Search This Blog

Friday, August 17, 2018

Michael Byron, The Ultra Violet of Many Parallel Paths

In music as in life things happen, if you are living in the stream of the present. There will always be new music, and there will be always be older new music, still older new music and then music that is not longer considered new. This is a commonplace. It is obvious. Yet when you live in the stream of it all it is far from commonplace and it is in a way always tempered by the great unknown. What is coming? We cannot know for sure.

Yet we can of course know what has arrived. One of those is composer Michael Byron. If you type his name into the search box in the upper left of this page you will find a number of reviews I have written here. I like what he has been doing. And now I have his recent CD The Ultra Violet of Many Parallel Paths (self released). It is in the form of two longer works for two pianos, performed most ably by Joseph Kubera and Marilyn Nonken. The album was recorded in concert at Roulette Intermedium in New York City late last year.

There is something of the Radical Tonality mode inherent in the music. Then again there arises at times a density that is nearly extra-tonal, but never quite.

This is a kind of process music. It starts at one point and gradually goes to another point and in the doing it changes. Both works have a cascading rhythmic anarchy that is pleasingly stuttered, disjointed, expressive Pollockian scatter and splatter. As each work proceeds it increases in rhythmic density, and there is a kind of post-Cecil Taylor freedom expression there that Free Improv fans will readily find congenial. And New Music ears will have no trouble understanding it as well.

The opening work sets out a quasi-pentatonic-diatonic minor  mode in a recognizable scalular pattern that may remind us of Gamelan and other Asian musical sensibilities. Byron then adds additional scalular notes gradually as it becomes more dense and tonally more complex due to simultaneous sounds between the two pianos of scale tones overlapping, creating a kind of increased harmonic consideration.

The second takes to us a kind of whole-tone augmented scalular foundation that splatter-bursts itself from the beginning, that increases in density and continuousness with time and also adds chromatic tones or a chromatic feeling in the midst of the overlap soundings..

The music remains distinct and fascinating no matter how many times you listen. It is very noteworthy, if you'll pardon my pun. I strongly recommend you hear it!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Richard Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Andres Orozco-Estrada

I've listened to and appreciated the music of Richard Strauss since my high school days.  There was a huge spike in his popularity when 2001, A Space Odyssey was released with the "Zarathustra" opening as a key part of the soundtrack, so it was inevitable that a young person opening up to "serious" music for the first time would find Strauss in the course of explorations. So I did. The "Zarathustra," "A Hero's Life," "Eulenspeigel" and in time the operas got my attention and appreciation. "Symphonia Domestica" was a work that I tried on a number of occasions to get into, but for some reason liked well enough but somehow never quite clicked with. The same too with Eine Alpensinfonie (1915). It wasn't that I actively disliked either of these later works. It was only that I failed somehow to grasp them as wholes. Yet I re-listened periodically to the LPs I have had since the early days.

I had the opportunity recently to hear and review a new recording of An Alpine Symphony (Pentatone PTC 5186 628) and I thought, "why not?" So for the last several weeks I have listened to the Frankfurt Symphony under Andres Orozco-Estrada have their way with the sprawling Late Romantic behemoth. To my happy surprise, this time with this version the music suddenly came into focus for me. Partly perhaps I have had some time away from Strauss as a steady diet and so too I am no longer seeking as I hear to compare it with Strauss's earlier tone poems.

And credit must surely be given to the quality of the performances and the audio liveliness here. Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony give the music not just the heroic quality it needs to breathe freely. They give equal weight to the tender retrospection and a tempered passion. Because of all of this I hear the music now as if for the first time. It no longer seems to me a kind of return to "A Hero's Life." Surely it still seems to me in direct relation to that work, but as quite a bit more than a reflexive re-sounding. It is music that stands very well on its own, with no comparison's needed.

Perhaps like Strauss's celebrated "Last Songs" it is an aural equivalent to "older and wiser?" After all, 17 years separate the Alpine from the Hero work. Strauss by then was not quite the cutting edge "Modernist" he was thought to be among New Music devotees at the turn of the century. There were signs that Strauss and the Later Romantic programmatic ways were being supplanted by new tendencies, or we might infer that when looking at what was being created and creating attention or scandal among his contemporaries in those days. Yet this was a work he no doubt felt compelled to create, and surely not as some afterthought.

Time marches on. We no longer need to topple Strauss from the throne of leading-light advances, nor for that matter do we need to restore him to the original sunlight in which he once basked. So too then the Alpensinfonie need no longer be a part of a later horse race. In the end everybody won and nobody won as well. There is a place for the symphony in the gathering of other influential compositions of that era. If we give far more weight to later Mahler than we once did, if we view early Schoenberg and Stravinsky, if we praise Ives and others that nobody knew then, if we look at many composers in more detail and consideration that might have been the case, it does not mean we then dismiss later Strauss.  The strife is o'er, the battle done. Nobody really won. And that is all the better for us because it means that much more music we can listen to without regret. So I recommend this recording, very much so.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Stephen Dodgson, String Trios, Karolos

Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013)? I reviewed his 24 Inventions for Harpsichord for this blog on August 17th of 2017, just about a year ago. I liked his tip-of-the-hat to historic forms that nevertheless had a contemporary Modern outlook both original and well wrought. Today we have a new volume of his works, String Trios (Naxos 8.573856). It broadens my view of the composer and gives me an uncompromising series of chamber works for small string ensembles. I believe I am the better for it. Read on to find out if you might be as well.

And what of the composer and his life? The liners help out. He was born in London, served in the Royal Navy during WWII. He then enrolled in the Royal College of Music, subsequently studied composition with Patrick Hadley in Cambridge. Two compositional prizes and a scholarship allowed him to spend several years in Rome, and he returned to London in 1950, where he taught and composed to survive and make himself over in his own musical image. The first String Trio included here marks a high point of his first years.

The music we hear on this program consistently merits close attention. He presents a basically tonal centered yet Modern-edged pallet in the works presented. The String Trios 1 (1951) and 2 (1964) are the main focal points of the program, acting as a kind of sandwich for the three solo string works that contrast nicely enough with the trios.

The solo works have a seriousness of intent and an exploratory mode that marks them as worthy. They cover each one of the three instruments assembled together for the trios. So there is the "Sonatina in B minor for Solo Violin" (1963), the seasonally apt "Caprice after Puck" for solo viola (1978) and the "Partita for Solo Cello" (1985).

Three members of the performing group Karolos provide the fine performances we hear. There is Harriet MacKenzie on violin, Sarah-Jane Bradley on viola and Graham Walker on cello. As players of the solo works they are accomplished and idiomatically appropriate, and as a string trio they excel with a coordinated and briskly brio or a tenderly reflective undulating whole as needed.

Those who gravitate to the serious chamber intimacies of the Modern-Tonal yet expect there to be a consistently intricate edge and would like another twist to a kind of Neo-Classical outlook, seek no further. The world might not move under your feet as you hear this one, but then you will no doubt find the music very well performed and doubtless worthwhile. Four of the five works are in their premier recordings, so this is that place to hear them. And to me they are worth hearing. So.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Jonah Sirota, Strong Sad, Contemporary Chamber Music


I am tired of starting off posts with, "oh, and now for something different!" Monty Python did that better than I can, yet there is truth in the saw. They rung down a stage and rung up another. And on today's Modern music scene, differences really do make a difference. And my inclination naturally is to say that about today's music, because it truly is a kind of breath of fresh air.

I allude to the album Strong Sad by Jonah Sirota (National Sawdust Tracks 2018). A friend sent me a copy and after a few spins I began to seriously get in with the sound. It is a kind of Postmodern tonal chamber music in nearly a Radical Tonality mode. Moody, lyrical, touch driven and flying level to the earth more than flying. And all that seems good the way it is done here.

Jonah Sirota is on viola throughout. He also wrote or co-wrote two of the eight compositions on here. Kurt Knecht is on organ and co-wrote one of the works, Molly Morkoski is on piano, and Nadia Sirota appears as additional violist on the interplay much of the time. Additional composition credits go to Valgeir Sigurasson, Rodney Lister, A. J. McCaffrey, Paola Prestini and Nico Muhly.

Now the musicianship is quite high in level. The sound of the various works-groupings I might say seems "natural." By that I mean it is rather unassuming, I will not say casual because it is most deliberate, but then maybe a good word for it is relaxed. There is nothing in the way of stiffness to be detected in either the works or their performance.

And in the compositions there is a kind of a journey in pomo possibilities, various shades, none of which are unoriginal, nothing patently expected as typical of things too typical. And that is where the intriguing qualitieare, the wayward looks at what have differing amounts of ambiance, cyclicities, lyrical sadness or contemplativeness, melodic spin, viola rich poeticism.

After I had listened a few times I started feeling the pull of this music in earnest. It does not call undue attention to itself. It does not flaunt itself or make presumptuous demands on our attention, though some music does all this and if it is wonderful I hardly mind. Yet this entire program does not try to wow us or create fireworks or even to shock us with some boldness. That's OK. If you buffet in the winds of Modernism enough you might find you need something of a break from the pulling about such listener participation sometimes insists upon. That is when you might put this CD on and bask in the tonal washes, the aural watercolors, pastels and memento mori's in tone.

This one certainly is a sleeper.. And for that reason maybe seems like a sort of rare thing. I cannot say there is an album out there quite like this. I do not hesitate to recommend it to you.

Paul Hindemith, Das Marienleben, Juliane Banse, Martin Helmchen

Paul Hindemith's popularity has never exactly waned since his demise years ago, but there was a time when his music was looked upon by some (unfairly I think) as not advanced enough in the Avant Modern sphere. This is somewhat akin to dismissing Bach because he did not stray into Rococo terrain.  At this point what followed Hindemith I would say is in the end no more current than he is, so the whole idea of progress too might as well be discounted. It is irrelevant to our musical outlook in terms of our view of the recent past. So we are free to embrace Hindemith, Reger or even Boris Blacher, or for that matter Zimmermann, or even Stockhausen without resorting to an avant thermometer.

Teleology is a bit passe these days and good for that. The now contested assertion by Victorian anthropologists that the evolution of human culinary art was at last reached with the advent of boiling comes to mind, humorously so. Yet for all that we still make hard-boiled eggs with no regrets, as we also might scramble them too without feeling the least bit old-fashioned, even if nuking everything seemed de rigueur a couple of decades ago.

So it is fitting that there be a new version of Hindemith's Das Marienleben (Alpha 398), the classic Expressionist song cycle based on the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. The version performed is the revised one completed by the composer in 1948.

And understandably this music-as-recording stands and falls on the merits of the performance. Few would contest the importance of the work itself, at least among Hindemith admirers.  Julian Banse is an extraordinarily powerful soprano presence that brings a brilliant bite to the proceedings. So also pianist Martin Helmchen gives the music strongly expressive and committed musical foundations.

It is very much as excellent a performance of Das Marienleben as I have heard. The music is as masterful as any Hindemith wrote, but it takes a sure voice and piano togetherness and a consistently potent expressive power to make such on the surface difficult music become clear and movingly comprehensible. They very much triumph in the doing so. This version should stand as the present-day benchmark for the work for a long time to come.

And so I do strongly recommend this offering. Banse and Helmchen bring incomparable depth to the music.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Paul and Pauline Viardot, Six Pieces, etc., Reto Kuppel, Wolfgang Manz

I am never one to shy away from the unknown, and of 20th century France I would never avoid learning something new, so I said "Why not?" when I had the chance to hear and review the present recording of the music of Paul Viardot (1857-1941) and his mother Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). The program at hand is a collection of short pieces for violin and piano (Naxos 8.573749). The performances are flawless and expressive, idiomatic in a kind of sophisticated and melodically rich salon style then current in French cosmopolitan circles from a bit before the turn of the century through to the 1920s. So that is to say that there are very French musical elements present in this music, a folksy charm, a tuneful lighthearted depth. For this there is something about this music that is not alien to Chabrier, Satie or Debussy, each in his own way and that means sometimes of course a way divergent somewhat but the Viardots share this with the others while possibly embodying more fully the salon tradition per se.

And who are these Viardots? The back cover of the CD informs us that both were a part of the Garcia family, most notably tenor operatic star Manuel Garcia, who was Paula's father. They were as a result of the father's fame very much a part of the Parisian society. Paul was a violin prodigy, which only increased their fame. Of course now I asked "who?" when I saw the names, but life  in time handles fame and obscurity with equal indifference and the point is now the music.

All of the music heard on the program is in World Premier recordings. We get Pauline's "Six Morceaux" for twenty minutes of the eighty-some-odd total. It is very pleasing music, more than mere trifles. The Paul Viardot works take up the bulk of the CD and they are miniaturist salon classics with a good deal of violin expressiveness.

None of this music will set the world on fire, sure. Yet it all fills out a place in our understanding of French modernity by furnishing a good, a very good example of the "mainstream" salon-violin music in the modern era. The more one listens the better one likes it all. Like perhaps Fritz Kreisler's violin miniatures it is worthy and characteristic without being some giant leap forward.

Now if you are a devotee of 20th century French music you will want this. If you want something pleasing without being terribly profound you will want this! And it is nice to hear. I am glad of it. Recommended for all the reasons above. It brings back an age we no longer know much of and for that reason it helps us picture the whole scene!

Eugene Zador, The Plains of Hungary, Budapest Symphony, Mariusz Smolij

In my experience in the States there seemed to be few chances  to know the music of Eugene Zador (1894-1977) as I was growing up. I cannot recall thumbing past a Zador section or even much in the way of releases in the old record store classical bins, and that was to me a sure indication of someone's status on the music scene then, for better or worse. His later works addressed Hungarian themes and had a folk-like homespun quality at times without adopting directly any nationalist melodic material. Yet there is real inventive facility, an excellent sonaric command of the orchestra, poise and personality in the musical unfolding.

Or it least that is what I have been hearing in the latest Naxos volume of his music, the first I have had the pleasure to hear. I mean The Plains of Hungary (Naxos 8.573800). It is a program of some seven orchestral works, six in their recorded world premier. Doing the honors is the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MAV as directed by Mariusz Smolij. I can find no fault in the performances. In fact they are enthusiastic and balanced.

The back cover of the CD notes that Zador "fused Classicism with Romanticism." Yes I hear that but there seems also a kind of Hungarian Impressionism at play here as well. A tendency to tone paint, to have a dappled descriptive dimension, this is an aspect of the music that provides more than a sort of Classical-Romantic fuse.

So there is a good mix of the earlier and the later, the Nationalist and the generally descriptive. If you did not know some of Zador's titles you might not always make the Hungarian connection yet you certainly can find some local expression once you look for it. A perfect example is the 1969 "Rhapsody for Cimbalom and Orchestra." It is neither dealing with gypsy cliches nor is it in an abstract zone. And for that it is Zador in a characteristic mode.  It is a strength and I suppose there is good reason why this piece of all of them has been previously recorded commercially. But that is not to imply something negative about the rest of the music on this CD.

We get six more works, each in their recorded firsts, the 1965 "Dance Overture," the 1970 "Fantasia Hungarica" for orchestra and a subtle solo contrabass, the title work "Elegie, 'The Plains of Hungary,'" from  1960, then  finally the rather chipper 22 minute "Variations on a Merry Theme" (1964), and the finale, the 1961 "Rhapsody for Orchestra."  All of the works are in emphatic earnest, all have serious ambitions though they cover moods that range from regretful to jovial. Kodaly is not a huge contrast to Zador yet they are distinct and not easily confusable one with the other if you listen intently. This is not especially a set of works with some depth psychology of a Late Romanticist like Bruckner, say, nor are we hearing a Beethoven-like or Brahms-ish heroism, Mendelssohnian Puck, or not really except perhaps obliquely on "Variations on a Merry Theme," no brashly modern Bartok but more Bartok than not-tok. No Stravinsky Neo-Classical at least as he approached it, no Darmstadtian avantness.

And in the discovery of what Zador is not, by elimination you discover what he is. That is himself. And in order to fully arrive to a Zador landscape you must listen more than once. It is not music that especially jumps out on first hearing and mows you down. It may never exactly mow you at all. Instead it has a kind of expressive alone-ness that invites you to join with it for a time. You do so eventually or I did. And if I do not get an elation, a Maher-esque, heaven-bent elation, nor do I want to weep and laugh uproariously as I might with Berlioz, that is OK. Actually it is a good thing, very good. You do not get deja vu much, if at all. Yet the originality does not hit you over the head either. It is music very well crafted, personally idiomatic, with the kind of classical emotional control of a Haydn, but nothing like Haydn? Surely.

If you want to know the Hungarian Modern period better, Zador certainly should not be missed. This is a good place to start.