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Thursday, January 23, 2020

Paul Moravec, Sanctuary Road, Oratorio Society of New York, Kent Tritle

Paul Moravec (b 1957) chose wisely when he decided to pay homage to William Still for his heroic role as a "conductor" and observer of the Underground Railroad and its secret network. Still helped along the safe transport and eventual freedom of more than 900 fugitive slaves. Moravec has collaborated with librettist Mark Campbell in the resultant Sanctuary Road, An oratorio based on the writings of William Still (Naxos 8.559884).

I note with this review post the world premiere performance and recording from the 2018 Carnegie Hall  debut in release just now on Naxos. It gives our ears a representative and spirited indication of the work. After a number of listens I report in to you on my impressions.

Kent Tritle most capably conducts and directs the Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra as they mesh with the five vocalists in their respective solo roles. The proceedings were well recorded. Along with a 20-minute discussion that follows, the performance sequence takes up a full CD. There is much music of interest to be explored.

The oratorio focuses on the dramatic, poetic yet matter-of-fact musical setting of Mark Campbell's libretto, which in turn takes its cue from Afro-American abolutionist Grant Still's detailed and moving documentary writing. Still left us an invaluable and moving record of the circumstances, participants and daunting challenges faced by the brilliantly heroic facilitators of the often perilous operations of the Railroad from the beginning-to-mid 19th century.

Still as an important Underground Railroad "conductor" himself  was eyewitness to a good bit of it from his Philadelphia location. We hear in the oratorio testimonial texts inspired by his writings (principally The Underground Railroad Records) on the biographical situations of those involved, the bold and often brilliant disguises and ruses that facilitated escape to the North, and the extraordinary courage of all involved.

Musically all this takes place in a series of vignettes that alternately collage myriads of participant names, circumstances, places with contrasting, more detailed scene descrptions, including those experiences Still himself had documenting and facilitating while reflecting on it all.

Ultimately a kind of deserved  triumphal "huzzah" concludes the oratorio with the amassed cast.

This is musically a kind of tonal, middle-of-the-road styling, through-composed throughout without vestiges of either Minimalist repetition or High Modernist harmonic edginess. Yet that is certainly not to say that the music is somehow generic. It is not. It is filled with individual and memorable moments more with a black-and-white musical-documentary presence than with multi-technicolor sound emanations. There is a plainness at times that suits the need to recognize the sheer unvarnished drama of the period and its search to achieve abolutionist justice.

The power and clarity of the scoring of vocal and orchestral parts prevails and in the end wins the day.

So I must say there is a kind of rightness to the way the musical content lays out. It is extremely well crafted in musical terms and it sets off the text so that the experience is commemorative, rightly honoring, remembering but of course still providing a history-as-art experience. I come away with a feeling of satisfaction, of approval. You should hear this.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Krzysztof Meyer, Chansons d'un reveur solitaire, Symphony No. 8 "Sinfonia da requiem", Claudia Barainsky, Lukasz Borowicz, Choir of Szymanowski Philharmonic, Polish National Rado Symphony Orchestra Katowice

Polish Modernist composer Krysztof Meyer (b 1943) has bit-by-bit commanded my attention on these pages as I gradually have surveyed some notable examples of his music (type his name in the search box above for reviews). What I have covered centers around his chamber output, mostly as a product of what came available for review in years past. Today I am happy to report in on an album of two later compositions for larger ensembles, namely the Chansons d'un reveur solitaire, Op. 116 for soprano (Claudia Barainsky) and symphony orchestra (The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice under Lukasz Borowicz) and the Symphony No. 8 "Sinfonia da requiem," Op. 111 for orchestra and choir (the Mixed Choir of the Karol Szymanowski Philharmonic in Krakow, Teresa Majka-Pacanek, choirmistress) (DUX 1569).

Meyer studied composition with Penderecki, Nadia Boulanger and Lutoslawski. He had a full career teaching theory and composition in Poland before retiring in 2008.

The two compositions we hear on the current release are revelations, keys to understanding something of later-period Meyer, deeply expressive and heartfelt. They show us a fully original voice, a master craftsman and musical inventor of the first caliber.

The Chansons d'un reveur solitaire, Op. 116 is built upon poetic texts that portray as the title suggests personal metaphorical-experiential journeys taken through memory and feeling, in the end each leaving the subject in an enriched psychic-emotional state. Meyer began work on this cycle with a definite idea of each of the five songs in terms of sound color and dramatic content. Only then did he search for the proper poetic expressions, texts that fit what he was after.

And indeed because of this "pre-selection" the intensely revealing music and its very memorable dialog between soprano and orchestra comes through vividly whether the poetic content is directly grasped or not. There is a musical logic to the unfolding both original and unmistakably singular. Soprano Barainsky and the Polish National Radio Symphony under Borowicz distinguish themselves as they flesh out the exploratory, moody music pleasingly well, as they bring out the special character of each of the five movements.

The "Sinfonia da requiem" makes use of a mixed choir in place of the soprano and maps out somber yet sometimes mysteriously present-ful musical terrain. It addresses expressively and in Modern musical terms the tragedy of the Holocaust, more specifically in recent years the return of antisemitism and a growing indifference to the plain fact of the horror of it all. The holocaust poetry of Adam Zagajewski serves as the textual fulcrum point. Like the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy the function of the choir in this work is as commentator, not as personal witness and confessor as was the case in the Chansons. Instead we engage in the realization of conscience with the emotions brought up and expressed in the orchestra. It is poignant, touching music.

This is a release anyone interested in the Modern Polish and Eastern European scene should hear. It serves notice that Krzysztof Meyer remains an essential voice of today.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Art of Carol Lieberman, Volume 2, Modern Violin, von Dohnanyi, Carter, Hovhaness, Piston, Messiaen

We celebrate nearly 50 years of recordings by the great violinist Carol Lieberman in a retrospective of her work, now with an Art of Carol Lieberman, Volume 2, Modern Violin (Centaur CRC 3702). Over the years she has excelled as an original instrument Baroque violinist and for the Modern repertoire as well. Volume 2 nicely addresses the latter with a wide ranging anthology that spans a broad swatch of musical avenues from von Donanyi to Elliott Carter by way of Hovhaness, Piston and Messiaen. The common thread is Ms. Lieberman's extraordinarily clarity and full-feeling readings, flowering rather gloriously without undue sentiment, an expression of human-kindness in music you might say.

The album opens with splendidly angular and somewhat exotic readings of von Dohnanyi's op.21 "Sonata for Violin and Piano" and the "Serenade for String Trio" op. 10. From there we jump to the extraordinarily declamatory "Riconoscenza (Per Goffredo Petrassi) for Solo Violin" from Elliot Carter. Never has Carter sounded more human, heroic yet somehow vulnerable like all of us can be. It is part of Lieberman's brilliance that she can give us the Modern World in all its multifarious givenness--the advanced yet intensely personal, the committed yet still searching, not entirely comfortable with or complacent about the new horizon ahead. Or at least that is what comes to me as I listen gladly.

From there we go to two works featuring violin and harpsichord (with Mark Kroll)--Hovhaness's brief three movement folkish, advanced Modern and songful presence on the "Duet for Harpsichord" and the workaday Modern terse eloquence of Walter Piston's "Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord."

The high-water mark of it all is the concluding three movement excerpt of Messiaen's haunting "Quartet for the End of Time" featuring Carol at her best with Geoffrey Burleson on piano, Bruce Creditor on clarinet and David Finch on cello. I've heard a fair number of performances of this beautiful work but none quite as heartful and touching--and Carol's emotive stance on it is largely responsible for that, though everyone locks into the music with a great deal of both sadness and dash, and that somehow fits the magic of Messiaen's intentions quite well

It is a conclusion one does not listen to without a rare feeling of fitness. of an apt summing up of Carol Lieberman's nearly ethical consistency of aesthetic. A remarkable disc all around.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Nino Rota, Complete Solo Piano Works I, Eleanor Hodgkinson

Nino Rota (1911-1979) will ever be remembered by the general public as the composer of the soundtracks for the first two Godfather films. What makes that music so memorable and accessible is its immediacy, emotive strength and melodic-harmonic power to communicate. It is a testament to such communicative directness that he wrote the music for more than 150 films during his 46-year career.

Beyond that vast output we have Nino Rota the composer of Modern concert music. All the elements that made him so effective in soundtrack writing also factor into his non-soundtrack creations. Again the quantity is substantial, with ten operas, music for theater and a full spectrum of orchestral and chamber works.

All this is clear when listening to Rota's inaugural volume of Complete Solo Piano Works 1 (Grand Piano GP827). On it we have pianist Eleanor Hodgkinson effectively holding forth with a good deal of charm for a series of three works--"15 Preludes" (1964), "Fantasia in G" (1944-45), and his "7 Difficult Pieces for Children" (1971).

The music stands out for its masterful workmanship, its creatively playful, cosmopolitan demeanor, its inventive melodic-harmonic stance. Carl Alexander Vincent in the liners for this album rightly underscores the influence of his teachers Pizzetti and Casella in developing Rota's sophisticated experiential approach. Indeed there is a genetic affinity to be heard though Rota comes through in the end as his own voice.

The "Fantasia" has Neo-Romantic elements surely. They are effectively bookended by the Neo-Classicism in the post-Prokofiev "Preludes" and the disarmingly direct "Children's Pieces."

The music grows on one the more one listens so that at the end a cogently satisfying feeling is to be had after assimilating the music with repeated hearings. Part of that has to do with Hodgkinson's no-nonsense grasp of the musical essence of these pieces. Then of course she provides for us direct access to the substantial merit of the music.

Strongly recommended for all who seek to assimilate fully the Modern Italian legacy. I look forward to future volumes!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Allan Gravgaard Madsen, Nachtmusik, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, For Violin and Orchestra

Today we have World Premier recordings of two Danish concertante works from our present century. The first is Nachtmusik by the still young (b. 1984) Allan Gravgaard Madsen. The second is For Violin and Orchestra by the late (1932-2016) New Music master Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Da Capo 8.226138). Both are well handled by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ryan Bancroft (for the Madsen) or Nicholas Collon (for the Gudmundsen-Holmgreen). Danish National Symphony concertmaster Christina Astrand gives life to the solo violin part in both works. For Nachtmusik she is joined by pianist Per Solo for the dual role. Both acquit themselves well.

The two works contrast nicely and set one another off.

Madsen's Nachtmusik pivots around a single note taken up in various ways by solo piano, solo violin and orchestra. Gradually as the color of the noting continually shifts other tones are introduced and multiple tempos criss-cross and intersect for a kind of musical mobile. By the second movement a dominant tempo prevails as colors enter and exit dynamically. The brief final movement changes the central pitch and plays delightfully with a diatonic series taken up in turns by all concerned.

Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's For Violin and Orchestra begins with a full chromatic universe of notes taken up by solo violin and orchestra in a tumbling hocket-klangfarben sort of way and then gradually a central sequential motif emerges around which all enter upon and retreat from in time, only to enter upon a more open anarchy of diatonic and sometimes blue note and chromatic extra-tone before returning to the motif again. The solo violin affords a kind of answering to the motif in a dialogic drama. It is tour de force tone painting and affords a lively rejoiner to the particular insistence of Nachtmusik.

In all we get two bird's-eye views of the Pomo Modern Danish concertante possibilities in the present day. Both composers find their own manner of creating a post-Minimalist dialectic between "same" and "different" that does not resort to classical form but instead forges forward each in its own way. Happily recommended for new adventure music seekers.


Josef Haydn, Tullochgorum, Scottish Songs, The Poker Club Band, Masako Art

Josef Haydn harmonized, arranged and otherwise re-situated over 400 traditional Scottish song-melodies in his lifetime. Though he never visited Scotland clearly he had a great sympathy for the music as can be attested on the recent volume Tullochgorum, Scottish Songs (BIS 2471). What sets this volume apart is that harpist Masako Art has taken Haydn's song arrangements (plus several by contemporaries John Elouis, Francois de Fossa, Niel Gow) and either created or adapted an existing harp part for the Poker Club Band ensemble of harp, guitar, violin and cello, with James Graham on vocals plus some related instrumental works.

The presence of the harp parts throughout and the consistent interplay of the ensemble, all gives the music a more Scottish folk flavor than otherwise yet follows the Classical harmonizations faithfully.

It is in the end a great musical idea, and a tribute to Haydn's brilliance as well as the sparkling beauty of traditional Scottish folk melody. It is a most worthy listen from start to finish. An outstanding experience. Bravo Masako Art and the Poker Club Band! Bravo Haydn!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Eugene Goossens, Symphony No. 2, Phantasy Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Tasmin Little, Sir Andrew Davis, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) is perhaps generally better known today for his legacy as a conductor than as a composer. Yet a full-blown composer he surely was, as we can profitably hear on today's CD that features his Symphony No. 2 and the Phantasy Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (Chandos GHSA 5193).

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra faithfully through the intricacies and bold sweep of the scores. Tasmin Little does a fine job realizing the solo violin part for the Concerto.

The liners to the album give us the details as to his early and full involvement with composition, with  works for orchestra, solo piano, chamber ensembles and eventually several operas. By the time the two works on the album were completed (1942-45 for the Symphony, 1946-48 with a 1958 revision for the Concerto) he was a well-burnished, mature voice, fully formed, a singular compositional force. One occasionally hears an influence now and again--sometimes for example the flute-piccolo writing in the Symphony sometimes reminds slightly of Shostakovich's 7th. But on the whole we get pure Goossens--expanded tonal, Modern, inventive, well orchestrated, an original.

The symphony was largely written while Goossens held down a conducting position in the USA during the WWII years, It is not meant to be programmatic yet it reflects the mood of its time dramatically. It has gravitas.

The Concerto was written in 1945-6 for Jascha Heifetz--who apparently did not favor it so it did not receive proper performances until 1959-60. By then some critics felt that Goossens' music was not advanced enough for the times, sadly, so it did not make a great splash. The recording at hand is apparently the first performance since then. It is a beautiful work that surely deserves more attention and we are fortunate to have this first-rate reading to return to.

Both works have much to recommend them. Neither directly avant garde nor reservedly conservative, these works give us prime Goossens in excellent performances. It turns out that is a very nice thing indeed. Strongly recommended.