Search This Blog

Friday, November 29, 2013

Dargomyzhsky, Rusalka, Vladimir Fedoseyev

None but the most pronounced of Russophiles here in the States are likely to know composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869) and his opera Rusalka (Brilliant Classics 2CD 94718). That is now easily remedied with the release of a budget-priced 2-CD of the opera with Vladimir Fedoseyev conducting the Grand Choir of the USSR Radio and TV and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio. Judging from its provence this must have been a Melodiya boxed set at one point. The soloists are Alexander Vedernikov, Natalia Mikhailova, Konstantin Pluzhnikov and Galina Pisarenko. The bass of Vedernikov as the Miller is especially good. Chaliapin he is not quite but he is nonetheless wonderful in his dramatically expressive portrayal.

The libretto is based on a poem by Pushkin. It's all about the love between a Prince and a Miller's daughter, which in the class system of the time could not be. The Prince marries another more suited to his station, regrets it and in the end drowns in his attempt to find his beloved who has turned to a mermaid.

The Brilliant set does not include a full libretto, which is a shame, but the music is so good that one overlooks it after a spin or two. Dargomyzhsky is a cross between a kind of Russian Rossini and a precursor to Mussorgsky in the lyrical and melodic memorability of the music and its sometimes folksy quality.

The performances excellent, the sound very good and the music a real find for those like me who had not heard the opera previously. If you follow the history of the Russian classical style this one is hands-down a must.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Perceptions: Points of View for Small Ensemble

Modern chamber music is something that tends to please by most being itself. Partially because of the way larger ensemble concert situations favor the peppering of modern works throughout the course of a subscription season, whereas chamber ensembles can assume a more discerning audience and may offer the modern in more concentrated form, modern chamber music works can tend to cluster together in larger blocks in the concert situation. That is just an impression, but I do believe the chamber music audience has more committed listeners as their average gathering, so programmers-ensembles can assume they will be more exploratory by nature, more open to the new.

And with that in mind the modern chamber anthology Perceptions: Points of View for Small Ensemble (Navona 5909) can be understood as appealing to such an audience by giving them a goodly portion of the new. In it we hear six works by six less-known but none-the-less competent composers. Each has a modern or a post-modern point of view of their own and brings it out in creative ways.

Kevin McCarter's work, "Above the Clouds" for violin and piano, has a rhapsodic tonal quality that is enchanting. The other composers either stay in an expanded tonality/ modern zone or flirt with post-modern tonality and engage it as a contrast to the more expanded style. Understandably the shadings of sound color tend to be more pastel and brilliant than charcoal grey, fitting the style.

The others represented and their works are: Kyle Peter Rotolo and his String Quartet No. 1 "Macchiato", Quinn Dizon's "Awakening" for violin, viola, cello and piano, Amelia S. Kaplan's "Insolence" for violin and piano, Jason Barabba's "Rhetorical Devices" for violin and piano, and Thomas L. Read's "Capricci" for classical guitar and string quartet.

The totality of the anthology and the diverse group of composers go together certainly in their well-crafted, adventuresome approaches. None of the works are quite avant garde so much as they build inside a tradition of modern 20th century American music, never overtly conservative nor overtly groundbreaking so much as concerned with expression, dynamics, and a lingering lyrical quality at times.

In the end we get a very engaging program of music that does not condescend and reveals itself with a proper number of listens. It's all quite good and the performances live up to the promise of the compositions. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tchaikovsky, Ellington/Strayhorn, Nutcracker Suites, Harmonie Ensemble, New York, Steven Richman

When I was but a lad, with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head (well actually, no, even in my halcyon days sugar plums were not in the picture. I've never seen one, then or now. . .) my dad had an LP of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, a budget version with a less-than-stellar performance, but good enough to get the music across. It was at that point the only classical record my parents both liked and it found its way onto the hi-fi that was my dad's delight, and mine, too.

It was a part of the holiday record rotation around the house, and I sure fell under its spell. By the time I was somewhere in mid-adolescence my friend brought over a copy of the Duke Ellington organization doing the Ellington/Strayhorn version of the Suite. That sure sounded good to me, too.

Steven Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble/New York had a great idea to do both versions and put in onto one CD (Harmonia Mundi 907493). And so there's the release out there this season for the first time and I've been listening.

It's very good on both counts. The classical, original orchestral version is performed with plenty of spirit and pep, as good a version as you'd ask for. And the Ellington/Strayhorn version has an authentic ring to it. The band and soloists are totally into the late '50s Duke style and give it all they've got.

Now of course the original Duke version has the edge over this performance. Surprisingly though Richman comes very close.

Of course the advantage with this release is that you get both versions in totally idiomatic renditions. So I don't think you need hesitate if this combination sounds good to you. I will certainly be playing it over the holidays and, if the fates are kind, in holiday seasons to come. So Season's Greetings to you all!!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Joy to the World, An American Christmas, Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society

Those who came across from Europe to America brought their Christmas carols with them. In the years that followed composers and hymnists created others. It is to this body of tradition that Harry Christophers and the choir of the Handel and Haydn Society turn on Joy to the World, An American Christmas (Coro 16117). It is quite fitting given that the Society celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.

The s-a-t-b choir has been a part of American celebrations as far back as you care to go. The US doesn't have boy choirs much, like England and Vienna. But the acapella mixed choir is a staple of Christmas carols here. When I was a kid the Robert Shaw Chorale had a best-selling album that mixed the more obscure older songs with the standard fare.

Christophers and the Society certainly come through with beautiful sonics that remind me of the Shaw disk, actually surpass it since the technology is more up to the task today and the choir is an excellent one. Christophers savors each with often leisurely tempos that invite reflection. The choice of carols is especially fine, giving us the all-familiar in the title song and "Carol of the Bells". But then the very venerable and/or sometimes lesser-known carols get plenty of attention. There's one by Charles Ives, Holst's "In the bleak midwinter", two versions of "In dulci jubilo", the alternate Protestant American melody to "O little Town of Bethlehem" as well as the traditional one, the old folk song "I Wonder as I Wander", and so forth.

There is enough of the more obscure with the familiar that it gives you the full tradition without stinting, something your ears can grow into over time. The choir sounds ravishing.

It can be a fulcrum point for holiday reveries, to give you a feeling of time both passing and never passing. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Niels W. Gade, Piano Works, Christina Bjorkoe

There are composers that at least Stateside many have heard little of. We don't always have the chance to hear them. They are names whose music remains hidden to us unless we take the trouble to search out the releases. Niels W. Gade (1817-1890), Danish romantic, would qualify as one of them. In his lifetime he was well admired by the likes of such luminaries as Mendelssohn and the Schumanns. He is a musical voice that's surely worth our scrutiny. But not often heard here these days.

Christina Bjorkoe has recently released a disk of his solo Piano Works (CPO 777 628-2) that helps us flesh out the composer's more intimate side. (There are also symphonies, concertos and etc., but another time for that.) The disk contains beautifully sympathetic performances of two major Gade works, his "Piano Sonata" op. 28 and the "Aquarellen" opp. 19 & 57. The latter come to us in the form of 15 short movements written over a number of years.

Both works have a singingly inventive quality that sparkles with originality and warmth. Ms. Bjorkoe brings to the music a pristine touch, excellent technique and a sense of phrasing that teases out the lyrical clarity in all its complexity.

These are piano works as fine as virtually anything written in the era. And we have a chance to hear them now with performances that shine with the sunlight they contain in abundance. Listen to this one by all means!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

George Enescu, Ouverture de Concert, Op. 32, Symphony No. 3, Op. 21, Hannu Lintu, Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra

Like many of my generation I first encountered the music of George Enescu (1881-1955) on Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin's ground-breaking original East Meets West in 1966. One side had Shankar compositions, the other a sonata for violin and piano by Enescu. From then on I was interested in whatever Enescu had done. I've picked some nice things up on my way through life but never the program just made available as performed by conductor Hannu Lintu and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, namely Enescu's Ouverture de Concert and his Symphony No. 3 (Ondine 1197-2).

This one brings us to an Enescu we (or rather I) knew little about--the later, evolved composer for orchestra. Both works have much to offer the attentive listener. The "Ouverture de concert sur des themes dans le caractere populaire roumain," op. 32, as the title makes clear, brings us to Romanian folk territory, but of course not in some unmediated way, but rather with all the compositional syntheses and developments one might expect from the composer. It is short, over all-too-soon within ten minutes.

We are compensated by the lengthy and accomplished "Symphony No. 3," op. 21. As the liner notes suggest clearly, Enescu experiments with musical structure by combining sonata form with endless transformations-variations on specific thematic elements. I don't suspect the ordinary listening ear picks up on this technique while experiencing the symphony as it unravels, unless one knows to watch for the developments, score-in-hand. But it is as a building that contains supports. You don't have to know where the supports are to appreciate the building's beauty. I didn't experience it in my listening anyway, except to feel like the music was springing from an endless font of invention. This I am sure was as the composer wished.

It is a work of a ravishing sort, not especially Romanian sounding as much as universally expressive, a heightened, well-woven, late romantic work of great character.

Hannu Lintu (who we encountered yesterday on his Ligeti disk) conducts the Tampere Philharmonic with excellent results for both works. Anyone with an interest in Romanian/Eastern European symphonists should not miss it. But it will sound well no matter what your background, I should think. This is a side of Enescu that should not be missed.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ligeti, Violin Concerto, Lontano, Atmospheres, etc., Benjamin Schmid, Finnish Radio Symphony, Hannu Lintu

There are times when I realize that I have not paid enough attention to a particular composer. This is one of those times. Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006) was a significant voice in modern music. In part because for a while I listened to the principal Darmstadt School of composers of his era more than others, I unthinkingly passed him by for the most part.

Now listening to the four works in a new anthology by Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Benjamin Schmid as violin soloist as called for (Ondine 1213-2), I am pleased yet startled. Startled because the music is so excellent and the performances riveting. And pleased for the same reason.

There are four symphonic works represented here, covering a long time span between 1961 and 1993. The Violin Concerto (1989-1993) is in many ways the centerpiece, a masterwork of sound color played with energy and grace by Schmid and the Danish congregation. Ligeti shows as elsewhere a thoroughgoing mastery of the forces available to him, creating a sustained landscape of sound color with an excellent sense of drama and impact. Ligeti makes the orchestra anew with a brilliant sense of how to create a sound-with-sound dialog between violin and large group. Schmid sounds perfect in the part.

And that's only the start, because equally enthralling and innovative are the other three works, "Lontano" (1967), "Atmospheres" (1961) and "San Francisco Polyphony" (1974). Like Xenakis and early Penderecki he seeks to create a music outside the tonal framework but also often outside the traditional line-building, note-specific ways we are taught to listen to orchestral or other classical music. This is about sound masses, soundscapes of contrasting colors and clusters, the effect of the whole as much as the impact of the parts. He was, now that we look back, one of the first soundscape artists and certainly one of the great ones.

This has the timbral contrasts of the electronic music of the era, yet it is all accomplished via acoustic real-time performance. The final effect contrasts with the electronic music of the times because these are acoustic instruments and so give out a different wave energy as Ligeti conceives it all. The flow from sound-station to sound-station is virtually breathtaking. It's not music that sounds (to me) jarring as much as it sounds otherworldly.

Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with or without violinist Schmid, bring this music to life in the most sympathetic ways. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

John Corigliano, Conjurer, Vocalise

It may be that because composer John Corigliano has created his impressive body of works while I have been in the course of my everyday life, for that reason I have not yet had a chance to follow the flow of musical ideas in a chronological sense, and to come up in my head with a synthesis of what he is about. But in any event he strikes me as a composer of multi-stylistic tendencies. The music always has a modern slant in one way or another, but the spectrum of stylistic avenues his music can travel is wide, and the music always seems to me brilliantly crafted.

The new disk devoted to two of his works, in world premiere recordings, are fine examples of the unfolding adventure that is Corigliano. It gives us definitive first looks at Conjurer and Vocalise (Naxos 8.559757).

Conjurer, subtitled Concerto for Percussionist and String Orchestra with Optional Brass (2007), is performed by the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller, with Dame Evelyn Glennie as percussion soloist. It is a rather captivating work that takes advantage of Glennie's subtle, nuanced manner with the many instruments she is called upon to play. It is a work of space and sound color, with judicious use of the orchestra to expand the impact of the percussion part and comment on it in a classic give-and-take dialog. These moments are offset often enough by quietude surrounding the percussion cadenzas. There are dramatic climaxes that punctuate the entire work, give structure through periodic envelopes that end in sound cadences involving color intensities rather than harmonic resolve. It's a highly charged, highly effective work. Glennie and the orchestra do it the justice it deserves.

Vocalise (1999) shifts gears to feature soprano Hila Plitmann and an electronic, audio engineering sort of part produced by Mark Baechle. This was a piece commissioned by then New York Philharmonic director Kurt Masur. Corigliano was instructed to write a work that would give the audience a specific message to contemplate on the eve of the Millenium. Corigliano conceived of a work for soprano, orchestra and electronic manipulation/amplification of the vocal part by an electronics "operator", as it were, following directions in the score.

It starts with a mysterioso sort of quiet in the orchestra and a vocalise line for soprano that evokes and heightens a feeling of a new world opening up into the future. A sometimes cacophonous, affectively sustained series of climaxes occur somewhere after the midpoint of the work, breaking the initial mood and bringing on the electronic manipulation. It is a series of purposive interruptions of the mysterioso feeling. It is as if Corigliano is telling us that the new Millenium will not all be smooth sailing. (And we now can reflect back and see how right he was, of course.)

It all works together to create yet another high-drama sound color essay in a more highly charged, less Zen-like atmosphere than we hear in Conjurer. So the contrast is a lively one.

The two works complement and give us two excellent examples of later Corigliano. He is surely one of the major lights in the contemporary musical firmament and the Naxos disk gives us two major reasons why that is so. The performances are beautiful, the soloists wonderful, and all makes for an exemplary experience of what's modern about today's modern music. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Hindemith, The Complete Piano Concertos, Idil Biret, Yale Symphony Orchestra, Toshiyuki Shimada

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) occupied an important middle-ground among composers of the modern stamp. He early on shed romantic excess for his own brand of neo-classicism, writing spirited works with a logical unfolding and a totally personal harmonic-melodic approach that extended tonality to suit his own expressivity and pushed it at times to its very limits. A contrapuntal weave of voices and forward momentum rhythmically were very much a part of his style.

Pianist Idil Biret and the Yale Symphony Orchestra under Toshiyuki Shimada give us (in two CDs) The Compete Piano Concertos (Naxos 8.573201-02) of Hindemith. Five complete works in all are involved, ranging from the 1923 Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), op 29, the 1924 Chamber Music No. 2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass, op. 36, No. 1, the 1930 Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps, op 49, Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings (1940), and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945).

All of these works are first-rate Hindemith, though they do not always have a super-virtuoso piano part. The writing for the piano is intricate and totally idiomatic throughout, however, and Idil Biret is an ideal exponent. A big surprise is the undergraduate Yale Symphony Orchestra under Shimada. They play their parts as if they were born to them, with the needed elan that a Hindemith performance stands or falls upon. Their youthful zeal comes through wonderfully. Clearly they are confirmed Hindemithians! Of course Hindemith taught at Yale when he managed to escape from the Nazi regime and became an important figure in the American musico-cultural life. So the orchestra plays the music rightfully as something that forms a part of their heritage.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand) which was commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, a virtuoso of note who had lost his right arm in WWI. The Hindemith piece was a part of his attempt to resume his career, then as a left-handed only pianist. He also commissioned Ravel to write a concerto, which has been well-established in the repertory for many years. The Prokofiev and Hindemith works Wittgenstein ordered were not to his liking, so they essentially sat in limbo, unperformed. The Hindemith work was only discovered in 2001 on the death of Wittgenstein's widow, so it is something new to me (and no doubt many others), a beautiful work.

Then too all of this is excellent, a righteous melding of the right scores with the right performers. It is a treasure-trove of Hindemith at his best, something someone new to the composer will find an excellent introduction, and the confirmed Hindemithian will greet with no small amount of joy. That's how I feel.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Daniel Lentz, On the Leopard Altar

Minimalism proper, that form which creates regular patterns to repeat with overlays of changing music and/or shifts in the pattern itself, is still very much with us. Daniel Lentz, one of the better known of the lesser known composers, gives us a good, varied look at his music in On the Leopard Altar (Cold Blue 0022).

To be hair splitting, only the first and fourth piece of the five have overt minimalist qualities. "Is it Love" creates out of keys and a small vocal ensemble a fascinating mix. The keys play a series of patterns in a constant interplay of continuously sounded staccato eighth notes. The vocalists form a choir of ever differing staccato patterns through a process of subtraction (according to the liners) produced in hocket style. "Wolf is Dead" has a similar trajectory, but the vocal parts are less dense and hocket less used in favor of at times a contrapuntal approach. It may not perhaps be as striking as the first piece, but has much about it that keeps the attention focused.

"Lascaux" is to me the most interesting of the more soundscaped works included here. It uses wineglasses and keyboards to create a very beautiful panorama that shimmers with overtones like ever reverberating bells in a dream. "On the Leopard Altar" has a singular vocal line sung by first one soprano, then several to the accompaniment of keys. This one too has a dreamy sound but with more of a leider quality to it. There is a very lyrical side to Lentz when he wants to go that way and this is a great example.

The final, short "Requiem" work combines bell-like sounds with a vocal part that sounds as if a single voice is singing in the middle of a great cathedral and you the listener are experiencing the sound of the voice and the resonance of the cathedral in equal proportions.

So Daniel Lentz gives us two pattern pieces and three pieces more in the through composed, soundscaped, radical tonality vein. Those latter three have great lyrical beauty. The pattern pieces remind us that Lentz makes his own way through the Reich-Glass influence so prevalent in the minimalist genre and sounds out a personal path with its own route through the thickets.

It's a captivating set of pieces that I certainly find of real interest. You may gravitate to them as well. You get a series of spaces to dwell in for a time, relaxing and giving lyrical pleasure. Recommended.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gian Francesco Malipiero, Piano Works, Gino Gorini

I am glad to discover music otherwise unknown to me if it is worth the listen. The composer Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973) definitely qualifies in that regard, specifically in his Piano Works (Newton Classics 880 2199) as recorded by pianist Gino Gorini. The composer was born in Venice and lived most of his life in Italy.

That he had a long and productive composing career is attested to in this collection of works spanning the period from 1916 to 1959. The works represented give you a very good idea of his stylistic range. He is harmonically modern in an expanded tonal vein. There are impressionistic touches along with late-romantic expressiveness and sometimes neo-classical structural aspects, but his inventiveness shows an original musical mind at work and a thoroughly contemporary sense. Ravel, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Scriabin come to mind as composers he shares something with, but always in his own terms and not in any imitative sense.

Gino Gorini gives us wonderfully poetic readings of the works and an excellent sense of logic and form in his emphases of phrasings in any given piece.

In short Malipiero as composer for the piano is a real discovery (at least for me). He has brilliance and Gino Gorini brings it all to us in fine form. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Romantic Harp Concertos, Boieldieu, Parish Alvars, Viotti; Marielle Nordmann, Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, Jean-Pierre Rampal

I love a harp well-played. In fact, to adopt an old Coca-Cola slogan from my youth, to me things go better with harp. I could probably listen to the "Howdy Doody" Theme Song and like it if it were played properly on the instrument.

So the new release Romantic Harp Concertos (Newton Classics 8802205) is right up my alley. Marielle Nordmann is the harp soloist and she is very good. Jean-Pierre Rampal conducts the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra in a nicely wrought way for the orchestral accompaniment.

Needless to say, this music is many leagues above the "Howdy Doodie" Theme Song. We get two major concertos, one each by Boieldieu (1775-1834) and Parish Alvars (1808-1849), and and a single movement from Viotti's (1755-1824) "Violin Concerto No. 19," as arranged for harp and orchestra by Nordmann.

I've had a rendition of the Boieldieu for many years as released on LP in the early '60s. It was quite serviceable but the version here is sonically and musically superior. The work has a particularly fine final movement in minor that has a very attractive theme for harp.

The Parish Alvars and the Viotti works are new to me. They do not seem quite as vital as the Boieldieu but they are wonderful to listen to for the engaging harp parts and Nordmann's talented way with them.

The music has a compactness typical of the late-classical, early-romantic period. Each movement has an autonomy that nevertheless works together with the others in all the ways you would expect. And there are some remarkable solo passages for the harp throughout. Maestro Rampal does it all justice.

In short this is a highly engaging set, very nice to hear. If you love the harp it will give you what you want. Even if you don't these are works that deserve the light of day and our listening time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 4, The Prodigal Son, Marin Alsop, Sao Paulo

Prokofiev has long been a favorite of mine. No other composer of his century quite managed, at least in his early-to-mid-period, to have such supreme melodic gifts yet also be imbued thoroughly with the spirit of modernism...and create such a tempestuous energy level in his best works at the same time. My principal composition teacher was of the opinion that Prokofiev was a mere distillation of Stravinsky, but I don't think he listed closely enough. Sure, they are related in their Russian qualities and modern outlook, but not at all clones. Like Beethoven and Schubert, they belong together in an overall ethos sense, but one who knows wouldn't confuse the two. There is brilliance in both far above their similarities. The same could be said for Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

The Prokofievian singularity can be heard to great advantage in his Symphony No. 4 and his ballet The Prodigal Son (Naxos 8.573186), which belong together as thematically-stylistically related. Marin Alsop conducts the Sao Paulo Symphony in this well conceived disk. Following their earlier, excellent performance of Symphony No. 5 (type it in the search box for my review), Alsop and the Sao Paulo organization come up with a beautiful, thoroughly idiomatic reading of the two works represented here.

Prokofiev's Fourth has often been overshadowed by his Fifth, with its WWII angst and agitation, yet the Fourth is a beautiful work in every way, fully worthy of attention for its Prokofievian charms, its nearly heartbreaking bitter-sweet melodies, its dance-like rhythmic insistence, its ravishing orchestration. The Prodigal Son is a full ballet that the symphony is based upon, so what is true of one is perforce true of the other in slightly different ways.

Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony give performances very faithful to Prokofiev's vision. Detailed, both lyrical and hard-edged when needed, playful in an ambiguously sarcastic sort of way, as good as any performance I have heard. This is the revised version of the symphony, which Prokofiev came back to and reworked slightly later on. I believe that is the version most often played historically, since it seems eminently familiar to me from the vinyl versions I have listened to over the years.

You can do no better than these readings. Alsop knows her Prokofiev and the Sao Paulo outfit comes through with a beautiful and energetic performance that leaves little to be desired. Considering also the Naxos price, you can not do wrong with this one! Seminal Prokofiev, played with all the attention to detail, passion and fire you could want!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Alexander Quartet, Bartok & Kodaly, Complete String Quartets

There is no doubt in my mind; the Alexander String Quartet is a crack outfit. Their Bartok & Kodaly, The Complete String Quartets, a 3-CD set (Foghorn Classics 2009), makes that clear.

Now of course Bartok's quartets are just about universally considered among the very best, the most involved string quartets in the literature. Along with Beethoven's late quartets and the quartets of Elliot Carter they give us a rare realm of pure music at a level that is rarely reached by anybody. Yet when Bartok first came to America his music wasn't all that well-known. Zoltan Kodaly, fellow Hungarian and associate, was perhaps even lesser known here. All that has changed of course. Kodaly's two quartets may not quite have the sublimity of Bartok's, but they are by no means out of place alongside Bela's masterpieces.

So it is nice to have them all on one three-disk set. More than nice, though, because they are excellent performances. I must say I am not very familiar with the Kodaly works (until now) but the Bartok quartets I have listened to all my adult life. I had various versions beginning in music school, but I ended up with the complete opus on LP as played by the Julliard Quartet. The works are complicated enough that it takes many listens to fully absorb the intricacies. The Julliard group did a fine job with them, but sometimes they seemed almost too brio, possessed.

The Alexander Quartet sustains a fine balance between brio and intelligibility, and perhaps also in part because I listened intently again after a few years in between, but after hearing the Alexander versions a number of times I feel that the prosaic-poetic fluidity that may have evaded my musical ear has come together at last. These are not simple works. By now well into the new Millennium, both performers and listeners have grown up with the music and can make better sense of it than when the corpus was still so new. So my ears may be growing as are those who tackle the set for themselves, but also I think it's clear that the Alexander Quartet really understand the works and phrase them all in terms of the inner musical logic, in part because by now the modern idiom is no longer only semi-comprehensible when operating at such a high level, but also that the Alexander Quartet have really gotten inside the works and by now for them they seem like an extension of self, second nature.

At any rate that's how good these performances are. The Alexander Quartet make the Bartok cycle seem inevitable, natural. That is saying something. They have great spirit in the performance of all these works. But the Bartok especially is as good as it gets. I don't imagine I need say any more. These are outstanding versions, centerpieces of any modern quartet collection.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 1, The Isle of the Dead, Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony

For what it's worth, a little personal experience related to this music. I started my classical music listening with some of the Russian masters. It was almost by chance. My dad had an LP of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, as played nicely by Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, and I listened closely to it when he'd put it on. This was by age three. I didn't understand what this symphonic music was all about but I liked it. Then when I was in 4th grade a visit to the old Sam Goody outlet in Paramus, NJ, ended up in my request for my dad to buy a budget RIAS Symphony recording of Stravinsky's Firebird. It had a picture of a bird in flight on the cover, fire streaming from its outstretched wings and I thought that looked very cool. I told my dad we should buy that one. He asked, "are you sure?" but yes, I was, so we grabbed it along with something for him, I believe Peggy Lee (or was it Julie London?) with the Page Cavanaugh Trio.

The Firebird seemed like it came from another world. In time I grew quite fond of the music and it was the backbone of my first tiny collection of classical records. By the time I was around 14 I was eager to know more. And my entanglement with Stravinsky led eventually at that time to the Rites of Spring, a transforming work to hear if there was one. But to focus on what matters today, by chance the local record shop had a recording of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I bought it for $2.99, took it home and was little-by-little taken over by it. The minor mode darkness of the work, it's edge-of-modernity stance, its so-Russian sensibility made it quickly a favorite. And as it turned out the Ormandy recording was an excellent one, and so naturally became a benchmark to me when I heard other performances of the work later on.

Cut to the immediate present. Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra chime in with a continuation of their Rachmaninov series, with an beautiful recording of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 (Naxos 8.573234) paired with the composer's milestone work in the dark realm, "The Isle of the Dead". I covered Slatkin's Naxos recording of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 3 on these pages this past May 20th, which I liked a great deal. And he comes through again with a fine performance today. Like his version of No. 3, Slatkin and his Detroit associates take pains to bring out a detailed panorama (of both the symphony and the Isle work) where for the most part the wind and horns, the tympani and strings are all extraordinarily well-balanced, unlike some string-heavy recordings I have heard. And everything has that very idiomatic early-mid period Rachmaninovian dark passion.

I remember reading somewhere how the young Rachmaninov was utterly devastated by the symphony's tepid or hostile reception at its premiere and second performances, and indeed grew to dislike it so much that he withdrew the work and shelved it. It was never again performed during his lifetime. This might explain how the work has been less often performed in my lifetime than his second and third symphonies. To my mind however the first is the most original of the three, certainly the most exciting and the most daring. It has tremendous power and mood in the right hands. I don't want to imply that the other symphonies aren't worthwhile. They too are marvelous. But the first is the preferred one for me.

And the right hands are surely Leonard Slatkin's and the Detroit Symphony. It's an excellent performance, nearly as great as the Ormandy one I grew up with. There are a few passages, mostly in the final movement that I think Ormandy gets the edge on, but they are not many and in fact the Detroit version here has maybe even more kinetic energy and beautiful wind playing, so perhaps it evens off in the end. At the Naxos price this is certainly a version you can grow with and revel in.

And the "Isle of the Dead" as performed gets a thumbs-up from me as well. Those who know the work will of course remember the principal theme, what at first sounds like an ostinato (in five) but then continually develops and transforms into something quite remarkable. I don't know if any of the principal jazz fusion/prog rock exponents ever listened to the work, but it does seem to be a precursor for what went down in those genres by the seventies. Yet of course Rachmaninov goes on to develop thematic material in ways the fusionists did and probably could not manage. But then they were more concerned to create a springboard for improvisations, though face it, more thematic development wouldn't have hurt that either.

These are two supremely dark and dramatic works that pair especially well together and are given loving attention from Maestro Slatkin and the Detroit conflagration. I have heard nothing on disk that seriously surpasses these versions, so I of course enthusiastically recommend this recording without hesitation!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Olivier Greif, Sonata de Requiem, Bertrand, Amoyel, Weithaas

Olivier Greif (1950-2000)? Why is it I have never heard his music until now? Part of that has to do with his non-adherence to Darmstadt modernism and his subsequent non-involvement in post-modernism. His parentage was Polish-Jewish, but Paris was where he grew up and lived his life. His early death translates to his physical absence in the new millennium, when in some ways all stylistic bets have been off and an idiosyncratic stance is neither rejected out of hand nor defined as an entryway to school-foundations. In other words the time is ripe for his music to be more widely appreciated but of course he cannot be here to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Put all of these factors together and you do have some answers as to why his music did not offer itself to me in my previous years of listening and appreciation.

The CD on tap this morning is one that does full justice to Olivier Greif. It is a program of two of his works, the Sonata da Requiem (Harmonia Mundi 901900) (re-released this year in the Gold series HMG 501900) for cello and piano, and the "Trio" for violin, cello and piano. The performers help make this program stand out in a spectacular way. They are Emmanuelle Bertrand on cello, whose unaccompanied CD I have reviewed recently here and who is eminently well suited for this music. Then there is Pascal Amoyel on piano, Emmanuelle's partner in music and life, someone we've covered here as well and a very sympathetic exponent of Greif on this recording. Finally there is violinist Antje Weithaas, who joins the two for the trio and sounds perfect for this music as well. The performances are rather stunning.

The "Sonata de Requiem" is Greif's four-movement meditation on death. Written between 1973-1993, it blossoms in its very personal juxtaposition of quasi-romantic expression, dirge melodies in minor that to me reflect a Semitic musical influence, and the interjection of beautifully crafted modern non-tonal, extra-tonal passages, sometimes articulated simultaneously with minor-tonality expressiveness, sometimes in their own right.

There are similarities to be heard with the early-middle period music of Messiaen, in the way the two (or three) stylistic strains weave together in ways that people like Boulez have eschewed. In that there is also something akin to Charles Ives in his welding of disparate strands. But Greif sounds like neither. What he puts together and how he does it makes for a very personal approach. He is a tabula rasa in some ways and all the more interesting for it.

The Trio (1998) goes well with the Sonata, again in a poly- multi-stylistic way. Bertrand, Amoyel and Weithaas convince totally with the dramatic, dynamic readings of the two works. They soar with passion, they make the dissonant modernist parts seem inevitable and right, not a stitched-together patchwork quilt of sorts, a language of fluency, of singular totality.

This is music of genuine contrasting interest, even perhaps of genius, performed with brilliance. Although it came out a few years ago it is as vital today as it was then. Superb and uncategorizable!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jim Fox, The City the Wind Swept Away

Jim Fox, founder of Cold Blue Records and one of the most fertile, intriguing composers in "radical tonality" today, turns in a fine work with a single in the series, The City the Wind Swept Away (Cold Blue 0015).

It is a slow moving, somewhat mysterious, supremely atmospheric work for two trombones, two bass trombones, piano, two violins, viola and cello. The ensemble creates a kind of blue-green haze to depict a city that has vanished, the emptiness palpable and audible in no uncertain terms. And the performance is all you could wish for.

At the center are slowly moving piano patterns, broken arpeggiated chords swinging like a slow pendulum, sometimes breaking free, only to return to another ostinato pattern. The strings and trombones come upon us as variable translucent blocks, like mists rising over a flat, empty expanse, then dissipating, to be replaced gradually by other chordal blocks of heightened tonal colors.

It's music of beauty and wonder, something that goes well with a sunset or sunup in an otherwise silent room. This is strongly engaging associative music that unfolds in a sonic panorama with great calmness and grace.

It will give you pause, make you drift someplace good. Excellent.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ensemble Galilei, Surrounded by Angels, A Christmas Celebration

The holidays, Christmas, things that make children glow. If you as an adult have an increasing aversion to the cheap tinsel, Black Friday insanities, the impossible expectations that both Madison Avenue and some of the more over-the-top secular carols have made on your feeling of good times, there are remedies. One is in the music you might wish to play during those times. I personally gravitate to the very old music, because much of it is really stunning, and the schlock sorts of things can get on my nerves very quickly.

There is a new album of music out by Ensemble Galilei, a group that straddles a line between quasi-early music style and quasi-folk from Irish to Americana. The album is called Surrounded by Angels (Sono Luminus 92173) and comes in a two-disk set--a regular CD with stereo mixes and a Blue-ray disk with 5:1 surround.

The musical selection is great. They go for some of the arcane classics and a few indispensable less old but no less evocative carols. So you do get "Silent Night," but you also get "What Child is This (Greensleeves)", an old Irish favorite of mine, the "Wexford Carol", and things associated with folk strains, like "Brightest and Best" and "I Wonder as I Wander".

The song choice is refreshing and the ensemble does them a real favor with early/folk arrangements that use a harp, a pennywhistle or a recorder, violin-fiddle, even a banjo for one or two.

The arrangements and performances are enchanting. There are jigs, there is plainsong done instrumentally, there are no vocals and so you can revel in the sound of the arrangements and the wonderful carols without having to worry about just what it all exactly means. I find the disk a true delight.

Here's a way to rid yourself of the commercial blues and experience some kind of more down-to-earth hookup with the old traditional music. It's surely going to get you feeling well around Christmastime and the holidays, I would think. It's good enough that I have listened a bunch of times early in the season now and I never got that "no, please, not again, not this early" feeling. It's that good.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Jean-Guihen Queyras, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiri Belohlavek, Elgar: Cello Concerto Op. 85 , Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme Op. 33

The Puritans and then the Victorians tended to be suspicious of music. Anything that involved a public expression of feelings (especially for the Puritans and other fundamentalists, expressions of feelings outside the religious sphere) was not encouraged. Perhaps because of this for a time England produced no composers of lasting merit. Edward Elgar in the past has sometimes been labelled a stuffy Victorian. In reality he was the father of a new English Renaissance in musical composition, a liberator, the man who broke through from the waning Victorian world to produce a worthy body of music which on the whole was anything but stuffy.

And today we have a new recording of his Cello Concerto, op 85 (Harmonia Mundi 902148) along with Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, op 33 and Dvorak's Klid (Silent Woods), op 68/5. Jean-Guihen Queyras is the center of the program, a cellist who seems very right for these works. Jirí Belohlávek ably conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestral with a flowing interpretation of the orchestral parts.

These are works of late romantic passion. But what do they have in common? The cellist sees "a fascinating mirror effect," on the works taken as a whole, with each composer "playing on contrasts to elucidate his intentions".

I find that response fascinating, though I must say it will take another listen with that in mind to understand how that works out in the scores. Be that as it may the three works together form a wonderful platform for Queyras the master cellist. They are each wonderfully expressive and he brings out the respective musical arcs of each work with a good deal of poise and artistry.

Both the Dvorak and Tchaikovsky act as counters to the psychological introspective-elegiac aspects of Elgar's work. They put the forward motion in the program; Elgar's work looks backward regretfully with a relish of remembrance. In purely musical terms it makes of the cello part the narrator of the nonverbal tale of an inexpressible loss, the orchestra a kind of Greek chorus that reacts in sympathetic ways.

It is surely one of Elgar's masterpieces. When coupled with the Dvorak and Tchaikovsky it is a very attractive, beautifully detailed set of performances that work together well. Queyras, Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony come through nicely with well-balanced, meticulous yet impassioned interpretations. Recommended.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Leos Janacek, The Piano, Cathy Krier

Some composers fit readily in some sequential chronology. Leos Janacek does not. He was neither exactly a romantic, a modernist in some consistently forward looking way or a nationalist. That he partook of all three stylistic tendencies yet belonged to none is part of what makes him stand out in retrospect. He went his own way and created a body of music like none other, really.

He wrote some wonderful music for the piano. Cathy Krier, a rather young (b 1985) Luxembourgian pianist has recorded most of it, and we can hear her interpretations in the two-CD set Leos Janacek, The Piano (Avi-Music 8553290).

Two things strike me about her versions. One is that she approaches the more dynamic, hammer-like forcefulness of some of his passages with less of a Gyorgy Sandor sort of near-violent attack than some versions I have heard. Now that's not a bad thing. She's just a bit more gentle in her concept of it all and perhaps all the more musical for it. Is it a gender thing? I don't think necessarily so. But it does define how Ms. Krier approaches it all. It makes for a less histrionic, perhaps a less romantic interpretation than the way the 20th century performer generally approached his music, also perhaps less idiomatically Eastern European? But then this is a more intimate Janacek, less a concerted set of applause-inducing fireworks, which was certainly not what Janacek intended in any event. This is just me giving you an impression. And it's a defining nicety of it all to me.

The second thing that hit me was the sometimes more jagged, asymmetrical, less flowingly smooth nature of some of her rubatos. Again, this perhaps comes out of her less romantic, more singular vision of what the music should sound like. It sounds right for Janacek. It sounds contemporary.

Think of these two traits as what makes Cathy Krier distinctive. After hearing this set a number of times I came to appreciate her versions all the more. And of course there is much more to the music and her performances than these two aspects. She can bring out the sensitively pianissimo aspects of Janacek as well or better than anyone. And the music has a lyrical yet forceful charge in her hands that makes it all speak.

There is a great deal of fantastic music to be heard here. The Sonata, "On an Overgrown Path," "In the Mists,"--and some of the more obscure works are fascinating, too, such as the "Miniatures (1877-1927)."

So all-in-all I must say that this set is wonderful to have both for the solid blast of pianistic Janacek it contains and Ms. Krier's very own way with it. A pianist of original and ultra-musical stature, a composer of genius. That's a potent combination!