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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

John Burge, Twenty-Four Preludes For Solo Piano, Philip Chiu

Canadian composer John Burge gives to us a finely woven tonal carpet with his Twenty-Four Preludes for Solo Piano (Centrediscs 27319). The cycle of major and minor key centers and their ordering follows that of Chopin's op. 28 Preludes, with one for each of the possibilities in identical sequence.

The more primally tonal preludes to be heard in the set are at times subjected to extended techniques, including inside-the-piano plucking and strumming, overtone reverberation, etc. There are sophisticated Modernisms to be heard that follow and add to the legacy of earlier tonal Modernists, but also set forth cascading post-Romantic blissful barrages and minimalist romps. Nothing is predictable and the surprises sound better every time out.

Burge in this overarching set gives truth to the adage that you can be tonal, Modern and aurally advanced at the same time, provided you can connect your internal dots in highly inventive ways.

Many of the preludes include a descriptive title, either for the sort of musical passage that it promises, or other times as a programmatic allusion. A sampling gives you an idea of what the composer is after so I list a few: "Bells in Winter," "Playground Games," "Linear Reverberations," "The Singing Clock," "One-Note Ostinato" and "Spring Thaw."

Pianist Philip Chiu has the technique as well as the poetic drive to turn the score into living magic and of course that is what all the best sets of preludes require. Each individual prelude in this set is a mini-gem and Chiu coaxes out the implications for some piano music that is as exciting as it is learned, as vibrant as it is well-wrought.

John Burge shows himself to be a genuine force in New Music with this set. I highly recommend it if you look for something new yet tradition-spanning. There is no mistaking this; it is Modern, yet it also assimilates and synthesizes the pianism of the prelude form over time while remaining original. Beautiful job from all concerned.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Shostakovich, The Bedbug, Love and Hate, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Mark Fitz-Gerald

The present release contains some obscure but winning Shostakovich in World Premier Recordings. The first work comes from the early period (1929) and consists of incidental music for Mayakovsky's comedic play The Bedbug (Naxos 8.574100). The second is a reconstruction of the full soundtrack to Love and Hate, a 1935 film directed by Albert Gendelshtein. Mark Fitz-Gerald utilizes the original piano reduction and the film soundtrack itself to create the whole once again in a new master score.

Fitz-Gerald conducts the proceedings with the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonic Rheinland-Pfalz and as needed the Mannheim Opera Choir under choirmaster and assistant conductor Dani Juris. The results are very good indeed.

The Bedbug comes alive as an avant farce where party functionaries and the bourgeoisie alike are targets of Miakovsky's sarcasm. The music reflects the play undoubtedly and has musical interest on its own here as well.

Love and Hate is set in a village during the Civil War in Russia, 1919. It did not get much in the way of popular or critical acclaim yet the soundtrack is a notable advance for Shostakovich into the middle period of his Symphonies 5 to 12, as the liner notes to the recording attest.

Both scores are in some ways the Russian equivalent to Weill, ironic, boisterous and popular-music influenced at times, always in a rather rough-and-ready, rough-and-tumble mode. So we hear humorous gallops, bittersweet waltzes, folk-pop ditties and more besides, all of which sound quite Shostakovichian once you get used to it all.

This music should be of great interest to those already familiar with the composer. These are by no means flat-out masterpieces, nor are they the least bit tedious. Nonetheless those unfamiliar with his music might sample some of the symphonies first, for example the 7th, which I reviewed a recording of here recently (see index box above for that).

Give this a listen if it sounds interesting to you..

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Richard Harvey, Evensong, New Choral Music, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Heli Jurgenson

Richard Harvey writes very tonal choral music with a lyrical bent, an ambiance and either a strongly song-like expressive demeanor or alternately old-in-new reworkings of the atmospherics of earlier sacred music tropes, not to mention a place decidedly in-between.

It is fitting that his album of new choral music, Evensong (Altus Records ALU0018), is well performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Heli Jurgenson because there is an Arvo-Part-like affinity to this music in its outlook if not necessarily its ultimate sound, and of course Part hails from Estonia.

My favorite piece on this ten-work anthology is "Et in Arcadia" which sets out a soundscape replete with a Tuva-like throat overtone whistle and mysteriously compelling choral dynamics. There is a more straightforwardly ringing-singing "A Prayer" of true beauty, a nice version of the old Christmas carol "Lullay," the Early Music influenced, old-in-the-new "Credo," and the soaringly reflective title cut "Evensong," with its Kyrie Eleisons. There is much variation within Harvey's ethereally centered approach and we hear it nicely in this program.

The performances are absolutely spot on and convey the music with every nuance. Another take on the Post-Modernism of the present day comes through with this, Richard Harvey's moving program. We have a new voice, new to me, a fine voice indeed. Listen to this one!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Thomanerchor Leipzig, Gewandhausorchester, Gotthold Schwarz

A new DVD set of Bach's Christmas Oratorio recorded live at the iconic St. Thomas Church in Leipzig? A promising possibility I could not resist. With Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz heading up the combined group of soloists, the youthful Tomanerchor and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Accentus Music ACC20479 2-DVDs) it is all I had hoped for, one of the very best I have heard in fact.

Why? First off the soloists are excellent in Dorothee Mields, soprano, Elvira Bill, alto, Patrick Grahl as Evangelist tenor, Markus Schafer as tenor in the arias and bassist Klaus Hager. I was especially taken by Ms. Bill and her lyrical grace. They all excel in their parts though.

Second, the boy's Thomanerchor Leipzig is an outstanding group of its kind and rise to the occasion here. Third the Gewanshausorchester Leipzig is in top form and the soloists shine especially brightly throughout.

Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz carries the mantel of tradition without the slightest fatigue, taking on the six successive cantatas with a joy, a floating legato-slight rubato in the more tender moments and great heroic grandeur at other times as appropriate. The phrasing is impeccable.

With camera work and sound quality near perfect the whole gives a perspective on the work we would not get on a sound-only CD. It puts us always in mind of how Bach varied the combinations of soloists and massed forces, and paced the proceedings for aural beauty and drama.

Tempos can bubble along snappily or take on a reflective mode to provide an underpinning of excitement that Schwarz and performers mold into something formidably and heartfully alive..

For the festivity and meaningful continuity of a performance in St. Thomas Church, for the brilliance of the reading, this is something a Bach fan will happily experience, I have no doubt. Highly recommended! Bravissimo!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Peter Eotvos, Halleluja, Alle Vittime Senza Nome

Peter Eotvos is a living composer of high ambition, as shown in the latest recording of his Halleluja - Oratorium balbulum along with his Alle vittime senza nome (To the Nameless Victims) (Wergo WER 7386-2).

In the most general terms his ambitions are centered here on two works that provide a kind of meta-commentary on the work as a saying, a creation of meaning in text (extant or implied) as well as sound, this especially in the main work on the program,  Halleluja. 

The latter begins with the idea of the Hallelujah or Jubilus portion of the Latin Mass as originally one long melisma on a single syllable and the subsequent contribution of poet-composer Notker the Stammerer (Notker Balubus) (ca. 840-912) of a wordful text to this segment. Eotvos' oratorio is a stammering one, as a kind of nod in the direction of verbal loquaciousness which is simultaneously, in contradiction tongue-tied, and of the present-day difficulty of rejoicing in a world full of trouble and deconstruction.

Literally in Hebrew the hallelujah refers to a song of praise. Eotvos conceives of such here as a babble, where deep meaning may forthcome only to disappear in a sea of incoherence, where the hope rests ultimately in the music more than the meaning of the words.

Thomas Meyer's liner notes dive into the myriad complexities the work entails and I do not wish to reproduce them here so much as point to their main thrust. Eotvos questions the very premise of the work, an oratorio that tells the story of the hallelujah-saying and the very difficulty of rejoicing today.

In the process, the narrator, soloists, choir and orchestra transcend the impossibility of what they do by doing it wonderfully well musically, covering a Modern perspective while making allusive quotations from a long history of music-rejoicing-praise, or passages that otherwise form a historical-musical commentary in the midst of a Modernist matrix.

The instrumental-orchestral Alle vittime senza nome that follows is equally important, a kind of non-requiem, or an indirectly allusive requiem to the countless African and Arab refugees who have perished while making a desperate attempt in overcrowded boats to reach refuge at safe harbors in Italy. It was a commission from Orchestra dell'accademia nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, who perform it with conviction under conductor Antonio Pappano.

This is a somber and haunting work, as indeed is the Halleluja. Kudos in the latter to the soloists, and to the WDR Rundfunkchor and Sinfonieorchester under the composer's direction, who make moving and coherent the very idea of a loss of cohesiveness. It is perhaps ironic but nonetheless true that this work forms lesser an experience to the German language challenged than it would if one knew German well. Nonetheless for those who are not so prolific we get the idea by careful listening and the detailed liners. The music is a triumph, regardless.

I recommend you explore this fine, eclectic yet original grouping to get another bead on Modernism today. Hurrah. Music triumphs in the face of its impossibility.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Schumann, Myrthen, Camilla Tilling, Christian Gerhaher

Where art song and lieder are concerned Robert Schumann is second only to Schubert as a principal exponent yet he wrote next to nothing in the medium until his marriage to Clara Wieck. The floodgate was opened then as he composed over 140 songs in that year alone, many of his best and most popular, including the cycle Myrthen (Sony Classical 19075945369) which he presented to Clara in 1840 on the eve of their wedding and later published in four volumes.

I am happy to have the chance to hear and write about a new recording of the complete opus as sung beautifully by soprano Camilla Tilling and baritone Christian Gerhaher, with Gerold Huber accompanying on piano.

Gerhaher in the liners to this album summarizes the flow of poetic thoughts and feelings that make up the four books of the cycle, the first encapsulating the "personal and gender specific attributes" of the couple individually, the second telling of the couple and their lives together, the third dealing developmentally with the personal goals of Clara and Robert and the fourth bringing together "the many interests, obligations and difficulties with the reciprocal affection" which was the basis for their bond.

All that would mean little of course if the musical expression in each song was not at the high level that persists throughout the 26 songs that make up the cycle. That is very much so and happily Tilling and Gerhaher give us tender and ennobled performances that affirm the vocalists' stature as among the very greatest of living lieder interpreters. Kudos must go out also to pianist Huber as an ideal accompanist.

I come away from deep immersion in the full cycle with a firm conviction that we tread on rare artistic ground throughout. Myrthen in its entirety as sung by Tilling and Gerhaher forms a must-hear cornerstone, a state-of-the-art foundation offering to the vocal arts today. Strongly recommended.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Villa-Lobos, Guitar Concerto, Harmonica Concerto, Chamber Works

Naxos continues its (so far) vital "Music of Brazil" series with a very attractive volume of relatively under-recorded Villa-Lobos works, including the "Guitar Concerto," the "Harmonica Concerto" and several chamber pieces (Naxos 8.574018).  Proceedings are nicely forwarded by Manuel Barrueco on guitar, Jose Staneck on harmonica, the OSESP Ensemble and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Giancarlo Guerrero.

Why I have not known much until now the "Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra" (1951) is beyond me. It is his last guitar work, written for Segovia and it has a diatonic power and thrust along with a special lyricism that makes it a must-hear, especially if you already love Villa-Lobos as I do.

The "Concerto for Harmonica" (1955) is somewhat more rarified, and perhaps more understandably less performed because of the chromatic harmonica part that demands a virtuosity which is not so often available out there? It too is filled with extremely beautiful music, typically ravishing late Villa-Lobos.

The two chamber works are gems, dashingly charming works. The brief "Sexteto Mystical" (1917) benefits from Villa-Lobos' deft handling of a somewhat exotic instrumentation of flute, oboe, alto saxophone, guitar, celesta and harp. "Quinteto Instrumental" (1957) is a bit more conventionally instrumented  with flute, harp, violin, viola and cello, yet the brilliant sonics and lyrical outpourings mark this as one of his most charming Brazilianesque diatonic effusions. It certainly deserves a wider hearing and the OSESP Ensemble give us a version that sparkles. Soaring!

In short this is most lovely Villa-Lobos magnificently performed. Everyone should hear this if they can. Kudos!