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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Alfred Schnittke, Quartet & Quintet with Piano, String Trio, Quatuor Molinari

The music of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1988) is remarkably consistent. Virtually everything I have had the pleasure to hear of his output bears the stamp of originality, of a modern yet melodically thoroughgoing fineness, of a structural soundness and a human and humane expressivity.

This holds true for the works represented in the recent Musique de Chambre Vol. 2 (Atma ACD2 2669), featuring Quatuor Molinari and guests. Two late and one slightly earlier works are represented: the Piano Quartet (1988), a String Trio (1985), and the Piano Quintet (1972-76).

As is often the case with Schnittke, tradition and modernism combine in interesting ways, notably in the String Trio and Piano Quintet, where plaintive melodies, waltz figures, tender, melancholic minor largo-like themes share aural space with contemporary dissonances and abstract structures.

The performances are rather exceptional. Louise Bessette at the piano, Marcin Swoboda as the additional viola on the quintet and the Quatuor Molinari giving attention to the details and the big picture, combining tonal and extra-tonal passagework with sureness and an excellent feel for the composer's passion and structural genious.

If you only have some or all of his string quartets, this gives you a more complete picture of his chamber output. Much recommended.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

McCormick Percussion Group, Concerti for Piano with Percussion Orchestra

I've found that the moment I unwrap a CD from its mailing packet I have some expectations as to what the music might be like. That was certainly the case with the McCormick Percussion Group's Concerti for Piano with Percussion Orchestra (Ravello 7862).

The piano and the percussion orchestra are natural allies as far as a percussion family goes. You might expect that the pitched nature of the piano might result in more scoring for the pitched mallet instruments, and if you've listened to plenty of percussion group music over the years you have a mental-aural picture of what is the orthodoxy there.

With this recording you have two formal concerti, one by David Gillingham and one by David Noon; and two shorter single movement works--by Igor Santos and Mel Mobley, respectively.

So what I didn't expect was anything romantic, almost Rachmoninovian, but that's the surprise in Gillingham's work. The David Noon concerto is more rhythmic, angular, more in the percussion music zone. The piano functions as a very rhythmic component and you get something that a percussion orchestra handles well.

The same expectation applies to the Santos and Mobley shorties. They are firmly in the more orthodox modern zone.

The McCormick players under Robert McCormick acquit themselves well, as does soloist Ji Hyun Kim.

It is engaging music. Percussion ensemble aficionados will find this a good addition. And who would have expected the romantic concerto?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Richard Barrett, Dark Matter

The state-of-the-art in avant-garde high modernist classical must be searched out. It is not as readily accessible as it might have been in the halcyon heydays of the late-'60s-early-'70s, when Cage, Stockhausen and myriad local composer groups were represented by major labels and mass distribution. But then part of it involves the decentralizing centrifugal nature of the internet and how that disperses information over a vast field for the would-be cultural squirrels to traverse in search of stylistically specific nutrients.

The internet is not like a record store or the Schwann catalog of old. And the hardest part is attempting to browse.

Thankfully there are distribution channels who continue to be a centralizing constant for the music. And smaller labels abound.

All this an introduction to Richard Barrett, improvising instrumentalist and avant garde composer of genuine distinction. He's been involved in the avant jazz-oriented realms of Evan Parker, notably the latter's electro-acoustic ensemble, and has created on his own a pretty formidable set of compositions that go on into new pathways of the high modernist camp.

His compositional suite Dark Matter (NMC D183) joins soprano Deborah Kayser with a fairly large chamber ensemble composed of the melding together of two groups, Elision & Cikada, and the composer on live electronics for music that takes the musically contrapuntal, sometimes anarchic, nearly always sonically innovative sounds of late Darmstadt and Cagean compositional ways and extends them further into an electronically-acoustically complex music that is personally distinct. Richard Barrett music, in other words.

Dark Matter, conducted skilfully by Christian Eggen for the premiere recording, consists of eleven interrelated, sometimes contrasting movements. Each has a particular instrumentation and a resultant sound that relates to the whole while remaining separable from it, according to the attentive listener's point of view, anyway.

This is music that represents, for the composer, that which is "unknown and possibly unknowable." Via a sonic poetics that bounds between the improvisational and the more formally structured, Barrett's work has very successfully created a music which is neither "purely classical," whatever that might ultimately mean today, and the new avant improv camp. Then there is the post Hendrixian Star-Spangled out electric guitar work of Daryl Buckley that shines in segments where Barrett has build invigorating settings for a skronk-maelstrom that I certainly appreciate.

What matters for the listener approaching this recording is that the music is filled with avant excitement. The soprano-centered movements rub elbows elegantly yet emphatically with the instrumental episodes, electronically and acoustical-electronically generated sounds share the stage with traditional instruments in a coherent convergence that shows us the progress that live electronics has made, thanks in part to technical developments, but also thanks to the continued presence of electronics in music over the past 50 years. Just as in seemingly every period of musical history, the introduction of distinctive new instruments changes the way the music sounds and eventually the composer and the individual instrumentalists move closer to the new sounds, with ever more integration.

Richard Barrett's Dark Matter has that sort of wholeness of intent that perhaps earlier Cage or Stockhausen were precursors of but never quite fully realized (and in Cage's case, never wanted to realize). And after 200 years of the sound of industry and mechanical objects, greatly intensified in the past 75 years, both our envisioning of sound and our hearing of music has changed. Dark Matter is a work that befits this new sensibility. Barrett represents what we may never understand by incorporating and transforming what we hear daily, at least in more urban zones, that is, complex noise and complex inter-relations of sound and music.

That might not be sufficient in other hands. Dark Matter wholly satisfies the need for a new music for today because Richard Barrett is genuinely hearing a new combination of sound and music, and giving us a superlative example of the known in the unknown, the unknown in the known. It is an avant highlight of this decade so far and Barrett could well be one of the most important composers we have living and creating today.

Monday, January 28, 2013

James Whitbourn, Annelies, A Choral Work Based on Anne Frank's Diaries

Yesterday was Remembrance Day, the day we recall and honor in sorrow the victims of the Holocaust, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945. Surely there is hardly a more moving and poetic depiction of innocence in the hands of that evil than the Diaries of Anne Frank.

It is fitting then that composer James Whitbourn has used the diaries as the basis for a major choral work, Annelies (Naxos 8.573070), a recording of which is just now being issued in the States.

Before I heard it I was, to be honest, slightly wary of this kind of project. It's so easy to get it wrong, to go off-center on the impact of bravery and youthful steadfastness in the face of darkness and brutality.

James Whitbourn gets it right. There's no one way with this narrative, of course. Still nothing superficial will do. He takes a ponderously sorrowful approach here and, in the end, a bleakly comforting, musically moving transcendance. A remembrance that avows, "this will not stand!" And that seems fitting.

The performance is exceptional. James Jordan directs, Arianna Zukerman does her part justice as the soprano soloist, the Westminster Williamson Voices and the Lincoln Trio with Bharat Chandra on clarinet all come through with expressive eloquence.

The music is straightforward post/neo-romantic modern in a tonal mode. And it does not attempt to create a largeness as much as a literal intimacy in keeping with the solitary, cloaked-hidden advent of the events Anne Frank underwent. And that works very well.

It is marvelously done, a choral masterwork of our times I would suggest. The ending represents such tragedy in such a beautiful way I found the tears coming to my eyes.

We emerge from one of the darkest centuries the contemporary world has known. We face fresh darknesses. Annelies reminds us touchingly and very musically how our difficulties pale in comparison to Anne and her fellow victims. If you can get only one choral work this month or even this year, think seriously about this one.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Leevi Madetoja, Symphony No. 2, John Storgards, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

I am never one to content myself with only the composers and works I already know. If that were the case I'd still be listening to around ten works! So when a teaser in a catalog noted that Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) was known for the quality and daring of his modulations, I took the bait and requested a review copy of John Storgards conducting the Helsinki Orchestra in a program of Madetoja that includes his Symphony No. 2 (Ondine 1212-2).

I am glad that I did. Storgards gives us performances carefully hewned and majestic. Madetoja, not surprising, fits in with Sibelius as a romantic much more Scandinavian than Wagnerian or Mahlerian. There is a lyrical freshness, and yes, some very nice modulations, and a kind of sprawling thematic approach. These are very long-lined themes that take repeated hearings to digest. He does not have the sort of immediacy of a Sibelius, but that I suppose is what distinguishes him from the 20th century master.

The program includes the Second Symphony, plus his "Kullervo" and "Elegy". It all fits together as a good introduction to his music. After the usual five listens (for my reviews) I do not feel that I have fully digested the music. That either means it is not as memorable as a Sibelius, or that his music must be savored slowly and over a longer period of time.

Come to think of it, Sibelius took me a good time to get used to. Then around 30 years ago, on a flight from Chicago to New York, I listened many times to Sibelius's Fifth on the classical selection earphones (while gazing at the beautifully sunny sky outside my cabin window) and I had an epiphany.

So I await a similar epiphany. Meanwhile these are excellent performances. The repertoire adventurists out there will find something good here.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nils Anders Mortensen, Im Freien, Debussy, Grieg and Bartok for Solo Piano

Norwegian pianist Nils Anders Mortensen's Im Freien (LAW Classics 1032) is all about music "out of doors," in nature, among the people, as thematically expressed in the solo piano music of Debussy, Grieg and Bartok.

This is music in a poetic vein, filled with moonlight, stars, the village, the night. Nils plays the representational, mood-capturing works with a very good feel for the overarching arc of each. This is music that works its charm through a propulsive, all-important long form. And that comes across quite readily and expressively in Mortensen's interpretations.

The selection sets the mood with a long string of impressionistic, lyrically masterful tone poems from Grieg and Debussy, then adds a bit of modern spice in Bartok's five movement suite "Im Freien," for which of course the album is named.

This is an important pianist who shines brilliantly with this repertoire. There is sheer pleasure to be had with his out-of-door program. When spring comes, you'll be ready for it with "Im Freien"!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Richard Teitelbaum, Solo Live

The area of "new music" is a lively zone that takes on the "seriousness" of Western modern classical and some of its sounds and trajectories, but it may also incorporate elements of rock (as we saw in yesterday's post), jazz and improvisation.

On the improv-jazz side there has been especially fruitful combinations, starting principally with the influence of Cage and his works, then also Stockhausen. Groups like MEV and Il Gruppo set the stage for improvisatory avant music, and many others followed. And of course the "New Thing" in jazz saw much important, related music being made starting in the '60s with Coltrane, Coleman, Taylor, Cherry, Shepp and others.

Into all this came Richard Teitelbaum, an electronics-synthesizer improviser and composer who by the early '70s and his work with Anthony Braxton and others had established himself as an important figure in the music.

That he has not rested on his proverbial laurels can be heard on a new download-only release of his music, Solo Live (Mutable Music). For this outing Richard uses a laptop, a sampling synthesizer, piano and various other instruments to create a series of soundscapes that incorporates the natural environment with spacious electronic panoramas that invite the listener to travel fantastically-virtually to other places. He also holds forth on piano towards the end in dramatic ways.

The extent to which his music is improvised versus pre-planned isn't always clear, but the immediacy and personal quality of it certainly is.

You can find out more and download the album at (please copy this URL into your browser and hit "enter").

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Emily Grantham, Chocolate Syrup, Available as Free Download by Artist/Label

For those (like me) who don't know what they are about, meaning that they have no hard and fast rules about what they like or listen to, I offer you today a rather fascinating EP of electronic music/vocalizations by one Emily Grantham, Chocolate Syrup (Wood and Wire Records).

If Gilli Smyth rings a bell, and I suspect it might not, you are probably in luck. Gilli did some breathy, cosmic vocalizing on some records by Gong. Emily is a modern-day extension of Gilli on vocals but then she also provides/composes the electronics on the tracks here.

This is electronic music with influences in rock as well as classical, avant garde but pretty quiet and reflective. I find it a fascinating exercise in what a talented young lady from Australia can create if she has the knack and determination.

Perhaps the very best part if you are a little bit broke is that it is being offered to you free by artist and label. You can download it from WFMU's Free Music Archive by copying the following URL and pasting it in your browser:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Curt Cacioppo, Laws of the Pipe

On Martin Luther King Day, I find myself reflecting on our history and his Dream. The rights of Native Americans were of course a part of King's all-inclusive vision, and so it seems appropriate (if mostly serendipitous) to look today at a group of compositions by Curt Cacioppo, Laws of the Pipe (Navona 5889), centered around Native American topics.

His is an expressive music. To his credit he does not engage the sort of cliche sounds that used to appear often in modern musical treatments of the subject and of course in the many movie soundtracks one might hear, "Westerns" I mean.

Three works comprise the album, "Wolf" for soprano, cello, and piano; "Kinaalda" for string quartet; and "Scenes from Indian Country" for chamber orchestra.

This is mainstream modern expressionist fare, well done, filled with musical richness and thoughtful thematic material. There are moments of modern beauty, of stirring depth, another sort of Americana if you will.

I found it a very good listen. You should hear it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Nick Brooke, Border Towns

Borders have a quality that centers do not. They partake of the edge of the center, but then they partake of the edge of the surrounding zones of which they are not quite a part. This yes-no, part-not part ambiguity of borders makes them something of latent power and potentially rich meaning.

Composer/sound artist Nick Brooke started the long work Border Towns (Innova 826) as a mash-up of Americana, music of the heartlands, centers vanished or vanishing. But then he became fascinated with the border towns of America and how they work at a distance in ways that centers do not. He visited a number of such towns, collecting on-site radio station broadcast samples and other local sounds. This and the aggregated Americana collage fragments he had been thinking of became the ultimate basis for the final version of Border Towns, a montage in the most post-modern sense, of cowboy songs, Indian chants, folk songs, pop tunes of yesterday and the day before, opera, hoary Led Zeppelin, Aaron Copland, generally music of time, genres and cultures peripheral to the sometimes bluntly functional centers of today. So you wont hear the latest hip-hop hit or something equally central and temporally in the now.

From "The Times They Are A Changing" to the National Anthem (Hendrix version or otherwise) there is a vast panorama of musical snippets fitted together to become a different work, a kind of border composition that makes use of the semantic spaces between the abrupt cuts and mixes to make a musical tapestry that is both a sum of the parts and much much more than that. It's a music of shreds and patches, a bricoleur's dream, and new music that is old music in pieces. It represents border towns that mesh many overlapping cultures and historical ways so different from the center.

The final work is like a new evolvement of Cage's Variations IV, which was a more or less random accumulation of recorded sounds, environmental sounds and so on compiled live by Cage and David Tudor. The important difference between that work and Border Towns, aside from the more through composed aspect of the latter, is that in Border Towns every sound fragment is motivated by its meaning--as a part of the border, a part of Americana as we experience it today.

There is a performance group of vocalists and instrumentalists that enact the snippets, singly and collectively. Taken in junction with the radio samples, the snippets amalgamate into a work of many voices but most satisfyingly, a work that gains a wholeness that Variations IV was never meant to achieve. For it all to connect semantically with listeners the work must have some immediately identifiable fragments of songs to make its point, and it does have that. But it becomes most remarkable when the fragments blend together to create new music altogether, where you no longer hear the snippets as fragments, but as a whole, unified work that proceeds from A to B like a conventionally composed piece.

It's remarkable music. It can irritate if you are not in the mood. But put yourself in the proper frame and it provides excellent listening. This truly is "New Music," and it truly is "Old Music." Like the border towns it encapsulates, it is something much more, it points to the border status we all feel in the digital age, to the internet and its meaningless hodgepodge of random signals, of the internet's chaos of random information and its capability to decenter us all.

Listen to this one and ponder. And enjoy.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Tapestry Ensemble, New York Moments

I take no pleasure in receiving music to review that I do not like. I don't suppose that is so unusual, unless you consider Lewis G. Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter--when Walrus sheds tears of bitter sorrow after making friends with the oysters, then eating them all alive, systematically and with relish. It could be an allegory about the relationship between the critic and artists/label but not in my case. I will leave the oysters alone as best I can if I am hungry and seek prey that doesn't have something good about in any sense--like a succulent, hot and steaming bowlful of roast slugs! AKA Barry Manilow? In other words, if I don't like something, or something about that something, I won't cover it unless there is some imperious topic, something of such urgency that I simply must address it and that particular music exemplifies it especially well.

All seriousness aside, though, I was very happy, and still am, with the chamber unit The Tapestry Ensemble and their release New York Moments (Navona 5888). They have the instrumentation of oboe, clarinet, cello and piano. which has something going for it right away. To wit, that's an interesting sound no matter what is being played (except perhaps Barry Manilow!) but they do things one better and have chosen modern works for the full ensemble or most of it, depending, that are challenging enough to the performers and listeners that we all have a little work to do, yet the results are fully mellifluous and memorable.

Each of the composers has taken pains to write chamber music of intricacy and thrust, things worth our time, played with genuine panache by the ensemble. So what if you may never have heard of William Toutant, Frank Campo, Liviu Marinescu, Daniel Kessner, Dan Hosken, Gernot Wolfgang (or you may recognize some if you listen systematically to Navona releases), and the works presented here?

I know some people, good friends even, who essentially tell me "music is in bad shape these days because I've never heard of any of the composers on the new releases of modern music." Every stage of life is a discovery, though. Where would you be if you never listened to Varese, Berio, Berlioz and Fux because you didn't know the names? Ah, but I am not here to chastise folks. After all, how many hours in the day are there?

But I am very glad to have the chance to investigate composers and musicians I may not know at first. Everyone starts out as an unknown, the new baby to be named something or other, and it's up to that baby, eventually, to do something noteworthy. Beet-WHO-ven?

Well the mothers of these composers and of the ensemble itself should be proud. The music is noteworthy. Recommended, too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Silke Avenhaus, Salon harmonique et chromatique: Piano Music of Wagner, Liszt, Rossini

Here it is a few months before what would have been Richard Wagner's 200th birthday. Last night I happened to watch When Harry Met Sally on TV. And I sit here listening to some notable renditions of solo piano music by Romantics Wagner, Liszt, Rossini, more specifically pianist Silke Avenhaus's Salon chromatique et harmonique (Avi-music 8553262). And as I write these lines, I wonder about this after-modern world we live in and human feelings.

The Romantics had a musical concept of romantic love, perhaps especially Wagner, that seems a kind of museum piece today. Perhaps we have lost all innocence, after the horrors of 9-11, the depraved insanity of what happened in Connecticut, the mass shootings, the video games of violence. Our era is hardly conducive to an unchecked romanticism in either the artistic-aesthetic or the human-engagement sense. And yet perhaps paradoxically, the Romantics in their chromatique aspect opened up music in ways that modern/postmodern composers have expanded and developed. So nothing is so simple.

Still, in the future will there be a place for romantic love in the mating rituals of our species? Will "When Harry Met Sally" be a curiosity little understood, or only by specialists of the period? Will we still listen to Tristan and gush along? I have no idea. All I do know is that music will stay with us and somebody will still listen to Wagner, even if they may wonder at certain heightened feelings in the music that may have become foreign to them.

And the way that the Romantic repertoire is performed may change. Surely the faux Schlockmaninov of a Liberace will not attract mass listeners. But perhaps the artistic integrity and emotional honesty of a Silke Avenhaus will continue to prevail.

All this a prelude to the music I am hearing. It's a disk of Wagner's "Piano Sonata" along with some gems by Liszt and Rossini. Ms. Avenhaus plays them all with a great poetic sensitivity. She does not overplay them. They do not sound like 19th-century throwbacks. They do sound quite appealing.

Exceptional artistry, it seems to me, is all-the-more necessary these days for this period's piano style to come through to us, to speak musical truth to our ears and hearts. Silke Avenhaus has that artistry in abundance.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Kristian Bezuidenhout, Mozart, Keyboard Music Vol. 4

Combine a period piano, a pianist with technical and imaginative skills at the highest levels, and a love and understanding of Mozart's music that is nearly unparalleled among pianists. What you get is Kristian Bezuidenhout's impressive and delightful multi-volume collection of Mozart's Keyboard Music (Harmonia Mundi), of which Volume Four has just been released here in the States.

This volume has plenty of music to love. The Piano Sonata in G Major K. 283, the 12 Variations on "Je suis Lindor" in E-flat, the Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 311, among others.

The music is given its full due. Kristian plays the works with great enthusiasm and brio. Volume Four will satisfy the Mozart lover lurking within most of us. The performances are impeccable.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Philip Glass, Lavinia Meijer, Harp

I'll be frank. There are times when the music of minimalist titan Philip Glass hasn't done much for me. Some time after "Einstein on the Beach" he simplified his style in many cases. There could be a rhythmic devolvement, a melodic-harmonic banality to some of his work.

To my surprise and delight, harpist Lavinia Meijer has taken some of that very music, arranged it for harp from the piano solo originals, then played the works enchantingly, convincingly. Her recording of Metamorphosis and The Hours (Channel Classics CCS SA 33912) brings out the ever present motility and archaic qualities of Glass's later music in ways that sound beautiful on solo harp, at least as played by Lavinia.

It's an hour of Philip Glass the way he might have sounded in Ancient Greece, say, which really does do justice to the straightforward music by adding the resonance of the harp, recorded beautifully, played with conviction and sensitivity.

Much recommended. Now I want to hear more from Lavinia Meijer. As with some of Glass's music, patience and being in the right situation are necessary. I'll have to wait for the new one!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Patricia Van Ness, Coro Allegro, In Paradisum

What is contemporary in classical music today, as I've remarked before, has a huge breadth of possibilities. Today's recording fits right into that ever plastic set of what is allowed and welcomed. It is the choral music of Patricia Van Ness (b 1951) as performed by the acclaimed choral group Coro Allegro, which is a Boston organization comprised of, and sympathetic to the gay and lesbian community. In Paradisum (Navona NV5890) presents two major choral works of Van Ness, her "Requiem" and "The Voice of the Tenth Muse," the latter based on the writings of Sappho.

These are works that have great accessibility and fall somewhere between the postmodernism/neo-old timelessness of Arvo Part and a bit of neo-romanticism, shorn of the cliches one can hear from those more imitative than original in this realm.

David Hodgkins conducts with a fine attention to detail. Coro Allegro and instrumentalists (the latter for the Requiem) respond with verve in these performances. And the works have much to recommend them. Van Ness creates beautiful worlds of choral sound. She seems a natural to writing for voice and the music has much appeal. Choral aficionados looking for music new and good will find this disk quite enchanting.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Kurt Rohde, One: Chamber Music of Kurt Rohde

Kurt Rohde is that most precious of commodities, the self-taught composer. I say precious because to develop as a productive practitioner of the compositional arts, it becomes increasingly rare that one does not go through the conservatory/university system, at least in the areas of chamber and orchestral music.

Kurt Rohde has done just that. It goes some distance in explaining his originality. One (Innova 839) is a recent volume devoted to his chamber music. The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, the Empyrean Ensemble, and soloists (including Kurt on viola) do a fine job teasing out the intricacies of Rohde's style, which is neither strictly modernist nor post-modernist in the usual senses.

Four works are presented, together giving a good aural picture of the spectrum of musical sounds that comprise the Kurt Rohde universe.

The title work "One: For Speaking Pianist on Texts of Jacob Stein" combines nicely a complex kinetically-charged piano part and a rhythmically parallel chant-recitation of the poetic text. Genevieve Feiwen Lee performs her role convincingly.

There are two chamber concerto works, "Concertino for Violin and Small Ensemble" and "Double Trouble for Two Violas and Small Ensemble." The former manages to be lyric, complexly modern and filled at times with a dramatically charged rhythmic energy. "Double Trouble" further accentuates the rhythmical contrapuntal element in masterful ways.

"Four Remixes for Piano Trio" is a rather zany yet quite formidable work. There is lyricism, rock-pulsating insistence for one movement, and a quote from the Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" all convincingly woven together into a four-movement tapestry.

Thank you to Innova for making this vibrant music possible for us to enjoy. The San Francisco concert scene is lucky to have Kurt Rohde as a resident. He has much talent. I hope we can hear more of his work. For now this volume is a keeper.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dvorak, Suk, Serenades Tcheques, Appassionata Orchestre de Chambre, Daniel Myssyk

Montreal's Appassionata Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Myssyk certainly chose material right in the center of their wheelhouse when they opted to perform the three works comprising Serenades tcheques (Czech Serenades) (Fidelio 036). Namely, there is Dvorak's "Serenade for String Orchestra op 22," his "Nocturne for String Orchestra op 40" and Josef Suk's "Serenade for String Orchestra op 6."

All three works go together especially well, the lesser-known Suk work sounding grand yet intimate in its surroundings as the leading piece, the glorious Dvorak "Serenade" confirming and expanding the mood, and the Dvorak "Nocturne" acting as a rather lovely coda to it all.

This is music of an impassioned romanticism that flows without undue sentiment and has a Eastern European resonance that gives it a slight twist. The works are played with great projection and warmth on a somewhat capacious sound stage that has a not unpleasant, slightly wet echo-sound to it.

The Dvorak "Serenade" soars in Maestro Myssyk's hands. It is to me very nearly the equal of Dvorak's "From the New World" in melodic singularity and you hear it as it should be played on this program. The Suk is rather wonderful music as well, reminding us that he deserves increased attention.

I am quite impressed with this disk. It has all the live vibrancy of a very good recording of today and the performances live up to the sound quality in every sense.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Pieter Wispelwey, Bach 6 Suites for Cello Solo

Those who love the cello and those who love Bach (sometimes, even often, that may be the same person) will find themselves in a very good place with Pieter Wispelwey's new re-recording of JS Bach's Six Suites for Cello Solo (EPR Classic, 2-CDs plus bonus DVD). He covered them in the past when he was younger. But clearly he has pondered the music and his involvement with it since then and as he has grown into the music, his performances have taken on some of the profound wisdom one can glean with the years passing.

As the DVD documentary 392 (that comes with the set) makes clear, he has thought much about Bach's suites, their place and reception in the time in which they were written, the relation between "authenticity" and "expression", and other things as well--which the documentary covers quite interestingly.

For the recording he has tuned his cellos down to A=392, which when combined with gut strings and a baroque-style bow, give the cello and piccolo cello (the latter for Suite 5) wonderful resonance and a sound a little more like the gamba, all of which he exploits to the maximum poetically.

He approaches each movement with a great deal of care and passion. Some have an exciting rapidity that puts them nearly into cadenza territory, others are played with a ruminance and depth that bring out nicely the inner Bach.

In all cases Maestro Wispelwey gives us a marvelously characteristic performance: sometimes very beautiful, sometimes very jaunty, sometimes acerbic and with great expression. Each movement sings with a vivid presence, instantly recognizable after a few auditions.

The very insightful 52 minute documentary DVD shows nice footage highlights of his concert rendition of the suites at Oxford University. There are also fascinating demonstration-discussions of the cellist with Bach scholars Laurance Dreyfus and John Butt on the performance choices Wispelwey has made and the historical position of Bach and his suites in the baroque/after-baroque world.

This is Bach from the inside out. It's a marvelous performance. Get this one and you will be changed, enthralled, transfixed, enlightened and enraptured, I think. Bravo! Brilliant!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Samuel Adler, Works for String Quartet and Other Small Ensembles

If you admire present-day chamber music, Navona has something you might think seriously of getting. American composer Samuel Adler (b 1928) has been prolific in this vein. A nearly three-and-a-half-hour set Works for String Quartet and Other Small Ensembles has recently come out on the label and it goes for $9.99 as a decent MP3 download at iTunes.

Of course it's not because it is inexpensive that I mention it. Samuel Adler's chamber music is quite well crafted and inspired. Fourteen works are represented on this retrospective set: string quartets, violin sonatas, piano trios, all very decently played by various artists in decent sound.

Adler's chamber output varies in style between neo-classicism and mainstream modern. In all cases it shows a lively and fertile, inventive musical mind at work. There's a booklet that comes with the download.

How can you lose? Good music, good performances, great bargain to boot. To find out more, go to click on "Adler, Samuel" and you'll see the album at the bottom to click on.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Giovanni Sgambati, Symphony No. 1, Cola di Rienzo

Some music lovers, myself included, get pleasure making new discoveries--in the case of classical music, finding composers and works off the beaten track, music that adds to the understanding of a period and gives you something new and worthwhile to hear.

For those with that tendency I present Giovanni Scambati (1841-1914), and the new Naxos disk devoted to his orchestral music (Naxos 8.573007). Here's a romantic/late romantic who was admired by Grieg, Wagner and Saint-Saens. Toscanini conducted his first symphony often, so the CD back cover informs me.

The disk pairs the Symphony No. 1 with the overture "Cola di Rienzo." The latter is a 20-minute piece of great color and grandeur, beautifully orchestrated, showing some Wagnerian influences in the overall sound but thematic originality and a sure hand.

The Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 16, follows. Five movements of contrast and epic splendor, I suppose you could say, fill out the disk. It's a work with all the depth of a well-conceived symphony of the era, played with enthusiasm and elan by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia.

This music is a definite find. On the basis of the recording Sgambati compares very well with others, Italian or otherwise, working at the turn of the century. His music shows the hand and ears of an original of his era. This disk belongs in your collection if you champion forgotten gems, and for the serious student of late romantic symphonic works. Aside from that it is very enjoyable to hear.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Bohuslav Martinu, Piano Trios (Complete), Arbor Piano Trio

I once was confident that I knew Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) and his music, that I had his style down cold. It turns out that things were rather more complex than I thought. I was being exposed to his mid-to-late orchestral/choral works, because that was very much around on LP at the time, and the trademark style of those works were readily recognizable and characteristically original.

Now that I am a bit older I am being exposed to his chamber music. I have found there is much more to know. From what I am hearing, he allowed himself greater leeway on the chamber side.

This is certainly the case on his Piano Trios. A fine version of the complete opus by the Arbor Piano Trio is just out on Naxos (8.572251), and I've been listening with interest. His No. 1 (1930) has a modern scherzo playfulness quite charming. No. 2 (1951) is heavier in texture, Eastern block modern neo-romantic in dramatic terms. The final movement has an appealing motility and deft thematic development.

"Bergerettes" (1939) has some wonderful tonal intricacies, with some five movements of (mostly) joyous abandon. The No. 3 (1951), dubbed "The Great", has much passion, a stern sort of Slavic-lyric effusiveness, and plenty to occupy the ear.

The Arbor Piano Trio have given us a reading of these trios that has rhythmic drive--and emotive swelling (when called for) that remains coherently linear and does not obscure the significant form these works have in good abundance.

It's music of depth, well-played. You'll hear a side of Martinu less present in the larger-scale works, very intimate and direct. With all of the trios here on one disk it's a good bet.