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Saturday, August 24, 2019

J. William Greene, Buxtehude at Lynchburg, Free Compositions and Choral Preludes

My gradually unfolding, happy interaction with classical organ music has been rather informal, with a follow-the-nose intuitiveness that started with an early and happy experience hearing a well attuned and well played cathedral organ in my childhood as a regular member of the St. Anthony Parish in Butler, NJ. And it in the most general terms was an organ world when I was a kid--for example down at the seashore there were mighty organs playing in the beachfront hotels and I listened eagerly. Bach works were my first serious interest as far as organ recordings went. And from there I followed threads that made sense backwards to Buxtehude and farther afield and then also forward to the French School from Franck to Messiaen (see last Monday's post here for a little more on that).

I had piano lessons as a kid and later as well, and we had a piano at home that I played upon as a student of the instrument and someone musically inclined alike. I would also goof around on the Farfisas and Hammond B-3s that were in some of the rock and jazz-rock bands I was in from 7th grade on, but I never had the pleasure to have organ instruction or take a course on organ literature and histor,y etc. It just did not come up in my education--and not through a lack on interest.

So when I read in the liners to J. William Greene's Buxtehude at Lynchburg (Pro Organo CD 7170) that Greene in the title is paying homage to an old 1967 E. Power Biggs Columbia LP Buxtehude at Luneburg, I simultaneously regret missing out on this icon of recorded vinyl and appreciate being tipped into the organ lore of which I no doubt have many serious ellipses and gaps--and if I am ever to be thumbing through a stack of used LPs in a thrift store again I will look out for the album, surely.

All that may seem a lot to preface this review article with, but anyone who reads these columns regularly knows that of course part of my engagement with the music is as a person and so I feel it sometimes somewhat illuminating that I recount my involvement in the history of the appreciation of music I have lived through for as near a lifetime as anyone--though I hope with much more to go!

Back to the subject at hand however. The subtitle of this fine CD is Free Compositions and Chorale Preludes of Dieterich Buxtehude. That says it all if you already know it all, but for those of us who do not, the liners give helpful fleshings out. So the Choral Preludes were meant to introduce artfully the specific German chorale that the congregation was then to sing in the service at that point. As the notes suggest, the preludes are remarkably ornate at times, contrapuntally elegant and brilliant, Buxtehude at his finest.

There is poignant content and exceptional linear variety in the Praeludium, Toccatas, Passacaglias, Fugues, and Canzonas we hear in the course of the program. J. William Greene is meticulous to a fault yet as spirited as we might hope for. The recording is crisp and clear in aural staging, and the Taylor and Boody organ of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynchburg (of the title), Virginia is ruggedly traditional-sounding and just right to bring out nicely the voicings Buxtehude specifies.

All-in-all this is the Buxtehude we revel in if we give the music a chance. It is exemplary in its unpretentious down-to-the-bone performance wonders and it sounds great. So I recommend it very highly. I will treasure this one. I hope you will too.

Derek Bermel, Migrations, Luciana Souza, Ted Nash, Derek Bermel, Julliard Jazz Orchestra, Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller

While the name of US composer Derek Bermel (b. 1967) may be new to me, the music on his album Migrations (Naxos 8.559871) has a New Music-Modern Jazz tang that rings true in a local sort of way, that he takes on certain style clusters known in USA musical channels and makes them his own in ways that please and intrigue. There is familiarity, then, but newness in equal turns.

The title work "Migrations" is quite au courant as it deals with the movement of populations, as would-be refugees, as emigrants, a situation we have experienced only too directly in the refugee crisis in Syria in the past decade and then especially in the Trump Presidency in the US the situation of refugees seeking political asylum, most notably emigrants from Central America. The "Migrations" work themes itself around such large-scale people movements.

Notably on the cover of the CD (pictured above) is a painting by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) entitled The Migration Series, Panel No. 3: from every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north (1940-41). This in part forms the pictoral foundation for the music, the later of which was commissioned by Wynton Marsalis for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Concert Series. The cycle of some 60 paintings by Lawrence comes to grips with the movement of Afro-Americans from the Rural South to the Industrial North and so too does Bermel's five movement work. And so thematic parallels have local historical bases that we can think of with the overlapping of repetitions and non-repetitions in various ways. Now is of course not then, but there are ominous intertwinings we can sense when we follow present events.

The work itself features the well situated Julliard Jazz Orchestra (along with the Albany Symphony, all conducted by David Allen Miller) with soloists Ted Nash on soprano and alto sax, and Bermel himself on clarinet. The music is a kind of ambitious Modern Big Band Jazz that hearkens to the innovative stances of George Russell, Gil Evans and perhaps Claire Fischer, and takes the art further into personal territory. It is a work that increasingly strikes you as having some profundity the more one listens. Masterful and invigorating! Cutting edge!

From there we go to two works that involve more New Music an orientation, with the Albany Symphony and soprano Luciana Souza in the songful Portugal-oriented "Mar de Setembro" based on a poem by Eugenio de Andrade. It is exceedingly beautiful music, harmonic-melodic in ways that seem as Brazilian as Modern, more lyrical than strident.

"A Shout, A Whisper and a Trace" brings us to a fully Modern orchestral zone of vibrant sound color, with an infectiously and rhythmically dancing, folksy, almost Coplandesque-meets-Stravinsky opening that quickly turns bi-total. It is all most delightful in its very own way.

Because my personal life has at times lately become trying I have within the ongoing chaos ended up listening to this album much more than I might have ordinarily as a first go of things. After maybe ten listens I must say I thoroughly appreciate this one in ways that a long exposure helps create. It is important, beautiful, expressive music, all of it. And it is very well performed. Grab it!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

SWR VokalEnsemble, Japan, Works for Choir, Toshio Hosokawa, Toru Takemitsu, Michio Mamiya, Jo Kondo; Marcus Creed, Conductor

Modern choral music of Japan is not something I have been much exposed to, so this SWR Vokal Ensemble album simply entitled Japan, Works for Choir (SWR Classic 19079CD), is enlightening me and giving me much to consider.

A wealth of possibilities for vocal ensemble are explored, all in some kind of Modern realm, though not programmatically or formulaically so. It shows us that Japanese composers, like their contemporary equivalents across the globe, can express the local as well as the universal, in song and in ensemble atmospherics, with complex tonalities and vibrant artistic outbursts, and with folk-like song expressions that hearken back while nevertheless by framing remain squarely in the present.

You who know something of the national music of Japan will recognize at least one celebrated traditional melody in arrangement for chorus. Besides that there are chant-like gatherings, floating harmonic extravagances, instrumental-like vocaleses and a kind of potpourri of possibilities that continually intrigue as one gets familiar with it all with repeated listens.

A run down of every work would perhaps overwhelm and it is better with so much and so varied a palette to let oneself be surprised and pleased within an unfolding real-time frame.

Nonetheless for your information we get to hear Toshio Hosokawa's "The Lotusflower Doth Languish," Toru Takemitsu's "Wind Horse," "Cherry Blossoms," "Wings." and "Small Sky," Michio Mamiya "Composition for Chorus No. 1," and Jo Kondo's "Motet Under the Rose."

This is music that has categorical importance, is performed with care and subtle ease, and affords a tantalizing glimpse into a local genre we at least in the "West" have gotten far less exposure to than we should.

Gladly and sincerely recommended.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Messiaen Meditations sur le Mystere de la Sainte Trinite, Tom Winpenny

Organist Tom Winpenny has been doing a fine job performing some of the principal Messiaen organ works for Naxos (type his name in the search box above to find relevant reviews). Now he takes on rather heroically the Meditations sur le Mystere de la Sainte Trinite (Naxos 8.573979). It is a later work that began in 1967 with a series of improvisations Messiaen devised and reworked in celebration of the rebuilt organ at La Trinite Cathedral, taking final form in 1969. He had been organist at this Paris cathedral, to give it its full name the Eglise de la Sainte Trinity, since 1931 so this was indeed a momentous occasion no doubt to him.

It is a masterpiece of mystery in ways so imaginative that it virtually gives us a guide to the innovative Messiaen spiritual organ oeuvre--a summing up and a leaping forward all at once.

The nine sections all work together to create a magic that is Messiaen's alone. No other master before or for that matter since has captured so incredibly inventive a series of rovings and spiritual penetrations.

Tom Winpenny gives us the kind of dynamic thrust and absolute sonic command that makes of this work a structurally yet highly aesthetically hammer-beamed object where the supports are not just structurally needed (to extend a metaphor); they are an integral part of the luster of the finished work of art, essential to its nature and beauty at once.

What is memorable about this music is quite clearly within the performance-command of Tom Winpenny. I've heard performances that may equal this one, but none that in my opinion surpass this one. An iconic work, performed with true conviction and careful elation. A winner in every way. Highly recommended.

And with this music is a melodic-harmonic brilliance like you will look for in vain in other organ music. It is one of the works that makes it plain that Messiaen has a special brand of Modernism, of brilliance and clarity like no other before or after, yet too he is spiritual in ways nobody else approaches as well.

This is essential!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Franz Liszt, Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, Wojciech Waleczek, Complete Piano Music Volume 53

Volume 53 of Franz Liszt's Complete Piano Music is no afterthought, but rather presents his Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, an ambitious work of his early maturity, written in 1847 when he was (according to my math) 36 years old. He had settled in Paris, then was concertizing, was attempting to do for the piano what Paganini was doing for the violin, or in other words establishing a kind of diabolically religious virtuosity that would make of him a cult figure of sorts and permanently establish the piano as an almost supernatural force in music.

This set of some 12 individual pieces is not quite of the bold otherworldly dash of the Transcendental Etudes, but then of course very few works are, be they by Liszt or anyone else.

Nonetheless this set of pieces has a bit more of an Apollonianly sturdy heroic gravitas to it that sets it apart. Pianist Wojciech Waleczek gives us a reading that is not overly flamboyant and instead underscores the Apollo piano aura the work gives to us in global terms.

It is a set that helps define what later virtuoso Promethean pianism was to be--thanks in no small part to Liszt, To say that is to say that the music is well worth your earful. It is Naxos priced so what's to lose? Check it out.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Dan Locklair, Symphony No. 2 "America," Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, Kirk Trevor, Michael Rohae

Dan Locklair (b. 1949) has a pleasing way about him. There is something of a present-day Copland feel to him in his fondness for paraphrasing Americana sorts of themes at least most certainly in his Symphony No. 2 "America" (Naxos 8.559860). The program at hand is well performed and contains the symphony, two shorter works plus the "Concerto for Organ and Orchestra."

It is homespun mainstream--the sort anyone might like and there is little exactly that would define it as Modern except that it is not "Classical" or "Romantic"." It is tonal-pleasing, reminding you perhaps of the things you might hear on a good contemporary movie soundtrack or as done by a wind band of a superior sort Vittorio Giannini comes to mind but not in any way I can pinpoint here. Nobody would take offense at this music and it is is enjoyable, very much so.

The "Symphony No. 2 'America'" is in the form of a Holidays Symphony--with a movement each for Independence Day, one for Memorial Day and one for Thanksgiving. "America the Beautiful" is paraphrased a good deal at first. We hear "Taps" and then not surprisingly the hymn "We Gather Together (To Ask the Lord's Blessing)" for the Thanksgiving movement.
The other works are less obvious I suppose but pleasing. He is inventive in ways the most rudimentally musical layman could no doubt understand. So good for that as far as extending the music in concerned!

I enjoy this program without necessarily putting some seal of "masterpiece" on it all. It pleases me.And the first time through you get the whole thing, pretty much. It is not like you are going to open up  a great deal of vistas on listen number 10. It is what it is and that "is" happens to be fine and dandy, well done. Lovers of Americana will be right there I imagine. I might rather hear Charles Ives personally, but I do not want to turn this into a horse race. Nicely done. Nice music. And that includes the "Concerto for Organ!"

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Elliott Sharp, Plastovy Hrad

Over the years Elliot Sharp has become a primary cultural treasure for High Modernist New Music and Imrpovisational Avant Garde music making. Happily for us he keeps going and growing. There is a new album out by the name of Plastovy Hrad (Infrequent Seams 20) and it is a very good one.

Three works break things up and give us much to hear. The title work "Plastovy Hrad" is the more ambitious of the three with a nicely executed live performance by the Brno Contemporary Orchestra conducted by Pavel Snajdr. The bass clarinet solo part is performed ably by Lukasz Danhel.

The second work is entitled "Turing Test" with six vocalists comprising the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Gareth Davis on bass clarinet.

Finally there is "Oumuamua" for bass clarinet and electronics as performed by the composer.

With the bass clarinet the common factor throughout everything has a sort of continuity and yet each is distinguished in advanced Modern ways that followers of E# will not exactly be surprised to hear. Yet too there is is nothing rote-ish or perfunctory about the music either. It is vital, very much alive and filled with an energy that Maestro Sharp has always had in various ways. There is nothing formulaic about this music either.

As up and down the vagaries of life may go for us these days, there are some musical luminaries that do not flag but consistently uplift us into the best sense of "new" territory. Elliott Sharp is most certainly one of these artists. His Plastovy Hrad brings to us another program that encourages us to have some kind of hope, for music anyway if not for life, but sure, good music makes us feel better about life, so that too.

Highly recommended for serious followers of the New Music.