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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!