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Monday, May 21, 2018

Michael Hersch, Images from A Closed Ward, FLUX Quartet

Living composer Michael Hersch (b. 1971) is a leader among High Modernists composing right now. I say that based on recordings of his music, namely Last Autumn  (see review from April 8, 2015), A Breath Upwards (see April 4, 2018) the Blair Quartet recording of Images from A Closed Ward (see March 5, 2014) and The Sudden Pianist (see June 4, 2013).

Hersch does not create music that sounds like it comes out of a laboratory or a math department at a prominent university (though I should be quick to point out that I like either sorts of things regardless). Instead there is a high level of drama and expressivity to the works I have heard, palettes of consonant and dissonant tonality working in tandem depending on the needs of the work, and at times an underlying extra-musical thematics that turns the music into a kind of narrative or meta-narrative that is more than just notes situated in space.

This latter is very relevant to the CD on the docket for this Monday. It is a new recording of Hersch's moving string quartet, Images from A Closed Ward (New Focus Recordings FCR 199). The first recording as I mention above featured the Blair Quartet. Ths time out we have the FLUX Quartet doing the honors.

As Aaron Grad puts it in the liner notes, Hersch often enough addresses the difficult theme of "loss and psychological instability." From A Closed Ward treats this condition as a central concern, at the same time as it provides a musical analogy to the visual content. It all began when Hersch encountered American visual artist Michael Mazur when they both happened to be in Rome--that is to say that Hersch was in Rome on a Rome Prize Fellowship. At the same time Mazur had a number of etchings on display at the American Academy. This was all about illustrations provided by Mazur for a new translation of Dante's Inferno.

Hersch saw the show and was impressed by it. He recognized in Mazur the visual equivalent to where Hersch was going musically.  At some point they met and hit it off. Mazur's initial signature pieces came out in the '60s, two sets of etchings and lithographs entitled Closed Ward and Locked Ward. The images were harrowingly dark renditions of a near hopeless sadness, an ugliness that served to isolate each from others. These works became central to the string quartet Hersch began in 2009.

And of course that quartet is what we hear so dramatically rendered in the present recording. What perhaps is most striking musically is a deliberate blocking out of one after another of short string groupings of sound, mostly simultaneously sounded yet with an unpredictability in both the voicings and the uttered periodicity. The voicings themselves are sometimes spread out in pitch so that the instability of the voicings correspond in many ways to the etching contents. There can be sharp dissonances and less dissonant voicings in contrast, the latter of which seem to want to more forward into more dissonance, or my ear hears it that way--as opposed to the old classical way of letting a dissonance sound as a movement towards a consonance.

So in the sympathy Hersch feels towards the Mazur patients, who seem to suffer mostly from their very isolation, we get a musical analogy or analogue of a series of soundings all interrelated but in a psychoacoustic sense never exactly interconnected, or in other words deliberately made  to conjoin yet existing in a ghastly solitude. I accidentally when looking for Hersh's birthdate online brushed up against a Times review that remarked on Hersch's dark pallet but also the moments of ecstasy. Honestly I did not hear that so much as unrelieved and rather hopeless sadness, sometimes quiet, sometimes like a cry of anguish. There seems to me no real relief in sight in the actual tone-movement forward. Still, the aesthetic brilliance of the way the tone blocks bump up against one another yet remain alone, that makes the listener zero down on the sheer sensual tone utterance quality. It is the manner of expression that fascinates and heartens the listener, that transcends the awe-ful presence of the subject matter, the patients and their struggles. From pain comes a pleasure in the referents, taken aside from the signifieds!

I hear this new version by FLUX. I love it. I find it different enough that I am glad to have it along with the Blair version. This may be the definitive performance though. If you for the moment only have resources to explore one, I recommend this one. The work is a milestone in quartet literature! Bravo!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Bruno Bettinelli, Chamber Music, Trio, Improvvisazione, Due movimenti

Every month as a reviewer brings me a spate of composers I have yet to discover. Some from right this moment, others recently gone, others of course from some earlier period. Today we have yet another, one Bruno Bettinelli (1913-2004).

Bettinelli was a successor to the Italian 20th century lineage of composers that include Respighi and Casella, somewhat less so the Serialist-and-beyond camp of Dallapiccola, Maderna, Berio and Nono. Yet there is a structural concern to be heard in his works and an abstractive flair that makes him a full Modernist at heart. At least that is what I hear and appreciate on a new recording simply entitled Chamber Music, with mention in the subtitle of three of the important works to be heard in the program, Trio, Improvvisazione, Due movimenti (Naxos 8.573836).

Performances are first-rate. The music? Compositions cover a pretty vast period of time from 1968 to 1991. None of the works are trifles, all are uncompromising small chamber configurations ranging from two solo guitars ("Divertimento" 1982), flute and guitar ("Musica a due" 1983), voice and guitar ("Due liriche" 1977), violin and piano ("Improvvisazione" 1968, "Due movimente" 1977), to violin, cello and piano ("Trio" 1991).

What is perhaps most remarkable about these pieces is their refusal to settle down into an easily characterizable niche, and in a related way, their refusal to supply a crowd-pleasing literary or thematic "hook." The Modernism lingers on the edges of what was in demand at the time. There are no obviously Serial strands of bloop and bleep in this music, but then there is enough of an abstract expressive autonomy to perhaps put off those committed to a past-leaning neo-Classicism or neo-Romanticism. This is chamber music that is ultra-serious about a commitment to hermetic purism. Like late Beethoven Quartets it does not try to speak plainly as much as it drives deeply into a sort of advanced expression that primarily is intended for the "real" cognoscenti.

So every work is a kind of highly worked gem that does not easily yield its riches but demands special attention. Slowly, as you listen repeatedly, the music emerges, even reluctantly. Yet if you spend the time with this music, you begin to reap the benefits. This is not stylistically astounding Modernism nor is it rear-garde hearkening back. It is everywhere. It is nowhere. It nearly demands the sort of intimacy that someone who learns to perform this music would have. Not quite all, but a reflective practical immersion. You need that. In today's world, does any of us have that much to give a composer who is already past and not yet certified as a member of the Holy Pantheon? That is your call. I decided to keep listening and by now I understand that this has substance and uncompromising originality.

So once again, here is something that does not play itself. YOU must be an active participant to the music in order for it to do its work. If you do that you will enter a world that you might not have available to you with any other composer. That is saying something, isn't it?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Lorenzo Palomo, Sinfonia Cordoba, Fulgores, Castile and Leon Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez Cobos

The Contemporary living Spanish Composer Lorenzo Palomo (b. 1938) is previously unfamiliar to me. All that has changed since I have been listening to his CD recording of Sinfonia Cordoba and Fulgores (Naxos 8.573326). 

These two symphonic examples from 2015 and 2011, respectively, give us a splendid view onto Palomo's mature style. The liners make mention of Palomo as the stylistic successor to Joaquin Turina--especially in terms of the "rhapsodic freedom" that they share. In a broader sense Palomo represents all Spanish folk-tinged classical forebears since DeFalla and adds something of his own original musical personality to it.

"Sinfonia Cordoba" is a sort of musical travelogue, a portrait of an old city in three movements. "Stroll to the mosque-cathedral" begins with mystery and segues to a beautiful moment for tenor Pablo Garcia Lopez and orchestra. "Nocturne on the river bank" and "Courtyards in the month of May" continue the rhapsodic Spanish-tonality-drenched whirly-gig of impressions. And somehow one can feel that late springtime diffuses something in this music.

"Fulgores" is a dancing sort of folkish atmosphere that features to good advantage Rafael Aguirre on guitar and Ana Maria Valderrama on violin.

It all is a good example of well-wrought, well-orchestrated Spanishiana if you will pardon the awkward coinage. Those who do not embrace the rich legacy of Spanish sounds may not find this especially interesting. Yet if that is the case I suppose such a person would have no interest in following the Spanish classical heritage at all, so that would be rather obvious.

I find this music did not reach out to me on the first number of listens. Then, pretty late in the game I started to respond to its rather profound indifference to generating applause, its definite "this is the music as it needs to be" approach. In the end I like it and I hear a sort of poetic, Spanish Impressionist strain that is about the echo of substance and light more than an immediate presence. So in the end I recommend it. But you will need to spend some time with this music before it speaks to you, if you are anything like me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Copland, Getty, Heggie, Tilson Thomas, Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson, A Certain Slant of Light, Lisa Delan, Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille, Lawrence Foster

To gather together multiple Contemporary Modern song cycles for soprano and orchestra based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson seemed like a good idea when I heard of it, and so I requested a copy. I have now spent some time absorbing it and shall report on this morning to you. A certain slant of light: Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson (Pentatone PTC 5186 654) is the full title. Soprano Lisa Deland holds forth dramatically with the Orchestra Philharmonique de Marseille under Lawrence Foster sounding nicely detailed and poised in a program of cycles by Aaron Copland, Jake Heggie, Gordon Getty, and Michael Tilson Thomas.

The stage is set historically and stylistically by Copland's celebrated cycle "Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson" (1948/1950). It is music familiar to many, myself included, and it functions in some ways as a template for an evocatively descriptive and Expressionistic-Modern-quasi-Impressionistic pallet of colors to heighten the soprano's textual through-composed presence throughout.

The sort of descriptive-Modern-Leider approach is continued and extended in the song cycles that follow. Jake Heggie's "Newer Every Day" (2014), Gordon Getty's "Four Dickinson Songs" (2008) and Michael Tilson Thomas's "Poems of Emily Dickinson, selections" (2001) all offer some genuinely moving music and a sort of continuous Dickinsonion dramatic theatre of text and tone. Of all these Modern extensions on Dickinsonia the Tillson Thomas stands out as being especially interesting and original, yet in the end all of this music is worthwhile.

Delan and the Orchestre Philharmonic de Marseille are in top form. They exemplify how to approach this music, not so much as an extension of operatic gestures as a thoroughly liederian approach, dramatic yet introspectively expressive.

And so I do not hesitate to recommend this to you, for the performances, for the Copland and the Tilson Thomas especially but for the Heggie and Getty as well.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Amit Peled, To Brahms, With Love, From the Cello of Pablo Casals, Brahms Cello Sonatas 1 & 2, Noreen Polera

In the classical world album ideas can either make sense or become a sort of marketing gimmick. Cellist Amit Peled's new album belongs happily to the first category. Its subtitle tells half the story, From the Cello of Pablo Casals, since for this recording Amit is playing the great Casals' 1733 Goffriller cello. The principal title of the album tells us the rest: To Brahms with Love (CAP Records 018-1). In fact this is a fine recording of Brahms Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 by cellist Peled and pianist Noreen Polera.

As far as the cello goes, it sounds as wondrously full and deep as it did with Casals. Amit Peled soars high and far throughout, yet his emotional connection with the Brahms is a little bit more balanced and so sounds like a contemporary of ours rather than a product of an earlier generation. His playing is nuanced and exemplary. Noreen Polera on piano is a perfect partner in this endeavor, with classical balance and a lively repartee with Amit.

There have of course been some beautiful recordings of the Brahms sonatas. This one may not quite equal some of the more famous ones for extroverted virtuoso extravagance, yet because of that it gives us Brahms's compositional intentions all the more clearly, with attention and care for the totality.

The Second Sonata has long captivated me with its Apollonion exuberance and lengthy melodic intertwining of inspired thematics. The appearance of both sonatas in the last half of the 19th Century furthered the scope of Beethoven's work on the instrumentation, reaching further heights of long-form expression with Brahms' definitive entry into the fray. The two composer's Cello Sonatas set the bar high for dramatic and structural possibilities and influenced all that came in their wake. In both cases music was always the master. Difficulty and virtuosity were ever tied to the needs of a musical sounding of intelligence and a wrought complexity that ever seemed lucid and compellingly discursive. If there is never a doubt that the cello has the primary voice, the piano is never relegated to a mere accompaniment but instead flourishes on completely musical terms, as an independent weaver of corresponding lines and a principal realizer of the harmonic implications of the overall whole.

What strikes me especially at this point in my experience of the music is the remarkable organic pull to a seamless developmental whole, especially in the Second Sonata. Rarely do you encounter the sort of sequential busy work that marks less inspired developmental sections. It all seems a continuous saying, rather than a butchering of things into rigid sections. One follows the other in remarkable fluency and continuously significant phrasings, so that theme and development overlap into one long endless melody line. This is Brahms at his best.

And so we have two major chamber classics newly performed with a modern sensibility. There is a marked audio clarity to these recorded performances and an impressively rich cello sound. Peled and Polera give us performances that stand to become future benchmarks on what constitutes the present-day standard for Romantic Chamber Classics. Bravo!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Leopold Kozeluch, Complete Keyboard Sonatas 12, Kemp English

As the liner notes to the current volume state, Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818) was a contemporary of Mozart and during his days in Vienna was thought by many to be a better composer! And yet only now with a valiant undertaking of the World Premier Recordings of his Complete Keyboard Sonatas (This being the 12th and final volume) (Grand Piano GP736), Kemp English introduces these some 50 works to our world.

Why has it taken so long? Kozeluch was born outside of Prague in 1747 and moved to Vienna by 1780. By then the pianoforte had all but replaced the harpsichord as the fulcrum point of a musical home and Kozeluch's sonatas gave the amateur a lot of possible choices. The music in this volume includes an early example, perhaps a little CPE Bach-like, and a later, more-or-less pre-Beethovenian proto-Romantic sonata. I am happy to say that Sonatas 47-50 are fascinating glimpses into a vital creative mind.

Kemp English performs all on beautiful period instruments. He sounds inspired and I cannot fault his performances in the least. The complete set was made possible in many ways by Christopher Hogwood's welcome editing of a complete Barenreiter Edition that has been published recently.

The liners give us valuable historical background, including an assertion that his centrality for keyboard sonatas and his personal vision in fact enabled him to effect a major revolution in the music circles of the time.  Consider this quote from a 1796 Schonfeld  publication:  "The vogue of the pianoforte is due to [Kozeluch]. The monotony and muddled sound of the harpsichord could not accommodate the clarity, the delicacy, the light and shade he demanded in music; he therefore took no students who did not want to understand the fortepiano as well, and it seems that he has no small share in the reformation of taste in keyboard music."

That is a rather bold assertion to us perhaps, since we have basically known next to nothing of the piano music in our lifetime. However a close listen to this 12th volume bears out the assertion, or at least does nothing to contradict it. Kozeluch surely has a real talent and a feeling for the piano that rivals the best of his contemporaries.

If we do not hear the emotional strength and depth of Beethoven or the sublimity of Mozart or the melodically soaring qualities of Schubert, there is something else to be appreciated that makes a journey into this volume worthwhile. There is a kind of crisp logic, an inevitability to the unfolding sequences.

Anyone who loves the Classical-Early Romantic period of the Viennese flourishing will retrieve an important lost piece of the scene then with this Kozeluch set. Volume 12 satisfies on its own, but if you are a completest you may want to explore the rest as well. Brilliant addition! Definitely recommended.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Paul Reale, Chopin's Ghosts, Kim Cook, Christopher Guzman

Contemporary American composer Paul Reale has not gotten a lot of attention on this blog. The lack is remedied today with a volume of chamber music for cello and piano, Chopin's Ghosts (Naxos 8.559820). Performances are in the very capable hands of Kim Cook, cello, and Christopher Guzman, piano. They are melifluent and balanced in expression, neither facile nor counter-phlegmatic, rather occupying a kind of ideal middle ground that allows this music's Modernist core to mingle freely and adeptly with the music's Neo-Classical balance and Neo-Romantic expression.

The music on this program is quite recent (or recently revised), all but one (Wexford Carol, 2004) hailing from our current decade. The solo cello "Seance" (1973-74, rev. 2017) spells the program nicely as a short and worthy break from the cello-piano configuration, the latter of which is otherwise predominant.

And for that there is much to appreciate. There is substantial invention and complexity so that lovers of the cello-piano magic of the past can live the experience again with enough change that there is no question of repetition. It takes some close listens, many more than one, and then the music truly beings to speak.

"Durch die Jahreszeiten II" (2013) sets the stage for what is to come with finely wrought folk in radical transformation. The centerpiece works "Chopin's Ghost (Cello Sonata No. 2)" (2017) and "Cello Sonata No. 1" (1983, rev. 2017) make use of "found material" to give us a Modern drama of old in flux and transport. So the first makes use of the old "What Can You Do with a Drunken Sailor" while No. 2 alludes in transformed obliqueness to the music of Chopin. It is the complex node of reworking that affords us substantial fare, a kind of set of memory objects that show by the passage of time how there can never be a continuous sameness if there is to be an ongoing contemporary music world.

Those who rise to new cello-piano repertoire played well I warrant will find this absorbing and rewarding. And those who appreciate well-thought-out, Modern "Neo-" will much appreciate it as well, I would think.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

LeStrange Viols, Aeternum, Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add Ms 31390

A somewhat exotic Early Music item is up for review today. The group is the viol consort LeStrange Viols and the album is entitled Aeternum: Music of the Elizabethan Avant Garde from Add. MS 32390 (LeStrange Viols PCR912 DDD).

It is a CD program of some 26 viol compositions played with all the period sonance such music demands. The music comes from a tablebook preserved in the British Museum as "Additional Manuscript 31390. Add. MS 31390." That designation is the library's shelf mark. The collection was apparently compiled in the main in 1578 and contains a mix of the latest new music by Byrd and others plus old favorites from earlier in the century. The case for dubbing this collection as representative of the Elizabethan avant garde of the time is not unwarranted. This was the cutting edge of viol consort music then. Of course we listen to this music today as venerable relics of an age long past. Yet in the end to have lived through this period as music enthusiast was as in any period to confront the new and embrace or reject it, to take a stance on its place in the continuum.

More so than that though, the liners alert us to the idea that some of this music was boldly experimental. It takes a close listen and a kind of clearing of the feeling of eerie distance that the performances and their period constancy reinforces, before you can grasp how that is. The liners put it succinctly. You can find in listening "a love of cross-relations (a striking type of permitted dissonance) and an abundance of rythmical and metrical complexity." So that is one of the fundamental aspects of the style of the period. Yet too there are marked experiments, such as a cantus firmus constructed from five-beat groupings, or fully serialized rhythm (marvelously rendered with pizzicato in Picforth's work), a three-part Byrd canon built on what were then shocking dissonances.

All this serves to remind us that even Early Music could be situated in a seething, teaming mass of flux and change.

Mind you, one at first does not drop one's coffee cup in alarm on hearing this. You must live with the music to feel gradually what it might have felt like to be knowledgeable and hear this music in the air at the time.

And in the end you revel in the marvelous sonarities of the viol consort and in this way feel after a time that this sound is quite exotic to us, "new" in ways that anything unaccustomed is for us a growing movement forward in time.

All the content aspects can be engaged in for a very lively listen. Or you can just listen and get quite a bit of satisfaction from the sheer sensual pleasure of the music. In any case this is excellent fun and a boon to any Early Music fan. It invites you to enter in the musical world as it was just then. That is a very good thing, indeed. We can get insights into our New Music world by comparing notes, so to speak! Most definitely recommended.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

William Walton, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, etc., James Ehnes, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner

William Walton (1902-1983) is one of those twentieth century composers whose reputation has fluctuated somewhat, at least here in the States in my lifetime. I am thinking in terms of a comparison. There was perhaps a time where William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams were spoken of nearly in the same breath as principal architects of the arrival of the English Classical Renaissance in Modern times. Then as I experienced it in the later '60s, Vaughan Williams seemed to steadily rise in importance as the compositions of the last years were gradually assimilated and appreciated. And then what of Walton? He remains a highly appreciated figure, but perhaps not a true member of the invisible pantheon of immortals? In the end the horserace for immortality seems unimportant.

All this is a prelude to a new release of merit surrounding some of Walton's more interesting works, namely Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Sonata for String Orchestra, and Partita for Orchestra, as presented to us anew by violist James Ehnes and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under conductor Edward Gardner (Chandos CHSA5210).

What strikes me about the program is the juxtaposition of three of Walton's more ambitious orchestral scores that in some ways are due for more attention that they have received in my own experience at least.  The readings are sympathetic and enthusiastically etched out with a wealth of sonic detail. These show a very earthy Walton, honest and painstaking, not bent on barnstorming innovations or even a thoroughgoing Modernism. He was in some ways unassuming, a composer who delighted in sounding out of a tradition that was adjusted and updated to the world he lived in and so in no way an anachronism. Yet as ever there is an unpretentious directness that seems now refreshing.

The combination of sterling sound, dedicated stylistic trueness and a mix of three very worthy compositions leaves me with a feeling of satisfaction. Any follower of Modern English developments in the 20th Century would find these readings illuminating and very pleasurable. If I still cannot seem to get a real bead on the whole of Walton and a single vision of how to encompass this, it is not the fault of this program. Recommended.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Reynaldo Hahn, Chamber Music & Song, Vol. One

I've liked what little I have heard of the music of Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) so when a new volume offered itself to my perusal I happily responded. There aren't so many of his works available in recorded form these days, partially no doubt because he followed no particular Modern tendencies in his lifetime but instead stuck to his ultra-melodic pursuit of a kind of beauty that was put forward with utter conviction.

So we have before us the First Volume of what is entitled Chamber Music & Song (Champs Hill CHRCD139). This initial volume is all-instrumental, yet its relation to song is a factor in Hahn's  focus on wonderfully unwinding song-like melody, and in addition there are a number of song transcriptions that give us direct access into song form.

Performing throughout is pianist James Baillieu along with associates Benjamin Baker on violin, Tim Lowe, cello, Adam Newman, viola, plus Bartosz Woroch on violin. Four of five appear in Hahn's "Piano Quartet No. 3 in G Major" and all five join together on the "Piano Quintet in F-Sharp Minor." All four string players appear as soloists with Baillieu in succession on the remaining four duo works. Everyone sounds very well, near perfect for the music at hand, lyrical without straining with emotion, as these works no doubt should be performed.

The music program initially came out of a concert in the Brighton Festival devoted to the French muses, namely chamber works by Poulenc and Hahn. After a warm reception Baillieu and company decided to commit the Hahn works to recorded form. The happy results now spin in my player as I write.

Hahn does not fit some stereotype so well. Born in Caracas to a German-Jewish father, he moved to Paris with the family while young, was musically precocious, studied with Massenet, Gonoud and Saint-Saens and most notably was a composer of songs. He was a famed conductor of Mozart at Salzburg in his day. He was a good friend of Proust from 1894 on. This may be the stuff of legend but when you hear his music in depth it all comes together as not unrelated to his musical self. I won't pretend to explain that. Read all of Proust's masterwork, listen to all of his teachers, think a bit and maybe you'll hear as I hear. Yet even then those are not sufficient conditions for his art. There is his own originality that shines through. The music may be hard to imagine without the profound influence of his forebears and his milieu, but one feels at last that even without such things Hahn would have shined. What is most French no doubt is the heightened lyrical quality, in that in his own way very much a contemporary of Debussy's.

The Piano Quartet and Quintet are marvelously fertile inventions, perhaps as Classically Romantic as much as anything might be, but measured, original, melodically striking in their very own ways, with some of Mendelssohn's quirkiness yet something more than that. You must hear to understand. The miniatures that fall in between the larger works are lovely.

This music may be somewhat anathema for a stern Modernist. Yet it does not negate other music, so what could be the danger of hearing it, and perhaps even liking it, loving it, even? There is none in 2018, now that all the Modernist wars have been fought. We as music lovers are the victors, because now we might choose to listen to whatever we choose, and today the variety of styles and substyles are astonishingly rich.

So you well may want to make some space for these Reynaldo Hahn chamber works. If you should take to them like I did, you are a winner. If not, you lose nothing in the effort. If you embrace the whole of musico-historical possibilities, I cannot imagine you would not fall under the spell of the "Piano Quartet No. 3," then wonder at the 1946 completion date. Hahn may have been a man out of his time by then, but by no means out of ideas. I recommend you get this volume and apply your ears to its beauties. It will take you out of this time, no doubt, to some Hahn Wonderland where nothing matters save the musical beauty he conjures for us so well. Listen soon and feel a happy elation of surprise.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Weinberg, Piano Quintet, Cello Sonata No. 2, Piano Sonatine

When it comes to discovering composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), it seems that each new release reveals more and more of his musical personality. That is certainly so with a new program of his chamber works, Piano Quintet, Cello Sonata No. 2, Piano Sonatine (Steinway & Sons 30072).

The three works cover something of the early years of his Russian exile from his native Poland and drop into his musical mind in several succeeding years, 1944, 1951, 1958.

The "Piano Quintet, Op. 18" (1944) has a molto expressivo demeanor that contrasts vividly in each movement, from the strangely hushed opening movement with its mysterious theme stated in the piano in octaves, we find ourselves in a sort of sarcastic waltz environment and then on in the final movement to an almost brutal thematic tattoo that quickly gives way to a complicated ethnically bursting forward dance motif and even an illusion to my ears to a boogie woogie pattern. It is characteristic of the very unexpected charms of the music's unfolding.

These were turbulent times for Weinberg and the music reflects anxiety, restlessness and onward momentum in ways very Modern and idiomatically Weinbergian. It is characteristic of Weinberg's Modernism that he not allow his opening theme to show much in repetition but instead to flow through without an obvious resting point. That never-resting quality in a way models the manic ever-active state of the modern megalopolis, or we certainly can experience it that way now even if he might have intended something else when he wrote it.

On the other hand the Piano Sonatine (1951) has a deceptive lightness that in paradoxical Weinbergian fashion turns out to be not "easy" but somewhat recalcitrant? It contrasts well with the Quintet and reminds us that Weinberg was not monolithic in any sense.

Finally the 1958 Cello Sonata No. 2 seems very much in line with the Russian Modernism in the air via Weinberg's friend and mentor Shostakovich yet also shows a subtle Jewish element and an additional Weinbergian element that sets it apart. The symbiotic relationship of Weinberg and Shostakovich was not necessarily all in the direction of the latter to the former, as we can read of in some of Shostakovich's later statements on the relationship.

As far as the performing artists involved, pianist Jeanne Golan sounds poised and committed as does the Attacca Quartet and cellist Andrew Vee. The scores call for a thorough grasp of Weinberg's highly individual window on music. Happily all five do very much get it and get into it.

For all these reasons this is a most attractive volume that will by its content get open up new territory for anyone interested in Weinberg's overall opus. It also could serve as a perfectly revealing introduction to the composer. So I do not hesitate to recommend.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Leo Brouwer, The Book of Signs, Paulo Bellinati, Concerto Caboclo, Brasil Guitar Duo, Delaware Symphony Orchestra, David Amado

Here we have today a set of World Premiere Recordings by the Brasil Guitar Duo and the Delaware Symphony Orchestra under David Amado. It is one of those programs that hits one immediately and then continues to grow in stature for its most memorable lyric content and brilliant two-guitar passagework. Someone who has listened to as much music as I have over a lifetime might rightfully be expected to have become somewhat blase over the years about the possibility of engaging lyricism. In fact I have never lost the capacity for more and yet more of it.

And so the music today meets a very willing and enthusiastic recipient. What is it? It is two concerti for two guitars and orchestra, both written in the present century. The most remarkable is Leo Brouwer's "The Book of Signs for two guitars and string orchestra" (2003). It runs some 45 minutes and begins most notably and notefully with a long movement entitled "The Signs of Memory," a theme and variations that haunts and delights. The theme sounds a little like the famous  Francois Couperin theme in "Les Folies Francoises" which also made an appearance with Frescobaldi and others. The Brouwer is a kind of harmonically parallel ghosting and the variations are  extraordinarily inventive. Oh, but I find on reading the liners that the theme is in fact from Beethoven's "32 Variations in G minor," which in part explains why it seems so familiar to me, and yet too Beethoven then hearkens back too to the "Les Folies" theme, interestingly enough. From there comes the second movement "Variaciones sobre un tema sentimental" a ravishing theme that nearly compares with Rodrigo's "Aranjuez" for sheer tunefulness and grace. It has that suspended mystery like the Rodrigo movement and gets flawless execution and poignant variations by the two guitars and strings. The third movement does not let down and has some of the most fetching two guitar passages I can remember hearing. Well it is not surprising since Brouwer is probably the most important composer for the guitar in our lifetime. And this is one of his most remarkable and accessible works. So happy us, then? Me, anyway.

So how can one top that? One cannot really but then Paulo Bellinati does not try so much as he encapsulates and reworks the music of his Sao Paulo homeland with an intriguing "Concerto Caboclo for two guitars and orchestra" (2011). It is contentful and a treasure of beautiful guitar sounds with and without orchestra. It has some of that Brazilian saudade. And really it has its own lyrical strengths too, so it is very well suited as the companion piece to the Brouwer. It is quite worthwhile in its own right. If you love Villa-Lobos' take on the folk-Brazilian mode, and/or Milhaud's work in this vein, here is something more and not at all inferior, either.

In the end I find myself very happy indeed with this program and its execution. It is hard to imagine a more dedicated and capable two-guitar team for this coupling. The Brasil Guitar Duo have all the technique and all the sweeping lyrical sense to make their parts soar. And the Delaware Symphony under Amado do what they should and do it with spirit and beauty.

So I think anyone who wants to be conversant with Modern concerted guitar works would do very well with this brilliant offering. Even if you don't. This is a real beauty! Ravishing music that could become a soundtrack for your life right now. So I do tell you as a friend. Just get it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Scott L. Miller, RABA, Daniel Lippel, Laura Cocks, Ensemble U:

I have increasingly found Scott L. Miller to be his own musical voice in the realm of Electronic and New Music. Going through various blog indexes I find this to be in fact the third CD of his that I have reviewed on these pages and the pages of Gapplegate Music Review. He shows no sign of flagging on RABA (New Focus Recording FCR 198). In fact this well may be his most important offering to date.

What started out for Miller as a kind of mini-retrospective of his 20-year cycle of creation rather quickly became a kind of reworking of past efforts into new effusions and novel collaborations. It is a collection of some seven works created over a significant time span (one from 1998, the others completed in their present form in 2016-7). Each occupies a particular niche in the ambient zone. There are some three for "fixed media electronic sound" alone: "Autumn Etude" (1998), "Hilltop at Montalvo" (2017), and "Solstice Orrery" (2016); one for Ensemble U: (alto flute, clarinet, violin, cellos, tam tam, piano) and electronic sound, "Raba" (2015/2017); two for Daniel Lippel on electric guitar and electronic sound or interactive electronic sound, "Admiration" (2008/2017), "Meditation" (2016); and one for electronic sound, Daniel on guitar plus Laura Cocks on flute and electronic sound, "The Frost Performs Its Secret Ministry" (2016).

The most striking thing perhaps in these compositions as a whole and in general is the acute sense of a vibrant sonority-timbre design that puts each work in a special place and creates memorable ambiances that feel rather organic, naturally growing and permuting. The works that interface conventional instruments and electronics have close overlaps in timbre between the two classes of sounds so that a sort of orchestral luminosity in furthered. And what completes it all is the sort of musico-logic of the sequence of each work. There is not quite a feeling of inevitability so much as there is a kind of "rightness" to the unfolding in time. The liner notes mention his tendency towards something called "granular synthesis," or in other words the breaking up of a sonic signal into grains of sound that each contain some of the audio modeling of the original. One might profitably trace some of the feeling of audio-logic to this process.

One might quibble as to whether Scott L. Miller's music belongs in the New Music category. To me such quibbles are plainly wrong-headed. An electric guitar, for example, is a contemporary instrument like, say, the pianoforte was during its first advent. It is transcendent by now of stylistic pigeonholes. And if ambiance can be found across a spectrum of various stylistic avenues, it is not to say that it does not belong as one of the characteristic modes  available to New Music artists today.

What especially matters is that Scott L. Miller excels as an artist in this mode. He is one of the very best active today and one of the most original and consistently satisfying. The program is in many ways a bellwether of New Music-Electronic Music right now. I enthusiastically recommend it to you.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Axel Borup-Jorgensen, Marin, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Sondergard

I have gone into the music of Danish composer Axel Borup-Jorgensen (1924-2012) at some length on these pages. (See articles from February 23, 2017, February 3, 2014 and September 7, 2016.) However I have not previously discussed his orchestral works. This morning I get the opportunity for that with a deluxe DVD-SACD set of Marin (Our Recordings 2.110426). The DVD contains two films that utilize Borup-Jorgensen's music, "Marin, An Animated Fantasy," and "Axel, A Portrait Film." The SACD contains the full nearly 20-minute performance of the orchestra work "Marin" plus a number of chamber works from the film of the same name.

I have no way of commenting on the DVD because every one of my players or disk drives has failed in the last several years.

On the SACD I have happily spent a good deal of time. Its nearly 80 minute length allows a good number of relevant compositions from the film(s) to be explored. The orchestral opus "Marin" gets a fully fleshed, vibrantly sonic reading from Thomas Sondergard conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Written at various stages between 1963-1970, it has a High Modernist soundscaped sonority and a good deal of dimensional depth. I would not hesitate to number this as among Borup-Jorgensen's most profound and effective works.

Another essential on the disc is his "Coast of Sirens, Op. 100" (1983-85) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, percussion and multivoice tape. The female voices ethereally evoke the seductive clarion call while the chamber ensemble wraps itself in and around the vocals with luminous elements of very modern atmospheric articulations.

The two works form a crucial set of bookends for five more sparsely configured works. There are two pieces for solo recorders, very characteristic of Borup-Jorgensen's angular contemporary treatment of the instrument. The 1955-56 "Music for Percussion + Viola" has a heightened sonic sense, a rhythmic drive and a pronounced trajectory more-or-less characteristic of the best New Music of that period. The Percurama Percussion Ensemble and Tim Frederiksen on viola contrast and commune together in ways that make for worthy listening. The 1989 "Fur Cembalo und Orgel" dramatically explores sound colors and wave-like swells while one of the 1959 "Winter Pieces" for piano gives us a gentle and chilly weathered rumination.

In all the SACD provides the modernist aficionado with the most freewheeling and variously instrumented introduction of Borep-Jorgensen's music I have yet to hear. No doubt the DVD film sequence adds to our appreciation as well. For that I do recommend you check out this offering. It is something of a milestone among Scandinavian New Music offerings in recent years.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Michael Daugherty, Dreamachine, Trail of Tears, Reflections on the Mississippi, David Alan Miller, Albany Symphony

Orchestral works by Michael Daugherty seem effortless. That is he seems such a natural for orchestration and orchestral writing that the music gives off the illusion that it practically writes itself. Of course that cannot be true. There is enormous facility, a directly communicative narrative and a sort of hard-edged perfection that tends not to show the scumbling of hard work and revision upon revision.

We get the chance to experience some very vibrant Daugherty in this light on a new recording by the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller. Three concerted works grace the program, each a world unto itself. The soloists for the works are near ideal exponents; the orchestra very well situated and fully rehearsed to give a precise, impassioned and nuanced reading of the music.

All of the works were written in this decade. Two of the three enjoy World Premiere recordings.

The program starts off quite evocatively with "Trail of Tears" (2010) for flute and chamber orchestra. It has some beautifully complicated, limber and agile flute parts that Amy Porter handles with aplomb. The government mandated, forced movement of Indian people in 1838 forms the thematic core of the music. It is understandably a serious work that ennobles the dignity and resolve of the victims.

"Dreamachine" is a somewhat quixotic work that pays tribute to the imagination of the inventor humanity and what they have given us. Percussion virtuoso Dame Evelyn Glennie is put through a demanding and rewarding set of multi-percussion challenges. The interaction of solo and orchestra is perhaps a kind of translation into sound of the mutually of inventor and invention as against the teaming social whole in which they flourish? Just a thought. It is mysterious and concretely palpable in very interesting ways.

Finally there is "Reflections on the Mississippi" (2013) for tuba and orchestra. It stands out for its melodically communicative character. The tuba part handled so well by Carol Jantsch is a kind of master narrator, telling of the land, the river and the long history of human-water-land interactions and the meditative essence of it all. The sections that move along like a living current excite. The more becalmed moments allow reflection. At least that is how I hear it. It is moving music.

After having listened closely to many Daugherty works, the impression of a grand synthesizer of music in our time rises. Does Daugherty have a special style? And if so how do we characterize it? The answer to the first question is yes, plainly. I always seem to be taken in immediately by the sheer visceral pleasure of each previously unheard work. I at once find myself aswim in the delightful sonic currents and must then stand back for a time in order to come to some meta-understanding and a commentary on it. He has his own way, surely, and it comes to us via a very thoroughgoing and hearty incorporation of what musical advances the last hundred or so years of seriously achieving local musics have given to us. There is something of that totality in most all his works. And in the process of assimilation there is a fundamental Daugherty quality to the result. His music is genuinely descriptive and outward pointed rather than forged out of inner necessity, so to speak. He perhaps is the opposite of a Bruckner or Messiaen. It is the world outside him that Daugherty takes on and shapes into his own personal images. And the Americana in his music is well integrated so that we sense it more that point to it.

This is important music excellently performed. I would not hesitate to point it out as highly representative of Daugherty at his best, and so essential listening for anyone who wants to swim with the current of some of the excellence of what is happening now. Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Arvo Part, The Symphonies, NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic, Tonu Kaljuste

Nobody with an interest in the latest Modern Classical music can afford to ignore Arvo Part. And indeed why on earth would one want to, since his music has a sometimes stark grandeur, echoes of more ancient forms and a marvelously narrative demeanor that sets him completely apart among his peers? As time goes by we can more readily synthesize what he has done. A perfectly sensible and summed up offering out now is all four of his symphonic creations on a single CD entitled The Symphonies (ECM New Series 2600).

So we get to hear all four in sequence, the Symphony No. 1 (Polyphonic) (1964), the Symphony No. 2 (1966), Symphony No. 3 (1971) and finally Symphony No. 4 "Los Angeles" (2008).

Conductor Tonu Kaljuste and the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic give us beautifully alive, heartfelt but measured readings of the complete output. We feel celebratory as we hear all four new readings and compare the works side-by-side. As the sequence proceeds we do feel a movement forward from a sort of attachment to "New Music" presentation gradually into the timeless eerie world of a present haunted by the memories of the past that is so much Part's special way with listeners.

The conductor approaches the recording-performance as if it were one grand symphony and indeed listening we do feel a continuity and a movement more and more toward an iconically singular voice. Yet none of it sounds tentative in the least. Each phase is a confident and eloquent assertion with its own stylistic assumptions. The First in a neo-classical avant way, the Second an adept, very adventuresome collage, the Third with a turn to his special allusions to early music, the Fourth with a timeless spiritual meditation and some of his celebrated tintinnabuli form along with slowly unfolding sonic planes endlessly stretching forward. It is a sublime journey. 

Anyone who loves Part will find it all indispensable. Those who do not know Part would do well to start here. It is one of those releases that marks out the year as special. Can I be more plain? It is wonderful.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Einojuhani Rautavaara, Works for Cello and Piano

In the world of 21st century music, there are or were those whose principal years were last century and those whose main thrust has been in the new millenium. It can matter for roots and origins in complicated ways. And in the end we can think profitably in terms of generations, and then one might find alignments, or perhaps not. Everything in the stylistic creative zone since the beginning of last century has been in a delicious state of flux and generalizations may not always hold true as readily as one might like.

For now we might put all of the generalizations aside and turn to a single composer and his music. Where that music fits in will no doubt take shape as we go along in time. I am not going to try and force an easy typological judgement on the music today, though. Classification is critical for the internet yet in the end it can be too simple-minded to force something on a complex musical personality. Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016) is our focus. His is a complex intersection of possibilities. He of course did a great deal of composing before the turn of this century and his musical personality stretches back to an early classic-modern period influence though his music has always tended to go its own way.

Today, most happily, we have a fine recording of Works for Cello and Piano (Ondine 1310-2), as performed with focus and rooted passion by Tanja Tetzlaff on cello and Gunilla Sussmann on piano.

The program covers nicely the extended period between 1955 when Rautavaara was in his twenties through to 2000 when he had reached his 70s.

The works keep a specially original style intact throughout, yet there is a great deal of growth to be sensed in that long gestatory period.

Kimmo Korhonen in the insightful liners to the CD sets up a sort of dichotomy of ways to create a lifetime body of works as a composer. On one extreme end, there are those that rather early-on create a particular stylistic universe and essentially work within it throughout their career, so that in some ways each  composition is a variation of each other composition, that the composer writes the "same" work over and over. On the other hand at the opposite end of the spectrum there are those who seek to create themselves anew at every moment, that realize a new possibility of music every time they write  a new work. On that end perhaps we might think of Stockhausen. On the other end there is Vivaldi?

Korhonen argues, to my mind rightly, that we most fruitfully can place Rautavaara in the middle of the spectrum. There is a neo-classical/neo-expressionist continuity to be heard in these cello-piano works for example, and yet each takes on its own special character within the continuum.

And in part the variable can be the degree of Modernity, so to speak? Some veer closer to the tonal end of chromaticism, others let go a bit more on the strength of a tonal center. Either way there is a a musical voice that calls out its individuality at all times.

So we can gain much from the form seeking yet mystically mysterious worlds of his Sonatas for Cello and Piano (No. 1 1973-73/2001 and No. 2 1991) We can hear the wonderful boldness of his 1955 "Two Preludes and Fugues." And there is the deceptively austere expressions of the Sonata for Cello Solo (1969). It fleshes out in your mind the more you listen.

There is no simple characterization of the music on this program. It is lyrical in its deep structure yet does not often wear that lyricism on its sleeve, so to speak. It is music that bears repeated listens by revealing a bit more of itself at each pass. It is a feeling person's music. But it is also a thinking person's music.

Very recommended for where we have been recently in our Modernity and its endless permutations. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Francois Couperin, Les Muses Naissantes, Brice Sailly, La Chambre Claire, Emmanuelle de Negri

The music of the brilliant French Baroque Master Francois Couperin (1668-1733) seems as timely and as welcome as ever. Now that we are at the 350-year-anniversary of his birth, there have been some worthwhile albums coming out to celebrate the occasion.

A fine one of them is Les Muses Naissantes (outhere RIC 387). It is a well-seasoned and vibrant exploration of Couperin gems, many of which I do not remember having heard before. There are some charming harpsichord solo pieces played nicely by Brice Sailly, some worthy chamber pieces with Sailly and Le Chamber Claire, and some songs featuring soprano Emmanuelle de Negri and the ensemble.

There is to be found some genuinely spirited music and plenty of the sweetness you can hear readily in the luminaries of the French Baroque.

The intertwining shifts in instrumentation and mood make for a nicely varied program. The period-faithful performances have liveliness and surety that mark the entire program as notable. Ms. de Negri, Mr. Sailly and La Chambre Claire are emminantly gifted and excellently suited to this repertoire.

If you love Couperin, here is a fine addition to your collection. If for some reason you have yet to get acquainted with this lyrically alive and deeply expressive exemplar of French musical arts, this would serve well as an introduction. I for one am glad to have it.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Carson Cooman, Owl Night, Music for Organ Vol. 7, Erik Simmons

The prolific Carson Cooman has been producing an enormous output. Hundreds of works. An earlier volume of his organ music, Litany, I covered on these pages last March 11, 2014.  Today we consider the latest volume of his organ music, Volume 7, Owl Night (Divine Art 25163).

(By the way the Divine Arts Recording Group shortly will be releasing their 500th recording, which in this or any time is a remarkable achievement. Congrats to them!)

I have not heard anything from Cooman that was not well-crafted and engaging. Owl Night is that and a good deal more. It is orchestral-depth organ music in the grand tradition that characterised the French school from Franck to Messiaen. That is not to say that you readily hear an influence so much as it has a beautifully dynamic mysterium and big sweep, not unlike the most ambitious French School organ music that we who love organ music find so appealing.

The music on this volume was written in the second half of 2016 and the first half of 2017. It covers a good deal of ground. So "Two Mantras" manipulates repeating figures and variations on them as well. "Owl Night" is a moody, quiet reverie. "Concert Piccolo" uses a 12-tone row previously utilized by Eberhard Kraus in a work of the same name. The piece is in memoriam.

"Two Fantasias" utilizes the same musical materials for contrasting movements, one bittersweet atmospherics, the other triumphant and majestic. Finally five Preludio, a Postludium, and a "Toccata, Aria and Finale"  send us off with flair. Quietude and  extroverted majesty alternate for a most fitting conclusion.

There is a deeply organ-ic experience available in this volume. There is much to assimilate and richly so. It is not un-Modern, it is un-self consciously Cooman Modern. And it is a very good thing, that. I recommend this to anyone who loves the organ. And anyone who has not yet experienced Carson Cooman and seeks a living voice of distinction in New Music.  Good music. Very good. Worthy of your ears, certainly.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Alan Hovhaness, Suite for Band, October Mountain, The Ruins of Ani, Central Washington Wind Ensemble

Some days are just not ideal. Yet you drag yourself to the computer anyway. Happily the music today has an aura that presents itself to me easily and so writing up today's column will be simplicity itself. Hovhannes (1911-2000) has appealed to me since I came across his Lousadzak MGM recording as a cutout when a freshman in high school. I immediately fell under the spell of the two compositions on that record. He was the first and remains one of the most important of the "Ethnic Moderns" I have happily come to know on my years of earth thus far. His mystical vision and incorporation of Armenian, Indian and other Asian-located musics is in the end ultimately situated in a highly original matrix all his own. This is music that could only be termed Modern in most all senses, yet it too has a timelessness.

So we have a new one, a recording of wind chamber ensemble works that include his Suite for Band, October Mountain and The Ruins of Ani (Naxos 8.559837). Four of the ten works on the album are World Premiere Recordings, and that in itself marks the release as worth noting. The music gets capable and careful treatment in the hands (and lips and teeth) of the Central Washington University Wind Ensemble and selected soloists. The music ranges in time (1948-1985) and instrumentation (from full wind band to solo flute and much in between).

Many Hovhannes acolytes will recognize the classic "Suite for Band" (1948) from earlier recordings. This version rivals versions I have studied. The previously unheard works are worthwhile, the other works done nicely.

In all this is a nice one to have if you are a Hovhaness admirer. It may not be my first choice for a new listener. Yet at the Naxos price you cannot go wrong. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Kara Karayev, Symphony No. 1, Violin Concerto, Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky

On December 30, 2013 I reviewed music by Kara Karayev on these pages. Here we are some nearly five years later and I have another one to bring up. Today there is a new CD of Karayev's "Symphony No. 1" and his "Violin Concerto." They are played enthusiastically and quite respectfully by the Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky. Janna Gandelman is the violin soloist and she sounds well.

The music itself is the main attraction. Karayev (1918-1982) is considered the father of modern Azerbaijani classical music yet too he was aligned in the camp of the Russian moderns.

The two works on the album are a nice contrast. The "Symphony No. 1" was written in 1943 and seems very much Russian Modernistic with the sort of lively severity Shostakovich did so well. Yet this is more than an an extension of that influence, for it travels far into a very vibrant palette of expression, dark and then brilliant, somber and then heroic, but serious, always even though there is a sarcastic playfulness to be heard, too.

The  "Violin Concerto" jumps ahead to 1967 and Karayev's very personal take on Serialist possibilities. There is even more of the Modernist to be heard, yet it very much sounds pan-Russian-Azerbaijanian in an individual way.

These two works bear much fruit on close inspection. They are neither inconsequential nor lightweight. They are convincing reasons why Karayev should be heard today. For he holds his own. Very well.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, Complete Ballet, Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

I don't suppose I will raise too many eyebrows if I say that Prokofiev's ballets to me rival those of Stravinsky. Well, maybe a few. It is hard to top "The Firebird," "The Rite of Spring" and "Petrushka." Nevertheless Prokofiev's "Cinderella" and "Romeo and Juliet" have an nearly equal power and charm to my mind. That does not mean they have had equal historic importance. Yet history is something that has passed and contemporary evaluation via continued performances is perhaps something else altogether. History is made. Contemporary appreciation either exists or it does not.

Since music should best not be viewed as a kind of horse race, since in the end once a composer is gone there is no true advantage of edging out a rival, none of this matters today. So for example when I find the Complete Ballet of Prokofiev's  Romeo and Juliet is available in a new version, I do not stop and try to rank its place in the pantheon. I simply want to hear it. And so I have gotten a copy and have been listening. It (Naxos 8.573534-35 2-CDs) is performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. Based on Alsop's cycle of Prokofiev's symphonies I knew the chances were good that she lavished an equal care with the ballet, and my expectations have been confirmed after a number of listens.

By the time Prokofiev conceived of and wrote the ballet (1935-36, 1939) the Soviet Union was developing a set of guidelines that amounted to a judgement irrespective of context of what works were or were not acceptable to the regime. So were sad endings permissible? It sounds ridiculous now, but that was a huge issue. So much so that Prokofiev's original version had Romeo and Juliet's mutual suicides avoided through a last-minute intervention by Friar Lawrence. The ballet was essentially prevented from having a full performance for a number of years because of the sad ending heresy!

Anyone who knows Prokofiev's musical personality must also know that a happy Romeo and Juliet would not be something Prokofiev would gravitate towards, since there is a bitter-sweet happy-sad element to his music at its finest. It is a key to the power of his music and also the power of Shakespeare's play.

So we ultimately should be glad Prokofiev had the courage to follow the story as it was intended to be told. The complete ballet has some of Prokofiev's most moving passages and all-in-all it has great appeal regardless of the circumstances of its making.

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony come through with a detailed, spirited and impassioned reading of the complete opus. This may not be Prokofiev at his most Modern, in spite of some huge dissonances and some idiosyncratically hard-edged moments in the score. It hardly matters or it should not when the music is this transcendent and lasting.

The memorable lyrical-brittle music for this ballet speaks to me as much as ever, in no small thanks to Alsop's loving attention. It is nothing short of a triumph, I must say. If you have not spent time with the complete Romeo and Juliet, here is the chance to do it with an excellent performance at a nice price. If you are a Prokofiev-aholic and have one or more versions, I suspect this version will be so balanced that you might well profit from adding it to your collection.

Well recommended.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Charles Villiers Stanford, Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Alberto Bologni, Christopher Howell

For many years, in fact up until recently, the only music I'd been able to hear of Charles Villiers Stanford (1854-1924) was a few scattered choral works. By a not especially detailed look at such music I thought of Stanford as maybe a little Elgar-like, slightly stodgy and Victorian? In fact when you listen closely to Elgar that view is not uniformly warranted, so also Stanford.

In Stanford's case I was disabused of the notion by a number of  new recordings--devoted to an in-depth view of his choral works and of his chamber output, lately especially of Christopher Howell's Three Volume, nine CD Complete Piano Music (See for example my Nov. 2, 2017 Blog Post.)

What I discovered in these new releases was the relatively untold story of a major figure in the English Modern Compositional Renaissance--not at all Modern in our accepted sense but neither all that Romantic. And not so stodgy, either.

That impression is born out by the welcome addition of a three-CD set of his Complete Works for Violin and Piano (Sheva Sh 100). Pianist Christopher Howell seems perfectly suited for the music, as he did for the solo piano works. His partner for this project is violinist Alberto Bologni, who acquits himself in a fine manner as well.

The music is nicely straightforward, tuneful, lyrical at times, never pretentious, not primarily virtuoso-oriented, a sort of English Chabrier in the focus on musicality. The folk and folk dance related pieces are the most charming but there too are some very nice moments of unvarnished song and instrumental singing. I imagine this might have made quite attractive salon music at the time.  Today it stands out as remarkably down-to-earth music, not exactly fragile and sometimes robust yet also un-mawkishly tender too. Some of the rhapsodistic music veers firmly into Romanticism yet it does so almost folkishly and not at all idiomatically.

In this way the music transcends era to be patently timeless. Yet it is very much of its time. In this music we can hear what for Stanford was a stance on being Anglo, on being an English composer that we now can see was in the air as a result. It helps explain and situate the very individual furtherance of a local style in the music of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton and the rest. Plus it is very enjoyable music in its own right. There are no great strides taken harmonically, nor are dissonances a factor, understandably. Yet too it is a definite break from any traces of Germanic Romanticism and a freeing up of the local to be itself.

So in the end I cannot but recommend this set to anyone who seeks to ground fully in the origins of the Modern English Renaissance. The works here are delightful in themselves. It is a freshening of your usual fare, no matter what that fare might be. So listen.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Sarah Nemtsov, Amplified Imagination

Sarah Nemtsov (b. 1980) has High Modernist cachet in my mind. I feel this way after happily exploring thoroughly her recent album Amplified Imagination (Wergo 7366 2). There are five compositions, each making use of conventional instruments along with electronic alterations and re-presentations. Each performed-recorded work occupies its own special world.

It is a multiple worldscape that opens up sonic possibilities that ever differ, that are a product of an ever-evolving dialectic between organic tones and their transformations. The ear catching opening "White Eyes Erased" sounds more musique concrete than instrumental at some points, then relatively untransformed things like a drum set come into the sound envelop dialoging  performativity and effectively for a while with the concretized sounds. Then drums and transformations give way to other envelopes, special messages to the listener in sequence. (As a drummer-percussionist myself I perk up with such sounds.)

So on the other spectrum of possibilities we have "zimmer I-III" which is a little more directly chamber-like with eight musicians including laptop players-transformers, amplified harp and amplified string quartet. Transformed sounds are integrated, as in a way another instrumental voice than a totally transformed ambient-timbral whole. Yet the music thrives on extended techniques so it is never a for-granted sonics. Never that.

"Implicated Amplification" for amplified bass clarinet and three effect pedals is redolent and bursting with beautiful instrumentality, so to speak. Ms. Nemsov supplies that snakelike agility of an instrument with repeating patterns and timbral intersections both thoughtful and moving.  It is a good example of what makes Sarah Nemtsov special. There is imaginative deliberation to all of these works. You feel after listening that there is a very alive somebody behind the contemplative and often extroverted sounds.

I would say to you after listening many times, I would say listen to this without fail if you hold High Modernist and "Free" sounding music in high esteem. It is in its own way a triumph of sound over silence.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Franz Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 12-17 (original versions), Carlo Grante

Just how much piano music there is by Franz Liszt can be approximated by the fact that Naxos is now at Volume 48 of their complete set! There is no apparent let-off. This volume plays to me and I cannot help but smile as I listen for the sixth time. It, to be specific, is a recording of the Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos.12-17 (Original versions) (Naxos 8.573784). The pianist is Carlo Grante, who is not out to prove just how flashy he can be, and that is a good thing if we want to assess the original treatment and not merely be dazzled.

So what have we to gain from hearing these prototypical versions? The Hungarian Rhapsodies can be profitably seen as one of the first significant forays into "nationalism" in the classical fold, which nowadays we might boil down to the use of "native" ethnicity or folk materials as the basis of a new music. It was never entirely something out of the blue, since someone like a Haydn was known to incorporate local thematic materials into his music--for example a string quartet appropriating the theme from what later most unfortunately became identified with the Nazi's as "Deutschland Uber Alles." And let us not forget how Renaissance composers often imported local songs of the day into their contrapuntal works--"L'Homme Arme" being a favorite in Masses of the time.

All this to say that perhaps the nationalist element is secondary in our modern minds to the folk appropriation? If Bartok utilized Romanian elements in some of his works, are we to quibble that this cannot be the same thing since he was not Romanian? It seems wrong-headed. By the way, I reviewed a disk with some of Bartok's Romanian-themed works in a review on here a short time ago. Look at the contents index on the right.

That an aside, but it nevertheless serves to situate Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies for us as "ethnically specific" music, and most importantly excellent music for all that. The original versions of Nos. 12-17 have all the thematic charm of the ones now much more well-known to us. What maybe is most telling in the early settings is how the treatment is not exactly typical compared to the later way Liszt developed a virtuoso pianistic style that became so influential from that point forward. Listen to some of Keith Jarrett's solo recitals patiently and you hear eventually how it is still with us. The earlier Liszt Rhapsodies are a kind of un-self-conscious approach that perhaps aims at a musicality not entirely virtuoso-centered, or alternately not always quite typical of Liszt's codified later virtuoso style.

In this way and also because the varied treatment is distinct enough to give great pleasure in its own right. anyone who loves Liszt would benefit from having these versions ready to hand. Having also the related "Magyar Dalok," another alternate version of the 10th Rhapsody and "Puszta Wehmut" are all welcome additions.

In short there is much good listening to be had here. Those who know and love the Rhapsodies in the famous versions will find this a delightful alternative. And in any event the performances and obscurities make for welcome fun and enlightenment. So grab this as you may.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

John Ogdon, Original Piano Works, Tyler Hay

John Ogdon (1937-1989)? You may remember him as a concert pianist. I had (and still have?) his RCA recording of Carl Nielsen's piano music. He was a pianist of great interpretive power. Many may not realize that he was a composer of brilliance, completing more than 200 works in between the demands of his concert career.

We have a chance to appreciate some of his remarkable music on the recent Original Piano Works (Piano Classics PCL10132). On it Tyler Hays tackles Ogdon's very technically demanding and dramatic works with genuine aplomb. I was in the dark about Ogden's music until this. I surely am no longer!

All you need do is put on the CD and listen to the first work there, "Sonata 'Dedicated to my friend Stephen Bishop'".  It is piano music that dramatically enacts a special passion through an intimate understanding of the piano beneath the composer's hands. There is Ivesian brinkmanship, Sorabji-Scriabin-Alkanesque-Ornsteinian Promethean demands on the pianist, and a very convincing modern internal bite that allows for cascading dissonances and structural consonance contrasts. As you listen you grasp the tone-succession syntax as music-speak of a high order. There is a commanding pianist presence to this work that Tyler Hay takes to like duckwater takes to ducks! It is a momentary shock to hear this music for the first time. And indeed subsequent listens fully bear out the first impressions and deepens them.

That initial inner feeling does not at all dissipate in the subsequent program of an additional three works substantial and invigorating. There are some remarkable chromatic fugal mazes happily to negotiate and a good deal else to savor as well. I feel no let down as I listen repeatedly to his "Ballade," his "Kaleidoscope No. 1 (6 Caprices)" and his "Variations and Fugue."

Ogdon is a real discovery for me. If you listen to this program and its excellent performances I think you will be as pleasantly startled as I have been. Make no mistake! If you love a modern piano world as I do, you will feel right at home with Original Piano Works. The music is a modern wonder and the performances nothing short of heroic. Deliberately slapdash piano profundity never sounded so well!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Beethoven, String Quartets, Op. 18 nos. 1-3, Eybler Quartet

When cognoscenti speak of the string quartet literature, they often mention Beethoven's late quartets as a watermark of the greatest and deepest works in the history of the medium. Yet of course his early and middle quartets are landmark works that do not fail to enchant and delight. If the early works have an affinity with Josef Haydn's quartets, it is in the way they embody structural integrity of the highest sort while expressing a beautifully balanced expressivity. If they do not probe the deepest levels of brooding introspection or climb ecstatic heights of bliss, they adroitly balance affect and ever transforming musical architecture in ways that already point to a very personal way of expression.

So we very happily have a new version of Beethoven's String Quartets Op. 18 nos. 1-3 (CORO Connections  COR16164). The Eybler Quartet give us their own singular readings of the first three quartets of the six that comprise Op. 18.

The liners to this fine recording alert us to the unusual repertoire stance of the Eybler Quartet which explains in part the unusually special reading they give these works. That is, that their repertoire sees the Beethoven Quartets as the end-point in a spectrum of possibilities for the group to master. And the notes' assertion that this view of Beethoven is "from the other side" of the timeline is telling. So too one might expect their view of the Op. 18 works would be supremely Classical and less Romantic than some well known versions we have had the pleasure to hear over the years, in my case especially the Budapest Quartet recordings. And that is very true.

It is a reverse engineered Op 18 that has a brio that is more mercurial and intimate than emotion drenched. There is a subtle buoyancy to their readings, a most refreshing underplaying and removal of vibrato except for contrast in phrasings and for variable timbral presence. It seems more appropriate today to hear  a less anguished, less heart-on-sleeve gushing quality in these works. And it is not to say that these readings are without feeling. They are quite feelingful. They just do not blubber so much. They do not so much openly weep as they quietly sigh. Eybler's togetherness and technical brilliance, too, are absolutely thrilling. That brilliance enables them to accentuate the near playfulness of the allegro movements, the quasi-Viennese folkish Beethoven, the contrast between sincere tenderness and bracingly swift flight.

I will not go on at length about the myriad virtues of the music and its special presence with the Eybler Quartet. These are versions that serve as a critically righteous introduction to the three quartets in Beethoven's beautiful first efforts toward his very individual vision of the fourness string world. It also will be a most worthwhile addition to the collection of those who already know and love these works, for these versions give you insight into what the quartets are deep down and on their dazzling surfaces. Heartily recommended.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Bruckner, Sinfonie Nr. 9, Carlo Maria Giulini, Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Stuttgart Des SWR

Anton Bruckner's music came out of himself almost in spite of his everyday personality. He was a devout Catholic, a soul so timid that when an orchestra was running through one of his symphonies and a player questioned what note he was supposed to play, Bruckner was said to have responded, "whatever you'd like." He probably never even kissed a woman, which back then could have meant anything except a boldness, surely. No doubt in our modern, more canderous parlance he never kissed a man, either. His music was in many ways the opposite of his personality, except perhaps his devoutness, which was key. The music is of course bold and assertive with a cosmic hugeness far beyond most of the music others created during his lifetime, or even afterwards. His was the music not about God, or from God, it was God. Only Mahler in a certain mood could rival him for his huge cosmoses of God-like sound.

That is so much the case that when I threw an "end-of-the-world" party as Three-Mile Island seemed to be cataclysmically melting down not far away from us, I immediately chose Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 as one of the soundtracks. The maelstrom of music that is the 9th seems truly like the Voice of God to me, as much as one might imagine such things.

Given my life-long appreciation of this work, I do not shy away from versions yet unheard. So today we have the "Original SWR Tapes, 1996" of Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the 9th with the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Stuttgart des SWR (SWR Classic 19411CD).

It is a version that is markedly well-paced and deliberate, in no hurry to race along and fill two sides of an LP. And that is all for the best. Giulini's cosmos does not unfold rapidly, so that each section comes to a predetermined weight without haste, in a heavenly canopy that need not arrive anywhere according to a set timetable.

Bruckner of course is one of the weightiest composers in terms of large orchestral girth and a stoic refusal to entertain so much as bring a heavenly world to light, to the light, to life.

It strikes me on the 9th that many would-be Minimalists could learn from Brucker how repetition and periodicity could still take on a developmental forward momentum that avoids what in some hands is the mediocrity of the banal. Motivic cells germinate, spin around a vortex, then develop without  obvious, filler sorts of sequencing. The 9th has this wondrously spinning quality to it at times, sometimes as slowly as a huge cosmos of bulk like the heavenly material canopy of stars above us or of large sections of the universe that slowly turn in on themselves. One way to look at it is that Bruckner takes the leitmotif idea from Wagner and looks at it like a mass of cosmic frisbees.  He spins them in slo-mo throughout his musical universe, spiralling, mutating, sequentially jettisoning their way through an eternity that only lasts (practically) for over an hour. What glory is to be heard  in this opening up of aural things to our manifold listening experience! Seriously.

The deliberate interpretation Giulini gives us lends itself well to the stately,  ponderous spin of the music of the spheres as Bruckner hears it. And we can now perhaps gauge later Bruckner not just as some sort of obviously exploded Wagner. It is also music that hears in the heavens a spinning that post-High Modernism too hears in its own way.

Of necessity Bruckner could not really be the voice of God. So he is in a way the ultimate ventriloquist. God in this lushly, grandly exciting canopy is really the voice of Bruckner impersonating God! I can think no better (but a few equally) convincing versions of this most remarkable work and what it is doing.

I recommend this work as essential, this version as utterly proper and majestically uber-grand!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Mieczyslaw Wajnberg (Weinberg), String Quartets Nos. 8, 9 & 10, Silesian Quartet

The story of why it has taken this long truly to appreciate the gifts of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (or Wajnberg in the Polish spelling) (1919-1996) has been told plenty of times on these blog pages and need not detain us. The very short answer might be simply Stalin. Weinberg was a Polish Jew forced into exile to Russia in WWII and the Social Realism dictates of the Soviet Union at the time were not conducive to what Weinberg was about as a composer. It's more complicated than that but that will do for now.

The incredibly prolific Weinberg completed 17 String Quartets. They, as most quartets in the Modern Era, can be looked down upon as formalist-subjectivist by a rabid Stalinist realism.  Accordingly the quartets were tainted by suspicion in the early years of life in his adopted homeland. That initial ill-will  put the quartets under a cloud in the years that followed.Yet there is extraordinary music to be heard there.  And Social Realism after all is a rather reductionist and delusional approach to what music is all about. Any theoretical approach that bans Weinberg has to be rejected. It is dead wrong.

The excellent Silesian Quartet brings to us state-of-the-art performances of Weinberg's String Quartets Nos. 8, 9 & 10 (Accord ACD 241-2). The incredible beauty of the opening adagio for Quartet No. 8 lets us know just how special these quartets are. They are a product of Weinberg's middle years, the first from 1959 when he was around 40, the others follow in succession, 1963 and 1965.

The liners to the CD make cogent mention of the autobiographical elements that appear in many of the quartets. The notes describe in 1963 the premiere Polish performance of any of his music, of  the Quartet No. 8, which at the time seemed insufficiently Modern to the audience, aside from the spice of some dissonance. They were used to the High Modern search for new sonarities and innovations in form, and Weinberg was more concerned with a music that was "intensely emotional, usually melancholy, dramatic at times." Such is the substance of these quartets, intensely Expressionistic, closer to a Shostakovich (a Jewish one for all that) than someone like early Penderecki.

From the vantage point of today, many will embrace these quartets for the reason that they are not Avant leaning. I myself feel that the addition of Weinberg should not be seen as a need to subtract early Penderecki, Boulez or Stockhausen. We can enrich ourselves all the more by allowing both musical visions to occupy our attention.

There are deeply introspective moments in all three quartets. Compared with a Prokofiev, Weinberg is a shade more bitter than bittersweet. And in some regards he is almost unrelenting in his serious outlook. We have generally seen such approaches to quartet writing from later Beethoven on, and perhaps after a time we will come to see the Weinberg cycle as we do the Bartok, the Shostakovich, the Carter, the later Beethoven works?

It is a moot point for the moment to me. What counts is to recognize the three middle quartets as very worthwhile and deeply absorbing listens, especially in these superb Silesian Quartet performances.

A sober sadness gets an equally emphatic and perhaps slightly macabre folk dance rejoiner as we follow movement-to-movement and recognize the depth of all we hear on this program. There is a definite temperament in play in the Weinberg ethos. The picture as conveyed by his music is seldom exactly rosy. The events in his life gave him plenty of cause to feel that way. And we can  appreciate the beautiful way he chose to express his temperament-biography in these quartets. Emotions are not funneled into musical expression in a one-size-fits-all manner. If they were music would be rather boring, wouldn't it? The triumph of Weinberg the composer is the triumph of invention over all personal obstacles. We can only rejoice at the results in this volume. Essential.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Breath Upwards, Ah Young Hong Sings Works by Milton Babbitt and Michael Hersch

Powerful High Modernism today from vocalist Ah Young Hong on the recent CD A Breath Upwards (Innova 986). The album features two brilliant and dramatic American works, one by Milton Babbitt and one by Michael Hersch, of course both major voices in New Music avantism past and present. From Babbitt there is "Philomel" (1964) for soprano and computer electronics; from Hersch the title work (2014)  for soprano and chamber ensemble.

Both scores call for dramatic and demanding soprano roles. Ah Young Hong is a phenomenal vocalist best associated with Hersch's operatic monodrama On the Threshold of Winter. Her pitch and timbre control are outstanding and the dramatic verve she brings to the music is exactly what is needed to put these works in an ideal place.

The Babbitt piece was created out of three critical intersections, as the liner notes to the CD so helpfully and eloquently point out. The behemoth RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer entered the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1957 as Milton Babbitt's special charge. Babbitt's complex inventions via the cumbersome contraption helped define his musical life. And so that Synthesizer forms the canvas backdrop for "Philomel." So too his coming under the spell of the soprano virtuoso Bethany Beardslee was critical. She could perform virtually anything he might envision and make it musical and nuanced. She commissioned the work that we hear now. The final piece of the puzzle was supplied by poet-librettist John Hollander. He complemented Babbitt in his virtuoso grasp of language and his musical understanding.

Out of this we hear in this Hong performance version what it all came to. It is firey and openly dramatic. The very difficult soprano part is squarely situated  on Hong's familiar turf and she shows us how to do it poetically right.

The Hersch work relates to the Babbitt in the way it uses a wide vertical musical space to carve out dramatic declamation and set mood. The instrumentation is surprisingly full sounding with viola, clarinet and horn manipulating the sound and pitch color possibilities of the three instruments against the bold and expressive soprano part.

The text is from Pound's Cantos. The music-text intersection is typical of Hersch's brilliant reworking of the high modernist possibilities to suit his own expressive needs. Each part of this remarkable whole fits wonderfully well with the other elements. So a very musical three-instrument scoring paces perfectly with the vocal lines. These two elements conjoin with text for a most meaningful whole. As with Hersch at his best, the style on the surface comes out of the High Modernist cannon. You listen more and nearly at once there emerges Hersch the consummate and moving voice for today. That stays with you long after the music is concluded.

These are landmark performances of two landmark works we need to take into account, appreciate, enjoy, explore.