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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Michael Hersch, Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Miranda Cuckson, Jay Campbell

Of the future we of course cannot know but with the vibrant presence of present-day Modernist Michael Hersch there seems bound to be a continuingly advanced presence to come. His latest album Carrion-Miles to Purgatory (New Focus Recordings 229) reminds us how his dedicated energies do not flag.

It is a gathering of some three chamber works-- "...Des Ruckgrat berstend" with Patricia Kopatchinakaja on violin/voice and Jay Campbell on cello, "Music for Violin and Piano" with Miranda Cuckson on violin and Michael Hersch himself on piano, and the 15 movements of the title work "Carrion-Miles to Purgatory" with Cuckson and Campbell.

This is in Michael Hersch's wheelhouse--Expressionist, beyond tonal, post-Serialist, ever inventive and flowing with poignancy.

So "...Das Ruckgrat Berstend" was commissioned by Kopatchinakaja, who wanted something she could simultaneously sing-recite and play on violin. Hersch chose the poetry of Christopher Middleton (1926-2015), a favorite of the composers and previously quoted s reference in earlier scores without setting text to music. The words were translated from English to German at Kopinakaja's request and the vocal part has detailed directions for manner of performance in the score (e.g., a gritty whisper etc.).

From there we move to "Music for Violin and Piano," another shorter piece clocking in like the above at about 11 minutes. It is an excerpt from the live recording of the music the two made in concert in later 2018. It marks a new phase in Cukson's collaboration with the composer, where there is interactive performances. Before that Cuckson has played Hersch's compositions in important instances, e.g. his Violin Concerto, solo works and other things from 2007 to today. The concert in whole consisted of a selection from Hersch's numerous short works under the rubric "Music for Violin and Piano," plus some solo violin music etc.

The fifty minute Carrion-Miles to Purgatory brings the program to its primary focus. The violin-cello duo is of course a somewhat exotic one as far as instrumentation in the repertoire goes. And too Hersch goes about the music in ways that set him apart further. The 15 movements each have loose parallels in poetic texts by Robert Lowell, namely from his Lord Weary's Castle. Here music is not meant as a direct articulation of the poetry meanings, but instead a sort of subliminal reaction to them. The poems kept the composer "company" as he wrote the music, which in the end is a reaction to the loss of a close friend.

I do not have words to put in place of the experience of this music. It is rather ineffable, emotive, and very in line with how Hersch's music has been unfolding. I recommend to you this music as an example of Modernity today. A very rewarding program.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Allan Pettersson. Violin Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 17 (Fragment), Elf Wallin, Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg

The music of Allan Pettersson (1911-80) is something, the composer himself once remarked, like the films of Igmar Bergman. Both capture a very certain mood, not happy exactly, but undeniably aesthetic, transcendant perhaps, reflective in a rather timeless way.

He was trained as a professional violist but gradually was attracted to composition, studied with Karl Berger-Bloomdahl, and then in Paris during 1950-51 with Honegger, Messiaen, Milhaud and Rene Liebowitz, the latter being especially decisive to his development. From that point forward he was a full-time composer.

The CD at hand today covers some of the last works, namely his Violin Concerto No. 2 (1979, revised version) and the existing fragment of his final Symphony No. 17 (BIS 2290 SACD).

The Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra under Christian Lindberg do the performance honors as they have for some excellent recordings of his works (see my reviews of their versions of his Symphonies Nos. 9, 13, 14 on these pages--check search box above). The new one follows in the mode with fine readings. The Violin Concerto has the very nicely turned violin work of Elf Wallin and takes up 53 minutes. The Symphony fragment is quite short at seven or so minutes, yet it is a valuable addition.

The little of the last, the aforementioned 17th Symphony that comes to us here is an Expressionist cry of sharp gloom yet too a monument to Pettersson's undiminished powers as a tone painter.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 is an important work, surely. It comes some many years after his 1949 Concerto for Violin and String Quartet. The first version of No. 2 was finished in 1977, a year after his Symphony No. 13. The composer referred to it as more of a symphony for violin and orchestra more so than a concerto per se. And yes, it soars along very symphonically with an endless melodic thrust led by the very feelingful violin part. Like all mature Pettersson the music is quite chromatic but then not quite atonal. We hear the revised version here, which was the final 1979 take on the music by the composer. The work has a remarkable flow, perhaps a bit more resolved and perhaps even a bit more hopeful at times than one expects from his later output

In the end this is some of the finest examples of the last music of Pettersson, not standing at the edge of a precipice as much as some of the later symphonies (though the Fragment here is quite edgy), and so then the Concerto is a fine contrast to those works.

So I would recommend this one strongly for those just coming to know the composer or too for the confirmed Pettersson listener. Nice.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Jonathan Leshnoff, Symphony No. 4 "Heichalos," Guitar Concerto, Starburst, Jason Vieaux, Nashville Symphony, Roberto Guerrero

As someone sampling a prince's ransom of New Music every month, I must admit there are times when the constant newness can be challenging, in the sense that it can be taxing to keep the ears completely open all the time. But no matter because new voices need to be heard. Today it is Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973), a composer who, in the view of  the New York Times is a "leader of contemporary American lyricism."

A full CD of his orchestral compositions (Naxos 8.559809) comes our way thanks to the resources and considerable interpretive talents of conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony. They tackle two somewhat lengthy and ambitious works and an addendum, namely his "Heichalos" Symphony No. 4 (2017), his Guitar Concerto (2013) and the eight-minute Starburst (2010).

This is tonal music that does not shy away from richly harmonic flights, not especially dissonant most times, but then not entirely expected in their sequential unfolding, either. There is something rather Neo-Romantic going on at times, a kind of passion that has a bit more chutspah than Samuel Barber. It does at times soar to the heights of sorrow that you can hear so movingly in Berg's Violin Concerto. 

Listen to the Second Movement ("Slow") of the Fourth for an excellent showing of this passion and the lyricism alluded to above. It features "The Violins of Hope," instruments once played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.

The 4th Symphony appeals moreover  in its minor-moded overall thrust. And in the end we reflect on hope in the face of the most horrifying developments in modern times. As the composer tells us in the liners the symphony is the "representation of the spiritual/ethical embodiment of this Jewish survival." So in the end it is a tribute to music in the face of evil and a stubborn hope (& belief) that good will prevail.

The Guitar Concerto has a minor tonality as well, but is considerably less tragic in its countenance. Guitarist Jason Vieaux handles nicely the solo part and the ravishing adagio of the second movement stands out magically as another excellent lyrical meditation for us to sink into. The outer movements are bracing and a properly contrasting set of creative inventions one most certainly can appreciate as one listens repeatedly. The final movement bristles with thematic energy, with an almost folksy series of motives that sound rather Semitic in a happily memorable way.

The sendoff, Starburst (2010) is a whirl of motion and activity, an orchestrational brightness and a great way to conclude.

I must say there is much to like about this music, but it is not perhaps as much a look ahead as a glance, effectively, at the past, a summing up and reaction to where we have been in music that nonetheless finds original ways to revisit forms by now long established. This however is by no means institutional music but rather a living breathing thing. Each work stands alone as an offering for our appreciation and pleasure. Nicely done!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Liszt, Transcriptions from Operas by Auber and Verdi, Wai Yin Wong, Complete Piano Music Volume 52

You might think that by the time Naxos' Franz Liszt's Complete Piano Music Volume 52 rolls around that the whole thing would be running out of gas? This volume comprises Transcriptions from Operas by Auber and Verdi (Naxos 8.573714). To be frank I must say that after listening to this one a good number of times I find it not uninteresting.

Liszt's fairly extensive collection of piano transcriptions from popular operatic moments corresponded to a public need--a pastime of how the piano figured in the everyday life of musically involved folks, in some ways a sort of quite fancy juke box potentially for hearing the "hits" of the day. So if you went to an opera and you liked the music the transcriptions were a way of being able to commune with the music at home at one's leisure, at least in principal.

Sometimes the level of pianistic difficulty for the works on this volume was not so daunting as to count out a well versed amateur. On the other hand some are up there with Liszt's more virtuoso endeavors and so called out for the master or a talented student or rival to do the music justice. Liszt might have worked some of the more flashy ones into part of a recital or a soiree, or again he also may have had a particular pupil in mind so that she or he,  a more ambitious pianist, might take on one of them to keep growing in technique and to dazzle audiences for themselves.

Yet there are definite attractions here regardless of such considerations and functions. The opening, two rather involved bravura arrangements of a tarantella from Auber's La Muette de Portici, is good fun and a definite dazzle in the form of a theme and progressively elaborate variations.

What this Volume 52 gives us should we be so interested is a kind of primer to Liszt's approach to "de-orchestration" and variational ornamentation, rolling octave "trills" for example, arpeggios, a cascading tremolo and such. It also gives us a handle on what sort of extensions constitute for Liszt a variation or a "fantaisie" on a theme.

These transcriptions are not of operas we generally pay a whole lot of attention to these days, and that explains perhaps in part why this is Volume 52 and not, say Volume 40. So we get transcriptions from Auber's aforementioned La Muette and then Verdi's I Lombardi and Ernani, and finally three transciptions/arrangements from Auber's Le Fiancee.

Young pianist Wai Yin Wong does an elegant job realizing these pieces and the recording sounds quite good from a technical point of view.. This may not be essential listening, surely, but then it does have its attractions, especially of course for those very into the Liszt piano legacy.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Beethoven, String Quartets, Op. 18 nos. 4-6, Eybler Quartet

A little bit of controversy can be a good thing, if the subject matter has "been-there-and-done-that" in some people's minds. So when I heard that the Eybler Quartet kicked up a bit of a fuss about early Beethoven Quartets, of all things, I wanted to see (or rather hear) for myself. The Op. 18 nos. 1-3 Quartets were given the Eybler treatment some time ago.What I said about that volume here on April 8 of last year was seconded by others.  Gramophone called it "defiantly un-glossy but consistently stylish." So I subsequently have had a chance to review the second volume, covering Op. 18 nos. 4-6 (CORO connections 16174). I grabbed at the chance and now I report in with pleasure.

I must say I am pleased with these performances. Very pleased. Often enough earlier incarnations of iconic Beethoven forms (the piano sonatas, string quartets, symphonies) get a kind of teleologic treatment, as if (for example) all the symphonies are prefigurations of the 9th, etc. In other words there can be a tendency to give to the earlier Beethoven the thickly "Romantic Titan Giant" kind of reading. Yet surely there are other ways of hearing, of playing those earlier essays, that it is possible to view the works as special creations, that we can try and see earlier Beethoven as equally attractive but in different ways?

So the Eybler Quartet gives us the 4th through 6th Quartets of the Op. 18 as something much less Teutonic, less blown by cosmic weight, by musically heavy dark matter so to speak. and instead we get something lighter, spritely, more Mercurial. Is it possible that Modern performance practice can breath new life into this period of the Master and his legacy?

This Eybler Quartet installment surely does something of that. Tempos can be quite crisp and invigorating. The tone of the quartet is rather the opposite of the old school Budapest Quartet that I we weaned on years ago. Gone is the buzzingly rich and weighty bee hive of string intensity one heard from the icons of an earlier era. Instead there is a lighter tone that then makes room for a heightened agility that is a definite hallmark of the Eybler Quartet performance here.

There is plenty of feeling, surely, in this reading. But it is not as ponderous. It is ever in motion with an emphasis to a "getting" rather than a sort of staunchly present "already thereness" if you will pardon the loose jargon.

That on-the-way quality of the performances is rather not as I have alluded to a mere pointing towards the mature Beethoven. There is a great deal of brio, for example, but not the burr-rich sonics of Late Romantic style. It is a brio built for speed, not as much for deepness of aural footprint. That is not to say that the quartet sounds at all thin. It is a relative thing.

The liners to this second volume of the Op. 18 works nicely foregrounds a controversy surrounding Beethoven's early music. He was presented with one of the first commercially available metronomes and eagerly began to give metronomic recommendations for movements in the printed music itself. Some musicologists later on justified certain tendencies in performances practices by suggesting that perhaps Beethoven's metronome was not working properly, since they asserted that some of the tempos seemed too fast by a fairly significant rate. But suppose Beethoven meant exactly what he indicated? We hear some of that in this program and it is exhilarating.

The liners speak of another performance habit prevalent since the days of Berlioz and Wagner--the tendency to vary the tempos within movements according to considerations of affect and such. On the opposite end of such things was the earlier viewpoint of Hummel and Spohr, who advocated at least of these earlier works that one more-or-less should stay within a particular tempo upon stating a tactus (rhythmic figure that establishes a tempo) unless specifically directed otherwise by the composer. So in that way the music tends to "rock" and so also sometimes at a stirringly more rapid rate than what we are used to in hearing this music.

All of these factors come into play and provide for us a fresh look at some very familiar music. I must say that the Eybler approach in this volume gives to me a liberating joy. This is masterful music in its own right and the group brings this all out in ways that surely provide for us a new and vital reading of the quartets.

A big bravo to this program! I come away from it feeling like I have seen another part of Beethoven that I have not quite experienced in this way before. It most certainly appeals as a landmark in a post-late-Romantic point of view. Listen to this by all means. The Eybler Quartet is on to something!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Michala Petri, American Recorder Concertos, Music of Roberto Sierra, Steven Stucky, Anthony Newman, Sean Hickey

The recorder saw a peak popularity in the Classical music world with the advent of the Baroque period. The Modern era by contrast has not found the instrument entering the repertoire much at all. But if Michala Petri and the composers represented on American Recorder Concertos (OUR Recordings 8.226912) have their way that could be changing.

Our current phase of Modernity does not have the same attitude about tonality and the lack that the Dodecaphonic composers may have had, not to mention the latter's stylistic need to unveil chromatic non-continuity that in some ways is not inherently idiomatic to a recorder. What that means is that the recorder's ordinarily contiguous diatonicism is no longer necessarily a drawback to the contemporary idiom, provided that composer and player situate the possibilities of the instrument in an adventurous and imaginative use of sequencing and create anew a virtuosity fitting to our times. That means something,

Happily one hears such things on the music of this program. As one gets to know these pieces one does not feel that there has been undue compromise either on the composer's freedom or the player's musicality. The four works we hear in fact sound very much of our time yet too sound very idiomatic to the beauty of the instrument in timbre, intervallic grace, and lyrical earthiness.

Recorder virtuoso Michala Petri has everything to do with the existence of these four works for she specially commissioned them, happily, to redress the general scarcity of recorders on the Modern American compositional scene, especially as full-blown concerted statements.

And so between 2000 and 2016 the four works featured on the program came to being. And now with this release we get to hear all of them in near-ideal conditions with well prepared ensembles and Michala Petri's considerable artistry.

What strikes me about it at first consideration is just how contemporary it all sounds, yet too how each composer has gone forward with each a distinctively original step ahead.

For example harpsichord virtuoso Anthony Newman's "Concerto for recorder, harpsichord and strings" for Michala, Newman on harpsichord and the Nordic String Quartet has a more Neo-Baroque element in play but in no case would you confuse this music with that of the earlier period. It is a delightful romp with some rather incredible recorder pyrotechnics and a Baroque brightness coupled with a Modern freshness.

Roberto Sierra's "Prelude, Habanera and Perpetual Motion" gives Michala and the Tivoli Copenhagen Phil under Alexander Shelley a widely expansive Latin feel as it is a refiguring of a work Sierra originally scored for recorder and guitar. We feel the presence of the initial instrumentation yet also a pronounced color palette coming out of the new timbral possibilities.

Steven Stucky's "Etudes," a concerto for recorder and orchestra, started this series of works in 2000 and grounds our sensibilities in a series of interplays between Michala and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (under Lan Shui) that show a masterful compositional hand and help spell out for us a new sensibility for the recorder in our contemporary world.

Finally we have at nearly 30 minutes the longest and perhaps most ambitious of the four works in Sean Hickey's "A Pacifying Weapon" for recorder, winds, brass, percussion and harp, this time Michala Petri joining forces with the eminently capable Royal Danish Academy of Music Concert Band under Jean Thorel. It is a tour de force with twistingly, fiendishly difficult recorder heroics
against a firebranded windband backdrop contrasted by meditatively ponderous reflective moments.

The promise of the recorder concerto for today has in this way presented itself to us and we find in all ways a virtuoso heroism coupled by a discerning contemporary stance on what constitutes a concerto. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is the unforced outflowing of this music as a natural give-and-take between the instrument, its widened capabilities in the hands of a master performer and the considerable forward leaning imaginations of the four composers and their memorable art on display for us in this program.

I am happy to recommend this album for anyone interested in the instrument and so also in the contemporary concerto as it is evolving in our times. Kudos to all involved.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Edition Musikfabrik 15, STURM, Steffen Schleiermacher, Kaija Saariano, Michael Wertmuller

The Wergo label continues to bring us releases of some most interesting new music with High Modernist boldness and broad relief. The latest stands out. It reminds us that forward thinking is by no means solely a product of some past that is behind us. Today we have Edition Musikfabrik 15, which is called STURM (Wergo 6868 2). And true-to-form it gusts directly through our musical consciousnesses and sweeps away any old accretions decisively.

Three contrasting works are given to us on the program. Stefen Schleiermacher's Das Tosen des Staunenden Echos begins things with a flourish. Then comes Kaija Saariano's absorbing The Tempest Songbook and the freely jazzed chamber work Antagonisme Controle by Michael Wertmuller.

The performances leave nothing to be desired. Ensemble Musikfabrik under conductors Jean Deroyer,  Emilio Pomarico and Christian Eggen, respectively, form a very good tandem for the program.

Schleiermacher's Das Tosen des Staunenden Echos combines caustically exciting piano insistencies with some breathtaking ensemble forays for a fantastic whirlwind of sound.

The Tempest Songbook features vocalists Olivia Vermeulen and Peter Schone with the Ensemble for a typically stunning Saariaho essay in color and substance.

Free Jazz dynamo tenor sax-soprano-clarinetist Peter Brotzmann unleashes a torrent of energy with his co-soloists Dick Rorhbrust and Marino Plinkas. All team up beautifully with the Ensemble for one of the most exhilaratingly effective Free Improv-New Music meldings of the last decade.

The program in the end comes through with a nicely freshening breeze of the Contemporary chamber orchestra world at its very best. Ensemble Musikfabrik show themselves to be one of the most engaging and accomplished chamber ensembles active today.

My highest recommendations for this one if you seek the very new, the state-of-the-art on the scene right now. Bravo!