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Friday, December 15, 2017

Mahler, Symphony No. 8, Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer, Mormon Tabernacle Choir

It was in our lifetime that Mahler went from being a rarified taste to the Late Romantic poster child. Richard Strauss used to be that, hands down. Now he is more in eclipse I suppose you can say than in 1950 or so, when he was at a peak in reputation and popularity among typical classical listeners. At least that is my impression. Mahler's symphonies are defining and constitute a personal journey through a world he was very much a part of as conductor yet very much an outsider as Jew and innovative force, an enigma as a composer to those at the time and up until recently. Increasingly we listeners value those works and find they speak with a voice we can understand and relate to, at long last. And Strauss has become more marginalized. It did take us a while to get there, myself among them.

As much as I've appreciated Mahler's Symphony No. 8 over time, I have connected only tangentially to it on a personal level. Until now. Thierry Fischer directs the Utah Symphony and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a brand new recording (Fresh! Reference Records FR-725CD).

There is so much to the 8th that it can fail to hang together unless you experience it as a whole. And it is true too that a conductor and performance may also lack the sort of dedicated unity it takes to put the parts into a whole. The nickname "Symphony of a Thousand" certainly underscores the challenge of harnessing the strength of the massive forces the work demands. I have heard versions that sound a little bloated or lacking a center of gravity. No matter. Fischer and the Utah contingent meet the challenges and bring us a single-hearted reading that perhaps is less Wagnerian (a problem with some readings) than Mahlerian, less strictly giganticistic and more focused than some. And the SACD audio most definitely helps pull it all off as brilliant listening.

When we realize that late Mahler is not precisely the same as earlier Mahler, that there is less of the folk-sarcastic idiomatic and more of a kind of Romantic centrism, we also should attend to the fact that there are many parts, if not most parts that give us an evolved expression wholly Mahlerian. So we can begin to forget the earlier style when listening and embrace what is there. It is no longer exactly local, Vienna and surrounds as filtered through Mahler's place in both center and periphery. It is looking outward to a larger world, perhaps. As so he would also end up in New York. That takes a careful reading, a balanced sounding of the whole of the score. We get that here.

There is an ecstatic sadness to Mahler at times that doesn't entirely conform to what you expect to hear from a symphony master, a level of regret that the 8th has at its core.  The beauty is tinged with a kind of transcendent melancholy, especially in the middle movements.

And this Fischer-Utah recording is all the things that the 8th has in such abundance, a remarkably balanced, detailed reading that is huge and ecstatic when called upon to be that, and then lingeringly introspective and regretful, yet beautifully evocative when that is in order. The 8th has never been a favorite with me. But I can say now that it no longer seems so anomalous to me, thanks to this fine rendition.

Mahler represents one of the glorious last gasps of another age, yet also the later music is mindful that his time is at an end of an era though he had progressed beyond the tradition and had flowered as very much a brilliant original as much as any composer of our times.

I must say that I heartily recommend this recording. There may be better versions out there. There are no versions I have heard that I like so much.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

John Cage, Christian Wolff, Apartment House, Phillip Thomas, CC

On today's 2-CD set CC (NMC  HCR16CD) we get fine interpretations of two important American New Music High Modern works, one a mainstay classic, the other something brand new. Both are for chamber orchestra, performed with dynamic grace by the ensemble Apartment House and piano soloist Phillip Thomas. The works fill a CD each and consist of John Cage's iconic "Concert for Piano and Orchestra" (1957-58) plus Christian Wolff's "Resistance" (2017) in its world premiere recording.

The "Concert for Piano and Orchestra" performance presented here is one of the very finest, rivaling the 1972 recording by Ensemble Negativa released in Germany as part of the now quite obscure LP set Music Before Revolution.

The current version takes up a full 53 grand minutes. It has been built from 84 separate "notations," various sets of codes and instructions for specific aural soundings in the "Solo for Piano" part, intended to be performed alongside of the separate orchestral parts, each a kind of solo performance which then in amalgam becomes the work as a whole. It exemplifies and embodies indetermination in the choice of musical texts, the enjoinment of each player to chose texts or abandon them at will, and the "clock hands" of the conductor, which speed up or slow down the progression of the music at the conductor's aesthetically spontaneous whim. The texts chosen for this particular performance differ from previous versions in that there is a combination of previously used notations and new reconstructions as well.

So this performance is in effect one-of-a-kind, as every one is designed to be. The result in the right hands is a landscape of synchronies and dis-synchronies, sound punctuations out of silences for 14 instruments plus piano soloist. Apartment House comes through with a beautifully creative sound-sculpture-in-motion. It is a superb reading. I react like I did for the Ensemble Negativa version when I first head it, with the idea now firmly held in my head that "John Cage doesn't have to sound like s--t!" Indeed it sounds like what happens when musically sensitive instrumentalists are let loose and allowed to commune with the structural demands of wisely aleatoric Cage.

The new Christian Wolff work that comprises CD2, "Resistance," sounds quite different as it was meant to. The work was commissioned by Apartment House for performance alongside Cage's "Concert." The instrumentation used here is the same as for the Cage, though the composer allows for a greater sized ensemble according to various specifications. Keeping to the same ensemble size helps us compare the two works directly and makes them each fully a part of the set. The piano part is a constant and like Cage, Wolff juxtaposes variously notated and aleatorically variable texts. The sound is denser, perhaps slightly less abstract, and filled with intersections and running contemporary phrasings that are less dryly monumental than the Cage. In any case the musical results cohere and sound well as an exciting New Music excursion.

Taken as a whole or considered separately, both of these performances and the musical instructions and specifications that make them possible become very much high modernism at its finest and most intriguingly open. The Cage is a masterpiece of its time and Apartment House do it benchmark justice. The Wolff most certainly seems like a masterpiece-in-the making.

Anyone who already embraces high modernism encounters an essential, indispensable release here. Anyone who wishes to take the plunge into the new sounds maelstrom might well start with this! Do not hold back. Get it!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Dalia Raudonikyte With, Solitarius (Redux)

I am glad via this blog I can experience the music of numerous worthy contemporary composers. Yet sometimes life becomes hectic to the point where I find I know something and have reviewed it previously. My memory can suffer a slip when I have been grappling with distractions as I have so much lately. So it happens with the CD at hand. I already reviewed it last July and find out after I have written yet another article. OK, I might as well post it anyway! You can compare it with the earlier one and notice a consistency, yet also another slightly different take on things. So here it is:

Dalia Raudonikyte With comes center stage for us in a recent recording  of solo and string orchestra music, Solitarius (New Focus Recordings FCR186).

In each of the compositions on the program a literary, artistic-aesthetic or philosophical quote forms the reference point for the music at hand. So we have launching point pithiness from Seneca, Francis Picabia, Virginia Woolf, Frederic Chopin, Stefan Zweig and Thomas Wolfe, in each case underscoring a work of a distinctly modern, sometimes extended-technique-colored and an expanded tonal sort.

Receiving her MA in composition and piano education at the Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy, With went on to study composition and electroacoustic music at the Norwegian Academy of music.

The program includes concentric works for solo clarinet,  for alto saxophone and electronics, for piano solo and for solo guitar. Centerpiecing the sequence is the searching "Grues et nix" for string orchestra, which contrasts with the solo fare and shows a fullness against the solo open sound dimensions of the surrounding works.

A constant is a poetic musical demeanor, a search for extended sonarities that express meaning and mood without being tied strictly to the text that inspires each.

It all is well played and a somewhat different take on what is possible today. Well worth your time.


Orlando Gibbons, Complete Concert Anthems, In Chains of Gold, The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem Vol. 1, Fretwork, Her Majestys Sagbuts and Cornetts, Magdalena Consort

In Early Music, you can freeze a moment in time, and if you lovingly reconstruct the moment and the moment is a good one there can be magic. Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbuts and Cornetts, and the Magdalena Consort take a passing but valuable moment in the English Pre-Reformation, freeze it and reconstruct it with stunning sonance. And so we have Orlando Gibbons' Complete Consort Anthems as Volume 1 of The English Pre-Reformation Verse Anthem, In Chains of Gold (Signum 511).

The music is performed with period accuracy and vital enthusiasm. The title comes from a 1597 text by Thomas Morley, where he expresses the desire for a choral ensemble that "draw[s] the hearer...in chains of gold by the ears to the consideration of holy things." Gibbons' Anthems provide ample means, an eloquent contrapuntal, mellifluous vehicle to allow the choral Magdalena Consort a way clear to some profound, earthy heaven of music. They and their instrumental cohorts give us every reason to appreciate this music in all its specific period glory.

The vocalist are beautifully central to this fine program. They articulate each part with a kind of period purity that brings out the ravishing starkness without artifice, a sweetness born of immersion and singular focus.

The brass ensemble has great color. It punctuates and gives breath and breadth to the soundings when it is present. Harp and organ plus five viols add sonorous depth and a special glow this period music attains when allowed to return to its proper instrumentation and method of delivery.

Gibbons has in the past suffered from lackluster and inauthentic performance practices. You might say that of much of the vocal music of similar time and place, certainly in the period of recordings from say 1950-1970. But Gibbons enchants when he is allowed to sound as he wished to sound. The Magdalena Consort and accompaniment give us every reason to grasp and embrace the unfrozen moment of music we may have been in too great a hurry to stop and truly appreciate until now. We have a rare opportunity here to stop the rush toward ever changing teleology that music history can often be. It matters not for the moment what came before, what came after.

We are invited to savor the beauty of what once was for a time only, yet speaks to us now without a need to put together before and after. That is what the Early Music movement does at its best. The Consort and assembled musicians give us ideal readings. It allows us to experience what once was in ways that embody yet transcend a time long gone. Kudos! Any adventuresome listener, archaist, or wide-eared adept will find this program enlightening and enrapturing. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Prokofiev, Violin Concertos, Franziska Pietsch, Deutsches Simphonie-Orchester Berlin, Cristian Macelaru

As time moves along, and it does, certain music becomes as if old friends. Nothing to take for granted, ideally a comfortable familiar that one turns to when spirits need brightening. The Prokofiev Violin Concertos (Audite 97.733) have long been that for me. The First Concerto I discovered when a Freshman in high school as a cutout in the local 5 & 10, the marvelous Szigeti version on Mercury. The Second I came to a little later, while still in high school, in the Heifetz-Boston rendition on RCA. The concertos are landmark Prokofiev, with thematic wealth and tender bitter-sweet beauty virtually unmatched in the modern repertoire for violin.

The two LP versions of the concertos long established themselves in my mind as benchmark performances that set the standard and defined for me what these works are about. As glorious as these old recordings are to me, I have in no way closed myself off to new interpretations. I am very happy that I asked to review the new recording of both concertos as played with brilliance by Franzisca Pietsch and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under conductor Cristian Macelaru.

In the hearing and rehearing of the new versions I am captivated, from the first, with what Ms. Pietsch brings to the music.  The role of the orchestra engages very much as well.

The two works, as the liners remind us, mark the beginning and the end of Prokofiev's time in exile from Russia. What that means to the music does not concern me especially right now, since the works took their shape and life took shape as two interrelated but contrasting entities.

The First Concerto is very much Russian, modern without any hesitation, with almost a folk-Gypsy intensity and a beauty that persists in the work almost in spite of itself. Pietsch does not have quite the same folkish attack as Szigeti did, but what she brings is her own, at times even more savage than Szigeti, yet too with a soaring beauty Szigeti did not quite equal. The orchestra seconds her with a heart-felt staging and a detailed balance that together are breathtaking.

The Second is perhaps a less impetuous work and one that spins out regretful lyricism in even larger doses than the first. The rendition we get from Pietsch and orchestra is not perhaps as poetic as Heifetz but on the other hand has a dynamic and an irresistible engagement that brings us the tender and molto-expressivo sides in a new balance. There is pensive fragility and a little infernal zest in perhaps more equal measure than with Heifetz.

As I listened it occurred to me that Pietsch and Berlin respond to these works now, some more than 50 years beyond the two LP versions, at a time when hindsight in no way diminishes the works in our eyes and ears, yet it is music after all that we may now more completely, collectively understand and embrace as familiars. The "brazen" modernism that the music seemed to embody years ago has not disappeared, but it has become less off-putting, more naturally heard and understood, completely comprehensible so that Pietsch and Berlin can build on what we already accept and embrace.

These remarkable Pietsch readings do not replace the Szigeti and Heifetz. They stand alongside them as equals, which is to say much. She and Macelaru-Berlin bring to us joyfully alive interpretations that remind us that the music is as much a part of today as yesterday.

It occurs to me as I immerse myself in the music again that much could be said about a kind of tribal strain that both Stravinsky and Prokofiev introduced into the early modernist project that has parallels with Picasso and his fascination with African masks and such. You can hear a primal strain in this music, too. Pietsch lets herself feel that influence and she lets us experience fully how it belongs very much to parts of both concertos.

And so I conclude the review with much more that could be said. It is unnecessary to say it here. Suffice to say what I have. Franziska Pietsch clearly dwells in the heart of the music throughout. Berlin and Macelaru craft stunning orchestral sonarities to match. There are passages that nearly bring on tears, they hit home so well.

The recording to me is another benchmark of a way to approach Prokofiev. It holds its own and so brings me to a strong recommendation. It forms an ideal introduction to these masterpieces, or for that matter new versions that deserve a place in your collection. I tell you true. This recording may well be for YOU!

Friday, December 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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