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Friday, November 16, 2018

A Vaughan Williams Christmas, Old Carols with Vaughan Williams Arrangements, William Vann, Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea

There is a truism that what might be too much of something for one person might be just enough for another. Nothing could be truer for music. I can remember the look of astonishment, even anger on a cashier's face when I would total up maybe $100 worth of LPs at a local record chain. Once the music esoteria specialist (hard to imagine there would have been  one now) actually explained to a new cashier as I was checking out that "people who are into Classical and Jazz tend to buy more records than other people!" Well if that wasn't the case? It still is I suspect.

So it also generally holds true for the serious music enthusiast who plays some Christmas Holiday music around this time of year. (I post this a little early so I do not forget.) The more you know the more there potentially is. Today I have a no-brainer, especially for those who love to explore the really old traditional carols, and for that matter those who love the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Given Vaughan Williams' deep appreciation of folk music and the local rooted music one could find around him there should be some connection between the two, so those that love the one might well love the other. Or then again there are those up for something substantially musical, who may not especially think about the composer or the tradition of English caroling, and again, this fits the bill. It is music you can love at first sight (hearing)  or come to love in time, I feel.

I speak of a recent album this season called A Vaughan Williams Christmas (Albion Records 035). Albion Records is the CD producing arm of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, and I have covered a number of their records on these pages, for they have been coming out with good things of interest to any Vaughan Williams enthusiast.

It consists of four groups of carols for choir (and often organ accompaniment) with the deft hand of Vaughan Williams taking a prominent role, either as arranger or in a few instances composer. So we have "Eight Traditional English Carols" (1919), "Two carols" (1945) (in a World Premier recording), "Carols from the Oxford Book of Carols" (1928) and "Nine Carols for male voices" (1941) in the first complete recording.

So we also have (happily) for the entirety of this recording the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital of Chelsea under William Vann. Hugh Rowlands is on organ for around half the carols. They all sound quite good, as good as one might wish for! All involved are clearly up for this music and the voices are angelic indeed.

For the Vaughan Williams arrangements Ralph is not overly interventional. He may at times bring out the beauty of the melody by scoring the choir to sing in octave unison while the organ fills in harmony, and there are some nice counter lines we can appreciate here and there. Mostly though it is Vaughan Williams's sure hand for choral scoring we feel and appreciate and his good taste in choosing some quite obscure carols peppered with some favorites such as "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" and the "Coventry Carol." It is not a grouping of the tired and endless carols we sometimes find again and again. No "Silent Night!"  And to me that is a very good thing. They are some really fetching carols that are presented in near ideal performance and arrangement situations. One can most certainly not complain to hear his versions of "A Virgin Most Pure," "Wassail Song" (the other one!), and "On Christmas Night."

One must note that Vaughan Williams himself had much to do with the revival of old folk songs in general and carols in particular. He helped greatly in the collecting and preservation of them and had a hand as a co-editor of the comprehensive and influential 1928 Oxford Book of Carols (which we hear a nice selection from here.) The book in fact was a real factor in the resurgence of old carols, and so well we might appreciate all of this now, when we do still need to embrace old music traditions and keep them alive. All you who are musical anyway!

The original Vaughan Williams carols here are well worth having as well.

I view this collection as a real boon. The carols are very beautiful, the arrangements sterling, the performances stellar. I certainly plan to pop this one on every year from now on. I heartily recommend it for all who want to expand the holiday possibilities and get something memorable and haunting in the process. Happy this music! Splendid!





Thursday, November 15, 2018

Wet Ink 20, Modern Chamber Ensemble Music of the Present Day, the Wet Ink Large Ensemble

There is a facet of today's New Modern Music that sometimes gets scant attention. That is the fertile relationship that flourishes at times between very modern improvisation or so-called "Jazz" and New Music. Ever since the onset of Jazz in the US Modern Classical composers have had responses to it. One might only think of Gershwin, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Milhaud for starters, then Zimmerman, Penderecki, and others in the later High Modernist camp. At the same time with the advent of "New Thing" out of the music of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and others there was a kind of open freely improvisational stance that eventually led to some very productive confluences of Jazz Improv and New Music from the other side of the spectrum.

Both aspects of the confluence can be heard in the recent recording of very New Music by the Wet Ink Large Ensemble. The album is simply entitled Wet Ink 20  (Carrier 041). It gives us six compositions in a very adventuresome zone that often enough shows influences of Avant Jazz as well as New Music. So we get a long and exciting opening work "Auditory Scene Analysis" by Eric Woebbels. It has the very avid sort of pointillist counterpoint one can hear in large ensemble jazz music as well as the sort of post-Webernian, post-Ivesian ideas of simultaneity and difference that have been developing on the opposite side of the aesthetic coin.

In order to play this music with the kind of heightened spirit that such a style needs, an ensemble should have some grounding in both camps. The Wet Ink group grew productively out of a core septet of composer-improviser-performers. In fact of these core members Alex Mincek, Eric Woebbels, Kate Soper and Sam Pluta each contribute a composition to this program, so four of six are home-grown works.  All of the septet looms large in the readings of the music. They take the lead in giving the music a spontaneous dynamic that furnishes everything with a convincing ring. Of the other composers Anthony Braxton is by now of course well known as a pioneer in forwarding the avant-new nexus, ever since by around 1969 when he first began receiving international attention and acclaim. As for the other non-ensemble composer Katherine Young I will admit I have not been familiar until now, but she gives us something excellent in her "Like A Halo."

A run-down of each work would not be practical for this article, and in the end all participate in the improv-composed nexus so fully and so well that the entire program can be and ultimately is (in my case) experienced as a kind of gestalt whole. The entire sequence is an outstanding example of how two stylistic worlds can and do merge with complete synergy and performatively stellar results.

If you give this one your complete attention and allow it to reverberate in your listening mind with repeated listens you will find it a landmark example of where Modernity has gone, one of the very productive places that neither looks back very far nor does it compromise in its zeal for an energetic expressionism. Not everything need sound like this, and good for all that, but this is a very valid way to make the "music of the future" as New Music has ever envisioned. It is a treat for the ears. By all means get it if you can. And listen! The Wet Ink Ensemble is doing important work.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Jo Kondo, Syzygia, Snow's Falling, Craig Pepples, Pine Cones Fall, Paul Zukofsky

In the world of present-day High Modernism, it is true that there is a great deal of leeway around how a composer might proceed. There is a wider spectrum of possibilities one might address without generating some official or unofficial disapproval. The Dodecaphonic dogma days have been gone for a rather long while and though much excellent music was produced out of that working vision, there are other ways one can go of course, then and now. And happily there is no shortage of really interesting music to be heard today, as I mentioned in yesterday's posting.

An especially attractive offering just come to my attention is a three-work CD (CP2 CP 125) directed and conducted by New Music adept Paul Zukofsky, recorded in 2016, in the year before he left our world. It is music with a pronounced ambiance, a soundful stillness born out of the processes of nature, the reflections on life in-between the living of it, a perspective on the Zen of "suchness" perhaps. Harmonically the music is well within the Modern zone, without an insistent tonality, yet not especially dissonant. If you thought about it, if you listened hard enough you might establish a key center in your head, yet this is not music that is particularly tonal in some typical sense.

If you thought of Morton Feldman's classical music phases you might have some idea of this music, yet it is not directly derivable from this way of going forth. So that is only a rough idea of what you might imagine this music as.

So to the music itself, then. Jo Kondo gives us two of his compositions and they are both really worthwhile. "Syzygia" is performed nicely by a small chamber orchestra configuration handled well by Ensemble Nomad. It is a near atonal chorale sort of sound, ever wafting new combinations of tones and pronounced wind timbral transformations that are almost lyrical in their confluence. That is, if you are listening with an expanded New Music set of ears.

Jo Kondo's "Snow's Falling" gives us a long meditative sprawl of natural expanded gentle endlessness, thanks to The Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus and pianist Satoko Inoue.

Craig Pepples brings up the middle of the program with Ensemble Nomad sounding his "Pine Cones Fall," like the other works a highly evocative ambient sculpture in slow motion, but in this case adding a near-pointillism of give-and-take between each instrument. Everything winds out as a natural growth, paceless dream, every instrument sounding its part in groups ever shifting. It is beautifully mesmerizing.

Paul Zukofsky with his dedicated focus on these three works reminds us how central a figure he was. I cannot imagine a more moving performance of these pieces. The renderings are seemingly as poetically executed as they were meant to sound. It is a masterful outing, in every way palpable in its peaceful yet insistent singularity. It reminds us that New Music can still be was "new" as it should be, that there can be a joy in the sheer viscous pleasure of the present-in-future, in the visceral presence of the hearing of it.

For you unabashed Modernists out there, and even those who are not quite sure but ready for something different, I give you my highest recommendation for this one. It is some awesome music.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Rory Cowal, Clusters, American Piano Explorations

Sometimes the world seems far from ideal these days, in terms of a breeding ground for the new, for the musical, for the creative. And over here in the US, perhaps on some levels things are even farther from perfection than they have been in some time. Yet new music, new recordings are continuing to come out, thankfully. And there is no shortage of good ones.

Today we have a chance to talk a little about the recent anthology album Clusters: American Piano Explorations (New World Records 80800-2). It consists of eight compositions for solo piano by seven American composers, played by pianist Rory Cowal. The period covered is fairly long, 1931-2018, or in other words much of the Modern Period. The works are either unheard or little known, or only now just written, with the "ink" still perhaps a bit damp. All in some way exemplify the kind of local iconoclasm of the titular Father of Modern American Piano Music, Charles Ives, though none sound exactly like they were written with his model in mind, as much as he might have had one. The composers here are determined to go their own way and they do.

There is a common thread to this music that seem best served by the subtitle term "explorations." That does not mean that the music was composed according to some set paradigm then current, or for that matter now-current. All undoubtedly are Modern in the sense of being melodically and-or harmonically less classical in some old-Europe way, though the influence may never be entirely absent as an assumption. But then "Jazz" might also be assumed at least some of the time. Some are a bit on the edgy side, some kind of home-spun without being self-consciously so. All are waywardly themselves, not orthodox in some channeled typicality. And expression seems upper-most on the agenda in this music. Nicely so.

So first off I am happy that the title work "Clusters" starts off the program. It's from 1931/36, in six short movements, written by Johanna Magdalena Beyer (1888-1944). It is confident music, well determined to be exploratory. But who is this? The liners tell us. "Clusters" was brought out of obscurity by Rory. He gave maybe only the second known performance of it in 2013. Beyer was an accomplished pianist who wrote a few piano suites and individual piano works we should probably hear all of. She was friend and pupil of the illustrious Henry Cowell, from whom she took the idea of complex dissonant simultaneities, "clusters." Nice.

I am very happy the anthology contains works by two pianists-composers who have been key figures in "Avant Jazz," namely Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017) and Kris Davis (b. 1980), the former the AACM giant, the latter emerging on the scene right now and a little before now.  Abrams' "Etudes Op. 1, No. 1" (2000) and Davis's "Eight Pieces for the Vernal Equinox" (2018) are well worth hearing and hearing, performed with dedication by Rory Cowal.

The same can be said for James Tenney's very brief "Variations in A (on a theme by my father)" (1955).

By the same token, all of this music seems pretty essential, far from superfluous. All of it is engaging and well-presented. And that includes additional works by Thomas Peterson (1931-2006), Daniel Goode (b. 1936), and two by David Mahler (b. 1944).

Everything is valuable and has the freshness of the unheard-by-most-of-us, perhaps all of us. There is not a note wasted. And Rory Cowal chooses well, then comes through with committed poetics. Bravo! Hear this. Do it. No fear.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Bachchor Mainz, Bachorchester Mainz, Ralf Otto

Johann Sebastian Bach may be an unearthly figure, one of music's true titans. The longer I live the more I feel this way. Yet in some ways he is like all other composers. It may be rather obvious but as wonderful as his music is the quality of any given performance will help determine how you feel about his music. For years I have listened to his Christmas Oratorio in versions that were respectable but it turns out not exactly inspired. As a result I've mostly looked to his St. Matthew Passion as something on the very highest levels of inspiration in the large-scale solo-choir-orchestra mode. Yet a couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of receiving a new version of the Christmas Oratorio (Naxos 8.574001-02) by some fine soloists, the Bachchor Mainz and the Bachorchester Mainz, all under the direction of Ralf Otto.

As soon as I heard the really peppy opening Jauchzet frohlocket with its timpani blazing, I knew I was in a superior presence, I knew this version was special. And it is. They revel in the lyrical tangibility of the arias, with soloist and normally some instrument winding a counterline alongside and underneath with detailed sonority and emphasis, the tutti sections with full choir and orchestra really rousing and on-target. This rendition clearly relishes the musical content and gives it special care, which is much more than what I can say for the versions I have lived with so long. It does for the Oratorio what Mogens Woldike did for me with the St Matthew so long ago (and continues to do). Otto's interpretation scarifies the music. It lets nothing insignificant pass without careful consideration and airing. And of course there is very little in this music that might be considered insignificant.

One might quibble that parts of this Oratorio appeared before in his Cantatas. So? Are his Cantatas somehow inferior? But I do not try to put up a straw man here as much as refute what occasionally has crossed my mind in listening to lesser versions of this work. All that is in the past now, pretty much, because this version gives to the music all that I might wish it have. Everything fits nicely on two CDs and at the Naxos price, you do not have to go broke to own it. A real value is this one. And I am very happy to have the performances. They are to me a new benchmark. This version will doubtless take over in my Christmas listening cycle going forward. So I highly recommend it to you. Do not hesitate.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Franz Lachner, Symphony No. 3, Evergreen Symphony Orchestra, Gernot Schmalfuss

Theoretically there can be no end to the number of music-makers, the number of composers we can hear in our lifetime.  The only limitation is the finite length of a life and the finite number of opportunities there might be to hear unfamiliar music. Now happens to be a pretty good time to explore. And so I have been drinking rather heartily at the well of the unknown. And I try and report in as always.

So this morning I bring to you another composer I at least have not heard before. It is Franz Lachner (1803-1890).  Now who is that? The liners to the CD at hand this morning tell us that during his lifetime he was at the very center of a lively controversy in the German-Speaking world. It all started in 1835 when Lachner's 5th Symphony was chosen by Concerts spirituels as the best among 57 symphonies submitted for a competition for the best unperformed new symphonic work. After its premiere one journalist praised it, calling it poetic, but Schumann (then a prominent music critic) retorted, characterizing it essentially as style-less and bloated.  A journalistic battle royale ensued between virtually all-and-sundry musical spokesmen of note in the German speaking world. The music public greeted the Lachner's Fifth with the clamor they had given for Beethoven's Ninth and a recent Spohr symphony, according to the liners.

Fast forward ahead to today, where most of us know nothing of the hubbub on Lachner's 5th that seemed so central then. Franz Lachner is not someone we include in the standard repertoire these days. In fact his music has sunk into a true obscurity.  I myself have never come across his music at all until now.

So we have the chance to consider him with a new CD at hand, a recording of his Symphony No. 3 (CPO 555081-2) (op. 41 in D minor), as performed by the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gernot Schmalfuss. The most obvious thing to note is that the 3rd with four movements each lasting over ten minutes in this performance was pretty long for its time period. It does go on. The music does not seem at all "bloated" however. It is well constructed, perhaps not as thematically stunning as some other, more familiar works of its time. But then as you listen a few times it is in no way aimless. With often a pretty dominant string presence it is not especially daring orchestrationally, in the way the parts are apportioned. That of course was a critique we might still hear about the symphonies of Schumann himself. In neither Lachner's case here nor in Schumann's case does that bother me. And there are enough spells in this Lachner 3rd where the winds have enough of a say that it is not unrelenting.

Some of the contrapuntal passages in the second, scherzo movement to me are compelling. And there is a Beethovinian-Brahmsian bravura fanfare kind of aura that one cannot say is unpleasant, far from it.

Added to the program is Lachner's fairly brief "Festouverture in Es-Dur" to conclude things. It ends in the version here with the present-day German national anthem (there is another version that ends elsewise). All fine and dandy and well done. Papa Haydn incorporated this melody, ,the then-Austrian national anthem, into a string quartet so there is a precedent. .

At any rate one comes away from this quite decently performed program with the feeling that Lachner deserves a hearing. He is not in any way inferior as a craftsman. The questions will be for you, will you like the music? I like it just fine. It does not yet strike me thematically like some of its contemporary parallels, but then I may need to live with it a while longer.

Surely anyone interested in the post-Beethovinian 19th-century musical climate should hear this recording and learn something. Perhaps with a few listens you will come to love this music. It is not unlovable! Recommended.




Thursday, November 8, 2018

Ann Southam, Soundspinning, Christina Petrowska Quilico

The late (and I would add great) Canadian Minimalist Ann Southam (1937-2010) has not exactly become a household name, not at least here in the States, but that should never stop those who love music. In the last decade I have been happy to discover a number of recordings of her compositions (type her name in the search box above, left, for reviews of those I have first heard while writing this column.)

And to my happiness there is another volume of her piano music to hear, namely Soundspinning (Centredisques 26018), featuring Christina Petrowska Quilico and her sympathetic and idiomatic pianism. There are series of miniatures to be heard on this program, many most mesmerizing and singular in their clustering of motility,  not typically repetitive in ways of some of the standard classical Minimalists. In other words these show some somewhat different sides of the Southam originality  They are other glimpses at the Southam way.

So there are the sort of clusterbomb dervishes that spin past our ears in the first part of the program. And then there are the series of short pieces with "blue" in the titles, which delve into blues-rock-jazz realms without being in any way direct lifts of the genre staples.

If you do not know Southam's music at all, check my other CD reviews of her music in this column by typing her name in the search box above. You might be better served by starting with one of them first. Those who already know the earlier examples will nevertheless find this one illuminating and worthwhile. Maestro Southam is gone but most assuredly NOT forgotten. She was an original and her music still sounds great. So check her out. And hear this one for sure.

Charpentier, Les Arts Florissans, Ensemble Marguerite Louise, Gaetan Jarry

Time rolls on as always. Meanwhile the French Baroque keeps calling to me and I respond! Really good period performances are out there lately and I will bring them to you as I get to hear them. Today we turn to the potent and poetic composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1663-1704). We contemplate a major operatic work, a five-scene allegorical divertissement meant to celebrate Louis XIVth's reign, of territorial expansion and things that patrons generally foot the bill for in those days. And so we have Les Arts Florissans and a brief related work L'Couronne de fleurs. We hear both works in ideal performances by the Ensemble Marguerite Louis under the very capable direction of Gaetan Jarry as part of the Chateau de Versailles Spectacles series released on the Chateau de Versailles label (release 001).

In this excellent program of both works we get all the reasons why the French Baroque in general and Charpentier in particular are a thing apart. This music has a sweetness not ordinarily a typical part of the Baroque. There is lyrical heft, which period performances bring out well in part for the string sonarity the way it is meant to sound, but also in this case the winds and their plaintive melodiousness. Then in a performance such as this, the vocalists too have a genuine warmth that goes with the entire ambiance. Soloists and small choral group alike sound as angelic as they should.

The quality of the invention too is of the highest order. Without that we would have sweet trifles, confection without nutritive value. Not here. This is not an extraordinarily contrapuntal music, and that is true in many ways of the entire French Baraque, as I remark the other day in my review of the Lully Effect (see that review in the index). Yet it is there in the continuo certainly, the bass lines especially, and at times in the vocal parts. This does not have the incredible contrapuntal brilliance of a Bach. But it makes up for that with an immediacy of melody line and a productively lyrical intensity we respond to all quite willingly and happily, or I do anyway. It is music of definite substance.

One would find fault with these performances with great difficulty. The music sounds as great as it is, as poignant in the delivery as in its latency as written score. This is what Charpentier should sound like. And what that is certainly makes for a most exciting and lovely musical excursion. Brilliant! Highly recommended.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Michael Finnissy, Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios, etc, Kreutzer Quartet, Linda Merrick

One of the real joys of hearing most all the new Metier releases is getting the chance to explore many releases in their ongoing series on the music of Michael Finnissy. And the latest release has me smiling ear-to-ear because the music is especially good. I speak of the album of chamber music called Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios and Other Works (Metier 28581).

It is a nicely performed set of a couple of miniature gems and three major chamber offerings. The latter consist of the title work, plus "Civilization" and "Clarinetten-Liederkreis." From the opening bars of "Civilization," we are in the presence of a very Neo-High-Modern, Neo-Classical; or even Neo-Early sensibility. And the rhythmic strikingness of the first movement reminds us that Finnissy has neither ignored the Neo-Classical Stravinsky nor has he chosen to follow in his footsteps in any obvious way. Like Stravinsky there is an irresistible rhythmic drive yet is is all Finnissy, all the way.

The Kreutzer Quartet with Linda Merrick joining for one work on clarinet have a real feel for, a real understanding of the quirky, funny yet very serious way of this music. The moods vary in many ways throughout. And so in a way the old idea of a portrayal of the "four humors" in art is not entirely out of place, though perhaps not intended exactly either. The ghost of Papa Haydn and even Henry Purcell and John Dowland is not all that far. You feel they might be listening, asking thsemvlces, "what is this fellow up to?"And in the end you walk away from this program with a distinct feeling that Michael Finnissy is one of our living greats, that no one precisely has his expressive
referentiality, his ability to point backwards and in so doing pointing forwards because the pointing is multi-directional and entirely idiomatic to self.

Listen to the six brilliant movements of "Civilization," the pithy, startling mix of early and late on "Contrapunctus XIX," the refreshingly moody and tart "Clarinetten-Liederkreis," the romping, slightly unhinged "Mad Men in the Sand," the hauntingly wry, reflective and avant-brio "Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios" and you will find yourself on unique turf. Finnissy manages to get some of the string wielding ways of earlier chamber music evoked but yet with the unabashed adventurism of the 'future" as it were.

I am happy to say that (to me) this album stands out as a triumph in the chamber arts of Modernity today. Finnissy is a true voice of our times. These are some superb examples of why it is a fine thing to be alive and greet the morning with a little hope. We will end up leaving some good things behind for others to appreciate after we all are gone. I would venture to say that this music may well be remembered long after some other, less happy things are forgotten.

Strongly recommended to all who wish to embrace the Modernism of now.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Weinberg, Symphony No. 13, Serenade for Orchestra, Siberian State Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Lande

If there were ever two sides to Mieczyslaw Weinberg the composer (1919-1996) (and there were) you can hear it on the new release of two World Premier recordings, that of the Symphony No. 13 and the Serenade for Orchestra No. 4 (Naxos 8.573879). The Naxos series of Weinberg orchestral works continues, very happily, as the Siberian State Symphony under the ever-productive and even inspired Vladimir Lande chalk up a very nice performance of one of Weinberg's most dramatic scores (the 13th) and then one of his most sunshine-drenched ones (the Serenade).

I won't rehearse his biography here. Look that up. He had plenty of reasons to be unhappy with his lot. But the 13th is a profound channeling of what sounds like despair, 1976-style. Lande and company give it all the torque and aesthetically deflected passion it demands. And it becomes one of Weinberg's most captivating scores in their hands. It is more evidence that the Weinberg revival is one of the most exciting ones in our time. "Revival" is maybe inaccurate. "Vival?"

The liners tell us that the 13th is dedicated by Weinberg to the memory of his mother, who died in a Polish camp along with his father and sister in the early '40s. (They were Jews at a time when in Poland that was a crime.) Add to that the death of his friend and supporter Shostakovitch not long before he wrote this symphony. If the mood is downcast, there is a noble dignity in his cry to the high heavens, a sublimity of expression that transcends all of it, and here on a rainy Monday morning after the end of Daylight Savings Time in the US, it is sounding very good to me indeed. I will not attempt to describe the music here, for it must be heard repeatedly a few times before it all comes into focus and so that truly is the way to go forward in understanding. It sounds very Modern, very Weinbergian. And it is in every way a worthwhile work in the Weinberg canon.

On the opposite end is the concluding Serenade, which shifts into a most lighthearted mood. The Naxos back cover blurb calls it "rumbustious!" Well maybe so. It is markedly chipper yet reflective, something no doubt that might get performances in the world Weinberg occupied in 1952, a Stalin ruled,  social realist kind of place. So it is a perhaps ironic yet a fitting way to end because ends on a hopeful note and we still hear Weinberg's inventive brilliance at play.

This one is a most welcome gem in the Naxos Weinberg series. You cannot go wrong at this price. And everybody should give Weinberg a hearing. This is a good place to start. Or too a great place to continue. Bravo!


Friday, November 2, 2018

Franz Schreker, The Birthday of the Infanta - Suite, and Other Works, Jo Ann Falletta

We can try but we cannot completely put ourselves in the mindset of another time and place. So the idea that Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was in his day as well-known for his operas as Richard Strauss is startling but then, face it, it is an indication of the total if perhaps momentary later victory of Modernism that Schreker is no longer remembered and even Strauss himself is no longer quite what he might have been 70 years ago.  For in the end neither could be considered as a Modernist teleology-figure, a cornerstone in the narrative of the Modernist foundation.

In the end all that does not matter in some argument-ending way. We can look and find many composers who may not have contributed directly to the Modernist end-zone celebrations that were so completely convincing in the mid-1960s of last century. And we know today perhaps that no style will ever wipe out what went before, nor should it. And so we can listen to Schreker without thereby buying into any sort of future whatsoever.  Schreker's fate we must also point out was tainted by the rise of the Nazi "degenerate" ban that became a tragic roadblock for so many Austro-German composers of the day, indeed most. Schreker was blacklisted. He did not live to see the end of the fascist movement. And his reputation suffered as a consequence.

We have plenty to absorb in a new program of Schreker orchestral fare, The Birth of the Enfanta - Suite and other works (Naxos 8.573821) as very effectively performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin) conducted by JoAnn Falletta. There are three works at hand in this program. And between the three we get a good idea of how inventive a melodist and how sure an orchestrationist was Schreker.

His 1914 "Vorspiel zu einem Drama" is a cogent 20-minute slab of music, a concert overture to go with his then-celebrated opera Die Gezeichneten. We gather from this, along with the 1923 title Suite "Birth of the Infanta" and the earlier, 1903 "Romantische Suite" a Schreker of Romantic-chromatic originality. We look in vain for the seeds of a Webern or a Schoenberg, but then that is no longer a necessary prerequisite for appreciating an early-Modern-period voice!

What is interesting perhaps listening to these fine performances is what Schreker is NOT. He does not sound like Bruckner or Mahler, not even so obviously does he channel the influence of Wagner. For these reasons and for the high spirits of the performances (which we have come to expect when Ms. Falletta is involved) I do not hesitate to recommend this album. Anyone with an interest in the Austro-German Modern scene and the bubbling of the new century 100 years ago will learn from this. And it is a very happy listen!


Thursday, November 1, 2018

John Harbison, Requiem, Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra

John Harbison (b.1938), most everyone will know, was one of the prominent American composers of the last "unchallenged" wave of High Modernism. I mean that he was more or less the last group of High Modernists who came onto the scene when that style of music was ascendant and unquestioned as the stylistically dominant force. Today of course we live in a time of pluralistic proliferation, where no one style commands contemporary authority.

The current music by Harbison as we experience it in the recent release of his Requiem (Naxos 8.559841) has something of the old High Modernist roots to it but also a kind of chromatic Tonal dramatic Quasi-Romantic emotive Expressiveness to it. It is meant as a work that takes into account some of the tumult of the times, notably the world as we experience it from 9-11 on. And the Requiem Latin tradition contrapuntally and otherwise can be detected as a thorough flavoring of the whole.

So it is a most ambitious work. After five hearings it does not jump out at me. It is very well written. The chorus and orchestra are commanding, though every singer has it seems a bit more vibrato than I would like to hear in this sort of Modernity, both the choir and the soloists.  And so that is a matter of personal taste I suppose. There are moments here that sound a little closer to Berlioz than Mozart, and I suppose that fits with the wide arc of contemporary events of a tragic sort that the music no doubt reflects.

Harbison began thinking of the work in 1965, and off-and-on composed parts of it until 2001, when a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra allowed him to cull together the pieces of the work and seriously realize the actual shape of the music as we now know it. The text incorporates the Latin Mass, plus some other material, such as an old Medieval poem with an archaic quality. He took all that he had thought of over the years and set out in earnest to flesh out the entire work as a full presence from September 2001 to March 2002. Of course this was the time of 9-11 and its aftermath. But too Harbison over the 15 years of its initial gestation had added names of people that touched his life and had died during that period, so it is a feeling of personal loss that guided his musical thrust as much as collective feelings of loss coming out of his time frame of final completion and reworking.

So we hear the work today, as it took final form in March of 2002. There is some close to an hour of performance time, and it is is in two parts. Soloists, chorus and orchestra interact thoroughly throughout. As I am working though my sixth listen while writing this, I hear the notes and appreciate the inventive choices the composer has made. And the orchestra sounds quite appropriate.  The soloists and chorus are suitably dramatic. So what is wrong? It all comes across as a work of a very moving sort. But I feel vaguely unsatisfied. That does not mean I am somehow objectively infallible! I've listened, for example. to Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" very many times and somehow it has alluded me, it has never quite clicked with me as opposed to most all of his other works. I find myself wondering if the same is not going to be the case with Harbison's "Requiem?"

In each case I recognize that there is some great music here. And with the Harbison it is possible that I would take to it in another reading? I cannot say.

I will not say I do not recommend this CD. Anyone who likes Harbison should hear this and decide for self. It is substantial. It is a monument or a memory stone of the times. I am glad to have it. I may end up liking it a lot. I cannot say that now. There are some thrilling passages. And some things do not quite get to me yet. It does not seem to grab me all that much. C'est la vie.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Gerald Finzi, Cello Concerto, Eclogue, New Year Music, etc., Sir Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra

I've found some of the music of Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) to be quite interesting in the past. And now there is a new one by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Chandos 5214) that widens the window on the composer with some major works I have not heard before myself and perhaps you have not either. The Cello Concerto, Op. 40 (1951-52, 1954-55) is the centerpiece of the program, taking some nearly 40 minutes and featuring Paul Watkins nicely on the cello.

Following the concerto are three worthy pieces lasting each around ten minutes, the Eclogue for Piano and String Orchestra (late 1920s, revised 1952), the Nocturne (New Years Music) (1926, revised 1940s, 1950) and the Grand Fantasia and Toccata, Op. 38 for Piano and Orchestra (Fantasia 1928, revised 1947, 1953, Toccata 1953).

Finzi at least in my lifetime has been a somewhat lesser known of the 20th century English Renaissance composers. Since I do not know much about him I took a peek at Wikopedia. It tells me he is most known as a choral composer. He first studied with Farrar (who studied with Stanford), lost three brothers in WWI, had a rather bleak outlook in part because of that, and on from there. Vaughan Williams secured him a teaching post at the Royal Academy of Music (1930-33) and in the '20s Finzi made his first splash in London with his Thomas Hardy settings and an orchestral piece "A Severn Rhapsody." And so on... His major recognition and his very best works followed from the mid-'30s until his death.

The music on the current program is in a kind of English Late-Romantic zone. I find the "Grand Fantasia and Toccata" to be the most engaging, for its harmonic tang and distinguished, adventuresome thematics.

The Cello Concerto is a very ambitious work, surely. It follows a rhapsodic track in the first movement and gives much space for emotive cello pyrotechnical virtuosity. Wikipedia says this movement in part may reflect his diagnosis as he wrote the work that he had Hodgkin's disease and only 10 years left to live. It is certainly a bit gloomy. The second movement has a tender lyrical side that sounds nicely English pastoral. Towards the end of the movement a theme of real expressive beauty emerges full blown and we welcome it. Movement three is a true relief with a jaunty theme and a purposefulness that redeems the whole work and makes it graspable and worthwhile somehow. Nice.

"Eclogue" for Piano and Orchestra starts right out with some lovely piano passages, some English sunshine and lyricism to contrast with some of the despair of the opening concerto. There is a diatonic kind of almost-folk art naivety to this music that engages nicely.

"Nocturne (New Year Music)" is triumphantly rhapsodic and even a bit noisy. It is not my favorite here, though I like it far better when it is more quiet and reflective.

So on this one we get a well-performed look at a somewhat mixed bag of music. The brilliant moments are worthwhile, and the rest will help the Anglophile with evaluate Finzi and his place in the English 20th century. It is good to hear. Some of it is rather wonderful.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Czerny, Piano Trios, Sun-Young Shin, Benjamin Hayek, Samuel Gingher

Anyone who took piano lessons long enough, at least from a classically oriented teacher no doubt faced one or more piano technique exercise books by Carl Czerny (1791-1857). I did. And at the time I did not know that he was an extremely accomplished and prolific composer in his day, more well-know for that than the pedagogy I guess then. Or he should have been if he wasn't!

I later chanced upon some of his piano music and was pleased with it. And so I have had a look out ever since for more of his music. Today I happily bring to you a fine recent example in a new release of a couple sets of his Piano Trios (Naxos 8.573848). They are played quite nicely by Sun-Young Shin (violin), Benjamin Hayek (cello) and Samuel Gingher (piano).

This is music that sparkles with some brilliance, a step beyond Mozart for emotive expanse and virtuoso bubble, parallel to Beethoven in terms of  furtherance but rather nicely original with its very own bravura melodics and rhythmic drive.

Carl early on studied piano with his father, who had him concentrate on Bach, Handel, Mozart and
Clementi. He got off to a great start and then became a star pupil of Beethoven, who gave him a thorough grounding via the piano music of CPE Bach. And so he was off to a real career though his family was poor and it was up to him to make good. He of course did.

The combination of a near-ideal reading of these works and the sweetly lyrical content make this an outstanding introduction to Czerny if you are not familiar, or if you are this remains a very nice one to add to your appreciation. These are World Premiere recordings too, so it is new in all senses for us. We get the  Op. 211 "Deux Trios brilliants" and the Op. 104 "Trois Sonatines faciles et brillantes". In all there are two works here in three movements, and three works in two movements.

At the Naxos price you really cannot go wrong if you want something finely wrought, and beautifully expressed by this fine trio. Highly recommended.


Monday, October 29, 2018

Andrew Rosciszewski, Sonic Real Estate

Every day starts with the sun. And for me virtually every weekday starts with a new program of music to consider. For that to happen much of my week is spent in listening and relistening. It is worth it for the joy of following what is new. Today we have something slightly unexpected in the music of Andrew Rosciszewski, specifically a CD called Sonic Real Estate (self released CD).   He recorded and mastered this album up in Bayonne, NJ, so he is perhaps one of my home boys.

And the music? It is a rather nicely unusual kind of Post-Minimalism, a Radical Tonality kind of Modern. Not especially repeat-oriented, but poetic and expressive.

We get a great start with his four-movement "Trio No. 1 for Violin, Cello and Piano." There is a good deal of contrast between the movements. The 3rd section, "Doloroso" stands out as a cycle of chorale-like phrasings. The second movement comes out very brio and lively. The first and fourth movements have the kind of dramatic impact that warrants their positions as opener and closer. The somewhat grotesque waltz motif that opens the final movement gives way to contrapuntality and then a expansion of a kind of goblinesque romp well suited for this time of year, Halloween. The movement returns to the slow clock chime motif of the opening and leaves us in a state of wonder, nicely so.

A brief "Piesn Wdowy" for cello and piano follows. It is solemn and reflective, lyrical and expressive. And in the end lively.

"Music for Three Instruments:"  clarinet, flute, and cello for the recording. There is some relation to Avant Improv in the level and manner of expression and also a High Modern aspect in terms of the harmonic-melodic panorama it gives to our ears.`.

A fairly brief "Impromptu" for piano sounds a bit more rhapsodic than the rest of this. It is in a genre surely yet not entirely predictable.

And then finally we get the title work, a Fusion-Prog sojourn for electric and acoustic instruments with a nice feeling of contrapuntal movement and a fine sense of syntactical dramatics. It is the surprise of the program but then you can see how it comes out of Rosciszewski's sense of melodic-harmonic form. It is in seven and it excels as a Prog compositional showcase. It is worth the price of admission alone if you are so inclined in such stylistic directions.

In the end the music holds its own and makes a dent surely in the sort of tonal melodic worlds possible today. Nice work!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Harriet Stubbs, Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception, Piano Music Modern and Less Modern

If I did not think Classical Music, Modern or Ancient, is fun I would not write about it. Why inflict pain on others? There is joy when you connect with a work and/or a performance. And it is not like some other joy once you get the spirit of listening well. It is a tabula rasa.

What is a joy may not be known until you jump into it. For example the joy of exploring the solo piano repertoire did not occur to me until I was music hunting at a record store around 1969, in the Classical Section and came upon one of the Vox Boxes  that caught my eye. The boxes contained three LPs for $3.99, which was a remarkable bargain then. The one I looked at was an edition of Chabrier's "Piano Works." And I checked it out. Nicely played, good music! So that was the beginning of the solo piano excursion of listening for me, a step beyond sitting down and learning a piece by hand, which in retrospect I might have done more!

That process continues now, some nearly 50 years later. Today I contemplate an anthology of piano music sorted and presented more-or-less by theme. It is pianist Harriet Stubbs' new Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception (Suite 2B Records 018). The album has a concept behind it, and all the well for that since it may draw in folks who might not get exposed to this music otherwise.

Suffice for now to say that the concept relates to poet William Blake's vision of heaven and hell and a journey from innocence (youth) to experience (maturity). The whole thing kicks off with John Adams and his somewhat cosmic Pomo piano venture "Phrygian Gates" and its accompanying reading of a Blake-derived passage as tellingly and intelligently recited by one of our primary embodiments of the passage from innocence to experience, the ever-worthwhile Marianne Faithful (who is now many experiential miles away from her innocent song "As Tears Go By" of yesteryear).

It sets the mood for what follows. I myself read the liners but think it is best for you to do that yourself when you get the album, assuming you do. Some of these works are about innocence, some experience, but of course none of that would matter if the selections did not make an impression both in themselves and together, which they do. Nor would it matter if the performances were in any way below par, which also is not a problem.

Ms. Stubbs has a poetic musical sense and her performances go for expression above all, and perhaps less for absolute precision. Perhaps only those who know some of these works intimately would notice. And in the end it is not out of a sloppiness as it is an expressive passion. So too if one sits down to a Sloppy Joe repast one should abandon the idea of counting the lumps of ground beef or then gauge the ratio of meat to sauce. But in this case one is sitting down to a plate of "Passion Joe" so to speak! Here it is an expressive whole that comes across to us with heartfelt sincerity and it is served up in ways that transcend some absolute measure of utter faithfulness, right? So too, the idea of "sounding right" is ultimately one that leaves a poetic impression and here Ms. Stubbs resounds with a rather profound poetic concentration.

The choice and sequencing of the musical selections themselves go a long ways towards defining this program as special. Each has a vibrancy of spirit and the sequence (perhaps influenced by producer Russ Titelman's uncanny sense?) has after a few listens (so to me) given out with a fine kind of inevitable suchness, and so a satisfaction.

From the Adams at the top and the Ligeti at the conclusion we get contemporaneity and here-nowness. In between it is a happy journey through sublimity, with Mozart's haunting "Rondo in A Major," five Shostakovitch "Preludes," Stravinsky's "Tango," Busoni's piano arrangement of the Bach Chaconne from the solo Partita No. 2 for Violin, Prokofiev's biting "Suggestion Diabolique," two movements from Scriabin's Second Sonata, a beautiful Brahms Intermezzo and on to the Ligeti to close.

These are examples rather glorious, all. And I am glad to hear how Ms. Stubbs strings them together like a popcorn necklace for the Holiday Tree. I will admit that I do not especially care how closely the selections hew to the thematic Blakean concept. It is enough to state the firm poetic thought at the beginning and then to set the music loose. Harriet Stubbs is most certainly the right kind of poetic pianomeister for this ambitious program. She turns the Ligeti 5th Prelude into the most heavenly of heavens. It is all angel's food cake there, and the juxtaposition with a brace of Devil Dogs (devil's food cake snacks mainly available locally in NY Metro) only serves to heighten the experience of experience and the naivete possibilities we can still sense though we are long beyond it experientially  I suppose.

So after a bunch of listens over here in the former servant's quarters of an ancient Cape May farmhouse I can say easily and with a surety that this music is something very worth your time and concentration. It is a happy thing. Harriet Stubbs brings out the poetry imprisoned in the piano as few around today can do. Recommended.


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Miguel Kertsman, Three Concertos, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies

What we never hear we can never truly know. That thought keeps me ever at the listening station here. And happily it turns out there still is a great deal worth hearing coming out every day. One such a thing is Miguel Kertsman's Three Concertos (Naxos 8.573987), brought very nicely to us courtesy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the distinguished Dennis Russell Davies.

Kertsman as of this writing is in his early fifties. The music in this program was written between 2005 and 2015. It sounds Modern surely, tonal and extremely well wrought. The four works on the program are each very much something with a special identity, and so the hearing is an opening onto a number of fascinating worlds.

The concertos are very alive and vibrant in sound. "Concerto Brasileiro for Flute, Strings and Percussion" (2005) features an agile and mesmerizing flute part and the sort of Brazilian spirit that moves us happily forward.

The contrasting "Concerto for Violin, Horn, Shofar and Orchestra" (2013) has a very mysterious and atmospheric demeanor. It is masterful writing and orchestration with a kind of sonic presence that gradually lifts itself into strongly memorable places the more you listen. If there is one work you might first turn to to get an idea of Kertsman's sonic depth and aurally inventive imagination, this would be my choice. It is rather unforgettable after several run-throughs.

One could listen to this program solely with the idea of identifying and tracing the various musical influences Kertsman adeptly utilizes for his own musical vision. If we followed that string of hearing  we would encounter rock, folk, pop, local and other diverse strands that all get assimilated and transformed by the composer's masterful ways.

So the "Journey for Bassoon and Orchestra" of 2013 has some very engaging and moving music. I especially like the jazz influences but then too a very new kind of rhapsodic, songy Modernism and a wash of majestic lyricism.

The latest (2015) work and a fitting finale to the program comes to us as the "Chamber Symphony No. 2 'New York of 50 Doors.'" This one has a pretty stunning jazz-rock heft to it that neither sounds condescending nor does it seem gratuitous as it can sometimes be in the hands of lesser and less committed composers.

There we have it. This is a beautifully performed program of absolutely  worthy sounds. Kertsman manages to be completely Modern and yet so too lyrical and melodically enchanting. Four works, four worlds all different and a very satisfying listen to anyone who welcomes the NEW in New Music. I recommend this one strongly to you.




Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Gene Pritsker, Eclectic Music Extravaganza

Perhaps a rather simple proposition? That is, that New Music does not always have to be foreboding, so serious as to be hard work to hear? I am dedicated to the proposition that all New Music is and should be fun to hear. Every work an adventure. Every possibility potentially there to hear at any moment. Every sky a rainbow? Well not every sky. But I do believe that New Music is as fun as anything! Maybe as much fun as a barrel full of monkeys? Composer Gene Pritsker knows what I mean. Because he never writes a work that intends to be deliberately arcane or difficult. And mind you, I like arcane and difficult things! I like the opposite too.

With today's music program we get something that is more or less pure fun. Here the "eclectic" in the album title is no accident.  For this is an all-Pritsker program of chamber music that while quite serious about itself is nevertheless fearless in what it allows itself to view or to appropriate for the end of the works at hand.

So the listen is a rewarding one on this album. You put it on and get some really worthwhile recompositional reworkings of Bach's theme from the first movement of the "Well Tempered Clavier," for example, and I think of how Satie did something like this on a Clementi Sonatina. If that is eclectic and it no doubt is, it is in the best way. But the eclectic has a horizontal axis too. It is not just one like paired again its like. It is all influences in cross-spectrum. So then too you listen and hear Gene taking on...Death Metal in some really fetching antics for vocal, piano and drum set. Then how about some piano music that unabashedly works within a ragtime Jopliniana mode to contribute a new spin on the rag possibilities?

We get eleven short works or short multi-movement works and they are all good to hear. There is no doubt that "Modernism" is what we have as opposed to post-post variety packs (have to be of a certain age for this aside? As in Post Toasties?) And the eclec-ticity is not so much a shocking thing as a familiar and reassuring sort of familiarity-in-difference. I do recommend you hear this by all means. Gene Pritsker is a force! Bravo.


Wilhelm Stenhammar, Sangen, Reverenza, Gothenburg Symphony, Neeme Jarvi

Years of life can pass for me without thinking about or listening to Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927). And in fact I came to his music fairly late, during my golden age of combing through the stacks of Academy Records and Books in the city (New York) back when I worked nearby at Scientific American Books/W.H. Freeman. But when something new comes along I am ever interested. The new one at hand today renews my appreciation with some very strong music, strongly performed.

Happily we get that on a new release with Neeme Jarvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony. It is a grouping of Stenhammar works that add to what we may have experienced and the performances convince us that we are in the presence of superior inventive powers and a vivid orchestrational imagination. All this on a program that includes the symphonic cantata Sangen (BIS 2359).

The liners to the album remind us that his breakthrough in the Stockholm music world came with his first Piano Concerto in 1894. He headed up the very same Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra that we hear on this recording  from 1907 to 1922. Under his guidance the orchestra blossomed into a world-class outfit. And when you hear the works on this program, all written during the tenure of his directorship between 1910 and 1922, you feel you are in the hands of a composer that understood from extensive experience the resources of the modern orchestra and put a wide spectrum of sonic options to excellent use.

This is almost an Impressionistic sort of Late Romanticism we hear on this CD, with the lyricism of a Grieg and the power of a Sibelius to summon the sounds into a local set of possibilities. Yet he goes his own way for all that.

The Hilding Rosenberg arranged "Suite from Romeo Och Julia" of 1922 opens the set. It is tender, lyrical and rather effervescent in its five movement presentation. The themes grow inside you as you hear the music repeatedly. And the acoustical outlay of the SACD sound we already detect happily, for this is a recording that sounds especially well.

"Reverenza" (1911-13) follows, which was the original second movement to his "Serenade." It holds its own and features some evocatively stunning string parts and sectional brilliances handled well by all concerned. "Two Sentimental Romances" of 1910 fall close on the heels of the short  "Reverenza" movement and bring out the solo violin rhapsodistic niceties of Sara Troback. The soaring melodic themes are memorable and distinctive. Stenhammar surely was no hack. Far from it.

"Sangen (The Song)," a symphonic cantata of 1921 is the main event in the program, running some 30 minutes with soloists, chorus and full orchestra. This work has more of the rousing ambition of a Nordic Late Romantic huzzah in contrast to its more Impressionist program items. There is a meticulously crafted whole to be savored in listening to this, the final work in the sequence. It is stirring music, and the ghost of Mahler sometimes seems to be lurking quietly and unobtrusively at the back of the stage.

Anyone who already knows and appreciates Stenhammar will take to this one. Those who want to hear another fine voice from the Scandinavian early 20th century flowering will be serviced well by Stenhammar's example and the fine performances to be heard on this program. And in the end it is simply good music, well performed. It is not exactly rabidly Modern, but not everything must be that to deserved our attention, right? Stenhammar is a very musical voice that deserves to remain a part of our sounding into musical air.  We should still hear and appreciate him now and in the future. Recommended.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Lully Effect, Music of Lully, Telemann, Rameau, Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, Barthold Kuijken

Here on a Monday morning I contemplate The Lully Effect (Naxos 8.573867). What is it? Simply put, it is sounding like Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), a French composer of originality and depth.  Once you hear a few of his compositions, provided they are well-chosen and properly played, as is the case very much here, you understand that of all the Baroque masters of his time, he did perhaps more to establish a special musical identity beyond the intrinsically contrapuntal than anyone elsewise, and for better or worse ushered in a different sensibility that in various ways were extended and realized in the ensuing Rococo phase that followed years later. That may be a bit of a gross simplification, but for a Monday morning that is what I generally come up with when left with my current resources!

Seriously though, The Lully Effect is all about Lully's mature sound, the way he presented a music for chamber orchestra that came in part out of the less contrapuntal dance suites and ceremonial court fanfares of his era and created a lyrical yet massively large sound with a strength of line and a sweetness of timbre we do well to hear in a period version as we do here. The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra under Barthold Kuijken gives us the sound as it was meant to be then, in works by Lully and his sometimes followers Georg Phillip Telemann and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Neither composers cleaved to the Lullian "galante" style consistently but instead made music in their own image as well much  of the time. No matter however, for they show in these examples how attractive and stirring Lully's influence could be in the hands of talented later practitioners.

The orchestral forces heard here have a pristine beauty that of course resides first off in the scoring of the respective composers. And that has much to do of course with the blocks of instruments and the way that they outlined the primary melody away from prevailing polyphony to more of a homophonic and heterophonic direction, with a kind of uncanny blurring of principal melodic orchestra parts in ways that thicken the texture, a special advance coming in part out of the dance music of the time in the everyday life of France of the period. Key to the performances we hear in this recording is Kuijken's research and application of appropriate bowing techniques as mapped out in various sources plus a wealth of ornamentation practices. We hear in the results a more heightened sonority that we are used to with this music. It goes far in underscoring the beauty of the sound as intended by the composers in their day. That and the unusual (for us) instrumentation-sound of blocks of winds, harpsichord and then in the strings--violins, violas, cellos but also a number of violons. The first violin parts are generally doubled by a number of players and at times repeated in the woodwinds; the bass parts are strong and pronounced; the middle part is by style a relatively lighter voice in the whole, giving a sort of shimmer but decidedly not meant to equal the principal line.

All this is the case and happily so in the three main works we hear in this program.The Lully is the overture and an instrumental interlude from his opera "Armide." Rameau gives to us a long instrumental suite culled from his opera "Dardanus." Finally Telemann gives us a five movement orchestral "Ouverture (Suite)."

The performances are delightful and go a long ways to make us appreciate the irresistible charm of the music. Is there a "Lully Effect?" Sure! And you can hear it to happy advantage on this fine recording! Very recommended.


Friday, October 19, 2018

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Earth & Sky, Choral Premieres

Really. when you think about it there are at least three Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) personas we might readily experience in his music as a whole.  The one most critical for we who love music must be Vaughan Williams the highly original and brilliant composer of such things as "The Lark Ascending," "A Sea Symphony," "Sinfonia Antarctica" "Hugh the Drover" and "Riders to the Sea" to name some of my favorites.

Then perhaps we might single out Vaughan Williams the local folk music enthusiast. During his life he most certainly promoted and immersed himself in the folk ethos. One can hear it at times strongly  present in his own compositions. He also did a fine job in his folk song arrangements. The folk Vaughan Williams is a key part of who he remains for us to appreciate.

Finally there is Vaughn Williams the Englishman, the civic force, the modern and traditional resident and citizen, And in this guise we feel the influence of his times and milieu in some of the music he composed for the various functions of cultural practice and commemoration.

All three of these Vaughan Williams personas come into play on the program up for discussion this morning. As part of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society series on Albion Records, we have a beautifully performed program of 22 choral works never before heard in commercial recorded form, entitled Earth & Sky (Albion ALBCD034).

The idea that all three Ralphs have some important input in this unexpected series of musical finds seems apt and helps us understand and appreciate what we hear. These short works are not all masterpieces, of course. But neither are any of them mediocre or without some general merit. And certainly so too all provide happy listening when performed so nicely as they are here. Credit must be given to the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital of Chelsea under the directorship of William Vann. We also must make note of Vann's effective piano accompaniment on a number of works as well as the wholly appropriate organ accompaniment of Hugh Rowlands in those pieces that call for it. The choir sings spiritedly and angelically,  perhaps as only a first-rate English outfit sounds? And in the process they manage to conjure up a time and place when Vaughan Williams livcd, loved, thrived and made good. Made very good indeed!

Eight of these works are Vaughan Williams's well wrought arrangements of traditional songs, folk songs really. It may come as something of a shock to hear Vaughan Williams's heartfelt treatment of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home." You listen, you hear the beauty of the melody again, and your extreme ambivalence about those plantations and the slavery they practiced is put in brackets for a minute. One feels no such ambiguity listening to the "Three Gaelic Songs," or "The Jolly Plowboy." Vaughan Williams took the heritage of songs and more songs as seriously as anybody did, and this at a time when the urgency of preserving a rapidly vanishing corpus of songs in everyday practice had grown acute. So all the better Vaughan William's interest in such things.

The remaining 14 pieces are original Vaughan Williams items. They have each a particular place in the music making needs of his world. Some are patriotic and geared toward encouraging and praising the war efforts he was a part of and to which he later gave moral support. We must not forget that WWI and II, and especially the Second WW threatened Great Britain's welfare directly and so the music sounds imploringly stirring as it was meant to. Other songs have a religious role to play and of course the choral group was a central aspect of religious music of the era. Other numbers have a less direct role to play one assumes as they are not as tightly tied to a function.

And in all these works we hear intimations of brilliance at times and always a well-inspired sense of melody and form.

The question in the end perhaps is who needs to hear this, have this? If you wonder about Vaughan Williams and do not yet have some of most of the works I mention at the start of this article, it may be more sensible and necessary to get a performance disks or downloads of those works before this program has any urgency of possession. Those who love choral music of the more or less Modern period yet in a mostly traditional mode will find this a very pleasing program, though in no sense will you find an abundance of innovative brilliance to these works. There are sparks. There are moving pieces to be heard. It all is worthy of hearing. All of it is nicely present and edifying.

If you are a Vaughan Williams  completest you should not hesitate on this one. For it does give a fully fleshed out portrait of Vaughan Williams the man of his times, the participant in the flow of cultural and social history of an England undergoing some curtailment of tradition and the need to assert and reassert a particular musical heritage and in so doing extend that tradition and give us an original version of it all.

So if you already love Vaughan Williams you will learn  some additional aspects of his music and his world! It is in any event a happy listen. I do recommend this one to you if you already think you are interested.


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Vyacheslav Artyomov, A Symphony of Elegies and Other Works

The series of issues and re-issues of the music of Vyacheslav Artyomov on Divine Art is to me one of the primary revival events of the past decade. (Type his name in the search box above for my reviews of other volumes.)  Happily there is more, two more anyway.Today the very welcome A Symphony of Elegies (Divine Art dda 25172).

The album covers three major works. There is the phenomenal orchestral  "A Symphony of Elegies," the violin duo "Awakening," amd "Incantations" for soprano and percussion ensemble.

"A Symphoiny of Elegies" constitutes one of Artyomov's masterworks. It is in fact  his very first symphony, which he composed in the mountains of Armenia in 1977. It is a sonically stunning, major and essential foray into meditative moodiness that somehow manages to straddle later Messiaen and Morton Feldman in his quietly mysterious phase, yet in the end it is pure Artyomov. There is a breathtaking beauty to the way Artyomov hangs in the sunlight delicately ethereal clouds of mysterious sustains with beautifully grey and luminescent pastels of colored light-sound. This music for all its 44 minutes heightens the floating sensation of inner-outer chambered yet vast expanses of space. There is notable space for two upper-register solo violins who according to the composer represents observing from above. They are violin  bridging figures. intimacies that continually tie before with after--almost like the string part of a Gagaku piece, then gradually become more overarchingly continuous. A D.T. Suzuki quotation serves to help set the mood for the the work: "All these are but moments in our innermost life, which revives and touches Eternity." This is ravishing music.

"Awakening" continues and extends the mysterious and reflective mood, this time with two violins alone. They epitomize an entire universe of sound with compact means and so manage to evoke a great deal in the most eloquent and elegant of ways. Ravishing.

"Incantations" sprawls into space with four fairly compact musical movements. It has a very lively vocal part and hews nicely to the sort of percussion group middle ground, neither always pulsating nor strictly event-in-space minded, yet then in the end it bursts forward with ritual pulsations that evoke some mythical ritual world in very unique terms, evoking perhaps Ima Sumac and Messiaen's middle period vocal works via a certain atmospherically "ethnic" panorama, but in no case derivative but rather completely Artyomov-idiomatic.  It is a fittingly upbeat and,  as the work proceeds, a  rather haunting ending to a very nicely moody and reflective program.

And so we have it, an intriguing and rewarding new volume in what I hope will be a very widespread and lasting Artyomov revival. He is a Russian master that has suffered neglect for far too long. It is time we celebrate his music. I do very much recommend this one to you. It is High Modern in a very evocative way. It is not easily forgotten once you give it your full attention! Bravo!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tesla Quartet, Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky

If you want to feel time passing, to feel change in musical performance practice, listen to typical chamber music artists circa 1950 versus today. There can be much less schmaltz to be heard now, less of the mawkish fervor of Hothouse Romanticism and more musically precise note weaving, excitement and passion without resort to the verklempt. Well compare the wonderful but at times decidedly dated Budapest Quartet from those days doing the Ravel Quartet versus the new, present-day Tesla Quartet, who includes the work on their inaugural release Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky (Orchid Classics 100085). You find a less over-the-top passion with Tesla's reading. The vibrato is still there but not sounding the least bit feverish, there is clarity and matter-of-factness the great depth of this work demands. I could go on but I think that gives you the idea of what I hear and like as a starting thought.

And really it all is part of a trend in sound and emotions in music. Listen to some of the "Sweet Bands" in US pop from 1920-1950 and you might hear some incredibly dated timbral heart-stringing. We do not hear things that way anymore, so that even Rachmaninoff we sound with a bit more reserve than maybe was expected a while ago? (On the other hand listen to Ben Webster's tenor sax in his later years on a ballad if you want to hear the art that could spawn from the sentiment so present in music worlds then).

Tesla is a group of younger folks (younger than I am anyway!). They have spent ten years together, ten years of concertizing, communing but perhaps wisely not-yet recording. After ten years they are well seasoned and for this inaugural recording they turn to works they have worked into a fine fettle. The choice of pieces in the audio program work together very well in establishing the brilliance of the group, their care and attention to timbral beauty and blended focus. The results are pretty stunning.

The Ravel "String Quartet in F Major" has such an abundance of a Modern, tempered beauty we surely must rank it at the very top of quartets written last century. Tesla give us a version I cannot imagined being topped and perhaps it has taken us this long to get it perfectly right because that is the way musical time goes? There is deep subtlety in the reading here. Tenderness and hush, boisterous exuberance, richly evocative sound color like lightning bugs at dusk in midsummer, a woody warmth unfeigned and sincere. It balances feeling and cerebral impact as nicely as I have heard out there. Tesla seems born to this music.

A change of pace hits us happily with Haydn's C Major Quartet, Op. 54, No. 2. As Tesla  mentions in the liners, Haydn has played an important role in the first decade of the ensemble's life, with every season involving a performance of at least one of the 41 quartets he left for us. You can hear the sympathy and care that goes into this recording. The reading is lush, lyrical and extraordinarily memorable. They read Haydn with an interpretive brilliance you no doubt do not hear quite like this elsewhere. It is as if they are recalling the beauty of the work as they are performing it, and so we get a reflection of the music in its shining forth, a rare thing and a true musical blessing in many ways. I would love it if Tesla were to record the entire Haydn cycle, but perhaps later on for that?

Tesla features three Ravel minuets that have been nicely arranged for quartet by Tesla violinist Ross Snyder from the original piano parts. The "Menuet antique" rings out especially well but all three are a happy addition to the program. My mom especially loved the "antique" Ravel piece and played a recording of it very often around the house. She would have been very happy to hear this version, no doubt.

The final touch to the musical sequence is a meticulous and very sympathetic reading of Stravinsky's all-to-brief "Concertino for String Quartet." It forms the capstone to a really delightful monument to the state-of-the-art in Modern quartet performance practices.

The Tesla Quartet on the basis of this worthy CD seems to me to be at the very top of the hill in terms of new chamber performance today. Any with the inclination to check this album out should not hesitate. In it a big WOW to me and I cannot doubt that most will feel like I do after a few hearings. The Ravel is primo and the rest of the program is a further confirmation that we are in a special place with these fine players. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tanya Ekanayaka, Twelve Piano Prisms

What is written in our philosophies, to paraphrase Hamlet, does not always cover everything. When I audition the late Modern strains of New Music for piano, for example, these days one cannot expect every composer to adapt the same set of parameters. It might have always been like that, but nowadays it seems truly anything is possible. So I was not sure what I was going to be hearing when I received Tanya Ekanayaka's Twelve Piano Prisms (Grand Piano GP785). Ms Ekanayaka plays the compositions for us and she is a fine pianist.

This is very lyrical piano music in a kind of Neo-Romantic, sometimes a bit Neo-Impressionist mode. I hear Tchaikovsky, Liapinov, Schumann, Rachmaninov, and a wisp of Chopin maybe as the forebears of Ms. Ekanayaka clearly outlined and feelingful pianism. The back cover tells me that many of the themes are Sri Lankan, and at times I can hear that now that I know to listen for it. And the blurb says there are traces of other world musics; the classical tradition and popular music have some sway here as well, so they say. The rhapsodic treatment is crisp and not extraordinarily ornate, which gives a refreshment to it all. Each of the 12 Prisms is in a different key.

Oh, the liners say she is British-Sri Lankan. So that makes sense.She was precociously talented and began studying the piano with her mother, then others. By the time she was twelve she had made her recital debut, her first concerto in public was at age sixteen. She has her doctorate in Linguistic-Musicology from the University of Edinburgh, where she has been a part-time faculty member since 2007.

I very much am taken with what she does with the "Auld Lang Syne" theme on the fourth Prism, which is  entitled "D Flat--Intuition, Auld Lang Syne & an Asian Secret" (2017). Each of the Twelve Piano Prisms  has a distinctive character and mood. And after a few listens you begin to hear the Sri Lankan heritage as a sometimes scalular idiom that is extended and lyricized by Ms. Ekanayaka's special musical gifts. And listening in time her inspired originality comes more to the forefront as her treatment of themes becomes more clearly etched into the listening mind.

I come away from the initial listens to Twelve Piano Prisms quite impressed and moved by the music. I am sure I will happily return to this music often. And I will look forward to hearing more of her music. If you want something tonally wistful and lyrically inspired in new piano music, you will most certainly find it here. If Ms. Ekanayaka does not easily fit in to what other music is being done today, so much the better for us. For we hear an original musical mind at work. Definitely recommended.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Steve Reich, Drumming, Kuniko

After Terry Riley's pioneering "In C," the stage was set for a long ensemble work that mapped out in greater depth a way to further extend such promising Minimalist trance ideas. Steve Reich had been a key early player in the development of the music with the phasing process idea as found in the electro-acoustic "Come Out," "Aint Gonna Rain" and then "Violin Phase."  In the early days of the 1970's he gave we who were following such developments a decided and beautiful way to proceed with the glorious work Drumming. 

When the original commercial recording came out in 1974 I was fully ready for it and so it turns out were many of my peers. It happened to fall on the heels of a major uptick in my experience of World Music via a happy rising of several labels dedicated to such things. Of course there was a remarkable catalog available on Asch's Folkways, but then Ocora, Nonesuch Explorer and a couple of other labels began releasing well-recorded LPs of traditional African and Asian musics. I was at a first peak of immersion in all of that so Drumming hit something of a nerve with me, especially in how it managed to give original treatment to the idea of a pulsating percussion ensemble with multiple interlocking parts. Perhaps rightly so much has been made of how Reich took his phase and process idea and created a wonderfully alive music out of his kernel of structural insight. And indeed it is so. But inevitably perhaps the method of proceeding had become a kind of Wittgenstein's Ladder, or in other words it brought Reich to the new horizon of the interlocking repetition possibilities and gave him ways to ensure development. But then like the ladder that gets you to a point, there was perhaps no need to let a procedure dictate fully where one went from that place on. Or in other words the ladder was not necessarily needed any more? And it is true that subsequent works became less and less phase oriented. No matter. For in the end Drumming stood or fell on the quality of its invention, which one can hear always if one listens faithfully.

Some 48  years later, give-or-take, I certainly can say that my regard for this work has if anything increased in time. And it has done so because of a key factor perhaps--the sheer brilliance of the way Reich fashioned a diatonic pulsation of interlocking ensemble parts and in the way of so doing created, brilliantly invented music that sounds so well together that you can immerse listening self into it virtually forever! In the right hands there is an ecstasy of melodic-rhythmic suchness that you may not find quite to this extent elsewhere.

Enter master percussionist Kuniko and her new recording of Drumming (Linn CKD-582). I have heard virtually all of the versions that have come out since the first recording and they are all good. But this one is by far the best, the most inspired, the most moving I have heard. Why is that? Part of it has to do with how a master percussionist is a master. It is not of course just a matter of faithfully executing the notes. It is that something extra, that getting inside the notes and sending them volleying outward into our aural perceptual worlds that is most telling.

All of this music exists within a continually pulsating time frame.  From the most simple to the very most complicated interlocking parts, a key to a successful performance is the way the ensemble can and does sound the measured, leveraged and even periodicity. Ms. Kuniko does all of that (and plays all the percussion parts via overdubbing I believe) in ways that lift the pulse into a centered measured place that, in the vocabulary of jazz, makes the time "swing" mightily.  It is the transcendence of isolated repetitions in favor of a forward moving, irresistible whole that constitutes the beautiful excellence of this version over others. By getting each part measured right but then elastically so, it puts the foundations in place for a very beautiful version. For with those foundations in place it makes possible an extraordinary vital sounding of the melodic brilliance and timbral vivacity of the work. So even the first simple tuned bongo sections take on an intensity of intent. And then the crosstalk polyvalence polyrhythms (in rabbit-duck gestalt oscillations) are extraordinarily there in balanced and palpable ways that open up the entire listening universe of part-versus-part.  It allows for the rabbit-duck fluidity of what you can hear and so then you can have variable focus at any point in your listening. Each part defines the whole and each sounds wonderfully well if you only listen to that. But of course your musical imagination bounces around continuously in the hearing and re-hearing of an ideal performance of the work such as we get here. The bongos, the marimbas, the glockenspiels, the female voices, the whistling and the piccolo parts sound together with a maximum groove and depth of field that has to do with the swing execution and so the work seems continually to rock back and forth between two end-phrase points (in two units of six) in a remarkably fluid and ecstatic way.

I will not try and describe the entire outlay of the work as it is performed so wonderfully well here. That is something you need to get by sitting there and letting the music play YOU. And so I recommend you get this recording and surrender to it! It is as fabulous a musical experience as you might care to have if you are willing to let the music spin you like a ballerina armature! Kuniko brings home forceably the extraordinary brilliance of this music and helps ensure its place as one of the masterpieces of New Music in our lifetimes. Kuniko is a revelation! Very highly recommended. A midwestern US resident in the mid-1800s when introduced to Beethoven's symphonic music for the first time was said to have exclaimed, "well ain't that something!" I would suggest that this, too, is something!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Walter Braunfels, Quintet for String Orchestra, Sinfonia Concertante

And why is it we do not much know of the music of Walter Braunfels (1992-1954)? The short answer may be that his music was not exactly radically Modern? But it was not archaic either, judging from the new release of his Quintet for String Orchestra and the Sinfonia Concertante (CPO  777 579-2).. We listen a few times, or I did, and find that there is a wealth of good invention and plenty of inspired content. The performances are in the very capable hands of the Muncher Rundfunkorchester under Ulf Schirmer. It is a superior performance and sounds quite well indeed.

The liners tell of a definitive Braunfels biography published in 1980 which has done much in helping assess his legacy. He played piano, composed, taught. The liners tell of a man who kept somewhat to himself. Breakthrough instrumental works were forthcoming in the '20s along with the successful premier of his opera Die Vogel . He was the son of a Jewish jurist. The National Socialist coming to power put his career in jeopardy and he was designed as one of the so-called degenerate composers. All of this had some hand in the fact of Braunfel's relative obscurity in the Modern era despite the outward success of his last years. By the post-war period there were new voices that shadowed over someone like him and so too others who did not espouse a Serialist view.

So what of the works? Both come from his later period and both are substantial. The two contrast pretty nicely, giving you two distinct impressions. The first piece is actually a Frithjol Haas arrangement of Braufnels "String Quintet op. 63a in F sharp minor" which seems like a very good idea. Maybe in part because of the chamber-blown-up-large aspect of the source parts there feels like a distinct relationship between this work and Schoenberg's celebrated "Verklarte Nacht," which is known especially in its string orchestra arrangement of what was originally intended for string sextet.  The music has a  highly chromatic, edge of Late Romanticism kind of expressivity that Schoenberg's Nacht also has. The lyrically melancholy, searching quality of much of this has definite torque. It is some 40 minutes of deeply felt and carefully thought-out music that belies Braunfels' bask in obscurity. The concluding rondo nearly startles with its folk robustness

With the 20-minute "Sinfonia Concertante op. 68," scored for string orchestra and solo parts for violin, viola, and two horns, we get a more detailed sound spectrum befitting its intention for large ensemble. There are magnificent folk-lyric passages, chromatic whirlwinds of expression, a musical personality that seems fully fleshed out, and a kind of edginess at times especially with a sort of characteristic curmudgeon grotesquery contrasted with at times a pastoral-peasant hearty quality and then high expressivity as well.

The performances give us a true view of the definite talents and originality of someone we mostly now know very little of in terms of repertoire presence. A concentrated series of repeated listens brings to us a rather brilliant musical mind so that the more one listens, the more one discerns a real presence in the music of talent and steadfast inventiveness.

I must say this disk constitutes a find! It will bring pleasure to anyone who seeks another voice from the early days of the last century. It is like the ghosts of Mahler and young Schoenberg inhabited a third personality of originality and made a very fruitful re-working of what was on the ground at the time. Very much recommended!