, playing some from Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" and so forth. The music has a playful deliberation that to me expresses  Ives' continually inventive being as contrasted with the recurring sameness of his morning ritual sequence.

The final work features the full ensemble in a flowering version of John Luther Adams 1999 opus "In A Treeless Place, Only Snow." On the aesthetic level it has a feeling of a sort of enlightened haiku thoughtfulness expressing the suchness of nature. The repeating and intermingling strands work together for a very processual, unified result. It is remarkable, evocative, realized with great sympathy and affinity with the composer.

The album comes, as is often the case with Sono Luminus releases, with two disks--one a standard CD in vibrant stereo, the other a Blu-Ray disk with 5:1 playback capability. I do not have Blu-Ray but I can imagine that this sort of program would sound ravishing in the expanded aural space.

After hearing this a number of times I come out of the program with an enthusiastic two thumbs up. It is nothing short of lovely. ACME is off to a wonderful start!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vyacheslav Artyomov, Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World, National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, Vladimir Ashkenazy

From the brilliant musical mind of Russian composer Vyacheslav Artyomov comes another volume of orchestral works including the monumental Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World (Divine Art 25143), very stirringly performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia.

I reviewed another volume on these pages several months ago (see search box above) which was nothing short of revelatory. This new volume confirms that first impression. Artyomov is a major figure on the Russian new music scene, with an explosively modern pallet of mystical, mysterioso universes of sound, a basic sensibility that goes back to Scriabin and Messiaen but then carries it forward to today with true originality.

Two substantial works comprise this additional volume: the title work "Symphony, On the Threshold of a Bright World" (1990/2002) and "Ave Atque Vale" (1997), for percussion and orchestra. A brief bonus work closes off the program, "Ave, Crux Alba" (1994/2012) for choral group and orchestra.

The Symphony has a vast spatial expanse as its foundational premise. The orchestra bursts forward with huge modern clusters and quieter introspective interludes. It is landmark in its dramatic thrust, sounding great as a CD and one can imagine even more spectacular live.

"Ave Atque Vale" has a singular role for solo percussion, handled deftly by Rostislav Shatayevsky. An immersively contrasting  aural dimension is the way forward, marking out yet another, more reflective but no less enthralling spatial-sonic universe.

"Ave, Crux Alba" ends the CD with a brief but memorably anthemic lyricism.

Like the volume previously discussed here, this one beautifully carves out for us a celestial mysteriousness and at times a hugeness that holds its own as some of the most bracing and original music of our times. Artyomov is a voice for today, ultra-modern, futuristic and vibrant in its consistent aural brilliance. Get this one! Get both!






Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dvorak, Symphony No. 9, From the New World, A Hero's Song, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orch., Krzysztof Urbanski

One of my happiest first experiences in classical music was buying and hearing Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, From the New World. I was still pretty new to the classical literature. I found a version that was affordable to me (I did not have much spending money of course as a kid) and it turned out to be faithful to the spirit of the music (in retrospect). I played it for my mom and she loved it, too. Like many of us in the US, we were flattered that a great composer took the time to visit and leave for us a masterpiece. Of course it no doubt energized the composers active in the US at the time and more so later, giving them the energy and courage to forge their own way.

The popularity of the work here is such that my friend Marc many years ago applied for a cashier's job at a local Sam Goody record store, and one of the few questions they asked him was "who composed the New World Symphony?" In those days the chains even sought to carry and sell the more fleetingly popular fare and to pronounce Dvorak's name properly was a sign as well that you knew enough about things to help customers.

Well the years have ticked by at an advanced rate and I do wonder if the 9th sells well anymore, if there is a populism that has brains and knowledge? Suffice to say that for me the 9th still rings beautifully in my ear. And when I hear the movement based on the spiritual "Going Home," I remember my mom and how she loved this symphony.

A recent move has stripped me bare of most of my vinyl and Dvorak's 9th was among those. I actually did not much care for the version I had ended up with, so when the Krzysztof Urbanski and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra came up as something to review (Alpha-Classics 289), I eagerly jumped at it.

This is a singing version with everything going for it. The only aspect that I had to adjust to was the highly variable dynamic level, which perhaps came about as microphone placement was some distance from the orchestra? Not sure there, but in any event once you turn up the volume a bit all comes into focus.

The connection of this symphony genetically with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony has hit me more forcefully as I listen to the NDR--and perhaps it is the fine definition of the strings in relation to the winds in the overall balance and Urbanski's painstaking attention to getting that phrasing-dynamics right that has brought the lineage connection to my ears that much more readily. In any case the balance and phrasing brings out the beauty of the totality and how countrified the music is in Dvorak's special way. The "Going Home" movement takes advantage of that as well as one might hope for. And no reading is complete of course without a ravishing treatment of the section. I can hear my mom responding again, wherever she may be up there.

Urbanski gives us an unhurried, detailed take on the entire symphony. It makes one feel that Dvorak did manage to capture then what made America great and it wasn't walls or tax cuts for the rich, crippling the "meals-on-wheels" program, or for that matter slavery. There was a human-human decency in the US at its best and a human-land relationship of respect and care when things were right, and I think Dvorak managed to put that into his music.

As a nice extra, the album includes the lesser known but worthy Dvorak tone poem "A Hero's Song." Urbanski and the NDR give us an impassioned reading of that, too.

Well now I would say that if you are looking for a very living version of the "New World Symphony," or one more if you have a few, this performance stands out as very fulfilling. It reminds me of what enthralled me about the work when I was 14!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Johan Halvorsen, Carl Nielsen, Violin Concertos, Henning Kraggerud, Malmo Symphony, Bjarte Engeset

If one gets a certain distance from the origin period of one's love for music, one generally finds oneself being exposed alternatingly between the known, the known re-presented, and the relative unknown. So today I am pleased to express my receptive thoughts on such a mixture: violin virtuoso Henning Kraggerud and the Malmo Symphony Orchestra under Bjarte Engeset giving us a program of Violin Concertos by Johan Halvorsen and Carl Nielsen (Naxos 8.573738). Added as a short bonus is Johan Svendsen's "Romance."

Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) was during his lifetime an internationally acclaimed violinist, conductor and composer. His Norwegian roots entered his musical language in a general way, and we can hear that readily within the late romantic Scandinavian idiom of his Violin Concerto. It was first performed in 1909 by Canadian violin virtuoso Kathleen Parlow, then only 18 years old. The work was greeted with an enthusiastic audience reception in the four performances Parlow gave the work between 1909-1910. In was never performed again during the composer's lifetime, and he apparently burned what he thought were all copies of the work on his retirement in 1929. That was a mistake.

But happily Kathleen Parlow had retain a copy of the complete score and parts, which turned up in 2015. Kraggurd premiered the first present-day concert performance in 2016 and on the heels of that made the world premiere recording of the work which we can now appreciate here. It is a substantial bundle of rhapsodic demeanor, folk color and a definite "Northern romantic" quality. Kraggurd and the Malmo Symphony conducted by Bjarte Engeset, give us a spirited, idiomatic reading fully worthy of the work's substance and charm. And so we have something of great interest in fully fleshed out form.

The Halvorsen performance certainly makes this release worth pursuing in itself. But then we have the Nielsen Concerto nicely done.  If you do not have or have not heard this aspect of the Nielsen complete opus you no doubt should.

Johan Svendsen's "Romance" is a sweet surprise. It is northern lyric rhapsodicy in a fine fettle.

And all-in-all this is a thoughtful combination, well worth the good Naxos price. Hear it!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Pilgrim's Progress, Radio Play, Boult, BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Chorus

What lengths we go to hear ALL of Ralph Vaughan Williams' oeuvre depends on how committed to such a project we might be.

An example of the charming yet non-essential Vaughan Williams there is out there is the complete 1943 BBC radio play broadcast of The Pilgrim's Progress (Albion ALBCD 023/24) on two CDs, with incidental music by Vaughan Williams, played and sung by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The classic tale is rendered as only the BBC could do back then, with a period dramatic ethos we do not experience so much anymore.

The music itself has much to recommend it. Eight years later Vaughan Williams completed a full opera on the same subject, and this music has similarities and differences that will fascinate the completist.

Included is a 1929 broadcast of two short choruses by Granville Bantock, commemorating the John Bunyan tercentenary.

Perhaps this is not for everyone. But the serious Vaughan Williams enthusiast will respond readily. Others may be satisfied with Vaughan Williams' complete opera.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Martucci, Music for String Quartet, Piano Trios, Piano Quintet, Maria Semeraro, Quartetto Noferini

The absolute predominence of opera began to balance off with the growth of instrumental music after the turn of last century in Italy. One of the most interesting composers in this development was Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909). Pianist Maria Semerano and the Quartetto Noferini give us a judicious sampling of his chamber music on the recent 2-CD set Music for String Quartet, Piano Trios, Piano Quintet (Brilliant 2CD 94968).

Martucci managed to avoid the opera-producing hegemony of his times in Italy, embarking on a career as piano virtuoso, then establishing himself as an instrumental composer as well.

The assembled musicians give us very idiomatic, very decent readings of the "String Trios Nos. 1 and 2," the "Piano Quintet Op. 45," the "Momento musicale for String Quartet," the "Minueto for String Quartet" and "Three Pieces of G. F. Haendel transcribed for String Quartet."

One thing that strikes me about the music is its rhapsodic lyricism, its Italianate flavor, is ability to straddle romanticism, post-romanticism and even an incipient impressionism without a lot of to-do or overweaning musical pride. Martucci's lyric gift is in evidence throughout, but it does not seem to seek to draw attention to itself. There is an unforced flow of invention to be heard throughout, thanks in part to Ms. Semeraro and Quartetto Noferini's nicely understated readings. What is romantic about the music is generally allowed to emerge without the gushing of overly effortful emotive outpourings. And in the process Martucci sounds ahead of his time.

This is no doubt not music that will cause us to redefine radically the development of modernism. Nevertheless it is music of a distinct appeal, the presence of an almost endless font of creative form weaving. Listen to the first disk and its attention to the first trio and the quintet. They certainly sound fresh in the hands of the performers. They have a delightful sincerity about them, and that's true of the entire set.

I do recommend this to you, whether you wish to trace the development of modern Italian music or simply wish to experience some beautifully lyrical chamber strains, or both.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Natalia Andreeva Plays Preludes & Fugues, Bach, Franck, Shostakovich

Everybody knows and appreciates, for the most part, how Glenn Gould played fugues. Fast as it goes, exciting, dynamic. But of course there are other ways. Natalia Andreeva, the Russian pianist who gave us a beautiful volume of Ustvolskaya's complete piano works (see index box above) comes through with an album of  Preludes & Fugues (Divine Art 25139) where the emphasis is on a kind of meditative, poetic cast, grandly unfolding without hurry, studied but extraordinarily direct.

I've been listening closely to this album, and the more I hear it, the more I get inside of her way. Covered here are two preludes and fugues by Bach (one in C Sharp minor,  BWV 849, and one in A minor, S. 462, originally for organ, transcribed for piano by Liszt), plus Franck's "Prelude, choral et fugue," Shostakovich's "Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Op 87 No. 20" and finally, as a bonus, two "Etude-Tableau" by Rachmaninoff--one in G minor, Op. 33, No. 7, and one in C sharp minor, Op. 33 No. 8.

The  minor key, as seen above, predominates, and Ms. Andreeva makes much of this with a mesmerizing clarity and spirit, very gravitas. She gives us every reason to appreciate her approach. She allows each segment much space to breathe, much to say by drawing out every passage with that Russian, singing quality we have in some of the best pianists from there.

It is an album to hear repeatedly, each time you uncover more detail and subtlety. It is a marvel of poetic interpretation. And a very coherent selection of gems as well.

Hurrah for Natalia Andreeva! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Peter Racine Fricker, The String Quartets, Villiers Quartet



English composer Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990) made something of a mark on the new music scene in the later forties-early fifties with a number of prize winning and commissioned works. After that he continued on with excellent music but perhaps operated more in the shadows.

In his lifetime he wrote four works for quartet that have been gathered together in The String Quartets (Naxos 8.571374), played with intense concentration and precision by the Villiers Quartet.

The works span a long period between 1943 and 1976. They show a serious and somewhat somber demeanor, filled with a modern chromatic expansiveness (No. 3 is in a serial mode) that borders on severity.

A marked brilliance of craft pervades all four works. Somewhere between later Bartok and, eventually, mid-Elliot Carter in manner of intent rather than imitation, the quartets consistently espouse a serious uncompromising modern expression as the subject matter.

There is growth and change to be heard when following chronologically the thread of expression from the "Adagio and Scherzo" of 1943, the Quartet No. 1 Op. 8 of 1948-1949, the Quartet No. 2 Op.20 of 1952-53 and the Quartet No. 3 of 1976. Three of the four works are in first recordings, surprising given the quality and singularity of this music.

I heartily recommend this volume for anyone with a serious interest in the modern period and in English composers of last century. This is very enlightening and provocative music, performed with zeal and care.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Waldland Ensemble, American Voices, Music for Clarinet, Viola and Piano



The virtuoso Waldland Ensemble (Jeremy Reynolds, clarinet, Hillary Herndon, viola, Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo, piano) energize our musical senses and provide us with excitement and depth with a program of modern world premier recordings of American chamber music from relatively unknown but very deserving living composers. American Voices (MSR Classics MS 1541) brings us in close and intimate concordance with Kenji Bunch ("Four Flashbacks"), Anthony Constantino ("Ritual Songs"), Dana Wilson ("A Thousand Whirling Dreams"), Michael Kimber ("Vanishing Woods"), and Libby Larsen ("Ferlinghetti").

There is not a clinker to be heard and nothing save ultra-dynamic energy and lyric power in this anthology. The somewhat unusual instrumentation seems entirely right in the hands of this potent trio.

"Four Flashbacks" gives us brief but spectacular blues drenched vignettes that try and capture the composer's fleeting sensory and concrete memories of his musical upbringing in New York City.

"Ritual Songs" uses a three-note motif to launch a series of three short but intensive movements that function as a tripartite set of variations.

"A Thousand Whirling Dreams" gains inspiration from the vivid ending of the poem "As I Grew Older" by Langston Hughes.

"Vanishing Woods" captures the composer's love of the rapidly vanishing natural woodland settings available to us through treatment of an old hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth."

"Ferlinghetti" is a series of musical responses to the American poet's work.

We immerse ourselves happily in this music (or I do, anyway), which gives us a great number of reasons to celebrate the ongoing local efflorescence of the modern vernacular-influenced sound of the best in American chamber music today.

Very much recommended!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Crystal Mooncone, Listening Beam Five



For consideration today is an album of ambient, radical tonality soundscapes by the trio Crystal Mooncone. Listening Bean Five (Innova 973) gives us eight live sonic meditations that put us into quiet brown studies of varied atmospherics, all from the collective imaginations of the threesome--Stephen Rush on electric and acoustic piano, synthesizer, vocals and miscellaneous instruments; Chris Peck, flute and miscellaneous instruments; and Jon Moniaci, accordion and miscellaneous instruments.

The relatively simple means to produce a broad spectrum of cosmic moods does not detract from the aural appeal of it all. Drones and sustains layer under tonal events that include folk-like melodies and other diatonic lyricalities. Generally the overall sound transcends the relative simplicity of each element.

What is remarkable is the engaging and affective outcomes of each scape. These three are attuned to the ambient objectives of each number and make all eight interrelate and stand forward.

Some beautiful, gently aspiring music.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Brahms, Sinfonie Nr. 1, Franz Konwitschny, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, 1962

In 1962 conductor Franz Konwischny, just weeks before his death, gathered the Gewanhausorchester Liepzig into an East German recording studio to record Brahms' celebrated Symphony No. 1 (Berlin Classics 0300839BC). That recording, remastered from the original tapes, lives once again.

The enormous power of this reading comes to us over the years as timeless. As I first listened I heard of course once again the influence of Beethoven, but then it struck me how much it was a precursor to Bruckner's sprawling symphonies, despite the critic Hanslick's diatribes separating Wagner and then Bruckner radically from a consideration of Brahms. No, Brahms's incredibly moving First pointed backwards to Beethoven but also pointed forward to late romanticism. I have lived with a van Karajan version of the symphony for years, but this reading has something very different going on.

The strong opening assault on the senses, those beautiful andante-largo passages, the soaring lyricism of the final movement, there is an unhurried, stately, singing beauty and largeness I've never quite heard from the First until now.

The sound is excellent, the performance inspired. It is a true ear opener.

Get it if you love the First, but even if you are not sure (if that is possible).

Wow!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Peter Maxwell Davies, Works for Violin, Duccio Ceccanti



We lost composer Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016). But of course he left behind a large body of works and Naxos has been seeing fit to issue and reissue a large number of them Today we have an interesting chamber compilation of recent compositions, Works for Violin (Naxos 8.573599) featuring Duccio Ceccanti as the violin protagonist in a series of fine, virtuoso-poetic performances.

Three works cover the period from 2002 to 2013, one goes back to 1978-88; all tend to combine modernistic with tonal and sometimes folk colloquial sounds. Three of the four works are first recordings.

The "Sonata for Violin Alone" (2013) has a deeply introspective, ruminating quality and a stark beauty. It is one of Maxwell Davies' last works--dedicated to Duccio Ceccanti who gives us a very beautiful performance.

The "Dances from the Two Fiddlers" (1978/88) is a memorable fiddle-tune oriented work adapted from the children's opera of the same name with a series of brief but engaging ditties.

The "Sonata for Violin and Piano" (2008) returns to somewhat more formal grounds, though it portrays an imaginary walk through Rome on a non-existent walkway. It is modern-eclectic sounding in Peter's later, very personal way. There is drama in abundance for moments of considerable expressive power, then a disarming folk tenderness.. It is a tour de force for Ceccanti and pianist Bruno Canino.

The "Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle" (2002) brings in Vittorio Ceccanti on cello nicely for a modern take on folk forms and their integration into expressionist classical-modern style a la Maxwell Davies.

Duccio, pianists Matteo Fossi and Bruno Canino, and cellist Vittorio Ceccanti give us their sensitive and considerable all for a remarkable reading of these very intimate and revealing later works.

Modern chamber music enthusiasts and Maxwell Davies devotees no doubt will be captivated with this program as I am. But really there is beauty and accessibility for nearly everyone with the added challenge of very modern expression to brace our listening selves and provide a fabulously contrasting diversion.

Very recommended.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Francesco Cilea, Complete Piano Music, Pier Paolo Vincenzi

The piano music of Francesco Cilea (1866-1950) has been virtually absent in our times from the concert hall, the publishing house and the recording studio. Until now and Pier Paolo Vincenzi's  performance of Cilea's Complete Piano Music (Brilliant 2CD 95318). The totalized oeuvre spans the time period from 1883 to 1930. The early works reflect influence of the romantics, notably Chopin and Schumann, but the mature period is another matter. Vincenzi in the accompanying booklet notes Cilea's Mediterranean melodic approach and we can hear increasingly as Cilea matures a mastery of contemporary European harmony, the influence especially of Debussy and the impressionists.

In his earliest work he preceded the Italian instrumental masters of the early-to-mid 20th century by a number of years. Hearing all the works in one place here we encounter affable company, a lyric element, a sturdy character to most pieces and some that show an exploratory sense of adventure.

But in the end Cilea seems less an innovator, more a synthesist. Not a bold modernist as much as a craftsman of talent and now and again of inventive inspiration.

Pier Paolo Vincenzi does a fine job bringing these works to us. Anyone with an interest in 20th century Italy will gain knowledge of a composer who deserves hearing. The music pleases.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Nordic Affect, Raindamage

Iceland's contemporary music quartet Nordic Affect returns with the album Raindamage (Sono Luminus 70008). It features three compositions originally performed by Nordic Affect in 2014 in the Icelandic concert Flow, plus three electronic compositions, one by each of the composers represented on the program. So we get Valgeir Sigurosson with "Raindamage" for violin, viola, cello and electronics along with the electronic "Antigravity;" Ulfur Hansson and "PYD" for violin, viola, cello and voices, plus "Skin Continuum" for electronics; and Hlynur Aoils Vilmarsson with "[N]" for violin, viola, cello and harpsichord, plus "NOA::EMS" for electronics.

The music somehow has a natural ambient quality of process whether calling for conventional instruments, instruments and electronics or electronics alone. There are modern sound color elements, soundscaping and various punctuations that mostly enhance the flow of the sound tapestry.

The compositions fit together end-over-end to create one long interrelated sound interlude. Nordic Affect puts themselves into the music so thoroughly that their utterances do not for the most part sharply differentiate themselves from the electronic dreamtime landscapes.

The music has a vivid Northern quality, icy or expansive, musico-biological, uncanny. It is an intimate collaboration of composer and performers, so much so that I cannot imagine at this point subsequent versions by other instrumentalists, that is how much the composer-instrumental nexus creates strong bonds for these pieces. It is a fabulous sound world that has great abstraction yet a sort of sound narrative that speaks to us in each case.

Is this the new music of the future? We don't need to know that. In any case it is some new music of the present, some very riveting new music, something every new music enthusiast should hear and appreciate.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Works for Violin & Piano Vol. 2 , Stefan Kirpal, Andreas Kirpal

A close listen to Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Works for Violin & Piano Vol. 2 (CPO 777457-2) affirms that for all the revival hubbub on the Jewish-Polish-Russian  modernist composer (1919-1996), there really is reason to pay attention. The Kirpal team (Stefan on violin, Andreas on piano, Gundula on 2nd violin for one piece) brings to us a remarkable set of works with all the devotion and care we could ask for.

The two CD set gives us the Sonatas for Violin and Piano Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6 plus the "Sonatina, op. 46," the "Sonata op. 69 fur zwei Violinen" and "Moldowische Rhapsodie op. 47/3."

These are works that beautifully remind us how unexpected much of this music can be. The rhythmic flow moves along in expected ways, yet the diatonic-chromatic melodic and harmonic twists and turns combine Jewish, Russian and Polish elements in completely untoward ways. In the process all sounds right. All sounds for us in a completely idiomatic, original way. You hear a bit of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in their wayward moods (and maybe all three share a common zeitgeist which is more than mere influence?), yet it never quite goes the way you expect, and that provides endless aural fascination.

The Kirpals phrase everything just so, all the more to set the listener up for the beautifully obstinate refusal to hit the bland notes.

This volume is a wonder. It needs to be heard! Exceptional in all ways, I would say.

Listen!

 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bernstein, Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

One thing seems sure to me this morning. The advent of Bernstein's first (1942) and second (1949) symphonies marked the arrival of an American musical titan. Subtitled "Jeremiah" and the "Age of Anxiety," respectively, they showed us a contemporary modern composer of great originality, of dramatic power and lyrical intensity, a supreme melodist and a sure master of modern orchestration.

When we hear them again today in the hands of conductor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony (Naxos 8.559790), they speak directly to us, they cut through the more overtly successful later Bernstein works and his subsequent status as a conductor and musical guide of the first rank. They remind us that Bernstein was on to something special even then.

We hear rhapsodic sincerity and great rhythmic vitality in "Jeremiah," as well understandably as some very spare but subtle Bernsteinian transformation of Jewish liturgical elements. The final movement brings in the mezzo-soprano part (nicely sung here by Jennifer Johnson Cano) for an almost Mahlerian flourish. Yet in the end this is an American symphony that follows originally in the footsteps of Bernstein's mentor and friend Aaron Copland.

The "Age of Anxiety," heard in its 1965 revision, goes even further into an American idiom, with the piano part (beautifully realized here by Jean-Yves Thibaudet) straying into jazz influences (that remained an important part of Bernstein's approach later on of course) and further extensions of the lyricism we hear in "Jeremiah."

With Marin Alsop's faithful and passionate readings of the two symphonies we hear a contemporary freshness, a timeless depth of spirit. They come across as landmark milestones in American symphonic music, as well they should.

Ms. Alsop and her musical colleagues breathe fresh air into these scores and give us pause. There is everything here, in supremely balanced readings.

Very much recommended, for those who have not fully experienced these symphonies as yet, and even for those who have.

Bravo!