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Friday, January 31, 2014

Neil Rolnick, Gardening at Gropius House

Not everything is written in stone, my old boss used to say. And he was right. New compositions get subjected to the buffeting of the proverbial winds. Audiences, the opinion of contemporaries, critical notice, all can effect the fate of a work, especially in the beginning.

And so invariably it is with Neil Gropius and his two recent works on the album Gardening at Gropius House (Innova 877). I try to pay no attention to reviews or other critical information before I write a review myself. It's better to approach the work with open ears and see how it effects you.

So as usual I've done that. Of the two works I like the first a bit better than the second.

The first is in fact the title work, "Gardening at Gropius House" (2012), performed by members of Alarm Will Sound, Todd Reynolds taking the solo violin part, Alan Pierson conducting, the composer on laptop computer. It is shifting meter music, with a definite pleasing motility, syncopation and the solo violin part almost concerted-folkish in its use of double stops. Todd does a great job, the music stimulates in its ever changing, ever the same kind of forward motion. Perhaps it does sound something like it feels to garden for a famous architect, in the yard of his house. There is a bit of dissonance in the chamber-orchestral part, which perhaps represents Gropius and his modernism? At any rate it all works well.

The second work has on the surface a similar momentum, but this time there are vocal parts in a mini-cantata/opera, which the composer calls a "monodrama", "Anosmia" (2011). It is about a man who loses the use of his nose and pleads with his would-be partner to help him, to "be his nose". It's scored for three singers, the male baritone part sung by Daniel Cilli, the soprano and alto parts by Maya Kherani and Carrie Zhang, respectively. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's New Music Ensemble takes on the instrumental parts under the direction of Nicole Paiement. Maestro Rolnick adds a a part on the laptop as before. All sound well.

The music is intended to be a farce and there is a kind of semi-banality in the vocal parts which is belied by a fairly sophisticated chamber-orchestral score. It sometimes reminds me of a very convoluted remake of the Tom Jones pop hit "What's New Pussycat?" if you remember that. Indeed there is a kind of tongue-in-cheek pop art aspect to it. I find it less interesting than the first work. It has the playfulness of Stravinsky's "Renard the Fox" but perhaps not the inventiveness. Stravinsky is no act anybody would want to follow, though, so we should not be too severe about it. Not when it pokes fun at itself.

Rolnick gives us an alternative vision of modernity or post-modernity. There is mostly tonality going on, some minimalist repetition, a kind of deliberate banality in the second work, a more sublime disregard of such things in the first. What I say is not written in stone, remember? It is merely my opinion. The "Gardening" piece with its Todd Reynolds violin performance is worth the price of admission.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Zehetmair Quartett, Beethoven, Bruckner, Hartmann, Holliger

I've been re-reading a volume of selected letters by the 20th century composer Paul Hindemith. One that's stuck in my mind this time around was to his publisher. In response to the suggestion that such-and-such a chamber group perform one of his works he commented that he didn't think they were stylistically suited--they played everything like it were Richard Strauss, too "ponderous", too "expressive", too heavy with vibrato. It struck me that Hindemith would have liked the Zehetmair Quartett, who are more modern in their readings of the quartet literature, emphatic without being monstrously so.

I've been listening to their new 2-CD set that features quartets by Beethoven, Bruckner, Hartmann and Holliger (ECM New Series 2195/96 4763942). It makes for a most unusual program in that it covers Beethoven's last quartet, the op. 135, and one of Bruckner's early works, the String Quartet WAB111. The second disk ventures into modern territory with Karl Amadeus Hartmann's String Quartet No. 2 and a nice surprise, Heinz Holliger's String Quartet No. 2.

This is an excellent group. They give Beethoven's last quartet a very near definitive reading, so much so that I listen and no longer feel that there is any "difficulty" grasping it. They lay it out with such musical logic that it all seems totally comprehensible. (And after so many years listening, I suppose I have also adjusted to the work in terms of itself and what came after in chamber music. But this performance makes all that even more clear to me.)

The Bruckner does not sound at all naive and unformed in Zehetmair's hands, but a bit Schubertian. Certainly this gets a definitive performance here.

The Hartmann and Holliger works follow a progression from the early modern to the very modern. It is not a mistake that Holliger dedicates his quartet to Elliott Carter. It is filled with modern complexities, dissonances and intricate structural permutations. Not having heard the compositions of the world-famous oboe master and now conductor, I must say that I am mightily impressed with this work. But that is not to slight Hartmann, whose quartet has real substance.

So in all and in every way I would call this Zehetmair Quartet set a triumph. The fine attention to detail, the brilliant sound staging of the audio, the dedicated and glowing readings, the unique program--all make for a landmark recording.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

E. J. Moeran, In the Mountain Country, Rhapsodies, Overture for A Masque, Falletta, Ulster Orchestra

Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950) was a composer of Anglo-Irish heritage. As he grew up the Norwich and Irish folk music he heard around him impressed him greatly. After a serious head injury in the first world war left him with a lifelong disability he began collecting folk songs in the countryside and also studied with John Ireland.

All this gives us an all-too-brief but adequate backdrop for the disk of orchestral works at hand (Naxos 8.573106). JoAnn Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra contribute an interesting program of selected works, including one with a concerted piano part (a Rhapsody) played by Benjamin Frith.

There is the evocative tone poem "In the Mountain Country", three "Rhapsodies" and the "Overture for a Masque". All were written in the '20s through the '40s. Because I received this one as a download and there was a glitch in the downloading I cannot quite tell which tracks are which. So I will not be able to give blow-by-blow descriptions. As it turns out the music in a way is of a piece so it does not matter really.

This is pastoral, rhapsodic, folkish symphonic music John Ireland would have appreciated. For that matter there is a hint of the rustic folk side of Vaughan Williams to be heard at times.

Maestro Falletta, the Ulster organization and Benjamin Frith all give this music the life and breath it needs. The end result is some extraordinarily soothing sounds that have some grit. It's music that has an Anglo-Irish impressionist tinge to it.

There's much to please the Anglo-Irish-phile here.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Piano Music of Philip Glass, Jeremy Limb

All minimalism, all minimalists are not equal. La Monte Young was the pioneer. His music can be mesmerically exciting, filled with Eastern bliss, and can otherwise be fascinating in his cosmic elevations, but sometimes the slowness of pace, the relative changelessness can be excruciating. Terry Riley has been, always, a major figure. His In C was the first minimalist masterpiece and continues to beguile because the ensemble takes such an important role in its unfolding. He combines kinetics with beauty in his very own way. Steve Reich I find consistently worth hearing, whether it be the early processual works, the neo-African rhythmic pieces, or his more compositionally varied later works. There are the composers that I've been covering on Cold Blue records, who are generally very lyrical when in a minimalist zone. And then of course the now famous Philip Glass.

His early period, characterized by Music in Changing Parts had great motility and continually shifting phrase lengths. It was exciting. Einstein on the Beach had this too along with an ensemble drive that kept me interested. And then...well not everything he did after that was to me a masterpiece. Now he seems to be beyond minimalist repetition, and I found his timpani concerto piece (reviewed here several weeks ago) to be well worth experiencing.

Today we look at a pretty comprehensive volume, a two-CD set, The Piano Music of Philip Glass (Quartz 2102), as played by Jeremy Limb. There are three main groupings, eight pieces from The Hours, Trilogy Sonata (based on excerpts from Einstein on the Beach), and Metamorphosis 1-5. There is a shorter unrelated end piece at the beginning and end of the set.

You can expect me to be frank, always, and I'll say that the Hours pieces do not hold up well for me. Glass no doubt was working his way toward something, from kineticism to a more lyrical, more pianistic approach. But the choice of motifs, chordal and sometimes melodic, seem not interesting enough to sustain repeated onslaughts. They are sometimes quite simple progressions that seem as if Chopin wrote some subordinate accompaniment for two left hands, and had not yet put together right-handed melodies. Others almost sound like they could be doo wop piano backgrounds. Still others sound a little too new age in the unproductive, banal sense. Glass was finding his way forward, but had not really gotten there, in my opinion. So the first disk to me is not essential listening unless you want a full vision of Glass and where he has gone.

On the other hand, the works (Trilogy, Metamorphosis) on disk two have similar objectives but seem much more satisfying. The choice of material is not banal and does come to grips with a sort of neo-romantic aura. There is enough substance to the motifs to sustain the sustaining, so to say.

Pianist Jeremy Lamb does an excellent job with the music, with just a hint of rubato and a sensitive touch to bring out the lyrical content as it happens to be there.

It's a two-CD set, so you get both disks. And the second disk makes it all worthwhile. Those are my mixed feelings. Neither minimalism or any other -ism has dominated the new modern music these days. So we thankfully do not have to experience an "all-or-nothing" hegemony out there. This music fits in as a part of the "all" and does so well on the second disk, less well on the first.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Leevi Madetoja, Symphonies 1 & 3, Storgards, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Never reluctant when it comes to new names I arranged to get a copy of the new CD of the music of Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947). Namely his Symphonies 1 & 3 (Ondine 1211-2), as performed by John Storgards conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Madetoja was a pupil of Sibelius in 1908-10. Both shared the country of Finland as homeland.

What strikes one listening to the symphonies and the bonus "Okon Fukuoka Suite", op. 58, is the fine meshed flair for orchestration. In that Madetoja nearly if not actually rivals his mentor. There is great color in these works. Storgards and the Helsinki Philharmonic do a fine job bringing all that out, along with the dramatic ebbs and flows of the music.

The music has that Finnish late romantic flair of Sibelius as well. Knowing it took me a while to really appreciate Sibelius I have been patient, listening again and again. And I must say that the thematic material does not stay in my mind from one listen to the next. That is not to say the the music isn't well put together or in any way unpleasurable. It is that. And the themes are not at all banal. But I don't seem to be able to wrap my ears around the music. The Suite does strike me as a bit more fetching in that way, however, but not overwhelmingly so.

I wont say it's the fault of Madetoja's music. It may be mine. I will certainly listen some more to this one, but at the point that I type this I have not been able to muster up much appreciation for the music. For that I am sorry. It sounds well. It just doesn't capture my musical memory cells.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer, Various Works, Tour

There seems little doubt about it, composer Mieczylaw Weinberg now has gotten the recognition that mostly eluded him during his lifetime (1919-1996). Though he was at times in fear for his life, fled his Nazi-occupied homeland when young and spent the rest of his life composing in the USSR, where his status as Jew and modernist sometimes ran him afoul with the Stalin regime, he continued undaunted, amassing an amazing output of works--22 symphonies alone.

And in his later years after Stalin's death he was given more freedom to compose without fear. Towards the end of it the recognition began gaining momentum. By now his music is being performed all over the world. Recordings are being made frequently. He is hailed as a 20th century marvel (which he is).

If there were any lingering doubts beforehand the new two-CD disk of his music by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica (ECM New Series 2368/69 4810669) should disperse them once and for all.

For here we have one of the major figures in Eastern European modernism (Kremer) and his celebrated organization in a sort of mini-retrospective of Weinberg chamber and orchestral works, a few selective milestones, available here in the States shortly, backed up with a US tour that begins at the end of the month.

First, the set. I must say they have chosen well and given Weinberg some wonderful readings. The first disk is devoted to chamber works. Weinberg's "Sonata No. 3", op. 126 for unaccompanied violin has Kremer himself doing the honors and it is an intricate, advanced and moving work indeed. This is followed by no less entrancing music, the "String Trio", op. 48 and the "Sonatina" for violin and piano, op. 46. All are given their due in detailed and masterful, virtuoso interpretations.

The second disk concentrates on music for orchestral forces, specifically the "Concertino", op. 42 and Weinberg's 10th Symphony. Both are major works and give ample evidence that Weinberg was no doubt the equal of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and at times may show their influence, but all-in-all Weinberg was after his own muse in the way he combined his Jewish heritage in a sort of folk quality with his own manner in the interweaving of classical Eastern tradition and modernism.

The staying power of his melodic invention and structural innovation can be heard everywhere in this program. And every work shows its own compositional brilliance. Weinberg deserves the recognition now coming to him. He belongs on the short list of Eastern European masters of the last century. This set belongs up there with the very best recordings of his music.

Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica will be celebrating the release with an extended US tour in the days to come. January 30th finds them at the 92Y Kaufmann Concert Hall, New York; February 2nd the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco; February 4th at Stude Concert Hall, Houston; February 6th at Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor; February 7th at the Harris Theater in Chicago; and February 8th at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul. In each of these concerts they will play one or two Weinberg works as recorded in the album.

Weinberg has arrived at last.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Natsuki Tamura, Dragon Nat

Where the borderline between "new music" and "free" improvisation or avant jazz exists has become blurred over the last several decades. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, it is a healthy thing for music when categories get upended, conflated or ignored. What it decidedly is NOT good for is the internet or in ages past, record bins and brick-and-mortar stores. If radical enough the "where do you put it?" question becomes difficult, and always, marketing needs to know.

Today's CD does not shake the foundations of our music classification system. Yet it does invite thought on the subject. Japanese trumpeter-jazz composer Natsuki Tamura is in the "jazz" camp by association. His many recordings with pianist Satoko Fujii and the music they play together testifies to that. But if you listen to his solo trumpet CD Dragon Nat (Libra 101-032) without preconceptions, you will no doubt experience a link to new music.

It's simply him and no one else for a full CD divided into eight pieces. It's Natsuki, his trumpet, a few assorted bells and small percussion and his voice, and it is the opposite of fast-paced.

Speed and energy are not significant factors in this recital. It is improvisation based on things that have been done as part of the Gato Libre band, which has pronounced folkish-Japanese roots.

In this recital he pares down to focus on simple unwinding melodic material, the sound of his trumpet as a sensuous thing, a periodicity. Taken as a whole it is a kind of environmental tone poem for the moment Natsuki is in now.

If you do away with expectations and just listen it will win you over. It has a timeless, out-of-time introspection to it and it relies on Natsuki's expanded time-consciousness to weave long-stranded soliloquies in sound that have their own weight and pace.

This is not an album to wow you as much as it is a meditation on the creative moment-at-hand. When approached with a wiped-slate one will get something that belongs on its own turf. Reflect and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jean-Guihen Queyras and Ensemble Resonanz, Berg, Lyrische Suite, Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht

It is an occasion of some potential importance when two modernist classics are programmed onto one CD. And when Ensemble Resonanz performes both works in the versions for string orchestra with the excellent Jean-Guihen Queyras as cellist and artistic director, it's also something to notice. That's who we have on the disk, doing Berg's, Lyrische Suite and Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Harmonia Mundi 902150).

They go together well. Of course Arnold Schoenberg was the spiritual and factual leader of the Viennese School of modernists, Alban Berg a primary follower along with Anton Webern. The two works were key in their respective careers (Schoenberg and Berg, that is). Verklärte Nacht was Schoenberg's farewell to Late Romanticism and so also one of its greatest expressions; the Lyric Suite was a milestone in expressive modernism, really rather Romantic (which Berg never quite left behind), but also an iconic embodiment of Schoenberg's 12-tone compositional ethos, technically following the mandate (most of the time) but doing it in a way wholly Bergian.

Verklärte Nacht was conceived initially as a string sextet and thenceforth performed fairly often as a string orchestra piece. The Lyric Suite is most often performed as it was intended, as a quartet. Berg later arranged three movements for string orchestra. The ensemble follows these and the arrangements made for same of the remaining three movements by Theo Verby.

Both Schoenberg's 1899 opus and Berg's work from 1925 have related programmatic content. "Transfigured Night" had its impetus from Richard Dehmel's poem about an illegitimate child and its societal redemption. The "Lyric Suite" was apparently inspired by Berg's love of Hanna Fuchs, who was married to another.

The respective inspirations led to some mightily empassioned music. Hearing both works in the string orchestra version in this way heightens the expressiveness of each work and, at least to me, allows us to see the similarities. Highly chromatic, highly dramatic, these were works that created beautiful extra-tonal landscapes that shared in common a brilliance of inspiration.

Queyras and Ensemble Resonanz give us soaring renditions of both works. If the "Lyric Suite" seems in the string orchestra version virtually new, it is no doubt my reaction after a near lifetime of appreciating the quartet version. It may take a little more careful listening for the balance of thematic materials to re-emerge (if you like me are used to the quartet reading), but it may give us a different set of insights and appreciate the expressive angst of the work all the more. I feel that way, at least.

These are marvelous versions of two milestone works. The disk belongs in your library if you follow the roots of where we are today. They are a joy to hear in their own right.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Seattle Phonographers Union, Building 27 WNP-5

Perhaps many miles away from yesterday's Bach Masses is the Seattle Phonographers Union and their Building 27 WNP-5 (Prefecture 009). And yet they are both part of a continuum in their own way, from the "staunchly classic" to the frankly experimental.

The Seattle Phonographers Union is a group of folks each with a laptop filled with field recordings. They perform in organically ambient enclosures, in this case two man-made buildings. One, Building 27, is a decommissioned aircraft hanger. The other, WNP-5, is a partially completed cooling tower for a nuclear power plant. Each has very distinctive, contrasting reverberation characteristics.

Each gets its own side on this resonant LP. The field recordings are chosen and EQ'd for playback in these marvelously ambient spaces. It is improvisational in that the players choose spontaneously what they see fit for the performance, in a way similar to Cage's Variations IV where Cage and Tudor chose records in an improvisatory way to excerpt in real time for playback in the performance space. In the Seattle Phonographers case though the ambient environment at hand alters the sounds--be they those of cicadas, a steam hammer, or what have you, so that they are recognizable in various degrees, sometimes virtually impossible to pinpoint as to source with the transformations and combinations.

The results are fascinating, more noise that tone but all vaguely or even uneasily "natural" sounding as the sound sculptures evolve.

Is this music? Well by now that's readily apparent for those immersed in avant guard doings over the years. Then, is it any good? Yes! As long as you don't try to pin it down as to whether these are a group of budding Bachs or more ingenuous aural engineering compatriots. They are no doubt somewhere in between.

No matter how you scratch it (and since this is an LP, you try not to scratch it at all), the album makes for a study in exotic sound mixed in with the very familiar, which might include the footsteps of the audience in the space or birds flying overhead.

It fits in nicely with previous Prefecture releases, all of which in one way or another are concerned with "organic ambiance". A blindfold test might well confuse and delight your adventurous friends. Others may not revel in it quite as much. It depends on what you know and how much you want to stretch your ears, I guess. I found it very stimulating.

Monday, January 20, 2014

J. S. Bach, Lutheran Masses Volume 1, the Sixteen, Harry Christophers

When life does not go well for me I sometimes stop and reflect. Well, even if it does go well. Yesterday was a case in point. I was thinking about Johann Sebastian Bach, his brilliance (as well as John Coltrane in that light). If you were to reduce it to numbers, what would the odds be that humanity would produce such a masterful musician, allow him to produce his music over a long time, and then ultimately recognize him in the years that followed? The answer is probably alarmingly small. How many Bachs have there been that were diverted from their path, or that we know nothing about for the accidents of chance or circumstance? Small perhaps, but a larger number if you were able to do a head count, alas.

So it is with some gratefulness that I turn to the music today, J. S. Bach's Lutheran Masses, Volume 1 (Coro 16115) as performed by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers. There are three reasons why this volume is exceptional.

The first is the manner of performance. Specifically Christophers does away with the potentially large choir that would perform these works, and instead assigns two singers per part for a total of eight. This in tandem with the chamber orchestra assembled for the performances gives you an exceptionally intimate, exposed version of each line written, allows you to follow the intricate and of course unprecedented beauty of the countrapuntal lines, the subjects and their entrances, counter-entrances, etc.

The second great idea embodied here is to program the "Mass in G minor, BMV 235" and the "Mass in F Major, BMV 233" with the Cantata 102 "Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!" BMV 102. This is a wise and fascinating choice because Bach in the two masses in essence plagiarizes himself. He borrows thematic material from the cantata and reworks it in the masses.

The third reason is perhaps the more obvious, but central to those who wish to be moved and enlightened. That is that the works are not as well known as Bach's Latin "Mass in B minor" yet are nonetheless filled with Bach's brilliance. The fine performances with reduced choir bring out that brilliance with that much more clarity.

In short this is an excellent program in performances that one should not miss.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Bowed Piano Ensemble, Ice & Fire, Stephen Scott

Ever since Henry Cowell called for passages strumming and plucking inside a grand piano, the sound has been with us. Some jazzmen have featured it since the early '60s, notably Burton Greene and at times Keith Jarrett, among others. But to put together an entire ensemble of players working inside a piano has to my knowledge never been approached systematically until the recent appearance of the Bowed Piano Ensemble, founded by composer Stephen Scott. Up to ten musicians go to it on their new CD, Ice & Fire (Navona 5937).

There are five compositions by Scott and one rather glorious arrangement of Miles Davis's (actually Joe Zawinul's) "In A Silent Way" for vocalise (soprano Victoria Hansen) and the ensemble. Ms. Hansen rejoins the group on the Spanish-tinged song "La Guitarra". Besides those there are varied works that bring out the incredible sound of the piano strings bowed, plucked and otherwise set in motion for a highly engaging near-orchestral presence. There are works that almost sound Asian ("Afternoon of a Fire"), minimalistic ("New York Drones"), spatially atmospheric ("Aurora Ficta"), and places somewhere in-between ("Baltic Sketches").

After hearing this disk a number of times I must say I've never heard anything like it. It is a rather incredible sound, highly appealing, and both the compositions and their execution open up in a wonderful way a new universe of music.

If you have a sense of musical adventure or like the idea of the very new this will no doubt floor you. It floored me! Thank you Stephen Scott!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Il Pergolese, Maria Pia de Vito, Francois Couturier, Anja Lechner, Michele Rabbia

The "old-in-the-new" comes up on these pages pretty frequently. It is in part because the reworking or rethinking of early music styles is one of trends in our new modernism these days. And that interests me.

We get a charming, rather dramatically transformed version of such things in Il Pergolese (ECM 2340 4810427). The quartet of vocalist Maria Pia di Vito, piano of Francois Couturier, cello of Anja Lechner and the percussion of Michele Rabbia engage in the music of Italian baroque composer Pergolesi (1710-1736). What they do with it is place it in another context, in part ECM quasi-Romanticism a la some of the jazz pianists who have thrived on that label. There is a pared down chordal rubato often in the piano that has an improvised feel at times. The counterpoint is put aside for the most part.

Maria sings her part fairly true to the melody or vocal line of the original music some of the time; at other times the arrangement and the quartet go to freer or more modernized directions and she loosens up or follows a rearranged muse accordingly, all with a disarming artfulness.

The cello (Anja) tackles melody lines or accompaniment, or engages in improvisations around the core of the music. The percussion part (Michele) can be Eastern, or archaic, or free and atmospheric, depending.

The music all-in-all has ambiance, freedom, improvisatory and arrangement prowess, a folk quality at times and a sort of multiplicity-in-unity that has originality and evocativeness.

If you know Pergolesi you will recognize some or even many of the themes and can then appreciate what is done with them all the more. If you don't the listening is still going to be interesting and unusual.

What matters is not that Pergolesi is taken apart and isn't that a shame? No because the original Pergolesi has gone nowhere and is still available for you to hear, of course. What this is is new music/improvisation/recomposition based on Pergolesi themes. It comes off very well. Once you get your bearings it is very enjoyable, even a bit of fun, but always a step into today more than a glance at yesterday.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wanderer Trio, Tchaikovsky & Arensky, Piano Trios

Perhaps like you, my much appreciated readers, I have over the years come to know and love Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio, op. 50 for its great thematic wealth and its lyrical yet fully structured demeanor. On the other hand Anton Arensky (1861-1906) and his Piano Trio, op 32 may not be very familiar, or unknown to you.

That lack and the corresponding familiarity meet in the very sympathetic, fully capable hands of the Wanderer Trio and their new recording of the two works (Harmonia Mundi 902161).

There have been many recordings of the Tchaikovsky Trio but this one rivals most, if not all. The Wanderer Trio give us the expression so fundamental to the work, but they also thrive on getting the phrasing worked out in great detail, bringing out what should be articulated, creating a blend where all three parts are separate, equal in terms of emphasis as needed, thematically critical parts getting center stage as needed, but the whole always kept in balance. It is a work one should not be without and this is a first-class reading all the way.

Anton Arensky's Trio is not nearly as well known, but it stands up to the comparison with the Tchaikovsky quite well. Both are elegiac: Tchaikovsky dedicated his to the memory of Nikolay Rubenstein; Arensky's Trio was dedicated to the cellist Karl Davidov. Arensky's is slightly less overtly romantic in expressive emotive qualities but makes equal and no less pleasurable thematic inroads in the course of the work.

In the end it is a definite triumph for the Wanderer Trio. They sound just right for the two works and the sound is glorious. Even if you have other versions of the Tchaikovsky, the Arensky is a major and neglected work you should not pass up, especially when performed so well here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Xavier Montsalvatge, Madrigal, and Other Works, Perspectives Ensemble, Soloists

What I do not know about Catalan-Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) could fill many books I am afraid. Aside from some short works I have on vinyl anthologies and a CD I reviewed here last year, he is new territory for me. But as always my ears step in and hear what they need to for me to proceed.

There's a new anthology of some of his bright lights that I've been appreciating. It's identified title-wise by three principal works included on the CD. Madrigal (Naxos 8.573101) takes us on a ride through five pieces and the years 1969-1995. The Perspectives Ensemble under conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez brings us lovely performances that exemplify Montsalvatge in various stylistic guises, who like Stravinsky went through a number of transformations while still remaining recognizably himself.

There is the neo-classic incarnation in works like "Folia daliniana" (1995), the serialist of "Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado" (1969), and early modern influences of such artists as Satie. Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano, does a fine job with the "Madrigal" (1991) and the "Cinco invocaciones". Tim Fain comes across well as the violin soloist on "Concertino 1 + 13" (1975), and Sato Moughalian's flute sounds excellent on the "Serenata a Lydia de Cadaques" (1970) along with the piano of Blair McMillen. There are other soloists peppered throughout the program and they all come across with a lyric panache.

Five listens to this disk and I feel I have experienced something of the essence of Montsalvatge. This is wonderfully performed music and clearly there is much to be gained in pleasure and enlightenment in partaking of the program's many high points. I don't think you'll find a better introduction to the composer, certainly not at the Naxos price. It whets my appetite for more, but it also fills the bill for those who know Montsalvatge but do not have many or most of these works. Brilliant!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Leonardo Balada, Sinfonia en Negro: Hommage to Martin Luther King, Colomer, Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra

Modern composers should not be ignored just because their music has not entered the standard repertoire. How many living composers do have works in that category? It would seem very few. There are those composers and works who deserve recognition in this way, and frankly a few that might not. Time tells a tale of course different often enough than any previous present. There was an era when Meyerbeer for example was in, years ago, and yet he is not well known today. I don't want to comment on the merits or demerits of Meyerbeer at this point, but it illustrates how things can change.

Spanish born composer Leonardo Balada (b 1933) exemplifies the present scene in that way. He is not enshrined to my knowledge with a permanent station in the orchestral repertoire, yet he is has been writing excellent orchestral music for many years.

Possible works for posterity? The Malaga Philharmonic under Edmon Colomer has put together a disk with three good examples of Leonardo Balada's orchestral music, titled after the lead work, Sinfonia en Negro: Hommage to Martin Luther King (Naxos 8.573047). This work is subtitled "Symphony No. 1". It was completed in 1968 and of course is timely for the upcoming Martin Luther King Day commemoration. It has a modern demeanor typical of Balada's music in that era, has good pacing and divides into four movements: "Oppression", "Chains", "Vision" and "Triumph". The music reflects those four situations with passages appropriate to the connotations--from some bleak sounding, expressive orchestral utterances to those of confirmation. It is a moving work that will win a good many modern-oriented admirers with this version I do believe.

From there the orchestra goes to a previously unrecorded work from his later period, the neo-classical sounding "Double Concerto for Oboe, Clarinet and Orchestra" (2010), a work of contrast to what began the program, notable for its vibrant solo parts, well played by Emanuel Abbuhl (oboe) and Joan Enric Lluna (clarinet) and the almost playful orchestral response.

The final work, "Columbus: Images for Orchestra" (1991) is an arrangement from his opera Christopher Columbus, and has more of a Spanish-Latin American feel to it than the preceding works, understandably. It is a real showpiece for orchestra, a good example of Balada's orchestrational and thematic command over his material in combining sometimes folk-like themes, colors and modernistic touches with very engaging infectious music that contrasts with more somber introspective passages.

In the end we have three very different works that give us a broad picture of Leonardo Balada the composer, a master in his own right. These are fine performances and the disk is much recommended as a vehicle to introduce you to his music or a reaffirmation if you know his work already. The end pieces express something that could well be a part of concerts for MLK and Columbus Day commemorative concerts in future. Who can say? The disk holds its own in making a substantive case for the merits of Balada and the need for wider recognition.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Krzysztof Meyer, Piano Works Vol. 1, Marek Szlezer

A living composer that we in the West should be paying attention to. That's how I feel about Krzysztof Meyer (b 1943), particularly after listening closely to his Piano Works, Vol. 1 (Dux 0923) as played with convincing poise and verve by Marek Szlezer.

Meyer studied with Penderecki and Nadia Boulanger, which is of course an excellent pedigree. I took a look at a recording of some of his string quartets on December 17 of 2012 (see that post) and was impressed.

The pieces heard on volume one of this collection of piano works are mostly from 1961-1966 with one from 2005. They include Piano Sonatas 1-3, "Aphorisms for Piano", op. 3, and the fairly recent "Quasi una Fantasia", op. 104.

What strikes me listening to this music is the highly modern approach Meyer takes, but also the superb idiomatic pianism in evidence throughout. In structure there are the occurrences of signpost motives that remind me of Messiaen, but only as a complementary counterpart. The sound and thrust of the music is original. There is often a certain amount of spatial air to punctuate the phrasing in common with Messiaen, not a radical space like Cage, but more compact. There are dramatic dynamics and a feel of high modernist elegance that puts these works up there with the best.

It is music that no doubt has some daunting technical obstacles to surmount for a pianist to properly express what Meyer calls for. Szlezer conquers all with very musical readings, bringing out the sense and sensibility of the works in a poetic way.

Meyer is a major figure waiting in the wings, or rather already at center stage awaiting your appreciation. This is essential listening for the modernist aficionado.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Villa-Lobos, The Guitar Manuscripts 1, Andrea Bissoli

I have found over time that Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) suits my ears very well. I can't recall hearing anything of his that I did not like, though naturally some hit me more than others. It's not just that he brings in his Brazilian roots as well or better than anybody. It's true but then I like his solo piano music, too, which often is a bit more "modern" than especially "Brazilian".

So it does not surprise me that I am taken with the first volume of a projected series of unknown versions or completely unknown works, The Guitar Manuscripts: Masterpieces and Lost Works 1 (Naxos 8.573115).

There is great variety to be heard here. A common element is classical guitarist Andrea Bissoli, who sounds perfectly well in the role of soloist. He has a great feel for the music and a touch that fits right in.

The "Guitar Concerto" (1951/c1955) is a beauty, written for Segovia. There are songs for soprano (Lia Serafini) and guitar, some arranged from the composer's "Forest of the Amazon", some rearranged from the original piano-vocal versions, and a lovely guitar-soprano version of the aria from "Bachianas Brasileiras". Ms. Serafini sounds quite good.

There are some forgotten solo guitar works, there are all kinds of things here (including three first recordings) and they are both well done and extremely worth your while if you love Villa-Lobos like me, or even if you aren't sure. I am already looking forward to the second volume. This is music to enjoy for a small Naxos price. If you have any loose change rattling around you should get this one if it sounds like it's for you.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Bejun Mehta, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and René Jacobs, Che Puro Ciel: The Rise of Classical Opera

The beginnings of the classical period of opera don't get much attention as a unified entity in the recorded repertoire, not anyway other than as discrete recordings of single operas or of excerpts therefrom.

So the anthology Che Puro Ciel: The Rise of Classical Opera (Harmonia Mundi 902172) is especially welcome. The countertenor Bejun Mehta joins the chorus and chamber orchestra of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under René Jacobs for a moving period-instrument performance of selected arias from operas of the era.

Much of the music you will probably not be very familar with, or perhaps not at all. Christoph Gluck, a major instigator of simplicity, coherence and realism in the opera of the period, is represented by excerpts from his groundbreaking Orfeo ed Euridice as well as the more obscure Ezio. Then there are the lesser-known early Mozart operas Ascanio in Alba and Mitridate. Along with these we get some rather unknown gems: Tommaso Traetta's (1727-1779) Antigona and Ifigenia in Tauride, Johann Adolf Hasse's (1699-1783) Il trionfo di Clelia and Johann Christian Bach's (1735-1782) Artaserse.

Hearing the music with Mehta's precise and moving countertenor as the solo voice, with the period instruments and René Jacobs' meticulous yet impassioned period readings is like hearing this era as never before.

The performances are exceedingly wondrous, lush yet with the intimacy of the era that we rarely hear today. The music sounds much more exotic, more alien, older than the standard readings of this period, plus these are some very rare gems to behold and appreciate.

It's music as discovery. It may change how you hear the era but in any case it will delight any and all music lovers and opera buffs, I can predict.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Max Lifchitz, Rhythmic Soundscape

First, a disclosure, I was a student of Max Lifchitz back when he was teaching at the free-form School of Contemporary Music in the Boston area, while he was getting his doctorate at Harvard, in 1972-3. I doubt he'd remember me but he was an impressive teacher with a lively musical mind. Since then he of course has gone on to have a distinguished career as composer, teacher, pianist and director of the North/South Consonance and their musical endeavors.

Today we have a recording of his music for percussion, Rhythmic Soundscape (North/South 1059). On it we are treated to six works for percussion in various configurations, written over the period 1977-2005. The McCormick Percussion Group under director Robert McCormick do a fine job with the music.

Maestro Lifchitz's 1977 "Music for Percussion" has some of the more abstract rhythmic structures of all the works. It is advanced in a manner that fits in with the percussion ensemble music of that era, yet bears the stamp and the logical flow of Max Lifchitz the composer.

At the other extreme is the recent "Dos Danzas" (2005), which as the title suggests takes on dance forms in a lively manner.

Between those two poles we have a variety of pieces that stay in the mind in memorable ways. One of the highlights is the concerto-like "Rhythmic Soundscape No. 5", with Max at the piano in fluent dialogue with a percussion quintet. The demanding and rewarding work for solo percussionist, "Inner Pulse" (1983), is a piece of challenge, virtuosity and cohesiveness, performed impressively by Beran Harp.

In the end we get a personally idiomatic program of works that give us a side of Lifchitz that is rhythmically involved, complex or more direct as the composer sees fit, and extraordinarily well-wrought. The earlier works sometimes show the elated, pioneering elegance of some of the works of early-mid last century. The music goes beyond that in later works to establish a melodic percussion language more Lifchitzian. It's not just percussion music, it's Max Lifchitz percussion music and as such is an impressive addition to his recorded output. The performances are stirringly right. Bravo!


Monday, January 6, 2014

Sergei Lyapunov, Piano Music, Margarita Glebov

Sergei Lyapunov (sometimes transliterated as Liapunov) (1859-1924) had a fruitful career as teacher, composer and pianist, though it has been said that in the latter he was hindered somewhat by his lack of showmanship. Compared to Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov he is not well-known in the West, but he was much more than merely a member of the Russian Nationalist school. His music at its best has beauty, passion and a Russian sensibility that in the right hands works magic. He is worthwhile in his own right.

The right hands surely are there with pianist Margarita Glebov and her recording of selected Lyapunov compositions, Piano Music (Toccota Classics 0218). From his studies with pianist Karl Klindworth Lyapunov fell under the spell of the Liztian virtuoso style and that can be said to be an important component of his piano music. But Lyapunov's inventive gift and feel for his Russian roots give his piano music a distinct character and so a musical direction altogether different than the Western European followers of the pianistic Prometheus.

The music on the anthology covers a broad swath of Lyapunov's output, from the Opus One of "Three Pieces" to the late, Opus 65 "Sonatina". There are a number of first recordings in the mix.

The performances by Ms. Glebov go a long way in convincing my ears that Lyapunov was a composer for the piano of real depth and character. Margarita manages to convey the emotional vibrancy of his music without sacrificing musical clarity. The notes are never short-changed for grandstanding affect. Her beautiful phrasing, touch and articulate attack put her in the ranks of the top pianists, surely. And it all happens to be ideally suited for this music.

If you like that minor-key robust beauty of Russian music especially, you will gravitate to the piano music played so well here. In any event this anthology is a delight. Margarita Glebov will make you a believer--in Lyapunov, in her.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Mohammed Fairouz, Symphony No. 4 "In the Shadow of No Towers"; Philip Glass, Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpani and Orchestra

Mohammed Fairouz (b 1985) seems to be one of those young composers who is making an impact and is destined to continue doing so. I was taken with his album Critical Models, Chamber Works which I posted about this past October 8, 2013. Now I am glad to get the chance to listen closely to his Symphony No. 4, "In the Shadow of No Towers" (2012) (Naxos 8.573205) which is coupled with Philip Glass's Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (2000/2004).

The two works are scored for wind ensemble, and played nicely by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under Paul W. Popiel.

Fairouz got the inspiration for this work by the cartoon vignette by the same name created by Art Spiegelman. The symphony's program follows movement-by-movement the gist of the cartoon. So then movement one, "The New Normal", depicts a family in the typical everyday setting, asleep in front of the TV with the calendar on the wall reading September 10th, then the same family by the TV the night of the 9-11 disaster, horrified. On the succeeding night the calender on the wall has been replaced by an American Flag. The second movement depicts a typical American, woken out of his complacent, narcissistic world. The third movement is all about Republican versus Democratic reactions to the horror and has a kind of collage of patriotic marches and other literal motifs to represent jingoism and anger, respectively. The final movement is underlined by the aural representation of a ticking clock (a time bomb) and a mournful dirge-like theme, representing "anniversaries" of the event, when life goes on, but, as the music suggests, in a world literally shaken to its core.

The music is as evocative as it is provocative, with as literal a program as you are inclined to get nowadays. The music is a message bearer. There is no clear lesson, no clear resolution to be permanently chiseled on the monuments. "Never forget" was one that has been tried, borrowed from the holocaust, but it hasn't really stuck. We've presumably caught the instigators of the horror, given them just punishments, so we should have closure. Yet the anniversaries are a reminder that "normalcy" may not quite have reached us. There is an inner turbulence inside many of us still, a feeling that the classically full story may not be ours in the near future, that we will never really resolve it all in our heads. This was not war, so in a way it can never really end. We can only deem it closed by an act of will, of a resolve to carry on, to tie up loose ends ourselves.

The music has in common a tonal expressiveness and a kind of post-minimal outlook shared by the Philip Glass work. The Concerto Fantasy in the wind band arrangement performed here has a seriousness in common with the Fairouz opus, but the music has no concrete program. It is sparked by some excellent writing for the two timpanists, ably performed by Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett. The work is especially notable for the infectious 3+3+2 and the 7/8 tuttis. This is Glass beyond the Einstein phase, still kinetically charged but not as concerned with repetition.

I was captivated by both pieces and the performances. The final movements of both works have staying power for me. And that is not to denigrate the other movements but rather to recognize how each work has a sort of teleological funnel effect, each inexorably moving forward to its end, though in very different ways.

This is music very much of the present. And it is very good at that. It is music that looks forward to the "next". For all that it is a disk that should be heard by those who live in the world of today. Nostalgia may be dead, the music seems to say. We live in the future again, now. Perhaps permanently.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Weinberg, Complete Violin Sonatas, Volume Two, Kalnits, Csanyi-Wills

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), Russian by way of Poland, Jewish in upbringing and temperament, is undergoing a resurgence in attention, recognition. If releases are any indication (and they are) his vast output is coming to our ears in droves. Type his name in my search box at the top and you'll see I have been covering much of it. Today another one, and it contains fine music.

Weinberg's Complete Violin Sonatas Volume Two (Toccata Classics 0026) comes our way today. I've missed Volume One as yet but this second is packed with some excellent music: the Sonata Nos. 2 and 5 for Piano and Violin, the Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin and the "Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes". The works cover the span between 1944 and 1967 and give us an excellent look at his output in this intimate setting.

Yuri Kalnits takes on the violin parts, Michael Csanyi-Wills those for the piano. They are singingly appropriate, well-prepared and idiomatically near-perfect in their readings of the works. They can go with ease from the folk-Jewish aspects to the contemporary Russian expressionism that channels Prokofiev and Shostakovitch with what is assuredly a Weinberg originality.

The works all have a modern tang in the Russian 20th century manner without involvement particularly in an avant garde approach. But the music doesn't sound dated or hearkening back. The solo violin sonata has a wider tonal palette and a more continual cadenza-like suspension of time. Weinberg scores well on what he does in this realm. The other works alternate vibrant lyricism with passages of exciting forward momentum, much with the Russian modern bitter-sweet quality his music shares at times with the aforementioned Prokofiev and Shostakovitch. Yet he sounds directly like neither, no more than you could say that Schubert sounds like Beethoven. Deep down Weinberg expresses Weinberg.

And he does so in fabulous fashion on this disk. Kudos to Kalnits and Csanyi-Wills for their beautiful performances.