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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Schumann, Frage, Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber

Some music you need to make a point of hearing and regularly if ever you are to grow to love it. If all is well the love comes and does not leave you for the rest of your life. Such has been  the case with me for the song arts of classic lieder. There was some point in my very early adulthood where I knew I needed to understand lieder and so I bought a recording of some wonderful Schubert examples. Wonderful or not I had no idea at that point.The first time through I felt out of my usual swim of things. With later listens it took hold and I have been revisiting the Schubertian wonderlands regularly ever since. Within the orbit of such forced marches into unknown territory I came upon Schumann's own lieder and found it as worthy very nearly as the Schubert set of opuses. Yet I have not systematically addressed that body of works.

But now I have a perfect chance to latch onto that. Baritone king Christian Gerhaher has embarked on a complete cycle of Schumann lieder and gives us a first volume in his new recording Frage  (SONY Classics 19075889192). It is a good one. He and piano accompanist Gerold Huber embark on a series of readings that seem as poetic and convincing as any we might hear, and of course that is a very big thing.

The program contains five very beautiful short lieder cycles and one song that stands alone. It includes the "6 Gesange" op. 107, the "Romanzen und Balladen" op. 49, "Warnung" op. 119/2, "3 Gesang" op. 83,  "12 Gedichte" op. 35,  and finally "4 Gesange" op. 142. The choice is a nice one as early and later rub shoulders and we experience a wide variety of introspective and dramatic moods. Schumann of course left it all for us to hear and linger within. We benefit from the continual shifting that the mixing of opuses provide. The performances make believers I hope of us all, every song. That is what I take away from it happily.

Gerhaher rivals Fischer-Dieskau for his beautifully burnished tone, his eloquent articulation and his very musically and dramatically astute interpretations. As the voice is like a fingerprint there is a happy individual quality to his singing and it is nothing if not masterful in all ways. Huber rivals Gerald Moore for sensitive accompaniment presence. Taken all-in-all or taken song-by-song Frage resounds as a titanic excursion into Schumann at his finest. I cannot wait for the next volume. Super-enthusiastic ratings I happily give this one. Bravo! Molto bravo!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Stravinsky, A Soldier's Tale, Roger Waters, BCMF Musicians

What The Rite of Spring was for the orchestra in the  coming of Modernism, so A Soldier's Tale was to the chamber music realm. Yet by the very nature of the work as it was meant to be performed by Stravinsky, "to be read, played and danced," the general reception of the work has been somewhat more muted than it might have been had it been a more simple matter of a chamber work in the conventional sense. Its original version, L'Histoire du Soldat was meant for a chamber ensemble, a dancer or a contingent of dancers and a dramatic reading-enacting of the poem in French, as written by C.F. Ramuz. The story (as Wikipedia tells us) is in turn based upon the Russian folk story The Run Away Soldier and the Devil. The original version was premiered by Ernest Ansermet in September, 1918, some 100 years ago now. All good. And thanks to Wikipedia for filling us in on the basic facts of its genesis and birth.

So in some ways the lengthy dramatic reading and the full hour or so it takes to perform the work properly has in this way helped slow down the work in its complete dissemination among general audiences in the music world (as opposed to The Rite of Spring). The original French version leaves a non-French speaking listener rather in the dark for long stretches where the narrative holds complete sway. That was remedied by German and English translations for performance, the latter by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black. But even so any language version of course is in a form not readily accessible to other language speakers. Its length too was too long for a typical LP in the first high fidelity era. With the CD it is easily accommodated.

So with all that we now have in celebration of its 100th anniversary the English version as adapted and narrated by Pink Floyd icon Roger Waters with the chamber orchestra part performed by BCMF (Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival) Musicians (Sony Classics CD I cannot make out the release number, sorry).

The work undoubtedly wins the day with this quite excellent BCMF performance and Roger Waters' quite dynamic and nicely dramatic narration.  We follow the story of the soldier who sells his violin (and his soul) to the devil in return for an enchanted book that allows him to gain infinite wealth. It as is meant to be makes perfect sense of the bizarre march motif that clashes against the multiple-meter incarnations and the percussion player's refusal to hew to the military regularity of the music. So too the fiddle motif in the violin is the soldier's folk enthusiasm translated perfectly to Stravinsky's Modern brilliance. And Roger's narrative with its full "local" colors contrasts tellingly between working class soldier English and the more upscale ESL of the devil.

Waters adaptation and BCMF's exemplary instrumental reading gives us a worthy Centennial look at one of the undeniable masterpieces of the past century. In the "Triumphal March of the Devil" the final multi-tempo deconstruction of the march theme triumphs truly, for we hear it as it is meant to sound and we also understand the meaning of the music after savoring the full story as Waters tells it to us. The Devil is the infernal side-stepping of the march into mathematical complexity that belies the march itself. Whereas the soldier and his march is the inexorable forward motion of metrical evenness, the devil is the confounding of that into a hellish multiplicity. In effect the devil turns war and the military into living hell, as no doubt people realized all-too-readily in 1918, the tail end of the infernal First World War. The full brilliance is before us in this version, and we grasp it all as we might have 100 years ago, certainly as Stravinsky meant us to hear and understand it.

So I give this a very strong recommendation. It is an ideal way to experience the work and understand it. Waters triumphs! Encore.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Elliott Sharp, Dispersion, VENI Academy with Elliot Sharp, Marian Lejava

When music is especially simpatico with music you make or might like to make, it is actually harder to write about it, I think. Today that is so. I speak of the new recording of Elliott Sharp's recent works for chamber orchestra, well played by the Veni Academi under Marian Lejava, with Elliott himself on electroacoustic guitar for the final two pieces. The whole thing is named Dispersion, Music for Systems Orchestra (Mode 305).

The key to this music I think is in the name "Systems Orchestra." It is processual music, as Elliott is often very much about. There is a freedom of articulation within prescribed arenas and sound concepts, and so the avant improv element is collectively there. One might look back as a paradigmatic example to Coltrane's "Ascension" as one of the initial models for a larger-band collective outlook. And mind you this does not sound like "Ascension" so much as it breathes the air that we all do in the aftermath of such things.

The music is in part about differing degrees of velocity, of the simultaneous sounding of similarities in their differences, about the seismic experience of material aural reality as a burst of color and light, of sense and "travelling to," of being and knowing through expressive hearing, where the listener is a participant in the creative process by the act of apperception. Those are words I put on how I have embraced the music in the first five listens. It has avant jazz immediacy and then again new music pre-constructions of a will to significant form I guess you could say. And with this music from the vital musical mind of Elliot Sharp is a consistency and a growth in "Modernism" away from the folk-classical model of unfolding periodic melody and its harmony. This is the full liberation from that and a kind of hocket that is not Medieval nor Pygmy in its starts and stops, its presences and absences but rather it unfolds a new motility more like the vastness of the diurnal cycle or the planetary orbits and their this-space-that-space presence.

If that seems obscure then get this album and listen. All I do is approximate what I feel as I hear this very mind-opening music. It is neither so much a one thing or another as it is very much Elliot Sharp music, which is a very important thing. This time now is in part on Elliot Sharp time. Set your watches, put them aside, then listen to this album! I very much recommend it.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Aequa, International Contemporary Ensemble

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir joins us this morning in a program of some seven of her compositions. The CD and the program of works is called Aequa (Sono Luminus CD and BluRay 02227). The International Contemporary Ensemble prevails in a lively musical imaginativeness and well attuned sensitivity to give us subtly alive performances. And that means a lot because there is a beautiful ambiance to this program. It is dramatic and soundscaped, as crisp as a dazzlingly bright winter's morning with the ice blue of the snow reflected out towards you as you are up to greet the sun. Or for that matter whatever other daydream that might come to mind as you listen. It is woolgathering fare, sure, and very good for that!

The music is tonal and sound-colorful in dramatic ways. That means if you think of the George Crumb way of heightening the sonic experience by a poetic demeanor, it is not something that does not apply to Ms. Thorvaldsdottir. She is not a member of a Crumb School, surely, but she has in her own way a very poetic vision in the soundscapes she constructs. So you may get an almost droned block of chordality with ornamentation that then changes to form a very slow-motion chordal sequence. And to me it feels like living in the realm of gradual shifts in sunlight on a silent and deserted landscape on a sunny, partly cloudy afternoon. If I hearken back to natural landscape in my description it is because there is a natural feel to this music and that is something one hears happily.

Anna clearly seems to know what she is after in the way she orchestrates each moment of the works we experience here. There is something in the Radical Tonality mode about this music if you want to slap a label on it. Karmanic? Oh that probably is a bit much as a descriptive label. But there is something rather cosmic about this music if you will pardon my saying. It feels quite Modern in the end, Post-Modern I suppose too with the droning and spacey toning of all of it. It all manages to mean to project a vision in sound to us as we listen.

I should mention that the album comes with two disks as is often the case with Sono Luminus releases. One is the standard CD, the other a BluRay with multiple channel 5:1 configurations.

It is music that probably would appeal to a lot of people if they allowed themselves to open up to it. From solo piano to large chamber ensemble, the music is sculpted with some brilliance. The music spans the compositional period of 2011 to 2017, right now in other words.

It is a program that allows your musically apprehending mind to luxuriate in thick growths of shifting sounds and to travel a path to many imaginary spaces no doubt. I do when I play it at least. It is an experience you will find yourself returning to and ultimately will I hope live inside of happily when you can. Thorvaldsdottir seems a central aspect of what is happening today. If Iceland has a sound, it is Anna's sound? Probably, yes! An exemplar yet also a joy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Imogen Heap, The Music of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two in Four Contemporary Suites

I am happy when someone I have been following musically makes a huge breakthrough. From a purely ego sense it means I was right all along, but that is stupid thinking. It just means it is a wonderful musical moment for me. I've been a champion of women in music I guess since when I enrolled at Berklee College of Music and there were maybe only three women in the entire student body. And every guy enrolled there (? I do not know) was after them, wanted to "date" them! What it pointed toward was that Gustav and Alma Mahler thing, or that Brahms and Robert and Clara Schumann thing. It was a reality that musical people tended to find one another congenial, and in this case as potential mates. This is not important though for the wider picture here so much as instead the fact that half of our population are women and if we are not encouraging those musically inclined then it is OUR loss. We miss all that music. Common sense.

So since then I have tried to give equal attention to the music women make (of course) so wonderfully well when they are allowed to do so! In the midst of my listening and appreciating years ago an old friend who at the time did marketing for A&M Records was kind enough to send me some music that they were putting out just then. One was the first album by Imogen Heap. Wikipedia says that first album iMegaphone  came out in 1998, but that seems very much later than I recall. No matter. I was still living in Butler, I think! At any rate I heard something different and very interesting to me. It was singer-songwriter alternative I guess. But distinct in a very interesting way, I thought.  After that was Frou Frou which was more like 1998 as far as my memory goes, considerably later? I am not here to question anyone. Heap was not a huge success initially. Frou Frou got her considerably more attention. Anyway I followed her musical trajectory with great interest. Right now there is her latest which to me is a kind of a fulfilling of a promise, of an affirmation of her presence and musical brilliance.

I speak now of this new one, the full title of which is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two in Four Contemporary Suites (SONY Music Masterworks). The album info states that this is an "album performed, engineered, recorded, mixed and produced by Imogen Heap." That tells you that this is "Electroacoustic-Electronic" at base as indeed the keys and vocals of Ms. Heap are very much to be heard as the basic ingredient that is then extended into a full "orchestral" ambiance.

And truly, her music has evolved to this point where we hear a full CD of "serious" music intended for the play of the same name. But aside from that obvious origin (the play, which will not concern me here) this is in fact a real opportunity for Imogen to show what she can do when let loose. It us stunning fare. She has fully mastered the studio to the point that her total sound is in its own way like the Brian Wilson of Smile, with a compositional-orchestrational sense all her own and incredibly imaginative. It is as if the "Prog" of people like the Beatles and George Martin, ELP, King Crimson and Pink Floyd has not been forgotten but instead relives in new form for something that realizes, that achieves the status of New Music, yet the roots of such an evolution are not disguised.

Of course this is not something that sounds like Cage or Stockhausen. It is tonal. But it does not suffer from a sort of patronized dumming down as can be the case out there today at times. It is fully musical, fully developed and brilliant, just brilliant.  So it is with joy that I listen to this again and so again. The studio is the concert venue, as it has been since Sgt. Pepper's when things are right (or for that matter since the early Electronic Music days on). And there is a spurt forward with this music in the logic of that development.

I will not try to describe the totality of what you will hear with this work. It is masterful, cosmically ambient within a kind of maelstrom of expressive thrust. It is in a way a culmination, first off of the sounds Imogen Heap has been working towards, but also of the "serious" side of Art Rock I suppose you could say. It is very beautiful music, very good to hear repeatedly but from the first it grabs hold of you. It is something that was there from the very first Imogen Heap album, an original sense, and she has arrived completely with this majestic work!

Put this into your ear space, but do not expect it to be x or y. Then you will be drawn in, I hope, on its own terms. Do hear this if you can. Get a copy. Listen!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Peled Amit, Bach Suites (Volume One), Casals Cello

Since I started writing this blog in 2011 I have had the chance to review a number of versions of the Bach Cello Suites (do a search in the box in the upper left-hand part of this page to see them all). Is there more coming out these days or am I just looking at Classical music releases with a more detailed eye? And have we more genuinely worthy versions being made now than ever before? I cannot say for sure. Certainly the first movement Prelude of the first Suite (echoed also in the first movement of the "Well Tempered Clavier" and the Solo Violin Suites as well) has in the last couple of decades become a favorite for throwing into an ad or using in a drama and good for all that in the end, if it leads more people to be exposed. Truth is I never tire of the music no matter how often I hear it especially when played by a talented interpreter. And so I return today with yet another version, that of the remarkable Peled Amit on the very cello that Casals played in his prime (a 1733 Goffriller with an extraordinary sound) (CFM Classics).

The liners to this first volume of the Suites tells us that the last time we heard the 1733 instrument for this music on record was when Casals himself recorded the Suites in 1936. Casals made the move to be the first cellist to feature the Suites in concert. Before then the music was considered strictly for pedagogical use. So in some important ways this recording is a full coming around.

 Of course all that is very well, you might think, but it means nothing if Peled does not give us a world-class performance. He certainly does. Most notably Peled uses a very expressive rubato for that famous first Prelude. Beyond that he devotes a good deal of animate sound centering and forward motion to his readings. There is little ornamentation but then the very full richness of his tone and inspired execution is a wonder in itself regardless.

There is a kind of penetration to the psychic epicenter of the notes, surely a bit of the warmth of the Casal emphasis yet a bit more of a Modern forwardness. And a very jaunty sort of snap when that is warranted, we get that very nicely as well. It is a wonderful performance, surely one of the finest of our recent times and so I warmly recommend it. I stands its ground as a very beautiful reading that any lover of this music will be glad to have and rehear often. I know I will!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Serenades & Sonatas for Flute and Harp, Suzanne Shulman. Erica Goodman

If this music and its performances here are virtually "no brainers" there is precedent. In my experience anyway. Very many years ago when I was a student in Chicago I was a member of the Musical Heritage Society, who released mostly mail order albums of recordings that they licensed for US distribution. Their selection of the month for January was a two-lp set of music for string orchestra which arrived in my mailbox the first mail day of the new year. I was feeling vulnerable as one does in those first days of, what was it, 1983? The set started out nicely with Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves," which was a definite way to begin the year. After all a version of "Greensleeves" with different lyrics was the Christmas song "What Child is This?" and so it seemed seasonal.

Now we have another very different album, which is out right now, this time music for a different instrumentation. Serenades & Sonatas for Flute and Harp (Naxos 8.573947) it is called. And it starts out with a flute and harp arrangement of Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on Greensleeves."  So it is good to hear this just now, though it would be good anytime. 

It goes without saying that such an instrumentation lends itself to the idea of the "Ambient" though the music was written long before that catch phrase became topical. Suzanne Shulman on flute and Erica Goodman on harp ensure that the music comes through with bell-like clarity and ravishing sonarity. If you love this instrumentation in your head the program will not disappoint.

It is a wide ranging and pretty adventurous gathering  of singular music. The early 20th century English proto-Modernists/pre-Modernists are well represented by Vaughan Williams, William Alwyn (Notably his "Naiades - Fantasy Sonata for Flute and Harp"), and Edward Elgar, among some others not as well known. Then we get some welcome additions in a couple of Francois Couperin miniatures, a little Chausson, Nino Rota and so forth.

This is not a sound by which to set the world on fire. But then for the purposes of this music we do not always want to set the place blazing so much as we might feel a bit damaged by life and seek to recover from the "holidays." That would include a New Years Day hangover of course, though that is not my thing anymore. It is substantial music that manages to bring you some psychic relief without resorting to New Age pablum, so listen without guilt!

I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants something soothing or just loves the idea of the harp and the flute together. It is a very nice way to while away some time, to prepare for or live through winter dreams or the promise of springtime, or any number of other ways to get into a poetic haze. Very nice, this! And it is substantial musically.