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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Helmut Walcha, Chorale Preludes 2

Helmut Walcha (1907-1991) wrote so many chorale preludes for solo organ, Naxos is planning to release four volumes. Judging by Chorale Preludes, Volume 2 (Naxos 8.572911) with Walcha student Wolfgang Rubsam at the keys, this will be well worth the effort.

Walcha grew up in Leipzig and learned much from the example of J. S. Bach. The Chorale Preludes have a contrapuntal flair, thrilling dynamics, and an architectural clarity about them that show the influence of the master yet also have Walcha's dramatic inventive compositional personality stamped upon them.

Like Reger's contrapuntal writing for solo violin, Walcha's Preludes extend the influence of Bach with an immediacy that shows much more than imitation at work.

The Volume Two bears up very well after many hearings. Rubsam does the music full justice and the spectacular sound will give your ears and your system a good workout.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lei Liang, Verge, Tremors of a Memory Chord, Chamber and Orchestral Music

For a composer with imagination and a sharp ear for synchronicities and contrasts, personal roots can be very fertile ground as a launching pad for startlingly fresh new music. Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (b. 1972) serves as an excellent example, certainly as heard on his new recording of Chamber and Orchestral Music [Verge, Tremors of a Memory Chord] (Naxos 8.572839).

In point of fact the first two compositions on the disk, Verge for 18 solo strings (2009) and Aural Hypothesis for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone (2010), are very fine late high modernist works, sonorously strong and vivid in the use of typical western chamber instrumentation. Other than a kind of spatially declamatory tendency there would be little on the strictly musical front to declaim "Chinese roots" unless you were already looking for them.

The last two works are another matter. Five Seasons (2010) was scored for the traditional Chinese stringed instrument called the pipa, plus string quartet. And you most certainly hear in the pipa part a Chinese classical element. Interestingly though, since traditional Chinese music can have an intensely sonorous focus, the common ground between the quartet and the pipa is moving yet somehow logical. It's music that manages to be quite modern in impact, yet makes ample room for the rhythmic and intervalic idiom of the traditional pipa.

Tremors of a Memory Chord (2011) goes even further, in scoring the music for piano and grand Chinese orchestra. In this case in is the piano part that bridges the East-West gap most fully, in ways that make perfect sense. Then again the Chinese orchestra is called upon to engage in sonorous abstractions that both partake of tradition yet are abstract and avant garde in overall syntax and trajectory. In use of space and sound, calm and agitation, solo and tutti, the two traditions are not nearly as far apart as one might think, at least in Liang's singular musical vision. And the whole thing is quite exciting to hear as well.

It is all very convincing to me. The music itself, the performances and the sound staging all make for a compelling program. Anyone with a sense of musical adventure should respond to this recording. It gives a mini-portrait of Lei Liang's striking music and I hope serves as the beginning of many such appearances to the music loving public.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Kyzysztof Meyer, String Quartets Nos, 7, 10 and 13

Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer (b. 1943) writes string quartets of architectural complexity and high modernist purity. The Wieniawski String Quartet and Naxos issue Volume Three of the complete output this month, String Quartets Nos. 7, 10 and 13 (Naxos 8.573001), and it has very much to commend it.

No. 13 is his latest to date and along with Nos. 7 and 10, there is very much excellent music to experience. Like Bartok and Carter before him, Meyer views the configuration as appropriate for very serious and advanced sonorities and the Wieniawski Quartet bring the salient import of these works to the recorded medium with the precision and passion they demand.

These are great abstract constructions, at once intimate and multivalent. They are the sort of works that take concentrated effort to assimilate fully over a long period of time. The reward is a modern sort of sublimity.

This volume gives you an essential listen to Meyer at his most advanced. He is a composer of today that should be heard, and this is a great program for you to begin doing that.

Friday, December 14, 2012

John McCabe, Visions, Choral Music

It may be that composer-pianist John McCabe is better known for his work with other configurations, but after many listens to the newly released Visions (Naxos 8.573053) his choral music is imprinted firmly on my musical thought waves. Surely here he carries on as a most distinguished embodiment of the English modern choral tradition, a worthy successor to Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten.

More than half the album album presents the BBC Singers (under David Hill) a capella. For the rest they are joined by organist Iain Farrington. They sound very good, full and center-on throughout.

The works cover a very broad period, from 1966 to 2008. They range from the brief Marian Carols to the rather long Mangan Triptych. Four of the works enjoy their world premiere recording in this collection.

McCabe seems to have a natural affinity to choral writing. The works have great "singability" and beautifully wrought part writing, from modern contrapuntal to stunning harmonic blocks that sound especially well.

This is a recording that should bring much pleasure to lovers of the choral arts, Anglophiles, and anyone who wishes to explore some gems of our time.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Alexander Berne & the Abandoned Orchestra, Self Referentials, Vols. 1 & 2

Some music hangs together so distinctly, yet is composed of such unexpected elements, that one can imagine oneself in another world with the music being what the inhabitants have worked out over a long period of time, an imaginary ethnic music, an imaginary classical music.

That's the feeling I get listening to Alexander Berne & the Abandoned Orchestra's Self-Referentials, Vols. 1 & 2 (Innova 838).

In his latest 2-CD set Alexander Berne creates music that lays out so organically yet is so unexpected yet evocative that it sounds like another world produced it.

Self Referentials is a series of interrelated soundscapes that so skillfully interweave their various elements, electronically enhanced and straightforward instrumental and vocal sound colors that have pulse and trajectory and come in and out of the total sound in such striking ways, one has to commend Maestro Berne for his composition-assembly-mix in technical as well as musical terms.

Ultimately what counts is the narrative quality of the music and its striking overall affect. It is the sort of music that beckons you to turn the many intriguing twists and turns in the musical unfolding into a wordless story, a journey in a soundscape that is filled with so many interrelated sound events that it literally carries you away.

Alexander Berne composes music that is new in very original terms, yet sounds like it could be a thousand years old. It's sound poetry of a high sort, apparently a product of our world. That is very good news. You should hear this, most definitely.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gabriel Faure, Quintettes Avec Piano, Eric Le Sage, Quatuor Ebene

I spent years parceling off Gabriel Faure as "that stylistic link between Franck and Debussy." Not that he isn't. But there is so much to his output in itself that the categorization doesn't help a great deal in experiencing the music.

That is most certainly true of the Quatuor Ebene and Eric Le Sage's performances of the Quartettes Avec Piano op. 89 & 115 (Outhere Alpha 602).

The music has depth and the performers give us exemplary versions, emotive and plastic without resorting to histrionics. The op. 89 has impassioned complexity, the op. 115 a sublimity, a restrained lyrical flow and movement within a fertile melodic unfolding. They both bear the mark of Faure's lyric brilliance.

The performances are excellent. Le Sage and Quatuor Ebene achieve a balance and at times a frisson that is high-level and beautifully detailed. Very much recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christiane Karg, Amoretti

Coloratura soprano is a phenomenon where there are no half-way marks. Either the singer is wonderful, or it doesn't work. The young German soprano Christiane Karge has all that it takes, and shows us in her release of arias by Mozart, Gluck and Gretry, Amoretti (Berlin Classics 0300389BC).

The disk is made doubly interesting by the inclusion of arias from early Mozart works, the nearly forgotten Gretry and some choice Gluck, including three premiere recordings.

The orchestra Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen sounds just fine, but of course this is Ms. Karg's day in the sun, and she responds accordingly. Her voice is a wonder. No matter the mood of the aria, she responds with convincing dramatic inflection, a vibrant, angelic tone, and perfectly nuanced phrasing.

It is clear that Christiane Karg is headed for stardom in vocal circles. This recital catches her in great form, doing music I am very glad to hear. Bravo!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Andy Malloy, Paper Clips, Works for Trombone

I haven't particularly gone out of my way to look for modern classical solo trombone albums. I remember a good one on the DGG Avant Garde Series (now alas gone) and a Berio Sequenza for trombone, then Stuart Dempster did a lively one for the New World label. Otherwise, not very much.

So Andy Malloy's Paper Clips (Navona 5879), a two-CD set devoted to music for trombone solo, with or without piano accompaniment by Karolina Rojahn, is a most welcome addition.

Mr. Malloy is a fine exponent of the trombone with a nice tone and chops. He tackles seven works/suites by composers not all familiar to me: Adrienne Albert, Gernot Wolfgang, John Steinmetz, Steven J. Williams, Stephen Yip, Jason Barabba, and Rick Lane.

This is not a high-modernist, pointillist hits and jabs sort of anthology. The works vary from jazz inflected, to sound-oriented, to recitation and trombone commentary, to straightforward contemporary.

Throughout there is the trombone artistry of Malloy and some of the excitement of the brand new. There's a good deal to be had on the set, so if you respond to the sound of the trombone of this century, I think you will find this to your liking.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Haydn-Brahms String Quartets, Danish String Quartet

Having noted other day in this space that since Beethoven's late quartets, the string quartet has often become the preferred medium for composers to extend their musical language to the limits of their imagination, I now listen to a new recording of the Danish String Quartet doing Haydn and Brahms (BR Klassik 8553264) and reflect a little on that thought. What was most certainly true of Bartok and Carter wasn't especially the case with Haydn and perhaps not Brahms either. Not that either's quartets aren't first-rate examples of the art. But the composers perhaps didn't view the configuration as a privileged place to communicate their most advanced ideas. They engaged with the form for some of the finest examples nonetheless. It's just that they didn't tend to be "heavy" about it. That's my impression.

In the case of the Haydn Quartet in D No. 63 op 64 No 5, a part of the Danish Quartet's release, it is music of sheer delight (so to speak) with allusions and commentaries on Viennese dance forms and popular music. It goes out of its way not to be serious, yet in the process produces a balanced work that is in no way "light." It is not ponderous either. But it is Haydn at his infectious best.

The Brahms String Quartet in A minor op. 52 No. 2 is a good pairing with the Haydn, because it too is high spirited without being unsubstantial.

The Danish String Quartet does a terrific job with these quartets. The group has achieved the considerable ability to vary the timbre of each of the instruments in cases where they wish to articulate clearly the importance and multi-voiced distinction of several parts--it's especially heard in the Haydn but it is true of the Brahms as well. Then they of course can properly and melifluously blend as one in passages that call for that. The point is that the quartet has an great sense of structure that comes through as extraordinarily articulated performances.

Their sound is ravishing and well recorded. And the music has a beautiful sense of proportion and definition. These are near-benchmark performances, uplifting to hear, and highly recommended of course.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Jorg Widmann, Elegie

Jorg Widmann is a present-day composer with expansive concepts and an orchestral mastery of the panoramic-modern virtually unmatched by any living composer. I know that may be a lot to say of someone but I feel convinced of that after listening a number of times to a new disk devoted to his music, Elegie (ECM New Series 2110 476 3309).

The disk contains two major orchestral works and one for clarinet and piano. Christoph Poppen conducts the Deutsche Radio Philharmonic for the Messe fur grosches Orchester and the Elegie fur Klarinette und Orchester. The composer himself plays clarinet on the latter and joins his instrument with Heinz Holliger's piano for the chamber Funf Bruchstucke.

The Messe follows in general outline what a Mass might be for choir and orchestra (sometimes down to the words the choir would ordinarily sing), only conceives of the entire work instrumentally. It is a massive dramatic symphonic work that very deftly engages the assemblage of instruments with an acute sense of sound color and affect. It is a four-dimensional work, performed and recorded with the very high standards one comes to expect in the New Series. It is music that has a very expanded harmonic sense and uses that and orchestrational brilliance to achieve a memorable result.

The Funf Bruchstucke explore clarinet-piano sonorities in miniature with five very brief segments that show another side to Widmann's lucid sense of aural poetics.

Finally the Elegie joins Widmann's clarinet with the orchestra for another masterful work of expressive color. The clarinet part makes its sober but very avant virtuoso presence felt via a very musical use of extended sounds from harmonic double stops to quarter tones. The orchestra responds with some extraordinary timbres and atmospheric eloquence.

Widmann shows on Elegie that he is one of the composers of brilliance today. He extends the wide open avant-guard sound-color tradition into the present day with his own extraordinarily creative scores. These are wonderful to hear. Any student of high modernism should take this music to heart. And modernist aficionados in general will find this CD essential listening.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Eric Salzman, The Nude Paper Sermon; Wiretap

When avant garde classical was at a peak in exposure and was crossing-over somewhat to the rock crowd, budget classical labels, the Nonesuch series being a prime example, were devoting some effort to release representative avant and electronic works at a price everyone could afford. $1.99 was the going rate at New York area chains for an LP of this type, and I and others found it a good way to get exposed to new music.

One of the albums to come out in the Nonesuch series around 1970 was Eric Salzman's The Nude Paper Sermon and it was one of the more unusual of the works to get mass release on vinyl. I found my way to a copy at the time and spend many hours puzzling over its contents.

Now it and its follow up Wiretap are once again available as a two CD reissue on a Labor set (7092).

The Nude Paper Sermon, as I listen again after so long, strikes me as belonging wholly to its period. A narrator, in a lengthy and sometimes rapid-fire monologue, personifies a sort of voice of the media, pontificating in a disjointed and sometimes surreal manner on anything and everything while an acoustic-electric collage of Babel crowd voices, a Renaissance style vocal group, noise, Boschian effects from a modern hell, all combine to make a soundscape that is both funny, mind expanding and, especially at the time, terrifying. It is one of the better multi-stranded collage pieces of the era, at the same time leaves you with an acute and aesthetically satisfying portrayal of a contemporary world so overloaded with messages and input that meaning is in short supply.

Wiretap has a smaller-scale character, with a series of shorter works: voice pieces, an interesting duet between Elise Rose on vocals and Stanley Silverman on acoustic guitar, and a collaged electro-acoustic work of found sounds. Not all of it is at the level of the first album but like the first it captures the experimental excitement of the era, some of the excesses of expression the era produced, and the urgent impetus to create relevant works that somehow commented on the vitality and critical impact of the passing scene.

I am not sure how the post-'60s ears of most listeners would hear this music-collage style. Anyone who lived through the era will probably find it interesting; those tracing the lineage of text-sound works and acoustic-electric collage will find this volume of importance. Anyone who had these records back then, well you know what's on them! Salzman was an important voice of the era. You may find yourself exasperated with the contents at times, I imagine, but a sympathetic listen will give you something of what it was like to experience the era--exhilaration, disgust, euphoria, experimental wonder, zen madness....

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lock and Key: New Chamber Works by Pender, Salvage, Perttu, Hawkins

New Music comes along in many shapes and sizes these days. The Lock and Key (Navona 5881) anthology of chamber works by relatively unknown composer illustrates that rather well.

Scott Pender's "In the Time Before" is a chamber ensemble playing a melifluous kind of minimalism that has the motor-insistency of a Steve Reich with expansive melodic lyricism on top via strings and sometimes flute. It goes its own way with the melodic material and in this way captures a bit of originality while being pretty snugly fit into a typical Reichian minimal mode.

R. David Salvage turns to a more modern harmonic, non- pulsating expressivism to begin his nine-movement "Albumleaves" for solo piano. It goes from there into a sort of neo-classicism with fugal counterpoint dominating here, then a chorale-like piece there, more expressionistic pieces, a pulse-oriented, non-formulaic series of shifting figures, and more neo-classicism, this time of such an elementary, primal nature I am tempted to dub it lyric simplissimo. This is appealing music to while away an afternoon. Nothing terribly profound but quite nice to hear.

Daniel Perttu's "Gloamin': A Fantasy for Flute and Piano" is more dramatic in a sort of romantic-impressionistic way, with the flute part soaring expressively against a shimmer of shifting piano tonality.

Finally there is Malcolm Hawkins "Bonjour Ma Petite" for chamber ensemble. Five miniature movements hold forth in a lyrical diatonicism that I am inclined once again to dub simplissimo. It's very straightforward music of a naive, home-spun sort and it charms without making claims to profundity. There is a sort of vernacular small-town feel to this suite at times, but it in no way panders thereby. And the melodic-thematic content becomes less naive at times and a bit more "sophisticated," but the simple charm of the music persists.

There you have it, four composers working on tonal grounds with their own stylistic concerns. This is music that pleases without asking a great deal in return. It is music of a generally light-hearted sort. It is not pretentious music and the performances reflect that matter-of-factness of the compositions well. If that sounds good to you, then you will no doubt find this to your liking.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Miguel Kertsman, Amazonia

Brazilian-American composer Miguel Kertsman may not be on everyone's radar at the moment, but the disk Amazonia (Gramola 98959) gives a good sampling of his early orchestral music and should increase his exposure among cognoscenti.

There are three substantial works on the disk, all performed with good presence and dash by the Bruckner Orchester Linz under Dennis Russell Davies.

I suppose you could say that, in the early period at any rate, Kertsman's music is pretty lushly neo-romantic, but in a post-Villa-Lobian way. The Chamber Symphony No 1, "Acorda!" has a vocalise for soprano that reminds one a little of the latter.

Sinfonia Concertante Brasileira for Flute and Orchestra has a longer three-movement trajectory, a pretty brilliant flute part (well played by Wolfgang Schultz), and the full breadth of orchestral drama with a definite touch of exotica and expressive writing that projects nicely. The Largo is ravishing and the final Rondo "The Dumb Donkey Called Jackass" has a humorous lumbering quality that appeals while also reminding a tad of the Villa-Lobos of Bachianas Brasileiras. It was written in 1987 to protest the wanton over-development of the Amazonian rainforest.

Amazonia is a fairly short symphonic poem with more of the evocative orchestral expressivity one experiences in the other works. One cannot hear this music without being reminded of Villa-Lobos's Forest of the Amazon, and not in some imitative, derivative way. There is a genetic relation between Maestros Villa-Lobos and Kertsman that, at least in Kertsman's early period, brings him into the picture as a successor, an extender of a Brazilian orchestral heritage.

The music will most certainly appeal. And Davies gives it his careful enthusiasm. It's very likable music and makes me want to hear Kertsman's more recent works.