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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Peled Amit, Bach Suites (Volume One), Casals Cello

Since I started writing this blog in 2011 I have had the chance to review a number of versions of the Bach Cello Suites (do a search in the box in the upper left-hand part of this page to see them all). Is there more coming out these days or am I just looking at Classical music releases with a more detailed eye? And have we more genuinely worthy versions being made now than ever before? I cannot say for sure. Certainly the first movement Prelude of the first Suite (echoed also in the first movement of the "Well Tempered Clavier" and the Solo Violin Suites as well) has in the last couple of decades become a favorite for throwing into an ad or using in a drama and good for all that in the end, if it leads more people to be exposed. Truth is I never tire of the music no matter how often I hear it especially when played by a talented interpreter. And so I return today with yet another version, that of the remarkable Peled Amit on the very cello that Casals played in his prime (a 1733 Goffriller with an extraordinary sound) (CFM Classics).

The liners to this first volume of the Suites tells us that the last time we heard the 1733 instrument for this music on record was when Casals himself recorded the Suites in 1936. Casals made the move to be the first cellist to feature the Suites in concert. Before then the music was considered strictly for pedagogical use. So in some important ways this recording is a full coming around.

 Of course all that is very well, you might think, but it means nothing if Peled does not give us a world-class performance. He certainly does. Most notably Peled uses a very expressive rubato for that famous first Prelude. Beyond that he devotes a good deal of animate sound centering and forward motion to his readings. There is little ornamentation but then the very full richness of his tone and inspired execution is a wonder in itself regardless.

There is a kind of penetration to the psychic epicenter of the notes, surely a bit of the warmth of the Casal emphasis yet a bit more of a Modern forwardness. And a very jaunty sort of snap when that is warranted, we get that very nicely as well. It is a wonderful performance, surely one of the finest of our recent times and so I warmly recommend it. I stands its ground as a very beautiful reading that any lover of this music will be glad to have and rehear often. I know I will!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Serenades & Sonatas for Flute and Harp, Suzanne Shulman. Erica Goodman

If this music and its performances here are virtually "no brainers" there is precedent. In my experience anyway. Very many years ago when I was a student in Chicago I was a member of the Musical Heritage Society, who released mostly mail order albums of recordings that they licensed for US distribution. Their selection of the month for January was a two-lp set of music for string orchestra which arrived in my mailbox the first mail day of the new year. I was feeling vulnerable as one does in those first days of, what was it, 1983? The set started out nicely with Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves," which was a definite way to begin the year. After all a version of "Greensleeves" with different lyrics was the Christmas song "What Child is This?" and so it seemed seasonal.

Now we have another very different album, which is out right now, this time music for a different instrumentation. Serenades & Sonatas for Flute and Harp (Naxos 8.573947) it is called. And it starts out with a flute and harp arrangement of Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves."  So it is good to hear this just now, though it would be good anytime. 

It goes without saying that such an instrumentation lends itself to the idea of the "Ambient" though the music was written long before that catch phrase became topical. Suzanne Shulman on flute and Erica Goodman on harp ensure that the music comes through with bell-like clarity and ravishing sonarity. If you love this instrumentation in your head the program will not disappoint.

It is a wide ranging and pretty adventurous gathering  of singular music. The early 20th century English proto-Modernists/pre-Modernists are well represented by Vaughan Williams, William Alwyn (Notably his "Naiades - Fantasy Sonata for Flute and Harp"), and Edward Elgar, among some others not as well known. Then we get some welcome additions in a couple of Francois Couperin miniatures, a little Chausson, Nino Rota and so forth.

This is not a sound by which to set the world on fire. But then for the purposes of this music we do not always want to set the place blazing so much as we might feel a bit damaged by life and seek to recover from the "holidays." That would include a New Years Day hangover of course, though that is not my thing anymore. It is substantial music that manages to bring you some psychic relief without resorting to New Age pablum, so listen without guilt!

I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants something soothing or just loves the idea of the harp and the flute together. It is a very nice way to while away some time, to prepare for or live through winter dreams or the promise of springtime, or any number of other ways to get into a poetic haze. Very nice, this! And it is substantial musically.



Monday, December 10, 2018

Nicholas Dieugenio, Mimi Solomon, Unraveling Beethoven, Modern Composers Today

For each one of us as many starts and re-starts as we go though every year at the end of it we try and sum it up. Similarly the blur of Modernity is an ever-evolving series of beginnings and re-beginnings. And at the end of each year some picture emerges. I feel a definite reset this morning as I listen for the fifth time to a new series of violin-piano Tonal Post-Post-Neo-Classical works played so vibrantly by Nicholas Dieugenio on violin and Mimi Solomon on piano.

And so we have this morning Unraveling Beethoven (New Focus Recordings FCR 217). The idea for this album was to commission five composers to write a work for violin and piano that took into account the ten Violin Sonatas Beethoven produced. Each work is a kind of unraveling and a reweaving into a new fabric. I react to each without thinking at all of that except in passing--for if listening without aid of a compass we follow the music willy-nilly--and so at times that seems best! I do so here. I hope it will help you see what is in this music via a kind of personal listening map in my own time and space.

"The Sky was Good for Flying" by David Kirkland Garner conveys lyrically stunning results in what one might call the "furling" motif for violin and piano. It is highly lyrical and very memorable.

Allen Anderson's "Linen" feels even more like a furling and a re-togethering of fine cloth. It has a bit more of the Modernist Edgy-Tonal spice distributed over its five Expressionist movements. You feel that Modern legacy strongly in ways that point it forward. There is the ghost of Berg's "Violin Concerto" to be heard here and it is a happy recalling of the power of that work. No doubt too there is the Sonata Beethoven as well, but it does not reach out and grab me directly as much as it lurks pervasively in the bedrock of this work. No matter for it is fine music.

"Olmsted" by Robert Honstein has the motility of minimalism yet it moves forward in ways that are directional more than circular, which of course befits a nod in Beethoven's direction. There is real engagement in the effervescence of it all. It makes very new use of the classical motion ideal of bow movements across all strings and a pronounced momentum in piano passagework--both rethought here in glowingly fresh ways. Then there are spaces for lyrical contemplation, which then blossom forth in intimate warmth and tender beauty. The scherzo-ish bursts of rapid figurations and silence set up a mercurial section that vibrates with expressive intensity. The work ends with a gentle dalliance in a motif that feels like a slow-motion trill and then a descending harmonic-"continuo" underpinning to set that all off very nicely. It is music that stands forth in lyrical singularity, post-Beethovenian and a feeling quite Neo-Classical in its working through of the bright glow of a tonal immersion.

Tonia Ko's "Tribute (Axis II)" makes a headlong re-plunge into the more Edgy-Modernist world. The spectre of Crumb can be heard in the ghostingly ghosty open piano sounds and the mysterious high harmonic violin passages. Yet it is forward moving, not just some easy-peasy imitation. Well done. A probing aural journey is this.

Jesse Jones' "Scherzo (After Beethoven)" is the most Ludwig-ian of all these. It addresses the composer's love for the rapid-paced aspects of Beethoven. We feel the love in there and the good willing towards the Beethoven magesticality! A great big grin is this rapid and short conclusion!

So there we have it. It was a great idea and it inspires music considerably more subtle and wayfaring than a typical gesture of "tribute" might imply. In the end that is the ideal result since it brings the music forward rather than staying at rest in a backward modality. The duo of Dieugenio and Solomon are world-class and extraordinarily nuanced in how they bring out all the implications of these works. Bravo. Neo-Classicists take note. But all should no doubt hear this.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bohuslav Martinu, Small Storms, A Collection of Small Pieces, MINI Review

This another in my new MINI Review Series, a short mention about worthy music where there is not enough time to cover all thoroughly. There is a mature period Bohuslav Martinu Modern style that contains a kind of harmonic movement one who knows his work would recognize. On today's program of works Martinu does not give us the trademark way, but rather playfully enters a kind of Modern realm you do not expect him to be in, along with some more pronounced Neo-Romantic elements.The album is called Small Storms, A Collection of Short Pieces (Navona 6092).

There are six works included here, all for cello and piano. Five are multi-movement journeys, one is a simple short offering.Meredith Blecha-Wells appears on cello, Sun Min Kim is on piano. They do a fine job with the music, showing well developed stylistic sympathies with Martinu and able tone and technique.

Any Martinu fan will find this a good listen and a revelation about another side of his style not often seen. Recommended.

Alan Beeler, Forever Beeler, Sonatas & Soli, MINI Review

This is the latest in the MINI Review Series--for music I find I like yet do not have enough time to cover fully. Alan Beeler (1939-2016) was an American composer who based on the evidence of recent releases deserves wider recognition. There is great character and personal originality in the latest volume Forever Beeler, Sonatas & Soli (Navona 6085). We get a chance to luxuriate within 14 pieces on this valuable survey of small chamber groupings and soli. There is a Sonata for Piano plus five more works or multi-movement works for the instrument. Then there are works with or without piano accompaniment for vibraphone, clarinet, flute, English horn, oboe, bassoon, bass trombone and tuba.

In the manner of Hindemith these works cover a wide variety of instruments and give them idiomatic music that has distinction and articulate power in an advanced tonal Modern realm. They parallel Hindemith without imitating him, for Beeler has his own strong sense of form and vivid melodic movement. Bravo!`

Carl Vollrath, Warrior Monks, MINI Review

This another in the MINI Review series. Music that is worthwhile and needs a mention. We have here the chamber wind orchestral music of Carl Vollrath, in the volume Warrior Monks (Navona 6102). It features the Morovian Philharmonic Wind and Percussion Ensemble under either Petr Vronsky or Stanislav Vavrinek. They sound able, fit and sympathetic. Three works are at hand, all Modern in a descriptive tonal way, dramatic and evocative. It is something well wrought and worthy of your time if you look for something unknown to you.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Morton Feldman, Atlantis, Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, Lucas Vis

If there were no Morton Feldman work about the lost continent Atlantis (hat[now]ART 206) one would have nonetheless to imagine it. Once you hear of the fact that there is such a thing if you know Feldman you feel like this is a very good idea. After all Feldman (1926-1987) is practically a lost continent unto himself, a visitor from a world we only know by his presence. Though he was a part of the Cage school of course, he also was very much a school of one. I am thinking if there ever was somebody who survived the Atlantis deluge and remained on earth it was him! He was a visitor and we were blessed to have him among us.

There is a Zen concentration to his music that was virtually there from his very first published works. Atlantis  combines in a vibrant program three works from two vital periods in Feldman's development. All three exhibit that concentration. All are fashioned for and can be very fruitfully played by chamber orchestra. The key perhaps is in the variable fashioning. The title work Atlantis (1959) is graphically notated and so it stands out as created out of the murky waters of created destruction, so to say. It scurries and flurries with an insect-like hyper movement and so then stands alongside the more Apollonian later works "String Quartet & Orchestra" (1973) and "Oboe and Orchestra" (1976), which have the more "staid" open-ended mysteriousness, more typically Feldmanesque in the long-run empty horizon quality. And so in a way they seem more typical of a vision of Atlantis? Yet taken all together they flesh out worlds of mystery that never are far from the Feldman vision.

In the liners Art Lange speaks lucidly of how total process of creation with the AB Ex painters determined the identity of work and being--that Cage and Feldman rejected predetermined form as constitutive yet too found critical the overall processual elements in crating up, creating up an oeuvre.

Well in order to come to grips with all of the above you simply have to hear this music for itself. Lucas Vis and the Radio-Sinfonie Orchester Frankfurt give us convincing readings that stand up to repeated hearings and consistently reveal the more of themselves the more we put into the listening.

It is like much of Feldman an extraordinary listening experience--and the two seventies works play against and offset Atlantis to complement it and give us a very absorbing whole. Heartily recommended to anybody with ears!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Leon Kirchner, Music for Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

When a new release arrives from the auspices of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, I generally perk up. It is because I know that whatever they are up to is a good thing, really. So a few weeks ago the anthology of Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) Music for Orchestra (BMOP 1060) was in my mailbox and I was intrigued. I had found years ago the LP of his Pulitzer Prize winning string quartet and have listened with pleasure since, then I have appreciated some music for vocals and large chamber group I found subsequently in the classical bins of the past. But after that I for whatever reason lost track of what he was doing and now to my chagrin I see he passed away in 2009 and I did not even hear about it.

The good news is that this anthology conducted with the usual sympathetic care and enthusiasm by Gil Rose catches us up with some important works he composed between 1951 and 2008. It forms a sort of mini-retrospective. It serves to inform me (and I hope you too) that he was a remarkable force in orchestral music--with vision and orchestral-orchestrational expressivity of a high order.

The jacket blurb sums up what we should consider admirably. He studied with Schoenberg, Sessions and Bloch, which is rather amazing, really. He started with a Hindemith-Bartok-Stravinsky nexus, followed the Viennese school into 12-tome and in the process became someone original. Modern in the high sense, and very substantially musical-inventive.

You listen to these excellent performances and a larger picture of Kirchner gradually emerges. The grand maturation comes with his title work "Music for Orchestra" (1969) and follows with the later sequel "Orchestra Piece (Music for Orchestra II)" (1990). Both works carve out a very original orchestral demeanor that is both Modern and noteworthy at every step. He sounds like the century in which he flourished, surely. And yet he sounds like an exemplar of Kirchner and nobody else.

And the bookended works are nothing to sneeze at either, from the early strivings of "Sinfonia in Two Parts" (1951) which sounds very much as an avant voice of the time, a musical voice of promise. The growth continues in the "Toccata for Strings, Solo Winds, and Percussion" (1956).

In the farewell work on the program, "The Forbidden" (20008) we hear a Kirchner undiminished, fully flowered and poignantly moving forward even at the edge of his life experience.

There is a vital expressivity to this music, a vibrancy, a sureness and an eloquence very much with a kind of honest directness. He follows his muse throughout and does so wisely. For he was someone with a vision of what the present-day could and did bring to the imaginative inventor of tones and textures.

If you take this music as seriously as you should, and spend time in the labyrinths of form and forward movement, you might well conclude with me that this is a sleeper, something that comes in like a lamb, so to speak, but then goes out like a giant! Fee-fie-fo-fum!

Highly recommended. A US composer we should not forget in a finely performed program of gems.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Terry Riley, In C, Brooklyn Raga Massive

LaMonte Young kicked off the Minimalist revolution but Terry Riley made it live and breathe with his seminal composition In C.  I was happy that my friend Fuzzbee played the record for me in Boston, 1971, and my life was suitably hastened by it all. For those not familiar in depth with how the music works it is a series of phrases mostly within the key of C which fit together remarkably well. An unspecified group of instrumentalists (and vocalists) gather together and with the aid of a constant pulse (ordinarily the piano) they play each phrase as they see fit, together and apart, moving each artist as they see fit to the next phrase until all the phrases are covered. There is overlap continually between where each player starts the phrase and the natural layering that occurs as each group of players overlap in terms of who is playing which phrases at any given point, so long as all follow the sequence of phrases. So the template allows for much spontaneous and even planned variation.

It is a work that gives rise to a wonderful sound provided all the players listen to one another and keep in the flow of it all. There have been rock versions, a Chinese instrument version, and now the Brooklyn Raga Massive give us a (mostly North) Indian Classical version with suitable instruments and vocalists (Northern Spy NS094). In this case, rather brilliantly, the pulse is sounded as a tabla accompaniment.

Terry Riley both as the composer of In C and as improviser, as composer of other later works, in all of this he shows a kind of loose affinity with Indian Classical orientations--drone, modal figurations, etc. And happily the Brooklyn Raga Massive is attuned very much to the attuned nature of In C. They give us a flowing reading that takes the liberty of arranging parts and providing solo space to make it all that much more Indian and bring an entirely new life to the work. They make it all sound at times like some of Ravi Shankar's wonderful film music, for example. And to me that is a very good thing.

And they do so in ways you might have imagined and hoped for when you heard about the project. Or at least that is very much the case for me. It is a triumph of sensitive musical listening and conceptual rigor, so to speak.

It works and it works wonderfully well. So anyone who might think the idea interesting, just go right ahead and listen, buy, make these folks and the dedicated label who boldly goes here, make them be happy to wake up and keep on going forward! Buy it, then. That is what I recommend! Very much recommend.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Mahler, Symphony No. 6, Music Aeterna, Teodor Currentzis



As I have been listening to this new version of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in A minor "Tragic" (Sony Classical 19075822952), which is exceptionally well done by Teodor Currentzis conducting MusicAeterna, it suddenly becomes clear to me. I hear Mahler spending his summer like always with Alma in a mountain chalet, his music waxing folksy as they soak in the feeling of the Austrian countryside, while Alma perhaps pops in to check on how he is doing. They live, I can feel that whole summer for them. And it contrasts with the seasonal struggles in Vienna with its factions and intrigue. You can hear the contrast. What a pictorialist he was. Incredibly powerful musical imagery he created. Glad for all this.

And in large part we can thank Teodor Currentzis and what he gets so wonderfully out of MusicAeterna for the extraordinarily clear sonic staging that allows us the climb right inside the music as if for the first time. Each nuanced sectional bit on the way to the whole is handled with precisely etched detail, real care. Now are we to read this entire symphony as a lesson in Tragedy, an anticipation of the horrible catastrophes of the Modernity of the 20th Century? Sure if you like. But you do not have to look any farther than Mahler's own life in Vienna and the brutal politics of Vienna's music world. The point is not as much the pointing towards in this incredibly detailed reading of the 6th as it is the overall series of pictorial moods and the brilliance of their detailed sonic wonderment.

The '50s-'70s in the music worlds I have grown up in (that is in the USA) were most definitely a time when the literal-pictorial were very much at the forefront. "Mood Music" albums in a way came out of Strauss' literal programmatic view of music, the popularity of which perhaps peaked when "Thus Sprake Zarathustra" figured prominently in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite had a motif for every literal thing, even the lightening in the thundersqual and my dad loved to play it when I was around three. I listened very closely. So did '50s USA in general.

The mood music craze took off then, with a ton of music that reflected a wide swatch of moods, perhaps peaking with the Mystic Moods Orchestra who furnished psychedelic muzak to a first generation of would-be zoners. And really the artistic peak of this pictoral way you can hear in Mahler's brilliant tone painting, not to mention Debussy and Ravel. Oh and Ives.

And as you listen closely to Currentzis's reading of the 6th you experience the orchestrational richness of this music with a level of detail we rarely have experienced, if ever. It is as if you are given entrance to Mahler's aural imagination as he reflected on how the orchestra was to sound. You are inside his musical mind.

I surely have not heard a more stirring and beautiful version of this symphony. It is as if we hear the work for the very first time. And that is saying a great deal. People who expected to find sonata form in all the music at that point missed out on what Mahler was after. He was a truly brilliant sound colorist. It was still all about the notes, sure. But it was all about how he shaded every possible sound to create an aural set of canvasses unparalleled in what came before, even from a Wagner. Things that followed from this period kept working toward a saturation of colors in sound. Listen to Webern and you hear a sort of anti-Mahler's Mahler, still extraordinarily attuned to the sound color possibilities. So also Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen, and a litany of such Modernisms.


And the recording at hand reminds us how much we can truly hear with a conductor like Currentzis and, for that matter, a brilliant sound engineering job on the part of the Sony folks. This is a genuine phenomenon, a Mahler performance that should not be missed by anyone who cares about such things. The middle movements are tender to the point of tears and the outer movements have menace and a musical equivalent of volition that is stirring beyond the norm to say the least! Bravo! This is a 6th that changes the way you hear the 6th!