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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Crossing: A Marvelous Choral Group and Their Release "It is Time"

Romanian poet Paul Celan may not get a great deal of attention here in the States. In the cultural dark ages of the present that is perhaps to be expected. NO modern poetry gets much in the way of attention. Though we lament the dearth of poetry dissemination as a whole we must give recognition (when it is due) to those artists and composers who creatively adapt important modern poetic texts to musical settings.

The Crossing, an exceptionally well-poised chamber choral group, have done something of this nature for Paul Celan's poetry with It is Time (Navona 5845). We get the chance to hear some very beautiful, very post-modern/modern settings of Celan by six less-than-well-known composers: David Shapiro, Kile Smith, Paul Fowler, Frank Havroy, Erhard Karkoschka and Kirsten Broberg.

It was said of some actor or other (I forget who) that he could recite from the phone book and move people to tears; he was that good. In many ways The Crossing under conductor Donald Nally have similar gifts. They sound incredibly beautiful no matter what they are doing. But the compositions themselves on It is Time are by no means lightweight fare. This is the music of today, beyond formula and dogma, richly expressive and unmistakably of our own time.

The results are breathtaking. I do not jest.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Robert Aldridge's Opera "Elmer Gantry" Gets Lively Recording

Robert Livingston Aldridge (b. 1954) has given us a substantial opera based on the Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry. William Boggs directs a new recording (Naxos 2-CD 8.669032-33) with soloists, the Florentine Opera Company (and Chorus) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

What to say about this work? In many ways musically it is ultra-conservative. It has all the earmarkings of something that might have been written in the 1930's. There is a touch of Americana in the sense that Copland's homespun nationalist strain can be heard not so much quoted from as assimilated. There's a slightly jazzy element that comes out of Gershwin. Otherwise it is highly romantic, even sentimental in its treatment of a subject that, at least when Sinclair wrote the novel, was meant to have impactful social-critical heft.

The story is set in pre-World War I small-town America. Elmer Gantry, as is clear from the beginning, is a man on the make, someone who sees the evangelical Christian revival spreading across the country as a chance to get himself ahead in life. He falls in with baptist priestess Sharon Falconer, who in the opera version at least, seems genuinely religious yet unable to recognize the plainly commercial and cynical transformation Gantry performs on her revival group. There is no space to go into details, but to me her character comes off as unconvincing.

In our world today, when right-wing evangelist groups have gained significant political clout in the United States and have great impact on the issues and policies of the United States government, the small-town shenanigans of Gantry seem tame and insignificant, especially as portrayed in the opera. He commits adultery with his old sweetheart, he raises much money for the tabernacle and uses the trappings of born-again Christian ideology for the accumulation of wealth. This may have seemed shocking to a 1920's small-town America but we have seen far worse since.

The music? There are effective moments of pastoral-hymn-folk-lyrical melody and they contrast perplexingly sometimes with the plot--when Gantry the cynical unbeliever declares his love for the incredibly gullible Falconer, when a parable of impending apocalyptic disaster is taken up in act two while the music expresses a kind of wistful sentimentality, in the course of the revival meeting, often at the height of Gantry's machinations.

The revival music can also take a kind of quasi-gospel, trite post-Gershwin "negro" jazziness, which historically is not accurate and sounds incredibly dated to boot. Other times it has a spiritedness that appeals. There are times when the opera comes off as a slightly highbrow version of a cornball small-town musical like The Music Man, complete with a sort of barbershop quartet's vision of nostalgic Americana. This is the kind of music that may hit a reverberant chord in the smaller centers of culture throughout the US today. And I am happy for the pleasure it may give many people. It disturbs me though that we can be made to feel nostalgia for the days when manipulative Gantries merely wanted to found a local ministry built on lies and deceit, and only make a million or two. Gantry was meant by Sinclair to personify an evil in America. The opera seems to like the fellow, just a little bit. I don't.

Nevertheless, from a musical point of view there are things that appeal and the dramatic climax of the last act is well wrought. It is very much a backward looking work, culturally, socially and musically. But it is a full-blown opera with plenty of crowd scenes, tender arias, duets, quartets and all the rest of what grand opera traditionally has had. And the performance seems quite good.

I don't believe this is the sort of thing that I would hold up as a model of what American opera is today. It's what American opera might have been 100 years ago, perhaps. Nevertheless, if it enjoys success, I am happy for the composer.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Vital New Recording of Gesualdo's Third Book of Madrigals

If Carlo Gesualdo di Venosa (1566-1613) had never entered his later compositional phase he would no doubt still be remembered for the architecture of his vocal polyphony, the charm and expressive inventiveness of his part writing. Along about the time of his Madrigals Book 3 (1595), he began utilizing dissonances, chromaticisms and expressive vocal phases that emulated sighs, laments and related outbursts of overwrought despair. In the era this was a notable departure from the norm. He was later looked upon (especially thanks to Stravinsky's late-1950's work Momentum Pro Gesualdo based on Gesualdo's music) as a precursor and prophet of expressive modernism.

Of course ultimately Gesualdo's music stands on its own. Remarkably beautiful, expressive, and of its own time as much or more than standing apart from it.

Marco Longhini and Delitiae Musicae give you a wonderful reading of the Third Book of Madrigals (Naxos 8.572136) for vocal sextet. The singing is quite engaging, with the countertenor part sung by the appropriate male exponent. (I've had versions where a mezzosoprano substituted and it did not quite suite the music as much. The unique timbre of the countertenor gives the music a more exotic, ancient sound and the parts seem more easily differentiated with that extra sound color added.)

Harpsichord continuo appears at appropiate points. (And again, I have had versions that leave this out to the detriment of the fullness and variety of sound you get with its inclusion.)

All in all this is a fabulous performance of music that should be a part of the musical library of anyone who wants a representative cross-section of early music. Marco Longhini gives us performances that are very near definitive. Bravo. Bring on Book Four!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Howard Blake's Vivid Music for String Quartet and String Trio, Nicely Performed by the Edinburgh Quartet

Howard Blake made me take notice years ago with his dazzling score to the children's cartoon The Snowman. I have finally had the chance to hear more of his work via a couple of Naxos releases, one covered earlier on my Gapplegate Music Review Blog, the other up for discussion today. What I hear I like.

The one at hand covers some of his music for string quartet (and one for string trio) (Naxos 8.572688). The Edinburgh Quartet do the honors and they provide a nice balance between lyric expression and subtle shadings of string color. In many ways that's what Howard Blake's string chamber music is about.

His music has a modern tang to it and a kind of linear narrative quality so that you would never think you are hearing a piece by, say, Schumann or Brahms. Yet there is a very lyrical melodic strain to his compositions that put him apart from what is the norm out there today. The pieces ["Spieltrieb," "A Month in the Country," "Leda and the Swan," "String Trio, Op. 199," and "Walking in the Air"] include some early work (1975, 1977) and some recent (2008-2010). All have a pretty ravishing memorability about them.

The CD ends with the "Walking in the Air" sequence of The Snowman Suite and it is lovely to hear, especially if you are already familiar with the boy soprano, piano and orchestra version from the cartoon soundtrack. What it loses in sheer sensual beauty it gains with the paired-back clarity of the quartet.

This certainly is not the sort of cutting-edge modernism that can be had out there. It is a wonderful example of music from a composer who will give you a warm, almost folksy kind of feeling. a little like Vaughan-Williams in his more homespun mode.

If that sounds interesting to you, check this one out by all means.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Two Later Symphonies of Havergal Brian in a Recent Release: Listening to Symphonies No. 20 and 25

English composer Havergal Brian lived a long life (1876-1972) and went his own way despite the winds of stylistic change that blew through his culture while he lived. A late romantic and gigantist he often summoned large orchestral forces to create sprawling symphonies of great length and complexity. He persisted despite his anachronistic status, leaving behind a large body of works, recordings of which in my experience were pretty rare until the advent of the digital era.

Naxos has been covering a cross-section of that output, the latest of which is a recording originally released on Marco Polo, Andrew Penny conducting the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in respendently respectable readings of Symphony No 20 (1962), No 25 (1966), and "Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme" (1907). The two later symphonies are broken into three movements apiece, a change from his earlier practice of conceiving his works in single long movements.

I have tried on a few occasions to digest a Brian symphony and found myself slightly adrift each time. The earlier works do go on. Sometimes listening is like witnessing a three-way battle between Richard Strauss, Elgar, and Mahler, with no winner on the field at the end of the melee save perhaps Brian himself. Thematically one sometimes feels as if one is playing a Where's Waldo as one threads one's way aurally through the rich and complex syntax of his symphonic vocabulary.

Listening to the new release at hand (Naxos 8.572641) I've come to realise that his music is almost all Waldos, so to say. The foreground/background, theme versus development and passagework, the sort of thing you expect to find in a typical romantic symphony, does not necessarily apply. Brian writes in long complex phrases, like a country lane that, yes, is meant to get somewhere but takes many twists and turns in doing so.

The earlier "Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme" takes the "Three Blind Mice" children's song and subjects it to extensions, convolutions and reworkings so that at many points it becomes unrecognizable, only to make a fragmentary return before Brian goes off again on a long digression-as-progression.

The Symphonies 20 and 25 are equally illuminating, for the listener who focuses on following the orchestrational and harmonic-melodic kaleidocopic linearity. The modern sonic staging of the rather large instrumental arsenal in these pieces allows you to revel in the sensuality of Brian's treatment of the orchestra. The clarity of Maestro Penny's interpretations helps you engage in the many episodic Waldo appearances and/or disappearances.

You come to realize that Brian only SOUNDS like a typical late romanticist. He is quite eccentric and even ornery in his refusal to present a symmetrical unfolding of themes and development.

That's what struck me listening to this fine addition to the Brian discography. It's a sonic epoch and gives you in short, relatively compact segments what Brian's music can be about.

And for all that I would recommend this one if you want to try a way into his music. This is no ordeal; it is music that has orchestral brilliance that makes for pleasurable listening. The vastly populated "Waldo-landscape" will challenge you and give you another sort of pleasure as well if you are willing to work at it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Klara Min Plays Modern Piano Music from Korea

One definite plus about a label like Naxos is that the price is reasonable enough that one can afford to explore the more adventuresome, less traveled byways of the classical repertoire. As your designated tour guide, I can help you negotiate via these reviews the more tangled thickets and avoid the crocodile-infested bogs along the way. At least I hope so!

Pianist Klara Min's new release is a good case in point (not of the crocodile bogs; the interesting by-ways!) Pa-Mun, Ripples On Water (Naxos 8.572406) exposes us to five Korean composers and eight solo piano works spanning the time period of 1958-2004. Isang Yun (1917-1995) will likely be remembered by those who followed the modern classical music of the '50s and '60s as it appeared on record. Other names may be less familiar: Younghi Pagh-Paan, Sukhi Kang, Uzong Chae, and Chung Gil Kim.

The pieces to a western ear do not sound especially Korean on the surface of things--that is, they do not especially resemble the traditional Korean classical and folk music one has heard. What all works have in common to some extent is a heightened feeling for sound and silence, quietude and movement, which of course need not be particularly Korean. Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Messaien all in their own way made good use of such contrasts.

But the composers here do not sound like them either. There are contemplative turns, there are quasi-neo-minimalist uses of repetition, and most of all there is a poetic approach to the piano, as if each phrase is the strain of some unknown and indirectly expressed poem.

Thanks to Klara Min for bringing out these qualities of the music on this disk. She is quite suited to the music she performs, as the music seems suited to her. These are not big, brash, bravura sorts of performances pieces. They are intimate. Klara Min conveys that sense with beautiful phrasing, a deceptively facile way of handling the difficult pages and a dynamic sense so important to the successful performance of this music.

Very interesting piano music. Very well played. Very recommended for those who have grown tired of the staples of the repertoire, or for that matter those who have not.